Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Dear Gov. Ducey: I Am You

The literary journal “Creative Nonfiction” just came out with a book, “Show Me All Your Scars: True Stories of Living with Mental Illness” and I thought, why don’t I have an essay in this book?
Here, I admit to a little narcissism as well as a little mental illness.
I do not in anyway want to undermine the seriousness of mental illness in this country. The depth and breadth of suffering of those dealing with severe mental illness cracks my heart. The healthcare industry that neglects those with diagnosed mental industry cracks my heart. The fact that there is an extreme narcissist running for president also cracks my heart. But, there are degrees: severe and extreme seek to distinguish “us from them” but there is no us and no them. 
After the domestic terrorism, the massacre, the 998th mass shooting since Sandy Hook, we must realize that even those of us who decry the deaths, the bigotry, the hatred, have become inured. It takes some number of days for us to recover: four people killed, we get over it in half a day. 50 people killed, might take us a week, but no matter, we rage on Facebook and like each other’s enragements and then go to the pool and swim laps or the park and swing on swings or back to work where, at any of these places, a man with a machine gun could walk in and blow us to bits. We watch shootings on TV. We can picture Al Pacino waving his machine gun at us saying, “Say hello to my little friend.” We think we know what it means to be at the wrong end of the gun. Maybe we also think we know what it’s like to be on the “good” end of the gun. We’ve pictured ourselves shooting the guy who cut us off at the intersection of Fourth and 22nd Street. Maybe we can see ourselves as the “good” guy, who, with his gun, takes out the “bad guy” with our ever-faster bullets or better targeting scope.
            This ability to picture ourselves on the big screen, at the center of the battle, is a kind of narcissism. Thin and pure mirror. Two dimensional.
            The flipside of narcissism is empathy. Picture yourself on the ground, the police trying to identify your body. Picture yourself with a bullet shot through your spine.  Picture your mother getting the phone call that you were in the club that night. Picture your mother’s cheeks, the way they collapse into wrinkle. Picture your mother’s eyes, clouded. Picture your kid waiting for the kind neighbor to pick him up from school because you’re no longer around to pick him up. Or take him to taekwondo. Or make him lunch. Or sing him to sleep.
            Narcissism is like watching yourself on a picture screen. You get labels like Good Guy and Bad Guy and Hero. With empathy, things aren’t so two-dimensional. Even the police hero who shoots the shooter is still the shooter. At night, you don’t sleep, seeing the surprise in the eyes of the man who was the shooter but, in the moment that you shot him, became a shocked kid who wondered what the hell he was thinking. Shot out of his craziness for the moment. Shot out of himself into the momentary empathy, now that he has been shot, that he too is just like them. A victim of a bullet.
            We all must be a little crazy—still able to go swimming, go to the movies, to the park to the club—in the aftermath of this bigger craziness. Maybe we think by writing our senators and congress people we have built a kind of prophylactic. “I wrote my representative,” as kind of bullet proof vest.
            It is the provenance of the truly mentally ill to walk around as if they are someone else: schizophrenia, Messiah complex. Maybe the devastatingly mentally ill have something to teach us. Maybe, like reading books and learning history, extended periods of imagining yourself in someone else’s shoes isn’t only crazy but is a kind of crazy that can get us out of this mess to learn there is no us versus them. There is us in Kindergarten and us in the movie theater and us on campus and us at the gay bar. We are simultaneously pulling the trigger and in the line of fire. Only we, by recognizing we are an ‘us’ and not a they, can put the gun down.

Thursday, June 09, 2016

Dear Governor Mom

Dear Mom,

Happy Birthday! I was getting ready for this day, thinking of you and what to get you. I cam up with the Collected Works of ee cummings which will be released on July 12th, which made me grateful that you don’t mind waiting a little bit for your birthday present, as usual. And, as I was thinking of you and reading the news about how Hillary Clinton seems to have clinched the Democratic Nomination for President, I thought to myself, it’s all over. The glass ceiling has broken. And, of course it hasn’t, just as the racists came out in force when Obama was elected, so will the misogynists come out for Hillary. But, like maggots exposed to sun, the racisms and sexism, exposed to light, will eventually whither and die, I believe. Or at least I hope. I didn’t think I was that invested in this election. I love neither Bernie nor Hillary like I love Obama. They are not in my heart like he is. But I was near tears, thinking, 56 elections, only 23 in which women could vote, and this is the first time a woman has been nominated to run for president.  And, as I thought to myself, “we did it,” I meant, in a lot of ways, that you did it, mom.
            There were the overt ways you made sure me and Paige and Valerie knew we could achieve whatever we set out to achieve. The shirt you bought me that read, “Anything Boys Can Do Girls Can Do Better.” Maybe it was a little “neener neener” but I never played four-square better than when I wore that shirt.
            Yesterday, Max and Zoe were playing baseball with Erik in the backyard. Zoe can hit like mad. I wasn’t as good as she at sports but that never stopped you and dad from enrolling me in t-ball and softball and Paige and Val in soccer. You played catch with us in the backyard. You took me to fancy dinners when I swam hard and when I got good grades. You made me mow the lawn, like any regular son.
            You were on the board of League of Women Voters. You hosted book clubs where mainly women authors were read. You watched Connie Chung on the Nightly News. Murphy Brown on Prime Time. You bought me a copy of Our Bodies Ourselves. You let me choose what college to go to. You never once let me think I wouldn’t go to college or grad school or get a job or be a professor or write books.
           You pointed out injustices. Friends of yours whose husbands divorced them, left them broke. You made it clear that no matter how tough I felt I had it, I had two parents growing up and plenty of food and clothes. You made it clear from your own mother and grandmother’s experience that poverty is often a mom and kid problem and that feminism meant working to raise everyone up.  Feeding your kids took all of your time and most of your attention. You also made it clear that even though there was injustice and too much work, there was time to dance and sing. Remember the time we painted great-grandma’s house? You and me and Paige and Val, my cousins and Aunt Sue. We all know the lyrics to “Baby, you can’t love one.”
            So, it’s not like it’s all over. There’s work to be done for everyone. But mom, you were a big part of making it clear how to understand what it means to be a woman. I am on the lookout for injustice but I’m also noticing that I am part of the singing and dancing world. You made me believe I could have kids and raise a boy and a girl to each believe they were equal in each other’s eyes. You made me think I could rise up as far as I wanted, even as far as Hillary Clinton, if I so wanted.
            The world’s perception has shifted. It’s not just tokenism or chance that made it possible for a woman to get this far. It’s people like you, who, although raised in a patriarchal culture that presumed your role was to support a man, thought differently. You have a lot of opinions. You don’t mind making them known. You worked so hard to give me and Paige and Val extraordinary lives. It’s thanks, in part to you, that we are living in extraordinary times.


Tuesday, June 07, 2016

A Ducey Vacation

Dear Delta,

I've been flying with you for over 30 years. Since I was eight years old, I flew Delta back when it was Western Airlines. My grandma always booked the seats in the bulkhead and would take me with her to Las Vegas. My mom and dad took us to Hawaii with frequent flyer miles. When I left for college, I flew Delta back and forth from Portland to Salt Lake. I could lie across a row of seats.  Once the wheels didn't come down and that was scary but it was nothing compared to flying with you these days. I’m scared for my life because turbulence is getting worse with climate change and I am scared for my life because I read the article about low-cost maintenance plans used for most aircraft and I’m scared for my life because of the pilots salaries you continue to cut and the occasional pilot who goes nuts and crashes the plane into the mountain. I am not so scared of terrorists but I am scared of TSA. I’m scared for my life because the captain rarely turns off the “fasten your seatbelt” sign and my bladder is going to explode bacteria throughout my body and I’ll go septic.

I also fear the psychological ramifications of flying with you. I do not blame you for the baby screaming. I don’t even blame the baby. The baby just vocalizes what we all feel on the inside: the understanding that catapulting the body 500 mph, 30,000 feet in the air is unnatural. It's not so much the dying, I don't think, as the falling. Who wants to watch the ground rise up to meet them at force times mass? Although flying is a million times safer than driving, we’re spending our karmic luck here, holding the plane up with our panicked, though mostly silent thoughts. The baby hasn’t learned that it’s silence that buoys airplane culture as well as airlines. I do hold you accountable though for the catatonic state I will be sent into from the claustrophobia. The taste of the seat in front of me because I didn't pony up for "comfort" seats on the way home was bitter--maybe a little mildewy. Cotton in the mouth goes well with the pretzels we were offered to make up for being an hour late.

Still, that wasn't your fault. I presume the air traffic controllers in Iceland put Delta at the back of the take off order because you won't pay to dock at the airport. We took a bus from the terminal to the plane. We walked up stairs in cold Icelandic rain and wind to board. If only I were a little older this would harken back to times long gone--romantic times when planes took off when they said they would and the seats weren't deemed edible.

How sad I was to see so many seats in first class empty. The one percenters must have been busy raping and pillaging to leave those seats so open. In days past, because I was a loyal (over 30 years!) customer, I might have been offered an upgraded seat. But these days, my class of ticket says strictly: back by the toilets with you!

On this trip, you changed my itinerary 3 times. You booked me so I had an additional stop in Detroit. On the way there, I had to leave at 4:30 a.m. to make it to the airport when before I had bought a ticket that would let me leave at 7:30 in the morning, that would let me take my kids to school, that would have let my kids sleep next to me one more night.

Oh Delta, how I once loved to fly. How I always argued that you were at least better than the others. But, with the bitter taste of blue nylon still in my mouth, my knees bruised from the back of seats, my blood pressure permanently increased from the running from customs back through security past three terminals down 45 gates to catch my almost-departing plane, I fear I cannot argue that at least you are better than the others any longer.

Monday, May 09, 2016

Dear Governor Ducey--What to Do about Prop 123? Letter #80

Dear Governor Ducey,

            When I lived in Portland, I had a VW Jetta. It wasn’t like my ex-boyfriends’ Volkswagen round microbuses and beetles. The Jetta was square and gray and perfect. And then I moved myself and the Jetta to Portland where the stereo was ripped straight out of the dash. The thieves broke the window too. This whole smash and grab led to me and my best friend Misty riding our bikes to Fred Meyer rather than drive because we would not let some hooligans stop our dream of buying a kiddie swimming pool to fill with hot water so we could manufacture a hot tub-like situation in our college dorm. We went into Fred Meyer hoping to find an inflatable tub but could only find the fully formed plastic blue kind with pictures of orange fish painted on the bottom. We bought it. And then we went back to the parking lot. And then we thought. Hmm. How can we get this home?
            Misty is intrepid. “We’ll carry it,” she said. And she did, pedaling down 40th Avenue (39th was too busy) with a swimming pool for a hat. Not to be out intrepided, I said, “I’ll take a turn.” But then the wind kicked up. It lifted the pool like wind lifted Mary Poppins’ umbrella. The wind and the pool took me with them. For a bit. And then deposited me where I more likely belonged, on the ground. Elbow broken.
            Later, Misty successfully installed the hot tub but I could never partake because I wasn’t allowed to get my cast wet.
            By the end of the year, the painted orange fish had turned green with mildew. It took twelve people to throw it off the dorm room balcony. Look out below. Falling swimming pools. Falling mildew. Unseeable-orange fish.
            Also in Portland, the Jetta’s fuel injectors got stolen. I’d replace them. They’d get stolen again. I’d replace them. $1500 worth of fuel injectors later, I finally got a new car.
            Prop 123 is like this Jetta. This is a car we the people own clear out. But the legislature stole our car stereo and would like to sell us a new one. The legislature stole our fuel injectors and would like to sell us some new ones. They stole them again and again even though the courts have told them to give us our damn fuel injectors back. They won’t. Now, they’d like us to borrow some money against a car we already own.
            The State Trust Land is not the legislature’s. It is the land of the state. That means us, not them. It is our car. We shouldn’t need to borrow against it to raise the amount of money for education, especially since a) there is a 600 million dollar budget surplus and b) especially since the money we need already exists as long as we stop giving business tax breaks which do no good since no business except the prison business wants to do business where education ranks at the very bottom of investment and c) we already own the car, the fuel injectors and the stereo. We shouldn’t have to buy them again. Just stop taking them away.
            But listen. It’s tricky, I know. It is our car but if we don’t replace the fuel injectors, we can’t drive the thing. Teachers and students need money now. And, how will it look to the legislature if we abandon our car on the side of the road just to make a statement that says, look, you already owe us this money? The courts say you have to pay it!
            The thieves who stole the Jetta’s fuel injectors didn’t care what the courts had to say either.
            My ballot sits on the counter. I already sent it in once but I forgot to sign the envelope. I am so conflicted. I want students to have more money. Lots more money. But Prop 123 has these horrible triggers that say if in a recession, no money, if unemployment goes up, no money, and triggers permanent amendments to the constitution that says we’ll never spend more than 48% of the budget on education.
            The triggers scare me. They’re like saying you will own this Jetta forever. The thieves know how to crack the hood, pull the plugs. The triggers are like saying, we’ll give you this car you already own and let you borrow money against it and then if we want, we’ll take the car away. We can leave you carless, fuel injectorless, broken elbowed, with nothing but a mildewed old hot tub with fish on the bottom you can’t even see.  
            I know I have to decide soon but I’m having a hard time. I really do love that car.

Monday, May 02, 2016

Wolves are People Too--Letter #79

Dear Governor Ducey, 

When I was a kid, I loved the TV show “Kids Are People Too.” The program advanced the revolutionary idea that kids had brains and ideas for what they wanted, usually in the form of playing an accordion, but still, the kids had direction. Volition! I hated being told what to do. I was a righteous fifth-grader. My best friend, Jeff Whiting, who is now a director on Broadway, and I protested boys and girls being separated for everything: sports, maturation programs, lining up for recess or to sit in rows at assemblies. “This discrimination must end!” we claimed although I don’t think we used the word “discrimination” and I don’t think the justice we were looking for was entirely self-less. Jeff and I wanted to sit by each other. Still, we felt the injustice deeply. We wanted things to be less categorical, less divided.

I-40 is a dividing line for the Mexican Gray Wolf. None are allowed to cross it. If they do, they will be removed and taken back to “their” area in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest and White Mountain Apache Reservation, in the White Mountains. This wolf, one of just 97 Mexican Gray Wolves, is having a hard time reestablishing his species. The pickings for females are low. He’s related to most of them. Confined to this smallish, space means his chances for ever being anything but a representative of a dwindling species whose genetic variation is so small that, eventually, the species will die out.

I know you hate being told what to do. I get it. So do I. The US Fish and Wildlife Service has been court ordered to develop a recovery plan. You sent a letter saying you would not allow wolves on to cross I-40. But the problem is, it’s not really up to you. While some people still fear and hate wolves, many others see them as amazing creatures, able to withstand near eradication, form social bonds, use elegant forms of communication to maintain those bonds. The people who love wolves aren’t in charge either. It’s not a boy/girl, pro-wolf/anti-wolf kind of situation. It’s a situation where the will of one side can be balanced with the will of another side. Ranchers can be compensated for lost livestock. Farmers can be taught how to keep wolves off their property. Some wolves may be removed or killed. But that’s the point of government. To address the needs of the many individuals and try to find a way to understand how wolves are part of the wilderness and part of what we mean by “the west.”

The principal told Jeff and me that we would have to abide by the boy and girl divisions but he didn’t dismiss our concerns. He explained that it’s just an easy way to organize the class and get students to quiet down. Our gender didn’t really matter in the line. In fact, he whispered, if you plan ahead, you can line up so you’re right next to each other. We weren’t thrilled. We’d still sometimes be divided by what was to us as arbitrary a distinction as a freeway running through Coconino County, but we took his advice and managed to line up near each other and, when we got to recess, played four-square with an uneven number of girls and boys.

The wolf, after centuries of being reviled, now enjoys a sliver of hope that his point of view will be addressed. A metaphor for the loner, the alpha, the killer has morphed into a metaphor for the family man, the communicator, the wild order itself. The idea that wilderness can live beside civilization, can in fact make us be more civil, is the a revolutionary idea that isn’t really that revolutionary. People and wolves have lived together for a very long time. Supposedly, humans are smart. They should be able to stand in two lines peacefully next to each other.

But, my fear is, like the way you have defied the order by the court to pay the schools the amount of money they are owed, you will defy the order, if it comes, to allow the wolf on this side of I-40. My fear is, like the way you want state trust land to give the schools money that is already owned by the schools in replace of money you already owe them, you will sell the land upon which the wolf is meant to recover and kill two wolves with one stone. No land. No wolves. No justice.