Political Activism: What Now?

Here are some of my post-Trump writings, brought over from facebook:

November 9, 2016

Where to even start? I’ve experienced grief and intense worry, but never before in this combination so deeply rooted in my body. I passed a woman who was walking down University Avenue full-out weeping. I talked to a middle school student who is bemused by the (over?)reactions of her classmates, who feel that the world is ending. How can I be reassuring here and still authentic? She’s telling jokes to lighten the situation, and I can’t laugh with her. What I did was define some specific worries of mine while letting her know that I do believe she will be all right.

I remember Reagan’s election and the starts of all our recent wars as times when it felt to me like the world was ending–and it didn’t, but the costs of those have been weighty and lasting.
Still, I’ve been enormously heartened by the energy and enthusiasm that I’ve seen in the past few days from volunteers and among my friends: The pair of teenage sisters who showed up to phone bank, holding hands for courage; the father searching for a Hillary button for his young daughter, she of the hand scooter and pink helmet; those of you who made sure that your children understood your passion for this country, as expressed through your vote.

A bit weepy myself this morning, I was at Yali’s Cafe choking up over the eponymous Yali as he rang up customers, pulled espressos, and chatted up patrons with philosophical shrugs and charismatic smiles. I’ve been watching him do this on and off for–what?–fifteen years now? Slinging his tall, agile self around the cafe, turning his chair around backwards to sit on, leaning his elbow on a table to listen an applicant for barista. Radiating warmth and extroversion and supreme entrepreneurial joy.

Only now he’s not so agile. Earlier this year (or late 2015?) he was in a catastrophic car accident in Israel, where he spent months recovering, his body too broken to travel. Then he was back at the cafe, but sitting at a table with his hands folded in front of him. Later he started moving around the place, slowly, tentatively. Today, he had regain most, though not all of his dynamism. He’s got a kink in his neck that bends his head forward, and that called my attention to a new dusting of gray in his black curls. He’s bulked up, though. Must be lifting weights.

I was there this morning because last night a blast of reality froze my brain and I left my laptop at a students’ house. (His older brother happened to be on campus and met me there to give the computer back to me) It good to be in a familiar public environment Yali was steaming milk and I was scanning his solemn face for that old radiance, and then he turned to someone and the light went on, more slowly but maybe also more brightly than before.

November 11, 2016



So, my first day wearing this sign, not much happened at first. It felt like people were going out of there way to avoid looking at me, although a few middle-aged women gave me warm smiles. Then Raymond and I ran into some people he knows from his church, people I had never met before. The woman read my sign from start to finish, then hugged me and read it out loud for her husband. (They were on their way to to Peet’s with a VA document in hand to get a free coffee for him.)

At the YMCA in downtown Berkeley, a blond woman called out to me and asked to read the sign, then nodded soberly and said, “Thank you.” She talked about how nervous she has been and how worried for friends of hers who are people of color and suffering deeply.

We went swimming, and afterward in the locker room, there was a mother and daughter who I thought might come from the Horn of Africa. The girl screwed up her face looking at my sign, so I stood up straight for her to read. She worked her way through the whole thing slowly, then, finally, smiled. The mother came over to see what was going on. She read the sign too, then said, “That’s nice! Thank you.” The girl said, “I like your drawing of the safety pin.”

I think I’m going to try wearing the sign for a week, then falling back to just the pin. I’ll keep writing about what happens.

November 12, 2016

Working on a personal manifesto for activism in this era. Here’s where I’m starting.
I want to be disciplined in my political speech. Model the kind of civil discourse we would like from our opposition. Boycott mockery and exaggeration. Fact-check rigorously. Expect the same from any source that I re-post. Ask the same of friends.

Some people may not be able right now to do what I am calling for here. Or may make different choices about how to express themselves. This is on the right or the left. I’m going to try not to referee or police or say “people need to…” I *am* going to *ask* people to reconsider.

I am going to fight every day to resist the normalization of Trumpism. The only way that I can do this is by taking personal risks in my “zone of proximal development.” In education, the ZPD is the sweet spot, the goldilocks zone for learning, neither too easy, nor too difficult. This week, it’s wearing a sign that expresses my emotions and invites strangers to interact with me and share their feelings about the state of society.

Fighting the normalization of Trumpism cannot mean going back to the status quo pre-Trump. We deserve a lot better.

Comment: Note about asking people to reconsider their political speech: I want to be mindful about what I ask and when. Asking things of people is a privilege that needs to be earned.

In Which We Rebuild Civilization from the Comfort of Our Living Room

The other night, Raymond and I were sitting around in our “living room,” which consists of our beloved plush brown sofa that we shipped from Pittsburgh to the West Coast, plus a few square feet of surrounding floor space. We’ve each got a folding tray table, supposedly for eating on, but instead we have piled them with our respective messes. We take our meals from plates that we hold in our laps.

Raymond’s pile consists mostly of reading matter. His library books cover topics like social justice, Bach, and how to rebuild civilization in the wake of catastrophic events. Typically, it’s just one of these topics per book, but sometimes there’s an overlap. Resting askew on open copies of the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books, mingled with an e-reader, a t-shirt, or a moleskine or two, these look ready to slide into a catastrophe of their own, although they never actually fall.CCI19112014_3

My mess consists of polymer and pulp: clear boxes of paper scraps, smeared and scratched and dotted with acrylic paint. Brightly painted paper scraps stuffed into envelopes and freezer bags.

The more enterprising paper scraps liberate themselves from their boxes and bags. I corral them back from the floor and the sofa cushions but never seem to get the table entirely clear. They congregate around the bottle of liquid matte medium, the perfect glue to compensate for my lack of patience and precision. Unlike the glossy stuff, which crisps up into shards, the matte medium can get all over your fingers and will just peel off when it dries. Other landmarks include pens, scissors, and black trays that used to hold frozen chicken tikka masala. The world’s smallest art studio, my little folding table bustles like a village.

So when Raymond and I sit on the sofa, we are often in several places at once, shipping off through various methods of cultural transport. Raymond picks up the New York Review, and he’s outside the walls of Troy with Mary Beard. I can’t tell you how many times we’ve been to the White House with Olivia Pope—and if you’re reading this in 2014, it’s possible that the same is true for you.

On the night in question, however, having caught up with all available episodes of Scandal and anything else worth watching, having even zip-lined over a tropical forest and dangled a few perps out the window on Hawaii 5-0, we were listening to a podcast.

Heckling a podcast, to be exact. The author David Gilbert was reading Steven Polansky’s short story “Leg,” in which a father, helplessly alienated from his wife and son, refuses treatment for his injured and eventually festering limb. As Dad tried to “cauterized” his wound with a scalding-hot towel, we shouted our objections, to no avail. (Olivia never listens to us, either.)

After a few days, he’s unable to walk, and his distracted wife gets around to asking, half-heartedly, whether he might want to go to the doctor. At this point, the crowd—that is, Raymond and I—went wild. We gave up trying to straighten out the characters and started hollering at each other. If your leg ever starts stinking and oozing, nobody around here is going to be asking. Your ass will be at the doctor’s. That’s me with the bad language. “Emergency room,” said Raymond. “Get him to the emergency room.”

And it’s only as I write these words that I realize that this essay is about more than sitting around on the couch. Though there’s been no literal festering, we’ve encountered loved ones who shied from—or bristled at—support that they needed. Unlike the characters in the story, we are blessed with family and friends who are warm, attentive, even vigilant about one another’s well being. Still, we sometimes feel a need to reaffirm our interdependence.

Rolling around on the sofa, howling and laughing, clutching our own uninjured legs, we are also extracting promises from each other. Offering them, too:

I promise not to break your heart with worry. If I need care, I will submit. If you’re the one in trouble, I won’t get distracted. I won’t let you go to ruin. My table may be messy, but you’re a different story.

When is Now, Part I

I am sitting at a black granite topped table in a famous Berkeley coffee shop at the corner of Walnut and Vine. It’s an indoor-outdoor scene here, where the walls are mostly windows and the door is propped wide open. The doorway frames a view of a lush and prideful horse chestnut tree that magnanimously shades the far side of the street. Out on the sidewalk, a man has parked his motorized wheelchair and is holding a bright red plastic cup in his lap. Heavy lidded, he speaks to no one. Eventually, someone drops a couple of bills into the cup. The man with the wheelchair tucks the money inside his jacket. A minute later, without any change in facial expression, he puts the wheelchair into gear (or so it seems) and then drives off at full speed.

peets for upload At the table next to me sits a woman with a slender, rounded back. She might have stood five feet tall when her back was straight. The strap of her cloth bag has frayed a hole in her red and yellow wool blazer, but I wouldn’t have spotted if I weren’t looking so hard at what’s going on around me. She’s rested her turquoise string bag on the little canvas folding stool that she carries around town. Someone waves at her, a tall, very pregnant woman in a clingy and very stripy dress.

I caught her once, on an AC Transit bus that lurched forward, hurling her toward the back of the bus. I stretched out an arm. Stopping her fall was uncannily easy, like catching a grocery bag full of paper towels. I don’t imagine she’d appreciate my saying so. She shook me off quickly after she got her balance back, and has never given so much as a blink of acknowledgment since.

Once, over the long, boring summer when I was 15, I lay on my bed with the window thrown wide open, just like the door here at Peet’s: no storm barrier, no screen. I was wearing a button-down blouse that had once belonged to my mom. Lime green, with a distressed texture, this blouse buttoned low. It made me look dramatic, mysterious, adult, even sexy. An anomaly—most greens make me look like a ghoul. I had wrestled my impossible thick hair into braids. I had my bed arranged diagonally in one corner, and I lay there imagining that I and my open window, the warm breeze and the underlying rumble of cicadas, were part of some ancient story—or that we would be ancient some day. In some future, people would sit around and imagine these days, the way I liked to imagine life in ancient Greece or Rome.

And I was right—that stuff feels ancient now. Those days before cable and internet and reflexive overscheduling, when it was possible for a young person to have absolutely nothing. Nothing but daydream and breath. This afternoon at Peet’s has that feeling for me too: a moment in history, as mundane as cash registers and coffee cups, and yet resplendent as plastic-sealed packets of madeleines, iPads propped up against plastic water bottles, as straw fedoras and red high tops and bicycles locked to Japanese maples.

• Keeping Things Airy

pencilgrabpurplepaperclip2Sweeping, dusting, and occasionally even scrubbing–digging out collage pieces from between the sofa cushions, recycling old bottles of toilet cleaner, sorting papers from the dozen classes, workshops, and seminars one or the other of us taught in the past year–Hubby and I have managed to clean the Micropalace! Thankfully, we have downgraded our condition from CHAOS (Can’t Have Anyone Over Syndrome, a term coined by Maria Cilley, doyenne of de-cluttering) to a run-of-the-mill case of CHaMSOS, and we’re both at peace with the idea that we Can’t Have Martha Stewart Over.

I grew up wearing the scarlet M of the messy kid, lacking the skills, and sometimes the willingness, to manage my possessions and my time. Hubby, on the other hand, is a very tidy individual whose possessions nonetheless accumulate in archaeological layers. My messiness arises from eternal optimism: Really soon I’m going to finish that painting project, wear that sweater again, reuse that handout, and find a purpose for all my empty roller-ball pens and a stack of 47 green plastic fruit baskets. Hubby’s comes from hardworking single-mindedness; areas outside of his range of laser focus tend to blur.

scrap1Since the clean-up, we can reach our bookshelves without climbing over anything. We can get into the bathroom without crab-walking. And, heaven help us, we now live in fear. Specters of distraction, fatigue, irritability, and laziness–the four horsemen of the dishpocalypse–haunt our kitchen area. What will happen to our newly uncovered floor space if we lapse into old ways? What if we can’t keep up with the forces of nature? Our apartment, which nestles up against a damp hillside, tends perniciously toward mildew. Herds of dust buffaloes–black, furry, hump-backed, mycotoxic grime balls–thunder through our dreams.

To keep the place “airy”–that’s our watchword–we’re planning on doing lots of chummy, domestic reciprocal nagging. Rather than ban “bossy,” we celebrate the concept (within limits). House rules say that I can boss him around as long as I push him to do things he actually wants to do. As for me, I’m too defensive to take suggestions, but I can be led by example. yarn

If shared self-discipline falters (hopefully, even if it doesn’t) we’ll fall back on a time-tested housekeeping method: Having People Over. If anything can conquer chaos, it’s love.

Shame alone doesn’t work. I’m pretty sure of that. When notebooks misplace themselves or homework gets left in a locker at school, the parents of one or another of my tutoring clients may encourage me to scold the student, calling on me to take a stand when I don’t have a leg to stand on. I wind up telling the kid, “I lose things, too. All you can do is keep trying.”

Understandably, the parents worry that, their child, if left unchastised, will some day show up unprepared for college seminars or disheveled at job interviews. Such situations must be prevented if possible, of course. On the other hand, should disorder prove inevitable, head-hanging will magnify the self-sabotage.

penlidIn fact, a chin-up, results-oriented approach has seen me through potential mishaps. In my tender twenties, I had an meeting with the University of Pittsburgh’s Assistant Vice President for News and Publications, a cheerful, compact, authoritative woman in a navy blue suit. At this informational interview, which would ultimately lead me to my first professional writing job, I reached around in purse for a pen and found no writing implements at all.

Note-taking in an informational interview is only polite, and on top of that the AVP was giving me the job number of a position I could apply for. Could I have been more scattered? My self-esteem imploded but, through the dust that rose from the rubble, I scanned the woman’s desk and palm one of her pens. Used it and put it back, too, without her noticing. It made a funny story six years later at the goodbye party they threw me when I left that job.

For a long time my own mother fretted over my organizational habits, tucking tags into my collar, letting me know I’d misbuttoned my blouse, shaking her head when I lost my shoes again. Once or twice, she went so far as to reorganize my apartment for me while I was at work. earring

When I got married, she let go of any efforts to improve me–not because I had pulled my life together, and not because I was someone else’s responsibility. On the morning of my wedding, 38 years after I made my first mess (in some hospital diaper), my mother had to send my step-sister out to buy replacements for the white satin slippers I couldn’t find in my closet. With some relief, I imagine, she finally saw that tidying me up was a hopeless cause.

More recently, she has spoken comforting words: “You lose your shoes because you are thinking about other things, important things.” It’s true that most of my redding up (that’s Pittsburghese for cleaning) takes place in my mind. My instincts as a visual artist compel me to pocket bolts and washers and ceramic pieces from the sidewalk, for eventual inclusion in a sculpture or mosaic. Likewise, my mind gathers observations and stories, trying to piece them into meaningful forms.

I take comfort, too, in the notion that simply as human beings, we are all born organizers. Our complex brains transform the sunlight into new forms of energy–gardens and bicycles, soccer teams and law courts, temper tantrums, fantasies, and jokes.

Some scientists theorize that the cosmos will someday have spent all of this energy, reaching a state where neither fires nor computers nor life can exist. Through our mere existence–our work, our emotions, our breath, we are dancing out anti-entropic patterns on the path to the heat death of the universe. Let’s snap our homework into our binders, dust the cobwebs from the corner, and clear the paperclips from the laser printer–in exultation rather than in fear. Chaos will win in the end, but not today.