Bridge Woman

Everyone deserves a place where they feel safe.

As you prepare to eat a nice warm meal on this Thanksgiving day (provided you’re are able to overlook the disturbing colonial overtones of this holiday), and whether you’re spending the day with family or friends or all alone, I hope that you remember to count your blessings, dear reader. I know I’m making a lot of assumptions about your circumstances, but the fact that you have access to the internet tells me that, like me, you’re a lot better off than many people are.

I’d like to tell you about someone who doesn’t have it as good as we do. As I write this, she’s sorting through garbage in a ditch, not 20 yards from where I sit. Perspective.

Here at work, I spend a great deal of time watching the comings and goings of the people who cross my drawbridge. After doing this for a while, I began to spot patterns. I’ve learned people’s routines. I’ve created backstories about them in my head, which, admittedly, are quite likely inaccurate, but it helps me feel a certain kinship with these people, even though they probably don’t even know I exist.

In the past month or so, I’ve been seeing quite a bit of someone that I’ll call “Bridge Woman”. I considered calling her “Drainage Ditch Woman”, but that seems undignified.  And she needs all the dignity she can get.

I suspect that this woman is mentally ill and/or homeless. She spends hours on the bridge approaches, sitting on the curb that separates the sidewalk from the bike lane. She is completely engrossed in the detritus that flows down the drainage ditch. It’s as if she is panning for gold. She doesn’t even look up when someone goes past.

She sorts through the gunk, sifting out little bits of God-knows-what, and puts those things in what she deems to be their proper place. Some things are placed on the sidewalk, some on the curb, and apparently some things don’t pass muster and are returned to the ditch. I’ve tried to figure out her method of categorization, but I’ve yet to succeed.

She doesn’t do anyone any harm, and it is, after all, a public sidewalk, and she’s far enough away from the part of the bridge that moves to be safe, so I let her be. And I’m painfully aware that her odds of continuing to “be” are a lot higher when she sits on this bridge and quietly organizes away. Here, she’s relatively safe. No one hassles her. No one influences her or takes advantage of her vulnerability. If anyone tries to hurt her, there are witnesses. I strongly suspect that these things can’t be said about the rest of her days or nights.

According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, women comprise only 29 percent of the homeless individuals (as opposed to families) in this country. This means they’re greatly outnumbered in most places. Women who are unsheltered have a much higher risk of premature death, mainly due to mental health and chronic health issues. And, “The rates of victimization and assault, including robbery, physical abuse, and sexual assault are much higher for women than men.”

An article entitled, “Rates of violence against the homeless are worse than you think” spells it out in upsetting detail. It also contains a link to a comprehensive report entitled, “Vulnerable to Hate: A Survey of Bias-Motivated Violence against People Experiencing Homelessness which details stats from 2016-2017.”

Here are some of the statistics from the article and that report that jumped out at me:

  • Life expectancy for someone who is homeless is 20-30 years less than the general population.
  • About 13,000 American homeless people die on the streets each year.
  • 1 in 3 homeless people have been deliberately hit, kicked, or experienced some other form of violence, including having things thrown at them. Some are urinated on, intimidated or threatened, or verbally abused or harassed.
  • While 1-3% of the general youth population report sexual assault, 21-42% of homeless youth have reported sexual assault. 1 in 3 teens are lured into prostitution within 48 hours of living on the street.
  • 1 in 3 homeless youth engage in survival sex.
  • The experience of violence in the lives of homeless women: A research report, showed that 78.3% of homeless women in the study had been subjected to rape, physical assault, and/or stalking. Those who experience such assault while homeless also lack access to legal, medical and mental health services, which can worsen the post traumatic effects of the experience.
  • The report also briefly focused on Seattle, my city, by saying, “many cities do not often provide free public restrooms that are easily accessible. For example, Seattle, which has the third-largest homeless population in the U.S, only had one functional 24-hour restroom, downtown, as of 2015.”

Homelessness is a rough life for anyone, but it’s even more so for women. So when I see Bridge Woman organizing garbage in the ditch, oddly enough I’m happy she’s there. Yes, I would like much more for her, but given the current state of the world, I think that that ditch is probably a safer place than many of her current societal alternatives. It makes me sad, but I genuinely believe that it’s true.

As winter approaches, and the cold, raw, Seattle weather settles in for the duration, I worry about Bridge Woman. I’m relieved to see that she now has warm clothing and good shoes, and she looks clean enough that she would blend in with the general population if only she were not so focused on the task at hand. I assume that she has been in contact with someone who cares, at least, either personally or professionally.

I hope her situation improves even more.

It probably won’t.

When the ditch is flooded with icy water, she may not enjoy her project quite as much. She’ll most likely choose to pass her time elsewhere. I hope that she continues to find safe places, ideally places that are warm and dry, where she won’t be hassled, even if it’s only for a few hours a day.

Gazing out the window at her, I count my blessings and think that she deserves better. I wonder if people understand how much we have let this woman down, or if they think she gets more than she’s entitled to. I have no idea what she wants or what she can get. I hope she is loved.

At a bare minimum, I’d like to think that all but the most cold-hearted among us can agree that everyone deserves a place where they feel safe. I’m glad my bridge has provided her with that kind of respite, if only for a short time.

I hope, dear reader, that like me, you use this holiday to give thanks for all that is good in your life, rather than thinking back, with pride, on the wholesale theft of this continent and all the bloodshed that was required to rip it from the hands of the people who were already here. If so, then Happy Thanksgiving!

Gratitude should not require a holiday. But if you’re giving added focus to it on this day, please consider ordering my book, Notes on Gratitude. And happy Thanksgiving, dear reader. I’m so glad you’re here!

A No Fly List for Unruly Passengers?

We all should be able to fly without fear of idiotic violence.

As I write this, I’m awaiting an upcoming continental flight with a certain amount of dread. People are just too cra-cra these days to risk sealing yourself up in a tube with them for hours on end. And all the airlines seem to give less and less of a sh*t about customer service.

I miss flying in the ‘80’s. You had leg room, decent food, and people were polite and civilized and secretly felt rather privileged to be flying. It was like you were in a debate club that was accidentally invited to the United Nations. What luck!

Even better: You didn’t have to bear the insult of encountering TSA. You could count on having empty seats beside you if you wanted to stretch out and take a nap. And you could bring your 12-inch Bowie Knife aboard and nobody would bat an eyelash.

Those were the days. Now, you consider yourself lucky if no one on your flight gets into a fist fight and causes your plane to be diverted to another airport. It’s like the wild wild West once your plane takes off.

The COVID Federal Mask Mandate brought out the worst in people who don’t believe in science. And conspiracy theorists and hyper-conservatives used that mandate as an excuse to act the fool. Violence on airlines skyrocketed.

So when the mask mandate was overturned in April, 2022, I’m sure a lot of flight staff were relieved. At least at first. Because violence did go down. But it didn’t go away. And now they get to be sealed in a tube with a bunch of triumphant anti-vaxxers who are breathing all over them for hours on end. I have to say that Flight Attendants have a dirty job, and deserve our gratitude in the face of so much public douche-baggery.

As long as alcohol is served in airports and on airplanes, there will be a$$holes making the friendly skies a lot less friendly for all of us. And there’s absolutely no excuse for abusive behavior, especially when you’re in a small space with a bunch of other people and there’s no way out.

Imagine just trying to get home to visit grandma, and suddenly you’re thrust into the airline equivalent of a prison riot. YouTube is lousy with videos of such bad behavior. I even saw one where the captain got on the intercom and asked that all strong healthy males come forward to help restrain an out-of-control passenger. So, not only are you involuntarily thrust into a prison riot, but then they throw a prison guard uniform at you for good measure. What fun.

This is why many of the unions that represent airline employees are encouraging the passage of H.R. 7433: Protection from Abusive Passengers Act. According to Govtrack, this act “would add people convicted of assaulting an airline’s crew or staff on a no-fly list. The penalty would only apply on conviction, so it wouldn’t apply to a passenger who was merely reported or investigated alone. Such convicted passengers would also be banned from using either the TSA’s Precheck or U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s Global Entry programs.”

Of course, some people are opposed to this, because they say it would equate passengers with terrorists. Well, according to Oxford Languages, the definition of a terrorist is “a person who uses unlawful violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims.”

If the shoe fits, wear it, I say. We all should be able to fly without fear of idiotic violence. No one should have a right to thrust us into a terrifying situation with no way out. And bad behavior is a choice one makes, and therefore consequences should be as expected as they are deserved.

Sadly, this act seems to have stalled in committee, most likely because politicians were hoping this would all go away along with the mask mandate. But here’s something totally unacceptable that happened just last month: Passenger who allegedly punched a flight attendant charged.

This has got to stop. Even though the politicians, as usual, are useless, it did find one source of comfort by reading that article. “While the number of reported incidents has declined, the number of cases where enforcement action was initiated has gone up. So far in 2022, there have been 468 enforcement cases initiated. In 2021, there were 350.”

And some chickens are starting to come home to roost with regard to violent anti-mask passengers. I was thrilled to read this article, entitled, “New York woman sentenced to prison over altercation aboard plane”.

Yes! Serves her right! But that doesn’t mean I won’t be saying a Unitarian Universalist prayer in the hopes that I make it through my upcoming airline experience unscathed. And that shouldn’t be necessary. Not for anybody. But humans are not nearly as civilized as we are purported to be.

Please call your congressmember and encourage them to support HR 7433.

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Witnessing the Fall of Civilization

“B****, you better back off…”

The day before I wrote this was a surreal one for me. It seemed like an endless parade of the very worst of humanity. I have no idea what I had done to deserve VIP seating for this shameful display, but whatever it was, mea maxima culpa.

It was my day off, and yet I still had to make the drive to Seattle because I had a doctor’s appointment. Fortunately, the building where the doctor’s office is located has a parking garage, and I decided to take advantage of that rather than circle the building for blocks, in the blistering heat, in hopes of finding a more affordable space.

Much to my shock, I got to park at the space closest to the door which is, in turn, closest to the lobby elevators. Dear Husband calls this Doris Day parking, and who am I to pass that by? So, having suitably garaged the car, I made it to my appointment in record time.

Things didn’t start going sideways until after said appointment. I expected to breeze over to my car and toodle off about my business, as one does. But no.

You always see violence going on in parking garages in the movies and on TV. It makes you wonder why anyone would even consider entering one of these places, let alone leaving their valuable car therein. But I had never witnessed anything nefarious within one myself, so I walked into the parking garage without giving anything much thought. My car was right there, just waiting to be ignited. (Well, that’s why they call it an ignition, right?) I could hear a car approaching. That didn’t concern me very much, because, you know, that’s what cars do in these places.

So imagine my surprise when the vehicle in question came around the curve and stopped at a cock-eyed angle, completely blocking the driving lane, and… just sat there. It was creepy enough that I decided to kind of hunker down in my car with my doors locked and wait until this person moved on before I pulled out. I hadn’t been seen.

Then another car came along. The driver waited about 10 seconds, because why on earth wouldn’t car number 1 move under these circumstances? I mean, common sense, right?

Once it was clear that the driver of car 1 wasn’t a team player, the driver of car 2 laid on her horn. Since we were in the bowels of a concrete garage, this naturally echoed off all the walls to the point where none but the dead could have ignored it. The air was fairly vibrating with hornage. And yet car 1 didn’t budge.

Now I was a little concerned. Did this person have a heart attack or something? The building is a medical complex after all. I peeked over my seat. Should I get out and take a look?

Fortunately for me, before I could do this, car 1’s window rolled down, and the lady within screamed, “F*** YOU!!!”

I took that as a sign that she was in great shape, so I stayed put. “Okay, here we go,” I thought.

And then car 2’s window rolled down. She screamed, “Move your f***ing car!”

These were both middle aged women, alone in their nice cars, getting ready take off their earrings and throw down. This left me with nothing to do but clutch my pearls.  And then again with the horn. Enough already!

This prompted the lady from car 1 to leap out of the car. The blaring horn had my ears ringing, so I can’t be certain of what she said, but it was something along the lines of, “B****, you better back off…”

That would have been plenty for me. I’d have thrown it into reverse so fast I’d probably leave my torque converter bouncing down the ramp. GTFO first, call 911 later, you know? But not this lady.

She leaps out of car 2, slams the door and starts screaming. “You are in the f***ing way! Move your G****** car NOW!”

I was wishing I could employ the exit plan that car 2 had so stupidly decided against. Torque Converters can be replaced, right? But by that time my window of opportunity had disappeared. They were facing off right behind my car.

Never in my life have I seen two women punching each other in the face. Maybe I’ve led a sheltered life or something, but oh shit, they were whaling on each other, and I was freaked out. As they tumbled away from me, I heard a man shout, and saw him running toward the action. I took that opportunity to take off.

When I got to the ticket booth, I told the attendant what was going on, and he sighed and immediately reached for the phone. I suspect I’ll never find out what happened next, because I was not about to stick around to talk to the cops, especially since from my perspective, both of those fools were at fault.

Oh, and by the way, the lady in Car 2 was wearing scrubs. I know that our healthcare workers have been under an extraordinary amount of stress for the past few years, and I feel for them, but come on. I’m sure there are much easier ways to get fired than to show up in your own ER, having given as good as you got.

Feeling nauseous from the adrenaline dump, I then had to drive back home during rush hour. And people were road raging right and left. (Did I mention it was an extremely hot Tuesday afternoon?) People were tailgating and honking and swerving. I just tried to focus on getting home in one piece.

But before I got home, I needed to stop for gas, and since the station is right in front of a grocery store, I decided to go in and pick up a few things. Because, you know, what else could go wrong, right?

Wrong. I walked in, and there were no empty carts anywhere in the store. They were short staffed, and no one had gone out to collect the strays in the parking lot. People were pissed. I decided it was too darned hot to go back outside, so I just figured I’d put things in my grocery bags, and if anyone accused me of shoplifting, I’d try not to react like the women in the parking garage.

After I had picked up about half of my items, I noticed that a fresh-faced stock boy had left a line of carts full of things to be shelved in the middle of the aisle and had walked away. So I grabbed the cereal boxes out of the first cart, dumped them into the second cart, and pretty much ran away with the empty. People were eyeing my cart as if it were a porterhouse steak. It’s a jungle out there. What had come over me? I felt no sense of remorse for stealing from someone who is probably still in high school, and most likely couldn’t care less. And besides, to quote Ferris Bueller, “If I’m going to be caught, it’s not gonna be by a guy like that!”

As I wheeled the cart away, my items comfortably ensconced therein, I considered the irony of stealing a cart so as not to look like a shoplifter. I headed toward the deli section. On a day like this, I deserved elephant ears. Nothing less would do.

My timing was just abysmal that day, because I rounded the corner just as a very large man grabbed a tiny woman by the arm and spun her around. That was going to leave a mark. He bent down, inches from her face. His eyes were bulging, his face was red, and he spat out, “WE’RE TALKING ABOUT TWO DIFFERENT THINGS!!!”

Whatever that means. My instinct is always toward rescue, but I couldn’t have overpowered that guy. And besides, the woman just rolled her eyes at him as if she was used to such treatment. (If he’ll do that in a grocery store, she’s probably used to a lot more behind closed doors.)

I stood there at a distance, bearing wimpy witness, until he let her go, though. She just scoffed and walked away. I wish I could have told her that his behavior is unacceptable, but I feared escalating the situation. And she was an adult, after all. If she wanted rescuing, she could have run toward the cashiers and screamed bloody murder. If that had happened, I might have mowed him down with my stolen cart to increase her lead. Oops. But there’s only so much you can do for people.

I finished my shopping, feeling sad and tired and wanting nothing more than to go home to Dear Sane Husband.  Naturally, the checkout lines were long, so I just stood in queue with my eyes closed, waiting for this fresh hell to be over so that I could stuff my face with elephant ears on the drive. At home, I’d create a distraction from all the self-soothing carb crumbs covering the front of my shirt by giving a couple ears to DH. That would make him, effectively, an accomplice.

After finally getting past the cashier, I headed toward the exit, past the jewelry department, through women’s wear, feeling disgust that they are already trying to sell sweaters when it’s 90 degrees out. And then I walked into the alcove, the sliding doors within reach, my car within sight like a light at the end of a beastly tunnel, and that’s when I saw a guy off in the corner. He was conveniently located where he couldn’t be seen from inside the store. He was dressed in black from head to toe. He had a duffel bag that appeared to be at least three feet long. He was squatting down with his back to me, and he was rummaging through it as if he were on a critical mission.

I didn’t stick around to see the contents of that bag. I ran to my car, hopped in, pulled to the other side of the parking lot, and called the store. I asked for security. But what I got was voicemail. FFS, if someone is calling security, maybe there should be someone available to answer the phone! I called again and pressed zero and got some teenager who clearly hates her job. When I told her about the sketchy guy rummaging around in a big duffel bag in their north alcove, she just said, “Okay…”

Useless. I sat in the parking lot for a second, thinking how crazy the cops were going to think I was, because there’s no law against rummaging around in a duffel bag. But after the day I’d had, with its constant reminders of how uncivilized and hate-filled people have become since 2016, and how many innocent people have died because of it, I had no choice but to call 911.

After the usual explanations and descriptions, they said they’d send someone out, and I truly hope they did. They had my number if they had any questions, so I took myself out of firing range as I dove headlong into my elephant ears. Home has never been so sweet.

I spent the evening in a stupor, and that night I slept as if I had been hit with a brick. No one ever called, and I didn’t read about a mass shooting in women’s wear the next day. So maybe sometimes a duffel bag is just a duffel bag. Unfortunately, these days, you can never be too sure.

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How the Patriarchy Plays Out on Female Bodies

Women must conform.

Occasionally, I meet a woman who thinks that her only currency in life is being sexy, and that never fails to make me profoundly sad. I picture her intelligence, her humor, her creativity, her compassion, and all her other skills atrophying while she focuses intensely on that sexiness for as long as it lasts. (And it never lasts, young ladies. Trust me.) So eventually she’s left with “nothing but” all those underused qualities, and she has to learn late in life how to employ them. Kudos to those who manage to put that off, in spite of so much wasted time.

The most frustrating thing about women such as these is that they definitely did not come up with those warped priorities independently. All young girls get that memo, the world over. They are bombarded with it from all sides, even from friends and family. And the messages can be mixed, too. We shouldn’t be sluts, but we should dress up as naughty nurses for that late night Halloween party. The fact that we all don’t turn into vapid Barbie Dolls who are devoid of genitalia speaks to our resilience and formidable ability to survive.

Even in countries where women are supposed to cover up and remain chaste, there’s this underlying lesson that their sexiness is such a force that the men around them can’t control themselves, and if they don’t dress conservatively, then they will suffer the consequences for bewitching innocent men by not keeping their own power in check.

We are told that we must sit with our knees together. We are told not to be provocative. We are told that we should smile more, even while graciously tolerating unwelcome advances.

Here’s a disturbing statistic for you, found amongst a mountain of disturbing statistics on the RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) website. Every 68 seconds another American is sexually assaulted, and 90 percent of those victims are female. Every 9 minutes, the victim is a child. Think of that the next time you’re watching the second hand of the clock, hoping for time to pass. Perhaps if we discarded minutes and instead used rape statistics to measure time, we could learn to talk about it and come up with ways to prevent these weak men from running amok.

While doing research for this post, I came across an article by Dr. Jessica Taylor that turns this female oppression into a fascinating pep talk. I encourage you to read the whole article, but here’s just one intriguing paragraph:

“Men don’t oppress women because they think they are stupid, incompetent, weak or incapable – they oppress women because they know that we aren’t any of those things. They know that given the chance, we will change the world in several ways which will permanently dismantle male supremacy. And they don’t want that.”

She goes on to explain that rape and oppression of women are found the world over, and that there’s no society on earth where females have equal control of their lives, finances, education and governments. This has nothing to do with any flaws we ourselves possess.

It is in the best interest of the patriarchy to keep us from realizing that we are just as skillful, intelligent and powerful as they are. To do so, they must keep us under tight control. They target the most private and intimate parts of us to maintain that control.

Women are expected to conform to men’s standards of beauty. As male tastes change, various female body parts are supposed to increase or decrease in size. We’re supposed to wear more or less makeup and clothing. When we can’t keep up with these ever-changing standards that are so out of our control, we are to consider ourselves failures.

We are expected to submit to or abstain from sex regardless of mood, all at the whim of our fathers, brothers, husbands and often bosses. We are expected to blame ourselves for rape. In many countries we are not even allowed to keep our sexual organs, because our pleasure is threatening and/or intolerable. And many women and girls do not get to choose their mates.

A more sobering quote from that article is as follows: “No one has to work very hard to control or manipulate women and girls who already view themselves as sex objects to be used, abused, controlled or enjoyed by men.”

Another level of control, of course, is that of our fertility. Patriarchal organizations would have you believe that birth control is evil because we must procreate, and if we do get pregnant, we must see it through regardless of our personal wishes, physical or mental health, or finances.

If we suffer when we menstruate, we are emotionally out of control. If we can’t have children, we are barren. If we enter menopause, we are dried up. If a man decides to “spread his seed” with us and we’re underage, then we are teases and jail bait. And the poorer we are, the more likely our wombs will be for sale. We can be surrogates. We can have a bride price. We are given away at the altar, from one man to the next. Having children will keep us close to home.

I had to go to ten different gynecologists before I found one who would tie my tubes, because you never know, I might change my mind. I was 35. I never changed my mind.

According to this article in Ms. Magazine, even our hair is a source of control. We are pressured to dye our hair when it turns grey because the older we appear to be, the less value we have and the less we are seen by society. We are often told how we must wear our hair in the workplace. We are told that some hair colors and textures are more valuable and more indicative of beauty than others. If you didn’t win that particular lottery, then you must spend a fortune to try to make your hair conform, and that’s money we could be investing to get ahead.

On the other hand, some parts of our bodies shouldn’t have hair at all, while other parts should be plucked and bleached and shaped into submission. If you’re too hairy, you’re too manly, too radical, and, heaven help us, unhygienic.

If we were in full control of our bodies, the make up and fashion industries as we know them today would not exist. Surrogacy would look very different. The weight loss industry would disintegrate. The military/industrial complex would be a helluva lot less complex. Plastic surgery would no longer be the cash cow that it currently is.

Every woman on earth has had her body judged. You need to gain or lose weight. Your skin should be bleached, tanned, or moisturized. You’re too this, that, or the other thing. Because of that, you’re not enough.

Your body must be used to attract others. Are you passing or failing in that quest? There is a reason why girls are ten times more likely to have eating disorders than boys. And we are told we can’t be beautiful without the help of beauty enhancing products. So where does that leave our self-esteem?

We can’t be allowed to have positive self-esteem, because that might lead to self-confidence. Then we’d be considered too outspoken. It would be preferable if we didn’t speak at all. We are set up for failure, because our success would lead to patriarchal chaos.

The FBI tells us that 97 percent of crime is committed by men. The femicide rate increased by 33 percent in 2020. Women are all but trained to live in fear of violence, and that impacts our ability to act independently.  How long must we lie back and take this?

Here’s an interesting bit of trivia for you: The verb cleave, according to fundamentalists and Promise Keepers, means sticking to something like glue. As in, we should cleave to our husbands. But they neglect to mention that this word also has another meaning that is equally valid, that of cutting or splitting something apart with a sharp instrument.  

If anyone ever dares tell me I should cleave to a man, I’ll be tempted to say, “Okey Dokey… Brace yourself…”

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PTRTSESSD: Post-Traumatic Racially Tense Southern Elementary School Stress Disorder

What horrible lessons to teach a child.

When we moved from Connecticut to Florida when I was 10 years old, I don’t think any of my family knew exactly what we were getting ourselves into. I’m quite sure we didn’t expect to be living in a tent. We had no idea that my stepfather would never have a decent job again, and that my mother would make so little money that we’d struggle to survive.

And then there was the culture shock. I could barely understand what anyone was saying. I didn’t know how to cope with the unrelenting heat and humidity. The food was strange. And after spending my entire school life up to that point in a school where the only black child had to be bussed in, I had zero comprehension of the racial dynamic I was entering when I was enrolled in Phillis Wheatley Elementary School in Apopka, Florida.

According to this report, for context (and, mind you, I knew none of these things at the time): The school that eventually became Wheatley Elementary had been established in 1886 as a school for the children of African American field hands. Segregation was the unbreakable code back then, and the teachers were paid less, had little or no school supplies, and coped with secondhand books and substandard facilities.

When segregation became illegal in 1954 thanks to the federal courts, nothing changed in Orange County, Florida. No, siree. It was not until a group of parents sued the school board in 1962 that the district was required to desegregate fully. And yet 11 area schools, including Wheatley, were still considered segregated in 1970. According to the report, “In 2010, Orange County Public Schools achieved what is called unitary status, freeing the district from the court order and requiring the replacement of a group of aging schools attended predominantly by black children. Those construction projects were completed in 2018.”

That’s right. I said 2018. So now imagine tiny, white, 10-year-old, yankee me wandering into this place in 1974. Even though only a quarter of that county’s population was black, 80% of the students at Wheatley were. (To this day, only 26% of the students are white.)

Not only did I talk funny, but I probably looked funny. I started working at that age, growing and selling houseplants at the flea market, just so I would have a few school clothes and a pair of shoes that I wasn’t ashamed of. I did wear a lot of hand me downs, and this was the 70’s, so you can just imagine what a horror show that was. A lot of plaid bell bottoms were involved. I also remember wearing a pair of faded jeans with about 5 inches of dark jean material that I had sown onto the bottom as I grew. I’m sure my teacher viewed me as white trash.

My first impression of Wheatley was that it looked like a prison, and because of that I was terrified. The buildings are of concrete block. The concrete hallways, at least at the time, were outdoors, with hard plastic patio roofing to keep off the rain, but with no walls. I was introduced for the first time to the concept of “portables”, which are trailer-like classrooms set on wheels. Those were scattered amongst the concrete block buildings.

To my horror, I discovered that none of the bathroom stalls had doors, because of drug deals. I had never even heard of people dealing drugs in Connecticut, especially elementary school students. I was very sheltered, there.

After a few short days in my classroom, I realized that concrete block sweats in the heat as much as humans do, and there was mildew everywhere. There was no air conditioning anywhere in the school, except up at the front office. My teacher would prop open the door and the screenless windows, and lizards and cockroaches would run in and out. One time a snake came to visit.

And as for my 5th grade education, I got none, really. My teacher didn’t know what to do with me. I was reading at a college level. It took my mother several months to realize that I never brought homework home. I could do the work before the teacher was finished teaching it. (In fact, I had been in the Florida school system for 3 years before they taught me anything I hadn’t already learned in Connecticut.)

I had very little respect for my teacher. I had never been taught to say ma’am or sir, and she took great exception to that. I quickly noticed that she would often teach things incorrectly. At first I’d speak up and correct her and explain why. (Yes, I was exactly that brand of obnoxious.) You can imagine that that didn’t go down well. Eventually I just stopped listening altogether.

When my classmates learned about the Civil War, they treated it like it was a football game. All of them, without exception, were rooting for team South, because you root for the home team, don’t you? I remember nearly losing my mind that day. I remember shouting that the South was for slavery. How could they be for slavery? That’s when I gave up all hope. I was just doing time in my violent little elementary school prison.

And violent it was. I witnessed my first knife fight in my first week there. It happened in the cafeteria. Furniture was toppled and thrown. The two boys involved had to be wrestled to the ground and hauled away, kicking and screaming. The rage was palpable. My whole life up to that point, I had never seen anything worse than your basic playground scuffle.

I’m sure that those boys got paddled and suspended. That was also new to me. Paddling. In Connecticut at the time, it was unheard of to lay hands on students, let alone hit them on the back side with a board. No one had ever done that to me, and despite the fact that I never acted up, and despite the fact that my mother had written a letter, on file at the office, saying that she did not give them permission to paddle me, I lived in constant fear that some huge misunderstanding would happen, and I’d be beaten by an adult.

And while the school was theoretically desegregated, none of the black kids would talk to me other than to threaten my life. They didn’t even speak as they beat me up, which happened pretty much daily. I was smaller than everyone. I learned to curl up into a ball to protect my stomach, and wait for them to get bored and stop kicking me. I have no idea where the adults disappeared to during these events. They certainly weren’t rushing to my aid. I spent most of 5th grade being afraid for my life.

After much pleading on my part, and after bruising that could no longer be ignored, my mother spoke up about this eventually, and the school’s solution was to have the secretary escort me to and from the school bus every day. That made me even more of a target. All the kids jeered at me as we walked by. My own little walk of shame. I got my mother to call me in sick a lot. I attended school maybe 3 days on a good week. The rest of the time I’d stay home and read books all day. In my mind I can still see my mother’s handwriting on my notes.

“Please excuse Barbara from school yesterday and the day before. She was ill.”

These notes were never questioned. I still got straight A’s all the way through school, so I don’t think anyone much cared.

On the rare occasion that something good happened at the school, it was quickly trampled on. Once, my class planted 100 tree seedlings on the hill beside the playground. I was really proud of that. But they had all been ripped out of the ground and thrown over the fence in less than 24 hours. No supervision. Students gone wild.

The one bright spot in that year was that my teacher operated the class on the star system. You got gold stars for good behavior. Good behavior included things like actually doing your homework. Actually showing up. Actually staying awake. Not attacking anyone. Remaining seated. Thumping the chalk dust out of the erasers. At the end of the week, your stars would be tallied up, and you’d get to bid on various privileges or treats. I always had the most stars, so I always got the most “expensive” privilege: the opportunity to go be a teacher’s aid for a few hours a day for the kindergarten teacher.

The kindergarten class was my oasis. I was surrounded by kids who were much too small to hurt me. I got to eat cookies and milk with them. I did cool stuff like go to the air conditioned office to run off dittos on the ditto machine that the kids would then get to color on. And the teacher was very kind. She always made me feel safe.

On the last day of school, the kindergarten teacher gave me a ring as a thank you. It was big and clunky and it turned my finger green, and one of the big blue plastic “gems” fell off and was never seen again, but I wore that ring for years. For me it was a symbol that somewhere in the world, someone liked and understood me.

I never saw or heard from her again. The next year I went to Ocoee Junior High School, where things were still pretty bad, but I only feared for my life about half the time. That was a vast improvement, relatively speaking.

When I look back at my 5th grade experience, which I try not to do very often, the adult me gets very angry. I’m sure that that year damaged me in ways that I still haven’t grasped. I know I was beginning to learn that people in positions of authority could not be trusted. I also started to believe for the first time that the world is an inherently unsafe place, and that most people are basically stupid, and that, most of all, my cries for help would, by and large, not be taken seriously by anyone.

What horrible lessons to teach a child.

Oddly enough, I never blamed the school itself for the chaos and neglect that surrounded me. It didn’t occur to me. I had always viewed schools as being beyond reproach up to that time. Education is precious. Thinking otherwise was a very bitter pill to swallow.

What I couldn’t accept or understand was my mother’s passivity. I still can’t, really. I know she was under a great deal of pressure herself, just trying to keep us fed. She was unable or unwilling to hear about the constant danger I was in. She didn’t take my 3 year gap in learning seriously. She did take me to the library a lot, but the rest was up to me.

She heard about my daily beat downs and watched my self-esteem and my sense of security get chipped away, and yet the only thing that changed was deep within me. I became more determined to grow up and get the hell out of Apopka with each passing year. I’m not a parent myself, so maybe I can’t understand it from that perspective, but I do know this: if someone I was responsible for was thrown into the equivalent of a child prison, where she was chewed up like raw meat in a lion’s den, I’d move heaven and earth to change that one way or another. If there was ever a child who was meant to be home schooled, for example, it was me.

I think this is perhaps why I am so sympathetic toward immigrants. I know what it’s like to feel constantly terrified, and to want, more than anything else in the world, to go somewhere safe. No one should have to experience that. Especially at age ten.

I have no idea what Wheatley is like these days. I hope there are doors on the bathroom stalls. I hope there is air conditioning. Their website is awash with pride, as all school websites tend to be. It’s also sprinkled with spelling errors. According to this report card, the parents give it high marks. Based on the standardized test scores, which I take with a grain of very conflicted salt, approximately 55 percent of the kids are doing “satisfactory or better” in English and Science. The students are also now required to wear school t-shirts, which suggests that the administration worries about gang activity. So yeah, it’s a mixed bag.

I just hope that none of the kids who go to Wheatley today will have the same visceral, tear-filled reaction that I do, nearly 47 years after the fact, when looking at this picture of that school’s bleak and relatively unchanged façade. I see they’ve added a second floor, and the windows look closed which suggests climate control, and the 8 foot high chain link fence appears to be gone. That’s something, anyway.

I guess.

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Curbing Male Violence

Women should not have to curb their freedoms.

Have you ever noticed that people always talk about the number of women who were raped each year, rather than the number of men who were rapists each year? Why is that? I think it’s because, whether we care to admit it or not, there’s a twisted bias in the world that if women get raped, they’ve somehow asked for it. When it comes to violence against women, it’s the women who get to “own” the crime as well as the statistics.

It has been ever thus. Women are expected to limit their freedoms to curb male violence. If you don’t want to get assaulted, ladies, you should avoid going out at night. You shouldn’t be in that parking garage. You shouldn’t dress like that. Don’t take male-oriented jobs. Don’t draw attention to yourself. Be quiet. Never travel alone.

I genuinely believe that more is not done to curb male violence precisely because that violence helps keep us women in our place. I’d call it a disgusting trend, but a trend implies that change occasionally happens. This is more aptly described as a disgusting culture.

Sadly, the focus on the victim rather than the perpetrator isn’t going to change if we sit back and wait for the men to make the changes. Women need to speak out to adjust the focus to the ones committing the crimes. We need to raise our boys to understand that violence is never okay. I also wish more women would take self defense classes. We are not, nor do we ever have to be, helpless.

And yes, I know that men are raped, too, and that most men are not violent. But every woman I know has been the victim of some form of violence, abuse, or harrassment or another, so you do the math. It’s time to claim our freedoms and make these criminals sweat.

To show you how pervasive the culture of having women own victimhood really is, I must confess that I almost included a picture of a woman as a victim here, rather than one taking charge. Shame on me.

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Mid-Month Marvels: Life After Hate

No judgment. Just help.

A recurring theme in this blog is the celebration of people and/or organizations that have a positive impact on their communities. What they do is not easy, but it’s inspirational, and we don’t hear enough about them. So I’ve decided to commit to singing their praises at least once a month. I’m calling it Mid-Month Marvels. If you have any suggestions for the focus of this monthly spotlight, let me know in the comments below!

It seems that now, more than ever, a lot of people are walking around full of the type of hate and anger that leads to violence. This often stems from fear for their futures, alienation, uncertainty, trauma, shame and/or abuse. But violence has never solved anything. If anything, it perpetuates more hate, anger, and violence.

“Research shows that many violent extremists become disillusioned with the so-called ‘movement’”, according to the organization called Life After Hate, which was founded by former extremists in an effort to turn the tide. Their website states that “Life After Hate is committed to helping people leave the violent far-right to connect with humanity and lead compassionate lives. Our vision is a world that allows people to change and contribute to society without violence. Our primary goal is to interrupt violence committed in the name of ideological or religious beliefs. We do this through education, interventions, academic research, and outreach.”

Here’s an organization that does not pass judgment. They just offer a path forward. They offer insight and advice. They help you let go and break free.

Constant hate or anger has got to be exhausting after a while. If you want to find another way, if you want to move on with your life but don’t know how, or you have a family member who is heading down a violent path and you don’t know what to do, this organization is for you.

For more information, check out this PSA, and also this story of one family transformed. After that, reach out to them at info@lifeafterhate.org, or call 612-888-EXIT (3948).

Please join me in supporting Life After Hate. No judgment. Just help. We could all use a little of that from time to time.

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A Unique Opportunity to Cut Off Our Lunatic Fringe

Most of us can agree on much more than we think.

I know you’ll find this hard to believe, but I genuinely believe that not all Republicans are bad. But if we have learned nothing else from the insurrection in the Capitol a few days ago, there are definitely some on the absolute lunatic fringe (as are some democrats, of course). Most of us watched their actions in utter horror. I genuinely believe that includes the average Republican, too.

There are many things most humans can agree on. Violence is unacceptable. Our democratic process should be inviolate. We need to protect our planet as it’s the only home we have. Basic human rights should apply to everyone. We need to improve our healthcare system and our schools. Murder is unacceptable, as is rape, sex trafficking, and theft. We need more invention and innovation. Hate gets us nowhere. Facts are facts.

I think both parties should add the above, with mutually agreed upon wording, to our national platforms. We should rename ourselves the Rational Republican Party and the Rational Democratic Party. If our members can’t agree with all of the above, then they should not be considered part of our membership. They should be rejected outright. “Your hate and violence are not who we are. You do not speak for us.” Let them form their own insane little cohorts and self-destruct.

Each party, of course, still has room for a lot of planks in their platform that the other party may disagree with, and that’s okay. But we have got to agree that we can no longer turn our backs on basic human morality. The lunatic fringe does not deserve our support.

I think if we did that, we might discover that we all agree on much more than we think.

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Not Real Life

No one ever says ouch in action movies.

Have you ever noticed that no one ever says ouch in action movies? They get attacked and immediately respond in kind. I’m not so quick on the uptake. If someone hit me, I’d be shocked. I’d say ow. Only then would I beat the living crap out of them.

Another thing is that combative females often have long hair, but no one ever grabs that hair to yank them to the ground. I mean, seriously, in real life, no one plays that fair. If you really want a more level playing field, ladies, then get a freakin’ haircut.

A major pet peeve of mine is movies where cars successfully jump opening drawbridges. As a bridgetender, I can assure you that when people attempt this, it never, ever, ever ends well. If you value your car, your life, and your reputation as an intelligent human being, you won’t try this, at home or anywhere else.

And how is it possible, Hollywood, to throw so many punches without revealing how badly this damages the puncher’s hand? Hands are poorly constructed for impact. Giving people the impression that not only can you knock out someone with one punch, but that you’ll be able to walk away and play the piano afterward is irresponsible at best.

Another unrealistic trope is that you can plunge through a plate glass window and emerge without a single cut. Come on, now. We all know better than that.

The characters in movies seem to be superhuman. They can get shot and carry on. That doesn’t happen. Getting shot freakin’ hurts. After you’re shot, you just aren’t going to be in the mood to do much of anything, I promise. You’re going to say, “Yeah, I’m done.”

And, for what it’s worth, most women can’t run very far in 5 inch heels. I can’t even walk in them. Most conversations in bars are done at a shout. Most dumpsters are full of sharp objects. Doors are not easy to kick in. Most apartments in big metropolitan areas are extremely small. Dorm rooms are even smaller. It’s not easy to make a car explode. It’s pretty much impossible to hold someone’s hand while they dangle off the side of a skyscraper and then actually pull them back up onto a roof.

Come on, script writers. You can do better than this. I just had to get that off my chest.

Thanks. I feel cleansed.

woman-running-high-heels-01

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Pew, Pew, Pew!

Violence is real.

I grew up with Star Trek on TV. It never occurred to me that this show was violent, even though they got into a shooting match at least once per episode. I think that’s because you never saw blood, and even the Vulcan neck pinch didn’t seem that invasive. And the phasers didn’t go “bang, bang, bang,” they went, “pew, pew, pew.” And most of the time they were set to stun. The very word phaser makes you think it will only leave you fazed.

I remember running around in the yard, pointing my finger at other kids, shouting, “pew, pew, pew!” and knowing that at the end of the game, no one would really be hurt. It’s hard to even shout pew. It sounds like a whisper even when you say it loudly. In fact, it sounds like you’re talking about sitting down at church. And come to think of it, the pews almost always seem to come in threes, like the holy trinity.

I’ve been lucky, living where I live at this particular point in time. I’ve barely ever heard a gun shot in real life, and I have never been shot at. No invasive metal objects have entered my body unless you count tooth fillings.

But here lately, my fellow citizens have been hit with rubber bullets and glass balls. Flash bangs and tear gas have been thrown at them. People have been hurt, hospitalized, even killed. All because they are protesting police violence, where people have been killed for no justifiable reason. We’ve been ignoring this. We can no longer do so.

While I’d love to reenter the fantasy world of my childhood, the land of pew, pew, pew, I can’t do that anymore. Violence is real. And while most of us are, indeed, stunned, these phasers have never been set to stun for many of us. It’s time we acknowledge that and put a stop to it.

Phaser