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An Open Letter to Senator Barbara Boxer

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Boxer speaks at an event.

Boxer speaks at an event. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I have just sent the following email to Senator Barbara Boxer:

Dear Senator Boxer:

I recently listened, via podcast, to your speech at the Commonwealth Club. I agree with and am grateful for your point of view on what’s happening in our country, and your policy ideas for repairing some of it, like raising the minimum wage for everyone and addressing climate change on a tangible level. However, I’m sorry to say that some of your perspective is myopic and limited.

When you say those who “play by the rules” ought to reap the rewards of the “American Dream” you…discount me and every other artist in this country. I am a writer, and I’m speaking as well for painters, sculptors, musicians, actors, and everyone else who commits themselves to bring truth and beauty into the world. We are consistently told we do not “play by the rules” because we don’t buckle down and go to work for some corporation or other. Similarly, when you say those who “work hard,” you omit the disabled population who cannot “work hard” at most of the jobs available in our culture. When you say government must step in when “the middle class is in trouble” you omit the poorest of the poor.

In fact, Senator, by your choice of language you are dismissing everybody whose personality or disposition doesn’t fit into the capitalist mold. Some of us just can’t make it in the usual 9-5 routine—and we pay for it, believe me, we pay for it.

I am the mother of a disabled son who is now nearly 50. Between raising him myself (and a daughter) through brain surgeries and seizures, while still trying to write (not to mention being one of, as Erica Jong calls us, the “whiplash generation” of women who had the game switched on us midway), I have had a checkered work history that’s left me with a paltry amount of Social Security and nothing else to support me now that I’m 68 and getting older every day. My son is poor, I am poor, and I’m told it is my fault for not playing by the rules. You should know, however, that I have worked extremely hard in my life by necessity, and it continues. Compared to my still-married friends who’ve retired to Florida or Costa Rica, my life in East Oakland is deprived. I am not complaining: I’m glad I didn’t spend my entire life in some office (as it is I had to spend too much time in them). But I do want you to know that I and millions of us who don’t fit the American Dream mold deserve a decent life just as much as the middle class corporate workers, who I readily admit have also struggled without reward or justice because of what’s become of this country.

Despite my criticism of your language and what it might reflect, I still thank you for holding down the liberal fort in Congress.

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Justice For Us

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I’ve been having some disagreements–to put it in the mildest possible terms–with Social Services. I’m semi-retired and get Social Security, Medicare, and sometimes other benefits depending on how much work I have from month to month. You freelancers out there know how it goes: work and income go up and down in our biz. The people who work for Social Services, however, don’t seem to get the concept of freelance–and they really don’t get the phrase freelance writer.

After several months of frustration, and with the level of communication at a low point, I went to Legal Aid, who, though they couldn’t help me, had tons of flyers and announcements on their walls and tables, one of which was for the East Bay Community Law Center, a Public Benefits Justice Clinic. It read, in part:

We will provide advice and representation in the following areas: CalFresh; CalWORKS; General Assistance; Medi-Cal; SSI/SSDI; and HealthPAC.

I assumed this was a new service that began due to a growing need as the so-called safety net of Alameda County, the State of California and the Nation of the 99% has become more and more frayed. Social Service programs are throwing people off the rolls left and right. While I didn’t have high hopes they’d be able to help me, considering my experience at Legal Aid, I went to the Justice Clinic yesterday.logo EBayCommLaw

You know how most services these days tell you they’ll make calls for you and get back to you in a week? Not at the Justice Clinic. I was interviewed by a legal intern–who, while not an experienced attorney, turned out to be kind, smart, and fully competent. She let me tell my story from Day One to the present, let me cry and rant without once becoming alarmed or horrified or telling me “I need for you to calm down,” the way people in her position usually do. When I was finished–and she waited to be sure I was completely finished–she went off to make copies of my voluminous file, leaving me to compose myself. She returned in a few minutes, saying she thought the situation was relatively simple. On my last visit to Social Services, the appeals officer and her supervisor  looked over my case and confessed it was too complicated for them, yet to this young, enthusiastic legal intern, it was relatively simple. She said she was going to make phone calls, and asked me to be patient and wait.

The room I waited in was furnished Early Non-Profit, crowded with desks, mismatched flea market chairs, and a large oblong table, with workers and clients scattered about, where conversations could be heard–but most people were too wrapped up in their own troubles to eavesdrop. When left to my own devices, however, I did just that, and  heard workers making calls for clients, speaking confidently and competently to people in authority about hairy situations. I couldn’t make out any cohesive stories–but the point is that these people get right to the work at hand. Think about it: who does that these days? What organizations or institutions go to work on a case immediately after it’s presented to them, without so much as a cup of coffee first?lazyofficeworker

After two hours, a long but worthwhile wait, M. came back with notes and reassurances, the upshot of which was that everything was resolved! Resolved! My benefits were being reinstated as of this very day. Awed and grateful, I asked M. how she’d gotten through to them: rarely have I called a worker at Social Services and gotten them on the phone; I usually have to leave a message that is returned maybe 50% of the time. Sometimes the phone system won’t accept messages. Or it’s broken down and does weird things like buzz or beep. M. told me she’d made many, many calls until she got someone higher up than anyone I’d spoken to lo these many months.

My next thought was that she’d been lied to, the way I’ve been repeatedly lied to all this time. So while admiring and appreciating M. and the organization, I still carried a bit of skepticism that my troubles were over. Later, however, it turned out that M. had indeed accomplished the impossible. I have nothing but praise for the East Bay Community Law Center, especially for the way they treated me and how they go about their work. Anyone out there who needs help with Social Services or other legal issues, I highly recommend them. Call first for hours and an appointment. Praise be to competent people with ethics!

East Bay Community Center
Justice Clinic
3130 Shattuck Avenue
Berkeley, CA

Two Days Later: When the people at the Center saw this blog, they emailed the following comments to me. For privacy purposes I’m omitting their signatures, but here’s what these good people had to say:

Your article brought so much joy to the entire EBCLC organization! 

“Great Story! Standing Ovation!!!!” 

“This made my day.” 

 “What an awesome story!”

“____ and I are actually crying right now.” 

This is why I LOVE EBCLC and all of ya’ll who make it what it is, including our resourceful and resilient clients! 

It is rewarding to know that our actions here at EBCLC can have such a positive affect on our clients;
stories like yours are the reason why we do this job…
we are very grateful for your kind words and appreciate your gratitude.
Your life is valuable, and you matter to us! 

What a cool way to be recognized.

Daily Prompt: Might As Well Jump

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TheWordPress Prompter says Might As Well Jump and then asks: What’s the biggest risk you ‘d like to take–but haven’t been able to?

Golden Gate Bridge

The timing for this could not be more perfect: just yesterday a piece of financial news had me imagining the jump.  Readers won’t love or even like my response, since the expectation of this prompt, or so I assume, is to be inspiring–but that’s of no consequence to me. My jump would, however, require courage–which is in large part why I still haven’t made it. When I saw the words “Might As Well Jump,” an image I’ve harbored for a long time immediately came to me: an image of myself in mid-air, the Golden Gate Bridge behind me, the Pacific Ocean ahead.

I know it won’t feel soothing the way I used to imagine the water would feel; I’ve been told and I’ve read the facts over and over again. The waves will not embrace me, they won’t fold over lovingly. No, they say it’s like hitting cement. WHO says that? The few survivors? There are some who’ve jumped from the GG Bridge and lived to tell the tale–very few, “they” say. Who are these THEY who have so much to say about everything anyway?

I’ve always had romantic feelings about the bridge. Before moving to San Francisco I visited the city, and one day I walked across. The fog swirled around me, and an inner voice whispered, I could write in this City. I was as far away from suicide that day as I’ve ever been. Halfway across the bridge I stopped to stand against the rail and gaze out at the ocean and the skyline, lost in romantic thoughts and future plans. I went into a kind of trance, not that unusual for me, and lost track of time. Suddenly an ancient weathered-faced man appeared at my side. He looked pointedly at me, grinned, and asked, “How we doin’ today?” I nodded and told him I was just fine. And then it hit me: he was one of the guards, or whatever they’re called, who hang out at GG Bridge watching out for potential suicides! I had to laugh.

I was only 42 then. Jumping at the age I am now isn’t entirely irrational. I’m 67, and I don’t look forward to the choices or possibilities that lie ahead. Given I have a lung condition and keep smoking, though struggling against it constantly, I’ll probably go out gasping for oxygen.  The big THEY is always pointing out that it’s a horrible way to go–but come on, what might be better? There aren’t that many attractive ways to get out of here.

I prefer to decide when to go, rather than waiting around to be taken. But the thing is, I don’t exactly want to give up living–it’s just that some of the circumstances of my life make it harder and harder to go on, so given I’ve gotta go anyway…It’s such a bitch that we don’t know when it will happen. I could die today or I could live another 20 years. If it’s the latter, though, what will my quality of life be? It keeps getting worse. The signs, the information, are all around, all I have to do is look at those who are older than me. When my son broke his ankle recently, he was in a rehab facility that was also a nursing home, and I got a real good look. There were days that I couldn’t stop crying.

Sally Binford, a friend of some of my friends, is a hero of mine. She took her life at 70, as planned, even though she was, as far as anyone knew, still healthy. She’d decided a long time before then that she didn’t want to grow older than 70. And then there’s Bill Brent. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Bill, who jumped off the bridge last September–the only person I know personally to make the jump. While I was sorry to see him die, and sorrier still to see another casualty of a culture that makes it almost impossible for writers like Bill to survive, I could not help but admire his courage.

Cover of "Final Exit"

I’ve read books like Final Exit, and I regularly check into online forums on suicide. One of the difficulties of attempting suicide is you might screw up. My preferred method

actually wouldn’t be to jump; it’d be the much simpler way out of an overdose. Trouble with that is, pills don’t always work. Final Exit lays out instructions involving specific drugs and a plastic bag over your head–which isn’t the way I want to go, sitting with my head in a vegetable bag, waiting. I can’t imagine using a gun, or knife, or any other kind of physical violence. It’s like Dorothy Parker’s brilliant poem:



Razors pain you;

Dorothy Parker Photo: Sat.EvePost

Dorothy Parker
Photo: Sat.EvePost

Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren’t lawful;
Nooses give;
Gas smells awful;
You might as well live.

Related articles

Plastic Bag Legislation

Muppt judges
The time has come to speak my mind on a subject of great consequence to us all as individuals, as a nation, and as citizens of Planet Earth. The subject I refer to is plastic bags, toxic to birds, fish, and other living creatures. It seems to have reached the tipping point, what with cities and counties throughout the country passing piecemeal legislation banning them.

In California, legislation to ban plastic bag usage has been debated for several years. In 2010, a bill backed by grocers and then-governor Arnold Schwarzenegger didn’t make it past the legislature due to opposition from—who else?– the plastics industry. The first state to ban plastic bags was Hawaii. San Francisco was the first city, in 2007.

In Alameda County where I live a law took effect this January 1st prohibiting food stores from packaging goods in plastic bags. A good law, a sensible law; who doesn’t want to save the poor little fishies who mistake these bags for food and choke to death on them? It’s a kind law, a progressive law. Or so I thought. Like most people I didn’t pay attention to other aspects of the law. Either that or I have a more simple mind than I thought I had. It never occurred to me that banning a product would mean doing anything besides removing it. As it turns out, in addition to the plastic bag taboo—in food SaveWorldstores, that is—customers who forget their tote bags or don’t have any or for any reason don’t wish to hang their purchases  around their necks are welcome to a paper bag—for ten cents. I asked one cashier where the money goes. To the state, she said uncertainly. For what? Nobody seems to know. As I’ve so often observed, most Californians don’t care about small inconveniences; it hadn’t even occurred to them to raise the question.

But I am still a die-hard New Yorker, and I care. I would like to know the rationale behind this fee for paper! One cashier said she thought it was a way of encouraging consumers to recycle by bringing their own bags. I ask you: when did ten cents ever change anyone’s behavior? Those who’ve been recycling bags all along will continue to do so, and those who haven’t are unlikely to start doing so for the money.

Another thing: I’ve always used the plastic bags I get from stores–when I forget to bring my totes–as garbage bags. I cannot understand people who carry on about the dangers of these bags, yet go out and buy plastic garbage bags. Where’s the logic here?

And one final irony: When I bought a mug and some other chatchkalas at Pier One, they put my tissue-wrapped purchases into a plastic bag.

“I thought you can’t use plastic,” I said to the cashier.

“That’s only in food stores,” she replied.bluemeany

If this is true, then the whole thing is just plain absurd.

If it’s not, well, where are the Plastic Police when we need them? Never mind the plague of violence in Oakland—they’re pushing plastic at Pier One! For the sake of the fish, get an undercover team out to Emeryville post-haste!

Post Election Post



My blog post of yesterday was probably one of the most precise expressions of my state of mind that I’ve ever written down. Like a lot of people I spent election night monitoring results on my computer, streaming PBS and watching tweets roll by, the latter endlessly amusing. A lot of journalists were tweeting; one of them noted “Florida’s giving me a heart attack.” Before he or anyone could melt down over that gun of a state, however, it was all over but the shouting: Obama was called pretty early, before 9:00 here in California. Of course, the Mitt didn’t concede right away, so I didn’t hear Obama’s speech ‘til my middle-of-the-night bathroom summons.

They’d been telling us all along it was going to be sooooo close, which got me and a lot of other people nervous. For what seemed like hours that infernal map blushed as if deeply embarrassed. Since I tend to forget that only about six people live in each of those red states, I was gnawing on my fingernails, wishing I’d done some phone calling for the Dems, worrying about yet more material deprivation in my future…and then suddenly Pennsylvania goes for Obama, and then another populous state, and Hey will you look at that! He’s Still the One!

My whole body collapsed right here in my chair. I hadn’t realized how tense I was, but when my muscles let go in relief I knew I’d been terrified about this election. Sure, we’ve had presidents as bad as Mitt Romney—Reagan, GWBush (The Nitwit)—but none of them were emboldened the way the Republicans seem to be nowadays. I might be wrong, but I suspect that a right-leaning president would do a lot more damage today than in the past. More than The Nitwit? I ask myself. Yeah. He was incompetent, but as I said, he wasn’t operating within the same toxic atmosphere; it was only just developing when he was in power.

But it’s a moot point. Not only did Obama win, he won big. The Reps are gathering in groups, scratching their heads and yelling at one another. They lost big among young people, Hispanics, and women. Doh! No young woman in 2012 is going to vote for a man or a party that calls pregnancy by rape a God-given blessing. No Latino worker is going to vote for the party that expects him to “self-deport.” These guys better get their act together or else, as their own Michael Steele and conservative think tanker Norm Ornestein are saying, they’re going to become fully irrelevant and unelectable.


You Must Remember This

John Nichols, a writer for The Nation, said on Democracy Now this morning that people, particularly progressives, need to understand this was a big win, and pressure President Obama to use the mandate for real change. It matters a lot, says Nichols, that he didn’t just crawl into the Oval Office or squeak through by a few lousy points. Florida’s results aren’t in yet, and neither are those of Washington State and a few other places, but Obama’s ahead mostly everywhere, and by the time the counting’s done he’ll have at least 100 more electoral votes than Romney.

How this works: The bigger a President wins, the more support he has from the voting public, and the more permission he’s been tacitly granted to implement the agenda we endorsed. As Nichols pointed out, Obama’s not a big progressive; he’s not even a liberal. He’s a centrist, on top of which he has a strong tendency to compromise. The only way he’s going to be emboldened—like a Republican in similar circumstances would be—is if the people who voted for him put on the pressure. One president, I think it may have been Lyndon Johnson, told those who voted him in that now they had to make him do their bidding. We need our leaders to lead us—and they need us to push them to lead. When they enact the policies we want, they’re not being radical or despotic: they’re doing what they’re supposed to do.  That is how it’s supposed to work. Our representatives represent us. Government of the people, by the people, and for the people.


Happy Days Are Here Again / The skies above are clear again / Let’s sing a song of cheer again!

A bit of music trivia: Happy Days Are Here Again was written by Milton Ager and Jack Yellen in 1929 and used in the film Chasing Rainbows, as well as in dozens of other movies. It was the theme song for FDR’s 1932 presidential campaign and as a jumpy jingle became the unofficial song of the Democratic Party. In 1962 Barbra Streisand came along and rearranged it as a torch song for her first commercial success. Brilliant and beautiful. Check it out.


Report on the California Props :

Proposition 30: YES. Endorsed by Governor Jerry Brown, this prop temporarily increases state sales tax and income tax on individuals making over $250,000 to avoid “trigger cuts” to the state’s public education system.

Proposition 31: NO.  Would have created a two-year budget cycle for state government, allowed the governor to cut the budget in fiscal emergencies, and required performance reviews in state programs. This was a blatant anti-union proposition, and big money came from out of state to support it (currently under investigation).

Proposition 33: NO. Would have required insurance companies to set rates based on previous insurance history of drivers with better rates for drivers who had insurance in the past.

Proposition 34: NO.  Would have repealed California’s death penalty and replaced it with life in prison without parole. Death penalty will still be used in CA.

Proposition 35 : YES. Increases prison terms for human traffickers. Does a lot more than simply punish traffickers. This prop is a perfect example of the problems inherent in the initiative process. This looked good—after all, who’s not against human trafficking? But these are complex issues and the prop was written in such a way that most people did not see its flaws. While legal experts pointed them out, none  organized or gave money towards stopping its passage—because again, who’s going to come out looking like they’re pro-trafficking? So a bad law was passed by a wide margin (80%).

Proposition 36 : YES. Changed the “Three Strikes” law so that life-in-prison sentences only apply if the third conviction [strike] is “serious or violent.”

Proposition 37: NO. Would have required labeling of genetically-modified food and prohibited it from being labeled “natural.” The food industry, especially the Monsanto corporation, spent over $20 million to fight this measure. They won, we lost. Watch what you eat–if you can tell what it is!

Proposition 38: NO.  Would have hiked up state income tax for 12 years, allegedly for education.

Proposition 39: YES.  Requires multi-state businesses to pay income taxes based on percentage of sales in California.

Proposition 40: YES.  Keeps the California State Senate lines as they were drawn by the California Citizens Redistricting Commission in 2010.  Rep. Barbara Lee supported it.


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