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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 might have mentioned somewhere on my blog that I’ve been having some disagreements–to put it in the mildest possible terms–with Social Services. I’m retired and I 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. Years ago I had some sort of  formal thing I hardly remember, with a hearing and a judge who kept asking,utterly  baffled, what this writing was that I did. After trying to explain and unable to get through, I finally burst out, “You know when you go to the dentist? And there are magazines on the table? Well–somebody writes what’s in those magazines!”typewriter2

So you get the picture. I’ve been having some disagreements about which I won’t go into detail, since these things tend to be boring and confusing. It’s been going on, however, since January, and the level of communication was at a low point. I went to Legal Aid, who were–to use another mild term–unhelpful–except in one sense: they had tons of flyers and announcements all over their walls and tables. One caught my eye, about a project of 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.

From the way it was presented I assumed this was a new service, and further assumed they’d seen a growing need for it 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? No such BS went on at the Justice Clinic. I was interviewed by a legal intern–and though my rush-to-judgement self was at first dismayed that M., adorable though she was, was not an experienced attorney, she 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 curse and refer to imminent suicide 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 with my Jane Austen book. She returned and said 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.

I should mention that the room I was in was done up Non-Profit Style, on the edge of shabby, 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 is in itself impressive. 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

I waited almost two hours, nodding off in Ye Olde England, until M. came back with notes and reassurances for me, the upshot of which was that everything was resolved! Resolved! All was, this very day, to go back to the way it was, the way it should have stayed, without these “disagreements.” My first instinct was to touch her shoulder and say, “You’re great!” I asked how she’d gotten through to them, and she laughed and said “Do you mean literally or figuratively?” I actually meant literally: rarely have I ever called any worker at Social Services and gotten them on the phone: I usually have to leave a message that is returned about 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 carry a bit of skepticism in my heart. At this point, one of the things M. was promised has been done, which bodes well for the rest of it–but I won’t know for sure until the beginning of the month when my Social Security check comes, hopefully intact. Should that happy event materialize, I’ll sing unreserved praises for the East Bay Community Law Center. For now I’m singing their praises anyhow, just for the way they treated me and the way they 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


I’ve been meaning to add this postscript for months now! When the people at the Center saw this blog, they were thrilled and emailed the following comments to me. For privacy purposes I’m omitting the signature on each one, 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.

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Oakland: Hot Spot For Tourists

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Oak people 

“We’re more than just movie stars and surfers!”

(from a Chevron ad promoting CA…or was it a CA ad promoting Chevron?)

  If you live, as I do, in Oakland, CA, you probably took one look at the title of this post and thought WTF? OAKland for tourists? According to the New York Times it is. The newspaper of record recently named Oaktown #5 (out of 45) of the Best Places to Visit in 2013. They adore the restaurants, and they’re willing to ignore crime statistics in order to enjoy a fine meal.

Oakland toted up 131 murders in 2012, the most since 2006 when 148 people were taken out by their fellow citizens. For a California comparison, in the same year 46 people in San Jose met the Grim Reaper through acts of violence, and in San Francisco the number was a mere 68.

 Oak crime

Most geographical areas around the globe go generally unnoticed—towns and cities with no outstanding distinctions. Some gain reputations for one or more defining characteristics. Oakland is unusual in that its rep varies depending on who you’re talking to. When I first moved here from high-rent SF 20 something years ago, my sister convinced my mother that I was surely ducking bullets night and day. After my mother came and saw for herself – and canceled her SF hotel reservation when she didn’t see any bullets – she told my sister I lived in “a nice neighborhood.” My sister’s response was “There’s no such thing in Oakland.” At the other extreme, my politically active NY friends think it’s “cool” to live in Oaktown. Me? Let’s just say I’d move back to SF in a New York minute if I could afford it. In fact, had I the time, energy and head space I’d reverse the equation and move Geese 2back to New York in a San Francisco minute. And it’s not bullets I’d be fleeing; it’s piles of garbage and dog shit on cracked sidewalks. It’s the drunks, crazies, and fights on the bus. It’s the loud musical sounds blasting from idling cars outside my building. I cannot imagine anyone purposely taking a trip here to see…what? A replica of Jack London’s cabin on JL Square? Fairyland, overstepping piles of goose turds along the way?

The article didn’t actually name Jack London or Fairyland, it heaped praise upon Oakland’s restaurants and cocktail bars. Where? I wondered, running through my mental data base of one Chinese, one Mexican, and a dozen sushi places. To be fair, I don’t eat out often enough to make an appraisal—so I’ll take the newspaper’s word that  Hawker Fare, “a casual spot serving Asian street food” and Plum, with its adjacent cocktail bar, serve food delicious enough to travel for.

To my mind, however, delicious food does not a great vacation make. There’s little to see in these parts, and violence lurks, barely beneath the surface. Oakland’s a poor and broken city. Not that I adore the state of California itself–I’ll  always be a New Yorker at heart. But my personal bias isn’t what made the place dysfunctional; it’s the other way around. Even during my first 8 or 10 years here, when I was having a blast with new people, new work, new ideas and ways of being, I could still see the dysfunction. It’s in the state initiative process, as many political analysts have pointed out. It’s in Proposition 13, which deprives California of much-needed funds. It’s in corrupt governmental agencies, and less-than-rigorous honesty on both an individual and collective level. It’s in a failing school system and a crumbling infrastructure. Precarious bridges. Feuding neighbors. Honking horns, sideswipes and even shootings on the freeway. Unsafe walking conditions, with drivers running red lights and hitting pedestrians. In 2009 California led the nation with over 550 death-by-drivers, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association. That same year, four states–California, Florida, Texas and New York–together accounted for 41% of U.S. pedestrian fatalities.

Some of my information comes from random, unsaved newspaper stories. Some of it comes from bartenders and cab drivers.  Speaking of which—it’s bad enough that AC Transit (the bus system) is barely functional, but you can’t even count on cabs in this burg. I’ve been stranded on street corners with my grocery bags because the cab I called found a more lucrative fare on the way to pick me up. I’ve had drivers get hopelessly lost and expect me to pay for the extra mileage.  I come from New York, where if I want a cab I step off the curb and raise my arm. Here the drivers aren’t ambitious enough to ride around looking for fares; I have to take a bus to a BART station, where the cabs line up and wait. The reason for this? From what the drivers tell me, it’s a crooked system under which the many company names—Friendly Cab, Veterans, Yellow Taxi—are actually all part of the same conglomerate run by the city and manipulated to line certain pockets. I’m not accusing anyone of anything here; I’m just repeating information given me by several different drivers.

A young woman I know visited NYC for the first time when she was 15. When she came back I asked her what she liked best. “The pizza?” She shook her head. “The museums?” No again. Suddenly her face lit up, and she said with obvious admiration, “The public transportation system!” In a similar vein, last year in Costa Rica I took cabs everywhere for a mere pittance and no tips allowed. Taxicabs were everywhere–outside grocery stores, cruising past bus stops–they even outnumbered personal vehicles.

Unknown Imagine a family from New York trying to wave down a cab to take them to one of Oakland’s much-touted restaurants. But then again, tourists are insulated almost everywhere—here in Oakland they’ll stay at the Marriott downtown, or at a bay front hotel on Jack London Square, and the front desk will call for their cabs as needed. After all, a lot of tourists visiting New York see nothing beyond the Disney store on 42nd Street.

One thing you can’t miss in Oakland, though, is its diversity, which attracted me from the get-go. I remember the first time I ate at Scott’s on JL Square, and was pleasantly surprised to see a variety of people of different ethnicities. In most cities it’s not that common to see people other than white ones at middle-class venues, and I really liked Oakland’s mixed atmosphere. (For breakdowns of ethnicity among Oakland’s population, see Wikipedia.)  After two decades of living here though, the most tangible result I can identify from this diversity is isolation: my neighbors–primarily Hispanic, Afro-American, and Filipino–don’t understand me and I don’t understand them. In terms of daily reality, they are completely uninterested in me: they don’t say hello in the morning, and sometimes look away if I do.

Meanwhile I’ve detected a slight thaw lately in black-white relations. It helps that we speak the same language. Warning: Here comes a RANT! Unlike most liberals, I am a staunch believer in learning the predominant language of the country in which one chooses to live. I cannot stress how strongly I feel about this. It’s discourteous and dismissive not to learn the language of the land you live in; I wouldn’t go live in

France without speaking French. My own grandparents, who came here from Poland via Ellis Island as teenagers, never learned to read English. They spoke it, but for their entire lives the only newspaper they read was the Daily Forward in Yiddish. I remember being appalled even as a child: they were the only people I knew who couldn’t read English. I thought they were stupid because of it. I no longer think they were stupid—but I do think they were wrong. Very wrong.

So, in closing this post, I just hope the Oakland City Council doesn’t sue me for unsubstantiated allegations. And, as much as I like receiving comments on my blog, I hope hate mail doesn’t come pouring in. I hope my activist friends don’t tie me to a chair and lecture me for my political rehabilitation. And I hope I don’t have to flee Oakland, where I can at least afford the rent, and where I feel a kinship with some of my financially challenged neighbors. Now that I’ve ranted and got some stuff out of my system, I realize I kind of like it here after all; there’s a free-floating artistic vibe here, evident, for instance, in the colorful street murals. So I hope I haven’t scared off any tourists—we need their bucks. Come on down, people! The weather’s fine!

images-7images-1Oak mural

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!


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