Thursday, May 30, 2019

A Four Way Stop is A Conversation

Many years ago, fresh out of college and broke as an egg in a bakery I took a job teaching traffic school. I dutifully learned as much as I could about the rules of the road and then, a few times a week, I talked for nearly eight hours straight in a series of hotel conference rooms. In addition to a much needed paycheck, the main perk of overseeing this detention for grown ups, was my access to a group of adults, most of whom were happy to answer my questions about “the real world.” I taught them the regulations of a four-way stop and reminded them who has right of way on a hill and, in return, they gave me their opinions on everything from cheap health insurance to the best Dim Sum.
I’ve been thinking about this class lately as I drive around Los Angeles. In the twenty-five years I’ve spent in this city, traffic has become increasingly congested. My old secret, speedy routes are flooded with Wazers and every four-way stop seems to have been reduced to a hair raising game of “Chicken.” Nearly everyone seems to have one eye on the road and one eye on the screen. At stoplights, heads are bent over texts and emails and status updates.
During the lunch break at Traffic School we all ate pizza because it was included in the price of the class. Because these classes usually took place in a corporate hotel in some far flung suburb, everyone stayed together. Because no one had the opportunity of turning their faces toward the tiny screen of a phone, we all looked up and into the eyes of the person across the table. As a result of these conversations, I wound up with book recommendations, casserole recipes and once, even a date with someone’s recently divorced nephew.
A four-way stop is like a conversation. It is an exchange that requires awareness and patience and the desire to take an interest in the lives of your fellow human. At a four-way stop, the first person to arrive has the right of way. If two or more people arrive at the same time and are travelling a perpendicular route, the default always goes to the person on the right. If there isn’t a person directly to the right, the turn passes to the right of the empty space. In this way you alternate between east west traffic and north south traffic. It’s a loose and imperfect system and one that was developed when there were less cars and fewer distractions. It’s a system that relies upon eye contact and careful attention.
At the beginning of every class, I’d go around the room and ask my students what brought them to traffic school. I knew there were two ways to answer that question. It was truthful to say “because I don’t want the points on my record.” It was also truthful to say “because I was driving 85 miles per hour in a school zone.” Both answers revealed something about the student. Both answers spoke to the commonality of the group. No one argued about whether or not they belonged in traffic school. Everyone accepted the fact that they’d broken the rules. Some people may have disliked the rules or disagreed with them, but we all believed in the existence of the rules.
As I drive around my city, there appears to be less and less belief in the existence of the rules. The streets, which belong to all of us at once, seem considered by some drivers to be private property. Rules apply only when deemed convenient or without burden. The conversation of the four-way-stop has turned into a shouting match or worse, the concentrated, willful obliviousness my children call “ghosting.” From some, there is no response save the gunning of the engine and the squeal of tires.
What separates us on the streets is mostly paint. There are yellow stripes between lanes and painted shapes and words on signs to guide us and keep the peace. When I was just out of college and teaching traffic school to a room full of adults, I was moved by our general acceptance of the power of paint. That we would drive at high speeds in opposing directions separated only by a line the width of my palm seemed a shared acknowledgement of both our vulnerability and our courage. Our human bodies are soft and cars are hard. This fragility can also be applied to the rules of the road and the whisper thin strands of humanity that connect us all.

Monday, November 27, 2017

My Dad used to bestow what he called, “Tinkertown Grants.” These small infusions of cash -- a twenty or a fifty accompanied with a scrawled note, “A little help from yer old Pop”— bought practical things like college text books, groceries or a tank of gas, but also sometimes provided for a good bag of coffee beans or a coveted sweater. Tinkertown Grants weren’t reserved for family only. Dad sent cash to buy cement after Grandma Prisbrey’s Bottle Village was nearly destroyed by the 1994 Northridge Quake. He bought a new tire for a friend or discreetly tucked a crumple of green in the hand of a bartender, a babysitter or a local kid who wanted to buy art supplies. Dad wasn’t a wealthy guy, but he had a generous soul. “That’s all we can do,” he said to me once, “just help each other out now and then.”

In the fifteen years since Dad’s death, I’ve tried to follow in his footsteps. I regularly donate to big organizations because I want to change policies and take on the big bad, but I am gratified when I can make an impact on a person to person level. A ball. A coat. A pie. These things make a difference, too.

Around this time of year, we are all looking for ways to “do some good.” Cash is good. Organizations know how to use the cash to get exactly what they need. I’ve been collecting a list of people and places that could use a little direct help. Some are Los Angeles based and others are helping across the country. Check out the list and, perhaps send a little grant of your own.

Help out the kids at Thomas Edison Middle School. Of 1200 student, 96% are on the free lunch program. Estephania Vazquez is the Community School Coordinator for the Los Angeles Education Partnership. Espephania is looking for folks to contribute to a College Career Club fund. Cash will go towards raffle prizes and other incentives to help kids get involved in talking about their futures. Estephania Vazquez at You can arrange to mail a check or send cash via PayPal.

Check out the Los Angeles Education Partnership if you’d like to hear about other volunteer opportunities. /

CollegePath LA is a community organization of volunteers who help public high school students explore careers, apply to college and thrive once they get there. The organization is currently developing a model project at John Marshall High School, an urban school in the Los Angeles Unified School District. I’ve volunteered in their college essay workshops for years and have seen first hand the good work of this organization.

Enrich LA has built over 115 edible gardens in Los Angeles schools in just a few years and their weekly Garden Ranger Program, provides students with interactive and interdisciplinary garden lessons.

One Voice provides food baskets, toys and books to 2500 families living in poverty (over 12,500 people.) They also help prepare low income students for college admissions by providing support and help with scholarship and enrollment applications. Their family assistance program provides immediate intervention and relief services to low income families in crisis situations and their Once Voice Summer Camp provides low income youth with a week away. You can watch their new video here and check out Onevoice for volunteer and giving opportunities. Right now they are looking for lots of FOOD for the big holiday party! Buy a case of pie or a box of yams! If you buy all the yams or all the pie, they’ll celebrate you with a banner! Check out the list here:

Doris Cares is a 501(c), volunteer-based organization, dedicated to feeding the hungry. Doris Presley and Jerry Chan can claim close to 40 years experience, between them, in feeding the hungry. What drives both of them is the inability to stand around doing nothing while good food’s being wasted. For inquiries regarding Food Pick-ups, Food Deliveries or Volunteer opportunities: Jerry Chan: (310) 351-4769 Doris Presley: (310) 672-9961 find out more information at

Friends in Deed is an interfaith Pasadena organization that provides supportive services to meet basic human needs, so our homeless and at-risk neighbors can rebuild their lives.

Aceess Books provides books to inner-city schools where at least 90 percent of students live at or below the poverty line. Most students at the schools served are children of color and children of immigrants. Since 1999, Access Books has donated more than a million books, and each year, approximately 18,000 pre-kindergarten through middle school-aged children participate in the program.

Donors Choose links you with teachers all over the country who have specific classroom needs. I like to go through and see who’s just about to reach their goal. Handing over that last ten or twenty bucks needed to “close the deal,” feels especially good.

Patreon helps fund artists and writers and creators of all kinds. I found the poet, Faith Shearin,  “church of art” The Secret City, “Wait But Why,” the blog of everything… So many ideas and bursts of enthusiasm!

Big Sunday is a great place to look if you’ve got a hand to lend, or a yen to donate to a good cause. This super cool organization posts over 2000 giving opportunities every year. You can sign up to do pro-bono work, give away your old refrigerator, work to clean up neighborhoods, feed the hungry, collect food or connect with your fellow do-gooders.

Shoes that Fit began in Claremont and has turned into a national organization. They work to provide children with new athletic shoes by partnering with schools across the country.

Monday, October 16, 2017

In The Hole

            Back in the nineties, when I was in my early twenties, I moved to Los Angeles to try to become a writer.  Through a friend of a family friend, I met my first connection, a “real Hollywood writer.”  That he was giving up the business and moving to New Mexico to practice real estate didn’t really register on the green slate of my young mind.  His study was piled with scripts and he threw around names of directors and actors the way I talked about my close family.  He gifted me with a ragged copy of William Goldman’s “Adventures in the Screen Trade,” and placed a call to a lawyer friend who was still in the business.
            “He’s your ‘in,’” my departing benefactor claimed, “He’s not exactly producing, but he’s got aspirations.  He’s the real hub of the wheel over there.”
            I wound up working as an assistant to the “hub.”  He had an office in a production company, but aside from drawing up the occasional contract, he mostly took on tax work and personal injury cases.  Two years and about a million hours of paralegal work later,  the “hub” actually turned out to be my “in” when he introduced me to his friend The Producer.
            When I went to work on the Producer’s pilot, I felt sure things were looking up.  I had gotten off to a rocky start here in Hollywood, but now I was working at an actual television studio.  I saw vaguely famous people practically every day. I knew the phone extension of the Tonight Show.  The Producer liked me.  He claimed to like my writing. It would only be a matter of time, I thought, before I was writing my own show.
            Five years and six shows later, I was working for another Producer, the most recent in a long line of older men.  I was beginning to see a pattern.  They all had petite blonde wives and a dark sense of humor.  I answered their phones and organized their files.  I set up meetings and occasionally picked up their dry cleaning or took their convertibles to the carwash.  They thought I was neat and fun to have around.  They sometimes told me I was beautiful.  They always told me I was smart.  “Too smart to work in television,” they’d say.  I went with them to pick out carpet, cars and anniversary presents and sat next to them in the darkened rows of empty movie theatres. I described my job as “a great date without any sex.”
            One of these guys called me “Babe” and once reached his hand up under my dress without touching my body.  I remember standing very still and watching the shadowy form of his hand and forearm travel from just above my knee up to my waist and back down.  He looked pleased as though he were a lion tamer removing his head from the mouth of the beast. 
            Another used to stand behind my desk chair and watch me type.  He’d put his hands on either side of my keyboard and lean so far into me, I was afraid my hair would get stuck on the buttons of his shirt. 
            I bought whiskey at three a.m. for a white haired writer who called me “Kitten” and another time, set up an expensive air purifier so that a couple of co-producers could get high in their office.  When a show-runner asked me to repeat for the writers’ room “that little thing we did on the table earlier,” I asked if he "wanted me backwards this time." I got a big laugh. It was all fun, right?


            I figured I was paying my dues.  I thought that by listening to all this nonsense and putting up with a fair amount of inappropriate behavior I was making a trade for a job as a writer.  I wrote a couple of freelance scripts, but no matter how many times I asked, I was never given a staff job.  I may have been “too smart to work in television” but it took a long time for my brain to realize that these guys were not my “in.”  They were only in it for themselves.
            I knew that achieving success as a writer was part hard work, part dumb luck.  In fact, whenever I wrote another spec script, I imagined that I was sitting in a deep hole.  The chances were slim that someone would fall into this hole.  Even slimmer that that he would be my industry “in” and that he would be carrying a flashlight so he could read my script.  If all went well, he would climb out of the hole and get me a paycheck.  
            In a way, I’m still in the hole.  Still writing. But I’ve learned one thing.  If the guy with the flashlight calls you “Kitten,” you’re better off digging yourself out.

Friday, October 6, 2017

The wallpaper was pink and blue and covered with a pattern of dolls. There were big dolls and little dolls, baby dolls and girl dolls. Some of them wore bonnets, others wore sunhats. They all stared out with their big, doll eyes. Looking, looking.

I don't think the sample page in the fat booklet at Sherwin-Williams in Albuquerque, New Mexico, did justice to the creepy nature of these staring dolls. It was impossible to understand from this small section the impact of so many dolls gathered together in repeating clusters on a bedroom wall.

My bedroom wall.

The wall next to my bed.

The bed where, in the night, I read books about witches and trained a frantic flashlight on the darkest corners of the room.

Monday, November 7, 2016

I think I became an adult during the month of November. Fourteen years ago my son was born and exactly one week later, my father died from complications of early onset Alzheimer’s. And there I was: one foot in the past, the other inexorably pointed toward the future. I mourned the death of my father mightily, but I was also immersed in the new life of my baby boy. Life pulled me forward.
Here in Southern California, there isn’t much of an autumn. In November, there are still leaves on the trees in my yard and I might as easily wear a sundress as a sweater. Despite this, there are still signs of change. The shadows are long. Persimmons bright as jack-o-lanterns ripen on my neighbor’s tree. Flocks of Canada geese make arrowheads in the sky. Change is coming.
Yesterday, on his fourteenth birthday, my boy was still a boy. He kissed me on the lips before going off to the living room to kill video aliens with his friend. I couldn’t help but think of his tiny sneakers with the Velcro straps, of the way he always pipped up, “I do,” instead of “yes.” I couldn’t help but think of the days when he named everything by the sound it made. The beep-beeps and weoo-weoos are now scooters and fire trucks and he longs for a car of his own.
“Why would you want to drive?” I ask.
“So I can go anywhere I want.”
Some days this answer speaks of freedom and other days, escape.
My boy is fourteen. Not quite a man. Not quite a child. Over cereal this morning, he mulled the problem of birthday money. He thought about how to spend it. Whether to save it. He weighed the risks of buyer’s remorse against the buzz of immediate gratification.
“Put it away for a while,” I suggested. “See how you feel in a couple of days.”
“But what if I do the wrong thing?” he asked.
“Then you’ll have more information for next time.”
On the way to school this morning, he was quiet. He chewed the inside of his lip and squinted his blue eyes against the sun.
“I’m worried about the election,” he said. “I’m worried about what might happen tomorrow.”
It’s no secret in our house that the lead up to this year’s election has made me sad and angry and afraid, but it’s also made me hopeful. I tried to explain that to my boy.
“It’s a huge scary world,” I began. “There are things (bad things) over which we have no control. But we do have the power to bring good into the world.”
It’s not my boy’s sole responsibility to fix everything and I don’t want him to feel that kind of pressure. But what I want him to understand, what I think he’s beginning to grasp, is that every little thing we do throughout our day adds up. I asked him to work hard. I encouraged him to ask questions and to be helpful and kind whenever he could.
“Move the neighbor’s trash cans up the drive, pick up candy wrappers at school, hold a door open for someone. The tiniest thing can make a difference.”
I reminded him to take care of himself, too. This is what I learned as a caregiver and a as a mother. It’s what I’ve learned as an adult. I need to take care of myself so that I can respond to others with the same amount of kindness.
“Don’t be so tired and stressed and cranky that all you can do is blow your top,” I said.
Care for yourself. Care for others. Listen to people when they speak. Look up at the sky and the trees. Share what you have. And if you feel anger, find out how you can direct that anger toward positive change.
Tomorrow’s election falls smack in between my son’s birthday and the anniversary of my father’s death. I’m a grown up. I’m choosing a grown up to be our president. I’m choosing the person I want my children to emulate. She’s faced extreme adversity during this campaign and she’s handled herself with dignity, intelligence, kindness and humor. I believe in Hillary. I do. She’s not perfect. She doesn’t have to be. She is human. My vote is for humanity. My vote is for the future.