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 firstname.lastname@example.org. 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. /http://www.laep.org/donate/your-time/
• 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. http://www.collegepathla.org/donate.html
• 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. http://enrichla.org/givingtuesdayandeveryday/#membershiplevels
• 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 http://www.onevoice-la.org 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: https://www.onevoice-la.org/holiday-dinner/https://onevoice-la.org/holiday-dinner/
• 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 http://doriscares.org/
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. http://friendsindeedpas.org/fid/volunteer-at-friends-in-deed/
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. http://www.accessbooks.net/
• 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. https://www.donorschoose.org/
• 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! https://www.patreon.com/
• 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. http://bigsunday.org/
• 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. http://www.shoesthatfit.org/you-can-help/
Monday, October 16, 2017
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.
Thursday, December 3, 2015
There is a mass shooting on the front page of the New York Times today, but it’s not the one that happening now, in real time, on a tiny window on my computer.
They are interviewing people on the scene of a still active mass shooting in San Bernardino, California. One man says, “My loved ones are safe.” Another man says “I’m a person with a disability and I heard pow, pow, pow, pow.”
The news anchor says that the SWAT team is coming up with new strategies for what is becoming a “common occurrence.”
There is a mass shooting on the front page of the New York Times today, but it’s not the one that happening now, in real time, on a tiny window on my computer.
Last week I went to the movies. I saw “Carol” with a friend. It was eleven in the morning on a weekday and the movie was an arty film about two gorgeous lesbians in the 1950s, so I figured my chances of being killed in the theater were a little smaller than they are when I’m at an action flick with my thirteen-year-old son on a packed Saturday night.
The kind of movies my son likes to see are filled with young dudes in hooded sweatshirts and long coats. The kind of movies my son likes are so loud, it would be hard at first to know if something was happening in life or on screen.
I pay careful attention to the exit signs when I go to these movies. I watch people and chart escape routes. It’s amazing to note just how many people can’t sit all the way through a two-hour movie. They get up and come back and shift in their seats. I try to decode their nervousness. Are they antsy because it’s a bad movie or are they anxious because they are carrying a duffel bag of ammunition?
I don’t like to sound paranoid. I don’t consider myself a particularly nervous person. But lately, I like to have a plan.
I saw “Carol” at the Arclight Cinema. Before each showing, a nice usher comes to the front of the theater and says a little bit about the film. At “Carol” the usher was a young woman with curly, dark hair. She pointed out the exits and let us know that she would be checking in to make sure that the sound and picture quality were up to the standards of the theater. I have heard this speech many times from many different ushers. But on this day, there was a new ending. The curly haired woman said, “If you see something, say something.”
If you see something. A gun. A bag of ammo. A knee shaking with anxiety. A wisp of smoke.
Say something. I want to say something. What is there to say?
When I say good-bye to my husband and my kids in the morning, I try always to tell them I love them.
My loved ones are safe.
But if someone.
If we didn’t see it.
If we didn’t say it.
I’m seeing something today. I’ve been seeing it for awhile.
I want to say something, but when I open my mouth only sounds come out. Crying sounds. Animal sounds.
I need some help.
I need some help to understand what is happening.
At “Carol” there might have been a shooter who didn’t like lesbians. A shooter who didn’t like art. There might have been someone who didn’t like movie theaters or ushers. Or the smell of popcorn.
It’s getting that random.
The newscasters are calling the Inland Regional Center a “soft target.” The “bad guys” have escaped in a black SUV. They might be looking for another “soft target.”
We are all soft targets. My kids have soft arms. Soft hair.
The newscasters are saying, “it’s just so easy to get what you need online. You can buy the body armor; you can buy the ammo…”
How much do we have to see?
I just want to say stop and stop and stop.
The newscasters are talking terrorism. They are talking ISIS and ISIL and Paris. In Paris, there were three attacks. Will there be another attack in San Bernardino?
There is no proven connection to ISIS in the San Bernardino shooting. And the newscasters say this, too, but then they go back to talking about ISIS.
“One day, a bell will go off in the head of the bad guys,” one newsman says, “You can just go shoot people.”
“We’re flying blind, here,” another says.
Terrorists. Madmen. Bad Guys. Anyone. Anywhere.
In February of this year, I flew to Jordan. I’d planned the trip nearly a year earlier. “The Middle East,” people said, “why do you want to go there?”
Why did I want to go there? I wanted to see Petra. I wanted to sleep under the stars in Wadi Rum. I wanted to go there for the reasons I want to go anywhere: to meet people, to share stories, to return home with a mind expanded and the the world made smaller through familiarity.
“Isn’t it too dangerous?” The question came up again and again.
“We have a pattern of mass shootings here in this country that has no parallel in the world,” says President Obama. He’s speaking to reporters just after being briefed on the most recent mass shooting, the one happening today about an hour east of my house in San Bernardino.
On Feb 3, two weeks before I was due to board a plane to Jordan, a video was released showing the Jordanian pilot Moaz al-Kasasbeh being burned to death by ISIS. The video could be brought up with ease in a window on my computer. I didn’t look at it.
Flaming images pulled me from sleep. At three in the morning I searched the phrase “safe travel Jordan.” I scanned Twitter feeds and read reports of Fighter Planes and sadness and quiet streets. Words spiraled out of my tiny glowing screen: Mourning. Hopeful. Peaceful. Waiting. Watching.
The newscasters are talking about ISIS again. They are still talking about Paris. They are comparing Paris to San Bernardino. They are always careful to admit they don’t know anything yet. They don’t have any facts. But, then they go back to talking about terrorists. About the possibility of another attack. There is no known motive. We don’t yet have the whole story.
“These people are searching for some… thing,” a newscaster says. “They are seeking for some meaning in their life. Killing as many people as possible as quickly as possible may be that thing.”
On February 11, Craig Stephen Hicks shot three young students in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha and Deah Barakat were Muslims. Craig Stephen Hicks was a White American. He didn’t care much for any religion. His motive for killing three young people was believed to be a dispute over a parking space. He took a gun and walked into their apartment and shot them in their heads. But it wasn’t about their religion. It was about a parking space. In articles about this incident, Mr. Hick’s wife mentions that her husband had been on the side of gay marriage and abortion rights. But he shot three people over a parking space.
I am seeking meaning.
I can’t turn off the broadcast. I’m not looking at the screen, but I can hear the voices. I type their words because I can’t believe what they are saying. I am trying to make sense of this, but writing it down only confuses me more. The newscasters are talking about the variety of settings for shootings. Movie theaters, schools, Planned Parenthood. It could just be anywhere, they conclude. All they know is that there is “a steady spate of active shooters.”
I imagine a line of people dressed in dark clothes, carrying duffels of ammo, pulling numbers the way you would at the deli counter. A steady spate of active shooters. An average of one each day. That doesn’t take into account all the other shootings. The intimate shootings of wives and children and boys and girls and men and women. One at a time. On purpose. By accident. The guns going off like fireworks on the fourth of July – the sound so regular, we just stop flinching.
On February 19th, I flew to Jordan in the company of two friends and my stepmother, Carla. We carried a GPS tracker. Each day, we sent a signal to our family to let them know where we were, to let them know we were alive. My husband and children and my mother and brother could track our trip on the screens of their computers. They could click on a satellite map and pull up our location. Somehow this made everyone feel better.
My son and I attend the Parent Association Meeting at his middle school. A policeman has been invited to speak on the issue of homelessness around the campus property. There are people living in tents on the sidewalk. The parents would like there to be a “clean up.” One woman raises her hand and says, “in light of what happened in San Bernardino today I’m wondering why more can’t be done to secure the area.”
We still don’t know the identity of the San Bernardino shooters. Homeless. Terrorists. Madmen. Other.
The officer assures her that it’s his experience that most homeless people aren’t criminals. “They’re drug addicts or mentally ill,” he says. “But they aren’t the ones breaking into houses and cars. They aren’t the criminals.” He goes on to say that the criminals are boys, ages 16-25. “If I see a kid in a hoodie, carrying a backpack, not in school, he’s a suspect,” the officer says.
My son turns to me and widens his eyes. He makes a tiny gesture to his hoodie and to the backpack at his feet.
In a shop in Jordan, I bought several small wooden figurines.
“This one is a teacher,” the shopkeeper told me, pointing to the painted flowers on the figure’s dress. The shopkeeper wore a black headscarf as did the tiny figure in my hand.
“You are American?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said.
The shopkeeper was an English major. She wanted to study writing in America.
“But I’m afraid,” she said. “Is it safe?”
“Our first priority is keeping the children safe,” says our school director. “As far as I’m concerned, that comes before their education.”
My son and I leave the meeting early. I tell him that I will explain San Bernardino when we get in the car, but before I begin, he says to me, “You know, there are more than two reasons to be homeless.” He says, “What about domestic abuse? Economic issues? Bad luck?”
It is the day after the shooting in San Bernardino and I am at my desk again. Classical music plays on the radio. There are no voices of newscasters because I am not letting them speak to me today.
The suspects in the shooting are dead. They were a man and a woman. Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik. An FBI search of their apartment has turned up hundreds of rounds of ammunition and a dozen pipe bombs. I don’t need to tune in to know that the newscasters are talking about terrorists.
There is a steady spate of active shooters. The location changes. The movie theater, the schoolyard, the holiday party. Terrorists. Madmen. All they have in common is the gun and the willingness to kill. One day (every day) a bell will go off in the head of a bad guy…
In Jordan, our driver was a man named Zyad. He claimed to know the country “like his own pocket.” When we asked him what it was like to live in Jordan at this time in history, he described it as “living between two fires.”
Fires are burning in our country, too.
In the media many call for gun control and just as many call for more guns. People on Facebook “de-friend” at a rapid rate on days like today.
Some people argue that if a person is licensed to carry a gun and they carry that gun into our movie theaters, our schools, our playgrounds, holiday parties and health centers then that gun will keep us safe. I respectfully disagree.
In Jordan, everyone wanted to talk about ISIS and ISIL. “What these people are doing is not human,” Zyad said. It is human to understand this to be true.
The desert of Wadi Rum was silent and vast. There were no roads in the sand, only tracks left by the tires of jeeps. The sand was fine and reddish and marked by the feet of insects and the tails of lizards. In the last light of day, the whole place glowed like an ember. In a tent woven of camel hair, we feasted on chicken and rice and drank tiny cups filled with sweet, black tea. My sweater held the scent of wood smoke. One of our guides told me of his time in the war. The things he’d seen. Rocks used as weapons. A head turned to bone and blood pulp. He told me that the nightmares persisted, but that being outside in the world helped. “I like to feel very, very small,” he said.
In the company of my two friends and my stepmother, Carla, I walked past the dim lights of our camp and into the great, dark night. The big dipper poured starlight down over us and eventually, tired of craning our necks, we all stretched ourselves out in the sand to take in the whole of the sky. It was possible, for a moment, to feel the weight of my body round against the earth. I imagined I could see the curve of our planet for in that moment, it had become small enough to fit into the curve of my spine.
Is it safe in America?
For the fourteen people killed in San Bernardino, the answer today is no.
For the rest of us, the answer is maybe.
In Paris the attackers decided to strike without reason. Not a government building. Not a military target. Just a café. A theater. The strategy of the terrorist is to keep everyone on edge; keep everyone living in fear.
In America mass shootings have occurred in classrooms, movie theaters, college campuses, clinics and during holiday parties. Terror is waged every day.
A little bell goes off in the head. And the trigger is pulled.
I want to ask the gun rights activists why their need to feel safe outweighs the safety of others?
I do not want to give in to fear. I do not want my children to be afraid.
I see these things and I need to say something.
On my walk this morning, everyone said hello. We all made eye contact and stopped to let the dogs touch noses. No one mentioned San Bernardino. But we said hello because our world had become a little smaller. Or we said hello because we were trying to make our world a little smaller.
The perked ears of a dog.
Work to make it better world.