Bystanders Stand Up

As men who have used their power and privilege to harass and assault women and children continue to be called out and sometimes punished (others are elevated to the White House), the discussion has expanded to include the role of bystanders—those who knew, but turned a blind eye.

Speaking out—not just by victims, but by all of us, particularly men–will be crucial to change the culture. Offenders must make amends. Bystanders must become upstanders.

We see this in the political realm as well. Jeff Flake, following his impassioned concession speech from the Senate floor excoriating his fellow Republicans for tolerating Trump’s behavior, wrote in the New York Times,” to have a vital democracy, there can be no bystanders.”

And yet there are plenty—not only Republican enablers in Congress, but among voters.

The United States has one of the lowest rates of voter turnout among western democracies: According to the Pew Research Center, we rank 28th among 35 OECD countries. This is partly because many other governments take the lead in promoting voter registration, whereas the responsibility falls mainly to individuals in the United States. A confusing patchwork of rules, access, and requirements that vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction further complicates voting. The Pew report points out that the percentage of voting-eligible Americans who register is much lower than in similar democracies. Additional impediments include seemingly innocuous ones such as Election Day occurring on a weekday. And, of course, there are brazenly discriminatory barriers like restrictive voter ID laws, the denial of civil rights, and other forms of voter suppression.

But another huge factor is voter apathy.  I have done a lot of phone banking in the past several years, and I can’t keep track of the number of respondents who tell me that “Politics has nothing to do with me,” “They’re all the same,” and “What difference does it make?”

A lot, actually, as anyone who hasn’t been in a coma for the last year can attest.

In the 2016 presidential election, about 58% of voting-eligible Americans voted. This was about the same as the 2012 election, and a few percentage points below 2008’s turnout. There are a lot of reasons Donald Trump now tweets from the Oval Office, but one of them is that his campaign was successful in turning out a higher proportion of swing state white rural voters than turned out for Romney in 2012, while Clinton lost ground from Obama’s 2012 tally in those same crucial areas. Social science research has found that conservative/Republican voters tend to value loyalty more and therefore coalesce around their party’s candidates, whereas liberal/Democratic voters—especially young ones–are less inclined to do so.

Mid-term and off-year elections are decided by even fewer people. The United States Elections Project estimates that only 36.4 percent of voting-eligible Americans bothered to vote in 2014. That’s when Democrats lost control of the U.S. Senate, just as they lost control of the House, many statehouses, and redistricting in the 2010 mid-terms, with devastating, long-term consequences.

But as with the sexual misconduct revelations, perhaps people are waking up to the consequences of being a political bystander. A robust resistance has arisen against the current administration, with more people running for public office from the local to national level than ever before. The surprisingly large Democratic victories in Virginia underscore the impact of moving from bystander to participant: Turnout was the highest it’s been in 20 years for a gubernatorial election. Voters aged 18-29 came out in especially high numbers, doubling their turnout rate since 2009. More than two-thirds of the youth vote went to the uncharismatic Democratic candidate for governor, and an astonishing 15 (and counting) seats in the House of Delegates flipped from Republican to Democrat.

In the realm of sexual misconduct and abuse, people who formerly stayed silent are finding their voice. We are witnessing a hopeful sea-change as a result. In the realm of politics, your vote is your voice. Perhaps we will see a similarly encouraging sea-change as more bystanders understand how necessary it is to stand up and speak out.

 

Memorial

I thought about the Confederate monuments controversy while hiking in Austria recently. Although you would hardly know it from the rolling green hills and tidy, prosperous houses whose window boxes brimmed with geraniums, this area was part of the Third Reich only a few decades ago. Not just because it had been taken over by Nazis in the Anschluss, but because many Austrians sympathized with Hitler’s ideology.

My husband and I were walking among the ghosts of those who had fought for his horrendous vision, just as Confederate soldiers had fought to preserve the horror of slavery. Thankfully, they lost their wars. They also lost homes, loved ones, and often their lives.

Real and grievous pain needs to be acknowledged without glorifying causes that deserve to be lost. How do we dignify the suffering of the victimizer without demeaning their victims or creating false equivalencies?

As we hiked into the tiny town of Strobl, on the tip of the beautiful, mountain-ringed Wolfgangsee, we came across a war memorial unlike any we’d encountered. It was a statue of a seated woman, her head bent in sorrow. One of her hands holds a golden olive branch. The other rests atop a huge belly whose swollen contours suggest both pregnancy and a military helmet. Baby or soldier? It is impossible to discern, except to know that it is mothers’ babies who are served up endlessly to the maw of war. At the base of the statue is a simple square etched with the years of the two world wars.

The Strobl memorial stands in sharp contrast with the symbols that have become the focus of heated debate: military “heroes” enshrined in bronze, Confederate flags, and swastikas  Defenders of these despicable icons claim they merely commemorate lost forebears or are innocent emblems of heritage. But this disguises, even exalts, the bloody evils of that heritage.

The sorrowing mother of Strobl does no such thing.  She is instead a somber reminder that there are no winners and losers in war; no glory, but only sorrow.

Where I’ve Been

 

My husband and I just spent three lovely weeks in Austria and the Czech Republic . While traveling, our biggest worry was whether or not the predicted rain would materialize on our hikes. We returned to an inferno, our neighboring counties ablaze.

This was just the latest in the long list of calamities, which we’d followed from afar on our smartphones: hurricanes, earthquakes, the threat of nuclear war, Trump’s latest and unending vileness in style and substance, Las Vegas, Harvey Weinstein.

Our friend Mary remarked that the pall of smoke in the sky felt symbolic of the pall over our country since the election. I want to resist the pall, to rise to the occasion—take in those made homeless by the fires, take in refugees and Dreamers, take to the streets and the halls of Congress. Or at least I want to be the kind of person who rises to the occasion instead of the person I am: someone who just wants to–and mostly does–retreat.

This is where I’ve been as the world burns. Then I came across a book review by James Wood in the 9/25/17 issue of The New Yorker.

Wood, too, had just been on vacation, in an Italian villa near the border with France, free to come and go with his family. Noticing the number of African migrants who are not so lucky, he writes:

I had read moving articles and essays about the plight of people like these—I had read several of those pieces out loud to my children; I had watched terrible reports from the BBC, and the almost unbearable Italian documentary “Fire at Sea.” And so what? What good are the right feelings if they are only right feelings? I was just a moral flaneur. From inside my speeding car, I regarded those men with compassion, shame, indignation, curiosity, profound ignorance, all of it united in a conveniently vague conviction that . . . “something must be done.” But not so that it would disturb my week of vacation. I am like some “flat” character in a comic novel, who sits every night at the dinner table and repetitively, despicably intones, without issue or effect, “This is the central moral question of our time.” And, of course, such cleansing self-reproach is merely part of liberalism’s dance of survival. It’s not just that we are morally impotent; the continuation of our comfortable lives rests on the continuation—on the success—of that impotence.

Wood captures precisely what I’ve been feeling. Something must be done, though I don’t yet know what, or even how to wrestle with my preference for doing nothing much. But I feel comforted that Wood is on to me, in a way that my friends who reassure me that I do plenty are not.

Do you know what I’m talking about? How are you feeling? How do you handle it—or not?

Disorganized Attachment in the Oval Office and Beyond

In March, Joel Whitebook, Director of Columbia University’s Psychoanalytic Studies Program, published Trump’s Method, Our Madness in the New York Times. Whitebook likened the disorientation many feel in trying to make sense of the new president to a clinician’s experience of working with psychosis. As the title of his piece suggests, Whitebook saw Trump as employing a deliberate strategy designed to sow confusion, anxiety, and exhaustion.

Now the president’s chaotic and self-defeating gyrations suggest less method than supposed. It may not be madness, but what we are witnessing bears the hallmarks of disorganized attachment.

Disorganized attachment can result when a child’s primary caregivers are simultaneously a source of safety and danger. Such parents are often abusive, frightened themselves, or operating in a dissociated manner from their own unresolved traumas. What attachment researcher Mary Main describes as the child’s dilemma of “fright without solution” leads to a collapse of strategy. This and other characteristics of disorganized attachment–erratic behavior, hostility, aggression, lack of empathy, problems with trust and truth, an incoherent narrative, and viewing the world as an unsafe place–describe the president.

Trump grew up amid material indulgence and emotional harshness. His father, notoriously demanding, critical, and controlling, mercilessly targeted vulnerability. The young Donald Trump, already constitutionally inclined toward aggression, so thoroughly identified with the aggressor that he was sent away to military school at age 13. Trump describes the tough and often physically abusive treatment there admiringly. Recapitulating the dynamic of turning to those who literally and figuratively whip him into shape, he’s now stocked his administration with generals.

Paradoxically, Trump the boy—for whom safety and danger were fused—became President Trump in part by promising security to those fearful of economic and cultural displacement in a changing and often frightening world. Under the authoritarian’s guise of powerful protector, he fans and quells fear simultaneously, pitting one group against another. Just as he seeks but can never find safety, he promises but never delivers it.

Examples abound: pledging healthcare to all by depriving millions of it; loving coal miners while defunding programs that support them; undermining his allies; protecting us from North Korea by bullying us to the brink of nuclear war.

Nowhere is this contradictory dynamic more apparent than Trump’s recent treatment of the Dreamers. He is neither the first nor last politician to sell out vulnerable populations. What’s unusual is how much Trump’s actions reflect his erratic internal state. Harsh rhetoric intertwines with proclamations of love and care-taking for the Dreamers. Then Trump rescinds DACA, sending his less conflicted Attorney General to announce it. The president has since issued a stream of contradictory messages. The Trump/Sessions duo splits into two the one who cares yet cowers behind the one who bullies. But it is our singular president in whom safety and danger are incoherently fused, creating uncertainty and anxiety. With Trump’s punt to Congress, maybe the Dreamers will be safe, maybe they’ll be hung out to dry. Maybe it’s method; more likely it’s a collapse of strategy. How fitting that this most poignant example involves vulnerable children dependent on authorities who have the duty and capacity to protect, but instead endanger.

My fellow therapists and I see the effects of such traumas in our practices, and know how commonly they are acted out, how difficult they are to heal. We also know that the arduous road to recovery comes from being able to feel the pain of the past and integrate it into a cohesive, complex narrative.

This holds no interest for Trump.  “I don’t like to analyze myself because I might not like what I see,” he’s told his biographer, who notes: “This combination of love and hate is Donald Trump’s psyche turned inside out. . . .He’s making us experience what he experiences inside of himself.”

The effects of disorganized attachment are writ large in this man and across the globe.

Sad. For him, and for us.

 

Standing Up to Bigotry, SF Style

Like a lot of people alarmed in general by the election of Donald Trump and horrified in particular after he lent aid and comfort to white supremacists and Neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, I’ve been trying to figure out the best way to respond. It’s hard to know what’s just a feel-good but meaningless exercise, what is effective, and what inadvertently gives the issues and views I deplore oxygen.

Since my activism is more aspirational than actual, I often turn to my friend Ruth, whose pragmatic idealism inspires me to try to at least occasionally emulate her persistent roll-up-her-sleeves-and-get-to-work ethos.  When I bumped into Ruth after Charlottesville, I asked what she thought of the protests being planned to counter right-wing advocates descending on San Francisco and Berkeley. Was showing up a good idea, or just playing into their hands?

“I don’t know,” Ruth offered. “But you know what? I can’t go anyway—I’m going to be phone banking. We’re trying to get Democrats elected to the state legislature in Virginia.”

I don’t really like phone banking—who does? But as far as I’m concerned electoral politics are where it’s at. You snooze, you lose, particularly at the ballot box. Besides, I felt nervous about the volatile mix of right-wing rallies and counter-protests.

“That sounds like a much better plan,” I told Ruth. “Send me the info.”

Mid-week, Ruth texted that the phone banks had been canceled so people could participate in a San Francisco rally against hate. It would be several miles from Chrissy Field, where the right-wing Patriot Prayer group planned to gather, and I felt much better about that. Proximity often breeds trouble. Besides, I had been horrified to learn that, thanks to a 2010 federal law, national parks—which includes Chrissy Field–must allow open carry. (Thankfully, SF city officials wouldn’t grant a use permit until the Patriot Prayer organizers agreed to stringent contingents, including no weapons.) I also did not want to attend the Berkeley counter-protests even though I know many good people involved. Berkeley is a flashpoint, with the opposing sides in much tighter quarters. The city is often the epicenter provocateurs love to goad, with an Antifa contingent only too happy to oblige; predictably dismal results just feed the right-wing narrative.

But it felt important to show up in San Francisco. My husband and I made plans to take BART over to the city with friends. Ruth was making her own way there via a different route, and we texted back and forth about our anxiety and hope. Then, at the last minute the Patriot Prayer organizer canceled the Chrissy Field event, though his protestations of victimhood and promises of showing up elsewhere were disquieting.

“Are you still going?” I texted Ruth.

“Yes! As important today as yesterday,” she responded.

And so we went. Blue skies and a festive atmosphere prevailed in San Francisco. We arrived at the gathering spot long before the march to City Hall commenced, so sought shade and refreshment in the Mission District. We thanked the police lining the sidewalk. They were taking the scene in stride, but confessed to preferring a day off more than overtime pay. We checked out a “Dance for Equality” counter-protest, full of face-painted kids and rainbow attire. We detoured quite a bit from the march route, but caught up eventually to join the crowd at the Civic Center. Great signs, great spirit, great to see that people of goodwill vastly outnumber the haters.

We showed up, we stood up to bigotry, we went home.

Tomorrow we phone bank.

Outside the Zone

Source: www.nasa.gov

The New York Times is trying to guilt-trip us into not being blasé about the solar eclipse,” my husband remarked the other day.

I am so blasé that I will be in the dentist’s chair at the transformative moment. I will not be on a field trying to nab some elbow room in the zone of totality, or on a congested highway trying to get to said field. I will not be worrying about whether back-ordered special eclipse-viewing glasses will arrive on time, or whether the pair I’ve scored is part of a blindness-inducing scam hawked by some ruthless entrepreneur. I will not be dealing with pinholes in cardboard and reverse shadows on pieces of paper. I still remember those DIY projectors from childhood, in which the image that was safe to view was about the size and impressiveness of the dinged piece of paper that emerges from a three-hole punch.

I know many people who are more excited than I am, and who have made meticulous plans. Some people we met at a Bed-and-Breakfast several months ago had booked a house in South Carolina years ago for the event. My brother, who is excited but not a meticulous planner, thinks he will get in his car in Western Massachusetts around midnight and drive to a lake in Tennessee. He expects to have the waterfront all to himself. I expect him to not even make it to the lake.

“What about traffic?” I point out.

“Traffic?” he asks blankly.

We go back and forth for some time about this wondrous cosmic spectacle.

“Don’t you think it will be fantastic to go from brightness to total darkness?” my brother asks.

“I already experienced that on the evening of November 8,” I reply. For the record, “fantastic” is not the word that springs to mind.

Still, I am not entirely immune from the pull of the heavens. I have clipped out an item on Nova’s coverage, which promises to offer more than pinhole viewing or blindness. I may even throw a colander in the backseat of the car in case my dentist is running late, or running outside to view the eclipse. I picked up this tip listening on NPR to Andrew Fraknoi, professor emeritus of astronomy at Foothill College and author of When the Sun Goes Dark.  He advises holding a colander (minus the pasta) over your head with your back to the sun, then watching the shower of tiny eclipses appearing on the pavement.

“You’ll be the hero of your neighborhood,” Fraknoi enthuses.

That’s me, hero of the neighborhood—if the neighborhood is well outside the zone of totality, and as hassle-averse as I am.

*

What are your plans for the solar eclipse?

Why I’ve Been Away

Celebrating my father-in-law’s 96th birthday in January 2016, a little bit less than a year before he died. He and his wife of nearly 70 years are seated in front, with our dear family friend on the top left. (Then there’s me, my husband, and our daughters.) Sadly, we have lost all of these elders in the past year.

Even though I have a pretty crippling case of writer’s ambivalence, I never intended to stay away from these pages so long. But then WordPress went on the fritz and, never having quite escaped feeling ashamed of my technophobia, I failed to enlist tech help from the nice people at GoDaddy. Then I finally did, and in a heartbeat the Daddies fixed the problem, which had to do with uploading photos. Then the same problem happened two heartbeats and two blog posts later. On top of which my iPhone went all funky, and the first worldwide ransom ware hack happened. The universe seemed to be signaling that it was time to take a break from all things online. Perhaps instead I should weed my garden before the heavy rains and the finally emerging sunshine conspired to create a jungle outside my kitchen window.

Which I did. I even spread 52 cubic feet of mulch by hand on our hillside.

I also took a break from blogging to spend what little energy I had on extremely intermittent activism: publishing a couple of letters to the editor, attending some town hall meetings about affordable housing, even phone banking a time or two to try to save healthcare from the Republican repeal attempts.  It wasn’t much, but at least it was something, and made me feel less helpless.

Mostly, though, I stayed away from writing because of more pressing priorities: tending to my aging in-laws in their final months of life. In December, my husband’s father died a few weeks shy of his 97th birthday, and my mother-in-law died on Memorial Day, three weeks before turning 90. They were wonderful people, and although their decline was sad, it was inspiring to witness my husband’s faithful attention, and to be of help where I could. We recently hosted a celebration of their lives at the assisted living facility where they spent their final years. The day helped make small again one difficult year in the scope of long and well-lived lives.

While attending to matters of life and death, we’ve also been attending to more mundane matters: After 17 years, we had our entire interior repainted and re-carpeted, with some other minor improvements as well. Sorting through my in-law’s effects and noting how ephemeral the stuff of life is helped us be ruthless with our own deferred sorting, organizing, and getting rid of stuff before the contractors started. It was as arduous and time-consuming as weeding and laying mulch and tending to our failing loved ones, but in the end just as satisfying.

So now that these chapters are over, it’s time to see what will come next. More writing, perhaps, though I have been happier and less tortured not writing, so we shall see. Something meaningful, I hope. As the summer draws to a close and a new season begins, I’m back, refreshed, and ready to go.

*

What’s been going on with you as the seasons change?

 

 

 

Sleepless in Trumpcare’s America

My husband was diagnosed with melanoma in January 2010, the same week Republican Scott Brown won Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat, thus eliminating the Democrats’ brief filibuster-proof majority. (Remember that long-ago nanosecond?) As our lives turned upside down, so did the outlook for health care reform.

Our sleepless nights and worst fears were compounded by the added stress over health care. I’m self-employed, and we depended on my husband’s job for insurance. We were a decade away from Medicare. What if he died, or grew too sick to work?

“Until now, I haven’t had any pre-existing conditions,” my husband fretted as sleep eluded us. “Now I’ll never be able to get insurance on my own.”

My husband and I were lucky — we had money in the bank, a home, jobs, and insurance, at least for the moment. Luckier still, my husband’s melanoma was caught early and successfully treated through surgery. Back then he still would never have been able to get insurance on his own if he lost his job, but we had dodged a bullet.

As my husband and I discovered, though, fortune can change in an instant.

Luckily for us and for tens of millions of Americans, the Affordable Care Act became law not long after my husband’s surgery. We rested easier about the future—ours and our daughters, who could now stay on my husband’s insurance until age 26.

Our lives were upended again in 2012, when I was diagnosed with cancer. Once again we were plunged into the realm of sleepless nights and fear, but thanks to the Affordable Care Act, we at least did not worry about losing access to health care, exceeding annual and life-time caps, or going bankrupt.

My treatment, like my husband’s, was successful, and our lives returned to normal, although with a newfound appreciation that health care should never be a game of Russian roulette or depend on luck, employment status, or wealth.

Thanks to the Affordable Care Act, our eldest daughter–an artist, part-time worker, and student who makes very little money–was able to find quality health care under the ACA’s Medicaid expansion once she turned 26. (We’re in California; she would have been out of luck if she lived in one of the 19 states that have refused to expand Medicaid.)

Also thanks to the Affordable Care Act, in 2015 my husband was able to leave his corporate job to pursue his longstanding interests in research and freelance writing. Employer-provided health insurance had kept him tied to his job, but with the ACA, he could slip those golden handcuffs and we could both be assured of coverage despite our pre-existing conditions. Additionally, the good job with good benefits my husband vacated became available for somebody else. Many of our friends also became self-employed and freed up jobs for others because of the security the ACA brought. We make too much money for any subsidies from the ACA, but that’s as it should be. Although our premiums are expensive, at least we have excellent care. It is not only lower-income people who benefit from the law: Economic vibrancy, flexibility, and innovation are under-appreciated but significant aspects. We are so grateful that President Obama signed the Affordable Care Act. Imperfect as the law is, it is has benefited us and tens of millions of Americans.

But now with Republicans celebrating a legislative milestone in their relentless march against Americans’ health, we are back to sleepless nights.

*

What has the ACA–and the Republicans’ attempts to unravel it–meant to you?

 

Trauma and Escape: A Night at the Oscars

Our movies, ourselves: The Oscars invariably reflect the American zeitgeist. This year’s ceremony is no exception, especially given its topsy-turvy ending in which the presumed winner unexpectedly loses.

La La Land had been the clear favorite of the four top contenders for best picture. It’s the type of film Hollywood always loves because it’s about—well, Hollywood. It’s also been welcomed as an escape from the dismal reality of the current political landscape. Deliverance comes through saturated colors and a love story about attractive people who don’t sing and dance all that well. La La Land embodies the American fantasy that life works out if you follow your dreams.

Hidden Figures, too, is a feel-good narrative, depicting three brilliant African-American women who endured racism and sexism at NASA in the early years of the space program. The film is a bridge between the sheer escapism of La La Land and the more depressing realities depicted in Moonlight and Manchester by the Sea. Set in the early 1960s, Hidden Figures almost tricks us into believing that individual grit matters more than institutional oppression, and that the days of rank prejudice are behind us. These wishes, too, are part of our national fantasy. But as Faulkner and the recent election remind us, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

This theme is woven throughout Moonlight and Manchester by the Sea. While La La Land and Hidden Figures offer escape (and very little back story), these two films are in the clutches of trauma. Neither Chiron, of Moonlight, nor Lee, from Manchester, can escape the past.

Chiron, a sensitive young, gay, black boy born into poverty to a crack-addicted mother, grows into a hardened drug dealer. He is a broken survivor who nonetheless finds a bit of peace and tenderness.

Lee is also broken, but barely surviving. He is not born into trauma, but causes one that quickly engulfs him. Lee can escape the town—at least until his brother’s death forces him back–but not the guilt and harm he’s inflicted on himself and others.

Moonlight and Manchester by the Sea do not feel good. But they feel honest. They affirm the harder truths: Some damage cannot be undone. Triumphant Hollywood endings are rare. There is no escaping the past. Yet revisiting it and coming to terms with it—as Chiron chooses, as Lee must, as we do in our everyday lives—creates small shifts, more understanding, and perhaps a tender cradling or a little extra room where none existed before.

*

Which film were you rooting for?

 

Signs of the Times

Last night the Write on Mamas, a wonderful group I belong to, held an Open Mic Mamas event in a local cafe. The theme was “Plan B: Now What Do We Do?” Here’s my essay:

After the primary season was over, I kept two “California for Hillary” signs on my desk in our kitchen, where they were safely hidden and kept nicely flat under a box of books.

“I’m going to frame these and give them to the girls for Christmas!” I told my husband.

“Maybe for Emma,” Jonathan remarked about our eldest, who has a penchant for memorabilia.  “But Ally will hate it.”

“That’s not the point,” I snapped.

I had grander considerations than what the girls might actually like. Maybe I’d even crack the picture frames’ glass for special symbolic significance marking the historic event to come on November 8!  Continue reading