Starbucks: Teachable Moment

Many years ago, back when the corporate coffee giants started to swallow up neighborhood cafes, I saw a bumper sticker that said, “Friends Don’t Let Friends Drink Starbucks.” A similar sentiment was resurrected recently with #BoycottStarbucks. The hashtag went viral after a Philadelphia Starbucks manager called the police when two black men in the store asked to use the restroom without buying anything.  The call led to the men’s arrest, which led to national outrage.

I don’t usually go to Starbucks, because I sip my daily café au lait while reading the paper at my local café. But I’ve always had a soft spot for Starbucks, preferring their milky brew over the stronger stuff my friends like. I made one such friend blanch when I told her my favorite nightcap is a mix of 1% milk, water, and a spoonful of instant decaf thrown into the microwave. When it comes to coffee, I am more Philistine than aficionado.

But my affection for Starbucks runs deeper than taste, or lack thereof. As I’ve written before, I like that the company offers a decent wage, healthcare, and some education benefits to its employees. I even liked their widely mocked initiative a few years back to start conversations about race by having baristas scrawl “Race Together” on their cups. Better a clumsy attempt to engage on difficult terrain rather than no engagement at all. As a white woman, I know just how easy it is to steer clear of the topic altogether.

Nonetheless, I ventured into this avoided territory a few days ago. Coming back from my morning walk, I passed a black man who was standing on the side of the road, shaking his head at a super-sized SUV blocking a driveway and extending into the street.

“Man, who would park like this?” he said. “They’re gonna get a ticket, particularly in this neighborhood.”

We were in perhaps the most exclusive town in one of California’s most affluent counties. The blocked driveway led to a leafy estate behind a stone wall.

“Oh, is this your neighborhood?” the man added. “Do you like it here?”

I assured him it wasn’t my neighborhood,  that I was only walking through. (I failed to mention that I live in the next town over, where the houses go for a mere $1-5 million.) I hastened to add that although it was pretty here, I didn’t like how the residents walled themselves off from everyone else while using all the other towns’ services.

The man continued to speculate about how long it would take before somebody called the police and the SUV was ticketed.

“Actually,” I began, and this is where I ventured more deeply into my own clumsy conversation about race. “I bet you have more chance of being ticketed as a black man than this car does.”

He threw back his head in laughter. Then he asked my opinion about the Starbucks incident, saying he thought the company’s response and pledge of training was a good thing.

“I don’t like that Starbucks has been scapegoated,” I said. “This is not a Starbucks thing, That lets white people like me off the hook. It’s a societal problem that happens everywhere.”

“Happens to me all the time,” the man said. “Remember Rodney King? Same thing happened to me long before, only there were no video cameras back then.” He was stopped in Tennessee for driving while black by police, who shot him when he reached for something.

I said something about how terrible that was, how it was a good thing all these police abuses were being captured on smartphones now.

“Yeah, but we sued that police department and won because of course there was no gun!”

I expressed surprise that he was old enough to drive long before Rodney King; he looked so young.

“How old do you think I am?” he had me guess. I was way under.

“I’m fifty!” the man exulted. “You’ve heard that expression, ‘Blacks don’t crack?” Except for President Obama, he cracked, they put him through so much.”

We commiserated over how much we missed Obama.

“I’m JT,” he stuck out his hand. “I’m the foreman on the work crew here.”

I introduced myself, we shook hands, and said maybe we’d see each other again. I looked for him today on my walk. No JT. No blocked driveways. A lot of wealthy white people living in mansions where black and brown people labor. A lot of wealthy white women walking by. Still, JT and I both enjoyed our conversation.

I’ve had more conversations since, with white friends. How we are never questioned when using the restroom, at Starbucks or anywhere else. How we are emerging from the oblivion our privilege provides, horrified to see the extent of racial injustice.  How Starbucks isn’t the problem: we are.

It’s not much. But it’s something.

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Thoughts on what happened at Starbucks?

 

 

 

Here We Are Again: Guns and Mental Illness

It’s an ordinary school day. Kids and teachers go in and out of the office, phones ring. Then a young man with an assault weapon walks in.

That’s how “DeKalb Elementary,” an Oscar nominee based on a 2013 Georgia incident, begins. As I watched, I thought what a wonderful counselor the office worker would make at the crisis hotline where I consult. Remaining calm and empathetic to the gunman throughout, she defuses a dangerous situation without anyone being harmed.

The day after I saw the film, a young man with an AR-15 walked into a Florida high school and killed 17 people.

We cannot rely on words to stop guns any more than we can rely on armed “good guys.” I juxtapose the two events and my work with at-risk people not to apportion credit or blame, but to illustrate different facets of the debate about mental illness that invariably arises whenever these tragedies occur.

We absolutely need more funding for mental health. Yet what’s often proposed after mass shootings is counterproductive. Donald Trump suggests bringing back institutions to contain the threat. Less inflammatory mental health “solutions” aim to identify and remove “monstrous” people—not their guns–from circulation. Mental health professionals already must report those at imminent risk of hurting themselves or others. Stigmatizing mental illness and enlisting clinicians as wide-net detainers makes people less, not more, likely to seek treatment. Blaming gun violence on the mentally ill overlooks the fact that they account for a tiny fraction of gun homicides and are far more likely to be the victims rather than the perpetrators of violence. It also ignores the biggest threat: guns.

Two days after seeing “DeKalb Elementary,” and the day after the Parkland massacre, I consulted at the crisis hotline. I told the staff how much the film reminded me of them and the unsung, heroic work they do. Counselors listen, assess for risk, and, like the office worker in the film, connect calmly and empathetically to enlist that aspect of the person’s ambivalence that leans toward safety rather than destruction. Outside resources are utilized when there is imminent danger, but usually the internal resources of human connection and compassion are enough to defuse a volatile situation.

Mass shootings and the fear they evoke can cloud assessment and intervention.  Callers are often hostile, distraught, vaguely menacing. Violence is notoriously difficult to predict; thoughts, feelings, and fantasies are not the same as action. Parkland illustrates not only the importance of being vigilant about danger, but the vigilance of making sure we are not overreacting from anxiety to enact ineffectual preventive detention.

Mental health interventions are most effective early on. Guns in the picture indicate that the window for optimal engagement has already closed. A culture that promotes more guns as the solution, not the problem, suggests collective, not individual, pathology.

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This piece originally appeared in “Impulse,” an online publication of the Northern California Society for Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy

 

Enough

It’s surprising how affecting a pair of shoes can be. Particularly when they’re empty, and when they’re one of 17 pairs representing the students and faculty killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, on Valentine’s Day.

These empty shoes, bereft of those who normally wore them, were on the steps of my town’s high school as part of a student-led nationwide walkout to protest Congress’s failure to do anything to stop gun violence.

There have been 17 shootings on school grounds in the United States so far in 2018, 208 since Columbine. Including that initial 1999 rampage, which shocked the nation and defined the country today’s teenagers know, more than 200 have been killed. This does not count the additional 29 assailants who died, all but two of whom turned their guns on themselves. Far more have been injured and traumatized.

A dispassionate account of these incidents, most of which never rise to the level of national attention, makes for sobering reading. Most of the victims are young, but so are most of the attackers—too young to even be called gunmen (almost all are male). One six-year-old boy fatally shot his six-year-old classmate. So many of the incidents arise out of arguments, and have nothing to do with the usual false narratives of lone nuts, terrorists, and other bad guys. It’s easily accessible guns—not mental illness or monsters–that turn mundane hot-headedness deadly.

School shootings account for a tiny fraction of the 33,000+ (and rising) annual gun deaths in the United States, and schools remain among the safest places to be. Too many kids have more to fear in dangerous neighborhoods and volatile homes or, if they’re young men of color, from police. All mass shootings, including highly publicized tragedies in nightclubs, workplaces, churches, concerts, and Congressional ballgames and meet-and-greets, account for only two percent of firearm fatalities. Almost two-thirds of all gun deaths are suicides. Research by the Harvard School of Public Health and Everytown for Gun Safety consistently shows that guns in the home are far more likely to increase the risk of injury, especially but not exclusively when domestic abuse occurs. States that have more guns (and less restrictive gun laws) tend to have more gun injuries and deaths than states that don’t. Whether we’re talking about suicide, homicide, or accident, limiting access to guns saves lives,

When we widen the scope of gun violence beyond the school shootings that understandably horrify us, we see, if we care to, the grotesque number of casualties—38,658 gun deaths in 2016, the last year for which CDC data are available. That’s a lot of pairs of empty shoes.

But it is those kids in schools—the post-Columbine generation—whose grief and rage now galvanize a nation. They are not activists for arming teachers, turning schools into prisons, or rounding up the mentally ill. They want politicians to stop cowering before the NRA and commonsense gun safety regulations, and they won’t stop until they get them.

“We are only 24 percent of the population, but we are 100 percent of the future!” The girl leading the walkout I attended exclaimed through her tears.

Her fellow classmate urged everyone to vote. The students paid tribute to the lives that would never be lived, the contributions that will never be made by students just like them. Too many empty shoes. But the kids still here are stepping in and stepping up. It is our sacred duty to step, walk, march, run, speak out—and vote—alongside them.

Once in a Super Blue Blood Moon

Since my husband and I failed to transform our lives with the life-transforming solar eclipse last August, we vowed to do better the next time big events involving celestial bodies occurred. At least if it wasn’t too much hassle.

This morning, we West Coast denizens were promised front-row seats to the trifecta of a blue moon/super blood moon/total lunar eclipse practically on our doorstep. So we set our alarm for 5:00 a.m., not much of a sacrifice for a middle-aged couple up several times a night to pee anyway.

Our weather app had predicted clouds from 4:00 in the morning on, so I was hopeful that we could glance out the window and go back to bed. I was already on a winning streak, having convinced my husband that no, we did not have to drive to a faraway high point and hike up a trail in the dark for a good view. Really, standing in front of our house and looking west should suffice. As a compromise, I had agreed to drive three minutes to a reasonably good vantage point if the eucalyptus trees on our hillside blocked the view. Assuming there was a view, if our weather app was wrong. Which it usually is.

When the alarm went off at 5:00, I awoke from a dream in which I was getting a commendation of some sort. I volunteered to put on my robe to see if the cloud cover had materialized. My dream became reality as my husband murmured from under the warm covers, “Thank you, you’re my hero.”

I could see through the living room window that the night sky was crystal clear, so as promised I made the extra effort to go down to the street in front of our house. Sure enough, there was the moon. Pretty spectacular, as the photo at the top suggests. Except that’s the street lamp at the end of our cul-de-sac.

This is what the super moon/blue moon/total lunar eclipse actually looked like at its awe-inspiring peak:

In order to get out of the street lamp’s glare, we hopped in the car and whizzed up the hill three minutes to a better vantage point. There we had an unobstructed view of a small orange-ish orb covered by a brownish smudge (see above). It looked nothing like the on-line photos that had lured us into becoming celestial gawkers at such an ungodly hour. Those showed the moon looking like a gigantic red clown’s nose blotting out the sky. Damned cheaters using filters and special lenses instead of an old iPhone or the naked eye!

It was too late to crawl back into bed, so we got on with our day. Life transformation would have to wait. Possibly until later tonight, when we resume binge-watching Season 3 of “Outlander,” where not only lives but centuries are routinely transformed. Claire and Jamie: Talk about celestial bodies.

 

March On!

Yesterday I marched in the San Francisco Women’s March to secure our future with the future: my 20-something daughter and her friends. Last year my husband and I went to the march in Oakland, but this year he was at a climate conference all day. So I asked Ally if I could join her group as an unobtrusive mom.

“Sure,” she texted. “Just don’t wear like five fanny packs.” (Apparently, Valley-Girl-Speak is still an essential feature of women’s empowerment.)

I promised to wear only four, so I was in. Such delicate mother-daughter negotiations must have been rampant: Not only were there many two-generation duos at the march, but this sign:

(Hmm. I assumed my daughter’s sign referred to Trump, but perhaps she meant her mother?) Other signs read:

TODO LIST:

1. Smash the Patriarchy

2. Brunch

Ally and her friends had their priorities straight, though, and began with brunch. I huddled in the kitchen with another unobtrusive mom while the millennials spilled all over the living room, munching on fruit and making their signs. Finally, we were ready to go. The sole young man in attendance took the obligatory photos on the doorstep to mark the beginning of our march:

Then we headed for the Civic Center, the younger generation dancing and singing to the music on a portable sound system.

It was a gorgeous day in San Francisco, and the crowd was exuberant. Ally and her friends took selfies and pictures for their Facebook feeds (“You can tell it’s a millennial march,” she remarked to me):

I squeezed through the throngs checking out the signs. There were a jillion references to body parts—ovaries, uteruses, dicks, and two certain nether-regions made famous by the President himself: one to describe what he felt entitled to grab and one he used to demean places mostly inhabited by brown-skinned people. Here are some of my G-rated favorites:

A couple of enterprising men had set up a table on the fringe of the plaza, and were inviting everyone to sign their petitions. I recognized the sponsors and the cause (anti-tax) as Republican-based, but the pussy-hatted women adding their names apparently did not. I approached a couple to ask them if they knew what they had signed. They were shocked when I told them; one went and scratched out her name and told me she would alert her friends. Score one for the Resistance.  Score one also for Mom Lesson #1 (an extension of everything we told you about Stranger-Danger!!): Don’t assume that everyone hanging around a friendly gathering is friendly—some of them are out to hurt you, and will take advantage of your trust and goodwill.

After the rally, we marched down Market Street to the Embarcadero. It was fantastic to see not only so many of us marching, but so many lining the sidewalks cheering us on. It has been an exhausting and destructive year, but we’re still here, stronger and more determined than ever. Not only will we march, we will organize and vote all over the country to stop this administration and its enablers.

As my favorite sign put it:

Year-End Report from the Resistance

The arc of a year is often depicted as a joyous, energetic baby who ends up as a hunched-over old man, bruised and battered by the passage of time. 2017 didn’t exactly start out on such an optimistic note–how could it with Donald Trump set to move into the oval office? But along with millions more, I marched the day after the Inauguration, with high spirits and firm resolve to resist. (That’s my husband and me at the Oakland Women’s March in the picture above.)

I’ve spent the year plummeting between impotent rage and despair, punctuated by a few marches, calls to representatives, some phone banking, a little local affordable housing advocacy, some op-eds and letters to the editor, and check-writing to organizations fighting the fight more effectively than my demoralized self could muster. Mostly, though, I’m ending the year with a different kind of resistance: resisting the urge to crawl under a rock until it’s safe to emerge:

(Here we are again–has the “All clear” sounded?)

We knew this administration would be awful, but except for Trump’s own incompetence and self-destructive tendencies, it’s been far worse than imagined. The assaults are constant and brutal, effective and exhausting. The saving grace has been the strong opposition that’s been aroused. People took to the airports to protest Trump’s travel ban; they took to their representatives’ offices to thwart the repeal of Obamacare; they took to the streets to protest.white supremacists and neo-Nazis in Charlottesville.

Most important, people have taken to the ballot box. Democratic victories in Virginia and Alabama, as well as less splashy ones throughout the country, speak to the importance of electoral politics. After I crawl out from under my rock, that’s where I’ll be putting my energies in the new year, traveling with Swing Left to my nearest swing district to try to turn a red House seat blue.

So like the decrepit figure of Father Time who ushers out the old year, I’m ending 2017 battered and bruised, but with  determination for the new year. Onto 2018! Onto the mid-terms!

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How have you survived this first year of Trump’s presidency?

 

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?

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.

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What are your plans for the solar eclipse?