Building the Blue Wave, Door by Door

Remember when the 2018 mid-terms were just a barely visible blip on a faraway horizon? When all we could do was write checks to the ACLU, encounter infinite busy signals on our representatives’ lines, and take to the streets (and airports)? Or, more likely, take to our beds with only Haagen Dazs and late-night comics for solace?

Well, now those mid-terms are just around the corner! We no longer need to pray that the Republican Congress will somehow grow a spine, or that Robert Mueller (and now Michael Cohen) will put the brakes on this crew. We can do it ourselves by voting.

That’s why I’ve been traveling since December once a month to my closest swing district to knock on doors. I live in a deep blue bubble, so I have to drive 75 miles each way to a congressional district where a current Republican House member hung onto his seat in a district Hillary Clinton won.

Two hours each way is worth it, though. Since 2008, I’ve done a lot of phone banking, which is a good thing to do, but I prefer door-to-door canvassing. For one thing, it’s like phone banking with exercise—gotta get those steps in somehow! It’s also fun to drive back and forth with friends. And it’s a whole lot better for my mental health than sitting around lamenting.

What I love most about canvassing, though, is talking face-to-face with people about what matters to them. Hint: it’s not the Russia investigation. Mostly it’s healthcare, traffic, and jobs. One conversation starter is to ask how people would rate things locally and nationally on a five-point scale of Terrible to Terrific.

“I don’t know, I don’t know, it depends on the day!” one 40-something woman exclaimed.

This was back in December, when Republicans were rushing through a tax bill that favored the rich and once again put the screws to the Affordable Care Act. The woman was a registered Republican, but she was really upset about assaults on healthcare and Medicare. By the end of our conversation, she had changed her registration to Democrat, taken a blank form so her elderly mother could do the same, and accepted an invitation to an event at the local Democratic Party headquarters.

I’ve had some other interesting (though less heartening) conversations as well: Three separate respondents rated things as “terrible.” However, this was cause not for voting but for celebration because it meant the End Times were near.

I’m not used to this in my usual life. Truth be told, I’m also not used to people opening their doors to strangers! But they do, and they’ve been unfailingly nice no matter what their political persuasion. Just the other weekend on a sweltering day, a nice Republican guy offered us ice water while we signed up his wife and daughter to vote for the Democrat. For the most part, people have been fair and thoughtful in trying to sort out the issues. We hear a lot about how Americans can no longer talk to one another if they have differing perspectives. Canvassing has helped me to listen and reach out to those who don’t share my world view.

Plus, it’s effective. Research has shown that if minds are to be changed at all (a tall order, as research also shows), one of the best ways to do so is person-to-person engagement. Canvassing improves voting outcomes by 4 percent. In the town I’ve been visiting, there was a 75 percent increase in Democratic voter turnout between the 2014 and 2018 mid-term primaries, and even a 14 percent increase in this June’s primary showing over the 2016 presidential election turnout. In a country where more and more elections are being determined by razor-thin margins—and even the flip of a coin in one special election in Virginia!—that’s a huge difference.

Now that we’re entering the home stretch of canvassing, we’re focusing intensively on identifying the Democratic House candidate’s supporters and making sure they vote. In previous months, people were less informed and less interested, but now they’re jazzed. Even the ones who don’t care about politics and who don’t normally vote are perking up. At one house I visited, the wife who was on our list was not home.

“What about you?” I asked her husband, who answered the door with their young daughter in tow.

“Nah, I don’t vote, I’m not even registered,” he said. But he happened to mention that he was horrified by Trump and the Republicans in Congress.

“The best way right now to put the brakes on them is through flipping the House,” I replied. “Why not register and vote for at least that race?”

“OK,” he said, taking the voter registration form.

It felt like a pledge and not just a brush-off. My friends canvassing nearby reported similar conversations—a millennial non-voter who registered because something he learned about our candidate sparked his interest. A disenchanted Republican who was impressed we were volunteering our time walking around in the heat. Now that we’ve identified such people, we can follow up to let them know how important their votes are.

My handful of success stories may not mean much on their own. But multiply that by the tens of thousands of volunteers doing just what I’m doing in every corner of the country, and it begins to add up. Every door knocked on, every conversation, every newly registered voter, and every new volunteer seeds the magic of a grassroots movement. Supporters talk to their family, friends, and neighbors. An undecided voter may remember something about a visit from a friendly stranger who reached out and listened. And so it grows.

This is how we build the blue wave. This is how we take back the country.

*

There are so many ways to get involved. Of course, the most important and most basic thing anyone can do is vote. Make sure you’re registered, make sure you cast your ballot, and talk it up among friends and family! A cool new online resource is Vote Save America. You can check your registration status, register, and find out about ways to get involved wherever you live:

https://crooked.com/article/be-a-voter-save-america/

Here are two nationwide groups where you can get involved in your area to ensure electoral success:

Indivisible

Swing Left

Also, despite my snarky first paragraph, making donations to good causes and good candidates is hugely helpful. So are Haagen Dazs and late-night comics.

 

Ah, Wilderness!

With the world on fire, my husband Jonathan and I were looking forward to a week’s hiking in the Sierra. Then California literally was on fire (again), this time with the Ferguson fire affecting Yosemite Valley and the surrounding southern areas. We had planned to stay in the high country of northern Yosemite for the last two days of our vacation, but it had become logistically too complicated, so luckily for us, we’d changed our plans before flames and smoke filled the park. We decided to stay the entire time near Sequoia National Park, first in a little-visited corner of it, Mineral King, then a couple days near the main entrance to the park.

The Horse Creek Fire began to burn in Mineral King just days before our departure. We nervously followed the updates (and the ever-rising temperatures everywhere on our weather apps). But firefighters jumped on the blaze really aggressively, and our vacation could proceed, with the warning that we’d encounter staging area equipment on the long, winding road up to where we were staying. Several mentions of this road as hair-raising even in the best of circumstances had already made us nervous, but we forged on.

We saw plumes of smoke on our drive up. We also encountered one truck and a couple of firefighters on a pull out (plus a black bear ambling across the road on our drive down four days later). The road was smooth and plenty wide, even if we had encountered another car, which we didn’t. Jonathan remarked, “The roads are much worse back home.” Our spirits lifted as we gained elevation, particularly as the temperatures fell and the sky’s blueness escaped the haze and smoke of the Central Valley.

We loved our cabin at Silver City Mountain Resort, a place close to the end of the road with spotty wi-fi, terrifically friendly and knowledgeable staff, delicious food, a range of rustic to more luxe cabins, and a communal women’s bathroom whose sinks might have sprung from the fevered imagination of glass artist Dale Chihuly if he specialized in glamping:

Best of all, we were close to the trail heads for five days of hiking. Here are some of the highlights:

And on the day we left Mineral King, our favorite hike to Monarch Lakes, which we almost didn’t do:

The Mineral King trail heads were at a higher elevation, dropping the climate-change-induced high temperatures several degrees. As you can see, we had some beautiful hikes, despite heat-stressed flowers that in bygone years would have been in their full glory:

Speaking of stress, there was one other source: marmots. Mineral King is apparently the only place in the Sierra where visitors are routinely surprised by the cute but uninvited critters taking up residence under the car hood for a feast of insulation, radiator hoses, and wires. We’d read about this before we left: The National Park Service advised hikers at high-elevation trail heads to check under their hoods and, if they visited before mid-July, to consider wrapping a tarp around the entire underbelly of their cars. Chicken wire, NPS assured us, was no longer recommended (not because it was no longer necessary, but because marmots apparently consider chicken wire an appetite-whetting starter course). Before we left home, we looked at our tarp, designed for a one-person backpacking tent, and concluded it would be the vehicular equivalent of thong underwear when only a chastity belt would do. We looked at the calendar, and concluded that July 23-27 was way past mid-July. I did, however, toss a bunch of bungee cords into the trunk as an afterthought.

Despite the many cars in the parking lot totally swaddled in tarps, we persuaded ourselves that these belonged to fastidious backpackers gone for a week or more. Surely we wouldn’t need such drastic measures for just a few hours! And indeed we were fine, enjoying marmots where they belonged, on rocks in meadows. This one even seemed trained for the cameras:

On our third hike, a terrific 12-mile hike up Farewell Canyon to Franklin Lake (with an elevation gain of 3000 feet),

we got caught in a hail and rain burst that turned the trail into a river for the last bit of our descent. Despite rivulets streaming off my hat and into my face, I popped the hood as Jonathan shivered, expecting to find nothing. There was a marmot, who quickly high-tailed it out the bottom of the engine compartment, leaving behind a sizable oval of exposed engine block where the insulation had been chewed away.

The wires seemed okay, and the car started. Chastened, we stopped at the ranger station, which fortunately kept a supply of jumbo tarps for people to borrow. Those bungee cords came in handy the next couple of days.

Not a bad wrapping job, huh? Still, if you are the kind of person who might surprise a special someone with a new car, we suggest placing the key in a small box and knocking yourself out with fancy paper and ribbons. At any rate, there are no new cars in our future, as our radiator did not blow up, nor did our brakes or anything else fail for the rest of our trip.

Sufficient wildlife adventures for a lifetime, one might think. But there was more to come. Not only did we see an aforementioned bear on our way down to our final destination, but on a terrific hike in Sequoia National Park proper on our last day,

we chanced upon a mother bear and three cubs not 20 feet from the trail. Mama hissed at Jonathan before ambling slowly away, her curious little ones stopping frequently to look at us during their leisurely retreat.

We had a wonderful time, refreshed for our return once again to a world on fire, literally and figuratively. To mark our re-entry, I’ve switched from wilderness to “The Wilderness,” Pod Save America host Jon Favreaux’s terrific podcast about the once and future Democratic Party. I recommend both–a sojourn in nature and a good listen–for replenishing the soul.

Welcome. Bienvenido. 欢迎. 환영. добро пожаловать.

Eleven hundred newly naturalized citizens and their loved ones streamed out of the Paramount Theater in Oakland last Thursday, and we were there to greet them:

“Welcome!”

“Congratulations!”

“We’re so glad you’re here!”

Also, “Would you like to register to vote?”

After all, that’s why I and dozens of compatriots were there: to empower our newest fellow Americans to speak out at the ballot box. A woman who heads up an activist group I phone bank with had told us that if we ever had a chance to participate in these registration drives, it was a really inspiring thing to do—especially in these dark days when immigrants face such hostility from the President himself. So I was on the lookout for the next opportunity, which happened to coincide with a long break in my work schedule on the one day of the week I’m in that neck of the woods.

I personally registered three of the nearly 300 who signed up that day: a man born in Mexico, another originally from South Korea, and a young woman whose parents brought her from Guatemala when she was two. By sheer coincidence, this last person happened to be the partner of my friends’ son—their whole family, as well as hers, were there to celebrate this last leg of her 28-year journey; it was wonderful to share in their joy.

I spoke with another woman who had been in this country for 30 years, since the age of 5, when her parents brought her from Mexico. One of the other volunteers had already registered her, but she was happy to chat while waiting in line to complete her passport application. She was excited to have finally become a citizen of the only country she had ever known. She was also excited to have a few hours away from work without any of her three young American-born kids clinging to her. We swapped stories about what a great treat it was to go to exotic places such as CVS and the grocery store unencumbered by little ones.

A friend of mine now in her 60s tells me she still vividly remembers the day decades before when she and her sister and their parents were sworn in as naturalized citizens at the Paramount Theater. They had come from Israel when my friend was eight. She can recall the excitement of the day, the outfit she wore (down to her shoes!). This friend, once s stranger in a strange land, has contributed so much to her family, her community, our country, and to me. She’s an inspiration.

I salute those who have just gone through their own journeys to this country, their own ceremonies at the Paramount, and know that they, too, will be an inspiration.

Congratulations! Welcome! And thanks. You are part of what makes America great.

Life and Death Matters

California’s End of Life Options Act, which allows doctors to write life-ending prescriptions for terminally ill adults who meet strict eligibility requirements, went into effect two years ago. In May, a judge halted the law on a technicality; an appeals court recently reversed that decision. As complicated and lengthy court processes continue to unfold, emotional and legal limbo remains.

“It is an American habit to turn complex moral problems into technical legal reasons,” writes Andrew Solomon in A Death of One’s Own (1995), about his mother’s decision to end her life rather than endure the final excruciating stages of ovarian cancer. Solomon weaves his personal story with an in-depth history of the euthanasia movement before aid-in-dying was legal anywhere in the United States. With unfailing empathy and candor, he explores every nuance of the issue, including how relegating it to the shadows compounds the difficulty. He describes the coded euphemisms his mother used with her doctors to secure what she needed. Solomon, his brother, and their father all whole-if-broken-heartedly supported her choice to die on her own terms at home, surrounded by loved ones. The necessity of secrecy heightened their intense isolation and sadness.

An unequivocal supporter of the right to choose, Solomon is also an unblinking chronicler of the ambivalence, sorrow, and potential risk such choice entails. “There is no question that if euthanasia is legalized it will be abused . . . The question is whether these abuses represent a greater crime against life than does keeping alive people who want to die.”

In the 23 years since A Death of One’s Own was published, much has changed. Seven states (including California) and the District of Columbia now allow some sort of physician-assisted dying. The terminology has also changed: “Death with Dignity” and similar monikers have largely replaced “assisted suicide” or “euthanasia.” Although there are still those who prefer the term “murder,” there is a growing consensus among proponents that existing laws are too narrow, excluding those with conditions such as Alzheimer’s and ALS from seeking legal relief.

What of those who suffer from unremitting psychic distress? Why are people with terminal cancer deemed to have good reason to end their suffering, but people afflicted with chronic depression are not? Here the slippery slope steepens.

Rachel Aviv delves deeply into this disquieting territory in The Death Treatment (2015), about Belgium’s law permitting euthanasia for those suffering from severe and unrelenting psychological distress.

Both Solomon and Aviv are beautiful and compelling writers. Each account illuminates the shadows we must explore to grapple with the awesome complexities of life and death decisions. As California’s End of Life Options Act continues on its topsy-turvy legal course, the imperative to bring into the light what it means to be alive and to die—and who gets to decide–continues.

*

What are your thoughts and experiences about this topic? What would you want for yourself?

*

(Originally published in the Northern California Society for Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy’s “Impulse”

Pre-existing Condition

I was in Kaiser’s waiting room, scrolling through my phone while listening for my name to be called. Out jumped the news that the Trump Administration was going after the Affordable Care Act again: The Justice Department declared that protecting people with pre-existing conditions from discrimination was unconstitutional.

I am one of the 52 million Americans at risk of losing my health coverage due to this latest assault; I’ve had cancer. I’m fine now, but my trip to Kaiser was for the CT scan I get every year to make sure I stay that way. I will need such follow-up care for the foreseeable future. It’s a similar story for anyone with heart disease, diabetes, depression, and a million other ailments, both major and minor. Before the ACA, my friend’s premature twins could never have gotten health insurance on their own as adults because of their early months in the neonatal intensive care unit. Another friend’s 20-something son was denied health insurance because he had been treated for mild acne as a teenager! Sooner or later, everybody ends up with a pre-existing condition. It’s called life.

Life is what I’ve continued to enjoy thanks to my excellent doctors and post-cancer scans. Normally I’m not anxious as I glide through the CT machine. I feel relieved and grateful to make sure I’m still cancer-free, or if not, to catch and treat it early. As I lie on my back, a soothing voice instructs me when to hold my breath, when to breathe. Normally my intake and release are as relaxed as they are at the end of a yoga class. But not today. After the news, I am hyperventilating. I don’t fear cancer nearly as much as I fear the determination of this President and his Republican enablers to take away my health care.

Since their several dozen failed attempts at repealing the Affordable Care Act, Republicans in Congress and the White House have waged a relentless sabotage campaign. In a cruel and cynical ploy, Republican legislators repealed the mandate–the least popular aspect of the ACA–in last year’s hastily passed tax bill. The mandate’s undoing is now the rationale for eliminating the highly popular provision that prohibits excluding or jacking up the rates of people with pre-existing conditions.

The DOJ’s move will take a while to reverberate through the courts, but the uncertainty it creates will drive up premiums even more, furthering Trump’s goal of imploding the law he hates largely because it’s his predecessor’s signature domestic achievement.

Will this risky gambit work for the Republicans? Maybe not. It turns out people like having access to treatment if it’s not called “Obamacare.” Protecting healthcare has been the #1 issue on voters’ minds across the country, and this has translated into Democratic victories.

So rather than hyperventilating, I’m going to work hard to elect people who want to make America well again. I’m voting as if my life depends on it. Because it does.

Getting Through the Vote

The enthusiasm gap that has bedeviled Democrats has now morphed into a volcanic eruption of enthusiasm. Here in California, not only are volunteers swarming the state to turn out voters, so many candidates are running in our Top-Two primary that there’s a risk they’ll split the vote and ensure Republican victory in November. Unforced errors and circular firing squads–The Democratic Party’s specialty.

To make sense of this hot mess, a group of us gathered last week to go over the ballot. We are a group keenly interested in politics, and pride ourselves on being well-informed and civically engaged. Here is a sample of our thoughtful decision-making process:

“Our kids were on the same soccer team, and he seems like a nice guy.”

“She donated a kidney to her sister.”

“I don’t like his hair.” (This last one was from me, critiquing Gavin Newsom’s coiffure. At least I was fine with Hillary’s hair.)

What does it portend for our democracy when you can’t distinguish between our group, low-information voters, and a bunch of chimpanzees throwing darts at a sample ballot? And even if we knew who we wanted to vote for, it was nearly impossible to find the right name: 27 people are running for governor, and 32 for U.S. Senator!

Actually, I did do a little research. The more I learned, the more indecisive I became. “I not only lack the courage of my convictions,” I lamented to our host. “I lack convictions!”

As usual, Auto-Correct had the last word: When I emailed the above photo to myself from my iPhone, my subject line–“Gotv”--appeared as “Gotcha.”

Let’s hope tomorrow’s election doesn’t turn into the worst kind of “Gotcha.” And although possibly my persuasive skills leave something to be desired, be sure to get out and vote.

 

 

 

Tall Trees

I can’t abide anything having to do with Ronald Reagan, but secretly I’ve long shared one of his sentiments.

“If you’ve seen one redwood, you’ve seen them all,” he reputedly said in 1966. Actually, as my extensive research for this blog post revealed, it was Governor Pat Brown who gussied up Reagan’s anti-conservationist statements into the catchy quote we’ve all come to know and love. What Reagan actually said, in a speech to the Western Wood Products Association, is: ”I mean, if you’ve looked at a hundred thousand acres or so of trees — you know, a tree is a tree, how many more do you need to look at?”

The following year, as different factions fought over the fate of northern California’s coastal redwoods, Reagan had this to say about our oldest and tallest trees: “I saw them; there is nothing beautiful about them, just that they are a little higher than the others.”

I guess Ronald Reagan would not be what you’d call a tree-hugger. A vista gal myself, neither am I.

It’s not like I haven’t tried. In my 20s, I spent the 4th of July weekend backpacking with friends in Redwood National Park. It was fine, if you like sleeping on a gravel bar in the middle of a river, unable to see much of the sky because of all those damn trees.

I was never chomping at the bit to return. But my husband, in some weird nostalgic do-over of family vacations from his youth, has long been lobbying to visit Redwood National Park. What’s a wife in desperate search of birthday present ideas to do?

So we came, we went, we loved it. Maybe it’s the wisdom that comes with age, maybe it’s that the rhododendrons were coming into bloom, maybe it’s sleeping in a king-sized bed instead of a river bed.

But in case you’re as stubborn and stupid as I was, or can’t make the trek yourself, here are some pictures to enjoy.

A non-Boy Scout on Boy Scout Trail:

Coastal Trail (with a stop at Hidden Beach), Lagoon Creek to Klamath Overlook:

 

 

 

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.

*

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.

*

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.