Titanic

I keep thinking about the film Titanic as we begin to absorb the public health and financial impacts of hitting this coronavirus iceberg.  First there’s the feeling of nothing much happening, or maybe it’s something, but we’ll all be fine. Awareness that the ship is going down creeps in at different paces to different people, and reactions vary. Quick-wittedness, denial, altruism, selfishness, desperation, calm. The entire panoply of human nature unfolds while the orchestra plays on.

What sticks with me the most from the film are the parents in steerage, cuddling with their children in cramped metal cots. Mothers and fathers know they’re all doomed, but they do what they can– speaking in soothing tones to their still-oblivious sons and daughters, telling stories, performing the ritual of nightly prayer, holding them tight. Love creates a cocoon of security: False, but also true.

Psychotherapists call this “felt security.” It reflects not so much the dire dimensions of the actual situation, but the reassuring sustenance drawn from the relationship with a loving, trustworthy, and reliable caregiver. Those parents in steerage send the message, “I am here with you right now, and in this moment together we are okay.”

A lot of us, even those who are not parents, have been doing a lot of that recently as we try to maintain a sense of normalcy and well-being in the midst of a global pandemic and economic meltdown. Posting pictures of sunsets, flowers, the family dog, funny memes; poetry chain letters; neighbors opening their windows to sing, clap, or howl; sewing masks for front-line workers; donating to especially hard-hit groups; buying gift cards from our favorite restaurants and small businesses; moving our normal activities like school, yoga, fitness, book groups, phone banking, work from real life to Zoom—all help knit together a sense of security.

Titanic also depicts a society similar to ours in terms of class and economic inequality. The rich are the most protected while the poor suffer, even though they’re all in the same boat. The unsinkable Molly Brown, a member of the privileged class, decries the entitlement and selfishness of her peers, urging them to make more room on the lifeboats to save far more people. Her plea goes largely unheeded.

We are seeing the same dynamics play out now: just look at the back-and-forth of the recent $2.2 trillion relief bill passed by Congress. Thanks largely to Democrats, more room was created to help the most vulnerable. Far more will be needed.

Just as not everyone perished in the Titanic, we will somehow survive this. But whether or not we view all as deserving a place on the life boats will determine who and how many.

Marriage Story: On the Screen, in Politics, and IRL

I’ve seen the film Marriage Story twice. Following the uproar over a conversation Warren and Sanders had in 2018 about whether a woman can beat Donald Trump feels like watching it a third time.

Two couples: The fictional Nicole and Charlie, an amicable but divorcing duo with an eight-year-old son who want different things, and the real-life Warren and Sanders, like-minded good friends and political colleagues who both want to be president.

Befitting their long histories of mutual admiration and affection and their desire to protect what matters most (a child, a progressive movement), both couples initially observe non-aggression pacts: mediation instead of divorce lawyers for Nicole and Charlie, close policy alignments and no bad-mouthing for the presidential rivals. But as differences emerge and each seeks advantage in order to prevail, initial vows give way to some definite hot-mic moments.

So it goes in movies, in politics, and in life. The same experience is rarely received or recalled in the same way.

Given that a woman’s electability against Donald Trump has featured prominently in so many political conversations over the past three years, it’s entirely plausible that Sanders told Warren that a woman couldn’t win the presidency in 2020. Or maybe he just pointed out how a lying, sexist Trump would weaponize gender in a society riddled with outright misogyny and unconscious bias. It’s also entirely plausible that Warren heard his words correctly. Or that she didn’t, but understood the implicit message, “better not try,” a warning women hear all the time.

In Marriage Story, Nicole hears this warning, too, and for a long time heeds it. Every time she tries to implement their initial agreement to try living on both coasts, Charlie dismisses her wishes. After all, they are a New York family, with a flourishing theater life there. Besides, LA, television . . . Seriously? Nicole continually acquiesces, losing herself in the process until she has had enough. No wonder she is susceptible to the ruthlessly empathic and effective divorce attorney Nora, who knows exactly how to fashion Nicole’s inchoate dissatisfactions and longings into the story of a reclaimed self.

The shift from acquiescence to “Enough!” seems abrupt, excessive. But it comes from tolerating a lengthy accumulation of insensitivities, intended and inadvertent injuries, and the preeminence of others’ needs and desires until finally we reach a tipping point. Suddenly, we’ve had it.

Getting fed up is at the heart of so much conflict and also of so much necessary change, both personally and socio-politically. It drives not only Nicole’s and Warren’s persistence, but also the #MeTooMovement, Black Lives Matter, Sanders’s (and Trump’s) political appeal, and the success of so many women candidates in the 2018 mid-terms.

“Enough!” It drives a great many of us. For better and for worse.

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A slightly different version of this piece initially appeared in NCSPP’s Impulse, a publication for therapists. The topicality of the Oscars and the political spat is past, but the themes are timeless.

On the Ground: Down Home North Carolina

Grassroots organizing is where it’s at, and I’ve gotten involved with Airlift, which raises funds to support some amazing organizations doing crucial work to turn non-voters into voters in key areas throughout the country. Check out this latest in my “On the Ground” series.

2020 is here, a hugely consequential year for our country and the world. As we welcome the New Year with hope and renewed determination for the work ahead, we also welcome a new organization into the fold that Airlift funds: Down Home North Carolina.

Down Home exemplifies the winning strategy of building political power from the ground up by engaging and expanding the electorate with those who have been most marginalized. Founded in June 2017 by organizers Todd Zimmer and Brigid Flaherty, Down Home’s focus is on building long-term, progressive infrastructure to empower working families in rural and small-town communities across North Carolina.  The co-directors both have deep roots in the state, and have witnessed how well-funded, right-wing interests have exploited racial differences and the rural/urban divide, pitting white, black, immigrant, and LGBTQ working families against one another to maintain power. Since 80 out of 100 North Carolina counties are rural, the balance of power won’t shift without investing in the vast people power ready to be unlocked in these long-neglected regions. After learning how to organize for issue advocacy and electoral success, Zimmer and Flaherty returned home to North Carolina to do “the heart work” necessary for making local, state, and national government serve the people’s interests, not the rich and powerful.

One of Down Home’s major undertakings was a Deep Listening Canvass, with trained canvassers holding more than 1,000 conversations across the political, racial, and economic spectrum in rural areas. Through nonjudgmental listening and sharing personal stories, those who commonly distrust one another discovered shared values and interests, coming together to forcefully advocate for Medicaid expansion, fair wages, education, the end of cash bail, and solutions to the opioid crisis. 

These issues matter to communities that have been devastated by the grinding poverty brought about by a hollowed-out economy and the defunding of education and social programs under Republican rule. Listening makes a huge difference: “No one’s ever asked me before,” was a common refrain among Deep Canvass participants. Such respectful engagement shifts not only hearts and minds, but participation: People who have never before paid attention to politics are now attending Town Halls and Leadership Trainings, challenging their elected representatives and injustice in the courts, educating their neighbors, working hard for electoral change, even running for—and winning!—office. DHNC-supported candidates won six out of eight local races—and would have won another had a tie-breaking coin toss gone the other way! On a state-wide basis, DHNC has joined Democratic Governor Roy Cooper in support of Medicaid expansion, and continue to fight the Republican-controlled legislators who consistently block healthcare for half a million North Carolinians. Member efforts have been featured in a New York Times op-doc.

Down Home also provides on-the-ground services to those in need. Through distributing clean syringes and Naloxone, the antidote to an opioid overdose, more than 130 lives have been saved. Coordinator Mary Kate Crisp says, “I lived with active addiction for three years, and when I stopped using, I started going out into the community to volunteer. It was a big piece of my recovery, and I was thrilled when I was hired by Down Home this summer.” In addition to distributing life-saving interventions, Crisp and her team work tirelessly to educate, break down stigma, direct people to services, and organize direct advocacy actions.

Another major DHNC campaign is fighting the cash bail system through court-watching, advocacy, and raising money to pay bail for those whose lives will be devastated simply because they cannot pay to stay out of jail while their cases are adjudicated. Such programs are not obviously “political,” but working to improve peoples’ lives is a powerful antidote to disengagement, and brings important electoral shifts that benefit those who have been left behind.

In it for the long haul, Down Home North Carolina has demonstrated astonishing growth and success in a very short time. Their membership has doubled, there are chapters in five counties with plans for another five, and they have knocked on thousands of doors and gotten more than 1,000 low-propensity voters to cast ballots. With engagement comes hope, and a transformation within rural communities ground down by poverty and division from survival mode to enthusiastic participation and leadership. Goals for 2020 include flipping the State House from Red to Blue; protecting Governor Roy Cooper; defeating Senator Thom Tillis, and expanding the vote in rural communities to put North Carolina back into the blue column of the Electoral College.

With your help, all of this is within reach, in this crucial year and over the long-term. As Airlift founder Danny Altman says about Down Home North Carolina, “They have the smarts, the organizing skills, the allies, the data, the plan. All they need is the money.”

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Your generosity makes a difference. Please support Down Home North Carolina and all the other great grassroots organizations Airlift funds by donating at https://secure.actblue.com/donate/airlift. Thank you!

Medicare for Me

A lot of people dread turning 65, but not me. Ever since a cancer diagnosis in 2012, there’s nothing I’d rather do than tick off the years toward old age. I’ve eagerly awaited certain milestones:

  1. 60 for most senior discounts at the movies
  2. 62 for the lifetime pass to National Parks (I lucked in at the $10 rate just before it increased to $80—still a steal!)
  3. 65 for Medicare
  4. 66 and two-thirds for collecting 100% of my Social Security.

This month, I achieve Milestone #3, and I couldn’t be happier. Not just because it means I’m still alive and well, but because of the hundreds of dollars I’ll save every month for the same insurance and doctors I have now.

Don’t get me wrong—as a self-employed cancer survivor, I was thrilled when the Affordable Care Act passed, and pre-existing conditions could no longer be used as an excuse to deny people coverage. I was lucky enough to have good coverage pre-ACA through my husband’s employer. But my husband felt he couldn’t leave no matter how unhappy he became as the job grew more stressful. Employer-provided health insurance, which we were fortunate to have, equaled golden handcuffs. The ACA changed all that. My husband, also a cancer survivor, was thrilled to join me in the ranks of the happily self-employed.

We paid through the nose to keep our good coverage through Covered California, and it was a privilege to do so (in all senses of the word).

Still, as great an accomplishment as the ACA is, it highlights the problems in our for-profit healthcare industry. It’s why single-payer, universal coverage, the public option, and Medicare for All are so front and center in the 2020 campaign. Democrats have varied but serious proposals about how best to improve healthcare, while Republicans continue to sabotage an imperfect but substantial reform, even threatening to eliminate the ban on pre-existing conditions altogether and putting healthcare out of reach for tens of millions of Americans.

Medicare for All has always struck me as a way to borrow a catchy name and a popular program as an umbrella description of our aspirations for universal coverage. There are different ways to skin this cat. My personal preference is to initially lower the age at which Medicare eligibility starts (a proposal that Senator Joe Lieberman thwarted in 2009), funnel much younger people dropped from their parents’ coverage into it, and allow an opt-in for everybody by expanding the public option—essentially the glide path described by many Democrats to achieve Medicare for All. I understand the appeal and economic rationale of a rapid and far-reaching overhaul, but a more gradual transition avoids the risk for major implementation glitches and has far more buy-in from voters.

Which brings me back to Medicare for Me, my “OK, Boomer” achievement that moves me higher up the ladder on which I was already born—a ladder whose bottom rung swings far beyond the reach of so many.  I am glad to have reached this milestone, which makes my life easier and more affordable. I will be gladder still when Medicare for Me becomes Medicare for All.

Women’s March, 2020

This is the fourth Women’s March I’ve attended, and, I hope, the last one with Trump occupying the oval office. Still here, still smiling, from 2017-2020:

That sign I’m carrying is pretty heavy–at its base is a Hillary sign from the 2016 campaign, and I’ve been adding layers for various marches ever since–to save Obamacare, reproductive rights, our democracy, and a warming planet; to protest gun violence, Trump’s family separation policy, and his overall cruelty; to support the wrenching but essential impeachment of this craven and lawless president.

Soon after the 2016 election and first Women’s March, I wrote Signs of the Times, and it’s always a treat to see people’s creativity and passion on display. Here’s a sign about one of the few silver linings of the Trump era, plus those of my friends and I waiting for the bus to take us to San Francisco this year (photo courtesy of my husband, one of many men joining the throngs):

San Francisco’s own women leaders were prominently featured:

Plus my personal favorite:

And, of course, the number one guiding principle for all of us:

Here are some of my other favorites:

The crowds were no match for the millions who turned out the day after Trump’s inauguration three years ago, but the mood was one of exuberant determination. Besides, the numbers that really count are the thousands of groups formed by ordinary people-turned-activists, the phone calls and texts made, doors knocked upon, voters registered, ballots cast. We’ve flipped seats from Red to Blue from state houses to the U.S. House and Senate, and will march right through 2020 to flip even more, taking back the Senate, the White House, and the promise of a better future.

So march to the polls on November 3, and mark your calendars for next January, when we celebrate the fruits of our labors:

For My Mother, on the Eve of the Public Impeachment Inquiry

My mother was glued to the television every minute of the Watergate hearings when PBS began broadcasting them on May 17, 1973. I was a senior in high school then, and although I’m sure I must have left the house from time to time that summer before college, I was often alongside her, riveted. My mother had spent a lot of the preceding years chain-smoking and cursing every time Richard Nixon showed up on TV, and I lived with equal parts admiration and fear that one day her turquoise glass ashtray full of butts would go hurtling across the living room and shatter the screen.

The testimony itself proved shattering enough: John Dean’s complicity turned into conscience; Alexander Butterfield inadvertently revealing the White House taping system that eventually led to the “smoking gun” tape proving Nixon’s direct involvement in the cover-up and obstructing justice. I don’t remember at what point we put a bottle of champagne in the fridge in anticipation of celebrating the president’s demise after invincibility slowly turned to inevitability. But I remember popping it the night of August 8, 1974, when Nixon announced his resignation, effective at noon the next day.

Those times seem long ago and in a galaxy far, far away. They’ve been beautifully captured by James Poniewozik, chief television critic for the New York Times. I’ve been aching for my mother all day long, and his account makes me ache even more for a time in which accountability and truth mattered.

My mother would have turned 96 just last month, but she’s been dead since 1995. I often look up into the stars at night and think, “Thank God you’ve missed this, it would kill you.” I was grateful that my mother died with her adoration of Bill Clinton intact, unsullied by his impeachment scandal. I could imagine ashtrays hurtling once again through the air when the Supreme Court declared Bush the winner in 2000. Although I’m sorry she missed the Obama years (she would have been equally thrilled by Hillary), I was thankful she missed 9/11, Iraq, endless wars. Trump’s election would surely have finished her off. (I feel that way myself much of the time, and do not have my mother’s habit of smoking to relieve the anxiety.)

But I do wish I could have her on the couch right now, riveted, alive with fury. I love to imagine her devouring then adding to her shelves all the books about Trump (and his fall) to her extensive Watergate library.

Right now, the prospect of popping champagne seems dim. But if and when it comes, I’ll raise a glass to you, Mom.

It’s Time

I live in a deep blue bubble where people have been jumping on the impeachment bandwagon for a long time. I mainline Pod Save America, and constantly read in “What a Day,” Crooked Media’s online newsletter, pro-impeachment arguments and lamentations about Nancy Pelosi’s caution. I love Michelle Goldberg, Charles Blow, and Jamelle Bouie, all New York Times columnists who favor impeachment and are passionate about removing Trump from office.

I share that passion. But until recently I have not been persuaded that impeachment is the right strategy. I distrust the preaching-to-the-choir fervor among many proponents, and I want to tear my hair out when I hear, “I don’t care if we lose seats, it’s the moral thing to do!”

As someone who spent a lot of time canvassing in a swing district in the run-up to the mid-terms, I can attest that people outside of deep blue bubbles care about healthcare, jobs, and traffic far more than impeachment, and that they tend to give the President the benefit of the doubt even if they don’t like his blowhard style. Nancy Pelosi has been right to worry about the vulnerability of Freshman Democrats from such districts who constitute the bulk of last year’s flipped seats. Like Pelosi, I have believed that the President wants to goad Democrats into a trap, that thorough investigations in the House should proceed, and that Trump and his entire party of enablers are best impeached at the polls. Plus, the prospect of a President Pence has scared me even more than the current arsonist-in-chief, who at least keeps people alarmed enough to actively work to defeat him.

My internal needle on impeachment has been changing, though. Trump’s continuing defiance of laws and norms, completely supported by the Dereliction-of-Duty Republicans, have stymied other options to hold him accountable, and we can’t continue with this erratic sociopath until November 2020 in what Pod Save‘s Dan Pfeiffer calls “Impeachment Purgatory.”

The silver lining of Trump’s presidency is that you don’t have to wait that long for his next self-destructive eruption. Now, thanks to the bravery of an intelligence whistleblower, clear lawbreaking by the Administration’s obstruction of the complaint’s delivery to Congress, and Trump’s public confession of soliciting foreign interference from the Ukrainian president for his own political gain in the 2020 election, there’s a fresh and clear-cut display of impeachable offenses. The latest revelations provide the hook to act now.

It’s time. “What took you so long?” some might say. Perhaps. But I prefer to think of it as “Now more than ever.”

ITMFA: Impeach the Motherfucker Already. I snapped that photo at the end of May in Oakland. I wasn’t there yet.  But I’m there now. Even if the Senate acquits, get every Republican on record. Then impeach at the polls. Every last one of them.

In Remembrance

Candle in the dark

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I wrote this post on the tenth anniversary of 9/11, and offer it again today in commemoration. I hope we can some day live in a world where the best of humanity prevails.

As usual, I went to yoga Sunday morning, the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Mostly I go for the effect on my muscles, not my spirit. But on this solemn day my yoga teacher lit a candle in remembrance, and invited us to practice Tonglen, breathing in all that is troublesome in the world, acknowledging it, then transforming it into compassion and peace on the exhale. After a few minutes, the class continued with its typical focus on backs, necks, and hips, or, as one member put it, “the usual overall soreness.”

At the end of the class, after the stretching and the Namaste, another member shared what happened to her Turkish and Egyptian friends ten years ago. They owned a restaurant in Manhattan, which they managed to keep open after the towers fell despite the chaos and lack of customers. Late at night three white men came in. They trashed the place. One of the owner’s friends managed to slip away and call the police. Soon the men who had destroyed the restaurant were apprehended and brought back to be identified before they could be charged.

“Yes, those are the men,” the owners told the police, who were eager to throw the book at them.

But the owners refused to press charges.

“This is a difficult day,” they said. “We understand their grief and rage. Let them go.”

Incredulous, the police did so reluctantly.

A few hours later, the three men came back with some of their friends, pressing upon the owners fistfuls of cash for the damage. The men helped clean up as best they could, and continued to come for the next several weeks until things were put right again.

Sometimes forgiveness is the most effective kind of justice. It is much more likely than hatred or revenge to spawn atonement. This is the lesson so often lost in our decade of fear and grief and war. But it is one worth remembering as we light a candle; breathe in trouble and sorrow; breathe out compassion and peace; and seek to ease the overall soreness of the world.

Airlift: Feeding the Grassroots

Like a lot of Americans, I went to a party on the Fourth of July. We celebrated Independence Day with fervent expressions of patriotism: BBQ, beer, and, of course, politics.

The sign on the door welcoming us read:

This was a couple of weeks after the first Democratic presidential debates, so there was a lot of buzz about the candidates. A few people had someone they were leaning toward, but most were so overwhelmed by the sheer number of contenders that they were waiting awhile for things to shake out. They wanted to give money to somebody, but who?

The presidential race of course generates a lot of attention (and money). But no matter who the nominee is, it’s what happens on the ground that matters most.

Luckily, there’s a lot we can do RIGHT NOW for Democratic victories, not just for President, but also for all-important Senate, House, and down-ballot races. Right before July 4th, I had gone to a gathering where I learned about Airlift, a new group I was excited to share with my fellow partygoers who were itching to join the fight.

Airlift’s tagline is “Feeding the Grass Roots,” with the goal of turning non-voters into voters. Airlift focuses not so much on candidates but on funding grassroots organizations working tirelessly year-round in their local communities to engage low-propensity voters, particularly young ones and people of color. Organizers listen to and talk with people about issues that matter to them, giving them a reason to vote. After a careful vetting process, Airlift funds groups with a proven track record of electoral success in key areas nationwide.

That strategy works. Remember how exciting it was in 2017, when Democrats flipped 15 seats in the Virginia House of Delegates, paving the way for Medicaid expansion, and Doug Jones won Alabama’s Senate seat? These successes were followed by the 2018 mid-terms, when the steadily growing blue wave swept Democrats to victory up and down the ballot. Airlift played a key role, helping to:

  • Flip 21 house seats, including all 7 in California!  (West by Southwest Fund)
  • Restore voting rights for 1.4 million citizens in Florida (Organize Florida)
  • Turn Nevada almost entirely Blue! (PLAN Nevada)
  • Increase early youth voting in Texas by 500% (MOVE Texas)
  • Kick Scott Walker out of office in Wisconsin (Milwaukee BLOC Action Fund)
  • Pass redistricting in Ohio, Missouri, and Michigan (Lift the Midwest Fund)
  • Flip 15 Virginia house seats and win Medicaid expansion for 400,000 people (New Virginia Majority)
  • Pass automatic voter registration in Michigan and Nevada (MI-Liberation and PLAN Nevada)
  • Hire 600 organizers in Alabama who won the election for Doug Jones (Airlift special project)

And that was in the Fund’s infancy! This year, Airlift hopes to triple its first-year contributions. Efforts are organized around three strategic funds comprising 17 organizations: Lift the Midwest; West by Southwest; and Voter Motor. You can read all about these amazing groups here.

If we want to be true patriots and save our democracy, it’s time to engage and expand the electorate. 2020 will be a heavy lift. Make it easier by supporting Airlift today.

It will lift your spirits as well!

Moon Dreams

Moon and poppy collage (colored paper and toner, hand-cut and layered in quarter-inch strips), early work by my artist daughter

Fifty years ago today, I was 14 years old and standing with my parents in central Copenhagen, looking up. So were thousands of others–Danes and tourists from all over the world, jammed into the streets, craning our necks to see.

Our collective gaze fell not on the moon (it was the middle of the day), nor on a TV screen (there were no nearby stores with banks of televisions, and Jumbotrons hadn’t been invented yet). Instead, we were plugged into the moon landing through one of those electronic billboards flashing the news, the pixellated words chasing each other around the top of a skyscraper.

The crowd gasped, and my parents and I were caught up in the excitement. Only slowly did it dawn on us that we didn’t exactly know what was happening. We could make out obvious cognates like “Apollo” and “astronauts,” but we had no idea if the men had crashed or landed safely.

There was no confusion about the unity of the crowd, however. Even though the Apollo mission was born out of intensive nationalistic rivalry, all divisions and ill-will ceased to exist in that moment. We were one people–fearful, hopeful, awestruck–transcending the bounds of petty earthliness.

This is what I remember of the moon landing. That unity, good-will, and collective purpose feel scarce today when we need it more than ever. I dream of its return.