Monday, 19 February 2018

On Columbine, Sandy Hook, Stoneman Douglas & Righteous Anger

I remember, when I was 19, being new to San Francisco and talking about guns with a friend who was slightly older but vastly more worldly. I was straight from Colorado, having been transplanted there not many years before from rural Missouri. 

I trotted out the “guns are just a tool” line, and this friend offered her argument against guns, especially in urban environments: They simply escalate conflict and violence. Having a gun in a confrontation instantly increases the lethality of the encounter.

That idea percolated through me for years. In my Midwestern upbringing, I shot guns on our acreage and nailed clay pigeons at the range. It was an exciting, powerful thing to do. I experimented with holding a weapon just right in my skinny little arms so that the recoil didn’t bruise me up or make me too sore, because the rifles were too big for my childish frame. I was a kid playing with the most adult thing imaginable, supervised by my dad, in the name of education and safety. 

But, what if knowing the basics wasn’t enough to transform gun ownership into a safe pursuit? What if simply having a gun raised the risk of someone being killed?

…..

When I was 17, I was in school just a few miles away from Columbine High School on the day of the famous massacre. At Bear Creek High School, we watched as the news shifted from a mysterious thing going on over there to an active shooter situation rumored to be heading our way. 

For several hours, I was on lockdown with my classmates in a temporary classroom, the walls of which were certainly thin enough to be pierced by bullets. I remember feeling like a fish in a barrel. Our building was right alongside the back entrance to the campus, and the likeliest place for shooters on the move to come in. 

Our afternoon class became a hideously long waiting game, with no updates and no idea what was actually going on. We all had to go to the bathroom, with no facilities in our little trailer. We were not allowed to leave for any reason. We waited.

Once the lockdown was lifted, and we were sent home with no more clarity about what was happening at Columbine, I called my workplace. 

I had an after-school job at a daycare center even closer to the scene, and I wanted to know if they needed me to come in. They did—the chaos of the day had left them very short-staffed, and they were still on lockdown because of their proximity to the shooting.

So, 17 years old, I got on a bus and headed to work, late after being locked in a trailer because our teachers and administrators feared we would be shot.

When I got into my classroom, I was the only teacher in a room that usually had two. It was peaceful, full of 3- to 4-year-old children that looked to me for care and guidance. 

I remember looking out of the windows of my classroom, and knowing enough about guns to be sure that if the gunmen came our way, I could not prevent those children from being slaughtered. I imagined what I would do to buy them time. 

Yet again, I waited down the clock for word about what was happening and what we would do next.

…..

After a few years in the Bay Area, I moved to the UK. For most of my 20s, I watched America from abroad. I had the gun conversation many more times, and struggled to feel so certain that firearms were a tool like any other. 

I felt myself relax into London, which was certainly full of peril when I first arrived, though the dangers tended to be slower moving than a semi-automatic shootout. I didn’t find anything to fear in the police, who were more likely to talk through disturbances than use their batons. 

I arrived into the city the day of the 7/7 bombings. I saw London at its most shaken and armed, and it felt unusual, but not actually as paranoid or trigger-happy as lots of moments I’ve had on a typical day in the USA. Within a couple of days, people were riding the Tube again and getting back to the business of living.

For a handful of years, I lived totally without the fear of gun violence. I didn’t really notice the calm that lent me until I moved back to California. I stopped making arguments about the value of guns to society.

…..

I got settled back in San Francisco just in time for Sandy Hook. I watched our president, Barack Obama, plead again and again to deaf ears that we needed common-sense gun reform. I watched nothing happen.

I’ve cried a lot of times since then. I sobbed over loops of the Pulse shooting terrorizing the radio, good-byes to mothers and the recorded horror of waiting in a bathroom for a shooter to come for you.

I’ve never had to make that call, but I’ve been close enough that hearing them splits my heart open every time. 

…..

Now I have a baby of my own. Before he was even born, I shed tears of fear about him being arriving into a country of escalating tensions. As he grew within me, I watched idiot arguments about arming ourselves against the government and panic-buying guns. The specter of toxic, broken masculinity loomed over my son’s future.

Every day, he gets closer to preschool, and closer to a time when he looks like one of the children from Sandy Hook. And those kids today would have been about the same age as these high schoolers at Marjory Stoneman Douglas are now. And they remind me of myself, teenaged and waiting to find out if I would make it home that day.

…..

Something I didn’t remember, until my mother mentioned it recently, was going out to the park in Littleton where crosses and memorials sat out in the mercurial Colorado spring elements, commemorating Columbine’s casualties. I remember it was chilly. I remember feeling so tired, spent of tears. My mother held me, and we thought of those kids and their terror within the walls of their school. 

I hadn’t thought of that day in a long time. Watching these kids in Parkland now, raw with fury and disgust at the generations before them that made stupid arguments about guns—stupid arguments that I myself made when I was younger—watching them rip this idiocy to shreds makes me feel hope that this can finally change. 

It’s been most of 20 years since I was locked in that trailer. That should have been the last of this. That should have been our Dunblane, but it wasn’t. Sandy Hook should never have happened, but it did, and somehow that wasn’t enough, either. 

I’ll tell you, though—there’s now a whole generation of young adults coming to the fore who know just how senseless it is to huddle in fear for our lives to protect a misapplied Constitutional amendment, and there is no more patience for it. 


May the fire of this righteous anger burn away the prospect of future tears.

Friday, 24 November 2017

Thinking of my Grandmother

Remembering a school project about asking a family member what it was like when they were younger: What did milk cost? What has changed? Interviewing Grandma at her glass kitchen table, her telling me answers that I recorded on some long-forgotten paper that has now become precious, lost in an inconsequential stream of homework.

I wish I could hear her voice again, her gentle cadence recalling girlhood. I wish I had her answers memorized.

Thinking about conversations on race and religion, knotty topics we'll never butt heads over again.

Seeing my baby son meet his other great-grandma, and wishing my Grandma had that quality time with him, too.

The postcards I bought for her everywhere I traveled but never managed to send. I saved them up to put in an album full of stories she can no longer read.

The autobiographical book of her remembrances on my list for Christmas, unbought and now unnecessary.

A Thanksgiving phone call I didn't make this year. Christmas glistening on the horizon, full of a million reminders of her absence.

Her presence in my heart, her ring on my finger as we drive through autumn near her part of the country. I can't even come close to forgetting.

Saturday, 18 November 2017

November 18th, 2017

While breastfeeding my son:

Looking down at you, my lovely little elf baby. I am so grateful for now.

I’m so glad we found each other across space and time.

Remembering a few days before, reaching out into the ether for my grandmother, and she has been scattered back out into the universe. 

And to my mother: I finally understand, “You will always be my baby.” I wish you had made other choices, that we could be nearer each other in so many ways, and I love you. 

The anniversary of embarking upon a relationship with the father of my child.


Like spring come again, my summer baby in autumn, my Thanksgiving. Winter lies ahead. I am grateful, and delighted for the sparkle in those dark days to come.

Thursday, 7 September 2017

Natural disasters. National disaster.

I'm over here building an ecosystem out of native plants and a home to withstand as much as possible, to provide what shelter I can, and fighting back against this shortsighted kleptocracy. I want to deliver a verdant world that outlives me.

Sometimes, it all feels really feeble. But, I've made a commitment to a tiny baby, so I carry on trying to build a better world for him, his cohort, and beyond.

There will be more than enough suffering even without that of our own creation. I can't even read about Scott Pruitt's gutting of the EPA without raging, thinking that Trump's base voted the way they did because they wouldn't live long enough to see the awful results. The ultimate, ignorant selfishness.

I've lived through major floods. I've been reminded of how small we are against storms. Shredded environmental protections deepen our misery when we are already so vulnerable to the power of this planet, and every cut we inflict upon the natural world rains pain down upon us.

We can choose something else.

I'm going to keep planting these trees, keep building the bees a place to hide and the hummingbirds a patch to protect. This little Eden will stand in contrast to the fiery Hell awaiting those who turn their back on stewardship of this Earth.

Saturday, 8 April 2017

The Peace Offering



Last night, I was sitting at home on my own, right where I am now as I tell you this story: In the front window of my house, at the breakfast room table. Around 9pm, Delia starts barking, and I hear someone coming up the front steps.

I wasn't expecting anyone.

It was raining and dark outside. The shades were still up after letting the day's light in, and I would have been visible from the street, illuminated, as I was working away on my laptop. The porch light was on. Someone was home.

Up the stairs comes a man I don't know. This immediately rings alarm bells. He sees me through the window and waves. I look at him, confused, and walk over to the front door. We have a speakeasy peephole, so I'm able to see him and also talk to him.

"Hi there. Can I help you?" I ask.

"Yes, ma'am," he mumbles. "Sorry to bother you, but could I have a glass of water?"

In a downpour. He's asking for something so basic. All that water, and he's thirsty.

"I could give you a bottle of water," I say. How could I deny someone water?

"Thank you," he says. I close the peephole and turn to the kitchen.

I'd seen a stray bottle of water, unopened, but couldn't spot it right away. I quickly weigh my options. I don't want to hover over him as he drinks, nor do I know what else to give him. He can see me standing there.

Finally, I spot the bottle of water, hiding behind a dish towel. I go back to the front door, and realize there's no way I can hand this out to him while keeping the safety chain engaged.

Here's the thing about humans. They can smell fear. I doubt most could describe the scent, but we're social animals, wired to detect all kinds of subtle hints about another person's inner workings.

We're also reciprocal, though that's not always as rosy as it sounds. In an interaction, a person will populate the role offered to them by another's behavior. Treat someone fairly, and they often respond in kind. Treat someone like a criminal, and they are likelier to fulfill that suspicion.

The best way to keep someone from smelling your fear is not to feel any. I looked at the door, thought about my odds of getting it closed again quickly if I saw any sudden moves. I took a deep breath, unhooked the chain, and opened the door.

I should say here, in the most literal way possible: Do not try this at home. I would tell any child not to open a door for a stranger, no matter how nicely they asked. I decided not to adhere to that advice.

I handed him the bottle of water. He said thank you, cracked it open and had a big swig. Then, he started to tell me about how he had wandered up the busy road, going for ages without finding a gas station or anything. That he wasn't from around here, didn't know where he was going, and couldn't find a bus stop. I told him that if he headed the opposite way, he'd soon encounter civilization once more, with bus stops aplenty to get him around town.

He wasn't sober, but he more seemed tired. He offered me a hand, and I shook it. So dry.

I wished him luck on his way. He thanked me again and walked off. I sat back down to my computer.

Within five minutes, he was back. He knocked on the window. He held out a flower. Delia was not amused. I felt my blood pressure go up.

I gestured through the window: Thank you, that's too kind, you didn't have to. He insisted. I smiled awkwardly, held out a hand to say, "No, no, really."

He held it up again and said, "A peace offering." He arranged it on the windowsill, with a little difficulty. I waved and said thank you. He left again.

At this point, sitting in full view of the street near the window felt a bit too vulnerable for my liking. I moved out of view, phone in hand, and called a friend in the neighborhood. As soon as I explained to her the first part--his request for help--she responded, "That's annoying," because she could immediately see the dilemma: help another person, or risk escalating a situation with a potentially dangerous stranger by refusing.

I think most--if not all--women reading this can understand the fears and complexities driving this story. You simply do not open a door for a strange man who appears unexpectedly on your doorstep. It is extremely dangerous. And you do not let someone know you are home alone.

A series of skills may be employed at this juncture. This may be a DEFCON 1 situation, or attempts may be made to defuse the encounter or evade it entirely. In general, I try to approach moments like these with calm, directness and a very level sense of zero bullshit tolerance. It mostly works, but it doesn't always.

At this point in the story, I didn't know if my visitor would be back. I didn't really know if he had left. I didn't know where he was going, as it sounded like he didn't know himself. I knew he wasn't from around here, and I also knew he had probably clocked that I was on my lonesome, with the exception of my muppety dog.

I asked my friend to come over, and she did. When she arrived, I went out to retrieve the flower.

I'm going to add another wrinkle: The man who showed up on my doorstep was black. I was vulnerable because I was a woman home alone; he was vulnerable for a whole host of other reasons knit up in the mess of structural racism in this country.

The lights were on, and I was home. He could see me. If he needed help, it was much safer to come directly to a house that had someone in it, rather than walk door to door hoping someone would trust him enough to answer before an onlooker decided he was casing houses on our street.

I know my neighborhood pretty well; on my street, we have a mix of mostly older couples and medical students, and everyone seems to be Asian, white, Mediterranean or Latino. A lone black man stands out a mile on a road like this.

I thought of Renisha McBride. I thought of all of the encounters wherein black men have the police called on them simply for walking through predominantly white neighborhoods--sometimes the ones in which they live. I thought of every bad thing that could happen to someone who needed help as they traversed unfamiliar streets in the rain under a cloud of curtain-twitching suspicion. I was not the only one at risk.

It is always scary when a strange man shows up in the darkness of night, unannounced and unexpected, when a woman is home alone--no matter what color he may be. It was an odd encounter, and it rattled me. His request for help could have been a contrivance to persuade me to open the door for other reasons. I had to hope for the best.

Before I went to bed, I put the flower in water. I decided to trust that it was a peace offering, and that sometimes it's scary and awkward to ask for help.

Tuesday, 13 December 2016

Lamenting Aleppo

Today has a heaviness that won't lift. I can't stop thinking about the cataclysm occurring in Aleppo. Families obliterated, hospitals destroyed, people trapped in hell for years with no signs of hope.

I despair at the rise of our know-nothing isolationist set, that alternately blanks the names of these places we've helped condemn or ignorantly vows to fix it all by bombing rebel factions relentlessly. Two sides of the same bad coin.

I cringe at our bad track record of intervention, and also bemoan the lack of action that leaves people to be mown down in relentless violence. I watch the very cradle of civilization turn to bloody rubble.

I am enraged at those who turn their back on refugees, those that insist on disparaging survivors of so much trauma trying desperately to get somewhere safe with their children. There is a special kind of hell waiting for purveyors of such craven selfishness, especially when so many of us exist only because of the amnesty offered to our ancestors. That shame should burn.

I think of the aid workers, who struggle to count the bodies as they make some attempt to clear them from the streets under fire. I think of the doctors who guided surgeries from afar as local medical staff became casualties of war, their facilities decimated. No life support left.

My hands are far from the scene, unable to clear the airways of the wounded or lift debris from those trapped in the wreckage. Nevertheless, I carry those stones in my heart, that tear gas burns my eyes, and I am bleeding out.

Tuesday, 1 November 2016

Electoral Anxiety

Count me amongst those stressed by the election. As every accusation of sexual assault or fraud, every instance of incitement of violence or call for a war crime, every bit of evidence of dirty dealing and racism fails to sink Donald Trump, I despair.

In the last week or so, I've found myself asking when we'd leave. If he were to be elected, how bad would things have to get before I said goodbye to our home I've invested my heart and our money into?

When I posed the question to James, he said of course we'd stay, because people would have to stick around to stand up for people being persecuted. And I look at him and think--in Trump's America, my love, you have a funny accent. How long would being white with money really spare you from the attacks on immigrants? How long would being the "right" kind of foreigner really last?

I think about our friends in the UK that have already had to register as foreign workers, whose residence status is in question after years of building a life and paying taxes in a place they've made home. I wonder if there's really anywhere for us to go.

And I worry about me, too. I'm on the record as an outspoken feminist, and the toss of the biological dice has left me fighting for bodily autonomy. To be in charge of one of the most sacred powers humans have, and yet potentially enslaved by religious zealotry is a chilling prospect.

I think it's more powerful to focus on the positives, to relish the opportunity to vote for someone who has publicly embraced the power of her intelligence and dedicated herself to decades of public service already. But, when the numbers tilt, I can't help but think of the worst, and of how many people I know who don't take the situation seriously enough to take decisive action to stop this rightwing authoritarian threat.