Thursday, April 12, 2018

Why I Still Have Hope for America

These days, I wake in the morning weary with sadness. The world, politics, fear for my country has worn me down. But then, this morning as my kid is eating breakfast, I see Ellen Degeneres on the back of his cereal box, and I feel hope. Ten years ago, we couldn't even pass marriage equality in California - the most liberal state. Today it's the law of the land, and Ellen Degeneres, an openly gay woman, is the ambassador for goodness on the back of my kid's Honey Nut Cheerios.
I think about the fact that Barack Obama, already noted by historians as one of the best Presidents in American history, is of mixed race, and that inter-racial marriage was still illegal in many states when he was born. 

I think about the fact that Oprah Winfrey, a black woman, is one of the richest, most influential people in the world, when all her grandmother had advised for her was to "find some nice white people to work for" -- and that it's an American colloquialism to describe an extremely wealthy person as having "Oprah money." I think of her ancestors, women who were enslaved, raped, beaten, forced to work in the fields and do the work of ten men, and hope to god there is an afterlife because if there is they are surely smiling down with pride.

This American dream, to bring people from all over the world, from every culture, race, religion to live together as one democratic nation, is an experiment. It theorizes that every man and woman can achieve greatness, and that we are each only limited by the scope of our own dreams. It's a messy experiment, and we have failed terribly on so many levels. But we've also made great progress, because today I'm looking at Ellen on a cereal box and smiling, and maybe even feeling a twinge of hope in spite of the news cycle. 

I'm going to do my best today to feed the hope, and not the fear. I'm going to believe in us, in progress, in the best of America. I hope you will, too.

Monday, September 25, 2017

My Tracey.

Tracey sitting like the beautiful queen that she was. 
My beautiful Tracey passed last night. Our family surrounded her yesterday. We gathered around her bed and showed videos of her trip to Ireland. My niece cooked her favorite beef stroganoff, which she could not eat, but she could smell it cooking in the house. We each had our private conversations with her. We told her how much we loved her and promised her we would take care of her mama and each other - and her beloved rescue dogs. After we all left last night, we had asked a nun to come to stay with my aunt, and to be at Tracey's bedside overnight. The nun was praying over Tracey, singing hymns to her, when Tracey stopped breathing at 10pm. I rushed back to the house to be with my aunt and niece. We kissed Tracey, told her how much we loved her. I put her favorite facial cream on her, and her lip balm. My aunt put her in her coziest pajamas, and put her favorite perfume on her - Angel. We held hands with the nun around her bed and prayed for her soul's peaceful journey. 
At Kamran's roaring thirties party
Yesterday morning, my aunt woke Tracey, told her to open her eyes as the sun was rising. Tracey had watched the sun rise on her last day on earth, a Sunday. She was surrounded by love and family and laughter and stories and the fragrance of cooking in her house. Her rescue pups were curled on the floor beside the bed. It was what she wanted. 
But what she really wanted more than anything was to not have cancer, and to live, and she gave it hell and lived almost a year from her diagnosis, when they only gave her three months. 
Tracey was my big sister. Sometimes I lived at their house, and sometimes she and Tammey lived at our house. She protected me when I was little. As we grew, she drove me and my cousin Tammey around, took us to movies, like Billy Jack, Halloween, the Rocky Horror Picture Show. And then when I was old enough, she taught me how to drive, what to do when I got my period, what it was like to be with boys. 
She never had children of her own, but she adored and took such good care of all of our children. Evan loved her so much. Friday night, she could barely open her eyes, and the cancer in her spine had completely paralyzed her, but when Evan came into the room, she perked up, forced her eyes open and said, "Evan, are you excited about your birthday Party? Tell me what you've got planned." When my aunt was stepping out to get some lunch, she said, "Mom, don't forget to buy lunch for the person behind you."
That's who she was. That's who our Tracey was. 
God, I loved her.

I told her yesterday that her soul is pure and made from love, that her soul doesn't have cancer. That when she leaves, she gets to take all of the love, and all of the wisdom from what she has lived through, but none of the pain. She gets to leave the pain behind. And I told her that she lives on in all of us. Every person who loved her, every person whose life was touched by her. How lucky are we?
Tracey and Tammey were my bridesmaids at my wedding

Tracey, Tammey and my Uncle Dan. We have lost all three in the past three years. 

So many of you prayed for her, some of you donated to help pay for her nursing care, some of you sat bedside with me, or offered me guidance and advice on what to do in hospice. She knew this, and she was so grateful. Thank you for being part of Tracey's journey. Someone told me once that for every kind deed you do, you lift the entirety of the universe just that much, and it can never be erased. So thank you - with everything in me, thank you.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Saying Goodbye to My Friend Frank

(This popped up as a heartbreaking memory from one year ago today. Below is the Facebook post I wrote on the day Frank died) 
August 18, 2016
I can't even believe I am writing this. Today, the world lost a truly great soul. My friend Frank passed away of cancer this morning. He was a generous, supportive, kind, stand-up guy. He was fiercely defensive of the people he loved -- the kind of guy who would gladly take a punch for you. 

He was a music aficionado, an art collector, a proud supporter of all things Latino. He believed in fighting the good fight and showed up for almost every one of my gun violence prevention rallies. He was incredibly generous. Every time we were doing a fundraiser for Women Against Gun Violence, he'd stop by with a trunk full of donations- Hollywood and sports memorabilia he'd collected over his lifetime. When we co-sponsored a gun buyback in L.A., he turned in his gun. He said "I don't need it anymore." He was given a gift card for the gun, and he donated it. 

He showed up for my readings when my book came out and told everyone to buy my book or else! But the memories that will stay with me forever are the heart to hearts we had, about family, and faith. He reached out to me when his mother's health was failing, when his brother was sick, and when he was having trouble communicating with his son. He often asked me to pray for him. He thought that maybe I had God's ear since I was a preacher's daughter. 
One of the things I most admired about Frank is that, although he didn't have biological kids of his own, he stood by his stepson Brando even after the relationship with Brando's mother didn't work out. He helped Brando get to college. Brando is now an award-winning author and a college professor.
Frank was the kind of person who touched a lot of lives, though he was a private guy and often liked to fly under the radar with that kind of stuff. 
Frank had come home from Mexico this summer feeling a little under the weather. He thought it was something he'd eaten. A couple weeks later he was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. They said he had six months, but it turned out he only had weeks. We had a good long talk on the phone a couple weeks ago, and I am so grateful for that because he told me he'd thought I was upset with him over something he'd said recently, which I absolutely wasn't. It would have torn me up if he'd died thinking things weren't good between us. I was supposed to visit him this weekend. I texted him to see when would be a good time, but the last text I got back only had one word; "suffer." I'm writing this post through tears. I'm glad Frank doesn't have to suffer any longer. I'm going to keep praying for him, and hope that he was right in thinking I had God's ear. 
I'm grateful for the six years of friendship I had with Frank, and for the beautiful legacy he left behind in Brando, in his wife Stephanie, and in all of the artists and musician's lives he touched. I'm going to miss him terribly. He was truly one of a kind.

Rest in Peace, my brother, my friend. 

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Follow up to Rite Aid, Racism post

My post Rite Aid, Racism and Where We Go From Here kicked up a lot of dust with people, both on my Facebook page, and on other people's pages.
I was glad to hear each person's point of view, even though we might not completely agree. We each perceive our lives through a unique lens, based on our own past experiences. For me, I'll admit right now that for a long time I didn't see how deep racism was. I thought we, as humans, were evolving beyond the lizard brain that makes us fear "the other." Drump's America has shown me just how naive that was. Growing up, my stepdad was the only white guy in Little Richard's band. Richard used to introduce me to the audience as his daughter and when everyone laughed, I didn't get the joke. I grew up in a Lala-land world where race was a non-issue and to tell you the truth, I’m still shocked that my perceptions of the world aren’t shared. That’s my sin, I guess. Not white privilege, but the privilege of growing up in a multi-racial, harmonious world. 
To differentiate between people based on the color of their skin is ludicrous. To call yourself a Christian, or a Muslim, or a Jew, and to believe that you are better than anyone else, when you also believe that God created all people, is insane. 
Some people were angry that I didn't automatically side with the women in the story. I am a feminist. I have been sexually assaulted, sexually harassed at the workplace, attacked by a friend's older brother at a sleepover when I was thirteen, having to run home in my nightgown in the middle of the night. Believe me, I am highly sensitive to the issue, and have fought for and marched for women's rights. What I saw at Rite Aid was not an issue of a woman being harassed. I saw two young people, highly emotional, both in the wrong, but ultimately, I saw the young black man being put into a threatening situation, and in today's climate, that is dangerous. 
I'm glad we had a real conversation about this on Facebook. I absorbed what each of you had to say, even when your views were different than mine. I don't think there was one right answer. Sexism is real. Racism is real. And denying that is hurting us. Until we come to terms with truth in this country, we can't make anything better. 
Thanks for reading.

Rite Aid, Racism and Where We Go From Here

Friday night, standing in line at Rite Aid, Evan and I found ourselves in the middle of a drama that epitomized the heightened racial tension in this country.
Two young black men came into Rite Aid, and passed by two white girls, a blonde and a brunette. The men were handsome, muscular, wearing tank tops and shorts. They looked like they had just come from the gym. The girls were wearing jeans and tank tops. All four looked to be in their twenties. The younger guy said something to the brunette. Her response to him was to loudly say “Fuck off.” Then she turned and stormed away.
“Fuck you, too!” he fired back.
And with that, all hell broke loose.The blonde girl started screaming and cursing at the man. “Don’t you fucking talk to her like that you motherfucker! Don’t you ever talk to her!”
“All I said to her is that she looked pretty!” he shouted back.
“I don't care! You don’t say ANYTHING to her. My sister is sixteen years old! You don’t talk to her!”
“I didn’t know she was sixteen! How am I supposed to know that?” he shouted back.
(She didn’t look sixteen, by the way. She looked 25, and they didn’t look like sisters.)
“You don’t talk to her, motherfucker!” she screamed.
“Shut up, bitch,” he said, and it went ballistic from there. (As a feminist, I HATED that he said that.) They both were at fault, but if there were a contest for filthiest mouth, the blonde girl would have won. She was a constant stream of screaming expletives. Everyone in line stood there, most of them looking down or away. 

The blonde girl shouted at the manager, “Call the police! Get this guy out of the store!”
Someone said they had called the police. At that, the guy’s friend got on his cell phone and started explaining the whole situation to someone. Maybe he was calling an attorney - I don’t know.
The store manager came over to the younger guy and quietly asked him to tone it down. He said he didn’t want any trouble in the store. The young guy talked to the manager in hushed tones. They even shook hands. The manager said nothing to the blonde girl, and did not ask her to tone it down, even though she was the one who provoked the whole screaming match. 
After a moment or two she started up again, warning him, her finger pointed at his face, that he better not EVER talk to her sister again. He screamed back. It escalated again, and the black guy shook his head and said something about “white people.”
Finally, I shouted above them, “Please! Everyone calm down! Both of you! There’s a child here.”
At that, the young man said, “I’m sorry ma’am,” and to Evan, “I didn't see you there, little man.”
The blonde girl ignored me, did not stop screaming and did not tone down her language in front of my son. We paid for our merchandise and hightailed it out of the store. Evan was pulling me by the arm. He was scared. 
In the car as we were pulling out of our parking space, Evan asked me, “Was that man a thug?”
My hair stood on end. “Evan, where did you hear that term?”
“In videos and movies. There are these guys that are really mean and tough looking and they always talk about thug life.”
“Have you ever thought that about any of our black friends?”
“No, of course not,” he said, "but that guy seemed mean."
Just then, the two men were walking out of the store. The young man’s friend was still talking on the phone to someone. He came out first. I stopped my car, rolled my window down and said, “Can I talk to you for a minute?”
He lowered his cell phone, walked over to my car and bent down, to see me eye to eye.
“Listen,” I said, “I saw what went down in there. I mean, I get it. I know why your friend was angry.”
“He didn’t mean anything by it, he was just upset. I’m sorry your son was scared…”
“It’s okay. I know racial tensions are running high in this country right now, and everyone is emotional. But I heard what your friend said about white people, and I just want you to know…all white people aren’t assholes, okay?” I extended my hand to him.
He looked down and shook his head, then he took my hand. “I know that,” he said. “I deliver Nestle water out in Malibu every day. I know that.” He squeezed my hand. Just then his friend walked up to us. He saw us talking, our hands clenched in a handshake. Over his friend’s shoulder, he shouted to Evan in the back seat, “Hey little buddy. I didn’t mean anything against you, okay? It’s all good, little man. You’re the man!”
Evan nodded and waved back. We all shook hands, told each other to have a good day, and although I am not in any way religious, I found myself saying “God bless you” to them as they got in their car, because maybe that’s all I know to say at this point. 
As we drove away I asked Evan if he thought those guys were mean and scary.
“No,” he said. “They seemed really nice.”
Then, as we drove home, I had a long talk with him about why that man at Rite Aid might have seemed mean. In my opinion, it’s because anger masks pain, and young black men are feeling a lot of pain right now. I told him that, in my opinion, if it had been a young white guy who had hit on that girl, she would have possibly ignored him and gone on with her shopping. Or maybe even flirted back. I highly doubt she would have told him to fuck off. I highly doubt, if he had been a young white guy, that her sister would have been screaming at the manager to throw the guy out of the store, and call the police. I told him how many young black men have been wrongfully incarcerated. I told him the story of Jordan Davis, and Tamir Rice and Philando Castille. He was shocked. “How can people do that? How can they just shoot someone like that? That’s against the law!”
“Yeah, it is against the law. But too often, people aren’t being prosecuted for murdering young black men. And that hurts. And that makes people angry, and defensive.”
“I understand,” Evan said. 
So here we are. I have no simple wrap-up to this story. I have no happy ending/lessons learned.
This is what we are in the middle of, and it sucks. I can only think of the words my husband once said to me, when we were in personal crisis and fighting each other. He said, “In times of trouble, we have to turn toward each other, not against each other. Otherwise, we’re not going to make it.” So maybe that’s it. Maybe that’s the only solution we have to work this out; each other.
And because I don’t know what else to do or say, I can only say this…God bless us.

*** this was a post on Facebook that was shared widely and garnered hundreds of strong emotions and comments. I realize that not everyone will see this story in the same way that I interpreted it. I can only say that this was my experience, and this was the way I perceived the situation, based on the things said, and the level of vitriol. See my follow up post for further clarification:

Friday, June 16, 2017

Meeting my Muslim Neighbors

Islamic Society of West Valley/ Inter-faith dinner

Last week, my eleven-year old son Evan confided in me that he’s been having some fears about ISIS, because of all that he’s seen on the news, and heard from friends at school. He told me that a few days before, a delivery man wearing a turban came to our front door to deliver a package and he was afraid that it might be ISIS with a bomb.

I realized that this was a pivotal moment for him, so I stopped what I was doing and we had a long talk. I told him that the delivery man was most likely a Sikh, first of all, and Sikhs are not affiliated with ISIS. Second, I told him that Muslims make up 21% of the world’s population, and just as the KKK do not represent Christianity, the violent people of ISIS do not represent the religion of Islam, and are only a tiny fraction of a percentage of Muslims. I also told him that in 2015, toddlers handling their parents guns killed more people in America than terrorists did, so the probability of him running into a terrorist are, again, a fraction of a percentage. (He’s a math kid, so he likes this percentage stuff.)

But I realized that what might matter for him more than percentages would be to have a positive experience with the muslim community. So I reached out to my friend Virginia Classick, the inter-faith queen of the gun violence prevention movement, and asked for her help. She suggested that I attend an inter-faith Ramadan dinner at my local mosque.
Evan was so nervous on the way there. “How long will it be?” “What If I’m dressed wrong?” “What if I’m the only white kid, and everyone thinks I’m weird?” “What if I don’t like the food? Do I have to eat it?”

When we arrived, we were warmly welcomed, and within minutes, Evan ran off with a pack of kids to the children’s classrooms upstairs, where they played together for hours. It turns out, one of the kids, Raif, is a classmate of Evan’s. Now they are friends.
The highlight of the evening for me, aside from the amazing food (which Evan happily ate), was when we were all welcomed into the mosque for evening prayers. I sat on the floor in the mosque next to Muslims, Christians, Jews, and Sikhs. And as the plaintive song of prayer filled the room, and the worshippers bowed and knelt, we could hear the rumble of our children’s footsteps upstairs, and their laughter as they chased each other down the halls.

The Imam pointed out that though the Arabic is the language of their prayers, the congregation at their mosque were people who spoke many different languages and were from very different cultures. In the front row were congregants from India, Iran, Kenya, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Indonesia and others. The overwhelming takeaway from the evening was community, unity, love and service.

Evan is not the only one who benefitted from this evening. I, too, made many new friends. Farha, Ashia, Namia, RevFelicia Parazaider from the Love Revolution in Berkeley, Stephanie from the Vineyard Christian Church, and I even ran into a few old friends there: my activist friend Spike Dolomite Ward, and long-time friend Cantor Mike Stein. Standing next to me in the photo (in the pretty pink jihab) is my new friend Farha. She is originally from India. We talked about mostly mom stuff: our kids schools, the best local programs, the winning academic decathlon program at the local high school that her son had participated in (he is now at UCLA), and the challenges of middle school. We also talked about the misperceptions being spread about “Sharia Law.” Farha reminded me that amongst the first of Sharia laws are prayer, charitable giving, and fasting as reminder of what we are grateful for (sound like any other religion you know?). Everyone I spoke to from the Mosque warmly embraced and welcomed us, and invited us to come back, anytime.

When I finally rounded Evan up to leave at about 10PM, he was happily lounging with his new pals playing Super Mario Brothers in one of the children’s classrooms. As we left, he said, “That was really fun. I’m so glad we came!”

So am I.
Mission accomplished.
Evan with his new pals.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Crossing the Political Divide: My Conversation with an Unlikely Trump Voter

This month I was in Washington DC to do a little rabble-rousing with Congress. My friend Sandy Phillips and I caught a cab back to Dulles airport, and that's when we met our cab driver, Yamir. Yamir asked what we were in town for, and I told him we work to prevent gun violence and lobby for stronger gun laws. He thought that was great, and was in full support of our mission. Assuming that Yamir was not born in America, due to his very thick accent, I made some offhand comment about Trump being a jerk.  That's when Yamir said, "Actually, I voted for Trump."

I was floored. I couldn't understand how a black, immigrant man could possibly have voted for a President who so clearly did not represent his best interests, so I asked Yamir why he voted for him. We had the most interesting 45-minute conversation on the way to the airport.

Yamir immigrated here legally from Ethiopia 20 years ago. He lives in Virginia, is married and has 4 kids. He and his wife are hard working and make a combined 100k. He has always voted Democrat, but he said that Obamacare in Virginia set his family back about $5k a year. This really upset him. Also, he is Orthodox Christian and even though he is not so much practicing, he says it's ingrained in him because it's how he was raised and it's his culture, so gay marriage was hard for him to accept. I listened to him with respect, and then I offered up my personal story of my Baptist preacher dad and my two gay brothers. I told him that it's easy for my Dad to accept my brothers for who they are because Jesus taught us to love and not judge each other. 

He really listened to what I had to say, and agreed that my argument had merit. He said that his wife and his son, who is a student at Boston University, tried to talk him into voting for Hillary,and that they had almost convinced him until the Comey letter. That's what pushed him over the edge. Now he totally regrets his vote. He told me how angry he is about the racists in the administration, the billions we're paying for Trump's golf trips, Trump's lack of intelligence, and the Russian collusion. He sees now that he was duped, and I told him I really respected him for having the courage to be honest about it. We had the most productive, respectful, intelligent conversation, and shook hands at the end. 

I truly believe that sharing our stories is what will save this country, whether it's about gun violence, healthcare, women's issues. I hope you will share your stories, and let others know why your personal politics have value to you. Let's keep the conversations going.