Piece o’ cake

It’s so easy to lose track of time, what day it is, the day of the month, when I’m coming and where I’m going. Somewhere. Check my written itinerary for assurance.

The family and friend visits are the cake, the train is the icing. Put it together, a bite at a time, I’m a happy camper.

I started out on the #4 from Albuquerque to Chicago. My first sleeping night to get into my routine. Wait for the sun to go down, grab my sleeping shirts and leggings, my silk overthrow, brush my teeth and try to settle in for some sleep. That first night was terribly fitful, with my legs resting on the legrest, my feet on the foot rest, and I still couldn’t get comfortable. Since that night, I’ve learned to disregard those so-called helps. Much more comfortable, for me, to just keep my shoes on, untied, feet on the floor, get as warm as possible and relax. Amtrak really does believe in air conditioning.

At some time between 9 or 10 pm (I think), the conductor, or conductor assistant, or car attendant walks through, turns down the overhead lights, asks people to use earphones on their devices and keep the noise to a minimum. I’m floored at the conversations some people carry on – health issues, money problems, man problems. Really, the rest of us don’t want to hear that. Unless we’re taking it and writing about it! LIke the conversation this morning with the crew in the snack bar car where I sit most of the days. Big windows, smooth conversation, lots of time to think and while away the hours.

“My wife, she sees these names in my phone and doesn’t know who they are. She asks me about all these women’s names. I tell her, we’re like family here, we’re a big extended family – we have each others’ backs. She doesn’t undertand.”
Nodding and smiles all around.
“We see each other every day. That’s who we are.”
“Does she believe you yet?”
Laughter rings out. And then the singing starts, happy birthday to one of the car attendants!

Last night was my 1st overnight on the train after a few days off visiting my brother Mike and sister-in-law Lynn in Florida. What a great visit we had. Time to sit and catch up with each other, just the three of us. Then an amazing day at Epcot after a brief drive to Orlando. I got to meet some of their hilarious friends, danced with Springsteen Karoake “Dancing in the Dark”, and joined in the singing of David Allan Coe’s You Never Even Call Me By My Name. Look it up. Wait for the last verse!

And on we roll to Richmond Virginia, 9 am until noon (or so – trains do tend to arrive late, but not always) to meet up with Cristy and Kelly, friends since the late 70’s, the wild and crazy political campaign we worked. Or worked around the pinball machines.

Hear the train whistle? the Choo Choo? That’s me.

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A journey of eleven thousand five hundred miles begins with a single step.

When I purchased my Amtrak cross country trip weeks ago, back in May, I was told I could pick up the Rail Pass and boarding tickets at my first boarding, which would be in Lamy NM. OR, I could pick up them up at the San Francisco Transbay Transit (temporary) Terminal. A new (bigger and better?) one will open soon. It seems that just about everything that opens in San Francisco is bigger and better.

Anyway, being aware of just how many things can go wrong in trips like the one I’ve planned, I decided not to wait. I’m flying from SFO to Colorado on Friday. A week later, I’ll be taking a road trip to Chimayo and Lamy NM, before boarding the Southwest Chief, my first “all aboard” of many in the next several weeks.

So yesterday morning, since I was in the City anyway after spending a fun-filled night with my good friends, I made my way to the Transit Terminal.

“Hi, I’d like to pick up my rail pass and tickets.”

The young woman behind the counter smiled. “This isn’t the Amtrak counter. They’re over there.”

I looked behind me, in the direction her head nodded toward. Oh, okay, I was at the Greyhound counter. “All right. Thank you.” A minute later, I was at another counter.

“Hi, I’d like to pick up my rail pass and tickets, please.” Yes, that’s right. I’m usually quite polite.

“I need your I.D.” No chit chat from the young man behind the glass who didn’t bother to look up from his computer screen.

I struggled to yank the damn license out of its plastic sleeve in my wallet before passing it through the little hole under the safety glass. I waited for the guy’s response, looking around the place. Maps on the walls, tiny lego train people and assorted toy train accessories lived on a shelf behind the glass. Racks of tourist come-on brochures and flyers sat along two walls. One or two people straggle in, look around and leave.

“This trip has been canceled.” Michael reports.

“Uh…no. It hasn’t. When I purchased the tickets the charge inadvertantly went through three times and those were canceled, but not the trip,” I said, my stomach beginning to jump up and down in a drum of nerves.

He printed out and passed over to me a bunch of paper showing me the canceled trip. I looked it over and still wasn’t buying it.

“Let me get on this other terminal,” he tells me and moves five feet to his right to another keyboard. I sidestep over to watch and wait.

“I can see what they’ve done,” he says. “They’ve also overcharged you $14.”

“They? I thought you were they. You’re all Amtrak, right?”

“Yeah, but those idiots online are always screwing things up.”

I stood there patiently, thinking back to the time of original purchase, recalling that everything seemed to go so smoothly, and that the guy on the other end of the phone really knew what he was doing. Except for the triple charging of my bank account, of course. But that was blamed on the accounting unit, not the ticket seller. Sure. Yeah. Right then, I could have cared less about the $14. I just wanted the trip to be in my hand.

Many minutes crawl by. A couple more people stroll in and out of the waiting room. I ask my hopefully, savior-to-be, what his name is. It’s Michael.

“Okay,” Michael reports out. “I think I may be able to refund the $14, and restore your trip. But if it doesn’t go through, the whole thing will definitely be canceled and we’ll have to start all over again.”

Visions of no available seats for my trip swarm through my head. “Well, what are the chances you can save it all?”

“I’d say…pretty good,” he slowly drawled out his answer.

“I’ll go with pretty good.” I am a risk-taker, after-all.

Michael did indeed save my day. He figured a way to refund me the $14, print out my Amtrak Rail Pass AND my boarding passes for the next few weeks. He then took it upon himself to happily scrounge around and find each train’s time-table brochure, along with a glossy 8 x 10 inch full color map that he handed over to me. We finished our time together in short order, both of us relieved at the happy ending.

I’ll have to go online and give him a good Yelp. He is obviously not happy about the “temporary” Transbay Terminal closing in the next couple months. He indicated to me that there would be more machines than people working the place. I hope he finds a good spot to continue helping our fellow travelers.

It was after I’d walked out to the car, my hands full of passes, papers and a map that I really don’t plan to drag along with me until mid-July, that I realized I should probably hit the bathroom before my hour and a half drive home.

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It’s paint. Your guess is as good as mine.

 

And then I headed home— to do some laundry, dust the bookshelves and re-pack.

Friday is just two sleeps and a wakey away.

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Dear Governor,

You didn’t know Jorge. He was just one of thousands of mentally ill patients living in one of your state mental health hospitals.

I wonder sometimes how his sister, his only surviving relative, is doing. I wonder if she knows the truth about how and why he died.

Jorge didn’t die from his heart disease, COPD, diabetes or long term dialysis treatments due to kidney failure. That’s how we all expected him to die. Fifty-five years old, in and out of hospitals much of his life, he was sure to die earlier than a healthy person his age.

Then he landed in one of your state mental hospitals. A few years after being admitted, his paranoia, his delusions and his lack of impulse control were somewhat improved. All we did to help him was of no help on his last day on earth. His last transport out of the hospital was in a body bag.

We told the patients, his peers on the ward, a couple of days later. Some already knew about it and some didn’t care. Some said “good riddance.” At the time of Jorge’s death, employees felt their own PTSD flare up again with increased respiratory rate, heart palpitations, and tears sneaking out during the unit de-briefing or later, in break room conversations.

Jorge’s dead because another patient killed him in the middle of the night when the unit was understaffed. He’s dead because your hospital refused to hire staff at appropriate patient levels based on the violent tendencies of many of our patients.

We know that the patient who killed Jorge will not be held responsible because of his own mental illness. Both men were mentally ill, both hospitalized for care and treatment. The hospital administration, and you—where the buck stops—is accountable for Jorge’s death. My colleagues know that. The doctors, the nurses, the janitorial staff all know it.

Yes, Jorge had a mean and nasty mouth on him, I’ll give him that. He could rile the calmest person in the room. That was his M.O. He was stingy. He was funny, flirty, kind at times, and very sad. He also played a wicked game of chess.

And now he’s dead.

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Micrófono Abierto Bilingüe con Chocolate

I moved from San Francisco to Napa CA in 2009 to take a new job. I wasn’t looking forward to living in what I thought of as a white-bread community. I soon realized how ignorant I was. I chose a working class neighborhood in which to make my home and eventually became active in the writing community.

Early in 2017, I sat in a roomful of well-meaning, mostly gringo artists at the Napa Valley State of the Arts event. I listened as the panelists discussed the fact that our local diverse communities were not in the room. One brave Latino photographer spoke up. “If you want to include them, you need to go to them. They are not going to come to you.” I wondered how to do that. I spoke to Izrael a few times during the next twelve months, and never really felt like I did much to help.

A year later, still wondering, I ran into him at the 2018 State of the Arts. I sat in on a small panel discussion, again, on diversity challenges, with mostly caucasians in the room. One out of three panelists was a young man I’d met earlier in the year. Intelligent, outspoken and passionate, Xulio had moved here as a kid many years ago with his family from Oaxaca, Mexico. He’s a social justice worker and a poet.

I’m the current president of Napa Valley Writers, and we were going to be hosting a first for our Valentine’s Day meeting just weeks later: Open Mic with Chocolate. I sat in front of the panel with an idea brewing, perhaps a way to bring our diverse communities together on one day of love – an Open Mic with Chocolate – Bilingual edition.

I spoke with Xulio at the panel’s conclusion and we met the next day. We were excited with our new plan. He reached out to his wide-spread ties in the local global south and native performing arts communities. We coordinated a bilingual public service announcement on local radio, distributed Spanish-English flyers, and promoted the event to our publicity contacts.

A few minutes before the Valentine’s Day event was to start, the room was practically empty and I worried. Fifteen minutes later, the place was packed with some of the usual crowd and many more people I hadn’t met, or seen, before.

Twenty-five people, forty percent of the attendees, young and old, read or performed their work in poetry, prose, and song from their hearts in many flavors of love – for the land, for the people, for a lover, for change. My collaborator was emcee, and at the opening, Xulio informed the gathering that we chose not to ask that every piece be translated. We wanted to hear with our hearts the understanding that was there for each of us.

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Not being a Spanish or native speaker myself, I could occasionally pick out a few words like madre and amore. I thought of how so many others feel every day in the English language world of this America. My heart caught in my throat. We provided something very special that night. Everyone there was filled with compassion, togetherness, and the desire to move this one event forward into something more.

 

Speakers and listeners both touched their hearts with open hands with a feeling of gratitude and many of us had tears. Of course I’m still aware of our divisions, but at least once, together, we’ve experienced a bit of a bridge. The room pulsed with energy. One of our writers group members commented that it was the highlight of the year.

The Vintage high school girls’ Spanish and English words in poem and performance brought down the house as they spoke of the prejudices and injustices their families live with on a daily basis – and what they are doing to change it. The elder Mexican poet read from his journal to a pin-drop quiet audience, receiving a thunderous applause at the close. Charlie, native woman and elder, spoke and chanted, reminding us of our memories and our spirit that has been lost and is now being found again. Xulio’s performance dazzled. My Latino friend, who advised me that I had to go to them, spoke to me with misty eyes that matched mine.

Change is coming, I felt it that night and I feel it now.

 

(Thanks to the Napa Valley Register for running a version of this piece as a commentary in the Sunday 3/4/2018 edition)

She Made a Difference

I like to think mothers the world over do their absolute best to provide loving arms, direction, laughter, and nurturance to the children in their lives. Some mothers do a better job than others – I know that. It’s not always easy. Or ever easy.

Other women, who haven’t birthed one baby, give their hearts and love to little ones each and every day. In my own heart, I know these women. I feel their love, their pain, their tears of joy, and the sadness in their hearts.

I salute you all. To my family and friends who are mothers, to the mothers of my family and friends, and their mothers, to the women who love and cherish their family, whatever that family looks like, to all our children — we are the lucky ones.

My own life has been heavily influenced by my mother and I wouldn’t change a thing for all we shared together. She taught me to stand by my friends and family, no matter what. She taught me to never give up my dreams and to always stand up for myself and for those in need. She taught me to keep peace in my heart, and in my world.

She made a difference. I love her so much.❤️

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It’s a Ride, Not a Race.

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I celebrated Earth Day out on it.

It was to be my first 50-mile bike ride in support of Cycle for Sight/Enchanted Hills Camp/Lighthouse for the Blind. I’ve been training for it. I ended up cutting the ride short—not because I couldn’t physically do it. Oh…I could have. Definitely could have.

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No, I had a big Writers Club event at one o’clock. How the universe put together possibly my two biggest personal events of the year in one day, I have no idea.

I suppose it fits—a bike ride—and the release of a new book. Both treks take you up and down, over and over again, alternately speeding and holding back before coasting successfully across the finish line.

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I arrived at the staging area at 7:30 in the morning, and commenced riding with the early birds at 8 o’clock, bike bag laden with water/gatorade and a granola bar. It turned out I didn’t need any of it. The Ride rest stations took good care of us. As I wheeled along with dozens of other riders, passing and being passed, I kept reminding myself – it’s a ride, not a race, it’s a ride, not a race.

The morning was glorious with stunning cloud formations and shoots of warm sunshine. I started out in leggings, silky red cashmere gloves, sleeveless gym shirt, and two jackets. By the time I hit the first rest stop, those jackets and gloves were packed inside my bag, my skin free to feel the cool air as I whizzed along.

We pedaled 7 or 8 easy miles through vineyards, alongside streams and past lush greenery north of the start line until we arrived at the Yountville Veteran’s Home. We sailed up the wide driveway, along Memorial Mile lined with staked posters calling out the names of Veterans and Ride supporters. Donations to the Ride are split between The Lighthouse for the Blind and Pathway Home, a Veterans Organization.

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It was a quick porta-potty stop and several minutes of walking and stretching. The Ride Support crews served up a huge spread of orange sections, power drinks, water, cookies, and hard boiled eggs. I grabbed a few bites before heading off.

On the way down the hill, I purposely wheeled close to a 90-year-old-ish Vet with a WWII ball cap on his hairy head. He was in his wheelchair watching the riders on parade. I thought of all our old dads who’ve served, and called out to him, “Thank you for your service!” I was more than happy with the slight smile and nod I received in reply.

I’ve ridden many miles in the valley—up, down, and across. My longest until yesterday was 27 miles, sometime in the past few weeks. At one point on the route, when the race guides suggested going left (north), I thought better and went south, to the right. I was thinking of the time and wanting to head back.

I was sailing along when I looked over to see a well-known and oft-visited landmark—Mumm’s tasting room. That shouldn’t be there, I thought, starting to laugh. After my initial surprise, I was cracking up. I hadn’t been riding south after all. I’d been getting in several extra miles to the north!

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There was no traffic so I quickly made a nice wide u-turn and headed south. For real. A few miles later, just after stopping at the top of an incline, I texted one of my friends to check in, and sailed down a rough patch of bike lane. FWHKISH! What was that noise? I slowly braked, and looked down to see a rear flat tire.

Was I ever surprised. There was a brand new tire/tube on that wheel.

I wasn’t only thinking about the flat, and what to do about it—I was thinking about the next big event I  needed to get to. I didn’t think I had time for a flat. In less than two minutes though, two biker-angels came to my rescue.

The first, a rider about my age, sailed across the road from his own ride north. “Could you use some help?”

Laughing, I answered, “Yes I could.”

He asked me a few more questions. To which I replied, “No, I don’t have an extra tube. No, I don’t know how to fix a flat, either.”

IMG_9437Standing at his bike, he answered, “I’ve got one right here that’ll work for you.” He pulled an empty tube like a magic trick right of his little carry pack attached to his bike seat.

His name is Blair. He lives here in town. We talked about the idea of me learning how to change a flat sometime, in a helpful manner of course. No judgments. He got his little tools out to pry the tire off and get the tube out. It wasn’t easy as they were new and stiff. Just as he was finishing up that task, as we chit-chatted, a ride support-van came along, also heading north. Anthony (I learned his name quickly) popped out of the van and crossed the road, air pump in hand. “Need some help?!”

Other riders would pass us, cheerily calling out “Need help?” or “You guys all right?” and once—”Get out of the bike lane!” That last one was from the only women who yelled out at us. “It’s a ride, not a race,” Anthony said as the three of us chuckled. Where were we supposed to be? In the weedy drainage ditch on the side of the road?

They finished helping me, we said our goodbyes & good lucks and each of us headed off on our merry ways.

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Early on, I had decided I had time for the 25-miler. With those extra miles of mine, I ended up at the finish line with 34 miles! Woo hoo! I also had a new bike tube, two ride t-shirts, new friends, and a wine glass half filled with a nice cool white. I was able to chat a bit with my friends from The Lighthouse – Tony, Kathy, and James before I made my way a mile or so to Rob & Liz’s house where I’d stashed a car and dress-up clothes.

After a shower and a little make-over, I headed out to the Napa Valley Writers Book Launch. First Press, with stories and poems from over 45 authors of Napa Valley, was finally seeing the light of day – we were excited! Over 50 people attended this fabulous event. More than a dozen of our authors read excerpts from their work. We enjoyed each other’s company, along with a nice spread of wine, cheeses, baguettes, and chocolate covered strawberries put together by our Launch Team on a beautiful Earth Day afternoon.

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On a sad note, one of our First Press authors died recently – just prior to his work being published. I’d invited his wife beforehand to join us at the Launch. I watched Maryann in her dark teal sweater as she filmed one of our writers reading Michael (Mike) Layne’s piece to the crowd. I was touched, and I know she was. I think we were all touched as we thoroughly enjoyed the reading of Mike’s story, “Vittoria’s Secret”.

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All, or almost all, the books we had on hand sold out. Some of us laughingly passed our books around to get autographs—just like high school. First Press: Collected Works from Napa Valley Writers 2017 is available now at The Bookmine in Napa and First Press at amazon.com

It couldn’t have been a better day in the neighborhood.

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Half and Half

“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

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My writing desk sits smack in front of a big window. I pause as I write to peek out on life as it moves on in front of me. On a beautiful sunny day such as this, I sit in the warm sun. The light is so bright, I happily don a baseball cap to keep the sun out of my eyes to continue to enjoy the sun’s warmth.

I haven’t written on this blog for a while. My heart, and my soul, seems to have been on strike since November 8, 2016.

I am and have always been grateful for the millions of immigrants and their families who made the difficult journey to this land in the North American continent. Our lives are more full and blessed in so many ways. Language, ideas, and ideals. Inventions to make life grand, written words to awaken our souls, works of art broaden our horizons. Together, we toil each and every day, educating children, caring for families here and abroad. Doctors, nurses, teachers, service providers, physicists, politicians, road workers, writers, musicians, neighbors and friends. Good people. Upstanding people I call my friends; friends and strangers who never, ever pose a risk to me and my security.

I, and almost everyone I know in this country, come from a family of immigrants.

I am so ashamed of the new federal leadership. I ache for the souls who could very well be punished by an evil, narcissistic, mean-spirited and mentally unstable man who was elected president this past year. His followers and supporters are no less guilty in the travesty they are planning, and the results that could come.

The world is watching.

Thank goodness for the resistance of our local residents across this land and around the world. We will never stand idly by. This is not an easy task ahead of us. We cannot rest.

When I sat down today, the sun shone on one half of my face. It’s just how I feel. One half of me is proud of everything we all have brought to this world. The other side lives in a dark place, fearing where we are going.

Each day I sit in the sun revives me for another. Just one word came to me to close this short tale.

Help.

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