Monday, August 14, 2017

Snowflakes Now, Blizzard on its Way

Marches and rallies and candlelight vigils are beginning to seem like “Sending thoughts and prayers.” So when I heard there was going to be a march in response to an alt-right rally in Westlake Park, I made a small sign from a piece of scrap cardboard and headed to that center of the city.
I believe in sanctuary cities as much as I do freedom of speech, and I felt that the old maxim “Don’t falsely yell fire in a crowded theater” concisely set civilized limitations on first amendment rights. From what I gathered, the Westlake Rally was designed to spread the fire that was started the day before in Virginia. My intention was to stand in plain sight, holding words that told them their message had no place in Seattle.
When I arrived at the park, an American flag was being raised on a pole, with a blue flag that I was unable to identify floating below it. The area near the stage was cordoned off by barriers and police were everywhere I looked. I tried not to be reassured by that but I was.
The first person I saw as I approached a barrier close to the stage was a tall, white, buff guy wearing a shirt that said Danger. Cis-gendered, straight, white male. How else may I offend you? When I looked at his face, his eyes were without any expression at all.
That was when I pulled my sign out of my bag. Scrawled in my imperfect printing, it said Hell No. NO racism fear ignorance Nazis. America, not Amerikkka. I stood at the barrier and held it high, but first I removed my black cotton jacket because at that point the people behind the barrier were all dressed in black.
Westlake Park is large. A woman some distance from me held a sign that said Could You Not? I could see a knot of people wearing Black Lives Matter at the opposite edge of the park. A tall man holding a leash that was attached to a large pitbull stood closer to me than I would have liked. He tossed a flat and contemptuous gaze in my direction and then turned away. My mouth went a bit dry.
A woman with a camera smiled and asked if she could take a picture of my sign; she was the first of many because for the first hour or so my words, and Could You Not were the only ones in the south side of the park. As more people joined the group beside the stage, I began to feel very alone.
It was probably only half an hour but it felt much longer before a woman came to me and said “I’ll stand beside you.” Soon after we were joined by a white-haired man wearing a black tee-shirt that said Veterans for Peace. A group of young men in black shirts walked past us in marching formation. One of them stopped and said “Thank you for your service.” Then each of them in turn shook his hand.
A middle-aged blonde woman came to the edge of the barrier and asked “Why do you think we hate?” When I drew closer to her, she said “Why don’t you listen to what we have to say?” “I’m listening now,” I replied and she put a printed sheet into my hand. It was poorly written and rambling but the gist of it was she was an ordinary housewife from the South Sound who was galvanized to action at a rally in Olympia where masked “antifa” had drowned out the words of a woman when she was at the microphone. Her only issue was that of free speech, she wrote, and her Mexican and Native American relatives would laugh heartily at the idea that she was a Nazi. I thanked her and returned her statement without comment.
The next time I saw her she was walking the perimeter of the barricades holding a large sign that said Pedophile. Some minutes later she was joined by banners that said F**k Ed Murray, and Rapist. A man swooped about with a full-sized flag that said Trump. They were all silent.
Westlake was filling up. Shoppers passed by, children played in the area that adjoined the barriers, people stopped and asked questions. “What is happening?” “Who is Ed Murray?” A young Latina woman stood beside me for a while and said “Look. That’s guy’s black. That one’s either Latino or Native American, What are they doing in there?”
Knots of men in black and a group of very young people in olive-green paramilitary uniforms passed us, and when I tried to make eye contact with them, their eyes were as guarded as the blocked-off stage. Classic rock blared from loudspeakers, and I will never again feel the same about Start Me Up.
“They’re off schedule,” I remarked at two o’clock. We had been watching for over an hour and the blonde was still working the crowd, the signs and the flag were still in full view, the dead-eyed supporters continued to trickle in, but there was nothing more. Police were leaving the park. A drizzle began and then stopped. There was something ominous about the lack of action. “Where are the marchers?” I asked. “They’re on their way, and there are more of these people coming too,” a man replied, looking up from the screen of his phone.
Within a few minutes, a small crowd joined us, wearing Water is Life and Black Lives Matter tee-shirts, some carrying signs that were far better constructed and lettered than mine. Halt the Alt-Right was paraded around the barriered perimeter, held by a beautiful girl in shorts and Doc Martens.
Then a man took the microphone at center-stage and was drowned out by boos from his first word. “Go. Stop. We Don’t Want You,” echoed from every side of the park.  A few sentences from him and other speakers flickered through the outrage. “We are peaceful.” “I was like you once but I recognized what was true.” “Why do you hate?’ The words that were intelligible contrasted crazily against the banners that were still held toward the crowd, F**ck Ed Murray. Pedophile. Rapist.
A man standing near me was repeatedly shouting “Fuck you,” and the woman who first stood beside me had both fists held high in the air, middle fingers extended. I moved away to a spot where a young man was relaying news from his phone. “They’re coming. There’s been tear gas on Second Avenue.”
There seemed to be only one logical ending to what was taking place and I didn’t want to see it. As I walked across Pine Street, I heard several explosions and I’ve never felt more relieved to be in the bland anonymous safety of a shopping mall.
The bus tunnel held parked sheriffs' vehicles in the space between the rails which was the only clue given to any disturbance above ground. As I stood and waited for my bus, I remembered a man and woman who had stood beside me in that eerie silence before the shouting began.
“What’s happening?” the man asked. “We’re not from here, we are French.” I explained as clearly and concisely and as unemotionally as I could but still my voice trembled when I told them, “If you’re here to enjoy yourselves in Seattle, go to the waterfront. Go to the Market and buy flowers. Have fun in this city. Don’t stay here.”
They left but half an hour later I saw them behind me, sitting at a park table. “We were so happy in France when Obama was elected,” the man said, “and now we are happy because the states are standing up against Donald Trump.”
On my way to Westlake I had looked at the faces who sat near me on the bus, and later at the people who were passing by the barriers on their way to go shopping. Brown faces, black faces, faces under hijabs, all reminded me of the true beauty of Seattle and the need to make it a sanctuary of peace and sanity for all of us.
Later I was deeply troubled by images of signs that said Kill the Nazis and Die Nazi Scum. I was upset that we didn’t allow the gist of a speech to hit the air before we began to boo, and hours later remembering the outstretched middle fingers of the placid-looking woman who had stood beside me still turned my stomach. But I felt satisfied that hate hadn’t been allowed to drift through the air I breathed and that so many Seattle people had chosen to stand against evil that is trying to cloak itself in normalcy.
Yes. That is action that is important. Yes. I will do it again.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Mulrooney and His Friends

Who is this imperious little beast who sits on my sofa, drowning it in hairs?  “He clashes with it,” a friend commented, which may be the reason why the cheerful scarlet fabric is covered with a fine tweed of pale orange hair. But the motto of every apartment I have ever had is it all belongs to Mulrooney, and he knows it.
He couldn’t wait for me to wake up this morning and now that I am, he’s sprawled in full arrogance on the red that he’s claimed, eyes slitted open far enough only to detect motion on his street. He surveys and assesses passersby, glazes his eyes with indifference, and relapses into a hunter’s doze, waiting for his patch of sunlight to appear.
I’m grateful that there is none, and am hoping for the rain that has been promised. Although I love the heat, the smoke that has accompanied it settled in my chest and apparently has made Seattle’s air worse than Los Angeles’s or Beijng’s during this same time period.
Of course it is close to September and Beijing’s air was almost crystalline when I spent an autumn there, with the sky a vibrant, cloudless dome that sharpened the beauty of the turning leaves. The SCMP recently wrote that Hong Kong detests trees. Beijing venerates them. The city is at its most beautiful when a pale green veil settles on the border of its streets and fills the parks, later flaring into orange and gold radiance just before the relentless grey settles in with its steely cold anchored by its array of arboreal skeletons.
Only a snowfall can bring beauty to the trees in those stern months, softening the bare branches with a pure white frosting traced with black. Beijing slows and quiets when the snow hits. People move through neighborhood lanes carrying bright umbrellas as barriers against drifting flakes that are as benign and languid as a flurry of cherry blossoms.
This of course can be instantly transformed into something dangerous with a wind coming out of the desert. Flakes could become vicious, sharpened projectiles, laced heavily with sand, and the air could take on the apocalyptic yellow of a dust storm that freezes on exposed skin and glazes objects with hardened dirt that would become mud as it thawed.
A sandstorm is an eerie phenomenon by itself, and one that can find its way from the Gobi Desert to Japan. The closest equivalent that I found here is forest fire smoke when it turns the air to the unearthly yellow of a fading Kodachrome negative. While smoke attacks only the lungs, gale-force sand cuts with tiny lacerations that sting and burn and could probably destroy corneas when given the chance. Beijingers buy goggles that look as though they should be accompanied by a gas mask; women wear bee-keepers’ hats with thick veils that they tie into place like mainsails in a hurricane. And when it’s over at last, dirt has settled on everything, blown into cracks of locked windows and underneath  doorframes. But as it blows, it feels like the beginning of the end of the world.
In the imperial glory of Beihei Park lives a massive colony of feral cats who are a destination for local visitors bearing gifts of food. People come with sacks of kitchen scraps, bags of dry cat food, and even small expensive cans of food marketed to far more pampered felines. The cats graciously receive all offerings, with some even suffering physical attentions from the foolhardy. They sprawl on rocks in the sun, well fed and independent and honored. During sand storms, where do they go?
The artfully placed rocks that form Beihei’s landscape have crevices and tree roots provide small caves, with the trees themselves making a buffer against the wind. Park buildings give shelter. Even the magnificent nine dragon screen could be a windbreak if the gale was blowing in the right direction. And these are Beijing cats. Dust storms are to them what thunderstorms signify to lesser felines in other parts of the world. Like huskies in an Arctic blizzard, they probably curl into the smallest ball that they can manage, tail over their eyes, paw protecting their nostrils.
When the sun is at its strongest, Mulrooney mimics them, becoming a fur doorstop who is immovable and inviolate, locked in a sleep that is almost a coma. Suddenly the pampered, demanding creature who imposes his will on every facet of my life becomes a survivor who doesn’t need me at all and will outlive me in whatever man or nature can bring to bear against us.
This is reassuring and horrifying in its absolute truth. Cats and cockroaches will inherit whatever earth the madmen of the world will leave to them. Even Mulrooney will manage to make it through with that inheritance.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Here's to the Ladies who Lunch...

Last night I watched a documentary on Elaine Stritch, the indomitable glamourpuss whose voice went so far beyond gravelly that it was an entire glacier moraine. That shining Broadway star said she never used the world “old,” but insisted on “getting older” instead, since that applied to everyone alive in the world.
I'm stealing her description which from now on I'll use for myself, most of my friends, and a sizable segment of the world's population. To many of our counterparts in other countries, those of us getting older in the U.S. seem to have it all. But we're being failed in crucial ways, and we're not taking care of ourselves. We're not doing the research and we're not paying attention.
As the heat ratcheted up in this city, the usual warnings were issued, directed especially toward children and those who were getting older. Drink huge amounts of water and stay cool. Never mentioned in anything I have heard or read cautioned that we should maintain our salt intake.
If I hadn’t lived in Thailand, I would never give a thought to my own. Fish sauce is a staple in every Thai person’s diet, routinely added when cooking and as a condiment for almost everything that goes into that country’s mouth. Then there are things to which fish sauce can’t be added palatably, like orange juice, That drink is salted, heavily enough that my fingers often swelled after a couple of small bottles. And of course, popular antidotes to dehydration like Gatorade contain "electrolytes" which I’m certain are boosted with salt.
So I salt my food and I use fish sauce and I rarely think of why. This is a good thing because my blood pressure medication is a diuretic that flushes my body of minerals as efficiently as it does liquids. So do many of the medications prescribed to people who are getting older, most of whom have heeded the current heat warnings and have probably drunk more water than any aquatic mammal during these past weeks of abnormal sunlight and humidity.
And they probably didn’t use table salt, because they have been trained to be good patients who obey their physicians. Salt=bad is what those of us who are getting older have absorbed from medical wisdom. But not enough can make you close to crazy. Without it, people can become incoherent, weak, in pain from muscle cramps, and no doubt scared to death.
How many of us getting older die from obeying all the rules and ignoring warning signs while trying to be perfect? Maintaining our outer facades is paramount. No weakness or flaw should be permitted to appear. Not only is this a sure path toward extinction, it’s also a gateway to madness.
We all have our corners where we cling to some idea of perfection and as we get older, hiding what we perceive as imperfections can kill us. Secrets are deadly. When we refuse to admit that we are in pain, or suffer bouts of confusion, or teeter at times with the threat of losing our balance, or find it increasingly difficult to hear, or can't come up enough money to eat properly, we take our first steps down a dangerous road toward a miserable life's end.
Elaine Stritch was right. We are all getting older every damned day. And we are all beginning to die, one cell at a time. We are all wearing out. So what’s the big deal here? Do we think if we don’t talk about aging, nobody will notice? Do we think that dying is optional?
Attention. Mindfulness. Truth. Candor. Acceptance. Vigilance. Knowledge. The Buddha was right on all counts and his words need to echo loudest as we grow older. Denial will kill us faster than cigarettes. And since I'm still one of the Ladies who Lunch, (although I usually wait until Happy Hour), I’ll drink to that.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Crazy Jane Meets Shenzhen

Shenzhen is a young city, I was told by everyone from the guidebooks to my one friend Mr. Lee, dominated by youth because old people can’t afford to live there. My speculation quickly became that they didn’t want the work that was available to them. The people who dusted the outdoor planter boxes, scrubbed the malls and subway stations, and scraped gum from the sidewalks in the CBD were all elderly. The streetwalkers across the street from my hotel were old. So was the only mad person I ever saw in my neighborhood, a woman with wild grey hair and vacant eyes who was out on the street every day.
There were happy old people everywhere I went and every last one of them, man and woman, was with a little child. During the week I saw few people who were younger than I who were in the company of children. Young people were working in the malls, behind hotel desks, in the thousands of little restaurants that fed this mammoth city.
They appeared on Saturdays, carefully dressed and often with children, walking through the neighborhood malls as though they were out for a stroll on Fifth Avenue, out at the theme parks, and crowding the restaurants.
The visible people in Shenzhen, a friend said, were out in public because they were poor. If they had money, they would be in air-conditioned apartments or in their cars, not roaming through shopping malls or sitting on a subway. The demographic I observed during my stay wasn’t the whole. It was the less fortunate participants in the economic miracle that had struck this part of China.
The families who began to throng the subway within two weeks of my arrival were on their way home for the lunar new year. The parents were carefully groomed, the children were dazzling. They could have posed for any Western fashion magazine, in their brand new baseball jackets and jeans, immaculate little dresses, or occasionally in tiny robes worthy of the last emperor. Almost all of them got off at the nearest train station.
In the opposite direction, the one that headed toward the airport, there were fewer children and more people in late adolescence. While the families were surrounded by boxes, bundles, and large suitcases, these younger travelers were traveling light, with one wheeled carry-on or an expensive looking backpack. Their clothes were very GQ and Marie Claire, simple but with a clean line. The few that I spoke to were ones who had approached me used English with confidence and were university students.
My friend Mr. Lee had been one of them once, and not long ago. He had studied in the UK and now he managed a coffee shop. When he traveled, he went in his car, with his wife and their little daughter, but that wasn’t often. He was in his shop all day, every day, except for the national holidays.
In the two months that I was there, Mr. Lee remodeled the business he managed twice, making the space more efficient for his employees and more enticing for the young customers whom he needed to attract. He began serving four-course Western-style dinners, accompanied by cocktails, in the late evening. He was determined to make the cafe profitable, on a street where the other food options were noodles and dumplings that came dirt cheap.
Mr. Lee had cake, salmon sandwiches, frites, pasta, and risotto to serve with his coffee. The first time I went in, I walked out in two minutes flat. “I didn’t come to Shenzhen to eat spaghetti,” I muttered as I left, but I returned often in my two month stay for some of the best coffee I’ve ever had when traveling, and for the frites, and finally for the dinner with cocktail. Often the people who sat in the place with me were Mr. Lee’s friends, never a good sign.
And they were all young.
I was a quadruple anomaly in the part of Shenzhen where I stayed. I was Western, I was a woman, I was elderly, and I was alone. I did what I always do. I chose a hotel in a neighborhood that wasn’t glitzy, and I used that as my base for my entire stay. Eventually I recognized faces on the street, found a couple of merchants who gave me a feeling of community, and became enough of a fixture that a street cleaner who was younger than the norm found the courage to ask me in Chinese if I were from India. Fortunately the word for India was enough like Hindu that I was able to understand and say no. And the tone I used for America was close enough that she at least pretended to understand me.
I watched the people around me and felt a twang of envy, especially for my old counterparts. They either had work that was clearly useful but not particularly arduous, or they had grandchildren. I told myself I was probably romanticizing but when I looked at them, their eyes looked untroubled, even peaceful. When they looked at me, they looked puzzled, and on one morning late in my Shenzhen stay, I saw pity.

I had hurt my foot while out on one of my long walks through the city and when I woke up the next day, I could barely hobble. There were no motorcycle taxis outside my hotel so my only choice was to slowly and cautiously walk four long blocks toward the closest drugstore. As I started to return to my room, clutching my bag of medicated plasters, a woman who was probably my age looked me straight in the eye. I smiled at her and shrugged. Her return gaze was gentle and clearly sympathetic with a tiny dash of exasperation. What, she asked me silently, in the hell did I think I was doing? And suddenly I was grateful that in this city where only the young dashed around the streets, I had no way to understand the people who were as old as I, all of them convinced that I was as crazy as that other old lady with the wild grey hair.