Upside Down

Last night I dreamed that the whole world was—literally—turned upside down.  I was stumbling along the ceiling, with books and coffee mugs falling past me, when someone pulled me into a building where everything had been glued or attached to the ceilings by Velcro. This meant we could hang out on the ceilings, which were the new floors, and everything would feel normal.

But the person who’d brought me along cautioned, “Don’t look out the window.  It’ll remind you that everything is really upside down.”

Like a toddler, I think I am going through a phase.  I left full-time employment three and a half months ago.  Up until now, I’ve been busy with contract proposal writing, working part-time at the Y, and boosting my exercise levels—as long as I’m at the Y twice a week.  I was constantly shoveling and moving my car and scraping my windshield and batting icicles off the roof.  I did about 30 hours of CPR and other training as part of my Y orientation.

Everything was new and different and I didn’t have time to think about whether this was permanent or what.

I stand in the child care center at the Y, watching a group of four-year-old boys play with toy dinosaurs. Their names are Milton, Kash, Zacques and Denzel—Denzel Zhou.  A mom enters and checks in a new boy.  I look at his name on the monitor: βӕrәӦn.

“Umm…” I stammer.  “Baron?”

The mother gives me a withering look as though I am a moron.

“No,” she says very slowly and mock-patiently, “It’s ber-on, the ancient Slovenian god of moss-covered river rocks.”

“Ah, I see!” I reply, trying not to sound too much like Basil Fawlty, and immediately forget how to pronounce it.  I will have to avoid using his name for two hours.

I do love the kids.  I like pivoting from proposals about torture to observing children at play.

My days are also punctuated with emergency room trips for my mother, her husband, and my aunt.

One day I spent three hours at the Y playing with an adorable Hmong baby named Howard, then rushed to the ER because my mom’s husband had fallen and they discovered he had a giant boil on his abdomen he’d been keeping quiet about, hoping it would just go away.

It didn’t.  They had to lance and drain it, and the smell almost caused me to pass out.

So I get to see humanity on both ends of the age and health spectrums every day.

Now the contract work has slowed.  The Y is routine.  The battle with snow and cold is over, for now.

As I sit and watch Howard drool and gnaw on a block, or wait endlessly in windowless ER rooms, I have hours to ask myself, “Is this it from here on out?  Taking care of babies and old people?  Am I taking a break from full-time work, or am I an early retiree?  My sister is moving to Oregon next month.  Why aren’t I planning a move to Belize to escape next winter?  Will I ever have any more adventures?  Shouldn’t I use this time to learn Chinese or write a novel or apply for one writing workshop per day?  Shouldn’t I be setting some goals, instead of reading and doing crossword puzzles and walking in the woods in my spare time?  Damn, I’m so lazy!”

Don’t get me wrong.  I don’t feel sorry for myself.  I know I’m super lucky to be able to take this time out.  Or whatever it turns out to be.

And so I have procrastinated on blogging because I just haven’t known what to write about.  Normally I’d be posting up a storm about my trip to Japan in June, but I have also been procrastinating on that.

Here are two last photos from winter.

Can you spot my car?

And here’s a big ol’ nasty possum I encountered on my walk in a city park.  It appeared to be eating a wiener, or maybe a baby rabbit.

Ugh.  Thanks for reading; it feels good to get some thoughts out of my head.

Next post, the Japan plan.

Despair Down Under

I can’t stop thinking about the mass shootings in New Zealand.  I won’t use the real name of the shooter; I’ll just call him the Little Man.

The professors and pundits on the News Hour had this to say about it: This is just the latest and it won’t be the last terrorist attack that is part of an international “White Power Movement.”

This is the issue of our age.  There are 25 million refugees in the world right now—more than at any time since the end of World War II.  That doesn’t include displaced people (40 million), who are those who are still in their own country but who have fled their homes due to war or natural disaster.  It doesn’t count economic migrants (untold millions) who have left their countries to seek work elsewhere.

All this movement brings people into contact with others who are different from themselves.  Or it just creates the impression of it; we all see caravans and individual refugees, immigrants, and migrants in our newsfeeds.

People like Little Man aren’t crazy.  They don’t spring up at random.  They don’t have any original ideas or philosophies.  They may not know one another personally, but they connect online and read each other’s “manifestos,” as LM called his.  They’re just plain racist, xenophobic, anti-Semitic, homophobic, misogynistic, Islamophobic men.

And there’s the demographic commonality—they’re all men.

I think about the little boys I tend at the YMCA child care center.  There’s the three-year-old who waits by the front door, wearing his Superman cape, saying, “Mommy come back?” over and over in his plaintive, squeaky voice.  When mommy does come to pick him up, he exclaims, “Mommy here!” as though she is even more exciting to see than Superman.  There are baby boys and toddlers who want to be picked up and held, and rocked, and hugged.  Until they get to be about five, they play with girls as easily as boys, seemingly unaware of any differences.

Eighteen years from now, will they be punching their girlfriends, slapping their kids, kicking their dogs, and charging into houses of worship or college campuses or government buildings with assault rifles?

One night another three-year-old boy came to me, pointed to another boy, and whined, “That brown kid took my ball!”  I told him to go get another ball.  I didn’t try to lecture him about his use of the word “brown” because I knew he was being literal and descriptive, not racist.  And he was only three.  In 20 years, will he be marching in White Power parade with a torch, yelling hateful slogans?

What happens between four and 20?  There must be experts who know how we could interrupt the transformation of innocent children into hate mongers.

A faster intervention would be changed gun laws.  Little Man is Australian.  I’m guessing he moved to New Zealand because guns are easier to be had there.  There are three guns for every human in New Zealand. After a mentally-ill gunman killed 35 people in Tasmania in 1996, Australia restricted ownership of semi-automatic rifles and  shotguns and pump-action shotguns and reformed licensing.  The government held a mandatory gun buy-back in which Aussies handed in 643,000 firearms.

I have many friends and relatives who are a lot more liberal than I am.  I have never heard any of them propose that we rescind the Second Amendment to the US Constitution, which says, “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

This is the “slippery slope” smokescreen used by the NRA and its members to block even the smallest, most sensible gun law change.

I idealized Australia. I thought it was kinder and gentler than the US.  But out of 25 million people there are bound to be those who believe being white makes them superior.

It’s easy to despair and feel powerless.  This is when I remind myself of the words from the Talmud: “You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.”  In other words, no one expects you, personally, to change gun laws or teach all boys empathy, but you can and should do something.

Showing Up

Close to home, in real time, I attended a news conference at the state capitol about a bill that would restore the right to vote for 52,000 Minnesotans who have a prison record.  That’s right—they’ve done their time, they are out, but they still can’t vote—sometimes for years.

I didn’t want to go.  I didn’t want to go. It was first thing in the morning.  It was cold.  The parking would be a pain.

But I went, and as usual with these events I’m so glad I did.  There were a dozen speakers.  I was there with two other Jewish Community Action members, one of whom is an ex offender, and we stood in the back and listened.

The first speaker was a white guy around my age who I assumed—before he opened his mouth—was an elected official.  He was wearing a suit.  Turns out he is an ex offender who owns a business.

“I pay taxes—a lot of taxes,” he said.  “Our country was founded on the idea of ‘no taxation without representation.’  I’m going to pay my business’s property taxes after this but I am not allowed to vote, even though I’m no longer inside.”

An African-American preacher spoke about redemption.  The head of a nonprofit that helps violent offenders stop being violent spoke about how that’s possible.  A member of the Republican Party’s Independent caucus talked about how this is an issue of freedom.

A fellow who looked like Andy Warhol moved to the podium and introduced himself as “your only State Representative with a prison record.”  He had been an addict and was in jail for burglary when he was thrown into solitary confinement and decided to get clean.  That was 43 years ago.

Both county attorneys spoke in favor of the bill.  So did the Commissioner of the Department of Corrections.  Mayor Melvin Carter of St. Paul told of speaking with a lifelong St. Paul resident in his office.  The man said, “You all told me to reintegrate when I came home from prison.  You said you wanted me to be part of the community again.  But no one will rent me an apartment.  No one will hire me, and I can’t even vote.  I am shut out of my own community.”

The head of the coalition that’s sponsoring the bill said that one of the reasons it failed last year is the impression that all ex offenders will vote Democrat.  Hey, that’s an easy 52,000 votes for Republicans to keep blocked. But 70% of ex offenders live outside of the cities, and rural and suburban voters tend to vote Republican.

There was mention of how African American, Latino, Native, and poor people are disproportionately represented among the prison population, and therefore the fact that they cannot vote is a new kind of Jim Crow.

Vince, my son, was unable to vote in 2016 even though he’d been out of prison for a year.  I know he’s looking forward to voting in 2020.

There was mention that North Dakota has the same voting language in its constitution but it allows ex offenders to vote.  North Dakota!  Similar to how New Yorkers consider Minnesota flyover country populated only with farmers muttering Uff Dah, Minnesotans think of North Dakota as an empty Nowheresville, populated with a few range-roaming, gun-toting cowboys.  For North Dakota to have a more forward-thinking policy was like a dare.

Ninety-five percent of JCA members live in the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul.  Our representatives are as liberal as we are, so they won’t need convincing to vote this bill up.  There’s not much we can do except show up and be bodies at these events.

If you happen to be a Minnesotan who lives in a conservative district, and you “get” the need for this reform, please contact your representative and urge him or her to vote Yes on Restore the Vote.

The event made the evening news, at least on the one channel I watched, but it was overshadowed by much blather over the next impending snow storm.

Tail End of Australia

In real time, in positive news, my son was featured in a nice article in his local paper.

How can I complain about the weather, or anything, when he is doing so well?

Back at Auntie Margaret’s flat, it was time for packing and laundry for the both of us.  But first, Heidi locked herself out.  The laundry room is outside, she didn’t take the key to the building with her, and the door clicked behind her.

The house phone kept ringing and I ignored it. I was busy!  I had to somehow cram all these kangaroo hats and koala candles and goanna t-shirts into my suitcase—what could I jettison?

“Gee, Heidi’s been gone for a while,” I finally noticed.  “She must be waiting in the laundry room while the wash runs its cycle.”

The phone rang again.  “Wait—maybe she’s not …” and I picked up to hear her voice, a bit strained, “Annie, I’ve been out here for 20 minutes, calling over and over!”

I ran down the hall to let her in.  “What a dolt I am!” I apologized.  This was the only time I detected the slightest hint of irritation in Heidi’s demeanor, although she was soon over it, busy packing and repacking for her week to come.  Clothes for work, for driving to the farm, for bunking at her cousin’s, for one night at Auntie Margaret’s.

In the morning, we pushed my now-much-heavier, bulging suitcase up the hill to McMann’s Point station.  At Central Station, we waited on the platform until my train to the airport arrived, then hugged fiercely and waved good-bye as the train rolled away.  Heidi would catch a different train to work.

When I boarded the plane I discovered that miracle all travelers live for—an empty seat next to mine!  I was in the very last row across from the toilet, but I could live with the whooshing noise.  I am short enough that, curling up in the fetal position, I am able to lie down in a two-seat row.

What I hadn’t counted on was the loud talkers who soon congregated in the open space behind my seat.  Even with ear plugs, I could hear them yammering away.  I turned around and asked them to lower their voices.  They did, for a minute.  Some people just can’t help themselves. It was already a long flight, but this was going to make it seem like eternity.  I got up and stood behind the seat myself.  “I thought I’d join you,” I said, smiling like an imbecile.

They quickly dispersed back to their seats.

Home.  Like I’ve written before, I love leaving it and love coming back to it.

It’s satisfying to dump all the clothes I’ve worn over and over for a month into the laundry bag and to take out something fresh.

I look forward to unpacking all the cheap crap I bought and bestowing it on people who have no idea why I thought they needed a wallaby-themed calendar.  Taken out of context, much of what I buy on trips seems lame.  But my nephews appreciated their koala and wombat hats.

And lucky me, I will be going to Japan with these guys in June.

From Woolloomooloo to the Mississippi

My last day in Australia.  This was the weather Woolloomooloo, the area in which the Botanic Gardens are located.  And next to that, the weather in St. Paul today.

I’m sorry to be one of those people who whines about weather.  But every other day I get one of these notices.

There have been six snow emergencies so far this year, and March is the snowiest month in Minnesota, so it ain’t over.

What these notices mean—for those of you who don’t live around here—is that I have to move my car by 9pm, then move it again by 8am the next morning so the plows can clear the roads.

Try moving your car when it’s a foot deep in heavy, wet snow (as opposed to light, fluffy snow) and the wheels are encased in ice.  Yesterday, hacking away at wheel-well ice on my knees, my heavy-duty scraper broke in half.  I sent it flying into a snow bank with a primal scream. I then employed an ice chopper, tears, a shovel, swearing, a hammer, grunts and howls of anguish, and cat litter.  It took 45 minutes and I think I blew out a knee, but I got my car moved.  Thank god I’ve got a manual transmission so I can rock it back and forth.

And I will likely have to do it again in a few days.

People say the snow is pretty.  I know I should try to appreciate it more. These are some photos from inside my snug, warm house during and after a selection of blizzards.

And here are some snaps from the snowshoeing I did with my cousin and friends last weekend.

The dogs had at least as much fun as the people.  I love how she is covered in snow balls.

I’m aware that I am procrastinating on wrapping up my writing about Australia.  As long as I am still writing about it, it feels like part of me is still there.

Another day in the Botanic Gardens.  Heidi was on a mission to see some of the Invictus Games, and I was happy to go along.  Prince Harry was rumored to be making a speech just outside the gardens. Rumored.  We stopped and asked five people, and no one knew, not even the volunteers or employees.

“Sorry, love, we ran out of programs ages ago and none of us even know the schedule,” was one volunteer’s response.

In case you’re wondering if there were any interesting plants in the Royal Botanic Gardens, there were.  I kept lollygagging to take photos.

I wanted to stop at the gift shop again.

“Aw, Annie, I’m afraid we’ll miss Harry’s speech,” Heidi said.

But I insisted. It would only take a minute.  There was a card I had seen that I hadn’t bought and now as long as we were passing by … but we both became mesmerized by the beautiful botanical-themed items and spent 20 minutes there.

We then raced across a broad lawn to find we had just missed Harry’s speech opening the bicycle races.

Heidi’s shoulders sagged and she let out a sigh.  This is a woman who lived in London for 18 years, who had gone to every celebration of the Queen’s birthday, the Golden Jubilee, any and all flag-waving, Hail Britannia, crowds-in-the-street type celebration that came with an extra day off work.

“I’m sorry!  I made you miss Harry’s speech!”

“No drama!” Heidi shrugged as we moved with the crowds to view the races.

There were competitors from 18 nations, all of them physically or emotionally handicapped.  I was impressed that as much weight was given to veterans’ mental trauma as physical.  It made sense, since Harry and his brother William support mental health charities at home because of the trauma they endured when their mother, Princess Diana, died.

That said, the cyclists with only one leg were the most impressive.

Visitors were wearing their national colors.

Some were more gung-ho about representing their countries than others.

We verbally edited the “Taco’s and burito’s” menu, then moved on to order kimchee chicken burgers for lunch.

Lastly, I added to my collection of photos of myself with large furry animals.

Not Welcome

In my last post I wrote about Australia’s Welcome Wall, on which the names of everyone who has ever immigrated to Australia are inscribed.

There’s also a very mean side to Australia’s immigration policies, historical and present.  In the Maritime Museum there was a section about the White Australia program that handed out money to people—white people—from Britain to incentivize them to “settle” and “civilize” Australia.  It was specifically meant to exclude “hoards” of invading Asians, many of whom had been brought in as indentured laborers and then had the nerve to move to cities once their servitude in the outback was complete.

This program only ended in 1973.

Nowadays, Australia, like most countries, has a points-based system for immigration.  If you speak English and are a mining engineer or some other valued professional, you’re in!

If you’re a refugee, you are detained on Pacific islands like Nauru, an island so remote it obviously negates the need to build a wall.

One of my favorite news stories of late is of a Kurdish-Iranian journalist, Behrouz Boochani, who won the top prize at the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards for his book No Friend but the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison.  Boochani has been detained on Manus, another Pacific island, since 2013.  He wrote the book on his cell phone and sent it in snippets to a translator via Whatsapp.

I’ve been thinking a lot about immigrants and refugees.  The issues are in the news a lot because of Donald Trump’s push to build a wall between the US and Mexico.  But I’ve also been hearing first-hand stories from immigrants that make me lose sleep at night.  I’ll relate three of them here.

One: A fellow employee and I were eating lunch in the break room at the YMCA.  I said his name—Vicente—and told him my son’s name was Vincent.  He stared at me incredulously and replied, “I’ve been in this country 18 years and no one has ever pronounced my name right.” Vicente told me he lived 45 minutes away from work. He left his apartment at 5:15am to get to his job as a custodian.  He was worried whether his car would start when he went outside after his shift because it was so cold and he thought he needed a new battery but he couldn’t afford it right now.

I asked if he liked his job and working at the Y.  He said yes, that in eight years there he had only had one bad experience.  He had been mopping the floor in the men’s locker room when a member screamed at him, “You got my socks wet!  I paid $60 for these socks—they’re high tech!

What an asshole. Vicente had responded that he was just doing his job.  Sort of to his credit, the man returned later and apologized.

Two: Vince works at a country club and his Mexican coworker, Angel, holds the same position as he does but has been there 10 years, as opposed to Vince’s two.  Vince noticed right away that when managers came in every morning, they greeted him (Vince) enthusiastically and made small talk but ignored Angel. Vince has brought it to the attention of HR several times but nothing has changed.

“The saddest part is,” said Vince, “I don’t think they’re dissing Angel.  I think they literally don’t see him—as a human being—he’s invisible.”

Three: At the Y again, one of my young coworkers showed a video on her phone of her car going up in flames.

“Someone doused it with gasoline, threw the gas can underneath, and set it on fire,” she explained. The fireball soared 25 feet into the air.

“But why!?” my other coworker and I were horrified.

“We don’t know,” she said carefully.  “There was this neighbor who was giving us dirty looks … my husband is white ….”

She is of Vietnamese ancestry. Could that be it—the neighbor wasn’t happy with a mixed-race couple?

“The police were useless.  We’d just had the baby, and we were so scared, so we moved out of our new house and we’re living with Matt’s parents.”

My.  God.

What are people so afraid of?

Welcome

I haven’t had time to blog much because I’ve had proposal deadlines galore.  As I wrote a while back, I left my full-time job but am still churning out funding proposals as a contractor.

As I write this, I am at my aunt’s house in small town Wisconsin, where it is snowing—again.  I just read 10 case studies of clients who had been tortured, which is always a sobering and gratitude-inducing experience.  I just submitted a proposal to the United Nations, and am emailing with colleagues in Addis Ababa, Johannesburg, Amman, and exotic south Minneapolis.  As someone who is old enough to remember when faxes and satellite phones were state-of-the-art technology, this is a marvel to me.

Back to Sydney.  I showed up at Auntie Margaret’s apartment to meet Heidi and spend two days with her before returning to reality.  Auntie Margaret was spending the two nights with her sister Jan, and had left a bottle of wine for us and a hand-written note for me in that spidery handwriting that I know mine will resemble one day.

She wrote how happy she was to have met me, if even briefly, and how she hoped I had enjoyed Australia and would return.  I hope so, too.

Heidi and I watched the news; Prince Harry made a good speech to open the Invictus Games.  We could actually see the games in the distance, across the harbor, and I think we had the best view of the fireworks of anyone watching that night.

“He’s turned out okay, hasn’t he?” remarked Heidi.

“Yes, after a few wasted years—literally,” I replied.

It was nice to sleep in Auntie Margaret’s bed, where I slept my first two nights in Australia.  It felt comforting, almost like I was at my own aunt’s house.

Heidi and I got a late start the next day.  Around noon, we took the ferry across the bay to good old Luna Park, which as you may recall looks like this:

By now, Luna felt familiar since I had stopped there a dozen times going from one place to another on the commuter ferry.  This was the first time I actually walked through it, and I was excited to see that one of its attractions was an outdoor Olympic sized swimming pool.  I gazed at it longingly as we hoofed it up the hill to the base of Sydney Harbor Bridge.

Yes, today we were going to cross it on foot, but not as Harry and Meghan had done—not paying a “stupid amount of money”—as Heidi put it, to wear orange jumpsuits and get harnessed up and walk on the actual arches.

We just took the free-to-all footpath, which had spectacular views.

On the other side we loped down into The Rocks again, just in time for lunch.  Heidi knew that the Mercantile Hotel had great views from the first floor (what we would call the second floor in the US, and we ended up climbing a bonus flight of stairs to find an open table.  The view was great, but what caught my attention as I washed down my chicken piri piri sandwich with cider was the TV show over Heidi’s head.

This was two Australian guys talking about American politics and other embarrassing shenanigans in my homeland.

“That’s the whole show?” I asked Heidi.  “Is it news or comedy?”

“Oh it’s both, I’d say. You lot certainly provide plenty of good material.”

Breaking News scrolled across the bottom of the screen: Man shoots six people in Tampa McDonalds, tells police his Egg McMuffin wasn’t hot enough.

Was that a real headline?  It certainly could have been but it was impossible to know.

We walked to the train station.

And caught a train to Darling Harbor, home of the Maritime Museum, just as it was about to close. We ran through the museum in half an hour, then admired the tall ships outside.

We spent time reading names on the Welcome Wall, which lists everyone who has ever migrated to Australia—Polish, Italian, Indian, Jewish, Chinese, Irish.

It went on and on.

That’s the kind of immigrant wall I wish my county would build.