Category Archives: class divide

Pandemic, Protests, Panic Attacks

Three people I know have had panic attacks lately. They all thought they were having heart attacks.

I may be next.  No, not really.  But I do feel the stress.  A number of people have said, “Being locked down isn’t that different from my life before.” They live in comfortable homes, have access to limitless entertainment, and have the means to get whatever they need delivered to their door.  They haven’t been impacted financially.  They don’t live near the protests.

“It’s psychological,” a friend said yesterday as we were socializing on his deck.  “I’m playing pickle ball in a Covid-19 ‘pod’ of six guys. I’m an introvert anyway.  I’m retired, so staying home shouldn’t bother me.  I Skype with my mom, but I won’t be visiting her any time soon.”

His mother, in India.  Her short-term memory is gone, but her face lights up when she sees her son.  He was visiting every two months.  It’s a grueling trip with long flights and ground transport. I thought he would be relieved to have an excuse not to go, but no.  He’s a good son.

“In the UK, they talked about BAME people dying at much higher rates from Covid.” I said. BAME is black, Asian, and minority ethnic.  And by Asian they mean Pakistani, Bangladeshi, and Indian.

My friends looked a bit thrown.  Should I not have said anything?  “They don’t know what the causes are.  It’s doctors dying, not just poor people.”

“So it might be genetic,” my friend said.

“Or something to do with darker skin blocking Vitamin D absorption, which supports immunity?  Or that Asian families tend to live in multigenerational housing in densely populated areas?”

“It’ll probably turn out to be a complex set of factors,” he said.

I am still doing contract work from home.  My duplex is comfortable and the weather has been great so I can get out and walk at a distance from a friend or ride my bike.

I am going to have my granddaughters and nephews once a week (separately).  I want them to have a wonderful summer.  There’s no reason they shouldn’t as long as we can be outside or in the car with windows rolled down.

I took the girls on an unintentional tour of Minneapolis due to a detour.  Every storefront is boarded up or charred.  On the plus side, there is a lot of great street art.  I explained what had happened in very simple terms.  The nine-year old said, “But that’s not right. That’s like what we learned in school last year, about Martin Luther King.”  I thought it went over the head of the four year old, but days later she said, out of nowhere, “Cops killed a guy.”

I’ve decided to move.  Again.

My neighborhood was dodgy before Covid and the unrest caused by the murder of George Floyd.  Many houses have been bought by investors and filled with registered sex offenders, including one kitty corner from me which must have 5-6 guys in it.  It must be very lucrative.

Then there’s the noise—in spring, the punks tear up and down the streets in their extremely loud hot rods.  You would think my neighbors who lived through the Vietnam War wouldn’t be fond of fireworks, but you would be wrong.  Several nights a week, the BOOOM, Booom, Boom goes on until one or two in the morning.  I’m not talking firecrackers; I’m talking industrial grade fireworks.

Then Covid came, and an area with lots of people in low-wage jobs became an area with lots of people with no jobs.  The uprisings began.  I’ve seen numerous cars without license plates, this one was abandoned at the end of my alley for days, even after I called it in to the police.

There was the incident of the cops with assault rifles surrounding my house.  Finally, two nights ago, I woke to the sound of a dozen gun shots.  Sirens and a high speed chase ensued, then a CRASH in front of my house, then the police shouting through megaphones, “Come out with your hands up!”

Seriously? This does not align with my brand.

I’ve got a lead on a condo-sitting gig near the Mississippi in St. Paul. Fingers crossed.

Welcome Home, Home on Fire

I want to go back to the UK now.

A week ago I was trying to enjoy my last day in Oxford without wasting by fretting about traveling during a global pandemic.

It’s hard to explain certain things to people back home, like how cramped and close together people live in a place like Oxford.  I had wanted to take this photo for some time—if you look through the picture window of the house across the street you can see through to my neighbor Wendy’s back garden. I wanted to get a shot early in the morning when—I hoped—she wouldn’t see me.

It seemed to matter at the time.

I took a walk.  How had I never noticed that enormous Monkey Puzzle Tree, now laden with what looked like seed pods?

Were these juniper berries?  If I filled my pockets with them could I make homemade gin? These were my pressing questions.

None of the things I had worried about happened.  The bus to Heathrow had five passengers, all widely spaced and wearing masks except for That One Asshole.  This was Heathrow.

Here’s the main shopping and dining atrium in T2.  Usually my biggest concern is whether the Cath Kidston store will be open (it was not).

Almost everyone was wearing a mask and everyone practiced social distancing.  The plane was about 25% full.  This was going to be fine!

Obligatory farewell photo.

I played with the newfangled window dimmer button. There’s no window shade anymore.  Is it the magic of nanoparticles, I wondered, having worked in a nanoparticle lab years ago.

I watched movies: Rocket Man, Witness for the Prosecution, Book Smart, and Jojo Rabbit.

Every time I removed my mask to sip some water my mask and ear bud cords got tangled up.

We were served food as usual but there were no alcoholic beverages or coffee on board.

Beautiful Chicago.

Re-entry to the US was uneventful.  Public Health Service officials collected my contact details, took my temp, and handed me this.

O’Hare seemed like Heathrow at first.

But here were the C gates, with flights headed for Mexico City, Indianapolis, Washington DC, and Minneapolis.  I spent four hours here.  It was impossible to social distance and only about half of the people wore masks.

My first views of Minnesota on a hot muggy evening.

I retrieved my bag and found my car, which my son had parked in an airport ramp the previous day.  The next morning I would get a grocery delivery which I had set up while still in Oxford.

Phew!  After almost five months in the UK, I was home, with no dramas!

As I was driving home, a man named George Floyd was being murdered in the street by Minneapolis police just a few miles away for the alleged crime of trying to pass a counterfeit bill.

Protests erupted the next day.  The killer cops were fired but not arrested.  The protests turned violent Wednesday night and escalated each night.

Those who wear badges that say, “To Protect and Serve” (the police) abandoned the people of the Twin Cities and let looters run wild.  So far 255 businesses have been looted and/or burned.  Post offices.  Restaurants.  Pharmacies.  Gas stations.  Barber shops. Liquor stores.  Libraries, for god’s sake!

Nonprofit organizations like an Indian dance company, a Native American youth center, and an arts-funding foundation.  The grocery that delivered my food four days ago is now closed indefinitely. We are living under a curfew.  The national guard has now been called in, and Trump is even being consulted about sending federal troops.

The Minneapolis and St. Paul mayors did nothing but make polished, kumbaya speeches.

The cop who knelt on Floyd’s neck was charged with murder on Friday, but the ones who stood by and did nothing must be charged as well.

There have been rumors that the looters are all extremists—anarchists and/or white supremacists. There have been some people from other states among those arrested, but as of what we know now, most are Minnesotans.

I am in shock.  I have to find a way to get involved and keep moving.

Meanwhile, Minnesota passed the milestone of 1,000 Covid-19 deaths.

Scrambling, Scrabbling

Week six of UK lockdown is behind us.  Tonight Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister, will outline changes to our restrictions.  The Sunday papers have already broadcast what those are likely to be: once-a-day outdoor exercise will become unlimited exercise, it’ll be okay to go to the beach, garden centers will open (all of these assume two-meter distancing).  Boris is likely to advise the wearing of face coverings in shops and public transport.  A mandatory 14-day quarantine for people entering the UK and stiffer fines for violating the rules will likely be announced.

For me, nothing much will change.  It’s snowing in Scotland, but I would be unlikely to request a day on a North Sea beach even at the height of summer.

As I wrote in another post, my flight home was cancelled by Delta.  I scheduled a new one; it was cancelled the next day.  I will be issued a credit, but Delta has ceased flying to the UK so I can’t use the credit to get home.

There are no more direct flights to Minneapolis-St. Paul from the UK.  I prefer not to stop over in New York or Chicago, where there are coronavirus outbreaks.  I found an itinerary on Icelandair that would take me through healthy Reykjavik but my gut told me to wait a few days before booking it.  Two days later, Icelandair was no longer flying to the UK.  I thought about flying from Scotland, which has less coronavirus than the UK south, but Scotland’s airports are shut down completely or offer only two-three stop itineraries.

As I see it, every stop, every additional flight or airport, is a new opportunity to catch the virus if it’s present.

I continue to get updates from the US State Department.  The latest informed me that Heathrow has closed three of its five terminals.

Today was the day I was supposed to join Lynn and Richard and two other friends in Crete, after traveling through France, Switzerland, Bulgaria, and other points unknown and never to be known.  It’s hard to believe that just a few months ago my biggest concern was whether to take the Eurostar to Paris or get off in Calais and take a train down to Bergerac to meet a friend.

Wah, wah!  As usual I pinch myself that I should have such “problems.”  I keep thinking about the Ethiopian refugee camps I visited three years ago for work.  There was no running water.  People lived in tiny cinder-block houses with half a dozen others.  Activities were carried out in groups, sometimes very large groups.  I feel helpless to do anything but “hold them in my thoughts,” which doesn’t mean a thing and just makes me feel guilty.

Meanwhile the days pass, fast but slow.  Until today the weather was fine, enabling outdoor projects and hikes.  On one hike I saw a giant slug crossing the road.

“Now, if this was a turtle, I would pick it up and deliver it safely to the other side,” I thought.  “Isn’t the real test of compassion whether I care for creatures I find repulsive?”  I kept walking.  Another thing to feel guilty about.

Richard and I hiked to Wormy Hillock.  It’s shaped like a donut was pressed into the earth, then removed.  It was probably built by Picts, and probably prehistoric (which just means before there was a written language).  Its purpose is unknown.  Worship?  Sacrifices?  Entertainment?

Back at the house, I moved my finger around on the local map and chuckled at the names: Knappert Knows, Little Riggin, Green Slack, Bogs of Noth, Muckle Smiddy Hillock, The Lumps, How of Slug, Darnie Heuch, Mairs of Collithie, Buried Men’s Leys, How of Badifoor, Grouse Butts, Shank of Badtimmer, Slack Methland, Hill of Glack-en-tore, and my favorite, the Glen of Cults.

Another day, Lynn and I visited a neighbor across the road who maintains the garden her late husband—the former head gardener at Cambridge University—created.

Lynn’s garden is coming on as spring progresses.

A visit from the fishmonger was a highlight.

My award for most creative pastime goes to a friend who has been playing x-rated Scrabble over the phone with friends.

Stay well, and don’t forget to laugh!

Slogging Along

I have begun to long for home.  By “home” I don’t mean my family or friends—who I wouldn’t be able to visit anyway—but my bed.  For some reason, it symbolizes all that is familiar and safe and comfortable.

Not that I’m not safe and comfortable.  In Scotland, at Lynn’s, I am more safe and comfortable than 95% of the world’s population. I have a spacious room with my own bathroom.  There’s a library full of books.   There is even a sauna!  There is plenty of space for us to do our own thing.  We come together at mealtimes or for a G&T on the patio or to watch a movie at night.

I have projects, like scraping and repainting a wrought-iron patio set.  The more I scrape and paint, the more flakes of paint I discover.  It’s a great way to kill the hours and medicate my obsessive compulsive tendencies.

I clear dead stuff out of the garden.  This involves sitting on a foam mat, reaching in to grab a handful of dry twigs or grass, and yanking them out.  Repeat, repeat, repeat.  Then I gather it all up—being careful not to snag myself on any rose thorns—cram them into a bucket and haul them to the brush pile for burning.  It’s very satisfying.  One morning this classic Led Zeppelin album cover popped into my mind:

Why not do what all those cleaver people on social media are doing, and recreate this with found materials?  So here I am, looking just like the album cover except I have a wheelbarrow, and I’m wearing a lime-green jumper and pink sunglasses, and I do not have a beard.

It was good for a laugh for a few minutes.

I go for long walks.  This is the Clashindarroch Forest, where I hiked for two hours the other day.  Even though it hadn’t rained for an unseasonable 10 days, the mossy path was still so springy it was like walking on a memory foam mattress.

So physically and socially I couldn’t be in a better place.  But I think the pandemic and lockdown are taking a low-grade toll on my psyche.  It’s subtle, but it’s probably cumulative.  If I am feeling it, how much worse must it be for people living in precarious situations with no financial means, no internet, or no access to nature?

There are nagging worries, as there always are in life. I haven’t received my stimulus payment from Donald Trump yet due to an Internal Revenue Service foul up.  I’m not too worried about it, yet.

It’s been a month since I tried to get cash from two cash machines in Oxford and was given the message, “We’re sorry but we cannot process your request at this time.”  But they had processed  it on their end, so I am out $260 until it gets resolved.  I’m not too worried about it, yet.

This quote from the New York Times sums up my situation:

“Those who had assumed they could stay overseas, and wait for the pandemic to ebb, now face an unnerving choice: Either stick it out, and prepare for the possibility they will be infected with the virus and treated in foreign hospitals, or chance catching it on the way back home.”

I thought I had secured a small victory when I got through to Delta and re-booked my return flight from one stopover to as direct.  One less airport, one less plane—this could reduce my risk.  Then I got an email from the US State Department informing me that only three airlines are still flying from the UK to the US, and Delta is not one of them.  So another call to an 800 number is in my future.

In the before times, I worked two part-time gigs and had a to-do list with 17 items on it every day.  Now I feel like I am wading through thigh-deep pudding.  I feel victorious if I manage to remember why I came into a room.  This must be what dementia is like. Or maybe I am getting dementia, coincidentally at the same time as a global pandemic.

I hope you are well!

The Hours

The days roll by.  How can time go so fast when I don’t feel like I’m doing anything very exciting?

There is a phenomenon of time moving faster as you get older.  I turned 60 last week.  It doesn’t get much older than that!  Well, let’s hope it does.

A friend and I had dinner at the Randolph Hotel, a posh place that was reasonably priced.  I had gnocchi and it was okay.  But the room was splendid and the company was good, and they brought us complementary prosecco and birthday cake festooned with red currants, so it was very nice.

After dinner we walked next door to the Oxford Playhouse and saw the play Educating Rita. It’s also an old movie with Michael Caine and Julie Walters.  This version starred Stepehn Thompkinson, who starred in Ballykissangel and lots of other TV shows.

Educating Rita is about a young woman from a working class background who is thirsty to learn.  Tompkinson plays her crusty alcoholic tutor.  It was an appropriate theme for Oxford, I think, since the vast majority of the students here are from upper class families and everyone else is literally and figuratively shut out of the 38 colleges.  By that I mean that the campuses are all surrounded by high walls and the gates are guarded by porters who won’t let you in unless you’ve got some official connection.  Some colleges do promote tours of their campuses.

Then there are the free concerts, which I attend about twice a week.  I can walk up to the porter’s lodge, say “I’m here for the concert,” and they wave me through.  I enjoy walking past the hordes of proles craning their necks to get a look inside.

I’ve attended concerts at Christchurch Cathedral most often.  In one of the naves (I think that’s what it’s called, is the Lady Chapel.  It’s named for the patron saint of Oxford, Frideswide.  She was a nun born around the year 650 somewhere along the banks of the  Thames.  Her miracle—every saint needs to perform miracles—was restoring sight to the blind.

Poor Frideswide caught the eye of a king who wouldn’t take no for an answer.  You know, the age-old “Me Too” story.  There are multiple versions, but he abducted here, she got away, she hid in a forest, he ended up going blind and falling off his horse and breaking his neck. That may not have been the exact order of things, but you get the picture.

I thought this stained glass window in her chapel was particularly colorful.  A volunteer guide cornered me—not for the first time, and not that I minded—and gave me a mini Master’s Degree in the fine art of stained glass window design and production.

Another day I attended an organ concert there and we sat in the pews, which are richly decorated with carved “grotesques,” like griffins.

I’m not sure what this scrawny fellow is but he makes a nice contrast to the enormous organ in the background.

It must be an organist’s dream to play here.  The program said, “The organist has permission to play loudly” and he did.  Sadly there were only six people in attendance.

As I wrote last week, in contrast to the city centre my walk to the gym is through the low-rent district.  But I manage to find beautiful and interesting things along the way, and it’s not like I’m in any danger.

What a charming street name.

And what a cost-effective way to make more room for parking—instead of spending billions to widen the streets, just repaint the parking lines up onto the sidewalk!

More and more trees and shrubs are blooming.

Back at the house, I do my laundry, hanging it to dry in the spare room.  I have stayed in a dozen British homes and even the few people who own tumble dryers, as they call them, have an aversion to using them.

There are non-working fireplaces in the living room and dining room; originally there were probably fireplaces in every room, including the kitchen and bath.

The three cats do … cat things.  This day they were having a stare down.

Thanksgiving and Housecleaning

Happy Thanksgiving, to those of you who eat turkey today.  Or tofurky.

Today I am grateful for my freedom.  Of course I’m grateful for freedom of speech and other basic freedoms, but what I really mean is I’m grateful that I have choices.

I spent my first decades feeling trapped because I was broke and had no financial cushion.  If I planned a little weekend road trip, then learned my car needed new brakes, the trip would have to be cancelled.  I didn’t have an extra $250 or whatever those choices cost back then.  I couldn’t get my brakes fixed and take a break.

Often, it wasn’t even a choice between a necessity and a “nice to have,” like a trip.  I had to choose between paying my electric bill or my student loan installment.  Or between buying a full tank of gas or five pounds of hamburger, which was cheaper per pound than buying one.  If I chose the gas, then ramen would have to do.

It was especially hard during the long years it took for me to pay off my credit card debt.  I had a chart on the wall on which I marked the amount I paid and the declining total.  I had to have something visual in front of me or I wouldn’t have been able to stick to it.  Things didn’t get any easier after the card was paid off, because now I had to buy things with real money, which was limited.  But what a feeling of freedom.

Somewhere around the time I turned 35, I finally paid off the student loan I’d taken out when I was 20.  That thing had been like an anvil I’d been carrying on my back.

Then, when I turned 40, I got my first job where I paid my bills and to my surprise, had a few hundred dollars left over.  Wow!  I’d like to say I socked it away in savings but I blew it all on clothes.

It’s been good ever since, with a few tight patches.  As I’ve written before, I’ve mostly lived below my means and this has given me a lot of freedom and choices.  And I’ve said it before but I am super grateful that I found a duplex where my rent, including internet, heat, and electric, totals $1,005.

I am aware and grateful that I was born in a time and place—and of a class and race—which made it possible for me to pull myself up by the bootstraps.

I’ve been working on “financial hygiene” projects to get ready for my UK sojourn this winter.  I’m not in the practice of recommending particular companies, but I just moved my checking and savings accounts to Capital One from my local community bank.  I never thought I would leave my local bank for a global mega bank, but I didn’t want to pay foreign transaction fees or ATM fees and I was only earning about .002% interest on my savings.  I don’t have a lot of money, so I strive to avoid fees and earn as much interest as possible.

It took me a year of procrastinating, but I switched from ATT to Total Wireless.  My bill will be $27 a month instead of $53.  I did the research and ordered a UK sim card, giffgaff, that’ll cost $13 a month.

I set up new and stronger passwords on my accounts and tested paying my rent using Zelle.  I faced opening my car’s owner’s manual to figure out what the indicator lights on my dashboard meant—I needed new brakes!

A friend gave me a Chromecast device when he upgraded to something else and I figured out how to set it up—he’s a computer scientist and he was impressed!  I will take it to the UK and use it there too.

I am going through 22 photo albums, scrap books, year books, and boxes of ephemera and mercilessly tossing out all the photos of landscapes that could be anywhere and ticket stubs for unremarkable performances.  I hope to consolidate down to five albums.

I hate all these chores, but grateful I have the first-world freedom to tackle them.

needs and NEEDS

In real time, last weekend I spoke at a synagogue about my son’s incarceration and its aftermath.  There were about 20 people in attendance and I was nervous.  I rarely speak in front of groups, and this was a sensitive subject.  But it went fine.  Unfortunately, I know my stuff when it comes to being a prison mom, and authenticity carried the day.

They specifically wanted to know about challenges of re-entry into society. I described them in detail: housing (few landlords wants to rent to an ex con), employment (ditto, although some employers are known for be open minded), social support (many ex-offenders have been written off by family and friends), mental health and sobriety (it’s hard to stay on a healthy path when your housing is precarious and you can’t afford food, etc), medical and dental care (thank you, University of Minnesota School of Dentistry, for discount care!) and finances (prisoners net about 25 cents an hour in their jobs; Vince had amassed $300 after working full time for a year).

Supervision makes all of the above more difficult. A revolving door of agents can shop up at the ex-offender’s job or house anytime, day or night, and demand a urine sample.  Vince lived with me, and I had to have a landline installed because the Department of Corrections is not operating in the 21st Century yet.

The agents strictly enforce rules one day and let things slide the next; the capriciousness of the system is enough to drive anyone mad.

“What about voting rights?” someone asked.  It is thought that most ex-offenders would vote Democratic if allowed to vote.

“To be honest, that’s the least of their concerns, for sure when they are first released,” I replied.

Think of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.  Ex-offenders are struggling at the bottom.

A few days later I was at a friend’s house.  She and a neighbor agreed they want a Democratic presidential candidate who will bring about drastic—not incremental—change. Free college education.  Reparations for slavery.  Medicare for all.  Green New Deal.

I think about my coworkers at the YMCA.  They’re a racially diverse group of mostly blue collar young people who will probably vote Democratic—if they vote.

In nine months since I’ve worked there, none of them has ever talked about climate change, institutional racism, voting rights, or gender-neutral bathrooms.

Their concerns are: Where can I get the best deal on snow tires?  Should I make tacos or spaghetti for dinner tonight?  Should I color my hair red or get highlights or keep it black?

My coworkers aren’t at the very basic level of needs, but I worry.  If the Dems choose a candidate that Trump can paint as “extreme,” I don’t think ex-prisoners or my coworkers will vote at all.

It’s not that they’re incapable of understanding higher-level issues.  It’s that they have more basic needs demanding their attention and they’re not going to get fired up about a candidate who lectures from a flip chart about emissions trading.

In Nara, I deployed my secret weapon, a stash of five pills leftover from one of my Restless Legs Syndrome prescriptions.  I slept well for the first time in 16 nights and was giddy with energy when I awoke.  Lynn was still asleep so I hung out in the huge bathroom and made coffee with this …

… while I talked to Vince on Facebook.

“I think it must have taken five mechanical engineers to design this,” I said as I demonstrated it to my son.

Vince laughed at the thing.  “Bring me one, will you?” he requested, “so I can show it to my coworkers in the kitchen?”

“Will do,” I replied.  The connection failed so I took selfies of myself in the Nara Hotel yukata.  I never take selfies, so you know I was feeling good.

“Why don’t you just take medication every night?” Lynn asked later.  Fair question.

“Because it works, and then it stops working, and then I need to take more and more, and then it starts to actually make the symptoms worse, and then I have to go through an excruciating withdrawal process,” I explained.

“But for today, I feel human again!”

Exchanges

Thanks to Craig’s List, I found someone to sublet my duplex while I’m in Japan.  This will cover my bills back home, which will help me to not dig myself too deep into a financial pit.

The sub-letter is a Chinese guy who is earning a PhD in American Studies at the University of Minnesota. Zhang came by in February to look at the place and give me the deposit check.  Yesterday he came again to get an orientation to the house.

He brought a friend with him, Winnie, probably not her real name. Also Chinese, she graduated from the program in Counseling Psychology last year and is working two jobs, one in a group home for severely mentally ill adults and one in some other kind of home for handicapped children, I think.

So the US will still grant work visas for people who are willing to do that kind of physically and emotionally demanding work.  She probably makes minimum wage and gets no benefits.

It’s surprising, once you start thinking it through, how many things about a 900-square-foot duplex need explaining.  I’ve been foiled many a time by Italian washing machines overseas, so I didn’t take anything for granted.

Zhang is renting the place for his parents, who are coming to visit for a month.

I didn’t want to talk down to him but I didn’t want to assume he knew things.  “Your parents aren’t farmers from the Autonomous Mongolian Region, right?” I joked.  I had a renter years ago whose family fit that description.  She had not known what a waste basket was for.  I suppose, on a farm, they just burned their trash out back like we used to do in St. Paul in the 70s.

Zhang laughed and said his parents lived in a big city, but not far from that region. They had just retired from their factory jobs and this would be their first vacation.

“You mean their first vacation since retiring?”

“No, their first vacation, ever.”

Zhang seemed a bit taken aback by the gas stove.  “It’s a flame,” he remarked when I demonstrated.  I assume his parents would know all about stoves.  Maybe he never cooked until he had to fend for himself as a college student, and then maybe he ate in student dining or had a Bunsen burner in his dorm.

My compost bin also seemed a puzzle.  “Why is this woman showing me a can full of garbage, and why does she keep it in her house?” I imagined him thinking.  Winnie said, helpfully, “So the animals can eat this when you discard it outside?”

I said yes.  Why not.  I wasn’t going to try to explain how I am trying to save the planet by creating organic compost that I never use.  And the animals do eat it.

Zhang’s parents have never been on a vacation, never been outside of China or on a plane.  I’m not going to worry about them composting their food scraps.

I asked Zhang if he was done with school for the year.  He has finished his coursework and is now starting his thesis.  “I hope to finish in six years,” he said.  I wondered what his goal was—to teach?  Research?

You hear about the Chinese ability to think in terms of 50 or 100 years, unlike us Americans who are focused on where to buy our next bag of Cheetos.  Would Zhang return to China to help inform his government’s plan to make America its servant? Does that sound parnoid?  Well, I am just as vulnerable to my culture’s propaganda as any Chinese person is to his.

I felt I had to explain why I was going to Japan and not China.  “My sister-in-law is Japanese, and she and my nephews are going, so that’s why I’m going.”  I didn’t mention my daydreams if eating sushi for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

“I don’t know how my sister-in-law feels about me going,” I added.

“Inscrutable.  That’s the word westerners use about Asians,” replied Zhang.  I was glad he said it, not me.  And I was impressed.  I don’t think I knew the word “inscrutable” until I was 50.

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.

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?