I’ll Be There for You

Last week I visited a woman I had not seen or even spoken to in 47 years. You might wonder why I would seek Betsey out after a lifetime of no contact. Until a few months ago, I had no idea where she lived, or even IF she lived. I didn’t know who she had become. Then one day I saw her name on Facebook and learned she lived in Philadelphia, a city I had been visiting nearly every year since 1997 because my husband’s family lived there. I sent a friend request, she accepted, and we exchanged basic information. We made plans to meet the next time I was in Philadelphia. Neither of us had any idea if we would still be friends.

Betsey and I met when I was 11 years old, in the second half of my sixth grade year, and my family moved from Oregon to Kansas City so my father could start a new job. She was the first friend I made in my new school. She, too, had just moved to Kansas City, but her family had come from the other side of the country in New Jersey. We spent those painful pubescent years together. I spent the night at her house. She spent the night at mine. We went trick-or-treating. We listened to Sonny and Cher. We tried to play the guitar and write songs. We dressed alike. We were in a play together. We whispered about our crushes, and worried together whether we were pretty enough. She got a boyfriend. I met some other girls when we got to high school. We started drifting apart. Then she moved away, and I grew up without her.

As the time for our visit approached, Betsey wrote that she’d been remembering things. She’d read about a scientific study that suggested that the brains of children in middle school are like sponges, absorbing and retaining information and experiences more thoroughly than at any other time of development. I had noticed something like that too. I had recently started studying Spanish for the first time since 7th grade and IMG_8466was astounded by how much I remembered. Betsey told me she could picture my parents and siblings clearly, and had vivid memories of my house. I agreed. The mental pictures and emotions of that time and our relationship were rising to the surface. I started to get excited, too.

When Betsey came to her door at my knock, we fell into each other’s arms, calling out to each other across nearly a half a century. Within seconds, we were talking and laughing and telling our stories. There was no awkwardness, no reticence to share. She was, in my 62-year-old eyes, exactly, remarkably, the same. She was my friend, as she aways had been.

How is that possible? We have lived on opposite sides of the country all these years. She had a daughter. I had one son and raised two more. She is highly educated; a professor of art at a university and a gifted painter. I never made it through college, and my path took me in the direction of journalism. But we found that even though we were lost to each other all that time, we still speak the same language. Our attitudes about life and love and work and art and beauty and humor are still in synch, just as they were when we were 12 years old. When I was at her house she asked me, what would we do if we lived near each other? Well that’s easy, I said. We’d be friends.




Fly Me to the Moon

My husband and I just got back from a trip to Pennsylvania, flying on two different planes each way. Except for some slightly nerve-wracking turbulence, the flights were uneventful, and we arrived at our destinations in one piece. Because we are apparently complete idiots, we spent a total of $100 checking our suitcases. They aren’t particularly large suitcases; they easily could fit into the overhead bins. But we checked them so we wouldn’t have to haul them around between flights, and so we wouldn’t have to slow down the boarding process pushing them through the narrow aisles and cramming them into the bins. And, what’s more, we wouldn’t slow down the de-planing process for everyone, reaching up and pulling the heavy cases down on the heads of our fellow passengers. But it appears we are in the minority. And, adding insult to injury since every flight is completely full these days, the airlines nicely ask travelers to just leave their cases at the entrance to the plane, and they’ll stow them for them — for free.

This officially pisses me off. But I have a staggeringly simple answer to the problem: Airlines should charge passengers to carry on their luggage. Stowing their stuff should be free. Think about it. Wouldn’t it be lovely to file quickly on and off the plane? It would be so nice and safe for the flight attendants who, according to an attendant I recently met, have suffered an unprecedented number of injuries since airlines started charging for checked bags. And, though I understand airlines make money by filling their planes, I would argue they shouldn’t be filling them with bulky suitcases that rightfully should be stowed below the passenger cabin. OK, so maybe they wouldn’t make as much money in luggage fees, but the smiles on everyone’s faces — priceless!

And while I’m complaining about flying, I have one more suggestion. People who sit by the window should at least ask their neighbor if they mind if they pull down the shade even before takeoff. After all, everybody knows that vigilant passengers like me keep the plane in the air by looking out the window.

Nana’s Apartment

In the photograph, I’m posed before a giant cone of a holly tree that grows in front of Nana’s apartment building. I’m dressed in dark green like the holly, a dress with a lacy white collar and black bow. I’m holding a little purse with both hands. I wear a pixie haircut, blonde bangs cut straight across and impossibly short. I look happy, and I notice that the date stamped on the deckled edge of the snapshot is 1961. I’m eight years old, and spending the night at Nana’s.

The apartments are huge, with landscaped courtyards and paved walkways. It’s distressed brick, built in the 1040s I’d guess. When we walk through the place together, I always skip around a certain flower bed the opposite way from Nana. “You have to say ‘bread and butter’ when you do that or we’ll quarrel,” says Nana. I like the word quarrel; nobody at my houses uses that word.

The buildings are two stories, but number 47 is on the ground floor. It has two entrances; the front door opens to the courtyard, but the door we usually use is in the kitchen. It opens on to N.E. Irving Street behind the Jantzen factory on Sandy Boulevard. There’s a community garden; this is the only place that Nana ever wears pants, when she’s working in her flower patch. To this day, I think of Nana in her pedal pushers whenever I smell a particularly fragrant rose.

I love Nana’s apartment. It smells like her; sort of powdery. She says her old house before her husband died had once been featured in Sunset Magazine. I’ve seen the picture. It was elegant. But now Nana lives in her one-bedroom apartment, which I think is just as elegant. Everything is sort of one color here. Icy green. The walls, the carpet, some of the upholstery. Even the rug in her tiny bathroom is light green. It makes me feel quiet when I’m at Nana’s. All her things have a place where they belong. She has pretty dishes, and we drink 7-up out of little bottles poured into cut glass tumblers. Nana’s furniture looks like nobody sits in it, except for the rocking chair. That’s Nana’s spot.

When I stay with Nana, I sleep in one of the twin beds in her room. They have heavy brocade bedspreads, which she folds back neatly before we go to sleep. I secretly laugh when she gets into her nightgown. Her underpants are sort of funny, and she wears something she calls a “foundation garment” instead of a bra and white underpants like my mom does. Above my bed is a photograph of me when I was little. Above Nana’s bed is my sister’s picture. She’s prettier than I am, with curling dark hair and blue eyes with long eyelashes. When I say that to Nana, she tells me that her friend says she likes my picture better. I know I’m not as pretty, but I like that Nana’s friend sees something special when she looks at me.

When I get tired of listening to Nana’s records, she sometimes lets me neaten her drawers in her bureau. In the top drawer, she keeps her handkerchiefs and scarves. I take everything out and fold it and put it back in. There are little satin pouches trimmed in lace that I learn are called sachets. My mom says she wishes I kept my own drawers neat like I do Nana’s.

Twenty years later, my first newsroom job was just a few blocks from that apartment. Nana had lived there for some 40 years by then, and I didn’t visit her very often anymore. I was working the three to eleven p.m shift; I was too busy. Then, one night, just after I’d gone home, there was a fire in Nana’s apartment. If I’d still been at work, I’d have been sitting on the assignment desk listening to the police scanners. I might have heard the fire and rescue call. As it happened, one of Nana’s heavy coverlets had slipped off her bed and landed on a nightlight plugged into the wall. It smoldered for awhile, creating more smoke than flames. Later we were told she had a heart attack as she tried to escape. They found her lying by the kitchen door.

The final time my brother, sister and I were in Nana’s apartment was later that day after they had removed her body. Through the windows we could see news crews filming — her elegant things lying in soggy, smoking heaps on the carpet that used to be icy green.

I Believe I Can Fly

I like to joke that when I lost my TV news reporter job, it took two men to fill it. While that did happen, it’s not the whole truth. The real story shamed me, and I’m guessing something like that just wouldn’t happen today. And that’s a good thing.

At the end of 1979, I was 26 years old, already divorced (I know what you’re thinking, but that’s another story) and majoring in Radio and TV  at Portland Community College. I’d had two years of college at the University of Kansas in the early 70s, in Theater, of all things, but I was far from any sort of degree. When ABC affiliate KATU Television in Portland asked my professor to recommend someone for a temporary job as a production assistant for a morning show, he sent me. I happened to be older than the other kids in my class, so he probably thought I’d make his program look good. Anyway, my first day was Halloween, and when I walked through those doors at Channel Two, knees shaking, I was determined to make the most of the opportunity.

It took me only a few months to land a permanent job as newsroom secretary, answering phones and doing administrative tasks for the news director. I was good at the phone answering part, but I didn’t really know how to type in those days, and I laugh now to think about how that must have looked to my new employers. I learned fast, though, and the weekend producer, who is a friend to this day, started letting me try my hand at writing news stories. I soon moved up to a news writer job, which was the hardest thing I’d ever tried to do. Trial by fire, that’s what it was, being responsible for what the anchors said on the air, and somehow I survived. In those days we had manual typewriters, and we used eight-ply carbon paper. Our scripts were literally pounded out in three-inch columns, which would be run through the teleprompter on a conveyor belt contraption up in the production booth during the newscasts. That was my job, and I absolutely loved it. By hanging around in the newsroom all day, writing stories and ripping wire and helping the producers and running that prompter, I knew everything that was going on, not only in our region, but in the world! For an under-educated woman like me, it was heady stuff, and it changed me forever.

Pretty soon, they started letting me voice stories that came in from stringers around the area. Then, finally, I was given the weekend reporter job. I was still a writer during the week, but I got to go out on stories on the weekends. I did that for years, working nights and weekends. Reporters came and went, and I worked my way up by doing the crappy shifts. I eventually got a day shift, though, and got to cover everything from courts to government to crime to disasters to features. I interviewed Gerald Ford and Jesse Jackson. I went to New York and Rome on stories. I covered a notorious murder trial from start to finish. You name it, I covered it. It was a hard job with deadlines every single day. All of a sudden the technology changed, and reporters had to go live. I was never fantastic at that, but I did it. I like to think that most of the time I got the facts straight. I was a quick study, and they could send me out on pretty much anything and I’d bring back the story. I did not miss deadlines, either. I didn’t win any awards (never applied for any) but I did okay.

When I had been at the station for eight years or so, I got pregnant. I was among the first female TV reporters in Portland to work during an entire pregnancy. I worked up until the end, had the baby, and went on a three-month maternity leave. I had made an agreement with my boss, the news director, that I’d work three days a week when I returned. That was the deal.

While I was gone, things changed at the station. The news director left and a new one was hired. I wasn’t there to introduce myself, and when it was time for me to come back to work my job had disappeared.  I got called into the guy’s office, and he told me that I looked “tired and overweight.” I was 35 years old. I was tired; I had a tiny baby at home who didn’t sleep much. Overweight? Well, I was still carrying 15 pounds or so, but I still weighed less than I do now. And when I see myself in photos from that time, I looked pretty good. The news director offered me another job, which was acting as a producer for a fellow reporter. Not knowing what else to do, I took it. It was absolutely humiliating, and I hated it.

As for my reporter job? The new news director brought in two men from his old station in North Carolina. With all due respect for these two men, I will say that one of them outweighed me by 100 pounds, easy, and the other was not better looking than I was. These guys were not responsible for my fall from grace, and I had nothing against them. Maybe they were better reporters than I was. But I felt so ashamed, such a failure. I just didn’t have any fight in me. I let this guy steal my career, and I did nothing. A year and a half later, I left TV and began another career at Oregon Health and Science University. It all worked out in the end, and I’d never want to work in TV news now, but it rankles me to this day.

Here’s the thing: If I had been a man, this would not have happened to me. In fact, I probably could have mounted a legal challenge, and maybe I would even have won. But I didn’t, and for more than 25 years, I’ve tried to come to terms with that. At the time, I did not believe I was worthy of that job. I didn’t not believe I was smart enough, pretty enough, educated enough. I did not believe I was talented enough.

Years have gone by, obviously, and I made a wonderful new career for myself making videos for non-profits and health organizations. I’ve learned so much, and have become a video editor, something I never would have done if I’d stayed in news. But more importantly,  I’ve found myself championing the young women in my life. All my friends’ daughters, my nieces, the neighbor girls, the young women I worked with. I always tell them that they deserve to be respected. I ask them to believe in themselves, in their worth. I tell them they deserve to be loved and treated well in their relationships. I encourage them to stay in school, get an education they can be proud of. God, I wish somebody had said any of those things to me. Maybe it wouldn’t have made a difference in my life. But it might have if I had just believed.

All We Need is an Island

There’s a guy on Smith Island, Maryland whose life seems tiny and huge at the same time. His name is Tim, and his lineage goes back a dozen generations on this little patch of turf that peeks out of the Chesapeake Bay right at the Virginia border. Tim hardly ever leaves Smith Island. He knows where he belongs and who is is: a master forager, amateur archaeologist, and keeper of the flame of island memory. He’ll tell you in his  unique island patois that he’d rather focus on the past than the future, and he’d rather stay in his own watery backyard than cast his net  into the wider world.

When my husband, Jim,  first suggested we visit Smith Island (which was named for Captain John Smith, who reportedly went there in the 17th century) I was less than enthusiastic. It’s an hourlong boat ride across the bay from the Eastern Shore mainland town of Crisfield, and I make no bones about the fact that big water scares me. But I agreed to go, so that was that. The crossing happens once a day. Pilots Big Terry and his son Little Terry live on Smith Island, and every morning at 7:30 they motor over to Crisfield in their cruiser,  which to me looks like a converted fishing boat, about 25 feet long. They return at 12:30 sharp, and if you want to ride along, it will cost you $20. You’ll probably be sharing the ride with boxes of groceries, piles of lumber and hardware, and usually at least a half-dozen people, nearly all of them residents. Only about 350 people live there, and not all of them full time. The only way to get the supplies they need is by boat. So the two Terrys make their living ferrying goods and folks back and forth, in all kinds of weather.

Fortunately for us, the October day dawns sunny, and as we climb onto the beat-up little boat, I relax a bit. It’s standing room only, so I lean against the grocery boxes and listen in to the conversations around me as we bump across the channel. There are a couple of middle-aged women on board, both of whom now own cottages on the Island, but are from somewhere else. They lament the loss of one of their neighbors, an old man who had died suddenly. I learn there are only three communities on Smith Island, and absolutely everybody knows everybody. The ladies start talking about an art show somebody wants to put on, and they wonder if there will be enough people on the island to make it worth the effort. Inside the boat’s cabin, there’s a little boy and a woman who looks to be his grandma. The boy acts like he’s made this crossing a hundred times, just like the rest of the passengers.

As we putt-putt into the town of Ewell, our destination, I notice the infrastructure of the port looks none too sturdy. The docks are missing slats, the buildings are unpainted, and some of them are falling into the water. Grass grows tall in and out of the shallow water. Tackle is piled up everywhere, and empty crab pots are stacked high. When we disembark, Michelle, the host of the Smith Island Inn, is waiting for us with her golf cart. It takes about five minutes to tour the town, and we settle in at the three bedroom B & B. We are the only guests, and the house is inviting  and clean. Michelle shows us where the bicycles are, and reminds us that we have an appointment for an island tour with Tim in about an hour. Since the only restaurant closes at four when we’ll be out on Tim’s boat, she assures us she’ll pick up our crab cake and coleslaw dinners and bring them to the house, where we can eat them later.

You don’t need gears on your island bike. The terrain is completely flat, and some is under water. In fact, as we cycle down the road, we have to dodge large puddles, and there is standing water in most people’s yards. Mosquitoes are  a torment, and we try to outrun them on our bikes. In a couple of minutes we’re on our way to Rhodes Point, which is really just a few houses and a couple of dilapidated docks. The view over the water is spectacular though, and it’s so quiet you can see the appeal for solitude seekers. But again, there’s so much water lapping at our bike tires that I can’t help but think living here would be very dicey in a storm. And it doesn’t take much imagination to see this island vanishing into the Chesapeake, taking its centuries of history with it.

Tim has strong opinions about the future of Smith Island, and for the next couple of hours, he will explain by – quite literally – taking us back in time. Inside his little museum next door to the Cape Cod style house he grew up in, are dozens of neatly framed displays of native spear points. Since he was a boy, he has combed the miles and miles of shoreline looking for artifacts, and he’s found thousands of them. In fact, he’s educated himself so thoroughly on the subject, he’s considered an expert by the Smithsonian. He shows us specimens he claims date back nearly 13,000 years. To Tim, this is proof that the area was inhabited far earlier than most people think. It’s really a dazzling array, lovingly preserved and categorized by area and material and date. Pretty impressive. He also has on display two “long guns,” which are eight-foot-long rifles that were outlawed early in the 20th century. Why? Because one shot from one of these beauties could bring down three dozen birds. Hardly a fair fight. Tim says islanders kept on doing it for decades after it was made illegal. After all, who’s watching all the way out in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay?

After the museum, we cycle down to the dock, and hop into Tim’s open fiberglass power boat, probably 18 feet long or so. Tim’s had his own boat since he was a kid, of course, and he knows every inch of every channel deep enough to allow the boat through. There are hundreds of miles of shoreline here. It’s not beach; it’s grass, and Tim weaves his boat through the maze as if he’s been doing it all his life, which, of course, he has. He takes us to a spot where we can  look for arrowheads and sea glass. How he can tell one spot from another is beyond me, but we jump out and start hunting. With Tim’s guidance, I find an arrowhead, and I’m so excited when he tells me it’s an “antiquated point, between 4,000 and 5,000 years old.” Cool. We collect some old bottle glass too, which Tim assures us is from 19th century settlements that have since disappeared into the bay.

We follow up our hunt with a thrilling cruise through the wildlife refuge, which is part of the island. We see flocks of pelicans and other seabirds, and it’s so beautiful and full of life, we find ourselves grinning from ear to ear. We’ve heard that erosion is a huge problem for Smith Island, but Tim doesn’t seem too worried. He believes the tides just move sand and soil from one spot and deposit it in another, over and over and over again. He does worry about the dwindling oyster and crab populations though, and as he sits at the helm of his boat In white rubber boots, torn t-shirt, plaid jacket and baseball cap, he speaks of the fragility of nature in surprisingly poetic language.

When we get back to the inn, our dinners are waiting. I have no doubt the crab was caught that morning; it is the freshest, most delicious crab cake ever, and probably the best meal I’ve ever had on a paper plate. We follow it up with some Smith Island Cake, which is actually famous. It is between 8 and 15 layers of yellow cake, with icing between each layer. It’s delicate and sweet, and I’m glad I can’t get my hands on it where I come from.

Too soon — at 7:30 the next morning — we are back on the boat with the Big and Little Terrys on our way back to the mainland. It’s a bumpy ride, but I forget all about that as soon as I start talking to an island resident who spent her career in the foreign service. She lived in Iraq and Africa and Pakistan, and retired a decade ago to raise her daughter on Smith Island. The girl attended Ewell School, with fewer than a dozen other kids, and is now kicking butt at a prestigious private college in Annapolis. To my astonishment, this lady is an ardent democrat, and I find myself once again reminded of the most important lesson of traveling: Throw your pre-conceived notions out the window.  You absolutely never know who you’re going to meet in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay.

I spread my lovin’ arms across the land…

I wish I was more excited about the possibility of a woman in the White House. Well, that’s not exactly true; I am excited by that possibility. It’s just that I am not excited about Hillary. To me, there is nothing new here. I don’t hear anything that I think could break the gridlock in Congress, so to me it seems business as usual. Maybe I’m missing something like a spark of genius or a unique woman’s perspective. But I doubt it, and that makes me sad.

A couple of weeks ago, a friend called to ask if I was planning to watch the Republican Presidential Debate. I was horrified at the thought, actually. Nothing would make my blood pressure go up faster than to listen to 10 politicians with whom I vehemently disagree expound self-righteously and rail against my dearly held beliefs on Fox Television. Ugh. What a buzz kill. And what makes it so much worse is that the driver of the Republican “Clown Car” is none other than Donald Trump.

Now I know this isn’t an important point, and it’s not very nice, but I couldn’t help but notice that the camera is not kind to the Donald. For some reason, he ends up looking like somebody in the TV control room is trying to blur out his forehead, sort of like they do when they’re trying not to identify a whistle blower or eye witness during an interview. Anybody else see that? His wispy blonde hair creates this cloud around his face, and I bet anything that’s not the look he’s going for. Go back and watch it if you don’t believe me.

But I digress. The real reason I bring up Donald Trump is because I feel a sort of Sarah Palin deja vu here. Once again, a “plain talking” blowhard is steering the conversation away from the real issues. I’m thinking people probably say the same thing about Bernie Sanders, right? So are there differences between them? Do Trump and Sanders represent the extremes of right and left in this country? I bet there are a lot of people who would see it that way.

My husband Jim always says, “Where you stand determines what you see.” Ain’t that the truth. I see Donald Trump as a joke wrapped in billions of dollars. I see him as a man with very questionable morals. The fact that he could make billions does not qualify him to run this country. I think he is tactless, classless, clueless, and tasteless. I do not want a man like Trump representing me to the rest of the world, and I am appalled anybody else would.

That said, I’ve heard people call Sanders an idiot. Granted, he doesn’t have much finesse, and his ideas about how to close the income gap in this country are pretty radical. He could use a good haircut and somebody should remind him to tuck in his shirt.  More important though, is that  like Trump (and Palin), Sanders’ plain-talking speech is refreshing to his constituents. He doesn’t mince words, and he appeals to many people who are tired of the partisan shenanigans in Washington. So yes, you could say there are similarities.

But I would argue there is one fundamental difference, party affiliation aside. Unlike Trump, Sanders is not a rich man, he isn’t pandering to the rich, nor is he backed by the rich. Quite the opposite. So if the choices are to back the candidate who champions the common man, that’s who I will choose to support. Can anyone with a straight face say that’s who Trump is championing?

And that brings us back to Hillary. She tells us every chance she gets that she’s backing the little people. I’m pretty sure she thinks she is, too. But I don’t think you can be bankrolled by the elite establishment and expect the American people to believe that. The trouble is, being bankrolled by the by the elite establishment seems to be the only way to get elected. I heard Bernie say that if he were ever in the position to choose a Supreme Court justice, he’d have one litmus test: he would only appoint a justice who promised to repeal Citizen’s United. Like Bernie, I think that court decision severely damaged this country by allowing our electoral process to be bought, plain and simple.

The election season is just getting started. I wish I believed it could actually be different this time around. I think Bernie makes it interesting. I think Trump makes it scary. I’m guessing once again that there are millions who see it the other way around.

“Goin’ to the chapel of love”

I’ll admit up front that I don’t understand why people want to keep other people from marrying those they love. I do not have a strong religious background; I’m a Unitarian Universalist, if I must call myself something. So when I saw the Kentucky clerk cite “God’s Law” when she refused to issue a marriage license to a gay couple, when same-sex marriage is now the law of the land,  I wondered how this one American woman with no formal legal or (I’m guessing here) religious training knows with such certainty what God intended in that particular statute?

When you think about it, every single day in this country thousands of attorneys and their teams, judges and their courts, students and their professors, debate and test American and International law. It’s probably more like millions of legal minds who focus on precedents, details, hidden meanings regarding laws all over the world. It’s complicated, and it changes with the times. So how one person could have the arrogance to declare what the law is when it comes to a marriage contract is beyond me.

A few years ago, I read a book by Elizabeth Gilbert about marriage. She had resisted getting married for a number of years, but had finally changed her mind. She wanted to know about the history of marriage, so she started doing research. What she found — and what really struck me — was that marriage pre-dates Christianity by centuries. It came about because people needed to commit to taking care of each other and their children in very rugged circumstances. Somebody had to hunt; somebody had to gather; somebody had to make sure the kids didn’t starve. It was often an agreement between families to consolidate land holdings and resources. Sometimes it was to distribute wealth or, for that matter, genes. It was a contract that didn’t have anything to do with any religious affiliation. Until, one day, it did.

Years ago I helped make a documentary with the local Catholic archdiocese at the Vatican in Rome. One of the priests assigned to help us told us something that really stuck with me. He said that a pope (I forget which one — it was centuries ago) decided that priests and their large families were bleeding the church of its wealth. So, in his infallible way, he declared that priests could no longer marry. I have yet to meet a Catholic who knows that little fact. It wasn’t “God” who decided priests couldn’t marry, it was a pope who wanted to secure the church’s riches in perpetuity.

So when I hear people cite “God’s Law” when it comes to marriage, I wonder what history book they’re reading.

One more thing. I find it so interesting that young people I talk to find the issue of same-sex marriage a non-issue. Somehow they know that the freedom to love who we love should trump man-made rules that are, frankly, obsolete. If that lady in Kentucky doesn’t believe in same-sex marriage, she doesn’t have to attend a wedding. But since it’s American taxpayers who employ her,  she does have to obey the law. And what a hard fought law it is: one that is intended to respect family values and fight against discrimination.