Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Carla says all we get is moments, and she’s right. So here are some of mine from 2008:

Listening to C play piano downstairs as he is doing now, while I type this in bed. The gentle sound drifts up. He’s improvising, noodling, it sounds a little classical, and then jazzy, and then like a lullabye…

Last Sunday, with my Little Sister in Redwood Park. She had asked me to “take her to the woods!” so I brought her up there. “Is this the woods?” she asked. She was curious, alert, interested, calm. Nature is big enough to hold her in a way that man-made environments can’t. We greeted and petted every dog we saw, looked at horse shoe prints, discovered moss, peered down gopher holes, collected pine cones. She was a dream, and I had so much fun with her. And it lasted for two and a half hours. She hugged me when we parted. A small turning point.

The wonderful Japanese restaurant lunch in Massachusetts in October, celebrating Dad’s and my birthdays. Eli flopping his all-of-a-sudden lanky little body on me, treating me like a bean bag chair. Noah slung his elbow over my shoulder just because he can—he’s shot up to almost my height and the next time I see him he will have overtaken me. Afterwards, standing in the sunlight with my dad and siblings and nephews, watching C play soccer with the boys. Pretending to be a shark for my nieces so they could enjoy screaming and running away.

White water rafting with C in Oregon, feeling the thrill of adrenaline as we rushed down the river, wondering if we’d keep our seats or get dumped overboard, getting drenched to the skin and at the very end slipping over the edge in our life jackets and paddling gently to shore.

The first bed and breakfast we stayed in in Oregon, a lovingly reconstructed old farmhouse—each detail was perfect. Seeing Othello in the big theatre, having read it aloud together and watched the movie. C whispering to me that he never would have enjoyed it that much if we hadn’t done that and how much he appreciated the new learning. Feeling like I could actually teach him something when he’d been instructing me all summer in carpentry and painting and sanding and spackling.

My fiftieth birthday party, I felt giggly and pretty and danced and read poetry and when I looked around everyone was playing music and making connections, and talking and eating and having fun.

Watching Arabian Nights a few nights ago at the Berkeley Rep. Gorgeous, rich theatre—I wanted to eat that production, I wanted to smear it all over my body like honey and sesame paste, it was like halvah, so rich, so sweet, so good.

Being at Harbin with Carla last July, laughing and crying on the bed, watching her enjoy water-walking in the big warm pool, slipping out of our room to go swimming in the early mornings, naked, with the pool all to myself.

In fact, swimming in general, a reliable way to reach ecstasy, especially when I have a lane to myself. There were some good swims in 2008. I hope for even more in 2009.

Reading Doubt and realizing I was in the presence of a work of genius. Reading Women of Manhattan and feeling my eyes widen in recognition: this writer gets it.

C proposing to me at the Berkeley Marina, my astonishment and our laughter and the deep gladness of knowing we both want each other that much. Being moved once again by how he’s willing to lay it on the line. Calling my father to tell him the news that evening; he was having dinner with my godparents, his cell phone was on because he was awaiting word from the hospital where my stepbrother Stoph and his wife Moire were having their first baby. Dad was so happy he said, “I can’t even begin to describe all the feelings that are rushing through me right now.”

Our sweet Passover dinner with old friends Lauren and Daniel and their two-year-old Mirabai. It was Mirabai’s first Seder and she was toddling around, very interested in everything and even wanted to come sit on my chair with me for a while which felt like a great blessing. Telling her about Elijah and opening the door. Passing on the tradition.

Dad’s visit—waking early in the morning and walking up 38th Ave to try to catch the radiance of his early morning self.

Watching Obama get elected. Screaming, “He got Ohio! He got Ohio!”—was it Ohio this time? The state he needed to put him over the top. Feeling so overwhelmed at what was happening I couldn’t take it all in. C beside me on the couch breaking into tears, friends drinking champagne together and feeling that the world had changed.

So many moments of sitting in audiences watching Carla perform, but the one that stands out to me is a gig at Anna’s. I was there with Gerry and she sang a song she had written about being scared in the middle of the night and I dissolved.

Climbing Mt. Grace in Massachusetts on a beautiful warm October day and seeing the undulant colored hills all around—a sea of hills, all the way to forever.

Having my play produced in Detroit and my Dad and stepmother and Masankho and C all came. Masankho just made it at the last moment. Seeing my dad crying at the end--he was overcome with emotion.

Writing Love Shack and realizing I’ve already got 13 poems towards my next book.

Making love in various rooms of the house and feeling like teenagers. First time I’ve lived without roommates in ten years. All our teasing, play-fights, and even some of our real fights. Holding ground—new and scary. Working it out. Tears and deeper understanding. Long walks in the woods.

Being scared to take the Impact class and taking it, and realizing the part of me that was hungering to fight and be powerful. Awakening the sleeping warrior inside.

Singing a duet with Catherine Rose at my birthday party and hearing her say she always thought I had a nice voice.

Making chicken mole for the first time and having it turn out well, making delicious gazpacho stuffed with fragrant herbs, making matzah brei for C this morning...

Sitting with a student at the Impact class where I was an assistant teacher. She was crying about a rape that happened years ago. Knowing exactly what to do—nothing—and doing it lovingly. Feeling her release her trauma, and knowing we were in the exactly right place doing just what needed to be done.

Going to The Albatross, a bar, with C and G and Carla, and playing that game about who would you like to have dinner with, living or dead. Realizing the people I most wanted to be with were right there at the table with me. Teasing Carla about how she needed to be carried out by two guys, even though of course it wasn’t because of the one beer she drank. Seeing how gentle and courtly G is with her.

Watching the Olympics, the tremendous spectacle of the opening ceremonies, even if it was politically incorrect and fake, it was still an amazing show. Watching the whole thing sitting on the couch between G and C, eating salt and vinegar potato chips.

Taking my Little Sister and her real big sister into the city to see Elizabeth’s show. Playing I Spy with them in the car going over, with C—just like a family.

Watching The Wire with C, occasionally pausing the DVD to deconstruct the action or figure out what the characters were saying. Feeling like it is a joint effort to appreciate this complex well-written show. Seeing how much of the street life it shows is similar to the lives of C’s students at Juvenile Hall, and how it affirms something to have that devastating reality reflected back.

Clothing swap with Marci and girlfriends, not so much the loot I came home with, just the camaraderie of women and bodies and clothes—humor, support, and generosity.

Singing with Beth and Hadass at E’s birthday, standing in the center of the circle, singing as an act of prayer, leaning in to listen closely and feeling bound by ropes of song and love.

And what were your moments of 2008, o readers, anonymous or named?

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

It was cold and beautiful on Alameda Beach the day after Christmas, that hushed, in-between time of year when everyone seems to be pausing to take a breath and a look around. Sunset was spreading pink and blue and purple and orange to the west. Darker clouds scudding, beach grass blowing, the twinkling lights of San Francisco in the distance. Bundled-up people in ones and twos and threes congregated by the bird sanctuary and embraced each other through scarves and puffy coats. You could see a flash of Carla's bright hair and brighter smile in the wheelchair as she waited with her father and her son for everyone to arrive. Amazingly, she didn't seem cold at all.

One of the things that has happened in this last year since her diagnosis has been the birth of a community. It is made up of the smaller communities that already existed around her before; her moms' group, her artist friends; her College of Marin people; her family. Now we've all overlapped and become friends with each other.

There was a lot of hugging and kissing, and then Carla moved to a regular chair, and four strong men carried her, Jewish-wedding style, down onto the sand where she could sit and watch the water. We gathered in a shivering circle around her, each person holding a votive candle, while Carla told us we had been the rays of light in the darkness for her over the last year, and the setting sun shot its last rays of gold over the glistening sand and tide pools and driftwood.

Carla's beloved brother Jason was with us long-distance via cell phone, and her dad spoke and then Maclen gave the most eloquent tribute any son has ever given his mother. Carla has reprinted it on her blog at if anyone wants to read it. I don't know how he got this breadth of vision and wisdom so young, except that he's had to develop it, but thank God he has.

Then we each took a smooth river rock from a bag and went down to water's edge where Carla's father Jack demonstrated the proper skipping technique. It was the best combination of emotional and playful, in a gorgeous natural setting and with the diverse crowd that's closest to Carla (well, there are other people close to Carla's heart who couldn't be there in flesh but were certainly present in spirit) that could be. How odd and fitting and heartbreaking and crazy that we were "celebrating" this year of her diagnosis, a time when we've all been stretched and pummelled by fate. How good to look out at the big ocean and lift up our eyes to the gorgeous ever-changing panoply of the sky.

And then we went out to eat Chinese food around a big steaming table.

This is how it's been all year--from the sublime to the ordinary. Lisa said to me, "This has been the best and the worst year of my life." The best because she married her beloved and their relationship deepens and sweetens daily, and the worst because of Carla's health. The same is true for me--I got engaged to the best, most mischievous, fiercely loving, creative, honest man I ever met, my play got produced, I became a woman warrior through IMPACT and so many other blessings, on and on and on--and I'm losing the friend in my life who always gets it, (who always gets me,) who can hold tragedy in one hand and comedy in the other and not flinch, who is hilarious, compassionate, clear-eyed, generous, and always a few steps ahead.

She gave me my birthday presents--a T-shirt which reads DESTRUCTOGRRL and another one which states "MY spirit animal is a dust bunny." Perfect.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

I just finished reading Gavin deBecker’s wonderful book The Gift of Fear and I am wiped out. Literally. The book hit me like a train. It’s beautifully written, and it’s about intuition, violence, compassion, crime, mental illness, child abuse, and awareness. DeBecker’s personal story is inspiring: he grew up with a crazy violent mother, and a series of bad stepfathers, and emerged able to use his power and his pain for good not evil. You can see the hurt child in his eyes on the back jacket photo, but he’s managed to integrate all the hell he went through into a brilliant career.

I wanted to write him a letter. It would read something like “Mr. deBecker, can I work for you? I’m very intuitive and creative. Alright, I don’t know a thing about law enforcement, have only touched a real gun twice in my life, am so unobservant of my environment that my partner cleans the house and then waits around for me to notice something is different, but oh, I want to track down bad guys just like you.”

I told a friend I wanted to be a forensic psychologist once and she laughed so hard she dropped the phone. When she came back on she gently reminded me of how I had had to leave the room when she started watching CSI on TV—it was the autopsy scene that got me. Anyway I am signing up for a class on abnormal psychology. DeBecker says that 100% of serial murderers were abused as children, no big surprise there—and he recommended both the IMPACT program and Big Brothers/Big Sisters, both of which I’m involved in, so it all seems synchronistic.

What fascinated me most about deBecker’s book was the section on being able to predict people’s behavior. In fact, he says, most acts of domestic violence as well as celebrity stalking and assassination attempts are preceded by lots of warning signals on the part of the assailant. People say these things come out of the blue, but that’s not really true. Everyone has intuition much of which we ignore or override because of our social conditioning.

Reading between the lines, I imagine many other types of behavior could be predicted as well. I think back to the men I dated and was blind-sided by before C. Could I have foreseen infidelity? What blinded me to the obvious fact that they were either unready for the depth of relationship I wanted or not that into me?

I saw what I wanted to see, and selectively ignored evidence to the contrary. I assumed other people were operating under the same set of rules I was. Common mistakes. But I hope I can learn from them and not repeat them. For every time I’ve been taken advantage of, I hope I can put that experience to good use.

Saturday night we went to a Jewish music concert, produced by my friend Kaila Flexer. It was amazing. Kaila’s violin just soared, sensitive, subtle, passionate, and moody. I love the new stuff she’s doing with her musical partner. It’s really indescribable—heavily influenced by all the Balkan music she’s been studying, yet edgy and intimate. To have a listen or get their latest CD, go to Kaila’s web site at

Then Kitka performed—they did a bunch of songs in Yiddish, and some in Ladino with their trademark drones and gorgeous close harmonies. I’ve been listening to Kitka for decades and they only get better and more beautiful.

The last group was klezmer, with a clarinet player who made me want to learn clarinet, and an accordionist who looked like Gilda Radner and could recite reams of translated Yiddish song lyrics with ease. Carla was doing sound cues for the whole thing, from her wheelchair. Zellerbach auditorium seats about a thousand people and it was almost sold out.

I was kvelling about how Kaila had put the whole thing together, and how talented she is, she and my beautiful talented friend Catherine Rose who is one of the founding members of Kitka and still singing with them, and how much determination it took Carla was to be able to do the cues She was exhausted, after having been there almost all day. She’s amazing in her work ethic and her dedication and I can’t decide if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. It may be both.

I saw my Little Sister on Sunday and helped her buy gifts for her granny and her sister, took her out to lunch, took her back to the house and made hot chocolate and tried to interest her in playing. The one thing she wanted to do was mess with my make-up, so I let her—she wrote Love in crooked letters on each of my cheeks, used a prodigious amount of every color eye shadow I have, and just went to town on me. By the end I looked like the Joker. Then I was in the bathroom trying to wash my face and she kept trying to take more make-up even after I had declared the game over.

“No means no!” I barked in my mother’s voice.

“I was just playin’ with you,” she insisted.

That’s her way, this “just playin’” which can also be called pushing limits until I push back hard—and then continuing to test. I think it’s her ADHD that makes time with her exhausting—she veers around like a pinball in a machine, looking for pleasure and satisfaction but unable to alight on anything for more than a few moments. We did have some good moments in the store, after she had picked out her gifts and when she got a store clerk to wrap them in the wrapping paper she chose, and with the color ribbon she wanted—black for her sister “because she’s Goth,” she explained to the amused clerk.

And the make-up thing was fun until it got out of hand, and making hot chocolate was fun until she dumped half the cinnamon bottle into her cup, and, and…

I wonder about deBecker’s predictions, whether she’ll make it or not, whether she’ll end up on drugs or in jail, or lead a good life. They say having a positive interaction with an adult helps—and she has lots of loving adults around her, although she doesn’t have parents—but she seems attracted to, identified with the values of the street. When she gets in my car she always turns the radio immediately to a hip hop station, and turns the volume up to earsplitting levels until I turn it back down so we can talk.

As I drove her to the restaurant, she said, a propos of nothing, “I live in the ghetto. People be shoot, be rob, they be kill.”

“Yes,” I said.

“I was born in the ghetto,” she said. Then she said, “I am the ghetto.” I don’t know where she got that, if it’s a line in a song or what, but I reacted. “You are not the ghetto,” I said. “You are a beautiful little girl! You are not where you came from.”

She didn’t say anything in response. I’m not sure if my outburst was the right thing or not. Maybe I should have just asked more reflective questions…

C is on vacation and it’s lovely. He’s working on the in-law, and it’s still freezing in the house—I’ve been wearing the same pair of long underwear for a week straight--but we have time for reading, studying, writing, listening to music, talking about our honeymoon—even grocery shopping together is fun. He’s downstairs now, going over some math problems while I stay snuggled under the electric blanket, trying to finish the play. I wanted to be done by Jan 1 and I don’t know whether I’ll make it or not.

Friday, December 19, 2008

I posted the letter below on If you agree with the sentiments expressed in it, please consider also writing a letter reminding President-elect Obama of his promise to be a President to all Americans, including the LGBT community. The more of us speak up, the better. He won't be able to read every letter, but somewhere someone in his Administration will be keeping count. It would be good if they received a lot of thoughtful mail about this.

December 20, 2008

Dear President-elect Obama,

On your election eve we wept with joy as John McCain conceded and you accepted the presidency. We donated money to your campaign; close friends of ours worked for you; we rose at dawn to be able to vote for you when the polls opened, and we felt as proud of you when you won as if you were a member of our own family.

In fact we do sort of feel as if you are a member of our own family, even though we have never met you personally. Like you and your wife, we appreciate good books, we place a high premium on education (we are both teachers,) and we value equality and diversity. We love the children in our lives fiercely, and we rejoice to see a First Family where the children are being raised with wonderful values and appear so happy and well-adjusted.

Our joy in your victory though was tempered with pain the next morning when we found that Proposition 8, a hateful anti-gay campaign that would deny the dignity of marriage to our gay and lesbian friends, had passed, largely due to out-of-state influence and money. Your choice for a pastor to deliver the invocation at your inaugural, Rick Warren, was one of the people who campaigned heavily for Proposition 8 and was instrumental in its passage. We were as shocked and dismayed to learn you chose him to speak as we would be if an intimate member of our own circle made a racist or homophobic remark.

Do you have gay friends? That is the question that haunts us most deeply. We read in the newspaper about the tight-knit circle of trusted friends and family that have supported you every step of the way on your journey to the White House. This is something else we share—a deep commitment to our friends. Clearly both you and Mrs. Obama have a gift for reaching across all kinds of divides and reaching people human to human—that is one of your best attributes.

But is your warmth and empathy reserved only for heterosexuals, or are you able to also put yourself in the shoes of a gay man or woman who loves their partner as deeply as you love your wife, and who yearns to see that love legally protected and dignified just as your own marriage is?

This question is especially poignant to the two of us as we are planning our own wedding in six months. We are a heterosexual couple so there is no obstacle beyond agreeing upon what kind of cake to serve and refining our vows with the help of our rabbi. Our joy in our own wedding will be dampened though, by the sad thought that our gay friends and relatives are unfairly denied this privilege we enjoy.

Many of these friends have been in their own partnerships longer than we have been in ours, and have been valuable examples to us when we struggle with some of the speed bumps of commitment. Some of them are raising children together, or supporting each other as they care for elderly parents. Some of our gay friends are social workers, some are teachers. There are a few ministers and a couple of rabbis in the group, and also some writers, health professionals, lawyers, therapists, computer programmers, and artists. There's a small business owner (favorite small independent local bookstore,) and a number of people who work at non-profits. All of them want the simple right to have their partnerships treated with the same respect and legal protections as anyone else.

Rather than protecting heterosexual marriage, people like Rick Warren who campaign against gay marriage actually taint the institution for everyone. Is marriage a commitment based on love, loyalty, and commitment? Or is it some kind of biological game of pin the tail on the donkey—assuming the tail is one gender and the donkey another?

We also have to wonder: are you sacrificing the gay community and the rights of LGBT people in order to pacify the Religious Right? Will your own Christian faith blind you to the feelings of the many non-Christian Americans—the Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, pagans, atheists, agnostics, Unitarians, and others who have supported you?

We respect the sincerity of your religious beliefs, but we fear that the fragile separation of church and state, which was so blatantly abused by the Bush Administration, may be in jeopardy again under your leadership. It would be a stain on the otherwise shining beacon of your presidency. Please say it isn’t so.

Reassure us that you have the rights of gay Americans (and non-Christian Americans) in your heart as you prepare to take the Inaugural oath in January.

* Include an openly gay person in your inaugural ceremonies to reinforce the message of inclusiveness that your campaign was based upon.

*Get to know some gay people personally and allow yourself the pleasure of a meaningful encounter with their families.

*Share this letter with Pastor Warren, and let him know the pain that Proposition 8 has caused among gay people and their allies in California. Request or demand that he aplogize to the LBGT community for hurtful, divisive, ignorant and inaccurate statements he has made.

We will take a day off of work in order to watch you on January 20th as you swear to protect and uphold the Constitution of the United States. It will be a moment to remember forever. Our hearts will be full of pride in you, and concern for your safety and integrity. Please live up to the vision of inclusiveness that you promoted during your campaign.

With love and respect,

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

"Mmm, the sun's out--hey, I feel WARM! Maybe it's warm out!" I said to C, snuggled under five layers of down coverlets. He kissed me with icy lips and set a steaming mug of coffee down beside me.

"Your information is incomplete."

After he had gone I noticed a light white mist in front of my face. It was my breath. Yes, I could see my breath in my bedroom. That can't be good.

Yesterday the house was so cold (49 degrees) that I bundled up and went to a Bikram yoga class where you can take unlimited classes for ten days for ten dollars. It was so worth it. For the first time since this cold snap started I was warm, I was hot, the sweat was streaming down my body.

Bikram is basically yoga in a sauna. They heat the studio to ninety degrees and everyone is there in tiny shorts and teeny tiny tank tops which become soaking wet as class progresses. The instructor is trained to bark out very non-yogic things like, "Push! Push! Go beyond your limits!" but I ignored her and did what felt right to me.

I had a whole narrative going on in my head about how I'm fifty, I'm stiff, I have short stubby peasant legs and a long body and I am not shaped like an Indian yogi, etc. etc. Then I happened to glance around the room and noticed a beautiful young woman at the far side of the studio, doing the poses perfectly. She had no legs. I repeat: she had no legs.

I had chatted with her in the dressing room, but only looked at her face. She had prostheses, which she took off once the class started. She was doing the poses on her thigh stumps. When I talked to her after class, I noticed that she also had no fingers, just palms of her hands, and fused-together stumpy things where the fingers would be.

Okay, so then I pushed myself a little harder.

We watched Letters from Iwo Jima last night with three comforters wrapped around us on the couch. In the movie you know all the Japanese soldiers are doomed from the start so it's heartbreaking to watch--it's not a question of if they will die, but when. there is one who truly wants to live and at the end of the movie he is still alive, but barely, a wounded prisoner of war. The whole "war is hell" thing is brought home to you over and over, until you can't escape it.

I am wrestlingthis morning with not working. Actually, I have twelve schools I need to contact/recontact for this Poetry Out Loud thing, so that will be work for January. And I just got a check from The Writing Salon, and expect a check from MORE and another check from The Sun when the Dede piece comes out there. My bank account is healthy.

It's more that C goes off every days to the wars and I stay home and have freedom, and that's hard to reconcile. I sometimes envy him the cameraderie and sense of purpose his work situation can provide and I know he envies me my freedom to devote myself to writing and creating. And in these uneasy economic times we both worry about the future. I'd like to embrace it with open arms, whatever changes may come, but when I'm numb with cold my arms don't open so easily. I just talked with my sister on the phone who sensibly suggested that I check with PG&E to see if they have any programs where you can get a subsidy to insulate your home. Sounds good.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

It's that time of year again--I'm typing this wearing long underwear, sweatpants, two shirts, a sweater, a cozy bathrobe, fuzzy slippers and fingerless gloves. The approximate temp in the house is a toasty 52 degrees. If I put on the space heater and try to use the printer at the same time, I blow a fuse. It's the time of the bear, of hibernation, the electric blanket, four afghans, and all that.

I read a piece in The Sunday Times about the Obamas' best friends. They have been part of the same close-knit group of ambitious mostly black young professionals with kids since college. I have been thinking how much I don't really like self-help books (despite the fact that I have two at my bedside right now, The Gift of Fear by Gavin deBecker, about trusting your gut when it comes to staying out of danger, and The Gift of Compulsions, by Mary O'Malley, which I'm hoping will help me break my complusive web sudoku habit. She advocates cultivating comapssion and curiosity about one's compusions, by the way. Wow, that's a lot of C's.)

I have several friends who have done diligent inner work and come out with some wisdom and want to write about it--How to Live Better, basically. I support their ambitions, but hope I never ever ever succumb to that impulse. For one thing, if you've been blessed with a visit from the creative angel, I think it's more fun to make art. But the main reason is I believe that living better, being better, having a better, healthier etc life, has something to do with your inner work and everything to do with the company you keep.

I guess that's un-American. It's not pull-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps, meditate yourself into Nirvana, get up at 5 and swim laps till yoiur body is as hard as iron, that's for sure. I don't believe that life improvement is a do-it-yourself job, an inside job, as everyone else says. I think it's all about community. The article about the Obamas and their friendships says that to me. The Obamas would not be where they are today were it not for their family ties, and this very high-powered, focused and determined group of friends who took time off work, and offered real companionship and solid support along the way. For years.

I think that's how things happen. I think that's how greatness is achieved. Not by everyone writing and buying these self-help books and tapes and DVDs and working so hard to improve themselves, but by being there for each other. That's not very lucrative. You can't sell a million copies of "Create Community" the way you can "Learn to Pull Your Own Strings," but it is what I believe.

Sunday Carla and I went into the city to see Natta and Meyra perform devotional dances at the Buddhist temple in the Mission. It was gray, cold, and rainy, and Carla's new wheelchair is stiffer and more difficult to handle than the old one. And it doesn't like rain. Still, it was worth all the effort to see those beautiful young women, so pure in their devotion and their art, dancing their hearts out with so little in the way of material resources to back them up, but only the fire of their love.

After the performance, Carla wept and wept. She has the gift of extreme vulnerability now; the smallest things touch her heart so deeply. Afterwards we ate at Cafe Gratitude and joked about dragging the boys there--C and Gerry. I can just imagine them rolling their eyes and snorting as the server comes up and enthusiastically affirms to them, "You are abundance! You are beautiful! You are delicious!"

Friday, December 12, 2008

I sent out the following letter today...thought I'd reprint it here in case someone reading this blog knows someone who would be interested.

Dear Friends,

I am writing to you because you either are a good man, or know some good men, or both. Impact Bay Area, a wonderful self-defense training course for women, needs more suited instructors. (They also just certified their first female "suit," so if you are a strong woman, you might want to consider that.) I thought I’d write up a little more description of the job in hopes that you would forward this along to whomever you think might be good for the job.

Impact was started by some male martial artists after a female colleague, a black belt in karate, was attacked and raped outside their dojo. Despite her skills, she did not know how to deal with a street fight, and they decided to create a program that would enable women to deal with real-life assailants who were not playing by the rules. (At the time the program was called BAMM--Bay Area Model Mugging.)

They did a lot of research with police, crime victims, and perpetrators to determine the most common ways women are usually attacked, on the street and in their homes. They interviewed survivors and asked “What did you do to get out of this situation?” They also spent a lot of time developing the padded suit that the “mugger” wears, to ensure safety for the instructor wearing it and the student striking it. Each suit costs about $1,500.00 dollars and has been carefully engineered so that the women can use full-impact strikes, and the instructor can remain safe.

To become a “suit” requires some training, even if you already have a martial arts background. That is because the education offered by Impact is emotional as well as physical. The model muggings are scary for the women students and that is by design. Their aim is to teach the skills while the student is in an adrenalized state, so that in the event of a real assault, the body memory and muscle memory will come flooding back.

Some of the women who take classes at Impact have already experienced some degree of assault, ranging from verbal harassment to full-on rape. There are also survivors of childhood sexual abuse who show up in class. Often, they are triggered by the just the sight of the mugger in his full suit. Sometimes women students have flashbacks while they are fighting. The female whistle instructor and the two assistants are there to help the women through those emotional speed bumps.

Impact also helps women learn to set verbal boundaries, and then to recognize when those boundaries are being ignored or crossed. The “suit” is also called upon to be an improviser, playing a variety of obnoxious characters, some of them dangerous, others simply misguided. Learning to create characters and enter into scenarios is part of the work. Another part is having the maturity to have good psychic and emotional boundaries, to make a separation between the bad guy you play when the helmet is on and the good guy instructor that you really are..

A suited instructor should also have some notion of bio-mechanics, be comfortable in his body, be reasonably fit, and perhaps have some kind of background in a physical discipline, whether dance or yoga or martial arts or sports. (They do not need to be a professional in any of these disciplines, and they don’t have to be Superman.)

The Basics class for women takes 25 hours. When I took it, the class was spread over four consecutive Sunday afternoons, six hours each time. That felt intense. Last weekend, I volunteer-assisted at a class where they taught the whole thing in one weekend, a long Friday afternoon and all-day Saturday and Sunday. That was incredibly intense! By the end everyone was exhausted, but the transformations of the women in the class in just three days were astounding. One woman, a survivor of rape said, “I’ve been a victim all my life. Now, for the first time, I see what it might be like to live as a fighter.”

The job of being a male suited instructor at Impact is a paid one, not volunteer. I don’t know how much the pay is. I believe the training is free, but I am not 100% sure of that. I have also heard that there is a self-defense class for men who want to learn how to protect themselves from muggers on the street—one of the male instructors in my Basics class had come into the work that way.

The shortest time anyone has completed all the training and become certified to become a suited instructor is four months. It is not a full-time gig. The training takes place in such a way that you keep your day job. It is exhausting, sweaty, satisfying work. Many of the men enter into it because a close friend or relative has been assaulted and they felt helpless at the time. This is their way of preventing future assaults on other women. It is both a vocation and a labor of love.

The web site is They are in need of more suited instructors.

Thanks for passing this on,


Tuesday, December 09, 2008

I spent all last weekend with an incredible group of women who were taking the Basics course from Impact Bay Area. It was my first time assisting an adult class. There were several women in the class who had survived rape, and I was stunned by their courage to confront their fears so directly.

The work for me and the other assistant was to keep paying attention, keep paying attention, for twenty-five hours over the course of three days. Sixteen women, four instructors, and us. I feel like their faces and stories are burned into my brain, stories I can't repeat here because of confidentiality agreements but which I can never forget.

As always, there was diversity in the class. The youngest woman was a teenager, the oldest was in her sixties. Some women were in excellent physical condition, others were working with injuries, weight issues, and health problems. Some were self-described "bad-ass" types who had had a lot of dating and street experiences with men and took responsibility for their own weak boundaries which had sometimes led them into bad situations. Others had led relatively sheltered lives, married at a young age, not much experience of the outside world--and they were shocked at the language the muggers used, and the situations the other women described.

It's amazing how much work it is just to pay attention.

The whistle instructor's work is more physical. She's on the mat the whole time, demonstrating, coaching, whistling, teaching, correcting, leading. We assistants anchor the line, one on each end. We notice who has jammed her finger or torqued her knee and we run to the freezer for ice packs.

We notice who is crying and we get tissues and sometimes follow the student out of the room and comfort them. We get cups of water for people. We make the name tags, help people tape up their weak ankles, cheer them on when they are fighting. We turn the video camera on and off (that was my most challenging thing. I can handle heavy emotions any day, just don't give me a job where you have to push buttons.) We empty the trash and clean up the space.

It was a kind of review for me, to watch the class without having to be in it. I got to learn or relearn some of the things that I missed the first time because I was so focussed on trying to get my kicks and strikes right. I paid special attention during the boundary setting part. Like many women, I don't have strong boundaries (this is where the Oscar/Felix analogy falls apart in my relationship with C as well. Oscar doesn't give a shit what Felix thinks or feels. I do care how my behavior affects other people, and I feel terrible when my insensitivity hurts someone.)

I can act like I have good boundaries, and at those times I channel my mother and the way she used to talk to vacuum cleaner salesman. "And don't call me honey!" I remember her saying, as she hung up the phone. I can access her voice within me, clarion, confident, and it comes in handy when I'm trying to keep a rowdy class in order, or ward off a hustler who approaches me on the street. But I don't think it's really me. It's hard to set my boundaries from my own core, and hardest of all to do it from a place of self-love.

In many ways I think what C and I have been doing in our relationship lately has been a dance of the boundaries. Sometimes he sets his boundaries with me. Sometimes I set mine with him. Sometimes we transgress each other's boundaries and then there are hurt feelings. Maybe we are also testing each other's boundaries. "You say it's here, but can you move it at all? is there any wiggle room?" I don't know if there is a way to do this phase of a relationship without stepping on some toes sometimes. Because it involves both of us changing, perhaps opening up a boundary we had previously thought was inviolate, perhaps refining our definition of what our boundaries mean to us.

The fear, of course, is that if we really say what our boundaries are, the other person will abandon us. But we've both already done the thing where we don't say anything, and then resentment builds like poison, and the relationship implodes under the weight of unspoken violations. So neither of us want to do that anymore.

I remember when we were first dating, how impressed I was with C's courage. I could tell he was not a forward person at all, and yet he took the risks to reach out to me, to tell me the truth, to make himself vulnerable. So many times in my dating experience, the men who never pushed my boundaries were the ones who weren't that into me in the first place. There's this delicate balancing place when you're with someone who actually loves you, wants you, and you're asking them to also respect you, to put that third leg into place. And then you have to do that for them. respect them after you have become each other's family, the place where, historically, the most disrespect happens.

Hopefully, if we do this thing right, we'll be letting the other person in on deeper and deeper levels. But every step of the way feels fraught sometimes.

Since my boundaries were trampled when I was a child and his too, when the other person starts leaning over the line and testing the boundary, it hurts, it's scary, it feels like the childhood violation might happen again.

During the sweet times in between the testing moments, we have comfort and pleasure, cuddled up with good food and a good movie. Each evening after class I came home to to C, who made me salad and a glass of wine. We sat together and watched The Wire, a nice relaxing show about drug wars in Baltimore.

Still, on Monday morning I woke up feeling like I'd been run over by a truck. I was so exhausted and my shoulders were hunched up around my ears and hard as rocks. I have been having deep, distrubing, colorful dreams with about 17 story lines going on at once, involving death, resurrection, police, murder, and a thousand other things.

We are counting down the days to C's Christmas break. Meanwhile, I am trying to find a way to write about woemn's self defense in an essay (I've already rewritten it multiple times but it's still not right. Doesn't convey the full power of the experience.)

And I'm revising the first act of the new play.

Friday, December 05, 2008

First of all, thank you Marian N. for sending us the copy of Lilith in which your essay appeared. It was great--and I devoured the whole magazine.

Next, I have received permission from my beloved to write about the Great Turkey Hotline Debacle, which I had discreetly edited out of last week's Thanksgiving post. Not that I lied. We did have a great, warm, musical, friend-filled Thanksgiving. It's just that it was preceded by the sturm und drang that comes from two people who have each developed their own style of doing things that has worked for them just fine lo these many years, and who now find themselves yoked to a person who does things completely differently.

To wit: holiday prep. I've been making turkeys for Thanksgiving for years now, big dinners that feed at least a dozen people, and everything has been fine. I pride myself on my ability to feed people. I can throw something together for any number of guests with hardly any warning and it will be tasty and plentiful. If C was in the habit of bringing home unexpected company for dinner he would appreciate this trait in me.

But C doesn't bring home guests with no warning. C makes plans in advance. And C sees dirt. I mean, he literally can perceive dust and dirt where I don't. In this, he is in the majority, and I am in the minority (especially for a female.) Usually, the man is the one who leaves the toilet seat up and his dirty socks on the floor. With us, it's the opposite. I am Oscar, he's Felix. Not that I leave the toilet seat up. But you get the idea. I just run my eye over the room, note that there are no dead bodies on the floor, no pools of blood, no piles of excrement, and that last week's New York Sunday Times has been put in the recycling. Great! I think, and turn back to the food.

So C is the one who vacuums, dusts and mops, and gets me to put away all my products and make-up so he can clean the bathroom. Okay, fine. I'm a hell of a lucky wo,man and many many women would love to have this problem, this man. I'm so sorry he's taken. And also that it's part of God's cosmic joke that most women would be all-too-grateful for a man who cleans and cares about details and many men might appreciate a woman who was relaxed and would gladly entertain their friends at a drop of a hat, but that's not how it works. I'm sure that that's not even how it's supposed to work.

Anyway, a clean house is not my beef. (And, turth to tell, my friends have complimented me on the newfound brightness and shininess of our house and I have been mpore than glaqd to accept those compliments although I always do give credit where credit is due.) My beef is that all this is done accompanied by teeth-gnashing anxiety about whether the turkey will turn out alright, whether everything will be done on time and simultaneously, etc.

This is where I know I'm in the wrong: I take C's anxiety as a personal affront. What, you don't trust me? You don't think I'm a good hostess? Because he was anxious that I hadn't checked the minutes of cooking time per pound ratio on the turkey--I think it's 20 minutes a pound and anyway it's always come out before, and anyway we can check it as it goes along--I put it in the oven early, on 425, a much higher setting than what I usually use. Result: the turkey was well-done--on the verge of being overdone--three hours early.

Then C had a new anxiety: what if the turkey meat breeds bacteria if it just sits around for three or four hours? So he called The Turkey Hotline (I did not even know such an organization existed,) to ask them what to do. The lady told him to put the cooked turkey in the fridge, which he did. I was convinced that this would ruin the flavor/texture etc of my turkey and started crying. Yes, I admit, I was crying over refrigerated turkey. (I was also having a bit of a hormonal meltdown, which I didn't realize at the time. One of the things about being 50 is that these things can no longer be clocked with the same predictability as in earlier years.)

I think I was also crying for Thanksgivings past, for making the dinner with a bunch of women roommates and friends in the kitchen, giggling and laughing and wrestling with the brine and the stuffing and not worrying, just enjoying the time together, the anticipation, the holiday build-up. I was missing the warmth and disorganiization of shtetl life, the way Bethie came over before my birthday party and helped me get ready and how fun that was, and how C said afterwards that we should have had everything ready by ourselves by the time the guests came.

I don't really think of my guests as "guests." I think of them as extended family. I was crying for the stupidest of reasonbs, because it wasn't fun, "This isn't fun!" I cried--all the hile I know only a child needs everything to be fun. But another, stubborn child part of me was thinking this could be fun, this should be fun, why isn't this fun? I was scared of being swallowed up in a grim sterile atmosphere of good housekeeping with gritted teeth. I was missing the presence of children underfoot, Marci coming by with a shopping bag full of bowls and spoons the way she did for one party when I ran out of cutlery and dishware. I wanted it to be okay to improvise, not a sign of not caring, not something that we had to fix.

This is a primal struggle between me and C; his very strong need for order, cleanliness, peace and privacy pitted against my equally intense need for improvisation, family, foolishness and transparency. On bad days I don't know how we will work this out. On good days I think we can learn and grow from each other's differences.

I admit, there is unfinished business from childhood behind my need for imperfection and my violent resistance to being corrected in the kitchen. It makes me feel dirty and ashamed when my cooking is criticized, and I know C never intends to do that.

We took a long walk in the woods the next day and talked about our different ways of handling anxiety. I often don't even know when I feel anxious. I tend to block that emotion, or numb out around it. My mother had M.S. and I had depression from about the age of eight, so I developed the attitude that the worst had already happened. I was most scared that evil lurked within me. I thought nothing outside myself could compare with that fear.

C is much more present to and in touch with his anxieties about the world. He is anxious about averting disaster. He wants to protect and take care of all beings under his care, from his cat to his students to me. He notices all the things that could go terribly wrong in any given situation, scenarios I don't even think of, and does his best to ward them off.

Paradoxically, we trigger each other's worst fears. My fear is of being criticized, and C's acute sensitivity sometimes makes him critical. His worst fear is of having the security of his home broached, or letting people down and my open-door policy and casual attitudes sometimes exasperate him. I think this is normal, and part of the divine plan for marriage--that you marry your worst fear in order to become intimate with it, and learn to love it. To wrestle with the angel until it yields up its blessing. He was attracted to me because of my spontanaeity, my warmth and hospitality. I loved his caring and thoughtfulness and conscientiousness and integrity. But all of our good qualities also have a shadow side. And dancing with each other's shadows is painful.

I admit that the turkey turned out declicious, despite being refrigerated and then reheated. And I am going to get the book The Gift of Fear by Gavin deBecker, which comes highly recommended from my IMPACT Bay Area teachers. I want to learn when it's appropriate to be anxious and when it's not. To stop worrying my one big fear, that I am incompetent and shameful and a Bad Person, and begin to channel that fear in a healthy way, to put it where it belongs.

Monday, December 01, 2008

The night before Thanksgiving I went with G and my friend Phil to hear Carla sing at Yoshi's one last time. She was magnificent, in a pair of killer red shoes with platform heels which made her (and me) very happy. She sang a new song--new for her repertoire, "Smile" which was written by Charlie Chaplin, and a bunch of standards, plus one of my favorite of her originals, "What is Love?"

After she sang it she said, "The great thing is, I don't have to ask that question anymore. I know what love is. It's here tonight," and she looked at the audience and around her onstage. She was surrounded by some very fine musicians and the room was bursting with love. Love carried her on and off stage, and I'm sure love kept her going as she worked her hardest to stay on that tightrope between joy in the singing and the musicianship and cameraderie of her Nice Shirts For Nuthin'; group--John R Burr, Jon Evans and David Rokeach (and she also had some wonderful horn players up there, and a great sax) and the great overwhelming grief that this too is ending.

She went out with It's a Wonderful World, one of my favorite songs ever, and she introduced it by saying simply, "This is the truest song ever written." Cue the tears. I didn't get a chance to hang out with her, as there were too many people and she was completely drained after doing the show--she had given 1000%--but I bought two more of her CDs to give as Chanukah presents.

Thanksgiving at our house was very musical and sweet. We had a 96-year-old guest (I incorrectly told G in her hearing that she was 94, whereupon she drew herself up to her full height and corrected me, "I'm ninety-six!") She didn't look a day over eighty, I swear. She'd had polio as a four-year-old and had to do all kinds of painful physical stretches and exercises when she got out of the hospital, but she said her mother stood over her and never let her give up and she's had a long productive life, married, had children, worked, and last week led her retirement home's book club discussion on Obama's autobiography, Dreams of My father.

We had turkey and all the other stuff, plus the piano, organ, the mic set up for singing. Shazam came and played her harmonica and sang, and took a turn at the keyboards. Leslie was there with her electric guitar, C played piano and bass, and Amar and Sahib-Amar played, Sahib-Amar on viola, Amar on everything, piano, organ, flute... We sang a bunch of oldies, Beatles' tunes, and Motown. I want to learn how to sing Etta james' version of "At Last." I'm thinking that should play at our wedding reception, as it took us so long to find each other.

It was lovely and sunny and warm all weekend, and C studied for this big odious test he has to take, while I wrote the play about military recruitment. We took breaks for hikes and a tennis game and to varnish the drawers and shelves of the in-law's cabinets. I was feeling very confident and excited about the play; today, after getting Ruth's comments I feel a little insecure. But the important thing is to finish and then show it to people. Everything else has always needed a revision, why not this?

This morning I pruned. Cut back the incredibly aggressive Mexican sage with its velvety purple flowers, the fig tree that started as a tiny twig and has now grown into a towering presence in the front yard, stretching its branches out into the street. I even pruned the jasmine, which I remember planting in tentative wet little clumps years ago and then praying it would come up. It now grasps the railing of the fence firmly, and its greeny tendrils snake out, grasping for something to hold onto. Sometimes it only meets itself; then it twines and grasps and twists around itself. Life. Tenacious, persistent, unconcerned with protocol.