Electronic Poisoning

Summer of 2007: My kids hated camping and hiking in the Redwoods.

We got them on the spongy trails with the giant trees and they said, “This is boring. When can we go home? This is stupid.”

One of the most glorious places on planet Earth failed to move my seven- and nine-year-old daughters. We even let them lead us on the trail, hoping that would spark a drive to explore. Had we already lost them?

I lost the competition to attract and fascinate their minds: the digital world beat me. If I’d whipped out a laptop and set it on a bench amongst this magnificent antediluvian, presaurian, banana-slugfilled landscape, they would have whooped with joy.

All I could think, as we headed around the trails and sustained our harangue of “uncoolness” was that they were irreversibly electronically poisoned. 

Where did I go wrong?

Not even preteens, but raised in Southern California on too much TV, starting with toddler day care, my daughters were already beginning to show signs of fashion sense and self-objectification. My seven-year-old loved flats and miniskorts. I’d bought educational CD Roms, but they gravitated to programs that allowed them to imitate and model urban life, like constructing whole SIMS villages and families. SIMs houses and their occupants were beautiful, except my daughter insisted on giving the dad a “hair peninsula,” which is what she called that spare remaining strip on my husband’s formerly prolific forehead.

Nothing on TV or in their software taught them to explore nature or told them that’d be cool, fashionable.

Whenever I sent them out in the neighborhood, on walks, they were the only ones out. Every parent in my generation seemed to think that if their kid went out to ride a bike or explore a canyon, that kid would be the one abducted and tortured. I sent my daughter once to walk to her friend’s house, and her mother, on the phone, panicked and sent her teens out to escort my child. I felt like a jerk.

I did walk to school with one of my daughters, and we held hands and watched birds, smelled morning flowers, chatted all the way through sixth grade. So many parents drove past us, rushing to work, smiling at us, though–some looking like they wanted to cry.

I lamented “electronic poisoning” to my hiking buddy, Brent, as we traversed seventeen miles into the backcountry of the Grand Canyon last year. He’d asked why my kids didn’t like to go hiking with me–not that they could handle what we were doing, attempting Cheyava Falls at the only time of year when the 800-foot waterslide is cranking–if you can handle the scramble to even get near the mist.

At base camp, Brent whipped out his backpacking reading material. The Economist, May 2010. I, for one, had brought Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire. Brent showed me research cited from the Kaiser Family Foundation, that American kids were spending more than seven and a half hours with media each day. “Into that space they packed an astonishing 10 hours and 45 minutes of consumption,” the article went on. And that’s where I blanked out.

One afternoon, on my walk to pick up my daughter from grade school (my oldest daughter refused the walk, horrified at the social implications), I listened to NPR, a book review on Richard Louv’s “Last Child in the Woods,” and thought, ‘mmhmm, thank you, Mr. Louv, I already know. I’ve experienced this and realize, Houston, that we do have a problem.’

Who is going to write software to inspire kids to get out in the dirt, the real dirt, to explore, and by extension, protect our planet? Not just wilderness, which is already shrinking, but protect Nature, of which we are irreversibly–undigitally, unelectronically–but fundamentally and most desperately part? 

Psst-watch out for those reds

Hungarians topple Stalin statue (photo from Wikipedia)

On Saturday, October 23, my eleven-year-old daughter finished her soccer game as clouds skidded across the sky. I said to our coach, Janos, who is Hungarian but came to the United States on a soccer scholarship years ago, “Happy Revolution Day.” My husband, whose father escaped Hungary in 1956, likes to make pörkölt, a kind of gulash, in commemoration. I think of Pierre, our friend in Paris, whose father survived communist prison camps, privation, and escape attempts.

Janos turned to our star soccer player’s mom, who was talking about her husband being from Cleveland. “I hated Cleveland!” Janos said, “It was awful! I was ready to go back to Communism after living there!”

I think all Hungarians have a penchant for hyperbole, but the soccer mom went one further, and said, “You don’t need to, Obama is bringing communism here, the direction this country is heading!”

Communism isn’t an abstraction to survivors of the Soviet takeover and their descendants. Russian tanks rattled into Budapest and the entire community rose up in protest, staving off bewildered soldiers for three wildly glorious days until the Red army rallied and crushed the opposition. My father-in-law is full of harrowing stories, including when he and his sister were nearly executed one evening, after getting caught bringing dinner to the resistance.

But at the mention of communism this fine Fall Saturday, the soccer mom went off. “Yeah, look at what Obama’s doing, all his scary socialist policies, he’s leading this country into hell….”

Janos had the temerity to say, “I am socialist to his bone”–look at Sweden, look at France, Germany, he said, all the other developed counties that provide decent healthcare, education, and so on. The soccer mom is probably so scandalized, who knows–maybe she’ll pull her daughter from the team to prevent further infection.

What Obama wants is not communism, let alone true socialism. It’s common sense and human decency for a society to provide its citizens basic needs.

What Obama wants is not communism: It’s common sense and human decency for a society to provide its citizens basic needs.

As I puzzle over the Tea Party madness boiling the brains of excitable people, I think of Irma, our weekly luxury and savior who helps clean our house each week (it used to take us the entire weekend to do it ourselves, and she can whip through in five or six hours). Irma told me this morning she cancelled her health insurance because it cost almost $500 a month. She could no longer afford it. That’s about what we pay her for her help. In the five years I’ve known her, I don’t think she’s taken a vacation. When she’s sick I tell her not to come, although we pay her every week regardless. A lot of times, she still comes to work even if she doesn’t feel well, perhaps for her own sense of job protection.

“What about the new health care bill that finally passed?” I asked. “Can’t you get something there?” She shook her head. She didn’t know where or how to get that. She doesn’t qualify for medicare.

The woman works hard. She’s a good person. Her father immigrated from the Mexican state of Nayarit, and the whole family works long hours to help support each other and their humble life here. They pay taxes, all of them.

She and other Americans should have better protection; folks like her anchor and contribute to this society. If the Tea Bagger soccer mom has her way, Irma will lose her only hope for insurance, whenever and wherever and however that kicks in. And the soccer mom can drive off into the sunset in her giant SUV, thankful that she has successfully fought off what she thinks is communism.

A Good Walk Gone Better

I was a little scared to go back.

Someone with that much anger could go ballistic. I’ve experienced a person at the negative tipping point who’s tipped himself right into a psych ward. Society, formatively early bad experiences, the culture–too much can overwhelm one’s coping mechanisms. But not everybody snaps. I took solace in that.

Michael was nice, after our Good Walk Gone Bad no-on-8 klatch; but he could just be luring me in. Maybe he was one of those misogynists who, no matter what, hate women. Charlie pointed out, when we went to gay revues in the 90s, that the boys doing the beauty pageants and the talent shows were making fun of females, they really hated women, but I said, no, look, look at their meticulous costumes and makeup, and damn if I could look that good in a bikini, ever. They care, but they’ve internalized the deep antifeminine vein that runs through our macho-poisoned culture like many females do, and they’re objectifying themselves and the whole scene, unawares. Hey, I mock beauty pageants, too, without the deeply sarcastic, and yet hopeful, vein of trying to be in one. And I’m not even sure these men are gay–more like female-identified males, poor souls, trapped in male bodies and male sociology, a double-whammie for confusion.

Michael was a tire-biter. A full-blown all-testosterone gay male, out of my ken. He drove a man truck and he was going to kick ass on any plump mom republican suburban bitch yes-on-eighter who dared traverse the canyon on his property. Such haters trampled his universe.

The thing that gave me comfort was, while Michael and I were talking, sharing stories, another man came up, a neighbor, and gave me a hug. So his friends were warm. He was part of a larger community. That would keep him grounded. Yet I was still a woman belonging in the uber-hetero community, even if a progressive liberal-demo.

I don’t know what it’s like to grow up gay in a society that tears you down from the moment of birth. I’ve only observed this wrenching reality in people close to me. Besides those survivors who are strong and prevail, there are some who want to turn and fight, strike out, pay back. And who wouldn’t?

Refusing to be bullied, yet always nevertheless reaching out, I walked up the carport and rang Michael’s door bell. His door was ajar. It took a while for him to come to the door.

Odd allies, he and I. A bit late, he thought I wasn’t coming. His partner couldn’t join us, a parlayed Sorry.

They have a big, beautiful home, with a little yip-yip dog, and a wood deck overlooking my coveted mountain, tall, muscular Mt. San Miguel, that was dwarfed in flames this past wildfire. We hiked down the canyon together. It was a little awkward. We hardly knew each other. He handed me an embossed card, inviting us to the December gay-men’s chorus, with whom his partner sang. It’d been a few years since charlie and I’d been to the Chorus. We knew a few people there.

Megan, waiting with her teacher and hoards of classmates, saw us and blanched.

I waved her over and said, “Megan, this is my friend, Michael. We had a misunderstanding but everything’s ok. Really, it’s ok.”

Michael said to her, “Megan, I am really sorry about this morning. Sometimes grownups make mistakes. I want you to know that I am truly sorry for scaring you and being so mean.” He reached into his pocket and handed her an envelope. Inside was thick linen cardstock with an etched drawing, a handwritten note on the flipped side. A gift card for Coldstone Ice Cream slipped into her hands.

Safely off school grounds, the three of us headed up the canyon trail. Megan was speechless. I tried to explain.

“Megan, you know how we walked with Ace and how we hated all those giant Yes on 8 signs on the way to school? How I wanted Ace to pee on all those signs? How rude those were?”

Megan. “Yeah.”

“Well, Michael thought we might be one of the families who were like that, trying to hurt him.”

Megan immediately turned to Michael and said, “Oh my god. We have friends who had people in their neighborhood bothering them! My mom does yoga with this guy who had people write chalk things from the Bible on their sidewalk in front of their house and they wrote bad things on their signs and even put Yes-on-8 bumper stickers on their [his and his partner’s] car!”

For once I was glad I talk to my children about reality–not the worst, but things I was currently fighting.

At the top of the trail, we three parted ways, after chatting a little longer. As Megan and I headed up Grandview, Megan vented a huge sigh of relief.

“What?” I asked.

“When I saw you with that man at school, I was really scared. I was afraid you’d get in a fight in front of everybody. Then, when you said you were friends, I was afraid he had a crush on you. It wasn’t until we were on the trail, when you said he was gay, that I finally relaxed. He couldn’t crush on you! It was safe!”

Ah, poor Meggie. Negotiating this strange adult world. Brave, brave girl.

A Good Walk Gone Bad

Mondays are hard enough. But it helps to start out a new day walking to school with Megan. We tried to walk last year, but Tropico is a narrow, curving, hilly, blind-spotted road, and to get to school we thought we had to suck in exhaust from the zillions of SUVs flying past, as parents race to drop off their kids. And the school driveway is a snarl of cars, as well. It sucked so much I made my daughters take the bus. Then! Voila, Charlie the hiking master discovered a secret trail down a back canyon behind the school. He discovered the perfect walk. We just have to cruise a mile or so down Grandview, which is wide enough that we don’t have to jump into bushes every time someone hauls past, scoot down a slightly private drive (it’s unmarked but clearly an access road for a handful of homes in this nook) cross someone’s carport, and there’s the trail. About 300 yards of fun scrambling down into the school. We’ve met the carport people, introduced our dogs, and they didn’t seem to mind our brief foray across the edge of their drive.

The walk. It’s our ritual. We hold hands, chat, look at birds, smell the morning, struggle with the dog, express disgust at the political signs that are now finally down. I’ve been training Ace not to scent-mark everything he sees, but I really wanted him to hit a few of those yellow signs (that say Yes on 8), some Hunter/McCains.

A great way to start out. And every afternoon, at 2:30, I get to do it again, where Megan tells me all about her day in the 20 minutes or so it takes to walk home, always holding hands. I still have my baby.

This morning, we turned down the drive. A guy in a truck pulled up next to us, as if to exit out onto Grandview. But he just pulled up and stared at me, idling. I stopped, a questioning look on my face. I was wearing Megan’s heavy backpack all covered in pink and white hearts.

“Do you…need something?” I asked.

“Do you?” he said.

I went cold. He was sitting in pajama bottoms, driving some sort of man truck. I don’t remember what it was, a big green SUV or utility truck. I’d never seen him before, and we’ve been walking this twice a day all year.

It’s a blur to me now what he said next, but something along the lines that we were on private property and had no right to be there. I said the people who owned that driveway down there didn’t mind.

He said that as soon as I get past that chain-linked fence I was on his property.

I said I would call the County and confirm that. Megan and I continued toward the trail. I looked back. He messed with some trash cans on Grandview, got back in his truck, and drove back down toward us, still staring at me. I stood my ground, holding Megan’s hand.

He asked what rights I thought I had to be walking on his property.

I said it pretty much looked like a canyon to me with an easement trail just like ones all over Mt. Helix. “Why am I walking? I’m walking my daughter to school. We like the fresh air, we spend time together, we like the exercise. We’re saving the environment,” I looked at his truck. “Walking on the other road is dangerous and has no sidewalks. “What kind of a problem could you have with us walking on this trail to school?” I asked.

“How would you like it if I walked in your yard.”

“I think it would be pretty obvious that you would know you were in my yard.”

I said that we live on a private drive, too, and all kinds of people drive on it. So as not to think the neighborhod access road is anything special.

I wondered if he was some sort of East County scary militia type, but I refused to be bullied.

“I don’t know what has happened to your heart, sir, to make you harrass a mother and daughter walking to elementary school, but it’s pretty sad. I can’t imagine how we could possibly offend you.”

“You’ve offended me in more ways than you know,” he said.

We headed down the trail. I was glad we didn’t happen to have hyperactive barky Ace with us. I wondered if it was this man’s trash I’d tossed plastic-knotted dog dumps into. Maybe he’d watched me this whole year clean up after Ace, training his crosshairs on me as I walked the poo to the nearest dumpster. Is that how we offended him?

“I shouldn’t say this, Megan, but he’s probably a republican.” I shouldn’t say that because there’s probably a republican in East County who’s not a jerk, to be fair. I told her he was a complete jerk, extremely rude to us.

Megan was shattered. What used to be a fun boulder trail scramble was now a horrible nightmare walk into school.

“I don’t want to come here ever again, Mom. Let it go. Don’t talk to him. Let’s go home the back way. Please. He’s scary. I don’t ever want to see him again.”

I told Megan she had every reason to be scared of him. “But I refuse to be bullied. I WILL call the County and see if this trail is in fact private property. Megan, there are no signs that say Private Property, Keep Out. That’s the rule. If it’s private, they have to tell us. No one has the right to come yell at us like that. And you know what? He may be scary, but remember that I am a second-degree black belt and if he tried to do anything to hurt you or me I would tear him apart. I could kill him with my bare hands and believe me I would if I had to. Don’t you worry! He’s just a bully.”

“Mom, don’t call the County. Don’t talk to him. Please just pick me up at the back ramp. You promise you’ll remember? I don’t care about the trail anymore. Will you? Be there at 2:30? (She always has this paranoia that I’ll forget to pick her up on time.) Now she was really thrown. I pinkie swore with her that I would be at the back ramp at 2:30, and we’d walk back home on the tortuous Tropico in the afternoon.

I kissed Megan goodbye, apologized that she had to experience such a very rude grownup. Maybe he just didn’t have a happy childhood, I told her, with a mom who walked him to school, and this makes him weird. I didn’t know.

Fuck him, I thought.

I headed right back up the trail. I thought of knocking on the driveway people’s door and asking what the hell.

He was waiting for me toward the top, where the chain-link fence skirts the trail. “What’s your name?”

Oh, that old power trick. “My name is Gayle Early. And I want your name and address.”

“How do you spell that?”

I spat it out the letters. “And give me your information.”

“You can go research that with the County.”

“Fine, I will follow you home to see where you live. This trail doesn’t look like ANYBODY’S private domain. How could you be so hateful to ruin a perfectly good and safe place for us to walk to school!

“Where’s your sign that says Private Property–Do Not Trespass–Keep Out?” I asked.

“You go ahead and call the County,” he said. “Go get yourself a lawyer, spend yourself $10,000, and I’ll see you there court. Let you pay for a judge to tell you to get off my property.”

Ah. It is an easement, just like I thought. He’s on shaky ground. Easements do run through some properties, but it’s gray. I could see five different houses backing the canyon, none that clearly “owned” it.

“Oh you can count on seeing me in court,” I said, shaking but standing my (his) ground.

He muttered something about why he should tolerate these kind of families walking on his property–again, a blur–I was so bewildered, not accustomed to running into such bewildering hate. Usually people walk or drive past us and smile, probably wishing they were walking with their child to school, or rememebering some other happy time.

He was spitting something insulting, asking me how I voted on Prop 8.

I was instantly alarmed.

I pretty much guessed that the driveway people were lesbians. Did he harrass those women, too? Did he somehow guess that I had a No on 8 sign in my yard, did he see my unshaved pits and figure out I wrote for the only progressive rag in East County? There were so many Yes on 8 signs around here, was I being sniffed out as a witch?

I exploded. “What the hell does this canyon trail have to do with politics?”

I can’t rememeber what he said.

“What does politics have to do with me walking my daughter to a fucking elementary school down a fucking canyon trail!”

I can’t remember what he said.

“Well if you want to fucking know how I voted on that fucking fucked up proposition, I voted NO and furthermore I just fucking marched with 20,000 fucking other people this weekend.” Then, like an idiot, I started crying. Not like a girl, but just tears of outrage. Was some freaky bigot questioning my beliefs and how dare he, and…what did the trail have to do with Prop 8? Why was he ruining my walk? Was he going to target me now?

He held out his hands. “You don’t need to get angry. No need to swear, here.”

“What’s next,” I asked, turning my back to continue to the top of the trail, gesturing to the wild brush choking the dry mountain wash. “Are you going to shoot coyotes, here, too? Squirrels?”

“I don’t shoot coyotes.”

“Glad to hear it.”

He said he was glad to hear that someone who lives out here voted no on 8. I turned and looked at him.

“You’re right, there’s a lot of narrow-minded, bigoted people who voted for that,” he said.

My gaydar was completely off. Here I am, fat, wearing boring clothes, dumpy mom, I must have looked like one of the righteous family-touting yellow Yes on 8 family sign stakers in the neighborhood. His straight-ar was completely off, too, not picking me out for someone who goes all out to champion human civil rights.

“Well, you’re kind of acting like one now,” I pointed out.

He said, “you have no idea what it’s like to live here, drive past these signs, in my own neighborhood everyday, and have them overturn rights we were already given by the California Supreme Court. All these people around us with their yellow family signs. I decided that if these “families” were going to take away my rights, I was not going to let you walk on my property.”

“I completely understand your anger. And I am so sorry about the idiots in this state and in our neighborhood who did this to you.”

He touched his chest. “You have no idea how this feels.”

“How do you know I’m not a lesbian?”

He raised his eyebrows. He didn’t. Touche.

But I told him he was right, I can’t fully imagine what his struggle was like, but that I was offended and frightened that a simple majority can tell others what to do, that I was afraid of what was next. I said I was married to a man, but “if Charlie were a woman I would have married her.” I told him how we both felt violated at prop 8, that we don’t feel we should have any particular right to be married if others can’t. I told him about my gay friends with kids who were harrassed and hurt deeply.

We had a long discussion about the nature of marriage, about civil marriages versus religious marriages, and how any marriage, to be recognized in this state, has to be a civil one first and foremost. I told him that members of my own family probably don’t recognize my 20-year-old marriage, in their heart of hearts, because it was conducted by a judge in a civil ceremony, not in some god’s house and according to their script. Are they going to annul me next? Take away my right to choose? What’s next?

We must be wary of simple-minded majorities
We must be wary of simple-minded majorities

Michael was at the march, too. His partner of 16 years, Norm, doesn’t want to go to work anymore. The only gay in the office, he’ had great rapport with all these women for years, and yet half of them voted yes on 8. Such a personal betrayal. He, Michael, said he wishes he could move somewhere else, but then he doesn’t want to be driven out of his home, too. He yanked Yes on 8 signs out of public areas, feeling that was within his right. Someone called the cops. Two–TWO–sherrif cars pulled up to question him. “I can’t even get one officer out here during a robbery, and you guys dispatch two cars for this?” He said he doesn’t know who is walking around this trail, maybe it could be someone wanting to harm them, with all the hatred and bigotry going around.

I told him I thought he was a scary militia type.

“I am,” he said.

“But I told Megan, who by the way, is terrified of you, never wants to walk here again–I said I wasn’t going to let you bully me.”

“And you shouldn’t let me or anyone bully you, just like “we” [gays] shouldn’t let people bully us. I’d like to apologize to her. She should hear an adult say, “I made a mistake.”

“She will probably understand your anger and frustration,” I said. “We counted the yellow signs, too. We hated them, too. And a guy that she had a crush on said his parents were voting yes on 8.” And now Megan doesn’t seem to be crushing on him as much now. I told him how I knocked on the door of what I thought was a lesbian couple at the bottom of our street to personally apologize that their neighbors had a Yes sign out, and I didn’t want them to feel like everyone felt that way. Turns out, the woman I talked to said, they weren’t lesbians, just have lived together for many many years. (And drive big man trucks and look the part but who’s stereotyping now).

He wants to protest at the next Grossmont High School Board meeting. He and his partner don’t have children, but they pay 43% of their taxes to public schools, something like that, and this school district took a public, political stance of Yes on 8, so he doesn’t want his taxes to go to a school that openly states bias against gays. And he certainly doesn’t want such people in this school district walking on his property.

He’s very angry and he wants to lash out. I was his first victim. He said his partner didn’t want him to go down and bother people, and that the women here didn’t mind people walking down their driveway. He realized he picked the wrong person, that he judged by appearance and misjudged. I told him we were the only people who had a no on 8 sign, but then two other families followed suit. That I feel frightened at the hostility and ignorance out there. That we should have a neighborhood alliance, and that I’m happy there’s a gay enclave in my neighborhood.

“We’re accepting, but not recruiting,” he said.

I have an appointment to meet him at his and his partner’s house at 2:30 to walk down the trail to get Megan.

I don’t know how he can get over his anger.

Charlie and I--straights marching for gays, no, for all of us
Love Knows No Bounds. Charlie and I–straights marching for gays, no, really for all of us.