I want to check in on you and see how you’re doing.
Here in California, like so much of the country and world, we’re under a State of Emergency, and San Francisco just announced Shelter in Place for three weeks starting at midnight. Schools, bars, restaurants, all events are closed or canceled. The St. Patrick’s Day Parade is canceled, Cherry Blossom Festival in Japan Town, huge events people love and look forward to. Places like the Castro and Balboa theaters, much loved, providing entertainment for decades, are closed. There are businesses that will not survive.
It’s scary, and people are on edge. I was on the bus last week, and my throat was dry from the dust billowing up during packing and sorting. I coughed once, and the 15 or so people on the bus all turned to look at me. So I very quickly took some gum, immediately swallowed wrong, and coughed three times, which got to my nose and I had to pull out a tissue. The stares turned fearful; I was hoping I wouldn’t get kicked off the bus. These people aren’t mean or ignorant, they’re scared. I am too.
So what are you doing to take care of yourself? I assume you’re washing your hands, not touching your face, avoiding crowds, all of those physical things. These are all important, vital actually. But what are you doing to take care of your mental health? If you are scared, or stressed with children under your feet who can’t go to school, or worried about elderly parents, other family, whatever is going on for you, however it is affecting you, it can be overwhelming, especially for those of us with a mental illness. We have to take an inventory of it, sit with it, own it, and accept that it is not irrational to feel like we do, it is perfectly reasonable. It is a scary time, it’s ok to be scared.
So how are you?
My therapist’s office closed, all therapy must be done via teleconference. I had my first meeting today. It was odd, a little awkward at first, but I settled in quickly, and it went well. I have that luxury, I’m grateful for it, but not everyone does. So how can we take care of ourselves?
First, don’t minimize it. I said it already, but it’s important. You are not being irrational, you are human. It is scary.
However, try to not dwell on this and spin yourself into a bad place. I like to stay informed, but hitting refresh on your browser and reading updates all day is not healthy. Be aware, sure, but do a search for kitten videos or elephant babies playing with ducks, whatever you like.
Remind yourself, this will pass. Depending on how old you are, you’ve been through SARS, H1N1, AIDS, maybe even smallpox or polio. It will be ok.
If you have coping mechanisms you use, by all means, do that. If you don’t, now is a fine time to find them. For me, I love art, writing, playing little match-3 phone games, marathoning spooky shows, and trading verbal jabs with Chris, who is also here of course. Crazy Legs is thrilled to have his humans home. But time to sit quietly and breathe, close your eyes and just “be” is time well spent for anyone, but for us, it can be incredibly important. It can be the difference between coping during a difficult time and falling into a major depression.
Which brings me to my last point. If you are by yourself in your home, please find a way to reach out to a friend, on the phone, through social media, whatever works for you, but please don’t let yourself fall into a pit, which is so easy if you are isolated. Eat, sleep, keep clean, and do something fun to take your mind off things.
I’ve included a resource here for you in case you are feeling overwhelmed and need help. You’re important, and we need you here.
SAMHSA’s National Helpline is a free, confidential, 24/7, 365-day-a-year treatment referral and information service (in English and Spanish) for individuals and families facing mental and/or substance use disorders. https://www.samhsa.gov/find-help/national-helpline
Yesterday Chris and I visited a few gravesites we’ve meant to see, some are my family, my grandparents at the Golden Gate National Cemetery, my great-aunt at the Columbarium.
We tried to find my great-grandfather in the Holy Cross Catholic Cemetery but couldn’t get a map, so he will need to wait until next time. I think he’ll stay put.
Then we hit two San Francisco characters I can’t believe I’ve never visited before. On the very famous side, we have Norton I – Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico. We dearly love him.
Within that memorial grave lies the mortal remains of one William Snyder, aged 13. Now, this next bit will not be everyone’s cup of tea, but remember, he died in 1854, so no one who knew him or his family is still with us. William Snyder died by…see below picture.
Horrific. Tragic. Both of these and more. I hope my death is that utterly hilarious. I mean, this is objectively funny.
I have a list of things in and around the City we are going to visit, local hangouts, restaurants, memories, places we’ve meant to see but never have. We’re getting this done before we leave my beloved City and move up to Portland, Oregon.
We are leaving because we have an amazing opportunity we can’t pass up. We will be able to own a home, something that will never ever happen here. I love Portland, I’ve been going there my whole life, the PNW (Pacific North West) is my home and I love it, so I’m not “settling.” My sister and brother-in-law live there, a pack of cousins and in-laws. It’s a very good, well-timed move that we’ve considered carefully for months. It is the right thing to do at this time in our lives. So I’m excited to get there, move into our own home, finally get a dog we’ll call Smedley.
But I am finding myself swinging rapidly back and forth. On one side, I am excited, starting a new chapter, owning my first home, leaving apartment life behind. We will have a backyard, a patch of dirt for some carrots or something, and a room specifically for my Hello Kitty collection. That was my husband’s idea, but I think it’s mostly so it will be out of the bedroom. Regardless, it will be ours, Portland is beautiful, art is everywhere, and we had some of the best Ethiopian food there.
On the other side, the thought of leaving the City where my family lived since the 19th Century, where many of them are buried, where I have so many memories all of my life, a place that is my heart and my identity, where a clown-related comic-tragedy took the life of young Mr. Snyder. Except for a handful of graves, there will be no more family in California at all, which gives me chills.
It would be so much easier if I hated my City, but I don’t. I’m not blind to its problems, but “lost its soul?” Good gravy people, breathe. The San Francisco my great-grandparents loved in the 1800s is not the one my grandparents knew in the early 20th Century, which is not the one that my dad knew in the 30s and 40s and is not the one I knew in the 80s and 90s. OK, rant over, back to the actual topic.
This is the right decision. Chris and I have been processing it for months. We are not being forced out; we are not leaving due to economics alone, we have chosen to do this and we have solid reasons. Otherwise, quite frankly, I’d be pissed as hell. But that’s not the case. We are heading off on a new adventure, one with a backyard, a private laundry, without a pack of hideous people living above us, without hours-long screaming fights and banging that shakes our cupboards and drunken hostility when we ask them to keep it down since like the very first time we ever did oh my god how do people live like that and think it’s ok to treat people like that and use my illness as a weapon and….<deep inhale>
Anywhoo, that’s done. We’re off to a new, but not unfamiliar place. I have family in Portland living not too far from us. Memories to be made, new favorite places, and a dog called Smedley. No idea what he’ll be yet, other than the one we fall in love with at the shelter. His name has been Smedley for many years; a story for another time.
It will be a few months before we go, most likely. I’ve learned words like “good faith deposit,” “escrow,” “closing costs,” “eye-bleeding fear.” For now we’re purging, packing non-essentials, and sightseeing, all of which I have on checklists because that’s what I do.
We’ll be trading this deco masterpiece, seen here through the living room window, for the green one there in the cover photo, St. John’s Bridge. And we’ll love it. And I already love Powell’s because it is a bibliophiles dream-scape.
I’ll be writing as we go through this process, leaving the state, starting a new chapter. I do welcome any and all advice, words of comfort, or places we should definitely see in Portland, especially the spooky ones. We like the spooky.
It’s approaching not only the end of a year, but the end of a decade, and I’m feeling reflective. Also, I’m going to call this decade “The Roaring ‘20s – Pt II” because it amuses me. Time for a revival of the Charleston and the phrase “the bee’s knees” because I laughed for 10 minutes straight the first time I heard it.
Anyway, the teens were an interesting time, weren’t they? One huge, life-changing decision for me (leaving a toxic job) ups and downs, shameful memories and glorious victories. Publishing my book “Life Songs” in 2018 was a lifetime dream come true. It was one of the most heart-filling things I’ve ever done. I never expected to get rich, I think my royalties were an amazing 50-odd dollars, but that wasn’t the point. It’s done, after 25 years, it’s complete.
This blog is also a victory. After two years of false starts I’ve finally got a handle on it, I finally managed to get some traction in my mission to help and advocate. I also have a captive audience for my groaner jokes, and that’s just fabulous. I can call myself a writer again. That is part of my identity, and I’m over the moon. Next I need to pick up my poetry; I can’t call myself a poet until I do.
It hasn’t been all good of course, it never is. Bad things happen, either brought on you or that you bring on yourself. I have done the latter a lot. More than once I have considered closing this blog and its Facebook page because I felt like a fraud.
Who am I to encourage people to do their best, to make a true assessment, be gentle with themselves, get back up when they fall, when I can barely do it? I need this page to be honest, unblinkingly so, and yet I come and I cheerlead and I say things that I sometimes don’t feel in my heart at all. I’m behind a keyboard; you can’t see my face. I write when I’m cripplingly depressed and I say words I don’t embrace. Or I disappear, unable to muster any thoughts. Who am I to present myself the way I do? At these times I feel self-loathing and every bit a charlatan, even a hypocrite.
I have a very high bar for myself; it sets me up to fail, all or nothing. The pressure to be authentic, to say the things that come from strength and the need to be absolutely in control of myself, essentially be perfect or not write anything, is paralyzing. Am I dishonest with you if I don’t share the bad things too? I fear so much hurting someone else with my doubts instead of acknowledging that we all have them, that it’s the human condition. How can we grow if we aren’t witness to each other, if we allow our horrible thoughts to consume and define us?
And that’s the trick, isn’t it? My best friend once asked me, while I was sharing my horrible inner monolog, “If I came to you with this, would you say those things to me?” Of course not, not in a million years. I might say, “That’s not awesome, what you did, but you’re human, I love you anyway, let’s figure it out.” Or I’d just shove a cookie at her and say “Oh my God, eat this and let’s go play with your Legos.” She has a huge collection of Legos, just so many kits. (This is assuming she wasn’t in a real depression; that’s a totally different conversation.)
The new year, the new decade is just a number, it has no real significance beyond what we attach to it. But for most of us, myself included there is still some sort of magic, figuratively speaking. A new beginning, a time of resolutions and reflection and hopefully not an unhealthy amount of booze, if you drink.
There’s a thing I heard many years ago, you probably have too, that whatever you bring into the new year sets the stage for the next one. I don’t really believe that. I don’t believe in predetermination but I still try to have a peaceful night. If Chris and I and our middle-aged selves make it to midnight we toast with sparkling cider and collapse in bed.
This New Year’s Eve we’ll be with two of our dearest friends at their home in Sonoma. They will toast at midnight with sparkling wine, I will toast with my Martinelli’s (seriously, you knew what I was referring to) and then we’ll probably all collapse because over 50 does not equal all-night partying. I’m at peace with that.
I am, actually. I’m at peace with my age; I’m fine with it. A lot of people would have lost a lot of money betting on me not making it to 50 or even 30! So every year I get is a treasure. Every year you get is a treasure. I’m going to try harder to remember that.
So I won’t be closing up this blog or deleting its Facebook page. I will continue to do what I set out to do. There are some changes to it I’m considering, but that’s also a conversation for another time.
I am excited. I am looking forward to the next year and what might be. New adventures, big decisions, new books out. I’ll write like so much about it.
I wish for all of you a happy turn of the decade. I wish for you to enjoy whatever it is that you do to ring it in. In the new year, I wish for you celebrations of your victories, and gentleness with your mistakes, and good friends who will help remind you that you matter, that you are a flawed and beautiful human, as we all are. And I wish to believe what I just said in my own heart.
And please, if you do have a problem with alcohol find a way to take care of yourself. Have a buddy with you who you can trust to keep an eye on you, go to a sober party, let your friends know you can’t drink with them, and make sure you’re with people who will respect that. And whether you are an alcoholic or not, if you drink, do not drive!
On that note, thank you for reading this, and my blog. Thank you for being a part of the community I’m building, it makes me so happy to have you here. That sounds trite, but I mean it.
Happy new year, a happy new decade. You are all just the bee’s knees. I will bring that back.
Christmas is almost here, which is stunning to me, but I thought I’d share a thought for the many of us who sometimes have a problem dealing with it.
You don’t have to be jolly every minute of Christmas.
There’s a lot of pressure around this one day, a lot of messages to be happy and joyful, to bake cookies, watch some version of “A Christmas Carole,” smile at children, or something. If you’re religious, there’s a whole other level of pressure; I remember it from my youth. Sit and be happy with your family, smile, be loving, give meaningful gifts. Also, you must have gifts.
If someone in that family has abused you somehow, this can be devastating. Maybe you seethe all day, maybe you act out, maybe you self-medicate, or worse. I did all three. The only way I could even remotely deal with this was to medicate with alcohol or weed. It tarnished the holiday for me, darkened it, and that took years and the removal of the toxic person, to overcome. I still feel down now and then, but less often and with far less intensity, and I’ve remained sober. I also had help from the family I kept in my life, my friends, and my husbands. I’ve been married twice, my first husband remains a wonderful man.
This brings me to “Mr. Robot.” Chris would say he just got whiplash from that segue but bear with me.
“Mr. Robot” is one of my favorite shows. Recently there were two episodes with disturbing scenes involving attempted suicide and a mind-exploration (I’m being as vague as I can to avoid spoilers) that were graphic. I didn’t really key in on the first too much because I was wrapped up in whatever horrible thing was happing to Rami Malik that week.
But the second scene hit me to my core. Chris knew it would, so he asked me if I was ok. We talked about it, and I was able to center and appreciate the art of it, but it did, in fact, rock my world for a bit.
Here’s the thing though, at the end of both episodes, a message came up listing the appropriate contact numbers. I was shocked to silence for a few minutes; I have never seen anything like that.
This is what I mean when I say we must watch out for each other, that we are all in this together. It’s why I’m very careful with what I say or the images I use and include the appropriate references at the bottom of any article I believe could be provocative. Also, because I write about such personal things, and I write without blinders, many articles have thrown me for a loop, and I have to find a way to process my own words. My therapist told me she loves that I do all the initial work at home and bring in what needs to be worked on. It’s a timesaver.
You may not know this, but I am incredibly protective of you. I spend a lot of time editing words or photos I fear might be upsetting to someone, so sometimes I do find myself completely paralyzed. “Is this word inclusive enough? Could this hit a button for anyone? What if I make a joke so bad that it makes someone pass out with rage?” That last one is pretty likely to have happened.
People need to feel safe and nurtured, but that word seems especially vexing for some. Why? Is there a bottle somewhere full of nurturing, with a message like, “Expires at Age 20 – Please Place All Bad Feelings in Your Stomach.” I really don’t think so.
If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know I am all about play, giving yourself permission to have fun, whatever it is, go to a meadow and make a chain out of wildflowers. You know, I never figured out how to do that, I tended to just blow the fuzz off of dandelions.
Christmas is hard for some of us, to one degree or another. It’s gotten easier for me, and I enjoy it and my chosen family. I love the traditions the family has. Chris and I have our tree up, pride-of-place on the tree goes to a severed finger ornament, all bloody, wearing a Swarovski crystal ring, Crazy Legs generally leaves it alone. I have my own Hello Kitty tree set up, and of course Ermastus, greeting people as they come up the stairs. He’s friendly, but he can’t hold his liquor!
My family is largely gone, my parents and brother have passed, my sister and brother-in-law moved to Oregon, but Chris’ family is here, so we spend the day together, we enjoy each other’s company, exchange gifts that can be fun toys from Think Geek (pay me Geeks, and I’ll do that more} or something sweet and meaningful, it doesn’t matter. Then a huge feast of Indian food, Christmas Crackers, listening to each person read their horrible joke and show off their prize, lovely desserts. No caroling though, I’m the only singer. I do miss that, but it’s all good.
Oh, Indian food, yes. Most of Chris’ family cook and they love to show off at Thanksgiving just for fun. Years ago though, long before me, they decided that Christmas was stressful enough without having to do all the cooking again, so one of the only places open for delivery would be Indian food and there it is, a tradition that makes me happy, and very full.
But this was not always the case. And the messages we get from every direction are we must be happy at all times, that a sad face is somehow an affront.
You do not have to be jolly every minute of Christmas.
In the spirit of taking care of each other, which Christmas should be about, remember that. Feel what you are feeling. Try to not compound it with guilt because you don’t want to skip down the street singing, “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.”
Anyway, that’s nonsense, the most wonderful time of the year is when the Halloween stores open. Then Chris and I skip hand-in-hand through the parking lot to find batties and ravens and skeletons that will sit outside and greet our neighbors.
No, no, I’m kidding, Ermastus. Nobody can replace you.
So, taking a page from Mr. Robot, I’m listing some numbers for you below in the closing credits so to speak. If you are feeling overwhelmed by this holiday, if you need help, do not hesitate to call. There would be nothing worse at any time of year than to lose you.
SAMHSA’s National Helpline is a free, confidential, 24/7, 365-day-a-year treatment referral and information service (in English and Spanish) for individuals and families facing mental and/or substance use disorders.
We can all help prevent suicide. The Lifeline provides 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress, prevention and crisis resources for you or your loved ones, and best practices for professionals.
Say what you will about Facebook, it can serve as an enlightening peek into human opinions, I said, as a master of understatement.
A friend shared this picture a while ago. She commented that she’d prefer her children feel comfortable coming to her, so if they did something stupid like drink at a party, they would feel safe calling her for a ride rather than try to drive impaired. There will be consequences for drinking, but they made a mistake that can be fixed, rather than a potentially devastating, life-changing decision.
The first and fast response, from the father of a small girl, was one word – BULLSHIT!
His argument eventually boiled down to he is the boss, he is the authority, his child fears punishment, and his child obeys because she is afraid. He actually said, “I would rather be feared than loved.”
I suspect he will get his wish.
I am not a parent, I knew decades ago that it would not be good for a child or me. I like children, but motherhood was not a good idea, since mental illness is heavy in my family, and I didn’t want to hurt a child during either a manic or a depressive place. I wasn’t willing to take the risk. It is precisely because I like children that I chose to not have them. What my mother did was due to her illness, and a response to all of ours. Nothing that happened was due to malice on her part, it was a reaction to an illness that was not her fault, an attempt to turn a blind eye to how absolutely broken we were. She did not set out to be abusive.
This man, however, not only set out to be abusive, he bragged about it. “My child is afraid of me, as she should be. I would rather be feared than loved.”
I’ve had parents try to shut me down by saying, “you’re not a parent, you don’t know, you can’t have an opinion.”
If we’re talking about proper bedtimes, getting the child to eat some damn food – “What do you mean you want mac&cheese with no cheese, but still with orange color, OMG I’ll just melt an orange crayon on it then” – (that’s a direct quote, by the way,) the headaches my friends suffer, then no, I don’t understand, especially since I never see it because I’m auntie and I get perfect behavior. Sorry parents, that’s the way it is.
So with everyday struggles like that, I agree 100%. But if you belittle them, demean them, call them stupid, or hit them when you are angry, that’s very much my business. It’s everyone’s business. (I’m not entering into the debate about physical punishment as a concept, strictly of objective abuse.)
Now, a parent is absolutely going to screw up. My friends are good and wonderful, loving and intelligent parents, but sometimes that child decides he absolutely will not wear those red socks and forcing them to wear the red socks is the worst affront to a human person in the history of the world and if you don’t give me the yellow socks I swear to the old gods and the new that I will scream so loud your ears will bleed, and you will be late to your job, and now you have to feed me the food I will not eat! NO! Now I want to orange socks! (That quote is exaggerated for comedic effect, but only just.)
In such a situation, the parent may overreact. We are all of us human.
The thing is, the little child is also human, and wants to be understood and has an ego and a need to be heard and can’t yet communicate what they want. They have bad days like we all do.
Overreacting is not necessarily the bad thing, as long as we’re not talking about actual abuse. Going back to that child and apologizing and then talking about it can help a hurt, possibly angry child feel validated and respected. It also sets a good example of human behavior, yes adults make mistakes, parents are not infallible, might is not right, and you have an absolute right to be human too.
No, I’m not a parent, so the regular day to day frustrations I can’t speak to. But this, I certainly can. We all can and should.
I don’t believe that anyone is irredeemable. The potentially abusive father there can absolutely find a better way, make amends, and become a better person.
He could decide to work with his child, to change his fear-based approach to parenting. He could do all of these things, and I would applaud him.
But for that little child, it could be too late.
Children look at the grownups around them for guidance, to learn how to be adults and what to expect from adults.
A little girl with an abusive father, she may grow up to believe that’s what she deserves, and there are plenty of men who will agree with her. She may internalize the lesson of fear he is bragging about, and take from that low self-worth, or respond with anger. At the very least, she will put in her heart the fear and pain from physical and emotional abuse. This is the place she should feel safe, and the first man in her life.
Little boys can learn might is right, and bully the children in school and later, their partners. They can also be filled with a heartsick pain that may not be addressed since they were most likely raised to believe that men should be strong and asking for help is weak. That’s toxic, and it’s how unhealthy men are made, and it’s how abuse is passed on. We all suffer, society suffers, and the man who believes he cannot ask for help is in pain. A little boy is no less worthy of protection, safety, and humanity than a little girl.
This father bragged about causing her pain and fear. He bragged about it on a public post.
These are about the biggest red flags that can fly. A parent who is comfortable enough to loudly and proudly proclaim this, I fear what goes on behind closed doors.
No, I’m not a parent, so I can’t comprehend the day to day frustrations and power plays and envelopes being pushed.
But I can watch out for them, I can look for red flags that are visible from space. I can speak out. We all can and should.
Children are not playthings, they are not going to obey commands or do anything to please you at all times or submit to your authority without question.
You’re thinking of a dog, and you shouldn’t have one of those either.
Hello! It’s Halloween, my favorite holiday, so I thought I’d share a spooky story.
Some of this is true; the history, location, thing I found, the man I met. Otherwise, this is a work of fiction. Happy Halloween!
A disturbing thing happened yesterday.
I decided to go for a walk out by Land’s End, where a long, twisty trail runs through flowers, trees, hillside. Off to the right as I’m walking is the Pacific Ocean, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the foghorns. Since it was foggy and lovely, the horns were playing their tune, such a perfect day.
I kept walking down the familiar narrow path until I got to the long staircase to Mile Rock Beach. It’s a tiny spot, covered in logs and rocks, just a little spit of sand really, but very beautiful, and I had it all to myself.
I perched on some driftwood and watched the waves crash; it fills my heart to see that. Honestly, I’ll take a rocky ocean with dramatic waves over a calm blue sea any day of the week. After a while I walked over the wet, slippery rocks that join to another little beach, and I found the strangest thing.
There are a lot of old WWII remnants around the City, Fort Point I guess is the best known, but there are random machine gun nests and gun turrets in the Presidio and around, so coming up on a ruin of some sort is not really unusual. But this was different.
It looked like a building that had collapsed from erosion, also not uncommon here. Every now and then you may find a tombstone from one of the old cemeteries, back when they moved them all to Colma. Except they didn’t always move them, some of the tombstones were repurposed, the bodies forgotten. Now and then, they turn up. Renovations at the Legion of Honor went poorly, at least for whoever found the first coffin, and the anonymous fellow no longer Resting in Peace. It’s all part of our spooky history.
But this baffled me. It looked like it had been a bathroom, judging by the tile. The graffiti told me I was far from the first to find it, and a decaying vulture had been there for a while, but I still felt like an intruder.
Since I have photos, I won’t spend too much time describing what it looked like, but what happened, I couldn’t capture on my phone.
My mind has been cluttered, in fact, I went on this walk to clear it out a bit, so when I heard someone say my full name, Susanne, I whipped my head around to see who was there, and how did they know a name I haven’t used since I was about 11? Occasionally when hiking out here, I’ve come across a man who lives in the brush. The first time I saw him, he was standing by his tent, holding a couple of plastic gas cans that I assume he filled with water somewhere. We both froze, each afraid of the other’s response. I just walked slowly away; he passed me a little while later in another spot. I’ve seen him a time or two since then, but I’m relatively certain he’s corporeal. I wonder who he is and what he has seen out there in the trees and fog.
After a scan of the beach and it’s many hiding places, I convinced myself that my ears played a trick on me. “It was the waves crashing, that’s all. Sussssannneeeeee…a wave, that’s all.” I poked around the ruin a little more, and I found an intact room, plumbing fixtures still attached, one small porcelain sink, but no toilet or shower. I expect they had been on the other side.
I tested the floor, and it was solid. I started to imagine, who used this room? Was it military? It looked like it, and that wouldn’t be uncommon here. But where did it come from? I know the area well, and there was no structure like this up on the cliff. What kinds of things did they worry about, what kept them awake at night? What made them blissfully happy? If this was a WWII bunker, how did they deal with the stress? Although the City was one of the best places they could be during the war.
It hit me as it does sometimes. Most of these soldiers could have been my sons. Now, they’d be 90+ but then, just kids. Just kids in this tiled box in the fog and the horns.
I heard it again. I turned too quickly, slipped on the slick tile, and landed awkwardly on my left thigh. I sat there for a moment, very aware how defenseless I was, how vulnerable, when I heard a rustling in the trees, and the sound of feet trying to navigate the moss-covered rocks. My heart was pounding, and I breathed with my mouth open, so I wouldn’t make as much noise. From where I was I stared directly at the dead vulture, all the feathers on its wings splayed out around a neatly picked ribcage. I wondered how often it feasted on human flesh. I couldn’t shake this morbid thought as the squeak of rubber soles got closer, and the pain in my hip got sharper, the fog turned so thick it was light rain, and I couldn’t see much through my glasses. I thought, “That poor vulture won’t get to enjoy me.” I and covered my mouth and laughed quietly at the disturbing thought.
Just then the footsteps stopped. Slowly, and now soaking wet, I scooted down the floor to the opening, braving a quick glance. My heart raced and pounded like a timpani, deep breaths couldn’t calm it down. All around me, going about their business, men made of fog and shadow, wearing uniforms, dissolving in the wind, and reforming, going about their day in silence. I sat with my jaw hanging, in terror and fascination. And then one of them turned and looked directly in my eyes. He saw me. He reached out his hand and said, “Susanne.” then dissolved as the fog billowed, and reformed slowly in front of me, body wafting in the breeze as he regained form, not two feet away, beckoning me to join him. “Susanne.” was all he said. Although frozen, I felt my hand reach back to him, when the fog horns went still, and the little beach echoed with the sound of one lonely trumpet playing “Taps.”
All of the soldiers, including mine, looked around with sorrow in their cold, empty eyes, and then a look of quiet acceptance passed on their faces as they faded into the fog and the horns returned.
I got up as quickly as I could and realized I would be able to walk across the rocks. As I arose, I saw a figure near the cliff, but he was human. A gust of wind cleared the air for a moment. The young homeless man who lives in the brush was standing there with a battered trumpet tucked under his arm. He stared at me for a moment, saluted, and started the climb up the cliff.
Whatever happened to those boys, so many decades ago, I hope they have peace now. That this was just an echo in time. But since there is a sentry with a trumpet, I expect they come back now and then.
I wonder if anyone has ever taken that boy’s hand?
We had another small earthquake up here in the San Francisco Bay Area. It was 4.5, large enough to rattle me awake and cause my metal Hello Kitty charms to wave on their stand, making a creepy “clinky clinky” sound. This one sort of rolled and lasted in my mind, a long time. The one we had earlier this month was a single hard jolt. Both of these scared the crap out of me, but the one last night lasted long enough to cause me to get out of bed, throw on some clothes and boots, grab glasses and phone, and wonder where Crazy Legs got to. Chris is on his own, he’s a human, he knows what’s up.
Anyway, my brother-in-law was kind enough to remind me that the quake last night happened three days before the 30th anniversary of Loma Prieta, aka, “The ’89 Quake.” I mean, I would have put that together using my superior counting skills but still, that was a bit of a punch. I remember it, of course, and like everyone in who experienced it, we all have a story to tell.
I still lived in Fremont with my ex-husband. We, like so many others, this is important later, sat down to watch the World Series, Oakland A’s vs. San Francisco Giants, affectionately known as the Bay Bridge Series. (The Bay Bridge runs from Oakland to San Francisco, that’s important later too.)
I lived in a fairly typical suburban apartment, outside entrances, two stories, we were on the second, and the buildings formed a square around a pool.
The game hadn’t started yet when the couch shook. We had a pendulum light above the table which we, and every Californian with a swinging device, looked at as sort of a poor man’s Richter Scale. It was swinging, so we sat in cat-like readiness and then, wham! it hit. It was powerful and seemed to last forever. We bolted to the door, got down the stairs in about two hops, and huddled up with all our neighbors. I mentioned a pool earlier. One of the clearest memories I have at that point is a mini-tsunami happening, large waves on either side left the pool about ¾ empty. It was utterly surreal and beyond creepy.
After a while we went back in. We still had electricity, so we turned on the news. I remember a newscaster reporting with nothing but a single bulb light, and then we saw two things I will never forget and will never leave my heart.
While it did look like San Francisco was burning to the ground (they kept showing the same footage over and over, my friends elsewhere were terrified) what hit hard were the Bay Bridge and the Cypress Structure.
An entire section of the bridge collapsed, stopping on the bottom deck. The bridge was replaced a mere 24 years later. Yes, that is completely unacceptable.
But what sticks out for me, what has now become local lore, is the collapse of the Cyprus Freeway and the local response to it. I won’t describe any of the deaths, you can look it up if you like, because this isn’t about gory details, it’s about the people in the area who came to help, regular people with no training and no reason not to simply run the other way, but chose to run toward the as yet not understood danger, carrying their ladders they use to wash their windows, paint their houses, or any number of mundane things, put them up against the freeway and start trying to save the people trapped inside.
See, the Cyprus was a double-decker freeway, and the top simply pancaked down. When my ex-husband and I watched, and realized what had happened, and saw the smoke coming from the inside of the two huge layers, we just cried. It was too much. But these amazing people, this happened on the Oakland side, they didn’t flinch, they didn’t pause to wonder, they simply went and helped and surely saw gruesome things. I cannot, I literally cannot, comprehend the bravery and selflessness that took.
Oh, I mentioned the importance of the World Series. Normally at that time, there would have been far more cars, but because of the World Series, people left work early or stayed home. That’s something to be thankful for, I suppose.
For us, life went on as normal. We lost a couple glasses, but there was no other damage. The pool was refilled, the building inspected, we didn’t lose anyone, so we got off easy. I am very aware of that.
San Francisco was not burned to the ground and was quickly rebuilt. Our flag is a phoenix rising from flames, so we are no stranger to this.
Which makes me wonder, when does a terrifying tragedy become a proudly told legend? I have to pause when I realize ’89 was 30 years ago, so there are people with 10-year-old children for whom this is a legend. So we tell these stories, like I just did, as if we were telling a story of adventure to the grandchildren, regaling them with tales of survival that have become nearly romantic.
San Francisco had a famous disaster in 1906, imaginatively named “The ’06 Quake and Fire.” I expect a good number of you know about this, but for locals, especially those of us with family who survived, this is a point of pride, both for the family connection, which shows deep roots in the City, and also the fortitude of the survivors who rebuilt and moved on from a far worse disaster than ’89.
For the record, my Grandmother was 5 at the time and remembered it pretty well. I’ve written about that before so I won’t go into it here too much.
Every year there is a commemoration at Lotta’s Fountain at the exact moment it hit, 5:12 a.m. Because of the who-the-hell-is-up-at-that-ridiculous-hour time, I had never been, but in 2006 on the 100th anniversary, Chris and I did go. Standing in the giant crowd, waiting for the clock to hit the witching hour, a man turned to me and said “Survivor?” I knew instantly what he meant, did I have a family member in the quake. When I said yes, we started telling our stories and became a cluster of wide-eyed people eager to tell our tales. Unfortunately Chris, being from Houston, was quickly moved aside.
“After the 1906 earthquake, dazed survivors looked for anything left standing to congregate around. Lotta’s Fountain served as a meeting place for people to be reunited with their loved ones.”
The Loma Prieta Quake, (Loma Prieta was the fault that broke) is 30 years old on October 17, 2019. It is not the distant past, not to me, but to some, it is just a story told by the – ahem – older people and photos and video and one extremely unfortunate movie. It is books and horror and stories that will break the hardest heart.
But do you know what it is for me? What I try to hang on to? A story that I’m happy to say gets nearly equal time?
Those people in Oakland who risked their lives and mental health by climbing into the collapsed freeway and speaking kindly to strangers and as gently as possible getting them out of the cars to safety. Those people are true heroes, those people are the best of us. Disasters do bring out the best in us, most of the time.
I have no idea if I would have been one of the brave. I hope I never have to find out. When the footage came on, all I could do was cry, there was nothing I could do to help. And maybe that was part of it, feeling helpless. Maybe it’s just because I was a sheltered 21-year-old suburban girl with little sense, and went on with my life very quickly.
Maybe if I’d been there, I would have helped in some way. I like to think so. But until I’m in a situation like that, I can’t say. Even now as a 51-year-old City girl with a lot of scars, I really can’t say.
We don’t have to wait until the next Big One, or whatever natural disaster your world is prone to, we can be the best of us right now. Even some small gesture, to your own abilities, can make a world of difference.
In the meantime, I would very much appreciate it if the Ring of Fire just settled the hell down.
Here are some resources for disaster preparedness. Stay safe everyone!