Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Love Laws for 2010!

Though we've mostly managed to keep laws off of our bodies and rosaries away from our ovaries, it is increasingly difficult to keep the church and state out of our bedrooms and away from our otherwise intimate relationships. Though many new and updated laws blast into effect as we ring in the New Year, the most interesting in the lot tend to focus on defining and protecting domesticity.

Starting on Jan. 1, 2010, same-sex Californian couples who can't legally marry in the Golden State can now jaunt off to such exotic and progressive states as Massachusetts, Vermont, Connecticut, New Hampshire and, yes, even Iowa to obtain marriages. Upon return to California, these unions will be recognized as legal and valid with the same rights, protections and benefits except for the right to legally refer to the contract by the title of "marriage."

While the bill, known formally as SB 54, won't legalize same-sex matrimony and abolish homophobia overnight, it is viewed by some gay-rights defenders as another tool to whittle away at the discriminatory laws against same-sex partners. Along with the Federal Supreme Court challenging Proposition 8 on Jan. 11, 2010, and the recently signed Hate Crimes Prevention Act (also known as the Matthew Shepard Act), which increases sentencing for hate-based violations starting in 2010, rights-advocates hope to have a stronger case for legalizing love in the great state of California.

Furthermore, to step the marriage rights movement up a notch, the proposed 2010 California Marriage Protection Act (CMPA) intends to crusade against the evils of divorce by deeming it illegal for couples in California to end marriages. By honing in on the hypocrisy around the issues of Prop. 8 proponents' desire to "protect marriage," the CMPA—spearheaded by comic John Marcotte and featuring such slogans as "Hell is eternal—just like your marriage was supposed to be"—hopes to gain enough signatures to secure its place on ballots later in 2010. What began as a satirical strategy for fighting discrimination has gained to support of conservatives and liberals alike.

Other relationship-related laws ringing in the California new year include new laws AB 532 and AB 14. While AB 532 allows police to secure search warrants in order to remove guns or other deadly weapons from homes in the case of suspected or reported domestic disputes or mental health incidents, AB 14 grants police the right to declare any vehicle suspected for use in prostitution a nuisance and can impound it for up to 30 days, therefore inviting lawmakers not only into our bedrooms but also into our cars.

North Bay Bohemian:

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Cottura Della Famiglia

 Sundays in the kitchen with Food Not Bombs, a love story

Several large plastic bags filled with French loaves, polenta rounds and garlic sourdough are stacked on my front porch most Sunday mornings. On a lucky day, a few paper grocery bags bursting with apple pies, tiramisu and boxed cookies accompany them. If the gods are smiling on me, my daughters are still asleep while I mosey around in my pajamas and geeky lavender slippers sipping tea, Tin Hat Trio on the stereo, Nag Champa wafting through the air. At some point, I set down my chipped tea mug and clean the kitchen before the Food Not Bombs cooks, due to arrive in the early afternoon, stumble into my disheveled home.

The national Food Not Bombs movement has evolved over the years and through the changing times like any grassroots organization. Founded in 1980 by antinuclear activists in Cambridge, Mass., Food Not Bombs established itself as a direct-action group with the agenda of sharing food and information with people in public spaces without permits and without hierarchical organization. The group focuses on the preparation of mostly vegan and always vegetarian food to instill a further sense of nonviolence; no animals need to be killed in order for diners to fill their bellies.

With chapters now branching out across the globe, peace-minded folks everywhere gather in private kitchens to save visually unappealing but perfectly safe and healthy produce from compost piles and dumpsters, creating meals for hungry and less fortunate community members. In a country that wastes ungodly amounts of money on preparing for and recovering from wars while hungry people walk the streets, it is absurd to Food Not Bombs groups that so much perfectly edible food would be thrown out.

The North Bay Food Not Bombs movement began with humble, short-lived efforts during the first Gulf War and was reborn in the late 1990s at the height of the local Police Accountability and Earth First! movements. Bagels with hummus, along with hearty soups and modest salads, were served on Sunday afternoons in Santa Rosa's Courthouse Square while budding revolutionaries gathered to analyze the latest mass media news, organized actions at Headwater's Forest in Humboldt County or recapped the highlights of recent punk and hip-hop shows. These days, as word of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are accompanied by the healthcare debate and immigration issues, the conversations are tinted with a sense of overwhelm, yet focus more on local, sustainable remedies for the world's nightmarish problems.

I feel eternally indebted to Food Not Bombs, and so have offered my tiny Santa Rosa kitchen as a community cooking site on countless Sundays for over six years. After leaving an unhealthy relationship in 2002, I found myself homeless with two little girls, then ages two and six, in tow. With no nearby family and a bank account gutted by my drug-addicted ex, the only place I knew I could turn for food and support was the Food Not Bombs House, which was then located on South E Street in Santa Rosa.

This is where my daughters learned to cook and began to understand the value and importance of community. I spent Sundays tearing bread apart for stuffing, slicing onions until my eyes nearly bled and talking smack about racist cops, the pending war in Iraq and the latest gossip about which Earth First! activist was sleeping with which bass-playing punk rocker and who had sold out by dating a corporate accountant.

Now in my own home across town, I never know who or what to expect as I hear that first knock on the door each Sunday around 2pm. Some days, it's a group of young SRJC students, grasping banjos, Foucault tucked under arms, just starving for talk of revolution. Other days, it's a neighbor and his children who come to cook with me as we share parental anecdotes and laugh over our backyard chickens. In one sense, I have grown from a young and eager revolutionary to being a pseudo-historian, weaving my radical opinions and personal experiences into stories that are shared while slicing zucchini or opening a gazillion cans of tomato sauce for a very creative minestrone soup.

Quite often, the produce is the last element to make an appearance. This is usually a result of poor communication on the FNB listserv. Some sweet soul—whoever has a car—is enlisted to dart across town to Community Market and snatch the crates of produce they have so kindly saved for us. Upon return, the driver's efforts are met with excitement or amusement. What exactly does one do with eight pounds of okra, 16 cucumbers and two crates of browning romaine? Or what happens when some well-meaning farmer donates 20 cases of rotting corn? The romaine is stripped to its core while the corn is picked through and the remaining, bug-infested ears are buried in the backyard.

Sure, there's a Food Not Bombs handbook that can help guide cooks through food salvaging and preparation, but after nearly two decades of FNB volunteers whipping up and serving food to hungry mouths in Sonoma County, recipes have been passed down through the generations of activists much like elder Italian women share kitchen wisdom with grandchildren. Each time the cooking changes locations, a new seasoning is discovered. At my house, the rosemary stuffing would be accompanied by curried mashed potatoes. Across town, the potatoes are heavy with fresh garlic and the stuffing is covered with onion salt.

On a recent Sunday, the lucky hens cluck gleefully at the wilted dinosaur kale we've tossed to them and we roll up our sleeves and get to work. The CD has been switched over to a mix of the Coup and Animal Collective as laughter and steam intermingle in my overcrowded, tiny cooking space; mushroom stems are scattered over the table, squishy tomatoes leak juice down cutting boards and across countertops. As always, we focus on basics, lucky to have purchased an obscene amount of organic brown rice from the Redwood Empire Food Bank that will serve as a filler for the soup we've got boiling away on the stovetop.

A young, barefoot volunteer pulls some goji berries and kombucha from his knapsack and offers them to me, insisting that they'll help with my fatigue while I peel potatoes into the sink. Our conversation has turned from seasoning recommendations and disappointment with Obama to a discussion of herbal remedies, Vipassana meditation retreats and the therapeutic use of psychedelics. An always chipper and hip female artist in the group suggests we watch a movie while the pots cook away in the oven, and we move from the kitchen to watch Letter to the President, a documentary about the birth of rap music. We wrap up in blankets with an almost Thanksgiving-like smell in the air and let the film unfold.

After the film ends, the other cooks help me sweep my filthy floor and load the pots, pans and serving utensils into the truck parked out front. We say our goodbyes. They are headed to serve the food in Courthouse Square, as they do every Sunday evening, and I am headed back into my pajamas to call it a night. After years of involvement, I have decided to reclaim Sundays for myself. The Santa Rosa Food Not Bombs food prep is moving on from the warm confines of my humble home and into its next incarnation with a new generation of energetic and dedicated activists.

I make some tea and sit at the table in my now-quiet kitchen. I think about how this room has been occupied by punks, hippies, school teachers, artists, parents, neighborhood kids, students, musicians, doctors, athletes, carpenters and everyone in between for years while my daughters thrived among them. I think about all that we have learned from them and the FNB movement. They may not be the feisty Italian grandmothers I might have longed for, but they are certainly my family.

North Bay Bohemian, December 23, 2009:

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Love in the Time of Swine Flu

All relationships have their issues, many of which tend to increase as the relationships falter, combust or otherwise diminish. Going through a break-up or separation in a small community can be rough—people talk, the ex makes appearances before morning coffee, sends cryptic text messages or is otherwise annoying or hurtful when what is prayed for is a simple disappearing act. Imagine, then, that upon a break-up it is discovered that the insignificant other had been canoodling elsewhere and passed on an embarrassing parting gift in the form of a sexually transmitted disease (STD). Throw a little H1N1 virus into the mix, and the humiliation can be potentially life threatening and very, very expensive.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), those with weakened immune systems or pre-existing illness, such as sinus infections, pneumonia and STDs, are at a higher risk for more serious health complications when exposed to the H1N1 virus. In addition, CDC's latest report, released last week, illustrates that over 19 million people are infected with STDs each year in the United States, with a 12 to 18 percent increase in 2008, depending on the specific STD. With invisible viruses and bacteria creeping around like little apocalyptic parasites, it is surprising that more sexually active adults are not flocking to drugstores for surgical masks, condoms or even cruising eBay for chastity belts.

For those not willing to be secluded in celibate isolation until CDC eradicates all infectious diseases, there are simple things to do in addition to receiving the H1N1 vaccine and ingesting near-lethal doses of immune-boosting zinc and vitamin C. First and most importantly, stock up on condoms. Most family planning clinics provide an abundance of them for free; just show up and ask. Free samples are even available through major condom manufacturers' websites. It is always better to be safe than sorry with an uncomfortable itch.

Secondly, visit one of the many local clinics for STD testing and/or treatment. Planned Parenthood Golden Gate offers walk-in testing hours for women and men at its clinics in Napa (1735 Jefferson St., Napa; 707.252.8050), Marin (2 H St., San Rafael; 800.967.7526) and Sonoma (1370 Medical Center Drive, Rohnert Park; 800.967.7526), as does Women's Health Specialists (4415 Sonoma Hwy., Ste. #D, Santa Rosa; 707.537.1171). All testing and treatment services are offered at low or no cost according to income. Avoid a long, cold winter alone, and get your junk checked out.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Street Talking

New no 'Street Hiring' signs in Graton point to continued conflict between concept of hiring hall and reality of day laborers

The presence of migrant workers in the west Sonoma County town of Graton has a long history, beginning with Chinese immigrants at the turn of the 20th century and then again when the black roller clouds of the dustbowl forced farmers west during the Great Depression. Unlike the unemployed men in urban areas who sold apples on street corners to support their families, men who found themselves migrating west to places like Graton were most likely waiting on street corners for work picking the apples that were for sale elsewhere.

A perfect destination when what's needed at the end of the week is a fancy cocktail and quick escape from the grind, Graton has evolved vastly over the last decade. What was once considered a rough-and-tumble backwoods town was transformed into a wine country hot spot with the help of developer Orrin Thiessen and his Downtown Graton Revitalization project.

Nestled at an intersection of Sonoma County's vineyards, apple orchards and redwood trees, Graton's downtown now provides visitors three blocks of award-winning dining, gallery openings and local businesses. Despite the outward appearance of the town's relative calm, however, is the behind-the-scenes, hushed murmur of its residents, discussing what to do with the problem of day laborers' continued presence on the streets which, some argue, clashes greatly with the charming image Graton would like to maintain.
During recent morning visits, a dozen men casually stood on street corners, appearing to be patiently waiting for employers to stop and offer them a day's work. Just down Bowen Street, however, the majority of day laborers congregated at the grounds of the Graton Day Labor Center (GDL) in hopes of connecting with local employers through the services that the center has been providing, with community support, for over five years.

According to the town's community e-letter, that some workers do not utilize the new center—which recently celebrated its two-year anniversary at the permanent site—and continue to "loiter" in this otherwise quiet town has been the focus of concern. After many adamantly rejected the idea of handing out cards asking workers to leave the streets, some residents came together just before harvest season to install no street hiring signs in hopes of deterring those seeking work and their potential employers from using Graton Road as a hiring spot.
News of the sign installation was reported in the West County Gazette under the dramatic heading of "Defending OUR Home Town: Graton Defends Downtown from Loitering Laborers." However, the biggest complaints expressed have been over men making suggestive comments toward passersby or leaving trash behind. After the article was posted online, its author, the Gazette's Graton columnist HolLynn D'lil, changed her tone.

"Bottom line, the issue is very minor," she stated in response to a query from the Bohemian. "I would not feel comfortable with escalating or emphasizing a situation that is actually working well and has been for decades." She would instead, like the focus to be on the planning of the town's community garden. "If there is a story here, it's about how Graton is becoming green."

"It is a very complex issue," says GDL's lead organizer Davin Cardenas. "Graton has had a history with day laborers since before many of the businesses and residents have been there. Yet large groups of men on the streets can be intimidating for some people." The center and its workers have had extensive, open and ongoing dialogue with many of Graton's residents and business owners about issues that have come up, including the recent decision to install the no street hiring signs, which were paid for by community members and local business owners.

Despite his center's efforts to organize workers, Cardenas recognizes their freedom to gain employment however they choose. "We practice an explicit system of inclusion at GDL. All we know is that if people are out of luck and need an organized way to help find them work, we're here to help. If they want to find work in other ways, they have that right." Much of the seasonal work in the area, such as the annual grape harvest, is contracted independently, and GDL has little influence over that particular hiring process.

Still, Cardenas feels that workers who remain on the streets could benefit greatly from what his center offers, including a health clinic and English classes. One of only some 50 official hiring halls nationwide, GDL also provides training for workers and translation for employers, and advocates for safe work conditions and living wages of $12 or more per hour for day laborers.

The center also serves as an unofficial hub of intercultural bonding, despite a history of regionalism between day laborers from different areas. Contrary to assumptions, the workers are not all just passing through Sonoma County from Mexico, and not all speak Spanish as their primary language. Many come from as far away as Guatemala and the state of Oaxaca in southern Mexico, and more are U.S.-born and bus into town from nearby Santa Rosa. A variety of Spanish language dialects are spoken, depending on region of origin. And, yes, even English.

"Learning or improving English skills and playing soccer are honestly the two main things that get workers here to set aside difference and strengthen the camaraderie," Cardenas laughs. "None of them want to sit around and listen to me lecture about organizing."

A local business owner whose shared photography studio sits just down the block from Graton Day Labor on Bowen Street, Michelle Feileacan has noticed a big decrease of workers on the street corners since GDL opened its doors. Having hired from the center, Feileacan says she is satisfied with her experience. Still, she would like to see more workers reap the benefits of the center's advocacy, not strictly because of the occasional cat-calling she's received during her morning jaunts down the street for coffee or to reduce the garbage sometimes left behind by those hanging out, but because of the resources GDL makes available.
From GDL board member Terry Winter's perspective, the motivation behind the community's "No Street Hiring" signs was to make the center more visible and to provide employers with reliable workers. "The key to getting workers off of the streets is to get the employers to the center," he says. "Get them here once, and they'll come back." Yet many continue to hire off of the streets because their dollar goes further when they set the pay rate instead of having GDL set it for them.

Investing time and money into installing the no street hiring signs was not simply motivated by the desire to move workers to the center, but to remedy the situation that many residents and business owners see as a nuisance. "Many of the men on the streets are not there just to find work," Winter says. "Some are just there to simply hang out, as many people do in places like Mexico and Central America. It's a cultural thing."
Unlike north Santa Rosa's Fulton area, where workers and employers alike have endured harassment and even threats by hate groups such as the Minutemen Project, Graton sees little aggression, and residents remain mostly tolerant of the men who remain on the streets. However, there is still an expectation that the center is responsible for the migrant workers being in town. "We never believed we'd get all hiring off the streets like the community wanted," Winter says. "Some of the community expectations are a bit unrealistic. In fact, if a Latino were involved in an incident or crime, the labor center would be looked at."

The issues remain more complex than simply enticing workers to change locations or celebrating cultural diversity. Many suggest holding the street employers accountable. Others even consider whether or not men hanging out along street corners should be considered a problem, begging the question that no liberal do-gooder wants to address: Would men on the streets be looked at the same if they were recently unemployed white neighbors?

"If the American people were in such a dire economic crisis and headed to Canada to find work," Winter says, "we'd be seen as patriotic, not as a proble

Printed in the North Bay Bohemian:

Friday, November 06, 2009

Rad Dad Reading, Book Zoo November 6, 2009

Tomas Moniz, Rad Dad Extraordinaire, asked me to read at the Rad Dad Zine Release Party in Oakland at the amazing Book Zoo at 6395 Telegraph Avenue. I wasn't sure what to read so I whipped this up the night before...

Thursday, October 01, 2009

My piece in Rad Dad 15

“Mama, I really miss my dad.” These words, followed by an eight-year-old sized sigh and spoken ever-so-sweetly at bedtime, caught me off-guard.
“Do you want to talk about it?” I asked, hoping- rather selfishly- that she didn’t actually want to talk about it on this particular night, with my then-boyfriend waiting not-so-patiently for me in the next room.
“No. I just really miss him. I just really wish I had a dad. Good night.”
Conversations like this are a new, heart-wrenching phenomenon in my home, and have recently been popping up after a day of my daughters spending time with the other children-and their dads- in my community. My ex-partner- the father of my 8yo and step-father of my 13yo- had been mostly absent- and inconsistent at best- from my daughters’ lives for the first five years after we separated. He made his big come-back, starting with child-support payments and attempts at mending his relationships with them throughout year six which also included his first visit in years. He had even planned a second trip to visit, this time to take the girls camping and to spend some time with old friends. Instead, he fell apart emotionally and killed himself the week the kids expected to see him. His sudden, violent and shocking death brought a whole new level of parental worry, anxiety and fierce mama-bear protective instincts directly to my core- along with a whole new longing for male connection into the life of my lovely little girls.
It also brought an official end to over a decade of the confusion and pain that comes along with knowing and loving someone with mental illness and drug addiction. But, though it is painful and even shameful to admit, there is a dark corner of my heart that feels a sense of relief that he is gone. Now my daughters will no longer get their hopes up and be let down. Now my daughters know why he doesn’t call or come to visit. Now I know I am really in this alone.
My small family has its own unique dynamics. I have no close family nearby, my teenager spends the weekends with her bio dad while my 8yo remains with me. We live alone, and my relationships are few and far between. We live in an amazing neighborhood full of great people who all have children- and who all also have fathers living in their homes. My little one likes to imagine herself living with one of the more “normal” families we know and completely romanticizes the idea of having a dad to take her fishing, to fix her bike and to do other ‘gender-specific’ activities with her. This has been a challenge for me. As much as I believe in confronting patriarchy and raising strong, independent women, I also understand the value of having positive male role-models to balance things out. She has no shortage of male adults in her life but as many of them settle down and start having families of their own, she often asks if they will still have time for their relationships with her.
Naturally, I try to provide consistence in her life. After all, statistics clearly show that fatherless children are more likely to abuse drugs, be sexually promiscuous, and drop out of school. It is challenging enough to feed the kids, pay the bills, help with homework and play referee, without obsessing over recent studies that seem to be designed for the sole purpose of blaming single moms- and their children- for more of America’s problems. I am raising women in a male-dominated culture- young women who’s most present male influence was inconsistent, mentally ill and shot himself instead of taking them camping. Throw that in with the complexities of a social life or even a love life and you can see where things become a tricky balancing act.
Over a decade of solo-parenting (and occasionally trying to date) has reinforced my belief that although it is my full responsibility to provide my children with stability, the men that make conscious efforts to build relationships with fatherless kids have a responsibility to them as well. Too often, I have had the experience of dating men who are na├»vely excited about dating a woman with children only to end up feeling threatened or insecure about the fact that I will not introduce them until the relationship is “established.” My kids, therefore, rarely meet the men that I date. It can be difficult to understand that raising children isn’t always a day at the beach and I often question the motives of men who want a casual relationship and yet want to meet my daughters. Men have expressed to me that they need to know that they’ll “like” my kids before they can get serious with me, which for me is a no brainer- my kids are great! Of course they’d love them! I am personally more concerned about their communication skills and emotional availability first. Complex and even painful situations can arise in any family and it takes twice as much compassion, fierce love and hard work to move through these times with grace and confidence if you are a single mother. For a man to pick this as a time to back away and take space for himself is not always appropriate, but, for me, has unfortunately been the status quo. This only reinforces the stereotypical beliefs that fatherless children have about men, which is not good for anyone. At the same time, however, the very few men that do make it through my so-called “trial period” don’t always understand the parenting/dating dynamics that can be so complex for single moms to navigate through. Again, we have twice as much work to do, with no partner available for support or companionship at the end of the long, often challenging days we work our ways through.
So what can you do if you find yourself interested in pursuing something with that great single mom you met at the Healthcare Rally? You can talk to her, follow her lead and communicate honestly and openly about your fears, reservations and concerns. Pace yourself and don’t dive in head first, panic and back out when things get tough a few months down the road. Ask her what is appropriate for her and her children instead of making assumptions about boundary-setting, interacting with the kiddos or household rules.
In a perfect world, I would not have had the journey of guiding my kids through the abandonment, heartbreak and the grief that they have been faced with. I would have made better choices about who would be a part of our lives and would be walking through life with emotional and financial ease myself. But, as we all know, we don’t live in a perfect world and the most that any of us can hope for is to provide consistency, unconditional love, strong values and laughter for our children and to maybe even have some left over for ourselves at the end of the day.