Summer solstice 2020

Dear Friends,

We think of you as we sit on our porch sipping aquavit and eating gjetost cheese on rye crisps looking out at the fjord in our cozy cabin for six in the village of Flam, Norway. To our backs are steep forested mountains and waterfalls. To our west is the North Sea.

Just kidding. That’s where we were supposed to be at midsummer with Scandinavian American cousins. We had made all our reservations and even bought plane tickets when the corona virus hit. Still waiting for refunds.

We had planned to visit the ancestral homes of our Scandinavian ancestors. I wanted to be there at midsommer, a celebratory holiday which marks the summer solstice. Instead we sit in our zero gravity chairs in our Santa Rosa backyard watching our flowers and veggies grow. In June I harvested the last of the oranges and then artichokes, the last of them now blooming magnificently. Tomatoes, eggplant and cucumbers are just coming on. It’s not so bad. Life has slowed way down (though it was already pretty slow around here.) 

The Norway trip was the idea of my cousin Gail. She lives in Gig Harbor, Washington in a lovely house that has been sort of a retreat center for the family for the last several years. We would gather for reunions and also to go through Gail’s extensive family history archives, saved in cardboard boxes in her attic. Lately my brother Don has been researching the Swedish relatives.

We share a Norwegian grandfather and Swedish grandmother who emigrated at the turn of the 20th century and met and married in South Dakota where their relatives had homesteaded. They soon moved further west to Idaho, Oregon and Washington, settling in Yakima.

Our grandfather, Bernt, or Ben in American, left Norway in 1898, never to return. He was born in 1878 in Borsa, a fishing village on a fjord not far from the town of Trondheim.

So we may never get to Norway but we have used this opportunity to educate ourselves about Norwegian culture, reading literature and history. My mother Flo and I had already made a pilgrimage to our Norwegian and Swedish ancestors’ homes. Thanks to Flo’s 1979 travel diary, I reconnected with a woman who we met at the Oslo feminist center and who let us stay in her apartment when all the inns were full. In letters, Bente has caught me up on 40 years of her life. She is a lesbian feminist and was part of a back-to-the-land movement in Norway when she returned to her family farm in the north. Now she’s working at a historical museum near Oslo.

We also discovered that our next door neighbors had taken a family trip last year back to his ancestral home in Norway and we had planned to meet up and hear all about their trip when coronavirus hit. Perhaps our neighbors are my cousins too!

Still sheltering in place in NoCal, we shall just have to pretend we are up in the north country. I think I have some aquavit around her somewhere. Skol!

(My Danish friend corrected me. Aquavit is not to be sipped. It is downed, ice cold.)

My Brush with Criminal Justice

“If I had to hear the word fingering one more time, I’d slit my throat,” said one of the jurors as we sat in the jury deliberation room after we had given our decision to the judge.

The jury deliberation room at the Sonoma County courthouse was just big enough for exactly 12 chairs around a table. It had a coffee pot but no coffee. It had two toilets but no one, not even the man who obviously had to go, would use them. You imagined that everyone would be able to hear the tinkle.

In my 70th year I finally was chosen as a juror. I’d gotten as far as the jury box several times in San Francisco but was always rejected. One time I was asked if I’d ever been a member of the ACLU. “Yes,” I huffed. “A proud card-carrying member.” Dismissed.

Unlike most people, I’ve always wanted to be on a jury. I’ve always thought I’d make a great juror. It seems like the very heart of democracy to me. When I said this to my brother Don, he told me he’d spent his life trying to avoid juries. He objects to participating in a system that sends people to jail. I hadn’t considered this but it seemed like a good point. My enthusiasm was only slightly dampened.

I am new to Sonoma County and this was my first trip to the courthouse, on Administration Road. The architecture is sixties-ish—boxy concrete buildings with a square courtyard.

Sonoma County courthouse

When you first report for jury duty, you are all herded through metal detectors at the entrance into a large waiting room where you check in with the clerk and watch a video explaining the process of jury duty. Then prospective jurors are summoned to various courtrooms. My number was called and I followed directions to a courtroom on the second floor. I had gotten as far as the jury selection process.

The players introduced themselves. The judge was a handsome young man with a full head of hair. Inscrutable. The prosecutor was a no-nonsense blond pageboyed woman who favored suits with skirts and long jackets. Businesslike. The defendant’s attorney was a gray-haired diminutive old guy whose suits looked as if they came from Goodwill. Endearing. During the screening process they asked your occupation, whether you had adult kids, your partner’s occupation, how long you’d lived in Sonoma County. We had a construction group, a medical group, a tech group. Several worked for Kaiser hospital. 

We were told that the case was about sexual assault. A young woman had brought charges against her fiancé for fingering her and photographing her body while she was in a deep sleep. We were asked if relatives or friends were cops, if we had been victims of rape, if we would be prejudiced in any way. A friend of mine told me that she had been on a jury in a rape case. They’d had trouble finding a jury of the unraped.

One prospective juror admitted that she was planning to see Hamilton with the prosecutor on the weekend but felt she could still be fair. Dismissed. One woman appeared so distraught that she could not even voice her feelings. Dismissed.

I was pretty sure, looking as I do wearing the uniform (flannel shirt, Kuhl hiking pants) and hair (short) of a radical lesbian feminist, I’d never get on a jury about sexual assault. But for the first time I was not dismissed. 

We jurors were half men, half women, of varied ages, all white. No names were used; the judge referred to us by the numbers we’d been assigned. I learned the name of only one other juror, Kim. In the course of the week-long trial we got to know each other at breaks, though it seemed sinful somehow, like total anonymity was required for true resolution. Of course we never discussed the trial as per instructions.

In the courtroom the words penis, hand job, vagina, blow job, oral sex and fingering had been thrown around with obvious unease.

“Do you know where the clitoris is?” Asked the prosecutor of the defendant. “Is it on the inside or the outside?”  

On the stand, the young woman was a credible witness, I thought. Her boundaries were clear. As a requirement of the Purity movement, she and her fiancé had publicly pledged to avoid sex until marriage.

What I knew about the Purity movement: it was big in the 90s and lately some of its early proponents had been renouncing it and leaving evangelicalism altogether. Advocates of extreme abstinence believe women should be subservient to fathers and then husbands. Purity also extends to vanquishing impure thoughts. The movement promotes shame and sexual ignorance, especially among young women, although men are also supposed to remain virgins until they marry. Children raised in this culture tend to wrestle with shame and guilt and often have difficulty maintaining healthy adult relationships.

But this couple’s interpretation of purity included everything except penis in vagina intercourse. I couldn’t help but think of the song “Fuck me in the ass for Jesus.”

The plaintiff said at first she didn’t want to bring charges but later decided she wanted to prevent this from happening to other women the defendant might date. 

The woman’s girlfriend and roommate also took the stand and I was again impressed at the poise of this 20-something. But my favorite testifier was the female police officer who investigated the case and made the arrest. Extremely calm. No facial expression. A young woman, she wore her straight brown hair in a perfect round bun at the base of her skull. 

“How does she get her hair to do that?” I asked Kim during break. Kim said she saw an ad on TV for a device that does it.

In this case, while cell phone photos had been deleted, a taped conversation called a pretext call provided incriminating evidence. The cop explained the pretext call. The cooperative victim or a witness to the act makes a telephone call to the suspect, with the police recording the call. The victim or the witness will attempt to engage the suspect in conversation about the sex offense to get it on tape. For the police to record such a call is legal, although in general recording a phone call without the consent of both parties is illegal. 

My new friend Kim was an alternate and so she disappeared after the trial as we were led out of the courtroom. I was glad she’d have time to make it to her parent-teacher conference in Petaluma.

In the jury deliberation room, we elected our foreman, a retired teacher and the eldest among us. The judge’s instructions reminded us that this was a criminal case, which requires a unanimous decision and that our decision must reflect the law, no matter what we personally thought. Representing the boomer generation, I was thinking of all the naked pictures I have taken of lovers while they were sleeping. When we were young we took lots of naked pictures. But of course we didn’t have cell phones and photos didn’t rest in the cloud.

“Don’t ever take naked pictures of me when I’m sleeping,” said my wife when I told her about the trial afterward.

“It’s so interesting to learn what the law is,” I said to the jurors. The law had changed since I was young, when sexual assault was not taken seriously. But was this sexual assault?

“Yeah, they should teach us about it in school,” said a young man with a nervous laugh.

There were abbreviated attempts to psychologize the players. How did the credo of the Purity movement contribute to the victim mentality? 

“But why did she bring charges against her fiancé?” said one juror, disgusted at having to use up her vacation time to decide what she considered a frivolous case.

“There’s more to the story,” said another. “She only filed charges after he started dating someone else.”

A general sense of distaste pervaded the room. We all took our job as jurors seriously but it was hard to take this case seriously. Should this really be a criminal matter? How does it make sense for the cops to be involved? Could this be a job for restorative justice or mediation, I wondered. What if some of the funding that goes to police could be diverted to programs to resolve cases like this one?

We only discussed the case briefly before coming to consensus. Not guilty of the charge of battery. Guilty of the charge of photographing a person’s body for sexual pleasure without their consent.

When the jury deliberation room door opened and we were let out, I hated to leave my fellow jurors so abruptly. Judging others had brought us closer. I wanted to hang out with them, maybe go have a beer. But no one was asking and besides I had to get home and delete some pictures.

Plumber Seduction

Feminary: a lesbian feminist magazine of passion, politics & hope, was a publishing venture sponsored by the San Francisco Women’s Centers in the 1980s. It was a beautiful collective work of art and I was delighted for this story to appear next to those of revered lesbian writers in Vol 14, 1985.

 

How to Kill a Contracting Collective

Many a tradeswoman dreams of dumping the bosses off her back and starting her own business. In the 1970s I was a partner in two small electrical contracting businesses, one–Wonder Woman Electric–all women. While the prospect seems idyllic, running a business is fraught with its own problems. I was glad to have done it and also relieved to go back to taking orders from a foreman. Contracting drove me crazy but I’m proud that we succeeded in training female electricians who made great careers in the trades.  Here’s a story published in Tradeswomen Magazine set in that time when everything seemed possible.

When Homelessness Still Shocked

This story was published in Tradeswomen Magazine in 1995, but it’s set in the early 80s when encountering homeless people was not yet a daily phenomenon. Young folks won’t remember but there was a time in San Francisco and in other cities when we didn’t have to step over people sleeping in doorways and on sidewalks. It was before Reagan, as governor of California, closed down mental health facilities and sent their residents into the streets. Before buying a house in the city became out of the reach of most working people. Before the commutes of construction workers averaged two hours from far-flung communities on the outskirts. Before we got used to it.

To join Tradeswomen Inc. Today go to http://www.tradeswomen.org

The Good Co-worker

Here’s another story from Tradeswomen Magazine, published in 1997. Like all my fictional stories, it’s autobiographical. I was working as a maintenance electrician out of the San Francisco Water Department corporation yard. The photos are of  women building a house in Florida.

Women Run Screaming

Archiving during the pandemic shutdown–it’s a pastime of lots of us old folks. I admit to feeling nostalgic as I box up historic files and read through past Tradeswomen Magazines. The quarterly magazine was published for nearly two decades, the 80s and 90s, and it tells the story of our movement for equity in nontraditional jobs. Of all my writings published in the magazine, the short fiction still resonates best. Here’s a story from the Spring, 1987 issue.

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Celebrating Beltane and May Day

Dear Friends,

Emerging from the chrysalis—a month and a half of  coronavirus lockdown and spine surgery recovery—it feels like a brand new day. In Sonoma County residents are now allowed to walk or bike (but not drive) to a park. Keep your mask on.

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A trailer parked on my block

I’m one of those people who finds it difficult to sit in one place and concentrate on anything for any length of time. I always knew I had a very short attention span. Holly thinks maybe I have undiagnosed ADHD. Anyway being flat on my back and having to concentrate on recovery from surgery has helped me if not to focus better at least to understand my problem better. I was pretty happy listening to novels especially when I was in the first stage of recovery and could barely get in and out of bed. As I recovered I felt more and more like multitasking, as if I actually could pick up my iPad and read Facebook posts while I’m listening to a book. Not! I can work on a jigsaw puzzle and listen to a book at the same time. Holly says that’s because you’re using different parts of the brain. Don’t try do two tasks that require words at the same time.

So I have been trying to practice doing one thing at a time. Then, reading the Audubon newsletter, I learned about bird sitting. It’s easy. You just sit and listen and watch and use all your senses to experience birds. I expanded this concept to pollinators. Bee sitting.

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Our pollinator garden

One sunny April day after I was able to walk around and sit outside in a zero gravity chair, I spent an hour or so just watching pollinators. The air was full of flying and floating things. Filaments of spider web, falling blossoms, puffs of seeds and insects moved through the air in the soft breeze. Honeybees populated the orange and the apple tree. The native bees went for the native plants. Bee segregation! Our pollinator garden starts blooming early. The native carpenter bees and bumblebees especially love the red salvia. And there are all these other little pollinators that may or may not be bees, the kind that fly in squares turning quickly at right angles, the tiny gnats that circle endlessly around each other. I was surprised at how many bugs I couldn’t identify.

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First strawberries. Eaten by a wild animal that night.

Two years ago we had a great population of carpenter bees. The females are big and shiny black, the males smaller with a smidge of yellow. A tub full of purple flowers bloomed near where I like to sit on the patio and my purple hair was constantly being dive-bombed by purple-loving bees. Then last year the bee population declined. I saw one maybe two carpenter bees and we began to wonder if they had been living in the old original redwood fence from 1948 that we had replaced the year before. My brother Don told me that when they remodeled their house in Olympia they destroyed the carpenter bees’ home in the exterior trim on their building. That year and some years after their apple orchard did not get pollinated and had no apples. So I’m delighted that the carpenter bees have returned. 

I plan to celebrate Beltane bee sitting. 

Sending virtual hugs to you all. Take care of yourselves.