Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Another adventure to savor ... .

David and I boarded the eleven o'clock Southwest flight to Glendale and the studios where the Tavis Smiley Show is taped.  He spends all day on Mondays completing 6 interviews for the week.  Mine was only one.

Had no idea what to expect, but felt fairly comfortable this time, maybe it was because my son, David, with his easy-going-ness tagging along as escort.  It is almost impossible to be rattled in his presence; my anchor at such times as this.

We were met at the airport upon arrival by Paul, our driver, and his sleek black Highlander SUV who delivered us in the 16 minutes required to Tavis's studio where we were led by an intern to our green room to await next steps.  Those turned out to be Devin Robins, producer with whom we'd been in mail contact in preparation for this momentous day.  We watched Kristin Chenoweth, Broadway star, being interviewed and found myself concerned that this lovely diva was in danger of breaking her legs by falling off her disastrously high heels!  David assured me that her sneakers were probably sitting at the door of her green room for a quick change.  That's David.

After one more interview -- this time an African American professor noted for his conservative views -- I didn't catch his interview because I was due to be in make-up prior to mine at the time.  There simply was no time to be nervous.  "Helen" was dormant throughout this period.  In fact, as things turned out, she wasn't needed at all.

Suddenly (before the hair on the back of my neck could rise) I was led to the set and to a warm and welcoming Tavis Smiley -- who was so familiar from all those nights I'd viewed him on screen between my feet and beyond my quilt just before sleep -- that it was "cousin" Tavis now before me.  Strange!

The upshot of all this is that the interview was suddenly on, and we became so engrossed in the exchange that it ended before he wanted it to so that -- on the spot -- a "Part two" was ordered up and the cameras keep rolling!

Part One will air on the PBS channels on Friday, May 20th, with Part Two on Monday evening!

Only problem is that he attempted to cover 94 years of life in two 20-minute segments (impossible!) and I can't recall ever mentioning Rosie the Riveter/WWII Home Front National Historical Park once, and that was the intent of this adventure, after all.

I'm such an natural active listener, and so is Tavis, that we got lost in the talk and I have no idea what was said, except that it felt natural and good, and exciting, and he was genuinely sincere when he told me that he will visit Richmond and our park soon.

Chalk up another wonderful adventure, unexpected, and amazing!

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Life continues to unfold, and we've not run out of red carpeting quite yet ... .

Photo by Susan Wehrle at the Rosie Memorial in Richmond, California
Tomorrow I'll be landing in the early afternoon in Southern California to meet with Tavis Smiley, a noted black voice among rising black voices that are less familiar than those of old.  But then this has always been true, hasn't it?  It's what's called progress, and must be bowed down to as the generations face the changing of the guards.

My voice will be stilled in the not too distant future, I know, and just who will be my replacement hasn't yet been determined.  Or, maybe I'm just not aware of how that process will play out over time, and that's how it should be.  After all, we're each one-of-a-kind human beings, not to be cloned except maybe in the case of identical twins, but even that may be improbable.

Perhaps those things we see in ourselves as flaws are really what makes us unique and un-clonable, maybe?

It becomes more puzzling with each day -- just why this relatively frail and inconsequential woman in her final decade has come to the attention of "The World", a world she has stood in awe of throughout a long and rather ordinary existence.

Only, in looking back, that life may have been far less ordinary -- in the living of it -- than I ever realized.  The ups may have been higher and the lows far deeper -- all leading to an extraordinarily rich life experience, for all the pain or pleasure it brought.  It's only in retrospect that I can see that, and realize that all of it was providing the enhanced energy and a keen perceptiveness that I'm able to access today as all of that aliveness appears to be on tap when  I'm before audiences in my little theater presentations.  I seem to be able to draw upon what turns out to be common and universal themes that connect with others.

This may be the only way for me to make sense of the magic ... .

Tomorrow I'll be facing the man I've watched so often as the Charlie Rose PBS show morphs into the Tavis Smiley show just before I fall off to sleep most nights.  I'm so often struck by the sharp differences the two hosts represent -- Rose urbane and so clearly "New York", and Smiley "urban" and "earthy" (for whatever that means),  but the nature of those differences has never been clear; except for that of race -- but that's no longer enough nor are those differences clear or of any particular importance.

There will be those first few moments of awkwardness as the fleeting and jarring thoughts of "who on earth do they think I am, and what are these folks expecting of me?" cross my mind.  As always, once the conversation begins  and I become an active listener (the secret) I will forget completely that this is out-of-the-ordinary, and my host's natural warmth will take over and he will become that young male interviewer of his older and more experienced guest (moi), and the time will flash by and it will have been just one more memorable experience to savor against an unknown future that has -- until this day -- always held promise ... .

... and then Monday will have passed, and another Tuesday will come, as always.


Friday, May 13, 2016

Wonders never cease ...

Flying off on Monday morning for a taping of the Tavis Smiley television show to be aired some time next week.

The invitation came a few days ago from producer Devin Robins, who worked on the Farai Chideya show -- an interview show of which I'm unambiguously proud.  It was one of those many telephone interviews where the host was in a New York studio and I'm sitting on the floor of my bedroom on the Left Coast in my pajamas as I recall, and barefoot, un-lipsticked uncombed hair, sipping a cup of herbal tea.  The interview was relaxed and went well.

We've never met and never really exchanged words except through Farai.  Nonetheless, that was about a year ago and she is now in Los Angeles and working with Tavis Smiley -- and here was her voice on my office phone voicemail inviting me to come to tape a show for airing next week on the PBS channels, nationally.

(I know.  It's crazy and wild, but true.)  Next thing you know I'll be turning at a Kardashian party hanging with Kim and Kendall, and bouncing North on my aging knee!

In only two days arrangements were completed through our park staff, with my son, David, to act as escort -- and another adventure has been scheduled to occur at the beginning of next week.

Time to bring out "Helen," the persona my psyche has created to handle those things I can't possibly do, and let us pray that she's ready.  I've been thinking of giving her a separate name tag and her own stylist.  She's being called upon more frequently of late, and will need to be in good shape for the Telluride Mountain Film Festival where we're participating in a symposium, and will both need everything we can dredge up for 4 days at 9000 ft. next to Heaven.   I'm told that the upper performance area is reachable by gondola, and I'm hoping that Helen isn't terrified of heights.  I am! But what have we got to lose at this stage in life?  What a way to go! 

Then it's on to New Orleans and festivities at the National WWII Museum in early June.

Can anyone believe this?

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Adjusting to new limitations that resulted from the less than fully-successful cataract surgery three weeks ago ... .

It may be finally getting through to my busy brain that "old" may be making its belated entrance from stage left, and I may just have to deal with it at last.

Have been in recovery that doesn't seem to be taking hold, and my sight is truly less than before, but there's still hope that when my new prescription for glasses has been completed -- and sight is optimized again -- things will clear up considerably.  Let's hope.

Yesterday I found myself musing about that new driverless car that Google, Tesla, and others are developing, and how great it would be if the "Oldest Ranger in the National Park Service"might be the perfect choice to demonstrate this new age of auto travel.  Do you suppose? I could be the poster girl for this new method of travel.  Think about it.  They might use me in order to begin to answer some of the questions about just how effective this technology will be in extending the independence of elders as life itself is extended by many years.  Interesting?  Okay.  It was just a fast-moving fantasy, but worth  a few moments of consideration while waiting for the tea to brew... .

I've given up driving almost completely, and am relying on friends and ParaTransit for transportation to and from work, but that leaves a lot to be desired.  I figured that -- if I could get a group of friends to each take on one day each week when we could visit en route the six mile drive to or from, this would offer a continuing regularly scheduled social contact with others, and those times that weren't covered that way would be times to use Uber or Lyft.  Sounds perfect, right?  Not quite.

So far I find that I'm reluctant to ask my friends, and, to use ParaTransit requires a 24 hours notice to reserve rides, and only works between 8:30 to 5:30 each day.

The 4 and a half mile drive from our offices to my home (10 to 12 minutes drive) takes 4 busses and more than an hour  by public transportation!  The 5 and a half mile ride from the Visitor Center probably requires even more time.

Small wonder that we're not rushing to use that system

Seriously considered retirement as a practical answer, but then on Saturday night at an important dinner I received the Roosevelt Award and ... .

Since I work a 5-hour day, paying $18-$20 round trip is hardly reasonable by  ParaTransit, even more by Uber, and outrageously expensive  by taxi.

I've decided not to force my sons to wrestle my car keys away, but to turn them over to one of my granddaughters as soon as she has her license.  Having it sitting there declaring my loss of independence each time I give it a glance is just too tempting, and the time has come to adapt to a new reality.

How 'bout it Google?  Tesla?  Anybody ready for a no-drivin' hell-raiser with enough passion to go it apace for at least another decade? Maybe the Department of Motor Vehicles has some unanswered questions that need exploring; and how about those questions about accountability on the road?  Focus groups, perhaps? Except for very slowly-failing eyesight, all other systems are firing appropriately, and  you'll rarely find a sharper mind or keener insight.

Those Boomers are fast moving up to making such decisions, and within a few years are going to make up a significant portion of the group for whom driverless vehicles will be a godsend.

We've ventured into the age of robotics and mechanization, and anticipating the changes they will bring could hardly be more spine-tinglingly exciting!

The Future is NOW, and I'm ready if you are.

Monday, April 18, 2016

For many months now I've been giving interviews to what has become, little more than phone conversations with friendly strangers ...

There has been much repetition, and at times I find myself wondering ... the questions are as much the same as the answers ... each is forgotten within minutes, and I lose all sense of who it was and just what publication was that?  I rarely ever see copies of the pieces upon completion.  I get lost in "the work," and in the people who come to my talks ... .

But then there comes that rare moment of realization.  This time it was an email from an editor from the In-Flight magazine for British Airways, and I remembered that only yesterday there was a woman in my audience who'd read about me only last week in the Guardian which is delivered to her home in London.

The editor was requesting a date for a photographer to come to the Visitor Center, "a (possible) cover shot,: says she.  The email contained a sentence that mentioned that their readership is over three million.  That caused a shudder to run up my spine and the catching of my breath -- and the instant and full realization of how widespread is our park and my role in it, and how wondrous that is ... .

... and how little impact those friendly conversations with interesting young people has had on this aging ranger -- at least in those moments of encounter.  It all seems virtual, a word and a concept that has only come to me in my last decade.

It causes me to wonder just when did all this become self-generating, begin to feed on itself,  and will it suddenly come to an end just as it began?

,,, but then there is the filmmaking team who shared some of their footage at the Rosie Trust's banquet last weekend, and -- though it was difficult to view myself in a room holding 250 other people -- I found a way to do it in the third person.  She turned out to be someone I might wish to know, actually.  Not sure I'd want to repeat the experience, though.  It's rather eerie ... .

Friday, April 15, 2016

A few weeks ago -- from an unexpected source -- I felt my veracity challenged ...

It was disturbing... disappointing.

Maybe this is the reason that I was catapulted back in time to the Betty in the previous post, at the nadir of life.

It was on a Facebook post that my friend stated publicly that,  "... though Betty states that during WWII black women were not hired as welders until late in 1944, I know that they were hired in 1942  because ...".

She was referring to a strong activist African American woman, Frances Albrier, I'd known in adolescence, and another who was one of the early and effective lobbyists for the establishing of Rosie the Riveter/WWII Home Front National Historical Park, Ludie Mitchell.  I was aware of both these women as having been early shipyard workers, but far from the norm; both were feisty women of courage, but hardly strong enough against the prevailing social forces to bring substantive change.  They simply led the move toward greater equality in the workplace -- something that would be several years away for ordinary black women.

My word forms the basis for my work, and I felt threatened by her denial of my truth.  Partly, it was because she is a professional, an academician in the field of history; an historian.   I think I'd expected more, and found disappointment in the naiveté her denial suggested. I am working from my memory of the times, not dependent upon research -- but purely on what comes up for me during my presentations.  I've never claimed otherwise, and it has always been enough, at least until now. Her denial caused me to doubt my value as a carrier of this history, and knowing that the work of our park has come to rely heavily on my word, this was devastating.

I had always known that some black women had worked as laborers earlier, and that there were always exceptions -- there always are prior to policy being established.  I'd been one of those forerunners all my life.  It is my belief that black women began to be trained as welders as policy late in the war.  Before that time they mostly swept the decks and picked up trash while other people worked.  This photo -- taken at the time -- would support that assumption.

To have claimed that because we built a home in the suburbs in 1953, therefore people of color integrated the Diablo Valley at that time would be folly.  Our moving in was just the start of a twenty year process that would carry much pain and anguish.

I would return some years ago by invitation to that community -- to be their Martin Luther King Day keynoter.  Upon acceptance I looked up the demographics of Walnut Creek in preparation for my talk, and noted that a half-century later, the black population was at 1%, still.  That figure is now suppressed for economic reasons rather than racial (I suspect), but is nonetheless not the norm.  Maybe that's a kind of progress, but I noted that figure in my speech.

I'd eventually grow to recognize the years we spent in that otherwise white and upscale community as a period of being culturally-deprived.  I'd moved back into the urban areas and my kids, now all out of high school, were dispersed to a variety of places because suburban living was less than I'd hoped for them, and the nation was sorting itself out in ways that seemed more promising in the Seventies, than ever before.

It was in 1972 that my marriage ended, and re-marriage to Bill Soskin occurred, starting a completely new life as a faculty wife on the University of California campus in Berkeley -- and eventually -- a merchant and political activist in Berkeley. 

The price of trying to stay sane in an irrational world had taken its toll, and -- as you can see by the gaunt figure I became while struggling against insurmountable odds -- I was at high risk for suicide, but was rescued in time by Dr. Jean Neighbor, a perceptive and caring Jungian psychiatrist, and Betty the Artist who lives behind my eyes.  He teased her out and gave her substance that is with me still and guides my work.

I imagine that the black woman in the photo above is by now a grandmother who may have visited her husband in prison over the years, and may have by now seen at least two of her grandsons lose their lives to violence.

I'm  hoping that my talks may bring some  understanding to the continuing plight of people of color in this evolving nation, and if so, I will go on speaking to my own truth and not be dissuaded by anyone or anything that might derail my efforts.


Monday, April 11, 2016

Every now and then -- in rummaging through old papers something of worth reappears ... 

This is a song written when we were living in the (white) suburbs.  It was some time in the Sixties, at a time before acceptance of our presence in the community had arrived.  Within weeks of this photo I suffered a mental break that would bring a 3-year period of recovery and the beginnings of the life of discovery that would ensue.   From the accumulated trauma of trying to adapt to an irrational world, my weight had dropped to 89 pounds at this point, as I remember.  (click on photo)

One of the boys had been stoned by teenagers driving by as he rode his bike from Slo Sams, the little grocery store just down the road and across the creek.  He was quite young, and too strong to cry, but too young to understand the venom the act expressed, or, how to deal with the hurt it caused.

There was no way to explain to that questioning little face, except to take him into my arms and hold  him close enough to sooth us both.

After he was calmed and ready to move on, I wrote this:

Singing this song at Asilomar

Where is my brown-skinned heart to hurry?
Where will I find my song?
Why must my mind be just for worry?
To whom does my dream belong?

What are my hands to hold this morning?
Where is my place in the sun?
With what shall I fill this time of yearning?
Whose will shall be done?

The fruit of my labor will tumble in soon
in search of my love and my lead
gave all I had when they left this morning.
Why don't they know that little souls bleed?

Where is my brown-skinned heart to hurry?
To whom does my dream belong?
Why must my mind be just for worry?
Who will hear ...  my ... song ... ?
This is the Betty who still lives inside, and who views current successes with a jaundiced eye at times; never quite completely trusting it.

But it's clear that my song was eventually heard, all the way to Washington, D.C., and wouldn't it be great if all of our songs could be?

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