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?

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Some months ago I received an invitation to be a panelist at the MountainFilm Festival 2016 at Telluride in Colorado over the Memorial Day weekend ...

... and a few days after that initial contact learned that I was to be participating in a symposium with New York Times columnist Timothy Egan, and noted historian, Douglas Brinkley.  You can imagine  how surreal this struck me, but not having ever been involved in such an unbelievably significant event -- what did I have to lose?  At my age (having outlived all the naysayers in my life) why not?  By the time they realized their error I would have had my say and moved on, right?

So I accepted but filed it away for re-thinking when common sense might return and life assumed its ordinariness, and there would be enough time to reconnect with my new reality at some less spirited time.

Meanwhile, there were a number of occasions that Douglas Brinkley appeared on the screen of my television on panels of some sort -- mostly related to punditry, and nagging at the back of my mind would come the words, "...whatever was I thinking?"  What form of insanity had overtaken my usual ability to sort out the real from the unimaginable, and what were the expectations of others that I'm supposed to fulfill?

Then it happened:  Being a faithful CSPAN junkie, I just happened to flip into BookNotes last week when this eminent author was being interviewed about his newly-published book about President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his years of expanding and developing the National Park Service through the acquisition of new park lands, protections of wildlife,  developing and maintaining properties and roadways through the use of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC); a program designed to provide employment and teach skills to young men of the country at a time when jobs were scarce and resources for youth at an all time low (not unlike our current state of the nation).

Over the course of the hour I became fascinated by NPS history -- some of which I had been exposed to over the past 15 years -- but that had never come alive for me; not really.  The park system Professor Brinkley was referring to was that which has been inspired by environmentalist John Muir, President Teddy Roosevelt, Albright, Mathers, etc., and through his research he was presenting a National Park Service that was clearly male-dominated -- a federal agency closely resembling the model of the Armed Forces.  This was not the park system that I recognized, except as an agency worthy of giving the rest of my life to (I'd figure out the whys later).  In the beginning it was pure intuition and little more.

I'd learned over past years that -- about 1981-- there began to grow in the Department of Interior the slow realization that -- though all American taxpayers paid for the creation, development, and maintenance of this incredible system of a growing number of units, it was only those with the financial resources and the leisure time who could afford to visit them.  It was during the early 80's that the concept of urban parks began to gain traction; the need to bring the parks to the people.  Our park is one of those.  There were no models for these so there had to be thinkers looking at the problem in new ways.  How, for instance do you create national parks without federal lands?  How do you create parks without borders -- parks based on stories alone?  How do you create parks that only exist under the hats of the interpreting rangers?  How do we create parks when the legislated scattered sites were owned commercially, by city or state, by private individuals, by non-profits?  We were to own nothing, and would need to create partnerships with those who did.  How do we do that?  Each of these urban parks had to be created from whole cloth, with no models to guide those original planners.

As an original source, this is where I entered the park system because this is where women and "the feminine factor" began to augment what had been a purely male-dominated agency.  "Rosie" gave us the possibility of equating the building of those Henry Kaiser-built 747 ships in 3 years and 8 months with the human stories -- the why, and why not?, the female-oriented questions like, ... how on earth could we have fought a war to save democracy (a war which cost 54.8 million lives worldwide), with a racially-segregated armed forces?  That is delusional, but that's a question men would probably never have asked themselves, and never did, as far as I can tell. It is just such questions that we had the audacity to boldly ask.

Men have always been more concerned with how many bullets were used, and how many miles did we march, and how many ships did we build -- while women -- who were sending husbands and sons off to be killed, would have been asking very different questions, but rarely having their voices heard or warnings heeded lest they be seen as soft and unrealistic; womanly

We are asking those questions now, in a system of urban parks now scattered at strategic sites that relate to the heroic places, the scenic wonders, the contemplative sites, the shameful places, and the painful ones.  The feminine embraces the human stories -- there is a visitor center that sits at the bottom of the south end of Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama; another at Manzanar on the eastern ridge of the Sierras; at the graves of Dr. Martin Luther King and his Coretta, at Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad; at Port Chicago in Concord, California.  We can re-visit almost any era in our history in order to own it, to process it, in order to begin to forgive ourselves so that we might move toward a more compassionate future, together.

The raising of the feminine consciousness to match that which those far-seeing NPS icons brought into being may yet provide the balance so necessary to face the challenges to climate change, rising sea levels, global warming.  Those illustrious environmentalists of long ago may have provided us with the incentives to save ourselves by instilling in us -- not only the respect for the beauty of our natural wildlands and the will to survive, but the valuing of all of life in all of its forms,

... because Life matters.

After living with such thoughts over the past few hours, I'm thinking that Prof. Brinkley and I might provide a respectable range of perspectives for audiences -- he, with his proud male-oriented view, balanced by my more recently-lived nuanced experience that is so strongly shaped by the female-orientation provided by the complexity of our interpretations at the Rosie the Riveter/WWII Home Front National Historical Park.  

Monday, March 28, 2016

And, again, this morning I woke to the sound of my telephone ringing (by pre-arrangement), this time from Pacifica Radio station WPFW in Washington , D.C.

Hardly awake, and fishing for my cell phone beneath the quilt where I'd left it last night, I answered the unfamiliar voice of the producer asking that I hold for a few minutes, and that  host, Joni Eisenberg, would be with me in a moment or two.

It's all so surreal in many ways;  the new norm.  If I were awake enough, propped on 3 pillows at seven o'clock in the morning (PDT), I surely might have been embarrassed to realize that for the next hour I would be within earshot of however large that audience is across the East Coast?  And here I was without my hair combed, and in pajamas with snow men imprinted all over (a Christmas gift from the grandchild of a friend).  My bedroom with clothes strewn about as I'd tossed them sleepily after being at my computer far too late into the night.  There was each piece lying as it was flung into the peach velvet armchair that sits next to my bed, on the floor in front of the chair my socks -- tossed after the lamp was turned off.  This was hardly a scene I'd want to share under any but these circumstances.  No one could see, and no one should, ever!  Yes, as improbable as it was, I was being Betty Reid Soskin, Oldest Park Ranger in the National Park Service holding forth with an unseen radio audience scattered about (a metaphor?) in far away Washington, D.C.

I have no idea who or how many are "out there" in space listening to my words; it's all beyond imagination at this point.  In a strange way, my mind could only envision two people at the other end of the phone line -- a male producer from Louisiana with a background in the Labor Movement, and Joni, who was celebrating the 24th anniversary of her radio show, and had chosen to do that with me as guest.  That's enough to have to relate to, and I could only imagine that we were having a conversation and that her friends were being allowed to eavesdrop.

It was something like what happens when I'm blogging.  I'm writing for my children and theirs, and, though I'm aware that there are others reading my writings, they're "virtual;" lurking somewhere in the background with our permission.  Ultimately, I'm sure that I'm really writing to myself in the attempt to process life as it goes by.  It's the way I find clarity when I need to.

Maybe that's the only way one can move into a public status at all, without being destroyed by doing so.  That, and a lively sense of humor, of course.

During the interview with Zoe Donaldson of O Magazine on Saturday, it was all I could do to not send out a challenge to arm wrestle Oprah for the cover!  Preposterous?  Of course, but that came from the same place that -- just as I was approaching President Obama on that great stage at the National Tree Lighting Ceremony on December 3rd -- all I could think of was (imaging myself pointing to the huge decorated but aging tree behind us), "... you know I've got a year on your tree, right?"  I'd seen stories that placed the tree's age at 93.  I resisted the temptation, but that fleeting and absurd thought made it possible for me to get through the moment when he was approaching me with arms outstretched for that well-documented presidential embrace.

It was so this early morning when I realized that countless people through the Northeast had been with me this day, and luckily, I'd remembered where I left my dentures!  That I could scratch through another item on my To-Do list ...

Next up:  Tomorrow British Airways In-Flight magazine interview at one o'clock.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Yesterday brought another of those unbelievable days with events unforeseen in my wildest dreams ...

Promptly at 10:30 by pre-arrangement, I found myself sitting in the rangers "Cube" at the Visitor Center waiting for the telephone to ring.  It did.  The caller identified herself as Zoe Donaldson of O Magazine (yes, that's Oprah's) and the interview began as planned.  I'm being featured in the June issue along with other "women of inspiration."  That's a bit much, right?

She opened showing little evidence that she knew very much about the National Park Service, but -- after all -- this would be my chance to speak with someone who had few preconceptions about the subject; which could be awful or great, depending upon where the chat would take us with so little to build upon.

The interviewer was obviously young and enthusiastic, and very easy to talk with.  The usual tension experienced prior to these interviews was strangely missing. We covered an awful lot in the 30 minutes that we had in which to do so.  Her questions were real and there was curiosity to match.  I felt good as we signed off.

The last question was, "... if you could visit any park site of the entire 410 units now in existence, where would you wish to go?"  Easy.  To Hamilton, says I!  That Broadway show crowds out even the 410 units of the park system these days.

Unfortunately, the night before the interview I'd seen a repeat of the Charlie Rose/Lin-Manuel Miranda 1-hour interview, and again I was reminded that I need to experience this phenomena while it's in its original cast form, and that my shelf life is growing too rapidly toward stale-date status, and that if I'm going to do that it needs to happen post haste, or it may not happen at all.  That's even bigger than an interview with O magazine.

Last week there was a call from a NY filmmaker inviting me to come to the east coast to participate in a segment of a film now in production.   It has to do with women in uniform, as I understand it, or how we respond to life depending upon what we're wearing.  It's quite lovely, I think, something I'd be really proud to participate in.  The caller free-lances for The New York Times, Vogue, Elle, etc., but the only thing I heard was New York.  Could I tack this onto the upcoming trip to the WWII Museum in New Orleans in early June?  That would get me to the East Coast and I could do this plus see Hamilton!  But that would be a stretch even for Super Woman, right?

Am I obsessed?  One might say that.  


Heard from superintendent Tom Leatherman yesterday that I should return a call to British Airways.  They would like an interview for their In-Flight magazine.  That's on Tuesday at one o'clock (PDT).  This appears to be my new normal.  Find myself wondering how long it will take before I stop feeling like a faux celebrity?

... and I've not even mentioned to my supervisors the call from the NY filmmaker.  I'm so fearful that given cataract surgery scheduled for April 4; Telluride Documentary Festival in Colorado on the Memorial Day weekend, and, the trip to the WWII Museum and a family reunion in New Orleans, Louisiana just 10 days later -- on June 10th ... what are the odds?

(... and when do you suppose it was that I crossed over into Neverland?)

Naturalization Day was as moving as ever ...

... and, as before, there was a perceptible rise in my patriotism quotient as the tears gathered at the sight of those open and engaged faces from far off lands.  There's nothing like that experience to rid one's mind of the recent week's awfulness spewing uncontrolled from the media around this year's presidential campaigns.

I wish there was a way to send each aspiring presidential candidate back to whatever educational institutions that might be up to the task -- to try to cram into them the defining principles that so many have died to protect and preserve over all the years since 1776!

In looking down on the gathering of 51 new Americans being welcomed into citizenship in their new nation -- it occurred to me that any one of them could probably teach almost any one of our candidates a thing or two about what it means to be an American.

new citizen from Peru
Overwhelming was the image of the countless millions of refugees fleeing their countries of origin over past months, only to find themselves wandering a frightened and defensive world, hoping to find a place on the planet where freedom of or from can be found.  Those before us in that beautiful sunlit space in the Craneway Pavilion represented only a fragment of those seeking asylum and asking little else.  These new citizens had found their way to our shores after who knows what might have had to be overcome?  In some cases, they've been studying for a decade or more toward this day of acceptance and affirmation.

It was such a honor to stand in the receiving line and to shake the hand of each of the 51 as their names were called and they received recognition and a warm welcome as fellow Americans, all! 

Here in our country -- in today's political climate, depending upon skin color, religious affiliation, gender identification, their fate might well be determined -- not by the American experience described in the literature, movies, and catechisms brought with them -- but by policies that will be introduced and enacted by one of those seeking the office of the Presidency of this nation and Leader of the World even as we speak.

For their sake and our own, may we choose wisely.

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