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Thursday, June 03, 2004

Through conversations in my store ...

with customers who were coming now from far and wide (Monterey to Sacramento), it was becoming clear that we were all in this together and that my day-to-day progress was being shared. There was a lot of "we" in those conversations, and it felt good and right.

There were no longer any signs of graffiti, break-ins were now rare, and I was breathing more easily. Bill was beginning to relax and from time to time I'd hear him bragging to our friends about my exploits. Couldn't have managed without his strong support.

Mel had been settled in a senior housing unit nearby, and -- except for the need to pick up his groceries and take him for the occasional doctor's visits, we'd both adapted fairly well to his new life. My role as best friend eventually over-rode Betty as ex-wife. Both Bill and I felt comfortable with that. I generally tried to plan such errands when Bill was with his patients in our downstairs library. He still was in private practice though by that time was retired from the university.

My parents were requiring weekly visits. Dad was now totally blind, but still functioning surprising well. I remember watching him do little home repairs with as much confidence as he had when sighted. He knew that the distance between his fingertip and first crease (joint) was exactly one inch. He could therefore measure accurately anything that needed it, and complete the task with little difficulty. I watched him with such pride! I wondered whether he'd figured that out in anticipation of his blindness, but regrettably never thought to ask. There were some important lessons here in adapting to change with grace. I cannot recall him complaining at any point during those years. His pride and dignity held fast until death came at 94.

Dorian was at school in Santa Barbara and the boys were out living their lives in their own ways. Rick's alcoholism continued unabated and Bob's wanderlust was of concern at times. Life for us was extremely complex but manageable still with the constant need for re-appraisal for signs of stress.

Rick and two other helpers were holding the fort back in South Berkeley while I moved ever deeper into city politics and learning the ropes in a brand new field. This one would be essential to my ability to handle life as a small merchant in the inner city. This is where I would learn how political change is created and maintained. Reinventing myself as- and when-needed was becoming routine.

Bill was now deep into his Tibetan studies and spending more and more time at Padma Ling with his colleagues and on retreats at Odiyon, the Nyingma monastery, high above the Russian River two hours north. The home social gatherings were rare now. His two sisters had moved to the coast from the Midwest and needed to share his time and attention. Times were changing and our life together was reflecting that. We were clearly on different paths that were gradually moving apart, but with little trauma, and much mutual respect.

I was spending more time at city hall, now half-time at the store and half time staffing city councilman, Don Jelinek. This meant an entirely new field of learning and in a field that was as subjective as it was empowering. As a legislative aide I regularly attended weekly meetings of the city council, but in addition -- as the subject demanded -- many of the city's commissions and departments. I'd begun to do some speech-writing as well, but not for verbatim delivery as much as a way for Don and I to exchange ideas. He could often better frame his own arguments by knowing mine. That meant that we didn't need to agree, in fact, it was better when we didn't. As a practicing attorney he was used to being adversarial and I learned that my work was of more value when I could express my positions accurately and honestly. This better prepared him for the work that we did together; a very valuable way to move in the world of politics.

Since most city council seats are part time, it is the responsibility of the aides to bone up on the issues and help to prepare the packet for those weekly meetings. It means that one had to be a generalist with specialities in the areas that most interested your councilmember. It was fascinating work, and prepared me well for this past decade of serving the same function, primarily, for two members of the state assembly. The lessons of the past were easily refreshed and activated in this entirely new context.

One of the most valuable aspects of working with Don was the fact that he was Jewish, a New Yorker, had left his Wall Street office in the Sixties to join the Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi. He'd been one of the attorneys who formed Dr. King's defense team. He'd planned to spend six weeks in the deep south and stayed for three years, leaving only after Dr. King's assassination. He didn't return to the east coast, but came west instead.

Don was also the defense attorney for the Attica prisoners who were acquitted in the prison riots (in the eighties?). After coming west, he lived on Alcatraz Island for six months with the Native American tribes who claimed the site as their rightful heritage under long-neglected treaties. They were eventually ousted by the government. This idealist served two terms with the Berkeley city council and ran for mayor twice, but lost both times. It was a brutal struggle and most disillusioning. I cut my political teeth on those campaigns. And -- he lost to Shirley Dean, the same Ms. Dean who was defeated by Gus Newport in those early years of my return to South Berkeley. Ms. Dean and I go a long way back, as you can see. In the most recent election cycle in Berkeley, it was the husband of Assemblywoman Loni Hancock (my employer at the time), Tom Bates, who defeated Ms. Dean for the mayor's seat. The more things change ... .

Ms. Dean and I were to lock horns yet another time (during the 90s) over a small city-owned black theater, but that story is for another day. Suffices to say that she had both the power to frustrate my efforts and the willingness to use it. This time the mayor prevailed.

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