Saturday, February 17, 2018

On Lemons and Lemonade

I was chagrined when I got kicked out of a San Francisco-themed Facebook group recently.

First, the administrator deleted a lively thread in which people were discussing homelessness in San Francisco. He explained in a private message that he didn't allow discussion of politics in his group. Okay. Understood. I would restrict myself to posting pretty pictures of my favorite city, like the one above.

But I wondered if he knew where I could go instead for the conversation I craved. He provided a name, and I checked it out. The group description began with the question, "Ready to Rumble?"

Well, no. I'm not.

Anyone who's tried to talk politics on the Internet lately has been in a few rumbles, whether they're ready or not. Because political discourse has become a bloodsport in America. But I've never liked the taste of blood.

What I wanted, instead of bloodletting, was a place that people could go in a spirit of cooperation to talk about problems we face in San Francisco and try to come up with solutions. I didn't want to cry, kvetch, insult, accuse. I wanted to discuss. But I couldn't find a good place to do that on Facebook. So I created one. Then I went back to the original group and posted a comment, saying it wasn't appropriate to talk politics there, but people who wanted that type of conversation could talk over here.

Three minutes later, the admin kicked me out.

He said via private message that I was "poaching" his members. He said I'd misbehaved. Here's the thing, though. It's not an either/or decision. You don't have to choose between pretty pictures and politics. You can have both.

It's also not a competition. I don't want the biggest group on Facebook. I don't want the bloodiest group, or the most entertaining. I just want a group of sincere people trying to fix a broken system. So, high on the adrenaline that chagrin provided me, I added everyone I knew who lives in San Francisco to my newly-created group and started posting.

That led me to search out good information for my posts. I called the DA's Office, the Police Department, the Department of Homelessness, and reported on what I learned. I wrote emails to politicians and shared what they replied. I attended a meeting of the Local Homeless Coordinating Board and wrote up a summary. I re-posted Chronicle stories of interest. And I found myself on a new path.

Here's the thing. Since retiring from teaching high school in June, I've been a little bit lost. Don't get me wrong. I love retirement. I love the new way I'm experiencing time, like a gently unfolding ribbon before me, instead of a noose tightening around my neck.

I'm developing a schedule that meets most of my needs: I dance; I write; I lead walking tours; I spend more time with my husband; I meet with friends. But one need isn't met. One itch isn't scratched: the desire to contribute something useful to the world.

But now, it seems, I've stumbled on a way to continue doing that in retirement.

So I guess I should thank the grumpy old fart who kicked me out of his Facebook group and inspired me to take those lemons and mix up some lemonade.

Feeling thirsty? Come share a glass at "San Francisco Politics -- Let's Talk."

Saturday, January 27, 2018

My Little Tree

It was Jan. 24 and I had this little Christmas tree, a living thing, that I didn't know what to do with. Surely someone would have an answer for me. Every year, people buy living trees and take care of them for a month or two--decorating, watering,  placing in a window by the light. But when the season is over, what then? What is the follow-up plan?

I saw piles of big Christmas trees discarded on street corners. But those weren't in pots. They were brittle, dead things, waiting to be taken away and recycled. My guy didn't belong with them. He was fresh and green, fragrant, thirsty for water, and hungry for the sun.

I looked out my window, surveying the possibilities in my vicinity. I live on the third floor and don't have a yard. The green I can see from here is all fenced in. Should I hop a fence in the dark of night with my tree and a trowel? The idea was appealing. But I'm 62; fence hopping could be catastrophic.

Should I knock on doors, ask if anyone wants to adopt my little guy? The chance of success seemed non-existent.

I googled "what to do with a living Christmas tree." There weren't any answers beyond planting him in my non-existent yard. I asked the public on Facebook. Same. I called Friends of the Urban Forest. Did they have any advice? Nope. Would they take my tree as a donation? Afraid not. The advertising flyer from Cole Hardware advised, "Your Christmas tree should be in the ground by now." I know. I know!

So I went rogue. I'd read of a campground in the Presidio where Native Americans do an earth healing ceremony each year. Perhaps I could do my own little bit of earth healing? It had recently rained. The soil would be soft. I loaded the tree and a trowel into my car.

When I turned off busy Lincoln Blvd. onto the side road that led to the campground, it wasn't as deserted as I'd hoped. An older couple sat on a bench. They eyed me suspiciously as I parked as far away from them as I could get, and continued to peer at me as I got out of the car and went around to the passenger side to retrieve the tree. I had it hoisted under one arm and was starting up some log steps carved into the mud when a big white ranger truck rumbled up the road. I slipped the red wrapping paper off the pot so it wouldn't be visible, put it down on the ground, and continued on my own to scout a good spot.

And I found one. In fact, I found many good places where my tree would be happy--would thrive. I wanted to plant him tenderly, whispering sweet nothings, and come back to visit him each year, marveling at how big he'd grown. I knew he'd enjoy the wide open space, fecund earth, and fresh ocean air. But the big, white truck was now up at the restrooms, directly in my line of sight. The ranger wasn't going anywhere. In fact, he seemed to be keeping an eye on me. So I approached.

Would it be okay if I planted my little Christmas tree here?

No. Sorry. No planting allowed. They often take out trees, he said, to clear an area. There's a master plan. New plants have to be native. Some areas even have a soil disease. My tree might not be safe. And by the way, the campground is closed. He was just up here to check on the goats, and make sure homeless people weren't moving in. Perhaps I could contact the Parks and Recreation Department? They have a nursery.

Then I remembered one day when I was bicycling through Golden Gate Park with Ace, how we'd stumbled on some big, white tents full of potted plants, with half a dozen young botanists entering and exiting, laughing together, slapping the dirt off their big gardener gloves. I thought it was behind the Carousel.

So I drove out there, and found a nursery, though not the one I'd remembered. This one was huge, behind a chain link fence, with hundreds of potted plants lined up on pallets. Two people in yellow vests were driving forklifts in the distance. Others were bustling under a far canopy (was this the back side of the place I'd seen?). Another lot to one side was full of big work trucks and guarded by a man at a turnstile, but the narrow lane to the nursery was open. No one was near.

I snuck in, put my little guy down on an empty pallet, and scurried off before anyone could shout at me to stop. It wasn't as satisfying as planting him in the ground, but in the nursery, at least, he was among other plants, in the care of plant lovers. I hoped one of them would find a place for him. I thought he had a chance.

That's the way life works sometimes. Like with my adult son, who is locked in a psychiatric facility and not talking to me--not talking to any of us who love him. I don't get to know how he's doing. I don't get to hear his voice, see his face. I don't get to set him up somewhere that I know he will thrive. I can't find that place. I have no idea where it is.

All I can do is release him and hope the experts will save him--will help him sink roots in some patch of good ground. Is mother's love a nutrient? Is there any magic in my dreams? Because I see him growing tall in a forest of redwoods, fragrant, thirsty. After 13 years of chaos, I still see him basking and stretching, hungry for the sun.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Sally's Wedding

I've heard people say that going on Facebook depresses them. They see other people's happy lives and exotic travels and wonder if their own measure up. I don't usually have that experience, though. I like to live vicariously through my Facebook friends, seeing faraway places and "doing" exotic things I don’t have the time or brio to get around to on my own.

But it was different yesterday, when I found myself pouring over pictures of Sally's wedding. There was a video clip of her father walking her down the "aisle" -- a dirt path in a vineyard in Sonoma County -- that I played four times before unhappiness overwhelmed.

Was it jealousy? Not exactly. You see, Sally used to be in love with my son.

I have a picture of the two of them going to prom. She wears a long black dress with big white polka dots and long white gloves. He's wearing a suit jacket and slacks. They pose in front of a backdrop of Paris. He has a red lipstick kiss on his cheek. She holds her fingers up in front of her mouth, miming "Oh!" His hands are around her slender waist as he leans back and flirts with the camera, vamping right along with her. Compliantly playing his role.

It's exactly the kind of photo Sally would compose: charming, funny, and planned down to the last detail. Some attendees at her wedding took pictures of their place settings. Each one was unique. She wrote the name cards by hand and adorned them with photos she’d chosen to be personally relevant to each guest. Sally is the Scrapbooking Queen. She is the Anti-chaos.

Her love for Scott was a puppy love, sure, but I remember it fondly. Because back then, we had all kinds of hopes for our son. He'd been hard to raise: stubborn and defiant, but also smart and handsome and often charming, awake to possibilities in the world around him, intensely alive. We hoped that growing older would smooth out his rough edges. We worried that it would not.

Because mental illness runs in my family, and sometimes Scott’s behavior felt too familiar for comfort. My father was bipolar. Two cousins on my mom's side--the same. An uncle died of alcohol. And there was a long stretch of time when I had panic attacks.

I remember lying in bed one afternoon when Sally's mom came over to loan me some self-help tapes. We talked of Sally and Scott's budding romance, and I admitted I was worried that something was wrong with my son. Less than year later, at age 18, Scott had his first psychotic break. And over the next 12 years, he's taken us on a hell ride.

While Sally was vowing to love and cherish her sweet man in a creamy bridal dress on a bucolic farm in Sonoma, my son was struggling with security guards at a psychiatric hospital, breaking a window and getting a black eye in the course of refusing antipsychotic medication.
Today, he isn't speaking to me. He asked me to show up at a hearing at the hospital to tell the administration that he can take care of himself. But I didn't, because he can't.

Besides having schizoaffective disorder, Scott uses alcohol, marijuana, and crystal meth. I want him to stop, but I also sympathize. Perhaps if I were homeless, without a place to pee, or sleep safely, or even sit down, and unable to separate delusion from reality--enemies from friends--I might use drugs, too. I might want some relief.

Trying to get help for him has been Kafkaesque. There are laws that protect his "right" to be mentally ill, allowing him to refuse medication and treatment and walk out of a hospital at any time, despite the fact that a common symptom of mental illness is not knowing that you're mentally ill.

We’ve called the police to our home more than once, asking for help getting Scott to a hospital, only to be told that carrying his pee around in a bottle in his pocket, hiding in the cramped crawl space over the garage, or ranting non-stop for four hours straight is "not a danger to himself or others," so doesn't meet the legal requirement for them to take him into custody against his will.

Even when we do manage to get him hospitalized, they don’t keep him long enough to make a difference. Three days is typical. Rarely, that’s extended to 10. All across America, we've lost 96 percent of the psychiatric beds we had back in the '50's, so hospital personnel keep their psych patients churning, to make room for the next person in line.

You might think a person like Scott is his family’s problem, not the government’s. And we’ve tried to help him. Believe me, we’ve tried. When living together became untenable, we lined up a room in a hotel in North Beach where he antagonized the manager, threatening lawsuits because he wasn’t allowed to bring in random homeless people to sleep on the floor in his room. When we bought him a small trailer in Belmont, he ripped out the built-in furniture and used it to create “artwork” in his driveway. His toilet got clogged, so he shoveled the shit into his shower. Then big, burly meth users moved in. He was lying in a puddle of glass on the floor of that trailer, beaten bloody and semi-conscious, when he called to tell me, “Mom, I’m afraid I’m trying to get myself killed.”

Scott's been homeless. Dirty. Pathetic. Aggressive. Beaten up. Broken. Afraid. We used to let him come into our house to use the shower or toilet, spend a night on the couch, or share a meal, even though sometimes he’d start yelling and refuse to stop or leave. But two years ago, his dad had a heart attack, followed by triple bypass surgery, while Scott was yelling at me in another room. So I don't let him into the house anymore. I meet him at a park, or a restaurant. I visit him in the hospital, or jail.

Even with our unflinching support, Scott hasn’t been able to put any kind of life together in the 12 years since that first psychotic break. He doesn’t cooperate with doctors, or take his medication as prescribed. He opposes efforts to help him, and doesn’t see what his stubbornness costs. One time he let two muggers beat him senseless rather than hand over $20 clutched tightly in his fist. That’s emblematic of his illness. He’d rather die than submit to authority. But I’m not ready. I’m not ready to let my son die.

The period when we saw most improvement in Scott was the year when he was conserved, meaning a public guardian made Scott’s decisions for him, requiring him to take medication and stay in a locked psychiatric hospital where he got therapy and got off street drugs. He was friendly when I came to visit. He made a friend, participated in groups. And his father, sister, brother and I hoped that one day he’d be able to live among us, work in our family cafe, come to Christmas again.

Then a judge who’d seen him for five minutes decided he was no longer severely disabled and released him back onto the street.

The judge was wrong. Scott needs what every floridly psychotic person you see on the street needs: to be taken into custody and given medication--whether they want it or not. To be given a safe place to sleep, a hot shower, food, therapy. To be coaxed back to reality with kindness and medical intervention.

In my job giving walking tours of San Francisco, I talk to people from all over the world. A recent tourist from Israel said he wouldn't be coming back anytime soon because when he got up early one morning and walked down Market Street, he saw mentally ill homeless people everywhere he looked, stepped around junkies on the sidewalk shooting up heroin, smelled feces and urine on the street.

“Why aren’t you taking care of these people?” he asked me.

I said we were trying.

He said not hard enough.

And that’s the question I’ve been asking myself ever since: why aren’t we taking care of these people?

Our current mental health treatment system is brutal, misguided, and inhumane. Back in the day, people with a major mental illness could live in an asylum while getting treatment. Then asylums were closed for “humanitarian” reasons. But it’s not humane to put a person with a major mental illness out on the street and say, “You’re on your own.”

But that’s what we’re doing, day after day. The result is upsetting, dangerous, and expensive. And everybody is paying the price: the people who are mentally ill and abandoned because they are too hard to deal with; their families who are stressed beyond endurance trying to figure out what to do next; and people everywhere who have to walk by, turn their heads, harden their hearts and pretend they don't see the wounded people on the street and the filth they leave, including garbage, used needles and human waste.

Those old asylums need to be reopened. New group homes need to be built. Scott wouldn’t agree. He’d rather be set loose to use meth, get beaten up, freeze, starve, hallucinate and cause trouble everywhere he goes. He's called more than once to say he fucking hates me. He's called me a bitch.

But that’s Scott’s illness talking. That’s not my son. And I won't give up on him. I will never give up. I still remember who he was before he became psychotic. I remember how handsome he looked in that suit jacket on prom night 12 years ago, and I believe he can do better. Much better.

That's why I cried when I saw the pictures of Sally's wedding. That’s why I’m still crying now. It’s not that I wish he had married Sally. I grieve because the kind of sweet, stable life that Sally represents is no longer an option for my son.

But it could be. I believe it still could be. If only our nation would wake up and take care of these people.

Why aren’t we taking care of them?