Friday, October 27, 2017

Where Predators Lurk

"And will Thomas protect you?" my sweet friend Ann asked when I told her Thom and I had walked the perimeter of the cemetery next door at dawn. I laughed--not at her concern, certainly, but at the thought of Thomas getting all dog-tough and growly up in some cretin's face. Ann's concern was very real; she has a dear friend who was out alone and was assaulted.

I'm pretty sure Thomas would never be protective in an aggressive way, but I'm always conscious of where I am and my surroundings. Except for the dead, no one's much in the cemetery at 6:30a.m. And if someone were, I'd see him long before he had a chance to get close to us.

The truth is, though, in those moments walking with Thomas in the cemetery or in the quiet of the country, a mile from the road, I am the least on my guard. I've never felt the presence of danger in those times. Because I've only ever been assaulted or harassed in broad daylight in public places.

SeaWorld, for example. On a glorious summer day that had been nothing but fun for me and my children, I stood, both hands holding a kid's hand, in one of those underground tunnels that make you feel like you're inside an aquarium. We were completely focused on watching the beautiful sea creatures. Out of the darkness, a man's figure loomed, pushed past me--and groped my chest. I never saw his face or any features, not even his clothes. If I had, I would have chased him down. But he disappeared into the crowd of people behind me. His attack was strategically planned and perfectly executed. I was powerless to respond. I didn't even report it. My kids never knew it happened.

Then there was the time I'd gone to the emergency room of a county hospital with a severe bladder infection. I was five months pregnant. The doctor--or intern--hell, he could've been the janitor for all I know--who came into the room pulled the hospital gown from my shoulders, leaving me uncovered down to my waist. He proceeded to simply sit and gaze at my chest, finally running his hand along my breasts for no apparent reason, all the while talking matter-of-factly about prenatal care. I reminded him that I was there for a bladder infection. He tossed me a eerily smug smile that I'll never forget and left the room. I was eighteen, an inexperienced, naive teenager who was simply baffled by his behavior. It took a few years for me to realize exactly what had been going on.

Years later, when I'd been diagnosed with malignant melanoma, I sat in an exam room with two doctors and a close male friend. As the "specialist" described the surgery he might have to perform on my leg to fully excise the cancer, he reached over and slid his palm under my hip, cheerfully fondling my right buttock as he explained the procedure. Later my friend would tell me how uncomfortable it had made him. "Oh," I replied, "me, too," and then I slipped back into the trance I'd been in since I'd been told days earlier I might have a life-threatening illness. To my great relief, a second biopsy ruled out melanoma. When I could think clearly, I considered all the things I could have/should have said to the pervy doctor. But by then it was too late.

And let me tell you, arrogant, privileged men in positions of power or authority do this kind of shit all the time. And what do women do? Usually nothing. I have said this before on this blog, and will say it again here: For those who are thinking, "You should have said something," you've clearly never had a similar experience. Those who have know that our initial reaction is usually shock and disbelief. Then we question. ('Wait--did he just run his hand across my chest for no reason?') Honestly, by the time we make sense of it, the moment has passed. Predators know this. They are extremely subtle in what they do. (Consider the accusations against Bill Cosby. Or not so subtle--Consider the accusations against Harvey Weinstein.) That's how they continue to get away with it. And if women complain? It becomes "a misunderstanding." And you only need to hear the droning tone of a law enforcement officer remark, "Well, it's he said/she said" to know that no one is going to pursue the perpetrator.

And don't even get me started on the sexual harassment that occurs in public....

There was the new principal who, when I introduced myself, put his arm around my shoulders and told the student I was with he intended to "fire" me as the school newspaper advisor. When I called him on it in private, his response was, "I didn't grope you, did I?"

Twice I had male colleagues offer "hugs" in the hallway outside my classroom, only to lean in and whisper in my ear about being willing to "help" with any "needs" I might have since I'd been single for so long. Both men were married and, to my knowledge, still are, to the same women. I'd always thought the "I know you have needs" line was a creepy joke until I'd been single awhile. And it didn't take long....

A few months after my divorce, a "brother" from my former church called to encourage me to come back to church, to "stop screwing around" (because my husband had announced that we had separated due to infidelity on my part, which, I assured him, was not true), and that, by the way, if I had "unfulfilled needs" I should seek him out and he would "take care of" me. "I think you know what I mean," he said. My daughter used to babysit for this man and his wife. They're still married, and they're still attending church together.

All in all, I've been lucky. I've never been assaulted or harassed by one of my favorite teachers, as several of my friends have. I've never been injured by a man's assault as other friends--and family members--have been.

My friend Bob has told me that I "maintain an aura of 'Get away from me.'" This may be true; I do feel nowadays as if I'm constantly on my guard. But only when I'm in large crowds or around strangers. When I walk alone out in the hills, I have little fear. Wild creatures are far more predictable than humans.

But Ann, I do promise I will always be careful, and I will always have my wits about me, and I may or may not carry a switchblade in the pocket of my cargo pants.

Monday, October 16, 2017

When Men Behave Badly

Quick background: I live in a mobile home park. (No, not like that--a really nice one with plenty of green space, two swimming pools, a fitness room, a library and a dog park.) A mobile home park is like a small town--a really tiny small town. Fewer than a thousand people live here. If I sneeze in the morning, my neighbor a half mile away will call in the evening and ask if I've been sick. You get the idea.

So this happened:

Last week my neighbor--Man A--allowed me to park my truck in front of his home for a day while my street was being repaved. That evening, he called to tell me his buddy--Man B--had stopped by to tell him this:

'You must be feeling pretty good--ha ha ha--since you spent the morning getting laid--ha ha ha--I saw Kay's truck in front of your house all day.'

Man A found this humorous and laughed as he shared it with me--until I told him "That's not funny" in a tone so flinty you could've started a fire with it. We went on to have a brief discussion on why it's not appropriate for a man who has never met me to talk about me as if I'm a whore.

See, we all know that this is--What did the President call it?--"Guy talk" or "Locker room talk." Giving it a testosterone-spiced name does not give it credence or respectability, and it does not excuse it.

In cases like this, women face the same universal dilemma that they always do when dealing with sexual inappropriateness or harassment: If we speak out against the source, we suddenly become "a bitch" or "psycho" or "the psycho bitch from hell."

But hey, I don't care what Man B thinks of me. He's already demonstrated that he's not a nice man. I've got nothing to lose in confronting him, right?

So I waited.

And tonight, I saw him sitting in his golf cart with his cute little Pomeranian in his lap, talking to another neighbor. So I parked my truck across the street and strolled over. The conversation went like this:

Me: Hi. We've never been formally introduced. I'm [Man A's] friend, Kay Murphy.

Man B: Oh, yeah, I know who you are. I see your truck around....

Me: Mm hmm. I just wanted to let you know that I'm a pretty nice person--

Man B: Oh, yeah, [Man A] says you're a real nice lady--

Me: So I don't really appreciate being talked about as if I'm a whore.

At this point, for a moment or two, the conversation got very loud. Man B used a technique that people sometimes use when they don't want to hear or accept or take responsibility for something you're confronting them with: THEY BEGIN TO TALK VERY LOUDLY. Which is what he did, raising the volume each time I tried to speak until I quite firmly but calmly said, "Please let me finish talking." And with a wave of the hand, he shut up.

Which gave me the opportunity, in a few sentences, to explain that, while he may have been joking with his pal, he had no right to speak about me in such a disrespectful way, especially since he'd never even met me. And that, yes, I realize he might think of it as "guy talk," in the same way our President does, but that doesn't make it any more appropriate.

And that is the point at which he finally said, "Geez, [Man A] and me was just talkin' but now I feel bad about what I said." I took that as an apology--or as close to one as I would get. I stepped forward, reached out my hand to shake his, thanked him, and told him that now when I see him I can wave and say hello "as if we're friends" (which we are certainly not and never ever will be, but still--we live in this tiny community...).

If you're a woman, you're probably cringing and nodding as you read this, because you've had similar experiences. If you're a man--and you haven't had a wife or a mom or a sister describe similar experiences and how men can make us feel like we're pox-ridden alley whores for their own amusement--let me just say that you need to stop and think about the impact of what you're mouthing off about.

As for me, I drove away feeling proud of myself, and definitely stronger as a woman.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Wherein my childhood dream is--almost--realized

That's my Cub Scout handbook. Not because I once was in the Cub Scouts (oh, how I wish!), but because I saw it at a yard sale and bought it.

This week the Boy Scouts of America announced that girls would be allowed to join. In reading some of the news and editorial pieces about this proclamation, I learned that some Boy Scout troops have been allowing girls to join for years--for decades, some of them.


I am so, so happy for all the like-identifying young girls who are eager to go on those camp-outs and attend those rallies and, most important, get started on that prestigious Eagle Scout status.

And I am so sad and bitter that it has taken this long.

Seriously, what is the deal with all this gender isolation agenda?

And by the way, yes, yes, I know many modern-day Girl Scout troops do many of the wonderful things Cub Scout and Boy Scout troops do, such as hiking and camping, but they certainly did not in the 1960's when I wanted to join. And can I just be totally honest here? As a young girl, I didn't want to hang out with other girls. At all. Ever. I never played with dolls--I found it creepy. (It's a dead baby, after all, isn't it?) Playing "dress up" was like trying on really ugly clown costumes. (No. Just... no.) I didn't have the patience to sit and color in a book for hours (though I could sit somewhere quietly for long stretches putting words on a page, but that's an entirely different activity, isn't it?). I never understood the concept of "playing house," because the entire reason I wanted to play outside (with my male friends) all day every day was to get away from the chores and dust and drudgery of all that.

Plus I wanted to climb trees and dig in the dirt and plant things and play Cowboys and Indians and play with any toy with wheels made by Tonka--bonus points if the thing had winches or pulleys or sirens or a backhoe. 

Mind you, I was not what would be characterized as a healthy, outdoorsy kind of kid. I was a tiny, underweight thing with poor vision, malformed lungs, no muscles, and a constantly sniffling nose. But that didn't stop me from wanting desperately to go on fishing trips (never the hunting trips) with my dad, or to go camping or exploring. (Kind of like the kinds of things I like to do now--but no still no fishing.)

Alas, I was not allowed to go. "You're a girl. Girls don't do that sort of thing" still rings in my ears.

In the fifth grade, I tried joining the Girl Scouts. I barely survived a single meeting with my dignity intact. For that abysmal, torturous hour, we sat in the elementary school cafeteria with bars of Dove soap, pink netting and sequins spread on the table before us, our goal being to somehow transform all that girly stuff into a lovely gift for our moms. Dear Jesus, get me through this hour somehow and I promise I will never, ever be unfaithful to my true identity ever again, amen, I prayed.

So I hounded my mom for a year or two to let me join the Boy Scouts, to no avail. (By then, my dad had passed, but he would have said no, too.)

And so, yeah, if you know me well (or follow this blog on a regular basis), you know that I spend just about every spare hour of my life making it up to myself by roaming in the woods, hiking, going exploring and having similar adventures.

Label me as you will--tomboy, androgynous, gender fluid--this is who I am. No shame--I had enough of that as a child, so don't even bring it now. I'll cut you (not with my really cool Boy Scout pocket knife with the letters BSA right there on the handle, but with my words).

We are fifty years gone from my childhood, and still there is (shockingly) push back on the BSA allowing those-identifying-as-female to join--even from the GSA (of all people!). FOX News ran a story three days ago entitled "Eagle Scout: RIP Boy Scouts of America. You were great for 100 years." Because apparently folks still believe that once girls join a club, they ruin everything.

Please, America, I implore you on behalf of all the little Kays out there, whether identifying as "male" or "female" or somewhere in between (You know "Kay" is both a "boy's" and a "girl's" name, right?), to cast aside this ridiculous gender separation agenda and simply let kids choose. Girls and boys who want to play dress up and rock the (dead) baby will do so. Girls and boys who want to learn how to build a campfire and catch a lizard and operate the manual transmission on a Hemi-powered dually will do so. Trust me. Dear god, please trust me--you don't have to tell them which gender to choose. They already know what they are.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Let it burn

Bear Canyon fire, Mt. Baldy, 2008

NOTE: I am not a pyromaniac, and I am certainly not an arsonist. Although I no longer live in the mountains (see photo directly above), fires still scare me--wherever and whenever they start. But I have to say this:

Forest fires and wildland fires are not bad.
In fact, they are good. And we should let them burn.

As I write this, a wildfire (dubbed the Canyon Fire 2) is burning out of control in nearby Orange County. So far, it has burned 5,000 acres and is 0% contained. It began this morning, driven by high winds and fueled by dry brush that has not burned in decades. Thus the explosive, quick-moving nature of it.

These same circumstances--and a couple of kids lighting firecrackers--sparked the Palmer fire that burned within three miles of my neighborhood a month ago. I've been a flatlander for four years now. After I left the mountain, I never expected to once again be watching a fire burn a few miles from my home, wondering if the wind would shift, and I would be running for my life.

I love where I live (just as I loved living in the wilderness in Mt Baldy). I chose this place because it was rural, nestled into the rolling hills at the foot of Mt. San Jacinto and Mt. San Gorgonio, with lots of open space and trails through the canyons so I could walk for miles. But just like everyone else who has chosen to live in similar settings in California, in making this choice, I have consciously chosen to live where there is danger of fire. Really, really dangerous fire.

And to say I am conflicted about this is an understatement.

I can't live in the city. For the sake of my mental health, I need the relative quiet of rural life and the opportunity for long, meditative walks in Nature with my dog. This place--a "senior" community comprised of mobile and modular homes--was developed on the outskirts of town, literally right on top of a long, deep arroyo that is used as a wildlife corridor for coyotes, bobcats, skunks and possums. Perfect. I love them all. But... the park is surrounded by hills covered in tall grass and dotted with oak trees, wild lilac and old stands of eucalyptus. Or, to characterize it in another way, firewood.

The aftermath of the Palmer fire, just a couple miles from my home.

And now, because we live here, every time there is a fire, that fire must be contained and controlled as soon as possible in order to protect human life and avoid property damage--all at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars in equipment, manpower, aircraft fuel, operational costs, Phos Chek (fire retardant), etc., etc., etc.

The Palmer fire, like the Canyon Fire 2 in Orange County, was pushed on by high winds. It raced up and over the hills to Live Oak Canyon, where it came within feet of these homes.

The truth is, if we truly love Nature, we would simply allow fires to burn instead of going to all that expense of putting them out.

Because without interference, Nature does a fine job of housekeeping. Lightning strikes spark fires in the wilderness or the forest every few years, the fires burn off the layers of duff and debris--and thin the trees, which makes the stronger, older trees healthier (which is especially important now that those trees have less water due to drought, climate change and human encroachment).

But in the last hundred years, as we've sprawled out into the wildlands to build homes, we've mustered together great firefighting armies of hotshots, pilots, bulldozers and trucks to knock down wildland fires as soon as they start--and in doing so, we've simply been stacking all that unburned fuel up to create unholy conflagrations every time one gets out of hand, as the Canyon Fire 2 has done in just hours.

When fires don't burn through an area for decades, once they do they burn so hot that everything in their path is reduced to ashes.

Of course, at this point, it would be impossible to undo what's been done. We can't expect all those people with those beautiful homes and ranches in the hills and canyons of Southern California to give them up and leave them. Hell, I wouldn't. Still, we have to find a way to let fire do what it should do without endangering property or homeowners--or the firefighters who endure excessive heat, smoke inhalation, danger from falling trees and limbs and other hazards while battling these fires.

Due to some strategic Phos Chek drops during the Palmer fire, this home was spared. I'm kinda thinking the homeowner would have just as soon seen it burn.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

This very special trip to Missouri

The Bend Bridge over the Meramec River

Good grief and hallelujah, it was so great to get back to Missouri after an absence of two years. Two years! How did I let the summer of 2016 slip past without a quick trip to see the folks I love? This trip was all the sweeter for the absence, but mostly because this guy came with me:

We are posed here in front of the infamous "big red barn" on Old Bend Road just a few yards from the farmhouse where my mother lived for a while with her grandmother, Bertha Gifford. Showing my son the farmhouse where his grandmother lived, where some of her ashes are scattered, was one of the highlights of this trip for me. He said later, as we were driving away, that he felt "serene." This did not surprise me; it is the same feeling I've always had after spending time at the farmhouse. Others see it as the "House of Mystery" and some have claimed to have seen apparitions here. I've never felt any presence other than light and peace. We were fortunate that Tim Fiedler, owner of the farm with his sister, Joyce, was gracious enough to walk us through the old farmhouse... and I could show my son where his grandmother, eighty years ago or so, took the mule upstairs to her bedroom....

In the foreground here is Ginger Collins Justus, one of the most amazing people on the planet, and next to her is Marc Houseman, historian extraordinaire and also one of the most amazing people in my life. Ginger took this photo while I was demonstrating some very complex karate moves. 

Marc and Ginger are trusted companions while I'm in Missouri, introducing me to countless interesting places, adventures and food items:

Marc is in his favorite pose here--resting in peace--at a beautiful old mausoleum that we wandered through. This was after we'd had lunch "on The Hill" in St. Louis, an Italian community so strong I wondered why my cousins hadn't moved down from Illinois to live here:

The day before, they also introduced me to deep fried pickle chips. Yes, Missouri, good job!

More than menu choices, though, I was deeply grateful for their help with the two speaking engagements I did, hosted by the libraries in Pacific and Sullivan. Marc answered questions and helped with book sales, Ginger did the same--and took photos:

Folks turned out in large numbers to hear more about Bertha Gifford. To me, the most treasured person present was David Gail Schamel. His older half brothers, Elmer and Lloyd Schamel, died while under the care of my great-grandmother. Mr. Schamel always shows up when I speak in Pacific, and he is always incredibly gracious, sharing photos of his brothers and this time, a photo of his beautiful great-granddaughter. I always look forward to these events as they give me the opportunity to meet readers face to face, some of them, like Mr. Schamel, direct descendants of people who were living in Catawissa or Pacific in those same decades Bertha lived there. The night I spoke at "The White Chapel" in Sullivan (photo directly above), I also met young Emma. She asked a question during the Q & A portion ("Does anyone still live in Bertha's house?"), and after the event came up to give me the portrait she drew of me while I was speaking:

It's a pretty true likeness, don't you think?

It's probably clear why some of these Missouri folks have become true friends over the years. Their warmth, grace and acceptance encourages and inspires me, and makes me yearn every year, as spring folds into summer, to see them once again.