Monthly Archives: March 2014


Calling 911

Last night wasn’t the first time we’d placed a 911 call from the freeway. We’ve phoned in downed power lines, brush fires, stalled cars that looked like they needed assistance, or to report a ladder blocking a lane of traffic. My wife Sabrina is particularly observant of things even off to the side – she sees the stray dogs towing a chewed-off leash, or the man huddled underneath an overpass. Each time, we double-back, Sabrina at the wheel, me on the phone, as we pinpoint the location and make the call. Sometimes another motorist has already phoned in the incident. When we re-passed the man near the overpass, CHP officers were already onsite. But we could then drive home knowing that someone had responded; we had not simply driven by.

On Sunday, we had made a quick trip to Healdsburg to buy groceries. It was a day off, and we were in a silly mood, joking and laughing. When we headed back onto the freeway for the 30 minute drive home, it was just deepening into dusk. I was chattering away about something or other as we neared Geyserville, and then as we passed the first exit, I notice a white van with its lights on pulled off to the side of the road. “Wait, what was that?” Sabrina said. “What?” I asked. “On the side of the road. Before the van.” “I didn’t see.” “It looked like two children – huddled in the grass.” I knew what this meant. “Do you want to go back?” She looked at me. The mood in the truck had changed completely. We both knew the answer.

We took the second Geyserville exit, and drove through town, backtracking. It seemed to take forever. Finally, we were once again northbound on 101. Maybe the van would be gone already. Maybe. But no – as we rounded the bend, we could see the lights again. And yes, sure enough, a figure, huddled in the grass. Sabrina pulled the truck up right alongside. I opened the door and stepped out. The figure moved – it was not a child, but a young woman, with long hair. She was dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt, her hair was disheveled, and she had obviously been crying. I said, “Are you OK?” She was only a couple of feet away from me. She stood up, rapidly but unsteadily, saying, “No.” But at that same moment, the driver’s side door of the van opened, and a man stepped out. An older man, in his late forties or fifties, with gray in his hair, hair parted on one side and long halfway down his neck. He was gaunt-faced, slender. He locked his eyes on the eyes of the young woman, and she did not meet my gaze – she turned to him, throwing her cloth purse over her shoulder, and walked towards him. The van was only about 20 feet away. I called out, “You don’t have to go with him. You can come with us.” She ignored me, and got into the van, her head bowed. He got into the other side, and shut his door.

It was not right. I knew that somehow this was a bad situation, that she needed help but was simply afraid to leave. Yet I was paralyzed. My instinct, my only thought, during that interminable moment of her walking, was to run after her, to grab her, to pull her into our truck. I have a history as a survivor of domestic violence and sexual assault. There was a period of time in my life, when I was tired of being a victim, and determined that no other woman should have to experience what I had gone through, when I would have intervened by placing myself directly in between the two parties, regardless of any danger. On Sunday night, that was the only solution my adrenalin-pumped body could muster. But I knew Sabrina would not allow me to do that. So instead – I was frozen.

Finally I heard Sabrina saying, “Get in the truck. Come on. We have to get their license plate number.” Thank god. A plan. The van had taken off as soon as the young woman was inside, and because I had lost those few seconds, Sabrina had to drive fast  on the darkening roadway, hoping we could catch up. At last, we drew up right behind them. It is harder to get a license plate number at night from a moving vehicle than you might think. But Sabrina is good in a crisis. “OK,” she said. “I am going to come up alongside as if I am going to pass them. I’ll get the make and model of the vehicle, and you focus on the plate.”

I had the notepad on my lap, pen ready. Both of us had thumping hearts. Sabrina called out, “White Chevy van.” She ended up reading out the license number as well, while I frantically wrote. As soon as we passed, I dialed 911. At that point, I was ready. I had all the information. I knew where we were (Highway 101, North Bound, just passing Asti Exit), I had vehicle description (White Chevy van with utility rack on roof), I had license plate number, I had a description of what we had seen, and who was involved. As I stayed on the phone with the 911 dispatcher, just before our own highway exit, the van passed us, and I re-verified the license plate number – much easier to read when you are the one being passed. So we were confident we had it right. The dispatcher thanked us and said officers would be on their way.

All that was left for us to do was to drive the few remaining minutes home, praying that either the police find them, or that this was all a big misunderstanding – in either scenario, wishing fervently that this young woman is now safe.


Lessons from My Grandmother

My grandmother, Gladys Wing, was born on Aug. 3, 1910. Which means, as she will proudly tell you, she is currently 103 and a half years old. She started adding the “half” notations after the passed the 100 mark. Now, this in itself is remarkable. But if you actually meet her, you will be floored. Gladys has not lost a whit of her sharpness, her sense of humor, her lust for life. About six months ago, she finally relented and began using a cane. Just recently, she had a bit of a medical set-back, and has been more housebound. But when I spoke to her yesterday, she proudly told me she had used her newly-acquired walker to get downstairs by herself, and spent a lovely afternoon in the garden. In short, she is unstoppable.

Gladys is my father’s mother. We lost him to lymphoma in 2004, when he was only 64. My parents grew up in California, but took off for an adventure to Montana, so I spent my childhood there, visiting my California grandmothers for only a couple of weeks each summer. Then I was off on my own young adulthood journeys, often far away. I was back in Northern California when my father passed away, and I decided it was now time for me to take over those filial duties. Yes, she has two other sons in the area. But I wanted to do this – for him. What I did not realize then was what an incredible gift it would end up being for me. I am her granddaughter, yes. But over the past decade, Gladys and I have become friends, compatriots. It has been magical.

This week, my niece Abbey visited from Wyoming. She is the eldest great-grandchild, and she was celebrating her 21st birthday, off for spring break during her junior year. Four generations of women went out for lunch – Abbey, me, my mom, and Gladys. Gladys was an only child. She had four children, and now has 12 grandchildren and 20 great-grandchildren. Somehow, with that brood, she still manages to send all of us birthday cards, anniversary cards, holiday greetings.

This week, I was reflecting on the two things that most inspire me about Gladys: She has lived a life of service, and still, even now, she focuses on the present moment.

Gladys raised a family, and owned her own business. But for over 50 years, she has been active in service organizations. One of these is the Welfare League. She works a regular Monday shift at the Welfare League Thrift store (in purses and accessories), helping keep the shop in order. With the money that the thrift store raises, they are able each year at Christmas to provide local children with a brand new outfit and toy – last year, 1,200 children were served. They provide scholarships to local students, allow folks to come in and select clothes when needed for a job interview, and have a “clothes closet” for children in low-income families.

The Welfare League also makes layettes for new babies at local hospitals, for young mothers who have few resources. Gladys made those layettes herself for years, buying all the supplies and assembling them in her small senior apartment. There is always a new project: knitting scarves; making baby blankets, both knitted and crocheted; or the current effort, which is knitting lap throws, “for older folks,” as she said to me. Gladys is an expert seamstress, having done that job professionally, and she can knit, crochet, alter, quilt – almost anything you ask of her. And she is still doing all of that, at 103.

She is also a member of The Native Daughters of the Golden West, a group that offers scholarships, and does other community work. “We do projects for people in the service – knit things, like scarves, hats, mittens, vests.” And, she notes, back in the day, these service clubs were much more than social gatherings. Native Daughters even used to have adoption agencies.

Finally, she works with the Santa Rosa Garden Club, where she is the club historian, keeping track of the year’s events and making beautiful binders with photographs and news clippings. She keeps telling them, though, that the two-year commitment is getting to be a bit much each time she re-ups. Her small balcony is abloom with geraniums and other flowers, all evidence of her tender care.

As she said, “There’s always something to do.”

And this other aspect  I admire – the focus on the present. So often, elderly people spend their days reminiscing about the good old days, or complaining, “My, what’s the world coming to?” Although she does occasionally utter such phrases, for the most part, Gladys has evolved with the years. When her old sewing machine broke, she bought a new one, which had all kinds of whizzy, tricky parts. She learned how to use it in no time, and got down to business. When her service club hands her a new knitting project (like stretchy hair bands for teenagers), she gamely figures  out how to make them and cranks out a dozen, choosing the prettiest yarn. She reads all the local papers, watches the news, and is the first to tell me what might be happening weather-wise for my sister in New York.

Yes, if you ask her, she’ll tell a few tales about the old days. But she doesn’t live there. She wants to know what I’m doing, how my writing life is taking off, if the animals are all OK. She is involved.

And although she may occasionally complain that the dining hall serves chicken too often, or one of the residents in her apartment complex keeps leaving a hall window open, she is much more likely to tell a funny story. Even if the butt of the joke is herself – like the time she spent all day searching for her dentures, only to find them right before bed, in her own bra! We laughed over that one, we did. Laughed until we had tears coming down our cheeks.

This is my example. Every time I see her, I think, “Because of this, I do not have to fear growing old.”


The Science of Gratitude

People always say gratitude makes you happier. But scientists are actually proving that there’s a neurological link between the two things — the more grateful you are, the happier you will be.

Check out this article from The Huffington Post. I particularly like the three simple suggestions at the bottom, ways to “upgrade” your gratitude quotient on a daily basis:

1) Keep a daily journal of 3 things your are grateful for (works especially well first thing in the morning or just before bed)

2) Make it a practice to tell your partner, spouse, or a friend something you appreciate about him or her every day

3) Look in the mirror when you are brushing your teeth and think about something you have done well recently or something you like about yourself (OK, this one sounds a little too “self-affirmation”-ish for me, so you can leave out the mirror part – but you get the concept. A friend of mine keeps a “sparkle box.” Whenever someone gives her a great compliment, or she gets a wonderful card, or has some other tangible sign of accomplishment, she puts it in her treasure box, so she can review those things when she’s feeling less than great about herself.)

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