(Photo: 1969, London, England. I'm spouting my mouth off on a soapbox at the Anarchist Forum at Speakers' Corner in Hyde Park. My parents said I even gathered a small crowd.)
Demure? Without opinions? Someone who doesn't question? That's not me.
Born only months after JFK’s assassination, at the beginning of the civil rights movement, my brain was formed on the cusp of an era of transformation. And while big things were taking place around the world, my own little world transformed too.
Almost everything that my curious and questioning four-year-old mind could absorb changed before my eyes when my parents sold our San Franciscan suburban home to buy a trailer in England. From there, our entire family – mom, dad, my little sister and I – would travel the world. Every day, every moment there after was something new to take in, something to question.
As we traveled the world from Turkey to Morocco, we saw true poverty, children begging in the streets and gypsies wanting our clothes. We’d made day-trips into the institutional bleakness and war-pocked Communist East Berlin, to emerge into the colorful and shining outside world upon leaving. Only later would I learn, while we visitors were able to come and go, the East Berliners would be shot if they tried to leave.
These experiences, whether I knew it or not at the time, became etched into my brain.
Upon returning to San Francisco in the early 1970s, we bounced around from my grandparents house in the Sunset District to a rental cottage in the Richmond and finally landed in Gatorville: San Francisco State University’s Family Student Housing. It was only a small community of sagging, dingy-white army barrack-style apartments, which surrounded a playground of tarnished metal swings and slides stuck into dirty sand, sand that served as a litter box for stray cats. The place didn't look like much. But it was.
It was a slice of pure 1970’s counterculture – a commune feel without the annoying rules and with the ability to live and let live. We kids dealt with things other generations might not have had to deal with.
The reason the place was so special to me: I wasn't alone.
Until Gatorville, many of us moved around, didn’t really have a chance to make friends, and might not have had patterns to our days. We kids of all races and ages - from kindergartners to teens - seemed to have the community to ourselves during the day. We'd come home, let ourselves in with the keys we kept on silver-beaded chains around our necks, and then we'd run off, totally free from adults. By the time the street lights came on, the apartments were turned over to the parents.
Most of us seemed savvy beyond our years. Maybe it was because the parents acted childlike. Maybe it was from seeing so much change in so little time - our surroundings, the culture, the way adults dressed and spoke - everything was far-out, groovy, out of sight or a bummer, which I always thought was so odd because none of them dressed and spoke that way when I was younger. It was all a little unsettling. Question was: what could I depend on if styles of living came and went?
Early on, I looked at the world around me with a sideways glance, always a little skeptical.
Many of us were kids of divorce, most (if not all) were latchkey kids, kids who worried about parents pot smoking (and having one kid announce this parental pot-smoking in class to the third grade teacher in front of the entire room of children!); kids fending off the neighborhood child-molester and being savvy enough to call him a “pervert!” but not savvy enough to avoid going with him to a porn theater with him; kids so free we took the Muni (city bus), roamed the city, seemed to build our own society, all with the backdrop of great music – funk, soul, great rock and roll (now called “classic”). The experience was yin and yang, making the sun-filled long summer days only brighter when it all came to dark and abrupt end.
We were told by San Francisco State we’d have to leave Gatorville, because the university wanted the area for some other use. But we fought, and kids led the way. We protested “Hell no, we won’t go!”. “My dad put a huge sign above my apartment porch:“We Stand Together”. I called local news stations and asked to speak with my favorite (I was a news junky even back then) anchorman: Van Amburg. Once he came to the phone, I told him how we were being forced from our home, would have to move from our friends and our school. We refused to leave because we had rights, I said. Intrigued (or more likely humored), Van Amburg told me he would send a news crew out to interview me. I took a shower, put on my best dress and waited on my porch at 97 Campus Circle. But no news crew ever showed up.
In 1976, we left Gatorville behind. But it’s always been with me - just as my experiences of having traveled the world have never left.
Throughout my life, the people I meet and the experiences I have continue to create new grooves in my brain - raising my child, running a business, and meeting people who’ve left repressive regimes, for instance, have made an impact.
I edited film for a business associate who grew up in Havana, Cuba. He wanted me to edit his photos of 1930s through 1950s Havana along to his favorite Cuban folk songs; the film was going to be a Christmas present for his adult children. My friend had wonderful memories of growing up surrounded by the turquoise waters and balmy air of Havana, something his children would only know through his stories. After the Communist Revolution in Cuba, three of Fidel Castro’s thugs came into my friend's home, removed him, his wife and two sons, then confiscated all of their belongings and his business. They put my friend in prison. He and his family escaped by a mere fluke in timing and paperwork. They fled to America.
Another friend fled Iran with his life. His story is similar to my Cuban friend’s experiences - all of his money, his business, his home and belongings were taken just after the Islamic revolution. He, too, fled to the United States with only his family and his life.
Having looked into the eyes of these men who've had their hopes and freedom taken by dictators is something I'll never forget. The emotional impact of their stories, along with my own memories of seeing the world as a child, have made me all the more certain of my own fortune in life, a life of freedom I will never take for granted.
Because of what I've learned in my life I don't have the luxury of ignorance or apathy.
There are now many, even those oh-so rebellious flower children who constantly yelled "Question the man!" when I was a kid, who now compliantly believe whatever the media or political groups tell them without questioning. They vote for candidates based on cool icons and snappy bumper stickers.
And there are many younger people who are coming out of universities, degrees in hand, without the ability of critical thinking and lacking wisdom. A huge portion of society no longer questions what they're told and they don't go looking for answers.
I recently met a thirty-year-old college grad who, after someone flippantly used the word communist, said: "What's so bad about communism? Isn't it like the Israeli Kibbutz?" Oy! How does an adult get a college degree and yet think communism is merely a large commune (i.e., you bake the bread and I'll grow the tomatoes and we'll get along just fine.) No, communism throughout history always requires repression of humans under violence - firing squads, genocide, gulags, interment camps. It's not peace, love and happiness.
There are a plethora of books he could read and plenty Information just a click away about what really goes on in Cuba if he were at all curious. But that seemed to be his problem, his lack of curiosity and (from what I could tell from the rest of our conversation) an amazing ability to parrot professors, the media and politicians without question. The man spoke in prepackaged phrases, even calling me a racist for questioning Obama on a few specific issues, ie Card Check and his meddling in Honduras. This dude nonchalantly calling me a racist was so ridiculous and thoughtless, I didn't even get angry. I actually felt sorry for this guy who spent years in college but seemed to have no ability to think for himself.
Because so many are misinformed and indoctrinated rather than truly educated, I find it even more necessary to watch, to learn, to educate myself and to always question. And when I see things that get me angry and that are obviously wrong, I stand up on my soapbox, like I did as a five-year-old in Hyde Park at Speakers’ Corner, and I shout out.
No one can tell me the: "The debate is closed!". I don't go silent and cower when told to shut up and stop questioning. I never have and never will.