Newborn Abuse — the latest atrocity in our war on drugs

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Another story of government overreach.

In 2003, the federal government began requiring states to develop strategies to deal with drug-dependent newborns. This came in response to an increasing number of babies born with opioid dependence. The government’s concern directly reflects the rise in opioid addiction nationwide.

“The number of prescriptions for opioids (hydrocodone and oxycodone products) have escalated from around 76 million in 1991 to nearly 207 million in 2013, with the United States their biggest consumer globally, accounting for almost 100 percent of the world total for hydrocodone (e.g., Vicodin) and 81 percent for oxycodone (e.g., Percocet).”[1] Most recently, tightening availability of prescription opioids has shifted abusers to heroin, an early pharmaceutical derived from the opium poppy and grandfather of the modern ‘codone’ products. Heroin is cheaper and in most cases more available than the pharmaceuticals.

No matter what form, opioids pose a real threat of addiction for many users. According to Wikipedia, “opioid addiction and opioid dependence, sometimes classified together as an opioid use disorder, are medical conditions characterized by the compulsive use of opioids (e.g., morphineheroincodeine, oxycodonehydrocodone, etc.) in spite of consequences of continued use and the withdrawal syndrome that occurs when opioid use stops … The opioid dependence-withdrawal syndrome involves both psychological dependence and marked physical dependence upon opioid compounds. Opioid use disorders resulted in 51,000 deaths in 2013 up from 18,000 deaths in 1990.”[2]

It’s not like opioid-dependent pregnant women don’t know they’re sharing their addiction with their fetus. But like all addicts, these women are severely challenged in overcoming their need for the drug not only because of the nature of the drug but also because whatever led them to abuse drugs in the first place has not been addressed. After all, not everyone legitimately prescribed opiate drugs becomes an addict.

Within one to three days after birth, infants born addicted to opioids suffer neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS). This withdrawal experience may require doctors to administer slowly decreasing doses of morphine or methadone to ease the process. Providing medical protocols to deal with this condition was the intent of the federal law.

Despite this initial specific focus on opioid withdrawal among newborns, states have begun implementing laws that target mothers who test positive for any illegal drug use. The National Institutes of Health agree that “Alcohol and other drugs used during pregnancy can also cause problems in the baby. Babies of mothers who use other addictive drugs (nicotine, amphetamines, barbiturates, cocaine, marijuana) may have long-term problems. However, there is no clear evidence of a neonatal abstinence syndrome for these drugs.”[3]

Notably, millions of American women have used and continue to use alcohol, marijuana, nicotine, and/or prescription drugs during pregnancy with no known ill effect to their offspring. Yet in many states, zealous, usually conservative lawmakers have seized on the situation as yet another way to attack illegal drug use. Newborns and mothers are profiled and drug tested without consent. Infants are separated from their mothers. Mothers are sent to jail.

The State of Arkansas is one of eighteen states which requires health care professionals to profile mothers and newborns to determine who should be drug tested. In 2014, Tennessee became the first state in the nation to pass a law allowing women to be charged with a crime if their babies are born with symptoms of drug withdrawal. Other states, such as Alabama and South Carolina, use interpretations of existing laws to prosecute pregnant women who use drugs.[4]

The potential penalties under Alabama law are especially stiff: one to 10 years in prison if a baby is exposed but suffers no ill effects; 10 to 20 years if a baby shows signs of exposure or harm; and 10 to 99 years if a baby dies.[5]

There is no known law which requires prosecution of fathers for their use of any substance which might have contributed to a newborn’s impairment.

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists guidelines recommend that in cases where substance abuse is suspected, doctors use a separate form to seek consent for drug testing; women can opt out simply by not signing. These guidelines are widely ignored. In Arkansas, for example, if a health care provider or allied professional such as a social worker believe an infant might have been exposed to illegal substances in utero, a claim of probable cause meets the criteria of child abuse and federal laws protecting privacy don’t apply. Mothers are tested without consent and the case is turned over to authorities.

Such professionals employ a widely varying and undocumented set of criteria to identify newborns and mothers to be tested. Conspicuous symptoms such as premature delivery, low birth weight, seizures, fever, hyperactive reflexes, or rapid breathing are among the more obvious reasons to test the newborn. Yet hospitals also single out mothers who obtained little or no prenatal care even though this unfairly targets the poor or those who live far from medical facilities.

Persons who fit certain cultural stereotypes may also be at risk of greater scrutiny: compare the likelihood for suspicion of drug use in a young woman with dreadlocks and reeking of patchouli compared to that of a well-to-do woman with no counterculture identifiers. Racial profiling is also widespread in these cases as is suspicion of women who have engaged a midwife.

Aside from all the outrages involved in these policies, the fact is that they close the barn door after the horses are out. Once the child is born, whatever fetal harm might have occurred is already done. The rational approach would recognize that a few newborns may need intervention treatment and their mothers need access to counseling. End of story.

Instead, state lawmakers take whatever injury might have occurred to a fetus and explode that into the worst case scenario for the newborn infant by separating it from the mother—no cuddling at the breast for milk (one of NIH’s recommended treatments of NAS is breastfeeding), no mother’s heartbeat, no familiar voices. If we wanted to ensure that an already-challenged newborn suffer the greatest possible harm, we can rest assured that arrest of the mother fits the bill.

[I concede that in a very few cases, the mother’s behavior is so out of control that the infant is better off not in her custody. Very few.]

Legislators eager to punish mothers ignore the fact that the damage is already done. They justify punitive action in the belief that punishment serves as a deterrent. But—point of fact—if threat of punishment served as a deterrent, no one would use illegal drugs.

Marijuana use is not known to result in birth defects or NAS. One study even shows benefits to infants born to marijuana-using mothers.[6], [7] But according to a 12/18/15 report in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, of the 970 new Arkansas mothers referred to social services in 2014, 65% were for marijuana use.

Lawmakers also skim past the obvious hypocrisy in screening mothers only for illegal drugs when fetal alcohol syndrome has long been identified as a common cause of birth defects. Many of the distress symptoms in newborns can also result from the mother’s use of tobacco.

If punishment for theorized harm to the child is the state’s objective, then why aren’t alcohol and tobacco included in the screening? Why aren’t those mothers arrested and separated from the child?

I’ll tell you why. Because a driving purpose behind such laws is to punish mothers for illegal drug use.

If the real goal is to reduce the number of impaired newborns, a bureaucracy will need to be established which monitors all women of childbearing age with monthly testing for evidence of pregnancy. Once pregnant, women would be placed on 24-hour watch to ensure proper nutrition and adequate exercise. Prospective parents will undergo genetic testing  and embryos will be screened for congenital defects and aborted when appropriate. Controlled environments for gestating women will need to eliminate potential stressors such as spousal abuse and financial troubles. Any possibly harmful substances such as alcohol, tobacco, or illegal drugs would not be allowed.

Ah, brave new world with our Alphas and Epsilons.[8]

There’s nothing wrong with states supporting protocols by which medical professionals can more adequately address NAS in compromised newborns. But compromised newborns should not be used to indict the mothers for real or imagined crimes. There’s no proof that illegal substance abuse alone is the cause of a particular newborn’s problems. A majority of distressed and/or premature newborns come from poor mothers and/or mother who use alcohol and nicotine and/or mothers who don’t exercise or eat properly.

Keep in mind there’s no scientific evidence that an addicted newborn suffers subsequent permanent damage.[9], [10]

The rush to prosecute illegal substance-using mothers of newborns does not assure that their future pregnancies will produce perfect children. Nor, in most cases, does it provide any benefit to the child.

Are women now fetus delivery systems answerable to the state?

Proactive encouragement toward good health and responsible behavior is as far as a free society can go to ensure the best possible outcome in any life pursuit of its citizenry, including parenthood. This approach involves all those abhorrent liberal ideas like sex education in the public schools and easy access to birth control. Access to abortion. Clean air and water. Greater public understanding of proper nutrition. Excellent education. Good job training and job opportunities. Community clinics with affordable, high quality mental and physical health care.

If we want to decrease the American trend toward ever greater substance abuse, we need to take immediate steps to stop commercial advertising of prescription drugs. There is not and never will be a magic pill for most of life’s troubles even if these ads insinuate otherwise.

We need to reorient our medical community toward prevention instead of pharmaceuticals.

We need to devote more resources toward understanding the factors that contribute to substance abuse and addiction and address these problems at their roots: disenfranchisement, poverty, lack of opportunity, low self-worth, racism, mental illness.

Have we done this before rushing to prosecute mothers?

No.

 

Learn more and offer your help at http://www.advocatesforpregnantwomen.org/ 

[1] http://www.drugabuse.gov/about-nida/legislative-activities/testimony-to-congress/2015/americas-addiction-to-opioids-heroin-prescription-drug-abuse

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Opioid_addiction_and_dependence

[3] https://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/007313.htm

[4] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/pregnant-drugs-crime_5692ea9ee4b0cad15e653dd0?section=politics

[5] http://www.al.com/news/index.ssf/2015/09/covert_drug_tests_child_abuse.html

[6] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/1957518

[7] http://www.druglibrary.org/schaffer/hemp/medical/can-babies.htm

[8] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brave_New_World

[9] http://healthland.time.com/2012/05/01/number-of-babies-born-suffering-drug-withdrawal-triples/

[10] http://www.adoptivefamiliescircle.com/groups/topic/Baby_born_opiate_addicted….terrified/

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A Gathering of the Tribe

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The Family of Sylvia and Tom. Left to right, front: Una, Sylvia, Thurston, Tom, and Sula. Back: Joy, Carmyn, Graydon, Tomazine, Douglas, and Durward.

Great strength comes from family tradition. I’ve seen it once again for myself, a gathering of elders I’ve known all my life. In the days and hours leading up to this October reunion, trepidation warred with exhilaration in the prospect of seeing my kin again. Three days past my last contact, I am only now able to let the anxiety fall away.

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Tomazine, oldest of the girls and third oldest of Sylvia’s children. Mother of seven who adopted four more orphaned children. Gardener, artist, advocate for common sense and women’s liberation.

Why anxiety? The clan was the community, at least for many of us older ones, and gathered each summer for a week of Rook tournaments, debates on myriad subjects, talent shows, and general mayhem. These people were my judges as well as my mentors, the audience for baby pranks and elementary accomplishments. Like my forty first cousins, of which I was the fifth oldest, I was subjected to quizzes and scrutiny on everything from the ruffles in my skirt to the cleverness of my retort.

A person would think that by the age of sixty-seven, I would have grown past the traumas and dramas of childhood. But no, like the genes we share, interactions with the pantheon of my mother’s family remain a strong influence. I should be glad of the genes—of my Grandmother Sylvia’s nine children, six remain among the living. The oldest recently celebrated her 96th birthday. The youngest, feted at this recent gathering for his 80th, remains—like all of them—in remarkably good health.

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My mother Carmyn, mother of five, gardener extraordinaire. College graduate, family historian. Early advocate for environmental protection and organic food.

Matriarch to her own tribe of five offspring, my mother was the middle child of nine born to an even sterner matriarch in Sylvia. Herself the oldest of nine, Sylvia followed a lineage of strong women who simultaneously chafed at the yoke of traditional wifedom while, at least in theory, subscribed to the religious role of subservient ‘helpmate.’ Sylvia’s mother Zeulia raised nine in a marriage with a man never far from his Bible but nonetheless willing to watch his aging wife wade out into mid-winter snow to gather firewood. Zeulia’s mother Armina enjoyed a few years of happy marriage to Jeptha Futrell and the arrival of two sons (one of whom, Junius Marion Futrell, became a governor of Arkansas) before losing Jeptha to pneumonia and remarrying during Arkansas’ devastating aftermath of the Civil War. Armina’s mother Frances Massey, as the fabled family account goes, grew up in the lap of southern luxury at her father’s plantation only to elope at age thirteen with the property’s caretaker Jimmy Eubanks. Their first child, born when she was fourteen, was said to have a head the size of a teacup and yet grew to robust male adulthood.

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Joy, fourth youngest, mother of four. College graduate, school teacher, gardener, comforting presence.

By the mid-1840s, Jimmy and Frances crossed the Mississippi River on a barge and set up housekeeping in the northeast wilds of the new state of Arkansas. Subsequent generations married and lived in similar barebones circumstances in the farmlands near Crowley’s Ridge. After the Civil War, some of the family settled in Texas, and by the time my mother was born in 1923, entire households pulled up stakes each season to pick cotton in Texas before returning to “God’s Country” for the winter.

At the time Sylvia gave birth to her first child, her mother Zeulia was still producing children of her own. Both generations lived together at times in dog-trot houses on Ozark dirt farms, scraping up a livelihood from gardens, milk cows, and free range chickens and hogs. Despite their often desperate economic conditions, the families pursued education. Of my cousins, several hold graduate degrees and many more undergraduate degrees, while others have become successful entrepreneurs, engineers, and educators.

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Una, mother of eight and third youngest of Sylvia’s children. College graduate, world traveler, genealogical researcher, firecracker in general.

We are told that our genes carry not only the codes for our biology, but also the encoded experiences of our ancestors. I’m left to wonder if my tendencies toward worry derive at least in part from the epigenetic traces of the Civil War and the Great Depression. Is my desire for solitude and rural landscapes the result not only of my own life but even more from the generations of ancestry that found safety and sustenance in the land?

As far back as genealogical research has taken us, efforts largely spearheaded by one of my aunts, the family follows a long tradition of yeoman farmers. Perhaps we were serfs not too many centuries ago, tuned to the change of seasons and the requirement to please a rich master. Our histories find sparse mention of cities and their trappings. We care more about the weather than women’s clubs, more for landscapes than local politics. Yet we do care, passionately, about our freedoms and the direction of the nation despite the fact that we divide fairly evenly between conservative and liberal.

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Sula, second youngest and mother of four. Avid Razorback fan, gardener, loving wife. Current holder of the Rook championship trophy.

Of the forty cousins, only fourteen made an appearance at this gathering. Only six or seven lingered for more than one evening. My oldest, now turning forty, waded in and was welcomed as were a few other grandchildren. My mother and two of her five siblings live in this area. Three others, two from Texas and one from New Mexico, stayed for six days, variously taking naps, visiting graves and old homesteads, and arguing over Rook scores. Wrenched to see them come and equally wrenched to see them go, I have since stared out my office window to contemplate the emotions set in play by the event.

The cousins who did attend agreed not to let our next meetings occur only at funerals. Inevitably, the funerals will come, not just for our aunts and uncle, but for us. There’s the strange comfort of time and conversation with those we’ve known all our lives, even though as adults we have little in common, hardly know each other at all. There are our children, grandchildren, even great grandchildren of which we are barely cognizant, yet each of them remain connected in these threads that grow ever thinner as the generations expand.

Thus is the history of all man’s tribes.

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Thurston, youngest of the clan. Father of five, loving husband, modern day farmer and Razorback fan.

As children, my cousins and I not only played together at the annual family reunions but also at reunions of Sylvia’s siblings. We learned the names and faces of great aunts and second cousins, many of them still firmly entrenched in the lands of northeast Arkansas. The rest of us have remained as near as northwest Arkansas or as far as Georgia, California, and all points in between. There’s a mathematical impossibility to any attempt to acquaint the offspring of the forty cousins, or even to gather the forty cousins in one place.

Whether knowledge of one’s ancestry holds any relevance may be debated from various points of view. Whether I want to have these ties or not, I can’t imagine life without them. The huge array of people linked to me through family offers an oddly reassuring backdrop to any of my peculiar interests and life patterns. I’m no longer a child intimidated by their observation or awed by their arguments. They care about me as I care about them, not because we’ve done anything in particular to earn the caring, but simply because we are connected by inheritance.

We’re still a tribe.

Jars

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If I had considered the question in advance, I would have known that cleaning out the barn would precipitate a crisis. Memories long stored away for some magical future moment when that child’s toy, that handsaw, would again be needed—did I keep them simply for the memory? Furniture—small tables, wooden chairs, an ottoman frame, an old piano bench well made of oak and in need of a few repairs—would I someday find time and reason to fix them and return them to my house?

Too good to throw away. Largely irrelevant to my current life.

Becoming relevant at some future point? Probably not.

Determination to survive in a world lost to chaos drove the accumulation of this minor hoard. It was 1975. We had small children who would need to eat and thrive even if the bomb fell. We labored to renew skills our grandparents knew by heart, certain that within our lifetimes we would have to hide in our house until the fallout settled then emerge to plow, plant, and harvest our food, breed our pigs, chickens, and goats for future generations of meat and milk. We gathered meat saws and grinders, steel axes and shovels, nails and wire.

Time marched on. The Cold War ended and fingers moved away from the annihilation button.  The children are no longer dependent babies who might benefit from a collection of books on history, science, math. The goats departed in the late 80s, the garden in the early 90s, and the last of the chickens about ten years ago. The children have gone off like grown children do to find their own visions of the future.

Why do I need eight hand saws, ten hammers (of various sizes), buckets of random nails, screws, washers, bolts, and nuts? Feed scoops and cheesecloth, empty egg cartons, milk pails. What possible purpose could be met by random pieces of plywood or sheetrock, insulation, screen, tile? Why do I think that at some point I’ll make use of a decrepit power saw, drill, or grinder when, for the last twenty-five years, I have not?

I have created two piles. One is for the junkman to haul away. The other is for craigslist ads and friends who operate flea market booths. I am mildly optimistic that someone might buy the old wooden toolbox, child’s desk, or the sturdy small tables, the ten gallon pickling crock or the T-post driver. Never mind that for what I’d receive in dollars, I could restore only a fraction of this hoard.

In truth, what our energy and money bought in those early days was peace of mind. With our collection of tools, books, supplies, and know-how, we’d have a chance. Our kids would have a chance.

It served its purpose. The purpose no longer exists.

Sounds good. But what I haven’t put in either pile is the pressure canner. And the jars. Dozens and dozens of canning jars—quarts, pints, jelly jars. It’s the jars that have brought me to crisis.

When my firstborn child was two, my grandmother died. My dad’s mom, Nora. Always a country girl, Nora knew how to make soap, kill a chicken with a swing and stiff pop of its neck, and would can just about anything edible. She had jars. When they started clearing her property for the auction, I went down to Cane Hill and helped clean out her cellar. I hauled back cases of canned goods.

She had declined for a decade until her death at age 86. I wouldn’t dare eat any of the food in those jars. We had hogs and chickens at the time which allowed me to make use of Grandma’s labors. Each day I’d go out to the barn and pens and open more jars. Applesauce, whole plums, peaches, pears. Grapes and elderberries. Green beans, tomatoes, cabbage, mixed vegetables. Tallow. Jelly, jam, preserves. Juice. The critters were well fed that year.

We grew a huge garden. Neighbors had pear trees. We visited orchards and vineyards. Even with all of Grandma Nora’s jars, I sometimes ran short. My mother gave me jars. I bought jars.

In those heady days, each fall I stood in the storage closet and stared at my larder. The sight of all those jars filled me with the greatest pleasure that once again, by the labor of my hands, I had set aside enough green beans, tomatoes and sauce, peas, corn, and kraut to last a year. The jars lined up in colorful rows, golden tomato seeds swimming in crimson broth, finely shredded green cabbage fermented into tangy white kraut, wild plum jelly glowing fuscia in the dark.

Producing and preserving food challenged me like nothing I’d ever done. Even with a tractor and rototiller, even with liberal applications of goat manure and mulch, plants struggled to survive against drought, bugs, and predation. How many hours did I spend hoeing weeds or picking off potato bugs? How many hours peeling and chopping, sterilizing and packing, standing over the pressure gauge to ensure the right amount of intense heat and adequate time to prevent spoilage.

There’s a sound as jars cool, the snap of the canning lid sucking down, sealing the contents safely into the future—I loved that sound. Then it was time to use the grease pencil to write on the lid—July 1981.

Now I have all these jars. The cardboard boxes have suffered over the years. Faded brown paper hangs in shreds, the sides bow and buckle. Even if I keep the jars, I have to plow through generations of dead spiders and a healthy population of live ones to retrieve the jars from box wreckage. Why would I go to the trouble to re-package all these jars knowing that twenty years from now, it would all be to do over again? Would I be any more willing to let go of them then?

My children have no interest and no place to store jars. I wouldn’t mind storing them if my kids wanted them. But there’s no longer a tractor or rototiller. The half-acre garden has grown up in saplings and pasture grass. There are no goats to produce manure. Everything is different.

But here’s the argument. Certain things haven’t changed. We have to eat. We have the ability to grow food. With jars and a pressure canner, we could store food. Isn’t that incentive enough to save the jars?

What is my responsibility? For countless generations, as far back at least as civilization, my ancestors have planted, cultivated, harvested, and stored food. These are skills we’ve learned—how to measure the right time to plant onions or corn, what seeds to soak before pressing them into the dark earth, how to dig potatoes without piercing them. We raised our kids to know these things.

Do I simply walk away?

Why not? There are books. There are others still farming, still canning—the knowledge won’t fade simply because I relinquish my jars.

Even with the best of hoards, with all the tools and seeds saved and an endless supply of jars, at the end of the day, survival in a world gone mad would be a tenuous venture. What about grain? No bread, no pasta, no crackers. What about oil, salt, soda, sugar? We’d be dependent on venison and that requires guns and ammunition. My .22 rifle won’t bring down a deer.

At some point, even the most vehement survivalist will face what I face. How many times in your life do you restock your rations and water? How much is enough ammunition? Who are you prepared to kill to protect your hard won ark?

I’m working on a compromise with myself. Today I think I will keep a few jars as mementos of my grandmother, the tall green half gallon jars and a few of the older square-shoulder quarts. I will wash them periodically and keep them up on a shelf, decoration that tugs my heartstrings when I look up from my daily tasks. I will acknowledge the hard work and dedication that touched these jars, my hands, my mother’s hands, my grandmother’s hands.

All the grandmothers. All the jars. All the tomatoes and fine plum jam will not save the world.

A Journey West, Part 5/5

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Highway One Santa Cruz, early morning fog

My last night, again too anxious to get a good night’s sleep, I rise early for my flight home. The fog is in along the coast. Overnight chill permeates the distinctly scented air. Stately redwoods stand in silent observation as we merge into Highway One’s rush hour traffic.

Much as I dreaded the journey, I feel nothing but happiness that I came. Spending time with loved ones wrenches me, lingers like a lump in my stomach. Good that aircraft exist. A hundred years earlier, anyone traveling this far left loved ones behind forever.

San Jose airport. I say goodbye to my first born, swallowing back tears. Again I am thrust into a sea of humanity also venturing out into the world. Security is less stressful, boarding less crowded. Maybe I’m slightly inured.san jose copy

The gods smile on my seating, this time next to a window and not over a wing. My forehead presses the glass as the lumbering beast leaves ground and the wheels thump into the plane’s belly. Below spreads San Francisco Bay, San Jose, and streets, buildings, cars, and lives growing smaller by the moment. In striking resemblance to a circuit board, a network of roads, industrial complexes, and neighborhoods form the landscape below. Each serves a critical function, interdependent, vital, alive. Civilization, California style, 2014.

Last distant view of the Pacific. Goodbye salty spray, kelp-scented air. Long gray-blue line beyond jagged dark blue mountains. Horizon.

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Delta–Mendota Canal (left) and the California Aqueduct (right) near Tracy, California. Courtesy Ian Kluft

Soon the vista below changes to a patchwork of brown and green fields in the inner valley. Aqueducts glimmer blue-green. Bare brown hillocks become the southern Sierra Nevada range.

Across Nevada and then Utah, I marvel at the extent of this desolation. I’ve seen it all before, drove it more than once, but this time it seems even more a wasteland than I had previously considered. A handful of places feature a circular green patch and make me wonder who would struggle to pull water from the depths to grow anything in such a place. Even across New Mexico, the vista unfolds in desert tones of gray, tan, and ochre.desert copy

For the first time, I feel fear for us as a nation, for people everywhere, who confront the loss of rain as land slowly turns barren. For all our irrigation trenches, dams, and pipelines, in the end we are powerless to stay Mother Nature’s hand. Without fresh water, we can’t survive.

The land greens slightly in central Texas and by the time my commuter flight to Northwest Arkansas circles for landing, fertile green fields and thickly wooded hills welcome me home. Unlike the West Coast, the Ozark plateau is among the oldest land masses on the continent. I feel its old bones in me, welcoming me, holding me close in its eroded creek bottoms and smoothed down ridges.

Safely landed and walking to my car, I hear a familiar chorus of crickets and katydids. The air smells of cut hay and crushed weeds. For all my anxiety and curmudgeonly angst, I’m glad I went. I’ve been reintroduced to a world wider than me. I’ve shared a brief happy time with people I love and who love me. I’ve plugged myself into the Pacific for a deep charge of my psychic batteries.

I’ve been renewed.

A Journey West, Part 4/5

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Artichoke. Courtesy Jeb Campbell

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Fields of lettuce. Courtesy Jeb Campbell

One of the last days of my California trip featured a venture to Monterey and Seaside where my son lives. The old coast road, Cabrillo Highway, Highway One, muddled south out of Santa Cruz, Soquel, and Aptos in heavy traffic that cleared some after Rio Del Mar. The four lanes narrowed to two for nine miles through fertile agricultural lands. Fields of artichoke, Brussel sprouts, strawberries, lettuce, and kale lined either side of the aging highway. I wondered about irrigation—more wells, more groundwater. How long do these farmers have if the drought continues?

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Dunes. Courtesy Jeb Campbell

The fields gave way to huge sand dunes colonized by dune grass and invasive ice plant. Called ‘relic landscapes,’ the dunes occupy a wide swath between the road and the Pacific. According to local authorities, the dunes may shift but are thousands of years old. New ones aren’t forming. Older landscapes of rock and sand slightly more inland provide basis for roads, shopping centers, and neighborhoods. We followed the road around this last tip of the great Monterey Bay arc.

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Looking north to distant outline of Monterey Bay coast, from Sunset Drive, Monterey, California

It was a clear day, brilliant blue sky above and the bay vista stretched fogless twenty-four miles north to Santa Cruz. I thought of the Native Americans who made use of every living thing given by the sea and the fishermen who came on the heels of the Spanish missions to exploit the rich sealife nourished in the recesses of the three-thousand foot deep Monterey trench. I thought of the generations of immigrants—Chinese, Italian, Portugese—who settled here to wrest a living from the land and Pacific Ocean.

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Jewels of the sea: kelp strand, mussels, anemone. Courtesy Deste Campbell

At the seaside route around the Asilomar retreat grounds, we parked and walked a short distance to the water’s edge. The tide was outbound. Waves curled onto the sand and crashed against rugged rock outcroppings. Gulls patrolled the beach, peeking into straggles of kelp torn from its offshore forest. Washed up kelp leaves flared from narrow stalks long as a bullwhip. Hordes of tiny insects swarmed the tangled kelp heaps. Tide pools hosted anemone communities and mussel thickets in colors too amazing to believe.

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Jelly, one of many types in this bay. About two inches long. Courtesy Deste Campbell

I could sit all day here, fully entertained by nothing more than the movement of the water. A few surfers in wet suits challenged themselves in the unforgiving breakers. Others, like me and my kids, were content to walk at the high water line, happy to be occasionally caught off guard by a stealthy wave whooshing up to wet our legs. If this was all there was—if there were no bills to pay, schedules, obligations—would I make my life about watching the sea?

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Me with Deste and Jeb at Asilomar beach. Thanks Jeb.

Too short is the time at my son’s home, sitting in his living room, touring his garden, smiling as I visit with his family. I’m envious of his ten-minute drive to the beach. Sad as my daughter and I pull away from his home, I can’t look back.

Is an oceanside sojourn the future for my son, this child who became a man when I wasn’t watching?

Or my daughter, happily settled in the hills of her new home near Eugene, Oregon, an hour and half drive from the coast?

Those are among a thousand alternate lives I could have lived close to the sea. The waves murmur and slosh, crash and growl. Another world. I miss it already.

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Filtered beach shot. Courtesy Deste Campbell

A Journey West, Part 1

How could so much change in only six years? I had flown before, many times. Between 1968 and 2008, I lost count of the times I swallowed down excitement as the plane lifted me toward the sky. Airports were the threshold of adventure, the place where infinite possibilities scrolled down the flight departures screen.

But in the intervening years since my last sojourn, I settled firmly at my desk. My adventures became mental journeys into the pages of my writing. I’m comfortable here with my dogs, the woods, my bed.DOGS

Okay, I’m getting old.

So when my friend Ginny extended her invitation, my immediate response was anxiety. Could I sleep well on an unfamiliar bed? What about air travel in these days of crazy passenger outbursts and terror threats? Did I really want to go?

My two older children live on the West Coast. I hadn’t seen Ginny for years, and her invitation made me contemplate not only spending time with her and seeing my kids, but also absorbing myself in that uniquely California environment of salty, kelp-flavored air and laid back attitudes. Of course I wanted to go, but couldn’t I please just instantly appear in Santa Cruz instead of going through the journey?

After weeks of increasing anxiety, I hardly slept the night before my departure. What if I didn’t arrive at the airport in time for my flight? What if I forgot to pack something important? What if there were problems with the flight? By the time I parked in the economy lot and hurried across the vast expanse of asphalt, my pulse hammered in my neck. Breathless, I scanned my ticket barcode to print out the boarding pass then mounted the escalator.

Swallowing over a dry throat, I handed the attendant my ticket and identification, moved forward to the screening line, and took refuge in the actions of those ahead of me. At least I could follow their lead. Carry-on luggage on the conveyor belt. Backpack with my purse inside. Take off shoes. No, attendant said. I didn’t have to take off my shoes, courtesy of the first attendant’s notation on my boarding pass which, I assume, had to do with my age. What are the characteristics one must exhibit at the Northwest Arkansas airport to qualify for remaining shod through security? That and another hundred questions and worries flooded my mind as I accompanied my baggage along the conveyor.

“What liquids…(blah)?” The uniformed guard’s words rolled over me as I tried to remember what I had packed. At the last minute, I had abandoned all hope of forcing my thick crème rinse into the tiny travel container. It globbed up at the rim and cascaded down the outside of the container. So I had stuck the entire bottle in my case. Hadn’t I read somewhere that larger containers were okay?

At this point, my voice had become husky and I shook. It wasn’t like they were going to take me outside and shoot me for packing an oversized container of crème rinse. But it was expensive. Other travelers piled up behind me while I tried to make an intelligent decision. The options for keeping it meant paying $25 to check my bag or walking back across the north forty to my car. No, I’d have to give it up. I watched my nearly full bottle of organic hair product land in their disposal bin.

That was only the first of a day of indignities. Maybe growing older and even more rigidly set in my ways preordained that travel by public conveyance would unfold as a series of rude shocks. Jostling in line to board. Wading to the next to last row of seats. Cramming myself into a tiny seat by a window—which I would have chosen if I had been willing to pay the extra money—but facing out over the wing, which I would not have chosen. Enduring the mind-boggling cacophony of human voices shouting over the engine noise as we made the short trip to Dallas-Fort Worth.

By the time we arrived at DFW, my back had spasmed in my effort not to rub against the passenger in the adjacent seat. Clearly comfortable with air travel and close association with whomever, she spent the trip jawing with the man across the aisle, her conversation frequently punctuated with loud laughter. That her leg touched mine or her elbow periodically brushed my arm seemed never to appear on her personal radar.

100_0575I live in near total isolation on an Ozark hilltop. I see more deer than people. Coyotes routinely howl at my back fence before disappearing back into the oak and hickory forest. Driving into town for groceries and random errands usually results in a hasty revision of my ambitious to-do list so that my time amid busy streets and crowded store aisles is reduced to only the most urgent items. I return home annoyed and clogged with Other People’s Energy.

Now, barely started on my journey, my back aching with don’t-touch-me tension, I hurry along the wide corridors of DFW’s Terminal C to find the trolley that will whisk me to Terminal A. I dodge businessmen and women wheeling fine leather cases, families straggling with children, retirees looking faintly lost and grumpy. After a fast jerky trolley ride clinging to a grab rail, I descend into Terminal A. Even greater throngs greet me there.

I’m hungry and wander along the crowded corridor. McDonalds swarms with customers, deterrent enough even if I could choke down the food. Starbucks isn’t lunch. I don’t want seafood. Taking a tentative space in the line at TGI Friday’s, I’m soon seated facing out over the hive activity in the corridors and presented a menu. After a heart-stopping moment of sticker shock, I order a cup of broccoli-cheddar soup for $7. It comes with four saltines.

Okay. I can do this. Refreshed from my cheesy lunch, I soon board the jet bound for San Jose. Blessedly, I am not seated in the back or over a wing. Cursedly, I am the first aisle seat in the three-seat side of economy class, meaning the aisle jogs right there as passengers move through from first class. Each passage jostles or brushes me in some way. Plenty of leg room, but since there are no seats in front of me, the tray table folds up from the chair arm. Which would be fine in a perfect world. However, I admit to a less than trim waistline and so the table fits snugly across my midsection. Embarrassing and uncomfortable. I drag out my book and try to concentrate on the lovely biography of Doc Holliday.

An hour into this three and a half hour flight, my back is killing me. The friendly lady on my right enjoys a gin and tonic while reading her Kindle. She’s relaxed and her arm touches mine. Her knee touches mine. My need not to touch someone else is so ingrained that I can’t relax even when I tell myself to get over it. Even when she’s asleep.

With perhaps an hour left in the flight, I lurch to the bathroom at the back of the cabin. Here, for a brief blissful moment, I am alone. But these hours of being crammed into a metal box with a hundred other people is taking its toll. My back muscles have seized. My head aches. My nose has become stuffy with breathing recycled air. The thoughts and emotions of a hundred other human beings have invaded my consciousness. Let me out!

Finally the jet screams down the runway and slams to a halt at Gate 18 of SJC. The blessing aspect of my seating reasserts itself as I follow first class passengers on an early disembarkation. I hurry down the terminal’s long passageways to emerge blinking into the bright San Jose afternoon. The air smells of ocean. Moments later, my daughter calls and then appears to pick me up in a borrowed car.

Strange how children always look the same and yet, at least initially after a long absence, appear as strangers. We plunge into happy conversation as if it was yesterday instead of 28 months since our last meeting. I luxuriate in the absence of strangers and the comfort of a well-padded car seat.

The drive over the mountains along Highway 17 is curvy and steep, plagued with heavy traffic. SoonDEST she turns onto a side route that leads into Soquel over the old San Jose Road. Her smile and the sound of her voice are beautiful.

The rich odor of pine sap and eucalyptus starts to clear my clogged nose. The narrow lane winds along sharp inclines cut into the face of newly minted earth—slabs of granite bedrock under hulking chunks of sandstone pushed up from the ocean floor as recently as the last three million years. Even after two years of drought, native vegetation maintains a stubborn gray-green grip on the land, all subordinated to the towering redwoods.

We talk about her flight from Oregon, her plans. The eight days we’ll have together. This is more like it. I have survived. I am here.

The Difference Between Men and Women

goddessSince 1998, I’ve interviewed over sixty people about their experiences of the 1960s, all them ‘baby boomers’ who shared that particular cultural upheaval. The stories have a lot in common. We wanted to break away from entrenched beliefs and stereotypes to embrace a more tolerant view of the world. We saw a responsibility to work for change. We searched out environments where we had the freedom to reinvent ourselves as citizens of a new age.

But recently I’ve reached a startling realization having to do with a striking difference between the male and female narrative. That is, the men I’ve interviewed rarely if ever mention their sexual activities of those times. Women, on the other hand, describe sexual activity as a key point in their lives.

At first I thought this had to do with the natural reticence of men to discuss emotional and/or personal experiences, and their tendency to focus more on activities and interactions having to do with work and other external matters. But it occurs to me now that the difference more likely is a result of the fact that for men, not much of the tradition of male sex lives changed with the ‘60s. (Unless they were gay, of course.)

Not so for women! The Sixties and the Seventies were times of major change in women’s sex lives, and from there, a change in just about everything else as well. Birth control pills meant that for the first time, women could enjoy sex without the overwhelming risk of pregnancy. On the heels of widely-available birth control, the U S Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v Wade meant that even if raped or confronted with the failure of birth control, a woman could obtain a safe medical abortion.

Suddenly women were masters of their own lives. Without the unnatural expectation to wait until marriage to engage in sexual activity, women could focus on education, political action, and career building. For the first time, women could approach men as an equal in the sexual arena, pick and choose sex partners, and be just as promiscuous as men had always been. Not that all women were. The liberation of women had to do with gaining options.

So of course women who came of age in those years would include stories of how those changes affected them. Raised in the mindset of earlier times, women of the ‘boomer’ generation suddenly could set aside the old threats of illegitimate children and the social stigma that inevitably followed such public evidence of out-of-wedlock sex. A female’s identity no longer centered around her role as wife and mother, but rather what she could offer her community in any of multiple roles.

Maybe women are more likely to discuss private emotional experiences than are men. But I think that women of my generation are rightfully proud to be the ground upon which a revolution took place. From this has flowed a wealth of new ideas in the workplace, changes in the arts including erotic literature in a manner never before imagined, and exciting relationship options inconceivable fifty years ago. I encourage all of us to tell our stories so that our daughters and all women coming after us never lose sight of what we have won.