Flash Frames on the Rails

On a train, a sleek steel behemoth on rails, you witness the sprawl of California through a different lens –  if you take the time to look. On Amtrak ‘s San Joaquin route 714 on a January day,  I watched the flash frames of urban squalor,  coastal majesty, and then the aggressively agricultural heart of the state…

Rusted, gutted cars like metallic warts in a homeless encampment under a concrete overpass.

A freight train on a parallel track zip by hauling dozens of shiny silver tankers.  Sometimes matte black or dirty white, they seem like torpedoes ready to detonate.

To the East, sensuously verdant hills bathed in mist.  Everything green again with the Rains.

To the West, the northern San Francisco bay in all its flashing glory.

A marsh hemming an estuary where scaups and saddleback ducks, and hundreds of other seabirds skitter and dunk for lunch.

A pile of junked cars. Someplace like that is probably where my late Beetle ended up, cursed with a blown-out engine.

A neighborhood park with clever  play structures just a stone’s throw from family homes. They are up close to the train’s rumble and bleat every day.

Garish graffiti shouting out from walls and bridges:  “I have nothing better to do with my talent and this paint.”

A motor home park,. Do the residents  love the auditory muscle of  trains so close?

Another slum with shanties abutted to ruined cars, garbage heaped and strewn. Who can cope with this pissy chaos and retain sanity?

Big rigs cozied up to all the little maws of a vast distribution center.  

Road detritus. My foraging habit triggered but denied.

A solar farm covering acres with pale blue panels. Glad to see progressive energy solutions!

Spikey Mediterranean cypress. The  habit of planting them like fences annoys me.

Tri-County bus yard.  Why are so many parked here at mid-day?

Amtrak photo

Central Valley agribusiness opens up.  Straight rows of trees, ribboned with green, as far as the eye can see.  Huge irrigation pipeline feeding mature orchards, new orchards.  Probably some kind of nut.

A palm tree orchard! I would live in such an oasis!

Stockton’s backside.  Modest homes. Graffiti on too many surfaces. Strip malls intrude.

Full throated rain horn  – probably the loudest sound produced on land outside of a war zone.

Abandoned ranches.  Wondering when they skin cattle hides in the slaughtering process.

McMansions tucked beside pastures feeding horses, goats, and sheep.  Agro junk courtesy of the ‘toss it out back’ school of rural living.

Velvet green fallow fields awaiting the plow.

Bee hive boxes scattered across a grassy field.  Work to do soon.

Transmission lines suspended on robot-like steel towers.

Fresno station is delightfully old-school Spanish-inspired station at Fresno.

Though it was a four-hour journey from Oakland to Fresno,  heading North, then East and South, I found the rhythm of the ride soothing.  Got to see things normally  invisible from the highway. But not many fellow riders. Americans made the mistake long ago of favoring overpriced cars and manic freeways to the simple elegance of interconnecting trains.  Makes me miss Europe.


Inertial Navigation for Life

Building a life in early 21st century seems to come down to the on-board navigation systems we inherit via a series of dice rolls:  the chance of surviving our birth, in the place of our birth, in the technology created in the last 100 years. Most of us had no conscious choice regarding any of these, yet they determine the opportunities and obstacles that make us who we become.

Cultural traditions, the wisdom, pain, courage, and stupidity of all previous generations of our bloodline make up our inheritance. They enhance or limit our exposure to education and income-generating know-how. They determine where we live, how healthy we are, and if we feel safe in our neighborhood.

A life navigation system is what we grasp for. Consider the Inertial Navigation System (INS) used in the maritime and aviation worlds. INS uses a computer integrated with motion sensors and rotation sensors to calculate continuously the position, orientation, and velocity of moving objects.

Think of our personal INS components as Mind (the thought integrator), Body (motion/cues sensors), and Spirit (rotation (upset) sensor.)  All of them give us the opportunity to make sense of the people and opportunities moving, at overwhelm speed, through our lives. We’ve got a lot to track. If our baseline INS was set among abusive, drug dependent, angry, depressed people, we’ve got a very limited view of human potential and a major navigation disability to dig out of. The earlier, the better. Because, if we carry the INS analogy a step further, the really scary part shows up.

INS uses dead reckoning – a process of estimating the value of any variable relative to an earlier value, then adding whatever changes have occurred in the meantime.  The rub: errors are cumulative

The process of setting a child’s so-called ‘moral compass’– the values by which to live – is easily neglected and highly susceptible to twisted malpractice based on their parents’ crappy dice rolls.

Parenting is about teaching, in word and deed, a style of interpersonal behavior that enables a child to succeed in this world, and in the world we wish to create for them out of the current mess.

Fairness or injustice; compassion or indifference, generosity or greed; humility or arrogance, courage to change or fear of change. Never easy values to sort out. But what of those who never got well ‘set’ in the early goings?

If by age of five, a child has experienced only chaotic, negative relationships – and thus has seldom been assured of their intrinsic worth as a human being – their estimate of ‘position’ in the world has accumulated an egregious number of errors.

How do we course correct? We direct our best energy and resources to the elevation of women, particularly those denied early access to adept parenting and with a keen ability to survive.

Women will always be the best change agents. We know how to clean up a mess. And we know how to ennoble love.

These have always been the guiding values of Women’s Centers.

A Survivor’s Guide to Depression (a series)

Just in time for the Holidays!

The suicide of my nephew at age twenty forced me to take a hard look at the ‘the dark’ in my own life.  I’ve been on the journey for over thirty years, much of it shrouded by the stigma attached to depression. In my mother’s time, it was ‘the blues,” a probable character flaw.  That very notion was, well, depressing, and hard to transcend.

The current epidemic of depression, spurred on by the pandemic, takes a big bite out of personal and professional lives. One in ten Americans, 300 million people globally share the condition. And that’s just those who ‘fess up.  If you are afflicted with depression, you have a lot of company.

One in ten Americans, 300 million people globally, share the condition. And that’s just those who ‘fess up. 

Depression, ‘the soul crusher,’ is rated in the same disability category as terminal stage cancer. If you struggle with depression, you have a lot of extra psychological rambling and shambling in your life.

This is the first of a series of essays about my many passages living as a ‘high functioning’ depressed woman. These are personal experiences, informed by a lot of nerdish research, psychological juggernauting, and the donation of my brain to pharmaceutical guesswork. My hope is that some of you who have to face off with this Beast may find encouragement in what I share. Suffering is optional. Help is available – if not inexpensive.

Passage  One:  The Science

We start with a few general factoids, bearing in mind that each are the subject to vast debate and inadequate / inadequately funded study.


Depression. Anhedonia: the inability to feel pleasure in life, a condition arguably second is awefulness to physical torture .

Depression is a medically recognized psychological condition, with both genetic and environmental roots.

A must-see  tour de force on the topic:  Stanford’s Robert Sapolsky ‘On Depression’

Prevalence:  Occurs among all ages, genders, and ethnic groups. The fastest growing market for antidepressants is Asia/Pacific.

Gender Bias: Women are 2 1/2 times more likely to be taking antidepressants than men.  23% of women in their 40s and 50s take antidepressants, a higher percentage than any other group by age or gender.Given centuries of societal disparagement of women’s value – the environment of gender inequality that pins down women of any hue  – this should be no surprise. 

Ethnic Bias   As with many other health calamities,  African Americans and other marginalized groups are disproportionally affected. Daily reminders of “less than” status serve only to reinforce a sense of worthlessness, grist for depressive episodes.

Heritability: No single genetic variation has been identified to increase the risk of depression substantially. Multiple genetic factors in conjunction with environmental factors are likely necessary for the development of Major Depressive Disorder (MDD).  That is to say, a definitive answer requires a lot more study.

I believe my family is pre-disposed to depression. My mom, God rest her headachy soul, probably seldom had a moment’s peace raising seven children, one born severely disabled, during a time when antidepressants were not available.  Others in my family are less willing to discuss.

Testing and Treatment: DNA testing can be used to predict how your body will react to certain medications, but not whether you have the disease.

The primary treatment options are counseling and medication. By one estimate, approximately 50% of people with depression don’t receive a proper diagnosis or get treatment.

As with many statistics, I wonder how they estimate. How do you count those who don’t show up in a medical setting?

In common use are three assessment tools designed to help diagnosing depression. 1) Beck Depression Inventory (BDI):  often used to measure the severity of depression.  2) Center for Epidemiologic Studies Depression Scale (CES-D):  helpful diagnosing major depressive disorder. 3) Hamilton Depression Rating Scale (HAM-D): measures depression at three different points: before, during and after treatment.  If you are lucky enough to have access to affordable psychological counseling, you will probably find yourself ticking off the boxes on one of these at some point.

Medications – Basic Chemistry

Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs) are a class of drugs typically are used in the treatment of depression.

High marks and credit to AnxietyBoss for an understandable graphic.

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter believed to positively influence mood, emotion, and sleep. It carries signals between nerve cells in the brain. After carrying a signal, serotonin is normally reabsorbed by the nerve cells (“reuptake”). A SSRI inhibits reuptake, thus leaving more serotonin  available to pass further messages between nearby nerve cells. I think of it as a synapse shell game..

Side Effects

For most people, the meds don’t kick in in terms of possible psychological relief for 3-6 weeks. Meanwhile, common physical side effects, that vary among individual drugs, can feel as bad or worse than the targeted depression. These unsavory effects include:

  • Agitation, restlessness
  • Dizziness
  • Blurred vision
  • Suicidal Ideation
  • Sexual dysfunctions –whose mechanism is not well understood – including erectile dysfunction, diminished libido, genital numbness, and pleasureless orgasm(!) Studies have shown these side effects occur in 36% to 98% of users. Poor sexual function is one of the most common reasons people stop the medication

Discontinuation Syndrome

Serotonin reuptake inhibitors cannot be abruptly discontinued after extended therapy and require tapering off over several weeks to avoid discontinuation-related symptoms. Those may include nausea, headache, dizziness, chills, body aches, tingling or numbness, insomnia, and  “brain zaps”(electric-shock-like experiences in the brain). Oy.

Serotonin Syndrome

Serotonin syndrome is typically caused by the use of two or more serotonergic drugs, including SSRIs  Serotonin syndrome is a condition that can range from mild (most common) to deadly. Mild symptoms may consist of increased heart rate, shivering, sweating, myoclonus (intermittent jerking or twitching), as well as hyper-reflexes.

Take Away

All of this uncertain science, and pharmaceuticals prone to inflicting collateral damage has hardly reassured me in my quest for stability. However, I have a deep fear of the descent into the abyss. So I put up with lesser evils and, in fact, have enjoyed several remarkable runs of freedom from serious depressive episodes.

What I crave is feeling ‘stable.’ I resent depression’s downtime, especially now with my future considerably shorter than my past. I don’t so much fear death as hope for dispensation from a torturous one. Perhaps I’ve paid major tolls in psychological pain – if that somehow matters in the karmic scheme of life.

Admitting that depression claims occasional dominion in my life still feels a bit like admitting to a secret that cannot be spoken.  When do we make Depression a topic in the wider social conversation?  It is, after all and for many, the elephant on the kitchen table in a world overboiling with trauma and conflict.


Innate Beauty

“We are responsible for our own ignorance or, with time and openhearted enlightenment, our own wisdom.  We are responsible for ourselves and our deeds or misdeeds in our time and in our own space and will be judged accordingly by succeeding generations.” Isabel Wilkerson Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent

Ultimately we are all bozos on the same bus, chained and enveloped by values and beliefs we inherited at birth.  We had no say in the early goings of our life, but we were deeply imprinted with messages that pierced our sense of self. 

Ms Wilkerson writes that In a world without caste, being male or female, light or dark, immigrant or native born, would have no bearing on what anyone was perceived as being capable of.  I was astounded by her adept and moving interweave of stories, most of which wrenched my soul.  Her insights offer incentive to engage in vibrantly re-crafting of how we see and relate to our fellow humans.

The experience of being ‘woke’ both terrifies and liberates. It requires becoming, daily, a devoted seeker of understanding. Rather than calling people out, we learn how to welcome them into our presence in this world. Inevitably that leads beyond acceptance to a kind of love.

Understanding our unique purpose, a place at which we feel no threat, disposes us to empathy, a catalyst for ‘woke.’  The courage to take that path we means we manifest the innate beauty of living together on an astonishing planet.


Imagine My Surprise!

Fifteen years ago, I worked with a young woman named Fatiah in Darfur, Sudan. In a simple statement1, she revealed to me my life’s purpose.  Since then, I have understood, with increasing clarity and urgency, the value of Women’s Centers.

The seeds I’ve planted and vigorously tended have taken root in at least two places in Sudan (a third failed due to internal squabbling), and at the ‘mothership’ in Nairobi Kenya, Baraka Women’s Center. My efforts in Oakland, CA died prematurely because the money stopped flowing. But the women’s needs never did. The pandemic deepened them. My goal is to reopen Oakland Women’s Center within four months.

Of course these years-long efforts have not been mine alone. Many remarkable allies have stepped up. Only one possessed the means and commitment to deliver serious money (water for the seeds). God bless Grant Williams.

The tradition of women gathering for mutual support spans millennia. The Women’s Center Model provides a holistic application of that tradition in environments where Conflict, and its evil twin Poverty, are newly introduced or painfully endemic.

I believe the Women’s Centers Model will revolutionize humanitarian assistance to refugees and internally displaced people.  I’m convinced that most urban destitution would reverse at a steady pace with the establishment of Women’s Centers. Every city deserves at least one. That’s because women are the best movers and shakers when it comes to community transformation.

But we women cannot do it if we find no relief from the burdens of being born females. First we must rise from deep craters of internalized insignificance, insane taboos, virulent restrictions, predatory marketing, and soul-depleting violence.

We do that best when we gather in a safe place.

We do that best when key resources– previously denied– are brought to our place.

We do that best when we’re seen and treated as complex beings with vast capacity for healing and creativity.

We do that best when our unique kinds of leadership are given full rein.

A Women’s Center is the ‘base camp’ for that redemption to happen.

Tony Benn, a now-deceased UK Member of Parliament, once opined: “It’s the same each time with progress;  first they ignore you, then they say you’re mad, then dangerous, then there’s a pause and then you can’t find anyone who disagrees with you.” 

My shock at the slow uptake of Women’s Center Model has exceeded my own imagining.  Why is this surpassingly elegant Model dismissed without comment by major foundations, international humanitarian organizations, and even (especially!) women’s funding networks?

“It’s the same each time with progress: first they ignore you, then they say you’re mad, then dangerous, then there’s a pause and then you can’t find anyone who disagrees with you.” 

After fifteen years, I believe I’ve arrived at ‘dangerous.’ Surely poor women, especially those of color, who will rise to kick ass through engagement with a Women’s Center, qualify as ‘dangerous.’ A Women’s Center would be a lot less messy way forward than howling riots in the streets. If humanity is to thrive, to say nothing of survive, they must come into their full power.

I’m inescapably aware that my stamina and ‘time remaining’ in this life is spooling out. I’d be ecstatic to see the full flowering of the Women’s Centers Model: the global network!  A Movement of undeniable authority and joy.  If I’m not blessed with that experience, I will leave behind the full instruction manual.  The young ones can continue the forward surge, adding their unique grace notes to an indomitable design.


I In answer to my question “What will you do, inshallah, when you leave [Kassab Women’s Center in North Darfur] and go home?” She said:  “We will build Women’s Centers.”