A White Woman of a Certain Age Driving a Volvo

My hands gripped the steering wheel, my eyes focused on the dark roadway ahead, I concentrated on the exact pressure my foot needed to exert to maintain my speed at the 35 mile an hour limit. My heart was pounding and I had to consciously breathe in and out, steady and slow. It was close to midnight on my way home from a friend’s house in northern New Jersey. As I had driven along the Harrington Park side of the reservoir, a car had pulled out from a side street behind me. The driver had been following me, about two car lengths behind my car, for approximately 5 miles. Yes, clearly I was being followed for what reason I didn’t know, especially since the car was police patrol car, and the driver was a police officer.

It had been an evening of pre-Christmas fun with my tennis buddies. We met in Bergenfield, New Jersey at my friends’ house at 5:00 PM, and two designated drivers drove us to Heidelberg restaurant on the upper eastside for totally gluttonous indulgence of schweine haxe, veal chops, and sauerbraten (good but never to compare with my mother’s.) Big 16 ounce glasses of weissbier. Then a decision to skip the strudel and drive down to Rocco’s in the West Village for cannoli, tiramisu, cheesecake, espressos and cappuccinos. We went back uptown for a lovely drive past the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree. Truly a night of friendship, laughter, over eating, and holiday cheer. Back in Bergenfield we all kissed and hugged, and wished each other “Merry Christmas!”

And so I began my drive home, a trip of 13 miles northeast, to Piermont, New York. I was listening to late night NPR, enjoying the thoughts of the friends I had been with, thinking about Christmas plans, singing along with “The Messiah.” When the police car pulled out of the side street, I was certainly a little more aware of my driving, checked the speed limit sign on the side of the road and held a steady 25 mph, which I must say is very slow, but why take a chance? I continued to sing along, but with a little less gusto on the “And he shall glorify!”

At the first main intersection, Livingston Street and Broadway I could have gone straight but decided to make a right turn and head east to Piermont Road. I pulled into the right lane and waited for the light to turn green, since it is a no right on red light. The police car pulled up next to me in the left lane indicating that he (yes, I could see that it was a male cop at the wheel,) would be going straight up Livingston. When the light changed I made my right and suddenly the police car pulled out of the left lane and followed me. I do believe making a right turn out of a left lane is against the law, but hey, he’s a cop. But then I realized, he was really following me. Driving along Livingston I became very aware of my driving, really aware. But then I noticed we were approaching a police station. Oh silly me, he’s just going back to the station. No, on past the station he continued to follow me, maintaining that just about two car lengths between my taillights and his headlights. At the intersection of Broadway and Piermont Road, I moved into the left lane to turn north; the speed limit changed to 35 MPH. Carefully looking both ways at the stop sign I made the left, and then out of the right lane, he turned left too, just about two car lengths behind me.

And this is when my hands started really gripping the steering wheel, I had stopped singing, and had pushed the volume button off, I was aware, very aware of my driving, my speed, the way I rounded each curve, exactly where I was in relation to the center line, the side line, and very aware that there were no other cars. Yes, it was after midnight on a Sunday night, but there were no other cars either in the oncoming lane or behind me, just the steady headlights two car lengths behind me.

I felt scared, trapped, pursued, and mostly I felt like I was being set up. This cop was just waiting for me to slightly veer over a line, to roll through a stop sign, accelerate just beyond the speed limit. I watched the headlights in my rear view mirror and envisioned that at any moment the blue and red strobe would kick on. And then I thought about the beer I drank. Sixteen cold golden ounces between about 6:00 PM and 8:00 PM, intermingled with sauerbraten, potato dumplings, red cabbage, lots of brown bread, and then the Rocco’s tiramisu and cappuccino. Never had I felt the least bit impaired beyond a slight buzz during dinner and that was more than 4 hours ago, and yet I had no idea of what my blood alcohol might be. Never being a careless drinker and driver, never having even gotten a speeding ticket, I had never calculated any of this.

So I could feel a panic setting in as I drove along quiet, dark, lovely wooded Piermont Road. Clearly, I was getting the pump of adrenalin associated with a stressful situation. The internal chemical reaction that has been with us since the dawn of human time to protect us with the fight or flight response.

Adrenalin: A hormone secreted by the adrenal medulla upon stimulation of the central nervous system in response to stress, as anger or fear, acting to increase heart rate, blood pressure, cardiac output, and carbohydrate metabolism. Fosters protective actions of fight or flight.

Yes, I was definitely getting an adrenalin rush.

Fight or Flight: Involving or relating to an involuntary response to stress in which the hormone adrenaline is secreted into the blood stream in readiness for physical action, such as fighting or running away.

Here are the specifics of how this works and the behaviors it causes from a site called Changing Minds:

When we perceive a significant threat to us, then our bodies get ready either for a fight to the death or a desperate flight from certain defeat by a clearly superior adversary.

Physical changes

Fight or flight effects include:

  • Our senses sharpening. Pupils dilate (open out) so we can see more clearly, even in darkness. Our hairs stand on end, making us more sensitive to our environment (and also making us appear larger, hopefully intimidating our opponent).
  • The cardio-vascular system leaping into action, with the heart pump rate going from one up to five gallons per minutes and our arteries constricting to maximize pressure around the system whilst the veins open out to ease return of blood to the heart.
  • The respiratory system joining in as the lungs, throat and nostrils open up and breathing speeding up to get more air in the system so the increased blood flow can be re-oxygenated. The blood carries oxygen to the muscles, allowing them to work harder. Deeper breathing also helps us to scream more loudly!
  • Fat from fatty cells and glucose from the liver being metabolized to create instant energy.
  • Blood vessels to the kidney and digestive system being constricted, effectively shutting down systems that are not essential. A part of this effect is reduction of saliva in the mouth. The bowels and bladder may also open out to reduce the need for other internal actions (this might also dissuade our attackers!).
  • Blood vessels to the skin being constricted reducing any potential blood loss. Sweat glands also open, providing an external cooling liquid to our over-worked system. (this makes the skin look pale and clammy).
  • Endorphins, which are the body’s natural pain killers, are released (when you are fighting, you do not want be bothered with pain–-that can be put off until later.)
  • The natural judgment system is also turned down and more primitive responses take over–this is a time for action rather than deep thought.

Modern effects

Unfortunately, we are historically too close to the original value of this primitive response for our systems to have evolved to a more appropriate use of it, and many of life’s stresses trigger this response. The surprises and shocks of modern living leave us in a permanent state of arousal that takes its toll on our bodies, as described by Hans Selye’s General Adaptation Syndrome.

Freezing

A third alternative response which often comes before fight or flight is freezing. This is often used by prey as they seek not to be noticed by predators and is typified by the rabbit paralyzed by the headlights of an oncoming car.

Humans also will pause at signs of danger. By freezing, you also cut down on noise and visual change and so may hear or see things around you more clearly.

Freezing gives you time to assess the situation and, if necessary you may then take further action, including fighting or backing away.

And…

Shielding

Another automatic, unthinking reaction when faced with a sudden threat is to go into a ‘shield’ mode, for example cowering down and protecting the head by throwing arms over it. Turning away to use the back as a shield is also common.

When with a child or another person, the protection instinct may cause you to throw your body around them, pulling them in and literally becoming a ‘human shield’.

Sacrifice

Beyond shielding or perhaps as an extension of it, we will even sacrifice ourselves to help others, for example where a soldier ‘takes the bullet’ for a colleague.

When people are praised for being heroes, a common response is to say that they ‘didn’t think about it’. In other words, it was an automatic reaction to help others, even at the potential cost of one’s own life. This willingness to sacrifice is an essential element of humanity and society, even if we never have to take this action.

If you get wound up yourself, stop. Get out. Use any excuse to go somewhere and calm down.

 

Flight or fight to the death. That’s what our medulla has been programmed for in our survival and the survival of those we love and care for, even complete strangers.

But let me take you back from primitive humanity to that night in my car as my heart started pounding, my hands were getting sweaty on the wheel and I had to work hard to keep my breath steady. And my sudden realization: If the red and blue lights began to strobe behind me and I had to pull over, fight or flight were the last things I would ever want to do when confronted by a police officer. Even “getting out, using any excuse to go somewhere and calm down” was not going to work. The response that has protected us as humans since prehistory was exactly what not to do. Read any of the recent news reports. Michael Brown, Eric Gardner, compelling statistics of police violence specifically targeted against black men. Fight or Flight in these circumstances is deadly.

I am a white woman of a certain age, driving a Volvo, adhering to the speed limit, with an extremely clean driving record. Why was I chosen to be followed? What was my profile? What is anyone’s “profile”?

This is not a rant against police. My own Piermont cops came to my aid when I was locked out of my house and on another occasion carried me from my driveway down 20 steps after my ankle surgery. I have worked with many police officers and detectives in victims’ services, and they are dedicated to risking their own lives to protect others. I also know that when stressed, their fight kicks in; fleeing is not an option.

Marc H. Morial, President and CEO of the National Urban League wrote in the Huffington Post:

That is why we march — because Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Akai Gurley, Tamir Rice, John Crawford and others did not deserve to die; because Marlene Pinnock did not deserve to be viciously beaten and Levar Jones did not deserve to be shot for complying with a trooper’s request; because the excessive use of force — deadly force — by law enforcement against unarmed African Americans has no place in the land of the free and the home of the brave; because police should not fear the communities they have sworn to protect and communities should not fear those who serve to protect them; and because we — as a nation — must and can be better.

I never did have to contend with my fight or flight response that night. About 6 miles after the patrol car started following me, as I drove at 35 miles an hour on Piermont Road and I passed the big green “Welcome to New York, the Empire State” sign, the headlights suddenly disappeared as the officer at the wheel pulled a U-turn and drove back south. My heart rate calmed as I rounded the bend into Piermont and drove up my steep windy road home. But still I wondered why I had been followed. I continue to wonder about how we can all do better. I can’t pretend I know what it is like to be routinely profiled, followed, questioned, threatened, but I do know what a state of constant fight or flight does to a person’s nervous system, to the nervous system of a community, to a nation; a permanent state of arousal that takes its toll on our bodies, minds, hearts and souls, and costs lives when fight or flight is a death sentence. It’s in the research, it’s in the news every day. We must and can do better.

For me this was an isolated incident, but then I am a white woman of a certain age, driving a Volvo, adhering to the speed limit, with an extremely clean driving record.

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

“When I say it’s you I like, I’m talking about that part of you that knows that life is far more than anything you can ever see or hear or touch. That deep part of you that allows you to stand for those things without which humankind cannot survive. Love that conquers hate, peace that rises triumphant over war, and justice that proves more powerful than greed.”

It was not a beautiful day in the neighborhood.  The river swelled with rain, the high tide and the pull of the full moon which was obscured by the storm clouds. The wind blew houses apart, ripped out electrical wires, knocked down trees and set violent waves into motion.  On the streets of my little village, the storm left hundreds of people along the river and creek with water and mud in their basements, their living rooms, bedrooms and kitchens.  Some homes were missing entire walls. Docks were washed away.  Boats were in the streets and crushed into houses.  Without electricity the village was dark and people we had always welcomed as tourists became voyeurs to the devastation and some sadly came back under the cover of the darkness to take advantage of exposed boats and homes that still contained valuables.  We had a curfew in our little village.

As the days went on and communication was slowly restored we all became more and more aware of the assault on our larger neighborhood, other towns and villages where our family and friends live. Jersey City where two of my daughters live, Hoboken, the Jersey Shore with shocking pictures of homes washed out to sea and the roller coaster mangled and submerged.  Staten Island devastated; a woman walking around rubble where her house once was.  Battery Park under water and much of Manhattan at a standstill: a New York Moment became a long continuum of slow dark nights and days of daunting challenges of finding food, drinking water, housing and comfort.  There were deaths from falling trees, isolation, flooding.

Here in our little village we gathered last Thursday morning at the Village Hall for instructions, information and opportunities to help each other.  Our Mayor Chris Sanders said, “We didn’t lose anything of value; we lost stuff.  No one died.  We can replace the stuff but we can’t replace a life.”  “Life is far more than anything you can see or hear or touch.”  He didn’t say that, but it was the message in his message.

And the villagers joined together to help with the stuff.  Crews bulldozing the streets, neighbors helping neighbors pump water and clean sludge out of their homes, the Fire House serving as a temporary shelter.  I was fortunate.  I got to help just by doing something I love, cooking big pots of soup for people staying at the Fire House and the volunteers.  I also had the opportunity to just listen to some people who just needed to talk.   It was hard to listen knowing that I couldn’t fix anything that these women needed help with. I didn’t have answers, but I think there were people like Judy and Jackie and Helen and Sue who just needed someone to listen to their questions.  Like, “Can I ever go back to my house on the river?”  I thought of Atul Gawande’s book Better citing one of the five ways to change the world as listening.   I just tried to quiet myself down and truly listen.

There were all the public health issues of contaminated water and requirements of boiling drinking water, of wearing protective clothing in water that contained sewage and chemicals.  Concerns about food spoilage and gastrointestinal infections.   And the importance of safeguarding against stepping into water that had electrical wires concealed beneath the surface.  Although not too many homes in our village have garages I reminded people to not sit in a closed garage running their car to charge their cell phones.

In the midst of this I received an email from my daughter Kierra who had gotten information from my grandchildren’s Montessori School about what to tell kids about all the damage and devastation.  So often in the crisis and busyness of trying to cope and clean up and take care of and rebuild we forget that kids can’t understand what happened not just to them, but to others in the big neighborhood.  The email referenced a quote for parents, really any grown ups,to help children during a crisis in their own home, in the village, in the big neighborhood.

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”  Fred Rogers

Those of us who are of a certain age and our children remember watching Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood which was on PBS for more than 30 years from 1968 to 2001.  It was in fact always a beautiful day in the neighborhood as Mr. Rogers slipped into his zip-up sweater and sneakers.  Although Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood was a little cardboard town, he gave kids and all of us who watched the understanding of the big neighborhood and our responsibilities for each other.  He helped us all understand, “That deep part of you that allows you to stand for those things without which humankind cannot survive. Love that conquers hate, peace that rises triumphant over war, and justice that proves more powerful than greed.”   And helpers that put the neighborhood back together after a superstorm that devastated homes and businesses and people’s lives.

As I look at the newspapers and the TV reports, at the online pictures of the damage left by the violent winds and surging water, I keep looking for the helpers and I keep reminding everyone I know, big and little that there are always helpers.  I don’t mean this in any way to be flippant.  The damage is real in real neighborhoods, not the little 1960’s cardboard TV set.  Precious irreplaceable lives have been lost and it will take a long time and immeasurable resources to fix and repair and replace the stuff.   But the messages that Mr. Rogers left for us are real, too, and I believe that these messages help us as helpers and as those who need so very much to be helped.

The Marathoners ran to Staten Island with rakes and shovels and bottled water. My friend Linda Burnside in Winnipeg ran her own fund raising  “Run Anyway.”  On the news last night there was the report of a man from Texas who drove to Long Island with supplies and food.  There was a fund raising concert last Friday night with Sting and Springsteen and Christina Aguilera supporting the Red Cross.   Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and Congresswoman Nita Lowey came to our village.  The Salvation Army was here in Piermont, so were our DPW, Fire Fighters, Women’s Auxiliary, Police Force and our inspiring Mayor Chris Sanders.   The helpers are everywhere on this beautiful day in the neighborhood.  They are us.

(And by the way, “I have always wanted to have a neighbor just like you, I have always wanted to live in a neighborhood with you.”)

http://video.pbs.org/video/1415187976/

► 1:28

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OFzXaFbxDcM

Fred Rogers > Quotes

“Anyone who does anything to help a child in his life is a hero to me. ”

“Love isn’t a state of perfect caring. It is an active noun like struggle. To love someone is to strive to accept that person exactly the way he or she is, right here and now.”

“If you could only sense how important you are to the lives of those you meet; how important you can be to the people you may never even dream of. There is something of yourself that you leave at every meeting with another person.”

“Anything that’s human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable. When we can talk about our feelings, they become less overwhelming, less upsetting, and less scary. The people we trust with that important talk can help us know that we are not alone.”

“Forgiveness is a strange thing. It can sometimes be easier to forgive our enemies than our friends. It can be hardest of all to forgive people we love. Like all of life’s important coping skills, the ability to forgive and the capacity to let go of resentments most likely take root very early in our lives.”

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”

“We live in a world in which we need to share responsibility. It’s easy to say “It’s not my child, not my community, not my world, not my problem.” Then there are those who see the need and respond. I consider those people my heroes.”

“You rarely have time for everything you want in this life, so you need to make choices. And hopefully your choices can come from a deep sense of who you are. ”

“Often when you think you’re at the end of something, you’re at the beginning of something else.”

“Mutual caring relationships require kindness and patience, tolerance, optimism, joy in the other’s achievements, confidence in oneself, and the ability to give without undue thought of gain.”

“Love and trust, in the space between what’s said and what’s heard in our life, can make all the difference in the world. ”

“The greatest gift you ever give is your honest self.”

“In times of stress, the best thing we can do for each other is to listen with our ears and our hearts and to be assured that our questions are just as important as our answers.”

“Whether we’re a preschooler or a young teen, a graduating college senior or a retired person, we human beings all want to know that we’re acceptable, that our being alive somehow makes a difference in the lives of others.”

“Who we are in the present includes who we were in the past.”

“I hope you’re proud of yourself for the times you’ve said “yes,” when all it meant was extra work for you and was seemingly helpful only to someone else.”

“The thing I remember best about successful people I’ve met all through the years is their obvious delight in what they’re doing and it seems to have very little to do with worldly success. They just love what they’re doing, and they love it in front of others.”

“We need to help people to discover the true meaning of love. Love is generally confused with dependence. Those of us who have grown in true love know that we can love only in proportion to our capacity for independence.”

“The child is in me still and sometimes not so still.”

“Discovering the truth about ourselves is a lifetime’s work, but it’s worth the effort.”

“It’s very dramatic when two people come together to work something out. It’s easy to take a gun and annihilate your opposition, but what is really exciting to me is to see people with differing views come together and finally respect each other.”

“The connections we make in the course of a life–maybe that’s what heaven is.”

“Little by little we human beings are confronted with situations that give us more and more clues that we are not perfect. ”

“It’s not the honors and the prizes and the fancy outsides of life which ultimately nourish our souls. It’s the knowing that we can be trusted, that we never have to fear the truth, that the bedrock of our very being is good stuff.”

“I’m proud of you for the times you came in second, or third, or fourth, but what you did was the best you have ever done”

“When we treat children’s play as seriously as it deserves, we are helping them feel the joy that’s to be found in the creative spirit. It’s the things we play with and the people who help us play that make a great difference in our lives.”

“In the external scheme of things, shining moments are as brief as the twinkling of an eye, yet such twinklings are what eternity is made of — moments when we human beings can say “I love you,” “I’m proud of you,” “I forgive you,” “I’m grateful for you.” That’s what eternity is made of: invisible imperishable good stuff.”

“At the center of the Universe is a loving heart that continues to beat and that wants the best for every person. Anything that we can do to help foster the intellect and spirit and emotional growth of our fellow human beings, that is our job. Those of us who have this particular vision us to continue against all odds. Life is for service.”

“Whatever we choose to imagine can be as private as we want it to be. Nobody knows what you’re thinking or feeling unless you share it.”

“The world needs a sense of worth, and it will achieve it only by its people feeling that they are worthwhile.”

“What’s been important in my understanding of myself and others is the fact that each one of us is so much more than any one thing. A sick child is much more than his or her sickness.
A person with a disability is much, much more than a handicap. A pediatrician is more than a medical doctor. You’re MUCH more than your job description or your age or your income or your output.”

“Peace means far more than the opposite of war.”

“Knowing that we can be loved exactly as we are gives us all the best opportunity for growing into the healthiest of people.”

“There is no normal life that is free of pain. It’s the very wrestling with our problems that can be the impetus for our growth.”

“There are three ways to ultimate success:
The first way is to be kind.
The second way is to be kind.
The third way is to be kind.”

“I don’t think anyone can grow unless he’s loved exactly as he is now, appreciated for what he is rather than what he will be.” “Try your best to make goodness attractive. That’s one of the toughest assignments you’ll ever be given.”

“How great it is when we come to know that times of disappointment can be followed by joy; that guilt over falling short of our ideals can be replaced by pride in doing all that we can; and that anger can be channeled into creative achievements… and into dreams that we can make come true.”

“A young apprentice applied to a master carpenter for a job. The older man asked him, “Do you know your trade?” “Yes, sir!” the young man replied proudly. “Have you ever made a mistake?” the older man inquired. “No, sir!” the young man answered, feeling certain he would get the job. “Then there’s no way I’m going to hire you,” said the master carpenter, “because when you make one, you won’t know how to fix it.”

“I believe that appreciation is a holy thing–that when we look for what’s best in a person we happen to be with at the moment, we’re doing what God does all the time. So in loving and appreciating our neighbor, we’re participating in something sacred.”

“There was a story going around about the Special Olympics. For the hundred-yard dash, there were nine contestants, all of them so-called physically or mentally disabled. All nine of them assembled at the starting line and, at the sound of the gun, they took off. But one little boy didn’t get very far. He stumbled and fell and hurt his knee and began to cry. The other eight children heard the boy crying. They slowed down, turned around, and ran back to him–every one of them ran back to him. The little boy got up, and he and the rest of the runners linked their arms together and joyfully walked to the finish line.
They all finished the race at the same time. and when they did, everyone in the stadium stood up and clapped and whistled and cheered for a long, long time. And you know why? Because deep down we know that what matters in this life is more than winning for ourselves. What really matters is helping others win, too, even if it means slowing down and changing our course now and then.”

“It’s really easy to fall into the trap of believing that what we do is more important than what we are. Of course, it’s the opposite that’s true: What we are ultimately determines what we do!”

“It’s a beautiful day in this neighborhood,
A beautiful day for a neighbor.
Would you be mine?
Could you be mine?…

It’s a neighborly day in this beauty wood,
A neighborly day for a beauty.
Would you be mine?
Could you be mine?…

I’ve always wanted to have a neighbor just like you.
I’ve always wanted to live in a neighborhood with you.

So, let’s make the most of this beautiful day.
Since we’re together we might as well say:
Would you be mine?
Could you be mine?
Won’t you be my neighbor?

Won’t you please,
Won’t you please?
Please won’t you be my neighbor?”