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Anita Rufus

We like to group things: a covey of quail, a flock of ducks, a flight of swans, a pack of wolves. I spent last week attending two very different events where neighbors come in groups.

First, I had lunch with the Democratic Women of the Desert (DWD) to hear a discussion about the current and future state of Medicare.

The program, on Sunday, Sept. 15, featured our local congressman, Dr. Raul Ruiz, an emergency room physician who has been instrumental in providing health-clinic services in places ranging from Haiti to our own local poor communities; and Dr. Jeffrey E. Kaufman, an Orange County urologist who also teaches at the University of California at Irvine and has participated on the California Medicare Carrier Advisory Committee since 1997.

A streak of tigers.

Later in the week, on Thursday, Sept. 19, I attended an evening meeting of the Palm Springs chapter of Republican Women Federated (RWF), produced by Elise Richmond. (Elise does a conservative call-in talk radio show every Sunday morning just before my own show on KNews Radio.)

The Republican Women’s event featured author and filmmaker Joel Gilbert, presenting a showing of his film, Dreams From My Real Father: A Story of Reds and Deception, described as “the real history of Barack Obama and his family.”

The film purports to prove, via a combination of known facts and “re-creations of probable events,” that President Obama’s father wasn’t really his father, and that Obama is a committed Marxist-Socialist (with some “red diaper baby” Communism inexplicably thrown in, as if all three meant the same thing).

I had heard Gilbert interviewed before, and wanted to see for myself what his film was about. Given the opportunity within the same week, I wanted to compare the experience of the two partisan groups.

A rhumba of rattlesnakes.

Both events included women and men in attendance, although there was a greater percentage of men at the RWF event, perhaps because it was a “special event,” as opposed to a regular meeting.

Each group had a “social hour” preceding the start of the programs where members can meet and greet, renew acquaintances and catch up on news and gossip.

A murder of crows.

Food was part of each meeting as well. DWD was a lunch meeting, well-catered by the facility with a lovely table setting—in fact, extra tables had to be moved in to handle an overflow crowd. RWF had a buffet-style table with spicy wings, thick-crust pizza, garlic bread and salad. The wings were delicious!

A brood of chickens.

DWD’s attendance was diverse, with board members (including the president, Josephine Kennedy) from African-American and Hispanic heritages, spanning all ages. There were lawyers, teachers and retirees.

A drove of donkeys.

RWF’s attendance was, at least to my eyes, all-white. There were lawyers, teachers and retirees.

A herd of elephants.

DWD’s stated purpose is “promoting social, economic, and political policies that reflect women’s priorities.”

One of RWF’s stated missions is to “increase the effectiveness of women in the cause of good government through active political participation.”

To me, the most interesting contrast between the two groups is that DWD is clearly “Democratic” in identifying itself—part of a political party—while RWF’s website conflates “conservative” with “Republican,” as if the two were necessarily synonymous.

A business of ferrets.

The DWD meeting opened with Kennedy welcoming everyone, introducing club officers, noteworthy guests and aspiring candidates in attendance. None did more than stand and acknowledge the introduction.

A convocation of eagles.

RWF opened their meeting with a prayer, which included requesting God’s assistance to Sens. Ted Cruz and Mike Lee to hold firm in the U.S. Senate on overturning the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”). The prayer closed in Christ’s name. (Do they have Jewish members?) That was followed by the Pledge of Allegiance, something that did not happen at DWD. Introductions of club officers were also made, and State Assembly candidate Gary Jeandron was introduced and gave a short folksy speech, calling Palm Springs RWF “my club.”

A pandemonium of parrots.

The discussion of Medicare at DWD was thoughtful, loaded with facts, and frank about threats to guaranteed care for the elderly and disabled, primarily due to rising health care costs.

It was valuable to hear, from the perspective of medical doctors, the impact on the medical profession of increased demand, lowered reimbursements, and a dearth of primary-care doctors. The discussion covered proposals to increase the numbers of primary-care doctors, as well as the expansion of medical services provided by physician assistants and trained health-care workers.

A colony of penguins.

RWF showed Gilbert’s entire film, after brief opening remarks by him. The film seems designed to scare rather than to inform. It includes a narrator, supposedly President Obama’s “voice,” reporting conversations that would have taken place privately between two individuals. Gilbert does not explain how he knows what actually occurred. Oh, yeah, there’s that pesky disclaimer, a “re-creation of probable events.”

A scourge of mosquitos.

A question-and-answer session followed each program.

At DWD, the questions (including mine) centered on budget cuts, health care for the poor, the expansion of insurance coverage, and a refutation of claims of rationing of health services, particularly to the elderly. The answers were not always what the audience wanted to hear, but included serious discussion about Medicare’s future.

At RWF, questions (including mine) about how some of the dots were being connected, often based purely on conjecture, were often responded to by writer/director Gilbert with, “Look it up on Google.” Yet, when one does, one finds primarily Gilbert’s own commentary, and similar conjecture without much supporting evidence.

A fever of stingrays.

Perhaps the strangest part of the movie was the claim that President Obama had plastic surgery to redo his nose so that he wouldn’t look as much like his “real” father. However, no proof is offered other than side-by-side photos.

A wisdom of wombats.

When I first told Elise that I planned to attend the RWF meeting to see the film for myself, she jokingly responded, “Be sure to wear a trench coat—you never know what might happen!” I asked that she not introduce me; I wanted to experience the event without prejudicing how others might perceive me or change their interactions.

However, after I asked a couple of questions, Elise decided she would introduce me anyway. This came after another attendee followed up on one of my questions with what seemed like equal perplexity at the illogic of some of Gilbert’s claims. (Perhaps Elise felt the need to make sure everyone knew I wasn’t really a Republican.)

A colony of bats.

Following the meeting, a woman commented on my “nerve” to have attended, and one gentleman, who introduced himself as a lawyer who occasionally heard my show, said that although we probably wouldn’t agree on anything, he was glad to meet me and was pleased that I was there. We had a brief conversation about the claims that had been made of Obama being “an avowed Communist-Socialist.”

I suggested that Obama had never moved toward a government takeover of all means of production (socialism); and that, in fact, Obamacare would be a boon to private insurance companies. And hadn’t the stock market rebounded nicely under Obama? The lawyer acknowledged that I had a point.

A host of sparrows.

What did I learn from these encounters?

The Democratic Women of the Desert, although admittedly partisan, seemed far more interested in getting and understanding information about issues.

The Republican Women Federated, although admittedly at an event with a specific purpose, were focused on trashing the president.

Before I left the RWF event, Elise thanked me for coming and showing “such courage.”

Why on Earth would anyone need courage to attend a public meeting?

A nattering of neighbors.

Anita Rufus is also known as "The Lovable Liberal," and her radio show airs Sundays from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on KNews Radio 94.3 FM.

I’m having a bad hair life. Not just a bad hair day … a whole lifetime!

I was born with stringy, straight, thin (and ever-thinning), blonde (well, at least I got something right!) hair. To perm or not to perm? Short or long? Cut or grow? Color, highlight or go natural? Wig or no wig?

Thank God for good hairdressers! And when you go to a salon, doesn’t the hair of the person doing your hair make a difference?

My new role model in life is Cindy Melchor, 53, of La Quinta.

Cindy received a high school equivalency degree at 16. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I just knew I didn’t want to go to school. I had been a model once for a neighbor who was in beauty school, and I thought, ‘Why not?’ It looked like something that would get me out of school.”

She attended beauty college at the age of 17, and has been doing hair ever since.

In July 2011, a small, cancerous lump was detected by mammography in one of Cindy’s breasts.

She had to face a real dilemma: She knew the treatment would rob her of her hair.

“I had had lots of clients over the years who had gone through breast cancer. Most of them had done just fine and recovered. I know people die from it, but that never entered my mind. In fact, when the doctor told me, I initially laughed about the absurdity of it.”

Exactly one year before Cindy’s diagnosis, her sister had also been diagnosed with breast cancer.

Cindy Melchor“She was the first one I told, and she just freaked out. But my clients had changed my perspective. I just thought, ‘OK, it’s breast cancer; it’s nothing. Lots of people have had it and turned out just fine.’

“I didn’t look at it as a death sentence. It was just a bump in the road. The only time I cried at all was when I told my daughter.”

Cindy began treatment, first with a lumpectomy, and then chemotherapy for four months. Radiation treatments followed for a couple of months after that.

“After my first treatment, my hair began to disappear. I lost everything—hair on my head, all over my body, my eyelashes and eyebrows. But none of that bothered me as much as having to wear a wig.”

Cindy was uncomfortable with the physical feeling of a wig, although she adds, “The shaved head didn’t bother me. To see yourself bald is really weird. At least I had a decent head!

“I walked around fine at home and around my family. But I wore the wig whenever I went out—even to get the paper. I just felt as if, out in public, everyone knew. When I see someone in the market, bald or wearing a head scarf, I always think, ‘Cancer.’

“For me, going out bald meant people would identify me by the disease, and that bothered me. That part didn’t bother my sister at all.”

Cindy had no discomfort talking about her condition with her clients. “I told everyone. I’ve never been secretive about it.

“Walking into the shop for the first time with the wig on was actually the hardest part of the whole experience. I never hid anything about what I was going through. My clients and co-workers all went through it with me, and that helped, but it made me the center of attention—and I just hate that.”

How long did she wear the wig, and when did her own hair return?

“To look like me, (it was) about six months after I completed chemo,” says Cindy. “I took the wig off when my hair was still very short and spiky. I look at pictures of me during that time, and it just doesn’t look like me. I actually took the wig off too soon.”

Cindy’s twin granddaughters were born just after she stopped wearing her wig, and she now has a third grandchild. “If money was no object, and I could do anything I want, I can’t imagine wanting to do anything other than spend more time with my daughter and grandchildren.”

Does Cindy have any advice for others who have to go through what she did?

“It’s such a personal thing,” she says. “For me, it was about not being the center of attention. You have to do whatever is comfortable. I realized my own vanity and my desire not to be the center of attention, but in the end, what was most important was that the cancer didn’t define me.”

If there is reincarnation, and we have to keep coming back until we’re perfect, I want to come back with Jennifer Aniston’s or Farrah Fawcett’s hair … or as Cindy Melchor.

Oh, and get regular mammograms—just do it!

Anita Rufus is also known as "The Lovable Liberal," and her radio show airs every Sunday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on KNews Radio 94.3 FM.

Government workers! Political appointees!

Those people—and we love to trash them.

Elected officials, whether at the local, county or state level, need professional staff to help them represent us, the people who elected them. Political staff are literally public-service employees: They represent an elected official by serving the public.

Recent studies indicate that public-employee salaries, with benefits included, may lag a bit behind the salaries of private-sector workers. The average annual salary for a political staff job is $59,000, near the mean that defines “middle class.”

When economic times are tough, and politicians want to score points, we hear lots of calls for “those people” to lose their jobs—implying that we don’t need them.

But who are “those people,” and what exactly do they do?

Pat Cooper, born in Blythe and currently living in Indio, did not grow up in a political household. She became issue-oriented when she joined the National Organization for Women in the Coachella Valley in the early 1990s.

“Issues invoke a passion,” says Pat. “I was very invested in the issue of women’s rights, and that started me on a road to activism. I remember when we defended the abortion clinic in Palm Desert, to ensure women could enter the clinic without harassment. That was standing up for an issue I believed in.”

Pat moved on to electoral politics, working on the campaign of Julie Bornstein, then running for re-election to the California Assembly.

“Activism is issue-driven. Policy is community-driven. The only way to (make sure) your issues will get addressed is via the political process. I wanted to help get someone elected who would champion the things I felt were important and could enact them into policy.”

Pat eventually landed on the staff of State Sen. Denise Ducheny, who represented the eastern portion of the Coachella Valley, part of San Diego County, and all of Imperial County.

“My job was to outreach with the professional communities—farm owners, businesses, chambers of commerce, developers, Salton Sea principals, manufacturers,” she says. “I was their liaison to the senator’s office and gathered the kinds of information that would influence her policy-making at the state level.

“One of the most valuable things I learned was how to craft policy for the best outcome for the community and to compromise across the political spectrum. I also had to learn how to effectively interface with other officials' staff people. There are rules about all that, and it’s important to learn those protocols so that things can get done without stepping on anyone’s toes.”

After Sen. Ducheny was termed out of office, Pat returned to school to fulfill her dream of teaching. However, another call came that changed her mind.

Pat, a lifelong Democrat, was asked by Supervisor John Benoit, a Republican, to join his staff. Benoit was appointed to represent the 4th District after the death of Roy Wilson, a Republican with strong ties across party lines, and was then elected to a full term in 2010. Benoit assured Pat that his goal was to emulate the same nonpartisan approach to the job that Wilson had.

“I told Supervisor Benoit that there were some things on which I would draw the line, and he assured me that those few bottom-line issues would not present a problem. Although many of my political friends have been aghast that I would take a job working for a Republican, I have found Benoit good to his word.

“I’m proud that I’m doing a nonpartisan job to help formulate policies that are intended to benefit all constituents.”

Claudia Galvez, of La Quinta, was also in Sen. Ducheny’s office, and worked alongside Pat.

“I was born in Mexcali and lived my early life in Mexico, although my mom was born in Indio. Because I speak fluent Spanish, I was able to do effective outreach for Senator Ducheny directly into the community—with farmworkers, social service agencies, veterans, and on health and education issues.

“My mother was an inspiration when it came to being a strong woman. She had been left with nothing when my dad died when I was 5, and she had six children to raise. My mom always worked full-time. I thought women who stayed home must be lazy!

“Eventually we moved to Indio. I remember when there were 10 of us in a studio apartment—brothers, sisters, everyone struggling to find our place in the community. My dad had been a news reporter in Mexico—he was the political person in our house. My interest in becoming active began in school in Mexico, when we successfully demonstrated to get a principal reinstated who had been fired.”

Prior to her work with Sen. Ducheny, Claudia spent years organizing farmworker women. She was co-founder of Mujeres Mexicanas in the Coachella Valley. That social/political group later became Lideres Campesinas, a statewide organization created by farmworker women for farmworker women.

“We raised consciousness on issues like exposure to pesticides, pregnancy, sexual harassment and domestic violence. We advocated for basic human rights, like drinkable water, and portable bathrooms with running water and toilet paper. Before that, women had to walk miles from the fields to use a bathroom. It was wrong and unacceptable.

“Politics is the profession of getting things done by government for the benefit of the people, and these women wanted to elect people who would represent them and their issues. I wanted them to be empowered.”

Claudia is currently director of public affairs for Clinicas de Salud del Pueblo.

Both Pat and Claudia show disdain for politicians who, in their words, forget who put them there. It’s not just about the issues; it’s about making a difference for the people who will be affected.

Neither Pat nor Claudia has any apparent interest in running for political office themselves. But when it comes to understanding how to gather information and help frame policies that represent benefit to all constituents, they have the experience and street smarts to get things done.

Remember them the next time you decry public service employees. We need more like them.

Anita Rufus is also known as "The Lovable Liberal," and her radio show airs every Sunday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on KNews Radio 94.3 FM.

The Coachella Valley has always had a love affair with the performing arts, reflected in street names like Sinatra, Shore, and Hope.

Admit it: We’re star struck!

With the new Performing Arts Center at Rancho Mirage High School, and the emphasis by the Coachella Valley Economic Partnership on developing a thriving local arts community as an economic driver, the goal is to attract and keep talented people here.

We have neighbors whose names you might not know, but they’ve been blessed with outstanding training, experience and vision.

Daniela Ryan, 47, of Palm Desert, is one such example. Married, with two children, 9 and 11, she recently stepped back from her leadership position at Dezart Performs, the company she started seven years ago, to focus on raising her children.

“I actually put an ad on Craigslist three years after coming to the Coachella Valley when my husband got a job here, because I was frustrated trying to find something locally where I could act or direct,” she says.

“Dezart (One) Gallery, in Palm Springs, was the one response I got. They wanted to develop a theater in the Backstreet Arts District, so I agreed to try to write something I could perform. After three years of doing nothing but nursing and napping babies, the next year, I did my show and met (artistic director) Michael Shaw, and Dezart Performs was born.

“The response has been terrific, and I’m hoping to work with them again, and with other local theater companies, both acting and directing.”

Daniela began in the biz by attending children’s theater auditions at age 7, along with her sister and friends. “I just got thrown into it. I got the part of Peter (in a play version of “Peter, Peter, Pumpkin Eater”) because I was the only one with short hair! But even when I would forget my lines, the audience never let me go.

“Until I had kids, I had always either been in a show or studying (theater at the University of California at Berkeley). I wanted to hone my craft even if I couldn’t make a living at it. I waitressed, bartended, and the worst job I ever had was in a shoe store. I was 16 and worked part-time as the ‘box boy.’ Size 10 men’s shoes are heavy, and getting them on the top shelf was a challenge. After three weeks, I was fired, after being told I couldn’t do the job because I was a ‘girl.’”

Daniela has also taught acting, and one of her basic tenets is: “If you’re looking for the exit, you’ll find it; if you’re driven to act, you should just do it.”

If she could do anything she wanted, Daniela would direct. “You have to be intelligent, thoughtful and ambitious to be a good director. The director can change the course of a whole play. The actor is given the vehicle; it’s more myopic. The director can shape the entire product.”

While Daniela is proud to have helped make Dezart into a success, she is realistic: “The local media is just beginning to recognize local talent. This community deserves a thoughtful, serious theater company.”

When it comes to training in the performing arts, Sky Valley resident Wendy Girard, a life member of the famed Actor’s Studio inducted at age 18, has a powerhouse background as actor, director, producer, and teacher, lauded by stars like Al Pacino and Martin Landau.

“I didn’t plan to be an actor. I was a big fan of Elia Kazan, and that was what I wanted to do when I grew up—to direct. But in those days, women weren’t directors.

“I read in the D.C. paper that auditions were being held for T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral. I thought if I snuck into the back row and watched, I could learn what a director does.

“When the auditions were over, the director said I should come up and audition. I was cast on the spot, at 15. I figured acting would help me understand what a director does from the inside out. After that, I just kept getting cast.”

Wendy met her former husband, John Strasberg, when he was guest actor at the Arena Stage in D.C. “We moved in with each other same day.” At 18, she moved with him to New York, living with his father, Lee Strasberg. “We stayed in Johnny’s old room, where Marilyn Monroe had also stayed!

“I had never heard of Actors Studio or ‘The Method’ style of acting. I didn’t know that one of the ‘rules’ was that nobody talked to Lee unless he initiated the conversation. I just walked up to him one day and started talking about improv—he was apoplectic. But he became like a father to me.”

She studied with Strasberg for 13 years and the renowned Stella Adler for several more.

Wendy started producing at 19, an off-off-Broadway production, but “I had gotten caught up in acting to make a living, so it was a few years before I directed anything.”

Among other productions, Wendy worked on Spaceship Earth: Our Global Environment (which won two Emmys) and helped create an Academy Award-nominated project produced by Sting, Burning Down Tomorrow. She conducts professional acting/presentation classes in the Coachella Valley.

Wendy came to Sky Valley (north of Palm Desert and east of Desert Hot Springs) during her mother’s final illness and to recover from a serious accident, and now divides her time between the valley and L.A.

“I’m going back to acting, but I still prefer directing whenever I can. I have a stack of several film scripts I’d like to direct. One even takes place in the Coachella Valley.”

As for women now directing films, Wendy says, “When Kathryn Bigelow won the Academy Award in 2010 for ‘a guy film’ (The Hurt Locker), that really opened the door. It just takes persistence.”

Wendy quit high school, much to the consternation of her college-educated parents. “School was boring for me.”

Yet her advice to young people interested in performing arts as a career contradicts her own life experience: “Everyone should finish school and go to college. If you want to have a long career in this business, you need a broad education and should be able to talk on any subject under the sun for at least 20 minutes. I’m still working on biology.

“If you look at actors who are successful, they are very smart, have an insatiable curiosity, and they love learning.”

Wise words from a neighbor.

Anita Rufus is also known as "The Lovable Liberal," and her radio show airs every Sunday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on KNews Radio 94.3 FM.

There are some things we don’t readily share with friends and neighbors—like having paid one’s way through college by dancing around a pole. Or that romance with the golf pro. Or the nip/tuck during a “vacation” last summer.

Or that my grandmother once performed an abortion on herself using knitting needles.

With restrictions increasing on the rights granted by Roe v. Wade, women are being encouraged to talk about their experiences so that young women know what it was like—and what it could be like again.

It wasn’t until 1960 that “the pill” was approved by the Food and Drug Administration for contraceptive use. In 1965, Griswold v. Connecticut struck down a state law that prohibited the use of contraceptives, because the law violated the “right to marital privacy.” Prior to that, even married women could not get doctors to prescribe contraception.

And if you were single? Forget about it.

June Pariano of La Quinta remembers well what those times were like.

“It was around 1969 in Racine, Wisc., and I was 23 or 24 years old.

“At that time, insurance did not pay for the pill, but broke as we were, I found the money and chose a doctor whose office was close to our apartment. When I went in and asked about a birth-control prescription, he gave me a sermon about how women were put on this earth to bear children, and it was ‘against nature.’ He finally agreed to give me a 6-month prescription and said he would not renew it.

“Six months later, I went to another doctor who asked me, ‘Don't you want to have children?’ I was so angry that I was being questioned about such a personal decision.

“I joined NOW (the National Organization for Women). We organized, wrote letters, drove to the state capital and fought like hell to get the politicians and the churches out of our bedrooms. Now it seems the politicians want to expand government to bedrooms again!”

Although abortions have always been a last resort for women (witness my grandmother), who have used everything from bleach douches to wire coat-hangers, it wasn’t until 1973 that the Supreme Court said the “right to privacy” protected a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy prior to “viability.” Before that, other options for American women were to go to another country, if they could afford to, or to seek out illegal abortionists—therefore risking their very lives to terminate unwanted pregnancies.

I did just that, in 1967, and would not wish the experience on anyone. It was sleazy, unprofessional and frightening—but not as frightening to me as continuing the pregnancy. I had given up a child for adoption when I was 17, and did not want to go through the daily agony of wondering whether I had done the right thing yet again.

I’ve never regretted that abortion, and react strongly to those who blithely say, “You can always give the baby up.” They’ve obviously never gone through it.

Dori Smith is a retired public-relations professional living in Palm Desert.

“In 1984, I helped my best friend’s daughter get a legal abortion when she was 18, and I realized how hard it is for any woman to even make the decision. She was so grateful. She went on to college, has two children and a great marriage, and even works with children now. She wouldn’t have been able to if we hadn’t helped her.

“Back in 1965, I got pregnant at 15 in my first sexual relationship, the one time we didn’t use any protection. I was so afraid. When I told him, he was scared. We didn’t know what to do.

“Abortion was illegal, so I asked him to find someone to do an illegal abortion. We never could find anyone. I finally told my mom after four months, and my parents gave permission to get married. I thought I was in love. What do you know at 15?

“We shouldn’t have been parents at that point in our lives. I was such a young mother; it was difficult for me to give my son as much as I could later with my daughter. I was so young and immature.”

Would Dori have made a different decision if she had been able? “Of course, it’s difficult to separate a living human being from what I wish I could have had as a choice back then. Because I was married, I couldn’t attend my senior prom, and I didn’t finish college until I was 32.

“I’m mentoring a young woman right now who’s 15. I think about myself dealing with those huge issues at that age. If my mom had just talked to me about sex and birth control. That’s what bothers me about those against abortion—they’re also against sex education. It’s as if they want us to be punished for having sex.”

Priscilla Scheldt Richardson of Cathedral City was married with two sons, 9 and 12, when she got pregnant in 1981 at the age of 38.

“Babies were being born with severe conditions to women my age. I’m so grateful I had a doctor who believed in my freedom to decide whether to continue a compromised pregnancy.

“He said there was no point to an amniocentesis unless I knew I would terminate the pregnancy if the fetus was damaged. Otherwise, he wouldn’t risk my health or the fetus with the test itself.

“My then husband and I talked carefully and decided what was most important was to protect the quality of life for our existing sons.

“As it turned out, the fetus was normal—and we went ahead with the pregnancy. My children know this story; they understand that was our thinking at the time, and they respect that.

“Some might call our decision selfish, but having that choice is so important to protect. Without that choice, our lives might have been entirely different.”

Women who have gone through these decisions are married, divorced, widowed. They teach your children, play tennis with you at the club, volunteer at local charities, participate in your organizations. They’re your friends and neighbors.

Share your stories.

Anita Rufus is also known as "The Lovable Liberal," and her radio show airs every Sunday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on KNews Radio 94.3 FM.

What do you do with all the “stuff” that’s left after someone you love has died?

As someone currently mired in combing through my late husband’s disorganized-pack-rat accumulation three years after his death, I’m plagued by the question. So I decided to talk to some of the women I know who have been through it.

Esther Crayton, who will turn 79 on July 27 and lives in Palm Desert, is one of the many Coachella Valley widows who has faced that issue.

First married at 17 just before high school graduation, Esther had the first of two sons about a year later, and remained in that first marriage for “about seven or eight years—it’s hard now to remember the exact dates.”

Why the divorce? “He said we had to move to Mexico, and I decided I’d rather end the marriage.”

Subsequent to that divorce, her children’s father “took the kids to Mexico, kidnapped them.” Esther was finally reunited with her sons when her ex came across the border to work and was picked up on the warrant for his arrest following a traffic violation.

Esther had always wanted to be a nurse, so in her late 30s, after her sons had graduated, she enrolled at College of the Desert in what was then their 2-year R.N. program. She retired after more than 20 years as a delivery-room nurse at Desert Hospital in Palm Springs.

”I loved that sometimes I would be at the market, and someone would come up and say, ‘You were my nurse when I had my baby!’” she says.

Esther’s retirement came after she successfully helped bring a nurses’ union to the hospital. After several years of intense wrangling, the California Nurses Association representation was finally approved.

“We marched out in front of the hospital to get a union,” remembers Esther. “When I was working in an aerospace company way back when, having the union was one of the reasons we got good pay and benefits, and I wanted that for the nurses at Desert. The amount of money the hospital spent to fight the union would probably have more than paid for the increases we were asking for.”

Esther was also very involved in the women’s rights movement, and had a leadership role in the local chapter of the National Organization for Women for several years.

After the end of a second marriage, Esther was reunited with a man she had met many years earlier, while working at the aerospace company. “Sunny” was married at the time they met, and he decided to stay in his marriage until his children were grown. Later, he and Esther lived together, eventually becoming “registered domestic partners” until his death eight years ago.

Why the nickname “Sunny”?

“It was funny,” says Esther. “His first and middle name were the exact same as my second husband. One night, we were out, and the music playing was ‘You Are My Sunshine.’ I told him that from then on, he would be ‘Sunny,’ and he was.”

When Sunny died, “his kids came and took some things. The one thing I remember we fought over was a painting. Other than that, I didn’t keep much of his personal stuff. I was in a daze, so upset, and not really paying attention to what was happening. The big problem was selling the house—his kids wanted to cash out his share, and I couldn’t buy them out.” Esther had to move.

Today, Esther now says simply, “I miss him. He had always handled some things, and I wish I had taken more time to figure it all out.”

Another woman who had to deal with what to do with the “stuff” after a death is Marilyn Mitchell, also of Palm Desert. Marilyn was widowed after 38 years of marriage to Gordon “Whitey” Mitchell, a well-known writer and jazz musician. Marilyn has distinguished herself as a long-time leader and supporter of the Palm Springs Women’s Press Club.

“I got rid of the socks and underwear first,” said Marilyn. “I did keep a tuxedo that meant something in terms of memories, and some other clothing items that had meaning to us based on where we bought them, or where he had worn them.

“Whitey was very organized,” she says. “That made it much easier, so it didn’t take too long to go through and decide what to keep. After some time, I finally sold his beloved bass to Neil Diamond’s bass player. Whitey would have been so upset, because it wasn’t going to be playing jazz!”

I asked Marilyn if she had any words of wisdom to help me in what seems like an insurmountable task. “I asked myself: Who will really care about this years from now? I know someone who kept absolutely everything for over 25 years. For me, it was finally time to just let go and move on.”

Good advice from one of our neighbors. 

Anita Rufus is also known as "The Lovable Liberal," and her radio show airs every Sunday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on KNews Radio 94.3 FM.

Retirement here in the Coachella Valley is generally a time when you expect to kick back and just enjoy life.

But when my husband died about three years ago, I couldn’t retire. I needed to go back to work.

In spite of a J.D. law degree, several years of experience teaching seminar classes, and having set up and run a training department within a corporation, I did not meet the standards to teach in California. Whatever you may think about our education system, California’s teacher-qualification rules are strict and specific.

It was purely by chance that I saw a small notice announcing a meeting for a program that allows individuals to capitalize on their previous experience to qualify to stand in front of a classroom. It was being offered by the California State University at San Bernardino, at their Palm Desert campus.

It was at that meeting that I met Dennis Larney.

If you saw Dennis Larney on the street, he would seem like all of those other guys you see in the retirement areas of the valley: He’s of a certain age, maybe a former businessman, in pretty good shape. You might assume he plays golf or tennis, likes movies, maybe enjoys classical music or standards, is probably married, and is relatively comfortable. Yet Larney is not what you would expect at all—and he is representative of a whole group of locals who are not content to “just enjoy life,” but instead feel compelled to share what they have learned.

Larney had a successful career in finance, including 16 years at General Electric and a stint heading up commercial lending at Chase. He spent time in Eastern Europe training emerging capitalists, and in spite of degrees including an MBA, Larney found himself lacking the legal credentials teach. That spurred him to enroll in the teaching credential program sponsored by CSUSB.

Now 78, Larney, a Palm Desert resident, is coordinator of the Career and Technical Education program on the CSUSB-PD campus.

“We all know our own subjects, but we don’t know how to teach,” he says. “A program like this really helps you define yourself so you can give back to help a new generation.”

Thanks to Larney’s affable enthusiasm for the program, I was sold. And the kicker was that CSUSB waives tuition for students older than the age of 60!

I expected my fellow students to be mostly like Larney and me: of a certain age, retired, experienced in the “real world” and wanting to share their knowledge. However, I found real diversity in the program—from the classically trained actress to the community organizer to the retired judge to the psychologist to the former U.S. Navy admiral, with a mixture of ages, races and backgrounds.

Among my classmates:

• John, 54, La Quinta, began working at 13, Air Force Russian translator, management background, completing his bachelor’s degree in psychology, volunteers with a local nonprofit support services agency: “My passion is helping others. I’m thinking about the future and retirement, and hope to do something I can carry on with in later years, perhaps as either a teacher or counselor to those coming behind me.”

• Rupert, 66, Rancho Mirage, documentary film producer, previously with NBC: “I think teaching is one of the most constructive things that talented folks with a lot of experience have left to do.”

• Mel, 91, aerospace engineer, worked on the Saturn moon missions and space shuttle, former contractor to the armed forces, forensic engineer and expert witness: “I would like to finish my working life as a teacher in designing space-mission boosters and vehicles.”

• Marilyn, 62, Palm Desert, recently divorced, running her own business-consulting company, experienced in sales and marketing presentations around the country: “I’m not sure I’ll actually teach, but the credential gives me options as I move forward with a new focus on my life.”

• Arnie, 76, Indio, a U.S. Naval Academy graduate who studied culinary arts at College of the Desert and does comedy acting when he can get cast: “I needed to learn how to do a lesson plan and present my package of up-selling skills in a professional way.”

• Tom, 63, Rancho Mirage, a bachelor’s degree from Cal Poly, post-grad studies in real-estate development, an urban planner: “I realized how little I really knew and how much there was to learn to be a better teacher. Over the past several decades, I’ve come to realize the importance of the role of higher education in economic development. This credential has given me a foundation to build upon and a focus on future mentoring. My instructors and fellow students are both interesting and inspiring.”

I agree with Tom: The people with whom I’ve shared this program are interesting, inspiring, motivated and committed to doing more than just relaxing and “enjoying life.” (Not that there’s anything wrong with that!) They’ve gone on to teach reading and math in lower grades; teach business, marketing or law to adult students; private tutoring; volunteering; and consulting with local businesses and school districts. They remind me that we don’t always know our neighbors.

I figure if we’re still here, there’s still something we are supposed to do—if we can just figure out what it is. Regardless of one’s age, or perhaps because of it, Dennis Larney and CSUSB are offering the opportunity to help people figure things out.

What are you doing the rest of YOUR life?

For more information, visit pdc.csusb.edu/majorsprograms/careerTechnicalEducation.html. Anita Rufus is also known as "The Lovable Liberal," and her radio show airs every Sunday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on KNews Radio 94.3 FM.

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