On Saving the Planet from Us People

Arctic - Walrus bonesBones lay scattered almost as far as the eye could see. It was a deliberate, eloquent memorial to the walruses who once roamed this frozen shore – and were almost eradicated. In the late 19th century, hunters from several continents discovered the free-roaming hordes of these wonderful beasts, who were unfortunately highly prized, primarily for their tusks. One naturalist explained, on a recent expedition I was lucky to take into these Arctic wildernesses, that hunters would gun down a few dozen as they tried to reach the safety of the sea, creating a barrier for those behind them – who would then randomly be killed. Arctic - walruses

The good news is that people from the nations involved realized the damage being done and called a halt – while still enough walruses survived to begin re-establishing their families in the Arctic. And they are carefully protected. When we approached one herd we were instructed to keep a designated distance, to walk softly and talk in whispers.

Early Arctic miners didn’t fare a great deal better than the walruses. With the discovery of abundant coal in the area, the Norwegian mining company Kings Bay Kull Comp. founded the town of Ny-Alesund (New Alesund) in 1917 and opened several coal mines in the area.Arctic - miners It was tough and dangerous work – and initially not even all that lucrative. In a series of tragedies, while mining came and went over the next few decades, dozens of miners lost their lives.

Ny-Alesund is now a research center. It’s a company town (population 30 to 35) owned and operated by Kings Bay, which provides facilities for research institutes from ten countries. It has an airport, a beautifully developed museum and a gift shop where you can buy a postcard to send home from the post office – the world’s northernmost postal address.

In Ny-Alesund, as anywhere else we thousands of tourists visit every year, it is not possible to find the tiniest scrap of litter. This may be because we were threatened with everything short of death by hanging if we dropped a tissue (or disturbed a pebble.) Nevertheless, it works.Arctic - bird on water Those pristine lands remain as Nature intended, inhabited by walruses, reindeer and polar bears, overflown by puffins and countless other beautiful birds of the air.

Now, if we could find a way to keep the entire region from melting into the oceans . . .

The View from the Top of the World

Arctic - approach

The Arctic from above

Sailing around icy fjords in the Arctic Circle? In June, when it’s 24-hour daylight, not even a twilight, let alone darkness? Which means you don’t even get a glimpse of the Northern Lights. You are, however. guaranteed to freeze your nose and burn your face from the sun and snow unless you bundle into parkas and slather on ridiculous amounts of sunscreen. Who would do such a thing?

Well, it turns out, yours truly. My late, greatly beloved husband died on February 15th, his voice ringing in my head with recollected snippets – one of which was: If you didn’t have me to look after, you could go on this wonderful trip to XxxxXx. Not my favorite snippet, but there it was. So thanks to some bizarre urge that a highly trained grief counselor might be able to analyze, I found myself saying – on about February 25thwhy not?

Arctic - Fran on mtn

Fearless explorer

Conveniently there was a Commonwealth Club expedition to the Arctic Circle with a bunch of climate people, even including a casual acquaintance interested in a roommate. It was somewhat of a cruise (read: too much elegant food, drink and royal treatment onboard) but it promised firsthand views of what we humans are doing to this beautiful planet. Plus countless lectures about millennia past and (hopefully) future by impressively credentialed people. So off I went. San Francisco to Paris to Longyearbyen, Norway to the Arctic fjords, the last leg aboard the small but lovely Ponant ship l’Austral. This is the first of what may be several reflections from the northernmost tip of the globe.

It is incredibly beautiful, this planet.

Arctic - wildflowers

Wildflowers on the tundra

At its northernmost tip there is a breathtaking expanse of blue, gray and white: snow, ice, sea ice (salt water turns to ice at about 28 degrees,) azure blue skies streaked with gossamer-gray clouds melting into the sea – which itself changes from shades of sapphire to emerald-blue in an instant with the shifting skies. The fjords are defined by mountains fronted by stretches of tundra and permafrost – the differences between which (tundra has vegetation, permafrost is permanently frozen) were carefully explained to me.

Accompanying our group, in addition to the impressive lecturers, were about a dozen naturalists who appeared (to this octogenarian) to have a median age of about 15. But they had PhDs and post-doctorates in things like polar ecology,  bioscience and glaciology. One of them left me with an unforgettable phrase and indelible image that sums up the Arctic experience for me. I wish I could videoconference the moment with every climate change denier, every fossil fuel enthusiast, every deregulation proponent and every grandparent who believes – as I continue to do – that our grandchildren will save the planet.

Arctic - walruses-ship

Walruses, & sea where once was ice

We had come to shore to study the wildlife (a clump of resting walruses) and wildflowers (there are over 400 varieties of tiny flora in the tundra) via inflatable rubber boats called zodiacs. Zodiacs  could navigate the distance – in this case it was about a quarter of a mile – from ship to shore.

“You see where our ship is?” said my naturalist friend, pointing toward the sea. I nodded. “This time last year, that was ice.”

 

 

T

 

Staying Secure in the Digital Age

Security - dr licenseThis space is proud to announce my having passed the California driver’s license test. Which means – if my eyes and my car hold out – I’m good for another five years, with a valid ID in my wallet. Or so I thought. Turns out I neglected to apply for a Federal Compliant Real ID driver’s license rather than a regular old driver’s license. Who knew? As of October 2020, unless I go back to the DMV and successfully complete whatever I inadvertently omitted, this lovely new license will not get me through the airport. If I knew not, I know now: Instead of the golden bear signifying this is a Real ID Driver License in the upper right corner, my brand new license bears the small print: Federal Limits Apply. No getting into the Federal Building for me. Sigh.

At the moment I am headed out of the country and into an exploration of the Arctic Circle (more on that later, when we find out how many glaciers haven’t yet melted, and after I return to internet access territory.) My new license, combined with my old but still valid passport, almost got me into the security check at SFO. Security - TSA preWould have, actually, except the TSA lady said my boarding pass didn’t have the green check for my TSA Pre-check. As I was not about to join the mile-long non-TSA Pre-check line, I returned to the Air France people and eventually procured a new boarding pass with the magic green check. Happily I had my Trusted Traveler number with me.

A few years ago I drove (legally) out to the TSA place and spent the best $85 I’ve spent in a long time getting finger-printed, answering a bunch of questions and – after I got back home – waiting a few months before I learned that the Transportation Security Administration, an agency of the United States Department of Homeland Security thankyouverymuch had satisfied itself that I was not much of a threat to public safety. Ever since, I have happily skipped the endless lines waiting to get through airport security in favor of the quite manageable (usually, unless it’s Hartsfield-Atlanta) TSA Pre-check lines.Security - Gl EntryTSA Pre-check will get you out of the country, but good luck getting back in. One emerges from a wearying international flight to be greeted by the endless lines waiting to go through Customs.

But I now have Global Entry!! Like TSA Pre-check, Global Entry is a program of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, all of this overseen by the Homeland Security people. If our homeland is not secure, I don’t know why. (Well, yes I do, actually, but Mr. Putin told Mr. Trump that everything is fine, so we shouldn’t worry about Russia.)

On my return I guess I’ll trudge back to the DMV and apply for a Real ID to go with my TSA Pre-Check, Trusted Traveler number and Global Entry card and – well, I do have a Social Security number, and a U.S. passport and a Brazilian passport (possibly expired now but still . . .) and 4 pages of saved passwords somewhere, if I can remember where I filed them. All of these, with luck, will be all the global security protection I need in this modern day and age.Security - Univ Enroll It is tricky to keep track of it all. One has to hope that our planetary borders are secure.

And meanwhile, God bless us every one.

Planet earth

Eye-Witnessing Downtown San Francisco

Downtown 6.19 copsI had 45 minutes before meeting a friend at the Symphony. Bored in downtown San Francisco on a brilliantly sunlit late afternoon, at the Main Library right across from City Hall. Couldn’t go for coffee, because a friend and I were catching a quick dinner in between pre-concert talk and concert. Couldn’t hang out in the library (Duh!!) because I was still drinking my mint tea. Wondering how to entertain myself, I ventured outside, surveyed the scene and found:

A gaggle of police and security types surrounding a homeless lady, patiently explaining to her that she could not be hanging out on the Library steps with a rifle. “It ain’t loaded,” she was saying; “I ain’t pointing at nobody.”Downtown 6.19 Rifle Some friends were vouching for her. Nevertheless, the rifle was confiscated and the lady admonished not to walk around downtown with an assault weapon.

Downtown 6.19 SkateboardersAround the corner, two extremely agile skateboarders were having a contest, enthusiastically applauded by a small audience.

Back on the Library plaza, the now rifle-less lady sat talking things over, with only a few bags of belongings but still some supportive friends. Several of them seemed clearly in need of mental health services.Downtown 6.19 homeless group (In my city’s defense, San Francisco continues to make heroic attempts to address homelessness and mental health issues but the need overwhelms the problem. Thanks a lot, Ronald Reagan.)Downtown 6.19 Seagull

Also on the scene was the traditional errant seagull, surveying other settling-in homeless people, passing tourists and 6:30 traffic.

Eventually I strolled past the Library/City Hall area, a few blocks west to Symphony Hall. As my friend and I were waiting for the house lights to go down and the concert to begin, someone came down the aisle to reach his seat.Downtown 6.19 Symphony guy His evening attire included strips of multi-colored blinking lights. The ladies on either side politely made way for him. Before the conductor came onstage he unplugged himself and all was calm.

Just another twilight in downtown San Francisco. But as darkness fell, calm prevailed — and the symphony was glorious.

 

A Table, and a Day in the Life of Sadness

Table

Table photo 2019

They took the table in the morning. Two hefty moving men who were working in a nearby apartment and agreed to find it a new home. I had had it on Craigslist (for best offer) but got nothing but scammers, so the appearance of these gracious gentle giants was a blessing. The new furniture was scheduled for delivery at 12:30. Carefully they lifted the table around the living room corner and out the door – and only then did I realize I was not ready to say goodbye. Most of life had been lived around that table for the past 26 years. I wanted to run after the moving men and say, “No! Wait!! I changed my mind!!

Who knew grief could come with such a wallop?

And why was I so unprepared? Had I not had the table on Craigslist for a week, and had I not talked with a half-dozen nonprofits who might be able to pick it up next month?

Blue tablecloth

Houseguests 1990s

The table needs to go today, though, because the new furniture is arriving. New furniture chosen in the early weeks of this thing called widowhood. When images of a quarter-century of happiness around a clunky old oak table were an unformed abstract.

As I remarked to countless friends in recent weeks, the only big, clunky thing I ever really loved was Bud. I did not love our big, clunky old furniture. So it had seemed perfectly reasonable to send the aged sofa, chair, giant oblong desk/table etc off to new homes via the San Francisco Recology people and go select some lovely new pieces at Pottery Barn. (“You want to spend a lot of money fast?” I also remarked more than once; “get my daughter Sandy to go with you to Pottery Barn.”)

Bud, Milt, Carol 1993

Old best friends at table (c 1993)

Before the new furniture arrived I had a long-scheduled interview for a newspaper story I was writing. As soon as it was in place there was a San Francisco Contemporary Music Players concert – with the weekend’s concerts dedicated to my good husband. There was very little time to mourn the table. Life goes on, and it is a wonderful life.

Still. At that table for happy decades every morning started with coffee and the New York Times and the San Francisco Chronicle (print editions.)

Pam, Georgia, Caiti 1993

Granddaughter Georgia & friends (c 1993)

Around that table friends gathered for drinks, meals, conversation. Bud posed Tonto, his 1930s childhood doll, for a portrait. Martinis were served. Grandchildren now grown sat in highchairs while the grown-ups had a cold beer. Hands were held as prayers (multi-faith grace at meals for the most part) were said. Goodnights were declared.

Somewhere, for sure, the sturdy oak table is finding a new, happy home for its next half-century or so. May it rest in peace.

bud and tonto1

Purchaser (used, c 1965) of table posing his childhood doll Tonto (c 1930s) on table (c 1995)

 

Exactly. Because God Says So.

God - lightThere seem to be a growing number of mortals on the planet who are convinced they have a direct line to the Almighty. On the face of it this looks like a pretty good thing – until you get to the point at which God is telling you something different from what She’s telling me. And that’s when I think it goes from good to scary.

I had an interesting conversation with a handsome Lyft driver named Zaid the other day. It included a crash course on the Quran. Zaid can (and did) quote extensively and verbatim from the Quran – so my Biblical/theological expertise was quickly outclassed and I figured I would do well just to listen. I am sincerely eager to understand all faiths better, so listening was easy. About five or ten minutes in, the conversation went thus:

Zaid: “So, do you even know what language Jesus spoke?”

Me: “Ummm, Aramaic?”

Zaid: “And how many years later was the Bible even written down?”

Me: “Well, the Old Testament, maybe five or six centuries B.C.; the New Testament I think about 50 or 60 A.D.?”God - sign

Zaid: “Exactly. On the other hand, the Angel Gabriel spoke directly to the prophet Mohammed, peace be upon him, who transcribed the words of Allah directly into the Quran (which I read from beginning to end at least once every year.”)

About this time I was grateful to be near my destination. Because we had reached the point at which I was to understand that Zaid’s God is right and mine is wrong. Now, although the God of my puny understanding has not responded sufficiently to a lot of questions about the injustices and inequities of our little planet, I’m cool with Her general compassion for me. And so far I haven’t found anything Jesus said about loving one’s neighbor, caring for those less fortunate, etc to be off the mark. (Actually, I think God may have said, in a sort of aside from time to time, “Who’s responsible for injustice and inequity? Me?? Or perhaps, you people down there?”)

I admire those who take their faith seriously enough to study on a continuing, regular basis. What I don’t admire is their conviction that they’re right and I’m wrong, and whatever they’re doing is right because God says so. It doesn’t take much history to see what trouble this has gotten us into. Or awareness of current events to see what trouble it’s causing all over the planet today.God - sunrise

God knows I have enough trouble with my fellow Christians. Particularly those of them in power who are telling me (for example) that God says a fetus has rights greater than those of the woman in whose body it resides. Or that I may not choose to lop off a week or two of intractable pain when I’m ready to die because God says I should suffer a bit longer. God seems continually in favor of laws that they like and I don’t. Not to get political or anything like that, but these folks are in cahoots with a guy who has broken most of the Commandments more times than can be counted, and if he’s done anything lately that Jesus might approve of I haven’t noticed.

In decades of working with the San Francisco Interfaith Council and other such groups I have met countless Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, and followers of faiths I’m still learning to pronounce, all of whom simply seek peace. At community breakfasts etc everyone prays in his or her own tradition and listens, as well as possible, with an open heart. We actually stay pretty far away from suggesting that anyone’s god (or faith journey of whatever sort) is better than that of anyone else. But it’s a little disheartening to read every day about the meanness and murder going on around the globe in the name of the poor, abused Almighty.dove of peace

I could easily be a Brahma Kumari. The Brahma Kumaris believe all religions are valid. Just about all they preach is peace. And not incidentally, their leaders are all women (who make decisions in cooperation with the guys, but still.) As far as I know, no Brahma Kumari has ever started a war.

Which is more than can be said for the rest of us righteous folks.

 

 

A Reflection – or Two – on Widowhood

solitary_by_chibbitsuki

Solitary by Chibbitsuki

For the record: widowhood is the pits.

I can say this with some authority, having inhabited this strange new realm for roughly two months now. And though I concede probably 90% of the widows of the world – more, if you count Syria, Afghanistan, Mozambique, etc – are way worse off than I, still I can feel pretty pitiful about it with very little effort at all. Because:

No matter how independent you might have been for how long – and in six wearying years as a caregiver I have surely gotten used to flying solo – there is a weird stigma thing one now feels, as if an indelible W had been surreptitiously stamped onto one’s forehead. Accented by a gray veil that is technically invisible, but all-enveloping. The status is distinctly different from being single, or divorced, on both of which I can also speak with authority. Singlehood and divorce imply a chosen freedom, an aura of devil-may-care, if you will. Unless one all but takes out an ad proclaiming I don’t want this! I need a partner! (been there done that too, I’m afraid) the solo by choice can have a pretty good time doing exactly as he or she pleases.

Widowhood, on the other hand, is the Great Unchosen. (Well, unless you do in an unloved spouse with an axe or something, and choose to spend your widowhood in the penitentiary.)

It is like being suddenly halved. The other side of the bed is too vast and cold; the placemat on the left too perpetually vacant. The ability to spread out the New York Times without knocking over the adjacent morning coffee does not compensate for the darkness spoken by that empty space. Half of you reads the paper and sips coffee; the other half of you waits in vain for commentary on today’s breaking news or for the request for another piece of toast. The toaster isn’t even half functional any more; it only grudgingly accepts the new reality. Doors

Widowhood is forever opening doors onto sadness. Occasional doors open to rooms full of people who feel sorry for you. They’re only being kind, but still. Many doors open into areas of couplehood where you no longer belong. And who can predict how many zillion times you open the door on coming home, calling out greeting and overflowing with tales that can no longer be told — because who can tell tales into a void?

The world shifts and resettles. Life goes on. Widowhood – even for the young, who lose husbands to stupid wars or senseless tragedies – is likely forever, since we females have an unnerving habit of outliving the males of the species. One adjusts, explores new avenues of finding joy.

But it’s still the pits.