On Being High on Cities

For a small-town girl, I am embarrassingly in love with cities. Their energy, their sometime sophistication, their proud histories, their devil-may-care attitude toward the constantly undulating (some fast, some pokey) throngs of their citizens as they go about doing whatever it is that city people incessantly do.Prague castle

I fell for Prague the first step I took onto the first of its cobblestone bridges spanning the centuries of its brave survival of constant conquest and cultural assaults. A guide in the Prague Museum taught me a lesson worth a college semester with one proud sentence, “We do not have an army.” Thus giving this U.S.-raised citizen new insight into what armies can really mean.

In Bruges my husband and I discovered out-of-the-way museums and savored chocolate (ink-dark for him; pale for me) with our coffee while watching the canal boats.Bruges canal But mostly we wandered the endlessly wandering streets. It was in Bruges that we perfected the phrase employed for so many years throughout so many other cities, from Chicago to Shanghai: “Let’s just walk.”

I love Porto Alegre not just for being the city of my birth – the last sultry thing I ever did, I often say, was being born in Brazil – but for its mix of gentle warmth and cowboy swagger. On the single visit I made to the place where my father had helped start the Instituto Porto Alegre my husband and I were treated like royalty by representatives of that august institution. We were feted with meat-heavy banquets, tours and an organ concert and sent off with a bouquet of flowers; what’s not to love about a city offering that to a stranger?

Paris. Well, Paris.

DunhuangMy experience of China was one two-week excursion with the Oakland Museum Art Guild, which clearly makes me an expert on all things Chinese including its cities. So. While I loved the bustle (and the leafy former French Concession) of Shanghai, and marveled at the frenetic pace of both Shanghai and Beijing, Dunhuang stole my heart. Maybe because it’s been around since – oh, 2,000 B.C., there was something casually settled about Dunhuang. Everyone seemed to move more slowly, wrapped in the desert air, smilingly unconcerned with invading tourists, of whom there were not so many as elsewhere. When I asked one colorfully-dressed woman, through several bungled words and a lot of stupid gestures, if I might take a picture of her adorable tiny daughter, she grinned, pulled me to her side and insisted in a flurry of rapid-fire instructions to a passerby that he take a picture of the three of us, the toddler nestled happily in my arms. How could I not love Dunhuang?

I was in St. Petersburg at the end of a river trip from Moscow that had been pure joy and a time of revelation. But I had OD’d on castles. Plus, I really wanted to see the Dostoevsky Museum, which was not on the agenda for my tour group.Dostoevsky Museum So I set out on my own, equipped with a map by which I planned to count bridges and a total ignorance of the Cyrillic alphabet. My secret weapon was the ability to approach perfect strangers, point to my map and say, “Dostoevsky Musee?” in my most beseeching Southern accent. Six or seven instructors in I wound up with a polite gentleman who suggested, in severe Slavic gestures, that it would be best if he lead me there. I would never otherwise have found the nondescript entry into the apartment where the great man himself lived his last months, a small but remarkable museum that leaves one feeling as if Fyodor just stepped out for a drink. I was mesmerized by St. Petersburg.

Though I will always leave, and find, my heart in San Francisco, it can get a little fickle about New York. A recent visit coincided with the Twin Towers memorial lights of 9/11, and visits to two of my favorite museums in the world: the Whitney & the Morgan Library, and a stroll of the High Line from end to end and back.

Twin Towers Lights 9.11.19A discussion about New Yorkers could’ve been a discussion of city people anywhere. My New Yorker friend argued that his compatriots are rude and insensitive. I said, “I can stand at the top, or the bottom, of any flight of stairs anywhere with my carry-on bag, and within 30 seconds someone will appear and ask, ‘Would you like help with that, ma’am?’ Never fails. People are people, just more densely so in cities.

Oceans and beaches and mountains and parks remain full of wonder for me; cities are full of wondrous humankind.

Life, Death and Rebirth 2019

Note paperThe envelope is lying right here on my left, now looking altogether spooky. It is even stamped and addressed; that’s how close I was to getting a note into the mail.

Then the phone rang. The note was to begin, “So, how are things going? How’s Gerry? How are you holding up?” The envelope is addressed to Gerry’s wife Kathy.

Several months ago our old, dear friend Gerry, age 75, was looking after the horses on their beautiful Southern California ranch when his heart failed. They got him to the hospital, but then came the bad news: his heart could not be revived or repaired. His only option would be a transplant. The good news? Because he was strong and otherwise healthy, he was a good candidate for a new heart. The further bad news? In order to be on the transplant list he would need to remain in the hospital, in intensive care, ready.Heart in circle

Kathy and Gerry are what I would call salt-of-the-earth Good People. They are deeply religious, clean-living and hard-working, and committed to living lives of service and gratitude. Within a few days of Gerry’s diagnosis they found themselves in the unenviable position of waiting for someone, somewhere, to die. Some generous someone who had signed agreements for his organs to be donated. (It would presumably be a ‘he,’ as Gerry is a fairly big guy, and would need a heart coming from someone roughly of equal size and weight.) After talking with Kathy early on in this saga I found myself also having queasy thoughts: How hard should I pray for some good person – do bad people sign organ donor forms? – to die in order for Gerry to live? It is an across-the-board existential dilemma.

The longer he remained in intensive care, the further Gerry’s condition deteriorated. This  presented a scary picture but pushed him higher on the recipient list. In other words, the worse he got, the more urgent his need, the higher his spot on the transplant list. Another existentially fraught situation.

They waited.

New life - typewriterOn August 15 (or perhaps the hours before August 15 dawned,) a 34-year-old man died in another state. A man who was on life support in a hospital because at some earlier point he had taken the generous step of signing organ donor forms. One of Gerry’s doctors flew to that hospital, examined the heart, confirmed it to be a very good match for Gerry, and boarded another jet plane back to Southern California. Gerry was already opened up, his original heart beating – with a lot of help from outside sources – outside his body.

He is already back home. Part of the somehow endearing characteristics of these two old friends of ours is that they do not have email or participate in any social media. So it’s taken Kathy time to get around to calling friends with this lovely update.

Somewhere in the southwest a grieving family is saying goodbye to a 34-year-old they had not expected to lose. “Gerry cries every time he thinks of him,” Kathy says. “There are just no words.”Birthday candles

Other than these: “August 15th is his new birthday.”

 

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.”

 

 

 

 

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)