Should the pope open a WordPress blog?

Photo by Ashwin Vaswani on Unsplash

I seldom agree with the good Pope Francis, although we do share a name. (It’s spelled with an ‘i’ for the Franks of the world; Frances is for the Frans & Frannies. This is an educational essay.)

Our disagreements include:

The pontiff would have just about every pregnant woman in the world carry that fetus to term, without a nod toward what else is going on with that woman, her life, her health or her concern for a fetus that’s not viable — all things that seem worth considering before we just ban abortion, period. He and I do read the same Bible, which, by the way, does not mention abortion.

The other cause with which I am deeply involved, the right to control one’s final days when one is near death, is opposed at every turn by Pope Francis and his otherwise perfectly respectable church. Happy side note: In California we have the End of Life Option Act, which was signed into law in 2015 by deeply religious Catholic Gov. Jerry Brown. Gov. Brown opined that he didn’t know if he’d want to make such a choice — using legal Medical Aid in Dying — himself, but didn’t think he had the right to deny others such a choice. And bless his Jesuit heart.

So I follow the goings-on of the aging pontiff with a degree of fellow-Christian skepticism. But here he is, in a recent New York Times, urging compassion for the aged. I would definitely be in agreement with the Vatican on this one; surely we can all get on board for compassion.

As the story evolved, though, the pontiff kept throwing in phrases like “spending time with the old forces people to slow down, turn off their phones and follow a deeper clock;” or “there is a gift in being elderly, understood as abandoning oneself to the care of others.” Full disclosure: I am older than the pope. This is admittedly VERY old, but such is life. Seeing photos of Francis in a wheelchair when I’ve just finished a three-mile walk around the hills of San Francisco evokes a degree of compassion from yours truly.

I just resist giving The Old a blanket bad rap of total decrepitude. Some of us (not me) are still running corporations or making scientific discoveries. Some of us (not me) are still running marathons. Some of us are agitating for reproductive justice, end-of-life choice and world peace — all of which are compassionate endeavors.

Maybe the pope should start a WordPress blog?

Wait! We’re so smart? How about those urbane Greeks & Romans?

The author contemplating a Grecian mountaintop (Prophet Elias Monastery, founded 1711, Santorini)

The sky is falling! Breaking news! Our fragile democracy in peril!!

Life still feels shaky. Even without those constant, frenetic tweets threatening to alter the course of world events in moments, truth competes with fake news. Long-established rights and laws are questioned – or disappear before our eyes. American democracy, firm in its 1787 roots & long cherished, now teeters.

Theater of Dionysus, 6th century BC, restored a few times since then. (Author photo)

Maybe what goes around comes around.

Maybe there’s nothing — or at least not that much — new under the sun.

I recently had the great good fortune to spend some time with family and an archaeologist friend in ancient Italy and Greece: Cefalu, Pompeii, Herculaneum, Athens — proud metropolitan centers of a few centuries back, where the elite and the downtrodden went about their daily lives without any futuristic dream of upstart cities like New York or San Francisco. Confronted with visions of that future they might have been awed, but I suspect they might also have sniffed. Oh, really? You think you’re so clever?

Euripides was wowing audiences in the theater above in 400 BC, and nobody had even heard of Shakespeare or Arthur Miller.

Backyards of Pompeii (Author photo)

Meanwhile, across the Mediterranean the good people of Pompeii were enjoying themselves at their own amphitheaters, or entertaining at their own dinners, albeit languidly reclining rather than sitting upright in uncomfortable chairs, which, when you think about it, might not be such a bad idea. Those dining rooms often featured gorgeous artworks, and outside the open windows were beautiful vistas. The ladies of the time were adorned with gold and silver and precious gemstones.

Wine flowed. Not from the storied cellars of Napa and Sonoma where someone’s daughter had just completed a destination wedding, but from the nearby vineyards of people who likely knew their grapes and their land very well thank you.

(Author photo)

Maybe, on less formal evenings, they went out for pizza. Our newfangled microwaves are unquestionably handy, but back in downtown Herculaneum they were baking good things in serious ovens seven days a week. In all probability the bakers and assorted other workers did not enjoy the high life of the rich and famous, but what else is new? They caroused on city squares and sang songs by firesides, and while those outdoor venues may not all have been as grand as Athens’ Acropolis there were amphitheaters aplenty. Improv and/or a little lute music kept everybody happy. Performers performed without microphones or electronics, and presumably they could be heard in the cheap seats of the top rows. Given the fact that contemporary movie theaters set their sound levels at ear-splitting decibel levels, and viruses proliferate in crowds, those outdoor venues seem not without merit.

Commerce? Plenty of that too. In the ancient cities they bargained in the marketplaces, without benefit of the Dow. Many centuries after the glory days of Athens and Pompeii the merchants of Santorini watched from their mountaintops (top photo) as sailing ships came and went, just as forecasters and harbormasters in centuries past had watched, waited and done business. Ships were loaded and unloaded just as they are in New York, Houston and Oakland. On-time deliveries were made.

Mt Etna doing its gentle Mt Etna thing, as seen from downtown Catania, May 2022 (Author photo)

We know all this, of course, partly from preserved writings, and partly because many of those earlier urbanites were settled beneath the shadow of Mt Etna (above,) or its more ferocious volcanic neighbor Mt Vesuvius.

Vesuvius stopped the good folks of Pompeii in their tracks some 22 centuries ago, preserving details of daily life under layers of volcanic ash. Nearby Herculaneum succumbed to a flood of lava. Neither seems a good way to die, but we can be grateful for their gifts to posterity.

This reporter is decidedly too far removed from her high school Latin and college Greek to submit any of the above as the whole truth. But I was blessed with the 21st century company of an archaeologist who teaches Italian middle schoolers — about my level — and a grandson who speaks the languages. The takeaway? #IStillLoveSanFrancisco, but our forebears across the seas would likely have thought #PompeiiTheGreatest. And the night before flying home I was awestruck once again by the beauty of Metropolitan Athens — presided over by the brightly shining Acropolis on its eternal hill.

(Author photo)

An Arrow into San Francisco’s Heart

“Cupid’s Span” by Claes Oldenberg (Author photo July 2022)

While the art world mourned the recent death of Claes Oldenberg (1/28/1929–7/18/2022) San Franciscans went right on appreciating his local work the best way we know how: resting on the green grass of its base, dog-walking all around it, sitting meditatively near its bow while gazing across the blue waters into brilliant blue skies . . . Or maybe driving home across the Bay Bridge and smiling at a familiar marker in front of the skyline. Just one more joyful, unique piece of a unique city.

I want to believe Oldenberg would be pleased. While I never met him (though I did happen to see him at the Guggenheim in Manhattan one day and edged around nearby as if we were really best friends) I think anyone who could create great art from a minds-eye view of hamburgers, typewriter erasers, men’s ties and birdhouses — just to name a few — had to have had both genius talent and a whimsical view of the world. For years he collaborated with his second wife, Coosje van Bruggen (who died in 2009) on works such as Cupid’s Span. Ours is one of a number of massive public sculptures in cities across the U.S. and the globe — “Free Stamp” in Cleveland, “Dropped Cone” (as in ice cream cone) in Cologne. Cupid’s Span remains this writer’s favorite.

Author photo taken at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 2019

Cupid’s Span, which commands a territory on the Embarcadero at the foot of Rincon Hill, was a gift to the city from Gap founders, art collectors and Oldenberg admirers Don and Doris Fisher. They commissioned the 70-foot sculpture in 2002 when historic Rincon Hill was beginning one of those often-in-San-Francisco rebirths. As anyone old enough to remember those times will attest, some people loved it, some hated it, but almost nobody had no opinion. On a Commonwealth Club city walk a few years after Cupid’s Span settled in this writer heard a tourist comment, “I know exactly how he feels.” Which was an enigmatic statement too good to explore.

Author photo, July 2022

According to Cupid’s Span’s own Wikipedia page, “the piece resembles Cupid’s bow and arrow, drawn, with the arrow and bow partially implanted in the ground; the artists stated that the piece was inspired by San Francisco’s reputation as the home port of Eros, hence the stereotypical bow and arrow of Cupid.” Rest in peace, Mr. Oldenberg, and thanks again from the City of Love.

Dying in Pain – or Comfort?

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

This essay appears on the blog page of End of Life Choices CA, a nonprofit which I am proud to serve as a volunteer and board member. Perhaps you’ll visit the site, or at least find a little food for thought here.

When is being comfortable and pain-free not a good idea? Most of us would say never. As we humans approach life’s end, though, that question can get trickier. Or at least more complex.

 A recent court case stirred renewed discussion of end-of-life care, specifically comfort care and pain control.

Dr. William Husel, a physician with Columbus, Ohio-based Mount Carmel Health System, was accused of killing 14 patients between 2014 and 2018 by administering excessive doses of fentanyl, a powerful opioid which has become a common, and very dangerous, street drug. Prosecutors argued that he had committed murder; the defense argued that he was providing comfort and the patients – all were in intensive care units – died of their underlying disease. Dr. Husel was found not guilty on all counts in April, 2022. 

The controversy spread throughout the Mount Carmel Health System, eventually leading to the resignation of the chief executive and the firing of more than 20 employees. Dr. Husel, though acquitted of all charges, later voluntarily surrendered his medical license. But renewed discussion of end-of-life care can only be seen as a plus. All of us will face life’s end; not all of us will have given thought to what we want that end to look like. Or what choices, including pain management, we might make.

Photo by Stefan Kunze on Unsplash

“It sometimes happens that families and even caregivers are not familiar with comfort care,” says End Of Life Choices CA Board Vice President Robert V. Brody MD. This can include end-of-life care, “where the direction switches from curing disease to keeping the patient comfortable (and) can be misinterpreted as hastening death when in fact the medical literature says that keeping people at peace actually prolongs their life.” A primary care, hospice and palliative care, and pain management physician, Dr. Brody is Clinical Professor of Medicine and Family & Community Medicine at the University of CA San Francisco. He is also a leading spokesman on matters of medical ethics in the U.S. and abroad. “Dying people often need high doses of opioids to manage pain,” he observes. “This is done in an entirely beneficent way, and in no way is it meant to cause harm. Those not directly involved may misinterpret these efforts.”

As the currently popular meme goes, “It’s complicated.” This was shown in the Husel/Mount Carmel case, and countless other instances since the meme appeared years ago. While opioids are highly addictive, and one of the leading causes of death among Americans under 55, they are widely used in treating dying patients. Most of us would welcome them, if appropriate, as we are dying.

Comfort is a happy state at any age.

Little Boxes of the Past

Photo by Joanna Kosinska on Unsplash

In one of her many memorable essays writer Ann Patchett has a throwaway line, something about “little boxes of the past.” And since any throwaway line of Ann Patchett’s is better than most profoundly thought lines of my own, I have brazenly stolen it for this small essay.

It’s what we do, collect little boxes of the past. Beginning with tin cans (well, those are close enough to little boxes) of treasures buried under an oak tree, continuing throughout diary phases and memo books and leading eventually to metal cabinets and computer files.

Anyone who’s ever downsized knows about those Big Boxes of the past: the books and tools and chinaware handed down from generation to generation, the letters tied up with ribbons, the dolls and games and record collections. Some are easier to pack up and toss away than others; but eventually they’ll all move on.

The StoryWorth Book

Stories, though, are the little boxes of the past we keep. They are the ones that can be pure joy to pack up and store — or send into the future, as either fact or fiction.Fact would be the family story. Nifty ways to pack up little boxes of the past can be found in the popular do-it-yourself online storytelling sites. Despite having been a writer and storyteller all my life, the idea of creating an autobiography or a family history was about as appealing to me as re-taking the SATs. But a few years ago my daughter gave me (with my permission) a membership in “StoryWorth” for Christmas. (StoryWorth is thus the one I know; there are at least a dozen others.) The way it works is: they send a question every week — “What was your father like when you were a child?” “Who were your high school friends?” and such — you send back a response, plus photos if you want, and at the end of a year they make it into a book. After I figured out I could ask my own questions I circulated an email. “This is as close as you’re ever going to come to a family history,” I wrote. “So if there’s anything you want to know, ask it now.” They didn’t send me anything easy. “What was the biggest challenge you faced growing up,” my daughter-in-law wrote; “and how did you face it?” Whew. But I plugged along, sent my answers more or less weekly, along with bunches of old photos, and at the end of a year my family had a nicely done book titled “Fifty Stories.” Not great literature, but little boxes of the past.

Blogs and posts are more little boxes. Collectible? Maybe. Some might best be sealed up and stuck on a back shelf forever; some might be just as valuable as the more formal family story. And sometimes a moldy file can emerge from the mythical back shelf. My recently self-published collection of short stories is such an emergence, the latest adventure from this desk. If anyone wants advice or commentary on self-publishing I’m available. It turns out to be mostly great fun – and stay tuned for the audiobook now in progress. These stories had mostly languished in outdated Word files since a detour into short fiction for an MFA more than two decades back; suddenly – well, it took a year or so, but still seems sudden – here they are, all wrapped up. Not great literature, but a new little book I’m proud of.

Here’s to little boxes of the past, and stories everywhere.

A Tiny Park With a Big Story

Author photo

You can easily walk by it and never notice. But if you look up into the six eucalyptus trees planted more than a century ago by namesake Mary Ellen Pleasant, you might want to look down at the plaque that marks San Francisco’s smallest park. Worth a walk-by if you’re ever in the city.

Mary Ellen Pleasant Park (at 1501–1699 Octavia Street) comprises, in total, six giant eucalyptus trees and a concrete plaque adjacent to the sidewalk — all of which measures less than an acre. Nevertheless, the small green space still offers the best of park qualities: quiet shade, vistas (if you look up,) and a unique piece of San Francisco history. The park is a small stretch along Octavia Street between Bush and Sutter.

Its namesake, though, has an outsized story.

Author photo

Ms. Pleasant’s mansion no longer graces the property, but her spirit remains. It’s a spirit of freedom and entrepreneurship, enduring questions — her story is a mixture of legend and fact — and the remarkable effect of one woman on her time.

Born in Georgia in 1814 — most likely into slavery — Mary Ellen Pleasant had her way to Boston and/or Rhode Island before her adulthood. Over several decades there she married an abolitionist and several subsequent others.

She worked tirelessly with the underground railroad. And by the time the hazards of that activity prompted her to come to San Francisco, sometime around 1850, Pleasant was an accomplished cook and housekeeper, and those were for many years either official or unofficial employments. But her first husband had left her a substantial sum of money and she was, meanwhile, investing shrewdly and increasing her wealth through businesses — laundries, restaurants, brothels, boarding houses — and reinvestments.

Pleasant established black schools, fought for rights for blacks as well as Chinese, brought the underground railroad westward, became a behind-the-scenes political powerhouse and a friend of John Brown, established the 1,000-acre Beltrane Ranch in Sonoma County, co-founded (possibly) the Bank of California and earned the title of California’s first Self-Made Black Woman Millionaire. She left the mansion (replaced later by what is now the Healing Arts Building) for a six-room apartment on Webster Street which would be her home until she died in 1904.

A large legacy for a tiny piece of San Francisco.

The Angry Woman’s Dilemma for Today

Photo by Mark Timberlake on Unsplash

I am known as a mild-mannered, peace-loving person. Maybe twice a year I lose my temper.

But I’m having trouble with anger management today. I don’t want to ride New York subways with a lot of nutty people packing guns. I don’t want to return to the dark days of the kitchen table abortion I had in 1956. I’m worried about climate change obliterating the planet.

In short, every time I hear those words Supreme Court my blood pressure rises.

I may reread Rebecca Traister’s Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger. Traister says that angry women aren’t necessarily crazy. She maintains that women’s fury at injustice has been a powerful force in U.S. politics and culture. That we madwomen have brought about progress and change.

So I’m working on the management angle. Stay tuned.

Life Without Nukes? Lovely Idea

Photo by JEFF VRBA on Unsplash

A safe and secure future? Imagine.

At “Chain Reaction,” the recent annual fundraiser/celebration of Ploughshares Fund, supporters were doing just that. Ploughshares President Dr. Emma Belcher and Board Chair Terry Gamble Boyer were on hand, along with a variety of global experts ranging from Massachusetts Sen Ed Markey to former Ambassador Fiona Hill, all talking about lowering the threat level.

With hostility among nuclear-armed states currently close to the boiling point, assurance of a safe and secure future for everyone may seem a far-off goal. The five major “Nuclear Weapon” countries – U.S., Russia, U.K., France and China – have enough such weapons among them to blow the planet to smithereens at least a dozen times, with plenty remaining. Plenty of bombs, that is, not planets.

But Ploughshares is working diligently to keep that from happening. If Ploughshares reaches its goal – assurance of a safe and secure future for us all – the nuclear threat will disappear. That might be an impossibility, but you’ve got to love Ploughshares for trying. HARD.

Yours truly with Emma Belcher (l) & Terry Gamble Boyer

More than 40 years ago, sculptor, human rights activist, mother & wife  Sally Lilienthal  gathered a few friends in her San Francisco living room to talk about what could be done to stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons here and abroad. This was the year (1981) when Ronald Reagan unveiled a “strategic modernization program” which called for – among other things nuclear – thousands of new warheads, an increase in bomber forces including development of stealth bombers, a new land-based strategic missile (the MX), and new intermediate-range missile deployments in Europe. In addition, he proposed deploying more than 3,000 air-launched cruise missiles on bombers.

Thanks in large part to Ploughshares partners, along with other calmer heads, stockpiles of nuclear weapons have been declining fairly steadily since those hyper-fearful days. According to Wikipedia, the U.S. stockpile, for instance, has gone from 23,368 in 1980 to a projected 3,620 this year, and Russia – the most highly armed – from 30,062 in 1980 to a projected 5,350 this year. When you consider we started all this with two bombs in 1945, and by 1950 it was U.S,= 299; Russia=5, it’s easy – and more than a little scary – to see that statistic zoom up to the 60,000+ peak of weapons held by multiple countries in 1985.

Any of us could still blow all of us to bits in short order. Maybe diplomacy makes more sense. Ploughshares supporters hope so.

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