Optimism in Five Easy Steps

Image from The News International

We’re still here. The Optimists of the World Society may hold its annual meetings in ever-smaller closets, but it is a relentlessly ongoing – optimistic, you could say – society. Here are a few steps with which you can guarantee continued inclusion.

Faith. For example, I live in a 12-story building with two elevators, both of which currently operate on faith. Oh, they are reportedly safe – a nice touch – but the electronic system involved with button-pushing has spun into its own inscrutable non-pattern: the Up or Down button may or may not light up, or both buttons may have already been pushed by some passing ghost. This is the current passenger system: If an elevator stops at your floor, you get in. Say you want to go from Floor 7 to the lobby, but the elevator decides to go Up. Not to worry. When it gets to 12 it will eventually go Down. If you’re lucky it will make fewer than 11 stops before attempting to deposit you in the Garage, but hang on, it’s likely to go straight back up to the lobby, which is where you wanted to go. There are very few enthusiasts about Kone Elevators in my building, but we are nothing if not patient. Which brings up the second step –

Patience. I know, I know. Still, just as the elevator will eventually come, your turn in the phone queue will too. This morning I was informed, after finally getting through a dozen or so menu options, that I was #14 in the queue to speak with a person who might cancel my account. Speaker phones are good for this step, as they allow you to put the thing in a far corner until you find yourself at position #1. Position #1 will drive you to a chat, which often leads to a solution. In this particular instance, my patience led to a happily cancelled account.

Kindness. Always works. Will conquer pessimism, even when malfunctioning elevators and phone menus have rendered you temporarily pessimistic. For instance – speaking of pushing buttons – those buttons in drugstore aisles that say “Push for Customer Assistance”? These require patience and kindness in the extreme. Unlike the elevator buttons which summon no elevator, they summon the Assistant to your precise location – – eventually. Sadly, the Assistant tends to be a grumpy little guy in a rumpled blue jacket who answers any question by saying, “Just tell me which one you want!” He probably just got yelled at by the last customer. Try to be kind. Once he unlocks the little shelf, just pick any one of the 17 varieties of medication on which you wanted his advice. They’re probably all about the same.

Perseverance. See above. The elevator will eventually get you to the right floor, the scammer will give up and the drugstore Customer Assistant will unlock the shelf so that you can pick one of the medications whose 17 varieties had so bewildered you. If you persevere.

And last but not least –

Hope. That business about faith, hope & love? That’s a given with optimists, who tend to love people/times/circumstances largely because it’s easier than hating. But with some people/times/circumstances being so thoroughly unlovable these days, one is left only with hope. Hope that the anti-vaxxers will wake up before they nurture new variants to come after us all, if they don’t get covid and die first. Hope that the rains might miraculously come before drought and wildfires consume the west. That members of Congress will decide to get together and do stuff rather than pointing fingers and playing power games.

Hope springs eternal.  

This essay appears also on Medium.com

Twisting a Friend on Twitter

happy birthday to you print
Chris J Davis on Unsplash

“If you voted for Biden,” she wrote, “you are still my friend. If you voted for Trump, you are still my friend. We are all friends and neighbors, no matter what.”

Can you argue with that?

The writer is a 20-year-old college student; smart, pretty, popular and well-grounded. Someone who actually believes that business about loving one’s neighbor, and doing unto others as one would like done unto oneself. The problem is, she wrote those lines not on some old-fashioned email or piece of paper; she wrote them on Twitter – which commands a worldview of its own. It was posted months ago – eons, in Twittertime, but nothing in Twitterworld goes away.

Thus the post was discovered recently by an erstwhile friend who decided a lesson needed to be taught: This tweet clearly indicates that the writer is a Trump voter, the friend decided. No sensible non-Trump person could befriend a Trump voter, therefore the writer is a bigot and a racist and no longer welcome in any known friend group. Shunning followed. Friends took sides. Incredible amounts of time were wasted.

Yes I know, it all strains credulity. The re-tweeter is obviously unstable or worse, someone with a distorted self-image and too much idle time. Truth does not figure in, anywhere. But Twitterworld does not seek truth, only agitation and activity – which quickly develop once such stupidity begins.

Here is the question: In a world where Twitter rules, is there any hope for Truth? When words taken out of context can quickly become distorted and accepted as ‘fact,’? When scrolling through a couple of cellphone feeds passes for being informed and ‘friendship’ twists and turns with a tweet?

Maybe, if we ever slow down.

For a while it appeared the pandemic might teach us to slow down; but then came zoom and we zoomed ahead at breakneck speed. What might have been slowed down at in-person events was instead accelerated via digital and social media. But here is the gleam of hope:

What if, on spotting an argumentative tweet, post or whatever, one were to bite one’s digital tongue and NOT hit Reply? Or even better, not hit Retweet/Share/Re-post? What if, instead, we could cultivate the old-fashioned practice of speaking person-to-person? Even on an old-fashioned phone of some sort? What if we could revive the old-fashioned practice of saying, “Tell me what you mean, what you’re thinking.” The old-fashioned custom of cordial dialogue.

That would bring us all the way back to “You are still my friend.” A long, slow journey.

But what a happy destination.    

New Year’s Day in July

Photo by Anna-Louise on Pexels.com

My friend M reports losing five pounds since starting a new weight loss/mindfulness program. The next door neighbor is training for a marathon in the fall. Actually, I’m signed up to do the (virtual) Rabun Ramble 5K, having plotted an acceptable route in San Francisco not quite as challenging as the real Ramble’s North Georgia hills, but who’s  checking? Liz, one of my longtime best friends, is working with an editor on the memoir that many of us, not just her family, have been pushing her to do for years.

You’d think it was New Year’s.

Actually, that seems to be where we are: at the beginning of a new year, a new age. What kind of an age it will be is still anybody’s guess, as is how long it might be until we’re officially in it. All those unvaccinated people out there are sitting ducks for the coronavirus still roaming the country, and who knows how many variants are planning coming-out parties with their antecedents’ approval. It’s hard not to be grumpy about the unvaccinated. Granted, everyone has the right to choose not to be vaccinated, I suppose, but thank heaven for the millions who did get the vaccine and thereby made it possible for this New Year’s Day to dawn. Maybe some day the unvaccinated will at least find it in their hearts to appreciate the vaccinated.

Celebration in the pews

Those of us who have been trying to keep the literal faith throughout these dark months, with a little help from Zoom and Facebook and YouTube, have found that being back in churches and synagogues is particularly celebratory. This writer’s return to the Presbyterian pews coincided with Pride Week and couldn’t have been more rainbow-filled. We were even singing from behind our masks – with the blessing (or approval, at least) of the City of San Francisco.

And then there is the indoor dining-out business. Friends of mine on both coasts are absolutely giddy about discovering old restaurants feared long gone, along with new eateries popping up all over the place. In San Francisco, to the dismay of parking space seekers and absolutely no one else, parklet dining – the street spaces taken over by beleaguered restaurants during the pandemic – seems here to stay. But being able to sit inside a quiet (OK, more often noisy) restaurant and enjoy a meal without the accompaniment of traffic noise feels like a new day indeed. “Restaurant X is back!” as the subject head of a Facebook or Twitter thread suddenly morphs into a list too long to comprehend as one friend after another adds one returned eatery after another.

New Year’s Day, of course, seldom dawns without some residual hint of New Year’s Eve and the old year behind. This old one left us with a lion’s share of hangovers: friends and loved ones taken by the virus, personal and congregate losses too many to count, an entire year of suspended existence. But here’s a pearl of wisdom dropped by a very wise friend in a recent Sunday sermon: “Happiness is to joy as whining is to lament.” Work on that one if you want.

Meanwhile, here’s to the happiest of New Years for M, for Liz, and all the rest of us.

Must Hate be Here to Stay?

Jason Leung on Unsplash

When did instant hate become okay?

There’s a charming new neighbor in my building. We have a lot in common: graduate-degree education, reasonably successful grown children, a fondness for historical fiction and long walks around San Francisco. One major difference: nobody ever yelled at me to go back where I came from.

Or spat on the ground while passing by me.

black and white wooden signage
Lerone Pieters on Unsplash

Early in the pandemic but just before the lockdown, my new friend was talking with a college-age cousin in front of a San Francisco store. Two white men dressed in casual work clothes, appearing to be in their forties or early fifties, walked past. One spat. The other looked directly into my friend’s somewhat “Asian-looking” face and uttered those exact words: “Why don’t you go back where you came from?” For the record, she came from Manhattan where she held a high-level corporate management job; before that she came from New Jersey, where she was born. She has voted in every election since the 1960s.

Stories like this, exposing the hostilities stirred up in recent years, make it hard to stay hopeful. But my hopefulness is reinforced by the groups and individuals working around the clock for change. One example is in an unusual nonprofit I’ve only recently come to know. It’s the New Breath Foundation, briefly introduced here: New Breath seeks to offer “hope, healing, and new beginnings for Asian American & Pacific Islander (AAPI) new immigrants and refugees, people impacted by incarceration and deportation, and survivors of violence.”

One of the interesting facts about New Breath is that Founder/President Eddy Zheng is himself an immigrant – and a former “juvenile lifer” in the bargain. Eddy managed to turn his life around while in immigration jails and the prison system. While still incarcerated he began counseling at-risk youth, created an Ethnic Studies program, and co-edited a book. After his release he set about leading youth development and violence prevention programs, and cross-cultural building activities in the San Francisco Bay Area and nationally.If the NBF mission seems a tall order, Eddy found a shortcut. It’s called (something like) Don’t Re-Invent the Wheel. Or – find people and groups already working toward your goals and give them the support they need. New Breath Foundation therefore, conducts targeted grant-making, education, and advocacy efforts in support of other hard-working groups. In its scant four years’ existence the nonprofit has supported causes and events including an AAPI Women Lead conference, Survived and Punished, the Asian Prisoner Support Committee and a variety of others. Those are the sorts of groups that give me hope.

https://images.unsplash.com/photo-1616707424144-03c58bbba79f?ixlib=rb-1.2.1&ixid=MnwxMjA3fDB8MHxwaG90by1wYWdlfHx8fGVufDB8fHx8&auto=format&fit=crop&w=934&q=80
Jason Leung on Unsplash

Hope that people like my new neighbor will walk the streets of America without encountering hostility and worse. Hope that instant love and acceptance might replace instant hate.

Hope springs eternal.

Joy! Prosperity! Here’s to the Eights

Should be a very good year. Having just turned 88 on the 8th, I am assured by many of my Chinese friends of an especially fine time ahead: Double joy! Prosperity! Wealth and success! Devin, my extraordinary acupuncturist, tells me that when he was racing motorcycles (a few decades ago) his number was 88 – and here he is, still alive and practicing acupuncture. I may not be Chinese, but I’m a believer. So  I hereby embrace it all, the whole cloud of blessings.

With a little help from Wikipedia, the TravelChinaGuide people, and even a few highly questionable biblical reference sources – I offer this look at the year ahead for the Eight-blessed. Even if you aren’t turning 88, surely you can find an association that will let you in.

Lucky number 8 people, it is said, have strong intuition and insight, and thus “the potential to explore things undiscovered.” Can’t argue with that. We are supposedly also able to complete our plans step by step; somehow I missed this trait. It conflicts, I believe, with the Gemini inclination to zizz around from one thing to another before completing any plan at all. But I’m into numerology today, rather than astrology, so am decidedly accepting that insight thing.

Number 8’s are reportedly mild and honest to others. “Their characteristics would never lead to arguing with other people or causing them to be depressed. In order to avoid hurting people around them, they always hide their real emotions.” I’m only partially sure about this one, being decidedly mild and honest and inclined to avoid hurting anyone anywhere. But hiding my emotions? They are written on my very forehead.

The number 888 is a triple confirmation of the biblical meaning of the number 8, one of my questionably reliable sources reports, but I’m going with this too. “It is ostensibly the number of a new creation, new beginning, resurrection . . .” If the world ever needed new creations and new beginnings it’s now; and while we’re at it we could resurrect a little kindness and compassion to spread around. And double joy.

Let’s hear it for the 8’s.

Change, Masks & Humankindness

How many Presbyterians does it take (you may have heard this one) to change a light bulb??

C-H-A-N-G-E???

I get to repeat this, having been a Presbyterian for about sixty years and being intimately familiar with our reflex opposition to change. However. The global changes of the past 14 or so months have given an entirely new meaning to things like the trauma of switching a word in some obscure hymn.

With the baby steps we are now taking into the New Normal, some of it looks pretty abnormal. We – I, at least –  created an interim sort-of normal and adjusted to it for a year. Wasn’t that normal? But now it does not feel normal to do normal stuff because we declared it not-doable for all those months of the old normal. 

The #1 case in point is the Mask Issue. Early on, I found masks to be a giant bother: hot in the sunshine, uncomfortable oftentimes, and impossible when trying to communicate with someone hard of hearing. Not to mention the regular panic over having forgotten the mask when already a half-mile out on a walk or – heaven forbid – about to enter a Walgreen’s. In my building, one could be sent unceremoniously back to one’s apartment if unmasked in any public space, although eating and drinking were indeed allowed once public spaces opened up. But still, masks remain the rule. They can be quirky, funny, political, decorative; Brian the concierge quickly turned them into fashion statements by appearing in matching mask and tie sets (he has five in all.)

But now. The CDC says it’s fine for the fully vaccinated to go maskless outdoors. Some governors agree. Some governors are thinking it over. Some governors still think Donald Trump is president and everything is a hoax anyway: virus, masks, vaccine, you name it, it’s all just a hoax, 580,000+ U.S. dead people notwithstanding.

There’s only one universal truth:

We need to be VERY kind to one another. We’re all on the same planet, and in the U.S. that includes people who are going to keep wearing masks for a very long time and people who absolutely refused to wear masks and now are more or less validated. And definitely unmasked.

Recently, while walking in a super-trendy area of San Francisco, about a mile from my home (which is in a good but hardly trendy area itself) I had my mask hung over my left ear while eating an ice cream bar. I was overtaken – within a few feet, certainly not a proper social distance – by an attractive, well-dressed white man who appeared to be in his 50s or early 60s. He was fit, maskless – and angry. As he strode alongside we both slowed (or, he slowed to match my already-slow pace) and he glared into my eyes.

“I thought we don’t have to wear masks outdoors,” he said.

“Oh,” I said, with a disarming smile that did not disarm him, “I just keep mine handy, in case I want to go into a store or something.”

“Ridiculous,” he said, as he began to walk ahead. Which was my clue to let it drop. But still seeking to disarm I added, “Maybe we’ll all avoid getting the flu!”

“The hell with it,” he threw back over his shoulder. “I’m getting the flu. I’ve had it with this expletive, expletive, expletive.”

So much for friendly passages.

I worry about the fact that this guy and thousands with similar sentiments and temperaments will continue to co-exist (and walk the streets) with mild-mannered sorts like myself. I think we need to find ways to avoid both shouting expletives and making inane comments that provoke others to shout expletives. Could we plaster the country with posters to this effect:

AHOY, MASK-WEARERS: You haven’t been vaccinated, and are being extraordinarily considerate of the rest of us. You have compromised immune systems and must be super cautious. You have terrible cold sores disfiguring your mouth. Thank you for wearing that mask!

AHOY, ALL UNMASKED : Happy to see your smile. Isn’t it lovely to emerge from the dark days. Thank you for being fully vaccinated which I’m sure is true.

TO EVERYONE, EVERYWHERE: Let’s just cut each other a LOT of slack until the world turns fully right-side-up again.

Remaining masked doesn’t have to mean I’m a snob, or a Democrat, or a generally bad person. Being unmasked doesn’t have to mean I’m a threat to your health, or a Republican, or a generally bad person. Several billion masks have been manufactured or created since early 2020 and it’s going to take a long, long time for them to go away.

In the interim, maybe we could take a collective deep breath. And try smiling.   

Mob Violence – Is it here to stay forever?

A TALE OF TWO CENTURIES

Her name was Joyce Almeida. An 18-year-old student, she was killed instantly by one shot through her lung. Joyce had been on the edge of the downtown crowd with her parents, who had fled for cover behind their car and at first failed to notice Joyce’s soundless collapse onto the pavement. One man in uniform, though, was seen at the exact same time, on horseback, galloping away but firing behind him in all directions at the crowd of mostly civilian men, women and children.

A sadly familiar story today. I was stunned to discover it, reported in a familiar script, in a letter written by my mother to my father on November 1, 1923 in Porto Alegre, Brazil.

In the midst of digging through files of documents, mostly letters, that remain un-sorted even after countless moves and major downsizes, surprises keep showing up. On the date of this letter my parents were not yet engaged – that would happen the following spring, and they’d marry on November 18, 1924 – so where my father was is a mystery; probably just somewhere else in Porto Alegre. Phone calls were rare; notes and letters were the preferred means of communication. My mother had been in Brazil a little over a year, under the auspices of the Methodist church; her job involved teaching music and folk dance to preschoolers and young children while also teaching English at all age levels. She and her roommate Mary Sue lived in the girls’ dorm of a school that housed students from elementary grades into the equivalent of junior college. I think neither of them were trained to deal with protest mobs.  

“I ran a couple of blocks,” my mother wrote, “to catch up with the Red Cross people.” The Red Cross people had come to notify them of a student being wounded, but given the name Joycelina; moments later the two young teacher/chaperones realized it might be Joyce. “She had gone with her family to welcome Setembroio the Minister of War from Rio. The mob lost itself while he was making his speech and firing began. A stray shot struck her in the lung and killed her instantly. All this we learned later at her home.

“Immediately then Mary Sue and I went to take home the few other externs who were here. All we have is a great deal of hearsay centered around a core of fact. It seems now, after things have quieted down, that 50 or more people were wounded, a number fatally, and one rumor says 18 killed.

“Of course the children were all very much frightened. Before going out, Mary Sue talked to them about the need for calm, and of the comparative safety of the college compared to other places. They took it all very well and after dinner settled down quietly to sewing – after calmly taking a collection to send flowers to Joyce. Only Mary Sue and I went to the Almeidas. It is very sad. Mr. Almeida looks so crushed. Igaleilita’s dress was still spotted with blood from the wound.

“Yet with all this the people continue to move to and fro on the street just as they have been moving to the cemetery all day. The federal soldiers have taken charge, and they have asked for an Estado de Sitio permission from Rio. Things are apparently quiet now – 10 PM. The school children went to bed calmly. Mary Sue and I are really more nervous than they – after the stress of going to the Almeida house and then carrying the news to many of the school mates. I folded up all the costumes of the ‘May Festa,’ to have come off on Tuesday, and laid them away.”

Photo by Terri Windling

My mother – a ferocious seamstress who could whip up a dress or costume in minutes – had started “May Festa,” a May Day celebration that continues to this day. It involved all-day singing and dancing and unfortunately had been scheduled for a few days after the shooting. “Joyce was to have a new white net dress for the festa,” my mother wrote – “and it was her shroud.”

The discovery of this century-old letter is fascinating on more levels than I can count: some things change; some never do. But it’s tempting to reflect on the similarity of mob violence whatever the century, and the difference of news reporting in the days before TV (or effective radio, for that matter.) Possibly the biggest difference? News transmission via pen-and-ink paints pictures of a singular sort. My mother’s letter concludes:

“Strange – Mary Sue and I sat taking coffee instead of dinner, and discussed the use of the basement of the other building in case of necessity – of barricading the spaces between the pillars at the back – you don’t think about being afraid when you are actually in it. Most absurd of all, I loaded the revolver – in case we should have trouble on account of absence of police.” I am satisfied that my mother never fired a gun in her life.

No amount of internet searching can confirm the details, so please don’t consider the above to be historical fact. Some things I don’t know – the correct name of the Minister of War, what the riot was about, how the students and families coped. But some things I do. My parents exchanged letters every day they were apart (a LOT of days) throughout their long and happy marriage – 1924 until my mother’s death in 1970 – and this story fits with their lives in Brazil and the low-key but thorough communications they exchanged. I am struggling over what to sort and what to keep, but I believe this story contains truths worth keeping.

Brazil’s history is not unlike our own – various European countries conquered and abused the indigenous people for centuries (beginning in the 16th.) The young Republic was established in 1889 and its democracy is still fragile. We’ve had better luck holding off dictators and autocrats than have the citizens of Brazil, but recent years have shown us all – north and south of the equator – how easy it is to distort or snuff out the Voice of the People.

Let’s hear it for the Voice of the People. Surely there’s still time to set things right in THIS century.      

A Jury of Our Peers

CHAUVIN’S – – AND OTHER JURIES

Twelve of our fellow citizens quietly did their civic duty in Minneapolis. Beginning March 29 and ending April 20 they listened to more details of a terrible crime than most of us could handle. They debated among themselves for what had to have been one very long day before delivering the verdict that former police officer Derek Chauvin was guilty of murder.

Sometimes the system works.

I would not have traded jobs with one of those jurors for any 5 minutes of the weeks they gave up to be good citizens, but I appreciate them beyond measure. And I am somewhat in awe of their simple ordinariness. Despite all the pundits and politicians and earnest activists laboring for justice, in the end it was the hard work of twelve committed citizens that offered this small celebration of democracy at work.

They were: A 20-something white man, a chemist. A 20-something woman of mixed race with a policeman uncle. A 30-something white man, a financial auditor. A 30-something Black man who immigrated to our country 14 years ago. A 50-something white woman, a health care executive. A 30-something Black man who writes poetry and coaches youth sports. A 50-something, motorcycle-riding white woman. A 40-something Black man who lives in the suburbs. A 40-something multiracial woman who works as a corporate consultant. A 50-something white woman, a nurse who’s worked with Covid-19 patients. A 60-something Black woman, a grandmother who said, “I am Black, and my life matters.” A 40-something white woman who works in the insurance industry. A 50-something white woman who volunteers at homeless shelters. And a 20-something, recently married white woman, a social worker. Any one of them might have been you or me, and I wonder if we’d have done as good a job. Or if we’d have found a way to avoid giving up a month of our lives for this job.

Over my very long life of trying to be a good citizen I’ve been in countless jury pools and served on a dozen or so juries in Virginia, Georgia, Florida and California. Never one deliberating anything like this. I did serve on one murder jury at which I found myself weirdly sympathetic to the defendant. He said he didn’t mean it, it wasn’t his fault. But I’m afraid the guy did commit murder and in the end we reached a unanimous conclusion to that effect. He went to jail for many years but I suspect he’s out by now. Most of the cases I heard, on one jury or another, had moments of boredom beyond belief, usually thanks to attorneys who seemed enamored of the sounds of their own voices, but I never dozed off. I fudged a little once to escape the jury pool for a corporate case that was predicted to last six months. I was so furious about those corporations ready to disrupt the lives of all those good citizens over an issue they should’ve settled themselves that I could not have remained objective about anything.

Armand Roy for Pixels

Almost exactly ten years ago I wrote a blog about what turned out to be my final jury experience. The attorneys were making their final pitches to a whittled-down group from which the jury was being chosen.

Here’s what the deal seemed to be: A woman had been abused by a guy. It wasn’t rape; it seemed to be everything else. Kidnapping with intent to commit rape. Attempted rape. Even attempted arousal for purposes of who knows what. The trial, if the judge’s overview was any indication, would turn on who you believed, and how far is too far. In the 1950s, when I had my own trials (physical/emotional, not judicial) with date rape/workplace rape of this exact sort, women had little power and less choice. Today it can come down to who has real power and who has real choice. Did she really go somewhere with him willingly? Did she say No? Did he listen?

Sorry guys, unless she’s 6′ tall and outweighs him by 40 pounds, I am going to lean toward the lady. What I wanted to say was: “You do not want me on this jury.” Handily I was caregiver for a disabled husband; I begged hardship exemption. Because I soon aged out of the Report-for-Jury-Duty lists, that was my last chance at this particular exercise of good citizenship.

But thank heaven for the good citizens who gave up a month of their lives to form a jury of Derek Chauvin’s peers. As for their decision, “I don’t see how it could have been otherwise,” one observer famously remarked, “but I know it could have been otherwise.”