Losing – But Not Mourning For – My Sister

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

Several weeks ago I lost the last of my three older sisters. Condolences are still coming in almost every day via calls and notes and emails. In response I’ve often explained that while I’m feeling extraordinarily sorry for myself — much of my lifelong identity has been as the youngest of four: The Moreland Girls — I do not grieve for my sister Helen.

Helen, I am quick to say, was greatly beloved. By her four children and twelve grandchildren, by a host of friends and other relatives, and very particularly by me. I was her Franciscavichy; she was my Helenchen. Though we’ve been geographically separated for most of our adult lives by thousands of miles, we wrote (yes, old-fashioned notes and letters) and emailed often, and spoke on the phone at least every few weeks. A visit to her western New York retirement community home during the pandemic break of 2021 and again in the fall of 2022 were highlights of those years.

I just don’t mourn for Helen.

The Moreland Girls circa 1940s, bookended by Helen and me (Author photo)

Some years ago, not long after the death of her husband, Helen began to talk about how she didn’t want to “linger.” Her husband had lingered.

When he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in his late 60s they called to say they were going out to celebrate. He had suspected dementia, she’d thought he might have a brain tumor, and they both believed Parkinson’s a far better affliction.

His physician had said my brother-in-law could expect to have “10 good years,” and they said with one voice, “We’ll take it!”

What nobody talked with them about was how many bad years he would have, and how bad they would get. My brilliant, witty, gregarious brother-in-law had spent his life in academia but spent his last years in hell, slowly losing his mobility, his speech and eventually all physical or cognitive function.

I knew exactly what Helen meant when she spoke of not wanting to linger.

More recently she took to saying things like, “This isn’t living.” Life, for her as well as for the two of them during their long and eventful marriage, meant going to dinners and lectures and events with other bright minds, singing in the Boston community chorus they founded, attending concerts and operas and plays.

I often quipped with Helen that she might consider taking up prayer — she was a determined atheist — so she could pray when she went to bed that she wouldn’t wake up. Instead, she simply wished it.

Photo by Sunguk Kim on Unsplash

Once, after feeling bad all day, she was so certain of this likely happenstance that she left a long message on my answering machine about what a wonderful little sister I’d always been; she wanted to let me know that in case she didn’t wake up. (A lovely message to have now forever.)

Over decades of working as a volunteer with hospice, an AIDS support group in the 1990s and currently End of Life Choices CA, I’ve seen some tragically bad deaths, and more than a few you’d call Good Deaths: peacefully in one’s own bed, surrounded by loved ones.

Helen finally got the good death she wished for. Her physician daughter came over to rub her back when she went to bed, after a day of feeling generally low. The next day she didn’t wake up.

Helen was 95. We should all sign up for this: resting in peace like my Helenchen.

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Guns & Massacres & Priorities

Photo by maxzzerzz ❄ on Unsplash

REPORT FROM CALIFORNIA:

We’ve had a flurry of mass shootings in recent days here in sunny California, the state with the most restrictive gun laws in the country. And it’s not yet February.

In California’s population of nearly 40 million, more than 4 million own a gun (more shotguns & rifles than pistols, but of course all of them kill people).

Nationally, we have more guns than civilians.

In Japan, where almost nobody packs heat (.03 guns per 100 civilians) there are fewer than 10 gun deaths annually. In the U.S. we have more than that every day, any day.

We’re on track for more gun deaths, more mass shootings, more carnage-by-trigger than ever in 2023. The figures generally go up every year.

And all we can talk about is background checks and mental health?

Did the Founding Fathers Miss Something?

MAYBE WE COULD LEARN FROM THE MICROSTATES . . .

Rep. of San Marino Postcard (Author photo)

The above postcard recently arrived from my world-traveler grandson with the opening line: “Continuing the tradition of sending you postcards from only the world’s finest microstates . . .” Microstates? Who knew?

Certainly not this grandmother. So I went straight to the internet.

What I learned led me to re-think the socio-political systems of my beloved U.S.A. Which systems, when you think about it, have invited a lot of re-thinking recently anyway.

In case you (also) didn’t know, San Marino is the world’s fifth-smallest country. Vatican City and Monaco are #1 and #2; at 23+ square miles, San Marino beats out 62-sq-mile Liechtenstein. It is officially the Most Serene Republic of San Marino — and for openers, what if we became the Most Serene United States?

As do we, San Marino has a constitution with which it has governed itself for centuries. But here’s the deal: their constitution specifies that San Marino’s democratically elected (goodbye, electoral college!) legislature must choose two heads of state every six months. These are known as captains regent. Clearly every red-blooded American would aspire to be Captain Regent so the issue of unqualified candidates would take care of itself once and for all.

Actually, the voters elect the legislature, from which the captains regent emerge. The Great and Central Council (doesn’t that beat ‘House’ and ‘Senate’?) is a unicameral legislature with 60 members. Elections are held once every five years — imagine 3 or 4 years of peace without campaigns.

There is proportional representation in all nine administrative dstricts. In other words, no district with teeny tiny population gets to tip the governmental scales. If you’re 18 in San Marino you get to vote, and your vote is precisely equal to that of every fellow citizen.

Here, though, is the icing on this political cake: The Great and Central Council chooses those two captains regent. They get to serve as heads of state for exactly six months. How much trouble can you cause in six months? Meanwhile, they share power equally, so they have to get along. Think Shumer and McCarthy — or maybe don’t.

Admittedly, this might work more easily in a country of 33 thousand than one of almost 33 million. Still, it has promise. I’m considering sending a suggestion to my own representative, who’s taken on impossible tasks before. Her name is Pelosi.

Meeting Mother Nature in Montana

AND A FEW OF HER CREATURES AT THE FRONT DOOR

Author photo

Big Sky Country! I’m a native Virginian transplanted long ago to San Francisco, and hadn’t met anything quite like Montana’s Bridger Mountains. But on a recent first-time visit I was enchanted by the ease and comfort with which the disparate members of Mother Nature’s family — flora and fauna alike — coexist. Here are a few of the fellow creatures that hang around my daughter’s new home:

For starters — brown bears. This one was investigating the indoor cat, or it might have been the other way around. Having a window in between was probably a good thing.

Christine Pentecost, Bridger Mountain Photo

The local brown bears, grizzlies by proper name, can be a curious sort. But you might not want to engage them, as they weigh an average of 290 lbs (the females) to 440 for the males. Living in bear country means being very careful to protect their habitat and never leaving garbage or food available — they make their own dietary choices, which may or may not include house cats. According to the Montana Field Guide, they have “light to medium grizzling on the head and back and a light patch behind the front legs.” Plus “varying levels of grizzled hair patches.” I now know where the grizzly bear got his name.

Author photo

And then there are rabbits. Other than the Easter bunny, a very distant kin, local rabbits are not always welcome. (But you have to admit they’re cute.) They get along just fine, insulated by all that fur and layers underneath, in Montana’s sub-zero winters, dining on tree bark, twigs and needles, but once the gardens begin to flourish, all those delicate sprouts look pretty yummy. . . .

Author photo

The resident rabbit likes to settle in daily by the back door, sunning himself (or herself, as the case may be) for a while and perhaps finding something interesting falling from the bird feeder above.

Christine Pentecost, Bridger Mountain Photo

Mule deer and white tail deer are common to the neighborhood, and they like to nibble too. My daughter’s new house is the beloved old house carefully designed and built by a noted photographer (and her husband,) who generously shared images of visiting creatures.

Montana being big game country, humans and deer coexist not always on equal terms : deer are speedy, but hunters have guns. Hunting is regulated, however, and hopefully humankind is looking to preserve these particular fellow creatures.

In the Bridger Mountain area of the state, what most strikes a newcomer is the endless display of Mother Nature’s bounty, and the possibilities for human and non-human creatures to coexist while appreciating each other. The creatures may not always appreciate the human invaders — other than the welcome availability of birdseed throughout the snowy season — but up close and personal, coexistence is pure joy.

Elections Fair & Square

When is an illegitimate winner not a winner?

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

When I was a kid, Fair & Square was the rule.

“She won fair & square!” was the undisputed last word, whether it was a game of kick the can or a closely fought race for president of second grade. The winner accepted the prize, the loser scuffed his toe in the dirt but sat down — each with some degree of grace and compassion.

Admittedly, it’s been a very long time since I was a kid.

Still, pity poor Tom Suozzi. Tom Suozzi, whose name I would not have recognized before January 2023, served for six years in the U.S. Congress, representing the people of New York’s Third District. Most recently he ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic nomination for governor of New York. But he is proud of his record representing the folks in the jaggedy-shaped congressional district (aren’t they all?) that includes a sizable area of Long Island’s North Shore. And now he is less than happy about his successor.

“It saddens me,” Suozzi wrote in a recent New York Times op ed, “that after 30 years of public service rooted in hard work and service to the people of this area, I’m being succeeded by a con man.” Yep. The district elected someone whose name by now we all know: George Santos.

Mr. Santos skipped the Fair & Square classes.

The congressman-elect is now widely renowned for lying about his education, his work history, his finances, his achievements, his mother and possibly his name. If his victory causes distress to Tom Suozzi, it cannot be easy for businessman/activist Robert Zimmerman. Mr. Zimmerman, the Democrat who opposed Mr. Santos, conceded defeat after a race that now hardly seems to have been won fair and square. Mr. Zimmerman, though, has yet to submit an op ed to the Times (as far as I know.)

“Yet, I am clinging to my sense of optimism,” Suozzi writes. “I believe that as slow and frustrating as it sometimes is, our democracy, our free press and the rule of law work.” (This reporter is always looking for notes of optimism.)

Suozzi concludes, “One of my favorite lines from the 2011 film The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel has always stayed with me: ‘Everything will be all right in the end. So if it is not all right, then it is not yet the end.’ That’s how I feel about America right now.”

Having somehow missed The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, this reporter nevertheless is going with Suozzi’s argument. “It’s not a naïve idea,” he concludes; “it’s what keeps us sane and able to keep moving forward in the age of Mr. Santos and Mr. Trump. The system works — if not right away, then ultimately. It has worked throughout our history, and it will work now.”

Well, okay. While trying to stay sane and able to move forward, let’s hear it for the Third District of New York somehow getting a legitimate Representative, fair & square.

Weather Weirdness for Humankind

A report from beautiful snowy Montana

Author photo

“It’s going up — (UP!) — to zero tomorrow,” said one adult in the room; “we can go sledding!” Two other adults, along with one 8-year-old, gleefully began planning routes. This reporter was planning to watch from indoors.

Author photo

Human beings, IMHO, are not designed to function in temperatures of 30 degrees below zero. Or “negative 30,” as it’s called by the good people of Montana, where I was spending the recent days of weather weirdness. Other parts of the world, including my beloved California with its recent cabinet-jostling earthquakes, have had their own weirdness problems:

Dense fog advisories, wind chill warnings, red flag alerts, assorted advisories and warnings on everything from floods to blizzards to hard freezes to a hurricane watch or two. Mother Nature is not pleased. Unwilling to send us all to our rooms — say, Mars or Jupiter or wherever — She called a December time out. Which, in Montana’s case, spells the deep freeze.

Game camera photo

Mother Nature designed all manner of creatures, not including humans, to function just fine in Negative 30 weather. Rabbits, for instance. The resident rabbit (above) is happily self-insulated and we presume warmly housed somewhere underground. As are the itinerant bears, deer, magpies and the rest of the Montana flora and fauna.

Humans, however, are on their own. When even the ski slopes are closed by the cold, that leaves throwing boiling water into the frigid air. And making plans to go sledding when things warm up to zero.

Author photo

Holiday Revelry: To Mask or Not to Mask

MY SURVEY RESULTS ARE IN

Photo by Belinda Fewings on Unsplash

That is still the question.

A holiday-sized group of passengers was recently gathered in the waiting area of Terminal Two Gate 4, ready to board a flight from San Francisco to Bozeman, MT. The unmasked outnumbered the masked by roughly fifteen to one — this despite the Please Wear A Mask signs on every wall and the news full of stories about the “triple-demic.”

With an hour to spare before departure — the highway traffic and TSA Pre-Check gods having been with me — I put on my (masked) Ace Reporter face and undertook a random survey. This is only advised if you are extremely cautious in finding approachable respondents. It also helps to be a harmless grandmother type. And it is wise to approach only the genuinely bored, who are staring into space as if they wished someone might approach them with a survey question. You can always find them, even if you have to wander down to Gate E or Gate D.

Style is equally important. Ideally, the reporter wheels her carry-on to a vacant seat one or two seats away from the target, but an adjacent seat is okay, and standing in lines is perfect. Once you’ve settled quietly into position, allow an appropriate interval of time to elapse — say, 30 seconds or so, during which it’s good to stare into space yourself. Then, with your best behind-the-mask smile in place, you’re ready to begin.

Photo by Alexander Grey on Unsplash

“Do you mind if I ask you a question?” my survey opened. One potential respondent furrowed his brow, and another did the serious eyebrow-raising thing, but nobody told me to get lost — in so many words. Almost everyone seemed agreeable.

This survey wanted to find out why these good people were wearing masks, how they felt about so many non-maskers hanging around everywhere, and when they think masks will finally be history. Below are my key findings.

Nobody even wanted to guess about when the world will be safely unmasked. “2033?,” said a young woman in a University of Virginia sweatshirt. Perhaps.

A high percentage of mask-wearers have already had covid. “I’ve had it twice,” said one middle-aged woman in a furry black cap, “and you don’t want to mess with this virus. I don’t care that much about others right now. I keep the mask on for my own protection.”

Said a young man in the coffee bar line, “I have long covid; I can still barely smell the coffee. Those unmasked folks might think they’re fine, but I am not taking any chances.”

That focus on personal safety, as opposed to altruistic motives for mask-wearing, seems to have markedly increased. One or two survey respondents referred to “keeping all those others safe,” but without any particular animosity toward “those others” who might be unwittingly spreading germs.

Which was another finding of my research: hostility between maskers and anti-maskers, once almost palpable, seems to have faded a little. At least if you can believe the Gate F crowd. It was barely a year ago that an unmasked passerby almost declared war on my innocently masked self on a San Francisco street. My outdoor mask, which was mandated at the time, led him to conclude I had to be some Fauci-loving liberal commie covid freak.

Photo by visuals on Unsplash

Fear of encountering someone of that sort might have led me to skip the unmasked entirely. In any event, I left them alone. Going maskless is their business, I decided; and I avoid arguments great and small.

So I stuck with the fully masked. A family of five waiting for a flight to the east coast seemed happy to talk about masks, as well as holiday travel. “It just makes sense,” said the mom, whose eyes were sparkly above her jet-black mask. “The kids have gotten used to wearing them and I figure we’ll keep the habit until the risks are small and the viruses fewer.”

At which point the youngest kid looked up at me with the winning response, “We’re going to see our Gran.”

Parting Words from a Too-Short Life

Ronald Lockett, “Fever Within” (1995) — Author Photo

Artist Ronald Lockett died at the age of 33. I’d never heard of him, or seen any of his work, before happening upon this piece at San Francisco’s de Young Museum. It’s made of found tin, colored pencils and nails on wood, and according to the accompanying text probably depicts a female partner from whom, sadly, he is likely to have contracted AIDS. It’s an arresting piece. “The cross-like composition,” reads the text, “suggests both a window frame — and the sensation of being trapped inside or outside — and the potential of spiritual salvation.”

What caught this viewer even more were some thoughts that Lockett expressed about his own mortality, shortly before he died.

“If it would end today or tomorrow,” he said, “I just try to do the best I can do, keeping my art honest and coming from my heart. It’s like the last few minutes of a basketball game when the clock is ticking and you’ve got to shoot, you just want to nail it like. It means so much to show ’em you can do it.”

Thanks for nailing it, literally, figuratively and emotionally, Ronald Lockett.

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