Reporting from the Facebook Dungeon

Galaxy Survives Black Hole's Feast – For Now | NASA
NASA view of the Black Hole

I have been disappeared by Facebook.

Well, not totally disappeared yet, although I recognize that could happen any day now. So far, I’ve just been made essentially invisible. It happens. I do understand one should not get one’s feelings hurt by an app, but still. Facebook algorithms, I further understand, are managed by some faceless Facebook Artificial Intelligence machine, and no actual human beings are involved other than the evil cabal sitting in a dark room somewhere setting in motion mysterious controls over the most intimate details of our psyches.

My psyche is in pain.

Ten or fifteen years ago my granddaughter created a Facebook page for me because, she said, it was imperative that I get into the 21st century and besides, this was how I could keep in touch with my grandchildren. They, of course, have now moved on to Instagram and Twitter and who knows what other wondrous technological barriers to personal interaction. But meanwhile I have come to enjoy Mark Zuckerberg’s toy. Long lost, faraway friends have become friendly and familiar, friends and nodding acquaintances from other pieces of my convoluted life have arisen, even some current friends and (older than the grandkids) family members reappear on my merry page. And try as I might to avoid patronizing the maddening ads I’m satisfied that I spend enough on its sponsors to keep Mr. Zuckerberg in the style to which he is accustomed and thus have repaid my free-space debt a few zillion times over.

So now I resent being disappeared by his algorithm crew; it seems an undeserved case of disinFacebookfranchisement.  

Here’s what does show up on my feed – after “Fran, we care about you . . . Your memories on Facebook . . .” In order of appearance:

Something posted by a nice young woman whom I did like (in the original sense of the word) when she waited tables in my building six or eight years ago.

Two ads.

Something re-posted by a distant friend of my daughter.

Something else re-posted from a 4-year-old post by someone whose name is vaguely familiar so I must have Facebook friended him sometime in the distant past.

Another ad.

Something posted two days ago by a woman who lives in Borneo and whom I must have Facebook friended at some point because we do have a few things in common even if we’ve never met.

Two more ads. At which point it’s time to give up and quit scrolling.

Here’s what does not appear in my feed: Anything posted by my children or other family members, anything posted by good friends, Facebook ‘Close Friends’, or by others with whom I’ve been happily, frequently interacting over the past 10 or 15 years.

I assume Facebook is sharing my own posts with one or two people who are Facebook Friends but don’t really remember who I am – since part of my disappearance is the total absence of comments or emojis of any sort on the three photos I have bravely posted over the past week. This, of course, is the final blow to one’s fragile ego: Nobody likes my posts!

It is very dark down here in the dungeon of the disappeared.

The Dark Side of Airline Travel

The 7 coolest airplane interiors and how the designs spice up your flight
Matadornet.com image

What is it with dark airplanes? Those of us addicted to sunlight, open air and cloud-watching may have to establish our own airline. Or unionize in favor of at least a passenger area dedicated to open window shades. We might, I fear, find it slow going.

I am a confirmed window-seat person. I have nothing against aisle-seat people; endowed with a better-than-average (I’ve been told) bladder, I generally don’t bother them. Middle-seat people, unless they are part of a devoted couple, simply had the misfortune to book their tickets late; for purposes of this essay they count for very little. What power do they have, anyway, poor squished-in things.

On settling into my window-seat corner, the first thing I want to do is raise the shade. More and more often it seems there’s a rule against this until we are at least airborne. Which is OK with me; I’m a cloud-watcher, not necessarily a greasy-runway-watcher. So once we level off above the clouds I am eager to slide my shade up.

That’s when I get the frantic motion from the aisle-seat occupant who wants it shut. If window shades were open elsewhere in our sardine can I might be emboldened to resist. But no, a glance around reveals nothing but gloom. Every shade drawn tight. We might as well be in a submarine.

“Folks,” I want to shout, “it’s 10 AM!” But I do not. There’s enough hostility loose in the land as is.

So we travel across the country in darkness. Outside are rivers and plains, the Rocky Mountains, the Grand Canyon, too many cloud formations to name. Sunsets. Weather conditions creating phenomena we may never again see. What can I say?

Naps, you argue. Well OK, I’m a #1 proponent of naps. But what’s wrong with eyeshades? We’re all masked up; we might as well be fully hidden from sight. I’ve tried napping on airplanes myself. You can take this to the bank: approximately 45 seconds into a deep sleep the captain will come on with some 80-decibel announcement about how grateful the crew is for our loyalty, and how he (it’s always a he; she-captains at least generally speak at an acceptable decibel level) wants us to sit back, relax and enjoy the flight. We are supposed to enjoy being rudely awakened just to be reminded we are being held captive in a dark-grey tin box for five or six hours? Lacking any other announcement excuse we will encounter rough air that mandates an interruption about tightening our seat belts. My seat belt was already tight.

 Small children whine loudly. Who can blame them? There’s no glimmer of daylight into which mommy can point to say “Look at the pretty puffy clouds.” Or even rain. We drought-weary Californians would so relish the sight of rain on the wings – but no, everybody wants to plunge westward in solemn gloom, back to the wildfires without even a small memory of possible salvation.

It’s enough to drive one to train travel. Or cars. At least you can’t drive a car with all the windows covered over. Uh, oh. I may have given the self-driving car crazies a new idea.

Finally there is the closing announcement. “We’re beginning our descent into San Francisco. Thank you for flying Shut-in Air.”  

The Luxury of Hope

sun rays coming through trees
Wonderlane on Unsplash

“We don’t have time for the luxury of despair,” said a recent political pundit. Because this space tries to avoid politics the source will remain anonymous. But the pundit had a point. 

Despair is easy to come by these days. Even if you’re not just a teeny bit worried about the future of democracy, or the loss of civility in today’s world, or fill in the blank: (homelessness) (pollution) (nuclear weapons) (immigration) (gas prices) (prejudice) (create your own fill-in) – despair hunkers down behind every one of them. And if none of those get to you, roam around California for a while and consider the thought of one errant spark sending the state up in flames. Planetary extinction can sometimes out-despair everything else you can come up with.

The anti-despair forces point out that it is a crippling state of being, that nothing changes if we the despairing are pulling the covers over our heads, as we are some days inclined to do. Luxuriating in despair is the coward’s excuse for inaction, they say, a surrender to the bad guys. OK, we say from underneath the pillow, go tell that to (fill in the blank.)

As it turns out, though, there is an anti-despair mechanism lurking within most of us. It’s called hope. I got that word straight from Rev. Marci Auld Glass. After writing the above first two paragraphs on a Saturday night, my friend Marci threw out an unsolicited follow up on Sunday morning. “We’re wondering if we can hope,” she said (from the pulpit, for goodness’ sake) “because we are exhausted by despair. But we are not in the despair business, we are in the hope business.” The message here was obviously for me to go home and finish this essay.

 On Monday afternoon, a sentence or two farther along, the mail arrived. It bore this word from my friend Ally McKinney of Justice Revival. “The political violence of January 6th surprised me,” it began, “but it did not steal my hope.” Imagine. Among other things, Justice Revival is working to get the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution formally adopted. You thought the Equal Rights Amendment was a done deal? Actually, no. It’s been ratified by the required 38 states, but women (to cite one category of humankind) still have no constitutionally guaranteed equality here. Anyone working to finish a bill proposed to Congress in 1923, reworded in 1943 and first sent to the states for ratification in 1972 – who is still hopeful – that says a lot for hope.

Despair gets lonely; groups offer hope. Here’s where I find hope, in addition to the above: Climate One. Greenbelt Alliance. Trust for Public Land. Doctors Without Borders. Ploughshares Fund. Fill in your own nonprofit blanks. Throw in a little music and art and the ancient Sequoias still standing despite the drought and hope begins to win out.

“Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces,” Martin Luther said, “I would still plant my apple tree.” Maybe we should all go out and plant a tree.  


 [FJ1]

High Drama on Seventeenth Street

Cops on bikes arrived, dashed toward the action

The motorcade was led by four guys on motorcycles, followed by one long, black limo with a governmental emblem on its side, followed by another couple of motorcycles. Sirens, flashing lights, the whole catastrophe. But this was at dinnertime, so maybe somebody important was just late for dinner. I went right back to my own, which was in the dining room of the Army & Navy Club in our nation’s capitol, my DC home away from home thanks to my late ex-Marine husband. There was a large table full of dark suits who were seated (when my guests and I were midway through our entrees) immediately behind me. After catching a few titles when introductions were being made I eavesdropped for a while – but we quickly decided they weren’t Cabinet level so probably not worth the trouble. That scene, though, was only a preamble. The real drama started about 7 hours later.

Reinforcements also standing ready

Flashing red, white and blue lights on the ceiling interrupted my dreams at 2:30 AM. Below my window – which was on the fourth floor of the Army & Navy Club, overlooking 17th Street and Farragut Square – were several DC police cars, including the one with revolving lights. Across 17th Street was a Metro bus. There seemed to be no passengers on the bus, but near the rear door a bit of action was visible: a large, yellow-jacketed person could be seen moving somewhat ominously to and fro. I drew the line at getting dressed, going downstairs and peering across into the bus window. Still, there was definitely something sinister going on. People with brains close their blinds when staying in street-front rooms near the center of cities such as Washington DC; the rest of us get up in the middle of the night to follow urban dramas. But this one was clearly something of national urgency.

Pretty soon a few more of DC’s finest appeared, joining the several who had ridden up on bikes earlier. While no guns were drawn, they were clearly ready for anything. Temperatures were dropping into the low 40s and I worried about their un-gloved hands. But they kept careful watch. This went on for about 20 chilly minutes. At approximately 3:10 AM, one of the watchers sprinted around the corner, and returned with an emergency van of the DC Fire Department. (More flashing lights, but I was already up.)

Not just up, I was glued to the window by now. Watching a crisis unfold before my very eyes. A Russian spy? An undercover hit man intercepted just before executing his crime? A dangerous escapee from international custody?

Mission accomplished

The bus lights went out. A hunched-over person emerged from behind the bus, followed by the large person in yellow vest. A side door opened in the FDDC van, the hunched-over person climbed in, the officers biked off, the vehicles turned out their lights and drove away. It was 3:16. Peace and quiet were restored to Farragut Square. Admiral Farragut (“Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!” – he’s on the pedestal at right, hidden by the trees) would undoubtedly have approved of the speedy solution to the problem of a homeless guy sleeping on a Metro bus. At least one observer, however, felt the entire episode had come to a rather anticlimactic end.

All quiet on 17th Street

Your tax dollars at work.

The Joy of Walking in the Rain

person standing on sidewalk
Josh Wilburne on Unsplash

A walk in the rain! Among all glorious, inspirational, free things to do, I rank walking in the rain somewhere close to the top. I am admittedly a walking-in-the- rain nut; I don’t remember a time when sloshing along wet street and pathways, watching the ever-changing reflections, blinking away the water in my face wasn’t all-out delight.

Well okay, maybe not Hurricane Ida. There are differences between walking in the rain and trying to stay upright in a hurricane. As it happened, I arrived in Manhattan last September at the exact same moment as did Hurricane Ida. There being nowhere in the place I was staying to get anything at all for dinner – and because I just never turn on TV sets – I struck out in search of a pastrami reuben. Not smart. My 120-pound self was no match for THAT rain, and I barely made it back to the lobby and the streaming admonitions everywhere: Take Shelter. Stay Indoors. Stay Away From Windows. But I scored a pastrami reuben from one not-yet-closed shop. Walking in hurricanes and deluges is, for the most part, outside the scope of this essay.

The author preparing for a walk in her Do Not Hit Little Old Lady raincoat

Walking in today’s rains, if you’ve lasted through the parched months of the American west, is somewhat of a sacred experience: heightened rain appreciation. The trees drip heavenly mist. Delicately-scented moisture cocoons you. What can I say?

Nearing Rain Time recently, my friend Bob Dodge, who lives a few miles south in Portola Valley, began to despair. Downpours were predicted, but he waited throughout the night “for the sound of rain dripping from the oak leaves outside our bedroom window. Silence. I got up at right around 7:00, looking out to see overcast skies but no rain falling from those clouds. 8:00 came and San Francisco was hidden from view but the walkways were still dry . . . Where is the promised rain?!?” He thought first it might be that his fancy rain gauge on the roof was in the wrong spot, “but I am no longer allowed to go up on the roof of the house due to my advancing age.” At last report he was looking for volunteers to climb up onto the roof and move the rain gauge.

I have now checked in once more with the Portola Valley Rainman.

“The rains arrived in sheets and torrents and lasted for what seemed endless hours. Our total rainfall was about 8 inches, almost the total rainfall for the winter behind us,” he replied. I thought, knowing my reporter from the south pretty well, that he would have been out sploshing in puddles for sure.

“Alas, I did not walk in the rain. But I did walk this morning in Lake Dodge, which appeared on our garage roof during the storm. The primary drain was clogged with leaves and other debris and needed to be opened up else the whole roof might collapse. So this 85 year older got out the ladder, informed his wife of his intentions and climbed up to do his job as he has done for the past 51 years at this location. Mission accomplished. Ladder put away. Rubber boots removed and stored again. Back inside to refill my coffee cup before sitting down with my latest book. Life is good.”

The joy of rain, reconfirmed.

On Tyranny — and Anti-Tyranny

Feodora Chiosea/Getty Images

Everybody knew one: the bully kid you couldn’t avoid; the neighborhood tyrant.

When I was six, little Beverly Ann Brooks was queen. Everybody deferred to Beverly Ann. When pushed against, she had only to say, “Well, I quit,” the ultimatum that ended any game (or whatever) unless the rest of us immediately caved. That was the usual case. One day, however, my sister Mimi – Beverly Ann’s age, they were a grade above me – reached her limit. She positioned herself in front of Our Leader, placed her balled-up fists on her hips and said, “Well, quit then, Bev’ly Ann.” You can see why Mimi was my lifelong heroine. Furthermore, the tactic worked. The rest of us figuratively turned and walked away, and leadership became at least slightly more communal for the rest of the summer.

This essay is not just about tyrants on the political front, several of whom probably come to mind. (It was satisfying though, after years of watching everything I hold dear fall to one super-bully senator who will remain nameless, to see Chuck Schumer turn out to be a modern-day Mimi. At least for a while.)

I worry that we are turning into a country of mini-tyrants. Not just about laws and masks and vaccines (whereupon no amount of authoritarian edicts seem to work very well anyway) but about all manner of other things, from who gets to go where in person to why one rule is good and another the work of the devil. The dictionary definition (a few of us still keep a dictionary on the bookshelf, just because…) of a tyrant settles on “cruel and oppressive.” There seem to be cruel oppressors around at every turn. Would it not be lovely to replace a little tyranny with some old-fashioned negotiation? Negotiation seems eventually to become either too contentious or not worth bothering with – which clears the field for the tyrant. This does not seem to bode well even for tyranny, because so many tyrants are left to preside over scorched earth and a lot of dead bodies.

So what’s to be done? The best books on the subject (which I have not read, I’ve only been studying excerpts and what do I know?) advise things like standing your ground and giving the appearance of being confident. This is supposed to work for the bullied and the tyrannized, as was true for Mimi and (briefly) Chuck Schumer. Now, if we the bullied and tyrannized could figure out how to stand our ground without punching the other guy out, that would be an excellent first step.

We are also advised to try to understand the bullyer. This may be why Mary Trump’s books are selling so well, but I’m trying not to focus on the former Bully in Chief. In fact, just a rudimentary knowledge of money and power makes understanding political tyrants too easy, so this essay will focus on the local citizenry.

After standing one’s ground and trying empathy or understanding, advice turns to walking away, and/or modeling better behavior – think kindness, humor, those sorts of quaint behaviors that came naturally in pre-pandemic times. Actually, I tested this one out a few weeks ago. Caught in a sudden heated argument about outdoor restaurants, it was two against one – I love the outdoor eateries, they just hate them all because they’re unsightly and  usurp precious urban parking spaces and should be immediately outlawed. Facing the loss of both argument and friends I came up with an alternative. “Okay, okay,” I said with my sweetest smile. “I’ll go with banning everybody unless they serve ice cream sundaes with caramel sauce and extra whip at discount prices, any hour of the day.” My adversaries may not substitute that for the ordinance they’re proposing to introduce, but at least we parted friends.

And that’s all I hope for. A little less tyranny, a little more friendship.


Whither the American Mall?

The old Emporium dome lives on at Westfield Centre

The weary, wobbling American mall is a piece of today’s weary American story that’s hard to ignore. This story is about just one – which is still wobbling a bit, but working to emerge from its lingering depression.

In the Before Days – before pandemic, before economic woes, before Amazon – were the malls. Like Chicago’s Water Tower Place, Atlanta’s Phipps Plaza, Seattle’s Pacific Place or the ultimate mega-consumer destination Mall of America in Bloomington, MN. And thousands of others from the large like these to the small ubiquitous strips.

Signs of the glory days, Market St entry

Teenagers by the millions hung out in malls. Senior citizens speed-walked and exercised in malls. Shoppers even shopped in malls – enough of them to keep retailers happy, from the giant-store anchors to the boutique in-betweens to the aromatic food courts. But after getting clobbered by economic downturns and online shopping, the pandemic delivered what was a final blow to the Mall Era. A few survive, others are struggling or reinventing themselves and others make you want to weep for the desolation – and sometimes environmental disaster – their abandoned parking lots suggest. This is just one tiny glimpse backward and forward into one survivor: my city’s brave and even partly beautiful downtown Westfield San Francisco Centre.

Decades ago, in the 1970s-1980s glory days of malls, I was writing for commercial magazines that included Business Atlanta, National Real Estate Investor and – may it rest in peace –  Shopping Center World. If I could resurrect those memories (most of them delightful, some better off dead) I’m satisfied that Westfield Centre would be in there somewhere. Although that would have been in its former life as the chic San Francisco Center, with its grand Emporium rivaling the upscale Union Square emporiums for tourist business. 

Today, Westfield is reopened to masked visitors. Anchors Bloomingdale’s and Nordstrom are keeping the lights on (a LOT of lights.) A respectable number of small retailers and service shops help keep Westfield from feeling totally deserted. But it is definitely deserted in spots, such as the eastern end on Market Street, where a handful of visitors rest below the carefully preserved dome of the old Emporium. On the Mission Street side of this end is sparkling Bloomie’s though more than one department seems better suited to rolling a bowling ball down the empty space than to browsing the expensive racks.

Social distancing on elevators

At the Nordstrom end things are decidedly livelier. Shoppers and browsers keep their masks on (or are reminded to do so by signs and salespersons at every turn) – but there are more small shops with lights on than boarded over storefronts.

A few other random sights remind the shopper/stroller that this is not your yesterday’s mall: Skateboard-carrying teenagers, en route to the empty upper decks of the parking garage across Mission Street, drop them to the marble for a quick joyride along the near-empty hallways. Food court places ask for your phone number so they can text you when your order is ready, even though you’re standing barely six feet distant. Speaking of (social) distances, they are pretty much ignored – until you’re in a line somewhere and X’s mark the spots. Escalator passengers often politely wait an appropriate few stairsteps, which seems a nice touch. Otherwise, the multi-colored masks serve as a perpetual reminder that we’re a long way away from the bustling crowds of shoppers past.

But some things remain sturdy reminders of bygone days. Claire’s, the iconic ear-piercing place, apparently emerged from bankruptcy a few years ago and is back in business on the lower level; this reporter stopped by for a re-piercing job, raising the median client age by about 70 years. And one uniformed guard, standing watch at the Market Street entry for the unmasked, the disturbers of the peace, the lost or the questioning, was asked how long he’d had this job. “Since way before, ma’m,” he said with a weary smile, “way before.”   

Post-pandemic travel: planes, trains & the Flixbus

All Bus Destinations: Book your Bus Tickets from $4.99 → FlixBus

The FlixbBus Experience has won my personal post-pandemic travel award. Surpassing Amtrak, several major airlines, Lyft, Uber, even Big D’s Limos and my own beloved 2001 Volvo S40 – just to illustrate the scope of transportation choices made since we were sprung from Covid captivity. Unsure of how much traveling remains in my anticipated lifetime, and even less sure of how many virus variants are yet to come for us, I’ve been doing some serious roaming the country in the past few months. None of it dull. But the FlixBus Afternoon wins the gold medal for sheer adventure.

Pre-pandemic, I had never heard of FlixBus. You may not be familiar with it yourself, unless you’re one of the 100+ million travelers across Europe and the U.S. who have hopped aboard one of the lime green jumbos since they came into being less than a decade ago. FlixBus was the genius idea of three young entrepreneurs in Munich, Germany who wanted to make sustainable bus travel both comfortable and affordable. (Read: environmentally friendly and the price won’t break your bank account.) I learned this post-trip from the FlixFacts on the website; all I knew in advance was that the FlixBus, according to the website on which I purchased a ticket, would have an indoor bathroom and free wi-fi, my two top travel priorities. I’d already gotten to NY from San Francisco on a traditional old airplane.

There being very few ways to get from Manhattan to Ithaca, New York, I booked a seat on a FlixBus. Actually, two seats. On making my reservation I was invited to buy the adjacent seat for $5 and “travel neighbor-free.” I was also invited to add 44 cents to offset my personal carbon footprint through a contribution to the National Forest Foundation. What’s not to love about the FlixBus? But it is the total experience that merits this award.

Former fellow step-sitter punching at fellow passengers

I got to the Manhattan departure site near Madison Square Garden just over an hour ahead of time. Big mistake. FlixBus does not waste its energies (or your money) on things like bus stations, benches or ticket agents. You already bought your ticket online, anyway; don’t you know where you’re going? I finally found someone who seemed to know about things like announcements (there are none) and waiting areas. “See that building across the street?” he said; “you can sit on the steps with those people.”

Stone steps beat standing on sidewalks in 90-degree sunshine. This worked until a drugged-out fellow step-sitter above me fell over and rolled down to the sidewalk, nicking my backpack on his way. I decided it was a good time to recross the street, where I noticed a line forming beside one of the lime green FlixBuses. Someone said it was indeed going to Ithaca, so I stood in line (where the drugged-out former step-sitter was now shadow-boxing other standees) and eventually we departed.

Because drivers can’t easily access the indoor bathroom while they’re working, we pulled into a mega-gas-station/deli/store several hours later. The driver announced a 15-minute rest stop. Most of us filed in to find an iced latte, or hung around doing yoga stretches for the allotted time, at the end of which the driver reappeared and started counting noses. There were not enough. He disappeared back into the store for a while and returned to count noses again. We were still two passengers short. After two more trips and rechecks, two unconcerned passengers mysteriously reappeared and we were on our way.

In Ithaca the FlixBus came to a halt on a downtown street (where there was at least a bench) and bus and driver quickly disappeared into thin air. The other passengers were disappearing about as fast, but I asked one of them where we were and he said, “Green Street.” The Lyft people said (via app) “Are you sure you want to confirm? There are very few drivers and you may not get a ride.” The Uber people just said “No cars available.” I eventually learned there is one taxi company in Ithaca (277-7777, you can at least remember its number) and someone there said they would pick me up on Green Street; happily they knew where I was, in front of Urban Outfitters. Some 20 minutes and a repeat call later, a cab pulled up and I completed my trip from Manhattan to destination.

A few days later Big D’s picked me up – you’ll want to know about Big D’s Limos if you don’t have your own car in Ithaca and would like to count on a ride – and got me to the Syracuse terminal from which Amtrak got me back to Manhattan just in time for Hurricane Ida. An airplane later got me back to San Francisco, and all is well. For post-pandemic travel, though, the FlixBus link was definitely the most memorable segment.