Life Without Nukes? Lovely Idea

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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.

A Whodunit Answer to Today’s Woes

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Sometimes books are the only answer. This reporter, whiplashed by the daily news – as aren’t we all – regularly escapes into a book. Most recently as outlined below:

Mrs. Stone wants her husband found – and Dietrich Shanahan, known to his friends as Deets, is the man she’s picked to find him. An aging, down-on-his-luck P.I., Deets finally takes on the search for the rich and prominent Mr. Stone. With a little help from Casey the dog and no help at all from Einstein the cat – Shanahan’s total, faithful staff – Deets will solve this one to everyone’s ultimate satisfaction.

But not without running into a few corpses, a little intrigue involving good cops v bad cops, excursions into both the high life and the dark underbelly of the city, a kidnapping and more. And, bonus for Shanahan fans, a little romance. Enter Maureen, whom Deets met at the massage parlor and who decides to move in and liven up his life.

Tierney, early 2000s (Author photo)

Ron Tierney’s The Stone Veil introduced Deets to the mystery-loving world in 1990, after it won a PWA/St.Martin’s prize. It would be followed by ten more Deets Shanahan mysteries published between 1990 and 2015, all set in Tierney’s hometown of Indianapolis, and each a delight.

In his relatively short life (he died of a brain tumor at 72, in 2017) writer Ronald Tierney published one other mystery/crime series set in his adopted hometown of San Francisco, and several other novels. But in this one reader’s opinion, the Deets Shanahan series tops them all.

Because my late husband gave Ron Tierney early encouragement and support, every new book immediately appeared at my house (usually after an invitation to dinner) properly inscribed. This reporter, never having been much of a mystery reader, quickly became a Deets Shanahan fan. And having devoured the series 20+ years ago with joy, I recently picked up The Stone Veil and started over. Somewhat like the advantage of dementia being you can hide your own Easter eggs, the advantage of aging is that you can enjoy the same book a second time. 

If you’re a mystery buff – or perhaps open to becoming one – do yourself a favor: I hereby happily introduce you to Deets Shanahan.

Are We Listening to Mother Nature?

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There’s looking back — — and then there’s looking wayyyy back.

Interesting factoid picked up in Pompeii, which this reporter was lucky to stroll with an archaeologist friend recently: Mt. Vesuvius’ giant eruption really shouldn’t have been such a surprise. Those early Romans, ever eager to escape the wrath of the gods, regularly predicted the future, were aware of the past (not infrequent earth tremors), and attuned to the present (a column of smoke “like an umbrella pine,” according to Pliny the younger.) But like countless others going about the business of life on that fateful day in 79 AD, uncle Pliny the Elder was caught unaware.

Before visiting Pompeii we spent another fascinating day in nearby Herculaneum. More is known of Pompeii, a much larger city that was discovered in the 16th century, than of Herculaneum, excavations of which began in 1738. Pompeii was buried under debris and volcanic ash but everyone knew there’d been a city there; Herculaneum succumbed to a landslide of lava while nobody noticed. Pliny the Elder and his friends (we know, thanks to writings left by his nephew) died of intense heat before the tsunami. None of these seem like great ways to leave the known world.

The above is offered partly as a confessional regret about how much history I never really learned, but also as a gentle reference to my own currently beloved City of San Francisco. Which happens to be built atop three seismic faults.

Photo by Romain Briaux on Unsplash

The eruption that sent burning ash, landslides of lava and, from the sea around, a tsunami didn’t just come out of the planetary blue. Zeus, or the gods and goddesses of old, or whoever you perceive as in charge of the universe, sent indications of events to come. Somewhat like little prayer flags embossed with messages like, “Hey folks! Bigger stuff ahead!” But the decision-makers of Herculaneum (for instance) just picked up the giant boulders whose weight had created sturdy walls for a time, and rebuilt sturdier walls with mortar. An early engineering genius move – but the lava didn’t notice.

In California we are clearing brush around homes and converting (slowly) to drought- and fire-resistant plants. Building codes are increasingly aimed at earthquake resistance. Higher seawalls and engineering measures incomprehensible to right-brained writers are daily being strengthened to protect civilization’s development from rising seas. So surely Whoever’s in charge of the planet should not think we’re a bunch of non-god-fearing sluggards. But still.

It’s hard not to imagine the day, some centuries hence, when future creatures inhabiting planet earth are digging around what we think of as San Francisco, and wondering what in the world kind of life existed in 21st century AD.

Which motivates me to go clean out the kitchen cabinets.

To Be a NATO Fan or Not To Be

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Many of us (pro-NATO) are cheering Finland and Sweden’s applications for membership. Some of us can’t really follow the anti-NATO grumblings from far left or far right. Some of us say Turkey will veto any more Scandinavians anyway. Many of us are glad that people smarter than most of us will eventually sort it out. Still, what’s not to love about NATO?

Growing up the youngest of four girls, my sisters and I had a variation on the Three Musketeers theme: “Four for one and all for all.” The idea was that, despite our sometimes ferocious differences, benefits often emerged from a united front, and peace usually prevailed. Worked in pre-NATO days.

Which leads this observer to hope for a little more NATO-style all-for-one. Especially if global peace might prevail.

Adventures in Mountainside Driving

Photo of the mechanic taken by his mom

A travelogue:

The handsome grandson, a Naval officer stationed in Sicily, is functioning as a tour guide par excellence for his mother and grandmother, happy tourists. We are enjoying the incredibly beautiful Sicilian hills and mountainsides en route from Catania to Cefalu, on an incredibly beautiful Sicilian afternoon.

The roads, it is worth noting, are narrow and winding and tend toward steep inclines. Sicilian drivers, it’s further worth noting, can best be described as Oh, what the hell. Intersections are for the stout-hearted, survival goes to the victor. Solid white lines are simply gauntlets thrown down as a dare. I have no idea how a Sicilian driver lives to be middle-aged.

But the handsome grandson, who learned to drive in Manhattan, hardly notices. He does, his grandmother is happy to see, forgo high speeds and motorized challenges. Sicilian drivers in the hundreds owe their lives to his brake pedal. Ours is a pleasant, casual drive.

We three slowly become aware of an extraneous noise — think snare drum — from somewhere underneath the flooorboards. It is the sort of noise that would be unwelcome on any sort of motorized journey; but it is particularly so in a VW Golf that is, ahem, not exactly new. A clicking sound, slightly metallic.

As if by magic, a turnout appears while we are remarking on the interesting new sound. The Golf swings out of the way of daredevil Sicilian drivers, and stops. The daughter and grandson hop out; the grandmother figures there’s enough trouble without her getting out to supervise.

The handsome grandson’s skills — at least those known to the grandmother — run to linguistics, or journalism, or all things nautical; his undergraduate degree was in Chinese, forheavenssakes. Mechanical engineering has thus far not been his career path. However. The daughter and grandson slowly circle the now-silent Golf, spending a lot of time on their hands and knees peering underneath. The grandmother tries not to eavesdrop; she has great confidence in her progeny — but blood pressure issues. Bits of conversation are, however, overheard.

“Don’t you have any duct tape?” the daughter asks. “Duct tape can fix almost anything.”

“Yeah, I should’ve brought some along,” says her son. “But I think I have something else that could fix it.” Whereupon he rummages around somewhere and emerges with a tool that looks very much like a toenail clipper. He disappears from view. Muffled conversation between mother and son continues, accompanied by small mechanical maneuvers.

All seems to be going well. The grandmother is heartened. The mechanic and his assistant eventually get back in the car, but he is heard to utter the words any passenger fears most:

“I don’t know if it’s going to hold . . .”

It held.

On Being Kind to the Bees

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“I would recommend more intake of pure honey, nature’s pure food that we get from the bees.” This comment came from a faithful reader, after I wrote about tea with honey for throat issues. Faithful Reader Alvin Huie went on to mention the fact that honey has “the most nutrients, antioxidants, vitamins, etc” of many of the foods we consume.

A few minutes later I picked up my mail. It included an appeal from the good people at EarthJustice, pleading eloquently for help in saving the bees. I took this as an omen that bees of the world need a blog.

You have to love the people at EarthJustice, an environmental nonprofit with the pretty wonderful motto: Because the Earth Needs a Good Lawyer. Indeed. Bees too, apparently. It’s possible to find all sorts of opinions and data sets, depending on who (such as, agricultural products industries v environmental nonprofits) is furnishing the information. The banning of some bee-killing pesticides in the past may have somewhat slowed the scary decline in world bee populations, but I’ll go with this report from Earthday.org. Its March 2022 Fact Sheet says, among other things, that “there are 20,000 distinct bee species around the world, with 4,000 of them in the United States alone. From 2006-2015, approximately 25% fewer species were found. Under the best scenario, thousands of bee species have already become too rare.”

For an inside look into the world of bees I turned to Alvin – who happens to be an old friend and new(ish) neighbor. Now entering his 90s, Alvin is retired from an IT career and from active beekeeping (after 25+ years.) But he has kept track of all things bee-related since first getting hooked in 1994. “It’s a low-key hobby,” he says. And a lot of good fun. He attended week-long world bee conventions in S. Korea, Argentina, Ukraine and elsewhere. He reads bees books, introduces others to beekeeping and belongs to several apian organizations. There is a LOT to know and share about bees. To help with which there is Apimondia, an international federation of beekeepers’ organizations and related others that’s been around since 1895.  

Bees themselves however, bless their little apian hearts, don’t exactly enjoy lives of leisure and self-indulgence. According to their friend Alvin, the average worker bee lives about six weeks max. The drone, whose primary purpose is to mate with the queen – or help with temperature control by flapping his (larger) wings along with all the others – might live for around 30 days. But if he’s successful in beating out a few thousand fellow drones – they don’t fight about it! They just try to get closest to her – and mating with the queen, he immediately dies. What can I say? Queenie herself might live for a year or two, but during the springtime (her busiest season) she’s laying about 1500 eggs per day. All of this may be why you never hear people saying “it’s a bee’s life.”

Still. All those apian friends of ours – in the remaining 20,000 species – are critical to our survival. While we humans are hardly noticing, they are pollinating, without which activity we would lack most of the fruits, vegetables and other good things we live on. Or promoting biodiversity, or making honey or creating all that great wax we use. All of which requires, well, being as busy as bees for their entire lives.

You may want to thank a bee today.

Guerilla Warfare in the Park

Author photo: Mama Mallard choosing to avoid face-off between Papa & mean Coot

Seeking a break from domestic and international warfare, this reporter visited Mountain Lake Park, definitely one of San Francisco’s loveliest. (And my all-time favorite.)

Though Mallard ducklings have been spotted on other local lakes, none were in evidence on Mountain Lake. Possibly because there was a red tail hawk swooping around in the nearby treetops, scoping out targets for his repeated dive-bomb attacks. (The hawk moved too fast for an amateur iPhone photographer.)

Mama and Papa Mallard, meanwhile, were playing it cool. Had they camouflaged the babes somewhere ashore? They were being confronted by a local coot, member of the meanest guerilla band on the lake. Mama & Papa Mallard undoubtedly know that mean coots take particular pleasure in pecking small ducklings who dare to enter coot-controlled waters. Today featured only a preliminary skirmish among adults.

Nature seeks peace.

Voice of America (Not)

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I got tired of listening to my raspy voice. If I’m tired of listening to my raspy voice, I thought, what about the poor people listening who are not me? Have you ever just wanted to crawl under the chair to get away from a raspy-voiced friend? We won’t get into the whiny voice or the squeaky voice or the 100-decibel voice right now; they are somebody else’s problem.

“Think of it as sexy, mom,” my daughter said. This from a kid who never even heard Lauren Bacall (Google her) seducing Humphrey Bogart (likewise.) I do not, however, sound like Lauren Bacall. More like a slug calling for help because she’s stuck on a piece of sandpaper. I think I would not get far with a phone porn career.

So I turned to my old friends at Kaiser. There was thumping and testing and X-raying and an excess, in my opinion, of references to my Smoker’s Lungs. Smoker’s Lungs, 58 years after I quit smoking? Well, sorry people, once a smoker, forever a wearer of that scarlet SL tattooed onto your chest. Pulmonologists know.

Thereafter, I visited with the pleasant young ENT guy, who gave me a crash course in Vocal Chords 101 before slipping a camera down for a video of my vocal chords in action. There are repulsive videos and repulsive videos, but I promise you there is nothing more repulsive than a video of your vocal chords from the inside. While we were reviewing the demo Vimeo – I guess repulsive videos are just another day at the office for ENT people – there was further review of the essential message of Vocal Chords 101: your vocal chords are nothing but a couple of muscles. Mine are, shall we say, no longer young.

“The word you are trying to avoid using,” I remarked to Doctor ENT, “is ‘flabby.’”

“I wasn’t going to say that,” he said. But I could see into his soul.

“You can’t reverse the aging process,” he said, somewhat un-gallantly; “but you can make things better!” Whereupon he set me up with a stern-voiced vocal therapist. She was utterly no-nonsense. “Do these exercises” – think warming up for the church choir – “for 20 minutes, three times a day.” An hour a day? When I can’t find 5 minutes to check the #%+&* Instagram feed? And anyway, the church choir definitely does not want me back.

I’m going to think of it as sexy.