On Earning a Living

Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

According to the New York Times (Of Interest, April 9,) Discovery TV mogul David Zaslav “earned a compensation package valued at $246.6 million last year.”

Excuse me?

Nobody earns $246 million in a year. People earn money, sometimes a living, by digging ditches, waiting tables, selling things, building things, teaching others, sometimes even by writing stories.

People rake in multiple millions “in compensation” by being smart and skilled and trading up. Usually with a little luck.

Ketanji Brown Jackson earned a seat on the Supreme Court. It pays pretty well, an average of just over a quarter million. Mr. Zaslav, I presume, worked hard for the annual thousands that have led to his current millions.

But in deference to all who labor to earn a living wage, could we find a better verb for raking in mega-millions? Maybe I’ll ask The Times.   

Modern Laundry 101

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Do I really want to start the laundry back home, in the middle of a lobster dinner at the Ritz? Perhaps.

Or maybe it can wait.

My new Bash automatic washer (names are being changed to protect the innocent) arrived recently, along with an instruction book designed for someone with an advanced degree from MIT. But I got through it (I do have an MFA in Short Fiction,) followed all the instructions, ran the Drum Clean cycle and am now happily doing the laundry that has piled up since my former Bash died of natural causes. In hindsight, I feel it was morally wrong – or improper at best – to have let my old Bash be carted off with hardly a notice.

Here’s what my new Bash can do – I’m still reading the instruction book, but I think I’ve got it. If I scan the QR code, and program everything else – i.e., I’m also going to need to go buy a Voice Assistant – I will be able to call home and start the laundry in the middle of the main course. Do I wish to receive Push Notification when the cycle is done? That would be, say, during dessert. I may pass on the Push Notification.

Engin Ukyart on Unsplash

No offense to the high tech Bash designers, but what’s wrong with getting off the sofa the old-fashioned way and doing the laundry myself?

I have a long history with laundry. Before we got the fancy new washer with wringer attachment that was rolled over to the sink to run the water in – I was about 10 years old at the time – my mother had a washboard* forheavenssakes. Google it.

At the end of the Instruction Book are several pages of Problem/ Possible Cause(s)/ Solution for one’s further entertainment. My favorite is (Problem) Water does not appear to be filling in; (Possible Cause) Water taps not turned on; (Solution) Turn on water taps. I mean, really. They think I’m smart enough to scan QR codes and call the Voice Assistant in the middle of my dinner party, and I don’t know to turn on the water tap? Following the P/PC/S pages are another few pages of further information about the little emojis, symbols and dotted numbers that may light up. I think this is for the protection of the Bash people against claims of mental collapse caused by mysterious emojis blinking all over the laundry room.

Speaking of which. The final pages of the Book are all about Limited Product Warranty and “effectuated warranty coverage,” because of course there are warranties for all these technological wonders. With limits. After a time, “Bash is under no obligation, at law or otherwise, to provide you with any concessions, including repairs, prorates or Product replacement . . .”

I may go find a washboard.  

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*there’s even a story inspired by the 1940s Maytag washer in forthcoming Marshallville Stories! Publication date: April 19th. Hope you’ll pick up a copy.

Dying Badly in the ICU

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“A performance,” the physician called it. She was referring to futile treatments of a dying patient in the Intensive Care Unit performed to make the family feel that “everything had been done.”

Well, thanks but no thanks.

Does the poor dying person get a voice here? Whose body is being bashed by chest compressions, invaded with wires and tubes, unceremoniously “treated” – just because we can? If it’s ever mine (though I’ve got every possible deed & document designed to keep me out of ICUs) I will come back to haunt everyone in that room.

What brought this up again – I’ve written about futile treatments of the dying before, and probably, sadly, will again – was an opinion piece published recently in the New York Times by Daniela J. Lamas. Lamas is a pulmonary and critical-care physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. The sentence that sent my blood pressure skyward was this: “Even if my patients are beyond pain, there is also a cost to those who are forced to perform emergency efforts that is just that: a performance.”

I submit there is also a cost to the patient. Who really knows what “beyond pain” means to a human being?

It is gauche and unacceptable to mention the financial cost here, but I can’t help that either. We could pay off the national debt in a year or two by simply facing up to this issue. If physicians like Dr. Lamas don’t enjoy “performance treating” in ICUs, and (prospective) patients like yours truly Do Not Want all that heroic resurrection stuff done – why can’t we talk about it?

Granted, the job of EMTs and ICUs is to preserve life at all costs. But what if we, the reasonably healthy public, were to demand limitation of those costs? What if we were to demand – write it into advance directives, tell every friend and family member, maybe tattoo it onto our chests – that heroic life-preservation efforts be made only when reasonable life may be made possible?

Lamas was telling the story of a family unready to face the death of their loved one, despite the fact that “It was clear that there was nothing more that we could do. Except keep (the patient) alive until Monday.” That meant two full days of sedation, intubation and every conceivable medical procedure – including, hopefully, enough pain medication to avoid terrible suffering, but who knows, really? And for what? Or, more to the point, for whom? The essay was aptly titled “Who Are We Caring for in the I.C.U?”

If you Google “futile medical treatment” the list of articles and studies is impressive – plenty of medical professionals are as concerned as this lay writer – and one conclusion is stark: the waste of time, skills and money on futile treatment at life’s end is enormous. And for what?

Obviously there’s no one simple answer. Often as not, there’s one family member (or more) arguing for a loved one’s life to be extended even when everyone knows that death would be the kinder choice. To that not-dying person I would say, Get over it. Well, I wouldn’t say it like that; I’d say it very, very kindly because the not-dying person clearly has issues.

But we, as a society, need to get over thinking of death as the ultimate enemy and “life” as something that must be preserved even when it’s no longer living in any sense. Most of us would far prefer a peaceful death – at whatever age – to a vegetative state that is unpleasant at best and painful at worst. But only by writing those (and other!) preferences down, and talking about them out loud, will we ever diminish the sad, wasteful “performance” care of the ICU.

One healthy person at a time. Want to join this movement?

Optimism Survives & Conquers

shallow focus photography of yellow sunflower field under sunny sky

shallow focus photography of yellow sunflower field under sunny sky
Photo by Susanne Jutzeler on Pexels.com

Watching the news, as some of us compulsively do, is hazardous to my optimist health. The virus may be in retreat here, but death and destruction overseas overshadow all.

Still: sunflowers in shop windows, blue and yellow everywhere. Flags, banners, whatever anyone finds. Two women, one in a blue coat, the other in yellow, walk arm in arm just ahead of me. A friend with an overseas relief nonprofit says everyone she knows is putting in 18-hour days — without complaint.

Author photo from across the street

San Francisco City Hall has gotten into the act. From Symphony Hall across the street, I listen to soaring music before walking back into the blue and yellow glow. Optimism survives.

Today’s Miracle Drug

photo medication pills on white plastic container

(Serious side effects may occur . . .)

photo medication pills on white plastic container
Photo by Anna Shvets on Pexels.com

As a public service, I have begun a trial regimen of the medication reported to be an answer to today’s needs. In case you have not yet taken such a step of your own accord, I am reprinting, below, the instructions and some minor cautionary details that came with my supply:

Enclosed please find your 30-day supply of Perfecto99. Taken as directed, Perfecto99 will improve your overall energy level, brain function  and ability to achieve life goals.

Common side effects may include muscle pain, headaches, nausea and diarrhea. Do not take Perfecto99 if you are or plan to become pregnant..     

Clinical trials have shown Perfecto99 to be as good as, or better than all similar supplements currently awaiting FDA approval.

Call your doctor if you have problems urinating, or if you notice involuntary or uncontrollable muscle movement, as these can be permanent.

Perfecto99, now the global leader in extending average life expectancy, has been shown to improve activity and longevity among Caucasian, AAPI, Black and LatinX populations. Even a few Swedes.

Perfecto99 can cause intestinal problems, serious abdominal pain and sometimes fatal bleeding. Also, occasional burning, crawling, itching, numbness, prickling, “pins and needles”, or tingling feelings have been reported.

Don’t drive, attempt to stand on your own or operate heavy equipment within 24 hours of taking Perfecto99. Just stay in bed and feel sorry for yourself.

Before starting Perfecto99, we recommend a thorough examination by the physician(s) of your choice, including but not limited to bronchoscopy, endoscopy, colonoscopy and cross-check by a qualified podiatrist.

Get help right away if you experience swelling of the face, mouth or tongue, or if you notice a rash appearing on extremities. In rare cases, severe upper respiratory tract and chest infections leading to death have been reported.

Perfecto99 contains alphanomaic acid, which has been shown to offer immediate relief for listlessness, joint pain and stressful family arguments.

Do not take Perfecto99 if you are allergic to its ingredients, or if you have Guillain-Barré syndrome, Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Alzheimer’s, Bell’s palsy, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome or long-haul Covid. We may have left something out here.

Our trained Perfecto99’ers stand ready to take your calls at 999-888-7220; simply follow the prompts and do not despair. If you are dissatisfied in any way, a full refund will be promptly sent to you or your survivors.

Watching War Begin

Jordy Meow on Unsplash

Surreal. There is no other word.

Last night I was having a cup of after-dinner coffee, working on my computer with MSNBC on in the background. A correspondent in flak vest and helmet was standing in the middle of Kyiv saying, “We’re hearing shelling in the background . . .” and soon thereafter, “Sirens are now going, you can hear them . . .” And we could.

The screen switched to a map showing movement of troops, tanks, missile launchers. Hearing Russian President Putin make references to his country’s nuclear power was almost too much.

One of my earliest memories is of a night in the late 1930s, when I was about four (Yes, I am that old.) My sister Mimi and I were asleep in our double bed; Mimi was six. It seemed the middle of the night to us – in reality it was probably about 10 PM – when our father sat on the edge of the bed and gently woke us up. Then he lifted us, one in each arm, and carried us downstairs into the living room. It was clear this was not a joy ride; I remember trying hard to wake up.

My mother was there, sitting in her chair in front of the big Philco radio, and my father deposited us onto the floor. The announcer – probably Edward R Murrow, the source of all radio news in our house (and most others) – was talking but I have no memory of what he was saying. My father turned the sound down, and said, “This man you’ll hear in a minute is going to cause terrible destruction in the world. I want you to know what a madman sounds like.” Again, I don’t recall being afraid, just incredibly curious. My parents never woke us up once Mimi and I went to bed and were out of their hair; our two older sisters turned in later. They were probably also in the living room but I don’t remember.

The announcer’s voice was replaced by static crackling around the room. It was (I later understood) the sound of short-wave radio being beamed from overseas. Then we heard crowd noise and shouting. Very soon a man’s angry voice started shouting. We had absolutely no idea what he was saying – it was in German. The man was Adolph Hitler. I think it was the last time he was heard on short-wave radio in the U.S.; but soon that voice and the responses of the crowds would be everywhere in the newsreels shown in movie theaters before the feature films.

Everybody knows what happened next.

I know this is 2022, and not 1940. I don’t know if Mr. Putin is unhinged (as he seems,) but that’s just part of what we have to worry about. I’m grateful for the stability and good hearts of most world leaders here and abroad, but it’s hard to forget the angry voice of a madman who craved power at any cost, and what that cost turned out to be.

Can we still avert catastrophe? One can hope. I pray for the people of Ukraine. And for some miraculous peace.

A Love Letter to Allan Karlsson

Bruno Martins on Unsplash

Even if he’s a little older than I am

How do you thank a storybook character?

I need to send a giant hug to Allan Karlsson. You know, the 100-year-old man.

Yeah, that one, the one who climbed out the window and disappeared. (If you haven’t read it, just go pick up a copy of The 100-year-old man who climbed out the window and disappeared.Skip the movie, read the book.)

Allan, who climbed out the window to escape a sappy birthday party in his Swedish nursing home, is my new BFF. I owe him big time.

I read the book (as have more than five million others around the globe) several years ago, but recently decided to listen to it through my earbuds while walking around San Francisco – something I do most days for three or four miles. So people gave me strange glances, as I burst out laughing in the middle of the crosswalk. It was entirely worth it. My friend Allan lifted me out of the doldrums, obliterated the daily news and generally made life better for weeks.

Hard as it is to choose, here are two favorite messages from my favorite fictional geezer:

Teetotalers (I’m one, thanks to unfortunate conflicts with booze) are generally a threat to world peace. And – this next is a little hard to condense, but until you get hold of the book:

Allan and friends at one point are raking in profits through sales of hundreds of beautifully produced Bibles that they fished out of the trash. Why were they trashed? (Spoiler alert!) Well briefly, the typographer slipped in an extra verse at the end of the book, creating a final sentence (Revelation 22:22) that reads And they lived happily ever after.

Why not?

I do try very hard not to threaten world peace. But thanks to Allan Karlsson, and his Swedish author/creator Jonas Jonasson, I am laughing more happily ever after.

What I Learned on the Streets

Spruce Street at Sacramento one recent night

Wisdom is afoot. Well, actually, underfoot. Celebrate peace, seek justice. Make love, not war. Be here now. Those are three of my favorite etched-in-the-sidewalk messages so far. They may not cover everything, but it’s a good start.

A confirmed cloud freak, I am constantly staring at the sky. But in between sky-watching episodes I like to study the sidewalks. It may have started the day I noticed, etched into the California Street concrete, this cryptic message: I love you anyway. How many stories could be written around those four words? If the sidewalk and its message had not shown the wear and tear of many feet over many years I might have been frantically knocking on doors for the full story. Why was someone kneeling over wet concrete, carefully carving those four words into eternity? What went on between the two of them?! Or were there others involved here? And is he or she still loved, anyway? Maybe there was a happy ending. One wants to believe.  

Sands of time, circa 1993

Most of us have seen or done the traditional sidewalk declaration – two names encircled within a heart. Or “Jamie 12-14-08,” – whatever child happened to live in the house above at the time of new sidewalk installation. Tiny handprints or footprints immortalizing some now teenager. It happened in front of my new old (1905 Victorian) San Francisco house in 1992 and 1993 as renovations required tearing up and replacing sidewalk squares. For the record, the San Francisco property owner whose pipes are being replaced, or whose tree roots have buckled the concrete bears the cost of the new squares. In 1993 that came to $50 per square. Therefore, when the concrete people told me to stay away from their smooth surfaces I smiled politely and reminded them of how much this job was costing us. And as soon as they drove off we went to work. My two eldest grandchildren, then about two & three years old each contributed a toy (dump truck for the grandson, horse for the granddaughter) to embed beside their footprints. We sold the house in 2013, but the memorial sidewalk squares remain. They are carefully supervised by the current owner, whose three children have now scratched their own names into nearby sidewalk sections.

Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington DC

Sidewalk etchings combine the historic with the enigmatic: Everything will be OK, for instance, will remain a favorite of mine – as it certainly was on walks throughout the pandemic. Across the country from that one was an all-caps query that took up almost one entire sidewalk square: IS THAT SO? it asks. On that same visit to our nation’s capitol, I paused to do a selfie with Black Lives Matter stretching across the plaza behind me. But it’s my walking-shoes-clad toes that  appear in the majority of the other photos in my Sidewalks album. Including the philosophical: If I cannot do great things, I can do small things in a great way. That one took a lonng time, as anyone who’s ever worked in wet concrete can affirm. Someone also spent a long time on the careful scripting of Love Thy Neighbor plus a few hearts etched onto a downtown city sidewalk where a lot of homeless neighbors currently live.   

A small thing done in a quasi-permanent way

With the advent of colored chalk, sidewalk wisdom took on a bright new life. On one San Francisco block, where the lack of rain guarantees a fairly long sidewalk-shelf life, a collection of drawings and slogans appeared virtually overnight. It had to have been a group effort – a group advocating for reproductive rights, adoption, contraception and peace, in no particular order. But as the peace signs were prominently scattered among symbols for ovaries and women’s rights, this group doesn’t seem to want to go to war over the issue(s.)

Photographing sidewalk wisdom in the sunshine

But San Francisco’s “Slow Streets” campaign brought things to a once unimaginable new level. The campaign closed multiple blocks of streets throughout the city to vehicular traffic (excepting bikes and skateboards and assorted other people-movers.) This opened up miles and miles of pavement to kids of all ages. Presumably the illustrations that quickly covered long stretches of macadam are mostly kid-driven (the skill level seemed roughly third grade; I hope I’m not hurting any community feelings here,) but adult-supervised just in case. Whatever the age, these 21st century street decorations skip all efforts to preach, argue, convert or grumble and go straight to optimism: hearts, smiley faces, love, joy predominate.

Graffiti may rule, but sidewalk art rocks.