Ten Steps to a Guaranteed Good Day

Photo by Zac Durant on Unsplash

OBSERVATIONS OF AN OCTOGENARIAN OPTIMIST

The following appeared on my Medium.com site, result of a conversation/sort-of-contest about Life Lessons in Ten Steps. (New & improved versions welcome.)

1 – Start positive. Finding one hopeful thing to focus on can kick-start anybody’s day, especially when there’s not a lot of hopeful going around. Finders keepers. 

2 – Pay attention to Mother Nature. The planet needs help: turn off the water, turn the thermostat down if it’s winter and up if it’s summer, eat local. Meanwhile, fight for policy changes.

3 – Move. As long as you’re up, go for a walk. Running is fine – I did that, neighborhood 5k’s, marathon, the whole endorphin thing, for decades. But walking opens up brand new interactions with humankind and the natural universe. Plus, you can pick up litter (see Step 2.)

4 – Listen to your grandchildren. Or anybody under 30. But ONLY if they’re explaining the viewpoints of their generation, or technology. Do not, under any circumstances, let them try to explain – or worse, invite you to try – Tik Tok. Looking at Tik Tok will lower your anticipated lifespan by at least 5 or 10 years. There are kids out there who may never reach adulthood.

5 – Eat pretty. My mother taught me that a colorful plate equals a healthy meal. You know: something yellow, something green, etc. Plus, your lunch guests will think you’re culinarily clever. Chocolate goes with everything.

6 – Do a good thing. A tiny thing, like smiling at a street person (while looking him or her in the eye!) or a bigger thing like accompanying an immigrant to an asylum hearing. Good things may or may not do much for the recipient, but one or two can make your own whole day.   

7 – Dump a bad thing. I for one carry around a long list of Oughts, such as I-really-ought-to- call-Suzie-whom-I-don’t-actually-know-and-it’ll-open-up-a- whole-can-of-worms-but-she’s-driving-me-nuts . . . But most of those Suzies don’t even remember your name. Every such person or chore wiped off your contact list/calendar permanently improves your wellbeing.

8 – Go for another walk. You cannot go for too many walks. Or go to the gym, or do yoga or tai chi or anything else that requires putting away your cellphone. There is life without cellphone.

9 – Think positive. See Step #1. There’s plenty of darkness in the world but light overcomes it (thanks, MLK.) Or, to sort-of quote another great philosopher, Emily Dickinson, hope perches in the soul and asks nothing in return. 

10 – Be kind. It doesn’t cost anything. In decades of being with people as they die (volunteering with hospice, End of Life Choices CA etc) I’ve never seen a mean person suddenly change and die kindly. I’ve seen a lot of kind people die peacefully. Along the way, the world just needs kindness. It perches in your soul, and reaches into infinity.

A Drought-Relief Road Trip

Serious rain clouds ahead

After more than six months of near-total drought in Northern California, one cross-country flight to JFK and a side trip to Ithaca provided a reminder of wet stuff from the skies. It’s been easy to forget: by last May, 2022 was the driest year ever recorded in California. We’ve tried everything but the rain dance; and probably there are rain dances going on somewhere. Can we spell Climate Change? California looks as if someone might drop a match and the whole state will go up in flames.

Setting out from Ithaca to Manhattan one August morning, though, things looked promising. Cloudy skies! And we’re not talking fog here! (No offense, Karl the fog.)

Intermittently the skies brightened – enough for glimpses of leaves just starting to turn. Another east coast specialty. (The orange markers were filling in for full fall colors to come.)

Some of parched California’s favorite things? Raindrops on windshields! Especially, as in this case, when someone else is driving. It was possible to watch the raindrops ahead, and to look toward the west where the cloudy skies could be seen breaking up.

And then— rounding another mountain or two, blue skies again. For someone totally, thoroughly heart-transplanted to San Francisco, sunny skies to glorious rains in a six-hour drive across New York is still a gift worth sharing.

Author photos from the passenger seat; driving courtesy of granddaughter Connery O’Brien

Love Affair with a Library

Looking skyward from midway up (Author photo)

I’m simply in love with the San Francisco Main Library. Yes, THAT library, with the rotating cast of questionable characters on one side and tent encampments on another. But how about the gleaming dome of City Hall lending a little majesty to the third side, just across the street from the proper front door?

City Hall from in front of the library (Author photo)

It’s more of a crush, this thing I have with the Main. Presidio Branch was my true love for decades. It took some wrenching away when we finally broke up, after I downsized to the Western Addition’s neighborhood. But one should love one’s neighbor, and Western Addition and I have built a respectable relationship. It’s far more multicultural, as this new love offers affection in Chinese characters that Presidio barely knew. Plus, proud little Western Addition stakes its sixties-funk architectural claim to my affection in defiance of the multitude of branches in the classic Carnegie style. (Is there a Carnegie style? Well, Carnegie money built a bunch of those lovely branches. They’re just a few of the 1,689 libraries Andrew Carnegie built with his accumulated millions. Hardly an admirable man, but you’ve got to appreciate all those libraries.)

Old meets new: Computer monitors & books – books are forever – & Carnegie architecture at Noe Valley Branch (Author photo)

The Main, though, behind its politely classic exterior, has nothing but shiny, multi-floored open arms waiting for love. I mean. Not only the real people just sitting there ready to answer your questions or check out your books, those smiling faces also featured in my other librarian loves. Free wi-fi, with nobody spilling coffee on you! But at the Main are multi-story stairs descending (or ascending if you really want exercise) into floor after floor of collections and attractions. When this brief story appeared on another site (I get sidetracked onto Medium.com) one reader observed, about elevators at the Main, “You can’t get there from here.” I think the architect just intended for everyone to roam. Talking Books & Braille Center on the 2nd floor. Deaf Services Center on the 1st. Music on the 4th floor, History on the 6th. LGBTQIA on floor 3, Jobs & Careers on 4. What’s not to love about The Main Library of San Francisco?

Real people checking out real books! (Author photo)

Altogether, the Main is magic-making. Professor Harold Hill, though he might not find his Marian the Librarian, could stage a Music Man for the ages in the heart of downtown San Francisco. I’d be first in line for auditions.

Should the pope open a WordPress blog?

Photo by Ashwin Vaswani on Unsplash

I seldom agree with the good Pope Francis, although we do share a name. (It’s spelled with an ‘i’ for the Franks of the world; Frances is for the Frans & Frannies. This is an educational essay.)

Our disagreements include:

The pontiff would have just about every pregnant woman in the world carry that fetus to term, without a nod toward what else is going on with that woman, her life, her health or her concern for a fetus that’s not viable — all things that seem worth considering before we just ban abortion, period. He and I do read the same Bible, which, by the way, does not mention abortion.

The other cause with which I am deeply involved, the right to control one’s final days when one is near death, is opposed at every turn by Pope Francis and his otherwise perfectly respectable church. Happy side note: In California we have the End of Life Option Act, which was signed into law in 2015 by deeply religious Catholic Gov. Jerry Brown. Gov. Brown opined that he didn’t know if he’d want to make such a choice — using legal Medical Aid in Dying — himself, but didn’t think he had the right to deny others such a choice. And bless his Jesuit heart.

So I follow the goings-on of the aging pontiff with a degree of fellow-Christian skepticism. But here he is, in a recent New York Times, urging compassion for the aged. I would definitely be in agreement with the Vatican on this one; surely we can all get on board for compassion.

As the story evolved, though, the pontiff kept throwing in phrases like “spending time with the old forces people to slow down, turn off their phones and follow a deeper clock;” or “there is a gift in being elderly, understood as abandoning oneself to the care of others.” Full disclosure: I am older than the pope. This is admittedly VERY old, but such is life. Seeing photos of Francis in a wheelchair when I’ve just finished a three-mile walk around the hills of San Francisco evokes a degree of compassion from yours truly.

I just resist giving The Old a blanket bad rap of total decrepitude. Some of us (not me) are still running corporations or making scientific discoveries. Some of us (not me) are still running marathons. Some of us are agitating for reproductive justice, end-of-life choice and world peace — all of which are compassionate endeavors.

Maybe the pope should start a WordPress blog?

Wait! We’re so smart? How about those urbane Greeks & Romans?

The author contemplating a Grecian mountaintop (Prophet Elias Monastery, founded 1711, Santorini)

The sky is falling! Breaking news! Our fragile democracy in peril!!

Life still feels shaky. Even without those constant, frenetic tweets threatening to alter the course of world events in moments, truth competes with fake news. Long-established rights and laws are questioned – or disappear before our eyes. American democracy, firm in its 1787 roots & long cherished, now teeters.

Theater of Dionysus, 6th century BC, restored a few times since then. (Author photo)

Maybe what goes around comes around.

Maybe there’s nothing — or at least not that much — new under the sun.

I recently had the great good fortune to spend some time with family and an archaeologist friend in ancient Italy and Greece: Cefalu, Pompeii, Herculaneum, Athens — proud metropolitan centers of a few centuries back, where the elite and the downtrodden went about their daily lives without any futuristic dream of upstart cities like New York or San Francisco. Confronted with visions of that future they might have been awed, but I suspect they might also have sniffed. Oh, really? You think you’re so clever?

Euripides was wowing audiences in the theater above in 400 BC, and nobody had even heard of Shakespeare or Arthur Miller.

Backyards of Pompeii (Author photo)

Meanwhile, across the Mediterranean the good people of Pompeii were enjoying themselves at their own amphitheaters, or entertaining at their own dinners, albeit languidly reclining rather than sitting upright in uncomfortable chairs, which, when you think about it, might not be such a bad idea. Those dining rooms often featured gorgeous artworks, and outside the open windows were beautiful vistas. The ladies of the time were adorned with gold and silver and precious gemstones.

Wine flowed. Not from the storied cellars of Napa and Sonoma where someone’s daughter had just completed a destination wedding, but from the nearby vineyards of people who likely knew their grapes and their land very well thank you.

(Author photo)

Maybe, on less formal evenings, they went out for pizza. Our newfangled microwaves are unquestionably handy, but back in downtown Herculaneum they were baking good things in serious ovens seven days a week. In all probability the bakers and assorted other workers did not enjoy the high life of the rich and famous, but what else is new? They caroused on city squares and sang songs by firesides, and while those outdoor venues may not all have been as grand as Athens’ Acropolis there were amphitheaters aplenty. Improv and/or a little lute music kept everybody happy. Performers performed without microphones or electronics, and presumably they could be heard in the cheap seats of the top rows. Given the fact that contemporary movie theaters set their sound levels at ear-splitting decibel levels, and viruses proliferate in crowds, those outdoor venues seem not without merit.

Commerce? Plenty of that too. In the ancient cities they bargained in the marketplaces, without benefit of the Dow. Many centuries after the glory days of Athens and Pompeii the merchants of Santorini watched from their mountaintops (top photo) as sailing ships came and went, just as forecasters and harbormasters in centuries past had watched, waited and done business. Ships were loaded and unloaded just as they are in New York, Houston and Oakland. On-time deliveries were made.

Mt Etna doing its gentle Mt Etna thing, as seen from downtown Catania, May 2022 (Author photo)

We know all this, of course, partly from preserved writings, and partly because many of those earlier urbanites were settled beneath the shadow of Mt Etna (above,) or its more ferocious volcanic neighbor Mt Vesuvius.

Vesuvius stopped the good folks of Pompeii in their tracks some 22 centuries ago, preserving details of daily life under layers of volcanic ash. Nearby Herculaneum succumbed to a flood of lava. Neither seems a good way to die, but we can be grateful for their gifts to posterity.

This reporter is decidedly too far removed from her high school Latin and college Greek to submit any of the above as the whole truth. But I was blessed with the 21st century company of an archaeologist who teaches Italian middle schoolers — about my level — and a grandson who speaks the languages. The takeaway? #IStillLoveSanFrancisco, but our forebears across the seas would likely have thought #PompeiiTheGreatest. And the night before flying home I was awestruck once again by the beauty of Metropolitan Athens — presided over by the brightly shining Acropolis on its eternal hill.

(Author photo)

An Arrow into San Francisco’s Heart

“Cupid’s Span” by Claes Oldenberg (Author photo July 2022)

While the art world mourned the recent death of Claes Oldenberg (1/28/1929–7/18/2022) San Franciscans went right on appreciating his local work the best way we know how: resting on the green grass of its base, dog-walking all around it, sitting meditatively near its bow while gazing across the blue waters into brilliant blue skies . . . Or maybe driving home across the Bay Bridge and smiling at a familiar marker in front of the skyline. Just one more joyful, unique piece of a unique city.

I want to believe Oldenberg would be pleased. While I never met him (though I did happen to see him at the Guggenheim in Manhattan one day and edged around nearby as if we were really best friends) I think anyone who could create great art from a minds-eye view of hamburgers, typewriter erasers, men’s ties and birdhouses — just to name a few — had to have had both genius talent and a whimsical view of the world. For years he collaborated with his second wife, Coosje van Bruggen (who died in 2009) on works such as Cupid’s Span. Ours is one of a number of massive public sculptures in cities across the U.S. and the globe — “Free Stamp” in Cleveland, “Dropped Cone” (as in ice cream cone) in Cologne. Cupid’s Span remains this writer’s favorite.

Author photo taken at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 2019

Cupid’s Span, which commands a territory on the Embarcadero at the foot of Rincon Hill, was a gift to the city from Gap founders, art collectors and Oldenberg admirers Don and Doris Fisher. They commissioned the 70-foot sculpture in 2002 when historic Rincon Hill was beginning one of those often-in-San-Francisco rebirths. As anyone old enough to remember those times will attest, some people loved it, some hated it, but almost nobody had no opinion. On a Commonwealth Club city walk a few years after Cupid’s Span settled in this writer heard a tourist comment, “I know exactly how he feels.” Which was an enigmatic statement too good to explore.

Author photo, July 2022

According to Cupid’s Span’s own Wikipedia page, “the piece resembles Cupid’s bow and arrow, drawn, with the arrow and bow partially implanted in the ground; the artists stated that the piece was inspired by San Francisco’s reputation as the home port of Eros, hence the stereotypical bow and arrow of Cupid.” Rest in peace, Mr. Oldenberg, and thanks again from the City of Love.

Dying in Pain – or Comfort?

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

This essay appears on the blog page of End of Life Choices CA, a nonprofit which I am proud to serve as a volunteer and board member. Perhaps you’ll visit the site, or at least find a little food for thought here.

When is being comfortable and pain-free not a good idea? Most of us would say never. As we humans approach life’s end, though, that question can get trickier. Or at least more complex.

 A recent court case stirred renewed discussion of end-of-life care, specifically comfort care and pain control.

Dr. William Husel, a physician with Columbus, Ohio-based Mount Carmel Health System, was accused of killing 14 patients between 2014 and 2018 by administering excessive doses of fentanyl, a powerful opioid which has become a common, and very dangerous, street drug. Prosecutors argued that he had committed murder; the defense argued that he was providing comfort and the patients – all were in intensive care units – died of their underlying disease. Dr. Husel was found not guilty on all counts in April, 2022. 

The controversy spread throughout the Mount Carmel Health System, eventually leading to the resignation of the chief executive and the firing of more than 20 employees. Dr. Husel, though acquitted of all charges, later voluntarily surrendered his medical license. But renewed discussion of end-of-life care can only be seen as a plus. All of us will face life’s end; not all of us will have given thought to what we want that end to look like. Or what choices, including pain management, we might make.

Photo by Stefan Kunze on Unsplash

“It sometimes happens that families and even caregivers are not familiar with comfort care,” says End Of Life Choices CA Board Vice President Robert V. Brody MD. This can include end-of-life care, “where the direction switches from curing disease to keeping the patient comfortable (and) can be misinterpreted as hastening death when in fact the medical literature says that keeping people at peace actually prolongs their life.” A primary care, hospice and palliative care, and pain management physician, Dr. Brody is Clinical Professor of Medicine and Family & Community Medicine at the University of CA San Francisco. He is also a leading spokesman on matters of medical ethics in the U.S. and abroad. “Dying people often need high doses of opioids to manage pain,” he observes. “This is done in an entirely beneficent way, and in no way is it meant to cause harm. Those not directly involved may misinterpret these efforts.”

As the currently popular meme goes, “It’s complicated.” This was shown in the Husel/Mount Carmel case, and countless other instances since the meme appeared years ago. While opioids are highly addictive, and one of the leading causes of death among Americans under 55, they are widely used in treating dying patients. Most of us would welcome them, if appropriate, as we are dying.

Comfort is a happy state at any age.

Little Boxes of the Past

Photo by Joanna Kosinska on Unsplash

In one of her many memorable essays writer Ann Patchett has a throwaway line, something about “little boxes of the past.” And since any throwaway line of Ann Patchett’s is better than most profoundly thought lines of my own, I have brazenly stolen it for this small essay.

It’s what we do, collect little boxes of the past. Beginning with tin cans (well, those are close enough to little boxes) of treasures buried under an oak tree, continuing throughout diary phases and memo books and leading eventually to metal cabinets and computer files.

Anyone who’s ever downsized knows about those Big Boxes of the past: the books and tools and chinaware handed down from generation to generation, the letters tied up with ribbons, the dolls and games and record collections. Some are easier to pack up and toss away than others; but eventually they’ll all move on.

The StoryWorth Book

Stories, though, are the little boxes of the past we keep. They are the ones that can be pure joy to pack up and store — or send into the future, as either fact or fiction.Fact would be the family story. Nifty ways to pack up little boxes of the past can be found in the popular do-it-yourself online storytelling sites. Despite having been a writer and storyteller all my life, the idea of creating an autobiography or a family history was about as appealing to me as re-taking the SATs. But a few years ago my daughter gave me (with my permission) a membership in “StoryWorth” for Christmas. (StoryWorth is thus the one I know; there are at least a dozen others.) The way it works is: they send a question every week — “What was your father like when you were a child?” “Who were your high school friends?” and such — you send back a response, plus photos if you want, and at the end of a year they make it into a book. After I figured out I could ask my own questions I circulated an email. “This is as close as you’re ever going to come to a family history,” I wrote. “So if there’s anything you want to know, ask it now.” They didn’t send me anything easy. “What was the biggest challenge you faced growing up,” my daughter-in-law wrote; “and how did you face it?” Whew. But I plugged along, sent my answers more or less weekly, along with bunches of old photos, and at the end of a year my family had a nicely done book titled “Fifty Stories.” Not great literature, but little boxes of the past.

Blogs and posts are more little boxes. Collectible? Maybe. Some might best be sealed up and stuck on a back shelf forever; some might be just as valuable as the more formal family story. And sometimes a moldy file can emerge from the mythical back shelf. My recently self-published collection of short stories is such an emergence, the latest adventure from this desk. If anyone wants advice or commentary on self-publishing I’m available. It turns out to be mostly great fun – and stay tuned for the audiobook now in progress. These stories had mostly languished in outdated Word files since a detour into short fiction for an MFA more than two decades back; suddenly – well, it took a year or so, but still seems sudden – here they are, all wrapped up. Not great literature, but a new little book I’m proud of.

Here’s to little boxes of the past, and stories everywhere.