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.

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.

A Tiny Park With a Big Story

Author photo

You can easily walk by it and never notice. But if you look up into the six eucalyptus trees planted more than a century ago by namesake Mary Ellen Pleasant, you might want to look down at the plaque that marks San Francisco’s smallest park. Worth a walk-by if you’re ever in the city.

Mary Ellen Pleasant Park (at 1501–1699 Octavia Street) comprises, in total, six giant eucalyptus trees and a concrete plaque adjacent to the sidewalk — all of which measures less than an acre. Nevertheless, the small green space still offers the best of park qualities: quiet shade, vistas (if you look up,) and a unique piece of San Francisco history. The park is a small stretch along Octavia Street between Bush and Sutter.

Its namesake, though, has an outsized story.

Author photo

Ms. Pleasant’s mansion no longer graces the property, but her spirit remains. It’s a spirit of freedom and entrepreneurship, enduring questions — her story is a mixture of legend and fact — and the remarkable effect of one woman on her time.

Born in Georgia in 1814 — most likely into slavery — Mary Ellen Pleasant had her way to Boston and/or Rhode Island before her adulthood. Over several decades there she married an abolitionist and several subsequent others.

She worked tirelessly with the underground railroad. And by the time the hazards of that activity prompted her to come to San Francisco, sometime around 1850, Pleasant was an accomplished cook and housekeeper, and those were for many years either official or unofficial employments. But her first husband had left her a substantial sum of money and she was, meanwhile, investing shrewdly and increasing her wealth through businesses — laundries, restaurants, brothels, boarding houses — and reinvestments.

Pleasant established black schools, fought for rights for blacks as well as Chinese, brought the underground railroad westward, became a behind-the-scenes political powerhouse and a friend of John Brown, established the 1,000-acre Beltrane Ranch in Sonoma County, co-founded (possibly) the Bank of California and earned the title of California’s first Self-Made Black Woman Millionaire. She left the mansion (replaced later by what is now the Healing Arts Building) for a six-room apartment on Webster Street which would be her home until she died in 1904.

A large legacy for a tiny piece of San Francisco.

Life Without Nukes? Lovely Idea

Photo by JEFF VRBA on Unsplash

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.

Are We Listening to Mother Nature?

Andy Holmes on Unsplash

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

Photo by Chang Duong on Unsplash

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.

On Being Kind to the Bees

Dennis Klicker on Unsplash

“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.

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