Farewell to a Not-All-Bad Year

2016

Farewell to 2016? People all over the globe are saying good riddance.

There are those of us in the U.S. who believe that climate change is real, that the vast majority of Muslims are peace-loving and the vast majority of Mexicans are neither rapists nor murderers, that women deserve better than to be denied rights and casually groped. Even those who believe otherwise admit reason and decency suffered some killer blows in the past year.

Poor 2016. Throw in global goings-on with the Brexit vote and the tragedies in Syria, Venezuela and too many troubled spots to mention, and it would seem there’s not a lot good to be said for the year. But it actually wasn’t all bad.

For openers, there are the things that didn’t happen: Nobody let loose a nuclear missile that would have begun the destruction of the planet. The Mosul Dam didn’t fail. Northern California didn’t have the devastating earthquake for which it is overdue. Even the luxury tower set to zoom up and block this writer’s 7th-floor balcony view of the far-off San Bruno mountains didn’t materialize. (OK, we know it’s coming. New York developer has the right to build to 240 feet, but so far the city says he can’t have an exemption to go 200+ feet higher.) So from the frivolous – which a 7th floor view certainly is – to the horror scenario, 2016 could surely have been worse.

good-news

And as for the good news? Glancing back over the posts on this site over the old year is one way to find a lot of it. A random few:

Mutual support and understanding among different religions was alive and well in 2016, as it will continue to be in the new year – at least in much of the U.S. Several times I wrote about events sponsored in San Francisco by the S.F. Interfaith Council, such as the Thanksgiving Prayer Breakfast – at which an overflow crowd representing people of all faith communities reaffirmed their commitment to human rights, social justice and world peace before launching into a rousing chorus of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”

Philanthropy is alive and well too. In May, a 3-year-old friend of ours decided to open his piggy bank and give the money ($32.60) to his two favorite charities: the local library and the hospital where he and his baby-sister-to-be were born. His philanthropy spurred several matching gifts. Who says you have to be a zillionaire to be a philanthropist and do good in the world?

More than once I wrote about one of my real life heroes, Dr. Willie Parker, an African American physician determined to keep abortion access available to those who are denied reproductive healthcare: most often poor women of color. Nothing will slow down Willie Parker.

justice

And speaking of heroes, In January I was fortunate to be part of a collaborative celebration of Martin Luther King Day, with a predominately white church and its predominantly black partner church, affirming King’s message that only light can drive out darkness, and only love can drive out hate. It’s only a small effort in one small part of the globe, but as members of the two communities work (and play and sing) together, light shines on racial injustice.

There have been other optimistic highlights, such as the Internet Archive celebrating its 20th anniversary. The IA is a mind-bending, increasingly successful effort to make All Knowledge Available to All, for free. Impossible? Believe. Another blog highlighted another impressive physician, Dr. Angelo Volandes, who was touring the country last year with his new book The Conversation. Volandes is on a campaign to end aggressive, unnecessary, unwanted and often cruel end-of-life treatment. What happens in emergency rooms and intensive care units during the last few days of life for millions of Americans is an expensive disgrace; Volandes’ efforts will help change that.

In August I was caught in the middle of Delta’s computer meltdown, and spent some interesting hours trying to get from Atlanta to San Francisco. What was worth writing about were the many acts of kindness among airport crowds. They reminded me of flying from San Francisco to Portland OR several days after 9/11, when it seemed everyone in America wanted only to be kind to everyone else.

That spirit is still here, somewhere; we just need to recover it after a bruising year.

world-peace-1

 

 

Talking Your Way into a Better Death

Angelo Volandes
Angelo Volandes

“If you do something to my body that I do not want,” says physician/author Angelo Volandes, “it is assault and battery. But if I do the same thing to you in (a medical situation,) it is standard of care.”

Volandes thinks this last is a bad idea. He is on a campaign to change the way American doctors and patients, and indeed the country at large, understand what is done to American bodies at life’s end. He spoke of this campaign, and his new book The Conversation that outlines it, at a recent Commonwealth Club event in San Francisco. When he’s not taking time out to promote the book and the campaign, Volandes practices internal medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston and is on the faculty at Harvard Medical School. He is Co-Founder and President of Advance Care Planning Decisions, a non-profit foundation dedicated to improving patients’ quality of care.

“Ninety percent of people want to die at home,” Volandes says; “most die in hospitals. There is a misalignment between the type of medical care they want and what they get.” About this unwanted care? “If you’re in the hospital and get unwanted care you never bargained for, I still get paid for it.”

After watching too many patients endure end-of-life treatments he was sure they would not have chosen, Volandes started an unusual practice: taking every one of his patients to visit the intensive care unit, and some to visit the dialysis unit. Once they gained a better understanding of what some of the aggressive treatments – CPR, breathing machines, etc – actually looked like, the patients almost always moved away from “Do everything” to comfort care as their choice.

The basic change Volandes believes is needed begins with a conversation between physician and patient. Those conversations do happen, and there is now Medicare reimbursement, but few physicians find them easy, and few patients know how to inaugurate them or what to say. “Never did a senior physician have to certify that I could talk to a patient,” Volandes says. “The patient needs to know ‘What are the questions I need to ask? What are my options?’ Life’s final chapter needs to be written – but the problem is, I’m writing it (instead of the patient.)”

This writer has been advocating for individuals to write their own final chapters for over two decades. With others writing those chapters instead, the costs are monumental and unnecessary – and millions of Americans die after undergoing painful indignities they would never have chosen. Physician aid-in-dying – approved by a majority of doctors and 7 in 10 Americans and now legal in five states – is one key piece of the puzzle. But the elephant-size puzzle piece is how to get every one of us to make known, well before those “end-of-life” days arrive, what medical care we do or do not want.

Volandes’ conversations could put that piece in place. Every person alive who takes time for the conversation (and for writing it all down) will likely die a better death.

 

 

Anna Quindlen on form & feminism

Anna Quindlen (left) & Kelly Corrigan
Anna Quindlen (left) & Kelly Corrigan

Anna Quindlen, on tour with her new novel Miller’s Valley, sat down for a rollicking interview with author Kelly Corrigan recently at San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club. Within an hour they had traded profound thoughts and raucous asides – some printable and some not – on topics ranging from literary form to family histories to feminism, from death & dying to the prosecution of rapists.

A few random excerpts:

Re Miller’s Valley – which reviewers have described as “a quintessential small town story about a family you will never forget” – Quindlen said she felt early on that she wanted it to be written in the first person (Mimi, who grows from an 11-year-old into her sixties in the book, is the narrator) because she wanted to leave “some ambiguity at the end, and that’s only possible with a first person narrator. There is a kind of intimacy you can only develop through the first person.”

On how much of Miller’s Valley – and her seven earlier novels – is taken from her own life: “When I was a newspaper reporter people thought I made things up. Now I make things up and people think they’re real.”

On families, literary and otherwise: Corrigan, noting Quindlen’s untroubled childhood and long-lasting, happy marriage, asked if “people who have not lived through deep dysfunction” can still produce great writing. “I had a happy childhood,”Quindlen responded, “but I remember always feeling that there was no place for me in the world.” Then she listed three things that have made her the (highly acclaimed) writer she is: her mother’s illness and death – Quindlen, the eldest of five siblings, left college in her sophomore year to care for her cancer-stricken mother – the “good luck to be a street reporter in New York City,” and being a mom to her three now-grown children.

Corrigan followed with a family tale of her own. After calling her mother to tell her about an award just received, Corrigan was dismayed by her mother’s being “not very impressed.” So after a few moments of disappointment she called back to find out why. Her mother said, “I’m glad you called back. I’m jealous.” To which Quindlen added, “We all said, ‘I don’t want the kind of life my mother had.’”

Quindlen 4.11.16

On memoir (both authors have produced well-received memoirs) v fiction: “In memoirs there is stuff you can’t talk about,” Corrigan commented, “like jealousies, or sex with your husband. But in fiction we can be more honest about what hangs us up.”

“How’s feminism going?” Corrigan asked toward the end of the conversation. “We (feminists) are, like God, everywhere,” Quindlen replied. Concerning one major issue of the feminist movement, Corrigan mentioned data that “reported rapes are up.” Possibly, she added, because for so long rapes went unreported.” But Quindlen noted ruefully that “fairly recently, in New York, you couldn’t prosecute without a third party witness. “Someone had to walk in during the event, preferably a nun or a policeman.”

Asked to name her favorite rising feminist, Quiundlen paused only briefly before saying “Lena Dunham. She immediately used her fame to help others. Every book event she does is tied to the local Planned Parenthood.” Citing the oft-repeated feminist mantra Learn, Earn, Return, Quindlen said Dunham “is doing all three at the same time.” And Quindlen couldn’t resist getting in a plug for another woman she admires, “Hillary Rodham, as I like to call her, not using her slave name – is best qualified, and will make a great President.”

 

Presidential Politics & P. J. O’Rourke

O'Rourke at CClub
P. J. O’Rourke

Journalist/satirist P.J. O’Rourke breezed through San Francisco on a recent book tour for his weighty new book (640-page Thrown Under the Omnibus) and left no presidential candidate un-skewered.

O’Rourke opened with a list of candidates – “Clinton, Bush, Fiorina, Sanders, Rubio, Cruz, Christie, O’Malley, and Trump. That’s not a list of presidential candidates. That’s the worst law firm in the world.” And from that summary he plunged into a commentary on the candidates themselves:

Hillary Clinton “retains her iron grip on second place. Whoever’s in first place is so far out we don’t know who it is yet. Hillary carries more baggage than the Boeing she used as Secretary of State to visit every country that later blew up in her face. On the upside, she’s familiar with the White House. She knows where the extra toilet paper is stored and where the spare key to the nuke-missile launch briefcase is hidden.”

Bernie Sanders? “Bernie is a socialist. He says so himself. Let me give you the dictionary definition of ‘socialist.’ A socialist is somebody who will take your flat-screen TV and give it to a family of meth addicts in the backwoods of Vermont. Bernie says he wants to make America more like Europe. Great idea. Europe has had a swell track record for 100 years now. Make America more like Europe? Where can we even go to get all the Nazis and Commies and 90 million dead people that it would take to make America more like Europe?

Carly Fiorina – “If she runs America like she ran Hewlett-Packard, it’d be great as long as you shorted the stock. H-P stock fell 65% between July, 1999 and February, 2005. I can forgive Carly, but my Keogh Plan never will.

Jeb Bush has everything. He’s young (for a Republican), a Phi Beta Kappa, a successful businessman, and a two-term governor of Florida – where balloting incompetence and corruption are vital to the GOP. Jeb Bush has just one problem, the name problem. But don’t worry, Jeb is all set to legally change his name to George Herbert Walker Bush. Everybody likes him… and he only served one term, so he’s constitutionally eligible to run again.”

Ben Carson is “doing okay unless you’re one of the fact-checkers. He’s a genius brain surgeon. I’m saying please quit running for president and get back to work because we need you. Maybe he could fix George W and Jeb Bush’s conjoined heads.”

Rand Paul? “Rand thinks the government should go by the rule ‘Mind your own business and keep your hands to yourself.’ I call it the Hillary and Bill Clinton principle: ‘Hillary, mind your own business; and Bill, keep your hands to yourself.’ But Rand Paul isn’t a Republican, he’s a Libertarian. His libertarianism appeals to those who consider themselves ‘fiscal conservatives and social liberals.’ This means they want to get high and have sex while saving money; and who doesn’t? But what candidate’s going to admit that in public?

Marco Rubio’s “got kids; I love kids. But he’s got to stop it with the abortion stuff. Really, Republicans, don’t make it illegal, make it retroactive. A kid gets to be 25 – zap.”

Personally, O’Rourke says he supports Donald Trump, because of something the great political satirist H.L. Mencken once said, “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.”

Trump’s “chief goal is to be on TV,” O’Rourke says. “As president he can be on TV 24/7. Plus, he can yell ‘You’re fired!’ all he wants. Trump will grow the American economy the way he grew his own, with bad debt, bad debt and more bad debt. Trump has ‘restructured’ $3.5 billion in business debt and $900 million in personal debt; ‘restructured’ means he didn’t pay it. We Americans know a leader when we see one. Trump’s foreign policy will be to build hundreds of Trump casinos, Trump hotels and Trump resorts in Moscow, Beijing, Tehran, Raqqa, Kandahar and the Gaza Strip. Then all of them will go bankrupt the way Trump Taj Mahal, Trump Plaza Hotel and Trump Entertainment Resorts did. Hell, it might just work.”

O'Rourke & Caen
O’Rourke with Melissa Caen

O’Rourke delivered these – and other – political opinions at a Commonwealth Club of California event moderated by Melissa Caen. Caen, a lawyer best known as an astute but light-hearted columnist and TV commentator, said by way of introduction that she couldn’t believe her luck in being asked to interview O’Rourke. In her writing, she said, she had for years “shamelessly stolen” from his satiric observations. Writers today will find it easier to do that, with the release of Thrown Under the Omnibus, a nearly three-pound anthology of O’Rourke’s “funniest, most outrageous, most controversial and most loved pieces.” Copies were selling briskly after the Commonwealth Club talk.

Holding Silvan: A tale of loss and love

The new mother’s worst nightmare came in shards of bewildering words: “subdural hematoma… basal ganglia… thalami…sagittal sinus…” And the terrible eventual diagnosis: “severe hypoxic ischemic encephalopathy.”

 Monica Wesolowska
Monica Wesolowska

Once they had processed the meaning of it all – that their beautiful baby had no functional brain, no hope for a life, Monica Wesolowska and her husband David made the hardest decision ever required of parents, to let their infant son die. It was a decision complicated by advanced medical technology, a world into which the family was swept up, and by the wrenching physical, emotional and moral issues. But the two grieving parents clung fiercely to the conviction that they were choosing what was best for their son, and to the determination that for whatever time he had they would give him comfort, care and abundant love.

Wesolowska tells this tale with unflinching honesty in Holding Silvan: A Brief Life, a small book that manages to keep the reader mesmerized with what is ultimately a story of courage and, above all, life. She spoke with this writer recently about the book, and those days.

“I wanted and needed to write it,” Wesolowska says, in response to a question about whether the writing was therapeutic. “I felt very fortunate to be able to spend time remembering Silvan. Also, to revisit the time, do research…” Years later, both the experience and the firstborn son are integral to Wesolowska’s life; in the days and weeks after Silvan’s birth there was time only to struggle with the issues at hand. It is the immediacy of this struggle, overlaid with the love that surrounded Silvan as he died, that holds the reader.

After publication, we asked, did Wesolowska get negative feedback? “I was surprised at how little,” she says. “In part, I think it was because so few people want to read a book about the loss of a baby. A few heartening back-and-forths, when people came around. But the most difficult (discussions) are with parents of brain-damaged children. It turns out that what they’re dealing with is much less extreme (damage.)” In such cases Wesolowska tries to communicate the singularity of the choice she and David made. “My goodness, I would never suggest a child with disabilities is not absolutely loveable. I’m not here to judge the difference of your love.”

Holding Silvan coverThere were helpful and unhelpful things that people said and did as Silvan was dying and in the aftermath. The best, Wesolowska says, “were the people who told me I was a good mother. What I was going through was motherhood, and a deep love. The hardest to take were when people said ‘Why didn’t you let him die a different way,’ or ‘How can you be so certain?’”

No one, though, tried to talk them out of their decision. In their Berkeley, CA area, “We were in a kind of liberal bubble,” she says. “But we really struggled toward the end. Legally, it was frightening.”

For all the fear, tragedy and loss, Holding Silvan is surprisingly uplifting. And, Spoiler Alert: there is a happy ending.

 

How to Maximize Your Social Security

Suppose you’re having sex with your husband, and he happens to die, umm, sometime during the encounter. Suppose you’ve been married less than nine months – and Social Security benefits are denied thanks to some obscure nine-month rule. Well, somewhere within all the 2,728 rules is an exception applicable when death happens due to extreme exertion. The particular lady in question eventually collected benefits.

Paul Solman.wiki
Paul Solman (Wikipedia photo)

These are the sorts of stories Paul Solman weaves into discussions of his recent book (with Laurence Kotlikoff and Philip Moeller,) Get What’s Yours: The Secrets to Maxing Out Your Social Security. He wants you to catch the part about there being 2,728 rules – in case you don’t really want to read the 3,000+ pages of the document yourself. The mind can boggle at the sheer numbers. In fact, though, the rules are there to help us all, even newlyweds whose newlies do not long survive the wed. The complexity of our financial lives may be bewildering, but Solman observes, “America’s great strength is in its    complexity.”

Solman simply wants you to Get What’s Yours.

The long-time business and economic correspondent for PBS NewsHour spoke recently about his book at the Commonwealth Club of California, an event moderated by KGO TV Consumer Reporter Michael Finney. His basic message to those of us less left-brained (although Solman’s left brain clearly enjoys its coexistence with an entertainingly creative right brain) is summed up in three points:

1 – Be patient.

2 – Be aware of, and know how to maximize, over a dozen different benefits. (What you can afford, how many dependents you must consider….)

3 – Stagger your benefits.

You’re planning to retire on Social Security? Not, says Solman. “Social Security is not a retirement policy. It is an insurance policy.” But it can indeed make your retirement easier, and could be a major piece of your long-term financial plan. Solman said in an aside that he thinks most financial planners are suspect and people should be careful in choosing. “What financial planner ever advised buying TIPS (Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities,)” he asks.

Fran & Paul Solman.2
Solman off-duty, teaching a few Tai Chi moves to the writer

Three audience members already drawing Social Security each estimated his or her current payments would be at least double, if they had known earlier what they have learned from Get What’s Yours. So is the book cheating? “No,” Solman says emphatically, “you follow the rules. It’s not cheating, it’s what the law says you can do.”

One thing anyone considering eventually taking Social Security benefits can do could be to check out a copy of Get What’s Yours. Unless you’d rather study those 2,728 rules and try to figure them out for yourself.

It was — 1933 — a very good year

Ruth Bader Ginsberg
Ruth Bader Ginsberg

Ruth Bader Ginsberg is too old? Perhaps she should consider stepping down from the Supreme Court?

These suggestions were floated more than once in the Q&A session after a recent Commonwealth Club talk by University of California Hastings Professor of Law Scott Dodson. Dodson is the editor of a newly released collection of essays, The Legacy of Ruth Bader Ginsberg, whose writers suggest nothing of the kind. Contributors to the book, and Dodson himself, focus instead on the significant contributions made thus far by the 82-year-old justice, and the impact she continues to have on jurisprudence and on life in the U.S.

Dodson was drawn to write about Ginsberg because he “kept encountering her clear and consistent opinions” and wanted to create an objective view of her legacy – notably including gender discrimination, as in the case that ended Virginia Military Institute’s male-only admission policy, and racial discrimination, as in the voting rights case Shelby County v Holder. In the latter case, Ginsberg famously wrote that throwing out an anti-discriminatory measure as no longer needed “is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”

As New York Times columnist Gail Collins wrote several months ago: Ruth Bader Ginsberg has no interest in retiring.

Carol_Burnett_1958
Carol Burnett in 1958

Several days before the Dodson talk, David McCullough, 82, spoke at another San Francisco event in conjunction with his most recent book, The Wright Brothers. McCullough did not go into detail about his next project, but gives every indication that he is a writer with no interest in retiring.

Meanwhile in Texas, Willie Nelson, 82, has another concert coming up, and the next show planned by Carol Burnett, 82, is almost sold out.

This writer may not have anything else in common with Ruth, David, Carol and Willie, but we take what we can get. 1933 wasn’t a bad year to be born.

 

Figuring Out Who You Are

Hand with book“Please don’t call me Doctor Jones,” said an extremely distinguished PhD speaker I met recently; “I’m just a teacher named Joe. I’ve been Joe all my life.” His name is changed to protect the innocent.

Having one name all your life is almost as interesting to some of us… of a certain age… as meeting a prominent multiple-degree lecturer who calls himself “just a teacher.”

Not someone of many degrees, I am nevertheless someone of many names. Maiden name, married name, resumption of maiden name after divorce, brief and ill-fated second marriage (yep, changed my name again,) eventual marriage to my Final Husband, whose name I took on moving across the U.S. nearly a quarter of a century ago. Because I’ve been writing since college (Fran Moreland) I often joke – though this is not a source of pride, only comic relief – that my literary resume reads like an anthology. Each name still bears its own notoriety, as well as its own burdens.

A fascinating look at what names and name changes have meant to women over the centuries is offered by my talented writer/scientist friend Jo Anne Simson in a recent article published in Persimmon Tree magazine titled “What’s in a Name.”

Names, Simson writes, have been used against women in subtle – and sometimes not so subtle – ways to subjugate, control and deny their sense of personhood. Probably the most damning of these practices for women in America was the assigning to slaves the surname of their masters, which “ruptured a connection to a past culture from which they had been torn most unwillingly. Moreover, the name change signified an identity conversion from personhood to property… ‘Leave your past behind. You are now property, not a person.’”

This writer’s post graduate experience ended with an MFA in short fiction, University of San Francisco Class of 2000, which conferred a degree but no title. I have, however, managed to keep my final literary name since 1992.

At about the same time I took on the final marital/literary name above, my first grandchild was born, bringing the other defining ID: Gran. The favorites survive.