On Preventing the Worst from Happening

The following is offered as a very small and personal side commentary, on the occasion of the leaders of the U.S. and North Korea meeting in Singapore.

Have you met the Ploughshares Fund? If you’re not anxious to see the planet blown away in a thermonuclear flash, the Ploughshares folks are good people to know.

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by Snoron.com

Ploughshares was founded in 1981 by the indomitable sculptor/activist Sally Lilienthal, who was also a friend of my good husband. When I met her, soon after arriving in San Francisco in 1992, I became an instant fan.

1981 was the height of the Cold War, and Russia and the U.S. were on the brink of thermonuclear confrontation – each having enough nuclear weapons to obliterate this beautiful planet. Ploughshares set about the work of reducing those dangerous threats and has been remarkably successful. Stockpiles have been dramatically reduced – we’re down from the nearly 55,000 worldwide total in 1980 to the current figure of approximately 15,000. Over 90% are in the US and Russia; the rest are in China, France, India, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan and the United Kingdom. There may be fewer nuclear weapons, but there are plenty around to destroy life as we know it.

Which is why the world watched with some apprehension as two of perhaps the most erratic and unpredictable leaders of all time met to – we hope – find a way to avoid nuclear war.

Fran w Joe Cirincione 6.4.18

With Joe Cirincione

I was privileged to hear Ploughshares Fund President Joe Cirincione and Executive Director/Chief Operating Officer Philip Yun talk about the situation in general and North Korea in particular recently with a group of longtime supporters.

“We have a very simple philosophy,” Cirincione says: “prevent the worst from happening.” Re North Korea and the recent summit, “There might be some surprises. Trump could stumble into a good deal.” Pointing out that “we support policies, not presidents,” he said Donald Trump “could give North Korea something that Democratic presidents could not.”

This group, progressives to the core, swallowed hard. If you want not to see the planet wiped out in a thermonuclear frenzy, keeping North Korea from starting such an event trumps all distaste for our president.

Yun offered some history lessons and insight; he is a scholar of Korean affairs who has long been involved in U.S./N.Korea negotiations. “The North Koreans like symmetry,” he said. Any movement toward denuclearization “is going to have to be phased. (But) there are a lot of moving parts that could make us safer right now.”

Those were just several snippets of a conversation that was wide-ranging and in many ways encouraging. The fact that the Ploughshares people, and the people with organizations it funds, are working every day to keep the worst from happening is encouragement enough for now.dove of peace

So this writer, who watches in horror the environmental destruction and loss of human rights going on every day thanks to the policies of our current administration, swallowed hard and wished Mr. Trump & Mr. Kim every success in avoiding a thermonuclear planetary disaster.

Cloud Appreciation. It’s free!!

Clouds 4.26.18

Clouds around (& above) Salesforce Tower

Here is one universal, guaranteed, free way to lift your spirits in these often dispiriting days: look up. Stare at the sky. Notice the clouds. Once you start noticing clouds – which are up there just quietly asking to be admired, after all – your passport to lifted spirits is issued.

Clouds - Ferry Bldg 5.17.18

Wisps around the Ferry Bldg

My passport number is #45,662. That is, this message comes to you from Cloud Appreciation Society member #45,662. My membership number came with an official certificate proclaiming that I joined this society on 13th May (it’s a very British society) and “will henceforth seek to persuade all who’ll listen of the wonder and beauty of clouds.”

So that’s what this essay is about. You can quit reading if you don’t want to be persuaded.

One thing the Cloud Appreciation Society brings you (via email) is the Cloud of the Day. Imagine starting your day – before you even look up, perhaps – not with news of wars and corruption and presidential vulgarity, but with the Cloud of the Day. Which on most days is stunning.

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Sunset from our window

I have been hooked on sunsets ever since moving into a seventh floor condo with one large window that looks directly west toward the Pacific Ocean. But my path to cloud appreciation actually started with the lovely, gently persuasive book A Sideways Look at Clouds by Maria Mudd Ruth. Ruth, author of the award-winning book Rare Bird, became curious about clouds on moving from the east coast to the rugged, foggy northwest. In Sideways she combines that daunting intellectual curiosity with a persistence few of us share. I mean, slipping into a frigid lake at dawn to experience fog? I have never met the author. But I’m a very longtime friend and fan of her famous father Roger, and her late mom was a poet – which leads me to understand that Ruth comes by her writing gifts honestly. The book is a winner.

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Clouds from airplane window seat

In addition to my Cloud Appreciation Society membership certificate and sky-blue cloud pin, I am now the proud possessor of the Cloud Selector wheel, identifying the 10 main cloud types. You thought there were just puffy white things? Wrong. The ten main groups are divided according to altitudes and shapes, whether they’re made up of clumps, continuous layers or wispy streaks. You probably know Cumulus (Cu.) The Cloud selector tells you what to look for: “Cauliflower tops, flattish bases, crisp edges;” typical altitudes (1,000 to 5,000 feet;) whether there’s precipitation (None, unless very large) and offers a picture just so you know you’re right. How better to be an instant cloud expert?

Cloud appreciation, though, is not about expertise; it’s about pure pleasure. Given the high cost of movies and ballgames, this space is pleased to recommend cloud-watching as a viable alternative entertainment. You can also buy A Sideways Look at Clouds for less than $20, or you can become a bona fide member of the Cloud Appreciation Society for $23.25/year plus a $13.29 sign-up fee. (You can also become a CAS Friend, for free, and receive their Somewhat Occasional Newsletter.) After that, you’re on your own.

The planet may be in a mess, but the skies above are filled with wonder. Cloud wonder.

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Clouds from the top of Post St, unspoiled by overhead wires even

 

 

Kindness for the New Year – Why not?

About that cup of kindness – –

Let’s take a cup for a few of the auld lang synes of 2017, in the highest hopes for this brand new year.

Planet earthA cup for the planet. Despite the best efforts of the Environmental Destruction Agency to foul the air and water, and similar efforts to open up our lands for desecration and private development, this fragile globe survives. You can Google “Good news for the planet” to boost your spirits. Here’s a toast to everyone who switches to solar, picks up litter, and pays attention to ways we can protect our grandchildren’s heritage.

A cup for women! Beginning with the inspirational Women’s March and marching through to the #MeToo movement, women have earned more than a little kindness yet. They won’t get much of it in the reproductive justice realm. You cannot confer rights on a fetus without denying rights of the woman carrying it.march - crowd Anti-abortion forces sneaked wording about rights of “the unborn” into the harsh new tax bill, so chalk one up for regression into the dark ages of womankind. But here’s a cup o’ kindness toast to every #MeToo, as well as to heroes like Willie Parker out there fighting to protect all women.

A cup for people of all faiths working together. There may be constant headlines, not to mention tweets, designed to set us against each other, but interfaith groups across the country are determined to keep respect and mutual support alive. Google “Interfaith work” in your city or state and find how many kindnesses are underway.

A cup for the hopeless. Remember those huddled masses yearning to breathe free? They’re still out there, in force: refugees and asylum-seekers, people mired in poverty or joblessness, sick children without healthcare, undocumented immigrants in families being torn apart. ENDURING FREEDOMBut if our government is turning its back on them, a multitude of individuals and organizations are working around the clock to get the lamp lifted again. Google “Help undocumented immigrants,” or “Fighting poverty in my community” for starters. Cups of kindness abound.

And a cup of kindness for kindness’ sake. A group of people with vastly diverse backgrounds and philosophies met just after New Year’s Day to talk about how to retain optimism – hope, at least – on all of the above in the face of current divisiveness and a mentally unbalanced president. Said one member of the group: “It helps to commit conscious acts of kindness throughout the day. Might be just a tiny thing, but it makes you feel better, and kindness can be contagious.” Pope Francis thinks so. In his New Year’s Eve homily he expressed optimism about ordinary people going about their lives doing ordinary acts of kindness. The “artisans of the common good,” he called them. So here’s a toast to every artisan of the common good. May we all join their ranks this year.

Footprints of kindness

Hanging Out With Ai Weiwei

Ai Weiwei, in town to promote his new film “Human Flow” is less like a global icon than a kid on the first day of vacation. He gleefully mugs for photos, takes selfies with – and of – his audiences, bears a perpetual crinkly smile and when asked “When are you happiest?” replies, “Now.”

Ai Weiwei 10.3.17

Ai Weiwei smiles for a fan

But the message of the internationally renowned artist is deadly serious. He wants the world to confront the fact that over 65 million human beings are displaced, most of them living in deplorable conditions in refugee camps and only a tiny fraction (about 3%) being relocated. “Human Flow” depicts refugees in 23 countries – in camps, on the move, struggling across deserts, through murky waters and occasional war zones. It documents a staggering amount of human suffering which its creator wants us to face as fellow human beings. “The world is shrinking,” he says; “people from different religions, different cultures are going to have to learn to live with each other.”

Ai appeared before a sold-old crowd at the Commonwealth Club recently, in conversation with Climate One founder and host Greg Dalton, who started off by asking what his guest felt Europe should do. “It’s not just a European problem,” Ai Weiwei responded, “it’s global – Iraq, Myanmar, elsewhere. Policies in the U.S. seeking to reduce immigrants, enforce a travel ban, move away people who have been here since childhood – there is a strong trend to violate human rights and traditional beliefs. We are all refugees.”

Ai & Greg Dalton 10.17

With Climate One’s Greg Dalton

Ai Weiwei was born in 1957, the year his father, the Chinese poet Ai Qing  was arrested and denounced during the Anti-Rightist Movement. He was one year old when the family was sent to a labor camp in Beidahuang, Heilongjiang. According to his Wikipedia page, they were later exiled to Shihezi, Xinjiang in 1961, where they lived for 16 years. In 1976, at the end of the Cultural Revolution, Ai and his family returned to Beijing. At one point, during his lively conversation with Dalton at the Commonwealth Club, Ai said he used to be jealous of his father. “He got all those years, and all I got (referring to his imprisonment for “economic crimes” in 2011) was 81 days.” His 81 days were, however, no picnic. “If you argue with the government,” he said, “you never win. They become so powerful you can get suicidal.”Ai Weiwei 1-10.17

On the issues closer to the focus of Climate One, Ai spoke of how China “has made huge progress, and has become quite economically powerful. But the dark side are environmental problems: heavily polluted air and rivers. Besides that there is huge corruption. There are internal struggles inside the party; no trust, no real creativity because there’s no freedom of speech.” To Dalton’s remark that Ai had once tried to work within the system, Ai laughed. “I was very naïve.” Despite his history of battling the government Ai was given his passport in 2015 and now lives in Berlin.

“When they handed me my passport, the guy said, “We’ve known each other for so long . .  .”

Evolution & the Curious Child

 

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It was a simple question about being distant kin to the monkeys. The kind of question, like “Why is the sky blue?” “Where do stars go in the morning?” that any curious third grader might ask. His teacher, however, was irate. “Ridiculous,” she said. “Don’t bother me with impertinent questions.”

This kind of a rebuke did not sit well with the grandson of Peter Klopfer.

Klopfer is a distinguished Duke University biology professor, author of more than 20 books and an expert in animal behavior and evoluntionary biology. His daughter Erika Honore, the questioner’s mother, is a retired veterinary scientist with multiple degrees and the author of A Concise Survey of Animal Behavior. She and her doctor husband know a thing or two about kinship with monkeys, and had – along with his grandfather – passed along enough anthropological truth to the third grader that his teacher’s rebuke had the opposite effect: now he wanted to know the story of evolution.

“Erika and I started looking for an age-appropriate book on evolution,” Klopfer says, “and it was nowhere to be found. That’s not to say that it doesn’t exist, but we couldn’t find a good book for six-to-ten-year-olds anywhere. So we decided to write our own.

Thus evolved Darwin and the First Grandfather, a small, colorfully illustrated (by Gretchen Morrissey) book of how humankind began.darwin-1

Darwin’s narrator, asked the where-did-we-come-from question by her own 8-year-old replies that she’ll tell him two stories. She tells first the biblical creation story – which would presumably please the creators of Texas textbooks (and which many if not most Christians see for what it is: a story.) Then she launches into another story, a tale of a boy names Charles and the discoveries he makes as he follows his own curiosity. It is a delightfully readable account of  creation from one perspective and evolution from the perspective of scientific truth.

Scientific publishers who had brought out Klopfer’s scholarly books were less than enthusiastic about undertaking a children’s book. The firm that had published his earlier children’s book had subsequently gone out of business, and he lacked a good connection to children’s book publishers. One atheist publisher was delighted with the idea, but eventually said he could find no way to market such a thing. “So we just put it aside,” Klopfer says now, “and it sat in a file cabinet for years.”darwin-4

Happily for children everywhere, the father-daughter duo recently dug the manuscript out again and decided to self-publish. Klopfer’s neighbor, a textile design artist, agreed to do the illustrations, and Darwin and the First Grandfather was born.

That third grade questioner? He did learn the scientifically accurate story of evolution, which today’s third graders can learn with the help of his mother’s and grandfather’s book. Currently he is a graduate student in computer science at Yale University.

 

A Walk in the Park – for everyone

Urban park

For most of America’s urban poor, life is hardly a walk in the park. But the Trust for Public Land is out to change that. Every urban citizen, rich or poor, should be able to access a park, playground or natural area in a 10-minute walk, TPL maintains. It may seem just a dream in many cities, but their Parks for People program is making that dream come true.

San Francisco’s Boeddeker Park in the city’s Tenderloin district – one of the few remaining San Francisco communities not yet infiltrated by millionaires – illustrates the dream fulfillment. The Tenderloin is a 31-block area in the heart of the city, much of it now designated Historic Landmark and thus protected from the ubiquitous new luxury condominiums popping up elsewhere. The area recently got its own museum. Long a haven for immigrants and laborers, today it is home to many of the city’s poorest citizens, including large numbers of children who have never seen the surrounding ocean, mountains and bay that accentuate San Francisco’s extraordinary beauty.

A tiny green spot of just under one acre was designated a city park in 1985 and named for a beloved local pastor, Father Alfred E. Boeddeker. But drug dealers and unsavory characters quickly made it of little use to children. (This writer often walked by en route to one place or another, and habitually sped up when passing the park.)

Boeddeker Park opening

Boeddeker Park Opening

Enter the Trust for Public Land. With TPL working alongside concerned members of the Tenderloin community and a group of dedicated public and private donors, Boeddeker Park was transformed into a haven and refuge, alive with basketball-playing, gym-climbing children and now off-limits to bad guys.

At a recent TPL event for supporters (among whom this writer is happy to be counted,) several current projects of the organization were described. President and CEO Will Rogers spoke of progress made and plans underway. Vice President and Director of Land Protection Brenda Schick outlined some of the land conservation efforts that are leading to preservation of open spaces across the country. (Schick, an avid horsewoman, managed to get her equine friends into many of the stunning images of American countryside in her slide presentation.)

And Jennifer Isacoff, Parks for People Bay Area Program Director, talked of making it possible for every urban American – even those for whom life is not a walk in the park – to walk TO a park within 10 minutes. A reasonable goal:

Making life a little better, one park at a time.

 

Celebrating the Iran Nuclear Deal

nuclear cloudsThe mood was sheer celebration. “We’ve moved the boulder in the road,” said Joe Cirincione; “this model can be useful for other work.” Moving the boulder, a distinguished group of speakers repeatedly explained to the small, celebratory-mood audience, will lead to a safer world for our children and grandchildren, a world “where nuclear weapons are a thing of the past.” He was speaking of the Iran nuclear deal.

The Iran deal – the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action signed in Vienna on July 14 by the U.S., Iran, China, Russia, U.K., France, Germany and representatives of the E.U. – runs to approximately 159 pages, very few of which this right-brained writer has read. But I absolutely trust Joe Cirincione.

Cirincione is president of Ploughshares Fund, a nonprofit that works to bring about a world in which our children and grandchildren might live without the threat of being blown to bits by a nuclear bomb. A really attractive idea. (Ploughshares Fund was founded in 1981 by Sally Lilienthal, a remarkable San Francisco woman this writer was privileged to know in the decade before her death in 2006.) It was at a small gathering of Ploughshares supporters that Cirincione and several others – who have not only read the entire 159 pages, but helped write them – explained the details, and the impact, of the Iran deal to us, our grandchildren, and the world.

Many of the details are beyond the technical comprehension of most lay citizens (and more than a few of the politicians whose knee-jerk opposition has little to do with the safety of our future.) They include things like requiring that Iran reduce its 20,000 centrifuges, which are used to enrich uranium, to 6,104 over the next 10 years, giving up its most advanced centrifuges while using only their older model. Then there is the business of how far the country will be allowed to enrich uranium: no more than 3.67 percent, which will be okay for power plants but is far below the level needed for weapons. Iran also agreed to reduce its stockpile of uranium by 98 percent.dove of peace

These extraordinarily complex details were part of a conversation between Cirincione and Kelsey Davenport, Director for Nonproliferation Policy, Arms Control Association at the event. Davenport was among the outside experts traveling to Geneva, Vienna and elsewhere to help work out the agreement – “and knows more about the Iran deal than anyone I know,” Cirincione remarked, and spoke of the long, often painful path toward its success. Davenport said she could usually tell right away how some negotiation went – discussions that often ran into the small hours of the morning – by the expression on someone’s face.

We should all be smiling today.