Living While Boarded Up

There was dancing in the streets all over San Francisco on November 7th. I was walking in the Presidio, trying not to get wiped out by flying cyclists whizzing downhill shouting Biden/Harriss!!! It’s been pretty much party mode ever since.

But downtown — and in a few other areas — preparations had long been made for the mayhem that wasn’t. It would be hard not to agree with business owners who boarded up. Protests following the George Floyd killing and racial unrest at other times in recent months brought out the bad guys along with the earnest. There was widespread, costly looting. I live not far from a BevMo store that looked as if someone had tossed a large bomb through the front door. So if I owned a business I would have boarded up too.

Eyes on the passers-by

Following the election of Joe Biden which was finally declared on Saturday, November 7th, though, there was only dancing. And since then, it’s fascinating to see signs of how life goes on around (and behind and in front of) the plywood. This is a quick Plywood City tour.

High end social distancing

Some businesses behind the plywood have gone under and won’t be back. But others are bravely carrying on. At Louis Vuitton — there are people out there still buying $3,000 handbags? — a polite security guard at the door carefully limited the number of shoppers entering. And inside (the polite security guard let me peek) shoppers and staff kept their masks on and distances measured.

Local billboard creativity has definitely peaked. On some of the plywood sheets there were phone numbers to call or — frequently — “We’re Open!” messages pointing to the plywood door.

Finding shelter from the storms

At some locations, the irony was painful. One nonprofit (not that far from the Louis Vuitton store, actually) which was created to help the homeless covered its plywood with optimistic messaging. But it managed to offer a likely spot for one down-on-his-luck guy to construct a resting place at the same time.

Still, high above the boarded-up storefronts and sheltered-in-place citizenry, somebody remembered to hoist the flag.

Long may it wave

Dining Out in San Francisco, 2020

San Franciscans are big on dining out – lunching out, breakfasting out, drinking out, all things gustatory and convivial. So COVID has not been fun. But bars and restaurants have discovered a happy workaround, and the city seems equally happy to assist.

In virtually every corner of San Francisco, outdoor tables have sprung up. They hug the storefronts on the sidewalk, they cluster on hillsides with propped-up legs to keep dishes from sliding to the pavement. They spill into the street where parking spots vanish in their wake, and if anybody’s complaining I haven’t heard about it.

Woodhouse Seafood went all nautical

Officially, they are “Parklets,” at least the ones with sidewalls that create more or less permanent booths. Several I’ve seen have not received Parklet status, so they are set up every afternoon and taken down at closing time – a new job for wait staff that may drive them nuts, but at least it means there are customers to wait on.

Actually, there seem to be a LOT of customers. My strictly anecdotal assessment of outdoor dining in a dozen different neighborhoods is that about half – mostly those in fairly upscale areas – are crazy-busy at mealtimes and happy hours. Along the sketchier streets vacancies are commonplace and it’s not unknown to see a dozing non-customer taking advantage of a comfy place to sit.

Even though San Francisco weather does lend itself to al fresco dining for much of the year, we do get those occasional yicky days. Many parklet spots are wind-protected and ready for cold (giant heaters between tables) or rain (Please. It’s been so dangerously dry for so long in California that most citizens would welcome soggy hamburgers.) Paris, which is more than a few dining outdoor generations ahead of us, seems to take it own changes of weather in stride.

Newcomers to streetside dining sometimes have to learn the tricks of it all the hard way. For instance, one may spot a shady, well-secluded table on a busy thoroughfare and happily settle in, only to have the large truck that had been quietly parked at the curb pull away without so much as a polite nod – leaving you exposed to the thrum of traffic and acutely aware of why everybody else had chosen the more crowded together tables around the corner. It’s also useful to consider, when making reservations, which side of Fillmore Street, say, gets the blazing sun between 11 and 4; there’s only so much protection against California sunshine.

San Franciscans are still taking COVID protection seriously. Masks stay on until everyone’s served, tables are reasonably distanced and most parklets have dividers between customers that actually enhance the feeling of intimate dining.

Is this the New Normal? Who knows. Every day it gets a little harder to remember what the Old Normal felt like. But the New might eventually work its permanent way into the hearts and streets of San Francisco.   

This essay also appears on Medium.com 

Anne Lamott Hates COVID-19

Fran & Annie onstage, 2015

Probably most of us hate COVID-19. But when it comes to identifying the reasons why, Anne Lamott can condense them into a few very well chosen words. In this season of poorly chosen words – face masks represent “a culture of silence, slavery, and social death,” or carefully chosen no-words, if you watched the Amy Coney Barrett hearings – Lamott’s words have the effect of a lemon verbena air spray.

“I miss the recognizable world,” she says. “the casual warmth of the old world. I used to hug and kiss everyone, and you can’t hug and kiss anyone when you’re standing in your little circle. I miss hugging and kissing everyone. It was so carbonating, and uplifting.”

Maybe that’s it? We are all just finally uncarbonated.

Photo by Sam Lamott

“I miss skin,” Lamott says. “People’s necks to burrow in. I miss people.” May we all please have someone’s neck to burrow into soon.

I first met Anne Lamott when she was leading a writers workshop at Book Passage in Marin in 1993, finishing up work on Bird by Bird, arguably the first book to propel her toward becoming a Household Name writer beloved by uncounted millions. But this was pre-fame. I’d been a newspaper & magazine writer forever. My new, Final husband The Great Encourager brought a small ad into the kitchen one night and said, “You ought to try fiction. This workshop could help. And you’ll love Annie.” Which was an understatement.

“I miss the beloved community of my church,” Lamott says. Many of us have beloved communities – faith communities, book groups, yoga classes, those places where we burrowed into someone’s neck, or touched someone’s hand as we settled in. If we are lucky we have a bunch of them. But they’ve all gone virtual and we can’t reach out and touch anyone.

Lamott and I put our faith communities at the top of the list of beloveds: mine for fairly traditional, progressive, urban Calvary Presbyterian in San Francisco, hers for much smaller St Andrew Presbyterian in Marin – a remarkable assemblage of God’s people for which this writer cannot find an adequate descriptor so you’ll just have to follow the link. Several times in past years we’ve done fundraisers for St Andrew at Calvary, which have been highlights of my performance career. (Essentially, I say, “Hello, Annie. What about . . .” and she picks it up, and 30 minutes later we get a standing ovation.) Recently St Andrew was doing a little budget-boosting with a pop-up marketplace of Black Lives Matter T-shirts and totes, and I had a brilliant idea about promoting that; but like most of my brilliant ideas it was too shrimpy and too late. If you’d like to send a contribution now, though, that’ll be fine. There’s a donate button on the website.

But if you’re missing all of the same things? Is there no hope? Anyone who knows Anne Lamott knows there is hope. And joy abundant, light to overcome the darkness.

“We’re doing what we can with what still works,” Lamott says. “I am so excited to see people I know even with their masks on. You do the litany: ‘Is everybody okay? Are you voting in person?’ There is a lot of gentleness. I study this. People let other people go first, first in line; people are bringing their better selves to the arena.”

“Grace,” she adds, “is like letting other people go first.” So these are some of the things Lamott loves, things that bring joy despite everything COVID has thrown at us:

“I love church by Zoom. So many people with physical challenges couldn’t get there, and now I can see them on Zoom. I love seeing the little kids.

Photo by Sally Tooley

“I think a lot about what the virus has given us. It has slowed everybody down. Made everybody do a deep dive into who they are. Before, most of us were so confined by our busyness, so confined by the things we were good at. But now we’re saying ‘Who am I without my rituals? Who am I without racing from place to place?’”

Lamott also sees a lot of practical goodness resulting from the pandemic. “Everybody’s going into their worst drawers to clean them out,” she observes. “There’s a huge amount of free stuff on the sidewalks. We went to a free library place and came away with forty books to give to shut-ins and older people.”

And the blessings. “The opportunities for service are just huge,” Lamott notes. “Phone calls still work. There’s an awareness of what does work.”

Speaking of which, Lamott fans will be glad to know she’s not been idle. Her new book, Dusk, Night, Dawn: On Revival and Courage will be out in March. “Do you know that twilight is at dawn and at dusk?” (No, I actually did not.) “I learned that,” the author says with Lamott-like awe. The new book – now in the publishing phase, meaning the author can rest – promises enlightenment and inspiration.

Meanwhile, COVID-19 “can’t steal the warmth and goodwill that we have for each other,” Lamott says. She is reveling in the fall colors that underlie that warmth and goodwill, and invites us all to go anti-COVID by paying attention to those colors, listening for birds like the golden whistler currently making its brief annual visit to her backyard, heightening our awareness of the seasons.

COVID may have numbed us with isolation and inconvenience, but Lamott believes it has brought us something else. “There’s an awakening to the beauty.”    

A Love Letter to Ruth Bader Ginsberg

Ruth Bader Ginsburg mural on U Street NW, Washington, DC USA – Artist Rose Jaffe IG:Rose_Inks
(Ted Eytan, Creative Commons)

Ruth Bader Ginsberg and I were born the same year. 1933. It was a good year for music (Willie Nelson, James Brown . . ,) the arts (Tim Conway, Carol Burnett . . ,) literature (David McCullough, Reynolds Price . . .)  Unfortunately, our birth year is about the only thing I have in common with the Notorious RBG. I would happily have given her six or eight of however many remaining months I have, if life only worked that way.

Since life doesn’t work that way, here is a post-mortem thank-you note.

Shadow selfie with chalk tribute in Lafayette Park

Thank you for opening doors for women’s education. I spent some happy weekends at the Virginia Military Institute in the early 1950s, when I could visit for dates but could not have even gotten an application for admission. Your persuasive argument in  United States v. Virginia’s 7-1 ruling (1996) changed all that. In the words of historian Richard Morris, “VMI’s story continued as our comprehension of ‘We the People’ expanded.” We the female people are grateful.

Thanks also to you (and Marty!) for demonstrating how real romance and marriage can thrive and endure. It took a lot of pioneering to get past the unwritten rule that running the home and family were strictly woman’s work, even if she also worked fulltime outside the home. I don’t recall my husband ever changing a diaper in the upbringing years of three children. And doing all the cooking? Sheesh. But that seems almost quaint to recall now.

We lost the 2014 battle with Hobby Lobby, but thanks for your blistering dissent. You spoke for women everywhere, and not a few reasonable men, in writing that “the court’s expansive notion of corporate personhood invites for-profit entities to seek religion-based exemptions from regulations they deem offensive to their faiths.” You noted, accurately, that the contraception coverage requirement in the Affordable Care Act was vital to women’s health and reproductive freedom. And heaven knows women’s health and reproductive freedom will suffer your loss.

Thanks for always standing up for people with disabilities (1990 and other times.)

The environment thanks you for decisions like the one, in 2000, in favor of Friends of the Earth.

Ted Eytan, Creative Commons

We – that is, We the People – lost again with the Bush v Gore mess in 2000, in which you so eloquently dissented, observing that the “conclusion that a constitutionally adequate recount is impractical is a prophecy the Court’s own judgment will not allow to be tested. Such an untested prophecy should not decide the Presidency of the United States.” We lost once more with the gutting of the Voting Rights Act in 2006, which you noted in your dissent that throwing out preclearance “is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”

So here we are, facing another presidential elections, shredded umbrellas raised, in the most bizarre of times, on our own.

We sure could use you now, Notorious RBG, but thanks for showing us how to fight the good fight.

This essay first appeared on Medium.com

Notes on Life Coaches & Being Coached

Getting a Life Coach: good idea, worth the money? Maybe. I am becoming a convert.

But I started as a skeptic. I had known two certified “Life Coaches” – both of whose personal lives were pretty much wreckage and to neither of whom would I ever have gone for counsel of any conceivable sort. Then, however, I heard of another friend who had entered the coaching business. This one had a successful, decades-long career in the corporate world and has long been influential in all the right causes. Plus, she has a broad network of friends – I’m one – who have called on her for (free) advice or counsel for years.

So out of curiosity I interviewed her for an earlier story, which led to my signing up for a six-session package. This is a report on how to choose a good coach, and why coaching may indeed be worth a try.

THE CHOICE:

Take it from someone who knows. Of the dozen or so life coaching clients I interviewed (this is an anecdotal report, not a scientific study!) fully half said they had chosen their coach simply because a friend or colleague recommended him or her, and after minimal discussion they’d signed up. All were highly satisfied.

Ratings. Almost any location in the U.S. has a “Ten (or 15 or 20) Best Life Coaches” list. So if you’re starting from scratch it’s fairly easy to settle on five or ten who look good. Yelp reviews can tell you more; read a few before you do the introductory interview.

Credentials: My coach said it “was a long journey to becoming a coach.” It is worth taking time to look into what someone did before becoming a coach. A successful career in business or social work might make a stronger foundation for coaching than, say, personal care product sales. Further, where did this coach’s credentials come from? It’s pretty easy to weed out the “certifications” that don’t really certify much.

THE REWARDS: Two takeaways from my coaching experience sum up how it worked for me. Admittedly, the typical coaching client is likely to be someone struggling with career issues, challenging relationships or lifestyle problems; while I am an octogenarian struggling with widowhood, procrastination and disorganization. Still, these are hard to beat.

Self-awareness is the first step toward self-management. A good coach can help you recognize and develop the strengths and skills that you have, focusing less on those you don’t. It’s not unlike activating that good AA prayer about changing the things one can, accepting the things one can’t and being wise enough to know the difference. If you make that work, stuff gets done.

And my favorite: Laugh a little. A good coach can help you get started toward goals while not beating yourself up with seriousness.

My coach and I opted to postpone everything after the fourth session. One can only handle so much progress.   

This essay, and an earlier story about Life Coaching adventures, appeared first on Medium.com       

A View from Inside Armageddon

Andy Goldsworthy’s “Spire” reaches into a smouldering sky

September 15, 2020: The skies over San Francisco have cleared, finally, and the Air Quality Index has moved from Red to Yellow – still not something you’d want to go outside and exercise in for an extended period. But a week ago we woke to a Day of Darkness like nothing many of us had ever seen — or hope to see again. This (below) is an account of that day that I posted on Medium.com. but somehow managed not to post on this, my forever site.

It’s Armageddon. The Apocalypse. Those are the terms most frequently being tossed around, alongside “Really? Can you believe . . .” “This is surreal . . .” Nobody seems able to come up with words expansive enough.

Temple Emanu-El (rt) overlooks an apocalyptic scene

Mostly, however, there is an eerie quiet. Everyone looks around wide-eyed, behind their masks, speaking in whispers or small-child voices.

Northern California awoke to dark, burnt orange skies that created an impression of early evening at nine in the morning. We were already shaken by months of uncontained pandemic which by now has killed at least one or more we knew and loved, and sickened others who live with after-effects still unknown. Then came the racial unrest erupting in our cities and neighborhoods. Followed closely by the wildfires consuming beloved parks, forests, homes, communities. Uncounted mornings began with a cautious look at the air quality index, realizing it was too toxic outside for a walk around the block. And now this? Pitch dark at 9 in the morning?

The day of darkness was disorienting even for 2020.

But here is an on-the-ground report about the good news. Confronting the Apocalypse, people turned calm. And kind. This reporter needed to leave the safety of my securely quarantined geezer building, with its giant air purifiers on every floor, for a medical appointment at noon (when it looked like, oh, 8 PM.) So I made a couple of brief detours before heading home. First stop was the parking lot of a small neighborhood shopping center where I periodically buy flowers at the grocery store – because the flowers are outdoors out back, and someone will always take my credit card inside to pay for my selection. (I do not enter non-medical enclosed spaces.) There were lines of cars moving in and out and around. They moved very slowly. People stopped to let others have plenty of time to move in or out. Nobody honked. Around the back of the store where the flowers are there were probably several dozen people – talking about how it couldn’t possibly be midday, with all the lights on inside . . . But people spoke in hushed voices, frequently with soft laughter. (Apocalyptic times invite laughter. Who knew?) Everyone gave everyone plenty of social distance, but while we were moving around we smiled behind our masks as if sharing some awful but negotiable secret. While I stood with my armful of lilies and roses and my credit card held out, two customers and one store employee heading out on lunch break offered to go inside and take care of my transaction.

Then I drove a few blocks into the Presidio, where Inspiration Point is a celebrated spot for taking photos of San Francisco Bay. Alcatraz sits, jewel-like in the water, across an expanse of evergreens. The walkway and low wall are ideal for selfies and photos against this quintessential San Francisco backdrop. Immediately across the road from the small Inspiration Point parking area is Andy Goldsworthy’s soaring sculpture “Spire.” I lived nearby when “Spire” was created. We watched Goldsworthy and his assistants daily in 2008 as they built his towering monument of 37 Monterey cypress trunks bound together to reach 100 feet into the sky. Like others of Goldsworthy’s beautiful creations, Spire will eventually be absorbed back into nature, as surrounding trees continue to grow. On this Armageddon day, Nature has turned sculpture and surroundings alike into a glowing ember-like forest.

The view from Inspiration Point still inspired. But it was nothing like what photos in millions of tourist albums show, sailboats drifting around Alcatraz below blue skies and billowing clouds. It was a sepia-toned picture of suddenly colorless shrubs, with an umber haze settled around a few blinking lights of houses in the distance – a distance without Bay, sailboats, Alcatraz or the otherwise familiar.

And again, there was the eerie quiet. The ever-present mix of excited children’s voices and friends calling to each other was replaced by a hushed, slightly fearful wonder. Cars came and went, but slowly. There was no birdsong. I don’t know where birds go in times of distress, but they go silent. I read later that lights had to be kept on at the San Francisco Zoo because the animals were disoriented by the daytime darkness.

I had a notebook tucked under my arm while taking pictures around Inspiration Point. As I turned to get back into my car the notebook dropped with an unseemly noise. “Here,” said a soft voice as a gloved hand reached for my notebook. “Let me help you.”    

Collisions and Other Injustices of Today

Do we need any more catastrophes? Pandemics, economic free-falls, California wildfires and toxic air? How about getting smashed by a 16-wheeler?

It is the final indignity.

Metal being ripped and torn, car parts scraping the concrete roadway, the harshest sound accompanied by the ugliest of sights and smells, this is just not a good way to start your day. But some days just seem to choose their own paths. Mine was chosen not by me but by the giant 16-wheeler truck that decided to turn right from the center lane precisely as I was turning right from the proper right-turn lane. You would think he might have noticed that little car directly in his path (doing exactly everything legal and proper, it should be noted.) But no.

The first life lesson here is, in any encounter between small cars and16-wheelers, the big guy wins. The second is, sturdy small cars are good.

Eventually the crashing and shattering slowed, and I crunched my way to the curb. The big guy  pulled to the curb in front of me – unscathed, I might mention. It was reassuring to find I could open the door and get out of my car; we should be grateful for small favors.

The thing about early morning catastrophe – this is probably true of catastrophes any time – is that the rest of one’s life is simply tossed aside while the catastrophe takes over. For thirty minutes or so I waited for the police. We are trained – aren’t we? – to remain at the scene of the crime, and after all, that giant truck had just killed my beloved 2000 Volvo S40. Its name was the LilyPad. I don’t know about other urban centers, but if you’re in San Francisco waiting for someone to come to an accident scene, forget that. I have since learned that the thing to do, in San Francisco at least, is mention blood or difficulty breathing and the police will come. I called the tow truck for the LilyPad.

All one really wants in these circumstances is affirmation. At least, that was all I wanted: someone, anyone other than the driver of the giant truck – who was unlikely to fill this role – to confirm how utterly blameless I was. And how cleverly I had steered myself out of mortal harm. I mean, seven decades on the road and not one moving traffic violation. Am I going to let a poorly driven 16-wheeler mess up my record? Mr. Quoc, the driver, was single-mindedly interested in repeating the only three words of English I know him to speak: “Wide right turn! Wide right turn!” In Mr. Quoc’s defense, he simply didn’t see me way down there. My understanding of his position, however, stops short of excusing him for not noticing the LilyPad in her proper lane.

The indignity of losing control of one’s day grows exponentially with the insurance experience.

Early on, my friend Naomi of the giant truck’s insurance company evidenced more concern with my health and wellbeing than I thought necessary. Nice of her, but still.

“You didn’t go get checked out?! You should go get checked out!”

It’s possible Naomi – who had at least graciously said they were “accepting responsibility” – was thinking Personal Injury Claims. So she wanted to send my octogenarian self to a hospital in the midst of a pandemic? I thought better of that.

But the final indignity is the bottom line. Not only is no one going to compliment me on my driving skills, Naomi is going to pay me about $1,300 for my beloved 2000 Volvo S40 – something about book value. OK. – and absolutely zero for anything else – something about the way insurance works. Days lost? Angst and agonies of buying a new car (at least I found a 2001 Volvo S40)? No dice, I should’ve thought to break a bone or something.

RIP, LilyPad.   

(This essay appeared earlier on Medium.com, a good site for information and ideas that I’m enjoying writing for. Check it out.)

What If Your Grandmother Simply Wants to Die?

“Is this living?” she asks me. And then again, the words that are hardest to hear, “I just want to die.” This from a greatly beloved cousin of mine, someone I have known my entire life. She is now 93, widowed for 12 years, living comfortably in an assisted living community in upstate New York, relatively healthy for her age.

Maybe you recognize your grandmother in her? At almost every turn, if you turn around among today’s retirees, chronically ill or elderly, there is this strain of despair. Bits of it were always there, particularly among the “old-old” as over-80s tend to be categorized. But add the isolation of quarantine, and questioning the value of living gets to be a pandemic in and of itself.

In my own independent/assisted-living building there is a 96-year-old retired college professor, a nationally recognized poet and writer, longtime radical activist who now shares my cousin’s despair. Her son comes every other week from his home a two-hour drive away, but more and more she feels it’s only out of a sense of filial duty and must be burdensome to him. Because both her sight and her hearing are diminished she can no longer write – or even read without a struggle. If others try visiting, to read to her or perhaps listen to favorite music to create a small break in the monotony, “it just feels artificial,” she says. “Everything feels artificial. I am just existing here, a prisoner in my own apartment.”

Photo by Gabriel Santos Fotografia on Pexels.com

These are women (and occasional men) whose lives were made meaningful by trips to the symphony, or a lecture, or even to the grocery store. A surprising number of them, including my cousin, were activists; they are the ones now writing letters and postcards to representatives – or to voters. But they are also the ones with diminishing sight or arthritic fingers, and up pops one more reason not to want to live any more.

So how to find meaning, some reason for living? For many there are ‘daily inspiration’ type services by the zillion, available to send messages by phone, text or email as frequently as anyone might ask. I’ve talked with several dozen people while putting together this essay, men and women both, who say their daily messages from religious sites, astrologers or you name it brighten their days and often bring meaning in these isolated/isolating times. (Some of them are re-reading the Torah, the Bible or the Quran.) Unfortunately, neither my cousin nor my friend in this building would be a candidate for inspirational messaging of any sort.

But for almost anyone, telling her story can turn into a reason for living – and more. As the memorable song in “Hamilton” goes: Who lives, who dies, who tells your story? Telling it yourself gives you editorial control, if nothing else; if you’re old and isolated it might give you much more. There’s a site called StoryWorth on which one can sign up one’s grandmother for a fee. Every week, StoryWorth sends a question like “When did you buy your first car?” or “What was your childhood home like,” things of that sort. Grandma reminisces about the question, perhaps attaches photos of the old home place, and hits Reply. At the end of the year, StoryWorth (this is not a paid plug; there may be similar sites but I couldn’t find them) puts it all together in a book for the family.

I bought my cousin a cassette recorder. Yes, they’re still on the market. I’d initially thought to get her a digital voice recorder (those who have iPhones need nothing more) but her son suggested that anything digital might be too bewildering. Along with the recorder I sent a converter device, into which her son can place the cassettes and morph them into thumb drives or something of the sort which can easily be mailed to children and grandchildren. Because I’ve known her all my life, I was also able to send a list of more specific questions – How did you meet Joe? Where did you go on your honeymoon? What do you remember most fondly about that first apartment (the one with all the roaches)? What were the parts you and Joe sang in the Carolina Players production of “Of Thee I Sing”?

Will it help? Who knows. Her voice has indeed sounded a little more upbeat and she says she’s looking forward to the recorder’s arrival. Those of us who still love life, despite its chaos and quarantine and bitter inequities, generally wish that joy for others. But the population of lonely, isolated seniors grows every day; some of them simply wanting to die. This space welcomes any and all thoughts on what to do if it is your grandmother.