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

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

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

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

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

Maybe what goes around comes around.

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

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

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

Backyards of Pompeii (Author photo)

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

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

(Author photo)

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Author photo)

An Arrow into San Francisco’s Heart

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

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

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

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

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

Author photo, July 2022

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

Little Boxes of the Past

Photo by Joanna Kosinska on Unsplash

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

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

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

The StoryWorth Book

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

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

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

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.

A Whodunit Answer to Today’s Woes

Photo by Charanjeet Dhiman on Unsplash

Sometimes books are the only answer. This reporter, whiplashed by the daily news – as aren’t we all – regularly escapes into a book. Most recently as outlined below:

Mrs. Stone wants her husband found – and Dietrich Shanahan, known to his friends as Deets, is the man she’s picked to find him. An aging, down-on-his-luck P.I., Deets finally takes on the search for the rich and prominent Mr. Stone. With a little help from Casey the dog and no help at all from Einstein the cat – Shanahan’s total, faithful staff – Deets will solve this one to everyone’s ultimate satisfaction.

But not without running into a few corpses, a little intrigue involving good cops v bad cops, excursions into both the high life and the dark underbelly of the city, a kidnapping and more. And, bonus for Shanahan fans, a little romance. Enter Maureen, whom Deets met at the massage parlor and who decides to move in and liven up his life.

Tierney, early 2000s (Author photo)

Ron Tierney’s The Stone Veil introduced Deets to the mystery-loving world in 1990, after it won a PWA/St.Martin’s prize. It would be followed by ten more Deets Shanahan mysteries published between 1990 and 2015, all set in Tierney’s hometown of Indianapolis, and each a delight.

In his relatively short life (he died of a brain tumor at 72, in 2017) writer Ronald Tierney published one other mystery/crime series set in his adopted hometown of San Francisco, and several other novels. But in this one reader’s opinion, the Deets Shanahan series tops them all.

Because my late husband gave Ron Tierney early encouragement and support, every new book immediately appeared at my house (usually after an invitation to dinner) properly inscribed. This reporter, never having been much of a mystery reader, quickly became a Deets Shanahan fan. And having devoured the series 20+ years ago with joy, I recently picked up The Stone Veil and started over. Somewhat like the advantage of dementia being you can hide your own Easter eggs, the advantage of aging is that you can enjoy the same book a second time. 

If you’re a mystery buff – or perhaps open to becoming one – do yourself a favor: I hereby happily introduce you to Deets Shanahan.

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.

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.