Watching the news, as some of us compulsively do, is hazardous to my optimist health. The virus may be in retreat here, but death and destruction overseas overshadow all.
Still: sunflowers in shop windows, blue and yellow everywhere. Flags, banners, whatever anyone finds. Two women, one in a blue coat, the other in yellow, walk arm in arm just ahead of me. A friend with an overseas relief nonprofit says everyone she knows is putting in 18-hour days — without complaint.
San Francisco City Hall has gotten into the act. From Symphony Hall across the street, I listen to soaring music before walking back into the blue and yellow glow. Optimism survives.
Last night I was having a cup of after-dinner coffee, working on my computer with MSNBC on in the background. A correspondent in flak vest and helmet was standing in the middle of Kyiv saying, “We’re hearing shelling in the background . . .” and soon thereafter, “Sirens are now going, you can hear them . . .” And we could.
The screen switched to a map showing movement of troops, tanks, missile launchers. Hearing Russian President Putin make references to his country’s nuclear power was almost too much.
One of my earliest memories is of a night in the late 1930s, when I was about four (Yes, I am that old.) My sister Mimi and I were asleep in our double bed; Mimi was six. It seemed the middle of the night to us – in reality it was probably about 10 PM – when our father sat on the edge of the bed and gently woke us up. Then he lifted us, one in each arm, and carried us downstairs into the living room. It was clear this was not a joy ride; I remember trying hard to wake up.
My mother was there, sitting in her chair in front of the big Philco radio, and my father deposited us onto the floor. The announcer – probably Edward R Murrow, the source of all radio news in our house (and most others) – was talking but I have no memory of what he was saying. My father turned the sound down, and said, “This man you’ll hear in a minute is going to cause terrible destruction in the world. I want you to know what a madman sounds like.” Again, I don’t recall being afraid, just incredibly curious. My parents never woke us up once Mimi and I went to bed and were out of their hair; our two older sisters turned in later. They were probably also in the living room but I don’t remember.
The announcer’s voice was replaced by static crackling around the room. It was (I later understood) the sound of short-wave radio being beamed from overseas. Then we heard crowd noise and shouting. Very soon a man’s angry voice started shouting. We had absolutely no idea what he was saying – it was in German. The man was Adolph Hitler. I think it was the last time he was heard on short-wave radio in the U.S.; but soon that voice and the responses of the crowds would be everywhere in the newsreels shown in movie theaters before the feature films.
Everybody knows what happened next.
I know this is 2022, and not 1940. I don’t know if Mr. Putin is unhinged (as he seems,) but that’s just part of what we have to worry about. I’m grateful for the stability and good hearts of most world leaders here and abroad, but it’s hard to forget the angry voice of a madman who craved power at any cost, and what that cost turned out to be.
Can we still avert catastrophe? One can hope. I pray for the people of Ukraine. And for some miraculous peace.
Allan, who climbed out the window to escape a sappy birthday party in his Swedish nursing home, is my new BFF. I owe him big time.
I read the book (as have more than five million others around the globe) several years ago, but recently decided to listen to it through my earbuds while walking around San Francisco – something I do most days for three or four miles. So people gave me strange glances, as I burst out laughing in the middle of the crosswalk. It was entirely worth it. My friend Allan lifted me out of the doldrums, obliterated the daily news and generally made life better for weeks.
Hard as it is to choose, here are two favorite messages from my favorite fictional geezer:
Teetotalers (I’m one, thanks to unfortunate conflicts with booze) are generally a threat to world peace. And – this next is a little hard to condense, but until you get hold of the book:
Allan and friends at one point are raking in profits through sales of hundreds of beautifully produced Bibles that they fished out of the trash. Why were they trashed? (Spoiler alert!) Well briefly, the typographer slipped in an extra verse at the end of the book, creating a final sentence (Revelation 22:22) that reads And they lived happily ever after.
I do try very hard not to threaten world peace. But thanks to Allan Karlsson, and his Swedish author/creator Jonas Jonasson, I am laughing more happily ever after.
Wisdom is afoot. Well, actually, underfoot. Celebrate peace, seek justice. Make love, not war. Be here now. Those are three of my favorite etched-in-the-sidewalk messages so far. They may not cover everything, but it’s a good start.
A confirmed cloud freak, I am constantly staring at the sky. But in between sky-watching episodes I like to study the sidewalks. It may have started the day I noticed, etched into the California Street concrete, this cryptic message: I love you anyway. How many stories could be written around those four words? If the sidewalk and its message had not shown the wear and tear of many feet over many years I might have been frantically knocking on doors for the full story. Why was someone kneeling over wet concrete, carefully carving those four words into eternity? What went on between the two of them?! Or were there others involved here? And is he or she still loved, anyway? Maybe there was a happy ending. One wants to believe.
Most of us have seen or done the traditional sidewalk declaration – two names encircled within a heart. Or “Jamie 12-14-08,” – whatever child happened to live in the house above at the time of new sidewalk installation. Tiny handprints or footprints immortalizing some now teenager. It happened in front of my new old (1905 Victorian) San Francisco house in 1992 and 1993 as renovations required tearing up and replacing sidewalk squares. For the record, the San Francisco property owner whose pipes are being replaced, or whose tree roots have buckled the concrete bears the cost of the new squares. In 1993 that came to $50 per square. Therefore, when the concrete people told me to stay away from their smooth surfaces I smiled politely and reminded them of how much this job was costing us. And as soon as they drove off we went to work. My two eldest grandchildren, then about two & three years old each contributed a toy (dump truck for the grandson, horse for the granddaughter) to embed beside their footprints. We sold the house in 2013, but the memorial sidewalk squares remain. They are carefully supervised by the current owner, whose three children have now scratched their own names into nearby sidewalk sections.
Sidewalk etchings combine the historic with the enigmatic: Everything will be OK, for instance, will remain a favorite of mine – as it certainly was on walks throughout the pandemic. Across the country from that one was an all-caps query that took up almost one entire sidewalk square: IS THAT SO? it asks. On that same visit to our nation’s capitol, I paused to do a selfie with Black Lives Matter stretching across the plaza behind me. But it’s my walking-shoes-clad toes that appear in the majority of the other photos in my Sidewalks album. Including the philosophical: If I cannot do great things, I can do small things in a great way. That one took a lonng time, as anyone who’s ever worked in wet concrete can affirm. Someone also spent a long time on the careful scripting of Love Thy Neighbor plus a few hearts etched onto a downtown city sidewalk where a lot of homeless neighbors currently live.
With the advent of colored chalk, sidewalk wisdom took on a bright new life. On one San Francisco block, where the lack of rain guarantees a fairly long sidewalk-shelf life, a collection of drawings and slogans appeared virtually overnight. It had to have been a group effort – a group advocating for reproductive rights, adoption, contraception and peace, in no particular order. But as the peace signs were prominently scattered among symbols for ovaries and women’s rights, this group doesn’t seem to want to go to war over the issue(s.)
But San Francisco’s “Slow Streets” campaign brought things to a once unimaginable new level. The campaign closed multiple blocks of streets throughout the city to vehicular traffic (excepting bikes and skateboards and assorted other people-movers.) This opened up miles and miles of pavement to kids of all ages. Presumably the illustrations that quickly covered long stretches of macadam are mostly kid-driven (the skill level seemed roughly third grade; I hope I’m not hurting any community feelings here,) but adult-supervised just in case. Whatever the age, these 21st century street decorations skip all efforts to preach, argue, convert or grumble and go straight to optimism: hearts, smiley faces, love, joy predominate.
If you punched me in the nose and went to jail, can we still be friends? Or again be friends, to put it more accurately? Maybe if you reimburse me for all those bills. And say you’re really really sorry. A lot of forgiveness on all sides will probably also help.
Restorative justice may be an idea whose time has come. Not that it’s anything new – restorative justice – or related practices like distributive or retributive justice – have been around for a very long time, if you go back to practices among indigenous people around the globe. But a couple of recent New Yorker articles caught my attention.
The first was about a young man named Eddy Zheng, whose name rang a bell. Turns out, Eddy founded and now leads a non-profit designed to help Asian American & Pacific Islanders (AAPIs) who have been harmed by our often harmful immigration and criminal justice systems. The non-profit is the New Breath Foundation. The bell in my head was ringing because a very special friend of mine (known informally as West Coast Daughter) is closely associated with NBF.
Eddy Zheng is a “formerly incarcerated ‘juvenile lifer’” who turned his life around while in prison and continues to do great good in the world. In his own life, though, restorative justice has not yet worked. He has reached out to those he harmed; thus far nothing has changed between the wronged and the wrongdoers.
But in another case I learned of through a later New Yorker story, the happier ending to a terrible tragedy is playing out. Katie Kitchen, a Texas woman of wealth and privilege, set about facilitating the release of the man who had been convicted and sent to prison for the murder of Kitchen’s father in 1991. At a ceremony for parolees after his release, he said, “Twenty-five years ago, I killed a man. I’m here because the daughter of this man forgave me.” It would be a stretch to say the two are friends, or that Kitchen’s siblings and extended family are pleased with it all. Still, the story is an extraordinary one.
Pivoting to the following story might trivialize restorative justice. Forgive me. It just seemed somehow related.
My computer (which is probably more essential than the nose on my face) recently began to malfunction because it ran out of storage space. I called The Expert. The Expert and I have worked together happily – and profitably for both of us – over many years, frequently using one of those screen-sharing programs. The Expert quickly discovered a 16 GB file and deleted it.
“Umm,” said I, “shouldn’t we open it first and see what it is?”
“No,” said the Expert as he hit the Seriously, Delete! button; “you don’t use this folder.”
Big mistake. In that file, now gone to the great delete cloud in the sky, were a few things I do indeed use – like my entire email program, little things like that. What followed was a week of angst and anguish, hours of experimentation in the search for a solution and, eventually, starting from scratch to download the lost programs from the Carbonite cloud. If anyone asks, it takes nine hours to download a 16 GB file from the sky. The urge to kill the Expert was overwhelming; I thought I might get off altogether by pleading justifiable homicide.
After several sleepless nights and a day or two of rage, I began to rethink my homicidal impulses. They weren’t doing me any good, and I felt sure the Expert was remorseful, even if probably not losing any sleep himself. I called him up.
“It’s okay,” I said, “I don’t believe you were acting with evil intent.” We are friends again. He helped me order a Portable SSD T7 external storage thing – whatever that is; it seems better than replacing my little favorite, familiar laptop. This may or may not fall in the category of oversimplified restorative justice. But I’m sleeping better.
I am absolutely positively over Covid. I have reached the maximum exhaustion level where, as far as can be determined, everyone else in the U.S. also stands. Or lies, among those who are squashed flat under a purple cloud of weariness. We are all suffering from Covid Exhaustion.
Covid Exhaustion, the national condition, is not unlike Covid Fatigue, the diagnosis. Not having had Covid the accursed actual disease, all I can attest to are these symptoms that the WebMD people list: chronic tiredness or sleepiness; sore or achy muscles; slow reflexes or responses; poor decision-making skills; moodiness and irritability; short-term memory problems; poor concentration; inability to pay attention to surroundings or the situation at hand. Yep, I qualify, and I am not alone.
Things around the U.S. Capitol are “testy,” reports the New York Times. Well, yes, there is a certain amount of testiness loose in the land. And with the addition of testiness to exhaustion, that purple cloud is pretty much squashing us all. So in the public interest, this writer has compiled an Exhaustion Protocol. The following is not FDA approved.
WALK. When I reach the screaming stage with Covid Exhaustion, I walk out the door. And just keep going for two or three miles or more. You may not have San Francisco’s agreeable walking climate (or hills & views & destinations) but wherever in the world you are, there is something therapeutic about entering the outside world and slamming the door behind you.
SLEEP. All the answer sites for Covid Fatigue (which I consulted just to feel authentic about this) advise getting plenty of sleep. Since part of Covid Exhaustion involves regularly waking up at 3 AM worrying about the news, getting enough sleep requires creativity. Just think naps.
EAT. Most advisories about exhaustion recommend things like avoiding sugar, fats, alcohol etc, just about everything good. I say eat cookies and donuts, burgers with fries, salted caramels, shrimp tempura; drink white chocolate mochas and coffee milkshakes. You’re on your own with alcohol, which I quit a few decades ago, but I suspect martinis are probably good for Covid Exhaustion.
THINK, but only selectively. Do not think about whatever you just read in the newspaper or glanced in your news feed. Think about (a) lakes and forests, (b) soft music, (c) any of the first three solutions above, or (d) nice people. Which brings up:
VISIT. Friends in parks or parklets – those outdoor eatery places – or any pleasant outdoor space. I’m fine with anybody who wants to go indoors to see nice people, but if you meet them outdoors it is a guilt-free experience, and we try to avoid guilt because it leads straight back to Exhaustion.
REPEAT. If you’re still suffering, you might try rearranging the order of the above. I have personally found that WALK, EAT, SLEEP works pretty well with endless repetitions, as long as a couple of VISITS are occasionally interspersed. And/or, simultaneous applications such as WALK/EAT/WALK, if you strategize for white chocolate mocha along your route.
More than one news source (excluding Facebook, which, c’mon, is an anti-news source) is now reporting that Covid will become simply something we learn to live with. And to treat: add it to measles, flu, etc and perhaps the unvaccinated crazies who are pushing hospitals to the breaking point will get the #%&*#+ vaccine; and eventually we return to normalcy. So I propose the above regimen as a way to get us from crisis to acceptance.
(Ed. Note: At the end of this essay is the solution to today’s major problem. You may want to skip right to the end and just blow off eveything in between. Or not.)
One of my favorite memes, among those currently floating around, is this one: Nobody claim 2022 as your year. We’re all going to walk in real slow. Be good. Be quiet. Be cautious and respectful. Don’t touch anything.
Okay, but I’m worried about the no-touching business. Two lonnng years ago, the World Health Organization first identified the SARS-CoV-2 virus, now known as our familiar non-friend Covid. And we quit touching. Handrails, restaurant tables, countertops, each other. This made perfectly good sense, as the unknowns about this deadly invader outnumbered the knowns by about a zillion. No sooner had one exited the store with a spritz of hand sanitizer from the ubiquitous jars at doors than one entered the café where entry was prohibited without hand sanitizing again. We re-learned how to handwash to the tune of the birthday song, and shame befell anyone who was seen failing to scrub for the requisite 20 seconds. My mother would be proud. This country soon had the cleanest – or at least the most sanitary – human hands on the planet. All carefully not shaking each other.
Meanwhile, because we knew the invisible enemy lurked in our fellow humans, we began the social distancing thing – creating no-touch zones in check-out lines, along grocery aisles or at street crossings. Pretty soon it also became evident that Covid – and its innumerable invisible variants – hopped around from human to human via invisible air currents, so the next perfectly sensible thing was the mask.
For this new year, masks are us. Masks are just totally good things. Handy for proclaiming messages, honoring your favorite team, encouraging eye contact, upscaling your wardrobe – the concierge in my building, a hip young 30-something, has a collection of matching ties and masks worthy of the New York Times Style magazine. For the record, the older you are, the more wrinkles your mask conceals. The political thing is regrettable, since my mask protects you and your mask protects me and conceptually this creates a beautiful community.
But the touching thing. If we learned anything from all the quarantining and isolating (which will likely be happening intermittently for the foreseeable future) it is that humans don’t do well without being around other humans. Plus, we really need to reach out and touch someone.
One of my regular venues recently inched into in-person events, masked and distanced and please show proof of vaccination. On one’s nametag is your personal choice of dot: Red Dot = Please keep your distance. Yellow Dot = I’m good with elbow bumps and peace signs. Green Dot = Please, let’s hug! The Reds and Yellows are still in no-touch-land, and bless their hearts. I am a hopeless Green Dot person.
We’re all going to walk in real slow. Be good. Be quiet. Be cautious and respectful. I can go with that. Goodness, quiet, courtesy and respect are still plentiful today, and Lord know we can use a lot more of them. Wear a mask. Keep your distance as needed. But don’t touch anything?
Events and humankind in general being iffy these days, this seems a good time to talk about trees. I am a tree-hugger to the core. With apologies to Joyce Kilmer for probably never writing a blog as lovely as a tree, herewith.
Other flora and fauna offer unique contributions to the planet and to us planet-dwellers, but The Tree offers food and sustenance, healing, shelter, mystery, wisdom and peace. What can I say? Actually, Fred Hageneder says it pretty well in the introduction to his latest book, The Living Wisdom of Trees. After listing things we humanoids aspire to such as “extending compassion, feeling gratitude, and love for fellow inhabitants of the planet,” Hageneder holds that trees show us “life is worth so much. Trees and humankind,” he points out, “have always had a symbiotic relationship.” (I’m going to hope I haven’t misrepresented the good botanist/ scholar/ author; he writes great books.)
There’s the Tree of Knowledge, for example, and do we ever need it today. Separating good from evil has unfortunately gotten terribly tricky.
Not to mention the Tree of Life (some people say the two are one and the same, but two trees are always better than one IMHO.) So many sacred trees run through human history they can boggle the mind – unless the mind simply relaxes into the notion that humans throughout history have tried to make meaning of things and trees help us do that. I mean, there they stand, firmly rooted and gracefully growing to the full extent that Mother Nature allows.
The cousin of a close friend is working on a tree-centric ancestry book, and gave permission for me to quote from it. Here’s what Mary Gilchrist of Iowa City, Iowa writes: “Arriving in Iowa in 1880, my grandfather’s grandfather and his brother were measuring their land and stuck a stick that the latter had cut for a walking stick into the ground in order to mark the boundary. As cottonwoods will do, the stick took root and grew to a majestic size. When the road was moved a bit, the tree was smack dab in the middle of the intersection. Prized on the Great Plains, the cottonwood tree was left in that intersection, nestled in the area which also housed members of the Troublesome Creek Gang, aka the Crooked Creek Cowboys, who terrorized the area until shootouts ended their rampages.” Those cousins still gather around that tree for periodic photo ops, and perhaps to give silent thanks.
My own affections are more fickle, as they jump from tree to tree. At the start of my MFA program (University of San Francisco, Class of ’00) we were assigned the task of writing an autobiographical narrative. An interesting project at any age, creating something essentially true and minimally boring at 60-something which I then was – whew. Fifty pages max. But it turned out at least essentially true and minimally boring.
FAMILY TREES, it’s titled. Early on it tells about Willie Oak, the giant Virginia Oak around which my kid-gang gathered when I was six or seven or so. Named for Mrs. Inez Hatcher’s gardener (who could climb higher and swing farther than any of us,) Willie Oak was located on a large, grassy vacant lot next to Mrs. Hatcher’s house and centered an entire social system. It offered limbs to climb, a tire swing secured from a high branch, shelter on hot summer days and the freedom to create around these – pretty much out of sight of parents or passing grown-ups. Then there were the plum trees in our back yard whose fragrance was beyond glorious and whose fruit regularly made us sick because who can sit in a tree full of ripe plums and not overeat? And the leafy maples for sitting and reading in, while also eavesdropping on passersby who had no idea a small person was up there hidden and listening.
Later there was the elegant, matriarchal magnolia (which I also climbed, although 40-some years older by then,) in the front yard of a post-divorce Dutch Colonial. And lastly the majestic Monterey Pine my good final husband Bud had planted in a small basket years before. By the time I took up writing residency in a fourth floor studio it was flourishing outside my window, hosting bees and butterflies and lovely Anna’s Hummingbirds; if bees and butterflies and hummingbirds in tall pines can’t inspire a writer, nothing can.