Are We Listening to Mother Nature?

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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

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“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.

Guerilla Warfare in the Park

Author photo: Mama Mallard choosing to avoid face-off between Papa & mean Coot

Seeking a break from domestic and international warfare, this reporter visited Mountain Lake Park, definitely one of San Francisco’s loveliest. (And my all-time favorite.)

Though Mallard ducklings have been spotted on other local lakes, none were in evidence on Mountain Lake. Possibly because there was a red tail hawk swooping around in the nearby treetops, scoping out targets for his repeated dive-bomb attacks. (The hawk moved too fast for an amateur iPhone photographer.)

Mama and Papa Mallard, meanwhile, were playing it cool. Had they camouflaged the babes somewhere ashore? They were being confronted by a local coot, member of the meanest guerilla band on the lake. Mama & Papa Mallard undoubtedly know that mean coots take particular pleasure in pecking small ducklings who dare to enter coot-controlled waters. Today featured only a preliminary skirmish among adults.

Nature seeks peace.

When Dreams (& Books) Come True

Photo: iStock

“I can’t write STORIES!” I remember saying. “Real writers write stories!” This was about 30 years ago, early in my marriage to The Great Encourager.

“Sure you can,” he said. “You’ve got stories that deserve being written.”

I had written news, features and columns for newspapers and magazines. Political speeches, annual reports, a few easily forgettable books on commission because I needed the money. Almost anything nonfiction you can name – but stories??

Thus began a dream.

With a lot of encouragement I took a fiction workshop with then little known author/encourager Anne Lamott. And soon entered the University of San Francisco’s graduate school. The Great Encourager did all the cooking, looked after home and hearth, paid the bills, fielded calls and invitations while juggling his own commitments and took other women to concerts and gallery openings. Two years later I picked up an MFA in Short Fiction. Writing stories!

Some of the resulting Marshallville Stories won recognition and/or were published in print or online magazines. Some are better than others. But then they languished in a dusty drawer for years while I went back to nonfiction. Books. Activism. Nonprofits, talks, marches, letter to editors. You know, Life.

I think this is often the fate of dreams: Life happens, things get tucked away. And slowly, almost imperceptibly dreams begin to languish in dusty drawers. Obstacles pile themselves on top of the drawers.

One day a friend kicked at my #1 obstacle. “Here’s someone,” he said, “who could drag those stories out of their long-abandoned Word programs. Call her.” I did; he was right. Over the next year or so I edited them into a self-published book – a fascinating first for me, accomplished with a LOT of help from people who know how to do such stuff.

The Marshallville Stories collection has now been birthed. I hope you will pick up a copy and enjoy it.

Modern Laundry 101

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Do I really want to start the laundry back home, in the middle of a lobster dinner at the Ritz? Perhaps.

Or maybe it can wait.

My new Bash automatic washer (names are being changed to protect the innocent) arrived recently, along with an instruction book designed for someone with an advanced degree from MIT. But I got through it (I do have an MFA in Short Fiction,) followed all the instructions, ran the Drum Clean cycle and am now happily doing the laundry that has piled up since my former Bash died of natural causes. In hindsight, I feel it was morally wrong – or improper at best – to have let my old Bash be carted off with hardly a notice.

Here’s what my new Bash can do – I’m still reading the instruction book, but I think I’ve got it. If I scan the QR code, and program everything else – i.e., I’m also going to need to go buy a Voice Assistant – I will be able to call home and start the laundry in the middle of the main course. Do I wish to receive Push Notification when the cycle is done? That would be, say, during dessert. I may pass on the Push Notification.

Engin Ukyart on Unsplash

No offense to the high tech Bash designers, but what’s wrong with getting off the sofa the old-fashioned way and doing the laundry myself?

I have a long history with laundry. Before we got the fancy new washer with wringer attachment that was rolled over to the sink to run the water in – I was about 10 years old at the time – my mother had a washboard* forheavenssakes. Google it.

At the end of the Instruction Book are several pages of Problem/ Possible Cause(s)/ Solution for one’s further entertainment. My favorite is (Problem) Water does not appear to be filling in; (Possible Cause) Water taps not turned on; (Solution) Turn on water taps. I mean, really. They think I’m smart enough to scan QR codes and call the Voice Assistant in the middle of my dinner party, and I don’t know to turn on the water tap? Following the P/PC/S pages are another few pages of further information about the little emojis, symbols and dotted numbers that may light up. I think this is for the protection of the Bash people against claims of mental collapse caused by mysterious emojis blinking all over the laundry room.

Speaking of which. The final pages of the Book are all about Limited Product Warranty and “effectuated warranty coverage,” because of course there are warranties for all these technological wonders. With limits. After a time, “Bash is under no obligation, at law or otherwise, to provide you with any concessions, including repairs, prorates or Product replacement . . .”

I may go find a washboard.  

# # #

*there’s even a story inspired by the 1940s Maytag washer in forthcoming Marshallville Stories! Publication date: April 19th. Hope you’ll pick up a copy.

Dying Badly in the ICU

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“A performance,” the physician called it. She was referring to futile treatments of a dying patient in the Intensive Care Unit performed to make the family feel that “everything had been done.”

Well, thanks but no thanks.

Does the poor dying person get a voice here? Whose body is being bashed by chest compressions, invaded with wires and tubes, unceremoniously “treated” – just because we can? If it’s ever mine (though I’ve got every possible deed & document designed to keep me out of ICUs) I will come back to haunt everyone in that room.

What brought this up again – I’ve written about futile treatments of the dying before, and probably, sadly, will again – was an opinion piece published recently in the New York Times by Daniela J. Lamas. Lamas is a pulmonary and critical-care physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. The sentence that sent my blood pressure skyward was this: “Even if my patients are beyond pain, there is also a cost to those who are forced to perform emergency efforts that is just that: a performance.”

I submit there is also a cost to the patient. Who really knows what “beyond pain” means to a human being?

It is gauche and unacceptable to mention the financial cost here, but I can’t help that either. We could pay off the national debt in a year or two by simply facing up to this issue. If physicians like Dr. Lamas don’t enjoy “performance treating” in ICUs, and (prospective) patients like yours truly Do Not Want all that heroic resurrection stuff done – why can’t we talk about it?

Granted, the job of EMTs and ICUs is to preserve life at all costs. But what if we, the reasonably healthy public, were to demand limitation of those costs? What if we were to demand – write it into advance directives, tell every friend and family member, maybe tattoo it onto our chests – that heroic life-preservation efforts be made only when reasonable life may be made possible?

Lamas was telling the story of a family unready to face the death of their loved one, despite the fact that “It was clear that there was nothing more that we could do. Except keep (the patient) alive until Monday.” That meant two full days of sedation, intubation and every conceivable medical procedure – including, hopefully, enough pain medication to avoid terrible suffering, but who knows, really? And for what? Or, more to the point, for whom? The essay was aptly titled “Who Are We Caring for in the I.C.U?”

If you Google “futile medical treatment” the list of articles and studies is impressive – plenty of medical professionals are as concerned as this lay writer – and one conclusion is stark: the waste of time, skills and money on futile treatment at life’s end is enormous. And for what?

Obviously there’s no one simple answer. Often as not, there’s one family member (or more) arguing for a loved one’s life to be extended even when everyone knows that death would be the kinder choice. To that not-dying person I would say, Get over it. Well, I wouldn’t say it like that; I’d say it very, very kindly because the not-dying person clearly has issues.

But we, as a society, need to get over thinking of death as the ultimate enemy and “life” as something that must be preserved even when it’s no longer living in any sense. Most of us would far prefer a peaceful death – at whatever age – to a vegetative state that is unpleasant at best and painful at worst. But only by writing those (and other!) preferences down, and talking about them out loud, will we ever diminish the sad, wasteful “performance” care of the ICU.

One healthy person at a time. Want to join this movement?

Optimism Survives & Conquers

shallow focus photography of yellow sunflower field under sunny sky

shallow focus photography of yellow sunflower field under sunny sky
Photo by Susanne Jutzeler on Pexels.com

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.

Author photo from across the street

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.

Watching War Begin

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Surreal. There is no other word.

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.

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