Meeting Mother Nature in Montana


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Big Sky Country! I’m a native Virginian transplanted long ago to San Francisco, and hadn’t met anything quite like Montana’s Bridger Mountains. But on a recent first-time visit I was enchanted by the ease and comfort with which the disparate members of Mother Nature’s family — flora and fauna alike — coexist. Here are a few of the fellow creatures that hang around my daughter’s new home:

For starters — brown bears. This one was investigating the indoor cat, or it might have been the other way around. Having a window in between was probably a good thing.

Christine Pentecost, Bridger Mountain Photo

The local brown bears, grizzlies by proper name, can be a curious sort. But you might not want to engage them, as they weigh an average of 290 lbs (the females) to 440 for the males. Living in bear country means being very careful to protect their habitat and never leaving garbage or food available — they make their own dietary choices, which may or may not include house cats. According to the Montana Field Guide, they have “light to medium grizzling on the head and back and a light patch behind the front legs.” Plus “varying levels of grizzled hair patches.” I now know where the grizzly bear got his name.

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And then there are rabbits. Other than the Easter bunny, a very distant kin, local rabbits are not always welcome. (But you have to admit they’re cute.) They get along just fine, insulated by all that fur and layers underneath, in Montana’s sub-zero winters, dining on tree bark, twigs and needles, but once the gardens begin to flourish, all those delicate sprouts look pretty yummy. . . .

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The resident rabbit likes to settle in daily by the back door, sunning himself (or herself, as the case may be) for a while and perhaps finding something interesting falling from the bird feeder above.

Christine Pentecost, Bridger Mountain Photo

Mule deer and white tail deer are common to the neighborhood, and they like to nibble too. My daughter’s new house is the beloved old house carefully designed and built by a noted photographer (and her husband,) who generously shared images of visiting creatures.

Montana being big game country, humans and deer coexist not always on equal terms : deer are speedy, but hunters have guns. Hunting is regulated, however, and hopefully humankind is looking to preserve these particular fellow creatures.

In the Bridger Mountain area of the state, what most strikes a newcomer is the endless display of Mother Nature’s bounty, and the possibilities for human and non-human creatures to coexist while appreciating each other. The creatures may not always appreciate the human invaders — other than the welcome availability of birdseed throughout the snowy season — but up close and personal, coexistence is pure joy.

Elections Fair & Square

When is an illegitimate winner not a winner?

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

When I was a kid, Fair & Square was the rule.

“She won fair & square!” was the undisputed last word, whether it was a game of kick the can or a closely fought race for president of second grade. The winner accepted the prize, the loser scuffed his toe in the dirt but sat down — each with some degree of grace and compassion.

Admittedly, it’s been a very long time since I was a kid.

Still, pity poor Tom Suozzi. Tom Suozzi, whose name I would not have recognized before January 2023, served for six years in the U.S. Congress, representing the people of New York’s Third District. Most recently he ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic nomination for governor of New York. But he is proud of his record representing the folks in the jaggedy-shaped congressional district (aren’t they all?) that includes a sizable area of Long Island’s North Shore. And now he is less than happy about his successor.

“It saddens me,” Suozzi wrote in a recent New York Times op ed, “that after 30 years of public service rooted in hard work and service to the people of this area, I’m being succeeded by a con man.” Yep. The district elected someone whose name by now we all know: George Santos.

Mr. Santos skipped the Fair & Square classes.

The congressman-elect is now widely renowned for lying about his education, his work history, his finances, his achievements, his mother and possibly his name. If his victory causes distress to Tom Suozzi, it cannot be easy for businessman/activist Robert Zimmerman. Mr. Zimmerman, the Democrat who opposed Mr. Santos, conceded defeat after a race that now hardly seems to have been won fair and square. Mr. Zimmerman, though, has yet to submit an op ed to the Times (as far as I know.)

“Yet, I am clinging to my sense of optimism,” Suozzi writes. “I believe that as slow and frustrating as it sometimes is, our democracy, our free press and the rule of law work.” (This reporter is always looking for notes of optimism.)

Suozzi concludes, “One of my favorite lines from the 2011 film The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel has always stayed with me: ‘Everything will be all right in the end. So if it is not all right, then it is not yet the end.’ That’s how I feel about America right now.”

Having somehow missed The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, this reporter nevertheless is going with Suozzi’s argument. “It’s not a naïve idea,” he concludes; “it’s what keeps us sane and able to keep moving forward in the age of Mr. Santos and Mr. Trump. The system works — if not right away, then ultimately. It has worked throughout our history, and it will work now.”

Well, okay. While trying to stay sane and able to move forward, let’s hear it for the Third District of New York somehow getting a legitimate Representative, fair & square.

Weather Weirdness for Humankind

A report from beautiful snowy Montana

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“It’s going up — (UP!) — to zero tomorrow,” said one adult in the room; “we can go sledding!” Two other adults, along with one 8-year-old, gleefully began planning routes. This reporter was planning to watch from indoors.

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Human beings, IMHO, are not designed to function in temperatures of 30 degrees below zero. Or “negative 30,” as it’s called by the good people of Montana, where I was spending the recent days of weather weirdness. Other parts of the world, including my beloved California with its recent cabinet-jostling earthquakes, have had their own weirdness problems:

Dense fog advisories, wind chill warnings, red flag alerts, assorted advisories and warnings on everything from floods to blizzards to hard freezes to a hurricane watch or two. Mother Nature is not pleased. Unwilling to send us all to our rooms — say, Mars or Jupiter or wherever — She called a December time out. Which, in Montana’s case, spells the deep freeze.

Game camera photo

Mother Nature designed all manner of creatures, not including humans, to function just fine in Negative 30 weather. Rabbits, for instance. The resident rabbit (above) is happily self-insulated and we presume warmly housed somewhere underground. As are the itinerant bears, deer, magpies and the rest of the Montana flora and fauna.

Humans, however, are on their own. When even the ski slopes are closed by the cold, that leaves throwing boiling water into the frigid air. And making plans to go sledding when things warm up to zero.

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Holiday Revelry: To Mask or Not to Mask


Photo by Belinda Fewings on Unsplash

That is still the question.

A holiday-sized group of passengers was recently gathered in the waiting area of Terminal Two Gate 4, ready to board a flight from San Francisco to Bozeman, MT. The unmasked outnumbered the masked by roughly fifteen to one — this despite the Please Wear A Mask signs on every wall and the news full of stories about the “triple-demic.”

With an hour to spare before departure — the highway traffic and TSA Pre-Check gods having been with me — I put on my (masked) Ace Reporter face and undertook a random survey. This is only advised if you are extremely cautious in finding approachable respondents. It also helps to be a harmless grandmother type. And it is wise to approach only the genuinely bored, who are staring into space as if they wished someone might approach them with a survey question. You can always find them, even if you have to wander down to Gate E or Gate D.

Style is equally important. Ideally, the reporter wheels her carry-on to a vacant seat one or two seats away from the target, but an adjacent seat is okay, and standing in lines is perfect. Once you’ve settled quietly into position, allow an appropriate interval of time to elapse — say, 30 seconds or so, during which it’s good to stare into space yourself. Then, with your best behind-the-mask smile in place, you’re ready to begin.

Photo by Alexander Grey on Unsplash

“Do you mind if I ask you a question?” my survey opened. One potential respondent furrowed his brow, and another did the serious eyebrow-raising thing, but nobody told me to get lost — in so many words. Almost everyone seemed agreeable.

This survey wanted to find out why these good people were wearing masks, how they felt about so many non-maskers hanging around everywhere, and when they think masks will finally be history. Below are my key findings.

Nobody even wanted to guess about when the world will be safely unmasked. “2033?,” said a young woman in a University of Virginia sweatshirt. Perhaps.

A high percentage of mask-wearers have already had covid. “I’ve had it twice,” said one middle-aged woman in a furry black cap, “and you don’t want to mess with this virus. I don’t care that much about others right now. I keep the mask on for my own protection.”

Said a young man in the coffee bar line, “I have long covid; I can still barely smell the coffee. Those unmasked folks might think they’re fine, but I am not taking any chances.”

That focus on personal safety, as opposed to altruistic motives for mask-wearing, seems to have markedly increased. One or two survey respondents referred to “keeping all those others safe,” but without any particular animosity toward “those others” who might be unwittingly spreading germs.

Which was another finding of my research: hostility between maskers and anti-maskers, once almost palpable, seems to have faded a little. At least if you can believe the Gate F crowd. It was barely a year ago that an unmasked passerby almost declared war on my innocently masked self on a San Francisco street. My outdoor mask, which was mandated at the time, led him to conclude I had to be some Fauci-loving liberal commie covid freak.

Photo by visuals on Unsplash

Fear of encountering someone of that sort might have led me to skip the unmasked entirely. In any event, I left them alone. Going maskless is their business, I decided; and I avoid arguments great and small.

So I stuck with the fully masked. A family of five waiting for a flight to the east coast seemed happy to talk about masks, as well as holiday travel. “It just makes sense,” said the mom, whose eyes were sparkly above her jet-black mask. “The kids have gotten used to wearing them and I figure we’ll keep the habit until the risks are small and the viruses fewer.”

At which point the youngest kid looked up at me with the winning response, “We’re going to see our Gran.”

Parting Words from a Too-Short Life

Ronald Lockett, “Fever Within” (1995) — Author Photo

Artist Ronald Lockett died at the age of 33. I’d never heard of him, or seen any of his work, before happening upon this piece at San Francisco’s de Young Museum. It’s made of found tin, colored pencils and nails on wood, and according to the accompanying text probably depicts a female partner from whom, sadly, he is likely to have contracted AIDS. It’s an arresting piece. “The cross-like composition,” reads the text, “suggests both a window frame — and the sensation of being trapped inside or outside — and the potential of spiritual salvation.”

What caught this viewer even more were some thoughts that Lockett expressed about his own mortality, shortly before he died.

“If it would end today or tomorrow,” he said, “I just try to do the best I can do, keeping my art honest and coming from my heart. It’s like the last few minutes of a basketball game when the clock is ticking and you’ve got to shoot, you just want to nail it like. It means so much to show ’em you can do it.”

Thanks for nailing it, literally, figuratively and emotionally, Ronald Lockett.

Five Steps to Guaranteed Optimism

Today’s word is – – Panglossian

Photo by Sandy Millar on Unsplash

Optimism is dead! I was told this by a good friend yesterday. He said, “It is no longer possible to look at what’s happening with politics, or global warming, or civility, and be an optimist.

Well, no. Wrong. Optimism is alive and well, and we, Optimists of the World, want to invite you to join us. We have even outlined a fail-safe pathway to optimism. It is shared at the end of this essay if you want to skip the middle and go straight to the instructions.

The ultimate optimist is the Panglossian. This came to light one afternoon while musing about a potential publisher ID for my short story collection with my friend Margaret. We stumbled upon the perfect name: Panglossian Press (now the official publisher of my self-published book. Self-publishing is another story but not under the Optimism tab.) It may or may not be pertinent to report that Margaret was drinking absinthe while I was cold sober. However, we reached this conclusion simultaneously: I am the poster child of the Panglossian.

The name may have come from Dr Pangloss, the rather ditsy old tutor in Voltaire’s Candide, who said, among other things and while surrounded by overwhelmingly bad stuff, “all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds.”

The Merriam-Webster people tell us it comes from the Greek pan (all) and glossa (tongue), “suggesting glibness or talkativeness” — maybe they are thinking happy talk. In any case, it seems true that Panglossians are seldom silent or politely subdued. What they are is excessively incurably optimistic.

Look at it this way. Optimists may see the world through rose-colored glasses, but that doesn’t mean their eyes aren’t working. It might mean their hearts are lighter. In the dark days we seem to be living through, won’t a little light-heartedness help?

If you think it might, here is the pathway to Panglossianism:

Listen. Try to shut up for a while (admittedly hard for most Panglossians.) Take in as much Stuff as you can. This initial step can, alternatively, be watched. Or Read. Just not on Facebook. Or, for that matter, any social media currently in existence. Then –

Question. A lot of that stuff is hogwash. If you ask enough questions, you might figure out which. Next –

Toss. Discard as much of the Bad Stuff as you can. Just hit Delete. The Inspiratbrain has only so much storage space. (At least, mine does. My brain has reached the point at which when a new iota comes in; some old iota has to go out — which can make you pessimistic if you’re not careful.) But you can do this; after which you need to –

Assess. Really now. There’s more Good Stuff than Bad Stuff in the world, right? If this seems incorrect, go back to Step 2 and discern what more you need to toss. Eventually, though, you’ll be ready for the final step. Which is –

Reach out. Volunteer at the soup kitchen, protest, whatever strikes your fancy as long as it’s for somebody else and not dull old you yourself. That will bring you back to Step one whenever you’re ready for another round of persuasion. Meanwhile, you will have had at least some tiny positive impact on one of the things my grumpy friend declared as having brought about the death of optimism. Take that, Scrooge.

Now, don’t you feel better? Welcome to the Panglossian Club.

Here’s to Hospice – But Not For-Profit Please

Photo by Dominik Lange on Unsplash

Hospice care: comfort, support, peace. And part of the Medicare benefit.

For years I have preached – to anyone listening, and not many people listen to my preaching – that hospice care is the best and most under-utilized piece of the entire American healthcare system. And I have urged every terminally ill person ever encountered to go on hospice sooner rather than later. The benefits include not just access to nurses and other medical professionals but equipment like hospital beds that make life (and death) easier on everyone.

Hospice got very personal to me when my husband was dying of congestive heart failure. We missed my #1 lecture about invoking the service early because it took him only a few days to go from living fairly comfortably with the disease – as he did for many years – to end stage and a quick death. We should all sign up for this. Still, the hospice bed was a godsend, as was the liquid morphine that I was dispensing as if it were root beer float.   

Hospice and I go way back. In the early 1980s, having always volunteered with arts or educational organizations, I wanted to try something new. Hanging out with really sick people? Being around someone who’s dying? That seemed utterly impossible to me. So I decided to give it a try, and signed up to train as a hospice volunteer. It was, of course, the most rewarding thing I’d ever done. Since then I have worked with (and written about) AIDS support groups (in the 1990s) and assorted end-of-life nonprofits up to and including today serving as a volunteer and board member for End of Life Choices CA.

Two things I have learned and absolutely swear: hospice care is the best, and IT SHOULD NOT BE FOR PROFIT. If you’re a for-profit business in the hospice business where is your profit coming from? Duh. People. Sick and dying people, vulnerable people, the people least likely to stand up for themselves against your money-making.

OK, there are for-profit hospices that are just fine. I put that in quickly, since I have many, many friends who work with for-profits and they will have my head if they read this and think I’m implying every for-profit hospice is intrinsically evil. Not so. But the fact remains: a for-profit business is about profit, and the hospice business is about sick and dying people.

Most recently the for-profit hospice business has been indicted by ProPublica reporter Ava Kofmanin a carefully researched article that appears on the ProPublica site and in the December 5 New YorkerEndgame: How the visionary hospice movement became a for-profit hustle details one major lawsuit over one egregious case but covers the broader topic as it relates to these abuses. Its final line quotes two men discussing the opening of a potential new hospice. Says one to the other: “We can turn a profit and split it.” And that line says it all.

The National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization (NHPCO) and the National Association for Home Care & Hospice (NAHC) were quick to respond to Kofman’s article, saying it focuses on a few bad actors (which is true) and lamenting that it might discourage people from using hospice care (which would be unfortunate but hopefully is not true.) 

“The hospice benefit is popular, well-regarded, and saves taxpayer dollars compared to keeping terminally ill patients in hospitals or other institutional centers of care,” the responding article reads. “NAHC, NHPCO, and our members look forward to working with federal and state policymakers to implement solutions to address the isolated problems highlighted by the article without jeopardizing access to the Medicare hospice benefit.”

One can hope. 

But when I need hospice care – hopefully not any time soon, but hey, dying happens to all of us – I’m still calling a nonprofit organization.

Help Celebrate Hug A Cloud Day!

Photo by engin akyurt on Unsplash

You can do this! Cloud-hugging (instructions below) benefits all of humankind.

Hug A Cloud Day came about because this is the 250th anniversary of the birth of English chemist/amateur meteorologist Luke Howard, the man who named clouds. The above puffy/fluffy ones are cumulus — if I’m not mistaken — from the Latin cumulo. On Hug A Cloud Day — or any other day, for that matter — it’s okay just to call them beautiful puffy things in the sky. But thanks to Luke Howard, they have names. This information is courtesy of the Cloud Appreciation Society.

Photo by Michael & Diane Weidner on Unsplash

Everything I know about clouds comes from British-based Cloud Appreciation Society, of which I am Member #45,662. (Everything, that is, except for Hug A Cloud Day; I just invented that.) Largely it comes into my Inbox every day in the form of the Cloud of the Day.

In lieu of the daily cloud, though, my Inbox recently brought a portait of Luke Howard, and the information that he’s the guy who, back in 1802, came up with the idea of giving clouds Latin names like those for plants and animals.

Photo by Anna Spencer on Unsplash

So now we have Cirrus, Cumulus, Stratus, Nimbus and endless varieties, all worth appreciating. Or hugging. Here are the benefits of cloud-hugging: a healthy stretch, exercise time if you add a little happy dance, a chance to commune with the universe and balm for the soul. Plus, it’s free.

Photo by Aron Visuals on Unsplash

Here’s how to hug a cloud:

Go outside. If you can’t go outside, go to a window.

Look up.

Stretch out both arms as wide as you can.

Smile at a cloud. It can even be a rain cloud. You don’t have to call it by its proper name; clouds don’t really care.

Wrap your arms around your shoulders.

You have now celebrated Hug A Cloud Day. Your cloud, happily hugged, can now float off and around the planet, to make itself universally available. Free hugs, humans everywhere. Imagine.

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