My Little Corner of Black History Month

In celebration of Black History Month, this space would like to share a couple of personal encounters with the Arts and Literary history of African Americana. Just because.

Benny Andrews
Benny Andrews (1930-2006)

Art first. Soon after I arrived in San Francisco, there was a gallery show of the work of Benny Andrews. Benny Andrews was just my #1 all-time favorite African American artist, thanks to having first encountered his work in my undergraduate days (R-MWC 1953, BA, Art.) As we entered the gallery my new husband Bud grabbed my hand and said, “C’mon, I want to introduce you to Benny.” Well, I knew Bud knew everybody, especially every artist alive, but personally? He had gotten hooked on art in one class during his own senior undergraduate year (Albion, 1951, BA Economics & Political Science) and since then had spent every spare moment hanging out at galleries and museums. But Benny Andrews? Could he really know Benny Andrews? And more to the point, could I possibly do anything but gush embarrassingly in front of a famous person who happened to be my #1 all-time African American artist hero? I went into panic mode. There were a LOT of people milling around looking at beautiful paintings; bunches of them were gathered around the artist. I tried to think of something intelligent I might say, but it wasn’t happening.

Benny Andrews drawing
“The Guitar Picker” (With apologies for photographer’s ghost)

Meanwhile, my good husband, all 6’4” of him, was plowing ahead, aiming straight toward Benny Andrews, with me in tow. There was no escape, and my brain was on freeze. In a matter of moments we were standing face to face. Briefly acknowledging Bud, Benny reached out and gave me a giant hug. And said, “Aren’t you darlin’ to come see my pictures!”

Sometime later we were able to buy his utterly beautiful pencil drawing “The Guitar Picker.” It’s now at the National Gallery in D.C. But just thinking about it makes me smile, and remember that gentle, kind, incredibly gifted man saying “Aren’t you darlin’ to come see my pictures.”

My other famous artist story has to do with my #1 all-time favorite living African American artist, Radcliffe Bailey. Met him in real time, after admiring his work at Atlanta’s High Museum (and elsewhere) for years, when he turned up at a milestone birthday party in California for my friend Liz Campbell Moskowitz (no slouch of an artist herself.) She introduced us offhandedly, and I said, with something less than socially acceptable composure, “OMG! You’re Radcliffe Bailey!?! I love your work! That room of your paintings is the first place I go when I’m at the High!” He was polite about my effusion, though.

Fran w Radcliffe Bailey 2.16.19
Radcliffe Bailey & me

This was a couple of years before he married Leslie, daughter of Liz and the renowned photographer Gordon Parks. I think I’m unlikely to top those two encounters any time soon.

As for the Literature area.

In the late 1960s, Bud (whom I would marry in 1992 but with whom I was not then in contact) owned a house at 2777 Pine Street in San Francisco. A graceful Victorian built in the 1870s, it sold a few years ago for three or four million – but in 1968 the neighborhood was not one you’d wander around without risking bodily harm. Bud lived in the ground-floor apartment, and rented the main house to Eldridge and Kathleen Cleaver. At the time, Black Panther leader Eldridge was out on bail following an attempted murder charge. He would eventually skip the country and later return, find religion, design provocative menswear, become a Mormon, struggle with cocaine addiction and die at age 62 in 1998. That was 30 years after he’d been Bud’s tenant. “I had no problems with the neighborhood,” my husband used to say of that time; “either the cops or the Black Panthers were there at any given time; usually both.”

Kathleen Cleaver (who had answered the For Rent ad and signed the lease) would go on to earn a J.D. from Yale Law School and eventually become a distinguished lecturer at Yale and at Emory University. But between her tenancy on Pine Street and her later career she joined Eldridge in exile in Algeria, and became the mother of two. On Pine Street, she handled the family finances. Because they were chancy at best, the rent seldom arrived on time. (When the Cleavers skipped town they were two months in arrears. So my husband went to the Black Panther headquarters in Oakland and said he’d like to have his rent. You did what? he was asked. “I said I wanted two months rent. They paid.”)

Cleaver letter
(More apologies for another photographer-ghost)

When cleaning out our safe deposit box recently I found the letter at right. The letterhead is that of Ramparts, a radical publication for which Kathleen Cleaver wrote. I’d known of the letter’s existence; my husband included it in a story he once wrote, and had offered it to several museums but gotten no response. So I mentioned finding it to my daughter and said I couldn’t figure out what to do with it. “Frame it, Mom,” she said. Thus the document shown here. It reads:

Mr. Johns:

Please excuse the delay but I have been so god damned busy with these pigs and courts and chaos that I completely forgot to pay the rent. You are so very sweet to be so unobtrusive and gentle with me. I think you are the perfect landlord and I would just like to warn you that you should prepare yourself for any day now some kind of assault on this house. I think it is beautiful, I love it, I won’t go away, but the local, federal, international, secret and off duty pigs as well as reagon (sic,) rafferty, shelton, wallace, alioto, et al want to do us in, Eldridge first, then me.

Here’s the rent.

Peace, Mrs. Cleaver  

Is There An App For The Inept?

AppsIn-appt: /i’ napt – having or showing no patience with technology.

There are, as far as I can determine, something over two million apps one can download onto one’s phone. Google says one thing, Apple says another – but there are a LOT of apps out there. I know people who seem to have most of them. I have sixteen. Most of the ones I have were installed by the Apple people and thus may not be un-installed (so I just let them sit there and entertain each other.)

I actually use a couple of apps. My Routesy app, for example, can magically, immediately determine exactly where I am standing in downtown San Francisco, and tell me how soon the #2 Clement or the #3 Jackson outbound will be arriving. Or where’s the closest Apps1BART station and when the next train to El Cerrito will be departing. I love the Routesy people. Because I choose to believe that somewhere, somehow, there are real people who sit around programming my Routesy app to the most intimate degrees. I also occasionally use my Maps app. But the time it was telling me to turn left onto Laguna in 400 feet, and my Apple Watch buzzed my wrist when I got to Laguna – that was a bit much. I mean, who told my watch? I find this almost as spooky as the occasional Dick Tracy-type conversations I have with my wrist because I can’t reach my cellphone.

My question is: who is the App Director of the Universe? And with more than two million of them out there, why hasn’t she created any app for me?

Here are the only apps I would ever need, please:

Apps2The Find-It App. It wouldn’t actually have to find stuff. It would just cause the designated item to beep until I got there. The item which has vanished: book, keys, wallet, checkbook – all those things I would like to find. I don’t need that Find-My-Phone thing; I’m sitting here holding the phone, for heaven’s sake, with all these superfluous apps staring at me.

The Cancel-It App. It would quietly reach out to everyone scheduled to attend that meeting, webinar, Zoom conference or other tedious event on my calendar and inform everyone of its cancellation. If something were really important it could be re-scheduled for next week, but my guess is 90% of the time nobody would notice.

The Stifle App (named in honor of Archie Bunker. If you’re too young to know who Archie Bunker is you don’t need this app anyway; you are inured to excess ambient noise. This app would infiltrate all news channels and stifle every politician who adversely affects my blood pressure. Fake newsThus I could still check what’s going on – I balance my PBS/MSNBC intake with occasional Fox News programs in a generally vain attempt to understand my country and my fellow citizens – without putting my health at risk.

This is all I’m asking. You can keep the whole two million apps (minus Routesy and Maps) if I could just have those three. Is this asking too much?

app3
Simply drop it anywhere

 

Happy Old Year from Mother Nature

Planet earthFarewell, 2019.

It’s not been the best of years for human beings. Fires, floods, extreme weather events (Hello, climate change deniers?;) migrants around the globe fleeing poverty and violence; a lot of us in the U.S. watching with horror & dismay as reproductive justice disappears and democracy is threatened on a zillion other fronts.

Arctic - bird on water
Arctic bird in flight

But here’s the good news: The beauty of Nature remains unchanged.

Oh, we can mess with it, threaten it with things like removal of environmental protections in the name of “deregulation.” (Deregulation is reflexively a great good thing? Hello again.)

Galapagos - Turtle
Galapagos Turtle

But as the bumper sticker – too good to waste on a bumper, so it’s still on the bulletin board – some friends sent many years ago says, Nature Bats Last. We let too many glaciers melt; Nature will erode our beaches and flood our low-lying cities. (Could we flood Mar a Lago, please? Just a tiny bit?) We let the planet warm with our irresponsibility; Nature will get our attention with devastating wildfires across multiple continents. Hurricanes. Tornadoes.

Sunrise - SF 10.19
San Francisco Sunrise

Meanwhile, Nature keeps right on offering us beauty: forests, flowers, lakes, creatures of amazing varieties. Recently I was lucky enough to spend a few days in the Galapagos Islands, off the coast of Ecuador. Just before the oil spill that threatens even that fiercely protected habitat of an amazing variety of Nature’s wondrous creatures of air, land and sea.

Georgia skies 10.19
Georgia skies

 

Earlier in this inscrutable year I was also lucky enough to visit Amsterdam in tulip season, and to walk on some of the fast-shrinking tundra and glaciers of the Arctic Circle. And to watch the sunrise and sunset over San Francisco. Same thing. Nature’s beauty is astounding, even where its carefully-protected creatures and its bountiful provisions are threatened. So here is a fond look back at just a few of the blessings of Nature I crossed paths with over the past 365 – well, 362 so far – days. And here’s hoping we humans will do a better job of expressing our gratitude in the New Year. Peace & joy to us all.

 

dove of peace

 

A Few Random Cures for Insomnia

Insomnia - sheepI have taken to waking up at three or four AM in a state of (pick one) sadness, anxiety, unidentifiable angst or worry over the future of the planet.  It’s not something I recommend, and hopefully it will not become a permanent habit. But I do note that I wrote about it on May 22, 2016. Had totally forgotten that profound essay, which may say something about its profunditiy. This one, however, is about solutions! The earlier one did in fact have a bunch of potential solutions, because it was inspired, at least in part, by a wonderful New Yorker piece that the inimitable Patricia Marx wrote about the limitless assortments of insomnia aids currently on the market. What follows are the things that get me back to sleep – – – eventually.

Watching the night skies. This has to be #1. Works best for me, thanks to the happy circumstance of having a large window that looks westward over San Francisco 7 floors below. I often get reflections of the city lights onto the clouds (or fog) above; occasionally I get a setting moon.Night sky 11.19 Staring heavenward does not require turning on the lights or getting out of bed – unless the sight is so remarkable I feel the need to capture it with my iPhone camera. The conviction that something more competent than the planet’s current inhabitants is in charge enables me to talk myself down from whatever woe has me in its grip.

If I do the turn-on-the-light-&-make-a cup-of-tea thing, there are the wonders of modern technology for #2. My smart phone spends the night in another room (something I find necessary to my sanity) so accessing it requires a measure of wakefulness (see above.) But then there it is with its handy little Calm app. Or better still, I will pick it up to find my friend Liz has just sent a video of tall trees in a Georgia forest sending their fall leaves off into a symphony of gentleness. Trees by LizIf that doesn’t lull me back to sleep, there’s an entirely other solution now that the accursed device has injected itself into my insomnia. Ninety percent of the non-existential things about which I am stewing have simple answers that Safari can provide: Yes, that book I need is available at my Western Addition Library branch! Here are the directions to a repair shop! An email just arrived from the editor I thought didn’t like my story! (What’s he doing up at 4 AM? Not my problem.) Spirits calmed or problems solved, I can then manage to go back to sleep.

And now that the light is on, the book is there. I am pretty careful not to keep Bram Stoker or Franz Kafka on the bedside table, or any of those excellent books about apartheid or the Holocaust, however fine they might be for daytime reading. But I’ll have A.S. Byatt, or Laurie Colwin, or Edith Wharton – any of those lovely friends who can pull you so deeply into a story that they will displace the cause of the insomnia. Of course, you might not want to put the book down, but that’s another problem altogether.Universe

Insomnia is not an easy foe. It may indeed require calling in the troops Marx uncovered – eye masks, stretchy hats, blue lights, Valium, whatever. But before you go to all that trouble and expense I hereby recommend the good book, the internet solution or the celestial assurance that the universe is in good hands – if you’ll just go back to sleep and quit worrying about it.

 

 

 

On Parenting Aging Parents

Caregiving1         “I thought I would have a life,” Sharon said to me. “My youngest is now in college, my husband is nearing retirement and we thought we would have a life. Instead, I am juggling time with my father – who’s in an independent living facility but is certainly not independent – and my mother who lives alone in the house she’s had for 40 years. My mother is, how do I put this?, needy. Suddenly she needs help with all sorts of things and I have been designated The Helper.”

It was one of the saddest mini-conversations I’ve had in a very long time. I had known  Sharon for less than an hour. She is 54. She was visiting a friend of mine, and this report came when 6 of us were having lunch at the retirement condo where I live. Actually, other than one sixty-something I’ll call Joan, I was the only one in the group older than 54. At 86 I happily accumulate younger friends as often as possible, since the rest of us keep dying off. My lunch guests were talking about what a good spot I am in, especially since my children all live in faraway states.Caregiving4 That was when one 40-something said, “I wish my parents would consider moving to a place like this; they don’t want to leave their big, three-story house, and I’m afraid I’m going to be trying to take care of them there by the time I hit my fifties. And that’s when Sharon chimed in with the comment above: “Yeah, I thought I would have a life . . .” And Joan said, with a wry smile, “Welcome to the club.”

I have another friend I’ll call Robert, a business associate with whom I’m not all that close. But because he knew I was writing this piece he told me a similar story. His parents are somewhat younger than this octogenarian writer, but not that much. They had what my friend describes as “a rather loveless marriage” for more than 20 years, but when it ended – with his father leaving to be with an old sweetheart whom “he probably should’ve married in the first place” – that was the last time they spoke. His mother later found a new partner, and both parents, though neither remarried, were contentedly partnered for many years. Not long ago, though, his mother’s partner died, and at about the same time his father’s partner sold their house (which she owned) and moved to another state to be near her daughter. Robert’s father “now rents a room in a home not his own — surviving on Social Security and a small amount of work— surprised he’s still here because he thought he would be dead 10 or more years ago and did not plan to see his 80s.” So much for life plans.Caregiving5 “Both are alone and needy now, in different, complementary ways,” Robert says. “If they could somehow bring themselves to talk to one another, perhaps they could begin to chisel away at the layers of resentment, hostility and blame that destroyed their relationship.” Apparently this won’t begin to happen any time soon, however, as Robert tells me they maintain no interest in communicating. His mother lives alone in a home she owns and craves companionship; his father has little money left and needs a roof over his head, a more secure one than the stranger’s home in which he’s been unhappily existing for more than two years now. Robert laments they are in a unique position to help each other, if they were open to it. As their only child, Robert sees this as the sensible alternative to driving him crazy. But he also admits they might not reflect upon or even begin to realize just how their current lives affect him.

Two messages stand out: Needy parents, and children going crazy as designated helpers.

These two examples may not be universal, but they are surely not uncommon. The upside is that many such parents have children at least able to help. (Many parents also have children who are delighted to be caregivers, resulting in a blessing for all. I’m just not sure this is often the case.) But consider the aging elderly who have no (available) children and even fewer resources; be grateful if you’re aged and have one or the other. The downside, at least across the U.S., is a growing inter-generational tragedy. My unscientific micro-sampling, conducted over a period of several weeks, turned up a half-dozen youngish Boomers caring (with varying degrees of joy & satisfaction) for septuagenarian or octogenarian parents, and a handful of Gen-X’ers caring for Boomer parents.Caregiving3 Two of the latter have serious financial concerns put this way by one: “So I’m spending my retirement savings on my mom, and – considering my choice not to have children myself – wondering what’s going to happen to me.”

The above, should you want to consider it as such, is an open letter to parents of my generation. Here’s the thing: 100% of us are going to die, which will definitely not be the worst thing that ever happens: just look at all the great people who have already done it. Most of us will need some degree of care by someone, in the months or years leading up to our deaths. Some of us have more choices about our final years than others, but there may be ways to get through our geezerhood without upending our children’s lives – if we talk with them about it.

Caregiving6       It might be a conversation worth having.

 

On Being High on Cities

For a small-town girl, I am embarrassingly in love with cities. Their energy, their sometime sophistication, their proud histories, their devil-may-care attitude toward the constantly undulating (some fast, some pokey) throngs of their citizens as they go about doing whatever it is that city people incessantly do.Prague castle

I fell for Prague the first step I took onto the first of its cobblestone bridges spanning the centuries of its brave survival of constant conquest and cultural assaults. A guide in the Prague Museum taught me a lesson worth a college semester with one proud sentence, “We do not have an army.” Thus giving this U.S.-raised citizen new insight into what armies can really mean.

In Bruges my husband and I discovered out-of-the-way museums and savored chocolate (ink-dark for him; pale for me) with our coffee while watching the canal boats.Bruges canal But mostly we wandered the endlessly wandering streets. It was in Bruges that we perfected the phrase employed for so many years throughout so many other cities, from Chicago to Shanghai: “Let’s just walk.”

I love Porto Alegre not just for being the city of my birth – the last sultry thing I ever did, I often say, was being born in Brazil – but for its mix of gentle warmth and cowboy swagger. On the single visit I made to the place where my father had helped start the Instituto Porto Alegre my husband and I were treated like royalty by representatives of that august institution. We were feted with meat-heavy banquets, tours and an organ concert and sent off with a bouquet of flowers; what’s not to love about a city offering that to a stranger?

Paris. Well, Paris.

DunhuangMy experience of China was one two-week excursion with the Oakland Museum Art Guild, which clearly makes me an expert on all things Chinese including its cities. So. While I loved the bustle (and the leafy former French Concession) of Shanghai, and marveled at the frenetic pace of both Shanghai and Beijing, Dunhuang stole my heart. Maybe because it’s been around since – oh, 2,000 B.C., there was something casually settled about Dunhuang. Everyone seemed to move more slowly, wrapped in the desert air, smilingly unconcerned with invading tourists, of whom there were not so many as elsewhere. When I asked one colorfully-dressed woman, through several bungled words and a lot of stupid gestures, if I might take a picture of her adorable tiny daughter, she grinned, pulled me to her side and insisted in a flurry of rapid-fire instructions to a passerby that he take a picture of the three of us, the toddler nestled happily in my arms. How could I not love Dunhuang?

I was in St. Petersburg at the end of a river trip from Moscow that had been pure joy and a time of revelation. But I had OD’d on castles. Plus, I really wanted to see the Dostoevsky Museum, which was not on the agenda for my tour group.Dostoevsky Museum So I set out on my own, equipped with a map by which I planned to count bridges and a total ignorance of the Cyrillic alphabet. My secret weapon was the ability to approach perfect strangers, point to my map and say, “Dostoevsky Musee?” in my most beseeching Southern accent. Six or seven instructors in I wound up with a polite gentleman who suggested, in severe Slavic gestures, that it would be best if he lead me there. I would never otherwise have found the nondescript entry into the apartment where the great man himself lived his last months, a small but remarkable museum that leaves one feeling as if Fyodor just stepped out for a drink. I was mesmerized by St. Petersburg.

Though I will always leave, and find, my heart in San Francisco, it can get a little fickle about New York. A recent visit coincided with the Twin Towers memorial lights of 9/11, and visits to two of my favorite museums in the world: the Whitney & the Morgan Library, and a stroll of the High Line from end to end and back.

Twin Towers Lights 9.11.19A discussion about New Yorkers could’ve been a discussion of city people anywhere. My New Yorker friend argued that his compatriots are rude and insensitive. I said, “I can stand at the top, or the bottom, of any flight of stairs anywhere with my carry-on bag, and within 30 seconds someone will appear and ask, ‘Would you like help with that, ma’am?’ Never fails. People are people, just more densely so in cities.

Oceans and beaches and mountains and parks remain full of wonder for me; cities are full of wondrous humankind.

Life, Death and Rebirth 2019

Note paperThe envelope is lying right here on my left, now looking altogether spooky. It is even stamped and addressed; that’s how close I was to getting a note into the mail.

Then the phone rang. The note was to begin, “So, how are things going? How’s Gerry? How are you holding up?” The envelope is addressed to Gerry’s wife Kathy.

Several months ago our old, dear friend Gerry, age 75, was looking after the horses on their beautiful Southern California ranch when his heart failed. They got him to the hospital, but then came the bad news: his heart could not be revived or repaired. His only option would be a transplant. The good news? Because he was strong and otherwise healthy, he was a good candidate for a new heart. The further bad news? In order to be on the transplant list he would need to remain in the hospital, in intensive care, ready.Heart in circle

Kathy and Gerry are what I would call salt-of-the-earth Good People. They are deeply religious, clean-living and hard-working, and committed to living lives of service and gratitude. Within a few days of Gerry’s diagnosis they found themselves in the unenviable position of waiting for someone, somewhere, to die. Some generous someone who had signed agreements for his organs to be donated. (It would presumably be a ‘he,’ as Gerry is a fairly big guy, and would need a heart coming from someone roughly of equal size and weight.) After talking with Kathy early on in this saga I found myself also having queasy thoughts: How hard should I pray for some good person – do bad people sign organ donor forms? – to die in order for Gerry to live? It is an across-the-board existential dilemma.

The longer he remained in intensive care, the further Gerry’s condition deteriorated. This  presented a scary picture but pushed him higher on the recipient list. In other words, the worse he got, the more urgent his need, the higher his spot on the transplant list. Another existentially fraught situation.

They waited.

New life - typewriterOn August 15 (or perhaps the hours before August 15 dawned,) a 34-year-old man died in another state. A man who was on life support in a hospital because at some earlier point he had taken the generous step of signing organ donor forms. One of Gerry’s doctors flew to that hospital, examined the heart, confirmed it to be a very good match for Gerry, and boarded another jet plane back to Southern California. Gerry was already opened up, his original heart beating – with a lot of help from outside sources – outside his body.

He is already back home. Part of the somehow endearing characteristics of these two old friends of ours is that they do not have email or participate in any social media. So it’s taken Kathy time to get around to calling friends with this lovely update.

Somewhere in the southwest a grieving family is saying goodbye to a 34-year-old they had not expected to lose. “Gerry cries every time he thinks of him,” Kathy says. “There are just no words.”Birthday candles

Other than these: “August 15th is his new birthday.”