On Light Overcoming Darkness

MLK on darkness

While governments talked of war and security last week, and innocents in Lebanon, Kenya, France, Afghanistan and elsewhere buried their dead, faith communities around the globe struggled to find ways to make sense of it all. Or at least to respond. Places of worship opened their doors, labyrinths were crowded with walkers, friends called friends.

One response in one corner of the world came on Sunday, November 15 in the form of a service of words and music by Muslims, Christians and Jews at San Francisco’s Calvary Presbyterian Church which this writer was fortunate to attend. It is, in all probability, exemplary of other responses across the planet.

Calvary pastor John Weems noted, in welcoming a sanctuary filled with visitors and regulars, that ever since the beginning of history there have been times when it seemed the world would end, “that darkness would overcome. But in fact death and darkness do not get the last word.”

And the next word came from Fatih Ates, San Francisco & East Bay Director of Pacifica Institute: “Peace and blessings on us all.” Ates gave the Adhan, or Muslim Call to Prayer. Conveniently for the non-Arabic speaking members of the congregation, an English translation of the Adhan was published in the bulletin. (It begins with repetitions of “God is Greater,” continues through bearing witness to core precepts and ends with “There is no god except the One God.” Believers and nonbelievers alike might embrace the notion that Somebody Else is still in control.)

Later in the service, Ates spoke of his deep faith, and of how that faith – Islam – “strongly condemns acts of violence. Every terrorist act,” he said, “is against universal values and human values.” He emphasized these truths with quotations from the Qur’an. (Chapter 5, verse 32; Chapter 4, v 93, and Chapter 49 v 13; readers are invited to look them up.) “Terrorism has no religion, no faith” Ates said; “we must fight against extremism.”

Among other messages:

Rabbi Lawrence Raphael of Congregation Sherith Israel referred to the last line of the Kaddish, the prayer said at Jewish funerals and occasionally at other times: “May God who makes peace in heaven . . . make peace upon us.”

Calvary pastor Joann Lee, speaking to the children, suggested that in scary times they “look for the helper;” because there are always helpers, something borne out by both scriptural references and secular reality.

San Francisco Interfaith Council Executive Director Michael Pappas spoke of the “solidarity and prayers of people of many faiths” (locally including 800 San Francisco congregations) that would ultimately overcome darkness.

And for the prayer, another Calvary pastor, Victor Floyd, sang the “Kyrie Eleison” (Lord have mercy) familiar to Catholic, Protestant, Greek Orthodox and other Christians — in Urdu, the language of Fatih Ates’ native Turkey.

Finally, there was a moving moment of light. California Assemblymember David Chiu, a member of Calvary who went from social justice work into politics a few years ago, explained the Presbyterian custom of “passing the peace,” greeting friends and strangers. candlesChiu spoke of San Francisco as being a city on a hill, a city of light, and everyone, having been given candles on entering the sanctuary, raised their lighted candles in a room in which the light until that moment was dim.

The act of raising a candle into the gloom, lifting some light of hope, making one small statement against injustice may be primarily symbolic, but it’s a start.

And proof that light can drive out darkness.

 

On Stage with Ann Randolph

Ann Randolph 10.15
Randolph On Stage

Does she know something we all should know?

It’s not your dream career trajectory: Living (and working) in a locked facility for chronically mentally ill to get through college. Sliming fish on an Alaskan production line. Braving Arctic winds and a dozen macho racist shipmates for a year on a fishing skiff. Broke, in New York, solving the problem with an ad that reads: Alaskan Bush Woman seeks room and board in exchange for tutoring in the arts and/or companionship. . .

It worked for Ann Randolph. But she would be the first to say it wasn’t exactly a piece of cake.

Actress/comedienne Randolph is currently on stage at San Francisco’s Marsh Theater with her solo show “Inappropriate In All the Right Ways.” It’s part autobiography (she was told early on, “Ann, that’s inappropriate”) part stand-up hilarity, part therapy and 100% fun.

Randolph is best known recently for her solo show Loveland (“Riotously demented and brilliantly humane,”) but she’s been making headlines for a long time. Her life and career path have featured stunning successes – Best Solo Show awards in San Francisco and Los Angeles, a long list of other awards and citations for acting, writing and directing – and crushing lows. Among the latter would be the incidents cited above, alongside her close friendship with Mel Brooks and his late wife Anne Bancroft, who recognized her genius and were backing the progress of her solo show toward Broadway when Bancroft was diagnosed with the cancer that would soon end her life.

Randolph, though, does know this: it’s not about the highs and lows, it’s about the trajectory. Through her shows, her writing workshops, and her generous pro-bono appearances before groups like the end-of-life nonprofit that caught the attention of this writer, the high-energy Randolph explores that theme.

Randolph with the author
Randolph with the author

And following life trajectories is Adventure Theater at its best. Randolph pulls her audiences into the act with markers of her own ups and downs – Sacrifice! Synchronicity! Visualization! Fake it ‘til you make it! – and then turns the tables. Given pencils and ruled tablets when they entered, audience members are invited to do 5-minute life lists of their own. When time is called there’s a jazzy sing-along moment and then – spoiler alert – they are also invited to take the stage.

Nobody leaves a performance of “Inappropriate” without being moved to laughter; many leave after discovering something about their own life trajectory. It’s a show like no other.

If you’re in San Francisco before “Inappropriate” closes (it’s been extended! Weekends through 12/13) you can catch Ann Randolph in a show. Or find her doing a writing workshop near you.

Arne Duncan on education — and inequity, and injustice

Arne Duncan
Arne Duncan

Arne Duncan sounds like a man who is ready to get out of Washington.

At a recent Commonwealth Club of California program moderated by EdSource editor-at-large John Fensterwald, Duncan spoke briefly about educational gains made during his seven year term as U.S. Secretary of Education – but repeatedly and at length about the inequities and injustices that remain across the country. His frustration is palpable.

All those debates about Common Core, testing, over-testing? Sideline arguments. “All we can do at the federal level,” Duncan says, “is fight for equity, excellence and innovation. Take politics out of it. Figure out how to get better faster. The school-to-prison pipeline is real; suspensions and expulsions lead to crime.” And don’t even get Arne Duncan started on gun violence.

“The arc of the moral universe is long,” the Secretary quoted Martin Luther King Jr. as saying, “but it bends toward justice.”

Duncan clearly believes justice is not happening. “It doesn’t bend by itself,” he says, “or fast enough. The fight is not just about education. It’s about increasing social mobility, about keeping good jobs in our economy. From the standpoint of social justice, it’s about economics, and about keeping kids alive.”

Where is the arc not bending? “With early childhood education. The average child living in poverty starts kindergarten one year behind.” With gun violence, which Duncan repeatedly spoke of as closely tied to schools. “There have been more gun deaths since 1970 than in all of our wars combined. And there are too many instances in which the quality of education depends on where you live.”

Listing three top priorities he believes must be addressed, Duncan cites early childhood education as number one. He sees no reason why it can’t be done. “In the Netherlands, every four-year-old is in kindergarten, and they are working toward extending early childhood education to three-year-olds.” Second: “Great teachers matter. In South Korea, teachers are ‘Nation Builders.’ A teacher in North Carolina is giving blood to help pay the bills.” (Speaking of injustice and inequity.) And third: “How do we build demand for great schools, great teachers particularly in poor communities? How do we make it a badge of honor for teachers and principals to go where the need is greatest?”

Duncan cites the fact that in Massachusetts, the nation’s top state for education, 30% of all high school graduates take remedial classes to get into college. The percentage goes far higher in other states. “Do we want to keep doing that or not? And it is unbelievable to me that we don’t take action to end gun violence.”

Asked what he’d like to have as his legacy, Duncan fired back, “It’s not about me. We have a long way to go, and we must accelerate the pace of change.”

With that, Duncan stepped down from the stage. One gets the very strong impression – hearing him also say that being Secretary of Education was never something he aspired to, but he took the job because of his great admiration for Barack Obama – that he is more than happy to have stepped down from the national stage and headed back home to Chicago.

Setting Patterns: Defaulting to Justice

Nishioka with the writer
Nishioka with the author

“You know why we drill?” the Lt. Colonel said; “to establish a pattern.”

That brief story was told recently by Dr. Rodger Nishioka, keynote speaker at a conference that was all about establishing patterns – possibly changing them for the better. Well, about patterns and a few other things. But the business of pattern-establishment is particularly relevant. “In a time of crisis,” Nishioka says, “you will default to your pattern.”

Soldiers drill interminably so they can take their rifles apart without thinking. Nishioka suggests that others of us might install default patterns to create peace and bring justice. An associate professor at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia, Nishioka was speaking at a church retreat, to a Christian audience. But the message is universal. “All three major Abrahamic religions,” he points out, “Judaism, Islam and Christianity, have a core belief in peace and justice.” Add the followers of decidedly peace-loving Buddha, and one would think there should be a little less war and injustice on the planet.

Nishioka maintains that one person can make a difference. He tells the story of a seven-year-old girl whose father had been taken from their California farm by the F.B.I. one night in 1942, and who was waiting with a crowd of other Japanese Americans for buses that would take them to an internment camp. Her mother, in the rush to pack what the family might need, had forgotten to bring anything to eat or drink. The girl wandered off looking for something for her hungry little brother, and found a lady handing out sandwiches and juice. “We are Christian Friends (Quakers),” she explained, “and we think what is happening to you is wrong.” The girl lived through three years in the camp, where her father soon joyfully joined them, and through hard years and several moves after the war ended. She managed to enter college, where she met and fell in love with a young Japanese-American man. They married, and raised four sons who all finished college and/or graduate school, one of whom is now a professor at Columbia Theological Seminary. On the top of his list of people he’d like to meet in heaven, Nishioka says, is the lady who gave his mother sandwiches and juice.

But back to patterns. Quakers practice patterns of quiet and tranquility, reinforcing their persistent efforts to right injustice. Yogis practice meditation. Buddhists chant. Practitioners of almost all religions repetitively recite creeds as a way of establishing patterns of belief and action. In California we have earthquake drills designed to instill a default pattern of Drop, Cover and Hold on. School children, sadly, are drilled to take cover in the event of an assault. If your default pattern is ingrained enough, you might even be able to grab your cellphone and passport on the way out the door when the house catches fire.

What if large numbers of us altered our driving pattern just to let that jerk in the next lane break into the line ahead? Road rage deaths would nose dive. Or we could default to smiling, as Jaden, the incredibly precious six-year-old Georgia orphan is trying to make us do. Or we could default to justice: trying to create better lives for those less fortunate, those without power, those who need sandwiches and juice.

It is possible, Rodger Nishioka suggests, to change the world, one person, one pattern at a time.

 

 

Holding Silvan: A tale of loss and love

The new mother’s worst nightmare came in shards of bewildering words: “subdural hematoma… basal ganglia… thalami…sagittal sinus…” And the terrible eventual diagnosis: “severe hypoxic ischemic encephalopathy.”

 Monica Wesolowska
Monica Wesolowska

Once they had processed the meaning of it all – that their beautiful baby had no functional brain, no hope for a life, Monica Wesolowska and her husband David made the hardest decision ever required of parents, to let their infant son die. It was a decision complicated by advanced medical technology, a world into which the family was swept up, and by the wrenching physical, emotional and moral issues. But the two grieving parents clung fiercely to the conviction that they were choosing what was best for their son, and to the determination that for whatever time he had they would give him comfort, care and abundant love.

Wesolowska tells this tale with unflinching honesty in Holding Silvan: A Brief Life, a small book that manages to keep the reader mesmerized with what is ultimately a story of courage and, above all, life. She spoke with this writer recently about the book, and those days.

“I wanted and needed to write it,” Wesolowska says, in response to a question about whether the writing was therapeutic. “I felt very fortunate to be able to spend time remembering Silvan. Also, to revisit the time, do research…” Years later, both the experience and the firstborn son are integral to Wesolowska’s life; in the days and weeks after Silvan’s birth there was time only to struggle with the issues at hand. It is the immediacy of this struggle, overlaid with the love that surrounded Silvan as he died, that holds the reader.

After publication, we asked, did Wesolowska get negative feedback? “I was surprised at how little,” she says. “In part, I think it was because so few people want to read a book about the loss of a baby. A few heartening back-and-forths, when people came around. But the most difficult (discussions) are with parents of brain-damaged children. It turns out that what they’re dealing with is much less extreme (damage.)” In such cases Wesolowska tries to communicate the singularity of the choice she and David made. “My goodness, I would never suggest a child with disabilities is not absolutely loveable. I’m not here to judge the difference of your love.”

Holding Silvan coverThere were helpful and unhelpful things that people said and did as Silvan was dying and in the aftermath. The best, Wesolowska says, “were the people who told me I was a good mother. What I was going through was motherhood, and a deep love. The hardest to take were when people said ‘Why didn’t you let him die a different way,’ or ‘How can you be so certain?’”

No one, though, tried to talk them out of their decision. In their Berkeley, CA area, “We were in a kind of liberal bubble,” she says. “But we really struggled toward the end. Legally, it was frightening.”

For all the fear, tragedy and loss, Holding Silvan is surprisingly uplifting. And, Spoiler Alert: there is a happy ending.

 

How to Maximize Your Social Security

Suppose you’re having sex with your husband, and he happens to die, umm, sometime during the encounter. Suppose you’ve been married less than nine months – and Social Security benefits are denied thanks to some obscure nine-month rule. Well, somewhere within all the 2,728 rules is an exception applicable when death happens due to extreme exertion. The particular lady in question eventually collected benefits.

Paul Solman.wiki
Paul Solman (Wikipedia photo)

These are the sorts of stories Paul Solman weaves into discussions of his recent book (with Laurence Kotlikoff and Philip Moeller,) Get What’s Yours: The Secrets to Maxing Out Your Social Security. He wants you to catch the part about there being 2,728 rules – in case you don’t really want to read the 3,000+ pages of the document yourself. The mind can boggle at the sheer numbers. In fact, though, the rules are there to help us all, even newlyweds whose newlies do not long survive the wed. The complexity of our financial lives may be bewildering, but Solman observes, “America’s great strength is in its    complexity.”

Solman simply wants you to Get What’s Yours.

The long-time business and economic correspondent for PBS NewsHour spoke recently about his book at the Commonwealth Club of California, an event moderated by KGO TV Consumer Reporter Michael Finney. His basic message to those of us less left-brained (although Solman’s left brain clearly enjoys its coexistence with an entertainingly creative right brain) is summed up in three points:

1 – Be patient.

2 – Be aware of, and know how to maximize, over a dozen different benefits. (What you can afford, how many dependents you must consider….)

3 – Stagger your benefits.

You’re planning to retire on Social Security? Not, says Solman. “Social Security is not a retirement policy. It is an insurance policy.” But it can indeed make your retirement easier, and could be a major piece of your long-term financial plan. Solman said in an aside that he thinks most financial planners are suspect and people should be careful in choosing. “What financial planner ever advised buying TIPS (Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities,)” he asks.

Fran & Paul Solman.2
Solman off-duty, teaching a few Tai Chi moves to the writer

Three audience members already drawing Social Security each estimated his or her current payments would be at least double, if they had known earlier what they have learned from Get What’s Yours. So is the book cheating? “No,” Solman says emphatically, “you follow the rules. It’s not cheating, it’s what the law says you can do.”

One thing anyone considering eventually taking Social Security benefits can do could be to check out a copy of Get What’s Yours. Unless you’d rather study those 2,728 rules and try to figure them out for yourself.

Jury Duty: the Good Citizen job

Jury summons

The dreaded envelope arrived. Superior Court of California, County of San Francisco:

You are summoned for JURY SERVICE (capitalization theirs) during the week, and at the place indicated below. Please read the entire summons entirely…

Who has not received – usually with a little dread – that windowed envelope? Because it means a day, or a week, or a month or more of your life has just been appropriated for Citizenship Duty. That is, after all, what Jury Duty is all about: being the Good Citizen. Doing what you can for the greater good of your fellow citizens.

Actually, I have always loved jury duty. Over the years, my jury duty experiences have ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous.

There was the sweet young thing who scammed a few dozen friends and relations out of a few thousand dollars each, and wanted us to believe she really meant just to make everyone rich and didn’t understand why anybody was mad at her. The unanimous vote to convict came by about the time we got seated and organized.

There were times we deliberated to the point of exhaustion, and times I wondered if a better lawyer would have had us voting differently. There were plenty of times I spent a day or two and wasn’t chosen for duty; usually with a great sense of relief.

There was the time, in a jury pool for a domestic violence case, when the defense attorney introduced his spiffed-up client, and addressed the pool: “There could be implications about Mr. Smith… that he had a few glasses of wine…” The attorney smiled knowingly at us, wanting to be sure we’re all grown-ups and what’s a few glasses of wine after all? I was tempted to say, “Man, don’t give me that bull. You don’t want me on this jury, I will so fry your client.” But I asked to be excused, saying I felt personal bias would make it difficult for me to remain open-minded.

jury-selection-1

The only other time I asked to be excused was when the case involved two corporate entities and some sort of asbestos issue. The judge told us at the beginning that it could run six months. Six months? A couple of corporations wanted 12 citizens (plus alternates) to give up six months of their lives to settle something they should lock their lawyers into a small room to work out? I was beyond irate. The judge invited anyone who felt jury service would be a hardship to come to an adjacent room; virtually the entire pool rose. Uncertain what exactly I would say I began, “My brother-in-law is a chest physician…” and that was as far as I got. “Excused,” said the judge, without looking up. I wasn’t actually very sure where I was going with that explanation, but apparently the judge just wanted to get it over with. I felt sorry for him.

But that’s the way the system works. Good people go to law school, get to be judges and have to sit through all this. More good people give up their time to try to find justice for other good people and perhaps a little justice for the bad guys while they’re at it.

For now, though, I’m opting out. This presents a problem, since apparently you never age out of jury duty and there is no excuse box for Overwhelmed.

One can opt out if under 18, not a citizen, or if one has been convicted of a felony or malfeasance in office. Or if one has a physical or mental disability. None of the above quite worked for me.

At the bottom of the opting-out section, though, I discovered one can be excused if one has a full-time, non-professional obligation to provide care for a related disabled person and alternative arrangements are not possible during court hours. (California Rules of Court, rule 2.1008.)

At last. A reward for the caregiving business. Does caregiving equate to good citizenship? One hopes.

Fighting off dementia

DementiaAlzheimer’s – already afflicting well over 5 million Americans – is expected to claim more than 16 million of us by 2050 if a cure isn’t found. Today it is at the top of the Bad News list of potential diagnoses for almost anyone over 50. Justifiably so, since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports than one in three seniors now die with Alzheimer’s or other dementia.

That’s the bad news.

The good news, explained recently by Patricia Spilman, M.S. at a sold-out Commonwealth Club event in San Francisco, is that there are things one can to do lower the risk, and perhaps slow the progress of the disease. Spilman, who is Staff Scientist at the Buck Institute’s Bredesen Lab, should know. She has spent more than two decades researching neurodegenerative disease, and has written and spoken extensively on Alzheimer’s and related diseases.

“Forgetting,” Spilman says, by way of reassurance, “is normal. You don’t need to remember where you put the car keys last week, or a doctor’s appointment last month.” And studies – including one by Buck Institute founding President and CEO Dale Bredesen M.D. that is fascinating even for a lay reader – suggest that cognitive decline can be slowed, or in some cases reversed.

Spilman’s prepared remarks consisted largely of useful, realistic advice about how to delay the cognitive decline most of us will experience at some point. The audience, ranging from 20-somethings to more than a few senior citizens, was furiously note-taking throughout (or furiously jotting down questions for the Q&A session to follow.)

Exercise – particularly activities that combine movement and navigation such as tennis or golf – is at the top of the list. “It’s easier if you have a partner,” Spilman suggests, “because this adds the important element of socialization. Walking, plus climbing, is particularly good if you try new routes.” More than a few audience members nodded knowingly when Spilman noted the increasing, widespread dependence on mindless GPS. “Take the opportunity to look at a map,” she said.

Cognitive decline can also be offset by paying attention to the critical need for plenty of sleep. To help with a good night’s sleep, Spilman advises allowing at least several hours between eating and going to bed, and having a dark room. Chronic stress is relieved by a combination of exercise and sleep, along with those other preservatives of gray matter, yoga and mindfulness meditation.

Also good for the brain: almost any sensory stimulation. Music, smells, touch. Spilman cites Oliver Sacks’ Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, and Norman Cousins’ Anatomy of an Illness, in which Cousins treated himself with comedy as useful reading.

“Do something new every week,” Spilman suggests; “every day. Have goals in later life. Take classes, volunteer, build intergenerational relationships, pursue spirituality, encourage others to change and to grow.”

Computer games can improve cognition also. Spilman did not mention any specific sites, but this writer has enjoyed BrainHQ, and other brainy items from Posit Science’s Karen Merzenich, as well as introductory games on the Lumosity site. Most fascinating of all is the University of California San Francisco (UCSF)’s Brain Health Registry, in which anyone can participate; it’s free, and your brain might wind up helping someone else’s brain one day.

The Q&A segment following Spilman’s talk was fast and full of both personal stories and pertinent questions: “What’s normal decline?” (The difference between not remembering the movie star’s name and not being able to do a job well. You might keep a diary of cognitive function.) “What about genetics – the father-daughter-son factors?” (Yet unproven.) “How about overexposure to electromagnetic fields? (Don’t have unnecessary radiation.) And enough other issues raised for two or three more hours.

No one’s brain, in any event, was idle. Which indicates that everyone in Spilman’s audience was lowering his or her risk of Alzheimer’s.