Warren Buffett & the Perfect House Gift

Gift boxAll I wanted was three boxes of toffee sent to my daughter as a house gift. This was because my daughter, who has exquisite taste in many things including candy, is particularly fond of See’s Toffee-ettes. I discovered this on a visit to her house, when I was about to withdraw a toffee from the See’s box on the counter. “Watch it,” remarked her gentleman friend; “you don’t want to be taking the last one.”

My daughter, it seems, had brought a box back from a trip to San Francisco some time ago, and rationed them carefully out to herself. Down to the final toffee, she walked in from a long day and reached into the box. Turning upon her mild-mannered gentleman friend she said: “YOU. ATE. MY. LAST. TOFFEE-ETTE? I cannot believe you did that!! My LAST toffee-ette.” It was reportedly a very bad scene. But soon afterwards a package arrived from the See’s people (via the gentleman friend), containing three boxes of Toffee-ettes, and harmony was restored.

Back in San Francisco, the motherland of chocolate and toffee, I knew exactly what I wanted to send for a house gift. I went immediately to the store, found the toffee and placed the order; anyone who has ever found The Perfect Gift will know how supreme was my self-satisfaction.

Weeks later, curious as to why I hadn’t heard anything, I learned that no house gift had appeared. More weeks passed as I struggled to trace the order. Equipped with sales ticket, order number and a clutch of stapled-together slips of paper, I pleaded with the local store manager (“You’ll have to deal with the online order department”) and the online order department (“You need to go back to the store”) in an ongoing comedy of errors that was not funny at all. More days went by.Toffee-ettes

“Maybe you should call Warren Buffett,” my husband remarked.

“Warren Buffett?”

“Sure. The story is he bought See’s because he liked their candy.”

Well, this reporter was unable to confirm that story… but Buffett undoubtedly likes the company. Berkshire Hathaway bought it in 1972 for $25 million. Today it brings in more than three times that much every year in earnings. My daughter and I certainly do our part to help.

Whether or not Mary See – the smiling, bespectacled lady on the candy boxes – had the Toffee-ettes recipe in her collection when she helped her son Charles open the first store, in Los Angeles, in 1921, is also unconfirmed. But likely; Mary did know her candies.

Somebody, somewhere eventually found my order and started a new shipment, which reached my daughter approximately two months after my visit.

We want to believe the original shipment went to Warren Buffett.

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.

Saving One Small Piece of the Planet

Every now and then you can go home again… at least, home to a better planet. Here’s another story (OK, we admit to too many stories about the ducks…) from Mountain Lake in San Francisco’s Presidio National Park.

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Mysterious whirlpool

Recently a few Mountain Lake Park regulars began to notice a strange and mysterious phenomenon: whirlpools in the lake! Mineral springs? Fresh water from the bowels of the earth bubbling up into this water-starved state? A submerged hot tub? As the King of Siam would have said, “It’s a puzzlement.”

Enter Jason Lisenby, Biological Science Technician with the Presidio Trust and a particular friend of Mountain Lake Park. It was Lisenby who intervened when this writer wanted to mount a campaign to find a mate for lonely Musco the Duck. “Wait, wait,” he said. “You will wind up with a lake full of – non-native – Muscovy ducks and nothing else.” Musco apparently got bored with being behind the giant dark fence while the non-native fish were being removed anyway, and has relocated to other waters. Where we hope he has found a family more appropriate if less devoted than the human admirers he had at Mountain Lake.

The whirls and bubbles, Lisenby explains, “are from a newly installed aeration and water-mixing system” recently turned on. “We are using a compressor to pump air through hoses to twelve locations around the bottom of the lake. The added oxygen and movement will help keep algae blooms at bay while we get the lake’s aquatic plant communities restarted.

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More whirlpools, and a spot that’s lovely even on a foggy day

“Limiting algae will keep the water more clear, and clear water is good for our newly reestablishing aquatic plants. In the long run, the aquatic plants will do the work the aeration system is currently doing, but this is a solution until then.”

Who knew? Biological science knew. Already the lake is so clear it’s possible to see eight feet down (don’t try this yourself; the lake is not for swimming and diving), and this is a body of water so polluted by highway runoff, abandoned pets and assorted human detritus that only a few years ago you couldn’t see your hand six inches below the surface. You wouldn’t have wanted to get too near the water anyway.

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Aquatic plants coming soon (or their relatives will be coming soon) to Mountain Lake

All this, a little good news amidst the abundant smoldering global bad news, right here in the Presidio National Park. Your tax dollars, and biological science, at work.

Halleluia.

Figuring Out Who You Are

Hand with book“Please don’t call me Doctor Jones,” said an extremely distinguished PhD speaker I met recently; “I’m just a teacher named Joe. I’ve been Joe all my life.” His name is changed to protect the innocent.

Having one name all your life is almost as interesting to some of us… of a certain age… as meeting a prominent multiple-degree lecturer who calls himself “just a teacher.”

Not someone of many degrees, I am nevertheless someone of many names. Maiden name, married name, resumption of maiden name after divorce, brief and ill-fated second marriage (yep, changed my name again,) eventual marriage to my Final Husband, whose name I took on moving across the U.S. nearly a quarter of a century ago. Because I’ve been writing since college (Fran Moreland) I often joke – though this is not a source of pride, only comic relief – that my literary resume reads like an anthology. Each name still bears its own notoriety, as well as its own burdens.

A fascinating look at what names and name changes have meant to women over the centuries is offered by my talented writer/scientist friend Jo Anne Simson in a recent article published in Persimmon Tree magazine titled “What’s in a Name.”

Names, Simson writes, have been used against women in subtle – and sometimes not so subtle – ways to subjugate, control and deny their sense of personhood. Probably the most damning of these practices for women in America was the assigning to slaves the surname of their masters, which “ruptured a connection to a past culture from which they had been torn most unwillingly. Moreover, the name change signified an identity conversion from personhood to property… ‘Leave your past behind. You are now property, not a person.’”

This writer’s post graduate experience ended with an MFA in short fiction, University of San Francisco Class of 2000, which conferred a degree but no title. I have, however, managed to keep my final literary name since 1992.

At about the same time I took on the final marital/literary name above, my first grandchild was born, bringing the other defining ID: Gran. The favorites survive.

 

 

Sailing as Metaphor

Sailing under Bay Bridge 4.11.15Life. Play it safe – or risk everything? Avoid conflict or seize the day?

At the end of a long-anticipated visit from across the country, this writer’s family – west coast grandmother, east coast son and daughter-in-law, granddaughters 11 and 13 – was invited to go sailing on San Francisco Bay with a close friend who owns (and carefully operates) a 36-foot sailboat. After showing us around – it sleeps seven, with almost all the comforts of home – our captain delivered a safety lecture, explaining things like where the life jackets are, and the way the boom can swing quite suddenly and one is advised to stay out of its way. He went into some detail about what to do if he fell overboard: a safety device attached to the stern contains rope and flotation collar, so all that’s required is to keep circling until the man overboard can grab the line. He then issued life jackets to the girls and offered them (this boat has life jackets for about a dozen) to the grownups. I declined, knowing full well that I would last about five minutes max in the chilly waters of the Bay; go figure.

Skip & Georg 4.11.15For the next several hours we had a glorious sail, under the Bay Bridge, around the back of Alcatraz, nearing Angel Island, swinging parallel to the Golden Gate and heading back to meander homeward along the city’s edge. Picnicking in the sunshine and taking advantage of spectacular photo ops. I had one scary moment on the turnaround; it’s been a long time since I last sailed. Almost home we were stopped by the bay patrol and told not to sail back below the bridge for 10 minutes or so. Once we were cleared they explained to boats waiting on either side that Vice President Biden had been driving across the bridge. All in all it was a glorious day. In looking back, though, it’s hard to miss the basic messages:

1) Let the kids explore the universe, but keep the life jackets on.

2) White caps and turbulence make things interesting, and are seldom fatal.

3) The vessel with more power is supposed to get out of the way.

4) You can circle around someone who’s sinking, but he has to grab the lifeline himself.

5) On the other hand, when the sinker is you, be grateful for those circling around.

6) When you think the world’s going to keel over, there is ballast that brings it back to steady.

7) Sometimes the vessel with more power claims the right-of-way. Chill.

8) Wear sunscreen, and bring extra layers.

9) Don’t miss the scenery while you’re looking at your camera phone.

10) Life’s a breeze.

 

Sailboat behind Alcatraz

 

 

When Fences Come Down

Fence.Mtn Lake

“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” wrote Robert Frost, and I think he was onto a larger truth. Of course, Frost – in his “Mending Wall” – was talking about rocks and neighbors, and the poem leaves us with ambivalence about the goodness of fences.

Fences and walls may, at times, make good neighbors – but the big ones tend to be symbols of enmity (think Berlin, Israel, Arizona…) and we just want them down.

A few months ago a high, dark fence went up around lovely Mountain Lake, in the San Francisco park that is one of my favorite spots on the planet. It’s a city park, but the lake (fortunately for us all) is part of the Presidio National Park and has been undergoing an extraordinary restoration for the past few years. It may not yet be back to the purity that made its water just fine for Spanish settlers (and probably the Ohlone and Coast Miwok indigenous people before them) to drink, but years of accumulated glunk, trash and sludge have been hauled away and the lake’s return to life has been a rare joy to watch.

The problem? Although the waters began to clear and native greenery emerged, a proliferation of non-native fish were quashing any hope of bringing back the fish who once belonged. We’re not talking just a couple of ordinary intruders. It was possible to stand on the beach near the murky water’s edge and watch goldfish the size of ahi tuna swimming casually back and forth. With native fish and turtles long displaced by casually dumped household pets, the lake was overrun with carp, bullfrogs – somebody reported a sturgeon – and who knows what else. This writer remembers the brief residence of an alligator, who famously evaded a gator hunter imported from Florida but was eventually removed to the local zoo.

Presidio Trust personnel tried snagging, netting and every known removal method before conceding that the only solution would be to poison the lake. They chose plant-based Rotenone, which kills everything with gills (and happily not much without) and disappears within three days. Thus the fence went up – presumably it was still not a good idea for gill-free people to be wandering near the water. Almost the moment the solution was poured into the four-acre lake, the alien fish died. They were scooped up by the thousands to be studied by ecologists (who reluctantly went along with the project) to determine their origin and soon composted as a final act of goodness. But the fence, for assorted reasons, did not come down.

Sign.Mtn Lake

And over the long weeks that followed it was as if the park itself was inhabited by an alien being. Children still played on the adjacent swings and slides, dog walkers still tossed tennis balls, this writer still exercised on the bars of the fitness trail – but the now-sparkling lake was hidden behind its foreboding shield. Even when the gulls could be heard returning beyond the black screen, and actually seen if you peered through the mesh, the park felt bifurcated and somehow forlorn. Thanksgiving came and went, Christmas was less merry, the New Year not yet happy.

A few days ago, the fence came down. Mountain Lake, the shimmering heart of Mountain Lake Park reappeared, putting on a show of new life. A few familiar ducks may never have left; now they have been joined by coots and grebes and a spiffy ruddy duck who is apparently courting two slightly less flashy lady ruddy ducks. Western pond turtles, chorus frogs and native fish will begin to return in the spring.

Lake.Mtn Lake

The metaphors are abundant: fences come down, sunlight spreads from reflected waters, varied creatures happily coexist, romance blooms.

 

Where is Robert Frost when we need him?

 

 

 

 

Good news, bad news for an old week

landscapeThe holiday-week news in review was a doozy. Good news (to most of us) about Cuban-American relations and climate change, bad news for Sony and internet security. Plus the relentlessly ongoing bad stuff: ebola killing off entire families in Africa, terrorists killing children in Pakistan, crazies killing innocents, and a total absence of politicians able to do much besides calling other politicians names.

It was all up for discussion during a recent “Week to Week” political roundtable discussion at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco. Panelists included San Francisco Chronicle political reporter Joe Garofoli and columnist C.W. Nevius, and writer/attorney Melissa Griffin Caen, along with moderator John Zipperer, Vice President of Media & Entertainment for the Commonwealth Club. Despite the unfunny bad news, the group had a seriously good time dishing about Uber executive Emil Michael – and why not? Set aside the fact that his company sought to make good news (Everybody wants rides! Raise Rates!) of the hostage tragedy in Sydney, Australia, Michael first endeared himself to the fourth estate by launching a campaign to investigate unfriendly journalists. Then came the news about his suit against his landlord for sending a stranger repairman into the apartment to fix something Michael himself had complained of. Throw in Michael’s claim of being buddies with the police chief (quickly denied by the police chief,) the condo cost ($9,500 per month) and its reported amenities such as hot tub and private garden, and it’s altogether too much for any political roundtable to resist.

But the evening opened with good news. Salesforce founder/CEO Marc Benioff, the panelists say, is making news with his 1/1/1 integrated philanthropic model. One of the founding principles of Salesforce, the idea is to give 1 percent of profits, I percent of equity and 1 percent of employee hours to charity. For months, Benioff has been working to bring other tech firms into the plan, and it’s working. Often at odds with their new San Francisco community, tech firms and their employees are increasingly giving their time, talents and money back to help the less fortunate. And who knows? The bad will generated by the likes of uber-rich Uber folks could be outweighed by the goodwill of 1/1/1 programs.

Closer to home, or at least to the heart of this non-techie writer, my friend Tara Culp-Ressler over at ThinkProgress.org posted a similar good news/bad news piece about the year of reproductive justice: “Six victories for reproductive freedom you may not have realized happened this year.” At the end of a year crammed full of legislative assaults on women, with newly-empowered anti-abortion lawmakers vowing to take us back to the dark ages – here is good news worth noting.

And all tiny tidings of joy are welcome.

Immigration Then and Now: Three families, three stories

PRELUDE: A contemporary story –

Maluki had what she thought was a minor infection in her chest. She took a couple of pain relief tablets. She is undocumented and uninsured. She had no access to a community clinic where she might have seen a doctor with no questions asked; no one in her suburban family had heard that such things exist. Within a few weeks Maluki was doubled over with pain and was rushed by a neighbor to an emergency room at a major public hospital two hours away.

Two surgeries later the 38-year-old mother of three will be out of work for a very long time. Her husband, partly disabled, works irregular hours when he can, leaving the family dependent on what money the teenaged children – all U.S. citizens – can bring in. The children still hope somehow to finish high school and attend college.

What’s wrong with this picture?

Almost everything, if you asked the five California experts on a recent Commonwealth Club panel in San Francisco. “Undocumented and Uninsured” brought together two heads of clinics where treatment is available to all and two others with unique insight and perspectives. Moderated by Daniel Weintraub, Editor in Chief and Project Director, California Health Report, the panel included John Gressman, President and CEO, San Francisco Community Clinic Consortium and Scott Hauge, President of CAL Insurance & Associates Inc and Co-Founder and Vice Chairman, Clinic by the Bay; Laurel Lucia, Associate Policy Specialist, UC Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education; and Jirayut New Latthivongskorn, Co-Founder of Pre-Health Dreamers. They were looking at how the Affordable Care Act will impact immigrants unable to get health insurance, and what the healthcare future might hold for them.

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There are, by one estimate, 11.7 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. Some have health coverage through their jobs, and a few have private coverage; but the vast majority of these are uninsured. The resulting costs, in human terms such as the case above, are inestimable; the costs in dollars are also significant. “If we get the patient into basic care for colds and flu,” said Gressman, “we save thousands in hospital care.” In California, care is widely available through publicly funded community clinics as well as nonprofits – the problem is in getting the word out and building trust. “We look at how to get the patient to care,” Hauge said, “not at anyone’s immigration status.”

While Gressman, Hauge and Lucia each brought extensive understanding of both the policy and the real-world details affecting healthcare needs of undocumented immigrants, it is the personal stories of Lucia and Latthivongskorn that illuminate the remarkable richness of our immigrant nation.

Nearly a century before she was invited to bring her expert knowledge to a Commonwealth Club panel, Laurel Lucia’s great-grandfather was a frequent speaker at the Commonwealth Club himself. Felipe N. Puente was memorialized in the Club’s Journal upon his death in January, 1951. He was, his obituary reads, “by far the most important personal tie between Northern Californians and the Republic of Mexico for nearly a quarter of a century.

“Commencing as a colorful revolutionary Mexican leader in 1917 (as Jefe de Transportacion for the late Revolutionary General Francisco Villa), he had for 25 years been a resident of San Francisco, with five children in our public schools, and the long-time Manager of the Mexican National Railways, San Francisco division, in the Monadnock Building.

“Although a railroadman by profession, his expert and sagacious advice was freely at the service of American travelers by sea, highway or air, and a letter from ‘el Puente de San Francisco’ (the San Francisco Bridge) as he was affectionately known clear down to the border of Guatemala, opened all doors in Mexico.” Great-grandfather Puente’s expertise reached beyond transportation to government affairs. In a Commonwealth Club speech broadcast over KYA Radio in 1942 he spoke of the importance of Mexican-American cooperation in the war efforts, citing cargo lanes and Mexican ores that were critical to the U.S. and quoting President Avila Camacho as saying, “Mexican soldiers are willing to shed their blood anywhere in the world where they may be needed.” His Journal obituary began and ended, “Adios, Amigo Felipe N.Puente!”

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Lucia missed out on knowing her notable ancestor, “but I was quite close to his daughter, my grandmother.” She had not, she says, ever made any connection between his immigrant status and her current work – as a Policy Analyst for the UC Berkeley Labor Center – which partly seeks to strengthen the safety net for those more recently arriving on our shores.

 

Laurel Lucia with Moderator Weintraub

As for the other young person on the “Undocumented and Uninsured” panel, Jiryat New Latthivongskorn (hereafter identified by his familiar name, New) confesses to having been a little startled to hear himself constantly referred to during the evening as “the first undocumented student to be admitted to UCSF (the University of California San Francisco) Medical School.” But that is, in fact, part of his current resume, and a not insignificant achievement.

There were 7,453 applicants to UCSF Medical School for New’s class, out of which pool 490 were interviewed and 149 were accepted. The overall grade point average was 3.77.

New Latthivongskorn came to this country with his parents when he was 9 years old. His parents worked in Thai restaurants every night until 11:00. But whenever he tried to help, he said in an interview on KQED Radio last May, “the answer never changed. ‘Don’t worry, and do your job.’ My job was to get an education.” So far, he appears to have done his job quite well. New never considered the idea of being a doctor until one scary incident during his junior year in high school when his mother fell gravely ill and had to be taken to the emergency room. The family had, until that time, relied on a medicine cabinet full of remedies for colds and pain and a few old antibiotics from Thailand. But in the ER, when his mother couldn’t understand the doctors and they couldn’t understand her, New realized his job might be more than just a translator.

There are those, including a few who commented on the KQED program, who argue that anyone who is in this country illegally should simply be sent back to wherever he or she came from and until then should receive no benefits – and certainly no healthcare. That may, however, be an overly simplistic – not to mention cruel and unusual – answer to a very complex issue.

“Immigrants don’t come here,” New told the Commonwealth Club audience, “for free healthcare. They come here to escape danger or terrible conditions; they come here to work.” In short, to create a better life for themselves and their families, and ultimately to give back to the communities of their new world. That was definitely true for immigrant Puente a century ago, and is demonstrated by the hard-working parents of doctor-to-be New.

Other than the Native Americans who pre-date most of us, it would be hard to find many U.S. citizens whose ancestors didn’t have similar stories.