On Saving the Planet from Us People

Arctic - Walrus bonesBones lay scattered almost as far as the eye could see. It was a deliberate, eloquent memorial to the walruses who once roamed this frozen shore – and were almost eradicated. In the late 19th century, hunters from several continents discovered the free-roaming hordes of these wonderful beasts, who were unfortunately highly prized, primarily for their tusks. One naturalist explained, on a recent expedition I was lucky to take into these Arctic wildernesses, that hunters would gun down a few dozen as they tried to reach the safety of the sea, creating a barrier for those behind them – who would then randomly be killed. Arctic - walruses

The good news is that people from the nations involved realized the damage being done and called a halt – while still enough walruses survived to begin re-establishing their families in the Arctic. And they are carefully protected. When we approached one herd we were instructed to keep a designated distance, to walk softly and talk in whispers.

Early Arctic miners didn’t fare a great deal better than the walruses. With the discovery of abundant coal in the area, the Norwegian mining company Kings Bay Kull Comp. founded the town of Ny-Alesund (New Alesund) in 1917 and opened several coal mines in the area.Arctic - miners It was tough and dangerous work – and initially not even all that lucrative. In a series of tragedies, while mining came and went over the next few decades, dozens of miners lost their lives.

Ny-Alesund is now a research center. It’s a company town (population 30 to 35) owned and operated by Kings Bay, which provides facilities for research institutes from ten countries. It has an airport, a beautifully developed museum and a gift shop where you can buy a postcard to send home from the post office – the world’s northernmost postal address.

In Ny-Alesund, as anywhere else we thousands of tourists visit every year, it is not possible to find the tiniest scrap of litter. This may be because we were threatened with everything short of death by hanging if we dropped a tissue (or disturbed a pebble.) Nevertheless, it works.Arctic - bird on water Those pristine lands remain as Nature intended, inhabited by walruses, reindeer and polar bears, overflown by puffins and countless other beautiful birds of the air.

Now, if we could find a way to keep the entire region from melting into the oceans . . .

The View from the Top of the World

Arctic - approach
The Arctic from above

Sailing around icy fjords in the Arctic Circle? In June, when it’s 24-hour daylight, not even a twilight, let alone darkness? Which means you don’t even get a glimpse of the Northern Lights. You are, however. guaranteed to freeze your nose and burn your face from the sun and snow unless you bundle into parkas and slather on ridiculous amounts of sunscreen. Who would do such a thing?

Well, it turns out, yours truly. My late, greatly beloved husband died on February 15th, his voice ringing in my head with recollected snippets – one of which was: If you didn’t have me to look after, you could go on this wonderful trip to XxxxXx. Not my favorite snippet, but there it was. So thanks to some bizarre urge that a highly trained grief counselor might be able to analyze, I found myself saying – on about February 25thwhy not?

Arctic - Fran on mtn
Fearless explorer

Conveniently there was a Commonwealth Club expedition to the Arctic Circle with a bunch of climate people, even including a casual acquaintance interested in a roommate. It was somewhat of a cruise (read: too much elegant food, drink and royal treatment onboard) but it promised firsthand views of what we humans are doing to this beautiful planet. Plus countless lectures about millennia past and (hopefully) future by impressively credentialed people. So off I went. San Francisco to Paris to Longyearbyen, Norway to the Arctic fjords, the last leg aboard the small but lovely Ponant ship l’Austral. This is the first of what may be several reflections from the northernmost tip of the globe.

It is incredibly beautiful, this planet.

Arctic - wildflowers
Wildflowers on the tundra

At its northernmost tip there is a breathtaking expanse of blue, gray and white: snow, ice, sea ice (salt water turns to ice at about 28 degrees,) azure blue skies streaked with gossamer-gray clouds melting into the sea – which itself changes from shades of sapphire to emerald-blue in an instant with the shifting skies. The fjords are defined by mountains fronted by stretches of tundra and permafrost – the differences between which (tundra has vegetation, permafrost is permanently frozen) were carefully explained to me.

Accompanying our group, in addition to the impressive lecturers, were about a dozen naturalists who appeared (to this octogenarian) to have a median age of about 15. But they had PhDs and post-doctorates in things like polar ecology,  bioscience and glaciology. One of them left me with an unforgettable phrase and indelible image that sums up the Arctic experience for me. I wish I could videoconference the moment with every climate change denier, every fossil fuel enthusiast, every deregulation proponent and every grandparent who believes – as I continue to do – that our grandchildren will save the planet.

Arctic - walruses-ship
Walruses, & sea where once was ice

We had come to shore to study the wildlife (a clump of resting walruses) and wildflowers (there are over 400 varieties of tiny flora in the tundra) via inflatable rubber boats called zodiacs. Zodiacs  could navigate the distance – in this case it was about a quarter of a mile – from ship to shore.

“You see where our ship is?” said my naturalist friend, pointing toward the sea. I nodded. “This time last year, that was ice.”

 

 

 

 

Staying Secure in the Digital Age

Security - dr licenseThis space is proud to announce my having passed the California driver’s license test. Which means – if my eyes and my car hold out – I’m good for another five years, with a valid ID in my wallet. Or so I thought. Turns out I neglected to apply for a Federal Compliant Real ID driver’s license rather than a regular old driver’s license. Who knew? As of October 2020, unless I go back to the DMV and successfully complete whatever I inadvertently omitted, this lovely new license will not get me through the airport. If I knew not, I know now: Instead of the golden bear signifying this is a Real ID Driver License in the upper right corner, my brand new license bears the small print: Federal Limits Apply. No getting into the Federal Building for me. Sigh.

At the moment I am headed out of the country and into an exploration of the Arctic Circle (more on that later, when we find out how many glaciers haven’t yet melted, and after I return to internet access territory.) My new license, combined with my old but still valid passport, almost got me into the security check at SFO. Security - TSA preWould have, actually, except the TSA lady said my boarding pass didn’t have the green check for my TSA Pre-check. As I was not about to join the mile-long non-TSA Pre-check line, I returned to the Air France people and eventually procured a new boarding pass with the magic green check. Happily I had my Trusted Traveler number with me.

A few years ago I drove (legally) out to the TSA place and spent the best $85 I’ve spent in a long time getting finger-printed, answering a bunch of questions and – after I got back home – waiting a few months before I learned that the Transportation Security Administration, an agency of the United States Department of Homeland Security thankyouverymuch had satisfied itself that I was not much of a threat to public safety. Ever since, I have happily skipped the endless lines waiting to get through airport security in favor of the quite manageable (usually, unless it’s Hartsfield-Atlanta) TSA Pre-check lines.Security - Gl EntryTSA Pre-check will get you out of the country, but good luck getting back in. One emerges from a wearying international flight to be greeted by the endless lines waiting to go through Customs.

But I now have Global Entry!! Like TSA Pre-check, Global Entry is a program of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, all of this overseen by the Homeland Security people. If our homeland is not secure, I don’t know why. (Well, yes I do, actually, but Mr. Putin told Mr. Trump that everything is fine, so we shouldn’t worry about Russia.)

On my return I guess I’ll trudge back to the DMV and apply for a Real ID to go with my TSA Pre-Check, Trusted Traveler number and Global Entry card and – well, I do have a Social Security number, and a U.S. passport and a Brazilian passport (possibly expired now but still . . .) and 4 pages of saved passwords somewhere, if I can remember where I filed them. All of these, with luck, will be all the global security protection I need in this modern day and age.Security - Univ Enroll It is tricky to keep track of it all. One has to hope that our planetary borders are secure.

And meanwhile, God bless us every one.

Planet earth

No Birthright Citizenship? EEEeeek!

This birthright-citizenship-ending business is getting personal. Surely Mr. Trump has nothing against me exactly – although one can never be sure. I don’t follow his tweets (until they are reported on real news,) but he may have access to my emails. Still, how does he feel about us birthright outliers? And where will we wind up? Stateless?

Birth Certificate - Portugese
They don’t write ’em like this any more. I mean, who even learns cursive?

Here’s the whole story. When I arrived on the planet my mother (along with my father and three older sisters) happened to be in Porto Alegre, Brazil. They’d actually been there for a little more than a decade, my dad helping start a school and my mother teaching music to preschoolers. A dozen or so of the latter were her bridesmaids in tiny matching dresses she made and oh, how I wish I could put my hands on that photo. But back to the birthright.

Since my mother (a legal, if temporary, immigrant) happened to be in Porto Alegre, I was born in the German hospital there. Brazil, being a friendly sort of country, immediately granted me citizenship.

Birth Certificate - US Parents
Will this do, if we axe the birthright citizenship?

 

Not to be outdone, the USA simultaneously granted me citizenship, under the “American Parents Abroad” act. And that, for a number of years, was that. (But is the APA still OK? Should we trust those babies born in shit-hole countries not to be inherently terrorist?)  My family came back to the States when I was too young to have started learning Portugese – more’s the pity; it is a beautiful language. I grew up hardly even noticing my dual citizenship.

Then I reached voting age. When I registered to vote there appeared a mildly ominous-seeming document stating I must renounce my Brazilian citizenship (no dual citizenship allowed in the scary 1950s.) So with hardly a passing thought to my birthright country I renounced it. This might make me okay with President Trump, I guess, though in hindsight it makes me a little sad. And conflicted. Dual citizenship is now possible, and I might want to relocate if things keep going south (or alt-right) in my chosen country.

Fast forward about a half-century. My irreplaceable Final Husband, learning I had never revisited the country of my birth, suggested we should go back. Five minutes later I was on the phone (this was the 1990s, but pre-email) making arrangements and reservations. My favorite exchange was with a hotel reservations clerk in Rio who said, “Oh, you cannot stay one night in Rio. You must stay two, three nights in Rio.” (Which we did.) The primary plan, though, was to visit Porto Alegre, and the Instituto Porto Alegre where my father had famously served.

Passports
My two 1990s passports

 

Initial plans made, we set out for the Brazilian Consulate to obtain visas. “Oh, you cannot travel on a visa,” the nice lady said to me – after granting my husband a visa. “You were born in Brazil; you will need a Brazilian passport.” Which was a little startling, but as it turns out the passport is cheaper than the visa. Small victories. In time, my new passport arrived – in my birthright name, which is not exactly the name on my US passport or airline tickets, but who’s worrying about details?

Me, actually. I figured I might get into Brazil and never get out. But all was well. We visited Iguacu Falls, surely one of the most beautiful spots on the planet (after spending the requisite few nights in Rio and taking photos ostensibly of me but really of the gorgeous girl(s) from Ipanema in the background.) Mostly, I went around smiling at everyone, displaying my passport to sales clerks and waiters and saying muito obrigada – essentially the full extent of my Portugese. Nobody didn’t smile back.

Brazil - Ipanema
Girl from CA; girls from Ipanema

Safely home, things rested for another decade or two. But now our president is saying – constitution be damned – that he might just delete that birthright citizenship. Does he mean just all those murderers and rapists storming the border, or since every immigrant except Melania is a potential terrorist, is he going for retroactive non-birthers? I.e., yours truly?

A quick call to the Brazilian consulate yesterday informed me I am welcome to reinstate my Brazilian citizenship, even if my passport has expired. But now with Mr. Bolsonaro down there wanting to chop down the rain forest – not to mention his political opponents – my alt-birthright country isn’t looking so great either. Still, hedging my bets, I’m hanging onto all these documents. And praying a lot for the whole planet.

On Living the High Life

This all started when my #1 son-in-law Paul said, “Oh, that’s too far for Gran to be flying coach . . .” As if he hadn’t already made enough points by cutting short a trip to Belize so my daughter Sandy could do a quick turn-around and come meet me in Portugal.Clouds stock image1 I have, therefore, been happily anticipating a Business Class flight from San Francisco to Boston, and thence to Lisbon for an end-of-life conference where I recently presented a paper. (I try to drop that phrase wherever possible: “presenting a paper at a conference in Lisbon.” More on that extraordinary conference soon.)

Lisbon TAP dessert

I will skip right past the San Francisco to Boston leg of the journey (which was indeed spiffy) and cut to the Boston-Lisbon leg. If you’re a Business/First Class person, you may want to skip this blog post entirely. It would be the polite thing to do, similar to looking the other way when you notice tourists staring up at giant skyscrapers. You will already be familiar with scenes like this one below, of my mini-apartment complete with its own shelves, tabletops/pull-down table, overhead and reading lights and seat that goes from upright to reclining to bed with way more space (thanks to the little tunnel in the seat in front of it) than my 5’2” self could possibly need.

Lisbon TAP seat
Including the Intl NYTimes!

But if you’re not, and you’re curious about how the other 1% lives, this is a peek into the (sort-of) secret alternative to the grit-your-teeth-&-curl-up-in-your-window-seat version with which most of us are familiar. Once you learn the operational secrets, it is definitely the way to do intercontinental travel.

Along that line, I will back up and make one observation about the SF-Boston leg. Had it not been for the charming young Orthodox man in the seat next to me, who clearly flies this way a lot, I would never have figured out how to get the tray down, identify the power plug, turn the reading light on, etc, etc. When the hot towels came around, he leaned over and said, “Be careful, these towels are very hot.” And as we de-planed, after I told him his mother had raised him well to be kind & helpful to little old ladies and I appreciated that, he thanked me and said, “Good luck!” I suspect he thought I’d need it.

While the coach dwellers were still rearranging their several cubic feet of Stuff into their allocated several cubic inches the canapes arrived at my apartment, quickly followed by the soup and salad, followed by the entree and rather fancy dessert.Lisbon TAP canapes Meanwhile, my apartment seat/bed was negotiable into a dinner-table accommodation, recliner or bed with the push of a button I now understood (thank you, SF-Boston seatmate.) It’s tempting to meditate on ways the airlines might share just a teeny bit of these blessings with your traditional coach family. But definitely easier to postpone all egalitarian impulses, sit back (or lie down) and enjoy the adventure. Which I did.

 

Two good books you’ve not heard of

Discovering great new books is always fun – but when they’re written by friends or family it’s joyously so. Friend and former neighbor Donna Levin has a new novel, There’s More Than One Way Home which I’ve ordered but not yet read; it involves a mother and her autism spectrum son, a theme explored by WordPress blogger friend Antoinette Banks of Tailor Made Life.

Literary talent in the family, though, what special fun. Here’s a story of two very different, very interesting books you’ve probably not heard of – but may want to check out.

iceland-725904_1920
Iceland: bucolic, and enticing

Adam Nichols, who is married to my niece and thus I claim him as nephew, is co-author of a fascinating new book, The Travels of Reverend Olafur Egilsson: The Story of the Barbary Corsair Raid on Iceland in 1627. It’s a tale familiar to Icelanders for centuries, and now making its way into other countries. It’s also a tale that can make you think perhaps the perils of the 21st century aren’t so bad after all.

The Corsairs, when in need of either ransom money or cheap labor or both, simply took off from Africa in pirate ships, swooped down on a likely community and carried off the citizens to sell in the Barbary Coast slave trade. In between times they intercepted ships on the high seas and made off with whatever they found. Human rights were a long way off.

Barbary Corsairs
Barbary Corsairs in action

In 1627, such a raid took place in the Icelandic village where Rev. Olafur was a Lutheran minister. A few villagers escaped, some were killed, and the rest – including Rev. Olafur and his wife and children – were taken off to be sold as slaves. At some point the good reverend was released and sent on his way to raise ransom money from the King of Denmark. No spoiler alert: the tale won’t be followed any farther here. To history’s benefit, Rev. Olafur kept a diary, carefully noting details of his journeys and somewhat dispassionately relating what happened to his friends and family. It is that diary that translates into The Travels of Reverend Olafur Egilsson.

Travels of Rev Olafur cover
Cover photo

 Adam Nichols, a longtime English teacher and author of nine books of fantasy fiction, lived in Iceland for several years. He worked with co-author Karl Smari Hreinsson to create this edition, published by Catholic University of America Press, which is exhaustively annotated to help 21st  century readers follow this 17th century tale. Adam, who is also #1 errand-runner/ taxi driver/ general assistant to my 89-year-old sister, is working on a new book about the Barbary Corsairs, a biography of one of the leaders of the 1627 raid.

Jumping several centuries forward from the Barbary Corsairs, a tale of the 20th century “Greatest Generation” is told by my niece Leslie Sinyard, in her new book Don’t Look. . . Just Jump: The Life of Olive Hammons Weathersby. Far more than an oral history, Don’t Look. . . Just Jump brings to life not just the subject – who died shortly after her 93rd birthday in April, 2013 – but a generation and a kinder, gentler time. Olive’s sweetheart, who would become a widely recognized entomologist/professor and her husband for nearly five adventurous decades, sent letters from the battlefields of World War II wishing they could go out for a Coke date. If either of the couple felt really strongly about something, a ‘Darn!’ might enter the conversation.

Don't Look Just Jump

But the Olive Weathersby story is no timid tale. The title refers to the time when she was the first civilian to parachute from a crashing airplane, and the adventures the couple shared were anything but bland. His work took them to Egypt, where they lived on an island in the Nile; to Tehran, where she first experienced living in a Muslim community; and to Japan, where her kitchen window featured a view of Mt. Fuji in the distance. Eventually they settled in Athens, Georgia to raise their two adopted sons in the turbulent times of the late 20th century.

Leslie Sinyard, who shared a deep Christian faith with the woman her children called their “Athens grandmother,” spent six years interviewing “Miss Olive” and tracking the story. For someone whose career was in business and finance, she turns out to be a remarkable literary storyteller – with a remarkable story to tell.

Russia — and Nuclear Arms Racing

moscow-cathedral

Russia occupies a soft spot in my heart.

It grew out of the boundless enthusiasm for everything Slavic exuded by my Russian-major college roommate – or may have been seeded earlier by the cloth-covered storybooks full of babushkas, snow-covered cottages and deep forests that I so loved as a child. It expanded through and beyond the one time I was lucky enough to visit the country. I love the vastness of its countryside, the majesty of its ancient cathedrals, the intriguing complexity of its history, the wonder of its literature, the no-nonsense hospitality of its people.

I especially love every single one of those non-English-speaking Russians who helped me find the Dostoesvsky Museum in St. Petersberg one day, as I wandered a very long boulevard, counting canals, clutching my map and repeatedly smiling at perfect strangers, pointing to the spot and saying “Dostoevsky Musee?” More than a dozen of them patiently took turns guiding me along. The last took me by the arm and walked me several blocks and down the steps to the obscure doorway through which I entered the last apartment inhabited by one of my literary heroes. (I would never have found it!)

Dostoevsky Museum.jpg

Many friends and strangers across the U.S. share this affection. Much travelled scientist/author Jo Anne Valentine Simson writes in her small, lovely new book Russia Revisited: Come Take a Tour with Me that it “is one of my favorite countries in the world – huge and beautiful, with a complex and tortured history and a culture to match.”

But we do not love Mr. Putin. From this vantage point, he is among a handful of dangerous tyrants determined to centralize power and increasingly restrict the freedom of ordinary citizens. Simson puts it this way: “Unfortunately, in 2016 the political power seems to be devolving once again into a form of aristocracy, with Vladimir Putin behaving like an autocrat.”

We also don’t like the prospect of nuclear annihilation. Or another dangerous arms race destined to increase the supply of nuclear weapons in the U.S., Russia and who knows where else. Which is why we find the “bring it on” tweets of our president-elect more than a little scary.

nuclear-bomb-explosion2.jpg
by Snoron.com

According to the good people of Ploughshares Fund, there are currently 15,375 nuclear weapons held by nine countries. The U.S. and Russia have 93 percent of them. That means each of us already has enough nukes to destroy the planet several times over. A small dispute between Mr. Trump and Mr. Putin, whom our president-elect admires but seems eager to challenge, could unleash a few and end life as we know it on this fragile planet.

A little less trash-tweeting and a little less talk about building nuclear stockpiles would be a nice Happy New Year gift for Russians and Americans alike.