“There is nothing wrong with America,” Rep. Adam Schiff said in a recent Commonwealth Club address, “that cannot be cured with what is right in America.” He was quoting former president Bill Clinton, surely a line worth quoting. Schiff’s overall message was so upbeat, at this particularly downbeat time in U.S. history, that this writer/listener came away hopeful.
Schiff doesn’t want us to be dismayed and overwhelmed. Worried about pollution? Climate change? Immigration? Reproductive justice? Gun control? Environmental destruction? Dreamers? Pick one, he advises. You can make a difference; pick one.
This seems such a welcome diversion from the ongoing national malaise that this space today is dedicated to additional pearls of wisdom and crumbs of food for thought from the same evening. All of these were gleaned from Commonwealth Club events and flashed on the screen while the sold-out audience waited for Schiff and his conversation partner, former Rep. Ellen Tauscher. Enjoy.
“Hope is the active conviction that despair will never have the last word” – Sen. Cory Booker
“Sometimes I wonder if our grace is taken for granted” – Van Jones
“Good and evil exist in all races and all types of people no matter where they come from” – Kareem Abdul Jabbar
“The Republican party is my vehicle, not my master – I have the right to define the Republican party too” – Governor John Kasich
“Fame is a completely separate category from being an actor” – Frances McDormand
“The question is not big government or small government; the question is who government is for” – Robert Reich
“Humans crack under pressure; machines do not. But humans can dream; machines cannot.” – Garry Kasparov
We try to avoid being overly political in this space. But we hope you enjoy pondering these gems – which happen to begin with a comment from an American politician and end with an astute observation from a Russian chess player.
I was born without a left brain. Well, maybe a tiny rudimentary piece of left-ish cortex is in there. Even if the whole left brain/right brain thing is indeed a myth, all I can say is this: My brain doesn’t do the left-brain stuff. Numbers, algebra, equations, calculations, detail. Digits.
This is not to plead total incompetence. My checkbook is balanced, and I can figure tips and keep a very proper ledger of business income and outgo for tax purposes. For that matter, I did my own taxes for some time before marrying Mr. Left/Right Brain 25 years ago and succumbing to the hypnotically attractive suggestion that he’d be glad to do everything financial or mathematical for the happily ever after – which has worked out just fine.
But digital issues have bedeviled me for as far back as I can remember. In the very olden days of long road trips without car radios, a favorite family entertainment for my parents and three older sisters was “Rapid Calculations.” My father would call out numbers, as in “Start with 2. Add 4. Multiply by 6. Subtract 3. Add 17. Divide by . . .” You get the picture. My mother would determine when the game ended and everyone would write down a figure on a piece of paper to see who got the right answer. I would usually still be worrying with 36 minus three.
When I was in high school, the “dumb blond” thing was everywhere in the land and I ferociously tried not to fuel that fire. But connections with my inner left brain regularly eluded me. I blame some of it on the high school days themselves. At my beloved Henry Clay High School in beautiful downtown Ashland, Virginia, I, along with the 39 other members of the Class of ’49, hit eighth grade at a time when the school board couldn’t seem to find a math teacher. So they brought in Mac Simpson, stodgy but brainy son of the academic dean of the nearby college and a student there himself at the time. I had Mac for Algebra I and II, and maybe something else, if I ever got any farther – it’s a hazy memory. My incomprehension of basic math was utterly incomprehensible to Mac. Everything made such perfect sense to him that he was unable to back up to when that sense-making began. Thus without any grasp of the whole x-over-y thing as I launched myself into the world, my left brain simply went dark.
(I did get even, somewhat, by later dating Mac once or twice when poodle skirts were all the rage. The skirts were made out of two square yards of felt. I would agree to go to a movie, after which he would come to the house, calculate and draw the diameters of the two circles – waist and hemline – and then I’d serve him a cup of hot chocolate and say good night.)
Acknowledgment of my lifelong left-brain struggles formed the basis of my signing up, all these decades later, to volunteer for a recent program at the Commonwealth Club featuring Keith Devlin of Stanford University’s H-STAR Institute. Devlin is also President of BrainQuake, NPR’s “Math Guy,” and author of Finding Fibonacci. That last stirred something buried deep within my cerebral cortex. Fibonacci, a distant voice squeeked! The Fibonacci Sequence! Something about rabbits and multiplication! It was wonderfully comforting to know I retained a connection to the Logical Leftbrain.
Ah, to have drawn Fibonacci for Algebra I.
I might have started with Liber Abbaci (The Book of Calculation,) which introduced the western world to basic math – at a level designed for ordinary people to understand. Devlin explains that Fibonacci (whose official name was Leonardo of Pisa but there was that other Leonardo) went with his merchant father to North Africa, where trade with the far east had led to calculating prices with beads (think abacus,) something far more efficient that using fingers as was the custom in Italy. Fibonacci eventually went back home, translated the Arabic figurings into Roman numerals, wrote a bunch of books and started the whole modern arithmetic thing.
Devlin’s story of uncovering Fibonacci’s life and work through obscure library archives across Italy and elsewhere makes for a fascinating book, and his rapid-fire presentation was a treat – until the insertion of equations into his talk became necessary. Having started out on a level playing field with an historical narrative, once the numbers started popping up on the screen I began to feel again the old “Rapid Calculation” angst about being the only person in the audience still struggling to add 17.
And then Devlin tossed this bubble-popping dart: Fibonacci did not invent the Fibonacci numbers. My dimly remembered connection to the brainy lefts? Somebody else came up with that “Fibonacci Sequence.”
“Critical thinking,” says author Tom Nichols, “is that thing that says ‘Start asking questions. Don’t be afraid of where they go.’ It is okay to change your mind.”
Nichols, who has changed his mind more than once but has never not been a critical thinker, was in San Francisco recently promoting his latest book, The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters. He is more than a little concerned that the acceptance of untruths and outright lies, and the increasing willingness to ignore experts on all subjects, is going to get our democracy into deep trouble.
“There’s been a change,” he says, “from ‘I doubt you; explain.’ to ‘I know more than you do.’”
Nichols is unquestionably an expert himself – a professor at the U.S. Naval War College, at the Harvard Extension School, a Sovietologist, and a five-time undefeated Jeopardy! champion (among a long list of other credentials on his Wikipedia page) – and sees many reasons for the death of expertise. A virtual epidemic of narcissism, for one; technology in many of its uses and abuses for another. But the danger of the “collapse of expertise,” he says, is that it can easily lead to mob rule. And poof, there goes democracy. Nichols is concerned, as he writes in The Death of Expertise, that “Americans have reached a point where ignorance, especially of anything related to public policy, is an actual virtue.”
House minority leader Nancy Pelosi was also in town recently, talking a good bit about facts and truth herself. Unsurprisingly, Pelosi feels there is not much respect for either in the present administration. She opened her remarks with a report on President Trump’s first meeting with congressional leaders. “The first thing the president said was, ‘Do you know I won the popular vote?’ Now first, that wasn’t relevant to what we were there for. And it wasn’t true.”
Pelosi repeatedly said she felt things could get done, including on many issues that would require cooperation between Democrats and Republicans. “But we have to start with facts. Data. Truth.”
Nichols says the best way to get the facts – “the real story” – is to read multiple sources. (“I read the Washington Post, New York Times, and Wall Street Journal.”) And to those who would say, “I don’t have time,” Nichols has one answer: “Yes. You. Do.”
If the issues and the problems are complex, Nichols suggests that part of the answer is sublimely simple: “We have to be nicer,” he says. “We have to believe we want the best for each other.”
That has, in a not-so-distant past still fondly recalled by more than a few Americans, been true.
“If you do something to my body that I do not want,” says physician/author Angelo Volandes, “it is assault and battery. But if I do the same thing to you in (a medical situation,) it is standard of care.”
Volandes thinks this last is a bad idea. He is on a campaign to change the way American doctors and patients, and indeed the country at large, understand what is done to American bodies at life’s end. He spoke of this campaign, and his new book The Conversation that outlines it, at a recent Commonwealth Club event in San Francisco. When he’s not taking time out to promote the book and the campaign, Volandes practices internal medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston and is on the faculty at Harvard Medical School. He is Co-Founder and President of Advance Care Planning Decisions, a non-profit foundation dedicated to improving patients’ quality of care.
“Ninety percent of people want to die at home,” Volandes says; “most die in hospitals. There is a misalignment between the type of medical care they want and what they get.” About this unwanted care? “If you’re in the hospital and get unwanted care you never bargained for, I still get paid for it.”
After watching too many patients endure end-of-life treatments he was sure they would not have chosen, Volandes started an unusual practice: taking every one of his patients to visit the intensive care unit, and some to visit the dialysis unit. Once they gained a better understanding of what some of the aggressive treatments – CPR, breathing machines, etc – actually looked like, the patients almost always moved away from “Do everything” to comfort care as their choice.
The basic change Volandes believes is needed begins with a conversation between physician and patient. Those conversations do happen, and there is now Medicare reimbursement, but few physicians find them easy, and few patients know how to inaugurate them or what to say. “Never did a senior physician have to certify that I could talk to a patient,” Volandes says. “The patient needs to know ‘What are the questions I need to ask? What are my options?’ Life’s final chapter needs to be written – but the problem is, I’m writing it (instead of the patient.)”
This writer has been advocating for individuals to write their own final chapters for over two decades. With others writing those chapters instead, the costs are monumental and unnecessary – and millions of Americans die after undergoing painful indignities they would never have chosen. Physician aid-in-dying – approved by a majority of doctors and 7 in 10 Americans and now legal in five states – is one key piece of the puzzle. But the elephant-size puzzle piece is how to get every one of us to make known, well before those “end-of-life” days arrive, what medical care we do or do not want.
Volandes’ conversations could put that piece in place. Every person alive who takes time for the conversation (and for writing it all down) will likely die a better death.
If music is balm for the soul, what else might it be?
A lot, according to Peter Lewis – musician, composer, songwriter and founding member of the 1960s rock band Moby Grape. Lewis and his daughter Arwen Lewis – also musician, composer, songwriter, and someone who holds down a day job as a waitress – explored this question at a recent event at San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club.
The event was officially billed as a discussion (with live music!) of Music as an Alternative to Adversity. It evolved into a rambling discourse on good love and bad, on the sixties, spirituality and freedom, and how music winds through it all. The elder Lewis did the lion’s share of talking, with daughter Arwen benevolently looking on. But Arwen, an accomplished musician who bears a resemblance to her glamorous paternal grandmother Loretta Young, repeatedly brought her father back to the song they were about to sing.
It was an hour of memorable music and musical food for thought:
Peter Lewis on music overcoming adversity: “When you get born you cry until you’re fed; later you’re singing for your supper. It’s spiritual. Spirits move through us, and through each other – but there are all kinds of different songs.”
On “Sailing,” the first song played by the duo: “I wrote this with Skip Spence of Moby Grape; its first recording will be released in February. It’s about longing. Songs are not written in a vacuum; you feel something – and the song is born.” Spence, who suffered from addiction, bad drugs and schizophrenia, died in 1999 at the age of 53.
On loneliness and the blues: Arwen – “I live with my parents near Santa Barbara and drive 65 miles a day to work as a waitress. I wrote ‘The Lompoc Blues’ when I was having a bad day.” Peter: “We live in a nice community near the Air Force base and the penitentiary. But you can go all day and never see anybody smiling.”
On being the son (and granddaughter) of a famous movie star – Peter: “I asked my mom what it was like . . . She was brought to Hollywood by her mom, who ran a boardinghouse. I went to Purdue, in the pilots program; it was my mom’s boyfriend who got me in. I wasn’t one of the seven best pilots in America. But it was a scary deal, the draft. I’m in this line, and you don’t go home from the induction center; I was crying like a baby.” (According to his Wikipedia page, Lewis served in the Air Force, and afterwards worked as a commercial pilot.) “My mom said, ‘Either cut your hair or get out of my house.’” Loretta Young, whose two sisters also began acting as children, died in 2000 after retiring from a noted career in film and television. Arwen: “She used acting as an alternative to adversity.”
On bad love – Arwen: “I sing lead in this, which is more sing-song-y. It’s about the sixties, when there was a lot of loneliness . . .” Peter: “Love’s a two-way street. We were all trying to be characters in a Jack Kerouac novel – so you write some facetious tunes. The sixties were not so much about rebellion as about freedom.” The duo then launched into a song that included the lines, “If you can’t learn from my mistakes, honey I can’t learn from yours;” and eventually, “If you can’t pay for my mistakes, honey I can’t pay for yours.”
Nearing the end of their time, Arwen reminded her talkative father that they still had several songs to go. Only one could be squeezed in: a closing number with an almost Latin/blues rhythm, “You must believe in love.”
Ruth Bader Ginsberg is tooold? Perhaps she should consider stepping down from the Supreme Court?
These suggestions were floated more than once in the Q&A session after a recent Commonwealth Club talk by University of California Hastings Professor of Law Scott Dodson. Dodson is the editor of a newly released collection of essays, The Legacy of Ruth Bader Ginsberg, whose writers suggest nothing of the kind. Contributors to the book, and Dodson himself, focus instead on the significant contributions made thus far by the 82-year-old justice, and the impact she continues to have on jurisprudence and on life in the U.S.
Dodson was drawn to write about Ginsberg because he “kept encountering her clear and consistent opinions” and wanted to create an objective view of her legacy – notably including gender discrimination, as in the case that ended Virginia Military Institute’s male-only admission policy, and racial discrimination, as in the voting rights case Shelby County v Holder. In the latter case, Ginsberg famously wrote that throwing out an anti-discriminatory measure as no longer needed “is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”
Several days before the Dodson talk, David McCullough, 82, spoke at another San Francisco event in conjunction with his most recent book, The Wright Brothers. McCullough did not go into detail about his next project, but gives every indication that he is a writer with no interest in retiring.
Meanwhile in Texas, Willie Nelson, 82, has another concert coming up, and the next show planned by Carol Burnett, 82, is almost sold out.
This writer may not have anything else in common with Ruth, David, Carol and Willie, but we take what we can get. 1933 wasn’t a bad year to be born.
Remember when Isis was just a Greek goddess? The goddess of – among other things – health and wisdom?
Not many people today would know the goddess, but there are few who don’t know ISIS. According to a new CNN/ORC poll, people in the U.S. consider ISIS a greater threat than Iran, Russia, North Korea, China – or probably even the economic woes of the earlier Isis’ native land.
Panelists were invited to give a brief overview of their perspectives. This unfortunately was an impossible assignment; though several panelists made valiant attempts, it turns out that expert views and insights on the Islamic State simply cannot be condensed into ten minutes – if, indeed, a day. The issue is too vast, too complex, too fraught and too weighted with centuries of conflict.
But on one issue there was emphatic agreement: ISIS is not a state.
Kaslan led off her summary with that declaration, and concluded by stressing the importance of this distinction: ISIS, ISIL, SIC, IS, Da’ish is many things, but not a state. Among the many things it is? A terrorist organization; an amorphous group of men who commit unspeakable acts of violence and brutality; a sprawling movement that condones and conducts beheadings, kidnappings, mass executions of religious groups, absolute subjugation of women.
A state, most would argue, involves more than territorial control – which ISIS surely has, in constantly shifting areas – and more than the declaration of power. A state exhibits some degree of care and concern for its people – and the rest of humankind.
Many diverse elements of the troubling terrorist movement were illuminated by members of the distinguished panel, but this was perhaps the key:
Whatever ISIS is, it’s not Islamic to the vast majority of believers in Islam…… and hopefully it will never become a state.
Life is a sexually transmitted condition that is invariably fatal.
That well-phrased truth – often attributed to British author Neil Gaiman – led off a talk not long ago at San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club by Atul Gawande, physician and author of, most recently, Being Mortal. Gawande’s message was all about being mortal, and facing that inevitable death in advance. In other words, if we mortals could please just admit our mortality – and talk about what we’d like our final days/weeks/months to look like – much good would result.
Gawande and his interviewer, University of California San Francisco professor Alice Chen MD, spoke of the need for shared decision-making, shifting away from the paternalistic ‘doctor knows best: here’s what we’re going to do for you’ attitude to the physician giving information and involving the patient in making choices. But their decision-making would still put the doctor first and patient second. This writer respectfully disagrees.
In response to a question from the audience, Gawande agreed that “a patient with unbearable suffering should be given the option to hasten death.” But he followed this perfectly rational statement with an irrational comment: “every hastened death is a failure of the medical system.”
Give us a break.
The medical system needs, at some point, to confront this reality: Life… is invariably fatal. The medical system cannot forestall anyone’s death forever. The medical system cannot protect, absolutely, against unbearable suffering. Compassionate physicians across the U.S. are recognizing this fact, and increasingly backing the legalization of aid in dying for the mentally competent terminally ill.
Gawande, Chen and countless others are proponents of palliative care, an excellent, relatively new segment of care in this country. They would have us believe that palliative care is the be-all and end-all of end-of-life care, and they oppose the option of legal aid in dying. Palliative care, an option many choose, is a fine addition to healthcare. It can keep pain to a minimum and often insure comfort; as a last resort, palliative sedation can render the patient essentially unconscious for whatever hours or days remain until death comes.
But it is a cruel myth that palliative care, or even the best hospice care, can guarantee anyone will slip peacefully from good life to gentle death. Pain, indignity, discomfort and distress are part of the process; some of us don’t want much of that.
Legal aid in dying, the option to choose at what point to let invariable fatality happen, is the only guarantee. It’s an option that we should all have.