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

 

 

On being grateful – for rain & waterfronts

bridge in rain

(This essay also appears on Huffington Post)

“It’s not happiness that makes you grateful,” goes one of my favorite recent quotes (thanks, Joann Lee;) “it’s being grateful that makes you happy.”

Here’s to gratitude.

For one thing, it has been raining in San Francisco. That strange wet stuff that falls occasionally from the sky – but we haven’t seen in a very long time. A planned Commonwealth Club Waterfront Walk tour, which I had earlier volunteered to help host, was advertised “Rain or Shine;” and as it happened there was both. The rain dampened all streets but no spirits, and the beauty of the waterfront literally shone.

There is something mystic about a waterfront on a dark day: an ethereal quiet hanging just below the clouds, the call of a gull who could be from another world, the scent of newness.

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The waterfront in sunshine is brilliant and exciting; in rain it invites your imagination – and appreciation.

As with waterfronts everywhere, San Francisco’s is steeped in history: sailors and conquerors, longshoremen and adventurers. There is public art, and private beauty. Waterfront Walk guide extraordinaire Rick Evans covers a remarkable range of them in two hours:

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The rise and – literal – fall of Rincon Hill, once one of San Francisco’s famous seven, which overlooked the Bay until the city unwisely bulldozed a street through it in the 19th century and the sandy hill collapsed upon itself. (Earthquake and fire finished the job.) Today Rincon Hill is rising again, as gleaming steel towers. The buildings that survived earthquake and fire are other centerpieces of the walk, plus the monumental artwork on the waterfront that was a trade-off for Gap tycoon Don Fisher’s corporate headquarters building when it went up – insurance of unobstructed, breathtaking views.

Some of the beauty of many waterfronts, physical and informational, is manmade, as is true of this piece of San Francisco Bay. But every waterfront has its story, and its soul.

Rain or shine. A cause for exquisite gratitude.

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Homeless & still grinning

President Obama’s proposed budget for FY2011 includes a broad range of programs addressing homelessness, from provision of new services to the “Zero Tolerance” initiative for homeless veterans; I wish them all well. Aside from national efforts, most of us struggle with our personal relationship to the growing numbers of homeless citizens: Look the other way? Drop coins in cups? Buy snacks? Volunteer with the Food Bank? Most of us try to give something.

Occasionally, we get something more. This is such a story.

My friend Kevin left our neighborhood park in December, bound for Bakersfield in California’s central valley. “The Saint Vincent de Paul bought me a ticket,” he said. I worried about who would look after him. In our neighborhood he could sit in the sun and watch the birds on the lake, the joggers and strollers, and children on the playground. On rainy days he could sit on a corner bench inside the library. He never asked for money, but many of us gave him a dollar or two whenever we met. “Oh, I think he’ll be okay,” said one of the dog-walkers who is also among the Mountain Lake Park regulars. “He’ll find a meeting, and they’ll help him. He’s been doing really well with his drinking.”

Turns out it was not really Kevin I was worried about, but myself. Things were not the same. I would finish the hop kick on my loop around the parcourse fitness trail, and Kevin was supposed to be there. Instead, I would encounter an empty bench, or a disinterested stranger preoccupied with someone at the other end of a cell phone line. I missed the “How you doin’?” or the “Where you been ?! I ain’t seen you in a long time!” The occasional pause to sit beside him in the sun and pay attention to the feasts of nature everywhere.  Most of all I missed the wide, semi-toothless grin and the parting “Have a guht one!” that sent me brightly on toward the push-up bars just around the next bend in the trail. I was bereft.

Then a couple of weeks ago, headed from the chin-up station (I wish), I spotted a vaguely familiar figure walking slowly toward me. Decked out in a puffy new jacket (Kevin’s fashion tastes lean toward multiple bulky layers) and a new, bright blue cap, his beard somewhat trimmed, I did not recognize him until the great, toothless grin broke across his face. I ran down the trail, catching myself at the very last minute to restrain the hug I felt – this, I think, would’ve been too much for Kevin to handle – but grabbing both of his mittened hands.

“Kevin!” I said. “I thought you’d left us, gone off to Bakersfield forever!”

“Naw,” he said. “It’s too wahm in Bakersfield.”

So there it was. We were redeemed by the perpetually mild weather of the San Francisco Bay, where it seldom gets too warm and on rainy days one can find refuge in the library.

Did he have a good time in Bakersfield? “Oh, yes.” Did he get to see family? “Mmm.”

I still don’t know all the answers, or whether one day I’ll get to the hop kick station and find him gone again, for good.

What I do know is that for now the universe is proceeding as it should. And that one man with seemingly nothing to celebrate has brought the spirit of celebration back to Mountain Lake Park. It’s a great gift.

Waterfront Condos: More on the housing dilemma

Waterfront esplanade, expansive views from a sunny terrace, walk to the ballpark — what’s not to love about this housing choice?

Downsizing from a large, Victorian house filled to overflowing with the accumulations of two very active lives, the Langleys of San Francisco decamped, a few months ago, to a new, easy-care, sun-filled two-bedroom condo in the city’s happening-place Mission Bay neighborhood. They love the convenience, the mix of ages and cultures, the freedom from old-house maintenance worries and some unexpected bonuses like new friends living on houseboats from another era who are within conversation range of their 4th floor deck. “We (the new condo development) block the view they used to have all those years,” Judy Langley says, “but there are a lot of  trade-offs like getting the creek (which leads into San Francisco Bay) cleaned up, and the park over there…” For the newcomers, the young dog-walkers on the esplanade below, the middle-aged Chinese couple doing tai chi on the common lawn, it is an urban idyll.

Urban condos, even those without kayaks at the door and aged houseboats for neighbors, are an increasingly popular answer to the downsizing dilemma. But the dilemma remains huge and answers are seldom easy.

On the day the Langleys were hosting an Open House in their new digs, my sister was packing the last boxes from the high-ceilinged Boston condo that’s been her family’s home for decades. She and her husband are headed for a New York retirement community to which a physician daughter will also relocate from the west coast. Elsewhere this weekend a childhood friend was finalizing plans for a move from Northern Virginia to a coastal community where her husband will be able to live in a Memory Unit while she lives independently nearby.

These choices typify the variety of factors that go into contemporary downsizing decision-making: Is it affordable? Will I (or my parents) have the care that’s needed? Can life still be good (or even get better?)

And any of these families might also have considered co-housing. Yet another option for Boomers and Beyonders as well as for younger families and individuals, co-housing in some ways harkens back to a simpler, long-ago lifestyle and in other ways could only work in the 21st century. It was the topic of an OWL-sponsored panel discussion on Saturday, and will be tomorrow’s Boomers and Beyond topic.