A View from Inside Armageddon

Andy Goldsworthy’s “Spire” reaches into a smouldering sky

September 15, 2020: The skies over San Francisco have cleared, finally, and the Air Quality Index has moved from Red to Yellow – still not something you’d want to go outside and exercise in for an extended period. But a week ago we woke to a Day of Darkness like nothing many of us had ever seen — or hope to see again. This (below) is an account of that day that I posted on Medium.com. but somehow managed not to post on this, my forever site.

It’s Armageddon. The Apocalypse. Those are the terms most frequently being tossed around, alongside “Really? Can you believe . . .” “This is surreal . . .” Nobody seems able to come up with words expansive enough.

Temple Emanu-El (rt) overlooks an apocalyptic scene

Mostly, however, there is an eerie quiet. Everyone looks around wide-eyed, behind their masks, speaking in whispers or small-child voices.

Northern California awoke to dark, burnt orange skies that created an impression of early evening at nine in the morning. We were already shaken by months of uncontained pandemic which by now has killed at least one or more we knew and loved, and sickened others who live with after-effects still unknown. Then came the racial unrest erupting in our cities and neighborhoods. Followed closely by the wildfires consuming beloved parks, forests, homes, communities. Uncounted mornings began with a cautious look at the air quality index, realizing it was too toxic outside for a walk around the block. And now this? Pitch dark at 9 in the morning?

The day of darkness was disorienting even for 2020.

But here is an on-the-ground report about the good news. Confronting the Apocalypse, people turned calm. And kind. This reporter needed to leave the safety of my securely quarantined geezer building, with its giant air purifiers on every floor, for a medical appointment at noon (when it looked like, oh, 8 PM.) So I made a couple of brief detours before heading home. First stop was the parking lot of a small neighborhood shopping center where I periodically buy flowers at the grocery store – because the flowers are outdoors out back, and someone will always take my credit card inside to pay for my selection. (I do not enter non-medical enclosed spaces.) There were lines of cars moving in and out and around. They moved very slowly. People stopped to let others have plenty of time to move in or out. Nobody honked. Around the back of the store where the flowers are there were probably several dozen people – talking about how it couldn’t possibly be midday, with all the lights on inside . . . But people spoke in hushed voices, frequently with soft laughter. (Apocalyptic times invite laughter. Who knew?) Everyone gave everyone plenty of social distance, but while we were moving around we smiled behind our masks as if sharing some awful but negotiable secret. While I stood with my armful of lilies and roses and my credit card held out, two customers and one store employee heading out on lunch break offered to go inside and take care of my transaction.

Then I drove a few blocks into the Presidio, where Inspiration Point is a celebrated spot for taking photos of San Francisco Bay. Alcatraz sits, jewel-like in the water, across an expanse of evergreens. The walkway and low wall are ideal for selfies and photos against this quintessential San Francisco backdrop. Immediately across the road from the small Inspiration Point parking area is Andy Goldsworthy’s soaring sculpture “Spire.” I lived nearby when “Spire” was created. We watched Goldsworthy and his assistants daily in 2008 as they built his towering monument of 37 Monterey cypress trunks bound together to reach 100 feet into the sky. Like others of Goldsworthy’s beautiful creations, Spire will eventually be absorbed back into nature, as surrounding trees continue to grow. On this Armageddon day, Nature has turned sculpture and surroundings alike into a glowing ember-like forest.

The view from Inspiration Point still inspired. But it was nothing like what photos in millions of tourist albums show, sailboats drifting around Alcatraz below blue skies and billowing clouds. It was a sepia-toned picture of suddenly colorless shrubs, with an umber haze settled around a few blinking lights of houses in the distance – a distance without Bay, sailboats, Alcatraz or the otherwise familiar.

And again, there was the eerie quiet. The ever-present mix of excited children’s voices and friends calling to each other was replaced by a hushed, slightly fearful wonder. Cars came and went, but slowly. There was no birdsong. I don’t know where birds go in times of distress, but they go silent. I read later that lights had to be kept on at the San Francisco Zoo because the animals were disoriented by the daytime darkness.

I had a notebook tucked under my arm while taking pictures around Inspiration Point. As I turned to get back into my car the notebook dropped with an unseemly noise. “Here,” said a soft voice as a gloved hand reached for my notebook. “Let me help you.”    

Covid-Chaneling Punxsutawney Phil

I think I know how Punxsutawney Phil feels. He emerges from a comfortable dark hole, looks around at the universe, makes a decision about how the future might look and returns to his comfortable dark hole.

The thing about it is, Phil only has to do this once a year. We above-ground types are being asked to do it over and over, and it can be trying for the average citizen. Meanwhile, pity the poor mayors and governors who are – in the total absence of national leadership – trying to advise us. Punxsutawney Phil has, at least, an Inner Circle (don’t look at me, this information comes straight from Phil’s Wikipedia page) to advise him about the forecast. We’ve got Anthony Fauci. But God only knows (and She has an awful lot on Her plate these days) whether science and reason will or will not be allowed the microphone.

(This space being mildly committed to avoiding overt political statements, I will skip right over the resemblances between Punxsutawney Phil and that other prominent American who sometimes pokes his head above the black hole of despotism and stupidity he inhabits, sniffs the hostile atmosphere and sinks right back into a comfy chair to watch Fox News.)

But out here in the real world. San Francisco, for instance.

Shadows in the park

California, having successfully addressed the coronavirus early on, recently proclaimed semi-liberation day. Announcements of Phase I re-openings were made. Everyone prepared to emerge from whatever dark hole of confinement he or she had been inhabiting. Then apparently way too many citizens of the Golden State threw caution (and masks, and social distancing) to the winds. Infections are running rampant, restrictions are being re-imposed, plywood that had begun to be removed is being nailed back in place. It is beyond bewildering.

So, much like Punxsutawney Phil after a lonnnng hibernation, recently I ventured out of the dark assisted-living hole I inhabit. Authorized to go for an unsupervised walk to restore my health and sanity, I set out, due uphill, for Lafayette Park high atop San Francisco. Here is how it went:

Blocks 1 and 2: Everything’s fine. But when did I get this out of shape?

Block 3: OMG, a person not wearing a mask is walking right toward me. Do I step into the traffic to avoid his germs? Should I call 911?

Block 4: See that lady walking into the apartment building a few yards to the left? She is coughing. Coughing. I summon my diminishing strength to sprint across the street before the light changes.

Block 5: Thank heavens, the park is in sight. At least all those steps at the entrance are shallow enough that I can probably still handle them. And there aren’t a whole lot of contagious-looking people hanging around. It’s important to be out in the sunshine. I need to keep that in mind.

Block 6: But here they are. CROWDS. How do I know whether that group all smushed together over there is really a family? If I take my usual uphill path, can I maintain six-foot distance from everybody? All these happy people, what’s the likelihood they are asymptomatic covid-positives? Anyway, don’t these people know about masks? The view of the Bay is spectacular.   

Going home it’s all downhill.

This essay first appeared on Medium.com, interesting site I’ve been writing for these past few months. You might want to check it out too.

Wear a Face Mask? Oh, why bother . . .

CAN WE LAUGH — OR MAYBE SMILE — OUR WAY THROUGH THIS?

“CORONAFEST 2020!” read the ad for Mr. Trump’s Tulsa rally that floated around the internet, “Come for the Racism, Stay for the Plague!” And as a sort of postscript below: “Be sure to reserve your ICU bed and ventilator.” We’re going to hope this stays funny. Although I know the Bible says not to invoke harm upon your fellow human beings, it’s really hard not to wish a moderately severe case of covid19 on every unmasked attendee. I don’t actually want anyone to die, even if Mr. Trump would then be reducing his voter base – just get sick enough to make a point.

When did public health get hijacked by crazy politics? I live in San Francisco, where we started off the pandemic with early sheltering-in-place that kept our numbers low. But our numbers, at least those showing reported cases (3,400+) and deaths (48+) continue to rise. Some other factors are “meeting target goals,” but the list I obsessively keep has never showed a decline in cases since I started obsessing on March 26. We are slowly and cautiously re-opening around here – even geezers in my assisted living fortress now leave for non-emergency medical appointments. I have one this week that is a pleasant 10-block walk away, and you never saw anyone this excited about going to the dentist. However. A few days ago, in the balmy sunshine of Lafayette Park, people weary with staying in were practically shoulder-to-shoulder on the grass, 90% of them without mandatory-in-SF masks.

We seem to have parallel narratives: “Masks & distancing will get us through this with the least damage” – or “Oh, why bother.” The difference between this pandemic and the last is that it’s not just the crazies pushing the Oh why bother. Remember the old H1N1 swine flu a decade ago? Seems almost quaint. The country was prepared, met the virus head-on, came up with a vaccine opposed only by the crazies. To be honest, vaccine supplies fell short and were funneled to the most endangered: children, healthcare workers, pregnant women, people with pre-existing conditions. But compared to the novel coronavirus, H1N1 does look like a pussycat.

Here’s my question. Is there a way to get to the other side of this pandemic without major suffering – more overrun ERs and ICUs, upwards of 200,000 probable deaths this year – or minor discomfort? Keeping six feet away from all those people you want to hug (and many you’d settle just to high five) can sometimes seem more major than minor on the behavioral difficulty scale. But it’s doable. Masks are hot and bothersome and they fog up your glasses. I have a serious dislike of even my new overpriced mask, which I bought because it’s light and washable and theoretically doesn’t fog up my glasses. (They lied. It fogs.) Still, I’m wearing the blasted thing every time I walk out the door.

Maybe a little humor will help. Political jokes? Given where we are, you might as well laugh. Or subtle joys such as a friend suggested. “My boss drives me up the wall,” she said. “But I can look at him with straightforward eyes while I’m sticking my tongue out behind my mask.” A blog about H1N1 that I posted more than a decade ago had a conclusion that still fits, if you substitute “mask” for “vaccine.” In any event, the last line is still appropriate:

The best news of the pandemic is probably the fact that it has become fodder for stand-up comics and comedy shows. Once we start laughing at things they tend to whittle themselves down to sanity. My favorite message so far came from host Jon Daily on the Daily Show, in response to some of the craziness coming from the likes of Sean Hannity and Glen Beck. What we need, Daily suggested, is a vaccine against the vaccine, so we could have peace of mind while being vaccinated.

A little peace of mind goes a long way these days. (franjohns.net 10/25/09)

(This essay was posted earlier on Medium.com)

Parks: Heartbeat & Hope for the Future

Mountain Lake Park“You can neither lie to a neighbourhood park, nor reason with it,” wrote Jane Jacobs in The Death and Life of American Cities. Jacobs knew a thing or two about parks – and cities. These days we are learning things of our own about parks and cities, a mish-mash of the good, the bad and the ugly. Cities are where many of our hearts lie, but they aren’t so good for containing viruses. But parks? Parks are the totally good. You can’t lie to your neighborhood park because it knows the truth: I’m a space you need. That may not be exactly what Jacobs meant, but close enough.

The Trust for Public Land (a great national nonprofit I hope you’ll consider supporting) maintains that “Everyone deserves a park.” It’s hard to argue with that. TPL believes that even everyone in cities – rich or poor – should be within a 10-minute walk of a park. Hard to argue with that, either. On the poor end, in rich San Francisco, are most of the 40,000 residents of the Tenderloin neighborhood who live within a 10-minute walk of Sergeant Macauley Park. (More about Sgt. Macauley and his eponymous park later.)

On the rich, poor and everything in between end are the happy hordes of walkers, runners, bird-watchers, tiny soccer-players-in-training, birthday partyers, picnickers and playground rompers at Mountain Lake Park. And it is the thing I miss the most, quarantined here in the geezer house: Mountain Lake Park. A little gem of a San Francisco city park, it features (among other things) a Par Course fitness trail that for decades has doubled as my personal outdoor gym, serenity space and yoga substitute. I might as well admit that I failed yoga. Although I stuck it out through the entire course at Temple Emanu-El across the street from my house a few years back, within the first ten minutes of every session, while everyone else was Zen’d out, I just wanted to be outside in the sunshine on the Par Course at Mountain Lake Park.Mountain Lake 9.9.18 The park itself borders on Mountain Lake, a spring-fed lake from which the Spaniards, and Native American tribes before them, happily drank. But in the 20th century thoughtless pet owners dumped their turtles and goldfish into the lake, and the gunk and runoff from an adjoining stretch of Highway 101 finished off the job of turning it into a virtual cesspool by the 1990s. Because Mountain Lake is part of the Presidio though, now a national park itself, your tax dollars helped restore it to a haven for natural grasses, native fish and wildlife, and varieties of birds and waterfowl. Mountain Lake Park is approximately what I envision as paradise.

Parks are, as evidenced by the above, a lot of things to all people. Sergeant Macauley Park, a tiny, one-fifth urban acre in San Francisco’s low-end-of-the-socioeconomic-spectrum Tenderloin neighborhood, first opened in 1983, intended as an oasis for the thousands of kids within its 10-minute-walk radius. It was named for a popular young San Francisco police officer who was shot and killed the year before while making a routine traffic stop. Despite its optimistic opening, Macauley Park’s young users were quickly displaced by others who found it ideal for arranging sexual encounters, dealing drugs and taking care of public bathroom needs. Most of us, certainly Jane Jacobs, would agree these are not ways to reason with a children’s park. Beleaguered Macauley Park was closed in 1995 during a major project to evict its underground residents, a colony of rats who had moved in, multiplied and disbursed throughout the ’hood like a coronavirus. It reopened in 2000 with an optimistic ceremony I well recall, and it struggles, through ups and downs, to continue offering neighborhood kids an open space in which to play.

Birds in treesMacauley and Mountain Lake are just two parks in just one city, which is blessed with dozens of others in between, of every size and imaginable variety. But maybe they represent our hope for the future: spaces with no entry fee, no barriers according to race, gender, politics or fitness level.

Here’s one piece of extravagantly good news: when we emerge from the confines of Covid19, America’s parks will be right where we left them.

Hallelujah.

(This essay appeared earlier on Medium.com, a fine site for exchange of information & ideas I’ve been posting on. You might want to check it out.)

 

 

 

On Being High on Cities

For a small-town girl, I am embarrassingly in love with cities. Their energy, their sometime sophistication, their proud histories, their devil-may-care attitude toward the constantly undulating (some fast, some pokey) throngs of their citizens as they go about doing whatever it is that city people incessantly do.Prague castle

I fell for Prague the first step I took onto the first of its cobblestone bridges spanning the centuries of its brave survival of constant conquest and cultural assaults. A guide in the Prague Museum taught me a lesson worth a college semester with one proud sentence, “We do not have an army.” Thus giving this U.S.-raised citizen new insight into what armies can really mean.

In Bruges my husband and I discovered out-of-the-way museums and savored chocolate (ink-dark for him; pale for me) with our coffee while watching the canal boats.Bruges canal But mostly we wandered the endlessly wandering streets. It was in Bruges that we perfected the phrase employed for so many years throughout so many other cities, from Chicago to Shanghai: “Let’s just walk.”

I love Porto Alegre not just for being the city of my birth – the last sultry thing I ever did, I often say, was being born in Brazil – but for its mix of gentle warmth and cowboy swagger. On the single visit I made to the place where my father had helped start the Instituto Porto Alegre my husband and I were treated like royalty by representatives of that august institution. We were feted with meat-heavy banquets, tours and an organ concert and sent off with a bouquet of flowers; what’s not to love about a city offering that to a stranger?

Paris. Well, Paris.

DunhuangMy experience of China was one two-week excursion with the Oakland Museum Art Guild, which clearly makes me an expert on all things Chinese including its cities. So. While I loved the bustle (and the leafy former French Concession) of Shanghai, and marveled at the frenetic pace of both Shanghai and Beijing, Dunhuang stole my heart. Maybe because it’s been around since – oh, 2,000 B.C., there was something casually settled about Dunhuang. Everyone seemed to move more slowly, wrapped in the desert air, smilingly unconcerned with invading tourists, of whom there were not so many as elsewhere. When I asked one colorfully-dressed woman, through several bungled words and a lot of stupid gestures, if I might take a picture of her adorable tiny daughter, she grinned, pulled me to her side and insisted in a flurry of rapid-fire instructions to a passerby that he take a picture of the three of us, the toddler nestled happily in my arms. How could I not love Dunhuang?

I was in St. Petersburg at the end of a river trip from Moscow that had been pure joy and a time of revelation. But I had OD’d on castles. Plus, I really wanted to see the Dostoevsky Museum, which was not on the agenda for my tour group.Dostoevsky Museum So I set out on my own, equipped with a map by which I planned to count bridges and a total ignorance of the Cyrillic alphabet. My secret weapon was the ability to approach perfect strangers, point to my map and say, “Dostoevsky Musee?” in my most beseeching Southern accent. Six or seven instructors in I wound up with a polite gentleman who suggested, in severe Slavic gestures, that it would be best if he lead me there. I would never otherwise have found the nondescript entry into the apartment where the great man himself lived his last months, a small but remarkable museum that leaves one feeling as if Fyodor just stepped out for a drink. I was mesmerized by St. Petersburg.

Though I will always leave, and find, my heart in San Francisco, it can get a little fickle about New York. A recent visit coincided with the Twin Towers memorial lights of 9/11, and visits to two of my favorite museums in the world: the Whitney & the Morgan Library, and a stroll of the High Line from end to end and back.

Twin Towers Lights 9.11.19A discussion about New Yorkers could’ve been a discussion of city people anywhere. My New Yorker friend argued that his compatriots are rude and insensitive. I said, “I can stand at the top, or the bottom, of any flight of stairs anywhere with my carry-on bag, and within 30 seconds someone will appear and ask, ‘Would you like help with that, ma’am?’ Never fails. People are people, just more densely so in cities.

Oceans and beaches and mountains and parks remain full of wonder for me; cities are full of wondrous humankind.

Eye-Witnessing Downtown San Francisco

Downtown 6.19 copsI had 45 minutes before meeting a friend at the Symphony. Bored in downtown San Francisco on a brilliantly sunlit late afternoon, at the Main Library right across from City Hall. Couldn’t go for coffee, because a friend and I were catching a quick dinner in between pre-concert talk and concert. Couldn’t hang out in the library (Duh!!) because I was still drinking my mint tea. Wondering how to entertain myself, I ventured outside, surveyed the scene and found:

A gaggle of police and security types surrounding a homeless lady, patiently explaining to her that she could not be hanging out on the Library steps with a rifle. “It ain’t loaded,” she was saying; “I ain’t pointing at nobody.”Downtown 6.19 Rifle Some friends were vouching for her. Nevertheless, the rifle was confiscated and the lady admonished not to walk around downtown with an assault weapon.

Downtown 6.19 SkateboardersAround the corner, two extremely agile skateboarders were having a contest, enthusiastically applauded by a small audience.

Back on the Library plaza, the now rifle-less lady sat talking things over, with only a few bags of belongings but still some supportive friends. Several of them seemed clearly in need of mental health services.Downtown 6.19 homeless group (In my city’s defense, San Francisco continues to make heroic attempts to address homelessness and mental health issues but the need overwhelms the problem. Thanks a lot, Ronald Reagan.)Downtown 6.19 Seagull

Also on the scene was the traditional errant seagull, surveying other settling-in homeless people, passing tourists and 6:30 traffic.

Eventually I strolled past the Library/City Hall area, a few blocks west to Symphony Hall. As my friend and I were waiting for the house lights to go down and the concert to begin, someone came down the aisle to reach his seat.Downtown 6.19 Symphony guy His evening attire included strips of multi-colored blinking lights. The ladies on either side politely made way for him. Before the conductor came onstage he unplugged himself and all was calm.

Just another twilight in downtown San Francisco. But as darkness fell, calm prevailed — and the symphony was glorious.

 

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.

 

A Walk in the Park – for everyone

Urban park

For most of America’s urban poor, life is hardly a walk in the park. But the Trust for Public Land is out to change that. Every urban citizen, rich or poor, should be able to access a park, playground or natural area in a 10-minute walk, TPL maintains. It may seem just a dream in many cities, but their Parks for People program is making that dream come true.

San Francisco’s Boeddeker Park in the city’s Tenderloin district – one of the few remaining San Francisco communities not yet infiltrated by millionaires – illustrates the dream fulfillment. The Tenderloin is a 31-block area in the heart of the city, much of it now designated Historic Landmark and thus protected from the ubiquitous new luxury condominiums popping up elsewhere. The area recently got its own museum. Long a haven for immigrants and laborers, today it is home to many of the city’s poorest citizens, including large numbers of children who have never seen the surrounding ocean, mountains and bay that accentuate San Francisco’s extraordinary beauty.

A tiny green spot of just under one acre was designated a city park in 1985 and named for a beloved local pastor, Father Alfred E. Boeddeker. But drug dealers and unsavory characters quickly made it of little use to children. (This writer often walked by en route to one place or another, and habitually sped up when passing the park.)

Boeddeker Park opening
Boeddeker Park Opening

Enter the Trust for Public Land. With TPL working alongside concerned members of the Tenderloin community and a group of dedicated public and private donors, Boeddeker Park was transformed into a haven and refuge, alive with basketball-playing, gym-climbing children and now off-limits to bad guys.

At a recent TPL event for supporters (among whom this writer is happy to be counted,) several current projects of the organization were described. President and CEO Will Rogers spoke of progress made and plans underway. Vice President and Director of Land Protection Brenda Schick outlined some of the land conservation efforts that are leading to preservation of open spaces across the country. (Schick, an avid horsewoman, managed to get her equine friends into many of the stunning images of American countryside in her slide presentation.)

And Jennifer Isacoff, Parks for People Bay Area Program Director, talked of making it possible for every urban American – even those for whom life is not a walk in the park – to walk TO a park within 10 minutes. A reasonable goal:

Making life a little better, one park at a time.