When a duck needs a duckmate


Musco the duck is in existential pain.

I know this from the way he rolls his beady eye away from me, not that long after he has ambled over for a visit, briefly offering a ruffle of his topnotch feathers. Musco faithfully ambles over, despite the fact that I have repeatedly explained to him people food is not good for waterfowl, and we do not feed the ducks at Mountain Lake. Nevertheless, if he’s in the area when I come sit on the rocks, Musco ambles over, and we commune blissfully with nature, in a sort of duck-to-human relaxation therapy session.

But duck does not live by bread alone. Duck should not, in fact and in the natural state of things, live alone. And Musco is all alone. I am on a one-woman campaign to find him a Muscovy mate.

Just to clear things up: Musco may not be his proper name. He may even be a she, what do I know? All I know is this: among the coots and Mallards and miscellaneous waterfowl that have returned to Mountain Lake since the Presidio Trust (thank you, taxpayers!) undertook the monumental job of rescuing it from centuries of neglect and abuse, there is only one Muscovy duck. A lovely, friendly, peace-loving duck, but all alone.

Could we please find him (or her, as the case may be) a mate?

I first met Musco a few months ago on one of my regular visits to Mountain Lake Park, a lakeside San Francisco park with a Parcourse fitness trail which functions as my personal outdoor gymnasium. Wondering who this strange new creature might be, I posted his photo on my Facebook page with a comment that I had spotted a turducky on the lake.

Not so, immediately replied my far-flung Facebook friend (that’s another story) in Sarawak, Borneo. “It’s a Muscovy. In Sarawak we call it a Serati.” Turns out, a lot of people call it an ugly duckling, and worse. Florida has more of them than they want in some spots, elsewhere cross-breeding has created strange water-fellows.

Musco, however, seems quite beautiful to me, and here he is all alone. He swims on the periphery of the coots, ducks and assorted seabirds. He is, happily, not the least interested in the pigeons on the beach. What’s to be done?

An eminent visiting biologist friend pooh-poohed Musco’s singularity. Muscovy’s are all around California in ponds large and small, he said. If this is the case – and who’s going to dispute a distinguished Professor Emeritus? – then surely there is a mate for Musco. Surely some nearby pond owner would like to make such a match and surely the Presidio Trust wouldn’t mind?

The incredible, beautifully restored Mountain Lake might even be home to a family of little Muscovites.

I’m just sayin’.

Falling for Simon Winchester

The Luminaries & The Men who United the States
The Luminaries & The Men who United the States (Photo credit: Pesky Library)

Simon Winchester came to town with his latest book, The Men Who United the States, and OK, I would just follow him right on out except for the inconvenient existence of Mrs. Winchester, to whom he seems quite fondly attached. Well, Mrs. Winchester plus my rather strong attachment to my own excellent literary husband.

But it’s hard not to love Simon Winchester.

It’s also hard not to love his books — extraordinary explorations of people, places and events. Having just published one slim 160-page nonfiction book of my own after three long years of work, just trying to get my mind around the scope of his productivity is daunting.

The best thing about having Winchester around, though, is the sheer joy he brings along. He is unabashedly pleased with his country; despite all those identifications as “British writer” or “award-winning English author,” he’s now a citizen of the United States. So the new book, he says in his still decidedly British accent, is here  because “America has been a bit down on itself. I wanted to remind people, from a new citizen’s viewpoint, that this (country) is a great success.”

Winchester undertook “this great sort of plum pudding of a book,” he told a charmed audience at San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club, not just because of his enchantment with his new home country (he and his wife now live on a farm in Massachusetts) but also thanks to the curiosity he’s had about the place ever since a trip here in the early 1960’s. “I set out to hitchhike each of the contiguous states with 200 crisp $1 bills in my pocket,” he says, and at the end of his journey from Washington to Maine, “I had $182 left.” It is possible that Winchester’s expectation of humankindness in his fellow humans tends to evoke reciprocity, or it may just be that his infectious curiosity translates into cash. Whichever, his readers are the beneficiaries of it all.

Winchester was curious, for example, about the number of cities and towns named ‘Paradise.’ (There are a dozen or more, depending on your sources and your census parameters.) Among others he found Paradise, Florida, a retirement community that might be named in optimistic expectation, and another particular favorite, Paradise, PA, “right next to Intercourse.” Each, Winchester reported, had been spoiled somewhat “by the depredations of history… except for Paradise, Kansas. In that prairie paradise Winchester was told he should stay with the patriarchs, “I am not kidding you: John and Mary Angel.” Mary, it turns out, had a cherry tree in the back yard, went out and picked some cherries and baked a pie. Which resulted in their guest’s “eating cherries in Paradise with the Angels,” and it shouldn’t get much better than that.

With Winchester, though, there’s always a better story — or at least another story — ahead. Elaborating on his citizenship experience, he told of stumbling on the  first question, “What’s the national anthem?” by blurting out “God Bless America.” Only to be forgiven, he says, with the response, “We so wish it were.” As opposed to “the unsingable — unless you’re Beyonce” Star Spangled Banner. The stories kept pouring forth (…”my job,” said Commonwealth Club host and question-poser John Zipperer, when Winchester asked if he were going on too long, “is just to keep you talking”) with endless curious and remarkable factoids and data — but without notes.

A few plums plucked from his plum-pudding book: Thomas Jefferson, with a 1785 ordinance, made lawful the radical notion — since land in the Mother Country had belonged only to royalty and recipients of their largesse — that Americans should be able to own land. An obelisk at the edge of “the broken-down town of East Liverpool, Ohio (a show of hands indicated no one in the audience had heard of East Liverpool, once known as the Crockery Capital of the U.S)., serves as the starting point for the N/S and E/W lines organizing our land, the point having been set by the first and only Geographer of the U.S., Thomas Hutchins. Who knew? You might also not have known about another early American, Clarence King, whom Winchester describes as “a small, bearded, WASP, the first director of the U.S. Geological Survey, quite sexually energetic; he simply loved women — but not white women.” King spent his last 20-odd years — odd in more ways than one — married to a former slave named Ada who believed him when he said he was a light-skinned African American Pullman porter named James Todd. With her he raised five children (“two of them inexplicably white”) on one side of the Brooklyn Bridge while keeping his day job as a WASP geologist on the other side.

The audience appeared ready to let Winchester go on for a few more hours, and he certainly seemed up to that task, but Commonwealth Club one-hour-limit protocols prevailed and Zipperer finally banged the gavel. But not before Winchester expressed pleasure at being in San Francisco, because his next project, already getting underway, “is a big, fat book on the Pacific Ocean.”

If Simon Winchester comes to your town, grab a ticket; meanwhile you might want to grab a copy of The Men Who United the States at your favorite bookstore.

Life begins… when? Come talk about it


Life begins… at conception? at birth? somewhere in between?

It’s not a question anyone can answer with absolute certainty, or a question likely ever to be agreed upon by everyone currently alive. But it’s a question many philosophers, theologians and — not always happily — politicians have been debating recently. And it’s a question sure to come up at the Commonwealth Club program Women at Risk: What’s Ahead For Reproductive Rights October 17th in San Francisco.

English: *Description: Scotty McLennan Author ...
31 December 2006 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Scotty McLennan, the Dean for Religious Life at Stanford University (and model for Doonesbury‘s Dude of God) will be one of four panelists tackling this and other thorny — but pertinent — issues during the hour-long event. Here’s a bit of what McLennan has to say, excerpted from Perilous Times: An inside look at abortion before – and after – Roe v Wade:

“I’ll never forget the sight of each of my children emerging into the world blue and lifeless, being struck on the back by the doctor, taking their first breath, and becoming ruddy-colored as they began crying their way into life.” Those images, and a biblical reference to the “breath of life,” reinforce McLennan’s belief that “the Supreme Court got it right” in ruling that decisions about abortion should be left to the woman and her physician until the fetus might indeed be able to survive outside the womb.

McLennan also believes, as do I, that abortion should be safe, legal and rare.

It’s a critical issue a long way from being solved, either by Roe v Wade, or by those of us who are pro-choice, or by those who would ban abortion entirely in the belief that banning it would somehow make unwanted pregnancies never happen.

How about you? If you’re going to be in the San Francisco Bay Area on October 17th, join us at the Commonwealth Club. It’s going to be informative, engaging, useful — and a lively time.

Another day on the F-line trolley

orange in the after glow of market street : ma...
orange in the after glow of market street : market street, san francisco (2011) (Photo credit: torbakhopper)

Not everyone knows that the full San Francisco Experience is incomplete without a ride on the F-line trolley car down Market Street. Some time ago a really smart person decided to import a bunch of old streetcars from interesting cities like Milan and Philadelphia, spiff them up with new paint but otherwise leave them as in days of old, and run them along the Embarcadero and up Market. It’s the Market Street experience that counts; skip the Fisherman’s Wharf part and the tourists.

Plus, if you’re of a certain age, or a devotee of old movies, it’s hard to ride the F car without hearing Judy Garland singing Clang, clang, clang went the trolley somewhere in the background. Seventy-five cents for geezers and Judy Garland in the background, what’s not to love about the F-line?

So the other day I needed to go downtown from the Castro, and decided to hop an F-line car. The day is immediately brighter. I claim a spot on one of the wooden slat seats by the window and call a friend back east on my cellphone.

Within a few blocks the F-line clientele grows: we’re talking street people, transgenders, chess players, bag ladies and folks of multiple ethnicities that make up San Francisco’s ever-changing and always fascinating scene. It’s a scene seen most clearly from the F car. And occasionally within the F car. On this particular day this particular car quickly reached capacity-standing-room-only.

As we drew near Fifth Street, where the sidewalk chess games and opportunities for panhandling are centered and others of us had meetings or shopping in mind, a giant surge toward the rear exit door began. We were suddenly sardine’d in the aisles, mushed into one another to the distress of only a few. The rest of us just kept staring ahead toward the stop and minding our own business.  I hung up my phone.

From the back of the car there had been occasional exclamations and oaths, which were generally ignored. It’s the better part of wisdom to ignore the shouters of oaths and obscenities in the back of the F car. But a few yards from the stop a very large gentleman, who was the source of the shouting, hauled off and wallopped a very large lady nearby. It was the sound one hears from the front row of a boxing match (where I did sit one time in my youth, lasting about 5 minutes before I burst into tears and had to dash out in shame and horror) — a dull THWOOP! with a simultaneous crracck that had to have been jawbone.

We surged, as one captive mass, in the general direction away from the altercation. The lady in question — no one could tell whether they were otherwise attached to one another, or if she just happened to be in the line of his ire — emitted an Oompff, followed by a few oaths of her own, but thanks to the sardine-like nature of the crowd, she stayed upright. A hush of wonder then fell over us all.

As we began our counter-sway, the trolley driver finally came to a full stop and opened the door, spilling us into the sunshine of Market Street. People smiled at one another as we disembarked, shaking our collective heads,

several asking if everyone was okay. The puncher and the punchee went their separate directions. Judy Garland was nowhere to be seen, but the song lingered on.

Social justice & the American Bar Association

In the land of the free, says American Bar Association President Laurel Bellows, there are hundreds of thousands of individuals who are today unfree. They include men, women and children forced into labor or sex for the benefit of others, in a multi-million dollar industry that extends into virtually every corner of the U.S. But if Bellows and the ABA task force formed to combat human trafficking have their way, this will change.

Bellows spoke recently to the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco, outlining two of the top concerns of her current focus. The other, the cyber-war against individuals, business and governments, is hardly brighter: hackers are at work around the clock seeking to play tricks, steal identities, control the electric grid, spread terror or commit an endless variety of criminal acts…”and our own government says we’re not prepared.”

Laurel Bellows, though, believes “in the power of community, the power to change our world or preserve it – and the rule of law.”

Among the potential solutions for which the ABA is advocating are uniform state laws (“There are two people responsible for prostitution: the woman, and the john”), “Safe Harbor” laws and the use of employment manuals in fighting human trafficking. She also cites the Polaris Project, a national non-profit working to combat human trafficking through, among other things, a national hotline, 1-888-373-7888.

In an allotted 65 minutes including the Q&A, covering the territories of her passion was not an easy task. But Bellows, a diminutive (4’11”) blond whose high energy and crackling intellect quickly erase any just-a-pretty-face image notion her audience might have, tossed in one more for good measure: gender equity. On every level, from manual labor to corporate boardrooms, she says, women are still paid less than their male counterparts.

Bellows’coverage of a depressing array of thorny problems carried at least a few reassuring hints of possible solutions. Maybe, among its nearly 400,000 members, the American Bar Association will find a few problem-solvers; and if so, they will have the support of everyone who’s pulling for social justice in our struggling land of the free.

Trafficking In Persons Report Map 2010
Trafficking In Persons Report Map 2010 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This writer votes for Caitlin Borgmann and her Reproductive Rights blog for the ABA Journal – even if Laurel Bellows didn’t get time to dig into that one.

Wars and cherry blossoms

Cherry blossom (Photo credit: Yustinus Subiakto)

If St. Patrick’s Day is a good time to be Irish, the Cherry Blossom Festival is definitely a good time to be Japanese, at least in San Francisco. The procession of sparkly-costumed, drum-beating, flag-waving, frenzied-dancing groups of revelers in the Cherry Blossom Parade, combined with the parade watchers, would lead you to believe everybody in town is Japanese at cherry blossom time.

Walking home from church about 20 blocks or so away (walking was the only option; Post Street was closed to traffic) I decided to follow the parade route coming east from Fillmore Street and see the action up close. Bad idea. The sidewalks along the parade route – i.e., Post Street, my new address – were already inhabited by about 14 people per sq ft, six rows deep. Before being totally overwhelmed with panic I managed to extricate myself and detour uphill a few blocks, out of the crowds.

It occurred to me, from a slight safe distance away, that in those crowds were:

People, waving Japanese and American flags in each hand, whose parents and grandparents fought for “the enemy” a few wars back.

People whose parents and grandparents were interned during that war by their own government here – and have managed to forgive.

People whose religions are vastly different – there were more than a few hijabs in the sidewalk crowds, and definitely more Sunday morning beer drinkers than church-goers – all cheering with the sheer joy of it all.

And probably no one who hadn’t spent many hours in the past week bound in a sort of national community of grief by the horror that struck a similarly festive event in Boston.

All of us just enjoying the sunshine and the cherry blossoms.

Holidays and the “Worried Well”

Our local paper, the thin-but-still-here San Francisco Chronicle, greeted the morning recently with a story about a new hospital facility for “the worried well.” And I say, just in time. Some of us may be sick; most of us, I suspect, are among the Worried Well. Especially from now until next January 1.

The facility in question is the Brain Health Center, part of the California Pacific Medical Center‘s Davies campus. It is designed (with a little help from an anonymous $21 million gift) to address a multiplicity of brain-related issues, including help and support for those in fear of lurking neurodegenerative disease. If you haven’t ever worried about where you put the car keys or left the cell phone you can stop reading right now. You are in that tiny population of the angst-free unworried. Then there are all the rest of us.

(Since I am a contented Kaiser member, I feared for a moment that CPMC was one-upping us. But a quick check reveals Kaiser offers things like core dementia training and behavioral understanding, not to mention support groups without end to comfort the Worried Well.)

Worried Well issues range far beyond the challenges of short-term memory loss.  WWs don’t know where the next paycheck, or mortgage payment, is coming from, or whether that little lump might be malignant. Or if the good-looking guy at the party is ever going to call. Closer to home for yours truly it’s how a half-century of accumulated Stuff scattered around a four-story Victorian will ever reduce into the 1600-sq-ft condo at the continuing-care place where worries would be less and wellness more.

Here is the good news: faith trumps angst. At the annual Thanksgiving Day interfaith service sponsored by the San Francisco Interfaith Council, the hearts of the Worried Well were encouraged by just about every known faith tradition. A little inner peace from the Buddhist bell, a few stories building trust and understanding from the Mormons and the Muslims, eloquent prayers from the Jews and the Brahma Kumaris. Pastor Maggi Henderson of Old First Presbyterian Church, who organized this year’s service, then spoke convincingly of how hard it is to be angst-ridden when simply contemplating being loved by the creator.

So it seems, with science and religion BOTH looking out for us, the worried may yet be well.

Justice O’Connor still has opinions

Sandra Day O'Connor
Sandra Day O’Connor (Photo credit: kyle tsui)

Retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, speaking at a sold-out event in San Francisco October 22, aimed the bulk of her remarks at the school children and law students in the balconies:  study hard, keep your eyes and ears open, and spend a lot of time at iCivics.

Founded by O’Connor in 2009, iCivics is designed “to reverse Americans’ declining civic knowledge and participation” and keep democracy secure by educating and enlightening the next generation, and the groundbreaking justice means to get this done.

In addition to plugging what is clearly her primary passion, O’Connor got around to a few other issues dear to her heart, such as states that elect their judges to federal courts. “Which means they have to campaign,” she noted. “Campaigns cost money. Guess who contributes campaign money? The lawyers who will appear before those judges.” Bad idea. Admitting that California is one of those states, moderator Mary Bitterman said, “I guess we should look into that.” “Yes, you should,” O’Connor shot back.

Dozens of audience questions concerned the Supreme Court, past (Citizens United,) present and future. Could she envision an all-female court some day? “Certainly.” But for the most part she declined to comment on decisions, or speculate on the future as it relates to details like the Republican commitment to overturning Roe v Wade.

So this report can only direct readers to iCivics, a fine spot indeed. Games will teach you about juries, voting, balance of power — citizenship. It’s designed for students of all ages, with special pages for teachers, and it’s perfectly OK for adults, O’Connor remarked, “if you’re a dum dum.” Whereupon I visited the site, played a couple of games, learned a little more about democracy.

Retired, perhaps, but Justice O’Connor is in no way retiring. May she live long and prosper.

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