On Being a Blessing

There was an invisible pall hanging over the banquet hall.

An annual feel-good celebration of a cherished cause, the room was filled with friends and supporters of the San Francisco Free Clinic. The Clinic offers medical care for the uninsured; the pall had to do with the new President-Elect’s pledge to increase the ranks of those uninsured by unknown millions by immediately repealing the Affordable Healthcare Act.

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For 23 years, SFFC supporters have filled the same banquet hall. The annual event, initiated by the late San Francisco investor/philanthropist Warren Hellman and his wife Chris, generates the entire budget for SFFC’s operation. Not coincidentally, the San Francisco Free Clinic was founded 23 years ago by the Hellmans’ daughter and son-in-law, Tricia and Richard Gibbs, two young physicians who decided to throw over the prospects of their lucrative medical practices in favor of starting a free clinic for the growing ranks of uninsured in need of quality medical care.

(Full proud disclosure, this writer and her husband have been supporters of the Free Clinic since its opening day.)

A highlight of the annual event has always been brief closing remarks from the host, and after Hellman’s death, this task fell to the Drs. Gibbs. This year, Richard Gibbs said a few words and then turned the podium over to his wife.piggy-bank-w-stethoscope

“One thing I have now learned,” she said, “is never to write a speech the day before an election.” She went on to explain how the Free Clinic has made incremental progress in its mission every year since its founding, and she had prepared remarks about that narrative with the expectation that this would continue. With the election of Donald Trump, though, comes the realization that the story of ongoing progress – Clinic staff not only provide care, they regularly guide clients into finding affordable insurance – will encounter a speedbump. Acknowledging that many in the room probably voted for Mr. Trump, and that politics would be inappropriate to the event, Gibbs said she still had wanted to find a way her remarks could be relative and upbeat.

So she turned to the story of Abraham. Gibbs is a serious student of the Torah, and would not have had to spend extra time on recalling that story. She noted that Abraham’s narrative was not incrementally always upward, but had its own speedbumps.be-a-blessing

“God told Abraham to be a blessing,” she said. “And I realize that’s what we can do. You are all a blessing to (the Free Clinic.) We can all go out and be a blessing.”

For election week in California, it was a reassuring thought.

 

Bluegrass for World Peace

A million or so music fans and sun seekers found themselves in Golden Gate Park this weekend listening to the likes of Emmylou Harris, Steve Martin, Hazel Dickens, Earl Scruggs, Boz Skaggs & the Blue Velvet Band, and a long list of other music makers you will recognize if your bluegrass credentials are up to date. There were about 75 bands in all, on six stages scattered around several meadows. I missed The Brothers Comatose, and Booker T & the Drive-by Truckers, and I worried a little about The Flatlanders tooling around these San Francisco hills, but for sheer exuberant free entertainment, Hardly Strictly Bluegrass 9 could hardly have been beat.

The free part is thanks to local billionaire Warren Hellman, a banjo-picker, bluegrass enthusiast extraordinaire and one-man stimulus package — he does a little investment banking on the side — who has thrown this party for the past nine years and has now endowed it so it will be around in perpetuity. The fact that much of the music sung by these musicians is pure anti-billionaire dampens no spirits, Hellman’s least of all.

(The top ticket, of course, was our weekend houseguest Don Betts, faithfully YouTube’d by his wife Annie as he performed that great American classic “I just don’t look good naked any more.” Betts was introduced by Hellman, whose  group The Wronglers kicked off Saturday on Porch Stage. In addition to making money and playing banjo, Hellman is an an avid champion of the sport of Ride & Tie, and Betts is current R&T Association president… but that’s probably another blog. )

A little bluegrass celebration has never been needed more. What with the world having pretty much gone to hell, there is something immensely comforting in hanging out with a few thousand fellow sufferers grooving to songs about bad whiskey and love gone wrong — problems you can identify with and get your mind around. Not to mention damning corporate greed and evil rich guys, pausing every now and then for a standing ovation for one of Them who just dropped a few million in household change on your glorious weekend out. It all somehow fits right in with a tanked job market and universal political comedy.

A few decades back this music — or what sounded exactly like this music — was called Country. It was rousing and redneck and not cool. Bluegrass is cool. Hellman’s buddies came in every race, creed, color and national origin, ranged from in utero to way-80s, recycled everything and smiled whiled jostling for dancing space. I submit bluegrass as palliative care for the world.