It’s a cool Thursday evening, and I’m standing in the parking lot outside St. Bob the Informal’s Presbymethertarian Church.  Inside, my wife Rhumba hosts a meeting of her knitting group.

St. Bob’s is well off the street.  Most of the campus lays beyond the view of passing motorists; and the parking lot is barely lit at night. I like to hover outside as the ladies come and go.  Just in case.

I also put out the tea and cookies.  I’m versatile.

Churches aren’t really public spaces, but they stand empty most of the time and as long as your dog isn’t digging in the geraniums or you’re not obviously casing the joint, we don’t say much.  A few Thursdays ago I had to gently persuade a homeless man to move his camp away from the front door so that we could enter.  No sir, the building’s not deserted, it just looks that way sometimes.  St. Bob’s is a small church getting smaller, as old members die and new ones fail to materialize.

But tonight, as usual, all is well.  A while ago, an old man wandered onto the campus and disappeared behind the parish hall.  But I’m not worried.  He had a newspaper under one arm, and there’s a little concrete patio back there with a chair or two.  It catches light and warmth from the setting sun. Not a bad place for an old man with cold bones to sit for a bit, and read.

The old man reappears from behind the parish hall and walks toward to the rear of the campus.  He sees me and says, a little defensively, “I like to come back here and check how the construction’s going.”

“And we’re very happy for you to do that,” I answer.

“The construction” fills the whole back half of the campus. Where once stretched a derelict field of weeds, now stands a substantial building, or what will soon be one.  The roof’s not on yet, but the framing stands tall.  And it’s big; two stories high, easily 100 yards wide.  They’ll have it buttoned up in a few weeks, and ready for business by spring.

“What’s it gonna be?” the old man asked.  His face was all vertical creases, like the shell of a walnut with human features superimposed.

“Subsidized senior citizen housing,” I told him.  He nodded.  “Forty-six units. You could apply, maybe, if you qualify.”

Just briefly: I live in a small, beautiful city that’s become too desirable. Investors from near and far swoop in to scoop up income properties.  Enrollment at the local university is up by 1000 students, and there’s little room for new housing.

Wealthy folks from Silicon Valley are buying second homes near the beach — which then stand empty 29 days a month.  We have a housing crisis, yet whole neighborhoods show but one or two lights after dark.

And the rents are crushing, and if you lose your rental you may never get another one.   Meanwhile, where do regular folks live?  And how can the town live, if regular folks cannot?

So St. Bob’s teamed up with a nonprofit housing agency and, after years of bureaucratic wrangling, put together the senior housing project. St. Bob’s gets a small chunk of change for a 99 year lease, and the nonprofit handles the rest.  Upwards of 50 seniors will live there. In what was once a messy wasteland, there’ll be lights and life and activity at all hours.

And St. Bob’s campus will no longer be dark and forbidding at night. To me that’s better than the money.  The money is welcome, but simply makes St. Bob’s a shrinking congregation with a nice bank balance.  Young families are the lifeblood of a church; and most of ours moved elsewhere years ago.

“The rent’s not all that cheap,” I tell the old man.  “Just cheap by local standards.  You know, you’ve got investors buying all the apartments and doubling the rents  And then everybody has to move out. Investors don’t care, it’s all about the money to those guys.”

The old man nods.  “You know what’s going to happen to them,” he told me. “They’re going to go to the court house, the big house, and the big man there, he won’t mess around with them, he won’t take any crap from them, because you don’t mess around with the big man, no you don’t.

“And the big man, at the big house, the court house, he’ll bring them down low.  Real low. Lower than the street. Lower than the ground.  Low, low, Low. And all their properties will be given to others.  You don’t mess with the big man, at the big house.  He’s tough, he’ll take them all down. Low, lower than the ground, and….”

And he repeats himself, and repeats himself again, and suddenly he is chanting to the air.  Over and over: the big man, the court house, the big house, the mighty brought down low, low, low.

Later I’d tell all this to my Rhumba, who knows three or four hundred thousand things about religion.  And she laughed and said, “You met Jeremiah!”

Jeremiah, the Old Testament prophet who couldn’t keep his mouth shut, even though he asked his God to shut it for him.  And God wouldn’t.  Jeremiah, who for decades looks the people of Judea in the face and condemned them for their sins. He condemned them for turning to idols, to sacrificing their children to Baal, for ignoring the wisdom of a demanding God for the selfish good times of a pagan god.

God would send the Babylonians to bring the Judeans low, Jeremiah preached endlessly.  He frightened the people.  He made uncertain the soldiers.  He enraged the priests.  The powerful put him in the stocks.  They threw him down a well.  They sent the establishment prophets to discredit him. They imprisoned him. But he couldn’t stop preaching.  He wanted to, but his God wouldn’t let him.

Now, when random strangers like the old man rant at me on the street, I never interrupt.  Listening isn’t what they want to do.  I just move on. But I stood and listened to the old man carry on and on, about the Big Man and the court house and the mighty brought low.  I liked his message.  I agreed with it.

But he does go on, that old man; and the darkness comes on, and I haven’t brought my coat.  It seems to me, by his body language and the way he shuffles his feet, that the old man himself wants to leave.  But he can’t. He can’t stop talking.

So finally I say, “Look, it’s getting a little cold, so I’d better go back inside.”

And he ends his rant at once. “Don’t get cold, don’t get cold,” he says, shaking his head.  “Nossir, don’t get cold.” He turns and walked back to the street, paper under his arm.

“You neither.  Stay warm!”

Now, old Jeremiah’s dire predictions landed him in jail.  But they came true.  The Babylonians did come. They destroyed the kingdom of Judea forever and sent its people, or many of them, into exile — where they mended their ways and made a new, righteous form of Judaism that lasts to this day.  And birthed other great religions.

And lo, the Babylonians were very kind to Jeremiah.  You tend to approve of people who’ve told others that God sent you.  They set Jeremiah up in a comfortable home, and let him be.  His preaching done, Jeremiah set to writing down his teachings.

It seems to me this year that Jeremiahs are popping up everywhere.  Things are wrong, they say.  The old truths are now lies, they say.  And unlike in old Judea, people are beginning to listen.

A Jeremiah ran for president.  He did not win, but he carries on, as do his followers: some still walk behind him, while other find new paths.  Right here, right now, plans are under way to breach the walls of old Washington: once the center of justice, now a place of false prophets where lies are called “spin,” and evil gets a free pass.

And the battle may be long, but the Jeremiahs won’t stop.  They can’t. And someday, down at the court house, the big house, the Big Man will deal with the mighty.  You don’t mess with the Big Man, because he’ll bring you down low, lower, lower than the ground.  And your property will be given to others.

I don’t know who the Big Man is.  Justice, perhaps.  Perhaps, just us.  Perhaps we are our own Babylonians, waiting for Jeremiah to summon us.  But whatever happens, in the end, I hope that my old Jeremiah gets a nice one-bedroom apartment out of it. With a sit-down shower.

The Easy Way Out

I ran into Ruth the other day — not literally, thank God because she’s a parking control officer, and that would be awkward. I’ve known her since I moved here 30 years ago; she was the only teller at the Bank of America who knew the answer to anything. When they fired all the full-time tellers and replaced them with college students, Ruth joined the meter maids and I got another bank.

I see her every six months or so, cruising the streets in her Interceptor III ticket bomber. She always pulls over when I wave. But it seemed, the other day, that more time had passed than usual.

“How ya been?”

“Oh fine,” she said. “I dropped dead last year.”

And not at home in front of the computer or at the dinner table, either. No, Ruth dropped dead at the 12K mark of the Bay to Breakers, the San Francisco clothing-optional fun run for 50,000. One of her coronary arteries called a strike, and Ruth hit the ground like a stone.

But if you’ve got to have a coronary, Bay to Breakers is a great place to have one. Few of the runners are professional, much less in good shape or sober, and so paramedics lay in wait on every corner. They had Ruth in hand before she even bounced. Which was good, because seven full minutes passed before they could jump-start her heart She remembers watching the ambulance and its motorcycle escort drive away with her body in it. It was one of those memories that you’re not supposed to have.

Anyway, she looks really good for a former corpse, and she’s running again. She’ll retire one of these days. One of these days. Yep. One of these days.

The thing is, that a lot of people hope to die like Ruth. They just want to go till they stop: one minute, all systems go: then, shutdown; lights out; oblivion. The darkness. No muss, no fuss, no bother. Even more so if they’re broke. I’ll work till I die, they say. I’ve got no choice, so that’s what I’ll do. They want to die like Ruth.

Only, Ruth didn’t stay dead. Remember? The medics pulled her back in time. And she’s alive and well.

But what if she was alive but not well? Mobility impaired, perhaps even brain damaged. Maybe a stroke? Laid up for life? Who’d have taken care of her?

That is, by the way, an awfully popular question these days.

Everywhere I look, people of my age group, in their 50s and 60s, struggle to take care of elderly parents. The competent adults who raised them are now weak, unable to take care of themselves or manage their own affairs alone. Their aging children must see them through the hellmaze of modern medicine and make the decisions that their parents can no longer make or understand. As medicine keeps them alive, but not well.

Many of these struggling children, the ones that I know, have no children of their own. And to a man, and a woman, they see what their parents are going through, and have become, and wonder, who’s going to take care of ME? Who’s going to do this for ME? Because there is no one, no relative, whose duty that it will be. And their own years of decline loom in the middle distance.

My office mate has dealt with this for over a year now. I’ve heard her end of many calls. Endless arrangements for treatment. Loss of a father to Alzheimers. Endless, fruitless discussions on the phone with an angry distressed, 88-year-old mother who wants out, out, OUT of rehab and back to assisted living, even though she’s just had a stroke and is nowhere near ready. She’s be fine on her own, she’s sure. Meanwhile, all her complaints about life in rehab are completely true. Even when rehab’s not evil — usually, they try — it sucks.

And her daughter, my office mate, calms her down, for the nth time and all is well. Until tonight or tomorrow when she calls again and wants out, out OUT, right now! Come and get me! And my co-workers is in her 50s with little money and lives alone in a mobile home; and when her body and mind start to fail her, her only support will be a younger brother who can’t stand the sight of illness. And she asks herself, “Who’s going to take care of ME?”

Rhumba and I ask ourselves the same question. She’s just out of hospital and rehab, where we both had our hands full watching out for her. We made sense of the bureaucratic tangles. We turned back the nurses who kept bringing drugs she was allergic to, even after the orders had been changed. I put on gloves and helped the nurses treat her. I roamed the halls at night hunting down the staff who’d promised to change her dressings but were nowhere to be found. And, sometimes, roamed them with a box of fresh-baked cookies from the bakery down the road, just for the good PR: “Look, nurses, COOKIES. Courtesy of that kindly woman in Room 35, Bed B who so appreciates your attention.” I’ve got no shame at all.

And there was that horrible day when the rehab staff dispatched us by handi-cab to a long-awaited specialist appointment, and gave Rhumba a malfunctioning wheelchair to ride in. They fiddled with it a bit, gave up, and took us to the front door. And once we were outside the nurses turned back. We were on our own. Apparently, by policy and law.

One of Rhumba’s legs burned like fire; had been doing so for days thanks to an allergic reaction to blood thinners. I tried to roll her chair out to the street where the cab waited, but she wailed in pain every time that her foot slipped from the wobbly footrests and hit the ground. I dropped to my knees in front of the chair, bear-hugged the damned thing’s loose parts back into position and literally knee-walked it, and Rhumba, all the way to the cab. We had to get to that appointment. The specialist might be able to stop Rhumba’s pain. I would have done anything.

And yes, the specialist did treat her wounds, and her pain. Though when we got to his facility, we had to get Rhumba’s bad chair another 100 yards from the cab, through a hospital, to his office. Again, with no one authorized to help us. I’ll spare you that part of the ordeal. It was absurd and awful. It was modern medical bureaucracy at its worst.

So tell me; fifteen years from now, when we’re both a lot older and creakier, can we do all that again? Can we defend ourselves again? And if not — as I suspect — who’s going to take care of US?

“Maybe we should band together,” Rhumba’s boss said to me. She’s our age. She’s just seen her husband through a bad patch in a bad hospital; and if not for her intervention he might be dead now. “If there’s no one else to look after us, maybe we can look after one another.

“It’s an attractive thought, and I’ve heard it from others. There are volunteers who look after foster kids and make sure that they don’t get eaten by the welfare system. This would be the same. Is it workable? I have no idea. Is there an alternative besides, “trust the system?” I haven’t seen one, outside of never getting sick and then dying quickly.

God. Old age is supposed to be the time to ramp down, not ramp up. But the times are different now. More will be asked of us. Of that, I’m sure. Maybe we’ll be better for it. Or broken by it. I don’t know.

What I do know is that, hoping to die like Ruth, quickly and simply, isn’t enough. Old age and death is a process, a long one. Modern medicine makes it even longer, and also more difficult. It might be simpler to die quickly, but most of us will fade gradually. And we will need help along the way. It is past time to start thinking about that help, and how to get it to everyone.

Somebody’s got to take care of all of us. Even if that someone is us.

Rough Patch

The last four months have been tough. Rhumba came down with a nasty infection that turned into an abscess, picked up collateral damage from “health” workers, was overly treated for the wrong problems and spent a miserable two months in the hospital and rehab. For much of that time she was in serious pain.

We are not convinced that most of it was necessary.  We are completely convinced that it was avoidable.  And can prove that it didn’t need to be anywhere near as  bad as it was.

She’s better. I’m better.  But for many weeks I would put in a full day’s work, come home for half an hour to feed the cat, and rush off to the hospital or rehab to help keep Rhumba’s head straight.  She hates modern medicine.  She has never been in a hospital before, or been seriously ill; and she fears illness.   At the many points when odd symptoms mysteriously appears and no one would pay attention, it took everything I had to keep her fears under control.  Even though I myself knew no truth except that panic is bad.

I had no strength left to write anything.  I just went on and on.  Stayed till 9 or 10 every night and drove home so bone tired that I had to narrate my route to myself aloud to stay awake.  Come home, sit in a stupor in front of the laptop for an hour or two, grab five hours, go to work and do it again.

The only thing that worked right, was work. I was too shaken to concentrate, so management switched me to easy tasks.  They gave me lots of time.  They told me to ignore the looming deadlines.  That place is anything but perfect, but the people are pretty decent. Thank God.

And things gradually got better, and Rhumba’s home now and even back at work.  But in about ten minutes I’ll put this down and go change her dressings for her.  The wound she went to the hospital for is pretty much cured; this is for the much more painful wound she picked up thanks to modern medical care.

I’ll snip off the rolled gauze and the old dressing, cleanse the wound, apply triple antibiotic, then translucent oil bandages, an ADB pad, a gauze wrap, and I’m done.  There’s an outer layer, too, an Ace-style bandage, but Rhumba handles that herself.  That’s the evening ritual, and will be for some time.

I learned how to do it while helping the rehab nurses change the dressing every night.  It was a half-hour, two-person job at first, and they rarely had enough staff.  That’s another reason I stayed late at night: to make sure that it was done right.  Otherwise, it might not be, and Rhumba’s fragile morale would go down the drain.

I’m less stressed now, and I’ve tried to write up everything that happened, but I can’t.  It’s too big.  I’m too close to it, still inside of it in fact.  Can’t come up with a witty, well-structured essay with a surprise conclusion at the end.  Too big.

Meanwhile I’m doing a few haiku, because those I can handle.  I still watch Rhumba like she’s a rare and fragile flower, which I do anyway but when you’ve been on high alert for three months, you don’t relax well.  I may get there.  Someday.

I’ll keep you posted.  Maybe even start writing about small things. Write if you’re out there.






If Political Parties Were Restaurants…

Imagine a town with two restaurants. One of them recently switched to an all-Maltese-food menu; the country club crowd, few but very wealthy, is having a fad for Maltese cuisine. This restaurant offers one cheap item called “Maltese fried chicken” for everyone else.

The other restaurant also wants to compete for the same monied crowd, and has just created its own all-Maltese menu. Although it includes an “Maltese burger” as well for everyone else.

Many of the town’s citizens dislikes Maltese food; and Maltese fried chicken and Maltese burgers taste fake and strange.

The citizens have stopped going to the restaurants, which are making money off the rich even though they’re half-empty.  Instead they’re eating at food trucks that came to town to fill the gap.

One food truck serves the same food that the two restaurants used to serve; it’s very popular with people who like fresh, wholesome food.

The other food truck serves Maltese cuisine like the restaurants do:  but deep-fried, and smothered in blue cheese dressing and hot sauce.  It’s very popular with people who don’t like being told when something’s bad for them.

Both restaurants want to drive both food trucks out of town, the healthy one and the unhealthy one alike.  They’d rather be the only choices in town, even if they’re half empty; after all, it’s not like they’re not making money.

Worse, both restaurants really hate one another now; each wants to be the only restaurant in town.  Even though they’re much more alike than they’ve ever been before.  Funny how that works.

And if it all goes that way, there’ll be one half-empty restaurant left in town serving food that’s fit only for a small and wealthy subset of the community.  There’ll be nothing else, for anyone.

Personally, I’d say it’s past time to learn how to cook again.  Or find a food truck you like, somewhere.

In Marxist Mode

I hear crickets.  Hundreds of them out there in the darkness, singing.  It’s a warm March evening.  The earth is damp and fragrant; the plans are growing like, well, weeds. I smell jasmine on the breeze. It’s cricket heaven.

I’m sitting on a bench outside St. Bob the Informal’s Presbymethertarian Church on a quiet Thursday night.  The sun set hours ago. I’m informal security for my wife Rhumba’s knitting group, which is meeting inside.  They keep the door open for latecomers, but the parking lot is poorly lit: a good place to lurk.

The ladies feel more secure if I hang out and see them through the parking lot; tonight’s mild air makes it a pleasure.  Besides, someone’s riffling through the dumpster at the far edge of the lot.  I can’t see him, but I hear him  So I sit here by the church door and fly the flag. Like the intruder, I lurk in shadow; but the light from my laptop screen makes my face glow like a zombie’s.

He’s no personal danger, I think, but the church door is unlocked, and he might like to slide in and make himself at home.  It’s been done.

Do I seem unChristian?  When I’ve tried to do the Christian thing with the drifters who wander or bicycle back here, out of sight of the street, I’ve always regretted it.  As has Pastor Biff.  So I don’t do that anymore.

Yesterday, in a cafe, I idly watched a scrolling LED sign display a string of witty aphorisms.  One of them stuck with me: “Without private property, there would be no crime.”

It’s somewhat true.  In tribal societies private property can be only conditionally private.  Neighbors may come by when you’re not around and carry off whatever you have that they need.  And when you need it back, you just go get it again.  Or get someone else’s.

Nobody goes to jail. What’s jail? If anyone gets angry, the neighbors hash it out with the two of you until you settle it. Problems were solved like that in rural America, too, not so many decades ago.

It does occur to me that in a society based on private property and ownership of things, most crime involves taking things from someone and selling them to someone else.  Because you don’t have a job.  Because you’re hungry.  Because you child is hungry. Because you need a fix. Because it seemed like a good idea at the time. Because you’re living on someone else’s couch, and life is hard.

What if life wasn’t hard?  What if everyone was guaranteed the basics of a secure life:  food, housing, security, education, maybe even a little tough love if needed.  But always forgiveness, too, and compassion.

How much crime would we have?  Crime of passion, always, and crime of really bad judgment.  But crime of moving stuff from my pocket to yours without my permission?  Not as much.  Certainly no crimes of debt, no bad credit ratings that keep you from renting a house or getting a job.

I’m not even sure we’d even have hate crimes, or at least not as many.  Economics so often lurks behind racism — the need for cheap labor desperate enough to do anything for a pittance;  or for a scapegoat to take the blame for the mischief of the ruling class. When everyone’s secure, that sort of hatred tends to back off.

I see the intruder now: a moving spot of slightly lighter darkness. He’s done with the dumpster, and is heading back to the street. He hugs the fence for concealment.

He may have gotten a few cans or bottles.  Why shouldn’t he?  But because he lacks things, and because I sit by of an open door beyond which lies many things, we are naturally in opposition.  Because of the world we live in, which is not natural. There’s plenty for everybody.

I think we can’t solve the world’s problems until we get this fair-allocation-of-resources thing out of the way. Until we do, we’re all enemies to each other.  And the people who profit from that state of affairs, like it just fine.


I’m in Seattle on business.  And I am reminded that I hate air travel.

But there was an industry conference in Seattle that everyone in my department has gone to, except me.  And as a 60-year-old employed person in a harsh world who needs to keep working, it behooved me to be a Team Player.

What my mostly-younger coworkers did not understand is that I last flew in the previous millennium.  TSA checkpoints, variable pricing, print yer own boarding pass, showing up two hours early — all new to me.  I’ve been guided through it all like doddering Uncle Boomer. We used to have travel agents for these things.  I miss them.

On the other hand, I have a time-traveler’s viewpoint of the air travel process.  You all have been herded through airport security checks for 15 years now, post-911.  You’re used to it.  But it’s all new to me.  It most reminds me of boarding planes in Central America back in the ’90s:

Poorly paid officers brusquely enforcing incomprehensible rules, barking orders to keep the cattle moving through — you didn’t hear me say “banana republic.”  I didn’t write it, either. Trust me. But it felt like it.

I don’t love the actual flying part, either — I have an overactive imagination.  But I can do it.  The much-maligned tiny seats weren’t really that bad.  The crew did its job. The pilot landed well, even through turbulence.

Then, on the other end, there was the joy of discovering a new airport, walking half a mile to luggage pickup, walking another half mile to the shuttle, waiting in the bus half an hour because of some snafu.  Confused and uncertain all the time.

Honestly, why do you people put up with this ordeal?.

Yes, I am slipping into crotchety-old-manhood. Sorry.  But still — why? Rhumba and I traveled to Seattle in the 90s, and enjoyed it.  We took the train, still the most civilized form of transport off the water.

Seattle was less glossy then, less noticeably hip, but a place of physical and man-made beauty nontheless.  And the people were as laid back as small-town old-timers, and as friendly.  We had to love it.

Seattle’s still Seattle in 2016 — but more.  More buildings, more art, more hipness, more everything. The airport terminal had a huge exhibit of Seattle grunge band rock posters going on, mounted like fine art.  (“Look, Pearl Jam!”)

There were irridescent accent tiles in the men’s room floor and abstract tile patterns on the wall.  There were “green” notices everywhere about this or that eco-friendly practice that was going on around you. Outside, the taxicabs were mostly Prius hybrids.

Seattle wants you to know where you are as soon as you get off the plane. And yes, you’ll know.  It’s March in Seattle, and cold.  But the air is fresh and yes, actually invigorating, and you don’t mind; 45 in Seattle fits you like 60 in the Bay Area. At least, if you don’t have to sleep in it.

Downtown Seattle, where I’ve been trapped in a  conference center for three days, is a massive cluster of tall glass boxes with national chain stores on the bottom floors. But many older buildings remain, and the clear clean light of a Seattle sunset makes even glass boxes look good.

There’s a Seattle “look,” downtown and everywhere. Cool. Streamlined.  Arty; but only in a cool streamlined way.  The people have it; many restaurants have it; some of the food has it.

I’m staying downtown at Sixth and Pike; Hordes of Prius cabs swarm around the hotels.  Public art climbs the sides of buildings. Skybridges cross the streets 100 feet up.

The sidewalks gleam. Many of the pedestrians do, as wekk.

“How can it be so clean downtown?” I asked Rhumba over the phone. “San Francisco would be filthy. Where are the homeless people?”

She answered.  “They’re keeping them away from the city center.  They’re out there somewhere.”

Rhumba was correct. As you walk west toward Puget Sound, the homeless appear promptly at Third.  It’s like crossing a line; no doubt there is an actual line of some sort, at least on the maps used by police and the chamber of commerce.

But it’s still — Seattle. Maybe more Seattle than the cleaner, corporate parts.  Grizzled beggars bark into cell phones as if they were CEOs. An old man in a three-piece suit wears his “tech work wanted” sign on a sandwich board, along with his resume and his social media contacts.  Good restaurants and expensive suits exist side-by-side with rags and multiple overcoats and angry wanderers. Here, a basement supermarket; there, the art museum.

Did I mention escalators? Seattle is mad for them. And basements. Especially if there are bar/restaurants in them. Or a supermarket.

And then you get to First Street, and Pike Place Market, and you’re among the tourists and food shoppers watching the fish-mongers throw halibut at each other.  It’s a thing.  Surprisingly, they catch them. Pike Place Market is a tourist spot but also a real public market; the price of admission is zip, the view is supreme, and the prices aren’t extreme.

Seattle is a great city, and while I usually at this point start snarking about the dark side behind the beauty of anything that I like, I say it again: Seattle is truly a great city, and I got around in it as much as I had time for. It’s beautiful — nature gets some of the credit — friendly, creative. They know how to live a good life in Seattle.

Hate to say it, but Seattle’s got more going than San Francisco.  Both are way expensive to live in, but Seattle still manufactures its own culture.  San Francisco has to send out.

A tidal wave of high-tech money hit Seattle 20-odd years ago and hasn’t yet subsided. And Seattle spent it well, on urban renewal and good transit and infrastructure and, yes, art.  When a city has the money to put art everywhere — or mandate others to do so — that’s a rich city.

And when big money comes to a city, it changes that city.  Seattle is changing: more expensive, more crowded, more exclusive, more global, a tad more affected, a tad less unique. Seattle has a huge reserve of unique to draw on, true, but it’s going to need all of it.

Because one thing I’ve noticed, at least downtown, is that free-spirited Seattle is a city of guards. As an out-of-town conventioneer, I saw guards wherever I was likely to go: there not just to ensure my safety, but to make sure that my “Seattle experience” wasn’t overwhelmed by some pesky real-world distraction like a homeless junkie.

I’m just back from the closing night festivities at the convention center. The theme was “Seattle and the 90s.”  They had a 90′s grunge tribute band.  There was free tarot and numerology; you could make your own dream-catcher, too, or play 90s-era video games while downing kobe beef sliders and gourmet mac and cheese topped with crab and bacon. And fresh sushi, of course.

They even set up a fish market stall, where authentic Seattle fishmongers tossed fish back and forth.  It was the whole “Seattle experience” for the people who never had time to leave the convention center.  And the convention guards were everywhere.

Good luck, Seattle, I’m leaving tomorrow and don’t plan to return.  I truly hope that you staya great city, and not an “experience” like that city in California with the bridges and cable cars. It’ll be tough.

How to Be a Blackbird


Blackbirds are trouble.  Never more than at a sidewalk bakery, when they swoop down to lay claim to the crumbs on your plate: “You WERE done with that — you know that, don’t you?”

I sometime wonder how nature packaged so much attitude into two ounces of bird.  I’m 1500 times their weight, and do they care?  “Gimme those croissant crumbs, ape, or there’ll be trouble.”

Blackbirds have to be trouble. They are small, and life is hard.  If they were meek, they’d be gone.  So they are not meek. They’ve got a few years to live, if they’re lucky, and they make the most of them.

We have Brewer’s Blackbirds out here — compact, basic-black males with purple highlights, and winsome light-brown females.  If there are crumbs on the ground, you have blackbirds.  If you seed your lawn, or spread wildflower seeds, you’ve erected a buffet for a hundred of them. I’ve been there.

When rain forces the earthworms in your yard to the surface, the blackbirds will pick ‘em all off.  If you walk too near their nests, they’ll fly right at you.  Mind you, you’ll only know you’re near a nest when a raging blackbird charges you from 12 o’clock high.  You will flinch, protect your eyes and scalp, and get the hell out of there.  Everybody does.

Anything that threatens their eggs, they attack or try to scare off: humans, jays, crows, even hawks.  I once saw a blackbird chase a rat down the street.  That rat was hoofing it, too.

Brewer’s Blackbirds tend to settle down with one mate, eventually — when you weight two ounces, you need someone to depend on — but they live large.  Outside of mating season, they form dense flocks that twist and turn through the sky like deforming rubber.

Two, three, four hundred of them will land on the power lines and scream their heads off. Then they’ll all take to the air, circle the ‘hood, come back to the lines and scream all over again.  I think they’re dating.

When the pyracantha bushes put out their bright red berries, the blackbirds gorge on them and get blind drunk. Good times.

And they do good for us, too, though mostly we don’t know it.  Brewer’s Blackbirds rarely meet a new insect they wouldn’t eat — immediately.  When the grasshoppers invade, or the weevils or tent caterpillars, Brewer’s Blackbirds are there to slow them down (burp).

All this — and you don’t give a damn about blackbirds.  They’re live in the background, except when they land on your table and try to eat your bread.  You’ve got more important things to think about.

Now: imagine that you’re  like a blackbird — but still human.  You might say, well, I don’t live among creatures 1500 times my size.

But if you make $50K a year, somebody who makes $75 million a year — 1500 times your salary — is a giant compared to you.  That clan of giants almost runs the country; and they’re getting more gigantic every year.  As you have no time for the blackbird that hopped onto your table,  so do they have little thought for you.  You’re in the background. They move, you get out of the way.

Oh, you do good things: pay your taxes (while they don’t); volunteer; give to charity without expecting to see your name on the side of a building; work productively and well to earn your own keep; even serve in the armed forces, or send your kids.

But the giants just don’t see it from their lofty heights.  They own the country — but the people who live in it, and make it run, are not their problem.  It’s an interesting form of blindness that may destroy them — but not without much pain and suffering for us.

That’s why I think that we need to learn from blackbirds.  They don’t sit and wait for the giants to have a change of heart and care about them; if they did, they’d be dead.
They go out every day to make the world a better place for blackbirds.

So be a good blackbird: take care of you, and your flock, and the greater good of all blackbirds. Don’t worry about trouble:  trouble for the giants is justice, life, and freedom for you.  Dodo birds weren’t a lot of trouble; where are they now?

An Optional Life

As I write this, a cat is dying in a cardboard box across the room..  He’s taking his sweet time about it, too, and that bums me out.  To be fair, he’s not happy about it, either.

Life is ephemeral; that’s the way it is, and maybe the way it ought to be.  But when they acquire a cute kitten and make it part of their family, experienced cat owners understand that, someday, they’re going to watch it die.  And they push that thought to the back burner for as long as they can.

The cat in question is a gray-and-white short-hair, twelve years of age.  He’s gentle; you could hold him belly-up in your arms, and he’d just purr.

Some weeks back he began to look a bit under the weather; but no worse than if he’d had a cat cold, so we let it pass.  But he did not get better; in fact, worse.  He lost appetite, and became less active.  He walked stiffly, and spent more and more of his time in a cardboard box that was lying around.

He could still jump into my lap with the greatest of ease, and this sort of thing let us believe that nothing was seriously wrong.  But eventually, we knew that it was.

So we took him to the very expensive best-in-town vet, who poked and prodded him and laid down two possibilities: kidney failure, or inflamed bowels. He learned toward inflamed bowels, but highly recommended a full blood panel and urinalysis.

“Before we go further, let’s do a financial review.” He punched up all the procedures on a screen, with a breakdown of the individual prices and a grand total. I looked at it. Five hundred dollars.

The very expensive best-in-town vet has a wonderful poker face.  It betrays nothing: no hint of judgment or encouragement.  He knows the score; not everyone has five hundred dollars to spare on a cat.  Quite a number don’t; in fact, more even year.

There is no pet insurance, at least none to speak of: no deductible, no negotiated price, no network to be in or out of.  The price is the price.   So the best-in-town vet doesn’t muck around. You get the price up front; and then you decide.  It’s entirely up to you; no medical establishment rushes ahead and makes decisions for you; no laws enable them to. It’s your pet.

We could afford the tests; we ordered them.  I was worried about his kidneys; we once spent three years taking care of a cat with kidney failure.  Every three days we had to stick a needle in his ruff and drain 200 ml of Lactated Ringer’s Solution into him from an IV bag.  It wasn’t fun for any of us.  But inflamed bowels? That sounded more doable.

A day passed; the cat grew steadily worse. The vet called me up.  It was the kidneys.  “I’m amazed that he’s alive.  His levels are off the chart.”  Most likely, he told me, a tumor on his prostate was unleashing all sorts of nasty chemicals on his kidneys.  They’re shutting down.  The cat was growing weaker and weaker.

The vet laid out the options: an operation that the cat probably wouldn’t survive; euthanasia; or… Lactated Ringer’s Solution.  It wouldn’t save him; just make him more comfortable.  At no time did the vet actually say “euthanasia,” or even the “D” word. He let me say it. His poker face is impregnable, even by phone.

I’d almost been ready to have him put to sleep; in the past we’d kept a cat alive too long by heroic means.  In the past, I’d also, once, been very quick to put a cat to sleep, to spare him — and me — suffering.  And I’ve questioned that decision.  So I’d been thinking that this cat should die naturally, at home, without intervention.

After all, the vet said the cat was on the edge of death.  It wouldn’t be long, right?

And now there’s a bag of Lactated Ringer’s Solution in the kitchen which we’ll give to him shortly. And antibiotics, which I’ve also just shoved down his throat: the urinalysis showed that he’s massively infected with, of all things, e coli.  It’s also attacking his kidneys.

Pet medicine resembles human medicine in this way: you start out with certain intentions and directives for your loved one. Then things happen and you make decisions that seem logical. And suddenly you end up doing things you’d sworn you wouldn’t: like heroic intervention.

And the cat just keeps going, “edge of death” or not. He gets weaker every day.  He can barely walk. He’s losing bladder control.  He’s almost not eating He doesn’t seem to be in pain, but I’m sure he’s not happy.    The vet, from behind his poker face, gives no firm prognosis.  I get that some pet owners never want to hear the worst, and he wants to protect himself; but this is getting tiring.

The cat slept on me for an evening or two this week, purring.  It was good. But now he has no energy or inclination to do anything but stare into the nothing, and I’m beginning to think that death would be more merciful, after all.

If human medicine was like pet medicine, life would be simpler.  You’d know the price of everything, because you’d have to: you’re paying up front.  You could even comparison-shop; plenty of vets around.

And if you don’t have the money, you don’t get treated.  No bureaucrats, nobody making decisions on whether you live or die.  The market handles it.

This works for pets, because most pets are optional. But humans are not.  The promise of civilization is that we owe something to each other; all are valuable, all should be taken care of.

And you couldn’t get a single politicians in Washington to say otherwise.  They’ll simply propose “solutions” to health care reform that they know won’t work.   Because in their heart of hearts they believe that some people are less worthy than others.  Less than human.  Optional.

It’s time to give the cat his Ringer’s solution.  I hope I don’t stick myself with the needle.


Three days later, and I’m in an exam room at the vet’s.  There’s a band-aid on my left forefinger.  And a very sick, frightened cat in my arms.  He can’t eat.  As of this morning, he no longer walks.  I had to give him water by hand. He’d been crying for it when I came downstairs in the morning; kidney failure made him thirstier and thirstier.  So much for an easy death in familiar surroundings.

So it’s time for euthanasia.  Past time.  I’m sorry, cat, for taking so long to pay you what I owe you: passage from this life, when the time came.

The vet — a different one, a woman — takes him from my arms. “I’m going to give him a sedative so that he doesn’t know what’s happening to him.”  She vanishes into the back, to return a few minutes later.  She hands him back to me, wrapped in a towel. He’s got an IV port on his leg.

“We gave him Valium.”

“He’s smiling,” I say.  Cats smile on the sides of their face, not the front; it’s easy to miss. The cat looks up into my eyes and manages the barest echo of a purr.  I just about cried. The vet allowed us a few moments.

“Do you want to hold him while I give the injection?  All it is, is an overdose of sedative.”

“Yes.” She pushes a needle into the cat’s IV port for a second or two.  The cat grows still. “He’s gone.” Just like that.

“Could you spare us a couple of minutes?”

“Of course!” She closes the door behind her. And then I do cry, and say some words that I thought worth saying.

The law says that I owe a cat nothing.  Treat, don’t treat.  Care, don’t care.  I own him, I can do what I want short of extreme cruelty or neglect.  And yet what’s really right is more than that.  Much more.

And if I can owe that much to a pet, who is optional to our civilization, how much more do I owe to every human being in this nation, even on the globe? They are not optional.  They all deserve good health care, a life without fear.  To even say, “This is true, but we must work towards it incrementally….” while humans wither and die: who are you people? What is in your heads? And what is not in your hearts?

Humans are not optional. Why is that hard?

T-Shirts, Broadway Musicals, and Facts that Aren’t Facts

Every week or two I walk down to the Goodwill Industries thrift store and search for social documents.  You would call them t-shirts.

T-shirts are the wearable memes of modern civilization.  Have a message, a statement, a point of view? Put it on a t-shirt and give them away or sell them; if it’s an attractive design, people will wear it for years and spread your thought to the world.  Even if they don’t understand it.

I research these messages; they were perfectly clear when and where the t-shirts were printed.  But years later and far from home, they are mysterious.  A little digging takes you to surprising places.

So, here’s the graphic from a vintage  t-shirt that I bought a couple of weeks ago.  It’s sappy teen lust at its finest.

Birdie shirt

The t-shirt’s from a 2002 little-theater production of “Bye Bye Birdie,” a Broadway musical from the sixties.  Community theaters put on a lot of feel-good musicals; anymore, they’re the only sure money-makers.

The shirt told me was that it was from a  2002 little-theater production of “Bye Bye Birdie,” a Broadway musical of the early sixties. The shirt also said that the play was staged in Marin County, a woodsy shire just north of San Francisco where big money, privilege and cultural patronage go way back.

But the shirt raises questions.   What is “The Mountain Play?” A play on a mountain? What mountain? What is this theater company that has the cash for expensive t-shirts?

Yes, there’s a story.  It goes back 102 years.

The shirt also said that the play was staged in Marin County, a woodsy shire just north of San Francisco where big money, privilege and cultural patronage go way back. And there is the name, “The Mountain Play.”

But… what is the “Mountain Play?” A play on a mountain? What mountain? What is this theater company that has the cash for expensive t-shirts? Some of them can’t even sell bottled water in the lobby.

Yes, there’s a story.  It begins 103 years ago.

It’s 1912, and Mount Tamalpais in Marin County is the most popular hiking spot in the Bay Area.  It’s a 4,000-foot mountain that’s only five miles by ferry and local rail from San Francisco, and the scenic vistas and natural beauty are supreme.  The name, Tamalpais, is taken from an ancient Miwok Indian legend about a princess who becomes the mountain. The mountain has that kind of profile if you stare at it hard: from far away.

Victorians liked a good hike in the woods. They romanticized nature’s beauty as an antidote to industrial-age urban ugliness. And, in any era, some of them just liked going on group outings and boozing it up. Whatever the motivation, hiking Mount Tam alone or in groups was a big deal.

That year, three hikers discovered a natural amphitheater with insane views  2000 feet up Mt. Tam and declared it an idyllic place to stage edifying plays in the great outdoors. Mind you, there were no real roads: just trails, and a scenic railway. But one of the hikers was chairman of the UC Berkeley drama department, and he put together a production, and the money, the next year.  It was a medieval mystery play: about what you’d expect from hiking academics in 1913, if the archive photo is any clue:


first mountain play tamjam dot org

And there was another play the next year, and then yearly after that for 100 years.  And they call it The Mountain Play.

nd there was another play the next year, and then yearly after that for 100 years: work by local writers, Shakespeare, whatever.  And they call it The Mountain Play.

To go to the Mountain Play, you had to — well, climb the mountain. Okay, you could take the train, but a great many of those steel-calved Victorians did hike in: eight miles and two thousand feet up the mountain.  They’d hike up in the morning and see the play in the afternoon. Then they’d hike eight miles back down the mountain and take the ferry back to San Francisco to make money.

It’s 100 years later, and truth and beauty are on the back burner.  The area is a state park now. The annual Mountain Play is now a Broadway musical, not hokey old local plays and Shakespeare; to be very fair, the Mountain Play was on its last legs when management made the switch.  Now, attendance can run to several thousand per performance.

Of course no one hikes up to the amphitheater anymore; there are shuttle buses now, and a few parking lots for the quick or the privileged.  A competition has evolved amongst playgoers to see who can pack the most insanely elaborate gourmet picnic lunch for the several-hour affair.  This is, after all, Marin County.


Mountain-Play-Guys-and-Dolls-5-23-2010-2-55-09-PM starkinsider

The view is still supreme, but the sets are much more elaborate. Why not,  when you have all the room there is and the directors can even drive cars across the “stage”  if they feel like it?

And that’s the story of this t-shirt: a long-running theatrical series halfway up Mt. Tamalpais, and a mountain named for the legend of a sleeping Indian princess.

And it’s complete nonsense.  “Tamalpais” means something like “West Hill” in Miwok.  The Miwok tribe never had a legend about Tamalpais.  The mountain meant nothing to them.

But around 1921, several years into the Mountain Play series, the producers commissioned a local playwright to write a play about the Indians who’d lived on top of Mt. Tamalpais.  In short order, the writer’s research told him that no tribe had ever lived on Mt. Tam.

“Make something up,” the producers commanded, and the playwright did.

tamalpa first show

It was a piece of Victorian noble-savage hokum called “Tamalpa,” about a Miwok princess who dies of a broken heart and becomes one with the mountain.   But it was popular.  The Mountain Play staged “Tamalpa” seven times, right up through 1970.  Here’s a cast photo from ’23.

cast photo

And somewhere along the line, Tamalpais the “sleeping princess mountain” became a “real Miwok myth.”  Back in the ‘60s, every third-grader around that end of the San Francisco Bay was told about the sleeping princess of Tamalpais.  Hundreds of thousands of them.  And I believed it for 50 years, until I researched this t-shirt.

This sort of thing happens all the time.  It’s scary easy to make fiction into fact that “everybody knows.” The other day I found out that Richard Nixon has grown four inches taller.  Even though he’s dead.

In an on-line discussion about GOP presidential candidates, somebody opined Marco Rubio will never get the nomination because he’s short (5 foot 8 or thereabouts).  The common wisdom is that only tall men become president.

Wait a second, I thought.  Richard Nixon was 5 foot 7.  What is this BS?

I went out on the Internet.  It told me that Nixon was 5 foot 11 and a half, nearly everywhere including Wikipedia.  Here and there, 5 foot 10.

Now, I really had a hate on for Nixon back in the day: his desperate self-importance, his slimy eagerness to claim all power for himself.  For the ‘72 GOP convention he had a special adjustable podium created that would ensure that no politician appeared taller than he in front of the crowd.  The podium’s “default” position was for a man five foot seven inches tall: Nixon’s height.

The story typified everything I hated about Nixon.  It engraved itself on my brain stem.  I could never, ever forget Nixon’s height.  But it was no secret to anyone back then that Nixon wasn’t especially tall.

My wife caught me muttering to my laptop about it. “What’s bothering you?”

“The Internet thinks Richard Nixon was 5 feet 11.”

“He was 5 feet 7,” she said immediately.  “I don’t know how I know that.  I just do.”

I trust my wife.  I trust me.  But all of you younger types who trust the Internet for everything now “know” for a fact that Nixon was 5 foot 11.   W, as they say, TF.

Anyway, it’s fact now for anybody who doesn’t want to crack an actual book by a reputable scholar.  Which is most of us. Some partisan cared enough to add four inches to Richard Nixon, and every other reference source just went with it.  The Internet is hungry for facts; doesn’t matter if they’re not true, as long as enough other people are wrong, too.  Or you just don’t care.

Just for fun, let’s list other “facts” that we’re told that “everybody knows:”

  • America is the land of opportunity.  If you don’t succeed here, it’s your own fault.
  • All Americans have a level playing field in life.
  • If we have a robust social safety net, people won’t want to work.
  • Too much government regulation is the cause of all our problems.
  • Cutting taxes on the rich will make us all better off.  (Bill Gates wouldn’t have worked nearly as hard if he’d only made ten billion instead of sixty.)
  • Unlimited campaign giving by corporations and billionaires is good for democracy.
  • A national health system for all is too expensive and bankrupts the countries who adopt it.

And they’re believed. Personally, I’d like to see  references on all of then.  I’d probably get a big laugh. Got any “facts” of your own to add?



Deciphering Bad Handwriting — for Bernie!

I’m not a joiner.  More of a misanthrope.  I like people who are a little off-trail, a little different. People who don’t fit in.  People with unique points of view. They inspire me.

It follows, then, that I’d support Bernie Sanders for president.  Sanders is different. His views weren’t unique among politicians in, say, 1967.  But they are now. I’ve got to like a guy who goes against the flow of modern “liberal” operators. You know, the ones who support gay marriage and save a forest or two while giving the big money practically anything it wants.

And when I went to my first Bernie Sanders meet — a live address by Sanders via streaming video — the crowd was full of the “different” people.  Teenagers trying to figure out the world. Arty ladies in tattered dresses and tarnished African jewelry.  Tall old men in big hats, with weathered skin and whispery voices.  One of them had a pocket full of chocolate bars.  He broke them up and passed them to the crowd.

And there were “normal” people, of all shapes and sizes.   People you’d see at the supermarket, buying the weekly staples and looking a little tired.

Everyone was white; it’s a college town, and an expensive one. We have Latinos, a lot of them;  but they’re invisible in civic affairs.  That’s changing; but not today.

Still, I felt comfortable. They all had interesting things to say, or they were seeking. They listened to each other.

Now, in the BernieVerse, anyone can organize an event and invite locals who registered in the big database of Bernie supporters.  And at first, a variety of people in these parts put on events independently.  But after a while, as people will, most of the local Sanders activists coalesced around one ubergroup.  It called a meeting to rally volunteers to work for the campaign.

So Rhumba and I showed up for the meet and walked into a room full of  elderly, well-kept, retired academics and college-town political nerds. I call them The Usual Suspects. They dominate cultural and political life around here because they’re educated, politically aware, and have plenty of spare time (and money).

They look like people from the same village. They all wear the same organic-cotton casual clothing. They all have the same well-kept white hair.  The same educated accents.  And often, the same tidy retirement income and paid-off three-bedroom house near the coast bought cheap in 1982.

A wiry MC faced the crowd and said, “Let’s all start out by each standing up and saying ONE WORD that expresses our feelings about Bernie!”  “Inspiring!” cried a lean, wrinkled woman with perfect teeth. “Integrity!” rumbled a bulky old man with a professor’s beard.  “FINALLY!” shouted an elderly athlete with silver hair.

And on it went.  Then we were all instructed to “tell our neighbor” what brought us to be here today.

Rhumba and I looked at one another.  I used activities like this when I student-taught second grade.

By the time the MC started talking about our pre-programmed tasks, the two of us were out of there.

I’m not putting anybody down.  Well, yes, I am.  But I’m a misanthrope, and a creative one. So is Rhumba.  I know how political campaigns work; that’s why I stay away from them.  Rhumba and I like to think about things deeply and kick around ideas. There was nothing here for us here in this true-believer seniors citizens’ pep rally.

Moreover, I’m suspicious of people who support reform yet are heartily successful with things as they are.  What can I say? I hung out with wealthy Episcopalians for too many years.  I’ve met too many well-educated, sheltered, privileged people who know just how to create justice and equality for a world full of people who aren’t like them at all.  I’ve seen such folks become confused or even actively hostile when the poor and underprivileged refuse to behave in an orderly manner.

So Rhumba and I went our own way, and the local Bernie organization carried on without us. And they are doing some valuable work.  The national organization is using them now to phone-bank to voters in some of the early-primary states.

I reluctantly suspect that I should get involved; but e-mail notices for events like “Wine and Cheese and Phone-Banking for Bernie!” make me want to stick the proverbial finger down my throat. Especially when it’s assumed that you’ll bring your own cell and tablet (or laptop).  Of course you have one.

But at least these people have good taste in candidates. Don’t think that their unthinking elitism puts me off Sanders, at all.

I’ve done the reading.  As a politician, Sanders is seriously pragmatic — more than willing to engage with anybody and everybody on their own terms, and to piss off “supporters” and ally with “enemies”  if it gets the job done.  He’s much more strategically flexible than most politicians today — just less morally flexible.

I suspect that if Sanders does make the presidency — knock on wood — the wine-and-cheese revolutionaries will find reason to be disappointed.  He’ll love guns too much, or not spend enough time on gay rights or the environment.  Or he’ll compromise.

He may even cause damage to their stock portfolios. Heh.

But I’ll say one thing: they actually found a job for me that I’m willing to do.  Several times a month I get scans, by email, of hand-written sign-up sheets that would-be volunteers fill out at various Bernie campaign events. It’s my job to transcribe the information — name, email, phone, etc. — in a spreadsheet and send it back to the organization.

It’d be simple — if most people didn’t have terrible handwriting.  Deciphering the names and contact info takes a combination of graphic manipulation, Internet detective work, and inductive reasoning that would probably get me a job at the NSA.  I actually enjoy it.  And I don’t have to shout slogans or wave flags.

It’s a perfect gig — for a misanthrope.