I always wondered what happened to Rockwell. Back in 1984, Rockwell had this hit song at age 20 – “Somebody’s watching me”. You couldn’t escape it on the airwaves – especially since Michael Jackson (pre-fall) was singing backup. Remember?
Turns out Rockwell was actually the son of Berry Gordy, Motown president and starmaker. Supposedly he got the contract without his father’s knowledge ….. hmm. His other hit single which I don’t remember is “Obscene phone caller”, and according to Wikipedia, he was last in the news for beating an “associate” at the Hollywood Magic Castle in 2018. Ah, stardom.
But I do remember that song when I think about our world today, one he never imagined – maybe Arthur C. Clarke did, in a way, and Asimov, and other visionaries. Somebody is indeed watching me, and you, and us all – the question is, what are they doing with what they learn?
I have been on a little break from writing here, in many ways because of the ongoing challenges in my life, our life together, and our community. But, something did change, or at least move towards change, since my last post – our election was held, the ballots counted and disputed, the name calling and finger pointing continues but there is movement. Where it leads, I doubt anyone can fully predict; certainly the polls and the surveys again did not capture all that our country feels or believes, and many sense that even now a full understanding of our collective temperature is difficult to grasp. Why does anyone even listen to surveys anymore? Speaking of which …
So I have been waiting for that process to end, because I was one of probably a very large number of people invited to participate in a kind of political experiment, perhaps – one I don’t fully understand, and whose results will not be known for several months. Data from that experiment is being processed and analyzed by those who specialize in that kind of thing – they may or may not have an “agenda” that will spin it towards a predetermined result, but from my little observation point as a participant, I found it – intriguing.
If you take a glance at this story from USA today way way back around Labor Day in early September, it describes the project as a joint study between various think tank institutions to determine how Facebook and Instagram affect the 2020 election. Somehow, by surveying users who opt out of those services for several weeks, through the election – 200,000 to 400,000 participants. Well, I was invited to join them. Here are some photos of the messages I received – and I accepted. Leaving Facebook during the election seemed like a godsend!
I received instructions about how to temporarily disable my Facebook account, posted my plans (to varying degrees of disinterest) and awaited the first survey. I took photos of some of those pages, as shown here on September 15 (before I provided my responses, naturally). Note, this is just a few of the screens, not all – they wanted to know my attitude about various issues, groups, and more – plus, an exciting offer to get even more “Gift card” payments by participating in “additional studies” by allowing them to somehow monitor ALL my internet activity for the period through the election.
I declined. I may like gift cards, but I am sure that Google, Facebook, and heck probably even Disney know more about my web usage than I can imagine. That’s the price of today’s technology – information about us is being sold to direct marketing, campaigns, and more. I can live with that – but, sorry, not going to make my internet browsing history public!! Would you??
About a month later, on October 10, the second more extensive survey arrived (again, these are just selected screen shots, not the full survey). Of course I expected to be asked about my thoughts on candidates and issues. But I found the choice of other questions to be fascinating – what are they trying to determine with these questions? More importantly, why these questions and not others? Note the last shot, a question more than a month before the election as to whether violence would be justified if one candidate refuses to accept the outcome … hmmm..
The final survey received in early November, just prior to the election, had some interesting questions as well. I particularly enjoyed the “fake news” questions asking whether certain statements were factual or otherwise – I thought I would be certain in every case, but there were stories there that I hadn’t heard. We certainly live in a time when just about anyone can write just about anything and it takes off, and the “disproving” doesn’t always get the same attention as the assertion. And, of course, there were questions about my emotional state, how COVID was being addressed, Black Lives Matter, and more.
A day or two after the election, I was “released” from Facebook isolation – I signed in, and scrolled through what I had “missed” with family and friends. I did, initially, really feel “left out” of knowing what was going on without my FB fix – I realized that in some ways I was addicted. But the question that I still can’t come up with a good answer for is – why was I off FB (and other services, although I don’t use those). Was there a “still on” control group that they compare our answers to? If not, how can they determine what impact “leaving” had on anyone? Perhaps when, probably in 2021, some report comes out proclaiming the amazing truths that were learned from this study, I will understand – or, perhaps I will at least be in a better position to question than most how those conclusions could possibly have been reached.
We need one another so much now – Facebook, other services, are a mixed blessing. I didn’t miss the vitriol, name calling – I did feel a little more alone, asking Bob who commented on some pictures he posted of a little outing we took one Sunday, whose birthday I missed, etc. But online connecting can’t replace real life touching, hugging, laughter (and yes, the forbidden singing). For now, I will take what I can get – we all just are doing what we can to “get through this” (whatever “this” includes for you, but right now, COVID and the election continue to hammer at our consciousness).
So if you see me on Facebook, well, now you know why I was invisible. A week from now, many around the world, but especially here in the USA, will sit down and give thanks – I will write about that next time – but without being able to be near the loved ones, or strangers, that normally fill our lives. I think, in the days ahead, I have some phone calls to make – or, zooms, facetimes, whatever. More than texts; certainly more than Facebook posts. Reach out, reach out and hold someone’s hand, if only virtually – to remind one another, we will meet again.
Hey folks – don’t miss out on this limited holiday offer – free subscriptions!
Hello, readers – especially to you followers I do not know, who have somehow found my little corner and signed up to tag along. This post is just for you! Well, everyone else too – but, I want to play tour guide this week. I have no idea where you live – perhaps you know San Francisco, perhaps not – but this week’s exploration is a chance for you to visit a corner of my world. Come stroll with me through a neighborhood like perhaps your own, and yet, unlike any other – world changing, in a way, at least at one time – and still revered and treasured, though at the moment a little tattered and bruised. And still shining through that shadow of COVID.
The Castro has a long history of being home to various ethnic and cultural groups – at one point, it was known as “Little Scandanavia”, and was not the original core area for San Francisco’s emerging gay/lesbian population. But, in the 70’s, with a variety of factors contributing, bars and their patrons began moving from the Polk Street area to the Castro, and it became known as the “gay capital” in many ways, particularly after Harvey Milk began his campaign for political office from his camera shop. There are many wonderful documentaries and websites for you to learn about that heritage – it is somewhat less vibrant today, again for many reasons even before COVID. But, my stroll this week to buy a birthday gift for family gave me a chance to see how this once, and still, magical few blocks is changing – like us all.
Today the Castro is revered in the LGBTQ community world wide as an early refuge, a symbol of freedom and standing for rights long denied. Now, Harvey’s old camera shop is a retail and community center for the Human Rights campaign (although some were aghast at that idea, it has proven to be a reminder of his presence); it would be rare to see anything other than a Democratic campaign event here or anywhere in SF. Harvey’s restaurant, formerly the “Elephant Bar”, displays posters for the upcoming presidential election; victory parties are already planned ….
Like all of San Francisco, politics are fervently expressed in the Castro everyday.
Nightlife and retail are the lifeblood of many urban communities, even more so here. The bars are limited to serving alcohol outdoors, with food – so the restaurants, with a slightly increased capacity now that SF has moved into the “least restrictive” color coded compliance zone, partner with bars as well as serving their own customers. By building “parklets” in the streets – some more extravagant than others – in theory, visitors can comply with mask and distancing rules. We do not attend these locations – to us, it is not important – but they are well populated, and probably going to be around for quite a while – their version of the new normal. But the shops still carry unique products that even reflect the current COVID focus that casts its long shadow over all. The heads in one window display made in SF pride masks.
There are businesses that are closed forever – one long time, ahem, adult shop among others; but new businesses waiting to open, oddly enough a second ice cream shop, near the famed “Hot Cookie” bakery, where a wall of photos of customers wearing the namesake briefs welcomes visitors to buy a “butch bar” or a more than suggestively shaped cookie to enjoy.
Cliff’s variety store is exactly that – a little bit of everything, plus some you never knew about! It’s a mainstay of the neighborhood, with a long history of its own – customers line up to enter now, but on this early morning access was easy. I kept my visit to enjoying the Halloween display, featuring some very creative garden gnomes.
Speaking of creative, this local small independent gym was one who adopted the “outdoor training” approach when all else was still verboten – I was impressed with their logistics to providing a complete workout experience. We used to go to the chain gym down the street, which is now reopened indoors – but, we have modified our attendance to another, non-Castro location which the chain opened, featuring an outdoor tent filled with equipment. Business owners are struggling to stay open, daily, weekly – following restrictions, hoping customers will be faithful, and adapting – while they can.
The term currently in use may be different – I think recently it was “un housed” – or something similar. Perhaps there is another term this couple might use for their classification, but, for the moment, on this weekday morning, they find shelter in a nook of the entry to the GLBT Historical society museum, up the street between “Harvey’s” restaurant and two of the remaining gay bars. This museum, small but well curated, would normally be a spot I would recommend visiting – but for us, for now, we are content with our virtual visits, and supporting the society and other causes financially until, one day, we feel the reward of a visit outweighs the risks.
Our “gayborhood” represents more than business – in some ways, it is a Mecca. I recall my first visit as an out gay man in 2012 – I rode my Indian motorcycle up specifically to be in the Castro. Among the traditions – the memorial to lost loved ones, which began during the AIDS crisis early years by posting pictures and other tributes on the walls of the Hibernia Bank (long gone, but this corner still referred to as “Hibernia Beach”). And, not far away, the community “bulletin board” – empty, but formerly filled with event flyers and posters for all kinds of things that you don’t find in Kansas city. The “angels” above still circle, waiting for those days to return.
Yummy treats at Giddy Candy – imports from around the world, always fun!
Once upon a time, Halloween in the Castro was a major street party, but that ended before my arrival and long before COVID, due to public safety concerns – the costumes were, of course, fabulous in their day. Some may appear this week ….
From years past – Halloween in the Castro – no social distancing back then!
Our last stop, for now. The famed Castro Theater, which I referenced in my column last week about the slow return of films to our cultural menu, is completely walled off – the organ, presumably heard occasionally but only by a few, was in the process of being replaced by a new, sophisticated model. It almost doesn’t matter what the first movie to be shown when those doors open is – it will be crowded, and those in attendance will gladly sing along with the traditional “San Francisco, Open your golden gates” introduced by Jeannette MacDonald in that MGM epic of 1936. Of course, that depicted a city torn by earthquakes and fire – and then, rebuilt. Ours is facing a different onslaught – but renewal can come, as it did more than a century ago. What will that look like – and who will take up the challenge?
Our world will look different a year from now. The future is something we can create – you, me, all of us – can build it. Your neighborhood may have seen changes already, as well. The Castro may look very different in a decade; this is just a moment in a stream of constant energy and life. For many of us, our local places, whether routine or world famous, are still – sacred, in a way. A part of our hearts lives there, even after we move on. But what gives our communities life is the spirit of those who are there today (and tomorrow), building, creating, celebrating, sharing, loving – giving. You may not have a drag queen on your main street USA, but that doesn’t mean you can’t shine. Let our hope shine. The shadows will pass, others will come – we must hold on, to one another, and build, today. And we will.
We’d been exposed to COVID courtesy of a visiting home repairman whose brief stop to pick up a check led to receiving a call less than 48 hours later, courtesy of SF city health. We were to quarantine with testing and daily monitoring by phone for two weeks. Happily, our initial tests were both clear, and again just before our ultimate release. I chose to celebrate by daring to indulge in an experience few else were pursuing these days.
I’m calling to your memories. I’m asking you to think back as far as you can — a moment long ago when you sat with a roomful of mostly strangers, and the lights dimmed to darkness, and the room hushed as everyone around you became quiet. Perhaps you heard a fanfare, the curtains opened – revealing a shiny silvery screen, and beams of light bringing to your eyes a vision.
No one reading this today was present 125 years ago when, shortly after Christmas, two brothers created a public gathering that transformed the world. Louis and Augusta Lumiere charged one franc each to 33 Parisians to watch less than 10 minutes of silent film. They had not invented the film process but did create their unique mechanism for projection to a paying audience. This very first commercial film screening soon resulted in their opening a chain of local “cinemas”, and in time to the world.
Although I do not think it was my first movie, my first movie memory was going to the old Corona theater in 1966 with my older brother, I was 8, he was 10 and the scenes of the fire engulfing the forest ignited not only the screen but my imagination. In the more than 5 decades since I have no idea how many films I have seen; many in the theater, but also on Tv, or college retrospectives, then in time VHS rentals, laserdiscs, and DVDs – but always, always I knew movies were their best in a dark cinema.
The visions, dreams, stories and songs, were a place I could escape. Where I could find hope, joy, and worlds of adventure for a dollar matinee and a bike ride. In time, I would attend previews, revivals and world premieres; visiting Grauman’s Chinese, the movie palaces of downtown LA built by Charlie Chaplin and countless visits to multiplexes, many now converted to retail or RV showrooms or torn down.
I was often – correction, nearly always – alone, even in a crowded theater. Sometimes I would chat with strangers about the film as we waited, but most were with others, and I was more comfortable waiting for the lights to dim and to leave my neighbors behind. I learned about the artists of screenwriting, direction, production design, editing, scoring and of course the stars. My parents in shared their memories – my Mom of trips to see musicals (and going on a bowling double date with Mickey Rooney), my Dad of being terrified by Karloff as the Frankenstein monster. In time I took my younger brother to Superman and Star Wars; and his first R rated movie, Die Hard; more recently, with his wife and kids, and now my husband, to see even more Star Wars. Funny how I can remember many of these screenings, theaters, and those times when others enjoyed or hated the film along with me as we chatted after some blockbuster or art film. Too many memories to begin to share – and in recent years, new memories with my husband, a reality beyond even my own romance inspired imagination that no screenwriter could have sold to a studio.
But earlier this year, of course, no new memories could be created. Theaters like our beautiful Castro, dark for months for the first time in its nearly century long life. Others closed forever, now; chains in bankruptcy, studios ceasing production and deferring release, selling new films direct to Amazon that had been created for audiences to enjoy in the crowded darkness, their drinks and popcorn left in cases. The seats cold. Like so many lives and businesses – the future uncertain, but the present, silent – more so than any DW Griffith epic or Harold Lloyd comedy. The lights off, the doors locked.
Recently, the powers that be in their unknowable wisdom deigned it safe to allow some there to reopen. Sadly, here in SF most remain shuttered; unlike their neighboring cities, they are not being allowed to sell refreshments, which for years has been the only source of profits, especially for independent cinemas; the studios take most of the ticket cut, which is more meager than ever. Somehow, other sources of food and drink are safe, including restaurants recently reopened for indoor service, but that part of the cinema experience is not permitted here – and so our local theaters remain dark for now.
But nearby cities had been screening for a few weeks, and now that I could at last get out, I knew exactly what I wanted to see! With all the closures and delays in movie releases, most of the “summer blockbusters” were, well, either not summer, or bust. But one filmmaker whose works have always been creative, and sometimes breathtaking, insisted his project be released in theaters as planned – if delayed – and I wanted very much to see Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet” in IMAX. A theater nearby, south of the city itself, had it on IMAX matinee for the final day the first day of my “release” – and my husband having opted out, I drove to the BART parking structure adjacent. Usually crowded up to multiple levels, it was nearly deserted – as was the sidewalk past the some open, some closed eateries featuring pizzas, ice cream, sandwiches and more.My ticket was “touchless” with an assigned seat, no adjacent viewers – in fact, only 4 seats were showing as sold that morning out of the entire theater. The concession area was open, but semi deserted – and entering the theater itself, a hand cleansing station greeted me as I found my seat in silence. There was no typical “pre-show” with ads, promotions, etc. – but a few “previews of coming attractions” with dates that have now been pushed into 2021.
You don’t need my evaluation of the film itself – there are plenty of those online. Rather, I invite you to remember what it was like to go, perhaps with a date, or your family, or a group of friends, to see some film you love to watch even today – whether it was Forrest Gump or Star Wars, James Bond or a Disney classic. The joy you felt, or the fear or surprises you shared; the music that soared. These were magic carpets taking us to new worlds in the dark; showing us what life might have to offer, promising us a future we might never know, and for some, the promise of what discovering what it is to love, be loved, and even lose love. We may see ourselves, or perhaps not – perhaps we will get a glimpse of who we want to become. Films are not always a true representation of life, but they capture the energy of our spirit in a way that combines imagery, sound, story and more that is unique to sitting in that dark room, climbing on the carpet, and letting it take us where it will. When the ride ends, and we walk out, we may not remember those moments consciously – but they are a part of our common cultural heritage now.
Perhaps you recall the wonderful, Oscar winning theme music for “Chariots of Fire” created by Vangelis. He also had several albums as part of the team “Jon and Vangelis” – one, “The Friends of Mr. Cairo”, is titled for their evocative, and very lengthy, tribute to how film captures our spirits, our hearts, and creates a shared experience that can last a lifetime. Of course, it refers to “The Maltese Falcon” but moves into other moments that you may recognize as well.
Silent gold movies, talkies, technicolor, long ago; my younger ways stand clearer, clearer than my footprints. Stardom greats I’ve followed closely, closer than the nearest heartbeat; longer than expected – they were great. Oh love oh love; just to see them; acting on the silver screen, oh my. Clark Gable, Fairbanks, Maureen O’Sullivan; fantasy would fill my life – and I love fantasy so much. Did you see? In the morning light? I really talked, yes I did, to God’s early morning light – and I was privileged then, as I am to this day, to be with you.
Closing lyrics, “Friends of Mr. Cairo”, Jon and Vangelis, 1981.
I hope you will take the time to view this in one sitting, quietly – the creator of this video clearly loves the music, and the films, and melded the two into this hymn to how films find a place deep in our hearts.
My wish for you is that one day, perhaps soon but one day, you will again be able to enjoy a movie you love – whether new, or old – in a darkened theater full of strangers, on a screen larger than any in your home, without distraction, and with all the popcorn and soda you have missed. I hope Bob and I, with our friends and families, will have those moments ahead as well, at the Castro theater with it’s beautiful pipe organ and cavernous edifice, inviting passersby “Come, enter the temple – see the light dance and the hear the angels sing”. The flickering spirits are waiting for you to join them again in the darkness. As my old film mentors Siskel and Ebert used to say every Sunday evening on TV as they shared thoughts on what magic film offers us – save me the aisle seat.
Do you ever put off doing things? I sure do. Especially the things that I think I don’t know how to do, or may not do well. I put off starting this blog for a long time after the idea entered my head; I put off actually posting for nearly 4 months after I paid the WordPress subscription in November of 2019. I had just the month prior made the decision to end my ongoing job search and retire early; in large part that was driven by my desire to spend more time with my husband and building our life together rather than another few years of professional employment.
But, I finally started writing – six months ago, yesterday. And I knew that there were a few other things I had put off – like getting more familiar with WordPress “mechanics”, how to show things on the table of contents, how to make it a little easier for visitors to see what I was sharing. So, this morning, with a goal of getting that long on my to do list item finished, I toyed with WordPress a bit – exploring, getting lost, getting frustrated but … getting back on board and sticking with it.
You know, it’s a good feeling to do something you have put off. This summer I spent many hours on a home improvement project that most will never see or notice; but it’s just about done, and our life is a little better for it. I have a lot left to learn about using WordPress, and writing; about guiding people to my site, or promoting it (thank you, followers I have never met, I am humbled!).
But learning is what keeps life challenging, I think. As we have political discussions with friends – which unfortunately seems to be the gigantic gravitational center of all thought these days – I often remark that questioning what we believe, our priorities and choices is a lot harder than just doing what we did the day before. And hey, maybe that’s great for now – maybe that’s all we can do. I am grateful, and challenged, to have the luxury (or burden?) of time to reconsider my focus – how to spend the precious hours of this day, and the unknown number of days to come.
We cannot take the number of days ahead for granted – never could, but maybe we believed it and now realize that untruth. Last week, my husband and I were exposed to Covid, six months after all the guidelines we followed, and precautions we took, by a visiting home improvement representative who felt ill the next day and went for a test. Less than 48 hours after his short stop to check out our kitchen needs and plan for the beginning of work, we had each received a call from SF City health that we needed to quarantine for two weeks, and test; less than 6 hours after that call, we were at a Kaiser drive through for a memorable swabbing session, and soon on our way home.
For whatever reason, my husband’s negative test results arrived a little more than a day later – but mine did not. More than 30 hours after his email, I finally got a notice at 3 am on a Monday morning that I too was negative; it was a relief, but that gap in communication left me with many thoughts about its implications. Thankfully, we have no symptoms, and in roughly 6 more days we will again be “free” to roam our still mostly shuttered streets, and visit the socially distanced by reservation only gym, and maybe even in time to go see a movie. These are all things we took for granted a few months ago, and yet for some on our globe, are pleasures they might never know. If nothing else, this is a time to nature our appreciation for the gifts we hold today.
But I thought during those 30 hours, and since, again about my priorities. One of our cats has a habit of “campaigning” for his canned food dinner earlier each day – wandering, following, and letting us (mostly, me, since I open the cans) know that he is ready. For up to two hours ahead of time, some days – and then, in moments, his enjoyment of the food itself is over. And I see this in myself, and perhaps we all do it – waiting, yearning, longing and dreaming for something we so desperately want, or think we need – and then, perhaps that experience comes, that dream comes true – and it is over. We put so much time into it, and it passes – and life goes on.
Today, we are all longing for something imminent – maybe for some it is the election and a hoped for change or end to whatever antagonizes us most at the moment; for others, a “return to normal” that probably is never going to be fully realized – the new world is going to be shifting in ways we cannot predict, and in ways we may not even see as they come to pass. I certainly have my frustrations with both; and yet the best I can manage my life right now, for me, my husband, and my loved ones who I cannot be with at the moment, is to just do what I can do now and move on.
So, six months in to my little blog, after 25 entries, and countless hours of thought and reflection, I feel a glimmer of anticipation of where “The New NormL” goes from here. Between thought, writing, reflection and the mechanics of creating a post (along with the learning curve), the amount of time I spend on these posts is, well, more than you might guess. Foremost, my priority remains our shared lives, building what we have and like everyone else just trying to manage the details; but writing here, for you few who read these words, has been in a way both clarifying and freeing for me. So, there will be more to share, although I sense I may be shifting my focus, or my approach, a bit over time. There is much to explore in our world, wonderful things to discover and give to others in turn, when we open our eyes. I will continue to write from the heart, about the present, past and future, and my weird little questions and peculiar explorations – in the hopes that some of what I share will resonate with those few who may find encouragement from my words.
A friend asked me recently if I had changed my blog format a bit, having noticed some of the photos, links etc. that I was tweaking (and which will continue). I think the most noticeable is probably the now routine inclusion of the portrait you see below, although I think I often used the words shown in closing many posts. Those words are both a sentimental wish, and an imperative I try to achieve – imperfectly. We all strive towards ideals we cannot reach, but in that effort, we get closer. Keep on climbing; lend a hand to others near you on that path, or their own – you may not share the same goals, or much else, but we all share the same hopes and needs. Thank you for spending some time with me here – I look forward to our next visit.
As I have written the past few months, I have been gifted with very kind and encouraging feedback. Strangers have started to subscribe to my blog; I hope it is because there is something that touched them or encouraged them. But my family and friends have, at times, expressed concern – that my sharing, my openness and recollection may be stirring more pain within myself. Their words are, I am certain, coming from love, and I appreciate and understand their responses.
It’s absolutely true that writing from the heart is sometimes very difficult; it takes a lot of soul searching, and sifting through repeatedly, trying to determine what is the hoped for “wisdom” that I might share from my experiences. My goal is not to evoke sympathy or pity, but by honestly opening up about some of my history, to provide you, the reader – whether you know me, or never meet me – something that you can grasp and use, that you can say – yes, yes, there is a truth here, a discovery that has meaning, in your life, now. My reward – your gain from the price I paid.
I have realized the past few weeks that one of the most difficult entries I shared needed … a sequel. A follow up to show that what I laid bare in those words back in May led to something better, in my life – peace, in my heart, and hopefully in time through that for others in my circle, through how we care for one another. Ripples in the pond between our joined lives, wherever they may connect.
The title of that May post, taken from one of my father’s letters to my Mom, revealed bluntly some of the less than wonderful, far from ideal facts about my relationship with my Dad. Some aspects, not all – there were chapters to our shared lives that there is no point in shining a light on here, which impacted not only me, but other family members. Our shattered natures often lead to chasms, and in my case, there was a period of several years where, except for my Mom, my direct family was not present in my life. But despite those moments, which were desperately painful in many ways – in time, there was healing. Today, I realize how important it is to share some of how that came about, with you – for whatever meaning it might have in perhaps not your own relationships, but possibly someone you love, or someone you have yet to meet.
We do things to protect our bruised and wounded hearts. We hide, we bury, we put on emotional masks and learn to present the self we want others to see, to love and accept. Yes, in my case there were elements that had not only to do with the deepest parts of how I connect with others, but also very old, and very fully woven into my spirit, habits of thought and feeling. In my work with the first counselor who helped me come to a place of greater acceptance and understanding of grace than what I had been taught, I grew into new freedoms. In time, I sought out another counselor, one who could relate more fully from his own experience and insight to my history; his name was Patrick. He passed a few years ago, but he gave me a gift to share, and I will do my best, today.
I make no apologies for my upbringing in faith, knowing full well that many have different backgrounds, beliefs and understandings – finding comfort in accepting that I will never have all the answers, and don’t need to beyond those which work for me, and bring me to a place of continuing to grow in caring and acceptance of others who enter my life. Patrick was not a particularly spiritual person; in fact, I would go so far as to say he might have described himself as agnostic. But he accepted that a huge portion of the challenges I faced to growth was reconciling what I had been taught, what I desired and felt, and that finding some balance between those was critical for my own peace of mind. He respected what was important to me.
What came as a surprise to me was his insights, in time, into my father’s alcoholism; Patrick was very experienced in addiction treatment, theory and related issues. I did not feel that addiction was a problem in my life; I had been studious to avoid drink for many reasons; I was well aware that studies indicated there were genetic factors that impact predisposition to intergenerational addictive behaviors. Eventually I came to realize that there were other escape routes that I had learned to embrace, that did not provide the answers I sought; they were not to be found in a bottle but had their own power over me. I suspect we all face those illusory mirages of hope at times; our culture, and many others, is filled with stories of miracles and magic that at their best create unrealistic desires for wish fulfillment, and at their worst, deception and destruction. Sometimes even in the “answers” that we turn to for hope, disappointment lurks. Turning from those false solutions to truth is not an easy process.
I did not think that my father’s alcoholism was an ongoing issue for me; by the time I began working with Patrick, it was maybe 6 years since Dad’s passing; I was “out”, I was making friends, and dealing with the stresses of everyday life. But Patrick recognized in me the echoes of the ravages of disfunction, and the coping habits which at the time seemed to protect me, which actually were now working against a fuller life. He recommended an extremely technical volume on addiction, and I am thankful for his faith in my intellect to work through it – I began to see that my own behaviors were built in some ways on a foundation of just surviving those problems that impacted me deeply at a young age, but which I still carried long after those years into my ongoing life – and they were not working for me, but against me.
But what really surprised me was his suggestion that I spend a week at the Betty Ford program in Palm Desert, CA.
Now, before you jump to conclusions (I sure did, initially), know this – he felt it would give me insight to attend “family week”, not the program itself – a sort of “day camp” for those whose loved ones were in the residential program could learn about their own behavior and how to support their family member after they left the facility. Of course – my father was not in the facility – but Patrick knew the administrator and after discussion with them, I agreed to attend for a 5-day program. We reviewed a lot of material about the nature of addiction, but also heard presentations by experts in the field, about codependence and how the family unit is impacted, short term and long term, by the damage and pain they seek relief from.
I felt out of place; I was newly “out”, trying to deal with a lot in my own personal life, and facing some pretty severe challenges in my career as well. The others in the program, well, they were pretty – “normal”, I guess – parents, spouses, children. I did not feel connected with them at all. And then, there was the fact that I was the only one who had no family in the program itself; once again, in more than one ways, I was reminded of my differentness, my outsider status.
One of the key components of the week, for everyone but me, was for them to sit down with their loved one who was a residential participant, and have an honest discussion – sharing their feelings; being open; being vulnerable; trying to find a bridge ahead for everyone in the family, patient and supporters. I was impressed with the program, and more so with their courage – but again, I felt – weird. The administrator had told me that participating in one of the central aspects of the program was up to me …. Did I want to have an opportunity to talk? Not with the other participants – we did some of that, for sure, in the program; but … with my father. No, not in some “séance”; but in a way that would allow me to express what I felt, what I carried inside, that I never had with him, fully, in real life.
In the last year of his life, after the passing of both my stepmother and mother, we had built bridges; my Dad had accepted my coming out, and as I will share more fully in another entry one day, he supported me in ways that no one else in my family could, or perhaps would, as we both dealt with our individual grief as best we were able. In a way, we healed together. After his passing, and all that had happened in my life in the years since, I didn’t think there was ground left to cover; but I talked with Patrick – and decided I needed whatever I could get from this program, from this experience, that I could take with me into the future. For me.
So I said “yes”. After the other “family sharing” times were pretty much complete – I sat down, surrounded by a circle of strangers who knew a little, but not much, of my life and challenges – facing an empty chair. I cannot tell you today exactly what came out of my mouth, or shall I say my heart – it was painful; there were tears. There was release. But I promise you this – for me, my Dad was sitting there. He heard me; we connected. As I told him from those deeply wounded parts of my own childhood spirit still hovering inside me, as they do for us all, the pain of what had happened began to be, somehow, released; and being surrounded by, as some might say, “clouds of witnesses” whose own journey might be not entirely similar but not entirely different – I knew, finally – I was not alone. There was nothing wrong with me, back in those years, or in that moment where we connected, somehow, even across the barrier of eternity.
And from there … I moved on; I grew, and still am. I tell you honestly, even just in writing this to you – there is healing. There are still tears, but I know now tears are not my enemy.
At the time, I did not talk of these events with hardly anyone in my life; family reading this now, may be disappointed I did not share with them. But I am sharing with you because …. In writing about my father’s pain; his issues, his failures – first, it was important to say there was more to him than those disappointments. There is more to all of us, even though we too have let others down; we have caused our loved ones disappointment. I was given a chance to find some peace in a way I would never have thought possible. Yes, there were moments of reconciliation while he was still living; but in a way, I believe, my experience illustrates that it is never too late to reach into our own hearts and search, through sludge and mire, through all the lies we embraced and the shadows we hid behind – to walk forward, in forgiveness.
As I get older, retired now, much of my life now consists of quieter times, especially staying at home and not seeing our family and friends as much; perhaps particularly because I am somewhat the family historian, and going through old papers and photos brings up memories. I appreciate the loving concern of those of you who read some of my entries and wonder if sharing these moments might not be worth the cost, emotionally, to me in writing them. My answer is a resounding YES – if only one person out there finds some encouragement, some hope in what you are facing today because my words somehow ring true for you – yes, yes yes. I did not always have someone in my life at the darkest times; I know what loneliness and desperation are. There is HOPE. I found it – believe me friends, you can too. It is there, waiting.
One does not have to be a member of the Christian faith, or part of that heritage that has become buried under countless traditions, arguments and myths – to see the wisdom of the words that have been called “the beatitudes”. I am sure there are similar passages in other faiths, perhaps some that have meaning for you that I will never hear. Those words, spoken on a hill to a crowd that came with their own hopes of miracles, freedoms, or promised deliverance – that did not, for most, come to pass they way they expected, and for the Teacher, led to a painful end of life – they hold for many a kind of mystical poetic power beyond understanding. This is why I am reminded of the passage in the gospel of Matthew, chapter 5, verse 9 – “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God”. These few words are quietly nestled between similar blessings for those who are pure of heart, and those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness. And yet – of all these words now called the “sermon on the mount”, of all the characteristics that are described and the outcomes promised for those who embrace them – I only now realize that only the peacemaker has the blessing of joining in harmony with the very nature, the essence, of God. Children, of God.
Over the years, I, like you perhaps, have questioned most of what I was taught to simply accept, including translation, historical accuracy, documentation and the impact of mostly now forgotten ancient traditions in interpreting what we call “scripture”. But for me … I believe there is a special kind of peace in seeking reconciliation. With those in our life now; with those no longer in our life; and with that Power, however we define it, that exists outside the scope of our comprehension and understanding, for now at least, perhaps forever. We may sense those aspects of a larger spirit that we struggle to put into words, in whatever language – faith, hope, love, forgiveness; reaching out, to make peace, when we can – in what little way we are able.
We cannot always reconcile, or find peace, with everyone in our life; it’s not fully within our power. But our willingness to seek it out, is. The realization that the making of that effort is of itself a reflection of the very nature of the Eternal, of our spirit, and that which exists outside time itself – came to life for me, facing a seemingly empty chair, in a room filled with strangers I never saw again. Perhaps there is a chair you need to face – even if, like mine, empty for now.
Today I know and appreciate the love – imperfect but real – of my father in a way I was unable to grasp before those moments of healing. We each have our own seasons and paths in life; we must choose for ourselves as best we can and trust that in time good will come of it. I know there remain bridges to be built, and I have hope they can and will be. Thank you for taking the time to listen to this moment of my journey, as I continue hopefully to grow. Perhaps my words will give you hope, as well. Blessed be, indeed, the peacemakers, all of us, children of God.
Now some may consider that to be a philosophical statement; and, I guess, like any statement, you can find a way to insert something you already believe to be true into that space and make it fit. For me, that phrase was a throwaway line in the initially obscure, now somewhat cult film “The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai across the Eigthh Dimension”. It was a flop when released in the 80’s, with a great cast and wild storyline full of what now would be called “geeky” “easter eggs”. I think it was making fun of a lot of cultural sacred cows, but … what do I know?
Still, the phrase comes to mind now that fall is here. When this blog was conceived, it was winter; spring when it burst forth, now two seasons later and six months into a still strange world that I continue to resist embracing as the familiar. My goal when I began was to share elements of my life, and ongoing journey of discovery, in the hopes that it might have meaning for others – certainly more than it would just being kept in my own head. I didn’t have a destination in mind – I just knew I wanted to write about those things that were key to a lot of personal transformation in my life, knowing that process still continues.
But there were goals I set during this period, that I put effort into; some have been achieved, others not. There are those nights I wake up frustrated wondering what I am doing wrong; why I am not seeing more progress on things that I claim are priorities to me, but to which I devote little time, while eagerly chasing some diversion that requires less effort, devotion and discipline. Days go by that seem wasted, and I think … wow, I am now more than halfway to my next birthday. My last birthday was the first weekend of shelter in place; will my next birthday be all that different?
One of the ways I dealt with my frustration at feeling cooped up, trapped, cut off from so much of what I enjoyed in life and buried under a constant avalanche of dire, doom and gloom news – was to exercise. I was fortunate to have some personal fitness equipment. Some of you who have known me wayyyy back when know that I was at one time over 250 pounds, a consequence of seeking comfort from food or other sources that could never provide it, and the mindsets that kept me trapped in self rejection and hatred. Hopefully, some of what I have shared here of my journey away from that point have helped some readers look at their own caves and realize that they need to get out, and there is a way out, but it takes time and effort. Well, I figured I could finally transform my body into the ideal I have held it up against for 45 years, or at least get closer. People were going to gasp in awe and amazement at my transformed magnificence! (well, something like that).
Six months later … I have not been transformed. I spent hours on the back patio, with the bench, clumsily following video guidance, listening to music for that upbeat energy. Recently, our city leaders allowed outdoor training at the gym to return, so I spent a significant chunk of money for me on a training package a little more than a month ago; in the weeks since, the doors opened a little more, first with a tent filled with equipment in the gym parking lot, then with one hour appointment only blocks indoors, masked, with various other restrictions. I will say my trainer knows his stuff – but so do all the well-toned muscular men (and some women!) I see surrounding me with much heavier weights, and, well, all the rest. Are gay men necessarily more obsessed with fitness than others? I cannot say, but there are a lot in this gym who have reaped the rewards of years of devotion. I fight depression when I leave, knowing I might as well be planning a trip to Mars.
Grieving this apparent lack of results and vowing that the next six months will not be a repeat – I began thinking about what I need to make more of a priority in my life, and what I need to drop. Being forced to reflect a little more on what exactly I want to achieve, how to structure my day to be effective, and what else to set aside – I am coming to realize another surprising truth about my inner compass. I seem to be driven by some deeply buried but unachievable desire to accomplish change; to become more like the ideal that has always haunted me, taunted me, whether it was a matter of character, maturity, personal skill or interpersonal success – I never seem to be ok with where I am. I was never “good enough”. After all the work I had done with those who helped me to get somewhat beyond the shame I had embraced over some of the deepest parts of my identity, I still was trying to get to some place that I simply could not reach.
And this song came to mind …
Written as instrumental by Vince Guaraldi as part of an album related to the film “Black Orpheus”, in time lyrics were added and “Cast your fate to the wind” was covered by many artists, as well as convincing the production team behind “A Charlie Brown Christmas” to commission the trio for that soundtrack that forever will remind of us of Charlie, Lucy, Linus and Snoopy. But why was this song coming to mind?
I have always longed for a map. Whether in my youth it was the teachings of the church, or the grades on my report card telling me I had gotten it “Right” – I sought absolutes. I remember only half-jokingly telling friends after I came out that I needed to find “The Big Book of Gay” to figure it all out. I never found that book, and although I read many, many others on life, happiness, spiritual principles and personal growth – I remained deeply unsatisfied with myself. It’s not a pleasant place to be – surely you don’t blame me for wanting to get out of it!
But those quests, although worthwhile, did not bring me to the place I sought. Quietly, slowly, my awareness is opening to a new possibility. I am beginning to think that the challenge is not how to become someone I am not – that idealization physically, emotionally, relationally, spiritually and intellectually that I hold myself up to. Rather … I need to not necessarily just accept where I am as where I am going to end up – but to, for now, “own” where I am. Who I am, my flaws and my little shiny spots, my cold empty corners and my hallways of the heart filled with light and music – all of them.
Could it be that one cannot leave a place until one has made it their own? I do not recommend casting my fate (or yours) to the wind – but the reality is that much of what comes our way is completely unexpected and out of control, and to pretend we can somehow take the reins and maneuver all those forces to get us to some specific point is in itself a fine madness. When a friend says “it’s not the destination, it’s the journey” …. Maybe it’s both? I try every day to do something that when it is over I can say – I reached out. I touched someone else I care about in a way that made a difference to them, however small. To not go to bed without having made that day, somehow, matter.
I am not giving up on my quest; in fact, as I write today, I admit I haven’t really determined what it is I am still questing for. Does your heart long for something more than what you hold today? Can you feel that, or have you tried to quench it – to say, shut up, heart, I don’t want to try anymore – I just need to get by. It’s not for me to say which perspective is healthy, but I guess what I am realizing is that until I make peace with who I am today – my whole person – I will be forever trying to cut off something that I will always be carrying with me, wasting time on trying to be someone who I am not instead of finding ways to let the person I am do what I am able while still here. Wherever I go, they will be coming along – might as well love them!
To live each day as though what we do matters, because it does; to see each person we encounter as a little piece of the wonderous something that brought all this into existence, because they are; and to simply let our hands be open in case a butterfly decides to drop by for a visit, even though they never have. We awaken each morning to a day filled with the unknown, promise, possibilities and dangers – we are here, now. Take a deep breath, enjoy it – and onward, friends.
Thank you, followers – I always love hearing from you (well, almost always!)
Last week I shared about my solo sojourn through the heritage of “Cow Hollow” on what became a record-breaking hot summer Sunday. In my continued resolve to both explore San Francisco’s less familiar corners and to get out into our gradually opening city again, I looked into the recently resumed walking tours offered again by SF city guides. This wonderful program is slowly adding its newly revised offerings – outside only, 8 or less participants, masks and distancing – and I chose to begin with a tour of one of San Francisco’s Crown Jewels as it celebrates 150 years – quite unexpectedly on a day unlike any other within memory.
The “Mid Park Ramble” tour promised a look at hidden gems of Golden Gate park. I had spent many hours and miles running – well, jogging – through the park in early 2018 after my move here, preparing for my first “half marathon” in several years to celebrate my own 60th birthday that spring. But there were points on this tour I had not seen, and so I bought my advance ticket online and looked forward to sharing new vistas with you here. The plans for the sesquicentennial had been announced months before, and like every other expectation for this year, were derailed by the COVID restrictions; portion of the park streets were closed to traffic, but this journey outside scheduled for 10 am began not with the warm sunshine of just a few days prior – but near darkness – almost like a day long eclipse. The cause was a combination of smoke, weather conditions and fog, combining to create a deep orange haze that extended throughout the day. Oddly, the smell of smoke was not as noticeable as it had been a few days prior, with greater heat.
Before I begin reporting about the outing itself, I would like to share with you from a recent guidebook purchase – although it was the purchase that was recent, not the book itself. After all the insights I had gleaned in my prior excursion from the historic hikes book I shared from last week, I was inspired to look for older books that could give me an idea of the San Francisco that once was but is now, if still present, obscured. One of the first to arrive from my online shopping spree was the 1914 “Chamber of Commerce Handbook for San Francisco” shown here – featuring a photo of the statue of Junipero Serra that until recently stood in the Park itself. Let me share what this wonderful little book had to say about our exploration location more than 100 years ago –
“Here one sees the healthy life and leisure of the community. San Franciscans use their park. The drives swarm with fine equipages, fast motors, and ruddy-face lovers of good horse-flesh bound for the speedway in wire-wheeled sulkies. Youth rides the bridle paths. Groups of children are rolling and tumbling about the lawns, for there is not a “Keep -off-the Grass” sign in the whole thousand acres”.
The streets we traverse today bear names not known then – John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., Nancy Pelosi. And some of the history and culture then celebrated and welcomed is no longer visible – the Park had been in the news prominently nationally just a few months prior, when a group of people took action to pull down statues and memorials that they found unacceptable based on their own values and similar actions happening around the country. I had watched the video on the news like many of you, seeing sculptures of various historical figures torn down and destroyed, but I admit – I had not paid them much attention on prior visits.
The effect of the smoke and still air, combined with the greenery of the Park, left the skies darker than twilight the evening before. Having arrived early, I took some photos in the open area between the DeYoung Museum and the previously added “Observation wheel” that was to be a hallmark of the year long festivities. A note on my photos, taken with my iPhone – many that were published online which you may have seen did not capture fully the eerie shades in the sky, due to the “auto correct” programming of most devices; those of mine that are “darker” were taken in panoramic mode, which I believe captured the color more fully. In that sense, I guess I got lucky!
No matter where you stand in the Park, there are echoes of history surrounding you. This panoramic shot of the central park area stretches from the observation wheel past the illuminated California Academy of Sciences erected in 2008 to the Music concourse which was added in 1889. As I looked towards the soon to reopen DeYoung Museum facing this area, I saw another statue that had previously escaped my notice – and I promise you, I didn’t even realize it was naked until I saw my photos at home, it was that dark! But I wondered about its origin, seemingly out of place near the modern museum – learning later that it was an 1881 bronze of a roman centurion commemorating the “first shovelful of earth” turned in preparing for the California Midwinter International Exposition here in 1893. The DeYoung itself celebrates 125 years in 2020 – having been established originally from the structure known as the “Memorial Museum” and greatly expanded in the years since.
As noted, some of that history is now absent, possibly forever. The destruction of the statues of Francis Scott Key, whose lyrics form our national anthem “The Star-Spangled Banner”, was perhaps more noticeable since his monument still stands, but his figure is gone from its perch across from the DeYoung. Through that now empty space the observation wheel sits motionless, awaiting the “go ahead” like so many other features of our city and nations, and the grounds seemed certainly more silent and deserted as well as more dim than usual during my pre tour stroll.
When our group gathered outside the Japanese Tea Garden, we began our guided exploration, beginning with a walk along Stow Lake on our way to Strawberry Hill, which like most of the park had been created from the mostly barren sand dunes into lushly forested corners of nature. We learned that the artificially created “Huntington Falls” were funded by a donation from Henry Huntington, the “Big Four” railroad czar whose home and library down in San Marino which I have loved visiting many times. Note, all the “normal lighting” pictures here, gathered from the internet, are intended to give you a view that my own exploration failed to provide.
At the top, the early visitors to the Park could take the carriage route, or the walking path, to what was called the “Observatory” – not in the sense we think today, but just a flat, open space where on a clear night they could view the stars. I found this old postcard illustrating what you might have seen if you made the climb 120 years ago, before that 1906 earthquake destroyed the structure, never rebuilt, with little remaining. Of course, even though it was dark at 1030 am, the smoke prevented any enjoyment of the stars themselves – but the owls hooting at us along the way might well have been confused as to why their normal cycle had been so rudely interrupted. Thankfully, they did not attack in vengeance. But they might have been thinking about it …..
We continued past other notable features of the area, with groups of other hikers and children gradually appearing, but still in near dark skies – eventually arriving at a spot that even my husband who has lived in SF more than 40 years had not known of. Referred to now as the “Prayerbook Cross”, it is nearly 60 feet tall and barely visible until you nearly reach the top of the trail where it stands on one of the highest points in the park itself. A gift from the Church of England in 1894, resembling a traditional Celtic cross, it commemorates the first prayer service in 1579 following the arrival by Sir Francis Drake using the “Book of Common Prayer”. Unlike the damaged or destroyed memorials below in the more well-travelled areas, I observed only a few curse words sprayed on rocks nearby this silent sentinel that looks over our changing city still.
The moments and individuals commemorated in this city oasis cover a centuries long and world wide heritage. Today, our country faces divisions seemingly more deep and broad than those of any known in our lifetimes. They will not be resolved easily or quickly. I do not have the answers or solutions to offer, and I honestly question those who insist that their perspective is the only one worth considering, whatever position they take. I like to think we can build bridges between islands, but the daily turmoil erupting before us everywhere seems unending. I can only say that history has meaning – what meaning perhaps will always vary by the heritage of perspective of those sharing it or hearing it. It is up to us, individually, to work to preserve what we treasure, support the future we want to build for our children, and create traditions that they will cherish and which will give them strength and hope.
In a way I was glad I could experience the unique beauty of this amazing Park on such an unusual day – not to be repeated, hopefully, in our lifetimes. Soon, a limited number of visitors will, bearing masks, move through the galleries of these museums, as more will picnic on the grounds, and hear music in the air – some of the guardians who stood over them are gone, but the life of the Park itself cannot be contained, only evolve. Hopefully we shall, as well – and preserve all that which future generations shall remember, and perhaps treasure if not celebrate, under sunny, smoke free skies, again.
This past week brought my first opportunity in several months to discover new views of my recently adopted home town. The last six months have been crushing everyone in more ways than I can imagine – I am grateful to be with my husband, retired, and healthy. Nevertheless, the confinement has weighed on me, and I am sure on all you who read this, in different ways. In an effort to direct some of my newly limited energy towards a constructive end, and other projects completed, I had recently committed to increasing my cardio activity, for both mental and physical health, by exploring the city. But where to begin? When I awoke in the wee hours last Saturday night, I recalled buying a book on Amazon prior to my move here in 2017, and I dug it out this past Sunday morning.
The book was “Historic Walks in San Francisco – 18 trails through the City’s past” by Rand Richards. Perhaps you have avoided this bad habit, but I have many wonderful books that remain unread for years, and this is one. It inspired me, and I set out to explore an area I was completely whose background was little known to me – the oddly named Cow Hollow. Most of the historic background here, and all but a handful of the destinations, I credit fully to Mr. Richards whose book is unfortunately out of print. However, although his guide is based on geography, I want to share my stroll based on timeline – beginning with the earliest spot on my walk. Come along (masked, please) as we stroll through a kaleidoscope of history and humanity. (As it turned out, our stroll occurs on a day of record breaking heat!)
The Spanish expedition led by Juan Bautista de Anza from Tubac (then Mexico, now Arizona) to the San Francisco Bay of Alta California arrived at the site of the Presidio in June 1776. You can read more about their journey in this excellent website. Soon, they found a water source which fed into the bay, and it became their spot for washing – known in time as “Washerwoman’s lagoon”. By 100 years or so later, it was filled in, and disappeared – now, the intersection of Grenwich and Gough represents what would have been its center. The shoppers and residents here for the most part may not realize their homes were once in the middle of water!
It was not until 1847 that the first home was built in the area; long gone, it was built by Elijah Ward Pell, a member of a Mormon contingent who, according to the guidebook, was excommunicated for “licentious behavior” – shocking! He chose to settle here, far from his former brethren who gravitated towards what was then called Yerba Buena. Today, the intersection of Green and Laguna bears no apparent marker of this first location of residence, but I am guessing he would have appreciated the liquor store’s presence in his time.
The little community grew to support the growing broader population. What we now call Cow Hollow originally took its name from dairies which began in the area in 1853, growing to about 3 dozen of varying sizes until roughly 50 years later when the last closed. This lovely little home on Octavia is regarded as the last remaining “dairy home” in the area – the name remains, but thankfully, not the aroma.
From 1861, the Octagon house at the corner of Gough and Union is one of two remaining in SF, but in its era nearly 700 were built around the country – promoted as energy efficient and healthy due to greater light exposure. But originally, it was on the opposite corner – nearly a century after it was built, PG&E acquired the property and offered it for a mere dollar to whomever would move it. In the 1950’s the National Society of Colonial Dames purchased it and moved it to the current site, where it houses their display of period historical mementos, with a lovely park next door. On the day of my stroll, the park welcomed dog walkers, readers, and other socially distant friends to it’s sanctuary.
When Henry Casebolt built his stately home on Pierce in 1866, a mere 15 years had passed after moving to the city from Virginia with his wife and 11 children!! He was a blacksmith who had started his own carriage making company and developed several mechanical innovations for horse drawn transportation and, in time, cable cars. Imagine how lonely this majestic home looked 150 years ago, before it was surrounded by the residences of today. The guidebook says that 20 years after it was built, Chinese laborers could be seen across the street in their vegetable garden on the still empty street. Now, a posting on the fence describes a public hearing (virtual, of course) to be held regarding the homeowner’s wish to remove the palm trees, and the neighbors desire to retain them – they are incongruous, but San Francisco is not known for moving quickly on homeowners’ wishes for change.
This little alley, hidden behind a shall we say “budget motel” on Lombard, is Blackstone court – gated with a few homes which, like many, were moved here or repositioned over the years, but still date back over a century ago. The gate bears a marker noting its significance going back two centuries along a trail past the lagoon to the military encampment at the Presidio – and, in time, the home of nurseryman Charles Abraham, who reportedly imported the first bougainvillea (native to South America) to California! Everyone loves bougainvillea! Imagine nearly the entire block surrounding this home with greenhouses, a windmill for power, and his own water tower – now, all gone and built over, save his original 1885 home.
There are endless stories of the 1906 earthquake and associated fires to the city as a whole. I do not know if Cow Hollow was one of the most affected areas – but I found this wonderful account of a resident of the area, an “eyewitness to history”.
San Francisco has been a haven and perhaps a magnet welcoming many, shall we say, less mainstream faiths and beliefs, at least in traditional western society of that era. Can you imagine being a Hindu in 1905, and the excitement you would have at the first temple in the Western US, perhaps all the US, opening – a place for you, your family, your friends to gather safely and look for hope and encouragement in a rapidly changing world. Although the district is home to other beautiful churches and houses of faith, the architecture of this residence on Webster and Fillmore remains as both housing and a meeting place for its members. Like many buildings along the walk, it bears signs noting that classes and gatherings have been suspended due to Covid – but the windows above are open, and one day the doors will be as well.
SF is known worldwide for its role in the emergence of the “counterculture” – one might never guess that this little dining spot, for lobster rolls and burritos, once housed “The Six Gallery”, and it was here in 1995 that the “beat movement” was birthed at a public reading of works, including Allen Ginsberg and his draft of “HOWL”. The ideas, the passions and the energy that those minds and hearts generated reached across our continent in time – and the world. Our city still gives haven to thinkers, creators and those whose lives challenge our ideas of traditional.
The six plus decades since the Beat Generation, the 60’s “Summer of love” and events within our own memory brought more changes. Many of those impacted my life directly and continue to change lives worldwide. I walked about 4 miles last weekend on my little time travel; I saw families, couples, a few dogs, some skaters – new life continuing in this memorial to our shared heritage. There are many more beautiful homes along the way, not all necessarily historic or architecturally remarkable, but perfect examples of the varied eras that have come and gone through the nearly 250 years since DeAnza brought the Spanish expedition north to this then very different land. Here I passed a steep street with the carefully maintained homes standing like sentries in time, watching over the lives, the people, the vehicles that change decade by decade, remaining vigilant yet.
As I strolled along Broadway towards Franklin, the view down one of the famous steep avenues of the city towards the bay brings “Dirty Harry” to mind, and so many other films created here over the decades.
Until a few years ago, I knew SF only from movies, and stories, and rare brief visits. As I approach my car, I pass one of those sites that appear in tourist books, knowing that most of the stories I share with you today are less likely to be as well remembered as the fictional works of the silver screen.
As we reflect on our stroll, and I return to shelter in place once more, may I suggest this is not a time for wondering what we can regain from the recent past we have been denied for a brief moment, but rather what kind of future can we envision and work towards together. Today, I gained new appreciation for the ongoing power of this city, and its peoples, to attract an unending variety of dreamers and schemers, hopes and visions, sharing our epiphanies and dejections. That power exists everywhere, waiting to be embraced. Wherever you live, the history of your lives, and those who came before, can open hearts and minds to possibilities – we need them even more today.
Just think about the amazing variety of lives, dreams and cultures who lived within these few blocks over nearly 250 years. Catholics, Latter day Saints, Hindu faiths; radicals, entrepreneurs, immigrants; scoundrels, visionaries and like most of us, people just trying to get through it most days. From the few hundred who came from Mexico, to those who travelled by ship and wagon across oceans and continents for a chance for a better life, the “outsiders” who were viewed with suspicion by the more established cultures, and the emerging visionaries crying for change and meaning – this city, and our country, gave them – and gives us – a chance to grasp our dreams.
So thank you, Mr. Richards, for enlightening me on this delightful stroll – here is a link to a summary of his many books. I hope you will consider further explorations of your own, even if only remotely, through his work. I don’t know when my next “real life” excursion may occur (hopefully soon) – but here is a preview of one that I took just a few days later, by chance on a day unlike any other in recent memory, which will be in my next post. Stay safe, y’all, and keep on dreaming!
Like many of you, lately I have been missing my friends. I always loved the song “You got a friend in me” by Randy Newman, introduced a quarter century ago (!) in Pixar’s “Toy Story”. Even through all its sequels, somehow the spinners of animated tales still manage to imbue those little toys with heart and personality that capture our own feelings so well. Joy, hope, loneliness, uncertainty, change – that band of playthings went through it all, and we grew along with them. Woody and Buzz went through a lot – but not COVID. That was reserved just for us humans.
While we approach the six-month mark here in San Francisco of “shelter in place” – I have been missing so many of my friends. Having moved here in late 2017, most of my longtime friends are now hundreds of miles away. Since arriving, between getting married, work and other adjustments, social life has been squeezed in when possible – until it wasn’t, in March. There are new friendships forming, of course, but being retired and now having no “active” social life – I feel everyone’s ongoing absence more deeply. As much as zoom and Facetime and google meets and, well, even this blog are ways to stay connected – they cannot make up for human touch, for moments of laughter, for a quiet walk or a thousand other ways we find to be truly together.
Friendship is kind of an ethereal, mystical force in some ways, coming and going, unpredictable, always evolving. There are all kinds of friendships, they say – some for a season, a few hopefully for a lifetime. Growing up and for much of my “adult” life, I was never really good at feeling close to others, understandably from my personal history, but I have worked on it and continue to. It was not that I did not care, but that I did not feel I fit in, or could be fully accepted, or truly belonged. Yet, over the years, there have been friends that remained close, even now from afar. Still … as months pass, even pre COVID, those connections are somehow fading … and perhaps that is healthy. I have never moved away before – never left everything, and everyone, behind to make such a significant change in every area of my life.
It’s normal that I don’t want to “let go” – I don’t want those long term relationships to end, whether they originated from shared interests like Disneyland and movies, from work relationships that turned into trust, caring and closeness, from church and other community commitments, or from my more recent coming to terms with parts of myself I had to learn to accept, coming out, and making new friends in that process. Yet – the time comes, we must let go. And then, continue to reach out again, and again. I am learning to reach out here, not just to ask, but to give. I treasure all those friends, old and new, far and close.
There were, over the years, friends that drifted away, or relationships that ended on less than optimal terms. I realize in hindsight that I held an unrealistic expectation of some now lost friends – and vice versa. Sadly, some ended as I grew into being more of me, and less of what I thought I was supposed to be for others – becoming authentic; coming out was a part of that, but not all of that. Some wanted care, support, answers from me that I could not give – and likewise I wanted more than others could offer. A few wanted me to be who I used to be for them; some could not accept my life any longer, I had fallen from grace in their eyes, or lost my way. It wasn’t always direct – but the undercurrent was clear enough. And that’s just part of life – we move on. I hope, for all of them, they are finding their way to happiness still.
Funny, though, how some of the closest and most long enduring relationships come from my professional life – coworkers that in time became more. For many of us, we spend more time with our office team than with our family. We recently re-watched “The Office” finale which perfectly portrayed the awkward balance between tolerating and caring about those people and, then in time, moving from that “home” to a new, beckoning future. There was a song featured towards the end of the finale, actually written by Creed Bratton, actor and musician – called “All the Faces”. Here is a bit of the lyrics, and a link to a fan video with Office moments.
“I saw a friend today, it had been a while. And we forgot each others names.
But it didn’t matter cause deep inside the feeling still remained the same.
We talked of knowing one before you’ve met, and how you feel more than see,
and other worlds that lie in spaces in between, and angels you can see.
And all the faces that I know have that same familiar glow.
I think I must’ve known them somewhere once before
All the faces that I know.
Creed Bratton, “The Office” finale – All the Faces that I know
2020 has been a year of challenge we could never have expected. In the past nearly half year, I have seen friends lose jobs, lose family – yes, even lose their lives, leaving loved ones behind grieving. Sell their homes, move away to new ones, or risk losing all they had to fire. Some started new lives; their children graduate without an audience, their spouses have been hospitalized and hopefully recover; others are thinking about leaving the country of their birth in frustration; one has welcomed a new grandchild to their family. But I see people turning on one another daily – on the news, in my own circle of relationships, and online. Sometimes over politics, or faith, or some position on an issue that they feel strongly about – whatever the reason, some doors are closed, perhaps forever. All this and more happened in the lives of my friends since we entered this strange era. These events would mostly have happened apart from Covid, but somehow, we all seem to be carrying an extra weight, a longer shadow. These are the times they – all of us – need one another more than ever. We must not burrow into our caves, but reach out, even more – it takes work.
True, some friendships endure a lifetime – but most fade. We don’t want to let go, sometimes – we need one another; but it happens. Like the tender strands of a web that stretch in the wind, and in time – are loosed, and eventually unwind except in our memory. That friendship connection is a force of mystery, it’s lifespan unknown, its purpose uncertain – do we nurture it? Do we make it a priority? As we see gaps between ourselves, I can only offer you this suggestion – don’t throw away what you have. Try to build on it; try to keep it alive. Yes, there are times that moving on is best – knowing those moments is kind of hard right now, when no one is really themselves, and everyone is in a personal pressure chamber with the steam building every day. We need each other, friends, now and past, future and yet to be.
Nearly a year ago now, I took a trip to see old friends down south – not knowing of course that it would be the last trip away from my new home for a yet to be determined time. I’m grateful I had the chance. A kind of reunion tour, not being able to see everyone in that short time, but having moments with many, seeing faces light up, remembering what we shared and setting aside what might have been. Here are some moments, and faces, from that trip that I treasure – we may not meet again.
There is a kind of longing, a yearning in my heart and perhaps yours hearts that seems to remain; we may learn in time that others cannot be, never could be, everything we needed or wanted. We start to see not a glass half full, or half empty – instead, seeing no glass at all, just an appreciation for what is there, now, today. Letting go of the longing for “more”, to treasure what is in our lives at this moment – choosing to say “yes – this is enough”. And to work on being a channel to others of what we seek ourselves. We become part of a living network of souls, rising, falling, reaching out and for a moment dancing together, parting and moving on.
Which brings me back to our friends, Woody, Buzz and all those little toys, and most recently Toy Story 4. Spoiler alert, folks! I saw this in the theater last year – in a way, it felt almost like an existentialist reflection on what does it mean to be alive, but maybe that was just me. In any case – at the end of the film, Woody has to make a choice. He chooses a new path, but in that – realizes he also must choose to, for now, say goodbye to those who became his family for so long. In a way, I think COVID, and distance, is forcing that for some friendships. Here is the end of that film, which, if you haven’t seen it – might give you some joy for a couple of hours.
My friends – present, and past – I miss you dearly. You have taught me so much; your gentle kindnesses, small perhaps to you, encouraged me to accept myself the way you did. Your open minds and hearts showed me that people who are different can still truly care for one another without expecting change. Your courage in the face of trials and challenges inspired me to find strength to stand for what I work for. Your openness to different ways of thinking helped me to escape my own narrow vision and tinier world for a greater reality. Perhaps most of all, the fact that you showed me love does not have to be perfect to have worth, helped me to work towards finding my own voice – and now, in the days ahead, to try to share these lessons with others. God knows there are many surrounding each of us that just need a little love.
We are trying our best to stay afloat in the winds of change, and we may not be together again, certainly not in the foreseeable future. So let me say this clearly, from my heart. I hope you are well, and loved, and finding hope. And, I miss all my friendships that, for whatever reason – deliberate, their choice, my choice, or just “happened” – aren’t there anymore. I wish I could say to them, and I say to you who read this – thank you.
Thank you,friends, for being a special part of a chapter in my life, and even though it is closed, you are still there, always in my heart, not forgotten.
This week, in the events happening in Portland Oregon, among others – a man was brutally beaten senseless in the street; his head viciously kicked after he lay helpless, some cheering, followed by others trying to help. A suspect is arrested, blame is being placed – but it won’t be the last. Perhaps we have reached a place where this is not as newsworthy as other stories – certainly, there is a lot of chaos poured into our eyes and ears daily, along with promises and blame and threats. It seems to never end.
That news footage brought to my memory a story, initially from my childhood, and later … much later .. arising from other events in my life. Perhaps you know it, or at least the major elements of it, from Sunday school lessons about “how to be good”. It has more meaning to it than usually is shared, lost simply because the historical context is less familiar to us. It’s always interested me, and so .. let us revisit that possibly familiar tale. You may recognize it, but I suggest there are some aspects that a little more background can add to its meaning.
First, though … a memory from my own past whose connection will become apparent later. In 1984, early in my quest to somehow find freedom from my “personal defects” according to church teachings, I took a trip to Israel – not just a routine trip, but an archeological study tour. Here are two pics from that trip – the first, a very young and thin me at the Sea of Galilee; and, a shot of me with the trip leader, on the “dig” at Tel Qasile in Tel Aviv, where I did actually uncover the small jug you see (no, I did not get to keep it, it was centuries old, and intact!) I will admit, after seeing “Raiders of the Lost Ark”, I was praying to uncover that relic, but did not.
It was a wonderful trip – and it included stops at sites associated with all aspects of the region’s history, not just Christian. Among them, what is known as “Jacob’s well” in Samaria, where according to New Testament writings in the Gospel of John, Jesus spoke to the “woman at the well”, promising her that if she knew to whom she was speaking, she would ask for and receive from him “living water”, “welling up to eternal life”. We did not stay long – this was the early 80’s, and there was what was described as “rock attacks” in the area. But we did make another stop, because the children of that area, due to inbreeding, were known for their susceptibility to genetic defects, and the tour organizer would always stop along the way to greet them.
A photo of “Jacob’s Well”G about 100 years ago
The tale that comes to mind originates in this region. As in most faith traditions, there are people who like to point to their own “good housekeeping seal of approval” – they follow the rules, they “do the right thing”, and are generally pretty pleased with themselves. Another common feature in many faith traditions is pointing to compliance with specific rules, policies, traditions and doing one’s utmost to always be strictly obedient. In this story, one described as a “lawyer” – an educated man, familiar with religious laws, intellectual and respected in the community – asked a spiritual teacher what he could do to be guaranteed entry into eternal life. The teacher responded not with an answer, but a question – what does the law say? After the lawyer faithfully quoted scripture – to love God with all your heart, soul and strength – and your neighbor as yourself. The teacher acknowledged that the lawyer was correct – but the lawyer, perhaps not unlike some we know today centuries later, wanted to be sure he knew all the angles. And so, he asked again – who is my neighbor?
The teacher responded not with an answer, but with a story. A man, on a specific road that those from the area knew well – a steep, treacherous, winding road in the wilderness, where dangers were known to be common – fell victim to those laying in wait, who robbed, stripped and beat him, and left him for dead. That passage is still in use today – in fact, in his “Mountaintop” speech the day before his death, Martin Luther King Jr. described travelling down that very road – knowing it’s relevance to church teachings – and seeing how dangerous it was still, centuries later.
It’s a winding, meandering road. It’s really conducive for ambushing….. That’s a dangerous road”.
Martin Luther King Jr.
As the story continues, there is a sign of hope! A priest is coming and surely sees the beaten body by the side of the road – broken – abandoned – helpless. But no … the priest crosses to the other side – seeing, but avoiding, perhaps thinking he is dead but – not getting close enough to see if maybe, he might have survived. Sometime later – another respected, public man of faith, one especially trained in the details of its intricate laws and traditions, so much so that his judgment was sought in matters of “right” and “wrong” – approaches … but he, too, crosses to the other side of the road, moving along his way – the body again, alone. But, a 3rd passerby stops, sees the body, and chooses to help – described only as the Samaritan.
Now you probably recognize this as the story of the “good Samaritan”. The teacher, Jesus, or in the original Hebrew more properly Yeshua or Joshua, was an itinerant preacher whose growing crowds and reputation for miracles was growing, becoming a threat to established practice, and a symbol of resistance to his people, occupied by the invading Roman forces. He (or more properly, Luke) never described the Samaritan as “good”, only by his tribe. Because – the idea of a Samaritan being of good character was completely alien to his audience. You see, Samaritans were viewed as “outsiders” by traditional Jewish culture – a rebellious sect who had abandoned the revered practices of their ancestral faith, who had attacked the symbols and were ridiculed and treated as dirt by the majority population of that region. Samaritans were, for many, the lowest of the low – worthless. Without value.
What the road between Jerusalem and Jericho looks like in this century.
Samaritans, like the “woman at the well”, were descendants of ancient Hebrews who had not been taken into captivity during an earlier occupation, who in time developed different sacred beliefs. There are minimal other references to Samaritans in the Christian New Testament we know; in another Jesus healed 10 lepers, but only one came back to give thanks – the Samaritan. With both examples, Jesus – a Jew – was interacting with someone who, according to Jewish traditions, was to be avoided at all costs, unholy, unworthy. He defied expectation.
As Jesus finishes his parable, despite their ancestral traditions of mutual hatred – it was this man, who bandaged his wounds; carried him on his own beast to an inn, and paid for his care, until he returned again to pay the remainder owed. We do not know what the wounded traveler learned of his rescue; or if he ever met his benefactor. In finishing his example, Jesus did not answer the lawyer’s question of “who is my neighbor” – instead, responding only with a question in return.
Who was a neighbor to the man lying on that wilderness road,
left for dead, beaten and alone?
For a Jewish teacher to suggest that a Samaritan – members of two very different yet related tribes and traditions – would respond to the need when the victims more direct brethren ignored it, for reasons unspoken and unknown – was a radical challenge to the questioner for self-examination. Would he have responded to the need of someone who not only had he been taught, all of his life, to hate – and, by all expectations, would have hated him as well? Could he had even known that this man lying in the road was a member of that larger group who treated his people as dirt – was it obvious somehow from his appearance, his dress, his skin, his features? We do not know. It is, after all, a parable – an allegory.
Yet, the seed within the story is one of hope – that individuals can choose to set aside what they have been taught; how they have been treated; to show mercy and love, instead of shutting doors, and leaving those in need, behind. That choice is present for us, today. Perhaps it is needed most for us to offer to the people that we would ordinarily despise, reject, condemn, “cancel” and write out of our lives – for their sakes, and for ours as well.
I have not always been a good neighbor; I don’t have the purest of hearts nor do I do all that I can to help those in need around me. Few of us make the choice to fully commit to a life of service, such as Mother Theresa. I certainly don’t expect anyone to consider me a saint or even a good example of tolerance. But that Samaritan, defying his culture and the expectations of those around him, gives us all a reminder to ask ourselves – how can we, even in just a little way, be part of the answer to the needs of those discard broken, rejected and alone? Are we embracing hate, labeling, casting aside “others” – for whatever reasons we consider perfectly justifiable in our own reasoning – instead of simply, reaching out? Especially in these times – where daily we see chaos, if not in our neighborhood, on our screens – and need, if not in our homes, well within our ability to impact, somehow.
We don’t know, fully, what the attorney who asked how to be guaranteed eternal life interpreted the story. Luke, in his account, merely gives his response to Jesus’ question – who was the neighbor – as “The one who showed him mercy”. Did his life change after that encounter? Perhaps what we should ask ourselves is – does ours need to? Whether you believe in a divine force in whatever form – I think it is worth considering. But, I will leave the final word, to the final words attributed to Jesus in the account.
“Go and do likewise”.
“The Quality of Mercy is not strained” – Shakespeare, Merchant of Venice
Note -Today, the small Samaritan community still survives and is more open to learning how to use science to reduce the risk of genetic defects in future generations. I found an interesting entry about the genealogical and DNA factors for this small group, here –