A Reasonable Thought

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Imagine this:

You wake up on a typical Hump Day morning. Get yourself into a quick shower, grab a cup of coffee, maybe some toast. Put on your uniform. Say “See ya,” or something similar to your spouse and kids. You drive into work.

It isn’t a dream job but there is some measure of security and it comes with benefits. And you try to make it decent every day by being friendly with your customers, especially the ones you see most weekdays. There are some nice people on your route and you’ve gotten to know a few really well over the years.

Makes the day go by to share a few words with them as you make your deliveries.

When you get in on this Wednesday, there’s a meeting before you start out. You grab another cup of coffee from the break room. Should have stopped at Peet’s or Starbucks because break room coffee is crap but it would have made you late.

Shoot the breeze with a few co-corkers before the meeting starts. Jim went to the extra-innings Giants game last night and looks a little tired. Manuel’s daughter is having her quinceañera over the weekend. 

That’s a pretty typical start-of-shift scene at a lot of workplaces, right?

Now imagine:

One of your co-workers stands up in that completely routine meeting, pulls a gun out of his coat and starts shooting the people around you, dead.

That very thing happened here last week, at the local UPS facility, just a few short blocks away. And, as typically happens in the wake of incidents of mass violence in San Francisco, the gruesome results were visited upon our hospital.

I stood in a makeshift conference room as an emergency room doctor told the wife of one victim that her husband, who’d a few hours earlier left his home for what they both thought would be just another routine day at work delivering packages, had died.

Those who know me at all know my feelings about gun control. After this latest incident in too  a long string of them I am even more firmly dedicated to my beliefs; as a public safety necessity, we should regulate the civilian ownership of firearms at least as actively as we regulate the operation of motor vehicles.

Just imagine yourself going to work on a Wednesday and never coming home.

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Grief of the Gun

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I work at an urban public hospital and trauma center and, sadly, today was like too many others. I witnessed friends and family of a young man torn apart by a bottomless grief that was caused by a gun.

Today, it was a 15-year-old named Reajohn Jackson. Next time, the victim of gun violence will have a different name. Different friends and family members will be at our hospital sobbing and asking “Why?” to doctors and nurses, to kin, to no one in particular.

I have met the mothers and grandmothers and brothers and sisters and cousins of gun violence victims before today. And each, in their own ways, bear the unmistakable scars of shock and horror and anger and sadness.

I have met too many.

I suspect that, as long as I live, I will remember the human agony I witnessed today, as person after person rushed to our hospital only to be told of the passing of their friend, their classmate, their relative. One young man, in stunned disbelief, kept repeating, over and over as if to gain some measure of understanding, “What am I going to tell my sister? What am I going to tell my sister?”

I wish I knew, young man.

 

 

 

Losing It

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I found professional football a wondrous thing when I was first introduced to it, back in the 1960s.

Games between near-mythic gladiators were listened to on the radio, or read about in Monday’s newspaper, where reporters used the power of language to bring readers into the experience and atmosphere of the game. Home games weren’t broadcast on TV in that dark era, so it was either attend in person, listen on radio, or read about it. The networks only broadcast top-tier games on TV and our Forty-Niners weren’t in the top-tier in those days, not even close. When they played the NFL’s best teams (and weren’t home) we could have the pleasure of seeing them go down to ignominious defeat live.

When home in those days, the Forty-Niners played in Kezar Stadium, named for city benefactress Mary Kezar, which sat at the eastern edge of Golden Gate Park and adjoined a quaint residential neighborhood of Victorian homes. It was just down the hill from the University of San Francisco, which supplied some of the team’s early stars, and was as close to the geographic center of town as was possible to find for construction of a football stadium. Regular attendees knew not to drive there – such was madness. They walked, or took a bus.

The turf, maintained by the city’s parks and recreation department, was often muddy and brown. All the seats were plain wooden benches. Food was modest. Beer was cheap and free-flowing. Fans were the local hoi polloi. But when you were at Kezar, you knew damn well you were in San Francisco, watching the local boys play some football.

Kezar wasn’t luxe in any sense of the word but it was intimate. Fans were on top of the field and each other. A community was created every home game day. Season ticket holders became family with one another and, by the end of any game, with more casual attendees as well.

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And, by God, the Forty-Niners, although never big winners at Kezar, were always quirky originals and fun to watch.  On the offensive side of the ball, John Brodie, Ted Kwalick, Gene Washington. On the defense, there was Dave Wilcox, Rosie Taylor, Jimmie Johnson, Mel Phillips. Most players, certainly those without marquee status and million-dollar contracts, had off-season employment or owned small local businesses.

The team of that era and the place they played football couldn’t be any more different than today’s Forty-Niners or their stadium, sitting as it does in the midst of low-rise corporate office buildings, the Santa Clara Convention Center, a moat-like parking expanse and a dull and aging amusement park. The setting is classic American suburban, therefore automobile-based. Parking lots of various sizes encircle the stadium like the camps of a besieging army.

The stadium itself was all I imagined it to be from reading about it and seeing it on television – plastic, generic, electronic, corporate. The slope of the stands make most seats feel farther from the field than they are. Openings on the northern and southern ends dissipated fan noise and connection to the game and each other. Big screens broadcasting field action live compensate for poor visibility. Corporate logos are everywhere.

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The architectural feature that dominates the stadium is the luxury suite/press box building, essentially a non-descript soulless high-rise of glass and metal, which could be any of the surrounding Santa Clara office buildings, or, really, any corporate campus building in Anywhere, USA.

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In short, there is no sense of particular place or setting.

The economics of professional sports have changed since the 1960s, to be sure. The NFL, itself a nonprofit institution that earns over $12 billion in revenue from ticket sales and merchandizing, takes in additional $billions in corporate sponsorships, in-kind contributions and underwriting – and that amount is expected to grow 5% in the coming year. The average NFL team is worth something like $2 billion.

Running that sort of business requires commitment to amenities for sponsors and fans: luxury boxes, gourmet food, (gasp) seats with backs. And it requires maximizing revenue through instruments like seat licenses, high season ticket prices and fees. So, in a perverse way, it is altogether fitting for an organization like that to do its business inside something like Levi’s Stadium.

In that narrow way, the place is perfection, unlike, of course, the team that plays there.

In every way, the San Francisco Forty-Niners football team I saw last weekend were the worst possible exemplars of American football. No quirkiness. No drama. No dash. No personality. No fun. Rudderless. Aimless. Passionless. Unsuccessful and unengaged.

The Forty-Niners are awash in logos but drifting away from the very characteristics that made them, and the game they play, so special.

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Inspiration Is Where You Find It

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It may be a time of unusually depressing news, or I may just be getting older, but there’s plenty to be down about these days. Examples: the wave of humanity from Syria meeting human indifference in Europe and North America; the ignorance and bigotry posing as ‘religious freedom’ in Kentucky and elsewhere; the clown-show going by the name of the campaign for the Republican nomination for the presidency.

That said, three things have given me inspiration and hope today and I do so want to share them.

The first might seem rather random but life is that way sometimes. Later today, at Memorial Stadium in Berkeley, Grambling State University’s football team will play the Golden Bears of the University of California. No, that’s not it; this isn’t a sports story. Besides football, Grambling, an historically-black institution of higher education, is known for it’s high-octane, high-energy, up-to-date and hip marching band, called “The Best Band in the Land.” Yesterday, that band practiced at Richmond’s John F. Kennedy High School, to the delight and, yes, inspiration of the benighted school’s students.

Now, Kennedy is known as a tough school. It’s big and it’s urban. There have been violent incidents. Its students don’t tend to be among the state’s most accomplished. But yesterday, they got to see a high-performing unit of college kids who looked a lot like the high school kids and, by all reports, the results were glorious.

The message they brought to Kennedy, along with their music, was summed up by band member Jamie Taylor, who is from Oakland,  “You have the potential to do anything that you put your mind to,” he said . “I didn’t think that I would be able to do it, balancing classes and everything, but I’ve done it and I’m just so happy and I’m proud of myself, as well as my peers.”

Here’s hoping that message was absorbed by the Kennedy crowd.

The next source of inspiration came over the radio, on the Canadian Broadcasting Company’s program Day 6. The program host, Brent Bambury, interviewed two Canadians who, a generation ago, were refugees from Vietnam, or boat-people as they were called back then. These people know well the feelings of today’s Syrians hoping for some measure of charity, if not hospitality from Europeans, from whom they’re hoping for refuge. Some years ago, they had been in the precise position, herded into camps, made to wait for sponsorship from some unknown someone in a position to help.

They knew the struggle. You could hear that in their voices. But they also knew the relief when, in their cases, good-hearted Canadians took them in. And the result? They have become hard-working members of their communities, good citizens and credits to their nation. Turns out their gratefulness extends pretty deep. They’re organizing other Vietnamese-Canadians, themselves mostly former refugees, to help today’s Syrian refugees by extending the promise they found, in Canada, by sponsoring as many of them as they can.

Canada had made all the difference in their lives, they reckoned in the interview, so they had an absolute obligation to humanity that necessitated their engagement in this latest human crisis. I listened to Bambury’s program in complete awe and gratitude.

Finally, with all the cheap drama about and purposefully wrong-headed reaction to Kentucky clerk Kim Davis and her denial of civil rights to gay and lesbian couples, I was completely delighted to read today the front page of my local newspaper, the San Francisco Chronicle.

You see, routinely, every single day, day in and day out, without much, if any, particular difficulty, couples come into San Francisco’s gorgeous and historic City Hall to get marriage licenses and get married. The city clerk dispatches the job efficiently, without prejudice or judgment. Couples leave, tearfully, happily and then go to parties or lunch, then on about with their lives, as they themselves see fit, according to their own conceptions of divine direction, or whatever inspires them.

Seen any man-woman marriages crumble as a result? Are the end-times just around the corner as a consequence? Not that I’ve seen, and I’m around City Hall at least once a week. (But, you know, I’ll be keeping my eyes open.) Know what I do see? Couples in love. Supportive families and friends taking pictures and, every so often, crying too.

If these particular stories don’t give you inspiration, then go find some of your own. I bet you’ll find some if you’ll only look.

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Deepest Sorrow

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Okay, well, here goes; I must start this post with a personal confession.

Between 1990 and 1992, I was treated for severe depression with a combination of psycho-therapy and drugs. Although this was over 20 years ago, I do not consider myself ‘cured.’ Depression has turned out to be, more or less, a permanent part of my life. I have, however, learned to manage it without ongoing therapy and drugs but it’s something I have to remain aware of and it does sometimes color my perceptions and experiences. In some people, the anti-depression drug I took also has the cruelly ironic side effect of heightened thoughts of suicide. For many, depression is not just sometimes feeling blue; it’s a serious and chronic condition.

When I heard about Robin Williams today, well, I can scarcely express how badly I felt and maybe also, initially, how frightened.

Several years ago, I ran into Williams at the Polo Fields in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. I was literally running and he poked out of the space between two hedges. He was with his son and carrying some sports gear. He’d obviously been out playing with his kid, just like any dad would do on a nice afternoon. I said hi and he said hi back and, to be honest, there wasn’t much more to the interaction. He wasn’t in the park to get noticed by a fan and I wasn’t about to invade his personal time and space. I may be reading more significance into the memory than really existed but I’d swear he looked at me with a little gratefulness at being allowed the courtesy of just being a dad in that moment and not a world-renowned stand-up comedy and film star.

I am so sorry for his family’s loss. I can’t, and don’t even want to, imagine their grief today, especially the grief of that boy who had a catch with his dad in Golden Gate Park on a brilliantly sunny afternoon 20-something years ago.

If anyone reading this suffers from depression, or is dealing with thoughts of suicide, please talk to someone. Please. Depression is not something to be ashamed of, or to be suffered through in silence. You’re not alone.

Here’s the number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255. 

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It’s All In Your Head

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Years ago, when I was just a kid, I remember television coverage of someone finishing the swim across the English Channel. I remember the swimmer completing her singular feat, then wobbily stepping out of the water, still covered in lard, or whatever open-water swimmers wore in that long-ago era, to insulate themselves. A robe or towel was immediately wrapped around the swimmer’s slumped shoulders by attendants.

As far as I was concerned, it might as well have been someone walking on the moon, which I would, funny enough, watch on television but a few years later. Felt the same way about that, too. I knew in my bones I’d never actually accomplish either. Pretty much accepted I’d never even know anyone personally who would. Both feats seemed just that other-worldly to me, relative to my life expectations and experience.

When I was young, my own and my family’s life expectations for me were pretty, um, realistic. For the most part, my grandparents were dirt-poor immigrants when they came to America. My parents, although born here in the US, grew up during the Great Depression and had pie-in-the-sky life dreams wrung out of them early. Their guidance to me was to keep one’s life plans real.

This was not so much by the issuance of fiats but by the setting of expectations [dialogs below from real life]:

  • Purposeful education at elite academic institutions? “Sure.”
  • Playing in the NFL? “That’s for guys much bigger and better than you.”
  • Becoming an actor? “Wanna starve?”
  • Olympic bobsled trials? “Grow up, already.”

Life, however, is a funny thing. Sometimes it surprises you.

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I still don’t know anyone who’s walked on the moon (although I did just meet the brilliant director of NASA’s amazing Voyager program) but just last month, a pal of mine by the name of Arnie Oji swam the English Channel, together with some mates from San Francisco’s historic Dolphin Club.

Although, without question, an awesome accomplishment, it wasn’t, of course, an out-of-the-blue miracle, any more than playing professional-caliber sports is. Arnie and the other Dolphins had been open-water swimming and training for years in preparation for this Channel crossing.

The difference between my young and ‘realistic’ conception of possible and Arnie’s adult one is all in the mind; we do, as it turns out, make many of our own barriers.

Thanks so much, Arnie, for your recent real-world demonstration of that life principle.

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This One Time

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We got back from a few family-only days at our little cabin in California’s Sierra earlier today. Time at the cabin is slow, quiet, restorative and purposefully unplugged. We don’t have TV, don’t play the radio, don’t read big-city newspapers.

Occasionally, we come home to discover significant things have happened in the world, like today, when I discovered, unhappily, that a friend and former colleague had lost his battle with cancer.

Anthony Turney packed several lives in his time on earth – soldier during the Suez Crisis, organizer of communities during periods of challenge and crisis, supporter of the arts, member of the clergy. He had a deep and affecting voice and he could tell a story like nobody’s business. He was gracious and generous.

When we worked together at San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral, cash-strapped as it was, Anthony found a way to host moving exhibitions of art that quite literally transformed the place, not to mention the people in it. He presided over prayers for California’s prisoners condemned to die and the annual war remembrance service that many of the other cathedral clergy found too schmaltzy for their tastes; as a combat veteran, I think Anthony found remembering wars an absolute necessity in a civil society.

Once, a young man came to the church, distraught and unbalanced. Anthony found some cake and the two sat together for tea and talked. As they parted, the young man promised to come back, then plunged to his death off a nearby roof that very afternoon. His parents expressed sincere gratitude their son had been given the human comfort and hospitality of the church in his final hours. Anthony was understandably upset but, typically, professional.

The last time I saw Anthony, he was walking his dog at the same preserve where I typically walked mine, at Fort Funston, on the bluffs overlooking the mighty Pacific. Anthony was characteristically warm and pleasant, although even then fighting against the cancer that would eventually kill him, happy as always to run into an old friend.

I am the better for having known him and we are the poorer for having lost him.

I hope he rests in the eternal peace he richly deserves.

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A lovely remembrance of Anthony is here.