Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Through Looking Glasses

Tomorrow will mark the end of my 8th week of sheltering-in-place, lockdown, safer-at-home, social distancing - whatever you prefer to call it. We've gone from "masks are bad for the general public" to mandatory masks here in San Francisco. Testing has increased locally and anyone living or working in San Francisco can now get tested for COVID-19. Overall the situation seems not too bad here and our death rate is low. Yesterday the city had the highest number of confirmed cases recorded on a single day thus far, but it's hard to know what that means, given increased testing plus the fact that the tests themselves are not even close to 100% reliable. It is clear, however, that there are significant racial and income disparities in who has tested positive in San Francisco, with Hispanics and Latinos making up a disproportionately large percentage of our cases.

As of today, the United States has 1.2 million COVID-19 cases and close to 73,000 deaths, an insufficient testing capacity, no clear overall strategy for dealing with the pandemic, and wing-nuts refusing to wear masks and bringing guns to anti-shutdown demonstrations. And yet, unfathomably, many states have already begun to re-open. Meanwhile, New Zealand has "effectively eliminated" the virus, and things are looking good in a few other places, like Hong Kong and Australia. If only the U.S. had leadership that was sane and actually cared about it's citizens! I have never been so ashamed of my country. It is scary to live here now.

In California, Governor Newsom wants to start gradually re-opening businesses on Friday (bookstores, music stores, toy stores, florists, sporting goods retailers, etc. for pickup only, plus retail supply chain manufacturing and logistics). A couple of sparsely-populated northern counties have already partially re-opened. Two days ago the SF Bay Area started allowing a few businesses to open including landscaping, construction, and golf. I am sad, disappointed, and a bit angry that the Presidio Golf Course is now closed to us common folk. I miss it already. That big, open green expanse was more valuable to families with children and apartment-dwellers with no yards, than is it to a few golf aficionados. Green space for the people!

OK, enough status-report, on to today's featured happiness-nurturing highlights...

Walking the neighborhood in a mask on a cloudy day can be a bit gloomy, so it's good to be reminded that we are "cool" and "grate." Thanks for that little artists! Now I am dreaming big that someday we will get through this alive and relatively sane.

I ran into Penguin's second cousin parked on my block. He's kinda shy and likes to keep things more casual, but still loves hats.

The Window Bears, oh, the Window Bears...They are supposed to be fun for kids I guess, but I have very mixed feelings about them. Sometimes the bears make me smile, but other times they seem trapped - so trapped! - and I have an overwhelming desire to smash all those windows and set them free. This guy looks dismayed and melancholy. I want to give him a hug.

High in their turret the Rapunzel Bears are more jolly. Maybe it's the bright colors, or that they seem to be in the process of building a cheerleading pyramid. Go team San Francisco!

The Wisteria Bears have some kind of Narnia portal thing going on. They are simultaneously safe indoors AND hanging out in the sky. Nice. Can I borrow your magic wardrobe? PLEASE.

In this house, bears, pigs, and seals(?) of all persuasions sing karaoke love songs together. Wonderfully inter-species! I dig it. Very West-Coast.

One day on my way home from an excursion I encountered Sad Defeated Bear slumped on the sidewalk around the corner from my apartment. He was in a spot where I have seen homeless people slumped/camped in the past. I wanted to hug him too (so much!), but these days we can't touch anything outside that other people might have handled. Argh!

On a happier note, about a month later I saw this window bear, and I've decided he must be (no longer) Sad Defeated Bear - rescued, adopted, and now properly housed, just like our homeless people should be! I need some stories with happy endings right now, so I am writing my own. If our government refuses to lead us to good outcomes we are going to have to make them ourselves.

Speaking of happy endings, I've been savoring being able to watch the sun set through my studio window. In the before-times (I can't believe I am saying this, and not as a joke. Now we are all living in a dystopian/apolcalypse-in-progress world. It's still hard to accept that we are not leaving the movie theater any time soon, possibly for years to come.), yes, in the before-times I was rarely home for sunset viewings. I was out and about teaching piano in people's homes, sounding checking for a gig, or on some far-flung wilderness adventure. Now I have sunset windows instead, a consolation prize I guess.

My window-with-a-view faces northwest, and for most of the year no direct sunlight beams through it. Very recently the sun began setting far enough north that my studio and I receive a few minutes of direct light just before the sun journeys below the horizon. A confirmation of my continued survival, evoking fantasies of fast-forwarding to the end (of the pandemic), dusk has become a bright spot in my day. 





Sunday, April 12, 2020

Green Space

My studio window looks out across my neighbors' backyards. There is a plum tree, a redwood tree, a lemon tree, and several scrubby trees I don't know the names of. Further afield, an arc of forest rises from the Presidio. If I stand on a chair, so I can peak above the plum branches, a small corner of the Pacific Ocean and the Point Bonita Lighthouse in Marin Headlands become visible. On very clear days, still standing on my chair, I can see all the way out to Point Reyes. The lease on my apartment does not include use of my building's backyard (it's just overgrown with weeds - what a waste!), so this view is all I have for private green space. On days when I don't leave the house, my window is a sanctuary, a life jacket. 

Over the past few weeks simply going out for a walk has become increasingly stressful. I've largely given up on Golden Gate Park unless it's a weekday at a very weird, unpopular time. Too many people! What strange practices I find myself cultivating: trying to augur when other people will not be in a place, calculating speed and trajectories to maximize "- humans". Though most folks seem to be making a sincere effort to social-distance responsibly, there's always some oblivious jogger or cyclist who comes out of nowhere and nearly runs you over, or small children or off-leash dogs whose movements can't be anticipated. In the face of uncertainty and real (but sneaky) danger, I just want some control. I want the choices that are left to me to be predictable so I can manage my risks. I don't like viewing the world this way, and it's exhausting to stay on high-alert every time I leave my house, but that's where I'm at.

And that's why when I wandered up to the Presidio Golf Course the other day I suddenly felt so light. Here was an open expanse of GREEN, GREEN, GREEN with almost no one in it! At first I thought I must be mistaken, that there was no way we were allowed to wander freely here. Then I noticed a few people inside, and found a sign saying the course was closed to golfing, but available for other appropriately-spaced, non-destructive uses. Open Space Jackpot!

This was, in fact, my very first time walking through the Presidio Golf Course, even though I've lived in San Francisco since 1992. I have never understood golf as a sport (it just doesn't seem that athletic!), and so often golf courses waste water and land that I would rather see used in other ways (or not "used" at all). Furthermore, most golfers are not my kind of people. I like my land, and my friends, less manicured and more unruly. In the past I never had any reason to go to the golf course. Indeed, it was a place I actively avoided. 

Now, however, starved as I was for green space, I suddenly experienced the golf course as something else entirely: liberty. As long as I stayed off the paved paths it was easy to remain far, far away from other humans. I often had an entire fairway to myself, and no one but me seemed inclined to wander through the long, course grass of the roughs, which I liked precisely for their roughness, their (relative) wildness. It's funny how so often we limit ourselves to established paths, even when we don't have to. 

Friday morning I finished reading Richard Powers' Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Overstory - an incredible book about trees, relationships between humans and the natural world, and so much more. After spending a lot of intense time with trees in the book, I felt like I should go visit some in person.  So I went back to the Presidio to listen to/watch them dance in the day's strong winds. 

I ended up in the middle of a stand of eucalypts, fully aware that this was not the smartest place to hang out on a windy day (eucalyptus trees tend to drop branches frequently, and I've heard them referred to as widow-makers). Leaves wooshed, swirling above my head, and the swaying tree trunks creaked and moaned. Morbidly, I considered that I would rather be killed by a falling tree branch than suffocated by COVID-19-induced pneumonia. But really, I'm not ready to die at all. There's too much that I still want to do, and I'm curious to see what comes next. 

One of my favorite passages in The Overstory is an instruction/revelation:
"Never capitulate, but divide, multiply, transform, conjoin, do, and endure as you have all the long day of life.  
There are seeds that need fire. Seeds that need freezing. Seeds that need to be swallowed, etched in digestive acid, expelled as waste. Seeds that must be smashed open before they'll germinate." (Powers, 2018, p. 500)
I am hopeful that out of all this pandemic-fomented chaos and loss will come growth, that humans will choose to redefine our values and reorganize our systems, that we can become something better.

Saturday, April 4, 2020

Sidewalk Art

My calendar says it's Saturday morning. Thus, another week of sheltering-in-place has passed. I've been doing this now for almost 3 1/2 weeks and, like everyone else these days, I'm on a quest for ways to stay sane and positive. One technique I've adopted to keep my spirits up, is to (literally) spend more time looking down.

When I hike rough trails or scale mountains, precision footwork is required and much of my attention is concentrated on the ground. Pre-pandemic, aside from avoiding doggy doo or a sprained ankle, this had not been a big focus for me when walking in the city. Now, when I'm not neurotically scanning the sidewalk and trying to suss out the trajectories of oncoming humans, I find myself inspecting the urban ground more than I ever used to. And, thanks to chalk artists, experimental bricklayers, and eccentric landscaping, I am encountering a lot of whimsy there. (I have, however, NOT enjoyed the rubber glove litter. It makes me sad, and nobody needs more sad right now. Please, everyone, dispose of your gloves properly!).

Recent sightings...

Yay, everyone is invited!

When we are allowed to have playdates again I would like one with this character  

The unicorn-dragon flew over the moon

Someone has been studying the Cubists

Sunny 54! Or (sing it), "Always look on the bright side of five!"

Sometimes I feel like this in my apartment. Free the bunny!

Dear child, we are all on board with you summoning an escape button! or the finish! line!

Unsupervised fun

Non-native species 

I want to write a Dr. Seuss book about this

The bricklayer was not very detail-oriented, but I like the gardener's "work"

This must be where the house elf lives

The day after my previous blog post, playgrounds, picnic areas, dog parks, golf courses, tennis courts, and pools were closed here in San Francisco. Yesterday it was announced that we should start wearing masks when we leave our homes.

The situation in New York is grim. So far, things are less heart-wrenching here in the SF Bay Area. There are some indications that we may be bending the curve enough to keep our local health care system from becoming overwhelmed. I am lucky to live in this city and this state, lucky to be healthy, lucky to still have paid work, lucky to have good food to eat and a decent place to live. So much lucky. 

Yesterday, while inhaling green and listening to chattering birds in the Presidio, I watched a toddler bobble around in the close-cropped grass of the golf course. Giggling and delighted, she stumbled to and fro, nearly toppling each time her attention turned to something new: sand, a raven, tree limbs waving in the wind, a flower, a weed, the sky. When she gets a little older, I wonder what she'll draw on the sidewalk.

I don't know how long this pandemic will last, if I and my loved ones will survive, or what life will be like in the aftermath. For now, I'm just trying to be smart, caring, and useful. I'm trying to look closer, to laugh when I can, and to only let myself be bowled over by curiosity and beauty, not despair.

Friday, March 27, 2020


Today is my 11th day of officially sheltering in place and 15th day of social distancing. The first death from COVID-19 in my international circle of friends has occurred. Another artist friend was very sick, but is now recovering. Although the increasingly grim news makes me feel like it should be Winter outside, when I peer through my window or step out my front door I am reminded that Spring is here. This is both heartening and heart-breaking, miraculous, ironic, confusing.

Travel to far-away destinations is no longer an option. International borders are closed. Many national parks, including Yosemite, are now closed.  California State Parks have closed their indoor facilities, campgrounds, and parking lots. Up in the Sierras, the ski areas have all closed. After too much crowding last weekend, all parks and beaches in Marin County have been closed. In order to contain the spread of the virus and avoid burdening or overwhelming the healthcare systems of smaller communities, we are being urged NOT to head out of San Francisco to recreate in the countryside or the mountains. I support these mandates, but to honor them I have had to let go of much that I hold dear: a trip to Scotland and Germany, California field recording expeditions, backcountry ski tours in Tahoe, Bay Area hikes with friends. Compared to those who have lost loved ones and livelihoods, I know I am exceedingly lucky and that having limited freedom of movement is a much smaller loss. Even so, when I allow myself to think about it (and mostly I try not to), it feels profound. If/when I am able to travel and recreate again I will not be taking these activities for granted.

In the meantime, my local natural world is still open (with appropriate social-distancing of course), and in many ways it is flourishing amidst this extraordinary reduction in human activity. I hear that coyotes are being spotted wandering some streets in San Francisco! I am trying not to dwell on what is unavailable to me, and focusing instead on appreciating the subtle nuances of spring in my neighborhood.

I never noticed these tree sprouts before.

The bigger ones are green chandeliers!

I feel like an alien might hatch from this.

Purple flower arms wave to Cypress trees

Tentacles of blooming sage 

Variations on a theme. The gardener had fun here.

Some things are more beautiful in the rain

Who has been listening to this tree and what did they hear in there?

Speaking of sound, as human-generated noise dwindles, I hear the chirps, trills, caws, and warbles of my neighborhood birds emerging more and more. Flashes of color and spirit, they flit about over the city's dusky drones. Although North America has suffered a staggering 25% decrease in the songbirds over the last 50 years, it is good to have a chance to hear those that remain. (I have much more to say about how soundscapes are changing, but I will save it for a future post.)

Brewers Blackbirds on Lone Mountain

Dark Eyed Junco in Golden Gate Park enjoying some delicious afternoon snacks!

I am reading Robert Macfarlane's wonderful (and I truly mean "full-of-wonders" here) book Landmarks right now. This morning I came upon a passage about how children explore: 
"With the children as her guides, Deb began to see the park as a 'place of possibility', in which the 'ordinary and the fantastic' - immiscible to adult eyes - melded into a single alloy. No longer constituted by municipal zonings and boundaries, it was instead a limitless universe, wormholed and Möbian, constantly replenished in its novelty. No map of it could ever be complete, for new stories seethed up from its soil, and its surfaces could give way at any moment. The hollows of its trees were routes to other planets, its subterrane flowed with streams of silver, and its woods were threaded through with filaments of magical force" (MacFarlane, 2015, p. 320).
I remember experiencing the world this way as a child. Even now, as an adult, sometimes I can access unfettered modes of perception through art. Now the ability to imagine is a lifeline. Instead of "being" trapped in a country, city, or room, I am trying to be more child-like, to divine more possibilities.

Friday, March 20, 2020

Side Streets

Tuesday, on the first day of officially sheltering in place here in San Francisco, I did an evening exploration of my neighborhood.

I love Golden Gate Park, but it's challenging to stay far enough away from other people there. Paths are not six feet wide, joggers and small children sneak up on me from behind, and I keep having to move off the trails and end up trampling vegetation. I thought it might be easier to maintain a safe distance from humans on my residential neighborhood sidewalks. After a long day of work reorganizing my teaching so that I can do it online, I gave sidewalk walking a try.

Usually I'm very goal-oriented, even when pursuing "leisure" activities. On a normal walk, in normal times (ah, the good old days - only a week and a half ago!), I'd be thinking: "I'm following x route, I'm exercising for x amount of time, I will achieve x things (visit the bank, buy groceries, see the turtles in Stow Lake...)." That's how I am wired. But now is a time for re-wiring almost everything.

Attempting to jettison old habits, I redefined the aim of my walk. This walk would be rambling and inefficient. I would walk the way I do when I visit a foreign city for the first time. I would approach my neighborhood as an exploration, and seek out nooks and crannies that, in 20+ years of living in the Inner Richmond/Lone Mountain, I haven't yet visited. I would boldly go where I have not gone before (but, you know, on a very local scale)!

Sunset was approaching and I wandered over to Angelo J. Rossi Playground. The athletic fields were empty, except for a young couple having a romantic dinner date behind one of the baseball diamonds. I was glad to be in an open green space, but footprints left in the dirt and an abandoned ball gave the scene an eerie, melancholy feel, and I wished this was all just a movie I could go home from.

Likewise the children's playground was hauntingly empty. It is not safe for kids to touch this shared equipment now. I was reminded of the abandoned kindergarten I saw in Pyramiden, a mining ghost town up in Svalbard in the Arctic. There, polar bears roam through the abandoned structures. Here it is a virus. I wonder when, or even if, I will be able to journey to far-away lands again.

Checking out the "No Outlet" street... 

...I discovered an entrance to the San Francisco Columbarium. I hope to not end up as a resident here, at least not for many years to come! The architecture is lovely though. 

On to happier thoughts! Some folks in my neighborhood are doing very nice things with succulents. 

This lovely mini-garden borders my new favorite street: Lone Mountain Terrace. It's a narrow, easy-to-miss, alleyway-ish, pedestrian-only lane that runs for three blocks between houses and apartment buildings. Alone in the dwindling light, my imagination granted Lone Mountain Terrace an air of mystery and a European feel, like I was on a small street in an old Bavarian town (without the worn, granite cobblestones though). At least in the short term, we are going to have to cultivate traveling in our imaginations. 

It was only 7:30pm, yet there was very little traffic. This allowed me actually hear my footsteps, and to notice that select stretches of Lone Mountain Terrace have very intriguing echoes. The hard parallel walls reflect sounds back and forth into strange mutations. It would be fun to do some recording here (but please respect the neighbors!).

Having successfully walked off the day's stress and gloom I headed home. It was now fully dark. Two blocks from my apartment I encountered a homeless man in a wheelchair crossing the street. When he asked for money for food, without even thinking I blurted out my usual response: "I don't have any cash on me." This was true, I had left my house without my wallet, but as I walked away I immediately felt terrible. I felt like a sham, a failure as a human being. Now, more than ever, we have to help each other out, and this means everyone. 

I rushed home, filled a bag with food, and scoured the neighborhood until I found him five blocks away. I gave him the food and then helped him get to a bus stop. Chaos is an opportunity to reorganize, to put things back together into something better.