Posts Tagged ‘Presidio National Park’


Retrieving the newspaper from my front steps last week—I’m a dinosaur—I saw a white suitcase on the sidewalk. My first reaction? As a native New Yorker and a Jew with family in Israel (I was last there in March/April), I’ll attest that the risk of confronting a bomb is real. But who would target my leafy street? I waited.

Several hours later, I went for a walk. The suitcase? Still there. I noticed it lacked one wheel. I concluded that someone—perhaps a homeless person; they wander the neighborhood—didn’t want to lug it any further. An hour later, the suitcase was gone. I felt relieved.

This wasn’t the first abandoned suitcase I’ve encountered. Several years ago, for example, I saw two—open and stuffed with clothing—in the Presidio National Park near my house. Who leaves packed suitcases in a park? My imagination produced a short story, Two Suitcases By the Side of the Road.

The protagonist, a retired executive, encounters two suitcases on a short hike in—yes—the Presidio. A widower who writes fiction to occupy his time—with little success—he imagines the person who left them: a woman he names Grace. He envisions his character fleeing marriage to a dull dentist in Marin County to live with a woman in Santa Barbara. Grace’s plight spurs him to examine his own figurative baggage—an early infidelity and a ruined friendship.

We all carry baggage—errors and indiscretions tucked into hard-shell cases securely locked. But refusing to acknowledge the deeds we regret can haunt us. The protagonist wonders if his imagined Grace can handle her own past transgressions and find happiness. He concludes the story with this observation:

“I’d like to say I know more about how things with Grace will turn out, but that’s asking too much. Particularly of Grace. We each look at our life—turn it over, dissect it—and arrive at a pretty good sense of where we’ve been and a decent idea of where we are. Where we’re going? That’s pushing it. We try to write the stories of our lives, but our lives write us.”

My baggage could fill an old-fashioned steamer trunk. Maybe two. I deal with it by periodically hunkering down in a quiet corner of my mind, unpacking my trunks and sifting through their contents. Repressing awkward matters that mar our past only nourishes them until they sprout so large they burst from their confinement and do additional damage. A little fresh air and sunlight keeps them from metastasizing.

On the other hand, I find objectionable the desire of people to spew endless streams of detailed confessionals. (This commentary represents a one-time general statement; I retain the option to return to it in the future.) The penchant—common here in California—to constantly air one’s blemishes to friends, family and the public constitutes a narcissism I find overwhelming and alienating.

So, I keep my balance while keeping my failings to myself. In doing this—and risking the ire of therapists everywhere—I leverage my mistakes as learning tools while keeping them at a sufficient distance to avoid plunging me into depression. That would result in life writing a chapter for me I won’t appreciate.

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Most Californians think about Louisiana—New Orleans aside—as God, guns and gumbo. Carolyn and I spent Thanksgiving week in Baton Rouge with our son Seth, a graduate student at Louisiana State. The visit demonstrated that there’s more.

Our hotel room overlooked the Mississippi River. We were thrilled. Here flows one of the hearts of America—a highway meandering 2,300 miles and antedating the railroads and interstates. Long strings of barges still carry goods up and down the big river. No surprise—I’m now re-reading Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

West lies Cajun country. People were unfailingly cheerful and polite*. I like southern Louisianans, who differentiate themselves from folks further north. The owner of the company with which we took a swamp tour asked Seth if he lived north or south of Interstate 10. Seth lives south. Our welcome was confirmed, although our host asked the question tongue in cheek.

I enjoy food in southern Louisiana, although I eat kosher-style. That eliminates shrimp, crawfish, catfish, pork and bacon. What’s left? I had fabulous fried chicken and a great biscuit at the Boudin Shop in the Cajun town of Breaux Bridge. Baton Rouge menus included steak, brisket, barbecue chicken and salmon. Also, very good pastries, including a wonderful carrot cake and a super-rich pre-birthday chocolate cake for Carolyn. Sadly, the beignets didn’t come close to those at New Orleans’ Café du Monde. Maybe it was a bad day.

Near our hotel, we discovered the Louisiana Art & Science Museum in a refurbished railroad depot. The planetarium offered a show about the constellations. Then—to our surprise—it played animated videos featuring classic (non-religious, fortunately) Christmas songs. The last video filled the dome with five-pointed stars. But in the middle floated one star with six points—the star of David! I don’t know if the audience got it, but we did. Someone on the animation team signaled that Jews also exist.

*Asterisk time: Yosi, who is transgender, felt uncomfortable in Breaux Bridge, where Santa Claus was about to start the Christmas Season. They don’t do “the holidays” there. Yet Yosi has lived in the South—including New Orleans—for years, previously stopped in Breaux Bridge on tour and traveled the state.

I’m a realist. Donald Trump won 58 percent of Louisiana’s presidential ballots. Behind the smiles and good wishes lie different points of view and possibly some awkwardness. A garrulous Lyft driver mentioned that all the quarters at plantations had fireplaces because owners were good to “the help.” Carolyn used the word “slavery.” He continued referring to “the help” as if we spoke different languages.

I conclude that America remains a patchwork of diverse regions and cultures. Our problem consists of too often dwelling on the differences—and equating different with bad—rather than acknowledging what we share. A timely symbol of the latter may be the cell towers that rise above flat, swampy Cajun country just as a similar tower peers over the Presidio National Park blocks from my house.

Yes, differences do matter. They can’t be sugar-coated like beignets. Still, we might spend more time listening to each other and getting past stereotypes. Real human connections could unite Americans and help the nation offer life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness to all its citizens.

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Carolyn and I recently took our son Aaron’s dog Saffy for a walk near our house. In front of the Presidio Landmark apartments  (in the Presidio National Park), we spotted an interesting dog. Well, Carolyn thought it was a dog. I knew what it really was.

Coyotes started popping up in San Francisco a decade ago. At first, Animal Control came by where a coyote had been spotted, but that practice soon ended. Coyotes were everywhere—a new fact of urban life.

San Francisco isn’t alone as a home to animals once driven off by urbanization. Coyotes can be found from coast to coast—and on the coasts. Not just Chicago, Kansas City and Dallas but also Seattle and San Diego, New York and Boston.

As our human population keeps growing and our response is to build housing further into the countryside, traditional coyote habitats dwindle. So coyotes circle back to urban parks and suburban neighborhoods. They even stroll city streets. And they’re not alone. Mountain lions have returned to Los Angeles with Griffith Park as one major “new” habitat.

Don’t forget bears, either. As we build more hotels, motels and homes to bring people closer to nature, nature comes closer to people. Black bear sightings in the Florida panhandle and Alabama have increased markedly. People in Lake Tahoe and other mountain towns in the West know that bears think nothing of going through dumpsters and garbage cans. They poke through cars, too. And they break into homes. But this isn’t limited to the West. In 2014, a mama bear entered a house in West Milford, New Jersey, a town of 25,000 some 41 miles from Manhattan.

California and Western states face a related problem, and it’s far worse. As the climate grows warmer and drought conditions continue, fires have become more numerous and severe. Fire season once began in summer. Now it starts in spring. Moreover, our approach to fire goes against nature.

Fires are normal in the West. Yes, arsonists and careless campers contribute to the devastation, but lightning sets numerous fires every year. Nature lets them consume dry underbrush and thin out forests. New life grows while forests and hillsides become less prone to major burning for a long time. Humans put fires out and leave other areas untouched to serve as tinder, awaiting the next match or lightning strike. We do it to save buildings and their occupants, including animals, erected by people seeking the beauty and solace of nature but risking its unpredictability.

Something of the same situation exists with people who live in flood plains, tornado areas and those like me in earthquake zones. Human footprints are heavy, so we have a lot to lose. We prepare as best we can then lurch from one costly disaster to the next.

As to those coyotes living nearby, I don’t blame them. Or fear them. Their attitude is pretty much, “You go your way, and I’ll go mine—unless you leave your small dog off its leash.” We can co-exist. But will San Francisco soon see bears? If so, risk will grow exponentially.

It’s critical that we assume responsibility for where and how we live. That means not complaining when nature displays its greater power and persistence. Which our neighborhood coyotes constantly remind us.

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