The Braided Stream

I just love this John Hawkes post.

Here’s to the braided stream of evolution – human and otherwise.

from photo at the San Francisco Exploratorium.

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Seven Shades of Suicide

Sometimes I wish we were like people of far northern hemisphere cultures who have (or had, legendarily) many words for ice & snow: we could benefit by having a broader range of words for one of the most laden S-words we know…the early death of someone by their own choice.

Too-early for those of us left behind – the suicide survivors. Untimely – really, there’s never a good time to die this way. Unexpected (most of the time). Unbelievable, to those of us who don’t have serious suicidal thoughts.

We often feel abandoned, angry & anguished, overwhelmed, distraught & distressed. We’re left with the unimaginable task of picking up the pieces, & facing the exhausting Ten Thousand What Ifs. Intense grief can persist for a long time – way beyond what’s considered ‘normal’.

For the living, so many things feel unfinished, unsaid, regretted, undone (…although let’s let go right away of the notion that all will be finished, said, & wrapped up without regret even in the ‘well-lived’ life: there will always be things left undone).

The father of our grandson died of suicide last fall. Our daughter K died of suicide in 2004.

Suicide is the 10th most common cause of death in the U.S.; over 60% of gun deaths are suicides. Its association with mental illness is strong (up to 90%), but correlation statistics are weak due to our persistent cultural avoidance of rational approaches to mental illness. So, mental illness is a likely factor when someone dies by suicide (with the exception of old age suicide, see below), but we may or may not have much understanding of the role mental illness played in the person’s life &/or death. Which can multiply the complication factor even more. & which makes it even more difficult for those left behind.

It’s no wonder then, with this exponentially complicated death, that many human religions developed moral codes condemning & silencing talk about suicide. The person who killed themselves was labeled ‘bad’ – sometimes not even worthy of a burial – which shamed & blamed the family of survivors. Also, pervasive (& legitimate) worry about ‘suicide contagion‘ continues to limit healthy conversation.

Humans have learned that it’s best not to talk about it.

Except that, for survivors, it wasn’t. It isn’t. Not-talking actually increased the pain of being a survivor by several magnitudes, but no one knew because no one was talking.

Maybe having better words can help us talk about it.

What’s most important to the living after someone dies is: 1 – our relationship with them, & 2 – knowing how they died. How we grieve & eventually reach acceptance of a death is a complex combination of the two.

Our experience of the suicide of another is deeply affected by our relationship with that person. Those relationships need more descriptive words – to help us, the living, figure out less isolating ways to survive this common kind of death:

Suicide of one’s parent. Suicide of one’s child. Suicide of one’s sibling. Suicide of one’s spouse. Suicide of an ex-spouse. Suicide of a close relative. Suicide of a friend. 

Friend of a suicide survivor.

(Old-age & terminal illness suicide is different altogether. Death is imminent, & the elder or ill person is choosing the time of their death at what they know is the end of life. This is another, & will be increasingly common, death that needs a more descriptive word than the current, commonly used term assisted suicide.)

Other kinds of suicide need better words too: camouflaged suicide, famous person suicide, copycat suicide, militarized suicide, cultural suicide…no doubt there are many more.

Human primates have learned to survive the death of another – it’s one of the fundamental reasons for religion. Now, we need to use our (essential-but-really-only-a-few-thousand-years-old) knowledge of the real world [a.k.a science] to build a better path for those of us who must survive our varied relationships with this particularly complicated death.

We have to talk about it.


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In Love with a Seabus

I fell in love in Vancouver this past summer.

I still pine for my sweetheart’s comfortably utilitarian seat, her easy camaraderie, her affordability, her expansive harbor vistas, her pleasant accessibility, & her dependable, 15-minute embrace nearly all hours of the day.

I fell madly in love with the SeaBus.  

Vancouver’s transit system is fantastic. Many world cities have robust transit systems, & their intentional (&/or fortuitous) combination of transit, walkability, & mixed land use makes them work. It’s why we want to visit these wonderful cities again & again.

Some of the great things about transit-oriented (aka Livable) cities is that they allow for casual & (usually) positive social interactions among diverse human beings of various socio-economic groups, are healthier because people walk more, produce fewer greenhouse gasses (GHG) because people can get places without driving, promote a sense of community, provide daily opportunities for downtime & relaxation, reduce traffic stress, support mixed-use & higher density neighborhoods (thereby reducing urban sprawl), reduce isolation, & are safer overall than car-oriented cities.

Consistent with its Greenest City Action Plan, the SeaBus is a key aspect of Vancouver’s regional transit system. It provides daily ferry service between Vancouver & populous North Vancouver using two huge catamarans (capacity 400) which traverse the main harbor, one departing from each side at the same time. I’d booked a hotel in North Vancouver’s Lonsdale Quay over the 4th of July (which is too damn noisy in our central CA coast neighborhood) & was worried (who me, worry?) it was too far from the action; but yay! – there was plenty of action for a transport wonk like me during those daily glides across the water. Not to mention immediately adjacent connections with the SkyTrain, Spirit Trail, Waterfront Trail, Seawall Trail, & ubiquitous buses.

Why does transit in Vancouver work so well? Well, it’s a lot faster than driving, & that’s intentional. Here’s the hierarchy of transport modes from their Transportation 2040 plan: 1. Walking, 2. Cycling, 3. Transit, 4. Taxi/Commercial Transit/Shared Vehicles, 5. Private Automobiles.

Ahh – be still my heart! Walking is the #1 priority transportation mode in Vancouver. trail signWalking & transit play extremely well together (while bicycles, it seems to me, tend to prefer riding with their own kind). Please note the priority assigned to private automobiles: they’re even removing a driving lane from the historic downtown Burrard St. Bridge in order to improve pedestrian & bicycle access. ‘Shared vehicles’ etc come in at #4 – definitely part of the future but still with the downsides of contributing to congestion & inefficient land uses.

Portland (my second infatuation of the summer) is another North American west coast city with thoughtful urban planning. Similar to Vancouver, they’ve intentionally made decisions about land use & transportation in concert, thereby increasing likelihood of playing-well-together. We’re not very good at this in most parts of the automobile-oriented U.S., &, frighteningly, most of us have yet to answer nature’s urgent call about global warming.

Yeah I know, the human brain isn’t yet wired to spend our daily lives mindful of perceived day-after-tomorrow catastrophes. But as Albert Einstein famously said (paraphrased): “The problems of today cannot not be solved with yesterday’s way of thinking.’ We may wish & hope that doing familiar things more & better will make a difference, but if you have a habit of grounding wishes in science (& omg, we gotta fight for that harder now), it’s pretty clear we need to be forging new paths into the future.

Well. That zippy SeaBus is definitely part of their future path in Vancouver. Portland’s streetcars & MAX are the foundation of their sustainable city plan, & the funkycool trams in neighboring San Francisco are a (why-don’t-we-copy-that-here??) twist on that City’s robust transit system – & soon, even more ferry’s across the Bay!

I imagine we’ll all get there one of these days – it’s just a matter of .. survival.




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sometimes you’re the bug

This is dedicated to poor Melania – too bad you hitched your lovely planet to a pathetically sad & narcissistic star.

I totally love that Michelle Obama is your inspiration though.

Thank you Dire Straits & Mark Knopfler for reminding us of our life as, sometimes,

The Bug

Well it’s a strange old game – you learn it slow
One step forward and it’s back to go
You’re standing on the throttle
You’re standing on the breaks
In the groove ’til you make a mistake

Sometimes you’re the windshield
Sometimes you’re the bug
Sometimes it all comes together baby
Sometimes you’re a fool in love
Sometimes you’re the louisville slugger
Sometimes you’re the ball
Sometimes it all comes together baby
Sometimes you’re going to lose it all

You gotta know happy – you gotta know glad
Because you’re gonna know lonely
And you’re gonna know bad
When you’re rippin’ and a ridin’
And you’re coming on strong
You start slippin’ and slidin’
And it all goes wrong because

Sometimes you’re the windshield
Sometimes you’re the bug
Sometimes it all comes together baby
Sometimes you’re a fool in love
Sometimes you’re the louisville slugger baby
Sometimes you’re the ball
Sometimes it all comes together baby
Sometimes you’re going to lose it all

One day you got the glory
One day you got none
One day you’re a diamond
And then you’re a stone
Everything can change
In the blink of an eye
So let the good times roll
Before we say goodbye, because

Sometimes you’re the windshield
Sometimes you’re the bug
Sometimes it all comes together baby
Sometimes you’re a fool in love
Sometimes you’re the louisville slugger baby
Sometimes you’re the ball
Sometimes it all comes together baby
Sometimes you’re going to lose it all.

Mark Knopfler, 1991

(This song…& walking…etc…saved my life a decade ago. love.)

&, of course, go Hillary!! – it’s your time to be the louisville slugger.


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The Safety Hype of Driverless Cars

Have I already mentioned somewhere that we humans love our mobility? In addition to having a key role in human primate evolution, the mobility goal of ‘more, better, faster’ was a big theme during my two decades at the Regional Transportation Commission. Many of us live for the fantasy of more earthly space for our own preferred mobility mode.

But earthly space is limited, and worsening automobile traffic is stressful for humans nearly everywhere in the urbanized world. The lure of driverless cars is that they offer a ‘solution’ to this problem (‘look ma, no hands!’) and, they’re supposedly safer to boot.

Tesla revealed yesterday (June 30, 2016) on their blog that one of their cars, while being driven in ‘auto-pilot’ mode, caused the death of its driver in an accident with a truck. This was disclosed nearly two months after the fatal accident occurred on May 7, 2016. The nature of the accident was apparently only revealed because an federal investigation into the crash has been initiated.

The Tesla blogpost informs us that the auto-pilot mode is still in ‘public beta phase’ & that the driver should have been ‘prepared to take over at any time’. Obvious questions arise: Isn’t the attraction of self-driving cars (SDCs) that we’d no longer have to pay attention to the road? Why is a car still in beta allowed to be driven on public roads? Who’s overseeing the development of self-driving cars?

What’s the evidence behind the safety hype of driverless cars, anyway?

Unfortunately, as we’re all going to better understand as time goes on, the driverless car safety hype is just that: hype…of the kind increasingly being doled out by Big Tech.

Worried about accidents between pedestrians & self-driving cars? Here’s Google’s patent to address the problem (granted 5/17/16): “The front of the vehicle may be coated with a specialized adhesive that adheres to a pedestrian and thus holds the pedestrian on the vehicle in the unfortunate event that…the vehicle comes into contact with the pedestrian.”

Well, I’m not buying it.

And neither are experts in automation & transportation safety. In her testimony before the March 15 Senate Commerce Committee hearing about issues related to self-driving car regulation, Mary Cummings, PhD, Director of Robotics and the Humans & Autonomy Laboratory at Duke University, highlighted the lack of transparency regarding safety testing methodologies & verifiable results by Google and other SDC developers:

“In my opinion, the self-driving car community is woefully deficient in its testing and evaluation programs,” Cummings said. She compares what should be a standard federal process for certifying the safety of self-driving cars with similar aircraft software certification, where ‘evidence-based tests and evaluations’ conducted in a ‘principled and rigorous manner’ are made public in order to enable expert peer review and validation.

This is not what’s occurring now. In fact, Google et al are pressing for a slew of exceptions & permission to fast-track the normal federal transportation safety rule-making process, complaining that state & federal rules are impeding the deployment of driverless cars. In response to industry pressure, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx promised in January that preliminary guidelines for self-driving cars will be available this month.

But what’s the hurry?

Well, it’s just that, as noted by the Guardian last year: “…never shy of hubris, Google wants not only to reinvent the car but to replace the whole idea of driving…’We want to fundamentally change the world with this’, Sergey Brin, the co-founder of Google, likes to say.” Hmmm – we actually do need to change our dreary & dirty driving habits, but are driverless cars really going to be our salvation?

There is a long list of other, non-safety issues with self-driving cars: privacy (Cummings calls the SDC ‘one, big data-gathering machine’), hacking, computer failure (how much time daily do you already spend dealing w computer problems?), questions about legal liability, reduced human driving skills due to automation, susceptibility of humans to distraction (uh yeah, that scary close call in cruise-control mode, not to mention the iPhone-on-the-lap syndrome), increased risk tolerance, increased social isolation, worsening congestion, challenges of both SDC & non-SDC vehicles on roads & highways, health risks of physical inactivity, more inefficient land uses & increasing urban sprawl, vehicle interactions with bicyclists & pedestrians – just to mention a few. Many of these concerns are present already with human drivers & non-automated vehicles; adding SDCs to the mix will exponentially increase the complexity of our driving & urban environment.

I also know, as the 19th century saying goes, that this train has already left the station. As dismayed as some of us (who probably have a bad habit of imagining the future) are regarding where life on earth appears to be headed, there’s no doubt that (barring a planet-wide calamity, which is, of course, entirely possible on many fronts,) self-driving cars are going to be a part of urban life in the 21st century.

Let’s hope, though, that this Tesla tragedy will provide a much-needed pause to Big Tech’s relentless driverless car juggernaut.


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Bagging Bean Bag Chairs in Munich

A Sunday in Venice, Fall 1969. High on an early morning doubledose of espresso & freedom: from the parents, America, university, expectations. Strolling aimlessly with Kalle along una strada stretta…hey, lookathat! an egg-shaped leather seat. Whatsit called? Sacco?? Hmmm…wow, TOLL. Looks like giant bean bag.

We could make that.

And, we did.

Ditching our scenic Venice camping spot the next morning, we returned to that galleria caro at opening time to actually sit in & touch the free-form, luxuriously large red leather bag. The proprietor eyed us suspiciously: we didn’t fit his usual customer mould (..hmmm, best not to take measurements). Afterward, charged up with more sips of expresso, we sketched the remembered design at an outdoor cafe a few ponti away.

Following a couple more weeks of camping in torrential rain, desperately searching for a toilet along the beaches of Porto San Stefano, & being arrested in Nice withporto san stefano, italy 9/1969 a colorful collection of other undesirable transient elements, Kalle (my German boyfriend) & I retreated to Wulfing’s ex-brother-in-law Ernst’s penthouse in Munich, broke & hungry. We hatched The Bean Bag Chair Enterprise together with recently-divorced Ernst & our mutual-friend Wulfing, who I’d met during freshman year at UCSC: they’d provide the capital & we’d provide the labor (…yup, an early but enduring lesson in how capitalism works).

We spent a month or so experimenting with the design & testing materials. To make the chair more affordable, we used an inexpensive, faux leather fabric called Vistram. We didn’t know what was inside the Sacco so had to track down something that provided both structure & flexibility: turned out they were disgustingly-clingy, totally-non-biodegradeable polystyrene beads. Once the design was deemed satisfactory, Kalle & I cut & sewed & bagged daily in the basement of Ernst’s Georgenstrasse apartment building; every evening, we climbed the stairs with teeny bits of white confetti clinging to every exposed surface.

As soon as we’d sewn & filled a rainbow of sample ‘chairs’, Ernst hosted a wildly-successful coming-out party for the Munich elite. It was thrilling that everyone loved die Sessel, but mostly I was overly-grateful for those guests who enjoyed practicingbean bag chairs munich 1969 2 English mit der jungen Amerikanerin.

Turns out, our little basement company popularized bean bag chairs. Venice -> Munich ->> The World.

We called the company Sapporo Produkte in honor of the upcoming 1972 Winter Olympics in Sapporo, Japan, & also, in anticipation of the (soon-to-be-disastrous) ’72 Summer Olympics in Munich. The city was digging a new U-bahn subway line along the nearby main street in preparation for those Games…grey memories of slogging along craggy sidewalks through mud & snow during that interminable winter, the first I’d experienced as a SoCal gal. It was bone-numbing f…ing freezing in that basement. 

Ernst was a connected guy. His ex-wife, Wulfing’s sister Diemut, owned a downtown shop which became our main outlet. They had a young son – I was his nanny for a few months until I forgot to pick him up from school one day. After that I really missed speaking Deutsch with him…I was more conversant with 5-year olds in the local tongue than the quasi-University crowd we usually hung out with.

Demand for die Sessel grew. Affluent parents wanted these totally toll giant bean bags for both themselves und ihre Kinder: I designed & crafted large bean bag turtles, soccer balls, & soft grey mice (my favorite) to expand our line @ Diemut’s popular shop.

Eventually, winter melted into Fruhling: one fine morning, we collected my sister Nancy fromsisters w kalle & wulfing 1970 her dorm on the other side of town & drove west to Teufen, Switzerland, to liberate our younger sister Sandy from her ghastly boarding school for a few hours: the housemothers were a-twitter but there was no overruling fast-talking Deutsche boys. We fervently hoped our parents, in Madrid at the time, wouldn’t get word of the Boarding School Security Breach.

In any event, by then other enterprising companies had adapted ‘our’ bean bag chair design & I was finally dreaming auf Deutsch. I wasn’t sad to leave the Georgenstrasse basement in the fall of 1970 to return to UCSC – I declared a German Literature major upon arrival in Santa Cruz, but that barely lasted one quarter: reading Thomas Mann’s Der Tod in Venedig wasn’t nearly as fun as designing furniture on tiny Venetian serviettes.

The comfy bean bag chair revolution was a perfect complement to other social movements of the early 1970’s: women, anti-war, environmental protection, cultural & racial identity. Social change & Italian design triumphs aside, it’s a reflection of our human love of food that my happiest memories of that Munich year were being introduced to glorious gorgonzola at the local market, scarfing currywurst at ubiquitous sausage stands, & daintily picking pommes frites out of a paper cone, bitte, mit mayo.

oh yeah.


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The Last Super Bowl

It’s 2030, the 110th year anniversary of the NFL & the year of Super Bowl LXIV.

Unbelievably, Super Bowl 64 was the last Super Bowl. It wasn’t even televised.

Looking back, 2015 stood out as a turning point in the decline of the church of football. Similar to the demise of some other religions, it was hard to see how it could’ve happened if one gloried in the weekly hallelujas – & a lot of us did back then. 2015 was the year, though, that people started noticing the increasingly steady stream of scientific information about brain damage seeping under the wall of NFL denial.

You could hardly blame the NFL. Together with credit default swaps, televised football & its annual Super Bowl extravaganza were the easiest money of the new century: no way were the team owners & investors ever going to acknowledge that the sport itself was the problem. &, watching foodball on TV was the church of America – it was a way to join in with friends & strangers, cheer & moan, pray & curse, drink & overeat – all together as one great people.

Except, as it turns out, playing football wasn’t so great for the players. In 2015, some of these modern-day gladiators, & their families, woke up to the understanding that the money they were making wasn’t worth the risk of permanently losing their minds. Younger, newer players stopped playing; retired players renewed their lawsuits. Ten years after the first research about chronic traumatic encephalopathy was made public in 2005, NFL’s multi-billion-dollar facade was starting to crack.

Mothers & fathers started directing their children toward other, less risky team sports. Youth football leagues were the first to fold, driven by a shortage of players – by 2018 they were history. That same year, educators started getting out of the game: struggling public high schools could no longer afford high-cost, liability-laden football programs, & private schools had already nixed the sport in favor of soccer. Even Black Lives Matter activists start protesting at NFL venues (because by then, black football players represented over 80% of all professional players, up from 70% in 2014).

Colleges & universities saw the writing on the wall early in the new decade & started closing down their own costly football programs. Alumni donors, only slightly missing being reminded of their own aging at the annual bowl game, shifted their gifts toward ever-more-necessary research into new kinds of renewable energy.

Football’s fate seemed finally to be sealed when the 7-year National Institutes of Health study, initiated in 2016, achieved its goal early, in 2019, of finding a way to diagnose CTE in people who are still alive. Sadly, the subsequent required brain screenings this research made possible left no question of the risk: CTE in various stages of severity showed up in over 85% of all football players, within the NFL & without, from kids to retirees.

Major advertisers dropped football within a year. It was no longer de riguer to been seen at Super Bowl parties or yelling out halftime songs in front of dwindling crowds. Football was going the way of boxing, & the severe, 5-year drought in Las Vegas made the prospect of paying $50,000 for an outdoor seat unappealing even to the .1%.

It took another 5 or so years for the once-invincible NFL to face its endgame. Increasingly erratic climate & weather-related disasters made energy & water supply projects more lucrative for former investors. Imaginative advertisers found new venues for hawking their (ok mostly useless) products. New religions briefly burst forth & burnt out. Regular power & cellular outages got people talking to each other again.

Impossibly, the Era of American Football was over.


…then again, 110 years is just a bit longer than the lifespan of human primates. A pretty short-lived era, after all.


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