Free at last.
I enjoy being alone. And one of the first things I noticed about living in a big city again is how rarely one gets to indulge in private time when you walk out your front door.
When I'm in Mill Valley California, there are a zillion places to be alone with nature and my thoughts. You just relax in a different way when you're not surrounded by people - and forced to wear the "social mask", and navigate the space of other people.
Montréal is much different - even than San Francisco. There are people everywhere. It just isn't possible to be out of doors here and really enjoy being truly alone. At least - not until it starts to get really cold. And then, a wonderful thing happens; people disappear from the normally crowded outdoor public venues.
I take a daily walk after writing in the morning. It's my zen time. A respite from working, worrying, practical planning - a chance to let my mind go where it wants, in its own way, at its own pace. But to truly free my thoughts and musings, I need to be alone during my walk. And that's hard to do in a city like Montréal.
The other day, though, the temperature dropped to a quite nippy -4 centigrade, and as I bundled up and set out for my daily jaunt, I was suddenly struck by an unusual sight. I was walking through a park that is usually bustling with activity of every type when I slowly realized that I was completely alone. Not another person in sight. No readers, sun bathers, dog walkers, children playing - no one.
It was one of my best walks ever. I covered a couple of miles, and even when I did encounter other people, they were in a hurry to get where they were going - because it was cold. But I wasn't bothered by the chill in the least. I was too absorbed in something that had accompanied the drop in temperature; solitude.
Most people speak of winter in Montréal with a sense of enduring a trial by nature. An ordeal of sorts. And while it is a quite different experience than life in California, when I see the weather forecast for Montréal, and it calls for bone chilling cold, I now have one consistent reaction. Yes!
Well before 5pm in Montréal
It's my first year away from California in a long time, and one of the biggest differences I notice is that the Canadian east has seasons. And one of the first things I notice about seasons is that each one has its own special light.
Of course, now that fall is slowly giving way to winter, you have to be quick if you want to experience the light - because the sun starts to go down noticeably earlier here than on the west coast.
The sun is at a different angle too; lower in the sky throughout the day, shadows are longer, and hues decidedly muted. The overall effect impacts everything from the way I look at things, to how I think about them.
It got me to wondering about the significance of light for how cultures evolve. People tend to be in a bit more of a hurry in Montréal than in San Francisco. It's as though they realize that in these late fall and early winter months, you've got to maintain a brisk pace if you're going to get anything accomplished during daylight.
The odd thing about this is that this northern light has the opposite effect on me. I find myself so taken with the altered shades and tinge of things that I wind-up moving slower since I spend more time captivated by the differences. But I also seem more reflective and thoughtful as a result of my slightly slower pace.
They say that "beauty is in the eye of the beholder". What I'm learning as I watch the seasons slowly unfold is that this is also true of light. And one's perspective on it can change so much.
A voyager on the path of justice
One of the most striking aspects of the film Lincoln is the attention that is given to the human relationships that impacted the course of the Civil War. There are wonderful scenes conveying the intimate intellectual connection between the President and Secretary of State Seward, along with several others, and we see the importance of these bonds in driving both the war, and the people involved, to new, usually unforeseen places. A fellow traveler
With the 2nd inauguration of President Obama just completed, it set me to thinking about another Civil War relationship of note, and how it culminated at Lincoln's Second Inauguration in an episode that was unimaginable when he was first elected, a scant four years earlier. It was a rare moment of historical evolution made manifest in a flash, and more profoundly than any conscious attempt to do so would be likely to achieve.
A Harbinger of Change
Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln first met at the White House in the summer of 1863, when the abolitionist leader came to the White House to ask Lincoln to support equal pay for black Union soldiers, and to seek his condemnation of the summary execution of many captured black soldiers that was part of a new Confederate policy of treating Union POWs quite differently according to race.
Douglass was struck by how welcoming Lincoln was. "I was never more quickly, or more completely, put at ease in the presence of a great man than in that of Abraham Lincoln," he later recalled. Lincoln explained to Douglass that he was aware of both the unequal pay issue, and the Confederacy's criminal treatment of black prisoners, but had waited to publicly address these issues until black combat units had distinguished themselves in battle - as they recently had during several engagements. He thought that only then would white Northerners be receptive to a Presidential appeal for equality of treatment.
Douglass left feeling he'd learned a lot about the breadth of considerations great leaders must take into account before taking actions that seem like "no brainers" to outside observers. And he also left with the distinct sense that this man - Lincoln - possessed a "humane spirit" which drove all his actions. "I tell you I felt big there!" he said of their meeting.
A Sacred Effort
The two men met again just before the election of 1864. Lincoln feared he would lose and wanted Douglass to help in a campaign to get as many slaves as possible to leave their plantations before a new President would take over, and possibly retract the Emancipation Proclamation. They talked for hours.
Lincoln, of course, did not lose the election, and it was at the Inaugural Ball held at the White House that they saw each other for the last time. The inertia of racism, though, almost prevented this meeting. Guards stopped Douglass as he attempted to enter the executive mansion, telling him that their orders were to admit no "colored" people.
Douglass had a white friend go inside and tell Lincoln that he was being denied entry. Within minutes word came that he - and any other blacks wanting entry - were to be allowed inside. This alone was an astounding development since, other than as servants, no blacks had ever been allowed into an inaugural ball before.
As Douglass entered and stood in the grand ballroom amidst thousands of other well wishers, Lincoln suddenly spotted him and said in a loud voice for all to hear, "Here comes my friend Douglass." As he reached the President, Lincoln clasped his hand and said, "I am glad to see you. I saw you in the crowd today, listening to my inaugural address; how did you like it?". Douglass, thinking it a rhetorical question, mumbled an appreciative bromide, and aware of the throng seeking the President's attention, began to move on.
Lincoln, though, stopped him from departing so hastily and said, "You must stop a little, Douglass; there is no man in the country whose opinion I value more than yours. I want to know what you thought of it?" There then passed a few moments in which the two men stood regarding each other - the throng around them now suddenly grown quiet - realizing that Lincoln was being completely sincere. Lincoln knew that Frederick Douglass, thus prompted, would speak his mind. Those listening knew this too.
Finally Douglass said in a loud, deep voice, "Mr. Lincoln - that was a sacred effort." Lincoln's face came alive with happiness. "I'm glad you liked it," he said, as the two men appreciatively looked deep into each other's eyes. And then the festivities continued.
Frederick Douglass had traveled a long path to that exchange. Having, on more than one occasion, questioned Lincoln's abilities and commitment to freedom, he now knew that this man had grown into a true friend, and a champion of racial justice. Whereas just a few years earlier such an exchange would've been an impossibility, the route they had both traversed to this night of triumph now made their words seem almost preordained. They had both matured and evolved into men that foreshadowed the emergence of an entirely new nation than the one they had both grown up in.
We are certainly still on that path toward the racial justice that each man so clearly perceived in the other that night. Tremendous achievements have been made, yet few would dispute that there is more work - more growing - to come. But what that brief public meeting signaled to all who witnessed it - then, and now - was that people really can learn, and grow. That evolution is about more than learning to walk on two feet, but also about learning how to live with each other - how to become humane - how to become one. And never has there been a more sacred effort than that.
Deliverymen of justice
An evolving man
I recently went to see the new Spielberg film Lincoln. This is, of course, the sort of subject that really only appeals to a certain type of person. The majority of the audience, when I went, were definitely over 40, with that history buff glint in most of their eyes. A quiet, thoughtful audience that seemed to laugh at the same things I did, and sagely nod at the same points too.
I was struck by the depth and detail of this film. It demands a lot of the audience, and even though I thought I knew a good deal about Lincoln and the Civil War, as the movie progressed I steadily became aware that I didn't know as much as I thought I did. Oh, I could keep up with the thrust of the story - but I could also tell that there was a lot of detail there that I just wasn't fully appreciating.
So I went out afterward and bought the Doris Kearns Goodwin book Team of Rivals, which reportedly served as a primary source for the script, and read it. It's a wonderful book, very rich in details about Lincoln as a politician and a man. And while the Civil War is delved into in some depth, almost none of the narrative is about battles - at least - not the military kind. But it is filled much detail of the political battles both before, and during the war. No one can finish this book without having gained a much greater appreciation for the role and significance of the politics during this time.
Another on the same path
Two Giants Emerge
But what struck me the most about reading this book was the portrait of Abraham Lincoln as a real person, in a real time, that emerges from its more than 700 pages. By the time you reach the end, you've seen quite a journey of transformation unfold before your eyes. And it's a journey at once profound and sublime. One that affirms every hopeful feeling you've ever had for the possibility of human growth and personal development.
The book is filled with fascinating characters and personalities, completely captivating stories, and themes that leave you deep in thought hours after finishing many chapters. Names that are vaguely remembered suddenly become full formed figures that will never be forgotten. William Seward, Edwin Stanton, Salmon Chase, and on and on - they're all there. Each fully alive for your mind to meet.
But of all the relationships experienced in this book, none caught my imagination and fascination more that that of Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. They didn't meet until well into the Civil War, and that's almost certainly a good thing. Had they met as younger men, the odds are high that they wouldn't have been able to absorb each other like they did as more mature men.
Their story is quite interesting, and illustrative of not just the potential for intellectual and spiritual evolution in people, but of the very unique American form of that general human characteristic. Characteristics framed by culture and history. I will be writing more on this special relationship soon. Stay tuned.
Winter on the Pacific
To those of us who live in temperate patches of the planet, winter always seems to be a time when we're especially glad not to reside where that word has serious meaning. In Northern California's coastal regions, winter brings wet and gray into our lives, but rarely anything so extreme as to affect our daily activities. For us, we need merely find a few more sweaters and some rain gear in-order to navigate our daily routines. For us, winter is occasionally discussed - but almost never is it the main topic of discussion.
Bright and Early
Montréal is now part of my life. My life in California has become one that I view in portions; it's a nice slice to have, but hardly the whole of my existence. The upcoming journey to Québec has long ago stopped being my next trip - and evolved into a return. A trip is something you may never do again. A return signals permanence.
I always look forward to being there - but rarely to getting there. Three o'clock in the morning is not so much a time as it is a state. Each of my returns normally begins in that realm since in-order to arrive at anything close to a reasonable time, I must begin my day then. I mechanically maneuver through this state until I am at last en route. And then my thoughts turn to what we who face the Pacific know exists, but face so rarely; winter.
la Nuit Blanche
La Nuit Blanche
Montréal embraces winter. And nothing illustrates this more than the combined winter festival of Montréal en Lumière and its signature event, la Nuit Blanche. It is a time when the people and city of Montréal celebrate the joy of winter living. And it's now one of my favorite times to return
This is a city that really knows how to throw a party - and these are people who really know how to enjoy one. On the night of nuit blanche, nearly the entire city becomes part of a grand winter display. The center of Montréal and many of her neighborhoods remain open all night - and hundreds of thousands partake in displays of art, food, music, poetry, literature - indeed, of everything that makes a city alive.
At a time when we on the left coast imagine the inhabitants of snowbound environs locked snugly away - the streets and venues are filled to overflowing. Celebrations are everywhere. Outside displays of street art, dancing, eating, listening to music, visiting ice sculpture gardens - there seems to be no end to it all.
And inside and under the city, in the tunnels and walkways linking buildings, and in the buildings themselves - everywhere - Montréal celebrates its place - its circumstance - its self.
And so I return - and join this wondrous spectacle. And even on lovely sun filled January days facing the Pacific, I often eye the goose down coat in my closet and a sense of excitement and anticipation fills me as I contemplate my next 3am state - and my winter return.
It has been said that the deepest pleasure comes from the simplest of joys. The kind of things that require little money, or planning, or equipment. The kind of things we usually just take for granted. Go without a hot shower for a few weeks and when you finally get to take another one, it's a moment to be remembered. Or be without access to clean water for a few days - and the next glass you drink will be one of the best moments of your life.
Walking is like that. Next to breathing it's about as basic as human activity gets. And yet we usually do it without giving it much thought. Often we dread it. Forget something at the store - and the walk back is not an enjoyable experience. Yet if our ability to walk were lost - and then magically restored, not even a stroll to the mailbox would ever be the same again.
The Utility of Movement
It surprises many people when they first hear that of all the most beneficial of exercises, walking is high on the list. It just doesn't register that this most fundamental method of human transportation is anything other that an expedient necessity. But the reality is that walking is restorative - both physically and mentally.
To walk in silence, not speaking or listening to another human being, is to treat both body and soul to something like what a warm bath is for sore muscles. It soothes. It calms. As the first five minutes passes, a certain clarity of thought begins to emerge as if from a shadow. And since you are alone, this clarity becomes your walking companion - and a different type of conversation begins; one between the you you always see, and the you in the shadow.
You begin to follow two paths; the one you're physically on, and that of the conversation with your new friend from the shadows. Both lead nowhere in particular - yet you can never arrive anywhere without beginning both journeys.
Thoreau believed that one should begin all walks as though you would never return; as though maybe you would just keep walking - arriving at a new home each evening. And in a very subtle yet profound way - he's right. For the path we take internally, when we really take the time and energy to focus on it, leaves us in an entirely different place each time. And we can never, no matter how hard we try, return to where we started that internal stroll.
Hand in hand
Walking and thinking were made for each other. Even the act of 'not thinking' while walking, is itself a form of thought. In-fact, that may be the purest form of thought there is. As though by not actively listening, we can finally hear.
So I often seek out places to walk - alone. I seek out the company of trees, streams, and dirt beneath my feet. I bathe in the solitude that is filled to capacity with every sound nature can muster. I listen to nothing; yet hear so much.
Each journey leaves me curious about where I will arrive; always joyful to be there when I do. And always certain that the only home I will ever know - is the destination I arrive at at the end of each stroll.
Off the beaten path; literally & figuratively
A delightful trend is emerging in the San Francisco restaurant world; vegetarian and vegan are going mainstream. That might come as a surprise to many who thought this trend started many years ago.
But even though California is synonymous with health and veggie eating to many, the reality is that vegetarian restaurants have been few and far between in the City until quite recently.
Little by little vegetarian selections started to gain menu space in many San Francisco eateries - but these were usually token dishes to placate the the odd non-meat eater in large groups, and was generally confined to a tasteless dish of pasta and overcooked vegetables. The City just didn't take meat-free cuisine seriously.
Those days are now - thankfully - behind us. It is now becoming quite commonplace to see a wide variety of vegetarian eating establishments not only in the City - but around the Bay Area.
Something good going on in there
Been there, Done that
But even as this exciting new direction begins to take on steam, the gold-standard in fine vegetarian cuisine remains the venerable trail-blazer of San Francisco meat-free dining - Greens Restaurant. Greens is - simply put - the best vegetarian restaurant in the nation; both in terms of food and location.
Situated in an old warehouse in a semi-deserted, one time army base on the very edge of the bay, it just doesn't seem like the kind of place you'd fine anything to eat - let alone the flagship of modern organic dining.
Started in 1979, Greens is the creation of the San Francisco Zen center. They took over a rather dilapidated warehouse space and turned it into a large, airy, high ceilinged space with roof to floor windows facing the bay and filled with imaginative furniture displaying the wide-variety of wood available in northern California. A craftsperson would enjoy their visit without ever lifting a fork.
A view like few others
But the main achievement of Greens
was to raise the world of vegetarian cuisine from the image of carrot sticks and sprouts and take it into the realm of sophisticated haut
Mesquite grilled brochettes of mushrooms, yellow finn potatoes, marinated tofu, white corn and summer squash. Gratin provençal with slow-roasted eggplant served alongside grilled Ridgecut Gristmills polenta, or Hamada Farm fruit-almond couscous. Are you catching the drift?
The selection of creative and beautifully presented dishes is simply remarkable. And nearly everything is supplied by small, local organic farms and brought daily to the restaurant. The freshness and full-flavored taste of the vegetables comes as an epiphany to many. Who knew this stuff could be so - well - sumptuously delicious?
This blog will feature several other establishments from the Bay Area's nascent vegetarian restaurant scene in the coming months - but let it be said at the outset that the original is still top of the heap. And be you a vegetarian or not - rest assured that a visit to this San Francisco legend will long be remembered for both its spectacular visual display and the savoriness of your meat-free fare. It's a dining must when visiting the City
. Buen provecho!http://www.greensrestaurant.com/
Not a side dish
A Night to Remember
Forty years have passed since that night in 1971. But for anyone who was around then - sports fan or not - the Ali versus Frazier fight is still clearly remembered. This was more than a boxing match. This was the culture war brought to life. No one was neutral on that night. Everyone not only backed one man or the other - but fervently so.
And how fitting that what turned-out to be the greatest boxing match in history took place in New York's Madison Square Garden. No other venue than the very epicenter of world sports could possibly have done justice to what was known before - and after - as the fight of the century. Few events so eagerly anticipated ever live-up to the hype. This one exceeded it.
I can still vividly remember my own sense of desolation after that fight. I had been for the "People's Champion". Muhammed Ali was returning to the ring after having been stripped of his title and barred from boxing because of his refusal to be drafted into the US Army during the Viet Nam War. And not only that - but he was a Muslim. And not just any kind of Muslim - but a Black Muslim. Oh believe me, Muhammad Ali was just way too left - and way, way too Black for America's comfort zone.
The anti-war movement was in full force. The counter-culture had emerged. The Black Liberation movement (as we then called it) was going full throttle. Nearly every issue of the most radical of all publications at the time - The Black Panther - featured a photo of the exiled Ali with the caption "The People's Champ". Nothing else needed to be said. We all got it. He was us.
A Night to Forget
Joe Frazier was what we all thought we were trying to get away from. He was conservative, humble, deferential. In the black community at the time, everyone's parents liked Joe. But to us young, radical, paradigm challenging youth - Ali was mythic. We were embarrassed by Joe Frazier. We were inspire and proud of Muhammed Ali. And his victory over "the Man's Champion" was to be a very delicious - and rare - bit of cultural redemption for an entire generation. An entire world view.
Well, the rest - as they say - is history. Frazier went on to win that fight in dramatic fashion. Withstanding 14 1/2 rounds of unbelievable abuse until - through an unfathomable act of pure will - he knocked Ali down in the waning moments of the 15th and last round - and thereby won the title. And to us - Amerika had won - and the people had lost.
More Us than We Knew
Times have changed. And so have we. Older and wiser, as the saying goes. And the saying is right.
Joe Frazier died yesterday. And when I heard the news, I thought of that night so long ago - and I remembered my disappointment. And it was weird. The feeling now seemed foreign to me.
The electricity of the age had long ago faded, and given way to the struggle we all wage. The struggle to survive, to grow, to prosper and be complete. And with each skirmish in that battle - I grew to understand - and appreciate - Joe Frazier more and more.
Here was a simple man - struggling against every barrier America could erect - for maybe the only goal worth struggling for; dignity. And as much as anyone in the history of sports - he had won that struggle.
I didn't realize it then - but I do now; that his attainment of dignity was the real victor that night. And because of it - we all gained a little ground in our own pursuit of the same.
Off the beaten path
Unlike southern California, San Francisco is not really known for its beaches. Yet, it is a city surrounded on three sides by the ocean - so it really shouldn't come as a surprise that San Francisco has several great sandy spots.
A few weeks ago this blog saw a story about Baker Beach, adjacent to the ocean side of the Golden Gate Bridge. Definitely one of America's great beaches. And just a little further along the coast is another great spot - and virtually unknown, even to many San Franciscans. It's called China Beach.
No Vacancy - for some
In the early gold-rush days of the City, Chinese immigrant workers chose this spot to set-up camps where they lived while working in the new San Francisco. This was necessary because Chinese immigrants were only welcome to work in the City's hotels and homes - but not to stay in them. So the Chinese workers set-up tent cities in the then uninhabited areas of San Francisco.
Believe it or not - you're in a big city
In a way - this discrimination was a blessing in-disguise. Yes, it was a long walk to work in the Nob Hill and Telegraph Hill areas of the City - but when they got back to their encampment, they certainly had one of the best views imaginable.
So wonderfully beautiful is this section of the City that it is now home to some of the nicest and most expensive homes in the United States. The area around China Beach is called Sea Cliff - and if you want to live there, houses start at around two-million dollars.
But visiting the beach is free - and special. This is the perfect place to come for a quiet, thoughtful walk on the beach. Or to build a cozy fire to snuggle next to as you watch the sun set. Or just to sit and stare out at the ocean and watch ships go by as they come in and out of the bay.
And more often than not - you'll be completely alone. It's one of the best kept secrets in the City - so only those in the know make it out here.
If you're headed this way and looking for one of those hidden unwinding spots - this is definitely one the best.
Don't miss it.
1710 - Less industry - and less crowded
The Industrial Revolution has made the world a place the Ancients would have a hard time recognizing as the same planet they walked thousands of years ago. From electrical devices, to modern transportation, to global climate change - industry has changed everything.
The quantity, quality, and speed of change in the post-industrial world is mind boggling. By any indices you wish to cite, life has changed more in the last 250 years than in the previous 5000. It's astounding.
And this week the World's population will reach 7 billion. SEVEN BILLION. As in People.
To throw that mind-numbing figure into context - consider these interesting facts:
2011 - A lot more - of everything
- in the year 1700 the Earth's population was 600 million
- in 1800 it was 1 billion
- in 1930 it reached 2 billion
- in 1999 - 6 billion
In other words - it took over six thousand years to reach 1 billion. But it has taken only 12 years to go from 6 billion to 7 billion. And that trend will continue.
Experts calculate the Earth's population will reach 10 billion
by 2083; almost 20 years before the turn of the next century.
Mid 60's. Ahhh - nice day for a drive
To give you an idea of how many a billion is - consider that 1 billion seconds ago it was 1789. And we've added that many people in just 12 years.
The question comes to mind - how many people can the world support? It's a complex discussion - but one thing is clear. But no matter how many the Earth can support, a lot of thought and planning will have to go into making sure so many people can live in a way that is acceptable.
With 1 billion people currently living without access to clean water - how do we insure that the next billion won't just be added to that group? To say nothing of eliminating this problem altogether. And that's just one factor of many.
Two-thirds of the water used on Earth today goes toward agriculture. And the lion's share of that (statistics vary) is targeted at meat production in one way or another. Cattle eat grain - and it takes 16 pounds of grain to produce 1 pound of meat. And that takes a lot of water.
2011. We might need to rethink this
So one thing is definitely clear; the 10 billion people of 2083 will not be able to eat the way most Americans eat today. There just isn't enough water to produce that much meat. And so - the world's diet will have to change. Whether we want it to or not.
Seven billion is a milestone worthy of noting; both for it's absolute quantity and the speed at which we reached it. And frankly, it's a little unsettling.
It seems obvious that unless human societies begin to drastically and quickly change how we approach human organization on Earth - the tipping point at which unforeseen affects start to overwhelm the impact of conscious interventions will be reached - and soon.
And that's a little scary.