Sustaining grace | Cut to the quip | Just another lifestyle choice | Home | Currrent issues | Back issues |

May 17 - 21, 1999

Tuesday, May 18, 1999

Sustaining grace

How many people does it take to change a light bulb? In San Francisco, the answer is close to 750,000. The simple removal of one bulb and the insertion of another turns out to require the efforts of nearly every member of the community, working together over the course of a decade. But when they are finished, you can imagine the lovely glow that will spread over the city.

It all started about two years ago. Among the first to climb up the ladder, light bulb in hand, were Beryl Magilavy, former director of the Department of the Environment and now director of Sustainable City, and Brad Benson, an aide to Tom Ammiano. Soon Supervisor Ammiano himself stepped in to steady the somewhat rickety ladder, and gradually the directors and staff of a number of city departments --- Environment, Architecture and Public Works for starters --- gathered round, waiting their turns to step on the ladder. Today they are joined by representatives from the Sierra Club, San Francisco Tomorrow, the League of Women Voters and a variety of other civic groups standing a little farther back, anxiously watching the precarious ascent. And beyond them, in a tightly packed circle, the public cheers them on, sensing that their work will illuminate both the official city and many private lives.

Okay, so my metaphor is a little over the top. The point is that Ammiano introduced two pieces of legislation to the full Board of Supervisors Monday afternoon. As dry in their language as the dust that whirls through Civic Center Plaza, their implications are as revolutionary as the ideals that are celebrated across the street in U.N. Plaza:

*Ordinance No. 990443 [Resource Efficient City Building]. Ordinance amending Administrative Code by adding Chapter 82, Sections 82.1 thru 82.7, establishing resource efficiency requirements for city-owned facilities and city leaseholds.
*Ordinance No. 99044 [Resource Efficient Pilot Projects]. Ordinance amending Administrative Code by adding Section 82.8 establishing a pilot program to promote resource efficiency in construction of selected city-owned facilities and city leaseholds.

The light bulb in question is only one of thousands to be exchanged for smaller, more efficient fluorescent bulbs over the next few years as the old ones burn out in the 900 buildings belonging to the City of San Francisco. Nothing complicated: just flip out the old one and insert the new, which fits the same fixture.

Similarly, as the old water-wasting toilets become defective, the city will replace them, tank by tank, with new ones that use a measly 1.6 gallons per flush, or less. Worn out gushers of shower heads will give way to new ones that spray no more than 1.5 gallons of water per minute. And the lights in broken exit signs will be replaced with more economical and efficient light-emitting diodes.

That's only the beginning. In addition, the Department of the Environment is charged with setting up procedures for cleaning "finishes, furniture and fixtures" to get rid of mildew and organisms that can make indoor air unhealthy. This includes a regular inspection of heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems, which have the capability to recycle nasty germs and mold throughout an entire building.

On the other hand, the program encourages --- no, insists on --- constructive recycling, requiring that "adequate, accessible and convenient recycling areas" be established in all city buildings. And contractors will have to prepare construction and demolition debris management plans so that even building materials can be recycled as completely as possible.

All these measures are really nothing more than good housekeeping, although I doubt that many of the supervisors thought their job would include discussions of toilet flushes. The effects, however, will be far-reaching. Budget analyst Harvey Rose estimates a savings of $1.4 million over the next 15 years, just for changing a few light bulbs and shower heads. Equally important, San Francisco's employees will be healthier and more productive. And the city can take its proper place in the forefront of the sustainability movement as it --- to use the definition devised by the United Nations --- "meets the needs of the present without sacrificing the ability of future generations and non-human forms of life to meet its own needs."

Saving a few pennies here and a few gallons of water there isn't very exciting. But the second ordinance --- seven to ten pilot construction projects, to be conducted under the direction of the Department of the Environment --- could change the course of building in San Francisco. City architect Tony Irons has already picked out the first two: Pier 1 and the new PUC building at 515 Golden Gate Avenue. On these sites, anything is possible.

Picture structures composed largely of recycled materials, lit primarily by natural light and heated mainly by solar energy. Then, because every ecological change suggests another, picture employees arriving every morning by electric bus, or on bicycles, or on foot. Imagine that the water supply of these buildings is purified in part by managed wetlands. That the garbage generated inside them is sold to firms that convert it into compost.

Once the process begins, it can lead anywhere. Every situation has different requirements. But other public and private entities that have engaged in energy efficient building --- Sunnyvale, for Lockheed's Building No. 157; Portland, for the Rose Garden Sports Arena, home of the Trailblazers --- point proudly to happier employees and lower operating costs, a bottom line that even fervent anti-environmentalists cannot ignore.

One of the most startling side effects of San Francisco's new undertaking will be the ecologization of the officials in City Hall, for the program cannot work without the interaction of a variety of disparate departments. This is uncharted territory. There are no "right" answers, and workable solutions usually call for many different kinds of expertise. For this reason, the Commission on the Environment has recommended that the mayor find funds to hire someone specifically to oversee and coordinate the developments to come.

Imagine, a city that saves money, preserves the environment and fosters creative collaboration. And it all begins with one light bulb.

--- Copyright Betsey Culp 1999

Wednesday, May 19, 1999

Cut to the quip

Some "Star Wars" fans --- camping for days and weeks outside theaters and waiting for tickets to "The Phantom Menace" --- are upset by George Lucas' suggestion that they "get a life." Among the indignant, Jaron Hollander, who camped in a tent outside the Pacific Cinema in Corte Madera. "We don't live in our parents' basements," he declared defensively. At 25, Jaron shouldn't worry so much. It'll be years before he has to move back there.

And just how outrageous is the real estate market in San Francisco? I saw an older man standing in front of his modest, heavily-mortgaged home in the Marina. Regarding the house for a few moments, he turned to his two grandchildren: "Kids, one day all this will be mine."

But children are actually busier these days. There's lots of information to absorb. The latest innovation in education: Cliff's Notes for Cliff's Notes. Which reminds me of the Woody Allen line, "I took a speed-reading course. Got through 'War and Peace' in just a few hours. It's about Russia."

In his new film, Woody plays a butcher who dabbles in magic as a hobby --- and inadvertently cuts Sharon Stone in half. Mark Burger, who owns the House of Magic on Chestnut Street, recalls that Allen used to come into the store when Mark's dad, "Buma," ran it. Allen, like many accomplished comics, really does magic. Dick Cavett also used to visit the store. Cavett was a student of The Great Slydini, the South American-born magic master. Slydini was a devoted patron of the House of Magic. I was always impressed that "Buma" designed the famed Tor Johnson mask --- a Halloween favorite for many years. In turn, Mark was impressed that I knew of Tor, famous in that pre-Lucas era for playing a ghoul that was raised from the dead by extraterrestrial demons in "Plan Nine from Outer Space." That was the inimitably preposterous flick that marked Bela Lugosi's last screen appearance.

* * *

Vice President Gore surprised a lot of people by selecting Tony Coelho as his campaign chairman. Coelho, a big fund-raiser for the Democrats and a California congressman, resigned ten years ago amid allegations of ethics violations. Coelho also served as chairman of International Thoroughbred Breeders Inc. It's unclear if Bill Clinton was a client.

Is Hillary really running for the U.S. Senate seat in New York? I'd say that's safe to assume, considering she's planning trips to Israel and Ireland this summer, both holy lands for Jews and Celts. Might be easier on the taxpayers, though, if she stuck to the Guinness and Nathan's hot dogs on the Lower East Side.

Gene Lees, author, composer, and publisher of the venerable Gene Lees Jazzletter, responds to my recent drubbing of Dianne Feinstein for her support of the flag-burning amendment and her call for a crackdown on free speech on the Internet: "Feinstein lost me some time ago when she made a pious statement to the effect that she had never met a former drug addict who favored legalization," writes Gene. "Having been in the jazz world for more than forty years, I have had a considerable number of friends who were or are former junkies, and I never met one who didn't favor legalization. I wonder how many junkies she's known?" Uh, don't ponder that too long, Gene.

* * *

In an Op-Ed piece in USA Today, law professor Jonathan Turley writes of the Jenny Jones civil trial: "As someone with a history of mental illness, alcoholism and three suicide attempts, (Jonathan) Schmitz was a poor choice for any tabloid program." Huh? He seems like the perfect choice for daytime TV. What would you expect would be real ratings grabbers? "Secret Sex Lives of MENSA Members"? "The Steamy Side to the Christian Science Reading Room"? Last month's cover of Washington's Capitol Style magazine caricatured ubiquitous talking head Turley holding a cardboard sign which read, "Will Comment For Food."

The much-vaunted Monica Lewinsky memoir, "Monica's Story," is being remanded to the $4 table at bookstores --- that's tantamount to extreme unction in the publishing world. "Now, Monica, you don't have to get on the table," snorts bookseller Cosmo Sostenuto, "only the books do."

Actor Dirk Bogarde, who died the other day, published a memoir four years ago, "Cleared for Take-Off." In it he refers to his father's "ruinous cruelty" and his alcoholic mother as having a liver "like an Aegean sponge." Bogarde devoted his later years to writing sentimental messages for Hallmark Cards.

And those who were in that bar on Malta the night Oliver Reed died say he drank 10 ales, 12 rums and 2 whiskies. His bar tab was $435. We can only assume the proprietor sold this item to Time magazine in order to defray the amount of the bar bill. This escapade compares to the 18 whiskies Dylan Thomas reputedly drank in the hospital the night he died. "I have seen the Gates of Hell," he announced, giving a new dimension to tourism. Earlier in the evening, when asked how he felt, Thomas replied, "I feel like cold lamb with vomit sauce."

* * *

Far-flung friends check in: "It's getting more and more difficult to be an American overseas," writes Ranald Totten, who's been living with his family outside the U.S. for six years --- most recently in Singapore. "Seems like every time we travel, we're bombing someone else."

"The last time we exchanged messages," I wrote to Karin Knoebelspies --- a former journalist who turned to politics in Germany's Green Party --- "there was no war in Europe, and it seems the Green Party has made some remarkable progress in Germany."

Karin responds, somewhat tartly, "If you understand progress by taking part in a war, then we really progressed a lot. But then I'd rather stay in the underdeveloped, infantile state we have been in before."

* * *

But there may be a bright side to all this. If we're crippled by the Y2K bug and lose all our defense data, we can always call up the Chinese and ask them to print out a few copies. And it won't matter that the Vatican opposes use of the morning-after pill for Kosovan women raped by Serb soldiers. The kids can stay with the pope when they're born.

--- Copyright Bruce Bellingham 1999

Friday, May 21, 1999

Just another lifestyle choice

Northern Indiana is lovely at this time of year, with rolling green farmland and an abundance of lakes filled with trout and walleyed pike. This is Amish country: Turn a bend in the road, and you're likely to find yourself behind a buggy driven by a rosy-cheeked man with a long beard.

It's also Quayle country. The former vice president recently visited the Bay Area and delivered a sequel to his 1992 "Murphy Brown" speech at the Commonwealth Club. In the past seven years he has refined his analysis of declining American family values, focusing on the pernicious influence of the "legal aristocracy," the "compliant news media" and the counterculture-fostering entertainment community. What's more disturbing, he has recruited a band of sympathetic stalwarts to his way of thinking, politicians such as Al Gore, Steve Forbes and Elizabeth Dole, who have come up with a variety of family-oriented --- and particularly youth-oriented --- government programs to cure the United States of its violent and immoral ways.

Hoosier horse sense, however, suggests that these ideas are full of holes. About 60 miles north of Quayle's home in Huntington lies the equally small town of Goshen, settled about 150 years ago by a hardy band of Mennonites from Ohio. The people who live there now could spin their own tales of family values, but they're not necessarily what the pols have in mind.

Here's one. In June 1889 about 50 people, predominately women, chartered a train from the nearby farming village of Middlebury to attend a divorce trial at the county seat in Goshen. They sat in the courtroom, applauding the deft questioning of the defendant and cheering on the plaintiff, a "comely looking lady" --- according to a local newspaper --- named Frances Powell. Several months before, Powell's husband had sold some property and disappeared, taking their son with him. The fugitives had hidden out with relatives in Kokomo until a detective located them and managed to return the boy to his mother. Neighbors testified that Thomas Powell often treated his wife with cruelty --- "it was nothing unusual," the paper noted, "for him to swear at his wife, and even knock her down." The court promptly awarded Frances Powell a divorce, along with custody of her children and alimony totaling approximately $1,000. After the verdict, the exuberant onlookers rushed out and "engaged in a regular jubilee of handshaking." With flags flying from every car of the train, they returned to Middlebury where, reported the Goshen Daily News, "the hamlet was awakened by shoutings and the sound of exploding fireworks."

Here's another story. Eight years later, in March 1897, a woman named Anna Balyeat died in Middlebury at the age of 33, leaving six children, the youngest still a baby. Her bereaved husband, John, must have been at his wits' end. Soon afterward, he married a woman with several children of her own --- Frances Powell. An arrangement of mutual benefit for the adults, it turned out to be hell for the original Balyeat children. Ruth, who was four years old when her mother died, recalled later that Frances always favored her own kin. She would go shopping in Goshen, for example, and return with dress material for her own daughters but nothing for their stepsisters. This was a harsh environment for kids to grow up in, and one by one, they left home. Ruth's older sister moved to Goshen as a teenager, and Ruth joined her in 1909, when she was sixteen. Their father lived well into his nineties, but his children rarely visited him while his second wife was alive.

One more story. In October 1910, when she was nearly seventeen, Ruth married a handsome twenty-year-old Goshen resident named Elmer. The couple started a family almost immediately, producing a girl and five boys who survived, as well as several stillborn babies. At one point, Ruth visited her local doctor, seeking advice on how to stem the tide of children, only to be told to hold her tongue and do her duty. She aged prematurely and took to prattling incessantly. Elmer began to work nights.

All of Goshen knew Elmer and Ruth's children. They were the smart ones. They won all the athletic contests. Whenever four of them were together, there was always a bridge game underway. Whenever two of them were together, there was a debate --- a noisy one, about politics or sports or cars or just the weather. Whenever one was alone, dinner was likely to be freshly caught fish. They all went to college, an unusual feat in the 1930s. The oldest --- my father --- moved to New York, but the others remained within a few miles of the family home.

And all the while, Elmer paid regular visits to a woman on the other side of town, not a sweet young babe but a comfortable person about his age. The liaison continued for decades. Gradually the entire family came to know of it. And ignored it.

If Dan Quayle and his cohorts took the time to look closely at the people around them, they would know that moral values cannot be legislated. The ingredients that make up any one person's life are too complex to fit prefabricated molds. We can only muddle through, trying to make decisions that best suit the situation at hand, according to rules that have proved effective in the past. At times, we may blunder. But it is insulting to suggest that manipulation by some other group is responsible for the messes we get ourselves into. The very idea distracts from other, more useful ways to ease the human decision-making process --- such as improved health care and more affordable housing. It leads all too easily to the proposition that any problem, whether at home or abroad, can be solved by simply manipulating people better than the bad guys do. Most of all, it demeans the dignity of the American people.

The Emperor of Family Values is walking around stark silly naked. It's time someone said so.

--- Copyright Betsey Culp 1999

Home | Current issues | Back issues |