Monday, February 27, 2012

Living with drought

Out here in California we're having what an optimist might call a "mild winter." In a more pessimistic assessment, we could be heading for another drought year.

In the middle of last week a friend posted a lovely photo on Facebook of a sight I had the pleasure to witness on my bike ride home from work: a crystal-clear sky at the cusp between twilight and full-on night, moon diminished to a near-expired crescent, Jupiter and Venus brightly aligned above.

This is a great week around the world to watch the sunset. MSNBC posted an article Saturday, 4 planets & moon dominate weekend night sky, with a similarly gorgeous photo taken in Mooresville, North Carolina. Catching the sight live here on the Left Coast was breathtakingly beautiful, as our sky is frequently in the Bay Area. Makes a person grateful both for the lovely place we inhabit and for senses to take it in.

But despite the lovely sunsets this winter, for all the sweet night skies, what we "should" be experiencing at this time of year, what we "need," are leaden skies and steady rain. As of the end of last month California reservoirs were reasonably full, but we'd had little more than half of average rainfall, and snowpack held less than half the average water content.

In the moment it's easy to relish our sunny days, our nightscapes, the blooming plums and cherries that stay brightly flowered for weeks on end in the absence of rain to wash their petals to the ground. It would be churlish not to be grateful for these pleasures.

For all my steady insistence, in this blog and elsewhere, that a responsible human and citizen is obligated to reckon with costs of our pleasures, to account for our debts and to pay them, I won't deny that I'm enjoying our 'mild winter' as much as anyone else. (At the same time, I won't complain if the light rain forecast for this week is heavier or more protracted than expected.)

Mild winters in California don't imply there won't be a reckoning. Near term, if and as last year's generous precipitation runs out of the state's reservoirs, we'll once again face rationing. But greater reckonings lurk ahead, as the slow swings of weather patterns make it harder and harder for humans to live as densely as we do here on the rim of the Pacific Ocean (and elsewhere on the planet too, perhaps sooner and more dramatically there than here).

But that night sky...........



Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Paying what things cost
Autumn in Berkeley
Flowery front yards in Berkeley


Thanks to dogenfrost for his lovely photo, shared via Flickr and Facebook, of the night sky on 23 Feb 2012 seen from the Berkeley Hills; and to Matthew Felix Sun for permission to use his photo of the heavens through the trees, taken from our back porch on 25 Feb 2012.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Agency in history: taking exception to Count Tolstoy

A couple hundred pages ago in my slooooooooooooooow reading of Tolstoy's War and Peace (Vol IV - Part One - Chapter 4), I came across this little tidbit:
In historical events what is most obvious is the prohibition against eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge. Only unconscious activity bears fruit, and a man who plays a role in a historical event never understands its significance. If he attempts to understand it, he is struck with fruitlessness.

Now I do find myself caught up in the great man's theories. Dressed up as they are with his vividly drawn supporting arguments -- a.k.a. his portrayal of Napolean's invasion of Russia in the early 19th century -- Tolstoy's ideas about history look pretty convincing as one steps through the twelve-hundred-plus pages of War and Peace.

Tolstoy scorns "great man" accounts of historical movement. For pages and pages he argues that neither Napolean's decisions nor the stratagems of his generals had much to do with the outcomes of skirmishes, battles, or even the war itself.

But it's hard to reconcile this emergent view of historical influence -- Only unconscious activity bears fruit -- with modern means of communication. There's a certain antiquity in play here: War and Peace is a novel about Imperial Russia fending off an invasion by a self-declared monarch, a European upstart. Nobody had televisions or radios, let alone cell phones.

Martin Luther King Jr. didn't have a cell phone either, but watch a recording of his 1963 "I have a dream" speech and tell me this man failed to understand his own historical significance:



I didn't think you would.

Here's Tolstoy making his point, from a couple of hundred pages earlier still in War and Peace (Vol III - Part Two - Chapter 25):
"However they say he's a skilled commander," said Pierre.

"I don't understand what is meant by a skilled commander," Prince Andrei said mockingly.

"A skilled commander," said Pierre, "well, he's one who has foreseen all possibilities ... well, who has guessed the thoughts of his adversary."

"That's impossible," said Prince Andrei, as if the matter had long been decided.

[...]

"[...] Success never did and never will depend on position, or on ammunition, or even on numbers; but least of all on position."

"But on what then?"

"On the feeling that's in me, in him," he pointed to Timokhin, "in every soldier."

There's something compelling about Prince Andrei's argument. What would it matter how regiments are arrayed if the soldiers who constitute them are afraid, or indifferent, or debilitated by hunger or cold?

We could even leave aside the question of wars and regiments.

Take the current struggle for position to lead the G.O.P. presidential ticket come November's election. A few days ago Timothy Egan wrote a piece published on the NY Times website, The Electoral Wasteland. The numbers he throws around look pretty suspect to me ... where convenient, he measures number of voters participating in a Republican primary with the number of "total registered voters, of all political persuasions." Still. Let's take a look at this bit from Egan's post:
So far, three million voters have participated in the Republican races, less than the  population of Connecticut.  This means that 89 percent of all registered voters in those states have not participated in what is, from a horse-race perspective, a very tight contest.

Yes, we know Republicans don’t like their choices; it’s a meh primary. But still, in some states, this election could be happening in a ghost town. Less than 1 percent of registered voters turned out for Maine’s caucus. In Nevada, where Republican turnout was down 25 percent from 2008, only 3 percent of total registered voters participated.

G.O.P. leaders appear to think they are leading, or at least they're trying hard to project an illusion to that effect. They and their super-PACs are certainly collecting piles and piles of money to fund a malicious and unhinged campaign, one that has little to do with reality and loads to do with rhetoric. In response, the Republican rank and file appear to be shrugging their shoulders and turning their backs. Where is all this headed? Looks to me like an hysterical fringe is well-positioned to pick the G.O.P. ticket, and thereby to hand President Obama a second term ... on a Tea Party platter.

We have another nine months before this prediction plays out, one way or another. But if the G.O.P. fringes its way to flaming defeat we'll have a 21st century example of an historical outcome having nothing to do with positions staked out by leaders, but instead one that is determined by the states of mind and heart among the rest of us.

What do you think?

Is world history shaped by the decisions of leaders, or do leaders ride inexorable waves of socially-determined force and direction? Do we know what we're doing when we try to act in historically determinative ways? Or is a complex, mysterious, incalculable, and ungovernable stew of individual action and decision (and inaction and indecision) the driving force of history?




Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Slow reading: Tolstoy's War and Peace
Portraiture and history: Masters of Venice at the de Young Museum
Hidden Histories
Art as long as history, time beyond memory
Time, History, and Human Forgetting



Thanks to Mary Harrsch for her photo of a section of the Capitoline Museum's mural of Roman History.



Monday, February 20, 2012

Sea changes in self-publishing at the 2012 SF Writers Conference

The most notable trend at this year's SF Writers Conference (SFWC) was the sea change in how industry professionals across the spectrum are talking about self-publishing.

Advice on self-publishing was fragmented and tentative at the past two SFWCs, in February 2010 and 2011, respectively. Some editors and agents suggested that a self-published book that sold 5000 copies might whet a publisher's appetite; others warned that less than 5000 copies sold would likely kill interest in a book; still others insisted that a book that has been self-published is a dead project as far as the New York houses are concerned ... but the track record of a self-published book might influence a decision to acquire a subsequent project -- for better or worse.

This past weekend, at the SFWC 2012 held at the Mark Hopkins Hotel on Nob Hill, the story was nearly uniform.

Michael Larson, who co-organizes the SFWC and co-leads Larson-Pomada Literary Agents with his wife Elizabeth Pomada, said in an opening address, that "self-publishing may be the best option for you, if only to test-market your book, to see if it works."

Jennifer Enderlin of St. Martin's Press was unequivocal: There's no publisher who would be turned off by a self-published book that sold well.

Agent Dan Lazar: "I look at them [self-published books] as a manuscript." In fact, when I pitched my own novel, Consequence, to Mr. Lazar on Sunday, he had beside him a self-published (print) book written by a young writer I'd met two days before.

The voices of those who have been helping authors self publish for years & years (Joel Friedlander) or run self-publishing companies (Mark Coker of Smashwords, Brian Felson of BookBaby, Jesse Potash of PubSlush) are sounding louder.

In responding to a question during a panel discussion yesterday about the "stigma" of self-publishing, Joel Friedlander responded, "Stigma? It exists primarily inside unpublished writers" ... and Friedlander went on to assert that it is diminishing even there. That assertion resonates with the tenor of conversations I had with nearly all the writers I spoke with over the weekend.

"The times have changed," Mark Coker said, agreeing with Friedlander. He credited successful independently-published authors such as Amanda Hocking and John Locke (no, not the 17th century philosopher), who have set an example of the reach successful indie-publishing can attain. The Smashwords founder went on to assert that becoming one's own publisher has moved "from the option of last resort to the option of first resort for some writers."

Informative guidance on the what and the how of self-publishing are all over the intertubes, but a place to start for interested authors might be the guides written by Coker:

  • The Smashwords Style Guide is focused on formatting requirements for publishing on that platform, but also gives a writer a clear idea of the kinds of complexities in a digital manuscript that would likely stymie conversion to e-book formats on any platform or using any conversion software.
  • The Smashwords Book Marketing Guide offers 30 DIY marketing suggestions that are applicable to any writer; some of them will strike writers as obvious, some are less so.

Smashwords is all about e-books; PubSlush and BookBaby bridge the print- / e-book divide. For a novelist (a subspecies of writers of some personal interest), printed books are a connundrum: it's nearly impossible for an individual to place her/his books widely in brick-and-mortar stores. PubSlush claims it has distribution into brick-and-mortar stores through Ingram, a major distributor to independent bookstores, but it's a very new venture, independent bookstores are widely perceived to be on the ropes, and there's still the matter of convincing widely distributed buyers to place orders and keep a debut title on store shelves.

Does all that imply debut novelists ought to be thinking only in terms of e-book publication, at least until a book is proven in the e-marketplace? Some think so. I'm not so sure, but I also know I don't have room for too many cases of printed books in my livingroom.

Questions about what it all means for this unpublished novelist were ricocheting around my head all weekend at SFWC 2012. I suppose time will tell ... but in a world of diminishing advances and marketing budgets, a world in which only 7% of "traditionally published" books sell more than 1000 copies, it's fair to say that writers are taking a close look at value that large New York houses offer to authors in exchange for contracts that limit both royalties for and ownership of our work.

I can still say this: I would much rather have an agent to steer me through the thicket than go it alone. So far as I can tell, it's pretty much all quicksand out there.



Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Publishing ain't dead, but it's a deer in the headlights
What's that you say about self-publishing, sonny?


Thanks to Briar Press for the image of an iron Baby Reliance hand press.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Linguistics, semantics, pragmatics: words, meaning, and wacky translations

We had guests last weekend, both of them richly educated in languages and linguistics. This is what happens when you work for a university, you make friends with people who know stuff. Knowing stuff leads to conversations interesting enough to think about later, and perhaps even to blog about. Quod erat demonstrandum, or Q.E.D. as we who don't speak Latin like to say, acronymically.

A--, one of our friends, fell to describing linguistic semantics after dinner on Friday. Linguistic semantics is, more or less, the study of what people mean when they say stuff. Or write it.

This is a field of academic study, you ask? Yes indeed it is. See, deriving meaning from stuff people say is not so simple as you might think. A--, who is not a linguistic semanticist himself but does credible post-prandial impersonations, demonstrated the complexity of mapping formal meaning to spoken sentences with an example. The example he gave is situated in a classroom, a setting that comes to mind easily among those who work at universities. The statement:
Every student in this class speaks two languages.

Straightforward, right? A model of simple clarity: subject, verb, object. See? You too can play the linguistic semantics game.

But wait. What does this statement mean? Let's express it as a quasi-formal logical statement:
There are two languages, such that each student in this class speaks both of them.

Right. As in, for example, every student in the class speaks French, and every student in the class also speaks Japanese.

Or ... wait a minute ... do we mean something else by these words? Something like:
Each student in this class speaks two languages, but it is not necessarily true that each student speaks the same two languages.

That is, Peter, Bob, Jane, and Sue speak French and Japanese. Sally and Tim speak Spanish and German. Rory speaks Gaelic and Mandarin Chinese. (Me? I speak English. C'est tout. So I guess I'm not in the class.)

Which is it, then? What's meant when a person says, Every student in this class speaks two languages? Or is it the case that these words alone are insufficient to determine what's meant?

A linguistic semanticist codifies structural patterns in language that define meaning sharply from purely linguistic cues, or that lead to ambiguities like the one just illustrated.

As A-- described this business of mapping formal meaning to language -- of determining which formally logical statements are conveyed by this or that type of statement in human languages -- I grew antsy. I'm not convinced it makes sense to map formally logical statements to statements humans make in human languages. Why not? Because I'm of the opinion that very few people think in formally logical terms when they speak. In short, people aren't that precise.

I mean, have you been watching the G.O.P. presidential debates?

Theories that purport to formalize matters as nuanced as human effort to express and understand tend to strike me as reductionist. They take for granted a set of assumptions that simplify away key elements of a problem, elements that are central to the question at hand.

Take, for an example of simplifying assumptions, frictionless planes described in introductory physics courses and textbooks. Sure, frictionless planes make Newtonian laws of motion easier to construct as equations and solve, but they don't actually describe the world as it exists.

I am neither a semanticist nor a linguist, let alone a linguistic semanticist, so best to turn to the hive mind to find some more authoritative pronouncement than my own babbling on the topic of complexity and nuance in language. The hive mind, as all good intertubers know, is available to all of us on Google's home page. In response to my query, the hive mind suggests the university textbook Linguistic Semantics: An Introduction, by Sir John Lyons (Cambridge University Press, 1995). Here's what Sir John has to say:
Most language-utterences, whether spoken or written, depend for their interpretation -- to a greater or less [sic] degree -- upon the context in which they are used. And included within the context of an utterance, it must not be forgotten, are the ontological beliefs of the participants: many of these will be culturally determined and, though normally taken for granted, can be challenged or rejected. The vast majority of natural-language utterances, actual and potential, have a far wider range of meanings, or interpretations, than first occur to us when they are put to us out of context. This is a point which is not always given due emphasis by semanticists.

I couldn't have said it better myself, though I might have aimed at greater concision and a less ornate style. Put it this way: it's complicated.

For some years I worked in an administrative office at UC Berkeley called Staff Equity and Diversity Services. We were all about facilitating communication among staff and faculty across breathtaking ranges of cultures, native languages, lifestyles, class positions, educational backgrounds, and other perspective-inflecting qualities. One of our favorite buzzwords -- buzzphrases, I guess -- was shared meaning. Communication between colleagues, we believed, has to establish shared meaning to be effective and conducive to sustained, mutually respectful work relationships.

What did we mean by shared meaning? We meant the result of an involved, iterative, carefully self-conscious process by which a listener tries to understand not just what a speaker's words would mean if they were spoken from the listener's frame of reference, but what they mean from the speaker's frame of reference. This is harder than you might think. It requires that both parties do some non-trivial, time-consuming work to understand frames of reference that may be quite foreign to them.

It's a lot harder than jumping to conclusions about implied meaning.

There's apparently a sort of linguistic semantics that accounts for this approach to understanding communication via spoken and written language. It's called pragmatics. Courtesy of our other guest of last weekend, Q--, I have skimmed (I won't claim to have read, let alone fully grokked) Ruth Kempson's chapter titled Pragmatics: Language and Communication in The Blackwell Handbook of Linguistics. From that chapter:
According to Grice, who was the pioneer of the inferential approach to conversation (Grice 1975), there is a general assumption underpinning all utterance interpretation that the interpretation of utterances is a collaborative enterprise guided by a "co-operative principle" in which a speaker and hearer are engaged in some shared goal.

To me that sounds a lot closer to real-world efforts to match words with meaning.

But ... can we go back to implied meaning for just a moment? Just for fun?

Last month a Facebook friend shared a link from Gawker (thanks, Elliot!). It summarized a post by Jake Adelstein on the Japan Subculture Research Center's website. The post featured photos snapped by Zarina Yamaguchi at a department store in Osaka; the post was titled It’s no ordinary sale. It’s a FUCKIN’ SALE! The image says it all (at right).

Those signs in the department store beg a certain question, don't they? What (on Earth) did the marketing department mean when they characterized storewide discounts of 20% as a Fuckin' Sale?

Inquiring students of linguistic semantics want to know.




Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Google Translate, AI, and Searle's Chinese Room
Music, memory, nostalgia ... and the novel
Craft and art: erasure and accent
Aleksandar Hemon on Narrative, Biography, Language

Monday, February 13, 2012

Tafoni at Pebble Beach on the San Mateo County coast

I wrote last month about my recent trip home from Santa Cruz to Berkeley, California, along the coast of San Mateo County. On my way down a few days before that I stopped at Pebble Beach, just south of the town of Pescadero. Good reasons to stop at Pebble Beach include the eponymous pebbles, lovely ice plant (see photo at right), the tidepools, and the dramatic white surf crashing over craggy, black stone. Most of all, though, Pebble Beach is known for the tafoni carved into the sandstone, no one quite knows how. (Cf. Jon Boxman's website, http://www.tafoni.com, for a wealth of information and citations about tafoni.)

Here's how a sign posted by the California Department of Parks and Recreation describes the tafoni at Pebble Beach:

Tafoni are created by a process called "cavernous weathering." This is the interaction of salt spray and wind on the rock.

The rock here consists of the mudstones, siltstones, and sandstones of the Pigeon Point Formation. Tafoni form best in sandstone because it is soft and porous.

Our wet winters and long, dry summers set the stage for the complex process that has carved intricate patterns in these rocks over hundreds of thousands of years."

I came to know Pebble Beach when I was a teenager, when my family came to this part of California's coast with friends and colleagues and families of friends and colleagues. I spent hours here in my 20s taking photographs of the rocks. You can stare at these forms for hours, and see all manner of creatures in them. As the Parks and Recreation sign suggests, "Use your imagination as you explore. See if you can find a dragonfly or a crocodile." I still have prints of those vintage nineteen-eighty-something photos, and might even be able to dig up the negatives if I tried ... but instead I'll share a few of the born-digital images and video I shot several days into this new year:





Here's a bit of video that puts these strange formations in their native context, and gives a sense of the drama of this stretch of the San Mateo County coast:



You could easily miss the turnoff into Pebble Beach; keep your eyes peeled, and don't be fooled by the sign that emphasizes that Pebble Beach is a part of "Bean Hollow State Beach," bureaucratically speaking; Bean Hollow is also the name of a beach about a mile further south.


Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Taking the coast road north from Santa Cruz
Pacific coast watersheds


Thursday, February 9, 2012

Data mining the 2012 SF Writers Conference

Last February I posted on the topic of the annual San Francisco Writers Conference (SFWC). I'll be attending again this year, for the third time, and have begun to look over the (still-tentative) schedule of sessions posted last week.

The conference will be held on Presidents Day Weekend, 16-19 February, at the Mark Hopkins Hotel. There's an impressive array of speakers, and seventy-five currently scheduled sessions and keynotes. The conference has sold out, but there's a waiting list if you're inspired to make a last-minute attempt to attend. There are also SFWC Master Classes offered on Monday 20 February, for which enrollment is still open.

Like last year, after reading through the listed sessions I was curious about the big picture view of what's on offer at SFWC. Since I have last year's categorization readily at hand, from last year's blog post, I have compiled counts of sessions in the same categories (almost) that I used last year, for comparison.

(For the record, by "almost" I mean that this year I broke out poetry into its own category, rather than grouping it with "Miscellaneous" sessions; to keep the comparison honest, I broke out last year's poetry-oriented session count in the new category as well.)

Et voilĂ :

Category 2012 Sessions 2011 Sessions
The industry: how it works, how to work it    18 13
Promotion (platform building, etc.) 14 15
Fiction (adult or general) 8 15
Craft and practice of writing 7 9
Poetry 7 3
Self-publishing, E-books 6 4
Books for kids and young adults 6 7
Non-fiction 3 7
Miscellaneous 6 2
Total 75 73

Same disclaimer as last year: Others might count some of the sessions differently than I did, and some would come up with different categories. Since the 'raw data' is the publicly posted schedule, readers are free to come up with their own schemes ... I'd be interested to see other slices and dices in comments to this post.

Like last year, I've used Wordle to generate a word cloud (see image, click to enlarge) from the SFWC schedule. Input to this year's word cloud was limited to session names, so the cloud gives a sense of the content of the sessions without the clutter of the presenters' names (I included names in last year's Wordle). No offense intended to the presenters, natch.

The big trends I'm seeing this year include an increase by more than twofold in poetry-oriented sessions, significantly more about the rapidly-morphing publishing industry, and a better-than-last-year emphasis on the new and disruptive kidz in the class, self-publishing channels and e-books. Also, interestingly, a halving of sessions oriented specifically to fiction and specifically to non-fiction; and a slight decrease in sessions aimed at the craft and practice of writing.

Six of the eight members of my on-line writers' critique group are attending this year -- traveling from as far as the midwest and Europe -- and a seventh will be returning from overseas in time to meet us for a post-conference lunch. I'm really looking forward to spending time with my circle of working writers after a year of contact limited mostly to e-mail and Skype.

Like last year, my on-line critique group will be looking for new writers to join us -- and because we communicate via the intertubes it doesn't matter where in the world new members live. If you're attending and think you might be interested, please feel welcome to seek me out; or send an e-mail ahead of time (you can find contact info on my web site). Our group's activities and guidelines are pretty close to the same as those I summarized in my post last year, How to organize an on-line writers' group; please have a look if you'd like to know more.




Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Data-mining the SF Writers Conference schedule
How to organize an on-line writers' group
Drafting vs. editing
Music, memory, nostalgia ... and the novel

Monday, February 6, 2012

A eulogy for Susan and Bob

My friends Susan Poff and Bob Kamin were murdered on the 26th of January.

It's a horrific tale, and I expect it to become more horrific as details come to light. It's too much more than enough to say that their fifteen year old son, adopted when he was six, has confessed responsibility for their deaths. I'm not going to describe any more than that. The first article that appeared in the SF Chronicle is a place to begin for those who need to know more. Caveat lector: as in any press coverage, and especially press coverage of lurid events, there's more to the story than has been reported, and some of what has been reported is flat-out wrong.

As a part of Susan's collective household of some 14 years' duration, until 1996, I gave one of the eulogies following Susan's and Bob's memorial mass on Friday. Susan and I were housemates, friends, and comrades for nearly thirty years, beginning in 1982; I knew Bob since the two of them met, in the mid-1990s.

Susan was one of the best people I have ever known. The only reason I don't say exactly that about Bob is because I didn't know him as deeply as I knew Susan. Listening to his surviving family, close friends, and colleagues on Friday made clear to all present that Bob had a heart of gold, a deep and compassionate intellect, an honest man's humility, and wisdom that would require a lesser person lifetimes to accrue.

Susan's and Bob's lives will be celebrated on Thursday, 9 February at 2pm, at Glide Memorial Church (330 Ellis Street) in San Francisco.

To honor and remember Susan and Bob, this is what I said on Friday:

I met Susan in the summer of 1982, when I moved into a house full of people I didn't know. Vera too, lived on Ward Street, and Joanie soon joined us, then Michael. With a few detours here and there, the five of us made our home together until 1996.

When I moved into that first of our houses, on Ward Street, I took the room where Beth and Glen had been living. Jon lived in the upstairs flat next-door, which became our household's second abode; now Jon extends our family into the Loire Valley.

Karen moved into the downstairs flat, and became a part of us. I met Eric -- who lives in London now but has been in touch all week and is here in mind and heart -- and he too joined our burgeoning clan.

Jon and Joanie brought little Emma into our family when she was a puppy. During the year Susan and Joanie spent in New York, Emma hobbled along with them on her three little legs.

Many others of you lived with us for part of that time. You have been friends, neighbors, comrades -- all of us part of an extended family these past thirty years. I won't try to name each of you who are part of we.

Our chosen family blended with our birth families. Susan's brother David stayed with us on weekends when he was in the Maritime Academy; my brother David stayed with us for a summer. Joanie's cousin Eric lived with us on Valle Vista Avenue. Michael's brother Eamon and his cousin Kevin lived with us on 54th Street.

Susan and Joanie and Vera were high school classmates, at Bishop Montgomery in Torrance. Years later, Susan's brother David and Joanie's brother Steve were partners in the Torrance Police Department.

Our family's ties were complicated -- long before Facebook made it a relationship status.

Like any family, our bonds remained strong over the years since we last shared a home. These bonds, like the bonds of any family, are fundamental relationships in our lives. This was powerfully true for Susan.

Had last week's incomprehensible tragedy been averted, Joanie and her husband Jeff would have moved into the house on Athol Avenue later this year, and a part of our family would have reunited under a single roof.

* * *

In the family we made together, Susan was the sister who would move heaven and earth to help any one of us. And she didn't stop there. A friend of a friend; comrades in the many struggles for social justice to which she lent herself, body and soul; the many, many women, men, and children who relied on her work as a medical caregiver.

All of you know this. Everyone who knew Susan knew her compassion, her dedication, her loyalty.

I only met Josh Bamberger outside the church this afternoon, before the mass; Susan worked for Josh in San Francisco's Department of Public Health. Among the quotes from Susan's friends, family, and colleagues in the press this week, Dr. Bamberger's words in the Oakland Tribune rang truest to me. He said,

"I've never met anyone who lived with as little ambivalence about making the world a better place. She was one of the most loving, heartfelt, solid and wise persons who ever cared for people living in poverty."

* * *

Susan wanted to raise children. For a time our household made plans to have and raise children together, but that didn't happen. When Susan and Bob were unable to conceive, and decided to adopt, they resolved together to give a chance to some child who otherwise would have none.

That's the kind of person Susan was. That's the kind of people Susan and Bob were.

It is the tragedy that defines our staggering loss of last week that Susan and Bob tried to save a child whose darkest depths they never guessed at -- no one did, none of us. A child, it seems now, who was broken beyond our understanding.

* * *


I had the privilege of Susan's friendship for nearly thirty years. I knew Bob for little more than half that time, but I share his heritage, and that goes back a long way.

Susan and Bob both lived their lives in the spirit of Tikkun Olam, a Hebrew phrase that means "repairing the world." Each of them sought in so many ways to repair the world. To heal the sick and comfort the afflicted: these were the guiding principles of each of their lives, and of their life together.

In a prayer called the Aleinu, a prayer some attribute to the biblical Joshua, we express this hope: L'takken olam b'malkhut Shaddai, "to perfect the world under God's sovereignty."

For Susan and for Bob the goal was, perhaps, less utopian than that. Less about perfection, and more about bringing their compassionate humanity into every place they lived and loved.

* * *

Each of us here today mourns Susan's and Bob's absence. Each of us feels a void Susan and Bob filled.

Yet we have also been enriched by each of them. And that enrichment ... that's ours to keep. Ours to keep, and ours to pass along.

We each have their example to set before ourselves, their example of lives lived well and righteously.

The light of Susan's and Bob's lives will burn bright and long for those who bear their spirits forward.