My Odyssey to Life – Bob’s Blog #3

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Dear all,

      Included below is the latest edition of my blog [March 6, 2019].  I made the subject line a little vague, because I didn’t want you to dismiss it out of hand, since it deals with a very current and very hot button issue.  The “odyssey” details a thread of my life, from my days at San Francisco State College (now University) until the present.

       The thread weaves its way through some interesting times – the student strikes at State in the late 1960s (of which I was a part), through my life as a quasi-hippie in Marin County, through my tenure in the Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Sciences at UCSF, ending with my consequential encounter with Saint Pope John Paul II on Geary Boulevard.

       Before starting out on my journey however, I am going do something a little unusual and tell you how the story ends, which is with two quotes from past US Supreme Court rulings. 

       The first is by Chief Justice Roger Taney in the Dred Scott Decision, which essentially ruled that any ban on slavery was unconstitutional.  The second is by Justice Blackmun in his opinion in Roe v. Wade (italics mine):

Justice Taney (Dred Scott):  [African Americans] were “…beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, …and so far inferior that they had no rights that the white man was bound to respect”.

Justice Blackmun(Roe V. Wade):  “…a woman has a right to terminate the life of the unborn.  The unborn have no human status and therefore no legal status that the law has to respect”.

The stark similarities between those two statements define what you might call the trajectory of my odyssey, and basically why I wrote it.

And, as I say below, if you believe in a woman’s right to abortion, and also believe in human rights, I highly recommend you read my odyssey, especially if you do not want to end up on the wrong side of the historical fence yourself, like Justice Taney did.

**************

A Note and a Plea: I would like you to understand that what I say below is not intended as a judgment on those who think differently than I do.  I firmly believe in the old scriptural adage, “Judge not, lest ye be judged”, and I would certainly not want to be judged on my moral character when I first started out on this journey.  I thus welcome and encourage your comments – but please be kind.  And, as always, if you wish to be removed from my distribution list, I will certainly do so, without prejudice [to request inclusion in this list, please e-mail me at: robertjohnson6211@sbcglobal.net].

May God Bless you all,

Robert

Ash Wednesday, 2019

Abortion and Human Rights – A Personal Journey

I was a firm believer in a woman’s right to an abortion even before I was accepted at San Francisco State College. As a social science major and a Student’s for a Democratic Society activist, to believe otherwise would have been unthinkable.  I joined the student strikes shortly after arriving at SF State, in the late ’60s, and was one of those that roamed through the halls, banging on garbage can lids and chanting, “On Strike, Shut it Down”.  It was my PA system that S.I. Hayakawa commandeered on top of the car, captured in that now famous photo of those turbulent times. 

       I even took a class in community organizing while at State, offered by the Experimental College, probably similar to something Barak Obama might have taken at Columbia.  The text for the class was Saul Alinsky’s, “Rules for Radicals”.  It was only after dropping out and retiring to a little hamlet in Marin County, that my values began to change.

The instructor in an Education class I was enrolled in gave me the key concept that led to my self-imposed exile.  In an attempt to bring some balance to the debates swirling on campus regarding the war in Vietnam, racism and the “Military Industrial Complex”, he pointed out that it was useless to try and change society without changing people, and that you must start by changing yourself.  Once you have become whole yourself, he offered, may you then become an effective instrument in the process of education.  Put another way, and paraphrased a bit, “You should first remove the 2 x 4 from your own eye, then you will see clearly enough to remove the sliver from your neighbors eye.”

That notion struck a chord in me, and I decided that the methods of the SDS and Saul Alinsky were futile.  I resolved to begin work on myself as the best method to break the “karmic cycle” of violence and war our world seemed locked in.  I enrolled in another class at the Experimental college which seemed more in tune with this approach – a class in zazen, or “sitting meditation”.

After my first semester at State, personal circumstances forced me to quit school and move to Marin county.  I was delighted to find that the kinder, gentler life of a hippie in a Forrest Knolls, quasi-commune was much better suited to my persona than the life of strife I experienced at SF State.

Not that hippies were anti-abortion as such, but they were very pro life, or, more accurately, pro Creation.  Hippies honored all things, great and small, and took much delight in even the simplest of forms – an insect, a leaf, pebbles in the stream behind our house or a redwood tree.  I believe that the use of hallucinogenics played a role in the development of such perspectives, as ordinary things could become extremely fascinating and take on vastly more importance under their influence.

If the great passion for hippies was the natural world, the great mission was the search for God and Truth.  Some did delve into drugs, some nutrition, some Yoga of various forms and some even Christian mysticism, but meditation seemed to be the method of choice for those who wanted a more natural, drug-free approach to enlightenment.

It did not matter what road you traveled however, as long as you were on The Journey.  It was no accident or passing fashion that “Lord of the Rings”(or simply “The Trilogy” as it was called then) was so popular in the movement. I pretty much passed on the drugs, but instead became involved in Transcendental Meditation and Hatha Yoga, and became very fascinated by the writings of the Christian mystics, such as St. John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila, both Catholics I was later to learn.

 I should clarify that my experience of hippiedom may be somewhat different than what you may remember or have read about.  As in many things human, the members of that sub-culture seemed to be strung out (no pun intended) along a continuum, from those that were attracted by the freedom of lifestyle and the drug culture, to those who were attracted by the purity of the ethic and the discipline of self-mastery.  Although it was the former group that attracted the most media attention, it was the latter that was most attractive to me.

I cannot remember even one conversation about abortion in those times, or remember anyone ever having one, but whenever the idea passed my mind, it seemed increasingly out of touch with my developing sensibilities.  The thought of killing anything, no matter how inconvenient or threatening, became repugnant, and I began to realize how contradictory such actions were to the hippie creed and even to mainstream liberal ideals. How could people who protested against the war and who cared so much for the poor, the disenfranchised and the natural world, give their blessings to a process that killed innocent life?

 Defining the moment of birth as the beginning of legal person-hood seemed to me like a totally arbitrary and very dangerous definition.  It seemed clear that even though birth was an important developmental milestones in a person’s life, it had no particular attribute that qualified it to be the point that determined whether or not a woman could legally have her child killed.  I reasoned that if our society could make such artificial definitions regarding human life, nothing would be beyond the grasp of the powerful.  I was very saddened by the realization that our laws would allow the destruction of human life, and that our constitution had such a gaping hole in its otherwise protective umbrella.  The final realization that I could not reconcile the contradictions inherent in the abortion question was the beginning of my conversion to another way of thinking.

       This was also the beginning of my conversion to Catholicism.   I attribute my conversion to Pope John Paul II, who I had developed a grudging admiration for over the years.  So when he came to San Francisco in 1997, I made a point to get tickets for the Mass he was to celebrate at Candlestick park.  However, before that, I had what I consider a personal encounter with him.

        The day before the Mass, on the bus ride from my new job at UCSF to Marin, we were stopped at Geary Boulevard by a traffic cop.  Curious, I walked up to the front of the bus, just in time to see the Pope in his Popemobile turning the corner right in front of us.  The Pope looked up and waved at me.  I waved back.  As Pope Benedict said in his encyclical Deus Caritas Est, “Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction”.  I believe that meeting with the Pope was a decisive encounter for me.

Although there were other things that attracted me to Pope John Paul II,  it was not until I began reading his various encyclicals and other writings on human rights that he truly gained my respect.

Simply put, he convinced me that every human person has a sacred dignity that is absolute and inviolable, from conception until natural death.  This “Theology of the Human Person” formulated by him, is the foundation of the Church’s teaching on all life issues (e.g., abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment), and also underpins the teachings on human sexuality and marriage.  The broad reach of this vision however, also permeates the Church’s social doctrines and forms the basis for Catholic social action, which fit my “liberal” perspectives on the subject like a glove. This seamless theological garment formed the bridge over which I easily traveled from my hippie life to life in the Church.

This also led me to a very personal perspective on abortion.  My first wife (to be) and I had made an attempt to get an abortion when we first found out she was pregnant.  However, since abortion was illegal then, we didn’t get very far.  Out of desperation we decided to get married and have the baby.

During the process of my conversion I reflected on the consequences if abortion had been legal.  I would not have the son I now have and neither would I have my six grandchildren and one great-granddaughter.  You might argue that I could have married someone else and had other sons and other grandchildren.  That was a possibility of course, but I could never have had my particular son, Christopher, or my particular grandchildren, and it would have been a sorrowful thing indeed had these particular human beings never been born.  My ex-wife and I are profoundly grateful we were never given that choice, and my son is quite thankful as well. 

But once abortion became legal, I realized that many more people would not have the illegality of abortion to keep them from making a terrible mistake.  The legality of abortion would now teach people that it was ok to have a doctor kill your unborn child.  It was this realization that brought me firmly into the pro life movement, and motivated me to help others from making such a mistake.

I now had a theological and a very practical foundation for my hippie ideas, but what about the contrary ideas of society?  As a Christian I am bound by my baptismal promises to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ, either by word or deed, and living out the Gospel values as an honest, loving, forgiving and chaste person is the ordinary way a Christian does this.

 But the fundamental question remained:  how do you “teach” the sanctity of life, and against what Pope John Paul II calls the “Culture of Death”?   Picketing abortion clinics, I thought, may serve to keep the debate alive, but that did not seem to me to be the answer, like the SDS was not the answer for me forty years ago.

Working in computer support for the department of Obstetrics and Gynecology and Reproductive Sciences at UCSF, I came to know many people who supported and actively promoted abortion, and many of them were kind and sincere persons with a passion for those they felt were suffering.  Although it may be inexplicable to me why the suffering unborn children experience during the process of abortion is not on their radar too, I cannot argue with their humanity and sincerity, up to a point.

My most sobering experience at UCSF occurred while working on the computer in the room of one of our female gynecologists.  She was being interviewed by another woman from a similar clinic.  I could hear all the questions  put to her, which were pretty mundane, until she was asked “What do you do in cases where a baby survives an abortion?”  At that point our doc’s voice went sotto voce.  She spoke to the other women in hushed tones for some minutes, which I presume to mean she explained a procedure she wanted no one else in the room to know about.  I will let you decide what she must have said, but I suspect she must have used some of the same reasoning used by those who defeated the recent abortion survivors bill in the US Senate.

The answer to my question finally came to me in the form of a history lesson on Constitutional law.  I discovered a legal treatise, called “The Rights of the Unborn – The Constitutional Challenge to Roe v. Wade” (http://www.priestsforlife.org/government/therightsoftheunborn.htm), written by Father Clifford Stevens, a Catholic priest of the Omaha Archdiocese.  After reading his paper I knew it was what I was looking for. Father Steven’s thesis is that the question of abortion would not be resolved by moral arguments; it would be resolved by legal arguments, and these arguments would not depend on the ideological composition of the Supreme Court, but on the eventual but certain triumph of inviolable constitutional principals.  In other words, the issue would not be solved by theologians, philosophers or activists, but by lawyers –  a somewhat unsettling thought I know.

Fr. Stevens points out that over the years our Supreme Court has been very fallible in the area of human rights, and that in the history of Court decisions, many have often ended up on the wrong side of the historical fence.  That is to say, many important Supreme Court decisions on human rights have been later overturned, when, in the course of time and with proper and persistent litigation, the original decisions were proven to be constitutionally flawed.  If you believe in a woman’s “right” to abortion, and also believe in human rights, this is important reading, especially if you do not want to end up on the wrong side of the historical fence yourself.

I quote below an excerpt from Fr. Stevens’ paper:

“In a Society without law, the strong destroy the weak, and the basic constitutional principle at work in the American judiciary is that there must be effective checks in the law to protect the weak and deter those who would use power unlawfully only for their own advantage…

The question of abortion is no different from issues that have divided the country in the past:  slavery, segregation, child labor, the condition of workers.  Those holding power, intent on their own private interests, commit violent acts under the cover of property rights, contractual rights, states’ rights or the right of personal autonomy.”

       Father Stevens’ paper presents a grand panorama of legal drama dating as far back as the discovery of the Americas, where he believes the legal principals were first developed that formed the basis for our constitutional government.  Here he presents the fascinating story of the efforts of a Dominican Priest named Bartolome de las Casas, to protect the indigenous peoples of the New World from the genocide and slavery being perpetrated on them by the “conquista”. This account is followed by a catalogue of legal rulings that had the effect of denying the human rights of African Americans, Native Americans, workers, and child laborers.  He then contrasts these rulings with those of subsequent courts (or constitutional amendments) that succeeded in restoring such rights – “historic reversals” he calls them.

In sum, Father Stevens presents a compelling legal scenario for the eventual overturning of Roe v Wade.  He feels that when the Supreme court begins to grapple with the specific details of abortion (as opposed to “access to abortion” which is what Roe v. Wade dealt with), and is confronted with the hard facts about what this procedure actually does to a child in utero, it will come to the same conclusions it did in Brown v. Board of Education – that “all men are created [not born] equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”. 

Fr. Stevens feels this will be the beginning development of what he calls “Embryonic Law”.   He states, “The question of the unborn is not a matter of statutory or positive law, it is a matter of constitutional law.  The basic principle of constitutional law upon which all constitutional questions have been resolved is the principle of exceptionless rights.  In the past, it was a question of whether the rights and immunities guaranteed by the Constitution included Black Africans, Native Americans, workers, women, children, Black citizens.  Now, the question is whether they include the unborn.  What has been opened is a whole new development in law:  the application of the constitutional doctrine of human rights to the unborn (emphasis mine).

You may argue that the Court will never recognize the human rights of the unborn, because abortion is too much a part of our society, but consider the profound effect that overturning laws allowing slavery, or segregation or child labor had in previous times.  As Fr. Stevens points out, “Slavery was a far more explosive issue, far more entrenched in legal precedents and supported by positive laws of long standing.  Segregation had been given the cover of constitutional precedent and …deeply ingrained in the habits of public and private life.  Child labor was part of a widely accepted economic practice upon which families and employer depended for their livelihood”.

I will leave you with two more quotes from Fr. Steven’s paper.  The first is by Chief Justice Roger Taney in the Dred Scott Decision.  The second is by Justice Blackmun in his opinion in Roe v. Wade.  As repugnant as these statements are, their similarities are instructive (italics mine):

Justice Taney:  [African Americans] were “…beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, …and so far inferior that they had no rights that the white man was bound to respect”.

Justice Blackmun:  “…a woman has a right to terminate the life of the unborn.  The unborn have no human status and therefore no legal status that the law has to respect”.

Consider this for yourself a “pedagogical moment”.  If you really are a true believer in the concept of human rights, then you must read Fr. Stevens paper, taking the chance that doing so could transform you into a champion of the unborn as well!

Note:  If you would like to read the full version of what I call my “Spiritual Autobiography” from which much of the above was taken, go to my WordPress site.  Among other things you will learn about my meetings with some of the rich and famous in Carmel and Big Sur, some other neat stories about my life as a hippie in Forrest Knolls, and my arrest at UCSF.

My Spiritual Autobiography – In the Beginning – and through the ’60s

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(part 1 of 4)

One of the earliest memories I can recall  – I was maybe three or four – is that of standing in front of an old grandfather clock, and being struck by a profound existential question – why was I born, and why to these particular parents? It was not just an intellectual question however, but more like a feeling or a state of being. I could often re-create that state by standing in front of the clock and sort of opening myself to let it happen. I told no one about this, for I was afraid I might not be able to recapture it, but it was this experience that made me understand that there was a spiritual dimension to my existence; in many ways, the balance of my life has been spent exploring and defending that part of myself.

I was the first in a string of five boys, and point man in the battles with our father – a sometimes vicious and abusive man. I think he truly loved us, but his anger and need for control so overwhelmed him that he all but ruined our family life. We were scared little rabbits always looking for holes to hide in when he came home. My mother did her best to shield us from his wrath, but she was not emotionally equipped for such a role, and besides, she loved him passionately.

That vicious streak in my father was exceeded only by that of many of the children I went to school with. Grammar school in the small town of Morro Bay was often played out in hand-to-hand combat – for the boys at least – and when that was not possible, psychological warfare prevailed

In kindergarten, I remember observing how kids often mistreated a handicapped boy. I tried it out myself one day, pushing him away when he tried to enter the classroom at the same time I was. A black kid in our class, who happened to be directly behind us, slapped me on the back of the head, and said to me, “He didn’t do anything to you – if you ever do that to him again, I’ll beat you up!”. This was not what I had expected; other kids seemed to gain respect for such actions. Since the black boy was often mistreated himself however, I soon made the connection between his experiences and his defense of the handicapped boy. The encounter sensitized me to the plight of the weak and powerless and I developed a great respect for the courage of that black boy. I never forgot his lesson.

I also learned many lessons from my mother, although I’m not sure she was ever aware of the impact she had on my ethical development. We were big on the game of marbles in those days, and had very elaborate and intense competitions at school. The ultimate conquest was to “clean out” someone by winning every one of his marbles (the girls never played). Not being particularly good at the game, this happened to me several times. One day however, a neighbor kid and I were playing marbles at home. His name was Charles Hickenlooper, and you can pretty much tell by his name that he was a nerd, not very good at marbles either. I was on a roll that day too, so it wasn’t long before I had won all his marbles; I had even convinced him to put up his shooter, which was always your prized marble. After winning his shooter, I immediately made some excuse to go home – I couldn’t wait to tell my mom that I had cleaned him out! Breathlessly recounting my victory to mom, I waited for some sort of congratulatory response. Instead, she made some offhanded comment to the effect that it must have made Charles very sad to lose all his marbles. I pondered that for a while, thinking over the times I had been cleaned out, and finally concluded that I never again wanted to make somebody feel like I didn’t want to feel – a poignant lesson on the Golden Rule.

I was lucky however, in that early on I became friends with a boy from the wrong side of the tracks, to the dismay of my mother and father. Bruce and I were best friends throughout grammar school. We were inseparable on the playground, and we spent nearly all our after school and weekend time together, doing boy kinds of things like hunting birds with our BB guns, fishing for trout and steelhead in the local creek and camping.

We were worlds apart in many ways however. He was from a very poor family with little education, and I think his mother had problems with alcohol. He and his brothers and sisters lived quite a rough and tumble existence, with almost no supervision, and his father occasionally disappeared for long stretches of time.

Our family was from the upper class, if you could say that about anyone in Morro Bay, and my father, being a real estate broker, was a fairly well known person in the community. My parents were nominal Presbyterians, so I attended church on a fairly regular basis in my early years, often without them however.  Sunday school puzzled me though, because I could never understand why the things that Jesus taught us didn’t seem to apply in the world outside.

I always got good grades in school, and never created any trouble, unlike Bruce and his crowd – better known as “the hard guys”. My good grades made me a little suspect in the eyes of some kids in the gang, but my friendship with Bruce overcame that.  Running with Bruce and the “cool crowd”, helped shield me from some of the worst of things about our grammar school; at least I was never “pantsed” on the school yard, in front of the girls, or ever had to fist fight anyone. In order to maintain credibility however, certain actions were expected, like petty burglary, vandalism, smoking cigarettes and drinking. When I stayed overnight with Bruce, we often sneaked out and rampaged around town like miniature commandos. The idea was to avoid being seen by anyone, and to scavenge any edible produce from vegetable gardens or snatch anything we could from unlocked cars. Even though my involvement with these activities went against the grain of my Sunday School lessons, it seemed like a necessary expedient at the time.

The relationships I made with the hard boys also trained me for the ultimate test – high school! Actually, high school was really just an extension of grammar school, except that the stakes were higher; you could get seriously hurt if you didn’t watch out. Many kids had perfected terrorism, intimidation and physical assault by that time, and they were a lot bigger. I also think some aspects of high school in those days naturally made kids meaner. Luckily, I still retained my credentials in the hard boy circle and thus was able to navigate the hazards of high school relatively unscathed, physically that is.

In that era, cars, rather than computers, were what our lives revolved around. My “bitchenist” car was a blue green ’57 Chevy, dumped in front, running a 283ci engine with dual quads and “4 on the floor”. Sounds about as arcane as some of our computer advertisements today, doesn’t it?

Morro Bay was a cruiser’s dream. It was a small town, and relatively compact so you could drive the circuit in about 10 minutes. At one end was the bay, with the boat docks and restaurants, and on the other was the Fosters Freeze, owned by the father of one of the gang (his free hamburgers were the best in town!). In between was the movie theater, the soda fountain and the pool hall, all of our favorite hang-outs. Owing to the coastal fog and fishing facilities, the population in the summer swelled with refugees from the heat of the San Joaquin valley, so we met many “valley girls” on our weekend cruises around the circuit. Those occasions called for detours to Black Mountain lookout, noted for it’s spectacular views – especially at night.

As I managed to do fairly well academically, I was also accepted into the social circle of the intellectuals, an elite which in those days meant the “squares”. My acceptance in this circle was somewhat awkward however, and I took a little heat from the hard boys for going to square parties. People couldn’t understand someone moving back and forth between these two worlds. I still remember one of my friends commenting, “Johnson, you’re cool…but in a square sort of way”. His observation perfectly captured my internal conflicts then, and which, in a way, are still with me today.

The stress of those early years of schooling, combined with the ongoing battles with my father, took all the energy and focus I could muster up just to cope day by day, yet the vision of a higher reality I experienced in front of the grandfather clock was always with me. The original question I posed back then however, had developed into something more profound. Provoked by the seeming chaos in the world around me, I delved deeper into the question of my existence, to the level where I contemplated the idea of existence itself, of everything and anything, from the ordinary things in our daily life, to planets, stars, the universe, and even the space which encompassed it all. By allowing my mind to be drawn further and further into the implications of the absence of everything, I was able to experience standing on the brink of that abyss itself, a fearsome vantage point that produced actual feelings of vertigo and foreboding. From that gut level of experience, I concluded that there must be a Christian God, for it seemed that only such a Loving Intelligence as He could dispel that cataclysmic state of no existence at all – or “no-thing” as I referred to that state. There was no one I could talk with about such things though, however much I yearned for such a person. The outlets for this hidden part of myself consisted of reading science fiction and listening to classical music in the relative safety of my home.

I was introduced to classical music at a very young age by a baby-sitter who would always bring over an LP when she came to stay with me. She would put on the record and turn off the lights and we would lay side by side on our backs to listen. She told me to relax and let the music completely dominate my mind, and to try to pick out as many different musical instruments as I could and listen to them all simultaneously. For a young, untrained mind that was a difficult feat, but as I learned to master it, I was stricken by the experience. That Christmas I asked my parents to buy me a recording of Capriccio Italian, which rather amazed them. I took up the French horn the next year in our school orchestra.

I had dreamed ever since grammar school that I would one day become a scientist. Early in high school I began taking all the science and math classes I could, but I soon discovered that science and higher math were very difficult for me. I think I was smart enough, but it seemed I just did not have the emotional stability required for such things. This realization was a great blow to me.

Going away to junior college the next year after graduation was a relief. I was amazed to find that the terror of high school was mostly gone. I made another attempt at science but failed again; by that time, whatever skills I had in basic math and algebra seemed to have evaporated; I just could not cope with calculus and physics. I started concentrating on the required courses, and, after some years of part time work, received an AA degree at Monterey Peninsula College. I had no idea what I would do in upper division.

It was during this period that I got a job and moved out of my parents home.  I found a little cottage in Carmel Valley, and supported myself doing landscaping for the Rich and Famous in the area, Ansel Adams and and Jean Arthur to name a few. In the little hamburger stand I also worked at on Fisherman’s Wharf I used to sell chocolate covered bananas on a stick to Kim Novak – of all people – which she bought by the dozen! It was a pretty carefree existence then.  The Valley was beautiful, my landscaping work was very healthy and invigorating, and my classes at MPC, now including some in the Social Sciences, were quite interesting.

Some other interesting things began to surface in those days as well – Beatniks and folk music!  Now I am sure the Beatniks had been around for many years, but for lily-white suburbia, unusual cultural influences didn’t penetrate so well.  I got my first taste of real folk music on the MPC campus one day.  I saw a group of students sitting around on the grass in front of the student union, listening to a young woman singing and playing a guitar.  I stopped by to listen and was quite impressed – enthralled might be a better word.  It turned out to be Joan Baez, in my first encounter with her.  My next encounter was a little more personal.

One of my favorite activities in those days was taking off with my brother Ken, and some of our friends, loading the car with beer and driving down to Big Sur.  Actually, the beer usually came first, and when we got up enough steam, someone would come up with the idea to go to Slates.  Now you probably know Slates as Esalan Institute; we knew it as Slates Hot Springs, which was it’s name before going upscale.  The draw for us was 1. drinking a few beers with friends on the CHP free road to Big Sur, and 2.  The possibility of finding the sulfur baths on the edge of the Slates bluff filled with beautiful girls.  Of course, we also had to sneak in around the barbed wire enclosing the place, but I think that also added to the allure.  We always could count on the beer and the barbed wire, but I don’t recall every finding any babes in the tubs.

Well, on one of those trips, I did meet a beautiful woman.  That particular night we got to Slates before the bar closed, and I vaguely remember sitting down next to a dark haired beauty who I immediately recognized as the girl on the grass at MPC.  I introduced myself and offered to buy her a drink, which she accepted graciously.  Unfortunately nothing remains in my mind of our ensuing conversation.

My next encounter with Joan Baez was many years later, but another seminal experience happened to me on one of those trips to the South Coast that would impact my life quite a bit more.  The “South Coast” some may know is a reference to a Kingston Trio song, also recorded by Joan Baez, which captures the somber quality of that remote area for me, and which is why this next experience was so powerful.  A recording is at this link.

There was a rumor among the folks we knew that there was also a monastery on the Big Sur coast, somewhere near Slates. On one trip we ended up spending the night in our car, due to fatigue and other factors.  When we woke up the next morning we decided to explore a little south of Slates to find the monastery, which we finally did.

There was a sign on the road that informed us that the “Immaculate Hear Hermitage” was somewhere up there in the Sierra Madres.  The name to us seemed a bit bizarre, but we had come this far.  We took the very narrow but spectacular road that spiraled up the mountain until we came to the hermitage.  We went into the little gift shop to find out what went on there, and a brother in a monks habit told us that the hermitage consisted of a number of consecrated men living alone in small “cells” as hermits, communing with God.  To me, and on the surface, that seemed terrifying, but it also rang a bell, that tolled for me, somewhere deep inside.  I would revisit this place far in the future but in much different circumstances.

It was also during my years at MPC that I met my first wife. A friend and I were cruising down Ocean Avenue in Carmel one afternoon, and he recognized one of a pair of girls walking towards the beach, the one I ended up dating. Six months later she became pregnant. Abortion was illegal then, but we made a half-hearted attempt to find a doctor who would perform one – with no success.

These circumstances were profoundly important for me, my son and my six grandchildren, and is the fundamental reason why I am so opposed to abortion.  The thought of this world without my son, his children and theirs, fills me with the greatest sadness yet  profound gratitude that abortion was not legal in those days. Untold millions of children around the world today are not so lucky.  Even though we barely knew each another, Melody and I were married in Reno shortly thereafter. My son, Christopher, was born in July of 1965.

Revised 3/2019

 

My Spiritual Autobiography – The ’70s

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My Spiritual Autobiography – The ’70s

(part 2 of 4)

I had traveled to the City to sign up for classes at San Francisco State college, and to finalize living arrangements for myself, Melody and Christopher. I had previously become aware that something very unusual was going on in San Francisco, but exactly what that was – and what it all meant – escaped me. Sitting in the parking lot of a little drive-in restaurant that day, listening to the radio, I heard for the first time, “Light my Fire”, by the Doors – the long version. I remember feeling a shiver in my spine, and a sense of exhilaration as I listened; it was then that I began to understand what was happening.

Some of you may recall those heady days at SF State. The Experimental College had recently been formed, offering a wide array of classes, from the pertinent to the inane. The wild new student union, designed by some radical young architect, seemed to capture that spirit perfectly.

During that time the Vietnam war had everyone whipped up, and we were encouraged to protest constantly by the Students for a Democratic Society.  I ended up joining their ranks and began participating in the many rallies on campus, and volunteered my time at the headquarters stuffing envelopes.  As I happened to have a small, jury-rigged PA system, I was also called on to be the sound man at some of the rallies.  It was my lowly sound system that SI Hayakawa, then head of SF State, commandeered on top of the car in that famous photo.

At the end of my first semester, our name came up for a slot in married student housing. Living there enabled me to quit my part time job at a nearby gas station and go to work for the Department of Entomology at the California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park, under the work study program. We could just make it on my earnings there and student loans. Things looked pretty good for us then.

I soon realized however that I was far more interested in the offerings of the Experimental College and protesting the war than I was in my classes in education. The situation on campus and in our family became increasingly chaotic, as I found myself drawn further into the protest movement. It was a miracle that I was never arrested then, for we did our best to disrupt classes in the departments which refused to join the student strike, usually business classes as I recall. We did this by running up and down the hallways shouting and banging on garbage can lids, chanting “on strike – shut it down!”, often just steps ahead of the police. In a more exuberant moment I even heaved a rock at a low flying police helicopter.

I even took a class in community organizing while at State, offered by the Experimental College, probably similar to something Barak Obama might have taken at Columbia.  The text for the class was Saul Alinsky’s, “Rules for Radicals”. The fundamental methodology they taught consisted in first finding an issue the local community could support, such as lobbying for a stop sign or light at a particularly dangerous intersection.  Meetings would then be organized around this issue, which gave the organizers an opportunity to identify those in the community that had leadership skills, and to begin insinuating their own progressive political agendas into the group’s consciousness. This seemed quite clever to me at the time.

The instructor in the Education class I was enrolled in did give me the key concept that led to a self-imposed exile, across the Bridge.  In an attempt to bring some balance to the debates swirling on campus regarding the war in Vietnam, racism and the “Military Industrial Complex”, he pointed out that it was useless to try and change society without changing people, and that you must start by changing yourself.  Once you have become whole yourself, he offered, may you then become an effective instrument in the process of education. 

That notion struck a chord in me, and I decided that the methods of the SDS and Saul Alinsky were futile.  I resolved to begin work on myself as the best method to break the “karmic cycle” of violence and war our world seemed locked in.  I enrolled in another class at the Experimental college which seemed more in tune with this approach – a class in zazen, or “sitting meditation”.

I finally decided to drop out of school, and move the family back to Carmel Valley to escape the craziness at State. By that time however, my relationship with my wife had all but failed; she finally decided to take Christopher and move to southern California with a friend. I moved back North to Marin county, to share a house with a man I had met practicing zazen.

Larkspur canyon is a paradise in the summer.  The weather was often very warm, and the smell of the Redwoods was amazing.  Periodically you could hear the tortured voice of Janis Joplin wafting through the trees, as she rehearsed at her home on the other side of the creek. 

I made my first batch of Granola there, from a handwritten recipe that was being passed around.  There was something wonderfully appealing in that humble cereal, especially the aroma that permeated the house while it was baking.  We came to feel it was sort of emblematic of the hippie movement, especially since it was not like any other commercial cereal you bought at the store – eating it was nearly like a sacrament.

In the winter however, the Canyon became dark and brooding. I spent an agonizing winter there, trying to keep my head above the heartache I suffered from being separated from my son. By late Spring the pain had subsided enough for me to begin functioning again. I applied for food stamps and unemployment.

That summer I met a young hippie couple, Ken and Diane, who lived in an old, condemned house in San Geronimo Valley. They were living there for free in exchange for watching the property. Since they liked me, and there was a spare bedroom, they invited me to live with them. The house had no electricity, but it did have a big wood burning stove, natural gas and running water; you just had to acclimate yourself to doing everything by the light of kerosene lamps and candles. In those days, that was very cool.

Within a year, Ken became fed up with California, and told me that he and Diane were moving back to their home state, somewhere in the East. I was quite saddened by this because I had become very attached to them, especially Diane, who was the kindest woman I had ever met. They were what I consider true hippies. When the movement started they were at just the right age and disposition, which allowed them to slip into the consciousness and life-style before being corrupted.  I was too old when it all started however, so even though I looked the part and shared in the ethic, I never felt I could, in good conscience, call myself a true hippie, especially after knowing Ken and Diane; it would have tarnished the purity of that image somehow.

You didn’t find their kind too often though, and I don’t think many people knew that this part of the hippie culture even existed – the so called hippies at San Francisco State and on the streets of the Haight grabbed most of the attention.  In my experience, and contrary to popular belief, the ideals of real hippies were very high, and their commitment to truth, supreme. We attained to greater sensitivity and depth both in our relationships with each other and with the earth and it’s plants and creatures. We identified hypocrisy when we discovered it, whether in ourselves, the straight culture over the hill or even in the movement. Above all, though, we searched for God. We searched for Him in many ways, some of which led us further away, it seems, but He was always the goal. The highest compliment that could be bestowed on a person then was to be called a “righteous dude” (or chick), an unabashedly religious term. We were in awe of life; our respect for it and the Creator was unshakable.

After Ken and Diane left, a friend named Peter who I had met in Larkspur Canyon moved in with me. Peter was great; he was older and more like I was. In fact, you might say he was from the old country, being raised by a relative who actually was. He did things like they did in the old country, like making things from scratch, doing things well, and being very moderate in his life style, good solid hippie qualities. We bought a little truck which allowed us to make some money doing odd jobs, and we planted a big garden. That and Food Stamps, allowed us to live quite well.

We never went to any of rock concerts back then, but once in a while we did manage to leave the valley for a pilgrimage to San Francisco, to attend classes on Monday nights at the Avalon Ballroom at Playland at the Beach.  That would be the Monday Night Class, with Steve Gaskin, Hippie Guru par excellence of those times.  Really amazing and colorful were these “meetings of the tribes”, but quite out of our realm.  Every possible permutation of dropped out and turned on gathered for these meetings, but for a couple of rather conservative rural faux Hippies, it proved a bit much.  Playland was closed and torn down in 1972, which may be roughly about the same time Hippidom morphed into something quite different as well, alas.

 Christopher came to visit often, flying up from the southland all by himself on PSA. It was a paradise for him, living like some pioneer or character out of Lord of the Flies. We had wonderful times just knocking around together, maybe skinny dipping at the ink wells or making forays to Golden Gate Park to the planetarium and the aquarium, our old haunts. It was always wrenching to see him go home however, and I can still feel the agony I felt then, watching him bravely hold back tears at our partings on the jet plane.

The reputation of the “Juarez” house grew, and we began to have regular drop-ins from the surrounding area. We had a large wooden dining room table, which seated at least a dozen , and it was often filled up with wonderful feasts, compliments of the State of California, and our garden; people always brought something to add, too. Afterwards there might be jam sessions, in the glow of kerosene light and the scent of sandalwood. Guitars, flutes, drums, tin cans, all striving for some sort of harmony in anarchy.

One evening, while relaxing over Irish coffee at Spec’s bar in Lagunitas (since burned down), we took interest in an inebriated fellow attempting to play some stride pieces on the piano.  We wandered over and struck up a conversation.  It turned out that he was the director of the San Geronimo Valley Chorus, and that he was looking for some male voices for a choral piece he was working on, called the B Minor Mass, by JS Bach.  That sounded pretty cool, so he auditioned us on the spot.  I had never sung in a choir before, but I did remember how to read music from my French Horn days, and I did have a good ear (to play french horn with any sort of pleasant result, you had to have a pretty good sense of pitch).  Despite our obvious lack of vocal experience, the fellow accepted us both into his chorus without hesitation – due to the effects of Irish whiskey I expect.

I was to quickly learn that the B Minor Mass is one of the most difficult choral works in existence.  Peter soon dropped out but I managed to hang on, as I was overwhelmed by the beauty of the music and how it made me feel to sing it.  I was very fortunate in that the other tenor in the chorus was an excellent and very talented lyric tenor named Michael Peterson, a barrel chested, wild man, but sweet as pie (he was later to become a well known and much loved singer of many traditions, including Tibetan throat-singing, opera, jazz, classical, pop and modern music ). Michael didn’t so much teach me how to sing the piece, but stood as a wonderful example as how to do so, and encouraged me when i needed it. [Loretta and I met Michael much later in life, when we needed a plumber for her apartments. You can get a feeling for his persona from the name of his plumbing business – “Pump a Turd”! If it wasn’t for Michael I would have never made the grade, and would have probably wandered off in some other direction in life, to my detriment I believe. Michael recently died of lukemia – he was only 2 years younger than me. I attended his “celebration of life”, and, as a tribute to him and in profound gratitude for the important part he played in the erratic trajectory of my life, I sang for him and to him the last chant of the Gregorian Requiem Mass, the “In Paradisum“].

The B Minor Mass was all in Latin though, so I hunted up a book on the Mass to get an understanding of just what it was that we were singing.  I was very intrigued by what I read.  After performing the piece that summer in an Episcopal Church in Inverness, I realized I was hopelessly in love.

One of our all time great experiences at the Juarez house began the day we found a big roll of carpet right in the middle of the road, like it was dropped out of heaven for us to find. We debated for a few minutes about what we should do with it, but finally agreed that we should haul it to the police department. We reasoned that it probably fell out of the back of some poor carpet layer’s truck, and we couldn’t stand the idea that he might have to pay for it out of his own pocket.  It lay in the police department basement for the required time for lost and found, but nobody claimed it so it was ours. We put an ad in the paper & had a response from a couple from San Anselmo. They were to come out one evening to pick it up.

It so happens that we were going to have a real feast that same day. Peter & I were cooking up a leg of lamb, with all the trimmings, and my new girlfriend had picked a bunch of blackberries and made a huge pie. The couple arrived just before dinner time, as night was falling. The house was lit up with lamps and candles and smiling people, and the smell of incense mixed with smells of roasting lamb and blackberry pie was intoxicating.

The couple were probably in their mid 30’s and obviously very straight. They seemed a bit dazed after walking through the door, as if they had stepped from Forest Knolls across the threshold into fantasy land. Since everything was about to go on the table, we convinced them to join us for dinner.

As you know, some times can be perfect, and that night was one of them. The goodwill and harmony just oozed around the table as the banquet began. After a reasonably well mannered first helping, inspired no doubt by the presence of our guests, our exuberance got the best of us. As the leg of lamb was being passed around for second helpings, Peter decided it was too much bother to hack pieces off with a knife, so he picked up the leg by the bone, took a big bite out of it, and passed it to the person next to him. And thus around the table it went, to the astonishment of our guests; I think they expected a food fight, or an orgy on the table next. It all ended in good humor however, and their thank yous and good-byes were heartfelt and not without some tinge of envy, I think.

We even had a guest house in the back of the property, and a swimming pool! Well, you couldn’t really swim in the pool, because it was empty, loosing the ability to hold water years before. We cleaned it out and began building a chicken coop in it.

The guest house was something else though. It was very tiny, but had a kitchen, bathroom and one bedroom. It was constructed all of redwood, and it had siding made out of shaved Douglas fir logs, complete with the bark. This made it look like a little hobbit house, which fit our sensibilities quite well. It’s greatest feature was the indoor plumbing and heating system. It was equipped with a beautiful old wood stove that had coils of water pipe running through the bottom of the fire box. Once a fire was lit, the house shortly became cozy warm, and it wasn’t long before you could take a hot shower! We considered this the ultimate in funky technology.

Drugs were never an issue for us at Juarez, because Peter and I didn’t do drugs. Both being raised in small towns in the 50’s, we much preferred beer for recreation. I smoked pot occasionally because I liked the taste, but I rarely inhaled, at least not the way you had to in those days to get high. Of course others that came and went through Juarez smoked and took whatever, but it was never the focal point of our lives. I was doing Transcendal Meditation and Hatha Yoga at the time, and Peter did his meditation while smoking his pipe in the middle of the garden, or while putzing around the house. We found out later from a neighbor that the FBI was watching us, sure it was a hotbed of drugs and other illegal things. If they really were watching, they must have been awfully bored.

Even apart from our particular group, it seemed that drugs in general were mostly irrelevant then, when considered as an end in themselves. The ethic was that you did not get high strictly for the sensations, but primarily for the understanding of yourself and your existence you gained by doing so, once the novelty wore off.

I do have to admit to taking “organic mescaline” once though. This was during the time that I lived with Ken and Diane. I prepared for this quite seriously, with much meditation, spiritual reading and prayer. I also made sure that Diane was going to be around during my experience, as I trusted her with my life. I built an altar of driftwood, covered it with an oriental looking throw rug and adorned it with bits of religiousness from various traditions; a little Buddha, incense, beautiful stones, hawk feathers and other natural objects, and even a string of rosary beads I had found in the house. The backdrop of my altar was a picture of a painting by El Greco, of St. Francis of Assisi praying to a crucifix which was propped up by a human skull. Just before taking the drug I read passages from the Tibetan Book of the Dead, preparing myself for the possible death of my ego. After reciting the Lord’s Prayer and crossing myself, Catholic style, I took the mescaline.

It turned out to be quite a beautiful experience. It was in the nature of this drug that it did not come on strong, all at once, but gently, with no jarring transitions – like pot a little but without the paranoia. I guess that is why they called it organic. Pot never seemed to get me far enough away from reality, so I popped in and out a lot, which was quite unnerving. With the mescaline however, you couldn’t look back. Normal activity didn’t cease, but you gradually came to the realization that your mere existence was profoundly interesting. I ate the first apple I had ever eaten in my life…again! The huge tie-dyed sheet I had made to cover my bedroom window gained a whole new significance. Many gospel parables came to mind, and their deeper significance unfolded before me. I was staring at the flames in the wood stove and began to feel the red and orange colors of my tie-dyed T-shirt pulsating on my body. Recalling the biblical phrase, “give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, I took it off and gently fed it to the fire, where it seemed to belong. I never took a hallucinogenic again, though, as I wanted to experience that high naturally. I would not recommend drug use of any kind today, especially after having seen one of my brothers nearly ruin his life as a result of an addiction to marijuana.

Our paradise was lost when the health department became aware of our “guest cottage” and sent an inspector to check us out. Notebook in hand he walked around the place, followed by a throng of protesting hippies. One of the guys had a little portable tape recorder which he hid in his pouch. He followed the inspector around closely as he made his inspection, and turned it on whenever a good topic came up. Every time he turned it on however he had to cough so the inspector would not hear all the clicks. It was a pretty authentic cough too because he suffered from chronic bronchitis. Finally, exasperated, the inspector turned around, glared at the fellow and bellowed, “will someone PLEASE get this man to a doctor!” We had a real hoot replaying that one!

Early the following weekend, we were awakened by a knock at the door – a bad sign because no one ever knocked. It was the owner of the house, with an ominous looking crew of latino men, armed with sledge hammers and other implements of destruction. We learned later that these people were the descendants of a soldier in the Mexican army who had been given the original land grant for much of Marin County. They were there to tear down the cottage.

It was a gruesome sight – that beautiful little house being smashed to bits. They dragged the old wood stove out and gleefully destroyed it with sledge hammers. The broken carcass was dumped into the swimming pool on top of our half-finished chicken coop. Within two hours the entire structure was flattened. We were saddened by this assault on our lives, but never really held it against the owner and the wrecking crew. We figured we probably seemed like aliens from Mars to them. Judging the event to be a sign of the times, we all left the house on Juarez within a month.

Revised 4/2019

My Spiritual Autobiography – The ’80s

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(part 3 of 4)

I moved in with my girlfriend, who lived in a small apartment in San Anselmo, and Peter moved back to Larkspur Canyon. It wasn’t long before she made it clear that I would have to get a job if the arrangement was going to work for her. Cutting my hair and going back to work was the beginning of a long process of re-adjustment to the “real world”, which continued through the balance of the 70’s.

We got married shortly thereafter, in the garden of a residence house for Dominican priests in Ross. In a ceremony that spoke of things to come, we were watched over by a statue of the Blessed Virgin in the person of Our Lady of Grace. In a tribute to the Catholicity of my girl friend’s family, our choir sang Victoria’s “Ave Maria“, as a prelude.

During that period, my wife and I were involved with several quasi-Christian groups, one an inter-faith summer camp for youth and the other a home based offshoot of the Unity church. We were also involved with several new age spiritualist groups, centered on psychic phenomena, healing and channeling. Despite the new age overlay, I realized then that my Christian roots were alive and well, and I felt quite comfortable re-visiting them. By the end of the decade however, the leader of our church, a remarkable and loving man we called Grandpa, who was the spiritual anchor of our youth camp, died. Without him, those things gradually died as well. My wife and I found that our involvement with the church and the camp was a large portion of what our relationship was based on. Without them, our relationship also began to die.

I went to work for UCSF in 1980. I was hired based on my experience with grant writing for the Community Action program in Marin County, where I was the director of child nutrition services. I considered my job at UC the first real job I ever had however, for it paid well, and had great benefits. Thus, despite the chaos created by the breakup of my second marriage, I felt that for the first time I had a real chance to create some stability in my life.

The 80’s proved to be no different than the late 70’s however, as these years became a confusing jumble of conflicting currents. I was feeling the need to make more money to accommodate my increasingly middle class life style, yet there was also an underlying unease with this direction. I recognized that I was slowly succumbing to the values of the “straight culture” which the movement had been so set against.  

My saving grace I realized later was my new girlfriend, Loretta.  She was married but their relationship was on the rocks.  Even though she was five years older than me, we seemed to be a good fit, despite our disparate backgrounds.  She was a lot more stable than me, mentally and financially, which I think was part of the attraction for me.  For her I frankly think she was somewhat charmed by going out with a young, handsome sort-of hippie.  We grew to be very close.

As a distraction, we got involved in drama and music; nothing professional, but sufficiently entertaining for some people to pay money to see. I became more and more a reflection of the secular, humanistic milieu I habituated, as my spiritual life drained away.

Towards the end of the decade, I found myself in a state of complete physical and moral exhaustion. I had substituted bourbon for beer and was smoking cigarettes heavily. In keeping with the ethic of the times, I believed that anything I chose to do was ok, as long as it didn’t hurt anybody – even though my conscience gnawed at me in certain areas. I knew the situation could not persist, but had no idea where to turn.  

Then, in 1987, Pope John Paul II came to San Francisco. I had always been fascinated by this man for some reason, and I admired the courage he exhibited in confronting the secular values of our day, even though I didn’t agree with everything I felt he stood for – at the time. I decided I wanted to see him in person, and went to great lengths to get tickets for the Mass he was to celebrate at Candlestick Park. Loretta thought I was crazy for wanting to go.

Several days before the Mass was scheduled, I was on the UC commute bus traveling down Park Presidio Boulevard headed towards the Golden Gate bridge. We were stopped short however, by a motorcycle cop in the middle of a green light at Geary Boulevard. For some reason, the bus was nearly empty that day, so I went up front to see what was going on. Within minutes, we saw the Pope in his little “Pope mobile” traveling towards us in the opposite lane, from the direction of the bridge. His car turned left up Geary directly in front of us. I waved at him, and he waved back at me, smiling. That and the Candlestick Mass were the catalysts for my exploration of Catholicism.

One of the results of the Ecumenical Vatican Council II in the late 1950’s, was the establishment of a program called “The Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults”, or RCIA, which is a once a week, yearlong course of study of the beliefs, history and structure of the Catholic Church. When I told Loretta I was interested in joining the RCIA group in the local parish of Fairfax, she hit the roof. Even though she was a cradle Catholic herself, she harbored some strong resentments towards the Church and was basically non-practicing at that point. I remember her pleading, “Why couldn’t you just become an Episcopalian or something, why Catholic?” She had experienced some of the worst aspects of how the teachings of the Church can play out in dysfunctional families, especially first generation Italian dysfunctional families.

I told her that I had tried for some years to live by a moral code of my own making – living by what I felt was right for me (or by what our culture at the time told us was right) – and had come to the conclusion that such a code was only reinforcing the negative and self-destructive aspects of my own personality.  I needed, I told her, a moral code based on objective, not relative Truth, and I felt that Catholicism might hold that Truth.  I concluded by observing that an institution that had persisted and thrived for 2,000 years had to have something going for it, and anyhow I didn’t want to be involved with a system of beliefs that made me feel nice and comfortable, but which didn’t challenge me to growth; I didn’t want to live by a watered down, wishy-washy version of the Truth.  This became the first in a long series of “discussions” between us, focused on the Church.  It was during this period that I moved in with her, in her home in Fairfax.

Our RCIA group was quite remarkable, as it was composed of people from a very wide range of ages, personalities and backgrounds. Even more remarkable were the stories each person had which lead up to that point of decision in their lives. I remember being very emotional when I told my story.

Looking back from within the group, I began to recognize patterns and experiences in my life that had lead me there. I recalled the interest I had developed in the 70’s for the writings of the Catholic mystics, especially Saint John of the Cross and Saint Theresa of Avila, although I did not associate these saints with Catholicism at the time. As part of my involvement with psychic phenomenon, I had read with great fascination the accounts of the apparitions of the Virgin Mary at Lourdes and Fatima. The repertoire of the secular choir I had sung with in the San Geronimo Valley included Gregorian Chant and many versions of the Catholic Mass and other devotional music from the Catholic tradition.  I didn’t realize it at the time, but the vast majority of classical choral works use the sacred texts of the Mass for their structure. 

This led the choir naturally into many Catholic venues to perform these works, and I began to experience the profound beauty of the sung Mass as sacred liturgy, rather than as merely works of musical art. The modern Catholic Church, I was soon to learn with much sorrow, had all but forgotten this incredible musical heritage, passed down through hundreds of years, trading it largely for folk songs and guitar masses. One of my missions in the Church today is to help reverse this trend. [I continue this effort today, singing Chant in Scholas celebrating both the  Ordinary (Novus Ordo or “Vatican II Mass”) and the Extraordinary (Latin or Tridentine) forms of the Roman Rite.]

Our RCIA class was led by a Deacon named Tom Kelly. He had a wonderful sense of humor, and smiling Irish eyes, with a great passion for the Church. I was delighted – but not really surprised – to learn that he had been on the altar with the Pope that day at Candlestick Park. Before our RCIA class was finished, Deacon Kelly died of a heart attack, while celebrating the 5:00 PM Saturday Mass.

Our classes continued under a fine young priest that had just been assigned to the Parish. Soon, however, the Gulf war overtook us, and he was assigned as chaplain to an Air Force unit headed overseas. As it turned out, Fr. Padazinsky was to become the head of what is called San Francisco Metropolitan Tribunal, and was involved in the annulment process for my two marriages. Our pastor, Father Al, a wonderful, kindly man, took over for the final leg of the class. Through the tutelage of these dedicated priests, and the lay persons who had volunteered to work with us, I began to glimpse the Truth I was seeking.

The rituals and gestures of the Mass which I had observed in our choral performances now took on their proper function and significance, and I soon realized that I was profoundly drawn to them.  Those active parts of the Mass allowed me to express emotions and yearnings from deep within my psyche, unspoken and unspeakable. Above all, I became hopelessly charmed by the Sacraments, especially the Eucharist.  When the doctrine of the Eucharist was first explained I was stunned. I had no idea Catholics believed that the act of consecration changed the nature of the bread and wine into the actual body and blood  of Christ. Not a symbol, not a sign, but his real blood and real body, even though the “appearance” of the bread and wine persisted. The idea that Christ was really there, offering his own body to us at Communion, stuck me as so exquisitely beautiful, that I could not help but give my assent to the belief, as preposterous as it seemed to my rational mind.  Now, sitting in front of the Blessed Sacrament during what is called “adoration”, I no longer need to strain for belief, as His Presence with me then is unmistakable.

I also came to understand the many devotions to the Blessed Virgin and the Saints, aspects of the Church’s spirituality that often receive the worst press by many non-Catholics, and even some practicing Catholics today.  I had always thought that the Rosary was a quaint relic from the past, suitable only for old women with accents.  I learned from one of the men sponsors in the RCIA group that this was a gross misconception, although it is still true that many more women than men say the Rosary.  Real Catholic men he told me, pray the Rosary everyday!  He explained to me that the structure of the Rosary, the “Hail Mary, Full of Grace, the Lord is With You…” part, served primarily as a sort of mantra you repeated, while mentally you meditated on various aspects of the lives of Jesus and Mary, the “mysteries” as they are called.  Each decade, or set of ten beads, is assigned one mystery, to total 15 in all if you said a complete Rosary.  So, while it may appear that the Rosary is merely the mindless repetition of a set prayer formula, in reality it provides the framework for an intimate and living connection with the events of the Gospel – a spiritual exercise that can bring profound insights into the meaning of scripture. I recognized immediately that this was basically the same technique used by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in his Transcendental Meditation, sans the mysteries of course.

Probably the biggest stumbling block for non Catholics is the Virgin Mary herself.  Mary was really never a problem for me because I came to know Our Lady in a way that many Catholics and converts don’t, which helped me to easily overcome the initial objections I had about her exalted place in Church doctrine.  I won’t attempt here to budge the stumbling block others may have about Mary, other than to point out that Mary’s function for Christians is always to lead them to Jesus – she is never an object of worship herself.  Catholics do venerate her as the willing vehicle for the Incarnation, as the Blessed Mother of Jesus, and as a great Saint.  I repeat here the observation of St. Thomas Aquinas that faith is required for true understanding, so, if one wishes to truly understand Mary, one must first have faith in her.

I began my personal relationship with Mary shortly after my encounters with the Holy Father.  I was home alone one evening, channel surfing in a haze of bourbon and cigarette smoke, when I came across a documentary on the apparitions of Our Lady, experienced by six young children in a small village called Medjugorje (Meh-jew-gor’-ee), in Bosnia-Hertzegovinia.  She had identified herself to the children as the mother of Jesus, and, ironically, the Queen of Peace; ironic because the apparitions began in 1981, back when Bosnia was still a part of the old Yugoslavia, and before the entire region had collapsed into murderous chaos. As I write this, people are again being slaughtered in a province of Yugoslavia – Kosovo.  Our Lady, Queen of Peace, please pray for us!

I became very excited by what I saw and heard in the documentary, for everything seemed in keeping with what I had read about the apparitions at Fatima and Lourdes (apparitions that have been approved as authentic by the Church), but more – as if the Medjugorje apparitions were a development or extension of them.  My resolution to learn more about the phenomenon of Medjugorje was the beginning of an unusual and intimate relationship with Our Lady.  Reading and meditating on what she had purportedly said to the children over the years, I came to know Mary first as a compassionate and concerned mother and teacher, before I knew her as the “Queen of Saints”.  Loretta and I visited Medjugorje for the first time in 1997, to give thanks to her for leading me to the Church. (these apparitions have not yet been approved by Rome, but they continue to this day.  You may learn more about them at: http://www.medjugorje.org/).

I also fit right in with the Church’s social doctrines and their work with the poor and other marginalized people, subjects that my Democratic roots exulted in.  Some things about Catholicism were difficult for me to reconcile however.  I was very uncomfortable with some of the Church’s moral teachings, especially the doctrines on divorce, contraception and abortion, feeling that they showed a lack of compassion for the individual. These rather conservative perspectives on morality went against the grain of many things I believed, things that had received the blessings of our culture, our government and even other Christian denominations. I had also heard however that Catholics could now believe pretty much what they wanted in these areas, guided by the dictates of their conscience.

I explained my feelings to Father Al, and he suggested that I do some additional reading, beginning with the documents of Vatican II. He explained that it was indeed true that if a Catholic felt, for example, that his conscience dictated that he could practice artificial birth control, the Church could not interfere, leaving the issue between the person and God. He also said however, that in order for this to apply in individual cases, the person must be acting from an “informed” conscience, to distinguish it from mere preference. In other words, the person must have studied the issue in depth, and also prayed to the Holy Spirit on the matter, before his conscience could be considered truly informed. That seemed fair.

To my utter surprise and joy, the more I studied the foundations of the Church’s moral doctrines, the more I loved the Church. Far from being the repressive “rules and regulations created by men” that I was used to hearing about the Church’s teachings, these doctrines flowed from an inspired and profound theology, whose beauty and compassion for the human condition remain unmatched except in the Gospel of Christ Himself. In fact, it is clear that the teachings on faith and morals of the Catholic Church are based solidly on the “Good News” preached by Jesus, if one chooses to study the issue seriously. I realized then that most people, including many Catholics, do not really understand the true doctrines of the Church, basing their knowledge primarily on the simplistic and often erroneous perceptions conveyed by the media and the opinions of popular cultural icons.  I have also come to the conclusion that those who object to the teachings of Catholicism basically do not agree with the teachings found in the Gospels, which also includes, unfortunately, many Catholics today. The attempt to “modernize” the message of Christ has only served to relativize his teachings and thus render them nearly useless as a source of moral and spiritual guidance in our times.  The results are hard to miss.

I also began reading the many encyclicals and other writings of Pope John Paul II, and in doing so, discovered what I consider to be the rosetta stone of Catholic doctrine, a principal so profound that it resolved the liberal-conservative dilemmas about the Church’s teachings that were haunting me.  Although the “Theology of the Human Person” was not invented by Pope John Paul, he has been the one to develop it into the beautiful and compelling theological-philosophical system that it is today.  This system is based on the self-evident idea that the life of each individual person is a “good” and that such life has profound and inalienable dignity and rights which no human institution has the authority to limit or deny, “life” being the span of time from the moment of a person’s conception to their natural (or “accidental”) death.  The theological basis for this derives from many parts of the bible, but none more beautiful than the line from the Psalms,  “Before I formed you in your mother’s womb, I knew you.”

With this theological system in hand, one could derive all the Church’s teachings on morality and social justice, for it is from this exhalation of the life of human persons, their freedom and their dignity that the teachings stem.  I came to the conclusion that Catholic doctrine contained and synthesized the very best of all political worlds – that is, the liberal focus on human rights and social justice and the conservative emphasis on personal responsibility and morality.  Unfortunately, liberals define what constitutes human rights so narrowly as to actually deny the right to life and dignity to millions (abortion & euthanasia), while conservatives define morality so narrowly as to deny dignity and life to other millions  (capital punishment and Darwinian capitalism).  This makes it nearly impossible for a Catholic (at least one who truly understands Church doctrine) to find a suitable candidate to support today, for there is rarely a candidate with a platform based on a rigorous conception of the Dignity of the Human Person, even among Catholic politicians.

Those of us that stuck with the RCIA program joined the Church that next spring, during the Easter Vigil Mass of 1990. Having never been baptized, I experienced baptism, confirmation and first communion in one fell swoop – the “grand slam” we called it. It was hard for me to believe, but through my baptism, all my previous sins had been washed away – no small task – and I didn’t even need to go to confession!  As a baptized Catholic, I found that the exaltation of life found in the Church’s teachings, the emphasis on self-mastery and holiness, the struggle to defend the dignity of the human person and his freedom, all brought me full circle to the idealism of my life in the early 70’s, to the house on Juarez. I was home again!

Revised:

3/2019

My Spiritual Autobiography – The ’90s

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(part 4 of 4)

Before beginning, I need to clarify a few points.  This last portion of My Story is an adaptation of a letter I wrote to the campus newspaper, The Synapse, in March of, 1999, documenting my arrest at a University sponsored conference on “Physician Assisted Dying” (my experiences in the San Francisco jail are at the bottom). That letter, entitled “A Catholic Lay person Questions Medical Ethics”, approached the issues surrounding my arrest from a slightly different viewpoint, that of the relationship between science and education. This version deals in more detail with the issues involved in the conference, i.e., euthanasia and physician assisted suicide. However, as the Synapse decided not to publish my letter, I have included it here on my web site so that you may use your own judgment as to whether it was worthy of publication.

To bring you up to date [as of 1999] I am now a 19-year veteran of the University of California Medical Center at San Francisco. I spend my workdays managing servers and fixing computers for the Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Sciences. One Saturday a month however, I put on a different hat and a little pin that identifies me as a Eucharistic Minister, and I visit the hospitals to pray with patients and give them Communion.

If you have read the previous portions of my story, you know that I have one son, thanks to the fact that abortion was not legal when my son was conceived. As a result of that happy chance, I now have four [now six!] beautiful grandchildren as well [and one great granddaughter!].  I shudder at the knowledge that I would have willingly consented to the killing of my son as he lay in his mother’s womb (if we could have found a doctor to do it for us) and of course neither he nor my grandchildren would now, or ever, exist.

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I was arrested for trespassing on the UCSF campus in November of 1998. There had been an animal rights protest that same week, and at the time of my arrest, one of those protesters was still chained to the outside of the Medical Sciences building. Unlike the animal rights protester however, who was cited for trespassing by campus police and released, I was transported in handcuffs to the San Francisco Police Department, where I was photographed, fingerprinted and incarcerated in a holding cell for four hours. Also unlike the other protester, I did not start out to get arrested.

On Monday of that week, I was forwarded an e-mail from  a San Francisco State University based organization called, “The World Institute on Disability”, informing me of a conference at UCSF on euthanasia, which was supposed to occur that Friday, the 13th.  Having seen no publicity or announcements on the event, I called the Chancellor’s office to find out the location and time. I was told that they had no specifics either, but that they would find out more and call me back. I finally got a voice mail on Thursday afternoon informing me that there was indeed a conference taking place on that date entitled “A California Conference on Physician Assisted Dying”. I was curious why it was so difficult to get information on the event, and I was intrigued by the title.

The e-mail from the Disability Institute portrayed the conference as being very one sided; that it did not include any significant segment of the community with opposing views. I contacted the Right to Life Committee at the San Francisco Archdiocese to find out if they were aware of the event. They told me they were aware, and that they had in fact been allocated three slots at the conference, but as paying observers. They also told me that the conference was organized by “Death with Dignity”, the organization that will sponsor an assisted suicide initiative in the next general election.

I was very surprised that the University would sponsor a conference promoting only one side of such a politically charged issue, especially since it is destined to be voted on soon. I checked with the UC General Counsel to find out the guidelines UCSF must follow regarding political activity, and was faxed a question and answer sheet that contained the following: “Under what circumstances may the University, on its own initiative, distribute information concerning the impact of a ballot measure?” The answer contained, among other things, “University resources may be used under circumstances where the distribution is consistent with legitimate informational and not campaign purposes…Material which exhorts voters to “vote yes” [or, presumably, “no”] is, of course, promotional   Informational communication must state facts and arguments on both sides of the issue” [Italics mine].

At that point I felt a moral obligation to somehow become involved with the conference. To better understand why, I quote from one of the documents of the Vatican Council II of the Catholic Church. The “Decree on the Apostolate of Lay People (1965)” states, “At a time when new questions are being put and when grave errors aiming at undermining religion, the moral order and human society itself are rampant, the Council earnestly exhorts the laity to take a more active part…in the explanation and defense of Christian principles and in the correct application of them to the problems of our time.” (#6 paragraph 4) [Italics mine].

Since the Internet is such a popular and powerful tool for information dissemination, I decided to go to the conference and hand out the Internet address of the Church’s Doctrine on euthanasia (http://www.euthanasia.com/vatican.html) printed on little strips of paper. After excusing myself from work for a few hours, I walked to Cole Hall from my office in the University Hospital, armed with the URLs and some copies of the text for people who did not have Internet access.

I also brought with me a poster containing a blown up extract of the original Hippocratic Oath, which read in part:

“I will give no deadly medicine to any one if asked, nor suggest any such counsel; and in like manner I will not give to a woman a pessary to produce abortion. With purity and with holiness I will pass my life and practice my Art.” It is interesting to note that this version of the Hippocratic oath, formulated circa 500 BC, ceased to be administered at UCSF around 1970, three years before the Supreme court’s ruling on Roe v. Wade. The current oath taken by UCSF graduates makes no mention of prohibitions against euthanasia or abortion. Why did the medical community at UCSF find it necessary to change an oath that had been in use for over 2,500 years?

A news crew from Fox Network saw the poster and asked if they could interview me on camera. They had just interviewed one of the conference presenters and they wanted to talk to someone with a different point of view. Although I was unprepared for such a thing, I was quite impressed by their desire to present a balanced picture of the issue, so I consented to the interview.

As the participants began exiting Cole hall, I began to hand out my slips of paper, telling each person that it was a web site which explained the Catholic Church’s doctrine on euthanasia. Virtually all those I handed the slips to were courteous, and some seemed genuinely grateful. It was not long however, before someone approached me who identified himself as the “head of security”. He stated that the conference organizers had complained about what I was doing, and, since they had rented that space, they had the right to determine what happened there. I told him that if the conference had been open to the campus community I would have been inside participating, but that in any case, I felt I had the right to do what I was doing. The security person said he would send someone else to talk to me and walked away. I continued to pass out the URL.

A few minutes later, three or four campus police officers arrived on the scene and told me that if I didn’t move down the hall I would be arrested. At this point, a Dominican Priest I had spoken with earlier walked up, so I asked his advice. He suggested that I probably should do what they wanted, but that afterwards I should check on the legality of their order, as he felt uneasy about it. I talked with this same priest subsequent to my arrest, and I asked him if he felt the conference was indeed biased. He said it was without question, and characterized it as a “Valentine presented by the University to Death with Dignity”.

Deciding to take the priest’s advice, I began to move off down the hallway towards the doors of Medical Sciences. When we were in front of the access area for the elevators, I asked the policeman escorting me how much of the hallway the conference had rented. He replied that I would have to go outside and stand on the sidewalk. I stopped there and told him that I could not in good conscience comply with his order, as I felt it violated my first amendment rights to freedom of speech. He then informed me that I was under arrest, handcuffed me behind my back, and lead me out of the building.

To my surprise, the sidewalk in front was full of people in wheelchairs; I think they were just as surprised to see the squad of police escorting me down the steps. As I still had the slips of paper in my hand behind my back, I asked one of the protesters to take them, but I think he was too stunned by the sight to react. I assume those folks were there protesting the conference with the World Institute on Disability, as reported in the Synapse of November 19th.

I was lead across the street and down to the UC police unit below the Student Union, where I was held about an hour for processing, while handcuffed to a chair. After this, I was re-handcuffed, placed in a UC Police car and transported to the San Francisco City Jail.

I really don’t fault the UC police on this matter, as I suspect they were just following standard procedures. Everyone was quite courteous, if a little compulsive about the handcuffs. It seemed like they needed some practice with them however, which may come in handy in the future, if things continue as they have been that is. Why did I feel it was important enough to suffer arrest in this situation?

Since my conversion to Catholicism, I have become quite sensitized to the various aspects of the Church’s moral teachings that are at odds with the values of today’s popular culture, most particularly those that are contradicted in the political process or at the University. Two days before the “assisted dying” conference, we celebrated Memorial Day, honoring those who offered great sacrifices during previous wars to defend the values we held dear at the time. Many of those values also seem to be at odds with the values of today. How and why could our values have changed so quickly?

World War II was a struggle against what clearly seemed to be forces of darkness and death that threatened to engulf the entire world. That Fascism was able to gain a foothold and ultimately thrive in Germany, and that it was able to command the kind of allegiance it did in the medical, scientific and intellectual communities does not speak well of their educational system during that period. It is sobering to note that young university students in Germany were some of the strongest supporters of Hitler’s policies.

Pope John Paul II, often the only voice of dissent it seems, as one “crying in the wilderness”, has characterized our culture today as a “culture of death”. He says, in his encyclical, “The Gospel of Life” (http://www.cin.org/jp2ency/jp2evang.html), “…a new cultural climate is developing and taking hold, which gives crimes against life a new and…even more sinister character…broad sectors of public opinion justify certain crimes against life in the name of the rights of individual freedom, and on this basis they claim not only exemption from punishment but even authorization by the State, so that these things can be done with total freedom and indeed with the free assistance of health-care systems.”

These “crimes of compassion” as they could be called, including euthanasia and abortion, often seem to have a chilling similarity to those identified at Nuremberg. I am by no means an expert on the Third Reich, but I do know that much of the real horror of those times was organized and conducted by a segment of the medical and scientific community. It should be clear to the average US citizen, and especially to those in medicine and science, just how close we are today to many of the same ideas on eugenics that Hitler’s doctors implemented in Germany before and during the war; but are we clear?

Victor Klemperer, in his diary, “I Will Bear Witness”, writes, two years after the Nazi takeover, “90 percent want the Fuhrer and servitude and the death of scholarship, of thought, of the spirit, of the Jews.” Albert Einstein wrote for Time magazine in 1940, “Being a lover of freedom, when the Nazi revolution came in Germany, I looked to the universities to defend it, knowing that they had always boasted of their devotion to the cause of truth; but, no, the universities immediately were silenced. Then I looked to the great editors of the newspapers…but they, like the universities, were silenced in a few short weeks”.

You may think that talking about the Nazi regime of World War II in the same breath with the University of California in the 1999 is overdrawn. Maybe so, but I offer you the following, and I quote from the book “Life in Nazi Germany” (Fischer, 1995). “In 1938 the Reich Criminal Office, in an effort to find the broadest category by which it could criminalize human behavior, defined the term “asocial” as anyone who does not want to fit into the people’s community… Asocial persons included vagabonds, Gypsies, beggars, whores, alcoholics, or anyone who was a “work shy”…Anyone labeled as “asocial” could be taken into “protective custody”, sent to a concentration camp, and, by the terms of the Law for the Prevention of Progeny with Hereditary Diseases, also sterilized (Italics mine).

You might also consider that some pregnant women today are consenting to have doctors abort children that genetic testing has identified as having hereditary or congenital defects, mostly those afflicted with Down syndrome. The “Reich Committee” mentioned above was commissioned to do exactly the same thing, except they did not have the technology to determine genetic defects before birth. They therefore euthanized “defective” children after birth using lethal injection; today we euthanize such children in utero (before birth) using “therapeutic” abortion. Are women today aware that these “free choices” are producing some of the same results that Hitler desired for his Third Reich ? that is, the elimination of those he defined as unworthy of life ? And can such choices really be considered “free” if women are not adequately informed about the ethical implications of such forms of eugenics?

It seems that the Federal Government, the State of California and the University are also interested in the prevention of progeny with hereditary diseases, albeit using a different methodology. The University of California is conducting an NIH funded study to determine, among other things, if extending genetic testing to all pregnant women in our state is cost effective. How would you determine that such a thing is cost effective? According to the study, “cost effectiveness will be expressed in terms of both the cost per case of Down syndrome identified and the cost per case of Down syndrome averted (Italics mine). You can only “avert” a case of Down Syndrome, by killing a genetically defective fetus.

I cannot tell you if the study mentioned above has had any impact on State policies, but I do know that before this study the State of California was only offering free genetic testing to women that would be aged 35 or over at the time of delivery. Today, after completion of the preliminary study, the State is offering free serum or “triple marker screening” to all pregnant women, regardless of age, and CVS or amniocentesis testing for those who test positive for Down Syndrome in the triple marker tests.

I quote again from the book referenced above: “Besides Gypsies, homosexuals, and asocials there were two other categories of innocent and largely helpless ‘racial inferiors’ the Nazis chose to eradicate, the mentally ill and the Jews. Nazi racialists had pontificated for some time about the necessity of ridding Germany of the mentally ill, but Christian sensibilities were still strong enough to prevent the public implementation of a euthanasia program. The term “euthanasia” could mean, as it does in the Greek, an easy or merciful death; on the other hand, it could also mean, as some racial biologists saw it, the elimination of the ‘useless eater'”.

If the State has determined that expanded testing is cost effective according to the criterion of the study, is it not, in effect, classifying Down Syndrome children as “useless eaters”, at least in the sense that preventing them from being born eliminates the potential costs of feeding, clothing and otherwise, caring for them? Furthermore, if clinicians are trying to influence the choices of pregnant women through the use of so called “decision assisting technologies” (decision trees), which serve to focus a woman’s attention on “quality of life” issues, and away from moral considerations she may have about in utero euthanasia, could that not be considered sinister?

Ultimately, one of Hitler’s personal physicians organized an ad hoc group called the “Reich Committee for the Scientific Registration of Serious Hereditary and Congenital Illnesses”, which served as a clearinghouse for reports sent in by physicians and midwives asking what to do about cases involving serious deformities. A panel of three doctors graded the reports; a red plus sign earmarked the child for death, a blue minus sign for survival or a question mark for those requiring further evaluation. Children marked with the red plus sign were killed by lethal injection. By the time the program was terminated in 1941, over 70,000 persons had been euthanized.

According to “Death with Dignity” (Synapse, November 19th), there are today an estimated 84,000 illegal acts of physician initiated euthanasia committed in the United States each year, surpassing each year the numbers killed in Hitler’s pre-war program of euthanasia. Why are Doctors today killing so many patients? Reading the Synapse report on the conference (Synapse, November 19th), one might get the impression that these figures constitute a reason for the legalization of physician assisted suicide rather than a reason to question how we are educating our doctors.

It is not difficult to extrapolate where in-utero euthanasia may lead us. As we determine the genetic foundations for other naturally occurring human characteristics – hereditary and congenital defects or otherwise – individuals (or the State) may define other persons as “useless eaters”. Since we have already defined away the human rights of unborn children, much like Hitler defined away the human rights of whole classes of innocent people, all that is required is the completion of the Human Genome Project for the institution of a comprehensive program of in-utero euthanasia. Again, Pope John Paul warns us that, “Euthanasia and suicide are grave violations of God’s law; their legalization introduces a direct threat to the persons least capable of defending themselves and it proves most harmful to the democratic institutions of society.”

Some of you may have heard of the German resistance group, the “White Rose” (http://www.jlrweb.com/whiterose/).  The White Rose was formed in Nazi Germany during World War II, and consisted of a number of courageous Christian university students and a professor. Their mission was to spread the truth about what was happening in Germany at the time. They were ultimately arrested for distributing leaflets, tried for treason and sent to the guillotine. One of these young martyrs, Sophie Scholl, wrote in her diary, “I am not speaking of the masses, but [of] a national elite responsible for the spiritual substance and orientation of the entire nation: [an elite] which failed so badly in this century…that the spiritual plane has been deprived of its supports and plunged into chaos.”

The people of California and the Nation look to UCSF for continuing advances in Medicine and basic science, and as a source of ethical thought guiding those activities. I am personally proud to be associated with the University, for I feel that the majority of its efforts are of great benefit to humanity. As an educational institution however, the University has a solemn obligation to examine critical and controversial issues from ethical perspectives of the most diverse kind, even, and maybe especially those that go against values held by the majority in our culture, or the values held by the majority in the medical and scientific community. Without such an unbiased approach, do we not run the grave risk of producing the same kind of ethically stunted “national elite” that Sophie Scholl saw failing her country so profoundly during World War II, an elite whose ethics serve only to justify their activities rather than guide them? And could not such a malformed elite help but have a negative impact on public opinion to which, it seems, we often look to today as our only source of moral guidance?

I maintain that the conference on “Physician Assisted Dying” exemplifies the University’s failure to take such a broad, inclusive approach to questions on medical ethics, and would therefore strongly encourage the School of Medicine to hold another conference on physician assisted suicide, open to all segments of the campus community, that will include qualified persons speaking on all sides of the issue. It would be a tragic irony indeed if we fought World War II to defeat the Third Reich and its twisted values, only to find that we have institutionalized them in our own country through the free but uninformed choice of individuals.

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As a postscript, I have to tell you about some of my experiences at the San Francisco jail. Aside from a few of the jailers, I was the only white person I saw all afternoon, which confirms what I have heard about the disproportionate ethnic mix in our jails. They are definitely in need of an affirmative action program there.

Late in the afternoon, they brought in an older African American man to share my cell. I had seen him in a wheelchair earlier, but now he was slowly pushing a walker. He told me his real name, but said his friends all call him “Scooter” because of the way he pushed his walker around. After he lay down on the concrete bench and got comfortable, he told me his story.

He had recently come into a sum of money, which he had given to a homeless prevention group in the East Bay. They were going to put the money down on a house, which they in turn would rent back to him for a dollar a month – for as long as he lived. On his death, the house went to the shelter. He said for the first time in his life, he was feeling like he could relax and not worry about his future, that he would be able to live out the rest of his life in peace and some degree of comfort.

As part of the money dealings however, he had to have his fingerprints taken. Turns out he had forgotten about a parole violation in Texas 17 years earlier, and when they put his fingerprints through the computer, an outstanding warrant showed up. He said he was going to be in the SF jail until Texas decided whether or not to claim him, in which case he would be shipped back. He stood a good chance of losing all his money.

Scooter was also a very sick man. He said his doctor told him last year that he had about 1,000 days left to live. “Startin’ at the bottom”, he said, “and workin’ up”, several of his toes had to be amputated due to the effects of what he called aggressive diabetes, which was the reason he didn’t walk so well. He had prostate cancer, cancer in one of his hip joints, and some form of serious heart disease which I can’t remember. He said he was in constant pain and could only sleep about three hours a night. He had pain pills, but he didn’t like to take them because of the side effects.

Despite Scooters bad situation, he was very philosophical about it. Just before he was removed from our cell to have his “portrait” taken, he said “I feel like I’m dying a little bit more each day – every morning it takes me a little longer to get out of bed.” Then, as if to emphasize the point, he pulled himself up on his elbow, turned toward me and said, in very measured words, “But you know what…I’m never gonna’ give up!”

Scooter didn’t know why I was there, and didn’t seem to care. What did seem important to him was to tell me his story, and not in the way people do who can’t talk about anything except themselves, but like it was important for me just to hear him – which it was. The last time I saw Scooter was through about three layers of bulletproof glass – we smiled and gave each other thumbs up.  And, by the way, before my arraignment the following week, UC dropped the charges.

Revised 3/2019