Here’s one thing covid has not stolen from us—the night sky. Stars and planets, the moon in all its phases, meteor showers, constellations.
In my last home in San Francisco we had a good view of the southern sky from the deck, high in the air from the fourth story, so we could see the moon and planets rise and set. But a view of the north sky was blocked by the building and Bernal Hill.
Now in Santa Rosa we have a better view of the north sky. In the summer we sat back in outdoor zero gravity chairs to star watch. I relearned the summer constellations—Ursa Major (the Big Dipper), the giant square of Pegasus, the cross of Cygnus. We keep close track of the moon’s progress. We do love moongazing but stargazing is best with a dark cloudless sky.
Waiting for the great conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn we watched nightly as they came closer and closer together. They converged into one giant star for the first time in 800 years, on the solstice, December 21. It was a great way to celebrate the winter solstice but clouds blocked our view on that night.
This winter I’ve discovered a new pastime—hot tub stargazing. From the hot tub we get a window on the north sky. I find Polaris by fixing my gaze on the gas grill, then looking up. The North Star doesn’t change location (even though the gas grill might); all the other stars appear to rotate around it because right now it lies nearly in a direct line with the Earth’s rotational axis. But that will change in a cycle that takes 26,000 years! The Big Dipper and W-shaped Cassiopeia travel around the North Star taking up opposite positions in evening and morning.
Winter mornings are a great time to star gaze. It doesn’t start to get light here till after 6:30 at solstice. The sun doesn’t rise till almost 7:30. Of course it’s colder than at night. Often it’s around freezing when I go out at 5:30 or 6 am, but the hot tub, set at 104 degrees, is a perfect antidote.
In the morning even with low clouds or some fog, two bright stars greet me. In the east is Vega. In the west is Capella with the north star, Polaris, in between. Capella, the third brightest star in the northern celestial hemisphere after Arcturus and Vega, is part of the constellation Auriga, which I just learned about. Its name means little goat in Latin, depicting the goat Amalthea that suckled Zeus in classical mythology. Vega is the brightest star in the constellation Lyra. You have to look straight up in the summer, and then you can see Vega is one of the stars of the Summer Triangle along with Altair and Deneb. But in winter it twinkles near the northeastern horizon.
There are some impediments to hot tub stargazing: our private moon—the street light just above the roof; glasses that fog up in the tub; city lights, or any lights. I had to turn off our Solstice tree lights before going out to the tub.
Of course you don’t need a hot tub to stargaze. In San Francisco to watch a winter meteor shower we would dress warmly and lie on a camp mattress on the deck. Maybe not so much fun in a colder winter climate. But you can watch from indoors too.
From the hot tub I watched the Geminid meteor shower at its height in mid-December. Then in the morning back in the house with coffee in hand I set up a stargazing station in the living room looking south through the picture window. One bright star greeted me—Spica, the brightest star in the constellation Virgo. I saw a shooting star at 6:30 am just as the sky started to lighten.
Watching for shooting stars is not always calming. During the meteor shower I discovered stargazing anxiety. If you close your eyes for a moment you might miss a shooting star. They are quick and unpredictable! I got a case of FOMO. How many meteors did I miss? Since then I’ve made an effort to more calmly appreciate the capriciousness of the universe.
You can’t look at your phone and stargaze at the same time, though I do use the phone to identify heavenly bodies. A decade ago on a backpacking trip in the Sierra Holly and I made good use of a phone app we’d just discovered called Star Walk. You point your phone in the direction of the star or planet or satellite you want to ID and as you move the phone it shows the whole night sky with the planets’ orbits and all the constellations.
In old age my sleep habits vary. I often wake up wide awake in the middle of the night. One night at 1:30 I could see, even without glasses, one bright star outside my window. So of course I used the Star Walk app and learned it is Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky.
I know we are all happy that the light is returning now since the winter solstice. But I’m just a little sad that there will be less dark sky. I still hope to catch a falling star.
I’m publishing a selection of letters written by my mother, a prolific letter writer who lived in the conservative town of Yakima, Washington all her life. In a 1977 letter she castigates Sen. Henry Jackson and Democrats in Congress for their lack of support for President Carter, and schools them on the history of the Panama Canal.
“Neither you nor the great media with its resources has bothered to challenge the propaganda of Ronald Reagan…”
“We strongly support President Carter in scolding the oil companies; it should have been done long ago.”
Sherman Alexie’s eulogy for his mother reads, “My mother was a dictionary. She was one of the last fluent speakers of our native language.” When she died the words died with her. He has one cassette tape of his mother and grandmother speaking together and singing a song.
My mother was maybe more like an encyclopedia. She collected the stories of old people on cassette tapes and in the 1970s she produced a public TV program on which she interviewed elders who lived in the Yakima Valley. I think some of those programs must be collected in the Yakima Valley Museum, but perhaps not. The words may have died with her.
After my mother died, I asked myself the question so many of us ask. Why didn’t I record her story? She told me stories of her life as we sat at the butcher-block table in our country kitchen drinking tea late at night. I remember the film the Lipton’s left on the white cup, but I remember little of what she told me. Why didn’t I just turn on the tape recorder? Was it because I didn’t want to imagine a world without her in it?
Now I wish I had a recording of my mother talking, saying anything, but although I have looked through my saved cassette recordings, I haven’t found one. She had an unusually low voice, a result of allergies, asthma and post-nasal drip. When she answered the phone, sometimes the caller thought it was a man talking. But she had been a singer in her youth and I imagine her voice as a young person to have been clear and high.
There was one time when I did record my mother’s voice. It was after my boyfriend, Mark, and I had driven across the country and back in 1976. She had lent us her car for the trip, a VW station wagon, which very nearly didn’t make it over the Rockies. It was a big sacrifice on her part, I realize now. The trip took a month. My relationship with Mark didn’t survive the trip, but I think we felt we had to put on a good face for Mom on our return. I recorded her asking questions of Mark about the trip. In the recording, Mark unleashed pent-up anger at her. His condescending answers tagged her as a bourgeois reformist liberal. I thought he was abusive. Later he wrote her an apology and she replied in a thoughtful six-page letter, he told me.
I tried to listen to the tape later and it just made me mad. I have a vague memory of throwing it away, thinking I couldn’t bear to listen again. But my memory is terrible, which gives me hope. Perhaps I only thought I trashed it. It could be saved somewhere in the cases of cassette tapes in the basement. I’m making my way through them and I’ve already listened to many. It takes time. You have to listen till the end, as something important may have been recorded there. I have listened to hours of nothing—musical performances that could have been opera very far away but translated to audience coughing and fidgeting.
Some of the tapes are ones my mother made, labeled in her perfect cursive. She recorded the Camp David Accords, signed by Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin in 1978. She was sure the treaty, facilitated by President Jimmy Carter, signaled the end of Middle East discord. Sadat and Begin were both awarded the Nobel Peace prize. Three years later Sadat was assassinated. The tapes are imbued with my mother’s optimistic desire for world peace. I’ll probably never listen to them, but I haven’t been able to throw them away.
I have not yet found any tape with my mother’s voice, but there are cassettes I have yet to listen to and I think I remember where I stored them. I still have hope.
Walking around my neighborhood watching folks put up holiday lights, I have to stop myself from admonishing them to be careful on those ladders. I recognize this as a fear born of age and experience. As an electrician, and then a home remodeler, I spent many hours working on ladders.
As a new electrician I was fascinated by electrocution. I did some research and found that while electricians do die from electrocution, more often they die due to falls from ladders or being run into by trucks. I got more careful around ladders. Trucks too.
Most electricians spend a good deal of their working careers on ladders. Upgrading the electrical service where the wires come in to the building from the street was a typical job for me as a small contractor. For an overhead service we would mount the electrical panel and conduit on an exterior wall. The last job—connecting the wires at the top of the conduit—we did live from a ladder. Not a metal ladder, which conducts electricity and could electrocute you if the hot wire touched it. I was well aware that a direct shock from a live wire could also throw me off the ladder. I would die not from the shock, but from falling on my head.
Nowadays ladders are made of light materials and there are all kinds of newfangled designs and inventions making them easier to use. Back in the 70s when I worked with Wonder Woman Electric we had an old-fashioned wooden 40-foot extension ladder. The thing felt like it weighed a hundred pounds, but I was young and strong and I could handle it all by myself. You lifted it by pushing one end against a wall then picking up the other end and “walking” the ladder up till it was vertical. Then you carried it upright with a rung on your shoulder, one hand holding a lower rung, and your other hand holding a rung as high as you could reach. Carrying it was relatively easy unless you failed to keep it exactly upright. If it started tilting it was almost impossible to right the thing before it crashed into whatever was in its path, tweaking your back as it fell.
I know people who have died or been severely injured falling off ladders. Our friend Chris died only last year trying to secure a gay flag at his home. Emma became a paraplegic, falling from a tall tripod ladder while picking apples. I worked with Ron who ended up in a wheelchair after falling while tree trimming, and knew Jack who died in a similar accident.
I’ve fallen a few times myself. The first time I remember was while working in a residential garage. I had propped my eight-foot step ladder against the wall. Each step is a foot and I might have been up on the fourth rung, not very high, strapping conduit to the ceiling when the ladder started to slip down the wall. Now most people know—and I knew—that when this happens the correct response is to ride the ladder down the wall. Instead, my sympathetic nervous system overrode my brain and I jumped off, landing on my feet. I fell over and when I tried to get up I couldn’t stand. There was no pain.
The homeowner drove me to St. Luke’s hospital where they told me I had torn the anterior cruciate ligament in my knee, that ACL injury that has plagued female basketball players. I butt-crawled up the stairs to our second-floor apartment and wasn’t able to leave for three months. If that didn’t make me wary of ladders, nothing would. Three months without work and no income. That’ll do it.
One time I was standing on the top of a three-foot ladder, it went out from under me and I landed flat on my back, sustaining not even a scratch. I knew—we all know—not to stand on the top rungs of a ladder, but I hadn’t felt like looking for a taller ladder.
Another time, at the top of a 32-foot extension ladder, I leaned backward slightly and nearly lost my balance. In that second I saw my life flash before my eyes. A fall from the height surely would have killed me. After that I made sure to tie off.
My most recent ladder incident happened in September. I was on the second rung of an eight-foot step ladder trying to pick the last apples on the neighbor’s tree that grows over the fence. I reached my left arm up and back, turning my head with it, and I lost consciousness. It was probably just for a second but I found myself with feet on the ground and arms stretched up, face up against the ladder. My body had just slipped down, my shins scraping against the lower rungs. Other than bloody shins I was ok. Just stunned. Here is something new that can happen on a ladder!
After that event I gained a new respect for the destructive power of ladders. Now I mostly stand below, holding the ladder for others. Our rule here: never get on a ladder without someone else here to hold it.
Advice from an old ladder climber: be careful out there. Those innocent looking ladders are killers.
Back in 1980 gun control was a big issue. Politicians and celebrities were victims as well as less famous citizens. After John Lennon was shot I had to admit to my mother that I had bought a hand gun, the same type that killed John. She was distraught. What could I have been thinking? I was thinking as a radical socialist lesbian feminist I might have to defend myself. I learned how to shoot at local gun clubs. I put the gun in a drawer next to my bed, but began to worry that a visiting child might find it. What if someone accidentally got shot with my gun! I soon put the gun far away out of anyone’s reach. My thinking changed, but the scourge of gun violence did not. Except that Mom is writing here about handguns rather than now-popular semiautomatic weapons.
“We do have wild animals, but they are two-legged.”
I contend that bullets, bombs and mines are more to be deplored than garbage and stones (thrown by dissenters).
Paul Harvey pissed us off for half a century. During my childhood the right-wing commentator was on the radio twice a day on weekdays and at noon on Saturdays railing against welfare cheats and championing American individualism. A close friend of Sen Joe McCarthy, the Rev Billy Graham and J. Edgar Hoover, he supported Cold War campaigns against communists and opposed social programs as socialist. Advertisers loved Harvey as he could make any ad sound like news. Salon Magazine called him the “finest huckster ever to roam the airwaves.”
Millions of Americans who, like us, got their news and information from the radio, were subjected to his diatribes. Beginning in 1952, Harvey kept talking right up till his death at 90 in 2009. He always left us fuming.
My mother got so mad at his attack on war protesters that she engaged her superpower—she wrote a letter.
“What kind of people are we that we allow an immoral, useless war to continue when a child of six can point out that the emperor has no clothes?”
Sadly, the box of letters, saved in my brother’s barn, contained none of my mother’s letters from the turbulent 1960s. Most are from the 1970s. Flo writes here about being moved to tears in a state of depression and despair. She felt the burden of American foreign policy personally and would often call me, weeping for its victims. She anguished about her children and a whole generation of young people losing faith in democracy.
My mother wrote letters. For her, letters were a means of communication, an art form, a way to express herself, and throughout her life one of the few ways an ordinary woman could make her views known.
Born in 1913, Florence Wick was a reader from the age of four. Like all grade school students at that time, she studied the Palmer Method, and she developed strikingly beautiful handwriting. An album made by a family friend contains letters she wrote at age six.
Besides regular handwritten correspondence to friends and relatives, Flo wrote letters to Congressional representatives, media people and writers commenting on their stories, and hundreds of letters to the editor of our local paper in Yakima, Washington. She’d had lots of practice. Taking shorthand and composing and typing letters was her job as a secretary.
I had thought all of her letters were lost, but while going through files helping my brother Don move to Canada we discovered a box containing copies of some of her letters. The earliest is a letter to the editor condemning bigotry and discrimination against immigrants, written in 1949. The last, disparaging toxic pesticides, she wrote a couple of months before her death on August 9, 1983. Most of the letters are from the 1970s. They deal with government policy; environmentalism; and the rights of women, minorities, prisoners and seniors. Many letters eloquently protest the war in Vietnam and its casualties.
My mother changed the course of her own life through letters. She told me that when she applied to work for the Red Cross during World War II, a college degree was a basic requirement. She had only a high school education but she made her case in a letter and was accepted. I’ve often wished I had a copy of that letter. Flo served in the Red Cross as a “donut gal” in Italy, France and Germany during and after the war, earning a bronze star. Although only two of her letters from Europe survive, the letters she wrote to her mother (her father had died in 1938) were passed on to a local newspaper reporter who turned them into reports from the front lines. Along with photos and mementos, these newspaper clippings were pasted into a huge album my mother made upon her return from Europe. The war had changed her. She had lost her fiancé to a land mine in 1944 and when she returned home it seemed Americans’ concerns had focused more on the dearth of gasoline and nylon stockings than the deaths of millions. People didn’t want to talk about the war. Making the giant album served as an antidote to her depression.
What strikes me about the letters is their universality and timelessness. I remember her phoning me to read me a letter she had written about war. In it she proposed that the government employ a department of peace instead of a department of war. “It’s great,” I said. “Send it!” “I did,” she said. “Twenty years ago.” Her letters illuminate conversations of her time, and they also instruct us now in the 21st century. I think they deserve to be read and I’ve scanned some of the most compelling to publish here.
1949: Re-read Emma Lazarus’ inscription
Attacks on immigrants are a common feature of American history. Flo was proud of her parents, immigrants from Sweden and Norway, and she wrote many letters with this theme.
Who knows why people requested a contracting company named Wonder Woman Electric? Sometimes it was just to see women working as electricians; we were exotic. Sometimes it was because people preferred to hire women to work on their houses. We did exploit the stereotype that women are easier to work with, cleaner and neater (we made a special effort to keep our worksites clean). Sometimes we worked for general contractors who knew our work and hired us as a subcontractor. In that case, the building owner, who might never have hired women, would be shocked to see us on the job. And sometimes the client thought they could pay us less because everyone knows women are worth less than men. Sometimes they thought our labor should be free and they didn’t have to pay us at all.
Wonder Woman Electric found its clients through word of mouth mostly. I joined the collective in 1977 and immediately began to form stereotypes of clients. The working class folks who lived in the Mission and Excelsior neighborhoods of San Francisco, the ones who were scraping up the cash for the remodel or just to feed their kids, always paid their bills on time. You had the feeling that the bill got paid even if dinner was rice and beans for the next month. It was the rich clients who tried to skip out on paying. This amazed me. It didn’t take long to realize that rich people as a class generally had no regard for the value or skills of tradespeople. They believed we were looking for any opportunity to rip them off. Lawyers were some of the worst. One guy ran a business advising rich people how to avoid paying their contractors altogether. How did they get that way? I tried to understand the psychology but finally gave up. Why fight with these people to get paid? Maybe it was best just to avoid them.
But we were listed as a licensed electrical contractor in the San Francisco phone book so we got calls from all over the city. Much of our work was residential and in poorer parts of town, but occasionally a commercial job or a job in a wealthy neighborhood would come our way.
We were delighted when Wonder Woman signed a contract to do the electrical remodel of what would be a new restaurant, the Hayes Street Grill. We knew that the owner of the new restaurant was a locally famous food critic and we looked forward to working for a female business owner. The job included an electrical service upgrade for the building, which meant digging under the sidewalk to run a rigid pipe to the power company’s street box and installing a 200 amp commercial main disconnect.
Our founder, Susanne di Vincenzo, took the lead on the job. She was smart with a degree in physics from Columbia, and she knew how to read the electrical code. She had learned the electrical trade in the slums of New York rerouting electricity for a Puerto Rican squatters’ movement. At that time, if you were female, the above-ground avenue toward learning the electrical trade was closed to you.
The building was a three-story wood-frame Victorian with a steep gabled roof, a residential building that we workers would convert into a restaurant with a commercial kitchen, essentially replacing electrical, plumbing, heating and air movement systems—the guts.
Upgrading the electrical service would be the biggest job, but we would also be pulling new circuits for big kitchen equipment and a new lighting system. Much of our work would involve bending and installing electrical conduit in the unfinished basement, then drilling up through the floor to the kitchen. On jobs like this there are often no plans. The contractor designs the electrical system and then builds it. You get the manufacturer’s technical requirements for each piece of equipment, then calculate the size of the wire and conduit needed.
We started with the service. Jean, Sylvia and I crouched in a three-foot high corner of the dirt crawl space where the service pipe would enter the basement as Susanne gave us a code lesson on figuring the required size of a commercial electrical service. Part of this job would be disconnecting the existing service conductors and temporarily reconnecting the new wires live, a dangerous prospect. But we were glad not to have to do it while standing on a 30-foot ladder, the usual procedure. Electricians are more likely to die from falling off a ladder than from electrocution.
Normally there’s no reason for the electrician to climb on top of the roof and I can’t remember why I had to get up there but at one point I found myself straddling the peak. I was creeping along as carefully as I could, watching the sheet metal workers installing the big air intake and exhaust structures that ran from the kitchen to the roof on the outside of the building. Those guys had safety harnesses but I didn’t. Wonder Woman Electric had no harnesses, nor any safety equipment (I used my own respirator to protect my lungs while working in attics and crawl spaces). Instead, we should have taken job safety more seriously. In the three years I worked with the collective we had two serious fall accidents that could have been prevented if we’d had a safety program.
On the roof I tied a piece of wire around my waist and secured it around the brick chimney thinking it might break my fall. Just then the lineman’s pliers I was carrying slipped out of my tool pouch and bounced with dramatic effect off all the surfaces on the way down to the bottom of the light well forty feet below. It was suddenly easy to imagine losing my grip and tumbling to the ground. But it was a good thing I didn’t fall; that wire could have cut me in half. It was just one of the stupid things I did as an electrician that could have killed me but didn’t.
I think it was here that I began to understand the concept of Machisma, the female version of Machismo. Female construction workers all know that men in the trades think taking risks on the job is somehow connected to their manhood. Risky behavior is what separates the boys from the girls in the minds of the macho guys. The construction companies’ owners probably loved the macho attitude, as they didn’t have to worry about providing personal protective equipment to their workers who thought concern for safety made you a pussy. In some ways the female version was worse—it was self-inflicted. We felt we had to be better than the men in every way, and not be afraid to take risks on the job. The five-woman crew of WWE enforced the macha credo by bucking each other up and sometimes by taunting each other when faced with a frightening task. We also helped each other in risky situations, probably more than the men did. But I was working alone on the roof. My macha attitude melted away as I imagined myself following that hand tool down to the ground. I managed to complete my task and climb down without mishap but I was shaken.
It was our policy to write into our contracts a payment schedule based on work as it was finished. We set the main service and waited for a scheduled payment stipulated in the contract. No money came through. Why, out of all the subcontractors on the job, were we not getting paid? We never met the owner but she had no problem with our work as far as we knew. She did have partners in the enterprise and perhaps they were more than silent partners. Perhaps it was one of them who deigned not to pay us.
Susanne was the “forema’am” charged with dealing with the owners and she had to go through a general contractor. So when the first payment did not materialize after several weeks, Susanne pulled us off the job and cancelled our permit. We had not finished the electrical service, a technical part of the job that requires a contractor’s license and knowledgeable crew. The power company, Pacific Gas and Electric, would not connect the service to their grid unless it had a green tag signifying it had been permitted, inspected and signed off by the City.
Some time later that payment came through, we figured because they learned they had to pay us in order to get the inspection and green tag. In the basement we discovered that the owners had hired an unskilled electrician to finish the interior job, apparently because they thought our bid too costly. He was likely unlicensed and had done the work without a city permit. No inspector would have let this sloppy work pass. It was done in conduit (a requirement for commercial work) but this guy had never learned how to bend pipe. He had run conduit all around the basement using poor workmanship not up to our standards or basic code requirements. We worried that his work would reflect on us, as one permit had been issued to us. We also worried that his poor work could cause a safety hazard in the restaurant. The purpose of the electrical code is to address safety.
How could we register our discontent? We decided to use indelible ink to write on all the conduit “WONDER WOMAN ELECTRIC NOT RESPONSIBLE FOR THIS WORK.” When the owners saw our handiwork they were not happy but they probably figured no one would ever go down into that unfinished basement. We got our final check for the service installation and vowed never to work for these people again.
The restaurant opened in 1979 and today remains a destination for affluent opera goers. No doubt the poor pipe work is still there. I wonder if our remonstrations were ever painted over. And I wonder about the integrity of the interior wiring in the walls. Did that unskilled electrician who didn’t know how to bend pipe know how to do anything else? Did he have a license? Did he pull a permit? Was his work inspected? Did he get paid?