I was walking my dog last week past our local cemetery when I saw a block of black granite behind the fence. The City of St. Helena put it there to honor our town’s fallen soldiers. Having never seen it up close, I passed through the cemetery gates for a better look.

On its honed surface, I counted five wars and 28 names belonging to St. Helena men who had died in combat thousands of miles from home. Each war had its own column of names. Afghanistan, a war still in progress, had only one name:

Darrick Benson.

Darrick, a Navy Seal, Petty Officer First Class, died in a helicopter crash in 2011 while helping an Army Ranger squad under attack. He was 28.

While I remembered reading about his death, seeing his name alone on that stone, made me long for knowledge of the person he’d been-not as soldier but in my community. I’ve lived in St. Helena for 15 years. There’s a good chance I crossed paths with Darrick at the grocery store, local cinema or a football game.

I went to my computer and typed his name into my browser. An image of a handsome, young man in a blue v-neck shirt grinned at me. The resemblance to my son was so striking it was hard to continue. From news clips, I learned Darrick hated the water when he was little. That he grew up in nearby Angwin and played football at our local high school. In a class of 140 SEAL trainees, he was one of only 19 to graduate. He died a month before the end of his tour, leaving behind a toddler son and a girlfriend he was to marry. He was going to be a flight instructor when he left the Navy.

The more I read, the better I knew Derrick, which felt good. Now that I know him, there’s no way I will ever forget his name there in the cemetery.

With a Perspective, I’m Holly Hubbard Preston.

Holly Hubbard Preston is a local writer. She lives in St. Helena.

When I was 12, a wormhole to my future self opened up. It happened while I was building a Lego model of Big Foot, the iconic monster truck. With a fully functional transmission, snowplow, even a working winch, it was the most advanced model that I’d ever tried to put together. To me, it looked impossible.

But I kept at it, hour after hour, bit by bit, building and rebuilding. Until, after several days, I pushed the final piece into place. I marveled at my finished truck, which I named Big Toe, and I remember feeling like I’d surprised myself that I’d been able to do it.

I didn’t know it at the time, but that was my first step on the path to becoming a designer—someone who thinks up and builds things for a living. For years I was a product designer here in the Bay Area. And I got to build everything from sunglasses to anesthesia-delivery devices.

When you choose to become a designer, early on many of the things that you’re asked to do seem impossible. One of my first assignments was to construct a working bicycle … made entirely out of paper.

But over time, designers get more comfortable doing what “can’t” be done. Because they learn that if you just keep working and re-working a problem, you’ll gradually find your way to its solution. The impossible becomes, simply, the eventual. And before you know it, you’re riding a paper bike!

In these uncertain times, I think more people could benefit from approaching daunting problems like a designer would. It’s what I suggest to anyone struggling with seemingly hopeless odds. It’s what I advise graduating students who are about face the world’s challenges. It’s what I teach my seven-year-old daughter, as I watch her working on her own impossible Lego model of the Porsche 911 GT3 RS, and secretly hope that she’ll also wind up surprising herself.

Because just as the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, the road to the impossible is paved one tiny plastic brick at a time.

With a Perspective, I’m Steve Vassallo.

Steve Vassallo is a designer and venture capital investor in Silicon Valley.

Where did we ever get the idea that we’re perfect? I used to think that speaking in public was the one thing that was feared more than death, but after twenty years of trying to get people to resolve their problems by talking with each other, I’ve come to the conclusion that admitting one has made a mistake now occupies the top spot.

The amount of creativity and time wasted by working around this simple act is enough to solve both our energy and employment problems in one swoop. The trust and fellowship that is lost would fill a black hole in space. “Hey, I screwed up” often is enough to put an end to a dispute, and when it isn’t, it’s a good start toward a resolution. Sometimes, it leads to an apology; sometimes, to creating an atmosphere where people are not afraid to give and receive helpful ideas. This applies to relationships across the board: whether it’s a presidential candidate speaking to the electorate, co-workers, marital partners, strangers or friends. You open up, people open up to you.

When Alexander the Great crossed from Europe to Asia, he stopped at a town called Gordium, famous for a huge rope set in a cart that was so intricately knotted that no one had ever been able to untie it. The legend had grown that whoever succeeded in doing this would conquer the world. Alexander strode up to the cart, took one look at the knot, and wasted no time considering what would happen if he pulled this or that strand here or there, or in working out some clever circumvention or self-serving excuse or blaming his failure on somebody else. He had a world to win and only 10 years in which to do it. He drew his sword, and with a single stroke put an end to the knotty problem. And then he went on to conquer pretty much the entire known world.

Alexander might not have made the connection, but if a demi-god, someone close to perfection, could display such humility, isn’t there a chance that we, too, might resolve many of our problems – very few as entangled as Gordian Knots – with a simple “It was my mistake”?

With a Perspective, I’m Richard Friedlander.

Richard Friedlander is a mediator and actor in the East Bay.

I was a completely healthy kid. I never had allergies or hospitalization of any kind. Then, on one seemingly innocuous Wednesday, I went to my pediatrician’s office for my annual check-up. She noticed some distinct signs of anemia which prompted her to set up blood tests to check vitamin deficiencies along with a complete blood cell count.

She told me not to worry.

My pediatrician called us into her office two days later to review the results of my blood test. That night my parents and I sat in the UCSF emergency room, and suddenly I was the recipient of endless, terrifying tests. It felt like hundreds of doctors crammed into my room. They explained to me that my kidney function was immensely compromised. Each word they spoke pulsated in my ear.

I was scared like I had never been before; afraid of eating too much or too little, afraid of pills and needles and remedies and health and sickness and living. Suddenly, I had to think about every function of my body; suddenly I had to pray these would not give out.

Every day I find myself fighting a battle, whether it’s with the doctor or the disease. My disease leaves me feeling tired, weak and in constant pain. But the medications the doctors supply me with wear me out beyond imagination. While I know the doctors are on my side, it still feels like an endless cycle of exhaustion and needles.

For the past year and a half, I have been called brave, been the “I-don’t-know-how-she-does-it” girl, but how much can a person really change in that amount of time? I am perceived as fearless. When doctors and nurses consistently enter my hospital room asking me to give my pain a number, without hesitation I say it is at a one, though my limbs feel like they are constantly being contorted into knots and other vexatious positions.

Every now and then I do feel sorry for myself. I dwell on what my future would have looked like if I wasn’t sick. But I have come to a realization that life isn’t always how you plan it. Everyone could ask, why me?

I have been expected to learn a lot about myself throughout this experience. I have endured each bag of Eculizumab and Solumedrol and dozens of IV pokes. I know life’s not perfect, but I have learned to embrace it.

With a Perspective, I’m Anna Bonkowski.

Anna Bonkowski is 14 years old and an 8th grader at Kent Middle School in Kentfield.

At a recent conference on children’s books, one of my favorite writers confessed to having an inner 11-year-old who just wanted to read books all day and wear cat print dresses. This inner 11-year-old was why the adult author was comfortable writing fiction for middle schoolers. Looking at the author, I saw a lively, intelligent woman in her mid-30s wearing a hip vintage dress and stylish boots. Looking more closely at the dress, I saw the print was actually cute, little cats.

Listening to her, I realized that I write picture books because I have an inner 4-year-old.  That’s the me who’s always happy to stop and look at a dead bug. I never lost that sense of discovering the world for the first time and trying to make sense of it. I spend a lot of time with the simple questions, like what’s that? How does that work? What are those people doing?

When I’m with small children, I get down on the floor with them. It’s easy for adults to forget that at their height, little kids can’t see the top of the kitchen counter. Whatever’s up there — food, candy, the cat — is actually invisible. Their world is full of surprises, not to mention terror and fun.

This isn’t a case of arrested development. I’m a competent adult: a licensed professional with sophisticated analytical skills and decades of experience. It’s just that when I see a new thing, my default approach is the naive straightforwardness of a 4-year-old. I ask a lot of simple questions, and people usually answer them.

It’s an approach with drawbacks. I can seem blunt and/or simple minded. My thought process isn’t for sophisticates: it’s for children. But from that approach the world blossoms and flowers. Everyday systems are just as filled with wonder as fairy tales.  The plumbing of a house and ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ are equally amazing and equally real. They both have their mysterious sources, their pathways and connections, the parts you can see and the parts you can’t.

Maybe that’s not the best example. I understand basic plumbing, but Little Red Riding Hood-what’s going on in that story? What are those people doing?

With a Perspective, I’m Evan Sagerman.

Evan Sagerman is a San Francisco architect and children’s book author.

When you study crime as I did in graduate school, preparing to become a criminologist, you’re actually examining behavior – and the behavior you’re examining is often that of people of color. Twenty years later my outlook has evolved as my understanding of white privilege deepens. However, it wasn’t until a recent conference on race and trauma that I reconsidered everything.

During his keynote address, a noted African-American scholar instructed his audience to ‘change the narrative’ around race. And that’s when it struck me – so much of criminological research – the journal articles and book chapters – serve to echo the narrative, that people of color are more crime-prone, more likely to be incarcerated, and – that well-intentioned white people are needed to solve this problem.

I now see that I spent graduate school studying fancy academic theories trying to align them with behaviors of those with whom I shared a community, yet were infrequently at the table. I recall jobs at think tanks where I worked on big federal grants, wrote papers, attended conferences, and struggled to come up with theories of my own. About people. Mostly people of color.

This led to the stinging realization of my role in perpetuating this narrative through research – and in doing so, profiting off crime in much the same way as the vilified Corrections Corporation of America.

Research likes to point to promising practices for helping justice-involved youth succeed, or how to better support those returning from prison – but, these don’t address the root causes which are largely known but scarcely acknowledged.

Rather than another webinar, we must recognize that current and historical systematic racism has thwarted social mobility and created generations of traumatized communities. We must acknowledge that Black Lives Matter is about human rights, not politics. We must recognize that laws and policies that target behavior and criminalize people of color must change, and that we must work to dismantle the systems that sustain these barriers.

And most importantly, we must get out of their way. As allies, we must step back, make space for their voices, support their work, and if they ask us to, follow their leadership.

With a Perspective, I’m Jennifer Lynn-Whaley.

Jennifer Lynn-Whaley is a Berkeley-based criminologist who uses brain science to keep young people out of the criminal justice system.

I take teenagers camping in the Mojave Desert — in summer. Overgrown children leave home; fledgling adults return. The desert transforms them.

We make few concrete plans. Kids panic. Where will we sleep? What are we going to do?

But soon they sniff freedom. School worries fade. At first, they perceive nothingness and heat, and their concerns are high. Do we have enough water? Food? Tools? The stakes feel thrilling.

Break the rules here — disaster. Teenagers love this; rebels discovering a cause.

Ten hours on the road, we finally spot the first Joshua Trees, and scout out a campground.

A smelly latrine, flat ground. “This is it?” some kid asks. He does a 360. Stunned disbelief.
“We drove all this way to get here? There’s nothing!”

It’s 7 PM, still 110 degrees, with a cracking wind. No place to sit, no water: awful.

Sullenly, “My parents would hate this…” Jubilantly, ” My parents would hate this!”

The first epiphany, and worth a lot.

We poke around. Little rocks underfoot, pink, mauve. Whip-fast lizards. They discover tiny yellow cactus flowers. A hawk sailing overhead. The sky turns coral and turquoise. A star winks on. Silence.

Surprise beauty grabs us.

Suddenly — it’s way past dinner time: 9 PM and no food yet.

The burgers are still frozen, the buns soggy. Someone kicks sand into the guacamole. But it’s up to them to produce a meal. This, too, is secretly thrilling. It’s important work, we are ravenous, no store anywhere. The challenge ignites them, a sight to behold.

Their first days are miserable, the learning curve steep. But kids abandon whining, learn to manage: cover up in the sun, sip liquids constantly. So the bread dried out, the Gatorade tastes bad. They are making things happen. By day three — exhilaration.

Decisions have huge consequences here. But they are learning competence.

This is what it’s like to begin to matter in the adult world.

With a Perspective, this is Marilyn Englander.

Marilyn Englander is an educator and writer living in Marin.

Ryan was one of the strongest people I had ever met, but you’d never have known it just by looking at him. A bespectacled boy of 13, lightly dusted with dark brown freckles that would lift off his cheeks when I made him laugh, and an unkempt mop on his head of the same color. He wasn’t in peak condition, but he didn’t care to be. To some, Ryan was just a nerd, geek, loser, or some other hateful word spat at him like venom from passersby. The curious thing about Ryan, however, is he never seemed to mind. He always looked happy, always a slight grin, never a care in the world.

Ryan didn’t open up to anyone but me. I learned from Ryan his dream of becoming an author, and stories he would write about space and the great beyond outside of “our little green and blue marble.” When he talked about the universe, his eyes would reflect the stars he spoke of, even in broad daylight. He dreamed of being as far from this world as possible. It wasn’t until later that I learned why.

Ryan told me he was moving the night before he left. We were walking at night through our quiet town, listening to the wind through the bare branches and the shuffling of the occasional pedestrian past us. Normally Ryan was chipper on these walks, but this evening he was silent. I thought nothing of it until I heard a sharp inhale, only to look over and see tears across each cheek. “I need to tell you something,” he whispered.

I thought I had known Ryan, but his parents’ divorce, their eviction, his mental illness and his craving not to be alive were news to me. That cold February evening on a park bench, Ryan clutching my jacket tightly, crying into my chest with my arms around him was the last time I saw or heard from him. I never got a new house address from him. His phone would go straight to voicemail, until one day his number belonged to someone else. Spring came, summer passed, and still no hint of the astronaut gone missing. That is, until I found a letter in my winter jacket pocket, the one I hadn’t touched since the last night with him. Inside was a note that read:

“Dear Jack, I am no longer on Earth. I’m happier here. Thank you. Sincerely, Ryan.”

I often think of how I was too late to help him. All I hope is that wherever he is now, drifting through galaxies and stars through the endless ocean of space, a true astronaut at last, he is happy, looking at our little green and blue marble.

With a perspective, I’m Jack Green.

Jack Green is 17, and a junior at Redwood High School in Larkspur.

As a die-hard environmentalist, I’m not proud of the fact that my great-grandfather, a San Francisco water engineer, was an early proponent of O’Shaughnessy Dam. For over 90 years now, this 400-foot concrete wall has blocked the Tuolumne River at the lower end of Hetch Hetchy Valley in northwestern Yosemite National Park, primarily to provide water for San Francisco.

Surrounded by rugged peaks and dramatic waterfalls, in its former state Hetch Hetchy Valley contained vast grasslands, oak woodlands and pine forests which sustained Native Americans as well as grizzly bears, big horn sheep and numerous other life. In its beauty and richness, it was known to rival its sister landscape, Yosemite Valley. Now an 8-mile, 300-foot deep reservoir covers Hetch Hetchy Valley, resembling a long bath tub.

Seeking water for its burgeoning population, for decades the City of San Francisco lobbied hard to build the dam, finally getting its way when President Wilson signed a law allowing the project to proceed. As one of the country’s first major environmental battles, opposing the project was part of John Muir’s campaign to save Yosemite. Muir once wrote that drowning Hetch Hetchy Valley was comparable to turning the world’s great cathedrals and churches into water tanks. There were other better alternatives to provide water, he and many others said.

A plan to restore Hetch Hetchy Valley to its former self by removing the dam, while developing alternative water storage, has been afoot for many years. On the face of it, this massive restoration project appears unrealistic, although those who support it say studies have shown it is not.

When I take a drink from my faucet at home, it’s hard to begrudge my great-grandfather his efforts to secure water for us San Franciscans. But there’s another important reason to forgive him. He gave me the gift of his daughter, my grandmother, who took me camping as a child and spurred my love for everything wild. It is in this spirit that I sometimes allow myself to overlook the practical, and embrace the dream of a wild Hetch Hetchy Valley.

With a Perspective, I’m Carol Arnold.

Carol Arnold is retired environmental planner. She lives in San Francisco.

There are now six restaurants with three Michelin stars in San Francisco. Hundreds of people would sell a kidney to dine at one of these venerated establishments of culinary genius.

Me? I prefer fast food.

My entire life has been plagued by anaphylaxis, to milk eggs, and peanuts. I was lucky enough to get my milk allergy desensitized, but the other two persist.

Eating outside the safety of my home is a veritable minefield. Dining at every restaurant, no matter how prestigious or acclaimed, is akin to putting a gun in my mouth and praying it doesn’t go off. This situation seemed dire for a while. I mean, which teenager wants to shackle themselves to their parents’ food, forever?

However, a savior emerged. My hero, my knight in shining armor, was cheap fast food.

Recently, there has been a growing trend of allergen awareness among chain and fast-food restaurants. Their standardized menus mean that a safe dish at one restaurant can be ordered at every one of them. This means that at these restaurants, often regarded as the dregs of the culinary world, I can act like a normal person. That experience is nothing short of bliss.

To be fair, I have eaten at some non-fast food restaurants. Eating at these places, however, usually involves much research and, upon arrival, an embarrassing cross-examination of the wait staff. And my reliance on fast food outside the home means that my diet at home needs to be incredibly healthy.

Still, I consider myself luckier than a lot of other individuals with incurable illnesses. But, for the 15 million Americans with food allergies, this is a real problem. Training restaurant staff and chefs in food allergy awareness can be game-changers. These simple measures can create a comprehensive safety net, a culture of protection that allows every food-allergic child to eat with freedom: Not only because everyone should have a shot at selling their kidneys for a 5-star restaurant. Because anyone should be able to eat anywhere with the confidence that they will survive another day.

With a Perspective, I’m Nikhilesh Kumar.

Nikhilesh Kumar is a junior at Mira Loma High School in Sacramento.

In the story of Adam and Eve their residency in the Garden of Eden was subject to one condition: they were not to eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. We all know how that ended: mankind’s first eviction.

But that raises another question. Our banishment from the Garden doesn’t explain the profound differences between our world and that of our ancestors. There must have been some other tree whose fruit we ate that set in motion those changes.

It seems clear that the modern world’s forbidden fruit came from the tree of convenience. And once again, who could resist? People prefer now to later, quicker to slower, ease to difficulty.

The tree of convenience gave us processed food and the automobile. It brought us the long queue of goods and services that we expect to be available “on demand.” It is everything that happens with the flick of a switch or the press of a button.

This was a tree nurtured by scientists and engineers. They were the wizards who delivered a gleaming future of newer and better.

But things appear to have shifted. These days we don’t like the future so much. And besides, now we’re told that all these wonderful inventions like the internal combustion engine have a downside. The scientist has gone from enabler to scold.

This raises the possibility that the repudiation of science that is tolerated or endorsed by many Americans is not merely the result of certain economic or religious agendas. People are receptive to this because scientists are no longer the good guys who are making life easier.

But there is hope. In the end our plight is just another problem in search of a technological solution. And that can be found on a new tree that has sprouted in our midst. It is a hybrid-the pluot of tech if you will-that combines the knowledge of good and evil with convenience. It is the tree of green or renewable technology. And this time we need to eat as much fruit as we can.

With a Perspective, I’m Paul Staley.

Paul Staley lives in San Francisco.

It was a scene that played out many times in my childhood. We’d be in a store or on the street and my mom would break into song — a clear, unembarrassed voice singing something from Bob Dylan, or maybe the chorus from “My Sweet Lord”.

As a kid in the ’70s I knew my mom wasn’t like the other moms. She taught Transcendental Meditation and drove a VW bug that was forever stalling at stoplights, prompting her to flag down the nearest pedestrian — “Yoo hoo! Can you give us a push?” She was into health food before it was a thing, sending me to school with rice cake and raw goat’s milk cheese sandwiches. People always said of her, “Oh your mom, she’s such a character!”

But she also had character. We lived in a small apartment, where she gave me the one bedroom while she slept in the living room. At times we got by on food stamps but she still managed to send me to private school on a scholarship.

What stands out to me now is not some hippie parent, but a mom who made sure I had opportunities, and who had the strength to stand up to obstacles and pull us past them.

I remember a cross country trip we took, just the two of us in our under-powered little car. As it labored up a winding highway through the Rockies, dark clouds let loose a torrent of rain. My mom leaned forward, wiping at the fogged glass, and at that moment an 18-wheeler passed, splashing a lake’s worth of water onto us. The struggling wipers couldn’t clear the glass and our tires started to slide. I braced in terror, sure that our car would careen off the mountain. But my mom didn’t waver. She looked toward the truck, still blowing clouds of mist at us as it receded, and shouted “Thank you!” as she drove us on, safely through the storm.

With a Perspective, I’m Todd Adler.

Todd Adler is an intellectual property attorney living in the East Bay.

Perched on a fire hydrant at the edge of Oakland’s Chinatown, I sat waiting. It was a sunny, early spring day, and I was on my lunch break. But instead of a meal, I had an emergency on my hands: a juvenile heron had fallen from its nest to the pavement below.

It was my first day as a heron monitor for the Golden Gate Audubon Society. Many people who live or work near certain large ficus trees in downtown Oakland have discovered their avian neighbors by way of the loud squawking calls from above and white-washed sidewalks under foot.

Evicted from better nesting sites at Lake Merritt several years ago, these big blue birds went on to find less ideal real estate. Despite their unlikely digs, the birds make up the Bay Area’s largest rookery of black-crowned night herons.

As a volunteer, I would monitor these intrepid birds in nearly a dozen street trees over the next few months of nesting season. Locating a juvenile that might be injured or grounded was a priority.

That day I had reached the last tree on my map without seeing any birds on the ground. I scanned the area and eventually made out a shadowy lump at the edge of an old blacktop, behind a tall fence. Through my binoculars I saw it was a brown-winged juvenile that was alive and, thankfully, clear of traffic.

I quickly texted the Oakland Zoo, which coordinates the heron rescues. After a short time, the downy bird began flapping its wings and moving erratically. I worried that it would move out of reach before help came.

To my relief, rescue arrived quickly. The heron went on to wildlife rehab, and I rejoined the mid-day crowd with its motley flow of ages and races. As tree branches swung wildly overhead on that windy spring day, I was thankful that one more member of Oakland’s diverse population was safe.

With a Perspective, I’m Carla Koop.

Carla Koop is a personal historian and writer based in Berkeley who helps people preserve their life stories in book form.

As a resident in psychiatry, I believe in talk therapy. I’ve seen it help people make meaningful changes. I watched a recently retired woman who refused to part with her deceased parents’ belongings realize that her hoarding was based on deep-seated feelings of guilt. She is now ready to donate their things to charity.

I like my job. But there’s a tendency in this field to reduce patients to psychological constructs and diagnoses. So when “John,” an elderly patient with whom I’d been working, told me he was about to lose his home, I felt stuck. Where was the underlying trauma, the irrational phobia? Sure, John suffered from chronic depression–that’s why we’d been meeting. But what could theories of enactment and transference offer a man whose most basic need– shelter–was about to go unmet? Here was a man on the brink of homelessness, and all I had to offer, it seemed, was psycho-jargon.

John did lose his house, and I was losing my confidence. It was then that I realized something: We could deal with his depression later, but first, we had to find him a place to live. When he came to our next session, I offered to use our time to call local social workers, non-profit housing groups, and community leaders. He was thrilled. I left messages all over town, and one of them eventually reached the head of the San Francisco Department of Homelessness, who helped find a permanent solution for my patient within a week.

Since moving into a studio he can call his own, John is happier than I’ve ever seen him. He’s sleeping better, and he has the energy to dive back into his trove of Mozart recordings. We still meet to discuss his depression, and thanks in part to those psychological theories, John is making progress. But we could not have reached this point had I not realized that John is a person, not just a patient. Only when his most basic human needs were met could he make meaningful progress towards mental health.

With a Perspective, I’m Matthew Hirschtritt.

Matthew Hirschtritt is a third-year psychiatry resident at the University of California, San Francisco.

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