Watching the Paralympic Games in Rio, I’ve been so inspired by the abilities of those 4,342 athletes from 159 countries. But, of all their incredible accomplishments, I was most impressed by one thing these athletes could do: They could use the metric system.

As commentators described 100-meter freestyle, one- kilometer time trial, 40-kilogram power lifting, they might as well have been speaking the original language of the Olympics – Greek. In metric units, I was clueless about distances, depths or weights. And when it came to Rio weather, I couldn’t figure out if 20 degrees meant freezing or sweltering. I’m not the only one. One study concluded only about two in 10 Americans understand the metric system.

The United States, along with Liberia and Myanmar, are the only three remaining nations in the world that have not converted to metric measurement. We’ve been thinking about going metric: In 1968, the U.S. Department of Commerce announced moving to metric was in our best foreign trade interests, and the 1975 National Metric Conversion Act designated metric measurement the “preferred” system of weights and measures. But in 2016, the metric experience of most Americans is pretty much limited to buying a 2-liter bottle of soda. Distance is still measured based on the length of an English king’s feet and weight is calculated with pounds – a standard based on a Roman rock.

My own metric misunderstanding has me thinking our country needs to go for the mathematical gold and switch to the metric system, once and for all. Metric measures – based on units of ten – are much more simple, as well as more practical and precise. And as more metrically-minded nations begin to challenge our championship status in the race to be the leader in science, technology and engineering, we need to conform to the measurement standards used by the rest of the world.

Like the Paralympics themselves, the metric system is an inspiring example of peaceful global cooperation. And with those amazing Paralympic athletes as real proof almost any goal can be achieved with enough determination, the time has come for the United States to cross the finish line to the metric system.

With a Perspective, I’m Richard Swerdlow.

Richard Swerdlow teaches in the San Francisco Unified School District.

I love nearly all the creatures that inhabit our planet. For me a banana slug is the epitome of grace and form. The naked head of a turkey vulture excites me like that of no other bird. And even the lowly opossum has a kind of inner beauty that I find touching.

But as a card-carrying naturalist I must reluctantly confess a deep-seated dislike for yellow jackets.

I assume this antagonism dates from my early childhood. As a wee lad of five, I ventured too close to a hive and was promptly attacked and repeatedly stung in the ear and head. As a teenager, I would often push the lawn mower over yellow jacket nests and get stung. And once while I was riding my motorcycle a yellow jacket flew into my mouth and stung my tongue. I grew to hate them.

This late summer there have been a lot of yellow jackets, and it is not your imagination. This is one of the worst years ever. In the Sierra Nevada the density is one yellow jacket per square meter and people have been driven out of campgrounds by these ferocious insects. No one is quite certain why there are so many yellow jackets this year. Is it just some periodic natural cycle? Or maybe climate change?

Unlike honey bees, yellow jackets sometimes sting without provocation. I’ve seen them just land on a hand and zap the person. As if this weren’t bad enough they then release a chemical that attracts all of the other yellow jackets in the neighborhood.

So what good are these little beasts? What role do they play in the natural scheme of things? Well, they eat nearly everything including rotten meat and Coca-Colas. So I guess they act as scavengers keeping the world a bit tidier and reminding us to pick up after ourselves.

Fortunately there are a few natural predators that help limit the population. Some birds will eat a few and western toads will sit outside the nest and snag them as they fly out. But the most effective control are the striped skunks. These nocturnal predators dig out entire nests and consume the larvae, eggs and even the adults. How they tolerate the stings is a mystery to me, but I am sure glad they do.

This is Michael Ellis, with a Perspective.

Michael Ellis is a naturalist who leads trips throughout the world. He lives in Santa Rosa.

As a brown-skinned girl, my summers were once filled with self-deprivation. I avoided going swimming or out to an amusement park because of worry I would get darker.

Growing up, kids would tell me my skin color resembled dirt, or poop, or burnt toast. I used to come home from school crying and run straight to the bathroom to try and scrub the brown off.

But, it wasn’t just kids that made me feel this way. TV and magazines reinforced that beautiful was never brown. And, my family – many brown women who had also been conditioned to be ashamed of their skin color- constantly nagged me to bathe in 110 SPF sunscreen or better yet stay indoors.

You can imagine, for me, this accumulated into toxically low self-image.

Then my world was flipped upside down when I learned about colorism — the discrimination against people with dark skin that often even comes from those of the same ethnic group.

I immediately took all this new knowledge to my best friend; my mom. We sat in our PJ’s on her bed and I searched “Dark Girls,” a documentary on Netflix. We watched as sociologists explained how the very statements my mom would tell me like, “Stay out of the sun” seriously impact young girls’ self-esteem.

Finally, the movie ended, and I studied my mom’s face. For what felt like forever, she didn’t say a word. I couldn’t tell what she was thinking. Then, one of us — it might have been me or her, I can’t remember — started crying. She told me she was sorry.

Looking back on it, summers have totally changed for me. All my closest friends know that I’ll jump at the chance to go to the beach, that I feel most at home dancing in the waves with the sun baking on my skin. Free to actually enjoy being outside without the pestering fear, “Am I getting darker?”

With a Perspective, I’m Amanda Agustin.

Amanda Agustin is 17-years-old and a college freshmen in San Francisco. Her commentary was produced by Youth Radio.

Offer chimps two pieces of food, one big and one small, and they invariably pick the bigger piece. Change the rules so that to get the bigger piece they have to choose the smaller one and chimps simply can’t do it. They lack the impulse control to compromise. They can’t take disadvantage in order to gain advantage. They can’t take the harder path to bigger prizes.

We humans are trailblazers of the harder path. We’re good at climbing through valleys to get to higher peaks. Our capacity for impulse control opens bright new vistas for us collectively and individually. Think of how much innovation is borne of our ability to do the harder thing to get to the better thing.

Not that it’s easy for any of us. It’s hard to reign in our impulse to just lurch straight at our desires. It’s also iffy since compromise doesn’t always pay. “No pain, no gain” doesn’t mean all pain yields gain. Delayed gratification is really delayed uncertain gratification.

When our impulse control fails us, we become uncompromising. But unlike chimps we can rationalize it as something more dignified than poor impulse control. We can call it steadfastness, and resoluteness, we can dress it up as an urgently unwavering principled response to some exulted imperative.

We have had a lot of that this election season, people so fed up with meanderingly compromised democracy, that they say, “Enough! From now on we’re taking my route, the straight shot to my definition of success. No more compromise.”

I hear it from my far left friends who join forces with Trump against ‘Crooked Hillary’. And I hear it loud in the Trump camp’s impatient clamoring lurch toward immediate gratification, trampling all over America’s hallowed standards of decency, even those that Republicans once defended most vocally -respect for the presidential office, small government, consistency, family values, tradition itself.

They call it steadfast commitment to principle. To me it looks like poor impulse control.

With a Perspective, I’m Jeremy Sherman.

Jeremy Sherman is a teacher, writer and blogger.

My parents don’t have any mementos from their childhood. No toys. No yearbooks. Born in China, they grew up during the war against Japan and later on, the Communists. Their families fled to Taiwan and in the early 1960s, my parents came to America. They brought a few clothes, but no keepsakes, nothing that offered clues to their past.

I knew that, and yet I still believed the copy of ‘Little Women’ I found on our bookshelf -with its yellowing pages, tattered green cover, and musty smell-had been my mother’s. I told myself that she’d read the classic novel by Louisa May Alcott-even though she was a scientist, and not an English major, even though I’d never once seen her read a work of fiction.

Somehow, the book showed up in our house, and I invented its history. As the daughter of immigrants, I often pieced together explanations my parents couldn’t provide. From childhood through high-school, I read ‘Little Women’ at least twice a year, inspired by Jo March, the whistling tomboy. We were both strivers: mine that of an immigrant family’s, and Jo’s born out of fallen fortunes. We were both aspiring writers and outsiders, too.

Recently, I started re-reading ‘Little Women’ and found it more old-fashioned than I remembered. At times, the tone was sanctimonious. That doesn’t change the impact the book had upon my development, how it made me feel more at home because I recognized someone who shared my dreams and my fears. Back then, it was I needed to make my way in the world.

The cover has fallen off, and the pages are even more yellow, the color of an ancient treasure map. With each generation, my family’s roots deepen in this country. Like me, my twins love books. Someday, they’ll discover ‘Little Women’ – and the book will become an heirloom at last.

With a Perspective, I’m Vanessa Hua.

Vanessa Hua is a novelist living in the East Bay.

The signs of success are widespread across California. Not only does the high-tech, wealth-producing engine in the Bay Area continue to purr, but even where I live in Sacramento we’re seeing an awful lot of new investment.

But with prosperity comes threats. One of many relates to the lack of trust that pervades our national political system. Another relates to global climate change.

On a summer trip to Yosemite, I saw both threats converge. The lush Sierra Nevada forests I remember from a short span of years past are under assault from too-massive fires, too much heat, and too many bark beetles. It’s heartbreaking to see the southernmost end of the West’s enormous conifer belt under such profound stress. But in a way it makes sense that the hottest, driest part of that forest ecosystem, with its unique sugar pines, red firs, and giant sequoias, might be the first to fall.

Compounding the stress from climate change is a crisis at the US Forest Service. Staffing levels at the agency for non-fire related functions have dropped 40% since the late 90’s. The Forest Service is a victim of increased wildfire costs associated with hotter weather, but also of a political system unwilling to de-link its operating budget from fire disasters, and allow the agency to do its job.

One expert I spoke with about the mess I saw on my Yosemite trip said that while the “bioclimatic envelope” may be closing on some species in the southern Sierra, it is still possible to build more resilient forests. Standing in the way of this is what another scientist I spoke with described as a lack of common vision, and a lack of trust in the ability of government to implement reasonable solutions.

The Sierra Nevada can feel a long way away. But can our wealthy region continue to prosper while a national trust deficit blocks us not just from protecting our forest hinterlands, but from fixing everything from a broken corporate tax structure, to fast-breaking transportation and water systems, to openly ruptured relationships between police and community? In the short-term, the answer is clearly ‘yes’. In the long-term it’s hard to say.

With a Perspective, this is Matt Mitchell.

Matt Mitchell teaches middle school math. He lives in Sacramento.

There’s a wonderful piece of history in the Bay Area that’s just about a secret. Up in Marin County, within the Point Reyes National Seashore, along Drakes Bay is Drake’s Cove. It is here, in 1579, that Francis Drake landed, met with the Coast Miwok, repaired his ship, resupplied and then completed the first successful trip around the world.

This was before Roanoke, before Plymouth, before Jamestown.

It happened here.

As part of a “cold war” with Spain, Drake had entered the Pacific Ocean, raided Spanish towns and ships and acquired 26 tons of silver and other treasure.

Seeking a way home, he headed north looking for the Strait of Anian – the expected water passage across the top of North America. Failing that, he turned south from Oregon seeking a harbor to repair his ship. He found the Oregon and Northern California coasts treacherous to a small wooden ship. The first decent harbor he found was at Drakes Bay.

Drake and his men didn’t understand the Coast Miwok culture and the Coast Miwok didn’t understand the English. But, peaceful, friendly relationships formed. Processions and long ceremonies were held. Goods traded hands. Porcelains were left with the Coast Miwok. Drake left with presents including feathered baskets and a crown of feathers.

The first service of the Church of England was held here. The first English claim on what would become the United States was posted here. The first meetings of Native Americans and the English happened here. The term “Nova Albion” – New England — was first applied here.

Since this was an area unknown to Europeans, the written narrative of the whole voyage has a focus on what was found in Marin County. After stopping at the Farallon Islands for eggs and seal meat, Drake headed across the Pacific and back to Plymouth, England.

The National Park Service and the Secretary of the Interior have declared the Drakes Bay location a National Historic Landmark, a high-level honor given relatively few historic sites.

The hike to the landing site takes an hour each way. It’s best done at low tide and only in the late spring, the summer and the early fall.

Come learn about our hidden history. It’s right in our own backyard.

With a Perspective, I’m Mike Von der Porten.

Mike Von der Porten teaches tourism at Santa Rosa Junior College, and lives with his wife in Santa Rosa.

Early morning weekday mass is a quiet scene. About two dozen folks show up for some meditative time and scripture, prayers of intentions and gratitude, Communion, some socializing.

On any given morning there is an eclectic mix of attendees; a young Hispanic mom with two kids, older couples, a nun in a windbreaker and khaki pants, a young person or two on their way to school or work, a shy homeless gent by the door with his gigantic backpack, elderly ladies quietly telling their rosary beads.

One of the regulars is a cheerful, diminutive Hispanic woman, well into her 70’s who, despite the predictable eighth-decade health issues, shows up rain or shine, and often does the scripture readings. Over the years I’ve known her, I’ve seen her at peace demonstrations or politically related events; cooking enchiladas at fundraisers or feeding the hungry in our community. This, of course, when I was usually busy with much more “important things” to do.

On a recent morning I was looking for her after mass to share some news. I found her in a small alcove of the church standing before an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, head bowed, the bright morning sun streaming through the stained glass, illuminating her head of cropped, white hair. I stood at a distance until she turned and recognized me with her familiar smile. We spoke briefly, and I helped her push open the heavy church door, as she ambled out into the morning on her new knee, and the door thudded closed behind her.

For a minute I thought about what little I really knew about her life’s journey and the principled spirit that I see quietly burning in her. I’d like to think, I have to think, that the world is full of people like her – non-celebrities who don’t take themselves too seriously but who take on what they do with purpose and humor.

Incidentally, her first name is “Esperanza”, Spanish for “Hope.”



A good idea, that.

With a Perspective, I’m Joe Pramuk.

Joe Pramuk is a retired physician. He lives in Napa.

My husband and I used to share the dream of having a little land to farm someday. We imagined a simpler life devoid of treacherous commutes and long hours at the office or lab. Instead, we dreamed of long days spent outside tenderly nurturing our crops as they grew into a bountiful harvest. Many of our peers held the same dream of a creating a commune where all would work together to nurture our farm and as the farm nurtured us.

We were excited when two friends bought significant acreage in the Capay Valley to start their own organic farm. We quickly volunteered to visit the farm and help out, excited to get a glimpse of what farming actually entails.

On our first Saturday morning on the farm this March, my husband and I woke up at 6:30 am and looked at each other, bleary eyed. We weren’t springing out of bed with glee to go feel the earth between our fingers. But still, we got up, and our hosts, glancing at the clock, mentioned how nice it had felt to sleep in that morning.

The task that weekend was building a fence, without which anything they planted would be eaten overnight. As we pounded fence posts into the ground for hours, our ears ringing, we started to contemplate all the work that went into a farm besides planting and harvesting, such as weeding, the building of infrastructure, and so many unknowns. By lunch, we decided that our dream wasn’t necessarily to have a full farm. Maybe a large garden or small urban homestead would do.

Last month, after a day following a tractor around to harvest 1,700 pounds of potatoes, I vowed to never waste a potato as long as I live. We’ve learned to appreciate the value of our food and consider the vast amount of labor that takes it from seed to table.

Now when anyone mentions a farm commune, we bring up the back-breaking labor and long hot hours in the sun. While many of our generation, like our friends, go into farming with their eyes open, others romanticize the idea. As for my husband and I, we’ll be sleeping in this weekend before wandering out to our backyard garden.

With a Perspective, I’m Becky Mackelprang.

Becky Mackelprang is a PhD candidate inn plant biology at UC Berkeley.

Let’s say I’m poor, and someone sues me. Go ahead, take me to court. What do I care? What do I have to lose? You won’t get anything out of me even if you win.

If I’m rich, take me to court. What do I care? I’ll throw so many lawyers and so much money at you, it’ll have you spinning down the courthouse steps.

But if I’m in the middle class? That’s a different story.

Even with a solid defense, my day in court is going to cost me. There are legal fees, and — depending on the issue or venue — the likelihood of jury prejudice, so that in the end facts won’t matter. That 95 percent of civil suits settle out of court isn’t a sign of good will. The plaintiff, through his lawyer, has let me know the potential price of trying my luck in court. If I settle, at least I avoid the all-too-real possibility that a jury will award the plaintiff far more than I can afford.

I doubt many middle class defendants have the means to play that kind of financial chicken. Especially if the case involves comparative fault where, even if I win, it will still cost me something just to make it go away. Compromise is not synonymous with justice. The plaintiff may not get what he claims he deserves, but he won’t often walk away with nothing, even if you think nothing is exactly what he deserves.

No one will march on the courthouse to protest this unique disadvantage in legal matters – the inability of the middle class to either buy justice or ignore it – because the middle class is the champion of the status quo. Besides, as injustices go, unless you are the one facing it, it doesn’t look like a biggie. Call it, perhaps, an acceptable price for not being poor, for having at least something to lose, for the increasingly dubious privilege of being middle class.

What it shares with most injustices, however, besides animosity toward the actual perpetrator, is the feeling of helplessness, the frustration of being caught in the abuse of a system that should be supportive and that you support.

Richard Friedlander is a mediator, author and actor. He lives in the East Bay.

The sun is going down. The young man looks up at the darkening sky and hurries home from his job in the city of Venice, Italy. He is Jewish, and in his time, 500 years ago, he and all Jews had to be within the confines of their island ghetto by dark. The doors to the bridges over the canals that surround the ghetto were locked. Venetians patrolled the canals throughout the night.

Jews came to Venice beginning in about 1250 to escape persecution. They were allowed to stay, but only if they wore clothing that identified them as Jews: a yellow hat at first, then red, then yellow again. They could only work as money lenders or pawn brokers, or in textiles or as doctors. In 1516, the ruling council of Venice met to decide whether to send the Jews away. They let them stay, but nighttime confinement in the ghetto was the condition they imposed.

The lodgings the Venetian Jews were forced to accept were in an area of foundries, the word for which was “ghetto.” This is where the term ghetto, as we use it today “a place of poor living conditions in which people are crowded together,” originated.

The immigration crisis here and in Europe has provoked a new wave of anxiety about “The Other.” They are not like us. They must be kept away, or at least segregated. If we give in to that fear, we will harm not only those we isolate, but ourselves as well.

The Jews hung in there in Venice for a long time, but gradually most moved away. When the Holocaust came, only 1,200 remained. Of those, over 200 were shipped off to extermination camps. The city had marked them, segregated them and humiliated them for hundreds of years by then, so I imagine it was an easy enough thing, a kind of natural and inevitable progression, to send them off to death camps.

With a Perspective, I’m Mac Clayton.

Mac Clayton is a writer living in Palo Alto.

I consider myself lucky. Last year, at the age of 56, I purchased my first home. It’s a 600-square foot, one-bedroom condominium so close to CalTrain the walls shake when the Baby Bullet rumbles through.

I would not have been able to do this without the local below-market rate program that is part of Palo Alto’s Comprehensive Plan. Prior to this I lived in a rent subsidized studio and I was able to save just enough money to believe that I wouldn’t be treading financial water forever, that I could at least temporarily survive, and possibly thrive, in one of our nation’s costliest communities. Had these programs not been there to help, my only choice would have been to leave the place I call home.

But not everyone in Palo Alto is happy I’m here. Some believe it’s immoral to take advantage of rent subsidies and below-market rate programs and that the City has no obligation to help people like me find housing. In other words, if I can’t afford to live here, I don’t deserve to.

But if the officials we elect don’t have an obligation to help, then who does?

It’s frustrating to be labeled as someone who is taking advantage of a system designed to help. To be thought of as selfish. It’s a subtle form of bullying, to be told with a look that you don’t belong, to have the feeling that your money isn’t good enough if you’re not wearing the right clothes, or to feel that a blind eye is being turned from a desperate situation.

So why stay?

It’s simple. This is where, for now, my heart is. And if I were to leave, like so many others have been forced to do, I know there’s no way back in.

If we are unable to find a solution to the housing shortage then I believe Palo Alto, and much of the Bay Area, will become a ghost town filled with cobwebbed computers.

With a Perspective, I’m Mimm Patterson.

Mimm Patterson is a yoga therapist specializing in chronic pain and now a proud homeowner in Palo Alto.

I stepped in the dirt and paused. The biggest climb of the day was ahead of me, but I didn’t know it. It was mostly dark and quiet and my head lamp revealed fifteen feet ahead: overgrown brush, bulky redwoods, and a narrow dirt path. I stepped again and felt the trail resist. What had I gotten myself into?

I’m not sure why I came here. I could’ve slept in. Or I could’ve waited until the sun was up. Why didn’t I? I couldn’t answer that now. Just keep moving, I thought.

I cursed the mountain and the darkness. They tired me and hid what was ahead. Had it been light out, I would’ve seen a long, steep climb, and little else. It would’ve overwhelmed me. I would’ve stopped or turned around. Instead, the limitations kept my focus on the task at hand: to put one foot in front of the other. Anything beyond that – an impressive view, an easy descent – was out of mind.

With the sun starting to break, the mountain’s steady incline seemed to let up. Then, finally, it stopped; I had reached its peak. I paused, panting. I had little sense of orientation, but soon the view cleared. I could see now what I couldn’t see then; I placed myself above the fog yet below the powerlines. I breathed easily and smiled as the trail supported my descent.

In running and in life, it can help to limit my vision. The enormity of a climb overwhelms when consumed in one gulp. Breaking it into steps makes it more manageable. I think that’s why I run in the dark though I’m desperate to see. Or I look down to pick myself up.

Sure, flatness is appealing. You can move and see easily. But an endless landscape would overwhelm and eventually, the openness would blind.

The interruptions give me perspective. They challenge but they also support. They hide and they reveal. In a sense, the limited vision protects me from the uncertainty ahead. Limits, counterintuitively, provide possibilities.

Life is inherently challenging, but it can be many other things. Without challenges, there are no rewards. Without interruptions, there’s no peace. Without hills, there’s nothing to see.

With a Perspective, I’m Niall Kavanagh.

Niall Kavanagh is a research associate at Veterans Affairs and Stanford. He runs the trails near his home in Daly City.

As someone deeply concerned with global energy and climate issues, I was pleased to hear a panel of clergy from different Abrahamic traditions embrace the science of climate change and make a strong case for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Each of them invoked Pope Francis’ Encyclical of July 2015 and drew on the moral imperative of treating your neighbor like yourself. They argued that continued use of fossil resources harms the planet for everyone, and more so for those who can least afford it.

What I did not hear from the panel was the moral obligation to remove the scourge of poverty, which claims the lives of over 15,000 children every day. Reducing poverty requires providing adequate affordable energy so everyone may lead healthy productive lives. There remain over three billion people with limited or no access to electricity. Providing them with the needed energy will require at least doubling our current energy production. We must keep this immediate need in mind as we work to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The panelists spoke of China having recently surpassed the U.S. in emitting greenhouse gases without mentioning that China has four-times as large a population, nor did they note that by increasing her energy supply China lifted 600 million people out of abject poverty.

Narrowly focused policies aimed at eliminating fossil fuels may motivate activists, but for a complex global problem such policies can be counterproductive. Focusing on climate change without addressing the required increase in energy supply will only perpetuate global poverty and social injustice.

With a Perspective, I am Ripudaman Malhotra.

Ripudaman Malhotra is a research scientist specializing in the chemistry of energy and fuels. He lives in San Carlos.

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