Steven Saum

If you’re like me, that astonishing August eclipse already feels a long time ago. But wasn’t that dimming of the morning light one of the bright spots of summer? For over an hour, I joined folks young and old on a plaza to share dark glasses and peer through telescopes, to marvel at the crescent shape projected through a spotting scope onto white card stock, and also a pair of moonshadow googly eyes through binoculars. There were sunspots to be seen and, through a telescope with a hydrogen filter, the arcs of solar flares along the curve of the sun. I went old school: cereal box topped with aluminum foil. A few people asked to see: Does it work?

It was a time of delight and community and wonder, to speak of alignments and cycles, and to marvel at the fact: We are alive to see this!

Then people peeled off to go back to work or class or the morning’s errands. I sat in the gardens next to the Mission Church on our campus to do some editing. The noon bells rang for Mass, and that reminded me of how the first time a mission bell rang here more than two centuries ago it forever changed the way time was ordered in this place.

Then I went to get a couple watch batteries changed. Something I’d been putting off for weeks; I never seemed to have time for it. Inside the dusty little clock shop was a solitary bearded man who asked of my trusty Seiko with the brown leather band: Has that been dead long? Apparently the battery in it had started to leak.

On the wall were a few cuckoo clocks and a joke about a newlywed husband who comes home drunk. But that’s another story. As for the watch, it has a face that absorbs sunlight and makes the numerals glow in the dark. It must be 25 years old now.

The next time we see an eclipse coast-to-coast will be the year 2045. I hope I’m alive to see it. That will be the 100th anniversary of the end of World War II, when millions died in order to defeat the Nazi scourge-and the war only ended after atomic weapons were used on human beings.

There are some cycles we want to break.

With a Perspective, I’m Steven Saum.

Steven Saum is editor of Santa Clara Magazine.

For the summer hike along the Trail of Ten Falls the boy wore flip flops and he carried his own pack. This was a good thing. He is nine-years-old, and we must all learn to carry our own burdens. His pack was orange and in it were a water bottle, matches, a blue bandana and a plastic Pokémon figure that resembled a rough-shelled tortoise, red-eyed and sharp-toothed and fierce. The boy posed him for a photograph beside a forest of swordferns.

I carried food and warm clothes, sunscreen and insect repellent, first aid kit and knife, more water. We stopped on the creek bank and I made lunch. Upstream two women sat in another idyllic nook and I recalled the tale of two Buddhist monks who come across a young woman by a river. At her request, one carries her across and, later, the other scolds him for it. “I set her down at the riverbank,” the first monk says. “You are still carrying her.”

It’s a lesson about carrying resentment.

From his pack the boy withdrew a book on how to make paper airplanes, paper for folding, two decks of Pokémon cards, a photo album.

“You’re kidding,” I said.

He grinned.

What else? A plastic grapnel with a length of black line. Markers and a sketchbook, with drawings of monsters and superheroes. A metal vase, black with a gold band at the top and diamond patterns of blue, purple and green.

To draw, the boy said.

While the boy did not complain about the weight – yet – he did not want to walk a dead-end trail to 178-foot Double Falls. But I insisted.

A lacy curtain of water fell over the rock face and scattered to rivulets across the crags and into the pool below. Blue and yellow and purple wildflowers grew alongside and brilliant afternoon sunshine formed a rainbow at the base. We clambered across boulders until the boy was close enough to touch the end of the rainbow. He stood long, ecstatic and charmed — no pot of gold but so what? There were mossy green rocks and sparkling water and that luminous refracted arc of ROYGBIV.

It’s a lesson about light.

You can’t put that in your pack, but what you carry of it will ease the other burdens for days and years to come. Or so a father hopes.

With a Perspective, I’m Steven Saum.

We got word on a Wednesday. A conservative pundit and longtime supporter of the president-elect was opining on TV about absurd claims that millions of people voted illegally in California. It didn’t matter if this was a lie. The pundit informed her host: “There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore as facts.”

The pundit wasn’t referring to news that the Oxford English Dictionary had named “post-truth” word-of-the-year. (Over at Dictionary.com, the word was “xenophobia.”) This was bigger.

So I broke the news to our son, a sophomore in high school. After all, if he’s studying for a chemistry exam, solving quadratic equations, or putting together a report on 16th-century Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe, it’s helpful to know facts are now unnecessary.

True, when the boy was in the third grade—a little younger than the pundit’s kids are now—he illustrated the difference between facts and opinion in a poster about puffins. To quote: “Fact: Puffins’ main source of food is fish. Opinion: Puffins are cool.”

When I told the boy of the demise of facts, he looked up from his laptop screen and said, “Great! I’m now president of the United States. Bring me some food.”

Thus ensued a discussion about assertions and false premises, selfishness and skepticism, and when empirical evidence is as plain as the nose on your face. That nose, in the case of Tycho Brahe, was made of metal—probably brass—since the astronomer lost a chunk of his original nose in a duel.

Brahe lived before the telescope was invented but still made precise observations about the positions of stars and planets—and the data he collected helped later astronomers shape our present model of the solar system. His observation of a supernova disproved the faith that had existed for centuries that the heavens were unchanging. (He also had a beer-drinking pet elk and may have had an affair with the Queen of Denmark, but that’s another story.)

Back in 2016, liberated from facts, the boy made himself some leftover turkey and pumpkin waffles. Sometimes it’s good to enjoy the sweet alongside the savory. But one question we face now, when it comes to facts and food, is: Who’s going to break the news to the puffins?

With a Perspective, I’m Steven Saum.

A confession: I’ve never had much sympathy for people who don’t vote, if your name is on the rolls and it’s just a matter of showing up or getting that ballot in the mail. But a few weeks ago I went to Belarus to observe the parliamentary elections. Belarus is Europe’s last dictatorship, with the same president, Alexander Lukashenka, since 1994. The parliament has had no opposition members since 2000. It’s been more than 20 years since an election was judged free and fair by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

There, if you said “my vote won’t make a difference,” that means something different. In fact, the fall elections required 50 percent turnout to be valid. So not voting could be way to throw a wrench in the system.

On election day in Minsk, I was visiting one precinct when a woman on the electoral commission resigned in protest. She accused the commission head of inflating the number of people who had voted during early voting. Widespread incidents of ballot box stuffing were reported by the OSCE; and the counting process was often more ritual than rigor. Official results put turnout at 75 percent. Independent observers put the numbers far lower. Some put turnout closer to 25 percent. Even so, when votes were counted, out of 110 members of parliament, two members of the opposition were selected.

A week later, Russia held parliamentary elections. Closed circuit cameras caught election commissioners stuffing ballot boxes — those videos popped up on YouTube pretty quickly. As for me, I was at the Giants game that day, enjoying the sunshine on the bay and watching our boys in black and orange sleepwalk through a loss to the Cardinals.

At the seventh-inning stretch, before “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” we sang “God Bless America.” That tune was composed by Irving Berlin, born in the city of Mogilev, then part of the Russian empire, now in Belarus. Berlin revised the lyrics for a radio broadcast by Kate Smith in November 1938, when fascism was ascendant in Europe.

But as we know, democracy can be frightfully messy and inefficient. It doesn’t just happen on its own. On that note, the OSCE is sending its largest mission ever of election observers to the United States this November, with particular concerns over voter registration and electronic voting.

As for the Giants, they recovered, and playing for a spot in another World Series.

With a Perspective, I’m Steven Saum.

Steven Saum is editor of Santa Clara Magazine.

It was a 90-degree August day in the mountains, our first summertime visit to Lassen: the national park where, a century ago, the namesake volcano spit rock and smoke and ash into the sky. For our first visit a few years back, we planned something quieter. We camped with our nine-year old son on the shores of a jewel lake. We made an expedition to Bumpass Hell.

The short hike to hell took us over snowbanks where the Boy and I scooped up snowballs and lobbed and dodged and pelted. We descended to walkways through hydrothermal Hades; bubbling, gurgling mudpots and thumping and steaming fumaroles, where scalding acidic water beneath the ochre and gray-green crust reaches more than 300 degrees Fahrenheit. The stench is hideous.
That night, by the campfire, as we toasted marshmallows, the Boy declared: "You're a great dad!"

Credit the wonders of nature in a bewitching place – that, and the fleeting joy of a summertime snowball fight.

You're obliged to stick to the boardwalks in Bumpass Hell, named for Kendall V. Bumpass — hunter, guide, and prospector — who didn't have sidewalks to follow. In 1865, while showing his demonic discovery to a newspaper editor from Red Bluff, Bumpass broke through the mud crust and burned his leg. They had to amputate.

I never made it to Lassen with my own father. Our vacations ranged across the country, from Jamestown to Yellowstone, but not here. And by the time my father was the age I am now, could he have made the short hike to Bumpass Hell? Maybe not. He had a bad leg from a childhood fall in a construction pit (the small-town doctor had wanted to amputate), two car accidents, and a tumble down a flight of stairs while carrying a storm window when it was either drop the window on top of himself or take the fall on his hip. Son to my father, I try to make treks he could never complete and realize how quickly snowballs melt in summer heat.

We were just back in Lassen and hiked to Devil's Kitchen, another wonderfully noxious hydrothermal den. Smelling the approach, I asked the Boy what he thought might be cooking.

"Brussels Sprouts," he said.

With a Perspective, I'm Steven Saum.

Steven Saum is the editor of Santa Clara Magazine.

Not long ago I received an email marketing missive meant for my late mother.

"Dear Amazon.com Customer," it began. "We've noticed that customers who have purchased or rated 'Rolling Away the Stone: Mary Baker Eddy's Challenge to Materialism' have also purchased 'Stone Me: The Wit and Wisdom of Keith Richards.' For this reason, you might like to know that 'Stone Me' is now available in paperback."

I was interested, in fact. But I was also skeptical of the pairing that this algorithm offered. Was there really a massive crossover audience for readers of a 500-page intellectual biography of the woman who founded Christian Science and a sampler of bon mots from the guitarist who co-founded the Rolling Stones? I had to find out.

Sleuthing through works by the woman and man responsible, respectively, for "Science And Health," "With Key To The Scriptures" and "Sticky Fingers," offered some pretty stunning insights, especially when you look at their words line by line. For example:

Mary Baker Eddy: "Divine love always has met, and always will meet, every human need."

Keith Richards: "Miraculously, due to abstinence and prayer, my teeth grew back."

Now see if you can tell who said it. Mrs. Eddy or Mr. Rock and Roll:

"When the illusion of sickness or sin tempts you, cling steadfastly to God and His idea."

"Vodka's easier on the voice, man."

"A scientific mental method is more sanitary than the use of drugs, and such a mental method produces permanent health."

"I've never had a problem with drugs. I've had problems with the police."

"The basis of all health, sinlessness, and immortality is the great fact that God is the only Mind; and this Mind must be not merely believed, but it must be understood."

"I was No. 1 on the 'who's likely to die' list for 10 years. I mean, I was really disappointed when I fell off the list."

If Mom were still with us, would she pick up a copy of "Stone Me?" Maybe not. But she always did have a sense of humor.

With a Perspective, I'm Steven Saum.

One of the stories I've often told about my kid sister Jennifer, a singer, is how she was fired by her piano teacher in the second grade. Why? She'd hear a song just once and be figuring it out on the keys. Sheet music was a distraction. Eventually her teacher had enough.

Actually, it's more complicated than that, which I learned when I saw Jennifer in the Netherlands in December. Indeed, as a little girl she was sent packing by her piano teacher. Before that, she was, like her four older siblings, required by our mother, a church soloist, to take piano lessons. Unlike the rest of us, she was a leftie and she had talent. She'd find music everywhere: she'd even harmonize with the hum of the vacuum cleaner.

For a young songwriters' contest, 7-year-old Jennifer wrote a tune about a fluffy snowman. She taught it to her class and they performed it. The song won second place in the state of Illinois.

What proved her undoing in piano lessons was a four-handed duet of "Heart and Soul," that 1938 tune by Hoagy Carmichael who talked about how he "found" melodies. Jennifer learned, with her left hand, to play her teacher's two-handed part. So, during a lesson, when her teacher went to fetch a cup of tea and told her to practice her scales, Jennifer launched into "Heart and Soul," solo.

How proud was her teacher? "I told you to work on your scales," she scolded. And at the end of the lesson, the teacher informed our mother that Jennifer was too undisciplined to teach. Jennifer was crushed. Our mother was more sanguine. You just keep doing what you're doing, she said; playing, singing, composing, harmonizing.

What our mother didn't say, but what Jennifer started learning: Fall in love with something, give it the best hours of the day, and long ones, and don't stop making beauty. No guarantee it brings wealth or fame. Though it might take you some interesting places – like onto The Voice of Holland, where she sang this past season. That's why, over breakfast in a cafe overlooking the North Sea, the morning after the semifinals, I asked her to retell the story about being told she was unteachable.

With a Perspective, I'm Steven Saum.

Steven Saum is the editor of Santa Clara Magazine.

At first we thought the bees were just visiting: lured by the sweet smell of jasmine blossoms on the side porch, they came and went throughout the warm afternoons in a spiraling insect dance, gathering nectar and winging their way back home.

I wondered what lucky beekeeper harvested the flowers’ liquid fragrance. And I thought of the days when I served in the Peace Corps in western Ukraine, and I’d go to the open-air market where scarf-headed women stood behind their jars of honey — pale gold and dark amber — asking would-be buyers to taste. It’s a sensually delicious experience: Hold forth your hand, palm downward, fingers clenched in a loose fist, while the seller drips honey behind your knuckles. Taste.

Bees had also been a part of our breakfast conversation recently, since our son had dreamed that he and I were in a library, where I was showing him a book on insects, and we heard a humming sound, low at first but increasingly louder, more insistent. We looked up and saw a shelf of books had come alive; a shimmering and buzzing wall of bees, moving across the room.

As for the bees visiting our porch, it only took a few days before I found their home — our ceiling. It was a windy Friday afternoon, and instead of a handful of bees about, the air seemed to be filled with darting, swirling insects. There were thousands. They covered half a wall, and they crawled over one another into a crack where the wall met the ceiling and the seal wasn’t tight.

It was, I learned, the season for swarms. Bees go looking for a new home when the old one gets crowded. I come from a big family. I can sympathize. But these guests couldn’t stay. And we couldn’t fumigate. It’s not just concern about killing honey bees. If you spray them, you’re left with a bunch of dead bees and their honey-dripping comb. So we called in a beekeeper. He suited up, tore out the ceiling, and vacuumed up the bees.

Happily, the porch ceiling was as far as the bees got. They hadn’t made their way into the rest of the house. But they had built a comb about the size of a football. From that, we tasted a little honey. It was very light.

With a Perspective, I’m Steven Saum.

Steven Saum is the editor of Santa Clara Magazine.

We’ve played the lottery more times this year than ever before. But it’s not what you think. Sure, when the Mega-Millions prize reached 690 gazillion dollars, I put my five bucks into the office collection to purchase a sliver of dreams. I promised our fifth-grader that, if we won, he could take a year off school and we’d roam the world. Surely that offered a more interesting education than what spring brings at school: weeks of drilling for the state standardized tests in reading and math.

The lottery also became an opportunity to talk about probability and statistics — the quotient of p over one minus p, and the odds of life’s goods and bads rolling your way — from scoring a hole-in-one to being sucked into a black hole. Plus, there is the fact that a fraction of lottery proceeds go to support schools.

Speaking of which: That’s the lottery we’ve been playing more often this year. Next fall, our fifth-grader enters middle school. Sadly, the neighborhood school is on the list of the worst 1,000 schools in California. But our district runs a choice program for middle schools, and you’re in a lottery if you don’t want your children to go to your neighborhood middle school. Along with that game of chance, charter school lotteries appeared on our horizon. Computer-generated numbers and pieces of paper plucked from a jar determine our destiny.

The good news: the odds haven’t gone against us when it comes to being hit by an asteroid this year. But they haven’t gone in our favor when it comes to getting into the schools that seemed a good fit for the boy. Still, our fifth-grader thought he spied a glimmer of hope in the California Standards Test. Maybe if he got a perfect math score again this year — which would make three yeas in a row — they’d take him at the school he really wanted.

But it doesn’t work that way. Ability and hard work don’t factor into school lotteries, which teaches a very different lesson than the one intended by award assemblies where the schools hand out ribbons and medals.

There are still the wait lists. And still a couple more lotteries to come. And figuring that our number has to come up some time. After all, that gazillion-dollar jackpot was shared by three teachers, right?

With a Perspective, I’m Steven Saum.

For the summer hike along the Trail of Ten Falls the boy wore flip flops and he carried his own pack. This was a good thing. He is nine-years-old, and we must all learn to carry our own burdens. His pack was orange and in it were a water bottle, matches, a blue bandana and a plastic Pokémon figure that resembled a rough-shelled tortoise, red-eyed and sharp-toothed and fierce. The boy posed him for a photograph beside a forest of swordferns.

I carried food and warm clothes, sunscreen and insect repellent, first aid kit and knife, more water. We stopped on the creek bank and I made lunch. Upstream two women sat in another idyllic nook and I recalled the tale of two Buddhist monks who come across a young woman by a river. At her request, one carries her across and, later, the other scolds him for it. “I set her down at the riverbank,” the first monk says. “You are still carrying her.”

It’s a lesson about carrying resentment.

From his pack the boy withdrew a book on how to make paper airplanes, paper for folding, two decks of Pokémon cards, a photo album.

“You’re kidding,” I said.

He grinned.

What else? A plastic grapnel with a length of black line. Markers and a sketchbook, with drawings of monsters and superheroes. A metal vase, black with a gold band at the top and diamond patterns of blue, purple and green.

To draw, the boy said.

While the boy did not complain about the weight – yet – he did not want to walk a dead-end trail to 178-foot Double Falls. But I insisted.

A lacy curtain of water fell over the rock face and scattered to rivulets across the crags and into the pool below. Blue and yellow and purple wildflowers grew alongside and brilliant afternoon sunshine formed a rainbow at the base. We clambered across boulders until the boy was close enough to touch the end of the rainbow. He stood long, ecstatic and charmed — no pot of gold but so what? There were mossy green rocks and sparkling water and that luminous refracted arc of ROYGBIV.

It’s a lesson about light.

You can’t put that in your pack, but what you carry of it will ease the other burdens for days and years to come. Or so a father hopes.

With a Perspective, I’m Steven Saum.

When lines are long at the grocery store in my neighborhood, I head for the self-checkout lane. But I prefer the old-school people-powered checkout, particularly for one moment that comes right at the end: when bananas and coffee and chips have been scanned and bagged, and the broad ribbon of receipt shimmies out of the register. The checker turns to me clasping that printed chronicle of my purchases, congratulates me on how much I’ve saved, then looks down at the receipt and says, “Thank you, Mister….”

That’s it: the hesitation — and knowing that what comes next is just a guess at pronunciation, but one she’s required to make.

“Soamie?” she says. “Is that close?”

Soom. Schum. Schaum. Somme. Swam. Sauna. I’ve heard them all and then some.

Each new variation brings a fleeting delight — a momentary unhinging of self from biography and geography. It happens that my last name, “Saum,” has been kicking around the Western Hemisphere for a couple centuries, since it was brought over by some German farmers. But it still causes trouble in this country. And in the 21st century, this name could mean anything, its bearer hail from any place on the globe.

After September 2001, Americans of all stripes — including this one — began learning more about Islam. Some of it was an earnest attempt to understand a religion we beheld but dimly. And I found myself being asked more frequently, “Saum — what kind of a name is that?” Usually it’s asked with curiosity, not suspicion: Might be Jewish, might be Arab. In German, it means border or hem. But in Arabic, it’s one of the five pillars of Islam: fasting. During Ramadan, it requires abstaining from food or drink, smoking, fighting, bad language and a number of other activities. It is supposed to teach piety and self-control, and offer lessons in understanding of the plight of the poor and hungry.

These aren’t bad things to be reminded of when buying groceries. Even if that does mean another minute or two in the checkout line. That fleeting face-to-face moment also offers a glimpse of who one is in the eyes of others, where lives and history intersect. That’s worth something, too.

With a Perspective, I’m Steven Saum.

Not long ago I received an email marketing missive meant for my late mother.

“Dear Amazon.com Customer,” it began. “We’ve noticed that customers who have purchased or rated ‘Rolling Away the Stone: Mary Baker Eddy’s Challenge to Materialism’ have also purchased ‘Stone Me: The Wit and Wisdom of Keith Richards.’ For this reason, you might like to know that ‘Stone Me’ is now available in paperback.”

I was interested, in fact. But I was also skeptical of the pairing that this algorithm offered. Was there really a massive crossover audience for readers of a 500-page intellectual biography of the woman who founded Christian Science and a sampler of bon mots from the guitarist who co-founded the Rolling Stones? I had to find out.

Sleuthing through works by the woman and man responsible, respectively, for “Science And Health,” “With Key To The Scriptures” and “Sticky Fingers,” offered some pretty stunning insights, especially when you look at their words line by line. For example:

Mary Baker Eddy: “Divine love always has met, and always will meet, every human need.”

Keith Richards: “Miraculously, due to abstinence and prayer, my teeth grew back.”

Now see if you can tell who said it. Mrs. Eddy or Mr. Rock and Roll:

“When the illusion of sickness or sin tempts you, cling steadfastly to God and His idea.”

“Vodka’s easier on the voice, man.”

“A scientific mental method is more sanitary than the use of drugs, and such a mental method produces permanent health.”

“I’ve never had a problem with drugs. I’ve had problems with the police.”

“The basis of all health, sinlessness, and immortality is the great fact that God is the only Mind; and this Mind must be not merely believed, but it must be understood.”

“I was No. 1 on the ‘who’s likely to die’ list for 10 years. I mean, I was really disappointed when I fell off the list.”

If Mom were still with us, would she pick up a copy of “Stone Me?” Maybe not. But she always did have a sense of humor.

With a Perspective, I’m Steven Saum.