Pleasant bike ride turns threatening

P1030270The scene unfolded like a silent movie. I was riding my bike on Third Street near S Street in downtown Sacramento Friday morning, a transitional area near the freeway where state offices give way to modest homes. It saw two dapper-looking men about 50. They were wearing straw hats and walking small dogs. Then I saw a tall, burly guy about 20 approaching them from the opposite direction.

The young guy, in a black T-shirt and chinos, stopped in front of the two men. They were white; he had a dark complexion. He towered over them. He waved his arms and seemed to say something to them. They edged around him. He said something over his shoulder. I rode past them, heading for home less than two miles away.

I didn’t like the scene. It didn’t look right. I swung my bike around, rode slowly back up Third Street and stopped at the corner. A young woman on a bike passed me. I didn’t see anyone else.

On the sidewalk across the street, the young guy was shouting at the men, who were now about 50 feet away. They ignored him and headed up a deserted section of S Street where a lot of state  workers park their cars. The young guy left the sidewalk and cut across a grassy slope as though intending to intercept them.

I pedaled over to S Street. The two men had stopped in the street alongside a small van. The young guy stood on the grass. He was muttering and pointing a finger at them. He took a few steps toward them. I got off my bike and unzipped the sack behind the seat. I took out a 3-foot, heavy metal chain I carry to lock my bike – and for protection. I put it around my neck and pedaled toward the men as the young guy slowly approached. He stopped when he saw me and stared.

After a few seconds, he edged away from us while jabbing his arms into the air. He headed back toward Third Street, keeping an eye on us all the time.

“What happened?” I asked the men. “Did he threaten you?”

“It was crazy,” one of the men said in a whisper. “He was waving his arms. He accused us of calling him a n—–. We hadn’t said a thing to him.”

I watched the young guy continue to walk away from us. I noticed there was a driver in the van. I put my chain away.  I assumed the two men would be all right. When I got to the corner of Third Street, I saw the young guy about a block away. He was talking to another young guy in a red sweatshirt. I felt a surge of anger. I was tempted to confront them. Were they a mugging team? Gay bashers? Crazies?

 Instead, I headed home. It was a warm morning, and it felt good to be riding my bike. It was only my fourth outing since an accident in early August had sent me to the emergency room for stitches and surgery near my eye. I still feel a low-grade anxiety. I watch the road closely, get irritable when drivers whiz close by me, worry about making turns in traffic. But I feel more confident with each ride.

Things just happen. Life’s unpredictable. You decide how you want to live.

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From Atlanta Hawks to Kings, racial differences don’t equal racism

Let us give thanks to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The NBA’s all-time leading scorer, the  author of several books on achievements by blacks and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s pick in 2012 to be a U.S. global cultural ambassador, may open the door to realistic and honest discussion on race relations.

Meaningful talk about race – and ethnicity and gender – requires bringing thoughts, fears and stereotypes out into the open and examining them for whatever they are. It’s not throwing out accusations of racism whenever someone – usually white – makes an observation about race, no matter how valid and obvious.

Jabbar, who is African American (and that’s not a racist observation), is doing our society a big service by coming to the defense of  Bruce Levenson, the widely vilified majority owner of the Atlanta Hawks basketball team. Levenson’s crime, in the view of holier-than-thou critics, was to suggest that white fans might to staying away from Hawks’ games because they felt uncomfortable in an arena dominated by black fans and black culture. Because of the furor, Levenson has apologized and is selling his stake in the team.

In a 2012 email to team officials, Levenson said that 70 percent of the fans were black; the cheerleaders were black; the music was hip-hop or gospel; the bars were 90 percent black; the kiss cam was to too black; and  there were few fathers and sons at the games. He noted that thousands and thousands of tickets were being giving away, predominantly in the black community, adding to the overwhelming black audience.

“My theory is that the black crowd scared away the whites and there are simply not enough affluent black fans to build a significant season ticket base. … I think southern whites simply were not comfortable being in an arena or at a bar where they were in the minority.”

Why did Levenson make these observations? Because he wanted to pump up the fan base, particularly with affluent whites and corporations that would be willing to pay big bucks for pricey seats, luxury boxes and team merchandise.

The Hawks, who had a 38-44 record, placed 28th out of 30 teams in attendance last season. They averaged 14,339 fans per game. By contrast, the Sacramento Kings, with an abysmal 28-54 record, drew an average of 16, 291 fans, placing them 22nd  in league attendance.

Jabbar, in a Time magazine opinion piece, rejects the contention that Levenson’s email is racist. “Levenson is a businessman asking reasonable questions about how to put customers in seats,” Jabbar said. “If his arena was filled mostly with whites and he wanted to attract blacks, wouldn’t he be asking how they could de-emphasize white culture and bias toward white contestants and cheerleaders? Don’t you think every corporation in America that is trying to attract a more diverse customer base is discussing how to feature more blacks or Asians or Latinos in their TV ads?”

Yes, indeed. When “Linsanity” erupted in 2012 with Jeremy Lin’s fantastic performance for the New York Knicks, don’t you think the Knicks started playing the Asian card?  Don’t you think some executives for the Kings thought drafting white stars Jimmer Fredette and Nik Stauskas might be good for the bottom line? How about the signing this summer of 7-foot-5 Sim Bhullar, the first player of Indian descent to sign with an NBA franchise? Kings owner Vivek Ranadive, the NBA’s first Indian-born majority owner, has publicly voiced his eagerness to tap into the Indian market. Does signing an average player like Bhullar instead of an average black player make Ranadive a racist?

“Businesspeople should have the right to wonder how to appeal to diverse groups in order to increase business,” Jabbar says, arguing that  Levenson “wasn’t valuing white fans over blacks; he was trying to figure out a way to change what he thought was the white perception in Atlanta so he could sell more tickets. That’s his job.”

Jabbar’s points are worth serious discussion. Name-calling and knee-jerk charges of racism are mindless ways to avoid looking at the complexity and diversity of our society.

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Children pay price for parents’ willful ignorance

In discussing her long history of depression, California’s secretary of state, Debra Bowen, said  in a Los Angeles Times story that she had opted not to have children because she thought it would be irresponsible to put another person “through that pain.”

Bowen is to be commended for giving thought to problems her possibly flawed genetic makeup might inflict on any children she had. Unfortunately, not everyone does this, even when the stakes are much higher.

Bowen’s public comments came just a week after the Sacramento Bee ran a lengthy story, accompanied by six photos, about a father and his 16-year-old daughter who are both suffering from Huntington’s disease. They live in Newman, south of Modesto.

The disease is a devastating, hereditary, degenerative brain disorder for which there is no cure and little treatment, according to the Huntington’s Disease Society of America. It slowly diminishes the affected individual’s ability to walk, talk and reason. Eventually, the person with HD becomes totally dependent upon others for his or her care.  More than a quarter of a million Americans have HD or are “at risk” of inheriting the disease from an affected parent.

A blood test can determine whether an individual carries the mutant gene that causes HD. Each child of a parent with HD has a 50/50 chance of inheriting the gene that causes HD, the society said. If the child does inherit the gene, he or she can pass it on and will develop the disease if that child lives long enough.

The Bee story is a sympathetic account of the plight of the father,  Raul Gonzalez, 35, and his 16-year-old daughter Lizvet, as well as the toll taken on Gonzalez’s wife, Gracie Alfaro, who cares for them with some help from a 7-year-old daughter, Natalya. The story did not say whether Natalya has any symptoms of the disease.

What the story doesn’t address is the ethical issue of a father who chose not to take a blood test even though Huntington’s disease had killed his mother when she was 41 and taken root up and down his family tree. He said he never wanted to dwell on the shared family illness. He didn’t want to focus on the possibility of dying. Even when he married Alfaro, his high school girlfriend, and they had Lizvet a year later, he didn’t talk about his mother’s cause of death, the story said. He wanted to work and live his life.

Gonzalez’s avoidance is understandable and all too typical. Only about 5 percent of the estimated 150,000 Americans at risk because a parent had the disease get a predictive test, the story said. This would be fine if they didn’t have children. But when they do, they’re engaging in a form of Russian roulette. Gonzalez now has a teenage girl suffering from a dreadful disease that will soon kill her and a 7-year-old whose fate is uncertain.

What moral justification can be made for putting one’s head in the sand? What level of risk to a child’s health do we as a society say is permissible? Should testing of at-risk individuals be mandatory? When does willful ignorance become a criminal act?

While the Bee story shed light on a terrible disease, it should have also grappled with the issues of personal responsibility and accountability. The welfare of thousands of children is at stake.

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Motorcycling gets a sex change

honda 90

My little Honda 90 in college had zip sex appeal.

I’m 0 for 3 on my sex stereotyping lately. Three times in the past week I’ve been irritated by drivers cutting in and out of traffic lanes, tailgating and driving too fast on local streets. And three times, I assumed the drivers were young males only to discover that I was wrong, wrong, wrong. They were young women.

“Young women are more sexually aggressive these days,” my wife the psychotherapist  announced.

“I hadn’t noticed,” I said reflexively.

“It’s all part of the same package,” she said. “They’re asserting themselves in a lot of ways.”

Shortly after this enlightening discussion, I came across a lengthy Los Angeles Times article headlined “More women are discovering the thrill of motorcycles.”

Female motorcycle owners made up 12 percent of the U.S. motorcycle market in 2012, up from 8 percent in 2009, the Motorcycle Industry Council said. The number of female riders rose from 4.3 million in 2003 to 6.7 million in 2012.

Those numbers are crucial to motorcycle manufacturers, as they represent the largest growth segment in an industry that has stalled since the recession, said Charles Fleming, a business reporter for the Times. Companies, in response, are producing smaller, lighter bikes, more suitable for female riders, and featuring more women in their ads — riding the bikes, not decorating them.

Industry leader Harley-Davidson has been particularly aggressive in wooing women, perhaps because about 10 percent of its dealerships nationwide are owned by women, Fleming said. In late August,  the company — the top seller of motorcycles to women in America — unveiled a pair of “Ultra Low” street cruisers that sit closer to the ground and have a shorter reach to the handlebars, which have narrower grips for smaller hands. The company’s online photo gallery for its new Road Glide cruiser, strikingly, features no men among the riders.

As a kid growing up in Queens, I used to walk past a Harley-Davidson shop and feel thrilled not only by the gleaming Harley “hogs” but also by the aura of tough, outlaw masculinity. This was a few years after Marlon Brando shocked conventional sensibilities in the 1953 film “The Wild One.” A neighbor who looked like one of Brando’s gang members gave me a ride on his 1947 Harley and planted the seed for my future motorcycling.

When I went to college, the cool, preppy crowd at Harvard fancied Triumph, Norton and BMW motorcycles. When Honda came out with the landmark 305cc Super Hawk, a hot sportbike capable of hitting 100 mph, I longed for it with testosterone-fueled passion. Alas, I wound up with a humble, red and silver 90cc Honda that never draw an admiring glance from a ‘Cliffe.  

A lifetime later, women are taking to the road on starter bikes in the 250cc and 500cc classes, and then moving up to the rocket-speed level. Women are empowered astride such motorcycles, the LA Times reports.

“It’s such a cliché, but it feels like pure freedom,” said Toni DiVincenzo, a Venice yoga instructor who rides a 750cc Triumph.

I remember that sense of freedom, engendered by speed, power and the wind whipping through my hair. Ah yes … how nice to have hair and a winding road.

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Have you planned your exit strategy from life?

“Coverage for End-of-Life Talks Gaining Ground” was the front-page headline in the New York Times Sunday. The accompanying story suggested that Medicare may start reimbursing doctors next year to have end-of-life talks with their patients.

Five years ago, the subject exploded in political controversy amid conservative allegations of “death panels” and euthanizing elderly patients. Now, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which runs Medicare Medical, could bypass the political arena by adopting a call by the American Medical Association to make such payments.

Private insurers are already reimbursing doctors for these advance care planning conversations as interest in them rises along with the number of aging Americans. People are living longer with illnesses, and many want more input into how they will spend their final days, including whether they want to die at home or in the hospital, and whether they want full-fledged life-sustaining treatment, just pain relief or something in between.

Medicare reimbursement is a fine idea. Too many people – baby boomers especially – avoid dealing with end-of-life planning, leaving difficult decisions for spouses and family members. Talking to one’s physician would be a good first step for many people.

But what bothered me about this article, and many others on the subject, is the implicit assumption that doctors should take the lead role in discussing advance medical directives with patients. Sure, their expertise on the mechanics of dying is useful, but they’re not the people I would turn to first to decide how and when to die.

I recently prepared an advance health care directive and never thought of consulting a doctor. I talked with my wife. I looked into the heart of darkness and weighed it against what I’ve learned in 68 years of living. I drew on the wisdom and insights of philosophers, religious thinkers, novelists and poets. Choosing how to die is part of choosing how to live.

 I enjoy working out every day and playing basketball several days week. I get irritable when I’m sidelined by an injury. Why would I choose to lie in a persistent vegetative state? I try to be self-reliant and avoid being a burden on others. I felt bad enough that my wife had to sit in the emergency room for eight hours after my recent bike accident. Why would I put her through months of hospital time if I were unable to live without life-support? We enjoy kayaking, traveling and watching herons along the river. What if I could no longer enjoy such things? Is that living? I’ve seen family members succumb to senility. Not a pretty way to go.

When I’m no longer capable of having a productive or enjoyable life, I want out. That’s what my health care directive says. Don’t keep me alive by artificial means if there’s no hope for recovery. Give my organs to an artist or a kid with high hopes.

We pass this way but once. I like having a game plan to the very end. But if I get second thoughts when the mystery of existence is upon me, I’ll reflect on the words of the philosopher boxer Mike Tyson: “Everyone’s got a plan until they get punched in the face.”  

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