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24 years on retreat

“What I like about it most is I’m really in charge of my own ship,” says Judith Skinner.

FILM | JESSICA BERNSTEIN-WAX

My mother’s friend Judith Skinner started a Tibetan Buddhist retreat in her Pacific Heights apartment in 1995. At the time, she thought it would last the traditional three years, three months and three days.

Almost 24 years later, she remains on retreat, a Buddhist practice that involves solitude, meditation and introspection — and can take place anywhere from a remote cave to a rent-controlled studio apartment in San Francisco.

I have known Judith almost all of my life. As a child, I visited her at the Ewam Choden Tibetan Buddhist Center near Berkeley, where she lived for many years. When Judith started her retreat, I thought three years sounded like a long time to lead a mostly solitary existence.

As her retreat extended for more and more years, I started to get curious. What did she do all day? And why had she dropped out of “normal life”?

To find out, I spent about a year and a half filming her on my days off and weekends. The resulting short documentary, On Retreat, will screen at this year’s SF DocFest, the San Francisco Documentary Film Festival. It screens on June 8 at 12:15 p.m. and on June 11 at 7 p.m. at the Roxie Theater.

You might think documentary footage of someone on a meditation retreat would be about as visually exciting as watching paint dry. But Judith is an engaging San Francisco character.

To help finance her retreat, she worked as a gardener for many years. Now in her 70s, she follows a simple daily routine involving Buddhist practice, writing and trips to Cal-Mart in Laurel Village.

She has almost no belongings and owns just one fork, but still manages to look sharp every day. She goes for regular haircuts at Patrick Richards Salon on Sacramento Street, where she tended the flower boxes for years.

Rather than focus primarily on the logistics of Judith’s retreat, my film explores her reasons for going on retreat in the first place and why she’s continued for so long.

“My friends tease me that retreat is the all-purpose excuse: I get out of everything,” Judith told me laughingly during one of our interviews. “On a deep level, what I like about it most is I’m really in charge of my own ship.”

Judith truly does seems to be content with her quiet, somewhat isolated life. She credits Buddhist practice and her retreat with making her a calmer, less reactive person.

Despite her solitary lifestyle, Judith says she hasn’t felt lonely these last 24 years. The retreat and the city of San Francisco have been her constant and familiar companions.

La Med turns 40

Photograph of La Mediterranee founder Levon Der Bedrossian by Daniel Bahmani

WHEN LA MEDITERRANEE founder Levon Der Bedrossian moved from Lebanon to California in 1967 to attend Chico State University, he lived in the neighboring town of Paradise, which was devastated by the recent Camp Fire.

Then he moved to San Francisco and opened La Mediterranee on Fillmore Street on May 11, 1979, serving the Middle Eastern meza dishes from Lebanon and the Armenian family recipes he had begun experimenting with for his fellow students in Chico. They were unique on the culinary scene in San Francisco at the time.

So it should come as no surprise to those who know Der Bedrossian and his special restaurant — which has consistently been voted the best Mediterranean restaurant in the Bay Area — that he would celebrate its 40th anniversary by donating all of the proceeds to support survivors of the Camp Fire in Paradise.

The 40th anniversary party will be held on Saturday, May 11 from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. at the restaurant at 2210 Fillmore.

Der Bedrossian is still involved with the business, but his son Vanick and longtime managing partners Alicia Vanden Huevel and Trevor Lederberger have taken the helm. In addition to the flagship on Fillmore, La Mediterranee also has locations in the Castro and in Berkeley, plus a catering kitchen in North Beach.

EARLIER: “Still cozy after all these years

How I helped my dad die

Kelly Johnson and his daughter Leda Meredith as he was dying on May 7, 2018.

FIRST PERSON | LEDA MEREDITH

When I landed at SFO in mid-April of last year, the first change to hit me was that my dad, Kelly Johnson, couldn’t pick me up at the airport. He wasn’t able to drive anymore. The reason for the visit to my hometown was that he had gone into hospice care. I’d canceled everything on my schedule and come to be with him. We didn’t know how much time we would have together.

Seeing the elevator chairs that had been added to the two flights of stairs in his Victorian building was a jolt, as were the tubes in his nose; he was on full time oxygen at that point.

But every detail of the home was familiar — from the books on the shelves to the ceramic owl container that he used to hide an Easter egg in when I was a kid.

Neither of us knew then that he would choose to die in less than a month, embracing California’s End of Life Option with gratitude, courage and relief. As he sat hunched over his desk trying to summon up the appetite to finish a piece of toast, we couldn’t have imagined the next few weeks would become a nonstop musical and gustatory celebration with friends.

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A rabbi and a priest walk into a neighborhood

Rabbi Lawrence “Larry” Raphael at Congregation Sherith Israel.

A memorial service for Rabbi Lawrence Raphael will be held on May 4 at 6 p.m. at Congregation Sherith Israel, located at 2266 California Street. His friend Father Xavier Lavagetto recalls their time in the neighborhood.

I WELL REMEMBER when Rabbi Larry Raphael came to Sherith Israel. I was pastor at St. Dominic’s Church, and we had an immediate connection: We both faced the challenge of repairing buildings, while what we wanted most was to build up our people.

I admired greatly his courage; he stepped out of academia into the fray of leading a congregation that faced a daunting challenge. But it would never be enough to retrofit the synagogue; he wanted to strengthen his people.

From our first meeting, it was apparent that he had a passion for learning that shined, invited and blessed. Learning is not something static; Judaism is a living dynamic, a conversation ultimately with the God who always walks with his people. He shared his passion and set his people’s hearts and minds ablaze. He made Sherith Israel a light on the hill, and it shed light on this priest from St. Dominic’s in the valley below.

To be on a panel with him was an adventure. It was the insights that he brought that made every conversation a light in the darkness. His was a passion for people that welcomed even those on the margins. In a world that is too eager to build walls, he built bridges.

His care for the larger community was real. I pray he saw it in us, too. The rule at St. Dominic’s was simple: If Rabbi Raphael asks, the answer is yes!

— Fr. Xavier Lavagetto OP

She’s pulling up her roots

Traci Teraoka and her hound, Huckleberry, made Sacramento Street a more neighborly place.

By BARBARA KATE REPA

Traci Teraoka, the personable proprietor of Poetica Art & Antiques at 3461 Sacramento Street, believes in synchronicity. Growing up, her family moved every few years to accommodate her dad’s career in air freight. But after she landed in San Francisco two dozen years ago, she noticed roots growing out of the container of a lemon tree she’d bought.

“I took that as a metaphor that it was time for me to put down real roots here,” she says. And she did — sending her son Alexander to nearby Town School and Drew School, establishing a small business and living upstairs above her eclectic shop, taking a leadership role in neighborhood organizations.

“I really let myself be here on Sacramento Street more than any other place in my life,” she says. She even planted the lemon tree in her back yard — in the ground.

But now she’s being uprooted. Teraoka and her business partner had an agreement that when Alexander was a year out of high school, she would buy out her partner, or they would sell the building.

And now the time has come.

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No more pet therapy

FILLMORE BEAT | CHRIS BARNETT

For years, a treasure was hidden away on the second floor of Pets Unlimited, now a branch of the SPCA, at 2343 Fillmore. You could adopt a cat or dog to take home — or you could just stop by to pet a puppy, or to cuddle with a kitty. The adoption floor was the purrfect “therapy center” for folks who just wanted to spend time with the furry little ones, but didn’t want to make a commitment.

No more. The SPCA has changed the rules. The animal hospital will stay put, but not the petting. Now there will be “adoption events” only on certain days each month, but no more one-on-one getting-to-know-and-enjoy-you gatherings upstairs. Starting on Tuesday, March 12, and every Tuesday thereafter, a noon to 5 p.m. adoption session is planned, with similar events on Saturdays beginning March 23.

THE FOUNDER

Photograph of Glady Thacher by Frank Wing

Glady Thacher started four nonprofits in her oversized living room — and they’ve helped people live better lives

By FRAN MORELAND JOHNS

Soon after her graduation from Smith College in the late 1940s, Glady Thacher took on the traditional roles of supportive wife and mother then mandatory for most women. But she quickly decided there was a loftier goal: reaching her full potential — and helping others reach theirs, too. As a result, thousands of women, and not a few men, have Thacher to thank for broadening and enriching their lives — mostly through organizations she nurtured and launched in her own living room.

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The thin red line

Photograph of the Pelosi home in Pacific Heights by Jonathan Pontell

NEIGHBORHOOD RESIDENT and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi — much in the news during the fight over funding a wall on the U.S.-Mexican border — came under fire for having a “high perimeter wall” and “gun-toting security” around her home in Pacific Heights. A group called President Trump Fans posted: “Walls for her house are OK … but not us.”

In fact, there’s no wall around Pelosi’s longtime family home, although the red curb prohibiting parking near her house does have a fresh coat of paint.

POLITIFACT: “No, Nancy Pelosi’s home doesn’t sit behind a high wall

Farewell to a Fillmore local

Lisa and Carlo Middione at a tribute dinner celebrating Vivande Porta Via in 2015.

By BETTY MEDSGER

Elizabeth Derby Middione — Lisa to her many friends on Fillmore, where she and her husband Carlo owned Vivande Porta Via for many years — died early on Christmas Eve after a long illness. She was two weeks shy of her 96th birthday.

She was a member of two noted American families. Her father, Roger Alden Derby, was descended from one of America’s first millionaires, Elias Haskett Derby, who, in the 18th century, was a privateer for the United States who carried news of the American Revolution back and forth from America and England. Her mother, Elizabeth Palmer Harlan, was the elder sister of John Marshall Harlan II, a justice on the U.S. Supreme Court. Her great grandfather was the first Justice John Marshall Harlan, considered one of the Supreme Court’s greatest justices.

Lisa Middione was a serious student of the piano. She completed studies at Julliard and pursued her career for a short period, but was forced to give it up because of a family tragedy.

After Middione came to California, she became an impresario, sometimes presenting 350 events per year, including Marion Anderson and Marlene Dietrich. She was also a publicist for many arts organizations, including the San Francisco Symphony, Ballet and Opera, and helped create the Stern Grove Music Festival, which she directed for 10 years, and where she met her future husband.

“Carlo loves music,” she once said of her partner in life and business. “We got together because of my involvement in music. Somebody brought him to Stern Grove. The story is that he saw me and announced: ‘That’s the woman I’m going to marry.’ ”

He did, in 1968, and he remained devoted to her until the end of her life.

Lisa and Carlo Middione at Vivande.

EARLIER: “It was inspiring

His greatest creation was his own home

Photograph of bronze lion head fountain in the garden by Mark Evans

WHEN BUSH STREET resident Palmer Sessel still wore a tie and worked in the Financial District, he liked to get out of the office midday and think things over.

One day he walked by the historic Monadnock Building on Market Street and was struck by the cast of notable San Franciscans looking down at him from the trompe l’oeil mural above the marble cornice. The guard told him the artists who created it had a studio upstairs. He went up and engaged them to create a mural of a winged bulldog on the ceiling of the living parlor in his classic Victorian near Cottage Row.

“They tried to dissuade me” on the flying bulldog, Sessel says. But Mark Evans and Charley Brown took the commission, and also painted a Bacchanalian scene for the dining parlor, and nudes above the bed. In the process, they also fell for the neighborhood, and decided they wanted to live here.

“I told them,” Sessel recalls: “You may be in luck. The guy next door to me is dying.”

The 1880s Victorian needed work, and required resisting a committee of bureaucrats from the Redevelopment Agency, but the bones were all there. They managed to buy the house before it went on the market. “We went to Stars restaurant to celebrate,” Evans remembers. “We thought, ‘This is the last good meal we’ll ever eat.’ ”

Over the next three decades, they set about making it their greatest art project, bounteously filled with their own work and layers of treasures from around the world. On the ground level, overlooking a south-facing garden, were studios for both artists. In 1984 they established Evans & Brown, a fount of their ever-expanding creative output: murals, paintings, objets d’art, wall coverings, fabric, carpet and more. They found artistic and commercial success, and an enduring business and personal partnership.

“We were in the right place at the right time,” Evans says. “No one was doing murals and trompe l’oeil on our level. And it was mostly because of Charley’s painting.”

Only days after they returned from a final grand tour of the splendors of Venice and Paris, Robert Charles Brown died of prostate cancer on November 21, 2018, at home on Bush Street. His husband of 41 years, Mark Evans, and their schnauzer, Jack, survive him.

— Thomas Reynolds