Happy Fourth of July!

Greetings from California, where I celebrated America’s National Day by strolling with an old friend from Schafer Park, and dining with the legendary Carlbob. And Lizziebob made a lemon meringue pie with homemade ice cream!

Health Update

My health still wavers, but it continues to improve overall after hitting bottom again last winter, a condition that I think was exacerbated by unexpected reactions to some prescriptions.  So I’m more on track now. Three years ago, it would have taken me a week or longer to write something like this. This time, I started and finished a first draft on the same afternoon.

At this point, though, I see some sort of health professional almost every week. It’s hard to imagine that I had gone decades without seeing anyone but my dentist, dental hygienist, and optometrist.  Finally, my dad had kept nagging me to get an annual checkup, but for years nothing interesting was noted.  I guess I’m making up for all that now.

Meantime, I’m still limited in my activities, so I end up spending time reflecting about the past and so many fine memories which remind me how lucky I’ve been for most of my life.

Some of these memories have been evoked under the auspices of a cognitive psychologist. It’s really quite amazing how unresolved, unprocessed, and half-forgotten issues from way back in one’s life (as well as more recent stresses) can result in physical pains and weaknesses in the present time. It also helps explain how simple messages and support from people on this list have provided actual physical pain relief since I returned from China.  And I am thankful for any and all  such messages.

And again I have to particularly thank my friends Jim and Karen for their active support in getting me through all this.

The Biography

Speaking of my father, who lives in Arizona, he recently downsized into a smaller apartment, so he sent me two original manuscripts that his father Charles had written, back in 1948. One was an autobiography and the other a biography of Charles’s own father, Peter, my great-grandfather, on whose bed frame I still sleep today (with a newer mattress).

Peter MacFarlane was born in 1848, saw service in the Civil War, and spent most of his life in the logging business. Charles (born 1870) worked with him for many years in the same business. Since the two men had worked together so long, the two manuscripts often describe the same events, though stressing different details. So I folded the two narratives into a single document.

It was really fun to do, actually, and it provided yet another example of how lucky I’ve been, since I guess that most people would not have such manuscripts available. The world they describe differs from ours not only because of the century that has passed, but also because logging is its own cultural world, one that most people today have little contact with. It was a world of great technological progress, and of great danger. Take a look at the man in this picture, which accompanied the manuscripts. He drives a “donkey engine,” like a Lilliputian among giants, any one of which might casually snuff him out.

And it was a world where physical strength was paramount, since one’s logging skills mattered little without the strength to wield them.

Anyway, in case anyone would like to see what I’m talking about, I’m attaching just my great-grandfather’s biography to this message (since the combined document is just too long). Peter C MacFarlane small-sized pages

Egg Shells

My new car still runs well, and I feel that anyone who ever tries driving an electric engine will love it. It develops power at much lower speeds, and the power is smooth.

That said, I have a couple complaints, which seem to apply to many modern cars. The first is its fish shape, which means that the view out the back is severely limited, even with a back-up camera, compared to what I’m used to. This resulted in my backing up in the dark into a low brick wall, an event which leads me to my second complaint.  My old cars always had bumpers, so such a bump at such a low speed would have been felt and no damage would have been done. The new cars have egg shells instead, so when I backed up, I perceived nothing until a loud noise announced the breakage, as seen in this picture. It will cost $1600 to fix it!

<sigh> It makes me remember a Spanish teacher from Buenos Aires whom I knew many decades ago. In that city, she said, nobody set their parking brakes, because the city was absolutely flat. So instead of parallel parking between cars, you’d just go the end of the block and push everybody forward with your bumper until you had created a parking spot for yourself.  I don’t think that strategy would work any longer, even in Argentina!


I still regularly take advantage of my zoo membership, and have visited both the Oakland and San Francisco zoos recently to take pictures.

I went to San Francisco to snap some shots of a kangaroo, since I’ve started making my calendar for next year, which is the year of the rat, and kangaroos are “pocket rats” in Chinese. I will probably include this serene specimen.

And here’s a resting rhea to go with him.

Davis Band

When I was a student at UC Davis many decades ago, I organized a German polka band for our dorm. At the time I was also in the university marching band.

When one of that band’s officers heard about the polka band, he suggested that I borrow some old uniforms from him for my players. At the time, a large storage room in the main administration building held dozens, maybe hundreds, of old uniforms. So I borrowed a few. However, he never told me when they were needed back.

So this year I emailed the band to find out more. I arranged to finally return them to the present uniform manager, seen smiling with my box of old uniforms in this photo.

It was also a chance to visit one of my pseudo-nephews, who lives in Davis. And I’m really proud of the two of them, since they will both be gainfully employed starting this fall. The one in Davis will be a lecturer in mathematics at the university, and the one in San Jose will be helping to coordinate groups who work with gang members and former gang members. Such great news.


I did get up to Portland last spring, where I visited my sister, brother-in-law and mother. My brother-in-law and I did a whole mess of gardening, both in my mother’s yard and in her neighbor’s yard.  We also got a set of annual flowers to fill my mother’s pots, like we had done last year.

Actually, though,  that house’s garden, after a century of our family’s occupation, was already full of flowers that came into bloom at various times throughout the spring, one on top of another in sequence.

I also saw my old grey-beard Chinese friend Ma Min in Portland, whom many on this list also know. We got together at the Children’s Hospital in Southwest Portland, mainly because of the spectacular view, as seen in this picture. He had relatives in tow, whom I remembered meeting in Tianjin in 2001.  Small world!

And my California neighbor Joanne told me about this tofu delicatessen in southeast Portland. Not only is the quality excellent, but the fried tofu comes in various flavors as well. I haven’t been able to find the like in the California Bay Area, so if anybody knows of one, please tell me.


A while back I wrote about the scandalous goings-on at our southern border, and particularly the inhumane treatment of children, mainly central Americans, seeking asylum. As someone who spent an entire career advocating for children, I found my own country’s strikes against them to be particularly offensive and tragic.

Since many on this list, particularly those in other countries, might not be following this story, I feel kind of obligated to mention it, since it’s still going on, though it now seems that people of all ages are being herded into camps and cages, treated with the same disdain, and this as a matter of policy.

American Jews and Japanese, having had their own experiences with ethnic detention camps, are often on hand to protest these present-day versions, which are not only overcrowded, but dirty to boot, and in one case, located on the site of an old detention camp for Japanese Americans.

The present administration paints these asylum seekers as criminals, which they are not. They are mainly fleeing death from gangs (such as the American gang MS-13, which branched out into Central America) or from starvation, since climate change has resulted in record droughts and failed crops in the region.

This treatment does not represent the American ideals that I was taught as a child.  They are not in the character of anyone I know.  And it’s also shameful to have a secretive head of state who so artfully employs all the antisocial behaviors that we school teachers all teach our students to avoid. In this sense, then, I’m glad I’m not a primary school teacher at this moment to have to explain it all.


I wanted to end by recommending a musical group called “I’m with her” – three women playing something similar to bluegrass, but with surprisingly sophisticated harmonies at times.  It’s hard to believe that someone like me, who doted on groups like the Art Ensemble of Chicago for so many years now likes music so blatantly tonal.

I first heard them a year ago on (where else?) an NPR tiny desk concert here. They recently posted a wonderful full-length concert here which I often leave playing while writing.

I hope everyone has a wonderful summer, and I’d love to hear from you.

Happy Easter!

Happy Easter from California!

Recent Activities, such as they are

I made this yellowing paper Easter bunny when I was very small. Unfortunately, it’s joined the never-ending stream of old artifacts that I give away or throw away every week.  However, before it abandoned the scene, it was immortalized, digitized, by my Sony Cyber-Shot DSC-HX80.

I haven’t written an update in quite a while.  Some things have gone better lately, but not before I reached rock bottom a couple months ago, as I was wracked with pains.  They imprisoned me at home for well over a month. Now it appears that those pains were, at least in part, the accumulated side-effects of a medicine that I had been taking since returning from China.

The good part is that my friends, especially Jim and Karen, came to my rescue and helped take me to doctors, and in general supported me through the dark times.  I’m not “out of the woods” yet, and some pains continue despite the withdrawal of the medicine. But at least they’ve receded enough that I could welcome my friend from China, Li Wen, one of three journalist friends who helped me understand China more deeply and accurately way back when.  Here she sits with Jim and Karen, as we ate “hot pot” with Tianjin University dinner plates and chopsticks.

Point Reyes PicnicIt was wonderful to see her again after almost three years. And showing her around took my mind off my otherwise self-centered focus on pain. We visited several Bay Area sights, including the Golden Gate Bridge, Major League Baseball, Point Reyes and Lake Chabot.  We even shared a chocolate rabbit together, in honor of Easter.

2019-02-10 Band PerformanceAnother highlight this winter was our fifteenth and final Castro Valley High School band reunion.  For one last time, we former students enjoyed playing under the direction of our old band teacher in the very room where we’d performed together so long ago, a room full of memories of high school musicals and pancake breakfasts. Actually, I was pleasantly surprised to find that I could still play my old saxophone after a long hiatus.

In January, our Sunday school class helped out with a free meal for homeless people, an event that takes place at one church or another every day of the month in the Berkeley area.  I’m very thankful that I don’t have to live that way, and along with the other class members, was only too glad to help out those who must.

MeerkatI also finally became an Oakland Zoo supporter. I’ve visited there now three times, including once with my guest Li Wen this week. I can bring in a guest for free with my membership, so if you’re in the area and want to visit a zoo, contact me!  Here’s a bonus meerkat!

Lagoon Valley ParkAnd finally I took an afternoon last week to visit my pseudo-nephew John up in Davis. On the way back I snapped a picture of Lagoon Valley Park near Peña Adobe Park near Vacaville. It’s the same scene that I’ve featured more than once in my annual calendars. It’s amazing that every year it looks just as gorgeous as every other year.

What’s On My Mind

Since I was stuck at home for so much of the last few months, I don’t have very many events to share.  However, I did compose the previous post about the United States and its multiculture nature, so I think  when I add this post to the previous one, that’s enough for this season.


The United States

I was recently asked my opinion about how America might move forward at this point in history, when our society sometimes seems fragmented to the point that the various shards reflect separate realities.

The short answer is “democratically.” But that answer leaves out some essentials.  Voting rights do need bolstering, but more importantly, the society which casts those votes needs to be understood. And that society is multi-ethnic.

These days, some people talk about “multiculturalism” as if it were a modern philosophy which we can adopt or reject as we choose. Actually, that choice was made four centuries ago.  Right from its inception, the United States has incorporated a multiplicity of cultures from at least three different continents.  It’s tradition.  So the only genuine options nowadays are whether to embrace this continuing reality or ignore it.

For me, America’s diversity has long been its source of strength, despite the inevitable disconnects that may occur between groups. So the way forward begins with an appreciation of our multiculture’s structure and its strengths (which are many), because that’s the base upon which all else is built.

First, though, one must be clear what “culture” is in the first place.

What is culture?

The term “culture” can be confusing, because its meaning has varied through time.  Centuries ago, it meant “to make something grow.” It’s still used that way in words like “agriculture” and “cultivate.” Later, “culture” came to mean “cultivating the mind,” such as learning to appreciate  music, the arts, poetry, etc. It still is commonly used in that sense.

Then about a hundred years ago, the field of “anthropology” was invented and “culture” came to refer to the physical objects that supposedly expressed an ethnic group’s way of life.  These cultural objects were a little like fashion accessories in that they could have been produced one way or another according to taste and available materials.

I don’t use “culture” in any of those senses. For me, culture is not an accessory for human societies, but the essential core of a society. It’s a system of thought that embraces human languages but much more, as reflected in questions like these:

When is it proper to look somebody in the eye? What is the proper role of an aunt or uncle in a child’s life?  Do I treat my honored guest to a restaurant meal or to a meal at home? Is it proper to ask the person you just met where they’re from? How about their salary?  Is it proper to receive gifts from friends on your birthday, or should you be the one to give gifts to those friends? How binding is a contract? How late must you be to owe somebody an apology? Such questions get different answers depending upon the culture.

The above paragraph uses the word “proper” advisedly. People within a culture will characterize  the answers to such questions as being “correct” or not —  “common-sense” rules.  So, for example, there is a “correct” or “proper” physical distance between people having a conversation, depending upon their relationship to each other. Nobody teaches that “separation distance” explicitly, but people pick up on it implicitly as they grow up in  a particular culture. 

Again, unless people are forced to interact with foreign cultures which prescribe different separation distances, they assume that their own culture’s distance is “proper,” a universal standard.  This assumption that one’s own cultural rules are universal (when in fact they are relative) is called ethnocentricity. Every human is subject to ethnocentricity. I’ll return to that idea below.

An Important Caveat

Professor Charles Irby at UC Davis first brought the importance of ethnicity and culture to my attention, back when I attended college there.  But he always cautioned us that, however one measures, people within a culture vary more than one culture varies from another. That is, any  particular culture includes individuals who would answer the previous section’s questions differently than what’s typical for that culture.

So the attention to cultures that I advocate should ultimately serve as a bridge to the individual human beings who live within them, who are never as easy to categorize as we sometimes might wish. Interestingly, the only person outside Professor Irby’s class whom I ever heard express that same opinion about variation within cultures was a young Japanese woman whom I met at a linguistics school, even though Japan itself is not really a multicultural society.  How did she know?

Inter-Cultural Miscommunications

When I first began teaching in China, I enjoyed how so many young women (the university students) wanted to flirt with me.  At last, a whole category of people was acknowledging my good looks and charming manner!! Alas, though, my own ethnocentricity had led me astray.  The “proper” separation distance in a normal Chinese conversation is simply closer than it is in my own culture.  I assumed that the students’ nearness expressed a special meaning like it might have done back home.  My mistake!  Well, eventually I got used to it and life seemed normal again.

Some things, though, I never could get used to. For instance, Chinese acquaintances often greeted me with “Have you eaten?” In California, that would have meant a lunch invitation. In China, it’s just what they say instead of “How are you today?” And no, this doesn’t mean that Chinese culture values tasty food while my own culture cares more about people’s overall health.

But even though I eventually figured that all out, I always involuntarily glanced around, seeking restaurants, every time I heard such “non-invitations.”

So going forward, we who take part in our American multiculture must figure out how to work with the other groups while remaining true to ourselves. We cannot just interpret the actions of other groups at face value, because that’s often just the face of our own ethnocentricity. And of course, the ultimate goal is to work more effectively with individual persons. Along these lines, it not only helps to study our other cultures, it helps to become more aware of one’s own culture.

The above examples of separation distance and cheery greetings focus on misunderstandings, which can be uncomfortable. Many other intercultural interactions are more pleasurable and stimulating. But friction draws attention to itself. So to counter this tendency towards negativity, on must bear in mind that, on balance, cultural diversity imparts strength and depth to society. For example:

1. A New Option for Child-Rearing

A few days ago, I read an interesting article about child rearing in the Inuit culture of Canada’s farthest north. For much of the year, when the weather is ice cold, the Inuit live inside, in very close quarters, so they’ve developed strategies for keeping anger under control.  The article explains how they pass these coping skills onto their young children.

These child-rearing skills seem quite different from what I’ve observed here in America. Should all Americans adopt them? Not necessarily. People who don’t live so close together may not need them. But the Inuit’s culture could provide options that other people might find useful, so long as they don’t dismiss them as outside the boundaries of “common sense.” This is the power of ethnic diversity — it increases the resources available to all.

2. An Individual in a Diverse Population

Biologists always stress that in diversity there is strength.  It’s true for every population of living things, not just for humans. Inbreeding makes for weaker organisms, and not just for old European royalty.

But one never knows which individual in a diverse population will carry the day for all.  Take the example of  German entrepreneur Oskar Schindler who used his famous list to save 1200 lives during World War II.

For most of his life, Schindler was an irresponsible womanizer with a dysfunctional life. But his heart was good. In wartime, he could leverage his few real skills into a momentous and heroic deed. After the war ended, his life inevitably disintegrated. He wouldn’t have even lived to age 64 had not the people whom he’d saved sent him money every year.

So this individual who, in normal times, needed assistance just to survive, was a hero in extreme times.  That’s the value that biologists find in diversity. So maybe that random  homeless person seen on the streets is an Oskar Schindler in waiting.

What’s true of human individuals is also true of human cultures. You never know when an obscure culture might carry the day for all.

3. All That Jazz

Sometimes it’s not the individual culture that triumphs, but an interaction among cultures. 

A hundred years ago, New Orleans’s dominant cultures included Creoles, Cajuns, and Africans, as well as an English-speaking elite class. The African Americans drew upon the cultural resources of all the other groups in fashioning jazz music. It all came together in the genius of Louis Armstrong.

But jazz can be more than just a musical style. It’s a method of organizing group interactions in order to promote each member’s spontaneity and creativity. Its main innovation is a leadership role (called “the soloist”) which passes from one member to another during the performance. As each group member takes a turn as an improvising soloist, all the other musicians shift their own improvisations to supporting roles. Specific structures such as chords and scales and rhythmic forms are imposed by tradition, yet remain flexible enough to maximize the musical inventions.

This form of group interaction also works outside of music. In an elementary school, it can structure groups of students.  In my own classroom, the rotating leadership model worked particularly well for creative arts activities like “writer’s workshop,” but it could be adapted to any curricular area.

It would probably also work in a small Silicon Valley start-up, or a university research lab.  It’s not the only way to arrange such small groups, but it should be considered when creativity must be maximized. And if not for Louis Armstrong and the ethnic soup of old New Orleans, the option might not have occurred to anybody.

Such inter-cultural invention reminds me of our own federal republic. Where did the idea for that organization come from? Some historians trace it back to the Roman Republic or Athenian democracy. Others trace it to Native American federations such as the Iroquois League. Probably it emerged from the intersection of all of these.

So going forward, we should remember the benefits of a diverse multiculture, and not just try to shoe-horn everybody into one cultural form.

The Durability of our Multiculture

The British colonies in America were set up by a United Kingdom which was itself multi-ethnic, despite its small size. So no wonder British America was multi-ethnic, right from the get-go. In fact, the UK’s multicultural strength may help explain how such small islands could found one of the largest empires in history.  And it might help explain how the British held onto North America’s heartland when other colonizers couldn’t.

In the beginning, different British colonies were founded by different British cultures. New England and the American lowland South were founded by Anglo-Saxons from Southern England.  Pennsylvania was settled from the old Danelaw, an essentially Scandinavian cultural area in central-east Britain,  and Appalachia was mainly settled by Scots (who differ from English), from either the Scottish lowlands or from Northern Ireland.  That’s three cultures right off the bat, without even considering the Celtic cultures of Ireland, Wales, Cornwall, and the Scottish Highlands, all of which eventually joined British America.

Other European countries  — Sweden in Delaware, and Holland in New York — founded colonies which eventually turned British. The Dutch were particularly open to diversity. When New York City was still Dutch New Amsterdam, it famously included significant populations of Jews, Dutch, Danes, English, Flemish, French, Germans, Irish, Italians, Norwegians, Poles, Portuguese, Scots, Swedes, Walloons, and Bohemians. Today’s New York still boasts some of the greatest ethnic diversity in America.

Native Americans and Africans joined this ethnic mix, in large part unwillingly, but joined nonetheless. Like the rest, they didn’t forget their cultures when they joined in. In fact, it may be more accurate to say that they couldn’t forget their cultures. 

The Propagation of Culture

Again, cultures endure. People hand them down through the generations just like they hand down native languages — through example and experience, and in large part subconsciously, not through direct instruction.

Professor Irby used to say that a culture’s foremost expression is its language.  Both language and the other aspects of culture (as indicated by that group of questions above) facilitate communication, group organization, emotional expressions, technological developments, and much more. So examples of how languages endure can show how cultures endure.

Britain’s Anglo Saxons, four centuries ago, spoke a form of modern English differing little from today’s.  This language was much like that of William Shakespeare, who was alive back then.  It survives pretty much intact in the isolated dialects of the inhabitants of Chesapeake Bay as presented in the classic TV series The Story of English. Four centuries is a pretty long time.

Other aspects of a culture are just as enduring. They persist, even when surrounded by other cultures, because people are most comfortable with those who share their culture, just as people are most comfortable with those who share their language.  Both of these motivations encourage people to maintain their ethnic groups. This multiplicity of groups results in a United States that is culturally not a melting pot but a salad bowl, another concept that Charles Irby first pointed out to me.

Some authors, to demonstrate this inter-generational cultural persistence, have identified several geographically distinct North American cultural regions (called “nations,” a word that usually refers to an ethnic group) whose dominant cultures descend from those which first  settled each region.

One such system appears in American Nations by Colin Woodard, who plots out eleven regional nations (that is, dominant cultures) in North America.  His book is reviewed here, at the Independent Newspaper. The cultures of these eleven nations may not remain exactly as they were when planted, but the ancestry is clear.

Again, a culture’s endurance comes from its transmission through subconscious training, and its reinforcement through group attraction. Culture is not baked into people’s DNA.

Some people, though, believe otherwise. A Chinese friend in China regularly picks out the flaws in China’s mainland culture and despairs of them ever improving because he feels that culture comes from the people’s DNA. The two of us have still not finished our argument about it.

Another example from China involves my friend Lonnie’s American friend, raised in Taiwan to speak Chinese natively. He later moved to the mainland, where his new housemaid understood none of it. He suspected that the woman’s comprehension was inhibited by the common Chinese belief that Europeans are genetically incapable of speaking Chinese, and therefore what she heard could not possibly be Chinese.

So he pointed at his face, and shouted (always in Mandarin) “Pay no attention to this nose!  Just listen!”  The shocked woman forgot not to understand him, and they experienced no further comprehension problems.

Some Americans also subscribe to the DNA theory, but not quite the same way. I’ll come back to that point later. Meanwhile, Charles Irby used to joke (sort of) that if a human baby were raised by a herd of sheep, then that baby would “inherit” sheep culture.

So going forward, the durability of our multiculture, from its founding to the present day, and into the future, demonstrates that it’s worth taking into account.

Cultures Endure, But Can Evolve

Cultures can change or evolve, despite their stability, particularly through contact with other cultures, as again demonstrated in the history of the English language. As we trace it back in time, it changes very little until A.D. 1066. Before that date, English is quite hard to understand, though much of the same vocabulary was already present. After that date, it’s much more understandable.

So what happened in 1066? French-speaking Vikings (the “Normans”) invaded and conquered England, and remained there as rulers. So Old English combined with French to form a double-branched language, with English still structuring the core. The two branches still persist, almost a millennium later, giving modern English perhaps the largest vocabulary of any language. Another triumph of cultural diversity!

Similarly, newly-arrived cultures in America can evolve pretty quickly where they meet the American educational and legal systems, as well as the English language, while retaining much of their traditional cores. But the old culture is used in an American way, resulting in a double-branched culture, like the double-branched English language itself.  Thus, when I visited China with a group of second-generation American-born Chinese people (known as “ABC”s) they had insights into Chinese thinking that I lacked, yet they were often as mystified by China’s society as I was.

So going forward, we can identify, strengthen and disseminate the aspects of the American multiculture that foreign cultures most easily assimilate and those which they most need for participating in society, while giving them space to maintain their traditional cultures as a “second branch.” I’ll come back to this point.

Multicultures which aren’t English-dominated, and Monocultures

Depending upon the location, the dominant American cultural groups are not necessarily English. This map, produced by the US government (click it to see it full sized), indicates which ancestral nationality was claimed most frequently in each and every US county. The dominance of Latino culture in the Southwest is no surprise, but look at all the Germans!

The dominant culture is rarely an actual majority, but a plurality. Only one county has a plurality of Chinese – San Francisco County, of course.

The map’s variety hints at the diversity beneath each plurality —  multiple cultures, planted amidst each other, that persist due to the natural staying power of cultures.

America’s cultural complexity ramped up quickly in the nineteenth century because, until the Immigration Act of 1924, the borders were essentially open. (except for the Chinese, who were excluded by law in 1875 and 1882). Prior to that, officials may have recorded who came and went, but (except for Asians) they didn’t generally try to stop them.  Not every one could become a citizen, but they could mostly stay anyway. So I know that my Swedish grandfather eventually became a US Citizen, but I have no idea if my immigrant grandmothers ever did. All three of them had come to America before 1924.

This accelerating complexity didn’t end in the nineteenth century. My old Hayward School District is much smaller than a county, with 21,000 students. Yet those students speak almost as many minority languages as in all of China! In fact, China provides a useful contrast with America.


China likes to play up its 56 ethnic minority groups. It sounds like a lot. But all together they comprise only 7 or 8 percent of the population. And they mostly live in out-of-the-way locations, around the periphery of the country, or out west. And China is working to sideline many of them even there, forcing them into re-education camps, basically to eliminate their ethnicity, while boatloads of ethnic Chinese move west to dilute their population.  (To be fair, America also has a history of attempted ethnic elimination through dilution and reeducation, particularly concerning Native Americans, whose land was coveted).

So  China is probably as ethnically pure as such a large country can get in the real world. (To be fair, one could argue that the majority ethnic Chinese may not actually be a single culture.  But they think they are. And if not, their cultures would be closely related in any case.)

Many Chinese assume that the rest of the world’s countries are just as pure. My Chinese students would often say, “The Chinese people think thus and so. What do Americans think?”  That statement makes some sense in China, but the question makes little sense in America, where different groups frame issues different ways.

Such an expectation of national purity caused one Chinese student to be shocked by this picture of a show at my old elementary school in Hayward, many many years ago.

“Is that really America?” he asked me. “I see no blondes!”

Another example of monoculture that I experienced might be Ireland before it joined the EU. Just about everybody there was Irish because job scarcity discouraged immigration.  China and pre-EU Ireland may not seem relevant to the multicultural United States. However, the Chinese aren’t the only ones who presume a single American majority culture. Many Americans do, too.

Hidden Differences – 1. Ethnocentricity

Ethnocentricity, again, leads people to believe that their own culture is universally “normal” or “proper.” Thus, they may ignore or misinterpret the features of other cultures. Again, language can be used to model this process, though rather artificially in this case.

The word “familiar” occurs in both English and Spanish, but with different meanings. In English, it’s something well known and routine. In Spanish it’s one’s blood relatives (family).

But ethnocentricity might lead an English speaker assume that it can only mean”Well known and routine,” regardless of the language.  In that case, Spaniards seem to use “well known and routine” in odd ways, which may in turn lead the English speaker to falsely impute various values to Spanish culture.

So, to the English speaker, a Spaniard who frequently mentions “familiar time” isn’t spending time with family. He’s just stuck in the “well known and routine.” And that must mean, in turn, that Spaniards are unadventurous and fearful people, clinging to old habits. Of course, Spaniards are not like that at all, not even in this crude and artificial metaphor. It’s a misunderstanding caused by ethnocentric assumptions.

This kind of misunderstanding occurs between cultures all the time, such as my above-mentioned assumptions about separation distances and lunch “invitations.” Thank goodness I waited to learn the truth about them, and didn’t assume that they indicated some character flaw in the culture.

The lesson to be drawn going forward?  On closer inspection, cultural “differences in values” often turn out to be the same old common values, just expressed in different ways.

Hidden Differences – 2. Ethnic Clusters

As mentioned above, people who share a culture tend to stick together, because they understand each other more intuitively.  The people outside this cultural island, even if they belong to a variety of cultures, may all be equally hard to relate to. Therefore such outsiders may not seem to be a variety of cultures, but a single “other” culture — maybe the one shown on television or something. And thus, a majority American culture must exist, just not necessarily in “our group.”

Hidden Differences – 3. Ethnic Status

Probably the principle reason for a belief in a majority American culture is that some American cultures are more privileged than others. The elites, whether teachers, managers, heads of state, or businessmen, tend to hail from a limited number of related cultures, since “birds of a feather” are more comfortable together.

In contrast to the previous example (number 2 above), the American elites’ “cultural island” seems not to stand apart from those around it. That’s because those other cultural groups adapt to appear more like elites (at least superficially), usually for economic reasons. So a Chinese elite person accurately observes that his surrounding society shares his culture. An American elite person observes  something similar, but it’s an illusion, not only maintained by his own group’s ethnocentricity, but by the other groups who have become bicultural.

Two examples of Americans that I met in China are illustrative.

I once attended a wedding reception in China. I sat with some employees and clients of a Chinese company that I knew. The group included one client from Kentucky. I remarked that he must not come from the Appalachian part of the state (the mountain part), since he didn’t have that accent.  “Oh, y’ mean lack this?” he answered. It was like the sudden emergence of Li’l Abner or Jed Clampett. Andy Taylor?

He carried on with his “mountain talk” for a while, ending with “If I taowk lack that . . .  nobody takes me seriously.”  No doubt so, unless he was back home in Appalachia.  In the business world, he changes his language and adapts his cultural appearance to accommodate business elites.

For the curious, there’s a video about the relative status of Appalachian culture here. And another video provides more details of the Appalachian version of English here.

A great example of Appalachian English is provided by the well-known seven-foot-tall Appalachian storyteller Ray Hicks telling a traditional “Jack Tale.” Ray also appears (with subtitles) in this wonderful PBS documentary about Appalachian arts. He also appears in this other wonderful PBS video about the Scottish language and how it evolved on its journey through America.

This Kentuckian contrasted strongly with  another American client of that same Chinese company, whom I met at a different luncheon with those very same employees.  The conversation was held in English, and he mused aloud that maybe English should supplant the world’s other languages, in the interest of more efficient communication. 

Everybody at the table waited for him to laugh at his own joke. But time dripped by and it gradually dawned upon the rest of  us that he was serious.  I never asked, but can pretty much guarantee, that this fellow was not from Appalachia, because an Appalachian would have had more perspective.

Again, the less-privileged groups trade what’s “proper” to them for what’s “proper” to someone else, when interacting with them.  They still maintain their own culture, because it’s hard not to. Is the situation frustrating? Maybe not, if such adaptations have been incorporated into their own cultures over the generations.

But going forward, it’s helpful to recognize the reality of the American multiculture and not bind ourselves to the elite’s vision of a majority culture. This would ensure that all our citizens fully participate in society.  It’s also helpful to recognize the elite’s point of view, which causes some people to ignore the multi-ethnic reality. It’s natural, then, for them to view “multiculturalism” as a new movement, instead of a long-standing tradition. We need to build bridges to these people, too, and take their concerns seriously. 

By the way, none of this argument means that “standards” aren’t useful. They are. But how are they characterized? Actually, China, for all its “standards” mania, provides a good example with the name for its standard language. It’s not “proper” language, but “common language,” a term which emphasizes its practicality without implying any moral values.

To Be Fair, Cultural Differences Can Be a Pain

In defense of ethnocentricity, cultural differences can be frustrating, as I found out in China.  Two people who speak different languages can at least perceive that the languages are different. An ex-pat might not even perceive his differences with the surrounding culture at first. Instead, ethnocentricity grants a “honeymoon” period, when he experiences even more freedom from the consequences of his social actions than he’d have back home, especially if he’s in China where the people readily forgive the foreigner for not understanding what he’s doing.

But as months or years pass, the foreigner can no longer evade the accumulating pile of differences, since the surrounding society increasingly demands more genuine interaction. Eventually, as my compatriot Rob Moore expressed it, the frustrated foreigner screams “What the heck is wrong with these people?”

I’ve been there.

But that’s the teachable moment. Of course, nothing’s wrong with “these people.” That’s obvious in China, a country that’s made such great strides in recent years. Instead, it’s time for the foreigner to finally loosen his grip on his own culture, and get with the program.

The lesson for America is that friction between cultures can be real and significant.  So going forward, to maintain the advantages of a diverse society, we should understand its component cultures and acknowledge them, in order to further intercultural communication and smooth the inevitable frictions that occur.

After all, maintenance is a common task. We maintain vehicles, houses, corporate structures. etc., so  why not our multiculture, when it offers just as many advantages?

Race Spaces – What is Race?

As mentioned above, Americans (I think) don’t directly impute cultural characteristics to DNA, like my Chinese friend did.  But they do (at least, many do) impute cultural characteristics, abilities, or “values” to DNA through the idea of “race.” This idea represents just one of many definitions of the word “racism,” by the way.

So if we are to move forward, we must reckon with the American idea of race and how it conflates with culture. Is race real, by the way?

For many years, an old book, The Story of the Irish Race, sat on my shelf. It’s actually a fairly conventional history of Ireland, published a hundred years ago. It calls the Irish a “race.” Indeed the English had long viewed the “Wild Irish” as organically different from themselves. Are they?

Science says “not really.” When DNA sequencing first became practical, scientists found no difference at all between the Irish and English populations. More recent studies, mainly designed for dealing with genetic diseases,  have teased out some differences at essentially the extended family level, but to me, none of them establish anything approaching a race, a subspecies.

In fact, the evidence I’ve seen indicates that all modern humans belong to a single race of a single species, with minimal variation between populations. Any other races died out long ago. These were the Neanderthals, the Denisovans, and maybe some undiscovered others.

The point of all this: Racial groups may seem to be  determined biologically, but they are not. They are constructed socially, according to taste, by picking and choosing different assortments from a panoply of superficial human traits.

I used to favor the racial system where Finns (like my grandmother) and East Asians (like my Chinese friends) all belong to the same “race.” But that’s sentiment, not biology. 

Americans traditionally define races by skin-deep traits like skin color and nose shape. So the white-skinned-and-bushy-bearded Ainu of Japan go with Europeans (whom they resemble) though their closest actual relatives are dark-skinned lightly-bearded East Asians. This American version of race also splits Finns from East Asians. So I don’t much care for it.  Actually, though, I don’t much care for any race system.

So ethnic cultures are more consequential than race for understanding human societal groups. Racial systems can be constructed according to whim. Cultures, on the other hand, are durable. They resist change even if people try to change.

There is one important caveat to this negation of race as a valid factor in human population groups. Since many Americans put stock in the reality of race, this belief itself has a tremendous effect on our society, obviously disadvantaging some, but even affecting those whom it doesn’t disadvantage.

So it makes me feel trapped. Ideas of “Race” were planted in and around me, in large part subconsciously, as part of my culture growing up. So I’m stuck with them, and to move beyond them requires effort. How did “race” get to be so important in America, even though it’s less real than ethnicity?

Expanding Racial Majorities

The elite ethnic groups in America ran into a problem early on — that they were a minority in their own country. (The Founding Father James Madison called the richest of them the “minority of the opulent”).  But in a democracy, their privileges could be voted away by a majority.  So to remain elite, they needed to make common cause with other groups.  They eventually turned to the idea of race (though they hadn’t invented it) and established a “whiteness umbrella” of various ethnic groups to form a governing majority, which they expanded as needed to maintain its influence.

 This measured expansion was not a conspiracy, at least not in the normal sense of that word. Nobody gathered in smoke-filled rooms to plan out a national strategy. They just fell into it because each expansion felt right at the time. Nor is it the only reason that race moved into the heart of American society. Slavery is another obvious reason.

The Irish and the Italians are typical examples of the expanding umbrella. Originally outside it, they were invited inside, perhaps even begrudgingly, to stand against “non-white” groups.  In fact, I’m old enough to remember the final complete acceptance of Irish Catholics when John Kennedy was elected president.

Those under the “whiteness” umbrella didn’t necessarily lose their authentic ethnic identity. The Kentuckian in China is one example. My own family is another.  In fact, I never fully appreciated the strength of cultural continuity until I actually visited Sweden and found that the people there “felt” a lot like the second- and third-generation Swedish-Americans of my childhood community. They didn’t seem exactly the same, but the relation was unmistakable. Before then I’d thought that that part of my family was just odd.

Some “white” people whom I’ve known do complain that they have no ethnic culture — they’re just “white.”  This sentiment is real, though strictly speaking, it’s not really possible for humans to exist without a culture. But they’ve expressed envy when other ethnic minorities celebrate their own cultures (or the non-English branch of it). But perhaps a trip to their ancestral homeland would demonstrate to them, as it did to me, how much ethnicity survives within them, subconsciously acquired while they were growing up.

Nowadays, the American system is running out of ethnic groups to plausibly transform from “non-white” (like the Irish and Italians and Slavs used to be) to “white” (like the Irish and Italians and Slavs are now).  And so we hear the complaint that “in twenty years, whites will no longer be the majority!

Oh brother! Such sentiments always make me roll my eyes.  In California, we crossed that line ages ago, and Armageddon never happened.  Why would it, when “race” is so artificial, anyway? “White” is not an ethnic group. Meanwhile, our California economy went on to grow from the world’s tenth largest to the fifth largest – an “antiArmageddon.”

Sometimes I think that if we’re so invested in racial dominance, maybe we could just rename “White” to “Northern Races,” add the Japanese and Chinese to the crowd under the “umbrella,” and keep dominating for another few decades!

Kidding aside, though, I welcome the demise of dominance through “whitenessor through any other racial or ethnic category, because it will help bring out our country’s unique strengths, which go beyond ethnic identities (while at the same time, preserving them).

Going forward, then, we should diminish the idea of race (since it’s not real) and elevate the idea of cultures (since they are very real). We should understand these cultures as organizational schemes, containing much individual variation, and not as value-laden identities.

Then we should continue exploring ways to knit cultures more firmly together into a complex American society.

That said, America’s false belief in “race” isn’t going away anytime soon, and its consequences are real, and the source of every sort of mischief. But dealing with it directly is a problem beyond what I wanted to write about this time.

So, beyond using simple loyalty, how can we melt our salad bowl into a pot whose components function in coordination for the betterment of all, while maintaining their tightly-bound ethnic identities, which can’t be cast off, anyway?

The Melting Pot – Rule of Law

One way to “melt the salad” is through the Rule of Law.  That not only means the Constitution, but all laws and regulations.  Together they operate like guidelines, like the stripes down the middle of roads, which guide everyone to their destinations safely, wherever those are, whatever the vehicle, and however it’s driven.

Laws can be written to favor one group over another, so The Rule of Law must be coupled with democracy and minority rights. The push and pull of voting on issues will accommodate various local groups better than any central planner, be they monarchs, dictators, or (for that matter) CEO‘s.

So moving forward, we must elevate the rule of law, and promote and secure our voting systems, elevating democracy. None of this happens by itself.

The Non-Melting Pot – Rule by Relationships

The principle alternative to Rule of Law is Rule through Relationships. Such relationships could include personal or social connections, as well as those mediated through money, such as employers to employees, stores to customers, doctors to patients, etc.

Often these two kinds of rule will combine, like in community policing. In fact, probably all societies combine both kinds of rule, but in America, laws tend to dominate. In China, on the other hand, relationships dominate.

It may be hard for Americans to fathom that such a huge country as China can be held together principally through relationships. But consider the Chinese lady whom I once escorted to our church parking lot about twenty years ago. On the way out there I asked her what she did in China.

“We’re working on a new constitution to institute the rule of law.” 

“You mean China doesn’t have the rule of law??” I’d never even considered such a possibility.

“No, but it will.”

They did finish China’s new constitution.  Still, cultures usually don’t evolve quickly, especially when not challenged by neighboring cultures. So several years later, while living in China, I witnessed many instances where personal connections held sway over rules or laws.  Once, a national Chinese newspaper even blasted “rule of law” as a Western concept not appropriate for Chinese society. 

Well, maybe a  dominance of relationships could work well in China, where the culture is relatively pure and people might intuitively understand each other. Maybe.

The same spirit that prefers “rule of relationships” to “rule of law” in China can also be found in America, particularly among elites, despite our democratic traditions. Going forward, we must always guard against them gaining the upper hand, since Rule of Law can unite groups, while rule through relationships often separates them through favoritism.

The Melting Pot – Cultural Touchstones

America’s identity, viewed from abroad, may seem culturally shallow, like fast cars and fast food and fantasy superheros.  Not much meaningful depth there.  Same with “convenience marts,” sports as leagues, simple pop music, freeways, stop lights,  etc. These are all recent innovations without many roots in traditional culture (except maybe for Thor).

But their very shallowness facilitates their accommodation into just about any culture.  Thus, they can serve as touchstones, links between cultures. And not just within America. They’ve already spread across the globe. There’s even a McDonald’s in Paris.

And McDonald’s is all over China, with some local cultural adaptations. So Chinese customers still use straws for drinking, but some fastidious customers use them as chopsticks to eat the French fries.

So going forward, I guess we can continue to rag on fast food, with all its empty calories, but, along with the other shallow features, we should also recognize its inter-cultural utility.

The Melting Pot – Guarding against divisiveness

I had been blessed with parents who never expressed disparaging opinions about any ethnic or racial or religious group. Unfortunately, other people their age were not always so fair minded. Those disparagements always took the same form. “Those people” were lazy, sexual threats, and criminals who overpopulated the land, ending up as welfare queens. As a youngster, I sometimes wondered “Is it really true?”  And then 60 Minutes aired a segment on the violent “troubles” in Northern Ireland between the Protestants and Catholics. 

As it turned out, those conflicts were not religious at all. They weren’t disputes over Christian doctrine. They were a cultural clash between two ethnic groups, the Scots and the Gaels — who happened to affiliate with two different churches.

In American eyes, the Scots and Gaels were both white, the same racial group. So I was surprised to hear some Scottish Protestants disparage “those people” (Gaelic Catholics) with the same labels, word for word, that I’d heard some American whites (who might even have been immigrant Gaels) inflict upon black people.

Such intra-racial disparagement logically invalidated any inter-racial disparagements, let alone any religious, cultural, or biological ones. Since then, most such “religious disputes” that I’ve heard about have turned out to be ethnic strife, whether they involved Muslims or Jews in Europe, or Christians and Buddhists in other places.

Going forward, when we hear such disparagements, we must call them out for what they are, and reveal them as contentions from the same old class of trouble makers who always like to amplify the natural frictions between cultures (rather than reconcile them), using the same old “divide and conquer” strategies for their own misguided desire to rule.

My hope for America’s Unique Opportunity

America isn’t the only multi-ethnic country on earth, but the size and numbers of its component groups is exceptionally large. And because it’s okay for individuals to maintain connections with the Old World, even while remaining loyal to this one, America’s multiculture can serve as an international crossroads. In a shrinking world, such cultural intermediaries may prove vital in maintaining global peace and in working out new ways to move forward as a species.

This time, the counter-example is France, a multi-ethnic country which takes a different view of multi-ethnicity and identity. Recently, the French ambassador took exception to a joke by Trevor Noah concerning second-generation immigrant soccer players. The ambassador insisted that African-French soccer players must be one or the other — French or African. My own experience, again, is that such an absolute choice is not really possible, even if they try. Trevor’s comments are here.

My hope is that America can continue building bridges of reconciliation between our various cultures here. And if such schemes prove effective, then offer them as options to the rest of the world. It’s not that we’re morally or skillfully superior to other humans, but that we find ourselves in an ideal situation for developing such relationships, in a world where other multi-ethnic societies might not want to do it. To me, this is our calling as a country.

Meanwhile, a continuing and regulated immigration into America insures, among other things, a continuing population of second-generation citizens, whose cultural experience can help strengthen our connections with countries around the world to our mutual benefit.

Going forward, among other things, we need to regulate a genuine legal path for immigrants to join our society.  At present, such paths are mainly only open to elites.

The stakes are high, not just for us, but for the world. We will all survive as a species, or none of us will. America has the resources and population to effect a positive difference in that outcome. 

Epilogue: Everybody is Bicultural

Human cultures are transmitted and acquired through general human learning processes. So those who understand human cultures, then, gain insight into how many realms of knowledge are acquired. Thus, sports culture, business culture, political culture,  academic culture, hunting culture, and many other bodies of knowledge, are expressed and transmitted using the same mechanisms as ethnic cultures.

I myself have experienced jazz music culture, particularly the subculture involving academia and “big bands.” So I was interested in the recent movie Whiplash (2014) whose subject is academic jazz big band culture. In fact, the tune Whiplash, performed in the movie, was first recorded by one of my favorite big-band musicians, Don Ellis. Don’s recording of it can be heard here.

However, actual jazz musicians found that the story, while well-executed, didn’t reflect jazz culture at all, but sports culture. This just goes to show how distinctive  such “cultures” are, since they are easily identified, even when dressed up in the trappings of another. New York bassist Adam Neely presents his detailed analysis of the movie here.  A shorter review of the Whiplash trailer by Neely’s colleague, guitarist Rick Beato is here.

And since many people can operate in at least two or three domains at once, say Swedish, jazz and sports, plus an ethnic group, they can claim to be, in some sense at least, bicultural or multi-cultural. 

So, an understanding of cultural transmission mechanisms, given their pervasive uses, can be helpful in promoting learning in many disparate areas of life. For example, most people don’t know that languages are learned best when acquired like a culture.

Further afield, disciplines like public relations manipulate customers and voters through the mechanisms of cultural transmission. And in a world where everybody is trying to sell  you something all the time, an awareness of their attack methods can be helpful.

 But all of that is a topic for another time.

Portland Boxing Day

Hello, everyone. Belated Merry Christmas and Happy Boxing Day! Greetings from Portland, Oregon, where I love to stare out the window from a warm house into the constant cool winter drizzle. This inclination must stem from my Scandinavian heritage.

Present Time

A few weeks ago, a package unexpectedly appeared on my porch, the same porch once immortalized by my artist friend Audine (shown at right – repeated from a year ago).

There wasn’t even a ringing doorbell to warn me against tripping over it on my way out the door. (I didn’t trip).

Most remarkably, it had come from Australia. Well, it turns out that I have a pseudo cousin down there, unrelated to my pseudo-nephews up here.

(My photo of the porch somehow lacks the elegance of Audine’s depiction).

Nonplussed, I abandoned other plans, and snatched the box inside to find out its contents.

Inside was a platypus!!! A metal platypus, intended as a garden decoration, the perfect emissary from the only man I know with a penguin on his ceiling. But where to put it?

For decades, my mother’s stone frog sat just outside the kitchen window. When she started spending more time in Portland, the frog hopped after her and plopped onto the back porch here.

It left an vacant spot in Castro Valley the perfect size for a platypus.

And here  it sits, a week ago, in the frog’s old spot.

The Geraniums, by the way, all spring from a cutting my mother rooted in a bottle many years ago. And yes, even in the Northern Hemisphere, they bloom in December.

Of course, right now I’m up in Portland visiting my sister, mother and ancillary in-laws for Christmas and New Year’s.  Geraniums don’t bloom here, at least not outdoors.  Happily there’s yet no snow, nor ice or freezing rain. My flight up took an unusually western route, so I got a nice panoramic snapshot of the city. It’s worth a mouse click to view the larger version.

Portland lies straight ahead, beyond the foreground hills. Downtown is in the middle, before the Willamette river. From there, extending diagonally to the left, Sandy Boulevard leads to my present location, out of sight. In the background is the Columbia River gorge. At right, covered in snow, is Mount Hood, its peak perforating the incessant rain clouds

Health Update

One big health concern remains, from which I’m sometimes in rather intense pain. Indeed, I’d never known so much physical pain as what has hit me for the last three years.  Nonetheless, the feet, legs, shoulders, ears, eyes, and even the hips are now pretty much healed — not like when I was thirty years old, but acceptably well.  The final concern may be major. But its solution would finally free me of pain to better welcome travelers and also to travel myself. There’s been talk of biopsies, so I welcome my friends’ prayers.  I hate being a drag on others, when I’ve so often been the one able to provide support.

Maintaining Optimism

As an optimistic, though expensive, expression of this hope that someday I’ll be able to sit long enough to really travel somewhere, I got a car. It’s a Prius Prime, one of Consumer Report’s ten most reliable cars for 2018, the third car I have ever purchased.

I’ve been told it looks sporty, but actually, peppiness is not its forte. It excels in economy. So far, it’s gotten at least 55 miles per gallon of gas. (23 kilometers per liter). So it could drive from Tianjin to Nanjing on a single tank of gas.  Or maybe London to Inverness, or Paris to Cologne. Or, for that matter, Castro Valley to Portland.

My all-time favorite car, though, may always remain the second car I ever bought, a Honda Civic. A few years ago I traded it to my sister here in Portland, with the delightful result that, even after having logged 215,000 miles (350,000 kilometers), it’s still available every time I’m in town. I think it looks pretty sporty, too.  Others must also think so, since it’s been stolen twice since coming to Portland!   It doesn’t get 55 miles per gallon, though.

Fire Update

Last time, I mentioned California’s wildfires.  Right after that, the worst fire in California history erased the town of Paradise, killing eighty-odd people.  The picture shows my sister observing that fire’s smoke in Castro Valley, 150 miles (240 km) from the fire itself.

Many on this list may remember that our friend and former Tianjin colleague Lonnie Heinke grew up on a farm outside of Paradise.  Though he now dwells in Washington State, some of his extended family lost that farm and home and have lived with friends ever since.  Climate change is indeed becoming personal.

More Animals

Earlier this month I visited the Oakland (California) Zoo with my friends Mark and Eileen Johnson.  Eileen was my high school classmate ages ago.

In recent years, the zoo has almost doubled in size, planting an entire new section further up in the hills.  To reach it, you ride the gondola in the picture.  The views are spectacular. Click this example to view a good portion of San Francisco Bay.

The opposite direction shows a nice view of the hills, including enormous animal pens in the foreground.  This new zoo section is devoted entirely to native  California species.

The highlight for me was this bird.

It’s a California Condor, an over-sized vulture said to have the greatest wingspan of any land bird in North America.  An endangered species, it actually went extinct in the wild a couple decades ago.  An intensive captive breeding program produced enough to reintroduce them into the wild, so now a scattered few roam the skies of the American Southwest.

This was the first living condor that I’d ever seen. Here’s Eileen taking a picture of it.

Update: Optimism for the USA

Last time, and the time before that, I wrote about children being taken from refugee families at our southern border. A few months ago, the courts ordered them reunited, but to our shame, some still are not.

Yet, as with my pain-stricken body, I’m optimistic for our country in the long run. So, our Chief Executive may be  malicious, dishonest,  and incompetent, but he’s plainly untethered to any ideology beyond self promotion, so in the future, his example could help us spot such flawed individuals separately from any ideology and then help them find more productive positions in society.

Still, it’s hard to watch one’s own government being literally dismantled (like the state department and the environmental protection agency) or immobilized (like the consumer financial protection bureau and those departments affected by our chief executive’s current government shutdown).  What enemy or adversary could ever gut an organization more destructively?


When I lived in China, back in 2009, somebody built a hut next to the entrance of our apartment complex. It’s on the left in the picture below.

And then it just stood there, empty. Months later, we speculated that some contractor had taken the job as a make-work project through personal connections.  Perhaps a guard stationed there might have at least improved security somewhat. But seven years later, it remained empty. As I was leaving China, they finally tore it down, still unused, and replaced it with a larger set of buildings, that perhaps proved more useful.

I often think of that little hut when I hear about the government shutdown over the building of a southern border wall. The whole idea of this wall is empty, counterproductive, and Quixotic, though emotionally satisfying to some. So perhaps the chief executive wants to reward / foster connections with some contractors.  It’s the only thing that makes sense to me.


One might ask how the Republican leadership gets their voters to support this sort of thing. Well, it’s been working on it through “public relations” for a long time. And Republicans are simply better than anybody else at wielding the communications media — from Roger Ailes joining Richard Nixon’s 1968 presidential campaign through  his founding and guidance of Fox News thirty years later. And Republicans more commonly get actors and media personalities into public office, from  Ronald Reagan through the present chief executive.

For decades, they’ve courted a particular subset of Americans, those uncomfortable with how American society was developing. These now represent a shrinking minority who crave a society that no longer exists, at least not on the surface. Thus, Republican media seems to blur show and reality, as actual reality wouldn’t satisfy their viewership. Of course, the deeper principles that form America are stronger than ever, which brings to mind an experience in China.

The Great Hall

In 2009, many foreigners were invited to the Great Hall of the People in Beijing to celebrate National Day.  It was a huge honor to dine where, among other things,  Richard Nixon and Zhou Enlai once toasted each other.

The Great Banquet HallOur table was hosted by Tianjin University’s International Cooperation Office.  Our office contact Rainbow attended, and several others from that office whom nobody recognized. It turned out they didn’t work with foreigners, but with Chinese students in foreign universities.

I asked one which American universities they worked with. She named some fine universities, but none from California. In fact, none from the west coast at all, nor the east coast.  Why? Well, she explained, the center of the USA was deemed safer. And why was that? Well, she explained, because the people there were more white. A lot could be said about this assertion, but certainly they weren’t viewing American society very deeply.

Edward Bernays

Similarly, the Republican media offensive draws its viewers into the shallower aspects of America for solutions to their very real problems. It encourages them to feel aggrieved when those solutions naturally don’t work.

Several years ago, as part of my never-ending series of finding out I was wrong about something, I read Propaganda, a short work from 1928 by Edward Bernays, one of the century’s most influential Americans.

The term hadn’t so many negative connotations back then. It still doesn’t in China.  For example, my friend Jeanette once advised Tianjin University’s Propaganda Department to relabel itself the Public Relations Department.

But even in 1928, propaganda was already nothing like I assumed. It doesn’t just hammer information into people’s minds, or censor their access to it. It’s most effective if people perceive they’ve been free to make up their own minds.

And that can be arranged in many ways.  Ask questions to narrow a discussion rather than open it up.  Confuse an issue through competing arguments. insert unspoken assumptions into the dialogue, etc. etc. etc.

Anyway, I do encourage people to read up on it since it’s so prevalent these days. Bernay’s short book is so old that it’s out of copyright, downloadable from many Internet sites, like here, or here, or here.  And if none work in China, I could email a copy.

Tiny Desk

NPR’s Tiny Desk concerts continue to shine, restoring my faith in the state of contemporary music, including popular music, which I haven’t much followed since the mid-eighties. One big exception to that neglect was Amy Grant. She began as a gospel singer of “contemporary style” praise songs, and then developed a wider audience through, among other things, her earthy integrity.

How wonderful that she’s still singing, and this year, Tiny Desk invited her to present Christmas songs, a genre she’s famous for. Here’s the link: https://www.npr.org/2018/12/14/676688513/amy-grant-tiny-desk-concert

A November performance by a pop singer named “Essence” presents a similar integrity. Essence put her own career on hold to literally become the voice of another who had lost theirs. Here’s the link: https://www.npr.org/2018/11/02/663422289/bernie-and-the-believers-feat-essence-tiny-desk-concert

Neither link leads to sites most commonly blocked in China, so my Chinese friends can hopefully hear them. If not, the Essence performance is on Youku here.  Chinese listeners may appreciate Amy Grant’s version of “Jingle Bells,” perhaps the most famous Western tune in China, which I once played (on flute) with a traditional Chinese orchestra.

That’s all for now!






Finally a milestone

Hello, everyone,

Well, it hasn’t been very long since the previous post to this list, but there’s a milestone worth sharing — a walk completely around Lake Chabot in Castro Valley (9.5 miles or 15.5. kilometers). It’s a fairly easy walk, though there are a few hills.  And those familiar with the route will detect from the pictures which direction I took. And don’t forget – clicking on a picture brings up a larger version which contains the details for which the picture was taken in the first place.

But it’s not the walk itself that’s so important, but the fact that, for the first time in well over a decade, it was not accompanied by stabbing foot pains in the middle of my left foot after the first few miles. Indeed, even last year when, a few times, I walked 3 miles with an old student,  that was pretty much the limit before the pains started.

The current milestone emerged from almost a year of physical therapy and traditional Chinese medicine aimed at untwisting my right hip and getting the femur back into it at the correct angle, thereby allowing both feet to hit the ground at the correct angle.  Not only was the walk pain free (except for the blister that I got), my stride was quicker, too, since the bones were finally close to the proper position. And walking downhill went quicker, too, since the bone position didn’t force my body to the side with each step.

This is a big deal. And I’m especially glad that I didn’t heed the podiatrist’s advice ten years ago to escape the pain by killing the nerve, even though it took ten years to discover the proper cause.

In fact, I waited until today to send this out because yesterday I circled the lake in the opposite direction, wearing different shoes, just to make sure the first time wasn’t just a fluke. A blister started on the opposite foot! But otherwise there was very little stabbing pain. I’m not out of the woods yet, and there are other problems to work on next, but it’s tremendously encouraging that some progress has been made in something. Thanks to all those who have been remembering me at this time.

While walking, I had time to think and remember. When I lived in Tianjin, one of our teaching colleagues was a European who cared a lot about air pollution.  He commonly wore a mask with a long nose that resembled vintage gas masks from World War I. In fact, many people habitually donned face masks while outdoors.

Since then, China has made notable progress in mitigating this blight, but back then, pea-soup smog loomed over everything, as seen in this night-time picture from those days which interrupts Lake Chabot gallery.

This European’s teaching status was higher than many of us, so he once finagled an interview with the mayor of Tianjin himself to discuss the problem.  The interview was short. The mayor graciously welcomed him, and assured him that pollution was not a problem. Neither he nor anybody else need worry about it.  Apparently the mayor hadn’t the nose or eyes to perceive what was obvious to the rest of the populace.

I recently heard that this mayor presently sits in jail, presumably for corruption, perhaps in connection with the 2015 port explosions? Perhaps someone in China knows more about this than I do and can provide correction?  Well, if it’s true, then that’s some small comfort, I suppose. But I’ve often  thought to myself, how could somebody lie so brazenly about something so obvious to all? Nobody in my own country would be so shamelessly dishonest. How naive I was.

My hiking thoughts summoned up this Tianjin mayor because not only does the present American head of state surpass him in lying, he lies more prolifically and glibly than anybody I’ve ever known personally, or even heard about. (Not only that, he still hasn’t reunited all the children separated from their parents at the southern border which I’ve previously written about).

Yet, in some ways, the  appearance of such cruelty is refreshing, because the pretense is gone.  He truly embodies the direction that the Republican party has been taking for quite some time. It’s not the same organization as it was when I was boy. While I was in China, my Chinese colleagues sometimes asked what was wrong with it. I usually replied that a sickness had slowly settled into it. Well, now it’s on brilliant display.

Again, it’s not always been that way. The transformation got going with the Lewis Powell Memo. Next came key figures like like  Grover Norquist, or Lee Atwater or Frank Luntz.  These people are not evil (well, except maybe for Atwater), and they don’t hide in corners.   Neither do organizations like ALEC. These should be front and center in any discussion about it, yet they’re often neglected.

With time, Republicans have been forced to increasingly depend upon lies, even more than most politicians. It’s easy to see why, as most citizens don’t support their actual positions. So it’s almost comical that the same people who tried more than fifty times (and almost succeeded last year) to eliminate health insurance protections for those who’ve already been seriously ill, now claim to support such protections even while they’re currently suing the government to eliminate them.  That’s Chutzpah.

But those issues aren’t the leadership’s principle concern. Rather, the current Republican leadership (though not all members) has long worked to elevate artificial persons (such as international corporations) above natural persons (such as actual human beings). Anything more is just smoke and mirrors.

Most Americans don’t support these positions, so if you’re qualified to take part in next month’s vote, please do so. In years to come, you don’t want to be that someone who neglected this duty. Not this time. On my dining room table, where I can’t ignore it, sits my mail-in ballot for next month’s election (California makes voting easy), which will get posted during the next couple days

I really do feel that this is one of the most important elections of our lifetime. Meantime, it’s strange to sometimes hear more traditional Republicans such as this guy or this guy or this guy advocating that people vote for the other side, not because they agree with it, but because it may force the Republicans to rehabilitate themselves.

So how come Republicans keep winning elections, even though most people don’t agree with them? It’s not simply through misrepresenting their positions but also through  massive and sophisticated voter suppression, once they hold the reins of power.

Take, for example, Dodge City. Long after the days of Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson, most of the city consists of working class Spanish speakers who usually vote for the other party. So they moved the only voting place outside the city, a mile beyond the reach of public transportation, yet still mailed out cards that directed people to the old voting location that would no longer be used.

In South Dakota, they realized that Indians usually support the other party, so they required all voters to have an identification card with a street address, knowing that most Indians live where the streets don’t have addresses. You have to admit, they really can be clever.  There are many such examples.

Our situation in California is instructive. Once in power here, a few decades ago, they instituted a system of voter suppression called Gerrymandering. (to be fair, they aren’t the only ones who have done this).  Under their entrenched power, though, not much got done, and in fact, they threw the state billions of dollars into debt, something which I had never before thought was even legal.

Well, about ten years ago, the voters passed a law that eliminated Gerrymandering, no matter who might try it.  Without the suppression, the Republicans were almost thoroughly ejected.  California’s debts were paid (we now have a surplus) and California went from being the world’s tenth largest economy to the fifth. Even the roads are finally getting repaired.

Anyway, please everybody vote, so we can finally put in some checks on this disaster. My most immediate concern, obviously, is to maintain my access to health care, since just last week, the Republican leader in the Senate stated that he wants to cut medical care and retirements in order to pay for last December’s giveaway to the rich.

But overriding my own concerns is the preservation of our country’s traditional multicultural nature.  Believe me, people from California, Georgia, New England and  Wisconsin live in different cultures.  And that’s a strength. Furthermore, this country has large numbers of people from just about every other location on earth, something that most countries simply don’t deal with, at least not in large numbers.

I’m reminded of China, with its 56 ethnic minorities who all together make up only 7 or 8 percent of the population. I sometimes wonder what would happen if over half the citizens suddenly weren’t even Asian.

Something similar happened in California a while back.  The group of cultures called “white” was not comfortable that it would soon be just one minority among many. They passed laws to restrict bilingual education, among other things.  Now that it’s all over, life goes on.  Bilingual education returned.

Now, the Country as a whole is now about to enter that phase.  But instead of helping people to see that they’re not actually threatened by their neighbors, our chief of state stokes ethnic divisions for his own petty political gains. Divide and conquer, and above all, make his supporters feel like victims.  As I’ve long maintained, a leader who can make his followers feel like victims can lead them almost anywhere.  At least, by calling himself a “nationalist,” he’s clarified his game.

Interestingly, comedian Trevor Noah, has discovered the same point about victimhood that I have.

Meanwhile, the constant hatred, mocking, division, and violent sentiments coming from the chief executive is working its natural effect on some mentally unstable individuals, inspiring them to bomb and murder.  For all this, my hope and expectation is that we will get through this, though like an escape through fire, as St. Paul put it.  The chief executive will eventually join those whose names became nouns to conceptualize particular instructive elements– people like McCarthy, Quisling, Benedict Arnold, and, yes, Gerry.

Well, I’d meant to write no more than a thousand words, but after observing these events developing over the past thirty years, it’s hard to stop at a thousand, as there’s a lot more to be said. But by offering such an abbreviation, my points are not thoroughly proven.  Maybe it would have been better not to write at all.

But indeed, the discernment of truth, which becomes increasingly difficult in this age of the “the big lie,” is more essential than ever.  I can’t change anybody’s mind by what I’ve written, if indeed anybody would even read this far.  It’s just that I love this country.  <sigh>

But if anybody did read to here, I would like to recommend another musical selection, from the Tiny Desk concerts. It’s jazz singer Cécile McLorin Salvant, though, to tell the truth, it’s the pianist in this performance, Sullivan Fortner, who really caught my attention. How thrilling that jazz music continues to develop in this twenty-first century! Hopefully the link will work even in China.

And if anybody ever makes it here, there are lots of boats that we can rent at Lake Chabot.

Don’t forget to vote!






Happy Belated Mid-National Day!

Greetings from Portland,

The mid-autumn festival celebrates the full  autumn harvest moon. So take an evening stroll to enjoy it!  I popped outside around midnight on that date and snapped the full moon and a streetlight, rising loudly and in concert over my mother’s house.

And today is National Day in China — so Happy National Day! Or maybe, Happy Mid-National Day!

Fires in the West

I’ve sojourned to Portland a couple times since the last update, this latest time to celebrate my mother’s birthday.  The views from the earlier flights showcased extensive California wildfires. Like the hurricanes on our east coast, they aren’t more common these days, but definitely more severe, due to global warming.

The picture above, from August, shows the edge of the fire’s smoke, before the view turned exclusively to smoke. In all, about a million acres burned in California so far this year. That’s about four thousand square kilometers, about the same size as Beijing’s urban area.

The second picture, from this month, shows burned hills next to farmland. The smoke did in fact reach the Bay Area, where I live, where it was compared to Beijing air!

Those Darned Millennials

And as I’d hoped, I did indeed take in a baseball game with my pseudo-nephew John. It was held at San Francisco’s Giants Stadium (at least that’s what it should be called), one of the most beautiful ball parks anywhere. The Giants lost big that night. But it was still fun to be there.

Having had no kids of my own, I greatly appreciate my pseudo nephews. In the spirit of “rent-a-kid” that has characterized a lot of my life, I’ve shared various rites of passage with them over the years.  I once even helped John move into college! And this month, I got to give his brother Tynan a car and even helped him practice operating a manual clutch.  I’m a little ashamed to admit that I did it on the cheap. The Honda in question had been gifted to me by Tynan’s father a few years back when he moved to England. There’s not much credit in giving away something that was given to me in the first place. Still, I enjoyed every minute, even the smog check.

My Less-Shattered Body

Remember that scene in the second “Terminator” movie where the android is blasted to smithereens? Just when you thought he was blown away, the fragments began reassembling themselves.

My hips and legs weren’t exactly blown away, but stress had twisted and distorted them over many years.  Only now do I understand the extent of its effects, as my physical therapist and Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioner work in tandem to coax the shattered parts back  into their proper positions.  It’s paying off in ways that I hadn’t expected.

For example, fifteen years ago (at least), my ankles began swelling, thick enough to hide my ankle bones. Doctors never seemed to think it was particularly significant.  But now, as my right-hand  leg bone re-settles into its original hip position, both my feet are meeting the ground at new angles, and the swelling has begun to come down and the bones to reappear, at least partially.

The foot pains and numbness are now shifting to the side, and will hopefully drop off. And the same re-alignment affects my whole body, including my ear ringing. It’s really intriguing, though it would be more so if it didn’t involve so much personal pain and discomfort.  And hopefully, other swellings will also deflate, so I can avoid surgery in the future. We’ll see about that, though.

In the meantime, I’ll observe that, despite my misgivings about leaving Tianjin, I had no idea that two years on I’d still be struggling with all this. So it’s probably good that I left when I did.

Also, I’m so grateful to those who have kept in touch with me during the most difficult two years of my life so far.  Its been critical to my recovery.  And also, thanks to my parents for, among other things, maintaining their own health for the last couple years as I’ve been dealing with all this.

Update from the Border

Last time I wrote, I had been blind-sided by the shock of my own government taking children from their Central American parents as a matter of policy against refugees from that region who were seeking help. I knew that our chief executive was a capriciously cruel and mean-spirited man, as are many of his closest advisors (“like attracts like,” I guess), but I hadn’t expected him to go that far.

The situation has not been resolved, despite court orders to reunite the families. Two months past the deadline, over a hundred remain separated, perhaps because the government knew beforehand that the courts would take that attitude, and so they totally “unprepared” for it.  I’ve recently learned a lot more horrible ways that even more refugee kids are being treated, but that’s enough about that.

Many of the refugee families, out of desperation, had crossed into the USA at illegal locations, after the proper ports of entry “slow-walked” the entry process to keep them out. Some of these ended up in a local jail near Berkeley, California, so my friend Arlene and I headed out to join a protest. The jail was located in a suburb, so all the extra cars jammed the streets. Perhaps a thousand people showed up to augment a smaller group who had been attending every  day for weeks. There were even musicians.

In the end, the jail tired of paying overtime to hire extra guards to watch protesters. The refugees were moved to a more distant facility. Are they better off? It’s hard to know.

And this ethnic targeting isn’t limited to border crossers. The government is now exploring ways of removing citizenship from naturalized citizens and from those in the Texas border area who were not born in hospitals, and thus might lack the customary hospital paperwork.

Arlene’s Family

Arlene’s family knows such ethnic targeting well.  And the pictures in this section are hers.

In 1942, it was World War II.  Arlene’s parents, along with over 100,000 other Americans of Japanese ancestry were rounded up into camps. About two-thirds were American citizens, and the others were not, mainly because the laws back then limited citizenship for immigrant Japanese.

The barracks at Amache, Colorado.

So Arlene’s parents were hauled off into the Colorado desert, where they met and married, thus proving that even the worst of clouds can have some silver lining. Many of the young men from those camps joined the American military and fought for the USA in the war while their innocent families were yet interned.

The camps were emptied at the end of the war, the lumber sold off in whole or in part. Only the foundations remain.  I was surprised to learn that many Americans, particularly those from back East, don’t know this history. More information about all this can be found here.

Finally, this year, 2018, the Supreme Court, while striking down a Presidential travel ban against Muslims, declared that the orders interning the Japanese Americans were not legal according to the constitution.

So last summer, Arlene joined a large group of amateur archeologists and former internees, organized by the University of Denver, to excavate and document that same Colorado camp where her parents met. She brought her mother’s wedding dress to donate to an associated museum. And she later told me how impressed she was that so many non-Japanese people, including the professor who organizes the dig every year, care so much about what had happened there.

Chinatown / Japantown

In Portland, starting in the 1890’s, an area near the river had developed into a thriving Japantown. But then, during WWII they were forced into internment camps, and never regained their lost property. So the Chinese community settled into that area, and to this day it’s a Chinatown, though over the past few years, most Chinese have then moved further out to Southeast 82nd Avenue.

For Mid-autumn Festival, I visited the old Chinatown with my brother-in-law and took in various performances and exhibits. One exhibit, as well as a nearby museum, told the story of Portland’s Japanese. Interestingly, nobody Asian was operating that exhibit.

In 1990 a Chinese Garden, the “Lan Su” Garden, opened up in Chinatown. A lot of non-Asians help run that, too. This was only my second visit inside since the first, 15 years ago. Its loveliness seemed more lived-in than before.

In the yard next door someone sold greeting cards with hand-made paper-cut designs that popped out when the card was opened. I got a card with a pop-out butterfly for my mother’s birthday! It’s hard to find anything with a butterfly theme that she doesn’t have already, so I was happy.

And down the block were various musicians, dancers, and the obligatory lion dancers, as well as a museum about the old Chinatown.

My Latest Visitor from Abroad

I recently hosted my friend Rob, an American guy that I worked with in China and I’ve known for almost two decades now, and whom many on this list also know.  In some sense he’s also joined my family, the French part of it anyway, since he presently lives with his French wife and sons in Saints, a small town east of Paris. He had to come to San Francisco to sort out some visa issues.

They’d had their second son just before Rob arrived in California. Not only did they receive full medical care in France, without payment of any kind, the French government actually gave them some extra cash to tide them over during the first months with the new baby. And when Rob flew to America, they offered to hire a part-time helper for his wife while he was absent.– again, free of charge to Rob’s family.

And I keep asking myself — why can’t we have such things in America, when we are so much richer? California, if it were its own country, would be the fifth richest in the world, up from tenth in the world ten years ago when the Republicans used to rule it.  On the other hand, I found out that French bureaucracy is every bit as obtuse and Byzantine as any in China, or even compared to my old school district in Hayward.

I’m still waiting for others on this mailing list to come visit!  Don’t delay!!!!

American Dreams

When I was in China, everybody talked about “the Chinese Dream.” As far as I could tell, this meant to work hard and succeed, not just as an individual, but everybody together — a laudable goal. People there often asked me what the “American Dream” was. And though I could feel it in my heart, I never quite knew how to express it.

But recently someone opined that the American dream is the chance to reinvent oneself. That sounds right.  It’s our strength, and also our weakness. It sounds like a selfish and  individualistic goal, but actually  it’s more a matter of deciding which team you’re going to join. And the team is everything.

Mine was a true reinvention.  Never in my youth had I suspected that I’d end up joining The Teachers.  Certainly, nobody in my family had ever been one. The Teachers here, like every American group, naturally differ from those in my ancestors’ homes — Sweden, France, or Scotland — even though in some sense, teaching is its own culture.   I’m reminded of my first trip to China in 1998 (shown in this picture), on a teacher team mostly comprised of American-born Chinese.  China mystified them almost as much as it did me. Kind of like how Sweden and France still mystify me.

America’s panoply of differing cultures, similar to their foreign originals but not the same, persist as groups, even after everybody’s speaking English. Twenty years ago, I volunteered to report on various teacher meetings. Our assistant superintendent spoke forcefully that he was committed to finishing a certain project. When I reported that he was going to get that project finished, I got called on the carpet. No, he did not say that! He said he was committed to it!  Change it in the report!!!!

When I later complained to a friend, he asked ,”Is he Portuguese? I find that the Portuguese always draw that distinction between promises and commitment. No wonder he felt misquoted.” Well, my friend nailed it. His ancestry was in fact Portuguese. His culture, at least in this small area, was distinct from mine.

Meanwhile, I have a recurring and literal dream of my own, as my body s-l-o-w-l-y comes together. I keep dreaming that I’m preparing to teach a year of elementary school, like my former class in this picture, taken in June 2000 with my very first digital camera – a gift from the kids’ parents.

In my dream, everyone around me is always so encouraging.  And then, as the first day of classes draws nigh, I remember that I’m retired, so I can’t receive full pay. And then I don’t know what to do.  And then I wake up.  And then I start writing letters like this one.

Going Forward

I wanted to tie this message up at the end by explaining why, in terms of what I stated above, I feel that the country which I love is in great danger, probably the greatest in my lifetime. At the same time, wonderful things are happening outside the leadership, which may make the country better than ever once they work themselves out.The clues to these positive changes are not-so-subtly portrayed above.

But to explain it all properly would require a book, not just a few paragraphs. All I would have accomplished is to irritate those who disagree with me, and simply mystify many of those overseas. So here I stop. If anybody wants to know more, drop me a line and I’ll explain it.

Portland Culture

If I just let myself go, I’d write all night. But despite the excessive length, I’d like to share one more item — a recent “tiny desk concert” that features Haley Heynderickx, born and bred right here in the Portland area. To me, she and her group look, act, and sing pure Portland.

Her Tiny Desk Concert (on YouTube) is here.

Those in China can see it (with lots of advertisements on Youku) here.

And here she is about a year earlier on KEXP radio, Seattle.


Califoregon Summer

Greetings from Oregon! Or maybe California.

I hope everyone has been well. Everyone’s okay in my family, in whichever place.  I can’t say whether I’ll finish this update in which state.  I’ve been back and forth a couple times, and my sister drove my mother to California and back, so we’ve all been set in motion.  Meanwhile, my frequent flyer miles are building.

This message’s “airplane picture” shows the east end of Portland, Oregon, and the Columbia River Gorge, one of America’s most beautiful scenes, whether seen from the air or close up.  It’s worth clicking on it to enlarge it.

A few days ago, I was out in front of the house in Portland, when a young woman came down the sidewalk, walking two dogs. When she reached our house she stopped and said, “You know, I really like this house. It’s one of the most beautiful on my route. I love seeing it every time I walk the dogs.”

I was more than a little proud to tell her that my two grandparents had built it all with their own four hands (no subcontractors allowed), back in the 1920’s, almost a century ago. I snapped a picture of it, and here it is. The house is rather drowned in vegetation these days, but otherwise looks just the same as it did so long ago.

As for my health, it’s been a roller coaster ride for the last several months. Repeatedly, in the course of a week or so, it would steadily worsen, painful and ear ringing almost to the point of despair, no better than a year ago, and then I’d have an afternoon more pain free and quiet than ever.  Such afternoons often followed a visit to my Chinese medicine practitioner. And that’s when I’d write an update and see friends. Then the whole process would start over and I’d drop out of sight for awhile.  Meanwhile acupuncture and physical therapy have been slowly realigning my bones, which had been twisted through years of stress.

This month, for the first time, the pain didn’t reach debilitation before the next pain free afternoon.  It’s a hopeful sign.  I appreciate all the kind thoughts people have been sending my way to make this happen.  With any luck, I’ll soon be attending a major league baseball game and taking part in a pain-free seventh-inning stretch, which may be one of my physical therapy-assigned stretches!

Parades again

I always told my students in China that Americans can recast anything into a parade. Now that I’m back, parades seem to pop up more frequently than even I had thought.  (And I again missed the victory parade for our hometown basketball team — the Golden State Warriors.)

This month, for the first time since I was 12 years old, I watched the annual Rose Festival Parade, which celebrates Portland itself, the City of Roses. And roses really do bloom everywhere, such as this example from my mother’s own garden.

Anyway, I took loads of pictures to share and I will still share them, but  just as I was preparing to write about them, the news programs announced an event so shocking and heavy that to simply write about parades seemed  frivolous and callous.

It hit me with the same deep coldness in the pit of my stomach that I’d felt in 2001 at Schafer Park School, where I taught back then.  Some of my teacher colleagues had turned on the teacher-room television early, before classes started. While we watched, one of New York’s Twin Towers, just struck by an airliner,  suddenly collapsed. It was too stomach-wrenching to watch, yet impossible to turn away.

Just so, this month, we found out that our own country has been systematically taking away children, some younger than one year, from their parents, Central Americans who had come to ask us for help.  This policy began six weeks ago, and over two thousand children had been taken during that time. In the middle of the night, they were spread out across the whole country, to perhaps a couple dozen internment camps. Some flight attendants, and some airlines (but not all), have meanwhile refused to be a part of what resembles child trafficking.

Records were not well kept, hindering the eventual reuniting of families.  So a whole cottage industry has sprung up to locate these kids and figure out who belongs to whom. This chaos came about not through carelessness, but by design, as part of a policy meant to scare off these people, who were often fleeing certain death in their home countries.

To treat asylum seekers like that violates international treaties that we’ve long been part of, but even if it didn’t, and even if these supplicants were not truly in need, what amounts to a policy of kidnapping is still appalling.

A few months ago, an official had asserted that to stop immigration, they’d have to attack families. What I thought was just one cruel person turned out to be system-wide immorality.

As in 2001, it feels like what our country stands for is under assault. If any of my colleagues back then had treated children like that, they’d have been arrested, no matter whose children they were. If our school district had adopted it as policy, then, in addition, it would have been dissolved and reconstituted.

======= = = = = =

Well, it’s been awhile. I wasn’t sure that I’d even finish writing. Now I’m in California. The “airplane picture” shows the Hayward Shoreline, on the edge of San Francisco Bay. It’s a series of old salt-reclamation ponds allowed to go natural.  Its creation was a labor of love for my old boss at Hayward Schools, Leo Bachle. The visitor center stands by the highway. Again, it’s worth clicking on to see the large version.  If anybody comes to visit me, I can take you out there to enjoy the fresh air, take in the beautiful views, and watch birds.

The flight from Portland was uneventful, but two hours late. Our plane had come from Las Vegas, and the pilot explained that the US president had arrived there earlier, which delayed all other flights a couple hours.  The cabin erupted in boos.  It’s like the days of the old emperors.

It feels like the old Vichy regime in France – a system imposed from without, but by whom? Many argue the Russians. Others argue the rich and their international conglomerates.  Some think it’s just the leader and his family.

I don’t think it’s an argument worth having.  Instead, one can just look. From his own words and actions he furthers all their interests over our country’s, mainly by setting Americans against one other, but also by withdrawing America’s leadership role in the world, eroding its trustworthiness,  alienating allied countries, refusing to implement Congressional-mandated actions, and promoting Russia and the rich at every turn.

Thinking about it is painful, but like watching the Twin Tower fall, it’s  hard to turn away. And we ignore it at our peril.  But sometimes I make myself take strategic retreats from the news, just to maintain sanity and perspective, as I have for the previous week or so.

Of course for me, who believes that objective reality exists, the most problematic aspect is the attack upon truth and science, and the fact that significant numbers of my fellows don’t care much about either. It used to be said that you’re entitled to your own opinion, but not your own facts. These days, some instead would “have it all.”

The US president lies more brazenly and more habitually and with more cruel intent, than any person I’ve ever known, or even heard of, even literary characters.  How can such a man be the face of our country?  It’s shameful and humbling.

In this case, he lies about a Latin American invasion when in fact the number of immigrants on the southern border has steadily dropped for over ten years, and in fact more Mexicans are now moving to Mexico than the other way.

The only significant numbers come from three Central American countries, and they’re not here to sponge off of others, but to avoid being murdered. He lies that they’re all criminals driving up crime levels, when overall crime levels in the USA are the lowest in decades, and among immigrants even lower (the same holds true, by the way, for Germany, despite having admitted proportionally way more immigrants than we have) Immigration needs to be controlled. It doesn’t have to be stopped or reversed (I’ve heard of officials exploring ways of stripping naturalized citizens of their citizenship).

So many lies.  Honestly, I don’t understand why journalists even report his words anymore. Instead, just report actions.

This attack on truth didn’t start with him, though. It’s been engineered over the course of decades, mainly by a sect within the republican party, but not limited to that. I first became aware of it back in 2004, when journalist Ron Suskind interviewed Karl Rove, then an advisor to the president. This paragraph of his continues to reverberate in my mind:

The aide said that guys like me were ‘in what we call the reality-based community,’ which he defined as people who ‘believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.’ […] ‘That’s not the way the world really works anymore,’ he continued. ‘We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do’.

Rove says it was somebody else who said it, but few believe him at this point. When I first read it, it felt like the words of someone mentally ill. Well, it was just one official. Just one official.

Meanwhile, it’s not helpful to anybody when our country’s reins of power have been taken up by a man who revels in chaos and a sort of casual cruelty, which anybody can observe just by looking — no journalists or pundits required.

And it’s against our country’s ideals to veer from the rule of law towards rule by family relationships and elitist friends. Corruption settles in and holds fast. One of the most corrupt of them  now heads the Environmental Protection Agency. After only 18 months, he’s under a dozen investigations for misuse of his office. Meanwhile while environmental protections based on facts are scrapped and agencies dismantled to promote the profits of international business conglomerates.

So again, it’s very humbling. I never expected to see anything like it in the country that I love. But we were outsmarted and outplayed.

And they certainly do seem to enjoy “twisting the knife.”

Meanwhile, there’s better environmental news from China – My friends there have written about more blue skies this year than ever.   Things are not acceptable yet, but they’re moving in the right direction.

And I’ve had a small personal victory. My weekly Sunday School in Berkeley is compelling and interesting, but since returning two years ago, my body’s been too broken to pay attention for an entire lesson. But a couple weeks ago, I finally could pay attention for the entire session!

My friend Arlene said it was nice to have the “old Paul” back again. It gives me hope that this will happen more often and I will eventually work my way into a condition of usefulness. Thanks again for the kind thoughts from others that support this healing.  And especially thanks to those who have stuck with me through the darkest period of my life so far.

The last couple pictures feature  the participants that every parade needs – especially with so many horses — the folks who clean up horse droppings. The Portlanders  handle this necessity with a panache not always evident at other parades. They deserve to be celebrated.

It’s a privilege to greet everyone on this, the 242nd birthday of our nation!

Oregon Springtime

Greetings from Oregon.

I’ve been visiting my sister and mother in Portland. On the day I arrived, the weather was amazing — among the most beautiful that I’ve ever experienced.  And blue skies have appeared for at least part of every day since, with some interruptions for rain showers.

Portland’s May landscape overflows with flowers, showcasing the dogwoods. This pair is just around the corner.

Spring in California has also been beautiful. A reasonable amount of rainfall greened the hills nicely, though not as deeply as last year.

By the time I return, they may again be brown.  Here’s the classic  view of Lake Chabot from Fairmont Ridge, snapped last month.

The thought of brown hills always brings to mind my American-Irish friend Bernie, whom I met while traveling in Europe.  A Bay Area native, she missed those brown hills while living in Ireland, a country whose hills never exhibit that color. Fortunately, I had brought pictures.

That friendship led to two wonderful summers with Bernie’s family and friends in Cork.  I think that was seventy-five years ago? Seems like it.

Long-time Cork friends will recognize this view of Patrick Street, taken in 1986. Nowadays, Roches store is long gone, but Father Matthew stands guard yet.

Welcome Guests

Recently, I discovered that one of my new California neighbors, just across the street, is Irish. In fact, her father came from the very neighborhood of Cork (near Dillons Cross) where I had spent so many happy days.  And furthermore, he was visiting at the moment! How convenient!  Here he sits with the Mrs.

Before he left town, we  held some wonderful nostalgic conversations full of history and green, green hillsides, and that lovely unique Cork City accent. The tourist board suggests that the “Real Ireland” is out west, among the sheep, but to me, it’s in Shandon by the Lee.

Last month, I got another  visitor from another of my favorite cities — Tianjin, China.  One of my former English-teacher colleagues at Tianjin University, along with some other Tianjin teachers, took a semester’s sabbatical at UC Santa Barbara.

Last month, she sojourned to the Bay Area  to tour UC Berkeley, as well as a certain almost-as-good school in the South Bay. Here she stands with a Tianjin architecture teacher, posing in the legendary People’s Park.  The day turned out to be “Cal Day,” an open house for friends and family, and for introducing the incoming freshmen to the campus and clubs.

The crowd was crushing, as seen in this view through Sather Gate into Sproul Plaza.  It was nigh on impossible to find an eating establishment free of long waits for seating. We finally settled in at Bongo Burger, a very long-time establishment run by Middle-easterners which even offers lamb-burgers.

Again, the conversation drew me back into memories of a happy time.  Beijing and Shanghai may be heavily promoted, but to me the real China is the “biggest city you’ve never heard of” by the Hai He. And then we toured the campus that I know so well.

Health and Gardening

Guests are even more welcome than ever during this era of my life when I’m in no shape to travel myself. The flight to Portland is about the limit at this point. And even that can be problematic. The inability to just sit for long periods has kept me from most movies, musical performance groups, novels, church services, auto trips, and seminars  — many of those activities that I’d hoped to enjoy in retirement.

So I’m thankful when I can relive and share memories of the various adventures from my previous lives.  I have gotten some writing and editing done, because interacting with the keyboard distracts my attention from pain, and I can frequently get up and walk around.

And I am very grateful, too, to my parents, who have kept themselves stable these last two years, which has been an enormous relief from stress, and has furthered my healing, and helped my mind recover most of its functioning (except for normal “senior moments,” of course).

And  since the pain does diminish when I stand,  I got a lot of gardening done in California, as long as I didn’t have to bend over too much.

I filled about eighteen of these green carts with finely chopped branches and leaves in the last month or so. Now the yard is less likely to spontaneously combust.

With some minor exceptions (at this point), my body itself is, and has been, relatively healthy, at least in recent months. So these days the main focus isn’t on health per se, but on injury — not injuries from any accident, but slow-motion injuries from years of stress.

My Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) Practitioner and my physical therapist played tag team to straighten out my shoulders and upper spine last year.  Starting in December, they and I  have focused on the lower end of that spine. Just as with my shoulders, this lower-body reshaping has involved a (hopefully) temporary increase in pain.

Since that time, I occasionally stumble into pain-free periods — maybe once or twice a month to begin with, and a bit more frequently now.  Still, even though things are headed in the right direction,  the discomfort usually continues, sometimes as strong as ever.  On the other hand, the ear ringing, though still variably loud at times, has generally dampened to levels that can be ignored.   All this is to say, then, that thoughts and prayers are still much appreciated, and an occasional fifty words in an email from an  old friend can make a tremendous difference.

But speaking of gardening, here’s a Green Stink Bug that I recently spotted sitting on a  salvia (sage) in the back yard. A native North American species, it has also somehow flown all the way to Queensland.  Cute, eh?

Parade #1

The nice thing about parades is that I can enjoy them standing up. So I did attend a couple  of them on San Francisco’s Market Street this spring. The first was for St. Patrick’s Day (March 17), a celebration of Ireland and its culture.

Naturally, everybody wore green.

Besides the color, and the normal bevy of classic cars, marching bands, and politicians (including the Irish group Sinn Fein), I was struck by the number of trade unions, including professions that I’d never even heard of before.

Sprinkler fitters? One can only imagine. The brotherhood of electrical workers, which an in-law belongs to, was represented, as well as the Theatrical Stage Workers Union, which one of my pseudo-nephews ought to belong to.

Of course, dogs were out in force — Irish Terriers, Irish Wolfhounds, and Kerry Blue Terriers.

San Francisco turns out to have close ties to Cork.  Not only do they enjoy a sister-city relationship, but “The Rebel Cork Benevolent Association” was founded in 1883 in San Francisco as a mutual aid society for former Cork inhabitants.

It was surprising to see so many Cork Flags waving so far from  Cork itself when there wasn’t even a hurling match.  Indeed, the hurlers were also parading that day.

I was a little surprised to see a well-known Chinese group organized into a marching band. Along with the Shriner’s Arabian band, it may just go to show that everybody has a bit of the Irish in them (along with the Viking contributions).

Parade #2

On the very next weekend, I returned to Market Street with my friend Arlene and another of her friends.  This parade was quite different — a protest march against assault gun proliferation in America, one of many all across America, organized principally by high school students from Florida.  The laws that formerly  limited assault weapons expired about ten years ago, leading to a concomitant increase in deaths over the last decade.

We actually started by City Hall in Oakland, attending to an array of speakers, mostly teenagers or people in their twenties.  It was quite impressive. I hadn’t heard such well-articulated passion from youth since I was their age.


In fact, I have a good feeling about the upcoming generation.  Perhaps they will finally push forward some necessary conversations from where we’d abandoned them back in the seventies. Indeed,  this year, 2018, reminds me so much of fifty years ago — 1968 —  both  years divisive and dangerous, both of them years of testing.

Issues that I was ignorant enough to think had been settled turned out not to be so.

I was dismayed to find out how common abusive behavior towards women continues to be, and heartened that so many women have come forward to testify about it. I had thought that such nonsense had been straightened out long ago.  And I had no idea that people were still persecuted for being black, at least not to the often mortal extent that I hear about these days. I’m sure that I’ll end up having been wrong about more things before  the year is out, though I’m not sure I’m looking forward to further shocks to my complacency.

After the speeches, we stopped by the legendary De Laur’s Newsstand, one of the few places back then that sold foreign-language magazines. Then we partook of Dim Sum (点心) at a well-known spot  in Oakland China Town. Finally we coasted over to The City on the BART metro.

In San Francisco we found the march itself, a few kilometers of protesters wielding  more cardboard placards than you can shake a stick at. Indeed many sticks shook that day, though we had not brought any ourselves.

All generations and stations of life seemed represented among the marchers, a welcome change from marches 15 years ago, which mainly featured the same old hippies from the seventies, now graying, some with grandchildren in tow.  This year, grown grandchildren had their  grandparents in tow.

It gives me a reason to be optimistic when I so oftenfeel like crying, as the leadership of our country seems determined to suppress truth and to denigrate what I most love about my beloved country.

Returning, for the moment, to St. Patrick: Ireland has 32 counties, 26 of them in the Republic. But occasionally you’d hear about the next county over. That would be America, the 33rd county.

And in China, 旧金山 Jiùjīnshān= Gold Mountain) is not just San Francisco. It’s a known destination, with a tradition. Nations far and wide not only have a foothold, but a foot in this country.

So we are not a nation, that is, an ethnic group, like so many other countries.  We are not a nation, but we are every nation, or at least their feet.  And that doesn’t even count the many traditional cultural differences between The West, The South, New England, etc. We’ve always been that way, founded on an idea and not an ethnicity, growing through time to  more fully realize that idea.

I understand that not everybody sees it that way. But that’s still what I love about my country, and what, to me, is its unique strength.

I’ll end this parade review with the kind of character that only San Francisco would put up with– Emperor Norton (1818-1880), Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico, self-proclaimed.

Naturally our beloved emperor would come back from the dead to dye his beard green and march for St. Patrick.

One More Guest

I had the pleasure of one more visit from the past this week, an English and Chinese Teacher colleague whom I met in Tianjin in 2001.

Here he stands with his wife at “The Grotto” in Portland,  a Catholic meditation garden. It’s one of the most beautiful and peaceful places you’ll ever find. And I’ll leave this message with one more photo – taken from the Grotto’s meditation chapel — a panorama of North Portland, Washington, the Columbia River and (in the distance) our most recently active volcano — Mt. St. Helens.







Happy post- and pre- New Year

Greetings from California – the Bay Area!

This is Union Square in San Francisco, the center of the shopping district. It had mostly emptied out at the end of the day, but for a few picture-takers and the inevitable bagpiper.

I snapped the photo while walking to the Metro station, returning home after a wonderful day touring the city with my old college roommate and his wife.

They had come to San Francisco for a Film Noir movie festival, with ten days of double features — including back to back double features on the weekends. Almost an entire year of Movie Nights compacted into ten days! They somehow survived it all. Here they sit later in the week at Lake Chabot in Castro Valley.

And by the way, Bill went a lot further in music than I did. You can find one of his CD’s, “Ten Tunes,” here.

Anyway, as I continued across Union Square that evening, snapping pictures, I felt alive, for the first time since before I left China.  It gives me optimism for the future.

I am grateful that I can get out from time to time like that. In fact, I’m grateful for simply walking down the seven steps from my bedroom to the kitchen each morning. Easy Peasey!  But a year ago, I had to take each step one at a time.  And each step hurt.

I still have some major health issues to deal with, but my eyesight is no worse than it was in China.  My ear ringing still goes louder and softer all the time, but never as loud as it was a year ago. I’ve got most of my strength back, and my mind is working again, more like somebody my age and no longer like a 95-year-old.

I’m ever more solidly hopeful that in the coming year I’ll be whole again, or at least patched together well enough to feel alive more regularly, and to engage the world again. I’m grateful that I’ve basically had a two-year vacation.  Without that, I could not have healed.  How many people ever get that chance? So now is my moment of transition — towards health, and who knows what else.

Many of those in Union Square that evening were working through their own daily transitions. Crowds of pedestrians headed home. The sidewalks were thick with them, and the buses were full.  Click the photo to see the ghostly old ferry building at the end of Market Street.

I recently returned to my favorite trail in Castro Valley – Fairmont Ridge – after a morning of thundershowers. Here are two of those showers, one over Castro Valley and one over Hayward. That photo, too, is worth clicking to enlarge.

The grass is green, roused from its yearly slumbers, poking its leaves out of the ground. But it will remain short and stunted. No matter how much it rains, it will wait for spring’s warmer temperatures and stronger light. Then it will reach into the air and blanket the hills in luxurious growth. But for now, the grass pauses in its own moment of transition.

Nordic House

After my previous update in November no rain fell for two months.  That’s a problem, despite the showers in the photo above. We’re still not caught up to normal.  Still, the rainless days were more convenient for outdoor activities.

These are the fall colors in Berkeley last November 24. The trees are ginkgo trees, that famous species from China.

I had come to Berkeley that day to visit a shop called “Nordic House.” It  specializes in all things Nordic/Scandinavian. Being a Swede (at least a half Swede), I didn’t want to miss out on their yearly “Open House.”

For an entire weekend, they open the back of the store and serve a Nordic feast, featuring every sort of  Scandinavian delicacy you can imagine. And boy do they know how to cook!

The store sells typical trinkets, like Dala horses or Christmas goats, and typical foods like meatballs, Glögg, and pickled herring. To see it all, one needs only click here for a tour of the store, courtesy of Google maps.

But Nordic House is more than just products to sell.  It’s a point of coordination for Scandinavians in the area, who post announcements and advertising on their bulletin board.

And for me, it holds an additional attraction. The Norwegian woman in the picture is a member of the family who runs the store. Many years ago, her son was in my class — the elementary school class which I taught in Hayward! So when I dropped in, it was like a family reunion. It’s so wonderful to hear of her son’s successes, now that he’s a young adult.

And there’s more. The mother of another of my former students also works there.  And her son is also a successful young adult. So much good news!  I forgot to take her picture, unfortunately. She’s from a Filipino  family, which only goes to show that there’s a little Viking in all of us, including Asians.

The Wildfires

This was a tragic year for wildfires in California. I don’t have any pictures of them — I was never close enough, which I’m not unhappy about.  It’s safer with no fires in the neighborhood.

The largest wildfire in California history burned near Santa Barbara.  It burned 1141 square kilometers, more than six times the size of the city of Tianjin. It was about 430 Kilometers from here, but the ash from that fire flew all the way up here. And that was just one fire of many.

The closer fires in Northern California dirtied our air even more.  People started comparing it to Beijing air and even started wearing those white filter masks. Many people died in the flames. California often has wildfires, but usually not so destructive as this year. Many people attribute their severity to climate change.

Family Visits

I was able to visit both my parents at the end of last year. Here’s my dad in Arizona on a typical winter morning, dressed in blue, with wife and friend in tow, at their customary Saturday breakfast.

I spent most of my Arizona visit relaxing indoors, although I did get out to shop for SAS shoes, a shopping trip that has become something of a ritual for my visits.  Those shoes aren’t cheap, but they’re actually made in America.  And they are high quality.

My dad and I also looked at cars, in case I might buy one soon. It’s not easy finding one with enough driver space to accommodate my long legs.

I later visited my mother and sister in Portland, where the winter weather is much more interesting.

Every year brings some freezing rain, which never comes to the Bay Area or in Arizona, and I don’t remember it ever happening in Tianjin, either.

In the picture, my mother’s house appears to be covered by a light snow. But actually, everything in that picture is sealed in by a coating of ice – the snow, the house, the street, the bushes, the trees — everything.

A close look at a bush shows the pervasiveness of the ice — every leaf individually encased in transparent hardness.

And walking was not safe, particularly when the sun finally came out and pieces of melting ice began raining down from trees. I spent a few hours cracking, chipping and melting ice off the back door path to make it passable.

It’s also hard to drive a car on that ice, and YouTube features many videos of cars sliding down Portland hills after a freezing rain. On the other hand, fewer people tried to drive since they had to chip their cars out of ice just to enter them. On the other other hand, I remember my dad telling me how much he enjoyed such icy days as a young man. He’d take the family car down to a parking lot and see how many times he could make it spin around.

Even the needles on pine trees were individually wrapped in ice!

Meanwhile, back in California spring has sprung. Here’s my neighbor’s fruit tree as it appeared on February 8, the day before the winter Olympics.

Indeed there are fruit trees flowering all over town.  Somehow it seems awfully warm for February, though.

Private Life

I’m blessed that my parents are still living. And earlier this week,  I discovered some old photo negatives from the 1940’s tucked into a closet.  They come from the years before I was born, when my parents were in their mid-twenties.

Back then, their hobby was dogs, specifically Dalmatians. I still remember those dogs from when I was very young. Many of those old pictures feature them, both at home and at dog shows.

I’m now scanning these photos into positives so I can share them with my parents and sister, who will be happy to see them again. It’s something meaningful that I can do despite my limited mobility.

Unfortunately, my parents (and sister) live hundreds of miles from here (in opposite directions), so my local Bay Area family has always mainly consisted of my teaching colleagues at my old elementary school.  I have no uncles, aunts, cousins, nieces, nephews, sons, daughters, wife, grandchildren (nor living grandparents) nor any of that, so I really depended upon them.

But alas, I guess I spent too much time out of the country the last few years.  They no longer seem interested in any input from me, or any help in the classroom, or even any contact at all. It’s been a great loss, and one that I really don’t understand.

I found some loss at my church in Berkeley, too. While I was gone there was some sort of falling out between the leadership and the congregation, which I don’t really understand, but many of the people whom I used to know and spend time with have left.

Is this what people mean when they say “You can’t go home again?” Other friends became more distant, too.  Luckily some friends have kept in touch with me these last few months, particularly my friend Arlene in Berkeley, and also some from overseas.

It made a huge difference. Without their contact, the disappearance of my communities in Hayward and Tianjin, and the semi-disappearance of my church community, I would have ended up feeling abandoned and irrelevant. Even so, I still do feel that way sometimes.

Well, as they say, when God closes a door (or several), watch for another one to open up. That’s what I’m doing now.

I’ve been so fortunate with all the great teachers I’ve had in my life, I feel a responsibility to pass down at least some nuggets of the knowledge which they gave me, nuggets that are surprisingly uncommon even now. I hope my future will have something to do with that.

And if my mobility does return in the coming months (which seems likely – one way or another), I’ll be able to move out into the world to engage it again.  And then I’ll probably feel much less needy, community or not. Still, I greatly feel the absence of the missing communities and friends.

Public Life

I think a lot about America’s public life these days. It is, after all, my country. But this update is getting too long already.  So I’ll abbreviate my thoughts with a parade, an American specialty that everyone can agree on. This was last fall’s Castro Valley Electric Light Parade. Do we really need to celebrate electricity? Not really, but hey! Why not?

Indeed agreement is often scarce among Americans these days. And for me, 2018 is shaping up to be another 1968, the last time I truly was afraid for our country’s future, fifty years ago.  Despite the turmoil back then, we came through better than before, but many were hurt in the process, and such success was in no way guaranteed at the time.

That’s what this year feels like to me. It’s a moment of transition. Many long-term trends have “come to a head.”  Will we succumb to the forces of selfishness that have been building and threaten now to triumph, or will we take the next step towards decency and passion, settling issues left partially resolved fifty years ago?

They probably won’t be fully settled even now. As in 1968, some conceits will remain. But as they have gradually reasserted themselves over recent decades, and  have shamelessly revealed themselves this year, perhaps we as a society can more clearly see them for what they are, and sideline them more firmly than we did back then. Here’s hoping!

Meanwhile, as we consider parades, here’s a classic float from the 1940’s constructed by my mother’s former employer, a real estate developer in Pittsburg California.



Well, I wrote about a hundred words over budget. Not too excessive!

Happy New Year! 新年快乐 !! Happy year of the dog!





Happy Post-Halloween

Happy Post-Halloween from California! 

Here you go. Have a Halloween hummingbird — wrapping itself in delicious Mexican salvia. It’s on me.

As I began to write this note, and as I finished it this morning, my home was also enveloped  — in a thoughtful, pattering, semi-soaking rain. Perfect for letter-writing. Maybe California’s annual summer drought is over. Time to turn off the garden sprinklers until next summer.  Here is a photographic comparison taken from the old same place – showing late October’s California from a couple weeks ago compared to last spring’s.  October is usually as dry as it gets:

last Spring:

My Health Situation

Every morning I descend seven stair steps down to the kitchen. Blithely. A year ago I had to focus on each step, laboriously and painfully, one at a time.  The difference is appreciated on the daily waltz down to breakfast.

And on Halloween, for one shocking hour, I felt normal, for the first time in years.  And I’ve had a couple more of those hours since.

The improvements seem to come from getting my bones in order, an ongoing project. My TCM (traditional Chinese medicine) practitioner thinks that these  posture problems started when I took up the saxophone decades ago.

It’s hard to accept that the saxophone, objectively the world’s most perfect musical instrument, could nevertheless cause such harm. The picture shows my most expensive specimen, a Yanagisawa with a bronze body and brass keywork. What could be more attractive?

But playing its larger cousins drew my shoulders forward and my neck down, slowly but inexorably. Then in later years, muscle tension from stress pulled my shoulders even more strongly in the wrong direction, distorting the spine.  Nowadays, my shoulders are retreating to positions where they haven’t rested for decades.  I don’t know if this difference in posture is visible to others, but it feels to me like a complete skeletal rearrangement.

It’s not just my shoulders. My hips had also twisted around, lifting one hip noticeably higher than the other, and wringing my lower spine, inflaming it like my neck. Can’t blame that on the saxophone, though maybe on too many hours sitting at the computer. My physical therapist in Portland is helping to straighten that out.

It remains to be seen how much all this attention to orthopedics will alleviate my various symptoms, and it involves its own set of pains.  But I’m happy to trade the pain of dysfunction for the pain of healing.

The constantly varying ear ringing has diminished for sure, though it’s still present and occasionally still flares up louder than people’s speaking voices, and the pains flare, too, but later they usually settle back into a new level of health improvement the next day. Interesting. And my strength and memory faculties are steadily recovering.

In the meantime, I feel like I’ve been granted a preview of life in one’s nineties, and a new appreciation for what folks in that age bracket, such as my parents, must be going through. I’ll visit my dad later this month and my mother next month.  For now, I’m grateful for the slow return to my sixties, and also grateful that I could take such a long break from responsibilities in order to heal.


I didn’t get fancied up for Halloween this year, but my neighbors sure did – adopting a “minions” theme for themselves, their porch and their two pugs. Scary!

Like last year, about forty kids stopped by to extract candy from my plastic pumpkin, crammed with chocolates. The leftovers were donated to a local church to keep me from gorging myself.

I avoided taking pictures of trick-or-treaters this year, but my long teaching career has left behind a seemingly endless photo trove of kids who are now middle-aged adults, such as the “adults” in this example.

The photo shows some improvised teamwork that took place at a class Halloween party long ago.   The girl in the center hadn’t got it together to wear a costume, so her friends gathered around to paint her face.

This sort of helpfulness has really stood out for me since I returned home. As I wandered through Oakland looking for the bus company to buy a bus pass, a college-aged woman not only told me where it was, but walked halfway there with me. Later, on a bus through Castro Valley, I sat fingering the halt-cord, as it had been so long since I’d used one.  An adolescent riding across the aisle piped up to offer me help in mastering the halt-cord arcana.  And it’s not just the bus. Checkers at supermarkets seem friendlier than ever. Is this one of the perks of getting older?

Anyway, back to the past – That nerdy face-painted girl actually did have it together in most respects.  She aimed to be a doctor. No doubt she could pull it off. So I told her it would be nice to know a good doctor when I got old. She smiled and confidently replied, “You won’t be able to afford me.”  She’s probably right.

Living in the Past

I’ve spent a lot of time in the past this year, and not just going through old photos and recordings. I’ve culled lots of old clothes, and with each one comes a memory. I recognized one shirt that I’d worn to the DMV to get my new driver’s license, when the old one had expired after ten years .

And as he snapped my picture for the new license, the man behind the counter remarked “Hey. You’re wearing the same shirt as ten years ago!” Son of a gun. He was right. In fact, I may have worn that shirt for even previous licenses.  I still had it this year. It must have been well over thirty years old, the material thin and the colors faded, but otherwise perfectly usable. But closet space was scarce, so out it went. Actually, I blame the whole crowding situation on my mother, who keeps giving me new clothes  for birthdays and Christmas. After a few decades, they can really stuff a closet!

The Perfect Guest

With flower tea for dessertAbout three and a half years ago, I wrote about “The Perfect Lunch,” served to me in Beijing by Audine, one of my former students from Tianjin, now a talented commercial artist. One can view her work by clicking here.

That lunch was a home-cooked meal featuring one of my most favorite Chinese dishes – Ganbian Doujiao (干煸豆角) – a spicy Szechuan dish sometimes called “Sichuan Dry-Fried Green Beans” in English.   In case anybody missed that old message, here’s the accompanying picture, with Audine surrounded by tasty food.

Well, imagine my delight when Audine stopped by to visit me on her way to Mexico. Here’s the updated picture, with Audine sporting a genuine We’re Crowin’ ’cause We’re Growin’ Castro Valley tee-shirt.

What a pleasure, for only the second time ever, to introduce a friend from China to my beloved Bay Area.  In just a few days, we visited so many places that I finally had to write them all down, just to remember them all.

And every place that we went brought back my old memories of previous good times — particularly the camp at Point Reyes where I had held a week of science camp for my students every year for twenty-one years, as well as the various locations along the route, including Frank Lloyd Wright’s Marin County Civic Center (where Audine, trained as an architect, entered her first FLW building – shown in the picture).

At the camp, I sadly found out that last year’s record rains had started pulling down the cliff that backs the campfire area, so that area has been closed. The seats were pulled out and set up around a small barbecue pit on the Educational Center’s lawn near the last cabin. It’s serviceable, but just not the same.  The old campfire picture here, one of my favorites, shows artist, naturalist and storyteller par excellence Ane Rovetta, telling stories to my class almost thirty years ago.

But back to the present at Point Reyes, here is Audine, snapping photos of juvenile “Heerman’s Gulls” at Limantour Beach.

As we progressed from ocean to museum, from museum to lake, from lake to city, from city to church, from church to restaurant, etc., she brought to mind  how much I, too, enjoy the artsy stuff of life, and that I’ve missed it these last couple years.

However, I also realized a couple other things. I had observed recently how middle-aged men often develop a habit of pontificating, which had not afflicted them in younger years. As we drove throughout the Bay Area, and I explained all the details of American life to Audine, I started listening to myself.  I realized to my horror that I had also fallen victim to that same awful condition.  I tried to excuse it on the grounds that I’d been a teacher so long, but I know plenty of non-pedantic teachers. (sigh) Something more to work on.

And after walking through Berkeley, where house design is often quite interesting, my Castro Valley neighborhood seemed pretty plain, even if it was comfortable.

However,  Audine has the talent to make even my house look interesting, as seen here in her sketch of the front porch.

It’s not the only piece of art that she left behind. I now have, hanging from the ceiling, a custom-painted wooden hummingbird that she brought from Asia but somehow looks completely Mexican. And there are some sketches on the bulletin board in the basement room, for the enjoyment of the next visitor from abroad. (hint, hint)

And in addition to all that, each morning, she came up from that basement room with a cheery (but not excessively cheery, thank goodness) smile to start off the day.

That’s the perfect guest.

Scots Day Out

Well, my guest may have been the autumn highlight this year, but my improving health got me out to other events, too. One of those was the annual Scottish Highland Games in Pleasanton — thousands of Celtic and not-so-Celtic enthusiasts all looking for a good excuse to wear a kilt.

Scotland, of course, is famous for all sorts of odd contests, in addition to that sport of clubbing a little white ball across miles of lawn. Many of them involve throwing one heavy object or another.

Here, for example, is some sort of Scotsman throwing some sort of “hammer,” which I doubt would serve well for pounding a nail. I was not able to stick around long enough to later watch them throw trees.

But more than just contests, the Scottish games involved a wholesale celebration of Scottish and Celtic cultures, which are distinct from English culture.

So, for example, there was a lot of Celtic music and a lot of Scottish dancing. Here’s a group performing the famous “Sword Dance.” Providing the music is a Scottish piper, merely one example of hordes which wandered the grounds that day.

These three pipers represent just one corner of a huge group. And isn’t there some sort of tongue twister, like

How many pipers could a piping band pipe, if a piping band could pipe pipers?

There was also Scottish food, including Fish and Chips.  Remembering back, my most memorable Fish and Chips ever was actually purchased in Scotland itself, wrapped in a genuine Scottish newspaper, prior to my boarding a long-distance bus to London.  The taste was outstanding, and the greasy paper kept radiating memories of it back to me the whole trip.

Naturally this year’s games included sheepdog trials. It’s worth enlarging the picture here to see the gleam in the dog’s eyes. The sheep didn’t just run, they bounded.

And every sort of a clan souvenir was available. It turned out that a member of my own clan, the MacFarlanes, runs a business — The Celtic Jackalope — selling clan paraphernalia of all sorts, though mainly tee-shirts.  He wanders from one Scottish Games to the next. And he was far from the only such merchant.  Take a look at just one of the four or five huge halls filled with them.

And between the Scottish culture of these games and the Mexican culture of the rodeo which I wrote about earlier this year, I’m reminded about how distinctive our country is for its large multicultural populations – for going on four centuries now. I think, in fact, that it is our country’s greatest strength. Well, that and the abundant natural resources.

And here the representatives of the MacFarlane clan set up their exhibit next door to the Campbells, who actually beat us in the clan wars long ago. Ah, well, at least we stole all their cattle.

And who were those pirate zombies? It wasn’t Halloween, and the Scots are not known as pirates. Well, every detail didn’t have to be completely “authentic.”

In fact, the games were held at the Alameda County fairgrounds, where the county fair had taken place a few months earlier. I couldn’t attend the fair this year, so I couldn’t consume my customary once-a-year brick of county fair curly fries.

But then — the curly fries showed up at the Scottish games, too! What an unexpected pleasure!  Here are this year’s fries,  presented by the friendly fry-cooks.

A musical ending

I think a lot about my poor country these days. Luckily for most people who may read these words, I already erased most of what I’d been writing about it, in the interest of eliminating pedantry, and also that it takes too long to explain, anyway. Certainly, though, we’re now wading through our most unstable and conflicted time since the 1970’s.  Perhaps that’s in part what’s driving my constant thinking about the past.  It’s just all too familiar.

All the old dark sides of American society are reasserting themselves — the racism, sexism, and other prejudices, the worship of the rich, the misuse of the military, the poisoning of the environment, the withdrawal from the world community, etc.

And such things affect my outlook. It often seems to me that anti-Americans have taken over the country’s leadership, installed by a powerful minority.  So I feel sorrow and anger in equal measure.  But I also feel some confidence.  My country really is better than all that. As my old Tianjin neighbor Lonnie used to say, though – Americans are too comfortable. Change won’t happen as long as they are.

Well, these days, we’re not so comfortable, so maybe we’ll take up those dropped conversations where we left off in the 1970’s. Some we already have.  The current focus of dialogue is on sexual harassment , for example. Maybe we won’t completely solve it this time, either, but I have a feeling that our society will at least move in a more humane direction.

And meanwhile, I can be thankful to have a home in California where life is in most ways better and saner than average. And at this point, I’ll curb my newly-recognized tendency to pontificate.

Which brings me to music. I seldom listen to popular music these days, because it sounds so homogenized to me — like it all came from the same factory.  I finally heard the famous Lady Gaga for the first time this year, as she sang for the Superbowl in January.  There’s no denying that she has vocal skill. But I felt very little beneath that surface.  Nor do I hear much from most popular music these days beyond cleverness .

You know, what I really respect is an artist who can perform either alone or with a small backup group, without a lot of ear-injuring amplifiers.  In other words, simplicity.

So imagine my delight to find that our public radio network — NPR — has devoted an entire series to that idea – it’s called the “Tiny Desk Concert,” because the musicians perform in an office from behind a desk.

The producers survey the country (and occasionally other countries) to find musicians who are usually not signed to a label, yet abound in creativity.  Having held about one concert a week for about ten years, they now have a store of over 500 performances. Despite being a radio network, they present these concerts as videos both on YouTube and on the NPR site. In fact, many have been ported over to Youku, the Chinese video platform, though usually without the written descriptions and with appended unskippable ads.  Anyway, I wanted to share a few concerts that I found interesting.

Some of the concerts feature long-established masters, such as Chick Corea, the pianist whom I most wish I had the skill to imitate, and Gary Burton, whom I first heard in 1968 at the University of California in Berkeley.  They improvised together, as they have on many previous occasions, this time in front of the Tiny Desk.  Links:  NPR  YouTube   Youku

The Tiny Desk features many other well-known establishment figures, such as classic rocker Graham Nash. Links: NPR YouTube 

Or the cellist Yo Yo Ma.  Links: NPR YouTube 

Or the Mexican concertina player Flaco Jimenez producing that perfect Nordic-Latin amalgam of polkas with melodies sung in thirds.  Links: NPR  YouTube  Youku

Other oldsters might be not be primarily known for music, such as comedian Steve Martin and his bluegrass banjo. Links: NPR YouTube Youku

Like all forms, bluegrass continues to develop, adding and modifying elements in fresh new ways, as with the Punch Brothers. Links: NPR  YouTube  Youku.

However, my favorite example (so far) of creativity firmly rooted in tradition is Tank and the Bangas, from New Orleans.  They are simply amazing.  The roots are so deep, yet the creativity so free, that everything sounds completely fresh and thoroughly classic at the same time. That, to me, is the essence of creativity.  Links: NPR YouTube   Youku

Beauty Pill, is rooted in different traditions, but again, creatively shaping them.  Links: NPR  YouTube  Youku

Another example of new and old, but more well-known, is Thundercat Links: NPR YouTube  Youku

Then there’s Reggie Watts, who works completely alone with recycled recorded sounds, what might be called musique concrete, if it were coming from a university program.  Links: NPR  YouTube  Youku

Mariachi Flor De Toloache is an all female Mariachi (Mexican) group. Links: NPR  NPR  YouTube  Youku

Liane LaHavas sings with a pianist named James who greatly resembles another James I know, one of my former students.  It makes me feel that I know the group.   Links: NPR  YouTube  Youku

Red Baraat shows Indian influence in American music.  Links: NPR  YouTube

Industrial Music is still alive with Blue Man, a group recently and appropriately acquired by the Cirque du Soleil.  Links: NPR  YouTube  Youku

The Tiny Desk series mostly features American musicians, but some are foreigners. One of the most striking is SsingSsing from Korea, whose music is about as far from K-pop that one can imagine, even though SsingSsing comes from the same country, and is more authentically rooted in Korean traditional forms.  Links: NPR  YouTube  Youku

Another great foreign performance is a Scandinavian duo from Sweden and Iceland – My Bubba. Links: NPR  YouTube

And then there’s the Soweto Gospel Choir from South Africa.  Links: NPR  YouTube

Cristina Pato is a Spanish immigrant in New York who demonstrates the Celtic aspects of Northern Spain with what is perhaps the second most  perfect musical instrument ever invented – the bagpipe. Links: NPR    YouTube

Which brings us back to home-grown American music, which all ultimately comes from immigrant sources, too.

The well-known Kronos Quartet literally plays Shostakovitch string quartets, but also Tin Pan Alley. Links:  NPR   YouTube  Youku

Penguin Cafe takes the classical tradition in one direction. Links NPR   YouTube Youku

Mother Falcon takes it in another direction. Links: NPR   YouTube  Youku

I’ll leave this set  with three last pieces.

A man playing alone – Bill Frisell, guitar and effects master, playing three Beatles songs of John Lennon. Links: NPR  YouTube   Youku

Moon Hooch, an lively celebration of the saxophone, objectively the most perfect musical instrument ever invented, and proof that avante garde craziness is still developing. Links: NPR  YouTube  Youku

And finally, a return to Tank and the Bangas, this time with full amplification at an outdoor music festival.  Unfortunately I only found it on YouTube here. The energy that they create is a peculiarly American one, difficult to describe in words, but as identifiably American as the flag and apple pie.  It threads its way through many styles of American music, including the big band jazz that I played in high school and college.  When I hear it, I hear home.

My Writing Project

Other than these quarterly email messages, I’ve mainly been writing a book about teaching in China. It’s kind of schizoid. Half of it may be of interest to the teacher who wants to understand something about Chinese students, and thus thrive in China. The other half may be of interest to the teacher who wants to understand how human language works, and thus become a better instructor, no matter the country.

I have completed the first phase of this project, the task that novelist E.M. Forster once described as “How do I know what I think unless I write it down?”  I’m ready for the second phase, which is “How do I make these ideas more accessible and enjoyable?”  For that I need others. So let me know if you’re interested in reading and responding to part of these writings.

So this was  yesterday, as the rain clouds were rolling in – Lake Chabot – I actually walked all the way around it – 10 miles by the route that I took (16 km). Today I’m paying penance for that too-audacious act. Still, I’m just glad that I could still do it, for the first time in many years. It makes me think there may be more that I can do.

So that’s what’s going on with me. What’s going on with you?