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Happy Midsummer, 2020!

Hi all!

Time for the quarterly update. Happy Midsummer!!

I hope everyone is well. My parents are still hanging in there, as are my sister and brother-in-law, as well as other more distant family members.

Here in California, my neighbors who can work from home are doing so. Those who can’t are staying at home when they’re not working. And I, of course, can stay home for the duration.

In fact, this is the longest uninterrupted period that I’ve spent in one town since 2008, when I spent the entire academic year (minus one quick trip) in Tianjin.  It’s also the longest I’ve gone without a haircut since I returned from China. Granted, before that I hadn’t gotten a haircut for fifteen years.

Luckily I have a back yard where birds still fly, flowers still bloom, and my camera still works.  One of my favorite comedians, Amber Ruffin, recently put together a sketch about quarantines in homes vs. apartments with two other comedians. I concur with the opinions expressed.

My body is still playing whack-a-mole on itself, at times bringing back classic symptoms, oldies but goodies, at times inventing entirely new ones.  At one point, I ended up driving myself to the emergency room, where I was hospitalized until the following day. It’s a complicated story, but it basically involved chest pains, unusual heart beats, and a catheter. Not something I particularly like to think about. It was not a heart attack.  My good friends Jim and Karen drove me home and cared for me for a couple days, and now I’m back to subnormal with a bunch of new prescriptions.

Unless I’m surprised again! We’ll see which whack attacks! My dominant symptom at this point is a quaking and shaking in my arms and chest.

* * * * *

Meanwhile, I continue to edit and rearrange sections of my teaching journal from China.  My aim is to produce a book useful for teaching advanced English to adults, particularly in China, but actually anywhere. If you’re curious, clicking the picture of the four friendly students brings up the “Forward” and the table of contents. And if you can tell me your opinion about it, that’s even better!

* * * * *

Last week, in consultation with my psychologist, I committed to an entire day of avoiding any news about politics. I succeeded and it was good for me. I’m going to try it again this week, and perhaps expand the number of days in the future.  In some ways, though, it’s a topic that’s hard to avoid. I agree with my Chinese friend Han that we are living through historic times.

Of course, we old Euro-backpackers need only consult our handy Asterix comic books for lessons on any aspect of life. In this case, the book is called “The Roman Agent.” (in the original French, it’s “La Zizanie” — “discord.”)

There are some people who spread dissension and division wherever they go. In this comic, Julius Caesar encounters such a one and sends him up to Gaul to provoke our favorite Gaulish village into destroying itself.

Clicking on each of the two Asterix frames here will bring up the page that it came from, and will allow you to fully appreciate the wonderful sense of humor of the authors, René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo.

Meanwhile I’ll leave it as an exercise to the reader to divine who in contemporary politics corresponds to this Roman Agent.

And it’s my sincere hope that that guy ends up like the Roman agent did at the end of the comic book — kicked out of town.

* * * * *

Speaking of Euro-backpackers, when my college friend Julie was studying in Italy, I met through her a young Swiss woman, exactly my age, named Gerda, whom some on this list may remember.

We hit it off, and in the spirit of the times, visited each other’s homes in our respective continents more than once.  In later years, we lost touch, unfortunately. But with the rise of the Internet, I occasionally ran a search on her name.

One time, I found out that she had won a simple promotion contest at her local grocers!  Amazing, the Internet!  I still wasn’t sure if she yet lived at the same address, though.

Well, you may guess where this is going. Last week when I searched I found this page, on a web site apparently dedicated to archiving pictures of all Swiss citizens who have passed on.  She had already left us exactly ten years ago! I also found  pictures of her younger brother Marcus and her parents, all gone.  A bit more searching found this page, which states that she died at home from a completely unexpected heart attack.

I have to say, the Internet’s search capabilities are a mixed blessing. At my high school reunion last year I found that many of my classmates had also passed on, but they were not people I ever actually knew. Gerda I knew well.  So despite our lack of contact, it’s been a sorrowful June. I never expected her to be taken so young.

* * * * *

Meanwhile, for those outside America, George Floyd, because he was black, was murdered by police for Memorial Day, and demonstrations have been taking place in all fifty states ever since — every day for about three weeks now. I’ve heard as low as 400 and as high as 700 separate locations, plus international protests. That’s a lot.

The vast majority of the participants were peaceful, though the police station in Floyd’s neighborhood was burned to the ground.  According to smartphone vids I’ve seen,  the main breakers of the peace were some police, some white supremacists seeking to sow discord and war (some of whom were arrested), and petty criminals looking to loot while the police were occupied elsewhere.  In the town next to me, a car dealer lost 75 cars in a few minutes. That had to have been planned, and independently from the protest.

I feel bad that I didn’t attend one of these demonstrations, mainly because of my broken body and a susceptibility to viral infections. Many of the demonstrators did not wear masks, for example. However, my isolation at home did not prevent me from signing various online petitions and writing emails. It didn’t prevent me from contributing money, either, although so far it’s only sort-of my money. It’s the money that the government had sent to everybody in America as the so-called “stimulus package.” I sent some to food banks, some to “black lives matter” groups, and some to politicians running for office.

Donating this “stimulus money” was a priority for me, because the last time the government sent me free money was in 2000, when Bill Clinton had built up a budget surplus, and the Republicans who followed him wanted to give it all away, lest the public think that government was competent. They are the “borrow and spend” party, and it’s hard to justify borrowing if there’s no deficit. Yeah, if only I’d contributed that free money back then, maybe it would have helped keep us out of misguided wars or out of debt. Who knows? Meanwhile, I’ll start contributing my own money next week.

* * * * *

It’s important for those outside of America to understand that all these demonstrations were not solely about George Floyd, nice as he might have been and how unjustly his life had been taken. For many of us, this was the “straw that broke the camel’s back.”

And it’s also important for those who are overseas to understand that it’s not only black people protesting, but Americans of every ethnic stripe. Certainly, thanks to smartphones with cameras, I’ve been forced to face the fact that black people in America still risk their health and lives from police, every time they go out the door. In fact, the aforementioned Amber Ruffin easily came up with four personal stories about it which she told on TV last week. Her point, the same as many others I’ve heard, is that every single black person she knows has stories like that. But I don’t.

Actually, my favorite story about the police concerns my high school buddy Mike, who bought a new pickup truck the year we both graduated. One night, Mike wanted to show me the truck’s capabilities, so we headed out to a nice straight neighborhood side street, where he “floored it” through the darkness to demonstrate its remarkable acceleration. Just as we reached 70 mph (110 kph) the red light appeared behind us.

We were scared to death, but we didn’t fear for our lives. The cop seemed mightily entertained as he assessed the situation — two very foolish and rattled local kids. He played us like fish on a line. He said he’d stopped us because a pickup truck had been reported stolen in our neighborhood.  Had we seen a suspicious truck? Through chattering teeth we told him we hadn’t.   As he left (without citing us for speeding) he advised us to call if we ever saw one. We promised to. Now, years later, I remember that traffic stop every time I drive by that location.  And now I reflect that, had we been black, the incident might have proceeded very differently.

* * * * *

Well, despite being stuck at home there’s lots more I could write about, but space is short.  My main concern right now is the corona virus. When it first landed here I thought, well, maybe at least it will bring the country together.  After all, a painful death is not really subject to partisan interpretation. However, I had not fully reckoned with the Roman agent and his many enablers. Never in my life would I ever have expected that life and death themselves could be reshaped into shallow politics.

The tragedy is that, after a lot of false starts and initial bad recommendations, we finally pretty much understand how to deal with it.  Along with some strategic closures and quarantines (but not full closures in many cases), if everyone would just commit to wearing masks, washing hands, and keeping one’s distance from others,  this monster would be close to gone. It’s not that hard to wear a mask. It’s not that hard to wash one’s hands, or to avoid coming close to others.  And yet, when a local movie chain opens next month, they won’t require masks, the single most effective measure, because they don’t want to deal with politics. It just makes no sense to me.

These days, my go-to illustration is Japan, which has only taken relatively modest measures, yet has had much better outcomes than we have. (It has over 900 deaths so far. Scale that up 2.5 times to fit the USA’s population, and that gives about 2500 deaths. The USA today has had about 120,000 deaths so far, about fifty times more)

But the Japanese aren’t hand shakers or huggers. Their mania for washing is legendary, and by custom they were already wearing masks in public any time they got sick, out of consideration for others. So their close-downs and other mitigations haven’t had to be as disruptive as ours have been and probably will continue to be. Let’s all just wear the darn mask!!

Of course, our close-downs would not have had to be so drastic, either, if the Roman agent in charge had acted earlier and had followed through.

The worst insult that my father ever called anyone was “quitter.”  I internalized that, and have always sought to avoid that characterization (even though I haven’t always succeeded). It’s hard, then, to have the country, my country, led by a quitter.

* * * * *

Well, my favorite YouTube musician, Adam Neely, put out an episode concerning George Floyd and Miles Davis this month.   It even features one of my absolute favorite tunes, Donald Byrd’s Cristo Redentor, as a background.

I previously wrote about Cory Henry, his famous solo on “Lingus,” and the amazing variety of instrumentalists who have transcribed it and learned to play it. I’m not quite ready to let go of this because somebody recently learned to play it on the Japanese shakuhachi. Yeah, it’s especially impressive for a flute with no keys and only five finger-holes.

Rutger Bregman is a Dutch historian with one of most actively curious minds that I know. His latest tome, Humankind: A Hopeful History, is the first book I’ve read start to finish in three years. His thesis, as he put it, is:

This is a book about a radical idea . . . . If only we had the courage to take it more seriously, it’s an idea that might just start a revolution. Turn society on its head. Because once you grasp what it really means, it’s nothing less than a mind-bending drug that ensures you’ll never look at the world the same again. So what is this idea?

That most people, deep down, are pretty decent.

Lest he be seen as a simple Pollyanna, he backs it up with evidence.  I have to say, after reading it I felt so positive about humanity that I even wrote a review and posted it here.

Well, that’s all, folks. I hope everyone is healthy and washing your hands and wearing your masks!








Happy Backyard Easter!

Tomorrow is Easter. Happy Easter!

And what’s new?

Well, it’s quiet and peaceful on my street while we’re all sheltered in place. Most people work from home or are without jobs at home. There’s little traffic. For a few days, I occasionally saw neighbors out walking dogs and children past my windows, but lately I’ve seen less of that.  Some older kids occasionally gather in a circle by a basketball hoop. But instead of basketball, they play “catch,” maintaining social distancing, even though they actually all live in the same house.

My father, mother, sister and brother-in-law are all okay so far, sheltered inside various houses in two other states. I keep in touch with them by phone.

HummingbirdI’m lucky to have a back yard. The flowers bloom on schedule, the squirrels and the birds flit about as usual. And the hummingbirds have returned.  But since that’s the only place I go out, all of the pictures this time are mini-scenes of the back yard. It’s normal life for them, just not for humans.

I am more thankful than ever to live in California. The Bay Area ordered everybody “sheltered in place” on March 16, earlier than any other part of America.  Details are here or if not, they are  available here. At the time, we and New York City had about the same number of cases. But New York waited six more days before closing. Now, three weeks later,   New York has ten times our number of cases. Time is of the essence when pandemics begin.

I’m completely isolated at home. Actually, it’s not much different for me now than the previous few lonely years. These years have not been literally solitary confinement, but it sure felt that way, sometimes. Physical pains still flare up, but at this point, if I have to live with pains and restricted travel the rest of my life, then so be it. There’s too much left to be done to just mope. And I’ve already traveled many times more than most people ever do, though I still feel the old wanderlust.

I’m thankful for all who have reached out to me these last three years, some in America and some in China, a few in other places. You are like a balm that’s kept me from feeling abandoned all the time. I had never considered what a blow it would be to lose my community here while I was in China, and then to lose my China community when I returned, and not be in a good position to build another one.

So I’m thankful for all those who’ve emailed me over the years, and who’ve visited, some even from China! I’m thankful for my neighbor who went  grocery shopping for me, and for one of my former students in Shanghai who sent me face masks, and another in Tianjin who also offered. These favors help far more than just the goods involved.

Meanwhile, I keep thinking about Isaac Newton, who spent a couple years (1665-1667) of his youth “sheltering in place” quietly on a farm, far from a plague in London. He came out of it with calculus, universal gravitation, and several studies of the components of light.

Well, maybe I can’t do anything as important as that, but I can at least accomplish something smaller, So I’ve devoted days and weeks to editing my teaching journal from China into a book that might interest other teachers of English as a Second Language, or those training to teach.  And I greatly appreciate those who have read parts of it and have given me feedback on it, such as Eileen, Bill, Nicole, and especially Karen.  If anybody else can do this, let me know!

My  Sunday school class now meets virtually on Sunday mornings through “Zoom.”  It’s wonderful to see the same old group again gathered around a virtual table, including one former class member who now lives in Maryland!!! If anybody else wants to join in, we meet from 10:15 a.m. Pacific Time until sometime past 11:30.

As implied above, this country’s chief executive was painfully slow to act in the present emergency, and still is. His relentless attacks on government itself meant that he’d long ago disbanded the groups in government that were supposed to fight pandemics. No wonder he moved even slower than New York did, complaining that he’s “not a shipping clerk” when in this case, that is part of his job, because he’s in the best position to do it. People on blogs as well as ordinary news sources complained about his   inaction for months.

It’s troubling that this country can’t act as a model for others, as it so often has in years past. For good examples, probably the best are Taiwan and New Zealand.  Keys to their success include careful testing and tracking, and bountiful supplies of Face Masks and other safety equipment.  Meanwhile, months late, we’re still struggling to get those things, mainly thanks to the neglect of the Chief Executive and his enablers.

Instead of cooperating, he sets states and communities against each other, just like a “reality” TV show. Well, chaos and divisiveness are his most-developed skills, along with self-promotion, insults,  vindictiveness, lying and deflecting responsibility.  No wonder he leans heavily on his own non-elected, and non-confirmed children for policies. Kind of like a mafia.

Indeed when I was little, back in the fifties, I often stressed over the possibility of the mob seizing the presidency. Well, now I sort-of get to see it. And his neglect is going to get a lot of my fellow countrymen killed from corona virus. Maybe even me, my parents, my sister or my brother-in-law, since we’re all in one of the “at risk” groups. Well, many have died already, including two famous musicians — jazz pianist Ellis Marsalis, and country/folk star John Prine.

But this moment of divisiveness has been building for quite a while.

Thirty-five years ago I was driving up to the Sierra, leaving behind my usual radio stations.  Out in the countryside I came across an AM station from Sacramento, broadcasting commentary by a local angry guy, who unloaded about some perceived injustice. But then I recognized the situation that he was talking about. I had personal memories of it.  And I knew that everything he was shouting was a lie. Well, there was a bit of truth as bait for the listeners who were unfamiliar with the situation. But this was no simple mistaken opinion. It could only be a conscious intention to mislead and confuse.

Well, he was just some local nutjob, which is why I no longer remember the details of the story.  But I did want to remember his name, just in case. It was “Rush Limbaugh.” Little did I imagine that this was an opening salvo in a nation-wide assault on truth and trust meant to divide our country and  eventually, with Russian help, squeeze our present Chief Executive into office.

This Sunday is Easter, which celebrates truth and trust — a man brought before the Roman authorities 2000 years ago, who said, “My kingdom is not of this world, . . [though] . . I am a king. For this cause I was born, and for this cause I have come into the world, that I should bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice.”  And the Roman said, “What is truth?” In other words, “Does truth have value?  Is truth a king?”  And then he proceeded to execute the man.

Beyond hope, this king, this truth, prevailed and still exists. That’s what Easter Celebrates — that truth can lead us to the one who can save us. And I feel that in the present moment, truth-hating “Romans” are surely back in charge, and not just in my own country.  Only the truth can  prevail. Open the windows and let in the light so everyone can see it. This is why the Russians’ and our own “Romans'” main attacks were not aimed to convince, but to confuse. “FUD” – fear, uncertainty and doubt.

It’s a matter of truth, and a matter of trust. Can we discover the one and establish the other, in order to hear the voice that will lead us out of this mess? That’s my hope, anyway.  The promise of Easter.

Meanwhile, I sit at home in peace, knowing that a tidal wave of disease is about to hit and not seeing it my neighborhood, but only in the news. I do mourn for those who, unlike me, have to go out to work or otherwise stay out with the public.  They deserve at least combat pay.

And by the way, thanks to the quick actions in California, we now have the fewest deaths per capita of any state except for Oregon, where my mother, sister, and brother-in-law live.  In fact the United States as a whole is actually doing fairly well on a per capita basis, probably in large part thanks to California’s and Oregon’s relative success.  And California is now going its own way to procure medical supplies.  Somebody finally had to take responsibility.

I hope that despite the efforts of those trying to divide peoples, we can forge  bonds of truth and trust, because we’re going to need them to deal with the massively worse crisis that’s coming next — global warming. Looking around, I don’t see the pandemic (yet) and the climate on my street seems pretty normal. But it’s on its way.

Anyway, such are my thoughts from the shelter.  On a more positive note, I’m still watching YouTube videos.  And one of my favorite YouTubers, bassist Adam Neely (he of the famous “lick”) just reached a million subscribers. He gave one of his typically introspective presentations, reviewing his YouTube career.  Those who are not fans of self-congratulatory videos, or who might want an explanation of “the lick” can see Adam explain it here at 5:14  and here is an extensive collection.

My favorite cultural commentator, Lindsay Ellis, has been wrestling with the mere existence of “Cats,” the movie. She emerged this week with a longer than usual analysis of that “train wreck.” For those not into hour-long analyses, I can also recommend one of my shorter favorites of hers, about paid product placement and fair use.

Last time I mentioned Cory Henry’s famous keyboards solo on Lingus (here). If you listen to it again, note the contributions of drummer Larnell Lewis. He lays down a bedrock for Cory to construct his solo. Well, it turns out that two more takes of Cory Henry’s Lingus solo from those same sessions are available here and again here. The three taken together constitute a marvelous illustration of how jazz improvisation works.

Jeffrey VanWingen is a doctor with really popular (viral?) videos on how to handle packages coming into the home. Probably most people have seen them by now, but just in case, here’s one of them, and here’s another.

And finally, from my friend Bill, a radio globe, to explore radio stations from almost every country on earth. It’s amazing that the whole sonic earth can be explored so conveniently from our shelters.

I hope that none of us succumbs to the virus in the coming months, and I hope that many of you can let me know how you’re doing in those far-flung corners of the world.

Happy Year of the Rodent

Happy New Year! — The Quarterly Update

The rat year has come. Actually, the year of the “metal rat.”

My thoughts go back thirty years to “Rattles,” our classroom pet, shown here exhibiting  infinite patience with the students.  He and his predecessor, “Rat-a-Tat,” proved what surprisingly good pets rats can make.

Still, not everyone appreciates them. And classroom pets are forbidden these days. So my annual New Year’s picture only uses the metal ones, plus a squirrel and a kangaroo, both of which are called rats (鼠) in Chinese. Maybe instead of “Year of the Rat,” we should translate it “Year of the Rodent.”

Health Update

Well, still struggling, sometimes still seriously. On the other hand, I’m encouraged each morning because I can remember where I’d laid my glasses the night before.  I couldn’t do that when I first returned from China. I also drive my car with more assurance. Three years ago, I drove from California to Portland and back. In retrospect, I was very, very lucky to have avoided a major accident. I’m still not ready to try it again, but at least I feel more assured on my weekly trip to church in Berkeley.

Speaking of that, I again entered the rotation for leading Sunday school lessons. Before this fall, my mind simply couldn’t work swiftly enough to lead discussions. But now? I’m scheduled again for next Sunday, studying  the second chapter of 2 Samuel.

My right leg and hip continue adjusting and settling into normal positions. It’s a feeling of both pain and relief. I’m reminded of my college roommate Bruce (pictured back then at left). Just as I snapped the picture, his back gave out a bit — simultaneous pain and relief. His expression mirrors exactly what my leg feels like these days.

And I’ve been walking more — about three miles (5 km) every other day.

Painted Boxes

My walks commonly pass large electrical junction boxes, normally painted dusty brown or dingy green. But recently, our county has transformed many of them into showcases for local artists, such as this one, perched in front of our local high school.

The painting is called “The Autumn Sky.” Clicking on it will not bring up the usual enlarged image. Instead, it downloads a 4 megabyte .zip file (compressed file) with twenty such pictures. They all depict various aspects of Castro valley.  I’ll also insert some into this letter below.

The Community Band

I joined a community band in Castro Valley this fall. I play flute instead of my usual saxophone, mainly because I can sit at the edge of the band, away from the trumpets and trombones, the better to preserve my hearing and to keep the ear ringing under control.

But it’s very humbling, as I’m really not much good on flute, but I’m slowly improving. You can hear our Christmas James Bond performance here.

A local church hosted one of our Christmas performances (shown in the picture above). Everybody in the room spoke Spanish, including some of the band members. Other band members at least tried really hard.

The church also treated the whole band to a home-cooked tamale feast. The picture shows my high school classmate (French horn), her husband (baritone horn) and their daughter (flute) savoring the tamales.

Christmas and New Years

I did go to Portland for Christmas and New Years. My brother-in-law’s family is quite extensive.  The picture shows some of them at my sister and brother-in-law’s house, enjoying a typical American Christmas Eve celebration. It was quiet and peaceful, family and friends opening a few presents. Note the baby – always a tiny focus of attention.

We also attended another in-law’s church for Christmas Celebration, which included an indoor simulated snow-ball fight — a first for me.

Even more impressive was how quickly and thoroughly they cleaned it all up afterwards.

What about the separated kids?

Well, the subject of kids separated from parents at the border seems to have dropped out of the news cycle, though its “kids in cages” theme featured prominently at this year’s Superbowl half-time show. As far as I can tell, separations continue. I’ve heard that some reunited younger kids treat their parents as strangers, they’d been gone so long. Arbitrary barriers to immigrants keep building. For our country, founded and developed by immigrants like my grandparents, it’s a tremendous loss of face.

Links for Music Nerds

You may know Carly Rae Jepsen’s hit song “Run Away with Me,” available here.  One of my absolute favorite vloggers, bassist Adam Neely, in the best jazz tradition, re-harmonized her song, while ratcheting up that American music “drive.”  It’s available here. Note especially the rising bass line under some re-harmonized later choruses. Adam  revealed his musical methodology here. ( Music Nerd alert – how musicians actually think!)

He gave Adele’s hit “Hello” (here) the same treatment (here). The nerd breakout is here.

Through Adam’s posts, I’ve not only learned a lot about music, but have finally come to understand what it takes to be a full-time New York music performer. I had considered that path for myself, back in the day. Now I see that my success would have been “limited,” given my attitudes towards music at the time. Fortunately, I’m a much better teacher than I could have been a musician. It was the right decision.

Regarding that, Adam explains one of music’s most basic practice techniques. My question: How can this technique inform foreign language instruction? Adam also introduces the “Real Book,” one of the most significant jazz educational tools. I myself own and use one of the earliest published Real Books!

Oh, and by the way, Carly Rae appeared at the Tiny Desk a couple months ago. Here’s the link at NPR.  Adele’s Tiny Desk is here.  According to Rolling Stone, Tiny Desk is now the most sought-after music venue in the country after New York’s Lincoln Center.

Movie Night

I had given up on Disney cartoons — always the same princess and sidekicks – just dressed differently. Even Disney grew weary of them, as demonstrated in this clip from Ralph Wrecks the Internet. But vlog posts from Lindsay Ellis (here and here) prompted me to view Lilo and Stitch, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Bereft of princesses, they are surprisingly good (except for the gargoyles). Lindsay’s latest essay, an analysis of Phantom of the Opera, is here.

Lindsay also appeared at the XOXO conference in Portland last August to discuss her own experiences with online bullies.  I had no idea that such viciousness was out there. This issue is  worth everyone’s attention, as it affects us all, either directly or indirectly. It’s yet one more reason that I’m not active on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Twitter, Reddit, etc. and only reluctantly and minimally on WeChat.

My friends Karen and Jim stopped by last week for a “movie night,” a favorite film called The Big Short (2015).  (trailer here), adapted from Michael Lewis’s nonfiction book. Language and skimpy dress codes give it an R-rating, but it’s worth viewing to understand the economy’s near collapse in 2007-2008.  As someone who attempts to write non-fiction, I’m almost fatally jealous of the director, Adam McKay, for his ability to make a rather tedious subject interesting and compelling. If only I could do that for “Teaching English as a Second Language!”  However,  I did finally produce a 109,000-word second draft of my ESL book.  Not sure what I’ll do with it next, though. An excellent, but more standard type of Great Recession documentary is “Inside Job,” from 2010.

The Big Short also demonstrates how hundreds (or thousands) of people can coordinate themselves into a massive enterprise of fraud, no smoke-filled rooms required.  The participants don’t even have to be fully conscious of the process. They self-organize almost automatically through a system-wide pursuit of profit.  Again, I think this is worth everyone’s attention because the same phenomenon of coordination through cash occurs in other areas of society, sometimes for good, often for ill.

Separated Americans

So what’s been on my mind the past few months? Fractures. I see Americans separated into various sorts of camps, further distant from each other than I’ve ever noticed before — not even during the hippie era. Indeed, America’s present moment is crisis.

I think of ethnicity, something I’d like to write more about someday.  Ethnic diversity represents an unqualified advantage for any society, but multi-ethnic societies can’t avoid inter-group fault lines. These and other faults aren’t fatal if properly addressed, the groups appreciated for what they “bring to the table.” If not, bad actors (like Lindsay’s bullies) will exploit them. And lately, I see both foreign and domestic bad actors doing exactly that.

Actually, income inequality probably strains society’s fault lines even more than bad actors do. Yet, I don’t simply blame the rich, despite the famous admonition in Matthew.  To me, the rich are no better and no worse than anybody else. But mitigating the inequality would not only benefit society as a whole, but also the rich themselves. At least I think so.

So, for example, when I began my teaching career, back in the late Cretaceous, I was cautioned against working in rich neighborhoods,and every teacher I’ve mentioned this to knows why. It’s because a few (not all, obviously) rich people feel that their wealth certifies their high abilities in all areas. So they “know more” about the principles of learning than experienced teachers do. After all, what’s the teacher’s income? (hint: it continues to sink) These people are happy to impose their great abilities into classrooms, interfering in what they actually don’t understand.

So I often felt grateful to have taught where I did. That multi-ethnic middle class community had neither the hang-ups of the rich nor the tragedies of the poor. People appreciated me and my colleagues.

But I do fear for my country’s future, more than at any other point in my lifetime. Actually, I wrote a lot of details as to why, but I keep erasing them. My full opinions require a fuller venue than this one, and some of them would probably just start arguments, the last thing anybody needs. But if anybody wants to know what I think (and doesn’t already know), just send me a note and I’ll answer.  Or here’s Robert Reich, who’s come to many similar conclusions.

The Crowning Virus

I’m also worried about the new corona virus. The Chinese government handled it better than they did SARS in 2002, but they still hid it at first, even arresting some of the first doctors who tried to sound the alarm. This gave the virus time to entrench and spread.

Why did they do this? One reason is “face,” in other words, “reputation.” The other is the government’s authoritarian nature. In other words, lower-level officials tend not to report problems to higher ups, which could cause a loss of face and a lot of trouble, because the authority fully controls subordinates, and alternate means to appeal don’t exist.

So instead, subordinates try to deal with things on their own, even when they should be sounding the alarm instead, no matter whose face falls. At least, that’s my perhaps over-simplified way of seeing it.

That’s why I don’t want to see authoritarianism develop here. (and we’d be foolish to think that it couldn’t). Unfortunately, many of the bad actors I’d referred to earlier seem to be working towards exactly that.

And to keep up with what’s happening in China, I recommend my favorite 老外 commentators, Winston and C-milk. They have family and an extensive network of friends in China, and they’ve addressed the corona virus situation recently in vlog posts last week and yesterday.

Bye for now

Meanwhile, let’s everybody wash our hands with soap and think happier thoughts, searching for truth in the world around us, prepared to change our minds from new evidence.  I’ve certainly had a lifetime of changing my mind repeatedly and dramatically and expect to continue doing so.

And to close, here’s a group from a Filipino-American parade in San Francisco last August.

Happy Belated Commemorations!

It’s been a long time since I wrote anything to this list. So many commemorations and holidays have slipped by!  But I don’t want to let myself out of my self-imposed quarterly responsibility.

So Happy Belated Halloween! 33 kids stopped by my door to demand candy.  Happy Belated Armistice/Veterans Day! My father and brother-in-law are both celebrated.  Happy Belated Singles Day! (11/11the big shopping day in China). And Happy Belated Journalists Day (in China) to celebrate Chinese journalist friends — Li, Liu, Han, You, and Du!

Health Update

My right leg is twisting counterclockwise towards the position it should have had all along. This is a long term project, involving physical therapy, traditional Chinese medicine and more. Progress is slow, as it involves reshaping some large muscles (through exercise). It’s also painful. Yes, adventures in pain continue!!!  But never as bad as last winter.

Boating on Lake ChabotI circumnavigated Lake Chabot last week (9 miles or 15 kilometers including some hills), and then paid for it with three days of soreness and exhaustion. Next time I’ll have to stretch more, I guess.

It was worth it, though. I can walk downhill more confidently, probably because my leg muscles now pull in the right directions.  A healthy body may still be possible!!  I’m planning on walking more so I’m not so knackered the next time I find myself at Lake Chabot.  Thanks in advance for your prayers.

The Reunion

Earlier this fall my high school class held its fiftieth reunion. Reunions are always surreal. Everybody kind of assumes that you’re the same person as back then. Maybe some are. But with little contact, who’d ever know? I stopped attending after the 25th, as they didn’t seem relevant to my life. But this year was going to be the final time, since the planning committee had finally gotten burned out from organizing them.

I’m glad I went. By the time I’d returned from China, most of my social support system in California had melted away and “doors” kept closing and still are closing.  I seemed isolated in a winter of change. The class reunion functioned like a transplantation, rooting me in my original ground so, as spring arrives, I can branch out in new directions.

Former Nando Court ResidentsThis picture from the reunion shows folks who, as children, shared my same block on Nando Court, including Mark Hedlund, my best friend from primary school.

Our high school class had about 400 members. About 130 showed up to the reunion. About 60 failed to show because they no longer counted themselves among the living.  That was sobering.

More Reunions

Schafer Park old staffI also had a reunion of sorts with many of my old colleagues from Schafer Park school. It was wonderful to see them again and also to see the many kids that they now have.

Playing MousetrapI also had a reunion with my old Tianjin colleague Lonnie, who brought the kids and wife along. My friends Karen and Jim lent us some vintage games to keep the kids entertained — Mousetrap and Operation. I had no idea that those games still existed.

Telephone scams

This topic has been nagging for years, since it keeps bugging me. Are these anything like yours?

This first one claims to be from Medicare, but in fact, they’re fishing to record me saying “yes,” which could in turn be used to impersonate me elsewhere on the phone system.

The second one claims to be from a computer support company. They’re hoping to find someone who doesn’t realize that nobody in their household contracted such support:

But most “robo-calls” that come to our “land line” leave no message. Three years ago, there’d be about six or eight of these a day — sometimes up to ten.  Gradually these have decreased. Now there are only one or two a day – sometimes up to four.  Sometimes none. I might actually start answering the land line phone again.

Power Plays

So a couple weeks ago I filled my freezer with plastic containers full of ice, because my electricity was going to be turned off for a few days, and I didn’t want the food to spoil. Well, it wasn’t turned off here, but starting up the hill and across wide areas of the state, it was.

We have a monopoly power company so bad that Hollywood made a movie about it in 2000. (called Erin Brockovich) with a famous star (Julia Roberts).  The movie did not reform the company. Ten years ago, an explosion caused by its failure to maintain gas lines killed people near San Francisco. Still it deferred  maintenance, even while paying its executives and stockholders billions of dollars. Last year, their equipment sparked and caused the largest fires in our history, so a judge ordered them to stop paying themselves and to perform maintenance.

But it’s too much maintenance to complete in a year. So when dry winds blew last month, the company simply turned off the electricity to prevent sparks, leaving millions without power. It should take ten years to fix the problems, so I expect this to happen again, and I’m honestly not sure what I need to do to prepare.

Immigrant Child Update

Having written about immigrant kids before, I want to update. Good information is hard to find.  I looked at various sets of numbers, though, which indicate that the policy of separating children from their families at the border is still active, despite court orders to stop it. <sigh> It’s hard when one’s own country acts so shamefully by endangering children.

Indeed, the people now running the country are the most mean-spirited, self-dealing,  secretive and uncooperative group of authoritarians that I could imagine here.  They even attack the structure of government itself, hollowing out and disrupting departments, either neutering their effectiveness or changing the rules to give more to private for-profit giant companies.  And they are bruising our long-standing alliances around the world. This crisis is like none other in my lifetime.

The super-rich benefit, of course. In fact, I think income inequality is what fuels it all, coupled with a divide-and-conquer strategy that runs largely along ethnic lines.  Well, the super-rich have taken charge, to an extent I’ve never seen. Sometimes it seems that not a single ideal from the stable Nando Court middle class which I grew up in has not been betrayed.

Andreas Gampert

Andreas and RoommatesBy the way, I am sometimes accused of taking an interest in politics. The first person ever to bring that up was my German friend Andreas. That’s him with the beard and white jacket, standing in his kitchen with some of his college roommates in Bonn, a very long time ago.

He once arranged for me to attend a “Never War Again!” event held in the Dortmund sports stadium. It was a gathering of the youth wings of all the labor unions in the Ruhr area on the occasion of the fortieth anniversary of the Germans starting war in Europe.

Poster for anti-war event in Dortmund It was really quite interesting to see tens of thousands of German youth gathered together for such an occasion with no government involvement at all. Unfortunately my German language abilities were pretty rudimentary back then.

Andreas was a very principled man. A conscientious objector, he discharged his military obligations by serving in a psychiatric hospital for several years. His own interest in politics led him eventually to Nicaragua, where he worked to end the rule of Anastasio Samoza.  I count myself lucky to have known him, even though his parents told me that he was their “problem child.” But he was wrong about my interest.

Spending Time Thinking about Things

My own interest is in societies and how they function (or not) in the first place. This interest led to my focus on cultures and ethnicities. As for how this applies to our present peril, which I can’t claim to completely understand, I recently read an article in The Atlantic that mirrors a lot of what I would have to say.  It’s here.

Videos that I’ve followed

Lindsay Ellis loves to analyze popular movies and literature and put it all on video. I enjoy her work because of my own “Movie Night” proclivities (I enjoy talking about movies more than actually watching them), and also because she reminds me of somebody whom I really cared about a long time ago, right down to the rapid clip of her speech.

Anyway, one recent sample of Lindsay’s work can be found here, and another (on PBS) can be found here. One commentator stated that just watching her essays made him smarter.

Last month, at another venue, she presented a dangerous real-life off-topic that threatens society world-wide.  It’s worth consideration, and can be seen here.

On a more positive note, and speaking of public broadcasting, I’m still impressed with National Public Radio’s Tiny Desk concerts. Occasionally even music superstars take a turn at the Desk, to show a different side than we’re used to. Such was Taylor Swift‘s performance, seen and heard on the NPR site here.

A superstar for the older set, David Crosby, has developed his music beautifully since his Crosby, Stills and Nash days. His Tiny Desk set from three months ago is also on the NPR site here. Performing with him is Michael League on guitar.

Mike is the leader and bass player for Snarky Puppy, a North Texas jazz band which advances new musical ground in the grand jazz tradition. My favorite Snarky Puppy tune is Kite, seen here. Even more famous is Lingus, seen here. Lingus is famous for the improvised solo taken by keyboardist Cory Henry, which starts at about 4:20.

A long-standing jazz tradition is to study and assimilate master-crafted solos.  Did any younger musician have the stature and accomplishment to inspire such study? Well, Cory Henry has. His Lingus solo is analyzed by  composer David Bruce here. Jacob Martin copied it all out note for note here.  Renan Gerstenberger learned it on keyboard here.  Matt Menefee plays it on banjo here.  Igor Pererodov plays it on alto saxophone here. Joakim Berghäll plays it on a variety of instruments here.

Cory Henry grew up playing the organ in church. He has not forgotten those roots. Here he is improvising an arrangement of Amazing Grace on the piano.  Naturally somebody transcribed that, too.


As so often happens, I wrote far more than I’d planned when I sat down.

I began writing to this list while still in China. The platform helped me process the new (to me) Chinese society while staying accountable to its members. That’s why Chinese people are on the list. And as a stranger in a strange land, I also needed “moral support” from readers.

I still need the platform and support here, much more than I ever thought I would, and mostly for the same reasons.  That’s why I’m so grateful to those who write back to me.

Andreas in PortugalWhen I visited Andreas in Germany, I taped talk shows off the radio so I could practice listening later at home.

One show discussed Heaven and Hell. Hell was like guests sitting at a banquet, tables smothered in food. But nobody ate because the forks were all too long to hold in the hand and bring near the mouth simultaneously.

Heaven, it turns out, was exactly the same, but the guests used their long forks to feed each other. I can still hear the words precisely — “sie füttern sich gegenseitig.” I think this view is right. And it’s the only way to finally solve the predicaments that we, as a world-wide community, presently suffer.  But I don’t really know how to bring it about.

Downy WoodpeckerAnyway, that’s what I’ve been thinking about lately. I’ll end with a Downy Woodpecker, spotted here in the back yard. I never saw such a bird in this neighborhood when I was young.







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.  Such treatment is 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:

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:

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.