Category Archives: Uncategorized

Happy Belated Mid-National Day!

Greetings from Portland,

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

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

Fires in the West

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

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

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

Those Darned Millennials

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

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

My Less-Shattered Body

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

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

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

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

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

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

Update from the Border

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

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

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

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

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

Arlene’s Family

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

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

The barracks at Amache, Colorado.

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

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

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

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

Chinatown / Japantown

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

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

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

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

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

My Latest Visitor from Abroad

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

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

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

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

American Dreams

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Going Forward

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

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

Portland Culture

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

Her Tiny Desk Concert (on YouTube) is here.

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

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


Califoregon Summer

Greetings from Oregon! Or maybe California.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Parades again

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oregon Springtime

Greetings from Oregon.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Welcome Guests

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

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

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

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

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

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

Health and Gardening

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Parade #1

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

Naturally, everybody wore green.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Parade #2

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One More Guest

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

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







Happy post- and pre- New Year

Greetings from California – the Bay Area!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nordic House

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Wildfires

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

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

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

Family Visits

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Private Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Public Life

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

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

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

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

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



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

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





Happy Post-Halloween

Happy Post-Halloween from California! 

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

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

last Spring:

My Health Situation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Living in the Past

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

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

The Perfect Guest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s the perfect guest.

Scots Day Out

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A musical ending

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or the cellist Yo Yo Ma.  Links: NPR YouTube 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’ll leave this set  with three last pieces.

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

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

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

My Writing Project

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

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

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

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






Solar Celebration

Hello from California!

I had planned to stick to my quarterly holiday publishing schedule, but then came the total solar eclipse on August 21, an event of unsurpassed holiday-ness.  And the path of totality passed a mere fifty miles from my mother’s and sister’s homes in Portland.  To view the sky from the famously cloudy and rainy city of Portland was a gamble, but worth it for something I’d wanted to see for my whole life. Indeed, August 20th was depressingly cloudy.

But the morning of August 21 dawned cloudless, with only a hint of wildfire haze. My sister and I piled into the car and headed south into the countryside.  It had been tempting to just stay in Portland. After all, at our houses there, the moon would cover 99.3% of the sun.  99.3% of anything is pretty good.  But why not drive out to view completeness, when it’s only fifty miles down the road?

We took country roads, avoiding the freeways.  They were not too crowded. We made good time, and even stopped for breakfast at a Subway. We found two other parties inside — one from Arizona, the other from England. When we told everybody that we had just come from Portland, they laughed and said that’s okay — locals count, too.

Tents bloomed on every roadside within the path of 100% coverage. How long had they camped there? How far had they traveled from home? That part of Oregon is full of evergreen trees, the perfect habitat for camping tents, alternating with farmland. In fact, some Oregonians meld the two and farm evergreen trees, to be harvested in December as Christmas trees.

We happened upon a broad swath of recently-parked cars fronting  a vineyard. Joining them, we discovered one of my sister’s friends from work, who actually lived nearby.

We walked up the hill from the vineyard, to a knoll with views into the distance in all directions. The field next to us was not vegetables, not fruit, but grass. Oregon grass is exported throughout the West as turf. This field had recently been harvested, and so had been burned to cut down on weed seeds. Across the street was a Christmas tree farm, complete with farmhouse and shed!

The eclipse began around nine o’clock. We had obtained the requisite sunglasses from Kaiser Hospital for free, and they worked great — at least for human eyes. They didn’t work at all for my cameras.  But luckily, some paper and a pinhole could project a solar image to record the event.

Totality was scheduled for 10:17 am. As the time neared, the light dimmed. But it still wasn’t dark.  At 10:15, it remained dim, but not dark. It was a very strange dimness, though, with a brittle quality. It felt somehow thin.  But “dim” was not “dark” – it wasn’t even “shaded.” Wasn’t an eclipse approaching?

Temperatures slowly fell by about ten degrees Fahrenheit, and we were happy to have remembered to bring jackets. But still it was dim, not dark.

Suddenly, it was dark. We had hoped to have spotted the shadow sweeping towards us from the west, but it pounced suddenly and caught us unawares.  And all around us, people’s voices erupted in cheers.

There in the sky, where the sun had been, floated a little glowing Cheerio. A few seconds before, the sun had been too bright to view directly. Now, it just floated in the sky like a life saver. The glowing circle, of course, was the sun’s atmosphere, the corona, which still shone brightly enough to overwhelm my camera’s sensor, making it appear thicker than it did just to look at it.

No stars appeared in the sky. Perhaps the wildfire haze reflected too much light into our area. Or perhaps our location wasn’t close enough to the very exact center of the path of totality.

And then, as the moon slowly uncovered the sun, a shaft of unimaginable brilliance peeked out over the top and pierced the air. It was instantly too strong to gaze upon. When I looked down, my surroundings were suddenly dim once more, and no longer dark. And somewhere in the distance, a rooster began to sing.

And like rock fans leaving the stadium during the final tune, cars began moving north. I had not realized until that moment that nothing had moved during the darkness.

Well, the roads were now backed up everywhere, as the crowd that had gathered over several days all rushed out at the same time.

So we stopped in the nearby town of Mount Angel, which attempts to be German. They even had a newly-constructed German-style building complete with an animated Glockenspiel and a restaurant on the first floor. Elsewhere could be found a Biergarten (of course) and colorful displays of potted window-flowers.  The essentials of German culture.

The restaurant seemed to be enjoying its busiest day ever. But we were happy to stay and enjoy a cheese fondue.

Afterwards, we toured the downtown area, all six or eight blocks of it, and hit the road again.  The driving time back was easily twice as long as for coming out. And when we reached home, our mother reported that it had just gotten dim and cold, but never dark.  It’s surprising that 99.3% coverage was just not good enough.

Well, I spent quite a bit of time in Portland this summer. I did a bit of gardening, and helped clean out a garage that could easily have passed for an archeological site. In fact, I collected an antique hand drill and brought it home to California with me. Those things are hard to find these days!


I also went boating with my brother in law on the Columbia River. This photo of Mount Hood comes from that foray.

The Columbia near Portland is lined with cliffs of what appears to be worn columns of volcanic basalt.  The photo depicts a train tunnel drilled through some of them.

Some of these cliffs have spectacular waterfalls, which, because it’s Portland, don’t often dry up.

I also snagged my traditional bird picture — a nesting pair of ospreys with  two chicks.  They’d set up house on a tower in the middle of the river. In fact, someone seemed to have constructed a platform for them to build on. Maybe they were expected to guard the tower. In fact, almost every such tower along the river supported some nesting ospreys.

I snapped a second “traditional bird picture” later back in town. This is a Savannah Sparrow, closely related to a song sparrow, in my mother’s garden.  For weeks, it sang for several hours each day.  Why would anybody want to have a bird in a cage, when this beautiful voice is available for no upkeep cost whatsoever?

Of course, I did attend a Fourth of July parade on national day. This one, located in Vernonia, Oregon, was the briefest ever.  That’s most of it captured in just one photo.

Well, Vernonia is a pretty small town. It’s known for its lake, and . . well, just its lake. But some in-laws lived in town, which brought us out there.

Finally, one of the more unusual sights in Portland, located just a few blocks from our house, is called “The Grotto.” Located both above and below a cliff, it’s a meditation garden, associated with the Catholic Church.  About a hundred years ago, a young man wished to express his thankfulness to God. All the money that he possessed merely amounted to a (low) down-payment on the property, but the difference was made up by the church and numerous contributors.  It truly is a peaceful place, and the rest of my pictures were taken there, starting with one of the actual “grotto” itself.

My health continues to improve as evidenced by the fact that I started writing this yesterday and finished it today, and I got other chores done, too. In contrast, my note last winter took a month to compose, and not much else was accomplished.

My traditional Chinese medicine practitioner in Oakland and my Physical Therapist in Portland were able to see what no  other doctor could. Which was that, even though my spine is kind of messed up, the problems actually come from  my shoulders and hips. Years of high stress had exacerbated posture trends that probably started with saxophone playing and computer operation.

I still think that I have some sort of food allergies, but simplifying my diet doesn’t seem to help. But my neck pains have decreased to the point that a couple extra-strength Tylenol can lower its intensity. And my increased strength is self-evident.  My memory continues to recover as well. Still, I’ve got a ways to go to achieve complete health.

And then there’s the tinnitus, which has abated somewhat, but can still drive me crazy. In case anybody’s curious, I recently heard a sound almost exactly like it coming from insects in a tree. I recorded it and put it here: bug sound. This is a quieter version of the noise that has plagued me for months.

I don’t think that my tinnitus is simply an ear malady, but there’s still no clear path towards diagnosis and elimination.  Some sort of mental feedback mechanism must be involved because just listening to this recorded sound amplifies it in my mind so that it persists when I’ve stopped listening.  It’s an interesting phenomenon, but it would be more so if I could view it from a disinterested perspective.

Anyway, an article was recently published in the news about how much people are affected positively by even short messages from time to time, which caused me to consider the friends who have written me during this past year, the most miserable and needy year of my life.  Particularly I need to thank my friend Arlene who’d kept steady track of my progress all year.  Finally I’m emerging from it all.

As far as all the other things going on in America these days, <sigh>, my thoughts are too complicated to express it all in a few thousand words. It’s funny, but when I first moved to China, I set a goal to write at least 2000 words every week. In the end I wrote about 103,000 words over 42 weeks, for an average of almost 2500 words a week.  Now my goal is to never cross 2000 words at one go, no matter what.

But honestly, sometimes I think I should just move to Germany and pull a “reverse Thomas Mann.”  Many of us in America are in mourning. Never had I imagined such an attack on the heart of America within my life time. Nevertheless I remain optimistic for the long run. So yesterday I started writing a list of topics that could be expounded.  But there’s no space to write about even one of them here — thankfully so, some might say —  so I’ll just list them in an easily skippable  paragraph.

truthiness . . . mafia . . . fake . . . monarchy . . . AntiAmericanism . . . antidemocracy . . . neonazi . . . rule of law . . . ethnic cleansing . . . high crimes . . . antiscience . . . health care . . . nuclear catastrophe . . . climate devastation . . . multiculturalism . . . fox in the hen house . . . serial lies . . . divisiveness . . . enhanced violence . . . hollowed-out EPA . . . dementia . . . P.T. Barnum . . . bullies . . . alternative facts . . . hollowed-out state department . . . the stable background . . . elite misdirection . . . inequality . . . nationalism . . .

Well, I could go on, although I think that the root of the solution is trust and verifiable information — well, that and control of our money.  And hopefully the above list of words won’t block this email from entering China.  Meanwhile, as mentioned before, Christians can place their hope in a better place than politics.

At the end of my sojourn in Portland, I had a dream in which I walked into an elementary school and, without fanfare, promptly went to work.  I’m taking that as a good sign for the future.  I just hope I won’t have to wait much longer for the strength to pull it off.

Merry National Day

Greetings from California!  Happy national day!

It’s not July Fourth — not yet. As I begin writing, it’s still early June. But I’ve learned not to wait. Progress comes more slowly these days.  And I would like to share some pictures.  As always, clicking on a picture should bring up a larger version.

Well, our hometown basketball team, the Warriors, won the NBA championship.  And as all my Chinese students know, Americans turn everything into parades, so on June 15, they turned that victory into a parade. Somewhere between a million and 1.5 million people showed up to welcome the players.

And with over a million high-spirited basketball fans, crowded and pressing upon each other in a manner not common in America, and some operating at the limits of their self control, there were no problems. None.  With violence haunting the news on a regular basis, it’s good to remember how ordinary folks prefer to share joy.

I have no pictures of that parade, since, due to health reasons, I couldn’t go, but never fear. I do have pictures of a less-well-attended local parade. But first, goodness knows I never did get to share pictures of the San Francisco new year parade in February. Well, here’s one photo of that event, anyway. It’s a rooster “float” constructed by my favorite American airline – Southwest!

Every spring, my own small town hosts a rodeo, which is a competition for cowboys, originally a part of Mexican ranch culture. “Rodeo” is in fact a Spanish word meaning “go around” as in  “round up.” More rodeo information is on Wikipedia:

These days, Mexicans themselves call it  charrería. Information on that is also  on Wikipedia:  But whatever the name, it’s going to feature cattle and horses aplenty. So on May 13 our small town turned it into a parade:

These sturdy horses, instead of racing to snare stray cattle, slowly led the parade with flags, including the national flag. A full kilometer of the main street had been closed to normal traffic, and the route passed throngs of onlookers.  Well, not exactly throngs, not for the entire route, anyway.

Elsewhere the route boasted thicker throngs, shown here.  Some spectators had arrived early to claim the best locations, but, hey, this wasn’t the Warriors. Space was easy to spread out on.

We had no impressive floats like the San Francisco Parade above. In fact, Val’s Burgers just loaded a few employees into a pickup truck and called it done.

But that’s okay. After all, everybody loves Val’s!  Besides, it’s not just any truck — it’s a classic Chevrolet from about 1970.

There’s something about these parades that brings out the old codgers with their even older classic cars.

So here’s a row of “Model A” Fords, from about 1930, the same kind that my dad drove as a kid, when he turned “ice wheelies” along the frozen winter streets of Portland, Oregon.

Yeah, those old codgers and their overly-preserved lumps of steel nostalgia.

But wait! what’s this? A 1967 Plymouth Belvedere !?!?

Oh my, a 1967 Belvedere was my very first car, though mine was a sedan, and blue. Does that make me a classic, too? Or just an old codger? Stingy for sure. I never would pay extra for white-wall tires like those seen here.  And back then, people worked on their own cars, changing fuel pumps, water pumps, and brake shoes with abandon.  That part I don’t miss, though it somehow seemed fun at the time.

Besides old cars, there were marching bands. This one marched out from our local high school.  A teen-aged me once  marched with that organization, swinging my saxophone. It was not such a big group back then.  But it was a big deal.

Of course, politicians always show up to a parade. This is Nate Miley, my town’s representative on the county board. He also rode a classic car (naturally), at least at first, but soon he popped out to give candy to kids and to shake hands.

This was the first time I had ever actually seen him, except in pictures. I was not surprised that he turned out to be such a friendly guy.

And there were many more horses. Several of them carried what we used to call “beauty queens,” though that label may no longer be current.  Anyway, they were all pretty enough, and they waved enthusiastically

Other horses carried little kids and still others carried more of those old guys who have been fixtures at these parades for thirty-five years.

This horse, a palomino, negotiated  some tricky dance steps ahead of the Wells Fargo Wagon. These wagons belong to the living history of the West. After all, I have some money at Wells Fargo Bank today. But the bank doesn’t impress me like it did decades ago when I opened that account. Most of my money is no longer there. The account is kept for nostalgia. But those wagons are still great.

Besides the horses, bands and old cars, other parade entries were harder to classify. Take this bunch of boy scouts.  What are they riding? Bovine versions of a soapbox derby?

Well, it’s creative.

And these guys must be devotees from the local Sikh temple. Sikhs come from Punjab in northern India. Many live in California. Yuba City, where I once lived for a few years, had (at that time, at least) the largest Sikh temple outside of India. Well, they may once have been Punjabi, but having gotten trapped in a parade, they’re now as American as apple samosas.

And we did have a small number of “floats,” mostly flat-bed trailers pulled by giant pickup trucks. This one was tractor- pulled — not just by any tractor but a “classic,” a Massey-Harris 101 from 1946. I’m not sure what the plastic cow is supposed to represent, but hey, it’s a plastic cow. Who needs an explanation?

Oh, and did I mention that a real rodeo is still associated with this parade?  It takes place one week afterwards, and my friends Ric and Carolyn invited me out to witness it this year.

The setting is a few miles outside of town in the surrounding hills. They sell cowboy hats in case you forgot to bring yours.  They also sell the usual assortment of junk food and sugary drinks. We passed on that.

The started off with a parade of sorts (naturally), led again by flag-carrying horse riders.

A large part of any rodeo consists of cowboys riding on top of badly-behaved livestock. The handlers strap a belt around the animal’s lower torso. That’s where a wolf or lion or bear would most likely grab it, so the animal reflexively kicks for all they’re worth. Can the cowboy stay atop his steed?

One of my favorite pictures shows a cowboy not exactly staying on top of his bull. It was a miracle that he didn’t get trampled, though many such miracles took place that day.  Most of the bull riders hit the ground after one or two seconds. Apparently the bulls are harder to ride than the horses.

Of course, the horses aren’t particularly easy, either. And once the  rider has flown off his mount, how do you catch the horse to remove that belt to calm him down again?

Well, that’s where the other horses come in.

Meanwhile, even kids could successfully ride the mechanical bull if it was adjusted to be gentle.



Besides riding the cattle, cowboys also caught them by throwing ropes from horseback. We witnessed several variations of this – a single contestant roping a calf and then leaping from his horse to tie it up, a team of two ropers immobilizing a calf from horseback, etc.

Some cowboys even took flying leaps off the back of a horse onto the back of a calf to wrestle it to the ground.  Others caught a “wild cow” and milked it, as in this picture.  Actually, this particular maneuver was a bit controversial because it’s viewed as mean to the cow. But I don’t see how it’s any meaner than the others.

Women and children also had a place in the rodeo. The kids tried to ride sheep, none of them successfully, and the women raced horses around a course of barrels. They were pretty good.

So a good time and a good competition was had by all.

As for me, my life is still circumscribed by health struggles, though that may be changing.

At this point I’ve seen about every kind of doctor or health coach that you could name except for a gynecologist.

And I must thank those who have helped me through these, the absolute worst twelve months of my life.  Those who kept in consistent contact, like my long-time friend Arlene, or got me out of the house to events like the rodeo, were key to my making it through. And every short text message or email, even those a couple dozen words long, helped immeasurably.  Otherwise I would have given up.

I pretty  much have given up on Kaiser, so presently I’m working with a traditional Chinese practitioner, who seems the most effective so far. She has extensive experience with both musicians and athletes, which in my case translates to confidence that my body may be old, but it’s not injured.

Afternoons without neck and shoulder pain are now happening. Everyone all along had assumed that the problem was the neck, but it now appears that it’s the shoulders, and the neck secondarily.

The ear ringing is still a problem. I suspect it’s related to everything else, so perhaps it will attend to itself with the same time and exercise.  And what do I mean by “ear ringing?”

Well, on June 5, I attended a concert in San Francisco, a string orchestra that included my longtime friend Carlbob.  And yes, there really is a Carlbob, and yes, he really is a double-bass virtuoso who lives the larger-than- life that everybody knows about.  Nobody could make all that up.

We rode together to the city. The concert would be in Chinatown, where we actually found street-side parking for free.  It was a gold star day.

The picture shows a small Chinatown park. The figure is Sun Yatsen, more commonly known as 孙中山in China. The butterflies are just painted on the side of a house across the alleyway.  But they’re charming, aren’t they?

Anyway, the concert took place in a small Catholic school. The picture shows the foyer as the orchestra warmed up. Interestingly, the audience’s folding chairs had been constructed for the World’s Fair a hundred years ago.  They built things to last back then. Only now are they thinking that they need refurbishment.

Anyway, I had planned to photograph the concert itself, but as it began, my ear ringing suddenly ramped up even louder than the orchestra, even in loud passages. On the theory that loud sounds made it worse, I moved outside the room, but the ringing never did go down that night.

Anyway, such is life.  Still, I think the worst is over, although I still haven’t figured out what’s in the food or environment that lays me out for three days at a time.

Meanwhile, Carlbob is off to Vienna.

Here in California, the grass is no longer green but golden, and the birds sound off as never before, probably because of the rainy year. They’re trying to build nests where nests have never appeared before, such as on top of porch lights on my street.

And a couple weeks ago, a tiny “Bewick’s Wren,” a species I’d never noticed before, landed on a bush right in front of my eyes. For a long time we stared at each other, wondering who was going to move first. I didn’t have time to fetch a camera, but a week before that, I had gotten this shot of a “House Wren” by Lake Chabot.

Then I had turned to shoot the golden hills of  late spring. The same view today would be even more golden. One can compare it to the green-hill picture that I sent previously:

. . . . .

… …Well, I finished writing in two weeks  — not six weeks like last time! Progress!








Easter update

Greetings from California!

Happy Easter! Well, belated Easter. Very belated Easter. I’ve been trying to get this written for over a month. Meantime, it just gets longer and longer. I wanted to extend the idea of a Christmas “catch up” letter from an annual to a quarterly schedule, and I already missed the first deadline.

California is green again — in fact more than just green! After five devastating drought years, which strangled millions of trees, the Heavens opened upon us over the winter. It’s the most rain in recorded California history — ever.  Of course, Portland still got more rain than we did.  Also, the ground water lost will probably never be replenished, at least in my lifetime.  Nevertheless, for the first time in five years, the state is officially out of drought.

It rained again yesterday. They say it was probably the last rain for the next five or six months, which is normal.  The annual grasses die of thirst every summer, and then spring up again from seeds in the late fall.  And because it’s all new growth, it sparkles like emeralds.

This picture, snapped a couple weeks ago, illustrates that lush green – it’s Garin Park, located at the edge of Hayward. The town, the edge of the megalopolis, can be seen just pushing over the ridge above the barn.

Getting Out of the House

I finally did get out of the house some weeks ago, driving up to Sacramento to visit an old friend from Ireland, and to nearby Davis to visit my pseudo-nephew.  Despite the constant rain, I did fire off a few snapshots.

These windmills have stood on the Altamont Pass for thirty years or longer,  part of a vast wind farm. But actually I just snapped the picture to enjoy the sight of more green grass .


California’s capitol in Sacramento was designed in a classical Greek / Roman style, which is common for such buildings in America. I hadn’t planned to stop inside, but a sudden swelling of rain convinced me . It was only the second or third time that I’d gone in there since a study trip in high school many years ago.

It houses the main offices for our state’s governor and all the important officials.  It houses displays that showcase each of California’s 58 counties.  It also contains two large rooms where the legislature discusses and votes on new laws.  The front doors (shown here) are not usually used. Instead, everyone enters and exits through side doors set up with metal detectors.

The only office doorway with an actual guard seemed to be the governor’s office. People walked in and out, tip-toing around the fierce golden bear, an endowment and legacy from a former governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger.  I didn’t try to go in, thinking they’d simply refuse me. But maybe they wouldn’t have, since when I asked to see the legislature, they just pointed me towards the observation balcony and asked me not to drop anything over the ledge.

The law makers’ attendance was 100% that day because they would be arguing and voting on a new tax, which is always contentious. Well, I watched for an hour, while they proposed and voted on various modifications to existing laws which were so reasonable that 100% (or close to it) voted yes on each one. Groups of young students on school study trips filed in, got bored, and filed out.

I passed the time snapping closeups, like this picture of a chandelier.  And I reflected that in China, I probably could not have just walked in off the street to see people passing (or not passing) proposed laws.

Finally, I also “filed out.” I heard later that the new tax law had been vigorously argued until late in the night. In the end, it passed, but just barely.

The rain had stopped, so I went out to enjoy the public park that surrounds the building. It’s populated by various trees from all over the world, many given as commemorative gifts to California over the years.

This cherry tree, for example, was presented by Japan. The rain had scattered many of the blossoms onto the lawn, adding little pink sparkles to the green.

Luckily, the rain stopped just long enough for me to reach my car, where my umbrella lay safe, awaiting my return.  Yeah, people in California are not much in the habit of carrying umbrellas around.

The Tapes of Instruction

I mentioned last fall that, during my twenty-eight Hayward teaching years, I had amassed a collection of almost 800 videotapes, mostly six-hour off-the-air recordings, a source of snippets for later use in class or to entertain the kids during the lunchtime break.  And indeed I did use many such snippets over the years. This year, I digitized many of them into MP4 files. Many others were simply thrown out. The process of going through these tapes brought me back to the times when they were recorded.  It’s strange, though, to feel nostalgic about an educational video.

The  remaining 35 tapes, though already digitized, are hard to part with. Most are video records of trips to China or the annual school trips where we camped and studied science. I was privileged to lead 21 such forays during my Hayward tenure.  They were far from easy to pull off, and often highly stressful. Indeed, without mountains of volunteer help from the students’ parents, they never would have taken place. Nevertheless, they encapsulated the most meaningful parts of my teaching experience. They granted me new understandings of community as well as the natural world.

The picture above was snapped in 1990, the first year that I partnered with my colleague Kay Frye for the trip. That’s her standing in the pink, taller than the rest. And yes, it was luxury camping.  The intent was for kids to study science, not to rough it!  Sadly, Mrs. Frye passed away about half way through my tenure in China. It was an inexpressible loss.

I posted an unlisted (i. e. not meant for general access) YouTube video of the 2004 camp, for those who are curious and for those who might want to reminisce. It’s here:

Certainly I’ve been fortunate in my 40-year teaching career. Among other things, I gained unforeseen insights into the natures of knowledge, language and learning.

Many of those insights resulted from a second teacher-training and masters program which I attended at UC Berkeley, a decision inspired by one of my teaching colleagues, an alumna of that program.

It’s called Developmental Teacher Education. At the time it was still fairly new. Based mainly on the theories of Jean Piaget, it survives to this day.  More than just a training in methodology, It completely inverted my understandings of the nature of knowledge and learning.  The picture shows my cohort from that time.  Among other things, I concluded that language and thinking are not the same.

The beginning of an obsession

My obsession for the past eight years has in fact been language — its nature and development — a long-term interest of mine, starting with the girl in the picture, my sixth-grade classmate Jeanette. She’s posing for our class picture. The hairstyle pegs her in time.

Our class that sixth-grade year had been “challenging” to teach, and not in a pleasant way.  Years later I once had to teach my own “challenging” class — karmic payback, I suppose, for going along with the general rambunctiousness back then. That sixth-grade picture is the only class picture I have where the teacher does not appear. That’s probably not a coincidence.

Jeanette belonged to a clique who, among other things, bragged about imbibing their parents’ liquor and puffing  secret cigarettes. I can’t say how much (if any) of this derring-do she took part in.  But I can testify to an amazing skill. Behind the teacher’s turned head,  words soundlessly and almost constantly slipped through her lips, to be lapped up and understood by her friend across the way. The whole clique carried on through such silent communication all year, but Jeanette was the master.

Never once did I grasp their messages. It had to be English, no? That mystery initiated me into a life-long obsession with the nature of language and communication.

Another Language Teacher

Years later, I entered UC Davis as a scientist, and emerged as a middle-school teacher.  Easing that metamorphosis was Professor Chuck Irby, a man who understood ethnicity and culture more deeply than anyone  I’ve met before or since.  Again, the hair style dates the picture. Sadly, he died relatively young, his papers now housed at UC Santa Barbara, and an annual award for excellence in ethnic studies given in his name.

Over and above new cultural understandings,  Chuck Irby’s UC Davis classes helped me appreciate America’s salad-bowl ethnic mix. Depending upon how one defines “ethnic,” America has almost never had a majority ethnic group.  Certainly in California today, there’s no majority group no matter how you define it.  This cultural richness, to me, constitutes America’s exceptionalism and its strength. It’s one of the main reasons that I love this country.

Okay – a gratuitous Davis photo – the little shack where I lived while attending Professor Irby’s classes.  It boasted no oven nor hot water, but did have a  gas hot plate. The washroom was two doors down and the rent was about $50 a month.  I realized at that time that standard English grammars were wrong, so I began writing my own on a tiny desk in that shack. However, I never got very far with it — I just hadn’t the linguistic background back then.

Professor Irby was most insistent that a culture’s foremost expression is its language, a relationship which affords mutual gateways to the study of each subject.

By language, he meant much more than grammar and word lists. He meant the presumed assumptions behind even (and especially) the most basic vocabulary. He also meant the human interactions that provide meaning and context to language. I am reminded of the Chinese question “?” (Chī le ma? = Have you eaten?). In English cultures, that question usually means an invitation to lunch.  In Chinese culture it’s equivalent to “How are you doing?” Perhaps there’s a cultural history preserved in phrases like those.

I never could quite get used to Tianjin people seeming to constantly invite me out for a meal, even though I did know what they actually meant. Well, that’s the nature of culture, I guess.

On the other hand, the phrase did accord with the Tianjin people’s friendly nature.  This picture displays a typical example of such hospitality – my long-time friend Andy, with wife, daughter, and parents, seeing me off in style last June. They actually did invite me for a meal! The restaurant had once served Colin Powell, Laura Bush and other celebrities. But then it served us.

And speaking of hospitable food and drink . . .

Cafe 1951

My church in Berkeley has “put its money where its mouth is.”  This year we’ve opened a new coffee shop, a non-profit enterprise located within the church buildings.   All the proceeds will benefit refugees who are fleeing insufferable conditions in other countries. And most of the workers are also refugees, which gives them some training in running a coffee shop as well as in the quirks of American cultures.

The name contains the year 1951, a great year for a number of reasons. But in this case, it celebrates the year that the United Nations authored its legal definition of the word “refugee.”

It’s good to see our church stepping up in light of the recent dramatic changes in our Central Government (not the California government).  And of course, ethnicity is a driving concern of this new regime, as witnessed by the constant references to Mexicans, Muslims, Syrians, African-Americans and others in the news.

Okay, a gratuitous Berkeley shot, taken about a month ago – it’s the University Faculty Club on campus, which also rents room like a hotel. It would be fun to stay there someday. The interior is all finished in wood.

The knowledge that I gained from Professor Irby has helped a lot in understanding the vagaries of ethnic relationships in our salad bowl society here.  However, what to do with this understanding is another question.  Certainly a long country-wide conversation about ethnic relations has long been overdue, one of several overdue conversations, though one that I feel is fundamental to the rest. So far, we’ve famously passed laws to deal with the grossest problems between ethnic groups, a useful first step, but not a long-term solution.

It’s a process I’m vested in, firstly because three of my four grandparents weren’t even born in this country, and second because I live in California, where, whenever I go shopping, there’s only a sixty-forty chance that the shoppers next to me are even speaking English.  And you can’t tell by looking which shoppers those would be.  It’s quite different from China, where anybody who looks Asian is assumed to speak Chinese almost by their DNA, and the rest of us simply can’t. The picture was taken at Costco, the only store besides computer stores where I’ve actually enjoyed shopping.

One thing I do know. We’re all in this together. And one other thing I know, from living abroad myself for a few years — The entire globe is all in this together, including the parts that we might find odd, illogical or dangerous.  And the next few years will be decisive.

My health situation

Well,  I’ve not given up hope. I figured I’d need six months to rest up from the exhaustion that, in part, brought me home to California. In the end it took seven – until the second week of February.  The health problems from China had also stabilized.

But new problems took their place. I’d had ear ringing for years, but last fall it suddenly ramped up in volume so loud that background noises no longer could mask it. At the same time began an unrelenting and often debilitating pain in my neck bones, which, depending on the day, spread across my shoulders, down my back, or up to my head. It feels like somebody just hit me in the spine with a hammer, and then “pulled” all the muscles in the area, except it’s felt that way for months. So I’ve spent many days flat on my back, all alone, too full of pain to move.  Meanwhile I’ve been seeing more kinds of doctors than I even knew existed before.

So despite some significant bright spots from time to time, these past few months have been the most miserable, lonely, and desolate of my life so far. I never thought my own home could ever feel so bleak and empty. And it’s hard to improve the situation and connect with people when I never know for sure if I’ll be able to stand or even sit the next day.  Indeed, more than once this winter I felt like I wasn’t going to make it, and could feel myself slipping away, wondering how long it might be before I’d be discovered.

Well, the worst seems to be past, but pain still dictates my life. It’s three steps forward and two steps back. So on Sunday, for the first time in many months, I had almost a pain-free day. Even more exciting, the withdrawal of pain brought back my ability to reason and remember, and I felt fully able to intelligently take part in the Sunday school discussion at church.  Interestingly, I’ve come to suspect that most (or maybe all) of the “senior moments” that plague older people’s memories may actually be the simple result of pain. Certainly I never had any increased memory problems until the pains ramped up last year.

But then, after such a promising Sunday,  I was back writhing on my back for most of the day, too pain-ridden to stand,  or even to sit at the computer. Yesterday was a bit better.

Still, I’m hopeful. And I’m thankful to have a roof over my head and a retirement income, items that all too many lack these days. I’m also thankful for my parents’ continued health stability, which has taken a load off my enfeebled mind, and particularly my sister and brother-in-law’s help with all that.  And I’m also thankful for those who kept in touch with me over the past few months, including several friends in China.  It’s amazing what a difference a paragraph-long email can make.  Particularly during the winter, it kept me from feeling abandoned.

So with such positive thoughts I can end this section with another picture. California is like Ireland — forty shades of green. It’s just that California’s forty shades only appear in the springtime. Here they are – the same old view from Fairmont Ridge, but taken just last week.  Click to get the larger version with even more shades. It’s as beautiful a view as any national park.

What’s next

I’d originally written this before the event, hence the older pictures:

Last weekend I took part in a world-wide march of scientists — 600 locations in all.  Our own local gathering took place at the Hayward Shoreline, a nature area on San Francisco Bay that will probably be under water in a few decades. I took these pictures there about a month ago.

This sort of march is amazing, really, because scientists almost never behave this way. I tie it to the recent focus on”fake news,” AKA “alternative facts,” as if truth and physical reality were simply a matter of willing it, or voting on it.

Some people seem to take that view, though. Or perhaps they think they can escape the laws of physics. Or maybe they’re caught up in blizzards of obfuscation (困惑) from those who wish to hide reality from them.  But that’s why I wanted to join this march.  Facts, in the normal English meaning of the word, are like “data.” They don’t have alternatives. They are what they are.

I remember the tobacco industry obfuscating the dangers of its product for years. How many died young as a result?  I remember the gasoline industry obfuscating the danger of lead additives for years, which not only poisoned people, but even harmed the automobile engines that ran on it. In both cases, the motive was profit, while the industries themselves already understood and hid the truth.

That’s why I wanted to march. Even if it might not change things much, it’s still better than sitting at home doing nothing.  After all, the stakes of the present obfuscations may be much higher this time.  I’m glad it took place during one of my relatively pain-free periods.

Probably only about 500 or 600 people showed up, since we’re a pretty small town.  Larger cities probably had much larger turnouts, not that the number of turnouts matters to my motivation.

The photo at right, sent to me by my friend Sandy, shows my favorite protest sign from the march.

In the meantime, here’s one more shot of the Hayward Shoreline as it appeared several weeks ago with the sandpipers, willets and avocets that crowd in to feed upon the bay’s bounty.  It’s also worth enlarging to see all those birds.

As for what’s actually still in the future . . .

I hope to finally finish revising  a book about language acquisition and teaching in a Chinese university.  I think I do have something meaningful to contribute, which I’m hoping will inspire others to do the same, and to reflect upon their own teaching.

Language, as Professor Irby taught us, can be one of the most divisive forces in human societies.   If my ideas can contribute in any way to the many others that increasingly improve language teaching, then it’s worth doing, Babelfish notwithstanding.  And if anybody in the neighborhood would like to give me writers-group feedback, you’re invited. Oh for an Inkling!

Well, this message turned out much longer than I’d intended. And I never did get to write about my trip to the Oakland Zoo, or the Chinatown New Year’s parade from early February!! Okay. One gratuitous shot of the crowd at the New Year’s parade.

For almost all my life, I’ve not only been a member of a community, but usually a significant player. Now that I seem to spend most of my life staring at empty rooms, the only community I have left consists of the people on this mailing list, spread out over four continents and associated islands.  It would be wonderful if everyone on this list could meet together, though that’s far from likely. Even so, having a community to write to is helping me piece my life back together.  So thank you.

And for those outside of China, since I’m no longer there, I’ve found a pretty good alternative  for learning the latest about that wonderful and fascinating country — a well-produced YouTube video blog about southern China’s way of life from a foreigner’s perspective. It’s called ADVChina. Here’s a sample.  And this is the home page for their channel.

I like to think that I have at least one grand adventure left in me. At this point I’m strong in every way except the unrelenting pain and the excess fat from staying in bed for months at a time.  It remains to be seen if my next adventures are physical or virtual or something outside of either. In the meantime, one more picture from Garin Park. To me it seems like a view full of promise.
















Merry Christmas

Having sent out a long Christmas letter earlier this month, I’ll keep this shorter and sweeter.

Merry Christmas!!

And for those of you in China, who are already celebrating  boxing day, Christmas day is still in full swing here in California and Oregon.

img_8537-moms-house-cropped-largeI’ve been visiting my sister and my mother in Portland, Oregon. We experienced a magical snowfall the day that I arrived, which stuck around for about five days, snarled traffic, and has now vanished. So today , even though the sidewalks are typical Portland moist again, the snow arrived close enough to consider it a white Christmas after all.

Christmas Even DinnerLast night, my sister staged a sumptuous Christmas Eve feast, complete with an  hors d’oeuvre table,  for seven of us here at my mother’s house, the house that my grandparents built with their own four hands ninety years ago.

It was great to see all the familiar fine China (porcelain) and fancy silverware and Swedish glass, which are only used for special occasions, all set out with ham, mashed potatoes, salad, dinner rolls, and green beans with mushrooms.

nativity-pie-crust-cropped-largeAnd for desert, my niece-in-law baked a fruit pie with the crust shaped into a nativity scene.

candle-light-service-largeWe also attended a special Christmas Eve church service which featured, among other things, a traditional candle-lighting activity.

And today, in deference to Chinese tradition, I ate an apple.

Volunteer TreeFinally, we fulfilled a decades-long ambition – to grow our own Christmas Tree. We’d attempted to do this once before, many years ago in California. However we chose the wrong tree species, a Monterey Pine, which we later learned is famous for the speed that it grows. The first year, it was too short. The second year, it was too tall. Fifteen years after that it had reached almost fifty feet (about 15 meters), so we had to chop it down before it endangered nearby structures.

The Christmas TreeNobody knows the species of this year’s tree — it volunteered to sprout by the house a couple years ago. But we harvested it this year in time for Christmas. It’s a bit of a “Charlie Brown” tree, but we were able to hang some of our oldest ornaments, and also include the traditional Swedish Christmas goat.

And for the Chinese point of view, one of my journalist friends from China put together a pastiche of Christmas photos that he’d taken in Tianjin. Those who wish to peruse it can find it by clicking here. I hope you enjoy it. For me, it was especially poignant to recognize my oft-taken bus #842 (two of them almost together, naturally) stopping at Binjiang Dao amidst the shopping frenzy.

Again, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!


Happy Halloween

Castro Valley, California copy                                                                                       Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Greetings from the Bay Area, California,

So in one year, traffic in the Bay Area increased by 18%.  I thought I’d left the crazy traffic behind me in Tianjin, but it’s trapped me here, too.  And the reason is the same as in China — a fast-developing economy.  California has by far the largest economy of any state in the USA, and it’s humming.  But the traffic is hard to put up with.

Happy Halloween? Yes, I started writing this in October, actually long before Halloween, and now Thanksgiving has passed and it’s December.  Progress has been slow lately.  And as time has gone by, I’ve felt compelled to add further details as they occur.  So now it’s too long.  But this letter can now perhaps stand in for the traditional “Christmas Letter.”

Last month, I had Thanksgiving dinner with my friends Ric and Carolyn and their family. Everyone at the table shared three recent things that they were thankful for. My first was that I was able to finish well (or at least fairly well) in China, the logistics of which I have much to thank my friends Jeanette and Jeanne.  My second was for my parents, and their continuing influence in my life.  And the third was for my Sunday school group at First Presbyterian Church in Berkeley. They’re an unusual group, and an unusual Sunday school. These three things do not, of course, exhaust the list of things I’m thankful for, but dinner time was limited.

California Autumn

Spring SproutsIt started to rain in the middle of October, the first rain after the normal dry summer. Then it took a break for two weeks and began again as Halloween grew near. It rained a couple times in November, and now rain is predicted for the coming weekend in December. Still, all this rain does not suffice to ameliorate the effects of our years-long drought. But I’ll thankfully take what I can get.

I took the picture of grass seedlings back in October, about two weeks after that initial autumn rain. Plants around here waste no time once any moisture appears. New sprouts had already burst through the blanket of old leaves that had covered the ground all summer.

VacavilleAll summer, the hills had looked like these in Vacaville, shown in a picture that I took in July of this year — Golden grass punctuated by dark green oaks and other broad-leaf trees. California is known as the “Golden State,” possibly because of the gold rush that brought it into the United States back in 1850. But to me, the golden grass, lavishly covering the hills, is just as good a justification for our 24-Karat nickname.

Goats and PlaneOf course, all that dry grass presents a fire danger. So in populated areas like ours, we call in the goats! Yes, a couple hundred real goats, who have really lucked into a nice life. All they have to do is munch grass all day, process it in their stomachs, and poop it out to fertilize the next season’s growth.

Nobody’s going to slaughter them. Nobody’s even going to milk them, as long as they play the role of “living lawn-mower.”

Rain and GreeneryI walked up onto Fairmont Ridge in Castro Valley a couple days after that second rain in October. This picture tells the story. The enthusiastic grass sprouts already had stained the hills green. They needed no second invitation to get growing. Today the hills are almost solid green, and the upcoming rains guarantee that we’ll have a green Christmas this year.

Yeah, many places hope for that “white Christmas,” like those which I enjoyed a few times in Tianjin. But Californians hope that the rains begin early enough for a green alternative. Winter light will refract  through the youthful sprouts as if they were  emeralds. The hills will transform from precious metal to precious jewels.

On the other hand, I’ll miss that lavish greenness on Christmas Day itself, because I hope to celebrate the day in Portland this year.

Exiting China

When I returned from China in July, my mother told me that I “had given my best years to China.” Okay, it’s nice to have a mother to tell you things like that, but I’ve thought about it, and I think that she’s right. For most occupations, the best years may occur considerably younger than I am now. But teachers continue to grow throughout their careers. And there’s no question that during my China years, I was more capable, with more conceptual resources at my command than I had in my thirties and forties.

And it’s also true that my body had little left to give by the time that I left.  So I can relate to California’s annual surge in grasses. I feel like a thirsty grass seed, ready to spring forth, but waiting for the returning rains. So I’m still waiting for the return of good health, which has eluded me so far.

These last few months have seemed like some sort of purgatory. I have been continually wracked with pains in various places in my body, plus a ringing in my ears at times louder than road noise from the Honda, not to mention the daily insomnia. So I’m getting to know all sorts of health care options, including some that I’d simply never thought of before, none of which has left me pain free or in peace so far.  Every time we think it’s solved, it turns out not to be, although I finally did home in on one food allergy that was causing problems.

Feeling so “under the weather,” I have often just stayed home. Consequently, this has been the most lonely and isolated period of my life so far.  I never expected to feel that way here in California. So I very much appreciate those who kept in touch during this time. Often, just receiving a short email made all the difference in the day.

Meantime, I do feel optimistic in general. The “okay” days are becoming more common, and there’s even an occasional “good day,” when most of the pain departs.  And somehow, when I need strength to meet some necessity, such as leading the Sunday School last weekend, strength appears.

The constant pain had made thinking and memory difficult, so for a while, I’ve had to temporarily give up my goal of writing a book on teaching language.  Instead, I’ve stuck to things that don’t require a lot of brain power, such as reviewing and throwing away old videotapes. Eventually, I’ll toss all of them, but I’m first digitizing some of them.  According to the recycling rules here, each cassette has to be disassembled for separate disposal of the tape inside. It takes some time to do all that – five screws per cassette.

img_8469-vhs-collection-stacked-largeI had almost 800 VHS tapes clogging up my living space in July, mostly 6-hour tapes recorded off the air over the years so that I could share snippets of them in the classroom. Now I’m down to about 250. Soon they’ll all be gone. I’m also digitizing old negatives, so I can throw the prints away.  The process of reviewing those old records, both videos and photos, has been a pleasure. They remind me of so many good times over the years.

Further, I’ve been giving away a great variety of things, including 31 shirts – some of which were 31 years old (they’re still wearable!!!!!) and which appeared in driver’s license portraits spanning several decades.  My quick exit from Tianjin, where I had so much to give away, proved to be a valuable object lesson.

Reuniting with Family

Birthday cakeHappily, I was able to visit both of my parents when I first alighted in North America back in July.  My father was visiting in Sacramento (California’s capital city) to celebrate his birthday. Here’s his cake. He’s actually older than 59.

I was able to visit quite a few Sacramentans on that trip, including my Irish friend Bernie and my step-relatives as well.

Crabtree ParkI also visited the park in Sacramento where I had lived across the street for my first six years. Crabtree Park.  Chinese people take note – there’s no fence around it, nor around any of the public parks in this region. The name reminds me of the crab-apples in Tianjin, except that it comes from a person, and not a plant.  I remember that monument in the picture quite well. It’s where I suffered my first bicycle accident, a one-vehicle crash. I didn’t know that you had to lean the bike in order to keep your balance on a turn!!

Back then, a long cement path stretched out behind the monument right through the middle of the park.  My father, along with various other assorted neighbors, had poured it a few years before when the park had been new.  I imagine that all the neighbors chipped in some cash to buy the cement, and they were good to go. Back then, the vast majority of folks were middle class, and enjoyed working together and chipping in. Those were the days when Americans looked down on places like some countries in Latin America because, over there,  the well-off lived apart, huddled behind gated communities.   Little did we suspect that such things would some day arise in the United States, too.

Anyway, someone must have removed that cement path when they  decided to put baseball diamonds in the middle of the park.  It must have disrupted the fielding.

fuschiaI even found the school where I had attended kindergarten and used to walk home several blocks with a bunch of older kids.  Sometimes back then I got distracted and fell behind them. So I walked home alone. Yeah, these days, kindergarten kids don’t walk so far without an adult nearby. Times have changed. They have even changed the name of the school! I found that out from a friendly kid who was passing by, who confirmed the former name.

Then I headed north to Portland to visit my mother, my sister, and various ancillary friends and in-laws as well.  The picture shows the fuchsias in my mother’s garden, which have been there as long as I can remember, back to when it was my grandmother’s garden.

And I discovered something else interesting about my mother. Long before “ascii art” was a thing, back when my mother was a young girl, she had produced some ascii art the hard way – with a manual typewriter.

Claudette ColbertThese are two of my mother’s pictures, still at the old house after all these years:  Charlie McCarthyCharlie McCarthy (whom some may remember was Edgar Bergen’s lively puppet), and Claudette Colbert, who graced the silver screen long before Steven Colbert ever took over the late show. In fact, it was  long before there even was a late show, or broadcast television, for that matter.



Rogue RiverIt’s a long drive from the Bay Area to Portland – about a thousand kilometers. I don’t know if I could have done it without a house halfway in which to stop and sleep. That was the Smith’s house in Grants Pass, Oregon. It’s not far from the Rogue River, with its boat-loads of tourists, as seen in this picture.


So Halloween was over a month ago. It really does work the way I described it in English Class at Tianjin University.  So forty-three trick-or-treaters  came to my door in California – though that’s not as many as in the old days. Trick-or-treaters are small bands of costumed kids who circulate around a neighborhood in the darkness demanding candy from each address. They come up to the door while their parents wait down by the street. Actually one parent followed his kid around in an automobile this year. That was different.

Anyway, I took a fantastic portrait of one group of kids demanding candy at my front door. But then, I realized that I wasn’t comfortable sending it. People here tend to be very protective of kids’ privacy.   Certainly as public school teachers we learned this. You simply don’t post kids’ pictures anywhere that random people might recognize them and trace them.  When I was in China, I wasn’t really thinking that way, but now that I’m back, my old training has come back. But then I realized that I could post a picture of adults instead!

scan-161111-0024-halloween-parade-kids-1985-largeSo here’s a picture of adults that I recently scanned into my computer. It’s part of the annual Halloween parade at the school where I used to work, which was torn down several years ago.  Yes, American schools actually take time away from the lessons for fun trivialities like this.

The parade would snake through all the classrooms twice, picking up each classroom’s students the first time through, and dropping them off the second time through. That way, all the students could admire each others’ costumes from the comfort of their own chairs.

And yes, those students are adults . . . . . at least, they are now.  Actually, they probably have kids of their own about that size now.  So in another 25 years, maybe I’ll share the outstanding portrait that I took this year.

Okay, about the elections

So what about the elections? Chinese friends in China have been asking me about it.  So I guess I’ll state my opinion, and be done with it.

And by the way, nobody in America has asked me about my opinion, which comes as no surprise. The country has been strongly divided politically, and the main two divisions have been turned hostile towards each other. And it’s not just a recent result of social media.   It’s the culmination of a long build-up that began over thirty years ago. But that’s the reason that nobody here really wants to discuss it at this moment.  Particularly at holiday get-togethers.

Lake Chabot EveningsAs for me, when expressing any of my opinions to Chinese people, I first admonish them that many Americans will not agree with me, so I (or anybody else) can’t claim to represent “what Americans think,” the way that Chinese students so often cite “what Chinese people think.”

And actually, I’ve completely given up on most of the political web sites I used to read. At this point I get all the news and politics that I need from the local newspaper and from, a web site for geeks and nerds that mainly discusses technology.  The participants there pretty much mirror the American population politically (though many participants live outside of America). It does have a slight libertarian bias, but it’s one of the few places I know where people of widely different opinions can actually discuss politics without total acrimony, and I get the foreigner’s point of view from time to time, too.

Skipper ButterflyFor me, the most significant and upsetting thing  is not the election itself, but how little the truth has mattered in the process this year. And I say this as someone who believes that an objective reality does, in fact, exist.  Apparently, not everyone does.

Indeed, this year’s Oxford Dictionary “new word of the year” is “post-truth.”  This refers to the idea that there’s no room for facts in politics — it seems to all be based on emotions. The Chinese leadership has already commented upon this state of affairs, as evidence that democracy is not such a good idea because people seem to care more about how they feel, and not what will deal with real problems.  I don’t really agree with that conclusion, but I have to say, it’s quite bizarre to see a major politician making a claim, when public records easily show them to be lying, and when caught in the lie, they simply “double-down,” as if verifiable evidence to the contrary didn’t even exist.

It kind of reminds me of a situation involving my former neighbor in Tianjin, a foreigner who takes an active interest in issues of environmental pollution. He once had the chance to talk to the mayor, and when he brought up the subject of air pollution, he was told that actually Tianjin didn’t have a problem with air pollution, so don’t bother worrying about it.  I guess the mayor didn’t get outside much.  Well, we’re getting those sort of assertions here now, too, with a major politician claiming there has been no drought in California, as just one of a copious supply of examples.

Anyway, “Post-truth” also refers to the astonishing amount of misinformation that has actively and intentionally flooded the Internet and some of the media over the past year, some of which (but hardly all of which), according to American intelligence, came directly from Russian intelligence, with the aim of influencing and/or discrediting this election. I don’t know if the Chinese leadership has commented upon this, but there’s probably no need for them to bother, since this sort of situation is already exactly how they justify their high degree of Internet control, punishing those who “spread rumors” and censoring social media conversations.

And a quick word about media accuracy in America — a couple years ago, the audience for NPR radio was shown to be the best informed on basic news facts in America.  Since NPR shares some resources with PBS television, I’d not be surprised to find similar results in the video sphere. NPR and PBS are the least dependent upon advertising, which I think is related to their overall accuracy.

Lake Chabot Fall ColorsAs for the outcome itself, in my particular county (县) Hillary got 75% of the vote, and her Republican opponent received only 14%.  It’s safe to say that in other parts of the country, the results were quite different.   Still, over the country as a whole, Hillary received about two-and-a-half million votes more than her opponent (which is the current count as I write this – it could go higher). But the total number of votes doesn’t matter. It’s how those votes are distributed. So she lost. This is the second time in recent history that the Republican won the election with fewer votes than the Democrat, and only the fifth time in all of history that it’s happened.

The last time that it happened, and the Republicans took over, they failed to defend the country, and 3000 people died in New York. They failed to maintain infrastructure and emergency services, so a few years later, almost another 3000 people died in Louisiana and Mississippi. They started two major wars where about 4000 Americans and hundreds of thousands of Middle Easterners died. The wars plunged America deep into debt.  And they presided over the largest expansion of the federal government in the last forty years — more debt, as if we could afford it.  Massive amounts of money were also Hoovered up from the middle class and transferred to the rich. Those dollars mostly either stayed with the rich, or ended up invested overseas, as no net jobs were created for about four years.  And then their lax oversight allowed the economy to almost collapse right before they left office, which drove the number of jobs down even further as Obama’s term began. We’ve been digging ourselves out of that hole ever since.

And for the paragraph above, I added links to rather non-controversial news sources, since some folks will dispute all of the above assertions, though I think they represent more than “just my opinion.”

Lake ChabotSo anyway, I’m not particularly sanguine about the idea of these guys taking over again.  Some of them have already started talking about phasing out Medicare, which for me, with my continuing health problems, is not what I want to hear.

Honestly, it’s as if the country had elected a less-genial P.T. Barnum as president. Yeah, where’s the egress? Fasten your seat belts. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.

But three things do offer me comfort. Foremost, as a Christian, I have a better place than politics in which to place my hope.  Second, many of the other issues on various ballots that I supported did pass. And third, the kinds of things that I most love about my country continue to grow, even though this past year (and probably the next few years) may present a significant challenge to such development.

So that’s my feeling on the elections.

One thing (of many) that I love about America

I took piano when I was little, but when I was about to enter high school, I realized two things. First, I wanted to be in the high school marching band.  Second, it’s hard to march with a piano. So I started the clarinet.

When I actually got to high school, I realized two more things.  First, the 65-member marching band was good, but the 16-man jazz band was cool.  Second, my clarinet wasn’t going to fit in. So I started the saxophone.  And by the time I was a sophomore, I joined the jazz band.

By the the next year, I realized two further things.  First, I could finally play all the parts without error. But second, the most exposed parts (solos) required me to improvise on the spot. It was nerve-wracking. Other than listening to recordings, nothing in my musical training had prepared me for that.

And when Gary Juhl, one of my most respected senior-classman musicians, invited me to play in his small jazz combo, I felt more exposed than ever.  It was scary.  But “fools rush in where angels fear to tread,” so I stuck with it.  By the next year I was heading up a group. All-improvised music.  Overconfidence kept me from being scared by the exposure.

christmas-band-largeSo what about this jazz, this “improvised music?”  A few years ago, I read a paper online submitted by a Chinese student for a masters degree in music.  The paper consisted of a detailed analysis of how the famous jazz musician Miles Davis signaled the beginnings and endings of tunes to the rest of the group – or at least it was the writer’s theory about it — he was still open to being proven wrong.

Actually, he was right, but I was aghast. I felt perhaps a taste of what some people may have experienced when the anthropologist from the other side of the world came to one’s village, only to express interest or even astonishment about what’s painfully obvious to anybody living there.   But I realized how little many folks know about how jazz works — how all the musicians improvise, but somehow they still make it all fit together.  So, in brief:

1968-trujillo-stanley-serbian-largeTraditionally, in small group jazz (3 to 7 people in the band), everybody follows a predetermined sequence of chords, which keeps the sound harmonious.  They listen and react to each other’s playing.  Often, they’ll play a melody together at the beginning and again at the end of each tune, which is supposed to inspire the improvised sections in the middle.

But there’s one other critical factor that makes it truly jazz — a shifting leadership.  At different times during a tune’s performance, one musician after another assumes the role of leader, of soloist. At that time, all the other musicians shift to supporting roles. They react to the soloist musically, but also feed him/her ideas, and fill in some empty spaces, as appropriate.

Louis Armstrong - from Wikipedia
Louis Armstrong – from Wikipedia

It’s thought that Louis Armstrong came up with this idea. Certainly it came out of the New Orleans/Chicago African-American funerals-and-brass-band music scene at that time.  It could not have come out of any European folk music or classical music back then, nor from the Native Americans. It’s a wonderful framework for growing musically, as everybody gets to be the leader, and everybody learns to support others.  The multiplicity of roles maximizes the spontaneous creativity of all concerned.

Later, when I became a teacher, I realized that this form could be adapted for other uses, such as for writer’s workshop. The jazz form didn’t fit all areas of the curriculum, but to the extent that it did, I could use it to nurture the students’ creativity. And the way that you prepare for the lessons greatly resembles how you practice for a jazz group.

This adaptation fit less well in China, but it did fit in places. For that matter, the Sunday School class that I mentioned above uses a form very similar to jazz. For even another matter, since the days of Louis Armstrong, the jazz structure has spread to other popular music forms as well, such as bluegrass, country, rock and roll, and others.

And by the way, for those interested in the history of jazz and how it fit with the larger society, it would be hard to improve on a recent and highly-recommended talk given by Wynton Marsalis and Jon Batiste, even though I might put those relevant facts together in a different way than they did. And that’s the whole point.

Because what is the essence of teaching?  It’s the ability to analyze and understand a situation in terms of the facts. And then, you analyze and understand it completely differently, but also based on the facts.  And then, you do it again and again.  This is what gives the teacher the resources to impart lessons to the students, none of whom see the world from the exact same point of view or background.   This sort of creativity is exciting, but it must be based upon the facts, which is why the recent shift to a post-fact worldview bothers me so much.

Lake Chabot EveningSo it’s certainly true that jazz has greatly enriched my life in general — not just in music, but also in any success that I might have had as a teacher. That’s a pretty big impact.  And if an African – American culture had not developed in America, it never would have happened that way.

When I hear people say that America’s greatest richness is its ethnic diversity, this is the sort of thing that I think about. And when I multiply this one factor by the dozens of ethnic groups that live in America in substantial numbers, such that there’s never actually been a majority ethnic group, the result is an abundance of alternatives for dealing with practically any situation. My own family history reflects this mixture, as my four grandparents were  born in four different countries, representing three ethnic groups.

Of course, the opportunities for such concept sharing are limited when the groups who create them are not embraced by other groups within society.  But I’ve been so happy to witness a growing acceptance of the “other” group developing over the decades. This process has suffered some setbacks in the past year or so, mainly due to divisive politics, and it’s unfortunately possible that the coming years may stress it even further.  Nevertheless, the growth that I have been privileged to witness has been genuine, and I think it will prevail in the long run. Indeed, I think the “Millennium” generation shows great promise in this regard.

Castro Valley HillsWell, I will wind up this letter with a couple pictures. The first was taken a few days ago — the green hills near Lake Chabot that I had mentioned above.

It also shows some of the basalt rocks that decorate parts of those hills.  Now that it’s winter, temperatures go down to 5 degrees Celsius overnight. But the afternoons are still warm enough for me to walk around outside barefoot in complete comfort.

hatsAnd finally, another set of adults who were formerly children in my classroom in California.  That’s a room, and a school, that no longer exist. Friends from China may recognize this picture – It hung in my living room in Tianjin and also appeared in a calendar that I once put together.  It also expresses how honored I have been that, even though I don’t have kids of my own, I was able to participate in the raising of a new generation of young people.

These people did not constitute the whole class, but only those who wore a fancy hat for “Hat Day.” I look at those faces and I see the joy that all children should revel in. And even though you can’t limn particular ethnic groups from faces, they still imply the variety that I’ve lived in for most of my  life, and that I value so highly.