Monthly Archives: December 2018

Portland Boxing Day

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

Present Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Health Update

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

Maintaining Optimism

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

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

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

Fire Update

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

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

More Animals

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

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

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

The highlight for me was this bird.

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

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

Update: Optimism for the USA

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

The Great Hall

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

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

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

Edward Bernays

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tiny Desk

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

How wonderful that she’s still singing, and this year, Tiny Desk invited her to present Christmas songs, a genre she’s famous for. Here’s the link:

A November performance by a pop singer named “Essence” presents a similar integrity. Essence put her own career on hold to literally become the voice of another who had lost theirs. Here’s the link:

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

That’s all for now!