Monthly Archives: June 2020

Happy Midsummer, 2020!

Hi all!

Time for the quarterly update. Happy Midsummer!!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That most people, deep down, are pretty decent.

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

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