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.
It 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.
All 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.
Of 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.”
I 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.
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.
I 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
Happily, 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.
I 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.
I 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.
These are two of my mother’s pictures, still at the old house after all these years: Charlie 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.
It’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!
So 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.
As 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 Slashdot.org, 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.
For 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.
As 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.”
So 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.
So 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:
Traditionally, 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.
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.
So 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.
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.
And 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.