Happy Year of the Rodent

Happy New Year! — The Quarterly Update

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

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

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

Health Update

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

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

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

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

Painted Boxes

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

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

The Community Band

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

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

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

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

Christmas and New Years

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

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

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

What about the separated kids?

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

Links for Music Nerds

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

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

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

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

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

Movie Night

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

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

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

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

Separated Americans

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Crowning Virus

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

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

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

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

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

Bye for now

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

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