Happier New Year

Hi all,

Thanks to everyone who extended their condolences upon the recent death of my father. It meant a lot to hear from so many.

I realized lately how often I do think of him. I wasn’t quite so aware before. Something would prompt a thought, and in the dim recesses of my consciousness I’d vow to mention it next time I saw him. And then it would slip from memory.

Well, now he’s no longer here, so whenever such thoughts arise, they penetrate into full consciousness to remind me of that fact.

These two cards are Monopoly cards which my sister and I, and all of our childhood friends, used when playing Monopoly.  But long before we ever played with them, my father and his childhood friends had used those very same cards, and they had even written extra rules onto them like on those seen here.

So when I visited Dad last fall, he showed me this picture. It was “his gang,” as he put it, from the early 1930’s or late 1920’s. Looking at these faces, some of them smiling, most of them serious, perhaps unused to the whole idea of a snapshot, I found myself wondering which one of them had penciled in those extra rules, which we as children usually ignored because, well, they were somebody else’s rules!!

And it also occurred to me that, as with my dad, probably none of that gang is with us any longer. And I’ll never find out anything more about them.

So this last year has been incredibly sad and also lonely, due to the Covid19 restrictions. Since California has become Covid Central, I pretty much go out only once every couple of weeks, usually just to Costco.  Everything is locked down now.  Even the neighbors, who used to wander around the street or spend time in their yards, have mostly and prudently vanished.  It’s odd, because last spring, California was in such better shape compared to other states. What could have changed things so dramatically?

Meanwhile, I often find myself living in the past and through the media. Genuine humans have become so scarce that I’m even getting over my long-time phone phobia to ring up friends.

Last month, when my pseudo-nephew John  dropped by to socially distance a visit out in the yard, I was struck that this human was 3 dimensional!  All the others that I’d recently seen, no matter how welcome, had been the 2-dimensional variety on television, YouTube, and Zoom. <sigh>

The end of 2020 did have other bright spots, though.

For example, our new Mexican neighbors celebrated a very Mexican Christmas Eve — by lighting the sidewalk. This tradition comes from the old countryside where street lights might not have been common. On Christmas Eve, candles were set up on the path to the neighborhood church, to guide the worshipers.

Each candle is placed on a layer of sand in a paper bag, though these days, in the interest of safety, the “candles” are battery-powered light bulbs. They appeared on our street at dusk on Christmas Eve and magically vanished on Christmas morning.

I also discovered that I have a Secret Santa. One day, an evergreen wreath appeared on the ironwork by my door!  And later, a neighbor came by, distributing red sashes to all the houses on the court.

Then, the following week, a Christmas bag appeared, containing candy and slippers. Usually I don’t much wear slippers, but these particular ones (size xtra xtra large) fit well. They’re warm and comfortable.

The attached note said: “The Nando Court Ninjas have been watching you this year. And we wanted to ensure that your holiday is filled with joy and cheer. We hope that the candy fills your tummy and that the slippers warm your feet. Merry Christmas to you and a Happy New Year. We hope you enjoy this treat!

Other neighbors brought me “See’s” candies and home-made cookies – a lot like the ones my mom used to make.

And other more distant friends and family sent even more gifts.  And cards!! Lots of cards, too!!  I really felt remembered this year.

Many in the northern-hemisphere look forward to a “white Christmas” (a Christmas with snow). But here in California, in the Bay Area, we don’t get snow — just the occasional thick frost or hail — a poor man’s snow.

However, autumn rains generally break the long summer drought each year, germinating wild grasses on the hills. The result is a Green Christmas — a sparkling emerald, since it’s all new growth. Theodora Kroeber, the mother of Ursula K. LeGuin, even wrote a children’s book about it.

Well, this year the autumn rains mostly failed, so the sparse new growth didn’t penetrate the brown remains from the previous summer. This picture, taken a couple days before Christmas this year, says no Green Christmas. It somehow fits the overall sadness of the times.

Well, maybe next year’s Christmas will be green again.

And speaking of worries, as a part of my vow to use the telephone more often, I rang up my old college roommate Bill, only to hear that he’d just been diagnosed with Covid-19. Yes, Bill’s the guy who added a clarinet obbligato to some New Year’s fireworks that I recorded in China just outside my apartment in 2008.  I prefer Bill’s version, as the actual fireworks exploded almost steadily for two weeks.  Click here to hear what they (and he) sounded like.  And 恭喜发财 !!

I checked again today, and he’s responding well to treatment, as is his wife. What a relief!! Bill’s one of the few people I know who has his own website, which can be found here. This humorous tune from his  last album is one of my favorites.

Yeah, Covid 19.  In a “60 minutes” interview, legendary Watergate journalist Bob Woodward played recordings to demonstrate that the American head of state knew a year ago how dangerous Covid 19 was. Yet, rather than warn the public, or work to coordinate health efforts, he decided to encourage its spread, in pursuit of “herd immunity.”  If the public just kept working and got themselves sick, most of them would recover and the stock market wouldn’t panic.

So he turned mask wearing into a political statement because masks could stop the virus from spreading. And thus, the politically-correct mask-eschewing Republican leadership has been infected with Covid at three times the rate as the bundled-up Democrats. Yes, masks actually do stop the virus.

So far, about 400,000 Americans have died from Covid19.   That’s the number of soldiers that America lost in WWII, except that the war took four years to get there. How many of these Covid deaths were caused by the head of state’s intentional encouragement of infections?  If only we’d fought the virus as hard as we’d fought Nazis back then!! That thought provokes a great sadness in me that sinks into my core.

In many people it kindles anger. Woodward’s new book is called “Rage” because the head of state stirs up rage in people around him, both in those who favor him and in those who don’t.

So, for example, Garry Trudeau’s “Doonesbury” comic strip, one of my favorites, usually hums along with an irrepressible positive attitude, even in the face of tragedy.  But early last fall, he penned the most angry strip I’d ever seen from him.

Similarly, the “Legal Eagle” on YouTube usually presents his take on light-hearted subjects such as how characters in “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory” broke the law.  But two weeks ago, he was almost too enraged to talk. 

And over the course of several months, that same head of state steadily enraged a mob of mainly white men and then triggered them on January 6 to riot inside the national capitol, as the congress had assembled to ceremonially certify last November’s election. Of course, the rioters also bear responsibility for their own actions.  As I watch the video at that link, I think that these are the same people who slaughtered Native Americans and whipped Africans to death, not enough time ago. Moreover, they are the same people who carried bombs in the Middle East and gassed the Jews in Europe. It’s tragic.

Presumably the insurrectionists aimed to disrupt the ceremony, though perhaps they aimed for more, since the entire congress (plus some of their children and the Vice President) was all present in the same building at the same time — a rare occurrence.   Well, it took them 160 years, but the Confederacy finally flew its flag in the Yankee capitol itself.  And the Confederacy it was.  May this attack only prove be another instance of a Confederacy high-water mark, like on Cemetery Ridge.

Meanwhile the head of state sat safe and secure, watching the chaos that he’d unleashed from a distance on television, like a Cheshire cat, while others received injuries or died for him. Ironically, some Democratic lawmakers finally contracted Covid 19 that day because politically-correct Republicans who sheltered with them against the rioters refused to wear masks, even when offered one for free.

The whole episode prompted a public response from actor and former Republican governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger. I don’t usually agree with his policies, but in this case he hit the nail on the head. I also liked the bear statue that he gave to the governor’s office in the California state capitol at the end of his term.

As for me, I feel that, for four years now, our country has been run by adversaries, not advocates. And they certainly have no interest in my welfare, nor in the well-being of anyone who is not a disciple. They’re led by an adversarial chief executive who doesn’t really care about anybody, including those disciples, whose chief pleasure is not winning, but making others lose. Contrary to appearances, he’s not unintelligent, but the only talents that he ever developed were self-promotion and the sowing of discord and division. Other possible talents lay fallow.

It’s taught me a good lesson about how much destruction a single person can wreak, if they can take over an office that’s built for the efficient promotion of all its citizens’ welfare. He not only attacked our national capitol this month, but he’s attacked many facets of our society and environment throughout the previous four years.  He hollowed out the state department, the Environmental Protection Administration, the Bureau of Land Management, and the Department of Agriculture, among many others. 

So much was dismantled,  and so quickly, that scientists (back in April, 2017) felt that they had to hold a march to advocate for the idea of researching simple truth. I never thought I’d see the day when that would happen.

Moreover I’ve gotten so tired of hearing journalists say, day after day, “I never thought I’d see the day when [scandal of the day] would happen.” Now it’s been four years of serial scandals amidst a pervasive atmosphere of anxiety and heartbreak.

So the invasion of the national capitol two weeks ago was shocking, but not much of a surprise to anybody who’d been paying attention. This insurrection had been building for a while, stoked by a textbook implementation of the “big lie” technique, a propaganda method first employed by the Nazis in WWII.

I never thought I’d see the day when ordinary people like me should have to grasp standard propaganda techniques, in order to guard against their influence, but here we are. Thus, the last four years have taught me a lot about a subject I’d rather not have to even think about.

So a lie is a “big lie” if it’s both brazen and completely detached from reality. In this case, Democrat Joe Biden decisively won the presidential election last November. Each state’s results were tabulated in the time-honored manner for that state (which is why the certification always has to take place so much later). So this particular “big lie” was that Biden lost, despite fifty separate states’ worth of evidence to the contrary.

In other words, that same Republican head of state simply yelled “fraud,” while producing none of the proof that he claimed existed. Yet he expected to be believed.  But all of his attempts to find actual proof of fraud, including ballot recounts and over sixty lawsuits, only turned up further evidence to support Biden’s win, and to argue against allegations of fraud.

Yet over half of all Republicans still believe this “big lie” to this day, without him ever producing any of the evidence that he claims exists.  Honestly, I sometimes feel like the world has turned upside down.

Of course, for a lie this brazen to take root and thrive, the soil has to be carefully prepared and tended through other big lies and other propaganda techniques.

One striking technique, called the “fire hose of falsehood” was most prominently honed by the Russians.  It shows up in the fact that the American head of state told about 30,000 lies and misleading statements during his term (more than twenty a day), as documented by the Washington Post,  though many were repetitions of previous lies. I hadn’t known that such a rate was even possible.  The point of the fire hose is not to convince, but to obfuscate, or to make people too disgusted to even want to think about a particular issue.

And these dramatic forms of propaganda are cemented together with less ostentatious techniques, such as “truthiness,” false equivalencies, logical fallacies, and moral relativism (where facts don’t exist, only opinions).

And of course, these techniques really only come into their own in an authoritarian context, a power structure based upon personal connections and loyalties, rather than rules and the rule of law.  Thus, a large portion of the Republican leadership seems to not believe in democracy itself anymore. They even replaced their party platform (the set of policies that they stand for) with a statement of loyalty to their head of state, whatever he wants to do.

The bedrock that underlies this propaganda ecosystem is an extensive radio and television infrastructure, comprising scores of organizations, cultivated over many decades. No other party has developed anything like it.

At its heart is Republican  Fox News, a TV network founded and structured by a Republican political operative. The intent of this media system is to nurse a sense of victimhood and grievance in its listeners and viewers, no matter the actual truth, which they probably view as being all relative, anyway. I’ve always thought that if you can make a people feel that they are victims or aggrieved, you can lure them into doing practically anything. A quick glance around the world shows that I’m hardly the first to notice this.

I count myself lucky that I happened across Republican radio propagandist Rush Limbaugh back in 1985 when all this was getting off the ground.  Only by having personal knowledge of the events which Rush distorted back then, could I get a solid start on resisting that thought system. After all, men way smarter than me have succumbed to it.

Well, such are the sorrows of my Covid isolation.

In contrast, early last year, I remember waking from a dream. Joe Biden was smiling, light-heartedly saying, “Hey, don’t fret!  We’ve got this! We’re the United States of America!” as if nothing could be more matter-of-fact. I woke up with a profound sense of sureness, like a weight had been lifted from my chest.

This free-and-easy, can-do attitude is what America used to be all about. I also felt that lightness for a few days in November, when the election was over, and the head of state paused his propaganda for a few days while he brooded, and I stopped obsessing about politics.  Then it all started up again. Well, perhaps the sense of sureness will reappear later this week with the change in government. And perhaps then friends from overseas won’t have to feel that they should send me sympathy notes about the situation here.

I felt this same light-heartedness decades ago, in France’s Périgord region, which was mainly a playground for Dutch tourists. I had come to see the famous prehistoric cave paintings and sculptures. From a countryside train station to the cave of Rouffignac was 17 km (10 ½ miles) each way.

As I set out walking from the station, I passed a country house, decorated with pots of flowers.  The woman who stood among them stretched my rudimentary French skills to the limit by simply asking where I was going. When I told her, she shouted “à pied (on foot) ??

Oui madame,” I shouted back.

Ah, les Américains!” she shouted again, with a smile.  It was almost a “fait accompli.”

Years later, I can still hear her cheery voice from among the blooms.  That’s what “American” meant to the French back then. Does it mean the same today?  Well, last week representatives of Europe and NATO simply declined to meet with the American Secretary of State, so maybe not.

After visiting the Périgord back then, I continued my travels into Eastern France, to a small village in Burgundy, where I’d been told that the people were gentle and friendly.  That was Taizé. And they actually  did turn out to be gentle and friendly, as well as multilingual and multicultural.

They are a Christian community built around the prayers of a hundred monks, dedicated to reconciliation between the world’s peoples. Earlier this month, I was privileged to present my memories of it to my Sunday School (via Zoom).

Taizé doesn’t hold “church services,” but instead musical prayers, like Gregorian chants updated for the modern world, three times daily.  And between prayers they actively promote peace in every corner of the world.

During the Pandemic they have been broadcasting their prayers on the web, and a few weeks ago they broadcast a special edition of the New Year’s Eve prayer, specially modified for the Internet. It’s a musical messaging of peace for these stressful times. If you watch it, make sure the subtitles are turned on, as it is multilingual like everything else there.

I suspect that Taizé has learned a lot about reconciliation in the eight decades since it was founded.  Perhaps the time has come for the wider world to listen to it. It’s sorely needed.

Well, sorry this update was so long. I’ve just had a lot on my quarantined mind —  much, much more than I’ve presented here. And the drama that plays out daily in the news is compelling. One cannot avert one’s eyes. Still, I really hope that soon I won’t have to think about it so much.  Meantime, I’m still displaying my “Biden” lawn sign,  the one fashioned by my friend Mark, at least through January 20.  It will be nice to have a president again.