Greetings from California! – The State of Things
For the first year in a while, California had only the second worst wildfires on record. Fire season was broken by a real rainstorm a month ago. It’s not enough to break the drought, but it was welcome. Castro Valley, my present location, got five inches. Here’s the back yard picture. Since then, we’ve had drizzles at most, but they’re also welcome.
I went longer than usual since the previous update, mainly for lack of adventures to write about. Thank you, Covid-19!
Maybe I need to reevaluate what constitutes an adventure, though. Every morning, I descend the seven steps from my bedroom to the living room and I remember that I couldn’t easily do that when I first returned from China five years ago. So even a flight of stairs can be an adventure.
The staircase in this picture, of course, is a heavy duty adventure. My grandparents built it into our Portland house back when they were young and flexible. Now that none of us are flexible, we seldom climb it. Maybe we need a T-shirt that says “I climbed the Great Portland Staircase.” The treasures at the top are rather esoteric, too.
I traveled to Portland last month to visit my mother and sister to celebrate my mother’s birthday. She’s still hanging in there. I ring her up a couple times each day, and I plan to fly back to Portland sooner than later.
Flying down here from Portland last month, I spotted so many ships parked in San Francisco Bay!! It’s the Bay Area’s share of the global supply chain crunch that’s been nudging up inflation across the world! Meanwhile our Post Office has stopped delivering to New Zealand and Australia so my mailings to down under will be delayed.
I’m pretty healthy except for a nagging cough which seems to be a kind of asthma. It’s plagued me for a couple months, making conversation difficult, severely limiting social interactions, keeping me from recording my piano without coughing, and even pulling an abdominal muscle. I’ve tried multiple treatments, and will probably try more. Meanwhile, the doctor sliced out my very first skin cancer ever, probably the first of many to come!! (no ceremony was held for this milestone).
And I got my Covid booster shot last week, with no side effects at all. Not even a sore arm. The pandemic continues here, unfortunately, though California continues to do better than most places. I thought we’d have been done with it by now, though. As before, most cases occur among the unvaccinated. This pdf from the Washington State government describes the typical situation. My 90-year-old stepmother Lyn in Arizona had a mild breakthrough case of Covid, but she’s okay now. She was just tired for a few days and quarantined herself after that. I hope that more people can be vaccinated!
And the skin on my hands and arms grows ever crinklier and uglier. But I decided to think positive and consider it an elephant-skin tattoo, since the crinkly African elephant is one of my favorite animals. The pair in this picture live at the Oakland Zoo.
I recently found a YouTube channel by a South African woman named Adine, who founded an elephant orphanage and care facility. As the mother to her herd of orphans, she films them unceasingly, as any mother would. And it turns out that, like me, elephants love the rain. And the perfect picture of joy is a baby elephant in a pond.
In one of my favorite elephant home movies, the entire herd welcomes this littlest one as she emerges in the morning from her nursery. They surround her like linemen “circling the wagons” to protect a quarterback. Had they caught the scent of something in the wind? It reminds me of the many field trips I took with my Hayward students, and how protective we adults were towards them. I often wish I could return to those days.
Meanwhile, we’ve lost a couple more old family friends.
Ed Childress (Dec 5, 1925 – Jun 25, 2021)
Ed grew up in Tennessee. In my mind, he epitomized the idea of “Southern Charm” with his positive attitude, and a Southern accent which uplifted everyone he encountered. I can hear his voice even as I type this. He never lost those qualities, even in his declining years as his memory otherwise failed him.
Ed was a science teacher and a school principal in Castro Valley and Fremont, California. In 1965, Instructor Magazine, a national publication, honored him as “teacher of the year.” And after retiring, he continued to teach at the Western Aerospace Museum near the Oakland Airport.
Indeed, his knowledge of historical airplanes was vast, cemented into his memory as he designed and constructed wooden models of them. He flew them in competitions using control lines, since radio controls were uncommon back then. Their hangar was the ceiling of his small garage, where they spread out like stars a mini-planetarium.
His assemblage of woodworking tools, (many of which were collectable) were arrayed with precision across the garage wall. And in addition to all that, he somehow managed to fit into that small space a succession of shiny black late model Lincolns which he kept immaculately free of dust and scratches.
Ed was a magnificent vocalist, singing in barbershop quartets, musical theater, PTA talent shows and his church choir, where one of his favorite hymns was “How Great Thou Art.” I was even lucky enough to have accompanied him on that.
Indeed, his son was one of my childhood friends, his daughter is my sister’s best friend, and I taught one of his grandsons at Schafer Park Elementary School. And as a teenager, I even clipped their family poodle, Cocoa, to earn some extra spending money. So I got to know Ed from all angles.
This picture shows Ed, his wife, and progeny, many decades ago, exiting the Castro Valley Methodist Church, the same as where he sang, and the same as where we held his celebration earlier this year.
Gene Graves (March 15, 1928 – May 14, 2021)
Castro Valley High School, my alma mater, opened in 1956. Gene Graves became its first music teacher after five year’s experience teaching music at nearby Hayward High School. This recent portrait of him hangs in the Castro Valley High School band room right where no one will miss seeing it — over the door to the cafeteria.
In 1966 Gene moved from teaching high school to teaching at Chabot Community College, where he remained for 24 years, and where he gave me my one and only experience playing bass clarinet in a concert band.
Concurrent with his teaching, and for 38 years, he was also the music director and choir director for the First Presbyterian Church of Hayward, which I attended growing up. So I saw quite a bit of him over the years.
Gene was known for his imagination and his “Why not?” attitude, which culminated in his leading a group of about a hundred blue-clad teenagers (including myself), assorted adult chaperons, and a famous guest musician on a six-week traveling band camp through Europe, with full orchestra, concert band, and a jazz band. It drained my savings, including all the money I’d earned clipping Cocoa, even though my parents contributed, too.
We visited Frankfurt, Rome, Florence, Vienna, and Paris in six weeks (travel was incredibly cheap back then), performing concerts in most of those places. This picture of the group is my favorite one of Gene, even though he’s blurry with closed eyes, because everything in the entire picture is really him.
In Rome, I let myself get dehydrated, so they checked me into a hospital, where I was dubbed Mr. “Far lah nay”. In the bed next to mine sat an American in his early twenties named Alan. So what group was he with? He replied that he wasn’t with any group. He was traveling by himself and fell sick, so he had just checked himself in.
So he was traveling alone to explore wherever he liked !?! In Europe ?!? They let you do that?? Up until then, my attitude towards Europe was like it was just a more grandiose version of an Epcot Center, fit for tours. Now I had a new ambition to travel and explore deeply, which I fulfilled many many times over the years, and Gene got me started.
He finally retired from Chabot College and the church choir in 1990. Ten years later, some of his old students realized that, for once, he had time on his hands, but not time forever, so they organized a musical reunion, a kind of love fest in the form of a full concert band, and a separate jazz big band, which met annually in the Castro Valley High School band room for about fifteen years, presenting free concerts in the school cafeteria. Due to my living in China, I could only attend sporadically.
Gene directed the reunion band’s entire concert for most of those years, and at least part time for the final few. He peppered his directing with stories and reminiscences , and each year reminded all of us how one rehearses a band and practices their instruments.
The last reunion took place in 2019, under Gene’s new portrait’s watchful gaze.
Last month a celebration was held for Gene’s life. In some ways, it was like a scaled-down reunion band “one more time.” We played and celebrated and shared memories outdoors (in deference to Covid-19). His former student Ron directed us through some of Gene’s favorite concert band tunes, such as Gustav Holst’s Suite in F.
This photo shows Gene, along with guest star trumpeter Rafael Mendez, conducting the Castro Valley High School band so many decades ago.
Recently I was asked what I missed most about China, besides the wonderful people whom I had met there. The answer was easy – the neighborhood market, just a block from my apartment. I’ve mentioned it in previous emails. It mostly sold food – either raw groceries or prepared meals — but also various knickknacks and even a small number of bikes and clothes. I once took my father there to pick up some Peking Duck “to go.”
When I first visited Tianjin University in 1998, this market hadn’t yet been built. Instead, all those vendors lined the streets and flooded the sidewalks, their hard work forging an economic base for the fabulous development to come. Then the market was planted, and every five years, it grew wider, to bring in more vendors under it’s roof.
This picture shows some vendors still selling under the sky next to its wall, while others still lined the streets. That part was eventually roofed over, expanding the building structure, and drawing more vendors off the street, such as our favorite fruit dealer, smiling in a gray sweater in the picture below. She was happy to finally have a well-lighted protected space for selling and for storage.
People have also often asked me if I missed driving a car when I was in China. Truly, I had no need for a car there. After all, many of my friends lived in the same apartments as I did, and the market was right there! And the surrounding five or six blocks offered every sort of business that I might need – a department store, a grocery store, banks, restaurants, and even movie theaters and computer/electronics markets like the one partially shown in the picture below.
I barely even needed a bicycle, though I did ride one constantly. Within a few blocks, I could catch literally dozens of bus routes to literally any part of that huge city (with maybe one transfer) . And of course, taxis continually plied every street.
I’ve recently discovered through YouTube that, before 1940, American cities, too, had that wonderful “walkability” quality. Since then, we’ve lost most of it to car-dependent suburbia. I’ve been learning the details of this from a YouTube channel called “Not Just Bikes,” produced by a Canadian who moved to the Netherlands. to get away from car-dependent suburbia. In this video he introduces the channel. and explains why moved there. One reason was to raise a family, as Dutch kids are often cited as the world’s happiest. In this video he explains how city planning contributes to raising children.
He also talks about the Dutch bike, built for comfort over speed. It’s very much like the “Flying Pigeon” that I rode in China (seen here) or the similar Giant Bike Khan. When I “retired” from China, I had thought about shipping the latter bike (inherited from my friend Lonnie) home to California, but moving time came upon me suddenly, and besides, couldn’t I just buy one when I got here? Turns out that, well, not really.
For those interested, here’s a quite thorough story of how Utrecht, Holland, reconfigured its bicycle infrastructure.
Societal Weather Report
The phrase “Societal Weather Report” reminds me of the well-known Tom Waits song, Emotional Weather Report (with Pete Christlieb on saxophone).
Our Societal Weather Report has been on my heart a lot lately. Americans (at least, those in the media) thunder all the time about our societal divisions. Well, I think we’ve always been divided, because of varying history and geography, and the fact that we’re a multicultural society, and have always been so. What’s new in the weather, though, is the fierce umbrage projected in the media towards people on the other side of whatever trough or ridge might be placing storms in the area. It’s too bad, because divisions can be a source of strength in the long run — like how a skeleton uses joints to strengthen muscles.
One particular windstorm recently caught my ear — the tempest over Critical Race Theory, which sprinkles aspersions upon two aspects of America that I deeply value — public education, and the deep-rooted multicultural nature of our society. Bad faith arguers use the contentious issue of race (with its own long history) to whip this tempest into a media frenzy.
So it’s been heavy on my heart, but it’s also worth examining how bad faith actors successfully stirred things up.
First, definitions: Critical Race Theory (CRT), was invented at Harvard Law School years ago. It’s a variation on a larger group of studies called Critical Legal Studies. In both cases “critical” does not mean to criticize, but to analyze, as in “Critical Thinking.” The target of this analysis is the law and its interaction with various groups in society.
The word “theory” does not have its common meaning of a set of hypotheses. As in literary studies, it instead posits a particular point of view or lens through which to view a subject. So “Critical Race Theory” means to analyze the interactions of laws and society from the standpoint of race. Statistics, anyone? I don’t know if there’s also a critical gender theory, or a critical education theory, but theoretically there could be.
In any case, CRT is a technical subject, like torts or civil procedures, which only make sense in the context of a law school or a grad school. Nobody in America teaches law at a professional level in Kindergarten through twelfth grade, so nobody in K12 teaches CRT. Now, I will admit that I once taught seventh grade and accepted the gift of several outdated volumes of the California penal code. But it was heavy reading. Nobody really wanted to understand it, so we never analyzed any of it.
Second, stirring the tempest: Then some political actors saw in CRT a potential for mischief, likely because of the contentious position of race in our society.
Over a period of a couple years, they heavily promoted the idea that CRT was in fact being taught in K-12 schools (even though that’s not possible). And everybody already knows what “theory” and “critical” usually mean, so CRT must mean manufactured and unproven ideas about race intended to criticize (presumably white) people into feeling ashamed of their own existence. It’s not hard to understand why parents might be upset about this prospect. But how would they know that it was a lie that was pretty much manufactured of whole cloth, plus the words Race, critical and theory? I call it “Fake CRT.”
Next the political actors “flooded the airwaves” with their own fake version of CRT. Very few people pushed back against them, probably because nobody outside of law schools had even heard of it before. By the time they had, the terms of the public discourse had already been set, making pushback much harder. Real CRT became conflated with fake CRT to the point that it almost didn’t matter which was which, because this muddying of the waters was probably the instigators’ goal, as it gave them intellectual room to maneuver, like how the tobacco industry’s obfuscations helped them maintain their market share back in the day.
Eventually, (Fake) CRT became an amorphous catch-all confusion of a variety of concerns about race, ethnicity, and public education, some real, some not, which can upset people, some with justification, some not. Devoid of precise meaning, (fake) CRT now functions as an emotional trigger word for a certain subset of citizens angry about race, which also draws more reasonable people into the fray, if only to see what fire this smoke might signal.
So (fake) “CRT” has joined other trigger words which once had a dictionary meaning, which cynical politicians scrambled and injected into the public sphere, leaving only emotions that can stir things up, such as (fake) “woke,” or (fake) “politically correct,” or (fake) “New Math.” Such triggers hinder good faith understandings, at least in the public square. Thankfully, most people are reasonable, not like the argumentative combatants portrayed in the media. Still, the situation is troubling to me because it touches upon things that I really care about.
For those who may be interested, USA Today (what we used to call the McPaper) has a more detailed version of how fake CRT came to be. And even though fake CRT may be a smoke screen, it actually does have real-world consequences, beyond simple anger or irritation. Many states have banned it explicitly or implicitly (as reported by Newsweek), even though it’s never been taught outside of law school, which in turn could leave K-12 teachers unclear about how such a vague law might be used or enforced. Some bills are actually against Fake CRT and ironically might require something like real CRT to implement. CNN reports how school board meetings have become unruly from the controversy. And NBC news reports that a high school principal was fired for teaching CRT even though nobody in America teaches it outside of universities.
Bubbles and Balloons
Well, sorry for the rant. It’s just that politicians have been dumping on teachers and public education, as well as on our country’s cultural richness, for so many years, that it can get on my nerves, even though I know it’s not ordinary people who are up in arms, but mainly the media and political actors.
Meanwhile, whenever I think of the potential strengths of a divided society, I often think of Randy, my old college roommate, seen here with his wife and son, about a decade after our graduation.
As students, Randy and I used to “debate” various issues of the day, but never with the goal of one side winning the argument. Instead, the goal was to deepen our understandings. We’d bring up counterpoints, not to call the other person wrong, but to fill logical holes, in order to construct a more all-encompassing view. It was like (metaphorically) playing with soap bubbles, bouncing them around so they’d meet each other and fuse.
Well, we followed the trend from back in the 1970’s and 80’s, which was to play cooperative games instead of always playing competitive ones. Randy and I would bat ideas back and forth like balloons, enjoying their lazy movements and unexpected turns. It was wonderful, and sometimes magical.
I wish this sort of “debate” were more common. Perhaps it could construct bulwarks against the rising tide of bad-faith disinformation. I think it requires an atmosphere of trust and good faith, which is why bad-faith political actors will work to muddy the waters, not necessarily to win an argument. So this is what’s been on my mind lately, as I sit around coughing, unable to hold a conversation or get much done.
The quarterly tune
Well, I started this update a month ago after Halloween. I never thought I’d still be tweaking it on a date where I could wish everyone a “Happy After-Thanksgiving.” So Happy After-Thanksgiving !! I’m certainly thankful for the people on this mailing list. All of you have contributed to giving me a better life.
The main delay, actually, was in adding a piano composition. In this case, it’s a tune written for an old friend whom I cared for very much, back in the day. I’m hoping it captures something of her spirit of adventure. I needed a long time to learn to play it (even with mistakes), but an even longer time to record it without coughing loudly in the middle. Today, for the first time, I finally recorded a cough-less take. So I’m keeping it, imperfect as it is. It’s available to listen by clicking here or clicking on the Thanksgiving flowers.