Sad News

Fred Olivier MacFarlane (1921 – 2020)

Flowers on the Kennel
Flowers growing on the kennel that my dad built in Castro Valley

As I mentioned in my previous update, I flew down to Arizona to visit my father for a couple days, as his life on this earth was gently fading away. We had a good visit, though he wasn’t able to talk much. I also realized that, because of the pandemic, it was the longest time that I’d spent in the company of another human being in many months. I was glad to spend it with him.

His life’s fading has now run its course, and he passed away a few days ago. He was well cared for by his wife, right up until the end. And when his condition had hit a critical point, the nurse at their living facility was called in. She was young, a new hire, not familiar with the normal procedures, so when they decided to call for more help, she dialed 911, and he was taken to a local hospital, rather than the normal on-site “Caring Center.”

This was a problem because the hospital only allowed patients to enter, neither family nor friends, because of the pandemic. So he entered alone. But he was assigned a doctor who turned out to be his very own doctor from his living facility. Meanwhile he had a wife waiting at home for a phone call. The doctor phoned and told her that a private room in the hospital could open up. Indeed it did, and with the doctor’s backing, she could enter the hospital.

So they were able to spend their last hours together in a private room holding hands as he listened to her talk and sing. This would not have been possible in the normal on-site “Caring Center.” So what seemed unfortunate at first turned out to be the best in the end.

Some Biographical Notes

I’ll include some notes on his life for those in this list who didn’t know him so well. It’s more-or-less what I’d have said in a ceremony had the pandemic not prevented any normal observances.

This photo of our family has hung in a hallway at our home ever since it was taken, right up to the present day. In the intervening years we have all gone our separate ways. Yet, though I care very much for the family that’s been added since, when I think of my family history, this has always been the default starting location. And now one of us is gone, though to be fair, it’s hard to complain about him “only” having been with us for 99⅓ years.

My dad’s father served in France in World War I. He brought home his French “war bride,” after a business deal in West Africa didn’t pan out. My father was born not long after they reached America.

Here he is with his mother, my grandmother, in the earliest picture of him that I could find (from 98 years ago). He was nine months old. They lived in a logging camp called “Camp Cavanaugh,” located east of Mt. Vernon in Washington State.

My grandfather ran the logging company.  They moved about, hunting the trees.  I think this is how my dad got comfortable with his ongoing and regular changes of address.  In fact, his period here in Castro Valley, at 12 years, may have been his longest-lasting mailing address ever.

These pictures show him in Portland or Vancouver with his mother, and with his father.

Most of his childhood was spent at various addresses in Portland. It was here that he got the habit of being gainfully employed, a condition that he maintained right through and even beyond his eventual retirement.

And as a youngster, he got to experience the perverse dream of every school child. The school custodians had been sweeping the halls every night with oiled sawdust. Over the years, a thick layer of oil had built up. It couldn’t have taken much to spark it and bring down the whole building in a magnificent conflagration. Hundreds of kids (including my dad) gazed at it on their way to school that morning.

However, the result of the fire was not freedom from school but simply reassignment to a different campus, much farther away, with classes at non-standard hours, for an entire school year, as they rebuilt the old school.

This picture shows him at sixteen years old. By this time, in the midst of the Great Depression, he was working constantly, selling magazines, emptying trash, etc.,  to bring in money, while his mother took in sewing, and his father lost his company.

He somehow found time for skating at the local rink, which is where he met my mother. A few years later they married.

In the meantime, he was an intern in a bank, he attended college at the University of Washington, eventually emerging with a CPA, he joined the army for World War II. He was based in Pittsburg, California, when they heard the famous Port Chicago explosions.

While they lived in Pittsburg, he got a Dalmatian (named “Easy”) whom he showed at local dog shows. He was even written up in Western Kennel World Magazine, as Easy won an AKC championship. And dad wrote a Dalmatian column in Dog World Magazine for two years.

But then, he ended his writing and dog show career because he had found a job in Sacramento as a purchasing agent for the state government.  But his experience with dogs planted an unfulfilled wish to become a veterinarian.

So they moved into a brand-new house in a new Sacramento housing development, where Dad organized the neighbors into a volunteer crew to pour cement pathways throughout the development’s new park.

That’s also  where they were living when my sister and myself joined the family.

My favorite memories from those days included the warm endless summers, our Dalmatians racing through the park across the street, and my dad entertaining us with a little plastic wading pool. I almost lost my pet turtle in that pool once.

Eventually Dad advanced a little further in his management career by taking the job of head of purchasing for Alameda County in Oakland. And he also became president of the statewide purchasing association. That’s when we moved to Castro Valley.

And this bigger house opened itself regularly for friends and entertainment, mostly for old friends from Portland who’d moved to California and the parents of my classmates and my sister’s classmates.  It was only when I got older that I realized that not every family entertained so steadily. The picture shows Mom and Dad in our kitchen ready for guests Those were nights when I was thankful that my parents didn’t smoke, as the closet where the guests hung their coats always smelled like a forest fire afterwards.

My favorite memories from that time include going to work with Dad on weekend special assignments. He was in charge of the county’s used auto auctions, held in warehouses out in the countryside. I thrilled to the calls of the professional auctioneers, and the jackrabbits hopping by. I also marveled at the sight of a monstrous and loud machine that sorted IBM punch cards.  It kindled an interest in high tech that lasts to this day.  And in fact, we talked computers all the way to the end. And when microcomputers became popular in the 1980’s, he was the only one of his generation who’d understand me when I talked about them.

And when I was fifteen, our family took a road trip to Kentucky to visit my father’s old army buddy in Elizabethtown. We mostly camped along the whole way, and saw more of America than all the rest of our trips put together. Dad always said that it was one of the best things that we had ever done as a family, and I agree.

My parents also chaperoned our high school jazz band’s spring trips to the Reno Jazz Festival, where one year we won the highest prize. I still remember my dad driving through an unseasonable snow storm while whichever musician was in the front seat would reach around to clear the snow off the windshield.

Well, at about the time I graduated from high school my father got a new job in private industry, managing a Photo and Sound branch store in Seattle.  So I went off to college while everybody else wound up in Seattle. Unfortunately things didn’t remain so. My parents divorced, and my mother and sister returned to Castro Valley the next year while my dad remained in Seattle. Unfortunately, Photo and Sound went out of business after a few years.

Eventually, Dad would also return to the Bay Area. By that time he had remarried. His first marriage had lasted 26 years, and his second would last 47 years.

Dad invented a new job for himself in Alameda County government and convinced the people there to hire him for it. That was Director of General Services. I was kind of disappointed that he would no longer direct the car auctions. But he had a cool office on High Street in Oakland.  This is where my conversations with him made me think that he was an uncommonly good manager.

He moved into a house in Dublin, and later to another in the flat section of Castro Valley. But he didn’t stick around the Bay Area too long.

They headed back up to Seattle, where dad took a job as Business Manager with Lakeside School, the well-known private school where Bill Gates and Paul Allen had attended. In fact, the two computer innovators had just bought their alma mater a new library. My dad, in addition to normal bookkeeping and management duties, was in charge of expanding the school from a high-school down to fifth grade, which involved purchasing and refurbishing a large building.  This picture shows him on campus with wife and daughter.

In those days, one of their favorite pasttimes was jigsaw puzzles. And one of my favorite photos from those times was this one, of them puzzling one out.

At this time, my grandmother came to live with them, as she was no longer capable of living alone.  I often thought of this when I was in China and was told that Asians take better care of oldsters in the family than Americans. Dad (and others I know) pretty much disprove this.  And it was during this time that I was able to connect Grandma by phone with her French grandchildren.

And later, Dad took a long vacation to France to meet his French nephews.

Well, eventually Dad retired from Lakeside, and from Alameda County government, and he had some smaller pensions, too. So they kicked back, downsized into a smaller house in Bothell, Washington, bought a trailer and a pickup truck, and embarked on the gypsy lifestyle so common among younger American retirees.

They developed a standard yearly circuit, which included a trailer park in San Leandro called “Trailer Haven,” which they nicknamed “Trailer Heaven,” and that’s where I generally saw them in those years. It was located just down the street from Roskie and Wallace books, so they used the opportunity to stock up on adventure novels. They also included Phoenix  (actually, Surprise) in their yearly circuit, staying at Happy Trails resort, where Dad helped to edit the resort’s newsletter, and they practiced square dancing.

Just like Frank Lloyd Wright, Dad found that the hot and dry Arizona air was better for his health than wet and cold like Seattle. So the Arizona part of the circuit kept lasting longer and longer.

Finally, they moved their principle address to Sun City Grand, a brand-new retirement development just outside Phoenix. Dad was active in the computer club, of course, and even served a term as its president. (Here he passes on the ceremonial mouse)

The trailer had vanished by then, but they did have a prefabricated second home 2000 meters high in the Mountains near Flagstaff — Munds Park.  It froze in the winter, but was just right in the summer.

But the wanderlust remained strong, so they maintained regular road trips up to Seattle and back, stopping in the Bay Area, Portland, and at the Kelleher “stepkids” place in the Sacramento area along the way.

And if it was winter when they reached Sacramento, they all celebrated Christmas with the traditional Christmas fare — prawns. Then they exchanged presents with a pretty well-extended family.

After a few more years, Dad began aging somewhat, so he started planning out his end of life. I often said that Dad was a “lucky bum” for a lot of his life, but actually, it’s more likely his habit of thoroughly planning (and working hard) that manufactured such “luck.” So they kept the second home, at least for a few years, but moved into an extended care facility called Royal Oaks in Sun City. That was sixteen years ago, and naturally they’ve had three different addresses just during their time there.

At the time, I was teaching English in China, and my favorite memory of my dad from those years was his coming to visit me there. I was tickled pink that I was able to pay for everything during the trip. Of course, he had no choice but to let me pay since he mostly couldn’t understand what other people were saying. Here he is standing in front of my apartment house and my bicycle.

And here he is standing in front of a more famous residence. We also toured other famous sights, such as the ancient pottery army and Banpo, the oldest archeological site in China, as well as a fabulous tour of Tianjin’s harbor and its planning museum.

A few days after he returned home to Arizona, he celebrated his ninetieth birthday. The whole extended family gathered for the occasion, and I was able to move up my own schedule so I could surprise him at home after having just left him in China a few days before.

Here he is being gifted with a homemade 90-year memorial plaque.  We had hoped that he’d make it to 100 and receive the congratulatory letter from the President, but it was not to be.

Certainly the past few months have not been easy for him, and certainly he is in a much happier place now. I did take a picture of him this week, but he just didn’t look himself.

So instead I’ll include this more typical recent picture from three years ago, in Sun City on a lunch foray to the Cracker Barrel.  And yes, he did pick up the tab that day.

To close, I’d like to thank those who sent cards and emails expressing condolences.  It makes a difference to have that support.

And I’ll end with two more images. First is my favorite picture of him that I took myself, many decades ago, on his birthday.

I like it because he exudes a quiet confidence, and as is printed on his birthday plaque, he’s always still going strong.  A year ago my psychologist suggested that I write musical pieces for people we were discussing. The piece I wrote for him is meant to express this idea of always moving ahead. I apologize in advance for the recording quality, as well as my inability to keep steady enough time, a common failing of those who tend to play alone.  Anyway, Here’s the link to click and access it: 2020-11-20 Dad’s Tune.

Well, there’s lots more that could be included, and no matter how much I write, that will remain true. I only hope I didn’t leave out so much as to make the narrative hard to follow.

I’ll end, not with another photo, but with a humorous father’s day card that I bought for him on multiple father’s days over the years, since it expressed so well the pugnacious pride that I always took in him.

Happy Halloween Elections !!

Greetings from California, in a world dominated by corona virus!


Last night was Halloween. Today and tomorrow are Día de Muertos, the Day of the Dead.  It’s a season of sadness. Like all seasons, it won’t last forever, but you might think so when you’re caught in the midst of it, and don’t know how long it actually will last.

Meanwhile, our Castro Valley block community staged a socially-distanced Halloween. Instead of meeting kids at the door, we set out tables with candy for them to take. (the candy, not the tables).  Then one of the neighbors, on her garage door, showed the Disney animated movie Coco, which has a lot to say about Día de Muertos. We also had a Halloween “Egg Hunt.”

Another neighbor sent for Chinese food for all the adults.  And so we all sat outside, at a distance, celebrating the European, Mexican and Asian roots of life in California. Some complained that the weather was a bit chill, but we’re all weather wimps here.  It was still warm enough to sit masked in shirt sleeves to chat with the neighbors or watch the movie.

My Father

My greatest source of sadness this season is my father, whose life is gently fading away. I plan to fly down to Arizona this week to see him for just a couple days, since he’s only able to handle brief visits. What with the pandemic, he’s almost the only one for whom I’d undertake such a trip.

My sister went two weeks ago and my step-sister last week.  My father’s lungs had been scarred, and as he ages, he’s ever less able to compensate for their stiffening. The scarring probably is the result of a disease called Valley Fever that he caught twenty years ago.  To all appearances he had recovered from it, but the scarring remained.

Covid 19 in America

Actually, it reminds me of Covid 19, which also may leave permanent damage in the bodies that “recover” from it. What a curse it has proven to be for us in the USA (as well as the rest of the world). Last April I wrote this to a friend of mine:

“This disease seems tailor-made to appeal to the sociopaths among us, in that it mainly attacks those who are old, infirm, or otherwise weak. So from their point of view, it’s more rational to encourage the disease to run its course, even at gunpoint. The strong will remain to strengthen the economy while resources are not wasted on those with limited ability to contribute. Holy Nietzsche! as Batman might say. Social Darwinism at its purest.”

“But in general, this behavior is not what we observe. We see health workers, grocery clerks, and restaurant workers risking their lives, while the rest of us huddle at home, often alone, often losing jobs and income, all in a desperate effort to slow the spread of an evil that none of us really understands. This response is greater than simple enlightened self-interest. It’s a mass movement based on love and caring, so no matter the personal beliefs of individual warriors, the same God is present in all.”

“And further, if I’m forgiven a bit of second-guessing, this disease could be our God-given opportunity to strengthen the bonds of love, so that when the even-greater danger comes later, we humans may have a chance of surviving it. That disaster, of course, is the warming of our earth, with its attendant climate instability. Its a problem nowhere near as straightforward as any disease. It can only be conquered through love, as no human law could force compulsion against such a complex phenomenon. So may we all work to strengthen those caring bonds.”

Now it’s six months later, and I’ve found another reason to mourn.  Never in a million years did I think that the sociopath point of view would prevail. Last week the white house chief of staff mentioned in passing that they have no federal plans to fight the corona virus! Thus they’ll let it simply wash over the population to create “herd immunity” in those who survive (“herd immunity” is a term coined to describe pervasive vaccinations), while we all wait for a theoretical vaccine to be developed in the fastest time in history. In fact, our head of state is doing all he can to encourage his followers not to cooperate with those trying to handle the virus. And unfortunately, they have been following his lead.

Need I mention that the examples of so many countries — New Zealand, Korea, Canada, Germany, and others, which demonstrate that this virus actually can be slowed and perhaps stopped by simple methods presently available to all? All of these countries are pretty close to normality. We can’t we be there, too?

There’s been no local transmission at all for 200 days in Taiwan, while Americans are still losing citizens to the virus at a faster rate than we lost soldiers in WWII, yet the head of state claims that doctors are exaggerating the  numbers of cases so they can profit more from the pandemic. It’s hard to imagine anybody whose own imagination is so twisted as to make such an allegation.  Is it no wonder that a recent study showed that this same head of state produces the most disinformation about the virus in the entire country, and significantly so for the entire world? Again, it’s a cause for sadness, and sadness for the world.

But it’s how this particular head of state rolls — through constant, relentless lies. The Washington Post has documented over 20,000 of them. The New York Times, in one of his 90-minute rallies, found 131 false or inaccurate statements. To me truth matters. I don’t deal well with liars. It’s a mystery why so many would vote for such a man, when they themselves would never lie like that.

America’s Covid 19 Success

So I didn’t know whether to cry or to cry when I saw this short opinion video from the New York times entitled “The Great American Covid Success,” which is not snark, but demonstrates our own CDC’s (Center for Disease Control) success in controlling the Covid 19 virus around the world.  It demonstrates why I’ve always been so proud of my country and its leadership in so many areas, even when it has also too often taken misguided political and military actions. So George W. Bush, whatever his faults, is also responsible for saving countless lives from AIDS in Africa.

Furthermore, when I see the doctors in Thailand and Korea in that video, I know that my country has Thai and Korean doctors, too, either immigrants or the children of immigrants, and that this connection not only serves us well, but the entire globe.

Yet the CDC, in its home country, has been hobbled. The current regime disbanded our disease pandemic unit,  for not being politically convenient .  They’ve meddled in the CDC’s internal workings for the same reason – for not being sufficiently loyal to the party. Seems like Soviet times.  In so many ways, in just four years, they have hollowed out so many kinds of agencies that serve the public good and provide leadership abroad.

These actions are not hidden. They are reported in traditional news media, but the head of state’s bizarre behavior attracts all the attention away from them.  I am so tired of hearing news anchors admitting that, no, in past years, this or that egregious behavior from an American head of state has never occurred before.  I’d rather stick to his policy actions.

He’s also working to separate us from our traditional allies like Germany and France and move us closer to dictatorships around the world like Russia and North Korea, even as he denigrates America’s true greatness. And so again, I’m overwhelmed by mourning. How long will it take to earn back the consequent lack of trust?

Election Day and Politics

Tuesday this week is election day. Some people overseas may imagine that the ballot is only about our head of state. Actually there are lots of offices on the ballot, as well as proposed laws to consider, as can be seen in the pictures here.The picture at left shows this year’s ballot. The next picture shows some of the study materials that came with it.

The third picture shows just some of the advertising mailed to me about it. Add to that the radio, television and social media ads, and it can seem almost overwhelming.

One of my overseas friends asked if people really do spend so much time studying and agonizing over so many choices.

And the answer is yes, at least for my own friends and family. We literally spend hours reading background material and considering our votes, as if we were the only ones voting. And that was also true before we all retired, when free time was harder to find.

Luckily, California is a state that makes it easy to vote. I even voted from Tianjin when I was living there. So this year I voted about two weeks ago, as did my friends and family.

As for the “top of the ticket,” the challenger has held a lead of between 6 and 10 percentage points ever since last spring. The incumbent, in contrast, has never won an approval rating of over half the country in four years. He may be the only one in history never to break the majority mark. From that, you’d think that the election outcome would be easy to predict.  But so much in the last few years has never happened before, so I hesitate to predict anything.  Even if the challenger wins by several million votes, the incumbent may yet find tricks to staying in power.

And this all stems ultimately from those with money (some of them).   In fact, due to their political influence, the rich have increased their wealth significantly during the pandemic, including snagging huge amounts of money in the relief passed so far, while so many ordinary people struggle.  Those ordinary strugglers must feel betrayed by their own country. Well, as a wise man once said, “The love of money is the root of all sorts of evil.

Meanwhile the head of state no longer leads a normal American political party, having let the old embodiment of his party die, under the crush of the rich. Normally, every four years, American political parties publish a “platform,” a set of goals that show what the party stands for. Importantly it demonstrates that a party does have principles which it follows. Well, this year, for the first time ever, the head of state’s party published no platform. Instead it published a statement of loyalty to this particular head of state.

It shows that loyalty and power are the be-all and end-all of this particular “party.” Well, the lack of a platform (while the other party had hashed out theirs over a period of weeks) should have been no surprise when half the key speakers at its convention this summer were members of the head of state’s own immediate family, as if it were a mafia association.

So I’m not really looking forward to this year’s election, since the election itself may not be the end of it. One thing I’ve learned over the past four years is how much our system normally depends upon custom and good will. Well, I don’t see a lot of good will this time around.  I don’t want yet another example of “Hey, we’ve never had anything like this before” but it’s quite possible. <sigh>

Hummingbird Magic

Luckily I have a back yard to retreat into. And sometimes magic takes place there. So last week, I stood entranced, watching hummingbirds dance.  And then I realized that my camera was sitting by my left hand. So I grabbed it and recorded a couple minutes, which you can see here! Truly, it’s pure magic.

For music this time, I’ll leave everybody with a suite by Joe Hisaishi, one of the most remarkable composers in Japan. He specializes in background music for movies, mainly those from the animation studio Ghibli.  He’s in the same league as John Williams. He’ll never be counted among the greatest technical  innovators, but the man can come up with melodies so intensely beautiful as to leave you crying, but not for a sad reason.  I’ve been listening to his music for a couple days to keep up my spirits while composing this update. One of my favorites is here. Here’s another favorite.








Happy Midautumn Festival!

This year the mid-autumn festival date falls on October 1, National Day for the People’s Republic.

It’s my hope that celebrations will be doubly welcome this year. I plan to celebrate with a trip to the eye doctor for a check up.

Carolyn Smith

I once again have lost someone significant — Carolyn, a young woman whom I’ve long felt was a second sister to me. My memories of her range from her celebrating my birthday when nobody else did, to playing croquet on every lawn in the neighborhood, and to her wading through my mountains of junk mail in my absence, so I could live in China without creating a fire hazard back home.

These two pictures, taken a few decades ago, show Carolyn with her husband Ric, whom I also consider a brother, and, even now, a young man.

For years, these two snapshots traveled with me around the world, to Europe, and to China, part of a collection that I showed to new friends, so they could see for themselves the spirit of the people who were most dear to me back home. In fact, some people on this mailing list may recognize having seen them.

Carolyn’s life was snatched before her time by a rare and virulent form of cancer. And coming in the midst of a pandemic made it just that much harder to deal with.  Ric says he’s mired in a dark fog now. He had asked those of us who know them to jot down a few memories. Mine can be read by clicking here: Carolyn

Despite the heartbreak of losing her so young, I am reminded of the words of the parable: “Well done, good and faithful servant.”  And as the parable stipulates, she is now somewhere “in charge of greater things.”

Health Update

I still spend an inordinate amount of time on my health.  My hips and upper legs continue to reshape themselves, so now I get to learn to balance all over again so I can don my trousers without falling over. How did my body become so misshapened without my noticing it?  A couple weeks ago, while walking, I passed another old happy geezer coming the other way with a body like a warped Gumby. He waved cheerfully. I guess I’m not the only one who struggles with warpiness, but who still needs to keep on smiling.

Speaking of tipping over, I recently came pretty close a couple times, and thought it was vertigo. But it wasn’t. Since I’d returned from China, I’d gained so much weight that my center of gravity had shifted and threw me off kilter. I know this because over the last two or three months I’ve been slowly losing weight, and all of a sudden my balance has returned, I don’t tip over, and it’s so much easier to climb slopes and stairways. And I still have more weight to lose.

The Lockdown

Due to the pandemic, I stay home most of the time. Luckily I have friends who stop by, or send emails, or call on Zoom, including my psychologist who basically acts as a coach (I’m not suddenly bipolar or anything else serious). I’m grateful to all of them.   They keep me relatively sane.

Because I have a large refrigerator / freezer, and I’m not eating so much, I actually only need to leave the house to buy food once every four or five weeks. Meanwhile, I filled the tank of my plug-in hybrid car last winter, and it still reads full, because the electricity that I charge it with suffices for my needs.

My recent photos, then, are all taken at home or on my solo walks through the neighborhood. I thought of taking a self portrait, but I realized that a shot of my refrigerator might offer a deeper character study than my face.  So my new self-portrait is a refrigerator face smothered with meaningful kitchen magnets and notes worth keeping close to hand.

I took the refrigerator picture with my new mobile phone, a Google Pixel 4a. I have to say I really like it. The camera is great and the battery life is outstanding.

Well, it turns out that my artist friend Audine, who works for an ad agency in Tokyo, actually marketed the Pixel 4a in Japan. Small phone world!

Audine has spent her fair share of time stuck at home during the pandemic, though the situation in Japan is not as dire as it is here.  So she drew a comforting essay about it entitled “2020.”  Click on the “2020” picture to see it. It’s an 8 megabyte pdf file.

Covid 19

People outside America often ask about the pandemic here.  Well, nobody on my serene street has caught Covid 19, but  Americans elsewhere are dying from it at a faster rate than American soldiers died in World War II. And people who are not in our shrinking Middle Class find that life is not so serene, but full of anxiety.

Almost all of this could have been avoided. It was a calculated political move by a man put into our country’s highest office by an aggrieved fraction of the white population as an attack  on government itself, since they felt that government had failed them. For over thirty years, they had been egged into that course of action through a sophisticated propaganda effort by Republican party operatives, which also targeted the Democratic party and divided the country.

This current head of state was repeatedly interviewed by  legendary journalist Bob Woodward (of Watergate fame). With the publication of his new book, Rage, Woodward shared some of those recordings on 60 minutes a couple weeks ago. One can hear the program here or here. It shows that this head of state understood perfectly well how Corona virus works, how deadly it is, the need for masks, etc. And yet he deliberately lied to the country about it, and does to this day, proclaiming that it’s not serious, that masks aren’t necessary, etc. mainly to keep us all divided from one another.

In fact, Woodward’s book title, Rage, comes from the head of state himself’s observation that he brings out rage in the people around him.  I was surprised to see how much rage he brought out in the famous cartoonist Garry Trudeau, who has drawn a strip called Doonesbury for fifty years.  Trudeau has always found a light-hearted aspect to even the most depressing situations, like this 1974 strip about Nixon’s “Secret” bombing of Cambodia, or this one about Nixon’s Impeachment trial that same year.   Well, his strip published a couple weeks ago instead exhibited that pure cold rage .

With such a talent to sow rage and division, it’s no wonder that the chief executive is sometimes suspected as being beholden to some of our adversaries.

I recently saw this video by two of my favorite journalists, Nicholas Kristof and Johnny Harris, made before Woodward’s book came out, which details much about how our country bungled our response to the corona virus.

You know, back in February, when I (like most people) realized how deadly the virus was going to be, I thought that it might at least serve as a common enemy to finally draw the country back together. How could dead bodies piling up in hospitals be political?  However, I was wrong.  A propaganda effort aimed against reality itself would not be so easily deflected.  Meanwhile, as I’ve mentioned in previous updates, the hollowing out and destruction of our government continues apace from the inside.

A small band of Post Office supporters in front of the Castro Valley post office

Take the Post Office, for example. For decades, as long as I can remember, a letter from here to Portland, Oregon, has taken about three days to arrive.  As the insider attack began this summer, that delivery time lengthened to about eight days. Then, the bureaucracy (what the anti-government people call the “deep state”) began to push back, including in court, and now it’s almost back to normal.  But we need a new head of state lest it be attacked again, and lest so many other governmental departments be hollowed out further.

I do believe that the next couple months will be the most consequential for my country since the sixties.  Here’s hoping that we come through them okay.

Wild Fires

Hummingbird mural at Castro Valley High School

I’ve also been asked about wildfires in Castro Valley.  We had an August heat wave with unusual dry thunderstorms. That night I lay in bed watching the lightning bolt flashes, timing the thunder, and calculating the distance to the storm. Some came within a couple kilometers. It was fun, actually.  However, some of those bolts kindled fires all over the state. So even before the normal beginning of “fire season,” we’d already suffered the first- through the fourth- largest fires in our history.

Thankfully, no fires burned through Castro Valley, but incoming smoke from other locations was pretty thick. In fact, one day, we had almost no sunlight. What little there was had a red cast, and seemed to come from no direction in particular.  Street lights stayed on and cars drove with lights on for the whole day.

Actually, until recent years, we didn’t have enough serious fires to constitute a “season.” The cause for this change is global warming, of course, just like for the increased fires in Australia, Brazil, and Europe.

Unfortunately, the aforementioned propaganda machine has long politicized global warming, too.  I guess one of the advantages of running against reality is that it seems like the entire rest of the world is in on some gigantic conspiracy, because that’s apparently what its adherents think. But again, the propagandist’s goal is not to convince, but to sow division.

Race Riots

I’ve also been asked about “race riots” in America. For the most part, there simply aren’t any. Yes, criminals did loot for a couple days after the murder of George Floyd, but the groups of people who, even today, continue to show up at protests day after day, are overwhelmingly peaceful.  And the only non-peaceful groups are usually white supremacist gangs, who sometimes pose as protesters. I guess those are race riots?

My sister and mother live in Portland, Oregon, supposedly a center of “riots” and “anarchy,” but the only conflict I ever hear about from them is my mother describing a stiff wind that stirs the branches of a tall birch growing across the street. Oh, and a fox apparently killed a chicken, also from across the street.

As my sister explained to me, any non-peaceful human activity was confined to the area around a single building downtown, a minuscule patch of geography. And even that was dying down until the commander in chief sent in federal troops wearing no identification badges, who stole protestors off the street and in general created mayhem, though again only in that tiny area. But I never thought I’d live to see the day of secret police in America. Apparently the point was to get film of “rioters” for propaganda purposes, since the feds disappeared once they’d recorded what they needed.

Again, the point to these attacks is not to win or lose the argument, but to spread what we used to call F.U.D. — Fear, uncertainty and doubt — and to drive wedges between our fellow citizens.  It has not much directly to do with protests or putting down protests.

Caste – I’m still reading

In my last update I mentioned a book I’d read by Rutger Bregman called “Humankind,” in which Bregman advances his thesis that human beings are fundamentally decent people, in contrast to the widely held view that people, unrestrained by law and government devolve into the rule of the jungle.  i wrote a review of it and posted it here.

Well, this time I read another outstanding book called “Caste, the origin of our discontents,” by well-known journalist Isabel Wilkerson. Again, I wrote a review of it and posted it here.  In fact, I waited until the review was done before starting this update, because I had thought a lot about the topic, too much to fit into a note like this one.

I was thrilled to read the Caste book because it gave me a new tool to process my own thinking about race and culture. Basically she claims that American society has an implicit caste system. It’s not precisely the same as India’s, but they have a lot in common.  I think this caste idea explains a lot more about our society than, say, “racism.” I invite everybody to take a look at my review, or read the book and then see what you think. Or here is a brief introduction on the Oprah Winfrey show.


This has been a rather sober update, except for the photos. However, I still did find some mood-lightening videos. One is an absolutely brilliant squirrel obstacle course.

I also found a pair of brothers, John and Hank Green, who have been posting to YouTube since 2007.  Here’s an introduction to their joint vlog called “Vlogbrothers.” This is Hank’s most recent Vlogbrothers vid, and this is John’s.

Hank also does science-oriented vlogs, such as Sci Show and PBS Eons. Here’s his Sci Show about synanthropic animals   and here’s his PBS Eons show, about Dimetrodon

John’s more into history and literature.  Here’s the first episode of his “Crash Course in US History,” and the first episode of his Crash Course in World History.

And I still follow Lindsay Ellis. Here she is with Hank Green discussing Authenticity on YouTube.  And here she is with John Green discussing the literary concept of “Death of the Author.”






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.

* * * * *

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!

* * * * *

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.

* * * * *

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.

* * * * *

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.

* * * * *

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.

* * * * *

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.

* * * * *

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!








Happy Backyard Easter!

Tomorrow is Easter. Happy Easter!

And what’s new?

Well, it’s quiet and peaceful on my street while we’re all sheltered in place. Most people work from home or are without jobs at home. There’s little traffic. For a few days, I occasionally saw neighbors out walking dogs and children past my windows, but lately I’ve seen less of that.  Some older kids occasionally gather in a circle by a basketball hoop. But instead of basketball, they play “catch,” maintaining social distancing, even though they actually all live in the same house.

My father, mother, sister and brother-in-law are all okay so far, sheltered inside various houses in two other states. I keep in touch with them by phone.

HummingbirdI’m lucky to have a back yard. The flowers bloom on schedule, the squirrels and the birds flit about as usual. And the hummingbirds have returned.  But since that’s the only place I go out, all of the pictures this time are mini-scenes of the back yard. It’s normal life for them, just not for humans.

I am more thankful than ever to live in California. The Bay Area ordered everybody “sheltered in place” on March 16, earlier than any other part of America.  Details are here or if not, they are  available here. At the time, we and New York City had about the same number of cases. But New York waited six more days before closing. Now, three weeks later,   New York has ten times our number of cases. Time is of the essence when pandemics begin.

I’m completely isolated at home. Actually, it’s not much different for me now than the previous few lonely years. These years have not been literally solitary confinement, but it sure felt that way, sometimes. Physical pains still flare up, but at this point, if I have to live with pains and restricted travel the rest of my life, then so be it. There’s too much left to be done to just mope. And I’ve already traveled many times more than most people ever do, though I still feel the old wanderlust.

I’m thankful for all who have reached out to me these last three years, some in America and some in China, a few in other places. You are like a balm that’s kept me from feeling abandoned all the time. I had never considered what a blow it would be to lose my community here while I was in China, and then to lose my China community when I returned, and not be in a good position to build another one.

So I’m thankful for all those who’ve emailed me over the years, and who’ve visited, some even from China! I’m thankful for my neighbor who went  grocery shopping for me, and for one of my former students in Shanghai who sent me face masks, and another in Tianjin who also offered. These favors help far more than just the goods involved.

Meanwhile, I keep thinking about Isaac Newton, who spent a couple years (1665-1667) of his youth “sheltering in place” quietly on a farm, far from a plague in London. He came out of it with calculus, universal gravitation, and several studies of the components of light.

Well, maybe I can’t do anything as important as that, but I can at least accomplish something smaller, So I’ve devoted days and weeks to editing my teaching journal from China into a book that might interest other teachers of English as a Second Language, or those training to teach.  And I greatly appreciate those who have read parts of it and have given me feedback on it, such as Eileen, Bill, Nicole, and especially Karen.  If anybody else can do this, let me know!

My  Sunday school class now meets virtually on Sunday mornings through “Zoom.”  It’s wonderful to see the same old group again gathered around a virtual table, including one former class member who now lives in Maryland!!! If anybody else wants to join in, we meet from 10:15 a.m. Pacific Time until sometime past 11:30.

As implied above, this country’s chief executive was painfully slow to act in the present emergency, and still is. His relentless attacks on government itself meant that he’d long ago disbanded the groups in government that were supposed to fight pandemics. No wonder he moved even slower than New York did, complaining that he’s “not a shipping clerk” when in this case, that is part of his job, because he’s in the best position to do it. People on blogs as well as ordinary news sources complained about his   inaction for months.

It’s troubling that this country can’t act as a model for others, as it so often has in years past. For good examples, probably the best are Taiwan and New Zealand.  Keys to their success include careful testing and tracking, and bountiful supplies of Face Masks and other safety equipment.  Meanwhile, months late, we’re still struggling to get those things, mainly thanks to the neglect of the Chief Executive and his enablers.

Instead of cooperating, he sets states and communities against each other, just like a “reality” TV show. Well, chaos and divisiveness are his most-developed skills, along with self-promotion, insults,  vindictiveness, lying and deflecting responsibility.  No wonder he leans heavily on his own non-elected, and non-confirmed children for policies. Kind of like a mafia.

Indeed when I was little, back in the fifties, I often stressed over the possibility of the mob seizing the presidency. Well, now I sort-of get to see it. And his neglect is going to get a lot of my fellow countrymen killed from corona virus. Maybe even me, my parents, my sister or my brother-in-law, since we’re all in one of the “at risk” groups. Well, many have died already, including two famous musicians — jazz pianist Ellis Marsalis, and country/folk star John Prine.

But this moment of divisiveness has been building for quite a while.

Thirty-five years ago I was driving up to the Sierra, leaving behind my usual radio stations.  Out in the countryside I came across an AM station from Sacramento, broadcasting commentary by a local angry guy, who unloaded about some perceived injustice. But then I recognized the situation that he was talking about. I had personal memories of it.  And I knew that everything he was shouting was a lie. Well, there was a bit of truth as bait for the listeners who were unfamiliar with the situation. But this was no simple mistaken opinion. It could only be a conscious intention to mislead and confuse.

Well, he was just some local nutjob, which is why I no longer remember the details of the story.  But I did want to remember his name, just in case. It was “Rush Limbaugh.” Little did I imagine that this was an opening salvo in a nation-wide assault on truth and trust meant to divide our country and  eventually, with Russian help, squeeze our present Chief Executive into office.

This Sunday is Easter, which celebrates truth and trust — a man brought before the Roman authorities 2000 years ago, who said, “My kingdom is not of this world, . . [though] . . I am a king. For this cause I was born, and for this cause I have come into the world, that I should bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice.”  And the Roman said, “What is truth?” In other words, “Does truth have value?  Is truth a king?”  And then he proceeded to execute the man.

Beyond hope, this king, this truth, prevailed and still exists. That’s what Easter Celebrates — that truth can lead us to the one who can save us. And I feel that in the present moment, truth-hating “Romans” are surely back in charge, and not just in my own country.  Only the truth can  prevail. Open the windows and let in the light so everyone can see it. This is why the Russians’ and our own “Romans'” main attacks were not aimed to convince, but to confuse. “FUD” – fear, uncertainty and doubt.

It’s a matter of truth, and a matter of trust. Can we discover the one and establish the other, in order to hear the voice that will lead us out of this mess? That’s my hope, anyway.  The promise of Easter.

Meanwhile, I sit at home in peace, knowing that a tidal wave of disease is about to hit and not seeing it my neighborhood, but only in the news. I do mourn for those who, unlike me, have to go out to work or otherwise stay out with the public.  They deserve at least combat pay.

And by the way, thanks to the quick actions in California, we now have the fewest deaths per capita of any state except for Oregon, where my mother, sister, and brother-in-law live.  In fact the United States as a whole is actually doing fairly well on a per capita basis, probably in large part thanks to California’s and Oregon’s relative success.  And California is now going its own way to procure medical supplies.  Somebody finally had to take responsibility.

I hope that despite the efforts of those trying to divide peoples, we can forge  bonds of truth and trust, because we’re going to need them to deal with the massively worse crisis that’s coming next — global warming. Looking around, I don’t see the pandemic (yet) and the climate on my street seems pretty normal. But it’s on its way.

Anyway, such are my thoughts from the shelter.  On a more positive note, I’m still watching YouTube videos.  And one of my favorite YouTubers, bassist Adam Neely (he of the famous “lick”) just reached a million subscribers. He gave one of his typically introspective presentations, reviewing his YouTube career.  Those who are not fans of self-congratulatory videos, or who might want an explanation of “the lick” can see Adam explain it here at 5:14  and here is an extensive collection.

My favorite cultural commentator, Lindsay Ellis, has been wrestling with the mere existence of “Cats,” the movie. She emerged this week with a longer than usual analysis of that “train wreck.” For those not into hour-long analyses, I can also recommend one of my shorter favorites of hers, about paid product placement and fair use.

Last time I mentioned Cory Henry’s famous keyboards solo on Lingus (here). If you listen to it again, note the contributions of drummer Larnell Lewis. He lays down a bedrock for Cory to construct his solo. Well, it turns out that two more takes of Cory Henry’s Lingus solo from those same sessions are available here and again here. The three taken together constitute a marvelous illustration of how jazz improvisation works.

Jeffrey VanWingen is a doctor with really popular (viral?) videos on how to handle packages coming into the home. Probably most people have seen them by now, but just in case, here’s one of them, and here’s another.

And finally, from my friend Bill, a radio globe, to explore radio stations from almost every country on earth. It’s amazing that the whole sonic earth can be explored so conveniently from our shelters.

I hope that none of us succumbs to the virus in the coming months, and I hope that many of you can let me know how you’re doing in those far-flung corners of the world.

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.

Happy Belated Commemorations!

It’s been a long time since I wrote anything to this list. So many commemorations and holidays have slipped by!  But I don’t want to let myself out of my self-imposed quarterly responsibility.

So Happy Belated Halloween! 33 kids stopped by my door to demand candy.  Happy Belated Armistice/Veterans Day! My father and brother-in-law are both celebrated.  Happy Belated Singles Day! (11/11the big shopping day in China). And Happy Belated Journalists Day (in China) to celebrate Chinese journalist friends — Li, Liu, Han, You, and Du!

Health Update

My right leg is twisting counterclockwise towards the position it should have had all along. This is a long term project, involving physical therapy, traditional Chinese medicine and more. Progress is slow, as it involves reshaping some large muscles (through exercise). It’s also painful. Yes, adventures in pain continue!!!  But never as bad as last winter.

Boating on Lake ChabotI circumnavigated Lake Chabot last week (9 miles or 15 kilometers including some hills), and then paid for it with three days of soreness and exhaustion. Next time I’ll have to stretch more, I guess.

It was worth it, though. I can walk downhill more confidently, probably because my leg muscles now pull in the right directions.  A healthy body may still be possible!!  I’m planning on walking more so I’m not so knackered the next time I find myself at Lake Chabot.  Thanks in advance for your prayers.

The Reunion

Earlier this fall my high school class held its fiftieth reunion. Reunions are always surreal. Everybody kind of assumes that you’re the same person as back then. Maybe some are. But with little contact, who’d ever know? I stopped attending after the 25th, as they didn’t seem relevant to my life. But this year was going to be the final time, since the planning committee had finally gotten burned out from organizing them.

I’m glad I went. By the time I’d returned from China, most of my social support system in California had melted away and “doors” kept closing and still are closing.  I seemed isolated in a winter of change. The class reunion functioned like a transplantation, rooting me in my original ground so, as spring arrives, I can branch out in new directions.

Former Nando Court ResidentsThis picture from the reunion shows folks who, as children, shared my same block on Nando Court, including Mark Hedlund, my best friend from primary school.

Our high school class had about 400 members. About 130 showed up to the reunion. About 60 failed to show because they no longer counted themselves among the living.  That was sobering.

More Reunions

Schafer Park old staffI also had a reunion of sorts with many of my old colleagues from Schafer Park school. It was wonderful to see them again and also to see the many kids that they now have.

Playing MousetrapI also had a reunion with my old Tianjin colleague Lonnie, who brought the kids and wife along. My friends Karen and Jim lent us some vintage games to keep the kids entertained — Mousetrap and Operation. I had no idea that those games still existed.

Telephone scams

This topic has been nagging for years, since it keeps bugging me. Are these anything like yours?

This first one claims to be from Medicare, but in fact, they’re fishing to record me saying “yes,” which could in turn be used to impersonate me elsewhere on the phone system.

The second one claims to be from a computer support company. They’re hoping to find someone who doesn’t realize that nobody in their household contracted such support:

But most “robo-calls” that come to our “land line” leave no message. Three years ago, there’d be about six or eight of these a day — sometimes up to ten.  Gradually these have decreased. Now there are only one or two a day – sometimes up to four.  Sometimes none. I might actually start answering the land line phone again.

Power Plays

So a couple weeks ago I filled my freezer with plastic containers full of ice, because my electricity was going to be turned off for a few days, and I didn’t want the food to spoil. Well, it wasn’t turned off here, but starting up the hill and across wide areas of the state, it was.

We have a monopoly power company so bad that Hollywood made a movie about it in 2000. (called Erin Brockovich) with a famous star (Julia Roberts).  The movie did not reform the company. Ten years ago, an explosion caused by its failure to maintain gas lines killed people near San Francisco. Still it deferred  maintenance, even while paying its executives and stockholders billions of dollars. Last year, their equipment sparked and caused the largest fires in our history, so a judge ordered them to stop paying themselves and to perform maintenance.

But it’s too much maintenance to complete in a year. So when dry winds blew last month, the company simply turned off the electricity to prevent sparks, leaving millions without power. It should take ten years to fix the problems, so I expect this to happen again, and I’m honestly not sure what I need to do to prepare.

Immigrant Child Update

Having written about immigrant kids before, I want to update. Good information is hard to find.  I looked at various sets of numbers, though, which indicate that the policy of separating children from their families at the border is still active, despite court orders to stop it. <sigh> It’s hard when one’s own country acts so shamefully by endangering children.

Indeed, the people now running the country are the most mean-spirited, self-dealing,  secretive and uncooperative group of authoritarians that I could imagine here.  They even attack the structure of government itself, hollowing out and disrupting departments, either neutering their effectiveness or changing the rules to give more to private for-profit giant companies.  And they are bruising our long-standing alliances around the world. This crisis is like none other in my lifetime.

The super-rich benefit, of course. In fact, I think income inequality is what fuels it all, coupled with a divide-and-conquer strategy that runs largely along ethnic lines.  Well, the super-rich have taken charge, to an extent I’ve never seen. Sometimes it seems that not a single ideal from the stable Nando Court middle class which I grew up in has not been betrayed.


By the way, I am sometimes accused of taking an interest in politics. The first person ever to bring that up was my German friend Andreas. That’s him with the beard and white jacket, standing in his kitchen with some of his college roommates in Bonn, a very long time ago.

He once arranged for me to attend a “Never War Again!” event held in the Dortmund sports stadium. It was a gathering of the youth wings of all the labor unions in the Ruhr area on the occasion of the fortieth anniversary of the Germans starting war in Europe.

Poster for anti-war event in Dortmund It was really quite interesting to see tens of thousands of German youth gathered together for such an occasion with no government involvement at all. Unfortunately my German language abilities were pretty rudimentary back then.

Andreas was a very principled man. A conscientious objector, he discharged his military obligations by serving in a psychiatric hospital for several years. His own interest in politics led him eventually to Nicaragua, where he worked to end the rule of Anastasio Samoza.  I count myself lucky to have known him, even though his parents told me that he was their “problem child.” But he was wrong about my interest.

Spending Time Thinking about Things

My own interest is in societies and how they function (or not) in the first place. This interest led to my focus on cultures and ethnicities. As for how this applies to our present peril, which I can’t claim to completely understand, I recently read an article in The Atlantic that mirrors a lot of what I would have to say.  It’s here.

Videos that I’ve followed

Lindsay Ellis loves to analyze popular movies and literature and put it all on video. I enjoy her work because of my own “Movie Night” proclivities (I enjoy talking about movies more than actually watching them), and also because she reminds me of somebody whom I really cared about a long time ago, right down to the rapid clip of her speech.

Anyway, one recent sample of Lindsay’s work can be found here, and another (on PBS) can be found here. One commentator stated that just watching her essays made him smarter.

Last month, at another venue, she presented a dangerous real-life off-topic that threatens society world-wide.  It’s worth consideration, and can be seen here.

On a more positive note, and speaking of public broadcasting, I’m still impressed with National Public Radio’s Tiny Desk concerts. Occasionally even music superstars take a turn at the Desk, to show a different side than we’re used to. Such was Taylor Swift‘s performance, seen and heard on the NPR site here.

A superstar for the older set, David Crosby, has developed his music beautifully since his Crosby, Stills and Nash days. His Tiny Desk set from three months ago is also on the NPR site here. Performing with him is Michael League on guitar.

Mike is the leader and bass player for Snarky Puppy, a North Texas jazz band which advances new musical ground in the grand jazz tradition. My favorite Snarky Puppy tune is Kite, seen here. Even more famous is Lingus, seen here. Lingus is famous for the improvised solo taken by keyboardist Cory Henry, which starts at about 4:20.

A long-standing jazz tradition is to study and assimilate master-crafted improvisations.  Did any younger musician have the stature and accomplishment to inspire such study? Well, Cory Henry has. His Lingus solo is analyzed by  composer David Bruce here. Jacob Martin copied it all out note for note here.  Renan Gerstenberger learned it on keyboard here.  Matt Menefee plays it on banjo here.  Igor Pererodov plays it on alto saxophone here. Joakim Berghäll plays it on a variety of instruments here.

Cory Henry grew up playing the organ in church. He has not forgotten those roots. Here he is improvising an arrangement of Amazing Grace on the piano.  Naturally somebody transcribed that, too.


As so often happens, I wrote far more than I’d planned when I sat down.

I began writing to this list while still in China. The platform helped me process the new (to me) Chinese society while staying accountable to its members. That’s why Chinese people are on the list. And as a stranger in a strange land, I also needed “moral support” from readers.

I still need the platform and support here, much more than I ever thought I would, and mostly for the same reasons.  That’s why I’m so grateful to those who write back to me.

When I visited Andreas in Germany, I taped talk shows off the radio so I could practice listening later at home.

One show discussed Heaven and Hell. Hell was like guests sitting at a banquet, tables smothered in food. But nobody ate because the forks were all too long to hold in the hand and bring near the mouth simultaneously.

Heaven, it turns out, was exactly the same, but the guests used their long forks to feed each other. I can still hear the words precisely — “sie füttern sich gegenseitig.” I think this view is right. And it’s the only way to finally solve the predicaments that we, as a world-wide community, presently suffer.  But I don’t really know how to bring it about.

Downy WoodpeckerAnyway, that’s what I’ve been thinking about lately. I’ll end with a Downy Woodpecker, spotted here in the back yard. I never saw such a bird in this neighborhood when I was young.







Happy Fourth of July!

Greetings from California, where I celebrated America’s National Day by strolling with an old friend from Schafer Park, and dining with the legendary Carlbob. And Lizziebob made a lemon meringue pie with homemade ice cream!

Health Update

My health still wavers, but it continues to improve overall after hitting bottom again last winter, a condition that I think was exacerbated by unexpected reactions to some prescriptions.  So I’m more on track now. Three years ago, it would have taken me a week or longer to write something like this. This time, I started and finished a first draft on the same afternoon.

At this point, though, I see some sort of health professional almost every week. It’s hard to imagine that I had gone decades without seeing anyone but my dentist, dental hygienist, and optometrist.  Finally, my dad had kept nagging me to get an annual checkup, but for years nothing interesting was noted.  I guess I’m making up for all that now.

Meantime, I’m still limited in my activities, so I end up spending time reflecting about the past and so many fine memories which remind me how lucky I’ve been for most of my life.

Some of these memories have been evoked under the auspices of a cognitive psychologist. It’s really quite amazing how unresolved, unprocessed, and half-forgotten issues from way back in one’s life (as well as more recent stresses) can result in physical pains and weaknesses in the present time. It also helps explain how simple messages and support from people on this list have provided actual physical pain relief since I returned from China.  And I am thankful for any and all  such messages.

And again I have to particularly thank my friends Jim and Karen for their active support in getting me through all this.

The Biography

Speaking of my father, who lives in Arizona, he recently downsized into a smaller apartment, so he sent me two original manuscripts that his father Charles had written, back in 1948. One was an autobiography and the other a biography of Charles’s own father, Peter, my great-grandfather, on whose bed frame I still sleep today (with a newer mattress).

Peter MacFarlane was born in 1848, saw service in the Civil War, and spent most of his life in the logging business. Charles (born 1870) worked with him for many years in the same business. Since the two men had worked together so long, the two manuscripts often describe the same events, though stressing different details. So I folded the two narratives into a single document.

It was really fun to do, actually, and it provided yet another example of how lucky I’ve been, since I guess that most people would not have such manuscripts available. The world they describe differs from ours not only because of the century that has passed, but also because logging is its own cultural world, one that most people today have little contact with. It was a world of great technological progress, and of great danger. Take a look at the man in this picture, which accompanied the manuscripts. He drives a “donkey engine,” like a Lilliputian among giants, any one of which might casually snuff him out.

And it was a world where physical strength was paramount, since one’s logging skills mattered little without the strength to wield them.

Anyway, in case anyone would like to see what I’m talking about, I’m attaching just my great-grandfather’s biography to this message (since the combined document is just too long). Peter C MacFarlane small-sized pages

Egg Shells

My new car still runs well, and I feel that anyone who ever tries driving an electric engine will love it. It develops power at much lower speeds, and the power is smooth.

That said, I have a couple complaints, which seem to apply to many modern cars. The first is its fish shape, which means that the view out the back is severely limited, even with a back-up camera, compared to what I’m used to. This resulted in my backing up in the dark into a low brick wall, an event which leads me to my second complaint.  My old cars always had bumpers, so such a bump at such a low speed would have been felt and no damage would have been done. The new cars have egg shells instead, so when I backed up, I perceived nothing until a loud noise announced the breakage, as seen in this picture. It will cost $1600 to fix it!

<sigh> It makes me remember a Spanish teacher from Buenos Aires whom I knew many decades ago. In that city, she said, nobody set their parking brakes, because the city was absolutely flat. So instead of parallel parking between cars, you’d just go the end of the block and push everybody forward with your bumper until you had created a parking spot for yourself.  I don’t think that strategy would work any longer, even in Argentina!


I still regularly take advantage of my zoo membership, and have visited both the Oakland and San Francisco zoos recently to take pictures.

I went to San Francisco to snap some shots of a kangaroo, since I’ve started making my calendar for next year, which is the year of the rat, and kangaroos are “pocket rats” in Chinese. I will probably include this serene specimen.

And here’s a resting rhea to go with him.

Davis Band

When I was a student at UC Davis many decades ago, I organized a German polka band for our dorm. At the time I was also in the university marching band.

When one of that band’s officers heard about the polka band, he suggested that I borrow some old uniforms from him for my players. At the time, a large storage room in the main administration building held dozens, maybe hundreds, of old uniforms. So I borrowed a few. However, he never told me when they were needed back.

So this year I emailed the band to find out more. I arranged to finally return them to the present uniform manager, seen smiling with my box of old uniforms in this photo.

It was also a chance to visit one of my pseudo-nephews, who lives in Davis. And I’m really proud of the two of them, since they will both be gainfully employed starting this fall. The one in Davis will be a lecturer in mathematics at the university, and the one in San Jose will be helping to coordinate groups who work with gang members and former gang members. Such great news.


I did get up to Portland last spring, where I visited my sister, brother-in-law and mother. My brother-in-law and I did a whole mess of gardening, both in my mother’s yard and in her neighbor’s yard.  We also got a set of annual flowers to fill my mother’s pots, like we had done last year.

Actually, though,  that house’s garden, after a century of our family’s occupation, was already full of flowers that came into bloom at various times throughout the spring, one on top of another in sequence.

I also saw my old grey-beard Chinese friend Ma Min in Portland, whom many on this list also know. We got together at the Children’s Hospital in Southwest Portland, mainly because of the spectacular view, as seen in this picture. He had relatives in tow, whom I remembered meeting in Tianjin in 2001.  Small world!

And my California neighbor Joanne told me about this tofu delicatessen in southeast Portland. Not only is the quality excellent, but the fried tofu comes in various flavors as well. I haven’t been able to find the like in the California Bay Area, so if anybody knows of one, please tell me.


A while back I wrote about the scandalous goings-on at our southern border, and particularly the inhumane treatment of children, mainly central Americans, seeking asylum. As someone who spent an entire career advocating for children, I found my own country’s strikes against them to be particularly offensive and tragic.

Since many on this list, particularly those in other countries, might not be following this story, I feel kind of obligated to mention it, since it’s still going on, though it now seems that people of all ages are being herded into camps and cages, treated with the same disdain, and this as a matter of policy.

American Jews and Japanese, having had their own experiences with ethnic detention camps, are often on hand to protest these present-day versions, which are not only overcrowded, but dirty to boot, and in one case, located on the site of an old detention camp for Japanese Americans.

The present administration paints these asylum seekers as criminals, which they are not. They are mainly fleeing death from gangs (such as the American gang MS-13, which branched out into Central America) or from starvation, since climate change has resulted in record droughts and failed crops in the region.

This treatment does not represent the American ideals that I was taught as a child.  Such treatment is not in the character of anyone I know.  And it’s also shameful to have a secretive head of state who so artfully employs all the antisocial behaviors that we school teachers all teach our students to avoid. In this sense, then, I’m glad I’m not a primary school teacher at this moment to have to explain it all.


I wanted to end by recommending a musical group called “I’m with her” – three women playing something similar to bluegrass, but with surprisingly sophisticated harmonies at times.  It’s hard to believe that someone like me, who doted on groups like the Art Ensemble of Chicago for so many years now likes music so blatantly tonal.

I first heard them a year ago on (where else?) an NPR tiny desk concert here. They recently posted a wonderful full-length concert here which I often leave playing while writing.

I hope everyone has a wonderful summer, and I’d love to hear from you.

Happy Easter!

Happy Easter from California!

Recent Activities, such as they are

I made this yellowing paper Easter bunny when I was very small. Unfortunately, it’s joined the never-ending stream of old artifacts that I give away or throw away every week.  However, before it abandoned the scene, it was immortalized, digitized, by my Sony Cyber-Shot DSC-HX80.

I haven’t written an update in quite a while.  Some things have gone better lately, but not before I reached rock bottom a couple months ago, as I was wracked with pains.  They imprisoned me at home for well over a month. Now it appears that those pains were, at least in part, the accumulated side-effects of a medicine that I had been taking since returning from China.

The good part is that my friends, especially Jim and Karen, came to my rescue and helped take me to doctors, and in general supported me through the dark times.  I’m not “out of the woods” yet, and some pains continue despite the withdrawal of the medicine. But at least they’ve receded enough that I could welcome my friend from China, Li Wen, one of three journalist friends who helped me understand China more deeply and accurately way back when.  Here she sits with Jim and Karen, as we ate “hot pot” with Tianjin University dinner plates and chopsticks.

Point Reyes PicnicIt was wonderful to see her again after almost three years. And showing her around took my mind off my otherwise self-centered focus on pain. We visited several Bay Area sights, including the Golden Gate Bridge, Major League Baseball, Point Reyes and Lake Chabot.  We even shared a chocolate rabbit together, in honor of Easter.

2019-02-10 Band PerformanceAnother highlight this winter was our fifteenth and final Castro Valley High School band reunion.  For one last time, we former students enjoyed playing under the direction of our old band teacher in the very room where we’d performed together so long ago, a room full of memories of high school musicals and pancake breakfasts. Actually, I was pleasantly surprised to find that I could still play my old saxophone after a long hiatus.

In January, our Sunday school class helped out with a free meal for homeless people, an event that takes place at one church or another every day of the month in the Berkeley area.  I’m very thankful that I don’t have to live that way, and along with the other class members, was only too glad to help out those who must.

MeerkatI also finally became an Oakland Zoo supporter. I’ve visited there now three times, including once with my guest Li Wen this week. I can bring in a guest for free with my membership, so if you’re in the area and want to visit a zoo, contact me!  Here’s a bonus meerkat!

Lagoon Valley ParkAnd finally I took an afternoon last week to visit my pseudo-nephew John up in Davis. On the way back I snapped a picture of Lagoon Valley Park near Peña Adobe Park near Vacaville. It’s the same scene that I’ve featured more than once in my annual calendars. It’s amazing that every year it looks just as gorgeous as every other year.

What’s On My Mind

Since I was stuck at home for so much of the last few months, I don’t have very many events to share.  However, I did compose the previous post about the United States and its multiculture nature, so I think  when I add this post to the previous one, that’s enough for this season.


The United States

I was recently asked my opinion about how America might move forward at this point in history, when our society sometimes seems fragmented to the point that the various shards reflect separate realities.

The short answer is “democratically.” But that answer leaves out some essentials.  Voting rights do need bolstering, but more importantly, the society which casts those votes needs to be understood. And that society is multi-ethnic.

These days, some people talk about “multiculturalism” as if it were a modern philosophy which we can adopt or reject as we choose. Actually, that choice was made four centuries ago.  Right from its inception, the United States has incorporated a multiplicity of cultures from at least three different continents.  It’s tradition.  So the only genuine options nowadays are whether to embrace this continuing reality or ignore it.

For me, America’s diversity has long been its source of strength, despite the inevitable disconnects that may occur between groups. So the way forward begins with an appreciation of our multiculture’s structure and its strengths (which are many), because that’s the base upon which all else is built.

First, though, one must be clear what “culture” is in the first place.

What is culture?

The term “culture” can be confusing, because its meaning has varied through time.  Centuries ago, it meant “to make something grow.” It’s still used that way in words like “agriculture” and “cultivate.” Later, “culture” came to mean “cultivating the mind,” such as learning to appreciate  music, the arts, poetry, etc. It still is commonly used in that sense.

Then about a hundred years ago, the field of “anthropology” was invented and “culture” came to refer to the physical objects that supposedly expressed an ethnic group’s way of life.  These cultural objects were a little like fashion accessories in that they could have been produced one way or another according to taste and available materials.

I don’t use “culture” in any of those senses. For me, culture is not an accessory for human societies, but the essential core of a society. It’s a system of thought that embraces human languages but much more, as reflected in questions like these:

When is it proper to look somebody in the eye? What is the proper role of an aunt or uncle in a child’s life?  Do I treat my honored guest to a restaurant meal or to a meal at home? Is it proper to ask the person you just met where they’re from? How about their salary?  Is it proper to receive gifts from friends on your birthday, or should you be the one to give gifts to those friends? How binding is a contract? How late must you be to owe somebody an apology? Such questions get different answers depending upon the culture.

The above paragraph uses the word “proper” advisedly. People within a culture will characterize  the answers to such questions as being “correct” or not —  “common-sense” rules.  So, for example, there is a “correct” or “proper” physical distance between people having a conversation, depending upon their relationship to each other. Nobody teaches that “separation distance” explicitly, but people pick up on it implicitly as they grow up in  a particular culture. 

Again, unless people are forced to interact with foreign cultures which prescribe different separation distances, they assume that their own culture’s distance is “proper,” a universal standard.  This assumption that one’s own cultural rules are universal (when in fact they are relative) is called ethnocentricity. Every human is subject to ethnocentricity. I’ll return to that idea below.

An Important Caveat

Professor Charles Irby at UC Davis first brought the importance of ethnicity and culture to my attention, back when I attended college there.  But he always cautioned us that, however one measures, people within a culture vary more than one culture varies from another. That is, any  particular culture includes individuals who would answer the previous section’s questions differently than what’s typical for that culture.

So the attention to cultures that I advocate should ultimately serve as a bridge to the individual human beings who live within them, who are never as easy to categorize as we sometimes might wish. Interestingly, the only person outside Professor Irby’s class whom I ever heard express that same opinion about variation within cultures was a young Japanese woman whom I met at a linguistics school, even though Japan itself is not really a multicultural society.  How did she know?

Inter-Cultural Miscommunications

When I first began teaching in China, I enjoyed how so many young women (the university students) wanted to flirt with me.  At last, a whole category of people was acknowledging my good looks and charming manner!! Alas, though, my own ethnocentricity had led me astray.  The “proper” separation distance in a normal Chinese conversation is simply closer than it is in my own culture.  I assumed that the students’ nearness expressed a special meaning like it might have done back home.  My mistake!  Well, eventually I got used to it and life seemed normal again.

Some things, though, I never could get used to. For instance, Chinese acquaintances often greeted me with “Have you eaten?” In California, that would have meant a lunch invitation. In China, it’s just what they say instead of “How are you today?” And no, this doesn’t mean that Chinese culture values tasty food while my own culture cares more about people’s overall health.

But even though I eventually figured that all out, I always involuntarily glanced around, seeking restaurants, every time I heard such “non-invitations.”

So going forward, we who take part in our American multiculture must figure out how to work with the other groups while remaining true to ourselves. We cannot just interpret the actions of other groups at face value, because that’s often just the face of our own ethnocentricity. And of course, the ultimate goal is to work more effectively with individual persons. Along these lines, it not only helps to study our other cultures, it helps to become more aware of one’s own culture.

The above examples of separation distance and cheery greetings focus on misunderstandings, which can be uncomfortable. Many other intercultural interactions are more pleasurable and stimulating. But friction draws attention to itself. So to counter this tendency towards negativity, on must bear in mind that, on balance, cultural diversity imparts strength and depth to society. For example:

1. A New Option for Child-Rearing

A few days ago, I read an interesting article about child rearing in the Inuit culture of Canada’s farthest north. For much of the year, when the weather is ice cold, the Inuit live inside, in very close quarters, so they’ve developed strategies for keeping anger under control.  The article explains how they pass these coping skills onto their young children.

These child-rearing skills seem quite different from what I’ve observed here in America. Should all Americans adopt them? Not necessarily. People who don’t live so close together may not need them. But the Inuit’s culture could provide options that other people might find useful, so long as they don’t dismiss them as outside the boundaries of “common sense.” This is the power of ethnic diversity — it increases the resources available to all.

2. An Individual in a Diverse Population

Biologists always stress that in diversity there is strength.  It’s true for every population of living things, not just for humans. Inbreeding makes for weaker organisms, and not just for old European royalty.

But one never knows which individual in a diverse population will carry the day for all.  Take the example of  German entrepreneur Oskar Schindler who used his famous list to save 1200 lives during World War II.

For most of his life, Schindler was an irresponsible womanizer with a dysfunctional life. But his heart was good. In wartime, he could leverage his few real skills into a momentous and heroic deed. After the war ended, his life inevitably disintegrated. He wouldn’t have even lived to age 64 had not the people whom he’d saved sent him money every year.

So this individual who, in normal times, needed assistance just to survive, was a hero in extreme times.  That’s the value that biologists find in diversity. So maybe that random  homeless person seen on the streets is an Oskar Schindler in waiting.

What’s true of human individuals is also true of human cultures. You never know when an obscure culture might carry the day for all.

3. All That Jazz

Sometimes it’s not the individual culture that triumphs, but an interaction among cultures. 

A hundred years ago, New Orleans’s dominant cultures included Creoles, Cajuns, and Africans, as well as an English-speaking elite class. The African Americans drew upon the cultural resources of all the other groups in fashioning jazz music. It all came together in the genius of Louis Armstrong.

But jazz can be more than just a musical style. It’s a method of organizing group interactions in order to promote each member’s spontaneity and creativity. Its main innovation is a leadership role (called “the soloist”) which passes from one member to another during the performance. As each group member takes a turn as an improvising soloist, all the other musicians shift their own improvisations to supporting roles. Specific structures such as chords and scales and rhythmic forms are imposed by tradition, yet remain flexible enough to maximize the musical inventions.

This form of group interaction also works outside of music. In an elementary school, it can structure groups of students.  In my own classroom, the rotating leadership model worked particularly well for creative arts activities like “writer’s workshop,” but it could be adapted to any curricular area.

It would probably also work in a small Silicon Valley start-up, or a university research lab.  It’s not the only way to arrange such small groups, but it should be considered when creativity must be maximized. And if not for Louis Armstrong and the ethnic soup of old New Orleans, the option might not have occurred to anybody.

Such inter-cultural invention reminds me of our own federal republic. Where did the idea for that organization come from? Some historians trace it back to the Roman Republic or Athenian democracy. Others trace it to Native American federations such as the Iroquois League. Probably it emerged from the intersection of all of these.

So going forward, we should remember the benefits of a diverse multiculture, and not just try to shoe-horn everybody into one cultural form.

The Durability of our Multiculture

The British colonies in America were set up by a United Kingdom which was itself multi-ethnic, despite its small size. So no wonder British America was multi-ethnic, right from the get-go. In fact, the UK’s multicultural strength may help explain how such small islands could found one of the largest empires in history.  And it might help explain how the British held onto North America’s heartland when other colonizers couldn’t.

In the beginning, different British colonies were founded by different British cultures. New England and the American lowland South were founded by Anglo-Saxons from Southern England.  Pennsylvania was settled from the old Danelaw, an essentially Scandinavian cultural area in central-east Britain,  and Appalachia was mainly settled by Scots (who differ from English), from either the Scottish lowlands or from Northern Ireland.  That’s three cultures right off the bat, without even considering the Celtic cultures of Ireland, Wales, Cornwall, and the Scottish Highlands, all of which eventually joined British America.

Other European countries  — Sweden in Delaware, and Holland in New York — founded colonies which eventually turned British. The Dutch were particularly open to diversity. When New York City was still Dutch New Amsterdam, it famously included significant populations of Jews, Dutch, Danes, English, Flemish, French, Germans, Irish, Italians, Norwegians, Poles, Portuguese, Scots, Swedes, Walloons, and Bohemians. Today’s New York still boasts some of the greatest ethnic diversity in America.

Native Americans and Africans joined this ethnic mix, in large part unwillingly, but joined nonetheless. Like the rest, they didn’t forget their cultures when they joined in. In fact, it may be more accurate to say that they couldn’t forget their cultures. 

The Propagation of Culture

Again, cultures endure. People hand them down through the generations just like they hand down native languages — through example and experience, and in large part subconsciously, not through direct instruction.

Professor Irby used to say that a culture’s foremost expression is its language.  Both language and the other aspects of culture (as indicated by that group of questions above) facilitate communication, group organization, emotional expressions, technological developments, and much more. So examples of how languages endure can show how cultures endure.

Britain’s Anglo Saxons, four centuries ago, spoke a form of modern English differing little from today’s.  This language was much like that of William Shakespeare, who was alive back then.  It survives pretty much intact in the isolated dialects of the inhabitants of Chesapeake Bay as presented in the classic TV series The Story of English. Four centuries is a pretty long time.

Other aspects of a culture are just as enduring. They persist, even when surrounded by other cultures, because people are most comfortable with those who share their culture, just as people are most comfortable with those who share their language.  Both of these motivations encourage people to maintain their ethnic groups. This multiplicity of groups results in a United States that is culturally not a melting pot but a salad bowl, another concept that Charles Irby first pointed out to me.

Some authors, to demonstrate this inter-generational cultural persistence, have identified several geographically distinct North American cultural regions (called “nations,” a word that usually refers to an ethnic group) whose dominant cultures descend from those which first  settled each region.

One such system appears in American Nations by Colin Woodard, who plots out eleven regional nations (that is, dominant cultures) in North America.  His book is reviewed here, at the Independent Newspaper. The cultures of these eleven nations may not remain exactly as they were when planted, but the ancestry is clear.

Again, a culture’s endurance comes from its transmission through subconscious training, and its reinforcement through group attraction. Culture is not baked into people’s DNA.

Some people, though, believe otherwise. A Chinese friend in China regularly picks out the flaws in China’s mainland culture and despairs of them ever improving because he feels that culture comes from the people’s DNA. The two of us have still not finished our argument about it.

Another example from China involves my friend Lonnie’s American friend, raised in Taiwan to speak Chinese natively. He later moved to the mainland, where his new housemaid understood none of it. He suspected that the woman’s comprehension was inhibited by the common Chinese belief that Europeans are genetically incapable of speaking Chinese, and therefore what she heard could not possibly be Chinese.

So he pointed at his face, and shouted (always in Mandarin) “Pay no attention to this nose!  Just listen!”  The shocked woman forgot not to understand him, and they experienced no further comprehension problems.

Some Americans also subscribe to the DNA theory, but not quite the same way. I’ll come back to that point later. Meanwhile, Charles Irby used to joke (sort of) that if a human baby were raised by a herd of sheep, then that baby would “inherit” sheep culture.

So going forward, the durability of our multiculture, from its founding to the present day, and into the future, demonstrates that it’s worth taking into account.

Cultures Endure, But Can Evolve

Cultures can change or evolve, despite their stability, particularly through contact with other cultures, as again demonstrated in the history of the English language. As we trace it back in time, it changes very little until A.D. 1066. Before that date, English is quite hard to understand, though much of the same vocabulary was already present. After that date, it’s much more understandable.

So what happened in 1066? French-speaking Vikings (the “Normans”) invaded and conquered England, and remained there as rulers. So Old English combined with French to form a double-branched language, with English still structuring the core. The two branches still persist, almost a millennium later, giving modern English perhaps the largest vocabulary of any language. Another triumph of cultural diversity!

Similarly, newly-arrived cultures in America can evolve pretty quickly where they meet the American educational and legal systems, as well as the English language, while retaining much of their traditional cores. But the old culture is used in an American way, resulting in a double-branched culture, like the double-branched English language itself.  Thus, when I visited China with a group of second-generation American-born Chinese people (known as “ABC”s) they had insights into Chinese thinking that I lacked, yet they were often as mystified by China’s society as I was.

So going forward, we can identify, strengthen and disseminate the aspects of the American multiculture that foreign cultures most easily assimilate and those which they most need for participating in society, while giving them space to maintain their traditional cultures as a “second branch.” I’ll come back to this point.

Multicultures which aren’t English-dominated, and Monocultures

Depending upon the location, the dominant American cultural groups are not necessarily English. This map, produced by the US government (click it to see it full sized), indicates which ancestral nationality was claimed most frequently in each and every US county. The dominance of Latino culture in the Southwest is no surprise, but look at all the Germans!

The dominant culture is rarely an actual majority, but a plurality. Only one county has a plurality of Chinese – San Francisco County, of course.

The map’s variety hints at the diversity beneath each plurality —  multiple cultures, planted amidst each other, that persist due to the natural staying power of cultures.

America’s cultural complexity ramped up quickly in the nineteenth century because, until the Immigration Act of 1924, the borders were essentially open. (except for the Chinese, who were excluded by law in 1875 and 1882). Prior to that, officials may have recorded who came and went, but (except for Asians) they didn’t generally try to stop them.  Not every one could become a citizen, but they could mostly stay anyway. So I know that my Swedish grandfather eventually became a US Citizen, but I have no idea if my immigrant grandmothers ever did. All three of them had come to America before 1924.

This accelerating complexity didn’t end in the nineteenth century. My old Hayward School District is much smaller than a county, with 21,000 students. Yet those students speak almost as many minority languages as in all of China! In fact, China provides a useful contrast with America.


China likes to play up its 56 ethnic minority groups. It sounds like a lot. But all together they comprise only 7 or 8 percent of the population. And they mostly live in out-of-the-way locations, around the periphery of the country, or out west. And China is working to sideline many of them even there, forcing them into re-education camps, basically to eliminate their ethnicity, while boatloads of ethnic Chinese move west to dilute their population.  (To be fair, America also has a history of attempted ethnic elimination through dilution and reeducation, particularly concerning Native Americans, whose land was coveted).

So  China is probably as ethnically pure as such a large country can get in the real world. (To be fair, one could argue that the majority ethnic Chinese may not actually be a single culture.  But they think they are. And if not, their cultures would be closely related in any case.)

Many Chinese assume that the rest of the world’s countries are just as pure. My Chinese students would often say, “The Chinese people think thus and so. What do Americans think?”  That statement makes some sense in China, but the question makes little sense in America, where different groups frame issues different ways.

Such an expectation of national purity caused one Chinese student to be shocked by this picture of a show at my old elementary school in Hayward, many many years ago.

“Is that really America?” he asked me. “I see no blondes!”

Another example of monoculture that I experienced might be Ireland before it joined the EU. Just about everybody there was Irish because job scarcity discouraged immigration.  China and pre-EU Ireland may not seem relevant to the multicultural United States. However, the Chinese aren’t the only ones who presume a single American majority culture. Many Americans do, too.

Hidden Differences – 1. Ethnocentricity

Ethnocentricity, again, leads people to believe that their own culture is universally “normal” or “proper.” Thus, they may ignore or misinterpret the features of other cultures. Again, language can be used to model this process, though rather artificially in this case.

The word “familiar” occurs in both English and Spanish, but with different meanings. In English, it’s something well known and routine. In Spanish it’s one’s blood relatives (family).

But ethnocentricity might lead an English speaker assume that it can only mean”Well known and routine,” regardless of the language.  In that case, Spaniards seem to use “well known and routine” in odd ways, which may in turn lead the English speaker to falsely impute various values to Spanish culture.

So, to the English speaker, a Spaniard who frequently mentions “familiar time” isn’t spending time with family. He’s just stuck in the “well known and routine.” And that must mean, in turn, that Spaniards are unadventurous and fearful people, clinging to old habits. Of course, Spaniards are not like that at all, not even in this crude and artificial metaphor. It’s a misunderstanding caused by ethnocentric assumptions.

This kind of misunderstanding occurs between cultures all the time, such as my above-mentioned assumptions about separation distances and lunch “invitations.” Thank goodness I waited to learn the truth about them, and didn’t assume that they indicated some character flaw in the culture.

The lesson to be drawn going forward?  On closer inspection, cultural “differences in values” often turn out to be the same old common values, just expressed in different ways.

Hidden Differences – 2. Ethnic Clusters

As mentioned above, people who share a culture tend to stick together, because they understand each other more intuitively.  The people outside this cultural island, even if they belong to a variety of cultures, may all be equally hard to relate to. Therefore such outsiders may not seem to be a variety of cultures, but a single “other” culture — maybe the one shown on television or something. And thus, a majority American culture must exist, just not necessarily in “our group.”

Hidden Differences – 3. Ethnic Status

Probably the principle reason for a belief in a majority American culture is that some American cultures are more privileged than others. The elites, whether teachers, managers, heads of state, or businessmen, tend to hail from a limited number of related cultures, since “birds of a feather” are more comfortable together.

In contrast to the previous example (number 2 above), the American elites’ “cultural island” seems not to stand apart from those around it. That’s because those other cultural groups adapt to appear more like elites (at least superficially), usually for economic reasons. So a Chinese elite person accurately observes that his surrounding society shares his culture. An American elite person observes  something similar, but it’s an illusion, not only maintained by his own group’s ethnocentricity, but by the other groups who have become bicultural.

Two examples of Americans that I met in China are illustrative.

I once attended a wedding reception in China. I sat with some employees and clients of a Chinese company that I knew. The group included one client from Kentucky. I remarked that he must not come from the Appalachian part of the state (the mountain part), since he didn’t have that accent.  “Oh, y’ mean lack this?” he answered. It was like the sudden emergence of Li’l Abner or Jed Clampett. Andy Taylor?

He carried on with his “mountain talk” for a while, ending with “If I taowk lack that . . .  nobody takes me seriously.”  No doubt so, unless he was back home in Appalachia.  In the business world, he changes his language and adapts his cultural appearance to accommodate business elites.

For the curious, there’s a video about the relative status of Appalachian culture here. And another video provides more details of the Appalachian version of English here.

A great example of Appalachian English is provided by the well-known seven-foot-tall Appalachian storyteller Ray Hicks telling a traditional “Jack Tale.” Ray also appears (with subtitles) in this wonderful PBS documentary about Appalachian arts. He also appears in this other wonderful PBS video about the Scottish language and how it evolved on its journey through America.

This Kentuckian contrasted strongly with  another American client of that same Chinese company, whom I met at a different luncheon with those very same employees.  The conversation was held in English, and he mused aloud that maybe English should supplant the world’s other languages, in the interest of more efficient communication. 

Everybody at the table waited for him to laugh at his own joke. But time dripped by and it gradually dawned upon the rest of  us that he was serious.  I never asked, but can pretty much guarantee, that this fellow was not from Appalachia, because an Appalachian would have had more perspective.

Again, the less-privileged groups trade what’s “proper” to them for what’s “proper” to someone else, when interacting with them.  They still maintain their own culture, because it’s hard not to. Is the situation frustrating? Maybe not, if such adaptations have been incorporated into their own cultures over the generations.

But going forward, it’s helpful to recognize the reality of the American multiculture and not bind ourselves to the elite’s vision of a majority culture. This would ensure that all our citizens fully participate in society.  It’s also helpful to recognize the elite’s point of view, which causes some people to ignore the multi-ethnic reality. It’s natural, then, for them to view “multiculturalism” as a new movement, instead of a long-standing tradition. We need to build bridges to these people, too, and take their concerns seriously. 

By the way, none of this argument means that “standards” aren’t useful. They are. But how are they characterized? Actually, China, for all its “standards” mania, provides a good example with the name for its standard language. It’s not “proper” language, but “common language,” a term which emphasizes its practicality without implying any moral values.

To Be Fair, Cultural Differences Can Be a Pain

In defense of ethnocentricity, cultural differences can be frustrating, as I found out in China.  Two people who speak different languages can at least perceive that the languages are different. An ex-pat might not even perceive his differences with the surrounding culture at first. Instead, ethnocentricity grants a “honeymoon” period, when he experiences even more freedom from the consequences of his social actions than he’d have back home, especially if he’s in China where the people readily forgive the foreigner for not understanding what he’s doing.

But as months or years pass, the foreigner can no longer evade the accumulating pile of differences, since the surrounding society increasingly demands more genuine interaction. Eventually, as my compatriot Rob Moore expressed it, the frustrated foreigner screams “What the heck is wrong with these people?”

I’ve been there.

But that’s the teachable moment. Of course, nothing’s wrong with “these people.” That’s obvious in China, a country that’s made such great strides in recent years. Instead, it’s time for the foreigner to finally loosen his grip on his own culture, and get with the program.

The lesson for America is that friction between cultures can be real and significant.  So going forward, to maintain the advantages of a diverse society, we should understand its component cultures and acknowledge them, in order to further intercultural communication and smooth the inevitable frictions that occur.

After all, maintenance is a common task. We maintain vehicles, houses, corporate structures. etc., so  why not our multiculture, when it offers just as many advantages?

Race Spaces – What is Race?

As mentioned above, Americans (I think) don’t directly impute cultural characteristics to DNA, like my Chinese friend did.  But they do (at least, many do) impute cultural characteristics, abilities, or “values” to DNA through the idea of “race.” This idea represents just one of many definitions of the word “racism,” by the way.

So if we are to move forward, we must reckon with the American idea of race and how it conflates with culture. Is race real, by the way?

For many years, an old book, The Story of the Irish Race, sat on my shelf. It’s actually a fairly conventional history of Ireland, published a hundred years ago. It calls the Irish a “race.” Indeed the English had long viewed the “Wild Irish” as organically different from themselves. Are they?

Science says “not really.” When DNA sequencing first became practical, scientists found no difference at all between the Irish and English populations. More recent studies, mainly designed for dealing with genetic diseases,  have teased out some differences at essentially the extended family level, but to me, none of them establish anything approaching a race, a subspecies.

In fact, the evidence I’ve seen indicates that all modern humans belong to a single race of a single species, with minimal variation between populations. Any other races died out long ago. These were the Neanderthals, the Denisovans, and maybe some undiscovered others.

The point of all this: Racial groups may seem to be  determined biologically, but they are not. They are constructed socially, according to taste, by picking and choosing different assortments from a panoply of superficial human traits.

I used to favor the racial system where Finns (like my grandmother) and East Asians (like my Chinese friends) all belong to the same “race.” But that’s sentiment, not biology. 

Americans traditionally define races by skin-deep traits like skin color and nose shape. So the white-skinned-and-bushy-bearded Ainu of Japan go with Europeans (whom they resemble) though their closest actual relatives are dark-skinned lightly-bearded East Asians. This American version of race also splits Finns from East Asians. So I don’t much care for it.  Actually, though, I don’t much care for any race system.

So ethnic cultures are more consequential than race for understanding human societal groups. Racial systems can be constructed according to whim. Cultures, on the other hand, are durable. They resist change even if people try to change.

There is one important caveat to this negation of race as a valid factor in human population groups. Since many Americans put stock in the reality of race, this belief itself has a tremendous effect on our society, obviously disadvantaging some, but even affecting those whom it doesn’t disadvantage.

So it makes me feel trapped. Ideas of “Race” were planted in and around me, in large part subconsciously, as part of my culture growing up. So I’m stuck with them, and to move beyond them requires effort. How did “race” get to be so important in America, even though it’s less real than ethnicity?

Expanding Racial Majorities

The elite ethnic groups in America ran into a problem early on — that they were a minority in their own country. (The Founding Father James Madison called the richest of them the “minority of the opulent”).  But in a democracy, their privileges could be voted away by a majority.  So to remain elite, they needed to make common cause with other groups.  They eventually turned to the idea of race (though they hadn’t invented it) and established a “whiteness umbrella” of various ethnic groups to form a governing majority, which they expanded as needed to maintain its influence.

 This measured expansion was not a conspiracy, at least not in the normal sense of that word. Nobody gathered in smoke-filled rooms to plan out a national strategy. They just fell into it because each expansion felt right at the time. Nor is it the only reason that race moved into the heart of American society. Slavery is another obvious reason.

The Irish and the Italians are typical examples of the expanding umbrella. Originally outside it, they were invited inside, perhaps even begrudgingly, to stand against “non-white” groups.  In fact, I’m old enough to remember the final complete acceptance of Irish Catholics when John Kennedy was elected president.

Those under the “whiteness” umbrella didn’t necessarily lose their authentic ethnic identity. The Kentuckian in China is one example. My own family is another.  In fact, I never fully appreciated the strength of cultural continuity until I actually visited Sweden and found that the people there “felt” a lot like the second- and third-generation Swedish-Americans of my childhood community. They didn’t seem exactly the same, but the relation was unmistakable. Before then I’d thought that that part of my family was just odd.

Some “white” people whom I’ve known do complain that they have no ethnic culture — they’re just “white.”  This sentiment is real, though strictly speaking, it’s not really possible for humans to exist without a culture. But they’ve expressed envy when other ethnic minorities celebrate their own cultures (or the non-English branch of it). But perhaps a trip to their ancestral homeland would demonstrate to them, as it did to me, how much ethnicity survives within them, subconsciously acquired while they were growing up.

Nowadays, the American system is running out of ethnic groups to plausibly transform from “non-white” (like the Irish and Italians and Slavs used to be) to “white” (like the Irish and Italians and Slavs are now).  And so we hear the complaint that “in twenty years, whites will no longer be the majority!

Oh brother! Such sentiments always make me roll my eyes.  In California, we crossed that line ages ago, and Armageddon never happened.  Why would it, when “race” is so artificial, anyway? “White” is not an ethnic group. Meanwhile, our California economy went on to grow from the world’s tenth largest to the fifth largest – an “antiArmageddon.”

Sometimes I think that if we’re so invested in racial dominance, maybe we could just rename “White” to “Northern Races,” add the Japanese and Chinese to the crowd under the “umbrella,” and keep dominating for another few decades!

Kidding aside, though, I welcome the demise of dominance through “whitenessor through any other racial or ethnic category, because it will help bring out our country’s unique strengths, which go beyond ethnic identities (while at the same time, preserving them).

Going forward, then, we should diminish the idea of race (since it’s not real) and elevate the idea of cultures (since they are very real). We should understand these cultures as organizational schemes, containing much individual variation, and not as value-laden identities.

Then we should continue exploring ways to knit cultures more firmly together into a complex American society.

That said, America’s false belief in “race” isn’t going away anytime soon, and its consequences are real, and the source of every sort of mischief. But dealing with it directly is a problem beyond what I wanted to write about this time.

So, beyond using simple loyalty, how can we melt our salad bowl into a pot whose components function in coordination for the betterment of all, while maintaining their tightly-bound ethnic identities, which can’t be cast off, anyway?

The Melting Pot – Rule of Law

One way to “melt the salad” is through the Rule of Law.  That not only means the Constitution, but all laws and regulations.  Together they operate like guidelines, like the stripes down the middle of roads, which guide everyone to their destinations safely, wherever those are, whatever the vehicle, and however it’s driven.

Laws can be written to favor one group over another, so The Rule of Law must be coupled with democracy and minority rights. The push and pull of voting on issues will accommodate various local groups better than any central planner, be they monarchs, dictators, or (for that matter) CEO‘s.

So moving forward, we must elevate the rule of law, and promote and secure our voting systems, elevating democracy. None of this happens by itself.

The Non-Melting Pot – Rule by Relationships

The principle alternative to Rule of Law is Rule through Relationships. Such relationships could include personal or social connections, as well as those mediated through money, such as employers to employees, stores to customers, doctors to patients, etc.

Often these two kinds of rule will combine, like in community policing. In fact, probably all societies combine both kinds of rule, but in America, laws tend to dominate. In China, on the other hand, relationships dominate.

It may be hard for Americans to fathom that such a huge country as China can be held together principally through relationships. But consider the Chinese lady whom I once escorted to our church parking lot about twenty years ago. On the way out there I asked her what she did in China.

“We’re working on a new constitution to institute the rule of law.” 

“You mean China doesn’t have the rule of law??” I’d never even considered such a possibility.

“No, but it will.”

They did finish China’s new constitution.  Still, cultures usually don’t evolve quickly, especially when not challenged by neighboring cultures. So several years later, while living in China, I witnessed many instances where personal connections held sway over rules or laws.  Once, a national Chinese newspaper even blasted “rule of law” as a Western concept not appropriate for Chinese society. 

Well, maybe a  dominance of relationships could work well in China, where the culture is relatively pure and people might intuitively understand each other. Maybe.

The same spirit that prefers “rule of relationships” to “rule of law” in China can also be found in America, particularly among elites, despite our democratic traditions. Going forward, we must always guard against them gaining the upper hand, since Rule of Law can unite groups, while rule through relationships often separates them through favoritism.

The Melting Pot – Cultural Touchstones

America’s identity, viewed from abroad, may seem culturally shallow, like fast cars and fast food and fantasy superheros.  Not much meaningful depth there.  Same with “convenience marts,” sports as leagues, simple pop music, freeways, stop lights,  etc. These are all recent innovations without many roots in traditional culture (except maybe for Thor).

But their very shallowness facilitates their accommodation into just about any culture.  Thus, they can serve as touchstones, links between cultures. And not just within America. They’ve already spread across the globe. There’s even a McDonald’s in Paris.

And McDonald’s is all over China, with some local cultural adaptations. So Chinese customers still use straws for drinking, but some fastidious customers use them as chopsticks to eat the French fries.

So going forward, I guess we can continue to rag on fast food, with all its empty calories, but, along with the other shallow features, we should also recognize its inter-cultural utility.

The Melting Pot – Guarding against divisiveness

I had been blessed with parents who never expressed disparaging opinions about any ethnic or racial or religious group. Unfortunately, other people their age were not always so fair minded. Those disparagements always took the same form. “Those people” were lazy, sexual threats, and criminals who overpopulated the land, ending up as welfare queens. As a youngster, I sometimes wondered “Is it really true?”  And then 60 Minutes aired a segment on the violent “troubles” in Northern Ireland between the Protestants and Catholics. 

As it turned out, those conflicts were not religious at all. They weren’t disputes over Christian doctrine. They were a cultural clash between two ethnic groups, the Scots and the Gaels — who happened to affiliate with two different churches.

In American eyes, the Scots and Gaels were both white, the same racial group. So I was surprised to hear some Scottish Protestants disparage “those people” (Gaelic Catholics) with the same labels, word for word, that I’d heard some American whites (who might even have been immigrant Gaels) inflict upon black people.

Such intra-racial disparagement logically invalidated any inter-racial disparagements, let alone any religious, cultural, or biological ones. Since then, most such “religious disputes” that I’ve heard about have turned out to be ethnic strife, whether they involved Muslims or Jews in Europe, or Christians and Buddhists in other places.

Going forward, when we hear such disparagements, we must call them out for what they are, and reveal them as contentions from the same old class of trouble makers who always like to amplify the natural frictions between cultures (rather than reconcile them), using the same old “divide and conquer” strategies for their own misguided desire to rule.

My hope for America’s Unique Opportunity

America isn’t the only multi-ethnic country on earth, but the size and numbers of its component groups is exceptionally large. And because it’s okay for individuals to maintain connections with the Old World, even while remaining loyal to this one, America’s multiculture can serve as an international crossroads. In a shrinking world, such cultural intermediaries may prove vital in maintaining global peace and in working out new ways to move forward as a species.

This time, the counter-example is France, a multi-ethnic country which takes a different view of multi-ethnicity and identity. Recently, the French ambassador took exception to a joke by Trevor Noah concerning second-generation immigrant soccer players. The ambassador insisted that African-French soccer players must be one or the other — French or African. My own experience, again, is that such an absolute choice is not really possible, even if they try. Trevor’s comments are here.

My hope is that America can continue building bridges of reconciliation between our various cultures here. And if such schemes prove effective, then offer them as options to the rest of the world. It’s not that we’re morally or skillfully superior to other humans, but that we find ourselves in an ideal situation for developing such relationships, in a world where other multi-ethnic societies might not want to do it. To me, this is our calling as a country.

Meanwhile, a continuing and regulated immigration into America insures, among other things, a continuing population of second-generation citizens, whose cultural experience can help strengthen our connections with countries around the world to our mutual benefit.

Going forward, among other things, we need to regulate a genuine legal path for immigrants to join our society.  At present, such paths are mainly only open to elites.

The stakes are high, not just for us, but for the world. We will all survive as a species, or none of us will. America has the resources and population to effect a positive difference in that outcome. 

Epilogue: Everybody is Bicultural

Human cultures are transmitted and acquired through general human learning processes. So those who understand human cultures, then, gain insight into how many realms of knowledge are acquired. Thus, sports culture, business culture, political culture,  academic culture, hunting culture, and many other bodies of knowledge, are expressed and transmitted using the same mechanisms as ethnic cultures.

I myself have experienced jazz music culture, particularly the subculture involving academia and “big bands.” So I was interested in the recent movie Whiplash (2014) whose subject is academic jazz big band culture. In fact, the tune Whiplash, performed in the movie, was first recorded by one of my favorite big-band musicians, Don Ellis. Don’s recording of it can be heard here.

However, actual jazz musicians found that the story, while well-executed, didn’t reflect jazz culture at all, but sports culture. This just goes to show how distinctive  such “cultures” are, since they are easily identified, even when dressed up in the trappings of another. New York bassist Adam Neely presents his detailed analysis of the movie here.  A shorter review of the Whiplash trailer by Neely’s colleague, guitarist Rick Beato is here.

And since many people can operate in at least two or three domains at once, say Swedish, jazz and sports, plus an ethnic group, they can claim to be, in some sense at least, bicultural or multi-cultural. 

So, an understanding of cultural transmission mechanisms, given their pervasive uses, can be helpful in promoting learning in many disparate areas of life. For example, most people don’t know that languages are learned best when acquired like a culture.

Further afield, disciplines like public relations manipulate customers and voters through the mechanisms of cultural transmission. And in a world where everybody is trying to sell  you something all the time, an awareness of their attack methods can be helpful.

 But all of that is a topic for another time.