Happy Spring!

Where things stand at this point

I’ve been in Portland for about three weeks now. I’m alternating between my sister’s home and my mother’s home . My sister’s dog is in the photo, next to the coolest computer workstation setup ever.

Treatments for the cancer are proceeding as prescribed, with one exception. I had been scheduled to begin chemotherapy a couple weeks ago, but lab work showed that it would be a strain on my liver. We decided to put it off for three weeks. It could be that my liver was simply not yet used to the two treatments that I was taking already.

This delay made me feel a bit nervous, because in my mind I kept hearing my friend Ric saying that the fact that they were offering treatments was a good sign that they might work. Now that we were delaying one of the three kinds of treatments, did that mean it wouldn’t work?

Well, I got lab work done again a few  days ago and the doctor was right. The liver numbers improved. They are still not the best, but good enough to proceed with chemotherapy at a reduced dose.  So  I’m probably the only person you know who is excited and positive about the prospect of chemotherapy. We’ll start next week on April 5th. The doctor seems confident  that the sequence will go forward.

Meanwhile I’ve had more people praying for me than at any time in my life. I very much value it and thank you for it. Indeed it’s hard not to see a divine plan in all this. If not for that puzzling cough that plagued me for several months last fall, the cancer would not have been discovered, perhaps not even yet, and I’d be in much worse shape by now.  It’s almost like the strange cough had been sent to get me to pay attention. I certainly have no trace of it now, now that it has served its purpose.

After my previous update, a lot of people wrote me encouraging emails.Thanks to all who did. I’m embarrassed to say that I was unable to answer every message before they got lost in my browser’s “conversation view.” So I apologize. And I thank everybody for the messages they sent.  They make a difference, helping me feel that I’m not forgotten. I should be able to answer any and all new messages going forward.

And I especially thank those who are keeping an eye on my house in various ways.

Many people have sent encouraging stories of people with prostate cancer, which I really appreciate. However those cases have all been less serious than what I’m dealing with, so they have limited applicability to my situation. On the other hand, all the treatments that I’ve been receiving are pretty new, so I can remain hopeful in their effectiveness. Indeed one person I know who’s received them asked their doctor if they could be continued indefinitely. The doctor said he didn’t really know, because they are so new. So maybe I’ve got some time left on this earth, which I hope to spend on writing.

A few weeks ago, I had little confidence that I”d make it to April. Now I’m thinking I might last months rather than weeks.  We’ll see.


So most of the time since my diagnosis has been devoted to writing, and particularly to finishing some pieces that I have long wished to complete.

My most substantial writing project at the moment is an extension of my father’s, grandfather’s and great grandfather’s biography to weave my own life into a continuation of their stories.  As part of the introduction:, I wrote this:

My grandfather and great grandfather were loggers and businessmen who thrived on wise investments and innovation. My father was a manager in both businesses and government. He also thrived on innovation.  I am a teacher who spent a lifetime deepening my understandings and applications of knowledge itself (epistemology) and learning theory. Every few years I had to admit that I was ignorant and start again. So innovation is relative to my experience, too.

In my forbears’ writing, they highlighted the innovation in their careers. I only hope that I can accomplish the same thing. I have been really fortunate to have had outstanding teachers in both pedagogy and in cultural studies, so I hope that I can reflect the knowledge that they taught me, so perhaps others might find something useful in it.

And by the way, if anybody wants to read the biographies of my father, grandfather and great grandfather, just click here, as I mentioned last time.   It’s a pdf file of only 3 megabytes.

Gus Wright passed away this month.

When I was living in China, I had an American friend named Rob who had grown up in the South. He regularly complained that the dumbest, meanest people in the whole country could be found there. But then, with a twinkle in his eye, he added: You’ll also find the country’s best people there. With the South, it’s either the one or the other.

Whenever he told that story, and whenever he got to the part about the country’s best people coming from the South, I thought of Gus, who came from South Carolina, and I knew that that part of Rob’s story was true.

Gus had gone into the navy and had become a nurse. After completing his military service, he served in the emergency room at Eden Hospital in Castro Valley. He also served in the “emergency room” at Schafer Park School, where his sons attended, and his wife worked, along with many friends such as myself. And I thought it wonderful that he had the same nickname as my grandfather.  Every few years we’d throw a “thank you” party for him.

Gus first attended my class’s annual five-day camp at Point Reyes as a chaperon when his older son was a sixth grader in the class. He returned when his younger son was in the class. And then, at some point, he must have realized that we could use his skills whether or not his own kids were in attendance, so he began attending most (or maybe all) years until the final camp in 2007. And on more than one occasion, he made all the difference in the world.

I remember one year, the night before we would return from camp to home in Hayward, a student started wheezing. Gus immediately identified the problem (it was a croup, which the student had never previously had). He helped the kid breathe easier. We called the kid’s parents, and determined that we would drive him out to San Rafael and meet them there, where they could either take him home or bring him to a local emergency room. They took him home. I never had a kid with croup again. Gus must have scared those germs away.

Gus and I took such late night runs from camp on more than one or two occasions. Generally, the occasion was not as serious as the croup.

I owned an old patched-together Volvo in those days, as did Gus, so as we drove through the night, we discussed our respective Volvos’ conditions and which parts would soon need replacing. We also gossiped about B & N Car Repair, who handled many of our Volvo-repair needs

One more memory involves Gus with another of our country’s best people, Kay Frye. Kay had retired from her teaching job at Schafer Park School, but she continued to attend the camping trip, and she continued teaching by serving as a classroom substitute, but only for Schafer Park School, where she already knew the kids. As the years passed, she put entirely too much energy into what should have been a simple part-time job, with time to pull back and relax.

On one occasion, she was substituting for the school librarian. She was just about out of energy. I learned about it when I walked through the teacher’s workroom during the morning recess. Several teachers seemed at their wits end, as Kay refused to leave her post, even though she really should. After all, other solutions could be found for any missing library time. And just at that moment, Gus walked by. He sized up the situation, and confidently told us that he’d take care of it. He left the room, leaving a trail of “Gus has got it” ringing in his wake.

Kay still didn’t want to leave the library, but she listened to Gus, who calmly explained to her that it was time for her to go to the hospital.  He convinced her when no one else could. Soon she was off to the hospital. I found out later that, had she not gone there, she might well have died that day. But thanks to Gus, she got a few years of life more. He was like our own guardian angel!

Yes, that’s Gus Wright, one of our country’s best people.


Between my moving to Portland and dealing with disease, and writing my story, I haven’t had much inclination to concern myself with other issues. However, the other day, while I was writing at the computer, the television that was playing in the background featured an interview with Ai Weiwei, the famous and abrasive Chinese artist and dissident. He now lives in Europe, presumably because it’s safer.

Well, my ears tend to prick up when they hear something about China. The interviewer asked him that, if the rivalry between China and America intensifies, would America win? The artist’s answer: No. The reason why: because America hasn’t the strength. That is, it hasn’t the compassion.

Only an artist could come up with that response.

But I think he has a point. The last few years, particularly during the previous guy’s presidency (a guy whose guiding philosophy is revenge), were characterized by increasing antagonisms along the fault lines that have always characterized our society. In the past two or three years, the rate of murder has even begun to increase, after having fallen steadily every year for thirty years.

I am reminded of an old argument against capital punishment — that every time somebody was executed, the murder rate increased in the region where the event was known.  The last year of the previous guy’s reign was characterized by a mad rush to execute as many people on death row as they could. No wonder the murder rate has increased in response.

As a Christian, I am reminded that the whole point is to love your neighbor, and to love God for having given you that ability. It is my hope that we return to that goal, turning away from purveyors of hate, such as the Fox News that I wrote about last time.  If we do, then we will go back to prevailing in every rivalry that we come across, like we always used to back in the old days.

Gosh. I almost think I could rewrite that paragraph into the pseudo-paraphrase of a psalm.

Thanks for your prayers and your emails. And thanks in advance for any that you care to send my way in the future.

Yeah, I’m still stuck on YouTube

The Song my Grandfather used to play on his accordion: “I Finlands Skogen

Crabtree Park in Sacramento – across the street from my first home.

And here’s Ormie the Pig, which I used for teaching English

Once again the HERD elephants come to protect the baby.

And the same HERD in the rain.

And here’s the house in Sweden where my grandfather grew up, recently added to Google Streetview

Winter Update

Not the Adventure I was Looking For

Some surprises are nice, but not this one. I thought I was reaching new heights of health, especially after my four-months-long cough had finally been cured and I again breathed so freely.  However, just a few weeks ago, while searching for that cough cure, my doctors came across cancer, something completely unrelated to the cough. This is an aggressive form of prostate cancer that has already spread to other parts of my body.  It was a complete surprise, particularly as I’d been feeling healthier lately, and all indications were that my prostate was normal the last time we checked, a year ago.  So this was very serious news. Indeed, this has hit me hard.

The doctor has offered me some treatment options to slow the further spread, including some chemotherapy later in the month after my body gets used to the other treatments.  My friend Ric tells me that the offer of treatments is a positive sign, since if they didn’t think that treatments might help, they simply wouldn’t offer them. Meanwhile, I’m getting off my duff to have a will or a living trust drawn up.  And I find I don’t feel as well as I did even a few weeks ago. But this relatively quick change comes mostly from shock and depression, I think.

At the time of this writing, we have not told my mother about this yet. We’ve been trying to figure out the best way to do it. It’s going to hit her hard, too. Please don’t tell her before I can tell her myself in person.

I’d like to do the chemotherapy part of the treatment in Portland where I can live with my sister and brother-in-law and be under someone’s continual watchful gaze and help, but we’ll see how easy that is to arrange with Kaiser.

Meanwhile, I’m heartened by the friends who have reached out to me, particularly my friends Jim and Karen, as well as Carlbob, who have ferried me back and forth to various medical diagnostic procedures, and also those who have held me up in prayer, and who have contacted me for conversation to simply help me feel less alone.  Emails have also helped.  And my refrigerator is full of meals gifted to me by local friends. It makes me feel loved when I merely open the refrigerator door! I do wonder how I’ll ever finish eating it all before it spoils, though.

This has not been easy, and it’s got me thinking about priorities and what I’d really like to get done, like writing a will. Meanwhile, I feel really blessed for having had a full and meaningful teaching career, both here and in China.

My Website

And in case anybody’s interested, I’ve long had a web site on A2 hosting (a company that I recommend) that uses WordPress. It’s located at macbob.org. Just click on that name to take you there.  It contains all the “updates” that I’ve written back to 2014, when I was still living in China.

I haven’t mentioned it before because I mainly just used it to format my update emails with the WordPress program.  It also enables the feature of clicking on photos to see a larger version.

But now it also makes for a handy archive. Again, it’s at macbob.org.

Getting things done — Dad’s Autobiography

As many of you know, my grandfather wrote biographies of himself and his father (my great grandfather).   They were loggers who lived in a very different world than we do today. Indeed, part of the charm in reading about them is seeing the continual development of new technologies over the years.

Many years ago, I edited the two documents for clarity, and typed them into computer files.  These two stories described many of the same episodes, since the two men spent a lot of their careers working together. So I next combined the two of them into one larger document, and added many footnotes to explain the numerous logging terms that they had mentioned. The result presents logging, with its continually advancing technology, as well as America from about 1850 to about 1940, and a little bit of Europe and Africa thrown in for good measure.  Again, it’s a very different world from today.

My father began to write his own autobiography a few years ago. Unfortunately he didn’t complete much beyond the first two decades of his life. But shortly before he died, he sent me what he’d written so far.  I had planned to integrate it into the previous biographies of his father and grandfather at some point in the future. Indeed I nagged both my parents to write more about their lives, but after a certain point, they both seemed reluctant to do so.

Flowers from the CaublesWell, that priority of integrating my father’s writing into his father’s and grandfather’s writing was moved up, and I have now already finished that task. If you are interested in reading any of this triple-biography, you can download it all as a pdf file (2.6 MB)  by clicking here or by clicking on the picture of flowers attached to this paragraph.

As for my own life, I’ve already written quite a lot, including all these “updates” that populate the aforementioned web site, and an extensive journal of my eight years teaching Chinese university students and living in China.  If I’m able, though, I think it would be fun to integrate my own story into those of my father, grandfather, and great-grandfather. Their lives touch me every day, as so many objects in this house were once theirs. (Including my great-grandfather’s dining room table that I’m sitting next to as I write this.) In fact, since I’m not getting out and about much anymore, I might write more memories instead of current news in future updates.

And I’d like to write more about learning theory, ethnicity, and culture, three subjects that I’ve been extremely lucky to have studied under insightful teachers.  I often wish that more people understood these things like they had, so long ago.

Many years ago I had a dream where I held a golden saxophone and carried it from place to place, playing for people the songs from over yonder that I’d learned.  The saxophone symbolizes my own identity, of course. The playing is the writing and teaching about learning, ethnicity, and culture. I hope I can still fulfill some of this dream.

Memories of China

So, as I mentioned in my last update, my best memories of China are of the people that I met there. I’ve already written about many of them, but I don’t believe I’ve written about a Chinese photographer friend who uses the English name of Vincent.

I met him back in 2008 when several of us teachers were holding “movie nights” for all of our classes together in a large lecture hall.  We always discussed the movies in English after seeing them. One day, Vincent was sitting at the back of the room. He was obviously a little older than our students, so I made sure to introduce myself.  It turned out that he had simply wanted to improve his English skills, and our movie night audiences were so large that he had heard about them, even though he wasn’t a student.

At the time, he was working as a photojournalist, snapping pictures for a local newspaper, a job that he later lost on orders from the government after he had sold some photos of a local labor strike to the foreign press. But he had more ambitious goals anyway.   So over the next few years, he got scholarships to universities in Hong Kong and in London, England.

In fact, when I myself traveled to Hong Kong in 2011, he was there, and we spent a day together exploring the city. I took this picture of a flower shop that day. At present, he’s again studying in London.

So what has he been studying? Film-making!

He had realized that newspapers were a business in decline, so instead of taking photos for them, he would instead produce films and video independently.  The result can be seen at his website (click here), where his interesting films include coverage of Wuhan in the early days of the Covid pandemic.

But even more than his films, his generosity impressed me. Having made the transition to videos, in 2014 he held a tea for his former photojournalist colleagues, detailing exactly how he produced videos, right down to the spreadsheets where he kept track of his expenses. It was incredibly practical, and a generous gift to those friends who might want to follow his lead.  I also attended this meeting and snapped the photo attached to this paragraph.

Yeah, I’m still stuck on YouTube

Getting back to saxophones, there’s a Saxophone Museum in Rome, Italy. Here’s a short concert of a man playing on the most unusual saxes in its collection.  It’s impressive how he  can play such differently-sized instruments one after another.

And here’s another elephant video from HERD – a baby elephant playing with a mop, like she’d seen her caregivers use.

I also found a new clever comedian – he puts on fictional pitch meetings for movies, poking fun of the scriptwriters and studio executives as vacuous and fatuous. Just like in real life? Here’s his take on the original Star Wars and here’s the first Harry Potter movie. It helps to have already seen the movie in question.

And here’s the story of an abandoned skyscraper in Tianjin that I watched reach its full height when I was still living there (everyone in the city could watch it – it’s ridiculously tall). I’m amazed that it was never finished.

The Mad Media

I’ve been intending to write about the story of Fox News for years, but the story is rather long and divisive, so I’d been putting it off. But when else will I be able to write about it?  And it’s a personal story because of how Fox has disrupted some of my personal relationships, so here goes . . .

Actually, the name “Fox” is one of the oldest brands in the media. Its history is ridiculously complex, which is not surprising, because it’s been around for more than a century.

Fox began as a movie studio, and its studio lots still exist in the Hollywood area. It even produced News Reels in silent movie days. As time passed, it opened a series of movie theaters across the country. One of most well known was the extravagant Fox Theater in San Francisco, built in 1929 and demolished in 1963, to make way for a skyscraper or a hyperspace bypass or something. Naturally there’s a video about it.

San Francisco’s Fox had a magnificent custom Wurlitzer theater organ, which accompanied the silent films of the time.  Naturally, there’s a video, and another one here. But for those who can’t reach them, I’ll put one of the tunes here, so you, too, can hear the mighty Wurlitzer, which was not destroyed, and survives today in Southern California, in Hollywood’s El Capitan Theater.

The picture attached to this paragraph shows the theater’s lavish interior. It’s the cover of one of my father’s favorite record albums – “Farewell to the Fox,” recorded inside the theater at a commemorative social gathering,  just before they demolished the building. The single tune that I posted above comes from it.  The two organists were personal acquaintances of my dad’s. No wonder he liked the recording so much.

As television ate into the theater business, Fox began buying broadcast stations, such as the formerly-independent KTVU channel 2 in my area. It also broadcast sports, and formed a television network, which produced some of television’s most popular shows, such as The Simpsons, The X-Files, In Living Color, Futurama, American Idol, and many others. And the branding extended to the local news shows. So now, KTVU Channel 2 news is known as FOX2 news.

All this is to say that the Fox brand comes with an enormous history of good will. And local news shows are the most trusted news shows on television, even though they do tend to devolve into something like a police blotter at times.  Fox’s reservoir of good will is important to what came later.

And what came later was Australian billionaire  Rupert Murdoch. My Australian friends, for the most part, said they were not unhappy to see him emigrate. He’s been collecting media,  both print and broadcast, mainly English-speaking, since the seventies.  He basically took over Fox in the eighties, and then in 1996 he founded Fox News, a separate 24-hour cable channel carrying the trusted “Fox” brand.

Republican political operative Roger Ailes was installed as its CEO. Its purpose was to promote Murdoch’s (and Ailes’s) “right wing” political views (and to make money doing it, of course). So Fox News combines real news with opinion shows; that is to say, news and political entertainment. The opinion shows dominate, and the line between the two is often blurred.  This single-minded focus on polemics and the promotion of a political party (the Republicans) was a very new phenomenon in American media.

And yes, Fox News did feature some real news with respected newscasters, notably Chris Wallace and Shepard Smith, though both of them have recently left, because the opinion shows, which outweigh them in importance, had made their situation “untenable.” And yes, there are other right-wing media groups that promote political content, but their brands don’t come with a deep century-old reservoir of good will and familiarity that furnishes a “foot in the door” and can wield such strong and lasting influence. Meanwhile, any left-wing media counterparts either don’t exist, or are ineffective.

Well, all this is well and good, but how does it affect my life? After all, I rarely watch Fox, having long known it as “Fake News” (a term appropriated by Republicans in recent years) or “Faux News.” It mostly has to do with the Fox News viewers among my family and friends.

First of all, Fox News, slowly and relentlessly, has affected the world view of their audience, to the point that they sometimes seem to me to be living in a different world from the rest of us.  To me, this was a betrayal of their viewers’ good will.

Take, for example, the topic of stolen elections. Over the course of many years I would see stories on Fox of voter fraud, usually involving a minuscule number of ballots. Other news services (as far as I could tell) never seemed to feel that these stories were important enough to report.

It’s not that the stories themselves were false, just unimportant, kind of like reporting that a group of raccoons (“trash pandas”) has spread out all the garbage from your neighbor’s trash can. It’s not false, but it’s also not the start of a coordinated city-wide trash panda invasion. But Fox opinion shows would promote such trivialities as ominous trends, so long as they fit Fox’s political world view.

So in 2020, Fox opinion influencers and the former commander in chief alleged that the presidential election had been fraudulent, even though countless experts and officials had called it the most secure election in our history, and the accusation itself has since become known as “The Big Lie.” Much (not all) of the Fox viewership believed in this supposed fraud without evidence, since over the course of decades, Fox had established that Democrats were ballot cheaters by definition. And in more recent years, Fox has gone from promoting exaggerations to promoting outright lies, leading to the departures of Wallace and Smith (and others) mentioned above. The Wikipedia page on Fox controversies is here.

The well-known 2004 film “Outfoxed” described this situation with Fox back in its early years. It’s viewable here, and a much briefer, self-congratulatory retrospective from 2014 can serve as a summary here. I think the self-congratulations were premature. Fox is still going strong.

Of course, if my Fox-viewing friends seem at times to be living in a contradictory reality, it doesn’t have to be a source of friction. After all, we are the country whose motto is E Pluribus Unum” (“from many, one”), which implies that “the many” remain distinct, even as we are able to act as one. We do expect others in our country to think differently from ourselves. Ours was founded as a new kind of multi-ethnic nation compared to others in the previous several centuries.

And much of the media here deals with questionable narratives, especially media supported by advertising dollars. In fact, whenever my foreign friends ask me what the most accurate American source of news is, I say PBS and NPR, which are not as dependent upon support from advertisers.

But Fox does not just espouse a point of view. It also tries to engender a sense of aggrievement in its audience.  Such an appeal to emotion is not new in entertainment media. After all, people go to “horror movies” precisely so they can feel raw emotion welling up inside of them (in that case, the emotion is fear).

In Fox’s case, it’s like saying “The trash pandas that hit you last night never seem to hit your neighbor. That’s not fair. (Or, rather, “That’s not fair !!! !!! !!! !!!”) Are they colluding together?”

Fox promotes such aggrievement in many ways, since not every viewer is moved by the same issues. It mischaracterizes immigrants, “other” ethnic groups, health care, the social safety net —  indeed everything that makes our country strong.  It makes other media seem untrustworthy, and maybe in cahoots with the “undesirables” in order to impose false narratives on the rest of us. Actually, when those “other” media seem to be in cahoots, it’s because they report on reality, and reality puts them all on the same page.

It’s this emotional aggrievement, if not pure  outrage, that I’ve sometimes felt from friends who are Fox fans, if we unexpectedly hit one of those “trigger” issues, thus interrupting what were otherwise calm conversations or debates. So to me, the current American divisiveness that people talk about in the news is really the insertion of strong emotions and a lack of trust into the divisions that have always been there.

Recently, one of my favorite bloggers, Kevin Drum, wrote an analysis of American divisiveness and published it in Mother Jones Magazine. It makes the case for Fox’s role in it.  It can be found here. One might get incensed at twitter or facebook, and with good reason, but the ultimate source of the aggrieved conflicts that play out on those platforms is often Fox News.

Kevin, by the way, is also known for the influential article that he wrote researching the effects of environmental lead on crime, here and then amended here.

So we are actually not as divided as some people like to make us out to be. It’s only a vocal minority who are.

Speaking of that vocal minority, I wanted to once again send the link to the New York Times’s video about last year’s January insurrection at the capital – the video with the Irishman narrating.  Over 700 of those rioters have been charged with crimes from that day.  It’s in the news a lot these days, as most of the Republican leadership tries to gaslight everyone into thinking it was only a peaceful protest. The Times’s video is here.

Well, that’s off my chest, at least

Yeah, I think other controversial topics will not be as exhaustively written in the future, which should make for more concise updates. Thanks so much for your support, which I now unexpectedly need more than ever.

I’ve been working on a piano composition to include, but it’s not ready yet. Well, maybe next time.



Happy After-Thanksgiving

Greetings from California! – The State of Things

For the first year in a while, California had only the second worst wildfires on record. Fire season was broken by a real rainstorm a month ago. It’s not enough to break the drought, but it was welcome. Castro Valley, my present location, got five inches. Here’s the back yard picture. Since then, we’ve had drizzles at most, but they’re also welcome.

I went longer than usual since the previous update, mainly for lack of adventures to write about. Thank you, Covid-19!

Maybe I need to reevaluate what constitutes an adventure, though. Every morning, I descend the seven steps from my bedroom to the living room and I remember that I couldn’t easily do that when I first returned from China five years ago. So even a flight of stairs can be an adventure.

The staircase in this picture, of course, is a heavy duty adventure. My grandparents built it into our Portland house back when they were young and flexible. Now that none of us are flexible, we seldom climb it.  Maybe we need a T-shirt that says “I climbed the Great Portland Staircase.” The treasures at the top are rather esoteric, too.

I traveled to Portland last month to visit my mother and sister to celebrate my mother’s birthday.  She’s still hanging in there.  I ring her up a couple times each day, and I plan to fly back to Portland sooner than later.

Flying down here from Portland last month, I spotted so many ships parked in San Francisco Bay!! It’s the Bay Area’s share of the global supply chain crunch that’s been nudging up inflation across the world! Meanwhile our Post Office has stopped delivering to New Zealand and Australia so my mailings to down under will be delayed.

I’m pretty healthy  except for a nagging cough which seems to be a kind of asthma. It’s plagued me for a couple months, making conversation difficult, severely limiting social interactions, keeping me from recording my piano without coughing, and even pulling an abdominal muscle.  I’ve tried multiple treatments, and will probably try more. Meanwhile, the doctor sliced out my very first skin cancer ever, probably the first of many to come!! (no ceremony was held for this milestone).

And I got my Covid booster shot last week, with no side effects at all. Not even a sore arm. The pandemic continues here, unfortunately, though California continues to do better than most places. I thought we’d have been done with it by now, though. As before, most cases occur among the unvaccinated. This pdf from the Washington State government describes the typical situation. My 90-year-old stepmother Lyn in Arizona had a mild breakthrough case of Covid, but she’s okay now.  She was just tired for a few days and quarantined herself after that.  I hope that more people can be vaccinated!

And the skin on my hands and arms grows ever crinklier and uglier. But I decided to think positive and consider it an elephant-skin tattoo, since the crinkly African elephant is one of my favorite animals.  The pair in this picture live at the Oakland Zoo.

I recently found a YouTube channel by a South African woman named Adine, who founded an elephant orphanage and care facility. As the mother to her herd of orphans, she films them unceasingly, as any mother would. And it turns out that, like me, elephants love the rain. And the perfect picture of joy is a baby elephant in a pond.

Here’s Adine giving the tour of her facility and introducing her youngest orphan. And here are highlights of that little one’s first year there.

In one of my favorite elephant home movies, the entire herd welcomes this littlest one as she emerges in the morning from her nursery. They surround her like linemen “circling the wagons” to protect a quarterback. Had they caught the scent of something in the wind? It reminds me of the many field trips I took with my Hayward students, and how protective we adults were towards them.  I often wish I could return to those days.

Meanwhile, we’ve lost a couple more old family friends.

Ed Childress (Dec 5, 1925 – Jun 25, 2021)

I was honored to play piano for the celebration of Ed Childress’s life back in August. I was one of many friends and relatives who contributed musically that day.

Ed grew up in Tennessee.  In my mind, he epitomized the idea of “Southern Charm” with his positive attitude, and a Southern accent which uplifted everyone he encountered. I can hear his voice even as I type this. He never lost those qualities, even in his declining years as his memory otherwise failed him.

Ed was a science teacher and a school principal in Castro Valley and Fremont, California. In 1965, Instructor Magazine, a national publication, honored him as “teacher of the year.” And after retiring, he continued to teach at the Western Aerospace Museum near the Oakland Airport.

Indeed, his knowledge of historical airplanes was vast, cemented into his memory as he designed and constructed wooden models of them. He flew them in competitions using control lines, since radio controls were uncommon back then. Their hangar was the ceiling of his small garage, where they spread out like stars a mini-planetarium.

His assemblage of woodworking tools, (many of which were collectable) were arrayed with precision across the garage wall.  And in addition to all that, he somehow managed to fit into that small space a succession of shiny black late model Lincolns which he kept immaculately free of dust and scratches.

Ed was a magnificent vocalist, singing in barbershop quartets, musical theater, PTA talent shows and his church choir, where one of his favorite hymns was “How Great Thou Art.”  I was even lucky enough to have accompanied him on that.

Indeed, his son was one of my childhood friends, his daughter is my sister’s best friend, and I taught one of his grandsons at Schafer Park Elementary School.  And as a teenager, I even clipped their family poodle, Cocoa, to earn some extra spending money.  So I got to know Ed from all angles.

This picture shows Ed, his wife, and progeny, many decades ago, exiting the Castro Valley Methodist Church, the same as where he sang, and the same as where we held his celebration earlier this year.

Gene Graves (March 15, 1928 – May 14, 2021)

Castro Valley High School, my alma mater, opened in 1956. Gene Graves became its first music teacher after five year’s experience teaching music at nearby Hayward High School.  This recent portrait of him hangs in the Castro Valley High School band room right where no one will miss seeing it — over the door to the cafeteria.

In 1966 Gene moved from teaching high school to teaching at Chabot Community College, where he remained for 24 years, and where he gave me my one and only experience playing bass clarinet in a concert band.

Concurrent with his teaching,  and for 38 years, he was also the music director and choir director for the First Presbyterian Church of Hayward, which I attended growing up. So I saw quite a bit of him over the years.

Gene was known for his imagination and his “Why not?” attitude, which culminated in his leading a group of about a hundred blue-clad teenagers (including myself), assorted adult chaperons, and a famous guest musician on a six-week traveling band camp through Europe, with full orchestra, concert band, and a jazz band. It drained my savings, including all the money I’d earned clipping Cocoa, even though my parents contributed, too.

We visited Frankfurt, Rome, Florence, Vienna, and Paris in six weeks (travel was incredibly cheap back then), performing concerts in most of those places. This picture of the group is my favorite one of Gene, even though he’s blurry with closed eyes, because everything in the entire picture is really him.

In Rome, I let myself get dehydrated, so they checked me into a hospital, where I was dubbed Mr. “Far lah nay”. In the bed next to mine sat an American in his early twenties named Alan. So what group was he with? He replied that he wasn’t with any group. He was traveling by himself and fell sick, so he had just checked himself in.

So he was traveling alone to explore wherever he liked !?!  In Europe ?!? They let you do that?? Up until then, my attitude towards Europe was like it was just a more grandiose version of an Epcot Center, fit for tours. Now I had a new ambition to travel and explore deeply, which I fulfilled many many times over the years, and Gene got me started.

He finally retired from Chabot College and the church choir in 1990. Ten years later, some of his old students realized that, for once, he had time on his hands, but not time forever, so they organized a musical reunion, a kind of love fest in the form of a full concert band, and a separate jazz big band, which met annually in the Castro Valley High School band room for about fifteen years, presenting free concerts in the school cafeteria. Due to my living in China, I could only attend sporadically.

Gene directed the reunion band’s entire concert for most of those years, and at least part time for the final few.   He peppered his directing with stories and reminiscences , and each year reminded all of us how one rehearses a band and practices their instruments.

The last reunion took place in 2019, under Gene’s new portrait’s watchful gaze.

Last month a celebration was held for Gene’s life. In some ways, it was like a scaled-down reunion band “one more time.” We played and celebrated and shared memories outdoors (in deference to Covid-19). His former student Ron directed us through some of Gene’s favorite concert band tunes, such as Gustav Holst’s Suite in F.

This photo shows Gene, along with guest star trumpeter Rafael Mendez, conducting the Castro Valley High School band so many decades ago.


Recently I was asked what I missed most about China, besides the wonderful people whom I had met there. The answer was easy – the neighborhood market, just a block from my apartment. I’ve mentioned it in previous emails. It mostly sold food – either raw groceries or prepared meals — but also various knickknacks and even a small number of bikes and clothes. I once took my father there to pick up some Peking Duck “to go.”

When I first visited Tianjin University in 1998, this market hadn’t yet been built. Instead, all those vendors lined the streets and flooded the sidewalks, their hard work forging an economic base for the fabulous development to come. Then the market was planted, and every five years, it grew wider, to bring in more vendors under it’s roof.

This picture shows some vendors still selling under the sky next to its wall, while others still lined the streets. That part was eventually roofed over, expanding the building structure, and drawing more vendors off the street, such as our favorite  fruit dealer, smiling in a gray sweater in the picture below. She was happy to finally have a well-lighted protected space for selling and for storage.

I’d love to visit that market again and see how it’s developed since I left.

People have also often asked me if I missed driving a car when I was in China. Truly, I had no need for a car there. After all, many of my friends lived in the same apartments as I did, and the market was right there! And the surrounding five or six blocks offered every sort of business that I might need – a department store, a grocery store, banks, restaurants, and even movie theaters and computer/electronics  markets like the one partially shown in the picture below.

I barely even needed a bicycle, though I did ride one constantly. Within a few blocks, I could catch literally dozens of bus routes to literally any part of that huge city (with maybe one transfer) . And of course, taxis continually plied every street.

I’ve recently discovered through YouTube that, before 1940, American cities, too, had that wonderful “walkability” quality. Since then, we’ve lost most of it to car-dependent suburbia.   I’ve been learning the details of this from a YouTube channel called “Not Just Bikes,” produced by a Canadian who moved to the Netherlands. to get away from car-dependent suburbia. In this video he introduces the channel. and explains why moved there. One reason was to raise a family, as Dutch kids are often cited as the world’s happiest. In this video he explains how city planning contributes to raising children.

He also talks about the Dutch bike, built for comfort over speed.  It’s very much like the “Flying Pigeon” that I rode in China (seen here)  or the similar Giant Bike Khan. When I “retired” from China, I had thought about shipping the latter bike (inherited from my friend Lonnie) home to California, but moving time came upon me suddenly, and besides, couldn’t I just buy one when I got here? Turns out that, well, not really.

For those interested, here’s a quite thorough story of how Utrecht, Holland, reconfigured its bicycle infrastructure.

Societal Weather Report

The phrase “Societal Weather Report” reminds me of the well-known Tom Waits song, Emotional Weather Report (with Pete Christlieb on saxophone).

Our Societal Weather Report has been on my heart a lot lately. Americans (at least, those in the media) thunder all the time about our societal divisions. Well, I think we’ve always been divided, because of varying history and geography, and the fact that we’re a multicultural society, and have always been so.  What’s new in the weather, though, is the fierce umbrage projected in the media towards people on the other side of whatever trough or ridge might be placing storms in the area. It’s too bad, because divisions can be a source of strength in the long run — like how a skeleton uses joints to strengthen muscles.

One particular windstorm recently caught my ear — the tempest over Critical Race Theory, which sprinkles aspersions upon two aspects of America that I deeply value — public education, and the deep-rooted multicultural nature of our society. Bad faith arguers use the contentious issue of race  (with its own long history) to whip this tempest into a media frenzy.

So it’s been heavy on my heart, but it’s also worth examining how bad faith actors successfully stirred things up.

First, definitions: Critical Race Theory (CRT), was invented at Harvard Law School years ago. It’s a variation on a larger group of studies called Critical Legal Studies. In both cases “critical” does not mean to criticize, but to analyze, as in “Critical Thinking.” The target of this analysis is the law and its interaction with various groups in society.

The word “theory” does not have its common meaning of a set of hypotheses.  As in literary studies, it instead posits a particular point of view or lens through which to view a subject.  So “Critical Race Theory” means to analyze the interactions of laws and society from the standpoint of race.  Statistics, anyone? I don’t know if there’s also a critical gender theory, or a critical education theory, but theoretically there could be.

In any case, CRT is a technical subject, like torts or civil procedures, which only make sense in the context of a law school or a grad school.  Nobody in America teaches law at a professional level in Kindergarten through twelfth grade, so nobody in K12 teaches CRT. Now, I will admit that I once taught seventh grade and accepted the gift of several outdated volumes of the California penal code.  But it was heavy reading. Nobody really wanted to understand it, so we never analyzed any of it.

Second, stirring the tempest: Then some political actors saw in CRT a potential for mischief, likely because of the contentious position of race in our society.

Over a period of a couple years, they heavily promoted the idea that CRT was in fact being taught in K-12 schools (even though that’s not possible). And everybody already knows what “theory” and “critical” usually mean, so CRT must mean manufactured and unproven ideas about race intended to criticize (presumably white) people into feeling ashamed of their own existence.  It’s not hard to understand why parents might be upset about this prospect. But how would they know that it was a lie that was pretty much manufactured of whole cloth, plus the words Race, critical and theory? I call it “Fake CRT.”

Next the political actors “flooded the airwaves” with their own fake version of CRT. Very few people pushed back against them, probably because nobody outside of law schools had even heard of it before. By the time they had, the terms of the public discourse had already been set, making pushback much harder.  Real CRT became conflated with fake CRT to the point that it almost didn’t matter which was which, because this muddying of the waters  was probably the instigators’ goal, as it gave them intellectual room to maneuver, like how the tobacco industry’s obfuscations helped them maintain their market share back in the day.

Eventually, (Fake) CRT became an amorphous catch-all confusion of a variety of concerns about race, ethnicity, and public education, some real, some not, which can upset people, some with justification, some not.  Devoid of precise meaning,  (fake) CRT now functions as an emotional trigger word for a certain subset of citizens angry about race, which also draws more reasonable people into the fray, if only to see what fire this smoke might signal.

So (fake) “CRT” has joined other trigger words which once had a dictionary meaning, which cynical politicians scrambled and injected into the public sphere, leaving only emotions that can stir things up, such as (fake) “woke,” or (fake) “politically correct,” or (fake) “New Math.” Such triggers hinder good faith understandings, at least in the public square. Thankfully, most people are reasonable, not like the argumentative combatants portrayed in the media. Still, the situation is troubling to me because it touches upon things that I really care about.

For those who may be interested, USA Today (what we used to call the McPaper) has a more detailed version of how fake CRT came to be. And even though fake CRT may be a smoke screen, it actually does have real-world consequences, beyond simple anger or irritation. Many states have banned it explicitly or implicitly (as reported by Newsweek), even though it’s never been taught outside of law school, which in turn could leave K-12 teachers unclear about how such a vague law might be used or enforced. Some bills are actually against Fake CRT and ironically might require something like real CRT to implement.  CNN reports how school board meetings have become unruly from the controversy.  And  NBC news reports that a high school principal was fired for teaching CRT even though nobody in America teaches it outside of universities.

Bubbles and Balloons

Well, sorry for the rant. It’s just that politicians have been dumping on teachers and public education, as well as on our country’s cultural richness, for so many years, that it can get on my nerves, even though I know it’s not ordinary people who are up in arms, but mainly the media and political actors.

Meanwhile, whenever I think of the potential strengths of a divided society, I often think of Randy, my old college roommate, seen here with his wife and son, about a decade after our graduation.

As students, Randy and I used to “debate” various issues of the day, but never with the goal of one side winning the argument. Instead, the goal was to deepen our understandings. We’d bring up counterpoints, not to call the other person wrong, but to fill logical holes, in order to construct a more all-encompassing view.  It was like (metaphorically) playing with soap bubbles, bouncing them around so they’d meet each other and fuse.

Well, we followed the trend from back in the 1970’s and 80’s, which was to play cooperative games instead of always playing competitive ones.  Randy and I would bat ideas back and forth like balloons, enjoying their lazy movements and unexpected turns. It was wonderful, and sometimes magical.

I wish this sort of “debate” were more common. Perhaps it could construct bulwarks against the rising tide of bad-faith disinformation. I think it requires an atmosphere of trust and good faith, which is why bad-faith political actors will work to muddy the waters, not necessarily to win an argument. So this is what’s been on my mind lately, as I sit around coughing, unable to hold a conversation or get much done.

The quarterly tune

Well, I started this update a month ago after Halloween. I never thought I’d still be tweaking it on a date where I could wish everyone a “Happy After-Thanksgiving.” So Happy After-Thanksgiving !!  I’m certainly thankful for the people on this mailing list.  All of you have contributed to giving me a better life.

The main delay, actually, was in adding a piano composition. In this case, it’s a tune written for an old friend whom I cared for very much, back in the day. I’m hoping it captures something of her spirit of adventure.  I needed a long time to learn to play it (even with mistakes), but an even longer time to record it without coughing loudly in the middle. Today, for the first time, I finally recorded a cough-less take. So I’m keeping it, imperfect as it is. It’s available to listen by clicking here or clicking on the Thanksgiving flowers.

Again, Happy After-Thanksgiving!


Three Happy Summer Holidays

Life has been relatively uneventful of late, so there’s not been much to write about or illustrate. So instead of action-packed photos, here are flowers from my mother’s ( and grandmother’s) house in Portland, Oregon. That small yard accommodates a surprising floral variety.

CamelliasFor myself, at least for now, the Covid19 pandemic is basically done. Yesterday was the first day since it began that nobody in the Bay Area died from Covid.

By March, I was vaccinated, my Portland family members by April, and I’ve taken three trips to visit Portland since then.  Things seem so “back to normal” that I sometimes forget to don my mask in the public places where it’s still appropriate.

For us, the pandemic can only return through new virus strains, which current vaccines are effective against so far. That could change, though, since large segments of our population still go unvaccinated, posing a potential danger to the rest, as they give the virus the biological resources to morph into new, more dangerous, strains.

At this point, In America, the unvaccinated account for the vast majority of new infections.  One hospital reported 98% of their Covid19 patients as unvaccinated. Essentially 100% of Americans who die from Covid are unvaccinated.  Vaccines work!

AndromedaCalifornia has somewhat better vaccination rates, in part because Democrats run the state and most local governments. Those run by Republicans tend to be worse, partly because the Republican leadership has worked hard to convince their citizens that Covid and Covid vaccines are “fake news” or are otherwise suspect politics.  This sort of advocacy against reality works out well for them, since reality inevitably pushes back, as if it were a vast anti-Republican conspiracy, which strengthens Republican loyalty.

So America’s well-known political polarization has branched into a vaccination polarization, which increases Republican infections.  (there are other reasons not to be vaccinated, but politics worsens the rate overall in those areas affected) Meantime, though, otherwise unused vaccines can at least help the rest of the world. So the US has begun giving away half a billion doses to countries who otherwise couldn’t obtain them. I’m proud of that generosity, and I hope that some of those doses find their way to people whom I know in those countries.

RhododendronThe pink-flowered rhododendron bush in this picture has a name — “Anna.” My mother’s cousin Bill planted it in my grandmother’s yard after she had died, and so named it after her.

It stands by the back-yard patio where she had held so many summer social events. It seems to offer flowers to the pots sitting in front of it, just like Grandma offered cookies to guests, waving a platter of them under each person’s nose. That bush is a genuine memorial to her.

And I’m reminded that I had originally intended to write this update for Memorial Day, a federal holiday at the end of May which honors soldiers who had given their lives in the Civil War, and later in other wars. Originally called Decoration Day, it was celebrated by decorating those soldiers’ graves.

One of the earliest, perhaps the earliest, Decoration Day took place on May 1, 1865 in Charleston, South Carolina.  A mass grave of Union Soldiers lay next to a prisoner-of-war camp. Newly-freed slaves dug them up and reburied them individually. On May 1, they decorated the new graves and held a parade featuring singing school-children.

Juneteenth  – June 19th was my second intended deadline for this update. It’s America’s newest  federal annual holiday, established this very year, just a couple days before the holiday itself. It’s only the second new federal holiday created during my lifetime, the other being Martin Luther King’s birthday.

Juneteenth celebrates the announcement of slavery’s end to former slaves throughout the country, but especially in Galveston, Texas, where the Union Army proclaimed it on June 19, 1865, two months after the end of the American Civil War, which was fought over slavery.

I only have one relevant photo, taken many years ago. It shows the home of our first president, George Washington, in Mt. Vernon, Virginia. I took the side view, since I figured everybody else would take it from the front or back. I’ve mainly been proven right about that.

Undoubtedly this house was largely built by slaves (and it’s still standing, 250 years later). After Juneteenth in 1865, they should have gotten paid for such work, though it didn’t always work out that way in practice.

Some people may not be familiar with Juneteenth, though it’s long been celebrated locally. Texans have celebrated it since the 1860’s. They made it an official state holiday in 1980. But it was not an official Federal Government holiday until last month. Of course, all of my old elementary school students should remember it, as we covered it in note-taking exercises!! And anybody who has a copy of my annual custom calendar can find it  listed there.

My most recent intended deadline for this update was for Independence Day, the Fourth of July, which celebrates our country’s independence, declared on July 2, 1777, then written up and documented on July 4, 1777. The choice of celebrating on the latter date just goes to show the importance of records and documentation! Another valuable lesson for elementary school students.

Independence Day and New Years Day are America’s two big fireworks celebrations.  Many fireworks shows were cancelled this year, not because of Covid, but because we’re stuck deep in the most tinder-dry drought ever. Wild-fire season started early this year — back in May. Now, even small and simple fireworks are illegal.

The neighbors on our block celebrated The Fourth with an outdoor potluck party, our first in over a year, due to the pandemic. My own celebrations included my mother, whom I had brought down from Portland for a 2-week Bay Area visit.

The drive was over 12 hours, and it was a bit scary. During the pandemic, the roads had been quite empty, so the few drivers who plied the highways got used to as much speed as they liked.  Since traffic returned, they’ve not slowed down. So those who keep the speed limit are constantly passed from behind, which is both nerve wracking and exhausting. I doubt that I’ll drive between here and Portland in one go ever again.

Meanwhile here’s this year’s traditional photo of Mount Shasta from a “Vista Point” off Highway 5, coming down from Portland two weeks ago.  If I took that photo today, the air would be full of smoke, and the mountain hard to see, since, in the meantime, two major fires have broken out in that area.

The timing for Mom’s visit was fortuitous. The Bay Area weather was  even more pleasant than normal.  But in her absence, Portland set an all-time record of 109 degrees (42 Celsius). The next day it set a new record of 112 degrees (44.5 Celsius). The day after that it set a newer record of 116 degrees (47 Celsius).  A couple hundred people died from heat, as well as a billion marine creatures. These record heats were caused by global warming, another reality that Republicans run against in order to get more loyalty and protect the incomes of the extremely rich.  Portland cooled down considerably by the time Mom returned by plane.

I’ve not mentioned my health for a while. I’m still making progress on straightening my hips through stretching and exercise. Last winter my knees got so sore that I was afraid they’d developed arthritis. A tender spot sprouted on the outside of my right knee. Then it migrated to the inside, then to the inside of my other knee, then the outside, and then off my knees entirely!  It was a relief to have that pain gone, if only because it had been difficult to put my socks on!

Finally, a sad event to report. Jeanine, the last of my father’s relatives in France, has died. This recent photo was sent to me by her grandson. I recognize the location where it was taken, by the front door to her home, where I have been many times.

I still remember the year we all met. At the time, Jeanine was working in a nearby factory that manufactured artificial flowers. She sent a bouquet of those flowers home to my father and to my grandmother, who was also her own grandmother by marriage.

This picture, taken many years ago, shows her at that same home, with her husband (left) and brother-in-law, my father’s two late nephews.  I visited them many times over the course of many years. They were always kind and welcoming to me. They and other relatives toured me all over that part of France. What an adventure!

So, for example, here we are atop Alesia, the famous mountain where Julius Caesar lay siege to the Celtish forces under Vercingetorix, finally vanquishing them and thus conquering all of France (known as Gaul at the time). Caesar described this battle in his Commentaries on the Gallic Wars.

And here is Jeanine on the day she married into the family. She was the last of that generation, so it feels like a significant chapter in my life has drawn to a close.

As part of my series of piano compositions dedicated to various friends and relatives, I wrote one for my friend Audine, who is presently sojourning in Japan. Called “Audine’s Oddyssey,” it’s meant to capture her love of travel, kind of like a “Cherry Blossom Special.” It begins with a 6-note variation of a traditional Japanese pentatonic scale.

Click here or click on the foxglove if you’re curious to hear it. I apologize in advance for various playing errors and rhythmic irregularities. I promise to keep practicing!!

Other interesting links: First, for music nerds, a couple music analyses from back when pop tunes had more than 3 keys. Adam Neely presents his analysis of an expressive key change in “All By Myself.” Here’s the song without the analysis to understand the context. He also analyzes a tune that doesn’t have quite so many key changes, but has sophisticated chord voicings — the second most recorded song of all time — “Girl from Ipanema.”  Here’s the song without the analysis. (By the way, the most recorded tune of all time is Gershwin’s “Summertime.”)

Rick Beato analyzes a former number one pop song with perhaps more beautiful and numerous key changes than any other. Here’s the song without the analysis.

One of the most impressive YouTube postings that I’ve seen this month is a forty-minute documentary of the insurrection/terrorist attack on the Capitol back on January 6th. posted by the New York Times. It’s the first presentation I’ve seen that communicates the wildness and incredible danger of that day.  No wonder over 500 participants have been arrested so far. Interestingly, the narrator has an Irish accent, an accent that I love.

And by the way, I mourn for the fact that millions of people, including the Republicans who stormed the capitol, still believe that the election was stolen by Joe Biden, even though Republican leadership never produced any proof.  I simply don’t understand why some people put their faith in such obvious falsities coming from those with a reputation for lying. The latest Republican gambit is partisan ballot audits in Arizona and maybe Pennsylvania. Previous official recounts found no problems, but these don’t follow standard and open procedures, so I won’t be surprised if they find “proof” of cheating, regardless of whether it actually exists.

Meanwhile, the present federal administration exhibits normal competence and integrity! What of relief!  Here’s a list from a partisan web site of several examples of this new style/old style competence.  In contrast, the previous guy’s administration featured a new scandal almost every week, as he lobbed whiny obscenity-laden  insults at everybody, including those whom he’d previously hired as “the best.” C-span’s periodic survey of historians ranked him appropriately.

<sigh> Republican leaders aren’t like they were in the Eisenhower years. I will be very relieved if the day comes that they have changed back and I don’t have to think about them so much.




Happy Songkran!

Greetings from Portland, Oregon!

This week is Songkran, New Year’s Festival, for Thailand.  Two years ago, my sister and I attended a Songkran celebration in a park just a few blocks from here.  Not only the local Thai, but also our local Laotian, Cambodian, and Burmese people took part.

I  think such celebrations have been called off for the pandemic, but I expect they’ll return next year.  Meanwhile I have photos from two years ago.

I sometimes wonder how closely such celebrations in America match those in their Southeast Asian homeland.

Certainly, when I lived in China, I found out that the Chinese New Year’s fireworks there would have been unimaginable to anyone who only knew such explosions from American Chinatowns and their New Year’s parades.

In this case, the American celebrations do have some similarities to their Asian counterparts, as one can see on the Wikipedia pages for the festivals in  Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Burma.  But it’s likely that those in Asia don’t include specialty booths for selling Southeast Asian food, since everybody there already has it.

Nor would they have presentations from the local tree huggers giving away free saplings.

And I also wonder if they’d erect a big stage under a tent as the main venue for traditional dances and other arts expressions, as is so often  done in America.

So I’m of two minds about what I observed on that day. On the one mind, it could be that American McCulture is reducing those rich Asian traditions into a shallower diet that anybody can eat.

But on the other mind, it could be that these celebrations represent the Southeast Asian community taking the initiative and reaching out to the wider American population, using the “language” of McCulture, while at the same time reserving some of the more meaningful aspects of the festival to within that community itself. Perhaps the many festival roles of water and Buddhist monks, as well as many other aspects described at the above links, might be so reserved.

That’s the strength of America, where groups can maintain their deepest cultural expression amongst themselves, while also employing the shallower McCulture, as well as the rule of law, to coordinate between disparate groups and the wider population.  I mean, just about anybody can enjoy the occasional burger and fries, whether real or metaphorical. And jay-walking should be the same for everybody, except maybe for actual jays.

Growing up, I saw a bit of this duality within my own family group. This picture, taken over a hundred years ago (no, I didn’t take it myself), shows a group of Swedes in Portland, a group that my family is part of. They tended to stick together. A key element of this togetherness was traditional music and dancing. The man holding the accordion was key to this process. He knew all those old tunes which could bring the people together. He’s actually my own Swedish grandfather, who, at the time, was relatively recently arrived from the old country.

In more recent years, the Portland Swedish community continues to present Midsommar celebrations to the public every June.  Naturally they have booths selling Swedish food, as well as performances on a stage under a big  tent.

They sometimes squabble over how many craftspeople, either Scandinavian or non-Scandinavian,  should be allowed to sell their wares on the site.  This year they finally split on that question, so there will be two Midsommar celebrations — one limited to Scandinavian customs only and the other allowing various craftspeople and  vendors.

These are my grandfather’s old folding snapshot cameras.   I like to think that one of these was used to snap that picture of the group of Swedes above. The cameras sit on the rug in the living room of the Portland house that my grandparents built with their own four hands. It’s where I’m sitting now. The rug is still here.

When I was a kid, standing here in my grandparents’ dining room, I took a picture of that living room with  one of those cameras. Here it is:

The other camera is in the picture, if you can find it!

The room has some unusual features for its time. Originally there was an outdoor deck behind the fireplace, accessible through the two glass doors on either side. But there was no wall or door between the living room and the dining room – just a light frame, partly seen at left in the picture, to mark the boundary between the rooms.

So on weekend nights, my young grandparents would have invited the Swedish community to gather.  They rolled up the rugs to expose the hardwood floor. My grandfather struck up a dance tune on his accordion — a polka, a Schottishe, or another traditional tune.  And the double-room transformed into a single long dance hall, with a deck at the end to escape into the cool night air.

My mother, after growing up in that house, maintained that dancing  habit until her growing arthritis reigned it in. So when I composed the next tune  in my series for family and friends, I realized that only a new “traditional” dance tune, perhaps a Schottische, would do for her.  This tune I call “Mom’s Dance Party.”

My personal challenge was to include an entire section featuring a Lydian major scale (one of my favorites) while continuing to emphasize the third degree of the tonic scale which is so typical of Scandihoovian tunes. And in honor of John Coltrane, and because my mother also likes jazz, I inserted a Giant modulation down a major third and back.

The tune still needs some work (and practice), but one can sample its present condition by clicking on this photo of my grandfather posing with his accordion. And for those who want to try dancing to it, an instructional video has been posted here. Happy Mother’s Day, Mom!

So American society is like a patchwork quilt – a multicultural patchwork bound by the McCulture. This concept was not well understood by my students in China, which itself is very intentionally monocultural.  Well, multicultural is not easy.

America has always been multicultural, since even before its founding. In China, I sometimes explained it with this photo of the elementary school where I taught in California.

The students in the picture were celebrating their families’ respective countries of origin with flags, paper dolls, and dances. Some even brought family food (for the teachers).  I liked seeing the American flag in the heart of the arrangement, where it seems to draw in the others. I took this picture so long ago, that everyone in it is currently an adult, including the teachers. Hard to imagine that so much time has passed!

This picture surprised one of my Chinese students, who had to ask if this was really America, because “Where are the blondes?” Perhaps American movies haven’t projected an accurate picture of real America “on the ground.”  Actually, there had been some blondes at that school, just not in this picture, and not many.

His question reminded me of an American colleague, also teaching English in China. A young blonde woman, she had become engaged to a local Chinese man.  He had been accepted to the University of Chicago, so the following month they’d move to Illinois. “But first,” she said, “We’ll visit family in Iowa — to show him the real America.” (In contrast to Chicago, that is)

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“You don’t think Iowa is the real America?”

I was stymied, unable to determine if she was kidding. “No,” I ventured.

“Oh,” she replied, confused. I guess she had actually been serious.

Now don’t get me wrong. The few people from Iowa that I have known have all been wonderful human beings. Anyone born in that state should feel proud of it. And by the way, I really liked the portrayal of Iowa from a hundred years ago in Meredith Wilson’s The Music Man.

And I should have answered “Yes, just as much as the rest of us.”

But it’s just that Iowans aren’t typical in a country where 85% of the population lives in big cities and suburbs, while the largest “city” in Iowa is a town of only a couple hundred thousand people. Most other Iowans dwell in the countryside, or in really small towns. And I imagine that even today  it’s not as multicultural as is typical for America.

So again, the urban Swedes and  Southeast Asians of Portland, as well as the denizens of Chicago, are just as “real American” as anybody else, and also more typical of America because of their living situations.

Well, the new president has ramped up vaccinations for Covid-19. About a third of the population has received at least one dose so far. Myself, my sister, my mother and my brother-in-law are all now vaccinated. What a relief!!

The last year’s Covid tragedies also inspired a lot of frustration. Our country, unlike some others, never really locked down to stamp out the virus. Over and again, cases were dropping because of mitigation efforts, and I’d find myself whispering under my breath, “Stay the course, stay the course, you’re almost there.” But they never did. Mitigations were lifted prematurely, and the virus persisted.

And so virus levels remained at relatively high levels all year, . Businesses and schools reopened only sporadically and undependably, whereas if we’d stayed the course longer in the first place, as was done, for example, in Australia, we could have basically been fully open almost the whole time, with less loss of life,  just as they’ve done down under.

So are Australians naturally more cooperative than Americans? It certainly looks that way. But  this case is not actually a difference in nature. One of our two major political parties, mainly representing a subset of ethnic groups called “white,” and egged on by their media allies, like Fox News, fashioned truth about the virus into a political issue, an opinion.  So in order to win the political argument, that the virus is “fake” or at least feeble, they don’t cooperate to solve the overall problem. It’s as if a set of patches from the ethnic quilt decided to rip themselves out and go their own way, weakening the warmth of the quilt.  So frustrating.

It reminds me of this Volkswagen “Beetle,” driven by one of my mother’s childhood friends, Beverly. (And yes, she’s Swedish). Her family lived in Orinda, about twenty miles from our home.  As a child, I once rode up there in that very same Beetle. Beverly’s husband drove. My father sat next to him, and assorted kids filled the back seat. He wanted  to show my dad how well the car cornered, so we took Redwood Road, which has curves aplenty, as seen in a video somebody posted.

Well, we kids had never felt such centrifugal force from inside a car before. It was like one of those county fair rides.  When the car curved right, we smashed left. When it curved left, we smashed right. It was great fun, and I remember laughing hysterically while preparing for the next smash — always more powerful than the last one.

But we hadn’t taken into consideration the effect of that smashing movement on the car’s stability. I mean, cars are big, right? They maintain their position on the road, right? After one particularly powerful smash sent the car tipping part way into the other lane, the adults in the front seats turned as one to scream, “Stop it.”

The lesson for us kids was to calm down, hold our positions to stabilize the vehicle and avoid fatal accidents.  However, I only learned that lesson much later when reflecting back on the experience.  At the time, my attention focused on playing, I only learned that some adults are big fuddy-duddies who don’t want kids to have fun.

So almost half of all Republicans, about a fifth of our population, presently refuses to get vaccinated. They’re also more likely to contract the disease.  I’m worried, then, that the time of pandemic disease will be lengthened in our country. But at least I’m not worried about myself and my family. We’re all vaccinated.  And perhaps there will be more unused vaccine to send overseas.  Here’s hoping that everyone reading this note will also be vaccinated.

Happy π, Ides, and Patrick’s Day

It’s Pi day (3.14), the Ides of March (3.15) and St. Patrick’s Day (3.17) – lots to celebrate.

I’m also celebrating the vaccine for Covid 19.  I got both doses at Golden Gate Fields, a horse race-track in Berkeley. The horses were still racing on schedule, but spectators were not allowed in, so the huge parking lot was available. Yes, there’s nothing more American than receiving one’s vaccine at a drive in.

Another week and my second dose will have developed its maximal protection. Already, though, I’m feeling relieved. I hadn’t actually realized how much I’d been worrying about it all year.  Now my chances of catching or spreading the virus are low to non-existent.  Still, I’m not really planning on changing my behavior. I’ll still wear a mask when in public, and stay a couple meters away from strangers.   After all, doing so is just not that big of a deal. I hear people complaining that wearing a mask builds up CO2 which could make them faint. And I think, yes, that must be why surgeons wear them, so they can keel over during surgery. Snowflakes!

Since my previous update, my dad’s remains, his ashes, had been scheduled to head out from Arizona towards their final resting place in Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland.

Dad had arranged to be placed there, in the grave of his parents, long ago. He had prepaid everything. But once he was gone, his ashes got tangled in red tape and business disruptions from Covid19. Phone call after phone call couldn’t unkink these problems, either in Oakland or in Arizona.

My friends told me that I’d have more success if I dealt with the cemetery people in person. Well, luckily I’m not far from Oakland, so I first had the ashes sent from Arizona to my home here, to make sure that they would not be mislaid. It felt odd to have them sitting on my dining room table, but it didn’t seem right to lay them on the floor or in a chair.

With the ashes secure, I drove out to the cemetery, which was not easy to get into, due to the Covid19 restrictions. And when I finally did gain entrance, I found myself confronted by the very same young woman who’d been so hard to deal with on the phone.  But in person, she turned out to be quite charming and helpful.  My friends had been right!  Meeting in person made all the difference!  We were able to untangle every bit of red tape, even circumnavigating some of the normal procedures to get it all done.

As we wrapped things up, I asked when the ashes would be placed in the crypt. Naturally I wanted to take photos which I could then send to relatives and friends. “Oh, did you want to witness that?” I assured her that I did. “Well, there’s a fee involved.”  She put a calculator on the counter between us and began tapping buttons. “$400.”

Hanging onto the counter, I thought it over. Well, how often would I have the chance to witness my father’s final resting? $400 seemed cheap from that perspective. We set a date. Since I already knew where the crypt was, she’d meet me there.  I decided to invite my good friends from Hayward, Karen and Jim, to also witness the internment.

When my sister Abbe heard about these events, she determined to drive down from Portland (a 12 hour drive) to also witness the internment. Then my step-sister Terri decided to drive down from Sacramento, and to collect her daughter from Berkeley to also join in. My sister’s best friend Martha from Alameda came, too, as did my friend Arlene.  I was so so grateful that I’d paid that $400.

In the end, the weather turned rainy, but the cemetery set up a canopy for us. I read the piece that I had emailed to everybody last fall. Abbe read a piece that she’d authored, Arlene snapped some pictures, Martha had brought lots of flowers, Terri led prayers, while Jim and Karen took pictures and contributed some silk flowers to place on my dad’s urn.  It was all improvised and meaningful.

Abbe ended up staying a week with me, which was longer than she’d planned, because the mountain pass between California and Oregon had filled with snow and ice.  It was good having her here. I really found out what a decisive difference it made to have an actual 3-dimensional human living under the same roof, even for just a week. It’s not that we did everything together, as she still has her own friends here, and she enjoys gardening more than I do. But after she drove back to Portland, the house felt not much different than the dry insides of the crypt where I last saw my father.

Now, I’ve lived most of my life alone in various apartments, condominiums, spare rooms, barns and “rabbit hutches” (like the one in Davis pictured here. The second picture even shows the kitchen table that I still have, holding up the very computer on which I’m now typing this message!!).

Years later, I once took in a roommate in my condominium just to see if I was still capable of living with others (I was). So it might seem strange that only now, while dwelling in one of my most luxurious abodes, does a dearth of 3-dimensional humanity cause me suffering.

But I spent my working life in the high-pressure world of teaching. My life was jammed with students and colleagues.  I needed to live alone so that I could recuperate in peace. Besides, my actual home was my classroom, anyway.

All this is to say how much I appreciate those friends that stop by or send me email, especially Jim and Karen, Doug, Carlbob, Audine, Arlene and Eileen, not to mention my psychologist. Even with their steadfast help, these last few years (especially this last year) have been pretty hard. Since returning from China, I’ve had no classroom, that is to say, no home. And I don’t expect to find a new home any time soon.

Recently, my ERRC brethren held a Zoom reunion, and someone asked the group what we missed the most about China. Well, we all missed the people that we knew there, but after that, I missed the market located a block or so from my apartment.  It was so easy to meander through after class to pick up a cheap and tasty meal — jiaozi, fried rice, pot stickers, steamed buns, Beijing duck, chicken-egg pancakes, various fresh fruits and vegetables, ganbian doujiao, etc. etc. Such markets are common throughout China’s cities. Their construction is pretty simple.

It turns out that buildings in the city are rated for a certain number of years. After that time, the building has to be refurbished or removed. The simply-constructed Market’s rating was five years. So in my eight years living next to it, it was refurbished and expanded twice. Both times, the improvement was significant. The picture here shows it just after the second refurbishment.

I previously posted a six-minute video, a tour of the market before the second refurbishment, here. The tour starts just outside my apartment, winds its way through the market, and ends at one of my favorite potsticker vendors.  Most of the street-side vendors are gone nowadays, cleared out in the drive towards a more upscale environment, many of them now relocated to inside the refurbished market. This steady improvement has proceeded since my very first visit to the area twenty years ago, when there had been no market at all, and all the vendors filled the sidewalks, or even the middle of the street.

Not everyone was as lucky as I was to see their market continuously upgraded. My buddy and colleague Rob had been traveling all summer, dreaming of coming back to town to visit his favorite neighborhood market. But the five-year term ran out over the summer. Instead of refurbishing it, they pulled it down. This was the sight that suddenly greeted him. It took him quite a while to get over the shock and the loss.

Recently, I stopped by the legendary 99 Ranch Asian Supermarket in Fremont, an hour’s drive from here. I had determined to buy a Wok. While I was there, I noticed bottles of Chencu (陈醋) vinegar, commonly used as a dipping sauce in Northern China. I had not seen that kind of vinegar in 99 Ranch before. It was not the Shanxi style (山西老陈醋) that I used to look for in Tianjin, but it was close enough.

So I grabbed various forms of frozen dumplings to dip into it. They are not even close to the tasty versions that I once bought fresh at the market by my apartment. However, they are very much like the frozen versions that I sometimes bought at the neighborhood Wu Mart supermarket.  And so, for the first time in a while, I felt nostalgic and compelled to break out some chopsticks to eat them.

Fairmont Ridge by Lake Chabot

Also since my previous update, I took down the “Biden” sign fashioned for me a year ago by my friend Mark.  It was psychologically safe for me to do so, since Biden himself had been safely sworn into office.  I feel that we actually have a president again instead of a source of chaos. What a relief.  I’m sure I’m not the only one whose blood pressure has decreased.

Biden gave a speech about the Corona virus a few days ago. Unlike the previous guy, there were no improvised surprises. Nobody hurled insults at the press, nor towards people who think like me nor others out of favor. Instead, there was a humble call for all of us to work together to defeat this illness. It was almost boring. But how welcome!!

Vargas Plateau Regional Park

Since Biden took office, the federal government is starting to work again. The Center for Disease Control yesterday finished the task of removing all the political influences from its documents that had been instilled over the last four years. Now recentered on science, perhaps it will someday again earn  the nation’s and the world’s trust.

And the white house press secretary now holds daily press briefings, given without insulting the reporters nor denigrating their questions, nor, for that matter, with answers yelled out across the turning blades of a helicopter.

Last week, Biden got a landmark bill passed to support the poor and middle class who’d been injured by the pandemic , and to put the economy back on the right track.  It was supported by about 90% of Democratic voters, and between 50-60% of Republican voters — a majority in both cases – true bipartisanship. The final vote in congress was close to 100% of the Democrats (as one would expect), but 0% of Republicans — not a single one, nothing resembling the actual Republican voters’ support. To me, this demonstrates that the Republicans in Washington mostly do not represent the wishes of their constituents, or at best, just a small subset of them. It makes me wonder how all this will end.

Unfortunately, the help from Washington will arrive too late for some. One of my favorite magazines, Cinefex, folded last week. I’ve subscribed since their fourth issue in 1981, and their final issue was #172.  Taken together, they chronicle a remarkable history of the rise of Special Visual Effects in Hollywood movies and the development of its technologies.

I first came across it, right next to Cinefantastique, at a magazine shop in Hayward that no longer exists. And I was impressed to see copies available at Atari headquarters back when that company was on top of the world and my old college roommate Randy worked there.

Also closed, a couple weeks ago, was Fry’s Electronics, the computer super-store chain. Back in the day, it had been a culture unto itself, each huge store decorated with a unique theme. I happened to stop by their Fremont store a few days before the chain went under.  I didn’t know that the end was so near, but it certainly didn’t look like a functioning business. There was only one cashier where twenty had stood before. And the “door nazi” had gone home.

The decorative theme in Fremont had been electronic special effects. They weren’t running the exhibits that day, but I did get one last picture of the extra-tall Jacob’s ladder, which had been featured in the original Frankenstein, throwing sparks around the room to enliven the monster.

On the other hand, some help will arrive in time — money will flow in to support the retirement fund for my musician friend Carlbob, which was otherwise going bust after he had paid into it for decades.

And my other musician friend Bill Barner came out with his new album, called The Blue Basement!  It’s available through this web site: https://billbarner.hearnow.com

I listened to it a couple weeks ago — it’s really impressive music, and it also reveals Bill’s love of Film noir.

I had hoped to have had some music of my own to present, but I’m afraid it will have to wait until next time while I practice it up!  In the meantime:

Erin go Bragh! Et tu Bruté! and Round it up!








Happier New Year

Hi all,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, such are the sorrows of my Covid isolation.

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

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

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

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

Oui madame,” I shouted back.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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.”