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.”






Happy Midsummer, 2020!

Hi all!

Time for the quarterly update. Happy Midsummer!!

I hope everyone is well. My parents are still hanging in there, as are my sister and brother-in-law, as well as other more distant family members.

Here in California, my neighbors who can work from home are doing so. Those who can’t are staying at home when they’re not working. And I, of course, can stay home for the duration.

In fact, this is the longest uninterrupted period that I’ve spent in one town since 2008, when I spent the entire academic year (minus one quick trip) in Tianjin.  It’s also the longest I’ve gone without a haircut since I returned from China. Granted, before that I hadn’t gotten a haircut for fifteen years.

Luckily I have a back yard where birds still fly, flowers still bloom, and my camera still works.  One of my favorite comedians, Amber Ruffin, recently put together a sketch about quarantines in homes vs. apartments with two other comedians. I concur with the opinions expressed.

My body is still playing whack-a-mole on itself, at times bringing back classic symptoms, oldies but goodies, at times inventing entirely new ones.  At one point, I ended up driving myself to the emergency room, where I was hospitalized until the following day. It’s a complicated story, but it basically involved chest pains, unusual heart beats, and a catheter. Not something I particularly like to think about. It was not a heart attack.  My good friends Jim and Karen drove me home and cared for me for a couple days, and now I’m back to subnormal with a bunch of new prescriptions.

Unless I’m surprised again! We’ll see which whack attacks! My dominant symptom at this point is a quaking and shaking in my arms and chest.

* * * * *

Meanwhile, I continue to edit and rearrange sections of my teaching journal from China.  My aim is to produce a book useful for teaching advanced English to adults, particularly in China, but actually anywhere. If you’re curious, clicking the picture of the four friendly students brings up the “Forward” and the table of contents. And if you can tell me your opinion about it, that’s even better!

* * * * *

Last week, in consultation with my psychologist, I committed to an entire day of avoiding any news about politics. I succeeded and it was good for me. I’m going to try it again this week, and perhaps expand the number of days in the future.  In some ways, though, it’s a topic that’s hard to avoid. I agree with my Chinese friend Han that we are living through historic times.

Of course, we old Euro-backpackers need only consult our handy Asterix comic books for lessons on any aspect of life. In this case, the book is called “The Roman Agent.” (in the original French, it’s “La Zizanie” — “discord.”)

There are some people who spread dissension and division wherever they go. In this comic, Julius Caesar encounters such a one and sends him up to Gaul to provoke our favorite Gaulish village into destroying itself.

Clicking on each of the two Asterix frames here will bring up the page that it came from, and will allow you to fully appreciate the wonderful sense of humor of the authors, René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo.

Meanwhile I’ll leave it as an exercise to the reader to divine who in contemporary politics corresponds to this Roman Agent.

And it’s my sincere hope that that guy ends up like the Roman agent did at the end of the comic book — kicked out of town.

* * * * *

Speaking of Euro-backpackers, when my college friend Julie was studying in Italy, I met through her a young Swiss woman, exactly my age, named Gerda, whom some on this list may remember.

We hit it off, and in the spirit of the times, visited each other’s homes in our respective continents more than once.  In later years, we lost touch, unfortunately. But with the rise of the Internet, I occasionally ran a search on her name.

One time, I found out that she had won a simple promotion contest at her local grocers!  Amazing, the Internet!  I still wasn’t sure if she yet lived at the same address, though.

Well, you may guess where this is going. Last week when I searched I found this page, on a web site apparently dedicated to archiving pictures of all Swiss citizens who have passed on.  She had already left us exactly ten years ago! I also found  pictures of her younger brother Marcus and her parents, all gone.  A bit more searching found this page, which states that she died at home from a completely unexpected heart attack.

I have to say, the Internet’s search capabilities are a mixed blessing. At my high school reunion last year I found that many of my classmates had also passed on, but they were not people I ever actually knew. Gerda I knew well.  So despite our lack of contact, it’s been a sorrowful June. I never expected her to be taken so young.

* * * * *

Meanwhile, for those outside America, George Floyd, because he was black, was murdered by police for Memorial Day, and demonstrations have been taking place in all fifty states ever since — every day for about three weeks now. I’ve heard as low as 400 and as high as 700 separate locations, plus international protests. That’s a lot.

The vast majority of the participants were peaceful, though the police station in Floyd’s neighborhood was burned to the ground.  According to smartphone vids I’ve seen,  the main breakers of the peace were some police, some white supremacists seeking to sow discord and war (some of whom were arrested), and petty criminals looking to loot while the police were occupied elsewhere.  In the town next to me, a car dealer lost 75 cars in a few minutes. That had to have been planned, and independently from the protest.

I feel bad that I didn’t attend one of these demonstrations, mainly because of my broken body and a susceptibility to viral infections. Many of the demonstrators did not wear masks, for example. However, my isolation at home did not prevent me from signing various online petitions and writing emails. It didn’t prevent me from contributing money, either, although so far it’s only sort-of my money. It’s the money that the government had sent to everybody in America as the so-called “stimulus package.” I sent some to food banks, some to “black lives matter” groups, and some to politicians running for office.

Donating this “stimulus money” was a priority for me, because the last time the government sent me free money was in 2000, when Bill Clinton had built up a budget surplus, and the Republicans who followed him wanted to give it all away, lest the public think that government was competent. They are the “borrow and spend” party, and it’s hard to justify borrowing if there’s no deficit. Yeah, if only I’d contributed that free money back then, maybe it would have helped keep us out of misguided wars or out of debt. Who knows? Meanwhile, I’ll start contributing my own money next week.

* * * * *

It’s important for those outside of America to understand that all these demonstrations were not solely about George Floyd, nice as he might have been and how unjustly his life had been taken. For many of us, this was the “straw that broke the camel’s back.”

And it’s also important for those who are overseas to understand that it’s not only black people protesting, but Americans of every ethnic stripe. Certainly, thanks to smartphones with cameras, I’ve been forced to face the fact that black people in America still risk their health and lives from police, every time they go out the door. In fact, the aforementioned Amber Ruffin easily came up with four personal stories about it which she told on TV last week. Her point, the same as many others I’ve heard, is that every single black person she knows has stories like that. But I don’t.

Actually, my favorite story about the police concerns my high school buddy Mike, who bought a new pickup truck the year we both graduated. One night, Mike wanted to show me the truck’s capabilities, so we headed out to a nice straight neighborhood side street, where he “floored it” through the darkness to demonstrate its remarkable acceleration. Just as we reached 70 mph (110 kph) the red light appeared behind us.

We were scared to death, but we didn’t fear for our lives. The cop seemed mightily entertained as he assessed the situation — two very foolish and rattled local kids. He played us like fish on a line. He said he’d stopped us because a pickup truck had been reported stolen in our neighborhood.  Had we seen a suspicious truck? Through chattering teeth we told him we hadn’t.   As he left (without citing us for speeding) he advised us to call if we ever saw one. We promised to. Now, years later, I remember that traffic stop every time I drive by that location.  And now I reflect that, had we been black, the incident might have proceeded very differently.

* * * * *

Well, despite being stuck at home there’s lots more I could write about, but space is short.  My main concern right now is the corona virus. When it first landed here I thought, well, maybe at least it will bring the country together.  After all, a painful death is not really subject to partisan interpretation. However, I had not fully reckoned with the Roman agent and his many enablers. Never in my life would I ever have expected that life and death themselves could be reshaped into shallow politics.

The tragedy is that, after a lot of false starts and initial bad recommendations, we finally pretty much understand how to deal with it.  Along with some strategic closures and quarantines (but not full closures in many cases), if everyone would just commit to wearing masks, washing hands, and keeping one’s distance from others,  this monster would be close to gone. It’s not that hard to wear a mask. It’s not that hard to wash one’s hands, or to avoid coming close to others.  And yet, when a local movie chain opens next month, they won’t require masks, the single most effective measure, because they don’t want to deal with politics. It just makes no sense to me.

These days, my go-to illustration is Japan, which has only taken relatively modest measures, yet has had much better outcomes than we have. (It has over 900 deaths so far. Scale that up 2.5 times to fit the USA’s population, and that gives about 2500 deaths. The USA today has had about 120,000 deaths so far, about fifty times more)

But the Japanese aren’t hand shakers or huggers. Their mania for washing is legendary, and by custom they were already wearing masks in public any time they got sick, out of consideration for others. So their close-downs and other mitigations haven’t had to be as disruptive as ours have been and probably will continue to be. Let’s all just wear the darn mask!!

Of course, our close-downs would not have had to be so drastic, either, if the Roman agent in charge had acted earlier and had followed through.

The worst insult that my father ever called anyone was “quitter.”  I internalized that, and have always sought to avoid that characterization (even though I haven’t always succeeded). It’s hard, then, to have the country, my country, led by a quitter.

* * * * *

Well, my favorite YouTube musician, Adam Neely, put out an episode concerning George Floyd and Miles Davis this month.   It even features one of my absolute favorite tunes, Donald Byrd’s Cristo Redentor, as a background.

I previously wrote about Cory Henry, his famous solo on “Lingus,” and the amazing variety of instrumentalists who have transcribed it and learned to play it. I’m not quite ready to let go of this because somebody recently learned to play it on the Japanese shakuhachi. Yeah, it’s especially impressive for a flute with no keys and only five finger-holes.

Rutger Bregman is a Dutch historian with one of most actively curious minds that I know. His latest tome, Humankind: A Hopeful History, is the first book I’ve read start to finish in three years. His thesis, as he put it, is:

This is a book about a radical idea . . . . If only we had the courage to take it more seriously, it’s an idea that might just start a revolution. Turn society on its head. Because once you grasp what it really means, it’s nothing less than a mind-bending drug that ensures you’ll never look at the world the same again. So what is this idea?

That most people, deep down, are pretty decent.

Lest he be seen as a simple Pollyanna, he backs it up with evidence.  I have to say, after reading it I felt so positive about humanity that I even wrote a review and posted it here.

Well, that’s all, folks. I hope everyone is healthy and washing your hands and wearing your masks!








Happy Backyard Easter!

Tomorrow is Easter. Happy Easter!

And what’s new?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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