September Song

Hi everyone,

How’s my condition

I finally came back to California.  On September 11, my sister drove Mom and myself down. They returned on Thursday this week. I’ll be here thru October 3. Then I’ll return to Portland for my mother’s birthday on October 5. It’s the big 1-0-0.

Lots of projects in California need to get done. They got skipped while I’d been less  than conscious for those six months in Oregon. And a plethora of friends deserve thanks for watching out for me while I was absent, and for keeping in communication while I was indisposed. How lucky I am to have such friends.  As one example, this week I received a long letter from Liang Juan, my enthusiastic former ping pong partner from Hunan.

My body continues to heal from the chemotherapy. I’ll take more tests next month and the month after that to see if the tumors are growing again (quite possible) and how slowly they’re growing (likely slowly, but we’ll have to wait and see.)

My hair is beginning to grow again, though l still look a lot like Nosferatu. I should have taken up Kaiser’s offer of a wig, even though I’ve never worn one before.  Surprisingly, the numbness in my toes has faded quite a bit! Maybe it will eventually fade away, despite the doctor’s prognosis!!  My memory is improving, though it’s still nowhere near as strong as it was a year ago.  I maintain hope, however. I can balance on one foot again, at least briefly.  I feel mostly confident driving my beloved Civic and my Prius.  And today I walked a mile around the high school (too much puffing, though)

But don’t anyone do what I did — leave a Prius garaged for six months.  The twelve-volt battery was dead and it was really complex to get everything started again. I’m still working on getting the timer working on the charger. One of my neighbors has volunteered to take the car out for a spin the next time I’m out of town for awhile.

I was so preoccupied with the debilitated Prius that, when I descended the stairs from the bedrooms to the living room, I forgot to keep track of which step I was on. Skipping the lowest step, I launched myself into the air, and seemed to float there for a moment. Then I lost altitude, and slammed onto the floor along my right side, sounding a housing “boom.” I was thrilled – no pain and only a small sore spot that only lasted a day.  It’s nice that something about my body is still sturdy.


We in America are entering the political season again, which means a crescendo of nonsense, which used to end on election day, which is November 8 this year, but who knows.

Political season in Portland featured lots of TV commercials, endlessly repeated, not only for Oregon candidates and issues, but for Washington State as well.  It’s a double whammy. In California, the deluge of adverts is not as overwhelming. Everybody already knows which party will likely win, so they don’t waste money on TV ads that try to persuade the unpersuadables.

Meanwhile, it’s a relief to have a President (Biden)who acts like one, who gets things done for ordinary people. (I don’t mean to sound like a political ad, but it’s so often on my mind.)

Yeah, Biden’s initially good poll numbers sank while we were evacuating Afghanistan, which was a tragic mess. It still is. But the question, to me, is whether it could realistically have been done with any less mayhem.  I suspect not.  Three previous administrations had avoided withdrawing, each knowing that they’d be blamed for the resulting tragedy.  Biden was willing to shoulder that inevitable mess as well as the blame. That took guts, I think. Of course there wasn’t much of an alternative except for staying in Afghanistan literally forever.   And people here did not want to stay forever. In the end, it was one of the largest air-evacuation operations in history — 122,000 people evacuated in just a short time.

I’m also happy to see our country taking a leadership role in NATO again, after the former guy did everything he could to split it apart. We  (and the other members) cannot operate in this world alone. We need friends and allies.  The present President understands that. while the authoritarians of the world, including the former guy, only understand how to “divide and conquer” and that chaos and dissension are the pathways to authoritarian rule.

Meanwhile, after only two years, we have already had one of the most legislatively consequential administrations in generations. Most of the new laws were passed with only Democratic support, but some passed with some Republican support. I didn’t think Biden and the Democrats would be able to pull that off. It goes to show the value of experience, and of having been a part of government for so long. Legislative high points include:

  • The American Rescue Plan, which spent lots of money on both individuals and organizations to mitigate the effects of the pandemic.  It lifted millions of kids out of poverty. So we exited the pandemic in better shape than most countries.
  • The bipartisan infrastructure bill, which funds repairs and extensions to roads and other infrastructure. It’s the largest construction bill since the Eisenhower administration’s Interstate highway system.
  • The bipartisan CHIPS act boosts domestic semiconductor production, making us less dependent on foreign sources for vital chips.
  • The modest, bipartisan gun reform law. It was all that they could get passed because of Republican obstruction, but it’s still the most significant measure in decades.
  • The Inflation Reduction Act will control some prescription drug costs, fix Obamacare’s subsidy cliff, and make healthcare more affordable for seniors, and for military veterans, in addition to being the most extensive measures ever for fixing the environmental problems that are the threat to human existence.
  • Minimum tax on billionaires and large corporations that coordinates with similar measures in most other countries. The idea is to reduce the number of tax havens around the world by not pitting countries against each other in granting tax breaks to attract businesses.

And these are just the legislative highlights – most of these are bundles of various measures. In comparison, the previous guy’s most important (and I think the only major) legislative accomplishment  was permanent tax cuts for the rich and temporary tax cuts for the middle class (which will expire over the next few years.)

Besides the legislative accomplishments, Biden fixed the vaccine rollout and got us to a post-COVID normal. Job creation went booming. (Unemployment is 3.5 percent, and job creation is at record levels) Inflation, especially in some key areas like gasoline, is still a problem, like it is around the world. My own opinion is that it will disappear over the next couple of years.  It was a risk taken by passing the Rescue plan, as well as engaging with Russia over Ukraine.

Biden also started a process of providing more access to higher education, first by forgiving a lot of student debt, mainly to middle class and working class students, and not just for STEM students, but also for those getting job training, technical or otherwise. This is something I very much believe in, if only because I want to be fair. After all, I attended the University at Davis for many years, and for the last few I was easily able to support myself with summer jobs and working in the campus library and a pomology lab.  The younger generation should have the same opportunity, the same breaks, as me. It’s only fair.  And I’m happy to extend the benefits to jobs training. Those who eschew the academic track should benefit, too.

Oh,and then there’s this:

Biden got Mexico to build a virtual electronic wall along the border. Yes, Mexico paid for it.

Problems still exist, but Biden’s and the Democratic Congress’s accomplishments are many, and I don’t understand why he and they aren’t given more credit for them in the media.


I once had a therapist from Kaiser, with whom I met weekly, starting a little before Covid was unleashed, and continuing until she finally departed Kaiser last January. On more than one occasion, she looked me in the eye and said, “You’re a good man. A good man. So it’s okay to be open with people to tell them how you really feel about them. You’re not going to hurt them.”  Okay. So I practiced being more open with the therapist and later with my friend in Tokyo, as well. Well, the friend in Tokyo seems to have fled. Oh, well. But I have to say I enjoyed somebody besides my mother emphatically calling me a “good man.”

Nowadays I’m practicing being more open with my former church colleague and friend Doug in Berkeley and my former high school bandmate Eileen. When I told her that I tended to compartmentalize my life and make the compartments separately private, she declared, “You keep them under lock and key.” Eileen knows me better than almost anybody, so of course she was right. On the other hand, there are reasons why I grew to be like that. This picture of me, from 1981, seems to capture all the different aspects that I carry around all the time.  Flinging them off might be intensely liberating.

Still, I could hardly believe that Eileen and Mark had never met Jim and Karen.  These two couples are four of the most significant people in my life, yet I had kept them lock and key apart from each other,  even though they live just a few miles from each other. I often say that I have lots of friends, but they are located on different continents. Maybe it’s also that I have made little effort to bring them together, and instead let a separate part of me go along with each one, and keeping them all private.

I’d like to work on somehow bringing disparate friends together. Yeah, maybe they’re on separate continents but they are truly remarkable people, each and every one.  And maybe the effort will help me reintegrate my own self, as well.

Anyway, recently, with Doug and Eileen’s help I’m rediscovering how much I love and miss Ireland, particularly my friend Moira, but also Noel, and Steve and Ger, and Jean, and of course Bernie and Eamonn, who no longer live together or in Ireland, but in Sacramento. Reflecting about Ireland has stirred up a deep but sweet pool of mourning and regret, as it didn’t work out for me to remain there. Well, I’m hoping that the pain is actually a healing process, which Doug and Eileen can help me work out.


Meanwhile, I tear up every time I hear the Irish singers Paul Brady and Maura O’Connell, whose music I associate so thoroughly with those 40 shades of green.

Here’s Paul Brady, with two pieces in his older traditional Irish style and four in his later more contemporary style.  He’s still the voice of Ireland.

The Lakes of Pontchartrain

It’s a love song set in Louisiana with an Irish accent

Arthur McBride

It’s the story of two young Irishmen meeting British army recruiters one day on the beach.

Eat the Peach

Life is wonderful. Reach out and eat the peach.

Nobody Knows

A wistful tune about the unanswered questions of life.

The Hawana Way

Get away from it all with a trip to Havana, Cuba.

The Island

“The Island” is especially deep, with complex lyrics, a song set in Paul Brady’s native Northern Ireland during the “troubles.”

I once saw Maura O’Connell in concert in a small venue in Cork, where she was brilliant. Not long after that she headed to Nashville.

The Feet of a Dancer

It cheerfully reminds me of those many “Irish Blessings”

If You Love Me

This one is one the most luscious romantic ballads that you’ll ever hear. And the way she sings it is powerful. It brings me to tears every time.

So I tear up and wonder sometimes if Moira and my other friends are also still listening to Paul Brady and Maura O’Connell these days.

The de rigueur elephant video from South Africa.

This time it’s a compendium of previously shown emotional moments in the baby Khanyisa’s life.

Be well, everyone. I’m so glad to say that you are my friends. Know that when I talk about you to other people, they invariably comment that I’m so lucky.




Happy World Elephant Day !!!


How I’m doing

I am presently completing the course of chemotherapy that began a few months ago. I had a CAT scan taken last week and I saw the doctor about it this week. I was as anxious as could be that day.  What would he say? Had all that debilitating chemotherapy been worth the misery? Had it succeeded in shrinking the tumors?

Well, the news is good. The chemo was never expected to eliminate the tumors completely, but it did shrink them significantly. The doctor says that the chemo, along with the ongoing hormone therapy, has probably given me a few more years to live.  And there are so many new treatments coming out, that maybe at some point I might have further options.  All the same, I need to get checked every few weeks to make sure I’m holding up under the  hormone therapy and because the cancer itself is so unpredictable.

Thanks to all who have been praying for me, or otherwise keeping me in your heart through all this.  The story is not over by any means, but for the time being, I can coast.  And as my body metabolizes the last dregs of the chemotherapy, I hope to regain my ability to climb stairs without my legs trembling and to remember simple things.

I’m still in Portland, with temperatures often in the 90-100 degree range. But I hope to return to the more moderate temperatures of Castro Valley. There’s a lot for me to do there, as well as here, with my continuing schedule of tests and other events, plus my sister’s schedule and my mother’s upcoming birthday in October, it’s hard to know how I’m going to schedule it all.  It would be so much easier if Castro Valley and Portland were only a hundred miles apart, or something like that.

If my “chemo fog” lifts then I can start thinking things through on my own. My toes were not so lucky – the tips are partially numb from the chemo, and that numbness is expected to be permanent, though I’ve heard that some people eventually get their feeling back.  In any case, it doesn’t interfere with walking. I’m worried that some of my other nerve tissues might have been harmed. In the coming weeks I’ll find out the answer to that question.

Well, as one of the nurses said, they throw everything they can at that cancer, and then pull back as necessary to make sure they  don’t kill me.

But for the present, I’m not so worried about myself as I’m worried about my mother. Two days ago, she gave us a scare. She picked up a flu or maybe some food poisoning.  She seems better today, but she really could use some prayer for healing and to get her appetite back before she withers away.

Living in the past

Yes, I’m still living in the past. Hopefully I may soon start living in the present, but the past is more significant at this point

Last time, I wrote about my mother’s Scandinavian parents, and their story is here. ( Click on the red text to read it) It was too long to send as part of the email itself.

This time, I’m back to my father’s side of the family — specifically my French grandmother, and her story is here. ( Click on the red text to read it) It was also too long to send as part of the email itself. Yet, like the story of my Swedish grandparents, I think about it every day.

I’ve also been living in my own past – specifically my primary school days. For sixth grade, I attended an utterly unremarkable school serving an utterly unremarkable bedroom community where nothing remarkable ever took place, at least nothing that ever made the evening news.  Perhaps it was better for kids like us to grow up in such a stable,  uneventful, “Leave It To Beaver” environment. The outside world would challenge us soon enough.

But one day I overheard my classmates discussing  something remarkable —  a girl at the school —  not because she was pretty or smart or accomplished, but because she had “cooties.” What were cooties? It was a new word for me.  Was it a disease? If so, could it be fatal?

I asked my friends about it, but that didn’t really help. Either they gave me no answer, or at most a mysterious giggle. I did get a name, though — Lenore M., the girl who had them.   This person was someone I had never met, but now I was fascinated. How were these cooties affecting her? Would her flesh be rotting off her face like on a Halloween monster mask? Would she smell like a chemical factory? Would she be scowling all the time from pain? Most importantly, could I catch it from her, and also suffer such symptoms? At the end of the day, it seemed likely that cooties were not real,  but  I kept my eyes and ears open, just in case, determined to locate Lenore M. so I could avoid her.

Well, I seemed to be the only one at school who didn’t know this girl. And I never even caught sight of her that whole year. And then the next year I flew off to junior high, and then to high school, where I landed in a world of music.  On the first day of school, the band room was jammed with students, both committed musicians and those still shopping around for an elective course. (They had a few days to finalize their choice) In both cases, the music teacher had everybody’s name for taking roll.

And right in the middle of it, he called out the name “Lenore M.”   So that girl from sixth grade was a real person after all? Then she shouted a “Here!” and I could see who she was.

She was diminutive, dark-haired, and modestly-dressed. She held a plastic clarinet, much like my own. She was quietly joking with the girl next to her, her bright laugh shining through her smile. She settled into her chair, wiggling like an excited puppy as she did so.  All in all she seemed like a very pleasant person. A regular person.  Unfortunately, in the end, she turned out to be an “elective shopper” who never returned to band class. I never saw her again. I never got to know her.

But that one encounter cemented a lesson in my mind. The  reality of actually observing this former “cootie victim” contrasted wildly with my sixth-grade memories.  I hoped that the episode had not hurt her too badly.

Typical sixth graders back then had no idea what the word “cootie” actually meant. But it does have a meaning — they are a species of lice that infested the trenches of World War one. But real meanings didn’t matter. This word, even divorced from its proper meaning, could still be wielded as an emotional cudgel against any sixth-graders thought to be “others.” Meanwhile, the wielders were forming their own sense of identity through hatred and bullying.

These days, when I watch the news, I often think about Lenore M. and the unearned hatred that she may have suffered.  I never hear the actual word “cootie” on the news, bit do hear other words that work the same way, that are flung about, divorced from their meaning, to help the wielders express their sense of identity through a manufactured hatred of “the other” — in this case an entire class of people, and not individuals.

These are words like “woke,” “critical race theory,” “cancel culture,” and even “socialist” and “Marxist.”as well as the occasional older one, like “feminazis.”  They may have real meanings, (however, I still don’t know what “woke” means. Basically, nobody does.) But like “cooties,” any real meaning doesn’t get in the way of flinging them at people. The sad thing is that these mis-defined words seem to work as effectively against adults as they do among kids, and can easily become channels for funneling real lies about various groups of  people.


Taking Caution

In recent years, the Portland neighborhood where we’re all living has become a petty crime capital. This month I learned that there’s even more to it than  that.  It turns out that the single most dangerous block in the city is located just three or four blocks away from here across a major street. I feel essentially safe. That’s the difference a few blocks and an arterial can make. All the same, I’m saddened when I consider what a safe and quiet neighborhood this has been from the time my grandparents built their own house here on a vacant lot a hundred years ago, through my own childhood and young adulthood. Here are a couple videos for those who are interested, or who are as shocked as I am to hear about it. The first is a short video and the second is a half-hour podcast, both from our local paper, the Oregonian.

My YouTube Addiction – Green & Green

This time I want to highlight the YouTube channels of John and Hank Green. When I think of these guys I think of the term agape, selfless love, which they express in so many ways.

One place to start is over fifteen years ago with the vlogbrothers. This YouTube channel started when older brother John reflected that he had never told his younger brother Hank how much he meant to him, and how for many years he had shared very few of his important life events with him. So they created a channel called vlogbrothers on YouTube, which was then in its early developmental stages, John would write a short video message (a vlog) to Hank on Tuesdays, and Hank would write back on Fridays. It was to be an experiment of a single year, but after that year, they realized how much this  new (and public) communication was enriching their lives, so they continued it, right up to the present day.

Here’s a recent example of John writing to Hank on a Tuesday.

And here’s  a recent example of Hank writing to John on a Friday.

The presence of agape is clear in these videos, and it also shines through the several other channels that they initiated. All of them are intended to be accessible at no cost forever. An online community called Nerd-fighters, also dedicated to charitable activities, began forming around the two brothers.

John’s interest leans toward the humanities, so here he is on the first episode of “Crash Course World History.” His answer when “Me from the Past”asks if something’s going to be on the test is a thing of beauty.  It makes me wish I was still a teacher just so I could repeat it to a class of my own.

and here is John again with another series —  “Crash Course in Literature.”

Hank is more into science. One of his channels is called “Scishow.” First, a brief description of it

and here’s Hank with a recent episode about bees.

And occasionally they wrap up several old episodes into a themed bundle, like this one about color in animals.

And John and Hank, following their financial success, are now also focused more directly on charities. One focus concerns medical clinics in Sierra Leone. John explains the “Awesome Socks Club” which is a main source of support to these medical clinics.

I listen/watch the Green brothers’ videos and I feel challenged as a teacher, and challenged as a human to manifest more agape in my daily activities.


Here’s the perfect video to celebrate World Elephant Day (today) and World Sand Day (yesterday). Adine and “HERD,” show that there’s nothing more serene than watching elephants savoring a patch of sand.

There’s actually so much more that I’d intended to write about, such as our Swedish picnic guarded by waspinators and the danger that our democracy is in, but I’m being more disciplined about writing too much.  Well wishes to all!





Grandma Georgette

Whenever I tell this story about my paternal French grandmother, I think of my grandmother herself, of course, but I also remember the many people to whom I’d told it, including a beautiful young Slavic girl named Marianne in 1994, who heard it from me in German at a German course that we were both taking in the German Rhineland. Never before (and seldom since) have I told such a long story in German. (it took about 30 minutes to tell. I’m not sure I could repeat that feat after decades without German practice, so it’s a nice memory to have).

Some of my listeners urged me to write the story down someday. And so here we are at someday. This version is more detailed than the versions that I told so many times off the  cuff, off the top of my head.


My paternal Grandmother Georgette was genuinely French.  You could hear it in her accent. But seldom would you hear any French words, and never would you hear any stories about her life as a young woman in France. And why not? What was the the big deal? Was her family in Europe suffering from mental health issues?  Our family decided that that must be it, and we moved on with our lives. Besides, we didn’t want to bug Grandma about something she obviously didn’t want to discuss.

As for Europe itself, I had been there once before, right after high school, but it never seemed completely real to me – more like an elaborate version of Disney’s Epcot Center, full of actors and entertainers, rather than regular people, like those I knew in America. And so I felt that stories about Europeans whom I didn’t know would never mean as much to me as a story about Americans or Europeans whom I did know. That’s too bad as I missed a lot back then. But then, in the 1970’s, the American public began noticing and valuing our diversity. We all wanted to find the mysteries of our roots, and Grandma’s story, whatever it was, was certainly that.

And that’s where things stood in 1975, after I’d worked and saved for a year so I  could spend the summer hoofing it through Europe, carrying a back pack and a saxophone. Maybe I could find Grandma’s old digs and run across a bit of the mystery.  It would be like the Alfred Hitchcock tv show but in real life.

At the time,  Grandma was living alone in Alameda, California, not far from where I was living in Davis. So before my big European trip, I drove down to interview her.

She told me she was from “Pont de Pany,” a small French village.  She wrinkled her forehead in her customary worried way, and pursed her lips the way actors do when attempting a French accent.  She said she remembered the first automobile that ever drove through it.  Her family lived on a hill behind the village hotel, which should be easy to find.

“Pont de Pany” means the “bridge of Pany.”  Grandma didn’t know who or what Pany was, but I made it my personal goal to find that “pont” and cross it. (Since then, I’ve heard that “Pany” comes from the French word for bread — “pain” — and that a famous bread market was once held there long ago. Who knows if it’s true.)

The village is 12.5 miles from the well-known city of Dijon in Eastern France, where all the mustard comes from, which seemed strange, since I don’t remember Grandma cooking anything with mustard in it.  I do, however, remember her magnificent custard, carefully cooked  in clear custard cups.  I found Dijon and Pont de Pany on the map that I had brought along with me.

Both locations were in the department of Cote d’Or, a name which means “Golden Slopes,” after its famous Pinot Noir and Chardonnay wines.

“But,” she said, wrinkling her forehead more softly, “I didn’t meet your grandfather there. I  met him in Pontarlier”

Pontarlier was a city of about 15,000 in the department of “Doubs” in the Jura Mountains about six miles from Switzerland.  We found Pontarlier on the map, too.  It’s a long way from Pont de Pany to Pontarlier– about 110 miles.

In Pontarlier, Grandma had worked as a seamstress in a hotel by the train station called “Hotel du Chateau D’eau” ( which means “House of the “Water Tower” or “House of the water fountain”). Would there be a real fountain of water there when I arrived?

My grandfather Charlie was an officer in the U.S. Army. It was World War I, and the army had set up  camp a little ways outside of Pontarlier. Grandpa Charlie was in France to assess the forests for the wartime usability of their lumber.   He was also highly skilled in clear-cutting forests, a skill that wasn’t widely available in Europe since the forests of Europe were seldom harvested so thoroughly. Grandpa Charlie often had business in town. And in fact, the army often had business at the Hotel du Chateau D’eau, as it was the closest “public house” to the train station.

As for any relatives in France, Grandma’s memory was extremely inconsistent. Sometimes she said she had one relative, sometimes a bunch, but then that they were all gone. Sometimes she said she had a huge related family who lived far away. But they were also dead now.  I decided that just finding the locations of her youth would be enough for now.  If I found any leads, I could pursue them on a subsequent trip.

Europe 1975

My 1975 trip was my first-ever solo trip to Europe. My charter plane took me from the Bay Area to Madrid, and then back to the Bay Area from Paris 10 weeks later. I bought a discount two-month Eurail Railpass plus $1000 in traveler’s checks. That should suffice, shouldn’t it? I didn’t know, really. I wasn’t much used to thinking ahead in analytical detail back then. It seemed a reasonable amount, and if not, I’d just have to adapt. As it turned out, I spent my last money the morning I left for home from Paris. Good estimating !!

During my ten weeks in Europe I would visit Spain, France, Switzerland, Italy, Germany, Sweden, Denmark, Netherlands, Belgium, England, and Scotland.

I brought the names and addresses of two of my mother’s relatives in Sweden to visit during the trip. I had no names of any relatives from Georgette’s side of the family. Instead I would visit the places where she had lived, and maybe someone there would remember her. After all, wasn’t France small enough for everybody to know everybody?

Cote d’Or and Pont de Pany

After a lot of European adventures, I found myself in Taizé, a religious retreat located a ways south of Pont de Pany. Pont de Pany was closer to Taizé than Pontarlier was, so I decided to investigate Pont de Pany first, and then investigate Pontarlier on my way south through Switzerland to Perugia, Italy, where I planned to visit my college friend Julie. Yes, lots of adventures that summer.

So I took the morning bus from Taizé to Chalon-sur-Saône — about 45 minutes. And from there I took a train to Dijon — about an hour — . I visited Darcy Square (Jardin Darcy), near the train station —  It’s a large park full of ponds and fountains, and a smiling statue of a polar bear at the main entrance. I also walked to a nearby youth hostel, where I reserved a bed for the night, and then grabbed another bus out to Pont de Pany itself — about 20 minutes.

By the time I arrived it was around noon. And appropriately, I found the town to be perfect for filming an old “Western” high noon gun duel. The town mostly consisted of one really long straight street mostly devoid of people and traffic. Can you call it “main street” if it’s basically the only street and it’s mostly empty, anyway?  Actually it was called Burgundy Street.  As I watched, an older woman, wearing a dress and a sweater, despite the warm weather, emerged from an alley carrying a basket of bread, Then she disappeared down another alley, leaving the street mostly empty again.

Houses were tucked right up to the street edge – all of them two stories tall, with thick walls, and painted in dusty colors – mostly a dingy yellow. Rectangular windows had glass panes and also strong wooden shutters to guard against any stray movie bullets. The only thing missing was Clint Eastwood.  There was even a niche on the second floor of one house. Painted blue on the inside, it contained a statue of the Virgin Mary holding the Christ Child. A perfect setting for somebody’s Last Rites.

As I strolled  along, I passed a small, plain, two-story school building, and then, where the Ouche River passed under Burgundy Street, the street was reinforced with a stone bridge. I had found the “Pont” in “Pont de Pany!!  I slipped down the river bank to the base of the bridge . I stood at the edge of the river, surrounded by clumps of green reeds, my mind lost in thoughts. Bright blue darner dragonflies swirled around me in the sunshine, like fluorescent sparkles, echoing my reverie.  Had my grandmother once stood at that spot among the reeds admiring the darners and the bridge? And what would she have been meditating about back then? And what could have tempted her to leave such an idyllic setting?

I scrambled back up the slope to Burgundy Street.  Parallel to the river was the Burgundy canal, a 150-mile artificial stream with almost 200 locks, one of which ran just in front of Burgundy Street, where the canal dipped beneath a small bridge like how the river goes beneath Pont de Pany.  Built for goods transportation, the canal is now mainly used by tourist boats, which are long, and shaped like barges, flat-bottomed, with a cabin, about half the width of the canal so one boat can pass another. They are not numerous — no rush hour traffic here.  The tourists often sat on chairs on top of their boat.  It was a luxurious life style.

And next to the canal was the “Pont de Pany” Hotel !!!  Just like Grandma had said. Then, following her directions,  I checked out the hill rising behind the hotel, looking for her old house,  but nary a house was to be seen – just a hill full of pines and firs.

Disappointed, I then walked to the other end of the village and out to the countryside where I found fields full of the same invasive plants (including mustards) that I had seen my whole life in California.They stretched out as far as the eye could see, between hills covered with pines and firs.

I then returned to the bus stop for Dijon, and was soon on my way, with a lot to think about. The Burgundy Canal seemed so important to the town. Why hadn’t grandma mentioned it? And had her house on that hill been plowed under? Is that why no housing appeared on that hill?


The next morning I took the train from Dijon to Pontarlier, about two hours, plus a long layover in Besançon. When I arrived at Pontarlier, I remembered Grandma telling me that the hotel was just outside the train station — just look left as you come out of the front entrance. I did that, and son of a gun, Grandma had been accurate — there it was, a two-story building with the name Hotel de la Gare & du Chateau d’Eau firmly emblazoned across the facade just under the eaves of the red-tile roof.

It was located at the spot where one street coming from the train station divides into two, which continue as two streets around each side of the hotel. This Y in the road shaped the hotel property into a triangle. In order to build a wide facade to the building, they’d left a small triangle-shaped yard pointed back at the train station.

This small yard had been surfaced with hard sand. On it, a few of the locals were playing Jeu de Boules, which is one of the most popular games in France. It’s played on any handy surface, from sand to lawn, from asphalt to dirt, from flat to irregular. It’s similar to Bocce. You toss a ping-pong-sized ball onto the surface. The players have heavy metal balls the size of a large grapefruit, which they toss as close as possible to the small ball.

The hotel facade was painted light green with tall wooden window shutters on both stories, which were painted a shiny rich green. All had windows with tall glass, including two first-floor windows which had been fitted with full length glass and converted into doors. I took the door on the right, which had a stained-glass logo on it. The other door was plain.

Behind the front windows was a shallow, wide room that stretched the entire width of the building, but was less than ten feet to the back solid wall. and most of that space was taken by a huge bar made of carved and polished wood. The left end of the bar served as a front desk and the right end, behind the decorated door window, served to draw the locals in for drinks and Jeu de Boules. There was a sink with shelves above it to hold glasses and liquors, and there was a even a small scoreboard, sponsored by a strong flavored liquor called Pastis, for keeping game scores and celebrating after the game.

Did the hotel have a vacancy? Yes they did. It was on the second floor. The proprietor led me up there. And I wondered which room my grandmother might have stayed in. My room was small, with a full-sized bed in a beautiful polished carved wooden frame that took up a third of the floor space, and a matching wooden night stand, small chair and cabinet. The bed was located just by the door, which was handy since the toilet was in a separate room down the hall.  There was, however, a sink with a metal bedpan. And I wondered if the toilet would have been installed when grandma was still living there.

And laying across the full-sized bed was an emperor-sized bed pillow, the largest  that I had ever seen, taking up half the bed space and a foot or two high. It was like a super-fluffy futon. Culture shock.

When I had gotten settled into my room, I returned to the front desk to tell them that my grandmother had once worked at the hotel. I gave them her name and asked if anybody on the current staff had known her.  Nobody had. They shrugged their shoulders in that wonderful French way.  Well, it had been over fifty years since Grandma had left, so I shouldn’t have felt surprised that nobody knew her, unless they’d had some awfully experienced staff.

I didn’t feel comfortable wandering around inside the building by myself (I might have, if I’d known more French and could have asked more clearly), so I popped outside to inspect the building’s exterior.  One could see how the structure had developed over the years by adding brick-shaped two-story buildings, connected to each other around the edges of the property, though I don’t know in what order.

But it would seem that they first added a 2-story building along each of the two side-roads until they hit a cross-street, so from the air, the augmented structure was shaped like a capital U with a flat bottom where the facade was.  Then, after that, they built another 2-story building from the left point of the U halfway to the right point.  They then finished closing the U with a metal picket fence from the middle to the right point. There on the corner was a gate, allowing access to the large sand-surfaced yard in the middle, no doubt perfect for playing Jeu de Boules,shaded by some trees planted along the fence.

I walked around the neighborhood for a while, trying to imagine my grandmother strolling the same streets. And then I spent the early evening reading a book that I had brought with me.   I seemed to have discovered everything about the hotel that I was going to.

But I was surprised the next morning. I had found the toilet, but had not found the shower. When I asked about it I was told that there was none. On the other hand, just four blocks away there was a public shower, where I could come clean at the cost of just a few centimes. I understood the directions, found myself in a first-floor facility divided by gender, where each side had one or two showers, very clean, just like those we’d had in our college dorms back home.

Having come clean, I returned to the hotel, where I’d left my backpack, and soon found myself on the train for Switzerland and Italy.


When I returned to California at the end of my trip, I had a short debriefing session with Grandma. She didn’t have much specific to say about Pont de Pany. I guess her memories were fading.

I mentioned my shower in Pontarlier, four blocks from the hotel, and asked her if those shower facilities had been available when she had lived there. She brightened up and told me that she had never walked so far away from the hotel — four blocks  —  so how could she know? Fact was, she said, that I had seen more of Pontarlier than she had ever seen, even though she had lived there for several years working in the hotel.

How could she be such an extreme stay-at-home?

The key to that little mystery was the large yard in the middle of the hotel. A market was held there most days, with different merchants and farmers selling a wide variety of wares. Nobody in the hotel ever needed to go out shopping, because everything that they might buy came to them. Grandma was even able to select the different kinds of material that she sewed together to make everything from curtains to clothing.  She just needed to remember which day the clothing merchants were coming by. So Grandma never left the hotel at all during the years when she was working there.

During the war, the American army had set up camp a few miles from Pontarlier The soldiers, during their down times, came into town both for shopping and for drinking.  Perhaps they had stood buying drinks at the same bar that I had seen. Perhaps they had shopped at the market in the hotel yard. Perhaps they had even set up a local army headquarters within the hotel, if only to collect supply shipments from passing trains. Certainly all of those soldiers had seen more of Pontarlier than Grandma had.

In any case, there was ample opportunity for Grandpa and Grandma to meet and get to know each other.

But that hotel had another function for the army. Because the trains came back and forth from nearby neutral Switzerland, they provided an efficient means of transporting suspected spies that had been caught there and brought into France. Once in Pontarlier they were checked into the closest hotel to the train station, the hotel where Grandma worked. All of the suspect’s clothes and personal items were confiscated and they were locked naked in a room. Now, if they escaped from the room, their nakedness limited their movements, not only because they could be spotted easily, and not only because they might be embarrassed running around town with no clothes on , but also because Pontarlier is the second-highest city in France (2,000 to 4,000 feet elevation), so its weather is often freezing cold.

And this also solved the mystery of the emperor-sized pillow on the bed. It wasn’t meant for one’s head. Probably if I had explored the drawers in the cabinet, I would have found a smaller pillow for that. No, it was meant to cover the lower body to help the sleeper get through those freezing-cold winter nights.

And I thought later that the water fountain in the name Hotel de la Gare & du Chateau d’Eau could have been a publicly available fountain in the hotel’s central yard for watering horses or even for household use.

Grandpa Charlie had gotten a divorce, and so was free to marry Georgette.  So they did marry in the Montmartre district of Paris. The plan was to go into business logging hardwoods from West Africa and importing them into France, but it fell through. So instead they had to return to Charlie’s home territory, the Pacific Northwest and Washington state, a much longer distance. Georgette was deathly ill on the boat from sea sickness combined with pregnancy. She often said that if she’d known she would end up in Washington, she probably would not have agreed to marry Charlie. With so many bad memories from the journey to Washington, no wonder she seemed to want to put her life in France completely behind her.

Europe 1981

This would be my third solo trip to Europe, mainly to visit old friends and relatives. My charter plane landed in Amsterdam.  I visited Holland, both West and East Germany, Italy, Switzerland, France, and briefly, Luxembourg, in order to take Iceland Air to Iceland, and then a couple days later, from Iceland to Chicago, Columbus and Indianapolis, then from Chicago to Oakland.  It was a slightly shorter trip than the 1975 trip, and I was too old to qualify for the cheap Eurail pass, but since I was gainfully employed in a real career job, having to travel in first class luxury proved to be not too much of a hardship.

By this time, my father had moved Grandma Georgette to live with him in Seattle, as she was getting too old to take care of herself. And about that time, I found out that Georgette had indeed been writing to a relative in France for quite awhile, a sister named Therese Couche.  And this letter-writing campaign was ongoing.

Since I had plans to visit Europe in 1981, I phoned Grandma at my father’s house in Seattle (long distance — I was living in Castro Valley at the time). I asked her for Therese’s address so I could visit her, which, to my overwhelming surprise, she promptly gave me. I made her repeat it a couple times to be sure. Well, I now had my first goal for the summer’s trip.


The Address I was given was for Montbard, a small city located about fifty miles west of Dijon, on a route a few miles north of Pont de Pany. All three of these towns were located in the Province of Cote d’Or. I had never heard of Montbard before. I thought to write before I went, but I couldn’t write in French, and what if Grandma had gotten the address mixed up, anyway?  I remembered how confused she had seemed describing her French family six years before.

After many adventures that summer, I wound up visiting my Swiss friend Gerda for several days in her home in Zug, Switzerland, at times using it  as a “home base” for explorations into Southern Germany, even getting as far as the Black Forest, where I did not buy a cuckoo clock.

Early one morning I headed out in that direction again, but changed trains in Neuchâtel, which diverted me from another trip to Germany and put me on the line to Pontarlier and France instead. I took the exact reverse route as I had six years previously. When I reached Pontarlier, there was a change of trains to the French rail system. Owing to Swiss punctuality, the layover was extremely short, and I didn’t want to leave the station to peek at the hotel in case I lost track of time.

When I reached Besançon, the layover was a couple hours, so I wandered about and got my most favorite photo of a group of idle men playing Jeu de Boules on yet another sand surface.

I stopped in Dijon, but it was too late to get a room in the hostel, so I settled down on a bench in the railroad station, dozing and watching the trains come and go. Well, it was August and warm.

And as I lay there, a railroad vision quietly slipped onto one of the tracks across from me. It was like nothing I’d ever seen before, sleek and orange, like a low-slung express passenger train except for its extremely long nose that gave it the aura of a powerful predator stalking through the night.   And when it silently slid to a stop, the brakes made no noise. No doors opened. Nobody got out. Perhaps they’d all been  consumed.

And indeed, it was a powerful creature. It was a super-high speed TGV train, (Train à Grande Vitesse). The TGV system would not open to the public for another couple months. No wonder I had never seen one before. It must have been out for final testing, so no wonder there were no passengers.

The train to Montbard the next morning was the opposite of a high speed TGV. It was small, short, and stubby,  shaped like a squarish city bus on train tracks. It was painted red, top and bottom, but off-white in between. It had an articulation between its two cars and a single wide door for passengers to enter and exit. It stopped and started somewhat noisily. Yes, compared to most trains, it was a city bus.

Its route skirted some low hills, and it passed by the north end of the valley that I’d seen from Pont de Pany six years before, according to the map I had.  It took around ninety slow and steady minutes to reach Montbard.

Coming into Montbard, I saw a charming city with a population (at that time) of about 7500 (much smaller as I write this) that had grown up around a high hill. About 700 years ago, a castle/fortress was built on top of that hill, but it has been falling apart for the last couple hundred years, so today there’s mainly one tall stone tower left.

The train station was positioned in a curve of the same Burgundy Canal that had gone through Pont de Pany, but here each slanted bank was overlaid by bright green lawn with hockey-puck shaped bushes at regular intervals, connected by thin lines of flowers.  It was very decorative, at least on that curve near the train station.


The city really did seem charming, so I began hiking up the roads towards the castle. I had come all this way, but I hesitated, unsure of what people I would find. A little stroll might help me focus my mind on the coming task, what sort of connection might be made. And I still wasn’t confident that Grandma had given me the correct address.

After an hour or so, though, I drifted off the hill and back to the train station. Just outside the station entrance stood a small angular building with “Montbard Tourist Office” printed on it. Well, every city in France had one of these, and if they didn’t, then they’d at least have a helpful city map posted on a board that would help tourists find their destination.  Sometimes they had both.

But here was an actual office, so I stepped in. The tourist lady behind the counter spoke perfect English. I asked if they had one of those give-away tourist maps and if she could help me find an address. She did and she would.

Glancing at the address she said, “This is the address?” I assured her it was. “Are you sure you want to go there?” Well, up until that moment I was pretty sure.

At the edge of the giveaway map were train tracks and a street crossing them. Pointing to the crossing and then to the countertop just off the map, she said, “Where you want to go is here, on the other side of the tracks. It’s not on this map. but I can draw you the route on the back of it.” Gosh. My relative Therese apparently lived on the wrong side of the tracks.  The tourist lady finished her drawing and pointed me in the direction of the street crossing. I was off.  I was glad that I’d gone in the tourist office during business hours, when it was open.

Once I was on the other side of the tracks, the quality of building construction dropped considerably. It really did seem to be the “wrong side of the tracks.”  Most of the buildings appeared to be apartment blocks of 2, maybe 3 stories. But most of them appeared to have been uninhabited for quite a while, judging from the fact that sunshine pierced their roofs, and chunks of their walls had fallen out. I stopped in the road to think about this again. I actually entered one building through a large hole torn from the building’s  walls, stopping by a dead pigeon. I stood there thinking it through. Did I really want to open what could be a can of worms?

Well, in the end I wasn’t going to travel thousands of miles and then chicken out at the last minute. I found the building with the address I’d been given and was relieved to find it intact and inhabited, a  two-story apartment block that seemed pretty well kept up.  The apartment that I wanted was on the second floor, right up a flight of cement stairs with a metal railing.  I climbed the staircase, walked along a cement walkway to the door, and knocked. The door opened.

Behind the door was a short elderly woman whose face shared so many features with my own grandmother’s. I said something like, “Therese? Je suis Paul.”

She lifted her hands in the air, and shouted, “Quelle surprise! Quelle surprise!” She motioned me inside.  It was a small, neat home, and along the side wall was a fireplace. And like in so many homes, pictures were set atop the mantle. And one of those was a recent photo of my sister, a photo that I myself had taken!! How had it gotten there? Well, Grandma must have sent it. Had she also advised Therese that I was coming?

Therese certainly knew a lot about her American family, even as we knew basically nothing about her.

She let me know that she would phone up her son (so she had a son!) but there was only one telephone in the apartment block, and it was on the ground floor, presumably in the manager’s home. She’d be right back. And she disappeared down the stairs. Not long after, she returned, and soon her son Serge drove up in a white hatchback.  He was a thin middle aged man, very fit, a bit younger than my father, with whom he shared so many facial features, including a balding head! Unfortunately, between the three of us, nobody but me spoke English, but we somehow communicated anyway.

I grabbed my backpack and descended the stairs to Serge’s hatchback, and we drove off to his house.

And what exactly was this neighborhood of apartments where Therese was living?  It was housing provided by the railroad for former employees who had retired. Therese seemed to be alone, so her husband, Mr. Couche, the railroad employee, must have died. Many of the buildings had been allowed to fall into disrepair because they were no longer needed. Their inhabitant were gone, one way or another. Presumably more recent (and still living) retirees would be supported in a different manner. And as I write this, years later, all those apartment buildings have been cleared away and replaced by other types of housing and offices.

St. Remy

Serge’s home was set in a small village less than three miles from Montbard, a little ways further along the omnipresent Burgundy Canal. It’s called St. Remy (It is not the St. Remy with the mental hospital made famous by Vincent Van Gogh).  It’s had a stable population of about 850 since the 1950’s. Most of those people lived on the other side of the canal from Serge, though.  And near the bridge over the canal was the city hall with a placard announcing events. And near the next bridge up the canal, in the adjoining village of Buffon, was a large sand-surfaced area with men playing Jeu de Boules because . . . of course there was.

Serge’s house was compact,  white-washed, and tile-roofed. It practically screamed out “Mediterranean climate.”

It was a two-story building that seemed more Italian than French. It was  set into the the hillside that rose behind it. And on that hillside, behind and above the house, was a garden with every sort of vegetable growing there. Most of them would end up on their dinner table.

A path and stairs led back down to a front yard perfect for summer picnics  – a lawn, lots of flowering bushes, a shade tree,  a metal table, and other lawn furniture. There was even a garden dwarf.

Moths, slipping through the air like hummingbirds, sipped nectar from the flowers as we made ourselves comfortable.

To the side of the lawn was a detached garage for the car, and the whole assemblage was hidden from the view of passersby by an old traditional two-story house placed right at the edge of the road, which blocked the view of most of the yard.  Well, a bit of privacy is nice, though rarely did either cars or foot traffic ever come up that street.  Countryside living at its best.

Serge worked as a mechanic in a factory at the edge of Montbard (I believe they manufactured piping) And I met Serge’s wife Jeanine who worked in a different factory at the edge of St. Remy. They made plastic artificial flowers.  She had a generous aura about her.

Two middle-school aged kids were part of this family – a boy named Hervé, and a girl named Lisa. I would see Hervé in all future visits, but Lisa I never saw again after that summer. Actually, these kids belonged to Jeanine’s relatives, but the Couches were raising them. Indeed, it would turn out that the Couches had a great commitment to helping raise other people’s children.

In fact, they had a commitment to all ages of the family. Jeanine’s brother Olvé, wedded to tobacco and his pipe, lived in the traditional house by the road. During World War II, he had been a French soldier, captured by the Germans and locked in a prison camp. So of necessity he had had to learn some of the German words that were being thrown at him — words like “schlafen (sleep)” and “essen (eat)” After he found out that I was studying German, I heard such prison words from him every time he came around.

And just as I thought all this family stuff was getting sorted out, Serge’s older brother Michel drove up in his white Citroën station wagon, the kind with the famous air-and-oil suspension (the self-leveling hydro-pneumatic suspension).

He had brought along his wife Yvonne. Goodness, how many relatives were there? Michel was a bit pudgier than Serge, but still shared many of the same facial features as my dad, including the balding head. Yvonne was the quiet sort, with graying hair.

Michel had recently retired, but he had worked for the phone company as an electrician, driving all over the country to fix or install equipment. Best of all, he had spent a year working in Australia, where he had picked up quite a bit of English and remembered it decades later. At last, I could get more of my questions answered.

The two brothers formed a quick huddle, to decide whom I would stay with and in what order.I would first stay with Serge for a couple days, and then go to Michel’s townhouse in Montbard.

And then, the celebration. We moved the picnic table next to the garage, where the wall was made from stone. A countertop, cabinets and a small oven/stove completed the Picnic food preparation setup. But behind the wall and a curtain was a small hidden wine cellar. And I was asked to pop in there to admire the stock and choose some bottles to enjoy.

But since I rarely drink alcohol I was in a bit of a spot. The Cote d’Or (golden slopes) is world famous for its wines, so I could only assume that some of their best examples were in that cellar, so politeness required that I try some and enjoy it. I deferred to their judgment in the particular choice of wine, and I drank as much as I could, from more than one bottle, and managed to stay fairly sober while praising every mouthful.

Eventually, Michel headed back home, a spare bed was found for me in the house, and I settled in for a good night’s sleep.

The next day, we spent time strolling around St. Remy. I also toured Serge’s house. The living room had one of the busiest wallpapers I’ve ever seen. Curved lines, vaguely resembling  brown and grey flowers, crowded the surface. Dark dots were scattered over the curves.

There were lots of photos hanging on the wall, and I tried to learn the people in them.  Jeanine was particularly assertive at teaching me.  There were also various souvenirs, including paintings on black velvet. Viva Elvis! Also, there was a cabinet full of souvenir cups and statuettes.

As supper time approached, we all (Including Olvé) jumped into the hatchback to drive to Buffon, the next town over, to eat at the Restaurant Marrionnier. I don’t remember exactly what we had, except for a heaping platterful of the most delicious sliced tomatoes I have ever encountered.

Sometime during that meal, or shortly afterwards, we started talking about grandma, and Serge ventured that he wished he could talk to her, even if she was in America. I told him that she was living with my dad in Seattle, and Dad had a telephone. Furthermore, I had brought Dad’s phone number with me. Serge could just call her up. It would be late morning in Seattle.

Well, it was like a flash bulb had gone off in his head. It had never occurred to him to just call her. We took the hatchback home and hopped out into that very same living room with the impossibly busy wallpaper, which, in all the excitement, seemed an absolutely appropriate design .  Serge took the handset, and there was a simple extension speaker attached to it that allowed Jeanine to hear the conversation, too. Smiles lit up the room, and they kept shouting, “Historique! Historique!.”

Meanwhile, in Seattle, Dad had apparently gone out for the morning, because Grandma was the only one home when the Couche’s call came. When she herself answered the phone, they practically melted in excitement.

I was also overjoyed, that I could help them make this connection. I was also impressed. Grandma had left France sixty years before, and had seldom used French ever since – she just wrote the occasional letter, and she might have had one friend who spoke French with her on rare occasions. Yet, after all that time, with no warm-up, she could easily hold a conversation in French with Serge and Jeanine. It just goes to show how permanent one’s native language abilities are.

Tour of Cote d’Or

I’ve mentioned the name Buffon a couple times. You’d see it a lot more than that if you ever went to Montbard, because he is their favorite son. Born in Montbard about three hundred years ago, he became a naturalist and mathematician, one of the most influential biologists in the days before Darwin. He hung out at Montbard castle and in more recent times, even had a crater on the moon named after him.

So when Michel retired, the three-story town house that he acquired had to be located in the heart of town, in Buffon Square, which contained a life-sized bronze statue of the great naturalist himself, circled by a small lawn and flowers.  And next to this townhouse was the Buffon Pharmacy where, as Michel got older,  he could easily obtain any medicines that he might need. And it’s to that townhouse that we came to next. And across the square was a large building that at times served as a school, at times a museum, and perhaps also as a residence for Buffon himself – the Buffon chateau.  In fact, I believe Michel attended school there as a boy.

I was given the room facing the square from the second story, , where I could look out on all this and admire it.  The bed in that room had the most pliable mattress of any I’ve ever tried. If one sat on it, it seemed to sink to the floor.  But I was still young at the time, so I was able to sleep on it without back problems.

We strolled up the street from the townhouse to find a large building that could have served as a barn back when the city was not so dense. The door was a true barn door, that slid open.  It had a huge interior space and the roof was held up by magnificent rough-cut logs.

Michel used this warehouse-sized space for one of his hobbies —  collecting and restoring old U.S. army vehicles. They had been left all over France at the end of World War II, as it cost too much to bring them back to America, and they mostly looked like they’d been through a war, anyway. Michel’s barn building housed an army personnel carrier and a large jeep, which he tinkered with from time to time. Every so often, hobbyists like him took part in a  parade (in Roen?) to show off their vehicles and swap restoration stories.

Before he had moved into the core of Montbard, Michel had lived in a large house in a wooded area just outside of town. He was having it refurbished preparatory to selling it, so we hopped in his Citroën to check on the progress. Parked nearby was his “caravan,” (otherwise known as a small house trailer), in which he had lived for about half the year as he traveled from place to place all over the country for his work.

And then, it turned out that Michel had a son named Joel. There were just more and more Couches all the time!  We headed out to Joel’s home.  He was a thirty-something guy who lived in a two-story town house with his wife Françoise and his two little kids, Philippe and Caroline. He was a policeman, who had spent a few years policing in French Guiana, so he had a lot of South American memorabilia and a large collection of guns, which he was very proud of. I guess, since he was a policeman, he had access to more guns than most people did – his were the only guns I ever saw in private hands in all the times that I would tour France.

And his wife had a fine collection of small china dishes, like Jeanine had. Their wallpaper was not quite as busy as Serge’s, since it had a pattern of short straight lines rather than long swirls. Both papers had dots, though.

And there was a spiral staircase, right in the middle of the living room, that led from the ground floor to the next floor. I’d never seen anything like it outside of a fire house.  It seemed elegant, like something in a Marilyn Monroe movie.

Joel also had an assemblage of fine wines, and once again I had to  drink more than I was  used to, and once again I was able to drink without falling over.


Several miles north of Montbard flows the Seine River, the same Seine that flows through Paris. And at one spot by the Seine, three small villages abut each other, such that it’s hard to tell where one starts and the other leaves off. These villages are Sainte-Colombe-sur-Seine, Chatillon-sur-Seine, and Vix. They are actually world famous for the archeological relics found in the area, such as the “Vix Grave,” the grave of a Celtic princess from 2500 years ago.

They are also famous in my family because Sainte-Colombe-sur-Seine is where my grandmother is actually from. And no, she wasn’t an archeological relic.

So at one point in my visit to Michel, he and I and Yvonne hopped in the Citroën and headed up north through lightly rolling hills with huge grain fields, to find Grandma’s first home. Her father worked for the railroad as a crossing guard of sorts They lived in a house by a railroad crossing, and it was the father’s task to make sure the gate was lowered when a train was coming. He might have performed other tasks as well.

Well, we went to such a house in Sainte-Colombe-sur-Seine and it looked pretty comfortable. There were actually two two-story buildings on the property surrounded by a metal picket fence. They were surrounded by lawn, perfect for croquet, or rather, Jeu de Boules. There were several railroad crossings in the area, and I wasn’t sure if Grandma had lived at this one, or another.  But Michel said he’d show me for absolute sure one where she’d actually lived, but only the foundation was left. It was still in Sainte Colombe, though on the edge of town.

It was on a small spar track – just one track, and weeds were growing up around and within it, but one could still make out the foundation.   The crossing was where it had always been, and the track appeared to still be in use, so a whole other house had been constructed nearby, probably to replace the old building.

We found a more picturesque part of town, next to the Seine, where we took commemorative snapshots.

Moulin des Isles

And then Michel mentioned Pont de Pany. He knew it well because as a young boy he would spend summers there with his grandparents. They lived at a site called Moulin des Isles, which means “Mill of the Islands.” So we set out driving back south through more of those huge fields and rolling hills.

When we reached Pont de Pany, we stopped exactly where I had stopped  six years earlier — by the stone bridge over the Ouche River, near the old school house. I could not resist taking a photo from the exact same spot where I’d stood back then. Well, it was almost the exact spot – the water level was higher this year, so the exact spot was covered in water and reeds. The reeds were happy, though.

The Burgundy Canal was nearby, as well as the old hotel. I hoped we’d find the house that Grandma had referred to years ago, the one behind the hotel on the hill.

We hopped in the car and started off. We did go behind the hotel, but not in the direction I had expected. We took a dirt road that began where the Burgundy Canal flowed under Burgundy Street. Instead of driving by the hotel, we followed the canal on that dirt road for about half a mile to reach a complex of buildings, again next to the canal.

So this was Moulin des Isles!!  Well, it certainly was located behind the hotel – about a half mile behind. And it was located behind a low rise, though not behind the higher hill adjacent to the hotel.  It’s easy to see how Grandma could have made this small navigational error decades after leaving France.

Moulin des Isles proved to be not just a home, but a complex of maybe ten buildings, including warehouses, a garage, and who knows what else. At the time it seemed owned by a natural gas company. Michel knocked on the door of the house. A young pregnant woman answered. Once Michel explained who we were, she granted us entry to wherever we wanted to go on the property

So I got lots of photos, including inside the house, which had a fireplace very much like the one in Therese’s apartment. I even got a photo of Michel standing proudly in front of a small garden which he had worked on as a body.

I walked outside the compound to where Yvonne had set herself down on the grass that bordered the canal. A little ways further, a couple fishermen were waiting for a bite, and behind them floated a canal boat. Tall trees also lined the canal route. A dappled light filtered through their thick foliage.

It was one of the most peaceful and quiet scenes that could ever be imagined. I imagined that any one growing up or living in such a peaceful atmosphere would benefit in both physical and mental health.  I was glad that the young Michel had been able to share in it.

Tourist Attractions

Well, time was getting short against my impending departure date from Europe. All my essential goals had been achieved. Michel fetched his mother Therese so we could all spend some time together, and I took my favorite photo of her as she sat in Michel’s townhouse.  And as I directed my lens towards her, and noted her friendly face smiling back at me, I kept wondering why we hadn’t always known about them, these Couches, the way that we knew about so many of my mother’s relatives in Sweden and Finland.

About four miles from Montbard stands a Cistercian abbey which became a UNESCO world heritage site the same year that I was visiting. The abbey had been founded about a thousand years ago and was finished a hundred years later. It’s lost a couple of structures over the millennia, but basically it’s been there the whole time. And now we would be there, too.

From the outside, the stone buildings were all barn-shaped, but on the inside a variety of arches held up the tile roofs. The most beautiful arches surrounded the cloister  It seemed magical that a structure so old and famous was located just down the road from the little towns where the Couches were living.

But then, not much further away, was something twice as old and many times as famous. . . . Alesia!

Alesia was a mountain town where the final battle between Julius Caesar and the Celts (the Gauls) took place in 52 B.C. . The Gauls were led by Vercingétorix.  Uniting those famously independent and fractious Celts had not been easy for Vercingétorix. The task took years. In the end, Caesar pushed them all up the mountain and lay siege to it, encircling the whole mountain, similarly to how the later Romans would encircle the Jews on Masada.

When Vercingétorix realized there was no escape for himself, he surrendered to Caesar in person, throwing his weapons down at Caesar’s feet, hoping that more of his soldiers would be spared. He was taken to Rome where he languished in prison for five years, and then was ceremonially executed after a triumphal parade.

This battle was one of the most significant milestones in forming the Roman Empire. Caesar himself wrote about it.  And here I was driving up the very same mountain with Herve, Serge and Michel.

At the top is a 25-foot tall monument/statue of Vercingétorix himself, commissioned by Napoleon III from the sculptor Aimé Millet and set up in 1865.The great chieftain stares out and across the countryside, no doubt gauging how he might deal with the Romans below. We got out a pair of binoculars and spotted landmarks in the valley below.

Off to one side was a Gallo-Roman amphitheater that had presumably been there since the Roman Empire (?). There were no steps or seats, and trees grew through the audience area.  The stage was comprised of packed dirt, enclosed by a stone wall. It seemed a perfect place to play Jeu de Boules but unfortunately we’d left our equipment at home.

Eventually it was time to go home, and time for me to take the train the next day to Luxembourg, and from there, out of Europe.  With me I took several boxes of a licorice candy that’s a specialty of the region, and a large bouquet of artificial flowers for Grandma from the factory where Jeanine worked.

I really felt blessed to have such wonderful relatives and I intended to visit them again as soon as I could.

Postlude – 1991

I visited my dad when I returned to America from my 1981 Europe Trip, and I made sure that he understood who these French relatives were, and that they were not even a little bit crazy.  I knew that he would like them, too. He kind of dragged his feet about actually going to France to meet them, though. Well, Dad was not known for taking adventurous journeys. On the other hand, he did start studying French.

Meanwhile, I visited the Couches in France in 1984 and again in 1990. Yep. They were just as wonderful each time. By that time Grandma was staying in an old folks home because she required more care than she could receive living with Dad. And my dad was still dragging his feet about going to France. But then, in 1991, he decided to go. And I found out why he had been putting it off.

Grandma had an old desk which she had left with my father. She kept some of her personal papers in that desk, one of which was an envelope upon which she had written, “Only open this envelope when I am gone.” Normally Dad would not open such an envelope, but now he was going to France and he got to thinking maybe there was something in that envelope that he ought to know, something that maybe the people in Montbard might know already. So he opened the envelope.

And he found out that Therese was not Grandma’s sister after all, but her daughter. A man in Pont de Pany had gotten her pregnant at the age of thirteen, whether through force or not, I don’t know.  I do know that when her father found out about it, he went to fetch his shotgun. But Grandma begged him not to kill the guy.  He put his shotgun away and in the next year, when Grandma was 14, Therese was born. But how would she be raised? Grandma’s parents were willing to raise her, but Grandma had to take responsibility, too. Specifically she had to get some job training and start earning money towards Therese’s support.

There was a skilled seamstress in Pont de Pany, whom Grandma studied with. But there wasn’t much extra work in Pont d’Pany. It was just too small a town. So where else could she work? Pont de Pany had a tradition as a military retreat, so perhaps she used some military connections there to locate Pontarlier, which also had a military tradition.

So Grandma moved up to Pontarlier to make money.  She was hired by the hotel, the beginning of an employment spanning many years. She regularly sent money for Therese back to her parents in Pont de Pany. Did people in town know that Therese was not their daughter? I don’t know, but certainly the people in Pontarlier wouldn’t know , so it was a way that Grandma wouldn’t have to face what she (and French society at that time) may have felt was her shameful behavior.

Even after she moved to America this attitude of secrecy continued. In World War II, the Cote d’Or was captured by the Germans, and supply chains were disrupted. So Grandma sent clothes to the family, probably Dad’s old knock-offs, but customized by her seamstress skills.  She probably sent other supplies or foods as well. But when the war was over, and Michel wrote to Grandma that he wanted to come to America, she wrote back and told him not to come.

I can still hear Michel’s hurt voice asking me why? And I had no answer for him. But now I know that she was still running from what she felt was her shame. If Michel had come, her secret would have become common knowledge. But now it’s too late to tell Michel this explanation for her refusal. Perhaps it’s better he not know it, anyway. I wonder if he asked Dad about it when Dad finally came to Montbard.

But such feelings of shame were dealt with in America society back in the 1960’s People back then realized that children born out of wedlock were to be celebrated, just like any other child. As it was, the old feelings of shame kept our American family from valuing an entire French wing of the family.

Dad’s trip to France lasted six or eight weeks, and he loved it.  He rented a car and drove all over France and shared meals with all the family members.

However he was very frustrated by his inability to communicate in French, so in later years he never returned. He did keep up a correspondence with some of them, such as Philippe Couche, but eventually that communication dropped off. But the Couches sure did take to him.

Every time I found myself in Montbard, Jeanine would loudly inquire, “Comment va Fred ?” (How is Fred?)  and then she’d say it again out of pure pleasure. And every time she did that I felt happy that I had enabled them to fix that broken connection, that they valued as much as I did.

All the same, though, it reminded me that we could have known these Couches for decades longer than we actually had.  I don’t really blame Grandma, though. That was the way people felt back then. I’m just glad for the time that we did have to get to know them.

The Westlunds

My Mother’s Family

I’ve written/edited lots about my father’s family, since it continues a story that they themselves wrote about for several generations. My mother’s family didn’t write so much, but I’d still like to include something about them, from what little I know.

This side of the family is all Swedish. My Grandparents had been born in Scandinavia. My mother Virginia was born in Oregon, but she identified with Swedish ethnicity every bit as much as her parents did. Indeed they were all part of the immigrant Swedish community, which was tight-knit just like so many other immigrant communities.

And because the Swedes were perceived as different from the standard-issue Anglo Saxon, they occasionally suffered from prejudice, like so many immigrant communities. It wasn’t much compared to what Blacks and Asians had to put up with, but it was real enough that, to this day, my mother’s feelings still sting from the ethnic insults that were hurled her way.

Interestingly, my Grandparents never did teach Mom to speak Swedish. I guess they wanted to promote her English usage, or maybe they wanted to keep a language that their daughter didn’t know, so they could speak in secret behind her back!

Grandpa Westlund

My grandfather, Gustav Andreas Westlund, came from a little town named Korsnäs, a suburb of Falun, the administrative center for Dalarna province, which is located in the heart of Sweden. Falun has a copper mine that operated for a thousand years until quite recently. The leftovers from the mine were used to produce the red paint seen all over Sweden, known for its ability to preserve wood.

Dalarna is also where those little red-painted wooden horses come from. And Korsnäs is not far from Sundborn, where the famous artist Karl Larsson lived and worked. You can’t get more Swedish than Dalarna and Gust was born there on June 1st 1891.

Gust’s family lived in a huge house on the edge of a forest. Like so many places, it was painted red from the copper mine wiith white trim. It was actually closer to the town of Hosjö than it was to Korsnäs. The house was built in the 1700’s. I myself saw the proof of that when I visited there a couple decades ago. Each room was originally heated by a colorful ceramic wood-burning oven, overlaid with fancy ceramic designs. They have upgraded the heating system since then, but the old furnaces remain because they are so beautiful. The house still stands today, located a little ways into the woods, with a clear view of the Hosjö church (built in 1663 – also painted red, though without white trim) It was Gust’s church when he still lived there. It stands across a shallow valley from the house. In fact, the church and Grandpa’s old house are on the same road (Church Way)

When Gust was an infant, his mother died. His father remarried to a woman with two children of her own. She did not care much for little Gust, so at the age of eleven he “ran away,” to avoid spending too much time in the house. Instead, he spent as much time as possible in what was later known as “Gust’s Woods,” which was a vast thicket of medium-sized birch trees mixed with evergreens. So I don’t even know if he ever finished school In fact, it was still called “Gust’s Woods” when I visited the house in 1975. He matured into quite a carpenter, perhaps practicing on those birches. He even constructed a huge barn (still standing) on the family property. All of it was painted red, of course.

On September 22, 1911, he departed for America, along with a cousin and Axel Hansson, a family friend who later became Siri Hansson’s father upon his return to Sweden. Siri was actually born in that same huge house on Church Way. The three young men contacted an agent who sold sets of tickets to cover the entire route from Sweden to Portland. They took the White Star Line, which sailed from Göteborg, near Denmark, through Liverpool, in England, and from there to Boston, landing on October 5, 1911. From there they took a beeline (actually, a train) to Portland, Oregon.

It’s never been clear to us why Gust had wanted to come to America in the first place. He didn’t talk about it much. Perhaps it was the call of adventure. Perhaps, at the age of twenty, he wanted to avoid the draft. Or perhaps he figured he could earn a lot more money in America, where he already had some relatives living in Portland. His own home in Dalarna never seemed very welcoming.

In Portland, he showed up at his cousin’s, Marie Erickson’s. He knocked on her back door, and when she answered, he shouted, “I’m here!” Marie was surprised, because apparently they had not been expecting him and his two large trunks. Had he written them beforehand? Maybe the letter had gotten lost in the mail. Or maybe he figured they were family so they’d help him. At any rate, they did help him find a place to live.

It may be typical, by the way, for Swedes to use the back door rather than the front door, for family and friends. Gust’s big house in Dalarna didn’t even have a front door.

One of those trunks contained a piano accordion, and as quick as he could, Gust joined local polka bands. He learned music by ear, including a tune I’ll always associate with him, “I Finnlands Skogen.” (In Finland’s forests). He also liked to play the mandolin and the “juice harp.” How he ever learned all that while hanging out in the woods in Sweden is beyond me. Like many Swedes in Portland at that time, he got a job with Emerson Hardwood Mills – ten hours of work a day.

Grandma Westlund

My adventurous grandmother, Anna Adelina Hudd West, was born on March 29, 1896, in (or near) Vasa, Finland, a Finnish region with a large Swedish minority, left over from when that area was part off Sweden.

She grew up on a farm, and enjoyed climbing trees and riding horses. In fact, she sometimes rode her horse across one of Finland’s oldest stone bridges, the Toby River stone bridge near Helsingby. Her family’s farm buildings themselves have long ago been torn down, so there was no house for me to visit.

When she was about thirteen years old, her father, John West (Johan Johansson West), left for America to seek his fortune. He settled in Portland, where his wife’s sister, Ida Hudd Berg, ran a boarding house at NW 19th and NW Johnson streets. This is probably where Gust also settled when he arrived in Portland a couple years later. John began working for the Electrolux Company, which was a Swedish company. Presumably he sent money home to Finland.

Anna was confirmed in the Lutheran church at the age of 16, which seemed to have freed her to travel, because a year later, “on a lark,” she came to Portland with her two brothers to visit her father. It could be, too, that the family in Finland was wondering what had happened to John after several years’ absence, and Anna was sent to “suss out” the situation. In Portland, she soon met Gust, so perhaps they had all ended up living at Ida Berg’s place.

Anna soon got a job as a domestic worker for a family named Soloman, who lived in a big house in the “Holladay” section of Portland (near where Lloyd center is now). She did the cooking and cared for their two children. Gust sometimes waited for her to get off work, so they could walk off together. On one occasion, while Gust was waiting, another woman began flirting with him. He walked away, but she kept after him. Eventually the story was picked up by a local newspaper. I guess life was a lot simpler back then, and it was much easier to be scandalized.

Anna was really close to her mother, and even though she was settling into Portland life, they exchanged letters every week.

Anna often came around when Gust was playing his accordion in a band. She loved to dance (more than she liked to eat, she said), but when she needed a rest from dancing, she’d walk over close to Gust to listen to him play. Anna had planned to return to Finland to live with her mother again, but reasons kept piling up for her to stay in America.

For example, she had always wanted to become a nurse. A doctor in Portland told her about a nursing program in San Francisco where she assuredly would be accepted. In fact, he would sponsor her. Not only that, Hilma Anderson, her childhood friend, was already living there. Gust didn’t like that idea, though. He said that if she went to San Francisco, she likely would never return. Of course, he could have gone to San Francisco with her.

But at any rate, he convinced her that, after three years of getting to know each other, they should get married. The wedding took place on February 17, 1917, in the home of Fred and Fay Anderson, with a large number of friends and family attending and eating. John West was also present, supporting Anna in the absence of her mother. And “I Love You Truly” was sung by “Miss Hazel.”

At the time, Gust continued to work for the Emerson Hardwood Company at Nineteenth and Front Streets for ten hours a day.

Gust and Anna’s married life

They moved into a house on N. E. 79th Avenue. Then, later in 1917, the Spanish flu epidemic caught up with them. Anna was stricken, but her doctor advised her not to seek help at a hospital or one of the city-managed emergency hospitals, as people there were “dropping like flies.” So she put a “quarantine” sign by their front door and went to bed for several days. Then one day she had a craving for bacon, so she asked Gust to fry some for her. Well, he tried. But she ate the burned and blackened mess anyway.. And she started to recover, if only so she could take over the kitchen, again.

And I have to interrupt to say that she was one of the best cooks I have ever come across. She knew no recipes, but she did know how to manipulate foods in an intuitive manner that came out perfectly every time.

Then they decided to try Southeast Portland, where several Swedish families that they knew were already living. But after a few years living there, they found that they didn’t really like Southeast Portland. They never should have left the Northeast! During that time, Anna’s mother in Finland died on December 2, 1920. Anna asked Gust if they could have a child, as she now needed someone else to love. She had asked many times through the years, but Gust had always said “no.” Now he said “Yes.” In fact, as he later explained, he’d have been happy to have as many kids as possible if only they could start their lives at the age of two and not as newborns. He was just no baby guy.

After Anna’s mother died, her father John moved back to Finland later the same year (He left on December 15th 1920) and never returned to America. When he got to Finland, he got remarried, to a woman only five years older than Anna! Anna was no fan of this arrangement. However, she loved her own mother so much, it’s hard to imagine that anyone could have taken her place in Anna’s heart.

1922 was a momentous year for the Westlunds. Their daughter Virginia (my mother) was born at Emmanuel Hospital on October 5th,, 1922. The labor was not easy, and lasted 36 hours. Maybe that’s why they never had another child. At the time, Gust was not in Portland. He was working in Reedsport, along with fellow Swede Axel Matson. Reedsport is located just above the mouth of the Umpqua river, West of Eugene and Roseburg, with close ties to the fishing industry and the logging industry. Though not precisely on the Pacific Coast, it was subject to periodic flooding from the sea.

W hile the men were a way, Irene Matson stayed with Anna. And when Virginia was born, and brought them home from the hospital. Irene could drive, and she said that Virginia’s “first outing” was to visit Tillie Benson at the age of three weeks. Tillie’s son Leroy, whom Virginia later got to be good friends with, was five years old then. He was playing outdoors when they came to visit..

Earlier that year, the Westlunds took out a loan to buy a vacant lot in Northeast Portland at the corner of 79th Avenue (the street that they had left a few years before) and Beech Street. I imagine they also bought a truckload of lumber. They truly intended to stay there forever. Though the lot started out vacant, they had the skills and imagination to build whatever sort of home they wanted.

So Anna would get the gables she always wanted, as well as fancy doors on each side of the fireplace, like she’d seen In home fashions magazines.

T hey began by building a small garage, shaped like a giant Kleenex box, on the east end of the property. For the next few years, they’d live there while constructing the big house that they really wanted. In fact, that little garage was Virginia’s first home. It faced Beech Street, and had a Beech Street address, whereas the big house that they would build would face 79th Avenue and have a 79th Avenue address. When it was finished, the Beech Street address came down off the garage

One of Virginia’s earliest memories was of that big house being built. She was standing in the back yard watching two men laying shingles on its steep roof. Was one of them her father? She was too young to be sure, seeing them from such an unfamiliar angle.

When the family finally moved in, the hardwood floors in the living room and dining room had not yet been installed, so one could look through the spaces in the wooden sub-floor into the basement. There were also a few knot holes in the wood where one could look through, too.

There were other kids in the neighborhood, though not as many as there would be if all the lots had been built up. One was Billy Bowman, who Mom didn’t visit often, because she had to cross the street to get there, and she was forbidden to do that. And then there was George Barnes, the boy two doors down on 79th street. It wasn’t necessary to cross the street to get there. And then there was Beverly Ericksson, another Swede, who lived a couple houses further down. Her father worked as a chauffeur for a wealthy man in town, and he even had one of those fancy “chauffeur’s hats.”

Beverly herself had a bit of a mean streak. Mom remembers Beverley chasing her and George. They both dove into George’s house, where his mother quickly hid them in a small cabinet. Beverly burst in after them, yelling “I know you’re in there!” But the two hidden ones remained silent, so eventually she gave up.

Gust had an old Ford in the Twenties. It did not have an upper body, and it was painted red with a black border around the top. Every now and then he would give the neighborhood kids a ride around a block or two. They would be so excited to be riding in a real automobile that they laughed and waved to anyone they saw.

We don’t know what happened to this car, except that the frame ended up in the empty lot next door on Beech Street. (much later a house was built on that site and the Poetz family lived there). It remained there for many years, half buried in weeds. Finally, in the 1940’s my mom and dad took the “frame” to a junk yard and sold it for four dollars a ton. When one of their friends heard about that, he said that if he had known about the Ford frame, he would have driven to Portland to pick it up and would have paid them seven hundred dollars for it!!

Decades later, Mom was helping Anna go through things after Gust had passed on. Going down to the basement one day, Virginia ran her hand along the woodwork over the door, and she found a part from the old Ford! It brought back memories of rides in the old Ford Tin Lizzie, and a smile to her face! Gust was truly wonderful about “hiding” objects or papers around the house or the garage, imagining who might later find them.

The Depression Years

The depression years were hard on most people, but not on Virginia, whose parents insulated her from the struggles of the day. Whatever they lacked, they could usually make themselves, or grow for themselves in the various gardens they’d planted, or sew for themselves. They planted a huge garden in the still-vacant lot on 79th Avenue , including raspberries, carrots, peas, etc. The parking strip in front of the house on 79th Avenue was planted with potatoes. Anna canned everything that she could. She also made all of Virginia’s clothes, though they always bought her the best shoes that they could afford.

And Gust, ever handy with wood, made a playhouse for Virginia and the neighborhood kids. It had a front door with a window, and small windows on both sides. It was tall enough for kids to stand up inside it, but adults would have to bow their heads, except maybe where the roof peaked. It stood on that same empty lot next door on 79th Avenue, by the garden.

And there was always a present from Santa Claus to Virginia every Christmas. Gust made them down in the basement. For example, he made a rocking crib for Virginia’s life-sized doll (named Rosie – she still has both the doll and the crib) and he made a large dresser for that doll. She told Gust that Santa must had built it in place, as she knew it was too big to drag through the chimney.

Anna didn’t want her to go down to the basement to see Christmas gifts under construction, so she scared her about the basement, and told her that the “boogie man” lived down there. The strategy worked, but too well, because ever since, she’s always had a “fear” of basements.

One year, on New Year’s Eve, Anna and Virginia were waiting for Gust to come home. It was a cold winter night with lots of ice on the roads. He was coming home on the Sandy Boulevard street car, and when he got off at 79th Avenue, he was hit by a car, a drunk driver, which injured his leg. It scared Virginia half to death that his leg had been injured. The man who hit him had Gust go to his doctor, who put it in a cast. And that was the end of the consequences for the drunk driver.. In those days, people didn’t sue other people like they do now.

Meanwhile, Gust spent so much time wearing that cast that one day, bored from being at home, he walked to downtown on his crutches and walked back, about five miles each way.

Virginia was kept blissfully ignorant of the many bills that needed to be paid. One of the most significant was the mortgage and the taxes on the property. Gust had always had a good job, but many lumber mills had closed because of the depression. The Westlund’s household income fell to the point that they were afraid they might lose the house. Gust angrily declared that if that happened, he’d go through the house with a hammer and punch holes in all the walls. But Anna said, no, they would leave the house in perfect condition if they had to leave. After all, it was their blood, sweat and tears that had built that big house back in the twenties. In the end, the house was safe from the bankers because Franklin Roosevelt became president in 1932. His administration made cheap home loans available through the new Federal Housing Administration (FHA).

Well, they didn’t lose the house, but Gust did have to sell the big piano accordion that he had brought with him from Sweden years before. It really hurt him to part with it. In fact, the big house had been built with music in mind. The dining room and adjoining living room had been built without doors between them – just a wooden border thick enough to hang a small picture on, to mark the border between the two rooms, making them essentially one huge room.

So for entertainment, they’d invite the Swedish community over to the house, roll the carpets back and dance on the hardwood floors. The double-size room had plenty of space for a dozen dancers. When the times got better, Gust bought another accordion, not as big or as good as the old one, but good enough to play in the house for informal dances.

Roosevelt also developed the W.P.A. (Works Progress Administration), which offered jobs with the goal of developing public infrastructure. In a short time, Gust got such a job through the WPA. One time he was working on 82nd street and Virginia brought him a lunch. She saw that it was really hard for Gust to accept what he considered to be a “charity” job, but a job was a job.

Gust was good at fixing cars, and friends would come to him for help. In those days, everybody helped their neighbor or friend. There was no money exchanged, as most people did not have any money to spare, anyway.

For three years during the Depression, Gust was hired as a carpenter to do maintenance at a fish cannery in Alaska for three months during the summers. On the day he left town for such a long-term and far-away destination, Mom was awakened by Anna crying, which scared her because Anna was usually too tough to cry. Mom also cried that night.

Meanwhile, in Alaska, Gust was able to get canned salmon for himself and he brought cases of salmon home with him. Mom used to say that they had fish and potatoes for dinner one night, and potatoes and fish the next. One summer he brought back some of the menus from the ship that he took to Alaska. They’re still around the house somewhere.

On one trip home, he told about a man who had committed suicide in his stateroom on the ship. He said that he had shot himself in the head and his brains were splattered all over. The scene he described had quite an impact on Virginia. From the fish cannery, Gust sent fifty dollars each month to Anna. She and Virginia lived on that. They kept close records of what they bought in groceries. Anna made bread and was very creative with her cooking. They ate well, and they became very close to each other while Gust was away.

For a while, Gust also got a part-time job on Saturdays with Keller’s Bakery in Northeast Portland. He earned fifty cents each Saturday by doing odd tasks or maintenance work at the bakery. After five weeks he had earned enough to buy Virginia a used bicycle, which he painted red with black trimming, reminiscent of his old Ford. The new paint made it look shiny new.

Developing the Big House

Even after the Westlund’s big house on 79th Street had been “finished,” there were always modifications ongoing.

So, for example, the steep stairs down into the basement never had a railing, until one day Anna dashed down the stairs with some laundry in her arms, and she fell. She cried out to Gust, who rushed down to pick her up. The railing was installed right after that.

Most of the laundry, by the way, reached the basement through a chute built into the bathroom. It always seemed magical that, one moment, the dirty laundry was in front of you in the bathroom, and the next, it disappeared like magic and re-materialized in a completely different part of the house without anybody having to go there themselves.

A small corner of the kitchen was walled off as a nook, with a built in table and side benches. The wall also formed an entry way from the back door leading into the kitchen. Anna did not want a low window on the street side of this nook, because she didn’t want passersby looking in on them while they sat and ate. But she hadn’t reckoned with Gust and Virginia’s desire to look out. There were not many cars driving down Beech street in those days, and whenever a car did go by, Virginia and Gust had to jump up to look out the window to see what kind it was. Anna would say “sit down” and ask them why they would be so interested.

So one summer, 1940 or 1939, they decided to knock down the wall of the nook and open up the kitchen. The built-in table and benches had to go, too, to be replaced by a small red table and four chairs. This dining set is still there.

To knock out the built-in table and chairs involved lots of loud hammering. At the time, Maxine Miller (Hoddle) was staying for the summer. She slept right through the hammering din. She was a “hard sleeper” who would need two or more alarm clocks to awaken her whenever she lived alone.

When she finally woke up, all the work was done. She walked to the kitchen saying “What happened?”

The big house had a fenced-in porch, built around the chimney at the south end of the living room where a chimney stood against the middle of the wall. A narrow door on each side of the chimney gave access to this porch.

But then, one day, someone finally bought the vacant lot next door, where the Westlunds had planted so many vegetable gardens and built so much play equipment such as that play house for Virginia and the neighborhood kids. Up until then, the lines between the properties didn’t need to be known so precisely. But now, they discovered that the boundary was a couple feet closer to the Westlund’s house than anybody had realized, particularly where the porch wrapped around the fireplace. The porch didn’t actually cross the property line, but there was no longer much space to get around it on the ground while staying on the property.

So the porch had to go, and the doors were replaced with some long and narrow windows. They had planted camellia bushes just inside the property line, and to this day, every spring, one can see brightly-blooming camellia bushes on each side of the chimney through those long windows.

Happy Fourth and a half

Hello everyone.

So how am I doing, anyway?

Well, as my mother often says about herself, I’m still sleeping above ground. But if you’d asked me about it  in January, I’d have honestly thought that it might not be an option. But I’m not complaining. Predicting the future in my case is tricky as it’s not the typical form.  Still, some patients in my position can make it a few years, so there’s a decent chance that I’ll be one of them. But I’m not allowing myself to be sanguine at this point. I’ll know more when my chemo regimen finishes later this month and they do an evaluation in August.

Certainly I have more people praying for me than at any other time in my life. And those prayers are greatly appreciated.

Meanwhile, I’m still here in Portland, living at my sister Abbe’s house, a move which was absolutely the right call for me. I started receiving  chemotherapy shortly after emailing my previous message (I was already taking two forms of hormone therapy, which continue).

And once chemo started, then on most days, I’ve not been capable of caring for myself, at least not for anything that requires me to leave the house. I have been able to make it to the kitchen and back (usually), though my balance is often a little wobbly.

So the daily care from my sister and my brother-in-law (and occasionally from their little dogs) has been great – critical for getting through this. It’s not just a matter of having better meals on a regular basis. I had almost forgotten how wonderful it is to have somebody living in the same physical building as myself, so I can express arcane thoughts like “Good Morning” on a regular basis without having to go out of the house or pick up the phone. I haven’t enjoyed that sort of luxury since my China years.  In fact, with some exceptions, I had never felt more alone than most of the years since I moved back from China. (but not this year thank goodness).  The early Covid years were the worst, but then my therapist at the time and my Chinese friend in Tokyo popped up out of nowhere and helped me through that.

And by the way, living alone didn’t used to bother me, but that was because I was working sixty hours a week, mostly face-to-face with high-pressure (though nice) students, and I needed to escape from humanity in order to re-charge. Obviously that’s not been the case for a while, so my companionship needs need to be reassessed.

And my mother, who lives just down the street from here, has proved to be a supportive positive thinker in getting through this cancer, which has been a real gift to me. And by the way, she’s scheduled to complete a hundred years in three months time, and we’re all looking forward to that day.


And how does the chemo therapy actually feel? Well, it takes about three weeks to tumultuously tumble its way through my body with varying effects on various days. It’s not like taking a simple medicine whose effects simply fade in the days following administration.

So I always leave the infusion center on steady legs and feeling okay.. But then for the next several days the chemo effects set in, getting more rocky and unpredictable with time. During the day, I can feel so sleepy that my head hurts, but with insomnia. My sense of balance gets wobblier.  Some days prove worse than others and there’s little apparent pattern to it.

Interestingly, I have been sleeping between ten and twelve hours most nights, irrespective of the infusion schedule, but I do think that the infusions have kicked-started these long nocturnal episodes, and also lengthened them. And I also take naps. Perhaps it’s the peace and security that comes from living with somebody who checks on me. In any case, the long nights of sleep are slowly filling up the sleep debt that had built up from the stress of living alone for so long, and from living overseas

Other chemo side effects include swollen joints and a sudden need for Preparation H. (don’t ask) And chemo brain fog is a real thing.  I really want my memory back!!  and I really really want my writing abilities back!!  I had thought to have sent out this update in mid May,  but, well, here we are. On the other  hand,there  are a few conveniences — like  — for the time being, my skin has become self shaving. No blades necessary.

Around day 10 after an infusion, the suppression of my immune system is at its greatest, so I really don’t go anywhere at that point. It’s also the day when the chemo gets its last chance to trip my sense of balance and knock me over.

By day 18  my balance is returning and I can again put on my trousers without falling. Then at 21 days it all starts over again. I’m hoping that the hassles pay off in the end

For my latest infusion, my body seemed to be getting used to the chemicals, because after only seven days I could already put my pants on normally, and I went out with my sister and brother in law to walk their little dogs. It exhausted me, but I did it!!

I even made it past the fabled ten day mark without a hitch.!!!! But then on day 12, I guess the chemo lords didn’t want me to get too cocky,  because they slammed me all day and all night.  Sheesh. These days, even chemicals seem to feel that they have some point to make.

The Lovely Portland Weather

Although I’ve visited Portland at least once a year (literally) for my whole life, this is the first time that I’ve visited for more than two or three weeks at a time. So I’ve come to appreciate the Portland weather over the longer term.

Turns out it’s as utterly predictable as the Bay Area, but a lot cooler and wetter. Generally it’s a bone-chilling coolness seasoned with a variety of rains and drizzles, sort of a drenched version of San Francisco.  I think I’ve previously mentioned the “Portland Coloring Book” which comes with a complete set of all the colors of crayons you’ll need. Actually, it’s just two colors – gray and brown. Well, I’ve been living that reality for the past few months.

Of course, there are always a few exceptions to the constant rain, as shown in the picture at left, taken mid-April through my sister’s front windows. And the sun does come out on occasion.

A Sample Infusion Session

A chemo infusion itself, like the 21-day process outlined above when the medicine is working, may affect every person slightly differently  In my case, the roughest infusion session was the very first one. It was much more dramatic than what most patients experience. I sent this description to some friends already, but it makes for a wonderful adventure for the rest to enjoy, too.

My brother-in-law had taken me to the infusion center for my 2 pm appointment. The infusion center is a huge room that wraps itself around the entire perimeter of a large square building at the Kaiser Clinic. It has about two dozen huge comfy hospital chairs, a couple of them in private rooms, but most just neatly arranged throughout that one long bent room. My primary nurse escorted me to my chair. The room seemed sparsely attended that day, but the sounds of various beeps and other electric noises from the equipment betrayed the hidden presence of other patients.

The plan was for a session of about two and a half hours. There would be a half hour of setup and instruction, including weighing in, checking my blood pressure, etc. The infusion would be given through a drip IV, which would take a little while to set up.
Then we’d infuse for a half hour at 50% speed. This slower speed was to make sure that I wasn’t having any weird reactions to the medicine. If there were none, we’d increase the drip to the normal speed, actually a little bit faster than twice the 50% speed. Then we’d go for about an hour at the normal speed until all the medicine was in my body.
Well, we’d gone a little over twenty-five minutes at the slow speed when my lower back erupted in pain. I pushed the call button and a nearby speaker repeatedly blared something like “Emergency at bed #120.” I was immediately surrounded by three nurses with fully-loaded syringes. There was Benedryl and another medicine that I didn’t recognize. These they added to the IV drip. The chemo medicine was switched off and we continued with nothing but saline while the nurses’ injections were taking effect.
It was the strongest pain I’d felt in a long time, and was later told it might actually be  coming from a kidney, though others had a different opinion. With these new medicines introduced into the infusion, it took about ten minutes for the pain to subside. We continued to wait, though. I continued to receive saline until the pain abated completely.
My primary nurse told me that this kind of reaction was pretty common. In any case, it was extremely unlikely to recur (like one time in a hundred), not just when we restarted the IV drip that afternoon, but especially not for the subsequent session in three weeks time. He asked if I had felt any other of the possible reactions that we’d reviewed together before starting the infusion. I hadn’t.  So we waited again until the pain really was gone (except for some residual achiness like you’d get if somebody struck you.)
Then we restarted the drip of medicine at half of the half speed (25% speed). We’d gone about ten minutes when I could feel the pain coming back. So much for one chance in a hundred! The principal nurse was still there, and he switched off the medicine again, put me back on saline and gave me the rest of the Benedryl that remained in the syringe. The pain subsided again. Then he huddled with a couple other nurses. They decided to call the pharmacist for advice. Should they try another syringe of some different drug? Should they just wait and try again?
The pharmacist came back with a plan, which was a second restart at an even slightly slower speed (20%). If it didn’t work on this slower second restart, then they’d call it a day and ask the oncologist for a new plan for the next time. I didn’t like the sound of that. The oncologist was already stretching things a little bit with as much chemo medicine as he was giving me.
Well we dripped the medicine for a while at the 20% speed and the pain did not seem to be coming back. So we turned up the speed, not to  any intermediate speed like at 50%, but all the way up to full speed. This big increase kind of surprised me, but I figured the pharmacist must know what they’re doing. About five minutes into the process, a small ache, a not-quite tangible memory of a pain, bumped up, but it never increased into any sort of strong pain.
At that point there was about forty-five minutes worth of full-speed medicine drip left. The pain never returned and that little bump of an ache faded. I happily listened to a podcast on my phone (through my ear-phones, even though all the other infusion center patients had gone home by that point). I was not bothered by any more pain at all, and I still felt a sense of accomplishment when the infusion was over.
By this time, my sister had arrived to pick me up (she’d arrived a long time before, actually) My planned 2 1/2 hour session had turned into a full four-hour session. The nurse would report the goings-on to the doctor. The nurse told me that we’d probably repeat the planned 2 1/2 hour session the next time and then for the following time, as they have to have two “clean” sessions in a row before they simply plug it in and let it go at full speed. Of course, he couldn’t predict that course for sure because he wasn’t the oncologist.
So that’s the story! As it turned out, the next scheduled infusion was also a little bit rough, though not as much as the first. We kept making adjustments to the pre-infusion medications and the last three infusions were not painful at all, nor was there any delay involved. Indeed, it felt strange to be walking out the door after such relatively quick sessions. Well, as one nurse put it, they throw everything they can at it, but then back off to make sure they’re not killing the patient.

Thank You, friends  (actually family)

My mother, sister, brother-in-law, and myself (four people) constitute my entire family on this earth, at least in the way that “family” is normally defined.

But friends have reached out to me from just about every continent on Earth (except Antarctica – a required disclaimer) from Nando Court in Castro Valley to Tianjin in China.  And I’m so grateful for your remembering me.

And I think of most of these people as family, including those outside of North America. And I think of my pseudo-nephews in the Bay Area, my pseudo-niece in Oregon, my church friends in Berkeley who light candles for me, or who listen to my concerns and pray about them, my old friend from Davis who’s watching my house and my financial affairs (friends/family for 53 years now) and my even older friend  from San Leandro (friends/family for  57 years now)whose frequent brief and cheery emails about family news lift my spirits.  All of these people and more do I consider family, even though, again, the common meaning of “family” might not include them.  And one more disclaimer — my foggy head keeps me from mentioning even more people individually.

Yeah, to be remembered for who I really am makes a difference. So one friend/family member actually wished me a happy father’s day last month. As someone who’s spent almost his entire life “in loco parentis” (Latin for “like a crazy parent,”) it really touched me.

Living in the Past

Since I’ve essentially been stuck in the same house all the time, I haven’t had much chance to go out for new adventures, so I’ve had to turn to the past, mainly through projects that chronicle it. These I can work on in fits and starts as the clattering chemo infusions allow.

So I’m occasionally making progress on the project of family biographies that got started by my grandfather on my father’s side.

Recently I’ve added some stories about my grandparents on my mother’s side, though I had less material to work with, unfortunately.

They were both Scandinavian immigrants here in Portland, something I think about a lot in these days of rising hatred towards immigrants. Of course, Mom didn’t suffer from ethnic/immigrant prejudice anywhere near as much as Blacks or Asians or Indians did, though she didn’t entirely escape it, either.

I think of that regularly because the route to the chemo infusion clinic takes us through the former town of Albina, a historically black neighborhood that was plowed under to make a freeway (Highway I-5) (where have I heard that before?) And where my paternal grandfather ran a lumberyard well over a century ago.

In comparison,  the prejudice Mom felt faded over time. But she still remembered the sting of it long past middle age.

The picture at left shows my maternal grandparents a hundred years ago, early into their marriage, when they and some friends had scampered down to the river at the edge of Portland to splash and paddle in their new bathing suits, the height of aqua fashion at the time. Again, both of them are wearing swim suits in this picture (click on it to enlarge).

Anyone who’s interested in reading more about this frisky pair can   just click on this sentence (it’s a small pdf).

Or you can read it as a web page by clicking here.

Sunday Morning Study

Even though I am not in Berkeley, Zoom allows me to attend my Sunday School at the First Presbyterian Church of  Berkeley, when I’m feeling up to it. I’ve not only valued the study, which is a bit unique, but also the supportive class members. The class is called “Sunday Morning Study,” And I have 28 years of history with it to look back on. Let me write a little about how it works.

The study is focused on facilitating a close personal reading of the original text, examining passages large enough to supply some context when examining smaller fragments contained in it. We also supplement the reading with standard reference books and commentaries .

And as class members are different, so they may draw differing conclusions from the same passage, so long as they can prove it from the text. The other class members can “keep them honest” that way. They might even feel strong enough about differences of conclusions from the readings that they’ll study them further at home.

But that’s why it’s called a living book —   because it speaks uniquely to each person, imparting  the individual message that they are ready to hear. So, for example, we’ve recently been studying the first letter to the Corinthians. The thirteenth chapter’s famous text is this:


If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love (Agape), I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardships worth boasting about, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Love never fails: but where there be prophecies, they shall fail; where there be tongues, they shall cease; where there be knowledge, it shall vanish away. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part. But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is only in part shall be done away with. When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see as through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know only in part; but then shall I know even as I am also known. And now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love (agape).


So as I read this whole passage, I was struck by some significant points, at least significant to me. First of all, history books tell us that the Corinthians were quite well off, kind of Nouveau Riche” so they had time to devote to religion and houses suitable for holding rather large meetings. The passage in the letter tells us that they had acquired remarkable abilities for  speaking in tongues and prophecies. Furthermore, they’d been gifted with deep knowledge and steadfast faith.  It may seem that they are a model of what so many people think religion is all about.

But the passage claims repeatedly that these apparently spectacular abilities and resources, though not worthless, are like fragments, almost annoyances, and beside the point, compared to the perfection that is the actual reality of religion. Thus, (to me) the main point of the chapter is to help us recognize this perfection when we come across it, and to free ourselves from being overly-focused on that which is only partially useful. The phrase”through a glass darkly” means a dark polished brass mirror (not actually made of glass). It may be a useful expedient to help us perceive our environment, but it’s not much compared to daylight.

So what exactly is that perfect thing, that undefeatable weapon, that perfect key to understanding, and the only way to produce works that last? As I read the chapter, It’s named nine times and also described in detail. It’s love, obviously. But how could anybody not notice its importance in their lives? Maybe because perception of it grows slowly, like a child? Maybe love is so unspectacular, so simple and at times so fragile, and already known to everybody, anyway, at least in part, that one can’t imagine that something so ordinary could be the perfect key to everything? Maybe that’s where faith comes in.

Turning again to the dictionary, the letter to the Corinthians was originally written in a simplified form of Greek, which has at least four different words with distinct meanings that are commonly translated into English as “love.” The Greek word here is “agape” which has nothing to do with romance or other affections.  It’s an active commitment to seek the best for one’s neighbor, unconditionally, which in turn shows one’s love for God, which in turn fulfills the law. It makes me think of James Madison’s famous dictum that if men were angels, no government would be necessary.

So agape is the whole path, while spectacular preaching or even faith itself are just fragments of it, liable to dis-attachment from it, but maybe helpful when love is lacking. I’m thus challenged to make more room for agape in my life, so I can perceive its perfection and to the extent that I’m able, act upon it.  At least, that’s the way I read it. How about you?

I cited this particular passage not only because our group just discussed it, but because “hope” is described almost like a component of love (agape). As such it must be an active commitment, and not just a matter of waiting around for something nice to happen. And life has recently challenged me to hope, whether it be for meaning in  this life or in the next one. And that’s my prayer request for myself and the members of my Sunday school class.  That they and I may live out an active hope.

And by the way, in case anybody is interested in more details of my Sunday school class, earlier this year I was asked to write out a description of it, which can be read (as a pdf file) by clicking in this sentence.  At the end of the weekly lesson, differences in interpretation among the participants are usually small, but I sometimes remember that in more authoritarian times, differences that were equally small could become fighting  words. I’m glad to be living in more tolerant times where such small differences merely enrich the ways that we can be challenged by agape love, the actual perfect religion. Again, that’s how i read it, anyway.

The View

Another part of my looking back on my former life  involves a TV show that I had never seen before I came to Portland this year — when  chemo imposed my own custom lock down . It’s called The View. For those who haven’t seen it, it’s a daytime talk show involving a small group of women sitting around a table, discussing the news of the day as well as interviewing celebrities and celebrity chefs like one might expect for a show that’s broadcast at that time of day.

I like it for a couple reasons– primarily because all of these women are strong – in their personalities, their assertiveness, and their willingness to reason deeply. Obviously I know none of them personally, but I spent thirty years teaching in elementary schools (where I was practically the only man) where most of my colleagues were the same kind of strong middle-aged women that are well represented on The View. So when I watch the show, I feel comfortable and at home, and I think of that elementary school where I spent so many years, as well as the colleagues I had there, whom I long considered to be family.

I also like it because Whoopi Goldberg is the moderator and one of the women shares a given name with Sunny, my most longtime friend in China. She’s definitely family.

If you haven’t seen The View before, I’ll post links to their Juneteenth show below.


Ben Crump, Civil Rights worker

Jon Batiste, Jazz Musician

Kirk Franklin and Maverick City Music

A promo and discussion about their “The View” Hulu Special

The Constitution

In the news, I’ve found another connection to my old elementary school — it’s the United States Constitution, which I hear being batted about constantly by people who I wonder if they’ve ever read it.

Well, now they can! Every year when I was teaching fifth grade we’d study American History, which included the US Constitution. It’s a surprisingly brief document, which most fifth graders can easily read, except for the unfamiliar vocabulary. So I produced my own version of the Constitution, translated from the Legalese, which we could all read together in class. It’s printed in parallel columns with the original text on the right and my translation on the left.

I recently dusted it off and reformatted it to fit letter-size paper and it can be viewed (as a pdf) by clicking on this sentence.

I should comment on the second amendment.  My translation of it was guided by the meaning that it had for the original authors and for the first couple hundred years of our country’s history, before Antonin Scalia wrote an opinion in 2008 that nullified the amendment’s original meaning and instead reinterpreted it to guarantee any individual’s unrestricted right to own a gun. Again this “right” was never part of the constitution (still isn’t, actually) and was interpolated into it only 14 years ago, back when I was finishing my elementary school teaching career.

A familiar politics magazine, “Politico” published a piece on the supreme court’s  “originalism” in general and on the second amendment in particular, critiquing Scalia’s 2008 reinterpretation with more authoritative arguments than mine, or than Scalia’s for that matter.

Granted, the court has on occasion nullified a previous opinion or amendment of some sort, but never one that had already stood from the beginning of our country and for the subsequent two hundred years. And, as soon as its meaning was changed, our society began moving firmly down its present path to the firearm-drenched gun fest that threatens us all today and occasions much sympathy from more civilized and secure countries. Thank you Antonin Scalia. Well played. I didn’t expect the supreme court to be the agent of chaos that is setting us up for a well-armed movement whose members fantasize about starting a civil war. Actually we should probably keep an eye on those guys.

Here’s hoping that this recent 2008 reinterpretation of the second amendment can quickly be reversed to its original state to make guns well-regulated again.

Actually, I found out this week that it’s only in the past half century or so that the Supreme Court has been assumed to have the authoritative last word in what the Constitution means, Marbury v. Madison notwithstanding. It’s available here. And since everyone has now read the Constitution, it should provoke some interesting discussions.

The whole gun situation reminds me of my time back in China, which, like every place on Earth, has its share of crazy people. And every once in a while I’d hear (but never read) about one of them attacking a school, just like our crazies do here. Usually it was not a disturbed young man, but a middle-aged man who felt left behind when he missed educational opportunities back in the 1960’s, back when everything was dismantled. Or at least that’s what I’ve been told.

Occasionally one of these crazies would wound or maybe even kill a school staff member or wound a few kids —  but never the sort of slaughter that one sees here on a regular basis.  And why not? Mainly because all guns are forbidden, at least in most locations (except for the army and police) so crazy people have to resort to knives, so school staff can easily overcome them with their own arms, their own limbs.  I think of that whenever I hear the old canard about Guns don’t kill, people do. Yeah, people do, and guns multiply the numbers of casualties, because they’re just so darned convenient! And this applies to unregulated hand guns even more than the more spectacular rifles.

The comparison with China, (and also with countries which limit guns without banning them completely, such as the America of my youth) makes the causes of the disparate rates of gun deaths between us and most of the rest of the world obvious, or at least they should be obvious.

The Latest -gate

And I’ve been mesmerized by the televised House hearings about the criminal behavior of our previous head of state and the insurrection at the U.S. capitol on January 6, 2021 that he engineered with the help of other criminals around him, such as the “proud boys” and “Oath Keepers.”  And I have lots of time on my hands to think about it, since I’m basically at home all the time.

Naturally, I was reminded of Richard Nixon, and the “Summer of Judgment.” (as PBS titled their documentary about Watergate) I remember the Alexander Butterfield moment. I remember Haldeman and Ehrlichman, Segretti and Mitchell, and G. Gordon Liddy and all the burglers. So many exciting crooks! Well, most of them went to jail. How many will go to jail this time?  Any? I also remember John Dean, who’s still with us, and Senator Sam Ervin, (who even went on to record a pop song)

And I expect everyone will remember the present hearings in the same way years from now. Just last week we had a courageous witness present something like a John Dean moment.  To me, it’s like an intriguing  novel, except that it really happened.

But none of the Watergate crooks were agents of chaos generally, such as is our previous commander in chief who is ready, with his proud boys, to “tear it all down” in order to secure authoritarian power. He actually wanted the security people at his Jan 6 speech to let in people bearing weapons including rifles into the rally area. After all, he said, none of them were there to hurt him.  They were his guys, his little agents of chaos.

What moved me to tears (something I usually never do) was the story of the election workers attacked by the previous guy, pawns in his plot to disrupt the election ex post facto and take over the United States.  I think that the election worker’s witness touched me because she was not a policemen in uniform nor a fancy lawyer in an expensive suit, but just a regular person, with a regular job, which made her so relatable. I could so easily imagine her at my classroom door, sometimes with Grandma, arriving for her kid’s regular parent-teacher conference.

Her story taught me a new word – stochastic terrorism — which consists of real attacks, usually carried out by disturbed individuals or groups, but with no direct connection to the leader who instigated them, so the disturbed actors can take all the blame. In this case such attacks led to the election worker basically losing her freedoms without trial, and she and all her colleagues resigned from their positions out of fear for their personal safety, clearing the way for more partisan hacks to take their places.  Again, nobody in the White House directly ordered those attacks, giving plausible deniability to the real instigators.

Indeed, a lot of terrorists caught my attention in those hearings, including the sheer number of  Proud Boys and Oath Keepers and Three Percenters (several hundred at the capitol, — plus many thousands or tens of thousands of others across the country). We found out how they organized themselves and led the crowds, with implicit coordination from the White House. (demonstrating the stochastic principal)

Last year, the New York Times produced a  documentary on this attack. with a mellifluous Irish narrator, which I’d mentioned in a previous update.The beautiful Irish accent alone makes it worth another viewing (though I don’t think it’s a Cork accent).

This year, having identified more of the individual Proud Boys in that day’s videos, the Times produced a brief addendum to that previous documentary that actually details the various strategies used by particular teams of them to peel the building open.(also available here) It just goes to show how extensively organized they really were.

Meanwhile, Arnold Schwarzenegger, our beloved former Governator, born in  post-WWII Austria, a land previously dominated by the brown shirts, immediately recognized the Proud Boys for the sizable and heavily-armed group that they really are, just like the brown shirts had been in his parent’s day. His commentary, videoed a couple days after the Jan 6 attack, can be seen here.

I sometimes wonder how the relative optimism that he expressed in that video might have changed since the fascistic/violent movement here has continued to quietly expand throughout this year.  Here’s some recent commentary on that from National Public Radio  which, by the way, is the radio network (along with PBS TV) that I recommend to my foreign friends (and American friends, too). They represent the most middle-of-the-road and accurate news source among the major media.

And by the way, the social medium that I recommend is called Slashdot — news for Nerds.  Discussions there are almost always civil due to their comment rating systems, and, like true nerds and techies, they put effort into analyzing business and government policies using real evidence, without getting drawn into the “culture wars” of the day.

Truth or Maybe Consequences

When I taught elementary school I had no tolerance for lying students. I could be tolerant or “understanding” of many things, but not that. It would weigh heavy on my mind, for however many days it might take, until some resolution was achieved.  Fortunately the vast majority of my students in California were truthful. Same with my students in China.

But these days, the pervasiveness of lies in the public sphere makes them inescapable. It makes me feel like I’m trapped (or marooned)  in the middle of a more mean-spirited version of Dave Frishberg’s famous song Blizzard of Lies..

There’s an old aphorism that “you are entitled to  your  opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts. Events of the last few years belie that old saying.  Instead, it seems that  people can be “gas-lighted,” a term derived from the title of a movie.  It means to convince someone not to believe the evidence of their own eyes and ears and instead believe what some authority wants you to believe. I guess it’s the next level beyond ordinary lying.

In 1984, George Orwell wrote, “The Party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command.”  I had thought that Orwell’s works were all fantasies, like “Animal Farm.” Now I see that 1984 was not a fantasy. It described the real world, or at least what will become the real world if we let it. And we are headed in that direction.

The lie of our times is that the Democrats, through fraud, stole the presidential election in 2020.  I can understand why that lie was invented. I can even understand how partisans might wish it were true. But I can’t understand why large numbers (35%) of my fellow voters accept being gaslighted into believing such an obvious and monumental lie.  And I can’t understand how they can believe the plethora of lies from the same source.  But my mind is captured, as it looks for a resolution.

I refuse to believe that these people are any less intelligent than most people are, so there must be something else going on. But what is it? Is it simply a matter of watching too much Fox News and believing their lies? Is it that they simply don’t care about truths and lies? Is it a matter of putting up with liars in order to achieve a broader goal? Or do they feel so strongly about something that it distorts their perceptions of the world?

As my old friend Mark used to say, “Inquiring minds want to know.” At least this one does. And I don’t think I’m ever going to figure it all out completely, but I have observed at least one interesting aspect of the problem.

I once read an article about the previous guy’s well-known propensity to openly cheat at golf. And then I read another article claiming that some captains of industry also cheat at golf openly. The other members of the golf party never take it seriously. They often just laugh. Golf is only a game after  all. But it did draw the golfers into a more tight-knit camaraderie, mainly through that laughter and a more distinctly shared identity as golfers, as participants in the same sport, as members of the same club.

But what if the silliness turns serious? Maybe like this: a cheater or lying leader puts forth as truth a statement or idea which is blatantly untrue (such as an election being stolen or Satanic Democrats torturing children).  When it’s accepted as truth by others in the group (even though everybody involved knows it isn’t), the falsehood is not so much a lie any more, but an indicator of a group identity, just like the golfers in the previous example.

And the fervor with which group members espouse the falsehood as truth could signal the extent of their loyalty to the group or to the leader, that they are willing to identify with the group’s version of the truth, even though it isn’t really the truth. It seems to be a variation on “might makes right,” or in this case, “might makes truth.”

And these people do seem to want a leader to tell them what they want to hear, truth or not. They’ll even go for someone like Q, a figure whom no one has ever seen, whose “QAnon” ideas are further than far fetched. Their main tenets are that the Democratic leadership and their global elite allies are engaged in a weird Satanic sex cult involving the trafficking of underage children and a pizza restaurant. Furthermore, an authoritarian figure will soon appear to lead all his followers in rounding up all those elite offenders, apparently all at once, and that violent acts will likely be necessary to pull it all off. And about 17% of Americans say they believe these things.That’s over 40 million people.

And the previous guy really is the Proud Boys’ leader, a point emphasized when the Proud Boys followed his public suggestion in 2020 to stand by, and a Proud Boy leader last year exclaimed “this guy is the epitome of leadership.”

Well, obviously there’s more to understanding the situation than I’ve been able to think through. But I do think that the previous guy’s violence, as well as his use of truth and falsehoods, meshes with their acceptance by violent groups that also have unusual relationships to the truth, such as the Proud Boys,does not bode well for this country.

Still Addicted to YouTube

I still check regularly on Adine’s YouTube channel from South Africa and her herd of rescued orphan elephants.  In this video, Adine had skinned her knee by falling from her bike. Several of the elephants show that they care about her by investigating the wound. It’s really touching to watch.

And in another  touching video, Adine relaxes on the straw in the Infant Khanyisa’s night-time pen, musing about how someday she’s going to have to let her go emotionally and how hard that’s going to be.

And at the other chronological end of that, here’s what happened when Khanyisa was first introduced into her adoptive herd.


And a couple weeks ago, for the first time in a long time, I found myself simply listening to a simple song with simple pleasure.  The song happened to be a parody of a piece from the musical Grease  called “Summer Nights”. Here’s the original song.  And of course this musical is another link to my past life, because I once got to hear several of my former students perform Grease at Mt. Eden High School.

But in this case, the Parody is called “Russia Tiesby Randy Rainbow, which is not a stage name, but the actual name on his birth certificate. I used to listen to his comedic parodies more than I do now, because comedy was the only way I could make it through the reign of the former guy, and many of Rainbow’s parodies lampoon government. This one is now a few years out of date, though. .

So I just let the simplex chords of the song wash over me. Nothing more than lots of  I – IV – V – IV and their ilk. There was a time when I would never listen unironically to such a simple and cheesy song. I was quite a musical snob. “What, no 13th chords? No flat fives (?) No odd time signatures (?) No bagpipes (?) But honestly, who cares if it’s cheesy? There’s a reason those simple chords have been enjoyed for so many centuries and I finally seem to have remembered that music is simply meant to be fun, and those simplex cords are actually pretty pretty. And by the way, the well-known Youtuber / pianist Nahre Sol takes a deep dive here into what’s cheesy, anyway.

Here’s a more recent Rainbow parody. This time it’s a parody of Tradition from Fiddler on the Roof called Sedition. It shows off his ability to write lyrics that fit the melody.  And I’ll include one more song with skilled lyrics that’s completely non-governmental that he recently co-wrote with the late Stephen Sondheim called Pink Glasses, about the cheesy plastic glasses that have become somewhat an emblem for him.=======================

Happy Spring!

Where things stand at this point

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Gus Wright passed away this month.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Only an artist could come up with that response.

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

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

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

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

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

Yeah, I’m still stuck on YouTube

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

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

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

Once again the HERD elephants come to protect the baby.

And the same HERD in the rain.

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

Winter Update

Not the Adventure I was Looking For

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Website

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

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

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

Getting things done — Dad’s Autobiography

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Memories of China

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

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

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

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

So what has he been studying? Film-making!

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

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

Yeah, I’m still stuck on YouTube

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

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

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

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

The Mad Media

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, that’s off my chest, at least

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

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



Happy After-Thanksgiving

Greetings from California! – The State of Things

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Societal Weather Report

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bubbles and Balloons

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

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

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

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

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

The quarterly tune

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

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

Again, Happy After-Thanksgiving!


Three Happy Summer Holidays

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




Happy Songkran!

Greetings from Portland, Oregon!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What do you mean?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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