All posts by admin

Happy Lunar New Year

Health Report

Greetings from California! We’re all well — Mom, sister and me. And I never thought I’d be writing that sentence in 2023.  I’m so glad that I can.  I’ll probably be in California through February 17th.

Amazingly, my mother’s treatments of Physical Therapy and Occupational Therapy have lent her the strength to live on her own (mostly) again, at least, according to the therapists.  Yeah, her strength is amazing.

Meanwhile, sensations are returning to my toes. I hadn’t noticed that my big toe was not only numb, but black under the nail, as if somebody had hit it with a hammer.  Now the normal color is returning.

Numbness is not the only issue  — the motor nerves were also affected by the chemotherapy. So the rest of my toes were not only numb, they lay completely flat on the floor. They looked like short pieces of ribbons attached to my foot.  I thought it was the result of my age, but no, as the innervation restored itself, these toes regained their normal arched shape. Something similar has happened to the arches on my feet.  I Can’t wait to find out what else in my body might start re configuring itself again. (As long as it isn’t more tumors)

I am reminded that my Portland friend Mary told me that it took years for the effects of  her chemo treatments to fade. I’m also reminded of how the Portland nurse described chemo therapy — “We throw everything we can at it, and then pull back a bit so we don’t kill you.”  Dosage is everything, I guess.

Happy New Year (again – the real one)!

Happy New Year! Xīnnián Kuàilè!

The New Year’s holiday in China is celebrated for two weeks altogether. And every year, I think of my friend Andy in Tianjin, who invited me to celebrate New Year’s Eve with his family. Traditionally, one’s extended family gathers together on New Year’s Eve to make dumplings by hand. These dumplings, which are actually called jiǎozi, are nothing like the dumplings that one might find in British cuisine.

You roll out a tiny pancake, wrap it around the filling of your choice, and press the edges together to seal it into a sort of pregnant crescent shape, which then is boiled or steamed. The fillings can consist of literally almost anything edible, and in fact Tianjin showcases a restaurant that serves over fifty different fillings. The dipping sauce is usually aged vinegar. The family in the photo above is making for another occasion

The  jiǎozi in this picture was given to me by my friend Audine. It’s ceramic, and fashioned as a chopstick holder.

At the time that I visited Andy, his grandfather was still alive. He was a quiet, gentle and welcoming man. Andy commented that, yes, his grandfather was one of the old Communists.  I thought to myself that  in my country, the phrase “Chinese Communist” did not usually bring to mind such a kindly and hospitable man.

Those of us who didn’t fit around the jiǎozi-making table headed to the couch to view the annual “New Year’s Variety Show” on television. It’s kind of like the old Red Skelton show, but even cornier.  Almost everyone in China who owns a television watches it faithfully, every year. Here’s last year’s show, which the Chinese government posted on YouTube, a web site that they have blocked in China.


The Rabbit year is here at last! And just to be transparent, everyone should know that I myself am a rabbit. A bunny to my friends. And this is my year!  Mine! An ideal time to continue my voyage of retraining and self-discovery. But will such a focus on myself just make me self-centered or arrogant? If that starts happening, I’m depending on old friends to take me down a peg.  I’ve certainly given them enough ammunition over the years to do so.

But I am changing in ways that I like. I’m more forthright, more authentic.  I’m not so afraid of looking like an idiot (or not so afraid when I look like an idiot), even as I accrue more idiotic opportunities.

And I’m more robust emotionally. My big bugaboo, though, is still loneliness, particularly in the years since I returned from China. My new metaphor for it is a twist of bittersweet taffy that I’m forced to consume.

It often causes me intense pains at night, and until recently, intense pains during the day as well.  Indeed, it’s one of my main motivators for developing transparency, because how, at some point in the future, will my friends be able to assuage these pains with affection, if they don’t know who I really am? Or if I don’t know who I really am?  And how will I ever be able to assuage the pains of others?

But lately, even if needles of pain keep me up all night, when morning arrives, I’m able to pull out of it. I could not do that before. Of course, it’s better not to get stuck in taffy in the first place.  Meanwhile I reach out more transparently to the people around me.

I’ve actually asked friends if they have noticed any difference in me. They usually say I seem a lot more laid back than before.

A France in the Dark

Speaking of being more open  . . . . .the following story about Taizé is one of my longest ever – about 5000 words. I’ll write it in two halves – for this time and for next time.  I cannot condense it because it’s the fulcrum of my life and particularly my religious life, as my old friend had requested I write about. And as Eileen reminded me, this is my expression about a key moment in my life, so it should not be arbitrarily abbreviated.

And so I apologize in advance to those who’d wish that I wouldn’t write so much, though sometimes I’m also reminded of the scene in Amadeus where Emperor Joseph II tells Mozart that he plays too many notes. Well, if i was as talented as Mozart, maybe my long-winded expression would be easier to take. But still, it is my life and I hope to offer it whole, it’s “bones” unbroken.

It was the summer of 1975. Last time, I  was in Barcelona and my jaguar had just made contact. Later, more adventures, not exactly religious – would come  fast and furious, but they’re mostly off topic. Eventually I found myself in France with crowds of Dutch people in the Dordogne Valley gazing at prehistoric cave paintings.  From there I’d travel eastward to Dijon, to taste the mustard and explore my French grandmother’s homeland, to see what I could discover about her. But before I got there, I would take a detour, one of many that summer.

My new German friend Andreas had recommended that, along the route to Dijon, I stop in a small village near Mâcon called Taizé (pronounced TEH-zay) He said the people there were gentle and peaceful. No reservations required — you just drop in. Much more about it he never got around to telling me.  I set out eastward from Limoges, taking a seat in a compartment with another passenger. And like every other time that I sat in such a compartment with somebody, we fell into a conversation.

He was a teenage French boy, traveling by himself around Europe, staying a couple weeks in each country to learn its language. He thought language learning was trivially easy. But then, he only studied languages related to French — Italian in Italy, Spanish in Spain, Portuguese in Portugal — all easy. He was amazed that I seemed to find these languages at all difficult. I decided not to tell him that he’d have to learn Romanian next if he wanted to keep up the pace.

He did know enough English  to hold a simple conversation (Very unusual for a Frenchman). And it turned out that he would be de-training in Mâcon, same as me. His father would pick him up there, but he promised to show me the bus stop for Taizé before they headed out.

We whiled away the evening. Like Andreas, he knew just a little about Taizé, mainly that I’d find gentle and peaceful people there.  When we reached Mâcon, it was 1:30 A.M. True to his word, while his family was waiting somewhat impatiently, he showed me the stop for the Taizé bus. It was a metal pole with a schedule tacked onto it. I settled down where I could sit against the pole until morning. This would not be the first time nor the last time that I would avail myself of such Spartan lodgings.

Suddenly, my thoughts were interrupted by a discussion between the teenager and the rest of his family. Soon he came galloping back and said, “Come, get in, we will drive you to Taizé. I was so grateful. All polite protestations flew out the window, and I jammed my backpack and myself into the back seat of their old, black Coupe. We shot out into the darkness of a warm French countryside. Every few minutes, we hit a traffic circle, and as we curved around it, the car’s  headlights aimed past the edge of the road so I could see what was there. Well, nothing was there but short trees and bushes. We drove for a half hour or forty five minutes, dancing through traffic circles and slipping through small towns. There was no other traffic.

And there it was – the sign for Taizé. The road led up a low hill. We stopped at the top of it in front of a tall closed gate.  And pacing back and forth in front of the gate was a young man in jeans, with a long, dark and fluffy German beard. Anybody who looked like that would surely speak English.

I popped out of the car, and I shook the father’s hand and gave him a merci. I told the boy how fortunate it was that our destinations had lain in the same direction. He cleared his throat and told me that, actually, their home lay in the opposite direction. They sleepily drove off, back towards Mâcon. I never even got their names, which was unusual for me.

The German guy at the gate, as expected, spoke English. Since it was so late, he said that I should stay in his tent. Then in the morning I could queue at the registration.

“What? Cue? What?” I said. His eyes narrowed like he was inspecting me and he said, “Queue!” and “Do you speak English?”

How embarrassing to be found Incompetent in my own native language.  I’d never heard of the word “queue” before. His tent turned out to be huge, with a wooden floor and door-flaps at the entrance. Around twenty people lay unconscious in there. I threw my sleeping bag into the corner that he showed me and I instantly snuffed out.

It Dawns on Me

When I woke, it was light and no one was home. Bells rang in the distance. I stepped out into a sea of tents, basking in the sunshine, and beyond them lay shallow flowing hills, covered in a deep green carpet of French countryside, so pretty that it was painful to gaze upon. People strolled in from all directions towards the five ringing bells, which hung from a simple wooden beam that swung back and forth from the top of a simple wooden campanile. Everything was simple here.  And everything seemed gentle and peaceful.

I had operated my own college campus’s campanile when I had attended there. Compared to that one, these bells sang for joy. People passed beneath them and into a huge brightly-colored circus tent. What could that be for? I quelled my curiosity about the circus for the moment, and I found the welcome and registration facility, called “Casa,” where I would report in. They asked if I wished to continue staying in the tent where I had already settled, which was occupied by Germans and Flemish, or did I want to find a tent with more English speakers?

I chose the Flemish and Germans, since English seemed so ordinary.  And maybe I’d pick up more German from them..  Besides, I was sure to bump into native English speakers anyway, wasn’t I? Americans were everywhere in Europe, including some from that new state with the mysterious maple leaf flag.

The Casa directed me to breakfast. Food was very simple, of course. The tools for eating it were also simple. I was handed a thin and flexible blue plastic bowl, which also served as a plate, and a metal spoon, which also served as a knife or fork, and a red plastic glass. They looked very simple to keep clean, and they were used for all meals. No sporks allowed! They were too disposable. Besides, they hadn’t been invented yet.

Volunteers contributed most of the labor. Often they were solicited from one tent or another. Some stayed all summer as volunteers. Of course one could always find something to help out with even if it wasn’t your group’s turn for chores.  But I was so taken by the place, that I volunteered only sparingly, in favor of exploring and meeting people.

Thousands of participants, yes, thousands of them, mostly in their twenties (like me), walked here and there, or sat in small groups. Occasionally somebody would break out a guitar, and lead a group in singing, usually American pop songs.  How could people who didn’t even speak English sing the English lyrics to pop songs so well?

Most people were  Christian, but many were not. I’m sure there were Jews or Muslims aplenty, let alone atheists. Taizé was open to all who felt drawn there, especially those who wished to explore matters of spirituality and faith.  Of course, I just wanted to hang out.  And I loved it. The people were just as gentle and peaceful as Andreas had said.

I was fascinated by the polyglot atmosphere.  It was just like San Francisco, but more loving and casual. German and French were the most common languages, and English, well, not so much.  I never found a North American in Taizé that year. and all the native English speakers that I did find were Europeans.  And I thought how sad it was that nobody in America seemed to know this place.

And I found myself to be suddenly outgoing. How did that happen? That’s not my personality, neither before or since (until lately). Maybe it was the gentle atmosphere that encouraged me to feel so free.

So I found this young French woman, who fascinated me because she so closely resembled old pictures of my French grandmother. When I tried to speak with her I quickly ascertained that she only spoke French while I basically only spoke English. (sigh)  What could we do given a dearth of English or French native speakers  who might be able to translate our conversation?

We actually tried the simple translation route using a French teenager who claimed to know English well. He didn’t. I asked how much English he’d studied. He said “Two Years.” The first year was to memorize grammar rules. The second year was to study Shakespeare’s plays.  No wonder he couldn’t do English. And other Frenchmen were not likely to fare any better.

But I remembered what I’d learned from spending time in caves with the Dutch. In those days, every Dutchman learned at least one foreign language, usually English, French or German. So I found two Dutchmen —  one who had studied English and another who had studied French.  My new friend and I sat at opposite ends of a picnic table while the Dutchmen sat between us. So if I said something, the student of English translated it into Dutch and told the other Dutchman, who then translated it into French for my friend. Ah, so clever!!  Later, we two friends kept in touch throughout the following year, but finally the language gap and the geographic gap took their toll. Maybe things might have turned out differently if the Internet had existed back then.

But as wonderful as it was to hang out with gentle, peaceful people, and get to know them rather deeply, considering the short time available, that’s just the appealing surface.  On that trip, I never did get to the core of Taizé, originally fashioned from the blood, sweat and iron of World War II, but I did get closer, which I’ll describe next time.

Happy Martin Luther King Day

Hello everyone from Portland, Oregon, where it starts getting dark at 3pm

Mom’s health

Mom was in a rehabilitation facility for a couple weeks, and everyone except for her thought that she should stay in rehab one more week.  So she came home.

The impending Martin Luther King holiday sees her continuing to strengthen, though more easily confused. She’s not yet strong enough to leave the house. So either Abbe or myself lives with her full time.  Physical therapists, occupational therapists, and social workers have dropped by to show Abbe and I how we can better work with her.

At times, she’s been more cheerful than she was before. Everybody is happy about that.

My Health — If not now, then when?

As for my own health,  I’m hoping that no news is good news. My numb toes continue to slowly regain their feeling.  And I’ve discovered that other parts of my body had also been numbed, but I hadn’t noticed, and now they, too, are regaining their feeling. I have mixed feelings about that – if these body parts start thriving, does that mean that the tumors will, too?  Hope not.

I had lunch last week with Mary, who is my only non-family friend residing in the Portland area. Mary’s sister has a cancer analogous to mine. She expects to live just a couple more years. Before she dies, her whole family next fall is taking her on a cruise from the St. Lawrence River to Boston, sort of a Last Hurrah.  I was sorry to hear about all this, and it reminds me that, though I feel pretty good these days, it could be something  of an illusion. So I try not to waste time. Lunch with Mary, of course, is not a waste of time. In fact I plan to lunch again with her sooner than later.  And we lunch at our local Shandong restaurant, complete with fortune cookies.

I find myself feeling more and more like an adolescent. All the issues I’d avoided since my actual adolescence have stuck around to torment me. I thought they’d fade away with time and good living!!  Turns out they won’t.  Who knew? In the meantime, I’m glad to have some extra time now to deal with them.  I hate leaving tasks undone.

A couple old friends serve as key confidants in this process. One is Doug from Berkeley, my bike-riding friend. The other is my playful friend Eileen who, along with her husband, has howled at the full moon every month for the past fifty years.  I mean, if you can’t trust a werewolf, who can you trust?

If not last spring, then when?

My condominium in Danville is about 20 minutes from Castro Valley. I paid it off about twenty years ago, at which time my mother injured her brain, so I moved back in with her in Castro Valley after her  surgery to keep an eye on her. What to do with the condo? Rent it, of course. I got a great property manager. Mom and I split the profits, which became her main source of income for many years when she moved up to Portland. The pictures here are of that condo.

Well . . . . about nine or ten months ago, our tenant stopped paying rent. Normally, that calls for an eviction, but the pandemic changed the rules. So he’s still there, without my permission.  A few months ago, we retained a lawyer and went to court. The judge found in our favor, so now the delinquent tenant  owes me a court-ordered judgement of $16,000. Or he did. By now, it should be much more. I don’t expect to ever see any of that money.

Whenever the sheriff’s office puts it on their calendar, they’ll go and evict him. But still we wait. The property manager has located new tenants, but still we all wait. The property manager says he’s never seen anything like it in the thousands of rentals that his company manages.  But still . . .  .

Living in the past — Zen

I got an email today from my good friend Simon in Queensland. He was surprised to read about my interest in religion, which I wrote about in my last update. I guess I’ve been hiding it. Well, there was a reason to hide it in China.  But since a lot of my life actually revolves around religion or spirituality, maybe I should write about it on this list, to continue tearing down metaphorical walls between my separate circles of friends, including my religious friends. I’ll continue chronologically from where I left off last time.

Zen —  a Buddhist sect or independent of cultures or religions? It explicitly crops up more these days than it did in the seventies when I studied it. So when Mary and I went to lunch, I got a fortune cookie that said “A Master can act without doing anything, teach without a word.” It’s not exactly Zen, but it’s close.

It’s taken from page 2 of the Dao De Jing, a fundamental text of Daoism {Taoism). And Zen (called 禅 (Chán)in Chinese) is an amalgam of Buddhism and Daoism, Given where we were, a more Zen-like fortune might have said “Are the dishes washed?”  In other words, don’t cogitate about it. Just do it! Dharma, anybody? Be present in the world and not lost in reverie. This concrete practicality made me love Zen, even though I’m actually lousy at doing the dishes.

The Japanese Zen master D. T. Suzuki, sort of a Zen ambassador to the West, once stated that the most important thing in Zen is love. His statement impressed me because Zen is usually known for unflinching efforts at meditation and discipline in the pursuit of personal enlightenment, and not something soft-edged like love.

As I mentioned last time, Zen absolutely distrusts verbal expression, particularly for provoking enlightenment, but also for more mundane situations. (which . . . also may provoke enlightenment).

Well, I never did achieve Zen enlightenment, but I did adopt its deprecation of language. For one common Zen exercise, simply eliminate language from your thoughts.In other words, stop talking to yourself in your mind!  A lot of people aren’t even aware that they’re doing it. It’s surprisingly difficult to stop.  Try it!

Back in college days, I got pretty good at stopping the chattering voice in my head. At first it was just a challenge.  Then I noticed that it freed my mind from modes of thought imposed by years if language use. I focused more solidly on the non-verbal existential reality before me, noting that varied logical and linguistic ambiguities arose from the same reality.

I got better at mentally (and non-verbally) deconstructing my world and reassembling it in different ways. It broadened my appreciation of existence as well as social systems and religion. It’s a mental tool that I use to this day.

Living in the past — Alternate Realities.

While cultivating my interest in Zen, I had some rather strange experiences. But  this was the seventies, so I took it all in stride. Adolescence is a time for visions, and I had strings of them back then, probably like most people.  We might call them vivid dreams, though they feel nothing like dreams.  They are as solidly real as  a Zen exercise. The earliest one that I remember was quite simple. I woke up in my dorm room, but before I could get out of bed, I began floating up, so  I had no traction on the floor. I gently rose like a balloon, softly bouncing off the ceiling. I looked down and there I was, still in bed, lying on my side. It was absolutely real. I was absolutely awake. It was wonderful.

Eventually I slowly  sank down, joined my body and woke up again. This time I could gain traction on the floor and could walk away from the bed.  Back then, we heard a lot about  out-of-the-body experiences, so I  was happy to have experienced one myself.

Another way that I dabbled in dreams was to wake myself up within a dream and then take control of it.  It’s great fun. Anything you can imagine can take place right when you want it to. It’s the ultimate magician’s kit.

These strange experiences sated my appetite for visions and hallucinations, so I never was tempted to use drugs. I already had enough to make me question reality (or at least re-analyze it), a practice which I would eventually bring into religion.

The Vision Quest

Another common practice back then, derived from certain Native American customs, was the vision quest and the discovery of the ally, which is a spiritual animal guide or helper. For the longest time I could not locate my ally. But in 1975, I spent the whole summer traveling, kind of like one long vision quest, and I did have some hallucinatory visions.

One day, I was dozing on a bed in a Barcelona boarding house, when I was awakened by a rustling sound with soft padding coming up behind me. For a while, I just listened. Had a thief broken in? I looked.

No, it was a jaguar. And it was very very real. I was beside myself with fear.

The jaguar was a panther, dark without spots, but dark grey, not black. It was larger and more muscular than any that I’d seen before. Its panther face was a bit narrower than normal and slightly resembled a polar bear’s. I realized that this animal had to be my ally. It was in fact real and scary, but . . . different. I couldn’t afford to be afraid of it. Full of maturity, self-control and confidence, It quietly paced over to me, and then past me, heading forward and away.

I had to catch its attention before it left,  I just had to.

So I summoned some courage and reached out with my left hand.  I touched it on the  cheek behind one eye. It paused and turned its head back to  look at me and smile. Its eye narrowed and began to glow.  How can a panther smile?

It headed towards a cheap wardrobe on the wall next to the bedroom door. An old and worn mirror hung on its face. The panther casually  proceeded through the mirror and was silently gone. We had shown ourselves to each other.

So ever since that day, I’ve been running around with a fully self-confident panther.

Yeah, one could possibly deconstruct my experience and reassemble it into something more ordinary and rational with less grit and drama, so people won’t think me a psycho, and I considered trying that here,  but dammit, I was there. I know what I saw. I know the terror that I felt.  It’s simpler to just say what it was, and not over- rationalize it, particularly since its effects continue in my life.

For example, what else could it have been, if not my ally, that wracked my body with coughs for several months last year, to catch my attention, which led the doctors on an endless wild goose chase to find a cause, only to find cancer instead, which they found early enough to give me a few extra years. The rattling coughs immediately stopped upon the cancer discovery, like a big cat disappearing through a mirror,  before I had even received any further treatments.  And who had let loose this ally in the first place so it could flag my attention with coughs?  Could that have been the Lord God?

Where I’m most aware of my ally is when I’m relating to people. It manifests itself as a feline sense of maturity, self control and confidence that I mainly associate with teaching school.  That sense usually (usually)tells me  when I’m on the right track. (depending upon the situation)

This is what I mean by an ally. Do you have such an ally, too?

Wow, that was fast.

I feel like I just  now started writing and it’s already over 2000 words. So what about the elephant herd? And what would it be like to have an elephant as an ally?

And Happy Martin Luther King Day!

Today’s excellent opinion piece by Jamelle Bouie in the New York Times  expands upon the idea that’s there’s a lot more to MLK than a speech. You can access it at this link.

And here is the conclusion of my own favorite King Speech, given in support of striking workers in Memphis, Tennessee.  The conclusion is electrifying  as he compares himself to Moses and predicts his own death the following day. I cry whenever I hear it.

Merry Christmas. Just plain Merry Christmas

Greetings from Castro Valley  in California– oops — from Portland, in Oregon. I came ‘up here on the 22nd — oops- on Boxing Day. Oops — on the 28th.  Note to self – never trust Southwest Airlines’s schedules.

My own health seems not to have changed much — good news, nothing much to say.

On the other hand, my hundred-year-old mother’s condition has changed a lot, in some ways that surprised me.

While exiting a car last week, she blacked out. She fell and bounced her head on a lawn. She cracked her femur and split open some blood vessels in her brain. She was taken by ambulance to a hospital where she treated the nursing staff the way she so often has in the past – like dirt, yelling at them to leave her alone and let her go home and being as uncooperative as possible. My sister, who had expected this, was there to mellow her down, but to limited effect. So this  chaos went on for a couple days in the ICU and then a further couple of days in the regular hospital.  And then  . . . .

Mom reached a conscious decision that she was going to change her attitude. She even told me about her intention over the phone. And then . . .

She simply got it done. The change was remarkable. and for the last several days she became the favorite patient of all the nurses on that floor. Partial credit goes to my Sunday School class who had been praying like crazy for peace in the situation. But what a surprise!

My mother is probably the strongest person I know, and certainly the strongest willed. And she’s accomplished something similar on other occasions. A few decades ago, her second husband, Clay, lay dying in a hospital from lung cancer, caused by a lifetime of chain smoking. Mom brought me to the hospital, essentially to say good bye to him. Clay had once been bigger and stronger than I was, but now he had shriveled down to the size of a fifth grader, wracked with pain.

As we strolled down the hall to his room, I kept reminding myself to thank him for taking Mom to visit relatives in Sweden, which had been her lifelong dream. And then Mom broke into inconsolable, sobbing sheets of tears and grief. But this was not the face that she wanted to show Clay. She wanted a face that celebrated their affections for each other, that helped them experience that happiness one more time. We stood before the door to his room. Mom broke out a tissue and by the time we had passed the threshold, all traces of sadness had vanished. “Hello, honey,” she threw out a smile, a real smile, not a forced one.

Traveling to Portland

So now it was Mom who was in the hospital bed. I had been scheduled to fly Southwest Airlines to Portland on December 22nd, but should I come earlier? Abbe and I talked it over, and given the crowded planes making it hard to find seats, it seemed best that I just keep to the schedule, There wouldn’t be many days difference, and there wouldn’t be much for me to do, anyway, but there would be lots more later. And, as it turns out, there was really lots more to do with Southwest Airlenes.  Meanwhile I kept in touch by phone many times each day.

So for December 22nd, Castro Valley’s weather forecast had afternoon temperatures in the fifties (like 13 Celsius.). Portland’s overnight temperatures (including wind chill) would be like 3 degrees (like minus 16 Celsius) There would also be high winds, snow, and an ice storm causing widespread power outages. Did I really want to fly into that?  Did I ever mention how much I love the California climate?

But I already felt delinquent, for having stuck to the schedule. I would not delay any longer, weather be damned. But God had different plans. Southwest Airlines cancelled the December 22nd flight at the last minute anyway. And then the first date with an open seat was Boxing Day, December 26th, a date forecast to have much milder weather, so I took the reservation for the December 26th.

Meanwhile, Mom left the hospital around noon on the 23rd, after having obtained pre-approval for transportation from the weather.

So did I finally fly out on boxing day? Nope. The flight was canceled again, along with several thousand other flights, almost all of them on Southwest Airlines.

With the help of Jim Cauble and John Challenor, and taking three tries at the Alaska Airlines web site, I got a rather expensive ticket for a nighttime flight on December 28. And this time, the Alaska flight was not canceled. Greetings from Portland!   And I think I may see more of Alaska Airlines in the future, and less of Southwest.

An adventure to embrace this time

Meanwhile I’m continuing  to lift the cover from my heart and allow others to see who I really am and who I have been all along. And not only others, but myself as well.

So, for example, last time, I mentioned my suffering a broken heart last fall. Actually there were two, and the second was so severe that Mark and Eileen had to come over and scrape me off the floor, and then plop me into a seat at a local diner until I could think straight.

I have never felt free to talk about such tragedies, not with anybody, but this time I did discuss it with Mark and Eileen. Our conversation excised my injured “mental tissues.” And in the subsequent days, an increased stability and capacity for joy and laughter took their place.  I hadn’t known that I could do that. Really, how had I done that? And how should I use that previously-buried capability in the future? And despite the eventual salutary results, I’m not really enthusiastic about the prospect of incurring another broken heart just so I can achieve greater mental stability. But I’m not afraid of it, either.

And no, I’m not trying to turn bipolar, nor am I trying to cry or laugh more, nor am I training to be a standup comedian. These are merely the entertaining side-effects of accepting tragedy and pain, and thus gaining a deeper understanding of self and life.

I’m re-balancing my life. Sometimes it kinda feels like being covered with thousands of boxes, and my job is to stack them neatly, when it’s hard enough to just get out from under them. Sisyphus, anyone? But I will get there.

I was especially heartened by a response to my last update penned by my brother/friend Lonnie, who wrote this:

I like the path you have been on recently…..about opening up and being vulnerable with things that may seem scary to share.   I really liked your story of your encounter with the German-Italian girl on the train…..and the thoughts of opportunities lost.    I think this is a great path you are on, and is good for all the people you have been in relationship with to be able to see what you have behind the curtain.   Scary (being open) but freeing (in the love/acceptance received back).   You are a loved and dear friend.   I love hearing / seeing the true you.

Yes, that’s it.

And the Point is Christmas

Recently one of my best friends asked me to write about religion, which is probably the largest single topic of mine that I keep hidden even today, even from the people I attend church with.  So to write about it would be quite extensive. But because I care for her a lot and she asked, I will write it all out. But I may end up sending the resulting volume directly to her.

But I can start here, at least.  I also already wrote, a few months ago, about my reading of 1 Corinthians 13, a chapter which, to me pretty much completely defines what Christianity actually is.

As a child, I enjoyed my Protestant church, except the part about dressing up in uncomfortable formal clothes, too early on Sunday mornings.  Funny — according to the pictures, God never had to dress in such clothes.

The people in church were kind, and oriented towards serving the local community. But I hated most of the hymns, where we sang about joy while wearing no smiles.  We seemed to be “sending mixed messages.” Yeah, I once had a girlfriend like that.

College at UC Davis

So when I attended college, and could schedule my own life, I gave up Sunday mornings, and everything that went with them. Instead I began reading about Buddhism, particularly Zen. These Buddhist systems never seemed to ask you to believe, particularly not in something you hadn’t seen yourself, which was a relief to me. They were more like an extension of psychology than what I usually thought of as a religion.

And Zen fed my long-standing interest in Japanese culture. I was particularly drawn to its challenge to perceive reality directly, including the emptiness between objects, without categories or labels. In fact reality is simply beyond verbal description.   I still think that way, but, obviously, this idea is completely at odds with any religion based on a written book. And this has been a fundamental and fruitful conflict in my thinking ever since. Most of my Christian friends do not know this about me. Some of my pagan friends might.

Anyway, for my sophomore year, I earned the lowest grades of my entire life, including elementary school. But what a wonderful year in forming permanent friendships, exploring reality and relationships, living in the “German House” dorm, and playing like kids even though we were technically adults. It was worth a few low grades. In fact just last week, I visited with a friend from that year’s “German House.”

And I began taking fun electives, starting with “Introduction to African American Music” by the choral director and professor Albert J. McNeil. As you may know, “African American Music” includes just about every form of American popular music, such as Big Band Swing, Traditional New Orleans style, jazz, blues, gospel, rock and roll, hip hop, and even bluegrass. Many of these forms had roots in two kinds of houses. One was a house of worship, and the other was not.

The Sacramento House

Well, the latter kind of house was not available to the university, but the former could be found right across the river in Sacramento. It was a mostly African-American Apostolic Church which Professor McNeil required us to visit on a Sunday. He assured us that it featured music that was authentically African-American. Perhaps we could attend and listen for typical musical components. I figured I’d hear something stately like Mahalia Jackson.

So, on a Sunday evening, a few of us class members pooled our cars, drove out to Sacramento and reached the church on time.  We said hello to the greeter and attempted to squeeze around her into the back rows. But just our luck to encounter a greeter both gracious and welcoming. She intercepted us and led us to the very front row, where empty seats had been cordoned off for our convenience. As most of us were white and most of the congregation was decidedly not, we stuck out like lights on a Christmas tree.  So much for our plan to remain inconspicuous.

But this room, in contrast to my old church in Castro Valley, was alive with energy, even before anybody did anything. The pastor stepped to the podium to begin the worship. In a ringing voice he welcomed the visitors from UC. We smiled, but what else should we do? The choir piped up, their voices swelling as they burst into an infectious rhythm and the entire congregation joined in. We looked in vain for that customary little piece of paper with the words to the songs.

Well, here there were different customs. And every few minutes, something happened (but cued by what? We didn’t know)  Members of the congregation stepped forward to express how happy they were to be Christian, and how thankful they were that God had shown them mercy that week. But their speeches weren’t given in that unassuming manner of Protestant testimonials, but in a voice almost shouting for joy. And then, BAM. Everyone jumped to their feet to sing (but singing what?) tambourines appeared out of nowhere and pushed out trills and rhythms. And then BAM again, and it was quiet, and the pastor returned to speaking.

And believe you me, when they sang about joy, they expressed joy, sincere joy, with every vibration of their vocal chords. I had never seen anything like it. So one could simply and loudly express joy in a religious setting? Who knew? It made me want to know more about why these people were so full of life. I realized that there was a lot more to Christianity than what I had known. And it was sincerely distinct. And oh, yeah. the music was African American. Definitely.

Our ride had an appointment, so after the first two hours of worship, we made our way to the door. If we had stayed another hour, we would have observed that the platform supporting the podium slid to one side to reveal a baptismal.  And two of our class members got baptized that night (Don’t forget to shout “Praise the Lord!”)

And the next day, Professor McNeil made sure everyone knew that conversion and receiving baptism were not course requirements.

Obligatory Elephants

This time it’s a short one where our favorite Elephant herd stands up to a Rhino.



Happy Advent

How I’m doing

Well, the new oncologist seems to feel that I’m doing about as well as anyone could be compared with how I started. His description of my condition a year ago was hair raising.

Now, for those who know what “PSA” means, my current PSA was so low that it could not be accurately measured. The most recent CAT scan shows that the tumors are even a little bit smaller than they were last summer when the chemo therapy had just finished.  This is because of my daily testosterone blockers. He said my condition would be stable for maybe a few months, or maybe five years, or maybe ten years. It’s hard to predict.

There are some symptoms that continue because of the treatment – mainly fatigue, muscle pains, and joint pains, and some others whose description I’ll mercifully spare you from.  So I’m not likely to be going out to night-time concerts nor walking as far as I used to. He does want to check out these additional symptoms  with an MRI when I come back to Portland for Christmas and New Year’s.

These days, the most prominent pain that I’m nursing is a broken heart. Having decided to be vulnerable and open, well, that’s the risk, isn’t it?  And I don’t think that  testosterone blockers are going to help the situation, either.  Meanwhile I think I have a tremendous amount to devote to any sort of relationship. The mystery for me is why some don’t see it. (sigh)

Happy Advent

Advent is a sort of “countdown to Christmas.”  It’s a season that encompasses the four Sundays before Christmas, plus the days in between them. So if Christmas is the coming of God then Advent is a season of hope, a season that looks forward to light and life.

This year, in the Western tradition, Advent begins on Sunday, November 27 (the day I plan to return to California) and it’s celebrated until Saturday December 24. (before then, I plan to be back in Portland). Churches may present readings or prayers on the four Sundays, or on every day of the season. Also there are a huge number of ancillary activities, such as setting up Christmas Trees, stringing lights and displaying other decorations. All of these different advent traditions are meant to bring God to mind.

Literary Lessons

Concerning my tendency towards serial jokes, some have said that I’m just using humor to block out unpleasant or stressful situations. But I think it’s actually just a way to more thoroughly process information. This would explain why it’s so compelling for me — if I don’t make the joke, I won’t capture the entire meaning. Does anybody else – who’s not a standup comic – do the same thing?

One of my best friends recently told me that when she reads the Psalms (ancient Biblical poetry) God speaks to her through them. In contrast, in my life, God has usually spoken to me through events, which can be a bit rougher to deal with than reading a book.  For instance, the way this cancer was discovered leads me to think there’s a divine message there. I suppose that at least part of that message is “Get moving — time’s a’wasting!!”  So I’ve been taking some time to tell many of my old friends how much I care for them, how much I love them.  I wish I’d learned these lessons in vulnerability  (or been in a position to learn them) many years ago.  I would have avoided hurting some friends if I had.

Still Living in the Past

When I taught school at Schafer Park School. I took my class camping for a week at Point Reyes every spring. Several parents would come along as chaperons. This took some gumption on my part because one never knows what might happen. In fact, on my very first trip, one of the students was rehearsing a skit in the Quonset hut at left when he rolled off a couch onto the ground and broke his arm. One of the parents drove him to a hospital.

Luckily, over the years, my chaperons included folks like Gus Wright, Paige Adza, Karen Cauble, Kathy Amaral, Diane Evitt, Jim Lorts, Sylvia Boyd, Chuck Walker, Jeff & Judy Cook, Phil Arzino, Garry Horrocks, Dana Richardson, Fernando Lopez, Richard Wong, Isabel Souto, Deisy Bates, Robin Lewis, and many others, and especially, Kay Frye. (and by the way I love all of them) who worked and chaperoned to make the camping trips feasible.

I often use one of those trips, the third year’s, as evidence of God’s interventions in my life and in the lives of  people around me, solving problems that no one could do by themselves.

The Mosquito Eaters

The class was  extremely difficult to work with that year, mainly because of a small group of students who intimidated the rest, I’ll change the names of those five kids, even though they are all over forty years old by now.  They totally debunked the myth that “gifted and talented” students are all sweet, compliant nerds who just love homework.

Most of their bullying activities took place outside of class at recess. As I learned later, they had dubbed their gang the “mosquito eaters.” The name came from the name  of a teacher whom they continually disparaged  – Ms. Kido. The gang leader was Barry – a handsome kid with curly hair. His lieutenant was Cameron – a short dark-haired kid who usually wore a scowl below his shifty eyes. Waverly and Pearl were two girls with smirks of cattyness.  Finally, Riley was a follower, a goof-ball with a 1950’s hair cut. He wouldn’t be behaving badly if not for the bad examples of the other four.

They didn’t beat anybody up, they rarely even cut in line. But they wielded subtle put-downs like little dirt bombs, slipping them (metaphorically) into their victims’ minds. Gradually they convinced the rest of the class that they (the mosquito eaters) were the cool cats,  the classy ones with style, who even listened to records by the Beastie Boys, while the rest of the class was a bunch of loser nerds and dweebs who probably listened to the Beatles.

The thought of taking these kids to camp, and living with this little gang in close quarters for five days, sixty miles from the school, set my heart to despairing.

I  explained the situation (not using the kids’ names) to members of my prayer group at church. Meanwhile, planning continued for the camp.

The Solution

And then one day, Pearl came up to me during class. “Mr. Mac,” she said. “I can’t go camping this year.”My ears perked up. Camp had been scheduled for the week after spring vacation. Could this juxtaposition be the problem? It was.

Pearl said, “My cousin’s getting married in Oklahoma. The whole family’s going over there for two weeks.”  Well! This was news. I breathed a bit easier about how camp would go, though.

And then the next week, Waverly came up to me in class.  “Mr. Mac” she said. “I can’t go camping this year.”  What a shame! Why not? Waverly said, “My cousin’s getting married in Korea! the whole family’s going over there for three weeks.” I breathed even easier – now there were two fewer little gang members to deal with at camp.

Then, a week later, Barry brought a knife to school. He probably wasn’t going to do anything with it, except flash it around at recess to show that he was more cool than anybody else on the playground. Well, one of my students took courage and told the principal about it. Barry was brought down to the school office where it was determined that he did indeed have a knife, which was confiscated.  He was promptly suspended for a few days. But you know what? Kids who have been suspended can’t attend overnight field trips. Barry would spend that week by himself in another teacher’s classroom.

Riley and Cameron were the only ones left. Then Cameron got into some minor altercation with a student. I phoned his father about it after school. This would be a conversation that the two of us had had many times. He sighed and said, “Mr. MacFarlane,  I don’t know if Cameron has told you, but we moved to another city a couple months ago. We’ve been driving him back to Schafer Park School every day because he likes your class so much.  But we finally  gave him an ultimatum. Either he stop all these little screw-ups, or we’d send him to the normal neighborhood school for our area. He won’t be returning to Schafer Park after spring vacation.”

Cameron’s father had volunteered to bring some food for the camp. I was afraid he might forget or disregard it after the week-long vacation. But bring it he did on the day we left.   He was a man of his word.

Nobody else in the class would be missing camp that year. And now the only little gang member left was Riley.  But he was just a goof ball. I wasn’t worried about his behavior in the absence of his bad role models.

The Camp

The camp lasted five days. On the first day, it was a somber group of students who gathered at Pt. Reyes’s Clem Miller Education Center. By the next day, minus the mosquito eaters the mood had noticeably lifted . The many parent chaperons, as well as our student teacher, also proved to be good models, lifting the mood. but it was mostly the students themselves who accomplished the heavy emotional lifting. And every day, the group healed further, and eventually, even Riley had gotten “with it.”

The following week, the students who showed up for school that Monday was a group transformed through their positive experiences.   Barry was waiting, but the students took him in hand. They gave him no power over their self esteem. They ignored his insults. The following week, Waverley returned from Oklahoma and then received the same treatment.  A week later, Pearl returned from Korea and joined in the newly-positive atmosphere. And the positive vibes maintained themselves right through to the end of the year. Even Barry finished the year positively, transformed through their good example.

Many years later, Pearl stopped by Schafer Park School to visit her old teacher. She told me that ours was her favorite class ever.  It was gratifying to hear. Her positive memories were the product of the class itself as much as it may have been my own influence. It gave me faith that the other class members, including Barry and Cameron, had come out of the episode with a positivity that would last.

As for me, the message was that God would keep me in mind. It’s a message that I received at school many times over the years.

The requisite elephant video

Turns out that elephants love to chase antelopes

And Adam Neely posted one of his typically thoughtful essay- this one on music copyright.







Happy Veteran’s Day !!

Greetings from California and Oregon,

How I’m doing

I’m like a bouncing ball —  A week in California, a couple weeks in Portland, then some weeks in California, all of it scheduled mainly around medical tests and procedures. Now I just arrived in Portland again. where autumn is in full display.

The picture, taken on Tuesday, shows downtown Portland from the west, with the Willamette River beyond. Across the River, follow a diagonally-oriented street up to the left. That’s Sandy Boulevard.  We live just off it, about eighty blocks from downtown.

In Portland this week, the vampires drew my blood, and the needlers injected a mysterious liquid into my hip. And on Saturday, they’ll take a CAT scan. Then on November 22, I’ll meet my new oncologist, who will tell me what. I’m so nervous that it might be bad. We’ll see, I guess.

Meanwhile, my toes have stopped losing their numbness. I guess it really is something I’m just going to have to live with. And meanwhile, my mother is hanging in there. My sister and I let her take us to lunch on Tuesday this week. I snapped the photo at left.

Significant Others

In psychology, a “significant other” is an influential person through whom one can grow.  A long time ago my friend Tamara told me that at one point I had been something like that to her. I rejoiced to hear it because she meant a lot to me. Any way that I could contribute to her life was a blessing to me, too.

Well, now I’m in a position where I need such significant others to help me grow, to help me unlock the emotional walls that I constructed over the years and now leave me trapped.

In California, such friends are blessedly close to hand. Here are five of them, whom I invited to dinner so they could meet the others that, unbeknownst, had also been supporting me for a half century on the other side of one of my emotional walls.

On the left, reflecting my musical side are Eileen & Mark ((French Horn & Baritone Horn).  And yes, musicians actually do assume personal identities based upon the instruments that they play.  I played saxophone.  That’s why I’m so incredibly hip.

Eileen and I played in the same high school music program back in 1966, and shared all the musical sorrows and joys of participating in every form of musical organization that our high school could devise, from marching band to orchestra, from rally band to Broadway pit band. Certainly if ever I forgot how to be joyful, I could get a clue from her.

On the right, reflecting my pedagogical side, are Karen & Jim. Yes, I did live in the same dormitory in Davis as Karen back in 1969. But their main significance to me now relates to the fact that in Hayward I taught their two kids, who bore up under the stress of my classroom in 1988-1990 and 1992 -1994.  Karen was one of those “super parents” who creatively went far beyond any common level of classroom support, such as making me an autograph book shaped like the Irish cap that I wore everywhere back in those days and filling it with messages from the students.

And in the center sits Ric, who reflects my church side. In fact I met Ric and Carolyn in 1980 at the First Baptist Church in Castro Valley. Over the years, they and their kids were like an extended family to me, a family with a shared faith, who improvised Bible studies, were addicted to literature and game playing, who always included me  on holiday meals, took me trick-or-treating (yes, they did!), accompanied me bird-watching, celebrated all my birthdays, took me square-dancing, went camping together, helped hammer my classroom together, and so many etc.’s

I could have invited more people, but it wasn’t practical. Whenever I return to Castro Valley I’ll pick up where I left off.

All these people were critical to my life for the past half century, and they live just a few miles from each other. How could they not know each other? (he asked rhetorically). The three domains that they represent I had walled off from each other. But I kept the key, so now I can introduce them to each other and also to you. They and others help me to heal emotionally, to be comfortable with vulnerability and open expression, so eventually I can safely “throw away the key” altogether, leaving all the walls wide open.  It’s something that I cannot put off any more, like I have for the last half a century.  My mortality has told me this.

Training in Vulnerability

There’s nothing like a confrontation with one’s mortality to remind one that if one wants to accomplish something in this life, there’s probably less time available for it than one might think.

For me, I want to stitch together the fractured community that I already have. Then I need to take courage and be more transparent and vulnerable and emotionally forthright in my dealings with people.  These things will become the strength that I need to finish (hopefully) the tasks that have been set before me.

Openness and vulnerability. My psychologist was helping me with that. Then she moved away. But then Eileen assumed that task (did I mention that she’s wise beyond her years, and has been since high school?). I’m becoming myself  and emotionally healthy for the first time in many years.

This is what I mean by vulnerability:

In 1975 I was riding in a train through the Italian Alps. Back then, train cars were divided into compartments, like in a Harry Potter film. I stared out the windows at the mountains floating by, and I remembered that just one other person occupied that compartment — a young woman with thick brown hair, dark brown eyes, and  full lips, modestly dressed.

I don’t remember who spoke first, but it turned out that she was a German speaker from Bozen (Bolzano), a mostly-German-speaking  city in northern Italy. She was on her way home now. I was intrigued. I’d never heard of Germans as a minority community in Italy. We sat together.

The conversation drifted from Germans and  wended its way through every part of our lives. She was just so happy and wholesome. It was infectious.

Suddenly, the train entered a tunnel and all was plunged into darkness. We melted into a comfortable embrace and deeply tasted each other’s mouth. She said I had a sweeter taste than anyone she’d ever known. She, on the other hand, tasted kind of salty, but I still love to find that flavor again in my memory.

I said maybe I should stick around home more, so when something magical like this happened again I could build upon it. Eventually she changed trains for Bozen. And ever since then, I’ve regretted letting her go like that. I should have followed her to Bozen. But I lacked the confident vulnerability to confront a situation full of unknowns. But She could be much more than a lovely memory. Or not. I’ll never know.

Just telling this story also makes me feel quite vulnerable emotionally, which is why you haven’t heard it before. Yet by locking it away, along with a few more kind of like it, I’ve tucked away a romantic side to me which a lot of people might not suspect that I even possess. It’s scary to be so revealing, but then my significant others will know more fully who I really am.  And maybe I’ll learn more about them, as well.

Movie Night

This train episode, as well as some other such episodes in Europe, brings to mind one of my favorite movies, “Before Sunrise.”,  the most resolutely romantic movie I know. I featured it in my “Movie Nights” at Tianjin University. It depicts a world that I really know. Or knew, anyway. It’s a movie for those who care to love.

Its sequels are pretty good, too, though I once showed the first sequel to a group of Chinese students in China, and a small group of party members who had stopped by “just to check” and it turned out to feature language that was not really appropriate to that audience. I hadn’t known that. Luckily their English skills were such that they probably couldn’t understand those parts, anyway. Probably.

No Jokes

Another somewhat hidden part of my personality is actually “hidden in plain sight.” It’ my propensity to concoct serial humor. Out of any three phrases I speak, usually one of them is a joke. Eileen has suggested that I might construct such serial snarkfests as a defense against the vulnerabilities of life.  That might be, but from my point of view, I spin jokes because it reminds me that life is a miracle, and the happiness that jokes bring to me celebrates that life.

I remember once in high school, in the band room (of course — where else?), several of us musicians were talking about nothing in particular. My best buddy at the time was Gary. Well no wonder, because we both played clarinet and saxophones. (remember that a musician’s instrument can determine his identity) His face lit up with the excitement of discovery. Looking at me he suddenly shouted, “You’re a clown. You’re really a clown!  Hey, everybody, he’s a clown!” I knew what he meant. It was not an insult at all. He’d just caught onto my serial humor. I was just so glad that my good friend had realized what I was up to.

So I recently went out to dinner with my sister Abbe, my brother-in-law Don, and their friend Mary. We all had burgers, to which Abbe added her favorite kale salad. But the salad wasn’t as tasty as in previous weeks.  The leaves seemed thin and weak. She called the waitress to find out “what’s the deal?”

Well, turns out it was no longer kale, but “baby kale,” a less tasty variant. They had changed the menu. Abbe was not at all happy. So I said, ” When it grows up, will you reinstate it on the menu?”

Abbe thinks it’s my deadpan delivery that keeps people from realizing it’s a joke. Maybe. I do know that Mary was the only one who laughed that night, and for that, she deserves to be taken out to lunch.  I’ll get right on it.

The missing sociology review

Well, usually at the end of my update, I write about an aspect of American society. But I need a break from that. And besides, this month’s update is self-centered on my own personal “issues,” rather than on general and commonly experienced situations so it wouldn’t fit.

And I need to finish healing emotionally if I’m to have a chance of finishing the tasks that have been set before me. And when I say heal, I mean that I’ve been in literal pain in various parts of my  body for a very long time, since before I returned from China.  As my emotions and vulnerabilities heal, the pain abates, I get my balance back, and as I accept and express my own feelings, my mind works faster.  It’s thrilling but a little bit scary when I let it loose to gallop wherever it may. Can I trust it?

And I’m so thankful, both to God and to my friends on this list, for providing the support that has subdued the pain and has given me a chance to work again, and has also expanded my chest (metaphorically) to carry the joy in the world that surrounds me. I just wrote my friend Rob that, actually, I’ve never been happier. How could that be? Last winter I didn’t expect to even be alive at this point, let alone in a position to feel such joy.

Tonight, for the first time in many many years, My mind felt clear enough to enjoy playing a kids’ game (called slapzi) with my sister and brother-in-law, my nephew  and his daughter. They all appear in the photo at right. I was almost overcome by emotion.  It’s been so many many years since I’ve felt clear-headed enough to play a game of any kind.  I wish Ric’s wife Carolyn were here, because after years of declined invitations I’m finally ready to play a game that she’d arranged for everybody.

So thank you, everybody.  I will do all I can to finish the tasks before me. And I’m still listening to music again. Life is a miracle.

Pachyderm  Pleasures

I almost forgot the elephants of HERD in South Africa.  This time the peaceful atmosphere comes from the early morning sun as Khanyisa, no longer sleeping inside, comes from the herd to fetch her breakfast.

Happy Oktober Fest

Greetings from Portland, Oregon !!

Birthdays at the extremes of life

Mom made it! She reached a hundred years. And she also liked the cookie that I baked for her (seen in this picture) Now when she’s sitting at the dining room table, she’s surrounded by bouquets and cards. She actually didn’t seem to know what to make of it all.  I told her, “There are a lot of people who care about you, Mom”  And that’s the truth. The commemoration took place in our dining room, surrounded by a century’s worth of knick knacks – mostly Swedish figurines, photos, and butterflies, including Dala horses, Dala chickens, an authentic mounted Peacock Butterfly from Sweden, a Chinese analogue of a Dala horse, and butterflies from a friend in China.

Mom was joined by my sister and myself, my brother-in-law, my nephew-in-law, and my niece-in-law.  The angel-food cake was baked by Helen Bernhard’s bakery, where our family has been buying pastries, cakes and cookies for about a century.  Who says there’s no history in America!!

This week we also celebrated my great-niece-in-law’s fourth birthday.  I didn’t know about it, so I had no gift.  But my sister said she had spare presents that I could bring. She also wrapped them for me and found me a card to sign. I told her that she made me feel like I was married.

Snark aside, I would not want a marriage like that, but I know a lot of people who do. Still, one shouldn’t look a gift gift in the mouth.

The ceremony took place on a warm, sunny day, in Happy Valley‘s municipal park, next to a huge Oktober Fest, that most classic of German holidays.  Needless to say, there was Bratwurst and Pommes Frites for all (for a price), not to mention spätzli. There were even polka bands. We claimed a table under a shade tree, which somehow stayed in the shade all day.

Although my own family is minuscule, my in-law family is huge, composed of folks representing a wide variety of interests and points of view. And almost all of them live in the Portland area! 13 of them (not all of them) attended the party.  I tended to hang out with the sort-of youngsters (40-ish). Nice bunch of folks.

How I’m doing

The effects of the chemotherapy continue to fade. One of the oncology assistants told me this week that these effects generally disappear (to the extent that they’re going to) about three to six months after the infusions have run their course. Why didn’t they tell me that before?  I’m not quite three months out.

My brain fog continues to slowly disperse. My numb toes are gradually regaining some feeling.  The oncologist had declared that the numbness would be permanent.  Well, according to what I feel, it’s certainly not completely permanent. His assistant later told me he must have been in a bad mood that day. Actually any permanent numbness was more like a fifty-fifty chance, according to the assistant. I’ll be getting a new oncologist next month. I don’t think I’m going to miss the old one.

Yesterday my body suddenly snapped itself into shape as I drove back from Costco. Suddenly I had smoothly writhing muscles with strength and control, without the vibrations and wooziness that had plagued me all year.  You know, nobody would ever mistake me for a body builder, but according to the rules of the universe, each man is given a default lump of masculine muscles as a starter, kind of like a universal basic income of masculine buffitude. Mine disappeared along with my various treatments many months ago. I missed it! The possibility of getting even part of it back again made me burst into masculine tears, right there in the car !!!

And I thought of the beauty and wonder that is existence. I’m so thankful that I have some time left to enjoy it and to contemplate it and maybe do some good for somebody. I’m trying to get as much done as i can during these periods of feeling even subnormally buffed.

Not to be forgotten, of course, is that this cancer is not curable. It’s the symptoms from the poisonous chemotherapy that are wearing off, not any cancer symptoms. The cancer can be beaten back for a time (what I’m experiencing now), but in the end it’s only a matter of time, even though I feel eerily healthy now, like I’m walking through the eye of a hurricane.  For how long? Nobody wants to say. If there’s an office pool about it, nobody will divulge which number is leading.  Well, that’s all right.  Recently I took advantage of my relative strength to finally finish my will and a living trust. And then I walked two miles to celebrate. I’m rejoicing in the time I have left in that hurricane eye, time which now seems more precious than ever.

Young Hooligans Still Prowl the Streets

Our house in Portland seems to be set into a different neighborhood than the peaceful  land of drizzle where my grandparents built it, 100 years ago. Nowadays we’re sinking in a drizzle of petty crime. Cars with neither mufflers nor license plates course the streets, or sometimes the drivers park and sleep.  For what purpose, I wonder?

Then, the other day, a bunch of young hooligans staged a side show Click here to hear the racket that interrupted our viewing of Sixty Minutes. It took place at the corner of 72nd and Sandy and Fremont, about seven blocks from here, and it lasted well over an hour.

Some of those whippersnappers had jammed up the streets that feed into the 6-way intersection with parked cars, in order to block traffic and clear out the intersection for their major action. These street blockades were inconvenient for ordinary citizens, but it probably did keep some of them from getting run over.

But these hooligans couldn’t make things too safe, could they? Somebody fired off large and very illegal fireworks over the raging cars, and somebody  else brought out a giant-sized flame thrower.   It’s a miracle that nobody was killed (although a couple were killed at a related side show across town) and nothing  was burned to the ground. It took a while to clean up the street later, though.

Some of our neighbors had called 911, but they were told that police officers were unavailable. It was Sunday, and the few available officers were occupied, investigating murders on the other side of town. And so the squealing continued.  Those hooligans had picked the right day to squeal.

Yes, this neighborhood doesn’t quite have the feel that it did in Grandpa and Grandma’s day, even though the housing stock hasn’t changed much, and people maintain it well.

Getting Ready to Vote

I got my California voter’s guide in the mail, and the ballot will soon follow. However, I’ll likely be voting from California, and not Oregon, since I’m planning on flying home on Friday of this week.  I plan to stay through November 8 and then return to Portland for health monitoring and to meet my new oncologist.

I hope to get together with as many old California friends and neighbors as possible. I simply  do not want to continue living the life of extreme loneliness that so wore on me after I left China.   So if anybody reading this lives in the Bay Area and wants to get together for tea or a meal over the next three weeks, my answer is “Yes. I’ll be there”

Getting back to elections, California is a state that encourages all of its citizens to vote, unlike some OTHER states I could mention. (/teacher voice). In those OTHER states, the people in charge know that they would lose their power and positions if all citizens had equal access to the vote. They’d be voted out.  So in several clever ways,  they suppress the votes of those who won’t vote for them.

Why would those suppressed voters want to vote them out? Because they serve the rich  (What James Madison called the minority of the opulent) more than they serve ordinary citizens, and by far the most voters are ordinary citizens. Nowadays, these enablers of rich  people are most commonly known as Republicans, but their attitude towards wealth and privilege is older than our country, older than Republicans.

Our country’s founders (and the current Republicans) favored economic inequality, not simply because they were mostly rich already and wanted to keep it that way, but because of the widely-held belief that the wealthy are simply more competent human beings than the rest of us. (Their wealth and education proves this).  And if no rich people are available, then get somebody else of privilege (actor, musician, TV star, comedian, etc.) to rule us all.

When I was young, my father often used the phrase “Too many chiefs and not enough Indians” to describe a dysfunctional society where too many people have a say in what’s going on (in other words, a democracy) rather than just working in obedience to the leader, who was competent by definition.  “Too many cooks spoil the broth” had a similar meaning.

Indeed, the former guy’s one and only successful major bill reflected this bias. It was a permanent tax-cut for the rich to help them to rule, because they are more competent and they are job creators or some such trickle-down excuse.  The bill also included a temporary tax cut  for the middle class to gain their support.  In fact, that temporary tax cut is starting to phase out about now. which makes it appear that the Democrats, who are in charge now, are raising taxes.

Speaking of Republicans, my latest YouTube obsession is a history professor from Boston College named Heather Cox Richardson. She put out some lecture series during the pandemic so that claustrophobics like her  would not be driven crazy by the isolation. One series outlines the history of the Republican Party, and is rooted in the years before its founding.

Like Dr. Richardson, my interest in Republicans (even though I’m not one) is long and ongoing. It began when I worked in their local Castro Valley office to elect Richard Nixon. (whom I’d no longer endorse, but I still kept his campaign poster!)

A succession of different kinds of Conservatives

All parties change through time, and the Republicans are no exception. For the longest time, they were traditional conservatives. That is, they wanted to conserve what we already had, and allow change only  at a measured pace. In addition, American conservatism is historically rooted in the Declaration of Independence, particularly in the phrase “all men are created equal,” so these conservatives were in favor of governmental action to promote equality before the law and equality of opportunities.

The second- most recent major change to Republicans is the rise of  “Movement Conservatives,” beginning in the 1950’s with William F. Buckley, becoming prominent in the 1990’s under Newt Gingrich.

In contrast to traditional conservatives, Movement Conservatives pledge no allegiance to “all men are created equal.” They return to the older American belief in wealth (especially if acquired through business success) as an indicator of worth and ability. They’ve spent decades trying to dismantle programs like Social Security and Medicare, which are designed to support the weak members of society.  Instead, those weak people should compete on their own along with other ordinary people.  The rich, of course, let their money compete for them.

With their commitment to the rich and to cutting their taxes, and their disdain for a social safety net,  movement conservatives found that their voters decreased in number over time. So they began espousing new issues that had little to do with previous Republican positions in order to gain new blocks of voters. And the more emotion that these issues stirred up, the better. Examples are abortion, the social safety net (presented as lazy poor people absconding with the money earned by hard workers through taxation), more money for unregulated private schools, crime (whether actually  present or not), the ethics of homosexuality, competition for jobs from immigrants, and other issues which are mostly different from those espoused by traditional conservatives.

In order to gain even more voters, Movement Conservatives also signaled that they would be tolerant of racists within their ranks, if they could help them win elections. Thus, Ronald Reagan began his run for the presidency with two unmistakable dog whistles –  a speech given near to where civil rights workers had been murdered by racists, and the espousal of state’s rights. (A dog whistle is a message that can only be properly understood by the target audience.)

And so, many racists left the Democrats for the Republicans. They would be a minority within the party, but a rabidly motivated minority. So they were welcomed.  But like an infection, they grew in numbers and influence out of sight.

The End Game?

The most recent change is the dominance of MAGA Republicans. The racist contingent within the party has  expanded about as far as possible, because their leader, the former commander, shares their views and gives them permission to act upon them. He is an authoritarian by nature, as is the supremacist contingent  of today’s MAGA Republicans, which dominates the party now.  Motivated by grievance, their whole goal is not to serve their fellow  countrymen, not even just the rich ones, but to amass personal power, by any means that the rules permit, and by some that they may not.  In fact, they have destroyed and replaced the Republican party (except for Liz Cheney), though they kept the name “Republican” for marketing purposes.

And now I fear that the authoritarian MAGA Republicans, if they gain power,  may decide that tolerating democracy makes ruling too inconvenient, because it allows too many chiefs as deciders (like the civil service) and not enough Indians as obedient laborers.

So all this is what occupies my mind as I await my ballot in the mail.  Democracy itself is under attack. It’s not the first time this has happened. I trust that those of us who believe in Democracy (like Liz Cheney does and I do) will work our way out of our conundrum this time, too.

The Requisite Pachyderm Page

This time the Pachyderm Page features a compendium of emotional moments in the first three years of the life of the baby elephant Khanyisa. I posted at least one of these before, but it’s worth watching again.

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.