Monthly Archives: April 2017

Easter update

Greetings from California!

Happy Easter! Well, belated Easter. Very belated Easter. I’ve been trying to get this written for over a month. Meantime, it just gets longer and longer. I wanted to extend the idea of a Christmas “catch up” letter from an annual to a quarterly schedule, and I already missed the first deadline.

California is green again — in fact more than just green! After five devastating drought years, which strangled millions of trees, the Heavens opened upon us over the winter. It’s the most rain in recorded California history — ever.  Of course, Portland still got more rain than we did.  Also, the ground water lost will probably never be replenished, at least in my lifetime.  Nevertheless, for the first time in five years, the state is officially out of drought.

It rained again yesterday. They say it was probably the last rain for the next five or six months, which is normal.  The annual grasses die of thirst every summer, and then spring up again from seeds in the late fall.  And because it’s all new growth, it sparkles like emeralds.

This picture, snapped a couple weeks ago, illustrates that lush green – it’s Garin Park, located at the edge of Hayward. The town, the edge of the megalopolis, can be seen just pushing over the ridge above the barn.

Getting Out of the House

I finally did get out of the house some weeks ago, driving up to Sacramento to visit an old friend from Ireland, and to nearby Davis to visit my pseudo-nephew.  Despite the constant rain, I did fire off a few snapshots.

These windmills have stood on the Altamont Pass for thirty years or longer,  part of a vast wind farm. But actually I just snapped the picture to enjoy the sight of more green grass .


California’s capitol in Sacramento was designed in a classical Greek / Roman style, which is common for such buildings in America. I hadn’t planned to stop inside, but a sudden swelling of rain convinced me . It was only the second or third time that I’d gone in there since a study trip in high school many years ago.

It houses the main offices for our state’s governor and all the important officials.  It houses displays that showcase each of California’s 58 counties.  It also contains two large rooms where the legislature discusses and votes on new laws.  The front doors (shown here) are not usually used. Instead, everyone enters and exits through side doors set up with metal detectors.

The only office doorway with an actual guard seemed to be the governor’s office. People walked in and out, tip-toing around the fierce golden bear, an endowment and legacy from a former governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger.  I didn’t try to go in, thinking they’d simply refuse me. But maybe they wouldn’t have, since when I asked to see the legislature, they just pointed me towards the observation balcony and asked me not to drop anything over the ledge.

The law makers’ attendance was 100% that day because they would be arguing and voting on a new tax, which is always contentious. Well, I watched for an hour, while they proposed and voted on various modifications to existing laws which were so reasonable that 100% (or close to it) voted yes on each one. Groups of young students on school study trips filed in, got bored, and filed out.

I passed the time snapping closeups, like this picture of a chandelier.  And I reflected that in China, I probably could not have just walked in off the street to see people passing (or not passing) proposed laws.

Finally, I also “filed out.” I heard later that the new tax law had been vigorously argued until late in the night. In the end, it passed, but just barely.

The rain had stopped, so I went out to enjoy the public park that surrounds the building. It’s populated by various trees from all over the world, many given as commemorative gifts to California over the years.

This cherry tree, for example, was presented by Japan. The rain had scattered many of the blossoms onto the lawn, adding little pink sparkles to the green.

Luckily, the rain stopped just long enough for me to reach my car, where my umbrella lay safe, awaiting my return.  Yeah, people in California are not much in the habit of carrying umbrellas around.

The Tapes of Instruction

I mentioned last fall that, during my twenty-eight Hayward teaching years, I had amassed a collection of almost 800 videotapes, mostly six-hour off-the-air recordings, a source of snippets for later use in class or to entertain the kids during the lunchtime break.  And indeed I did use many such snippets over the years. This year, I digitized many of them into MP4 files. Many others were simply thrown out. The process of going through these tapes brought me back to the times when they were recorded.  It’s strange, though, to feel nostalgic about an educational video.

The  remaining 35 tapes, though already digitized, are hard to part with. Most are video records of trips to China or the annual school trips where we camped and studied science. I was privileged to lead 21 such forays during my Hayward tenure.  They were far from easy to pull off, and often highly stressful. Indeed, without mountains of volunteer help from the students’ parents, they never would have taken place. Nevertheless, they encapsulated the most meaningful parts of my teaching experience. They granted me new understandings of community as well as the natural world.

The picture above was snapped in 1990, the first year that I partnered with my colleague Kay Frye for the trip. That’s her standing in the pink, taller than the rest. And yes, it was luxury camping.  The intent was for kids to study science, not to rough it!  Sadly, Mrs. Frye passed away about half way through my tenure in China. It was an inexpressible loss.

I posted an unlisted (i. e. not meant for general access) YouTube video of the 2004 camp, for those who are curious and for those who might want to reminisce. It’s here:

Certainly I’ve been fortunate in my 40-year teaching career. Among other things, I gained unforeseen insights into the natures of knowledge, language and learning.

Many of those insights resulted from a second teacher-training and masters program which I attended at UC Berkeley, a decision inspired by one of my teaching colleagues, an alumna of that program.

It’s called Developmental Teacher Education. At the time it was still fairly new. Based mainly on the theories of Jean Piaget, it survives to this day.  More than just a training in methodology, It completely inverted my understandings of the nature of knowledge and learning.  The picture shows my cohort from that time.  Among other things, I concluded that language and thinking are not the same.

The beginning of an obsession

My obsession for the past eight years has in fact been language — its nature and development — a long-term interest of mine, starting with the girl in the picture, my sixth-grade classmate Jeanette. She’s posing for our class picture. The hairstyle pegs her in time.

Our class that sixth-grade year had been “challenging” to teach, and not in a pleasant way.  Years later I once had to teach my own “challenging” class — karmic payback, I suppose, for going along with the general rambunctiousness back then. That sixth-grade picture is the only class picture I have where the teacher does not appear. That’s probably not a coincidence.

Jeanette belonged to a clique who, among other things, bragged about imbibing their parents’ liquor and puffing  secret cigarettes. I can’t say how much (if any) of this derring-do she took part in.  But I can testify to an amazing skill. Behind the teacher’s turned head,  words soundlessly and almost constantly slipped through her lips, to be lapped up and understood by her friend across the way. The whole clique carried on through such silent communication all year, but Jeanette was the master.

Never once did I grasp their messages. It had to be English, no? That mystery initiated me into a life-long obsession with the nature of language and communication.

Another Language Teacher

Years later, I entered UC Davis as a scientist, and emerged as a middle-school teacher.  Easing that metamorphosis was Professor Chuck Irby, a man who understood ethnicity and culture more deeply than anyone  I’ve met before or since.  Again, the hair style dates the picture. Sadly, he died relatively young, his papers now housed at UC Santa Barbara, and an annual award for excellence in ethnic studies given in his name.

Over and above new cultural understandings,  Chuck Irby’s UC Davis classes helped me appreciate America’s salad-bowl ethnic mix. Depending upon how one defines “ethnic,” America has almost never had a majority ethnic group.  Certainly in California today, there’s no majority group no matter how you define it.  This cultural richness, to me, constitutes America’s exceptionalism and its strength. It’s one of the main reasons that I love this country.

Okay – a gratuitous Davis photo – the little shack where I lived while attending Professor Irby’s classes.  It boasted no oven nor hot water, but did have a  gas hot plate. The washroom was two doors down and the rent was about $50 a month.  I realized at that time that standard English grammars were wrong, so I began writing my own on a tiny desk in that shack. However, I never got very far with it — I just hadn’t the linguistic background back then.

Professor Irby was most insistent that a culture’s foremost expression is its language, a relationship which affords mutual gateways to the study of each subject.

By language, he meant much more than grammar and word lists. He meant the presumed assumptions behind even (and especially) the most basic vocabulary. He also meant the human interactions that provide meaning and context to language. I am reminded of the Chinese question “?” (Chī le ma? = Have you eaten?). In English cultures, that question usually means an invitation to lunch.  In Chinese culture it’s equivalent to “How are you doing?” Perhaps there’s a cultural history preserved in phrases like those.

I never could quite get used to Tianjin people seeming to constantly invite me out for a meal, even though I did know what they actually meant. Well, that’s the nature of culture, I guess.

On the other hand, the phrase did accord with the Tianjin people’s friendly nature.  This picture displays a typical example of such hospitality – my long-time friend Andy, with wife, daughter, and parents, seeing me off in style last June. They actually did invite me for a meal! The restaurant had once served Colin Powell, Laura Bush and other celebrities. But then it served us.

And speaking of hospitable food and drink . . .

Cafe 1951

My church in Berkeley has “put its money where its mouth is.”  This year we’ve opened a new coffee shop, a non-profit enterprise located within the church buildings.   All the proceeds will benefit refugees who are fleeing insufferable conditions in other countries. And most of the workers are also refugees, which gives them some training in running a coffee shop as well as in the quirks of American cultures.

The name contains the year 1951, a great year for a number of reasons. But in this case, it celebrates the year that the United Nations authored its legal definition of the word “refugee.”

It’s good to see our church stepping up in light of the recent dramatic changes in our Central Government (not the California government).  And of course, ethnicity is a driving concern of this new regime, as witnessed by the constant references to Mexicans, Muslims, Syrians, African-Americans and others in the news.

Okay, a gratuitous Berkeley shot, taken about a month ago – it’s the University Faculty Club on campus, which also rents room like a hotel. It would be fun to stay there someday. The interior is all finished in wood.

The knowledge that I gained from Professor Irby has helped a lot in understanding the vagaries of ethnic relationships in our salad bowl society here.  However, what to do with this understanding is another question.  Certainly a long country-wide conversation about ethnic relations has long been overdue, one of several overdue conversations, though one that I feel is fundamental to the rest. So far, we’ve famously passed laws to deal with the grossest problems between ethnic groups, a useful first step, but not a long-term solution.

It’s a process I’m vested in, firstly because three of my four grandparents weren’t even born in this country, and second because I live in California, where, whenever I go shopping, there’s only a sixty-forty chance that the shoppers next to me are even speaking English.  And you can’t tell by looking which shoppers those would be.  It’s quite different from China, where anybody who looks Asian is assumed to speak Chinese almost by their DNA, and the rest of us simply can’t. The picture was taken at Costco, the only store besides computer stores where I’ve actually enjoyed shopping.

One thing I do know. We’re all in this together. And one other thing I know, from living abroad myself for a few years — The entire globe is all in this together, including the parts that we might find odd, illogical or dangerous.  And the next few years will be decisive.

My health situation

Well,  I’ve not given up hope. I figured I’d need six months to rest up from the exhaustion that, in part, brought me home to California. In the end it took seven – until the second week of February.  The health problems from China had also stabilized.

But new problems took their place. I’d had ear ringing for years, but last fall it suddenly ramped up in volume so loud that background noises no longer could mask it. At the same time began an unrelenting and often debilitating pain in my neck bones, which, depending on the day, spread across my shoulders, down my back, or up to my head. It feels like somebody just hit me in the spine with a hammer, and then “pulled” all the muscles in the area, except it’s felt that way for months. So I’ve spent many days flat on my back, all alone, too full of pain to move.  Meanwhile I’ve been seeing more kinds of doctors than I even knew existed before.

So despite some significant bright spots from time to time, these past few months have been the most miserable, lonely, and desolate of my life so far. I never thought my own home could ever feel so bleak and empty. And it’s hard to improve the situation and connect with people when I never know for sure if I’ll be able to stand or even sit the next day.  Indeed, more than once this winter I felt like I wasn’t going to make it, and could feel myself slipping away, wondering how long it might be before I’d be discovered.

Well, the worst seems to be past, but pain still dictates my life. It’s three steps forward and two steps back. So on Sunday, for the first time in many months, I had almost a pain-free day. Even more exciting, the withdrawal of pain brought back my ability to reason and remember, and I felt fully able to intelligently take part in the Sunday school discussion at church.  Interestingly, I’ve come to suspect that most (or maybe all) of the “senior moments” that plague older people’s memories may actually be the simple result of pain. Certainly I never had any increased memory problems until the pains ramped up last year.

But then, after such a promising Sunday,  I was back writhing on my back for most of the day, too pain-ridden to stand,  or even to sit at the computer. Yesterday was a bit better.

Still, I’m hopeful. And I’m thankful to have a roof over my head and a retirement income, items that all too many lack these days. I’m also thankful for my parents’ continued health stability, which has taken a load off my enfeebled mind, and particularly my sister and brother-in-law’s help with all that.  And I’m also thankful for those who kept in touch with me over the past few months, including several friends in China.  It’s amazing what a difference a paragraph-long email can make.  Particularly during the winter, it kept me from feeling abandoned.

So with such positive thoughts I can end this section with another picture. California is like Ireland — forty shades of green. It’s just that California’s forty shades only appear in the springtime. Here they are – the same old view from Fairmont Ridge, but taken just last week.  Click to get the larger version with even more shades. It’s as beautiful a view as any national park.

What’s next

I’d originally written this before the event, hence the older pictures:

Last weekend I took part in a world-wide march of scientists — 600 locations in all.  Our own local gathering took place at the Hayward Shoreline, a nature area on San Francisco Bay that will probably be under water in a few decades. I took these pictures there about a month ago.

This sort of march is amazing, really, because scientists almost never behave this way. I tie it to the recent focus on”fake news,” AKA “alternative facts,” as if truth and physical reality were simply a matter of willing it, or voting on it.

Some people seem to take that view, though. Or perhaps they think they can escape the laws of physics. Or maybe they’re caught up in blizzards of obfuscation (困惑) from those who wish to hide reality from them.  But that’s why I wanted to join this march.  Facts, in the normal English meaning of the word, are like “data.” They don’t have alternatives. They are what they are.

I remember the tobacco industry obfuscating the dangers of its product for years. How many died young as a result?  I remember the gasoline industry obfuscating the danger of lead additives for years, which not only poisoned people, but even harmed the automobile engines that ran on it. In both cases, the motive was profit, while the industries themselves already understood and hid the truth.

That’s why I wanted to march. Even if it might not change things much, it’s still better than sitting at home doing nothing.  After all, the stakes of the present obfuscations may be much higher this time.  I’m glad it took place during one of my relatively pain-free periods.

Probably only about 500 or 600 people showed up, since we’re a pretty small town.  Larger cities probably had much larger turnouts, not that the number of turnouts matters to my motivation.

The photo at right, sent to me by my friend Sandy, shows my favorite protest sign from the march.

In the meantime, here’s one more shot of the Hayward Shoreline as it appeared several weeks ago with the sandpipers, willets and avocets that crowd in to feed upon the bay’s bounty.  It’s also worth enlarging to see all those birds.

As for what’s actually still in the future . . .

I hope to finally finish revising  a book about language acquisition and teaching in a Chinese university.  I think I do have something meaningful to contribute, which I’m hoping will inspire others to do the same, and to reflect upon their own teaching.

Language, as Professor Irby taught us, can be one of the most divisive forces in human societies.   If my ideas can contribute in any way to the many others that increasingly improve language teaching, then it’s worth doing, Babelfish notwithstanding.  And if anybody in the neighborhood would like to give me writers-group feedback, you’re invited. Oh for an Inkling!

Well, this message turned out much longer than I’d intended. And I never did get to write about my trip to the Oakland Zoo, or the Chinatown New Year’s parade from early February!! Okay. One gratuitous shot of the crowd at the New Year’s parade.

For almost all my life, I’ve not only been a member of a community, but usually a significant player. Now that I seem to spend most of my life staring at empty rooms, the only community I have left consists of the people on this mailing list, spread out over four continents and associated islands.  It would be wonderful if everyone on this list could meet together, though that’s far from likely. Even so, having a community to write to is helping me piece my life back together.  So thank you.

And for those outside of China, since I’m no longer there, I’ve found a pretty good alternative  for learning the latest about that wonderful and fascinating country — a well-produced YouTube video blog about southern China’s way of life from a foreigner’s perspective. It’s called ADVChina. Here’s a sample.  And this is the home page for their channel.

I like to think that I have at least one grand adventure left in me. At this point I’m strong in every way except the unrelenting pain and the excess fat from staying in bed for months at a time.  It remains to be seen if my next adventures are physical or virtual or something outside of either. In the meantime, one more picture from Garin Park. To me it seems like a view full of promise.