Monthly Archives: November 2017

Happy Post-Halloween

Happy Post-Halloween from California! 

Here you go. Have a Halloween hummingbird — wrapping itself in delicious Mexican salvia. It’s on me.

As I began to write this note, and as I finished it this morning, my home was also enveloped  — in a thoughtful, pattering, semi-soaking rain. Perfect for letter-writing. Maybe California’s annual summer drought is over. Time to turn off the garden sprinklers until next summer.  Here is a photographic comparison taken from the old same place – showing late October’s California from a couple weeks ago compared to last spring’s.  October is usually as dry as it gets:

last Spring:

My Health Situation

Every morning I descend seven stair steps down to the kitchen. Blithely. A year ago I had to focus on each step, laboriously and painfully, one at a time.  The difference is appreciated on the daily waltz down to breakfast.

And on Halloween, for one shocking hour, I felt normal, for the first time in years.  And I’ve had a couple more of those hours since.

The improvements seem to come from getting my bones in order, an ongoing project. My TCM (traditional Chinese medicine) practitioner thinks that these  posture problems started when I took up the saxophone decades ago.

It’s hard to accept that the saxophone, objectively the world’s most perfect musical instrument, could nevertheless cause such harm. The picture shows my most expensive specimen, a Yanagisawa with a bronze body and brass keywork. What could be more attractive?

But playing its larger cousins drew my shoulders forward and my neck down, slowly but inexorably. Then in later years, muscle tension from stress pulled my shoulders even more strongly in the wrong direction, distorting the spine.  Nowadays, my shoulders are retreating to positions where they haven’t rested for decades.  I don’t know if this difference in posture is visible to others, but it feels to me like a complete skeletal rearrangement.

It’s not just my shoulders. My hips had also twisted around, lifting one hip noticeably higher than the other, and wringing my lower spine, inflaming it like my neck. Can’t blame that on the saxophone, though maybe on too many hours sitting at the computer. My physical therapist in Portland is helping to straighten that out.

It remains to be seen how much all this attention to orthopedics will alleviate my various symptoms, and it involves its own set of pains.  But I’m happy to trade the pain of dysfunction for the pain of healing.

The constantly varying ear ringing has diminished for sure, though it’s still present and occasionally still flares up louder than people’s speaking voices, and the pains flare, too, but later they usually settle back into a new level of health improvement the next day. Interesting. And my strength and memory faculties are steadily recovering.

In the meantime, I feel like I’ve been granted a preview of life in one’s nineties, and a new appreciation for what folks in that age bracket, such as my parents, must be going through. I’ll visit my dad later this month and my mother next month.  For now, I’m grateful for the slow return to my sixties, and also grateful that I could take such a long break from responsibilities in order to heal.


I didn’t get fancied up for Halloween this year, but my neighbors sure did – adopting a “minions” theme for themselves, their porch and their two pugs. Scary!

Like last year, about forty kids stopped by to extract candy from my plastic pumpkin, crammed with chocolates. The leftovers were donated to a local church to keep me from gorging myself.

I avoided taking pictures of trick-or-treaters this year, but my long teaching career has left behind a seemingly endless photo trove of kids who are now middle-aged adults, such as the “adults” in this example.

The photo shows some improvised teamwork that took place at a class Halloween party long ago.   The girl in the center hadn’t got it together to wear a costume, so her friends gathered around to paint her face.

This sort of helpfulness has really stood out for me since I returned home. As I wandered through Oakland looking for the bus company to buy a bus pass, a college-aged woman not only told me where it was, but walked halfway there with me. Later, on a bus through Castro Valley, I sat fingering the halt-cord, as it had been so long since I’d used one.  An adolescent riding across the aisle piped up to offer me help in mastering the halt-cord arcana.  And it’s not just the bus. Checkers at supermarkets seem friendlier than ever. Is this one of the perks of getting older?

Anyway, back to the past – That nerdy face-painted girl actually did have it together in most respects.  She aimed to be a doctor. No doubt she could pull it off. So I told her it would be nice to know a good doctor when I got old. She smiled and confidently replied, “You won’t be able to afford me.”  She’s probably right.

Living in the Past

I’ve spent a lot of time in the past this year, and not just going through old photos and recordings. I’ve culled lots of old clothes, and with each one comes a memory. I recognized one shirt that I’d worn to the DMV to get my new driver’s license, when the old one had expired after ten years .

And as he snapped my picture for the new license, the man behind the counter remarked “Hey. You’re wearing the same shirt as ten years ago!” Son of a gun. He was right. In fact, I may have worn that shirt for even previous licenses.  I still had it this year. It must have been well over thirty years old, the material thin and the colors faded, but otherwise perfectly usable. But closet space was scarce, so out it went. Actually, I blame the whole crowding situation on my mother, who keeps giving me new clothes  for birthdays and Christmas. After a few decades, they can really stuff a closet!

The Perfect Guest

With flower tea for dessertAbout three and a half years ago, I wrote about “The Perfect Lunch,” served to me in Beijing by Audine, one of my former students from Tianjin, now a talented commercial artist. One can view her work by clicking here.

That lunch was a home-cooked meal featuring one of my most favorite Chinese dishes – Ganbian Doujiao (干煸豆角) – a spicy Szechuan dish sometimes called “Sichuan Dry-Fried Green Beans” in English.   In case anybody missed that old message, here’s the accompanying picture, with Audine surrounded by tasty food.

Well, imagine my delight when Audine stopped by to visit me on her way to Mexico. Here’s the updated picture, with Audine sporting a genuine We’re Crowin’ ’cause We’re Growin’ Castro Valley tee-shirt.

What a pleasure, for only the second time ever, to introduce a friend from China to my beloved Bay Area.  In just a few days, we visited so many places that I finally had to write them all down, just to remember them all.

And every place that we went brought back my old memories of previous good times — particularly the camp at Point Reyes where I had held a week of science camp for my students every year for twenty-one years, as well as the various locations along the route, including Frank Lloyd Wright’s Marin County Civic Center (where Audine, trained as an architect, entered her first FLW building – shown in the picture).

At the camp, I sadly found out that last year’s record rains had started pulling down the cliff that backs the campfire area, so that area has been closed. The seats were pulled out and set up around a small barbecue pit on the Educational Center’s lawn near the last cabin. It’s serviceable, but just not the same.  The old campfire picture here, one of my favorites, shows artist, naturalist and storyteller par excellence Ane Rovetta, telling stories to my class almost thirty years ago.

But back to the present at Point Reyes, here is Audine, snapping photos of juvenile “Heerman’s Gulls” at Limantour Beach.

As we progressed from ocean to museum, from museum to lake, from lake to city, from city to church, from church to restaurant, etc., she brought to mind  how much I, too, enjoy the artsy stuff of life, and that I’ve missed it these last couple years.

However, I also realized a couple other things. I had observed recently how middle-aged men often develop a habit of pontificating, which had not afflicted them in younger years. As we drove throughout the Bay Area, and I explained all the details of American life to Audine, I started listening to myself.  I realized to my horror that I had also fallen victim to that same awful condition.  I tried to excuse it on the grounds that I’d been a teacher so long, but I know plenty of non-pedantic teachers. (sigh) Something more to work on.

And after walking through Berkeley, where house design is often quite interesting, my Castro Valley neighborhood seemed pretty plain, even if it was comfortable.

However,  Audine has the talent to make even my house look interesting, as seen here in her sketch of the front porch.

It’s not the only piece of art that she left behind. I now have, hanging from the ceiling, a custom-painted wooden hummingbird that she brought from Asia but somehow looks completely Mexican. And there are some sketches on the bulletin board in the basement room, for the enjoyment of the next visitor from abroad. (hint, hint)

And in addition to all that, each morning, she came up from that basement room with a cheery (but not excessively cheery, thank goodness) smile to start off the day.

That’s the perfect guest.

Scots Day Out

Well, my guest may have been the autumn highlight this year, but my improving health got me out to other events, too. One of those was the annual Scottish Highland Games in Pleasanton — thousands of Celtic and not-so-Celtic enthusiasts all looking for a good excuse to wear a kilt.

Scotland, of course, is famous for all sorts of odd contests, in addition to that sport of clubbing a little white ball across miles of lawn. Many of them involve throwing one heavy object or another.

Here, for example, is some sort of Scotsman throwing some sort of “hammer,” which I doubt would serve well for pounding a nail. I was not able to stick around long enough to later watch them throw trees.

But more than just contests, the Scottish games involved a wholesale celebration of Scottish and Celtic cultures, which are distinct from English culture.

So, for example, there was a lot of Celtic music and a lot of Scottish dancing. Here’s a group performing the famous “Sword Dance.” Providing the music is a Scottish piper, merely one example of hordes which wandered the grounds that day.

These three pipers represent just one corner of a huge group. And isn’t there some sort of tongue twister, like

How many pipers could a piping band pipe, if a piping band could pipe pipers?

There was also Scottish food, including Fish and Chips.  Remembering back, my most memorable Fish and Chips ever was actually purchased in Scotland itself, wrapped in a genuine Scottish newspaper, prior to my boarding a long-distance bus to London.  The taste was outstanding, and the greasy paper kept radiating memories of it back to me the whole trip.

Naturally this year’s games included sheepdog trials. It’s worth enlarging the picture here to see the gleam in the dog’s eyes. The sheep didn’t just run, they bounded.

And every sort of a clan souvenir was available. It turned out that a member of my own clan, the MacFarlanes, runs a business — The Celtic Jackalope — selling clan paraphernalia of all sorts, though mainly tee-shirts.  He wanders from one Scottish Games to the next. And he was far from the only such merchant.  Take a look at just one of the four or five huge halls filled with them.

And between the Scottish culture of these games and the Mexican culture of the rodeo which I wrote about earlier this year, I’m reminded about how distinctive our country is for its large multicultural populations – for going on four centuries now. I think, in fact, that it is our country’s greatest strength. Well, that and the abundant natural resources.

And here the representatives of the MacFarlane clan set up their exhibit next door to the Campbells, who actually beat us in the clan wars long ago. Ah, well, at least we stole all their cattle.

And who were those pirate zombies? It wasn’t Halloween, and the Scots are not known as pirates. Well, every detail didn’t have to be completely “authentic.”

In fact, the games were held at the Alameda County fairgrounds, where the county fair had taken place a few months earlier. I couldn’t attend the fair this year, so I couldn’t consume my customary once-a-year brick of county fair curly fries.

But then — the curly fries showed up at the Scottish games, too! What an unexpected pleasure!  Here are this year’s fries,  presented by the friendly fry-cooks.

A musical ending

I think a lot about my poor country these days. Luckily for most people who may read these words, I already erased most of what I’d been writing about it, in the interest of eliminating pedantry, and also that it takes too long to explain, anyway. Certainly, though, we’re now wading through our most unstable and conflicted time since the 1970’s.  Perhaps that’s in part what’s driving my constant thinking about the past.  It’s just all too familiar.

All the old dark sides of American society are reasserting themselves — the racism, sexism, and other prejudices, the worship of the rich, the misuse of the military, the poisoning of the environment, the withdrawal from the world community, etc.

And such things affect my outlook. It often seems to me that anti-Americans have taken over the country’s leadership, installed by a powerful minority.  So I feel sorrow and anger in equal measure.  But I also feel some confidence.  My country really is better than all that. As my old Tianjin neighbor Lonnie used to say, though – Americans are too comfortable. Change won’t happen as long as they are.

Well, these days, we’re not so comfortable, so maybe we’ll take up those dropped conversations where we left off in the 1970’s. Some we already have.  The current focus of dialogue is on sexual harassment , for example. Maybe we won’t completely solve it this time, either, but I have a feeling that our society will at least move in a more humane direction.

And meanwhile, I can be thankful to have a home in California where life is in most ways better and saner than average. And at this point, I’ll curb my newly-recognized tendency to pontificate.

Which brings me to music. I seldom listen to popular music these days, because it sounds so homogenized to me — like it all came from the same factory.  I finally heard the famous Lady Gaga for the first time this year, as she sang for the Superbowl in January.  There’s no denying that she has vocal skill. But I felt very little beneath that surface.  Nor do I hear much from most popular music these days beyond cleverness .

You know, what I really respect is an artist who can perform either alone or with a small backup group, without a lot of ear-injuring amplifiers.  In other words, simplicity.

So imagine my delight to find that our public radio network — NPR — has devoted an entire series to that idea – it’s called the “Tiny Desk Concert,” because the musicians perform in an office from behind a desk.

The producers survey the country (and occasionally other countries) to find musicians who are usually not signed to a label, yet abound in creativity.  Having held about one concert a week for about ten years, they now have a store of over 500 performances. Despite being a radio network, they present these concerts as videos both on YouTube and on the NPR site. In fact, many have been ported over to Youku, the Chinese video platform, though usually without the written descriptions and with appended unskippable ads.  Anyway, I wanted to share a few concerts that I found interesting.

Some of the concerts feature long-established masters, such as Chick Corea, the pianist whom I most wish I had the skill to imitate, and Gary Burton, whom I first heard in 1968 at the University of California in Berkeley.  They improvised together, as they have on many previous occasions, this time in front of the Tiny Desk.  Links:  NPR  YouTube   Youku

The Tiny Desk features many other well-known establishment figures, such as classic rocker Graham Nash. Links: NPR YouTube 

Or the cellist Yo Yo Ma.  Links: NPR YouTube 

Or the Mexican concertina player Flaco Jimenez producing that perfect Nordic-Latin amalgam of polkas with melodies sung in thirds.  Links: NPR  YouTube  Youku

Other oldsters might be not be primarily known for music, such as comedian Steve Martin and his bluegrass banjo. Links: NPR YouTube Youku

Like all forms, bluegrass continues to develop, adding and modifying elements in fresh new ways, as with the Punch Brothers. Links: NPR  YouTube  Youku.

However, my favorite example (so far) of creativity firmly rooted in tradition is Tank and the Bangas, from New Orleans.  They are simply amazing.  The roots are so deep, yet the creativity so free, that everything sounds completely fresh and thoroughly classic at the same time. That, to me, is the essence of creativity.  Links: NPR YouTube   Youku

Beauty Pill, is rooted in different traditions, but again, creatively shaping them.  Links: NPR  YouTube  Youku

Another example of new and old, but more well-known, is Thundercat Links: NPR YouTube  Youku

Then there’s Reggie Watts, who works completely alone with recycled recorded sounds, what might be called musique concrete, if it were coming from a university program.  Links: NPR  YouTube  Youku

Mariachi Flor De Toloache is an all female Mariachi (Mexican) group. Links: NPR  NPR  YouTube  Youku

Liane LaHavas sings with a pianist named James who greatly resembles another James I know, one of my former students.  It makes me feel that I know the group.   Links: NPR  YouTube  Youku

Red Baraat shows Indian influence in American music.  Links: NPR  YouTube

Industrial Music is still alive with Blue Man, a group recently and appropriately acquired by the Cirque du Soleil.  Links: NPR  YouTube  Youku

The Tiny Desk series mostly features American musicians, but some are foreigners. One of the most striking is SsingSsing from Korea, whose music is about as far from K-pop that one can imagine, even though SsingSsing comes from the same country, and is more authentically rooted in Korean traditional forms.  Links: NPR  YouTube  Youku

Another great foreign performance is a Scandinavian duo from Sweden and Iceland – My Bubba. Links: NPR  YouTube

And then there’s the Soweto Gospel Choir from South Africa.  Links: NPR  YouTube

Cristina Pato is a Spanish immigrant in New York who demonstrates the Celtic aspects of Northern Spain with what is perhaps the second most  perfect musical instrument ever invented – the bagpipe. Links: NPR    YouTube

Which brings us back to home-grown American music, which all ultimately comes from immigrant sources, too.

The well-known Kronos Quartet literally plays Shostakovitch string quartets, but also Tin Pan Alley. Links:  NPR   YouTube  Youku

Penguin Cafe takes the classical tradition in one direction. Links NPR   YouTube Youku

Mother Falcon takes it in another direction. Links: NPR   YouTube  Youku

I’ll leave this set  with three last pieces.

A man playing alone – Bill Frisell, guitar and effects master, playing three Beatles songs of John Lennon. Links: NPR  YouTube   Youku

Moon Hooch, an lively celebration of the saxophone, objectively the most perfect musical instrument ever invented, and proof that avante garde craziness is still developing. Links: NPR  YouTube  Youku

And finally, a return to Tank and the Bangas, this time with full amplification at an outdoor music festival.  Unfortunately I only found it on YouTube here. The energy that they create is a peculiarly American one, difficult to describe in words, but as identifiably American as the flag and apple pie.  It threads its way through many styles of American music, including the big band jazz that I played in high school and college.  When I hear it, I hear home.

My Writing Project

Other than these quarterly email messages, I’ve mainly been writing a book about teaching in China. It’s kind of schizoid. Half of it may be of interest to the teacher who wants to understand something about Chinese students, and thus thrive in China. The other half may be of interest to the teacher who wants to understand how human language works, and thus become a better instructor, no matter the country.

I have completed the first phase of this project, the task that novelist E.M. Forster once described as “How do I know what I think unless I write it down?”  I’m ready for the second phase, which is “How do I make these ideas more accessible and enjoyable?”  For that I need others. So let me know if you’re interested in reading and responding to part of these writings.

So this was  yesterday, as the rain clouds were rolling in – Lake Chabot – I actually walked all the way around it – 10 miles by the route that I took (16 km). Today I’m paying penance for that too-audacious act. Still, I’m just glad that I could still do it, for the first time in many years. It makes me think there may be more that I can do.

So that’s what’s going on with me. What’s going on with you?