Monthly Archives: November 2020

Sad News

Fred Olivier MacFarlane (1921 – 2020)

Flowers on the Kennel
Flowers growing on the kennel that my dad built in Castro Valley

As I mentioned in my previous update, I flew down to Arizona to visit my father for a couple days, as his life on this earth was gently fading away. We had a good visit, though he wasn’t able to talk much. I also realized that, because of the pandemic, it was the longest time that I’d spent in the company of another human being in many months. I was glad to spend it with him.

His life’s fading has now run its course, and he passed away a few days ago. He was well cared for by his wife, right up until the end. And when his condition had hit a critical point, the nurse at their living facility was called in. She was young, a new hire, not familiar with the normal procedures, so when they decided to call for more help, she dialed 911, and he was taken to a local hospital, rather than the normal on-site “Caring Center.”

This was a problem because the hospital only allowed patients to enter, neither family nor friends, because of the pandemic. So he entered alone. But he was assigned a doctor who turned out to be his very own doctor from his living facility. Meanwhile he had a wife waiting at home for a phone call. The doctor phoned and told her that a private room in the hospital could open up. Indeed it did, and with the doctor’s backing, she could enter the hospital.

So they were able to spend their last hours together in a private room holding hands as he listened to her talk and sing. This would not have been possible in the normal on-site “Caring Center.” So what seemed unfortunate at first turned out to be the best in the end.

Some Biographical Notes

I’ll include some notes on his life for those in this list who didn’t know him so well. It’s more-or-less what I’d have said in a ceremony had the pandemic not prevented any normal observances.

This photo of our family has hung in a hallway at our home ever since it was taken, right up to the present day. In the intervening years we have all gone our separate ways. Yet, though I care very much for the family that’s been added since, when I think of my family history, this has always been the default starting location. And now one of us is gone, though to be fair, it’s hard to complain about him “only” having been with us for 99⅓ years.

My dad’s father served in France in World War I. He brought home his French “war bride,” after a business deal in West Africa didn’t pan out. My father was born not long after they reached America.

Here he is with his mother, my grandmother, in the earliest picture of him that I could find (from 98 years ago). He was nine months old. They lived in a logging camp called “Camp Cavanaugh,” located east of Mt. Vernon in Washington State.

My grandfather ran the logging company.  They moved about, hunting the trees.  I think this is how my dad got comfortable with his ongoing and regular changes of address.  In fact, his period here in Castro Valley, at 12 years, may have been his longest-lasting mailing address ever.

These pictures show him in Portland or Vancouver with his mother, and with his father.

Most of his childhood was spent at various addresses in Portland. It was here that he got the habit of being gainfully employed, a condition that he maintained right through and even beyond his eventual retirement.

And as a youngster, he got to experience the perverse dream of every school child. The school custodians had been sweeping the halls every night with oiled sawdust. Over the years, a thick layer of oil had built up. It couldn’t have taken much to spark it and bring down the whole building in a magnificent conflagration. Hundreds of kids (including my dad) gazed at it on their way to school that morning.

However, the result of the fire was not freedom from school but simply reassignment to a different campus, much farther away, with classes at non-standard hours, for an entire school year, as they rebuilt the old school.

This picture shows him at sixteen years old. By this time, in the midst of the Great Depression, he was working constantly, selling magazines, emptying trash, etc.,  to bring in money, while his mother took in sewing, and his father lost his company.

He somehow found time for skating at the local rink, which is where he met my mother. A few years later they married.

In the meantime, he was an intern in a bank, he attended college at the University of Washington, eventually emerging with a CPA, he joined the army for World War II. He was based in Pittsburg, California, when they heard the famous Port Chicago explosions.

While they lived in Pittsburg, he got a Dalmatian (named “Easy”) whom he showed at local dog shows. He was even written up in Western Kennel World Magazine, as Easy won an AKC championship. And dad wrote a Dalmatian column in Dog World Magazine for two years.

But then, he ended his writing and dog show career because he had found a job in Sacramento as a purchasing agent for the state government.  But his experience with dogs planted an unfulfilled wish to become a veterinarian.

So they moved into a brand-new house in a new Sacramento housing development, where Dad organized the neighbors into a volunteer crew to pour cement pathways throughout the development’s new park.

That’s also  where they were living when my sister and myself joined the family.

My favorite memories from those days included the warm endless summers, our Dalmatians racing through the park across the street, and my dad entertaining us with a little plastic wading pool. I almost lost my pet turtle in that pool once.

Eventually Dad advanced a little further in his management career by taking the job of head of purchasing for Alameda County in Oakland. And he also became president of the statewide purchasing association. That’s when we moved to Castro Valley.

And this bigger house opened itself regularly for friends and entertainment, mostly for old friends from Portland who’d moved to California and the parents of my classmates and my sister’s classmates.  It was only when I got older that I realized that not every family entertained so steadily. The picture shows Mom and Dad in our kitchen ready for guests Those were nights when I was thankful that my parents didn’t smoke, as the closet where the guests hung their coats always smelled like a forest fire afterwards.

My favorite memories from that time include going to work with Dad on weekend special assignments. He was in charge of the county’s used auto auctions, held in warehouses out in the countryside. I thrilled to the calls of the professional auctioneers, and the jackrabbits hopping by. I also marveled at the sight of a monstrous and loud machine that sorted IBM punch cards.  It kindled an interest in high tech that lasts to this day.  And in fact, we talked computers all the way to the end. And when microcomputers became popular in the 1980’s, he was the only one of his generation who’d understand me when I talked about them.

And when I was fifteen, our family took a road trip to Kentucky to visit my father’s old army buddy in Elizabethtown. We mostly camped along the whole way, and saw more of America than all the rest of our trips put together. Dad always said that it was one of the best things that we had ever done as a family, and I agree.

My parents also chaperoned our high school jazz band’s spring trips to the Reno Jazz Festival, where one year we won the highest prize. I still remember my dad driving through an unseasonable snow storm while whichever musician was in the front seat would reach around to clear the snow off the windshield.

Well, at about the time I graduated from high school my father got a new job in private industry, managing a Photo and Sound branch store in Seattle.  So I went off to college while everybody else wound up in Seattle. Unfortunately things didn’t remain so. My parents divorced, and my mother and sister returned to Castro Valley the next year while my dad remained in Seattle. Unfortunately, Photo and Sound went out of business after a few years.

Eventually, Dad would also return to the Bay Area. By that time he had remarried. His first marriage had lasted 26 years, and his second would last 47 years.

Dad invented a new job for himself in Alameda County government and convinced the people there to hire him for it. That was Director of General Services. I was kind of disappointed that he would no longer direct the car auctions. But he had a cool office on High Street in Oakland.  This is where my conversations with him made me think that he was an uncommonly good manager.

He moved into a house in Dublin, and later to another in the flat section of Castro Valley. But he didn’t stick around the Bay Area too long.

They headed back up to Seattle, where dad took a job as Business Manager with Lakeside School, the well-known private school where Bill Gates and Paul Allen had attended. In fact, the two computer innovators had just bought their alma mater a new library. My dad, in addition to normal bookkeeping and management duties, was in charge of expanding the school from a high-school down to fifth grade, which involved purchasing and refurbishing a large building.  This picture shows him on campus with wife and daughter.

In those days, one of their favorite pasttimes was jigsaw puzzles. And one of my favorite photos from those times was this one, of them puzzling one out.

At this time, my grandmother came to live with them, as she was no longer capable of living alone.  I often thought of this when I was in China and was told that Asians take better care of oldsters in the family than Americans. Dad (and others I know) pretty much disprove this.  And it was during this time that I was able to connect Grandma by phone with her French grandchildren.

And later, Dad took a long vacation to France to meet his French nephews.

Well, eventually Dad retired from Lakeside, and from Alameda County government, and he had some smaller pensions, too. So they kicked back, downsized into a smaller house in Bothell, Washington, bought a trailer and a pickup truck, and embarked on the gypsy lifestyle so common among younger American retirees.

They developed a standard yearly circuit, which included a trailer park in San Leandro called “Trailer Haven,” which they nicknamed “Trailer Heaven,” and that’s where I generally saw them in those years. It was located just down the street from Roskie and Wallace books, so they used the opportunity to stock up on adventure novels. They also included Phoenix  (actually, Surprise) in their yearly circuit, staying at Happy Trails resort, where Dad helped to edit the resort’s newsletter, and they practiced square dancing.

Just like Frank Lloyd Wright, Dad found that the hot and dry Arizona air was better for his health than wet and cold like Seattle. So the Arizona part of the circuit kept lasting longer and longer.

Finally, they moved their principle address to Sun City Grand, a brand-new retirement development just outside Phoenix. Dad was active in the computer club, of course, and even served a term as its president. (Here he passes on the ceremonial mouse)

The trailer had vanished by then, but they did have a prefabricated second home 2000 meters high in the Mountains near Flagstaff — Munds Park.  It froze in the winter, but was just right in the summer.

But the wanderlust remained strong, so they maintained regular road trips up to Seattle and back, stopping in the Bay Area, Portland, and at the Kelleher “stepkids” place in the Sacramento area along the way.

And if it was winter when they reached Sacramento, they all celebrated Christmas with the traditional Christmas fare — prawns. Then they exchanged presents with a pretty well-extended family.

After a few more years, Dad began aging somewhat, so he started planning out his end of life. I often said that Dad was a “lucky bum” for a lot of his life, but actually, it’s more likely his habit of thoroughly planning (and working hard) that manufactured such “luck.” So they kept the second home, at least for a few years, but moved into an extended care facility called Royal Oaks in Sun City. That was sixteen years ago, and naturally they’ve had three different addresses just during their time there.

At the time, I was teaching English in China, and my favorite memory of my dad from those years was his coming to visit me there. I was tickled pink that I was able to pay for everything during the trip. Of course, he had no choice but to let me pay since he mostly couldn’t understand what other people were saying. Here he is standing in front of my apartment house and my bicycle.

And here he is standing in front of a more famous residence. We also toured other famous sights, such as the ancient pottery army and Banpo, the oldest archeological site in China, as well as a fabulous tour of Tianjin’s harbor and its planning museum.

A few days after he returned home to Arizona, he celebrated his ninetieth birthday. The whole extended family gathered for the occasion, and I was able to move up my own schedule so I could surprise him at home after having just left him in China a few days before.

Here he is being gifted with a homemade 90-year memorial plaque.  We had hoped that he’d make it to 100 and receive the congratulatory letter from the President, but it was not to be.

Certainly the past few months have not been easy for him, and certainly he is in a much happier place now. I did take a picture of him this week, but he just didn’t look himself.

So instead I’ll include this more typical recent picture from three years ago, in Sun City on a lunch foray to the Cracker Barrel.  And yes, he did pick up the tab that day.

To close, I’d like to thank those who sent cards and emails expressing condolences.  It makes a difference to have that support.

And I’ll end with two more images. First is my favorite picture of him that I took myself, many decades ago, on his birthday.

I like it because he exudes a quiet confidence, and as is printed on his birthday plaque, he’s always still going strong.  A year ago my psychologist suggested that I write musical pieces for people we were discussing. The piece I wrote for him is meant to express this idea of always moving ahead. I apologize in advance for the recording quality, as well as my inability to keep steady enough time, a common failing of those who tend to play alone.  Anyway, Here’s the link to click and access it: 2020-11-20 Dad’s Tune.

Well, there’s lots more that could be included, and no matter how much I write, that will remain true. I only hope I didn’t leave out so much as to make the narrative hard to follow.

I’ll end, not with another photo, but with a humorous father’s day card that I bought for him on multiple father’s days over the years, since it expressed so well the pugnacious pride that I always took in him.

Happy Halloween Elections !!

Greetings from California, in a world dominated by corona virus!


Last night was Halloween. Today and tomorrow are Día de Muertos, the Day of the Dead.  It’s a season of sadness. Like all seasons, it won’t last forever, but you might think so when you’re caught in the midst of it, and don’t know how long it actually will last.

Meanwhile, our Castro Valley block community staged a socially-distanced Halloween. Instead of meeting kids at the door, we set out tables with candy for them to take. (the candy, not the tables).  Then one of the neighbors, on her garage door, showed the Disney animated movie Coco, which has a lot to say about Día de Muertos. We also had a Halloween “Egg Hunt.”

Another neighbor sent for Chinese food for all the adults.  And so we all sat outside, at a distance, celebrating the European, Mexican and Asian roots of life in California. Some complained that the weather was a bit chill, but we’re all weather wimps here.  It was still warm enough to sit masked in shirt sleeves to chat with the neighbors or watch the movie.

My Father

My greatest source of sadness this season is my father, whose life is gently fading away. I plan to fly down to Arizona this week to see him for just a couple days, since he’s only able to handle brief visits. What with the pandemic, he’s almost the only one for whom I’d undertake such a trip.

My sister went two weeks ago and my step-sister last week.  My father’s lungs had been scarred, and as he ages, he’s ever less able to compensate for their stiffening. The scarring probably is the result of a disease called Valley Fever that he caught twenty years ago.  To all appearances he had recovered from it, but the scarring remained.

Covid 19 in America

Actually, it reminds me of Covid 19, which also may leave permanent damage in the bodies that “recover” from it. What a curse it has proven to be for us in the USA (as well as the rest of the world). Last April I wrote this to a friend of mine:

“This disease seems tailor-made to appeal to the sociopaths among us, in that it mainly attacks those who are old, infirm, or otherwise weak. So from their point of view, it’s more rational to encourage the disease to run its course, even at gunpoint. The strong will remain to strengthen the economy while resources are not wasted on those with limited ability to contribute. Holy Nietzsche! as Batman might say. Social Darwinism at its purest.”

“But in general, this behavior is not what we observe. We see health workers, grocery clerks, and restaurant workers risking their lives, while the rest of us huddle at home, often alone, often losing jobs and income, all in a desperate effort to slow the spread of an evil that none of us really understands. This response is greater than simple enlightened self-interest. It’s a mass movement based on love and caring, so no matter the personal beliefs of individual warriors, the same God is present in all.”

“And further, if I’m forgiven a bit of second-guessing, this disease could be our God-given opportunity to strengthen the bonds of love, so that when the even-greater danger comes later, we humans may have a chance of surviving it. That disaster, of course, is the warming of our earth, with its attendant climate instability. Its a problem nowhere near as straightforward as any disease. It can only be conquered through love, as no human law could force compulsion against such a complex phenomenon. So may we all work to strengthen those caring bonds.”

Now it’s six months later, and I’ve found another reason to mourn.  Never in a million years did I think that the sociopath point of view would prevail. Last week the white house chief of staff mentioned in passing that they have no federal plans to fight the corona virus! Thus they’ll let it simply wash over the population to create “herd immunity” in those who survive (“herd immunity” is a term coined to describe pervasive vaccinations), while we all wait for a theoretical vaccine to be developed in the fastest time in history. In fact, our head of state is doing all he can to encourage his followers not to cooperate with those trying to handle the virus. And unfortunately, they have been following his lead.

Need I mention that the examples of so many countries — New Zealand, Korea, Canada, Germany, and others, which demonstrate that this virus actually can be slowed and perhaps stopped by simple methods presently available to all? All of these countries are pretty close to normality. We can’t we be there, too?

There’s been no local transmission at all for 200 days in Taiwan, while Americans are still losing citizens to the virus at a faster rate than we lost soldiers in WWII, yet the head of state claims that doctors are exaggerating the  numbers of cases so they can profit more from the pandemic. It’s hard to imagine anybody whose own imagination is so twisted as to make such an allegation.  Is it no wonder that a recent study showed that this same head of state produces the most disinformation about the virus in the entire country, and significantly so for the entire world? Again, it’s a cause for sadness, and sadness for the world.

But it’s how this particular head of state rolls — through constant, relentless lies. The Washington Post has documented over 20,000 of them. The New York Times, in one of his 90-minute rallies, found 131 false or inaccurate statements. To me truth matters. I don’t deal well with liars. It’s a mystery why so many would vote for such a man, when they themselves would never lie like that.

America’s Covid 19 Success

So I didn’t know whether to cry or to cry when I saw this short opinion video from the New York times entitled “The Great American Covid Success,” which is not snark, but demonstrates our own CDC’s (Center for Disease Control) success in controlling the Covid 19 virus around the world.  It demonstrates why I’ve always been so proud of my country and its leadership in so many areas, even when it has also too often taken misguided political and military actions. So George W. Bush, whatever his faults, is also responsible for saving countless lives from AIDS in Africa.

Furthermore, when I see the doctors in Thailand and Korea in that video, I know that my country has Thai and Korean doctors, too, either immigrants or the children of immigrants, and that this connection not only serves us well, but the entire globe.

Yet the CDC, in its home country, has been hobbled. The current regime disbanded our disease pandemic unit,  for not being politically convenient .  They’ve meddled in the CDC’s internal workings for the same reason – for not being sufficiently loyal to the party. Seems like Soviet times.  In so many ways, in just four years, they have hollowed out so many kinds of agencies that serve the public good and provide leadership abroad.

These actions are not hidden. They are reported in traditional news media, but the head of state’s bizarre behavior attracts all the attention away from them.  I am so tired of hearing news anchors admitting that, no, in past years, this or that egregious behavior from an American head of state has never occurred before.  I’d rather stick to his policy actions.

He’s also working to separate us from our traditional allies like Germany and France and move us closer to dictatorships around the world like Russia and North Korea, even as he denigrates America’s true greatness. And so again, I’m overwhelmed by mourning. How long will it take to earn back the consequent lack of trust?

Election Day and Politics

Tuesday this week is election day. Some people overseas may imagine that the ballot is only about our head of state. Actually there are lots of offices on the ballot, as well as proposed laws to consider, as can be seen in the pictures here.The picture at left shows this year’s ballot. The next picture shows some of the study materials that came with it.

The third picture shows just some of the advertising mailed to me about it. Add to that the radio, television and social media ads, and it can seem almost overwhelming.

One of my overseas friends asked if people really do spend so much time studying and agonizing over so many choices.

And the answer is yes, at least for my own friends and family. We literally spend hours reading background material and considering our votes, as if we were the only ones voting. And that was also true before we all retired, when free time was harder to find.

Luckily, California is a state that makes it easy to vote. I even voted from Tianjin when I was living there. So this year I voted about two weeks ago, as did my friends and family.

As for the “top of the ticket,” the challenger has held a lead of between 6 and 10 percentage points ever since last spring. The incumbent, in contrast, has never won an approval rating of over half the country in four years. He may be the only one in history never to break the majority mark. From that, you’d think that the election outcome would be easy to predict.  But so much in the last few years has never happened before, so I hesitate to predict anything.  Even if the challenger wins by several million votes, the incumbent may yet find tricks to staying in power.

And this all stems ultimately from those with money (some of them).   In fact, due to their political influence, the rich have increased their wealth significantly during the pandemic, including snagging huge amounts of money in the relief passed so far, while so many ordinary people struggle.  Those ordinary strugglers must feel betrayed by their own country. Well, as a wise man once said, “The love of money is the root of all sorts of evil.

Meanwhile the head of state no longer leads a normal American political party, having let the old embodiment of his party die, under the crush of the rich. Normally, every four years, American political parties publish a “platform,” a set of goals that show what the party stands for. Importantly it demonstrates that a party does have principles which it follows. Well, this year, for the first time ever, the head of state’s party published no platform. Instead it published a statement of loyalty to this particular head of state.

It shows that loyalty and power are the be-all and end-all of this particular “party.” Well, the lack of a platform (while the other party had hashed out theirs over a period of weeks) should have been no surprise when half the key speakers at its convention this summer were members of the head of state’s own immediate family, as if it were a mafia association.

So I’m not really looking forward to this year’s election, since the election itself may not be the end of it. One thing I’ve learned over the past four years is how much our system normally depends upon custom and good will. Well, I don’t see a lot of good will this time around.  I don’t want yet another example of “Hey, we’ve never had anything like this before” but it’s quite possible. <sigh>

Hummingbird Magic

Luckily I have a back yard to retreat into. And sometimes magic takes place there. So last week, I stood entranced, watching hummingbirds dance.  And then I realized that my camera was sitting by my left hand. So I grabbed it and recorded a couple minutes, which you can see here! Truly, it’s pure magic.

For music this time, I’ll leave everybody with a suite by Joe Hisaishi, one of the most remarkable composers in Japan. He specializes in background music for movies, mainly those from the animation studio Ghibli.  He’s in the same league as John Williams. He’ll never be counted among the greatest technical  innovators, but the man can come up with melodies so intensely beautiful as to leave you crying, but not for a sad reason.  I’ve been listening to his music for a couple days to keep up my spirits while composing this update. One of my favorites is here. Here’s another favorite.