Winter Update

Not the Adventure I was Looking For

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Website

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

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

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

Getting things done — Dad’s Autobiography

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Memories of China

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

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

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

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

So what has he been studying? Film-making!

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

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

Yeah, I’m still stuck on YouTube

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

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

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

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

The Mad Media

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, that’s off my chest, at least

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

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