Not Lost in Translation

April 12, 2016

No supper. That was my vow on a recent cool night in Suzhou, China. I was alone.

My son Atticus, a fifth-grader at The International School (TIS) in Portland, was living with a Chinese family for a week and attending Suzhou Experimental Elementary School, the culmination of seven years of Mandarin immersion.

Like some other parents, I had gorged on much more food than normal since arriving in China. Who but our doctors could blame us? This wasn’t the bland fare of 82nd Street back home. I couldn’t say no to nonstop courses of exotically spiced meals that TIS had arranged. And in small groups how could we not search out wonders awaiting at hole-in-the-wall joints that Zagat would never find?

Even an impromptu trip to a Suzhou mall for a food court lunch had me imagining Anthony Bourdain was sitting nearby, grinning. He would tell us, I rationalized, that gluttony is just reward for years of tuition checks and carpool treks.

That night while alone, my stomach growled. But I wasn’t hungry merely for food. I wanted another Authentic Encounter, such as those at places with a smattering of tables, no English, and no napkins, places where the staffs appeared delighted to be serving wài guó rén—foreigners.

[vimeo][/vimeo]On consecutive nights in Shanghai and Suzhou, Atticus and I along with a few friends had gorged on heaping bowls of noodles complemented with rich broths and other ingredients. At one tiny place we watched the noodles being made from scratch and then deposited in a sidewalk cauldron of broth. (Atticus translated the restaurant name as Blue Water Kneading Dough.)

Alone in Suzhou outside another small restaurant, I squinted through the window at pictures of food on the wall, hoping to find another memorable meal. An Asian woman gestured me inside.

Turned out that she too was a tourist, from Singapore, and spoke English. She recommended a Chinese beef stew seasoned with five-spice powder. The server, a young woman whose toddler sat nearby slurping noodles, offered me beer. How could I refuse a Tsingtao? It’s among the few Chinese words I know and only one I pronounce with confidence.

As I paid the bill of 40 yuan, about $6, an old woman emerged from the kitchen. Smiling at me, she spoke rapidly in Mandarin. No translation needed.

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Grief for Lost Places

January 11, 2015

I keep collecting plants that can’t survive Portland winters outside. Perhaps I’ll live long enough for the air plants, bromeliads, elephant ears, and stag horn fern to thrive in the yard and on the porch beyond their summer parole. That would be a sliver of joy in the coming chaos and destruction of accelerating climate change.

As new specimens arrived last week, I came across a word native to Wales that has no English equivalent but whose meaning transcends all languages. It could explain, in part, my irrational fervor for plants with tropical roots like my own. Who hasn’t felt the tug of hiraeth:

A homesickness for a home to which you cannot return, a home which maybe never was; the nostalgia, the yearning, the grief for the lost places of your past.

The word is pronounced HEER-eyeth. Listen to it below:


My lost home and hazy past have been a pervasive theme of my writing. But could the intensity of my hiraeth trace back centuries to Wales itself? The first Bales emigrants to America were apparently Welsh Quakers, who in the 1600s fled religious persecution in England. Four centuries earlier, the Anglo-Saxons had conquered Wales, making it the first colony of the English empire. Lost was a nation.

The result, according to a contemporary Welsh writer, is a deep hiraeth that “you don’t have to go away to experience. You can feel it at home in Wales. In fact, that’s where you feel it the most.”

And so it will be with me when I return to Central Florida in the Spring. While walking the lake shoreline in front of my long-ago house, I’ll gather some Spanish moss and add it to my plants in exile.


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NASA has reassured me that there’s no reason to freak out a week from today. That’s when an asteroid 150 feet in diameter, or half the length of an American football field, will pass closer to Earth than any other asteroid that we’ve seen coming our way. The flyby distance is 17,200 miles, or one-tenth of the distance from the planet to the moon. Or 5,000 miles farther than the longest distance between any two places on opposite sides of the Earth, such as New York City and Perth, Australia. But buried in NASA’s thorough Q & A about the asteroid, sexily named 2012 DA14, is this comment:

Scientists believe there are approximately 500,000 near-Earth asteroids the size of 2012 DA14. Of those, less than one percent have been discovered.

As more of those asteroids are discovered and their paths tracked, it’s easy to imagine them becoming part of weather forecasts. Can’t you see TV meteorologists/astronomers energetically pointing out another upcoming “close shave” (NASA’s cliche for 2012 DA14’s visit). And in keeping with the naming of hurricanes and now winter storms, maybe the next close shave will be with a giant space rock named “Asteroid Bob.”

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Words Illuminating the Night

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January 21, 2013

A few years ago I had the privilege of working on a project with the namesake of Bryan Potter Design. Every year since I’ve received from Bryan a card commemorating the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. It arrives in the mail a a few days before the MLK Day holiday. The cards are always poignant, with a striking image of the civil rights leader and one of his profound, eloquent quotes. The quote on this year’s card echoed long after I read it. That’s no surprise so soon after the massacre of children at Sandy Hook Elementary. And the first of the two sentences may rank as the best I’ve read for what it conveys and how. It’s so deceivingly simple and brief yet so complex and evocative in content and cadence:

Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.

I hope President Obama recites King’s quote when he addresses gun control today during his inauguration and, however briefly, drowns out the screeching screeds of those whose only answer to violence is more guns in more hands.

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Encounters at Death’s Door

January 13, 2013

I entered the room of a dying woman, my father’s widow, living her final days under hospice care. Her eyes searched through the dim light, settling on my face for a moment then fixing on something, what I couldn’t tell. The proverbial distant shore drawing closer? Or the landscape of a drug-induced waking dream? After leaving, I ate lunch nearby on a restaurant patio with my two grown children. Across the parking lot a tall man walked toward a car. The wind caught his white hair. I’ve never seen anyone so closely resembling my father in his old age. He drove away in the direction from which I came.

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Back in Time, Virtually

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December 20, 2012

Can you feel nostalgic about something you don’t remember? There’s surely a clever word for the feeling, but I can’t find it. I’m pondering this, precisely 62 years and 68 minutes after my birth, because I stumbled upon the address of my first home. Thanks to Google Street View, I’ve can see the apartment building in Cincinnati. But it beckons no memory. I don’t remember the interior either, though black-and-white photos of my parents and me there are grainy treasures. Also thanks to Street View, all these years later I can “stroll” — or scroll — the neighborhood. We only lived there for several months, until my father earned his master’s degree at the University of Cincinnati. Read More

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Pistol-Packing Teacher Math

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December 19, 2012

The growing call for arming teachers is getting louder than gunfire. Forget that the tactic would protect students as well as holding dynamite over a chemistry class Bunsen burner. What about the cost in these fiscally fraught times? Here are quick back-of-a-napkin estimates: 7.2 million teachers nationwide multiplied by $500 for the Glock G17 pistol, preferred by many in law enforcement, equals roughly $3.6 billion. Add another $250 for two training courses the first year alone. That’s $1.8 billion more. What about holsters and ammo? The SuperTuck Deluxe concealed holster is $30. Cha-ching! That $216 million gets us to $5.6 billion. Finally, $15 for 9mm Luger bullets, box of 50 per teacher, adds $108 million. Let’s round off for a grand total of $5.7 billion. That’s only teachers. What about the nearly half-million education administrators? What about fighting fire with fire by adding expensive semi-automatic rifles like the one Adam Lanza used at Sandy Hook Elementary? And so on.

That other sound you hear is the gun industry salivating.

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Dick's Sporting Goods web site

Speed Test: DMV vs Guns

December 18, 2012

Someone said it’s harder to get a driver’s license than buy a semi-automatic rifle like the one used in the massacre in Connecticut. Needing to renew my license, I decided to test the claim today. After the Oregon DMV in North Portland was so efficient — or my timing so good, I wondered why bother with the comparison. I was in and out in only seven minutes. The process included a brief wait, vision test, new photo, and writing a $40 check. Granted I didn’t have to take a written or driving test.

Next stop: the nearby Dick’s Sporting Good. I knew the time comparison to the DMV could be close because Oregon requires no permit for rifles. Federal law requires retailers to do a background check of prospective buyers via computer that reportedly takes a few minutes at most. No fee required. Private dealers are exempt from the federal law. I had checked the Dick’s web site yesterday and found 12 types of semi-automatic rifles for sale (partial screenshot above). They included four models of the Bushmaster brand that Adam Lanza used to destroy so many lives in Newtown. Dick’s grouped them as Modern Sporting Rifles. I was about to see one up close and personal. Read More

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Guns, God, and Schoolmarms

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December 15, 2012

I’m trying, unsuccessfully, to imagine my teachers of yesteryear packing heat at school to protect me from crazy people armed with assault rifles. Not that shootings at schools happened in my youth, a comparatively quaint time of many fewer guns and people who killed with them. Now gun zealots of many stripes want to arm teachers. Some even blame gun-control advocates (“blood on their hands“) for the horror yesterday at the elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut. Why? The’ve pushed to make schools gun-free zones. Meanwhile, prescient Michigan legislators voted a day earlier to allow concealed guns in schools and other places previously off limits, including daycare centers.

Taking another tact was one-time presidential candidate Mike Huckabee. He said the carnage shouldn’t surprise us because God has systematically been pushed out of schools. Huckabee didn’t say whether God upon returning should be armed while patrolling schools, or how God was unable to resist expulsion in the first place.

As for my early yesteryear, I loved black-and-white Westerns. Good guys vs bad guys, gunfire every other minute, happy endings. In all these movies I never saw a schoolmarm with a six-shooter on her hip or a gun slinger open fire in a school. But a lot of sheriffs took guns from bad guys even if they hadn’t  committed a crime. The NRA hadn’t yet come to town.

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What’s Evil, Dad?

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December 14, 2012

How can I fetch our seven year old, Atticus, at school in a few hours without imagining the slaughter today at a Connecticut elementary school? Will I scan the surroundings for danger, perhaps a sniper on the bridges overlooking his school? Should I scrutinize every adult I encounter on campus to see if they’re hiding a high-powered rifle under their coats or have a crazed look in their eyes? Or maybe I should ask some of them how my wife and I should answer his inevitable question about the mass shooting: “Why”?

The other day Atticus told Suzame that he’s one of only two kids in his second-grade class who believes in God (“not the Greek ones,” he clarified) and Santa Claus. Maybe it’s time for a family talk about good and evil — and madness, without bringing religion into the conversation. I’ll have to muzzle the cynical me and not say anything about the practical but expensive gift we could order from Santa. It’s now appropriate for the holiday season and the classroom: a bullet-proof vest for kids.

We’ll show Atticus the above cartoon and cite the number of guns in America, which he will immediately memorize and recite later. We’ll also talk about the torrent of grief and loss. So many tears in yet another river of blood.

UPDATE: Bevy of advice on how to talk with kids about the tragedy. No surprise: Mr. Rogers comes through again.

(Cartoon: Steven Greenberg, Ventura County Star, Calif., 2007)

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If only I could remember the first time a song created a scene so vivid that I suddenly found myself in an unknown place populated with unknown people. “Norwegian Wood” may hold the honor. The song debuted in December 1965 with the release of The Beatles’ Rubber Soul album. I turned 15 that month and listened to the album over and over during Christmas break. Usually I was sprawled on the living room floor next to the stereo speakers with my two brothers as we played Monopoly. (Oh how the memory of that scene now flares!) Maybe the sexual tension of “Norwegian Wood” kindled the imagination of the hormone-inflamed teenage me. More likely it was the song’s spare, mysterious setting and ambiguity of the man and woman’s encounter. The mind is left to fill in big blanks, including the meaning of the last two lines: “So I lit a fire, isn’t it good Norwegian Wood?”


Why think of “Norwegian Wood” today? Another song led me there, Simon & Garfunkel’s “America,” whose lyrics are more visually and narratively evocative than any I can recall. And why remember “America” now? I stumbled upon a video of the Swedish sister duo, First Aid Kit, performing it — with Paul Simon in the front row. In the simplest yet most elegant of gestures, the 71-year-old Simon bestows upon Johanna and Klara Söderberg, 22 and 19, an artist’s blessing like no other. The moment is as poignant as the song itself.

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The Branch We Share

December 2, 2012

When my wife, Suzame Tong, told me that she has a new colleague at Jive Software who has my last name, I asked if the young woman has ancestral roots in Indiana. My roots run deep in the state, especially on my father’s side. So when the colleague said yes, I set out to learn if we’re related. It didn’t take long, thanks to, to find that her father and I have the same great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather and grandmother (that’s 10 greats). John Beals Sr. — Beals morphed into Bales in the 1700s — was born in 1650 in England and emigrated to Pennsylvania. In 1682, he married Mary Jane Clayton, another English emigre, in Chester County, Pennsylvania. Quakers, they lived out there lives there on land owned by William Penn.

Thanks to John and Mary, the young woman and I are second cousins, 12 times removed, or 12th cousins. How much do we have in common, besides genes? I hope more than Barack Obama and Sarah Palin, who are 10th cousins.

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Fresh-Baked Memories

November 5, 2012

Maybe the day will return when milk is delivered to the front door and the doctor makes house calls. I’m old enough to remember when both happened, though my children would doubt such a world ever existed. Oddly, the more distinct memory is milk. The chiming rattle of bottles in the milk man’s crate, the few inches of cream floating at the top and destined for my father’s coffee, taking the empties to the front stoop on milk day. Why think of this now more than a half-century later? In an hour or so, fresh home-baked artisan bread will be delivered to our door, courtesy of Bakester, an entrepreneurial venture of Laura Birshan. For $5 a week we get a different flavored, naturally leavened loaf dropped off by bike. (See slide show.) Our first loaf, delivered last week, was chipotle-spiced delicata squash. It was moist and delicious with a slight kick. What flavor today? The surprise only adds to the appeal. Maybe in some parallel existence when saddled with, say, the flu, I’ll look out the window and see my childhood doctor walking up the front steps with a milk bottle and loaf of bread sticking out of his black bag.

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