Saturday, December 05, 2009

The Power of Two

We've all thought about the nature-nurture issue and about what makes us who we are.

For a powerful statement about both the strength of our genetic make up and serendipity, read this article from Newsweek that recounts how two young girls adopted by different sets of American parents from the same orphanage in China not only turned out to share the same DNA but also the same given name. And much much more!


Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Facebook Follies

In a recent article from, "Facebook, the Mean Girls and Me," Taffy Brodesser-Akner takes on Facebook and the way that via the social networking megalith, she has rekindled relationships with various girls who she had been friends with until junior high school, when they all turned nasty and bullied her. The article becomes a place for the writer to air this laundry and wonder about the worth of revisiting past people and times through new profile pics, current photo albums and status updates.

I wasn't bullied in school (except on rare occasion), and was generally popular, but I do have my own doubts about Facebook and its authenticity. On Facebook I have been requested as a "friend" by a good number of my high school classmates from 30 years back. What I have found is that though I always answer these requests by "accepting" and then writing a brief and friendly "you attitude-focused" letter, I have quite often received no response.

When I do receive responses, I have always written a message follow up, praising the writer for whatever accolades they have received or grandchildren they've been rearing, asking relevant questions, and trying to dig a bit deeper into that great divide that has left us well on in the latter stages of life. That's when the wall of silence really appears.

I'd estimate that nearly 75% of those new (old) "friends" never write again, not even when I ask them explicit questions or make comments on their photo albums. Never again.

Which certainly does beg the question: What have I done to create such a situation?

Or is it them and not me?

Ultimately, the question may be, what is the point in all of this?

Granted, I have been able to reconnect in an exciting way with some friends from past eras whom I really had wanted to keep contact with all along but simply had lost in the shuffle. An e-rendezvous with any one these folks is rewarding. But then there is that other mass of humanity who just sit warehoused in my growing friend list.

Now I wonder what to do: Should I conduct a Stalinistic purge, or let the pile of photos and profiles accumulate?

Monday, November 09, 2009

The Social Atom

As I might have mentioned earlier, I rarely lift and post substantial amounts of texts from books I'm reading. This post, with a focus on an excerpt from Mark Buchanan's The Social Atom, is an exception. I have posted what follows as a pretext for discussion in my classes. (now over!) This was done in the context of a review of the communication/life skills that my students had learned about/practiced this term. The discussions that followed were interesting, but unfortunately, none of them made it into direct responses to this post. The students generally had had enough of the assignments I'd given them, including the blogging/commenting.

While I was tempted to delete this post, I've decided to keep it up for next term.

Here are a few of Buchanan's (not very original, really) ideas:

"...rule number one for the social atom: We're highly skilled at recognizing patterns and adapting to a changing world. We interact with the world and learn from it. But we also learn, or try to learn, from others. We live our lives within families and networks of friends, with colleagues and neighbors, and amid a cacophony of voices and opinions blasted out from television, newspaper, and the Web. Far from being isolated, like atoms in a perfect vacuum, we are fully interdependent and embedded in a thick social tapestry of others, like atoms in a dense liquid, where we can barely move without jostling against others. Our social 'embeddedness' influences what we wear and eat, the work we do, our social opinions and thoughts. We do not think entirely on our own---what we believe and why depends strongly on our interactions with others.

"...Next to our ability to adapt, perhaps nothing is so pronounced in human behavior as our capacity for imitation. Infants learn within a few minutes to imitate their parents' facial expressions. The Romans, well aware of our imitating tendencies, hired professional mourners to kick off the wailing at important funerals. We have hardwired instincts for imitation yet often we also imitate consciously, as imitation offers a strategy, often our only strategy, for taking advantage of things that others may have learned. Of course, imitation can lead to weird and costly distortions, because those others don't always know very much. But ultimately, the surprising influence of imitation needn't be mysterious or puzzling --- scientists are finding that it often leads to patterns as regular as clockwork."

Mark Buchanan,  The Social Atom

Wednesday, October 28, 2009


I have a deep connection to Malaysia. In 1985, I moved there from the US on a six-month lecturer contract without knowing much about the country, its people, history and cultures. I ended up working for five years for two different American university twinning programs under the auspices of the openly discriminatory tertiary educational institution, Mara Technical Institute, which was created exclusively for members of the Malay ethnic group (with a small number of native students from East Malaysia thrown in for appearances' sake).

Soon after arriving in Malaysia, I learned about the "race riots" of 1969, the "special rights" given to the Malay people, and the resentment that this caused amongst members of other ethnic groups. Realizing that "affirmative action" (as we call such programs in the US) is at times justified, I was able to rationalize my work on behalf of the government and the Malays when the programs I served were providing educational opportunities for a group of students that was mostly from rural and impoverished backgrounds.

What I could not help questioning was the considerable number of middle- and upper-class Malay kids on our campus, guys and gals who were getting a free ride just because they were Malay and not because their parents could not afford to send them to school. In fact, I even had the son of Malaysia's foreign minister at that time in one of my classes, and I watched in wonder as he was chauffeured to school and eventually drove his own BMW to classes.

I worried then about how the college-age children of the underclass of other groups were faring. But I became even more in tune to those folks' plight when I married a young woman of mixed Malaccan Portuguese and Chinese/Indian descent, a girl who had excelled in secondary school but was not offered a single ringgit by the government for her educational studies. The hypocrisy of the New Economic Policy's mandate to assist the poor "irrespective of race" really hit home.

It's 20 years later now, and I have watched Malaysia sink further into the abyss of ethnic divisiveness, much of that caused by communal arrogance, authorized greed, blatant corruption and a host of wayward government policies. It's easy to be depressed by the situation, even though I feel that I am now "part Malaysian." And it's rare when anyone might see light at the end of that long tunnel.

Tonight, however, I saw just such a light when I read the Merdeka message written by Sharyn Lisa Shufian, the 24-year-old great granddaughter of Malaysia's first prime minister Tunku Abdul Rahman.

Rarely do I give over space on my blog to the writings of others, but this is just such an occasion.

Please read Sharyn's message and see why I feel that those of us who love Malaysia can have some hope:

Both my parents are Malay. My mum's heritage includes Chinese, Thai and Arab, while my dad is Minangkabau. Due to my skin colour, I am often mistaken for a Chinese. I'm happy that I don't have the typical Malay look but I do get annoyed when people call me Ah Moi or ask me straight up "Are you Chinese or Malay?" Like, why does it matter? Before I used to answer "Malay" but now I'm trying to consciously answer Malaysian instead. 

There's this incident from primary school that I remember till today. Someone told me that I will be called last during Judgement Day because I don't have a Muslim name. Of course, I was scared then but now that I'm older, I realise that a name is just a name. It doesn't define you as a good or bad person and there is definitely no such thing as a Muslim name. You can be named Rashid or Ali and still be a Christian.

I've heard of the 1Malaysia concept, but I think we don't need to be told to be united. We've come such a long way that it should already be embedded in our hearts and minds that we are united. Unfortunately, you can still see racial discrimination and polarisation. There is still this ethno-centric view that the Malays are the dominant group and their rights must be protected, and non Malays are forever the outsiders.

For the concept to succeed, I think the government should stop with the race politics. It's tiring, really. We grew up with application forms asking us to tick our race. We should stop painting a negative image of the other races, stop thinking about 'us' and 'them' and focus on 'we', 'our' and 'Malaysians'.

No one should be made uncomfortable in their own home. I know some baby Nyonya friends who can trace their lineage back hundreds of years. I'm a fourth generation Malaysian. If I am Bumiputra, why can't they be, too? Clearly I have issues with the term.

I think the main reason why we still can't achieve total unity is because of this 'Malay rights' concept. I'd rather 'Malay rights' be replaced by human rights. So unless we get rid of this Bumiputra status, or reform our views and policies on rights, we will never achieve unity.

For my Merdeka wish, I'd like for Malaysians to have more voice, to be respected and heard. I wish that the government would uphold the true essence of parliamentary democracy. I wish for the people to no longer fear and discriminate against each other, to see that we are one and the same.

I wish that Malaysia would truly live up to the tourism spin of Malaysia truly Asia. Malaysians to lead - whatever their ethnic background.

Only ONE NATIONALITY -MALAYSIAN. No Malays, No Chinese, No Indians - ONLY MALAYSIANS. Choose whatever religion one is comfortable with.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Last...Lecture

It must say something about the times we live in when even the "last lecture" of a dying professor can be commercialized to such a high degree.

That's what I thought when I wanted to add a link on this blog to the late Randy Pausch's famed speech at Carnegie Mellon for all my students to see only to discover that the lecture was now a whole website, a book, and other odds and ends. My gut reaction was to can my intentions.

Is everything really for sale? I asked myself. Let's look for a speech by Martin Luther King or Barack Obama.

Then calm took me under its wing again, and I capitulated. There are so many reasons that the Pausch lecture is interesting, we shouldn't be dissuaded by the hype.

So here it is, ladies and gentlemen, Randy Pausch's Last Lecture. Just be careful about bumping into the hawkers in the door way.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Riding the Cultural Rails

How can a person explain the power and significance of cultural identity in a way that's not overly simplistic and trite, especially to a kid like my daughter Billie, who's lived in two countries and traveled the world, or to students like the ones I'm now working with, most of whom have grown up in multicultural societies such as Malaysia and Singapore and who have also traveled extensively?

One way would be to show them the Academy Award-winning documentary film Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport. The main focus of the film is children, European Jewish children, who -- until Hitler's pogroms of the late 1930s -- were shown to have had many of the the same preoccupations as kids today, worrying about who was going to come to their birthday party, what Mom and Dad could afford to buy them, and whose heads they would turn with a smile and a wink.

Proliferation of the Nazi creed, centered on German ethnic pride and
politico-economic ambitions, changed all that. While Hitler and his circle of sadistic henchmen laid the foundation for war in Europe and proposed the "Final Solution," they also worked hard spreading propaganda among the masses, much of it aimed at creating a sense among their fellow Europeans that the Jews were dirty immigrants, an inferior, money-grubbing race, whose very existence was undermining the progress of the Germans. Within that prescribed belief system, the Germans were touted as the master race, creators of a unique civilization, the original and most highly cultivated of all peoples. (Of course, using the term race in this manner is a misnomer. Social scientists generally avoid the term, but if they must, confine its usage to descriptions of physical attributes. Physically, the so-called Ashkenazi Jews are similar to Europeans. It is really only in culture, and in the perceptions of what culture entails, that they differ.)

In the film, period photographs and archival film footage are woven together with the individual stories of half a dozen Jews who escaped the increasing hostility of the Nazis because they had been selected into a special program initiated by the British government that would allow nearly 10,000 children under the age of 18 to leave their families and travel by train westward from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia for foster homes and youth hostels in Great Britain.

One thing that seemed amazing to Billie was how similar the Jewish kids were to those of the land they were leaving. "What made them different?" she asked.

That's when I stopped the DVD player and did my mini-lecture on the religious beliefs of the Jews and how they differed from the German Lutherans and the Czech and Austrian Catholics basically by virtue of not adhering to the New Testament of the Bible. I mentioned how they looked physically similar to their neighbors, had many of the same values for family, hard work and a good education, and could even speak the same languages, but because they held different religious beliefs and traditions, and because many of them were successful in business, the arts and professions such as law and medicine, they were viewed suspiciously

And that was enough.

Soon after nearly 10,000 of the young Jews had arrived at their destination and been set up with surrogate families, war was declared between Germany and Britain, and the kindertransport ended. All communication between the kids and their increasingly forlorn parents was also stopped. Ironically, even in Britain there was enough suspicion that these German Jews might have some allegiance to their homeland that a whole boatload of them, mainly teenage males, was shipped off to Australia. (Toward the end of the war, some of these would return to the UK to train and fight on behalf of their adopted homeland.)

What was it about the Jews that made them so hated? In Hitler's eyes, they were clearly different, a group of people who competed with his own for resources, stealing, as it were, their livelihood in the place that he felt should be the lebensraum, or living space, for the Germanic peoples above all others. This exclusivity, along with the negative stereotyping and hate-mongering, was easy to peddle, especially as Germans of every walk of life were striving for renewed greatness after the calamity of their country's defeat in the first world war (1914-1918). The Jewish kids might have looked and sounded like acceptable Europeans, they might have shared many traits with the peoples their ancestors had been neighbors with for a thousand years, but what they didn't share was a common identity, and without that, they had no safe place in Hitler's vision of destiny. 

Into the Arms of Strangers , exploring through its subtext the link between what is seen as familiar and what is foreign, ended with what we knew would come to pass: the war ended as the Germans were beaten, and the kindertransport kids survived while most of their parents were executed in the Nazi camps (along with 1.5 million children and millions of others). The life stories of the interviewees wrapped up with a mix of triumphant tales and tearful reflections.

Sadly, long after the DVD players have been turned off and the deservingly positive comments on the film shelved away, the twists and turns of race and ethnicity continue, and the bumps in our road to better intercultural relations remain.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Another Buckeye Tale

If I were a first year student at the National University of Singapore (NUS), I might be living in one of the residences, King Edward VII or Prince George's Park. The names impress me, and as an 18-year-old, that might have been enough.

When I was considering my own university studies a long time ago, I chose the only school I was really familiar with: Ohio State University (OSU).  OSU was as familiar to me as a small town Ohioan as NUS is to anyone in Singapore. However, there is one major difference. For me, a love of OSU was based not so much on my fascination with its academic laurels, which is clearly how the NUS brand resonates throughout Southeast Asia, or my desire to work in any particular school or college at OSU. My college choice was not built upon a careful study of acceptable ACT/SAT scores, scholarship options, or campus contours. No, it was made mainly thanks to the image of excellence represented by the tradition of OSU football.

At this stage in my life, having worked in university education in a variety of contexts for 30 years, and having seen the richness of higher ed and the extent to which it can impact young minds, I realize how absurd my original motives might have been. The only way I can support the parameters of my naivete is this:  OSU football is so HUGE in Ohio that for many it is the face that OSU shows off most gloriously.

This is not to denigrate the various colleges and schools within the university, both undergraduate and graduate. It's not a slight to the teaching staff and their commitment to education, or to the researchers and their world-class achievements. It is mainly a reflection of the university landscape that the media, and the university itself, opens most clearly to the world. And despite the many who may think such imagery begins up on High Street on the steps of the Law School, or at the entrance to the Ohio Union, or in the glass of the Wexner Center for the Arts, or somewhere on the Oval facing the William Oxley Thompson Library, the real deal begins on the east bank of the Olentangy River, at the corner of Cannon and Woody Hayes Drive. For there, in its 80-plus years of architectural and sporting majesty, stands Ohio Stadium, the center of our Buckeye State universe.

This stadium, more affectionately know as the Horseshoe, or just The Shoe, does not only present an image of OSU to the people of Ohio, but also to the entire nation (and I'd suggest to the world). Through its history, Ohio's coliseum has been a magnet for millions of people as they come out on autumn days of sterling sunshine or bleak chill to cheer a hundred-thousand strong in support of the university's cherished Buckeye football team. As a kid even when my family would go trailer-camping in the Hocking Hills or at Wolf Run on September and October Saturday afternoons, it was nearly a holy rite to set time aside between lunch from the kerosene stove and the evening's fire-pit dinner to listen to an OSU football game.

Though I only ever played football on the playground and not in an organized setting, as far back as I can remember, the OSU football games were watched in my home by us kids and the elders alike. More importantly, they were blimped over by zeppelins, analyzed by radio and TV show hosts, serenaded by the OSU Marching Band, and immortalized in the impassioned play of the team members themselves: heroes like quarterback Rex Kern (from Lancaster, close to my hometown) and defensive back Jack Tatum from the 1969 National Championship team, the two-time Heismann Trophy winner Archie Griffin (who attended OSU when I did), linebacking studs such as Chris Spielman and James Laurinaitis, the 2003 NCAA championship game underdogs and winning team members, and the current squad's quarterbacking hope, Terrelle Pryor.

Now the games and the stars even get skyped onto computer screens set up on living tables like my own here in Goodluck Garden, Singapore, pushing Buckeye pride into the globe's farthest corners.

Knowing such background and my allegiance to OSU football, few now might question the method of my college choice.  But there was one other factor that tipped the scales furiously over in favor of my attending OSU: My acceptance into the Stadium Scholarship Dormitory!

Yes indeed. For two wonderful seasons (my first two years of college), I resided in the dorm that from the 1930s had housed an elite group of young scholars (and fervent pre-game party-goers!) like myself. I still remember the buzz of game-day Saturdays, and how by early morning, fans would be parading the vast parking lot beneath our residential unit's floor to ceiling windows, amazed to see students like me loitering inside.

Some of those folks even became our "clients," waving around fresh 20-dollar bills to entice us to open one of the dorm's ground-level entrances.  (Yes indeed! From those entry ways, stairwells led up to three levels of hallways that would open into our living units; in the same stairwells, there were other doors that directly accessed the stadium's massive interior walkways.)

Of course, living in the stadium had numerous other bennies: 1) if we didn't have tickets, we could enter games for free anyway, as long as we were willing to scrounge for a seat ; 2) if we did have tickets, we could get in early, beating the crowds; 3) if we wanted to impress back-home friends, we could arrange pre-game parties in our dorm rooms, then lead the entire group into the stadium at game time; 4) we could access the stadium at any time, morning, noon or night, taking pleasure in the city's biggest sports arena as our private backyard playground, from the field itself to more romantic environs high up in C Deck. And that I did, on numerous occasions.

In fact, I remember that once during my last year as an undergrad, long after I had moved out of the dorm, I took a prospective girlfriend to the stadium late at night, entered by the main dorm door, then using dorm contacts, got quick approval and slipped into the stadium's bowels. From there I led the young lady out into the seats and up to the top of one of the coliseum's four main flagpole-bearing columns. There she and I sat until just before dawn, chatting, drinking a bottle of wine and surveying the shifting horizon. I even remember one of the topics from our heart-to-heart that night, travel, and I can recall saying that I wanted to explore the world, which might have seemed like just another naive thought at the time. Yet how grandly accessible the world looked from that vantage point!

Though I never played football "officially" at OSU, though I never felt the electricity of emerging from the tunnel on game day with my teammates into the wild screams of 105,000 well-wishers, I did live my own OSU dream, I took that golden educational opportunity to learn and expand my horizons, growing immeasurably in the process, developing other sets of goals to pursue.

Where I am today is very much an offshoot of that original seed idea, or a branch from the tree, if you will; and I am still a Buckeye, through and through.

And tomorrow, at 8am Sunday the 13th in Singapore, 8pm Saturday the 12th Columbus time, I'll skype one of my siblings in central Ohio,  and in family-bonding mode, we'll watch the #7 nationally ranked Buckeyes as they tackle the #3 Trojans of the University of Southern California in another classic match up.

Like a schoolboy, I can't wait!

[Addendum: The OSU team lost Saturday night's passionately fought battle, 18-15. But win or lose, the Buckeye nation supports OSU, its student athletes and their lofty dreams.]

*I'd like to thank my cousin, Bev Elder Sturm, another OSU grad, former OSU Marching Band member and Buckeye fanatic, for the use of her photos. This one's for you, Bev!

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

The Road Home

I'm a romantic at heart. That's why when tonight I watched the 1999 Chinese film The Road Home, starring Zhang Ziyi as country girl Zhao Di, a teenager who experiences love at first sight with the first-ever primary-school teacher to work in her village, I get so emotionally involved in the story that I believe yet again that something such as unflinching love is possible. My daughter Billie, a 14-year-old who seems wise beyond her years in this situation, cynically questions that, then tells me that the innocence of 18-year-old Zhao Di would be impossible in today's world.

"18-year-olds now plan to lose their virginity," she says, surprising me. "But this girl looks so cute following him all around. Nowadays she'd be considered a stalker."

In the movie, Zhao Di isn't thinking sex, but stalking she does. Since first seeing Luo Yusheng, the handsome young man, during the building of the one-room schoolhouse, she shadows him everywhere, such as when he is walking his young students through the fields; she's happy to have a chance to cook a meal for him (done in rotation as a village obligation); and she's captivated hearing his voice reading aloud to his pupils. Her love has a high price though when Teacher Luo is suddenly ordered back to the city. She suffers torment not knowing if he will ever return, and her mother remarks that he's left and taken the girl's heart with him.

But all turns out well. We see the love story both past and present, young Zhao Di's early saga framed by a narrative 40 years in the future. It's in this bigger picture that we meet the story-teller, the adult son of Zhao Di and Luo Yusheng, come home to his father's funeral. It's in this context that the mature love is posited, with Zhao Di insisting that her husband's cortege be done in the traditional way, even in the winter, with his coffin carried for miles and miles from the county morgue back to the village home where their love had blossomed and endured.

This is a film of few words yet deep pure emotion and stunning rural vistas --- a must view for anyone who longs for the ways things might have been.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Together (There are heroes!)

In my previous post, the one below that addresses the national health care reform debate now taking place in the United States, I made a fairly sweeping attack against what I see as the degradation of American values. What are values? Those ideals that we hold dear. Values that Americans, Singaporeans, Vietnamese, Chinese and others the world over consider important include friendship, work, nation, education, technology and material gain, just to name a few. This is not to say that all citizens of our respective countries, or that you and I, or that my brothers and I have exactly the same views of these areas, but we do generally see the worth of each.

Similarly, "family" is a core value in all societies. However, the way family is defined and value that family is given by different individuals, and within different societies, can and does differ. Here are some "funneling questions" I have on the matter of family:

What exactly is meant by the term family? How does one's family differ from, say, one's tribe? Where are the boundaries of our family? In short, are we all brothers and sisters or not?

There are related issues and questions:

Most of the so-called "great" religions of the world espouse the view that we should extend a helping hand to others, not just to family members. But does that happen? To whom and in what way do we typically extend help? Am I or am I not my mother's, sister's, brother's, son's and/or neighbor's "keeper"?

And just how powerful can the love of family -- be that nuclear or planetary -- be?

In that previous post, I made the claim that for many Americans (not all, of course), individual material gain is more important than social equality/justice. I also wrote that this translates into the widespread belief that it's a dog-eat-dog world where only the fittest survive, and that the government should stay out of the fray.

That is one of my worries about American society (and any society, for that matter). That while we are often far too familial, tribal, national (in short, in-group) focused, the even bigger problem is that we are too individualistic or self-serving, and that we don't envision ourselves sharing this planet and facing challenges together enough.

An e-mail from a friend made me think about this on a different level. She sent a link to a video that, upon viewing, made me reflect on my own ideas of family, support and togetherness (or teamwork) again. It also forced me to reevaluate my sweeping generalization about Americans.

Check out this inspiring Youtube video about Dick and Rick Hoyt, an American father and son team with an exceptional bond, and see what I mean.

If you'd like to see another 10-minute documentary (with audio) about Rick and Dick Hoyt, click here.

There are real heroes in this world after all.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Too Much Fat in the Health Care Reform Debate in America

I wrote the message that follows below and posted part of it in response to a blog article in the online journal, The Huffington Post. The article, entitled "Obama's New Hampshire Town Hall Brings Out Birthers, Deathers and More," relates the sad and truly violent situation that has arisen in America as a result of the health care reform debate.

One reader of the article mentions in a "blog comment" how Americans have been "left behind" because of their poor education, and as a result, they don't understand complex issues such as those involved in the health care reform discussion. An example of such ignorance is the number of public statements that have been made by anti-reform advocates who warn that the government should stay clear of their Medicare, itself a government-run medical assistance program for the elderly.

This same ignorance has led to an uninformed, irrational and potentially dangerous reaction to the Obama Administration's proposal for national health care reform. (See the article and the video that accompanies it here to get a clear idea of how dangerous the right wing in America is making this issue.)
Here's my rant on the issue:

Many Americans have been left behind. We have nurtured a society where sports worship and "American idols," TV dramas and superstardom are elevated to the highest level. Goals and values are skewed toward competition, acquisition and materialism in the extreme and away from fairness and empathy. In many neighborhoods kids learn the importance of money, and they are inculcated with the idea that the real heroes are of three types: gun-toting soldiers, flashy TV/movie stars and rich sports idols. Period. The time when being an astronaut or a doctor, an explorer or a teacher or a humanitarian was viewed as a heroic profession has seemingly passed. It's now all about the image and the cash. The more the merrier. Big is beautiful: big house, big car, big boat, big screen, big slice of pizza, big salary, big abs, big boobs, big get the picture.

High schools have bigger budgets for football and basketball than for their libraries. University coaches make more money than the professors. (In the rest of the world, this would be an absurdity.)

The result: the mentality, both corporate and individual, that what's most important in life is getting all you can get, getting the biggest slice possible from society, hoarding what is yours, with little sense of payback or sharing. It's based on a recipe, maligned though it may be, from the survival of the fittest manual. (You see the results of that in the way that many on Wall Street, during the recent economic crisis, were so clearly in it just for the money, and achieving that end made any means justifiable.) For many Americans, the very idea of government is bad because it represents an intrusion into that process, a chink on the armor of that ethos.

Meanwhile, in countries like Singapore, like China, like Japan, hard work and study are highly valued (maybe to an exaggerated extent!), and egalitarianism is not scorned. Sure, ownership/ materialism is alive and well even in Asia, but there also seems to be a focus on developing in kids and supporting in other citizens a set of social values that exists for the sake of conscientious economic development, a better/safer neighborhood, more lucrative opportunities for the youth and for future generations, not just more money and power and glory for the winners.

A former student of mine, a university graduate now doing an education diploma at the National Institute of Education in Singapore, recently told me that one of her main first-year teacher training courses is "service learning," in which she needs to develop a project that serves some particular community. That sort of focus is precisely what I'm talking about.

I grew up in Ohio and love my homeland for many reasons--but having lived and taught in several different countries in Asia for many years (and in the US before that), I see the difference between "us and them," and the fact is, it's glaring. Individualism in America has finally gone over the top. So much of it is so clearly about ME ME ME getting as MUCH as I possibly can. (Even Michelangelo's David, after doing a tour of the US, returned to Europe looking overfed. See photo above!)

For many in the US, education is seen only as a means to that end. To hell with social awareness, to hell with ensuring that society functions to everyone's benefit (which is why the regulatory bodies created by government are so loathesome to so many Americans). To hell with helping out the other(littler) guy (unless I can show off my generosity to my church group or to my friends). To hell with the big picture and the antiquated ideal of making America a place where even the "tired and the poor" can have a good, clean and safe home, top-notch educational opportunities, and affordable health care!

Where this will lead I don't know. But things aren't looking good.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

World Without Walls

Many of us tend to inhabit a very narrow slice of real estate and we do not think globally. For those of us living in Singapore, that's very easy to do. We tend to get caught up in our own lives here on the "wired island," we focus on our own work, study, family and friends and we forget about the other six billion plus inhabitants of this planet.

Why is thinking globally important? Well, for starters, just consider the old cliche: no man is an island. We all depend on each other, and in many ways, are affected by the actions of others. The recent H1N1 outbreak and our vulnerability should demonstrate this very clearly. Add to that the fact that Singapore is dependent on Malaysia for its fresh water and food stuffs and on China and a number of ASEAN countries for the bulk of its other raw materials, and then on places like the US and Japan for its export market, and you get the picture. And then of course there's our obvious interconnectedness via the World Wide Web. No island is even really an island in today's world.

There is another reason why thinking globally is important that I'd like you to consider: Doing so for the sake of improving the lives of others, and in that way, enhancing your own humanity. Those readers who are NUS students may wonder how they can do this, but within our "global university" (or so the advertising goes) there really are a number of ways. For one, there are numerous university programs that allow you to visit countries in the region to do volunteer activities. Some of you may have already been on one of these. As an example, at least one of my former students went to Sumatra after the Boxer Day Tsunami and contributed time and energy in that major relief effort. Others have gone on trips to Cambodia, China or Myanmar and participated in community development projects. In a very real sense, your NUS education puts you in a good position to gain the experience and develop the understanding and skills necessary for helping better the lives of the less fortunate among our global neighbors.

For volunteer programs outside Singapore, cleck out these sites: International Student Volunteers, the Habitat for Humanity, and Doctors Without Borders. If you're reading this and you happen to be an NUS student, and you're looking for a way to study abroad, check out this link.

One platform for developing the skills and understanding needed for being a more complete world citizen is the course that I am fortunate to teach: ES2007S, Professional Communication -- Principles and Practice. For those of you soon to be or now enrolled in the course, I welcome you. It really is a world without walls that we're talking about when we start our journey in refining communication skills. But that is a journey whose very first step begins with you acknowledging that there is a heck of a lot more to life than what we see out our own front door.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Smashing Stereotypes

When we hear the phrase mail-order bride, we usually have a negative image in our mind. The article linked here is written by a Ukrainian-American woman and her story smashes the stereotypes and shows what happiness and fulfillment can be achieved through courage and initiative. Dream the dream!

Monday, July 20, 2009

Why blog?

There are many reasons why blogging is a major component of ES2007S, Professional Communication: Principles and Practice, the course I teach at the National University of Singapore. Key course objectives include facilitating discussions of communication principles, encouraging students to practice various communication strategies, and promoting opportunities for them to develop their written communication skills. In that context, the logic of blogging falls neatly into place.

One reason for using blogging is that each student's blog becomes her platform for summarizing, analyzing and synthesizing ideas, presenting opinions and even story-telling on a number of communication topics. Because responding to any given post assignment can be done independently, where and when the student chooses, she also has time to mull over the topic and address it without the sort of pressures that might exist in class. At the same time, because the post will, in turn, be read and responded to by classmates and by me, the student writer needs to be aware of the demands of her authentic audience. When she reads that audience's comments, she needs to take their perspectives into consideration, at which point she can either respond to those accordingly in follow up comments or ignore them (perhaps at her own peril).

Another reason blogging makes sense for the course is that it's a chance for the student to consider and reconsider her means of written expression. Communication, especially of the professional sort, is not just about assembling information, thinking ideas through and developing opinions. It's as much or more so about expressing the information, ideas and opinions in a manner that demonstrates clarity, concreteness, conciseness and yet completeness, coherence, courtesy and grammatical correctness. (I'd add to these well known 7Cs of writing what I call the "mother" of them all: creativity). In the various course blog posts, the student can and usually will take these criteria into consideration. Not doing so might bring on the critical wrath of the teacher and/or any number of highly competitive classmates.

A final reason that blogging suits the course is that it is an Internet-based exercise, and in that way, a very current means of understanding, shaping and reshaping one's thoughts on a whole range of issues for anyone in cyberspace, while at the same time, archiving the process and product. The growing blog eventually evolves into an open-to-the-world interactive journal, a place where one's reflective character comes to be illustrated with words, audio and video clips, still photography and cartoons, website referrals AND feedback.

Appropriately, at the end of any blog post, week, month, term or year, the writer can sit back and take stock of the whole concoction, glowing perhaps with self satisfaction, or alternatively, flushing the whole thing or any part of it into the cyber-septic tank with a quick click.

My list of reasons for using blogging is not exhaustive. To learn why a professional coach sees blogging as important, check out this link.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Randomness, the Cambrian Explosion and a Eulogy to Donald Thorpe (not necessarily in that order)

One of the things I love about maintaining this particular blog is that it gives me free rein to write on any topic that comes to mind. As the title states, it is ostensibly a venue for my students and me to meet outside of class (and where I can centralize their blog addresses on a list). At the same time, I admit that I use it to satisfy my need to think and write things through. Thanks to those broad parameters, the topics you can find listed here include everything from my thoughts on a university-sponsored visit to Vietnam, reflections on my 2008 trip back to Ohio, and a list of "green topics" for my students in Semester II 2008-2009. The apparent randomness in themes available to me is something that I relish.

Today, as it happened, I learned of the passing of one of my first coaches, Donald Thorpe. Sadly, he passed away at age 76 in an Ohio hospital of an undisclosed illness. Reading his name in the obituary, then that of his surviving wife and six sons -- Ronnie, Dale, Dino, Craig, Bart, and Kevin, all guys I went to school with -- brought back a flood of memories. The first memory was the most recent: in my hometown of Thornville, Ohio, last month, I had said to my sister Betsy that I felt like contacting Dino and visiting his father Don. Unfortunately, I missed my chance.

The broader set of memories puts me way back in the late 60s when my brothers and I were encouraged by our dad to "try out" for Little League baseball. Try outs, if my memory serves me correctly, consisted of 40 or 50 boys between the ages of 7 and 13 --roughly the age of elementary school -- all going up to the baseball diamond on a Saturday morning and showing our stuff: fielding grounders and pop flies, taking a turn or two at bat, running the bases, hanging out. Then the coaches, mainly dads themselves, divided us up into four groups of roughly similar talent and gave each group a name. My brothers and I ended up on the Braves, a team that, at least in my first year, had Don Thorpe as an assistant coach. He was one of the fathers conducting the try out. On the team along with us Blackstones were five of the six athletic Thorpe boys and, I seem to recall, a Hunt boy and maybe another kid or two.

Don Thorpe was a tobacco-chewing, stubble-faced transplant to our area, with the beginnings of a pot belly even then, and I vividly remember how he'd be playing ball right there with us kids, encouraging us to throw straight or keep our eye on the ball, all in his slow-paced West Virginia drawl, then wiping the sweat from beneath the bill of his black and red Braves cap. After we boys were assigned to the Braves, we were given similar caps. More importantly though, under Don's guidance, being on the Braves became the nexus for some serious camaraderie, and for our developing a strong sense of group identity, giving us that first feeling of "doing it for the team." It remained that way, too, for at least three or four summers after that first try out. Even after a few of us became too old to play Little League, we'd follow Don and the younger Thorpes and Blackstones to Braves games in Thornville and on the road.

Skills-wise, I never was more than a mediocre player (and a second baseman because I had a weak throw), and the team never won the league or any grand tourneys, but we still had a great time and I learned a lot. It's hard to zoom in on all of the details now that 40 years have passed. What stands out is that our games were played mostly on Friday nights, with the ball diamond and outfield bathed by sets of huge flood lights arranged atop tree- trunk poles. I also recall the wafting smell of popcorn and the hot dogs being served by feisty Lion's Club members like ole Burt Cooperider, Jake Shaner and my grandpa Jerry Blackstone, who'd watch from the concession stand conveniently installed in a green wooden building protected by mesh fencing just behind home plate.

Added to that, there was heavy competition in the air, because our opponents, the Yankees, Indians and Dodgers, were all our schoolmates and neighborhood friends. Each of us played our heart out to capture playground bragging rights and to impress our siblings, parents, grandparents and any potential girlfriends watching from the hard-plank bleacher seats.

The more I reflect on that time, the more I realize the trait that made Coach Don seem special was the gentleness of his instruction. He was the type who wouldn't bawl us out when we made an error or fanned out in three pitches. He'd clap and say something like "get 'em next time," then he'd put a juicy wad in the dust.

That style was in contrast to the manner of our first head coach, Jesse Hunt. Jesse was a huge bear of a man, with a big bushy eyebrows and the sort of booming voice that could scare the wits out of you just as your concentration was drifting off across the grass in right field. Whenever we lost a game that first year, Jesse would wear the agony of defeat on his face like an upset ogre. Not Don though. When he took the team over from Jesse, each of us boys rejoiced. Even in the heat of competition, he was cool, calm and collected, allowing our sporting antics to be augmented with barbs, gags and giggles that made it much more fun. Such was the case whether we were on the losing side or not.

Years later, some people could have speculated that it was Don's mild manners that contributed to a few of his boys drifting into so much trouble. Dino was the classic example. He was the one my age, cute as a button, and definitely the smoothest-talking Thorpe boy, and probably the best athlete amongst the whole bunch of us. (He eventually gave up baseball but set long-standing high school records for pole vault and broad jump.) By the time we were all in high school, he was running full throttle with local hoods, looting vending machines and robbing gas stations for a good time, even knocking up a classmate's sister and eventually getting sent up the river for failure to pay child support. The oldest brother, Ronnie, also ended up doing time, on two separate occasions. As with their more law-abiding brothers though, I never saw either of them as bad guys. They just seemed restless and willing to take risks, as young guys often do, and they had the added misfortune of getting caught. In later years when I recalled these stories, I'd guess it was the tough economic situation of the Thorpes that was the leading factor in all that, but I would never once think that Don hadn't tried his best to give his family what they needed.

How might any of this relate to the Cambrian explosion, that time roughly 570 million years ago when life on earth went into hyperdrive and new species multiplied after an era of mass extinctions?

Well, currently I'm reading a controversial book loaned to me by a friend. The work by British author Christopher Hitchens, who Stephen Prothero of the Washington Post called a "fundamentalist atheist," is entitled God is Not Great. In it, in a chapter entitled "Arguments from Design," Hitchens discusses, among other things, the Burgess Shale, a geological site in British Columbia revealing Cambrian-era fossils of bizarre animals such as the marrelle and opabinia, from roughly 500 million years ago. The place has been called the "Rosetta stone for decoding life forms." In that context Hitchens also presents comments made by the late great paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould regarding an appearance in the shale of one particular vertebrate creature called Pikaia, which he speculated led eventually to all vertebrates, including man. According to Hitchens, Gould went so far as to say that if, by chance, Pikaia had not come into being, all life as we know it on earth would have never come into existence.

With that, Hitchens writes of the random chance of evolution, and at one point he states that "we are the offspring of history." Whether one considers such statements controversial or not, they are compelling. And when you add to them the idea (also mentioned by Hitchens) that a large number of renowned scientists will tell you that there are 700 regions of the human genome where genes have been reshaped by natural selection, the argument for the seeming power of randomness, of chance, as some variations become selected for and others not, depending on environmental conditions, swirls higher and higher into heady stuff.

In that context of this reading, my mind went back to what I see as the less disputable idea that there is a degree of "chance" in any social circumstances, and I recalled my Little League baseball try outs, the fact that I was chosen, by who knows what criteria really, to play on one particular team, the Thornville Braves, and in that way, I became a player for this gentleman named Don Thorpe, from whom I learned a great deal about teamwork as my brothers and I bonded with him and his sons. If anyone of us had become a famous ball player, I'm sure we would have pointed to Don as our inspiration. As it turned out, none of us ever went on to play in major league baseball. Still, in retrospect I recognize that there was something miraculous about that chain of occurrences. Some might call this fate, of course. Others may see it as a divine act, part of God's ultimate plan. For me it is not so easy to define, though on a fundamental level, Don was meaningful for my baseball experience and, indirectly, for the way I approach teaching. (Firm but friendly.)

In his "Arguments from Design" chapter, Hitchens also had presented his own anecdote with its roots in West Virginia (as were Don Thorpe's). To make a point about the dangers of declarations of "divine intervention," he mentioned the recent case in which 13 coal miners were trapped underground after an explosion, and how, after news reports had prematurely declared that a "miracle" had happened and all the men had escaped alive, the reality turned tragic as each man was found dead.

That, too, may seem ridiculously random here. (Am I now pushing the envelope and your patience? Surely.) But as should be clear by now, I believe that in every social context, there is indelible, inescapable meaning for the individual(s) and the group itself.

That's what I'm really exploring in each of these blog posts: the meaning that certain people, various events, ideas that I've discovered, the odd artifice, and interactions, past, present and future, hold for me.

Thank you for following the circuitous path of this one.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Reflecting on My Past Experience with Russia and Obama's Speech at the New Economic School in Moscow

From 1972 through 1979, I studied Russian language, first in high school, then at university. I had been intrigued with Russian history, culture and society ever since, as a primary six school student back in the 60s, I'd read a chapter in my geography textbook about how difficult life was in the Soviet Union and how pitiful it was that its leaders wanted to rule the world, even to the point of being willing to destroy America. Oh yes, I learned, we were all potential victims in a Cold War.

My interest, or curiosity, took on added meaning one day when my P6 teacher asked me to assist a visiting lecturer in carrying his box of slides and slide projector from his car and into our school auditorium for a presentation - many years pre-Powerpoint - about his trip to the Soviet Union. The guest lecturer turned out to be Mr. Edward Taylor, a humble but world-wise and hilarious gentleman who would soon be my high school Russian teacher and the inspiration for my future studies and a career in education. What amazed me about his presentation was how he captured the faces of the Russian people. While the USSR was vilified throughout my youth by the American media, even by many of my relatives and neighbors who feared nuclear war, its people --at least those portrayed in Mr. Taylor's slideshow -- looked normal, and not like bomb-wielding homicidal freaks. What was the real story, I wondered.

Three years after high school, in 1977, after I'd been studying Russian for nearly 5 years, I left Ohio State University as a 3rd year uni student embarking on his first international trip, a study abroad program at the famed Pushkin Institute in Moscow. My goal had been to put all the Russian I'd been learning into practice, to walk the streets of my newfound literary "heroes" (from the very real guys like Pushkin, Lermontov and Turgenev, to characters such as Raskolnikov and Prince Myshkin), and to check out America's number one foe from the inside out. For a dude from small town America, it was a monumental, foundation-shattering experience. The travel itself, from Columbus to New York, then to Luxembourg, then to Frankfurt and West Berlin (my first plane rides), then by train through the Berlin Wall and into "Eastern Europe," across the DDR, Poland and into the USSR and on to Mockba, allowed me to "get my head around" the distances, mile by mile, and to prepare for the massive shift in cultural and geopolitical perspectives.

Then there was my daily life as a student. From eating soft boiled eggs and sausages first thing every morning in a dreary cafe in the university hotel to traveling across Moscow by train and bus to the school, to interacting with my Russian teachers, fellow (mainly American!) students and local friends, it would all touch me in a way that few experiences ever had. What broke first, I suppose, was the illusion that I had held until that time of America being the center of the universe. Suddenly, there I was, speaking another language to satisfy my basic needs, seeing sights (Red Square, St. Basil's, the Kremlin) that I'd only read about, studying in classrooms with photos of Lenin and Marx hanging in them, and --despite the mortal enemy rap I'd learned so well -- partying down with young commies and dangerous dissidents alike, learning that we were very much alike, after all.

Two of my best friends from that era, a young Chechen artist named Shamil and his sidekick, a Russian black marketeer named Valya, even introduced me to something I'd never expected to find in the land of Lenin, Stalin and Krushchev: ass-kicking anti-establishment attitude! In the back alleys, cramped crash pads, and beer halls that they inhabited, in the alternative lifestyles they had, Shamil and Valya showed attitude. In fact, these guys openly trashed many things Soviet, questioned the ideals and means of their leadership as well as the passivity of their fellow citizens, all that while listening to Pink Floyd and other forbidden Western musical groups and buying and selling every piece of foreign apparel they could get their hands on. They also talked of bringing another revolution to their "fucked" homeland. Through this they were, I surmised, yearning in some odd way to be more capitalist than me, which smacked of serious irony for an Ohio-farm-boy-turned-intrepid-explorer in search of the heart and soul of the socialist dream.

Little of what I found in Moscow, mind you, had ever been discussed in my international studies, political science and literature classes at OSU (although there was a Dostoevskian tragic quality to my new friends' existence). The focus of many classes was either on the archaic or the life-threatening. Once, when I'd wanted to research and write a paper on samizdat literature (underground self-published materials that had begun to filter out of the USSR), a distinguished professor had even told me to focus on the classics. In Moscow my friends lectured me on the reality, insisting that a focus on the so-called classics, whether in art, music or literature, was just a means by the the authorities for keeping discussion of change out of public discourse.

My book learning had taken place in the Brezhnev years, a period when the US-USSR competition seemed to have reached its epitome, when many of my countrymen envisioned that every Russian (or even student of Russian!) was a probable KGB agent and when many Soviet citizens were keen to show Americans how evolved their society was. It was also a period when the huge statues of Lenin and well-armed military parades symbolized Soviet might and hostile US and Soviet relations had been spun into scary acronyms like MAD --- mutually assured destruction --- and heavy metaphors such as the Iron Curtain.

Those images have fallen by the wayside in the last 20 years, of course. Which brings us back to Russia today, to Obama, and to his speech at the graduation ceremony of the New Economic School....

Nearly twenty years have passed since the country that my friends Valya and Shamil lived in ceased to exist. The Soviet Union of Lenin's dream, of Stalin's purges, of Krushchev's shoe being pounded on the lectern at the UN, is no more. This is not to say that Russia today has ceased to be anything like its Soviet incarnation. The corruption that still exists there might seem a vestige of earlier times. That a privileged few control vast wealth and resources might seem a vestige of earlier times. Even the fears, doubts and distrust that many Russian citizens have toward political institutions, toward leadership, toward America itself, might seem a vestige from earlier times. But there have been mountains of change.

In fact, at the end of his speech to future entrepreneurs and business leaders at the New Economic School, an institution whose very existence speaks of amazing changes in the Russian landscape, Obama carried the geological metaphor further when he said that "Russia has cut its way through time like a mighty river through a canyon, leaving an indelible mark on human history as it goes." Yes indeed.

What I especially liked about Obama's speech was not just that an American president was actually taking the time to address Russian college graduates, but also the clear intelligence and insight of his comments. Obama offered the students a rich analysis of how Russians and Americans (in fact, citizens worldwide) have many common interests. He spoke of how Russian success could also be interpreted as American success. He talked of the need for citizens and leaders of both countries to work together with the goal of building a better world with better opportunities and a better future for all involved.

I like that goal, and admire Obama's attempt to be inclusive. He's a guy who knows that people are just people, no matter where they live, no matter what their national or ethnic or religious identity. French, Iranians, Chinese, Iraqis, Chechens, Filipinos, Kenyans, Russians, Americans. We want a chance to fulfill our needs, a life that spells security and a measure of comfort, a good place to raise our kids, a brighter future for ourselves and our communities.

But Obama's also a guy with few illusions: he knows that in the face of growing demands and shrinking resources, peace and harmony hang by a thread because the world is the way it is, a place of backward tribal beliefs and dark corners of vice, raw emotions bubbling and chasms waiting to be filled with unsuspecting victims. Still, he's trying to put a positive spin on the human spirit and international relations, he's trying to engage others and reverse past trends -- down with all the stereotyping, vilifying, sabre-rattling. Out with the base need to conjure up ghouls and antagonistic, war-mongering sentiment in phrases like the Axis of Evil and the Evil Empire (or even the Great Satan).

And who can blame the prez? We're all in this world together. Look at the potential for disaster that exists by reviewing the mess that's been created in the last 100 years.

There seems to be cause for optimism, however guarded. At least the Russian and American leaders have sat down at the table and seriously talked about hot topics like easing bilateral tensions, reducing nuclear arms, shoring up international institutions and improving cooperation. Let's hope these guys' intentions are as sincere as they seem.

In these interesting times, I have to wonder what ever became of my old friends Valya and Shamil and what they might think now. Viva la revolucion?

Find the transcript of Obama's Moscow speech here.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Homeward Bound

I study the deluxe road atlas. From my sister Betsy's log house on the outskirts of New Salem, I'll head south on State (Ohio) Route 188 for 400 yards (just past the graveyard where my great-great grandparents are buried), turn right on New Salem Road and proceed for half a mile, turn left on Canal Road and take that about 10 miles. It's mostly agricultural with farms and barns and the corn nearly waist high just before the 4th of July, all interspersed with attractive homes on five acre spreads that make me jealous. When Canal eventually intersects with SR 37, I will turn right and head north. There's when I will really feel like I'm heading north by northwest, back to Chicago, and by extension, back to the Far East.

Homeward bound? This is where things get sticky. I was raised in an idyllic land of broad fields and enchanted forests, small towns and friendly neighbors. As an American, I was told that we had the "best damn country in the world." It would have made sense to become an insurance salesman, a radio deejay or local coach and teacher. What dangled before me was the typical American dream: cool career, job security, good pay, a house with a yard, a boat in the lake, the successful family, all the other fineries. As a kid though, something pushed me to take another route, the path least taken. The effort I made with studies was encouraged, and respected enough, but my choices (a fascination with exploring the world's cultures and peoples, English language and communication teaching, living across Asia) seemed random to some, outlandish to others, mostly improbable.

Where has it all taken me, nearly 30 years since I graduated from college? To a 1600-square-foot condo in crowded Singapore, albeit with a job I love at an educational institution whose mission I believe in. Still, I'm at heart a country lad, and I do miss the aromas of a Midwest summer, the stars above cool June evenings, and my many family members who would just as soon run barefoot across fresh cut lawns and entertain on the back porch as drive fancy German cars and shop in London.

Where am I then?

In but not of, or of but not in.

That might seem to put me at a loss when compared to others. I don't own a muscle car, a trophy home with an expansive yard or a boat in the marina. I do have an education, a cluttered resume and a career, several credit cards and bank accounts, but not enough money to ever think of retirement and not enough sellable traits to mount my name in lights or to include my John Henry in an esteemed authors' index.

My social network is not measured by the club meetings I attend, the clambakes I'm invited to or the pictures of friends I have on Facebook. But I do count as close buds folks from worlds that my kin in Ohio have never been exposed to and whom my students in Singapore think only exist in movies. (That's not a boast but a function of my history and lifestyle.)

I might be set in my ways, but I do try my best at empathizing with different perspectives, at listening to others, at enduring the little aggravations with a sense of hunmor.

I believe, too. In goodness. In positive thinking. In fellowship. In progress. But I have few illusions. The graveyard down the road from Betsy's is filled with what remains of the best of intentions, the most heartfelt passions, lives with exquisite virtues and values. Names on stones big and small, polished or placed on plaques in the dirt, are all now just that: names.

No matter what side of the lawn I am on, no matter what I own and where I visit and how I teach, there is a spot waiting for me in cold anonymity.

Before then, all I can really do is drive carefully, and enjoy the ride.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

More from the fictional side:

Illustrious Uncle Bob

Everybody agreed: Uncle Bob was a surprising character, although his wife, Aunt Jane, had the more appopriate opinion. Bob was a unique individual, a one of a kind.

Aunt Jane was the one who folks in the movie industry would have liked to have gotten their hands on. Her story, and especially the one she told us of Bob just after he passed away, had all the stuff Hollywood seems to like: adventure, daring, and tragedy, with some odd twist of redemption thrown in for good measure.

It was the winter of 2004 that tragedy struck Uncle Bob and Aunt Jane. They had been married for nearly thirty years, and their only daughter Tina, a bright, soft-spoken girl with a huge smile, had just graduated from Northwestern, an amazing feat considering that she was dyslexic. But, as everyone said, Tina had her mom's intelligence and her father's drive. The sad thing was that she would never have a chance to really flower. One night during the holidays, just a week before Christmas, Tina went out shopping with two girlfriends, never to come home alive again. A video clip we saw on the evening news showed the story: a pick up truck nearly cut in half by the combustion of ice on a wintery Chicago street, mixed with speed, mass and a stationary tree. My cousin Tina wasn't yet 22 when she died, and her parents were devastated.

The accident weighed on Aunt Jane in a way that we all might have expected for a doting mother. She reacted normally, I suppose, for someone whose only child had been taken from her so violently. I was serving in the military in Iraq at that time and so wasn't around to experience any of this firsthand, but my mother and others would tell how Jane didn't answer the phone for months after the accident, and supposedly she wouldn't get out of bed for weeks on end. Nearly three years after that my mom recalled visiting and noticing how Jane still kept Tina's room just like it always had been, with her iPod on the dresser and her shoes by the door, as if Tina'd just gone out to the store and might get back anytime.

Mom said that the therapy and painkillers had worked to some degree. Jane could be civil, even verbal most of the time, unless the topic turned to Tina. Then Jane's eyes would go remote and she'd tear up and leave the room.

Uncle Bob had a different way of dealing with things. He'd always been a bit of a stoic, standing back from issues and not getting emotionally involved. I don't know if that came from his service in the military during the late 60s, or if it came from something else more basic. Bob was Asian, after all, and maybe he was hardwired for not showing his emotions like the white family he'd married into. The only thing clear was that he dealt with Tina's death in his own way, and no matter what anyone of us might have thought, it got him through the night.

Uncle Bob was a Filipino, but somehow he'd gotten tangled up with the US military during the Vietnam War. Rumor was he'd even worked for the CIA back in the day, or Air America, the CIA operation that was carrying on a secret war in Laos. I don't have any of this on good authority though. At family gatherings whenever Bob, Jane and Tina would visit us in Dubuque, Bob seemed to shy away from any talk of the army or the war.

A few times I did hear him mention the good life back in Southeast Asia. He'd allude to the beaches, the bars and the girls, but in a way that sounded erudite. One night after drinking with my father, Uncle Bob admitted he'd been a stud as a young man, blaming it on "a quiet intoxication with the feminine form." Bob's putting it that way nearly brought my father to tears.

Even Aunt Jane made no secret about Bob's casanova past, and on more than one occasion, I remember him getting uncomfortable with her for telling one story too many. The last story, puzzled together by a group of us at his wake, went something like this.

In the fall of 2008, Aunt Jane had waved goodbye to Bob as he hit the road again for an extended visit back to his roots. At that time, they were having a hard time communicating, or so Jane admitted, saying that she couldn't get herself out of the usual funk. "I was hard to live with," she confessed to my mother, " and probably wasn't much fun. Combined with the Midwest winter, which he'd always hated, poor Bob'd had enough."

Bob's trips back to Asia had become more and more common. He had retired from the US Immigration & Naturalization Service a year or two after Tina died, and though he didn't collect a huge retirement, I'm sure it was plenty for him to go off on a five-month tour of Southeast Asia every year or so. I was in Chicago starting grad school the last time he went, and that winter every now and again I'd stop by and visit Aunt Jane, at first to make my mom happy, then later because it seemed like the right thing to do. After a couple times Aunt Jane and I both felt more comfortable. It was on one of those visits that I heard a real shocker from her: she'd never been to Southeast Asia, not in 30 years of marriage, for a reason inconceivable to me. As she put it, "land mammals were not made for flying so far."

That didn't stop her from communicating with Bob regularly though. As it turned out, they would e-mail each other at least once a week. At one point, Aunt Jane asked me if I'd like to read the mails Bob had sent her. She'd printed them out and kept them in a pile on the kitchen counter just for me.

What I remember most was being blown away by the extent of Bob's travels. I could only imagine what he was experiencing from the way he'd put the name of the place he was sending the note from in the subject box of the hotmail. One e-mail was sent from Singapore, where Bob wrote he was staying with his brother's daughter and her husband. Another was sent from an island off the coast of Malaysia, where he said he'd rented a beach hut for a whole month for next to nothing. Still another half dozen or so he'd sent from somewhere in Thailand, and yet another from Cambodia. The most obscure place he'd sent an e-mail from was Bhutan. (I hadn't even heard of the place.) I have to admit though, his letters were far from interesting:


I'm fine. The weather's been good away from the monsoons. Gained another pound from all the good food. Hope you're well.

Big hugs,


A month passed and I didn't hear from my aunt or bother to call her. Then the most unexpected thing happened. It was a typically horrible Saturday in March for Chicago, a day when I planned to lay around and watch college basketball. My mom called and told me that Bob was coming in and that Aunt Jane had a fever so she'd wondered if I would go to the airport and meet him. That sounded like a plan, so I agreed. What I didn't know was that Bob was arriving with guests.

Before going to O'Hare I debated whether to drive my new PT Cruiser or the old Jeep Cherokee. Finally, I opted for the Jeep, and lucky I did. For there at the terminal was Bob and three others, a very young, friendly and huggy couple and a slightly older woman. Uncle Bob called them "relatives."

The couple introduced themselves. The girl said her name was Ann. She looked more Caucasian than any of Bob's Filipino relatives I'd met before, with long blonde hair and blue-green eyes. I was startled that she spoke English with such a heavy accent. Ann's hubbie was different. He had very dark skin, and was a cheerful, outgoing guy. He asked me to call him Sovann. He spoke much better English than Ann, thanks, he reported, to the fact that he was now living and working in Singapore.

The other guest didn't make more than fleeting eye contact with me. Bob introduced her as Sovann's mother and called her Peach. She was quite a looker, with soft features, light brown skin, and brown hair tinted slightly auburn that ran to her thin waist. Although Bob said she was Sovann's mother, her relationship with the young couple seemed distant. She didn't give them (or me) any attention, and in some way, she seemed sullen.

I chalked that up to jet lag, but when it came to Bob, she acted very different. She followed every step Bob took and just stared at him as he pulled her oversized suitcase (in stark contrast to his backpack) to my car and later as he stood pointing out the direction of downtown to Sovann and Ann. Only Bob seemed to exist for her.

Bob acted weird around her, too. Without hearing a word from her, Bob seemed to know that she wanted a jacket from inside her carry on, which he quickly retrieved. When she spoke, it was only to him, and they shared a very endearing tone. The words she used were a mix of a few English phrases, "thank you," "yes yes," and a language that I'd never heard. Tagalog? It must have been their native tongue, I thought.

This all startled me a bit and made me wonder what Uncle Bob had been up to back in Southeast Asia.

As we drove south past the city and into the burbs, Bob sat up front with me, talking non-stop about what we were seeing. There in the back, Sovann and Ann exclaimed about all the sights and sounds, but Peach kept her eyes glued to Bob (I could see her in the rear-view mirror), and she remained perfectly silent.

I thought I had figured it all out. Bob had spent an awful lot of time away from home, and he'd only kept in touch by sending cryptic e-mails. Now he'd returned with the woman he was having an affair with. The young couple? Who knew who they really were? Maybe Sovann was the son, maybe not. It all made sense though, didn't it? Here was Uncle Bob, and this was his babe, his Southeast Asian squeeze. Okay, if that's what it took for him to get over Tina, well, who was I to argue?

But how could he bring the woman back to Chicago?

At Bob's command, I pulled into the Travelodge not far from his southside home. There we dropped Sovann, Ann and Peach off "to freshen up" in rooms Bob said he'd booked for them on the Net. (That reconfirmed my suspicions, of course.) Then he and I headed over to his house, where I dropped him without much ado.

Through the ensuing weeks, I heard nothing from Aunt Jane or Uncle Bob. I did hear from my mother that Bob and his guests had taken a road trip, and later I heard that Peach had gone back to Asia, but I never heard anything after that, and didn't think about it. Until the end.

Uncle Bob's heart attack came four months to the day after I'd picked him and the others up at O'Hare. And it wasn't until his candle-lit wake that I learned the truth.

I had been right in one way. There was something unusual about Uncle Bob's visitors. But it wasn't like I'd thought. They were relatives, just not in the sense that I'd ever imagined.

Aunt Jane and Sovann shared their story as we sat on the back deck and had Bob's memorial cake that hot summer night: Yes, Bob did have a special relationship with Peach. She was his first daughter, half Bob, half Cambodian.

Turned out Uncle Bob had had an affair with Peach's mother when he was stationed in Thailand back in the 60s. That's where Peach was born. Bob was not the typical expat rogue though, the kind who would knock up an Asian girl and split the scene. He'd paid Peach and her mother's way right from the start, and he would continue to support them for many years to come. The only glitch came when the crazy Khmer Rouge took control of Cambodia in 1975. By that time, Peach and her mother were back in Phnom Penh where Bob had set them up in an apartment. But like everyone else at the time, the two were sent to a work camp in the countryside, and so Bob lost touch. Luckily for all of them, Peach's mother had a close friend back in Bangkok. It was the phone number of that friend that Peach's mother made the little girl memorize while they were in the camp.

Then the inevitable happened, and daughter and mother were separated. The two would never meet again.

Meanwhile, in the late 70s and early 80s, during the aftermath of the collapse of the Khmer Rouge government, Bob had gone looking for Peach and her mother several times, to no avail. Finally, late in 1983, just after Tina was born, he located his other daughter in Bangkok.

It had been after an arduous journey by fishing boat from southern Cambodia that Peach ended up in a Thai refugee camp. Remembering that one phone number, she managed to place a call to her mother's friend, and was rescued. Eventually, the friend's family adopted Peach.

By the time Bob located her, she was a teenager who'd grown attached to her new family. When Bob offered to take her to the US, she declined. Yet for all those years, they had kept in touch, and Bob continued to send well wishes and money, even after his Asian daughter had started a family of her own.

And Sovann, it was true, was her son, and in that way, Bob's grandson.

And now here he was on the deck that night with the rest of us, with his fiancee, Ann, and with Aunt Jane, each relishing the stories, relishing Uncle Bob in the afterglow.