Hanging Out With Ai Weiwei

Ai Weiwei, in town to promote his new film “Human Flow” is less like a global icon than a kid on the first day of vacation. He gleefully mugs for photos, takes selfies with – and of – his audiences, bears a perpetual crinkly smile and when asked “When are you happiest?” replies, “Now.”

Ai Weiwei 10.3.17

Ai Weiwei smiles for a fan

But the message of the internationally renowned artist is deadly serious. He wants the world to confront the fact that over 65 million human beings are displaced, most of them living in deplorable conditions in refugee camps and only a tiny fraction (about 3%) being relocated. “Human Flow” depicts refugees in 23 countries – in camps, on the move, struggling across deserts, through murky waters and occasional war zones. It documents a staggering amount of human suffering which its creator wants us to face as fellow human beings. “The world is shrinking,” he says; “people from different religions, different cultures are going to have to learn to live with each other.”

Ai appeared before a sold-old crowd at the Commonwealth Club recently, in conversation with Climate One founder and host Greg Dalton, who started off by asking what his guest felt Europe should do. “It’s not just a European problem,” Ai Weiwei responded, “it’s global – Iraq, Myanmar, elsewhere. Policies in the U.S. seeking to reduce immigrants, enforce a travel ban, move away people who have been here since childhood – there is a strong trend to violate human rights and traditional beliefs. We are all refugees.”

Ai & Greg Dalton 10.17

With Climate One’s Greg Dalton

Ai Weiwei was born in 1957, the year his father, the Chinese poet Ai Qing  was arrested and denounced during the Anti-Rightist Movement. He was one year old when the family was sent to a labor camp in Beidahuang, Heilongjiang. According to his Wikipedia page, they were later exiled to Shihezi, Xinjiang in 1961, where they lived for 16 years. In 1976, at the end of the Cultural Revolution, Ai and his family returned to Beijing. At one point, during his lively conversation with Dalton at the Commonwealth Club, Ai said he used to be jealous of his father. “He got all those years, and all I got (referring to his imprisonment for “economic crimes” in 2011) was 81 days.” His 81 days were, however, no picnic. “If you argue with the government,” he said, “you never win. They become so powerful you can get suicidal.”Ai Weiwei 1-10.17

On the issues closer to the focus of Climate One, Ai spoke of how China “has made huge progress, and has become quite economically powerful. But the dark side are environmental problems: heavily polluted air and rivers. Besides that there is huge corruption. There are internal struggles inside the party; no trust, no real creativity because there’s no freedom of speech.” To Dalton’s remark that Ai had once tried to work within the system, Ai laughed. “I was very naïve.” Despite his history of battling the government Ai was given his passport in 2015 and now lives in Berlin.

“When they handed me my passport, the guy said, “We’ve known each other for so long . .  .”

Sixty-five Million Migrant Stories

Talk of “Immigrants” and “Migrants” is part of life today: some 65 million human beings are on the move, forced from their homes by war, flood, hunger, persecution, living in overcrowded camps, or simply walking. The talk can obscure the fact that these are 65 million individual stories. This is one of them.

Ke at Calvary 10.8.17

The author with Ke

My new friend Ke came to Calvary Presbyterian Church recently, speaking first to the entire congregation and later to a group grappling with the issue of becoming a Sanctuary Church. More on that later. Ke accompanied the Rev. Deborah Lee, Senior Program Director of Immigration, with the Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity, whose credentials include several decades of work for social justice despite appearing (to this octogenarian at least) to be 15 or 16 years old at most. Rev. Lee and her organization work to help vulnerable people, and to help people like this writer and others understand how they might help.

It is Ke’s story that I want to tell.

Ke came to the U.S. forty years ago as a very young child, escaping the horrors of the raging Vietnam war. If you’re old enough to remember those days you will remember Vietnam as one of the seriously ill-advised wars of our country’s history. But Ke – whose full name is Nghiep Ke Lam – was lucky to survive the perilous journey to freedom and was granted refugee status. According to this writer’s unscientific research, some 800,000 Vietnamese refugees were resettled in the U.S. in those years, not all into ideal circumstances.

Ke’s family found a place to live in an unsavory San Francisco neighborhood. When he was 7 years old he was confronted by a group of bullies who gave him the option of running for his life or fighting one of them. He decided to fight. After he pummeled the older bully to the ground the others congratulated him – an early lesson in problem-solving by violence. When he was 8 he took a year off from school to care for his new baby brother; his father had left the family and his mother was struggling to make ends meet. Once he returned to school Ke did well enough to be accepted into the city’s most prestigious public high school – but because it was too far from his neighborhood he couldn’t take advantage of the opportunity.

Vietnam war

         Vietnam War 1972                               Photo by Raymond Depardon

At 17 Ke committed a crime that would send him to prison for the next two decades. While there he stayed fit, avoided trouble and took advantage of every chance to pick up new skills and credentials. “I can fix the plumbing in your house,” he told the church congregation. “I can also offer counseling.” But he found a stronger calling: he now serves as fulltime Reentry Coordinator for the Asian Prisoner Support Committee, helping others who face the challenges he faced on being released from prison with no money and no job. A number of sources help Ke find used bicycles which he restores to working condition; he then gives them to those released from incarceration (usually having to teach the new bike owners how to ride) so they are able to seek and find work.

Will Calvary become a Sanctuary Church? We don’t have facilities to offer physical sanctuary, but could offer other levels of help such as advocacy or accompaniment (it can be scary to go to deportation hearings,) those sorts of perfectly legal things. There is no unanimity of opinion on this. Presbyterians tend to be strongly opinionated, and seldom opinionated in unison. Most of us do, though, spend time considering what Jesus might have to say about it all.

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Photo by Thomas Hawk

Meanwhile, Ke is at risk of deportation. The country to which he would be sent is not currently accepting deportees, something the Trump administration is pressuring countries to change. Also at risk of deportation are the 11+ million individuals now living in the U.S. Some of those human beings are bad people most Americans would want deported. Some of them are working hard at jobs, like Ke’s, that help others and strengthen our nation. Some of them are running businesses they’ve run for decades. Some of them have been in the U.S. since they were toddlers, never knowing any other homeland. Every one is an individual story.

And there are 65 million stories.

Emergency Medicine Then & Now

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The author and sister Mimi, circa 1940

We were, I think, about six and eight. My sister Mimi and I came home from somewhere, hot and tired and thirsty. We leaned our bikes against the side porch and ran up to the French door – which was stuck tight, as often happened on muggy days. I gave the door a mighty wham. But I missed the wood frame I was aiming for and my hand crashed through the glass pane. I stood there saying “Oh my! Oh my!” until Mimi, who was wise beyond her years, reached through the hole, turned the knob and shoved the door open. I think I was still “Oh my!-ing” while Mimi lead me through the living room, hallway and dining room to the kitchen, splattering blood along the way. We grabbed dish towels, tied them around my arm, returned to our bikes and headed for the offices of our friend Dr. Enos Ray.

Like most small-town doctors’ offices in the 1940s, Dr. Ray’s office consisted of several rooms adjacent to his home – about 8 or 10 blocks from our house. He stitched up my wound, after listening to the story and rather cleverly asking if we had left a note of explanation for our mother. Oops, hadn’t thought of that. Mrs. Ray obligingly started calling around to see if she could find our mother before she encountered an unexplained bloody scene on coming home from somewhere Mimi and I didn’t remember. Dr. Ray probably sent our parents a bill for $5.

Scar

The scar survives

My memory of the entire  incident ends with the bike ride home, all beautifully bandaged and hoping we would see a lot of friends on the way. But the scar (now getting pretty dim amidst the blotches and mottles of seven+ decades) is a constant reminder of my days with the World’s Best Big Sister and a current reminder of the changes in healthcare over those decades.

 I was re-reminded recently. I am fond of remarking at the slightest opportunity that I still, in my golden octogenarian years, have all my original parts – give or take a few teeth. Two of those unoriginal teeth are in the form of very expensive crowns attached for the last 15 years to a far more expensive (not to mention painfully acquired) implant. Not long ago, they decided to swing slightly outward, without so much as a by-your-leave. After a moment of horror (and gratitude that this happened at breakfast with no one but a sympathetic husband at the table) I realized I could nudge them back to where they belonged. I took to chewing on the other side. I called my good friend, longtime neighbor and fine dentist Richard Leeds. He said I should make an appointment with his implant friend Dr. Chin. “You’ll really like Dr. Chin,” he said. “It’s kind of like going to see the mad scientist. But he’s the best.” So I waited until Dr.Chin returned from vacation. And indeed, despite the very proper and competent staff who welcomed me, there was something of a mad scientist to the good doctor. “Let me just peeeeeer around here,” he would say, reaching for strange radar-beam lights and x-ray machines, studying my jaw from every conceivable angle.

 Eventually, he said, “There’s good news and bad news. The bad news is that you’ll Grinprobably need an expensive new crown. The good news is that the implant is just fine so you don’t need surgery, so you don’t need me.” Whereupon he shook my hand, said it had been a pleasure, and no, there was no charge.

 Later, summoned back to Dr. Leeds’ office – and anticipating future appointments for expensive new crowns – I thanked him for sending me to the charming mad scientist. He said he had a few not-so-mad-scientist ideas of his own. Whereupon he gave me a crash course in types of crowns and types of implants now in use, and explained that he thought he could screw my errant teeth back to where they belonged. The explanation was accompanied by several rather vehement maneuvers, and followed by extensive fiddlings around, bite-checking, tooth-filing and what have you. And lo, I am back to where I started with the non-original teeth and their original compatriots. Dr. Leeds will send a bill for considerably more than $5, but probably thousands less than a new crown would have cost. I could not help remembering the days of the de riguer family doctor and family dentist.

Sadly, it should be noted here that Dr. Ray has long since gone to his rewards, and Dr. Leeds is no longer accepting new patients. But given the precarious state of healthcare in the U.S., I can only be grateful for the extraordinary emergency care (Kaiser Permanente included) this middle-class American has been blessed to receive.

Would that healthcare were such for everyone.

Take a Minute to Breathe

Breathe“Take a minute to breathe,” my watch said. How did it know? This message arrived, unbidden, in the late afternoon of a day full of unpleasant chores, contentious meetings, unexpected crises and the usual daily events. It made me laugh. And breathe. Or at the very least, sigh.

I don’t know about this breathing business. If we aren’t doing it we’re definitely dead, or about to be, but the conscious breathing business – there may be something to it. So it is certainly worth a reminder or two.

(Anyone who knows me knows I would never spend actual money for a gadget that tells me to breathe; I helped with a study at the request of a friend, and we got to keep the watch. But I have to admit to a growing affection. This gadget knows stuff.Watch After I finished working out in the park on the first day of San Francisco’s recent, obscene heat wave, it told me how far I’d walked, how much energy I’d expended, how high my heart rate had gone – and then it said, “It’s 96 degrees, dummy, what are you doing exercising in 96-degree heat? At your age??” Or something like that; I don’t remember its exact words. Of course, it doesn’t know everything. Such as, if I want to take a nap, shouldn’t it know I don’t want to be nudged to Stand after 15 minutes? I take it off for naps.)

But back to breathing.

Breathe.1Calm, measured, thoughtful breathing may be the only answer to finding peace in these days. North Korea firing nuclear missiles? Breathe. Hurricanes, earthquakes, floods, record-breaking heat waves and climate change deniers? Breathe. Air and water pollution, thanks to relaxed environmental regulations, threatening the very lives of your grandchildren? Breathe. And that latest tweet, post or whatever startling message from cyberspace? Breathe, breathe.

Perhaps someone who understands social media better than I could institute a new policy: No tweet, post or instant-photo can be fired off until the person behind it has taken three slow, deep breaths. Think about it. Breathe.2Such an action would require engaging the brain, and how much personal and national angst might be avoided if brains were required to be engaged in advance? A small  reduction in lies, vulgarities and scary messages . . .?

Sigh.

The Scary Danger of “Fake News” Talk

Fake news? The press is the enemy of the people? I am up to here with that.

newspapersDenigration of the press may be a way to excite some (happily minimal) percentage of Americans, but for all Americans – Democrats, Republicans, geezers, millennials and certainly everyone wanting to preserve our fragile, shared democracy – it is beyond dangerous.

I have been a newspaper/magazine writer for well over a half-century. I have made a lot of mistakes (most recently I omitted one 12-year-old from a list of grandchildren in a feature story; whew!) But I have NEVER knowingly written an untrue sentence. Anything not verifiably correct, furthermore, has been corrected by an editor. (We have now even cleaned up my act about the missing granddaughter with a follow-up story in the same newspaper.)

So, is attacking the free press just playing politics, or is it dangerous? Look at Turkey. At a conference in Budapest just three years ago I sat next to a university professor from Istanbul who said she could face arrest when she returned. “And if I were a journalist,” Demonstrations in Turkeyshe said “I’d be far more afraid.” Looking at the videos of journalists – and others – being led to trials that will most certainly lead to long sentences at best is a sobering view of where Turkey is now, under an autocrat (whom the U.S. theoretically supports.)

PBS News/Hour was recently anchored for one week by science correspondent Miles O’Brien, who has been a part of my family (it’s complicated) for more than a quarter century. I have not always agreed – familial love aside – with the personal choices this distinguished journalist has made. But I’m willing to bet he has NEVER written or spoken a knowingly false word in reporting the news. He is in a list of personal journalistic friends & heroes that include Roger Mudd, Charles McDowell, Belva Davis and a number of contemporary journalists – Michael Fitzgerald (Boston,) Caitlin Kelly (NY,) that list could go on. Not one of these news reporters ever has, or ever would, write or speak a word that was fake.

Here is what the First Amendment says:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free  exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Floyd Abrams

Floyd Abrams

Author Floyd Abrams was in San Francisco recently plugging his new book The Soul of the First Amendment. The talk, moderated by U.C.Berkeley Dean of the School of Journalism Ed Wasserman, involved reviews of cases – and they are legion – Abrams has argued, and wide-ranging talk about the freedoms guaranteed by the first amendment. But one opening remark, almost a throw-away, stuck with me. Abrams mentioned that President Trump’s comments about Mexicans, Muslims and other groups would be criminal in other democracies, citing cases in Canada and Finland that had resulted in criminal convictions for lesser remarks.

That, though, is not what most distresses this longtime reporter. I understand and appreciate the defense of free speech, even terrible speech with which I strongly disagree. (Think Westboro Baptist “Church.”) What makes my all-American heart ache is the speech that seeks to undermine our free press. If enough people can be led to distrust the press, an autocratic leader doesn’t need to bother throwing journalists in jail.

Think about it. Most reporters, commentators, broadcasters are fairly bright men and women who could make a lot more money doing something else. Do they go into the news business because of a passion to follow a story, to find the truth and set it free?

Or are they just in it for the fake?

Democracy is a fragile concept. After all these years, I hope ours doesn’t break.

On Growing Up Right-Brained

Equations.1I was born without a left brain. Well, maybe a tiny rudimentary piece of left-ish cortex is in there. Even if the whole left brain/right brain thing is indeed a myth, all I can say is this: My brain doesn’t do the left-brain stuff. Numbers, algebra, equations, calculations, detail. Digits.

This is not to plead total incompetence. My checkbook is balanced, and I can figure tips and keep a very proper ledger of business income and outgo for tax purposes. For that matter, I did my own taxes for some time before marrying Mr. Left/Right Brain 25 years ago and succumbing to the hypnotically attractive suggestion that he’d be glad to do everything financial or mathematical for the happily ever after – which has worked out just fine.

But digital issues have bedeviled me for as far back as I can remember. In the very olden days of long road trips without car radios, a favorite family entertainment for my parents and three older sisters was “Rapid Calculations.” My father would call out numbers, as in “Start with 2. Add 4. Multiply by 6. Subtract 3. Add 17. Divide by . . .” You get the picture. My mother would determine when the game ended and everyone would write down a figure on a piece of paper to see who got the right answer. I would usually still be worrying with 36 minus three.

When I was in high school, the “dumb blond” thing was everywhere in the land and I ferociously tried not to fuel that fire. But connections with my inner left brain regularly eluded me. I blame some of it on the high school days themselves. At my beloved Henry Clay High School in beautiful downtown Ashland, Virginia, I, along with the 39 other members of the Class of ’49, hit eighth grade at a time when the school board couldn’t seem to find a math teacher. So they brought in Mac Simpson, stodgy but brainy son of the academic dean of the nearby college and a student there himself at the time. I had Mac for Algebra I and II, and maybe something else, if I ever got any farther – it’s a hazy memory. My incomprehension of basic math was utterly incomprehensible to Mac. Everything made such perfect sense to him that he was unable to back up to when that sense-making began. Thus without any grasp of the whole x-over-y thing as I launched myself into the world, my left brain simply went dark.poodle skirts

(I did get even, somewhat, by later dating Mac once or twice when poodle skirts were all the rage. The skirts were made out of two square yards of felt. I would agree to go to a movie, after which he would come to the house, calculate and draw the diameters of the two circles – waist and hemline – and then I’d serve him a cup of hot chocolate and say good night.)

Acknowledgment of my lifelong left-brain struggles formed the basis of my signing up, all these decades later, to volunteer for a recent program at the Commonwealth Club featuring Keith Devlin of Stanford University’s H-STAR Institute. Devlin is also President of BrainQuake, NPR’s “Math Guy,” and author of Finding Fibonacci. That last stirred something buried deep within my cerebral cortex. Fibonacci, a distant voice squeeked! The Fibonacci Sequence! Something about rabbits and multiplication! It was wonderfully comforting to know I retained a connection to the Logical Leftbrain.

Ah, to have drawn Fibonacci for Algebra I.

I might have started with Liber Abbaci (The Book of Calculation,) which introduced the western world to basic math – at a level designed for ordinary people to understand. Devlin explains that Fibonacci (whose official name was Leonardo of Pisa but there was that other Leonardo) went with his merchant father to North Africa, where trade with the far east had led to calculating prices with beads (think abacus,) something far more efficient that using fingers as was the custom in Italy. Fibonacci eventually went back home, translated the Arabic figurings into Roman numerals, wrote a bunch of books and started the whole modern arithmetic thing.

Keith Devlin 8.10.17

Keith Devlin at the Commonwealth Club

Devlin’s story of uncovering Fibonacci’s life and work through obscure library archives across Italy and elsewhere makes for a fascinating book, and his rapid-fire presentation was a treat – until the insertion of equations into his talk became necessary. Having started out on a level playing field with an historical narrative, once the numbers started popping up on the screen I began to feel again the old “Rapid Calculation” angst about being the only person in the audience still struggling to add 17.

And then Devlin tossed this bubble-popping dart: Fibonacci did not invent the Fibonacci numbers.  My dimly remembered connection to the brainy lefts? Somebody else came up with that “Fibonacci Sequence.”

What’s a Right Brain to do?

Are facts dead? Say it isn’t so

“We’ve got to be nicer to each other. A little more humility; a little more good faith . . .”

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These were a few solutions to the condition of the country today offered recently by Author Tom Nichols, during a Commonwealth Club talk titled “Are Facts Dead?” Facts may not be hopelessly dead, but Nichols fears for their survival. (He’s talking about Facts here. Established knowledge. “Alternative facts” seem unendangered.) Nichols maintains that the proliferation of fact-slayers has a lot to do with the rise of narcissism and its corresponding I-know-more-than-you-do assumption.

Nichols, Professor of National Security Affairs at the Naval War College and a CBS TV political analyst, is most recently the author of The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters. Just to reinforce the fact that he falls into the category of expert himself, he is also a five-time undefeated Jeopardy! champion.

“The attack on expertise is part of the narcissistic trend,” he says; “but it’s also because people feel things are out of control. It becomes empowering to say ‘I don’t believe you’ – ‘I don’t believe the experts.’” Nichols readily admits that experts can be wrong. People like to point out ‘expert failure,’ to say, “Well, Thalidomide. Challenger.” You will never find an issue on which everyone was 100% right, he concedes, or a person who’s never made a mistake. But the denigration of experts and widespread refusal to accept known facts is a growing threat.

Tom Nichols & Melissa Caen 5.24.17

Tom Nichols with Melissa Caen

Moderator Melissa Caen, a political and legal analyst, TV personality and no slouch with facts and expertise herself, asked about Nichols’ students, and whether the problem of expert-doubting often starts with (adult) students.

“I tell my students,” Nichols says, “’You’re here to form opinions, not to have your opinions confirmed.’ The best weapon they can have, the most important skill to develop, is critical thinking. Rigid, ideological thinkers are easy to manipulate; critical thinkers are hard to manipulate.” Nichols can wax indignant about teachers who say they learn more from their students than their students learn from them. “I tell them NO! If they’re not learning far more from you then you’re not doing your job.”

The quick acceptance of any absurdity because it’s been pronounced on a TV show or an internet site, along with the doubting of experts is in no way confined to students, though. Non-facts, “alternative facts” and outright lies are being repeated over and over again by public figures today – encouraging people of all ages to accept them as truth. And this, Nichols believes, presents a very real threat to our democracy.

The only people who can keep things on track, Nichols argues, “are the voters. Ordinary citizens.” And it will help if they let experts do their job of getting at the facts. A little critical thinking on all sides might still keep civilization afloat.being nice

Meanwhile, maybe we should also try to be nicer to each other.