America in Decline? I Don’t See It.

I’ve been blessed with two months of blissful rest this summer. It’s been wonderful to reconnect with many family members I don’t have the opportunity to visit often. I’ve had the chance to eat some (too much, actually) some culinary delights which I didn’t get often in Asia. And I’ve had ample chances already, with still six weeks ahead of me, to enjoy the wonderful outdoors of an American northeastern summer. The weather has been cooler and wetter than usual, and that has led to week after week of wonderful brisk evening air, vivid green rolling hillsides, and enough fresh produce to make anyone smile. I grew up in America, yet I’m always amazed at what a unique and amazing place it really is. The talk of American decline doesn’t include the green countryside. I swear, there couldn’t be any more trees anywhere in the world than the country realms of Pennsylvania and New York. Endless, for hundreds of miles. Tremendous. No decline there.

The real people in America aren’t caught up in the nasty politics of the day. The banker I met today who helped my son open his first bank account didn’t care a lick about political persuasions or across the aisle name calling. The woman who duplicated two keys for me in her small locksmith shop didn’t bicker about Washington gridlock. We chatted, like human beings, acknowledging the strange indentations on my key. We thanked each other and parted. No decline there.

Streets are lined with businesses and opportunities that pop up over night. I passed a country farm house way in the New York farmlands where one person plopped a food trailer in front of his house, as isolated from humanity as it was, and plastered it with every fast food advertisement you could think of. You could get grilled sandwiches, burgers, dogs, drinks, ice cream, and many other kinds of typical American fare. He didn’t care about the outside world. He sought the passerbyers. It looks like he succeeded.

In my parents country neighborhood, gas company XTO has already drilled 5000 feet into the earth, creating horizontal drills at that depth for miles as they begin the many years process of fracturing the compressed shale and pump out the natural gas which is going to power America into the future. The company is buying up rights, paying out royalties, and is creating a buzz in the neighborhood that hasn’t been there since Western PA’s big oil push way back in the 1870-1890s. This tiny village hasn’t changed in 50 years, yet no signs of decline here.

Industries come and go. Stores close while others open. Kids grow up. Schools expand and then contract. Churches lose influence and shutter their doors, while new congregations rent mall space or other creative setting to nurture their fledgling congregation. Families enlarge. People move away. Some people find success while other soldier on through hard times. Students struggle between work and school. Some lose hope while others fight on to fulfill their dreams. Many will reach it. Others will settle into something rather unexpected and learn to like it.

Weekends will come and go. Elderly couples will kayak on the lake. Lines of cars will snap up the soft serve. Millions will go to ballgames, from Little League to wacky minor league fields to the majors. They’ll eat hotdogs, yell at the umpires, and chew the fat with their neighbors. Lawns will be mowed, home repairs started, and families will gather in reunions.

All of this happens without the media, without Congress, without the President, without any regard to any Supreme Court ruling, or without any concern about terrorism or foreign battle fields.  This all happens without racist overtones, identity politics, or rioting and looting outside the G20 meetings.

There may be real problems which need to be solved as this country moves into the future, but America is not in decline. It’s as vibrant, resilient, cocky yet tentative as always. It lives and dies with the cycle of life inhabited by its people during their daily routines. I’ve been watching these routines, and they are as hopeful as ever. The American dream is not dead because I’ve seen it alive again and again during these past two weeks. It’s as real as its always been, no thanks to any political parties in Washington.





The Reason is Now Clear

In this article “Mom is Shamed for Cake Slice in Kid’s Lunch,” I have begun to understand why the heavens didn’t want me to raise my kids in the United States. It would not have been pretty.

And unfortunately, this article isn’t an outlier. There are (regrettably) way too many instances of schools telling parents what they can and can’t do that I’m sure I know the reason why I needed to be overseas.

You want other examples?  How about the mother who was chastised for sending her daughter to school with a lunch consisting over a turkey sandwich, chips, a banana, and juice. She was promptly told that her lunch wasn’t healthy enough and was given chicken nuggets to supplement. I wish I was making this up, but I’m not.

Then there was the school which prohibited all students from walking to school, regardless of how close they lived to the school. All students had to be dropped off in a car–even those who lived next door.

And don’t get me started on the “sexual surveys” given out to children as young as six years old in a Los Angeles school district.

It’s articles like these that reinforces why it was I was meant to raise my kids overseas. Because I wouldn’t have been able to take it. I’m a mild-mannered kind of guy, but these …  these are my pet peeves. These I would make a stand against. These I would gladly fight, and like I said, it wouldn’t have been pretty.

I would have sent my kids to school with nothing but chocolate cake for an entire week.

I would have walked my kid to school everyday to force a showdown with the principal.

I  would have left out the banana and sent two bags of chips.

Yes, it’s a good thing for everyone involved that I raised my kids overseas. You know why? Because I got to raise them the way that I saw fit. I got to give them treats when I wanted to. I was able to give them permission to leave the house on their own. Shocking!  Actually, when in Vietnam, our kids used to wake up before us, unlock the front door, and walk down to a little street stall to order breakfast by themselves while their derelict parents slept. It was awesome!  They loved it too. (as did our neighbors)

I  wonder what the school food police would have said about my lunches back in the day. I had two standards: bologna and ketchup on white bread or peanut butter and jelly. My friend brought a PBJ, pringles, and a Twinkie every  day! Every day! I was beyond jealous. He had such good parents.

Maybe I’m old fashioned, but in my mind, parenting belongs in the realm of parents. Let schools actually try to teach them about random things like math, English, history, and science.

I’ve never been threatened with arrest, and it’s probably because I raised my kids overseas. The heavens knew what they were doing.

The Loss of “Risque” and the Loss of Thomas Sowell

Economist Thomas Sowell has retired from writing his column. The world will be poorer for it that is for sure. The 86-year-old signed off for good with his final column on December 27. I do encourage you to read his backlog because he’s a man who bothered to check the facts before he wrote and he used a remarkable clear common sense so lacking in analysis today.

His next to the last column probably was a foretaste that the end was near. It can be read HERE, and you owe it to yourself to read it. (His final column is HERE!) It’s so profound and so simple, with too numerous of memorable quotes to add to this post. But I wanted to  focus in on this one line he wrote – “…  the word ‘risque’ would be almost impossible to explain to young people, in a world where gross vulgarity is widespread and widely accepted.”

The loss of “risque” is certainly a fact. Whatever kind of media – movies, TV, books – have pushed “acceptable morality” and “standards of behavior” out the window. The f-word is embraced in every form of entertainment where it is allowed. It hasn’t made it’s way to network TV yet. The visual imagery of sex and violence at any level would no longer be “risque.” It’s all been done. It’s all being done. But the question must be asked? Has it made our storytelling better?

We’ve certainly come a long way. I remember watching an episode of M*A*S*H in the late 1970s and my dad was in the room. He wasn’t watching and he never watched TV. I mean never. And in this rather poignant episode, Hawkeye played by Alan Alda looked over at one of the low-life characters who had done something despicable, and he said “you son-of-a-b**ch!”  I remember it all vividly, because I was shocked to hear that work, and my dad turned around from his desk and asked “What are you watching? Turn that off!”

I did.

“Risque” has come and gone, and we are not better off. Now the vast majority of writers have jumped on the f-train, thinking their new found freedom to express themselves has opened a door to a new level of gripping storytelling. It hasn’t. I haven’t joined that train and I never will. Vulgarity is not appealing to me. Never has been, and any good writer should know that you don’t have to use vulgarity to have a vulgar character.

Another reason I won’t shed the “risque” in my writing is this: why would I want to do what everyone else is doing? I do, at times, use some swear words in my book. They are the mild ones, used only when I think they further the elements and emotions of the story. But I make it a point never to turn away a reader because they don’t like to read vulgarity. Especially when it’s pointless.

Twenty Years Can’t Shake the American Out of Me

I’ve in Asia for most of the last 20+ years. But an incident last week made me realize that I am still very much an American.

It has to do with space. Not outer space. Personal space. I like it. Don’t encroach on me or I might act rudely.

Here’s what happened:

I was at my normal beach-side resort, doing my normal afternoon writing. There was a row of empty beach lounge chairs at one location, and I took up residence under an umbrella, punching out amazing prose on my computer. (OK, it may not have been amazing, but let me believe it to be so.)

As I mentioned, there were many open lounge chairs, lots of them, tons of them, loads of them, but one of the guests decided to sit in one of the chairs just two doors down – with only one empty lounge chair between us.

Okay, I thought. I can deal with this.

But the Indian gentleman had different ideas. He sat on one side of the chair, leaning towards me with his cell phone in his hand. I could have reached over and touched him if I wanted to. (I didn’t.) I felt encroached upon, like a little bird was sitting on my shoulder watching every move. I tried to ignore him. But he seemed to be staring (although he wasn’t.)  I went and dipped in the pool, hoping additional time would send him to another location. (It didn’t.) I felt rude and unwelcoming, but I had writing to do, and I don’t like an peeping-Tom stalking me from mere inches away. (It felt that way, anyways.)

When I came back from the pool, I slide over one seat so that there were now two lounge chairs between us. Surely this would be enough space for me.

And then he started talking on his phone. Loudly. It sounded like he was yelling at the top of his lungs. (He wasn’t.) And he talked and he talked in Tamil. I couldn’t understand a word, but it didn’t matter. I couldn’t type a word either. I tried to concentrate, but I felt the cavalry closing in on all sides, completely trapped.

I went for another dip in the pool, cooling me off, giving me space, hoping that I wouldn’t be surrounded when I returned.

I sat down again and then he did it. He turned on the music on his phone. The best of Bollywood. How can I write with Bollywood music blaring from mere three feet away? I wanted to get up and do my best moves. (I didn’t.) The beat and the sound overwhelmed all my senses.

I looked down the row of empty chairs. Lots of empty chairs. Tons of empty chairs. Look, buddy, they are all for you. So many open chairs. But he wanted to be near me.

Eventually, I gave up, picking up all of my towels and belongings and heading to a table at the outdoor restaurant.

It was at that point when I realized how American I still am. Americans love our space. We hate crowds and closeness. Many times, Asian personal space is only within a person’s mind because there’s simply too many people to have actual space which you can call your own. India has over a billion people. China 1.2 billion.

It reminds me when I heard a Vietnamese speak of their first trip to America. They were in the suburbs and went for the walk. When they came home, they said “Where are all the people?”

Indeed. You can take a walk in an American suburb in the middle of the day and hardly see a soul.

You can’t take a walk in the Vietnamese countryside in the mid day without running into twenty people working in a rice field.

I guess I still like my space. I hope that fine Indian gentleman didn’t think I was being rude the other day. I wasn’t trying to be. I was just being American.

I still can’t help it, even after all these years.

Students who get upset about yoga should learn a thing or two about cultural change.

For students trying to seem so culturally aware and intellectual, they are completely clueless. Check out this article:

Ottawa College Bans Yoga

I completely agree with the following article.

Article on Cultural Appropriation

Okay, so where are we at on this topic? These are lessons I teach my ninth-graders. Culture changes. You can’t stop it, not would you want to. Every culture changes. You see that word EVERY in front of that. When first a cultural element comes into contact with a foreign culture, the relationship is tenuous, perhaps curious, perhaps skeptical, and sometimes even enthralling.

When I first moved to Vietnam in 1994, the culture I dragged with me came into contact with lots of new cultural elements I was previously unfamiliar with. Some parts of Vietnamese culture were thrilling. Other parts I completely couldn’t understand and wanted nothing to do with. But over time, I began to navigate their ways, understand how to act in certain circumstances, and even tried new things.

What happens next depends on the situation. If cultural elements are transmitted into a new culture, it’s what we call cultural diffusion. Every culture is diffused with ideas from the outside. Korean culture is influenced by the Chinese. Malaysian culture diffused in Islam from the Middle East traders and Chinese elements from the Straits Chinese. American culture is a mish-mash melting pot of a variety of different examples of cultural diffusion.

There are no pure cultures – not in this day and age. Even the remote hunter-gather tribe of Tanzania, the Hadza, wear tire-tread sandals for convenience sake. Are their sandals an example of cultural appropriation. Of course not, because that’s a silly idea.

It’s beyond ludicrous for non-Mexicans to be criticized for eating Mexican food. Does this sound too outrageous. Well, there was a college in Ohio whose cafeteria had to endure protests because the Vietnamese food they served was not an authentic representation of what it’s really like.

Cultural change is a messy business. It doesn’t follow ordinary channels and protocols. It’s awkward college students doing a type of yoga they that don’t fully understand. It’s a chef who uses a spice combination or technique from a different culture. It’s me, in the kitchen, making bad Indian food because I don’t know what I’m doing. What I am not doing, however, is trying to offend Indians. I revere their cooking. That’s why I try to emulate them.

These ridiculous examples are just that. Ridiculous. We need to stop finding offense where there is none because I know one thing for certain: it won’t stop cultures from changing and adopting new ways of doing things.

Cool Things About America #1

I’ve been enjoying my home country for the past month. Gorging in way too much food and freezing my tail off in this supposed “summer” weather. Why they even bother to sell swimwear in the frigid regions of the northeast I’ll never know. It’s mid-July and it was only 57 degrees in Friendship, NY at noon yesterday!

Oh wait. This is a post about cool things in America. (Oh, I just see the pun I made. But I shall ignore and move on.)

America has its faults. The whole world knows that, but there really are some really amazing and simple things about American life that I’ve enjoyed being reminded of this summer. Here’s the first one.

2015-07-07 13.18.09


Okay, it doesn’t look like much. In fact it looks like nothing, and that is precisely the point. Empty parking lots! Free parking lots! They are everywhere!

What a contrast to my normal home in Asia and the other place I vacationed this summer. First, living on an island in Asia can be a nightmare to park. The spaces are tight, the traffic is all around at all moments. Malls have garages where you have to pay. There is no free parking.

And what about Europe? In our little town in Germany, the apartment I stayed at had no parking at all. I had to park way up on the hill and go on a morning hike just to pick up the care. In Belgium, it was a garage, and in Haarlem, Netherlands it was an EXPENSIVE garage. A day and a half of parking came to around 60 Euros!

But America, wow! Plentiful and free. Go to any mall, even a big crowded one like Palisades Park in Nyack, NY and there is OODLES of free parking, sprawling out in all directions. We visited a hospital, retirement home, super market, minor league ball game – FREE – FREE – FREE! Of course, there are spots in America where you have to pay for parking, especially in the big cities, but for the most part, parking is plentiful, free, and cheap.

Thank you, America.