The Spiders of China: An Obscurantist’s Personalized Review

Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Spiders of China

Language: English
Song Daxiang, Zhu Mingsheng, & Chen Jun
Publication date:

Number of Pages: 640 pages with 330 figure plates + 4 color plates
Hardcover, US $89.00

ISBN: 7-5375-1892-0

Over Thanksgiving I received an early Christmas present that not many readers of this blog will have on their wish lists. For me, however, The Spiders of China sits at the intersection of several personal interests: I am a bibliophile, an aficionado of fine spiders, amateur sinocologist, and I get my thrill-of-the-hunt from tracking down those little pieces of information that no one else seems to care about. I am also the man who has everything (as of today, even a new grandson). What else is left to get me?

I obtained my first foreign-language spider book in 1976, when I mastered enough Italian to go into a Rome book store and ask, "Dove si trova un libro di ragni?" From our Berlin stop on that same trip I brought home Leben am seidenen Faden: Die rätselvolle Welt der Spinnen. Colombia and Brazil share a paucity of spider books, but many of their species show up in the well-done Arañas de Chiapas, my trophy from a trip no farther than Tucson.

Thus, in 2004, when I was preparing to visit China, one of my first activities was to make a list of books I wanted to find. Amazon didn’t know these books existed, but I found The Spiders of China on the web at China Scientific Book Service.

Silly me, I figured it would be easier, more fun, and maybe less expensive to actually buy the book in China. (I also seem to recall some problem in getting the website to accept an order.) With that goal, in Shanghai, I made a visit to the largest book store I have ever seen, four or five stories high, with hundreds of thousands of books on display . . .

. . . but not The Spiders of China. I consoled myself with a thin paperback on the insect pests in sugar cane.

Later in my trip, I was more successful with another book on my list, not just finding The Edible Insects of China, but meeting author Chen Xiaoming, and getting an autographed copy. Yet I had to come home without The Spiders of China.

Nor was I able to find a copy during my short trip to Zhejiang in 2008.

However, what I did secure in last year’s trip was familial connections in China. I’m not sure how they managed the trick (one does not ask those details about a gift), but the gist of it is, I now have my copy of The Spiders of China.

From the introduction, I learned the Chinese word for Spider (蜘蛛 zhīzhū) means “knowing to kill the bad element.” That makes sense. I also learned that spiders have appeared in Chinese literature since about 1200 BC; and that my own favorite family, the jumping spiders (Salticidae), first drew mention in 1756.

I bonded with the Salticidae about 35 years ago, watching one explore a terrarium. They move with the studied concentration and graceful control I later saw on the streets in China, where Tai Chi enthusiasts exercise amidst passers-by.

Opening the new book, my first hope was to identify a Salticid I photographed on the campus of South West China Normal University, Beibei, Chongqing, where I taught English the summer of 2004.

Drawings in the book helped me quickly settle upon the genus Harmochirus (Wikipedia lists nine species, from Africa to Japan), for which the book offered two, H. brachiatus and H. insulanus.

A quick web search suggested my spider looked more like brachiatus, but also disclosed two new species described since 1999, H. pineus and H. proszynski. I discovered that the Chinese arachnologist most familiar with Harmochirus was Dr. Li Shuqiang, so I sent Dr. Li my photographs. He graciously confirmed both the identification as Harmochirus and my fear that these photographs would be insufficient for identification of species. The fact is, within a given genus, most species of spider can only be distinguished by the shapes of their genitalia. For this reason, The Spiders of China devotes some 300 pages to drawings intended to serve researchers who have specimens under the microscope. Alas, I took only pictures (see also this Nephila) in China, and preserved no specimens.

The other 330 pages, however, give a very useful introduction to the 56 families of spiders in China (a few of which are unfamiliar to me in America), and to their genera, for which a photograph is often sufficient for identification.

To which many readers may be thinking, “So what?”

Many years ago, at the end of a school year, our principal roasted the teachers with funny awards. Mr. Hollinger dubbed me the “Staff Obscurantist.” As I’ve thought about that over the years, I’ve concluded he hit the nail right on the head. I’ve spent my life intrigued by a long list of things that would interest few other people, whether in history, linguistics, botany, zoology, or anthropology. In the process, I’ve come to realize my unique challenge as a writer: steep myself in the obscure from a dozen different fields, and distill from them the details that can embellish a story and open up the subjects to readers who would otherwise not care.

To those of you who have read this far in a review of The Spiders of China, may I ask, “What kept you reading?”

Tis the Season for Googling Product Reviews

Monday, November 30, 2009

As evidence that we have entered the season of buying things, BlogPatrol tells me that over the last week, of the 20 visitors who found my site through a Google search, 15 were looking for some variation on “Canon PowerShot SD1200.”

I wrote my product review in June, five days and 300 pictures into owning my SD1200, so perhaps it is time for an update.

I’ve lost count of how many pictures I’ve taken over these six months, but I continue to enjoy this camera and have grown to trust it. (My G3 used to accidentally power-on while riding in my zippered waist pack. This on-button avoids that problem.) The small size means I am comfortable carrying it almost any time I leave the house. That, in turn, means I have it with me almost any time some image catches my fancy, for example, this ground fog I spotted on my way to work one morning.

After 30 years of using film, I continue to marvel at a digital camera’s ability to capture low light or overly bright situations (or the two existing in the same frame), and at the ever-more-compact memory cards (the tiny unit in the SD 1200 carries more than the five larger cards I carried through China, in 2004, for my G3, and multiple times more than the 40 roles of film I carried through Europe, in 2000). Maybe these things color my conclusions. Maybe some jaded techie who never shot on film or lugged around a bulky SLR can find something to complain about on this mighty-mite camera, but I can’t.

Lance, Forty-three Years Later

Sunday, November 15, 2009

On September 16th, I mentioned it would have been my cousin Lance’s 60th birthday, had he not drowned when we were both 17. I quoted a haiku I wrote the day after his death, and promised a post once I had taken some time to ponder the matter.

Like linked syllables
from the same word—now parted—
all my meanings change.

After two months of thinking on the subject, I’ve concluded that my thoughts haven’t fluctuated much over these 43 years. I’ve only gained the supporting details to confirm my immediate impression. When Lance died, indeed, all my meanings changed.

I’m guessing this family picture dates between Thanksgiving, 1962, and Easter, 1963. About then, my aunt and uncle returned from two years in the Congo and began inviting African foreign students to our family get-togethers. Lance would already be 12, and I turned 12 between the two holidays. I was in 7th grade.

Until age four, Lance and I lived in houses next door to each other. Until age ten, our large extended family got together monthly at Grandma’s house, or at my aunt’s. We also shared
an avocado orchard near Fallbrook, a cabin at Mt. Baldy village, and an annual week-long camping trip to Kings Canyon. We spent a lot of time together.

It’s not surprising that we’re posed next to each other. Until 7th grade, when I fell in with a group of boys at school, Lance was my closest friend.

In the picture, it looks like I might have had three inches on Lance, but the athletic prowess was all his. When the cousins played football in the park beside Grandma’s house, I got pushed aside by rushers while Lance ran for touchdowns. I shied away from sports, while Lance played a year above his age in Little League, and led his league in home runs. During picking season, he
climbed stronger and faster, and dared avocados further out on the branch. It was that athleticism and daring, in fact, that led to his death, scuba diving in kelp beds off Laguna Beach.

It was an idyllic childhood. While our parents sat for their monthly corporate ranch-board meeting, the cousins played Hide and Seek outside, or Murder-in-the-Dark or pillow fights in the back bedroom. During work weekends in the orchard, we pulled weeds for
an hour or so and then ran off to catch lizards and frogs. On summer days at Grandma’s, we’d dig a big hole in the sand and cover it with a piece of plywood to make a fort. At Baldy, we’d spend a weekend in the snow or a Fourth of July moving rocks to dam up the stream. By junior high, we’d sold the ranch, but Lance’s family had moved to a rural house near Fallbrook. Days we rode a raft on a nearby pond and nights we played flashlight wars in an acre-or-so of feral bamboo. Lance always knew how to come up with a new activity.

Mostly, it was fun play without mischief, but I do remember an incident from the era of this picture. My parents had gone shopping, leaving Lance and me in charge of my four younger siblings. For some reason we were trying to fool my youngest brother into believing my middle brother was injured. Lance picked up the telephone and hollered, “Quick, send an ambulance! Devin is hurt bad!” Then he went pale and hung up the receiver. In an amazing coincidence of timing, my parents had been calling to check on us. The connection had been made, though the phone had not yet rung. Needless-to-say, it did ring immediately after he hung up. It’s the only time I ever remember us in trouble.

It was my childhood that ended when Lance died (even if adulthood didn’t arrive right away). The protective coating had been stripped away. Though we were more attuned than most children to problems in places like Africa, and my grandparents had suffered a serious automobile accident, our clan had been spared so many of life’s ravages. That ended when Lance was wrenched from our midst. Then, while I was in college, a flood devastated the house at Baldy, and Lance’s parents separated. The idyll was over.

The first change I saw after Lance’s death was that we all hugged more. Coming from New England Puritan stock, we had not been very demonstrative in our affection. Now we hugged the people we loved while we still had them.

Lance drowned in the spring, in the middle of track season. In high school I had discovered an ability to run long distances, my first athletic success. The second change I observed was a loss of purpose in my running. I suddenly realized how much of my inspiration to excel in track came from a desire to impress and compete with Lance. A pulled muscle also hampered me, but it was my most disappointing track season. I ran competitively two more years, and eventually got my mile time down to a pretty respectable 4:32, but without Lance, I never again had the need to prove myself athletically.

I can’t prove the connection, but the third development that shook my family after Lance drowned was religious. Growing up, we had all been part of the Methodist Church. Yet within five years of Lance’s death, half of the family had moved to more conservative churches, while the other half had found something more liberal, or stopped attending altogether.

Death brings to the surface a host of religious questions, and my family had been a long time without a death. We would continue so. Forty-three years later, of the 27 family members in the photograph, only Lance, my grandparents, and a cousin of my mother’s are missing today. For myself, I suddenly had to wrestle with questions of God’s fairness, and of my own mortality.

I was almost 23 before I reached spiritual equilibrium by placing my faith in Jesus Christ. For me, that has been a very happy result. It has led to virtually all of the deep satisfactions I have enjoyed in the intervening 36 years and gives me promise of even greater joys to come. Over the years, though, I sometimes mourned the price Lance had to pay for my propitious wake-up call. Not any more. I recently heard from his sister that in an old box of Lance’s things, she and her mother discovered a testimony, from just a few months before his death, of the same decision I’d make later. While I have been here, Lance has been in the very presence of the risen Christ.

I do not know why God chooses to take some to Heaven young, and leave others on Earth to grow old, but I suspect it has less to do with the nature of this life than with the variety of individuals with whom God wants to populate Heaven. Scripture tells us they will be from every tribe and nation. Experience tells us they will be from every age and experience. God, who created all diversity, must delight in it.

I praise God for the part Lance played in my life while he was here, and for the changes wrought by his leaving. I praise God for the hope of seeing Lance again. Looking back 43 years, and not expecting to live another 43, I am closer to seeing Lance again than to the last time I saw him. That’s change I can believe in.

60th Birthday for One Ever-Young

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

After my eulogy for Oscar last week, it was not my intention to write again soon about the death of a 17-year-old. But I looked at the calendar today and realized this would have been my cousin Lance’s 60th birthday. All these years later, it threw me for a loop.

In a very close extended family, Lance was my senior by only three months. Until I entered my teens, I had no closer friend. About Easter of our junior year of high school, Lance drowned while scuba diving off the Southern California coast. The next day I wrote this haiku:

Like linked syllables
from the same word—now parted—

all my meanings change.

It won’t happen tonight, but I will be working on a post. You can watch for it.

Posted by Brian at 9:36 PM 0 comments  

Civility in a Time of Lying

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Democracy requires a difficult-to-maintain veneer of decorum over the hottest of passions. When all else fails, the two sides must still be able to speak to each other politely and be heard over the din. There should also be respect for office. One test of this might be self-inspection on the part of those either angered or pleased about Rep. Joe Wilson’s outbreak during President Obama’s healthcare speech: Did they have the identical or an opposite reaction when the Iraqi reporter threw a shoe at President Bush?

For the record, I disagree with Rep. Wilson on several points. First, I believe a speech by the President to Congress should be interrupted only by applause, whether polite or exuberant, or it should be submitted to in stony silence, out of respect for both institutions. Second, Rep Wilson’s explosion came when President Obama declared that no illegal alien would be covered under the coming healthcare plan. As I have expressed before, I don’t believe most of our undocumented neighbors are the kinds of bogey-men they have been made out to be. Even with ten or fifteen million of them combined, I don’t believe people working at minimum wage in farm fields or sweatshops harm America as much as the executives who have given themselves huge bonuses out of money the government intended for bailing out mismanaged businesses. (If it turns out any recipient of those multimillion-dollar travesties was here illegally, I say, yes, ship them home with empty pockets.)

On the other hand, when it is journalists or bloggers who catch a president or congress spinning facts to the detriment of truth, it is our duty to point that out. The subject over which I am best prepared to support such a charge is abortion. In Wednesday’s speech, President Obama asserted, “And one more misunderstanding I want to clear up – under our plan, no federal dollars will be used to fund abortions, and federal conscience laws will remain in place.”

Fact: H.R. 3200, as it currently stands with an amendment written by Rep. Lois Capps (R-Calif) and approved by the House Energy and Commerce Committee (30 pro-abortion Democrats favoring and 28 Republicans and pro-life Democrats opposing), the bill “explicitly permits the Secretary of the Health and Human Services Department, pro-abortion advocate Kathleen Sebelius, to include abortion in the services offered by public option and requires abortion coverage in the government health plan if the Hyde amendment is ever reversed. HR 3200 authorizes taxpayer-funded affordability credits and the Capps amendment specifically requires taxpayer subsidies to flow to plans that include abortion, but creates an accounting scheme designed to give the impression that public funds will not subsidize abortion. The Capps amendment also requires that a plan that includes abortion be made available in every region of the country.” Source

Fact: Later that same day, this same committee defeated (30-29) a bipartisan amendment proposed by Reps. Joe Pitts (R-PA) and Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) designed to prevent mandated abortion coverage in the essential benefits package. Source

Conclusion: Unless President Obama is proposing to remove the Capps Amendment and replace it with wording from the Pitts/Stupak Amendment, he lied in his speech this week.

Secondly, Obama’s reference to federal conscience laws “under our plan” can only be true in a sense so narrow he would need to cross his fingers behind his back. Last March, the Obama administration published in the Federal Register a proposal to rescind all Bush-era protections for medical personnel who refused to participate in abortions on moral grounds. Obama apparently means that the current “our plan” promises to protect those conscience laws which remain after his previous plan has eliminated them altogether. To this observer, that also looks like a lie.

Two years ago, when speaking to a Planned Parenthood audience, candidate Obama promised to eliminate these conscience protections and to include abortion-coverage in his national health insurance package, “In my mind, reproductive care is essential care,” he said. “It is basic care. And so it is at the center and at the heart of the plan that I propose. Essentially … we're gonna set up a public plan … that will provide all essential services, including reproductive services. We also will subsidize those who prefer to stay in the private insurance market — except the insurers are going to have to abide by the same rules in terms of providing comprehensive care, including reproductive care. I still believe that it is important for Planned Parenthood to be part of that system.” (Note: By "reproductive care," Obama means abortion and by “part of that system,” he means federal subsidies.) Source

I was alone with my wife in the privacy of a living room when candidate Obama sat with Rick Warren and described himself as a moderate on abortion. Even then, I did not blurt out, “You Lie!”

The record, however, shows that during three different years in the Illinois Senate, Barack Obama led opposition to the Born Alive Infant Protection Act. At the same time, the US House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly and the US Senate voted 98-0 to pass nearly identical legislation. Even the pro-abortion group NARAL remained neutral. But “moderate” Obama fought hard to protect the rights of hospital personnel to abandon living babies and let them die. Then he denied he had done so. He maintained that denial until the case against him was so strong that he could maintain the lie no longer. On August 18, 2008, just two days after the Saddleback Forum, his campaign admitted the truth. (Links to Obama’s votes on Illinois BAIPA)

It damages our Democracy when a congressman interrupts a president’s speech to call him a liar. But the damage is at least as severe when a president lies to Congress and to the American People. We do need to fix our broken health insurance system, and some of what the President is proposing impresses me as reasonable. However, when he uses his condescending “I’m an adult, so stop acting like a child” look to cover his lies on abortion, and then gives the same look to put down the legitimate fears of others, how can I as a voter trust him?

It is also difficult for me to trust the President when groups with whom he has partnered get caught in blatant disregard for the laws of our country. One prime example is the number of times hidden cameras or microphones have caught staff members in Planned Parenthood facilities across the country telling purportedly under-aged girls to hide the age of the men who have impregnated them, thus allowing Planned Parenthood to evade reporting laws on statutory rape. Unfortunately, those videos have become common enough to lose their punch, and I still haven’t seen where Obama has even acknowledged their existence.

Already, however, the Obama administration is racing to sever its connections with ACORN after a video that left me gasping when I saw it yesterday. An under-cover investigative couple walks into an ACORN housing office in Baltimore: She pretends to be a prostitute in need of housing to bring in and set up undocumented girls (under age 15) from El Salvador; He wants to divert funds from this “business” to make a run for Congress. Without batting an eye, two ACORN staffers pull out code books and begin explaining how it will need to be set up to best avoid taxes. The good news is: the Obama Administration will pull ACORN’s contract to help with next year’s census. The bad news is: Obama has worked closely with a group long-accused of lying and misrepresentation, and never saw a problem until all plausible deniably disappeared.

The President not only lies, but he hangs around with people for whom lying is a way of life.

I say that as civilly as I can manage.

A sample of the Planned Parenthood videos: hiding statutory rape, accepting donations earmarked for eugenics, showing as a lie PPA denials of racist sympathies

Just one of several editings of the ACORN videos. Variations abound.

Eulogy for Oscar

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Oscar Esparza

(May 30, 1992-Aug 8, 2009)

In the final minutes of his life, driving a car that had been stolen at gun-point just eleven hours earlier, Oscar raced ahead of a pursuing police officer. Running through a stop sign at perhaps 90 mph, he collided with a family of seven in a pickup, sending both vehicles flying into an orange orchard. All five children in the pickup died, as did Oscar and two friends riding with him in the stolen car. Oscar was 17. I had not seen him in two years. For that last meeting, I’d waited in a visiting room at juvenile hall while officers marshaled in a line of hardened teens. Oscar was polite and friendly, but kept his emotions well guarded. At the end he thanked me for coming and took his place in line to march out. I cared about Oscar, had long feared that it might end as it did, and hoped fervently that it wouldn’t. I cannot make excuses for Oscar: what he did is inexcusable. At best I can offer his story.

I took this smiling picture of Oscar eight years ago, on the day I met him. As a third grade teacher, I decided I wanted to meet every student in my class before the first day of school. I called him on the telephone and invited myself to his home. We had a good time. I met his two older brothers, two younger brothers, two younger sisters, mother, and the mother’s boyfriend. Oscar was a handsome kid, but I recognized that, even as a nine-year old, life had not been easy for Oscar, nor would he be easy to have in class. Walking back to my car, I stopped to talk to a student I’d taught the previous year. He told me that Oscar had stolen his bicycle, and after the police returned it, Oscar stole it again.

I had a special reason to spend time with Oscar. During the previous year, I had been asking God for one troubled boy I could come alongside and try to point in a more positive direction. I had read that when the Department of Corrections wants to predict how many prison beds will be needed down the line, they look at how many third grade boys are reading below grade-level today. Each year, I could look around my third grade classroom and see eight or ten boys reading below grade-level, some of them quite far below. At that time, 93% of all incarcerated adults were males, most of them still comparatively young. I’d read that 95% of them had no positive relationship with a father-figure, nor had ever had one. I could look around my classroom and see five or six boys in that situation. I attended a presentation on how to pick an individual to pour your life into, and came away with three principles: a) pick someone who is open, b) pick someone well-known in the community [whether famous or infamous], and then, c) wait for God’s supernatural confirmation.

For a year, I had watched and prayed. I spent extra time with a couple of boys, and then met Oscar. He was open. He was “the worst boy in the whole class” and next-younger brother to “the worst boy in the whole school.” After school hours, Oscar and I began meeting for a session that doubled as one-on-one reading lesson and Bible study. My principal approved as long as I took it off-campus. I began to see the kind of coincidences that point to supernatural confirmation.

Early on, I began to focus our Bible study on the problem of anger. Oscar had many reasons to be angry. Anger is the human response when something has not been fair, and life was never fair to Oscar. But anger did not serve Oscar well. When life has been unfair, anger is often Satan’s way to take away whatever we have left. Often, it even destroys what good things others have.

In my first lesson with Oscar, I had him memorize James 1:19, “Be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to get angry.” Soon after, Oscar came in from a recess, explosive over something that had happened on the playground. I got down at his eye-level, took him by the shoulders, and asked, “What does James 1:19 say?” He thought a few seconds. Then I watched all the anger drain out of his face. He smiled sheepishly at me and recited it, “Be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to get angry.” Fully relaxed, he was able to enter the classroom and go to work. It is my favorite memory of Oscar.

After a couple of months, the next-older brother joined our Bible study. Then, when the family moved to another neighborhood and Oscar no longer attended my school, I began picking the boys up twice a week for Sunday school and my church’s children’s program. The boys and I took an occasional hike, or some other field trip, I attended Oscar’s basketball games at the youth center, and I have an old wood pile in my back yard that Oscar worked with me to stack.

We continued to work on anger.

When Oscar had been about five, both parents went to prison for a year and the four boys went to live with an uncle in another state. That was the year we expect students to learn the basics of reading. Oscar didn’t.

When the boys returned to their mother, she told them that their father was in prison in Mexico, and they would never see him again. I do not know the truth, but in retrospect, I wonder if Oscar suspected at the time that he was being lied to by someone he loved.

One boyfriend came for a while and then left. Another came to stay. The family grew to eight siblings. When she was sober, or when I visited, Oscar’s mother was attentive and loving. Only the kids witnessed her other side. I have a file with some of the worksheets we did. Here, in his own 4th grade handwriting is a description of a situation he knew well:

Oscar also had to struggle with being the younger brother of “the worst boy in the whole school.” Oscar both idolized his brother and resented the lopsided share of attention that the brother’s behavior garnered. A week before Oscar died, the brother called about something else, and then ended the conversation with, “If you see Oscar, tell him to come home. He’s still trying to be like I was.”

Just after Oscar’s eleventh birthday, this older-brother/sibling-rival/best-friend/idol went into juvenile hall for violence within the home. They never lived together again. About that same time, a boy standing on the corner two doors from their house was killed in a drive-by shooting. On the way home from church, Oscar pointed out the front yard where a friend’s uncle had been killed. After Oscar’s death, a newspaper quoted a police officer remarking about the teenager’s “callous disregard for human life.” It’s true. But callouses form to protect a tender place from frequent injury.

When Oscar was twelve, his mother moved the family to Los Angeles, both to get away from an abusive boyfriend and to give Oscar a fresh start at another school. Six months later, she returned to Visalia. Unable to afford a place of her own, she moved the family into the home of a friend. Even with one brother from each family locked away, it was two mothers and thirteen kids in a three-bedroom house, in the same bad neighborhood. Oscar started spending days at a time with his buddies. If he was home, he’d smile and greet me when I came to pick up his younger siblings for Sunday school, but he’d lost interest in going himself.

Meanwhile, his mother began a downward spiral: alcohol, days spent at the casinos, a string of boyfriends. On the day I saw a black eye on the younger brother and knew I had to report her to CPS, someone else beat me to it. CPS discovered old warrants. She was arrested, sent to prison, and then deported. I believe Oscar saw her just once again (by running away from a guardian and trying to adjust to life in a country he had never before visited), but he never again saw any of his five younger siblings, nor his oldest brother.

After years of working with young people of all ages, I know that children under ten or eleven tend to be flexible enough to move and adjust. Older teens often have the maturity to do so. Children in their early teens seem to be the most vulnerable. They are so wrapped up in their peer groups that uprooting them can send even the most secure into a tailspin. Oscar never had the chance to start from that kind of height. He ran away from the foster home, and hid with his buddies. For Oscar, it was the closest he could get to creating a “home.” As near as I can reconstruct, he spent most of that first year out of school, even though he was already so far behind. When authorities found him, they put him in juvenile hall. Whenever they tried placing him outside its walls, he went looking for either his buddies or his mother.

For these last few years, I had to try and follow Oscar from his occasional visits to MySpace. He used the screen name “Killer.” He listed his emotion as “Angry.” The last time I saw Oscar, he told me the main thing he wanted in life was to eat his mother’s cooking.

If life was fair, every boy could eat his mother’s cooking. He would live securely with two parents who loved him and would learn to read well (and read first in the language he spoke at home). If life was fair, no boy would be locked up for trying to find home. But certainly, if life was fair, Oscar’s pain and confusion would not have brought such pain and confusion to three other families, and to their entire community. As father to my own five children, I think especially of the Salazar family, who seem from newspaper accounts to have had everything that Oscar didn’t, and were raising their kids just as Oscar could only have dreamed of. The newspaper quotes an aunt as saying, “We’re trying to be as strong as our Christian faith allows us to be.”

As a Christian myself, I acknowledge that Christians have a special problem here that materialists do not have. In dog-eat-dog “survival of the fittest,” there is no expectation of fairness. If we are just the sum of our charged particles, the collapse of a family or the collision of two cars should carry no deeper moral questions than the collapse of a star or the collision of two asteroids. Indeed, the death of a youth who had so few of the skills or aptitudes for gaining adult success might be viewed as simply “natural selection.” The fact that mankind longs for fairness and responds angrily to its absence is, by itself, evidence that we are made in the image of a moral, fairness-seeking God. But for Christians, the challenge is to answer how a moral God could allow such unfair things to happen.

I do believe God wants fairness. However, “fairness” requires moral choices, which in turn require a standard that can be either obeyed or disobeyed. We are not simply charged particles moving always in the right direction, held in line by the narrow confines of inescapable obedience. We stumble. We drift. We rebel. We take that which we know is not ours. We sin and are sinned against. We come into life victims (some more than others) of a tide of sin that surrounds us. Then as perpetrators, we propagate and perpetuate that tide so that it washes against both those we love and those we don’t even know.

On discussion boards after the crash, I saw comments thanking God that scum like Oscar got what they deserved in the crash. I saw mention of someone's hope that Oscar had gone straight to Hell. I also saw racist pronouncements about the occupants of both vehicles, and their ethnic disregard for seat-belt laws. I lump each of these attitudes into the same category as the sin that entangled Oscar.

One who truly understands Hell cannot wish it on anyone. Hell was never created as a place for human souls. It was created as a prison for Satan and his demons, a place of never-ending loneliness, pain, and regret. It is God’s desire that every human soul spend eternity with Him, in Heaven. But God honors the decisions of individuals. When someone chooses to walk away from God, Hell is the farthest away from God one can get.

I have reason to hope that Oscar isn’t there. On the first Sunday of June, 2002, I heard Oscar say a simple prayer. He asked God to forgive him his sins, and come into his life. Someone once approached a famous evangelist and said, “I saw one of your converts last night, drunk and in the gutter.” The evangelist replied, “Yes, it must have been one of mine. It couldn’t have been one of God’s.” Maybe Oscar was only one of my converts, and never one of God’s. But I have hope.

It is easy for someone to compare themselves with Oscar, and say, “At least I never stole cars or killed innocent kids,” but no one gets into Heaven by comparison with others. Heaven is perfect and the standard for admittance is perfection. Even the best of us misses perfection by a great margin. As a Christian, the good news is that Jesus offers to pay the full price for all of my sins, and in return, to credit me with His perfection. The only requirement is that I must accept the gift in faith. Of course, once I’ve been relieved of my load, I can’t begrudge Christ for relieving anyone else of theirs. For many of us, that is the hardest part: We continue to clamor for fairness, even when God wants to trump fairness with mercy and grace.

To be sure, Christ desires changes in the lives of His followers. I saw disappointingly little change in Oscar. Two passages in I Corinthians (3:10-15 & 11:27-32) seem to teach that when God’s patience runs out with believers who continue in gross sin, He finds it necessary to end their earthly lives prematurely. They arrive in Heaven, but without any of the rewards other believers will receive.

No one can see the heart of another, but I hope to see Oscar in Heaven. It will be the home that on earth eluded him.

“(God) will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away." (Rev. 21:4)

I know nothing about the two teens riding with Oscar, but I do expect to see the Salazar children in Heaven. At the end of the Book of Job, when God restored Job to double of everything he had owned before Satan took it from him, the one total matched but not doubled was Job’s 10 children. The implication is that these ten later children were not to replace the first ten—children cannot be replaced—but came in addition to the ten who would be waiting for Job in Heaven when he arrived. I pray that God blesses the Salazars accordingly. I also pray that they will find a way to forgive Oscar, on this side of Heaven, not for Oscar’s sake, or mine, but for their own. Anger rarely serves any of us well. Instead, it is only Satan’s way to take away what we have left.

In the month since Oscar's death, I've wondered what else might have been done. I gave him my best shot and folks at my church went over-and-above to minister to him. The public schools did the best they could, as did the foster community and the juvenile justice system. At the mortuary I met some of the young men Oscar hung with. In their own way, they tried. My theology tells me that no one is ever beyond God's reach, or the ability to change, but that ultimately each person is responsible for their own decisions. The Bible also explains that a parent's poor decisions wreck consequences to the fourth generation (Exodus 34:7, etc.). There's more here than I can sort out in a month. I will leave it at this: I cared about Oscar, and I mourn his death. Right now it hurts. But I have already found someone else I will love in the name of Christ. I invite you to go and do likewise.

* * * * * * * *

Some of the themes I touched on in this eulogy come up in a novel that I still have a lot of work to complete, maybe two or three years worth. For anyone who is interested in hearing about that novel when it is finally available, I have a Kontactr button in the left hand margin of this page. Please leave your name. I will treat it with care.

A Virus Warning

Monday, August 24, 2009

I interrupt this period of silence to warn readers that, should your computer start flashing you messages that Windows has discovered a virus and you need to purchase "PC Antispyware2010," it's already too late. Wipe your PC clean and start all over. This blog will resume when I finally get my rig back from the shop. (Oh, and be careful about adding widgets to your Google home page. I'm highly suspicious of my daily dose of Dilbert.)

Posted by Brian at 10:06 PM 0 comments  

I’m Ho-ome

Friday, August 07, 2009

I’m vegging today after what has seemed like the most intense summer since 2000, when we pushed for seven weeks through Uzbekistan and eight countries in Europe. This summer, we drove some six thousand miles, going north to a family reunion in Wenatchee, WA . . .

. . . and south, to San Diego, for part two of the wedding that began with part one in China, last October.

Since the last time we had the whole family together for a picture, we’ve added six members.

Along the way, we enjoyed delightful visits with family and friends, some of whom we hadn’t seen in over a decade.

(Product review: The success of this summer was made possible by my Toyota Sienna, which will be ten years old this fall. It flipped 158,000 miles on Monday. During one, three-day, one-thousand-mile segment, it carried five adults and way-too-much luggage. It had all the power I needed going up steep grades, and comfortably handled curvy Highway 101. Thanks to Bob and Jim at The Auto Shop, the Sienna has never suffered a breakdown, or needed a tow. With the removable seats out, the Sienna has moved my children in-and-out of multiple apartments. With the seats in, it has carried countless kids on field trips or to Sunday school. What a blessing this car has been. Thanks, Vicki, for buying me this car, and for riding around with me all summer.)

So yesterday and today I’ve been moving kind of slow. I’ve pulled a few weeds, run some laundry, and started to think about school starting in ten days. I’m also trying to make amends to a blog that has been feeling abandoned.

A few thoughts:

  • We live in a big, beautiful country. We saw parts of California, Oregon, and Washington that I hadn’t seen before, and revisited some places that were familiar. If I had stopped to soak in every vista that tempted me, I would still be on the road.

  • Family is a tremendous blessing. This summer I got to spend time with my parents, the aunts and uncles who helped raise me (all now in their 80s), and with the cohort of siblings and cousins who grew up with me (and have grown with me now, well into middle age). The nieces, nephews, and cousins-once-removed pop up as spitting images of the previous generations, but with the twist of their own generation’s unique personality and outlook. I got quality time with the children I raised, the spouses my children have married, and my grandchildren. Pretty amazing.

  • I need to learn more Portuguese. With Brazilians as son-in-law and daughter-in-law, and now a nephew with a Brazilian girlfriend, I listened to a lot of Portuguese this summer. I over-heard my Chinese-born daughter-in-law encouraging my son-in-law to “Speak only English!” His English is coming along, and we had several conversations we could not have had last time I saw him. My grandsons, also, are progressing as bilinguals. Yet there were times this summer when I wanted to follow a conversation, and couldn’t. I have been working recently on Chinese, but I need to redouble my efforts toward Portuguese.

  • While I was gone, hundreds of luscious figs fell on the ground. Pity. I must redouble my efforts to see that no new figs go unappreciated while the season lasts.

  • I went the summer without getting any writing done. (Okay, three paragraphs on my novel.) Now I will need to write at the same time I am teaching. I find that very difficult.

So, here’s to a wonderful summer. And now on to the challenges of a new school year. Life is good.

Shasta: La Vista, Baby

Sunday, July 12, 2009

I've stepped out of California for just a few days, headed for a family reunion in Washington. In all my previous passes through Oregon, I've stayed on Interstate 5, to visit relatives in the Willamette Valley, but this time we tried Highway 97. I'd never seen Shasta from this angle (north and east of the mountain). For all its current problems, California still has the ability to dazzle one with the sheer beauty of its vistas. I'll be back.

Posted by Brian at 9:12 PM 0 comments  

Where North is West and East is South

Friday, July 03, 2009

I realize how easy it is to kick California when it’s down, but if this state is having trouble finding its way out of the woods, part of the problem may stem from a federal highway system that can’t distinguish north and south from east and west. I’ve run up against this problem twice in the last month.

The first time, I was in Contra Costa County, trying to get on Interstate 80 at Richmond Parkway. I intended to travel due south for the thirteen miles that would put me on Interstate 880. Then I would continue south-by-southeast to US 101, and still farther south-by-southeast to Gilroy. However, in approaching the freeway onramp, my choices were “East” or “West.”

Taken continentally, Interstate 80 runs from San Francisco, California to Teaneck, New Jersey, which I will grant is farther east than I have ever been. In my personal experience, I-80 connects San Francisco to Lake Tahoe, a route that moves the traveler about 110 miles north to arrive 125 miles east. However, the immediate portion I intended to travel runs 13 miles due south. In the middle of choosing a correct lane for the choices of on-ramps, I had no reason to imagine either the highway’s western end across the Oakland Bay Bridge into Frisco, or the 2899.54 miles to Teaneck. “East” or “West” was not the choice I needed to be offered.

The following two weeks, I was in Southern California, using the Ventura Freeway to run back and forth between Camarillo (on the west) and Glendale (on the east). About the first 50 miles are on US 101. Then it becomes US 134. But notice I use “east” and “west.” For over a hundred miles, the 101, 134, and then the 210 hug a line at 34°8’ N Latitude. In the morning, inbound drivers have the rising sun in their eyes, replaced outbound in the evening by the setting sun. Yet at 30 consecutive on-ramps, drivers face a choice of “North” or “South.”

Maybe this is unimportant in a state that is $24 billion (and counting) short of balancing its budget, where the governor has declared a state of emergency (hey, at least he’s not off hiking the Appalachian Trail), where the treasurer is paying the state’s debts with IOU’s, and lists of possible solutions include a constitutional convention. After all, we got into this problem because for thirty years the legislature busied itself with piddling stuff because they couldn’t face the big problem.

However, as a state, we’re lost and can’t determine which way to go. We’ve spent the last year more-or-less hugging a tree. If help is coming, it hasn’t yet appeared. We may have to venture out on our own, into territory where the trails aren’t marked. But what is worse, some of our routes bear fictitious or fanciful orientation. If we start by correcting these, maybe we can figure out where we ought to be headed.

Posted by Brian at 6:12 PM 2 comments  

Canon PowerShot SD1200 IS: a product review

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

I was slow going digital with my photography. As late as the summer of 2000, I dragged forty roles of slide film and my Nikon SLR for seven weeks across Europe and Uzbekistan. I still hadn’t organized and viewed all those slides when I bought my Canon G3 during the summer of 2003, and now, of course, when I want to use one of those European shots, I first have to digitize it. My G3 has been twice to China and twice to Brazil. It has recorded weddings for my five children, gotten me nearly three years into grandfatherhood, and illustrated these first five years of Capers with Carroll. On a single day in Yunnan, I shot 600 keepers from a bus window. In Pernambuco, I captured 120 images of one male Frigga sp. to get the picture I use at the top of this blog. That would have been a prohibitive four 36-shot rolls of film. I love my G3.

However, in September, I spent some time in the camera section of a big-box electronics store, helping a visitor from China choose a pocket-sized digital. Suddenly the G3 felt pretty bulky. My favorite shirt is a guayabera with four pockets. They will hold the G3, but it’s awkward to maintain for more than a few minutes. I usually carry my camera on a belly strap, but that creates other problems. Whether I’m photographing urban wildlife or grand kids, the key to success is to have the camera perpetually at hand. Even as a junior high teacher, whether I want to record evidence against a graffiti artist or a cute candid shot to forward to the yearbook, a camera in the pocket is worth two in the closet.

So Friday I bought (and my wife credited to Father’s Day) a Canon PowerShot SD1200 IS. Consumer Reports had rated it their top choice and Staples offered a good deal.

As the photographs show, it passes the grand-kids test. Natu and I were on opposite sides of a spider web. I was trying to capture an image of the too-small spider (visible as an orange-brown smudge), but the camera’s automatic focus went for the better shot.

In my first several attempts at photographing the hummingbird, the automatic focus preferred the surrounding foliage (a tough shot for any but the best manual focus), blurring the bird, before my subject did me a favor and came out to a better perch. I’ve grown spoiled by the ability of the G3’s small display to rotate out of the camera to facilitate shots from difficult angles, but the PowerShot’s much bigger display outdoes the G3 in bright sunshine. It even outlines the targets where it has chosen to focus. On the G3, the zoom always seemed to cost clarity, but I’m very pleased with the zoom on my hummingbird shots.

I’m also pleased with the jumping spider (Habrocestum sp.) and water strider shots, taken at the default full-wide angle. In each case, the critter let me get within 18 inches, and the pixel density let me crop and enlarge. For closer studies of insects and spiders, I will continue to use the even higher density capacity of my G3. For those, I fix the camera on a tripod, turn the subject loose on a leaf, manipulate the leaf to achieve focus, and record a superabundance of poses. Spontaneity is not an issue.

I’ve now taken about 300 photographs with the SD 1200. I like the quality of the pictures and the feel of the camera. Its turn-on speed and short lag-time on the shutter are big improvements over the G3. Even with a protective case, it fits so comfortably in my pocket that I foresee keeping it with me most of the time.

I present to you the new workhorse of this blog.

(For a six-month update, look here.)