Sailing to…

“… a mere pebble on the fringes of a vast flood of change which has spilled across the media headlines and alters the perceptions of half the world almost from day to day.

The author was referring to his voyage in the above quote.

The Book of the Week is “Sailing to Leningrad, A Voyage Through the Baltic” by Roger Foxall, published in 1989.

The author– an Irish sea captain– and a fluidly changing crew (who were picked up or dropped off in various territories) of four to six people, including his wife and son, sailed a small yacht, starting from south western Ireland, around the Baltic Sea in the summer of 1987.

It might be recalled that a mere three decades ago, the world was changing for the better. A throwaway line of an ad for a financial institution of two decades ago is a nostalgic dream dispenser: “For the swift and sure, the rewards have never been greater.”

In the mid-1980’s, Foxall saw the changing political winds. He was the first captain from “Britain and Ireland” to get permission from the government of the former Soviet Union in about seventy years, to grace the coasts of that once mighty empire. The voyage took the sailors to thirteen countries spanning 4,400 miles.

There were hazards on the coasts, such as (explosive) mines, boulders and shipwrecks, as well as adverse weather to contend with; never mind paperwork, phone calls and bureaucracy in dealing with a range of different embassies and governments in requesting to dock at all the different ports on the itinerary, and in requesting to come ashore. Securing equipment and supplies, and purchasing yacht insurance, were also part of the years-long trip-planning process.

The author had read the logs of two different ships that had sailed in the same area around 1860. Of course, they lacked the labor-saving, damage-preventing and comfort-giving devices mariners enjoy in modern times. Even into the 1970’s, winter was a dangerous time to travel in the northern latitudes. According to the 1980’s author, a 35,000 horsepower machine had been invented that could break ice more than two feet thick.

However, modern technology has its drawbacks. Nowadays, phones and the Web make users hypersensitive to what everyone else is doing and where they are– all the time. For the captain, there was no point in worrying about his wife and son when he was away from them and couldn’t communicate with them. But currently in the United States, just hearing about people who have fallen ill is a much more traumatic event than it used to be, with all the pervasive, fast and furious propaganda.

Anyway, during their voyage, the captain and crew met friendly northern and eastern Europeans. The author described the different cultures they encountered. The Finns, who took great pains to disassociate themselves from Russian identity, fed the captain and crew goat cheese pastries and smoked reindeer meat. When the crew stopped by Helsinki, the sailors met people who lived on the same block as the prime minister of Finland. It wasn’t a big deal to those Finns; they didn’t even have extra security in the vicinity. Inhabitants of Poland took their sailing very seriously, ranking it just under (European) football.

Read the book to learn of the sailors’ adventures.

Patriot Number One

Americans believe in the two-party system. One on Friday, one on Saturday.

Insanely enough, Americans are not allowed to have parties anymore. Because, ironically, America is becoming like China!

The following is an excerpt from a China-bashing opinion piece penned by Newt Gingrich for the Fox News website, dated April 30, 2020. However, every occasion of “Chinese” has been replaced with “American” and “Communist” with “Two-Party” and vice versa.

“Chinese and their allies seem to forget that the heart of the rise of the American Two-Party [system] was a deep dedication to effective education and propaganda. They have had nearly a century of experience at waging intellectual and psychological warfare as the necessary foundation of winning and keeping power.”

The following is a quote from Bertrand Russell: “There is something feeble and a little contemptible about a man who cannot face the perils of life without the help of comfortable myths. Almost inevitably some part of him is aware that they are myths and that he believes them only because they are comforting. But he dare not face this thought! Moreover, since he is aware, however dimly, that his opinions are not rational, he becomes furious when they are disputed.”

During the Cold War, America always stoked the fear that all countries had the potential to fall to Communism like dominoes. Currently, the local leaders of this country, America (!)– have fallen into line like dominoes. At any time, either major American political party has possessed the power to reject this oppression, but instead, both parties have collaborated to encourage it. Because they are comprised of people who will say or do anything to get elected or reelected in the event there continue to be free and fair elections.

AS IS WELL KNOWN, A SIGN OF DEMOCRACY IS FREE AND FAIR ELECTIONS. IF THE INCUMBENTS ALMOST AUTOMATICALLY WIN THIS FALL, IS THAT FREE AND FAIR ELECTIONS?

From the early 1960’s into the 1970’s, only men of military age had reason to fear the power of the government. Currently, every man, woman and child has reason to fear. It is not just the president who has the potential to wield outrageous power, but all government leaders across the entire country, not unlike in China.

The United States is now at a turning point in its history. Either it will become even more like China in its totalitarian ways, or its leaders will get back to restoring its citizens’ freedoms.

It might be recalled that Chinese Communist dictator Mao Tse Tung took the following steps, among many other steps, in acquiring more and more power:

  • Land reform– seizing private property from wealthy capitalists and landlords to redistribute it among everyone else (but this actually resulted in famine in which tens of millions of people died; famine is probably one thing Americans won’t suffer from)
  • nationalizing businesses
  • having a state-approved, heavily armed military force roam the streets, arbitrarily violating peoples’ civil rights
  • Inviting citizens to air their grievances, and then arresting, jailing and torturing them for speaking out against the government
  • Eliminating free speech, freedom of the press, and the right to assemble, and
  • Reducing the number of China’s political parties to one: The Communist Party, and forcing people to join it or be even more oppressed

For more information, see the following posts:

  • The Most Wanted Man in China
  • The Man on Mao’s Right
  • Colors of the Mountain

Is the above what America wants to be??

One more thing– ironically, China is in the stage of its economic development that the United States was in, about a hundred years ago: industrialization and operating factories galore (of course, China also has modern electronic technology). But the poorest of China’s citizens have yet to form labor unions to protest unjust working conditions. Some people in the United States government are pushing for a return to American manufacturing, strangely enough.

Anyway, the Book of the Week is “Patriot Number One, American Dreams in Chinatown” by Lauren Hilgers, published in 2018. This book described the Chinese immigrant experience in very recent years for a rural-village couple who are now in their thirties, and a student, who settled in the Flushing section of New York City, in Queens county.

Born in 1983 in the rural village of Wukan near Shenzhen, Zhuang Liehong grew up in a poverty-stricken family. His father was a sometime crab fisherman. He was handed off from one extended relative to another in Hong Kong beginning when he was about six years old.

Zhuang ended his formal education with middle school, not wanting to impose the financial burden of high school tuition on his family. In the 1990’s, his hometown became the victim of eminent-domain abuse of sorts, when investors invaded with infrastructure and modernization projects as a result of Deng Xiaoping’s 1980’s economic initiatives.

Zhuang was elected to a seat on Wukan’s village council, and became a political activist. Autumn 2011 saw common farmers and former landowners protest in the streets against the local government’s stealing their properties in the name of money. However, they themselves weren’t entirely innocent of law-breaking, as they had engaged in illegal building on their former land, or had been “smugglers, gamblers, ticket scalpers.”

As is very common with such unrest, the local authorities bashed some heads, rounded up the worst offenders and sentenced a few of them to a few years in jail, and trampled on what would be considered “due process” in the United States.

A few years later, after Zhuang (and his wife) had executed his carefully planned scheme to flee to the United States, the local government also set up a bribery scandal that involved the village council, prompting more oppression of the community.

A possible legal way, then, for Zhuang to move permanently to the United States, was for him to apply for political asylum. More people from China than from any other nation apply for political asylum, followed by Guatemala, El Salvador and Egypt.

Read the book to learn of Zhuang’s family’s adventures in the United States, and of the adventures of a young female student who became friendly with Zhuang’s wife.

From Jailer to Jailed – BONUS POST

The Bonus Book of the Week is “From Jailer to Jailed, My Journey from Correction and Police Commissioner to Inmate #84888-054” by Bernard. B. Kerik, published in 2015.

While he was in prison, Kerik met many people whose punishments he felt were too severe or inappropriate (including his own, of course), given the crimes they’d committed.

The author recommended that all employees of the American justice system “…should have to spend seventy-two hours in the hole [solitary confinement in prison] to see what it’s like.” This way, the law enforcers would understand how psychologically damaging such punishment is, and might impose it with more discretion.

Throughout the book, Kerik repeatedly complained about the “… insane money our country wastes on incarcerating people who could be dealt with, punished in alternative ways.”

In May 2003, to the tune of $120 million compliments of American taxpayers, Kerik went to Iraq with a few tens of other men to try to rebuild a local law enforcement system modeled on the West’s notions of justice meted out for street crime.

Ten years later, Kerik realized it had been an epic fail. Saddam Hussein’s regime had sadistic cops administering torture at the drop of a hat, and Americans’ efforts to change their attitudes, even in the absence of Saddam, were too little and misguided, to put it generously.

In November 2007, thanks to viciously vengeful political enemies, Kerik was charged with sixteen counts’ worth of federal crimes. He felt the judge was outrageously unfair to him.

Read the book to learn of Kerik’s experiences and his well-informed suggestions for how to improve America’s criminal justice system.

Where the Wind Leads/The Fox Hunt

The Books of the Week are “Where the Wind Leads, A Memoir” by Vinh Chung With Tim Downs, published in 2014; “The Fox Hunt, A Refugee’s Memoir of Coming to America” by Mohammed Al Samawi, published in 2018.

Both authors told suspenseful, extremely extreme, long, complicated refugee horror stories, in which they had great good luck on several occasions, and in which certain people took tremendous risks by providing the authors with invaluable assistance that saved their lives.

Born in South Vietnam in December 1975, the author of the former book helpfully, briefly described his homeland’s history three decades before his birth.

The author’s family was Chinese– neither enemies nor friends of the French, Viet Minh, or Khmer Rouge. However, in the 1940’s, the author’s father’s family’s house in the Mekong Delta had been burned to the ground twice, anyway. There was a higher risk of a Viet Minh invasion in the French territory farther north, where the family moved.

As is well known, in the mid-1950’s the French were militarily defeated by the Viet Minh– Communists– and kicked out of their colony Indochina in Southeast Asia. Thereafter, Vietnam was split into north and south. Different ethnic groups migrated toward the side where they numbered in the majority: Communists, north; Catholics and Buddhists, south.

The Khmer Rouge, comprised of Cambodians, continued to ally with the French for decades. By the late 1950’s, the author’s father had become a draft dodger, fleeing to Cambodia to avoid having to fight against the Viet Minh. In 1960, Ho Chi Minh’s militia, the National Liberation Front, was attempting to reunite North and South Vietnam. The Viet Minh was renamed Viet Cong by the United States.

Over decades, the author’s maternal grandmother began a rice-processing business that flourished. By the mid-1970’s, it had a couple of mills, a fleet of trucks, warehouses, etc. It actually benefited from America’s Vietnam War.

The family matriarch hired a matchmaker to marry off her son (the author’s father), born in 1937. He was still sowing his wild oats in his late twenties. Traditionally, both prospects’ families went on a date with the prospects. Then they saw a fortune teller.

The author’s mother was the daughter of a Chinese servant girl of a wealthy household. When she moved to her husband’s house, she had to shop daily for the fast-growing multi-generational household, because they didn’t have a refrigerator. But, since she was expected to become a baby-maker in addition to all of her other responsibilities– she was permitted to hire a teenage nanny with every additional child.

The author’s birth made five. Three more were quickly added, while the author’s father’s mistress had four. The two major philosophies of the family’s culture were filial piety and ancestor worship. Living in the South, their religion combined aspects of Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism. That changed when the Viet Cong attacked the Mekong Delta. The author’s family’s life was disrupted forever, as their business and real and personal property were stolen.

Due to the Vietnam government’s war against the Chinese that started in February 1979, the ever-growing Chung family became “boat people” in June. Read the book to learn of the family’s ordeal, adjustment to a brand new life, and the author’s explanation for what gave rise to his own extraordinary achievements.

Born in Sana’a, the capital of Yemen in 1986, the author of the latter book helpfully, briefly described the recent history of his homeland.

In 1987, a Sunni-Muslim group named the Muslim Brotherhood formed another group, Hamas. They were supported by Saudi Arabia, southern Yemen, Iraq and another group that formed later, Al Qaeda. Their enemies were Shia Muslims, who are the majority in Iran and northern Yemen.

In the 1980’s and 1990’s, the author’s Shia-Muslim family lived in a peaceful neighborhood in Sana’a in northern Yemen, where everyone got along fine. He had two older and two younger siblings. His parents were trained as medical doctors; his prominent father worked for a military hospital.

Al Samawi’s parents believed in education, but were extremely devout Muslims. So his parents were thrilled when, as an adolescent, he donated all his lunch money to the Muslim Brotherhood when the group (who were pushing pan-Arabism at the time) visited his private, well-funded grammar school.

However, the teachers preached nonstop hatred against Jews and Christians. The Quran was their authority on that. Besides, they said Hitler was a hero for killing Jews, and the Jews’ books were “dirty, amoral, sinful, impure, demonic.”

In 2000, TV propaganda in Yemen claimed that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in Israel was ordering the killing of innocent Palestinians, such as a young boy (who became a poster boy to incite Yemen), for no reason. The haters ignited in most Yemenis additional hatred against the Jews and Israel’s backers, such as the United States.

Eight years later, the author thought he was falling in love at university. But his filial piety put the kibosh on that. His mother did a background check on his prospective girlfriend, and found she wasn’t good enough for her son, and given their situations, she was probably a gold digger. His father also pressured him to end the budding relationship, by offering him a car and a job if his parents could fulfill the traditional Muslim route of choosing a bride for him. He caved in to their browbeating.

However, the next chapter in the author’s life proved to be most educational. He met an inspirational British instructor at his English-language school. Surprisingly, the author’s parents were allowing their son to study English. Al Samawi and his teacher exchanged gifts (the Quran and the Bible, respectively) to try to proselytize the other one. Each dogmatically believed that his own religion was the only right one to practice, else they would go to hell upon their deaths. Then a funny thing happened.

The teacher horrified Al Samawi by telling him he’d been hoodwinked– Al Samawi had unknowingly been reading the (Jewish!) Old Testament, having started at the beginning of the book. The stories’ morals and precepts were largely similar to those in the Quran(!)

In the next several years, Al Samawi became sufficiently open-minded to try to clear up his own confusion between what he’d been taught by his parents and Yemen’s culture, and what he was learning on Facebook and from his jobs at cross-cultural peacemaking organizations and international aid organizations.

From the start of Yemen’s religious civil war in 2015, Al Samawi found himself in a life-threatening, harrowing situation for several months. In one particular instance, he wrote, “Thirty minutes later, I jumped in the back of the black sedan. I didn’t call my mom. I didn’t say goodbye. I didn’t pay the hotel.”

Read the book to learn the details of how Al Samawi’s friends in high places went to extraordinary lengths to change his fate, through thrilling plot twists and turns.

The Way Around

The Book of the Week is “The Way Around, Finding My Mother and Myself Among the Yanomami” by David Good, with Daniel Paisner, published in 2015.

The Yanomami is an indigenous, Amazon-rain-forest dwelling tribe in southern Venezuela near Brazil, who developed a reputation for hostility. The author dispelled that myth, while describing his unique experience, as a genetic member of the tribe.

Good’s father, an American from New Jersey, did anthropological fieldwork as a graduate student for about a decade, starting in 1975. Due to the loosely defined concept of marriage in the Yanomami culture, he had to decide whether or not to completely adopt the tribe’s lifestyle in order to continue to study them. He took the plunge. He ended up having three children, including the author, with his Yanomami wife.

However, the tribe’s ways are in an alternate universe, when compared with Americans’. Their lack of clothing alone would be considered primitive, never mind their low-tech, spare existence. The author wrote, “The women were all topless. Their faces were variously decorated with tribal markings; their noses, pierced with hii-hi sticks. The child was completely naked.”

The author’s father thought he would be able to move his immediate family away from his wife’s family in Venezuela in the late 1980’s, as he had a stronger desire to live in the United States. This created a cultural clash that led to a rather extreme consequence and psychological damage for all involved.

Read the book to learn how the author was affected by this adverse turn of events, and how he got through it.

Blood & Ivy – BONUS POST

The Bonus Book of the Week is “Blood & Ivy, The 1849 Murder That Scandalized Harvard” by Paul Collins, published in 2018. This true-crime story described the nature of homicide among elitists in American culture, as well as the Ivy League university Harvard, in the mid-1850’s.

The students to be accepted to Harvard’s undergraduate school, to start in autumn of 1849, were required to report for oral examinations in July. Initially, the applicants were ordered to declare basic information on themselves, including their fathers’ professions. The lucky incoming class numbered 87 students, the largest to date.

The students received demerits for failing to attend morning prayers at dawn, in the chapel. The curriculum consisted of Latin, Greek, mathematics, and the history of Rome.

A handful of professors taught at Harvard Medical School, in semesters that lasted six or seven weeks. A Harvard geology professor was suspected of murdering a medical school professor. The former was arrested the day after Thanksgiving of 1849.

The feature of this criminal case that has endured for more than a century and half is the definition of “reasonable doubt”– explained for laypeople (the jury) by the judge.

Read this suspenseful book to learn the details of the case.

Strong of Heart – BONUS POST

The Bonus Book of the Week is “Strong of Heart, Life and Death in the Fire Department of New York” by Thomas Von Essen, published in 2002.

The bulk of the book recounted 9/11 through the author’s eyes. At the time, he was the Fire Commissioner of New York City, overseeing about sixteen thousand firefighters, emergency medical technicians, paramedics and civilians at the then-240 fire stations across the city. The deaths of firefighters on 9/11 numbered 343.

Additional workers passed away due to illness in the months and years following that disastrous day. The author admitted that the men who aided in the recovery effort refused to wear equipment that would have prevented their exposure to toxins at Ground Zero– the location of the tragedy. Goggles, masks, hard hats and respirators were uncomfortable and hindered communication.

The fire department consists of two divisions:  the ladder company, which searches for and rescues victims, and the engine company that operates the hose that puts out the fire.

In 1970, at Ladder Company 42 in the South Bronx, the author began firefighting at 24 years old, but still wasn’t sure he wanted to make that his career. The alarms were nonstop every shift in those days; many fires were made worse by fire-code violations of slumlords, and the proliferation of poorly constructed wooden buildings.

The author soon realized he enjoyed the unpredictable nature of the job, and the ego satisfaction he got from saving lives. He got elected president of his union in 1993. This allowed him to get to know every borough’s firehouse and politician in the city and state.

Read the book to learn of the author’s trials and tribulations in his chosen profession; what he was able to accomplish as an officeholder in the fire department with the help of his ultimate boss and friend, then-mayor Rudy Giuliani; and why firefighters were less than thrilled with the late former mayor Ed Koch in the late 1980’s.