For most of us Christmas traditions are virtually inherited. But for many immigrants, like Misa Sugiura and her family, they have to be learned.

When my parents came to American in the late 60s, they came prepared to embrace a brand new life. Instead of a trunk full of old Japanese holiday traditions, they came with an empty calendar to fill with new American ones.

Not everyone was prepared to embrace them, of course. Clerks were impatient with them when they struggled with English. They had trouble finding a landlord who would accept Asian tenants. When they moved to the suburbs, they couldn’t join the local tennis club. My siblings and I struggled, too. We were teased about our eyes and our lunches. We were subjected daily to the ‘Ching Chong Chinaman’ rhyme.

Maybe that was why my parents went all in on the Norman Rockwell version of Christmas. For every Christmas that I can remember, the tree was decorated and lit. Red felt stockings from Woolworth were hung by the chimney with care. Gaily painted wooden nutcrackers glowered at us from the buffet as we ate our roast beef and mashed potatoes. My mother dutifully made fruitcake for us to deliver to the neighbors, and baked gingerbread houses from a recipe in her Time Life cookbook. My father reported having met Santa Claus on the way home from midnight service.

I realize now that my parents constructed this experience for my siblings and me entirely from scratch—every bit of it painstakingly cobbled together from storybooks, the Sears catalog, and television. It must have felt foreign and unfamiliar to them, and my neighbors probably thought it quite droll. But to me, it felt real — genuinely and authentically ours. I felt a connection, however brief and illusory, to the mythic, traditional America that so often eluded me and my family.

My parents made a choice. Sometimes I wish they had chosen differently. I wish I knew how to make Japanese New Year’s dishes as well as the Time Life gingerbread house. But the fact that my parents were able to give us a sense of belonging that did not belong to them was a tiny, bittersweet miracle, and I will be forever grateful to them for performing it.

With a Perspective, this is Misa Sugiura.

Misa Sugiura is the author of a young adult novel and lives in Los Altos.

Teaching is hard work, and often requires relentless patience and care for not only the student, but also the child. Sean Gleason has this Perspective.

My students know which words are unacceptable in my classroom. Not your usual four-letter words, the words I don’t excuse are those born of violent intolerance.

So when one of my students used a particularly oppressive word, only to repeat it instead of correcting it, he knew what he was doing. Unfortunately, on that day I was out of emotional resilience, and my own traumas were triggered.

As a teacher, I know not to take these behaviors personally. Student outbursts are rarely about us and often about the place they’ve had to inhabit within a system that labels and disregards them.

My relationship with this student see-sawed between affection and tension. He was full of jokes that disregarded the way others felt. Each time we’d butt heads, though, I’d find him for a conversation, we’d apologize, and the cycle would restart.

Fundamental to my work is the practice of seeing humanity in all behaviors. In this student’s, I saw vulnerability. He used humor the way a magician uses sleight of hand – to misdirect the audience from what’s really happening.

The night he graduated, I cried in my bedroom, scared of what might happen when hallway reconciliations are no longer an option. A month later, he was arrested, convicted as an adult, and sentenced to the rest of his adolescence in a cage.

In a letter, he described the surprise he felt the first time I visited. “Not even my own dad has come to see me,” he wrote. He recognized, in me, an unwillingness to give up on him.

Memories of our clashes have since faded. What really mattered was my incessant caring. Whether we’re educators, mentors, or family, what’s most important is that we believe in showing young people love even when we don’t feel loved back.

Earlier this week, I received another letter from him. This time, though, it didn’t open with “Dear Mr. Sean.” It began, “Dear Uncle Sean.”

With a Perspective, I’m Sean Gleason.

Sean Gleason is an educator who works and lives in Oakland.

Among the last treasures you’d think to hustle from a burning home might be the already-ashy cremains of lost loved ones. But as archaeologist Mike Newland discovered, the power of recovering them can be overwhelming.

The first thing I noticed was the cooled river of molten metal streaming from a burnt-out truck. The property owner had lost the ashes of his brother and mother in the Tubbs Fire, and a volunteer team, consisting of a Human Remains Detection dog, its handler, and archaeologists, joined to help find the cremains. The ashes were in a bedroom, and as we reconstructed the layout, we found fragments of burnt beads and shelving that indicated the correct spot.

A compact, eager Belgian Malinois named Annie snorted and sniffed her way through the ashes, and after a few minutes, sat down next to two piles of pinkish orange ash, finer and off-color from the household remains. We carefully recovered the piles and presented them to Annie, away from the site. She gave us a positive signal. We handed the bags to a teary-eyed property owner, who stood stunned that, together, we recovered the remains from a building that had burnt to the foundation.

At one house, we recovered a metal urn of a father-in-law, embedded behind a concrete wall under six inches of slumped dirt. The urn had collapsed, and held the ashes like two hands in prayer. At another location, my buddy Alex and the dogs found the intact box of remains of a woman’s brother, murdered at 23 years old, buried under the wreckage. The woman’s knees buckled when he stood before her with the box.

I spoke later with another of our team, Kim, an archaeologist with many years experience, and a breast-cancer survivor. She was there when a team recovered the remains of a 40-year-old woman, and she knew that those ashes could have just as easily been hers. Exhausted from the physically and emotionally demanding day, as she watched the woman’s mother cradle the recovered remains, Kim sat, away from the group, and cried. One of the dogs, Piper, a little border collie, came over to her and dropped her head in Kim’s lap to be petted, one professional comforting another after one of the hardest and most moving days of our careers.

With a Perspective, I’m Mike Newland

Mike Newland is an archaeologist.

The tidal wave of sexual abuse accusations has left many debating not only the particulars but the language used to talk about it. Monique Hosein has this Perspective on why language matters.

I recently heard a reference to Thomas Jefferson having “an affair – if you could call it that – with Sally Hemmings.” Well no, you cannot call it that. A fourteen-year-old girl considered the property of Thomas Jefferson could not in any way consent to an “affair.” No enslaved person could.

The language we use to talk about sexual violence is important. I will not be adding harrowing personal accounts to make these points, but some of this language has really agitated me.

First. Non-consensual sex: That is not sex. The “alleged perpetrator” or “accused” and their lawyer and all the documents can use it. There is no need to repeat it. Non-consensual sex is sexual assault and in some cases the law may call it rape.

Second. Roy Moore is known to have “dated teenagers.” A full-fledged adult cannot “date” teenagers. He can commit statutory rape, an abuse of power. When an adult man wields far greater power than a teen girl, that power differential does not allow for any meaningful consent by the youth he abuses.

Third: There are no sex scandals when one party cannot consent. That’s sexual violence. A sex scandal is the revelation of a consensual sexual relationship deemed inappropriate for social reasons and harms the reputation of one or more participants. John Edwards had a sex scandal. Louis CK abused his power and his fellow comedians. Those with significantly less power than the abuser cannot be party to a sex scandal.

Harvey Weinstein referred to “the times” in which his behavior was OK. It was not. In those “times” behavior like his was tolerated and the privileged perpetrators protected. In these times, by his own words, an admitted sexual predator occupies the White House. Nevertheless, as we persist, we come closer to saying “those times are over.”

With an appropriately outraged Perspective, this is Monique Hosein.

Monique Hosein is a doctor of public health student at UC, Berkeley and, sometimes, a jazz singer. She lives in Albany.

Sometimes the daily onslaught of the horrific is so real that to survival calls for laughter. Andrew Lewis has this Perspective.

Growing up, we didn’t have much food in our house. That actually might be an overstatement. I recall once when my brother and I asked our mother (herself a war refugee from Europe) for food and she replied simply, “Go eat butter.”

But it’s rotten, we protested. And to that she had no reply.

For a long while after, my brother and I would mimic her in times of particular duress. “Go eat butter,” one of us would say, to which we would both break out in laughter.

Years later I was talking with a childhood friend whose father had survived wartime famine in the Ukraine in the 1940’s. “Pops once told a story,” he recounted, “of how when he was 12 he and the other kids had-” and here we both started chuckling- “He had to go dig for potatoes in a minefield.” Perhaps only the children of survivors could find this funny.

I once retold this story to an older man who had survived the Holocaust in Latvia. He too laughed at the image, but then added, “It’s true, many had to do it.”

And that’s precisely the point. Of course, there’s totally nothing funny about young children risking their lives to forage for mealy potatoes. How could there be?

But if you’ve survived, sometimes the only way to survive may be in recognizing the absurdity of the conditions from which you’ve emerged. To recognize absurdity, to acknowledge what Milan Kundera called the “laughter of the devil,” presupposes a world founded in the opposite – in reason and justice, and from there we can resuscitate meaning. If we can’t acknowledge the absurd, then in some cases we may have little left to rely on.

With a Perspective, this is Andrew Lewis.

Andrew Lewis lives in Sebastopol and works with at-risk youth.

Do political disagreements really have to be as simple as “I’m right and you’re wrong?” Steve Torgerson begs to differ.

Colin Kaepernick and I share the experience of being baptized and confirmed in the Lutheran Church, where good people taught us to fight injustice. We don’t share a career in the military where I served with good people who stand when the National Anthem is played.

The news might convince us opposing views are dishonest, stupid or evil, which makes defeating the opposition paramount. I’m convinced however, that among the decent, our divide is mostly a matter of worldview: The standards are different but a strong sense of justice prevails.

When the flag passes, I honor sacrifices. Our country won independence, The Union freed slaves, and Nazis were defeated under the Stars and Stripes. For me, it is a symbol our highest aspirations and the debt I owe to those who made a nation “by and for the people” possible, but my boycott of the NFL doesn’t keep me from seeing the injustice Colin is protesting.

Our Union seems fragile. Big things divide us. When we draw battle lines over the core values of others we enlist only those on our side. The flag is an example but there are others. Abortion has been legal for decades, yet, it is a battle that will never be won in some good hearts. Family planning, stopping unwanted pregnancy and neglected kids the majority will support. We should pivot the conversation there. My conservative friends don’t object to gays having the same rights as husbands and wives but they’re fearful when someone is forced to abandon their Biblical beliefs to take part. My love for favorite teachers and friends enlists my support for gay causes: Here is where battles are won. Women’s health needs are a no-brainer until someone insists nuns break their vows.

We’ll never see things the same but it doesn’t take Einstein to see repeatedly fighting core values and expecting better results is insanity. Bad people win elections by convincing voters their high virtues are under attack.

The danger of valuing only one’s own perspective is headline news every day. Only empathetic people, from all sides, will keep powerful forces from exploiting our disagreements.

With a Perspective, this is Steve Torgerson.

Steve Torgerson is a retired Air Force chaplain. He served in Iraq and was wing chaplain at Travis Air Force Base in Fairfield.

It’s the gift-giving season, but as Heidi Swillinger learned, sometimes the best gifts are the smallest.

With the holidays coming, I search my kitchen for the nutmeg kit my sister gave me when I was 15. I have used it every December since for my annual glass of eggnog, which I never drink without thinking of her.

As a teenager, Lisa could not wait to leave home, and she was always on the lookout for things she’d need when that glorious day came. She collected a trove of thrift store dishes, scented bath soaps, classy luggage and clothes she wasn’t allowed to wear in our parents’ home. Clearly, she was planning to take the world by storm.

One day she handed me the nutmeg kit – a small jar filled with whole nutmegs, a booklet of recipes and a miniature grater about the size of my thumb. She’d found the kit on sale for such a low price she’d been compelled to buy several, including one for me.

I had no interest in anything connected to the kitchen and knew nothing about the uses of nutmeg. Still, I was thrilled to have the kit, partly because it was evidence that Lisa had given me a thought and partly because it kick-started me into thinking about my future.

My when-I-leave-home stash ended up being nowhere near as elaborate as Lisa’s, mostly because I couldn’t envision what I’d need, beyond crates loads of books. But I did have a few bargain basement coffee mugs, a box of first-aid supplies and that nutmeg kit, along with the burgeoning awareness of the possibilities of my own life.

Lisa moved out, and two years later, so did I. We ended up on very different paths. In 2006, she died, a victim of the pharmaceutical opioid scam that has since killed thousands.

The nutmeg kit is the only thing that remains of my hope chest. Because I only use it at holiday time, it’s still half full. There are four whole nutmegs left, more than enough, I now realize, to last the rest of my life.

Lisa never imagined that she was giving me a gift that would outlast us both. But you never know what gifts you actually bestow when you give someone a present. A lot of times, it’s more than you think.

With a Perspective, I’m Heidi Swillinger.

Heidi Swillinger is a Bay Area journalist and book editor.

The last child is off to college or career. Now what? Mac Clayton has this Perspective on identity theft.

Can you hear it, the flapping of little wings as youngsters leave the nest?

I had children under 18 in the house for so long, I hardly knew what to do when I didn’t.

Some ideas: Throw yourself into your work. Travel. Make love in places you never could before. If you have a dog, be nice to it. It will become your replacement child.

This too will pass, I might add, except I’m not sure it’s true.

When your kids leave home, it’s a form of identity theft. You are no longer snack-maker, homework-nagger, chauffeur and spy. The role of parent is not one you play, it is who you are. When they leave, you’re consigned to straightening the comforters on their beds, dusting their trophies, hoping they’ll call.

If someone steals your social security number and your credit, we call it identity theft, but it isn’t really. Only your children can steal your soul.

It won’t pass, at least it hasn’t for me, even after seven years, but it will get better. You’ll begin to share in their lives and achievements in different ways. You’ll meet them at lake houses and invite them to join you in Paris. They may not, but even the hope of it will be exhilarating. You’ll remind them to renew their passports.

It will get better but it will always be there, that small empty spot. Like the damage to your self-confidence when you tried out for the eighth-grade football team, like the BB-sized hole in your heart when you lost that first love. The scar will fade so that you’ll hardly feel it except on sad, rainy days. Or on sunny days, when you’re sitting alone on a bench in a park watching a scrum of third-graders in a soccer game and your foot twitches as if to kick the ball, a reflex called up from a time when you knew with certainty who you were.

With a Perspective, I’m Mac Clayton.

Mac Clayton is a writer living in Palo Alto.

Recently I was cut off by some cretin during my morning commute. After a pointless horn blast, I sat fuming and thought, of Cold Mountain. Not the cold mountain where, but the Cold Mountain who.

The Chinese have long revered those who forsake the dust of this world to live in mountains, alone, contemplating the universe. If they are also a poet it seals their reputation. Cold Mountain was just such a recluse, alive during the T’ang Dynasty over 1,500 years ago. After some family tragedy, he took to the hills where he found a cave on Cold Mountain. He made it his home, adopting the name.

Described as a beggar in threadbare clothing, he often sang, laughed and cried to himself. Yet, his first biographer observed, “Every word he uttered was compassionate, meaningful and inspiring.” This odd character left behind some 300 poems. Reading them you are astonished by his insight into the human condition. More remarkable are his descriptions of the natural world. From his perch on Cold Mountain he would rhapsodize over clouds, the moon, the sound of wind. These poems transport you to a place that is magical, alive with the profundity of nature.

One of his poems compares humans to insects stuck in a bowl. Round and round we go, never making it over the edge despite our relentless scrabbling. My days are often like that bowl. The same annoyances gnaw at me; anger at rude drivers, headaches over politics, anxieties from the relentless destruction of the planet. And here’s the clincher. Cold Mountain ends his poem by noting, after all this cyclical angst, one day we wake up to find ourselves…old. As a man on the cusp of retirement I can attest to Cold Mountain’s veracity. Despite my years of outrage, I’m still in the bowl, just old.

But this wise hermit broke free from the circular trap. Look, he advised, and you’ll see clouds, a golden moon. Listen and you’ll hear bird songs, wind through pines, the patter of rain. These things are always present, eternal, pure and truthful. He urged us all to simply stop, consider the clouds and follow the path to Cold Mountain.

With a Perspective, I’m Terence Krista.

Terence Krista is a retiring librarian for the San Francisco Unified School District. He lives in Richmond.

A hen dies in the night, swift and unexpected; you find her soft, small corpse under the coop, head tucked beneath one red-brown wing. What silent malady had she concealed–or had you, ignorant and way beyond your depth, failed to note in time?

The new hive starts out great, the bees busting out the comb and brood, filling their allotted space in record time. You give them more, and they greedily accept. The rains have become myriads of blooms, which they happily convert to wax and eggs, filling up the hive again. Your day job keeps you from giving them more room right away, and when you get home, it’s too late. A quick glance through the hive window shows they couldn’t wait, or wouldn’t, and have swarmed–two thirds gone, with the precious queen, to seek out greener pastures. The forlorn remainders dot the creamy comb, dark bodies stark against its pale geometry.

The apricot in March looks like a snow globe, sparkly frosted petals dotting every twig on every branch, and you imagine fruit, gallon upon gallon, for jam and pie and tarts and–best of all–just eating out of hand, exquisite smell entwined with peerless taste, and your heart lifts. Who doesn’t love fresh apricots? Then El Niño rails and blows at the wrong time, shattering the snow globe. There is no fruit set, despite the promise of the flowering.

Somehow, though, there are still eggs aplenty. The jilted bees have raised a brand-new queen, and are rapidly rebuilding. There’s even a new swarm, nestled in an empty hive and making it a home. And this year there are loquats, and blueberries, and blackberries gone berserk with fruit. It may not be exactly as you’d planned, but it is enough–and so much more.

With a Perspective, I’m Peggy Hansen.

Peggy Hansen is an artist, photographer and organic farmer. She lives in Santa Cruz County.

‘Tis the season of giving but also the season of asking. I work for a nonprofit organization and, like most nonprofits, this is when we ask for year-end donations. It is a time of the year when mailboxes overflow with letters requesting support.

This is also the season I remember the donation that never came. Let me explain. David, a cancer patient, came to the social service agency where I work to participate in a nutrition class and sign his son up for a support group. When I first met him, in his baseball cap and sweats, he looked younger than his 40 years. He explained that he was on a new cancer treatment and it was working well. His smile was welcoming, his positive attitude inspiring.

The next time I saw David was six months later. I noticed an elderly gentleman sitting in our reception area and as I passed him he looked up and said hello. I realized with a shock that it was David. He had declined so much that I hadn’t recognized him. He told me that his treatment had stopped working, how he worried about his wife and children. We had a very emotional and moving conversation.

Then David looked up and said something that surprised me.  “I want to make a donation.”  When I asked him why now, given all that he had going on in his life, he looked back at me with his wonderful smile and said “It’s an investment in my recovery.” He took a donation envelope and said he would send it in once he got home.

David passed away a week after that conversation, and we never did receive his donation.  But his words, like donations, are part of his legacy. So this year, when you come home to a mailbox filled with donation requests, I ask you to remember David the investment that you can make in the lives of real people right here in our community.

With a Perspectives, I’m Rob Tufel.

Rob Tufel is executive director of a non-profit in San Jose that provides support services for people with cancer, their families and friends.

The thing about science is that even with well-known things there’s always the possibility of learning something really new. Michael Ellis points to the humble lichen.

One of the very first things that you learn in Naturalist 101 school is about the relationships that exist in lichens.

The dogma for well over 200 years was that lichens consisted of two entirely different organisms that made up the whole. There is algae and a fungus that combine to make a separate third organism, very unlike the other two. The mnemonic device we all learned was “Alice algae took a lichen to Freddie fungus and now they live together in a natural relationship. He’s a fun guy.”

The algae was responsible for photosynthetic activity manufacturing the sugars that supplied energy for the fungus. The fungus for its part provided structural support, retention of water and nutrients. Lichens are pioneer plants, often found just hanging off the tree branches, on the ground or covering bare stones. The algae can live independently on its own but the fungus requires the algae to exist. This means Freddy is freeloading off of Alice. And one of our usual jokes was “…But we heard their relationship is on the rocks.” Yuck yuck.

Within the last several years, however, researchers have found that in many lichens there is an additional partner – a yeast – a single-celled member of the Kingdom Fungi. Somehow this third partner was overlooked for centuries as scientist peered through their microscopes. It was a striking find.

One of the mysteries that led biologists to this radical new discovery was the perplexing fact that two seemingly genetically identical lichens — that is, both were comprised of the exactly same fungus and the exactly same algae but had widely different physical features. This difference could not be understood until scientists found there was third collaborator, until now hidden, which was manufacturing these differences. This was definitely a Eureka! moment.

So it seems Freddy fungus and Alice algae are now involved in a ménage-a-trois. How very modern, but not really.

This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.

Michael Ellis is a naturalist who leads trips throughout the world. He lives in Santa Rosa.

We were on our way to Garner State Park. It was after church, so my wife packed a lunch for the drive out. Everyone was enjoying each new treat until my youngest daughter discovered the Mint Milano Cookie she was eating would be her last. Her wail was heartrending. At two and a half-years of age, she knew the decibel limits allowed in the car, but she was distraught. Her sorrow knew no bounds.

As I turned to reason with her I was astounded to discover her mouth was full of cookie. It’s hard to cry with your mouth full of cookie. I thought, “What’s this? Your taste buds are slathered in scrumptiousness while your mind is roiling for want.” Weekly sermons make me mindful of illustrative material. I knew human nature was unveiled – we spoil good moments fearing future events.

During this time of National Thanksgiving, we can miss the pleasure of a thankful heart. Like my daughter we can miss joys of the moment worrying about the future. Likewise, past regrets can spoil good times. I’m speaking now in the comfortable offices of KQED. Most of you are listening from comfortable homes or comfortable modes of transportation. Our moments are mostly pretty good. I will return to a household where preparations are being made for a Thanksgiving celebration with family and friends. I have helped others to obtain rich fare for their tables. I live in a country of magnificent abundance and a spirit of giving that blossoms especially well in this season.

These examples are just a few of the blessings afforded to us as Americans. Abraham Lincoln was right to establish the 4th Thursday of November as a National Day of Thanksgiving. In the midst of a horrible Civil War, he knew life is made worse by failing to recognize the gifts we do possess.

We shouldn’t miss simple pleasures worrying about the future, regretting things that will not change or being caught up in frustration. So if that line at the supermarket gets you down, take out some Mint Milano cookies, share them with those around you and let everyone know how glad you are to live in a country where store shelves are full.

With a Perspective, this is Steve Torgerson.

Steve Torgerson is a retired Air Force chaplain. He served in Iraq and was wing chaplain at Travis Air Force Base in Fairfield.

It’s an old saying: You are what you eat. But more and more Richard Swerdlow finds the people he knows turning the old saw on its head.

With Thanksgiving around the corner, that holiday where everyone overeats, I’ve been noticing our local fixation with food; what we eat – and what we don’t eat.

Sugar-free, gluten-free, dairy-free… I’ve been to dinner parties where the entire meal conversation consisted of guests boasting about what they do not eat. Food avoidance as competitive sport: no-fat beats low-fat, vegetarians one-up gluten-free, and vegans one-up vegetarians.

Lactose-free, soy-free, no carbs… not an only-in-the-Bay-Area phenomenon, but here, it’s remarkable how so many people seem bizarrely preoccupied by what they decide – or decide not – to eat.

Yes, some have serious, even life-threatening reasons for eliminating certain foods – allergies or medical conditions. And, of course, everyone should maintain a reasonably healthy diet.

But fashionable food abstinence one-upmanship has reached near-fetish proportions. Who hasn’t been food-shamed by a food snob who is judging your lunch, bragging that’s something they don’t eat? The coolest thing about a lot of people is what they don’t do, rather than what they do do.

How ironic, in a city famous for food, many people’s identities are invested in what they’re into not eating. The privileged hipster, grabbing a vegan organic kale green juice at the alternative grocery cooperative as she rides her bike to yoga is a Bay Area stereotype. But at some point clean eating can morph into eating disorder. Does no-meat, no-wheat, no-sugar eventually become a no-food diet?

I’m not against healthy eating, but I hope this recipe for being cool is more than just a trendy list of the latest item to leave off the menu. Because no matter how hip, being a picky eater stops being cute around age five.

I’m probably going to get a lot of hate about this. But that’s OK. They’re just grumpy because they’re hungry.

With a Perspective, I’m Richard Swerdlow.

Richard Swerdlow teaches in the San Francisco Unified School District.

Sponsored by

Become a KQED sponsor

KQED Public Media for Northern CA