(posted in 2020)
My brilliant, dashing, loving father, Charles Chihara, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley, passed away on Sunday February 16th, after a week in the hospital following a major stroke. He had suffered a previous stroke in 2015, but had recovered and been his joyful self with us, with some aphasia. For the last few years, including after he and my mom moved to Los Angeles to be near us, he got all his names mixed up but was still my dad – whose face lit up whenever he saw me and my two girls, Iris and Harper. Two weeks before this last stroke, he was still playing tennis. When he died, his wife of 55 years, my mom Carol, my family, and our extended family were all there. At 87 years old, he was still strong and trim, with a full head of salt-and-pepper but mostly-black hair.
The pictures below show my dad, on the right, as a young man studying at Oxford as a “Recognized Scholar” in 1960. The black-and-white photo (like the photo still on his faculty page at the University of California Berkeley) shows him smiling at my wedding in 2004. He was rarely out of a shirt and tie – even in our kitchen in the 1970s on the top left, you can see his Windsor knot and vest. When he spent long hours writing in his wood-paneled office at the house in the Berkeley hills, he liked to wear sweaters, including a bulky brown cardigan that my mom knitted for him. I used to sneak it out of his closet to snuggle with it in the window seat while I read novels.
My father loved detective mysteries, many of which he read in French. He adored Westerns, big band music from the 1940s, classic films, Stephen Sondheim musicals, his younger brother the composer Paul Chihara’s music, and a luxury dude ranch in Colorado where they really let you ride over the hills and meadows. My parents celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary at the ranch, and he loved it so much he took all of us back there. I got to herd cows, and dance with him to Don’t Fence Me In.
When my father went on the job market in the ‘60s, people on his committee told him he could not be hired in philosophy, because of his race. In that time of expansion in higher ed, he just went out and got hired anyway. The great public universities of Washington and California bowed to his relentless optimism, quiet dignity, tenacity, and airtight logical argumentation. At UC Berkeley, he built a formidable academic career, publishing four books, countless articles and chapters, teaching for many years, giving lectures around the world, and spending many of his waking hours reading and writing philosophy of mathematics.
My grandfather, my dad’s dad, came to this country from Japan with an eighth grade education and no English. He worked for the Pullman railway company. At the outset of WWII, he was imprisoned by the FBI and separated from his family for a year and a half, for being a community leader. My grandmother had to petition for him to be released to the internment camps where she was incarcerated with her four children. My father’s path into the upper reaches of academia from this background was by no means a foregone conclusion, neither easy nor likely. But he made it look easy. He once asked me why I thought people needed role models. He didn’t see himself, necessarily, as a role model for me. He didn’t think I would need one. He liked to tell me a story about how there was a bin at the grocery store, full of walnuts and peas, and the peas would always rise to the top. No need to mess with the structure of the bin. If the peas persisted in being peas, the bin would shake around, and the peas would get their due.
My dad was terrifyingly certain that the world would recognize my talents if I applied myself. This faith blinded him, sometimes, to how desperately I was always trying to please him, to how scary it could be to disappoint him even a little bit, and to how deeply I became committed to the idea of changing the nature of the walnut-and-pea bin (as a metaphor for society). He was the kind of man who opened doors and helped you on with your coat. He took joy in small things while touching lightly on big accomplishments. He was also the kind of man who categorically refused to wait more than five minutes for a table at a restaurant. He lived with a steely resolve to turn away from anything he found unpleasant.
As a logician and an analytic philosopher, my father did not intend it as a compliment if he said that “mostly people in English” read one of his colleague’s work. He was nonetheless thrilled when I became an academic in the field of literary criticism, with all its “woolly thinking.” I’m grateful that I got to tell him when I hit certain benchmarks, after spending my own long hours in an office surrounded by books. These are the titles of my father’s books: Ontology and the Vicious-Circle Principle (1973); Constructibility and Mathematical Existence (1990), The Worlds of Possibility: Modal Realism and the Semantics of Modal Logic (l998) and A Structural Account of Mathematics (2004). Beyond the prefaces of these books, I have not really been able to understand them. I have a new resolve now to try again. The first book is dedicated to my mother, with a handwritten inscription to his folks, the second one, to me, the third to his older brother Ted, the last to his younger brother Paul. The dedication to me reads:
For Michelle, ma belle, Qui trouve les mots qui vont très bien ensemble
The French translates to “who finds the words that go well together,” and is a play on the Beatles’ lyrics. My father never taught me any Japanese, but he sent me to French bilingual school and moved us to Paris for a year in sixth grade and loved that I speak French with a good Parisian accent.
So many of my structures of feeling come from my dad -- my love of pop culture, books, and music, and the fascination with this country that made me into an Americanist -- these all grew up in reaction to my dad, either in the shadow of his history or in the light of his approval. The picture above, of him smiling at me in my velvet pinafore dress and white lace collar, sits in my office— a room of my own that I can now see I modeled after his. It’s only with losing him that I can see how much of my life I have lived wanting to always be his Michelle ma belle, hoping always that he would look at me the way he’s looking at me in that picture.
Beneath the Beatles, another epigraph from Fact, Fiction and Forecast by Neil Goodman reads: “A philosophical problem is a call to provide an adequate explanation in terms of an acceptable basis. If we are ready to tolerate everything as understood, there is nothing left to explain; while if we sourly refuse to take anything, even tentatively, as clear, no explanation can be given.”
A lot of my academic work is about who gets to explain what. I strongly dislike purists who sourly refuse to take anything, or only one thing, as clear. I’m profoundly interested in thinking about why we accept some explanations, particularly economic ones, and not others—in very different ways than my father, I write about what gets tolerated as understood. I haven’t looked at this quotation in years, I hadn’t remembered it until now. It seems I have always been in conversation with him, regardless.
My dad loved American football, he played in high school, and we still have his varsity letter. He respected that all-American form of athletic masculinity. He also, as a tenured professor in the 1970s, used to leave work early to pick me up from school and take me to after-school classes because he wanted to support my education and to make it possible for my mother, a scientist, to be at her lab. He never learned to cook anything but white rice and instant ramen, but he did laundry and cleaned up the kitchen and generally maintained a lived commitment to shared domestic responsibilities. When his office door was closed, I learned to leave him be, but when my mom had to go out, he made me ramen with an egg cracked into the boiling water. This remains my comfort food of choice. There were not a lot of Asian American people on the faculty in the humanities in the 1970s, and there were not a lot of men working out arguments about the nature of mathematical truth in the café near my dance classes off Ashby. My dad liked to chuckle over my love of shoes but he didn’t much talk about gender, race, or the Japanese internment camps. He raised me in Berkeley, California, surrounded by legit ex-hippies, and yet always somehow seemed surprised by my feminism and anti-racism. It is a politics for which he unquestionably paved the way.
At five foot five, dad was too small to play football in college, but after college, he coached a little league team of Japanese American players. Some of his buddies from high school, who did play in college, came back to help him coach and they took the team to what my uncle swears was the equivalent of the Little League Super Bowl. In the last year of his life, when he started repeating old stories a bit, my dad told me a couple of times about that team. The names were all gone, but he remembered that his buddies came back to help and the community rallied around them. The last time I saw him before he went into the hospital was at a Super Bowl party. Because of him, I always watch the big game, even though, like him, I’m never really a fan of one team. I cheer for the underdog and watch the half-time show. This year, as a longtime Bay Area resident, my dad was rooting mildly for the ‘49ers, but they disappointed him. He said hi to our friends, watched the game, and said of the Niners, “Well, they played poorly.” When we said goodnight, he asked about my work, I told him it was going well, and we hugged. I told him that I loved him and would see him soon.
After the second bleeds in his brain, dad never really regained full consciousness, but we were with him in the hospital for about a week. He gave the nurses hell when my mom and I weren’t there. They were struck by how strong he was. On one day, when I was alone with him, he started talking about a game that I’m fairly sure was that Japanese American Little League game. He said he had to check on the boys, get ready for the game… Who was number three? Who was it? And then he said, “It’s Iris!” Iris was number three! After the first stroke, it was names that were the hardest, and my younger daughter’s name was the newest of all. So it was wonderful to hear him say it. Who else is there, I asked him? And he said Harper! I asked him if my mom and I could be on the team, and he said our names, too. And then he said, “Harper, you’re doing great! Great job! You’re a winner!” And I held his hand and told him how glad I was that we were all still on his team.
I sang my dad the old ‘40s songs he used to sing me when I was a kid and couldn’t sleep at night. He would sit on the edge of my bed and sing Sinatra’s It Might As Well Be Spring, Gene Autry’s Don’t Fence Me In, Bing Crosby’s Swing On A Star. There was a song we had on in the hospital that I realized that I knew by heart, but hadn’t thought about for years. It’s a melancholy song, by Hoagy Carmichael and Johnny Mercer, published in 1941, called Skylark. The singer asks the skylark where love is, maybe in a valley green with spring, maybe in a misty meadow. Skylark, it asks:
I don't know if you can find these things But my heart is riding on your wings So if you see them anywhere Won't you lead me there
I sang this song to him, too. I believe that he heard me. My father was raised Catholic and always loved celebrating around a Christmas tree with his family, but he had become an avowed atheist, who found most theology illogical. So it would not be right to say that he is in a better place that he didn’t believe in. He was peaceful, though, at the end, surrounded by love in a world he loved so rigorously. I wish he were still here. I wish I could have had another few years with his tremendous intellect. I wish I had spent more time talking with him instead of trying to please him, somehow. I am grateful that I get to spend more of this life thinking about him, talking to him in my head, trying to carry on the conversation with his books. His work is very complex. His love was simple. I think he knew how much I loved him. I’m grateful that we got to say goodbye.
**Change of date** Because of the virus, we are POSTPONING the memorial for my dad. We will hold it in July, around his birthday, in Los Angeles. Please email for details. A couple of family have asked to share off FB so here is a link to a static page. Please send me and my mom memories about him. She has also set up donations to the SF Chronicle's Season of Sharing fund in lieu of flowers. Thank you for all the love and support, it is truly lifting us up.