Three hundred and sixty five days ago I sat down in a Starbucks in San Li Tun’s Taikooli Plaza, Beijing, where I’d written much of a manuscript the year before and began writing something new. I wanted to write about the music, the reading, the international relations, the humor, and the challenges of raising a family in Beijing that were everyday on my mind. I told myself I wanted to do it daily for a while perhaps for a year and I wanted to force myself to do it publically. The format of one new song by an artist, two photos, one cheng yu, and some contextual reflections on China or the region, presented itself to me as reasonable parameters as I sat there and composed with my coffee and my headphones that afternoon.
Early I think it felt like a tremendous indulgence. Early postings would take many hours to prepare and each one felt so important and consequential. What was the proper etiquette around sharing these things? How did one cultivate discretion so that you wrote something interesting but that didn’t compromise yourself or anyone else? A few things colluded to make this effort possible, beyond the support of family and the inspiration of a friend’s visit: First, a position I’d held but long since ceased to enjoy was, along with the entire region I was running, mothballed. I knew I wanted, and more importantly needed to create a different way of working for myself. Inspired by this visiting friend, I decided to try to meditate for an hour ever day, first thing in the morning. Further indulgence certainly, but unexpectedly this reinforced the writing project wonderfully. This same friend had insisted I try a music-sharing software, Rdio, that also, suddenly meant I could thoughtfully explore limitless new music, reasonably well archived, with impunity.
That day a year ago, sitting on a stool, I’d been listening to tenor sax giant Dexter Gordon’s "Soul Sister" from his 1961 release “Dexter’s Calling.” I was listening to it randomly as I recall on my iPod. And I wondered what it would mean to introduce music daily; music I’d long since known, music I’d just discovered, systematically find out a bit about who played on the session I was listening to, and learn what became of these people. What I “discovered” for myself is that writing improves memory. The architecture of musical knowledge is buttressed, pieces fall into place and details are more readily accessible. Writing about themes of international relations, as I had the previous year similarly begins to anchor belief and opinion. We can all be overwhelmed by “news” so that everything but your core instincts becomes relative, and diluted. Writing regularly sharpens and tests beliefs. And as I said to my father at one point in this exercise if the writing is amateurish, the photography is something yet again more rudimentary. But here too, capturing, posting, reviewing imagery every day, as part of a narrative, helps to cultivate some form of photographic voice, and a sense of photography’s utility to shape a narrative, as well.
Today in Dexter’s honor I done what I’ve done for three-hundred-and-sixty-four other musicians and looked up a bit of the history of the man, whom I knew in general, but never really knew at all. I wasn’t aware that he stared in the 1986 movie “Round Midnight” and which I was only vaguely cognizant of and which I could certainly watch with the family. I hadn’t known he’d been awarded The French Order of Arts and Letters by the Ministry of Culture in France in the same year as the film. I knew of the “homecoming” concert in 1977 when he returned from life overseas and played sets at the Village Vanguard which brought people to tears and which I have on now, with the Woody Shaw number, “In Case You Haven’t Heard.” And though I know and have written about Woody Shaw in this blog as well as the drummer on this set, Louis Hayes, I was not familiar with the pianist Ronnie Mathews, nor the bass player Stafford James, both of whom have albums I can presently explore. A year’s worth of daily discovery doesn’t even begin to exhaust the tradition. Born in Los Angeles in 1923, Dexter Gordon lived to the age of 67 and died of kidney failure in Philadelphia, in 1990. He sounds so clear, full and majestically confident on this session I have on now. One note and it must be Dexter Gordon.
And as often happens I only just realized what I wanted to write about today. It is Sunday and my older daughter wanted to visit her old school. The National Holiday is coming up and all those students must attend classes on Sunday to enjoy the holiday period the next week. She is attending a different school this year, a western program and, as it is Sunday, she has the day off.
Driving over, we commented on how reminiscent this was of our old routine. Because she was not boarding at the school like many of her classmates, she had to get to the school at 6:30AM and was then picked up at night around 9:20PM. Usually she was tired, and terse on the ride over. Not particularly inclined to talk on the way back. We discussed this and we noted how odd it was to turn left now, once again, for the first time in months, as we’d done for five years day after day, down the long access road, billboards to the right with students giant sized, and quickly faded photographs walling off the construction to the adjacent rows of fifty thousand newly built apartments.
I parked and we made our way over to the front gate. The guard remembered us and commented that he hadn’t seen us in a while. She called her old teacher who was expecting her and after conferring with the guard on the phone, he let her in with a paper to sign for when she’d exit later on. And like we always used to, but no longer do, because the structure of the drop-off is different, I stood and waved as she walked across the courtyard.
Standing there, I considered the dozens of times this year I’d dropped her or her sister off at the school, and photographed the moon, or photographed a torn billboard and considered someone’s rude driving or a teacher’s earnest engagement, considered how strange and wonderful it was to raise my kids in a truly Chinese program in China, and turned up whatever music was on the car stereo and returned home to write about it. It all seemed both physically tangible and irretrievably lost.
I had thought today, that I would go down and write another entry sitting there at the same spot that I wrote the first one, a year ago. I’ve pondered this many times in the last few months as this final day approached. I could take the same photograph and listen to the same music and consider the closing of the loop. But that location really had more to do with the year that preceded the launch day. My corporate office was across the street and I’d written much of a manuscript sitting where that Starbucks had previously been, looking north and west across the courtyard. That summer before last they expanded into a different location and on that September, I had, for the first time a view south.
This was a year of transition for everyone in our family. I worked, mostly, from home when I was in Beijing, these last twelve months. I wrote most of what I wrote sitting in the same room I’m sitting in now. This twenty-first year of China involved considerable risk and reflection, and somehow posited all of us in a considerably different place than we had been. I think we’d all agree too, it's a better place.
I sat with my daughters, first thing this morning. We talked about dreams and my older daughter raised the interesting line of inquiry around what precisely is it that babies dream? We laughed that it probably had a lot to do with milk and poop, and how odd it would be to fit the equipment on as a baby first emerged to capture whatever it was they’d just been imagining. And the conversation turned to their earliest memories and my earliest memories of them. A pinky- sized bottle of baby formula handed to my wife and I by a nurse for my crying younger daughter’s first hours of life. She inhaled the formula and immediately fell asleep. I will never forget it. And I never tire of telling her the story, either. Her older sister asking, negotiating really, in Chinese, to be carried on our way to the breakfast place Diamond Heights. Memories of when her brother first came to the United States and played erhu in his room after the slamming of a door.
I wanted more. I wanted to access more of those memories. Surely there must be dozens of memories of your first weeks and your first words, and steps. I just need to loosen them up. Discussion and photographs and music and street names can all shake loose bits of the hoard but most of all we live, simply tends to evaporate, unless we actively curate.
And so it is for you, Siena, Tulia, Dan Dan, whom I’ve never mentioned before by name in these postings, that I dedicate this effort, this twenty-first year of China. I would have liked to read my father or mother’s daily rendering of life from when I was ten or thirteen, or twenty-five. I presume many, many thorns and baubles, long forgotten might suddenly fall in to my hands were I to do so. May this then serve as a map to some buried treasure in each of your memory mounds. May your mother and my love for you all remain forever 记忆犹新. This is part of how your father made sense of the world raising you, far, far away from the world he’d come up in.