Monday, September 30, 2013

Magpies in the Murk

It’s dark out side at midday.  “shadows even the silver spoon.”  Beijing’s atmospheric aquarium is silted again.  Perhaps it will build tomorrow and worsen.  The cotton balls in the civic filter need to be swapped out again.  We need rain.  We need a sack of Aeolus wind undone.  We need Zeus to light the place us with something torrential, to souse the sediment

Magpies look attractive with their two-tone coloring, long tail feathers.  But I wish they’d keep quiet.  ‘Clack, clack, clack,’ like a rusty pair of shears.  Loathsome, ubiquitous.  My stepfather is an ornithologist and everyone should be as lucky as I to have birded with him in the tropics.  His rule of thumb: the birds with the beautiful calls have the plain plumage the ones with the glorious feathers, generally sound plain.  Or worse.

Is the magpie a Eurasian bird?  My English neighbor spoke of them knowingly.  “They’re horrible.  They lay eggs other bird’s nest.  They then hatch early they eat the others up.”  Tough chick.  I don’t remember having ever seen them, much less heard them back in the Hudson Valley.  We have blue jays that shine like the water off Iceland speckled with white caps.  They are only slightly less grating when they caw and caw.  But there is no question that even Central Park, let alone up river has a far greater variety of bird life than this hardscrabble kingdom of Yan. 

Doing my morning run Donald Byrd’s 1960 track “Ghana” from “Byrd in Flight” randomly populated the “running” playlist.  I don’t usually have much bop on there.  The tune swings hard and straight off the drum fills fall like an avalanche well channeled. I’d assumed it was Art Blakey who’s muscular turns I remembered roaring by this way.  I had the good fortune to see that man perform, twice before he passed.  Both times he consistently flashed his tongue fully out of his mouth as he’d roar by.  Who cares?  That’s Art Blakey driving the train.  The man had four different wives and I know without knowing that at least one of them tore into his ass about keeping his mouth shut, while he played.

When I got home and checked it was in fact, Lex Humphries with the sticks on that set.  No mention of la posición de la lengua or his marital status but he has, alas, also passed nearly twenty years ago at the tender age of 57. I knew the name but couldn’t say a single thing about the man.  Turns out he was in Sun Ra’s Arkestra and actually appmmmkeared in “Space in the Place.”  Lex Humphries drummed on the alternate takes of Giant Steps and Naima for the classic Giant Steps session with JC.  What a joy to slowly fit pieces into the unending Jazz puzzle, or the Chinese dynastic puzzle or the ornithological puzzle one endlessly works to assemble.  Might we some day be able to continue on assembling knowledge for centuries connecting all the architectures?  What would century old smarts be like?  Or century old habits?

There’s a Jackie McLean tune called “Appointment in Ghana” from roughly the same time and I began to wonder if perhaps there wasn’t a record of “Fine Nappy Jackie” and Mssr. Byrd and a squad of other hard boppers actually all playing there at some pivotal Ashanti Woodstock.  Satchmo was there in 1956 and again in 1960.  There’s a smiling picture of him and his wife with Kwame Nkrumah.  In 1961, a year later there’ a picture of Nkrumah smiling with JFK, who is, also smiling.  Three years later stil, in 1964 there’s a smiling photo of Nkrumah playing ping-pong with Zhou En Lai who was uniquely qualified to smile on behalf of People’s Republic.  “Africa’s ripe for revolution” stated Premier Zhou.  Indeed.  Two years later while touring North Vietnam, Nkrumah was overthrown.  He lived out his days decidedly not smiling, fearful of western intelligence agencies,  an understandably skittish magpie, 惊弓之,  penalty boxed in Conarky, Guinea as the guest of the magnanimous President Ahmed Sékou Touré, who appointed him honorary co-president. 

Today has been Monday but it’s Friday.  Yesterday was Sunday, and tomorrow is National Day.  The school had us treat today like the half day, at the end of the week.  I drove my older daughter to school at 5:45 AM, which I’ve done every morning this year.  Took my younger daughter over an hour later.   I picked the older one up at 3:00 PM.  She wanted to be at her friend’s house nearby by 4:00 PM.  At 5:00 PM it was time to drive back to school to pick up the younger one and get groceries.  Soon, my older one will call for me to bring her home.  I should play Shan Tianfeng, hawk out the window and offer receipts.  I should “clack”, “clack” and “caw” and stick out my tongue as I roll on by.

All home now.  Not a star in the sky out there.  We need fresh water in the aquarium.  Bring it, Zeus.  Holiday explosions are underway, within earshot.   

Sunday, September 29, 2013

A Sunday of Faith

Sunday here in Beijing.  But it isn’t really Sunday.  I was up early to take my kids in to school.  The nation has decreed that Saturday and Sunday are workdays, to justify the prolonged vacation provided as National Holiday, next week.  Weekend snatching happens regularly around here, throughout the year and it always disturbs me more than I would otherwise think it should.  It’s logical enough.  Move the days around a bit and provide for a contiguous, uninterrupted period of rest.  But don’t mess with Sunday.  Sunday is, sacred.

Certainly all Abrhamic faiths and the moderns they’ve spawned concur on at least one day of rest a week.  I don’t want blue laws or special plates to eat off of but mandatory work for all on Sunday summons up the seventeen year-old subversive in me.  It feels clumsy and all-too human, perhaps like Day Light Savings, which never makes any sense back home, or official Beijing Time three time zones west in Urumqi.  Mind you, I want my Saturday too.  Like the bumper sticker said: “Unions:  the people who brought you the weekend.”  Sing it brother.  Rise, ye workers from your slumber . . . ” Back off from my weekend.  This is something I ascribe faith to.

“Ultramarine” a deeper, more enigmatic shade of blue, from the 1957 Hank Mobley session “Hank Mobley and his All Stars” with the less than flattering snap of Hank on the cover, sounds out now, unassailable, on my sacred Sunday at home.  Milt Jackson’s mallets grinding away confidently at the semi precious lapis lazuli bars, releasing all that painful, irrefutable pigment.  The dust from the Sahel and the malarial warm waters of the Bight of Benin squaring off for ten minutes and thirty-eight seconds in Rudy Van Gelder’s studio there in Hackensack on January 13, 1957 which, my Google search tells me was, (no shit) a Sunday . . . Brothers were working.

I’d tried to establish a crossroads yesterday of tawny silt settling in perpetuity beneath the salty spray of Pacific breakers.   And 埃落定.  Source civilization indisputably in the center and its tendrils certainly reaching but unable to clasp the resilient periphery.  My contention: that before we reckon with hegemony we’ll first confront regional harmony.  How to orchestrate a regional reconciliation?  Spare me the fumes that it is all impossible.   Complicated things will become clear in the end.

Reading Cormac McCarthy’s  “Blood Meridian” on a friend’s recommendation.  Cruel, dry, soporific, there was a scene I read in a noisy setting last night.  A cast of Mexican jugglers and Spanish tarot cards.  Black cowboys, young white loners and everyone armed.  No one save the juggler with much to say.  And it brought to mind Dylan in Juarez peering out at Desolation Row, wary at the homicidal big top.  McCarthy’s got a dry, sandy world.  The Apache and were a yellow, arenaceous people, swamped and diluted by peoples from across the sea.

“We left out with the first light up the little wooded draw.  We were on the north slope and there was willow and alder and cherry growin out of the rock.  Just little trees.  The judge would stop to botanize and then ride to catch up.  My hand to God.  Pressin leaves into his book.  Sure I never saw the equal to it and all the time the savages in plain view below us.  Ridin on that pan.  God I’d put a crick in my neck I couldn’t keep my eyes off of them and they were a hundred souls if they were one.” [p. 133]

Half way through it appears most assuredly to be a continental novel.  No ocean in sight.  But New World Americans of whatever stripe found it hard to forget their people’s seminal journey over the water.  Pushy Americans, unerringly pushing themselves across to the other side of the continent.  And with ‘only’ the Rockies and the Sierras to contend with, not the Himalayas, so she stands today, sea to shining sea. 

Qin Shi Huang was chalky fellow from the loess interior of Shaanxi.  In 221 B.C. the final independent kingdom of Qi with its capital near modern day Zibo, fell to the overlord.  The peninsular turtlehead that is contemporary Shandong, including the soil that my wife hails from, made up the former Qi kingdom. Having conquered all the known world Qin Shi Huang went about touring his realm.  He climbed Mount Tai as Mao would do some 2200 years later.  But it was the sea that truly impressed the tyrant’s tyrant.  He apparently stood and stared dumfounded when he first confronted the boundless water lapping. 

Somewhere, out there, beyond what is conquerable, lies the elixir of life.  Three missions set off to find the mystic Penglai Mountain.  No one was brave enough to return and hip the emperor to the eternal verity: there ain’t no magic potion and sooner or later, time’s up.  Some say a captain Xu Fu and his crew of hundreds made it all the way to Japan.  What did they find?  We don’t know because unlike Ulysses they never made it home.  And the continental epics, depicting continental battles came down through the ages, journeys traveled to the west, not the east, following threads of great learning that even the celestial kingdom could not explain. 

And if we believe Mao’s bodyguard, Qian Yanchi the helmsman himself, unable to sleep, high on barbiturates, waded out into the breakers at Beidaihe to do battle with the Bohai Sea one stormy evening, much to the consternation of the praetorian staff.  Did he have his predecessor in mind when he stood there flailing, yelling at the salty surge?  Did he think the sea would bend to his will?  Perhaps it was enough to know that the sea wasn’t going to take him down.  I planted my feet in the Atlantic this summer and held my nephew in my arms and dared the sea to knock us over too. 

Saturday, September 28, 2013

The View South

Dexter Gordon deliberately makes his way through “Soul Sister.”  The Village is now “TaiKooLi” and the place where I wrote much of my manuscript is gone.  Starbucks facing north and west on to the plaza is boarded over.  I’m told a new frame store will open soon.  During the dry, cold winter I had my spot.  On the way in I’d eye an empty stool, grab it.  Force it, if necessary, into the small space by the west-facing window.  Throw down a bag so it was claimed and take my place in what was invariably a long line.  And they knew me.  The triple espresso was ready by the time I ordered.  Writing deliberately, about seven different Starbucks cast about the east of Asia and one back home.  Writing about my and my host’s iratation in that very setting.  It was envy in my neighborhood Starbucks that had set me off like this initially.  I came back from the summer and the venue had changed.  Now, in a Chuck D voice “another summer” and another absolute makeover.  My spot, where I’d rest my face into my fingers and watch the traffic step by like James Baldwin at the Village Gate, had been erased.  This is why we write.  So moments, perishable are explained. 

I needn’t tell you that a new, bigger Starbucks has opened now in the adjacent location.  I’m looking down the plaza toward Gongti Beilu now.  In the past I’d complained that the site was tight and unimaginatively decorated.  Now it’s two stories tall with rusty, industrial girders cast into the ceiling.  The wood I’m resting my arms on is nice to the skin and there’s an electric outlet beneath my and the neighboring seat.  It’s packed.  No big-bad-data, algorithmic prowess required to tell you that if you triple the space, it’ll still be crowded.  As always, 人山人海.  I wasn’t intending to stay.  Just have a look at what they’d done.  But there’s enough of the old joint to it that I was pulled conveyor-like into the routine.  A seat by the window.  Claim it.  Before someone else does.  Enter the long line and on cue, wax grumpy.  As in “Invidia” everyone was new.  They’d gutted the place and once again, replaced all the staff.  My mind galloped on, indignant.  But it wasn’t true.  Initial observation discredited.  There was that guy with the irresistible smile.  His elfin colleague just popped up beside him.  Recognition.  Affinity.  Now I was committed to a triple shot.  They’d have it ready.  Write about writing about Starbucks, now facing south. 

We’ll have something for public consumption soon.  I’ll let the world have a look at “The Seven Deadly Starbucks” (7DS) because the tensions will shift and the locations like this one will vanish and the prophetic bits will be revealed as wrong headed, or worse, correct, defanged of whatever illustrative power they might have once possessed.  Our speed bump’s pending, out there, drawing closer every day. 

Christopher Ford took an admirable pass at the question somewhere near the crux of 7DS: “If China Ruled.”
“Beats me” too.  And it won’t be a light switch.  The two civilizations will have an increasingly rich dialogue of fascination and acrimony to navigate for the remainder of my time on the planet.  Before anything becomes clear South Korea and Japan must play out their respective, collective wills, illustrate their capacity to evolve, to endure, to lead. 

I’m working my way through Fernand Braudel’s "The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II".  It’s on a stool in the upstairs bathroom.  I stood in the Mediterranean this summer with my daughters.

"The Mediterranean lands were a series of regions isolated from one another, yet trying to make contact with one another.  So in spite of the days of travel on foot or by boat that separated them, there was a perpetual coming and going between them, which was encouraged by nomadic tendencies of some of the populations.  But the contacts they did establish were like electric charges, violent and without continuity. Like an enlarged photograph the history of the islands, affords one of the most rewarding ways of approaching the explanation of this violent Mediterranean life.  It may make it easier to understand how it is that each Mediterranean province has been able to preserve its own irreducible character, its own violently regional flavor in the midst of such an extraordinary mixture of races, religions, customs, and civilizations." [Vol I p. 161.] 

How different the silted ochre current flowing out from our side of Eurasia; Bohai broadening to Yellow, emptying larger, broader to the East China Sea.  Three seas, one continuous continental civilization, four countries, twice the people, half the land, open water, unprotected . . .   xanthous legends connect peoples in spite of seas.  No azure epics here.  But perhaps Braudel’s view into the islands set in his contentious lake between Africa and Europe helps to frame the tumult pending as all distances diminish, and the photograph pulls outward from Corsica, or Crete, satellite-like so the few civilizations perceptible are left to either innovate a shared governance or default to “electric charges” and usurpation.