Monday, November 30, 2015

I am More Important Than You

Frost forms a dirty pattern of other peoples fingernail tracings, on the widow to the right.  The air is thick and nasty.  The people are bundled up in thick winter clothing, impossible to make out from one to the other.  If it were a Yuan dynasty painting by Zhao Mengfu all this grey might be evocative of something enigmatic and noble.  But these aren’t sleepy Daoist mists.  There is nothing enigmatic about why the winter looks this way. 

I know its bad when I can’t see the towers of Wang Jing off to my right.  They ought to be there, right? Just up beyond those trees.   There, now, one hundred meters off the towers are taking shape.  It isn’t even December yet.   The cold of winter is navigable.  But this sickly sweet coal saturated winter air is dreadful. 

This is the light one must always wait three or four times, before being able to make the left turn.  I am in the turning lane.  Everyone wants to ride ahead, nearly to the light and then cut over into this lane.  Sitting in this lane, everyone who passes to the right is a potential daemon.  Everyone keeps the distance between themselves and the next car to a minimum.  No one wants to let anyone cut in.  But people try, regardless.  Up ahead someone in a minivan has tried to cut in.  I curse aloud in Chinese.  I’m livid and wish I could do this person damage.  I imagine exiting and physically standing in front of any car that might try that with us, right here, in our coveted position. 

We are two cars away from having made the light.  I cheered us on and cheered us on, “let’s go, let’s go, let’s go.”  We didn’t make it.  Now I will necessarily be ten minutes late for this lunch meeting.  We’re pinned here, while all the other directions of traffic are accommodated.  Minutes that seem like globe-spins later, the light’s turned.  We lurched ahead ten meters to occupy the turning position.  Seven other cars have similarly occupied this staging ground, forcing traffic in both directions to slow and swerve.  Everyone is used to this.  Everyone does what they must, in the absence of enforcement.   Everyone is important.  If I could have a vanity plate here I’d have “我比你重要.”  Everyone in Beijing should be forced to have this vanity plate. 

Dirty Green Truck

God damn, it smells nasty out there.  There ain’t no polite way to render that.  The air is foul.  It smells the way it does when you drive through Shandong province and come upon a village that has a prominent chemical plant.  There’s a dust swirling around out there in the nighttime air.  Some of it is exhaust; some of it is a trick of the light.  Some of it is industrial effulgence.

Off in to the city this evening.  Meeting a friend, who’d lived here for sixteen years and then moved his family down to Hong Kong, on account of all the foul air.  It must be that nasty air that usually moves along, out to sea, has become trapped in it’s majority and has nowhere to go but swirl around and around here, along this gulley, by those trees.  The air quality is wretched as a default in Beijing, but the pungent odor I’m confronting helps to anchor everything another layer deeper into this evening’s Inferno.  Breathe less.

Look at this monstrous dump truck to my right.  It’s late and it’s the only time he’s allowed to drive on these streets.  Who is the driver of this truck?  Will I get to see him at this red light?  No.  I’m stuck behind his backside.  Beneath a millennium’s worth of strata, I see the cheerful green paint that this truck sailed out of the factory with.  It is clear: driving that dirty, green truck must be very, very grinding, indeed.

The light changed.  We passed him.  But his window was also covered in dirt and in the dark I could see nothing of who this driver was.  I’m going to imagine that his tendons are exposed and he's focused, on the road ahead. 

I’m sure that all twenty million people here in Beijing are sharing the same fantasy this evening:  fresh air.  Winter isn’t an easy season anywhere in the world, where it's far enough north to snow and snow.  But foulness of the air makes the cold and the wet and the sick and the dark much, much worse.   Traffic though.  That is not seasonal.  Traffic is a perennial.  We need all plants, perennials and otherwise, to breathe more.  Much more.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Nicotine Laminated Larynx

Well, it’s all turning into to dirty snow, the way urban snow always does.  The streets are clear of ice and are once again dusty.  This grit swirls around and sullies all the snow that’s off to the side.  Up to the right the poplar trees have only a scattering of resilient leaves left, shaking in the wind like something mechanized.  We just passed a broken down, empty bus. The bus driver was down on the ground trying to fix what looked like a flat tire.  Must take quite a jack to lift up a bus with your bare hands. 

My cab driver’s the kind of guy who isn’t afraid to use the side lane.  He’ll save us at least ten minutes with this brazen illegality.  The tough-as-tar, nicotine laminated larynx of Shan Tianfang(田芳)is screaming from the taxi radio’s modest speaker.  I ought to confirm if his voice is available on line, (I did.  It is: ) for posterity.  If there was one smell, like an open bottle of baijiu that might instantly invoke China, his voice would be the Proustian audible, summoning this city down from the memory shelves.

Last night we all went to see “The Martian.”  It had been recommended strongly and only just opened here a few days back.  It would be hard for anyone not to be captivated by the visualization of plodding around Mars.  And I’m as ready to promote science as the next person.  Go Botany!  But let’s be fair, the writing was miserable.   Matt Damon’s “aw shucks” demeanor and “WTF?” like epiphanies, were regularly implausible.  The wooden head of NASA with the Donald Trump hair cut, was utterly implausible.  The multi-culti-assortment of African American, and Asian American scientists felt obligatory, and certainly, sitting here in China, thinking of the censors, I couldn’t help but be cynical when the Chinese and the Americans cooperate to do good, enabling a heart rendering Chinese crowd scene of people cheering when our man who’d been left behind, is finally back on board. 

Ahh.  No one asked you.  Movies shouldn’t have to be cinematography classes.  We are a family seeking “entertainment.” Unlike a television, the big screen is too big and too public for me to talk back to for very long.  Shut up and lie back in the chair.  Everyone else is having fun.  So what if the plot is hackneyed.  Don’t ruin it.  Let's talk: ‘gee wiz.'  Let's talk:‘go-science!’ "You know . . .  I bet one day you’ll be able to go to outer space".  

Privately though Mars might have been a bit more remarkable if Matt Daemon’s video logs felt like a human soul had recorded them.  

A Blanket of Golden Leaves on Top

Driving a long the second north ring road.  Skirting along what must have once been the north of the city, the center of the city’s northern wall.  I’m not usually here these days.  The divider between the highway and the access road is planted with gingko trees.  On the day of the big snow, the leaves had yet to fall.  But the cold and the weight of the snow must have made them all fall suddenly, shortly thereafter.   And as a result, the shrubs are covered not only in snow but with a blanket of golden leaves on top, which looks rather beautiful. 

I’ve got an aggressive cab driver, who is driving in and out of the side road, giving me a many chances to consider this visual.  I was car sick on the ride down and now I’m pretty queasy on the ride back as well.  All of this acceleration, deceleration and what do you know, I drifted off to sleep and dreamed of something stable and pleasant.  The driver wants to confirm the exit with me.  Waking, I confirm.

Checking now and it is so: Nearly all the leaves from the poplar trees on the side of the airport expressway have, finally fallen as well.  For many weeks this fall they were the final hold out.  They remained green and upheld the myth of early Autumn.  Nothing green left save the conifers now. 

We’re on the connecting road between the Yang Lin highway exit and Tianbei Road.  This road was under construction for what seemed like years.  It turns out they were building something broad.  Was an eight-lane road really necessary? Who am I to question the omniscient Beijing civic planners?  It will probably be filled before too long, clogged with rush hour traffic. Off to the left is a villa complex.  Friends live there.  On the right side is the mountain of dirt they probably dug up to build it.  A few small homes are out in front, waiting to be torn down. 

Our Red Turkey

Up early for a call, Thanksgiving morning.  An early call, of course.  I cut up a big pile of sweet potatoes threw them in the pot to boil, before sitting down for this hour-long commitment.   One big spud had already gone bad.  I only put these down here in the drawer two days back.  People once had to make these things last the whole winter.

Bird’s next.  Have to get this big creature in the oven before noon.  Curve-ball this year.  “The imported turkeys are all sold out.”  “Huh?  I’ve bought Thanksgiving turkeys from you for five years in a row.  What happened this year?”  “Yes.  A lot of people bought them.”  This is difficult logic to argue with.  Indeed, I’m not sure why I’m arguing.  “OK.  Set aside the biggest domestic turkey you have and I’ll come by to pick it up.”

I fretted about it for a moment.  Is a Red turkey, a bad turkey?  Is what they stuff these poor birds with “better” in the U.S.?  Is it safer?  Does it produce turkey that tastes more like turkey, or at least the turkey of my mind?  The butterball’s I’ve bought in the past are presumably full of genetically modified feed that may be absent in my Red turkey.  Then again, this will not be some free-range bird.  The Red turkey industry is probably using vile pesticides and sawdust that is just as bad for the bird, and anyone who’d eat it. 

Five hours later, my bird comes out of the oven.  He’s golden brown outside.  The critical first two cuts in reveals that he’s cooked well throughout and there are no raw bits inside.  Quickly, very quickly with thirty guests, there is nothing left but the carcass.

I’ve cooked a few turkeys in my day, and I’m here to tell you people:  Our Red turkey tasted powerful-delicious this year.

Attempting the Two Mile Schlepp

I needed wine.  Thanksgiving will require many things, including wine.  I know a store that has reliable wine at good value.  They deliver for free.  I got my order ready on the web site and gave them a ring.  This began a laborious conversation, trying to make French and Italian vintner names and appellations intelligible in Chinese.  We got into a routine of counting rows on the web site to positively identify the wines I meant.  In the end, the five things I’d order all seemed clear. 

Another gent called me back and hour later.  He needed the directions.  And, by the way, one of the wines ordered was sold out.  “Really?  I’ll need to get back on line to pick another one.” "I'm ready!"  “You’ll need to give me some time for that.  I’m at the gym.”  “OK.  Please send your address so I know where I’m going.” “Done.”

When the kid arrived, a few hours later, he was cold and frazzled.  He must have grabbed a cab in desperation, after attempting the two mile schlepp, from the subway stop in the cold, with sixteen bottles of wine in hand.  “Come in, sit down.  You want something hot?  You must be cold.  Have some boiled water.”  I recalled that the last time I ordered from this group a hapless young lady had similarly schlepped here with a case of wine from the subway station to my door. 

Three of the whites turned out to be reds; same vintner, wrong appellation. Stuff happens.  He promised to get me the whites early tomorrow.  No one was due for Thanksgiving till at least 4:00PM tomorrow.  “You sure you can be here before then?  OK.”  We drove him back to the subway station.  He was grateful.  I noticed he was till shivering.  “No, really.  I mean it.  You keep the change.  See you tomorrow, before 4:00PM.”