Sunday, March 27, 2016

Beijing Is Flawless

Easter Sunday, and it is remarkably beautiful out.  The airport expressway has cottonwood poplar trees all of which are showing the beginnings of their leaves.  I can almost see them extending themselves in millimeters as we ride along, noting tree after tree.  Planted unnaturally, with a disproportionate number of females to males, they will each begin to seed and the white puffballs will become airborne and pollute the springtime with their pollinated, dirty refuse.  But that’s for another day.  The dusty spring winds from the Gobi desert are also for later next month.  For now, briefly, Beijing is flawless.  

We chose a different venue this year for our Easter Sunday brunch.  For years we’d followed friends to the Easter brunch there at the Kempinski Hotel, where they lay out what seems like hundreds of yards of food and an end zone of desert.  They diligently try to cover just about every cuisine that might ever patronize the hotel and the champagne flows and one go back for seconds of steak tartar or lobster tails.     

Our friend insisted that the management had recently changed.  He had visited the brunch last month and had a bad experience.  And Easter snuck up quickly this year and no one had prepared so we scratched our heads a few days ago and tried to find an alternative.  We have ended up at the Grand Hyatt on Chang An Jie.  This would not have been my choice.  I doubt we’ll return.

We got there and asked where to go.  There weren’t many people around in the second floor dining area.  In our minds we expected crowds and a scramble to get some kind of descent seating.  This is how it usually is.  Rather it was wide open. “Are you here for the birthday party?”  I had a sinking feeling.  They’d conflated a few events for the day here in the buffet area.  Well, birthday, rebirth, whatever. The food was fine, though there wasn’t much by way of people watching and before long we were all commenting on how warm it was, sitting there.   

So let’s go outside to what was there below us out the window.  The cool air was an immediate upgrade and we strolled about there on the big plaza.  Li Kashing had built out this complex in the 90’s. He’d intended it to be taller but was reigned in mid-construction by the authorities who were not pleased to see something so tall going up near to the sacred crosshairs of the emperor’s throne and the mandatory low zoning of Zhongnanhai and center-most Beijing.  Adjustments were made after the central government authorities put a stop to what had already been approved by the civic authorities.

The sun seemed so strong.  Looking up I noticed that it was merely the reflection of the sun off the glass building beside us.  We took some photos and strolled about for a bit.  But people complained about the pain in their feet.  And Chang An Jie is always so austere and sensitive.  Much of this part of Beijing was long ago ruined and repaved, so that it isn’t very nice to walk around in.  I’d suggested the cherry blossoms of nearby Beidahe.  But it was all a bit late and the decision was made to head back to the burbs.  My younger one was to see the new Batman_Superman movie with a friend.  “We’re gonna be late!”  So we headed back to the basement garage.  Mercifully, there was no Easter traffic. 

Thread Towards All That Was

A friend’s fiftieth birthday.  The second one this year.  All the oldest friends will notch their half-century in 2016.  For the second time this season a person’s wife or girlfriend has put out a call for old photos and remembrances.  That box beneath the luggage there in the hall closet.  I see the photo I want from years ago in my mind.  It’ll be there.  I’ve thought this for days.

There are many, many photos.  I was that man.  I was that kid.  I had that waistline.  And my wife was young and my children were young and every picture is cute and adorable and romantic.  And you sigh because everything isn’t especially cute and adorable and romantic just now.  The pressures of life are not especially photogenic.  Considering further you remember the disruptions and defeats and struggles that made up that time that informed each smile.  The pictures don’t lie.  They’re just selective.  You can take them for the second they captured or begin a thread towards all that was.  And I select a pile of photos of my daughters to show them versions of who they were, for when they return home. 

By now I’ve flipped through hundreds of photos but I haven’t found any of the friend I’m looking for.  Isn’t there one of him with my mother in law?  There’s this one from another friend’s wedding but everyone will already have shared that.  Then I remember there is yet another pile in the hall table drawer.  Now, there is the one I had in mind.  And this one here will be good.  But it’s all pretty paltry pickings by the time I’m done.  My old laptop is still the repository for all the digital era photos.  Fortunately it still fires up after all this time and there I find some snaps that will work.

Photos scanned, I reread the email that started this whole adventure.  They want thoughts, too.  Photos alone will not suffice.  Think then, about this person who has been like a brother.  Think about how to summarize three decades in three paragraphs.  Again, consider the moment of a photograph and then let the thread lead you on to consider the bitterness and the beauty of all that has been.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Civilizational Level Issue

Speeding home across Shandong once again.  Chinese trains have certainly come a long way.  Chinese rail ticket purchasing has traveled a shorter distance.  I got in to the station this morning around 7:25AM with the intention of buying a train on an 8:00AM train out to Jinan.  Plenty of time.  The counter I’d bought it at last time however was closed.  I traversed back to the security entrance and found a series of queues.  I resisted the impulse to join the shortest lane.  Like some pretty colored frog in the jungle this must be dangerous. 

My line had fifteen people or so before me.  But I had time, right?  As we got closer the drama intensified.  A guy in a trench coast heads right up to the front of the line and begins to try to ask for help.  People start yelling at him.  As I reach the third place behind the window a young lady with a big mane of hair positions herself on the opposite side by the window ready to cut.  The young guy in front of me says: “hey don’t cut the line.”  She ignores him and tries to force her way in.  I repeat that she shouldn’t cut the line and the young guy agrees.  I can’t resist saying “she has a civilizational level issue” “素水平的问题”,a time honored, stock phrase for assholes.  The young man heartily agrees. 

She storms off in a huff, after she can’t be helped and we are left with one the young guy in front of me.  Unfortunately he has a significant shopping list involving multiple tickets and multiple destinations.  And has he winds up the young lady behind the gate, with the thankless job, positions her little sign that says, there is a staff change pending.  She then takes five minutes which seem like fifty five minutes, to finish up her work, count her money and get all ready for the next lady, who I nearly assault once she opens up the window and allows for me to put my passport and two hundred ren min bi notes in, before anyone else can try.  Somehow, someway, Beijing and the citizenry can do better. 

Twenty-three years ago, I remember trying to buy a rail ticket in the Wuhan train station.  That was worse.  Everyone scrambled from every direction to reach one or two holes in the wall, set at about seven feet off the ground.  As a result, everyone, myself included had to look up like we were begging to a lesser god to help us.  You and how many other people would reach your hands up and be shouted at by ladies with loud megaphones.  Out in the crowds, the police had electric cattle prods to guide the crowds in this or that direction.  They would sway the sticks and people would shove one another desperately to get out of the way. 


Back in line, I finally got my ticket and still had ten minutes, so it wasn’t all bad.  I made my way over to the Starbucks, the likes of which was most certainly not there in Wuhan of 1993.  I can’t remember the last time I had to combat people to buy a ticket at Grand Central Station.  Everyone still queues, the way everyone drives:  “I am more important than you.  Other people are suckers.  I’m going to get mine.”   I can play such a person on TV.  But it’s enervating having to be one.  Civilizational level, still rising. 

Thursday, March 24, 2016

They Have Wood There

I’m on a mission for my little one to get wood.  No.  The firewood outside our house will not do.  Her group needs wood to build a birdhouse at a project tomorrow at school.  I mention that it would all be easier if we could go to a Home Depot.  I don’t know where to buy wood in Beijing.  No matter.  My daughter does.  “You know that little street next to the big street?”  After a time I recognize where it is she’s talking about.  “You think?”  “Totally baba.  They have wood there.” 

Driving around the neighborhood, I train my eyes to see if I can find any scraps wood off to the side of the road.  But while there is limitless construction and rampant dumping here in paradise, there are also far too many people biking about doing salvaging as well, turning trash into redeemed value.  I take the long way home past where it is my daughter said they might sell wood.  Sure enough, there are stacks of two-by-fours, inside the brick walled enclosure. 

U-turn, and then I pause to call before I go in.  “How much do you need?”  “OK, so it’s a bird house and its should be about a foot tall.”  “Are you supposed to assemble it at home?  We don’t have the tools honey.”  “We do it at school.”  “Oh.  Is everyone bringing in wood?”   “No.  Other people in my group are bringing in tools and stuff.”  “I see.”  

How much wood do you need for a birdhouse?  I head on in, hoping there isn’t a junkyard dog to contend with.  A guy my age begins to walk over.  “Hey there.  Can I ask how late you’re open?”  Before long I’ve discerned where in Henan he’s from and finagled a half a dozen scraps of wood that he is willing to let me part with.  I try to explain the school’s birdhouse project, but he’s not especially interested. 

I was feeling rather accomplished when I rushed back and presented my daughter with my hoard of timber.  She was thrilled.  Though I found out today when she came home that the wood had been dismissed by the shop teacher as “no good.” (Hey it was free, Jack) Fortunately, this gent seems to have had all the requisite wood necessary, there in the classroom.  Mine is not to question.  I delivered wood.  

The orno dwellings they ultimately put together were, in fact, beautiful and a bit more sturdy then my scrap wood would have afforded a sparrow.  

The Effect on Music

Driving from here to there on a sunny day.  The first day all year to merit rolling the window down for.  A random mix on and up popped the Fania All Stars: “Ponte Duro” featuring Roberto Roena on bongos.  Live at the Cheetah there on 53rd Street in 1971.  I haven’t heard this in years.  Man, this music was written by sun lovers.  Even more urgently people of the sun who were in exile in the New York winter.  

Puerto Rican history intertwined, overshadowed and then effectively cut with that of Cuba.  My mind considered our president off in Havana, for the first time in seventy years or so.  Among all the other implications of the sixty plus years of the embargo is the effect on music.  The jazz love affair with Cuban rhythms, interrupted suddenly.  And surely this yielded an unintended boon for the Borinquen in New York.   Salsa in New York was an opportunity for Puerto Ricans and Dominicans to inherit the popularization and indeed the stewardship and of the tradition. 

Some deep reserve of gratitude fills me too that it is Obama who is engaging frankly with the Cuban citizenry.  Someone with the stature and diplomatic savvy to navigate such a visit with grace.  Someone who not only intimates listening, but actually ingests and considers new ideas.  Someone who has put the time into the complicated history and speaks with all the more gravity, as a result.

I pull up at a light with my windows rolled down and salsa blaring.  Words like “cool” and “fool” come to mind, grooving on the locked-down bass and considering myself behind the wheel of a station wagon, wearing a bland, blue baseball jacket, the object of eyeballs.  Who cares?  I know this solo ends right now, just as the light turned green.