Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Still Await Their Rendez Vous

My kids go a great school.   Exhibit A:  my wife and I came out of Parents Night saying how we wanted to go back to middle school.  My seventh grade daughter and her cohort are in something called the Futures Academy, which is a novel approach to integrated, project-based learning.  The teachers are smart and cool.  The projects they’ll work on, like growing their own food in collective plots, participating in a mock refugee camp, all seem remarkable.  They have blue swivel chairs. 

My daughter seems to rate things pretty high, so far.  I would certainly know, otherwise.  And the next night, following the parent welcome, was the middle school dance.  Alas, this was not well reviewed.  I suppose, that not unlike when I was young the dance is built up to be something big, and then turns out to be decidedly flat.  The only middle school dance I remember, back in suburban New York, had me pushing the DJ all night to play “Rock and Roll High School” by the Ramones.  I had the album, you see.  I brought it for this purpose.  When he finally accommodated my incessant nagging, he put the crummy cover version on the wrong side of the LP on and I was aghast, tarred with having subjected everyone to a notably weak song. 

My daughter and her friend were excited to go.  I was tasked with taking them over.  I wasn’t sure if they were going to “prepare” themselves.  They headed out to the car in tee-shirts and flip flops.  I inquired if they weren’t going to change and they assured me that this was a stupid question.

The debrief, later that night confirmed my assumptions: “How was it?”  “It was boring.”  “Why?  Did you dance?”  “No.”  “Did any of the guys dance?”  “No.  They just stood there.”  “Oh. What about the girls?”  “We would have danced but the music was awful.”  “Couldn’t you request songs?”  Yeah, but they didn’t play them.”  “And the teachers?”  “They just stood on the side, watching.  They were so annoying.”  Sounds a lot like our dances, minus “Stairway to Heaven.” 

I am very glad that this Futures Academy has taken middles school curriculum into the 21st century.  I enjoy imagining my daughter in a blue swivel chair.  But it would appear that middle school dances still await their rendez vous with a reimagined future. 

Any Such Name

I’ve been coming over for meetings with Xiaomi at the Wu Cai Cheng mall building for years now. Today, for the first time, I’ve been directed to go to two adjoining buildings for two subsequent meetings.  This building I’m sitting in now is two blocks south of the building I’ve always visited.  This lobby is an upgrade.  The main building I’m usually waiting in only has room for a dozen people to sit.  In this new facility there are little faux wooden huts that look like something you’d find, or a designer would imagine finding, on the Burmese border. I’ve looked but I don’t see anywhere to plug-in within the huts. 

It strikes one sitting here would should already be patently clear.  Most people are younger than me.  Certainly everyone that works in this company is much younger than me.  Xiaomi has a decidedly youth culture vibe.  Like most internet companies they have their own animated animals.  On the wall behind me is the Xiaomi rabbit, whom I suppose is referred to as Mr. Mi Tu.    In the bathroom he gives people lessons on civilized behavior.  

In the hall outside the bathroom what appears to be an original impressionist work, is prominently displayed.  A peasant woman with her arm full of wheat is standing in an impossibly golden field, beneath an impossibly green tree and a hopeful blue sky with dreamy white clouds.  (My poor photo doesn't begin to do it justice) The sign suggests this is a painting by Meng Fu Ke (1830 - 1903).  I can't place any such name.  I've just discerned that this is a work by Camille Pissarro.  It would appear that Xiaomi have been investing in more than cartoon bunnies to communicate their corporate identity. 

Now an hour later, it’s the Jingcheng Gaosu.  Beiwuhuan was completely jammed.  4:30PM and rush hour was already well under way.  Now it’s five but I’m far enough out of town to have escaped the worst.  It’s a bit colder today.  It’s still late August  but you can feel the cut in the heat.  The change is stirring about.  If I think far enough ahead, I acknowledge that I am dreading this winter.  Every Beijing winter, looms dreadful.

I was so busy writing I wasn’t paying attention to my Uber driver, or the chirpy voice he had telling him to take the next exit off the highway.  That was a mistake.  I understand why the navigation system told him that.  It was thinking I was heading to the new New Convention Center, which is a landmark near to where I live that I punched in to the app.  But it made no sense to travel this way and now we’re stuck in pointless back road traffic with trucks and double parking.  I can feel the struggle going on in my mind between the triple espresso I had two hours back and the dead of night sleep my body is considering pulling me into.  Neither one is strong enough to win.  So I just remain awake when I should be en route to oblivion, in the back of this car. 

Feels Like A Reasonable Age

Every age feels like a reasonable age when you reach it.  I can recall a boss of mine ten years ago commented on this.  Someone had just turned forty.  I was forty at the time.  He looked at us earnestly and suggested the following:  “Forty?  Forty’s nothing.  Wait till you turn fifty.  At fifty you can see the way down to death.  Clearly.”  It struck me that his privileged view could only be true.  He’d seen it.  I hadn’t.  I couldn’t be true for me, until I, Inshala, reached that spot on the trek up the mountain and could consider the vantage for myself. 

The view is certainly different than it was back at forty, but I don’t think of it the same dismal terms my old friend did.  It all feels quite reasonable to be this age.  I assume that everyone else feels the same:  this is a perfectly reasonable age to be.  Fifty seemed anything but reasonable at any other time in my life.  Arriving at the station, what could be more natural?  I know that kids will look to this age and shudder in disbelief.  They have to.  And people who are forty like I was will necessarily count their blessings that they are comparatively young.   And the oldsters will think of fifty, wistfully.  Anything was possible, then.  Ages are demystified, as we reach them.

I’ve been enjoying the fifth decade for four months or so and it’s a perfectly nice year.  And all along the way my oldest cadre of chums whom we shared high school or college with are all arriving at this date in grand succession.  Last night I wrote my dear friend to tell him his day had arrived here in China.  Writing back from LA he insisted:  “I’m still forty nine!”

Later, the next day, he acknowledged that he made it.  It would have been nice to have been there with him.  It would have been nice to have had him over here four month’s ago, as well.  But we live where we do, and internet immediacy is a reasonable compromise.  And he still seems as youthful as he always did, as I suppose we’ll both seem, till all the world’s a rearview mirror.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Everyone Knows This

My dear friend is back in the Bay after a vacation in Sweden.  He complains of jetlag and suggests it’s harder to get over when he’s older.  He’s right.  This latest readjustment of mine is taking much longer than it ever usually does.  Joe Henderson is blowing away on some latter day creation of his.  The mix sounds like something from the nineties or the naughts.  Let me know go have a look. . .  Wow.  Shows what I know.  I’m listening to the album “In Pursuit of Blackness” that was recorded in 1971.  Just-shows-to-go-ya’.   I should have listened more carefully.  I’m tired.

I have a call I’m supposed to do in thirty minutes.  What I’d love to do is take a nap for thirty minutes.   I am afraid that I will drop, not into a light sleep but rather something gripping that will pinion me down for three hours so I'll wake up an hour after the call with nothing but apologies.  I’ll stick it through till this call is over . . . and with that sleep overtook me just there.  Suddenly I was watching someone eat prickles off an enormous, passive marine iguana’s back.  It was set up in a manner to suggest this was an old conversation, how you could get water from an iguana’s back spines. Everyone knows this.  You pluck them and you suck them.  Of course.  My brain must have fumbled when it reached for a tension to make a dream with, just now.   I just erased the forty-eight w’s that ran across the page in response to my dead hand pressure that occurred while I was considering the iguana.

My wife told me this morning that the bank had locked our card, probably because they were confused we were back in China.  I dialed the number and was told to wait.  I went about my morning and made my smoothie and bid the girls well as they headed off to school, all the while listening to the only thing worse than Bank of America’s filler music, their filler helpful messages that rattled on for twenty nine minutes of time.  Finally I heard a voice and in my excitement I pressed the red hang-up button on Skype.  I screamed aloud.  A total waste of time.  Now why had I done that?  I looked up an old email from BOA and found a different number, which cut me into a live human, a few minutes later. 

Just like yesterday the sleepy feeling is passing.  After my call I’ll go try to lie down and sleep and wont be able to.  The Times told me that Prime Minister Abe popped out of a tube last night in a Super Mario costume in the closing ceremony in Rio, to accept the passing of the torch to Tokyo for 2020.  It certainly did not look like the head of state of a dormant imperialist power bent on fiendishly reasserting control over China and all of Asia.  ("Don't be fooled!" shouts the imaginary Beijing cabbie in my mind.)  How long will it take before a Chinese leader could make fun of himself that way?  Would it ever be possible to reduce Chinese civilization to a one-liner from a video game?

Puttering Little Routines

William Gass has me muddling about in his home.  For some time now, I’ve been considering the professor’s toaster, his tooth brushing habits and his obsession with Hitler.  He has older man pains and older man indignities and older man memories that are all a bit too familiar.  And this is his purpose, with “The Underground”, I’m unwittingly drawn into this intensely personal world he’s trying to burrow an escape from. 

Like his professor I work from home, largely.  I have puttering little routines and note the way memory cuts into his present and leaves dents in his mind, not unlike they way memories can interrupt my little progressions as well.   I don’t want to be in his house, any more than I want to return to the discourse on the Third Reich.  Appropriately I read this mostly, in the bathroom, where I don’t want to be for very long either.  It is his sharpened turn of phrase that makes the gloomy places worth exploring and the gloomy professor, someone you reluctantly want to learn ever more about. 

I brought my book to the High School, welcome-back night last evening.   I didn’t make any progress on it, but I had it just in case.  Instead we had quite a bit of ground to cover, going from the auditorium, to the gym, to chemistry class, approximating our daughter’s schedule and battery of classes.  I didn’t have much of anything to say when the topics in math were explained.  In Social Studies I tried the best I could to limit myself to one or two points of inquiry.  Most importantly “what is the geographic focus of this look at the world from 1750 to 1900?”  I don’t think there is much point in telling the tale of industrialization to high school students, unless you cover where it was that this process started. 

In English they are going the read Yeats.  This got me excited.  Looking around the room, I mastered the urge to ask “Which Yeats?!” I imagined the collection of Yeats poetry that should be sitting on my shelf at home.  The same book I took to Ireland when I was twenty and was reading when I sat in a pub somewhere on the island of Valentia near Kerry and a local fisherman named Aeo saw my book and told me: “Yeats was a fucking faggot. You wanna read a writer with real balls, read Flan O’Brian.  He was writing about tripping before there was acid.”  And I didn’t bother to tell all this to my daughter when I got home, but I found my book and I suggested it was important to me and that she, with a sense of what an Irish accent sounded like should read the poems with that voice in her head.  She nodded dutifully and suggested she was very tired and wanted to head to bed.  I wouldn’t have been particularly interested in Yeats when I was fifteen either.