Thursday, May 30, 2013

City perks

Outside Jeld-Wen Field
Living in the city has its perks.

Last night, the Portland Timbers hosted the Wilmington Hammerheads of North Carolina. It so happened that some of my season-ticket holding friends had tickets they couldn't use. This windfall development resulted in Maty and I and our sister, Nadia, hopping  the #14 bus bound for Jeld-Wen Field on an unseasonably cool May evening.

Fallen eaglet
There was a hubbub in Lownsdale Square at the corner of 4th and Main. An eaglet had fallen from the big tree. A small crowd gathered to watch as the police cordoned off the area. Someone called the Audubon Society.

Pre-game warm-ups
We got to the stadium in good time and found seats in general admission, up above the rowdiest of the Timbers Army.

Timber's Army
Whether it was due to the rigors of cross-country travel or being just plain out-matched, the Hammerheads got hammered. The score was 4-0 at the break and the first half was played almost entirely on Wilmington's side of the pitch. Frederic Piquionne (out of New Caledonia) scored 4 of Portland's 5 goals.

It was a flat blowout. Final score, Portland 5, Wilmington 1. The Timber's Army roared its approval.

Me and my honey
On the ride home, Maty and Nadia, the two West Africans, had an animated conversation in French. An Asian-American man overheard them and interjected "Excusez-moi. De quel pays venez-vous?"

Soon the three of them were going back and forth while I, with my feeble French comprehension, followed along. It was infectious. Someone in the back of the bus spoke up to the delight of the conversants: "Tout le monde parle français! 

It was late and we were tired, but it was a rewarding evening. 

Rode the bus. Saw a football game. Participated in a spontaneous conversation in French. Taking advantage of those city perks.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Book review: Angels

Long flights are perfect for short novels. So my 13-hour flight from Shanghai to San Fransisco was an apt interval for absorbing Denis Johnson's disturbing debut novel, Angels. Which I did. Johnson is primarily known for his poetry and his short stories. Angels was published in 1983 and since then Johnson has penned another 8 novels, including the critically-acclaimed Tree of Smoke.

Angels is the story of two souls cast adrift in an American wasteland of booze, violence, and mystic-Christian fanaticism. The novel opens with Jamie Mays and her two young children seated on a Greyhound bus headed east from Oakland, California. Jamie has just abandoned her husband and their trailer-park mobile home. As she conjoins herself and her daughters with the flotsam of discarded America, she meets Bill Houston, an ex-Navy man with "eyes drowning in gin" and covered with tattoos. Bill has a past. The two of them don't so much fall in love as collapse onto one another. A cross-country journey filled with peril and desperation ensues as they make their way, ultimately, to Arizona, where live Bill's superstitious and bigoted mother and his two brothers. One of the brothers makes his living repossessing vehicles from survivalists. The other is a heroin-addict.

You get the picture.

Reading this novel, one can tell that Johnson is a poet. His prose is beautiful and captivating. For example:
“Memories assailed him of how gently she had spoken, touched, and moved; of how she'd loved him fiercely despite his mistakes and obsessions and weaknesses. And the conviction descended on him that love like theirs couldn't possibly suffer any change.”
Shades of Cormac McCarthy, eh? I've heard that Johnson is also an admirer of Raymond Carver and that is plainly evident in the simmering menace that pervades this novel. (The most powerful (and disturbing) scene occurs when Jamie is lured into a low-rent apartment by a man she meets on the streets of Chicago. I won't elaborate.)

But while I certainly won't deny Johnson's eloquence, I felt in the end, that the novel failed to deliver. Angels riffs on the tried-and-true theme of redemption through fire, but I found the denouement lacking. It seemed inconsistent with the rest of the novel.

In fact, I'm not sure it is accurate to call this book a novel. The condensed cast and relatively simple storyline are more befitting a short story or a novella than a full-fledged novel. (Well, Johnson is primarily a poet and short-story writer, after all.)

I did enjoy this book and I will certainly read more of Johnson in the future. But I think next time, I'll try a short story collection.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Book review: Black Swan Green

I finished reading David Mitchell's bildungsroman*, Black Swan Green, my first morning in Shanghai. Jet-lagged, I awoke at three in the morning Shanghai time, and read the last couple chapters. I'd burned through most of it on the interminable LA-to-Shanghai leg of my trip earlier in the day (or was it the day before?) and so finished the book (and, thus, the Mitchell canon) while engaged in the travel-hustle from one side of the globe to the other.

Black Swan Green is an autobiographical novel about a tween-aged boy in Worcestershire, England in the 80s. Jason Taylor is a thoughtful, decent lad who, like many other teenage boys, is tormented by angst and diffidence. But adding to Jason's woes is his speech impediment (Jason calls it "hangman") which causes him to stammer and has earned him the ridicule of some of his meaner classmates. (Are there any so cruel as middle-school children?) When strange anonymous phone calls start coming to the home Jason shares with his middle-class parents and older sister, Jason's world starts to crumble.

As I said, Black Swan Green completes the Mitchell canon for me. I've now read all five of his thus-far published novels and I'm an unequivocal fan. Black Swan Green is my least favorite.

Which is not to say that Black Swan Green is not a rewarding read. Far from it. With Jason Taylor, Mitchell succeeds in creating a sympathetic protagonist that readers can't help but root for. As Jason faces up to life's challenges, Mitchell's masterful writing brings back memories of what it is like to be a boy on the verge of manhood.

But somehow, Black Swan Green is less ambitious, more condensed in scope, than Mitchell's other novels. While Cloud Atlas spans the globe and encompasses centuries, while Jacob de Zoet explores dark and terrible questions about morality, Black Swan Green is really just a story about being a boy in middle-class England.

The book is billed as an autobiography (Mitchell, like Jason Taylor, has a stammer), so I suppose Mitchell aimed a little lower with this effort than with others. Black Swan Green is firmly rooted in the world that we know and see around us everyday. I wouldn't call it a mundane novel, but it is certainly more so than Mitchell's other bildungsroman, number9dream.

But it's a touching story, a story that is sure to speak to the millions of awkward pre-teen boys struggling to define themselves in a world they discover to be far more complex than they'd previously realized. Definitely worth reading.

And I simply can't wait to see what Mitchell comes up with next.

*(Cool word, eh? bildungsroman : a novel about the moral and psychological growth of the main character.)

Friday, May 17, 2013

Happy 34th, Bombay

Bon anniversaire, ma cherie amour
Today, I heard a story. Someone told me a story about myself.

There was a man who worked where I worked who knew of me before I married you. He had never spoken with me, but he'd seen me around the office. He said I seemed like a resigned, defeated person back then; a sad person.

Back when we were friends
A few years later, he saw me again. It was after you and I had married. He remarked that I seemed a different person from the person I had been. I was more alive. Happier. He said it seemed like I cared.

Now, as husband and wife
It was a tough story to hear. The truth of it hit me like a sharp slap across the face. Those years just before I met you were dark and destructive. But I hadn't known that my despair was so apparent.

Ethiopian for birthday dinner!

Everything is different now, of course. These years with you, I've kept afloat no matter how rough the water. There is a flat, broad future in front of us. And bright. The future is bright. I believe it. Whatever may come, the future is bright.

Tiramisu for my sweetie!
Happy birthday, my love. Thank you for saving my life.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Mao's mausoleum: Myth replaces man

What are we looking at?
But if you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao
You ain't gonna make it with anyone, anyhow
--"Revolution," The Beatles
In Beijing, as told, I beheld a very strange sight. Specifically, I saw what was purported to be the body of Chairman Mao lying in state.

Mao Zedong --Chairman Mao --had a long and consequential life. Mao was born the son of a peasant farmer in Hunan province and rose out of obscurity to become one of the most renowned historical figures of the modern era (for better or worse). In 1976, at the age of 89, Mao passed. That was 37 years ago.

But what was it that I saw, really?

The simple physics of the matter raise questions about how much of the display was actually human. After all, an embalmed body is a substantially reduced human corpus.

Embalming involves removing the viscera of the subject, performing certain cosmetic procedures (placing plastic "eye caps" under the eyelids to hold shape, sewing the mouth shut, and so on), and pumping formaldehyde or arsenic into the arteries and tissue. But after nearly four decades of undertaker magic, how much of what I saw in that glass case in Tiananmen was actually human?

Sculpture outside Mao's Mausoleum
Mao's legacy adds another dimension to the question. Who was he? Was he Mao Zedong, the communist revolutionary and social engineer, the scourge of both the Kuomintang and the Imperial Japanese Army? Was he China's great visionary that led her from an agrarian backwater to the dominant world power that she is today? Or was he a brutal dictator that inflicted famine and disease on his people with the disastrous "Great Leap Forward?"

A limo driver in Shanghai told me that in his youth in the first decades following Mao Zedong's death, Chinese were required to refer to him as "Leader Mao." To refer to him as simply "Mao" would raise eyebrows and possibly attract negative attention from authorities.

Forward, China!
Times have changed. In 2009, one of Mao's grandchildren, Kong Dongmei, was reported to have assets of nearly a billion dollars. Sort of flies in the face of Mao's vision of a classless society, doesn't it?

Whatever. The long and short of it is this: Mao, the Idea, has expanded out of all proportion to Mao, the Man.

It seems to me that the object I saw in the glass case was a manifestation of ideas; a metaphor upon which each of us imposes his own interpretation.

Chairman Mao isn't the first (V.I. Lenin, George Washington, King Henry V), nor the last (Osama bin Laden, John Lennon, Pope John Paul II) to undergo this transformation.

Novelty playing cards, for sale in a gift shop in Beihai Park.
It's a simple fact and a common recurrence in the human chronicle:

Myth replaces man.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

A Buddhist herald

One day in Shanghai, we entered a Buddhist temple on Jin'an Road in Xintiandi. Not the Temple of the City God. Not the Temple of Peace and Tranquility. Just a small neighborhood temple. I never learned its name.

Inside the dazzle of color, the mind-tickling symbols, the solemnity. The air in the courtyard was heavy with incense. The day was warm.

In the main hall, where the Buddha sat, the monks were performing a ceremony. Four or five elderly Chinese people stood in a row before them, heads lowered. The monks droned a chant.

A bell would ring. The supplicants would kneel on cushioned ottomans, clasp their hands before them and bow to the Buddha.

The ceremony ended. The monks stood and removed their red sashes. The elderly people relaxed and wandered into the courtyard.

One old gentleman approached us. He was very short and very dignified. He wore cuffed trousers and a blue jacket, impervious to the heat of the day. "Where do you come from?" he asked. He spoke English very well.

"The United States," I told him. "A place called Oregon. And you?"

"I am from Beijing," he said, proudly. He indicated the other elderly people. "This is my family. We have come here from all over China to celebrate the 100th anniversary of my mother's birth."

Honoring the ancestors, I thought. Very cool.

His next question came out of the blue. "What religion are you?"

I didn't answer. Not that I wouldn't. It's just that I couldn't. So I shrugged.

His inquiry took a new path. "What is it that brought you to this temple on this day?" His tone hinted at destiny.

I realized then that he was trying to reach me, trying to find a way to reveal the mysteries of Buddhism. And that made me like him. But I couldn't find an answer to offer him. So I asked, "Can I take your picture?"

He seemed to take it in stride. He smiled. He waved over his wife and I handed her my camera. We posed with him and she took our picture.

Here it is.

There is a Buddhist Temple here in Inner Southeast, too. Down on Madison and 25th. The Dharma Rain Zen Center. One of these days, I'm going to check it out. When I do, I'll be sure to remember my friend from Beijing.

Thursday, May 09, 2013

China retrospective

Standing guard at the Ming Tombs
One of the oddities of traveling over the international date line (west-to-east) is that you gain a day. So, even though I left Shanghai at 1pm on Wednesday and spent 22 and a half hours traveling, I arrived in Portland at 4:30pm, also on Wednesday.

Dragon boat off the Bund
It was a long journey. At the end of it, I was met by my smiling African girl, who'd prepared a wonderful homecoming meal.
May Day celebration on the Huangpu River
The anxiety and stress of getting from one side of the globe to the other is leaking out of me now, being replaced by the wonder and amazement of all I've seen in the past 2 weeks.

Dim sum lunch in Shanghai
A funny thing about travel: In the moment, when you're scrambling through airport security, when you're cooped up in coach at the back of a passenger jet for 12 hours, when you're doing the zombie shuffle through US Customs, travel seems like a big hassle and not a lot of fun.

Full appreciation of what you've experienced only comes with the perspective afforded by time. The wealth of images, smells, sounds, and sensations must settle into your being, changing you, changing the way you view the world. That, my friends, is the most sublime reward that travel offers.

Guardians in the temple of the City God
Back home in the Rose City. Thinking about China.

Beggar outside Shanghai Museum
Ancient painted tea cup
Fruit vendor
Ravenous coi
Delicate Chinese girl with porcelain skin
Chinese girl
Dig that pink hat!
Touching the dragon turtle instills longevity
Blind flute player in Beijing
Girl in Tiananmen Square
Setting sail on Beihai Lake
"The Naked Emperor" --painting in an art gallery
One thousand Buddhas (plus two)
Great Wall
Our Beijing guide, Sunflower
What a trip!

Monday, May 06, 2013

On the Great Wall

Snaking like a dragon along the mountain tops at Mutianyu
The Great Wall of China is the longest man-made structure in the world. Its total length, including spurs, outposts, and connecting trenches runs over 13,000 miles. It's a work of many centuries. Archaeologists estimate that the first construction began in the 7th century BC and continued off and on through the 1500s. Various Chinese Emperors, most recently those of the Ming Dynasty, used the Wall to defend China from Manchurian and Mongol invaders.

Ultimately, though, the Great Wall of China joins Sweden's Vasa warship and Ronald Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative as a military flop. According to lore, over a million lives were spent in its construction; the cost in resources and effort is incalculable.

A clear day above Beijing's smog
The Wall runs along the highlands of China's ancient northern border. It includes some 25,000 watch towers, which during the Ming Dynasty were manned by 25 to 30 soldiers who kept a watchful eye on the passes to the north. When enemy raiders were spotted, a cannon shot signaled troop reserves behind the wall who rushed to the defenses to meet the threat.

The concept seems sound enough. And, in fact, the Wall did function as designed to help repel Manchu invasions in the early 1600s. But both before and after this period of relative success were a long string of failures. The Wall proved ineffective at preventing a highly-mobile invading force from going around it as the Mongols demonstrated in the 13th century. And, of course, no defenses can stand against internal betrayal as the Li Zicheng rebels proved when, in 1642, they seized Beijing  and left the Ming Dynasty defenders isolated on the Wall with no base of supply.

On the Wall
On a day when the American Consulate had the air pollution index at 240 ("unhealthy"), we took a drive to the north of Beijing to see the Great Wall at Mutianyu. This was the same site that President Clinton visited back in the 90s. A photo of him hung on the wall at the foot of the tram-line that took us up to the top of the ridge.

Some shallow, some deep. Some high, some low.
When we got to the top, the Wall stretched out like a stone highway to our left and right. Sunflower, our guide, led us to the west. The walkway, set between brick and mortar parapets, was uneven with plenty of opportunity for stumbles. Rough, uneven stone stairs of varying heights and depths led up and down the steeper inclines and I won't lie to you: I was sucking air as I labored up the particularly-steep ascent that punctuated our western progress. (Nimble-footed Calee beat me to the top with scarce effort.)

Drag my ass up that?
As I climbed, I searched my mind for a mantra to distract me. For some strange reason, I settled on the hopscotch chant that Penny Marshall and Cindy Williams did in the opening of the Laverne & Shirley teevee show.

1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 Schlemiel! Schlimazel! Hasenpfeffer Incorporated

Don't ask me why. I don't know why. But it worked. I got to the top.

A bit tuckered
We'd arrived at the Wall early, to avoid the worst of the crowds, and it paid off. As we made our way back down, the walkway was considerably more crowded. The variety of languages and nationalities we encountered was itself a marvel. Italians, Mexicans, Poles, Cameroons, Canadians, French, Germans and, of course, Chinese. More besides.

From the western terminus of the tourist-accessible Wall we went back east and found the place where you can ride summer toboggans back down to the village. That was a lot of fun. The rush of wind as I made my descent was perfect antidote for the hot, sweaty climb up.

Summer toboggan
We got back to the car and headed back toward Beijing. We stopped along the way to visit the Ming Tombs, were Ming Dynasty emperors constructed their extravagant final resting places. Marble figures marked the pathway that led to the tombs. Their rounded shapes conveyed serenity and acceptance. A Buddhist thing, I suppose.

And so I close with a few photos of those stone figures that guard the road to deceased Chinese Emperors. Tomorrow, God willing, I fly back to the United States. I can't wait to see my wife. And a special thanks to my dear brother and sister-in-law for the hospitality and generosity.

Bye-bye, China.

Stone Guardians at the Ming Tombs

Sunflower called this a Chinese unicorn.

Kneeling elephant