Wednesday, April 20, 2016

The Reunion Farewell

After nearly 30 years, I've now shared three lively meals with my friend from Guangzhou. We roomed together as young teacher trainees in Beijing; part of the first-ever such joint living and working arrangement post-liberation. He persisted at his long-time home, and became a Dean at Zhongshan University - Sun Yat-sen National University. I meandered in my life as I do now in China.

Shitao has a daughter working in Hong Kong, I have two. We had traded some letters and pictures across the years when mine were infants and before his was born, but as my life diverged those stopped. We met in the days well before email, and I'm afraid we stopped writing before we could update addresses.

As I was flipping through some pictures on my phone to catch him up a bit, he stopped me at one, astonished, wondering what that picture was doing there.

I told him my story, that while I was in Shanghai last spring the subway stations were full of ads from this company. That I'd glanced at them, but mostly quickly as I do at all the Chinese ads which are full of impenetrable jargon; I would have to stare and study them a while. I do that when waiting for trains, but these were along the walkways where I was struck by how the man in the ad resembled my friend Wayne. He was a long-time teacher at the school I headed for a short time, back in my home-town, Buffalo. Wayne was almost exactly 20 years my senior. He passed away a couple of years ago. Missed by many.

There are so many Europeans and Americans depicted in the ads in China. I've asked about that, and the usual bland reply is that exotic things are always more interesting, dispelling my curiosity as to whether Western style hasn't been introjected by Chinese still looking up to us. These ads seemed in that vein, and mostly I marveled at how closely Wayne's likeness fit the aspirational mode. I think he would have rather liked that.

We became very close, Wayne and I. But he resigned before the school's final year, when it closed for good. I never did know if that was a protest against my direction for the school, or a kind of passive support for whatever work I wanted to do that he couldn't get behind. He had been angry at me for what I thought were personal reasons, and gave no indication of political opposition. But he and a senior colleague who also resigned had always been the force behind keeping the school alive. They'd mounted a successful unionization movement against cluelessly arrogant priests. I too had been its president for a while, and pretty much owed my ascent to head of school to Wayne.

That was a mixed favor for sure, as the school was already effectively defunct. The best I could do was to claw out a few more years, during which I made a reasonably tight plan to keep it going. But Buffalo was at the steepest part of its downslide, and many of its banks were terminally hit by the savings and loan fiasco. Overbuilding Texas mostly. Who knew that was only round one.

We had our differences. The school was meant for "gifted" kids, and Wayne was passionate about beautiful minds and beautiful bodies. I chafed at his treatment of those he felt unworthy of his attentions. It reminded me of a cruel father, finding his own son wanting. Maybe I felt my own Dad was that cruel - showing his disappointment more readily than any pride - though truth be told, I felt guilty at being favored. Dad passed last winter.

There were plenty of father/son vibes between Wayne and me, and maybe those composed the taboo against the kind of sexual bonding which was Wayne's habit. I am certain he was utterly honorable with his students, as at least one among the lingering priests among the faculty was not. I was pleased when that one scurried away as soon as I became the school head. Maybe even a little proud.

From his good students, Wayne got the very best. Earning his favor was a goad to fine work. A literature and writing teacher, he was utterly impatient with sloppy thinking and exposed it in ways both hilarious and cruel to authors and to students, and especially to his colleagues. Many of his best students remember him as the one person who made the most important difference in their lives. I think a few still, well, chafe.

I brought with me to the school bad habits learned across a bumbling life. Drink and smoke from a bar I tended in London before I ever started to study Chinese. More in the Temple of the City God in Hsinchu, Taiwan where I drank late with blasted newspaper reporters under martial law. Then would come the police at midnight and then would come the mob still later. I still drink too much, but I don't smoke anymore, so there's progress. Constancy would have done me good.

I never could get through to Wayne those things I wanted him to understand about literature in Chinese. God knows we tried. Many many nights, we would be out on Lake Erie until the wee hours of the morning, drinking (mostly beer) and smoking and laughing and indulging endless discussions about something that must have been extremely interesting. We would be back in class the next morning. Ah the energy of youth! Wayne in the picture was younger then than I am now, at least I'm sure of that. About Shitao's age I guess.

Those outings started in Wayne's kitchen, or maybe at the table he'd built with perfect Windsor chairs that I just loved. He'd been an antique dealer, and honed a fine appreciation for things of perfect beauty. My wife was on the night shifts, and sometimes Wayne would cook.

I indulged the fantasy that he indulged me for my fine mind. I was never shy about accepting the hospitality. Politics, literature, the school, the students, the faculty, the state of the cosmos. We easily agreed that all had entered that phase just after detonation, when a soon-to-collapse demolished building looked still momentarily intact after a small and sudden shrug, which might never have happened at all to mind's eye but for what came after.

In those days when the spirit moved us and the weather conspired to support it, we would head out across the Peace Bridge for a longish drive to where my boat was moored. Those were the civilized days before 911 when border crossings were not much fuss.

My boat wasn't much with a gas engine older than me to get us going and back in case of calm. With its wimpy six-volt battery we often sailed with the lights out. It wasn't exactly as though anyone else was out on Lake Erie after dark.

One night I well remember we looked what I swear was straight up at a suddenly looming lake freighter coming right down on us. Beer bottles went overboard as I filled the sails away. We laughed, and I am suffered somehow still to live. We made no radar footprint, all of wood and disappearing in the steep Lake Erie chop.

So after coming home from Guangzhou last time, I brought up that picture I'd snapped on the way out and damn if it isn't really Wayne. I still can't quite place the timeline, but I do remember learning that he had become really skinny and had shaved his head after the school closed. That he was trying to reconstruct his life as something other than a teacher.

When I reconnected with him much later, he'd grown temporarily fat actually. It seems he did tell me about attempting modeling once while down in New York City, goaded by a friend or lover there. My dim memory tells me he thought it was a mistake. How would he feel to see it now? He would want the profit from it! Clever with money, Wayne never had much of it.

But Wayne did get by. He was always rebuilding the interiors of his house, acquiring and re-covering fine antique furniture, or reassembling parts from other houses. It was the architectural equivalent of Michelangelo's slaves, never finished but always aspiring to something you knew it never could be. I was disappointed most recently to find that the craft-built sunporch off the kitchen was gone. The ornate francophile garden gone mostly to seed. We'd peed in its corners, as the more civilized alternative to indoor plumbing. Bathrooms and kitchens were ever-moving. As was I, Wayne was clever with his hands. I suppose we respected that in one another.

Now he stares out at all of China. There is only this one picture, plus a photoshopped version with the pipe cut out for political correctitude. It must have been purchased from unidentifiable stock. Wayne would be pleased that so many in China are intrigued by this apparently perfect rendition of what is meant by Western style and good living. He was putting it on to raise the dead is how I see his look. He would have known exactly. Not quite an admonition to his students, but informed by that.

I am hardly ever invited into a Chinese home. These are not spaces for entertaining, although you might think so from watching Chinese TV. But maybe that's the hint, since no-one would ever think that their own decor was quite up to the person they wanted to project. Extravagant sums might be spent to rent a space for entertainment in a restaurant, where we Americans are generally proud of how we choose to live, eagerly showing off our favorites. I often make that mistake while presenting in Chinese, thinking that it would be best for me to show my strengths. It is not a very Chinese thing to do.

After telling him my story, Shitao was far more interested and amazed by this little 'tale of the supernatural and fantastic' than by anything else we'd talked about. That's the genre he puts the story in, perhaps remembering that I'd boasted to him 30 years ago about the book by that title to which I'd contributed translations. I think I do ape its tone here now. Deadpan. Just the facts. Anyhow, he wants to write a story about it and maybe we should both conspire together.

And now as I write this I am flooded with clear and present memories of myself at another time, in another place, talking and smoking with Shitao, arguing about whether the Chinese written character presents thoughts directly, which he still maintains, or whether they are mediated by voice as I would argue vociferously (of course).

Shitao's story will have to be more interesting than mine. Wayne would counter my Chinese poetics and cosmology with astonishing erudition, able to quote lines and whole verse from memory in ways that would impress a Chinese scholar. I could find no hook for what the Chinese literary tradition has that we in the West lack. Urbane and devastating combativeness was his teaching style. I think I failed the energy test, though I sometimes bested him politically.

I suppose I gave up. After the school closed, I pretty nearly repudiated China and Chinese. Well, I taught Chinese for a while at the University, I tried trading in it for a degree in Comparative Education, but eventually divorce and childrearing and abiding pennilessness drove me to a career in IT. I probably repudiated most everything except for my daughters.

I could finally abandon computer networks and security to the younger more flexible minds after my two daughters were adults. I was discouraged by "the cloud" which rendered my detailed privacy and security protocols both meaningless and absurd. Such complex firewalls in and out can be left to our Chinese betters. I no longer knew where the boundary was, much less about how to enforce it.

The trick with IT work is that it's always about educating the user. I was reasonably good at that, and at leading the executives to understand why they needed my guidance. But in the end, I could not be quite certain about my integrity signing off on the integrity of clients' private data. I was relieved to be away from it.

I never did get to further the career that Wayne had, perhaps, perfected. His attitude in class was as studied as that photograph, as false, perhaps, or as true. He did bring out the best in his students, and didn't mind if they or his colleagues hated him for it along the way. It was no favor to anyone to be allowed to carry on in sloppy ways.

I was the nicer fellow, but maybe I did destroy the school. Maybe I wanted too badly for those discouraged students to succeed. I do take plenty of pride in how successful the "dullards" once by Wayne's lights now are. I think those years that I was there were the best the school ever did have, if judged by results. An accident of time and place. An accident of pride.

The school's qualities were surely none of my doing. I can take pride only in cleaning up the act a bit, and clearing out some rancor. It was always a quirky school at best, a magnet for misfits. It was surely already technically bankrupt when I took over, and Buffalo's economy was on its final tipping point to insignificance, although I understand it might be comeback time. Who knows?

I think I was relieved when the school closed for the same reason that I was relieved to leave IT (not so very long ago). And that, truth be told, fills me with a sense of guilt that I did cause its demise by some kind of inner death wish. Just to be relieved of what had become for me a 24/7 though mostly joyful quest to keep it going.

By the end I was burned out at a very young age. I was angry. I had assembled a board of trustees worth well north of a billion actual dollars when that was a significant sum of money. They were kind and indulgent, but like any good father would not subvent a school which couldn't support itself. They sat on other boards, in an overcrowded field of non-profits in a shrinking city. Someone had to go. I took it badly.

I don't mean that I resented what had to happen, or anyone at the school or on its board. I just didn't want any more to do with any of it. After my final bumbling graduation, having delivered our fine speaker (Harley Hanson, the father of AP testing pioneered at the school) to the airport, I slunk away forever. Sort of. I certainly didn't return to the graduation party, and I left my office as it was. I wanted no part of the closing process. I burned a lot of bridges.

And then here I am back in China, having largely rehabilitated my usable Chinese after having spent at least 15 years in utter certainty that it was completely gone. Every once in a while, I would try a phrase or two in my head, and it was discouraging. But mostly, I pushed China away, even to the point of avoiding news stories, avoiding understanding what China had become, avoiding any kind of connection to a country moving headlong into our direction, one which had already killed Lake Erie when I was a child on her shores.

Vietnam's destruction was built there, parts for the atomic bomb, the molten slag from the steel plant which made a second sunset to our East most nights. Warmth and phosphates overfertilzing algae overgrowth. Oxygen starved fishes made stinking piles on our broad beaches.

My flight out of China that time I left Shitao was joined by the guy from Jeep who was bringing them to China. I thought he was nuts or China was nuts or both. I don't think they were Chrysler yet. I don't know, I can't remember. I know we had a nice conversation. His vision proved the truer. Mine destined for the slag-heap of dreams.

And now Wayne is staring at me from everywhere on every street. Bigger than Great Teacher Chairman Mao, who I am assured is only posted for irony anymore. Like that place I ate the other night where the waitresses were dressed in military drab as though they could actually be the equal to the men in the kitchen. The slag-heap of dreams reduced to irony.

Oh yes, Wayne was what we used to call a male chauvinist. An unreconstructed Southerner, who seemed to have a powerful disliking for the female body. But that was as truly false and overspoken as were most things about him. Put on. Modeled. Rhetorically felt for as long as it might take to spill the bile, and then he would tell of his true love, Mary. He would gush about the brightest female students. Once he could see them see themselves past their bodies to their minds. Once he could see them appreciate themselves.

I don't know why either of us indulged the other. Mind, body, same thing really, no matter what those idiot artificially intelligent people think. My daughters are gorgeous and I don't hold that against them. Their minds fine and strong, and I think they could hold their own against Wayne, even in the classroom. No, I know they could. Reduce men to tears by strength of argument. I've seen it. By strength of character.

I look at Wayne's picture now, and I am as certain that it is actually him as I am certain of anything. Mao was never who he appeared to be either, but no-one could mistake the picture. It has become an icon. I have discharged my duties as best I can. And I am never certain as the word is more destructive than the worshipped body, beauty a cudgel against the masses. Erudition a signal of superiority. Rise up . . .

It took three trips to Guangzhou to find Shitao. I had to find the time, I had to do some sleuthing (I'd lost an email thread to him when I'd lost a job. There is so very much still messed up about who owns what and according to what rules).

Crossing borders now, I chuckle to myself as crossing guards look up and back at my nearly twenty-year-old passport photo to convince themselves it's really me. I curse at my little tablet computer when it won't recognize my face. I suppose I should be grateful to these predators on my soul, for keeping me safe. I don't buy any of it.

None of it makes any sense. My identity only matters to those who know and care for me, and can't be summed up by some machine collection of deeds and misdeeds which can be used perpetually against me only because they can. That security is as false as the teacher who tells his student that the work is great, terrific, perfect, just to avoid bruising some self-esteem.

Alienating me from those things I wrote while working for you, because you somehow own them, secrets I must keep because my memory is that perfect, trade secrets, security trusts, putting my stories into the trust of the Google cloud which knows more about me than even the credit score company if it were to want to look. The corporate personage. Screw you.

Maybe it was a passing dream or a bad joke, but I understand that China is setting up a netizen score system. It's probably modeled on our credit bureau's methods. And you will never speak your mind again, because you might be recognized for what you are. You will never dare to make a mistake, to risk, to believe in something greater than yourself. To take a pose for beauty.

My credit score is perfect. My story is a mess. I do miss you Dad, Wayne, Shitao and the list could go on and on, but I am not a good networker either. My oldest friends are still my best. There's constancy in that to no measure at all.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Dry Dreaming

Yes, it's very damp here in Guangzhou this time of year. Nothing dries except under the influence of air-conditioning. But I'm not going to talk about that. I'm going to talk about a much more embarrassing topic.

This morning I was awakened graciously pre-climax by an increasingly rare erotic dream. Let's say it was the meat I ate last night, full of grease and tasty crust. They didn't have the beans I like, and my inner selfish craving went for the special-price item, even though I knew I shouldn't have. (It could have been the spicy tofu, but I eat that plenty often enough with no unusual outcomes.)

The restaurant was Mao-themed retro-chic, with the waitresses all dressed in drab fatigues. I was trying to gauge the irony content, but the clientele seemed all of an age to have actually worshipped Mao once upon a time. Earlier in the day, I'd watched a grampa explain history to his little grandson, using the kitschy dioramas in the window to explain the Long March, liberation, and who was Mao and who was Zhou. That's why I came back there for dinner.

The place was not cheap, but not too expensive either, and the middle-aged clientele seemed dressed for a Friday night out, the way that we might do for Olive Garden or maybe more like Cracker Barrel or still more likely a small-town restaurant attached to the barely surviving old hotel. They seemed comfortable with the place and the prices, and pretty sure that its decor was not out to cheat them.

My problem is that the woman in my dreams was your usual Hollywood fantasy, and the engine was meat. I don't want that to be the case. By daylight I am passionately against all such self-gratifying indulgence, and might even be moved to march in the street against those with Hollywood life-styles and outsized lived fantasies who bend the rules to favor their winnings, as though they earned them.

Oh sure, it's not a zero-sum game, and Gates and Zuckerberg and even Jobs are homely enough and seem to love their homey wives. Why not project our cravings for beauty, security, comfort, choice? What could it possibly have to do with the ways that queers are treated, the ways that the poor are short on love of the sort that could provide a home.

The Hollywood types seem overwhelmingly liberal in their politics anyhow, and you have to move back from the front row in business to find the smarmy oil tycoons who really do manipulate things to keep as much loot to themselves as possible, and buy the sweet ass which won't come to them directly any more.

I don't know, I honestly don't, but I am forced to struggle with this stuff because my narrative descends from Cotton Mather, a direct antecedent according to Dad. I must torture myself or not be suffered to live this side of hell.

But oh hell, I'm banished from the garden anyhow, as Leonard Cohen might say (although methinks he doth still have entree, kind of like how Hillary once proclaimed her poverty). It's nice to see older Chinese women with makeup and fancy dresses, and their men half drunkenly shouting hello to me in English. These are working class people who've made it to middling, and want to feel it for a night. Stout heads, healthy for drink, enough to splurge this once.

There are so many home-style restaurants now in China, despite or because of the endless destruction and resurrection. Unlike Cracker Barrel the cooks in these places are the real deal, as are the waitresses, though the owner may have other stores in the glitzy shopping malls where the young prefer to get their cook-by-numbers meals. The ones who still climax before they wake up. The ones now allowed openly to snuggle and kiss and squeeze barely covered behinds.

The prices are good in these homey places, but you don't see young people there, or at least not the swarms who crowd the kinds of places which take your smartphone money and give you a fat discount in return. Split the check on automatic, or duke it out with deft gamers' fingerings.

I still don't know how to do that well, and my overseas bank card doesn't fit the box. Eventually I'll get the hang of it. Maybe. Or not.

So many ugly deaths - so much destruction - seem caused by the overinflated idealism of the Maos, the Stalins, the Mathers the ones who crusade for equality and purity of heart over cleverness and beauty. So many more now seem caused by those who have it all already. Where oh where is the middle way anymore. Where?

This afternoon I will hang with the young folks, who champion youthful fantasies of transformation and renewal here and here and here. Why can't we just make this happen, Bernie, why? Will it all just go to hell again, as young folks hit the big time. Or are these still just the same old beautiful people, blind to their privilege, riding a wave of temporal fantasy as the world boils down around them?

I'll let you know, right. Veering back and over again to the side of the angels, if only in my dreams.

I do know it won't be the technology which pulls it off. That so quickly descends to the good vibes we all crave so badly. The start-up stuff of youthful Hollywood fantasy dreaming. Yes I will show you a good time if you give me your bitcoin. I will give you a taste for free. You will want the entire deal, though, you will, and it will taste as good as rare steak, london broiled, over easy, Luke Skywalker to my drone.

The end of history is a peculiarly Western fantasy, twinned with extraterrestrial origin stories. It is transformation which approaches surely, and not the end, if only for you and not for me. End in sight and still I can't relax. And in sight and no comfort against the terrors of healthcare extraction. End in sight and no security in employment or in governance. End in sight. Tonight I will drink with an old friend after thirty years apart. Tonight I will have a good time.

Where is the liberation? It will not be death or after death. Of that I am reasonably certain. It will be in these rare blissful moments of certainty before awakening. The times when I do see the foolish stupidity of fantasy science, where all the world is ours to predict and to control and to shape according to our ends. The times when I do see that it is the human heart which matters, which must invest our tools with direction. That the human heart is no artificial separation at birth from earth as spawn.

These are but fleeting moments before awakening. Gracefully pre-climax.

And now I must head out for my housekeeping perambulation. Drink up please, it's time.

Friday, April 8, 2016


I know I'm a special kind of clueless. I know.

So the day after I write up my book-touristing adventure, my friend and colleague Nancy Pine asked me to find a Chinese copy of her book. Nancy wrote a wonderful book summarizing her 20+ year longitudinal study comparing K-12 education in the US and China.

I decided to break out one of my apps to look for nearby bookstores, and there were a few along what could be a leisurely stroll to my night's eatery, or maybe to the next subway stop in case I got more ambitious. The first one, a small XinHua outlet, was closed already and when I walked into the next one I realized I had been there not too many nights before, quite by accident while looking for a toilet inside a smallish shopping mall.

I'd spent a little time in the store then, trying to understand its layout, wanting to find The Three Body Problem in something other than an e-book format - which is how I'm reading it - just to get a sense of its heft. I'd found it later in a larger XinHua outlet that day, and it wasn't quite so heavy as it seems in electronic form. I was a tiny bit deflated.

I wish I could make my memory reliable, or even my sense of direction anymore, but this night I did decide to approach the clerk, who said nope, they didn't have Nancy's book. As I told Nancy:

I decided on my stroll last night to string along a few bookstores to see if I could find your book.  I used an app to find them this time, and one turned out to be the same place I had hazarded into over the weekend, but by now I'd forgotten, this time guided by my app, I didn't quite place the two places in the same mental space.  (There's an old piece of pedagogical wisdom about that regarding mental maps, and how the same place from a different direction isn't catalogued as the same place) 
Anyhow I found a pedagogy section, but couldn't find your book. Truth be told, I really haven't found order to how bookshelves are arranged in China, since it's not by title or author, and I've had trouble before with the placement of foreign authors in their own category which isn't fish or fowl, so I did this thing guys never do which is to ask the clerk, who looked it up and said nope don't have it.  
I had to prod her about how I could find it - "you mean you want to know if you can buy it somewhere right in Shanghai?" Well, actually I wasn't sure what I meant. I thought that maybe she could order it in, but she offered as how there were 5 copies in their mothership store in XuJiaHui. She warned me to call first, since the computer might not be accurate, and I thought to myself oh yeah sure, I'll just call and recite the title and trust that the answer was true and final. Plus I wanted to see what the biggest bookstore in Shanghai might look like. 
So off I go, and it's nowhere near the core of ShuJiaHui, but sort of in the boonies (should have looked more closely at the map, but the place shows up under a different name there.) After a long walk, and still before dinner since I was stalking my quarry with bated breath as it were, I get to this ginormous bookstore, still opened as the other clerk assured me it would be until 9PM, under construction of course, and with a hopelessly huge 4 floors of books. I think it's really more like an open warehouse than a bookstore - not sure. 
I navigated to the right place magically, and the number of shelves of pedagogy was endless. I scanned and couldn't find your book. The clerk called over the resident book nerd who found it in the computer which showed 5 ordered now reduced to zero. He said nope sorry we don't have it.  
I asked where it would be if they did have it, just to get a sense of how they organize things, and sure enough he took me to a place I hadn't found called foreign pedagogy. Nope, don't have it he said again, having diligently searched for it on the shelves.
Well, by now I wasn't quite ready to totally quit, so I stayed behind and kept looking - saw a familiar translated title by Phil Altbach, his seminal work on Comparative Education and by golly there were five copies of your book. 
I had to show the clerk who was all different kinds of apologetic, but didn't really seem all that concerned and didn't exactly jump to fix the computer entry since I think the whole business is ultimately as strange to him as to me. 
Anyhow, my hunger numbed and too tired to stop and sit somewhere slurping noodles I sullied myself by grabbing a bag of McDonald's before hopping the (closer) subway back to my hotel in PuTuo.
Right. So I write much better when it's to some actual person, don't I? No? Maybe since you don't exist, I treat you the way we all treat homeless people who want our attention, with a kind of disdain. But I do find writing very very difficult. Almost as difficult as it's been to hold forth in Chinese to large audiences of high-school and college students these past couple of days in XuZhou.  On the downslide of my life, it isn't getting any easier.

So I have in my hands the little card advertising the Shanghai Boku Book City, the "largest bookstore in Shanghai." No wait, it actually says the largest book firm in China, but I think that's the same style of writing which introduces me to my awaiting audiences. Somehow Yale and professor and doctorate get all mixed up without exactly telling something other than the truth. So biggest in China refers to the branch of XinHua based in ZheJiang, but they do call this the biggest "book city" in Shanghai. They use bookuu as the translation, but it does approximately mean book warehouse.

Nancy remembered to me the big bookstore near the Bund, which I hadn't been aware of and which by means of BaiDu "street view" looks a bit more impressive than the one I visited. Same outfit, more central location, and I'll be curious to see the collection of classics when I get the chance some day. Nancy says it was jammed back in the day. When books were new again in China.

In the store I visited - maybe I was just too beat from walking and by that time of day - after a pretty diligent effort, I didn't find any section of classics at all. Zip, nada, nothing. But, well, this is a sales-driven inventory, right? People don't come here to be enlightened so much as to pass some exam it would seem to me.

So many Chinese with whom I strike up casual conversation bemoan the state of China's contemporary soul; many seeming to think that we in the West still have our faith in God and a spiritual side. That China only cares about money. I try to explain the strangeness of an apparently large population of Americans who also seem to care only about money, even while the earnestly continue to believe that God planted us here on Earth a mere five thousand years ago, and that science is a big hoax. That seems to quiet the Chinese enthusiasm for our spiritual nature a bit. Maybe they even feel encouraged for their country. I hope so.

I've been calling my talks the Three Media [Problem] since the title of this book I'm into in Chinese uses the same term "body" which is used in the term for "media" which combines the word for matchmaker with a generically broad term which can mean "body" "thing" or even "word" (as thing) or sometimes style, which makes an interesting mix of style and substance.

In physics, the three body problem refers to the mathematical impossibility to determine the future course of any three (or more) celestial bodies interacting as a system. It relates to Emergence, which relates the place where I now work, the Emergent Media Center, which gets down-translated in Chinese to "new media" or a newer term for emergent, which is still pretty much "new and exciting" media, without any sense of emergence at all.

Wikipedia shows Snowflake Bentley's photographs as an icon for emergence, so I use those in my talks as well along with the scientific name for emergence as a branch of philosophy really. Wikipedia is actually the only tool I know which will allow me to translate Chinese technical terms well, since you have the option to swap languages. One has to imagine that this can be very handy as a slip beyond certain firewalled topics inside China.

Life is defined as an emergent phenomenon, a conceptual approach which also happens to resolve the mind/body dualism we're still so trapped by. Strong emergence can't be mapped by computer.

But it's quite hard to make the point - the case - that this time of media explosion my indeed be an inflexion point in the timeline of life on the planet as momentous as when written language emerged. There was no predicting that, no evolutionary pressure in that direction for survival of individuals other than by virtue of belonging to a caring group. There is nothing like written language in our natural environment, although the Chinese written language comes closer to natural ties.

It seems a pretty mixed bag, this information technology. On the one hand it accelerates the separation of mind from body which started with the written word, historically coterminous with patriarchy. The written word has surely enabled the dominance of man as a species as well as the survival of many more individuals who partake of the ecology of writing, and especially of the rationalizations rendered by means of the scientific method.

But the death of our Earth, just like the death of Lake Erie which is etched in my own soul, enacts a final separation of mind from body, and most technology seems headed that way with the speed of so many recently launched rockets.

Our challenge will be to maintain some body-mind core, what the Chinese call a heart, to this cacophony of mediated communication which veers toward and away from meaning.

I suppose that to the extent that each of us chooses to amplify our own personal self through a kind of innocent ambition which translates so quickly into greed, the collective result will inevitably be separation from our body, the earth, and annihilation.

I also suppose that it doesn't have to be that way; that these new media could bring us into a state of better empathy with people who are other from us. It could help us to bring down the houses of cards built offshore or by means of opaque rules and pricing structures which privilege the wealthy who seem to know no bounds for what is fair for them and them alone.

This moment in American political history seems way more critical than even ever-brilliant but exceedingly ambitious Hillary Clinton seems to understand. We the people are hungry for something truly transparent and not hiding behind language which is as opaque as my Chinese is. Promises which are seen to be empty before they can even be understood. Trump is an answer only if you believe the media is the truth and the way and the power the way the written word got so perverted. He's not even B-grade the way Reagan was. He's a reality TV phenomenon, and the people who are amused by that have been largely robbed of any education in a system which seals even that American birthright away only for those with the right social capital.

From way over here in China I sure do hope that Hillary and Bernie can shake hands and come to some mutual understanding which isn't just more manipulation of the media. It won't happen magically by this supposed power to the people which the Internet was supposed to unleash. That's a very dangerous fiction. The power of power and wealth to concentrate has been amplified is the only thing that has happened so far. We need new metaphors.

OK, I'm done. Read the Three Body Problem. There's a Chinese author who turns the cyclic Chinese sense of history on its head with the same dexterity that he turns our Western apocalyptic future ambitions on their head. He rehearses all the politics. I truly do think the book is endless and I'll no more find any answers than I'll ever have a good time with a tout on NanJing Lu, but it does seem worth the effort. I might make more sense of China along the way.


Monday, April 4, 2016

Ancient Literary Pursuits

Here in Shanghai, it's very slow going to get a solid internalized sense of the city. It's just too vast, and it's under such constant reconstruction. But some neighborhoods are beginning to settle in my mind.

It ain't New York though, where even after many years away I still sort-of know how to find out what's happening and where. Even with new neighborhoods popping up while old ones slide away. Features endure.

Here not so much. It's just damned difficult to know how people key in to what's playing at the oddly located theaters. It feels impossible to know how to tell the good from the corny. The movies are titled cryptically, good food has almost no relation to price, and there's a ton of mediocre everything, largely inside ostentatious shopping centers. Just as in the US earnest deskilled perpetual trainees in these places do their darndest to turn out the company specs. I wouldn't have a clue which newspaper to rely on for its reviews

I've hazarded into movies, into plays, and into exciting new venues hidden under crumbling exteriors, but it all happens randomly. A scalper, a poster which matches the scrolling text at the ticket office, a sign outside and memory intact enough to return that night for the show.

It's impossible to tell if a building is going up or coming down, and while sometimes it happens quickly, sometimes the tiniest little places seem to be undergoing construction so slowly that they're crumbling before they ever do open.

Well, one can always hop the subway and head toward the Bund and Nanjing Lu, as I did last night having no heart to do another circuit of places to eat around here in PuTuo. The Bund is where the stalwart architecture of colonial empire persists. Even though the actual quayside is utterly "improved" and the light-show ever changing, this is the place still familiar from 1986 when I formed my first and for thirty following years, only impressions.

That general area of city-central is over the top lit up and crowded with people from all over China and the world. There are amazingly good eateries back off the main street, even though they're collecting tourists and folks like me. I even vaguely enjoy the come-ons by comely young women probably just trying to catch my attention toward following their carrot held in front of my nose while I head off on an expensive path toward a good time which won't even be had in the end since I will have already had it.

I stay in my bubble, gawking and gaping, smiling vaguely to myself, but not even hearing the touts, which is apparently the only real way to stop them at hello. I play no dangerous games. OK, I play no games at all. OK, I'm really boring.

I never do enter the shopping centers really, since one is like another, but I was attracted by a large notice that on the sixth floor of one is a location for XinHua Books. So having somehow remembered, I entered that one after dinner a few blocks away, rounded the escalators, up and up, and always interested in who works here and who shops. People seem to find their way to what is good, by some strange word of mouth which I can't penetrate.

I think it must be like that time I followed the hillbilly back to his place in North Carolina on my motorcycle and people from the hills around just magically materialized, though they weren't connected electronically or even by phone in them thar hills. They were curious, and it sure wasn't population density which cued them in.

Probably just the language barrier here. Layers upon layers of cryptic usages updated perpetually so that one is always on the out with the ad copy, the internet slang, the ways that interests are piqued.

But one thing I do and have done for years upon years is check into book stores as though that is going to do the same osmotic magic to my dumbness that gets people to where they want to be.

So I'm there on the sixth floor and it's the toy department and there are some shoppers, but no signs of the book store. So, OK, the sign outside is probably already out of date and something else moved in here, and I just about head back down, but decide to do a circuit of the floor first and sure enough there off in the back corner with no distinguishing anything is "Book World."

I can't remember if it was written in Chinese or in English. I can't remember much of anything these days and that can be a blessing in disguise. But a whole new section opened up, as in what really does lurk behind those apparently abandoned windowless once-quite-modern decaying monstrosities on their upper floors with no way in that I can ever find. I should remember to ask some day.

My game is to see if I can make sense of the order of things, which is never quite ordered. But reliably in every Chinese bookstore I have ever visited there is a collection of the classics. Used to be in Toronto or New York City Chinatown, these were quite large and stunningly complete. I suspect that many literate Chinese wouldn't consider it a legitimate bookstore if these weren't there. This is my comfort, like comfort food, but books.

This particular "book world" had an odd sprawling open layout, and the shelves seemed sparse, and as far as I could tell there was no section for classics, and I thought well, sure this is throbbing tourist central, bright lights hot action street life, and so if the heart of the Chinese culture is going to meet its demise, it might as well be here.

Out back where you really couldn't believe that anyone could find it was a crowded Hunan restaurant, next to a shop which sold safes. I know you can find these places on all sorts of apps (which I can't trust, but I guess I should) of which I seem to have dozens, but still it feels mysterious.

Anyhow, not quite willing to give up I walked back through the open floor plan, and discovered an unmarked offshoot, and sure enough there lined along the glass fence which would have invited you to look out over the floor six escalator abyss if you could get near it, was the row of classics.

And a horrid stench. I was heading back to check the shelves to review familiar titles all in the approximate order or disorder of my own bookshelves, and this loutish fellow with perhaps a drunken smile or perhaps just a yokel face was up and walking, dizzy from unconsciousness, and there in front of my quarry was his mate, dead asleep on the fluorescent-lit shiny tile floor.

As an old man, I know that stench and scrub it away as often as I possibly can, but I had to get away from this. Not feet away were the usual well-coifed and bored attendants, the fuwuyuan, who weren't exactly jumping to my defense or shooing these fellows off.

Sure smells have a different valence in China, where even sometimes from your food there wafts a dark offputting evil back-alley kind of rot, but this was overpowering.

But you know I walked away satisfied. The classics were intact and far from despising people down on their luck, these two were indulged and even cared for. They were allowed to sleep in what was probably the quietest and least trafficked part of that neighborhood, nevermind the lights.

All over the city are exhortations for the sake of "culture." Literally "bright text," wenming culture enacted as civilization. In China civilization is the written word, the pattern underneath which is the human heart. "Be civilized and get closer to the urinal" (in China these are always shadowed by foul puddles as though every man is afraid to get too close). Be civilized, and don't cross against the red light. It's always a rhyme with a pun embedded. "One small step for you, a giant leap for civilization!"

There is such pride in this now, civic pride, Chinesey pride. Sure I hand out yuan to the beggars, but when they walk over to your outdoor table, it's still hard to shovel food from your plate into their tin cup as I've watched countless Chinese diners do.

Last night, I left embarrassing amounts of food on the table. It's hard to eat alone, unless you want to go to those ever-training mall places where they might have "set meals" prix-fixe kind of mdediocre faire.

Food is a social affair. It's hardly civilized to eat alone, and tucked away in the back where no-one down on any luck could find me, I can only hope they might have given away my leftovers to someone begging at the back door. If so, he will have had a wonderful and tasty meal.

Friday, April 1, 2016

April Follies in Shanghai

Yesterday was April 1, and after hard charging all day against the cranky Internet here in Shanghai, by close of day my mind was doing what it used to do when I swam laps. I'd headed out to find dinner and interesting city scenes, one one one one two two two two, three three three three and so on. Empty. Nothing. Cranky sore back cramped legs, flap flap feet, subway squeeze in and out, sorry she spilled hot milk all over having turned her head to get what I was trying to say. Do you need the coffee machine? It doesn't sound like intelligible Chinese coming from a white mouth.

This morning the birds were chirping outside my window as they always do in the morning which is comforting and surprising both along this storied Suzhou River. One might have thought all life has been eradicated across the decades of environmental devastation that this locust population wrecked wreaked wrought. Down below out back next to the banknote printing center, there is martial shouting, calisthenic music trumpet drums, seeming aimed against the birds, to defend the currency. Against my sleep which makes me happy enough to be up, there is no comfort in sleeping anymore.

Now what, I read that this day of pranks has some uncertain provenance but all agree it is just spring hijinx, like Hillary with her e-mail and Trump with his run for the presidency which must be scaring even him in its seriousness so that he will idiot his way out, cuckoo cuckooooo cuckoooo. It might have been Chaucer in his Canterbury Tales who coined the joke by counting 32 days in March, or that might have been a typo which must be an anachronism at the same time. Marla preferred dandier men, and who wouldn't?

One imagines there once was a time when we were connected more viscerally to these seasonal markings, we would have known all around us even though not necessary to like them the all around us. It would have felt connected to the turnings of the seasons, guided by some robed patriarch to true it round and round perhaps, but we would feel the peepers rising chirping underneath our cloaks and know what did flow within our veins. Whan that Aprillllllll. Some memory remains.

Still any Chinese friends are away and sweeping gravesites this day this weekend whichever day the government designates while the Chairman is away stringing along his chain of acolyte nation-states who need his treasury's attention, counting beads, placing hands together bowing with that self-satisfied Buddha-look of content accomplishment. Rosary round the ring and then we will talk nuclear safety nets. The people have been advised to choose more environmentally friendly burial methods against this holiday and for how then will you care for ancestors tossed away at sea? Eternal souls are for ignorant Westerners.

What is it tugs away from that which flows in veins alive with salt and tides and seasonal risings? These screens that everyone smiles at on the crowded subway, I would like a different one for my Chinese identity, tired as I am of juggling devices depending on which language who I need to be that day. I would only pretend that there were someone on the other end, sweet WeChat moments, jokes the day along. Through Central Servers yet, and still.

It is not only the language which is so confusing. There are different conventions for making sales on the American and the Chinese websites for these devices. It would seem that tossing in a SIM-card slot is practically necessary in China even on absurdly large devices although you never do see those in the subways. The specs are ever shifting, and each model comes with fine print which isn't difficult to read because it's in Chinese. Fast and loose with pricing was an American game I'd thought, but there the website offers comparison shopping, fewer models, curated for American tastes and desires and price-points and our own peculiar ways to play the confidence game. You cannot find the same thing twice.

Though there is a certain kind of hormonal excitement which can be directed at these purchases it is worn down against the gaming done against you. One one thousand, two one thousand, three one thousand there are not two shills in the popup stores who would give you the same price or the same device, they cannot afford to keep that many in stock and will probably sell you the one everyone has already been playing with. How could you possibly know?

Our FBI director is a straight shooter, so honest so tightly wound up in integrity yet ignorant of encryption plain on his face. One guesses he might not like Hillary he's been on her case for so long, and yet the honesty and integrity he might think that he has is of a different sort, really, than the kind we each exercise to believe even ourselves most of the time. I will have no God but Allah except when I think he might not be paying that much attention. If you had any ambition you would do it too. The cost in disappointment not to just simply too deflating after all that hard charging to get to this point.

I just wonder why I care? Multiple sizes of screens with differing collections of hardware chips and sensors and convenience thingies, each of which has a trail of integrity more or less so, but just trust the big brand on top, following satellites launched by Russia, first the US, soon China to locate each and every one of us each and every step we take and we thought it was for aiming weaponry. Money trumps even military politics one supposes.

I just took a peek and I am marching my average eleven or twelve or fourteen thousand steps each day which might approach over five miles maybe, and I can't even turn this counter off on my iPhone, the tracking of my day.

It is only for my convenience would the government care, would the advertisers, who would bug me most they pay so much money on my head trying to grab my attention get my desire and I do earnestly try to tell them that they are wasting their time I will not spend another dime on politics, so broken is my heart post-Obama on whom I blew my wad. I am not a threat or a promise to even a flea and so it's all just a waste of everyone's time and attention and shekels, Bernie, you may have my all if you will but win it for me. Yes let's make computer shaving gold pump wealth someplace other than into someone's vulgar priapal towers.

And yet I do persist, I live as though I have a countdown remaining to some average future date for demise and therefore still time to put off doing what I'd like to do, need to do, want to do, I have to make my living, and dammit they are holding the social security briefing while I'm away and so how can I ever know how many thousands of potential income I am leaving on some table because of my ignorance. Because it has to be so fucking complicated as some seem to enjoy they are so proud of their enhanced gaming techniques, their getting ahead, fuck that. Just tell me what to do and be done with it already.

I don't know about you, but I can't really even imagine Bernie doing things that it's easy to imagine Bill or Hillary or certainly Bush clan and nevermind Rumsfeld/Cheney and hell yes the Donald doing to feed their ambition. That's enough for me, and yet I don't have enough living to help Bernie's or any cause against the demise of all of us. I will March-out however.

That we have some twinkling semblance of reality remaining for that dream sworn with hand over heart who is already older than I expect to remain vital should be cause for wildest celebration, we had thought the American locust money swarms had eradicated such simple earnest believability. And still they twitter in our own skies too.

It was so simple once, I imagine, dancing at springtime sire, and only wondering what was behind those sparkling eyes and not something so complicated that you might have to expend a trillion word crossings byte by byte to even approximate some reasonably well-informed decision against what it is that you can't possibly trust. I was slender once. I must set forth I am only at 330 steps so far today, and miles to go, my mind must be out there somewhere, some one one one one one one one one.