B A R R Y L A N D .



go east.
verbal snapshots from my weeks in china's capitol.








fast hannah.
a preliminary bit of blizz blazz

mad skills.
bbbbarry thRoWz U sOmE dEeP hOuSe

a painting i painted

the defense rests.
an original art work celebrates my dad's career

things I did in 99.
how do you measure a year in the life


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 T H U R S D A Y ,   M A R C H   2 2 . 

We went to a Beijing Opera. Beijing Opera is not opera — replace the image of Hildegard Behrens in a viking helmet with an image of Ed Sullivan in a red satin dress, and you're much closer. It's an old-fashioned variety show with high and low and all in between. They sat us at a table about 20 feet from the stage, which was raised a couple of feet above the floor and was about 30 feet wide and maybe 15 feet high, with a decorated screen in back and an ornately screened-off area to stage left. The musicians played from behind this screen during most of the show.

But first there was food. A waiter came and laid out several plates of pre-meal goodies for us: one with flavored pumpkin seeds, one with dusted hazelnuts, one with various semi-sweet pastries (most filled with bean curd), one with skewers of caramel hawthorn berries on it. The caramel was not the milky, gooey kind but the crisp, pure sugar kind, and it made a thin and delicious coating for the hawthorn berries, which I'd never tasted before: a tart, small fruit that tastes like either an apple-flavored strawberry or a strawberry-flavored apple. Wonderful! You occasionally see these for sale by street vendors.

The meal itself was delicious. First, a steaming plate of lightly stir-fried broccoli, and then a roast duck, perfectly flavored and cooked till it melted under the fork. And, of course, thick rice and green tea.

The performance began with a couple of overtures by a small band consisting of several stringed instruments, some related to the violin, some related to the guitar (and one looking very much like a lute), accompanied by percussionists behind the screen. The percussionists played on cymbals that have that trashcan-lid plash typical of Chinese music; other, more tinkly cymbals; drums whose pitch rises a bit on being struck, as if they're asking a question; and high-pitched drums whose pitch goes down, like the electronic drums in those old Kenny Rogers songs.

Then a couple of singers sang. Both were women — one 40ish, one 20ish — and both sang in the plangent twangy style that marks Chinese singing. The songs were highly emotional in tone, though their content (lovely flowers, harmonious trees, etc) seemed exclusively about vegetation.

All these performers, by the way, were dressed in brightly colored embroidered satin, creating stunning stage pictures, as the screen was backlit in contrasting colors to fit the mood of each act.

The stage went dark, and the screen became a muted deep blue. Harsh music in a minor key, with lots of thrashing percussion; and then, a dancer entered. He was dressed as a warrior, and his dance obviously expressed warlike thoughts. At first, I thought he was wearing a mask, but Misti pointed out it was his actual face, just painted ornately and smoothly with shining gold, and a dastardly expression. At a crucial moment in the dance, sparks came out of his mouth, and the audience gasped.

A comic skit followed. A beautiful young girl called to her offstage lover who was waiting on the other side of the river. A comical old man entered, with a flat cone hat, a long grey beard, and merry eyes. He was pantomiming the motions of being on a boat, and she and he had a comical discussion (which I did not understand, of course) negotiating the crossing. Then the rest of the skit consisted of their precarious attempt to cross: excellent physical humor, all done without a single prop.

Then another dancer, this time a younger man wearing a mask. He leapt and twirled, and at one point his mask changed, and the audience applauded. Then, throughout the dance, still leaping and twirling, he'd swish his cape in front of him, and as quick as lightning the mask would change again — a green scowl, a scarlet grin, a solemn black, a blue growl — never failing to please the audience. He went downstage and motioned to a front-row man. He shook the man's hand violently, and right on the shake, his mask changed again! One last dramatic swish of the cape, and his own face showed. I've got to figure out how to do that!

The final act was a magician whose entire act consisted of filling his empty bowl with live fish. He'd pull them out of thin air, he'd open up a handkerchief, the usual stuff. Then he went fishing in the audience, pulling live fish out of people's laps. The final one was a huge silver fish, flapping away as the audience cheered.

Beijing Opera. I've got to go back.


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 F R I D A Y ,   M A R C H   2 3 . 

After Carly's benefit concert, we went out to Salsa Cabana, a latino nightclub with a pretty good salsa band, and met Misti's friend Chris there. Chris is a Canadian consultant who's making a killing here and in Hong Kong. The salsa music was a taste of home. We danced merrily, Misti getting much mileage out of the new sequinned aqua blouse she'd bought at the Silk Market Sunday. Then we went to the Den for a pizza (Marco Polo would be proud), and home at around 5am.


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 S U N D A Y ,   M A R C H   2 5 . 

Church again; I sang in the choir and played the offertory. For lunch, we went to a German kebab place, where we ate and sifted through hundreds of DVDs that a street hawker was offering table to table. That evening, we went into the expat area (where Durty Nellie's was), and ate at a fabulous Belgian restaurant where Misti has gotten to know the owner. So nice to have Western food: Chateaubriand, no less.

Then on to a club called the Big Easy, where it had been advertised that there was a good jazz group. Actually, a blues/r&b group plays there on Friday and Monday, and the rest of the nights belong to a synth-based guy named Huff, who (with a saxist and guitarist) does smooth jazz. Oh well.

He was actually pretty good, and we enjoyed the atmosphere and the smooth sounds. During a break he came over and talked, and invited me to play with the band: he took the synth bass part, set the keyboard on a plain grand piano sound for me, set the drum machine on an acceptable latin-flavored beat, and we stretched out on the changes to "the boy is mine" — the crowd really enjoyed it, as did the two axe players, who don't get that much chance to stretch within the tight confines of smooth jazz. Then Huff insisted that I stay and do a shuffly blues number: we stretched out again (over 10 minutes), with a lengthy exchange of "trading 4s," in which the soloists get to face off against each other for 4 bars a piece. And again the crowd loved it; the proprietor came and gave me her card and said I should come back and do a stint. I just might!


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 M O N D A Y ,   M A R C H   2 6 . 

A note on driving. I've noticed that wherever you go, people boastingly complain about their awful drivers. I haven't heard much bragging from locals anywhere in the world about how safe a place is. Interesting.

The taxi drivers of X Foreign City are naturally reputed to be hair-raisingly awful, and Beijing is no exception. Except that in my actual experience, they aren't. It's actually a pretty safe place to drive. People rarely speed, instead trotting docilely along at 50 mph on wide-open highways — a strange sensation, and slightly irritating for an impatient American.

Lanes and intersection rules and right-of-way are only fuzzy notions in the back of a Beijing driver's mind . This makes newcomers nervous. But those notions are replaced by very firm notions that have characterized China for centuries, and the balance is more than adequate. Instead of strict one-by-one and wait-your-turn laws, they seem to follow the law of common sense and (at least a little) courtesy.

So, the driver will get over into the oncoming lane under a highway overpass, ready to turn left onto the access road, with a truck and several cars and hundreds of bicycles approaching (and the American in the passenger seat gulping), but everyone's going slow enough and the driver just weaves his way through the oncoming traffic who adjust and make way for him, and everything turns out OK. This is a real cultural difference going on here. Unlike anything I've ever seen in any country or on any continent.


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 W E D N E S D A Y ,   M A R C H   2 8 . 

The Forbidden City! It was a sunny, warm day, and perfect for visiting the former palace of emperors and empresses.

Beijing is set up like a target on a piece of graph paper. A few concentric loops radiate out into the strict north-south-east-west grid of streets, and in the center is a royal/official area which stretches some miles from a north gate to a south one, within which is then Tiananmen Square, and then the less forbidden parts of the FC, then of course the FC itself dead center, and even within that the private places of the rulers, which are even more forbidden and central.

The FC is simply spectacular — if you've been in China for several hours, you've seen its buildings and statues used as motifs, and quoted on endless billboards, pamphlets, taxi signs, and ephemera. So, by the time you get there, it has even more iconographic impact than if you'd just dropped in having a distant romantic idea of Chinese art and architecture (which even then would be enough to stun you).

All the buildings are red; all of the distinctively curved roofs are mustard yellow; most of the crossbeams and gates and ceilings are green and blue. The outsides of things are usually grand and plain; the insides and undersides are usually a riot of decorative minutiae.

Most of the interiors are open but railed off; you can crowd up in the doorways and peer in to see the golden statues, thrones, giant vases, incense burners, and rugs, all managing to be serenely lovely while at the same time busily splendiferous.

It's a decent hike from one end to the other, and then outside the final gate you cross the north ribbon of the moat again, and ahead of you is yet another grand gate that leads into a royal park that famously overlooks the city — a mound built from earth dug from the moat and surrounding area is topped by a temple that's one of the high points of the old city. (Don't be fooled by the word "mound": it's probably 1000 feet wide and over half as tall as it is wide.) The ancient Chinese must have been great athletes. The climb to the top would wind anyone, so it's great just to plop down around the temple with everyone else and gaze at the city.

Looking south, you see an orderly procession of red and gold — the rooftops of the Forbidden City. Looking north, you can make out a few more gates that mark off the northern boundaries of old Beijing. And all around (if you engage in the suspension of disbelief that allows the drab monsters of recent architecture to disappear), a beautiful city, especially at sunset when everything gets a golden glow.

I tripped and tropped down the mound and back down the eastern side of the Forbidden City, with the running red monolith of its wall on my right, and a parade of daily life by foot and bicycle, shop and house, on my left.

Turning right at the end of the wall, I was confronted by the corner of the moat, set afire by the late-afternoon sun, framed by the yellowy-green of willow trees. Along the moat there was a group of old men huddled together and muttering over some item of great interest. Naturally, I stopped and tiptoe-peeked. Two men were sitting in the middle of the crowd, facing each other over a cloth which contained disks larger than checkers but smaller than hockey pucks, each with a Chinese character on it — red for one player, black for the other. It was Chinese chess.

Even after about 30 minutes, I couldn't figure out what the point of the game was, or what the rules were, other than that each player had a piece that served as the 'king' or 'flag' — the piece that was kept in a central place and was to be protected by all the others.

Throughout the game, all the old men kept a constant stream of commentary, dissent, kibbitzing, and emphatic discussion. Some were toothless; all were wearing old-man pants. Some weren't even all that old: a few looked to be in their late 30s or early 40s, and were exactly the sort of youngish fellow you'd expect to see at a Kiwanis club meeting or a barber shop.

Past the moat, and back into the Forbidden City's forecourt, where in the evening light the changing of the guard was taking place: several groups of 15 or so young soldiers in parrot-green jackets (all of which were roomy and bunched, giving the impression that they belonged to the soldiers' older brothers), posted around doing drills, shouting responses, picking up their guns, presenting their guns, shouldering their guns, clacking their guns around. From a low aerial view, it would have looked and sounded like a colorful contraption in a Swiss curiosity shop.

Out the front entry gate, and across one of the five bridges to the City — the center bridge, once reserved exclusively for the Emperor, is still blocked off, though at other points this central path, usually marble, which runs from the south gate to the bell tower far north, is open to anyone these days — and a Tiananmen-angle view of the great forbidding horizontal expanse of redwall that is the international symbol of the Forbidden City, as well as the international symbol of Communist China, now that a huge oil painting of Mao Zedong crowns the gate.

With Tiananmen Square across the vast boulevard at my back, I looked for a while at Chairman Mao's portrait. It's a classic of Communist art. Amazing, that two such different countries as Russia and China could develop such similar art forms to express the ideals of Communism — ideologies do in fact have artistic implications. (It's good to remember that, as you walk through the giant USAA complex in San Antonio, filled with Rockwellian patriotica. What does it say about us? I shudder.)

But how could the officials be so unaware that this bland, massive, airbrushed, wrinkleless, featureless rendition of their leader represents everything *wrong* with Communism?

Back at the Guomao, I met Misti and Carly and admired their new jewelry (including the peridot necklace and earrings we'd designed the week before). Then, while they went off and did something else, I took another trip to the Silk Market to see how well I could bargain on my own and without the aid of Misti's fluent Chinese and blue eyes.