B A R R Y L A N D .











duane cottrell

tom fuller

jason young

sean mcmains

paul soupiset

bradford ohana
jason bradford



  T U E S D A Y ,   O C T O B E R   2 1 ,   2 0 0 8 . 

Are you a believer in Red States and Blue States?

It's an interesting question. These terms have cropped up over the last few elections to describe states whose electoral college votes go Republican (red) or Democratic (blue). Useful so far as it goes.

We do use the electoral college, and in general (with the exceptions of Maine and Nebraska) states choose the winner-take-all method. If your state votes 51% R and 49% D, then your electoral college will vote 100% R.

So, looking at the map for the 2004 elections, we see this:

This map is factual in electoral college terms, but has caused people to engage in bad thinking when it comes to talking about where America is, and who thinks what. First of all, it doesn't represent population. If you were to take population into account, then Nevada, with its wide expanses of empty land, would suddenly become much much smaller than nearby California, with its greater density of people.

Suddenly, Red America and Blue America look much more equal in size.

But that's still not the whole story. As I mentioned, the electoral college is a reality, but it's only an electoral reality. It's true that, for instance, the Spurs beat the Pistons fair and square a few years ago in the finals — they won more games — but the Pistons actually scored a few more points than the Spurs over the course of those games. So, you can't really say that the Pistons deserved to win, or that they played better basketball. They didn't: the Spurs won fair and square. But the one thing you can't say is that the Spurs scored more points. They didn't.

Same thing here. You can say, fairly, that more states voted Republican in 04. That's the way our system is set up. But you simply can't say, "tons more people just wanted the R candidate," or "this part of the country feels differently than that part of the country." You can talk about trends, but even then those trends are buried by this Red-State-Blue-State way of representing things.

Just as an example, here's that same proportional map broken down by county, not by state.

Interesting, no? Those little pockets of red in the blue areas and pockets of blue in the red areas. But even then there is a truth being masked — being stifled, severely — by these maps. Because we're still coloring an entire area all red or all blue based on who won fifty percent or more.

That's just not the reality of your county, though, is it? What if you represented what people thought, and how they voted, by coloring a county 20% red and 80% blue, or 73% red and 27% blue? Take a look at America.

Does that look like "Two Americas" to you? Like a country divided? Like a place divided between heartland hicks and coastal élites? How about this:

Of course you've still got streaks of reddish and spots of bluish, but even then there's not a single place in the whole country that's all one way or another. Those bright primary colors have given way to Purple America, our home, where friends bat ideas around at the water cooler, where families engage around the dinner table, where 65% of Americans call themselves "moderate" rather than "conservative" or "liberal." Sixty-five percent: that's more than have ever — ever — voted for any one candidate in America's history.

One nation, indeed.


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  W E D N E S D A Y ,   O C T O B E R   1 6 ,   2 0 0 8 . 

And now I bring you 28 Attacks in 28 days. Comedy gold. My favorite is the pumpkin one.


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  F R I D A Y ,   S E P T E M B E R   2 6 ,   2 0 0 8 . 

Ah, to see ourselves as others see us!

(excerpts from English language instruction CDs)

Hello, I'm Mike. I'm thirteen years old, and I have dark hair and white skin. I have a large nose and big round eyes. I live in England.


It is quite rare in Britain for grandparents, aunts, and uncles to share the house with the family. However, families often share the house with dogs or cats, which they keep not to eat but as companions.

The Mysterious West! Edward Said is rolling in his grave.


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  S U N D A Y ,   S E P T E M B E R   1 4 ,   2 0 0 8 . 

More great quotes from English instruction CDs:

The number of people killed in drink-drive crashed in Britain.

Man: Mrs. Billy was born in Paris.
Woman: So do I.


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  S U N D A Y ,   S E P T E M B E R   7 ,   2 0 0 8 . 

Within a few days of arriving in Beijing, Catherine and I got phones. We knew we wouldn't be here for long, so we just got cheapies. Good decision. The cheapies have an engraving of Mickey Mouse on the back: bad decision. But hey, he's big here this year, because it's the Year of the Rat, which, judging by popular depictions, is actually a mouse.

We got to choose our telephone numbers from a handwritten list. The odd thing is that the price was different for different numbers, and we knew why. We chose the two cheapest, mine ending in 04 and hers ending in 14. Both numbers are avoided.

The Chinese word for "four" sounds like the word for "death." And "one four" sounds like "want death." So there you have it. Death is an important thing around here.

For instance. Foreigners accustomed to the Western knife-fork-spoon setup have trouble with chopsticks, but often have no idea that they're doing something taboo when they lay the chopsticks down. When you put your fork down on your plate, you probably place it with the tines roughly facing the center of the plate, and the shaft of the fork sticking out over the edge of the plate. Same with, say, a spoon in a bowl of soup. So it makes perfect sense to do something like that with chopsticks. You put them down to pour your tea, and you put them with the tips facing down into the rice bowl, with the ends sticking up in the air, along the side of the bowl.

Unfortunately, when you do that, you have placed them in a position that is used for incense for the dead. So, don't. Instead, lay them down flat across the rim, like you would a knife.

A club I play in is on Floor F of a five-floor building. The elevator buttons say: 1, 2, 3, F, and 5. Yep, there's no fourth floor. It's Floor F.

A friend of ours lives on floor 12B. The building is in the diplomatic district, where there are tons of Westerners. So it doesn't have a thirteenth floor either. In America it would just go from 12 to 14 (giving you the advantage of having a higher-seeming building). But here, you have 12, 12A, 12B, and 15.


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  M O N D A Y ,   S E P T E M B E R   1 ,   2 0 0 8 . 

We went horseback riding the other day. Catherine's been wanting to go since we got here, and finally the right day came. We met the people at a spot in town and they drove us a couple of hours south, out into the country, and onto the CCTV grounds, where we saw large lanes, quiet buildings spread among the trees, and warehouses with props and carpenters and paint.

We then got to the horses. Are these horses used in CCTV productions? We've noticed that our roommates watch tons of TV, ninety percent of which is historical drama, with ancient Chinese warriors and emperors and nobles falling in and out of love and striding and riding around gorgeous landscapes when not in lavish palaces.

The horses were lined up near a low brick house, one room deep and five or six rooms wide, done in traditional manner with a pitched roof. Very old, very humble according to modern American standards. The room we used for putting on our gear was obviously a bedroom/living room/office: no insulation, no air conditioning, just like what you find in the hutongs. And yet this doesn't seem like poverty at all to most people in the world. We put leg guards on over our jeans, and each wore a hat. Mine was an Aussie-style cowboy hat, Catherine's was an equestrian-style bicycle helmet.

We clopped out from the CCTV grounds, and set out into China. The sky was grey and rainy. Throughout our five-hour trek, it sprinkled gently; we were eventually pretty wet, but didn't mind at all. It was just perfect. The only thing that I hated about it was our wise decision to leave the camera behind. How I wish we'd had it! We saw landscape after landscape that was lush and gorgeous, and unlike the urban China we've been inhabiting for several months.

For hours we trotted and walked. My horse was incredibly, horribly bouncy, and my saddle was far too small — I'm only now getting over it — all making for a frustrating ride. We never galloped. Actually, my horse did gallop precisely once. Actually half a single stride. It wasn't even a gallop; it was just a gal.

Much of the time, we could have been in the year 208 rather than 2008. Yes, the shepherd was listening to radio news; yes, there were power lines cutting through the landscape now and then. But there were huge stretches of time and space in which there wasn't a single indication from our surroundings that we were in the present day rather than a hundred or two hundred or five hundred or a thousand or two thousand or five thousand years ago. Orchards with crops between the rows of trees, a wide marshy river feeding more crops, the occasional brick hamlet, a stream of smoke in the distance, the wet rich smell of grass and dirt and manure and leaf, freshly-shorn sheep picking at a hillside, workers far away in the fields, pulling up this and kneeling over that, with the signature cone-shaped hat of the Chinese peasant — it was transporting. It was life in balance, heavens and earth and man all living and bringing forth fruit.

I suppose that, looking around, had you been there, you might have seen Nature. But I saw Civilization. Every single thing the eye fell on was shaped by man. Pass by the forests on your horse, and you suddenly notice something: the way the trees zizz against each other forms the optical effect known as comb-filtering. You know it, the way that screen doors — or combs — create patterns when moving against each other. It's undeniably mechanistic, humanmade. Then you notice that the trees are all the same height and width, and that they are planted at regular intervals; occasionally if you look left-and-back a little, they resolve into perfect diagonals, acres and acres of rank and file forest. Sometimes, as I mentioned, there are crops planted between the ranks.

Spiders have certainly adapted to this gridded life. Several times, cutting through the matrix of trees, we would have to swerve into another row to avoid webs they'd strung across the precise distances. Once, we had to stop, baffled by the presence of a web between almost every possible tree in our path, each with a deadly yellow-and-black-legged guard. No doubt we would have spelled out several nonsense words if the thing had been a giant Boggle board. Come to think of it, Catherine did say "EAGUAGAAHO!", though in context it made perfect sense.

If the woods were Civilization, the hills were too. With thick, neat woods on my left, I looked right to the marshy river and its banks and brakes (our namesake!), as we bounced along a hilltop trail, and realized that the very dimensions of the river answered the needs of the various crops and properties along the way. And, of course, we were traveling not on a hill but on a levee: every inch of this land has been nurtured and harnessed, bent toward the needs of man for millennia.

I brain-gasped. I had come to see the place around me not as wilderness but as an accomplishment. An achievement, more nuanced and complex and vast than Rem Koolhaas's monstrous new CCTV building, that Darth Vadery Twisted Door that dominates downtown Beijing.

It rained and rained. We rode and rode. We stopped and (unwisely) accepted some fresh-picked peanuts from a farmer. We saw each other in unfamiliar context and exchanged loving looks. Finally, we dismounted, bone-tired, skin-sore, and napped through the drive back home.

Then we slept for twenty hours.


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  S U N D A Y ,   A U G U S T   3 1 ,   2 0 0 8 . 

A few brief notes on our China experience:

Corn. We were driving along in the countryside one day, and went through a little village. We had to swerve to avoid the corn in the street.

Yes, corn in the street. Tons and tons of corn, not on ears, not sheathed in its green shucks, but zillions of separate kernels of corn, sitting in the street getting a suntan. Is that how they roast and dry the kernels? In streets?

Donkey Meat. That was advertised on a sign we saw. In retrospect, what's weird is that we think it's weird. After all, Chinese and Japanese people had all sorts of derogatory names for our ancestors who came over here reeking of cow's meat and cow's milk. Yuck!

Poop sticks. I guess that's what they call them. Our friend was telling us that he'd had his stools examined for some illness, and that they had given him a small cup and a couple of what looked like metal chopsticks. He couldn't figure out what was wanted, until someone explained (what to them must have seemed obvious): that you must defecate into the squatty-potty, and then pick out your stool with the chopsticks to put it into the cup.

Blueberry potato chips. The rule is that when you see something this odd you have to try it. So, I bought a package of Lay's brand potato chips, blueberry flavor. They were absolutely delicious. Just sweet enough to be sweet, but still snacky rather than candyish. Like unbuttered blueberry muffins. They also had a bit of a tingle to them, as if the makers had included some of that delicious numbing spice that you get on lamb kebabs. When will blueberry potato chips make it in the US?

Parterre. That's the term for all the gardenny sculptury stuff that's been put up all over Beijing in honor of the Olympics. I'd thought "parterre" referred to a theater balcony, and it does, but it also refers to ornamental greenery. Tiananmen Square is filled with it, which makes Tiananmen Square both festively beautiful and completely unsuitable for staging protests.

Blue skies. We'd thought they would go the way of mandatorily-uplifting songs played on the subways. But, to our surprise, neither has gone away. Today's sky was clear as can be, and brilliant blue. And, as a bonus, our hottest days are behind us. Things are cooling off quite nicely.


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  F R I D A Y ,   A U G U S T   2 2 ,   2 0 0 8 . 


We were listening to the Toto song "Rosanna," after which Catherine was in the mood for more and flipped to "Hold The Line," Toto's first hit song. As the guitar solo screamed away, I pointed out that Steve Lukather was one of the first to bring life to the Whammy Bar, which is a little lever on the bridge of a guitar that varies the pitch, allowing you to do an exaggerated vibrato. It's a sound that defined the hard rock of the Eighties.

She said, "You know what would be sad? If Steve Lukather's son were playing on that bridge right when there was a whole boat full of people passing under."


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  T U E S D A Y ,   A U G U S T   1 9 ,   2 0 0 8 . 

I showed up at our drop-dead-amazing club tonight in time to have a puff at a cigar before starting. NBC had rented out the place for a big shindig tonight. Some guy came over and said, "Do you mind if I ask who you are with, are you with NBC?" I said that I was with the band; he asked me if I could cigar somewhere else because they were getting the food ready.

I was glad to. And especially after I saw the layout: row after row of white wine, red wine, champagne, and Lantinis (the bar's specialty that has little to do with the martini and is really just a delicious raspberry drink); table after table of sushi, jiaozi, spring rolls, breaded fish, skewered meat, buttery sea bass (the best I've ever had), fresh fruit, mysterious desserts, and on and on.

Then the people showed up. It eventually got really crowded with NBC people. I didn't see any celebrity faces, just tons of folk who work one way or the other with the network. After the band was done, I plunged into the crowd, and immediately noticed several extremely tall women with red ribbons around their necks.

It was the women's rowing team. I eventually got to meet all of them who were there (Eleanor Logan, Lindsay Shoop, Anna Goodale, and two others), shake their hands, tell them they did us proud, and congratulate them on their accomplishment. Lindsay Shoop offered to let me examine her gold medal. Cool! It was much heavier even than I'd figured. On one side is the classic woman-with-torch that they always have on it, and on the other side is the stuff belonging to that year, so it was the Beijing logo and it was inlaid with a ring of jade — white jade for the gold, typical green for the silver (Slytherin colors!), and a dark dark green for the bronze. I told a couple of the gals that they were the best in the world, actually the best: that's not their mom's opinion, they really are verifiably the best. One mentioned that she'd seen rowing in the Olympics as a kid, but forgot all about it till she started up six years ago. Now she's a gold medallist! She still seemed a bit dizzy at the thought. Pretty dang cool.

A men's bronze medallist was also there: Dan Walsh. We had a nice chat, and without any provocation he just took his medal off and gave it to me to look at. Wow! I took it and said, "Wow! ... Wow! Really?" He said, "Yeah, it's not just mine, it's yours too; it belongs to America."

What I said was, "That's really really cool. Thanks. This is amazing." What I didn't say was:

It does belong to America, but only in the poetic sense. In the actual sense, I didn't do diddly for this. I didn't wake up at goodness-knows-when and abstain from tacos and work and work and work to earn this. The fact is, Dan, that very few people — not even your parents, really — will ever know what you did to earn this medal. Very few people have ever wanted anything that badly, or worked that hard for something, in their lives. Only a tiny, blessed group have any idea how much this cost, or how much you gave to achieve this thing. So, enjoy this moment, and allow our pitiful ignorant Wow to stand in for the great "Well Done" that echoes through the Real World, unheard by us.


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  T H U R S D A Y ,   A U G U S T   7 ,   2 0 0 8 . 

I mentioned earlier that I'd wanted to get some suits made. I went to one tailor and eventually got what I wanted, but only after protracted haggling. It was obvious this person wasn't part of the best tradition. On reflection, I do notice that the tailor's shop is in a place that caters to quite a number of people who won't be in Beijing for too long. Meanwhile, the one I just got some work back from is located in the heart of the diplomatic district, and has incentive to get repeat customers. That might make all the difference.

Whatever the difference is, I can't chalk it up to my cranky old man theory. The gal in charge was young and female, and quite pleasant, and she did as well as any cranky old man in creating some custom suits for a very picky customer. So, now I have some gorgeous suits to wear for all those snazzy Olympic-related gigs coming up in the next couple of weeks.

Having nothing better to do, and realizing that most of you haven't seen me at all in a while, I figured I'd put on a little fashion show. Everything you see is brand-gosh-durn new. Those hangings in the background are some of the batiks that Cathryn and Nicholas gave us.

And, I went ahead and put on my new glasses. I've always worn contacts, but Catherine has awakened me to the conveniences of having glasses. So I got some made here, and I must say I like 'em. Still hardly wear them, but they come in handy at times.

Take a look.


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  M O N D A Y ,   A U G U S T   4 ,   2 0 0 8 . 

It's Monday of Olympics week, and the town is getting ready. I noticed this evening that the air was sort of back to its normal hazy grey, but for the last several days it's been quite wonderful, because all the polluting factories have been either shut off completely or cut down to a tiny percentage of their usual output. So the sky has been blue, and it has had texture, and clouds, and the sun shines, and all that. It's like being in San Antonio or Houston or Dallas. Crazy.

You've no doubt seen the artwork associated with the games. The official emblem is a white figure that could be in action in any one of several possible sports, against a red background.

What you might not know about it is where it comes from culturally. It's a chop. A chop is a cross between a royal seal and a stamp like Marian uses at the library. It's usually made of stone, though sometimes wood and, in royal cases, jade. The character of a person's name is carved into it. Then you just dip it in ink and use it for official documents. (If you have any Chinese art around the house, there's a chance that it'll have the artist's chop somewhere on it, in place of a signature.)

The figure on the Olympic chop is a stylized jing. "Jing" is, of course, the second syllable of "Beijing." Generally, each character is one syllable, and each character signifies one word, though, naturally, sophisticated ideas that would be one word in English are represented by several characters in Chinese. Bei means "north" and jing means "capital." Nanjing or Nanking (as in the Rape of Nanking) was, you guessed it, at one time the southern capital. So, when you say "Beijing" in Chinese you're saying a place-name that, in English, would be something like "Northric."

Here's the word jing written in several fonts, roughly corresponding to Arial, Times Roman, and a couple of scripty fonts:

And here's the Olympic emblem:

I think it's ingenious: a powerful glom of ideas — a character from one of the world's oldest alphabets, an official stamp that echoes centuries of civilization, a human figure of joy and prowess, the word itself signifying that Beijing is indeed the capital of the world for one moment — all brought together in one striking image.


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  T U E S D A Y ,   J U L Y   2 9 ,   2 0 0 8 . 

My first day in third grade, my first day at a new school in a new district, knowing not a single person in my class, I looked over and saw Christi Cunningham, and was drawn to her. She had a book called Judo Boy. It looked interesting. I asked if I could borrow it. She said sure, after she was through with it.

Christi was one of those people who drew people to her. We were members of a generation in which girls could show up in traditionally girly clothes one day, rolled-down socks and Mary Janes and high-waisted dresses, and jeans and red-striped Izods and sneakers the next. I passingly note how glad I am that the sneakers of our youth are again recognized as cool.

Christi did just this, but mostly kept to the jeans side of things. She showed up in the parade of hairstyles available to African-American girls of the seventies: giant zeppelin pigtails, tight braids, bows here, barettes there. In the eighties, she went for the styled look that Janet Jackson (girlfriend on Diff'rent Strokes) brought back modified from its sixties form. African-American women know best that there's no such thing as apolitical hair. Every choice makes a statement, and there's no such thing as no choice. One day, in high school, she showed up with a simple fro, not too closely shorn, and it mirrored an awakening, in her and in our society, regarding beauty and identity. I smirked. Then I liked it. Several years ago after one of our periodic catch-ups I checked her out online and noted her dreadlocks. Coolest prof at Howard Law. Recently I saw her, and noted that her simple not-too-short-not-too-long fro underlined the fact that she hasn't aged a bit since high school.

She branded herself as a Brain. Children of a media age, we all had logos in elementary school. Chris Besch had a cartoony kick-butt animal of some sort; mine was a stylized clock showing midnight (which within a decade would become, as it is to this day, my most productive hour); Christi's was a light bulb burning bright with the legend CC THE BRAIN. It was with a shock that I first heard, in middle school, someone synecdochizing that word as an insult. (Yes, I used the word "synecdochizing," because I, too, am a Brain.) So she went from Christi to CC, one of the first people I knew who insisted that she got to decide what you call her. Now she answers to e. christi cunningham. I got frogged in sixth grade for pointing out what only I and Chris Besch knew: that the E stood for Elizabeth.

Elizabeth Christi Cunningham! Has there ever been anyone so aptly named? Queenly, Christlike, whip-smart, and never out of the spotlight if she could help it, she lived up to every part. She beat me to a spot in the talent show (already a pretty dang good player, I tossed out a killer version of "El Choclo,") by playing an original song that was not much but a series of arpeggios — played, though, with such theatrical flourish, hand over hand, who could resist? The crowd loved her. They always did, and she loved them back, and they loved her back-back.

I remember sitting with her at lunch as I always did. The cafeteria was, with the perversely abusive logic that was School, placed directly next to the music classroom, and the cafeteria's inhabitants were made to be silent as they ate together. Between that and McDonald's, it's a wonder any of us ever grew to desire the Feast of the Lamb. Christi and Chris and I regularly ran afoul of Mrs. Schaeffer, the enforcer of the Silence Rule.

In fourth or fifth grade, she broke her arm. For an entire week during Christi's rehabilitation, she forced me, with physical pain as a threat, to eat left-handed as she had to do, frogging me (left-handedly, but still), every time I descended into mockery.

Well, I was a mocker. It's a wonder I never got beaten to a pulp in grade school; I certainly asked for it. I certainly mouthed off then, saying things I now recognize as overtly and covertly racist, displaying attitudes I now blanch at. Christi — christi, I apologize. I mentioned that she was Christlike: she certainly was, and remained, a model of grace and forgiveness and reconciliation. I remember once in tenth grade when I made a ten-dollar bet against our football team in a game every one deep-down knew we'd lose. I figured there was no way not to win, because if we beat 'em after all then I'd be happy our team won, and if we lost then I'd at least get ten bucks. I was verbally (though, thankfully, not physically) flayed for this when word got out; I realized that I had neglected to calculate that there was also no way not to lose. I got called things, I got threatened with stuff, I got blamed for and demanded of, I got called more things. In general, I had a crappy day. (We lost.) That afternoon, I was alone in my room when I got a call. It was christi, who had engaged in some of those words. She said she was sorry, and that she'd been wrong to be so publicly harsh, and that I was a dear friend, and that she wanted me to know that. I choked out a thank-you and burst into tears. She was the only person who called that day.

So. Why do I tell you these things? Because I wanted you to have a small catalog of knowledge when I mention a lightning-quick flash of the synapses I had the other evening. I was sitting there in our little noodle place near Dawanglu station eating gorgeous thick ribbons of food in a richly meaty bouillion, for a buck-fifty — miraculous! — and, as always, having a bit of trouble negotiating the noodles with chopsticks. I tried to hold them the real way instead of the just-getting-along way I usually do. They slipped out. If you'd been a Beijing resident sitting in that restaurant fooping away at your noodles without a care, you might have looked over and seen the only white guy in the place (maybe you'd been staring at him all along), awkwardly and comically poking around with his food; then stopping, looking up at nothing, smiling asymmetrically — and switching hands. More comical and awkward than ever. Continuing left-handed through the rest of the meal.

You'd have no idea why he was in Beijing, or how he was gently and not-gently taught to see things through the eyes of the other, or how those lessons had fermented in him. You'd have no idea that he was actually proposing a toast, though with a bowl rather than a cup, or whom he was toasting.


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  S U N D A Y ,   J U L Y   2 7 ,   2 0 0 8 . 

We've mentioned our comical DVD adventures before. You get a beautiful DVD with a gorgeous picture and sound, and menus intact, and then every ten minutes the phrase "FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION" appears onscreen. More often, though, you get television series with partial episodes, or Chinese subtitles that you can't turn off, or wacky English subtitles when you do turn them on.

Naturally, you can find out a lot about a movie from looking at the back of the cover. For instance, if you see an intriguing title or a familiar star but you're not sure whether to watch the DVD, you might turn it over and read this:

Story background hypothesis in 1957 cold
war time. This time Dr. Jones and old love
Mary raised · the auspicious article Wood '
s son already to grow up. Kate · Buland Chet a
cts cold blood Soviet Union military officer, to fi
nd in the fable the alien to keep on the Earth "th
e crystal skull" , raised unexpectedly take Mary a
s the hostage intimidates Dr. Jones. But, Dr. Jone
s and the son have stepped travel of together
the treasure hunt.

Absolutely true. Of course, the movie in question, the newest Indiana Jones flick, was available on DVD in Beijing the weekend it came out in theaters. Those are the most entertaining ones to get.

Why? Well, in this one, the picture was neither full-screen nor true letterbox but instead a subtle trapezoid caused by the fact that the person filming it in the theater was over to the side. There were indeed subtitles but the translator was either incompetent or computerized. And throughout the movie, shadows appeared across the bottom as people came and went and shuffled across their aisles. Further, I suppose in an effort to get packed up before getting busted, the cutesy denouement is unfinished. They're in the wedding chapel, the door opens, and ... what happens? WHAT HAPPENS?

I'll never know. At least, not until another version of the movie appears — for my consideration.


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  S A T U R D A Y ,   J U L Y   2 6 ,   2 0 0 8 . 

When we first set down here in Beijing, our friend Cathryn set us up with her friend J-Bryan and his wife Cathy, who offered us a place to stay while we found our bearings. Really nice!! That first couple of weeks, we went to church with them, on the upper west side of town, a good forty-five minutes from their way-up-north apartment, and now a good hour and a half from our lower east side place.

I enjoyed it quite a bit: it's a large congregation of internationals that meets in the meeting room of an office building, and is filled with casual, friendly folk from all over. I mentioned that I'm a musician and worship leader at home, and the people there mentioned that summers are always hard when it comes to finding music leaders for church. So, I got volunteered. I'm playing or leading several times throughout the summer. It's a bit of a hike (especially seeing as the church we usually go to is only three subway stops away), but it feeds the soul.

Whenever there is any musical performance of any kind, I always want to be in on it. It's hard to be an audience member, even if it's a pleasure to watch or hear. And that's especially true in worship. I know it's a hardship for Catherine to constantly be a Band Widow in worship services, but it's so hard for me to sit still when someone else is doing the music. I want to be there, laying down a solid bass line or filling in on aux percussion, or doing some keyboard work, or whatever.

It's one of those things that they always tell you about What You Do. I'm really talented in a lot of areas, but music is my zone: that place where your skills and abilities and talents line up perfectly with your passions and desires.

So, I've been the bassist at this church, and a couple of weeks now I've been the worship leader, leading from the keyboard, having consulted with the other service leaders and speakers about the morning's themes, chosen the music, and put together the charts for the band. So nice!


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  S U N D A Y ,   J U L Y   2 0 ,   2 0 0 8 . 

I've been doing some voice work lately. Every so often I look into doing this in the states. I have a nice radioey voice, and can do everything from Golden Age Announcer Voice to Present-Day DJ Voice to compelling character voices. But I've never scored a gig back home, even after repeated inquiries and submissions of my reel to agents and studios.

Here, though, it's different. Catherine spotted an ad looking for voice talent, and we answered it. A few weeks later, I was doing some English language instruction tapes. Fun!

It's actually not always fun when you're doing it, depending on the material. Today, for instance, I went in for a few hours and did some pretty pleasurable advanced stuff for upper-level English speakers: magazine articles and dialogs, all at normal conversational speed. However, there are times when the material is for beginners, and then you have to say things like, "W h a t . . . c o l o r . . . i s . . . t h e . . . s o c k ? . . . W h a t . . . c o l o r . . . i s . . . t h e . . . t a b l e ? . . . W h a t . . . c o l o r . . . i s . . . t h e . . . s t r e e t ? " for hours on end. Stultifying.

On the other hand, you do have to remember that a lot of this stuff is written by non-native speakers. So, you and your (always opposite-sex) partner get to read, with a straight face, stuff like this:

M: "Are you driving this machine?"

F: "I love the driving of machines in the day."

M: "So am I."

Try that, at 130 words per minute, with exaggerated inflection, and you'll get the picture.

The gal I started partnering with is of Asian descent, and fluent in Chinese, but an American from Chicago. She's pure magic: one of those beautiful voices, with perfect inflection, and a real talent for character voices that have a Saturday-morning sheen to them.

By chance, I met another voice person, an English girl named Bex, who has a perfect RP accent. That's the classic BBC sound: not haughty or posh, but perfectly crisp and clear and Londonny. She mentioned she needed a Brit to partner with — remember that Beijing wants to hear British English as well as American English — and that her studio guy, Mr Wang, wanted a native speaker. So we went in and I pretended to be English, speaking with an English accent (mainly floating around London's various districts and classes, I'm afraid), and he bought it. I soon settled into a semi-tongue-in-cheek approximation of Deryck Cooke, the genteel music commentator who burrowed his way into the in-jokes of several of us who can't help but collapse into tearful laugher remembering his placidly civil evocation of "the Rheinmaidens' cry of 'Rheingold, rheingold; Heiaia, heiaia.' " After the session, Mr Wang mentioned he was looking for an American male voice, and I put on my best American accent and told him I could do it so well that even native-born Americans couldn't tell.

Heh. He knows the truth now. So I'm doing Brit and American voices for him, and for the other studio guy Bex introduced me to, Mr Yang, who lives in the building next to Mr Wang. I brought her to the one I'd been working with, now referred to as The Other Mr Wang, and introduced her over there while the Magic American Gal was on vacation.


I've been gigging at a really nice intimate little jazz club for Serious Listeners, with an excellent couple of musicians, as well as a few private things here and there with my friend Billy and others, and occasionally at a drop-dead-amazing club designed by Philippe Starck — a hedonistic pleasure to play in — and August is filling with gigs as well. But every so often I head over across town to Yang or one of the Wangs and exercise my other talents.


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  S A T U R D A Y ,   J U L Y   5 ,   2 0 0 8 . 

We just got back from a perfect evening. You might recall that we had planned on going to a Beijing Opera on May 15th, my birthday, but were thwarted. So glad we were! We'll still do one of those soon, but tonight we went to a Kunqu opera and had a truly good night.

Beijing Opera is less like what you think of when you think of opera than vaudeville. As I mentioned before, don't picture Hildegard Behrens in a viking helmet and braids: picture Ed Sullivan in a red silk dress. It's a hybrid of several different stage traditions that melded over the centuries, and Kunqu opera is one of them. Highly stylized singing and balletic movement, gorgeous costumes, and a chamber group playing the music, all very high-culture.

The crown jewel of Kunqu opera is The Peony Pavilion, a 16th-century story of love, death, redemption, war, and restoration that runs well over twenty hours. To give you some perspective on this, think about the Western tradition of opera. It had a few golden ages, one in the late nineteenth-right-up-to-the-twentieth century; one earlier in the age of Mozart and Rossini; and the first big bloom of operas by Purcell and Handel. Beyond that, it begins to sound pretty primitive. Monteverdi's Orfeo is wonderful, but really just outside what we consider the classical tradition. And that was in the 17th century. A hundred years before that, Tang Xianzu was writing China's Ring Cycle.

I'm afraid I've probably missed my chance to see the 20-hour version (which, I've been informed, was significantly truncated) that cropped up in New York and I think one other place in the US about ten years ago. There's currently a nine-hour version that's touring several major cities. Tonight's show was abridged to two hours, and only covered the love-story portion of the plot, ending about halfway through the full story, at a nice ending where boy and girl are united in love.

(At the end of the show, the woman of my dreams, the life-love of my destiny, said, "What! It's over? It feels like it should be intermission!" Ahhh. No measly two-hour opera for my girl.)

It was staged at the Royal Granary, newly restored as an arts district, with beautiful, subdued art galleries and bars and restaurants, as well as this performance space. The granary itself was built around the same time as the opera came along, so it made for a beautiful synchrony of Tang Dynasty culture.

Beforehand, they served a spectacular meal, with thinly-sliced summer squash sauteed with similar disks of mushroom, tender beef with red and green peppers, a deliciously spiced chopped green leafy thing wrapped in a thin egg crepe, perfectly spiced shrimp-and-potato thingies, peanuts roasted in seaweed (I loved, Catherine didn't), cashews in a sticky-spicy glaze, peanuts glazed with sesame-seed, garlic chicken, hot-sour soup, pea cake, and that's just what I can remember. To drink, there was unlimited red wine, cucumber juice, kiwi juice, and tomato juice. But, as far as I could see, no tea. Weird! Of course, right next door was a tea place that offered several varieties that ranged from 900 to 1400 dollars a pot.

The show itself was just about perfect. The orchestra consisted of six musicians: koto harp, shakuhachi (I don't know what the Chinese names or varieties of these instruments are, but close enough), percussion, two-stringed fiddle, flute (whose player switched between several types and was a magnificent performer, with the easy and playful confidence of a true master), and a mouth organ. When I say "mouth organ" don't think harmonica. Instead, picture a miniature pipe organ held up to the mouth, with ten or fifteen pipes sticking up and controlled by the hands, with a sweet, accordiony sound. The gal who played it must have been exhausted.

Later I went up to see what their musical notation was. Not a single note of Western-style notation. Instead, it was all Arabic numerals (1, 2, 3, 5, and 6, which means they were just writing out the pentatonic Chinese traditional melodies by degree), surrounded by various diacritical markings that no doubt indicated rhythm and dynamics and other performance specifics. Fascinating! Certainly not the original Tang Dynasty notation, though.

Placed around the hall, which seated around fifty, with Catherine and me on third row center, there were huge bowls with water and several goldfish swimming around, spotlighted dramatically. At various points in the play, the bowls were receptacles for falling rose-petals (during the spring rhapsody aria), and water (beautifully evoking a rainy afternoon). The lighting and set design were, therefore, distinctly modern. Though "traditional" in taste, it would have been utterly unrecognizable to anyone in the fifteen-hundreds — mesmerizingly so.

The costumes and staging were highly traditional. We couldn't help but know that there was tons of material we simply missed: facial expressions, movements, little things they did with their hands, stylized makeup — no doubt it was all as laden with meaning to anyone familiar with the tradition as a scene from La Boheme would be to a Westerner, even one who didn't think they knew much about opera. At several points the Chinese people in the audience laughed, apparently at something that didn't translate into the subtitles.

After a brief time of getting used to the movement and vocal tones (falsetto for both men and women), and odd ornamentations and so on, you could just enter in to the story and let it overwhelm you. The very first moments of the piece literally knocked the wind out of me. That's something that happens when I respond to art, for some reason. If you've been around when it hits me emotionally, you've probably heard me go Hhhhhhhhhhhhhh at some point. Utilizing costume, drama, dance, music, poetry, and — gorgeously — calligraphy, which was done live on stage by a calligrapher to announce separate sections of the story, it was a stunning gesamtkunstwerk. I can only imagine that the full production had the same effect on audiences as Der Ring des Nibelungen and its modern-day film ripoff have had in western opera houses and movie theaters.

What a night! Afterward, they invited audience members to have pictures taken with the stars. I'd have liked to take a picture with the musicians as well, but by that point they were gone. The musicians, by the way, were dramatically costumed, as were the four men who served as chorus, extras, props, and, at times, scenery. One of the opera hostesses asked us where we'd found out about the production. I had two answers: the first was that I'd chanced on a notice about this particular performance in an issue of one of the several free entertainment mags found around town; the second, that I'd heard about The Peony Pavilion when I was young, and then later in the nineties had longed to be able to see it staged, and have always wanted to experience it, I was unable to utter without choking into tears.


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  F R I D A Y ,   J U N E   2 7 ,   2 0 0 8 . 

Ah, Chinese cuisine.


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  T H U R S D A Y ,   J U N E   2 6 ,   2 0 0 8 . 

It was a burden to go to those play rehearsals, a journey of almost an hour through the huge city. But at least I was doing something; Catherine went with me most days, but just sat and read, though at times they had their wi-fi on and she could correspond. Several times she wondered why I had to be doing this with our free time.

The other day I asked her if she would want me to do it if we had the choice all over again. She said without hesitation, "Oh yeah!" That's because of Friday night.

I mentioned that we'd danced and danced. What happened was that after Friday's show the theater transformed back into a dance club and the music started playing and the lights started spinning, and we didn't actually have to do anything but stay right where we were. It was like one of those montages in movies. So we stayed right where we were. The DJ picked the right kind of music for the occasion: lots of 80s pop and not-so-pop, rather than the serious electronica or hip-hop that you sometimes hear, so that the effect was of light-hearted nostalgia. Several of the cast members, who had stayed around, were definitely in the mood for levity and celebration.

We found a new friend, Anna Grace, whom we both really connected with, and had great conversation. When it came time to dance, we both went right onto the dance floor and danced — something Catherine is usually loath to do.

Catherine's group of friends think of her as the wild one, the Phoebe, the instigator, the whimsical caution-to-the-wind girl. When you first meet her you might not catch on to that aspect of her personality, though, because she doesn't open up that side of her until she feels perfectly safe.

She must've felt safe Friday, because caution indeed went to the wind, and she danced like I've never seen her dance in public before. Maybe St Vitus Day (only a few days before) was exerting a gravitational pull. At one point the group got into a circle and took turns doing solo dances in the middle: Catherine jumped right in and freestyled while everyone whooped. Some of the cast members asked me afterward if she's usually like that. Hm, what to say? She usually is like that, with me, and with her friends and family. But even then she's never liked dancing because she doesn't think she's a good dancer. Of course she was just as good as anyone else there. The key, of course, is to not try not to look stupid. You just dance and don't care what anyone thinks, and you magically do look great. (One of the reasons we enjoyed the show Felicity was that there were often opportunities for the characters to dance, in clubs, dorm rooms, or apartments, and they never seemed concerned about how silly they looked.)

A few of us went up to the rooftop terrace, from which you can see the beautifully twinkling lake and the city distantly surrounding it, and enjoyed the breeze and lively conversation. That was a welcome change. It was beyond hot in the club; we'd sweated and sweated and kept dancing anyway. We had, as the phrase goes, danced like there was no tomorrow.

And yet that phrase doesn't quite capture the truth. Because I believe that what happens tomorrow depends on how you dance today.

You can read up on mambos and tangos, you can watch the kids on Felicity let loose, you can enjoy listening to the music, you can tap your feet or do your shoulders back and forth in your chair — but until you've danced you haven't danced.

There are people in life who sit at their tables watching all the fun, and there are people who stand around at the edges bobbing their heads, never daring to risk making fools of themselves, and then there are people who get right into the middle of the floor, where the sound is the pumpiest and the lights are the dazzliest, and send their philosophy coursing through their bloodstream.

That's why were here. That's why we're here on earth, and that's why Catherine and I are here in China, and that's why we're together, and that's why, last Friday night, we joined mind and body and spirit in a joyful tarantella.


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  T U E S D A Y ,   J U N E   2 4 ,   2 0 0 8 . 

Catherine and I have just had a fun weekend. We danced and clubbed and clubbed and danced till the wee hours Friday night, arriving home at dawn; Saturday we did a few errands and I went out with the cast of our play to have Mexican food (while Catherine went home to rest but ended up waiting outside our building — I had inadvertently kept the keys); Sunday we ate and shopped and talked and discovered interesting stuff about each other and ourselves in exploring our Myers-Briggs profiles.

But the main thing this weekend, the thing so many of its events were tied to, was the play. For the past several weeks, I've been involved in a production by a small theater company. It was a comedy purporting to be a reality show for theater, pitting environmentalists against industrialists. Apparently they'd gone through several actors for the part of the show's host; eventually a colleague of a colleague gave me a call and asked if I'd be interested.

It ended up taking tons of time (and quite a bit of money), but the result was something really fun. Theater is a great way to plug in to a lively community of creative and fun-loving people. The rehearsals and performances were at a dance club, which converted easily into an intimate theater space with nice lighting and decent acoustics, and a bit of off-hours revenue for the owners. The club is on the edge of a lovely lake toward Beijing's center. You walk through an old-fashioned hutong and round this corner and through that narrow alley, and suddenly you're looking out onto a beautiful scene, with old fishermen sitting and young couples perching and little kids running and a shoreside restaurant here and an old monastery there: it was just a pleasure to go there day after day.

I knew that it would be a fun project but I was unprepared for the feeling I got during the performances. Though most of the characters interacted with each other and with me, most of my part of it was directly addressing the audience. There I was, standing in front of a crowd of sixty or so people who were ready to be entertained, inspired, or informed. I'd say something mildly funny, and let a laugh bloom, or tilt my head a bit and wait for it to catch on and grow into a bigger laugh; I'd use my hands and feet and face to get a reaction. I'd stand by and watch as the other actors — all good comics and ensemble players — did the same thing with each other and with the crowd. And of course behind it all was a serious message about making the world a better, less messy and filthy place.


It's been well over a year since I've done that. It was gratifying. There's a very real appetite in me that only that kind of thing can feed — and a very real skill that has gone unexercised. Three performances. I could have done a hundred.


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  T H U R S D A Y ,   J U N E   1 9 ,   2 0 0 8 . 

I've been asked to talk more about my comment about celebrating the return of habeas corpus: that the Supreme Court has jolted the Bush Administration forward into the 13th century.

Last Thursday, the Court declared part of the Military Commissions Act of 2006 to be unconstitutional: the part that squishes over the writ of habeas corpus. The Latin phrase literally means "you shall have the body (in court)." If you're arrested, they have to actually bring you to a courtroom at some point to tell you what you're accused of and have a judge or jury decide whether you should continue to be jailed.

In history, that's a huge huge thing. It used to be that whoever was king could just have someone thrown in jail. No questions asked, throw away the key if you like. One of the founding documents of democracy, the Magna Carta, forced old King John to use the writ of habeas corpus. No longer could English kings just toss people in jail indefinitely.

That's been part of English law ever since, and it's part of the American Constitution, until that Constitution was effectively challenged by the Bush Administration and its cadre of loyal Republicans and cowardly Democrats on Capitol Hill.

Alexander Hamilton said it well: "The practice of arbitrary imprisonments, in all ages, is the favorite and most formidable instrument of tyranny." He said it so well, in fact, that the Supreme Court quoted that very passage from the Federalist Papers in its opinion. You don't have to think of Bush as a tyrant in order to see that that practice is indeed tyrannical. And meanwhile it only takes a small act of imagination to wonder what it would be like if you, or your kid, were overseas somewhere and got imprisoned without any chance of getting a fair hearing, without any shot at the due process of the laws of that land.

The fact that the Guantanamo detainees are actually on Cuban soil, which was cynically done in order to end-run the rules Americans have to follow on our own soil, now does not matter. The Court has basically said, "No cheating. If they're held in a place that's effectively under U.S. control, then you gotta follow the rules."

Those rules are good, and they protect us, and they do not compromise any effective effort against terrorism.

There had been a claim that a law passed in 2005 (sponsored by John McCain, who has pledged to continue Bush's course), provided a good substitute for habeas corpus: the so-called "Tribunals." Of course, since the defendants aren't allowed to have a lawyer present, and aren't even allowed to challenge the evidence against them (and sometimes, as a recent New Yorker article pointed out, aren't even allowed to know what the evidence is), the Court said that this law falls "well short," and means that "there is a considerable risk for error."

They're right: whether you're Democratic or Republican, and no matter how you feel about the death penalty, you can't help but get mad about the guy who got put to death in Texas after his court-appointed defense lawyer fell asleep during the trial. How is that justice? Could a lawyer who'd stayed awake have raised a red flag at some point, and shown that they got the wrong guy? Same thing applies here, except that there's no lawyer, asleep or awake, and no actual charge, and these guys are just languishing in jail. There's no incentive to actually build a responsible case against them.

A good Republican would already know this. (Good Republicans do, and they've been horrified over the years at the astonishing liberties the Bush Administration has taken: what happened to not trusting Big Bad Government? This is why ultra-conservative guru William F. Buckley refused to endorse Bush in 04.)

A quick quiz question for you: what individual right was mentioned in the main body of the Constitution, before the Bill of Rights was even enacted?

If your answer was habeas corpus, give yourself a point. The Founders were big believers in limiting government power whenever and wherever they could. They understood that power corrupts, and anyone with power will inevitably abuse it. The Supreme Court's decision mentions this fact, and notes that

"the Framers viewed unlawful restraint as a fundamental precept of liberty, and they understood the writ of habeas corpus as a vital instrument to secure that freedom."

They go on to say:

"The Framers' inherent distrust of government power was the driving force behind the constitutional plan that allocated powers among three independent branches. This design serves not only to make Government accountable but also to secure individual liberty."

When we abolish a person's freedom from arbitrary imprisonment, we turn the clock back to before the Constitution, and even further: we turn it back to before the Magna Carta. Even the Redcoats couldn't just throw the American rebels into jail without having to show reason in a court of law.

You might object, as some do, by saying that this is war, and we're in extraordinary circumstances and sometimes you have to play dirty to get things done, and you can't have someone following you around making you cross all the Ts while you're trying to fight global terrorism. But sometimes those Ts are what we're fighting about in the first place. The Court says it well:

Security depends upon a sophisticated intelligence apparatus and the ability of our Armed Forces to act and interdict. There are further considerations, however. Security subsists, too, in fidelity to freedom's first principles. Chief among these are freedom from arbitrary and unlawful restraint and the personal liberty that is secured by adherence to separation of powers.

The laws and Constitution are designed to survive, and remain in force, in extraordinary times. Liberty and security can be reconciled; and in our system, they are reconciled within the framework of law. The Framers decided that habeas corpus, a right of first importance, must be a part of that framework, part of that law.

That makes me want to stand up and cheer.

There is another element to all this, and it concerns the future: McCain was a major player in getting the Military Commissions Act passed. Obama voted against it. When it became clear that it would pass, Obama tried to add an amendment that would give it a time-limit of five years. The Act passed; the amendment didn't. For all we knew, we were now in an era in which our own government could (did; does) put people in prison indefinitely, with no charges and no due process.

The only thing that saved us was the Supreme Court, who took a historic stand. But even then it was five to four, lined up in a wearily predictable way. The four who dissented — who wanted to keep things the way they were headed — were Roberts and Alito, Scalia and Thomas. And John McCain has referred to Roberts and Alito as the kind of judges he'd like to see more of. Obama, asked the same question, named Breyer, Souter, and Ginsberg, who all voted to reinstate this basic right.

The four dissenters are all young and healthy enough to last a good long time. Stevens and Ginsberg are 88 and 75. So, in thinking about who you want to vote for as our next President, your considerations might include the question of who will best protect the freedom from tyranny that we're supposed to be fighting for.


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  T U E S D A Y ,   J U N E   1 7 ,   2 0 0 8 . 

Our first few days in China, when we were staying in the guest bedroom of the truly hospitable Bryan and Cathy, we would look at our pile of bags and exclaim about how much stuff we had. One time, though, Cathy heard us and mentioned that she'd always thought, "Wow, only four bags for six months! Pretty good."

It is actually pretty good. I only packed one pair of pants, a few T-shirts, a few nice-ish shirts, and that's it. Same for Catherine. We did indeed bring four pairs of shoes a piece, because China is not a place for tall Westerners to get lots of great shoes (though there are plenty of tall people this far north. Where do they get their footwear?) But for the most part we didn't bring lots of clothes because we knew we'd be able to replenish our wardrobes inexpensively when we got here.

Each of us has found some nice clothing: blouses and jewelry for Catherine, shirts and ties for me, and, remarkably enough, the occasional pair of shoes. The main thing I've been looking forward to, though, is a suit. You can get a bespoke suit here for a fraction of the price you'd pay at home, and you might as well take advantage, right? Though it's been hard to find a good tailor here, I have gotten one suit made: a nice olive-green English number, double-vented, fitted with casualish bone buttons.

Since I'm now playing every weeknight during the month of June, I'm really beginning to hurt for more suits to wear, but I don't want to go back to the one who made this one. Tomorrow I'm going to strike out early and search for one in the district where a friend tipped me off to look. We'll see!

My theory on tailors is simple: you want a slightly cranky old man. The team of tailors who did this suit, being young women, tended to prove my prejudices correct. I'd express worry about a sleeve length, and they'd say, "Oh no, it's fine the way it is." I'd point out a place where the fabric buckled, and they'd press and press and press till it temporarily smoothed out. (And how many times a day did they expect me to do that?)

What you want is to say to your (old man) tailor, "Well, I could just stand more like...this...," and have him say, "Nononono, we're redoing the darts. Take it off, take it off, take it off, give it here." And then he redoes them and the suit looks perfect without your having to stand like anything.

This is similar to my thoughts on stationery. Before the demise of Nancy Harkins, I'd go there and ask them for advice on note cards or thank-yous or whatever, and their first line of advice was, "Well, really, whatever you like; anything goes these days." Exactly what I don't want to hear. I then would go to the old lady in back and tell her to tell me what to get. When you send a note to someone, you don't want their grandmother to shake her head and say, "Well, I guess anything goes these days." You want her to say, "That Brake boy is so nice."

Nonetheless, through being my own cranky old man, I managed to get this suit done quite nicely. And got a beautiful bespoke shirt in the bargain.

How do I look?


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  S U N D A Y ,   J U N E   1 5 ,   2 0 0 8 . 

Every once in a while, the Mysterious East gets to be a little too much, and you want some good old American food. And what could be more American than a milkshake? Here's a picture I took of the milkshake menu.


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  W E D N E S D A Y ,   J U N E   1 1 ,   2 0 0 8 . 

One of the pairs of shoes I brought along on the trip was my foley shoes. They're beautiful and comfortable, and well-crafted. And they sound like shoes sound in the movies — you know, that shoe-ish sound that always gets added in by the foley artists, that never never actually lines up with the footsteps you see people taking. Honestly, how hard can it be? Pretty hard, apparently.

Anyway, the shoes were such a delight to me because they made that exact sound. Everywhere I walked it sounded like I was in the movies. Except the sound lined up.

So I was horrified to notice that I'd brought them here without noticing that they were dangerously worn. With all the walking we're doing here in Beijing, there's no way they'd last without being re-heeled. Something Catherine was unaware of is that with men's shoes (good ones) that bottom layer is meant to be replaced when it wears away. If you take good enough care of your shoes, they'll last decades.

I was not the least bit trepid about taking them to a guy here: after all, China has a tradition of centuries of this kind of craftsmanship, right? They have whole streets and districts that still bear names, from royal days, like Drum-And-Cymbal Street and Silk Street.


When I got them back, I noticed that the most excellent and harmonious craftsman had simply placed an extra heel on top of the old one, having wedged in some extra material where it was worn. And the edge of it doesn't even match.

And, of course, no more foley sound. Wonder if they can be salvaged when I get back to the States. At least I can be certain that they won't get worn down — and that's why I'm walkin' tall.


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  S A T U R D A Y ,   M A Y   2 4 ,   2 0 0 8 . 

I'm waiting and waiting for Catherine to come back to me. She's in San Antonio now, where we fly her back every two months for medical treatments. She'll be back Tuesday, and I can't wait to see her.

I felt sick all day yesterday, so when I finally got up I just went down to our little neighborhood street to read and have a bite to eat.

The street isn't particularly traditional in its architecture. Earlier, I compared it to a hutong in its tone, but it's definitely newer than that. And yet, as I looked around, I saw the ghosts of old China all around me. It was about eleven o'clock. Groups of people were gathered around the tables that every restaurant had out on the wide sidewalks, chattering loudly, old pudgy men with their shirts off, teens bunched up together. A stream of people flowed past, commenting on and being commented on. The several Mongolian grills smoked up occasionally, sending huge fogs of mouthwatering smoke to everyone near.

It's interesting. I'd always pictured myself getting overwhelmed at some peak on the Great Wall, or getting teary-eyed at a Beijing opera, or at the sight of the spectacular Temple of Heaven, perfectly rigged as it is to inspire as one approaches.

But this is where it happened: suddenly the sight before me glowed with meaning, and with the weight of six thousand years. The workers just off of work, gnawing at skewered meat, the young boys watching the girls go by, their girlfriends snapping at them, the boisterous sound of laughter and argument, the big old trees sending their leaves down to the concrete, the lady silently hunching over her bowl fooping noodles into her mouth length by length, the wafting pentatonic sound of a single flute coming from somewhere to dance around the cell phones' tinny pop, the taste of an unknown vegetable, buttery and garlicky in my mouth, the feel of cheap bamboo chopsticks in my hand, the blue and red and yellow bricks lit by paper lanterns and bare bulbs hanging from wires — this is where China sang to me.



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  T U E S D A Y ,   M A Y   2 0 ,   2 0 0 8 . 

I am sitting in an internet cafe in a charming little neighborhood just down from where we now live. Our laptop computer gave way a couple of weeks ago, and so we haven't been able to update as often as we've wanted to — especially me, because I always want to do everything at once, including Facebook and the website, which requires that I have ftp access.

Anyway. Let's see.

SUNDAY, MAY 11: We visited the church for foreigners that Bryan and Cathy attend. I'd visited by myself the week before, when Catherine wasn't feeling too well. China does allow people to worship, both foreigners and locals, but it doesn't allow them to mingle when doing so. So there are several churches for foreigners sprinkled around town, and you have to show your passport when you go in. Strange!

The one we visited has several branches. Bryan and Cathy's branch is way out on the west side of town, about an hour by taxi, in the University district. So there are lots of expats, especially students. Both times, the worship was really nice, with a good speaker (different each week) and a very competent worship leader (also different each week) leading a band of singers and players who were earnest (a term for which I am indebted to my mother, who deploys it to hilarious effect, though she herself is earnestly trying to find the best in people — that's partially why we find it so funny, to her consternation).

After the service, I met the folks in charge, and have now been conscripted to serve in the band a few of this summer's Sundays, and to be the leader myself for a few, too.

WEDNESDAY, MAY 14: I played again at the bar where it now looks like I'll be every Wednesday. The manager says he'd like to have me every single day, and is working furiously toward that end. Meanwhile, the Wednesday gig is delightful, and the players I've been working with are really talented, great players, good listeners, and fun to be with, though the hang is a bit compromised in breaks because their English isn't all that fluent, and my Chinese is nonexistent.

THURSDAY, MAY 15: My birthday! The day started off extremely well, ushered in as it was with a delicious meal. Catherine and I returned from the gig starving, especially after an hour commute. So we ventured down to see if our favorite little restaurant was open at near-midnight. Sure enough, it was, and the waiter, who has become a real friend to us with his excitement over a chance to test and improve his English, really did us nicely. We ordered several new things that looked like they might be good: "tiger" vegetables, which is a plate of very thin julienne cucumbers, peppers of the light-green kind that come with pizza back home, and cilantro, washed in a spicy and refreshing dressing and served chilled; a plateful of jiaoze; and, at his urging, some delights from the Mongolian grill outside on the steps (which is a custom around here), including a small plate of nondescript gelatin and well-spiced small pickles, and several skewers of mouthwatering lamb, spiced with some sort of pepper that actually brings on a slight numbness to the tongue. Very pleasing, and unlike anything I've ever tasted! Furthermore, seeing our delight at this feast, he refused to accept any payment at all for it.

Our friend Billy had invited us over for lunch. This is turning into a regular date, and a highlight of my weeks here. Billy is big-hearted, big-humored, full of life and light, a devoted family man taking a sabbatical from work to enjoy his family and friends, and a fine musician on top of it all.

He greeted us at the door with a gift bag: yep, he'd heard it was my birthday, and went to considerable trouble to get a gift and wrap it! It's a Chinese picture frame that will hold a place of honor around some picture of people I love. Thanks, man! After a beautiful Western lunch, he got out his bass and I sat at his grand piano, and I did something I don't think I've ever done exactly on my birthday: I composed a song.

I scribbled out a chord structure based on something I'd heard a band do recently, compressing the entire form of Miles Davis's "So What" into four bars; Billy and I played it round and round, as I experimented with different melodies, and finally zeroed in on something haunting and, I think, quite lovely. Can't wait to see what audiences think of it.

Catherine and I then caroused around the big downtown mall, which, Wonka-like, tormented us with its simple yet deceptive layout, while giving Catherine the opportunity to do some spontaneous shopping and cobbling together of birthday gifts for me: a whole grab-bag full of goodies, both lasting and transitory. Thanks, love!

We'd decided on a Beijing Opera for my birthday dinner. We'd looked it up in our (couple-of-years-old) city guidebook, and found what we knew would be our favorite: a very authentic one in lush surroundings, that also served Peking Duck, the city's most famous recipe.

Unfortunately, it was not to be. Catherine tells all about it in her Facebook notes, which you can get here if you don't want to bother getting them there.

Nonetheless, we did have a superb meal, and we did discover a whole little area that we wouldn't have discovered before. So, we'll get to a B-opera at some point; that just makes the birthday celebration last longer, no?

After dinner, we tooted on over to the East Shore Cafe to hear the Thursday night session. The very generous (and good) piano player invited me up to the stand for a couple of numbers, and midnight passed, ushering out my birthday in one of the best ways: doing the thing I love, playing music for an appreciative, packed house, with fine musicians. As for what else I love, some hugging and kissing and carrying on provided an absolutely perfect ending to a somewhat perfect day.

SATURDAY, MAY 17: We spent a couple of hours packing up all our worldly goods, and another couple of hours driving over to a new place and unpacking them. Yep, we've moved. Bryan and Cathy, our hosts for three weeks, can finally have a bit of peace and quiet around the house, though their children were adorably reluctant even to say goodbye to their new friends Barry and Catherine. Not to worry: we'll be doing some babysitting soon.

The new place is going to be fun. We have two roommates, delightful Chinese gals in their twenties, named Cora and Cherry. The place itself is a study in contradictions: approaching it, one sees something out of a Terry Gilliam movie, a giant building in a giant cluster of buildings, looming against the grey grey sky, stained and cluttered. Inside the halls, it's concrete everywhere, the dingiest lighting possible, and not a single decoration or attempt at beauty. And yet, it's the first place I've ever lived that has doormen and elevator operators, all of whom are solicitous, and all of whom remembered which floor we were on after the first trip. Nice!

Our room looks out onto a green courtyard dominated by a traditional Chinese garden. We've already shopped a bit, and now have it fitted with pretty sheets and towels and pillows, complemented by Catherine Fine Yang's gift of beautiful midnight-blue batik hangings. Feels like home already.

SUNDAY, MAY 18: Church again, but this time it was at the location that's much closer to us. Just a few subway stops down. Our location, by the way, is ideal, only a few subway stops from the places we'll be going most. We're just at the Fourth Ring Road, which sounds far out, but the inner four rings are much closer together than the massive Fifth, and our commute to, say, Tiananmen Square is only about fifteen minutes. We'll be delighted to have significantly diminished taxi fares in those late nights after the subways close.

Anyway, church. I got there right on the stroke of eleven, only to discover that this branch starts at ten. Drat! Missed the music, but got there just in time for the sermon, which revolved around the Savior's teachings about wineskins: "No one puts new wine in old wineskins. The skins will burst and the wine will be wasted." Wow! It hit me right in the gut, and challenged my thinking about all sorts of things. Think about every word of those teachings for a moment. We've seen it happen, have we not? I've often thought that the Word always preferences the New: the old self goes and the new self comes, the old testament is merely an echo for the new, the old earth gives way to the New Jerusalem. And who doesn't suspect that people we know will be with us in that New Jerusalem, unable to stop talking about how good the old one was? I was galvanized. It was exactly what I needed to hear, and I obviously showed up exactly where (and when) I needed to.

I met up with the people there, who are all warm and welcoming, and their worship team was glad to hear I was around. I'll be commuting an hour and a half for those other things across town.... Sheeeee! But it will be nice to have this closer location too.

Back at home, I managed to communicate to a doorman that I'd like to find the nearest Internet cafe. He showed me out a different door, along the back of the building, and — weird, weird, weird — down a stairway at the parking lot's side. Suddenly I experienced a dizzying paradigm shift. The ground was not the ground at all. My building, and the grove of buildings around it, and the green-gardened courtyard, are on a giant platform, three or four stories off the ground, with parking underneath.

How fascinating, to find another entire layer of street life, far below! I tucked into a little opening that isn't a classical hutong but bears a familial resemblance to it, and suddenly I was in the middle of a bustling, vibrant little neighborhood! And I'm now sitting in its Internet hovel, with boisterous talking that wafts around the street from outdoor restaurants and cafes, battling musics from tinny speakers here and there, the ring of bicyclists, and the distant cry of revelers as my midnight soundtrack; and the smell of meat roasting on the street's several Mongolian grills setting off the taste of my Apple Mirinda.

MONDAY MAY 19: I have been roped into doing some community theater. A friend was talking to a friend who was talking to a friend who was complaining that he was having a hard time casting the part of a reality-TV host in an upcoming play. The friend said, "I think I may know someone who could do that." There ya have it. I'm in.

The rehearsals take place on the other side of town. It's worth the commute if only because of the setting: a club that sits on the side of a lake, one of the several interconnected lakes that include Beihai Park. (The "shore" of the East Shore Cafe belongs to another one of them.) You get off the subway, turn into a wonderfully preserved old hutong, and suddenly you're looking at a beautiful lake, right down the way from an old monastery and a lovely classically-architectured restaurant. We've been there a couple of times now in the haze of early evening. Serene and beautiful. I've got to get some pictures up!

Late last night, Catherine and I made our way to the Beijing Train Station, where she took an overnight train to Shanghai; as I write, she's flying from there to San Antonio. She'll have a week there. On the agenda: medical treatments (the reason we're flying her back every two months), catch-up time with family, and her sister's birthday. I miss her already.


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  F R I D A Y ,   M A Y   9 ,   2 0 0 8 . 

It's been several days since I've updated this: sorry! Here are the happenings so far.

On Sunday, the 27th, I went back to one of the places I'd visited Friday, to talk with the people there and play a bit. I'd invited a couple of musicians to join me as well. We played, and were liked quite a lot. There were tons of details to work out, though, and in fact those details still hadn't been worked out as of this last Wednesday, when our friend there had asked us to come play again. I still hadn't had word, but got dressed and headed out anyway; sure enough, on our subway ride (it's an hour commute into downtown!) he called and said we were on. I then texted everyone and they texted back with "OK" and there you have it.

This particular club is very nicely done: beautifully decorated, and well-placed in the heart of town. It also has a grand piano, which will be fantastic once it's tuned properly (and I have much reason to believe it will be; these people believe in quality). Looks like it's going to be a regular thing.

Meanwhile, another gig fell right into my lap. I have now edited an entire brochure for the Beijing Olympic Committee, taking it from comically outrageous to slick.

Sorry, everyone. I know we prefer it comically outrageous. (There really is a sign that says "PLEASE DON'T CROSS ANY RAILINGS LEST SUDDENNESS HAPPENS," and just yesterday at one of the malls they had a sign up that warned against "ground injustice." Construction going on.) Anyway, this translation service has discovered the fine art of "polishing": after something's been translated, I then go over it and make it say what they mean it to say.

It's been really interesting taking stuff that's already been expressed in such a distant language and trying to make it flow. I find that the real challenge is in keeping my own sense of English. Bombarded with these gargantuan monstrosities of language ("Let Beijing More Wonderful, And Make The Olympics More Brilliant"), it's hard to remember what does indeed sound right. Sometimes it's hard to know what the original is trying to say: "The Integrally Sliding Construction Technology of Steel Construction: construct synchronously, and complete high-effectively."

So, that looks like it's going to be a good source of problem-solving entertainment. I've been known to walk into the living rooms of perfect strangers and start straightening their paintings; finally, a productive outlet for that impulse!

One of the chief pleasures of Beijing, as I experienced in my first trip here, is the opportunity for getting clothes tailor-made. Catherine and I have been frugal and systematic in our 6-month sartorial plot; the first stage of it is just now coming to a close. We found a tailoring shop that came highly recommended, and ordered a beautiful olive-green suit for me: a trim, Savile Row kind of thing, double-vented in back, with a classic look that will hopefully look good for several seasons.

When I was here in 01, I had three suits made, two of which I designed myself. My hope then was that, since they never were in style to begin with, they'd never go out. Unfortunately, what's invisible to us in one season becomes starkly visible the next, and now all three of them have a distinct turn-of-the-century look to them. Ach! Well, I'm keeping them around anyway.

We've also done some less monumental shopping: I got a pair of decent sneakers for all the walking and hiking we'll be doing, and Catherine has gotten a little load of socks. We'd vowed that we would only bring a bag apiece for the six-month trip, but as the date approached we gave in to reality and checked a bag apiece as well. Nonetheless, I think, we did an admirable job of not kitchen-sinking it. But that does mean that we'll be buying these little necessities for ourselves here. My guess is that we'll keep some of it, but unload most on some charity or other when it's time to go.

Also bought along the way: a couple of belts for me, a lovely silver pendant for Catherine, a dirt-cheap shirt and tie for me, a perfectly Catherine-ish pair of green shoes, hybrid sneaker-Mary-Janes in bright lime green, for Catherine.

I absolutely love doing all that shopping and haggling; Catherine has a hard time with it. The sellers here are extremely aggressive. As in the old days, nothing has a price tag. So you bargain for every single gosh darn thing you buy. Really, it's been fairly recently that things began having a set price — it happened with Marshall Field and Sears Roebuck — and of course you still have to haggle with car dealers. So, if you're one of those people who detest shopping, just remind yourself that you could be in the land where getting a new pair of shoes is like buying a car. Sheeeee!

We haven't done a lick of sightseeing. We keep telling ourselves that we should do it soon before the heat of summer and the onrush of tourists. Today, in fact, our utopian dream was to get to the Temple of Heaven. We decided to take care of business first, though. We'd set up an account with the Bank of China on our first day here, as a good way of taking care of our money, making ATMs usable (they don't often take Visa, even now), and getting what's left of a decent exchange rate as the dollar continues falling faintly through the universe.

Unfortunately, we got into a distracting conversation while wrapping up an ATM session the other day, and the machine timed out and ate our card. We're thankful for the safety feature, which prevents folks from just strolling up and taking a forgotten card, but still it's a hassle. The bank today took a full two hours, and we ended up just taking all the money out of our account and starting a new one, which is actually easier than getting a new card on the old account. Catherine passed the time by being delighted at the security guard's cattle-prod. Instead of a typical billyclub, he had an electric one. What on earth would he ever use it for? Could that come in handy if there were ever a bank robbery? Maybe if the bank robbers were pledges.

After that, we took a nice stroll through the Wangfujing area, a slightly overcommercialized district near the Forbidden City and Tienanmen Square. Then I wanted to find one of my favorite streets off the square, but either it isn't there or I'm not remembering correctly. At any rate, right around dinnertime we found ourselves in an area with lots of extant hutongs. So we ventured down one crowded, brightly lit, crooked alleyway, figuring that might be a great place to get some fantastic local thing or other.

Bingo! We found a suitable-looking place, sat down amid stares, and began trying to communicate with the waiter, using our several resources. By the time we were finished ordering, our table was surrounded by — count 'em — twelve people. Twelve people were just pressing all around us, observing as we tried and tried and tried to find out what it was we were ordering. We never did find out: we just hoped it wasn't entrails.

As we were waiting for the food, we noticed a table of old men near us, eating some delicious-looking flatbread, sort of like nan. We called the waiter over, I pointed to the word "bread" in the book, and he shook his head and started explaining something in fluent Chinese. There is no doubt that his Chinese is spectacular.

This sort of thing is of course common: it's just hard to conceptualize communication other than in your own language, even if you know the other person doesn't speak it. A few days ago, a street cop tried saying something to us, and, on our indication that we didn't understand a word of what he said, pointed to a sign. The sign was in Chinese.

Anyway, we did manage to indicate to the waiter that we wanted what the old men were having — a harder feat than it sounds like. He brought us some of it, and we were transported. Delicious, delicious stuff, very much like nan, the flatbread staple of Indian food. We were able to find out what it was called later (it translates to something like "springtime onion pancake") and so now we'll be able to ask if other places have it.

Then the rest of the meal came: delicious, delicious stuff! It was a pile of something like empanadas, stuffed with a concoction of spinach, chives, and garlic, perfectly spiced and piping hot. Man, oh, man. This meal definitely fell under the heading of Traveling Mercies.

I'd been decanting my beer from its giant bottle to a tiny drinking glass, as is the custom. When I realized that I wouldn't be able to finish it, I offered it to a couple of guys across from us. I didn't even try communicating verbally this time: a simple gesture was all that was needed. They reciprocated with an offer of whatever it was they were drinking, a clear spirit that seems to be the national drink of China. From the looks of it, it's called White Something. (I recognized the "white" as "bai," the character that is also my surname in Chinese, and which you see on this page.) May I suggest "White Lightning." It was awfully strong, but quite satisfying. In tasting it, and in persuading Catherine to taste it, perhaps more theatrically than strictly necessary seeing as she does speak my language, I was able to acquire a greater audience than we'd had previously. All were entertained, even us.

Just as our meal was coming to a delicious close, several police cycles came charging in, which set the whole street in a flurry; suddenly, the outdoor cookery at our place was whisked inside, and just as suddenly our own table was whisked as well. All up and down the street, people were talking and gesturing, and police lights were flashing. Hm. What to think?

We called Cathryn to see if she could talk to one of the drinking buddies and find out what was going on. As we were handing the phone over, the proprietor (who was also our waiter) intercepted it and spoke to Cathryn, telling her it was a routine neighborhood security thing. We then took advantage of our long-distance translator to communicate more eloquently our appreciation of the meal; the proprietor graciously accepted. Catherine then chatted with Cathryn while I asked the only other foreign-looking guy on the street what was really going on. He said, in a broad Australian accent, that it was a raid on unlicensed vendors: you can't sell stuff on the street without proper papers. So several of these places had been expanding their square footage by leaking out into the street. Charming, as far as we were concerned, but apparently not entirely legal. We actually saw cops breaking a prep table! What a display of force for such a misdemeanor!

The Australian guy had been in Beijing a few days, and was leaving tomorrow; he asked about us, and was flabbergasted when we told him about our six-month visas. How could it be? It's just not done! How? Where? I told him we just waltzed into the consulate in Houston and waltzed out; he just couldn't believe it. He said that only happens when you have friends in high places.

As it happens, we do.


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  S A T U R D A Y ,   A P R I L   2 6 ,   2 0 0 8 . 

We're here and loving China! Monday, we left San Antonio for Newark (at five in the evening, twelve hours after our usual departure times of late. Nice!); after an overnight stay in Newark, we left at noon (again, nice!) for China.

WEDNESDAY, APRIL 23: I'd been thinking that Newark was an awfully weird place to leave from, but of course these airlines have hubs that sometimes take them out of the way, and this is the first time we've flown Continental, so I chalked it up to that, figuring we'd take the same Great-Circle route I'd taken last time, through Seattle or something and up around Alaska and Bering Strait and so forth, right down to China. So imagine my surprise to see our flight path heading straight North.

Yep, friends, we flew right over the North Pole! The sheer poetry of the idea had me in the clouds. Of course, I was in the clouds anyway, literally, or at least over the clouds, which is why the view out the window was simply solid white-white. Of course, even without the cloud cover it would have been solid white-white-white.

Anyway, the North Pole!

The three of us — Catherine and I and Amber Best, one of Catherine's dearest friends, who has been triply and quadruply wonderful to us this trip! — hit the ground to immediately see a welcome sight: the friendly face of another of Catherine's dearest friends, Cathryn Fine Yang. I've mentioned Cathryn before. She's a linguist who has discovered some new cool stuff, and she visited us for a few days of our six-week honeymoon in northern Thailand, hopping over from where she lives and works in Khunming. That trip was closer than this one for her. Going from her place in southwest China to ours in the northeast is roughly like going from Acapulco to Toronto.

So the four of us taxied through the giant city to where our friends Brian and Cathy had agreed to host us for a bit. Here are Catherine's first impressions of Beijing, by way of her Facebook notes:

It is hard to describe the enormousness of this city. It is like being on another planet, or in the future. It has no comparison to anything I have ever experienced before.

The city is not just like ten San Antonios. That would be large. But it is large on another scale. For instance, let's just take the apartment complex we are staying in. How many people do you think a very large complex would house? Get a picture in your mind of a LARGE apartment complex. Do you have one pictured?

Now double that. Do you have that pictured in your mind?

You are not even close yet. There are 800,000 people in this complex. Eight hundred thousand!! There are three subway stops just for this complex. When we were driving on Wednesday in a Taxi I asked if we had finally reached downtown (when we had really just reached this apartment complex). The area was larger than any downtown I had ever seen. The buildings were huge and there were SO MANY of them. I didn't just feel small in comparison. I felt like I was in a movie about life in the future on another planet. Nothing here is on a human scale. And this is just where we are living at the moment. It is a very small part of Beijing.

Interesting! Maybe that's because our iconography of dystopian futures takes a huge page from 20th-century Russia and China: those huge huge avenues, flanked by huge huge buildings that house huge huge numbers of people. I remember seeing in Moscow a place where it would be possible to live your whole life — college, work, shopping, everything — without ever going outside. One of the many great ironies of these movements that do everything in the name of the People is that people are often dwarfed.

Brian and Cathy took us out to a delightful meal of traditional northern Chinese cuisine: plates and plates and bowls and bowls of delicious noodles, spiced green beans, and — ah! a flood of memories! — jiaozi. You pronounce that "jiowt-sa." Think of giant Chinese tortellini. They're addictively delicious in all of their variations. Wednesday night's jiaozi were mutton-and-carrot and chicken-and-cabbage, both spiced to perfection. I love those things. The whole meal was a perfect welcome to our new home.

THURSDAY, APRIL 24: Amber only stayed for one day (though we're awfully glad she did that, because she'd been considering just flying over! Madness!), and so we thought we'd get her a little taste of the city before she had to go. First, though, Brian took us to the local constabulary, where we had to register within twenty-four hours of arriving. Everyone has to do it. Catherine mentioned that this was required in Austria too: man, we sometimes just don't realize what freedom of movement we have till we go somewhere else!

We subwayed down to the center of town. Beijing is arrayed like a target on a chessboard. Very strict north-south lines, with concentric rings that go all the way from the giant Fifth Ring, a highway loop that once encircled the town (though I have to imagine the Sixth is on its way) in to the First Ring that once was the ancient city wall, to Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, the vast royal palace, all the way right down to a single house in the Forbidden City's center that once belonged to the emperor. We stopped at Snack Street to have something a bit more than a snack, and then strolled through the sunny spring morning, soaking up our first real day in the city. We passed through a delightful garden district, through the clutter of small shops and eateries that surround the Forbidden City, and then in through the East Gate and through a few of those concentric courtyards, marvelling at the scale and beauty of this ancient masterpiece of architecture and group psychology. Finally, we emerged from the South Gate onto the impossibly huge Tiananmen Square, where you can gather a million people: it's the largest public square in the world.

That's where we said goodbye (for now) to Amber, and sent her taxiing to the airport. We continued to walk around, exploring the city, enjoying the day, and trying in vain to get a taxibook. Taxibooks are the best invention in the history of all inventions. It's simply a spiral-bound flipbook with a card for every single place you'd ever want to go: restaurants, hotels, athletic clubs, parks, museums, concert halls, bars, dance clubs, everything. And each card has pictures, maps, descriptions, and detailed instructions in both English and Chinese. Invaluable! You just find the place you want to go, and show it to your taxi driver. I don't know how I'd have survived without it on my previous trip here; we've got to find one. But no one seems to know what we're talking about when we inquire. Ah, the irony! If only we had a spiral-bound flipbook that described all the maps and reference-books we might need! We could turn right to it.

After a day of walking all over the center of town, we searched and searched for the place I'd had a beautiful formal Chinese tea ceremony back in 01. I couldn't quite remember where it had been, so it was a bit trial-and-error. But we finally found it by the West Gate, and — NO! — it's been shut down for a couple of years now. What a loss. The place was beautiful, without any piped-in music or televisions or anything that might distract you from the ancient ceremonies that take place among century-old screens, live musicians performing on the Chinese zither, and beautiful sunken chambers where people reclined and relaxed and drank the delicious stuff that changed the world. Now it's gone. There was another similar one across the alley, but it wasn't quite as cool, and it was way overpriced. So we just went to the place next door where they served us pot after pot after pot of flower tea and a huge pile of buttery rice, all for about two bucks.

We took the nearly-hour-long journey back to Brian and Cathy's, where we thought we'd take a disco nap before getting out into the night to check out the jazz scene. Ha. I awoke at about 1am, noted that we probably wouldn't be going out, and then awoke again at about six, after a long nap that restored my aching feet and bones.

FRIDAY, APRIL 25: Friday was jazz day. I'd managed to find a bass player by the name of Billy Chan, who invited us over for lunch and a jam. He lives in a gorgeous, spacious apartment in one of the loveliest districts, up on about the 30th floor, with a splendid view of the city. And he has a seven-foot grand. And he served us some really good pizza. We discussed the jazz scene in Beijing, then played a few tunes for Catherine's and Cathryn's enjoyment.

Then the three of us checked out some of the places that might have jazz on nights and weekends, with very good fortune. I was especially delighted that there were so many real pianos around. What a pleasure, to be in a place where pianos are taken seriously, and where clubs and restaurants have them, and in good condition, too. This is going to be fun.

After a stupendous dinner at home, this time traditional Northwestern cuisine, we got spiffed up and went back downtown, where we hit a couple of jazz clubs: the CD Jazz Cafe, and Lan. CD was a delightful experience, with a good band fronted by a sax player. They mainly did straight-ahead, with some 70s-ish trips into funk-jazz. The funk-jazz stuff was slightly cheesy, but well-played; the straight-ahead was great. The piano player (who literally turned his back on a gorgeous grand piano to play on his electric keyboard: unforgivable!) was nonetheless a fine musician, with a laid-back swing and impeccable chops. Really nice to listen to.

I talked to the pianist over the break. He filled me in on the scene, and seemed to pretty much agree with Billy (our lunch friend) that there weren't all that many places in Beijing for jazz. But I'd done some poking around and had already discovered that Beijing is similar in a way to San Antonio, in that although there are only a couple of real, full-out jazz clubs for true believers, there are then many many places to go to get jazz, if only you know where they are. For instance, neither Dolores Del Rio nor Stefania's get mentioned in anyone's list of "jazz clubs" in SA, and yet each one has jazz seven nights a week, and, depending on when you go, you'll get some of the city's best players. I recently showed up for a gig at Stefania's and found out I was set up to play with trumpeter Adrian Ruiz, drummer Moses Olivo, and bassist Brandon Rivas: that's about as good as you can stumble into! So, it looks like things will be about like that here. I'm looking forward to hearing some satisfying musicians.

I'm certainly encouraged that, within a few days of hitting the ground, I'm finding a scene.

After CD Jazz, we visited one other place, where there was a band of younger players of uneven quality. Some were very obviously just getting into jazz, and others were really good and swung well. It's so interesting to see the generations and how their tastes so differ. I'll touch on that more later. Meanwhile, that's an update for you. We're having a wonderful time with friends old and new. Catherine is drinking in her time with Cathryn. They love each other so much, and are stranded on opposite sides of the globe. So these few days before Cathryn returns to Khunming are precious. Thanks for all your prayers. They seem to be working!


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  M O N D A Y ,   A P R I L   1 4 ,   2 0 0 8 . 

Catherine and I have received our Chinese names. We asked our friends Cathryn and Nicholas to come up with names for us that resembled "Barry" and "Catherine," but were viable Chinese names.

So, here they are. Bai Lei is my name. Bai serves as the last name, and it means "White." Lei means "Thunder." Very fitting for an American musician, yes? Catherine's name is Kai Lin, which translates to "Victorious Jade." She'll also take the Bai as her surname, so that she has a three-part name.

We're getting excited.


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  S U N D A Y ,   A P R I L   1 3 ,   2 0 0 8 . 

My brother Richard always seems to be in horrible places right when the world is paying attention. This is by design. He's the director of the Star Program, an outfit that deals with Baptist Children's Home Ministries and Children's Emergency Relief International.

Four years ago, while we were all reeling from news of a giant tsunami across the ocean, Rich was flying: he'd been called to go over there with his team of counselors and help with the psychological clean-up.

He's spent the past week a little bit north of here, dealing with a psychological tidal wave of a different kind. He and his team are counseling the 400ish kids from that compound, about which we're finding out more and more, none of it very good.

As soon as he gives me the go-ahead, I'll share what news he's allowed to share from ground zero.


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  W E D N E S D A Y ,   A P R I L   2 ,   2 0 0 8 . 

It's always fun to sit back and wait for the responses to come in from my annual dispatch of the things I did in the previous year. People I rarely stay in touch with write back and fill me in; people I see every day say "I had no idea!" about this or that; trends sometimes emerge in what people latch on to, what things stick out in readers' minds.

Harry Potter fans gushed about their experiences of the finale. Sacred Harp wonks wrote of their love for this rich art form.

But, overwhelmingly, the thing that people far and near most responded to was the situation at church, in which my unwise words were the beginning of a firestorm that never should have happened.

The large majority of responses were from people who didn't think that what I'd said was bad at all, but all of the responses commiserated with me at the news of people's reactions. People were disgusted, surprised, unsurprised, and all-around angry that, in need of serious correction as I was, serious correction was exactly what I didn't get.

I'd mentioned that to this day I still didn't know who these Mystery Complainers were; not one person who had been so vocal with everyone else had gotten in touch with me at any time in the year that's passed, not to mention before the blowup when it would have done some good (and when we're commanded to address our problems with each other.)

Well, that's changed. A good friend wrote to me the other day and confessed that he'd been one of the ones who had complained. He phrased it as a confession, and specifically asked for forgiveness.

What a hard thing to do! It really takes guts to own up to stuff like that with someone. But in doing so he enabled me to do something I've been prevented from doing for a year: I was able to ask him for forgiveness as well. If you haven't read my thoughts and conclusions about this situation, I invite you to, because I think I did a pretty good job of summarizing what's so wrong with how it happened (and so often does happen in families, offices, organizations, schools), and with what's so so so right about doing it the right way.

Can it be that we're entering a new chapter in this little corner of the world?


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  T H U R S D A Y ,   M A R C H   2 7 ,   2 0 0 8 . 

Ever heard of Patty Smith Hill? It's her birthday today.

She's one of the most performed composers of the twentieth century, though her most famous composition is a 19th-century piece, first published in conjunction with the Chicago World's Fair in 1893, when she was just twenty-five years old.

Interestingly, because of a strange copyright twist, the song will be protected till 2010; it still brings in two million dollars a year in royalties.

And it's a great day to perform the song in her honor (royalty-free if you sing it privately): "Happy Birthday To You."


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  W E D N E S D A Y ,   M A R C H   2 6 ,   2 0 0 8 . 

On Valentine's Day weekend, 1998, I sent to my friends an email titled "things i did in 97." It was a summary of my year, recollected in tranquillity.

Since then, I've done one every year, though recently it's been getting later and later than the Valentine's deadline. Next year, I'll have to get back on track.

Meanwhile, check out the things I did in 07.

(And most of you never got to see the things I did in 06, though I did write it.

So. What did you do?


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  S A T U R D A Y ,   M A R C H  2 2 ,   2 0 0 8 . 


1. Which two of the following now occupy large buildings on Baylor's campus?
a] The Center for Biblical Scholarship
b] The Performing and Visual Arts Center
c] The Humanities Center
d] The Discovery Center
e] The Success Center
2. Which article recently appeared in Baylor magazine?
a] Encouraging Students to Visualize Change
b] Impacting Students to Value Change
c] Engaging Students to Impact Change
d] Forcing Students to Engage Change
e] Visualizing Students to Force Change


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  W E D N E S D A Y ,   M A R C H   1 2 ,   2 0 0 8 . 

Wow! It's been a long time since I updated this. I've got to get on the stick.

I've been filling in at KPAC for the recently departed Kathy Couser, while they find a new person to do the afternoon hours. It's been a blast.

The other day, I invited the string bassist Douglas Balliett to come into the studio with his chamber group and play some music live for us. That's just not done often enough on radio! He agreed, and came in and played some really remarkable music. (Another thing that's not done often enough is string bass solos.)

One thing he played was a favorite of mine, the Homage to the Eternity of Jesus Christ from Olivier Messaien's "Quartet for the End of Time," which he wrote for musicians in a prison camp. It's simple and beautiful — and well-adapted here for string bass and piano. That's Vivienne Spy accompanying.

Take a listen.


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  F R I D A Y ,   F E B R U A R Y   1 ,   2 0 0 8 . 

I recently guest-hosted Texas Public Radio's Classical Spotlight. I've been a guest on it twice before as a composer, in connection with film scores I've written.

Anyway, I was playing some pieces that I've composed based on material from the Sacred Harp -- that hymnal, first published in 1844, that has been seminal in American life, and is enjoying a huge resurgence of popularity and interest these days.

I've always been interested in folk culture and how in every era, the music of the commonfolk refreshes the high culture and keeps it from stuffiness; in every era, the high culture ennobles the low by honoring its genius, bringing out unseen fineness the way that oil and stain and sandpaper and polish can bring out the deeply grained beauty of good wood.

Take a listen.


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  T U E S D A Y ,   J A N U A R Y   1 5 ,   2 0 0 8 . 

The fun thing about jazz musicians is that they're often so versatile. They can read charts like maniacs, often don't need much rehearsal, can transpose easily, can respond quickly to a good leader. Whenever I have the budget, I always hire jazz musicians, even if the music isn't strictly (or remotely) jazz.

The Jazz Protagonists are sometimes called on to do recording projects. We've been the backup band for pros like Maggie Worsdale, we've done one-shot projects for amateur vocalists who just want to record an album, we've done an award-winning children's album (Owen Duggan's An Elephant Never Forgets), a folk-rock-blues album for a Randy Newman-ish singer-songwriter, a contest entry for a talented young trumpeter.

And a while back we were the band for a countryish folk-rock singer named Jamie Blythe.

Check it out: The Girl Who Used To Be (That's Grammy-winning Bobby Flores on electric guitar, by the way.)



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  T H U R S D A Y ,   J A N U A R Y   3 ,   2 0 0 8 . 

I'm the worship leader for a church that does a traditional liturgy, but in a contemporary context. So they do the typical recited prayers, but they're on powerpoint, and the music is a blend of old traditional stuff and contemporary stuff, but all done in a contemporary style.

And the band is in the back.

Some of the prayers (like the Gloria and the Sanctus) are traditionally set to music; and often you switch settings from season to season. Most of the great composers have written settings to these classic texts, handed down for centuries, always breathing new life into the deathless Gospel.

So, for the first Sunday of the new year, I wrote a new Gloria for this Hill Country church.

Hear it - - See it


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  F R I D A Y ,   D E C E M B E R   2 1 ,   2 0 0 7 . 

From David Brooks' superb Times column:

The presidency is a bacterium. It finds the open wounds in the people who hold it.


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  S U N D A Y ,   D E C E M B E R   1 6 ,   2 0 0 7 . 

Few things are less comfortable
than a mountaintop;
few things are more comfortable
than a coffin.


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  T H U R S D A Y ,   D E C E M B E R   1 3 ,   2 0 0 7 . 

Some guys feel like penguins when they wear black tie and dinner jacket, but I've always enjoyed it. Maybe it's because I always pick out really nice comfortable ones. (My current one is great but it's getting a bit old. Hellooooo, China.)

The other day I played a tux gig, then hung the tux back up, on the end of the row of suits. That's where I usually have my navy-blue blazer. Yesterday I had a Protag gig at Luna; usually I wear suits for these, but last night I decided to go a bit casual, with the blazer and slacks. So, I grabbed it and put it on, and only several minutes later felt that silk lapel and realized I'd put on the wrong thing.

I said, "Hey!" Catherine wondered what was wrong. I said, "I thought I'd put on my blazer, but got my dinner jacket instead."

She couldn't stop laughing. I thought, hey, that's valid, that's not ridiculous. In retrospect, though, I now realize that was a fairly Thurston-Howell-the-Third-ish thing to say.


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  S A T U R D A Y ,   D E C E M B E R   8 ,   2 0 0 7 . 

Just got my face waxed last night.

Facial hair is a weird thing, no? Hair in general is weird. The other day I looked over at a friend, and it struck me that he would look particularly good in a powdered wig. When I said so, he was absolutely flummoxed, as well he should be, because that's an odd thing to say.

You can get a good history of hair in America by looking at all the Presidents in order. Powdered wigs from Washington through Madison. Then Monroe shows up with dark, slightly receding, slightly long hair, and that's that. The powdered wig probably started dying out long before 1817, but it was dead enough for a President not to have one by then.

And everyone's clean-shaven. Who's the first bearded President? Lincoln. The second? Ulysses S. Grant. Then, from there out, it's an unbroken line of beards, mustaches, and bushy faces till William McKinley took us into the twentieth century. TR and Taft immediately follow, both with walrus mustaches, but they're the last gasp. No president ever since has had any facial hair.


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  M O N D A Y ,   D E C E M B E R   3 ,   2 0 0 7 . 

Janet, the wife of the pastor of the church I play for on Sundays, mentioned to me that they'd lived in Montana for years. My mind leapt to a song I only think about once a decade. The first time I heard it was right when it had come out; the second was when I thought of it again and suggested that Duane Cottrell sing it; the third was just a few weeks ago.

It's a haunting and quite beautiful song, especially when liberated from its original orchestration, now dated. The next week I sang it as the offertory.

Montana Sky


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  S A T U R D A Y ,   N O V E M B E R   2 4 ,   2 0 0 7 . 

Well, forget it.

I switched host servers early in October, and still haven't figured out how to transfer my blog over, so I'd left off posting. But I've had so many complaints that I'm just going to post here and we'll figure everything out later.

Here's a song for you. I've been occasionally playing piano and singing at a new place called Stefania's (owned by Stefania of Dolores Del Rio fame). A while back — a month ago! — my parents came in with some friends and sat close.

I always try to tailor my set to who's listening, so I picked out some tunes they'd appreciate. (Later, my brother and his wife came in and we did a bossa version of the Bellamy Brothers' "Let Your Love Flow," which actually worked quite well. Gotta remember that one.) For whatever reason, I decided we should do "If Ever I Would Leave You," from Camelot. I don't remember Dad ever singing that. I know we have the soundtrack somewhere, but I didn't gravitate to it as much as to the Rodgers and Hammerstein stuff. For whatever reason, though, I always associate it with my parents, perhaps because the musical happened right when they got married, and perhaps because I think of their love affair as one for all seasons. So I called the tune, and we played it, rather loosely but with brio.

Catherine likes how I sing this song. She says my voice "shines" in it, and I can tell exactly which parts she's thinking of. Lerner and Loewe are mainly to be thanked here: they're the ones who used that wonderful secondary dominant to such good effect.

You may remember that a dominant chord is the five chord, or V chord in standard notation, that "dominates" because it leads so strongly to the one chord — the home base of any tonic song. Anyone who plays decent piano can show you easily how you can make any major chord into a secondary dominant by simply adding a dominant seven in there, and then going to a chord a fourth above. So, if you're in the key of Bb, the dominant seven chord is F7, but you could play a Bb7 and go to Eb, creating a momentary shift in the tonality.

That's exactly what L&L do in this song. It happens three times in the form: "your hair streaked with sunlight," "I've seen how you sparkle," and "Oh, no, not in springtime." Each time, the song revs up to a cadence, but it's not the real cadence at the end of the musical thought; it's like the semi-resolution at the end of a television episode, in that you know there's more coming. Lerner and Lowe make these cadences the highlights of the song by placing the highest peak of the melody right there. Nice place for it. It happens at the volta of each line, telling us why the singer can't leave his lover at the various times of year.

This is why it's good for a singer to know a bit of musical theory. When you're aware of what the composer is doing, you can milk those moments. So, when Catherine says I "shine" there, it's partially because I'm just giving the music what it asks for.

So here you have it, dedicated to Joe and Marjorie Brake. I'd figured I would post it on their anniversary date, but, you know, server trouble.

If Ever I Would Leave You


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  M O N D A Y ,   O C T O B E R   1 ,   2 0 0 7 . 

I wrote to a friend today who is a Catholic but works in a large evangelical Protestant church. Here's what I said:

I was just thinking about you, and about what it must be like for someone raised Catholic to experience something like your church.

I was actually thinking about church architecture, and how it mirrors our thoughts on worship: the great old Catholic churches have an altar front and center — a place for holy rituals and communion. But then the Protestant churches came along and replaced the altar with the pulpit — a place for preaching about the Word.

Wow, that's a really important shift, no? And that seems to sum it up completely. Protestants have tended to want to verbalize everything, and have gotten really good at talking about the faith and putting it into bullet points — and also downgrading everything that can't be put into bullet points. This is why Evangelical churches don't have a big satisfying Eucharist. (They're like the smart kid in school who's so good at math and spelling but then scoffs at all that other stuff like social skills and emotions.)

That got me to thinking about modern churches and how we've even gotten rid of the pulpit, replacing it with... the stage.

What does that say about us and what we think about worship? Not that either way is good or evil, but it can't be meaningless, right? I think the average person at your church would say that we're on a stage performing an act of worship for our Divine Audience, who looks on us with pride and joy and pleasure, whereas a hundred and fifty years ago an Evangelical person would hear that and be puzzled: who cares about us? Let's hear the Bible the Bible and only the Bible! Meanwhile, a Catholic would look at the whole thing and say, "Nice, but where's the sacred ritual, the sacrament, the communion with the Almighty?"

Hm. So my thought is that someone like you from a Catholic background might be energized by all the dynamic thoughts on spiritual things that you might not have gotten in the past, but at the same time feeling like the worship service isn't really real. And maybe frustrated that all these people who are constantly talking about the Eleven-and-a-half Principles of Success In Faith never get to the meat of the issue — our contact with inexpressible, deep mysteries of sin and sacrifice and redemption and eternity — stuff you can never really fit into any verbal form, and is maybe better expressed by rituals and symbols.

But that's just my guess. What are your thoughts?

And in the meantime, I suspect that in our computer lives we've all become Catholics. A generation ago, as Umberto Eco pointed out, you had the DOS Protestants with their emphasis on knowledge and entering verbal strings to get results, and the Mac Catholics with — literally — icons! — things that you have no understanding of but that you can interface with and embrace and enjoy and use. And the DOS people tended, just like Protestants and Evangelicals do, to think the Catholics aren't really real and don't really get it, with their images and pictures and eye-candy and the fact that they don't have to study to be a computer user. But now the battle is over, yes? Those Catholics with their computer version of stained-glass windows for the illiterate, will win every time!

This is also why the Catholic Church is so great at iconography. It's no coincidence at all that when the makers of The Matrix wanted Keanu Reeves to look bad to the bone, they dressed him as a Monsignior. (Also, has anybody's wife ever dressed up as a Lutheran schoolgirl? I think not.) Catholics have been manufacturing powerful images for centuries, precisely because of their theological thoughts on where meaning resides and how we get to it.

Anyway, back to the topic, have you ever run into a frustration or misunderstanding at your church, being a person used to the unspeakable mysteries of Catholicism, confronted with someone who expects you to verbalize stuff you may never have verbalized or may even consider impossible to?

His response was that he didn't grow up Catholic at all, but only is now to accommodate his wife and her family.

Ah well. Never mind.




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