Monthly Archives: July 2011

Wintry Introduction to China


After more than 24 hours of traveling by plane, I could not have guessed that the four-hour drive that would take me to my new Chinese home town would extend the trip by almost another 24 hours.

It might have helped if my supervisor had listened to the radio. But perhaps he’d been in China so long that any sense of logic had worn off. For not he nor his Chinese wife who calls him every 28 minutes considers consulting any public communications outlet to discover that all highway traffic would absolutely cease. And with each call she tells him about snow in a province far enough away that  he says it won’t effect our drive from Beijing to Huludao. Meanwhile, without a nagging wife around, he’s luxuriating in repeating a Guns N’ Roses cassette.

We’ve just left the ring of circles that define Beijing’s highway system. The highway is a vacuum of black, save the occasional headlights from cars in opposing lanes. We’re passing overloaded trucks that I come to see as Mt. Saint Helens on wheels. The closer we get to these behemoths, who are, if not pulled over by a cop, wheezing precariously along the slower lanes. I consciously feel myself inching to the left in the passenger seat, imagining their contents spilling out, tipping over what seem like Barbie-sized trucks, toppling their load and themselves over our Matchbox-sized car.

“What’s the deal with these trucks? What are they carrying?” I ask my supervisor, Neil. We pass another truck covered in tarp as effectively as a condom on a football. If it hits a large enough pebble, or if it’s forced to swerve for unruly drivers sharing the road, centrifugal force alone would knock it off course. It’d hurl in a sprawling disaster across multiple lanes.

‘The truck drivers know they’re gonna get pulled over. They come prepared with a wad of RMB to pay off the cops because they’ve got to spread this stuff around the country,’ Neil elucidates. He explains that when the trucks are pulled over they simply hand the cops a stack of cash and continue plowing down the highways. No one complains or tries to change it. ‘Chinese cops are corrupt are hell. I think part of the reason they become cops is for the extra earnings they make this way. This is a good job for them.’

‘So it’s of no concern that their weight severely damages all these newly paved highways, that they’re gonna have to repave them every other year?’

‘Nope. That just gives more people jobs. In a country of one and a half billion people, you gotta supply some kind of jobs, right?’

I think about this circuitous logic as we pass under a sign bearing a drunken smiley face with x’s for eyes and a tongue protruding from its mouth: Don’t Drive Drunk. I’m afraid to ask how often Neil’s seen drunken drivers this far into the hinterlands. I’m afraid to ask how the hell he could even tell if a driver’s drunk considering the Chinese already drive like drunken Dale Ernhardt Seniors. Like other stereotypes you finally understand with age, my mind drifts to understand the US stereotype that Chinese are horrific drivers.

The phone rings again.

‘I know it’s late. It took a while longer than I thought at Wal-Mart, but we’re making good time,’ Neil lies to his wife. What’s true is that we had gone to Wal-Mart. There isn’t one anywhere near Huludao, which, despite a population of one million, is considered a village to the Chinese. Neil had optimized his trip to Beijing to pick me up by visiting friends and buying towels and other sundries at a Beijing Wal-Mart. ‘Wal-Mart is considered good quality here. It’s actually better quality than you’re gonna get elsewhere, and they generally carry big towels, which is pretty hard for a guy like me to find.’

Of course in the US we like everything big, I think. Then it dawns on me that Neil’s a Sasquatch compared to the average Chinese man. At six foot and some 200 pounds it’s not like he can stop at a Bed Bath & Beyond on a whim and buy supersized luxury towels. Regarding quality of towels, I’ll get to that later. Suffice it for now to say that the same respect the Chinese have for their costly new highways— willfully beating them to a quick pulp— is the same care they have for everything else.

It hadn’t taken us long at Wal-Mart; he just didn’t want to admit to his wife that he’s not Magellan when it comes to navigating Beijing’s circular highway system. He also didn’t want to admit that he had a hard time deciphering which way to go when directed by signs in Chinese symbols, not pinyin or English.

The conversation shifts to writing. Sharing the bond of being writers we discuss writers we like.

‘Anything by Hemingway or Steinbeck. What about you? You said you like Graham Greene, right?’

I nod.

‘I’ve never read him. What’s he write ab−?’ Again he’s interrupted by a call from the little woman back home. Neil’s side of the conversation and the sing-song quality his voice takes on during each of his wife’s calls, indicate Brenda’s getting really worried. ‘No, honey. There’s no snow here. It’s perfectly clear. Cold as hell but it’s not snowing.’



Writing through a Tech Bubble


About 18 months before the recession was officially declared, I experienced a recurring, nagging feeling that the real estate bubble was about to burst. I was writing a column on residential development for a Florida newspaper then, with no end of material to cover. Looking around my neighborhood on one of my regular walks revealed a different story that no one was talking about: houses weren’t flipping in a matter of days anymore. Now it took weeks. Far be it from my column to call wolf.

I have that nagging feeling again. This time it’s about technology.

Why? Well, it isn’t just older generations that are finding it difficult to keep up with technology; it’s also people in their 20s. I’m in the middle of that gap. I used to consider myself on par with what average people know about technology. But you should have seen me convert my Blogger blog to WordPress! (Or maybe you shouldn’t have. The hours spent agonizing over the technical difficulties, pulling my hair out, crying, throwing things weren’t exactly pretty.) What professional bloggers and the writers and CEOs behind all the bloody plugins I use on my blog claim installation of various things will take only “three” minutes. I’ve learned that for me, which is more dedicated than a 50-something and more patient than the average layman because of the professional and financial implications of my blog, “three minutes” means I have to set aside at least 24 hours. Then again award-winning blogs are produced not by mere self-employed literary writers, but by people whose second degree is one in computer programming or by major companies who have dedicated staff for both social media efforts as well as overall technology.

On top of all that I have sat in on a few social media conferences to determine how best to publicize my writing and my blog. Each time lead to anxiety attacks because I wasn’t tweeting enough or optimizing LinkedIn or Facebook, or I wasn’t on this that or the other unheard of social media sites. In other words, these conference hosts financially gain by sending their participants home anxious as a liberal in a room full of Republicans. Before my heart exploded I had to implement certain psycho-therapeutic coping mechanisms. I took a few days off from the inefficient, ineffectual vacuous holes of social media Twitter. Once my head cleared, it occurred to me that it’s not about being on countless social media sites and trying the impossible tasks of keeping all of them updated minute-by-minute whilst simultaneously learning about what the tech geeks are working on and researching, writing, and selling my own work. I actually like social networking. But how plugged in do we really need to be before computers actually do take over the world? The amount of “absolutely necessary” sites and such has reached skyhigh. The flurry of technology drives people mad. Life is fast enough without social media and related technology driving us further into mental retardation.

The parallels between technology and real estate began to reveal themselves, I discovered while recovering from the tech industry’s attempt to brainwash me. I felt like Freder Fredersen in Metropolis. Google is now uselessly copying Facebook (simply for the sake of money); Facebook now has live steaming feed, which President Obama inaugurated; Twitter was a social media network at the center of the Iran upheaval two years ago. I shan’t continue for fear of perpetuating technology self-congratulations.

Frentic Need for Facebook "Likes"

It’s a simple law of nature: what goes up must come down. We’re made to feel wrong, even bad if we haven’t implemented the latest technological gadget. Is this post-WWII America in which everyone conforms to growing corporate powers’ brainwashing techniques?
Imagine how I felt when The Economist released this video.

Again, I’m not one for prognostications. I’d hate to wear egg on my face like Harold Camping. I’m merely discussing a pattern. When teachers and firefighters were speculating on real estate and the American public grew to think every person, regardless of financial stability, was entitled to a house, the bubble was already looming. When everyone and their ignorant neighbor is talking about a subject, the topic is already passe. When no one, save for an insomniac, caffeine-addled, asocial, tech-degreed geek can keep up with everything that’s out there. Sometimes, when sending yet another customer service request to WordPress, I just want to chalk it all and return to writing with a stubby cartoon pencil on extra-large ruled paper.

Nature decrees that the rush must cease until humanity can grasp it enough to steer it in a manner necessary for progress. What’s going on in technology today is no longer helpful. It’s redundant, superfluous, high-falutin. It’s as healthy as crack cocaine. No Warren Buffet or George Souros invests in this kind of market. Like the dot com crash of the 90s and the real estate bubble of the oughts, this bubble shows signs of strain.

Literary Fridays: Adolescence


She doesn’t want to be your cougar

She’s reached the time to be your cub

She’s climbed trees, spiraled mountains

There have been spelunking and flying

Singing and dying

And now it’s time to meet anew


She doesn’t want to conquer

She’s seen enough to acquiesce

She’s scratched, hissed out her ego

There have been deserts and rivers

Mountains and plateaus

And now in the balance is you


She doesn’t desire to growl

She’s rescinded her sharp nails

She’s content to watch her sisters

There have been overprotection and hunting

Fighting and licking

And now it’s time for grass, knolls.