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Writing and Doom

That day’s Sinking Feeling Epiphany:

Every day is September.

(Can I still do this?)

The day after Labour Day — in Canada, it’s the first Monday of September — always loomed anxiously. For most of my adult life, it meant being back in a high school classroom, the Return of the Creature. From about the last week of August, the Creature Dreams would begin their annual limited engagement. (It’s an auspicious day, great things to teach or coach, but I can’t find my classroom/the gym, materials are a bizarro mess, and wait didn’t I have clothes on before? and this place looks vaguely familiar but why’s the ceiling getting so low and holy-cow-my-feet-are-stuck-in-what.) Teaching and coaching were performance arts, and so there was performance anxiety, more than 20 years of it, but mainly confined to the first Tuesday morning of the school year. I always got an adrenalizing dose of can I still do this? but I was unfailingly reassured about five minutes into period one: yeah, ‘course you can. You’re built for this. I am Creature. Hear me creach!

Maybe I’m just tired and lonely in this writing thing. In June, we were not only packing, finishing our teaching jobs, and preparing to leave China and our Chinese friends after five years, but I’d accepted a writing deadline: June 30.¹

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But you know, I’m gonna miss this place. Huge.

And I will miss our Chinese friends even more. Jet-lag smacks me pretty hard, but it’s already starting to ease a little. (I can face my keyboard with only minimal dread.) The general disorientation of farewells, uprooting and re-entry into a previous context will soon fade; the cleaning and painting and purging of our house will be over in a few weeks.  I believe and hope that I haven’t left China forever, and that I’ll see some of our friends again, but I know that for too many I’ve said my last goodbye. That’s how it happens, though I’m not much good at accepting it.

I’ll write more about it. I imagine a four-part goodbye: to the teaching work at two Dalian universities, to the new legs that China gave to my long-dormant basketball playing, to the wonders and remarkabilities of that tremendous country that is so suddenly front and centre to the world’s future, and to our sharing of the Baha’i vision with new and lasting friends. (I want you to hold me to this promise.) For now, for recently, I’ve only posted a couple of things.

In “At First Glance”, just below in this main section, you’ll find a piece I could have titled “Fear and Loathing on Huangpu Lu”. I probably was more than a few centimetres from death, but I stared at that speeding car from way too close and from the seat of my slightly soiled pants.

In the “It’s All About Sports” section, there’s this retrospective on the stunningly high level of basketball played by the San Antonio Spurs in winning the NBA championship. We still don’t get it, and with LeBron having dominated the North American sports headlines even after losing, even during the World Cup, my essay isn’t going to change anything. I tried, anyway.

“On Second Thought”, the place where I put ideas I’ve pondered and worried over longer, was just the spot for an older piece, one that didn’t find publication back in 2007 but still tells a story of faith and commitment that you might find touching. (It still touches me, but pain isn’t everything.)

And, it being World Cup season, with Germany and Argentina itching for a fight — but without violent or military intentions — a few days ago I quoted a fine American writer, Brian Phillips, who mused about what the Cup does that no other human activity can match. That’s in the “He Said/She Said” section.

Please note also that the so free and easy to SUBSCRIBE it’s almost sinful button is still just over there, top right.

JH [dot] com is on Twitter @JamesHowdenIII. It keeps followers up-to-date with what’s happening here, plus the usual Twitter smorgasboard of observations, pass-alongs and faves, and of course you’re welcome. 

Thanks for looking in. If you’re new here, read on to find out more about “Sport, Culture and Other Obsessions” that I’ve been writing about

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China Road: Rage Against the Machine*

This is part two of “Crossing the Street in China”. The less-violently-so-but-still emotional part one, on going out of the Way by bringing “poker” into a Chinese college classroom, was here.

In one week, we fly from Dalian to Beijing to Toronto to Ottawa. We’ll be “home”. Our China sojourn, five years young, ends in seven days. I’ll be posting about that, too. I hate goodbyes, and we’ve already had dozens of ‘em, but I won’t miss the kind of experience I recount below.

 

* AltTitle: Fear and Loathing on Huangpu Lu

It’s another T.I.C. story. My wife and I mutter TIC (“this is China”) with resignation, a shrug, usually with grace and occasionally with genuine wonder. (It’s an amazing place. So much to see and learn. But.) Perhaps my most emotionally rich TIC moment happened last week, too, if by “emotion” you mean volcanic but helpless rage.

A Good Guy, defined: someone who goes out of his way for someone else. My son regularly goes out of his way, though not for the sake of being a gentleman, to avoid crossing the main street near our home. Huangpu Lu is six lanes wide, with a bus stop on either side, and the car-heavy side street that comes from our large apartment complex enters it on an oblique angle. There is no stoplight. There is a painted zebra-stripe crossing, which means nothing in China. (Not quite true. It means that drivers speed up as they approach it so pedestrians won’t try anything stupid, like trying to cross ahead of their Audis.) My son doesn’t need to cross there as a rule, and refuses to. Last year, he saw what he’s convinced were three dead bodies at that crossing, one a mown-down pedestrian, two in a car wreck with blood staining the road for several metres.

I cross Huangpu Lu at this spot every day that I go to school.

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Crossing the Street in China: Poker.

I have two “This is China” stories for you, and one lame joke. Here’s the first story of me going just a little out of my way, and the bizarrely typical consequences. It’s about playing cards.

Story. I like this definition of a gentleman: a man who will go out of his way for others. I try to meet it. (I’m not exactly acing the course, but if it’s a pass/fail, I think I might get the credit. Fingers crossed.) I often don’t, though. The little English corner¹ I started at my college a month ago is a test case: I don’t contractually have to do it, it’s a useful service to my students, but it also allows me to continue seeing some of my fave freshman students, kids that I’ve been working with in Oral English class since last fall. I like them and they like me. It’s not exactly sacrificial for me to be with them, but it’s time I don’t need to spend.

¹ I’d never heard of EC until just before we set out for Dalian, China in 2009. Chinese people gather to hear and practise speaking English. It’s a sweet, earnest custom. Foreigners are valued and surrounded, and for us, it can be an ego intoxicant. Practically, what it often means is that the Chinese are off the speaking hook, and mostly listen or ask the questions everybody already knows. “What country are you from?” “Do you like China?”

This week, a few newbies came, too, as soon as their morning class was over. Some finished off hasty lunches. We learned “Over the Rainbow”, did a getting-to-know-you walk ’n’ talk, and then the young vets taught the new kids how to play Whist. I’m not really a big card-player, but my bridge-loving mother taught us bid whist as a lead-up game when we were kids. (I almost remember the rules.) Most important, here, is that there’s so much good English vocabulary and idiom: trump, following suit, deal, bidding, tricks, reneging, lead, shuffling the deck, diamonds (they’re called ‘squares’ in Chinese, while clubs are known as ‘flowers’), and keeping your cards close to the vest/chest. I wish I’d started sooner, as the students love it and I just laugh and cajole and play Language Cop and threaten dire, non-existant consequences if they lapse into Mandarin.

A senior administrator poked her head in. She’s the Party Secretary for our college;

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JHdotCOM News Update: More Milestones

I’ve been working on other projects — one big writing thingy, plus end of term school stuff and especially all the material and emotional wrangles of saying farewell to our home and friends in Dalian and across China, after five furiously lively years — and giving this site whatever tired attention I can. I did, however, find an older piece that never found a publication to call home. It comes from 2007, and it was fun and a bit frustrating to re-visit. It’s in the “On Second Thought” section.

Sometimes, as with a piece I’ll post this week, the adrenaline pretty much forced me to write something. My recent post in It’s All About Sports! also insisted on being written, as the San Antonio Spurs are such a remarkable example of teamwork and old- and new-fashioned virtues (passing! team first! unity in diversity! multi-lingual huddles!) in a sporting climate that seems to really appreciate narcissism and branding. (Shudder.)

Whew! Anyway, just about two weeks left in the China Adventure, so many good-byes. We had another one today, a hard one with a young woman who became like a sister to my wife and me, and was a most loving auntie for our son. Sigh.

The electronic footprint of this collection continues to reach heights that keep me plugging hopefully. (NOTE: correct use of “hopefully”. I still believe!) I’ve been posting my writing on this web log for nearly eight years, but JH version 2.0 has been up and running only since September of 2012. This week, another pair of notable numbers:

  • We hit 11,000 page views, and should hit the monthly thousand again by June’s end. This is viral in my world. It’s growth without ecological consequences.
  • A quote from the writer David Roth (and my comments about it) appeared in the He Said/She Said section, and this comparatively short piece was my 600th post. I’m also raising my game, productivity-wise, as No. 500 was less than a year ago. Howdy Duty!

Thanks, readers. Please note that the so free and easy to SUBSCRIBE it’s almost sinful button is still just over there, top right.

JH [dot] com is on Twitter @JamesHowdenIII.

It keeps followers up-to-date with what’s happening here, and I often pass along wee nuggets of my own or re-tweet bits I’ve found funny, consoling or important (and sometimes all three). There’s still a bit more room on that bus, too. 

Thanks for looking in. If you’re new here, read on to find out more about “Sport, Culture and Other Obsessions” that I’ve been writing about

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Better Read Than Never: Albom’s TUESDAYS WITH MORRIE

Reviewed, in the usual not-even-trying-to-be-timely way:

Tuesdays With Morrie: An Old Man, A Young Man, and Life’s Greatest Lesson by Mitch Albom

Morrie Schwartz was good medicine, and he still is.

I was late hearing the news about the killing spree at the University of California at Santa Barbara, blessed in part by our cultural distance in China, to some degree by immersion in another project, and otherwise by finishing my re-read, on a recent Tuesday, of Mitch Albom’s 1997 publishing phenomenon. There aren’t many better prophylactics against the infections of toxic dismay, rampant disillusion and untargeted anger than this slender, absorbing memoir.

Adjusting the adjustor, guiding the guide.

Adjusting the adjustor, guiding the guide. Morrie’s study, and an especially famous hibiscus plant.

I’d been pretty quick, for a chronically tardy retro-reader, in getting to Tuesdays With Morrie the first time around. I was a high school teacher and basketball coach back then, and even best-sellerdom couldn’t discourage me from picking up a book with a subtitle like that.

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Men and Guns and Murdered Sleep

UPDATE: A shorter version of this piece, with a somewhat different focus and some extra authority, also appears at the Baha’i Teachings website.

I can’t help myself. I have to say something about Santa Barbara, but what to say that others haven’t about a young “man” – oh, how that word is mutating like attention-deficit cancer cells – who so pathetically, so enragingly, so outrageously, so pitiably, so hatefully, so sadly and so narcissistically wore all his grievances on his electronic sleeve. Then he found, what – not courage, for God’s sake – enough petulance-gone-mad, enough entitlement-gone-toxic, enough Internet-chutzpah-gone-fatally-virulent, to spew the tantrums of a deeply spoiled child with the sick can-do of an adult, and with the cold metal of “equalizers” that would never require him to face his victims as an equal. God help the innocent. God help us all to sleep, and to keep finding hope and goodness.

The numbers are hard to gather, let alone fathom. Just in the USA, some dedicated carnage-counters in the gun-addled States (the on-line magazine Slate, for one) throw out statistics that mainly seem to numb us. “35,000 gun deaths since Sandy Hook”. “A mass shooting every five days.” “90 American gun deaths per day.” And so on. More than half of these are suicides without the murder, it appears, since guns are the American way to take arms against a sea of troubles / And by opposing end them… So yes, Hamlet, there’s that, but at a certain level of super-hero self-hatred, offing yourself just isn’t cinematic enough anymore.

But there’s more.

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Temple of Heaven: Grounds for Optimism, Part 2

 This is Part Two of “Grounds for Optimism”, in which our fearless scribe goes to Chinese gardens, walking and running and thinking about things and then writing about them to dazzling effect. Part the First, on the “Humble Administrator’s Garden” in Suzhou, did its dazzling right here.

The Temple. Little bits of heaven surround it.

The Temple. Little bits of heaven surround it.

A few days later, in Beijing, I loosened my purse-strings again. Though I’d stayed, on a couple of prior visits, in a hotel near the Tiantandongmen station of the capital’s a-maze-ing subway system, I’d balked at the high walls and what had seemed like the rapacious price for a wander around the Temple of Heaven. (Tian Tan. Dongmen means the “eastern door” of this Ming and Qing dynasties-era complex of imperial gardens and temples.) On my second-last day in Beijing, I decided it might be worth running inside those walls, instead of on the chaotic surrounding streets. I had my usual sinking feeling at the entryway crowds, but the lines weren’t actually that long, and I found out that an entrance ticket – no access to the temple interiors, fine by me – was only 15 yuan. (You’re not paying $2.50 to go jogging, goofball. You’re running through Chinese history and culture for the price of a McChicken! Give your head a shake.)

The Tian Tan grounds are enormous, and yes, I got lost. I’d thought to run the perimeter and then see what I’d like to explore further, but after 35 wide-eyed minutes I wasn’t any particular where, as far as I could see. Well, I thought, I must be back near the East Gate by now, but I wasn’t. It didn’t matter. Even without entering The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests – the “most famous temple in the world”, this under-educated Westerner was surprised to discover – or the Beamless Fasting Palace where Emperors purified themselves for weeks before their invocations of heaven, or viewing the Circular Mound Altar of sacrifice, I knew I’d be back for another tour the next day. Quite apart from the legends and the antiquity, there’s so much China in there, the parts just behind the walls of heavy traffic, the veils of pollution, and the look-how-modern-we-are! forests of shiny skyscrapers.

I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised, but it’s a People Place. (People’s

Rocks to me. Even after I read, I didn't get the significance.

The Seven were just funky-shaped rocks to me. Even after reading, I didn’t get the significance.

Republic. Go figure.) There are tonnes of tourists, absolutely, but what this one liked was the locals who also paid no attention to The Divine Storehouse and the Seven-Star Stones. Folks pay, I found out from a spry old dude with careful and sufficient English, 100 yuan for a year’s pass. They come, singly and in groups, for exercise, community, art, serenity and the most amicable kinds of noise. I walked and ran and watched and listened, and for a time I just lay on a bench looking at the sky through the branches of old cypress trees. Here’s what I saw:

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Gardens Green and Grounds for Optimism (Part One)

UPDATE: Author is reminded how to work his wife’s electronic mystery machine; photographs are added.

On a recent escape from Dalian – where lie wage-earning, grocery-getting and stale routine – my little nucleus explored choice cuts of Suzhou and Beijing. I dwelt on some of the unpleasant things of life in the Venice of the Orient here and here, but there was a great deal to like, especially when we were free to wander in parts of the old city less infested with tourist buses.

Photo opping the photo op: a view from Pingjiang Street.

Photo opping the photo op: a view from Pingjiang Street.

My bride and I strolled narrow Pingjiang Lu, and sure, it was meant for tourists, but it wasn’t garish, and it wasn’t wide enough for cars (let alone buses), and there were genuinely pleasant sights: bits of canal-watching, a pottery shop stocked with original pieces, Jiangsu street foods we hadn’t sampled before, and frequent tableaus of young Chinese women dressed in, I guessed, early 20th-century costume in the Chinese bride’s eternal quest — well, eternal for the last few years, anyway — for the perfect pre-marital backdrop. (I first thought the young women in sundresses and parasols lounging by the canal for a smoke, which is rather risqué and newly fashionable in China, might be “working girls”, but they were likely just waiting to turn a photographic trick.)

We’d heard about the “Humble Administrator’s Garden”, purported to be a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and had walked near it on the slightly nightmarish previous day.

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Another Oldie-But-Goodie Flics Its Bic

I was raised in a two-smoker household, but now I find the whole habit puzzling, fascinating, telling. I live in China, so it’s a new — no, it’s a whole old ballgame, one of many ways in which China is very 1960s despite the high-rise towers and the accessorized smart-phones. There is great social pressure on men to smoke, and restaurants have the bluey-grey atmosphere of my childhood. Women, meanwhile, rarely do, but it’s becoming fashionable for the young and superchic women in places like Beijing’s Sanlitun neighbourhood. In this, maybe it’s more like the ’40s, when my mother’s “girls” in the secretarial pool were ecstatic when she lit up in front of them: “You’ve started!

Smoking is a bizarre convention. It’s weird in so many ways. I’m much too highly evolved to engage in such a destructive and wasteful habit — I prefer potato chips — but as smoking became an awkward and shunnable offence over the past couple of North American decades, I started to notice that puffers had some advantages I didn’t, and some wisdom I could’ve used. I just posted an article to this effect from 2005, one of a bunch that never saw the light of publishing day. It’s in the On Second Thought section. Also, the so free and easy to subscribe it’s almost sinful button is just over there on the right.

Where do I start? you may be wondering if you’re new to JamesHowden.com . One way is to look at Eighteen Great Posts from 2013. You can see the list here, with delectable links if you want to go read them (again).

JH.com is on Twitter @JamesHowdenIII. Thanks for looking in. If you’re new here, read on to find out more of what JH.com is all about

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