Better Read Than Never: Livingston’s Gecko Tails

I’m still thinking about Cambodia. When there, when I wasn’t reading faces, or reading between the lines of the socio-economic polka of carefree tourists and often profoundly poor locals, or skimming for the wisdom in ancient piles of stone such as Angkor Wat, I read Carol Livingston’s 1997 memoir of Cambodia. Gecko Tails sounds like a children’s book; at first I thought it must be Livingston making punning reference to the stories she heard in a Phnom Penh ex-pat bar, the Gecko. But this benign little lizard, climbing walls wherever one travels in southeast Asia, has the ability to grow a new tail after sacrificing the old one to predators. This must be symbolic of Livingston’s hope for the country. (It’s still a weak title.) The book recounts her earlier tours of love and duty, and it’s pretty average¹, though the subject is strikingly unaverage: the latter days of the bitter Cambodian civil war. It’s nearly 20 years old now, but I still found it useful in fleshing out my dim and youthful impressions of killing fields and other by-products of the bloody Vietnam War. As an introduction to Cambodia that goes beyond beaches, cheap travel and temple tourism, it works well.      

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Better Read Than Never: “Rudy Kong” & Dragons, Donkeys, Dust

Faithful readers may have been expecting a different BRTN, the third part of the series of summaries I’m doing on John Ralston Saul’s The Unconscious Civilization. Today’s review is of a decidedly less weighty book, a borrowed one that I finished a while back and have to return to my friend Ladon, who lived parts of it. JRS will return soon.

Dragons, Donkeys and Dust: Memoirs from a decade in China

by Rudy Kong (Bing Long Books, 2010)

Teacher Conradi had a story to tell, actually ten years worth of them, the tales of a foreigner spending an unexpected decade in China. Not only China, by the way, but my very own neighbourhood, the modest and reputedly lovely small city of six million where I’ve spent a half decade of my own: Dalian, the number-two burg in Liaoning province. Conradi is a Canuck, too, and spent his time teaching in the Canadian-based high school that I at one point thought would be my professional home and visa-provider. He left town not long after we came, but he left behind a book and a few mutual friends. I’m glad to know him.

The first story of Dragons, Donkeys and Dust is told in Conradi’s pen name, Rudy Kong. Much as Chinese young people usually choose, often with startling or laughable results, an English version of their name, “RK” is the anglicized version of the Chinese name that this Canadian ex-patriate was given by local friends. Conradi begat Kong Ruidi begat Rudy Kong. (This strikes me as a mild and fairly sane version of an Internet game that has replaced the old “Telephone” fun of seeing how much a message changes with repeated re-telling — put a phrase into Google Translate, and watch what happens to it after sloshes through a few languages. My son loves this.) I’m guessing at how his pseudonym came about,

And away he goes! He spent ten years in China, and all he got was three kids, a million memories, one book (so far) and this cool portrait.

but Mr. Kong has dozens of tales, and he is an engaging and appealing story-teller. He’s a foreigner who genuinely lived in China. He wasn’t here to score a quick million, or view a changing China from the safety of his chauffeured SUV, or to cure his chronic bachelorhood with a compliant (or financially or geographically ambitious) local woman.

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Better Read Than Never: Hessler’s RIVERTOWN

“This isn’t a book about China,” claims author Peter Hessler about the first of his three books set far from his American upbringing. “It’s about a certain small part of China at a certain brief period in time.” And Rivertown: Two Years on the Yangtze is certainly that, though his disclaimer is among the first evidences of the clear-minded humility that is one of the book’s greatest recommendations. It is a first-person account of a young man’s two-year immersion in the life of western China, and it is many things: a wide-open window into a place and a time, a travelogue, a coming-of-age tale, and a teacher’s diary.

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Shinny Dreams, or: What Exactly is a Corvair?

One morning last week, I awoke as usual to the early morning sounds of Dalian, China: the loudspeakers outside the daycare playing random happy tunes (“We Wish You a Merry Christmas” is good to go at any time), the dook dook of high heels on concrete, the air horns of the endless dump trucks that move the remains of mountains to help build chic residential addresses where before there was only sea. I woke up, though, thinking about the Caledonia Corvairs.

It must have been the accidental browse through my down-home weekly newspaper’s on-line presence the previous day. The Corvairs are the Junior hockey club in that small southern Ontario town, and they are celebrating their fiftieth year. That was evidently more than enough to send me into a nostalgic spin.

In my childhood winters, Friday nights were the Corvairs for me.

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Words AND Music?

I woke up this morning with a full-colour version of an old and quite likely vain imagining playing in my head. (Playing with my head, it felt like.) It already has a title: How Long Will That Take In OldDog Years? First, though, it will be serially published, let’s say in Guitar Player magazine. Each month will chronicle some of the daily highs and lows, as well as account for this musical pilgrim’s progress in learning one of the standard riffs. We’ll start with the main rhythm from “Smoke on the Water”. And some month down the road? The Walsh solo from “Hotel California”. And one thing, anything, from Bruce Cockburn. “Foxglove”. Anything from Speechless. Yeah, in my dreams…

I want to learn how to play guitar. (There, I’ve said it. You’ve read it. “The temple is already built!”) That thought has been banging around in my brain for years, and it must terrify me. I’ve never taken even the remotest step towards it. It frightens me almost as much as writing does, except that when it comes to words I know lots of the basic repertoire. I just suffer from performance anxiety and bad habits. That, and a deep melancholia about the place of my scribbling in the parade. (As if place matters. Join the parade! Even if you’re the guy with the broom walking behind the elephants…) In any case, I’m trying to learn how to follow what Julia Cameron writes in The Artist’s Way: “Creativity is a spiritual practice….The stringent requirement of a sustained creative life is the humility to start again, to begin anew.” And the courage, Ms. Cameron. And the courage. “The beginner’s mind,” says the guru. “A culture of learning,” says the International Teaching Centre. So.

Humility and courage, the Right Stuff, remind me of one of my favourite Far Side cartoons. (And where is Gary Larsen now?) It informed me when I was making a second stab at marital sustainability, and it sits above my writing desk now. The cartoon shows a dog on a unicycle riding on a high-wire. In the spotlights’ glare, our wide-eyed pooch juggles four balls, keeps a hula hoop whirling, holding a jug on his head and a cat in his mouth. The caption: “High above the hushed crowd, Rex tried to remain focused. Still, he couldn’t shake one nagging thought: He was an old dog and this was a new trick.”

This writing trick is a hard one. A recent article in the Globe and Mail discussed the publishing trend that may have begun with Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence, and which continues apace with Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, among many others. It’s a diary. (I can write a diary!) It recounts, more or less, a substantial, natural and imaginable block of time. (I can imagine a year!) It’s become something of a publishing cliché, but it seems to have staying power. (I hope I have staying power, and I know I can do clichés!)

How Long Will That Take In OldDog Years? This crazy notion reminds me of that lead-balloon anti-joke about heeding an ambition. Self-Doubting Desire complains: Do you know how old I’ll be by the time I learn to play the guitar? The Voice of Pragmatic Encouragement answers: The same age you will be if you don’t. (Borrowed that one from Julia Cameron, too.) I like it. Such dedication to a long-delayed dream scares me. (Yeah, so?) Okay, how about A Year and Six Strings? Or maybe Because A Red Miata Seemed Too Obvious: My Mid-Life Quest for Guitar Glory. I am Title Guy. Now I just have to Do the Deed and Write the Rambling Memoir. (Cool.)