2014: A Howdy-Do Year in Review

Last January, I didn’t get my 2013 lookback, The Great Eighteen, up until the 20th, so if you don’t mind, I’m going to call this prompt. Efficient. Timely — at least for me! Reflection on accomplishments never comes at a bad time. (Does it? Of course, you ninny! Okay, but — Which doesn’t mean it’s always foolish to look backwards, either. Alright then, so maybe — Just get to it!)

I posted to 93 times last year, which is as productive as I’ve ever been, and that with December nearly ringing up a doughnut. (That’s jock-talk for nada. Zero. Hole in the JZone layer. Nuttin’, honey. I missed that bizarro perfection by one lonely post, so the rest of the year must’ve been excellent.) Starting with my self-conscious blurts in the middle of 2005, now has an archive of 637 posts. That seems like quite a few.

So, I consulted a panel of experts. What were the most meaningful, artistically satisfying and world-changing posts of 2014 on No. I didn’t. I trawled through 2014 and asked myself, “Okay, self, what do you still like and think others might, too?” Oh, I did take my readers into account, based on what got read most, or what found life elsewhere on the ‘Net, but mainly this is me Me ME. So here is a quick skate through some of the things I wrote here last year. It gives a reasonable portrait of what gave my head a shake in 2014. It’s a quick read, and you can click on anything that appeals. Here, then, are the

Fabulous Fifteen!

1. Sequel: The (Not Quite) Christmas (Late) Show* Must Go On (Jan. 2)                 (with Chinese Characteristics)

For the last three years in China, my wife and I taught in the School of International Business, a small college within our university in Dalian. Every December, there was a spangly student SHOW. Here, I reviewed this incredible, excessive, odd, passionate, obligatory celebration of something-or-other. Warning: this is only the second half of the extravaganza, and you may not be able to resist dipping back into December 2013 for the full jaw-dropping effect. It was amazing. (And only occasionally depressing.)

2. Lost in Cambodia  (February 5)

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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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Running, Pull-Ups and the Oneness of Humanity

I’ve never been able to endure even the idea of running on a treadmill, and only reluctantly do I join the walkers dutifully circling the track at local Chinese schools and universities. (My mind constantly runs in circles, so I don’t need cardiovascular reenactments.) Even plodding along familiar streets gets me restless, which partly explains why I love to run in new places. On a recent day in Suzhou, when my balky body had granted relatively enthusiastic permission for a run, I soured on what might have been a sweet outing, partly because my responsibilities as a friendly tourist nixed my locomotion. Walking (and stewing and brooding) burned a few calories, but I was glad to get out the next day.

We were, however, most favoured tourists. Our more-than-gracious hosts’ apartment  was across the street from Central Park, quiet and leafy in the modern section of Suzhou, so my live-in travel agent and I laced up and lumbered. Ponds and stone avenues, lawns and impromptu dancersize groups of Chinese women gave way to streetcore tourism as my bride signalled she’d had enough. I went straight down Broadway – actually, it was called Xinggang Lu, which means “Denim is my Destination”* — toward the Pants. More respectfully known as the Gate of the Orient, this huge dual tower looks like a pair of low-rise jeans on a hipless Chinese girl. Central Park punctuates, for a few blocks, Xinggang Lu as its traffic flows toward and away from the TrouserGate, and it was only partly for the sake of avoiding getting lost that I went Pants-ward. Impertinence aside, it’s enormous and visually quite compelling, and I didn’t resist its bowlegged charms.

* It most certainly does not mean that.

The boulevard made for pleasant city running.

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Suzhou 2: Trapping, Snapping, and Talking With the Dead

This is the second part of an account of a day in the “Venice of the East”, Suzhou. (Read the first here.) I left off at the point where we were getting off the tourist boat, with me thinking we were nearly done but with the worst to come. Toward the end (spoiler alert!), we take a slight detour between my ears. I hope it’s a pleasant place to visit, though you wouldn’t want to live there.

“There’s a silk museum? We’re going there now? I thought –“

It's scenic, and has lots of evident history, and I often liked the older part of Suzhou. Really!

It’s scenic, and has lots of evident history, and I often liked the older part of Suzhou. Really!

We disembarked and climbed up the banks, and there again were the street vendors, and buses lined up to enter through the same narrow gates that we were. (Did I mention that the aggressively employed air horns on Chinese trucks and buses make me vaguely homicidal? I don’t think I mentioned this.) The ultra-amplified guide brought up the rear, and now even I understand his message: kuai yi dianr. (“Hurry up!”) Even if my Chinese hadn’t been up to that minimal speed, I’d have understood. Move along, folks. There’s stuff to buy, commissions to be earned. That’s where bemusement began to turn to anger. The museum was chintzy, but could’ve been diverting, at least briefly; I don’t know much about how we get from tree worms to gorgeous outfits and bedding. However, the museum was a false front, and once the guide had hurried us into the duvets-to-go area, I’d had enough. I signalled my son toward the exit. He didn’t resist.

“Dad, why are we taking an escalator up to the exit? We came in on the main floor.” Right. I have a bad feeling about this. We got to the top. Oh, no.

Oh, yes. Silk shirts. Silk bedding. Silk pyjamas. Silk ties. Silk showrooms, one after the other after the one after the first.

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Suzhou 1: Tourist Trapped and Nearly Snapped

This post has been updated, mainly with photos. It is part one of two.

We went to see Suzhou, a small (only about six million humans) city in China’s Jiangsu province, a historic centre that bustles and builds ambitiously in the shadow of nearby Shanghai. I’m half a world away from my mother’s grave, so there was no visiting her on her birthday. At a certain point in the day, though, I took a moment to talk to her. It was much better than the dark muttering I’d been doing.

With a break in a busy schedule, we had come to the Venice of China — or, as one chamber of commerce-type banner had it, the “Fragrant Venus” — which has a reputation as, among other things, a city that helps ex-pats feel they’re getting away from China, just a little, you know what I’m saying, not that we always need this, but the place can wear on you, especially if, like me, a person’s prone to mentoring Chinese drivers from the side of the road, or thinking that over a decade of educational habit can be magically transformed by a semester of unconventional instruction from an idealistic white guy, so yes, “getaway” sounded good. (I get tired sometimes.) Travel Girl had made the plans, and Son the Fourth and I were relatively willing to be led to new pastures, or at least along different-coloured pavements. First impressions of Suzhou were pleasant, we arrived to the homely hospitality of a (young) old friend from Canada and his wife and even newer toddler, and what could go wrong?

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