Saturday, January 31, 2009

The Zen of Tea on the Road to Taiwan

A Story for the Ox New Year.
Travel to Taiwan for an American was still very exotic in the late 1980s, before the Internet, before the English language invaded Asia outside of Hong Kong, which was still under the British flag.

My BFF had been living in Taipei for 8 months when I went over to visit. She met me at the sparkling, modern Chiang Kai-shek airport with her boyfriend, who we will call Wachung, and his black town car. BFF herself got around town on a small Honda motorcycle, like most of the city dwellers. Unlike many of her fellow expat English instructors, BFF did not live in an American enclave, but in a “real” apartment, and so I quickly got swept up into Asian city life.

We buzzed around the city on the motorcycle—zipping over to the Chiang Kai Chek memorial, the Long Shaun (Dragon) temple, the Shrine of the Martyrs, with it’s impressive changing of the guard. At the National Palace Museum we partook of the sublime ritual of a proper Chinese tea service. The teahouse was renovated in 2007 into modern blandness, but in 1987 it was still a replica of the Three Treasures room at the Forbidden City in Beijing with a spectacular carved and painted ceiling, dotted with songbirds in bamboo cages. (A traditional tea service requires the presence of a songbird in a bamboo cage.)

Proper Chinese tea is a confluence of time, commitment, exquisite design, aroma, flavor, and textures: the cast iron kettle, the Yixing clay tea pot, porcelain cups and bowels, the linen of the tea towel, the bamboo of the songbird cages. It’s a tacit contract between the server and the served that presentation is essential, that every action is embued with artful thought. There is a fluid choreography to the motions of pouring and straining, steeping and drinking. It was a deeply memorable experience.

We spent New Year’s Eve at dinner at Wachung’s parents, who had gone out and bought knives and folks for everyone at the table. They thought that I might not be able to use chopsticks, and they did not want to single me out. It was extremely gracious though unnecessary. After dinner we went to watch the fireworks and then out to a club to go dancing, all to welcome in the Year of the Rabbit.

After giving me 3 days to adjust to my jet lag, BFF suggested the radical idea of taking the motorcycle on a 2 week trip literally around the country. Wachung didn’t like the idea. He did not speak much English, but he was quite clear with “M.A., you no go, you no go. You lady, lady no go.”

But what an opportunity. BFF and I were fans of the Hope/Crosby “Road” pictures, and here one was coming to life for us. We joked about needing to wait for the script from Paramount, but I had to stay on a schedule to get back to Wall Street on time. So without a script, and trading a camel for a motorcycle, we headed Southeast out of Taipei enroute to Hualien, a city of marble.

(top photo AngMoKio)

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

"Museums & Women" and Updike

“Set together, the two words are seen to be mutually transparent; the E’s, the M’s blend—the M’s framing and squaring the structure lend resonance and a curious formal weight to the M central in the creature, which it dominates like a dark core winged with flitting syllables. Both words hum. Both suggest radiance, antiquity, mystery, and duty.”

The talent of John Updike is so profound that it speaks to each of us in a highly personal way. I love two things about him: his critical voice, and his awe of women.

His literary criticism had effortless authority about it. He had no doubt about the duty of the critical voice to illuminate and elucidate the strengths and weaknesses of writing, from fiction to biography to poetry. I really was thrilled whenever I saw his name on the New Yorker contents page. He brought to the task that startling intellect, a frightening amount of sheer knowledge of things A to Z (from the old days, before the Internet!), and a sensitive understanding about the human condition, from religion to sex.

Much of his work ponders the mystery of women and sex. He is extremely conscious that it is all such a mystery. I love how he articulated the emotional life of his male characters-—I believe that he could express what many men feel but can’t explain.

He had an unflinching eye and passion for the whole spectrum of passion. His male characters are tormented, liberated, enthralled, baffled, jazzed by the drive of the life force that drives them into the arms of women---wives, girlfriends, mistresses---all in the shadow of their own mother’s arms. Ah, there’s the rub.

When this life force turns violent, we enter the ugly reality of rape, and that’s where Updike faced much criticism himself. Since he mostly wrote from the POV of men, there was much in this part of his writing and his stories to deplore.

But that was one small part of an admirable, impressive life’s work. I focus on the truth and tenderness of his stories instead:

“His wife was fair, with pale eyelashes and hair containing, when freshly shampooed, reddish lights. His mistress was as black-and-white as a drawing in ink: her breasts always shocked him with their electric silken pallor, and the contrast with the dark nipples and aureoles. In the summer, she tanned; his wife freckled. His wife had the more delicate mind, but his mistress, having suffered more, knew more that he didn’t know.”

From Solitaire

No candidate for husband of the year, but it’s exquisite, engaging writing of experience.

My whole life John Updike has been the man of letters. He was an important part of the fabric of “life making sense” for me. It is a sad day for the whole literary world, now that the “most self-consciously Protestant” writer, as Cynthia Ozick once deemed him, has returned to his God.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Gong Xi Fa Cai, 4707!

“People born in the Year of the Ox are stable, strong, dutiful, reliable, tenacious, practical, industrious, determined, honest, loyal, sincere, persevering, down to earth, and tolerant.”

We Oxen are entering our new 12-year cycle of the lunar year today. Based on the list of our characteristics, we don’t come across as the life of the party, do we. I know that I was born serious-—I was a serious child and have struggled my whole life to experience some moments of light-heartedness. Well, the ruling lunar power over me explains it. (Thank God the artistic streak of being a Libra tempers the rigors of the Ox for me.)

I’m in good company. Napoleon, Bach, Dvorak, Charlie Chaplin, Richard Gere, Meryl Streep, George Clooney, Princess Di, and yes, Barack Obama are all Oxen.

The Year of the Ox begins Jan. 26, 2009, and ends Feb. 13, 2010. The Ox is the second of 12 animals of the Chinese lunar calendar. According to a legend, a race across a river determined their order in the cycle. The rat crossed by riding on the back of the ox, jumping ahead at the last minute to win the race, and so he leads the pack: Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Ram, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, and Boar.

The lunar new year is observed primarily by people of Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, Tibetan, and Mongolian heritage around the world. It’s a 15-day celebration that starts with cleaning out the home to sweep away all the bad and evil spirits from the last year before welcoming in the new.

The U.S. Postal Service recognizes the celebration with a stamp. Kam Mark, a Chinese American artist, designed this year’s and put a Lion Dance forefront with the Ox image in the corner.

“I chose the lion dance because it is an important tradition that dates to the Han Dynasty in welcoming the new year. As a child growing up, the lion dance was always and still is the most anticipated event for me. I always have a preference for the green and black lion created in the style of the Fut San region of southern China.” Kam Mark.

In Chinese tradition, your lunar year is not necessarily a good time for you. You have to be very careful in your year-—prosperity and happiness are more likely to come to you during the year of your compatible animals. For me, that’s Rat, Rooster, Snake, and Rabbit.

And that’s why it was so very special that when I was 26 I was in Tawian and Hong Kong for New Year’s for the Year of the Rabbit with my BFF. She was teaching English as a second language in Taipei, and I was working on Wall Street, where my year-end bonus gave me the means to visit her. After 3 days in the capital, we took a motorcycle trip around the entire country. That story to come during the Oxen new year festivities.

Friday, January 23, 2009

A Winter's Frothy Burn

USA’s Burn Notice is an oasis of hot bodies and smart talk in Miami in the dead of this cold and difficult winter.

Michael Weston is a spy who has been fired from “the agency” (whichever it is). It’s more than losing a job: someone issued a burn notice on him, which means he has no identity, no past, no bank account, no social security number, nothing. Well, not nothing. He is lucky to have a “trigger happy ex girlfriend” Fiona and “and an old friend who used to inform on him to the FBI,” Sam.

Michael is Jack Bauer’s more ethical, sexier, and wittier cousin. The allure of both men is how skilled they are. In a world where so much doesn’t work the way it should, Michael shines because he can assess a situation, devise a plan, and make it work. That’s a fantasy in itself. He’s not perfect, and that makes his proficiency even more appealing.

The plots are entertaining. The family interactions were the weakest element of last season: Sharon Gless as his mother repeated herself too much, as did brother Nate. We’ll see if they are better written this year.

The feelings that Michael and Fiona have for one another are so obvious that their decision that they can’t be together seems a little silly. In the season premiere Fi playing army men with 6-year-old Jack was funny and charming: true to her gun-informed character, she explains the ordnance each figure is carrying, and suggests they get one of the guys “more tactical support” as Jack’s eyes get wider and wider in wonderment. Michael is equally taken with her, if he would just admit it.

Between the cold weather and the daily depressing news, it’s easy to feel down this part of the year. But Michael and cohorts are a fantasy tonic in Armani and size 2 dresses, with a dash of Sam’s Hawaiian shirts, all shaken and stirred. "Smooth is smooth, baby."

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Give Me That Old-Time Separation

I thought Barack Obama’s speech was very good. I like his intellect. I like that his words don’t sound like beads on a string but are clear conveyors of actual thought. I thought the whole inauguration ceremony was moving and inspiring.

Except for the Rev. Rick Warren. I find Evangelicals as annoying as the next person (well, except other Evangelicals). Here he crossed a line that I don’t ever want crossed by reciting “The Lord’s Prayer” in his overly long invocation.

I understand that he had small quotes from Judaism and a reference to Allah in “the compassionate and merciful one.” And I respect that he himself is a Christian, and Barack Obama is a Christian, and so most of his prayer is going to be Christian.

But as a practicing Catholic, I have to say that “The Lord’s Prayer” is too deeply sacred, too special to be invoked at a GOVERNMENT EXERCISE. It is the only specific prayer that Jesus left. Jesus whose kingdom is outside of the government structure, who said specifically, “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s.”

Christians bring Jesus into their workplace every day in how they act and how the treat people. That’s the testament. Not the recitation of the prayer of prayers for Christians in a GOVERNMENT ceremony, where God’s presence is acknowledged from the swearing in on a Bible to the great benediction from the Reverend Lowery, which are just barely reasonable. It’s the “Our Father” that really crossed the line for me.

After watching much of the day’s coverage, I went to the 5:30 Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. I am happy to say there was not a single mention of the inauguration. The homily had to do with the day’s readings, the prayers of the faithful listed the ill of the parish, and we said “The Lord’s Prayer,” because we were worshipping in communion with each other, not transferring the power of the presidency from one man to another.

Knowing who and where you are is important. The Founding Fathers knew this, and so created the brilliance of the separation of church and state. It's a separation that is crucial to the very fabric of this country and it holds us together as Americans.

(photo Doug Mills, The New York Times)

My Country 'Tis of Thee . . .

I pledge allegiance to the flag
Of the United States of America.
And to the Republic for which it stands,
One nation under God, indivisible,
With liberty and justice for all.

Reciting the pledge of allegiance-—my small way of participating in this historic day.

As a born citizen of this country, I am never asked to avow my allegiance to the state, much less to act upon it. This passivity to my support of the nation is, ironically, one of the thousands of freedoms I enjoy under its protection. The only thing the republic asks of me is to pay taxes, and as far as the Rousseau Social Contract goes, that’s reasonable to me (although many of the specifics of it borders on the criminal).

On this historic day, I find my thoughts drifting to the idea of this nation---the audacious democracy the framers of the Constitution envisioned and codified-—as a counterbalance to the overload of attention to the man Barack Obama.

Of course I hope he will lead the country into an era that allows for prosperity for the broadest reaches of our society, while clarifying our role as peacekeepers or policemen of the world. But ideally, he will be a conduit for the ideas of the Constitution, not an end into himself. We know that he is a talented politician—it’s how he got this far. And all politicians must expend some energy consolidating and keeping their power. But as Tom Watson has articulated, we don’t need or want a Princess Di president.

We want a leader for the ages, one who will connect “the better angels of our nature” with the most important call to action of the 20th century for a better life for all: “Let freedom ring. And when this happens, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children—black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics—will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: "Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!"

Thursday, January 15, 2009

The Miracle in the Hudson in Prose

I missed seeing the rescue unfold live since I was in meetings all day. Instead I read about it in the multiple articles in the NYTimes. I actually prefer to read accounts of news like this than to see it. Good prose has a precision and vitality that I connect to on a deeper emotion level than video footage.

From Robert D. McFadden:

“What might have been a catastrophe in New York — one that evoked the feel if not the scale of the Sept. 11 attack — was averted by a pilot’s quick thinking and deft maneuvers, and by the nearness of rescue boats, a combination that witnesses and officials called miraculous.”

From Matthew Wald:

“Airliners are not meant to glide, although occasionally they have to. The pilot of this one, Capt. Chesley B. Sullenberger III, is certified as a glider pilot, according to Federal Aviation Administration records.”

How amazing is that, that this pilot was a glider pilot.

From Michael Wilson and Al Baker

“Another witness, Fulmer Duckworth, saw the crash from his office at the Bank of America. He looked through binoculars and saw 70 or 80 people on a wing. “Actually, it looked like everybody was really calm, like on the subway platform when it’s really, really crowded and everyone’s standing shoulder to shoulder,” he said.”

From McFadden:

“When all were out, the pilot walked up and down the aisle twice to make sure the plane was empty, officials said.”

That sense of duty and responsibility made me tear up. We have lived through eight years of men not caring enough to take responsibility for the lives of soldiers or for the financial lives of us all. But here was one capable, talented man making sure that not one single life is lost on his watch. I think we have all forgotten that such honor does still exist.

“In the unlikely event of a water landing . . . “ will take on a whole new meaning the next time I get on a plane. I can't count that airline passengers will get to walk on water a second time.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Fiery Thoughts from the Deep Freeze

New York is in a snap of Arctic weather, that cold air that comes down from Canada every once in a while to wake up we island dwellers a bit.

The subway home was more crowded than usual tonight, as usual walkers came in from the cold. It looked like a strange fat farm, or a scene from a Weebles Town, with everyone rotundly bundled in gortex and wool.

As I surveyed the variety of hats on heads, my eye caught a quote in the subway ad space above the hats:

“One may have a blazing hearth in one's soul and yet no one ever came to sit by it.” Vincent Van Gogh

The blazing hearth in the coldness of isolation. Fire and ice.

Ah, the famous 1952 Revlon campaign by Avedon for their line of matching red lipstick and nail polish.

The firey colors of Van Gogh’s own painting. The heat within the bleakness of his own madness.

The cold gives me a sense of suspension, of anticipation. There’s a sharp cleanness to the air, as though it is separating the future-—which begins on Tuesday---from our difficult recent past. Much of the reality of that past will of course cross over into our future, but the world will be different when Barack Obama assumes power in the bleakness of January.

And now for the poetic view of "Fire and Ice" from an inauguration poet:

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I've tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

Robert Frost

Friday, January 9, 2009

Before the Big Doings in D.C., Springfield Takes Center Stage

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — The Illinois House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly to impeach Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich on Friday, setting the stage for a trial in the State Senate, where lawmakers will have the difficult task of separating the political theatrics of the governor’s problems from the legal issues.

Mr. Blagojevich, a Democrat, is the first governor in Illinois history to be impeached.

The New York Times

My trip to Illinois included three days in Springfield, the state capital. And that is how I have my very own photos of the august capitol, and how it came to pass that I was on a tour of the building, just as Governor Blago was in Chicago, announcing Burris as his choice for the open Obama Senate seat (Dec. 30).

We stopped by an office on one of the floors, and the guide made a point of saying that this the “actual working office” of the governor. We were allowed to take pictures of the anteoffice, and there is a portrait of good old Honest Abe next to a statuette of Elvis, which the guide made a point to say is an important possession of the governor.

Under the watchful eye of the great Lincon, the ego is the Las Vegas Elvis, with all the undertones of the delusions of kingship. That pretty much sums up the Blago. New Yorkers can’t really throw stones at governors these days—the era of Mario Cuomo being long over. But, woah.

Blago ended yesterday's press conference with Tennyson's Idyls of the King:

"Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield"

That's the same way that Fraiser Crane ended his last radio show. This is one pop culture kind of leader.

Springfield is a company town; almost everyone works for the state government. My Illinois friends say that Blagojevich is NEVER THERE—-he won’t live in the executive mansion, but lives in Chicago instead. He announces everything from Chicago. What an insult to his own state government staff.

The general observation has been that Obama has distanced himself from Blago for years now. That’s good. The whole “tainting” issue, in terms of Burris, would apply to Obama too, though less drastically so.

But that shouldn't worry the president-elect, for Stanley Fish brings intellectual smoke and mirrors to the rescue. Citing no less than St. Augustine, Hobbes, and the tradition of the monarchy, Fish reasons that the workings of the body politic are in a dimension beyond anyone’s particular body:

The (perhaps paradoxical) truth is that while governing has or should have a moral purpose — to safeguard and advance the health and prosperity of the polity — it is not a moral practice. That is, one engages in it not by applying moral principles but by applying legal principles. Senator Reid and his colleagues in the Democratic party seem finally to have figured that out, which is why, in the absence of any more bombshell revelations, Roland Burris will be seated as the junior senator from Illinois.

Of course, many don't agree with this perspective:

That a marriage be valid though the clerk be immoral is in no way analogous to the Blago-Burris situation. . . . Blagojevich stands accused of bleeping attempting to sell the office to which he has appointed Burris, and he has been caught on tape saying as much. Burris knew this (and evidently spoke out against Blago shortly after the governor’s arrest). When he accepted a Senate seat that Blago had been marketing, Burris himself acquired the taint. There is a direct relationship between the alleged crime (selling the seat) and the appointment. As Reid said before Burris/Rush/Blago played the race card and Obama muscled him to reverse himself, any Blago appointee would be tainted.

There is a spirited discussion following Prof. Fish’s essay, which makes for interesting reading during a snowy weekend. But soon we’ve all got to get beyond these distractions and pay full attention to the new president and his plans for leading this country.

Travel tip: If you go to Springfield, I highly recommend that State House Inn. It has been beautifully renovated to late 1960s grooviness.

Monday, January 5, 2009

First time in the "city of big shoulders"

I have struck a city - a real city - and they call it Chicago. . . . I urgently desire never to see it again. It is inhabited by savages.
Rudyard Kipling, 1891

Chicago is unique. It is the only completely corrupt city in America.

Charles Merriam, unsuccessful mayoral candidate in 1911

I think that's how Chicago got started. A bunch of people in New York said, "Gee, I'm enjoying the crime and the poverty, but it just isn't cold enough. Let's go west."
Richard Jeni

Allusions to the stock yards; the deep ethical issues; and the extreme weather: a tidy summation of America’s second city.

Being a daughter of America’s first city, I never gave Chicago a second thought. But all eyes have turned to the city on the lake as Obama pulls much of his administration from its players, and a fortuitous holiday meetup among friends brought me to Illinois for the first time.

In preparation I read Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City, a nonfiction book about the Columbia Expedition of 1892, a World’s Fair honoring Columbus discovering America. It juxtaposes the artistic and business success of the fair with the killings of one of America’s first serial killers. It also depicted the rivalry at the time between New York and Chicago. Chicago was consciously trying to prove to the world it was not just a city of butchers.

The stock yards closed over thirty years ago, and the city has long proven its artistic soul, particularly in art/architecture, theater, and comedy/improv. I only had three days in the city, but I was impressed. It’s a great place. My Segway tour was canceled due to floods that ensued when the 60 degree days hit the ice from the 6 below days (did I mention the extreme weather?), but I saw quite a bit.

Art for All

One of the great characteristics of the city is outdoor art, truly inspiring, beautifying outdoor art, from the Picasso sculpture in Daley Square to Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate, called The Bean by Chicagoans to the Crown Fountain in Millennium Park. This art is modern in the best sense, interesting and engaging.

The pieces sit so comfortably and thoughtfully amid the skyscraper landscape, effortlessly humanizing the cold stone and glass buildings. This art has a substantial presence in the city—given the harshness of the weather, this artistic warmth may be crucial to the well-being of Chicagoans. New York has no permanent equivalents, and I think it is the poorer for it.

Paging Steppenwolf

A big thrill of the visit was going to the renown Steppenwolf Theatre to see two plays by Colin McPherson. (The esteemed Terry Teachout had half of the same idea.) I saw The Seafarer in New York last March with a different cast. The Steppenwolf production featured John Mahoney, Fraiser’s familiar Martin Crane. Seeing him sitting in a ratty chair with cane wasn’t much of a stretch on the surface, but he found the soul of the blind, alcoholic brother in a good performance. I confess that I preferred the Irishmen of the New York cast, including the compelling Jim Norton and the devilish Ciaran Hinds. But the Chicago production was tight with its own sensibility.

The second play was Dublin Carol, featuring William Petersen, yes, of CSI. My television world was coming to life before me—that’s how magical Chicago is. Petersen is from Evanston, Illinois, and he cofounded the Remains Theater Ensemble in Chicago. This McPherson play is one act on Christmas Eve, where John, who runs a funeral home, confronts the ghosts of his life. It was in the smaller, upstairs space at Steppenwolf, which was perfect for the scale of the 3-person play. Petersen’s performance was reserved, perhaps too reserved, but he has true stage presence that commanded attention.

These holiday performances were sold-out both nights I attended, a cultural hearth for warmth to dispel the cold, dreary weather.

Chicago seems a big city instead of merely a large place.
A. J. Liebling, first to designate Chicago "The Second City," 1949

Saturday, January 3, 2009

It’s Happy New Year, with Good Cause, Really

The words that ring down the curtain on the holiday season are clanging a little hollow this year wherever I turn. I returned home from the Land of Lincoln-—where Blagojevich’s actions are reaching surreal proportions--to be greeted with the New Yorker’s cheeky affront to the spirit of the new year with its “Everything Must Go” cover.

Mercifully in a Christmas Eve sentence from James Wolcott I find the perspective that I want to embrace: “And yet I listen to the Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, and Jack Benny Christmas specials on Sirius Radio Classics, broadcast and taped during the daunting depths of WWII, and the tone of those shows is unbombastically upbeat, confident, and determined, a cool reprimand to gloom-mongering and self-pity prevailing today.”

Huzzah for “the cool reprimand” wherever we can find it today. Striving to be “unbombastically upbeat, confident, and determined” is a great New Year’s resolution.

I know one guy who naturally achieves these adjectives: Tom Watson. He is launching a new business, CauseWired Communications, as the economy swirls the drain while he continues to infuse newcritics with his enthusiasm for cultural conversation. (Tom’s year-end roundup of newcritics writing is a particularly rich post.)

With eyes wide open, we’ll take it as it comes. We’ll be witnessing history with a capital “H” on Jan. 20, 2009, which by happenstance ushers in the bicentennial year of Abraham Lincoln, born Feb. 12, 1809. I learned many things on my Christmas vacation in Springfield, Illinois, including a renewed appreciation for what Lincoln achieved during the chaos of the Civil War. He’s a “cool reprimand” to look up to as well. More about that later.