Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Hollow Skyline

I've always wondered what the earth would like to do with the skyscraper thickets we build--if it had its way. Today's mega-flora of glass and steel begs the question, 'Where are the mega-fauna to go with?'

We've consumed the earth's surface with a lunatic building spree. Nature has not quite caught up yet. The pigeons, rats, cockroaches, and doppelgangers have already moved in. They aren't picky sorts, willing to pick through scraps and garbage heaps to make the best of things. The coyotes and hawks are moving in, though. We built this jungle with the idea that we, humans, would be its apex predator. King of the concrete hill. Perhaps that was true, and will be true for a while longer. The arrival of zombie dogs in our habitat should perhaps be viewed as a harbinger of things to come, however. (Do a google search of the term if the link doesn't work for you and you don't believe me.) We may not remain at the top of the pyramid much longer.

Rogue biologists may soon seek to re-inject biodiversity into our cities. If they don't do it, the earth itself has a few evolutionary tricks up its sleeves. And I do look forward to it.

I look forward to the days when Parking-spotted beasts wait patiently on the macadam to devour the unwary Intrepid, when feral sidewalk gnomes harvest the flesh of muggers, and a variety of flying beasties hunt snatch the occasional CEO from his penthouse balcony. I think of balances restored, and humanity returned to its natural place as just one of many diverse dangerous creatures to walk the earth.

The Loss and Redemption of Seeing

I close my eyes to see, and taking my seeing slow. My little homage to the poet Roethke, but seriously though... I woke up yesterday and realized that I had let my habit of seeing go.

Why should this be? After so many years as a curious person and an artist, so long unafraid to stare back, bare eyeball-to-eyeball at others to see their secret selves. Even when I didn't find the courage or convenience to talk, I observed and noted the details, the pinpricks where devils dance. But now, I find that I have been flinching back from my most immediate environment in a helpless effort to inure myself to it, and thus I have been closing my eyes, shielding them and losing what might have been noticed otherwise. I have surrendered myself to interior pursuits and analysis, rather than careful observation of the facts beneath my nose. Perhaps that's one reason why I feel less compunction about writing my findings down in the blog these days. I'm adding thoughts and analysis to the observations I've already made about China, I'm unsure if I've covered a particular observation or analysis too many times before, and my eyes have become jaded so that they offer less fresh perspective on what they are seeing. I also grow tired of extending my attentions outwards from this frail fleshly redoubt, because I am more vulnerable when I do that.

China, in this way, works like a ceaselessly pounding wave on the shore, a tireless hammer for the nail that stubbornly sticks up from the smoothness of the wood. I think I know much more about the power of conformity than I ever did in America--because in America there is at least some cachet to being non-conformist. Here, it just makes you even more of an oddity worthy of being a caged zoo exhibit. Certainly foreigners often get treated in this sense, like pandas in a cage: sometimes to be petted with intrepid fingers as the little girl gets her picture taken with a cute creature, and other times to be pelted with unwanted food and shouts. As an artist I want to capture and communicate the beauty and humanity in Chinese society; as a human, I just want to build a Great Wall around me to protect me from the alien masses and shouted 'halloos' that sound more like taunts. There is a constant burden inherent in the lifestyle I have chosen, and unconsciously I have bowed beneath the weight, I have coped. The blame is not with the gormless masses who have few true entertainments in their bitter lives, but with the incremental changes that their stares have wrought in me. I have allowed this.

When I pull out my sketchbook, it is like a drawbridge let down for the horde to cross, for crowds to gather around--blocking my sunlight, my line of sight to the subject matter, and disrupting my concentration. Most importantly, that almost telekinetic connection between the subject, mediated by the eyes and communicated through fingers, wood, and graphite to the page... is burnt away like a skim of frost on a pond that is seconds away from being nuked. This is frustrating, and one eventually learns that it rarely pays to let the naked eye extend itself beyond its protective lid; much the opposite, I end up shuffling too and from the safety of my apartment and job with sense and self withdrawn deep inside.

To become invisible, one must also become sightless. A blind worm in the tunnels of the mad might escape the notice of the moles, with their bright teeth and long, sharp claws. In fact, I'm sure I don't really escape notice, not really; but when I can pretend that I am blending in, as I walk quickly past the catcalls with unhearing ears, and sighless eyes, then I can move quickly to the more comfortable interior worlds of internet or reading or writing.

On a more hopeful note, the seeing... well, I'm trying to encourage good habits to return. Yesterday: I walk down through a quiet neighborhood where the old men play Chinese-style chess with large round chits that look like the wooden joints used in Tinker Toys. A verdant park begins where the street ends, and I continue on in. The old city wall of Nanjing paces me to my left, an offshoot canal from the Changjiang (Yangtze) on my right. There are few people in the park with me, not the crowds I'm always used to seeing in China. A jogger. Some old ladies chatting together. An older gentleman rollerskates in swoops and spirals around a stone plaza, playing 'Auld Lang Syne' quite well on his violin. He gives me a most conspiratorial smile. Probably one of those rehabilitated intellectual types. The sun strikes the pitted stones of the city wall, and saplings (sassafras or sycamore) burst forth from crannies between the bricks. One section of the wall has been lowered (or just not rebuilt) so that an avenue can bridge it.

Behind the wall, more park. A mock rocket ship, and a not-so-mock gunship and MIG fighter jet are placed in the park for kids to gawk at and play on. A group of college students stands on the grass in a circle with hiking gear in a pile beside them. I climb up the hill, through the weeds, and then onto the wall itself. I'm hoping to walk back up the wall, and hopefully find a path on the other end of it that can let me down to the street so that I don't have to double back several times in order to go home. The wall, however, ends at a precipice from which I can see my apartment building rearing up about a mile away.

I look down the side of the wall. No good, no safe ways to climb down the wall, although if I had ever practiced climbing it would probably be a piece of cake. There are shacks and muddy paths down there where migrant workers are illegally squatting. I climb down a path through the woods behind the wall. Where does it go? An tiny orchard. A nanosized farm with a bevy of black chickens that scuttle away from me. The farm is squeezed between the woods, a blank cement wall, and a sheer drop down to the running track of a highschool. The school kids are out running and I expect them to see me (so strange to find a laowai pop out of nowhere on the ledge above our running track!) but none of them do. Some things are so strange and unexpected that we just don't notice them at all. Especially when we've been accustomed to the value of not seeing.

Friday, November 7, 2008

News Flash: Batman Fought in Turkiye

I knew this, of course. When I was in Ankara for my study abroad, we picked out the oddly named city in Eastern Turkiye... Batman. In Turkish pronunciation, the city is actually called something like 'Buttmun'. One of a few oil-producing locations in Turkiye, apparently the resulting boom hasn't done very well for it. High crime (Gotham, anyone?) and virgin suicides there have led the mayor to try and pick fights far outside his territory in an effort to distract his constituents from dismal prospects at home. Apparently his plan is to sue the director, a Mr. Nolan, of the latest Batman movie. He claims that the beloved superhero is a copyright infringement on the name of the centuries old city. Nevermind that the current name of 'Batman' is actually just a shortening of an older, longer name.

His main complaint regarding DC Comics ownership of copyright for the Batman name is that Turks originating from the city are not allowed to name their businesses using the name of their home town. Example: a Turkish restauranteer in the German city of Wesel had named two restaurants after his home town (Batman Bar and Shish Kebap Grill, perhaps?) and was visited by employees of the production company for the new Batman movies and told he must change the name of his restaurants.

Hmm... sounds like a job for Joker.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The Consensus

Wow. What can there be to say about this election now that our president-elect, Barack Obama, has not already said? The struggle to bring our hopes to fruition, the need for humility from victors, the need for consensus solutions to common problems, can--after eight long years of nothing good this way coming--at last begin. That's my synopsis.

But you know, as amazing as this historic election was--and Jesse Jackson was not the only one with misty eyes as Obama made his victory speech--there was something else I learned last night that struck me even more, really dumbfounded me with gratitude and awe.

Matt, my friend from college days of yore, a longtime moderate conservative and Republican who voted for Bush in 2004, admitted to me that he had voted for Obama this time around, and two other college friends I had always considered moderate-to-moderate conservative had done so as well. He wanted me to know that Obama had support among young Republicans.

Mein Gott!

Now, I knew that for some time my friend had been becoming more and more centrist. I think living amid the natural beauty of Washington state helped him to realize an interest in the preservation of America's natural wonders. But I also recalled (and in the post somewhere below) that we had liked both McCain and Obama, some years past. I had figured he'd support McCain as the bipartisan change-maker from the side of the political aisle he felt more comfortable with. Boy was I wrong, and for a number of reasons.

The first reason is that even moderate Republicans and conservatives had become displeased with Bush's imperial presidency, expansion of government, and excessive kowtowing to business lobbies. Matt was not a happy camper, last we had spoken about Bush some two years ago, because of Bush's habit of adding his own opinions onto the ending of legislation crossing his desk--a clear attempt to unilaterally alter legislation he didn't like, and break the checks and balances our forefather's had intended to safeguard our democracy from would-be Caesars. No, despite having voted for Bush in 2004, there were clearly some second thoughts appearing in thoughtful voters' minds by late 2005, including that of my friend.

The second reason was entirely McCain's own fault. Despite beginning the election (notably the primaries) as a solid maverick, independent spirit, and bipartisan consensus maker, he betrayed his own principles in a huge way during the general election by moving to abjectly appease the rightwing conservative fringe that had never approved of him. Conservative culture warriors who still didn't really like him gave McCain the nod, and we all got to see something that not even the communist Vietnamese had managed: a once proud veteran, broken.

This choice defied strategic common sense (move right/left in primaries, move to the center for the general election), not boding well for McCain's performance under pressure. Many have noted that he really didn't seem to be himself for the past four or five months, and only seemed to wake up again when it came time to deliver his concession speech. Picking a pitbull for wannabe VP was just the last straw, and things went worse from there.

Perhaps my friend was concerned that the ill-mannered *cough* female dog *cough* would chew up the linens in the Lincoln bedroom or shit all over the Oval Office rug. Or perhaps it was just the internal illogic of choosing a particularly divisive VP ("pro-American parts of America") when McCain was claiming he would bring a new bipartisan spirit in his leadership. This was the last straw, and my formerly Republican friend donated money to the Obama campaign the very next week after McCain made his VP pick.

Lastly, McCain really didn't stand too much chance with a candidate like Obama. For young people such as ourselves, Obama knows how to speak as one of us--a smart and confident, but also very approachable, very accessible guy. For African Americans, minorities, and even many in the white plurality, Obama also represents a reconciliation of our greatest humanitarian tragedy. He doesn't stand, like other activists have, with an accusatory finger; he stands with self-confidence and offers his partnership with all Americans on equal and respectful terms. Unlike Kerry or Bush, he's not a blue blood. I think the conservative pundits didn't quite understand that making 'liberal elite' labels stick would not be so easy when it came to a guy who worked his way up the ladder like any other hard-working American, and spoke clear, logical English.

In any case, I really think the most important component of the election was not the Democratic return to power, but the mandate for bi-partisan progress that is the basis for such enthusiasm from people who wouldn't have been receptive to it if we were all running around like beheaded chickens in the imposed "culture wars".

I'd like to finish with some of my friend's own words on Obama: "Obama stayed himself. It means a lot to me. Obama always spoke clearly to me, like a normal guy. He stood by his morals, and you know what he stands for. It's the little stuff. People who don't watch as closely don't see it. He's the real deal. The next great president.

I have never liked a candidate more. He is the first person in my lifetime that has moved me big time, as a major public figure."

So there you have it. Matt has spelled out one of the essential reasons I have supported Obama's campaign since the primaries, even against all that the Clintons stood for. Because it is important that our president be capable of inspiring all Americans, not just half of them. I believe Barack Obama will do just that.

Happy Voting! Don't let the Zombies bite!

I will be watching anxiously from China, probably hopping from website to website in attempt to find live streaming coverage of the election that isn't either blocked by (A) the Chinese censors or (B) my lack of desire to install exotic web media players (damn you CNN!).

You know, for me, this both is and isn't a life or death election. Unlike Bush, who probably will not be topped any time soon as worst president in American history, McCain I never particularly had a problem with. Once, some years ago, a moderate Republican friend of mine and I made a pact in which we would support McCain and Obama over more divisive partisan figures. In the event of McCain vs. Obama, we would feel free to support our own party's bipartisan consensus-maker.

The agreement wasn't really set in stone; it was more like something to think about. We were trying to imagine an America beyond the culture wars which have so visibly torn the country's sense of unity asunder. And in those days I felt some fondness for any Republican willing to buck the more hardline elements in his party on issues such as immigration, global warming, and campaign finance. That isn't an easy stance to take, by any means when you have such imperialistic bedfellows.

Unfortunately, McCain (the real one) disappeared sometime after the primaries finished this year. Replaced--or perhaps lobotomized--with a clone who blandly repeated the hardline Republican line, and gave up all or most of his once brave stands. If elected, McCain would not (as is so often repeated) be the oldest first term president, but rather the first undead president to ever be elected. I say this because for all intents and purposes, the real McCain who used to fight the good fight (or more importantly, not fight--when compromise and consensus could be reached) is dead and gone, already food for the voracious attack worms the Republican party keeps on hand for dealing with would-be mavericks.

And all this even before the dreaded Palin VP pick. So many pundits and people ask, 'What was McCain thinking?' And I would respond that he clearly wasn't thinking, and probably wasn't capable of thinking, because zombies do not think.

*Whew* I'm glad I got that off my chest.

In any case, I will surely mourn the death of the once-maverick, McCain. The Republicans could use more of that sort. But this is not a time for mourning, I suspect and hope. This is not a dawn of the dead, so to speak. If predictions hold true, I think I will wake up tomorrow morning to good news and a golden, hopeful dawn for America.

And there really are no excuses for not voting. I spent $20 mailing in my absentee ballot to Michigan, and those stateside can accomplish the same thing for free. Happy voting!

Monday, November 3, 2008

Lessons from Horror

Oh, a sad little blog this is these days. My thoughts I mostly save and spill out for the edification of my college students... and the blog gets less than full attention. Well, once again I will renew my onslaught on the myriad worms that eat away at each day, and find time to spill here. Where the ground is as stony as a man's heart.

This last month was my own personal version of fright month with my students. We watch a film in class at the end of every week, and this October had four Fridays (not including the first Friday of the month, because that fell during a national Chinese holiday) including the last: All Hallows Eve. I'm a firm believer that the horror genre is overlooked for its insight into human minds, hearts, and morals. Fitting with one of the tasks I assigned to my students (find the 'moral of the story'), horror stories are perhaps the most moralistic of all stories, beginning with the sort of frightening yarns woven by mothers and fathers throughout time in order to get their children to behave: 'You stop that right now, or the boogieman, with his threadbare eyes and unzipped mouth, will find you... and gobble you up!'.

For good measure, I began with a film that scared my students (and myself) shitless: Dead Silence. A long dead witch-like woman who tears out the tongues on those who scream and turns them into ventriloquist dolls... yeah, this one stayed in some nightmares for some time after. The film also, since it made such an impression, provided my class with some common ground, as if we had all faced this supernatural threat together: the subject of Mary Shaw continues to crop up in all sorts of conversations we have in class. One girl told me that after watching this film, she saw everyone around her--in class, in line at the restaurants, in the dorms--as a human doll, carved up and hollowed out... manipulated by hidden strings.

The next week I ratcheted down the tension with a detour into funny horror: Shaun of the Dead. We discussed the fact that indeed many of my game-addled, sleep-deprived students have a quick similarity to zombies (but could probably do with more of a hunger for brains, given their lack of academic motivation). They loved the fact that Shaun still plays video games with his zombiefied best mate at the end of the film. Games beat all other pastimes or concerns, in the end, eh?

The third week, I decided to introduce my students to that master of horror, the venerable Stephen King, with his oldest (and arguably one of his most famous) stories: Carrie. It helps that I actually have a girl in my class named Carrie. She probably didn't appreciate the comparison, however, given that Carrie is batshit crazy by the end of the movie, however. I think this story, like many Stephen King stories, makes a good (and frightening) point, that really horror is never more than a step or two away from our normal lives. A numblingly mundane activity, such as high school girls practicing cruelty on one of their number, is only a mind-power away from tragedy. As your mother always told you, 'If you kids don't stop that now, someone's going to get hurt'. Watching this movie three quick times in succession also gave me an appreciation for some of the artistic choices of the filmmaker. While my students were ga-ga over the unashamed nudity in the opening credits, I most enjoyed the scenes with Carrie's mother. Early in the movie, she is framed beneath a heavy, wooden arch, and she crouches there like some fundamentalist hag... full of menace for her piteous daughter. Later, when her daughter comes home from her tragic prom, the mother is there waiting behind a doorway... few of my students even noticed, but those who did were quite scared by what they saw. The funky, crazed crucifix-con-Jesus was another nice touch.

Finally, for this last Friday, Halloween, I saved one of the scariest Stephen King stories of all time (in my humble opinion). Pet Sematary is a story about Eden, I think. A story about the childlike innocence that we all possess. A story about the unintended consequences of resurrection, particularly when it takes place in a high and lonely Micmac indian burial ground haunted by a wendigo. A story once again about something that any of us--if we were in the doomed protagonist's shoes--would probably carry to conclusion. One reason why Romeo and Juliet strikes a chord with all of us (when Hamlet might not always do), is because the underlying stupidity of tragedy, of that tragedy, is one which any of our love-addled minds might succumb to. Pet Sematary is the same: at heart this tragedy is about the extremely stupid decisions we make when the loss of love is the question of the day. Lewis, all my students agree, was a completely stupid guy. He just doesn't learn! He buries the family cat up in that haunted soil, and the cat comes back with a stench beneath his fur and a new meanness of spirit. Then, when his son gets hit by a truck coming hell-for-leather down the road in front of their yard... well, I think we all see where this is headed. The little boy comes back, but he's not quite bought and paid for yet, and his towheaded curls cover a mind that has been warped and rotted by whatever terrible grinning things haunt the highlands. When, predictably, Lewis's wife dies, what do you think he does? That edenic power of life and death is a rather addictive one... even if it carries with it a nasty kick.

I think all of us who have loved and lost pets would agree that given the chance, we might well bring those beloved creatures back... and nevermind the consequences. So damn, but we're scared when we see what the consequences could be! Because at heart we're all guilty of the desire to play god if given half a chance.

'The soil of a man's heart is stonier, Lewis--like the soil up in the old Micmac burying ground. A man grows what he can, and he tends to it'. -- Judd Crandall, Pet Sematary