Archive for August, 2009

Into the sea

Shanghai is a sycophantic monster, approaching you with the solicitations of transients and prostitutes rather than the battering and molestation with which a reprehensible number of, say, New Yorkers might menace you. But what aggressiveness there is fully comes out on the streets and highways. I’m convinced that 90% of the rebellious spirit in Chinese cities is expended disobeying traffic regulations. Maybe that’s why most protests happen in rural areas. I had been here less than 12 hours when the bus I was in, which was ferrying me and other teachers out to the university on the outskirts of the city, ran into an electric motor scooter. The scooterist thus revealed the utter falsity of the position of his fellow Hell’s Ecologically Conscious Angels, because while they give the impression of being in such a desperate hurry that they have to cross oncoming buses on the wrong side of the highway, the minute one of them goes down the rest apparently have hours to stand around staring and talking about it. Fortunately the scooterist didn’t appear to be too badly hurt; he was certainly more concerned about someone stealing the money out of the lock box on his scooter than whether his leg was broken. I suppose, though, knowing China, his prospects of getting treated for the latter probably depended on his continuing possession of the former.

Of course the driver was detained and we had to take another bus. I was glad to see that when we got back home he was there to greet us and talk to the Chinese-fluent passengers. Someone said that he needed witnesses. I said, “Yes, but not to testify to his actions in court, but rather to notice if he disappears or gets sent to a labor camp.” After that, our subsequent bus drivers became so cautious that they started taking us on detours through heavy industry zones and regularly getting passed by coal trucks. As if we needed any further reminders of the massive vendetta against the ozone layer that we are all inadvertently participating in. An argument broke out on the bus about whether China’s environmental practices are really that bad, which turned into a more general dispute about global warming. One girl claimed that since methane is such a big pollutant people should be rebuked for their beef-eating practices as well as for driving and trying to stay warm in the winter with coal-powered central heating. Her disputant responded that in that case we should criticize India as much as China because of its excessive love of cows. I proposed the non-violent compromise of banning farting, hopefully with some sort of equivalent of carbon credits. Nothing would be more entertaining than people buying and trading farting credits. I picture some sort of Potato Famine tableau of an obese, whey-faced family sitting under the dripping eaves of their home, with a flickering lamp on the table, then the father coming home to illuminate their faces with delight by telling them that he had finally accumulated enough credits to take them all to Taco Bell again.

I’ve only been in the city for four days, but we have next week free, and one of the other teachers is talking about going to Qinghai, the province that China formed by amputating the northeast half of Tibet. He claims that this is the best way to see Tibet without having to go through all the complicated visa procedures that you need to get into the officially designated region. On the other hand, Qinghai is also where most of China’s buried nuclear waste and prison camps are, as well as where it conducts its underground nuclear tests. The Lonely Planet guide to China informs prospective visitors that the only reason to go to Golmud, the second largest city, is if you’re a political prisoner or mining for uranium. We will see.

the social progressivism of unsanitary kitchens

Last night I watched a movie called District 9, a tedious little parable about xenophobia and capitalist exploitation which portrays a bunch of aliens that look like giant cockroaches and have been shipwrecked on earth, then rounded up and forced to live in a giant shantytown outside of Johannesburg. Apart from everything else I find this element especially unconvincing, because I don’t think you exactly need barriers and armed guards to force cockroaches to inhabit slums and trash dumps. Obviously this is all supposed to evoke apartheid, but somehow it apparently never occurred to the filmmakers that anyone might find it a little bit in poor taste that they chose to have those victims of discrimination symbolically represented by giant cockroaches.

Not that I’ve heard anyone complain about this yet, but that may just be because people are still confused over just who is supposed to be representing what, since there are actually Africans shown in the movie guarding/hustling/oppressing the aliens, although for some reason they are specifically identified as “Nigerians.” I know that there is some sort of embryonic rivalry between Nigeria, as the most populous country in Africa, and South Africa, as the wealthiest, but this still counts as the most random prejudice I’ve encountered since the anti-salmon hostility of an Animal Planet special on Siberian wildlife I watched a few weeks ago in which threatening music played in the background every time there were salmon swimming onscreen and happy music whenever there was footage of bears catching and eating them.

Anyway, at one point in the thing flashing in front of my eyes last night the main character gets sprayed by alien fluid and starts transforming into an alien himself. Another alien he meets promises him that if they can get him back to the mother ship they can reverse the process and return him to the way he was before. Which made me think, being as this is supposed to symbolize crossing a racial divide in addition to, well, turning into an alien, if only Elijah Muhammad had been able to get Michael Jackson back to the Nation of Islam’s magical spaceship in time maybe so much nose cartilage would not have had to die in vain. But the whole movie is so over-wrought, when they finally get to unfurl some Method Acting, with the main character sobbing over the phone to his wife because his right hand has just turned into a giant claw, I was thinking, big deal, I’m sure Hunter S. Thompson woke up many a morning in some Las Vegas casino trying to figure out why his hand had turned into an alien claw, but he never started whining about being a victim of apartheid.


I don’t think I’m an unusually materialistic person, but the thought of all my spoons and knives and telephones left alone in the world to defend themselves every time I leave the house always gives me a fidgety feeling. I don’t know if this is just a weak, attenuated form of the emotion I get at the thought of, say, my parents, both in their early 60’s, whenever they get in a car, hurtling across the face of the earth, faster than cheetah or falcon, with only their own reflexes to save them. This isn’t only a fear about driving, although I do think driving represents (or is maybe just one of the most prominent examples of) a kind of unresolved relationship between a soft thing and a hard thing, neither of which have revealed their full natures. The hard thing, metal and the like, has been in a way rolled up into a ball by the processes of industrial technology, so that most of the time you only see its smooth and shiny side. The jaggedy bits only emerge in a crisis. But it’s not inconceivable that all of that tamed steel will some day unfurl itself in full and take back its own from the dominance of our soft, squishy organicnesses that have seeped across the globe and claimed possession of it. That’s probably the source of the persistent fears of robots and intelligent computers, because it seems to be somehow felt that, in keeping with their make-up, everything about them, from their ethics to their language, would be harder and more square-cornered than ours. Or at least I take it that there is some such collective fear, due to its continuing exploitation in ridiculous movies. This is one definitely useful function that Hollywood performs: through its relentless prying and pushing it has given some sort of sense of the full spatial dimensions and volume of all the twisting, shadowy caverns of hysteria in the psyche, which otherwise might just seem like some sort of blurred, wavering peripheral area.

the unredeemed

Sometimes I worry that my mind has outgrown my soul. I’ve always wanted to see the world around me as a reflection of my own personality, and maybe that’s why I haven’t made a stand against reality. I need to plunge all the way in, because right now the shiny blue days are so perfect it’s almost impossible not to feel like you’re wasting them, like a heap of fresh oranges piling up in the street. Fortunately, yesterday I went to a Rockies game, where generally, especially in the upper deck, the sun squeezes all of its citrus right into your eyes. They were playing the Cubs, which exposed a fifth column of transplant Chicagoans of pretty shocking dimensions (and yes, I do mean both the number of them and their actual masses). As much as people yammer on with suspicious insistency about how Chicago is one of the greatest cities in the world, the diaspora of Chicagoans living here looks to be of a magnitude the likes of which is equaled only by immigrants from countries that hold a high rank on the Failed States Index.

Being slow, narcoleptic Midwesterners accustomed to perpetual failure, at least they are a less scary lot than the hordes of, say, Red Sox fans that descend on stadiums throughout the country, whose minds, when it comes to baseball, are about as broad and yielding as a pickax. The Cubs fans did become a little enraged about some incident, a supposed bad call, during the third inning, but even then they seemed a bit slow-moving, like a herd of muskoxen trying to get into a defensive formation against a skittering gust of wind. Basically, I think by definition their fans must either be very easily satisfied or excessively motivated by hope. Entirely baseless hope most likely, but then again if it weren’t for that most people would never have a second child. In short, I can see very well how Obama could come out of such an environment (and that picture is in Cubs colors as well, more or less–which also happen to be the colors of America. That should be their new marketing slogan). Speaking of which, at least the Cubs fans did not let fractious team loyalty stand in the way of a conciliatory display of nationalism. My brother claimed you could tell half the crowd were Cubs fans because they actually sang the words to the national anthem and “God Bless America.” I don’t know, I’m not sure we want the patriotic allegiance of Cubs fans. It might turn out like that movie about the guy with really bad luck whom Las Vegas casinos employ to stand near gamblers that have gotten on a hot streak.

the undisclosed location

Last night I was watching a Rockies game, and after the game the team beat writer came on to discuss the game wearing what is apparently his usual uniform of a huge Stetson and blue jeans, looking like an more-sweaty-than-is-typical statue in commemoration of a particularly successful massacre of Indians or something. Which looked impressive in a way, but in Cincinnati? At night? My dad said, “Well, he was born and raised in Wyoming.” And I have noticed that being from Wyoming seems to be a perfectly acceptable explanation for any fevered bit of madness that grips the human heart. A woman tries to break into an animal shelter to get her pit bull back? The sitting vice-president shoots his friend in the face? In most cases the “he/she is from Wyoming” is probably an expression of relief that the person isn’t engaging in one of those other pastimes apparently popular among so many enthusiasts in Wyoming, like drunk driving or beating homosexuals to death. Actually there aren’t that many enthusiasts of these activities in Wyoming, since there aren’t many people of any kind in Wyoming.

I remember when I was little my strongest impression of driving through Wyoming was of endless bleached prairies, vultures perched on seemingly every single telephone pole and with that look of inexplicably self-confident suspicion so common to isolated rural people, who often are totally convinced that everyone from the outside wants what they have, when in fact nobody wants it. This paranoia is particularly unwarranted in a mangy black bird roosting on the top of a splintery wooden pole and subsisting on decaying corpses. No, really, no one is trying to hone in on your digs or your food. It reminds me of one time on the ferry from Stockholm to Helsinki when a Russian friend and I were talking with a drunken Finn who was sharing our cabin and who had become convinced that Finland was a delectable prize coveted by both East and West and would surely soon be conquered by one of the vying contestants, most likely Russia, and whom we had to reassure by stressing the total lack of desirability of his country. Thousands of miles of Arctic marshland populated by mosquitoes, belligerent train conductors and politicians that bear a disturbing resemblance to Conan O’Brien, where it gets so cold in the North in the winter that you have to put a scarf over your nose and mouth outside to prevent the air from burning your lungs, and which lists as one of its greatest national accomplishments, according to the signs that face visitors leaving the ferry, having had a Finn finish third in the Eurovision Song Contest in 1982 (then again, the greatest moment in the history of Argentina, which happened in 1986, consisted of cheating to win a soccer game, and everyone in the country couldn’t be prouder). One thing worth plundering in Finland is Nokia, but come on, it’s a manufacturer of mobile phones: the Artists Formerly Known As The Red Army could make off with those in about half an hour, probably without even bringing an extra satchel to carry them in.

Anyway, the fact that the most colorful characters that I recall from Wyoming are carrion-eating birds of prey suggests a certain isolation, which actually makes the drunk driving somewhat more logical, since when a truck is bucking and veering alone on a highway and not likely to encounter another within hundreds of miles, the possible outcomes are likely to only improve humanity. But the homophobia is less understandable: when there are as few people around as there are in Wyoming I don’t think you can afford to rule out any marriageable options. I’ve always thought the phrase “rugged individualism” sounded like a euphemism for masturbation.