Saturday, February 19, 2011

Lugubrious Lugee Lucubration 101 (by flashlight, rated NPC*)

The lights just went out for the third or fourth time since I have been here (eventually, I will lose count, if I have not already). With it, the Internet also cuts out. Director of Studies (and Hospitality) David P. told our assembly of new teachers that brown outs are unusual (water shortages more and more infrequent), so I must assume that it is just my building because the lights across the street at the USA Cleaners are still on. In fact, they keep going on and off here, which makes me quite glad I have the battery in my computer.

I just fixed a cup of perfectly warm tea from the hot water which issues from the plugged-in cooler. Yesterday, I had the hilarious experience of going to the market to get tea and expending seven yuan for an empty tin--only realizing what I had done when I arrived home. Today, after supper, David B. and I went to the fancy tea shop next door and I got a tea strainer and vacuum-packed bag of jasmine pearls ("sex in my mouth" as David B. refers to sundry Chinese culinary pleasures).

Aside: A Word on Mucus and "Civilization" (not for the faint of heart or those with a weak stomach)

I just boiled my snot rag by flashlight, being careful to remember that the gas must be turned off at the pipe after each use of the industrial-strength, two-burner, ovenless stove which threatens, unadjusted, to melt the very aluminum of my small, provided cooking pot. I will be looking for a couple more pocket hankins soon, especially if this nominal head cold and unpleasant gastro stuff is habitual. I steadfastly refuse to resort to farmers' blowing anywhere but in the privacy of my own home and even then only when I am accompanied by none other but God Himself. That said, I am quite proud that I was able to produce a good little phlegm ball and spat it with vim on to the sidewalk yesterday as we left a bar called Three Monkeys Pub (the irony of a drinking establishment by such a Darwinian name betrays an evolution of humor here, not lost on this irony-appreciating American who will soon do a post devoted entirely to the uproarious signage here, manifesting itself in the form of misspellings and un-intentional erroneous turns of phrase). There is a certain relief that comes from cleansing the lungs of this dirty air in these grubby little streets.

Nevertheless, I cannot do it without some deep, primal self-loathing that stems from a memory, clear as yesterday, of me standing on the fourth floor of Cilley Hall, my dormitory at Phillips Exeter Academy. I was all of fifteen year-old and was sporting to see if I could get my saliva to fall four stories through the narrow crack of the banisters to hit the floor at the bottom. I was caught red-handed after my third or fourth (successful!) bulls-eye by a tall, handsome, Black minister, who was also my dormitory head. He called me and the one or two other offending imbeciles to the first floor where he gave us a lecture, remarkable for its pith and eloquence, about what it means to be "civilized." One felt always with Mr. Weatherspoon that you were in the presence of a very advanced and civilized gentleman. While there was nothing forced or unnatural about him, in the rarefied, white enclave of an old, exclusive, WASPy boarding school, it did have the affect of making me wonder if he really was like this or if it was some practiced art meant to shame the spawn and scions of The Somerset Club into recognizing that he was more of a Bill Cosby than a Michael Vick.

In any case, you came away from such gentle upbraids in much the same way you emerge from the confessional, when the non-coercive priest who knows his sacramental duty carries out the act of forgiveness contingent on true repentance. That is to say, you felt penitential, like you were on the path to salvation and growth, forgiven and stronger, but very clear of your transgression and humiliated roundly and properly.

Sichuan Supper

I am just back from an early supper with David Burgess, the bloke from Northampton (though, he tells foreigners that he is from Nottingham) who spent last year in another Chinese city with a different establishment teaching English. He is all of twenty-two and a recovering anarchist, cynical and hopeful at once about humanity and humans. As he went to the bathroom--invariably a squatter--at the Sichuan restaurant, I summoned our waitress and paid the check, which is what the Chinese do with even greater discretion. David is a dozen or more lessons ahead of me in his understanding of Mandarin and I am grateful for his help, showing this waiguoren the ropes. Dinner was 58 quai/yuan/Re Min Bi. We had fish with lots of Sichuan peppers and potatoes, boiling in a communal (communicable) pot at our table.

Comrade David "The Citizen" Burgess sans Chinese winter cap.

I met David after signing my official government contract (different than the contract that I may eventually sign with Perfect English). Vivian, the cashier at the school, offered me time to read it, which I did more out of interest than fear. It was totally pro forma, to my eye apparently favoring the vaunted Worker on whose behalf the Revolution took place. A sample can be found at the State Administration of Foreign Experts Affairs so I am told.

Grey baijiu flask in right foreground
Dinner included my first little cermaic flask of baijiu--the infamously poor-tasting "white liquor" that plasters every office and holiday party from Harbin to Macau, Shanghai to Shiquanhe. I did not find it, except the unpleasant subsequent burps, nearly as vile or unpalatable as the century eggs. In fact, I rather like it. It complemented the rice and spicy Sichuan stew bubbling on the tray in front of us.

Lucubration 101: The Sodom-Madonna Opposition

This missile from Manchuria comes from the heart (and lungs) of an ancient "civilization."

Lucubration is the word of the day, from the Latin, lucubrare, which means to work at night by lamplight. I am using the term loosely, because I rather like it. It describes well the jet-lag cum insomnia that has bred in me a heretofore latent talent to seriously focus in the latest hours on any tasks, particularly on the writing of love letters to a woman who does not love me in return. I read Plato's Phaedrus this morning (so not technically lucubrious for lack of the nocturnal requirement) and contemplated the half-dozen Beatrices (Hannah, Michelle, Kat I., Carrie H., Rebecca Mertz, and now Ace) who have had the misfortune of being the object (or subject, I hope) of my unrequited and complete desire. How lucky I am to have loved with such ferocity so many times in one life, but also how unfortunate for it is a habit that I fear no amount of therapy could stamp out from my soul. The very first of these women, who are all still lovely albeit estranged to varying degrees, said to me, with her characteristic ruthlessness and sophistication, "You don't love me. You love the idea of me." More than twenty years later, I still try to make sense of this wise sixteen year-old's cutting advice. I tell myself that she must be right, for I could not be wrong so many times, but also convince myself that she was afraid of my love, which is not the patient, enduring, blessed love of the trite-yet-holy 2 Corinthians passage, but some version of Eros from Song of Songs gone awry.

There is, I am cognizant, a certain sadistic glee in many of my closest friends (and even a trace of masochistic self-reverence) at the comedy of my love affairs, summed up best by a trumped up memory from high school that Chrises Hoag and Hilton remember more clearly than I (they would swear by it). In their rendition, at the ripe age of fifteen or sixteen, I declared that K. Lehman, heiress to the now disgraced corporate misadventure called Lehman Brothers and classmate, was “my freedom.” One must be able to laugh at oneself, I suppose, but also to comprehend fully the tragic proportions of a life lived so ridiculously, too much like Dostoyevsky’s Karamazov brother, Dmitri, with his “Madonna-Sodom” opposition. I only hope that the woman who (hope upon hope) eventually settles for the dark Russian heart of Alexander does not feel any less like a princess for being my Katherine Parr "till death do us part." With all due respect to proud Catherine of Aragon through Kathryn Howard.

In the meantime, I suppose that I should take some comfort from the dozens of men and women, foreign and Chinese, who have said to me, with smiles on their face, "Be glad that you can find a Chinese girlfriend; it is the fastest way to learn the language." I welcome the absurdity of such alms offered as balms to my surreal despair. Such well-meaning offerings are proof that there must be a God with one Hell of a sense of humor. We (almost) all soldier on, because this same God has blessed the Earth with a multitude of beautiful things and our lives with a multitude of experiences--each one, for better or worse, bringing us closer to a peace that passes all understanding. I am the handmaiden of experience. Thank God for that.

Special Requests (aka Material Desires)

The Story of the Kiss
I would like from home some material things that would make the life of this aesthete here better. First, I would like somebody to contact Jonathan, if he is not in fact reading this, and see whether he might arrange to send me a couple of those remote control phantom load thing-a-mah-bobs that will allow me to save energy. Second, the acres of walls here cry out for posters of Chairman Mao (no comment) or Theodore Roosevelt, Mother Mary with Jesus or Jack Nicholson (in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest or The Bucket List, but not The [too scary] Shining), or Ellen Paige and Drew Barrymore pecking each other, if such a poster is to be had.

Finally, I could use some weather stripping for a porch door and some Goo-Gone to strip the gummy residue from my refrigerator. My friend, Jessica Fogg, or my parents, might be willing to make arrangements for a care package. Please, if you choose to indulge me, use the regular parcel post for both FedEx and UPS are preposterously expensive. McCann's Irish Oatmeal in a tin always appreciated by the lactard et glutard (go ask Alice).

* Not for Parental Consumption (heartbreak, disapproval, lewdity), a new MPAA rating premiering here (take note, sister Madeline)

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