Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Er Yue Er (二月二)

On the second day of the second month of the lunar year, you should eat a dragon's head and get your hair cut. Don't worry Uncle Bob and Uncle John, I did not cut my hair during the first month and day of the lunar year. Such a decision would not portend well for your futures, but on Thursday, I did get a haircut and eat a pig's ear!

Since dragon's are hard to come by, the Chinese have decided that eating any part of a pig's head will suffice.

Look at the size of that ear!

As regards the haircut, the unfortunate part is that it cost me 50 yuan. I asked for san shi (30 yuan), but when I came out of the place where they wash your hair they seated me in a 50-yuan chair. I mildly protested, but I did get the best haircut I have ever received. You can't tell from this picture!

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Beware of the Chinese Censers, They Stink

My father's great phobia is being trapped in a Yankee Candle or soap store for more than ten minutes. He hates scents and smells. My friend Theresa is no different. After a few minutes at an incense peddler's shop in the Pangjiayuan Antique Market, which is Bejing's most famous flea market, she needed a break. I was in seventh heaven. The shopkeeper summoned a woman who spoke English and when I told them that I just wanted to learn about this, they began the ritual.

There are many ways to burn incense. It comes in coils and sticks, which are commonly sold in the places that sell funky turquoise jewelry and patchouli in the West. It also comes in a powder form. Before some bright person figured out how to make the sticks and coils, one would simply light a trail of powder on fire or...

The elaborate way to burn incense, to which I was happily exposed, involves seven tools and a comparable number of jars and dishes. In this picture below, the blue dishes each have a unique purpose. The one that the man is using has a screen upon which you set the charcoal and then you heat the charcoal.

Obviously, in ancient times the coal was probably removed from a fireplace, but today he uses a lighter that is akin to a blowtorch.When the coal is ready, he uses special metal chopsticks for moving it.

For over two thousand years, the Chinese have used incense in religious ceremonies, ancestor veneration, Traditional Chinese medicine, and daily life. Agarwood (沈香; chénxiāng) and sandalwood (檀香; tánxiāng) are the two most important ingredients in Chinese incense. Copious amounts of each were on hand at this little shop. The two little blue dishes of the same size in this picture below are for these two substances. The cup next to them holds seven tools. I am not clear on all of their uses.

When the coal is hot, you bury it in another pot full of fine sand. The flat golden tool here is for tamping it down into a pyramid and then you use another tool to make a hole, like a volcano, at the top of the sand pyramid, down to the burning coal.

Finally, a little screen is removed from the smallest container and set on top of the "volcano." The sandalwood or other incense is sprinkled atop and the room is soon filled with a wonderful smell. 

To learn more, I suggest that you visit Peace & Harmony: The Divine Spectra of China's Fragrant Harbor.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Latin Mass in Beijing

Credit: DIY China Travel
It was 4:59 when I rolled over and the alarm was set to go off in a minute. I was bunked above a Chinese-American who lived somewhere in San Francisco, but not in China Town. Across from me on the top bunk in this hostel was a Guatemalan. "Are there a lot of Chinese people in Guatemala?" I asked, displaying my ignorance.

"Yes...and Koreans. So many Koreans now," he tells me, but that was last night and now it is time to get up and do something I am not sure I am allowed to do so I put the book, which I am not sure I am allowed to be reading, into my backpack and close the locker. I check out of the hostel, which involves waking the man on the couch in the lobby. He, in turn, wakes somebody else and I am awarded my fifty yuan security deposit. The room itself was only fifty yuan for this one night--a steal for Beijing. The man at the desk says, with his hands more than his mouth, "Go out the door and turn right." I do this, which means that I am headed in the wrong direction.

Eventually, at about 5:45, I get my bearings and I am one subway stop (di tie zhan) from where I need to be, a station called Xuanwumen. I decide to keeping walking. I am going to Mass.  This, I am sure, is permissible. The Lonely Planet (damn, I hope they are right!) announces a Latin Mass at 6 AM daily. Where I am cloudy is whether there will be Chinese people there or all foreigners. Am I allowed to worship in the same place as Chinese Catholics? Are these really Catholics? For my part, I am a tourist--a voyeur of the praying class, attending something greater than a charade and something less than a consecrated Mass. I arrive on time. I decide not to talk to anybody. Then, if somebody decides that I am not supposed to be there, I can say that I never had any fellowship with my Chinese brethren.

I sit in the pew in the back, which allows me a good view of the altar and of the elderly woman who comes in close to 6:30 and douses her hair with the holy water in the font by the door. She fixes her hair and waddles down the side aisle, vaguely conscious that she is being watched. There is a white cupboard in the back that looks like a top-loading freezer. It, too, is full of holy water and in the midst of the Mass another woman comes back to fill her bottle. She looks at me as if to say, "What are you doing here and why I are you looking at me?"

They are already chanting in Latin when I arrive. I am the only white person. There is a woman also in the back pews who is as old as Mary. She never gets off her knees and never opens her eyes. Everybody else rhythmically chants and sits, stands, bows, etc. according to the order of the Mass. I am unfamiliar so that even when I go to receive the Eucharist, I don't know what to mumble except, "Amen." There is no wine--only a wafer that fills me with the Holy Spirit. I sit down and wait for the other communicants to eat this bread, drink this blood. Another Mass (in Chinese) is set to commence at 7:15PM. People are coming in and people are going out. Fairly certain that this whole alien experience is through, because the priest and deacon have momentarily slipped out of view, I myself slip out the door and into the courtyard.

God is there to meet me. I have taken a photograph of God once before--in 1996, while photographing a rainbow and milli-seconds before I was hit by lightning. The negative came back and there was a brown streak in the air. Today She is here in her fullness as the moon, shining through some tree branches, above the cross. You can't tell that she is there from this photograph, which I took with my shitty new Nikon. Sometimes you just know. He doesn't tell me to run for President of the United States. He does not bellow at me, "Repent, sinner." No, She just watches quietly and there is a peace that settles on Xuanwumen.

I left my gloves on the pew, which I don't realize until I am on the subway to the Military Museum. When I had announced my plan to my friend of Latin Mass at 6 AM ("insane!") and then a visit to the Military Museum, he reacted sarcastically, "Onward Christian Soldiers." He then needled, "The Reformation passed you by, didn't it?" It was not really a question. We re-visit how Thomas More burned people at the stake and Isabella y Ferdinand carried out the Inquisition. I say that I admire Catherine of Aragon and sometimes the apple does fall far from the tree.

This devout atheist friend is in the midst of a sympathetic biography of Thomas Cromwell and half-way through the Showtime series, called The Tudors, which appeals to the prurient interest. I am unashamed; I, too, have watched More burn heretics and Henry VIII masturbate into a tray. It was delicious rubbish; history enlivened.

Is it really any wonder that there are so many atheists when you contemplate the atrocities that have been done in the name of the Father and the Holy Ghost?

"Běijīng’s South Cathedral was built on the site of the house of Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci, who brought Catholicism to China. Since being completed in 1703, the church has been destroyed three times, including being burnt down in 1775, and endured a trashing by anti-Christian forces during the Boxer Rebellion in 1900." Read more:

Monday, February 13, 2012

Official Trailer: Drying for Freedom

Infamy Headed My Way 

Someday I might be famous. Yesterday, I taught Todd. He is twelve and very famous.

"Where are you famous?" I asked the middle schooler who attends Northeast China's most prestigious middle school.

"At my Primary School I was famous," he said. "I enjoy the feeling of being famous."

"Why?" I asked.

"Because all of the teachers say hello to me," he said.

"How do you know it is not that you are just very friendly?" I asked this budding car company designer and entrepreneur, who came to his first class with a portfolio of pencil drawings of new cars. "Is it that you are tall or maybe very good at English?"

Anyway, I might be famous, too. Drying for Freedom has been accepted into its first film festival. Details are coming Monday. Please watch the new, very excellent trailer:

Drying For Freedom: Official Trailer from WhiteLanternFilm on Vimeo.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Panda Diplomacy: Unrefined Gas

A visit in large part focused on energy deals ends with bamboo-scented vapors in a Chongqing zoo

Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper looks at a panda being held by his wife Laureen at a zoo in Chongqing Feb 11, 2012. 
Moments before the panda bitch-slapped the visiting prime minister, knocking his spectacles to the bench, the adorable cub dropped some natural gas on Laureen's lap. It was a classic moment of pong-ping diplomacy.

Newly appointed special ambassador to China's funny-bone, Dashan, might have observed, "If you read-with-care the caption above, taken verbatim from China Daily, you will notice the misplaced modifier. Is Laureen really married to a panda?"

Harper's look of disgust in response to the out-stretched palm of this wild animal was rivaled only by Laureen's expression--a rare combination of is-there-anything-you-won't-make-me-do-for-the-cameras and we-never-had-a-child-that-was-this-heavy-and-wiggly.

According to observers, Laureen's husband is said to have declared, "We are also committed to mutually beneficial economic relations. And that's what we are going to pursue." It is unclear that Laureen is on board with the plan. Her aides have already started making arrangements for Peng Liyuan to hold a wolverine during her 2013 visit to Alberta.

Harper came to sell uranium to China. We can all be giddy that a newly negotiated protocol "will allow the shipment of Canadian uranium directly into China. Some 50 million pounds of uranium is expected to ship from Cameco's operations to China over the next 15 years."

Despite challenges such as lower uranium prices and the Fukushima nuclear meltdown that rocked Japan last year, this company saw revenue rocket from $673 million in the fourth quarter of 2010 to $977 million in the final quarter of 2011 - a jump of 45 percent. Gross profits in the fourth quarter also climbed to $353 million, up from $252 million compared to the same time last year.

It is widely recognized in Nanking, Formosa, and throughout Northeastern China that what happened at Fukushima in 2011 was just karma for all the terrible things Japanese people did seventy years ago and for which they have yet to apologize. Nothing like that is projected to happen in the Middle Kingdom. State planners and the engineers of China's fourth generation of leadership have guarded against it. Earthquakes and other natural disasters that could lead to similar nuclear "events" are being carefully managed by Hydro-Quebec and China Three Gorges Corporation, according to the women on CTGC's leadership team. Tibetan and other Buddhist clerics differ about the karmic toll of Mao's extermination of the Four Pests, but most agree it is not likely to result in a Fukushima or Hiroshima-type accident.

Harper came to sell oil to China. We can all be ecstatic that China could start receiving Canadian oil as early as 2016 if a pipeline project from Alberta to Canada's Pacific coast goes ahead. As moral relativist Joe Nocera cynically notes in the op-ed pages of the Old Grey Lady, nothing anybody ever does really matters so the United States ought to suck the tar sands dry before China gets a lick. Anything less demonstrates a failure of democracy and a strategic blunder of epic proportions.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Voluntary Poverty: "You don't know how lucky you are..."

I am back in the PRC, boy. I had a wonderful time with friends and family while back in America. I was sad to leave but also happy to return to China.

Among the highlights of my trip home, much of it spent dressed in a my blue tangzhuang, was a tea party that I had with Liza Poinier, Bruce Clendenning and their two children. I am feeling very blessed and was particularly excited to hear how many of you have been reading my less and less frequent posts. I promise to get better about it again, spurred on by your appreciation.

Pictures courtesy of Liza Poinier and her broken tripod.

As you may know, my travel experience with Continental (United) was less than fantastic. This morning I was able to weasel a $50 gift certificate out of them, which I am sure is non-transferable and may have an expiry date, but it does at least make me whole for the meals we ate in Narita and for transportation costs of retrieving my bags personally from the Changchun International Airport.

I am also waiting to get my $5.30 back for the AAA-discount on my business class train trip to New York City. I can get a really nice dinner for that amount here.

An earlier post promised that I would try to live as frugally as possible for a couple months, but truth-be-told when I sat down to blog about living on 100yuan a week, I had nothing new or of interest to say. It is possible for sure, but the inconvenience and humiliation of being poor are the same here as they are in America. For instance, instead of spending to retrieve my bags from the airport, I would have had to wait three days for toiletries and clean underwear as the airline arranged for delivery by a courier. I would not have been on an international flight at all, if I was truly poor. That point is not lost on me, either. I would not have been able to have several meals at restaurants with friends who I missed while I was gone. Instead, I would have had to invite them to my house for meals and even this would have been rather more costly than just cooking for myself. It is very easy to contemplate being poor for a couple months when you just got three pair of new shoes for Christmas.

In truth, I think it will be far more interesting for you, my readers, if I do spend my money--taking Mandarin lessons, traveling about, buying tea, and dining out. What would Dorothy Day say? The vow of voluntary poverty taken by my friends at The Catholic Worker has always been something I have struggled to understand.

The Aims and Means of The Catholic Worker state:

"The mystery of poverty is that by sharing in it, making ourselves poor in giving to others, we increase our knowledge and belief in love." (Dorothy Day) By embracing voluntary poverty, that is, by casting our lot freely with those whose impoverishment is not a choice, we would ask for the grace to abandon ourselves to the love of God. It would put us on the path to incarnate the Church's "preferential option for the poor."

What do you think of this idea? Post comments.



The other extraordinary thing that I did on my sojourn home was to visit, with my parents, the Museum of Musical Instruments (MIM). If any of you find yourself in Phoenix or environs, I highly recommend this state-of-the-art museum.  As I did not have my camera, I will have to rely on the MIM itself for some visual support of my claim that this is the best new museum I have been to since the National Museum of the American Indian opened its galleries in the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House in lower Manhattan in October 1994.

Set up by continent and then by nation, the museum is, as its website brags, the "most extraordinary museum you will ever hear." The dragon that greets you in the foyer was to be deployed during the following week in a celebration of The Year of the Dragon. In the experiential room, I got to play a gong and Gene Autrie's nickelodeon. It was just so much fun. I was like a kid in a candy store.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

A Dog-sled Trip

NOTE: I refer to Public Service Company of New Hampshire as PSCO (pronounced piss-ko) because the head of the Poetry Society of New Hampshire informed me that they have longer claim to the acronym usually used, PSNH.
Governor John Lynch of New Hampshire gave his state of the state yesterday. In this final big address, he said, "We should not dismiss out of hand hydro power from Canada. We should be open to exploring approaches for accessing this power. But the proponents of Northern Pass need to listen better. This project cannot happen without local support. And it should not happen with eminent domain." Now Governor Lynch has never been hailed as a brave and decisive leader. This speech was widely viewed as being more strident than his past ones; however, I want to look at what he really said here. The following is my analysis. Though my disgust with the Lynch years is no secret, I want to be fair. I hope my New Hampshire readers will take me to task if I have over-stepped.

Days after nominating Bob Scott and Mike Harrington to replace Hon. Clifton Below and Hon. Tom Getz on the Public Utilities Commission and knowing full well that eminent domain issues will be decided by the courts and not by his policy pronouncements, Lynch effectively signaled here that his New Hampshire will be happy to figure out a way to act as a corridor for Canadian power to reach southern New England markets. While he should be commended for not calling it renewable or green, the fact that he does not think it should be "dismissed out-of-hand" transparently shows his predisposition towards Canadian hydro, if not the necessary transmission lines that will carry it hither and yon.

He can say that this project cannot happen without local support, but PSNH (together with Hydro-Quebec) has nearly limitless financial ability to lean on the six hold-out landowners who are keeping this project from marching forward. I think this is a classic case of Gov. Lynch pretending like he is taking a firm position, but not actually using the power actually afforded to the constitutionally-second-weakest-Governor-in-the-nation.

Why do I say this? Not because Lynch and PSCO CEO Gary Long have enjoyed a long friendship, but because where he could really make a difference is standing up to the premiers and other New England governors at their periodic meetings. He could depart from the Cheney Administration and the Obama Administration and actually offer a realistic, green energy policy that gets away from large generation projects and shifts to the conservation and efficiency measures long touted by McKinsey. Additionally, I posit this because he has cautiously not gone to the bench for Consumer Advocate Meredith Hatfield (who, in full disclosure, is not only one of my best friends, but also the most diligent, nonpolitical advocate that I know--often to my own frustration) and Lynch has nominated two people for the PUC who should be easy to get past the [censored] on the Executive Council. If Lynch was really interested in shaping energy policy, he might have nominated different people.

Bob Scott is a military man, friendly, a talented manager, and a good listener. He has done the bidding of PSCO on the scrubber and on other projects for years as the Director of Air Resources ("the Chief Air Head" as his predecessor Ken Colburn used to self-identify) in the Department of Environmental Services. The vacancy he leaves at DES will be another important decision.

Mike Harrington is a free-market capitalist ideologue, an active Republican who supported the son-of-a-pugilist John Stephen in 2010, and an institutionalized bureaucrat at the commission (located in the old state mental hospital). He may want to deregulate and take the generating resources away from PSCO and may share Lynch's "deep" feelings about the 5th Amendment Takings Clause, but has had years to extract better behavior from PSCO, working with and for Tom Frantz in the Electricity Division of the Commission. There is no evidence that giving him the reins will force the dogs to gee or haw.

The activists and environmental organizations, who slept on their hands during the small window when they could have recommended to Lynch a more courageous set of new Commissioners, will almost inevitably need to work with these two gentleman. I only know Mr. Scott and he is a good manager and a good man. What I am saying here is not meant to disparage either him or Mr. Harrington, but to paint a clear picture of the landscape into which the dogsled seems to be sliding. The Lynch legacy will be a continuation of the status quo. The Commission will not veer in a new direction, but continue its slow progress towards the growing whole in the ice.

Hon. Amy Ignatius
The greatest hope for stopping Northern Pass lies in his nomination of current commissioner Amy Ignatius as the Chair. She is an independent thinker and capable lawyer. She will, rightfully, continue the legacy of judicious care and fairness that is the legacy of Tom Getz, but may be capable, despite her marriage to Lynch's chief lawyer, Jeff Meyers, in the post-Lynch years to recognize that every decision--no matter how much one would like to play above the fray--is political and has political ramifications. The Fox News "fair and balanced" approach to regulation that Getz and Frantz, especially, have prided themselves on is also the yang of their long reign. Ignatius' brother is a columnist for the Washington Post, which means she has a very direct line to the power brokers of the nation and access to the big picture issues that shape national energy policy.

She has a fierce intellect; tremendous loyalty to the Governor (that has tested our friendship in the face of my open disdain for his leadership style); less pre-existing ties to the electric industry than her predecessor, who will return to private practice at a firm which does work for PSCO; and an even deeper knowledge of the interplay between the New England states from her time as the Executive Director of the New England Conference of Public Utility Commissioners. (From what I can discern, every reputable, major law firm in NH, except Preti, does some work for PSCO.)

So, in sum, Governor Lynch's feisty speech did not really have teeth. The opponents of Northern Pass should brace themselves for PSCO wielding strong influence at the Commission as they continue to look for ways to force Canadian hydro down our dry throats.