Monday, February 3, 2014

Pallotta Trattoria (and hotel)

I would slide into some Aligherian circle of Hell if I were to equate the meal that I ate tonight with an orgasm and it would be vulgar, as well as inadequate to describe it that way, so I shall avoid the metaphor altogether, but there is something obscene, perhaps, about ordering the prix fixe gourmet menu in the hometown of St. Francis of Assisi. Nevertheless, I went "all out" and bought the whole shebang, plus the three paired wines--enough to make me experience horrible re-flux on the way home. This was punishment for my gluttony, perhaps.

Photo from
I settled on Trattoria Pallotta, in part, because that Pallotta also the name of my bed & breakfast. In fact, the primary reason was that upon walking back up the winding switchbacks from the Basilica di San Francesco, I ran into a very rich Shanghai family on a tour with a Chinese guide calling himself "Stephano." I told him my last name was "Lee" and I work in Beijing as an English teacher. The oldest daughter asked me if I knew about "Old Dominion." She will go there next year if she gets in. "Are you interested in history?" "Not really. I will study engineering." We parted in the Piazza del Commune and I hurried back to my inn, Hotel Pallotta, fifty yards up the Via San Rufino, where earlier I had caught the last part of a Mass. (I had already been to Mass earlier at Santa Maria Maggiore at noon in Rome, before my 2:23 PM departure from Termini Station.)

Back at the hotel, I took off my sweater, abandoned my umbrella, sneaked into the darkened office of the hotel manager to locate the password for the WiFi, and commenced to search the Internet for a good restaurant. I kept coming seeing Pallotta Trattoria, where I was fairly sure the Chinese family had reservations. I slipped back down the hill, accepted a seat with my back to a roaring real fire (the draw on the chimney was loud), and examined the menu. There were two married Americans and their crying, five-month old infant and a couple of older Italian couples seated in the front room. The Chinese party was in the back of the restaurant so they did not see their stalker. Yes, I had come here primarily because I figured if they had left their country during the Chinese New Year to come to Rome with grandma and their children, then it was probably a very good place.

Here are some pictures of my meal, taken as each new course was graciously set before me. The service was spectacular. The waiter and waitress both spoke English and the maître d'hôtel, who I suspect was also the owner, could make herself understood.

Friday, January 31, 2014

The Decline and Fall of Rome in One Day

On my Kindle is the deathly boring, but widely renowned history published in the same year as the Declaration of Independence by Edward Gibbon, called The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. According to good ol' Wikipedia, "The Decline and Fall is known for the quality and irony of its prose, its use of primary sources, and its open criticism of organized religion."

Yesterday, with no sense of irony, I can state that I saw most of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. It comes mostly in the form of headless bodies and body-less heads. This one was spotted on a post-cheese filled panino emergency break at a closed museum whose gabinetto was fortunately open:

More than a half inch of rain has fallen since I got home last night. Yesterday, too, was a wet one and my chintzy Chinese umbrella was no match for the gusty winds. Nevertheless, I traipsed all over Palatine Hill to see the ruins of the Roman Senate and the temples now in shambles.

The Arch of Constantine (the ascent and repair of the Roman Ruins)

The Arch of Titus
I spent the longest amount of time at the Colosseum where I again, like at the Vatican Museum on the prior day, paid for the audio tour. As you step from the subway station, this is the current view of the Colosseum. Inside, it is possible to imagine what it was like when there was a floor and what it was like with no floor. Thousands of prisoners died here, eaten by animals for fun. It is creepy with the large cross, which the Pope visits every Good Friday as part of a ritualistic tour, to think this was acceptable. I suppose, though, people will look back at our civilization and think that it is creepy that we could be so lonely that we would purchase a gun and blow our brains out in the privacy of our home...or take a gun to school or the theater and lay siege. Each age has its frightening specters and this week, the shortcomings of the present era are weighing heavily on my still un-splattered mind. (I lost a friend to suicide; don't worry about me.)

I also went to St. Peter's and up into the cupola (dome). The first image is the brass inscription inlaid upon the floor just inside the main doors, which were not flung open for the public, but I imagine are opened on special occasions. The mosaics inside the cupola and the views from the outside were phenomenal. One had to lean like a tower in Pisa to wend ones way up the narrowest last sections of the staircase.

I walked from the Colosseum and Palatine Hill to St. Peter's Basilica through the Piazza Farnese, where I had my most expensive meal of the trip, a Gorgonzola and mushroom risotto with wine and sparkling water, at Tom Cornell's recommended stop, Ar Galletto.

I could not find my way into the Church of Santa Maria of Trastevere. (Trastevere means on the other side of the Tiber, or "across the river".) But in order to cross from the area of my exquisite luncheon, I had to choose a bridge.

I chose the Ponte Sisto, a footbridge that connects Via del Pettinari in the Rione of Regola to Piazza Trilussa in Trastevere. One of the most interesting little blurbs I read was about this bridge. The Romans know when the river is flooding when water passes through the hole in the middle.

Piazza Farnese fountain

Ponte Sisto and its useful hole.
Looking down the rushing Tiber to a split in the river from the shore near the Ponte Sisto.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Papal Audience and the Vatican Museum

  • Wednesday Night: Rain. Low around 50F. Winds SSE at 10 to 20 mph. Chance of rain 80%. Rainfall near a quarter of an inch.
  • Thursday: Occasional light rain. High 56F. Winds SE at 15 to 25 mph. Chance of rain 90%.
  • Thursday Night: Showers early, becoming a steady rain late. Low 53F. Winds SE at 20 to 30 mph. Rainfall near a half an inch.
  • Friday: Periods of rain. High around 60F. Winds ESE at 10 to 15 mph. Rainfall near a half an inch.
  • Friday Night: Cloudy with periods of rain. Low around 50F. Winds E at 10 to 15 mph. Chance of rain 80%. Rainfall near a quarter of an inch...
Thus continues the forecast.

My ticket to see the See
I exclaimed to the nice boys sitting behind me during the hour which we spent waiting for the Pope, "It is nice weather today. It does not look like it will rain." Although, by the time the Holy See had been driving around in his mobile for an hour of "audience", it was spitting. After the conclusion of his remarks, as I walked to the Vatican Museum, it was raining. Now, at 11:45 PM, it is pouring rain and I can hear it outside my window.

Yesterday, in the late afternoon, I went to Vatican City to gather up the tickets that I would need today. First, inside of a gift shop and post office, I asked at a theatre-esque ticket window where I could get tickets for the papal audience. "You need to go ask the Swiss Guards," came the answer through the barred window. I stepped outside, back into St. Peter's Square and proceeded to the gate where there stood two handsome young Swiss guards in their ridiculous uniforms. It seemed, really, from the crowd barriers that I should not go near them, but I stepped right up to the guardhouse and, sure enough, I was in the right place. The guard whose job it was to block the entrance stepped into his little guardhouse and procured for me the ticket, displayed above on the cobbles beneath my chair while we waited for the arrival of His Excellency Papa Francesco.

This Pope, as wildly popular as he seems around the world, is also beloved by the locals. It is said that they never called Ratzinger (aka Benedict XVI) "Papa," but they love this fellow. The kind students from St. Johns College in NYC, who had never heard of the Grand Tour and who were sitting behind me, took this photo of me. I took a couple of the crowds and of the Holy Father.

Among the groups recognized from the dais were a parish from the Diocese of Glasgow and St. Andrews in Scotland, seated all around me. They were a jolly group, recognizable by their Santa-style hats in a red tartan. There was a particularly jovial woman from Glasgow, who, upon my complimenting their sense of style, asked me if I wanted one. I said, "No thank you. I would not wear it." She took mock offense so, with a little extra cheekiness, I said, "It is the wrong tartan. I would only wear a green one." Well, she had just the thing for me:

I did my penance for a short time, but removed it before the appearance of His Holiness. After the audience and his remarks, which were focused on the sacrament of confirmation, I proceeded out of the square and followed the wall to the museum. It was just about noon, so I stopped for a glass of the house wine and a plate of risotto en route.

The museum was amazing and quite crowded. I did pay the extra few euros for an audio tour and sat in the Sistine Chapel for a long time staring at Michelangelo's amazing works. The chambers of Rodrigo Borgia were painted by Raphael and also were remarkable. One of my favorite spots along the journey was the gallery of maps. Also, there were breathtaking views from many windows.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Prepare ye the Way: A Trip to the Vatican

"President Obama is going to visit the pope! He’s been to the Vatican before, but not with this pope, who is perhaps the only person in the world almost everybody likes," writes Gail Collins with not a small amount of glee.

I will go to see the Pope on Tuesday...if I can get a ticket for an audience being held in St. Peter's Square on January the Twenty-ninth, in the year of our Lord Two-thousand and fourteen.

Chinese man casts iShadow beneath the Mother & Infant.
I will be reading A Room with a View on the interminable plane rides and maybe some portion of the six parts of Gibbons Decline & Fall of the Roman Empire. Today, I went to see an amazing exhibit, called The Mediterranean World in the Collections of the Musee du Louvre. It is on loan to the National Museum of China. I have no doubt that I will soon be getting my fill of encased antiquities, but this was spectacular. (I skipped the equally impressive looking Rubens, Van Dyck and the Flemish School of Painting: Masterpieces from the Collections of the Prince of Liechtenstein exhibit.) You may see 17 photographs in the English version of China Daily if you want a glimpse of what I was able to see today/

My itinerary is loose and I am excited to stay in my first Air B & B. I can even extend my stay if I decide to do Rome slowly (read: Slow Food), instead of scurrying off to Assisi or Venice for a night or two. I look forward to catching up with one of my best pals from law school and meeting his wife and infant. It will be good to get away from the fireworks and crowded trains of Chinese New Year to welcome the Year of the Horse from Rome.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

More Reading = Less Writing

I am currently in the middle of Rana Mitter's Forgotten Ally: China's World War II, reviewed well in the Wall Street Journal. It winningly attempts to give China its due for the role it played in World War II. Having loved Barbara Tuchman's collection of essays that included a counterfactual piece entitled If Mao Had Come to Washington, I may pick up her Stilwell and the American Experience in China, 1911-45. After Mitter's book, Stilwell needs some rehabilitation.

In the last two or three months, I have just read John Irving's Cider House Rules, Dan Brown's Inferno and Jonathan Franzen's Freedom, which all deal with the population crisis and/or sex.

Since getting my Kindle, I have also breezed through:

The Heart of Haiku
Jane Hirshfield

Dear Life
Alice Munro

The Luminaries
Eleanor Catton

The Art of War
Niccolo Machiavelli

Stephen King

Bunker Hill
Nathaniel Philbrick

43*: When Gore Beat Bush—A Political Fable
Jeff Greenfield

The Way of Chuang Tzu (Second Edition)
Thomas Merton

This rediscovered penchant for reading has meant that I have spent considerably less time writing for this blog. While I do not intend, entirely, to abandon it, my posts will continue to be less frequent. I have some vague sense from the site stats that people do actually read this blog, but the number of subscribers to its companion Facebook Page has remained static (around 110) for over a year and only two people subscribed to the email version in 2013 and nine in 2012. I have not written anything Upworthy or viral. I am weary of going to places as a sort of reporter with my camera and, in addition to reading, want to turn my energies back to studying Chinese so, I am afraid, there will be fewer posts here than in the past three years. 

I will also be commencing a job search for the next chapter of my life, possibly back in the United States of America. 

My job responsibilities are finally picking up. I work at New Oriental in the Elite Program which prepares students in middle school to go to the USA for middle or high school. I am designing general science (earth science, life science, physical science) and social studies (American history, geography, and civics) curricula for the spring. I am using the Common Core Standards and would love any teachers reading this to be in touch about reviewing my two 64-hour (32 two-hour class) offerings. 

Finally, in February of 2013, I stepped up and rejoined the board of Project Laundry List. If this "life work" of mine is to bear further fruit, it will take a fair amount of dedication and stamina. Two years of mismanagement by a single board member and his hired hand have left the organization in rather dire straits. Managing a board from the other side of the world is proving difficult, particularly given the vagaries of the Chinese Internet and the range of time zones that must be accommodated for meetings. For instance, I will do a workshop at 3 AM Beijing time next week, which is 2 PM Eastern Daylight Time. 

All of this is by way of excuse for why you may see fewer posts in 2014. Still, if you wish to learn about something in particular, please let me know. 

Friday, January 10, 2014

My No Criminal Record Saga

in honor of the modernists

"All I ever did was shoot a deputy down..."

What follows is a boring story which I shall do my very best to relate with wit and color so that you might be motivated to read it all the way through. Franz Kafka's The Trial is a story of a fictitious man arrested and prosecuted for some crime unknown to him (or the omniscient narrator), although I imagine some number of that book's readers have concluded that they know what felonious act was committed, human nature being so accustomed to jumping to conclusions. Sadly, this current author knows of no germane crime whose revelation or careful shrouding would add intrigue to the following tale. Rather, this is the story of law-abiding and rather boring characters (aka crashing bores), excluding this writer only by virtue of his high self-opinion.

This epic parable (if such an oxymoron might be permitted) concerns huge bureaucracies and a large number of forms and documents, stamps and signatures, clerical errors and some mismanagement, as well as the de facto monopoly of the US government on American notarial acts performed in the People's Republic of China..

Before we begin this story, let me establish some simple facts. To work in China as a foreign expert, one must obtain a foreign expert's certificate. As you might have assumed, there is a gargantuan bureau responsible for putting its imprimatur upon any applicant's expertise and suitability. As you might also have presumed, the implementation of rules and regulations varies tremendously from district to district. Still, all across the land, there is now supposed to be, in the packet of information presented to these officials, a statement of no criminal record. This particular regulation came into force some time around July 1, 2013, following a pedophilia scandal in the prior year. No clear guidance has been offered to employers about what sort of certificate will suffice to convince the Chinese bureaucracy of one's innocence before the law. It does not apply only to teachers and others who work with children, but also to the magnates of international conglomerates and the legions of consultants who come proffering their expertise to Chinese firms and its sprawling government. If thou hast a work permit then some record of thy criminal history or lack thereof must be enshrined in some folder in the ministry. If once you got sentenced for smoking marijuana and you work for an investment bank, the PRC Public Security Board (PSB) wants to know.

In Beijing there is an American embassy, as one would expect in the capital of a major recognized and friendly power. Part of that embassy is a consulate within which is housed American Citizen Services. They offer notarial services--each signature costing US$50 (the price is the same the world over). In order to make an appointment with the foreign service officers therein, one must visit a website and register at a time when the US government is open for business, which is not always the case in this Tea Partying age or ever the case on Wednesday afternoon and weekends. The expectation is that you will arrive half an hour in advance of your appointment. The contracted Chinese company whose job it is protect these important legates and their staff from an invasion will not let you into the building until fifteen minutes prior to your scheduled appointment even if particulate matter blackens the heavens and the waiting room is nearly vacant, as was the case on the day of my visit. You must appear bearing your passport and a copy of the appointment form printed from the aforementioned registration website.

In the United States there are fifty states and a number of districts and territories. Each has its own distinct set of laws related to the provision of notarial acts and to the provision of a statement of no criminal record or criminal background report. In Michigan, you just get pointed to a website. In the state of New Hampshire, where I last resided, the Department of Safety's Criminal Records Repository does not require, as some states do, a requesting party to appear in person. One may, instead, submit a notarized form that seeks to have the record (or proof of no record) mailed to you, your employer or some other appropriate party.

In New Hampshire, there is also the longest serving secretary of state in United States history...who happens to be a friend of mine. His office is responsible for licensing various trades and professions, notably and relevantly notaries public, justice of the peace, and commissioners of deeds. A commissioner of deeds is permitted to carry out the same duties as a notary, but outside of state borders, whereas a notary public is restricted to performing his office inside of the state. In New Hampshire, the law allows notarial acts to be performed outside of state borders by commissioners of deeds, but neither notaries nor commissioners of deeds can charge more than US$10 for a signature.

Now, with these facts established, let us commence the telling of this story. By August 15, my paperwork to transfer my foreign expert certificate was all completed save for the requirement of obtaining a record of no criminal history. August 15 was also, technically, my last day of work for my former employer, though they continued to keep my sizable bonus hostage until after this transfer of paperwork debacle was concluded. Keeping money earned by a former employee until documents are cancelled is a novel concept that they decided to try out on me even in the face of my increasingly angry protestations. (It is also worth noting that August 22 might have been my last day if they had consented to pay me for earned vacation, but that is not their habit, sadly.)

In early August, I went to the US Embassy ("This is is the worst run embassy and I have worked in 43 countries," said the man behind me in line) and obtained notarization of my signature requesting that the State of NH send legal proof of no criminal record to my new employer. This was mailed off by my current employer with a courier service in a timely fashion and the form was stamped on August 16. Either the failure of the state to mail it abroad in the SASE, the lack of an SASE, the unreliability of the mail, or malfeasance on the part of the courier company meant that this single sheet of paper was not returned. In the ensuing two months, the patient clerk who works for the State of New Hampshire dispensing criminal records (sometimes to real criminals!), spoke with me several times, eventually getting special dispensation to fax it, which also failed twice. Faxing is complicated by the fact that our working hours here and theirs in NH never coincide. Ultimately, she received permission to email me a PDF, which I printed and gave to Human Resources (HR). Success!?

Not quite. HR called the Public Security Bureau (PSB) Foreign Affairs Department to make sure that they would accept a facsimile of the original. They said they would not, so we dispatched the courier company again and waited for the original. The original at long last in hand, HR brought the packet of information to the bureau. Rejected! Why? First of all, I was told I would need a statement of no criminal record from Changchun, where I had most immediately lived for two and a half years. (In the end, this turned out not to be true despite my former company having gone, in the interim, to quite some trouble to obtain it.) Second of all, the Chinese bureaucrats have no way of knowing if the blue and red stamp on the printed copy of the form filled out with pen by me was truly and legitimately the original from New Hampshire. They suggested I go to my consulate and get them to certify it as such. This is not a service that American Citizen Services (ACS) offers. Instead, they will affix their signature and seal, the date and printed name of the signing consular associate on an affidavit in which I can swear that the copy (a copy of the original document) of the attached document(s) are real, but which excuses the embassy of any liability if I am perjuring myself. They attached two documents, my fancy NH Commissioner of Deeds certificate signed by her Excellency Maggie Hassan and the criminal record form, and they did so with a very fancy irremovable grommet instead of a staple. Rosie the Riveter would have beamed at their handiwork.

In the lively, cordial, fascinating conversation with the consular associate, she neglected to sign and seal the affidavit--a detail to which we shall return. She did, however, on my first visit suggest that I meet with the Deputy Consul to speak generally and at greater length about my concerns, giving me a number to call to set up an appointment. She also, in a helpful gesture, pushed through the gap underneath the plate-glass window a flow-chart that ACS has developed to assist foreign experts who must now wade through this process. It was at this point it came to my attention that some people had merely appeared at the embassy with a handwritten statement averring that they had no criminal record. In turn, the embassy affixes an affidavit to these statements. It is unclear to me on what grounds they can or have ever denied somebody a signature on such an affidavit. The consular associate also explained that the real criminals probably go through an agency and get this paperwork handled by an agent. She never even needs to look the next criminal in the face.

I took her advice and made the appointment with the Deputy Consul after having sent them a letter, which said, in relevant part:
The subject to be discussed is whether the Chinese government will allow US citizens outside of the US Embassy to act as notarial officers.

I have reviewed the information at (non-official, but the best info I could find on the subject) and, but there is no nation-specific information about relevant treaties, applicable Federal law and regulations, or the laws of China that govern.

I think it is not proper that US government maintain a monopoly on this service and charge five times ($50) the statutory limit in my state ($10) for providing a notarized signature. Furthermore, it is an added burden (and unfair, in my opinion) to Chinese and joint venture employers who must pay their staff to take the better part of half a workday to wait in lines, go through security, register and wait again after they may have had to wait several days for the next available appointment, as well.

The reason that I went to the trouble of getting sworn in as a Commissioner of Deeds (who can perform notarial acts outside of state borders for New Hampshire citizens) and tracking down a judge to get sworn is was precisely to work with the hundreds of foreign teachers who, according to a new law that went into effect in July, will need to obtain a criminal background check. I would like to offer this service to them at a nominal cost.

On a different but not unrelated note, unfortunately, I have heard that individuals have offered handwritten affidavits stating, "I have no criminal record" and the Chinese government has accepted this. This renders the system meaningless, allowing any pedophile or other dangerous criminal to simply perjure himself. That the Chinese government went so far as to pass a law of this sort is laudable. Properly carried out, it should offer protection not dissimilar from what we require of teachers at home in the USA. It is in the best of the interest of the United States and reputation of our foreign experts here to ensure that this protection is in place in a functionally viable manner so that we do not have an embarrassing scandal with a foreign expert who has manipulated the system.

If the conversation between our two governments on this subject has not commenced, I suggest that the time is ripe. If this email does not suffice to convince you, I should very much like to have an opportunity to meet you in person and further plead the case on behalf of the thousands of Americans in Beijing and China who may want convenient, affordable notarial services. In any case, I would like an answer about whether I can act as a notary. I am willing to appear in person if you request or so require.

I have courtesy copied the NH Secretary of State who prompted me to become a Commissioner of Deeds so that I might notarize criminal background checks. I am also copying the relevant person at my current and former employers in China so that they can be apprised of the information herein. 
When I heard back that they would be happy to see me, I sent a short follow-up note, which, in relevant part, stated:
I noticed that the Affidavit that you dated and stamped with your name and position did not have a signature or a seal per se. I assume that is the way you do these things normally and that the Chinese government will accept it as you returned it to me, but if this was something you overlooked and we can perfect the document further, please let me know so that I can bring it with me. I suspect that the Chinese bureaucrats who review these things will be looking for a signature where it says signature and a seal where it says seal. To re-purpose President Gerald Ford's most famous utterance, I am ready for this long international nightmare to come to a swift conclusion. 
Unfortunately, on the day I arrived for the appointment nobody had read between the lines in the first letter or read my plain and simple English in the second epistle. The first order of business in the meeting with the deputy consul was the pushing of some more documents through the slot beneath the plate-glass window, clearly there to protect the deputy from my growing sense of irritation. In these documents was a copy of the Chinese notary law that was conclusive and would have, had somebody read my letter with some semblance of care, precluded the need for an in person meeting. It states, among many other requirements, that all people doing notarial acts in China must be Chinese nationals. In our discussion, I explained that I was well acquainted with both congresswomen from my state of last voter registration and one of my senators, but was told meekly that if they received a letter of inquiry from a congressional office, they would probably recommend that the Chinese government not clarify the law as past experience has shown that such requests lead to more hurdles, not a simplification of the process in question. "I am not surprised," I chortled. "Red tape," I muttered, conscious of the double entendre.

As the conversation wound down, the deputy offhandedly reminded me that he had heard that my correspondence had mentioned something about the affidavit lacking both signature and seal. He informed me that, if indeed I was correct about the document, the associate had made a mistake by not signing and sealing. His implication that I might be mistaken about the document's state of imperfection again reminded me of the purpose of the plate glass window.

As it was in the possession of my HR department, I did not have it with me. Yet another (fourth) visit would be needed. In true fact, the plate glass window was not necessary and I maintained utter composure throughout the conversation, perhaps even leaving him with the feeling that I was a satisfied customer. Alas, though I made a number of quips about the terrible position that they must daily find themselves in with regards to placating some of our angry, self-entitled fellow citizens--the ones who make more specie being disproportionately shorter of patience--I was not at all content with the defeatist Catch-22 that he laid out for me. The government was unlikely to raise the draconian consequences of China's isolationist notarial law in bilateral conversations (admittedly a high hope), to look upon or respond favorably to a Congressional inquiry about why they had not sought further clarification of the new criminal record regulation, or to do anything whatsoever to enable me to establish a thriving side business as a notary. To add insult to injury, in addition to telling me nothing I wanted to hear, they had negligently fulfilled their notarial duties. How, really, could I be expected to be satisfied?

In the ensuing weeks, I have scribbled letters to the largest US NGO concerned with sexual crimes and to the national association of notaries public in the US. A response from these institutions is still wanting. They should, respectively, in my opinion, be concerned that there is a loophole in the Chinese criminal record regulation large enough for Jean-Claude Van Damme to guide two Volvo trucks through and be concerned for their clientele that nobody can notarize in China except consular officers. Out of respect for the hardworking consular officers in the "worst US embassy in the world", I have not written to anybody elected to Congress. Sadly, so far, I am left jousting at this windmill alone, left flapping in the breeze by my government. Woe is me. Josef K. and Joseph Heller, what am I to do?

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Grieving and Gratitude: A Thanksgiving Reflection

There is, perhaps, nobody less deserving of the excellent people with whom I have been allowed to surround myself in this life, but this sense, honest and not a false assertion of humility, is, I would guess, probably widely shared. Indeed, how many other friends of Peter Conner Greer and Martin Capodice must feel the same way? We are and were graced by their presence.

When I left for Asia in early February 2011, I knew that my favorite English high-school teacher was living with cancer and that the husband of my dear friend, who was, in his own right, my dear friend, was also living with cancer. Knowing that I might not be there for their last days was one of the hardest parts of leaving.

A month ago, the latter person, Martin Capodice, passed away and today I have learned that my English teacher, Peter Greer, took a turn for the worse on Thanksgiving. He will return home for hospice--a process that mercifully only lasted a couple days for my other long-suffering friend.

The hardest part of being far away, as I just reflected in a letter to the daughter of my English teacher, is that you must delegate the giving of kisses. I did not express to her the coexisting truth: these temporal works of mercy are not assignable. You cannot be there for Thanksgiving and Christmas with your family. You cannot be there for your godson's wedding or your friend's funeral. No amount of cards or phone calls or delegated embraces can substitute for the spiritual fruit of being there yourself in the flesh, but there is some hope that a message of gratitude, an expression of love will provide some warmth and strength to the one about whom you are concerned.

"I don't think I know him as well as you do, but I adore him--he's just lovely and warm, and always has been," wrote a classmate of mine just now about Peter. Her assessment in the latter part of this reflection mirrors my own, but the first part made me wonder how well I actually know him. Comparisons are odious, as my father has always said, and it is true, I think, that we all know people differently. There must be some standard of knowing somebody better than somebody else, but I don't know what it is.

All this being true, still the hardest part of Marty's passing for me--I walked around the hutongs of Beijing in a daze for a couple nights upon hearing the news--was the realization that I did not know him that well. We don't know anybody that well. Death is always a robbery, taking somebody before you were permitted enough time in this life to go one level deeper or, sometimes, to say things that you wanted to say. As his wife said to me, "I just feel so lucky that I did get the time I had with him."