My Sibs and Me

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Evidently there’s a Siblings Day. I became aware of it late on April 10th through the numerous postings in my Facebook newsfeed about it. When the hell did that happen? And, if it’s now a bona fide day of family recognition, where will this end? I found out there’s already a Cousins Day, for example. Assuming I’m not the only person asking these questions, I’m writing to provide a little background on this obscure holiday, as well as a few personal thoughts about my own siblings.

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(Above: I couldn’t resist putting out a Belated Siblings Day post on Facebook with this sweet Combes sibling portrait from the early ‘70s.)

Here’s what Wikipedia says: “Siblings Day (sometimes called National Siblings Day) is a holiday recognized annually in some parts of the United States on April 10 honoring the relationships of siblings. Unlike Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, it is not federally recognized, though the Siblings Day Foundation is working to change this. Since 1998, the governors of (41) states have officially issued proclamations to recognize Siblings Day in their state.”

There’s a lot more information about it in this fact sheet located on the foundation’s website. For example, the date of April 10th was picked because it was the birthdate of the founder’s deceased sister.

That, as the website says, “the bond between siblings is usually the longest relationship of a person’s life” is certainly true. I remember pointing this out to my nephew Liam a year or two ago when he was angsting about his sister and yelled at the top of his lungs, “I hate Ayla!!!” I counseled him then that the day will come when he needs his sister and that his relationship with her will be the single-most important one he develops through his whole life. Of course, he looked at me like I had corn growing out of my ears.

I certainly had my ups and downs with my two brothers, Bill and Wayne, particularly when we were very young.  I remember being terrified of being left alone with Wayne and often used to wonder, had Billy not been there to protect me from him, whether I ever would have survived toddlerhood.

There was the time Wayne pushed my head under water while I was learning how to swim, the time he got a bunch of neighborhood kids to help him stick me in a hammock and spin me over and over again until I threw up, and the countless times he used to kick me under the table.

Wayne never minded getting in trouble, so he seemed to make it his goal to take me down with him. “Wayne is kicking me under the table!” I once yelled.  Dad replied in a millisecond, “at least he’s quiet about it.”

The most depressing instance was the time Wayne successfully got my mother to believe that I had used the F word.  I was probably 8 at the time and I had never even considered using the F word. I’ll never understand, given Wayne’s history of shenanigans, why my mother believed him. At any rate, Mom attempted to wash my mouth out with soap – except there wasn’t any water involved. I can still taste the chunks of Coast that were scraped off in my mouth under my little buck teeth.

It went on like this for years between me and Wayne.  Our relationship didn’t turn around until Billy went to college and it was just the two of us left at home, he a high school senior and I a junior. Wayne had realized that it was handy to have a popular sister who could potentially provide access to girls.

In my “new” relationship with Wayne, I was touched that he asked my help putting clothes together for him to wear to school. He seemed to blossom in several ways that last year home.  In actuality, I probably just noticed Wayne more now that Billy was gone. That allowed me to get to know him better and to appreciate him. 

Billy and I, on the other hand, seemed to have been made from the same mold.  We were high academic achievers, extroverts, and captains of our high school sports teams. That we were so much alike and so difficult to ignore were probably the main reasons Wayne seemed to have so much trouble growing up. He might have felt unnoticed and under-appreciated, and that led to outlandish behavior to get attention.

In high school, Billy and I had a nightly ritual of doing homework around the massive oak table in our family room. It was always a race to finish our assignments by 11:15, when the local NBC news broadcast ended, so we could watch “Star Trek.”  When the mildly attractive and shapely meteorologist started her fumbling assessment of the next day’s weather, it was a signal to finish up, close the books, and be alert for Captain Kirk.

Like the motley crew on the Enterprise, Billy and I always seemed to get along.  Those nights doing our homework together are among my fondest childhood memories.

Then the inevitable happened. We all grew up and went our separate ways. Bill was off to Clarkson University in upper state New York and then into the nuclear core of the U.S. Navy, where he remains today, presently out to sea with the rank of Captain. Wayne found college life wasn’t for him and joined the U.S. Air Force where he had a very long and decorated career. He’s retired from the military, but is back at the Wright Patterson base in Dayton, Ohio, as a civil servant. I went around the world in my studies and early career, ultimately settling back home in Vermont, just a stone’s throw from where the three of us grew up.

All of this sibling talk is making me realize that we really need to make a point of getting together much more often. I’ve no opinion on whether or not there should be a national holiday to celebrate siblings. It all seems a bit too Hallmark-ish for me.  However, I am very thankful to have taken this time to reflect on my relationship with my two brothers. And I’m pretty darned lucky to be stuck with them. 

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Boston Strong

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It was almost exactly a year ago that I heard the first live reports of the Boston Marathon bombing on the radio, while I was driving to a business meeting. Tears immediately welled up in my eyes, when I thought of marathon runners so close to the finish line being cut down in their tracks, unable to finish. And, in watching the televised coverage, I remember relating to the 78 year-old runner who was helped across the finish line right after the bomb went off. I think any runner would say that finishing the race would be a higher personal priority at that moment than worrying about your own injuries. Within 24 hours of the bombing, I knew that I was going to try my best to make it to Boston this year. 

Unfortunately, Plan A of trying to qualify for Boston — or “BQ” as we runners call it — based on my marathon running time didn’t pan out. Although I ran several half marathons and trained quite heavily, it was pretty apparent by late summer that I simply wasn’t capable of running a marathon in less than three hours and 55 minutes. Although I continued training, I also put a lot of effort into Plan B, which was to get to the Boston Marathon with a charity racing team. 

Due to the overwhelming response to the bombing from runners around the world, I wasn’t able to make it onto the charity team I selected either. It was devastating to get an email from the Dana-Farber Marathon Challenge that read: “We sincerely regret that we are not able to provide you a Boston ’14 marathon entry.  As much as we would like to accept every applicant, that is simply not possible due to truly overwhelming demand.  Thank you for your patience and understanding throughout this unprecedented situation.”

Why am I telling you this story? Because, I just revived my dream of running the Boston Marathon. Here’s how it happened.

Two months ago, I revealed my two tag-along New Year’s resolutions of losing 20 pounds and running my fastest marathon — called a “PR” for “personal record.” I decided to focus on my diet over the months of February and March, in hopes of losing 15 pounds by that time. The weight loss was expected to help me run faster, when I started by marathon training in April.

When I shared my Quarterly Report post earlier this week on Facebook, something in it caught the eye of my good friend, Lisa.  I should probably explain that Lisa is a REAL marathon runner. She’s in the midst of running her third set of marathons in all 50 states. What Lisa noticed is that I ran my first long-distance race of the season at a 9-minute per mile pace, which is a full minute and a half faster than my pace during my first race last year.  Since Lisa and I already had plans to run the Around the Lake Marathon on my birthday in late July, she suggested that I tweak my goal. Now, with Lisa’s encouragement, instead of just trying to PR at that race, we’re both going to try to BQ!

My best marathon time was at the Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon in Phoenix, back in January, 2006. I ran that in just over four-and-a-half hours.  As I mentioned above, my BQ time is less than four hours. That means I have to cut a half hour off my best time to qualify for Boston.

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(My official race photo when I got my PR at the P.F. Chang’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon in Phoenix, in January, 2006.)

I’ve started using the Hal Higdon Marathon Intermediate 2 Training Program which is an 18 week program that starts out with a 10-miler on the weekly Sunday long run. It also features three training runs of 20 miles prior to the marathon and strong Saturday runs to achieve a little fatigue during the weekly long runs.  This is more aggressive than the Hal Higdon training plans that I have used in the past. Looking at the races in my area, I adapted Hal’s plan by fitting in some competitive distance runs before my BQ try on July 25th.

It’s my hope that more serious training, combined with my weight loss and increase in overall fitness from not drinking, is going to make a real difference in my marathon performance. This is not going to be easy. But, I’m game to give it one heck of a try.

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(My modification of the “Hal Higdon Intermediate 2 Marathon Training Plan” with race schedule.)

My Vacation in Haiku

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It’s been one of those weeks when I’ve thought of several blog topics. Yet, nothing really gelled into anything coherent enough.  Since I’m still getting lots of positive feedback about my posts on Laos, particularly about my iPhone photography, I’ve settled on the easiest post of all: my vacation haiku interspersed with photos.

Most of these were written on the flight(s) back home, motivated by my disappointment that I had been on vacation for 10 days and hadn’t written a single poem to commemorate the journey.

I was traveling to visit my step-daughter and her friend, two professionals in their 20’s who wisely and boldly took a four-month sabbatical to enjoy life and create new experiences.  Fittingly, I took my trip to join them with a friend of my own from college, Angela Casey, with whom I had spent time in several Asian countries 20 years ago. Twenty years? Say it isn’t so!

The first haiku is about youth and how many experiences seem wasted on them. Of course, the motivation for this poem isn’t about Erin and Abby. It’s driven by my recent discovery of my old journals as I prepared to write my memoir, and, likewise, having thumbed through more than a thousand travel photos prior to Angela’s first visit here to Vermont to plan this trip.

“Regret” is wisdom
Condemning youth for missing
The signs. Damned hindsight!

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(Above: Me in rural southern China in 1997. Below: Me and Ange at the Raffles Hotel in Singapore in April 1995.)
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The next one is about my return with Angela to Beijing after so much time. Some of my feelings and opinions developed during the course of my nearly three years as an ex-pat in Beijing were chronicled in this post a month ago.

Beijing, have you changed?
Wi-Fi. Starbuck’s. House of Cards.
Emperor’s new clothes.

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(Above: Ange and me in a Beijing hotel lobby in 1994. Below: The two of us on Tian’anmen Square a few weeks ago.)

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(Above and below: After nearly 20 years, Beijing was different and the same, all at the same time.)

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Most of our trip was spent in Luang Prabang, Laos. This ancient capital and former French colony is situated along the Mekong River and is still home to dozens of active and well-preserved Buddhist temples. None of the four of us had been to Laos before, so we were all discovering new things. Every day was packed with enough bold color and interesting experiences to last a lifetime.

Many of the subjects that formed these haiku were also described in earlier blog posts. And, certainly, also caught in pictures. If you are interested in finding out more about the topics of these poems, be sure to use the links to get more info.

Along the Mekong,
Bold color and bounty spring
From the river banks.

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(Above: Despite the “dry season”, the Mekong banks were alive with crops and boats. Below: Members of a family that farms eggplant along the river. They graciously let us to use their lean-to for our lunch-time break from kayaking.)

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Morning market throng
Fruits, spices, meats of all hues,
Dizzy the senses.

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(Above: Spices at the Luang Prabang morning market. Below: Just a small section of the market.)

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Each temple yard yields
Countless monks by sunrise to
Walk tourist-lined streets.

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(Above and below: Different perspectives of the “tak bat” or morning alms-giving, a daily ritual at sunrise in Luang Prabang’s historic downtown.)

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Blazing orange robes
Catch sunbeams between the trees
To clothe patient monks.

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Fearful ride atop
Elegant, beautiful “beast.”
Wild elephant ride.

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(Above: My view from atop the elephant as we headed into the river at Elephant Village. Below: Our guide’s photo of me and Erin, after I moved from the seat to the elephant’s head.)

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With the months of preparation and research that went into the trip, including a reunion with Angela and a series of planning sessions, not to mention the work and household planning to accommodate it, it’s amazing how quickly the trip arrived and then was gone. With all of the unforgettable experiences that comprise the journey, there’s still nothing like coming back home to Vermont again.

There and back again.
Like Bilbo’s long adventure,
Nowhere else like home.

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The Mighty Mekong

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Laos is land-locked, bordered by Thailand to the east, China to the north, Vietnam to the west, Cambodia to the south, and just a tad by Myanmar (Burma) to the northwest. However, you wouldn’t know it where we are. That’s because the Mekong River, the 12th longest river in the world and the longest in Southeast Asia, after winding it’s way from Tibet through a chunk of China, also worms through western and southern Laos. And, it has a lot of tributaries, too.

The river creates very fertile soil in the extended river basin and also makes it easy to transport both goods and people. On land, rice is the biggest crop by far. Others include peanuts, corn, tamarind, soybeans, eggplant, and cucumbers, among many other fruits and vegetables. Local markets are plentiful with nature’s bounty in every hue.

I’m in Luang Prabang, the original capital of Laos that was founded in 1353, because of its fertile location along the Mekong. For the same reason, through the centuries, it came under the influence of various neighbors like the Siamese, Burmese, and Vietnamese, and, in the 20th Century, was a colony of France.

All of these cultures are evident here in many ways, including the architecture and the food, along with very strong influences from both Buddhism and Animism. It’s hard to detect that Laos is a Communist country, having become so after Vietnam defeated the French in 1954 — and that it did not open to tourism until the break-up of the Soviet empire in 1989. Due to its rich and evident culture and well-preserved history, Luang Prabang became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995 (http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/479).

All of the above, combined with the beautiful natural environment, make Luang Prabang a tremendous tourist destination. This has lifted up the economy of the entire province. Laos is still one of the poorest economies in all of Southeast Asia, but it grew by more than 8% annually in 2013 and is continuing at that pace (http://www.worldbank.org/en/country/lao). This province, certainly, is well above the average. The extended area of Luang Prabang has a population of 50,000. Our local guide that took us up the Mekong said that 90% of the folks here make their living through tourism.

You would not believe the tourist infrastructure here and yet there’s something about it that isn’t “touristy.” Even as you pass through markets that cater to visitors or visit villages with a tour guide, seemingly all of the Lao people have a friendly, laid back style and do not try to push you to make a purchase. The historic downtown is certainly almost all about tourism, with markets, storefronts, tuk-tuk drivers, restaurants with large English translations, and money exchange kiosks. But, you have to picture all of these things sending off a laid back vibe. So much so, that waiters don’t even come over to take your drink order, unless you ask. My theory is that they’re waiting for you to close the menu or that if you want something, you’ll let them know.

I strongly recommend that anyone traveling in SE Asia already or others just looking for a unique and unforgettable vacation experience come here. The only place I’ve been that is remotely similar was Guilin, China back in the 90s. That’s the best comparison I have. But Luang Prabang is more relaxing, more cultural, and has a much wider variety of amazing things to do.

Getting back to the subject of the Mekong River, my next blog post will feature how the agriculture that grows along it influences Lao cuisine.

For more information about the Mekong River, go here: http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/373560/Mekong-River.

A great intro to Laos is here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Laos.

The best traveler’s resource on Luang Prabang I found is here: http://www.lonelyplanet.com/laos/northern-laos/luang-prabang.

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Starbucks and Baozi

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Friday was Ange’s birthday and she awoke, after only about 4 hours of sleep, on a mission. She went directly to the concierge and asked for directions from the Peninsula Hotel to two locations — the closest Starbuck’s and the closest shop with baozi. “Bao” means “bread.” This makes sense, since these small breakfast dumplings have a skin that is breadier than most Chinese dumplings (they also have delicious pork inside). Luckily, the concierge drew a handy little map, making both purveyors easy to locate. Of course, we went in search of the coffee first.

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As you might have guessed already, this post isn’t about our breakfast, per se. Instead, it’s about how the two components of our breakfast really reflect the dichotomy of modern China, at least for me. Having a Starbucks on many Beijing street corners is the inevitable evolution of things here. The quest for things foreign and the embrace of controlled capitalism, combined with the humongous domestic market, made it inevitable. It was Avon and McDonald’s back in the early 80’s. Then, it was General Motors and Motorola when I lived here in the 90’s. Now, it’s Starbucks and Apple stores, and, can you believe it, even “House of Cards?”

The common thread of most of the Western things found here, then and now, is that they are largely materialistic and deemed relatively harmless by the government. Why not give your growing population of consumers these foreign goods that are, in many cases, actually made in China? What the Chinese have been less welcoming of is free thinking and other threatening Western ideas. At the turn of the previous century there was a slogan “Chinese learning for fundamental principles and Western learning for practical application.” Learn more here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zhang_Zhidong.

That this sentiment hasn’t really changed all that much manifested itself during my short stopover in Beijing in an interesting way. It was amazing to find free Wi-Fi everywhere, along with the Starbucks and iPhones to go with it. However, imagine my frustration upon discovering that Facebook was blocked and I was unable to upload my selfies in front of the likeness of Chairman Mao and those cute lion statues. In short, China’s lack of tolerance prevented me from alerting my nearly 500 “friends” that I had returned to my old stomping ground.

Little did I know that the Chinese government has been blocking access to Facebook since 2009, when it figured out that separatists in its far northwestern Xinjiang province had been using it to communicate with its followers to coordinate demonstrations against the government.

Of all the things that could frustrate me about Beijing (like taking over an hour to navigate the airport bureaucracy to track down our luggage, the ridiculously tight security presence on Tiananmen Square, and the prevalent line-cutting mentality of the Chinese), what does it reveal about me that blocking my access to Facebook was the only thing that really irked me?

Getting back to Starbucks, it strikes me that the green and white mermaid symbol alerting passers-by to the availability of little cups of familiar, high quality, but extremely high priced, “joe” is also a fitting symbol of the modern service industry, the new millennium, youth, and capitalism, all at once.

For all the ways that Beijing had changed over the 18 years that I was away, the essence of the city and the comfortable feeling it gives me were the same. The amazing food. The flashes of color. The welcoming nature of the people. It honestly still felt like home. When I asked, “Ni hao?” (“How are you?”) to nearly everyone I passed, they all paused, smiled broadly and said, “Ni hao.” Imagine if I had said, “How are you?” to everyone I passed in New York City. They would probably have me committed.

The little mom and pop shops nestled in between the larger modern stores, like the one where we ate our baozi, are further evidence that the essence of old China still remains. The friendly proprietors invited us to sit at their sole outdoor table, as if we were old friends. As we sat, happily drinking our Starbucks and eating our dumplings, dozens of well-dressed workers in their twenties and thirties stopped in to get baozi, soy milk, and other breakfast delicacies to go, as they hurried off to work.

After a very satisfying breakfast, in more ways than one, Angela stood up, turned to me and said, “Starbucks and baozi. My job is done. Sharon, you take it from here.” I steered us purposefully in the direction of the Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. And, it was not lost on me that this part of our morning’s itinerary represented another dichotomy in Chinese history, the legacies of feudal times and the Maoist era….

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Throwback Thursday

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It’s my ultimate “Throwback Thursday.” I landed in Beijing earlier today, after more than 17 years away. There’s at least one volume that could (and will) be written about the nearly three years of my life spent here. The short version is that I started out in a major depression and climbed my way out, bit by bit, until I started to resemble the confident woman that I am today. True story: In my first five months in Beijing, I went from obsessively watching the OJ Simpson trial on CNN to actually working for CNN. And, I still have my press pass to prove it.

Thankfully, I haven’t come back alone. I’m with an old college pal from my George Washington University days, Angela Casey. It’s odd that we took so many of the same courses with the same professors and were only one year apart in school, yet didn’t meet until my senior year. Ange graduated from GW with a degree in East Asia Studies (China Concentration) in 1991. Mandarin was also my language, but my degree was International Affairs (Mandarin Chinese) in 1990. Once we finally met, we became fast and close friends.

After school, to say that we kept in touch is an under-statement. We both fell for the same guy over the summer of 1991, in D.C. We met up in San Francisco in 1993, then Beijing in 1994, and Hong Kong, Malaysia, and Singapore in 1995. And, finally, at my home in Vermont in 1996. After that, we inexplicably lost touch at some point in late 1999 or early 2000, when Ange went off to the UK and I moved to Arizona.

We credit Facebook for rekindling our friendship late last summer. There were several Angela Caseys on FB, but only one with the graphic of bamboo as a profile picture with the statement that she speaks Mandarin, Cantonese, and French. I knew immediately that she was my Ange.

Shortly after re-becoming friends, Ange drove up from her childhood home in the Poconos to stay with me and Bruce in Vermont. Over that October weekend, we plotted this Asia trip to meet up with my step-daughter Erin in Laos. It seemed only fitting to begin this new journey where we met up 20 years ago, right here in Beijing.

I still need to reflect on the vast differences — and the similarities — of the Beijing in 2014 with the one I knew well between 1994 and 1997, before I can say anything meaningful about it. Not to mention how different we both are as women in our mid-40’s compared to the exuberant self-proclaimed world travelers we were in our mid-20’s. However, what I can share now are a few photos and will add more soon.

And, I can say from the very bottom of my heart that there’s no one I’d rather come back to Asia with after all this time. Thanks, Ange, for stepping back into your role as willing partner in crime (so to speak) after such a long time.

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Where Are You Going?

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Tomorrow, I begin a 10-day trip to Asia with my old college pal, Angela Casey.  I have one foot out the door already. Recall that this trip is my insanely generous reward to myself for following through with my unexpected and difficult New Year’s resolution not to drink alcohol this year.

About twenty years ago, Ange and I had the time of our lives palling around Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaysia, and Mainland China.  Now, we’re in our mid-40s and we’re going to try to re-capture some of our glory days on a mission to check-in on my step-daughter who’s in the middle of a 4-month journey of her own. Erin and her friend Abby’s travels are documented in a separate blog here.  It’s not lost on me that Erin and Abby are about the same age now that Angela and I were back then.

In the morning, Ange and I will rendez-vous at the Port Authority in NYC to head over to JFK Airport together. Our first stop is Beijing, my old stomping ground. Thinking about this part of our trip motivated me to quickly thumb through about 1,000 old photos. A few shots of me and Ange together in the 90’s are below:Image

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I also couldn’t resist looking at a few of my old journal entries from the “China Years” and discovered that I had some Beijing anger issues back in 1996. A journal entry from October became a short essay in my Christmas letter that year titled  “Beijing, Bejijing, where are you going?” It’s not exactly a promo from the Beijing Tourist Bureau.  However, it’s how I felt at that moment in time, as an expatriate living and working in Beijing. 

Beijing.  Beijing.  What do I really think of you, you capital city of this huge ‘socialist’ country?  You’re no longer protected from the peasants.  Your economy remains a bubble, but the whole country is moving with you, or against you, or in spite of you.  You have it all, don’t you?  All but clean air.  I mean you have history; you have culture; you have the old and sprouting up around and over the old is the new.  The results of ‘development’.  You have cars and the pollution that accompanies them; pollution which will someday rival even Bangkok.  You also have the coffee shops and the jazz bars and even a bagel shop or two.  You must have known that Dunkin’ Donuts was only a decade behind McDonald’s and Avon.  Or had you bothered to consider this?

And, look at your populace.  Women with their tough-as-nails, calf-length nylons, their penciled eyebrows, and their sequined sweaters.  They’re almost fashionable, at least compared to the Russians who roam your streets in search of bargains to bring home to their starving nation.  And your men with their PVC briefcases and pagers.  They’ll be real businessmen someday.  But you can still see the difference between your own and your Singaporean, Hongkonger, and Taiwanese brothers, can’t you?  Your perms are a little too dry, yet.  And your shoes a little too dirty.  But you’re almost there.

You will arrive soon.  But where is it that you think you’re going?  You are rushing ahead so quickly with unparalleled determination.  But what are your goals?  What is your raison d’être?  Your 9th five-year plan.  What does that say?  What unrealistic jargon does it use to unite and confuse you as you approach the future?  I’m only asking because I want you to care, it’s not that I give a shit.  I’m just an observer here.  But I am thinking deeply as I observe.  I ask questions of your taxi cab drivers, your shop keepers.  And I sympathize with their confusion.

They own property, you know, these socialists you have raised.  You let them buy because you wanted a piece of the wealth that originated in the south and spread to the hinterland – not like wildfire – but like something.  You let them buy, but you’ve made it so difficult for them to sell.  What kind of ownership is that anyway?  You’ve confused them with this Chinese characteristic of capitalism or socialism or whatever it is you call it nowadays.  And your billboards confuse us all – foreigners and Beijingers alike.  You want your children to “seize opportunity”; you want your own reforms to “deepen”; you hail an “expansion of openness” and an “acceleration of development”.  Yet you caution all to “maintain stability.”  You fear another Tiananmen.  Or at least you want your children to fear that.  It’s a tall order, this billboard you’ve erected on Chang’anjie, a stone’s throw from Tiananmen Square.

Tiananmen says it all, doesn’t it?  That gray expanse from the Forbidden City to the Gate itself.  So symmetric it all is, with the Chairman’s mostly synthetic body on view right smack in the center of it all.  But at least you proved that your children can line up like the civilized barbarians.  They do so daily from 8:30-11:30am; I’ve seen them do it.  Quickly and orderly they wait in the queue to glimpse their deceased Chairman.  “Ten thousand years” to the preserved flesh of the man who became more than a man.  The icon of Mao.  The one who fucked you all over in his paranoia.  “Ten thousand years to Chairman Mao.”  Arguably the second most influential Chinaman who ever walked the earth.  Mao, you will fade, though.  You will not live in human memory 10,000 years.  You are not Confucius, didn’t you know?

So, Beijing, where did you say you were going?  Please let the world know when you get there, won’t you?  We are all interested.  And we’re almost as confused as you are.

Ange and I will pause less than 24 hours in Beijing, as we journey toward Laos. As you can imagine, we plan to make the most of our brief return to one of our old stomping grounds. It will be very interesting to see how much (or how little?) things have changed in the past 18 years. 

When In Doubt, Haiku

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Working on my memoir last year, I re-discovered my old journals. Although filled with many boring entries, every so often, the pages revealed heartfelt poems, prose, and short stories. I was particularly struck by my poetry and regretted that I had not kept writing poems through the years. Seeing that some Facebook friends are writing haiku as statuses, I decided to reacquaint myself with this type of writing.

Haiku is a Japanese poetic form. Traditionally, these poems are 17 total syllables in 3 lines, comprised of 5 syllables for the first and third lines and 7 syllables for the second line. Here’s a good introduction on haiku and how to write them.

Many modern writers do all sorts of things and call them “haiku.” The purist that I am, I prefer the challenge of forcing myself to articulate my thoughts economically, so I stick to the traditional pattern, like this:

When in doubt, haiku.
Just seventeen syllables
To express your thoughts.

In the past, many Japanese haiku were about nature and the last line contained some sort of surprise, twist, or change. I can see why. When I started trying this out for myself, I discovered first-hand how easy it is to be inspired by nature and to see life lessons within it.

The three haiku below, I wrote in the same week, before, during, and after a major snow storm:

Clear. Crisp. New Year’s Day.
Blue skies slowly turning gray.
Calm before the storm.

Quiet, peaceful morn.
Dark with no promise of light,
‘Til after the storm.

Tracks on snowy mound.
Signs of life after the storm.
Can’t hide Beaver’s lodge.

My favorite of my recent nature-related haiku was the most difficult to write. I saw snow whipping up and traveling across our field and I said ”snow devil” out loud to myself.  Then I laughed, realizing that I was talking to myself and also that this was not an actual term. So, I decided to explain it in a haiku.

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This is the final result:  

We say “dust devils,”
When wind whips up desert sands.
Here, “snow devils” dance.

Forcing my thoughts and feelings into these patterns has gotten somewhat addictive. On a particularly long and pleasurable training run with my dog the other day, I decided to articulate my feelings in a haiku. 

My running partner,
Always listens, never tires.
Four-legged “best friend.”

My dog, Cleopatra, has been the subject of a few other recent poems, including these below, written on different days when reflecting on playing fetch with her before my 90 minute drive to work:

Tossing ball for pup.
At peace, playing in the rain.
Montpelier waiting.

Playing fetch at dawn.
Reluctant moon. Purple skies.
Warm despite the cold.

Sometimes, I want to hold fond feelings close to me and preserve them, so I compose a haiku. This happened twice this winter, while I was skiing. The first one was inspired by a great time I had with my nephew Liam.  We composed the first two lines together on the chairlift and each had a different third line. My version is below:

Good light and powder,
Rewards after the clearing.
Welcomed by old knees.

The second flooded over me while I was skiing with my friend Blair. I had to pause on the slopes to count syllables with my ski pole in the snow, until the haiku was completed and memorized.  It refers to a close friend of mine who died four years ago. He’s the person who finally got me skiing again after nearly a 25-year hiatus:

First mogul run since
Stephen said, “You can do it!”
Great times, then and now.

Finally, I come to a haiku that requires more explanation than I can afford here. It’s about my maternal grandmother and the unintended impact her unorthodox and complicated personality had on me as a child. Hopefully, the words can speak for themselves, at least on some level:

Mémère’s voice inside
My head is unforgiving.
Self-doubt in disguise.

I hope you enjoyed this blog, despite its departure from my usual topics. Please feel free to comment with some of your own haiku. I’d really love to read them.