Friday, October 28, 2005

My WSJ story

Several people wrote in saying they tried but failed to read the column thanks to the WSJ subscriber-only policy. It's been a few days so I think it's kosher to post it. Here goes.

Beijing-based journalist, Alan Paul, on his favorite way to sightsee in the Chinese capitol: from the seat of a bicycle.

How to start: Even as traffic grows steadily, bikes remain a great way to see Beijing. You can rent one from a stand near Houhai Lake, a beautiful, rapidly gentrifying area north of the Forbidden City. Make sure you get a lock and the bike works properly, then pedal around Houhai and adjoining Qianhai Lake before heading into the nearby hutongs (old style courtyard houses). You will have a much better experience with a guide who knows how to maneuver through the crowds: Jack Zhao (jackzzw@) and Justin Wang (justin_chinatours@hotmail .com) both offer tours.

Where to ride: Head east to the Drum Tower, a 600-year-old bastion that is a helpful landmark and is also worth a visit. Then bike north to the Confucius and Lama Temples, two of Beijing grandest sites, where you’ll have to park and explore on foot. Remember to use that lock. Get back on your bike and head south to the Forbidden City. Circling the perimeter alongside the moat will help you grasp the complex’s immense size, and remember to look up at the corners, where the most spectacular buildings reside. Back near Houhai, take a break at the relaxing, unjustly obscure museum, “the former home of Soong Ching-ling,” which includes beautiful, serene gardens.

Where to eat: It’s hard to go wrong on the restaurant-lined “Ghost Street” several blocks east of the Bell Tower. Little Sheep Mongolian Hot Pot, in particular, will fill you up for the afternoon ride. (Tel. 6316-6668) The lakes are also surrounded by bars and restaurants, including Han Cang, a mellow spot specializing in minority Hakka cuisine on the South East side of Lotus Lane. Try the chrysanthemum tea. (Tel. 6404-2259) If you want to go local, stop at a hutong stall for a bowl of fresh-made noodles that cost less than a dollar.

Bike Excursions: You can get into the country surprisingly fast but you will need transportation for you and your bike. Contact Cycle China (, which offers both day trips and longer journeys and will provide bikes, helmets, guides and rides to and from the countryside. You can head West to visit the 500-year-old Ming Village, an old Silk Road outpost, and bike through gorgeous gorges. Alternately, you can head just 90 minutes northeast, where the Great Wall snakes through beautifully jagged mountains. You can ride in the shadows of The Yellow Flower section of the Wall, stopping as often as you like to scamper up the truly amazing landmark. Ask in advance for a farmhouse lunch stop to be arranged.

Jacob lost another tooth

Jacob lost his fifth tooth the other day. I really didn’t know he actually believed in the Tooth fairy but he was very concerned with whether or not she could find him in China and whether she would deliver without a tooth to take away. He apparently put it in his pocket and then lost it at school. He wrote the following note, on a torn piece of paper, in his self-taught cursive writing:

“Dear Tooth Fairy. I lost my tooth but can’t find it. Love, Jacob Paul, Beijing.”

I went up and put 20 quai (about $2.50) under his pillow. He woke me up at 5 am. “Dad, look, look.”

Grumble, grumble, snort. “Huh?”

“Turn on your light so you can see – the tooth fairy left me 20 quai! Can I buy cards tomorrow?”

Grumble, grumble, snort. “Yeah, yeah. Get in bed now and go to sleep.”

He climbed into our monstrosity of a bed and as I tried to go back to sleep, I could hear him laying next to me, playing with that bill.

Nervous news, hutong tours and more...

I have a lot on my mind right now, with some pretty heavy medical news from back home, which I am not quite ready to discuss publicly yet. I only mention it because it is very much on my mind and I’m having a hard time focusing on this other stuff. But the show must go on, and avoidance is as good an approach to something you can’t control as anything else. So sorry to be so vague for now, but that’s how it must be. Now, off we go…

I took Jacob and Eli out of school early Weds. to head downtown and go on a hutong tour. Monica Langley, a Journal reporter from the states, was in town with her husband and 7-year-old daughter and they invited us to join them so I figured why not? All the way down there, on our hour-long carbide, Jacob was complaining that he was hungry, he would rather be at school, he was missing recess, this is stupid, his friends were doing this and that, why couldn’t he go to Felix’s house? I was getting really annoyed, because I had stumbled all over myself and skipped lunch to get these guys down there for what I thought would be a special time with dad.

We got down to Houhai Lake, found the other guys and our guide Raymond and grabbed a few pedicabs for our tour through the hutongs, which are the old style, courtyard homes, mostly about 800 years old, which used to cover Beijing and have been largely torn down. I have gone through them on a bike a few times and it is always cool and interesting back there. But I had never done one of these popular tours, where you ride around in a pedicab, go into houses, etc.

There are a lot of them riding around in there and I felt a little awkward at first, really like a tourist. And Jacob was continuing to whine every time we passed a little stand, “They had candy there! Can’t we stop?” But as we moved on, it was a lot of fun and the kids really came around. We visited a preschool/kindergarten and Jacob and Eli ran around the playground a bit and played with a few kids, as pictured at the top.

We went to the Drum Tower, a high, 600-year-old stone tower filled with giant drums, which used to be used to mark time. They do a drum show on the half hour, which the kids enjoyed. They also had some little tourist shops up there, including one selling old military surplus items. That’s where Jacob and Eli tried on the helmets. Jacob really wanted to buy the jet fighter pilot helmet for Grandpa Hal.

We finished the tour by stopping into a hutong to “see a real home.” It is an inherently awkward thing, but there was this very nice old man showing us around. We went and sat in his tiny living room, with his tiny kitchen off to one side and his tiny bedroom off the other side. They have a little potbelly stove in the middle of the room for their heating. The kitchen had a two burner stove run by propane. Jacob bounced around on the couch and said, “What do we do now?” We spoke with our host a bit and then went out to the courtyard. His two sons lived across the way.

They had a big stack of coal for the winter lined up against the wall. It comes in discs that look sort of like three hockey pucks stacked n top of each other with a sort of honeycomb on each. I picked one up and was surprised by its lightness. You now see the big tricycles work bikes pedaling around town with the backs stacked up with this coal. Clean burning it is not.

Back in the courtyard, our host picked a pomegranate off a tree, ripped it open and handed it to us and then two things that made the whole day worthwhile happened. First, Eli very crisply and clearly said, “shia-shia” (thank you) which cracked up the guides and made the old man smile broadly. I told Eli to ‘sing his song” and he launched into his Chinese friendship song loud and clear the old man knew it and sang along with E. it was just the sweetest moment and I was really proud of E. He loves speaking Chinese. I think he is going to pick it up quickly.

The other thing that happened is Jacob eyed the split open pomegranate wearily, like Stymie of the Little Rascals eyeballing an artichoke after running away and going days without food, before finally declaring, “It may have choked Artie but it ain’t going to choke Stymie.” I urged Jacob to try it and he finally, reluctantly stuck the tip of his tongue out and just graced one bright red seed. “Mmmm” A little smile cracked. “I like it. Can I have yours?” We headed back to the pedicab and he ate the whole fruit, then asked me to buy him some more.

It was good that we had these very nice moments because the trip home was pure hell. We got in a cab at around 5:30 and we were pretty far south and West in town, while we live way Northwest of the city center. We slogged through traffic almost all the way back and the pollution was horrible, the cab was belching it and Eli was crawling all over my lap. I felt very anxious but didn’t let on; forced artificial calm is one of the best things about parenthood. Jacob kept himself occupied playing a car-racing game on my cell phone but the battery was dying. Then sitting bumper to bumper still not half way home, I heard the dread words from Eli.

“I have to go poop, dad.”

“You have to hold it in, E.”

“I gotta go real badly.”

“Hey, let’s play I Spy!”

Somehow, my distraction technique worked and we played along, spirited game of I Spy while continuing to inch forward. He made it home. The trip took close to two hours.

This is pretty darn funny:
: Arnold's neighborhood


Music listened to while writing this post: Ray Charles, Jazz and Blues. “Rockhouse, Parts 1 &2” is one of my all-time favorite tunes and hearing Brother Ray play a real piano is a treat. Check it out. This is essential music.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

We Passed

Whoopdee damn doo, we both passed the Driver’s License test this morning.

We studied a bit more than last time and it paid off. I would say that Becky studied quite a bit more than me. I just couldn’t pull myself away to sit down and do it as much as I should have. But in the end it was just enough. I had the opposite experience of last time – after about 15 questions, I knew I had a real shot – and got two strictly because I had memorized them – and got very serious and intent in my test-taking. I even reviewed my answers and changed a couple. I think I changed one from right to wrong and one from wrong to right, so it was a wash. But I had no margin for error – I got a 90. Becky got 93 or 94 I forget which.

I almost got up and spiked my study book and did a little end zone dance when I hit send and a big smiley face popped up on my screen.

Now, you guys back home who haven’t had to take a driver’s license test since you were 16 can laugh at us all you want, but I’ll tell something—this was the hardest test I remember taking. Becky ended up with the books, so I can’t post any questions right now, but I’ll tell you a few little tales that illustrate my point.

We walked into the place at about 9:30 for our 10:00 test, and the 9 am takers were just coming down. A big, beefy guy in a Carharrt jacket came up to his driver, who was standing next to me and said, in a thick southern accent, “Let me tell you something; I am not coming here again, no matter what. Do you understand? I am not taking this test again, man. No way, no how. I will just hire cabs and drivers. This is ridiculous.”

I told him about FESCO, the “automatic 91 for 100 bucks” method of getting a license I heard about last week. He was very intrigued. We started chatting. He is from Tennessee, here with five other guys to install giant turbine engines all over the country or something like that. I know he used the words “install” and “turbine.”

“The first four guys came in here and flunked, so me and my other buddy been studying our asses for three days,” he recounted. “I got an 87. This is ridiculous.”

I told him that people at home were making fun of us for failing and he grunted. “Show them this damn book,” he said, waving it around. “Then see who’s laughing.”

As we were getting ready to go up, his friend, a bearded guy of about 50 similarly clad in workmen’s clothes came out, laughing and shaking his head. He had failed, too. They wished us good luck.

We went up and started taking the test. The room was quite full this time. Becky got two phone calls early. She answered the second one and just said, “I can’t talk” before turning the phone off. Two uniformed cops came sprinting over to her. I thought they might kick her out, but they didn’t.

A very distinguished looking, white-haired Frenchman came in a few minutes late and sat down next to me. After about 10 minutes, he looked totally flummoxed and leaned over to me and said, “Eh. How many questions is this test?” When I told him 100, his eyes got big and he sort of chuckled and looked green around the gills. How do you say “Dead man walking” en francaise?

After I finished and knew I had passed and told Becky and mouthed “good luck” before heading out. But I was still a little nervous until I got the official notification in the front. The lady cop took my paper and scrawled 90 on the bottom and knew I had done it. On my way out, I saw a sign by the side of the door to read if you passed. It basically said, “Congratulations. Come back in 5 days for your license” (Of course you can’t just walk out with the thing.) As I was reading it, another guy came over with a huge grin and read it. I congratulated him a d him me. In an accent I couldn’t place, he said, “I went to four years of University and many more of advance degree study but I have never, ever stayed up all night studying until last night. This test I s unbelievable!” And he held up his paper to me. I saw it was his second time, as well. He scored an 84 and now a 94.

I went down and showed Mr. Dou who was very relieved. He said some thing I didn’t understand and then I realized he was saying, “Why didn’t you show Rebecca the answers?” He didn’t understand it was randomly generated. We took different tests.

I went to the bathroom and on my way out bumped into the guy from “University” and he was grinning ear to ear. I said, “You sure are happy” and he said, “Of course! We must be.”

Mr. Dou and I sat and waited about 10 minutes until B emerged with a big smile. We headed back to the car, both as happy as I remember us being in a long time. I told her it was the most joy I remember feeling since our kiss were born. That must be an exaggeration but I swear it felt true.

Becky went off to work and then Mr. Dou drove me home. I celebrated by going for along bike ride in the country followed by lunch at the little place near the bike store where I can barely communicate. I have learned a few new words since my last visit there, but I still ordered primarily by pointing at the table next to me. I ended up with delicious meat and scallion pancakes and a really tasty, slightly spicy soup with a beef broth, little meatballs (pork, I think), rice noodles, cabbage and cilantro. Also a big pot of tea. Total cost: $3 and I have half the pancake in the fridge downstairs.

It was interesting to see how different the country looks in the last few weeks. It is fall now, quite definitively – all the crops are cut and it is very brown in there. There is still corn piled up on some of the roads, but mostly it is now off the cob in big piles.

Music listened to while writing this: The Allman Brothers Band @ SUNY Stonybrook, 9-19-71

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

You can never have too many Best Dressed Pictures

A few more Pagoda pics

The Silver Pagodas

Last Saturday we went to the Silver Pagodas, 800-year-old Buddhist pagoda temples of some sort. This is less than an hour from our house and really beautiful. There are some great hikes allegedly leaving from behind these things, but we just trekked up and around in a circle. Jacob had seen them in a hiking guide book and chose them as our destination and it was, I must say, a good choice.

We hired a driver, Mrs. Lu, for the day, for about 40 bucks and set off following the yardleys, our neighbors across the street and had a very nice afternoon. We had apicnic of sorts. The Yardleys had some real food. We had granola bars and apples, which is all the kids eat most of the time anyhow. It was a little lacking for us.

There is an old sacrificial altar there. I explained what it was to the kids and they took turns sacrificing each other, then it was my turn. Then Olivia Yardley, 6, asked me why they used to kill animals.

“They thought it would make God happy.”

Screwed up face, cross-eyed look. “That s not happiness, Alan!”

Then she and Jacob were off and running but Eli was lost in deep thought. He started asking me a lot of questions about God. “Does he control everything? Is he a man? Where is he?” I kept answering with a bunch of grey, mushy gobbledy gook and feeling bad about it. That’s not what a five year old needs to hear, but I couldn’t bring myself to give definitive answers. Then we mercifully moved on. Then he came back to me and said, “Is God just a giant head?”

Good questions, young Eli. At least I didn’t tell him to ask Mom or better yet, Jim or Theo Yardley.

Later, the kids were all running around and I was playing a spirited game of monster with Anna and George Yardley. I love saying his name, as he is namesake of but not related to this hoops hall of famer. A stout Chinese gentleman of about age 50 was standing in front of one of the pagodas, about 15 yards out. He whistled loudly – I have always considered it a failing of my life that I can’t dog whistle like that – and made some extreme hand signals indicating for us and our kids to shut up. His point was clear. We followed suit as best we could and he proceeded to do a whole ritual of bowing, with his hands bent in a prayer position. He move don to the other pagodas and did the same.

Meanwhile, we were packing up and barreling home. We participated in a progressive dinner that night and Becky had signed us up for a main course, somewhat unknowingly. And Mr. Li was already booked for a party so tarnations, we had to do this ourselves. I ended up making a lamb stew from an Epicurious recipe I have used before and it was really good, I must say. Yoo Ying came over to help us out and she tried some and said to me, “You cook hen hao!” (very good) and gave me a thumbs up. That was nice. I think she’s been sot of puzzled about me and what I do all day in this room with the door shut. Now at least she knows I can do something.

It was a nice evening, with lots of wine and many Aussies. The only thing of real note was that one of the guys over here for dinner was this Aussie who work s for the Chinese Automobile Association. We discussed our drivers license fiasco with him and he laughed and said, “of course you ailed.” And proceeded to tell us another place we can go, for about 100 bucks where the test is written rather than computer and the results, uh, tend to be favorable. We also met a German guy who took the test at a place that is only Chinese. Your driver can come as your “translator.” I wanted to jump on these options immediately but my wife is too earnest. She thinks we should proceed with out plan first. I’ll let you know how this plays out. Or maybe I will anyhow.

My story in the Journal

Click here and give it a try.

But I'm not sure if they'll let you on there without a sub.

Give it a try. Or better yet go out and buy the apper and turn to D5.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Debuting in the Journal tomorrow

Tomorrow (Tuesday) I have my first piece in the WS Journal. It is an “Off The Beaten Track” column in the Personal Journal section about bike riding in Beijing. It is a very dense 350 words and certainly not my most poetic effort, but I am excited about it.

I have so much more to write about, but it is getting late and I don’t quite have the juice to give it a go today. But I need to go into a little discussion about the ethics and logistics of being a professional critic. It is prompted by a few things, but primarily the righteous anger of my good friend, Art Rummler. Art and his wife Claire went to see Paul McCartney last week and loved the show. They picked up the Chicago Tribune the next day and saw that reviewer Greg Kot was less than enthused. Art wrote him the following letter:

Twenty-thousand people go to a show. The artist gives them what they came for and more. Generations of fans sing, dance, laugh and cry. 19,999 leave happy. One leaves with a chip on his shoulder. Thanks for nothing, Greg Kot. Your review made the garbage instead of my scrapbook.

Cutting edge? McCartney was cutting edge when you (and I) were in diapers. Ragging on him for giving the fans what they want; what point is there to that? Do you really think that anyone in the audience (besides you) thought the show was boring? Or did we just need someone of your "talent" to tell us what we
eally saw and how we should really be feeling?

You missed the story completely. McCartney is 63 years old, played for 3 hours and demonstrated the same skills that made him a superstar some 40 years ago. The show transcended generations with kids, parents, even grandparents coming together to see and hear a living legend. His music has entertained and inspired musicians around the world. But yet, you choose the contrarian view.

My guess is that years of free tickets, A/R freebies and back stage passes has jaded you to the point of extreme ennui. Too bad. Maybe you need a break, become a regular fan again, or in the words of Paul, "Get back to where you once belonged."

Take that Greg Kot. Don’t mess with Mr. Loud!

Kot actually responded to Art, as such:

On the contrary, years of concertgoing has helped make me a better listener. it's also raised my expectations of what an excellent show should and can be. I get paid to draw on that experience and offer my opinion. it's just an opinion, and it's not formed out of spite or malice or ill-will. I think McCartney is a brilliant musician and performer. I think he gave a brilliant show in 2002 at the united center. overall, I've seen him six or seven times, and I know quite well what he's capable of, when he's "on" and when he's on cruise control. he can put it on cruise control, and still please the fans who love him and love the songs. again, it's my opinion, and it's not intended to, nor should it, detract from the experience of those who attend. but i am obligated to write what i see and hear, whether it pleases the fans and the performers or not.

Now, this is an interesting dialogue to me. I've seen the Allman Brothers band at the Beacon Theater dozens of times, for instance, so I have a wider source material to draw from in assessing how good a show was, for instance. But if I review the concert for a general audience, is it realistic to hold it up in relation ot he best I've ever seen? I don't think so, though it would be for an allmans fanzine.

I am actually being somewhat attacked by some GW readers for being too nice in a current review of Trey Anastasio’s solo CD. If you don’t know, Trey as the frontman of Phish, the band with phantical fans which he broke up last year. This is his first CD since then and it has been more or less met by dismay by Phish fans, whom I would say are just out for blood because they consider Trey their John Lennon and Yoko Ono all rolled up into one – the hero as well the villain in terms of the breakup.

So some of these guys online, on the GW message board are questioning me about what the hell I was thinking more or less. So it did make me stop and think, “Was I hyped? Was I a Pollyanna? Or is this a good album?” Now, I do think I started listening to it in a positive frame of mind for two reasons. I had interviewed Trey about something else briefly and got his take on what he was trying to do. And I discussed it with Brad Tolinski, who heard the CD before me and was very positive about it. And Brad is highly critical. So I would say I got the CD ready to like it. But now 6 weeks later, I pulled it out and listened again – and I still like it. Whew.

If you’re interested, here’s the review, which is in the Holiday issue of GW, on newsstands now.

Trey Anastasio

On his first album since disbanding Phish over a year ago, Trey Anastasio has left behind many of the more cerebral aspects of his old band’s music, including an emphasis on sheer musicianship and odd time signatures. He instead invests his creativity into packing relatively compact songs with interesting, subtly subversive elements. The result is a mainstream rock album with depth, focus and a subtle late-era Beatles fascination. While it lacks the excitement and adventurousness of early Phish –how could it not? – Shine also avoids self-parody and bloat, both of which were a constant danger in Anastasio’s famed jam band, especially in recent years.

Faced with establishing his own identity and voice after being the face of Phish for 20-plus years, Anastasio opted to go truly solo. Producer Brendan O’Brien is the only consistent partner, playing keyboards, bass and some drums. Drummer Kenny Aronoff powers seven tracks and a few other people help out, including some members of Anastasio’s touring band, 70 Volt Parade. But Shine is clearly Trey’s show. The result is a strongly personal statement that avoids the one-man-band pitfalls of sterility and stiffness.

Writing all his lyrics for the first time in his career, Anastasio largely favors optimistic, relatively straightforward messages about shining lights, liberating love and sweet dreams. He sounds fully invested in every word he sings, which lends the music urgency and intimacy and helps make Shine the most polished and complete collection of songs Anastasio has produced since Phish’s ‘96 album Billy Breathes. Nothing sounds like a snippet of an extended jam or a hurried studio composition, as did many songs on latter Phish projects, and only “Black” fails to lift off. The rest of the songs move inexorably forward, energetically propelled from one to another, often connected on an almost subconscious level by a driving acoustic guitar track.

There are few guitar fireworks on the album, with Anastasio’s crisp and tasty playing serving more as seasoning than the main course. You will certainly recognize his fretwork on tunes like “Black,” “Wherever You Find It” and “Come As Melody”, which explode in orgasmic solos. Elsewhere, however, the guitar tends to serve the song as a foundation rather than a centerpiece, with lead lines popping up as fills and fade outs, rather than leading the charge from chorus to chorus. And that’s fine; Anastasio doesn’t have anything left to prove in the guitar hero department.

The CD blasts off with the hard-strummed acoustic of the title track, a toe-tapping blast of gospel-tinged aural sunshine, which was derided as fluff by Phish phreaks almost as soon as Anastasio introduced it in concert last summer. No wonder he felt like he needed a new start; with friends like that, who needs enemies?
“Tuesday” follows, kicking off with a lattice work of guitars working counter to a pumping bassline before opening up into a catchy, straight-ahead rocker fueled by chiming guitars and a surging chorus, which fades into the delicately fingerpicked acoustics of “Invisible,” a swirling soundscape of vocal tracks and guitar lines. Nine songs later, when the CD fades out with the last swaying chords of “Love That Breaks All Lines,” it’s hard not to think that Anastasio is precisely where he should be right now. Given his restless energy and prolific nature, where he goes next is anyone’s guess. But Shine provides ample reason to keep paying close attention.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Just a funny picture of my folks I found

If you know them, you get it.

My first sports column

This picture of TMac on the camel never gets old to me.

The mighty pepperonis.

My first sports column is running in the November issue of That's Beijing, which is an English language monthly. I am not sure what the circulation is, but it is widely read.

Here is what I turned in. It is certainly not my best work but hopefully as I keep doing this I will actually start knowing what I am talking about. I am used to writing from a voice of authority, very confident in working for Slam and GW that I know my audience and my subject matter very thoroughly. This is quite a bit different and a bit of a stretch. I am feeling my wa and hope to hit a stride in the next few issues. It is th eleast I have been paid for a story in a long, long time and I am more emotionally wrapped up in making it good.

The curse section was taken out, because the censor would not approve. That is a first for me. Even my high school paper did not have a censor, as some of you well know.

Biking through a small village South of Yangshuo last week, I was heartened to see two basketball hoops worn bare by hours of use. Between that and the crowds of people coming to see the flower displays of Olympic sports in Tiananmen Square right across from the ticking digital countdown to the Games, it is not hard to see the next revolution coming in China – the sports revolution.

I’m watched the trend from afar as a senior editor of SLAM Magazine, the world’s leading basketball magazine. I am now SLAM’s Beijing bureau chief, so it’s no surprise that I have an obvious and admitted affinity for hoops, but all sports are fair game for this column-- local and Western, participatory and not. You may see an interview with Yao Ming one month and a report on a table tennis tournament the next, some info about local football clubs followed by the inside scoop on the China Open. If there’s something you think should be covered, drop me a line any time at

Within a few weeks of arriving here in mid August, I had spent a day with Tracy McGrady and an army of Adidas employees, zipping through Beijing with a police escort and hiking the Great Wall with the NBA All Star. I even watched him clamber up one of those musty old camels and amble around, resulting in the picture you see on this page, one of my all–time favorites. I’ve been covering basketball players for a decade and I’ve never witnessed anything quite so intimate and silly. It’s the type of access we stumble over ourselves to get in the States, but it just fell in my lap here.

A day spent in a van-full of Adidas execs was also quite enlightening. It was no coincidence that China was the locale when McGrady became the first NBA star to launch a signature shoe (the TMac V) outside the U.S. The Middle Kingdom has emerged as the world’s biggest shoe-company battleground, which is why McGrady’s visit was preceded by Lebron James’ and followed by Allen Iverson’s. Nike, Adidas and Reebok each had their top star in China this summer as they battle to position themselves for the explosion they expect following the ’08 Games.

The growth in amateur participatory sports in Beijing is at least as interesting to me as what the big guys are doing. It didn’t take me long to find my way onto a softball team, playing for the mighty Papa John's pepperonis and coaching not one but two youth soccer teams. As you would expect, the softball teams were largely dominated by North Americans, but I was pleasantly surprised at the strong left field play of an Aussie Embassy guy and the rifle arm of our Danish shortstop.

And don’t even get me started on the all-Chinese team that crushed us in our final game of a three-week tournament, or the 14-year-old girl shortstop who gunned me out as I pulled my quad chugging down the first base line. That might have had something to do with the three inches of loose sand I was slogging through. The field looked absolutely perfect but the infield was a sand box – clearly the work of someone who carefully studied photos of a baseball field without ever actually setting foot on one.

The first excellent Chinese curse words I learned were “Sha bi,” a particularly nasty and funny term for a cow’s female anatomy and the preferred crowd chant for particularly venomous sporting events—like, say a Chinese/Japanese soccer match. I recently learned that the government is concerned that such “jing ma” of “Beijing scolding” chants will be an embarrassment during the ’08 Olympics – can’t you just see Bob Costas trying to explain what it all means? So authorities have been coaching fans not to use them and are reportedly going after anyone who initiates a jing ma. If anyone has seen any evidence of this crackdown, please drop me a line.

Participatory sport of the month:
Gaelic football. Unless you’re Irish, you’ve probably never seen a match of Gaelic football, an unusual hybrid of rugby and football. The sport is gaining popularity in China and throughout Asia since being introduced to Shanghai by some Irish expats about a decade ago. The Beijing club trains every Saturday at the Western academy of Beijing (WAB) and fields both men’s and women’s team. You don’t have to be Irish, either. Visit for details.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Chinese studies

I had another class this morning. I am now taking it two hours on Tuesday and thursday, along with Tom Davis, a friend here in Riviera -- who has a driver to take us back and forth, which is a big help.

One great thing about Chinese as a language is there is no masculine/feminine and very little conjugation. For instance, Wo means I, me and mine. So then it is "just" a matter of getting down the tones and remembering vocabulary words.

The tones can be pretty wild. If you don’t know, there are four of them and they completely alter the meaning of words. Ma could mean four completely different things depending on you accent the A and at first they all sound more or less the same. I will say that after just about 10 hours of lessons, I can easily hear the different tones. That comes pretty quickly. Now, actually saying them correctly, understanding what others are saying and putting together to vocabulary... that's another matter altogether.

One funny thing is that all the teachers at TLI where I am studying are women and most of them weight about 80 pounds. They have these little high voices and they want me to mimic them as I practice my tones. I feel like I am mimicking a dove cooing, with some of the first tones especially. And they kept telling me that my first tone was not high enough so I end up speaking in this absurd high pitched falsetto. And I'm thinking to myself, "Mr. Dou doesn’t sound like this!"

Last night I went out to dinner (very good Thai) with Colin Pine, Yao Ming's translator for three years and now the NBA's liason to Chinese government or something and a friend of his, the editor of a Chinese sports newspaper who is going to help me get interviews and translate for me. I discussed this with them and they were cracking up. They told me not to copy the women. Colin told me that the first year he spoke Chinese he sounded like a Taiwanese woman because that's who he learned from and hung around. They explained that the pitch is all relative -- the first tone is the highest, but it doesn’t matter where you start. I tried that at my lesson today but they kept telling me to speak higher.

You don't have to be a bleeding heart to despise...

..and fear this adminstration, which has greatly undermined our power and standing in the world, endangering us all. It's really not about "liberal" or "conservative." these guys put our very democracy in danger. And I truly believe that.

This is from The Financial times.

Click here for the full story.

Cheney 'cabal' hijacked foreign policy
By Edward Alden in Washington

Vice-President Dick Cheney and a handful of others had hijacked the government's foreign policy apparatus, deciding in secret to carry out policies that had left the US weaker and more isolated in the world, the top aide to former Secretary of State Colin Powell claimed on Wednesday.

In a scathing attack on the record of President George W. Bush, Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, chief of staff to Mr Powell until last January, said: “What I saw was a cabal between the vice-president of the United States, Richard Cheney, and the secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld, on critical issues that made decisions that the bureaucracy did not know were being made.

“Now it is paying the consequences of making those decisions in secret, but far more telling to me is America is paying the consequences.”

Mr Wilkerson said such secret decision-making was responsible for mistakes such as the long refusal to engage with North Korea or to back European efforts on Iran.

It also resulted in bitter battles in the administration among those excluded from the decisions.

“If you're not prepared to stop the feuding elements in the bureaucracy as they carry out your decisions, you are courting disaster. And I would say that we have courted disaster in Iraq, in North Korea, in Iran.”

The comments, made at the New America Foundation, a Washington think-tank, were the harshest attack on the administration by a former senior official since criticisms by Richard Clarke, former White House terrorism czar, and Paul O'Neill, former Treasury secretary, early last year.

Mr Wilkerson said his decision to go public had led to a personal falling out with Mr Powell, whom he served for 16 years at the Pentagon and the State Department.

“He's not happy with my speaking out because, and I admire this in him, he is the world's most loyal soldier."

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Best-dressed photos

Today was picture day. I couldn't quite get a great posed shot of J and E, in the rush to make it to school in time after getting dressed. But they have to do it again Friday for an all-school picture. The other pciture shows that Eli is now tying his own shoes. he has beaten Jacob to the punch.

Interviewing Starbucks/Sonics owner Howard Schultz

Starbucks Chairman Howard Schultz was here a few weeks ago and Becky met with him. He asked her a lot of quetions about moving here, how her family was adjusting, etc. She mentioned me and what I did. "Tell him they need to put Ray Allen on the cover!" Schultz exclaimed. (He also owns the Seattle Supersonics in case you didn't know). "Have him email me directly."

I did email him, explaining that Ray was on the cover of slam in the middle of last season and it wasn't time to go back there, but I said we'd like to do a short interview with him. He readily agreed. My editor at That's Beijing asked me to keep him posted about anyone I speak to whom they might be interested in featuring. So I did, and they asked me to do the following interview.

I didn't have the heart to tell him how much I prefer Peet's, where he worked at one point and which the founders of Starbucks bought after selling out to him many moons ago (when Starbucks just had four Seattle stores.) He is either a pretty cool guy or a very good actor.

You'll have to buy Slam in a month or so to read that part of the interview, but here's the Starbucks/TBJ portion.

5 Questions with Starbucks Chairman Howard Schultz
1. What has been the biggest surprise about the Chinese coffee market?
We never imagined that the level of awareness about the Starbucks brand would be as high as it was given that we don’t advertise and do very little promotion. The Chinese customers very quickly began to use Starbucks as the third place between home and work, almost as an extension of their home or office. And all the concerns people had about the Chinese being too in love with tea to drink coffee have been unfounded. We have over 200 stores in China now, and we are not trying to replace tea. Coffee is a complementary beverage and tea is very ingrained in many peoples’ lives.

2. How do Chinese customers differ from American customers?

I think it’s all very different. Eighty percent of our business in the States is take out and 80- percent in China is sit-down. I also don’t think many Chinese people are making coffee at home right now and if they are it’s probably instant and I think Starbucks will educate the market about quality a as we have many other places. Instant coffee will not seem like a good alternative.

3. Do you give your employees in China and elsewhere in the world the same benefits Americans receive?
In the U.S. Starbucks has been recognized for providing comprehensive health insurance, largely because the government does not do it. In china and other places we are looking at unique ways we can provide benefits that are compatible with the needs of our employees and with the laws of the nation and the local municipalities.
The goal is for Starbucks to be the employer of choice wherever we are and I think we’re attracting a wonderful young person to work in China. I’ve been really happy about that.

4. What are Starbucks’ long-term plans for China?
I think it will be an important part of our long-term growth. There’s no doubt in my mind that China will evolve into Starbucks’ second largest market, behind only North America. So we’re talking thousands of stores. It’s important to note, however, that despite the success we have enjoyed all over the world, success in China is not an entitlement. We have to earn it and establish the brand the right way. We want o invest early in giving back and showing we don’t want to just take but also to give. I will spend a lot of time in China over the next few years demonstrating our commitment to the country and to being involved in the community beyond selling coffee. I marvel at what China has been able to do in such a short amount of time and look forward to seeing what comes next.

5. Given your relatively progressive employee policies and corporate ethos is it frustrating to be viewed as a symbol of American imperialism; whenever anti-globalists protest, they seem to seek out a Starbucks window to smash.
Yes, but that really has quieted down over the last few years. That was more about American foreign policy and convenient targets. Despite the publicity something that receives, I think most people are able to separate American foreign policy form American businesses quite easily. When we opened in Paris two years ago, we were killed by the Parisian press for a long time in advance, but the French customers lined up that day and every day since, even through some very rough periods in French-American governmental relationship. We’ve had great success all over the world.

That's what I turned in, but the conversation continued, like this:

You’ve asked me five questions. Now can I ask you one?


What are your impressions of Starbucks in China?

First and foremost that it tastes…

The same! Yes, that's very important to us.

Yes, and it is certainly not the case with all Western food and drink. I am also very happy that you have free wi fi. You know, my first month or so here I spent an inordinate amount of time in Starbucks because I did not have my internet hookup yet. I spent hours on many days sitting there pekcing away and drinking coffee and green tea frappucinos and I must say I was shocked by how many Chinese customers you have. I assumed it was there to service expats.

It is very popular and growing as we educate Chinese customers about coffee.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Great Jacob picture, plugging Rachel's blog and more...

This classic picture of Jacob hugging good bye to our beautiful new TV was taken by cousin Danny and comes courtesy of his daughter Rachel's blog, up that TV was probably the most difficult thing for Jacob about leaving home. Having it move simply across the street only somewhat lightened the burden.

Great job on the blog, Danny. She looks adorable and it's great to see her walking. I do have grave concerns about all that writing in her voice, however. It is a slippery slope, my friend and the next thing you know you will be hiring Kathleen Turner to do voiceovers.

Almost as remarkable as Jacob’s shunning of TV is the fact that he couldn’t wait to put on his “Best dressed” uniform yesterday when he came home and saw I had picked it up. He wore the blazer all night and before bed, tried on the shirt and pants, also insisting I put on the tie. He wanted to wear it today, even though he doesn’t have to until tomorrow. Wonders never cease. Pictures of this will be up within 24 hours, I promise.

Tonight, Becky and I are going out to dinner with Neil King. Neil is one of the Journal’s top DC reporters, here to cover Sec. Of Treasury John Snow’s trip. He and his wife Shalaigh Murray (now Washington Post White house reporter, I believe) actually worked with Becky at the Tampa Tribune’s Pasco county bureau in 1989-90. Believe me, if you were there, you would know how wild it is that the three of them have gone as far as they have from that place is pretty remarkable. And they were visiting us and staying at our 27th St. pad for the worst night of my sporting life – Francisco Cabrera’s heartbreaking, Game 7 winning hit in the 92 NLCS. Most of you know what I’m talking about. We are going out for some Brazilian food tonight to catch up.

Nega, please! More FAQs

Peter Hessler  author of River Town and Country Driving on Big In China“Alan Paul plunges into Chinese life and takes us along for the ride, through vegetable markets, used-car lots, Taoist temples, divey bars, and a beachside music festival before thousands of cheering fans. He conveys the thrills and challenges of living abroad, the confusions and regrets, and most of all the opportunity to become the person we always hoped to be. 

How will you ever be able to read the road signs? For ex: if you're going on a trip and have to get directions, don't you have to learn the language first? Do they make a GPS that translates ?
If anyone can figure out what’s out there GPS–wise and let me know, that would be a huge help and you will get mad props up here. Maybe my fantastic IT guy Steve Goldberg can jump onthis. How ‘bout it big guy? I’d really like one, even while I’m in a cab or being ferried around by Dou. I think it would be a huge help to keep learning my way around the city.
Most of the road signs are also in pinyin – the English version in phonetics. Even that is a little tricky at first, because the sounds don’t always match up with the English version. For example, i = e, ai = i... As I keep taking Chinese lessons, it gets easier and easier to read the pinyin properly, which is the first step towards actually being able to speak a bit. Now if I can just start remembering some words. Also, remember that when and if we get our licenses, we are still not going to drive all that much into the city. We need just to get around here, to the grocery store, soccer games, etc. Also, it will give us better access to hkking, etc which is just about 40 km North of us.

How do you order food in a restaurant? They can't possibly have pictures of everything.

Ah yes. There are several tried and true methods. You can order something that you know how to say, ie “jingbao jingding” (basically kung pao chicken) “mei fun” “jow-tze” (dumplings), “mou po doufu” (spicy tofu) regardless of what the house specialties might be. You can play charades and/or you can point to someone else’s table. Most places that we end up in have some sort of English language menu, though the descriptions are often very literal and take some interpretation.
There is a Giant bike store up the street where I bought my bike and Becky’s and have gone back a few times for various things. Right next to it a little hole in the wall restaurant. Every time I am over there I look in the window and see people eating tasty looking pancakes of some sort. Last time I went, I was hungry so I went in to eat. Definitely no pictures or English on the menu.

After some awkwardness and giggling, I pointed to a plate at someone else’s table – a peasant looking guy eating with two much younger women, I would say were his daughters and puffing away on cigarettes. It was all understood and they brought me out meat and scallion panckaes which were delicious. They cost maybe a buck and I brought half of them home. Had some later with Ding and Anna and Ding taught me how to say meat pancake – “rou bo” or something like that. You can usually always get some pancakes or noodles (miantao) of some sort.

Is Eli wearing a Rob Mackowiak t-shirt?! Were they sold out of Jason Bay's? Good stuff either way, much like your postings.

Thanks Ben and good question. It’s even better than a Mackowiak – it’s a vintage Pokey Reese T. E wears that all the time. I can’t find their Bus jerseys but it’s time tot bust those out. Dixie, how about some Jason Bays?

How is the beer, damn it?

I swear I already answered this in my first FAQ, but I need to get back to it or else Art is going to figure out a way to kick my ass all the way from Chicago to Beijing.

The beer is pretty good, especially for the warm weather, when I like a light, golden lager. TsingTao is the only real national beer. Then there are more regional brews. The Beijing brew is not bad but pretty bland, so I opt for Tsing Tao. Down in Guilin, the local beer was called Li and was quite tasty so I went for it. San Miguel Philipines beer is also pretty widely available and not much more expensive – it’s all about a buck for a big (liter) beer and 40-50 cents for a regular bottle. It’s good so I get that sometimes.
There is not much variation, though. In the fall and winter, I usually go for more of a pale ale at home and, of course, I always get Guinness when it’s available. That end of the spectrum seems to be pretty much absent here, unless you get imported, which you can get at the store and at some bars. You can even get Sam Adams.

Have you ever had it verified that "Boo Yah" actually means something in Chinese? It seems much more likely that whoever taught you that bit of language is laughing their ass off somewhere every time you say it. Just looking out for you, Al.

Thanks Danny. I do appreciate your watching my back. Yes, I am quite sure about Boo Yah. On our trip to Yangshuo, there were often people trying to sell us stuff and Jacob and Eli got really into saying “boo yah, boo yah” which usually cracked the recipients up. It if actually sort of a rude term.. like, “Get the fuck away” more or less. Boo (actually bu) means no and that’s where you start. Bu Yah is really just when someone won’t leave you alone and I explained that to them.
But that’s not even the funniest commonly used Chinese term… “Nega” means "that" but it is really commonly used. In conversation when stalling or finding your place, you can say “nega, nega” the way in English someone would go “like” or “um.” It is probably the most used word in Chinese along with “jigga” which means this. It takes some getting used to. At first I kept expecting to people to say “Nega, please!” or “You my nega!” And don’t even get me started on jigga. Luckily, after you hear it for a while, all of this stuff actually starts sounding like words.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Apple picking and haircuts, oh my

We went apple picking yesterday, about 30 minutes north of our house. Jacob was actually invited to a birthday party in the orchard, a pretty good idea actually. As you can see, we manage to not get any particularly great photos. But it was just that kind of day; everything seemed 10 degrees off or something. We decided to all go up there, because you can get into some really pretty places up that way and it was a beautiful day, and fall apple picking is a family tradition.

Alas, we hired a driver for the afternoon, which proved to be unnecessary since there were a bunch of people from here going with plenty of space in their vehicles. The area was not that pretty and was overrun by ladybugs of all things –which actually sting, though I never knew that until yesterday – and it wasn’t really well set up for kids running around. Plus, we really missed Gabie, Nathaniel, Laura and Greg, with whom we have traditionally picked apples each fall. At least we didn’t have to pay that annoying Wightman Farm membership fee!

Despite our annoyances, the kids had fun. Jacob found one fruit-laden tree and yelled, “Applemania!” He also enjoyed running around with his pals, several of whom are on his soccer team, which has proven to be a great social thing for him. Not quite so much for Eli, though he is also having some fun with it. Jacob has several kids on his team who are in his grade at his school but not his class and he has become good friends with them, greatly expanding his social circle. Saturday afternoon after soccer, we ended up with about 10 kids running around here slinging Yu-gi-Oh and Pokemon cards. He loved it. On the field, Jacob plays like a crazy man, he is pretty goods, but he ahs a couple of pet moves he goes to whether appropriate or not. One is sort of a sliding leg stop – I keep telling him to stay on his feet. He did it once a few weeks ago in the right context and it was brilliant, but now he is just becoming a hazard. His other prize move, which he says he learned from Bryan Mera is a backwards pass. It too is a nifty move when used properly but he does it all the time, including when he is flying down on 2 or 3on 1 break.

Soccer has also been good for me, as it turns out. Scott, the head coach of J’s team who I described accurately as being nutty in an earlier post turns out to be a really nice and well-connected guy. We saw him at Rosh Hashanah services, leading Jacob say to me, “I didn’t know they were Jewish,” while Scott’s son Samuel said the same thing to Jacob. Scott is originally from Flint and played soccer at Syracuse with Gary Anderson. And he is the head of Ogilvy PR and Marketing’s Beijing office and knows everyone in town. He has introduced me to a bunch of good connections both personal and professional already, including a potentially good guitar buddy.

Saturday night we went out with Kathy Chen and her family for Malaysian food. We have been to this restaurant once before and really liked it. It is a very nice and sort of elegant place that recently opened not too far away, right next to Mrs. Shannen’s bagels. Jacob absolutely loves the wings there, as well as the barbecued corn. It is amazing to watch him tear through a whole huge plate of wings, licking his lips and exclaiming their greatness. Few foods not covered in chocolate have ever inflamed his passion so. We ate and ate, ordering one dish after another, in part just to keep trying things. And the total was 477 RMB, less than $40 per family. That was a $100+ in New York.

Sunday we decided to get our haircuts and headed across the road to Quan Fa, a mostly Chinese compound where we have several friends. Rumor was the clubhouse there had good and cheap haircuts. Eli and I went under the scissors. Jacob refused. His hair is getting really quite absurd now, especially with the humidity decreasing and the curls unkinking a bit. They have school pictures this week and Jacob will be wearing his “best dressed” – Dulwich logoed blue blazer, white dress shirt and striped tie. A haircut seemed in order. He initially said he would get a trim, after some bribing (haircut = three packs of cards). But when we got over there, he got real weird and wiggly and started muttering about it being our fault because we never brush his hair and he promises we can brush it as often as we want, but no cut. They will give him flat hair, like all the Chinese people have, and he doesn’t want to lose his curls. His hair has somehow become a huge part of his identity and given how well he is doing, we did not want to rock the boat. So he will be photographed Weds. with nutty but brushed hair.

Eli and I got really pretty nice haircuts, for a grand total of 50 quai, including a wash and scalp massage for me. That is about 6 bucks. Eli looks very handsome. The guy took forever though, and E was really squirming. I think he though the longer it takes the better job he was doing or something.

Friday, October 14, 2005

More pics from T. Square

Now that we can see the site, I was looking at with Jacob. When we got to the T. Square post, he said, "Dad, there's another one I really like. where are the balls?'

I didn't know what he meant at first, so we went into Iphoto and, of course! There are these huge flower sculptures there and I mean huge! He loved them. Most of them pertain to the Olympics. These photos were personally selected by Jacob himself.

he would also like everyone to know that he can know write in cursive.

It's so weird sometimes... and Yom Kippur thoughts

Jacob ran off after school with his Aussie friend Felix, both of whose parents work at the school. Eli is across the street at the home of Brendan, his Hong Kong Chinese/Brit pal, along with Maurits, his German-speaking Austrian- Dutch bud. The three of them are the best of friends. So I came home and went to the kitchen to grab a glass of water on my way up to the computer.

I walk in and find the full domestic staff there. Mr. Li has bags of groceries on the floor and is sitting at the table with reading glasses on making notes in a little writing pad. Ying Yoo is ironing our sheets in the middle of the room, a basket of laundry at her feet, and Ding Ayi is hovering over Anna at the table as she shovels some chunky, custardy yogurt which would send the boys screaming in the other direction into her mouth as fast as possible.

Now, I am not complaining and neither am I rubbing it in. I am just stating a fact; it is weird getting used to having so much help. You wear something and the next day it is back in the drawer, crisply folded. We were speaking with someone at the break fast last night and she was asking how our transitions were going, how the kids were doing, etc. We said everything is great, blah blah but the mornings remain a scrum.. just getting everyone up and dressed and breakfasted and out the door on time.

"Why don’t you have your ayis helping you?"

"They don't start that early."

"Well, change that or hire another ayi just for the morning."

"Now, we're not used to that. We don’t need another person buzzing around our house at 7 am.”

"Get over it."

So It goes. It's such a strange balance of relationships. These people all work so diligently and are so earnest and sincere. Of course, as much as they seem to be working, they are incredibly cushy jobs relative to what’s out there – especially working for us americans who are embarrassed by the whole thing. On the one hand, you have this constant sense that the chinese are gearing up to bury us and ours is an empire on the decline (hastened along by our idiot boy prince and his corrupt, myopic regime). On the other hand, we are here living like British tea plantation overseers in India, circa 1900. "More tonic water, Gunga Din!"

So how do you get used to that?

Services were nice. It is a very nice congregation filled with interesting people. Just for instance, Roberta Lipson, one of the real machers, has been here 20 years or more. She founded and is the chairperson of United Hospitals of Beijing, which is the only real first class hospital in town (and I am very happy to keep her card in my wallet at all times.) Her husband is the correspondent for the Economist. We also sat with a guy from the Embassy who was brought over here this year to try and get the chinese to get real about copyright protection... which brings us to the several intellectual rights lawyers there. Then there was the Jewish economist from DC who is, like me, that rare bird -- the male trailing spouse. He came over with his Chinese wife, who was sent over by her DC law firm where she is a partner to open a Beijing office. She gave me her card and I saw she was a "Dr." "What is your PHD in?" "Applied physics." Wow. Interestingly, of everyone I have met, she was probably the least happy to be expating in China. She thought she had left this behind and felt guilty about dragging her family here. I would think she’d be happy her two young kids will be exposed to her culture.

Anyhow, it is an interesting and welcoming community of people and I'd have to say that the services felt a bit more meaningful than usual. In some ways, they are more like every day life -- lots of talk in a language I can’t understand. But the melodies and rhythms are so familiar, and that is really comforting when everything else is so different. Also, being part of a congregation of 100 or so is much more intimate, of course, than the gigunda events at home this time of year, and you feel that your presence is much more important. Being this small group gathered together in a ballroom in the middle of this huge city where no one really is aware that it is in any way a day any different from any other also makes you feel like a tiny minority. Of course, we are a tiny minority, but it is easy to forget that in NJ, where life stops and schools close on the Holy days.

Last week, the service was led by Rabbi Lee Diamond, retired and in from Israel for the week. He did a great job and felt like a very deep, real person to me. Someone I would like to talk to and would feel comfortable discussing matters of faith and anything else with. I really liked his sermon, which hinged on the question allegedly once asked by a congregant – “why would anyone convert and choose to become a Jew?” In answering he delved into the Havtorah portion read every year on Rosh Hashanah, which is – bear with me, folks – the story of Abraham taking Isaac up for the sacrifice. “Why,” he asked, “Would we by design read this very torturous passage each year on this day?” Now, I have to admit, I have wondered this myself, a surprising as most of you might find this news.

Being Hebrew illiterate, I always read vast swaths of English text at services and that story kills me every time. I mean, what does it really say about our God and religion? Is this something we want to embrace? What would we say if someone was found about to stab his son with the explanation that god told him to do it? I have been haunted by this in the past. He discussed briefly the various theories about this and one of them, which he subscribed to, was that it was in fact Abraham testing god rather than vice versa. I had never considered this before and found it interesting.

But his bottom line conclusion was, “Life is real and it is difficult and it takes serious people thinking seriously to stay on top of it. Life is not Santa Claus and Easter bunnies.” And that’s why someone might choose to be Jewish. Agree or disagree, and believe me he said it more eloquently. The point is, he gave a thoughtful sermon that I can largely remember and still be moved by 10 days later. When was the last time that happened to you?

So why wasn’t he leading the service? During the prayer for good health, when congregants can mention the name of anyone needing physical or spiritual healing, the lay leader said, “And a special mention to Rabbi Lee Diamond who had a serious health scare this week.”

Afterwards, I saw the Rabbi and wished him a Happy New Year and said I was sorry to hear he had a problem and happy he seemed to be okay. Firmly shaking my hand, he said, “I had one day of Rosh Hashanah then I had a stroke. I spent the week in the hospital. But here I am.”

Wow. We also mentioned the name out loud of the father of a good friend who is having some potentially serious surgery this week. You know who you are if you’re reading this, so know that we sent our prayers and love his way all the way from China. I hope it helps.

That’s all for now. Gotta go see what Mr. Li is cooking up down there. Smells good.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Hey, I can see the site!

Hey it's a miracle. I can suddenly see the site. i don't know why or how or if it will last. But it looks pretty good!

I was surfing around some basketball sites and suddenly realized I was on a blogspot site (Russ Bengsten, former Slam editors -- so I figured I would see if I could get on mine and presto, there I was. I will keep you posted. It will be interesting to see if accessing the site alters the way I post.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Exploding pythons...

You've got to read this.,0,6131995.story?coll=sfla-home-headlines&track=mostemailedlink

Holy Rosary Dances with the Devil and more from the mailbag...

Delaware Dave writes in:
Fat Al,
Sorry that the Yanks went down. No sleep lost in Wilmington over that one.
Glad that you caught the end of the Steelers. Initial report is that Big Ben
has a hyperextended knee, looked like it may have been a ACL to this
neonatologist. Watching the winning kick go through the uprights at 12:30
AM is brutal. Still tired and hung over from the game but better than a

There are some funny developments on the Holy Rosary front:
Split our games this weekend loosing to a team on Saturday that looked like
the Olympic development squad. They had a couple of girls close to 6 feet
(no kidding) and ran a 6-1 offense. On Sunday we one after trailing in the
3rd game 23-16, came back to win 26-24 with no margin for error.

The funny story is that I entered a raffle benefiting the Holy Rosary Sports
council. My name was picked out of the hat and I won two front row ticket to
see the Rolling Stones tomorrow. A lot of irony in this true story, not to
mention the fact that the concert is on the eve of Yom Kippur. After
searching my soul I opted for the devil himself Mick Jagger and will have to
live the next year waiting to repent on the next holy day.

Good choice, methinks. Having MNF on here at 9 am is great, especially when you don't have to be at work. That game ended right in time for lunch.

The photos from Yangshou elicited a tremendous response. Thanks everyone. We really enoy hearing back from you. Amy Mindell wrote a particularly sweet message, I thought:

These photos mad me feel really happy.
Maybe it's living vicariously through you -- I'm just loving "our" adventures in China!
Maybe it's bc you all look so happy and well -- tell B, by the way, she looks great, very fit.
Maybe it's knowing that all the way around the world there are good people, and they are treating you all so well; It's touching.
Maybe it's watching you (Anna!) be treated like rock stars. I get it, but it still blows my mind whenever you bring it up. It's just so hard to understand that Westerners are so unusual to them! Were you the only Westerners in Yangshou?
Or, maybe it's just knowing that somewhere, somehow, someone else has a child who can watch Nick and Cartoon network for six hours w/o blinking (I know yours apparently stopped; you're so lucky!), and considers white rice and french fries a well-rounded meal. I am not alone!! Does yours also think changing clothes and brushing teeth are unecessary diversions from tv-watching and gameboy playing?
thanks for sharing. Keep it up! love, Amy

Thanks Amy. Anna is definitely the family rock star. In Yangshou, I kept pretending that the women's melting eyes and lustful grins were for me. It gave me a good 4-second ental diversion every time. jacob and eli were also asked to pose for many photos. Westerners are not unusual at all in Yangshou. The place is filled with them, mostly Europeans and plenty of backpackers. Someone down there told me more English is spoken there than anywhere in chian and I believe them. Much, much more than in Beijing.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Like the Yankees, we gave a valiant effort but failed.

We had our driver’s license tests at 10 am this morning. Mr. Dou drove us out to the big P.R.C. office of Traffic Safety compliance and Road Rules with us cramming in the back seat on the 40-minute drive. We did not bring the books on our great Yangshou trip and just barely cracked them Sunday night before passing out. There must be 1,000 questions to study . about half of which are obvious. Another 30 percent you can more or less figure out if you you’re your time and read carefully – remember, this is all in that horrible, badly translated English – and 20 percent you have no hope to figure out and simply have to memorize.

Lily is off this week, so we didn’t have anyone to explain what was going on – Dou can not speak more than few words of English, which sis remarkable since he has worked for the Journal for 17 years. We went to the foreigner room and sat and waited, alongwith 15-20 other people of all nationalities, including many Chinese, who are, I guess, citizens of other places.

Then we get called in and all of us go upstairs to a big room filled with desks and computer terminals and staffed by about five uniformed police. We are told to sit down at one, or pointed to sit down, I should say. I sit down behind Becky. You enter your six-digit code number and press English, one of about 12 language choices. It gives you some brief instructions, explaining that the computer will randomly generate 100 questions. You must get 90 right to pass and have 45 minutes to complete the test. As soon as you press start, a little clock pops up in the upper right corner counting down your remaining time.

As soon as I went through 10 or 15 questions, I knew I was doomed. One of the questions showed a black rectangle with odd linear white markings and the question said, “in a parking lot, this indicates A) direction you should drive. B) parking space delineaitons C) something else, I forget. Well, they didn’t look like any of the above. I guessed B.

At some point, a huge, sumo-sized Asian guy with a buzz cut wearing a giant, but still-too-small lacoste shirt sitting across the room started coughing and grunting and making strange guttural noises. I wasn’t sure if I should laugh, scream or join in with him. I felt like the walking dead, whistling on my way to the gallows. I was moving too quickly through the test, but I really felt like the ones I didn’t know wouldn’t really benefit from extra analysis. It was usually easy to eliminate one answer, which left a 50-50 guess. I hit send without going back to recheck any answers, and almost immediately a frowning red face appeared. I tired to stay to see if I could look it over and see what I got wrong, but a cop quickly shooed me to the front, where another cop took my form and scribbled 82 on the bottom. I actually thought that was pretty good and remembered what our friend Jim said – that he had had failed the test but they gave him his license himself. I wonder if 8 percent off was close enough.

I went downstairs and handed it to Mr. Dou, who frowned and shook his head. While I was waiting for Becky – who would take the full 45 minutes, leaving me about 15 minutes to wait, a chinese guy had some big dispute with the woman we would have to deal with. she was unyielding and harsh in her crisp navy uniform –think a Chinese Nurse Ratchet in full military getup. I knew I was sunk. Now all my hopes were pinned on B. if she got her license, at least we could drive to the grocery store and soccer games while we waited for another appointment. She finally came down, shortly after the Lacoste-clad grunter.

She did better than me, which is only more frustrating – she scored 87, which in any sane world would be good enough. Nurse Ratchet stamped us rejected and set another appointment for October 27, which was the next available date as far as I could tell, though there were 25 empty computer terminals and they could at least twice as many at once easily. I guess we have no choice but to try to memorize all 1,000 insane questions. It turns out that when Jim got his license despite failing, the test was written and it was all at the discretion of the officer. That was just two years ago. A year prior when our predecessors got their license there as no written test. You should just had to drive 100 feet in a straight line. I spoke to some of the teaching assistants in eli’s class and it is even harder for Chinese people to get their license – they have to take 60 hours of classes/lessons and pay 3,000 RMB, a huge sum. And the funny thing is, there are actually NO RULES on the road here.

After this debacle, we headed back to town with dou. I was obsessed with finding a bar to watch the second half of the steelers/Chargers game. I had the name of one place, which I actually found by googling “NFL football in Bejing bar” or something and ending up on a guys’ blog, much like this one. He wrote about watching last year’s AFC championship game at the Goose and Duck Pub. It was in a neighborhood I actually knew so I had dou take me there. I struggled to find the place and finally did – only to realize the game was not on, because it is usually on ESPN but was preempted by the Yanks game, which was on three channels – EsPN English, ESPN chinese and Japanese Tv.

The latter shows all Yanks game thanks to Hideki and it is hilarious to watch – they show him in the dugout between pitches of other at bats. I ordered a $6 Guinness (which is probably equivalent to $20 here, considering how cheap beer is) and settled in to watch the last few innings and let my conflicts play themselves out. They were losing 7-3 in the 7th and sure enough I was rooting for the Yanks to tie it up. But in the 9th when ARod hit into that pathetic 5-4-3 DP with Jeter on first, I felt a surge of happiness. What a chump. Then I went back to rooting for them and was happy when Giambi got on base. But when they lost a few pitches later, I was a little bummed but didn’t really care either way. I wish I could understand what the Japanese announcers were saying about Hidkei going 0-5 and stranding 8 runners.

So, I’m sorry for Uncle Ben and Danny Rosen. You two guys are responsible for my fondness for the Pinstripes and creating this swirling vortex of contradictions in my gut.

The rest of you can read this:

A guy sitting next to me at the Goose and Duck told me (after having a huge screaming fight with his Chinese landlord about the number of phone lines in his office) that ESPN would play the football game on tape delay after the baseball so I waited through the brief postgame interviews. Then I see the three tenors singing the German national anthem on some sort of race track and sure enough ESPN goes to some European Grand prix race. Rather than giving up, I picked up the remote and kept flipping through the channels. About the third time through, I hit the MNF Game on Star Sports, which had soccer on earlier. There was 9:22 left and the Steelrs up 21-16. I watched that baby out. What a great game. I hope Roethsliberger is okay. I nursed my Guinness to the end, then headed across the street for some Vietnamese lunch before grabbing a cab home. I guess it will be a while until I drive myself anywhere around here.

Cousin Danny wades into the original unwinnable "War On..."

I looked at this picture of my cousin Danny traveling the U.S./ Mexican border with a SWAT team in search of drug smuggler sand I felt two primary emotions – thrilled for Danny, because I know he loves this kind of shit; and utterly depressed at the utter and complete folly of the whole escapade. Why aren’t those muscleheads out in Afghanistan trying to bring back Osama’s head on a fuckin’ stick? How much of colossal waste of time, money and energy is this ongoing "War On Drugs?"

Rodg, if you read this, please post the info from your professor friend who has written extensive and real academic musings on this subject? It is an unwinnable “war,” and even if we somehow succeeded in stopping every twig of sensie and coco leave from entering the country, what would it really achieve? Rednecks are out buying Benedryl and cooking up crank in every little motel in Iowa an South Dakota. Apparently, that stuff fries your brain twice as fast as any opiates anyhow –and rots your teeth out, to boot. And it is made from cold medicine!

What if over the last 15 years, some of these resources had been spent tracking down the fuckers who want to destroy our civilization instead of running up and down thousands of miles of border hoping to shoot to kill some poor wetback mule? Take him down and the fat cat dealer is still sitting in his mansion on a hill somewhere down South, sipping pure Agave gold tequila, polishing his Bentley and preparing to line up another desperate sucker to wade across the Rio Grande or swallow a few condoms filled with Horse. It is madness and someday the history books will reflect this.

Cool picture, though, Dan. I hope they took the clip out of that thing before they handed it over.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Pictures of yangshou

A complete write up of the trip is coming, but here are some pictures to begin to give a sense of the incredible otherworldly countryside. The picutres of Jacob in the hat and of me with anna on my back were taken on a tea plantation outside Guilin. The others are all around Yangshou.

First pictures from our trip to Guilin

As I said originally, it was a national holiday so there were many, many Chinese tourists, especially the first few days. The holiday ended on Friday -- and people went back to work on Saturday! -- so it slowed down. At the airport in beijing, we were again treated like celebrities and this large group all wanted to take pictures with our kids.

I took Anna for a walk on the plane and everyone was waving at her and taking pictures.

Eli and Anna loved the Guilin mei fun rice noodles --about 16 cents a bowl. Jacob was in the van sorting his Pokemon cards and eating an apple and granola bar.

That night we had a really good dinner at Asia Pacific restuarant. In the front they had a virtual petting zoo of live animals for people to choose their dinner from, including several tanks of snakes.

We visited Reed Flute Cave, outside Guilin and Jacob loved it, despite being with thousands of Chinese tourists. Eli was scared but fascinated.

The yankees have me so confused

They are losing 2-0 and bein gone hit in the sixth inning right now and I find myself thrilled that they are on the verge of elimination. I really hate them some place deep in my gut. But I know if they rally and win, i will be happy and cheering for them. I think I also love them someplace deep in my gut. Can someone pleae explain this to me? I know that there at least four highly trained, insightful, thoughtful mental health professionals who are regular readers of this blog. Maybe someone in Pittsburgh can reach out to Murray Charleston and we can get a minyin.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

As promised, the Holy Rosary Team photo

For those of you who don't know, that's my brother David on the right and his daughter emma in the front row, second from right, number 1.

We are back from our trip. Great times. I will post much more and photos over the next few days.

Driver's license test on Tuesday. I guess I will reluctantly admit it if we fail.

Also coming up soon:

•Another FAQ
•Why I won't stop writing about politics.
•the tale of Dixie Doc and Dan Marino

And much, much more...

Friday, October 07, 2005

Holy rosary VB update

Being on theother side of the world will not stop me from my important duties, including keeping the world updated on the Holy rosary Volleyball team. the picture is classic and going straight up when I get back.

Hope that you are having a nice time in the hinterlands of China. Attached
is the picture of Holy Rosary VB team, as promised. Lost a tough match this
weekend to Immaculate Heart of Mary. Took them to a third game but our girls
didn't have the mental toughness to hang in there with the din of partisan
crowd. Here we are in a nip and tuck third game, the opposing coach calls a
time out to stop our nascent momentum and the girls ask:
Who are we playing next week?
Which team plays after us?
Coach Dave can I serve overhand?
Coach Dave am I going back into the game?

Pretty funny. Everytime I get serious about what we are trying to do one of
their questions brings me back to reality.

Wow, Yangshou!

Hey all. we are still in Yangshou. i am writing from an internet cafe, surrounded by chinese in their 20s playing online games and smoking away. I am sipping iced green tea. They are all drinking coke in bottles. Also, the letters are worn off the keybaord so I am typing blindly and as you know, I make enough typos under the best of circumstances. My keyboard knowledge s better than I realzied, however.

becky and the kids are all asleep around the corner in out adjoining rooms at the grungy but nice New west St. Hotel. She was beat. We rode about 30 km today, mostly on rutted country roads. eli was in a seat on my bike. jacob and B were on a tandem with anna attached. We had a great guide. We could only understand 25 percent of what she said but she knew the backroads beautifully. we rode a long stretch, past water buffalo, rice paddies, roosters, baby chicks running wild, ocassional pigs and cows and, of course, dogs. it is very green and every inch is planted inthe valleys -- pomelo and orange orchards -- they are green as limes, but taste like awesome sweet/sour tangerines and we have been gobbling them up -- peanuts, soybeans, cotton, persimmons.

Then we got to a river, and rode on two bamboo rafts, with bikes on back, about an hour and half. we were worried about the kids but they loved it and were great. jacob has turned a corner and is mr outdoors now. loves hiking, biking and asking the guide a million questions which she can't understand.

this place is amazing. the scenery is spectacular. as good as the pictures if you looked. it is very otherworldly and looks nothing like your conception of china -- or at leat mine until a few weeks ago. it looks much more like vietnam -- which is not far south from here, actually.

if you read his comment, art made a good call on the geology -- devonian limesteon karsts. when we get back, i will post photos and more extensive commentary.

It is nice to be so out of the loop. I just looked and checked in on the playoffs series, which i had forgoten about, and got an email from ronnie at slam about recent nba trades. i enjoy not knowing eveything the minutes it happens, for a few days.

becky turned to me at dinner the other night and said, "it feels like we are on the other side of the world" and I said, "we are."