“Abe Lincoln’s Yarns and Stories”

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Abe Lincoln's Yarns and Stories

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On February 13th, 1861, the editor of South Carolina’s Charleston Mercury newspaper penned a defiant polemic against the new Provisional Constitution of the Confederate States of America. The crime? In an appeal to moderate border states, rebel delegates outlawed the importation of new slaves from Africa. “The South is now in the formation of a Slave Republic“. Slave society, he argued, was something to “avow and affirm…as a living principle of social order” which could fail only if its leaders failed to fully embrace it as such. He urged rebel leaders across the South to just come out and admit what everyone knew but for some reason (shame, most likely) couldn’t: that they were fighting for slavery because they believed in it.

The editor’s name was Leo W. Spratt. 40 years later in 1901, Spratt bought a book, a Christmas present, titled ‘Abe’ Lincoln’s Yarns and Stories (a greatest hits album of sorts to Lincoln’s legendary humor). Spratt gifted the book to a man named “Darius”. On May 31, 1922, Darius cut out a newspaper clipping, a picture of the 79 year old Robert Todd Lincoln, the President’s only surviving son, who had attended the dedication of his slain father’s memorial the previous day. Darius folded the clipping into the book.

90 years, six months, and five days later (aka December 5, 2012), I met a colleague for a work lunch at a Galette 88, a modern creperie located in San Francisco’s financial district. We discussed innovations in the water sector. I had the smoked salmon crepe.

On my way back to the office I passed by a book seller. Nothing much, just a couple stands run by a man named Rick.

Rick had some gems. But one edition in particular took my eye–a dark work, covered in ornate gold leaf, tarnished and earthen by over four score of hands and neglect. Emblazoned on the cover was the portrait of Lincoln, looking every bit the man whose melancholy was once described as having “dripped from him as he walked”.

The inside cover revealed a lonely newspaper clipping, an old man had joined an entire nation in loving remembrance of his long dead father. The book was signed:

Leo W. Spratt
Dec 25: 1901
To Darius [unreadable]

What motivated this old rebel to spend money on a slapstick Lincoln totem? Had he recanted? Was it a gag gift? A joke among old confederate buddies? Did Darius cut out the picture of Robert as a keepsake? Were they, as former enemies of the president, as gripped by Lincoln’s overwhelming legacy as the rest of the us?

Spratt once had a terrible vision of an imperial Slave Republic at the center of global power, respect, and commerce. “Bride of the world, rather than the miserable mistress of the North” he wrote. Forty years later he was giving Lincoln jokes to buddies.

Now he’s dead, and his book is mine.

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Endorsements 2012

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Individual candidate and party preferences are based on a complex mix of reason, emotion, assumption, prejudice, ignorance, conviction, self interest, selflessness, philosophy, love, hate, fear, and hope. Given that uncrackable code, I prefer to stick to ballot propositions. So without further adieu, for the great state of California and the great City of San Francisco, Pacificvs thus endorses…

Proposition 30 – Yes
For 35 years California has been engaged in a radical two-step experiment. Step one: divest state resources from public education. Step two: repeat. Proposition 30 would authorize tax increases which would bring in about $6 billion to reverse the devastating cuts to education, and is supported by labor and business. Half the money would be raised by increasing income taxes on the 1% by 1% while the other half would be paid for by everybody else through a modest increase in the sales tax. Everybody pays, the wealthy a bit more, but everybody wins. Yes on 30.

Proposition 31 – Yes
California’s state government is plagued with too many institutional problems to list, and Proposition 31 doesn’t come close to solving all of them. But it does offer some sensible solutions to some of them, including moving to two-year budget cycles, devolving state decision making to local governments, and requiring lawmakers to identify new funding for new spending. Yes on 31.

Proposition 32 – No
It is the worst type of proposition that forces you to ask of its proponents “what do you take me for”? Proposition 32 is one of those. Recall the Citizens United Supreme Court decision that obliterated all political spending limits for corporations and unions? And remember how you’ve heard about corporate profits soaring to unprecedented heights, while the America’s unions spiral into oblivion? Proposition 32 would cement the imbalance of capital over labor by eliminating the ability of unions to raise money, and you can’t spend money you can’t raise. What’s insulting: Proposition 32 “offers” to limit corporate political fundraising by outlawing corporate practices that are already illegal. What a joke. Vote no on 32.

Proposition 33 – No
As a general principle I’m deeply skeptical of proposals put forth by single interests. Prop. 33 was written and put forward by the Mercury Insurance group, and allows auto insurance companies to engage in price discrimination against folks (like myself) who for several years have given up car ownership, regardless of your driving record. Vote No on 33.

Proposition 34 – Yes
Until the day government can guarantee it will never accidentally execute an innocent citizen, everyoneshould be opposed to the death penalty. Proposition 34 would end capital punishment in California, and transmute the sentences of all prisoners so condemned to life-without-parole. Which, by the way, would save California a lot of money because government-murder is expensive. It’s also obscenely racist. Vote yes on 34.

Proposition 35 – No
Sex trafficking is a crime against human dignity and should be severely punished. That’s why it’s disappointing that the backers of Proposition 35 squandered an opportunity to do just that, and opted instead to present voters with an hysterical overreach. In addition to increasing sentences on sex traffickers (a good thing) Prop 35 would turn an 18 year old who is dating a 17 into a registered sex offender, eliminating said 18 year old’s chance to amount to anything in this life. Besides, we don’t need an initiative to increase sentences on sex traffickers: there is a thing called the legislature, and they tend to enjoy passing tough-on-crime laws, and can do so without criminalizing high school kids. Vote No on 35.

Proposition 36 – Yes
Voters should be wary of any public policy that appears too tailor-made for a catchy slogan. Voters passed just such a law in 1994 called “Three strikes, you’re out” (get it?). It forces mandatory life-sentences on third-time felons, no matter how banal the crime (the famous example is of the guy sentenced to life-in-prison for shoplifting $150 bucks from K-Mart). While carting-off assholes sounds nice, it’s actually really, really expensive (about $60,000 per inmate, per year) and is money best saved for criminals who are actually dangerous. That’s exactly what Proposition 36 does, by reserving the life-sentence for third-offenders who’ve committed a violent or serious offense. Vote Yes on 36.

Proposition 37 – Yes
No issue has been more fear-based and unscientific than the campaigns for-and-against Proposition 37, which would force most food products sold in California to prominently label whether or not the product contains genetically modified organisms (GMOs). What irks me about this campaign is that Yes-on-37 is driven almost entirely by ignorance and paranoia of precisely the same caliber as vaccine denialism. Let’s be clear, when a paleolithic farmer decided to plant his largest crops next to each other in the hopes that they’d produce even larger crops, that’s GMO. Far from being the harbinger of a Brave New World, artificial selection is among our species’ most primitive useful talents. The difference is that today science allows us to pinpoint very specific genes–like ones for drought resistance–and artificially select for them with great accuracy. As such, GMOs could provide extraordinary benefits to drought prone and poverty stricken locales across the globe. I am further annoyed by Yes-on-37’s stupid campaign point that we should label GMOs because Europe does, as if European civilization (of all places!) has never enacted bad public policy. Alas, I am resigned to vote yes. Why? First, because the labels would apply to all food sold in California, it wouldn’t discriminate against food grown in California, and therefore renders the No-on-37 fears of economic hardship to farmers moot. Apart from that key point, there’s this: more than anything else, I believe Proposition 37 is the public’s reaction to the general understanding that US food policy is no longer serving the public interest, and that we’re through ignoring it. My hope is that if Proposition 37 passes, I will wake up the next day in a world where subsidies, pesticides, and hormone abuse (in short, actual problems) are treated as serious matters of public health rather than as the boutique concerns of the rich. If that world requires some labels that will cost little, hurt no one, and humor some harmless paranoiacs, I think we should go for it. Vote Yes on 37.

Proposition 38 – Yes
Most people don’t mind taxes per se, what they do mind is unfairness. It’s not fair that one group should pay for the second, when the second provides nothing to the first (or so it goes). Proposition 38 is no such proposal. In an era of 1 percent vs 99 percent vs 47 percent, Proposition 38 would raise income taxes on just about everybody to pay for an elemental public services that benefits everyone: public education. Yes, Proposition 32 would also increase taxes to pay for public education. Is it too much? No. Taxes today are at their lowest levels in three generations, that’s because we’ve spent the last generation cutting them. If we want a civilization, we have to pay for it. Yes on 38. (NOTE: If both 38 and 30 pass, then the one with the fewer votes will actually fail, even if it passes. I support the Governor’s Proposition 30 over 38, so if you can remember Yes on 30, No on 38, then go for it. Otherwise, I’d rather blast yes on both into the interwebs to avoid confusion. We definitely need one to pass).

Proposition 39 – Yes
Proposition 39 closes a loophole that allows out-of-state businesses from paying in-state taxes on their in-state profits. It would raise about $1 billion per year to close our budget hole. Opponents claim it will kill jobs, as if Arkansas-based Wal-Mart won’t want to sell goods to Californians because it’s profits won’t be a fraction of a percent as high. No brainer: Yes on 39.

Proposition 40 – Yes
Here we go, one of those yes-means-no propositions. As a “referendum”, Proposition 40 is asking voters to validate a law they already passed. The law in question created a non-partisan Citizen Redistricting Commission that takes the job of redistricting legislative districts away from politicians. A ‘yes’ vote means you think the law should stand and that the citizens commission should stay. Vote Yes on 40.

San Francisco Measures

 

 

 

 

 

 

Proposition A – Yes
Proposition A would enact a modest parcel tax of $79 a year on every lot in San Francisco. The tax would raise $16 million for SF City College, which is facing $25 million in cuts from the state government. A modest tax, a big gain. Yes on A.

Proposition B – Yes
A yes vote would authorize $195 million in bonds for the much needed upgrades of San Francisco’s public parks. As a member of the Pacific Coast Hardball League’s Sunset Nobles (of the Mission), I have hard-won proof of the uneven and unkept fields of San Francisco in the form of bruises and lumps all over my body. There are legitimate concerns with the management of San Francisco’s Department of Rec. and Park that have left some unhappy with this deal, but the parks have been neglected too long to ignore this opportunity. Vote Yes on B.

Proposition C – Yes
San Francisco is crazy expensive. One of the reasons why it’s so expensive is that the supply of homes hasn’t come close to keeping up with the demand to live here. Proposition C would authorize the construction of 30,000 new rental units throughout the city and establish a Housing Trust Fund to help offset the rising costs of living here. That’s important, because unless you’re planning on having millionaire’s mop your floors, the City’s working class will be forced to relocate, i.e. commute, outside the city, clogging roadways and contributing to our already horrendous productivity losses due to traffic. Vote Yes on C.

Proposition D – Yes
It’s kinda cool that San Francisco elects its City Attorney and Treasurer in off-year elections. It’s also crazy arcane and expensive. Let’s move their elections to even years, like everybody else’s, and we can vote less often (but don’t worry, being California we’ll still be voting plenty often). Vote Yes on D.

Proposition E – Yes
San Francisco is the only city in California to tax businesses based on the size of their payroll. That means that as businesses grow, they have a powerful incentive to leave. Proposition E would change that, by phasing out the payroll tax and replacing it with a revenue tax, which would generate about $30 million more for the City’s general fund, which is a small–but welcome–move in the right direction following about $1.5 billion in cuts over the past several years. It’s also fairer to small and growing businesses. Vote yes on E.

Proposition F – No
What do you get when you combine unbelievable narcissism with breathtaking ignorance? You get Proposition F: a proposal to force the City to spend millions of dollars on a plan to spend billions of dollars to dismantle its world-class source of pristine drinking water and carbon-free electricity: the Hetch Hetchy reservoir. Why on earth must we consider this proposal? Because for an extreme fringe, avenging John Muir’s legacy is an objective that exists in a plane beyond reason. And yes, this fringe is extreme: the Sierra Club doesn’t even support it. Granted, we probably wouldn’t build Hetch Hetchy today. But it’s already built, and the ingeniously engineered system continues to provide extraordinary economic, environmental, and social justice benefit to millions of Californians inside and outside San Francisco. In a country with scores of useless reservoirs begging to be torn down, Hetch Hetchy is the last one we should dismantle. But proponents of Proposition F say it would only authorize a study to see if it’s feasible to restore the lost Hetch Hetchy valley, what’s wrong with that? Here’s where the breathtaking narcissism comes in. Hetch Hetchy restoration has been studied seven times in the past 25 years, and all the studies say the same thing: it’s not feasible. Why isn’t it feasible? Because it would cost an absurd amount of money. How much money? $10 billion. How much is $10 billion? $10 billion is enough to send every San Francisco child to UC Berkeley for 30 years. $10 billion could provide every California 2012 High School Graduate with a fully funded four-year CSU education. Proposition F would instead have us spend $10 billion on dismantling our largest source of water and carbon-free power, and spew 387,000 metric tons of carbon into the atmosphere trying to replace it, all in the name of building a new campground. Let’s save ourselves billions of dollars for things that matter by saving Hetch Hetchy. Vote No on F.

Into the Southwest

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When I was cordially invited to attend the wedding of a friend (of not more than six months) at his future bride’s New Mexico ranch, I eagerly accepted. Not only was I honored to be invited to witness this new union, but I was also quite excited at the opportunity to explore new parts of the country.

One of the pleasant surprises one encounters flying eastward from California over the American Southwest, is just how many impressive canyons there are that aren’t the “Grand” one. Indeed, so captivating a sight are these numberless trenches, that writing about their existence can become difficult as it requires one to peel their eyes away from the window. The task is made much easier when the captain takes you headlong into thunderclouds many thousands of feet above both New Mexico and the plane, virtually eliminating visibility.

From the air, Albuquerque is seen as a low-sprawling metropolis isolated in the middle of a vast desert valley. The mountains which ring the city are distant, with long tracts of desert between the two so that the city appears lonely. A green oasis serpents through the whole of Albuquerque; the Rio Grande is as responsible for this city’s existence as the Nile is for the Pyramids. The desert is crisscrossed with dirt roads, connecting its martian-like floor in a spider-like web of crooked ochre tracks.

Albuquerque’s natural beauty neatly captures New Mexico’s motto. The city is surrounded by the picturesque Sandia Mountains, which are themselves dashed with luminescence from gaps in the clouds, which are themselves more enormous and, I don’t quite know how to put it, present than any found in California.

I didn’t venture long in Albuquerque, but from what I saw, the human element was not doing so well. Buildings and homes looked disheveled and the city felt disconnected and poorly planned. Some friends brought us to Los Cuates, a New Mex-Mex restaurant (if the term even exists), which delivered a rousing entree of green and red chiles, which one could order separate or, as the locals do, mixed “christmas style”. The baked bread served with honey neatly captures the essence of the New Mex Mex flavor: sweet, savory, smokey, and damn good.

Jesus light.

The wedding was held at the bride’s ranch near Angel Fire, high in New Mexico’s northern mountains about a four hour drive from Albuquerque. On the road we had several noteworthy encounters.

Highway 64 is littered with fireworks vendors. This being July 7, our party took full advantage of the 50 percent-off discount and loaded our vehicle with a rampart worthy of Washington himself. The vendor was an affable guy, round, tanned, and smiling. He was assisted by a toothless Native American who, whether by alcohol, amphetamines, or something else entirely, had a very difficult time forming coherent sentences.

Onward into the desert, and one finds vast tracks of land sparsely populated. What industry exists in these frontier reaches? I don’t know, and the few locals we spoke with didn’t seem to know either. At a gas station near Taos, two ladies pulled up near our car and complimented me on my glasses. I responded with a lie, complimenting the tacky piece of car furniture dangling from the review mirror of their beat-up mid 90’s Chevy Blazer. I then took the opportunity to gab with the locals, who told me there was some mining done “near red rock”, that Taos produced better Marijuana than California, and that the disheveled guy walking toward me was in-fact a world famous vagabond who is suffering (or enjoying) a 40-year-and-counting trip from a single outing with LSD upon return from Vietnam. They told me he’d ask us for money, which they advised against giving. Both of these things happened shortly afterwards. Our conversation ended after a woman, probably in her late 40’s, came up to their window, dropped a six pack of Coors Lite on their laps, and advised the girls move on before people got suspicious. Just outside Albuquerque we spotted a Dunkin Donuts next to a cemetery.

Release the FireCracken

Angel Fire appears to be mostly a gas station town to serve those headed towards the several skiing resorts nearby. We arrived around 10pm, and found our ranch destination shortly afterwards. Apart from two girlfriends, the evening was segregated: the bridal party was resting in a cabin somewhere nearby, while the groom’s party drank and lit explosives. Having rained several nights prior, we were fully liberated to deploy the vast arsenal: for nearly two hours, handfuls of aerial explosives were arranged and every lighter on the premises called into duty. For the grand finale, a single arrangement of 300 rockets were launched, laying siege–if not to the moon–then certainly to some low-lying bats or moths.

Saturday was the wedding, held at the cattle ranch which has laid with the bride’s family since the 1880s. The day was, from what I was told, typical New Mexico, warm with intermittent rain and thunder. The ceremony was held in an Aspen grove which, I was also told, constitute the largest organisms on the planet. I was quick to ask about the California Redwood, but it was claimed that Aspen groves develop from a single root system which technically makes them a “single” tree. The catered food was New Mex Mex, which was again fantastic. The bride, who looked stunning, also has good taste; by her orders there was a collection of wedding pies instead of cake.

By far the most important feature of my journey into the Southwest was the first and best opportunity I’ve had to don the jewelry I inherited from my grandpa. I’m speaking, of course, about this amazing bolo tie.

Note: The Bolo

Four Days in Kaua’i

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Flying over Oahu

Following eight months of hesitant journeys to its owner’s head, authoritative use has finally been made of the author’s fine summer fedora.

After years of travel to places cold and dense, I find myself someplace that is neither: Kauai, the Garden Island.

First the journey. Hawaiian Air had disappointed us with four hours of delay at Oakland International for lack of a “part” which, it was promised, was hastily making its way from SFO. One finds that it’s easy to imagine a nameless “missing part” to be the one absolutely necessary for the act of flying and landing a plane (the throttle? the wing? the flux capacitor?). More likely, it was probably the lid to a luggage compartment, or perhaps a missing bottle of bathroom hand-soap.

Even for those accustomed to microclimates, Kauai is extreme. The island itself is about 85 miles in circumference, and it’s four distinct shores offer incredible variation.

The “Sunny” South Shore receives an average 18 inches of rain per year, making it a Mediterranean climate not unlike Southern California save for the humidity. The beaches and bays of Wiamea and Poi’pu ascend gently inland, creating a vast and sloping grassland which eventually rises into modest foothills which then heave skyward and rip apart to create the astonishing Wiamea Canyon. Wiamea Bay, it should be noted, is home to some of the heaviest waves in the world, while the beach at popular tourist destination Poi’pu is the temporary home to some of its heaviest people. Along Highway 50, Jo-Jo’s serves what is considered the best of the Island’s signature treat: a cup of shaved ice showered in colored sugar water served atop a pile of ice cream, “Shave Ice” is only one element away from a sugary island Turducken.

Driving east along the shore you’ll see the ruins of industries old and gone, mostly sugar plantations, that conjure up a tropical Pittsburg. Hardly of an eyesore, these rusting behemoths make up the island’s most interesting architecture. One will also pass the Kaua’i Coffee Co., whose beans, visitors are told, account for 60% of all coffee grown in Hawaii. If the tasting room is to be trusted, this is an unfortunate state of affairs. Of the dozen or so blends on sample, each was somehow too bland and too bitter. I was, however, so enamored with the site’s stately groves of coffee trees, that I’d rather blame inattentive staff for simply burning the coffee rather than attack the dignity of the noble beans. Like the South Shore, this area has few trees and is instead dominated by the bermuda grass that grows tightly across lawns and fields alike, covering the area like a giant putting green.

The Koloa Rum house is located on a former sugar plantation, which offers free tastings of four different types of rum along with a lesson on making and drinking Mai Tais. All are good, but the dark rum is particularly impressive. I recommend taking the $18 train tour of the grounds, which is today growing fruit, vegetables, and nuts since sugar cane, a highly labor-intensive crop, is no longer cost-competitive.

One passes the grocery stores, hotels, and restaurants of the East Shore and heads North to Hanalei, which (to non-surfers) is probably the most well-known part of the island. The North Shore looks and feels much more like the tropical destination you expected: it receives much more rain than the South, and is covered in mist and jungle flora. Here you’ll find the island’s established cluster of gift shops, shave ice stands, and art galleries. Petrified lava cliffs bank the road to Ke’e beach, each striped with the dangling, rope-like roots of trees harnessed to bluffs hundreds of feet overhead. The houses are on stilts, some of them appearing 15 feet high. Locals say that the area is inhabited mostly by wealthy transplants from the mainland, with several long-established Hawaiian families tucked here and there.

Ke’e beach is perfect for snorkeling beginners. Its sands plunge 20 feet deep into a calm pool surrounded by a reef which ascends to about 4 feet below the surface. This allows one to plunge and explore the miniature canyons of the reef, and spot all manners of fish, coral, and, if you’re lucky (I was), giant sea turtles. Snorkel Bob’s rents prescription goggles (!).

As we spent the entire day at Ke’e, I’ll spend a word here on the tropical Sun. A Californian will note that the sun is hotter in Hawaii than at home, even when the temperature is cooler. You might not have before considered it, but even in a triple digit Fresno August, the Sun’s heat is dispersed and your surroundings are like that of a convection oven. Hawaii is more like a microwave: cool except for (you)r meal, the atmosphere is mild but in direct sunlight you can actually feel yourself cook.

The road ends shortly past Ke’e beach, marking the beginning of Kauai’s world famous Napali Coast. Napali is a 5 mile stretch of cliffs and canyon accessible only by foot, boat, or helicopter. High above Napali sits Mount Waiʻaleʻale, to the East of which sits one of the wettest spots on Earth, averaging over 400 inches of rain every year. Remember, this is only about 15 miles from Wiamea, which gets as much rain as California’s parched San Fernando Valley. The island is controlled by wild roosters.

I’m sure they’d taste great freshly brewed.

If one is renting a car, the first impression of Hawaiian culture will likely be over the radio. There, one will find that not only is Hawaiian music a slow and moaning mixture of standards-era ballads and ukelele, but that it dominates the dial. Though its lack of passion sounds rather eunuch, Hawaiian music is apparently very pleasant for senior citizens, who seem blissfully unaware that this is the hotel-guitarist’s third go at “Somewhere over the rainbow”. Come to think of it, all-encompassing sameness seems to exist with all components of island culture: all paintings are of sunsets and surfboards, while all architecture that is not 1950’s art decco is in the style of bamboo, palm leaves, and coconuts. It would be as if San Francisco radio only played the ‘Dead, it’s art galleries featured only psychedelic abstractions, and it’s buildings were all cheap imitations of the painted ladies. The food was better than expected, with actually decent hotel food and solid BBQ at Scotty’s on the East Shore. The service can be slow and unusual, like the cocktail waitress who actually grabbed the eaten shrimp off our dirty dishes to explain there was more meat yet hiding beneath the tail. Mostly, we cooked at gas grills along the Kauai Beach Resort with fish from the Fish Express and produce from the farmers market at Tunnels.

A surprising number of individuals we spoke with were transplants from the mainland. One bartender was from Seattle, the woman at the Koloa Rum tasting room was from Ohio, and the guy at the rental car agency was from Pennsylvania. Each marveled about life on the island, but complained about both high costs and low wages. While natives exhibit all the variation you know and love and hate about the human experience, transplants are a self-selected batch of seekers and shut-ins. Nobody wears helmets, and the native Hawaiian accent sounds oddly Minnesotan.

Though economically dependent on tourism, people on Kauai are very committed to its relative isolation from the other islands, which they consider urbanized and spoiled. The only way off Kauai is by plane, cruise ship, or private vessel. No ferry service exists, and the locals are committed to keeping it that way, even if it means they can hardly ever afford to leave. Case in point, a ferry service that launched in 2007 failed as its first boats discovered Nawiliwili Harbor embargoed with a ring of hundreds of surfers. The surfers maintained the embargo for 32 hours, paddling out in shifts until the ferries returned to Oahu. Churches from every denomination are everywhere, a legacy from the vast numbers of missionaries sent here by the West during the 19th century. Mark Twain once wrote that there were “More missionaries and more row about saving these 60,000 people than would take to convert hell itself”.

Speaking of, shortly after I arrived in Hawaii I began looking for a copy Twain’s “Letters from the Sandwich Islands”. Twain’s writings for the Sacramento Union during his four month journey in 1866 is considered by many to be the best travel writing on the Hawaiian islands ever published, making it perhaps the best beach reading of all time. As I first combed the internet on my iPad for copies, I came across a May 2006 New York Times article on travel writing which began with the keen observation that upon arrival to a tropical paradise, a subtle feeling of “This is really nice…but that’s it?” can creep in on city slickers used to options. The antidote, the author recommended, was good travel writing to stoke interest in sights unseen and under appreciated. As I tried to purchase a physical copy of Twain’s Letters, I was politely informed by a local grocer that the Island and County of Kauai, population 65,000, didn’t have a single bookstore. Such is the reason why theologians have always had such difficulty convincingly describing heaven: one person’s eternal paradise is, if not another’s hell, certainly their four day vacation. And such is how I discovered Hawaii’s great irony: to get the most out of it, you have to leave.

Overlooking Wiamea Canyon.

RIP Christopher Hitchens

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I just got the news, via NY Times notice, that one of my favorite writers of all time, Christopher Hitchens, has passed away at the age of 62 from esophageal cancer. In honor of his passing, I’ll donate half of all proceeds from the sales of my poster portraits of him to the American cancer society for the rest of 2011.

20111215-221307.jpgMe, Emily, Bianca, and Catharine toasting Johnny Walker Black to the great man.

May his spirit, for lack of a better word, live on.

Ten Days in China

Pacificvs makes his first visit to the Middle Kingdom

Having abandoned it’s red ambitions long ago, China’s foray into a capitalistic authoritarian gray zone is at least monochromatically consistent with the physical China: a fleshy and penetrating gray, the color of a rotting tombstone.

China is penetrating, and oftentimes beautiful. Even a smog choked skyline can transport the viewer to the wispy trees, craggy monoliths, and misted valleys of an early Ming Dynasty watercolor. But it’s not all romance. When the same hue begins to arrive in your morning cough several days in, however, you begin to suspect less pure forces are at work.

Then you see the nuclear power plant in the middle of town. There it is, right next to the coal plant. Several miles away, you see the exact same combo: nuclear and coal. And apartments. Lots of apartments.

This is Xian. Xian is instructive because it’s neither Shanghai nor Beijing, China’s two showcase cities. Xian is like Yuma, Arizona: sprawling and utilitarian. Two years ago, one can tell, it had no skyline. If you only count finished buildings, it still doesn’t have much of one. But when you consider what’s under construction…I counted no fewer than eight clusters of 15-25 tenement buildings, each 40 stories high and probably twenty units across. As the largest consumer of steel in the world, the metal is in short supply in China, so bamboo is used for scaffolding–to a spectacular effect.

With 8 million residents, Xian would be America’s third largest city. In China, it’s a backwater. Inside the city wall, apparently the best preserved in all of China, one finds plenty of unfortunate architectural survivors of the communist era. The buildings are concrete and uninspired and, of course, gray. Covered in tacky neons, the place looks and feels like a prison converted into a casino, which, in post-communist China, in a way I suppose they are. It looks unnatural and poorly conceived, like you’ve been transported into a SimCity built with lots of cheat codes. Overwhelming pollution, consistent filth, bizarre infrastructure, Frogger roadways, and general dreariness–despite the recent economic gains–Xian doesn’t look like the China you’ve read about so much as it feels like the China you expected. It’s important for American students of China to visit such places.

Beijing
The Hilton Wangfujing is near the Forbidden City. Here the streets are spotless and the shopping is high-end. Drivers observe traffic lights. This is obviously a new development, probably constructed in time for the Olympics, and is precisely the “China” Beijing wants to showcase to the world: modern and refined. To their great credit, the Chinese achieve this sense of modernity without sacrificing their culture’s greatest asset: their food.

Forget the walls and the temples, it’s the food that is the single greatest achievement of the Chinese Civilization. Hot pot, dim sum, peking duck…every single restaurant will dare you to exclude it from your top-five list. But for that extra touch of adventurism, there it is, in the heart of the shopping and modernity: the exotic food market.

Squid, octopus, snake. Grasshoppers, silkworms, crickets. Lamb penis and lamb testicles. And yes, dog, and cat (oddly enough, they both look like hash browns). But it’s not what you’re thinking. The presentation is clean and fresh, with a flair for design. This is obviously regulated for the foreign tastes watching from the surrounding hotels. The vendors are friendly but scheming: be wary of any “deals” and demand that they repeat your order before you hand over cash.

Speaking of culture, on my way to China I began reading Romance of the Three Kingdoms, one of China’s oldest novels. One gets a taste of the type of heavy metal badassery within when they read the title of the very first chapter:

Feast in the Garden of Peaches;
Brotherhood Sworn;
Slaughter of Rebels;
The Brothers Heroes.

Taken in just prior to visiting the Great Wall, the Terra Cotta Soldiers, and the Hall of Overwhelming Glory, ancient Chinese literature helps you understand that you are in a place where the rulers take themselves very, very seriously.

In both Midnight’s Children and The Satanic Verses, Salman Rushdie’s Indian characters respond to the English disdain for bidets with revulsion (“They only use paper”!). They should visit China: except for the hotels, sitting toilets don’t exist, and neither does toilet paper, let alone bidets. Paper towels are nowhere to be seen, and although every bathroom, it seems, has an air dryer, none of them work. Not kidding: zero.

Shopping
At any given retail situation in China, whether for tea or chachkis, you will almost certainly find that the store is crazy overstaffed. At the airport, fifteen people greet you off the plane. Six welcome you to the tea shop. Eight servers wait on your table at restaurants. Even at Starbucksthe employees often outnumber the customers. Many times, one finds themselves walking to a store and being forced to repeat familiar lines: “I don’t know what I’d like…I don’t even know what you sell…I’m just looking”. There is a lot of standing, staring, and cutting in line.

All this leads to a shopping experience that, to a Westerner, is plainly ridiculous. Every step you take is matched by at least two “helpers” who flank you at the sides. They mime you as you browse the shelf, pointing at and naming the objects passing your gaze. “Toy”. “Hairbrush”. “Cat”. Instead of shopping, you’re mostly congratulating people on their English. “Very good”. “That’s correct”. “Right again”!

Visitors to Beijing’s Silk Market are given a taste of what to expect by the two giant banners which greet them: “Protect intellectual property rights, be law-abiding vendors”. China has a thriving black market. Chanel handbags that push $2,000 at the Wangfujing mall fetch $60 at the Silk Market. Men’s swiss Bally leather satchels are knocked from $1,000 to $30. Even Rosetta Stone Mandarin is only $15 (a dangerous sale considering one tends to get things slightly cheaper if they can exhibit some control over Mandarin). Wendy tailors makes excellent suits and in good time. Sunny, her assistant and apparent translator, drives a hard bargain, but it’s hard to be upset at a custom fitted three-piece suit and shirt for under $200.

Not for latinas.

Living in San Francisco’s Mission, a neighborhood with plenty of discount clothes and lots of mannequins, I was surprised to find the little ways in which different standards of beauty manifest around you. Also surprising was how the tourists are overwhelmingly Chinese. From every corner of this vast country, many have never seen white people before, and on many occasions you will be stopped and asked to pose for a photo. But nothing prepared me for the near obsession the Chinese had with James, the 16 month old infant which traveled with us. In a land of few children, James is not only male (much preferred), but also half white/half Asian, or “mix blood” as they put it. Not kidding: mobs of gawkers, at one point numbering in the dozens, would gather around James and stare.

China seems to have uniformed military officers everywhere: guiding traffic, taking tickets at museums, marching through this plaza or that. Even private-security guards and postmen looked like 5-star generals. What’s stranger is that at the places you’d expect some authorities, like at the Forbidden City, you’ll instead find plainclothes guards. It’s very strange watching guys in sweatpants and hoodies on the other side of the rope looking stoic and at the ready. There’s only two possible reasons why the Chinese do this: to take foreigners “off” the defensive, or much more likely, to put the locals “on”. The plainclothes guards are a very visible example that you never know who works for the government.

Spread out before the Forbidden City is Tiananmen Square and the body of Chairman Mao, lying in state. It’s true what you’ve read: people don’t know much about the ’89 massacre. Our tour guide, who we’ll call Sharon, inquired about the protest, and informed us that she had never seen the iconic picture of the lone man standing in the face of a line of tanks.

Ignorance about Tiananmen is unsurprising. The Great Firewall is significant enough, and state censorship complete enough, to trip up news junkies and researchers. My iPhone couldn’t access Facebook, and both Google and Safari were significantly disrupted. Baidu, China’s most popular search engine, responds the query “Tiananmen Square Massacre” with an article titled “Tiananmen Square Massacre a Myth”. When I reached for the China Daily the morning following my Beijing arrival, I found a piece titled “China fights climate change with utmost zeal”. Peasants aren’t allowed to freely enter cities, and Chairman Mao looks good for being 118.

The easy conclusion is that China is, well, exceptional. It’s enormously foreign, and one gets the sense that they are breaking cultural taboos often. China’s longevity is among it’s most impressive feats, but you don’t really know what this means until you see it. An at-first surprising observation, is that the Chinese, wherever possible, don’t seem to let their ancient buildings lapse into decay like many have done in the West. Xian’s city wall was rebuilt in the 1980’s. So was the Beijing area of the Great Wall. The Big Goose Pagoda, which tilts in a way so familiar that the locals call it “Leaning Tower of Xian”, is not just being anchored from further slippage by government engineers, but corrected. When you point this out, people remind you that their great grandparents helped rebuild this-wall-or-that following the earthquake or the fire or the invasion or whatever it was a hundred years ago, and their great-grandparents rebuilt it following whatever catastrophe it was a hundred years before that. It makes natural sense that they’d keep it up. Doesn’t this effect the object’s authenticity? “Not at all” say the Chinese. There is a cultural continuity that is understood.

Compare this to Greece, where the architectural family jewels of the West are either mostly destroyed or simply no longer exist. The pagans who built the Parthenon lost their culture and became Christianized following 2,000 years of endless invasion and occupation at the hands of a who’s-who of ancestral Europe’s great powers: Romans, Persians, Ottomans, English, Nazis. In a total way, the ancient Greeks really no longer exist. This is in stark contrast to China, where a region dominated by Han arts and culture, Confucius teaching, and ancestor-worship, is entering it’s 2,233rd year.

In many ways, the Cultural Revolution was Mao’s attempt at dislodging China from it’s past, a prerequisite for building the communist utopia. Many of Beijing’s classically trained artists artisans, and many of the country’s professors and intelligentsia, we’re purged, “re-educated”, and killed. It is for our great benefit that this effort failed.

Finally, something has to be mentioned about the China hysteria that I fear hasn’t even really begun. For all it’s growth, China has much further to grow still, and it’s economy is almost certain to overtake that of the US within a decade or so. These fears, I believe, are exaggerated. China has problems, big ones. Too numerous, in fact, to list in a brief essay about a brief vacation. But driving from the countryside into the cities, one sees the same thing everywhere: a bronze-age civilization surrounding a Dickensian nightmare swallowing modern a metropolis. If you live in the first two, your movements into the third are highly restricted, which is where everyone wants to be because that’s where the money is. People grumble about the one-child policy, and the cities are beginning to develop their own housing bubbles. The environmental problems are worse than you think, and I thought they were terrifying going in.

So with respect to Sinophobia, remember: the Chinese may have invented the compass, paper, printing, and gunpowder, but they also invented bureaucracy.

Waving to the people.