Friday, December 18, 2009

Cat people

There's a Cat Lady in the Beijing compound where I was staying. Old, round, bundled up in layers of quilted, padded clothing, hunched over a wheeled cart she fills with kibble and canned food for her charges, the outside cats who live on the grounds. Apparently they have different food preferences, and she is very concerned with making sure that each gets what it wants. She has her own tribe of cats too, indoor cats, "four or five," she told one of my hosts, as if she weren't sure.

I had a chance to talk to her briefly, as she made her rounds. I stayed at a distance but still frightened the orange and white kitty she was feeding, though she told me that he ran off when she tried to give him medicine for his ear: "he has a hole in his ear," she explained. "The first time I gave him medicine, he wasn't afraid, but the second time, he was." I wish I could have understood everything that she told me, but I did get that much.

I saw one of the cats she feeds as I was leaving for the airport today, sitting in a box against the wall, a little shelter against the bitter cold of the last few days. He is a big orange cat, regal, wonderful coat, and if anything, slightly overfed, and he sat there with his eyes half-closed looking content with his box and his world.

I like that there are cat ladies in Beijing. I like that this elderly woman gives care and attention to these cats and receives affection and satisfaction in return. Pets were considered a "bourgeois" habit in the past, and though you can always make arguments about the morality of caring for pets in a country where millions live on the razor's edge of poverty, to me, it's a sign of humanity allowing to shine.

My favorite Beijing bar is a little place on a hutong off Gulou Dong Dajie, owned by a Mongolian. He recently took in two kittens -- I saw them in July when they were tiny, and again in November, at the beginning of my trip -- two adolescent females with the run of the bar, climbing on the laps of patrons and up and down the tree in the small courtyard. The owner lavishes considerable attention on these kittens. They have their food (good quality) and their litter and if you ask him about them, his eyes go all soft. Apparently this is a change from his former persona: "He used to be a conquerer of the steppes!" a friend told me. I always thought he seemed friendly enough, but apparently he was somewhat of a hard-ass. No more.

My last night in Beijing, I stopped in at the bar to meet that friend for a drink. The kittens were not there. The owner had taken them in to get spayed the day before. We asked after them. The owner explained: "They are at home. They need to xiuxi" - to rest.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

A souvenir in questionable taste...


I mean, okay, the Red Guard, that's one thing. But the victim of a struggle session? That's a little dark even for me...

Friday, December 11, 2009

The privatization of everything...

To anyone paying close attention during the criminal clusterfcuk that was the Bush Administration's conduct of the Iraq War, this will come as no surprise. There was plenty of evidence for private contractors' (AKA mercenaries) participation in interrogations such as those that took place in Abu Ghraib. Still, here's another emerging piece of evidence illustrating how deep and how pervasive the corruption was...and I use the past tense here advisedly. From the NYT:
Private security guards from Blackwater Worldwide participated in some of the C.I.A.’s most sensitive activities — clandestine raids with agency officers against people suspected of being insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan and the transporting of detainees, according to former company employees and intelligence officials.

The raids against suspects occurred on an almost nightly basis during the height of the Iraqi insurgency from 2004 to 2006, with Blackwater personnel playing central roles in what company insiders called “snatch and grab” operations, the former employees and current and former intelligence officers said.

Several former Blackwater guards said that their involvement in the operations became so routine that the lines supposedly dividing the Central Intelligence Agency, the military and Blackwater became blurred. Instead of simply providing security for C.I.A. officers, they say, Blackwater personnel at times became partners in missions to capture or kill militants in Iraq and Afghanistan, a practice that raises questions about the use of guns for hire on the battlefield.
Yeah, it sure does raise some questions. Here's one the article doesn't ask: why did the United States government empower a private firm owned by a right-wing Christian militarist, involving it in the most sensitive clandestine missions and not incidentally enriching its coffers by lord knows how many millions of dollars?

Will we ever know? Not if the Obama Administration persists in its enabling by continuing Bush-era policies and protecting Bush administration officials from prosecution*, and continues to insist that we "look forward," forget about the past, nothing to see here...

*and my posted link is by a pundit trying to give Obama the benefit of the doubt...

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

What a country...

I'm back in Beijing, where I plan to take Chinese classes (already signed up, had my first session today) and do all the writing I'm supposed to be doing (er...yeah. That). Yesterday I had the great good fortune to meet author and long-time Beijing resident Catherine Sampson -- I highly recommend her most recent novel, The Slaughter Pavilion , an insightful look at modern China and a great mystery too!

We met for coffee at one of Beijing's best known foreign language bookstores. I'm used to finding officially censored materials in Chinese shops -- I find a lot of that in DVD stores. But I honestly was not expecting to find this displayed prominently by the cash-wrap.

Some things I don't even try to understand any more...

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

If it's Tuesday, it must be Yangshuo...


I'm staying in a small village outside of Yangshuo, on the advice of guidebooks warning that Yangshuo proper, with its "West Street" filled with bars, backpackers and banana pancakes (apparently backpackers and banana pancakes go together like, I dunno, white on rice) was hardly the peaceful retreat that I craved after the urban overload that is Shanghai (even if I did spend most of the time lounging on my friend's couch). This village is awesome. It features several inns, including one with a rooftop Italian restaurant and a full wine list, and a cluster of "farmer's restaurants," dishing out the famed local specialty, "beer fish." And what could be wrong with beer fish? Nothing, I tell you. I had some, and it was delicious.

Apparently it was primarily these farmer's restaurants that transformed this village from a poor backwater to a prosperous little place whose residents are busily competing to see who can build their house the highest (I'm told that no one even occupies the upper floors; it's all for show). The restaurants attract busloads of Chinese tourists, every day. The food is cheap and good and they've cut some deals with the tour operators.

Chinese tourism is a pretty recent phenomena, and it feels that way, reminding me a bit of post-war American tourism, with its packaged tours, busses and guides waving flags to lead their charges to the next historic location ("We're walking, we're walking, we're walking..."). It can be a little depressing at times, seeing these large groups go here and there, wearing identical baseball caps, pausing in front of the designated scenic site to pose for photos, then onto the next in obligatory fashion, not seeming to take in much about the actual site at all.

Other times, I watch the tour groups, and I feel completely charmed by them. A lot of these domestic tourists are older, and I think, if you'd asked them thirty years ago if they ever thought they'd be touring their own country in air-conditioned busses, posing for photos with their loved ones, enjoying the scenery, they would have considered the notion highly unlikely, if not completely absurd.

And more and more I see Chinese travelers who take a more independent approach. Around Yangshuo, the favored form of tourist transportation is bicycle. This is a great area to bike. The traffic is light on the main road, and the side roads take you through some of the most staggeringly beautiful, unearthly landscapes I have ever seen. There's a silence here that's rare in China, when you are out on your bike, just the birds, the flowing water, the wind pushing against the trees and the earth. I see a lot of younger Chinese travelers, mostly in pairs, sometimes in small groups, on rented bikes, exploring the countryside. What a different experience this is from following around a guide reciting her memorized spiel through a distorted bullhorn.

Chinese tourists, stop uniting! You have nothing to lose but your chains...

Monday, November 30, 2009

Scenes from my walk today...



(you have to click on this one to see the whole sign and why I shot it)



(this is a goof on a wide-spread Chinese internet meme from earlier this year -- pretty funny!)

Sunday, November 29, 2009

The view from my window...



And these don't really do it justice...

Friday, November 27, 2009

Strangers on a train...pt. 2


Sometimes a long trip on a Chinese train is a better concept in theory than in actuality...

I do like the train. I really do. I like the rattle of the rails, the mournful horns, the sense of distance and the time it takes to travel. I like having my little bunk surrounded by my stuff and a book and the feeling that I'm wrapped up in the quilt in this weird mobile cocoon. It reminds me when I was a really little kid, how I used to love to fall asleep in the car, in the dark. There's just something wonderfully comforting and soothing about the movement and the sounds of it.

Except for the fact that, you know, I rarely sleep when I'm actually on the train. There's the cheesy guangbo -- in the olden days, patriotic anthems and Chinese renditions of "Do Ray Mi" and "Home on the Range." Nowadays, it's more likely to be a video screen (which you can't turn off) showing whatever lame history soap is on tap, preceded by endless safety recitations. Lately, I seem to suffer some respiratory ailment every time I'm on a train for a long haul, which I'm guessing has to do with the cigarettes smoked in the vestibules and occasionally sneaked in compartments and hallways.

Then there's the food. I've never really gotten a handle on the dining car routine, and sometimes the quality of the food makes stocking up on snacks and fruit a better proposition. Kind of like flying United across the Pacific. Eating is just problematic.

There are the bathrooms, which can get pretty scummy pretty fast, and the competition for the washing up room -- well, this really only happened on the Beijing to Shanghai overnight train (insert your Shanghai jokes here), when as we were due to arrive in Shanghai, I waited behind several passengers who performed entire elaborate hygiene and beauty rituals at these shared facilities, and I mean tweezing and exfoliation level here, in spite of the fact that there were about a half dozen of us waiting to just do a simple teeth-brushing.

Plus there's the reality that most train stations are, well, pretty grungy, that getting on the train feels like you're an extra in a mob scene out of an escape from Nazi Germany movie, that finding a taxi when you get off the train can be problematic (today in Guilin, all of the legal taxis refused to use their meters, wanted to barter for the rate and when I finally settled on one, she spent the entire ride trying to talk me out of the place I'd reserved and into the "best hotel in Guilin, the most luxurious, the most peaceful, not too expensive!").

But the real weirdness of long train trips inevitably comes down to your compartment mates. I offer as an example my two day marathon from Chengdu to Xinjiang. After that epic misadventure, 22 hours from Shanghai to Guilin seemed like it should be a breeze.

And it really was, except for the aforementioned sudden onset of sneezing and nose-blowing and trying to do all this quietly in an upper bunk. And the inevitable eccentric compartment-mate.

The first guy in after me was a young man on a business trip, hauling a dolly stacked with some kind of, I'm guessing, electrical components housed in hard plastic cases. Naturally this couldn't fit in the overhead compartments or under the seats so it just squatted there on the floor. He was a nice guy though, friendly, and we bonded over our mutual loathing of the video that couldn't be turned off.

Next was a middle-aged woman, trim, energetic and loud. She came in hauling a large suitcase, a laptop and several shopping bags (she'd been on a shopping trip for clothes in Suzhou), and after she sat down, the first thing she did was get out a kleenex and blot her forehead, saying that she was "Re si le!" "Hot to death!" from her exertions. The second thing she did was pull out her cellphone and start up a loud and complicated conversation. Third, she grabbed a cigarette, lit it in the compartment and stood outside in the corridor smoking and chatting, until one of the train workers shooed her toward the smoking area -- "Ah, wo re si le!" she exclaimed again, by way of explanation for her scofflaw behavior.

Not more than twenty minutes into the trip, she was replaced by another man, who had asked the train workers if he could switch compartments. I didn't hear the explanation for his request, but whatever it was, the woman agreed, and with the help of one of the attendants carried her stuff into her new compartment.

Our new roommate had a small backpack and two small plastic grocery bags that looked much used. Thin, with sunken cheeks and a thick wedge of hair. He spoke in a quiet, near-mumble, at least he did the only time I heard him speak, which was to ask the young businessman that the compartment door be kept open part way, because it was more comfortable. He did not make eye contact when he asked this. At some point in the evening, one of the attendants shut our compartment door for the night, and that was the end of that.

He spent a lot of time outside the compartment sitting on one of the jump seats in the corridor. When he was in the compartment, for a long while he sat hunched in the corner, head bowed, forehead resting on hand, as though he'd been crushed by some terrible news. Actually, I think he was just dozing. He sat like this even when the lights were turned off and it was time to sleep. Finally, he did lie down, face down, arms and legs splayed out like a corpse. He never used his pillows or his quilt. Though the next day, he spent a good five minutes rubbing at a spot on one of the pillows with a wetted cloth.

The next day, I wanted to offer him one of my bananas, but as mentioned, he wouldn't meet my eyes. I thought maybe he was uncomfortable having a foreigner in the compartment, though he hadn't spoken to the young businessman either, other than that initial request to leave the door open. He spent an hour or so making notes on a folded square of paper, crossing out characters and writing in new ones. I decided he was composing poetry, though I have absolutely no evidence of this.

About three hours before we arrived in Guilin, his hand darted toward me with a square sweet neatly wrapped in cellophane -- "Hao chi," he near-whispered, ducking his head and looking quickly away.

I thanked him, offered him a banana, which he did not want, and ate the sweet -- mochi and bean paste.

Both of us dozed the final two hours of the ride. When we pulled into Guilin, he was still asleep, head the wrong way on the bunk, feet tucked under the pillows.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Sinister Kitsch


I've been traveling to China for a long time, but there are some things I will never claim to understand. The above is one of them.

Okay, China has changed tremendously over the last few decades; citizens are pretty much free to lead their lives the way they want, as long as they don't cross that invisible red line and get involved with politics or organizing.

But we're still dealing with an authoritarian state here. And portraying your police officers as refugees from the Cartoon Network does not really make them cuddly.

Then there are things like this:


Behold, "Haibao," which means, "Treasure of the Seas." Or as I like to call him/her/it, "Blue Gumby." Haibao is the official mascot of the World Expo 2010 Shanghai China. You cannot escape Haibao. Haibao is everywhere. Haibao does "hip-hop dances." Haibao is just a little creepy.

My all-time favorite, however, is this:

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Heading to Shanghai


I'm leaving for Shanghai tonight, and I kind of wish I weren't. No offense, Shanghai. But having settled in so nicely in Beijing, I'm more in a mood just to stay here and get some writing done. Take Chinese lessons (my Chinese really sucks, and that bothers me). But this isn't the way the schedule worked out, so my pal Richard (AKA the Peking Duck) and I are taking the sleeper train to Shanghai, followed by a week or so of travel. Sigh. My Februrary/March trip here was a near solid month of travel, and as much fun as I had on that trip, I think I might still be tired out from it.

But at least I'll be staying with my good pal, Shanghai Slim, for a couple of days, and once we head south, maybe we'll run into some warmer weather, which would be nice. I plan on seeing some places I either haven't seen in years or never visited at all, and that's something to look forward to.

Monday, November 16, 2009

A random, ceaseless churning...


I'm staying near the Drum Tower, probably my favorite area in Beijing -- in a city that's become a massive monument to China's massive global aspirations, it's one of the few neighborhoods that's still built to human scale. Even so, Gulou is still characterized by the same seemingly endless construction and remodeling that goes on throughout the capital.

For example, the entire Drum Tower/Bell Tower plaza and surrounding hutongs (lanes) are totally torn up. The pavement has been jackhammered or pick-axed away, fresh asphalt laid in places though most of the lanes and plaza are still exposed, rutted dirt (making the efforts of huge tour busses trying to squeeze down tiny allies even more absurd and amusing than usual). There are stacks of gray paving stones everywhere. I have no idea what any of this is for, if it was needed or what the end result will be, though I expect I'll see it before I leave in mid-December. Walking down Guloudong Dajie (Drum Tower East Road), I navigate similar obstacles of torn-up road and sidewalk and stacks of gray brick. Workers at all hours carry beams and wallboard in and out of little stores in the process of remodeling.

There's simply so much activity here, always, all the time, in a city with thousands of years of history that never stands still.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Mysteries of the Narita Aiport...


I hadn't flown through Narita (Tokyo) in years, not since United got direct routes to China. But because I was using miles and because I had a lot of stuff to carry and didn't feel like trying to get me and all of that to LAX at 4:30 AM to catch UAL 889, I decided to go via Narita.

Interesting facts about Narita:

1. They still care about having sundries in a Baggie.

2. But you get to keep your shoes on.

3. My tri-band phone could not get any service there. (I was afraid it had finally died but it perked right up again once we landed in Beijing)

4. You can get all day internet access for six bucks by signing up with a service called Boingo.

5. Most of the toilets come equipped with bidets, and the bidets include a pre-recorded "flushing sound."

Now, I actually would love to have one of those toilet-lid bidets. I think bidets are a fine idea. What I can't figure out, though, is the purpose of the "flushing sound." It's the button on the far right with the green eighth notes. I of course had to try it. It's a very loud, somewhat distorted recording of a toilet flushing. Is this to cover up the noise of bodily functions, maybe? But why would the sound of actual peeing be any more embarrassing than an over-amped recording of a flushing toilet?

Enquiring minds, etc.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Greetings from Beijing!

And look! I'm on Blogspot! Oh for the heady days when I could just, you know, go to Blogspot and Twitter and so on while in China, without having to do anything special. But I have to say, Witopia rocks! So far it's fast and easy. Thank you, freedom and privacy advocates!

Thursday, November 12, 2009

FTGFW...

Grrr...so far my attempted proxy solutions are bringing me no joy...I hope to have this worked out while in China but if not, posting, Tweeting, Facebooking, all those lovely little social networking activities will be severely limited.

Grumble...

UPDATE Commenter Nicki tells me that Hotspotshield is working -- I'd heard it was blocked. I've used that in the past so fingers crossed on that one. Plus the lovely folks at Witopia are working on my issue as well...

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Bad blogger...

No donut. Thankfully, I don't like donuts.

I'm getting ready for another China expedition, and in all honesty, I'm not sure why I'm going this time. Well, there were some good reasons, but those changed. And yet, I'm still going.

I'm hoping to have the whole proxy server issue worked out so I can post while I'm gone, at least part of the time. In all honesty, this lack of access to information is one of the main reasons I decided against settling in China for the long term. I know that there are ways around the Great Firewall, but it bothers me that I have to find ways around it, and I have to wonder about the long-term prospects of a system so fearful of the free exchange of information. Not that people in the US necessarily take advantage of that freedom. And I'm concerned that the dysfunction in our political system has reached a point where we may not be able to make the changes we need to make in time to get ourselves back on the right track.

But I'd rather be able to make that choice, as feeble as it might be.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Is it possible?

I might actually be done with my galley proofs. Which means...

I might actually be done with this book.

I mean, I know, if all goes well, that I'll be promoting it and doing my best to sell it and that it's going to be a big part of my life for the next year or so. But once I hand this bundle of pages and Post-it notes in, that's it. It's locked. No more agonizing about the status of iPhones in China or Xiali taxis in Beijing or how many minutes it would plausibly take to buy a train ticket at the Beijing train station and make the departing train. Or whether words should be italicized. Or whether I left someone out in the acknowledgments.

It kills me that a person as messy and disorganized as I am in most regards can be this absurdly anal in this one particular area.

I'm sure even after all this fretting that I will have made some mistakes. China has changed and continues to change; my knowledge is incomplete and if I were writing this book now...well, in some ways I'm sure it would be a different book. But you can only do what you can do.

Mostly, I hope I did a good job.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Bad television...truly bad television...

One of the things that's nice about not having a day job--actually, everything is nice about having a day job, except for the lack of money part--but I digress...

Anyway, I have more time to devote to writing, and with getting my book ready for publication, I've needed it. But it's not like I'm taking all of this additional time and being productive with it. I find my lack of productivity frustrating at times, to be honest. Sure, I've been able to do some things more quickly-- I just finished a screenplay draft in pretty much record time (and had a blast doing it). But back when I worked full-time and was really in a rhythm, I used to crank out hour-long teleplays in a couple of weeks--at night, after work. I'm not making any claims that they were brilliant, and it's not like I made money on them, but I sure was able to put out the pages.

Now? I mainly feel like everything...has...slowed...down....And I like it.

I like having time to walk everywhere instead of driving. I like being able to have dinner and drinks with friends and not worry so much about all the work I need to do before I fall asleep. I like being able to sleep and not have to drag myself out of bed the next day feeling like cat-food. I like being able to mindlessly surf the interwebz and only feel somewhat guilty about the time suck.

And you know what I really like? Watching television.

Oh, man, I have been watching a lot of television. Lots of football (both pro and college). And...just bad television.

I mean, it's one thing to spend your time watching MAD MEN and BREAKING BAD. These are genuinely good shows. No, I'm not talking about them. I'm talking about "My Secret Shame" level of stuff.

THE BACHELOR. And THE BACHELORETTE. Oh yes. And AMERICA'S NEXT TOP MODEL. And BIGGEST LOSER. Though I can tell myself that the last one is about, I don't know, personal transformation, the Bachelor/Bachelorette is all about the train-wreck, baby! Don't look! Cover your eyes!

Hah. Made you look.

Then there is the world of Bad Hour Long Dramas. Now, some stuff I just cannot watch. All of those CSI/LAW & ORDER shows? Not interested. Medical shows, I want to like, but when they are bad, they are so bad. This new one, THREE RIVERS? Unwatchable. Even with former Vampire Detective from MOONLIGHT and hot-regardless-of-your-sexual-orientation former lesbian hairdresser from THE L WORD--which, by the way, is a candidate for my own personal Hall of Camp Fame. Wow. The one where Cybill Sheppherd comes out...dreadful. Classic.

See, it can't just be bad. It has to be fun bad. I'm not really sure what the line of demarcation is, but I know it when I see it.

Do I watch a double-bill of GHOST WHISPERER and MEDIUM on Friday nights? Why, yes, I do! Are either of these shows good? Well, I'd argue that MEDIUM is better quality -- Roseanna Arquette is great, and she might actually be in double-digits, size-wise. It's refreshing -- but MAD MEN good? Not really.

(and by the way, last week's episode of MAD MEN -- "The Gypsy and the Hobo" -- that had to be one of the most riveting episodes of the series thus far. Sooo tense! I was freaking out -- "she's in the car! She's in the car!" If you saw it, you know what I mean)

Do I actually focus my full attention on these shows? Nope. I use them as backdrop for cooking, laundry, proofing, surfing...I don't even have a TiVo, so it's live or nothing.

And then there's my latest, "Wow, I can't believe I'm watching this!" candidate -- EASTWICK.

Let me just say, EASTWICK is not a "good" show. It's been described as DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES meets BEWITCHED, which kind of covers it. The first episode was...pretty bad (and not good bad). I will say that it's improving. And EASTWICK has one thing that makes it a must-watch for me: Paul Gross.

Oh. My. God. What is it about these Canadians? Paul Gross plays the Devil, or something. It's not clear, and I don't care. He is hilarious. Smarmy-licious. Practically Shatnerian in his self-aware, nudge-wink side-of-ham performance. I'm considering a TiVo just to fast-forward through all the parts he's not in.

Yes, I am a fan.

I expect this period of television immersion is not indefinite. I'll probably get tired of it pretty soon. Maybe even tonight. I have a stack of books to read, and you know...

I just can't get into GREY'S ANATOMY...

UPDATE: THE MENTALIST? Not feeling it...

SECOND UPDATE: Several readers have left comments naming their own Television Secret Shames. I'd like to propose that those prepared to confess their embarrassing TV habits do the same. Who knows, we might get enough for a poll!

Okay, this is Paul Gross in SLINGS AND ARROWS (a show set backstage at a more than usually dysfunctional theater company), which I think I need to Netflix. Which means I need to get Netflix...

Sunday, October 25, 2009

A Flock of Writers...

Anybody who follows publishing industry news is aware that this last year and a half, two years, has been one of the worst times for new writers to break into the business, to get that first deal. Publishing is changing in ways that no one can yet predict and the overall economic crisis has compounded pre-existing structural problems in the business. There are so many commentators who are more expert than I am, and I'll direct you to this post by my amazing agent, Nathan Bransford, for just one example of the seismic forces at work here.

But that's not what this post is about. Instead I want to talk about beating the odds. Yeah, this is a happy story.

My novel will debut from Soho Press next year. But it's not just me. All kinds of people I know have sold, gotten agents or otherwise achieved some publishing success during this very tough time. I'll name a few names: Judi Fennell (who sold her first three book series in 2008 and just sold a second), Elizabeth Loupas, whose historical mystery/romance will debut in 2011, Bryn Greenwood (agented, on sub), Dana Fredsti (on sub), Jenny Brown (sold three book romance series), and Nathan Bransford (already a publishing pro and now an author whose middle-grade novel comes out in 2011). I recently started hanging out on a forum at Absolute Write, where in the last couple of months, more writers than I can count have gotten agented and/or sold.

And finally, just two days ago, another writer friend scored a multi-book deal (I'm leaving that announcement to the writer in question).

I'm trying to figure out what the lessons are here, that so many writers I know are achieving career milestones during what is arguably the worst period in publishing since the Great Depression. I'm concluding two things: that serious-minded people flock together, and that a sort of positive group-think emerges, one that is oriented toward success and encourages the success of others in the group. My own progress I attribute in large part to the people by whom I'm surrounded -- I don't know that I would have known how to scramble up to that next level without the knowledge and enthusiasm of writer friends who in many cases were ahead of me in their own career progression, or at the very least certainly had a better idea of how to go about it than I did.

So, the take-away? Surround yourself with serious-minded writers. People who have the same commitment to excellence and success that you do. You'll boost each other up, and you'll fill in the gaps in each other's knowledge and experience.

I know that sounds suspiciously like management-speak (especially that "commitment to excellence and success" part), but you know what, it's true.

Plus, you know, maybe there's some kind of weird quantum physics at work here. Success reinforcing success, blasting out success waves...or something.

Okay, maybe not.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Junk mail that made my day...

You know those solicitations you get from shady companies wanting to refinance your mortgage? The ones that say "OFFICIAL US MAIL!" "DELIVER TO AUTHORIZED ADDRESSEE ONLY!!!" and of course it's a load of crap because it's just a piece of junk mail? I got one from Geico, the auto insurance company, that says, first in red letters:

IMPORTANT!
Followed by:
Do not deliver to the wrong addressee!
Do not bend, fold, spindle or mutilate
Do not lock your keys in the car
Do not wear brown shoes with a navy suit
Do not forget your mom's birthday

AND DO NOT PAY TOO MUCH FOR CAR INSURANCE!
Okay, it made me laugh. But the gecko, guys? Still not feeling it...

Friday, October 16, 2009

ROCK PAPER TIGER available for pre-order (!)

I was going to post something else today (a post about my vaguely embarrassing television habits, and I promise I'll do that tomorrow), but something came up, and even though I posted it as a news item on my Lovely New Website, I figured I'd better repeat it here...

So, yeah, I've been checking Amazon occasionally (daily) to see when my book shows up for pre-order without really expecting it to be there. I figured it would appear around the same time as the Soho catalog for Spring/Summer 2010, which I think is November. Tonight, as I was chatting with two friends in two separate chat windows, I idly surfed on over to Amazon for my routine search (because two chats is not nearly enough multi-tasking for my attention-deficit-addled brain) and, whoah...

There it was...

There are all sorts of moments that stand out in this journey to publication, some of which are pure joy and validation (getting an agent, getting the sale, seeing my cover), and others that are joyous mixed with..."Oh. Weird. That's my book."

Oh. Weird. That's my book.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Hey! Look over there!!! ----->

At my new website! It is very nifty, thanks to the amazing design job of Ryan of Dao By Design, whom I highly recommend. Take a look -- I think you'll agree with me!

UPDATE: and I absolutely must give a shout-out to graphic designer Kerrin Hands, who created the awesome cover for ROCK PAPER TIGER! (the design of which you'll see reflected in the overall look of the website). I should have thanked him by name way sooner -- I feel so fortunate to have my book represented by his work.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Book People are Nice People!

I forget what book person's blog I read that on, but it's true. I now have four very nice blurbs for ROCK PAPER TIGER from four very successful, busy authors. I don't know many other professions whose members overall are as generous with their time and willingness to help out newbies.

I'm getting ready to launch my new website (this blog will be a part of the site, no worries) and now I am faced with the enviable problem of having to rethink where I'm going to put all of these kind words...it's a nice problem to have!

Okay, that's my brag of the day. But it's also a reminder to myself -- if I achieve any level of success, I owe it to the Book Universe to pass the generosity along...

Friday, September 25, 2009

Today's Rant


I really should have "rant!" as a category - I rant far more than I talk about, oh, writing...but I promise this will be short.

I recently started riding a bike again -- sadly, not the beauty pictured in the photo above (someday...), but my old Diamondback. The area where I live, Venice, Santa Monica and Playa Del Rey - is a great place to ride bikes. In Venice, I sometimes think the bikes outnumber the cars.

But there are still too many cars, which I really don't like (a topic for another rant), so when I'm on my bike, I try to find routes that have as few cars as possible. This means the bike paths, which around here run up and down the coast, in and out of docks and past the Ballona Channel -- some truly gorgeous scenery.

I've learned to accept that pedestrians will use the bike paths. Even with the big signs on the cement that say: "Bike Path - Bikes Only!" You know, you have your tourists, your non-English speakers, and your "Special" people who don't feel the need to pay attention to such things.

What I don't understand are the folks who not only walk on the bike paths, but who just. Stand. There. In the middle of the path. Sometimes with baby carriages.

Look, people (especially you "Special" people)...I'm not that skilled a bike rider. If you do something really dorky like, unexpectedly walk in front of my bike, odds are good that I'm not going to be able to avoid you, and I may hit you.

This is something I've never understood. I get that some people are going to do what they're going to do, that they live in a bubble, or whatever. But what I don't get is, why do they trust other people to be paying attention? I sure don't.

/ rant.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Bug Man Cha-Cha-Cha!

I, I, I...okay, first I have to apologize for not actually posting, you know, a post lately, but I'm working on a couple of different projects that are eating my brain. In the meantime, I have to share this...I'm not sure why...

Former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay on DANCING WITH THE STARS...



I blame Jeralyn at TalkLeft for bringing this to my attention...otherwise I would have been safely ignorant in my Dancing With the Stars-free household...

Friday, September 18, 2009

Friday Cat Blogging!



Yeah, it's a little Ghost-heavy lately, but she just insists on doing cute things...the bag was totally her idea...

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Billionaires for Wealthcare!



As someone who is in danger of losing healthcare coverage at the end of the year, yeah, I'm taking it personally...

Friday, September 11, 2009

Friday Cat Blogging!

Wow - Ghost likes the same TV I do! Football....

And "America's Next Top Model"!

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Happy News!

My awesome agent, Nathan Bransford, has a book deal of his own, for his middle-grade novel, JACOB WONDERBAR AND THE COSMIC SPACE KAPOW. If you've read Nathan's blog (and if you haven't, why not? Don't you want to read an extremely helpful, inspiring and outright funny compendium of everything you need to know about publishing? And space monkeys?), you already know what a wonderful writer he is, so it's not really surprising. But having worked with Nathan on my own MS, and watched how hard he worked selling it, I can honestly say that this could not happen to a nicer, more deserving guy.

(please pardon the cliche. I'm under-caffeinated)

Many congratulations, Nathan! And can I get a corn-dog with that book?

Monday, September 07, 2009

Play it again...

If you follow China news, it's been a depressing time. Ethnic-based riots in Xinjiang (all laid on "foreign-based splittist/terrorists" — who knew Rebiya Kadeer was all-powerful?), increased internet censorship, including a shut-down of social networking and blogging sites, a concerted attack on China's civil rights lawyers and rule of law movement...it's been bad, if not entirely surprising. Xinjiang aside, these kinds of crackdowns are cyclical, often coming around important internal events — for example, the '08 Olympics and now, the upcoming 60th National Day on Oct. 1.

In the run-up to the Olympics, Beijing's streets were cleared of migrants, human rights activists arrested, visa restrictions tightened, ancient neighborhoods cleared in the name of modernization. On the other side, new subway lines were built (which if you've spent any time in Beijing, you'll know what a blessing these are) and internet censorship, at least of foreign news and blogging sites, was loosened considerably.

A swing to repression is pretty predictable given the 60th National Day celebrations, but this latest crackdown still feels qualitatively different somehow. The harassment, detention and arrest of legal scholars like Xu Zhiyong seemed to signal a repudiation of even the most gradualist move toward establishing an effective legal and constitutional system to counterbalance one party rule (and I do believe that there are many members of the Party in question who support a genuine rule of law).

All of this is depressing and worrisome, and it makes me wonder if China is heading down a much bumpier road than a lot of believers in China's Inevitable Rise are predicting.

Via China Digital Times comes this very interesting article from the Sydney Morning Herald speculating that the recent repression and restrictions are tied both to the inability of China's political system to adapt to social strains and to a factional power struggle at the highest levels of the CCP:
The risk to China's political and therefore economic stability is that these social challenges are taking place at a time of political transition, when leadership contestants may be tempted to exploit social fissures for their own political gain.

There are some well-connected political observers in Beijing who believe that the party's recent across-the-board political and security tightening, including a ruthless attack on the legal profession, is linked to efforts by the vice-president, Xi Jinping, to secure the leadership of the country by 2012.

They say Xi is desperately wooing the hardliners, mainly allies of former president Jiang Zemin, who control the party's core security apparatus: internal security, propaganda and the military. Xi's immediate goal is to lock in a promotion to be vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission this month, in time for the National Day military extravaganza on October 1. President Hu Jintao received the same promotion at the same point in his transition to the leadership in 2002.

Beyond Xi, senior party figures are manoeuvring to get themselves or their allies into the nine-member Politburo Standing Committee by the time of the next party congress in 2012. Everywhere, cadres are competing to out-tough each other.

The internal competition is more unpredictable than usual because the party no longer has any god-like revolutionary heroes to defer to. Hu Jintao, for example, was anointed as a future party boss long ago by Deng Xiaoping. And Hu Jintao has nothing like the personal grip on power that most of his predecessors have had.Nicholas Bequelin, an observer of China's security apparatus, and Xinjiang in particular, explains what is at stake:

"China hasn't done its political landing yet. Everybody is hoping it's going to be a soft landing but there is a huge question mark over China's future because the one-party system is not sustainable in the long term - the institutional structures cannot cope with social concerns and social problems.

"There are many different futures China's boiling in the pot today. Some of them are very encouraging: the rule of law, the harmonious society program. But you also have this harder-edge China, this nationalist attitude, a rise in xenophobia, criminalisation of segments of society - these are things that could unravel.

"The window of political change is limited; there are many scenarios that would derail China's modernisation and reform, one of them being a progressive takeover by the security forces.
There's more, and I think it's worth reading.

I'm far from expert at the ins and outs of China's current leadership. If there's anyone out there with an informed opinion or two, I would love to hear from you. But a larger conflict of this sort does go a ways toward explaining the queasy intuition I have that this is something more serious than another rounding up of the usual suspects.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

I got nuthin'

I've been under the weather the last few days due to all the ash and crap in the air from the latest horrific LA fire. I'm too tired to even rant. I've been working on a new website (coming soon!), a synopsis for a screenplay project and the WIP, that is, when my head is clear enough to think a little. I hope everyone's having a good, productive week. Stay safe.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Friday Cat Blogging!

I've got too many choices for cute this week...here are a few!



Monday, August 24, 2009

Guess where I am?

The online "me," that is. I'm at Sia McKye's wonderful blog, "Over Coffee." You'll recognize the first part of the post, if you read this blog, but the second part is new stuff - I answer a few questions from Sia. Stop on by! She runs a great blog, with regular writer interviews, book reviews and tips about promotion and marketing.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Back to work...

On the topic of "showing up..."

I have a short project to finish and a WIP to get back to—which, if it pleases the Muses who may or may not exist, I am hoping actually makes sense and will not collapse in a steaming pile of...rubble...before I get to the end—anyway, I have work to do, and the sudden realization that I don't have all that much time in which to do it. Gulp.

My WIP is set in Mexico and is another tale of existential suspense — I'm not sure exactly what that means, but I like the way it sounds. I am at that just over midway point where I honestly don't know if it will hold together or not. Which I guess is part of the suspense, right?

What are you working on?

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Some thoughts on getting published...

Writing a novel is a lot of work. Okay, I've known that for a while. I've written a few. This last one, the one that got me an agent and then a deal, took so much time and effort that I'd joke it was written in dog years. And that it was trying to kill me, I was pretty sure. That last bit might not have been a joke.

The part that I'd only previously known on an intellectual level is that getting published is also a lot of work. I mean, this should be obvious, and I sort of knew it, but until I went through it, I didn't actually know it.

All of the sudden, you're getting paid for your work. And people are depending on you. Your agent. Your editor. Your PR person. An entire infrastructure. You've signed a contract, and you have to deliver, quality work, on time. There are hard deadlines. Publication schedules. Catalogs for the upcoming season. I think that's the first time I really absorbed that the whole thing was real, when I downloaded Soho's catalog, read all of the book descriptions, the author bios. Wow, I thought. I'm going to be in one of these. Me and my book. Shit.

There's the book itself. Editorial revisions. Line edits. A galley proof yet to come. And then there's everything else that comes with being an author in the modern world. A bio. Photos. A new website. Marketing ideas. Where am I known? Who do I know? How can I help my own chances of success?

It's that whole notion of thinking of yourself and your work as a product, as a brand. Most of us writer types are introverts, and we can all fulminate against this cultural trend of marketing uber alles (and I have), but this is the reality. It's a part of our job, as authors. And if there's one thing this whole experience has brought home to me, it's that being a published author is a job.

Well, duh, right? And I've taken that sort of workman's approach to my writing in general for the past few years. A writing book I've often recommended to people suffering from creative blocks is Steven Pressfield's The War of Art. It's a little repetitive and has its metaphysical aspects which may or may not be helpful to a lot of people. But one of the basic messages I appreciated very much is, you have to think of your creative work as a job. Meaning, you can't wait around for the Muses to inspire you. Because what's the first rule of a job? You show up. Whether you're inspired or not. Whether you want to or not. Eventually that kind of discipline rewards you with productive output.

It worked for me, anyway. I'm not one of these writers who has to write, who churns out thousands of words at a sitting. It takes a lot of effort for me, a lot of the time. Ultimately I'm happier when I'm writing than when I'm not writing, so I make myself do it, whether I feel like it or not.

You can carry over a lot of other things from thinking of your writing as a job. You have to work with other people. At times you have to put aside your ego and listen to what others have to say about your work and accept their criticism. You have to distinguish between trivialities and the things that really matter to the integrity of your work.

This experience has given me new sympathy for publishers—and agents—and the reluctance they might have to take on debut authors. Though I think if you write a good book, it's pretty clear that you have some discipline, still, there's always that risk that a new novelist isn't going to be able to work to deadline, or work and play well with others, that she might be a big pain in the ass, and not worth the investment of time and money. Because that's the other thing you need to understand, if you don't know this already: agents and publishers are making a significant investment in you, of their own time and potential income.

Me, I take a lot of pride in my craftsmanship, and as I've gone through this process, I've realized that I also take a lot of pride in doing a good job. In getting the work done right, on time, or even ahead of schedule. This is a job that I really enjoy. One where I show up. One that I might even be good at. I like that.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

My cover!!!!!!

Which I happen to think is pretty freakin' awesome. Click on the image for a larger view!

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

So close...

It's another gorgeous day here in Venice CA, and I really really really want to get outside and enjoy it. Or failing that, procrastinate and find more interesting blogs to read. But I am almost done with my line edits for the book, and I really really REALLY want to finish today.

So please excuse me. I'll be back soon.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Profoundly stupid

And incredibly depressing. Via The Peking Duck come this news from Evan Osnos of the New Yorker:
Imagine, for a moment, how it might sound to turn on the news one day and hear that the head of the A.C.L.U. had vanished from his home in the predawn hours. Or, think how America might be different today if a pesky young Thurgood Marshall had been silenced using an obscure tax rule and kept out of the courts.

At around 5 A.M. on Wednesday, Chinese authorities visited the home of Xu Zhiyong, a prominent legal scholar and elected legislator in Beijing, and led him away. He has not been heard from again. Unless something changes, he is likely to stay away for a long time, with or without formal charges. Anyone with an interest in China, its economy, its place in the world, or the kind of future it will fashion, please take note: This is a big deal.

Xu might not have reached Marshall status yet, but he is as close as China gets to a public-interest icon. He teaches law at the Beijing University of Post and Telecommunications. He has also run the Open Constitution Initiative, a legal aid and research organization that worked on many of China’s path-breaking cases. He and his colleagues had investigated the Sanlu milk scandal, in which dangerous baby formula harmed children’s health, and assisted people who had been locked up by local officials in secret undeclared jails. All of those activities are emphatically consistent with the goals of the Chinese government, even if they angered the local bureaucrats who were caught in the act.
I hardly know what to add to this, beyond the usual, "go read the whole thing."

I remember the first time I was in China learning about what the risks of dissent were, how omnipresent the surveillance, how easy it was to cross the line (I will never forget one of of my students, who was sent to a reform camp for "riding in a car with a foreigner without a hat"). Things are very different in China today. The bargain has been, you can do what you want, as long as you don't organize and pose a political threat to the established order. But when things like this happen, when people like this are detained for following the Chinese Constitution's own laws, I wonder what the future holds for China. If there is a monopoly of political power, if a press is not allowed to serve as a watchdog, if public interest groups are not allowed to serve the public's interest...are Chinese people simply supposed to trust that the government will do the right thing? Particularly when many Chinese regard their local authorities as hopelessly corrupt? What's the remedy here?

Of course I'm in a pretty bleak mood about government in general these days, when our own "democracy" has reached such a state of paralysis that the media devotes endless bandwidth to "beer summits" while the President and Congress are unable to craft a decent health care bill — unless your definition of "decent" is a bailout to the insurance industry, which seems to be where this is heading.

But I digress.

Back to work.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

NOW I get Palin...

...Thanks to William Shatner!



(H/T to BillyB!)

Monday, July 27, 2009

Year of the Lurkers, baby!

For a number of years I've been involved with a small online writing group. Like many of the more profound aspects of my life, this came about in a nearly random way. I'd gotten an invitation to join an online "writer's workshop" which turned out to be a huge, unmoderated group that I suspect was used as a source for the group owner's paid seminars and publications. I found it frustrating and fairly useless. At one point I posted, "Is anyone lurking here working on novels?"

Thus began the Lurking Novelists.

I'm the only original member, but the core of the group has been the same for such a long time that as far as I'm concerned, the group didn't really exist before it. We're a small, tight group these days. We critique each other's work, but we also spend a lot of time sharing and bitching about the stuff of our everyday lives.

Which lately has included a helluva lot of success!

I'm overdue posting on some of this news, so let me bring you up to date:

Dana Fredsti, with one published mystery novel under her belt, has been writing for new ePub Ravenous Romance under the name Inara LaVey (she'll have to explain the derivation of that nom de plume for you). Her debut novel for RR, Ripping the Bodice, has been one of Ravenous' top-sellers. It's also very funny, with dead-on parodies of the old "bodice-rippers" of yore. I don't laugh easily, and this book made me laugh out-loud.

Bryn Greenwood recently signed with agent Robert Brown of the Wylie-Merrick Literary Agency, on the strength of her fabulous urban fantasy, Ugly. Bryn knows how much I love her book; I can't wait till it's sold and published so the rest of you can read it too.

Annnd....you won't have too long to wait to discover Elizabeth Loupas' wonderful historical mystery/romance, The Second Duchess—because it's just been sold to Penguin/NAL!!! Here's where I get to indulge in a little "I Told You So" — I bet "Duchess" would sell before the end of July. Neener!

Lurkers RAWK!!! Just sayin'...and I wouldn't be surprised if I have more news from this talented group to post in the months to come...

(P.S. And no, my Wombats, I have not forgotten you! A subject for its own post!)

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

It's not procrastinating when...

I take a quick break from line edits for a belated personal plug — if you haven't seen it already, check out this lovely post about yours truly from my favorite agent, Nathan Bransford.

No, procrastinating would be, oh, taking the time to reorder my links on the right because I've met all these cool writers lately and discovered hilarious, informative blogs like The Intern and need to separate "writers" from "writing" because it's sloppy and unwieldy the way it is now.

That would be procrastinating. So I'm not going to do it. Right now.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Monday, July 13, 2009

Mystic Yeast


This is how my life is.

I somehow ended up in China thirty years ago. I can't really explain right now how profound an impact that nearly accidental choice had on my life, in part because I am both jet-lagged and buzzed. Jet-lagged because I just returned from Beijing today. Buzzed because, well, because. It's still hard to get decent wine in China, and I crave it when I get home.

My Chinese isn't that great, but when I'm in Beijing, people comment on my Beijing accent, and I assume the status of an old Beijinger, because I was there before the profound changes that transformed the city nearly beyond the recognition of anyone older than, say, 35 or 40. I often have great conversations with taxi drivers, and this trip I had pretty much the Ur conversation; a man a few years older than I, who asked me what I thought about the changes in Beijing. Some aspects were good, I replied diplomatically, others, not so good.

What did I think was good about Beijing, he asked?

Beijing culture and Beijing people, I said.

This launched a torrent of opinion. Beijing people, real Beijing people, are the best, but these Waidiren, these outsiders, they have no culture, they don't understand. And this modern market society, it's not fair. Bugongping. The old days, in the 70s and 80s, when we were in this all together, when the competition was not so extreme, that was a good time. There. Do you see, over there? Those big buildings? That's where I grew up, in my childhood, for seven years. There was a river there, before. Do you remember? Do you remember the old traditional businesses (there's no good way to translate this expression; I had to hunt it up in my dictionary)? There weren't many businesses in the Beijing of 1979. Most had been destroyed by the Cultural Revolution.

Quanjude, the original Peking duck restaurant. The Foreign Languages Bookstore. The Number One Department Store. They survived, among others.

We exchanged memories.

Anyway, I'm not exactly sure what that has to do with my latest news, but it somehow feels relevant to me, in my buzzed, jet-lagged state.

When my plane landed at LAX today, the moment I turned on my phone, I had an email from my agent, the amazing Nathan Bransford. The ink on the contract is dry, and I can now announce that my novel, Rock Paper Tiger, in part inspired by some of my surreal experiences over the years in China, will be published by Soho Press in Spring/Summer 2010.

To say I'm happy about this is a huge understatement. I've had a great time working with the people at Soho, especially my editor, Katie Herman. I'm thrilled that they've taken a chance on me and my book. I'll do my best to reward their faith in me, and I hope I've written a book that you'll enjoy, and maybe you'll even learn a little about a country that isn't mine but that I still love, despite its flaws.

That goes for my own country too.

(POST EDITED 7/19 due to a sentence that was really misleading when I reread it and not what I'd meant. I blame the aforementioned jet-lag)

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Greetings from behind the Great Firewall

Howdy all. Tunneling in via proxy to send greetings from Beijing. Richard aka The Peking Duck and I are about to head to Qingdao, Home of Beer. What more reason do I need to go?

It's been a packed trip, and I'll put up a more substantial post when I have some time.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

The Sorrows of Empire, Pt. 2...

People who know me in real life know that I was never an Obama fan. I couldn't see what the fuss was about, frankly. I didn't like the "awesome God" talk, the strange mutability of his policy positions from the beginning to the end of the primaries –- which went beyond the normal and expected political calculations, in my estimation. I didn't like his neo-liberal Chicago School advisors. I didn't like the nearly substance-free campaign, the emphasis on marketing and branding, that big "O" that looked like a groovier Pepsi logo. But this wasn't something I could discuss with a lot of people usually on my side of the political fence and on a lot of online venues where I'd generally find allies. Conversations about Obama seemed to turn unpleasant almost instantly; if you weren't onboard there was something wrong with you.

(just to be clear, I have no patience with the "OMG Obama is a Muslim Socialist!!!" rhetoric, particularly when available evidence points to nearly opposite conclusions)

I wasn't silent but I was not vocal enough; I don't like confrontation that turns ugly and personal, and I felt like nothing I could say made a difference anyway. Bringing it into this blog felt particularly pointless. I now see that although I was willing to challenge people in person (and on other blogs), I was reluctant to take too public a stand, as small a number as my "public" may be. It was a form of cowardice on my part, and one that I regret.

I'm a good liberal as both RL and online acquaintances most likely know. I voted Democratic in the presidential election because the alternative was unacceptable -- I was not going to hand the car keys back over to the Party that had driven the country into the ditch for the last eight years. I wasn't happy about my choices, but I figured at the very least we would have a somewhat more rational foreign policy and a significantly better environmental one.

Basically, I voted for the polar bears.

I need to get to work and I don't have the time or energy to write a long post enumerating all the reasons I'm pissed off disappointed with the Obama Administration, and anyway, I'm not great at writing those kinds of pieces. I tend to sublimate my political anger into my fiction -- raw, bloody grist for the mill.

So, to keep it short, here's the list: the financial bailout, i.e., "the socialization of risk and the privatization of profit," which is to say, "everything for the people who caused the problems in the first place, nothing for the working and middle class", the incredible hypocrisy on DOMA, DADT, the "health care reform" that started with a fatal compromise and ends, I'm guessing, with huge giveaways to the insurance industry and little, if any, improvement in care...

And this, which is the worst of all: the continuation of the Bush Administration's extra-legal tactics in the "war on terror" and the continued shredding of the Constitution and the rule of law. Glenn Greenwald, linked above, has the essential summary of how the Obama administration is considering an executive order to allow prolonged detention without charges. For me, the money graph is this one:
There has now emerged a very clear -- and very disturbing -- pattern whereby Obama is willing to use legal mechanisms and recognize the authority of other branches only if he's assured that he'll get the outcome he wants. If he can't get what he wants from those processes, he'll just assert Bush-like unilateral powers to bypass those processes and do what he wants anyway. In other words, what distinguishes Obama from the first-term Bush is that Obama is willing to indulge the charade that Congress, the courts and the rule of law have some role to play in political outcomes as long as they give him the power he wants. But where those processes impede Obama's will, he'll just bypass them and assert the unilateral power to do what he wants anyway...
One of Greenwald's commentators cites Chalmers Johnson's The Sorrows of Empire, the basic premise of which is that the American economy has become an increasingly militarized, hollow shell, our republic, an empire supported by arms, where a series of bases substitute for colonies. Everything the Bush administration did, both at home and abroad, supports Johnson's view; the Bush administration was wholly given over to the military-industrial complex; and the extent to which Obama is willing to continue the abuses of his predecessor provides further evidence of the essential truth of what Johnson proposes.

When then-Senator Obama, the presidential frontrunner, voted for the FISA bill he had earlier promised to filibuster, the writing on the wall was writ large enough for anyone to see.

Empires do not willingly transform themselves back into republics. And holders of power do not willingly give up power.



(Shorter Obama: "We had to shred the Constitution in order to save it.")

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Paging Doctor Kush?!


Okay. I think marijuana should be legal, period, and I fully support the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes. But what's going on in Venice is just...weird.

There are so many medical marijuana "clinics" within walking distance of my house, it's crazy. Six, at least. Some look more or less like doctor's offices...low-key, discreet. And then there are places down on the boardwalk called "Doctor Kush Clinic" and "Kush Sunset Co-operative" staffed with hip-hop dudes in oversized lettermen's jackets emblazoned with fluorescent green cannabis leaves, and girls in bikinis who urge you to "Come upstairs and get high legally!"

I mean, come on. Our pot policies are seriously whack. Legalize it already.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

We interrupt this commercial with tonight's program...

I call my house "Shack by the Sea." It's a bungalow built around 1912, and though it has its charms, they are best described as "bohemian." Perhaps "rustic." Anyway, the walls are thin and the lots are small here, so sometimes I have more insight into my neighbor's activities than I would like to.

Currently my next door neighbor is a guy - maybe two - I haven't quite figured that out yet - youngish, in film/TV. A certain cable channel that I won't name, but let's just say, when I came home and there was a film production going on next door that featured a pretty girl in a French maid outfit, I wasn't entirely surprised (no, it's not the Playboy Channel - nothing that interesting).

This afternoon, they seemed to be having a business meeting of sorts out in their front yard. Two or three guys talking about marketing strategies. Viral marketing. Web 2.0. Social networking sites. Branding. I heard it all, any time I went into my bedroom to fold clothes and change the sheets.

Would that I had a flame-thrower.

You know, I just. Don't. Care. I don't care about this stuff. I don't care about business, spread sheets, the profit motive, guys in suits, advertising, marketing strategies, not any of it. I don't care. I recognize that you need to market your work, I get that. But what I don't get is how we've come to a place where the marketing and the brand have superseded the content and the idea.

Our last two Presidents were elected because of branding and clever marketing, and their performance in office demonstrates the almost total disconnect between the brands being marketed and the policies that were supposed to be associated with those brands.

There's so much that's terribly wrong with this, with a business and political culture where clever marketing is used as a subterfuge, to disguise the "product" we're being sold, where the image overrides the substance.

Meanwhile, my beloved California is about to experience the shock doctrine, the endgame of years of a dysfunctional state government kicking the can down the road instead of making the structural changes that desperately need to be made in order to have a rational budget that delivers needed goods and services and raises the funds necessary to do so. It's profoundly disturbing. Maybe it's going to take everything falling apart before we can put it back together, but in the meantime, poor and disabled people will literally die if the proposed budget cuts go through. I don't have the energy to complete the rest of this equation, the "meanwhile we give millions/billions of tax cuts to corporations/federal bailouts to wealthy bankers" - you know, it's a cliche, all the more depressing because it's true.

I don't know what the answers are, don't know how it is we can reorganize our economy to provide decent jobs for more people, what it means to be productive in an age where the last thing we need to do is to keep buying more cheap plastic crap just to keep everyone working, here and around the world. There have to be better ways to organize ourselves, better ways to live. I'm not talking about some utopian fantasy here, just a society where work has value, lives have meaning, and where people earn enough money to live decently.

Okay, /rant. I have work to do.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Bad Blogger, no donut...June 2009 edition!

I've been busy with some, er, work...I will report on at least some of said "work" soon...

In the meantime, is this love, or another passing fancy?

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Ai Weiwei "harmonized"

(image grabbed from archinect.)

Artist/architect/activist Ai Weiwei is probably best known in the US for designing the iconic "Bird's Nest" Olympic stadium in Beijing and then disassociating himself from the project in protest of China's "disgusting" political conditions. But his art has long had a political component, and lately his activism has been nothing short of fearless. In recent months, Ai has investigated the casualties in the Beichuan quake, in attempt to fully document the names of the victims, many of them children. In the last week, he reported being harassed in a pattern all too familiar to Chinese activists - visits by anonymous authorities, invitations to "chat" and "drink tea."
At 7:40 pm, I exited the embassy, which has at least three levels of prison-like security. Listening to Ms. "Human Rights" Pelosi, I was struck by the amount of money that could turn a once-crafty heroine into an obsequious, felonious old bag. Even more ridiculous is the claim that the US Embassy inherits from ancient Chinese styles. Gag.

So that my mobile phone wouldn't be confiscated by US Marines, I left it in the car. When I returned my mother's phone call, she said anxiously that four plainclothes policemen were waiting at home and were continually asking about my residence out by the airport road. I immediately said I was coming home. It had been a few days since I'd seen her.

What happened afterward is like an absurdist novel gone bad. The seemingly nice domestic security officer was not carrying a police ID, and I refused to talk with someone whose identity was unknown. He said his colleagues had ID, I said my comrade was Clinton. He began to talk about feelings, something I avoid altogether. I had to ask them to leave, and then called 110. The mincing 110 response — two pitiful policemen who hadn't brought any ID. They said, it was you who called us, so I said, I'm a tax-payer, and he said, we've got badge numbers on our uniforms and there's a police car outside, so I said, where's the proof you didn't steal them, so the two of them had to go back and pick them up at the station. Then we all went to the station, and the officers there were a little surprised to see a domestic security officer being brought in to make a statement. One officer did both the questioning and the recording. It was a little comical, but I benevolently signed my name. Then they refused to issue a written acknowledgement of the report, saying, we were just talking and it wasn't a crime. I said, I didn't call 110 for fun, and then I called lawyer Hao, but the signal was poor in Shanxi, so I called Liu Xiaoyuan, who said that state security had chatted with him in the past. The domestic security officer I had reported vanished. I stormed out of the station and, I'm not exaggerating this at all, said, you've wasted tax payer money, you're dishonorable, you're pathetic. If you don't unlock the door, your station's not going to have a door anymore.
I strongly recommend you go to Danwei and read the whole thing, which also includes a post by lawyer Liu Xiaoyuan on the right of Chinese citizens to refuse to "chat."

Two days ago, Ai Weiwei's blogs were shut down. The last entry, titled "I'm Ready," was translated by China Digital Times. Be sure to read that too.

UPDATE: According to Danwei, Ai Weiwei has a new blog: http://blog.aiweiwei.com and Twitter account @aiww. If it is Ai Weiwei, he's only following one person on Twitter, "There is no Ai Weiwei on Twitter." Which sounds about right...

(NOTE: "Harmonized" is China Netspeak referencing one of the official goals of the Hu Jintao leadership, building a "Harmonious Society." Anything insufficiently "harmonious" invites censorship)