Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Tony Gwynn, and a writer's work

If you follow me on Facebook or Twitter, you've probably noticed that I posted a lot of articles and photos about Tony Gwynn, one of the greatest hitters in baseball, after his untimely passing.

Tony formed a great friendship with Ted Williams, who considered Gwynn the best hitter since, well, Ted Williams

Tony Gwynn was Mr. Padre, the face of a franchise that often -- well, mostly -- has underperformed. On a team with a history of mediocrity, he was excellence personified. He was also Mr. San Diego. For a city that hasn't always had a strong identity, other than, "We're not LA!" he was the perfect hero. Hard-working, loyal -- he stayed in San Diego for his entire career, though he could have made much more money elsewhere, and he could have been a lot more famous, too, if he'd taken the big bucks and gone to a big market like New York or Boston or Los Angeles.

He loved San Diego, and San Diego loved him back.

And get this. He was a genuinely good guy, too. Great family man. Wonderful to fans. Had a laugh, a gleeful cackle, and a smile that lit up the room. If anyone had a negative word to say about Tony Gwynn, I haven't read it yet. Instead, after his death, tributes poured in from all around the country. I'll just link to one, "I was Tony Gwynn's bat boy." It will give you an idea of the rest.

Tony's statue at Petco Park

It was a crazy thing, being in San Diego when Tony Gwynn died. He was too young, too nice, too good a person. I don't know how many sports figures there are these days whose passing would be felt by as many and as deeply, who was so linked to a particular city, a place that doesn't have many heroes. As a lifelong Padres fan (which is another term for "masochist"), I was, like many San Diegans, mourning a man I didn't know, and you know, I generally don't get all that involved in the lives of celebrities that I don't know. 

Of course, I had to go to the memorial. Decked out in my Tony Gwynn retro jersey, wearing my new Tony Gwynn 394 Pale Ale T-shirt (yes, he collaborated on a signature beer with Alesmith Brewing Company. And it's delicious).

It was really a lovely event. There were a lot of emotional moments, but one of them came when former Padres shortstop Damian Jackson talked about how he didn't have a father growing up, how Tony would have been a great father to have. 

Yeah, that kind of guy.

The memorial at Petco Park

One of the things most remarked upon was Tony Gwynn's incredible work ethic. He was a pioneer in using video tapes to study hitting, a practice that is now universally used in baseball. He showed up earlier, practiced longer, than just about anyone. He analyzed hitting constantly, down to the smallest minutia. He rarely struck out. He was all about putting the bat on the ball, hitting that 5.5 hole.

He wasn't a great fielder at first, so he worked his ass off to become one and won five Golden Gloves. 

He worked very, very hard, and this is something that was greatly celebrated here. It fits in with that hazy San Diego civic culture: Work hard, don't be flashy, get the job done. 

Somewhere around the 100th iteration of Tony Gwynn's work ethic, I realized that there was an element of wishful thinking involved. Basically, if you work hard, you too will achieve and be rewarded. While that's not UN-true, it's not the entire picture, either. He had incredible natural gifts. He had a loving and supportive family. 

Plenty of people could work just as hard as Tony Gwynn and not achieve what he achieved. 

Why am I going on about a beloved baseball player on a blog dedicated to fictional mayhem set in foreign countries?

One of the things I kept thinking about was how Tony Gwynn's career resonated with me as a novelist. 

Baseball can be a real grind. It's a long season, and baseball players play a lot of games. It requires stamina, discipline and the sheer, dogged stubbornness to show up and play whether you feel like it or not. 

Writing novels feels a bit like that at times. 

Novels are…long. Writing one takes sustained effort over a long period of time. You research. You struggle through the first draft, and then you rewrite. And revise. And rewrite and revise some more. You deal with editor's notes. You revise and rewrite. You do your line edit. Your copy edit. Your page proofs. You try to craft the thing as best as you can, down to each single sentence. 

And like most things, you get better with practice. You work hard, and it's reflected in the work. 

But so is your individual talent. Your voice. That spark and gift that you can't explain and you can't always will into being. 

Respect your own gifts by working hard and treating people well. And by being loyal to the thing that drives you to create in the first place. 

You don't cheapen your Muse by selling out and becoming a damn Yankee, or a stinkin' Dodger.

Lisa…every other Wednesday…

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

A visit to "Chinawood"

Whenever I come to China, I try to go somewhere I’ve never been. On this trip, I decided to visit Hengdian World Studios. I worked on a film studio lot in Los Angeles for many years; how could I resist a visit to the largest filming facility in China, which, as I understood it, is also a tourist attraction a la Universal Studios.

This trip happened kind of quickly and I didn’t have much time to research it or even really think much about where I was going and what I would do. I’d read an article about Hengdian that purported to explain how to get there and what to do, and for whatever reason, I just took it on faith that the information was correct.

So, I took a high-speed train from Shanghai to a place called Yiwu that I knew nothing about. From Yiwu I was supposed to look for Bus K850 and for 1.5 yuan take that to someplace called Jiangdong, where supposedly there were shuttles to Hengdian for 10 kuai. I didn’t know what time the buses ran or stopped running. I was mildly anxious about this, but not enough to do anything about it. I just got off the train in Yiwu and wandered over to the right, where the bus station was.

(this was on the way back, but you get the idea)

The bus: a typical Chinese public bus. I asked the attendant if it went to Jiangdong and if from Jiangdong I could get to Hengdian. She nodded and said “yes,” rather curtly, so I got on the bus. I was naturally the only laowai on the thing.

Which was standing room only. The bus jerked and moved and stopped and went, all of us who were unfortunate enough to be standing hanging on to the plastic strap handles and swaying with every turn and halt. I do not necessarily recommend traveling this way.

Yiwu, as it turns out, is a pretty big city. We passed a row of luxury car dealerships as we headed into town. Lexus and Infiniti. I’d never even heard of Yiwu, but at least a few people there must be making enough money to buy them.

The drive took a long time. We seemed to go out of the city, and then into another one, but when I asked the woman next to me where we were, it was still Yiwu.

Finally we came to Jiangdong, which was the end of the line with a lot of other city buses, still in Yiwu. A smaller white bus was parked there. I figured it was probably the shuttle to Hengdian, and as I stood there, considering, a guy asked me if I was going to Hengdian and said that this was indeed the right bus.

I sat by an open window, thinking, it would be nice to sit for this leg of the journey.

Unfortunately, just as I got comfortable, someone came on the bus and made an announcement in dialect that I couldn’t understand, but the upshot of which was, everybody had to get off this bus and get onto another one.

That bus, naturally, was already full. I grabbed the absolute last seat on it, climbing over someone’s suitcase to claim it, next to a young woman who was sitting sideways in the seat because her luggage was piled around her. More people boarded, filling the aisle. It was a 12 yuan ride, as it turned out. I asked the ticket collector how long it was to Hengdian. “Yige xiaoshi,” she told me. An hour. And “Nide Hanyu ting bucuo.” Your Chinese is not bad. This is a compliment. “Not really,” I told her. “I have a long way to go.” I would demonstrate how far later in the evening.

“Are you going to Hengdian?” my seatmate asked me. I said that I was. “I heard it’s fun,” she said.

What is not fun: sitting with your seatmates’ kneecap pushed into your thigh, a water bottle in the front seat pocket poking into your knee, your backpack and bag perched on your lap, being jammed into your kidneys by the collapsing seat of the person in front of you.

According to the article I read, “Hengdian is so small that you can easily find hotels of all kinds and many restaurants.” Also, supposedly, there are Hengdian Studios electric cars and rickshaws to take you where you need to go. Well, not so much. It’s more like a medium-sized town, and when the bus stopped in its center and we all got out, I realized that I had no idea where my hotel was and no idea how to get there. I didn’t see any of these magical electric cars and/or rickshaws.

What I did see was a “modi,” one of those motorized trike vehicles with a tin covering, where you can ride on a wood bench inside. They are of course extremely underpowered and pretty dangerous. Oh well. The driver looked at the address of my hotel and told me it was “very far” and would therefore cost me 30K to get there. I wasn’t sure that I believed her. “Very far” in small Hengdian? But after a halfhearted attempt to find other options, I gave up. Odds were I probably wasn’t going to die in a crash taking one of these things just this once.

Not only are you riding inside of a giant tin can, you are riding on one that is being hammered on, where every bump in the road is a major jolt, and who knew, she was telling the truth when she told me it was “very far,” or “very far” in terms of Hengdian. We bounced along, down rough roads that appeared to be taking us out of town. This can’t be right, I thought. This is supposed to be a four-start hotel with “excellent” ratings on CTrip, and we are heading out into the countryside. Then, down a road lined with…furniture factories. Yeah. Long, warehouse-like buildings advertising mahogany and rosewood furniture.

Then, suddenly: my hotel. An apparition in marble and gilt in the middle of a row of furniture factories.

The name of it was the Hengdian Honton Boutique Hotel. “Honton” is not a word in my Chinese dictionary, but looking at the actual characters, the name has something to do with “rosewood.”  As close as I can figure out this hotel caters to businessmen coming to make deals on furniture. It does not cater much to foreign tourists, and I quickly reached the limits of my Chinese understanding when trying to communicate with the desk clerk, who spoke very quickly and with a heavy local accent. But eventually I made my way to my very nice room, and then, to dinner.

The restaurant was a series of private banquet rooms, and I sat alone in one at the end of the dinner service and drank a Cheerday Beer. I really needed a Cheerday Beer by that point.

After the adventure of getting to Hengdian, the actual studio visit was almost an anticlimax. Not that it wasn’t interesting. I visited the Qing/Ming Dynasty filming base, the one with the giant full-sized replica of the Forbidden City that Zhang Yimou used in his films HERO and CURSE OF THE GOLDEN FLOWER. 

After that I wandered around the streets of old Hong Kong.

Filming was mostly done without sound, so tourists clustered around the production sets in close proximity to the filming. 

Other tourist activities included dressing up in costumes for photos and performances in your own movie skits, a blue screen demonstration, horse and archery shows, comedy performances.

When it was time for me to head back to Yiwu, the Hengdian tourist taxis again eluded me, and I ended up in yet another modi back to the part of town where the shuttle buses waited. Hopped on that. 
“Oh, you’re back!” It was the same ticket taker as yesterday. “Did you have fun?”
“Yes. A lot of fun.” And I really did. Because sometimes half the fun really is just managing to get there.