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New and Selected Poems: “After Being Asked” and “Soundtrack”

When I passed through LAX customs yesterday I was asked the same question I suppose the immigration folks are trained to ask in cases like mine: “Why have you been in China so long?” Each time I have to resist the urge to render witty or acerbic comebacks–especially after 17 hours of travel next to some high-strung, dialect-limited Chinese emigrant from Guangxi on his first plane flight. But, I digress…

My answer must seem odd to those civil servants who used to hearing one-word responses like: “Business,” Visit,” Coming home,”  or “Job Hunting.” I reply, “fulfilling a promise. I am seeing someone through a long bout with cancer.”

Ms Yue has outlived many of her chemotherapy friends. If you knew her, you’d understand that her natural talent for befriending anyone, from the local trash collector to a head of security in her district, ensures that there are never strangers in her life. She had met them in the hospital annex next to where where she had her surgery performed. She is the last of the League of extraordinary Chinese as I came to call them. They learned from Yue how to embrace the life left to them with meditation, companionship, spiritual supplications and long conversation and rich laughter over inexpensive cups of Chinese tea.

SOUNDTRACK

I am still listening

When the agitated syncope

Of thready heartbeats

Stop to amass a clap of thunder

Over crashing surf

And you fight the waves of fear

With a hand forged sword

And exhausted share tales of battle

With those who subside on phone calls

And weekend visits from half-hearted

Familial warriors lightly anchored to love

And when your body betrays you

In the ravenous silence

And you think you are

One impossibly simple syllable

Short  of a symphony

Remember the lullabies of the past

Conduct them into the present

Lay awash in the fragile swells of hesitancy

Compose mysterious reconciliations

And keep faith in the God of the metronome

Your friends are lucky to have you

Disarmed and hardly replenished

By the convenient half-loves

To which even tender siblings retreat

You survive by teaching through example

How to keep faith in wellness

And the will of the tides

The gift or accident of nature

That gave you ears for

And a comradery with

The roiling, the murmurs, the sobs

And the wicked playfulness of the ocean

And the weather it dares to rebuke…

for W.L. and Ms Yue

Ms Yue has long hidden her illness from Chinese friends. They are not as open about discussing cancer or life threatening disease like westerners. So, when it became evident that she would have do something cosmetically reduce the impact of the uneven loss of her hair and the endless looks of strangers afraid to ask why…

AFTER BEING ASKED TO CUT HER HAIR

When you called, yesterday evening

or the night before, I made the long walk

to you through the thick heat of Southern China,

flanked by our prostitute of a River:

Beautiful after dark, but only when flattered

by the exploitative light of tourist boats

I hated China that night

I found it especially hard to breathe:

It is always damned humid

and it reeks of smoke and poverty

and in the dim daylight reveals

a blinded sun, Guangzhou’s grey cataract

of a sky that, when it can see, ignores the whore–

the river again–

whose name no one can speak

with any longing in their voice

The water was unlined that night:

a corpse without worry as I prepared

a place in my memory

for what I would destroy perhaps forever:

the hair: forty-five years

of silk, glistening with the kisses

of an adoring mother and vigilant father

times in a China no longer missed

by those who have come to this low-waisted city

to find work and forget the darkeness

in which their friends, awake with temptation

in the darkness of their ancestral homes

just grow into unadorned

albeit long, and painless seniority

You asked to me conceal the evidence

of the waning of the infinite. You told me to cut

because I am foreign, from the west,

and know how to use a razor

to shave away history:

the perfect blackness, the magnificent

mystery of the history of moonlights, fires,

and wind that has run fingers

through the remembered and forgotten

“Love is so short, forgetting so long”

when it is a name like yours,

that you clutch deep in your throat

As strong as you are

will always be, and as proudly high

as have always held your head,

the quarrel with your body,

said the doctor–a white coated immigrant

from the North like yourself and too polite

to tell you or your family–the quarrel

will not always look this well

I addressed my selfish sorrow

in suffocated sobs to the still water

that confirmed my questions with silence

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Why I am quitting Apple

A friend of mine asserted yesterday that Michael Arrington’s decision to end his courtship with Apple was in part due to a negative mindset created by recent attacks on his journalistic and personal integrity (Twittergate, LeWeb), the stalking and threats he says cost thousands of dollars to counter and the huge bulls-eye that every bombastic public figure, from Perez to Loic  pins on every time they post an opinion. I thought it a bit too much info and a bit too personal a view from someone who has never met Arrington. I haven’t met him either, but, I digress….I am writing this post to agree, free of psychoanalysis, with Arrington, albeit for a few more reasons.

Most of us who have used Apple products since the days of Pong feel a special, though almost unnatural, attachment to our sleek, fashion conscious companions. But, of the four loves, romantic is the most fragile even though it has taken me months to decide to pack Apple’s bags. They are now filled with hundreds of adapters I can no longer match to the devices they were meant to support–and I’ll leave them on the curb for one of my Chinese neighbors who needs to replace some long, lost proprietary AC plug….  Yes, I have long wanted to break it off with the brand that, had I not allowed myself to be seduced by, could have spared me the dough for a new car or a down-payment on an apartment while leaving me plenty of cash for several Dell desk and laptops. Damn, it is like a relationship with a shoe crazed character in some sitcom, isn’t it?

All kidding aside (for now), my distrust of Apple after meeting an Asian Apple executive from Singapore who euphemistically asserted that Apple was “not a very CSR minded company,” but if I ever contacted him that he would “see to it personally” that three charities, for whom I serve as a board member. could buy from Apple at a discount as long as they did not publicize the good deed. I understand: A company like apple might well be inundated with requests from Slumdogs looking to better their lots and after all, that it what Foundation money is for:  Allowing cash-strapped NGOs and NPOs to feel better that they supported the world economy by purchasing their MACs at full price. Apple’s Asian office has returned neither my phone calls nor emails.

Then, I met the guys at a local Guangzhou authorized repair center who fixed a cracked screen with a used one and charged me retail, at the same time they installed a bogus Parallels and Windows platform in my Macbook Pro–also at cost.

Then after buying my iPhone I found I was locked out of buying music on iTunes (and a podcast I wanted to hear by Stephen Fry) because I now reside in China– heaven knows we cannot get pirated music anywhere except iTunes here.I cannot even buy a ringtone, or add video capability to my dismal excuse for a camera, without “cracking” my phone or buying the new and financially improved model with features my friends have had for months on their bootleg versions…

Dropping the Google Voice development (Arrington’s chief beef) did not bother me, other than to signal that if Apple will bend  to AT&T to save it a few bucks in VOIP losses they will certainly kiss the PRC’s asks for blocking and censorship demands in the Chinese market. I don’t need any more difficult a time accessing the net, thanks.

Fake iPhone

And now they have entered into the dark side of brand gaffe creations generally reserved for companies like Sony and have remained silent (the old maxim of the law was “Silence gives consent”) about important issues regarding the reported suicide of a worker at Foxconn, Apple’s manufacturing partner in China, who has been under investigation before for worker abuse. The worker claimed  he was beaten by security personnel after he reported that a prototype of a new generation iPhone had disappeared. Apple showed incredible insensitivity and arrogance by letting Foxconn pay a paltry sum in compensation for his death, and worse yet, gave an Apple computer as part of their sad mea culpa deal.

I am done with Apple and headed to any company that looks to be more socially aware and less like a well- traveled mistress of conceit, repression and greed.

Beijing,Censorship,China Business,China Economics,China Editorials,Human Rights,Human Rights China,In the news,Taiwan,Twitter

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Hostage Situations: Culture, Charity, and Cures

A few years ago a Washington DC taxi driver, Timor Sekander, a survivor of the Afghan war  with Russia, saved my emotional life by sharing the pain of his losses–a father, and two brothers–with me,  a stranger, looking for answers en-route to the Vietnam Memorial. He turned off his meter and spent two mercurial days introducing me to dozens of grateful refugees who mediated their memories and healed their common wounds by helping each other survive everyday challenges through trade, fellowship and commerce in a country not yet sure how to appreciate their talents or accept their presence.

On Twitter yesterday I engaged in a conversation with a man in Mississippi who had publicly decried Obama’s recent executive order that will close Guantanamo Bay (Camp Delta) within a year while granting legal rights to those incarcerated like the Chinese Uyghur Muslims held there for years without formal charges or trial.  In 17 current cases, detainees were found innocent of any wrong doing and worse yet, some Uyghur prisoners arrived at Gitmo months after being kidnapped near Afghanistan by U.S. supported vigilantes who were paid bounties to round up suspected terrorists. I replied by applauding the executive order and let him know that I had read on, past the section granting constitutional rights, to the section with a clearly worded directive ordering trials and punishment for those the evidence suggests are truly terrorists.

This is not, and was not, a political argument for me.

gitmo-prisoners

My new “follower” on Twitter used the heavily charged word “terrorist” during out talk to describe the detainees still held at Guantanamo and said they did not deserve constitutional protection. He went on to say that the terrorists were being well cared for and nothing at Gitmo could be “construed as torture.” I contend (ed) that being separated from your family and locked in even in the cleanest of cages for four to eight years with recreational water-boarding occasionally on your schedule could hardly be construed as a tax payer funded vacation in Cuba….Terrorist is a word we have been conditioned to associate almost exclusively with the Arab world, so it is easy to imagine that where there is religious smoke  there is terrorist fire; conversely to entertain “torture” as a part of the American lexicon is to appear anti-patriotic,or treasonous at best….

Last week I was talking to Diaster Relief Shelters founder Roland Catellier about the trials inherent in fund-raising for homes and dormitories in Sichuan where millions are still without adequate protection. Those Chinese now living in temporary shelters may well be sharing cooking and toilet facilities with dozens of other families. It is a disaster-induced prison with many innocents serving indeterminate sentences for the crime of poverty.

Collecting funds to help survivors of disaster or trauma is the greatest challenge of any charity in China.  Many people view the Middle Kingdom and all its inhabitants as economic terrorists who are part of an industrial entity that has robbed them of jobs or shut the doors on their neighbor’s family business. And the huge and faceless numbers of those dead in China keep us and any Chinese who could help from looking too closely at the anguish partly made of indifference, or helplessness or fear of falling into some mournful abyss. It is hard for many to care amidst soaring unemployment that has now washed ashore in China and the beleaguered in Sichuan are hard to segregate from the 900 million others in poverty trying to live on less than $1.50 a day.

Sichuan Destruction

I feel ill today and spent the day, when not sleeping, in video and written excursions away from fever and body ache. There is no fun in dwelling in physical or societal misery and I spend more time in concocting solutions than I do recounting trials. So, today I read and  listened to teachers and practictioners of comfort and compassion. My favorite diversion today was a visit with the “happiest man in the world,” Matthieu Ricard, a Buddhist monk, author and photographer via his lecture on TED.Even the man whose extraordinary bliss has been scientifically documeted spoke about the fleet-footed nature of feelings. He acutely feels anguish and sorrow, but can skew his thoughts and actions toward solutions and reconciliation. His spiritual leader recently said that while he often diagreed with George Bush, but he loved him–and I believe him.

I know, as one who lives daily with the extreme and varying degrees of pain associated with an autoimmune disease, that it is through compassion or sharing that I can dissolve associated anger, irritations or suffering. Teaching and writing are my active meditations, my ways of showing compassion: In classes where I really give of myself I often vanquish colds, unlock painfully secured limbs or transform a mood from depression and despair into extreme contentment. And the receipt of good teaching and compassionate words that issue from sage friends like Des Walsh, Zach my monastic guide and Debra Xiangjun Hayes can have the same impact.

Ricard talked to the unseen dual nature of things like the depth of an ocean below a roiling, temperamental wave: There is more than meets the eye in all things. It brought me to thinking about how charity and compassion and even health are often hostages of  our narrow fields of vision–those accepted by us, even if foisted upon us, without compassionate investigation on our part.

The first thing a police negotiator does in a hostage crisis is to begin calling the victim in peril by their true name so that the perpetrator can hear and see that he is a life threat to a vital, breathing person, a sentient being and not just an object for ransom, or a means to an end. There is always hope that you can resonate with the good, the ocean below, in even the most violent of waters.

charity

Michael Berg at the Kaballah Center says in a recent article that we must make conscious decisions that bring us to a place where we are willing to experience the pain of taking on the burdens of others. I think before we can devote ourselves to the Sisyphus-like toil of charity in a place like Sichuan, as has Roland, we must acknowledge some emotional or human connection. we need to see the faces of those in distress, we need to hear their stories and politics will be forced to embrace new priorities. I will settle for even a few more of us taking time to divest ourselves of preconceptions so that we feel an imperative to engage, not war with, people making decisons, not to interfere with our well-being but to survive themselves just one more day. It s then we can follow Berg and feel, to paraphrase Camus, that to help someone you have been taught to revile or to offer money time or comfort to aid someone who may only have minutes to live is a struggle, but one toward the heights of selflessness and it is, by itself, enough to fill any man’s heart.

More in Part II

Addendum: Four good places to begin to appreciate China’s people: Blog of Dreams, Tom Carter, The Library Project, Derrick Chang’s Mask of China

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The Library Project Hits 100!

“Children’s books are a luxury to have in Asia, and a rarity in an orphanage.”

–from The Library Project

I met Thomas Stader via a small donation to the Library Project. He was living in Vietnam at the time and was making plans to leave his job in IT and return to China to devote himself to building libraries in China. It was the heartfelt personal reply to an seemingly insignificant amount that peaked my interest. A few email exchanges and an online chat led to a personal meeting and a friendship I value with a man wholly dedicated to humaintarian good.

The Library Project “tweeted” ( http://twitter.com/tomstader ) this week that it has passed the 100 library mark this year. I am sure, especially in tough economic times, that Thomas never imagined this would happen. Social Media, big hearts and open pocketbooks have helped the tireless Stader turn his dreams into reality.

Onemanband’s first post (by David DeGeest) about this amazing enterprise:

Thomas Stader has a vision to build libraries for children living in orphanages and rural areas around Asia.

The Library Project

Stader, is one of those rare people who come to China with big plans and a bigger heart. He came to help and began to put his plan into action in 1993. To accompany Stader’s big heart, is a well organized plan rife with several clever ideas. Instead of trying to organize all of the complex processes that would be required to build libraries, Stader uses pre-existing supply chains and forms cooperative agreements with local NGOs and corporationg for funding and logistics. These tactics, combined with the lower overhead costs in Asia, allow him to build libraries for $150-$300 USD each–without comprimising the structural quality or integrity of the libraries. Welcome to an age when quality NGO work combined with smart marketing and good business sense can transform a philanthropic daydream into a sound reality.

building a library in China

The Project has made remarkable progress. In 2006, Stader was able to create two libraries for approximately $300 USD and some help from Aston Education, JinaLive, and the Dalian Charity Federation. In 2007, The Library Project will expand to do work in Xian and Jinan. By the end of the year, the project plans to create 15 new libraries to schools and orphanages with a total project cost under $15,000 USD.

Here’s a list of the typical costs from one of the recent library projects:

Hard cover book, 100 pages: $3

Soft cover book, 100 pages: $2

Harry Potte Series: $15

Color comic book: $1

Black and white comic book: .5

Book shelf: $25

Table and chairs: $50

Plants, posters, mats: $25

The Library Project Success

The Library Project hopes to have 80 libraries running in China, Cambodia, and Vietnam by 2009. You can help by clicking here.

Note: all pictures featured here come from The Library Project’s site.

There will always be follow-up articles on this worthy endeavor…..

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Trans-America II: Heartsongs

Shortly after my70’s military stint I did a home-stay with a Mennonite family, headed by a businessman who felt called out from society to a quite farm in Pennsylvania. Despite no TV or newspaper he was remarkably on the cutting edge of social responsibility and had more cultural savvy than daily news subscribers. And via his knowledge of the great books he more than hold is own in debates on topical as well as philosophical issues: his home went solar in the 70’s and he and his beautiful family lovingly maintained what industrialized societies slowly lose or alter: core values and sacrosanct time, conversation, and meaningful rituals: things that that Chinese families are losing. The Mennonites held hands and sang songs of thanks before every meal and during my stay, when community members called, they didn’t pause to ask why, how or when they could help a neighbor who was in trouble: they just helped without hesitation or reservation.  Though I could never live as austerely or as committed to a religion, I admired them as people, not imprisoned by their faith, but true celebrants of its simple focused lifestyle. They steered away from politics and involvement in affairs outside of their circle of faithful unless it was to involve themselves in pre-mediated acts of charity and kindness.

All of that was preface to my most moving and clarifying moment with them: They had had been involved a few years earlier in hurricane relief in the southern U.S.: They built, with donated supplies, homes for those who had lost everything in a vicious storm. The Mennonite crews who traveled to Mississippi built sturdy structures with 2-3 rooms with amazing skill and speed and shortly afterward would bring survivors to the site before completion so the new owners could decide where their kitchen and living room should be placed on the right, or on the left. It was designed to make the new inhabitants feel part of the process of erecting their new homes. One woman, who had lost her children in the hurricane and surgically needed both legs amputated due to injury, was carried in on a kitchen chair to inspect her coming surroundings. She immediately began to cry and aid workers quickly moved her back out the front door, fearful they had further upset someone already deeply traumatized. She stopped them and asked to stay, reassuring them that she was crying out of joy for what had been given to her, not what had been lost. She lives there today, visited occasionally by the Mennonites, who cherish the tenacity and courage of this modern day Job.

During my trip, my time with the Mennonites was one of many stories from my life in America of which I was reminded. Songs, movies, television shows, radio and the like reside in our collective conscientiousness: they invoke emotional states and resurrect global and individual memories of what was happening to us at a given moments in history. So, imagine what XM satellite radio (what am amazing service), a score of contemporary and classic television channels playing in my motel room and visits to emotionally charged locations I have not seen since the Vietnam era conjured for me who had not been back to American for many years.  I tried to pull the many disparate images and recollections into context and apply them to my understanding of America and its differences to China.

As an example: I relived the first election in which I could vote—something even Hong Kong citizens may not live to experience: I cast my ballot, with millions of other idealistic and hopeful young people, in favor of the gentle intellectual statesman and political dove Eugene McCarthy. My youthful enthusiasm for the American electoral process was buried for a few years in the following avalanche of hawkish conservatism, votes that hastened the deaths of 58,000 soldiers, my father among them, and millions of Vietnamese. I was present for Obama’s victory arguably less volatile: moderate in nature and less dramatic in its public manifestations—there were no “flower children trying to levitate the Pentagon through meditation, and no National Guardsmen gunning down the students protesting our involvement in war—but, no less a salute to idealism and change. It brought me to joyful tears as hope once again permeated a participatory politics I had thought was gunned down with Robert Kennedy, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and the Kent State Four.

All week I enjoyed music that drew me back to school days and my first job: selling Grit Newspapers door-to-door in Pueblo, Colorado. Grit was a weekly read of good news and human-interest articles that made you feel hopeful and proud of your neighbors and countrymen. It was filled with the kind of articles a journalist in Shanghai told me was no longer in demand in 2008—even if I were to offer to write them for free. If you were to subscribe to her world-view, shaped by her time as a war correspondent, it would be one of a planet of violent, untrustworthy, primitive, easily manipulated, and dangerously selfish people devoid of goodwill.

Though my early world-view—one that has skinned its knees after repeatedly being shoved to the ground of late—remained positive, even though the stories called back to me this week were not all created with sunshine and granola: I re-lived the trauma of a father lost to war wounds and a mother subsequently lost to that grief; the pedophile sickness of Father Dan Maio, Pueblo’s youth ministry leader. But, more often than not, I retreated to the reverie of good memories, and the solace of long-time friends.

I met a lot of good people on this trip: people who reaffirmed my faith in simple charity and goodness without agenda. It is rare in China: people are loathe to care for each other for many reasons: their own poverty and inability to assist, their instinctive distrust of all-too-common officials who extract their pound of flesh from the leanest cuts of positive social deeds, their belief that public displays of charity are nothing more than a form of brand building and self-marketing and more…. And when luminaries and people who could save a great many lives refuse their time and talent because of nationalist agendas. I have been told that a charity for China has little hope of success with westerners because of America’s growing ethnocentrism, a lack of emotional connection to the millions still suffering form the effects of devastation this year and America’s own needs following tragedies in Texas and Louisiana.

But, thankfully my time in America began with the comforting company of Meryl in San Francisco, moved to the beautiful and gracious family inclusion of Cal Poly’s Associate Dean of Business Chris and then days of travel with Roland Catellier, the founder of a Disaster Relief Shelters organization that will begin its work by building 100 new dwellings for Sichuan quake victims during the next year.

Roland returned during to America in the 70s after 17 years of volunteer work in India, the Bahamas and Puerto Rico only to lose his wife within months to cancer. He then raised 7 children aged 2-14, alone, while establishing construction and real estate businesses along the way. Retired now, he looks to return to the missionary zeal of his roots and simply do good for those who have not fared as well as he has in life. He spent most of the time while traveling with me (when not smoking cigars) on the phone with companies who will build the first units to be placed in the hardest hit counties in Sichuan. Happily (the glass is half-full), he found the prices in the U.S. to be 40% less than that of Chinese companies in Dalian purporting to be subsidizing building needs. It called to mind a book I read years ago: How to Profit in the Coming Kansai Earthquake written by a man teaching you how to invest in disaster coming from a long overdue quake in the Tokyo region (sorry Rick it is overdue) with a business is business approach to human suffering.

And today on the airplane ride to JFK airport I spoke to a young man, aged 27 who told Roland that although he admired what he was doing though he could never see himself as a volunteer as he could not afford to donate his time, talent or money.  He went on to say that he was saving for the future and putting aside $1,000 US dollars a week—more than a farmer in Gansu, China might earn through four years of back-breaking labor—and his congenitally bad heart did not help matters—nor did it stop him from bow-hunting with ridiculously hi-tech aides for his primitive endeavor (laser range finders…) or from hiring guides charging thousands for a hunt on land plentiful with game to help him bag a trophy. It points up that charity in an ever challenging environment will have to offer value—trophies of profit or image– to both individuals and corporations in order to reach both sides of the compassion continuum.

I changed during this trip. Though sick and fatigued I re-learned (a work in progress) how to read the metaphors around me and how to interpret the lyrics and plot lines of the past. And now I own again some small ability to take a meta-view of the symbols around me. I don’t think the world has changed a great deal since I went to my first concert (Fleetwood Mac and Gary Burton and the Animals, Kaiser) in Southern Colorado, saw my first movie, heard of JFK’s death on the radio or watched a man land on the moon. There will always be, in varying portions, those who watch, those who pray, those who act, those who give and those who profit from adversity, turmoil or weakness. The songs are about them all, as are the pictures in magazines, and now the Tweet, blog post or Facebook entry. I am hopeful once again because I own the responsibility to act in accordance with my heart as mandated by my conscience and I see others actively doing the same so I do not feel alone. It is time once more to defy Pavlovians by directing myself via free will to associate the contemporary idioms and events of today with the sights, sounds and cadence of the good that I hope to sense again when I’m brought to reflection on them in the future…

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