Thursday, December 18, 2008

Deck the Great Hall of The People

The novelty of Christmas in China is beginning to wear off. After about four of them it's all a blur of Chinese clerks in synthetic red and white elf hats, badly decorated fake trees, bizarro Christmas carol combinations on the PA systems (Feliz Navidad, or Mamacita, donde esta Santa Claus?, followed by Handel's Messiah - isn't that an Easter song? - Joan Jett's version of Little Drummer Boy, Herman's Hermits' Kind of a Hush (Big time wha..huh? for that) and the gawdawful Jingle Bells barking dawgs is a real life example.

Nothing much shocks me about it now, though I was shocked to learn that while all foreigners at my current place of employment will get New Year's Day off, Christmas Day will be bad business as usual. Nonetheless, in our grand lobby the other day the janitorial and "hot water jug hauling" girls were given a reprieve from their usual numbing duties to decorate the 8 foot faux tree.

It was kinda cute and funny. None had obviously done it before but they'd seen TV shows perhaps, had a step ladder and about 12 tons of decorations and lights all piled indiscriminately into two packing crates. Lights went on last, just after the decorations and the glittery garlands and tinsel. This caused some problems, most notably after they wrapped the base of the tree in what amounted to a small circular wall of garlands and tinsel that was so thick they couldn't get close enough to start putting up the bulbs from the bottom. So they began tossing ornaments up at random. Some stuck, some rolled off and a few bounced off and broke on the floor. "Hit the dirt! Incoming Santa!"

The guy on the stepladder was doing fine, though he worked pretty much on one side until the weight made the tree begin to tilt. All in all though it was a laudible effort though there's a troublesome bare patch that I'm almost physically itching to guerilla decorate everytime I pass it.

But I resisted the latest urge and going home now to listen to a homemade mix a pal sent me for my first Chrismas here. He entitled it "Merry Christmas from the Bottom of a Bottle." The title kinda says it all, lots of bittersweet stuff like Elvis' Blue Christmas, The Pretenders' 10,000 Miles, Joni Mitchell's River, John Lennon's Happy Christmas (War is Over) and my homegrown fave: Nitty Gritty Dirt Bands' Colorado Christmas.

Merry Christmas all.

Saturday, December 6, 2008


It's been a bad week to be overseas. First came the grim e-mail news that an old friend and fellow reporter Tom Fogarty,with whom I'd had my first fulltime news job at a Lincoln, Nebraska paper when the Pony Express was still operating, had died three weeks after he'd been diagnosed with cancer.

Heartbroken in Beijing doesn't begin to describe how I felt. Tom was one of the most honest people I've ever known and one of the funniest. As was noted so aptly in his Lincoln Journal-Star obit, "Fogarty told stories for a living. He told them when he wasn’t working, too, and very well, because he couldn’t help himself."
He was the original good guy; someone his friends and family felt would always be there and thoughts of seeing again in person when I return to the States were always there.

Grieving via email doesn't really cut it and as I sniffled, blew my nose and blubbered as quietly as I could at my desk as Chinese coworkers tried to pretend that nothing was wrong, I briefly considered hopping a plane back to the States for his memorial service in DC (he'd last worked at USA Today) or funeral in his hometown of Omaha. Friends here didn't know him, of course, and grieving alone made it all the lonelier as I read the several hundred tributes and memories others had posted on a website for him.

"Something is maybe wrong?" one reporter finally asked softly. "Maybe your health is not so good?" She meant well, but I mumbled something about bad news and kept my head down and the tissues coming. Then came an e-mail of what appears to be another death. The Rocky Mountain News in Denver, where I worked for about 14 years, is on the auction block with all signs that it will probably be shut down after it's sold.

It's no secret to all who knew me that my exit from there was not exactly amicable, but as I shuttled through a RMN online slide show of the staff getting the bad news I saw a few familiar faces and all looked like they'd been collectively kicked in the stomach. Though I was no fan of the paper's top management, that had nothing to do with the talents and just plain good souls who continued to work there. It's for them and the dying craft of American print journalism that I felt so sad.

"Hey, no news jobs in Denver? Got some openings here in China," I wanted to say. "Working for commie bureaucrats is not very different than Scripps Howard..." But what sane person would pack up to go halfway across the planet to a place where they don't speak or read the language to find work?

Photo: Lincoln Journal reporters Thomas A Fogarty (right) and Mitchel Benson smirk at the transparently underhanded shenanagans of the Nebraska State Legislature in Lincoln circa 1980.