Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown

I can't forget it, which is why I'm returning in about 10 days. Today I had my last VA appointment with my cancer surgeon, a lovely, skillful and thoroughly professional Kashmir-native female surgeon, Dr B.

I've had a small crush on her since the beginning, mostly fascinated by her accent, dark eyes, caring but objective bedside manner and the careful way she must tweeze her eyebrows. As she examined my stoma (what's left of my colon poking through my stomach) and pronounced it "lovely" and certified my surgical wound as healed (as if I had anything to do with either of them) I focused not on my surgically mutilated midsection, but on her eyebrows and imagined watching her tweeze them carefully preparing for a night out away from the VA hustle.

"Good luck in China!" she said cheerfully. "But if there are any complications, you know where to find us."

Uh huh. I told her I'd done my homework for cancer care and ostomy supplies in Beijing and said I was glad to meet her despite the circumstances, gently shook her hand and left hoping I'd never see the place again, though her gentle Kashmir lilt and eyebrows will stay with me forever.

Got to think forward. Bob Marley, himself a cancer casuality, was earworming through my head, "Exodus, movement of Jah people" ... along with Jimmy Cliff's Many Rivers to Cross.

Back at my sister's place she'd gone through one of her physician prescribed amphetamine day-off cleaning frenzies and inadvertantely thrown out a white garbage bag I stow my clean clothes in onto the curbside trash. This did not deter me either. I simply hacked her hands off with a machete and rescued the clothing before the garbage truck swung through and then I began trolling through emails.

There are few job interview possibilities, nothing rock solid yet, but I will prevail even it's writing copy for incomprehensible pirated Chinese IT supply catalogs. And a nice email from C. A rare treat. I told her I'd be staying in Beijing temporarily in the apartment of an elderly widow of an American communist journalist who'd elected to make China his home after the revolution.

He's a lesser figure than Edgar Snow but, like Snow, one whose memory is still honored by the PRC. For this he also served a few years in jail during the Cultural Revolution but emerged saying he'd learned from his mistakes. Whatta tool, I think. But I'm not him and can't imagine what he was thinking except he'd prefered hard time in China to returning to live in the USA.

I'm not sure I'd go that far, but part of me understands it in an odd way.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Loan Me a Dime

I was in the backseat of a car cruising from Skaneateles, NY courtesy of my ‘cancer buddy’ a woman I’ll call E, and her husband G who had graciously taken me out on a short daytrip beyond the rancid boundaries of Syracuse for an afternoon and early evening of life on rarified side of the Finger Lakes.

G is a blues fanatic and was tuned to a satellite blues station that due to some kinda cosmic blues miracle started playing ‘Loan Me a Dime’ a neglected 12:45 masterpiece by Boz Skaggs and slide guitarist Duane Allman and a horn and Hammond B3 and piano section on loan from God.

It’s a bittersweet song, and just a tad dated but it holds up and surpasses the years in a way. Boz pleading for a dime for a pay phone to call his ‘old time used-to-be, little girl’s been gone so long it’s worrying me.’
G and I briefly riffed on updating it, “Somebody loan me a cell phone…” but soon forgot about it and fell into the groove.

I know that feeling too well. How many ‘old time used-to-be’s’ have I moronically drunk- dialed for dismal results? Better let the song say it instead.
It was a farewell, too. Since coming to Syracuse and meeting E and G courtesy of one of my oldest colleagues and best friends, M, who is E’s brother, we’ve daily talked daily since, what? Maybe March? I’ve never talked so often and regularly to even a wife or girlfriend that I recall. It’s heartening.

We talk about our days and trials and chemo and blood tests and asshole doctors and nurses and the good ones too. The empty sympathies received from peers, acquaintances and the heartfelt ones too. And sometimes about relatives and no cancer talks at all, though it’s the reason for our bond. I know her now better than I do her brother, I think, weirdly thanks to this scourge.

It’s probably the last time I will see them before returning to China next month. But if so, it was a good sendoff. E and I will still call daily til the miles and phone rates interfere. In the meantime, somebody loan me a dime….

Friday, October 14, 2011

My Generation

I never intended this to be a “living with/surviving cancer” blog, of course. Since the breakup with C I'd posted on several Chinese-western lonely hearts sites all focused on new love, new opportunities and accentuating the positive. I just wonder though how many people, western and Chinese alike, present themselves in a totally honest manner.

Prior to my cancer surgery, I used to smoke, though I ignored confessing to it when my first lovelorn notices were posted. Drinking too much sometimes? Guilty as charged. Two marriages and a few broken relationships before advertising my desirable single status? Also guilty of withholding evidence, your honor. Maybe not worth mentioning initially, but it’s significant baggage I carry and I think some weight any potential new partner would want to consider.

There’s the crucial age difference, also. I’m 59 this month and most of the Chinese women I’ve been with or am just friends with are a decade or more younger than me. I’m puzzled by this – but have also figured out that I often have more in common culturally and socially with a newer generation of Chinese than ones closer to my age.

I wish it were different. But growing up in the Cultural Revolution as the older ones did while I simultaneously grew up in the pampered western “Youthquake Revolution” were completely different experiences and sent us to different futures and reference points in which we’ve only really partially connected within the last 20-30 years.

While I can talk about the Grateful Dead, Chinese my age may talk about how grateful their parents and grandparents were not to be dead due to the Cultural Revolution.

But it works both ways. I’ve got a lot of down time now healing from surgery and waiting to return to China and recently decided to do something useful that I never did during my previous 7 years in China – I’m taking Chinese lessons.
A no-brainer, but I’m a slow learner, I guess.

My tutor is a late 20something Shanghaiese video art graduate student at Syracuse University – a patient understanding teacher besides being a cutting edge artist. Her works range from an ongoing documentary about a blind 5-year-old girl in Shanghai and satiric Chinese social commentary to a meditative performance art piece inspired by Japanese monks that was filmed in Holland.

Our time together allows me to concentrate on something other than my own woes and has led to some talks where she told me her filmmaking may be creatively/genetically linked to a grandfather who was a Shanghai movie maker in the ‘40s and later until the Party clamped down. Among his early acquaintances he told her casually was a budding actress in the early Shanghai movie clique, Jiang Qing, later better known as Madame Mao and the demonic force behind the Cultural Revolution, which eventually led to her grandfather’s professional and creative downfall. There were other, less historically significant players in his film group, all notable talents at the time whose memories and works have long since been lost.

“Wow,” I gushed. “You need to record his memories. As many as he’ll let you. It’s important. Sit him down, get him comfortable, get it all documented. There are so many stories out there and his generation (he’s 85) is dying fast.”

She seemed politely neutral though. Agreeing to be agreeable but I sensed it was territory she didn’t want to tread, whether it for his comfort or other unspoken reasons.

And it’s not my place to push it, just to work on mastering the four tones.

Saturday, September 10, 2011


C just called from Jerusalem to ask how I’m doing with my cancer.
There. There’s a sentence – a thought, a concept – I could and would not have imagined a year ago.

She’s now working for the Israeli consulate in Guangdong Province and – since I met and wooed her and we later parted – has traveled almost more in the almost 10 years we’ve known each other than I have in my 58 years.

Oh. The cancer. That’s a whole new country, too. One no one should have a visa for. A terrorist state. Not sunny Jerusalem, where she said, laughing a little, that locals were asking to be photographed with her. “Chinese are everywhere in the world, but not so much in Israel, I guess.”

“Now you know what it’s like to be a foreigner in China,” I said, recalling the countless times I’d posed with Chinese tourists for photo and video shots waving and smiling, white hairy arms around smooth shorter shoulders.

She mentioned an Asian classical musician who’d held a concert near her hotel who was advertised in a yellow dress. “I’m wearing yellow today. Four people have complimented me on my ‘performance’ and asked for my autograph.”

I avoided details about the colon cancer. Kept it vague. I’m on the mend, I just said. Getting better and hoping to be back in China by the end of the year. Didn’t mention the bag I shit in now and how I can’t recall my last erection, and the gauze packed surgical wound crossing my belly aches continually looks like a ragged combat zone.

It’s new territory after years of feckless and occasionally responsible living. Completely unexpected, unwelcome, of course, and nothing like the fund raising ads I see of cheerful ordinary and famous people holding signs saying things like “Cancer, you’re out!” I’m still in the “Cancer, what the fuck?” stage. I can do nothing but wait.

I try to block it all out for a minute and instead imagine eating oranges in Jerusalem with my ex dressed in yellow, nudging her a little to sign some autographs.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Doctor, doctor, gimme the news....

Been back in the ‘Cuse for awhile now between a lifegiving trip to NYC with some GT ex employees and a new China pal whom I met in Syracuse but who wisely has relocated to El Manzana Grande.

While there I felt rejuvenated despite spending money out the gazoo for basic lodging. Trips to the Museum of Sex, random encounters with Hare Krishna Parades (amazed they still exist) with grinning, chanting multiracial devotees hauling 30-foot pagodas like human oxen in a Cecil B. DeMille production down the street with friendly cop car escorts as an Austin BBQ fest competed with a Hamburg-era early Beatle tribute band playing….then a Puerto Rican Independence Day parade.

Plus Chinatown with a fabulous meal, walks to see all the "dissident" Chinese papers reporting what is under wraps there and a worthwhile sweaty trek for Taiwanese “bubble tea” for dessert… all in all, amazing slice of another life and lives past, especially after gaping at the incredibly lovely Persian waitresses at dinner and irresistible Dutch models in our cramped hotel elevator, I could’ve slept on looks alone and happily woken up dead the next day.

Reality hits hard on the budget Megabus back when one whacked out passenger kept hassling me for hours about whether I was a “professor” or not and mercilessly haranguing his hapless woman between pandering to a young fat white kid enjoying his hiphop and patronizingly dubbing him as “DJ Get It On.” Finally ditched the ride at the Syracuse station to confront a gaggle of harmless, slow, inbred Amish clogging up the entrance.. Hmmm. Slam, bam new reality zones.

Now the waiting is the hardest part, as Tom Petty famously sang, and it’s true whether you’re love, waiting for a drug delivery, an interview, a bus or taxi, an open bathroom, meal, job offer, whatnot and in this case it’s a firm date for my surgery. That may be settled tomorrow, Friday. Between few appts at the VA to renew scrips, what I’m waiting for is a cut me open and let’s get this deal done and send me back to China.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Dipatches from the medical front

My immersion the VA system has its bright sides. Most of the female staff with the exception of the Asian Indian staffers speak somewhat like they're out of "Fargo" typecasting and are as relentlessly cheerful.

Two incidents today gave me some grim joy. The first was an elderly cranky guy with a prostate procedure on the books who wanted reassurance that he wouldn't be immobilized for longer that 24 hours because he was in charge of NASA and the Federal Security Agnecy -- both of which he had originally "established." He was reassured that his duties would be covered before being wheeled off to lahlah land, but not before good naturedly warning a nurse who greeted him, "Hands off, toots! I'm spoken for."

The second came after I was being discharged for a test (negative) to see if my colon tumor was "communicating" with the bladder. "What are they talking about?" I asked the surgeon. "Invading Poland?" Apparently not and as the nurse was giving me my discharge orders she noted "No sex for 24 hours" No problem, I thought. A strange distant concpt anyway, this "sex."

Free Ai Weiwei and Wen Tao

Most of you outside China readers have never heard of Ai Weiwei, but he’s an “activist” of sorts and artist and cat and animal protection force who was recently detained while trying to board a flight to Hong Kong to Taiwan on April 1 for unspecified “incomplete departure procedures” and hasn’t been heard from since.

As a snide and largely incoherent editorial in my former employer Global Times tried to point out: “Ai Weiwei likes to do something "others dare not do." He has been close to the red line of Chinese law. Objectively speaking, Chinese society does not have much experience in dealing with such persons. However, as long as Ai Weiwei continuously marches forward, he will inevitably touch the red line one day.”

I guess he has, though no specifics have been revealed to date. It is troubling and mysterious in more than several ways. He is an older, large plump man with a full head of grey hair and respectable beard, easily recognizable which is why as he was being squired through the Global Times newsroom by the assistant managing editor, a rat phlegm-brained self-serving cretin with at least one in-house mistress who worships at the altar of GQ, several of us foreigners stopped to make a point of meeting and greeting Ai Weiwei, a wry wise, and pragmatic man, some to have photos taken with him.
I stuck with simple conversation, thanking him for coming and asking him what he thought of GT. “I like the youthful energy,” he said. “Many youth, but we need more experience,” I replied. And then we made a bet on which one of us is older and he was swept away by Mr GQ.

Why he was there remains a mystery and where he is now is a larger one. To further complicate the mystery, a former GT reporter fired for tweeting excerpts of a staff meeting and who has gone on to become an assistant to Ai Weiwei has also been snatched. His name is Wen Tao. For a full gist of the “official” take on Ai Weiwei check this out And if you’re googling him in China I guess you already know what my freelance journo friend D said, “everytime I input his name my computer behaves like its got a hedgehog in its innards.”