Thursday, August 25, 2011

Dear Wolf's Camera,

I'm sorry.

When I came into your store today, looking for advice on a relatively costly camera purchase, you were very helpful. You were beyond helpful, in fact. Your employee engaged me right away without being overbearing. She was clearly knowledgeable. When I vaguely explained the issue I wanted to address in relation to my old camera, she knew exactly what I wanted, and instantly pointed out what would address those issues.

She demoed the product for me, gave me some hands-on time with the best match, and answered all of my questions patiently. She even volunteered the main downside of the proposed camera; it, apparently, does not shoot video. She mentioned, but did not try to upsell me, the camera that would shoot video. She told me about your coverage plan, and recommended accessories. I dutifully took notes, and told her I would most likely be back later in the week after I'd figured out my budget.

I am sorry, Wolf's Camera, because I lied to you. I took those notes home with me and went, like most people, to Amazon, to compare prices. I can get the camera, along with both lenses, a bag, a tripod, a lens-cleaning kit, a memory card, and a sherpa to carry it all, for about $250 less than it would cost me in your truly fine establishment. What really killed you was the tax, honestly. In a state with almost 10% sales tax, I save about $90 of those dollars on not having to pay said tax. I'm not going to sign this letter, because I am too ashamed to identify myself to you. But I am sorry I am one of the reasons businesses can't compete anymore.

You will have your retribution one day, though you won't be around to enjoy it; I will need a newer camera, and I will still be under-informed, and there will be no one to answer my questions with such warmth, knowledge, and service. And I will wonder what happened to the good old days when I could go to the local camera store and get my questions answered.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The China Diaries: And Now We Play the Waiting Game

Early Sunday morning, I hopped on a flight bound for Washington, D.C., by way of Chicago. I was going to D.C. to get my work visa (hereafter Z-Visa) from the Chinese embassy. While it's possible to complete that process through a mail service, I wanted to leave as little room as possible for errors because my departure date is so close (13 days away).

I flew on Southwest Airlines, an airline which has taken to being sassy in the last year or two. Their flight attendants regularly say things like "This is a sold out flight, so please use as little overhead bin space as possible. Purses, backpacks, shopping backs, children under 25 pounds, all need to be placed under the seat in front of you." It may read as corny, but it all comes across with spontaneity, and, speaking as someone who has flown with regularity since September 11, it's nice to see a sense of humor coming back into the fold.

I arrived in Washington Dellis, and took a cab to the hotel, where I had about five or six hours to kill before my friend Dena drove down from Delaware. While I'm still disappointed I didn't get to take care of all this business in Chicago, where I had four or five friends I was going to see, I was thrilled to have Dena's company for Sunday night and all of Monday. I haven't seen her in almost two years, and it was great to catch up. I intended to spend that time finishing Philip Pullman's amazing The Subtle Knife, but I turned on the t.v. while I ate a late lunch (I've never mastered eating and reading at the same time), and got sucked into Vh1 Classic's marathon of "The 7 Ages of Rock". So that felt productive.

* * * * *
Monday morning, we got up around 6:30 and took a hotel shuttle to a bus which we took to the metro which we took to within a mile of the Chinese Embassy. I enjoyed walking around that section of D.C., full as it was (and, I assume, still is) with most of the 175 embassies in the city. They were fun to look at. The Bahraini embassy, for example, looked like a building air lifted out of the middle east. The Swiss embassy had an appropriately art deco exterior. The Norwegian embassy had a sort of Victorian Estate front and an intriguingly modern side. The Chinese embassy was a different beast entirely; significantly bigger than most of the others, it gave me the unsettling impression that the people inside would be safe from an atomic blast, or perhaps some sort of small-scale invasion. Safety is not unsettling; it is that they seemed to have planned for the aforementioned circumstances.

It looked mighty imposing, but I never went inside. Turns out I was meant to go to an office about two miles from there. I don't always read things carefully. When we arrived at the Visa and Passport office, there was a line of forty people between me and being processed. It was a race against the clock, as I needed to have my passport in before 12:00, so I could pick it up the same day. It was about 9:40 when Dena and I arrived, and for a little while, it looked dire. But we played a good sporting game of that game where you try to complete squares (Pegs, is it called?), and my time came closer and closer. I even made a friend, who will be teaching at one of Disney's English language schools in China. We exchanged e-mails, because I'm curious, and want to learn more of this.

* * * * *

Lunch was spent at the National Zoo, before we walked back to pick up my passport. Long story short(ish), I have a visa.

Now the only thing between me and my new adventures in China is thirteen days of wait.

* * * * *

Diplomatic relations between the People's Republic of China and the United States of America started working, in large part, because both sides agreed not to discuss certain issues. The concept of One China, for example; For a while, the United States only recognized the government in Singapore as the proper government of China. This was anathema to the rest of China, ruled at the time by Chairman Mao in Beijing. Singapore was a contentious issue, involving displays of naval force on the part of the U.S., passive-aggressive warnings from China, and generally a lack of progress. In the name of mutual national interest, the PRC promised the United States that they would not invade Singapore, that they would absorb it back into China peacefully, and so the United States promised not to make an issue of it anymore. We ignore the issue of China's belief that China and Singapore are one in the same, and China ignores our recognition of Singapore, all in the name of mutual advantage. So this made me laugh:
In Washington, D.C., their embassies are neighbors.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Jerry Leiber: 1933-2011

I want to take a moment to note the passing of Jerry Leiber, the lyrical half of one of pop's first great songwriting teams, Leiber and Stoller. I won't bother giving you a biography, because the life of an artist is not as important to most of us as the work they leave behind. Just a few of his songs, with their performers: "Kansas City," by The Beatles (and countless others), "(You're So Square) Baby I Don't Care," by Buddy Holly, "Spanish Harlem," by The Mommas and The Papas, "Is That All There Is?," best performed by Cristina, and, perhaps most famously, "Jailhouse Rock" and "Hound Dog," by Elvis Presley.

Leiber's greatest contribution to the popular songbook is "Stand By Me." There are some songs that are its equal, but few, if any, that are superior. Leiber left us with a collection of songs which have left an indelible mark in the tapestry of popular music. His name may be unknown to most in my age group and younger, but his work is ingrained in our culture, and will continue to be enjoyed for as long as pop music is a force in this world.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Rave On!

Rave On Buddy Holly
Various Artists

It is a rare thing that an album of covers can come near the original. The covers are so often left in the dust that it's mind-boggling anyone bothers making them anymore. Still, here to mark Buddy Holly's seventy-fifth anniversary, we have Rave On Buddy Holly, a compilation of nineteen songs covered by nineteen different artists. It is, ultimately, wondrous.

There are things here that were completely expected: She & Him's cover of "Oh Boy!" sounds adorable. Nick Lowe does a magnificent cover of "Changing All Those Changes." Fiona Apple & Jon Brion's twinkling, true rendition of "Everyday" is one of those sparkling moments where you know what the song will sound like before you've heard a note. The Detroit Cobras, a professional cover band, do a charging take on "Heartbeat."

There were surprising disappointments: Lou Reed and Paul McCartney, two of the most ardent Holly disciples, deliver terrible takes on "Peggy Sue" and "It's So Easy." Reed's sounds like a shitty garage band (To be fair, I've never liked him), and McCartney's is plodding. Modest Mouse flatten the melody of "That'll Be the Day," killing the hooks.

There were pleasant surprises: Kid Rock's "Well All Right" is an inspired, soul-tinged take. My Morning Jacket walk away from "True Love Ways" sounding like a less harmony-drenched Fleet Foxes, a direction Fleet Foxes might want to take into consideration. Patti Smith takes "Words of Love," one of Holly's breeziest recordings, and gives it weight, which should be impossible. I don't like Florence + The Machine; she's got lungs, but I find her exhausting to listen to after a few minutes. As it turns out, that's been entirely a matter of the songs. Attached to "Not Fade Away," her powerhouse voice is put to phenomenal use, and her backing track resembles a cheery Swordfishtrombones outtake.

Great covers take a familiar song and make it say something new. None of the covers here do that, except one: John Doe's astonishing cover of "Peggy Sue Got Married." He slows down the tempo, giving the music room to breathe, adds in undulating waves of gentle background dissonance, and sings with an undertone of melancholy Holly never quite produced himself. It reveals the power and intelligence in Holly's simple lyrics. It transforms "Peggy Sue Got Married" into something intensely personal. And it is the greatest testament here to Holly's remarkable gifts.

Buddy Holly may have continued to be great, he may have become a has-been constantly retreading the same ground, or he may have abandoned music altogether. We'll never know who Holly could have been and what he could have done if he hadn't died, but Rave On Buddy Holly serves well the argument that we'll continue to know who he was and what he did for a very long time yet.

The China Diaries: Apply Yourself

The paperwork for my work visa application arrived yesterday. It contained an invitation letter to come work in China, and an Alien Work Permit. I assume I won't be greeted in China by a chorus of accusations that I'm stealing jobs from The Real Chinese. There's nothing to make you feel important like an express package from China containing official government documents. I imagine I would feel nervous if I got such a package from my own government.

In the last year, I have had to fill out three important applications; JET, a Brazilian tourist visa, and this one. I forget how much I hate filling out documents like this, and preparing the ancillary materials. I assume that I will incorrectly fill out just the right box, or neglect to include just the right photocopy, for them to reject me. JET was the worst, on account of needing to do everything in triplicate; I made the poor woman at the Post Office wait while I double-checked everything in the envelope, after having just double-checked before getting in line, and after having double-checked it before leaving my apartment, after having... you get the idea. Fortunately, this application is only six sides of a sheet of paper, and it's pretty straight forward. But that anxiety, rest assured, is still there.

I was going to use a visa agent for my application originally, but it turns out my employer, English First, would like me in Xi'an a work earlier than I'd thought, so I will be taking an impromptu trip to Washington, D.C. this weekend to get my visa on single-day service; offered, I assume, for those times you just gotta get away. There were a few hours of excitement yesterday when I thought I would get to go to Chicago, for one last visit with my friends there. Turns out that's the wrong jurisdiction. So instead of a $500, two-day trip to a city I know very well, I'm taking a $1,000-plus-hotel, three-day trip to a city where I don't know anyone. Maybe I'll see a congressman. I can glare at him.

* * * * *

Unlike the single-entry CELTA Diaries (It would have been pretty boring for you), The China Diaries will become the predominant part of this blog. That is contingent on my being able to access Blogger in China, of course.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Bulk Foods

"We specialize in bulk foods."

Sometimes, for reasons you can't explain, a phrase or a sentence will catch your eye. Today, as I was driving from Franklin, Tennessee to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, I passed by a sixteen-wheeler with strikingly simple decor: The side was white, save for the company's robin's egg blue logo, and the sentence "We specialize in bulk foods," written in a simple print font.

I don't know what it is about this sentence that struck me so. I think it was the simplicity, the straightforwardness, of both the presentation and the content. "Hello," the truck said. "If you've got bulk food transportation that needs to be attended to, please consider our services." There were no pictures of savory meats, or juicy, ripe fruits, or even dried grains, easily the least-difficult to transport of all the bulk foods. I mean, they come in sacks.

There seemed to be a sort of blue-collar nobility to it, and I trusted the company the moment I saw that truck. This company is so focused on the service provided that they don't bother with flashy marketing. They designed a logo, about sixty or seventy years ago based on the look of the thing, and ever since, they've been focusing on bulk foods. I'd trust them with my bulk foods. That's not even facetious. I really would.

I instantly pictured the owner of the company at a party. He's in business casual, holding an old fashioned. His hair is cropped to the short side, neatly maintained. He has a touch of the salt and pepper to him. "Hello, my name is Tom," he'll say, as he shakes my hand with a genial smile, "and I specialize in bulk foods." He'll turn slightly towards the young man, late teens, standing to his left. "This is my son Adam." Adam will shake my hand. "We're hopeful," Tom continues, "that he will specialize in bulk foods, as soon as he finishes college."

I started wondering what I would say at that party: "Nice to meet you, Tom. I'm Andrew. I..." what? I teach English as a Second Language? I suppose, but I haven't started yet. I write music? Sure, but do I make a living that way? That's no more what I do than the temporary job I have at Hams and Jams Mail Order Catalog is what I do, though they disqualify under different categories. In that moment, looking at that truck, I envied Tom. He provides transportation tailored for the bulk foods industry. That's what he does. That's who he is. At that party, he doesn't try to sell me on his service, because he knows it speaks for itself, and, should I ever happen to have any bulk foods needs, I'll know he's the guy. It's the quiet confidence that comes not from knowing you're the best, but from knowing who you are and what you do, and knowing you'll try harder than anyone else when the task is at hand.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Devil's in the Details

I've been in Tennessee for about a month now, and I'll be here for another month yet before I leave for China. In that time, I've grown oddly fond of The Mentalist, which I've been watching in reruns on TNT. For those who haven't seen it, The Mentalist is one of the myriad procedurals currently on television. The protagonist is Patrick Jane, a mentalist who assists the California Bureau of Investigation. He's an expert in human behavior, and uses his skills of observation to solve crimes. I like him because he's tricky. Either I've never really taken notice before, or there's been an outbreak of procedurals in the last few years. I understand the appeal; you know the general pattern an episode will take, and ninety-nine times out of a hundred, you get resolution too. Most are perfectly pleasant ways to kill time, but I'd rather do something else.

I've spent some of that time reading various Sherlock Holmes short stories. It just seems appropriate. I've really enjoyed them, which wouldn't have surprised me, but for my last experience with the mystery genre. About two years ago, I read One, Two, Buckle My Shoe by Agatha Christie. It's a novel in the Hercule Poirot series of stories, and it was my first exposure to her work. I really didn't care for it. It was also my first exposure to mystery novels in a very long time, so I thought maybe the genre wasn't for me. That I have enjoyed the Holmes stories has led me to wonder why I disliked Poirot so thoroughly.

We can safely blame Holmes for the procedural. It was his popularity that got people hooked on the general formula. Christie's novels, including the Poirot stories, contributed to the madness. Both men (Holmes and Poirot) can be blamed for The Investigator Who Doesn't Play By Anyone's Rules But His Own stereotype. Both are known for being remarkable detectives. Their stories were written by equally gifted writers. So what's the difference? Poirot notices the same things as everyone else, but he would draw what seemed to me to be outlandish, nigh impossible, conclusions. Sherlock Holmes notices the things others don't, and draws from them perfectly rational conclusions. I dislike Poirot because he is required to make perverse leaps of logic from the evidence he observes to solve his cases. I like Holmes because everything he observes feeds directly, and perfectly, into his deductions.

I enjoy The Mentalist for its sense of humor, and for Patrick Jane, the protagonist. He's in the traditional vein of The Investigator Who Doesn't Play By Anyone's Rules But His Own, but he doesn't do it out of self-righteousness; he's just aloof. Ultimately, I like Jane as a detective for the same reason that I enjoyed the Holmes stories I read; the conclusions are realistic. It's what they notice that's unbelievable.