Life in Shanghai Continues Apace, and my New Job with CIEE Ramps Up

Lately I haven’t been very good about keeping up with this blogsite.  To be honest, it went offline for a while because of a late credit card payment.  Now that that is taken care of, I’m hoping to revive this blogsite.

As some may have noticed (assuming anybody actually reads them) my China-related blogs have been lagging lately.  My own take on the Olympics was pretty cursory at best.  How could I compete with all those pundits, academic or journalistic, who took on the mammoth task of making sense of this monumental event for China?  Looking back on it all now, despite my critical post about the ceremonies, I think the Chinese government has to be credited with doing a smash-up job on the whole.  While they’ve been justly criticized for too much political suppression and not enough space for dissent, well, can we really expect a sporting event to fundamentally change the political agenda of a one-party authoritarian system trying to hold together a vast, multi-cultural empire while undergoing the most massive economic transition in world history?  I mean, c’mon folks.  

I guess one of the factors in my recent lack of blogging is that my life has settled down into hohum humdrum mundanity.  What follows is a more personal and less China-related posting, culled from some emails I’ve been sending out to the folks.  Readers beware.

Musing on my Mediocre Musical Skills

One of my regrets in life is that I didn't keep up with
guitar after studying it a bit in junior high.  I guess I didn't have
anybody around me who was really into playing guitar and could show me
the ropes, though I did take some beginner's lessons at the Acton
Music Center.  Also, the guitar I had back then was pretty crappy,
though I had no way of knowing that at the time. I look at some of those 11-year olds on youtube who are already virtuoso blues guitarists, and I think, that coulda been me!  Then again, I was always disadvantaged by being left-handed.  We live in a right-hander’s hegemonic world, and all musical instruments reflect their totalitarian supremacy.  The bastards!

Left-handers unite!  Overthrow the feudal imperialist regime of the right-handers and build a just society!

I could have learned to play a guitar strung for left-handers, but nobody told me how to do it.  So I was stuck strumming with my right hand, which has always been a handicap.  You’d think that fingering is the more complicated task, but strumming is where it all comes together.  Ask any great guitarist.

Another regret is that I didn't keep up with piano after college.  I took lessons in high school, also at the Acton Music Center (a great red barn located above the train station in South Acton, which regrettably closed in recent years), and then when I went to Dartmouth, I studied with Diane Hewson, a fantastic teacher whose lessons still stick in my mind.   She definitely brought my musical knowledge and understanding to a higher level.  

While in NYC I also had a chance to study with my great aunt Rosetta Goodkind, who once played at Carnegie Hall.  She told me that she was teaching Andre Previn (a distant relation of ours) and Mia Farrow’s children, but that they weren’t very promising!  I played her a couple of pieces of Brahms that I’d memorized, and she said I had some promise, but to be honest while young I’d never really got my chops down either reading or scale wise, and I’ve always only been good at mastering slow pieces.  She gave me a Bach piece to work on, but I couldn’t play it fast enough for her.  Still, she also taught me a great deal about musical phrasing, and it was a pleasure and a joy to study with her.  But then a lot of travel and living abroad in my graduate years put a halt to my piano playing.

Since I bought that electric piano a couple months ago I've been getting back into playing some, though it's hard to find a significant chunk of time to practice.  I get in a half-hour or so each evening.  It's a nice way
to relax.  I have a book on blues improvisation and have been working
through it slowly, learning some boogie-woogie base lines.  The key of
course is practice.  And listening to a lot of blues music.  I also
picked up a few books of classical sheet music at the Music
Conservatory.  I'm trying to relearn some of the pieces that I used to
play well, including Chopin, Brahms, and Bach.  Even after twenty
years, I can still remember how to play the pieces, and can still read
the sheet music, but I read and play very slowly and make a lot of
mistakes.  But relearning the pieces doesn't seem to take nearly as
much effort as learning them did.

I don't know why I didn't keep up with piano over all those years.
Last Christmas when we were visiting my aunt Connie and Pierre in the Berkeley Hills, Pierre (who was trained in Paris as a concert pianist and still plays regularly at home) asked me why I didn't keep playing.  He remembered that I played a Brahms piece for him when I first met him.  I suppose the main reason is that I was traveling so much.  I decided it was better to play guitar since I can take it around with me.  And the guitar is more of a social instrument.

Shanghai Cycles

Lately I've been cycling to work.  I start the morning around 8 am by dropping off Sarah at her kindy.  It takes about fifteen minutes to get there,
working through the old roads of our neighborhood, across a canal,
past a bunch of apartment complexes, up a big industrial road and into
the alleyway where her school is located.  Then I head the opposite
direction to the university.  After a fifteen minute ride to the N-S
elevated highway that runs just west of our apartment complex, there's
a nice stretch of road that runs parallel to a big park, and it has a
special bike lane that's lined with trees.  That takes about twenty
minutes, then I reach the elevated highway and have to go under that
for another twenty minutes til I reach the campus.  There's a lot of
car and bike traffic--mostly motorbikes or electric bikes.  Less and
less people are riding human-powered bicycles now.  The ride can be
stressful at times, navigating through the mess of traffic and people
going this way and that.  But all in all it's not a bad ride, and
hopefully will help me get back into shape.  My goal is to get down
below 80 kilos.  Right now I'm hovering around 85.

My New Job at CIEE

Last month I began my new job as Academic Director of the CIEE in Shanghai “China in a Global Context” program.

Classes started this week.  So far so good.  I have 42 students in my
program.  They all seem eager to learn.  I teach every Monday from
10-12.  I have to come to the office regularly so that I can be here
when students or our admin staff need me, but I have some time to work on my research and writing.  Right now I'm close to finishing the revised draft of my book manuscript.  The editor for the press I'm working with, Chinese University of Hong Kong Press, has been very friendly and supportive, sending me regular messages asking how I'm doing.  A big change from a not-so-great experience I had with Stanford University Press a few years ago.

Mency is working very hard these days.  She's been working overtime
almost every day.  Her program went from a weekly to a daily program.
I don't know how long this will last.

Sarah's Chinese is now much better than her English.  Her listening
skills are better than mine now.  Living here in China always makes me
realize how poor my own Chinese skills are and how much they could be

All in all, things are going well.  The weather is much nicer these
days.  Best season of the year.

On American Presidents, Past, Present, and Future

Isn’t it great to know that the Bush regime is almost over?  

I've been following the presidential race on the Fresh Air podcast, which has been featuring a lot of shows with experts on both candidates.  That Palin lady sounds scary. Apparently she doesn’t “believe” in human-induced global warming.  That’s just about the most head-in-sand position I can imagine, given our looming global crisis, but I guess it works for the short term oil-related agenda of an Alaskan politician.  As the Chinese say, jiayou!  McCain seems to be obsessed with American power abroad.  Not surprising since he comes from a long line of soldiers and never got over the loss of the Vietnam War.   The world needs a more peaceful, gentler America, and I hope that Barack Obama can deliver that.  But I have my doubts.  The American war machine and all that supports it is too powerful to be stopped.  Eisenhower, who understood better than just about anybody in human history about American power, warned us against the military industrial complex.  But it’s too late for that, I fear.

I just finished watching the HBO series on John Adams.  It’s one of the best historical docudramas I’ve ever seen.  Kudos to the producers, the actors, and to writer David McCullough!  The DVD package includes a short documentary on the career of McCullough, who as everyone should know wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning book upon which the series is based.  This is a man who knows how to make history come alive, and he should serve as a beacon to all of us who labor in the field of history.  I especially like his attitude about wanting to go to the places and see the things that his characters did—there’s a great scene in the bio-doc where he is climbing to the top of Christ Church in Philadelphia, in order to get into the mind of John Adams.  I can thoroughly identify.  There’s also a wonderful “making of” video showing the great lengths that the people involved in producing the series went to achieve historical accuracy.  You can feel the authenticity in the sets, the costumes, and the faces of the actors—it’s a no-holds barred attempt at reality’s often ugly face rather than a pretty make-up job on history, and that in fact ties in well with one of the major themes of the story, as you’ll discover in the last episode.

My Film on the Underground Rock Scene in China

My film is coming along.  My friend Jud Willmont, who runs a production company in Shanghai, agreed at the beginning of the summer to help me finish the film and offered his production studio for the job.  First, he and I worked out a story-line based on what I'd filmed, focusing on the punk band SUBS and their journey to Hunan to play a huge concert with China’s rock god Cui Jian.  Last spring I spent a lot of time capturing all the footage I'd collected, around 40 hours in all, onto a couple of 700-gig hard drives.  Over the summer, Jud's assistant Cai Cong went through all that footage, labeled all the sequences, and cut out material he didn't think could be put in the film.  It took a couple of months to do all that.  Now he has nine hours of potential material, all sequenced and labeled.  Meanwhile I wrote up a first draft of a script for the film.  It was pretty sketchy since I don't yet have transcripts of the interviews, and was relying largely on my memory of what footage I'd collected.  Now Cai Cong is going through the footage he selected and matching it to my script.  The result will be a rough cut of the film.  After that, I'll work on revising the
script and we will go through a series of cuts til we reach the final
cut.  It should take another few months, but I'm hoping we'll have it
done by the end of the year at the latest.  Then once we have a cut
that we're satisfied showing to people, we can start working on the
marketing and distribution.  We've agreed to split whatever profits we
derive from the film fifty-fifty.  I don't know at this point how much
we can earn from the film, but it will be a good learning experience,
and hopefully will result in a fine documentation of the indie rock
scene in China.  A couple of filmmakers have already documented
Beijing punk bands, but given how dynamic the scene is, there's
definitely room for another.