30 March 2007


It's spring, little pink drifts of plum petals (or cherry?) accumulating here and there about the sidewalk, and yesterday on my way to work I passed the most awfully jiggly man, jogging. I swear I never did before see such a jiggly man jog so, except possibly on the morning of a January 1st in Chicago, when I went out with Christie to make sure her parking fee was paid and we passed a man clearly bent on reforming his existence for the new year.

Funny what can happen when the sap rises.

27 March 2007


My houseguest over the weekend is much given to seeing symbols everywhere, inherent in everything a message about how to live her life. We were going to the U District Sunday afternoon in search of a sweatshirt, and in trying to write down the number of the bus we were taking I let my splendid new pen slip from my hand and be propelled by the marvelous density of its brass barrel to fork its nib against the wall.

It didn't write anymore.

"I just ruined my pen," I said, astonished. She started making condoling noises, but already I didn't want to think about it anymore. "It's okay, I'm sure I can get the nib replaced easily," I said. "There's a bus in half an hour, and we're probably about twenty minutes' walk from the bus stop, so . . ."

"Time to go," she agreed. We went and got the sweatshirt, and played a tremendously inept game of Go while she sipped fennel tea and I tried Golden Sprouting Yunnan.

Having a bit of leisure today, I fetched out the pen box to see where to send it for a new nib. Rhode Island, it turned out, oddly. I was not aware of there being anything in Rhode Island.

The two-year warranty covered only "normal use." I didn't think dashing the thing nib-first against the wall probably constituted normal use. I made one more hopeless attempt to wrench the thing back into shape.

Astoundingly, improbably, the two twisted metal tines snapped back flush against each other, and when I drew them across paper the ink flowed smoothly out.

Conditioned now to the seeing of signs, I am inclined to make much of this. However carelessly I may destroy something, it will be restored to me as good as new!

Maybe I won't buy any health insurance after all.

23 March 2007

Creeping Cranachification

When first, in my early twenties, I ran across a painting by Lucas Cranach the Elder, I thought to myself, what are these distorted, goblin-like creatures? Didn't he ever see a woman before? But as time goes by and my top half and bottom half become iller and iller matched, I begin to see that he actually knew whereof he painted.

21 March 2007


All sorts of annoying things are happening to me this week (I mean, the typist collapsed from nervous prostration or whatever it is they call it these days, and had to go to the hospital and had to be terminated therefore--not terminated by the hospital, Kevorkianly, but terminated by the company he had been working for, which is to say, the one I am working for, which means that I, the most recent typist still working there, have to devote my attention to trying to force Voldemort, who types only 20 wpm and very reluctantly, to type against his will, which is almost enough to make me collapse in nervous prostration myself, and that is only the most recent and trivial of my series of annoyances) but I have sought and found comfort in this lovely mushroom jar. It came from Bulgaria! Imagine, Bulgaria! I think I encountered a person who came from Bulgaria once, but I don't seem to remember him being that shape. I guess they have all manner of things in Bulgaria.

17 March 2007

St. Patrick's Day

The March I was in graduate school, we gathered in the campus pub for a St. Patrick's Day drink. There was a long table. I was among the first few there, and gradually the students in the program came and filled out the table, until in walked the advisors, the tall thin one and the shorter stouter one, in matching black leather bomber jackets, green dye in their hair. They made room for themselves smack in the middle of the table, and ordered green beer.

How did I get myself into this, I wondered, regarding the frothy surface of the nice, brown drink before me. Within another few weeks I had got myself out, and we were in the pub again for my farewell party. The shorter, stouter advisor, gray-haired today but still overly exuberant, bedewed my ear with spittle and presented me with a copy of The Private Life of Chairman Mao. "Don't Do it!! Come Back!! I haven't taken you to a Padres game yet!!!" he had written inside the cover. "Be warned! You're not rid of us yet," said the tall thin one's note. But I was rid of them, in fact, quite thoroughly rid. For all I squint at the note about "a woman whom I must respect--because you drink quality beer" I cannot guess whose squiggly signature is at the bottom, for my classmates' names have sunk from my memory.

I never did that well with St. Patrick's Day. In high school, my classmates would get extra credit on their science tests for wearing green, while I'd be wearing orange at my curmudgeonly father's urging, even though no one knows for sure that my great-grandfather was already Protestant when he moved from a town in what is now Northern Ireland over to one of the grimmer suburbs of Glasgow. (I had a TEFL instructor from Glasgow. "Motherwell?" he said, of my grandfather's home. "I dated a girl from Motherwell once. Now what was her name . . . ?")

Yesterday wasn't even St. Patrick's Day, but the people at the office didn't seem to know that.

"I'm not wearing green," L1 mused.

"You should be wearing orange," I told him.

"I suppose so, I am Protestant, after all," he said.

"Yes, if you were wearing orange, then maybe someone would shoot you."

He was a bit taken aback. "Wishful thinking?!" he asked.

"Just free associating, think nothing of it!" I laughed, slightly alarmed.

He was nice and quiet all the rest of the evening, though.

But the Clerk Typist was noisy. He came along wearing, I noted, a tie (the previous day P2 had been out, leaving me temporarily supervisor, and by some strange mechanism, learning of this had made the Clerk Typist's tie come off), as well as a shamrock pin and a string of green beads.

He asked me a superfluous question.

And then another superfluous question after that.

And then he insisted that I check one of his letters right away, right away.

Then P2 said she was wasn't going to sit at her desk feeling that she was about to throw up any longer, she was going home. The next time the Clerk Typist came along to ask a superfluous question, his tie was gone again. As well as the beads.

"You got rid of your necklace," I commented.

"Yeah, well, I figured no one was going to lift her top for me," he said.

I suppose if I lifted my top for him I would make an even less convincing supervisor.

11 March 2007

A Case of Two Cities. Qiu Xiaolong.

Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a basket of steamed pork and shrimp buns? I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

This is the fourth book in the series, the Prufrock allusions start to wear the bottoms of their trousers rolled, and Inspector Chen seems as full of romantic decisions and revisions as anyone could, in a moment, be.

Still, Qiu is the prophet of my tribe--those of us who move back and forth between China and the U.S.--and I cannot but be heartened by his view of Shanghai, with all its sweaty crowd of provincial bus-riders. Besides, who could resist a detective misreading characters with all the inventiveness of a Pound displaced to the dry hills of Northern California?

10 March 2007


Voldemort, whose keeps his blinds closed on a view of I-5, says he wouldn't live in a basement. But it isn't at all bad, really.

Baja Oklahoma. Dan Jenkins.

There are perks to being Backup Supervisor. My Occasional Staff gave me a really large gift certificate to Twice Sold Tales for Christmas. I spent most of it on Central Asia books, but while I was browsing therefor, a title caught my eye. "Baja Oklahoma," I thought. "Why, that's where Tommy and Christie and Ben live." Besides, it was in that nice old paperback format that only junk fiction inhabits nowadays. I pulled it off the shelf.

It had enough references to TCU that I had to buy it.

It wasn't a very good book, really, but somehow I caused Juanita to inhabit the apartment Tommy and Christie once had just south of downtown Forth Worth, and the book has more life in my memory than most books do a month after I finish reading them, though it did disappoint me in having in incongruously happy ending.

09 March 2007

Intentional Studies

Sometime around a year ago, I seem to recall, I was flaunting an Oberlin Shansi newsletter around the office. I had marked a bit with a yellow highlighter. "Want to see a nice typo?" I asked P, after I got the thing back from Voldemort.

"Center for Intentional Studies," P read. "Instead of 'International Studies'?" He grinned. I tossed the thing in my shredding box.

Today, however, I was cast into doubt.

I got into a tidying fit, it being rainy and my apartment building's washer unoccupied. I did three loads of laundry. I vacuumed. I balanced my checkbook. I washed the dishes and took out the trash. I threw out the propaganda about my Oberlin ten-year "cluster" reunion (it's a small school and no one class is big enough for its very own reunion, so I'm being invited for a ten-year one eleven years after my graduation, along with a bunch of younger people I never saw or heard of), and Shansi's Second Century, and life insurance for members of the United Food and Commercial Workers. (I took my withdrawal card from the UFCW 14 months ago. Jeez.) I steamed rice. I fried pork. I exfoliated and depilated and moisturized.

Such was my fervor I left the house ten minutes late, and had to run part of the way to work. But I managed, before I left, to grab the latest Shansi newsletters and stick them in my backpack to read while I ate my gingery pork and rice at break time.

There they were, talking again about the Center for Intentional Studies at Obirin University.

Could they have meant to print "Intentional Studies"? Could Obirin really have a whole Center devoted to probing the mysteries of motivation? How cutting edge. Perhaps Obirin was really the "great university" that Shansi was trying to claim.

My break was over, though, and no time left for Googling, so back I went to initiate L1 into the secrets of the Reduced Claim Card.

Later, on my walk home from work, I had more time for thought, while my eyes scanned the sidewalk for my wallet.

The pocket of my backpack had bounced open while I was running to work, you see, and my wallet had bounced out of the pocket. Voldemort was quite disgusted at me. He's been telling me for weeks that I need to make the zippers of my backpack meet, not leave a two-inch gap between. Not just telling me, either. He grabs me and won't let me move till it's zipped up, which is annoying as hell.

"You have this idea of convenience," he said dismissively, "but you have to be a little careful--"

"I have a very good system!" I claimed. "I always keep my wallet in this pocket, so I know exactly where it's supposed to be, and I can tell immediately when it's missing, and I always zip it up, it's just my system broke down--"

"It's not the system, it's the monkey running the system--"

"My system is fine, it's just the implementation that broke down, and that's entirely unavoidable! I lose my mittens, too!" I said, waggling my begloved hands in the air.

"Well, there's a system for that, too. It worked very well for me when I was in third grade. A string, from one mitten, through the coat sleeve . . . "

I walked away before I heard the end of it, glancing about for a green wallet. There was almost no chance it would be there, of course, eight hours after my jog to work. A good person would take it to safeguard for me, a bad person to see what good could be got of it; there can't be many mediocre people like me, who would see it and wonder whether its owner might not be back soon and just let it lie.

The thing was, so far as I could tell, I was happy to have lost it. I had been happy since I first got to work, one minute early, sweaty and pink, and told K my wallet had bounced.

At first I thought I wasn't really happy, this was just the inevitable physiological result of making a 45-minute journey in 35 minutes, on a cool day, in the rain.

Eight hours later, though, my mood surely couldn't still be in the grips of an intermittent jog. If I was glad to have lost my wallet, there must be some reason for it. I plodded along, pondering. Eventually the Center for Intentional Studies came back to mind.

It was just so immensely reassuring, I realized, that when I tried not to be late to work the result was--well, not immediately determinable, but at least inconvenient (all those phone calls and visits to banks and the Department of Licensing and the library information desk and whatnot) and potentially, with a lot of bad luck, even financially ruinous. If a good intention can go so foolishly awry, why bother intending anything at all? Usually, I don't. Now here was proof I am right not to.

I got home, and checked my phone messages. A person called Daniel, with a nice sort of accent, said he thought--no, well, actually, he knew--he had just found my wallet.

I called and cancelled my credit cards just in case.

I Googled obirin university center for intentional studies. "Did you mean: obirin university center for international studies," Google asked.

Oh, well. So much for greatness.

04 March 2007

China Marches West: The Qing Conquest of Central Asia. Peter C. Perdue.

This encyclopedic volume (dense, strange-smelling, counterintuitively organized) contains ever so many scraps of information and quite a number of useful historiographical thoughts but suffers from a lack of integrated vision. "Although this is a large, sprawling book," Perdue says in the preface, "it has a simple format. It alternates between structural analysis and narrative."

But why, one asks oneself, does it so alternate? Simplicity of format is no recommendation in and of itself. One could, for instance, imagine a book on power plants that rotated in a clear, predictable fashion from the chemical structure of coal smoke to sestinas on the preoccupations of power plant workers to blueprints for the houses of bureaucrats from the Department of Community, Trade, and Economic Development and back to chemical analyses again, but the usefulness of such an organization is something less than self-evident.

The compatibility of the particular modes that Perdue claims to alternate between is also less than entirely obvious. Structural analysis and narrative--static and dynamic interpretations of social phenomena--are at least sometimes viewed as competing, not complementary, methods of interpretation. A charitable guess would be that Perdue thought a grasp of the basic geography and chronology of the Qing's westward expansion would be a good foundation for the historiographical innovations he intended, but that working the basic facts into his arguments would bog them down, and it was better to get them out of the way first and then let readers refer back to them.

I suppose this could work, if one did it right. Perdue doesn't do it right. He goes too far in his separation of narrative and analysis, so that that narrative becomes all but entirely meaningless. To quote a paragraph chosen at random:

Esen in 1443 took over his father's title of Tayisi, or military assistant to the Grand Khan. He quickly overshadowed Toghto-buqa, the Chinggisid Khan, who was far more inclined toward peaceful relations with China. Esen first focused on the Prince of Hami, who was a Mongol normally loyal to China. Repeated raids and threats by Esen and Chinese lack of support forced him to submit in 1448. Esen then took Gansu, proclaiming his own provincial government there. Mongols fleeing Gansu appealed to the Chinese emperor for aid but received none. Once Esen had secured his rear, he could now prepare for a major attack on China. He plundered the Urianghai Mongols on China's northeastern frontier, forcing their submission. At the same time, he used tributary missions to China to build up his economic resources, expanding the number of envoys to over two thousand in the 1440s, and three thousand in 1448, despite Chinese complaints about the great cost of feeding such huge numbers. The refusal of the Chinese to allow even greater tribute missions and complaints about plundering by Mongol envoys on their way to Beijing served as the pretext for Esen's invasion, but Esen could also raise legitimate complaints about being cheated by Chinese merchants when conducting trade in the capital. Yet despite warnings of Esen's preparations for attack, the Ming court made few preparations. The young emperor was completely dominated by his eunuch tutor, Wang Zhen, a man with no military experience, interested more in his private wealth than in the empire's security. Finally, when Esen moved against Datong, the key strongpoint of the Great Wall in Shanxi, Wang Zhen persuaded the emperor to lead personally a huge army, said to be 500,000 men, against Esen. Hostile sources claim that the only reason Wang Zhen insisted on the emperor's personal leadership was to ensure that the emperor would visit Wang's hometown in Shanxi.

Furthermore, there are gaps in this narrative. On three different occasions (some months apart), I spent 45 minutes or so flipping through the pages looking for some earlier reference to the "three requests" of Galdan mentioned on p. 178. ("By 1692," it says, "Galdan had reduced his demands. Instead of three requests, he had only one, supported by the Dalai Lama: the return of the seven Khalkhas to their original lands.") There is no such reference. I'm almost sure of it. What Galdan's Three Requests were, I have no idea, but they made me set aside the book from December to July, and again from July to December, and annotate, "It's sort of like reading Grandma's letters!"

I made other notes. For instance:

Yu Chenglong
p. 201: great hero
p. 204: scheduled to be punished

By now, I have forgotten what this means, but I'm not going to bother to look back at it now. I'm just going to complain: Perdue himself says he thought he had a fairly clearly bounded topic, then found there was much more data there than he had realized, resources that have never been adequately tapped for any English-language study. So why does he not realize that in most cases his readers are going to have very little idea what he is talking about, and that he needs to give them some aid?

That said, there are things I wanted to know that this book told me, and other things I hadn't thought of that it alerted me to. By no means do I regret purchasing it, nor devoting 14 months (off and on) to reading it. I just wish--well, I don't know. That Peter C. Perdue were brilliant, when all he is is real smart.

The Ropemaker. Peter Dickinson.

"It had snowed in the night," this story begins, and that in itself would probably have been enough to make me read it. Any evidence someone even knows about snow is, to me, a point in his favor.

Though I guess there's a book called Smilla's Sense of Snow, and I haven't read that.

Never mind that theory then, but I do like this book. It contains an inventively exploitative empire (you have to have a permit to die there, unless you go off to do it in a certain place beside the sea) and interesting forms of magic (the heroine can stop magic by her touch, a talent no one's ever heard of, which makes her extraordinarily powerful) and crabby grandparents and all.