Sunday, May 29, 2011

How I missed my Tempur-pedic (and no one is paying me to say that).

I got very sick with something respiratory on my last day in the mountains, (Kong Shan Ling Yu, indeed) and spent one full day back in Beijing in a very fine hotel, cuddled under two fluffy warm quilts, supported by a pile of pillows, on a rock hard lumpy mattress. This is the real mystery of China for me. What's with the mattresses?

But there was a remote control to a nice TV, so it was CCTV 11 (all-Chinese-opera, all-the-time) and CCTV 6 (martial arts movies and historical dramas, occasionally subtitled). Not a bad way to kick back and recover, supplemented with Chinese medicine, foot massages (which include somewhat more than feet), cupping/moxibustion (my back still looks like it was run over by a military vehicle) and tea and sympathy from my Chinese guide/interpreter who says I got sick because I didn't wear socks with my hiking sandals.

"I'm from Hawaii. What are these things called socks?" And she said I needed to go outside and get some fresh air. Visibility in Beijing was about a quarter mile. I had doubts about that advice. But I did it anyway, and survived.

So while the trip was all about serious qigong and meditation practice, and looking at a lot of Chinese paintings, I did have some interesting video moments. CCTV was fascinating, as usual; one evening there was a feature about Taoism, curiously about exactly the place we had just visited, Ge Hong's Temple in Hangzhou. And then there was the Pepsi ad that kept turning up on CCTV 6. I can't find this on YouTube (yet); Pepsi does some very amusing and innovative ads in China.

How to sell Pepsi in China: Open to a handsome Han Dynasty swordsman, top-knoted and decked out in military armour, just like the guys I like to watch in my dramas who project CGI-generated qi to overcome their enemies. Gege is calm and serious, seated crosslegged on a bridge with a bottle of Pepsi in his hand. An army gathers to attack from the other side. Gege flashes a sultry look (or maybe it just looked that way to me) to the opposing force, takes a long swig of his Pepsi, and then...burps...a really big one. The opposing army retreats as big waves of burped qi overwhelm them. He raises his bottle in triumph and his soldiers come forth to finish what the Pepsi energy didn't. (Terra cotta Pepsi bottles in Xian?)

Then there was the very fine video offering on Korean Airlines' A330-300. (I've never been a big Airbus fan, but this widebody was a nice plane. KA seems to be upgrading and replacing its 747s.) A host of films to choose, all individually digitally controlled with a touchscreen at the seat. I watched a Korean tearjerker (there's a redundancy there) outbound that I have since forgotten, then discovered Andy Lau's new Shaolin...I remained on board until everyone else exited the plane in Seoul to see the end. I was able to do that. I watched it a second time on the flight home and decided I liked it a lot, especially the part when Jackie Chan says, "I don't know kung fu."

Not limiting myself to the martial arts genre, I also used the KA DVD player to watch a romantic comedy/drama that featured not only an elaborate ceremony for a divorce, but also a pre-death funeral, If You are the One, Two, a sequel to If You are the One, One (which I have never seen, but expect my video vendor to press on me when I see her again.) It starred the very fine Ge You, who I know mostly from The Emperor's Shadow, but I was intrigued by Sun Honglei, very big in Chinese film right now. No wonder I recognized him. Another strong stunning Northerner like Zhao Wen Zhuo, from Harbin.

I saw his face (right) on a billboard passing through Shiyan (not to be confused with Xian), a gritty town where the only industry seems to be cars and trucks and parts for them. The Detroit of China. (Although judging from the everyday restaurants we stopped at there, Chinese auto workers really know how to eat.) I've never seen so much public signage for gears, distributors, axles, and assorted nuts and bolts. Sun Honglei's face was welcome relief. (Although Andy Lau was all over the place too.) "Who is that? I know him," I asked my interpreter about Mr. Sun. "An actor, he plays bad people...he has a bad face," she said. Actually, I think he is quite attractive, but Eastern and Western standards of beauty and handsomeness seem to be a little different.

I still dropped Zhao Wen Zhuo's name whenever I could, though I got a sense that he is a little over the hill now, not new, like a Tom Hanks or even Robert Redford. Still, a guy in Hangzhou, when I mentioned my muse's name, stroked his own face and smiled. "So handsome," he agreed.

Sunday, May 08, 2011

My bags are packed, I'm counting down hours, will enjoy my last night for a while on a soft mattress. (The Tempur-pedic is something apparently NOT made in China.) I'm entertaining myself in these hours with Shaolin and Wu Tang, another classic kung fu flick that has next to nothing to do with my trip or with Shaolin and Wudang, really. Gordon Liu and Adam Cheng represent their respective schools, both come out on top, forswearing vengeance exploited by the evil Qing lord, but are reminded in the end by a fighter with great yin pulchritude, they are...monks. Unfortunately my Netflix-sourced copy of this mid-80s Hong Kong production is dubbed in English, with Chinese and English subtitles, which don't quite match the dub. Still Gordon Liu is awesome, and Adam Cheng is handsome. I'm in the mood to travel.

I will watch another episode or two of The Shadow of Empress Wu before I leave. There'll be about 20 more waiting for me to resume on my return. I had planned to write a bit about the similarities of Lady Wu and Hillary Clinton, women criticized for playing in unwifely ways in the political worlds of men and plagued by their husbands' dalliances with concubines and interns. I'll save those observations for my return. Or maybe not. There is a Mother's Day angle that is timely, now that I think of it.
Empress Wu at 1,000 Buddha Caves, Luoyang

Liu Xiaoqing as Empress Wu

At first I thought the Empress Wu TV series I've been watching over the past few weeks was a little slow (now at episode 34 of 62). But I have begun to make connections with more or less current events making it more interesting. This is another one of those historical dramas that drives me back to the history books. Like the also slow Sunzi Bingfa, the story is about real persons in real times, in this case the Tang Dynasty.

Midway in the story, which may or not be supported by historical fact, the Empress is imprisoned because she is suspected of having poisoned the Emperor's favorite concubine, who just happened to be her own niece. I guess when you're an emperor (or a president) it's hard to keep your pants zipped. Wu Meiniang, not yet the actual empress, but advising many of her feckless husband's edicts, is attacked for not behaving like a wife. She's running the country! Killing concubines! WWCS? (What Would Confucius Say?) The poisoning of the concubine is actually just a plot to discredit her. Who would be surprised at that? She in fact did dispatch the previous empress.

We were so quick to judge Hillary's long-suffering reactions to Bill's dalliance with an intern...but perhaps Hillary had taken some lessons from Empress Wu. And Madame Mao probably envied Lady Wu's rise to power (the way Mao himself modeled himself after Qin Huangdi), but wasn't nearly as beautiful.

In any case, Lady Wu's strategy was to rule over her people the way a mother rules over her children. Happy Mother's Day!

And that's all folks, until June.

Saturday, May 07, 2011

"Holy crap!" I exclaimed to the void when thunder, practically in my bedroom, roused me out of my early morning dream. I'd been resting well, having cleared all work-related duties from my conscience and having the weekend to pack before leaving Monday morning on my Korean Air flight to Beijing via Seoul.

An odd office moment on Thursday enhanced my anticipation. Our health insurance carrier (AKA, health care provider) had scheduled a health education presentation. I usually attend these sessions about nutrition or exercise or proper self-treatment --things all promoted in the interest of "containing" health care costs, something I understand because 25 years ago I used to work for this particular carrier. The idea is that the more the health care provider/insurance company does to "educate" the policy holder, the lower costs will be. I am not sure this is a proven concept.

I was a little leery this time because the session wasn't by the usual charming, fit, and handsome young man (who usually tells us things we already know but in an engaging guilt-inducing manner). But the topic was intriguing: "Meditation: A Modern Approach to Ancient Wisdom." Modern, of course, means western and scientific, but still, it seemed like a good excuse to get away from my desk for an hour. Meditation was being promoted, with the sanction of the American Medical Association, the American Heart Association, and the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (an arm of the National Institutes of Health) as a stress-relieving (and thus heart-healthy) technique. Not too many of the staff took the time for the brown bag -- desk slaves slammed by deadlines. "I would have liked to come, but...". If I was the CEO I would have made it mandatory that the entire staff participate. But the CEO didn't attend either. (But his administrative assistant did.)

It was a nice overview of something my China trips have been about, although the insurance company educator, who seemed to have some background in neuroscience, was quick to point out that this was not being presented as any spiritual exercise. (That was part of the "ancient" concept.) No slouch, the charming, fit, and energetic older man reviewed some classic techniques (breath counting, visualization, affirmations, mindfulness), citing The Relaxation Response from 1975 and the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn. (No neidan or Wang Liping here.)

The health educator led the desperate little group (mostly from the accounting department) in some basic breath counting ("1 to 10 is good, if you can do 11 to 20 you have reached the meditative state," he claimed); some affirmations (I am confident, beautiful, etc., appealing to the HR staff), and some mindfulness ("Unwrap the Hershey's miniature--unless you are allergic to nuts or chocolate--and slowly savor it."). Actually, I'd never noticed how well-polished and shiny a Mr. Goodbar could be. And you can make it last a lot longer when you're not simultaneously slaving at your desk.

I had already become one of the interactive talkative persons in the group, being the same age as the presenter and the only one familiar with some of his antiquated allusions (W.C. Fields, patent medicine, Proust) when I made an observation based on something my Chinese neidan teacher had asked me last year.

"Are you meditating always?" Or maybe lao shi said "always meditating." Whatever. Though I suspect he might have meant "regularly," I have been thinking always since then of the notion of "always" meditating.

"You know," I said to the health instructor,"if you practice deep meditation it makes the mindfulness stuff come more easily. And mindfulness makes the deep meditation easier. It's like you're meditating always, these techniques become a two-way street."

"Ah," he said, "that's enlightenment! Everybody, talk to her." I don't think this decreases any of the deductibles on my health care plan, but later, the person who is revising business cards to reflect the new office address asked me to verify my title.

"Just put 'Enlightened One'," I joked. She had also attended the session.

"Like a certification," she said. "Certified Enlightened One. CEO!"

In the meantime, wandering about this two-way street, my attention was called to something I said just previously in "Miswiring," that I'd come to rely on my car radio when I was "tired of thinking my own thoughts." (Ah, the two-way street of blog comments, something not everyone likes, but I appreciate the dialogue, the observations. I suppose I might enjoy chat rooms and IMs, but that seems too fleeting and noisy, too much like the office.)

My blog commenter quite rightly pointed out that I might myself be a little "miswired" at the moment, and this made me more convinced that it is time to make this trip back to Wudang for a little adjustment. Hardly a CEO (that's just a title, a position of control and arrogance all too often), I'm just trying to meditate always, trying NOT to be thinking my own thoughts all the time.

But I do have a couple of trivial puzzling thoughts about enlightenment on this early stormy morning, awakened before dawn by thunder and, yes, lightning:
  1. How do I get my health insurer to subsidize my trip in the interest of health maintenance and stress relief?
  2. How do I clean under the keys of the keyboard of this MacBook Pro, across which I splashed a glass of red wine, and now the "q,w,e,a,s,d,z,x,c" section of the qwerty chiclets is dimmed. I can touch-type well enough, but the lit keyboard enhances writing in the dark. (They say red wine is good for your heart health, right?)
Time to brew the coffee, smell it (slowly, slowly), get a haircut, shop for travel necessities, prior to tomorrow's packing exercise, to be followed by the opportunity for 13 hours of meditation at 30,000 feet.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

We've been having some wet and wild weather the past 15 hours, starting during my last Chinese painting class of the session, perhaps the last ever: our teacher is considering retirement and may or may not teach another class in January. (She says I must do lots of painting in China...I can sell paintings at the Great Wall. A Westerner selling Chinese paintings. "They'll be amazed. You can make money.")

We thought the class might not even continue through the evening...lots and lots of dramatic lightning and thunder, not common for Hawaii, and the rain and flashing skies continued during my drive home like some short circuitry in the heavens. The security guard at the art school advised us not to use the elevators. There were power outages and traffic jams all over the Island. "I don't want anyone stuck in the elevator," he said. We shared our end-of-class potluck with him and eventually left, no problems.

Driving out of town, I had to wait at a corner where traffic was being delicately directed through an intersection where the traffic signals had failed. Then, once on the freeway, coincident with a shocking burst of energy in the sky, my iPod, running through yet another new car radio, choked to a halt. I got a message on the radio display: "Miswiring. Check wiring and then restart unit." How disappointing. I was getting some good practice with the tones of Mandarin in a language course MP3. Ta ma de!

The new radio, installed over the past weekend was to replace the other new one (stored in the trunk for two years before installation) that got soaked and drowned in a storm on April 15. After nine months, I had finally gotten used to its excessive obsessive control features and had learned a lot, mainly using it for Teaching Company CD lectures. I ordered a cheaper simpler replacement from Crutchfield (highly recommended, great customer service) and the Wizard installed it last weekend, a little more easily this time since he had repaired the reckless damage the thieves had done previously. Easier to use, and a bit more economical, and more attractive, really, it sounds just the same and took me less time to figure out how to set the clock than the old new one.

But if it's not theives, it's what? "The lightning had nothing to do with it," the Wizard assured me. And he should know. "I switched the right and left speaker wires...I think that's what the problem is. Try to reset it, and if it doesn't work, I'll look at it later." Still it seems spooky that at that particular moment...miswiring indeed. This is the fifth radio I have had installed in TAO 61. Perhaps I should just get used to the sound of silence again. And the thunder.