Summer 2015

It was good to get back to Dumont in the summer time.  I rode my bike around Haworth pond, making a connection to childhood.  Dad and I had a pretty good outing to Shepherd Lake, although I was still sore he got rid of the Christero.  We celebrated my birthday at the Farmhouse place in Cresskill, and I got to visit Kikin and her family at the shore in Brick.

Daniel and Eddy Jr. took me to the beach with some surfboards and we got a bit sunburned!  Goddamn Jersey shore.  I remember speeding down here in the family Ford Taurus after finally graduating from Bergen Catholic in 1991.  The extended family was gathered in the backyard to celebrate my graduation but I only wanted to get the hell out of there and drop acid at Seaside Heights with the Dumont High School gang.  I am not in touch with any of those blokes now, but my Columbia years yielded some very meaningful, enduring friendships.  Actually, come to think of it, as I get older, the friendships I make are better suited to endurance.  Progress!

Nicole Brancato had a party at her place with Greg in Astoria, it was good to be back in the old neighborhood, and I’m sad I didn’t go to visit Mirella at my old place.  Maybe this year.  Geoff Burleson was there at the party, and we had a good time having a bit of an Arcidosso reunion, and I enjoyed the Satchmo humor in their bathroom.  I also got to meet up with Alex Whitney; we took a stroll through the Chelsea Market.

I met up with Allen Sisk at his new West End Avenue Apartment.  Allen should’ve been a character in a Woody Allen film.  Quintessential New Yorker, sitting with him at the Chesshouse in Central Park and talking about music and women were some of my best times in New York.  I met up with everyone I wanted to – Ilian and Sayan, Michael Leva, and Sarah.  It had been 4 years since Sarah and I broke up.  I mentioned nothing of Dada, or anyone else, and got no indication from her that she had dated anyone else.  Her poker face suits her well as a corporate attorney, but I’d like some assurance that she has some romance in her life.

I was planning on still going to Japan and Dali, where Kirk Kenney was organizing a world music program.  Lulu was going as well, and she got me in touch with Kate Smith, another Compass World Arts organizer, who was planning a classical event upon our return to Beijing in September.  She needed a pianist for a bunch of French repertoire which interested me, so I accepted, and immediately needed a place to practice on a proper piano, as it was inconvenient to go into NY all the time and use the practice rooms at Hunter College, and my old piano at home, bless it’s yellowed little keys, was not up to snuff.  Riding around on my bike up near Old Tappan, not far from Joann’s place, I passed a church called Prince of Peace Lutheran.  I decided to check it out for piano potential, and sure enough there was a baby grand in great tune.  I talked to Father John and explained my needs, and offered to donate a little something to the church fund, but he just smiled and said, “We’d be please to have you, just gimme a call when you plan on coming.”  So I got a head start on the Caplet and Roussel and Caplet.

Li Da

IMG_0155On June 6, 2015, I had a gig at Homeplate BBQ.  Plenty of BNDS friends came to eat and enjoy some music, and afterwards we headed to the Migas rooftop.  Derrick was despairing of how to talk to girls in such a setting, and I decided to show him how it was done.  There was a very attractive tall girl who was getting all sorts of attention from the guys there, but sitting next to her was a pretty, quiet girl, apparently all alone.  I sat down beside her and introduced myself.  She spoke not a word of English, so I decided this would be good chinese practice.  I asked her what she enjoyed doing, and she acted out scuba diving by putting one hand over her mouth and nose, while using the other to mimic diving down.  I asked her if she could swim well, and she said no, which I thought strange.  After awhile, we went to the dance floor and I placed my hands on her waist while we danced.  She smiled, and I was smitten.  Sitting back down again, I got someone to take our picture, and she covered her face with her hand; but the second time, she consented to be photographed with me.  In the coming weeks, I got to know Dada, wechatting her, she telling me that she had been married and divorced a few years ago, that her great ambition was simply to be a happy housewife, and didn’t have too much work experience.  We met at Green Shade for a dinner date of Yunnan food, she told me about her upbringing in Heilongjiang, how poor they were that she could not have many toys, and that now she enjoyed taking photographs as a way to stay close to her late father, who had been a photographer.  She had a brother who she was largely estranged from, and I felt we had some things in common perhaps, a poignancy about a frayed family.  It is difficult now, after two years, to go back in my mind and survey this period.  I stopped seeing the other women whose company I had been enjoying, Claire, Rosie, Valarie.  There was no reason for anything I did; I was simply falling in love with Dada.  The fact that we had little in common did not detract at all from the fever, I had to have this little Edie Sedgwick in my life, the vanity of her never-ending selfies, the over-the-top fashion statements, all of it was charming, she was warming up to me, I wanted to save her from the limbo she seemed to be in.  I had a gig with Lulu at Paddy O’Shea’s and she came with her friends, and I think she quite liked me singing Hotel California.  Afterwards we hung out at one of the boyfriends luxury apartment, and KiaoKiao warned me not to mistreat her.  There was drama that night which I think was triggered by me – KiaoKiao’s boyfriend thought it was a good idea for Dada to have a boyfriend, but she was against it, and we actually left when the sun came up, a friend of Dada’s making sure she didn’t leave with me.  We met up at Wudaoying a couple of days later to have a bit of a language exchange and see how that worked out.  She helped me with my chinesepod article, and I helped her pronunciation.  We laughed that when she said “eyes” it sounded like “ass.”  Right before I left for the states, she helped me picking out some souvenirs at the Pearl Market, haggling for me, Brandon’s family and Carlos were there.  Dada took me to a little place to get beef noodles, and then we sat down at a Starbucks.  This was goodbye for awhile, and after seeming to vacillate, she kissed me and told me she loved me.  I don’t know how I will do, playing catch up with this diary of my life in Beijing, if I want to be honest I will have to recount the tragic unraveling of this simple, fated love affair.  My heart is very heavy now as I write.  Time doesn’t seem linear to me anymore.  I think of these memories, and they seem removed somewhat from the normal flow of seasons and school years.

Spring in the ‘jing

IMG_0120.JPGPlaying with Lulu was loads of fun, and I was blessed to meet many other amazing musos, as Justin called us.  He was helping to manage Fubar, a little speakeasy at Worker’s Stadium, and on Wednesday nights he opened up the stage for an open jam.  Orville came and played drums and bass, the crowd was not too big, it was great fun messing around with simple tasty grooves.  Did I mention I love playing music with people?  It gives my life purpose and meaning.

I visited Chris in Shanghai in April, stayed in the hotel above Kaibar.  We met up with Lulu for charcuterie, and met Feury’s family.  I loved the plane trees lining the streets in the French concession area.  The museum in the center of town had a pretty impressive collection of ancient chinese ceramics.  It was my first time on a high-speed Chinese train, and I finally got the sense that I was living in a country on the upswing.  Heading forward at full speed, heedless of danger, confident of success.  I started playing bass for Bosscuts, mostly covers of the Meters and Booker T & the MGs.  We played the Mushroom Festival at Mako livehouse.  Joy and Carlos came to see that one.  Gosh, now I remember that I went with Joy to that museum right underneath military museum.  Gustav Klimt and his contemporaries.  I wish I had done a better job of keeping a diary here, but things just moved so fast, I felt the momentum of my life was out of my control.  I danced with Claire at Migas, that was a quirky brief love affair.  We played badminton in my courtyard, and afterwards we relaxed on my bed.  I wanted her, but she was modest and said, “The Forbidden City is closed to visitors on Sunday.”  I would meet someone else at Migas a month later, and that encounter would change my life in China in ways I could not have foreseen.

Spring Break 2015

The first trip back to the US since moving to China.  Landed at LaGuardia and the NYC roads were a mess of dirty slush.  I finally made it back to Dumont late at night, let myself quietly in the house, even the dog didn’t wake up to bark.  I was happy to see my mom and dad.  The last parting had been hard.  We were snowed in all right, so I walked around the house, feeling a bit claustrophobic.  I looked in the glass cabinet in the dining room and saw the eggshells my brother had painted.  One was a panda.  He had been dead for 20 years, longer than he had been alive.

IMG_0069.JPGHis ashes were still in an urn in his old bedroom, which was unchanged in all that time.  When Chris comes to me in a dream, poking his head out from behind a tree, running away over a field, I consider it a gift.  The image of him alive and moving is more real than anything in my life.  He was a good boy, and he should’ve lived.  Did he drive recklessly down Merrill Drive because he had seen me do it before?  This is why people invent God, so someone can know the answers to these things.  I remember the day he and mom came home from the hospital, in 1977.  I let Mikey look at him through the back window.  I was four, and I was excited to have something to show off to my friend.  I remember when we went to the Tenafly nature center, some time in the ’80s, and he disturbed a hornet’s nest climbing up a tree by the pond, and we all went running like mad back to the car.  I remember him, 4 years old, in the pre-school music revue, singing “Mary, Mary,” in a London constable uniform, complete with mustache and billy club.  But the sweetness of those memories cannot fix the hole inside of me.

We ate at Il Molino and dad and I got horrific food poisoning from some clams.  I thought I would die.  When I met Allen and Sarah in NY the next day, I could not eat any brunch.  Later on, I met with Chris and Mary Callahan to see Don Giovanni at the MET, I still had jetlag and dozed through much of it.  I was happy to get back to Asia.  I took Hera to Thailand, Ko Samet, there were troubles there, too.  Bickering, knowing it wouldn’t last.  But for better or worse, she was my first girlfriend in China.  And we had fun setting off big deadly fireworks at 3Rock when we returned.  IMG_0104.JPG

Colder than a witch’s metal ice cube tray

Now, a week after tropical Thai decadence, a group of us decided that the tales of breathtaking giant ice sculptures and nighttime dazzling colored lights were too good to put off.  We were going to Harbin to brave Siberian temperatures and ring in the new year at the hometown of our 老板 Betty Wu.  We checked into the Ibis and I had my first taste of the difficulty of hotel concierges in China when one’s Chinese is in its infancy.  I shared a room with Carlos, and after checking in we went in search of a place we had seen on an Anthony Bourdain special.  We had difficulty locating it, or locating anywhere to have a midnight toast, and just as we feared we might have a dry New Year’s, we found a place to sit down and order a beer tower.  We made a plan to meet in the lobby in the morning for a tour of the Saint Sofia cathedral, and a walking tour of the old town.  I had purchased heat-tech undergarments from Uniqlo and military surplus boots on the Taiping Lu, but somehow it just wasn’t enough.  The previous winter’s hiking in Lake George seemed tame by comparison.  We also had a fireplace there, and to this day I have not seen a fireplace in China.  The Harbin streets were pretty interesting, with street signs in Cyrillic and Chinese, and there were some quaint cafes with inviting Christmas displays still up.  The main pedestrian drag had some public ice sculpture displays and to our amazement, the Chinese, who drink hot water in the summer time, were eating ice cream cones out in subzero temperatures.  If Chinese medicine had some explanation for this, I wasn’t listening.  I wanted a hot cup of coffee, a nip of vodka, or a nice warm spa (where I eventually wound up on day two for a massage and refuge from what seemed like absolute zero).  That night, we shared cabs across the river to the main ice sculpture park, and it was most impressive.  The impending new year was the year of the lamb, and sheep sculptures were in abundance.  We could make occasional pit stops inside a pavilion that sold hot dogs and warm ginger-flavored coca cola.  The next night we met up in Ray and Kathy’s hotel room, had some pre-dinner drinks, and then headed out to a Russian restaurant that I quite enjoyed.

First Asian Christmas

It was quite cold in Beijing since mid-November, so Carlos and I decided to spend our 5-day Christmas break in Thailand.  We had heard great things, from Nick Nightingale and others.  This was my first time out of China since arriving four months before, and I was shocked at how cheap and easy the air travel was.  We checked into a cheap place not far from the KhaoSan Rd. in Bangkok, and visited the main temples in the city center, stopping for street food along the way.  The midday sun was hot but comfortable.  Wat Phra Kaew was probably the most impressive, golden Nagas and murals showing scenes from the Ramayana.  I tried to imagine the city of the 18th century, with just elephant-traffic and rickshaws, creaky barges floating lazily down the Chao Phraya River.  Carlos and I freshened up back at the hotel and decided to seek out a ping pong show on the Khao San Rd.  In fact we had no idea what we were doing, and that worked out for the best.  We bought buckets of MaiThai and wore Santa hats with blinking lights, and as the clock struck midnight we were sitting at a table at a two-tier bar/restaurant throwing back some beers.  I pointed out a couple of good-looking ladies at a table a few meters away, and Carlos went over and began chatting – turned out one was from Colombia.  I sat with a couple of local girls at another table.  Carlos went for a walk with his companions, and I went for a walk with mine, and although we did not see each other again until the next day, occasional text messages confirmed that both of us were having a vigorous pre-dawn Christmas.

I bought myself a ukulele before we boarded the minibus for Hua Hin.  This was a great little beach town.  Carlos found a tattoo parlor to get some work done, and we saw Thai kickboxing in a little sporting arena with a portrait of the king looking down on the events, as he did virtually everywhere in this country.  After dark the streets were an odd mix of Australian and European families with kids, and lady-boys and prostitutes.  We ate at a table on the beach with the water reaching up to our feet underneath.  The next day, we had brunch and an engaging conversation about Ray Kurzweil’s theory of living forever.  Later we had a lazy afternoon on the beach, and I had just enough liquid courage to chat up a pretty young blonde sitting under a palm tree not far away.  To my amazement she agreed to come over to our space, rubbed some lotion on my back, and relaxed as I played the ukulele.

Chinese lessons

These first few months, I diligently listened to Pimsleur Chinese lessons and was amazed at the abilities of Liz and Karl, who were quite fluent after a few years in China. The idea of spending two years or more in an exotic bustling city without making an honest effort at the language irked me, so I supplemented my learning with occasional lessons with Shu Lang, the piano tuner Lloyd had introduced me to. She had me copy basic characters like 爱,我,你,音乐 into the little brown notebooks used by schoolchildren here. I reciprocated with English lessons, and had great hopes for her! Alas, her English has not improved significantly. She showed me a photo of her as a young girl, posing in front of her hutong home on a snowy day in the late ‘80s. The home has since been destroyed, the memory of which fuels her rebellious posture towards the system here. She is a great lover of animals and a positive light, and if I took nothing else away from this experience in China, her friendship alone will have made it worthwhile.

On National Day a group of us went to Badachu to check out some Buddhist temples. The air was thick with incense, and this was my first glimpse of Chinese immersing themselves in a spiritual mindset. By the time we made our way to the top of the mountain a cold rain had started and slowly grown heavier. We decided to cut the trip short and amazingly, little Calliope complained the least.

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On a sunny day in November I made my way to the Summer Palace, set on a hill by the picturesque Kunming lake in the northwest of the city, affording my first good view of the layout of the city. The site was littered with informative plaques mentioning the infamy of the Eight-Nation Alliance attack on the site, though no mention was made of the Boxer rebellion that provoked it.