Dada and I kicked off Golden Week 2015 in Tianjin. We explored a small maze of alleyways where they seemed to be wet-polishing stones into amulets and jewelry, and there was a book vendor with the usual random assortment of very outdated-looking volumes. The ferry ride along the river at night was fun, the city has a bit more dazzle at night than Beijing, and people were sending lanterns up into the sky, floating up until the paper caught fire and burned away. The European-style architecture in the German and Italian concessions was quaint, but not quite enough to convince me I wasn’t in China anymore. Dada was always a good travel companion. I write about this now, more than two years later, wondering how she remembers it all. Being lazy in a hotel room together, her childlike enthusiasm over the most ordinary things. I’m glad I can look back now at something that made sense at the time, two lives intersecting, no matter that it was improbable, and that it didn’t last. You look back at old photos, and the simple pleasure of a happy moment that happened, sinks its roots in time, and memory slowly sheds its doubts and its regrets.
XuJie invited me to the home of a Mr. Zhang during our 2015 GuoQingJie break. I was picked up at Wukesong station in an economy car driven by a journalist from Science and Technology news, whose name I now forget. At some point during the ride to the north suburbs, the talk turned to religion and churchgoing, which does not happen often in a group of Chinese. They must have been picking my brain, me being an American. I soon gathered I was the least religious person in the car. When we got there, after maneuvering the car into a parking space under cramped circumstances in the residential community, we were invited inside, with nice rattan slippers for everyone. Now that’s always the sign of a tony Beijing household. Duplex with nice leather furniture, a cute, quiet little girl, and the host himself, a man slightly my senior, friendly and easy, and his wife, quick to bring out some tea and fruit. My hangover didn’t stand a chance.
Xu and I played through the first movement of Beethoven’s Spring sonata, and it went pretty well. Mr. Zhang liked all the Romantic heavy hitters, and at times I had trouble adjusting to his… adventurous tempos. But who doesn’t like a dedicated amateur musician? We all sounded good and had a great time. Afterwards there was a great dinner, conversation, the usual questions as to my marital status, and at one point back in the living room when the hosts were clearing up the table, Xu intimated that they had lost a first child, after which they started again with the girl. Before I heard this I had detected no trace of tragedy in the household, though the couple seemed a bit on the old side for such a young daughter. Having been told of the girl, I brought her a book, and she accepted it without expression, quizzically. It’s impossible for me to hear such a story without thinking of my own family, and the years of adjustment to my brother’s death. Or refusal to adjust? I still don’t know, twenty years later.
Having returned from Dali with my erhu and lots of enthusiasm for my second year in Beijing, I got busy giving piano lessons to Leah (and eventually some to Imre as well). They lived way up high behind April Gourmet, with a roof overlooking Workers Stadium. She reminded me of my adorable students Grace and Gabby in NYC, we learned lots of the same songs from the Faber and Faber book. Their Ayi prepared some lovely meals, Shanghai-style, and Jane, Imre and I would dine after piano lessons and talk about anything and everything, my kind of dinner companions.
On September 11, after having some productive rehearsals at BNDS and at La Plantation, I joined forces with Bruce Gremo and Kate Smith at Bookworm for a wonderful chamber concert of Caplet, Roussel, and Ravel. I’m grateful to Kate for being such a tenacious impresario, the concert was a great success and I hope to work with them again at some point.
Just two days later I joined Lulu Galore and friends on stage at Yugong Yishan for her farewell concert. I think our rendition of “Royals” was a real highlight, and we finished the evening off singing harmonies with Kirk on “See You in my Dreams.” Being a Lulu production, dancers were of course out in force.
Lulu told me about a World Music summer festival happening in mid-August at the amazing Linden Center in Dali, so returning from Japan, Dada accompanied me to a music store near PingAnLi, where I bought a beautiful erhu complete with snakeskin (actually they all have this decorative feature). Lulu and I got a direct flight to Dali. The faculty, Hadi Eldebek, Kate Smith, Kirk Kenney, Sunny Cao, Ramzi Edelbi, and Mohamad Eldebek organized daily classes where we learned American folk music like “Good Night Irene” (Kirk and Kate), Middle Eastern music taught by Hadi and his brother Mo, and some Chinese traditional songs taught by Sunny. I got to room with and bond with Randy Able Stable, who rocked out on the harmonica, and there was actually a piano at the center, so I was able to practice with Kate a bit for our upcoming Bookworm classical salon.
I had purchased my 10-day Japan rail pass while still in NY, and now I explored Tokyo, Kamikochi and Kyoto. The landscape architecture was everything I expected and more, a space of any size and location transformed and utilized for optimum meditative potential. Smoking had been virtually eradicated from the city streets, people waited obediently for the light to turn before crossing the street, a little bit of Germany in the far east. The couple in the photo took great care preparing my ebi don, and I chatted with a Spaniard who was also passing through Kamikochi. This “Alps” region of Japan was a hiking Mecca, and the monkeys nonchalantly crossed hikers’ path with their young, and the hikers were quite respectful, not throwing them chips, just observing. There wasn’t the constant selfy-posing that you would see in a scenic area of China, it looked as though the Japanese were simply getting there exercise in a time-honored tradition. The river’s water was crystal clear.
In Kyoto I found a music store that let me practice my Roussel and Caplet for free for as long as I wanted. Just amazing, I’m not sure it was showy generosity so much as a simple respect for the music and the task I was involved in. I know this is a blog but it would be a waste of words and my time to try to describe the temples and gardens of Kyoto, it is beyond my powers. I would just say, simplicity, timelessness, and a refusal to concede that the human senses have any limitations whatsoever. Back in Tokyo, I tried out some electric guitars at a shop and stayed my last night in a pod, complete with mini-porn-tv monitor and nothing but a bamboo blind to separate me from the rest of the men on my floor.
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.
On 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.