My Own September 11th Memorial

Today being the fifth aniversary of the terrorist attacks on the US, there is going to be a lot of to-do back in my home country. I remember well the terror of that day. I watched it on TV in Washington, DC. From some of the rooftops in Georgetown, so I heard, friends watched the Pentagon burn. We gathered at the Tombs that night to eat and drink in silence and kept our eyes on the TV.

Watching the president’s speech in the evening, we all felt he would do the right thing. We all knew that meant going to war. I thought it would happen sooner. Only when I was driving to my Aunt Katie’s house about three weeks later for a family party did I hear on the radio that we had started dropping bombs on Afghanistan. I was morbid, but I felt we had to do it. There was only one way to bring justice to the situation, and that was by capturing or killing as many Qaeda as possible, and most of all the King of Evil himself, Osama.

Since that day we have gotten so much wrong. Bush made a conscious decision to prioritize the invasion of Iraq over the capture of Bin Laden, and let the mastermind of the Sept 11th attacks escape into the ether, probably never to be seen again. Since reducing the country to rubble, we have not done nearly enough to build Afghanistan back up; a large reason for this is the shifting of major resources to Iraq for a completely unnecessary invasion and occupation. The populations of these countries are more inclined to hate us than ever before, especially Iraq’s. And now we’re beating the war drums again, with Iran in our sights.

In a few short years, we Americans went from having the sympathy of the whole world, to having its universal condemnation. Wasn’t it a French woman who said five years ago, “Today, we are all Americans”? Didn’t peace-loving and rational peoples everywhere grieve with us? We even had the full support of the international community in our invasion of Afghanistan, though surely there were many – smarter than I – who knew where it would lead. To never-ending warfare of the type depicted in the pages of Orwell.

Today we will collectively remember what happened when we were attacked, the terrible fury of it. But how many of us will think of what we’ve done since then? What actions have we taken to ensure that we are never attacked again? I believe that the course we’ve taken has not diminished, but in fact greatly increased the likelihood that we will suffer more devastating attacks in the future.

It would necessitate an entire new blog to go into the details of why this is true, and I have plans to eventually create one. It is not my intention to make The Portfolios a political blog. But today is a day to remember, and so I offer this remembrance:

Mark Twain was one of my country’s greatest writers, and no lover of war. As I watched the beginning of the Notre Dame football game and saw a priest offer a prayer for the country, my thoughts went back to Mark Twain’s “The War Prayer”. It is worth visiting the link to read the entire piece (it’s not very long, considering its power). Here I quote the crux in the hope that providence may grant us some perspective.

O Lord our Father, our young patriots, idols of our hearts, go forth to battle — be Thou near them! With them — in spirit — we also go forth from the sweet peace of our beloved firesides to smite the foe. O Lord our God, help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with little children to wander unfriended the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst, sports of the sun flames of summer and the icy winds of winter, broken in spirit, worn with travail, imploring Thee for the refuge of the grave and denied it — for our sakes who adore Thee, Lord, blast their hopes, blight their lives, protract their bitter pilgrimage, make heavy their steps, water their way with their tears, stain the white snow with the blood of their wounded feet! We ask it, in the spirit of love, of Him Who is the Source of Love, and Who is the ever-faithful refuge and friend of all that are sore beset and seek His aid with humble and contrite hearts. Amen.

Child Killer

As earlier promised, here it is, in all its glory. The original 1993 production from HanftPort pictures, Child Killer. A bit of background:

Dave and I started making movies as soon as my dad allowed us to touch the 8mm family video camera. We were around 10 years old. Naturally, much of what we shot was complete garbage. Not so naturally, my dad was completely frank in telling us this when we showed him our work.

“The lighting is terrible, you can hardly hear what anybody’s saying, the camera never moves – I mean really, this one scene is like 20 minutes long with the camera in one place – and there’s no plot. It’s awful!”

This encouraged us to improve production. Child Killer, filmed when we were both about 13 and, I believe, about to begin the eighth grade at George Washington Middle School in Ridgewood, NJ, represents the height of our output.

To be sure, the film is incomplete. As were all our films. Usually we would work on a project without a complete script, just filming as we went along, and taking scenes into the editing room as they were finished. Eventually we got bored and started a new movie entirely. We never finished a single film, to my knowledge.

Child Killer shows us in our prime, bringing all our technical knowledge to bear. We had saved up money for editing machines which we used to write text, lay over sound, and distort the video with primitive effects like strobe, paint and mosaic. We even added sound effects to amplify the punching, and of course, the gunshot sound was taken from Sniper.

When we laid this on our family, everyone, including my dad, was blown away. Everybody jumped at the part when Dave shoots Gia, with its vivid bloodtrail and loud gunshot (thanks, Tom Berenger). And then they all laughed and laughed, because the whole thing is just ridiculous.

The “plot” is pretty simple. Juvenile psycho Joe Didley (Dave) goes on a killing rampage in which he brutally murders his best friend Joshua (Rindy), Joshua’s sister Susan (Gia), Susan’s friend Cameron (Cameron Hanft, Dave’s sister) and some kid who witnesses Cameron’s murder, presumably her brother (Will Portfolio). There is no rhyme or reason to the killings, other than violence being the best situation in which two young, aspiring filmmakers could convey their teenage angst as well as their technical skills. Oh, if only we’d had iMacs in those days…

Major props are due to my dad, for letting us use the camera, for rightly deriding our poor intial efforts, thereby inspiring us to do better, and for digging this video up somewhere last year and burning it to DVD as a Christmas present for me.

UPDATE, Jan. 8, 2008: Child Killer has been removed from YouTube for violating copyright. A fine legacy for HanftPort pictures. For more read this.

UPDATE July 2012: At some point, they put the video back online but removed the sound, which offended the copyright lords:

Sitting on Top of the World

Recently we had a new air conditioner installed in our apartment. As we are on the 21st floor, this unfortunately (for the workers) involved a bit of tight-rope theatrics. A team of two men came to our house to install it, a few hours after the hole-drilling guy had punctured through our wall a column of four inches in diameter, for all the wires and tubes that need to be connected between the indoor and outdoor apparatus. When everything was set, it came time for one of the men to climb out our window and sit on the A/C itself, in order to attach it firmly to the outer wall. I asked if it was always him who went out the window, or if his partner ever took a turn. He said only him. He wasn’t worried about the height, because, as he said, he was wearing a harness. I neglected to inform him that if he did slip, the window frame to which he had attached the harness would accompany him on his long descent. He completed the task with aplomb.

Let’s Play Catch-Up

Since we haven’t written in a week, I thought I’d just go over some of the stuff that’s been going on for the last few…

Ryan's farewell dinnerAt the end of July, my buddy Ryan Zhou retired from Sinomedia. Ryan was the main programmer for our site, China Economic Review, and he taught me a lot about HTML and programming, which has helped this blog enormously. So to see him off some of us at the office decided to take Ryan out to dinner at Yuxin, the nice Sichuan joint on Chongqing Lu. Here’s a picture from that night. Ryan is in the lower left. Also there are friends Nathan Green (left), a writer for the magazine, and Tim Burroughs (right), the editor.

Georgia Sam logoAs I mentioned earlier, Zooma gave the band a job at Tang Hui playing Monday nights. His idea was a “return to the 50s” kind of blues night. Well, I didn’t really agree with the whole 50s concentration, but I figured it would be our night to do our blues thing. So we had our first gig this week and it went pretty well. Chen Song, the house drummer, is filling in for Knut until the Viking returns from the North a few weeks hence. Also, our new friend Lukas, a Swede, has taken up the keys in Hot Carl’s absence.

I have to say, for only getting these guys together for one practice the day before the gig, we pulled it off superbly. We even introduced a new song that Nate and I had written the previous Friday, “Brand New Soul (Found in Frisco Gold)”. I taped the show but, in typical fashion, haven’t listened to it yet. As I had to play the lead guitar parts, I was a bit nervous that my lack of skill in that area would just destroy us. And certainly I had my awkward moments. But Nate is very good in helping me out here, when my solo is losing steam, he tends to say something like, “All right,” and that’s my cue to wrap it up. But our philosophy of “Play it Loud and Proud” definitely wins fans in the end. We got a big round of applause after the final songs, and I was truly surprised at the size of the Monday crowd. Looking forward to the next show, in which Eli will join us to turn it up a notch.

My girl took some pictures that turned out rather psychedelic. There were some couples dancing 50s bopper style…

An update to the previous post: I tried to upload the movie “Child Killer” on to YouTube, but my computer went Berserk when I tried to play the DVD on it. I think it had something to do with the sweet label my dad put on it. It seems it’s a millimeter too thick or something, because it kept making this weird sound as it spun inside and then it just slowed to a stop and pretended there was no disk in there. The thing is messed up anyway, doesn’t burn CDs anymore, which is a real problem for my musical ambitions, so I’m thinking about investing in a separate unit. More to come…

Jam at Tang Hui

Open Mic

Wednesday night during the open-mic jamming at Tang Hui Zooma (left) asked me up on stage to sing our old favorite, “Red House”. Unfortunately, the bassist and drummer didn’t know Red House from a purple elephant and when they were supposed to come in they left Zooma and I hanging up there… and hanging and hanging. So we had to abandon it and try some random blues jamming. Which was ok for a while, but the rhythm section kept dropping the beat so much that it was just ridiculous. I was looking at Nate and Yam in the audience laughing their asses off every time the bassist and drummer went violently out of synch, and I just had to smile. And then they just wouldn’t pick up any signals from Zooma and I to end the song, so it dragged on and on and on… even when Zooma told them verbally, out loud, this is it, the drummer was totally clueless. It was the worst ending of any song, ever. I jumped down from the stage.

Luckily the others followed suit, and then I grabbed Nate and Yam and we hopped up there to make things right, launching into some jam tunes we know from some of our gigs together. Yam famously filled in for Knut when we played the AmCham Charity Ball last April and so he was spot on with all the tunes. Plus the guy is a total pro, and a “Hell of a Guy!” as we like to say. We received a generous round of applause at the end of our 15 minutes, and today Zooma called me to say he wants us to play every Monday at Tang Hui, in what he sees as a blues night, a “reviving of the 1950s, where people can dance and sing and shout, you know, Johhny B Goode and stuff.” The Blues are Back. Again.

Taking out the trash

In the space of one minute I was made to face two of my biggest pet peeves in China. Walking into the convenience store, there was a man about to walk out. I pushed the door into the “stay-open” position so as to leave it agape for him. As I half-expected, he simply walked through it, failing to close it behind him despite the A/C blasting inside and the hot day without. The clerk was next to the door and she closed it.

No one here holds the door for anyone or expects others to hold it for them. It is frustrating to have doors swing into your face all the time. But it is nice when you hold the door for an older woman carrying groceries and her face lights up with gratitude.

I shrugged off the man’s obliviousness and proceeded with my shopping. As I left the store, the same clerk who had just closed the door to save energy stepped in front of me just as I came to the exit, causing me to nearly run into her; she pushed the door open and threw a piece of garbage, and empty cigarette carton, at the garbage can outside the door, which incidentally had a closed lid. It was the kind of lid you need to push in to get the garbage inside. No attempt to push it open was made on her part, she simply threw the carton, which had no chance of opening the lid, at the can. Naturally, the carton fell to the ground beside the can. I was still standing behind her, my forward movement obstructed. She then walked outside, as if to pick the garbage up and place it gently within the receptacle — but no, what did she do, dear reader? She kicked the carton away from the can into the middle of the sidewalk.

Now, I know that littering is a part of China. New foreign arrivals are sometimes hesitant to pick up this habit, as I was, but they eventually catch on, as I did, because it is a way of fulfilling a childhood fantasy: never having to clean up after yourself. When you open a candy bar or a pack of cigarettes on the street, you simply drop the wrapper right where you are and forget it! Someone else will clean it up, who cares? Shopkeepers throw their trash out into the street to be swept up by the street cleaners. In the beginning I came to accept this as a cultural difference and just went along with it; though I felt guilty at first, I got over it. But it was seeing too many ignorant displays as this woman showed me this morning that made me decide: fuck cultural differences, littering is throwing trash on the ground and nobody wants to walk around on a fucking pile of trash!

This lady has thrown the garbage on the ground and kicked it away when there is a perfectly accessible garbage can right in front of her! In fact, if she didn’t like that one, she could have walked all of five meters to another one! There are trash cans everywhere in the cities, use them!

In for a Grilling

This is my piece in this month’s That’s Shanghai about being American in this city.

Uncle Sam

In for a Grilling

Waving the Star-Spangled Banner in Shanghai

Part of living in a foreign land means people often ask where you’’re from. A simple exercise for normal people, but a delicate one for us Americans in China, who learn to take for granted that our nationality will be readily apparent from the moment we open our mouth. We caught on to this after the first thousand times we answered “America”, only to have the questioner roll his eyes knowingly and say, “”Yeah, but where?”” Though we may, in return, feign interest in others’’ specific regional origins, rest assured we are merely being polite; we do not recognize any differences between Essex or Sussex, Nice or Lyon, Austria or Australia.

Americans have it tough. As the self-appointed leaders of the civilized world, we have to be sure we are setting a good example. When we’’re introducing backward nations to the joys of participatory government or entertaining the throngs with films of monolithic morality, we always strive to ensure our intentions are being perceived in the best manner. But though we are saddled with the burden of global empire, we Americans still have our small pleasures. And one of those is living abroad.

Here in China, Americans are afforded a privileged status among foreigners. When Chinese guess what country we’’re from, they always guess right. It must be frustrating for French, British and particularly Canadians to have to repeatedly admit that they do not in fact form part of the planet’’s preeminent population. Just the other day I was having lunch with a Kiwi friend at our local canteen and an old Chinese man asked us to join him.

““America!”” he said, ““Very good!””

And New Zealand? “”It’’s OK.””

Kiwis and other non-American English speakers have further reason to complain. While not entirely opposed to their own native tongue fast becoming the world’’s linguistic medium, they tend to rue the fact that Americans have engineered this development, as we have taken to abusing the language’’s normally benign powers of adaptation to create such colorful phrases as “”I’’m so there”,” and “”Where you at?”” Yet even as greater numbers of Americans are unable to write a coherent sentence, still our words ring out vociferously above those who sing the virtues of proper grammar, as well as those simply trying to eat their breakfast in peace.

America has no cuisine of its own, but rather gets its culinary traditions the same way it acquired its land: by taking what once belonged to others and making it uniquely ours. Thus Italian pasta became our macaroni and cheese, German beefsteak our double bacon cheeseburger, and indigenous maize our microwave popcorn. But there is at least one cooking method that we have pioneered and perfected.

Walking around Shanghai, one could be forgiven for thinking the title belonged to Brazilians; but Americans are the true champions of barbeque. So enamored are we of the charcoal pit that we have demarcated our summer grilling seasons with a beginning, middle and end: three holidays devoted to flying the flag and flipping burgers.

Memorial Day has passed us by and Independence Day is now upon us. Americans everywhere can once again be found outside grilling meat in honor of their country, even here in distant, foreign Shanghai. Whether in the backyards of Hongqiao or the rooftops of Huaihai, there is sure to be smoke rising from an American grill every weekend from now through the season finale on Labor Day -– and well beyond. So if you’’re craving an enlightening discussion of civics or geography, that is where you can find us at.

Maglev, wonder of creation

The Shanghai Maglev

Shown here is the Maglev train in Shanghai, hailed as a marvel of engineering, and indeed it is. Yet due to some poor foresight by the city planners, Shanghai’s magnetic levitation rail system is completely useless.

The maglev was designed and sold as a way to cut travel time to and from Pudong Airport, which in a taxi usually takes about 90 minutes or so. On the maglev, it was and is still claimed, that trip would be reduced to seven minutes, by traveling at speeds of up to 435 km/hour (270mph). Sounds great, right? Except that the location chosen for the “downtown” station is nowhere near downtown. It’s in Longyang, which is still a good hour from the city center by subway. Which means that after you take the super-fast maglev (and pay the 50 kuai ticket), you then have to take the regular metro line or grab a taxi. We did it once, for the experience. Never again.

UPDATE 2012: we actually did take the Maglev again, in 2011.