Sunday, July 31, 2011

Rocky Top: Jasper

Yuko and I drove 450 kms to Jasper from Edmonton for the first time in our lives this week and I've seen more moose, elk, caribou and big horn sheep than I've seen in a decade.

It cost $20 to enter the park, the largest in the Canadian Rockies, and as soon as you cross into the hallowed grounds you can feel a change in the air and witness the transformation of the landscape.

The slate-grey mountains burst through the placid prairie and pierce the sky with the immediacy of an earthquake. It's a stunning and beautiful sight to see.

Living in Hong Kong over the past decade makes it easy to appreciate the Rockies' cataclysmic wonder - it's a natural paradox that's calming to behold.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Donald Barthelme: A New Principle HEIGH-HO

“Writing is a process of dealing with not-knowing, a forcing of what and how” ~ Donald Barthelme
Reading Donald Barthelme is like being inside Daedalus' labyrinth expecting to confront the Minotaur at every turn. His writing can put horns on the dullest of heads.

Like Samuel Beckett, Barthelme knows there's nothing to be done, that there's no cure for being here and yet he thumps at the darkness with the only bludgeons in his arsenal - words, words, words.

"Head in the Clouds" by Richard Niman
If I were stuck in a bucket, stories such as "Some of Us Had Been Threatening Our Friend Colby" or "Glass Mountain" would provide a modicum of comfort. I would laugh and wince about how some friends are trying to arrange Colby's execution in as dignified a manner as possible despite his protestations. I could then join Barthelme climbing "Glass Mountain" while stepping nimbly over every sentence he has numbered (100).  Or maybe I'd buy me a city like his Galveston.

During his heyday in the sixties, Barthelme retold "Snow White" and turned the dwarfs into horny little curmudgeons who also sell Chinese-themed baby food to pay the bills. His incandescence shines on in both the brutal humour of George Saunders and in the gentle fandango of Billy Collins. As Lev Grossman wrote in Time:
A prodigious smoker and drinker, Barthelme died in 1989 of throat cancer, having already seen critics begin to dismiss him as a novelty act. In truth, the mistake we made with Barthelme was expecting him to be the beginning of something. He was the end of something--the green flash in the brilliant sunset of modernism. But in his ceaseless reconfiguration of broken words, he gave voice to our longing for unbroken ones and freed us to go off in search of them--like the dwarfs in Snow White who, on the novel's final page, "DEPART IN SEARCH OF A NEW PRINCIPLE HEIGH-HO."

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Hong Kong Harlequins: Tramps Like Us

"A day without laughter is a day wasted" - Charlie Chaplin
"Harlequin" sounds a little less krusty than "clown" and a little more dignified than "buffoon." Known as "Arlecchino" in Italian, its origins are believed to reside in the "Zanni" figure found in Commedia dell'arte...

Yuko and I got all made up for a fun day of tramping around Sheung Wan on Hong Kong Island....

We braved the elements and slapped on our best trickster-faces...

Thanks to our friend & photographer, Turbo, for indulging two silly tramps...

Monday, July 18, 2011

Yazd: Iran's Zoroastrian Heart

Iran. A country misunderstood at best, a nefarious enemy at worst. Yazd is a bustling city of half a million people and a center for the for the Zoroastrian faith for over 2000 years. The Ateshkadeh Fire Temple, dedicated to the prophet Zoroaster, houses a flame believed to have been burning since 470 CE. Zoroastrianism predates Islam and was Iran’s official religion for 1000 years until invading Muslims conquered in the 7th century. Sai, our guide, wears a Faravahar around his neck, the Zoroastrian symbol of a half-man, half-eagle emerging from a disk with wings spread wide. Sai admits he prefers Zoroastrianism to Islam as it connects him to his Persian origins, but he is wary of exposing his pendant publicly. “Etiquette” police charged with enforcing the Islamic republic’s strict dress codes could be anywhere. The current regime views Iran’s pre-Islamic culture with suspicion, frowning on any open displays of support.

Yazd is also one of the largest cities in the world built from adobe. Everywhere there are windcatchers, the small towers used for cooling buildings. They are a household necessity in a desert where some of the earth’s hottest surface temperatures - 71° Celsius - have been recorded. From the top of the huge Amir Chakhmaq Complex in the city center, countless windcatchers poke up above the rooftops like periscopes in an ocean of bubbled adobe homes.

Jameh Mosque
Yazd’s city center is alive with people rushing home from work. We pass shops selling sugar crystals and bakeries crammed with pastries before arriving at the Seljuq shrine, the city’s holiest Islamic site. Some ninety percent of Iranians identify as Shiite Muslims. There are separate entrances for men and women and I wrap a borrowed robe around my bare legs before entering. Light reflects off the mirrored ceiling and walls and the shrine is bathed in lime green, the Prophet Muhammad’s favourite colour and the one opposition forces adopted in protests that shook the country in 2009.

Yazd is famous for its silk carpets and we step into a shop for a peek of the gorgeous tapestries on sale. I soon get lured into buying one after a bit of bartering and a few cups of tea. Back at our hotel we dine on the rooftop patio in the cool evening with a stunning view of the 14th century Jameh Mosque’s 48-meter high minarets poking above the skyline like two enormous fingers pointing to the heavens. In the distance the muezzin call for evening prayers sounds.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Schadenfreudegasm: Murdoch Impailed

(Steve Bell)
"Our underlying philosophy is that all media are one."~ Rupert Murdoch

"Rosebud" ~ Charles 'Citizen' Kane
If "all media are one," as Murdo says, then the phone-hacking scandal unraveling in the U.K. will be the common thread ensnaring his entire network around the globe from Sydney to New York. In the same way Charles Kane's world shatters, Murdo's grasp on his empire is slipping at the tender age of 80. Corruption is as corruption does.

It's an absolute joy watching him fall from the heights of his corporate imperium and I'm literally experiencing schadenfreudegasms that are making it hard to get any real work done. In what will likely prove to be the greatest media saga of our time, Murdo has finally succumbed to News Corp's depraved culture, the one he created and fostered.

“We don’t deal in market share. We create the market.” ~ Rupert Murdoch
Murdo's Fox News has created its market by influencing and degrading U.S. political culture to the point where CEO Roger Ailes, once a lackey for President Richard Nixon (remember? he's the only guy ever to resign in disgrace) is now lauded as a "genius." Ailes has wanted to avenge Watergate for years, but now his methods may be catching up to him, too. Criminal is as criminal does. Even the New York Times' Richard Cohen, who writes to defend Murdo, concedes that Fox's "shrill right-wing demagoguery masquerading as news made a significant contribution to the polarization of American politics, the erosion of reasoned debate, the debunking of reason itself, and the ensuing Washington paralysis."

The good news is that a growing number of U.S. senators are calling for action and momentum is building for the SEC and FBI to conduct an investigation into News Corp to determine whether the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act has been violated. Eliot Spitzer thinks so:
"The rampant violations of British law alleged—payments to cops to influence ongoing investigations and the hacking of phones—are sufficient predicates for the Justice Department to investigate. Indeed, the facts as they are emerging are a case study for why the FCPA was enacted. We do not want companies whose headquarters are here—as News Corp.'s is—or that are listed on our financial exchanges—as News Corp. is—polluting the waters of international commerce with illegal behavior. (News Corp. shareholders are also rising against the company, with a huge lawsuit filed Monday in Delaware by three institutional investors claiming that company executives failed to act quickly enough to stop the phone hacking.)"
While I'm inclined to caution against directing any sanctions at the media, News Corp is not that - it's a criminal organization and must be treated as such.

Saturday, July 09, 2011

On The Roof Of Africa: Kilimanjaro

(Photos: Yuko Kootnikoff)

"Hakuna matata,” says Freddy, our guide, reminding us once again that there’s “no problem.”

It’s 4am and nearly 6km above sea level, where we are clinging to Mount Kilimanjaro, the “roof of Africa”, like castaways from The Lion King.

“Iko Matata,” I reply. “There is a problem.”

(Photos: Yuko Kootnikoff)

An icy wind is slicing through my scarf, raking my face like a bag of thorns and I’m pushing on my wife’s butt to prevent her from passing out. We’ve been going for close to six hours through the frozen dark. In a few more hours the sun will finally peek over the horizon. OK, we were warned, and we accepted the small print as we signed off on this “helliday” to climb “Kili”. Yuko was a bit apprehensive at first but finally agreed. Now she’s cursing like a pirate.

(Photos: Yuko Kootnikoff)

There’s only a few hundred more metres to go before the summit, but it’s this last bit that is a killer. It’s never easy to predict how a climber’s body will react once above 5,000 metres. For most it means shallow breathing, heavy limbs and frequent stops. Water is essential. So are energy bars. For others, it means giving up, turning around and going home. Then there are the unlucky few who don’t make it out alive.

(Photos: Yuko Kootnikoff)

Mount Kilimanjaro rises from the Serengeti Plain, 300km south of the equator, in the northeast of Tanzania and on the border with Kenya. I decided to do the climb a few summers ago for my 40th birthday. Kilimanjaro is actually the name of the national park that makes up three volcanic cones – Kibo, Mawenzi and Shira. Kibo’s Uhuru Peak is the highest point and it’s the goal most climbers try to reach. Most people do the whole trip – up and down – in four nights on the popular “Coca-Cola” route known as Marangu. We’re taking five nights – four up, one down – on the Rongai route, starting from the Kenyan side. It’s supposedly more scenic and less crowded.

(Photos: Yuko Kootnikoff)

Freddy has been doing this for seven years. He’s 32 but looks 42 and barely makes enough to support his wife and three children. In the evenings he drinks “gongo juice”, Tanzanian moonshine, to relax. We turn in at about 8pm and wake at 2am to begin the final ascent. We have been told it’s easier to climb at night because the glacial scree is usually frozen, making it better for traction.

(Photos: Yuko Kootnikoff)

In Kafka’s short story, In the Penal Colony, a “traveller” is invited to an execution and agrees to attend out of politeness. This is how I’m beginning to feel, but it’s my own execution and I’ve willingly consented to die for fear of causing Freddy any offense. Morning comes and the sun is as clear and bright as a spotlight in a sky full of mirrors. The snow beneath our feet is like crushed glass. We’re getting closer. The blue ice of the glacier is in sight. I’m moving automatically and feel elated and exhausted.

(Photos: Yuko Kootnikoff)

"There it is,” says Freddy.

It must be no more than 30 metres ahead, the first summit – Stella Point (5,756 metres), but it’s still an hour to Uhuru, the peak. My legs feel like they are being sucked into the ground, as if I’m walking across a glass surface with suction cups attached to my feet. I’m feeling dizzy, too, my mind is reeling back and forth. After a brief rest we follow Freddy and can see our goal, Uhuru, above us. Snow is everywhere, but there’s an easy path to follow.

(Photos: Yuko Kootnikoff)

I feel invisible, like I’m transparent and weightless, as though something has given way and let me go. We finally reach the peak and the wooden marker announcing:

“Congratulations! You are now at Uhuru Peak, Tanzania, 5,895 metres, Africa’s Highest Point.”

Even with sunglasses the bright sunlight stings. At this first summit people are embracing, dropping to their knees. It all begins to make some sense now that it’s over. Kili looks down on the Olduvai Gorge, the cradle of humanity, the plain where our ancestor Homo habilis was born.

(Photos: Yuko Kootnikoff)

The world is convinced it can maintain its voracious lifestyle while at the same time reducing its so-called “carbon footprint,” but the snow beneath our feet is literally melting away. We’ve got one foot in the cradle, the other in the grave. I don’t know exactly what the future holds, but I do know this glorious moment is enough to sustain Yuko and I for many years to come.

(Photos: Yuko Kootnikoff)

Below is a video of our climb with Judee Sill’s “Crayon Angel” and the Fleet Foxes’ “Oliver James.”

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Killing Chickens: China's Thugocracy

(Ai Weiwei, China Bench)
Any foreigner, especially a non-Asian, who has spent time in mainland China knows the feeling. As fast as you can say cha siu bao, you're suddenly the most popular guy on the train or the most conspicuous gweilo in the crowd. While similar occurrences happen in other Asian countries like Japan or South Korea, something a little more sinister might be at work underneath all the emotive bonhomie in China.

Those penetrating eyeballs might not be attached to benevolent admirers or welcoming natives to the Middle Kingdom after all; they could be connected to what Naomi Klein has called, "China's All-Seeing Eye," the surveillance state's great panopticon outlined in the Wall Street Journal. As a recent article in the SCMP (paywall) makes clear, the Chinese police are being trained to view foreigners as de facto "anti-Chinese":
Many of those detained were apparently forced to sign confessions, letters of repentance and guarantees they would not engage in rights work any more or have contact with foreign friends, the media or people within their circles. And if they met anyone, they were required to report it to the police.

The techniques used to secure compliance appear to have been consistent.

"They were made to confess, and then they made the person take the transcript and read it out to the camera," a source said.

"There were varying numbers of promises and commitments that had to be made, but all of the lawyers who were detained could only be taken back if they signed guarantee promises."

Detainees were asked about a few general topics: contact with foreigners, whom the police see as anti-Chinese; oppositionists, lawyers and other activists who challenge the party; and the "jasmine revolution".
Chinese authorities are increasingly turning to a "non-uniformed" thugocracy to do their dirty work when it comes to security and the silencing of dissent:
Many of the lawyers and activists have been illegally detained and held for excessive periods in violation of Chinese laws. In some instances, people have been abducted off the streets, with a black hood thrown over their heads by non-uniformed security officers.

The victims of "black-hooding" are often illegally held in unknown locations, incommunicado for periods ranging from days to months in what some call a "black box". Sometimes the abductions are carried out by thugs hired by the police to intimidate the targets.

"The most worrisome thing is that what we know the least about is what measures they're using to keep people silent upon their release," said Jerome Cohen, professor and co-director of the US-Asia Law Institute at New York University's school of law and adjunct senior fellow for Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations.

"Many of these guys are tough. What could be so effective? Apparently, there are new measures that are making them less willing to be contacted upon their release.

"What could you do to these people to make them unusually silent when they should have expressed outrage?"

Some details of the treatment may be known to fellow lawyers, but except for a handful of cases, those released have vehemently refused to go public with what happened to them, apparently under threat from the authorities, who warned them not to speak.

Even when the details are known, experts and journalists have been reluctant to speak publicly about them for fear the release of the information could result in official retaliation.

In some cases, however, it is believed the targets were allowed to tell fellow lawyers of their experience, using a strategy called "killing a chicken to scare the monkeys".

"We felt, at the same time, they wanted him to speak out in order to raise the level of terror," the Beijing lawyer quoted earlier said of a colleague who had been detained.

"They wanted to use him to threaten everyone else."

The human rights scholar agreed, saying: "This is a perfect way of spreading terror."

Cohen feared that the methods used by police were "more sinister" than torture methods known to have been used before. "Is there something more and more unnerving?"

According to some reports, threats have been made regarding the family members of the people targeted in the campaign.

In one case, police summoned the wife and small child of a lawyer to the police station, where they were intimidated. Police told the wife: "We can deal with you in the same way we dealt with your husband."

Another lawyer was repeatedly warned: "You should think about your family."

"This is the revival of the old custom of family retribution - collective criminal punishment," Cohen said, referring to a tradition from imperial days, when the relatives of criminals were also punished.

"I worry about threats to family members. How can you risk your family for human rights?"

It seems certain that plain old torture has been used in many cases.
This is why the release of Ai Weiwei was "fake" and why U.S. companies like Cisco and Hewlett-Packard have to do more than take China "at their word," as Todd Bradley, an executive vice president who oversees H-P's China strategy, recently said. He added, "It's not my job to really understand what they're going to use it for. Our job is to respond to the bid that they've made." If the Obama administration refuses to act, the U.S. will be guilty of aiding and abetting China's slaughtering of dissent.

Friday, July 01, 2011

Michael Ondaatje: Running In The Family

"I am the foreigner. I am the prodigal who hates the foreigner."
What is family? Where did it start and where does it end? Not the immediate family of mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, etc., but the larger one that stretches far beyond current geographical and cultural locations. I'm Canadian, but at any point in my history I could have easily ended up Scottish, Irish or Russian. If my great grandfather had slipped on some ice on his way to the docks my language, cultural assumptions and geographical boundaries could have been radically altered. All because of the weather, I may have become a different person with a completely different family and sense of identity.

Ondaatje's parents Mervyn & Doris ham it up
Many Canadians share the same "could have been/might have been" story, including Michael Ondaatje, but few go back and explore the possibility with such sensuous and riveting prose. Ondaatje's personal story began in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) where he was born in 1943. After spending eleven years with his Burgher family, he moved to England in 1954 and then to Canada in 1962. Running in the Family is his attempt at reliving his family history in Sri Lanka. He takes the island as his formative touchstone, traveling there in his late thirties to visit relatives and re-inhabit the buildings and locations his family once called home.

The results are on the page. Ondaatje recreates an experience and an encounter that comes alive in his writing:
Truth disappears with history and gossip tells us nothing in the end of personal relationships. There are stories of elopements, unrequited love, family feuds, and exhausting vendettas, which everyone was drawn into, had to be involved with. But nothing is said of the closeness between two people: how they grew in the shade of each other's presence. No one speaks of that exchange of gift and character - the way a person took on and recognized in himself the smile of a lover. Individuals are seen only in the context of these swirling social tides. It was almost impossible for a couple to do anything without rumour leaving their shoulders like a flock of messenger pigeons. (Pg. 48)
Beautiful and so true. The magic that we feed on, for better or worse, takes place in our daily interactions with one another. It's those pigeons carrying rumour as truth that form history. Running in the Family chronicles the shifting, "social tides" that turn the prodigal into a foreigner and the foreigner into the prodigal while maintaining "home" in the ever-changing ellipses of time. "Home" may sometimes be a foreign word, but a foreign word can also mean "home."