News & opinion on Greater China and the even Greater Beyond: by Biff Cappuccino.

Sunday, February 27, 2005


Ward Churchill is not only an ethnic impersonator, but also an artist impersonator. The credulity of PC do-gooders never ceases to amaze... Compare for yourself. The original vs. the Churchillian masterwork. Great stuff....Nyuk-nyuk...

Ward Churchill's Military Claims Proven False : ...despite his public claim (in a 1987 Denver Post interview) of having been a paratrooper (Airborne qualified) who conducted long-range reconnaissance patrols (LRRPs; extremely dangerous missions conducted by some of the most elite soldiers in the US Army) hunting North Vietnamese in Vietnam during and after the Tet Offensive of 1968, and despite his claim that he was a point man in an infantry combat unit, was in fact trained only as a jeep driver and projectionist (he was trained to operate film-strip machines and movie projectors), according to official documentation from the National Personnel Records Center, the US repository for military records. the same 1987 Denver Post report, Professor Churchill admitted to being a bomb-building and weapons instructor for the Weather Underground, a domestic terrorist group active in the 1970s. (Biff: Yeah, right!! He steals from every available cultural icon. Have to admire the man's chutzpah and panache. Perhaps I better understand the appeal of Nazi history to Ward. The hoi polloi are little Eichmanns (ex-vacuum salesman cum National Socialist bureaucrat) whereas he's Goebbels (propagandist), Streicher (lecturer/publisher), and Hitler (Uber Zombie) rolled into a one-man volk revival and cult of personality. It's only bad luck that he got caught by some sinister McCarthyist right-wing whackjob. Another few years and he'd have retired a hero, entered the textbook cannons alongside Dr. King, sublimated into an immortal, and had a memorial park and bronze statue bearing his blessed name for future generations to contemplate and admire.)

From a fascinating article in the Rocky Mountain News: Bellecourt and Harjo say [Ward] Churchill's belligerent speeches and writings are evidence that he is not of American Indian descent. They say Indians usually avoid the confrontational behavior Churchill is known for.

"You've seen his demeanor, his arrogance; that's not the Indian way," said Bellecourt. "We're a compassionate people, that's always been a trait of Indians."

Harjo met Churchill at a conference in 1990 and says she was immediately suspicious of his background.

"There was nothing in his manner or appearance or his way of relating that made me think I was dealing with an American Indian," she said. "He's not a native person. He's a white man."

There's plenty, plenty more at The Belmont Club.


Half my family is black, on my stepmom's side. They're the wealthier, more successful half. For a non-nanny-state liberal take on the US black community, check out this video interview with Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson. You might be surprised and amused. A quick paraphrase of one part of the discussion:

Interviewer: "Can you name any other man, other than a political leader, who represents good values and who can be a leader to the black community."

Rev. Peterson: "Any man who needs a leader is a weak, pathetic person. George W. Bush isn't our leader; he's our representative."

Interviewer: "What do you think of faith-based initiatives?"

Rev. Peterson: "I'm kind of leery of them. Government programs tend to spoil people... Black preachers love money. Most of them aren't called to their faith by God, but by their mommas."


Took a bite of Annie Proulx's novel Postcards this morning. Very tasty. As usual, I'm highly impressed with her purely technical skill via effortlessly describing in almost exquisitely tortuous detail the physical environments in which she runs her characters through their paces. She has an incredible lexicon covering horticulture, farm implements, geology, and so forth; one which is so far-ranging that I'm stumped by up to, say, 10~15% of her adjectives on a given page. Hopefully she'll develop a plot which includes a clinically certifiable buildup, climax, dénouement and conclusion. Her short stories typically have none of these. Perhaps she shares my ill-conceived contempt for canned stories or, like myself, she simply doesn't know how to tell one across the space of a dozen or more pages (and can't be bothered to learn now that she's commercially successful).

I could only do about 40 pages or so of Amy Tan's The Hundred Secret Senses. She relies too heavily for my taste on deux ex machina gimmickry such as endowing one of her two central characters not only with delightful arcane knowledge and a comic familiarly Chinese loony primeval animist sensibility, which works great, but also with magical abilities, which dooms any sense of her story mirroring reality. This resort to literary charades instead of sweating out good storytelling is reminiscent of John Irving's spoiling of stories with the chronic injection of patently implausible disasters to generate sympathy and manufacture tragic characters hit hard by fate. If only fate wasn't so cruel! More like, if only John was less obvious and pulled his end of the artist's responsibility to deftly paper mache the framework and soundproof the machinery of his industrial-strength best-sellers. The first chapter of World According to Garp is excellent. Then he hits us with a heavy dose of the unbelievable and then the incredible and then the impossible and then...and then he graduated to writing the central character of The Fourth Hand, who is only outdone in implausibility by Rastafarian Jar Jar Binks of Star Wars or the 15/16ths Irishmen Ward Churchill, cause celebre of do-gooders everywhere.

I'm also mystified as to why Amy Tan uses a precocious Valley girl voice in her books when in interviews she's more like a highly informed iron dragon lady with a bad rug. She's actually quite intelligent, incisive and decisive. Maxine Hong Kingston wrote in a more detached and almost clinical voice in her Woman Warrior book, for example, and her presentation of familial cruelty and fucked-up relationships is all the more devastating as a result. Perhaps Amy Tan figured correctly that there was more money in a suburban, ditzy, fatigued voice as this would be less threatening and more cozily reassuring to her presumed reader's audience of housewives bored, momentarily, by the soaps.

Nevertheless, there are clever moments in Amy's book such as (will provide an example later). However, for the most part the story is all too predictable, despite the manic plot turns and dizzying constellation of faux-surprises. Indeed, the crystal-meth pack-ratting of thirty second twists, every thirty seconds, takes on a tiresome predictability because they don't seem to add up to anything. Perhaps I'm dense but I found really very few surprises of the kind which imprint anything of lasting value on jaded brainpans, which is a shame given the fabulous opportunities accessible to the interested observer of Chinese and American cultural interaction which is, as often as not, a light comedy of errors. Had she employed a format akin to the Simpsons however...

The writers behind the Simpsons keep information junkies such as myself on the edge of their couches with obscure references to has-been pop icons, defunct TV shows, warmed-over politicians and the like. An example of what I mean is the following dialogue (snatched from defective memory) in a vid I watched this morning:

Bart: Isn't there a doggy hell?

Homer: Well of course there is son. Hmm... That's where Hitler's dog went. And Nixon's too. Chester...

Lisa: Checkers, Dad.

Homer: And the bad Lassie. The one that bit Timmy.

I don't remember if Hitler had a dog. Seemed a throwaway. Too easy to be funny. But Chester is so close to Checkers that it sounded right and yet I smelled a rat and began to smile. And which Lassie bit Timmy? I've no idea. Sounded perverse and appealed to my desire for revenge for bad television and made me grin outright, but knowing the Simpsons there probably is just such a Lassie episode or movie or even more likely, a genuine feral incident of chomping which took place on the set.

This brain tickling and trivia teasing appeals to many of us who are reasonably well-versed in US culture. And the Simpsons writers employ a methodology common to first-rate comedians: never interrupt the story just to make a joke and make sure whatever joke you use is grounded firmly in reality so that it surprises those who are unfamiliar with the background while also being familiar territory to people knowledgeable in the background. In so doing, the humor is much less likely to irritate anyone in the audience. The humor is much more likely to appeal to a broad range of social echelons and subcultures, but also to a broad swathe of age groups as well. In other words, Simpsons humor is consciously tailored to appeal to both the ignorant and the informed and, as the subject matter shifts through each episode, we, as individual members of the audience, continually shift between being members of the ignorant and the informed. This is part of the reason why the Simpsons appeals both to children and to adults and it is for the same reason that much of the work of Oscar Wilde, Mark Twain, and Henry Mencken survives so well into the modern era.

Amy Tan has a broad knowledge of Chinese history I'm sure. It's too bad she doesn't use more of this to make her stories more surprising, novel, penetrating, and, ultimately, interesting to information junkies. I'm confident she's sufficiently well versed in the material to do so. Maxine Hong Kingston sold herself into the nirvana of best-sellerdom by doing so but also earned herself a reputation as a writer of substance. Cash from the hoi polloi and respect from serious types. Not a shabby combination.

Biff Cappuccino

Saturday, February 26, 2005


Just finished reading Graham Greene's The Quiet American. I'm making a point now of reading novels, good or mediocre, from beginning to end unless they're excruciating. I'm no fan of novels, primarily because most novelists, like most writers period, have so little to say about the world around them. To get published essentially the minimum requirement is the ability to throw down a train of plausible logic, clothed in a mildly diverting form. This is really no more than a cold-blooded mathematical process, whereby one dredges up, wipes down, and couples old best-selling themes and tropes in a random sort of order to inspire the illusion of novelty and hammer on the buttons of robots running on a fuel of stale emotions and flyblown sympathies. A clumsy mixed metaphor on my part, and of course one can aspire to do much better and a number of us indeed do try and sometimes succeed in doing so. Either way, if getting published is all that is required, then what's not required is any more than a newspaper reader’s feeble grasp of human psychology, of history, of world events, of national idiosyncrasies, and so on and so forth. This is particularly evident with Graham Greene's works.

Apparently Greene was not a fan of writing and had to pinch himself to put out just 500 words per day. (For what it's worth Jack London did 1500 words a day, though he ended up having to get drunk first thing in the morning to do it. Anthony Trollope did three thousand words every morning and then went off to deliver the mail. Hoo-daddy!) According to Michael Korda, an editor at Simon & Schuster, Greene would breathe a sigh of relief and cap his pen, having pulled up and stopped in mid-sentence if that was where the target word number 500 was. Perhaps it's presumptuous to connect Greene's feeling that writing was a chore with my own feeling that reading his work is a chore, but it's hard to imagine a person who did not love what he was doing, doing it particularly well.

Greene has his central character sarcastic almost all of the time to distinguish himself from the dull simpleton that all right-thinking Brits know typifies Americans as a species. It took me a while to realize that Greene was actually trying to be witty and clever. Humor of course is difficult to master, as I certainly know myself, having failed to get it right on numerous occasions. Nevertheless, one crucial element of humor or wit is the surprise factor.

This is from Wilde's The Decay of Lying:

Cyril: Lying! I should have thought that our politicians kept up that habit.

Vivian: I assure you that they do not. They never rise beyond the level of misrepresentation, and actually condescend to prove, to discuss, to argue. How different from the temper of the true liar, with his frank, fearless statements, his superb responsibility, his healthy, natural disdain of proof of any kind! After all, what is a fine lie? Simply that which is its own evidence. If a man is sufficiently unimaginative to produce evidence in support of a lie, he might as just well speak the truth at once.

If Greene could have done something like this, then his books would be much more worth the reading. But he doesn't. He lacks the imagination, the desire to penetrate into the mechanics of things, and thus he's never in a position to surprise the curious and worldly. And his constant desire to be witty of course gets in the way as well. For wit is often a conversation stopper. Its aim when in the wrong hands being one-upmanship, browbeating, the domination of those personalities in one's orbit and their subordination to the point that they don't ask embarrassing questions. That of course produces stagnation. Stagnation is one part of the puzzle explaining why his books are awash in platitudes and empty of novelty and penetration.

As he has nothing new to say, it's difficult for his dry wit so-called to appeal to someone who is still capable of learning after the punishing regimentation and ass-kissing so vastly encouraged in the academy. His wheezes enter the consciousness, at least mine anyway, as dull statements of fact, lame commonplaces, tedious attempts to arrogate a superiority that the character does indeed have but only because the American character is a young self-serious left-wing schleppe.

I'm not a fan of Greene's though I'm probably going to punish myself with his well-known novel, The Comedians, just to be sure that he is indeed as serially glib and flippant and, in the end, tedious and unenlightening, as I suspect he is. Maybe I'm wrong though. I would prefer to be.


Today's Asia Times letters section has a handful of angry rebuttals to an article written by an American who boldly ventilates the hoary platitude that global warming and cooling has been a serial event of the last several thousands of years. Who could be surprised by this? Methinks you know the answer already. Said apostate maintains that most of those prehistory and early history warming events could not possibly have been fired up by the machinations of rapacious corporate man (i.e. the Americans). Time for the New Left to lay out the faggots and the white bed sheets and send this good ole boy to his Eternal Reward. Loose talk like this must mean he’s wanted badly in Heaven.

What caught my interest was that only one of the several letters was penned by a do-gooder earnest enough to perform a Google search or otherwise look into the subject matter. Only one person quotes anything, with this anything being a study quoted in The New York Times. Formal studies on major topics are dime a dozen and can be touted to prove anything and nothing as I discovered while poring through the British Medical Journal and The Lancet several years ago. One study published in a left-wing newspaper is hardly persuasive to a skeptic, or even a rightwing reader. And there’s my roaring contempt for reporters and newspapers.

A serious do-gooder would of course have gone to a meteorology journal(s) or a book(s). I'd as soon trust a tabloid as a newspaper on such topics. Inflammatory topics with great growth potential in the minds of the serially credulous (ex: global warming and fake epidemics such as SARS, Ebola, and mad cow disease) is what sells newspapers, what grants the gallant and pugnacious editor an edge over the prudish competition. The temptation to sensationalize such gloriously juicy tidbits is overwhelming, particularly during slow news cycles. Newspapers are not to be trusted when, at the end of the day, profits are what matters. The problem ain't corporate media either. The problem is the customers. If we're stupid enough to want stupid news, they're happy to sell it both to stupid and I’m with stupid. The customer is always right. Too bad he's also usually a jackass in his judgment when it comes to any field other than his narrow professional or hobby interests.

Anyway, my point is that none of the authors were interested in the facts. Call me simple, but I forget this sort of thing happens and I found it surprising.

One of them, from Cuba, complained about a drought that's ongoing there. By implication, Cuba's getting too hot to handle. However, for the first time in the 15 winters I've spent in Taipei, we had two snow falls on the mountains surrounding the city. Usually we only have a snowfall once every three years by my count. This year, as I said, two snow falls in one season. Anecdotal evidence, whether mine, or the correspondent’s in Cuba, is simply unreliable when it comes to the big picture.

The cardinal difference between left-wingers and right-wingers in this regard seems to be that left-wingers accept that education, i.e. the force-feeding of abstruse and often inscrutable, not to mention unreliable and downright factitious facts, figures, and theories is a substitute for doing one's own homework and thinking through the prevailing theories and urban legends for oneself. Essentially, whether a person is left wing or right-wing, adherence to any ideology suggests a mediocre mind.

No ideology works and one should never be loyal to an idea, any more than you would be loyal to the spare change in your pocket. Not to mention the fact that an ideology is ipso facto a set of ideas borrowed from someone else who is not necessarily any more intelligent or informed than oneself. Historically speaking, the manufacturers of ideologies on average have proven to be hustlers, fibbers and prevaricators. The marketplace for ideas has produced a great many horse traders, slick customers, and pawnshop retailers of battered ideas, buffed up and polished. The bull market for packaging and refurbishing ideas to fool the season’s fresh crop of suckers constitutes a bubble economy that's been in the ascendant arguably ever since Socrates downed his hemlock in disgust.

And I’m not just thinking of the obvious leftwing frauds from Marx to Chomsky but also medical frauds (like Robert Gallo) who gave us such foolishness as retroviruses and mad proteins cause human disease or that mercury or AZT could cure disease; or political charlatans such as Moses, the glorious pioneer of modern monotheism (far less suited to human nature and politics than polytheism) who lectured God (check your Bible if you doubt) and gathered round a group of credulous apes to support his fiscal needs; Alcibiades of ancient Greece who espoused liberation from morality and was the best exemplar of immorality when he sold out Athens, his home state, not to one enemy but to two; or the crew of cynical swindlers who populated the 3rd century AD Council of Nicea and trimmed various ancient myths into the toxic misogynous concoction known as the New Testament; or Robespierre who gave us modern terror; to Napoleon who gave us the modern cult of personality (as opposed to Alexander the Great who gave the classic era theirs); to Lenin who took a feather from Moses’ cap and substituted ideology for religion in his own equally successful duping of the public and grab for temporal power; to Mussolini and Hitler, two political scientists who gave us modern fascism.

This circus never ends. It’s motoring on good and strong as we speak.

Back to work for me. Hope this Taipei rain quits before the weekend is over. Have mistresses that need attending to.

Biff Cappuccino
Random thoughts:

Contrary to popular belief, hydroelectric power can seriously damage the climate. Proposed changes to the way countries' climate budgets are calculated aim to take greenhouse gas emissions from hydropower reservoirs into account, but some experts worry that they will not go far enough.

So it turns out that there is yet another argument for hydropower adversely affecting environments. No doubt this particular claim will also become bogged down in adversarial claims and clashing punditry and the emerging urban legend that prevails and becomes fossilized in the history books will be that scenario which combines the greatest horror with mega-statistics magnified out to the max.

The reason the citizenry of the Northwest US are such fans of clean energy, so-called, is because there is such a great abundance of it on the windward side of the Rocky Mountains. In other words, it has less to do with flower power, energy-channeling crystals, yoga, vegans, good living, clean thinking, or moral superiority and much more to do with the dismal science, economics. The Northwest only became modernized in terms of paved roads connecting the Northwest to the rest of the country after the Second World War. Because of this late development, there is a great abundance of forest and timber, wildlife, hydropower and thermal power sources. Similarly, population growth there began at a later point thereby delaying population density reaching the point whereby external energy sources had to be drawn upon such as oil and nuclear power.

Nevertheless, it seems to me that a much easier argument against hydropower can be made: the adverse effect on ecology. Freshwater streams and rivers were formally populated heavily during the fall season by salmon and seagoing trout (steelhead trout) returning to spawn. This produced a seasonal avalanche of protein right before winter, when fauna most require it to get over the long-haul period of starvation in the natural world that we call winter. As a result of this biological delivery system, everything from hawks, vultures, Eagles, kingfishers, sparrows, finches, doves, bears, wolves, foxes, Wolverines, to people feasted on this huge protein injection thus greatly facilitating hibernation and seasonal migrations. Decaying fish also feed insects which in turn underpin a heavy food chain of birds, bats, and other bugs and so forth which eat these insects, not to mention ducks, mallards, and geese and so forth as well. The shock of protein also fertilized riverbeds and encouraged plant life which in turn fed moose and other grazers as well. Many herbivores actually eat meat when available and so rabbits, cattle, and deer will have fed on this as well.

In other words, with the damming of rivers all of this protein is shut out of the system with the result that the quantity and diversity of upper stream wildlife is heavily affected in those regions which have frost and snow: i.e. sub-zero cold winters. And that's, for the continental United States and Canada, almost every region.

Nuclear power is the way to go if you discard the hype, the horror stories about radiation polluting environments for gazillions of years. Nukes are the least environmentally harmful form of power generation. Neither Nagasaki nor Hiroshima are producing twin-headed glowing fish nor radioactive babies and yet they were ground-zero for the bomb. Like SARS, AIDS, Global Warming, the Nanjing Massacre, the Australian Aboriginal massacres, Vietnam, the formerly impeccably credential backed and proven impending demise of the US in Afghanistan (and then Iraq and god knows where in future), nuclear energy has proven more useful as a subject to be squired into doing double-duty for newspaper headlines and upping advertising revenue than as a subject of serious discussion (which subscribers are rarely interested in anyway, god bless 'em). As a result, not of sinister conspiracies of media elites, but of informal everyday conspiracies of the great unwashed, poll-watching politicians (democracy, fortunately, seldom produces any other kind) turn to less newsworthy but far more harmful methods of generating energy such as hydropower or oil-based power.


With regard to Japan, it seems to me that the appeal of naughty cartoon pets (dogs particularly) amongst Japanese girls is probably explicable if the dog is seen as an analogue for boys. The dog is clumsy, messy, and naughty. He’s potentially dangerous but, no matter what happens, it always has to heel to master. Just like most men slavishly heel to ‘their’ women. Most of the time anyway.

Dog heels to master because master provides food. Men heel to women because women provide sex. In other words, as always, the monopolist can demand inordinately of his, or in this case her, buyer.I would be all for women's rights, if only sexually active women wanted any more rights, which they clearly don't. Why go for rights when the easiest game in town is seducing a naïve guy and mooching off him for time memorial. There’s an endless supply of these suckers, care of naïve fathers: mothers on the other hand, of course, train daughters in the basics of seduction (it’s not daddy who puts daughter in heels thus aiming her booty at the moon and putting her pudenda in receptive position).

I spend most of my time with women, not men. Many of my long-term pre-PC generation friends in Taiwan do likewise. And thus I/we find it tragicomic when prey (men) bleat for predators rights (i.e. attractive women's rights). Such poor sods spend a lifetime never figuring out the score. And, thus, seldom scoring.

Such folks naturally find mystifying Mencken’s definition of a misogynist: a man who hates women as much as women hate each other. Needless to say Mencken banged a lot of chicks. The well-known movie “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” was based on a play written by a femme whom he turned down in favor of pumping a ditzy blond starlet while on a train to LA in the 1920’s. Dumb can be an appealing trait in certain people. Especially the beautiful kind, who seem naturally endowed, or intelligently-designed as the Creation Science crew would have us believe, with dumb in spades.

Etc. etc…


With regard to Ward Churchill, the ethnic impersonator teaching at the University of Colorado and who claims to be 1/16 Indian: surely a quick look at the man leads one to imagine he's 15/16 Irish or Scottish, i.e. Celtic. He's got a chin like Robin Williams, the gift of the gab, and the personality of a dour Scotsman, always promising eternal doom and preaching that things are never as bad as they're going to be very soon. Repent. And place him in charge.

He sounds like Bill O'Reilly or the late departed Dr. Eugene Scott, the trumpet playing, equestrian, cigar-chomping, blackboard lecturing, hectoring, and eternally audience-threatening and damning satellite TV preacher out of LA. The Scots version of a Celt as I understand it is typified by a manly chauvinism and a perverse pleasure in dustups, an indifference or distaste for humor, extreme parsimoney and LOVE of money, a marked preference for facts and figures and logical over emotional explanations, a striking indifference to the feelings of others because spreading the truth of the Good Word supercedes all else and nothing is more self-actuating and empowering than infection with that affliction known as the Messiah complex. Scotland produced one of the most unfunny Christian sects: the Presbyterians.

When I think of Blarney Stone smoochers, I come up with such Irishmen as Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw, clever vendors of the theatrical hee-haw and ranking among the very few playrights of any species to survive from the 19th century; another being Gilbert and Sullivan who were apparently Anglo-Saxon (I know next to nothing about the ethnology of surnames and though Sullivan sounds Irish to me, he was the musician and a quick glance at their geneologies turned up nothing to suggest Gilbert, the writer, was anything but English). And when you think of a Scotsman without a sense of humor think of George Orwell, nee Eric Blair. Blair was third-generation Scottish and hated Scotsmen though he seems to have had much in common with them. The Blair who heads the UK is also of Scottish descent apparently and completed much of his schooling in Scotland.

I wonder what Ward would say about reparations for harm done to Native Indians historically. Presumably, given the Bureau of Indian Affairs recalcitrance, he's been doing reparations DIY and decided that the 1/16 part of him which is an Indian is his mouth. The rest of his corpus, the other 15/16, supports his mouth. Well that sounds much like the rest of us.But when it comes to the issue of genuine government reparations, then what? 1/16 of him is owed money. The other 15/16 of him owes money. How does that work? If 15/16 of him is evil white oppressor, then he's going to be forking more money over than he receives. Doesn't seem to bode well for the Ward Churchill financial portfolio. He's probably like many another cynical professional tear-jerker: his worst nightmare is that the problem is solved for then he'll have to start all over again from scratch, trying to horn into another bogus issue but locking up horns with younger, juicier bucks who are sure to butt him out of the action.


Intelligent design is back in the news. Of course, the problem with intelligent design has always been that, on close examination, it proves not very intelligent at all. Evolution wastes vast numbers of bodies on the way to producing we humans, the so-called acme and climax of the food chain. 500 million years of nature red in tooth and claw, mass extinctions, and the like, doesn't seem too efficient. Not too intelligent any way you slice it.And what about that less than immaculate final product, the facsimile of his Maker? Does the Great Entrepreneur have weak kidneys? Appendicitis? Nearsightedness? Bad knees and bad backs? Hard livers and feeble brains? And even if he does, did he have to design them into us?

Of the primates, we're the only species intelligently-designed to choke on its food, when the vittles go down the windpipe by accident. We're one of the few species of large mammal intelligently-designed without natural night vision. Our eyes seemed to have been designed on a Monday or a Friday, because what other than the TGIF rush or Monday morning blues would lead to the oversight producing, for example, our visual blind spot where the nerves and arteries feed into the back of the human eye. Squid, on the other hand, have a more sensible design and have no blind spot. Perhaps there's a divinely divinable difference between sensible and intelligent?

On the other hand, it's often said that God works in mysterious ways. I'll risk a step further into heresy to suggest that it wasn't the Supreme Zombie who was behind the alleged intelligent design. For, after all, Supreme Mojo is omniscient and omnipotent. Perhaps a new set of intelligent or at least sensible candidates should be proposed: Green men living on the dark side of the moon; Martians; Klingons; ET; the Force; Predator. The last one seems most likely to me, given the intelligently designed obsolescence and flak pattern of defects that we've all been graced with. Makes for happier hunting. And that's both sensible and intelligent. Maybe them Creation Science boys is on to something after all...

Live long and prosper...

Biff Cappuccino

Thursday, February 24, 2005

Starting to Rework those six meandering plot-less chapters into a viable novel.

Chapter 1: The Learning Curve

Mistakes come in many forms and I guess you could say I’m sort of an international expert, cross-cultural connoisseur and serial recidivist in that field of accomplishment known as the ‘fuckup’. One type of mistake is choosing the wrong people, the wrong friends. You ought to choose them, not let them choose you. Common sense right?

Well, one man’s common sense is another’s lunacy, another’s prejudice, and yet another’s lack of imagination. There’s a time and place for everything they say and, uh, well hopefully it’s here and now. Now that the whirlwind of my disastrous adventures in China has passed, the mantra of Go East young man! has been exploded, and I’m lying here on my butt, down and out at Chung King Mansions in Kowloon Hong Kong, having slapped my last few Honks down on a curry and a sleazy berth in Pakistani hostel, hoping I don’t wake up in the middle of the night to find my shorts parted and some swarthy stranger’s member aimed at my butt-crack, a knife athwart my neck. It wouldn’t be the first time.

You can smell the damp from today’s rain in the air even through the fake aerosol that comes wheezing out of this demented clanging aircon unit. It’s still drizzly. Night. I got nothing to do but wait. Wait and think. Think about the humidity fermenting the shirt I’ve got hanging up on the roof and the mold spores getting a greedy purchase on my towel, beginning their dirty work and blackening the tips of the fibers poking into the smog and then working their way down to the roots at which time the rag will be as solid as a Kleenex and just as useful for drying down after a shower. The itchy lint on my stubble is care of the last disintegrating towel I threw out this morning.

But Hong Kong is a great place. Cheap shit, fine food, real architecture, cops that do their job. Law and order is something you take for granted until you don’t have it. And need it.

When the weather gets sunny and hot again, the clouds part and the floating restaurants honk, and the hawkers chase the wage-slaves, the prostitutes the sailors, the pickpockets the tourists, and every other sort of local food chain is in lavender bloom, I’ll be freebooting and doing my solo thing at the peak: Victoria Peak, sleeping outdoors in the park up there. There’s stairs up to a weather station or observatory or whatnot that do good service under the high altitude woods, plus a clean public bathroom to wash up in the morning. Sounds like a rough sort of vagabonding, but under the summer stars and a soft breeze, it’s actually pretty nice. No mozzies in your ear at that elevation. Not to bad. Really. And it’s liberating to find you really don’t need all that much, all those toys, knickknacks and other impedimenta of civilized living, to survive comfortably. It’s a cliché until you do it once and then it’s real and talk ain’t so cheap any more.

Besides, turn a john or two and you’re flush for a week or more. Even Hong Kong has its female sex tourists. You didn’t think I was turning fags? In this day and age of acquired immune deficiency? Nah, I’m just waiting for the wife to get in from Szechuan. Then we’re out of here to Free China: Taiwan. Teaching English, milk run smuggling, shoplifting at 7-11’s. Hoodaddy!

I’m just kidding. Those innocent care-free days are long gone.

Hope they let her out. The wife I mean. She’s Chinese. My nearest and dearest.

And I departed. Nope. I Fled. No choice. Shed a tear. No joke. Who knows what the local cops will do to one of their own. Frankly, it upsets me to think about it. I’d rather talk about something else: my daydreams keep coming back to this horror.

Anyway, at least I’m an optimist by nature. Or maybe that’s one of my cardinal failings. Long story. But an interesting one I think.

Okay. Goodbye depression! I need a change of subjects. A fresh genre. Something stimulating. Comedy! That’s easy…um…back to the making of mistakes: my favorite avocation, my principle calling in life you might say.

Errors of judgment come from what? Fucked up departure points, you say? I’ve got fucked up rhythms on tap, anytime and anywhere. You want ‘em? I got ‘em. Laziness, indifference, cynicism, snobbery, thumb in the butt. Or just plain attention-deficit deficit jonesing for gratuitous pleasure and putting off hard decisions for later. Hard? Later? Hah! Yeah. That’s a good one. Or Two. Or whatever.

Sorry. I better slow down.

The gift of gab is a double edged sword: another cliché that hard experience has turned into a homely truth for Yours Truly. Talk long enough and I’m the greatest believer in my own gibberish and self-serving memories and lapdog desire to please. You spend so much time selling yourself to your audience of customers that you sell out without even noticing and become a wholly owned subsidiary of spin, spam, and flim-flam.

Did that make any sense? Nope. But it sounds good, right? Passes muster in conversation, even if it doesn’t hold water on the page. In print it’s liable to be caught by the naturalist of philology cause it’s planted, stuck like a bug ready to be anatomized.

That’s been my problem. Not serious. No discipline. Quick, sharp, but too impatient to learn. Result: Slow learner. I might as well be an imbecile for all the good that curiosity and a nimble mind have done me.

Spin, spam, and flim-flam. The perfect mistake for me. Cheap words for a cheap whore. Tailored piss-perfect for my psychic needs. Goes down smooth like candy but comes out roaring like a laxative.

Alright. Enough fucking around. No time like the present to start with this story, to get it off my chest.

Pull it together, son… Okay. Three years ago I was green as a fresh mowed lawn and just as wet behind the ears.

Cheesy? Haha… Yeah, well I’m still catching my stride. Okay. Let me try another approach.

Okay. Check it out. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from all this, it’s to dodge whackjobs, give them a wide berth. It’s a hard monkey to beat though because I’m drawn like moth to a flame to these types. I just get bored too damn easy.

When people say, "This guy's a real character!" "You're going to get a kick out of this fella!" "They broke the mold after this dude!" I still get excited for a minute. I'm a sucker for eccentrics. But now I think back to a couple years ago in redneck China, to when our town’s bus station still had pigs rooting around in the muck, to the days when Michael Ferguson was the only self-conflicted foreign freak for a country mile and then some, and I remember that strong medicine should be taken in small doses.

Michael was a furious blabbermouth with a beaky nose, a weak jaw, a shock of red hair, and intense Celtic blue eyes set too close together. He was tall and lean. He had a style of his own. Most importantly, he exuded confidence and self-assurance at a time when I was still new to China and humbled by my need to learn the ropes. He was so very different, larger than life, glamorous even. He stuck out like the first neon billboard in a candlelit Tibetan hamlet.

In those dusty days of coal-smoke and animal dung, the town was just getting into the modern swing of things. It was chock full of fly-by-night Hong Kong and Taiwanese businessmen with fresh snappy bills and can-do handshakes, leathery faces and overworked hard-ons, eyes bloodshot from eighty hour workweeks, bad food and unfiltered beer, both of which gave them the trots regularly. Almost as soon as they settled in and got comfortable, local wages took a jump and they got orders from head office to pick up again and move to newer dirtier towns providing a fresh-batch of hard-up country cousins for their cheap-labor operations. It was a tough life, but well-paid. They flew into our Szechuan town in suits they couldn't be bothered to press, shoes they couldn't be bothered to polish, and five o'clock shadow they couldn't be bothered to trim: they didn't need to. They still became local heroes via their business expertise and informed chatter about international widget prices, foreign exchange trends, investment tips. Knowledge was power, money, prestige. They arrived, got set up, were busier than a one-legged man in an ass-kicking contest, and before you'd seen them around town half a dozen times, they were gone for good.

Biff Cappuccino

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

To the memory of talented crank, Hunter S. Thompson.
This is another recycled screed; this one written in 2004-03-06.
A review of Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas
By Biff Cappuccino

Hunter S. Thompson first published his Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas as a series of articles in Rolling Stone under the pseudonym of Raoul Duke. Raoul, the Hispanic lowlife, and Duke, John Wayne's nickname, are an apt combo as the book is an alloy of sleaze and the sort of shallow white chutzpah/cool that was popular back in an era of liberated thinking whose sterile staging ground was the hard-core political correctness of the 1950's and 1960's. After the dope decade, disco, punk, and AIDS, we got wiser as a culture and generated a more informed, compassionate and intellectual PC which has been at our throats ever since.

Part of what makes this book work is Thompson's ability to lay out simple, clear images, most of which are subversive and unsympathetic to the perennial American uplift. They appeal because they're familiar and because so much of white-collar America, like white-collar Taiwan and China, retains blue-collar values at heart.

For example: "a lot of cops are good vicious Catholics", "fat gold credit risk", and "a savage journey to the heart of the American dream." But this quickly moves on to other themes like: "the only real cure is to load up on heinous chemicals", "extremely dangerous drugs", "rotten stuff", "nothing is more helpless or irresponsible and depraved than a man in the depths of an ether binge." A recurring deflection of blame. It's not Hunter's fault. Now that the drugs are taken, what can you do? Nothing. The book is full of this bogus fatalism that comes across as comedy, though the joke was on this reader who guesses now that Hunter was perfectly sincere. Drugs are the bad guys, the perps. Hunter is an escape artist whose cover is playing the victim.

Thompson's style is imitative of Henry Miller, containing a similar bravado, machismo, dramatic portrayal of self and others. It has the same hustling overdrive to portray the mundane as crucial; the pedestrian as heroic; the insignificant as overwhelming. However, Hunter reminds us in timely fashion that he's on drugs. Henry never comes up with an excuse for his stream-of-consciousness rambling. And unlike Miller, Thompson doesn't forget the audience has a memory and knows when it's being fed the same line for a second time, a third, or even a fourth. When Hunter runs out of material, he ends the book. He fills up space with quality illustrations, runs up the size of the print to fill even more space, and then gets out while the going is good at page 204.

In addition to just hyping up the subject, he also has an outstanding ability to create striking scenes with very simple words. But sometimes those scenes are unbelievable. For example, when he claims he howled at LA traffic with impunity. People just aren't that docile. Or when he explains why he backs up a car too quickly. He writes: "No harm done," I said. "I always test a transmission that way. The rear end. For stress factors."

Stress factors? Is that really what he said? The first page opens with an excellent scene which includes: My attorney had taken his shirt off and was pouring beer on his chest, to facilitate the tanning process. Again there's an odd choice of words: to facilitate. My impression is that when Hunter wanted to tell a fib, his conscience betrayed him and made his English go queerly formal and school-like.

But he also achieves, in outstanding fashion, the Mark Twain trick (ex: Huckleberry Finn) of putting complex ideas into accessible English.

For example: ... when I went to a doctor and described my normal daily intake of booze, drugs and poison he told me to come back when the sweating stopped. That would be the danger point, he said -- a sign that my body's desperately overworked flushing mechanism had broken down completely. "I have great faith in the natural processes," he said. "But in your case... well... I find no precedent. We'll just have to wait and see, then work with what's left."

Poison... flushing mechanism... natural processes... work with what's left. This looks easy, but it's not. It's a sign of literary virtuosity to be sure.

Jorge Luis Borges in "On Oscar Wilde": If I'm not mistaken, [Wilde] was much more than a sort of Irish Moreas; he was a man of the 18th century who occasionally condescended to games of symbolism. Like Gibbon, like Johnson, like Voltaire, he was a wit; a wit who was also right. ... Perfection has injured him; his work is so harmonious that he can seem inevitable and even banal.

It's not that Oscar Wilde or Hunter S. Thompson were wits who were also right, but that both were right and softened their harsh discoveries with wit. Over the years they had both seen clearly and thus unavoidably developed entirely unorthodox worldviews. To the mainstream, these worldviews seem familiar and yet exotic. Their authors -- deft, insolvent, and eager to please -- issued them to a timid public in the congenial guise of parody. But Wilde and Thompson, like so many other literary jesters, meant pretty much what they wrote.

And though I think neither Wilde nor Thompson offered perfection, the statement that (for each) "his work is so harmonious that he can seem inevitable and even banal," is right on the money.

Thompson's bluster, the larger-than-life theater, the overwrought verbiage, but also the often almost miraculously succinct hit-it-right-on-the-nail poignancy that produces splashes of emotion and kick-starts streams of thought, this produces great satisfaction at times.

It also brought to mind Daniel Boorstin's The Americans: The Democratic Experience. It's this echo of pre-WWII -- the age of Henry Miller; of politicians who won votes by refusing to wear socks; of social activists who campaigned to ban tobacco cigarettes (but not pipes) on the theory that the next step was opium followed by the gallows. This retro-flavor gives this book much of its bizarre pungency. It's this which also insulates it from criticism. It's so weirdly unfamiliar that it often seems like satire. How are you to judge it? There's the sneaking suspicion that if you don't get the joke, then the joke is on you. This gives the book air, frees it from the tight restrictions of analysis and makes it better than it is.

And this echo has been updated and modernized into a vocabulary of citified stuffed-shirts, as opposed to rural boosters, and angst, not anger. It’s the tempest-in-a-tea-pot faux-rebellion of an egghead paranoiac. But it also demonstrates how free and giddily irresponsible and unwound life, ideas, and speech can be when one is free of the paralyzing grasp of extended families, geriatric moral traditions, uptight faiths, and so on.

George Orwell: [he] is not consciously writing a hymn to liberty. Primarily he is interested in 'character', in the fantastic, almost lunatic variations which human nature is capable of when economic pressure and tradition are both removed from it... they are as different from modern men, and from one another, as the gargoyles of a medieval cathedral. They could develop their strange and sometimes sinister individuality because of the lack of any outside pressure. The State hardly existed, the churches were weak and spoke with many voices... If you disliked your job you simply hit the boss in the eye and moved further west…

This is Orwell describing Mark Twain. How little some things have changed.

Thompson's style seems particularly American too. My impression of English writers is a tradition of precision, reserve and remove, from Wolfe to Orwell to Amis; whereas America's tradition is more forthright and pugnacious. Perhaps it's a Celtic outgrowth. Perhaps it's peculiarly Irish or Scottish. Perhaps its stress upon self-promotion, sound-bytes, imprecision and excess ended up inspiring more false roads of promise, more bullshit artists, and more literary disasters than it was worth. Either way, from the beginning initiated by Crocket, if indeed this was the beginning, one moves forward through history to the brag and bluster of Mark Twain, Henry Mencken, Henry Miller, William Burroughs, Hunter S. Thompson, and (the recently reformed) P.J. O'Rourke.

Does this have something to do with the non-university-educated backgrounds of so many successful American writers? Is it connected with the private longing of the bulk of North American academics to be the martial and sexual analogues of defectively imagined truck drivers and cattlemen? Perhaps. Probably.

The book launches with a bang in a brilliantly effective two paragraph road scene (probably cribbed for the best segment of the Oliver Stone/James Woods film Salvador), rolls through a mostly interesting series of vignettes (except for chapter nine, which should’ve have been edited out), and terminates with a brief rant on the changing drug times and a parting scam with Thompson hustling pills at a pharmacy with a license stamped Doctor of Divinities.

The book ends with the line: I felt like a monster reincarnation of Horatio Alger… A Man on the Move, and sick enough to be totally confident.

That’s the real Hunter S. Thompson, right there. That’s who he thought he was, felt he was, and wished he could always be. And he could only achieve it, and be a real American as he saw it, when stoned out of his tree. To be a hero, he had to be a deviant. To be a somebody, he had to retreat from almost everybody. That’s the comedy. And, of course, the irony, the pathos, and the tragedy.

I'd recommend this book to nearly any reader, but I bought it for its reference value. It contains reams of compressed sagacity for the reference of writers-in-training like myself. It’s a genuine literary canon. Enjoy.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

More old stuff from the old website. This second review was scrabbled down on 2003-05-15
Hatchet-Job: A Review of Paul Theroux's Hotel Honolulu

Hotel Honolulu is a first-rate hatchet job poking fun at, amongst other things, the sub-literate. It’s neither provocative nor pregnant with meaning and unless you’re a writer, or a writer in training wheels like myself, it’s unlikely to change much in your life. But what this book does do is give great pleasure through its quirkily detailed, fast-paced, keenly observant narrative that feels so very much like non-fiction. Most importantly, like the best of non-fiction, it doesn’t waste your time. It's that rare novel from which you can actually learn something useful about your fellow man and not feel that you might as well have been watching the videot box for all that sticks to the brainpan the day after. Perhaps the other major reason I like this book is that it's authoritative and witty, i.e. frankly elitist and unabashedly sadistic. Books written by authors who fall over themselves to be fair to their subject matter are usually dull and full of platitudes. Such authors are often too polite to become more than half-versed in the human aspect of their subject matter and are unwilling to take risks in print for fear of offending. Fairness of course, has its place: the court-room, the formalism of binding arbitration, or moony Hollywood productions. Surely there are better traits for the ambitious writer such as a willingness to employ sharp words and ask uncomfortable questions when appropriate, and integrity sufficient to refuse to cut corners and to refuse to please the customers willy-nilly to the detriment of the material.

Unlike Paul Hessler's River Town, which is conflict-averse, Paul Theroux's Hotel Honolulu is pro-conflict. It sets up chapter after chapter of combat and then lets the games begin. Like Mark Twain, he has a perverse love of creating absurd situations and then letting his imagination and knowledge of human nature serve as engine and fuel to animate them. Paul Theroux creates a number of odd characters but, because he's understated, i.e. not trying too hard, and well experienced in character portrayal, his characters really work. They are memorable because they are all individuals with specific mannerisms, weaknesses, follies, physiognomies, tastes in apparel, personal histories, and so forth. And, they are memorable because the characters are not worked to exhaustion. They last several chapters, flickering and shining into three full dimensions and then fizzle out in a pop! to conveniently disappear forever.
If only real life was so convenient. On second thought, I suppose it can be. I was a great fan of hostels when I was younger. You could observe the lives of strangers taking place before you: their fights with the landlord, their employers, their girlfriends. Everything was in public, no secrets, no pretence. And you never even had to befriend them, humor them, or even talk to them. You could peer deeply into the lives of people you’d never wish to spend five minutes with if it required the effort of cultivating friendship. A pleasure indeed.

Perhaps it’s a sign of my own shallow knowledge of people, but Theroux’s people came across to me as being very lifelike and almost consistently in character. Part of the reason for this is probably cynical. Theroux perhaps correctly recognizes his limitations and so designed this novel to play to his forte, which is character construction and assassination. He sedulously avoids his greatest weakness which is lengthy plot development.

Below is an example of what I’m referring to in all of the above. This is from the chapter, "The Limping Waiters." The story revolves around two waiters, each of whom has one leg shorter than the other.

She suddenly got up, went to the window, and peered through the blinds, turning her back on him. If she heard the door open and shut she did not show it.
Holding the Gideon Bible, Fishlow came bobbing and swaying behind her, hiked up her happi coat, moved her feet wider part, and as she canted forward to receive him, Fishlow chucked the Bible to the floor, placed his foot on it to brace his short leg, and the thus braced, he entered, lifting her. Then she reacted, as though lifted onto a peg.

'No! No!' she cried out, which terrified him. He stopped, fearing that her plea might carry even through the closed window. But in a softer voice she implored him to continue. All the while, she remained turned away from him, said nothing more, did not appear to see him balancing on one leg to hoist his pants before peddling out of the room, stride-hop, stride-hop.

What could be more irreverent to religion, disrespectful of the handicapped, and sneeringly dismissive of those capable of only clumsy encounters than “Fishlow chucked the bible to the floor, etc.” And yet it slides down the throat and massages like a rich curry. He manages to tweak the mood in the direction of humor, while portraying the scene convincingly and deviously in a manner that suggests detachment, thereby muffling the alarm bells of the guilty conscience. Outstanding!

The book also features a murder carried out by the cross-dressing bisexual son of the same son's married bisexual lover when the first finds out that his role as sex toy to his mom has been taken over by his lover. Again very improbable, even if true to life. But because Paul Theroux does not focus upon moral dilemmas, and instead lightly mocks his people or lends the suggestion that they had whatever coming to them, he never gets bogged down. He reinforces tendencies and suspicions that we all have on vengeful days when we’ve been wronged or feel fed up with yet another shyster play for sympathy. Sod the bastards! we silently wish. Theroux grants it.

His chapters are also spiced up with a naturally fumbling colloquial diction that does far more to breathe the life of recognizable stereotypes into his people than would lengthy description. Every page has characters mangling and slurring English. Hawaii becomes ‘Whyee’, kids becomes ‘keeds’, frustrating becomes ‘falustrating’, What’s the matter with you brother? becomes ‘Assa madda you, brah?’ Or, the opposite occurs, for example when Puamana a prostitute is talking to the narrator:

‘Men are less threatened by me – they’ve kind of vouchsafed that,’ she said.
I stared, not at her but at the word.

After all, lengthy description has been worked to death by masters of the English language since Chaucer’s time, whereas colloquialisms are freshly churned out with each generation. Not to mention that truth really is stranger than fiction. Theroux’s selections of dialogue verbiage sound very true to life. And when you come across this on every page, it reminds you of just how little imagination goes into the average novel, work of history, and so forth.

It’s worth repeating that Paul Theroux operates as a conscious sadist. In all forms of humor, someone has to win and someone has to lose. So perhaps we can agree that slapstick is reducible to physical abuse, humor to mental cruelty, and that wit is a kind of sadism put on a leash. Given that Paul Theroux clearly has no problem with being brutal in what ever manner pleases him, he is able to bring his many years of experience trashing people up and down the food chain to bear upon the subject matter. And not the full brunt of his wrath, but just the right touch of devilishness to bring out your smile and not a frown.

In Peter Hessler's River Town, there's very little by way of humor because the author cannot bring himself to look down upon the people he's living and working with and educating. He acts responsibly and has a martinet of a social conscience, plus a keen desire to be a combination Good Samaritan and Johnny Appleseed. Perhaps this has something to do with being a member of the Peace Corps, or is reflected by his decision to join the Peace Corps. On second thought, Paul Theroux was formerly a member of the Peace Corps, so perhaps this has nothing to do with it.
Either way, Peter Hessler wishes to relate to the people he's with, wishes to immerse himself in their culture and the civilization, their habits and their mores. And of course it is part and parcel of the current politically correct scheme that one respects any and all cultures, especially those abroad and not yet well understood.
This ideology aims to achieve good ends, and I imagine that it does often achieve them. But I also imagine that this ideology is better suited to people incapable of thinking for themselves for such reasons as youth and inexperience or because they’re incapable of or prefer not to think for themselves. If one's aim is to tame the antisocial tendencies of rednecks and gangbangers, then educating them with the notion that they should respect other cultures is a great idea. Otherwise, they’re not likely to figure how to deal with other cultures appropriately until after they’ve committed an act of vandalism.
However, for the rest of us, I would beg for greater tolerance of dissenting opinion. Paul Theroux’s Hotel Honolulu is a fine example of worthy dissent: the opinion that life is not fair and that it is in fact full of random and meaningless events that are often best met with a good laugh for starters. On the other hand, because he has so skillfully understated a variety of dissenting opinions, most of us are unaware that he even presents any in the book. For what it’s worth, it didn’t occur to me either for quite a while.

In sum, unembarrassed by cruelty, craft or dishonesty when dealing with people, Paul Theroux is able to choose from, and reproduce in his work, 100% of the human condition, as it perhaps exists in second-rate Whyee hotels. If he was a scrupulous and moral person, or at least posed as one on paper, then there would be many aspects of human nature and behavior that he would not allow himself to write about for fear that this would suggest that he was less than scrupulous and moral in his private life. Fortunately, he’s too smart for that, and so he can investigate, immerse himself within, partake of, and portray lying, whoring, hypocrisy, and so forth in a frank and natural way. This is part of the real charm of the book. It allows him to illustrate full body characters and allows him to show folly and cruelty in a natural and almost innocent light because he’s not moralizing. In so doing, though he often writes about what most people would consider quite negative aspects of human nature, there is no dark feel to his book at all. He operates under no moral scheme, so has no desire to poke an angry finger in the direction of transgressors of society’s moral and ethical laws. Thus the book is free from heavy handedness and is indeed just a delightful light read.

Biff Cappuccino
Am busy with grad school preparations so I'm putting up some old essays from the original, now defunct website, This puppy was a first attempt at a book review and written on 2003-05-11
The Inscrutable Occidental
A Review of River Town: Two years on the Yangtze by Peter Hessler

River Town is a good read, but in large part because it is a consciously slick production. The author introduces many quite interesting aspects of life as he saw it in the interior of China, but of equal interest to me was his avoidance of risky material in a scrupulous effort to avoid offending the reader. Generally, this would restrict an author to nothing but cliché, and perhaps the same is the case here. But because Peter Hessler’s clichés are vignettes of ‘foreigner meets contemporary Chinese life’, a genre still quite underrepresented, it comes across as fresh and insightful. Which, in a sense, it genuinely is.

Indeed it took 250 pages before the book bored me, which, if I may be forgiven for saying so, is quite impressive because I seem to become bored far more easily than most people. The boredom set in precisely when the author tried to do what he is manifestly incapable of doing: penetrate established issues and bring fresh insight to bear upon them. But perhaps this a flaw common to most travel writers. Writing successfully for a home audience about home issues means adherence to higher standards of knowledge, argument, and rhetoric for one is writing in a more competitive and established marketplace. For those unacquainted with China, even the dustiest of clichés will be perceived as being fresh, the reader charmed by their apparent novelty, while superficial knowledge and trivia are misunderstood to be the wisdom of the veteran expatriate. Graham Greene made a career out of this. But please don’t be put off: for most of the book, the author delivers information of sufficient novelty and agreeability that I didn’t want to put it down. It is a genuinely good back and one that I think will last. For a while, anyway.

In brief, River Town is exotic due to its understated pictorial descriptions of rural China and somewhat familiar because events are interpreted by a sensitive, transplanted mid-western American who studied at Oxford and uses such terms as ‘sporting.’ And everything is laid out in forms and terms that most readers will understand immediately. In other words, the book provides a middling description of China that lies somewhere between giving the reader something new and nothing new. The downside to this marketing strategy is that the book is never riveting. To be riveting would require taking a position on issues. Unfortunately, all positions are potentially offensive to someone, i.e. some potential customer.

As might be expected, the book is most noteworthy, not because of what happened to Peter Hessler in China but because of what he believes happened to him in China. A book is usually only as interesting as its author, the writer being the prism producing the kaleidoscope of events we see in his work. In this regard, key is Peter Hessler’s passive personality and the clumsy encounters with the locals that he sprinkles the book with; his sensible choice of material with regards as to what to put into the book and, more importantly, what to safely keep out of it (most of unrelenting hostility from some of the locals, and most of the abiding unhappiness and hostility he himself felt during the first several months); his multicultural mindset and unrelenting sympathy for other cultures and the common man in particular; his understanding of people and himself that changes with the passage of time and his increasing fluency in Chinese. Perhaps for me the most interesting aspect of all was the author's apparent complete lack of interest in penetrating beyond the first layer of human psychology and his almost unbelievably superficial understanding of human interaction. His comprehension of what is going on around him is only marginally better than that of non-Chinese speaking Bunt, the straight-up, right-thinking, confused, and ultimately easily manipulated central character of Paul Theroux's Kowloon Tong.

Having said this, I should also say in his favor that he makes a diligent effort to understand that people are indeed a product of their backgrounds and that disparity of income breeds envy and so forth. I just wish he could have done something with this other than to just state it in a manner that sounds almost like a tenet of dogma. Again, this is a good book. It could have been better, but it’s not bad. But perhaps I do protest too much.

After all, it is not easy to make a living by writing books. (For what it’s worth, I have yet to find a publisher of my own work.) This being his first book, perhaps he thought it wise that he confine himself to the readily acceptable. Perhaps the next book will be better. Most likely it will be. One can always hope…

For all of the reasons above, the present book lacks striking passages and quickly slips from the memory. Without trying to be harsh, the book is simply and genuinely quite forgettable. For the first 150 pages it conveys the message that everything in the world is intelligible, that well-meaning individuals are the key to resolving every issue, that everything, when it is reduced to its fundamentals, is simply a matter of being friendly and sympathetic to the other side. Obviously this is a worldview that many of us would question. But, this being a book that plies one with scenes of a new place and people, the cinematic suspension of disbelief launches and critical thinking is adjourned in favor of the pleasure of experiencing this fresh and exciting setting and its folk. For most of the book, you're too drawn in by the understated descriptive passages, the bizarre human interaction, and the passage of odd events in general to really notice.

Having said all of this, I still find it impressive Peter Hessler manipulated and massaged his material to such a smooth outcome. And much of what I have criticized about this book did not strike me until many, many pages into it. So, if it's in the bookstore give it a gander. If you’re in a library, check it out. If you’ve been to China it will certainly bring back memories, even if it might not inspire new ones...
Biff Cappuccino

Monday, February 21, 2005

Monday Feb. 21: Am now busy preparing for the National Taiwan University Poly-sci grad school exam. So, I'm learning how to write Chinese, a language I can speak and read but never bothered to write. I have 90 days to commit to memory something along the lines of 3000 characters. Impossible for my brain is a sieve at the best of times.
Anyway, posts will be sporadic for the next week or so as time will be of the essence.
Biff Cappuccino

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Review of The German Generals Talk (1948), by B.H. Liddell Hart

This book is a concise, sensible, readable summary of oral interviews conducted by Hart in 1948 with those of Hitler’s generals who survived the second, and counting, Great War to end all wars. It covers all of the major campaigns and is good as its word, offering "Startling revelations from Hitler's high command." (probably not the hyperbole of choice the late Hart would have gone for, but then again, one regularly reads blurbs for worthy books that depart from the tone of the book itself so far as to not only be misleading but likely to repel the author's intended audience. As is so often the case, the publisher is a Philistine and his crew of education-burdened information-workers are jakes hawking paper & ink widgets to the lowest common denominator in the commode reader marketplace. If Orwell was to really Turn Over in his Grave, rather than due to the double-speak somberly denounced by the (nearly) eponymous documentary, it would more likely be due to the dreadful testimonials on the Penguin editions of his works that make him out to be a latter-day Messiah hybrid of Oprah Winfrey, Christopher Hitchens, and Spencer Johnson (author of Who Moved My Cheese: An A-Mazing Way to Deal with Change in Your Work and In your Life). Orwell, when not feeling our pain, was inflicting it. In those early less civilized days, in addition to beating 'niggers' as a cop in Burma, he punched out the occasional friend when they got too much for him. Norman Mailer seems to have limited himself to head-butting his literary nemeses (ex: Gore Vidal); Bill O'Reilly's reduced to hate-sex and self-affirming barks of "Pinhead" and bellows of "Shaddup!")

Progress, progress. But I digress. As usual.

Anyway, this is a difficult book to review because it is so overstuffed with novel explanations for a grab-bag of main events, despite being written in 1948. For someone like myself who picked up most of his WWII impressions from school books, newspapers and maybe PBS, as usual I made the mistake of assuming the core issues were well-understood, well-ventilated, and old news indeed.

But, as usual, the mainstream edition of events is not shepherded by inventors of novel ideas, as there are too few of these freaks to go around. Instead events are stage-managed, in a manner most politicians would recognize, by diploma-bearing parrots of respectable (i.e. uncontroversial, lawsuit and scandal-proof) exegeses of events. If one holds one’s breath to delve into the low-oxygen works of the more respectable historians, especially if one flips through the tomes of those poor doomed clowns who win literary prizes, such as the appalling Pulitzer (a sort of literary albatross around the neck of good taste), one finds that most respectable authors have only a handful of ideas to market, which they then proceed to bulwark with 300 pages of impressively indexed and annotated facts and figures, examples, anecdotes, and quotes, mostly if not entirely borrowed from the works of other respectable factotums; i.e. by tossing in bale of packaging and a truckload of recycled filler which, to the connoisseur of the field, is indistinguishable from literary oatmeal. For me, a frank ignoramus of the events of WWII, anything would serve to impress. But this book almost overwhelms with its cataracts of ideas and heretical views clearly expressed. I emerged from several days reading this work with my head spinning and three pages of notes written in excitable ink, all of which are refer to specific original ideas which in turn beg further exploration and extrapolation. However, doing so would probably result in a 30 page review which I'm no more prepared to write than you're prepared to read.

Perhaps the best way to introduce this book is to let it speak for itself. This is from chapter 10, titled "How Hitler Beat France -- And Saved Britain"

The real story of any great event is apt to be very different to what appears at the time. That is especially the case in war. The fate of millions of people turns on decisions that are taken by one man - who may be influenced by the most curious of motives in reaching a decision that changes the whole course of history. The way he makes up his mind is known only by a few men behind the scenes, who usually have good reason for keeping it quiet. The truth sometimes leaks out later; sometimes never.

When it emerges it often bears out the saying that "truth is stranger than fiction." The novelist has to appear plausible, and would hesitate to make use of such astounding contradictions as occurred in history through some extraordinary accident or twist of psychology.

Nothing could be more extraordinary than the way that the decisive events of 1940 were shaped. France was overcome by an offensive in which few of the higher executants had any faith, and the invasion only succeeded through a belated change of plan on the German side that happened to fit the situation produced by rigidity of plan combined with overconfidence on the French side. Stranger still was the way that the British Army escaped, and Britain itself was preserved from invasion. The truth here is quite contrary to the popular picture. It would have seemed incredible to the British people at that time, and equally incredible to most of Hitler's ardent followers in Germany.

... The escape of the British army from France has often been called "the miracle of Dunkirk." For the German armored forces had reached the channel coast behind the back of the British army while this was still deep in the interior of Flanders.... Those who got away have often wondered how they managed to do so.

The answer is that Hitler's intervention saved them -- when nothing else could have. A sudden order from them over the telephone stopped the armed forces just as they were inside of Dunkirk...Rundstedt and other generals concerned, as executive commanders or on the higher staffs, gave me accounts from their different angles of the staggering order and its effects.

Hitler turns out not to be the three-testicled psycho and sociopath whose arch-fantasy was to have German heifers dollop Aryan turds on his mongrel Bavarian snout. Well, no surprise there. And surely the whole mystique about Hitler’s allegedly inscrutable personality is easily understood as the inability of the unintelligent to understand someone who can think for himself: i.e. an entirely removed species from themselves. Most of these dunderheads are like the sort of Christian who opines in a knowing way that God works in mysterious ways, a face-saving camouflage for “I don’t care to think about it” which is usually a patent admission of “I’m incompetent to think about it.” Reading the works of bold Christian thinkers such as Thomas Aquinas or Tertullian, one is at least impressed by the entertainment value of their colorful inventions, their over-stretched casuistry, their tortured attempts to plug round holes with square pegs in their fearless rationalizations of the implausible.

Either way, Hitler proves to be much like any other highly adept politician. Like Lincoln and like Churchill, because he's thoroughly familiar with political trends and economic developments, not only domestic but foreign, he sees farther and much more clearly that his generals, who were professional soldiers and aristocrats who took pride in their distance from politics and disesteem for the mob.

It’s perhaps worth prefacing that it took Lincoln two years to find a general that could prosecute his war, having passed over various political appointees (politicians, wire-pullers, and CEOs who canvassed for the job) and incompetent professional military commanders before he stumbled across the oft-drunk Ulysses Grant, whose primary strength turned out to be his willingness to throw his men into the slaughter without hesitation, thus earning himself the nickname of "the Butcher" from his own troops. Hitler, likewise, found his own generals to be lacking in foresight, timid (like Lincoln's General Mclellan, they also consistently overestimated the strength and difficulty of defeating enemy troops, while sneering at their political handler as being no better than a monkey), and tactically and strategically conservative.

Hitler's generals were also very politically unaware which greatly hampered their ability to prosecute strategic warfare. His generals were often very competent with the nuts and bolts of military tactics and quick studies therein, but they had very little sense of how European politics worked.

For example, Hitler's generals were overwhelmingly opposed to launching an attack against France in 1940. So opposed were they that they established a cabal of generals to lead their armies on Berlin to overthrow Hitler and the Nazis in a military coup, thus reviving the ancient Roman tradition begun by Julius Caesar and which threatened to take place figuratively speaking with McArthur and Truman. In the end, the leading general refused to cooperate believing, probably correctly, that Hitler's popularity with the masses was too great and that they would not survive the coup. But equally surprising is that Hitler himself was very worried about moving on France. He saw it as a gamble, one that he could lose easily. He went into France apparently, not because he wished to expand his empire into France, but because he was unable to secure a peace treaty with France or England. The enemy he feared most was Soviet Russia. He felt he could not fight both France and Russia at the same time in 1942. Thus, he had to take out France first. (I had previously presumed the Hitler peace overtures were a ruse.)

The miracle of Dunkirk took place apparently because Hitler was opposed to invading England. He felt that England and the Catholic Church were pillars of stability in Europe. He believed Germans were racially not constituted for living in the tropics and that the British colonies were thus of no interest to Aryan Germans. Thus, he let the British troops depart from Dunkirk unhampered for three days. Similarly, he prosecuted the Battle of Britain with little fervor and apparently only attacked England by air after first being pushed by Churchill's repeated bombings of German cities. Most of Churchill's government wished to sue for peace with the Germans, but Churchill was adamant about going to war. Churchill could not get the Germans to sink British shipping, so he tried getting Hitler's goat by ordering the secret bombing of Hamburg, etc. (FDR of course pursued a lite-version, via trade wars and contrived international incidents, of the same tactic with the Japanese)

Apparently Hitler was not interested in attacking North Africa either, but he worried that Mussolini would change sides and join the Allied countries. This was the only reason he participated in the North Africa campaign at first.

The list of surprises goes on and on. The German military apparently, like the Americans and British, first prepared for the Second World War by amassing cavalry. Rommel, for example loved horses and disliked tanks. He initially knew nothing about armored divisions and his successes were due primarily to tactical brilliance (example: driving truck caravans towards Allied bases from different directions to create a misimpression that they were being attacked by a vast armada of tanks). Rommel was held in such high esteem by the British troops that a positive accomplishment was termed by them "a Rommel."

In contrast to the standard notion that Hitler acted in the manner of an Oriental despot, one of his generals, Zeitzler, often lost his temper with him. He tendered his resignation on numerous occasions and it was only in 1944 after committing himself to hospital and faking an illness that he was relieved of command. In other words, Hitler's generals, this was not the only one, could be contumacious and retain their positions. Indeed, it could be difficult to get fired.

This is not to say that Hitler didn't make numerous mistakes. He fired good generals over sex scandals because he was a prude. He was also in the habit of ensuring loyalty to his command by promoting younger generals over those more qualified. This of course led to disgruntled senior staff and incompetence in the field. Towards the end of the war, because of Hitler's great successes overruling the judgment of his generals, he tended not to trust their judgment in anything. He micromanaged battles with results that his generals were like Hollywood rent-a-directors slavishly following film scripts. He refused on many occasions to let generals retreat and this led to avoidable losses on innumerable occasions. It turns out that, rather than offense being the best defense, that in fact the best defense is defense. Apparently, German divisions holding good defensive postures were often able to fend off allied troops up 18 times their own number. This is one of the reasons it took so long to defeat the Germans after D-Day despite the Germans being vastly outnumbered and never having anything approaching air superiority.

Hitler also put Gestapo spies on all of his generals which did nothing for morale or creative thinking, as one can imagine. And, the nature of military orders changed for the worse. In WWI orders were deliberately brief to permit flexibility of execution by field officers. With Hitler on the throne, propaganda was written on high and then inserted into orders for the troops below and micromanagement became the order of the day. Hitler envied Stalin, including his purge of the Russian military because, post-purge, Stalin's generals were so completely obedient. On the other hand, what he did not realize was that the Russians, more fearful of Stalin than the Germans, were terrified of taking any sort of risk and dared not deviate in any form from their orders. As a result, they tended to attack in a cyclical fashion enabling German generals to predict like clockwork their attacks. It was this sort of dogmatic manner which led to so many deaths in the First World War, where generals would operate in an honorable fashion and launch attacks after giving the enemy sufficient time to down its breakfast, for example.

Apparently, German troops were prepared for the winter conditions in Russia after the end of the first winter. So much for the prevailing cliché. Russia's strength was Stalin's ability to drive large numbers of men like slaves into battle, as was the case with the Chinese Nationalists and Communists and with Vietnam's Ho Chi-min. With sufficient cannon-fodder much can be achieved, though surely the achievement is usually not worth the effort if one dispassionately weighs the pros against the cons. The Russians, like the US soldiers in the Civil War, were gunned down by their own officers if they tried to run in the heat of battle. Again, was the US really improved by the Civil War? A topic of discussion which leads profitably to some highly provocative and searching conclusions when the bilge of patriotism is purged from the podium.

Last but not least, Hart mentions that French Communists, Gaullists, and Girandists (the primary French resistance groups) constantly ratted to the Germans about each other's activities like the anti-Roman revolutionary splittists of Monty Python's Life of Brian. This mockery went on until 1943 when the British secret service walked in and forced them to act like adults, supplying them and directing their operations. This was successful because French resistance bombing disrupted trains carrying supplies and reinforcements after D-Day. Additionally, allied air supremacy and the unexpected long-range, power and accuracy of Allied Navy artillery led to significant German losses and tactical failures.

There’s this and much, much more. Highly recommended.

Biff Cappuccino

Saturday, February 12, 2005

Patriotism - another Mark Twain knock-off. I haven’t changed the original story (“Political Economy”) much at all really. Just run through it with a rake and clippers, pruning verbs and adjectives and grafting my own on. Hard work for my brain’s not in the habit of manufacturing metaphors and off-color verbiage on demand like this. But practice makes for perfection… Sort of like practicing rap. After a few weeks of mumbling to yourself in step as you clip down the sidewalk, it becomes second nature to speak in rhyming couplets. I prefer creative stuff, building from scratch, to this spade and shovel drudgery, but it's got to be done as I see it... Biff Cappuccino

Patriotism is the basis of all good citizenry. The ablest men of all ages have brought to bear upon the subject the...

[I was interrupted and told that a stranger wished to see me down at the door. I went and confronted him, and asked to know his business, struggling the whole time to keep a hold on my thoughts, which were wriggling mischievously and ready to bust loose at any point and flock off to the netherlands. Privately, I wished the stranger would be sullied by a mob of pariah dogs and chased away to hell which, given the heat these several days, was reasoned to presently be due north. I was all hot and bothered; he cool as a cumquat. He was dreadfully sorry to have disturbed me but on passing by the premises he ventured that I'd profit from the satellite TV dish paradigm. I said, "Yes, yes good man -- go on -- what about it?" He said there was nothing about it, nothing in particular -- nothing but that he would like to install one for my education and edification. I was new to housekeeping, sojourning in hotels and boarding houses all of my life. Like most anyone else would in my station, I try to appear (to strangers) to be an old housekeeper; consequently I said in an offhand way that I had been wanting for some time to have a parcel of TV dishes planted, but -- and the stranger started, and looked inquisitively at me, but I was tranquil. I thought that if I chanced to make any mistakes, he would not catch me by my countenance. He said he would rather have my bidness than any man's in town. I was warmed by his enthusiasm and said, "Well all right then," and went off to do battle with my great subject again, when he called me back and noted that it would be important to know exactly how much "flatware" I wanted put up, what parts of the home I wanted adorned, and what quality of gear I preferred. He threatened to catch me out at this point, given my unfamiliarity with the customs of domiciles in these parts; but I went through creditably and he probably never suspected that I was new around here. I told him to put up eight "pots," and plant them all on the roof, and use the best quality of ceramic. He said he could furnish the "plain" article at 20 dollars; "glazed," 25 dollars; "Teflon-coated all-weather coaxial cable," at 30 dollars, that would fetch a signal at any time, no matter where it was emanating from, and "persuade it that further wandering was surplus to requirements; plus a decoder to dephlogisticcate and domesticate it." I said dephlogisticcate was no mean designation, emanating from a man of his professional persuasion, but, the study of pragmatics aside, I liked the Teflon-coated all-weather coaxial cable and would take that model. Then he said he COULD make do with two hundred and fifty feet; but to do it proper, and make the best job in the borough of it, and entice the admiration of the vulgar and profane alike, and compel all audiences to admit they never saw a more shambolic and hyperborean display of TV flatware since they came into this world, he supposed he really couldn`t get along without four hundred, though he wouldn’t hold it against me if I was squeamish, and trusted he was willing to try. I said, go ahead and use four hundred, and engineer any kind of project he pleased out of it, but let me get back to my work. So he was off my hands at last; and now, after half an hour spent in getting my train of patriotic thoughts coupled together again, I am ready to go on once more.]
gallantest lights of commutarian sensibility, their empirical wisdom, and founts of learning. The mystery-workers of deep folk-feeling, the mighty protectors of anointed realm, and the sacred apostles of chauvinistic multiculturalism, of all ages, all civilizations, and one nation undivided, from Confucius down to Mao Zedong, have --
[Here my train of thought was uncoupled, and I was required to go down and confer further with that TV flatware man. I hurried off, bubbling and frothing with precocious mind-pictures swaddled in words of such grace and fascination that each one of them was in itself a rolling juggernaut of polysyllables that might be ten minutes passing by an applauding audience, and once more I confronted him -- he so mild and phlegmatic, I so roiled and agitated. He was standing erect with the reflective composure of a face in Mount Rushmore, with one shoe amidst my orchids, and the other steady among my poinsettia, his palms fixed akimbo, his hat-brim tilted forward, one eye shut and the other contemplating critically and admiringly the jungle of excrescences embellishing my rooftop. He said now THERE was a state of things to make a man glad to be alive; and added, "I leave it to YOU if you ever saw anything more deliriously picturesque than eight co-axial dishes on the southwest corner of a building facing northeast?" I said I had no present recollection of any artwork that transcended it. He opined that nothing in heaven or earth but the Buddhas carved into the living stone of the Three Gorges was superior to it by way of natural scenery. All that was needed now, he verily believed, to render my house a balanced esthetic was to kind of touch up the other corners a little, and thus "add to the generous coup d`oeil a soothing uniformity of spiritual propriety which would harmonize the excitement naturally consequent upon the first coup d`etat." I asked him if he learned to talk out of a book, and if I could borrow it anywhere? He smiled amiably, and instructed me that his rhetorical form was not taught in books, and that nothing but familiarity with the mysteries of applied science could prepare a man to manage his style of palaver with impunity. He then calculated an estimate, and said that about a dozen more pots distributed about my roof would about do me proper, and he guessed five hundred feet of cable would serve the purpose; and added that the first eight had got a head start of him, so to speak, and he’d used up a mere trifle of material more than he had figured on -- a hundred feet or round abouts. I said I was in a fearful rush, and I wished we could get this project configured once and for all, so that I could get on with my proper business. He said, "I could have put up those eight pots, and be done with it -- some men WOULD have done so. But no; I said to myself, this man is new around here and I will perish before I do him wrong; there ain`t pots sufficient to their appointed purpose on that rooftop, and I for one will never sleep proper again unless I`ve done as I would have done to me, by the Lord’s eternal grace, and told him so. Stranger, my obligation is fulfilled and I breathe easier but for a tightness due to a pang of unavoidable regret; now if the satellites should suffer seasonal rearrangement for the peregrinations of the magnetic north pole or daylight savings time, leaving your signal beyond the pale, and if --" "There, now, there," I said, "plant the other dozen -- add five hundred feet of coaxial cable -- do anything and everything you feel is wanted; but calm your intimations and premonitions, and try to keep your feelings where they remain accessible to the dictionary. Meanwhile, if we have achieved an understanding, I shall return to my work again."

It took a full painful hour this time just to resuscitate the frame of mind frustrated by the last interruption; but I had accomplished it at last and ventured to proceed again.

…scrapped with this wondrous subject, and the worthiest among them have found it a great opponent, and one that always comes up fresh and smiling after every knockdown. The great Confucius said that he would rather be a patriotic philosopher than a congressman. George Washington related that professional patriotism was the grandest profession that the patriot was worthy of professing; and even our own GW has said obscurely, but manly-like, that "Patriotism --
Biff: That's as much as I can stomache for now. Off to try my hand at working up something completely fresh story-wise by my own hand, but which operates in a similar vein to tickle both fancy and funny bone... (judging by that last infelicitious phrase...haha...this is going to take a few more days...)

Thursday, February 10, 2005

My Scooter (a knockoff of Mark Twain’s My Watch)

The following crude imitation of Twain’s work is going to suck, and suck badly no doubt. But, you have to bust a few eggs to make an omelet. Mine are still scrambled. This is some rocky cornball, but I have to start somewhere. Bottom is usually where that somewhere lies. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Either way, it’s going to take a couple of weeks to figure out how to do this sort of stuff. But I shall…

My Scooter: An Instructive Little Tale

My new scooter had been a buck stallion these six months. She was infallible and reliable, a trustworthy and boon companion, her constitution and anatomy imperishable. But at last, one day I had to take her to the repair shop. Nothing adventurous, just to tap up the tires, which I’d put off for a while, and which were now soft and become twin fish-tailing accident-generating disasters in tandem. I had dithered and put the thing off, gripped as I was by a premonition of doom featuring my beloved machine anatomized by death merchants going chop-chop in a chop shop.

But by and by I got it together and commanded my concerns to depart and made for a certified repair outlet. A grubby personage trotted over. I kicked the tires in the casual way of the connoisseur and suggested “Top ‘em up, sir, if you will please.” The head of the establishment took a personal fancy to my machine, preambled over and looked her up and down knowingly. With a sonorous gravitas he said, “Why fellah, what she needs is a new spark plug.” Before I could digest the import and implications of this declaration, he snapped his fingers and his No. 1 grease monkey was having at her with his profane hands.

I broke out in a sweat. I tried to remonstrate, to have the headman understand there was nothing the matter with the mechanical operation of my pet. But no; all this human cabbage could see was that it had a touch of blue smoke and so just HAD to have a new spark plug. I danced around him with anguish and implored him to let her alone. But like Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon, the dice was cast and came up craps.

I put my foot down. I refused to pay for services unrequired. But he would have none of my requirements. Waving me down from his modest height, he informed me that I was freshly arrived and an American to boot and proudly stated to all and sundry grubby fellows in attendance that he was providing his services gratis; that it was a free courtesy and a fine karmic gesture to a stranger from a strange land, a hale and hearty welcome from the sons of the Yellow Emperor as it were. A round of huzzah! went up from his crew.

But as for I, well I trembled with exasperation. I inquired if I could have the privilege of perusing the operating manual. "Manual?" he inquired. I explained, "For the spark plug, my good man." He replied that for a professional of his years and experience, manuals weren’t for reading but for writing. “Is that a fact,” I responded. And he looked at me strangely, snorted at his boys, placed his arm over his chest and began hooting with a sudden pain. I slunk away with my scooter, launching her into the colorful twilight smog, I looked back to find him settled in his Buddha-bead boss chair, still chuckling, but tired now, the unusual exertion having tuckered him out, leaving him a sort of snorfling and crying himself to sleep as it were.

My scooter ran faster now, but unpredictably, like she was on the laughing gas. She launched from the sidelines with gusto, whooshing like a rocket, blowing sparks out the back end, thrusting me violently into turbulent traffic and threatening to fetch me to my Great Reward before I had time to enjoy it. During the first day, the damage was limited to an old crone, her groceries scattered hither and thither; it cost me my lunch money to compensate her. The following day, my pet chose a taxi, pitching me over the hood and beaching herself alongside the vehicle where I found her, a picture of mechanical serenity. The taxi operator thumped me with a baseball bat and filched my wallet while I was still snatching at stars. The next day we soared like a missile into the backside of a bus, rattling my teeth and my confidence. Then a red light tempted her and we got broadsided in the intersection by a gravel truck, the driver considerate in the usual way of his vocation, backing up and driving over me again to be sure I was feeling no pain.

Things were getting out of hand, so I took her to another dealer. He took a look and pronounced authoritatively that the carburetor was in need of winding up. The float was drowning and needed First Aid. I took her back on the road, and now she huffed and puffed like a paralytic, despondent and unable to build a respectable head of steam. She wheeled pathetically along, her spirits sunk. We were passed by wrist rockets, pocket rockets. Then busses and then even the rag and bone man, the greybeard peddling past in shorts and skinny shanks, waving as he passed us by. Pedestrians felt sorry and offered to push. I was never going to get anywhere in life. I missed appointments, went hungry, was late for dinner.

So I got me to another industrial specialist. He opined that the carburetor was fine, but that the seals on the shocks were losing their tether. They was frayed. He pointed to a leak. But now I was fond for the former days when I took the damaged scooter slow-poking around. Now she bottomed out in every pothole, jarring my bones and knocking me half-senseless.

I hunted up another professional opinion. This one offered that the tires were scalloping. I smiled in a knowing way, not wanting to be mistaken for a newbie in the vehicular arts. He planted new steel-belted studded radials on her and I felt satisfied. But then I discovered that every time I aimed the handle bars in the direction of a left turn, my pet kept plowing straight ahead. Whenever I wanted to go straight, she insisted on a right turn. Formerly, getting to a destination was an easy navigation. Now, I perforce I had to aim by a circular route, going counterclockwise and taking into account wind speed, humidity, and ambient temperature. I apprehended that I had to look at my destination and then point my pet 180° in the opposite direction of the one I was aiming for. She’d take me in a long camber, wandering royally across lanes, scaling sidewalks like it was nobody’s business but her own, and just generally breaking all the legal laws and busting out a myriad infractions of common sense. By and by, though, she did her best to get me somewhere proximate to my destination. Whereupon I hailed a cab.

Getting impatient with taxi drivers, also frequent victims of vehicles that refuse all by circuitous routes, I took the poor suffering scooter to another doctor to have the tires diagnosed, anatomized, and entered into the surgery clinic if need be. This splendid gentleman informed me with great majesty and generosity that he’d fix the tires for free, but that the clutch plates was unfortunately worn a tad. I emerged on the street again, this time with a creative transmission whose gears took uncalled for liberties with artistic license. The automatic transmission now automatically shifted from first to third gear, from third to fifth, and from fifth into second and then from fourth into first gear, with the impressive precision of a musician running through his scales. My loyal pet took on the mien of a bohemian rascal. With all this shifting and jerking I could neither hold onto my groceries or my lunch. I lost my wife off the back, leaving me lonesome and holding on for dear life itself. I have never seen her since and do not quite know who abandoned whom or whom abandoned who. But then I realized this was a capital favor of magnificent magnitude and I returned to the smiling doctor and gave the good man a bonus. But too much of a good thing can make it a bad one. I plain got to missing my wife, my gears, my groceries and my lunch.

I took the scooter to yet another expert, priding myself on never allowing the sacred flame of hope extinguish in a valiant breast. When I looked him over I recognized a seedy former acquaintance from Atlantic Canada, but, who, unlike myself, was unreconstituted and unrevaluated and just plain unrepentant. Living overseas hadn’t cured him of his pastoral afflictions, but spoiled him by infecting him with a new crust of city ones. I never had a particular high opinion of him and was not surprised to discover the slacker had departed the high and mighty art of English teaching for Zen and the increasingly low, as I was beginning to see it, art of motorcycle maintenance.

Fortunately he was too busy getting acquainted with my pet to recognize me. He looked her over with a lascivious grin and pronounced, "Well Holy O Martha! If she ain't just defective all around? Even a gravelroader goaler knows this here's a gonner. By gum, she needs to be fixed up and replaced, root and branch, hook and sinker, whole hog I tell ye. Hmm… But maybe this here mother-scratcher's got potential. Sure. Tell ye what I’m going to do, Sir. I'll make it my personal mission to save her from the heathen’s junkyard. She just needs an overhaul, a tuneup, and a life insurance policy. Follow me into my office sir and let’s see if we can’t find us a contract to be signed."

I picked up a crow bar and brained him on the spot. I had him cremated, his ashes placed in a pristine Buddhist urn overlooking a mountainous heap of fengsui at my own expense.

Chinese friends of mine often wonder what happens to English teachers when they get old. Do they just retire and fade away? Or is there a special fate for them in heaven? I've never had the heart to tell them.
Biff: Yeah, I know this is crap. I hate it too. But, it's a start.