Monday, October 31, 2011

Chasing Amish rainbows

Whenever I drive through northern Wisconsin, the sight of Amish people ambling along in their horse-drawn carriages never ceases to cause a double take. They're like rainbows. Always worth a looksie. And just about as approachable. I do, however, have plans to visit with them in the future given their unusual contribution to the agribusiness workforce up in the Northwoods. Quite amazingly, they increasingly stand alongside Mexican workers up there as the primary remaining pools of workers in the particular business area I'm exploring. Before I can get to what they do, I'm struck by how little I know about who they are. Just the basics are still a mystery. Amish vs. Mennonite, for example. I always simply referred to their community near Medford as Amish. Usually with an "um, but I'm not really sure" attached to the description. Thankfully, the Amish have taken to the web to clarify things. They may not be the most up-to-date on design, but the flock that's migrated at least in part to sharing their ways on the web are nonetheless informative. Now I know that the Medford-area Amish are the oldest such community in Wisconsin. I also see that even the Amish bitch about the winter. So are we really all that different? Actually, yes. Unless they're somehow finding their way to this blog right now thanks to a Google search after a dinner party conversation about me brought the subject up. WAY different. Still, I dig the carriages - you gotta give them mad props for keeping that technology fresh.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Clarity found on the road

I drove across a healthy swath of Iowa yesterday. Starting the early morning in Sioux City on the western side of the state. That followed a sprint from the Twin Cities the night prior - 4+ hours on the road with next to no one but longhaul truckers to fly by, ever believing in the saving power of cruise control. There's something well worn yet validating about driving a serious chunk of American highway. The rhythms of shuffling through on an iPod jacked into a rental car stereo being the only essential update on a ritualistic transit that feels occasionally necessary for anyone born in flyover America. After a morning out west, I drove to central Iowa. I eventually made my way into Des Moines where the area around Drake University's campus gave me some evening time to regroup and gather my thoughts over good coffee served by mildly distracted hipsters. Not that the drip coffee served in the gas stations and diners is bad. Tastes change, but the buzz remains the same. Much like that found on the road. I've gone poetically lowball on my accommodations the past two nights - motels, where the free WiFi provides a distraction from the otherwise questionable bedding. That's another update to this America we've all seen shift beneath us. But is it meaningful? Depends on what you do with it, I suppose. Regardless, I've been talking with the sort of people I know so well even if in the particular cases of these Iowans, they're new to me. And then this morning I took a satisfying, mind-clearing run to and through the Iowa State campus (last night's motel was a Super 8 just off I-35 in Ames). I loved how this weekend's NYTimes profile piece on Haruki Murakami gave further voice to how his running sustains him. I share that needful passion. A run in the morning orders my thoughts like no other constitutional act. Especially before, in my case, the day ahead means many many more miles on those highways. Today, more of Iowa. Then, Wisconsin. Like a salmon swimming back upstream. In short doses this sort of migration is what connects me - and maybe more of us than we take time to realize - to the country we miss so much.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Siri, is this Heaven?

I'm off to do some research on the ground in Iowa. Then Wisconsin. With just a touch of Minnesota dusted on my arrival and departure. I'm hoping to do more with Twitter this trip as way of quicker updates and commentary. You can follow me over yonder @ emaggie. This is all the more alluring as a distraction thanks to my brand new iPhone. Which arrived as a result of my old iPhone (a rotary) seemingly throwing itself under the bus at such a time as the new model's arrival. Coincidence? I think not. But whenever I ask Siri wassup with that, she just snickers.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Found fish freak-out

If you have anything to do with fishing or the consumption of fish, the recent news of a disease being spotted in Pacific wild salmon in the general vicinity of the Northwest has to freak you out. That is, it should - if you listen to the experts and the front page news in Seattle over the past week. The concern is a disease called "infectious salmon anemia" or ISA. It has devastated farmed Atlantic salmon populations in Scandinavia and South America. This is the first time it's been seen in North America. Once it shows up, fish act like normal but then die in droves. It lands on my conversational plate not only because I consume wild salmon like a family of brown bears. I'm also becoming attuned to the problems of these sorts of animal industry disease threats. Some well-informed readers might suggest the mental leap to link ISA with "mad cow disease" in terms of separate but equal threats. But what little I know allows even me to see that's a tough epidemiological stretch to make. The link is true, however, in the fact that such diseases share the characteristic of being able to devastate an industry. No matter what you may think about animal industries, these viral threats can knock the snot out of a population. Plus for me, the larger point comes around metaphorically, given that I've been looking at another industry-specific disease with quite similar and equally devastating effects ("aleutian disease virus" or ADV). Which leads me to ask if other examples come to mind. Just yell 'em out - I'd love to hear them. Or we can all just freak out separately, as we fill our respective bomb shelters with wild salmon jerky and vancomycin.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

When Judd Apatow puts Seth Rogen in a lab coat, you'll know I'm onto something.

I'd intended to see the movie "Contagion" before heading to Hong Kong. What can I say - I'm a glutton for the sort of punishment that comes from being up to date on cultural discomforts. I'd heard good things. So when I finally got around to seeing it last night, I was struck by not only the obvious strong points - the powerful paranoia that breaks out, the way you almost immediately start counting how often you touch your face, the way everyone thereafter looks like a carrier of some sort. I also had to think that this was yet another recent movie dealing head on with the issue of animal research. Just like in this summer's "Planet of the Apes" where the research subjects are even more prominent (hell, they're right there in the title). Without hopefully giving away anything to those who haven't seen "Contagion", there's a pivotal scene where a monkey's very-human, still-OK response in the lab gives everyone reason for optimism. I'd argue that here again viewers are asked to actively consider animal lab testing. Am I wrong to think this is an increasing storyline? And since movie reviewers are always hard-pressed to find indications of a trend in the current crop of releases, I'd say we're seeing the leading edge of a trend when it comes to portraying animals in the lab. I don't know what this trend could be called - "monkey loving" is my suggestion. I'm not arguing that this perceived trend is necessarily anti-research. Although "monkey research = bad" is certainly the point of "Planet of the Apes". I'm just sayin' that the shorthand for animal testing as a narrative technique feels more out in front and centered. Put that in your banana peel pipe and do what you will with it.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

What sounds even worse than a pitch for "Zookeeper 2"

The oddball horrors afoot in Ohio thanks to a private zookeeper who just plain lost it all last night are on top of the national news today. One should expect no less for a story of open season being declared on a rampaging herd of diseased monkeys, tigers, lions and their less banner-headline worthy but still just plain loose compatriots. You can't make this stuff up. When I first heard I was reminded of the mixed reality of one crazed part of south Texas. As opposed to all the other crazy parts. In particular, that of the King Ranch which was for many decades the largest privately-owned tract of land in the United States. The King Ranch now is home to widely diversified business interests. Which happen to include private animal hunting reserves. I learned of that when I visited a neighboring ranch about ten years ago which is owned by the family of friends. When we drove past the massive fences that ring the King Ranch, our friends told of how you could pay to hunt just about anything there. All of it flown in from some other part of the world, and all of it outside of regular hunting season limitations since those species weren't naturally Texan by birth. Aside from a question forming in my mind for Rick Perry at the next GOP debate, I'm left wondering what sort of reaction various groups are going to have to the hunt underway in Ohio. This is a very Jurassic Park sort of moment. Or not - I don't exactly expect diseased monkeys to threaten an amusement park set to open there. But I know better than to ever count nature out.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

A time ripe for new coinage - Opportunify Now

One of the well-traveled memes surrounding the various "Occupy (insert location here)" movements around the Nation concerns how social networks are being used. That's the shortest of lazy shorthand - I'm as guilty as the next feller for bringing it up. But I'm nonetheless thinking - and seeing in action - how things like Twitter, Facebook and network updates on YouTube offer a bulletin board for everyone to stick up their "I need a ride to..." and "Looking for a bassist..." equivalent announcements. What might have happened back in the 90s if specific groups of activists had such tools at their disposal? Not just to get people to join whatever action, but to publicize whatever happened after the fact. Just so that there's no confusion given the above and prior mentions of committed people and actions they take - I'm talking in very narrow terms about a very specific cause that was gathering steam in the 90s which I've seen echoes of recently. It should also be noted that these networking tools have a serious double-edge to them. Non-movement individuals can monitor and maybe even claim that they know what's going on. So my questions go to what might be called the off-center or tertiary movements that just may be recently rejuvenated. Not the anti-"Wall Street" or "besmirch the damned influential" movements. For this mental and physical exercise in finding the protest, you must take it a step further. I'm looking at those taking what I've always seen as a class-based argument to a very distended place. Those folks who are now, in effect, saying that they've had a bone to pick for years and this is the time to bring it up again. Opportunify (insert location here), if you will.

With that platform somewhat set, I'm prepping to head to Iowa with these and other questions in the quiver. Iowa, you ask? Believe it or not, the Great State that gave us the fictional Corporal Radar O'Reilly and the setting for the extended Dockers ad that was "Field of Dreams" is indeed an environment rich with material for what I'm researching. Expect many more clues to that end supplied here in the week-plus ahead - both prior to and during my visit. Please check back (or sign up for the email updates using the form in the right hand column to do so). As always, thanks for reading.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Is it possible to understand crazed commitment?

To a certain degree, I'm trying to get inside the mind of a quite particular character - the crazed yet totally committed protester. There are many variations. I'm wrestling with the why and the what behind those exposure seekers or windmill tilters or just plain out of their fool minds they're so into whatever thing crowd. I'll admit being intrigued by that degree of Kool Aid consumption. I don't really have a big history of such cause craziness myself. I've been more often into drive-by activism. Like that thing not long ago over on my long-running personal blog - I somewhat facetiously called for dumping garbage in front of Williams-Sonoma stores after receiving ill treatment. But then I was almost immediately found and satisfied in reply by an awesome PR exec with that company - their intelligence gathering would make the Mossad envious. Another recollection - which came quite out of the blue on a pre-dawn run today - is that of this gonzo dude from a journalism class in college who went deep deep undercover literally posing as a homeless guy. Flat out stayed in a mission, probably even drank anti-freeze and god knows what else with the folks around him, just plain went all native on a story that seemed to come out of left field. I don't know if I liked or even understood that degree of awesome commitment on his part. I think I respected it. Crazy for a cause. Good or way way out there bad - there's something to be said for that. I still don't get it. But I'm trying to understand.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

An October stir amidst the falling leaves

For all the blather surrounding the "Occupy (Insert Location Here)" wave, I'm left wondering one thing - why protest in October? Is there something inherently more activist-friendly or inspiring about this time of year? I may be overstating the correlation thanks to the most-cliched historical example (Russia in October of 1917) or the surging focus upon current protests. But I'm also thinking about a much less covered brand new example in the area I'm trying to better understand that has deep roots in October activism. I'd love to hear anyone's crackpot theories about why certain segments of society get their collective Underoos all up in a bunch in October. Maybe it has something to do with the baseball playoffs, or lack thereof for certain folks? Go Brewers, by the way. Or maybe folks get unduly lathered up by overpriced corn mazes? Undiagnosed pumpkin allergies? Yes, these are all highly plausible. Nonetheless, I think the harvest of such ideas is not all in at this point.

Monday, October 10, 2011

More than just Pretty Pursuasion

For all the repetitive reflection offered in response to the sad passing of Steve Jobs, I've been considering another transition. I'm not talking someone who died too young. I'm referring to a band that called it quits after maybe too long - R.E.M. hung it up last month after 31 years together. Plenty of music nerds dissected it, "The Daily Show" did what they do best with it, and maybe a few folks actually got it right. And by "right" I essentially mean that they somehow decided that a band like R.E.M. defies easy summation. And of that band's personalities, Michael Stipe certainly became the front man (no matter how he started out). I bring it up because I've been thinking about people who set out to do one job in particular and then end up striving (evolving?) to affect people's tastes. Steve Jobs certainly did that, maybe with more original intent than most. Just look at all the things he made us think are not only cool, that had been intended to seem essential. I'm willing to argue that Stipe somehow grew into someone with a voice and a determination to have a broader influence on society. I certainly listened to his political posturing, whether or not I always agreed with it. And as such, did what Stipe offered represent a political (or social) cause and effect? I'm not willing to go way out there and say "yes." But I'd still put him in the same category as a figure like Steve Jobs. OK, now stop laughing. Let that one gestate. Reply if you've got something worth sharing. And you're welcome, even if only for a bit of levity in the middle of a Monday afternoon.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Chinese PR takes a few baby steps

I noticed a quick follow-up on that Shanghai subway collision. Just 4 days after I left Shanghai, an accident on the 10 Line injured nearly 300 people. The details that now come with an apology are a bit muted, but pretty crazy.  Now I've seen a much better breakdown of the breakdown, along with the punishments that followed. The PR blowback correction now being offered by the Chinese managers seems more self-critical and willing to admit mistakes were made. So call it an improved reaction to a scary situation - conductors using cell phones to call between trains to check on traffic up ahead. Still, just imagine if that happened in New York.

It's hard to concentrate on Chinese public safety when my Milwaukee Brewers head to the bottom of the 6th inning in Game 5, still tied 1-1. Or much of anything else. Go Brew Crew.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Wrapping a neat little bow around China? Good luck with that.

I still have to look back at my last - and probably favorite - part of the ten days I spent in China. Hong Kong. I got just a taste - delivered in a whirlwind of exploration and not much sleep. But it was enough to amp up my sense of urban life halfway across the world. I was completely caught off guard by how much I loved the blend of East and West there. This part of my tour was really only about exploring - not the spoon fed exposure to this business I'm researching. So I could just soak up tiny bit of a city that has blended East and West into a fascinating stew.

But since my return to Seattle and the dozens of conversations both large and small about this trip to China, I'm finding it hard to wrap a bow around it. Without giving away everything I've been working on for Pelting Out - please bear in mind that this blog is meant to slowly let out some line on the reel that is a big book project. A few nights ago I talked with one of my best friends about the broad arc of all this - China, writing a non-fiction book when fiction's been the gig for so long, how it feels to be an American overseas these days. This friend has always been one of my most unflinching, spot-on sounding boards. And as such, he made me think about what any of us know about China - those who've been fortunate enough to visit, those who complain about their rise, those who couldn't care less about the subject. I found us debating whether there's a historical comparison for China's rise. Maybe you've got one, but we came up bupkis. So rather than look for a big summarizing construct...I'm done with the China shtick in this forum. For the time being. But not before I lay out a few of the things I did in Hong Kong that so entirely entertained me for that brief recent period.

I jostled my way around the subway system. I saw how people congregate downtown on a Sunday, with crowds of what appear to be foreign-born women dancing in the street and throughout Statue Park. I braved the crowds to ride the Peak Tram (the world's steepest funicular rail line) up to Victoria Peak. I tried not to interrupt morning exercises of all kinds in Kowloon Park. I wandered the Night Markets. I got chops made for family - carved marble ink stamps with Chinese characters spelling out our Western names phonetically that are used to accompany signatures. I took an amazing ferry cruise not just through Victoria Harbor and back, but all the way out to Lamma Island for a seafood dinner. I even got a full clinic on using chopsticks correctly - an embarrassing but validating discovery during an incredible three-hour dinner seated next to a friendly local who wasn't the least bit afraid of pointing out that my technique needed tweaking.

After all that and much more than you surely care to read, I came back to Seattle. Sated, challenged, and armed with stories and pictures and impressions I'm obviously still sorting my way through. Do I want to go back? Absolutely. But for the time being, I've got fish much closer to home to catch and season for serving. Thanks for reading. If you check back, I promise there will be more (and less - shorter entries hereafter) that I hope proves tasty. All heading in the general direction of a much larger project. Or so I keep telling myself.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Hong Kong skyline night view from a ferry on Victoria Harbor.

More Hong Kong (Island side) at night.

Daytime Victoria Harbor view of Hong Kong.

My chop(s) maker tests off his handiwork along Chop Alley.

A Kurt Cobain tribute?

A Kurt Cobain tribute?  by emaggie
A Kurt Cobain tribute? , a photo by emaggie on Flickr.

Sunday midday dance practice, squeezed between passing buses.

Not the greatest view from Victoria Peak. Still awesome.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Saying goodbye to Shanghai. Nevermind. We'll all be back.

A very autumnal weekend in Seattle has my recent time in China feeling even farther in the background. However, things in this rearview mirror are truly closer than they appear. I'm still spilling over thoughts of what I experienced there. I expect that will be the case for quite a while, especially as I turn some of the most relevant into part of an early chapter in my book, Pelting Out. Before I move on, consider this a quick drive-by of Shanghai thoughts. Hong Kong considerations to come tomorrow.

Anyone who talks or writes about Shanghai (including what I've put up here already) must spend some time on the crazy rate of recent growth. The idea that China's overall economy can continue to grow at 10% or thereabouts annually must be at least somewhat directly tied to Shanghai's consumption of resources and spending. I was struck by the distinct contrasts when we ventured just outside Shanghai. Two road trips in particular - to places named Yuyao and Haining - showcased the rampant consumption by the Chinese on both the retail and wholesale levels. Our bus driver got lost in Haining, which led to some harrowing turns. More importantly, I saw first hand that the whole city spills out in every direction like a busted up Mall of America. Or a scattered series of them, interspersed with older, but still not decrepit shopping locations. Eventually when we found the Haining mall we'd intended to visit in the first place, I got to see multiple generations of mall walkers doing laps on an otherwise uninspired mid-week morning. Anyone old enough to have survived Mao's Cultural Revolution and the assault that it directed toward capitalism must marvel at the 180-degree turn of China in less than half a century. I dare say China is now as much about buying things as they are about making things. And they do both very much like pros.

Our visit to Yuyao was also directed at a mall - this one comprised solely of luxury goods. Plopped in the midst of a seemingly endless low-rise collection of hutongs, this mall would have nonetheless looked right at home in any American high-end suburb. The contrast was disconcerting. I wasn't content staying within the comfy confines. So I ventured a few blocks in each direction with my camera. There - in the land of designer knock-offs and copy-cat producers - luxury was still the intended pose. Even when I saw shop keepers huddled among their goods, eating their lunches clutched up close to their faces. When I ventured just a bit farther and the theme of the shops changed abruptly, the people were nonetheless there. Sex workers staring out from behind sliding glass doors waved as I walked by. I presume there are very few Westerners strolling out there unless they had a very different sort of tour in mind. As so often proved the case in the larger cities, a solitary Western male walking invites the approach. If I had an RMB for every time I got propositioned with "lady bar?", I'd have been able to stake a place in one of the ubiquitous shopping areas I passed through. It never felt pushy or - as weird as it sounds coming from the sort of fella who would never venture into that world - inappropriate to get the casual proposition. It's just commerce - no different than someone trying to sell you a coat or a fake watch.

I left Shanghai feeling charged with an initial exposure to some of the beauty and contrasts of this part of China. I made snap judgments, as evidenced by these short recaps. Yet their obsession with appearances and the commerce of this roiling city stick out in my mind as something utterly intoxicating. Somehow I think we'll all be heading through Shanghai at sometime in the not-too-distant future. Not Shanghaied by a crimp in the old-timey sense of getting there. I'm talking free will and new commerce. To see how the Chinese will essentially be setting the economic agenda in the decades to come. What will Shanghai look like in ten years - as the world enters the DoubleTwenties (the decade length moniker I'd love to trademark already) - and how many people will lean that direction for guidance on what to buy and how to make it? That is one of the biggest questions I have as I look back. Looking forward, I'm sure such a focus will only sharpen.

For tomorrow, I'll start just after being pampered by Cathay Pacific Airways on our pseudo-international flight from Mainland China to Hong Kong. That's a big border to cross, even since the handover of Hong Kong from Great Britain to China in 1997. I still don't understand the differences. But I'll tell you this - Hong Kong rocks with verve and just slightly to the left of the expected norm, much like the Nirvana back in the day.