Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Looking to the East

One result of my trip to China last September was that my radar now sweeps over stories from that general direction with more regularity. Admittedly, I don't know if I understand more about China or just find myself wanting to read loads more about what's going on there. Regardless, I'll offer up a few curious stories seen over the last handful of days. If you're like me and you hold onto the hope of better understanding what's going on across the globe, these stories might help a wee bit.

The burgeoning love for status symbols in China has made it a coveted market for selling those goods. The NYTimes ran what I saw as a fascinating story Monday on the crazed expansion in the Chinese market for fashion magazines. They're mainly a vehicle for ads promoting luxury goods (a category of consumption that's exploding in China). "Elle" now runs over 700 pages. Other issues have been added or they split them into two. And they're expensive. Can you imagine spending over $3 a pop per throwaway mag when you make a bit more than $700 a month? It does fall in line with a culture that I saw openly embracing designer labels - not cheap knock-offs - where the idea of spending a few grand on a real bag is justifiable. Buried deep in this piece is the observation that this whole game could evaporate in a moment if the economy slows and how even the fashion mags need to steer clear of censors.

The Ai Weiwei story continues to evolve. Last week's announcement of his lost appeal on those trumped up tax penalties was more bad news for this artist after a long run of similarly unfair targeting. He's like an aging heavyweight boxer - I often don't know how he can keep getting back up to fight again after all the punishment he's been taking. Ai's latest rejected appeal feels like another punch in the gut. This man shows how even the most powerful artist still can't expect to exercise truly free expression in an evolving China. The hooks from this story are in deep for many of us, all around the world. To fill in much more backstory, I found much to marvel at in the profile over the weekend of the young American documentarian - Alison Klayman. Her film "Never Sorry" focuses Ai and has been on my "must see" list for months. I, for one, am glad Klayman was there to film and stuck it out for as long as she did to do so.

Another interesting tidbit I wish I'd known about when I visited last fall is a bookstore in Hong Kong that specializes in the books Beijing doesn't want the Chinese to see. Apparently there's enough banned books to fill a whole store. The fact that they can operate there after the handover is certainly a bright spot. And with the number of Chinese traveling from the mainland to Hong Kong more than doubling in the last five years (from 13-ish million to 28-ish from 2006 to 2011), there's a growing audience for it. Baby steps, people. But steps, nonetheless.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Touring Hanford, offering somewhat glowing praise.

I'll admit it once again - I'm a total museum geek. Knowledge fetishist. Brain-filler enthusiast. Call it what you will, but I own up to the fact that I'm often happiest consuming new info presented by professionals in location-specific forms. And, man, did I find a doosie over the weekend.

I toured the Hanford Nuclear Reservation's "B Reactor" outside the Tri Cities (Richland, Pasco, Kennewick) along the Columbia river in south central Washington. On purpose. For those unfamiliar with "Hanford" or what sort of history might be housed there, here's a thumbnail. It was there that our nation extracted the fuel needed for the Manhattan Project during WWII, and the following decades worth of Cold War nukes. As a result, Hanford became the biggest environmental clean-up site in American history. The whole Hanford site is 567 square miles, most of which has been secret and/or off limits for approaching seven decades. In 2008, the Department of Energy began offering tours of the site - they're free, but they book up fast. I signed up months ago for my slot over the weekend.

Both in terms of Hanford and the Tri Cities, I found the entire area to be fascinating. Around town(s), the locals and their hangouts were often unintentionally entertaining. That sounds like a dig, but I mean to be sincere - I really like the energy out there. I found a few new favorites - the Atomic Ale Brewpub & Eatery in what had been an old A&W Root Beer stand, Roaster's Coffee housed in what must have been an old gas station, and the updated outdoor Uptown Shopping Center which on a summertime Friday night was filled with Juggalos and various categories of locals straight out of a casting call for a sequel to "Dazed and Confused" - once more, all meant in a good way. The top headline in the "Tri-City Herald" on the morning of my tour addressed in very technical minutiae the "sludge" being cleaned from a part of the massive Hanford "Superfund" site. The people out there not only live with Hanford's legacy. They embrace the reclamation. I respect that immensely.
It's rather hard to summarize both the immensity of what exists even in the minimally accessible parts of Hanford. I had a real reason for heading out there aside from my museum lustiness. It was indeed satisfied, although I was stunned by the way my question of how what's there (and what came from it) connects to something grander and more specific to the current book I'm writing. But I also ended up finding things and feeling emotions that I just didn't expect. No, it was not the latent radiation. I'm talking about the stories of the people who not only worked there but were impacted because of what was done there. Just this morning, I listened to a "Radio Lab" podcast about the bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki (centered upon one of the impossibly rare individuals who survived BOTH blasts - an absolute must for fans of that show or just good storytelling on the radio). The knowledge I brought to it because of my tour of the place where the plutonium was made cannot be overstated in its added power.

I will pull no punches - the B Reactor tour is a work in progress and I'm not sure if the audience is all that broad for what's to be seen there. But if you're the sort of person who'd consider blowing 4-5 hours on a tour of a nuclear plant, you will be fully engaged. If you're in that general area (they do take drop-ins because of the number of cancellations - on my tour only 27 of 43 slots were filled) please do check them out. Let me know. I'd love to talk with others about their reactions to the place.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Rural Tastefulness vs. Forced Urbanity

I want to offer an afterword on my visit to the Maryhill Museum on the Washington State side of the Columbia River. For those not up on the connection, we ducked away from our urban life over a briefly extended 4th of July holiday. Among other awesome rural and wilderness exploration, I could finally justify a visit to this hard to reach - and to characterize - museum. The hodgepodge there rates a qualifier-filled thumbs up. If you're close by, you really should check it out. But don't make a special trip - its honestly not that grand. I'll mention a few things to justify what might seem unduly harsh.

The surrounding hillsides are dotted with white wind farm turbines. They add a modern, idealistic charm to the otherwise hot and dusty shades of brownness - or greenishness, where an irrigation system has been employed to grow something. The Maryhill Museum features right at the entrance a collection of jewels, furniture and general whatnots from the Queen of Romania - it's overplayed payback from the founding of the museum and a real deadening factor to kick things off. My brief interactions with the staff were also occasionally a bummer. Here's where I'll play the scold in saying that none of us have to visit, so please try to be pleasant. With that snark out the chute, the Native American art struck me as a particular strength. It's delivered with well-researched support for the artistic and cultural differences between the nine regions of North American peoples - I learned a bunch and wanted more. Their Rodin collection (not just the sculpture - the dood could draw) and accompanying education it provides is wonderful. At long last, someone explained the essence of Balzac to me. Not that I went in looking for that.

In overview terms, the man behind the museum was Sam Hill (named it for his daughter, Mary, with no explanation offered for why its not the "Mary Hill Museum" instead). I wish he made for a better story. He's not even the one memorialized in the old line "what in the Sam Hill?" Basically, Sam was a railroad company lawyer from Minneapolis who made a boatload of cash and then took on "good road" for cars as his personal quest. Yes, promoting highways partly inspired him to build his mansion/museum way out in the Sam Hill part of the State. The fact that the money now keeping his museum running comes from wind power seems like an irony that's been lost on almost everyone. The weird combination of the original museum's poured concrete - quite unique back in that day, but now about as inspiring as a poured basement - and the new modernist wing and the sculpture gardens with new works from around the Northwest and all sorts of far less noteworthy works give the Maryhill the feel of shifting sand. It's almost like they're trying to make up for the fact that they're out in the middle of nowhere by being a little bit of everything to everyone. They don't want to be rural. But they surely aren't urban. So what are they? I think, at best, an invitation to debate something ephemeral.

To take in the full scope of this area's strangeness, visit the (fake) Stonehenge a few miles east. Look for Sam Hill's tomb as a challenge and tell me if you don't agree that it represents a particularly inglorious end for a man whose ego must have been huge. Better yet, stop at the Gunkel Orchards down in the Town of Maryhill for some tree fruit. I also really enjoyed the winding drive just north of the Columbia between White Salmon (where a stop for a juice and joe at 10 Speed Coffee Roasters was a particular fave) and Trout Lake. That stretch allowed me to think about real (and metaphorical) bridges between rural and urban sensibilities. Not as much as our stay at the Farmgate Homestead (just outside the awesome town of Trout Lake and within constant sight of Mt. Adams). That's a place we'll definitely visit again. Not just to cross it off some list of curiosities. Because it's awesome and we now know it.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Just a few degrees of newsie separation

Before we do a holiday getaway, I'd like to offer a few newsie reflections. The connections to my book's larger theme of issues might seem a bit more stretched than usual. Consider the following as akin to packing for a roadtrip - not everything thought to make sense at the get go will get used. But it's there for a reason.
  • For a needed family mini-vacation, we're renting a house with another family of local friends. That means we're bringing along and seeking out all the usual outdoorsy distractions. I'm rather blissfully unaware of the logistics. In fact, the only contribution I bring to this getaway is the hope to take us down the road a piece further one day to visit the Maryhill Museum of Art. That supremely-isolated, decidedly-odd museum expanded recently. Plus they have their very own Stonehenge replica, along with what appear to be stunning views of the Columbia River. The oddity of being effectively endowed thanks to a wind farm more than keeps the lights on there. Hopefully, I'll report back later on what's also worth seeing in their collection.
  • I'd be remiss in my newly amplified Canadian awareness if I didn't acknowledge that yesterday was Canada Day. I've continued to think a great deal about Canada and its history since my recent trip. Museums such as the one in Lachine just outside Montreal and the decidedly thoughtful and complete view of Canada's history seen in Ottawa got me rolling. I even dug Kurt Andersen's "rebranding" effort on last week's episode of "Studio 360". The resulting "Know Canada" campaign is a damn good one - I wonder what the view of it is from the northern side of the border. I even asked a financial planner last week about specific Canada funds - Fidelity has one, and there are certainly others. My newfound embrace I think might go on for a while.
  • Our other next door neighbor, Mexico, had a big day yesterday. Or a depressing return to form, depending upon your political persuasion. They elected Enrique Pena Nieto. Barely. And the next closest candidate - Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador - is pulling the same trick as he did last time around by not conceding the result. I tried to observe Mexico's process the last time out in 2006. We lived for a month in a small Mexican city (Cuernavaca, an hour south of Mexico City), just prior to the election of Jose Calderon (think Romney, without being so Mormon-y). I do dig Mexico's term limit rules - one six-year term per President, no chance of another. This time around, Mexico's problems with drugs and constant mayhem - combined with what sounds like a total yet superficial embrace of their President Elect's style and soap opera star wife - drove them back to the party (the PRI) that ran the country for 70+ years. The PRI is totally sketch. And fascinating, from what little I've read. Still, they're back on top. The point being that if we don't know Canada, we really don't know Mexico. Which is sad - you should always get to know your neighbors.
  • Speaking of what we Americans don't know, Minitel is gone. Oui, it's true - France's partly beloved old jalopy of a precursor to the internet is no more. If you've ever heard of it, you might also know that Minitel looked like a phone with a stripped down computer screen. I'm talking production value straight out of that seen on the infamous show "Space: 1999". They finally shut 'er down over the weekend. I never got to use it, but it was often discussed in my grad school back in the early 1990s as an pre-"information superhighway" model to understand in operation, not just in theory. Obviously, the worldwide web spun onward and everywhere else. But I was instantly touched by the piece I read last week about French dairy farmers in Brittany being some of the first and then some of the last heavy users who as a subculture seriously hated to see Minitel shut down. Unlike vinyl records, manual typewriters or whatever sort of old-timey standard might enjoy a new utility, there will be no rebranding of these old units. And as of Saturday, the plug has been pulled on Minitel. Au revoir, ancienne et adorables téléphone.