Monday, February 14, 2011

The Hobbit

My short-term memory seems to be deteriorating. Always having been absentminded, it's difficult to tell how much worse things have become, but it's worse, definitely.

Long-term memory seems to be intact, and I derive a certain satisfaction in that. I just re-read The Hobbit, wondering how much I would remember. It was the first actual "novel" I ever read, perhaps at the age of 7 or 8. The local library had a copy on hand the other day so I took it home, anxious to dip into the wine-soaked pages and pay a visit to the very comfortable Hobbit hole in Bag End.

First big surprise: the pages aren't wine-soaked. Not even with elven wine. The obviously written-for-children prose was something I didn't remember at all. Now I realize that, while I read and re-read the Lord of the Rings trilogy numerous times as a youth, I might never have re-read The Hobbit until just now. I'll have to look at the later books to see if they have this same sort of fairy-tale-ish narration. I'm guessing they don't, or if they do, that it's not so pronounced.

Other impressions: I did remember most of the characters. Bilbo and Gandalf, of course (though Gandalf was less stern and menacing than the Gandalf I remembered -- probably because in The Hobbit he is still Gandalf the Gray, not Gandalf the White who emerged from the pits of Moria. Again, I will have to read the trilogy to get things straight. I had also been expecting good old Tom Bombadil to come bounding down the pages, but of course now I realize that he doesn't come into this story. Thorin Oakenshield was as I remembered him, as well as fat Bombur. I hadn't remembered the names of the other dwarves, and they're not that fleshed-out as characters, but Beorn (who was always a favorite of mine) was there, and the grim archer Bard. I had thought the Trolls were under a bridge, and that Bilbo had battled them alone, but other than that the story was pretty much as I had remembered it. Surprisingly, the songs and poems in the book were less annoying than I had remembered. I also was less interested in figuring out the riddles Bilbo and Gollum posed to eachother than I had been as a child, and was content to just read ahead to learn the solutions.

Overall what I realize is that I am a massive geek.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Martin Luther King Jr.

A few jabbering fear mongers are getting more media attention today than the man whose memory they are trying to co-opt. It's too bad the media outlets (even purportedly liberal sites like Huffington post) don't spend more time remembering someone who fought a dangerous battle against actual oppression.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Back Scatter X-Ray

I'm fortunate to be receiving treatment at UCSF. Doctors there have raised questions about the safety of back scatter X-ray scanners at airport security checkpoints. It's not surprising that money would be spent on new toys to allegedly prevent terrorism before health consequences have been fully considered, but another development is surprising even to jaded old me: Roving vans scanning cars using the same technology.

For now I'm not even going to worry about whether or not the Patriot Act has rendered the Fourth Amendment quaint and obsolete. A more important question might be whether or not any qualified body of medical professionals weighed in on the potential risks involved here. Would possibly stopping a car bomb or two be worth irradiating the citizens those bombs were meant to kill?

Sunday, July 25, 2010


There are a few things which commonly inspire people to write blogs (in addition to the obvious motivations of vanity and egomania). One of them is a trip to China. Another is cancer or some similar predicament.

I'm so typical.

The new tumour is behind my right eye, very close to the optic nerve, pituitary, cavernous sinus, and inoperable. Radiation treatment is a viable solution, so I've gone through six weeks of radiation therapy. Seems like things went well, but then it always does. A positive MRI in early September will hopefully reveal that the tumour has been killed and perhaps even have shrunk somewhat. Risks of blindness or loss of libido are minimal. Some loss of short-term memory is probable. Another good reason for a blog.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Dangers of the KTV

Ruby took me to her friend's birthday party in one of the karaoke places in the city. After introductions I sat down to play Liar's Dice with some of the men. At one point someone asks me if I have many fives and, using the new slang I have picked up, I reply, "I have a lot of fucking fives." (lit: I have big dick fives). Everyone laughs it up and for a while I'm left to play in peace and drink beers, rather than being forced to sing Elvis Presley and Righteous Brothers songs for everyone.

Eventually the party starts to wind down and Ruby is ready to go, but two of her friends want to take me out for further festivities. Ruby leaves, but seems worried. I can't tell if it's because she thinks her friends will get me into trouble, or because I've had so many beers already I can hardly walk.

After Ruby leaves I go to a different lounge of the KTV with my two new friends, Johnny and Shoe. I don't know Johnny's Chinese name, he introduced himself to me as Johnny. Johnny knows nine or ten words in English, which he repeats to me many times.

Johnny leaves Shoe and I to drink for a few minutes, then comes back with one of the hostesses who welcomed us to the party. Johnny matter-of-factly informs me that I can have her for the night for 500 rmb. I'm not interested and a little worried he's embarassing her talking so openly about this, but the next time I look over at her I almost burst out laughing. She's bent slightly forward at the waist, her back arched, and she's licking her teeth and lips and giving me the most whorish looks I've ever seen.

When I politely decline Johnny and Shoe seem dumbfounded, then consult with eachother, then again with the hostess, then tell me 300rmb is ok, if I'm short on cash. I can see this could go on all night, so I just tell them I have a girlfriend. Johnny and Shoe and the hostess seem to think this is a funny joke, but at least she finally leaves.

Eventually it's time to go and we pile into the elevator. We were on the top floor of a highrise and a few floors down another group crowds in. There are four men and a woman. The men are all pretty big for Chinese, taller than I and athletic looking. One of them is probably two meters tall and I guess they're part of some athletic team or something. They too have obviously been drinking, and they're swaggering and scowling and belligerent. One of them, who is wearing a greet t-shirt which says "sneaker genius" across the chest scowls and grumbles something when he sees me. I don't catch it but whatever it is, Johnny tells them I'm a good guy, and tells them I even speak some Cantonese. Johnny then prods me encouragingly, so I go into trained parrot mode and recite a little poem about rain flooding the streets, a boy selling firewood, and a road lined with pearls and butterflies. The men chuckle and the woman claps her hands and says I'm cute. Johnny keeps pushing me but I'm drunk and can't think of anything else nice so I say, "I have big dick money" and they laugh some more. Then I point to the elevator door and tell them to all get the fuck out. I'm not serious, obviously, but I learned this phrase earlier (it sounds something like: lahn-si gut lo, although I can't figure out the literal translation. whatever it is, the people who taught me to say it laughed long and hard when they heard me repeat it).

The response from the new group in the elevator is shocked and angry. Johnny is starting to look a little worried and trying to get me to shut up, but Shoe is laughing and egging me on so I tell the other group to go fuck their mothers. They're starting to yell and gesture and warning Shoe and Johnny to stop me. Johnny is tugging at my arm but now Shoe is laughing hysterically and telling them to fuck their mothers too. The biggest guy then points his finger in my face and yells something so I tell him that his whole family should fall down in the street and die and the next thing I know the elevator has erupted into a brawl.

Fortunately the others are even more drunk than we are and Johnny, Shoe and I manage to get the upper hand. As we leave the building we're still breathing hard, and Shoe seems to be sobbing a little, but by the time we get a block away Johnny is already starting to laugh. By the time we cross the second intersection Johnny and Shoe are laughing and slapping hands and patting backs and complementing me on my Gong Fu. Another block and they are yelling and throwing kicks and punch combinations into the night air which they never came close to throwing back in the elevator (but which I'm certain their friends at work will have to hear about for weeks to come). I want to join them in their celebration but guilt and remorse have already begun to sink in and at the next corner I tell them I'm heading home to sleep. We exchange cell phone numbers but I don't tell them that tomorrow will be my last day in China and I probably won't see them again.

Sunday, September 28, 2008


If I think of myself in cultural terms, I generally think of myself as Asian. I often forget I don't look the part, however, until I come to a place like this.

There aren't any tourist attractions here, so foreigners are a rarity. People I pass in the street stop and stare, open-mouthed and unabashed. I've been here a few times now, but I still haven't gotten used to it. Jie's hospital is in a poor part of Guangzhou. They probably see a couple of foreigners a year here, if that, so the stares are even more common than usual.

Around the corner from the hospital is a store which sells framed pictures of historical figures. The largest samples on display are of Mao, Sun Yat-sen, and...Stalin! I suppose the Russian ends up adorning the apartment walls of older Chinese who remember the good times of Russo-Sino relations, back in the old days before things turned bitter.

I'm pondering the price a nation might eventually have to pay for propping up thugs like Mao and Stalin as role-models when I feel something prodding my hand. I look down to see a young girl staring at me, reaching out to touch me as if to see if I were real. We share a surprised stare for a moment, then her face lights up in a bright smile and she runs away laughing.

Miracles of Modern Medicine

Ruby's sister Jie is getting an operation at the Women's Hospital. I'm not sure exactly what the problem is but Ruby drew me a picture and I'm guessing there's some sort of blockage in the fallopian tubes. Either that or she's got something stuck in her antlers.

When I go to visit she's sleeping. The operation was a success, and her mother is sitting by her bedside. She has a container of rice porridge or "jook", which is much admired around here both as a delicious meal and as a sort of cure-all for minor ailments. She talks to the nurse and the nurse gives her a lemon which I gather is to be held under Jie's nose to help combat nausea.

I feel sorry for Jie's mother. Not just because her daughter is in the hospital, but because everything around her is conforming less and less to her worldview. This hospital, for instance. Almost everything you see here is exactly what you'd see in the US. It's modern medical equipment, syringes, plasma drips. No herbal remedies, no weird massages, no incense. The only things here she can really understand are the jook and that lemon, and she holds onto both fiercely.

When Jie wakes up her mother begins furiously shoveling jook into her mouth. Jie hasn't eaten in a couple of days and I suggest that perhaps she shouldn't try to ingest too much food at once, but what does a silly foreigner know about the restorative powers of jook?

Sure enough, after a few minutes Jie starts to vomit and her horrified mother grabs Jie's head and starts screaming for the nurse. She's holding Jie's head up and Jie is choking on her own vomit, so I push the mother away and turn Jie onto her side so that her mouth and throat can clear. In the meantime Jie's mother has forced her way back between us and is shoving the lemon into her daughter's nose. After the nurse shows up and Jie seems to be breathing normally again I go to wash up.

When I get back the nurse is gone and Jie's mother is spooning jook into Jie's mouth, although less rapidly this time so hopefully it will be ok. She casts a few guilty looks in my direction, but doesn't stop feeding her. I tell them I'll be back later and walk out. As I leave I see Jie's mother reaching for the lemon again.