Shanghai—1 May 2009: Donuts & Coffee
"The girls?" I asked. It was Monday afternoon. I was sitting at a booth at a "coffee bar" on Hangkou Lu (road) near the Bund in Shanghai practicing Chinese with Xiao Ping, a waiter there. As a young woman walked towards the fancy doors at the rear, he casually remarked, "The girls are starting to come in."
We were talking about the word for culture, wenhua in Chinese. I guess the girls were part of that.
Actually, I was not surprised. One of the street pimps had pointed out the place a few days earlier and I had put it on my list of curiosities.
Xiao Ping is 23 and has been in Shanghai for two years. But he says he hasn't seen much of it. He works seven days a week, 12 hours a day. "Sometimes I smile, sometimes I cry," he says.
I ask him if he has a girl friend. He says he has many. But then I realize he doesn't mean the same thing by girlfriend that I do. He says his girlfriends are all the girls he went to school with back in his home town. He still keeps in touch.
His English is not perfect but surprisingly good. He says he had a good English teacher in middle school. I have heard this before from other Chinese friends who attribute their good English to good teachers.
Now Xiao Heng is edging shyly up to the table. She is a waitress about the same age as Xiao Ping. Her hair is cut like so many Shanghainese girls: bangs in the front, spikes on the side, pony tail in the back.
"I want to learn English," she says hesitantly. She says she only speaks a little, yidian.
She too works seven days a week, but only 10 hours a day. She looks at me pleadingly, as if I am her savior. Young Chinese people seem to believe that the only way to get ahead is to learn English. That may or may not be so. Their belief certainly guarantees that teachers of English get ahead, especially those young party-animal ones that show up in Shanghai.
But I was interested in learning Chinese; I was convinced that it was the only way I was going to learn anything about Shanghai and China. If I wanted to know the culture—wenhau—I was going to have to learn the language. As it turned out, however, our exchange was beneficial both ways. They were leaning English; I was learning Chinese. And we weren't doing it in an academic way. We were leaning words and phrases that were actually useful.
It was late afternoon now and more girls were coming in. I asked where the toilet was:
"Cesuo zai nar?"
Xiao Ping pointed to the fancy doors at the rear.
I walked to the back, through the doors, and all the way down the hall, where I found the restroom. Along the way I glanced at the rooms. There was one big room midway down the hall on the left. It had couches all along the walls. That is were the girls assembled for customer viewing, I guess. Then there were a lot of little rooms all along the hall.
I got rid of some beer. At 30 CNY per bottle, It was the cheapest thing on the bar list. Whiskey and cocktails were almost 200. I guessed that they must come with something. The highest I have ever seen cocktails priced in Shanghai is 100 CNY at the Glamour Bar, which targets another type of foolish customer.
On the way out I told Xiao
Ping and Xiao Heng that I would be back. Xiao Heng asked for my phone
number, which I gave her. As I left a husky-looking middle aged-aged guy
in a suit walked in. He looked like a business man, yi ge shangren.
He had thin, light-brown hair.
On Wednesday afternoon I walked over to Dragon Gate Mall. I was in the mood for art and words. I was trying to remember where a particular upstairs art gallery, or hualang, was when one of the "guides" nabbed me. It was the usual "You want watchee?"
"Bu xiang Shoubiao," (don't want watch) I said. "Hua, I'm looking for art."
He motioned me to follow and headed off. I hesitated, then followed.
But we didn't go upstairs, we went down to the basement, and I found myself in a small, one-woman gallery. She wasn't young, she wasn't old. I pointed at a landscape painting, more square than the usual vertically or horizontally elongated ones.
"Hen hau," (very good) I said. It was. It was partly abstract, the lines clean, the colors pleasing but used sparingly.
"Huajia?" (the artist?) I asked.
"Wo," (I) she said, pointing to the small red stamp. She pointed to other works in the gallery that bore her stamp. They were all landscapes of a similar style and all interesting pieces. I noticed how she left things out, leaving blank areas like dreamspace for the imagination.
Her name was Hou Li. Her works were all originals, priced at 250 CNY. As usual I was not buying, just looking and practicing my Chinese. But she looked busy or preoccupied. I told her "Wo huilai," (I will come back). And if I come into some spare money, I probably will.
The guide departed, and I headed upstairs on my own. I found a gallery that I had been at a few weeks before. The salesgirl was the same and she remembered me. She is one of those bright young Chinese girls who just likes to talk.
I got her name this time. It is Fan Liang Juan, or Xiao Fan. She works in a small gallery that has only a few pieces of much interest. But it doesn't take great art to start a conversation. Before we found ourselves looking at paintings of a ballerina, or baleiwu nu yanyuan. That lead to a conversation about Yuan Yuan Tan, principal ballerina with the San Francisco Ballet. She is from Shanghai and considered to be China's finest. I met her one time in San Francisco. It was at an art opening for Guan Zeju. Unfortunately I was a little drunk and she escaped across the room. But most gracefully. Ballerinas are expert at taking flight.
But this time we focused on some small sculptures about a foot high. As I recollect, they were all of awkward countryish figures: bumpkins, yokels ... Not a single businessman among them. One was of a farm girl with her head thrown back and with a big smile. She had braids, which were probably the hard part of the figure to execute. I was of course playing my usual zenme shuo game (Zenme Shuo ...?):
"Zenme shuo 'braid'?" I asked.
"Bianzi," said Xiao Fan.
I rather had the impression that Xiao Fan liked this game. Her English was much better than my Chinese but she was interested in learning more. And unlike some of the salesgirls, she made no attempt to sell me anything. How refreshing that was.
We both stood in front of the farm girl with the smile. It was a great smile, unrestrained, spontaneous, freely given. It was like the wagging of a dog's tail. My questions was perhaps less spontaneous:
"Zenme shuo 'smile'?"
"Xiao," said Xiao Fan, "but with the fourth tone."
I said it with the fourth tone, doing an exaggerated drop on the letter "a". It sounded like "a" was headed straight into the basement.
Xiao Fan laughed. But I restrained my self for once. I didn't ask "zenme shuo ...?"
Xiao Fan is a nice kid. We went over and looked at Beijing opera dolls inside glass frames. They were in a nearby department. I had been watching Beijing opera on TV. I don't usually watch TV but something attracted me to it. She told me that there was also Shanghai opera. Maybe I would have to look it up. So far I had been enjoying Beijing opera in complete ignorance. I hope a little knowledge doesn't spoil it for me.
Xiao Ping again gives me the big booth and I order Tsing Tao. Pretty Boy is friendly and asks me where I'm from.
"San Francisco," I say, "bugua zhu zai Shanghai." (San Francisco but I live in Shanghai.)
"Do you like girls or boys?" he asks with a smile.
"Nuhai," (girls) I say. He speaks English, I speak Chinese.
Xiao Ping is back with my beer, which he places in front of me and stands by the booth as Pretty Boy and I talk.
"He is the boss," says Pretty Boy, pointing at The Fat Man. Pretty Boy sits down with me at the booth.
"He makes 1 million Renminbi a month." The Fat Man looks over at us. He is smiling. He says something in Chinese to Pretty Boy that I don't understand.
"He wants to know how much you make," says Pretty Boy.
"Tell him I don't discuss money," I say." It bores me."
He tells me The Fat Man has five wives. I say he must be tongkude, or miserable; one is bad enough. The boss smiles; I think he understands some English but doesn't speak it. He says something to Pretty Boy, then Pretty Boy says The Fat Man also has six girlfriends. The Fat Man smiles.
"Even worse," I say. "Hen tongkude." They both laugh.
Pretty Boy goes goes over to The Fat Man's table and says something to the The Toothless Guy, who laughs. I think he has given up on me as a potential back-room customer. Xiao Ping sits down at the booth with me.
Glancing over at the three, Xiao Ping says they are talking "big talk." He smiles but I get the impression he does not like big talk. I ask him if he makes a lot of money too. "Only a little," he says. "Enough to eat." He makes a hand-to-mouth motion.
Now a heavy-set blond guy about 40 is coming out of the back with a girl. He stops at The Fat Man's table and says something. It is all smile at The Fat Man's table with the exception of The Toothless Guy, who only smokes and runs his fingers through a graying mop of greasy hair.
I have my notebook out now and Xiao Ping and I are going over some words. I ask him the word for "difference."
"Chabie," he says. "a is the first tone, e is second."
I say it and he corrects my rising e.
"That is difficult," I say. "Zenme shuo 'difficult'?"
"Nande," he says with a rising a. It is easy. "Nande shi bu nande," I say.
Now a new customer has just come in. He is a tall guy about 45 with a round head, light peach-fuzz hair, and glasses. He looks like a corporate lawyer or accountant.
Xiao Ping and I go back to looking up a word in the Oxford dictionary I have brought with me. I can't remember the word but I see in my notebook the word sheng or sound. There are also the words shengyin, shuahausheng, gangquinsheng, and xiang, the latter meaning to make a sound. So many words I don't know. And so many ways to use them. The patterns are different, and often a word that can be used in many situations in English cannot be in Chinese; there are specific words for specific situations. For instance, the word for hot, re de, can be used when you are talking about your temperature, but for hot or spicy food another word, la de, must be used.
We hear another customer come in. There is a long hallway that leads from the street to the coffee-bar. The customer stands in the hallway, rather than coming in. And now a girl is striding from the back, the fancy doors swinging shut behind her. She spots me at the table and flashes a big smile. She thinks I'm her customer. I look up from the dictionary and the word for hot and say ni hao. Then she realizes her customer is the guy in the hall. The smiles goes off like an electric light.
I hear some laughing over at the big shot table.
"Another Foreign Devil," I say to Xiao Ping. "They are wrecking the garden." He laughs.
Xiao Ping and I go back to looking up a word in the Oxford dictionary. I think it must be odd working in this place. Only the customers show any interest in the girls. It is like working in a donut shop. After the first day you lose your appetite for donuts.
Shanghai can be baffling. Almost anything can be baffling if you allow it to be. It's a matter of who or what is in control: Your mind or "theirs."
When you are exploring a new place you do a lot of walking around, you go a lot of places, you talk to a lot of people. Maybe you do some reading too. Then you digest. What was good, what was bad? What gave you a stomach ache? What would you gladly do again?
Maybe you even make a list. Somebody tells you about a place, you read about another, or in the course of just wandering around you spot a place that looks curious or interesting.
The Glamour Bar and M Restaurant were a couple of places that were on my list. No one said they were a "must"; in fact no one even mentioned them. They announced themselves in every web search I did on the Bund. They became a "must" because I didn't want to see them on my list anymore. It seemed to me that they must be either truly great or truly awful. I wanted to know which.
On Saturday I made my way up to the Bund. They are located in the Huangpu district where I live. To be precise, Glamour Bar and M Restaurant are located at Guandong and Zhongshan in one of those old buildings overlooking the Huangpu River. It was night and the river at night looked beautiful if not even glamorous. But as I rode up in the elevator with a middle-age couple I began feeling a little silly, as though I were doing something stupid and just going through the motions. Intuition had kicked in, I think. I smiled and asked the guy, "Glamour Bar?" "Yeah," he said without a smile. His wife—there was no doubt that this women was his wife in my mind—said nothing but looked like she was ready to implode with a lack of interest in anything external to her own conservative blue dress and white pearl necklace. They both looked like what used to be called an "old sour puss." So much for conversation in the elevator.
I'm not going to knock the Glamour Bar or M Restaurant. I once went into a glitzy bar in Lower North Beach in San Francisco. I wasn't impressed. On the way out I made a mildly disparaging remark to the doorman, a tall black man. He said, "It's kinda what you make it." He was serious and sounded like he was not just talking about the bar but life in general. I realized he was right.
Anything is, or can be, what you make it. If you are looking for glamour, the Glamour Bar has it. If you are looking for "attitude," you won't be disappointed. If you want to imagine yourself in a Hollywood movie, the Glamour Bar is the place for that. If you like noise, sparkle, and the rush that comes with money, the Glamour Bar is your place.
You might want to be careful if you are expecting live music, however. It's advertised on the web site for the Glamour Bar. I got a blank look from the manager when I asked about it. I was told that they had disco starting a 11:00. Also, if you are expecting a literary scene, better go to a book store. While Glamour Bar is host to the Shanghai International Literary Festival, don't expect to the see the likes of Hemingway there. I don't think it would be his cup of tea, spiked or not.
M Restaurant is on the floor above the Glamour Bar. So if you are the impatient type—and who isn't here in Shanghai?—you can cross two places off your list in the same evening. I was told at the Glamour Bar that there was a patio with a view at M, but the manager at M denied it. I was also told by the manager at M that there was no bar, but on my way out I spotted a huge one in the back. I talked with the bartender for awhile. This was his second day. It was a temporary job for him. He hoped to find a job in stress management if his nerves held out. He was Chinese but spoke English fairly well. I wondered who is patients might be. Chinese nationals stressed out by expats or the reverse?
As I left I spotted the sour-puss couple at a table sipping martinis. They are not saying a word to each other.
Drinks are expensive, gui de—88 CNY versus 100 at the Glamour Bar—but they come with music, which makes it okay. When I walked in on a Friday night in May, the music was the Igmar Thomas Quartet from New York City with Mavis "Swan" Poole. Their music made the drinks a bargain.
Igmar has a big open tone on trumpet and is a master of the instrument. He is all over it but always focused, never distracted. Mavis can sing almost anything and has a huge vocal range, both high and low. When I asked her to do "Fly Me To The Moon," she flawlessly skipped up a whole octave at one point, becoming a soprano. She trained her radiant smile on me for the whole tune. I was in love.
David Bryant was solid on piano, Burniss "Earl" Travis II on bass, and John Iannuzi, the only "whitey" in the group, on drums. Iannuzi is one of the those remarkable drummers who can do a fifteen-minute solo that captivates the entire house. Like the best of drummers, he has that madman look about him as though he has just been released from prison.
While the music at House of Blues and Jazz is really listening music, a few choose to dance to it. Much jazz is danceable with the right moves, a lot of energy, and skilled dancers. When I was there an attempt was made at dancing by a couple dressed in traditional silk Chinese attire. Both had blond hair and looked like one variety of expat or another. Unfortunately, it appeared she had had too much to drink and fell over, knocking over one of the band's speakers. Until that incident they looked "very in"; then they looked "very out" as she got up and they left the small floor space in front of the band.
The Shanghai expat is an odd animal and probably deserves study. Laboratory dissection might be one way to learn more about the expat but would probably result in complaints by animal-rights activists. There are surely many expat varieties, but all I have met so far express no interest in learning the Chinese language and hence Chinese culture, or Zhongguo wenhau; apparently wearing silk, sichou, is enough of a cultural experience to satisfy the average expat.
The expat is nothing new in Shanghai. Shanghai has long been the target of foreign countries and foreigners. In fact its greatness in the last century is largely attributed to foreign influence. Until the 1840s Shanghai was a fishing village and textile town. Then, with the Treaty of Nanking in 1842, Shanghai became an open port and development began as an international city. It has been described both as the best of cities and the worst. Its "glory days," as viewed by some, were in the 1930s, when the British, French, Americans, and others had settlements that largely excluded the Chinese. The Bund along the Huangpu River became a major financial center. Of course things changed when the communists took over in 1949. China got its city back, at least for awhile. Then things changed again In the 1970s and 80s with the thawing of economic policy in China. Shanghai got some of its old character, and old characters, back.
That of course leads me to wonder where it is at today. If one were to judge by places like the Glamour Bar and M, one would say that the glory days are back. If one is to judge by the Mint, one would say that the glory days are still to come.
The female Chinese bartender at Hamilton House mentioned the Mint to me one evening. We were talking about places in the Bund area. I had the impression that she was not recommending it, just telling me matter-of-factly that it was there. She drew a map, showing it up the street and over on Hongkou. I decided to have a look.
But when I got there, there was some question about my having a look. There was a line outside the door with a lot of well dressed young people, including several tall blonds tossing their hair like movie stars. When I got to the head of the line a young man, international looking and pompous—hired, I think, for his "swarthy" look—asked if I had a reservation. I confessed that I did not.
"I only want a look," I said. "Maybe I don't even want that."
"What?" he said.
"What? Shenme. Voulez-vous danser avec moi, mon cher? Die Nacht ist jung.
Somehow he decided a look was okay and I stepped into an elevator with several blonds and their Tom Cruz boyfriends following me in. These were not expats, I was pretty sure. They were tourists on a weekend fling. They were a remnant, or a reincarnation, of the old jet set that still had money. I don't think they even noticed me in back of them in the elevator. Or if they did, I was like some street vendor—huang niu or scapler—with box of fake Mont Blanc pens.
As the doors closed, it seemed as if the elevator suddenly began filling up with a gas—one that prevented you from laughing or smiling. I felt dizzy, tonyun.
"Where's Phil?" one of the blonds asked her boyfriend.
"Down at the Brewery with some babe he met."
"Really?" she asked.
"True so god me help," he said. A young lawyer on a binge?
"Chinese?" she asked.
"Yeah. Pretty cool-lookin' kid."
"And what about Barbara?"
"Donno," he said.
"Phil's a jerk ..."
"Phil does what he wants," the guy said. "Nothing I can do about it. She's a really good-looking babe. "
"Do you know how much time Barb spent on her hair? Do you have any idea, counsel?"
"Hey, mea culpa est non," he said. "Phil's Phil."
"That makes me SOOOOOH mad," she said.
"Well, don't whine to me about it," said the boyfriend, now on the offense.
"I'm not WHIIIIINNING she said. But that makes me SOOOOOH mad."
"She's a nice-looking babe," said the boyfriend. " She had a friend with her too. I wouldn't mind ..."
She wasn't listening.
"Barb spent two hours on her hair. I couldn't even get in the bathroom till 4 o'clock."
"Well, maybe that's why you're SO mad," he said. "If she hadn't hogged the fuckin' ..."
"I'm NOT mad," she shouted.
"You are," he said. "Anybody else here think she sounds mad?"
I cleared my throat but it went unnoticed.
"You're mad because she hogged the bathroom. All women do that. The bathroom is like an extension of the womb, moist, warm ..." Lawyer? Psychiatrist? A binge Freudian of some kind.
"Stop it buster," she said. "A bathroom is a bathroom and I'm not mad."
"A bathroom is a bathroom my ass," he said. "A bathroom is a great big fuckin' womb."
"You're a jerk," she said.
"I'm a jerk?" he asked.
"Pretty close to it," she said. "You're getting jerkier by the minute."
"Com'on, Bev, that's enough," said the other blond. "Jim's not a jerk. You're making too much of this."
"Yeah, Phil's Phil," said Jim. "He does what he wants."
I had the impression that Jim wasn't completely Jim but would like to be.
"Okay, okay, but men are SUUUUUCH ..."
We were at the Mint floor now and the door opened but no one got out. Bev, pressing the OPEN button, was detailing exactly what she thought men were. It looked like it would be awhile. Finally I decided to get out Chinese style. Without saying a word, I shoved my way through them. I think they were surprised that there was another person there.
"HEY," shouted Bev, "you know the word 'EXCUUUUSE ME'?"
"Yes," I said as I stepped from the elevator, "DUIBUQI."
Outside of the elevator my head cleared up, and I noticed that there were people walking every which way. I soon discovered why. The Mint is a whole bunch of bars and restaurants. It was five Glamour Bars and five M Restaurants all in one but with the lights turned low. It glowed more than it gleamed; it was more rubies and sapphiress than diamonds.
It was late now and some of the restaurant and bar spaces were empty. I decided against wasting my money on an expensive drink. I just looked around, first at the view, which was unbeatable, then at some dirty plates being removed from a table by a young Chinese busboy. He looked yidian lei, a little tired.
On the way out I spotted the blonds, their hair gleaming like gold, and their boyfriends seated in one of the lounges. They were on the far side of the room but it was no problem hearing Bev, martini now in hand.
"Hey, I'm just saying I don't think it's cool ..."
Would a 1930s woman say "cool"?
Would she begin a sentence with "Hey"? Times change, language
evolves, but meaning remains much the same. Her boyfriend was looking
out the window at the city all lit up.
I'm not as young as I used to be. I know, anyone can say that. Just wait one moment, then say it: "I'm not as young as I used to be." Doesn't say much but at least it's a true statement. Politicians, at a loss for anything else to say, might give it a try.
But let's get on with it. Time, shijian, may be short for me.
I was thinking the other day that I needed more philosophy in my life. When I was young I used to read Bertrand Russell, I used to read the Huxleys; I used to read Whitehead, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, and many others. I used to think, I used to ponder, I used to "put it in my pipe and smoke it." Then, for some reason, I quit thinking. I got married, then I got divorced. I had girl friends, then I lost them. I worked at various jobs, each one a little more disappointing than the previous one. Later on I took up writing. That was good; it gave me focus. It allowed me to digest experience. Writing became a passion, la raison de mon existence. In the process I rediscovered pleasure. It is hard to make a case against pleasure. But I was still not thinking, not like I used to think.
But a month or so ago I felt the need, once again, for a little philosophy in my life. Why had I given up the pursuit of the big picture, the meaning of it all? Why had I deserted the great thinkers for my lesser endeavours? Was finding the right word to describe a situation worth more than discovering the deeper meaning? Was an hour of pleasure with a some charming babe half as sublime as knowing the minds of the great thinkers? Had I dumped the Huxley Brothers for Michelle Ma Belle? I resolved that I would begin to think again, that I would get some philosophy back in my life.
But then there was this problem. I was living in Shanghai, China, and most of my library was sitting in the dark in a storage locker in San Francisco. Moreover, the Huxleys and Russell had been wiped out in a flood in Mendocino, California. Water and books have never been friends. I saved part of my library—books like Lady Chatterly's Lover, Lolitta, and The 100 Dollar Misunderstanding—but the deep thinkers had drowned.
Now as I started off saying, I'm not as young as I used to be, so my memory, jiyili, is not as good as it used to be. Q.E.D. I am going to need some new books. Fortunately, not a problem,
pas de problème
in Shanghai. Or bu wenti
The next Sunday I made a trip to the Shanghai Foreign Language Bookstore and purchased a copy of Dao De Jing by Lao Zi and a copy of the Analects of Confucius. Why not? I was eating locally and drinking locally; why not think and read locally, Alice?
I will have to admit it: I was a little disappointed in Confucius. Not because any of it was bad or wrong. It just wasn't what I was looking for or needed. It seemed to be more on social philosophy with rules for leaders on how to lead and rules for people on how to get along. Regarding the former, I thought of George W. Bush. In many ways Analects was written for him. How fitting it would be to put him in jail with a copy of that book. Not that he would understand much of it. He sees the bodies and blood, the homeless and jobless—the ruined and snuffed out lives—as the "collateral" for maintaining "principles"—those of a 1950s cowboy movie. Consider this:
Why he says they are beyond his understanding I don't know. He should meet the Bushman; surely there were Bushpeople in his day.
Here is one I dig:
If he means what I think he means, he's one hip thinker.
There was some good stuff in the Analects but it was not what I was thirsting for. The Dao De Jing was another matter. Consider #71 translated by R. B. Blakney:
Note the words "disease," "malady," "mind," "health," "mind," "aberration," and "ill." This translation takes a psychological approach.
Consider another translation by Wang Keping:
The use of the word "aberration" is not so clear in the Keping version. Why call pretense an "aberration" or departure from what is normal? Why then go on to use the word three times? In the Blankney translation, with its psychological slant, it makes sense; but in Keping it is an odd choice of words. Other translations do not use the word at all.
On the whole, translations of the Dao De Jing are very different. They range form scholarly, literal attempts to subjective interpretations. The source for the Dao De Jing is often referred to as poetry; if poetry, then there are 81 poems. But the source is also referred to as "chapters." Why chapters? Who knows? They are much too short to be considered chapters of a book. At best, most of them are short prose pieces.
The source of the Dao De Jing is written in ancient Chinese characters that are not used today. Thus the Doa De Jing is a field day for anyone who wants to try his or her hand at translation and not be held accountable. Some "translations" are translations of earlier translations done by those without the skill to read the original language. Look at a few translations and you will see that translators appear to see whatever they want to see in the Dao De Jing.
I will confess that I am partial to the Blakney translation, with its psychological interpretation, but I do have some doubts about its authenticity. But then the Keping translation is dull; it says almost nothing. Did Lao Zi really say nothing? Was he dull? I doubt this.
On a simply personal level I asked myself: What was I going to get out of studying Lao Zi? Was I going to find deep truths that would enrich my life, or was I only going to uncover a scholarly debate that would never be decided and that did not matter anyway? That is, unless you were preparing a grant proposal for one more translation? Yes, I know: The times are tough and Lao Zi would probably understand. Since I had no plans to translate Lao Zi, the question was then simple: Would the study of Lao Zi enrich my life, give it meaning, and tell me how to live, or wouldn't it?
Before I attempt to answer that question, let me quote another translated "poem" (#47) by Blakney:
It was nice to find in this case that the Keping version did not differ in major ways; it was simply a little drier. So was there meaning here of a profound nature? Yes, I think there was. And it had meaning for me personally. I have spent much time traveling around the world, much time in distant lands. But it was a reminder that enlightenment, or whatever you want to call it, did not depend on that; Proust, in his Paris apartment with cork-lined walls (he was noise-sensitive or misophonic), proved that you could write without ever leaving the house.
There were other nuggets to be found in Loa Zi:
There was indeed juice in Lao Zi but there were also gaps. There are gaps in hedges, quekou:
There are gaps in buildings:
And there are g a p s in thought.
If you were of the opinion that you were going to learn how to live your life by reading the Dao De Jing, you would soon find out that there was much uncharted territory.
Take for instance the take-no-action principle. How could one apply that to life today? Didn't we live in times that demanded we take at least some action sometimes? Doing absolutely nothing, appealing as it sounds, could leave us dead on the street or locked up by the government for failing to comply with this or that regulation "pertaining to subsection C of Article ..." At times it would seem to be easier to comply than to go to jail.
Of course Lao Zi's principle can be interpreted for modern times, and the scholars love to do it: "Don't do arbitrary, stupid, heavy-handed things with no consensus and justified by lies ..." Ex-President Bush could have heeded this modern interpretation.
But what Lao Zi is really saying a lot of the time is do nothing. He sees the world filled with busy bodies whose actions only cause harm. True, it is better to do nothing at all if you are confused or are prone to violence, but what about those times when action is required? There is a gap in the teaching here. In short, don't expect Lao Zi to tell you all. You are going to have to fill in the gaps, bring the teachings up to date. Same thing with Christianity. The times change and there are things that Christ did not think of, situations that he could not have imagined. Still, you have a base, if you care to use it, in the teachings. And that is the way it should be. Life would be extremely dull if one were handed a formula for all situations.
Now this brings us to the topic, suggested by Blakney in his translation of #71, of mind. Or mind and thought, feeling and emotion, meaning ... These are topics mostly avoided by the ancient philosophers, as far as I can tell, though others would dispute this, arguing that Jungian psychology has roots in ancient Chinese thought as does the idea that nature maintains a balance. But if you probe the body of literature, I think you will find that it is pretty week compared to the exploration that has taken place in the West via Freud, Piaget, Rogers, Skinner, Maslow, Perls ... Here we are talking about people who have probed the human mind and examined human behavior for every kind of aberration imaginable. "Know thyself" or "Know that you do not know" may be a good start but it is not comparable to the exploration of the psyche that has gone on since those days, most of it in the West.
Christ has marvelous sayings that were a guiding light to Western culture; similarly the sayings of Lao Zi and Confucius in the East. But as anyone knows who was dealt with actual human beings and their behavior, there are gaps—huge ones.
The range of exploration has been been enormous. But I'm not interested in the psychology of the workplace. Nor am I interested in body language or dating. That is the surface. That is for employers trying to squeeze more work out of employees; or for the guy tring to "score." I'm interested in the deep places where anxiety, kewang
and fear lurk, where phobias have moved in and made themselves at home. I'm interested in those areas that hold people back, that prevent them from achieving the highs, or what has been called "peek experiences." And I am also interested in alcohol and other drugs to work through anxiety and send one on the way to those peek experiences or higher goals.
But now I hear a member of the local PTA howl, "Alcohol and drugs are a thing of the past. Artists and writers learned their lesson from the likes of Jack Kerouac. These days they drink herbal tea and do yoga."
And occasionally they write or paint something interesting, I might add. No, I'm not talking about those artists and writers, usually living off of grant money at a university.
In the West and the East these days, artists and writers need "helpers." Now this might just be a glass of wine, it might be more. But they need something if they are going to produce anything other than "All work and no play ..."
But helpers are not the whole story. Most artists and writers have developed their own psychology to get them to new places where things are happening and alive. But it takes more psychology to get you there than it does to do a routine job.
Let us say you are a writer and you want to find out what really goes on at the corner of Turk and Taylor in San Francisco at 3 AM. You've heard it's dangerous there. You've heard about drug sales and drug dealers and prostitution and prostitutes, and you've heard about muggings and murder. You've heard all the stereotypes but you want to know for yourself what goes on. What do you do to prepare your mind for this "assignment"?
Okay, maybe you have a shot or two of whiskey. That'll lower the anxiety level. But let's hold off a moment on the alcohol. Let's give it some thought. "What," you ask yourself, "is the worst that can happen?" You think about that seriously for awhile and the thought comes to you: You could get robbed. You picture that as a real possibility. You let your mind linger on it. You could get shot. Picture that too; it could happen. You could also get stabbed. In some ways, you think, getting stabbed sounds the worst. You want to avoid that one especially. Okay, so now you have pictured the worst of it. At the least you could feel awkward and out of place. You say you're used to that? So am I but you don't have to be.
You think about it some more and realize that if you dress like you're now dressed you're going to look out of place. That could cause trouble right there. So you change your clothes—you put on older ones—and you put on a baseball cap. Anyone wearing a baseball cap seems to be taken for granted these days. I don't know why, but it is so. If you usually tuck in your shirt, don't; pull it out. You also learn to look—or at least appear to look—as if you are minding your own business. What does that mean? Don't be constantly looking around. If you want to look at something, move your eyes, not your whole head. And stand in one spot, once you have found a good one. You will begin to blend into the environment. And find a spot not to close, not too far, from other people. Find your own space. That handles half a dozen problems right there, and it dramatically lessens your chances of getting robbed, shot, or stabbed. So now you are on a mental roll: Get rid of that watch and that wallet. A few bucks is all you need.
Now maybe you want to take your camera. Why risk your life if you can't get a photo? So do you take your camera bag? No, probably not such a good idea, you think. First, it puts you at risk as a photographer, and secondly it could make you the target of a theft. But what if you put it in an old wrinkled brown-paper bag? Anybody going to notice that? Now you are thinking. In a beat up shopping bag you could even take your video camera. No one's going to give it a thought.
Now you are about ready to go but still feeling a little nervous. What do you do? What every general does before a battle: Tell yourself, "I can do this, I can do this."
Now you have your shot or two of whiskey and you go. It's going to be fine.
And it is. You have experienced something entirely new. Call it a "peek experience" if you want. You have been somewhere, done something that ordinary people have never done.
Maybe nothing really happened this time out on the street but at least you know how it feels there. As you replay the scenes in your mind, you become comfortable with them. That is very important. The next time you go down there you will be more relaxed. And you will watch for that guy in the knit cap who came up behind you. He's the sort who could grab and run. You'll know what's in front of you, on your side, and in back of you at all times. In fact, next time you will stand with your back against a wall. That eliminates a whole bunch of problems.
You have just moved through or beyond your anxieties. Maybe next time you'll skip the shot.
Or take a half pint in your hip pocket and offer it to some dude. That can open mouths. But if you do it, do it with discretion. The cops could bust you and your "source" for an open bottle.
Okay, so you learn that you can handle the situation. It's not an everyday situation for most people. But it has some of the characteristics. You had to work, think through things, picture what made you feel nervous, and learn to relax; you reduced the anxiety level.
Fine, you say, but what do you care about the Tenderloin and drugs and murder and prostitution? I can only say this: It's much like what goes on at a higher level among better-dressed people wearing smiles and driving fancy cars.
But now what do you do with some anxiety that makes little sense but just won't go away? That is tougher, in fact, than the scenario depicted above. Here you are going to have to do some real work and the outcome may be less certain. Talk to a therapist who deals with anxiety, if you don't believe me; anxiety is a jail with keys that are hard to find.
Little I have had anxieties that have bugged me for years. The Great Goethe had ones that caused him to set up a rigorous self-help program to overcome them. So what do you do? You write them down, explore your thoughts and feelings, maybe do some reading, and go to work on them. If they are too terrible, you can ignore them, at least for awhile. In this lifetime—or maybe the next—you will find a solution. And forget about Lao Zi, Confucius, and the others. They're good for the big picture but your problems—the real ones—will be in the gaps.
One evening a few weeks back when I was entering my Great Philosophical Period, I was reading a book on the great philosophers. I was feeling good and decided to celebrate with a cup of tea. I put water into the pot to boil. It is one of those new pots that boil water almost instantly. But this time, instead of boiling water, it shorted out all the electricity in my new apartment. I wasn't even sure where the circuit breakers were located. In just one second I went from philosophical to raving angry lunatic， fengzi.
Not only did my philosophical attitude walk straight out the door, but any psychological programming I had been developing. I found myself in the void, face to face with the unknown. I expressed myself in language only fit for the void.
Ten minutes later, groping
in the dark, I found the circuit breakers. Electricity and Heavenly Light
were restored. Obviously my psychological programming was full of gaps
too. I calmed myself—Lao Zi would have approved of that—and
laughed—Fritz Perls would have approved and laughed with me, I'm
sure. I realized that philosophy and psychology depended on a certain
basic level of existence that included, among other things, light. Then
I went back to reading my book on the great philosophers.