Thursday, June 26, 2008

china dispatch #9 - dancing

It was a burden to go to those play rehearsals, a journey of almost an hour through the huge city. But at least I was doing something; Catherine went with me most days, but just sat and read, though at times they had their wi-fi on and she could correspond. Several times she wondered why I had to be doing this with our free time.

The other day I asked her if she would want me to do it if we had the choice all over again. She said without hesitation, "Oh yeah!" That's because of Friday night.

I mentioned that we'd danced and danced. What happened was that after Friday's show the theater transformed back into a dance club and the music started playing and the lights started spinning, and we didn't actually have to do anything but stay right where we were. It was like one of those montages in movies. So we stayed right where we were. The DJ picked the right kind of music for the occasion: lots of 80s pop and not-so-pop, rather than the serious electronica or hip-hop that you sometimes hear, so that the effect was of light-hearted nostalgia. Several of the cast members, who had stayed around, were definitely in the mood for levity and celebration.

We found a new friend, Anna Grace, whom we both really connected with, and had great conversation. When it came time to dance, we both went right onto the dance floor and danced — something Catherine is usually loath to do.

Catherine's group of friends think of her as the wild one, the Phoebe, the instigator, the whimsical caution-to-the-wind girl. When you first meet her you might not catch on to that aspect of her personality, though, because she doesn't open up that side of her until she feels perfectly safe.

She must've felt safe Friday, because caution indeed went to the wind, and she danced like I've never seen her dance in public before. Maybe St Vitus Day (only a few days before) was exerting a gravitational pull. At one point the group got into a circle and took turns doing solo dances in the middle: Catherine jumped right in and freestyled while everyone whooped. Some of the cast members asked me afterward if she's usually like that. Hm, what to say? She usually is like that, with me, and with her friends and family. But even then she's never liked dancing because she doesn't think she's a good dancer. Of course she was just as good as anyone else there. The key, of course, is to not try not to look stupid. You just dance and don't care what anyone thinks, and you magically do look great. (One of the reasons we enjoyed the show Felicity was that there were often opportunities for the characters to dance, in clubs, dorm rooms, or apartments, and they never seemed concerned about how silly they looked.)

A few of us went up to the rooftop terrace, from which you can see the beautifully twinkling lake and the city distantly surrounding it, and enjoyed the breeze and lively conversation. That was a welcome change. It was beyond hot in the club; we'd sweated and sweated and kept dancing anyway. We had, as the phrase goes, danced like there was no tomorrow.

And yet that phrase doesn't quite capture the truth. Because I believe that what happens tomorrow depends on how you dance today.

You can read up on mambos and tangos, you can watch the kids on Felicity let loose, you can enjoy listening to the music, you can tap your feet or do your shoulders back and forth in your chair &#8212 but until you've danced you haven't danced.

There are people in life who sit at their tables watching all the fun, and there are people who stand around at the edges bobbing their heads, never daring to risk making fools of themselves, and then there are people who get right into the middle of the floor, where the sound is the pumpiest and the lights are the dazzliest, and send their philosophy coursing through their bloodstream.

That's why we're here. That's why we're here on earth, and that's why Catherine and I are here in China, and that's why we're together, and that's why, last Friday night, we joined mind and body and spirit in a joyful tarantella.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

china dispatch #8 - play is the thing

Catherine and I have just had a fun weekend. We danced and clubbed and clubbed and danced till the wee hours Friday night, arriving home at dawn; Saturday we did a few errands and I went out with the cast of our play to have Mexican food (while Catherine went home to rest but ended up waiting outside our building — I had inadvertently kept the keys); Sunday we ate and shopped and talked and discovered interesting stuff about each other and ourselves in exploring our Myers-Briggs profiles.

But the main thing this weekend, the thing so many of its events were tied to, was the play. For the past several weeks, I've been involved in a production by a small theater company. It was a comedy purporting to be a reality show for theater, pitting environmentalists against industrialists. Apparently they'd gone through several actors for the part of the show's host; eventually a colleague of a colleague gave me a call and asked if I'd be interested.

It ended up taking tons of time (and quite a bit of money), but the result was something really fun. Theater is a great way to plug in to a lively community of creative and fun-loving people. The rehearsals and performances were at a dance club, which converted easily into an intimate theater space with nice lighting and decent acoustics, and a bit of off-hours revenue for the owners. The club is on the edge of a lovely lake toward Beijing's center. You walk through an old-fashioned hutong and round this corner and through that narrow alley, and suddenly you're looking out onto a beautiful scene, with old fishermen sitting and young couples perching and little kids running and a shoreside restaurant here and an old monastery there: it was just a pleasure to go there day after day.

I knew that it would be a fun project but I was unprepared for the feeling I got during the performances. Though most of the characters interacted with each other and with me, most of my part of it was directly addressing the audience. There I was, standing in front of a crowd of sixty or so people who were ready to be entertained, inspired, or informed. I'd say something mildly funny, and let a laugh bloom, or tilt my head a bit and wait for it to catch on and grow into a bigger laugh; I'd use my hands and feet and face to get a reaction. I'd stand by and watch as the other actors — all good comics and ensemble players — did the same thing with each other and with the crowd. And of course behind it all was a serious message about making the world a better, less messy and filthy place.


It's been well over a year since I've done that. It was gratifying. There's a very real appetite in me that only that kind of thing can feed — and a very real skill that has gone unexercised. Three performances. I could have done a hundred.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

habeas corpus

I've been asked to talk more about my comment about celebrating the return of habeas corpus: that the Supreme Court has jolted the Bush Administration forward into the 13th century.

Last Thursday, the Court declared part of the Military Commissions Act of 2006 to be unconstitutional: the part that squishes over the writ of habeas corpus. The Latin phrase literally means "you shall have the body (in court)." If you're arrested, they have to actually bring you to a courtroom at some point to tell you what you're accused of and have a judge or jury decide whether you should continue to be jailed.

In history, that's a huge huge thing. It used to be that whoever was king could just have someone thrown in jail. No questions asked, throw away the key if you like. One of the founding documents of democracy, the Magna Carta, forced old King John to use the writ of habeas corpus. No longer could English kings just toss people in jail indefinitely.

That's been part of English law ever since, and it's part of the American Constitution, until that Constitution was effectively challenged by the Bush Administration and its cadre of loyal Republicans and cowardly Democrats on Capitol Hill.

Alexander Hamilton said it well: "The practice of arbitrary imprisonments, in all ages, is the favorite and most formidable instrument of tyranny." He said it so well, in fact, that the Supreme Court quoted that very passage from the Federalist Papers in its opinion. You don't have to think of Bush as a tyrant in order to see that that practice is indeed tyrannical. And meanwhile it only takes a small act of imagination to wonder what it would be like if you, or your kid, were overseas somewhere and got imprisoned without any chance of getting a fair hearing, without any shot at the due process of the laws of that land.

The fact that the Guantanamo detainees are actually on Cuban soil, which was cynically done in order to end-run the rules Americans have to follow on our own soil, now does not matter. The Court has basically said, "No cheating. If they're held in a place that's effectively under U.S. control, then you gotta follow the rules."

Those rules are good, and they protect us, and they do not compromise any effective effort against terrorism.

There had been a claim that a law passed in 2005 (sponsored by John McCain, who has pledged to continue Bush's course), provided a good substitute for habeas corpus: the so-called "Tribunals." Of course, since the defendants aren't allowed to have a lawyer present, and aren't even allowed to challenge the evidence against them (and sometimes, as a recent New Yorker article pointed out, aren't even allowed to know what the evidence is), the Court said that this law falls "well short," and means that "there is a considerable risk for error."

They're right: whether you're Democratic or Republican, and no matter how you feel about the death penalty, you can't help but get mad about the guy who got put to death in Texas after his court-appointed defense lawyer fell asleep during the trial. How is that justice? Could a lawyer who'd stayed awake have raised a red flag at some point, and shown that they got the wrong guy? Same thing applies here, except that there's no lawyer, asleep or awake, and no actual charge, and these guys are just languishing in jail. There's no incentive to actually build a responsible case against them.

A good Republican would already know this. (Good Republicans do, and they've been horrified over the years at the astonishing liberties the Bush Administration has taken: what happened to not trusting Big Bad Government? This is why ultra-conservative guru William F. Buckley refused to endorse Bush in 04.)

A quick quiz question for you: what individual right was mentioned in the main body of the Constitution, before the Bill of Rights was even enacted?

If your answer was habeas corpus, give yourself a point. The Founders were big believers in limiting government power whenever and wherever they could. They understood that power corrupts, and anyone with power will inevitably abuse it. The Supreme Court's decision mentions this fact, and notes that

"the Framers viewed unlawful restraint as a fundamental precept of liberty, and they understood the writ of habeas corpus as a vital instrument to secure that freedom."

They go on to say:

"The Framers' inherent distrust of government power was the driving force behind the constitutional plan that allocated powers among three independent branches. This design serves not only to make Government accountable but also to secure individual liberty."

When we abolish a person's freedom from arbitrary imprisonment, we turn the clock back to before the Constitution, and even further: we turn it back to before the Magna Carta. Even the Redcoats couldn't just throw the American rebels into jail without having to show reason in a court of law.

You might object, as some do, by saying that this is war, and we're in extraordinary circumstances and sometimes you have to play dirty to get things done, and you can't have someone following you around making you cross all the Ts while you're trying to fight global terrorism. But sometimes those Ts are what we're fighting about in the first place. The Court says it well:

Security depends upon a sophisticated intelligence apparatus and the ability of our Armed Forces to act and interdict. There are further considerations, however. Security subsists, too, in fidelity to freedom's first principles. Chief among these are freedom from arbitrary and unlawful restraint and the personal liberty that is secured by adherence to separation of powers.

The laws and Constitution are designed to survive, and remain in force, in extraordinary times. Liberty and security can be reconciled; and in our system, they are reconciled within the framework of law. The Framers decided that habeas corpus, a right of first importance, must be a part of that framework, part of that law.

That makes me want to stand up and cheer.

There is another element to all this, and it concerns the future: McCain was a major player in getting the Military Commissions Act passed. Obama voted against it. When it became clear that it would pass, Obama tried to add an amendment that would give it a time-limit of five years. The Act passed; the amendment didn't. For all we knew, we were now in an era in which our own government could (did; does) put people in prison indefinitely, with no charges and no due process.

The only thing that saved us was the Supreme Court, who took a historic stand. But even then it was five to four, lined up in a wearily predictable way. The four who dissented — who wanted to keep things the way they were headed — were Roberts and Alito, Scalia and Thomas. And John McCain has referred to Roberts and Alito as the kind of judges he'd like to see more of. Obama, asked the same question, named Breyer, Souter, and Ginsberg, who all voted to reinstate this basic right.

The four dissenters are all young and healthy enough to last a good long time. Stevens and Ginsberg are 88 and 75. So, in thinking about who you want to vote for as our next President, your considerations might include the question of who will best protect the freedom from tyranny that we're supposed to be fighting for.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

china dispatch #7 - tailors

Our first few days in China, when we were staying in the guest bedroom of the truly hospitable Bryan and Cathy, we would look at our pile of bags and exclaim about how much stuff we had. One time, though, Cathy heard us and mentioned that she'd always thought, "Wow, only four bags for six months! Pretty good."

It is actually pretty good. I only packed one pair of pants, a few T-shirts, a few nice-ish shirts, and that's it. Same for Catherine. We did indeed bring four pairs of shoes a piece, because China is not a place for tall Westerners to get lots of great shoes (though there are plenty of tall people this far north. Where do they get their footwear?) But for the most part we didn't bring lots of clothes because we knew we'd be able to replenish our wardrobes inexpensively when we got here.

Each of us has found some nice clothing: blouses and jewelry for Catherine, shirts and ties for me, and, remarkably enough, the occasional pair of shoes. The main thing I've been looking forward to, though, is a suit. You can get a bespoke suit here for a fraction of the price you'd pay at home, and you might as well take advantage, right? Though it's been hard to find a good tailor here, I have gotten one suit made: a nice olive-green English number, double-vented, fitted with casualish bone buttons.

Since I'm now playing every weeknight during the month of June, I'm really beginning to hurt for more suits to wear, but I don't want to go back to the one who made this one. Tomorrow I'm going to strike out early and search for one in the district where a friend tipped me off to look. We'll see!

My theory on tailors is simple: you want a slightly cranky old man. The team of tailors who did this suit, being young women, tended to prove my prejudices correct. I'd express worry about a sleeve length, and they'd say, "Oh no, it's fine the way it is." I'd point out a place where the fabric buckled, and they'd press and press and press till it temporarily smoothed out. (And how many times a day did they expect me to do that?)

What you want is to say to your (old man) tailor, "Well, I could just stand more like...this...," and have him say, "Nononono, we're redoing the darts. Take it off, take it off, take it off, give it here." And then he redoes them and the suit looks perfect without your having to stand like anything.

This is similar to my thoughts on stationery. Before the demise of Nancy Harkins, I'd go there and ask them for advice on note cards or thank-yous or whatever, and their first line of advice was, "Well, really, whatever you like; anything goes these days." Exactly what I don't want to hear. I then would go to the old lady in back and tell her to tell me what to get. When you send a note to someone, you don't want their grandmother to shake her head and say, "Well, I guess anything goes these days." You want her to say, "That Brake boy is so nice."

Nonetheless, through being my own cranky old man, I managed to get this suit done quite nicely. And got a beautiful bespoke shirt in the bargain.

How do I look?

Sunday, June 15, 2008

china dispatch #6 - the shakes

Every once in a while, the Mysterious East gets to be a little too much, and you want some good old American food. And what could be more American than a milkshake? Here's a picture I took of the milkshake menu.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

china dispatch #5 - shoe repair

One of the pairs of shoes I brought along on the trip was my foley shoes. They're beautiful and comfortable, and well-crafted. And they sound like shoes sound in the movies — you know, that shoe-ish sound that always gets added in by the foley artists, that never never actually lines up with the footsteps you see people taking. Honestly, how hard can it be? Pretty hard, apparently.

Anyway, the shoes were such a delight to me because they made that exact sound. Everywhere I walked it sounded like I was in the movies. Except the sound lined up.

So I was horrified to notice that I'd brought them here without noticing that they were dangerously worn. With all the walking we're doing here in Beijing, there's no way they'd last without being re-heeled. Something Catherine was unaware of is that with men's shoes (good ones) that bottom layer is meant to be replaced when it wears away. If you take good enough care of your shoes, they'll last decades.

I was not the least bit trepid about taking them to a guy here: after all, China has a tradition of centuries of this kind of craftsmanship, right? They have whole streets and districts that still bear names, from royal days, like Drum-And-Cymbal Street and Silk Street.


When I got them back, I noticed that the most excellent and harmonious craftsman had simply placed an extra heel on top of the old one, having wedged in some extra material where it was worn. And the edge of it doesn't even match.

And, of course, no more foley sound. Wonder if they can be salvaged when I get back to the States. At least I can be certain that they won't get worn down — and that's why I'm walkin' tall.