The Economics of Cover Charges

pettibon collage shirt

“Let’s raise the price at the door. How much tonight? Three thousand or four?”

Today’s post is inspired by a friend who got into an internet tussle over cover charges in his local music scene. I discovered that there wasn’t enough good writing on cover charge economics, so I give you the following:

Touring bands have contacts that they insist on and that agents push get clubs and promotors to sign because they need to finance the tour somehow. They need income and they need to avoid prospective costs; e.g., van breaks down and they have to crash in a hotel for three nights while it gets fixed. They’re certainly not getting rich either but they actually have to get paid to make it to the next city and eat etc. So naturally touring bands charge more for their shows.

Local bands are different because all their costs are sunk costs. The rent on the practice space, the gear, etc. — it’s all paid for by the time you get up on stage. So it’s your choice: you can charge $12, or $7, or $5 (if you really have nostalgia for 1983), or $0.

I think the fundamental assumption one must make is that most local rock musicians are hobbyists and thus irrational actors who are going to play no matter what. The price at that point is just a symbol that you put on something and for whatever nostalgic, and not economic, reason, many people in the independent music scene have seized on that magical $5 figure.

Anyone who is not on welfare or committed to going out 7 nights a week can afford $2 more. The idea that an average person with a job who can’t afford an extra $2 is a framing effect — a great example of cognitive bias. 

Someone who thinks that the extra $2 ($0.84 in 1983, by the way) is not affordable suffers from loss aversion — the commonly held perception that it’s worse to lose something than to gain something. (That is, that most people would rather get $2 discount than avoid a $2 charge.) In this case, the haters are averse to losing the extra $2 in their pocket and don’t realize that they gain more quality local rock.

The rational economic actor and hobbyist rocker in this case should then ask the bar to charge a $7 cover and then give everyone a drink ticket for a $2 beer.

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The Miss – Live in Louisville

Back in 2000, I was living in Baltimore and fronting a band called The Miss. We were invited to play in my hometown of Louisville at a birthday party for local musician and man about town, Chad Castetter. Being the Friday after Thanksgiving, it was a gala homecoming affair and, with about 300 in attendance, was without a doubt the biggest crowd we played to in our short two year career.

The show was at a space managed by a certain Mia, who also managed the Mercury Paw on Main Street (previously known as the Zodiac). The place was a former strip club — note the pole and mirrors onstage — and last time I checked, which was over Labor Day, had been burnt to the ground. The Paw, of course, is part of the historic Whiskey Row renovation effort.

It was our second show and we played a short set including “Vast Deference” which was a tune from the Brogues, my previous band with co-conspirator and drummer Damir.

Tyler Trotter, then of Strike City and now of Watter, set the show up. Strike City opened and featured a stripper as the closer of their act — that’s what the initial interview, which I included here, is about. (For a different take on the exotic dancer, see this piece in Never Nervous.) Also on the bill (but not in this clip) were good friends Front Porch Campaign and precursor band to Phantom Family Halo, Starkiller.

Technical note: BMX superstar Jimmy Levan filmed this on a digital video camera, so cutting edge at the time that we had to transfer it to VHS. The transfer then made it back onto DVDs at some more recent point, the digital originals having long been lost by the time digital became standard.


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Our Sea

I’m glad that the Washington Post has finally decided to do a decent piece on immigration to Italy — essentially, the reason that Premesso started back in 2010, and the issue that I decided to start writing about in Italy in 2008. Their piece focuses on the Mare Nostrum law in Italy, a complete liberalization of the past decade of immigration policy as promulgated by the Bossi-Fini law.

Mimmo Paladino (b 1948, Italy), Porta di Lampedusa - Porta d'Europa (2008).

Mimmo Paladino (b 1948, Italy), Porta di Lampedusa – Porta d’Europa (2008).

This website is not an official U.S. Department of State website. The views and information presented do not represent the U.S. Department of State.

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Against Our Vanishing

I know this would happen soon. But I hoped it wouldn’t.

Allen Grossman, January 7, 1932 – June 27, 2014.

“Poetry is a principle of power invoked by all of us against our vanishing. The making of poems is a practice — a work human beings can do — in which civilization has invested some part of its love of itself and the world.  The poem is a trace of the will of all persons to be known and to make known and, therefore, to be at all.”

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You All Want a Pepsi-Coke?

I’ve always enjoyed dialects, and I’ve had the good fortune to live in a few places with strong dialect areas, from Torlak to Veneto to Cantonese. But what about American dialects? Are we too young of a nation to really have them, as our transatlantic cousins might assert? I don’t think so.

I had fun with this dialect quiz today. Here’s my result, which put me squarely as a southerner, even if I don’t have an accent.

Screen Shot 2014-06-07 at 12.59.43 PM

A Paducahan first told me that “you all” marks someone as a Kentuckian — here’s some statistical proof —  and the quiz reflects that. Each question seems to have a couple of very rare words or phrases that will mark you as being from a certain area. (This goes beyond the usual coke/pop/soda or sub/hoagie/grinder marker. Some of the words for tractor trailer or, as I said as a kid, 18-wheeler, truly baffled me.) For example, I always heard my North Carolinian grandmother call a rainstorm while the sun was shining “the devil beating his wife behind the door” — maybe not native to Kentucky, but a Southernism at any rate.

I got to the quiz via this write-up in the Washington Post about Joshua Katz’s map of where people say soda, coke and pop. I’m not exactly sure why the Post is running the feature now, when it seems like Katz’s maps came out a year ago, but they’re a lot of fun anyway.

Here’s a competing map and post. I think “dope” for a sweet carbonated beverage has likely died out, but I seem to remember hearing adults talk about it when I was a kid — “and over in Virginia, they call it dope.” One usage that gets omitted that I often heard in Eastern Kentucky is the combined “Pepsi-coke” — Pepsi being the brand name, “coke” being the marker for what kind of beverage it is. Then there is also the term “cocola”, which I could never get a read on — was the first syllable short for “Coke”? In the comments, the discussion about how to offer a stranger a non-alcoholic drink in abstemious Virginia is pretty fascinating.  Doubtlessly how we talk says a lot about who settled the area that we call home and what their — and our — values are. (Incidentally, why do so many southerners — including Louisvillians — get so revolted at the word ‘pop’? Quaint, yes, but nothing to get, uh, fizzed up about.)

Take the quiz yourself! There’s a longer form one here that looks like Dr Vaux’s original one that the NYT one was based on, but the maps have been disabled, so less fun. There are more questions, and more sample answers (including the aforementioned “cocola”), however, if you want to get an idea of what people all over the world who speak English call things like bank machines, water bugs, and sub sandwiches.

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Sorry, Charlie: Deep Parables of Consumer Capitalism

charlie tunaThere’s no age quite as awkward as the semi-pubescent 11-14 age range which corresponds to what we now know as the middle school years. My own awkwardness at that age can probably best be encapsulated by a rundown of my lunchtime eating habits: every day, a can of StarKist albacore tuna, some saltines, and a can of V-8. (The excess of sodium was probably what caused terrible cankers, I managed to figure out later.) My schoolmates called me “Charlie Tuna,” and I carried in my first grown-up leather wallet a picture not of family, cat or some braces-ridden, underdeveloped girl I had a crush on but rather a magazine cutout of the hipster fish. I dropped the diet after awhile — good taste, indeed, prevailed — but the habit persisted: in post-college years of impecuniousness, I loved a tuna melt under the broiler at home, or a tuna on rye with lettuce and tomato from one of Baltimore’s many fine delis. And in Italy, my British friends, also used to subpar canned fish, and I were awed at what we called “supertuna” — excellent Italian tuna, canned in olive oil — perfect for adding some protein to a fresh salad or plate of pasta pomodoro.

So it was with a mixture of delight and fear when I came across the following passage in Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice, which I just finished this week, deconstructing the meaning of the cartoon fish and his desire to sacrifice himself. Doc Sportello, the book’s stoned out-private investigator, is hearing an earful from his conspiratorial, and no-less-stoned-out, lawyer, Sauncho Smilax (p. 119 of the Penguin paperback):

“It’s all supposed to be so innocent, upwardly mobile snob, designer shades, beret, desperate to show he’s got good taste, except he’s also dyslexic so he gets ‘good taste’ mixed up with ‘taste good,’ but it’s worse than that! Far, far worse! Charlie really has this, like, obsessive death wish! Yes! he, he wants to be caught, processed, put in a can, not just any can, you dig, it has to be StarKist! suicidal brand loyalty, man, deep parable of consumer capitalism, they won’t be happy with anything less than drift-netting us all, chopping us up and stacking us on the shelves of Supermarket Amerika, and subconsciously the horrible thing is, is we want them to do it. . . .”

“Saunch, wow, that’s . . .”

“It’s been on my mind. And another thing. Why is there Chicken of the Sea but no Tuna of the Farm?”

“Um . . . ” Doc actually beginning to think about this.

“And don’t forget,” Sauncho went on to remind him darkly, “that Charles Manson and the Vietcong are also named Charlie.”

Dark reminders, indeed, and one of the book’s few mentions of the Vietcong, which, has caused some Pynchonites, who’ve very accurately tracked the chronology of the novel to the spring of 1970, to raise an eyebrow or two. The Cambodian Campaign would have been getting underway about a month after the book’s start date of March 24, 1970.

Back to the topic at hand, the idea of the animal who wants to be consumed is a familiar trope in advertising: at least 15 years ago, friends and I chuckled at the image outside Señor Chicken’s in Northern Virginia — a cartoon bird serving up a plate of, guess what, Peruvian-style chicken. Billboards near the old Fischer’s pork-processing plant in my hometown used to feature pigs serving up bacon from “the bacon makin’ people,” and ads of cows serving burgers seem ambiguously ubiquitous somehow — now cleverly riffed on by Chick-Fil-A. And what about the Kool-Aid man, who invites us to drink him with his basso profondo “oh yeah!”?

What Saunch’s rant adds to the adman’s trope is the notion of “suicidal branch loyalty” and intense paranoia. We must like, even desire, late capital’s endless conquest and consumption; everyone is to be chopped up and stacked up for ease of consumption: “not just any can, you dig, it has to be StarKist!” I vividly recall in the mid-nineties hearing about college students from MacLean voluntarily getting A&W and other brand logo tattoos. (At least this company is offering their bod-mod-willing employees a raise for it.) And as always for Pynchon, there’s a nefarious They, and the flesh that They intend to extract from their unlucky creditors will be far more than a pound. Everyone will be caught, thrown aboard, dredged out of safety and fed into an all-consuming mouth — to what ends, we humble prey are not to know.

But far from being the fantasy of a man whose greatest work contains a series of Proverbs for Paranoids, tuna harvesting in 2014 is deeply controversial and linked to all sorts of unsavory effects of late capitalism: floating canneries in Southeast Asia operate under heated controversy and allegations of slave labor, the Mediterranean’s tuna stocks are rapidly depleting, and Mitsubishi is apparently hoarding a vast amount of the world’s dwindling stock — a fact explained to me in hushed tones and over tuna sandwiches by a lawyer in an office in the City of London a few years ago. Not only is StarKist not American-owned anymore, its Korean parent company seems to be up to funny business.

Pynchon’s metaphor — Charlie as spokes-fish for an all-consuming, self-destructive life cycle — looks right, and so the tuna of my early adolescence is to be stuffed into an ever-fattening file labeled “is nothing sacred?”. Perhaps, as he put it, using another excellent culinary metaphor, “paranoia’s the garlic in life’s kitchen, right, you can never have too much.”

As an antidote to the depressing reality of Charlie Tuna as the ultimate symbol of industrialized, exploitative, tastes-bad and in-bad-taste food I give you Anthony Bourdain and his Catalonian guide rhapsodizing over some excellent, locally-canned, and non-exploitative seafood in the home of Cervantes — who, incidentally, knew that there was such a thing as too much garlic.

Posted in america, food, literature | 3 Comments

Amid What Bells Do You Appear Rovigo?

rovigo2April’s poetry discovery was that Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert has not only a poem, but an entire volume entitled Rovigo, with the eponymous poem being indeed about that small town in Veneto midway between mythical Venice and sumptuous Bologna where I lived in 2007 and 2008. (Sadly the book is available only in German at Amazon, and only at the exorbitant price of $66.)

I didn’t mean to live in Rovigo. I had bigger and better plans — I was going to work in Milan, or Rome, or teach in Bologna, or at least do a fellowship in Modena. My girlfriend lived in Rovigo, but she wasn’t really from there, either — her family was from closer to Verona, and she’d grown up out on the Po Delta, and gone to school in Bologna, where we’d met. I’d gone there once or twice, to meet her mom and have lunch, and hiked along what I remembered as a humid canal path smelling faintly, not unpleasantly, of vegetation, to get back to that train station with its two windows, with yellowed photos of Piazza Vittorio Emanuele and la Chiesa di Santa Maria del Soccorso taped up, to go back to Bologna, which had trains going to Milan and Switzerland, not to the provincial destination of Chioggia and Adria.

I finished a master’s in 2007 and got to Rovigo in the infernal heat of Ferragosto, when no sane southern European works. But possibly I would not be working either: back home, financial TV personality Jim Cramer was bellowing at the Fed to “open the discount window.” The subprime crisis was happening. I wasn’t going to find a job in Milan, or Rome, or anywhere. Anywhere other than Oxford School, Rovigo branch. My temporary stopover ended up being slightly more permanent. And then, I got married. My train wasn’t going anywhere. Rovigo became my reality. I stayed a year. I go back indefinitely. I just got back, actually.

So I can agree quite well with Herbert that Rovigo is “a city of blood and stone like others/a city where a man died yesterday someone went mad someone coughed hopelessly all night.” It is, doubtlessly, a real city quite apart from the myths of nearby Venice and the feasts, architectural, gastronomic and otherwise, of Bologna. Professor Adam Zagajewski, himself no stranger to the Veneto, has more on this in an excellent essay.

There are a couple of translations going around the internet and I will post the one by Alissa Valles I found on Professor Zagajewski’s site here — I don’t read Polish, but the English-reader in me finds the unattributed translation on severely lacking. There’s a world of difference between the mechanistic “nth time” and the more intuitive, indubitably casual “umpteenth”, and “filled with love” is no comparison to “throes of passion.” And what about the gashed mountain nearby, “like an Easter Ham surrounded by kale” versus “like a holiday cut of meat draped in sprigs of parsley”? I’m less sure about that. Easter ham taps into that most sacred of Catholic holidays, celebrated with great vigor in both Poland and Italy. I’ll let the reader judge by linking to the anonymous translation above and pasting Valles’ below. As a side note, I wonder if Herbert’s gashed mountain is one of the nearby Colli Euganei?

Zagajewski’s essay in an excellent little study on how the foreigner — especially the educated and sensible one — experiences Italy:

[W]e’re only interested in those who died five hundred years ago. We’re not coming here to be reminded of the triviality of life, we’re not coming here to think of Berlusconi or Prodi, or of the reform of the health care system; we come here for the beauty alone.

But by the end of the poem,

the non-visitable city of Rovigo changes its color. […] He just mentions, nearing the poem’s closure, “arrivi—partenze,” keeping the Italian words in the text, and we understand what he means: arrivi—partenze, birth and death, beginning and end.

In the poem, Rovigo has become real, a real place in Italy where people come and go, are born and die. There’s a lot to unpack here in terms of the reality of life in small-town Europe in 2014: the Rovigo of today is, for many who work in more developed Padova or Ferrara, a bedroom community with cheaper rents and better eldercare for parents. For many recent immigrants, the neighborhoods around the train station are a cheap place to live while they go ply their trades in the bigger cities of Mestre, Padova or Venice. (Including, but not limited to, the world’s oldest profession.) As economic terms concentrate greater wealth and more features of a completely developed economy to internationalized mega-cities (of which Milan is the prime Italian, but not an especially good, example), Rodigini find themselves commuting more and more, going to work a competitive job in Milan and commuting home on the weekends. The arrivals and departures of Herbert’s poem, written over 20 years ago, back when Italy had more of an economy, are even more stark now.

One detail I will take exception to in Zagajewski’s essay is that Rovigo is a dull or boring town. Small or provincial, yes, quite likely. But it is not over-industrialized (for that the Venice-bound traveler need look no further than neighboring Mestre), and has three very finely preserved piazze — one of them Vittorio Emanuele, the others Piazza Garibaldi and Piazza Roma, known to natives as Piazza Merlin — that would be the envy of a metropolis like Milan, where a piazza is often merely a traffic circle. As my mother-in-law tells me, the Adigetto Canal until the early 1950’s used to run straight through the middle of town, down the Corso del Popolo that is today’s main pedestrian drag, and it doesn’t take much imagination to see Rovigo as a smaller, less-developed Venice.

On a clear day, when there is no winter fog or summer afa — that crushing, grayish humidity that sticks between the Po and Adige Rivers in the summer heat in the lower Veneto — from the right bank of the canal out towards Sant’Apollinare, one can see distant snow-covered peaks of the Monti Berici.

rovigo salmon map ROVIGO

Rovigo station. Vague associations. A Goethe play
or something from Byron. I passed through Rovigo
so many times and just now for the umpteenth time
I understood in my inner geography it is a singular
place though it is certainly no match for Florence.
I never put a living foot down there. Rovigo was
always coming closer or receding into distance.

I lived then in the throes of a passion for Altichiero
of the San Giorgio Oratorium in Padua and also
for Ferrara which I love because it reminded me
of the plundered city of my fathers. I lived torn
between the past and the present moment
crucified many times by time and by place
But nonetheless happy with a powerful faith
that the sacrifice would not be made in vain

Rovigo was not marked by anything in particular
it was a masterpiece of averageness straight roads
ugly houses—depending on the train’s direction
just before or just after the city a mountain suddenly
rose up from a plain cut across by a red stone quarry
like a holiday cut of meat draped in sprigs of parsley
apart from that nothing to please hurt catch the eye

But it was after all a city of blood and stone like others
a city where a man died yesterday someone went mad
someone coughed hopelessly all night


Reduced to its station to a comma a crossed-out letter
nothing just the station—arrivi—partenze

and that is why I think of you Rovigo Rovigo

Posted in italy, veneto | 2 Comments

The Point of the Jesus Lizard

Once in a while you see an example of rock music that makes you realize exactly what that well-worn exercise is all about. The Jesus Lizard and David Yow were to me always the supreme exemplars of rock music: a tension between precise, simple musicality and raw unhingedness; the Apollonian and the Dionysian. On the occasion of the Jesus Lizard’s brief reunion a few years ago, Sasha Frere-Jones wrote in the New Yorker that Yow “acts like a storyteller who has just arrived, out of breath and perhaps drunk, with the need to tell us something unsettling.” I would go further and say that Yow seems like he has witnessed the end and that by the time we hear his apocalyptic message there will be no more anything, or as a friend of mine who knows rock’s tensions well once put it, “it seemed to me that part of the point of The Jesus Lizard was that in the future there would no longer be magazines like the New Yorker.”

Being there is still the best way to experience rock but this finely-made video captures the tension quite well.  The drummer and bassist pound out a syncopated rhythm; the guitarist’s hollow-body wails. The instruments are festooned with weird little totems, the singer sticks his hands in his mouth. Snippets of grim lyrics reach us through the noise: “the neighbor’s house was burning/but now is only smoking.” The singer contorts his face; he is possessed, a yowling messenger made mad by the unsettling thing he has been dispatched to tell us about. And just as it reaches a perfect pitch-point of psychic horror, it promptly resolves into four self-amused guys standing in a little room — the essence of rock music, as anyone who has been there knows.

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48 Hours of Eating in the Fragrant Harbor

All prices in USD, not HKD. 

We went to Hong Kong for a variety of reasons but near the top of the list was to eat. What we learned quickly is that food in Hong Kong is really expensive. But it’s good. Not only non-toxic (a serious concern in China that dampens my usual try-everything ethos) but often all-organic.

For a late Saturday lunch, we ventured to Linguini Fini, an Italo-American place in a mall of restaurants. Not a food court, but a high rise wherein each floor was a different restaurant.  The elevator opened directly into the lobby. Decor nice, food generally decent. Excellent burger. A bit small, but with smashed garlic and homemade ketchup and bright nice tomatoes and lettuce. You don’t see that in China — if so, be scared. But it was $23. S– got some ok pasta that was advertised as served with a veal, pig head and tripe ragu’ but it wasn’t that meaty. Pasta overcooked. $26. Bottle of Rogue beer? $12. Espresso? $7 each. Good espresso, though. Bit of a ripoff, but I have to remind S– and myself that this is still Asia and so such food may be exotic and pricey here. Plus Hong Kong seems loaded with British bankers making loads of pounds sterling. Total: $89.

Dinner was better. After braving the hour and a half wait for a funicular car and taking in the stunning views on Victoria Peak, we found Cafe Deco, a spacious place with a stellar view of Hong Kong. Very international menu, the type that usually inspires suspicion (pizza! kebabs! pasta! steak!) menu but they pulled it off. A huge multi-ethnic party of mainly men, led by an enormous mangione, seemed to be determined to test every different type of cuisine, and weren’t beyond giving the staff impromptu lessons as to how food should be prepared or served. We were more modest and split a 14 oz. New Zealand steak, a glass of Mondavi, an excellent salad with grilled parmigiano, asparagus and zucchini. Fresh baked-to-order baguette. For dessert, a fruit platter of fresh, real, non-toxic fruit. A little more than lunch at $92.

After seeing the vaunted (and twenty-year-old — most of my record collection is older than this guy) Tian Tan Buddha, we found ourselves stuck in Ngong Ping, a tasteful tourist village on Lantau Island. Opting to go local finally, we settled on Cantonese lunch at Pak Loh Garden, a large and fairly unremarkable place. Food was plain but decent: two kinds of pork dumplings off the dim sum menu, a huge bowl of veggies, mushrooms and noodles, and some grilled pork with mustard. Tea for two and they had the gall to charge $2 for some pre-meal peanuts. Total: 44 bucks. Thus better to get Cantonese in the real Canton, and no, I don’t believe the old Hong Kong saw that all the good Cantonese chefs fled the mainland for Hong Kong in 1949.


Saltimbocca and bucatini all’amatriciana at Posto Pubblico. Technical problems with WordPress prevent me from uploading more for some reason…

On our last night we managed to go to Hong Kong’s SoHo, a warren of narrow streets winding uphill with loads of hip places to eat, drink and live. We indulged in outdoor dining, which sane people should not do in Guangzhou, at Posto Pubblico, another New York-style Italian place. This one was a vast improvement over our mall experience and S– was happier. A heaping plate of spicy bucatini all’amatriciana with basil and wine-spiked saltimbocca alla romana that favorably compared with my favorite Roman joint in Milano. They brought good bread twice without being asked and I got a good glass of Montepulciano. The waiter was neither unctuous nor over-familiar and as he chased away a beggar dressed as a monk he chuckled to us, “Hong Kong’s biggest scam.” Price: $78. This is why we came here. S– went to freshen up and I sat there in the cool night air listening to the hypnotic house music and thought that with a full bottle I might sit there all night and relive my expat experiences of a decade ago, but that was not to be.

We’ll go back to SoHo to try the Mexican place, the two Argentinian steak places and the three other Italian places. I have faith as they seem geared to those who actually know food, not the desperate, meekly content expats who might think “I don’t care if these nachos are made with orange Doritos that include the toy; this is the only Mexican i’m getting for two years.”

Also worth a visit: the gleaming, ultra-luxe IFC shopping mall along the waterfront. A stop at Singapore-based TWC Tea is an elegant repose after a day of sightseeing, and for about $27, you can pick two teapots from a list of literally hundreds of teas, and enjoy some delicate macarons. For $22 you can take a box of 15 cotton teabags home. Bonus: if you forget that you are in a shiny, steel-and-glass mall, you can pretend you are in 19th-century Europe somewhere.

Our only complaint was the Harbourview, our hotel, which was a bit lacking, especially after our very nice accommodations in Guangzhou. Elevator service was lacking, our view was of a creepy courtyard, and there were few perks — not even free wi-fi. But it was very central, and we didn’t spend much time in it. Here in Guangzhou, we tend to spend more time at home, but that’s mostly thanks to pollution.

The difference between Hong Kong and the mainland is hard to overstate. Most importantly for us, the air is clean-seeming, breathable and it smells like the sea. There was a gentle breeze and generally, it was nice to be outside. During our 48 hours there, it was rainy and cool. No oppressive humidity that orders your brain, trained in the valleys of the Ohio and Po Rivers, to run indoors as quickly as humanly possibly or face certain death by heat stroke, dehydration or exhaustion or all three. No mind-bending pollution. No assault on the senses of every kind of fetid smell you can imagine from organic (rotting pig blood? sewage? stinky tofu?) to chemical (paint thinner? asbestos? vaporizing steel? collapsing village? cocktail of all?). Most everything is orderly in that quintessential English fashion. Everyone, mostly, speaks English. After a few starts, I gave up trying with Mandarin, although I heard a quite a few tourists from the mainland speaking its gong-like, ringing tones. Cantonese sounds less harsh; more tones make it rich and florid. An L.A. transplant of Taiwanese origin I know says it’s the French to Mandarin’s English, although I’m not sure about that.

Hong Kong’s prevailing ethos — the luxury that money buys — has a lot more in common with London or NY or Milan than China, where the ethos is just pure money. Moreover, there’s a general feeling of uprootedness and confusion in China that is hard to capture or describe in a few words. Enormous highways and skyscrapers rise out of nothing. Traffic surges erratically and becomes horrible in second. People walking to work while doing taiji, sometimes even walking backwards. Old ladies cycle against the traffic on huge five-lane highways. People wander along the center lines on these same highways. The empty feeling of massive luxury complexes is highlighted by the huge labor surplus (5-10 people working in one small store, many just standing around). In a gleaming new train station, people sit shoeless on steps amid commuters, eating lunch. A wall breaks away to reveal a construction site, through which workers use forklifts to cart box after box of hundreds of just-hatched chicks, and commuters rush down sparkling new escalators. In short, it can be alien to the newcomer. This feeling was absent in Hong Kong, which I found very familiar despite vast differences in the language and local culture. Chalk one up for the people of the fragrant harbor.



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Two Competing Visions

From Per Petterson’s remarkable I Curse the River of Time, two visions of death. He seems to think that the first, and not the second is inevitable, yet he spends considerably more effort describing the second, more pleasant alternative, so which can he hope for?

…when it came to dying, I was scared. Not of being dead, that I could not comprehend, to be nothing was impossible to grasp and therefore really nothing to be scared of, but the dying itself I could comprehend, the very instant when you know that now comes what you have always feared, and you suddenly realise that every chance of being the person you really wanted to be, is gone for ever, and the one you were, is the one those around you will remember. Then that must feel like someone’s strong hands slowly tightening their grip around your neck until you can breath no more, and not at all as when a door is slowly pushed open and bright light comes streaming out from the inside and a woman or a man you have always known and always liked, maybe always loved, leans out and gently takes your hand and leads you into a place of rest, so mild and so fine, from eternity to eternity.

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