Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Country Driving - Peter Hessler

Just finished “Country Driving,” by Peter Hessler. If someone were to ask me, “What was it like living in China?” I can now just hand him his book. Hessler catches it all – the massively jarring contradictions, the intense details of daily life. It’s all there.

Hessler is a very good writer. He rides the waves of China in transition without painting with too a broad brush. For example, he straightforwardly describes the process of land transfer from peasants to municipalities to private development (chapter 11, page 344), and then smoothly transitions to the effects of this process on the people he has come to know – on their lives and livelihoods, on their children and babies and dreams. He can then equally smoothly transition to describing the effects of this process on himself and his own life – his writing and world view. Although the effect is natural, his technique is prodigious and reflects years of hard work researching, refining, and writing.

And it is a great travelogue. So many stories – stories of people. Hessler speaks the language, and he walks through doors closed to those of us who lived in China only briefly as outsiders. Hessler invites us to take a drive with him, and we’re going to take our time. The leisurely pace and vibrant detail made it a book to savor – an hour here and there – with no great rush to get anywhere. We’re along for the ride in perhaps the greatest peaceful political, cultural, and economic transitions in history.

And stories of children. Hessler has a special focus, and fondness, for those trying to grow up while being carted around such a new world. I especially like his descriptions of Master Luo and Cheng Youqin's son: "In the first four months of the child's life, he had traveled twice across China, lived in a factory dormatory, and served as a pawn in salary negotiations. He had witnessed the hotpot complaint scam and he had dodged the stolen phone trick. He had been drugged and robbed. His given name was Wen, which means "Cultured." Master Luo had chosen that character because he dreamed that someday his son would become an educated man." (p. 389)

I have a personal connection to Country Driving as well. Hessler entered the Peace Corps right about the time I graduated from college. At the time I considered both Peace Corps and learning Chinese – I was overwhelmed by the commitments required for both and took different paths. He put in the time and effort, and his rewards are clear – his experience perhaps represents a best-case-scenario of a dream I briefly held 15 years ago (if I happened to be a brilliant writer and intrepid traveller like Hessler). Then, we were both living in Beijing in 2005 when he was taking his trips to Sancha. As I was fielding questions from law students about the news of Hurricane Katrina, he was fielding questions from his Sancha friends about the same event. Finally, he left China for Colorado. He was working on his book near Ridgeway while I was working not too far away in Glenwood Springs.

During my own time in China, I quickly became bogged down in the overwhelming details. The first time I took out a credit card to pay for something - at a Carrefour hypermarket - the check-out person looked at me like I had three heads. It took 20 minutes to get the card run and a crowd of employees and managers gathered to see some guy who didn't understand cash. Or how coal dust used to drift gently from the sky on every surface. Or how the university confiscated electric blankets from students because heat only starts in November. After a few months of details, I could no longer see China as a whole. For that it takes a writer like Hessler.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Bike and U-Haul Conversion

I like this one - old Nishiki road frame commuter conversion with not one but two Spinergy wheels:

But not as much as the U-Haul pop-top:

Only a few hours with the Sawzall and you get the ultimate cargo carrier, albeit with no gate, no roof, and a very sharp top edge.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

More Boulder

I finally caught up with the Masi commuter bike:

It's a "Soulville 3," and I was sort of sad it only runs about $800. It would have been so much more Boulder for it to be more along the lines of the $8800 Moots "Comooter."

Also sad that Barts closed:

This apparently leaves Albums on the Hill as the last independent record store in town.

Plus, it's officially muddy:

Both in Boulder and at the Union Station construction site:

Friday, March 5, 2010

Back to Boulder

My new job is in Boulder. If you're following along at home, the scorecard is as follows: (1) 2003, move to Boulder for first year of law school and commute to Alamosa, CO to see Catherine (4-hour drive)/bike to school; (2) 2004-2006, commute from Boulder to Denver for work/bike to school; (3) 2007, move to Glenwood and ride bike to work/brief period of commuting from Glenwood to Aspen (hell); (4) 2008-2010, 15-minute ride to work in Denver; (5) 2010-?, commute from Denver to Boulder. Although this may seem circular, it's a vast improvement from pre-2003, when I had a bunch of random on-site-housing cooking jobs, commuting from California to Colorado (!?), getting robbed by punks as I got of the Bart in Berkeley, etc.

Ah, back in Boulder. From my window high at Denver Place, I could see Longs Peak and Mt. Evans peeking out from behind the Plaza Tower building. Now I have a clear view of the Flatirons:

As well as a view of a large concrete pad next to the St. Julien. During my first week I saw a guy practicing his fixie tricks:

Guys practicing their skateboard tricks:

And a guy practicing his bagpipes:

Fox News was there:

And Coach America was there with their intensely dumb slogan:

Of course, Boulder is all about cycling, and I don't think I've ever ridden such a bike-friendly city. In this lush and supportive environment, bikes (and cyclists) evolve into endless micro-variations. I couldn't get a photo of the Masi commuter , but I did catch this thing:

Like Aspen, there is only one Boulder. I find these singular locations difficult to criticize. You can live in Boulder, or you can move away, but Boulder will always be there, and it will always be Boulder. The college kids and trust-funders will wander the streets alongside pale professionals seeking youth, the jam bands will play, and the property values will rise. I already remember the thing I dislike most about Boulder, which is that the Flatirons and other mountains don't really face east, but rather north, and therefore hold the snow. Boulder needs to get with the program and put the mountains facing west, like California.

I also get to satisfy my espresso cravings - Trident, Amante, and Brewing Market are all within walking distance. There are also several new places I'll have to try - but I'm sad Tom's is gone.

My best means of the commute so far is to ride down to Union Station (where they just started construction on the incredible transit center project), then bus to Table Mesa park and ride, then bike the rest of the way to downtown Boulder. By riding in Boulder I beat the bus by a few minutes and get to ride a bit. I'm sure there are improvements - one of which would be for FasTracks to get on the ball and build the train.