Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Travel Notes from Asia - July, 2013

Spoiled Brats?: In the first half of our trip, we travelled to and around Korea, generally flying on Korean Airlines. The flights were on-time and the people were quiet, friendly and polite. Lines, boardings, and customs and immigration dealings were efficient and agreeable. If not pleasant, travel was at least hassle-free. Except for the Kimchee, life was good. Halfway through the week we flew to Jeju (more on that later), and transferred to Shanghai on China Eastern Airlines. We were then surrounded by Chinese people on a Chinese airline. Immediately, I noticed a difference. The plane was late. Boarding was a nightmare. People hogged the armrest and left knees akimbo. You got knocked in the teeth by elbows as people wrestled their bags free, trying to beat you to deplane. If you missed your chance leave your row and walk down the aisle, you’d better wait until the plane was empty, lest you be trampled to death like a college kid at a Who concert. People ran over your toes with their luggage carts as they jockeyed to get through customs. We breathed a sigh of relief as we finally stepped into the van taking us to the plant.

I was travelling with five or six colleagues and everyone noted it after we’d arrived in Kunshan later that day. I chalked it up to Chinese air traveler’s recent emergence from the third world. Most of the people on that plane were less than one generation away from poverty – perhaps they were just used to fighting for everything they had. Later at dinner, I was assured by numerous colleagues, including several Chinese, that something else was at work. It was the One Child policy, they said. China had brought up two generations of spoiled brats. Every person under about forty years old had been coddled by their parents into thinking that everything was theirs for the taking. It’s an interesting theory, and one which I’d heard several times before. I’m sure the truth is somewhere in between, plus a little bit of many other things.

Who is that Speckled Man?: Long business trips merit careful packing. Clean clothing is a valuable commodity. You need to keep yourself tidy. Unfortunately, I’m still a bit of a novice with the chopsticks. I’m getting better with each trip, and most of the time, it’s not much of problem. But there are certain foods which like to skitter out of my grasp rather than cooperate all the way into my mouth. Kimchee, boiled peanuts, peas and fried rice present a particular challenge. Some of these are the less threatening of Asian foods, so often I really want to get them into my rumbling tummy. But they’re often coated with a sauce or film of some sort, so when they end up in my lap, they leave a little mark. Napkins don’t rest in one’s lap in Asia, they rest next to the plate. I end up with little dots on my pants.

My shirts fared even worse. Three weeks ago while performing some final Sandy tree clearing at home, I chainsawed through several flourishing poison ivy vines. I was wearing shorts and an old holy shirt, so the self-created urushiol froth had unfettered access to pretty much all of me. My left arm was devastated and required Prednisone to clear up the blistering, oozing mess. This was accomplished on vacation before I left. But the rest of my body was covered with hundreds of itchy little sores that persisted well into the Asia trip. I’d wake up at night to find myself scratching the skin off my body like a heroin addict. As a result, a good many of those sores turned into tiny little scabs. In the daytime, the combination of the ungodly heat, the insufferable humidity, and the binding business clothing turned my itchiness into an exquisite torture. Sometimes I had no choice but to scratch all over again. This made the tiny scabs bleed a tiny bit. My nice white shirts became speckled with blood. I’d like to think I matched at least, with polka dots on both the top and bottom.

We were in Korea and China for a multi-day board meeting for one of our companies with plants in several Asian cities. Sometimes I like to fantasize that I cut an imposing figure in the boardroom. Alas, it’s quite impossible to be imposing while speckled with blood and foodbits.

The China Miracle: I continue to be awed by the continuing investment in China. I’ve always been impressed by the huge skyscrapers in Pudong and the edges of Beijing, but I’ve never before appreciated the breadth of modern development.
One day we approached the Bund from the West on Huyu Expressway, and passed what must have been 20 kilometers of newish, modern soaring skyscrapers. They were all surrounded by perfectly tended gardens and landscaping. It was mind boggling. I have been visiting China on and off for about 11 years now, and the changes which have occurred in that time are hard to comprehend.

That said, evidence of a real estate bubble abounds. As one travels around China, particularly in smaller cities (2-10 million people), it is not uncommon to find real estate housing developments consisting of ten to twenty skyscrapers, all complete and ready to go, with nary a lighted window at night. The apartments are all empty. To make matters worse, just down the road is another development under construction, with twenty cranes piling up these monster buildings as fast as the steel can be transported to the site. And down the road, another, and then another. And while the new buildings in city centers were initially filled by locals who’d already acquired middle class status, these new projects are presumably to be filled with people imported from the countryside. But these people are still desperately poor, and it’s entirely unclear whether they could ever afford the apartments being built for them. It’s a vexing conundrum, and seems unlikely to end well. Something’s got to give. But given the monolithic nature of China, its politics and its economics, I’m not sure there’s an economist in the world who can honestly tell us what a real estate bubble would mean to China and the rest of the world. Perhaps they can manage through it.

Holiday Fun: For some reason, the travel gods routed us through the island of Jeju on our way from Korea to China. Jeju is the Asian equivalent of our Hawaii: a mountainous, volcanic island in the middle of the sea, surrounded by crystal clear blue water and inviting beaches.
As otherworldy as it is to be jetlagging while traveling on a plane full of non-English speakers, it is doubly bizarre when you are wearing business attire and are surrounded by Korean revelers on their way to paradise. I felt like I was ruining their fun. It made me sad that I had to get right back on a plane and head west to China. It would have been much more fun if I’d been presented with a fruity drink and a canopied transport to the resort.

Bicycles, China-Style: The General Manager of our plant in Kunshan somehow scored a private tour of the Giant Bicycle manufacturing plant for me.
The plant is just down the road from our own facility, but an order of magnitude larger. With 2,500 employees, they manufacture 2.3 million bicycles a year, from cheap Chinese city bikes to the highly engineered carbon steeds ridden by the likes of Lance Armstrong and his various biking teams (Giant is the OEM producer for Trek, among others). They wouldn’t let me take any pictures, but I can tell you the process they use to manufacture 2.3 million bicycles is just goddamn cool. I was hoping that one of the finest carbon frames might “fall off the back of the truck” so I could take one home on the plane with me, but alas, the trucks were all securely fastened.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Trampoline

We got the kids a trampoline for Christmas this year.

I have several recommendations for parents thinking of taking the plunge, so to speak. Here’s the first: don’t buy a trampoline at Christmas. You see, when you buy a trampoline, your kids will want to jump on it. That means you have to assemble it. Unfortunately, five hours of backbreaking work manipulating large metal poles in the freezing cold is excruciating. If you value your fingers at all, buy a trampoline in the summertime.

That being said, here’s my second recommendation: get one. Trampolines are enormously fun, and, as it turns out, they’re as intoxicating to the teen and ‘tweener brain as Call of Duty Black Ops II. For those of you yearning to get your brood out of the basement and into the wild, this is a very good solution.

My third recommendation is to jump on it yourself. There’s a reason your kids like it so much. It makes you feel like a kid. Okay, maybe it doesn’t make your kids feel like a kid, but it will make you feel like one. This is a vastly underrated pastime, feeling like a kid.

I know of three or four ways to feel really good. As the beneficiary of several complicated surgeries over the last several years, I have come to know that pleasure can be had with several different pharmaceutical products. Using these products regularly, in the absence of some medical need, is dangerous though. They can lull you into a very false sense of security.

This being a family site, I’ll use a couple of the many euphemisms for the second method of achieving bliss. Here are a few of my favorites: bananas ‘n cream; varnish one’s cane; put the tool in the shed. You get the idea.

Another way is to amp up the adrenaline by doing something considerably more dangerous than your station in life would suggest prudent, like base jumping, or trying to outrun the police to avoid a ticket. I don’t recommend these methods.

Thankfully, it is possible to achieve childlike levels of happiness in other ways, where the adrenaline is high enough, but there are no mortal risks involved, and where it sometimes becomes impossible to stop giggling or laughing out loud because of the sheer freakishness of your situation. In short, you feel like a kid. The trampoline is a really good way to get there.

Of course, there are downsides to the trampoline. To get the full effect, you really should jump high. Unfortunately, as you come down and hit the trampoline, the g-forces start to build. Depending on how high you went, by the time you really get to the bottom of the jump, where the springs are stretched to their breaking point, the force can become quite concerning. When I was young, I never worried about whether my joints fit together tightly. Now, I can’t help but feel like I'm about to end up just a pile of jumbled bones and flesh resting on the canvas.

And that’s not even the worst part. What happens outside the skeleton is much more disturbing. Anything that’s not nailed down tightly is subject to this downward force. Any excess skin or fat, however slight, becomes instantly noticeable for its g-force-powered sag. I didn’t even know I had man-boobs. I pride myself on my fitness, if not my leanness, and was horrified to make this startling discovery.

Having made the discovery, though, it might just propel me to new heights of healthy eating and vigorous exercising. Either that or I’ll have to give up the trampoline. Bliss, they say, can also be had by ignorance.

Check back - I’ll post some pictures or videos of the kids flipping (and me wiping out).

Oh, and if you have any funny euphemisms for you know what, leave them in the comment section below. I just did.

Aha! Symmetry!

I like symmetry. I don’t really know why. Maybe it’s because I was something of a math geek in high school. Math loves symmetry and I love math. Perhaps symmetry is the last refuge of cowardly scoundrels like me who take solace in the cold finality of a math proof. But more than just the satisfaction of a proof, symmetry has a moral component for me: that which is symmetrical is good.

Teresa, my wife, is more artist than mathematician, even though math and engineering run in her blood. She was even a professional in the art world some time back. As a result, perhaps, she is more sympathetic to asymmetry than I. It has even been an issue between us from time to time. Not a real issue of course, but the kind which might merit a joke but then make us seethe under our breath a tiny bit as we fell asleep later. This small difference might show up as we arranged furniture in a new house, for instance. Somehow the placement of that overstuffed chair became very important if it wasn’t counterbalanced by a piece of similar heft opposite. Thankfully, as we’ve aged, both of us have softened our antipathy for the other’s spatial preferences.

Only slightly less important to me than symmetry is health. I take my health quite seriously. I exercise a fair bit, vigorously. I used to get my exercise exclusively from things like soccer, biking and tennis. Two knee surgeries, one elbow surgery and one broken back later, I have moderated my activities. I still play those games, but much less frequently and much more delicately. In their place, I now ride stationary bikes and run on a treadmill.

Unfortunately, these kinder, gentler activities have disturbed the karmic rhythms of my life by introducing a befuddling and infuriating asymmetry. I first noticed it as I took my road bike onto a set of rollers in the basement a few years ago after my second knee re-sculpting.

I am a bit of a sweater - the liquid kind, that is. If I labor for more than about 45 minutes on the rollers or treadmill, the area around me becomes something like a rainforest, with high humidity levels and huge droplets of precipitation falling everywhere willy-nilly.

To my slight consternation, I noticed that my droplets of sweat were accumulating asymmetrically. The left side of my rollers had about five times more sweat droplets than the right. It happened on the treadmill too.When the rainforest was in deluge mode, I was generally exercising hard - really hard - so hard that it was impossible to tell from where on my body the beads of sweat were coming. But they were not coming evenly.

How could this be? I’ve looked at myself in a mirror more than a few times and found myself to be mostly symmetrical. No part of me was bent, and no part didn’t look like the same part on the other side. I am an Adonis, no? Uh, don’t answer that. Nevertheless, after much labored analysis, I finally concluded that it could not be my physical presence which was creating this abomination, this wrinkle in the space-time continuum. As imperfect and jiggling a specimen as I might be, I was still symmetrical.

That meant the culprit was my rhythm itself. This was a devastating notion. The only critique more penetrating than an insult of my form at rest is an insult of my form in motion. And yet here were God and the Universe regularly providing ample proof, even if only by inference, of my imperfection. I was crushed.

The matter was made worse by the fact that the evidence of these shortcomings, as it were, accumulated on the left side. Latin lovers out there will know the left as the Sinister side. Evil! Even as I labored to perfect myself, I was being mocked with signs of my failings. True, I have not always been a good boy! But how ignoble to have evidence of it collect on the rail of the treadmill for all the world, or at least the nearby members of my health club, to see!

On each successive outing, I set out to correct this imbalance. Perhaps my knee surgery imparted a hitch to my gait or my stroke? If so, then I’d fix it! I put more emphasis on my right step and my right stroke, attempting to even out the liquid flow. Alas, it didn’t work. The sweat kept accumulating on the left side. So I hunkered down even more on the right. I made it work, but only by turning my run or ride into something more like a fitful session chopping wood with a heavy axe. It destroyed the whole purpose of my exercise and robbed me of my desire to continue.

Finally, I gave up. I had to live with the fact that I am human. Imperfect. Un-perfectible. Sinister even, perhaps. I continued to exercise, but always with the bleak evidence of my sins burning into my eyes and disturbing my concentration.

Some years and many self doubts later, I stumbled upon a clue which provided the key to unlocking my mystery. I started playing squash. In a squash match, one is intimately thrust into a small enclosed space with one’s opponent while both are lunging, thrusting and jostling about. Squash is therefore a sport for gentlemen, where good manners are highly prized.

In such a situation, the aforementioned rainforest is to be avoided at all costs. It is incumbent upon the players to keep flying dollops of sweat to a bare minimum, lest they end up someplace unfortunate, like your opponent’s open mouth. Most heavy sweaters like me wear large headbands while playing squash. As I planned to play often, I acquired a dozen or so, and found them quite useful.

I even started wearing them on the rollers. Interestingly, amazingly, the first time I wore one, the ratio of left to right sweat stains decreased considerably. Hmmm.... My head. Wait, my hair! I part my hair on the right. My hair, or most of it at least, flops over to the left! The evil, sinister left! Could that be it?

Next time on the treadmill I performed an experiment. I awkwardly flopped my hair over to the right side. As I ran, it tried to sneak back, but I was ready and flopped it back. Lo and behold, as the wet part started, it quickly became clear that I had a new ratio. The drops were mostly falling on the right.

I turned off the machine, stepped off and breathed a deep sigh of relief. My flow - my rhythm - my karma - was still symmetrical, and good. The Universe was still ordered. There were no ripples in the space-time continuum. It was just my hair.

I walked upstairs and poured myself a Vodka Tonic. I took a sip and told Teresa that I loved her. Life was good again. I slept well that night.

The next morning I got up early and went to play in my soccer league. I had not played for several years. The game of soccer demands violent movements - sprinting, stopping on a dime, twisting - which are not consistent with the capabilities of a middle aged body. As a result, I pulled a hamstring.

I hobbled off the field in a decidedly asymmetrical way. On the ride home, I grimly noted that the left side wobbling of my body was counterbalanced by the right side wobbling from the bulge in my potholed car tire.

But it wasn’t perfect. In the end, I had to admit that both the Universe and me are, everywhere, a little bit crooked.