Tuesday, August 18 – Spark Joy or Die
By Jorah Kai CHONGQING, CHINA
Day 211. Another hot summer day engulfs us in the historic furnace of China, where 40 degrees Celsius is average, and it often gets to face-blistering temperatures in the mid-’40s. Lately (the past decade or so), the changing patterns many attribute to the Three Gorges Dam’s effect on rivers and rain has given us many more rainy days and respite from the churning sun. However, this year we face a ‘millennial flood’ and have lost roads, whole villages, even, and millions of homes to the rising water and flood. I spent the lion’s share of the day at the gym.
I woke up today, made some coffee and Xiaolin her therapeutic raw honey water, and we packed our duffle bags, hers blue to my black and about 1/5 of the size of my Nike one. At the gym before and during lunch, from about 11 am to 2 pm I shared the space with an almost cartoonish assortment of athletic satyrs and nymphs. During this time of day it’s mainly trainers, genetic abnormalities with huge arms, wide shoulders, perfect abs, and chiseled buns prancing around in the latest of space-age 21st century drool encouraging fashion gym wear (if you haven’t been to a fashionable gym in the ’20s you are missing out on serious developments in butt enhancing exercise pants). They prance about, lift ungodly weights with perfect form and then snap ridiculous selfies of their exaggerated body parts in the mirrors. Meanwhile, I grin and do my thing. Today is an arm day, so while I’m surrounded by gyrating pixies toning their buttocks with huge plates of iron, I lift a modestly heavy bar with a couple of weights on either side up and down, over and over, until the pain makes me forget the troubles of the world. At least for a little while. With so many people neglecting their health, and obesity and general unhealthiness being the largest comorbidity for a bad case of COVID-19, a daily dose of exercise, cardio, targeted weights, and swimming (the healthy living I don’t hear enough about in the west, which the France call improvin the terrain) makes me feel good I’m doing my best to make it through this. The harbinger poet must stick around to finish telling the tale, and most of all, it sparks joy.
In funny COVID news, Canada has made headlines for a superspreader event at the Brass Rail gentlemen’s club in Toronto that exposed 550 people… to the virus. We will see in the weeks to come how much of a cluster or bump that gives to Ontario. Canada this summer is the darling of the Americas, with the best per capita death and infection rates, but with America leading the charge into 6 million cases, it is a low, low bar. In China, we are mainly concerned about outbreaks coming from frozen fish and shrimp, one of them in Guangdong near Hong Kong is especially bad, with over 30,000 infections reported this week. China’s stern procedures will lock the affected areas down, treat the infected, and stamp it out soon – I hope. So far, we have handled this virus very effectively. I wonder in the West, if they treated anti-masking as manslaughter or murder one charge how many lives they would save, but over there, this reads as reactionary and draconian. Better to give them their freedom and order more body bags, they figure. This frozen fish thing has really cut demand for seafood in China, and Asia in general, however, and I wonder how much of a break we might give the ocean if we lose our appetite for it altogether for a couple of years. Stop the trawling and fishing, let them spawn and grow and flourish as we get our heads straight on land.
In America, all the polls show the democratic ticket of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris will beat Trump/Pence in double digits, a near-certain defeat for the madman responsible for close to 200,000 American deaths with a colossally – criminally – incompetent failure of governing. His response is to cut the postal service in an effort to defeat the democratic process as many wish to mail in votes to stay safe during the pandemic. It’s pure Trump, in all his glory.
I’ve been scratching my head for the last several days over some funny events, but in the end, I realized that they don’t matter too much to worry over. Nothing is really worth wasting your life worrying over, either act or be at peace, but worry in itself is a useless, gnawing, waste. I got an interview request with the Beijing Review, China’s top English language magazine, to discuss the book deal I signed for my pandemic diary, internationally called ‘The Invisible War,’ in extremely sensitive China, called simply ‘Kai’s Diary.’ The book that was bought, edited, checked three times by state officials, finally cleared for publication… and then shelved indefinitely, waiting a CIP number, aka government red stamp authorizing distribution. I was going to turn the interview down, as I saw it simply as a waste of a good writing day, except for two small details. One, the request came from Li Nan, the very patient and polite woman who worked with my friend, Parker Walker, to translate my book into Chinese, including asking me over 100 questions about context and meaning to ensure she got it right, and I wanted to say thanks in person. Secondly, I thought perhaps a hot magazine spread and interview circulating online and on shelves all across the capital of China might just maybe put a little bit of pressure on the publication office to red stamp my book and let it see the light of day. It’s hard to put into words the feeling of rushing out a book in 60 days, editing for another couple of insane weeks to complete this project and be the first person in the world to have a COVID-19 book ready to go, only to see it get shelled and sidelined for months by government bureaucracy or the fears that it would only contribute to a very sensitive geopolitical finger waggling and utterances of strife between the worlds of East and West. I could have used these months to rewrite, improve and make it a better book, but at least I’m on to new projects, and it is, really, what it is. So, in the end, I said ok.
After a lovely Mexican birthday dinner, I shared with Xiaolin, Jinn, and Cici, including cast iron fried fajitas, nachos, salad, and a homemade carrot cake, I rolled up the movie screen and took a shower and mentally began to prepare for the interview tomorrow. On the way back to bed, I noticed the screen was down again. It would not go back up, and it only took a few minutes of troubleshooting to know that this was an engineering matter beyond my skillset.
The next morning was a wild ride of embracing entropy, a great, exhausting session at the gym, walking around the computer mall looking for the NEC projector store, returning home covered in sweat to begin an internet search for an NEC service person, finally finding one but haggling both for a reasonable deal and getting them over to my house by 1 pm to fix or replace the screen that was stuck down, eliminating any natural light and of course presenting a filming problem for the interview. That settled, I find out Li Nan has already arrived from Beijing to Chongqing an hour early and is on the way over. We get the man in, replaces the screen entirely, my Ayi (housekeeper) makes an extra pass by the house to help us tidy up, and then it’s time to meet Li Nan outside. We greet with an elbow knock and a foot shake. Just arriving from Beijing, they inform me things are now safer there, but they keep their masks on for the interview.
We get to it, and I answer six questions for her, and although I could have talked for hours on many subjects, they are mainly geared towards complimenting China on its effective COVID response and contrasting with the pathetic situation in America. I stay focussed on science and not politics, but I can see this pro-China rhetoric by a notable foreigner will be a popular read in Beijing next month when it comes out (it will hit the streets September 9). That said, if it encourages folks to snap up the English or Chinese version of my book, along with my good pandemic survival sense and tips on Stoic philosophy, mindfulness, and self-mastery, I see it as a win, overall.
My local affiliate, iChongqing, part of the Chongqing Daily News group, shows up to interview Li Nan on what it’s like translating my book, and I take a break and let the interviewer get interviewed before answering a few questions myself on the process.
By 6 pm, I’m saying goodbye to the Beijing film crew and get a funny bit of good news: My CIP number has just been approved in Beijing. The book will be out later this month. I ask my agent and no, there’s no connection, it’s just that kind of day. Well, that’s something. I post a few nice pictures of the interview, and we enjoy a nice dinner.
The next day, I see a message request on FB – it’s a foreigner writing me hate-mail for the as-yet-unpublished book. He says my book sucks, my grammar and spelling are awful, and the only reason it’s getting published is because I’m a foreigner in China. Also that “we look forward to reading my future work, if I ever manage any,” haha, well that sounds like a challenge to keep writing if I’ve ever heard one. Xiaolin tells me to let it go, if you want to be famous, you need thick skin, and I’m used to it from music, so why let writing hate get to me. The thing is, though, I pride myself on being good at spelling and grammar, and with 30 great beta readers that helped me improve my book and a team of editors in Beijing, it’s not a bad book, so the ungrounded hate mail does prick me a little. It was written at about 3 am and then Alex blocked me, too much of a coward to hear my reply or thoughts on his views. I use my artist page to investigate further. He’s also in Chongqing, and our local ex-pat scene is really small. Something about the timing feels too convenient, a day after I mention some good news with the interview (not even that the book will be out soon). I ask around a bit. It turns out he’s an editor for a local magazine (wow talk about journalistic professionalism, to go after a fellow ex-pat journalist like this, unprovoked! It’s almost as if someone set him on me to get under my skin), but we haven’t sent out copies yet for review, and 3 am hate mail is not exactly a professional time to trash a colleague. There’s still more to it. I ask my agent if she’s heard of the magazine or this joker, and she said both her and the publisher also received the middle of the night angry messages from him.
This is a curious thing, since my agent and publisher, as well as the manuscript, are not publicly known or available. This triumvirate of suck smacks of an old ‘friend’ who turned into a bully when I began my special epidemic coverage back in January, to protect both his identity and possible litigation I’ll call him Hian Hameson, and mention that he is painfully meager in the under-the-pants endowment category. My sister Nunich told me this was a great way to avoid any lawsuits as no one wants to come forward, saying they are the one with the teenie weenie that was written about. But this Hian did not stop at bashing the articles I published for my diary, he went further and emailed the publisher threatening to sue if his name was not removed, emailing my agent begging her to drop me as a client and saying this book was a horrible project that no one would like, and publicly telling all our mutual friends that I was now an arrogant jerk and baseless fear monger because I got a book deal. It’s amazing how many people we both know seemed swayed by him, even though the five facts he said I was wrong about: masks being essential, this not being the flu, this being a pandemic, this being asymptomatically transferred and this being an airborne virus all proved to be correct, but rather than apologize and give up, he’s continued a campaign to malign me, and even get others – such as the fellow Brit, Alex, on board to try to drag me down. For the record, Hian denied setting him up to this to mutual friends, and expressed an interest in finally burying the hatchet. If you know me, you can imagine exactly where I’d like to bury it. All that said, I’m glad I’ve been in the spotlight for half my life and can laugh off this kind of abuse for the desperate jealousy that it is. After hearing about how many people Alex has badmouthed while drinking in the middle of the night from various good sources, and his own disreputable local reputation as both a troublemaker and a real abusive person, I decided that him, Hian, and any mutual friends we shared that were spreading gossip about me did not spark joy. I cut them all out of my life and felt lighter and more joyous after.
Haters, actually are a form of a gift if you can see it that way. They save you time to focus on your real friends when you cut them out. Haters show you that people are jealous of you, so you must be doing something right, and making moves. While they spend time talking about your accomplishments, you’re working n the next project, keeping yourself perpetually and farther and farther ahead of them, and soon they will be dim lights in your rearview mirror. It’s also important to create for the sake of creating, not to seek fame, fortune, or critical recognition. Don’t be so attached to a project that you let people’s opinions upset you too much: success or failure, a book is a thing I did, I will do more things, their opinion doesn’t really matter—writing sparks joy.
Xiaolin and I celebrated our fourth anniversary on Sunday. Friday may have been a cranky row, and Monday might have held potholes and a bumpy road, but at least on the weekend, we were able to keep our temperatures cool, grumbling down, and celebrate the fact that we made it through another year, together, and mostly sane. I know I am a difficult person, and this is a spectacular event worthy of celebration. I am grateful that my city handled the pandemic with a quick and robust effort to contain the virus. China’s national pandemic approach was science-based, efficient, and competent. I worry what will come of soft democracies like Canada and the USA worry that enforcing mandatory masks is an affront to personal rights and freedoms — you could make the same argument about seat belts or drunk driving. It would fall on it’s face as facile, but it’s all happening so fast for bureaucracies and congresses to argue about in their own time, while people get sick, while people die. A pandemic shows off the shiniest features of a techno-autocracy. As long as the AI and CCTV can keep the virus and the infected in quarantine and the decisions made keep the people safe, our gyms and barbershops open, as well as our schools and places of work virus free. I said I would stay away from politics, but it is hard when I am here, enjoying the benefits of Chongqing’s quick and efficient assault on the virus. In Chongqing, we trust.
I have a few weeks left to improve my terrain, build more muscle and get ready for another school year, so I am going around the house on a Marie Kondo tip, getting rid of anything that doesn’t spark joy. It feels excellent only to leave things around me that create a positive environment, excitement, or love. The hours I ‘lose’ every morning at the gym on my three books in development: 2020 Book II: The Lighthouse (Summer), Amos the Amazing Book 1, and a rewrite of Where the Wicked Rest are, I suppose, gained back by hedging my bet that if I do encounter SARSCOV2 this year, I’ll be strong enough to fight it off and keep writing for many decades to come. This does spark joy.