Saturday, October 27, 2012

Monday, October 22, 2012

Travel & Friendship

 [latest column for Paper Sky]

IN a JFK airport lounge after midnight last month, one voice stood out. It was throaty, raspy at times, and female.  Julie Kavner in a Woody Allen movie, Marge Simpson with less phlegm and pitched slightly lower: a vintage Brooklyn yawp over an otherwise placid airport sanctuary.  

The lounge was filled with Asian and American businessmen quietly clicking laptops or fingering Blackberry keys and iPad screens, sipping wine or whiskey and tossing their heads back to down salty snacks.

“I don’t mind the presentations and stuff,” the voice said.  “That’s fine.  What I hate are the lunches and dinners, you know?  Where you have to talk to these people and you don’t know what to say to them.”

I was there on an unusual mission. Several months earlier, I’d been invited by the World Economic Forum (WEF) to participate in their annual event in Asia, an adjunct to their more famous gathering in Davos, Switzerland, and one focused more on media and culture than pure economics. I accepted, though it was so far away on my calendar that I couldn’t have anticipated the various distractions to come, including my father’s open heart surgery this past spring.

Acceptance always means obligation, and soon the WEF people were asking me for drafts of what I’d say and show. They had every right to do so. They were flying me to China business class from New York and had taken care of all hotel, dining and transport specs. 

So in the JFK lounge, the woman who yawped, dressed in black, caught my attention. She was clearly on the same itinerary, flying to the same event.

On the connecting flight to Tianjin from Seoul, I was seated across the aisle, so I introduced myself.  Were we attending the same event together, and if so, any tips?

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

On Haruki Murakami for The New Yorker

The Harukists, Disappointed

The annual autumn buzz here in Tokyo for the Nobel Prize in Literature was more intense last week than in any years past. The Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami, whose global audience and literary stardom confound conventional publishing wisdom (he’s not American, doesn’t write in English, and not a single vampire or wizard appears in his oeuvre), has been in the running several times, but this year he topped everyone’s list of favorites. Leading up to the word from Stockholm, early evening local time, a major domestic TV network aired a segment in which Murakami readers worldwide expressed their love for him and his books in a babel of languages. One Chinese reader declared that the latest China/Japan spat over disputed island territories had zero impact on China’s love for Murakami, despite the author’s recent newspaper article calling for both sides to lay off the liquor of nationalism. (Some Japanese newspapers were reportedly banned in China last month, so the reader may not have seen it.)

Speaking of liquor: At least one bar in Tokyo hosted a special Murakami Nobel gathering for so-called “Harukists,” the label at home and abroad for Murakami’s most ardent fans. They were shown clutching copies of his books and framed photographs of the author, and half-finished glasses of wine and beer. Only the World Cup and the Olympics have occasioned similar events in the past. For the first time, oddsmakers, scholars, critics, readers, and publishing pros in and beyond Japan seemed united in nodding their belief that this was “his year.” But it wasn’t. China’s Mo Yan won, and the disappointed Harukists managed only sighs, followed by half-hearted applause for their neighbor’s accolade. “I’m very happy the winner was someone from Asia,” one female Harukist told the Mainichi newspaper on her way home, polite to the end.

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Wednesday, October 10, 2012

On Pete Townshend for The New Yorker

Pete Townshend's War

I first met Pete Townshend fifteen years ago in a modest London hotel suite. I was there with my friend Larry David Smith to interview Townshend for Smith’s book, “The Minstrel’s Dilemma.” We were already seated inside when I looked out the first-floor window and saw Townshend pulling into the parking lot.

He arrived alone, sans entourage or fanfare, driving himself in a gray Mercedes station wagon. Minutes later, the knob on the suite door rattled and shook. I stood, thinking that it might be a member of the hotel staff and wondering if I should turn the knob from our side. There was a pause, then more rattling, then the door swung open and Townshend burst through, eyes wide with exertion. He had apparently been trying to pull when he should have pushed.

[Read more]