Thoughts on Kingdom, Church, and Grace from an American living in Hong Kong

Saturday, December 31, 2011

My Year End Book Reviews 2011

On December 30 with one day to spare I met my goal of finishing Susanna Clark's novel Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell before the end of 2011.  It is a huge tome of a novel so I was pushing to finish it so I could start 2012 with a fresh new book...yet to be determined.

But with 2011 bidding us a fond farewell I thought I would do a quick review of some of my favorite books of the year.

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell :  What happens when you blend a Jane Austen or Charles Dickens novel with Harry Potter?  The alternative history novel follows two very distinct magicians as they attempt to  reintroduce magic into a Victorian England setting.  There were moments when the book gets a little slow but just when it starts to drag the book suddenly jumps to some of the best storytelling I've read in a while.  Whether using their magic to battle Napoleon Bonaparte or magical fairies Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell will leave you hoping for a sequel.

On China:  Henry Kissinger gives us his perspective on over 40 years of his first hand experience with the Middle Kingdom.  Kissinger's narrative has a nice flow and he gives great insights on how and why the Chinese see the world the way they do.  As someone who has himself had personal dealings in China for over 20 years I would heartily recommend this book to anyone with an interest in China.

Under the Dome:  Probably the best Stephen King book since The Stand.  (Not that I've read every book since The Stand :)  A mysterious dome appears over a small town and nothing can get in...or out!  Bad people become worse and the good...well, they are tested.  I always find King having a real strong insight into the human condition and this novel examines how people react when normal social inhibitors are removed.

Stories I Only Tell My Friends: Rob Lowe's memoir was a lot of fun to read.  He has had an incredible film career and seems to have a Forrest Gumpesque ability to have been at some of the most interesting moments in recent history or having met with some of the most interesting people.  Read my complete review here:

A Prisoner of Birth: Jefferey Archer is a master storyteller.  In fact I think he went to jail at one point...for telling stories.  But this novel, which is a modern update of The Count of Monte Cristo, was a good fast paced read.  Not Archer's best book (for that you need to read Kane & Abel) but worth the time and effort.

Bossypants:  Tina Fey rocks!  This book was laugh out loud funny and was way to short.  I was literally on a long bus ride in Greece and, being a little bored,  used my Kindle to download Bossypants right from my seat.  I was embarrassing myself and causing heads to turn bursting out in laughter as I read it all somewhere between Athens and Corinth.

Game Change:  As a political junkie the idea of literally being a fly on the wall inside the campaigns of the 2008 presidential nominees was most appealing.  Obama, Hillary Clinton, McCain, Edwards, and Palin are all examined with some coming out looking better than others.  I could hardly put the book down and must admit to the attraction of feeling like you are included in the "inner circle" of presidential politics.  The movie version is coming out and its incredible how much Julianne Moore is able to "channel" Sarah Palin.

Anyhow, Have a Happy 2012 and find a good book to read!

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Cocktail Reception On Board the U.S.S. Carl Vinson

Tammy and I had the most wonderful evening this week as we attended a cocktail reception on board the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Carl Vinson which is in Hong Kong for a few days.  If you are follower of Beyond the Pale than you may remember that this is the second visit by the Carl Vinson to the territory this year.  In that blog post I chronicled my friend Francis' invitation to the opening night reception and my subsequent (minor) jealousy surrounding that invitation.

I mean,  I want to hang out on an American aircraft carrier walking past rows of F-18 Hornets with a drink in one hand and my beautiful wife on the other... but how.

These receptions are public relations events and in this case it means hosting U.S. Consulate workers, American businessmen, Hong Kong local vendors, visiting military guests of the People's Republic of China etc.  I don't really qualify under any of those categories per se.  

The food was fantastic! God would have it, He saw fit to fulfill certain desires of the heart so to speak.  And just how did God fulfill this little heart desire of mine you ask?  Well, I got to know a friend here in Hong Kong who has a little say over who gets invited and lo and behold, I received an invitation a couple weeks ago.

So on Tuesday evening Tammy and I headed down to Fenwick pier on Hong Kong Island where the "water taxis" waited to cart us out to the carrier.  The U.S.S. Carl Vinson is really big and as we approached, the serial number "70" was lit up as a beacon cutting through the nighttime sky.

Guests rode the elevator up to the deck
The reception itself is held in the giant hanger bay and the U.S. Navy knows how to do food.  People think the huge American defense budget is all bullets and missiles but they forget the shrimp tables and roast beef carving stations.  But what I really had my heart set on was the chocolate chip cookies.  Yes, you heard me right...

...the chocolate chip cookies.  My friend Francis who attended the last reception said, "Seriously though, nobody has better chocolate chip cookies than the U.S. Navy."  And you know, he was right!  (I had 3)
Besides that high end shrimp and roast beef, it was also nice to have some good old American spicy jalapeno poppers.  Darn they were good and when Tammy wasn't looking I snuck another one!

Reception entrance
One of the highlights of the evening was everyone heading out onto one of the aircraft elevators for a trip up to the flight deck.  Yes, I got to fulfill my dream of having a glass of wine in one hand and my beautiful wife on my arm as we walked past rows of fighter planes.  My childhood always comes back in these moments as most American boys my age wanted to be a fighter pilot at some point as a kid.

Its also fun for us Americans living overseas to have a little "home" turf arrive for a few days.  Chatting with some of the officers is very lively and sometimes, although I usually love the diversity of Hong Kong,  its just fun to talk in "Americanese" about America with other Americans

The evening ended and we headed back out to the ferries that would shuttle us back to the dock but not before we picked up a U.S.S. Carl Vinson T-shirt for Gabriel and a ship photo for my office.

Your mission should you choose to accept it...
I have to end with a special thank you to our friend Christine and her daughter Claire who kindly watched Ethan George for the evening.  This was our first night "out" with a babysitter and knowing he was in such good care allowed us a relaxing evening.

Special thanks to the officers and crew of the U.S.S. Carl Vinson!  Thanks for the work you do and for such a wonderful evening!

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Another year of "The War on Christmas" is over...Thankfully!

I may be dating myself but I'm old enough to remember when saying "Merry Christmas" wasn't considered a pejorative term.  And to wish someone"Happy Holidays" was not seen as "selling out" or diluting Christmas in any way but was simply the catch all phrase that encompassed the season from Thanksgiving to New Years Day.

But now America seems to be involved another war.  This is a war that has been raging for decades with major battles being played out every November and December.  On one side is the traditionalist who, in a world gone mad, desperately want to keep the CHRIST in Christmas!  And on the other side are all the others who want to diversify things a bit and who, lets be honest, probably have a little to much time on their hands.

Yes, it is the yearly fights involving the "War on Christmas."

Although for the most part I find the "War"... comical, I must admit chafing a little when I would hear some major store chain banning their employees from saying, Merry Christmas.  I can at least understand the argument about having a nativity scene displayed on a public ground (even if I don't agree with it.)  But banning someone's speech involving a holiday greeting...mmmm, that just gets under my skin!

From 2005 till 2008 I worked at Barnes & Noble and fortunately they had no policy on the matter so typically I would wish customers a Merry Christmas.  It was there that I realized that this "War" is indeed played out mostly by people with too much time on their hands as I literally wished thousands of customers "Merry Christmas" over my 3 Christmas tenure there and I had, maybe, two minor incidents where people said they didn't appreciate that.  Now understand this wasn't at a Barnes & Noble tucked away all snug in the Bible Belt, no, this was Boulder, Colorado.  Yes, the Boulder Colorado that didn't vote for Al Gore in 2000 because he was to conservative and where Buddhism is the religion de jour.  If they weren't offended, well, it made me wonder how much "War" there really was.

I did always wonder though why there weren't more nativity scenes in major department stores??  I mean, if you are an executive for Target or Wal-Mart, you must be thanking God every fiscal sales year that a little Jewish boy was born in a  Middle Eastern farm stable 2000 years ago.  Come to think of it, instead of a War on Christmas in the retail sector, there should probably be big "Thank You Jesus" signs at every chain department store across America .

That reminds me again of my Barnes & Noble days.  I would often have a customer look at the December bedlam in the store and comment, "Wow, it's really busy in here."
"Yeah," I would reply,  "well, you know...its Kwanzaa...happens every year."
The customer would smile awkwardly as they processed that little nugget...and then move on.

But I live in Hong Kong again!  I am safe from the battles!  There is no "War on Christmas" over here...just Christmas.  The city is decked out with Christmas trees & lights.  Some buildings say "Merry Christmas" and others say, "Season's Greetings"  with no venom or ill intention found in either one.  The malls are filled with school choirs singing both Santa Claus is coming to Town AND Away in the Manger!

It's much more peaceful and probably a little more what Jesus had in mind!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

In Memorium: Christopher Hitchens 1949 - 2011

Blogging has been tough the last couple weeks as the Christmas holiday means a lot of extra work for me. what you may have heard I am not, in fact, Santa Claus.

But the passing of Christopher Hitchens of esophageal cancer this week has lit a fire under me so to speak as I will most certainly miss his wit, his humor, and yes, his damn near mastery of the English language.

But wait Steve you ask,  "how can you be a fan of such a vocal Atheist?" 

Let me put it this way...other prominent (and vocal) atheists, namely Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins, I find to be rather shrill and boring.  Hitchens was certainly not shrill, and he was never boring.  (Ok, admitedly he could be boorish at times...but that was the Scotch :)

I can easily imagine Harris & Dawkins passing away one day and rocking up to the Pearly Gates only to be overcome with distress at the Kingdom of Heaven's mere existence.  Not unlike the Dwarves in C.S. Lewis's The Last Battle who still refuse to believe in Aslan even when it is no longer an issue of faith. 

By contrast one can imagine Hitchens seeing Heaven's gate and smiling with a bit of a wink, "Oh, Good Lord, my brother was right on that one now wasn't he...oh well, right then... um Lord, no hard feelings eh?  The bar's still open you say?...Good, can one of the angel's bring me a Scotch...I rather think I'll be needing one right about now..."

I've been following Hitchens for years.  Did I always agree with him?  Certainly not  (he was in favor of abolishing the British Monarchy after all which many of you know would NOT be my position.)

..but I did appreciate his well thought out and articulated views. He forced me to examine my own beliefs in a number of areas...(Thankfully,  I still happened to be right in all my positions... but he forced me to examine them just the same :)

I also appreciated Hitchens in that you could never put him in a "neat" box.  Nearly everyone I know, if you tell me some viewpoint they have, I will be able to guess with almost near certainty their view on many other areas. 

Not so with Christopher Hitchens.  Its one thing to despise Henry Kissinger...anyone can do that.  But to despise Henry Kissinger and Mother Teresa that...that..takes chutzpah!  One moment he is denouncing God and organized religion and in the same debate is praising George W. Bush for his pre-emptive invasion of Iraq. Anyone who can single handly tick off Democrats, Republicans, Liberals, AND Conservatives in the same always going to get a bit of applause and a "Good show ol' boy" from me.

Yes, Christopher, you will be missed.  I do hope you are in heaven as I for one, look forward to sharing an evening with you of stout lager, cigars, and good conversation.


Tuesday, December 6, 2011

7 Life Lessons from Star Trek

I'm a bit of a Star Trek fan.  But I have it under control now...honest!

Yes, I admit when I was young I would use my lego set to create an arsenal of phasers neatly arranged on my window shelf...set for stun of course!  And yes, my friends and I would practice the Vulcan Neck Pinch on each other because, after all, it hurt pretty good and maybe, just maybe, we could get it to work after all; then we'd be famous.  And of course I could discuss the reasons why a 1 to 1 ratio, dilinthium focused matter / anti-matter annihilation was necessary for optimal warp field entry with the best of them.  (How else were we ever going to coax our engines past Warp 4???)

Some things you grow out of...some you don't. 

So when I saw David Borgenicht's article in the Huffington post "7 Life Lessons I learned from Star Trek" I realized he was on to something.  So with proper citation to Mr. Borgenicht, I'd like to reprint those seven lessons at Beyond the Pale because...well...I pretty much agree with everyone of them*.

1.The best way to travel is to boldly go where no one has gone before. This is true for vacations, for self-exploration, for life itself. If you want your days filled with adventure, laughter, love, learning and the occasional mind-meld, follow this route.

2.The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few--or the one. Sometimes you must make great sacrifices for the greater good. And, like the Genesis device, it will all come back around.

3.Expressing your emotions is a healthy thing. Sure, McCoy seemed angry all the time when exclaiming, "Dammit, Jim! I'm a doctor not a mechanic/bricklayer/soothsayer," but he knew that by expressing his anger and frustration it wouldn't get the best of him and he could then perform at his peak capacity.

4.When estimating how long a job will take, overestimate--and when you do better your captain will always be impressed. Replace the word "captain" with "teacher" or "mom/dad" and you'll see what I mean. Sure, Mr. Scott might have been telling the truth--maybe it would take six hours to get the warp engines back online in the heat of the battle. Or maybe he was padding things so he looked good. Either way, when the engines did come back on line, everyone was happy.

5.Wearing red makes you a target. This is true of cars, dresses and, most especially, shirts. Red gets you noticed--which is good if you want to be noticed, bad if you don't want to end up vaporized.

6.When you don't know what to say, pause. It will give you the time to figure it out. Or at the very least, you'll sound like you're being thoughtful. "But....Spock.....why?"

7.The most powerful force in the universe is friendship. It's more powerful than phasers, photon torpedos, even more powerful than the force itself. With friends, you can accomplish any task, escape any perilous situation, defeat any enemy--and you get to laugh together when it's all over.*
* Actually (Steve here again) I'm still going to give "the most powerful force in the Universe" to God...but friendship is a nice runner up :)

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Superman & Apollo 13

Items from two of my favorite interests, Superman and the American space program, netted big bucks at auctions this week.

The very first comic introducing Superman to the world, Action Comics Issue 1, sold for US$ 2.1 million .  Incidently, the the pristine copy of the comic from June 1938 was owned by actor Nicholas Cage who is known for being a big Superman fan.  Cage had bought the comic in 1997 for US$ 150,000. so it appears the 2 million + sale of the issue made Mr. Cage more than a few pesos .  For me though its hard to imagine paying 2 million dollars for something that says "10 cents" on the cover!

The other item, handwritten notes written by astronaut Jim Lovell during the ill fated moon expedition, Apollo 13, sold for a more modest US$ 388,375.  The now 83 year old Lovell said that the notes are the mathematical computations he did by hand in order to compute their emergency trip back to earth after the explosion on their spacecraft threw them off course.

Says Lovell, "We didn't have the technology back then that we have now.  I didn't even have a calculator to do the arithmetic. I had to ask the people in Houston to double-check my numbers."

As much as I love Superman I must admit if I could have either of the items, the handwritten notes by Lovell would be my choice.  What those guys did 40 years ago was absolutely heroic and the kind of story we should be passing on to our children and our grandchildren.  A story of what men can do when they need to do the impossible...and did!

Of course there was a lot of prayer involved too :)

Friday, December 2, 2011

China News Still Not "Newsworthy" in America

Obama greets troops in Australia
Living in Hong Kong I am sometimes amazed by what International news is important in this region versus what is deemed front page news in America.  Being a bit of a "news junkie" I follow both region's news cycles fairly in depth...and they just don't match.

Case in point:

Last week I was chatting with a couple old friends from high school via Skype.  All though we are all Republicans my politics have vented back toward the center a bit in recent years causing some enjoyable and "lively" discussions.  In fact one of my friends is not so much "Republican" as he is "Ayn Rand"...hence the lively discussions.

Anyhow, I asked them what they thought of Obama's move to station 2500 marines in a new upgraded base in Darwin, a city on the north coast of Australia.  Truth be told, I've known this group of friends for 30 years and we have a fun (my wife calls it mean :) way of "baiting" each other to provoke a response.  I was being a little cheeky I admit.  Obama energizing America's military might in the region I knew would appeal to their Republican blood.  It would be a "good thing".  But I also knew that their politics didn't allow for Obama doing a "good thing".   This could be fun...

It was not unlike the strategy used by Captain Kirk from Star Trek.  When ever he had to get by the "super computer / killer robot"  he would feed it a question that would put it into a an endless logic loop.  Kirk would then sit back as it rattled the question around a bit and then finally popped a circuit allowing him to get free and save the girl.  So I thought I'll feed them a "good thing done by Obama", watch them try to process it through their "Obama can do no good" programming, then sit back and wait for a circuit to blow.

Understand it's not that I've become a fan of Obama (I'm not) so much as I absolutely love arguing with my friends.

My strategy didn't work though...but not for the reason's I would have guessed.  "Steve," said one of them, "we've heard nothing about this."  I was frankly...shocked!

Understand, the papers in Hong Kong and in the Pacific region have been almost daily running stories and editorials either celebrating or deriding America's increased engagement in the area.  It is possibly the most important ongoing news story this side of the Pacific.  Not only the deployment of marines to north Australia but Obama's raising of the issue of Maritime claims in the South China Sea at the recent APEC summit in Hawaii against China's objections. 

Most analysts have said it has been a diplomatic win for Obama and a setback for China yet for some reason the news cycles in America were not jumping on it.  I suppose Kim Kardashian divorcing her husband after a few hours of marriage might have something to do with it but come on?  My friends are well read and well informed individuals.  I thought they would be bringing this topic up to me?

It has just demonstrated to me though that although this region has built the China - United States dynamic into the major geopolitical balance of power issue de jour, China and the Asia Pacific region still does not register on the average American's radar.  Because the news channels cater to the American appetite, stories of China and the region, while increasing in importance, still tend to focus on the human interest stories of development and are buried on Page 3.

That's likely to change though in the coming decade as China continues to develop its military and tests America's commitment to the region,  well, unless Kim Kardashian gets married again that is...