Why I haven’t written

My life online has become a juggling act worthy of Cindy Marvell. As I write on my laptop, an iPod Touch and a Nook sit next to it, one trying to send out e-mail, the other to have handy just in case. At the moment each holds a tenuous connection to the outside world.

In 2012, I wrote about how dependent we’ve all become on electronic devices, and how many I packed for a semester in Vancouver: five. For this semester in China, I’m down to four, the three mentioned above plus a cellphone. (My iPad and Nook First Edition were stolen when my apartment was burglarized not long after Vancouver; they were jointly replaced by a second-generation Nook HD, already obsolete.)

In Vancouver all these devices worked, for a simple reason: the Internet did, on campus and at home. In China, nothing is simple.

When I taught in Hunan proivince in 2010, the wired connection at my apartment was laughable. The antique desktop computer sometime connected, sometimes didn’t. Five years further into the digital age, on a far more sophisticated campus in a major city, not much is different.

The day I moved into the Foreign Experts Residence, a staff member handed me a username and password, pointed out the Ethernet cord as a backup, watched me log on to the university wifi successfully and, satisfied, left. For two weeks, it worked. Oh, it was slow sometimes, what with 20,000 students, plus faculty and staff members, using it. But I could still teach Skype students in Poland for an hour at a time with only the occasional interruption in service.

At the same time, I was juggling devices to reach websites blocked by the government: Gmail, Google Chrome, The New York Times, Wikipedia, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter. What one device can’t reach, another sometimes can. Some sites, like my Chinese bank’s, are accessible only at the office, since I decline to download the “official” version of Chrome that would give me access at home — no more Chinese software on this laptop! But Gmail, The Times and other sites I’d like to plunder for teaching materials remain blocked without a VPN.

No problem, I thought: if I needed an article for class, I would print it at home and copy it at the office. Then, just as my bureaucratic troubles seemed to be over, my communication problems intensified.

One day the wifi not only stopped working but completely disappeared from my laptop. A message appeared onscreen: “This app can’t open. Your free trial period has ended. Go to the Windows store to purchase the full app.” Not long before leaving New York, I had taken advantage of the “free upgrade” to Windows 10. I thought of Windows 10 as Windows 10, a system I owned, not a collection of apps that could independently work or not at Microsoft’s whim. It’s not just the wifi; I can no longer search Windows for a filename or program; upload photos from my Nikon’s memory cards, which are filling up fast; or probably perform any number of other functions I haven’t thought about yet. The Windows 10 store is blocked – at least, in any language I can read. Windows customer service won’t even think about helping me unless I sign into my Microsoft account, which is “temporarily suspended” because I’m connecting from China, hacker heaven. It demands a verification code, which it sends to my phone number of record – in New York.

The wifi magically returned when I stayed in a hotel and worked, mostly, for my week in Sanya. Now, back in Guangzhou, it comes and goes. Every time someone else logs onto the system, I am pushed off. I was told I could get my own router, which it took a Chinese student in New York to provide. (Thank you, Yuxin.) It’s adorable – a petite aqua rectangle with two white rabbit ears sticking up and with four tiny blinking lights. Still, my connection apparently comes from that overtaxed university system.

The laptop rarely gets wifi, and the Ethernet backup works best between 6 and 9 a.m. (though today I couldn’t connect until 8:30). The rest of the time, I too often get the message Unable to get a connection: Still unable to dial tcp://doesnotexist.com:80 after 3 attempts. I have become a morning person to catch the connection before it dies for the day. The canary in my coal mine is WQXR.org, the New York classical music station. If the music streams at all on a given day, I know my time is up when it stops sometime around 9.

And those other devices? My smartphone works via the Internet, so that’s out; I’m back to my international dumbphone, its SIM card replaced by a local one for the duration. The iPod and the Nook connect, sometimes, to the wifi, when it’s working. The Nook’s browser is Chrome, which is sort of blocked, sort of not; it connects to banks, eBay and sometimes Playbill.com, but I have to log on again for almost every single page. To download e-mail, I need to log on to a web page, then read a book while I wait for syncing, and eventually another message flashes: 7 new messages, now 17, now 25 or more, mostly junk On the Nook I can read the daily “Today’s Headlines” e-mail from The Times, but clicking on the links is fruitless. To read a story, I have to go to the laptop.

The iPod barely connects at all. I carry it in my purse, mainly as an auxiliary camera, and sometimes try checking my e-mail around campus. A photo of a Beijing opera curtain call last Thursday night was still trapped inside until this morning instead of whooshing to the student who took me to the show. (Xie xie, Qing.)

So I juggle compulsively, wasting hours puzzling out how I could connect if only I could figure out the right thing to click on. Troubleshooting has become as addictive as the devices themselves.

In a couple of weeks, I’m going to Hong Kong – a special administrative region where blocking doesn’t apply and things still work – partly to tackle some of these issues, partly to honor a longstanding commitment as a guest speaker at New York University via Skype. I have yet to figure out how to Skype guest speakers in New York and Beijing into my own classrooms, since the computers there have no webcams or mics, and my laptop with both may or may not connect to the wifi. This week I wanted to show my class a Facebook post, which I couldn’t print at home and couldn’t call up at school. “Does anyone know how to get Facebook on this computer?” I asked the students – who can get anything. The answer was a resounding, unanimous “No!”

Recent news reports indicate China may unblock Google, but one step at a time, and not initially the ones that would solve my problems, like Gmail and Chrome. Mr. Xi, tear down this firewall.

For now, blog posts happen when they happen, like everything else. Skype lessons? What’s Polish for fuhgeddaboudit? If I seem slow in answering e-mail, I’m not ignoring you. If you get a message apologizing for not having answered when I already have, it means the first message was still sitting in whatever device when the second fought its way out. Please be patient, as I’ve had to learn to be. Maybe that’s the zen of the China Adventure of 2015. Or maybe it’s as Leslie Kandell (mother of Ms. Marvell, the eminent juggler) said this summer when she went offline to finish writing a Tanglewood review: “I want to be alone for while.” More and more, that’s OK, too.

Starting from scratch


The sophomores were having trouble with the Monday morning news quiz. In the first three weeks, only two students had passed even once, and a passing grade here is only 60. It’s not as if the questions were obscure or they didn’t understand English. The stories had been all over the media: “Why did a 3-year-old Syrian boy make the news this week?” “How are Central European countries reacting to the refugee crisis?” “What big mistake did the Egyptian military make last week?”

It’s bad enough that they were flunking the quizzes, but they also weren’t learning anything. “Why are you majoring in international journalism if you don’t pay attention to the news?” I asked. Two dozen blank faces stared back. So I took another tack: “Next week, I’m making you responsible for the quiz. We’ll have a news meeting.”

The class would become a news organization, most likely a website, based in Guangzhou but aimed at an international audience. I would be the chief editor; the students would form teams representing six news departments. They would propose stories for home-page consideration; I would choose seven or eight and explain why.

A week later, it wasn’t exactly the Page 1 meeting at The New York Times (from which this exercise is admittedly cribbed), but it was a start. Having budgeted half the class, 45 minutes, I pushed the meeting along much as a pressed-for-time masthead editor at The Times would have, by barking out questions: “What do you have on the two shootings after the Oregon shootings?” (More blank faces.) “What’s your next story?” “What else have you got?” The students wrote too much information on the whiteboard, talked to the board instead of the class, and humbly recited their stories instead of selling them. Well, they’re sophomores; they haven’t sat through those Page 1 meetings yet. But at least they were paying attention. At the end, I asked if they wanted to continue with news meetings or go back to the traditional quizzes. Silly question.

Here at Jinan University, I am literally starting from scratch. After three years of coaching graduate students at CUNY, many of whom arrived with significant professional experience, I’m back to undergraduates, teaching their first professional courses in the new international journalism program. One of the most important lessons I can teach them is that a journalist must be adaptable. I had to adapt a teaching method that wasn’t working. They have to adapt themselves to so much more: a new classroom style, professional expectations, a new way of looking at the world.

“How many lectures a week do you have?” other foreign experts here have asked. “Four,” I answer, but it’s hard to think of them as lectures. I teach three courses, each two hours a week, to roughly the same group of sophomores. (I also have one bubbly class of freshmen for oral English.) The courses make a nice balance in subject matter and work, for all of us.

“English News Gathering and Writing I” is what the title says: an introduction to who-what-when-where-why, inverted pyramid and basic reporting techniques, like asking questions and getting the facts straight. When I took the equivalent, called Journ 213 at Penn State circa 1973, we met in a lab room with typewriters nailed to the desks and had assignments like covering town council meetings. Here we meet in a lecture classroom, and I doubt if any Chinese government body would welcome 25 note-taking undergraduates to whatever public meetings it holds. Still, through classroom exercises and homework, they’re learning — some the hard way — about organizing information, meeting deadlines and not plagiarizing. (First lesson: a PBS documentary on Jayson Blair.) Like the news meetings, it’s a start. The final project will be a fully reported story, 1,000-word minimum, considered a long story in Craft I at CUNY.

“Survey of English-Speaking Countries” is my most lecture-like course, and much the same as I’ve taught in Hunan and Poland: social studies on the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia. Through lectures, readings and videos, I hope to give a taste of what it’s like to live in these countries and look at them from a journalist’s point of view. Grading is based on three written exams, two take-homes and a closed-book final.

Having spent little time editing foreign news since The Boston Globe in 1980,
I felt relatively unqualified to teach “International News Comparison and Analysis,” but I’m making it up as I go along. It now consists of half news meeting/quiz, half close reading and discussion of current news texts; with luck and a little tech support (ha!), I hope to Skype in two guest speakers with foreign reporting backgrounds. Class participation, i.e., the news meetings, makes up a big chunk of the grade; the final project will be an essay, five pages minimum, analyzing media coverage of an international issue during the semester.

While teaching journalism, I’m also teaching a little ESL and basic Western presentation skills, like projecting the voice and speaking confidently, rather than mumbling into a notebook, and not standing in front of the material on the board or slides. For that reason, the students spend a lot of time on their feet in front of the class. It’s a new experience, I think, for most of them.

On Pearl TV from Hong Kong the other night, I caught the finale of “The School That Turned Chinese,” a BBC series about a British secondary school that imported Chinese teachers for four weeks to test whether their far more demanding methods produced better results. In this case, they did, in the form of test scores – which, as American educators should know by now, are no definitive measure of learning. One of my “takeaways” — that’s teacher talk for the basic message students take away from a given lesson – was that Chinese education stresses conformity, becoming a good citizen to serve the country. That may help explain my students’ hesitation to speak up and stand out. But it’s the opposite of what it takes to be an international journalist.

That said, some are already showing promise. I pride myself on being able to spot early on who’s going to make it in journalism and who’s not. (I spotted AP’s Jerry Schwartz, recently celebrated on jimromenesko.com, the first night he dropped off his copy – on paper — at The Daily Collegian.) Among my sophomores, I can see at least two students with serious CUNY potential, in four or five years. They’re smart; they ask good questions; they speak and write English well; some are already engaged in entrepreneurialism.

And they’re digital natives. They may not carry laptops everywhere, but they use their phones as extensions of their brains: as dictionaries, research tools, references when they present to the class. Sometimes they take notes by photographing the whiteboard. They know every news app in existence, even The Times’s new bilingual digest on WeChat, which their government has theoretically blocked. They’ve already been there, read that.

Of course, their chief editor is still Old Lady Print Journalist. At the news meetings, I select seven or eight stories for a front page or home page, as if the news hole were still finite and mattered. Chinese students generally save their real, burning questions for after class, and on Saturday the ever-perceptive Bonnie came up to ask, “How important is that, when we have all these apps that know what we want to read, and our phones know us better than we know ourselves?” Good point, I said, and please raise that question on Monday. She had just given me another lesson plan. Thanks, Bonnie.

Saturday was a makeup for a class missed during the Golden Week holiday, to be followed by the regularly scheduled class – and news meeting — just two days later. “We have to do it again?” the sophomores groaned. Gently, I explained that when they’re out of school and working in the media, they’ll have to perform at news meetings (and produce a publication) every day. That’s another of the lessons I hope they’re learning.

Fourth of July in October

The new China celebrating.
The new China celebrating.

Sometimes I’m not sure this is what Chairman Mao had in mind.

It’s Golden Week in China. Translation: a one-week national holiday celebrating the founding of the People’s Republic on Oct. 1, 1949.  In other words, last Thursday was China’s Fourth of July, and felt like it, at least in Guangzhou. The rainy season there is over, and the heat and humidity have tapered off to roughly New York City summer at its hottest.

On Tuesday night, returning from a swank pre-holiday reception at the White Swan Hotel (rendered white indeed, empty-feeling and cold after a recent renovation, though the atrium waterfall remains), I found my passport with residence permit waiting. By then, Thursday travel – my original plan — was prohibitively expensive. But I could get a cheap flight Friday evening to Sanya on Hainan Island and rebooked the hotel I had previously canceled, thus salvaging Golden Week.

The delayed departure left me in the city for National Day. I spent it much as I spend the Fourth in the States: at the pool, followed by lunch at the Happy Monk, an open-air Anglo-Irish pub (Magner’s hard cider on the menu!) at the Happy Valley Mall across from campus. I felt as if I should be eating hot dogs (ubiquitous here as “beef sausages” on breakfast buffets and in bakeries as glorified pig-in-a-blanket), and the Happy Monk does have them on the menu, loaded with cheese, pickles, sauerkraut, you name it. But even as a child at my cousins’ holiday “doggie roasts,” I was always a burger girl, so ordered the Happy Monk Burger – a real burger, meaty and juicy, covered with a slice of lean bacon and real sharp cheddar.

In New York I’ve skipped the Macy’s fireworks the last couple of years in favor of cheap tickets for Lincoln Center Theater. I kicked myself for not having wondered sooner if Guangzhou might have some – in America every city and town seems to have its own fireworks on the Fourth — but language and Internet barriers made it impossible to find out. Then, from Pearl TV in Hong Kong, I learned that the national fireworks take place over the harbor there, this year for the first time since a ferry hit a fireworks-viewing boat in 2012, killing 39. Had I known sooner (and had a residence permit), I might have gone to Hong Kong to watch and, not incidentally, straighten out my computer problems. Instead, I watched on TV like most of China.

Having learned of the fireworks on Pearl TV’s English channels, which had pre-show coverage on its 7:30 nightly news, I naturally assumed they would cover the fireworks live. But no. I started channel-surfing. CCTV 1 had a concert, perhaps from the National Performing Arts Center in Beijing, with singers who seemed to be celebrities giving emotional renditions of what I assume were patriotic songs to a cheering audience. Continuing to surf, I found the fireworks 24 channels later on Pearl’s Chinese channel. They were spectacular, as might be expected from the country that invented them. Especially intriguing were the opaque red clouds, solid as the color on the Chinese flag, that formed from time to time. I don’t know if they were designed or a result of the overcast sky, but they were stunning.

Twenty-four hours later, I was flying to Sanya — coincidentally, the setting of the Mao-era ballet “The Red Detachment of Women,” performed at Lincoln Center this summer by the National Ballet of China. I had long been curious about what a Chinese beach town might be like; I missed seeing one on my last trip five years ago. Would it be honky-tonkish like Revere Beach or the Jersey Shore? Would it be glitzy and loud, the way modern Chinese seem to like their architecture?  One thing it would certainly be, I had been warned, was very crowded as every family in China took advantage of Golden Week to go on vacation. In other words, just like Fourth of July.

Sanya Bay turns out to be elegantly restrained, and not at all crowded — a little like a newer Miami Beach, with the occasional convertible zipping along the Ocean Drive equivalent. Most hotels are as massive as the buildings in Guangzhou, with a few small ones like the one I chose, blindly but wisely, on Booking.com. Hotel shops (there are no others along the beachfront, just a few vans) sell the usual beach paraphernalia: rubber-ducky floats, emergency swimsuits and pareus, drinks and snacks (seafood jerky, anyone?), sunhats but no sunscreen under $25. Lavish buffets – a godsend for the only person in town who can’t read a Chinese menu – serve up breakfast, lunch and dinner. At the entrances, signs plead with diners to take only as much as they will eat; in a country that once suffered widespread famine, disposing of food waste has become in a major problem. (Four of my sophomores are currently finalists in the Enactus World Cup, a major international competition for student entrepreneurialism, tackling food waste as their project.)

The Mao suits I photographed 30 years ago are long gone; now the Chinese, or at least the women, love  to dress up. In Guangzhou I had been admiring the pretty summer dresses on women around town and working at the university (undergraduates dress like undergraduates), but I didn’t expect to that style to carry over to the beach. Here young women wear lacy cover-ups and high wedge sandals. One at my hotel pool seemed to be in a bridesmaid-style dress, turquoise and sleek, but minutes later she was next to me in the pool wearing only the top—her swimsuit – with the skirt tossed onto a chaise. Others sport bright red lipstick on the beach, matching their pedicures. Little girls wear what can only be described as tutus. Of course they all carry umbrellas; God forbid they should get a tan. (The women who peddle fruit and long strands of “pearls” on the beach are covered head to toe, some in native costume.)

Five years ago, I got the impression that the Chinese don’t learn to swim – “my mother says it’s dangerous,” a student from the Guangdong coast told me – but they do. They were in my hotel pool when I arrived at 10:30 p.m. and at breakfast time the next morning. At the beach they seem a little timid, and at the hotel where I had dinner last night, a signed warned against swimming off the beach, since conditions were “unstable.” On the day I arrived there were the gentlest of waves, yesterday a bit of surf that reminded me of the calmest day at Watch Hill on Fire Island. I took several dips, but pretty much alone.

Today it’s pouring rain; my skin can use a break after two days of hazy sun. Over the music playing from my laptop – Debussy’s “Mer,” John Luther Adams’s “Become Ocean” – I can hear the waves, one of my favorite sounds. The surf is stronger than yesterday. I’d still go in, but it would upset the Chinese, who already think l’m crazy for sitting in the sun. I can see them on the beach, huddled under the thatched umbrellas and the ones they carried there – umbrellas under umbrellas.

So hutongs have given way to holiday hotels, famine to food waste, uniformity to fashion. “The Depression is over,” I used to tell my mother, who was scarred by it for life, and so is the Long March. The workers’ paradise has become a beach resort, and the workers are solidly middle-class or better. It may not be what Chairman Mao envisioned, but maybe it’s what he had in mind after all: people enjoying their lives, like the happy family of four cavorting in the pool beneath my window in the rain. I may have to join them.

Red tape

I am walking around China naked.

Not literally, on either count. I’m walking around Guangzhou, not China, because my current state of nakedness precludes going anywhere else. As of today I have no passport, or even a Foreign Expert Certificate. In European terms, no papers. No identification except a campus card and my ID NYC, which I suspect doesn’t cut much ice here. Once again, and just in time for a weeklong national holiday, I am grounded.

For those who witnessed my pre-departure meltdown last month, the rest of this post will come as no surprise. For those of you who didn’t: the paperwork allowing me to apply for my visa arrived on the Wednesday evening before my scheduled Tuesday departure. I took it to the Chinese consulate on Thursday morning, expecting the same-day service advertised on the website, which had worked just fine five years ago. “You can pick it up Monday,” the clerk said. “But I want the same-day rush service. I fly out Tuesday.” “We don’t do that.” For Americans that is cutting it way too close, and I very nearly canceled the whole semester.

As it turns out, that was just the beginning.

If one thing, beyond getting fired and/or deported for blogging, makes this my last working trip to China, it’s the bureaucracy. Americans don’t suffer bureaucrats gladly, or at least I don’t, and New Yorkers are particularly bad at waiting in (not on) line. In China, there’s never one step when three will do – like needing a third medical exam to use the pool outside my window. Or getting my own private, functioning Internet connection, a three-step process with China Telecom: buying a router online; going to China Telecom to set up an account; and finally making an appointment to have the router installed. Say what I might about Time Warner – and at the moment I have plenty to say — the process would take one phone call and one appointment.

Americans have a word for this kind of thing. It has eight letters, begins with a B, ends with a T and has an S in the middle, and it’s not very nice. The Chinese just call it life.

First there was the trip to the bank to set up an account so I can be paid, allegedly next Wednesday. Then the trip to get a local SIM card for a cellphone that I barely use but seem required to have. Not one trip but two to the photo shop to get enough little photos to hand around for all bureaucratic purposes – five for the medical exam alone. There I had to sign a receipt affirming that, yes, I was the person in the photo. (Doesn’t the photo itself confirm that?)

At the medical exam — never mind that I had already had one in New York — the first hour consisted entirely of bureaucracy. You wait in one line to confirm your appointment and get a number to wait in a second, then go next door to get your passport copied (which could have been done in advance), then go to the second line, whose sole purpose, as far as I could see, is to take a number for the third line, for the cashier (who takes your picture). Then you go across the street for the exam itself, which consists of about eight Stations of the Cross, from bloodwork to blood pressure to ultrasound of internal organs. At the end you’re handed a slip of paper and told to come back in three days to pick up the report. I was crestfallen to learn I’d have to go back; I would have to hightail it back to campus at rush hour on a Friday from a neighborhood with no taxis so that the application for my Foreign Expert Certificate could go into the mail immediately. The deadline was tight, I was told, and there’s a penalty for missing it.

The next day I went for my campus card, which took some time because the clerk let himself be interrupted by every Chinese person who cut in at my window. (They’re not shy.) Once I had the card, I asked to put money on it, which I’d been told I could do to pay conveniently for just about everything on campus. The clerk said something I didn’t understand about the canteen in another building. A few minutes later, I ran into my main handler, who explained that that office can’t accept money (no, just the fee for the card, which I guess isn’t money) but the canteen office can. In the meantime, I should come by her office to get the letter that would allow me to get a library card. Thanks, but another time.

Two days later, while waiting to sign some paperwork after delivering the medical results, I jubilantly texted my handler: “Got health report. Want pool card!” She texted back that I needed that third health exam to get it, and she’d tell me where. In the end, I decided to skip the exam, write off that pool (which no longer seems to be open all the advertised hours) and use the one at the hotel down the street. It costs more, but it’s freshly filled, has fewer screaming kids, supplies big, fluffy towels and is open whenever I want to go. At some point you have to decide which bureaucracy you have to put up with, and which you can simply avoid. That night, I turned off my phone and opened the sauvignon blanc early.

The final, most important piece of bureaucracy — the residence permit — is unavoidable. For once Hunan beats Guangzhou: one (admittedly harrowing) trip to the medical clinic; one trip to whatever office issued the residence permit; one week without a passport while the permit was processed. Here I was told there would be a return visit to pick up my passport and permit. I could have lived with that.

The first visit was scheduled for yesterday, one week before the national Golden Week holiday begins. I had booked a week on a Hainan Island beach and was concerned about having my passport back in time. (Without a passport, I cannot fly, check in at a hotel or, I’m told, buy a train ticket for so much as a day trip.) No problem! my handlers assured me; Immigration would furnish a piece of paper stating the permit was in progress and allowing me to travel. I had my doubts.

Off we trooped – another American, our student assistant and I – to wait 90 minutes in one department, then 40 more in another. I surrendered my passport; the assistant held onto our Foreign Expert Certificates to return to her office. (When I asked for mine, explaining that I had always had mine in Hunan, she said, “Different universities have different rules.”)

But that paper that would supposedly allow me to travel within mainland China did not materialize. For an extra 20 yuan ($3.50), I could have my passport and permit mailed; it might make it in five business days, but no promises. Five business days means next Wednesday – the last day before the country shuts down. “So there’s hope!” the student assistant said brightly. Sure, if you’re still young enough to believe in hope. Back home, as soon as I could connect to the Internet for more than five seconds, I canceled my booking. If the passport and my pay land in time, I may be able to get another one — if everything isn’t sold out.

It doesn’t matter, I tell myself. I’m already away. I can spend the time exploring Guangzhou. Five years ago I couldn’t wait to come here from Hunan for the Dragon Boat Festival.

I am lying. Well, one good lie deserves another.

What is this all really about: China’s centuries-old tradition of bureaucracy? Keeping everyone employed? Or, as a more seasoned American here stated flat out, control? To me it’s simply an exhausting (especially in 90-degree heat and 150 percent humidity), infuriating waste of time and energy that could be better spent – for example, on my students.

I’ve met one American teaching at this university who keeps coming back, another who’s been here 10 years, another five. Do they have to go through the same bureaucratic nightmare every time? And if so, why do they keep coming back? Something here must be worth it. I still think the work I’m doing is exactly what I should be doing at this stage in my life. I’m just not sure I should be doing it here.

The September scramble

Chinese water torture: the pool I haven't been allowed to use, with my building in the background.
Chinese water torture: the pool I can’t use, with my building in the background.

Labor Day is the saddest day of the year at Riverbank State Park on the Hudson in Manhattan. At 6 p.m. the park’s two pools, having been largely turned over to the kids all summer, close for a month for cleaning and other maintenance. The plugs are pulled, and two days later, the pools have drained. And I start my annual scramble for a place to swim. Chelsea Piers on guest passes, the 92nd Street Y on Groupon, the Southold town beach within walking distance of a friend’s house – I’ve scrambled to them all.

Spending this September in Guangzhou, I thought I’d be able to skip the scramble. “Do they have a swimming pool where you are going in China???” asked Georgia Keghlian, chief usher at Circle in the Square, when I took nights off so I could make the evening adult swim at Riverbank. Actually, there are two, right outside my window. But I haven’t been allowed to use them, so once again I’m scrambling.

Why? It seems you have to pass a health examination before being issued a pool card. I arrived two weeks ago and couldn’t get an appointment until last Tuesday, with a three-day wait to pick up my results on Friday. In the meantime, I’ve listened to the sounds of happy swimmers outside my window every evening. (No self-respecting Chinese would swim outdoors in the daytime. They might get a suntan, which would mark them as field workers. They carry umbrellas as shields from the sun as much as the rain.)

When I taught in Hunan five years ago, I spent my first month with noplace to swim and thought I was going to die. Guangzhou is semi-tropical, though, and nearly every hotel boasts at least an outdoor pool. The only Guangzhou listing for a public pool I could find on my standby, swimmersguide.com, sounded disgusting. So, as a stopgap until I passed my health exam, I adopted the philosophy of my friend Leslie: “To make a problem go away, throw money at it.”

I had read about a W Hotel apparently not far from campus with a lovely pool that charged $40 a visit. Since my record for a swim is $116, I thought I could swing that once a week. I started scouting Booking.com for inexpensive hotels with pools where I might check in overnight on a weekend to buy two swim days. Somewhere on the Internet I found a Ramada advertising a Wellness Center with indoor and outdoor pools. But there are two Ramadas within striking distance of campus. Which one?

I phoned one to ask about its policy, and a very nice man told me yes, the pool was open to the public for 30 yuan (less than $5) a visit. Was it within walking distance of Jinan University? “Ten minutes away.” I checked a map, though, and it didn’t seem to be nearby, so I marched out to the South Gate, got into a taxi and asked to go to the Ramada Plaza. Good thing I took the cab: the Ramada is 10 minutes from another Jinan campus.

At the pool I looked for a place to pay my 30 yuan, but a lifeguard simply nodded toward the changing room. The pool has two shallow areas and one deep one, which is rectangular and, while short of Riverbank’s 25 meters, good enough for laps. Midway through my first visit, the lifeguard and a Chinese swimmer gave me big smiles and thumbs up – a compliment on my swimming.

Afterward, I asked at the front desk if there was another Ramada with a big outdoor pool; indeed there was, the Ramada Pearl, and a young woman behind the desk wrote out a card with its address in Chinese. “We have a very nice pool here,” she added. No one seemed interested in my 30 yuan, so I bought the breakfast buffet in thanks and took a cab home.

A few days later was a national holiday, so I set out for the Ramada Pearl, which was indeed the one with the Wellness Center. At 9:45 a.m. it cost 300 yuan (about $47), but if I waited 15 minutes, the desk clerk said, it would be just 150. I waited five before she said, “You can go now.” On the other side of the locker room was an indoor pool suitable for laps and the resort-caliber amoeba-shaped pool mentioned in a previous post. The shape makes it less than ideal for laps, though the Chinese swim around it in big, lazy circles. I found a bay just the right depth for water aerobics and, armed with my aqua disks from Wroclawskie Centrum Spa in Poland, did an hour’s workout.

The chaises are hard, and the quiet is punctuated at regular intervals by older men performing the Chinese salute. I’ve filed the indoor pool in my head for when winter comes, which I’m told is in November. Still, the Ramada Pearl is a fine place to spend a day reading by the pool and, yes, tanning.

I was still hoping for something within walking distance of home. An indoor pool at another university nearby seemed uncongenial. Then, sitting in a second-floor window at (OK, I admit it) McDonald’s, I looked across the street and saw the Vanburgh Hotel. I went on another reconnaissance mission. Did it have a pool? Yes. Was it open to the public? Yes, for 100 yuan (about $16). It was currently closed for cleaning, but it would reopen on Sept. 12.

At 4:30 p.m. on Sept. 12, I returned, cheerfully handed over 100 yuan and proceeded to the sparkling pool. Its curved form made lap-swimming disorienting, so I got out the aqua disks and started aerobics. The 1.4-meter depth is just a little too buoyant for my 5-foot-4 body to do aerobics comfortably, but I managed, moving more languidly than usual among the stone seals (or are they sea lions, like the ones I once swam with in the Galapagos?) spouting water. The Vanburgh was a winner.

So now I have my choice of three pools: the Ramada Plaza for laps, the Pearl for a relaxing day poolside and the Vanburgh for quick trips at the end of a workday or between monsoons. As for the pools outside my window: as soon as I left the clinic on Friday, I texted my main handler: “Got health report. Want pool card!” She texted back: “The swimming pool is open until mid-October. . . Need to bring 2 photos to do a different physical exam in the university clinic.”

Another health exam, for a pool that’s going to be open for a few more weeks, one of which I intend to spend at a beach hotel on Hainan Island with its own pool?

Maybe not.

Columbia on Huangpu


After two weeks, the “Fun Home” earworm has finally left my brain. (Sorry, Jeanine, Lisa and cast, but that’s what happens when you’ve ushered a musical for five months.) It’s been replaced by Rodgers and Hammerstein: “It’s a Darn Nice Campus,” from “Allegro.” That’s the tune I now hear in my head and hum as I explore Jinan University in Guangzhou.

There’s no ivy on the walls, but there are palm trees, a lily pond outside my door and lush greenery befitting the subtropical climate. (Humidity has averaged about 150 percent since I arrived.) Considering my experiences in Hunan five years ago (Monthly Archives, March to July 2010), my first week at Jinan has come as a very pleasant surprise.

Jinan University dates back to 1911, when China still had an emperor. Founded in Shanghai and reopened in Guangzhou after the 1949 revolution, it was the first university in China to recruit foreign students, according to Wikipedia (accessible via VPN), and its International School alone reported having had more than 3,500 as of spring 2013. (Last spring it hosted a group from the University of Louisville.) That school has nine programs taught in English, ranging from International Economics and Trade to Food Quality and Safety to International Journalism, which is where I come in. That program is a joint venture of the International School and Jinan’s School of Journalism and Communication, ranked as one of China’s top 10 by the China Academic Degrees and Graduate Education Development Center in 2013.

South Gate and Main Teaching Building.
South Gate and Main Teaching Building.

Jinan strikes me as an Asian twin of Columbia University, just four subways stops from home. (I’m told the subway station is diagonally across campus from me, but who needs the hassle when taxis are ridiculously cheap and stop five minutes from my door?) The main campus is a rectangle in the middle of Guangzhou, or at least it feels like the middle to someone who has barely begun to explore this sprawling city of 2,800 square miles and 14 million people. Its walls have three gates: the south or main gate, with its semicircular arch, and smaller, more utilitarian ones on the north and west, primarily for traffic control. The west gate is less imposing than Columbia’s wrought iron at Broadway and 116th Street, but it does open onto streets of shops and restaurants reminiscent of Morningside Heights, only busier. The imposing Main Teaching Building faces the imposing library across a plaza not unlike the Columbia quad. Like Columbia’s work in progress uptown, Jinan has a second campus north of ours; I will see it on Sunday, when I’ve been “invited” to be a guest speaker at freshman orientation.

DSC_0005Those who saw pictures of my apartment in Hunan may relax. (If you’re on my Snapfish list, don’t expect to see an album anytime soon. So far I’ve been unable to upload photos successfully.) The six-story Foreign Experts Residence reminds me of the apartment hotel where I’ve twice stayed in Shanghai. The living-room suite is massive, but here faux-leather teal upholstery cushions the wooden frames. The mosquito netting coiled over my bed like a fabric chandelier is too pretty to use, even though, living between the lily pond and a swimming pool, I’m covered with bites. The bathroom is real, with basin, tub and shower, as opposed to a toilet stall with showerhead. The kitchen is equipped with a working refrigerator and microwave oven, but no stovetop. Instead, it has a hot plate I haven’t yet figured out how to use, since the buttons are all labeled in Chinese. The eggs I bought a week ago sit in the fridge, awaiting instruction. The air conditioning is so efficient I have to turn it off frequently. There are washers on every floor and, as everywhere in China, a balcony for plein air drying.

About that swimming pool: there are two, actually, but I’m not allowed to use them until I pass a medical exam, scheduled for tomorrow morning, with results unlikely for another week. Given temperatures in the 90s and that humidity, I spent Labor Day weekend — which came early for me, with holidays Thursday and Friday for that big military parade in Beijing – exploring the pools at local hotels. I found two friendly Ramadas, one with a serviceable outdoor pool big enough for laps, the other with both an indoor pool (which may come in handy when the weather cools, as I’m told it will) and a resort-caliber amoeba-shaped outdoor pool with islands and a swim-up bar. Both are within range of a $3 cab ride. Another university just north of us also has two pools and apparently requires no health certificate. The outdoor Swimming Center was not admitting guests when I stopped by yesterday; the indoor pool was swarming with kids, and the ticket-seller refused to admit me unless I bought a latex swim cap from her, though my bag contained two Lycra ones. I took a walk instead.

Classrooms are comparable to those in Hunan, but in much better condition — and the technology actually works. Yesterday I shlepped my laptop to class in hopes of starting off my English News Writing course with a cautionary tale, the “Independent Lens” documentary on Jayson Blair, only to find the classroom computer could play my American-format DVD. (And it was quite a trip to see New York Times faces like Al Siegal, Bill Schmidt and Lena Williams in my classroom.) The campus restrooms may be be Asian and devoid of toilet paper, but they’re clean! And the International School provides an office and support staff.

Even on this smaller campus, I have yet to run into any of my students outside class. In Hunan I could scarcely turn a corner without hearing, “Hi, Diane!” or “Are you the new foreign teacher?” But there I had more than 200 students, and here just 24 so far. (In a week or so I’ll add a class of freshmen, about 30.) One only pedestrian, a man whose name I heard as Wujian, has accosted me on the street and walked me home to practice his English. But he did, as I recall, as if I liked Chinese food. Some things never change.


They weren’t kidding about the Great Firewall.

I knew about the Chinese government’s policy of blocking more than 2,700 websites it finds threatening for whatever reason, but I didn’t experience it until this week. When I taught in Hunan province five years ago, the problem wasn’t blocking (though I did notice that most attempts to Google brought up the Chinese browser Baidu instead); it was the laughable Internet connection in my apartment. The New York Times? No problem, if I could connect at all.

But it seems Google had already been blocked in 2009. Gmail followed in 2014, and so have Google’s other offshoots. As for The Times, in 2013 its Shanghai correspondent, David Barboza, won the Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting for his front-page expose of corruption at high levels of the government, and The Times became newspaper non grata. Twenty-five years ago, Dave was writing harmless little features for me for a long-defunct section called the Sunday Main 2. Now he’s gotten my morning “paper” blocked. Thanks, Dave.

I’d had hints from Chinese students at the CUNY journalism school. One applicant whose English I was asked to assess worried that Skype might be blocked and suggested an elaborate Plan B for our interview; I told her I’d never had a problem Skyping to China before, and in the end we didn’t, either. A new student this fall, with whom I’d been working remotely over the summer, offered to help me set up a VPN, or virtual private network, which encrypts data and effectively disguises where it’s coming from. I thanked her but said I was planning to set up a VPN through my security software, Avast.

I didn’t move fast enough. Avast offered seven-day free trial, which I activated just before leaving home and figured would last into my first few days in China. In Hong Kong (a special administrative region where the blocking does not apply) I had no problem connecting and blithely ignored Avast’s advice to subscribe today. I had other things on my mind, like jet lag.

Then I arrived at my apartment in Guangzhou. A building staff member gave me a username and a password, along with an Ethernet cord as a backup to the wifi. She briefly established a connection, but then I shut down my laptop and lost it. For the next three days, I had no luck signing in and couldn’t figure out why. Was I misreading the username and password? (Well, that, too, as it turned out.)

When the situation was becoming urgent – the first of the month loomed, and my New York rent was due — the problem was solved the way all foreign teachers’ problems are solved here: I was assigned a student to help. This one came over to my apartment and had assessed the problem within minutes: to sign in, I had to connect to a browser. What’s my browser? Chrome. As in Google Chrome.

He returned the next day with a flash drive containing a Chinese browser and a (free!) VPN. Both student and VPN shall remain nameless. Now Gmail and everything else (including Facebook, also blocked, and YouTube, on which I rely for teaching material) are humming along, at least on my laptop. (My e-book and iPod Touch are another story. The browser on the e-book is, of course, Chrome; I find I can’t Google but can connect to some specific addresses.) They’re blocked on the university computers, though, so I’m devising systems for e-mailing work I’ve done at home to my CUNY address and printing it in the office. (The apartment has no printer, though I’m heading to the mall today to look for a cheap one.) I haven’t yet figured out how to show YouTube videos in class, but I have a feeling my laptop is going to be commuting across campus.

So if you’ve been wondering why I’ve been so quiet, now you know. If have something urgent to say, copy it to diane.nottle@journalism.cuny.edu, just to be safe.

Diane’s further adventures: right back where I started from

The view from my window in Hong King.
The view from my window in Hong Kong.

So much for being “retired” and having more time to blog. One post in seven months? Pathetic. I can only plead the press of work and New York life. But now I’m back where this blog started five and a half years ago – China – and it looks as if I’ll have plenty of time and material.

For fall semester, starting this week, I’m teaching at Jinan University in Guangzhou (which you may recognize by its old name, Canton), in South China, just up the Pearl River from Hong Kong. When I’ve said “Jinan University” to Chinese, this has been the reaction: “You’re going to teach at Jinan University?” It seems to have a reputation as a very good, and very tough, school. When my best student from Hunan five years ago stayed with me recently after a year teaching Chinese in Pennsylvania, not so far from where I grew up, she confessed that she had been afraid to apply to Jinan. (And this from a young woman who would, as we say in New York, make it anywhere.) Why? “They say it’s hard to get into and easy to get out of” – meaning to flunk out.

I hadn’t meant to come back to China. As anyone who followed this blog in its early days knows, my time in Hunan was challenging, to say the least – as I described it later, “an amazing experience that I’m in no hurry to repeat.” (To refresh your memory, go to the monthly archive on the righthand side of this page and scroll to February through July 2010.) But almost two years ago now, Judy Watson, then associate dean of the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, circulated e-mail from a professor at Jinan. She was seeking visiting lecturers for a new international journalism program, a joint project of Jinan’s International School and its journalism department, to be taught in English. “Anyone interested?” Judy asked. No! I thought – and then, to my surprise, yes. I realized this was exactly this kind of thing I should be doing as I advance my plot to achieve world domination of English for the media.

So here I am, ensconced in the Foreign Experts Residence on Jinan’s campus (which on first impression makes me feel I’ve landed at an Asian twin of Columbia. More on that another time.) Last Tuesday I flew from Newark to Hong Kong, 16 hours nonstop (but in first class). There I checked into a fine hotel with lavish breakfast buffets and an indoor-outdoor pool to sleep off the jet lag and see a bit of Hong Kong, where I had not set foot since 1985. (The jet lag persists; I’m writing at 5 a.m., having been awake since 1:30 after falling asleep before 7 last night – and that after an afternoon nap.) On Saturday I took the train to Guangzhou, where I was whisked to my new apartment.

If you saw photos of my Hunan apartment, fear not. This one is far more livable, much like the apartment hotel I favor in Shanghai. I’ve spent the weekend settling in; I’ve been shown the bank, the grocery store, the restaurant next door (which seems shy about serving foreigners). I’ve been told there’s a mall across from the campus gate but failed to find it in a monsoon. I did find McDonald’s. Outside my window are two swimming pools. Never mind the medical exam or the residence permit; what I need is a pool card (which I can’t get until I pass the medical exam).

And the Internet. I’m just back online after my first experience with the Great Firewall, so please be patient. A VPN seems to have solved the problem but even so I may able to communicate only spasmodically, as we used to say at The Boston Globe. Gmail seems to be working now, but you might also try my CUNY address, diane.nottle@journalism.cuny.edu.

Four hours to my first class.

Henry and Anne and Tom

This has been the season of “Wolf Hall.” Hilary Mantel’s take on Henry VIII and the first three of his six wives — Divorced, Beheaded and Died — is everywhere in New York: in the few bookstores we have left, on Broadway, on television. There are ads online, in The New Yorker, on the sides of buses.

It’s far from the first time this story has been told. Shakespeare’s “Henry VIII” chronicled the transition from Divorced (Katherine of Aragon) to Beheaded (Anne Boleyn) while stopping short of the actual beheading. Donizetti composed an opera about Anne. Charles Laughton played Henry in a 1933 film. I grew up on “Anne of the Thousand Days” and “A Man for All Seasons” and “The Six Wives of Henry VIII,” the 1970s BBC version starring Keith Michell, on PBS.

“The Tudors” on Showtime gave the story a 21st-century spin, with more pretty people, bloody beheadings and nasty sex than ever before. A couple of seasons’ worth on Chinese DVDs was my late-night recreation on a teaching trip to Poland. “I finished ‘The Tudors’ last night,” I remarked to Ula, my program coordinator. Her eyes grew wide, and she gasped.”Henry died?” I hated to break the news, but Henry has been dead for going on 500 years.

Yet the story of his quest for a male heir continues to be told and told again. Why? I can’t explain why I’m so entranced by the Tudor period, when my Cornish ancestors were probably scraping for a living. Perhaps it’s the romance of history when it’s well told, or maybe it’s the romance of romance. For Tudor aficionados, it’s like Charles and Diana, or Will and Kate a generation later. When I walked through the Tudor section of the National Portrait Gallery in London a few years ago, I didn’t need to look at the labels; I knew who everyone was.

Mantel’s protagonist is neither king nor queen, but low-born Thomas Cromwell, who as Henry’s secretary and Master of the Rolls was essentially his chief minister in the 1530s. Elsewhere Cromwell is portrayed as what Robertson Davies called “fifth business” — in drama and opera, “those roles which, being neither those of Hero nor Heroine, Confidante nor Villain, but which were nonetheless essential to bring about the Recognition or the denouement,” he wrote in the preface to his novel of that name. Though Mantel writes in third person rather than in his voice, Cromwell is her focal point.

I’ve worked my way through Mantel from books to stage to television. Seeking comfort in an alien environment, I read “Wolf Hall” while teaching in China five years ago and caught up with its sequel, “Bring Up the Bodies,” on vacation in Puerto Rico this March. (“Doesn’t it bother you to be reading something so different from where you are?” I’ve often been asked. No.) Mantel isn’t the easiest to follow; her way of referring to Cromwell as “he” when there are many other “he’s” present often causes confusion with unclear antecedents. Though I find the books rather cold, their intelligence and perspective make them well worth the effort.

I spent April Fool’s Day wallowing in “Wolf Hall” on Broadway, seeing both parts in a single day. Its eight Tony Award nominations notwithstanding, I found the Royal Shakespeare Company’s adaptation oddly uninvolving. The starkness of the design and its dark palette – grays and black and browns, occasionally relieved by a red or cream-colored gown – lack the color in the court of someone who surely must have thought himself a Sun King a century before Louis XIV invented the genre. One of the glories of live theater is that it makes the audience fill in the details through imagination; my definitive “King Lear” is the 2011 production at the Brooklyn Academy of Music starring Derek Jacobi, which used about three props in the entire show. But “Wolf Hall” was too stark and entirely dreary. Ben Miles struck me as too young for Cromwell, Nathaniel Parker a Henry without swagger, and Lydia Leonard unappealing as Anne. (More on her later.) I feel sorry for any theatergoer who doesn’t know the characters as well as I do; it takes no small effort to keep Harry Percy straight from Thomas Weston from George Boleyn.

That Sunday, “Wolf Hall” came to PBS. Being television, it not only can but must fill in all the details – the colors, the candlesticks, the drapery around the beds — to fill out the Tudor world visually. Its Cromwell is Mark Rylance, who in my opinion deserves an award for just about anything he does, and this role is no exception. Cromwell was nothing if not an operator, and while Rylance is less jowly than the Holbein portrait suggests, his impassive face perfectly conceals a constantly whirling mind. As Henry, Damian Lewis is getting warmer. But Claire Foy’s Anne? As with Leonard’s Tony-nominated Anne, I can’t quite grasp what Henry sees in her. Neither has the bewitching sparkle and sex appeal of Dorothy Tutin in the ‘70s and Natalie Dormer in “The Tudors”; both come off simply as shrews, and that’s the kind word. Today’s New York Times describes Anne as “cunning and manipulative,” which is certainly accurate. Since Mantel sees her through Cromwell’s eyes and he was considerably less charmed than the king, perhaps these performances makes sense. For once, Died (Jane Seymour) has refreshing flashes of sharpness and wit, and Thomas More is hardly a saint. (As a companion piece, PBS has shown “Inside the Court of Henry VIII,” a sort of CliffsNotes for those who don’t know all the players. It describes Henry with words like “brutal” and “tyrant”; its Cromwell is the homeliest ever, and Anne is no great shakes, either.)

Despite my quibbles with Mantel, I can’t help looking forward to the final book in her Cromwell trilogy, “The Mirror and the Light.” Spoiler alert: Cromwell himself was beheaded in 1540 after his misstep in promoting wife No. 4, Annulled (Anne of Cleves). But I was expecting that by the end of “Bring Up the Bodies.”

If only Henry had been satisfied with his girls! But then we would have none of these stories to tell and tell again. Eventually they do end happily, if not ever after. As Thomas Cranmer tells Henry in “Wolf Hall” after Anne’s disappointing first child is born: “Perhaps God intends some peculiar blessing by this princess.” They named the baby Elizabeth.

Diane’s further adventures: retired!

Well, sort of.

The first check has landed; the gap years are over. As of Feb. 1, nearly seven years after I left the building, I am technically, officially retired from The New York Times, according to the Newspaper Guild. On Jan. 25, I turned old enough to receive a pension — an early one — and “retirement” begins on the first of the month after that magical birthday. Except for my digital subscription courtesy of the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, my 27-year love-hate relationship with The Times is over. We are as divorced as J.P Morgan Chase and I, except that The Times now pays me alimony.

“Are you doing anything, or are you having a good time?” asked Ray Cormier, a member of the Times buyout class of 2014 whom I hadn’t seen for some time, when I stopped by in December for his and others’ farewell. “Yes!” I answered, and meant it. I am doing something — lots of things — and, mostly, I am having a good time.

In the parlance of my British and Australian friends, I am now an OAP — old-age pensioner — even though I don’t feel all that old. (Does this qualify me for the concession fare on the Sydney Harbor cruise?) But everyone I know in my approximate generation who’s “retired” is busier than ever. I expect to be no exception: in the last seven years, I’ve found myself juggling as many as six freelance “jobs” at a time. This being the 100th post on this blog, started when I left for China five years ago, it seems a good place to take stock.

I’m now in my sixth semester as coach to the international students at the CUNY J-school, where I write the English for Journalists blog. In January I signed a contract with CUNY Journalism Press to write a book tentatively titled “American English for International Journalists” (suggestions welcome), due in September for publication in 2016. In tandem with the book, I intend to continue developing my online course on the same subject, in the hope it might eventually be added to the J-school’s online offerings.

I have about 10 private students in English and writing in New York, Poland and Japan (via Skype and e-mail). A decade ago, when I started training to teach English to speakers of other languages, people said, “You can do that when you’re 90 in your wheelchair!” They may have been right. (Witness Maggie Smith in the 2014 film “My Old Lady.”)

Besides “American English,” I’m continuing to work with Bonnie Robson on “The Leap: From Dancer to Director 21st-Century Ballet.” After a promising peer review by a major publisher in 2013, pending revisions, we’ve interviewed more directors — around 40 to date — from more parts of the world. (In the last year, I’ve met with the directors of Les Ballets de Monte Carlo and the National Ballet of China.) I still freelance articles spasmodically, as a Boston Globe alum might say — though not to The Times. My last two freelance experiences there simply reminded me of all the reasons I left.

After a year spent chained to various desks, with only a few trips to Long Island beaches, I fervently hope to resume serious traveling. To dip my toe in the water, both figuratively and literally, I’ve booked a quick week in Puerto Rico in March. After that, anything’s possible. A seventh trip to Poland to offer a package of English courses in advance of Wroclaw’s year as a European City of Culture? A return to China for a new international journalism program taught in English? Travel to parts as yet unknown as a Fulbright senior specialist? (I was named to the roster last fall.) Or, as is becoming more and more attractive, a real retirement abroad.

Then there’s my career in showbiz. As a substitute usher, I’ve now worked well over 700 performances of Broadway shows including “War Horse,” “Act One,” “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill,” “Beautiful” and, until Feb. 8, “The River.” Once, I volunteered at nonprofit arts venues; then I turned pro to help pay the bills. Now that I’m “retired,” I plan to usher not for the money (which will go into something I haven’t seen in a while: a savings account), but for the sheer fun of spending most nights in the theater. Thank you, Mim Pollock and Georgia Keghlian, for helping keep me afloat in the meantime.

So what’s “retirement” going to change? Probably not all that much. But there will be far less pushing myself, far less subway time and far more time in front of my laptop as I write “American English,” The Leap” and the travel books that have been sitting on the back burner for some time. And maybe blog posts more than twice a year.

Watch this space.