Category Archives: Freedom

Strategic Rebellion

I’ve had a few chances recently to watch my grandkids coloring.

It was a bit torturous for me, watching as they scribbled around the patterns, with no regard for the lines.  Was that a horse, or maybe a flower?  It didn’t matter to them.  Color selection was random.  A green horse?  Perfect.  Blue?  Even better.

Faced with this onslaught of coloring chaos, what’s the first piece of grandfatherly advice I wanted to give?  You guessed it:  Try staying inside the lines, which would inevitably be followed by advice on color choice and coloring patterns.

Most of us were taught from an early age to color inside the lines, follow the rules, avoid poking the bear, err on the side of caution, measure twice and cut once.

These are all good guidelines…most of the time.

However, I’ve found that a sprinkling of “strategic rebellion” from time to time can be quite useful.  Poke that bear, make a few waves, dare to color outside the lines.  In fact, who needs lines?  Just bring some color and see what happens.

Thankfully, I caught my advice before giving it.  It remained safely in my head.  They have plenty of time to learn about staying inside the lines.  Here’s hoping they also get a nice dose of strategic rebellion along the way.

In the meantime, purple is a perfect color for grass.

 

Before the Law

What can Franz Kafka’s parable, written in 1915, tell us?

Before the Law

Before the law sits a gatekeeper. To this gatekeeper comes a man from the country who asks to gain entry into the law. But the gatekeeper says that he cannot grant him entry at the moment. The man thinks about it and then asks if he will be allowed to come in later on. “It is possible,” says the gatekeeper, “but not now.” At the moment the gate to the law stands open, as always, and the gatekeeper walks to the side, so the man bends over in order to see through the gate into the inside. When the gatekeeper notices that, he laughs and says: “If it tempts you so much, try it in spite of my prohibition. But take note: I am powerful. And I am only the most lowly gatekeeper. But from room to room stand gatekeepers, each more powerful than the other. I can’t endure even one glimpse of the third.”

What exactly is “the law?”  I’m sure it’s something real, but it doesn’t matter.  Alfred Hitchcock once said that every movie is a search for the MacGuffin.  Every character in the story lives or dies in relation to quest for the MacGuffin.

How often have you confronted a gatekeeper?  That mysterious person with unknown power.  They appear to hold the key you need.  Their power emanates from the knowledge you need.  Knowledge they often don’t possess.  Their greatest power comes from your insecurity.  The gatekeeper represents your desire to stay safe, risk nothing, step back.  Thank God that gatekeeper’s there!  Otherwise, I’d have to actually step through that gate, without any obstacle to block me.

The man from the country has not expected such difficulties: the law should always be accessible for everyone, he thinks, but as he now looks more closely at the gatekeeper in his fur coat, at his large pointed nose and his long, thin, black Tartar’s beard, he decides that it would be better to wait until he gets permission to go inside.

The gatekeeper isn’t there to grant permission.  Access isn’t his to grant.  Our hero focuses so intently on every last detail of the gatekeeper that he gets to avoid thinking about what lies beyond the gate.  The biggest challenges in life aren’t delivered in the first step but in the thousandth.

The gatekeeper gives him a stool and allows him to sit down at the side in front of the gate. There he sits for days and years. He makes many attempts to be let in, and he wears the gatekeeper out with his requests. The gatekeeper often interrogates him briefly, questioning him about his homeland and many other things, but they are indifferent questions, the kind great men put, and at the end, he always tells him once more that he cannot let him inside yet.

Status quo is warm and comfy.  Pursuing the mundane is safe.  Busying ourselves with the day-to-day tasks gives us something to do, but doesn’t move us any closer to what lies beyond the next gate.

The man, who has equipped himself with many things for his journey, spends everything, no matter how valuable, to win over the gatekeeper. The latter takes it all but, as he does so, says, “I am taking this only so that you do not think you have failed to do anything.”

All the preparation in the world is meaningless without the desire to put that preparation to work.  To take what you’ve learned and test it in the real world.  To learn the real lessons that come from experience.  To make the mistakes that can cost you everything…and nothing.  To risk real failure, and real triumph is what makes life most interesting.

During the many years, the man observes the gatekeeper almost continuously. He forgets the other gatekeepers, and this one seems to him the only obstacle for entry into the law. He curses the unlucky circumstance, in the first years thoughtlessly and out loud, later, as he grows old, he still mumbles to himself. He becomes childish and, since in the long years studying the gatekeeper he has come to know the fleas in his fur collar, he even asks the fleas to help him persuade the gatekeeper.

How long have you waited for someone to pick you?  How long have you waited for your stars to align?  Stars are part of a perfectly ordered and yet totally chaotic system.  Their alignment is rare and temporary at best.

There are about 6 billion of us on this planet.  The law of averages (and large numbers) works against us being picked.  More likely, our small piece of the world is waiting for us to choose, and run in that direction.

The gatekeeper isn’t good or evil.  He has only one function.  To guard the gate, and warn us about the challenges that may lie ahead.  Nothing more, nothing less.

Finally, his eyesight grows weak, and he does not know whether things are really darker around him or whether his eyes are merely deceiving him. But he recognizes now in the darkness an illumination which breaks inextinguishably out of the gateway to the law. Now he no longer has much time to live. Before his death, he gathers in his head all his experiences of the entire time up into one question which he has not yet put to the gatekeeper. He waves to him since he can no longer lift up his stiffening body.

We don’t have to grow old for our vision to fail.  That can happen at any age.  It’s easy to lose focus.  It’s easy to find darkness in the midst of all the light.  We each have beacons of light to guide us if we choose to look in their direction.

The gatekeeper has to bend way down to him, for the great difference has changed things to the disadvantage of the man. “What do you still want to know, then?” asks the gatekeeper. “You are insatiable.” “Everyone strives after the law,” says the man, “so how is that in these many years no one except me has requested entry?” The gatekeeper sees that the man is already dying and, in order to reach his diminishing sense of hearing, he shouts at him, “Here no one else can gain entry since this entrance was assigned only to you. I’m going now to close it. 

Woe is me!  I’m the only person in pain.  I’m the only person with these challenges.  I’m the only person struggling.  The world is so unfair.  The deck is stacked against me.  Get over yourself!

Never assume you’re the only one struggling.  I saw a quote from That Gratitude Guy (look him up) recently that said, “Never compare your inside to their outside.”  Excellent advice.

Each of us has a path to follow.  Sometimes it’s smooth.  Sometimes not.  We will encounter obstacles on our journey and even more gatekeepers.

The most powerful gatekeeper of all is fear and the stories we tell to hide it.

No one else can overcome your fear.  That task is assigned only to you.

Photo Credit:  Unsplash, Joshua Earle.  Why this photo?  Why not a photo of a gate, a bureaucrat, darkness, or fear itself?  This photo reflects a beacon of light and an “impossible” next step.  Here’s hoping he finds his way past fear and towards the light.

 

Anyone But Me

  • unsplash-benjamin-child“Who wants to start?”
  • “Any volunteers?”
  • “We need to think outside the box.  Do you have any ideas we can pursue?”
  • “Who’s gonna drive innovation for our company?”
  • “Did you see what they just did?  Who’s heading up our response?”
  • “I’m sure glad he’s running with that project.  I wouldn’t get anywhere near that thing!”
  • “Who’s next?”
  • “You’re kidding me!  She’s leading our brainstorming session?”
  • “I sure hope they figure this thing out.  We need answers and we need them fast!”
  • “I can’t believe we’re doing this.  Who came up with this idea?”
  • “They’re idiots to think this will matter.”

It’s easy to hide.  Easy to complain.  Easy to snipe from a distance.

It’s easiest to let someone else.

The hard thing is stepping up.

Volunteering.

Risking failure.

Taking charge.

Risking embarrassment.

Choosing to lead.

Risking success.

Turning “anyone but me” into “why not me” is the first step…and the hardest one of all.

 

 

Photo Credit:  Unsplash–Benjamin Child

More Than a Few Lessons…

unsplash-massimo-mancini

I turned 50 a while back.  Although it’s just a number, it’s a big milestone.  Hopefully, it’s a halfway point.  During my first 50 years, I’ve learned some things and here they are in no particular order:

  • The quest for the Holy Grail is all about the quest, and less about the Grail.
  • Soft tissue injuries are much harder to get over than you think.
  • Execution is all about preparation. Prepare well, and you’ll be able to execute when called upon.  Wing it and your execution will be a crap shoot.
  • Preparation is difficult and requires discipline. Building and maintaining discipline is one of the greatest challenges in life.
  • No matter how smart, strong, tough, fast, or independent you think you are. You aren’t.
  • Nearly everything is easier said than done.
  • Just because you can watch someone do something doesn’t mean you know anything about what it takes to actually do that thing.
  • Doing is the key to enjoying. Stop talking about it.  Stop thinking about it.  Stop procrastinating.  Stop making excuses.  As Nike said so well, Just Do It!  You’ll probably suck at it at first, but so does everyone else.
  • The real “99% and 1%?” Ninety-nine percent of people will try something, suck at it, and quit.  One percent will continue the struggle (see discipline above), and incrementally improve.  They may even continue long enough to become a master at it.  Another variant:  only one percent will try something, and the other ninety-nine percent will focus on explaining why they can’t or won’t.
  • Whenever I’ve become the most anxious in life, I usually realize that I’ve skipped exercise or going outside to play for more than a week (it happens more often than I care to admit!). Exercising and playing are the best ways to build a foundation of clarity and calm.
  • Another thing I’ve noticed when I’m most anxious is that I’ve probably pushed gratitude out of my mind. When your mind is filled with gratitude, it doesn’t leave a lot of room for other things like anger, frustration, or negativity (this also happens more often than I’d like).
  • Vacations are nice. Travel is nice.  Seeing exotic places is nice.  But, there’s nothing like creating a life at home that doesn’t require a vacation for happiness.  Vacations should be icing on the cake.
  • Every person who lives in the US should spend at least two weeks in a foreign country…preferably when they’re young. That way, the lessons they take away from the experience can be applied early in their life.  Something I’ve found from traveling to at least 10 (maybe more) foreign countries is that the US is like Disneyland.  Even compared to modern and thriving countries, the standard of living in the US is noticeably higher.  It is easy to take all these differences for granted, or to be truly ignorant of them…until you spend time in a foreign country.
  • Tom Petty had it right: The waiting is the hardest part.  Everything in life takes longer than you plan in your head.  That’s probably because we plan and think in our head for a long time before we spring our thoughts on the “world.”  Or, things just really do take a lot longer than we think they should.
  • Jobs become obsolete (and so do certain companies). People don’t (and neither do companies) unless they allow it.
  • The best way to avoid obsolescence?  Continuous learning.  Continuous exploration.  Saying yes more.
  • Save early and often in your life. Those savings will yield a huge amount of freedom later in your life.
  • In the struggle between service and earnings, choose service every time.
  • The most beautiful sound in Nature is uncontrolled laughter.
  • The most beautiful sight in Nature is the smiling eyes of someone you love.

 

 

Photo Credit:  Unsplash–Massimo Mancini

 

“I’m bored!”

“Thems was fightin’ words” in our house when I was a kid.  If mom ever heard us utter those two words, she had a list of things for us to do.  We learned quickly to find things to do for ourselves, since mom’s list was definitely not a fun list (toilets, folding clothes, raking leaves, etc.).

I remember one summer, probably the one between 7th and 8th grade.  Our little crew had a solid plan every day.  It usually involved taking a mid-day “break” to watch Get Smart at Denis’ house.  I’m pretty sure they ran two episodes, back-to-back.  So, that took care of about an hour of entertainment.  The rest is a blur of football games, hide-and-seek, swimming at Marty’s, riding bikes, and just about anything else that would keep us from having to say, “I’m bored.”

I suppose it’s all those years of training, followed by “advanced” training in college, and then even more in the work environment.

Stay busy.

Keep moving.

There’s always something to be done.

Don’t be lazy.

If you aren’t busy, you better at least look busy.

Where’s your work ethic?

Aren’t you dedicated to this cause?

Focus on the task at hand!

Don’t be boring (even worse than being bored)!

Somewhere along the way, a lack of movement, or a completed task list, started to equate with the dreaded “b” word.  Somehow, a lack of movement turned into an example of laziness.

Is it even possible to do nothing and be at peace with it?  Or, do we have to tell ourselves that this momentary lack of movement is just a quick break before returning to another of life’s endless tasks?

When did doing nothing go from being a peaceful state to one of guilty boredom…or worse, an example of our laziness?  When did life become a task list?

The next time I’m faced with the challenge of doing absolutely nothing, I hereby promise myself that I won’t be bored (or guilty about my laziness).

I will enjoy the peace of that moment with gratitude.

What’s next? (just kidding)

 

Speedometers Steal Speed

“The cheetah is the fastest animal on earth.  It can reach speeds of up to 65 miles per hour as it pursues its prey.  Just look at its awesome speed, as it chases down that gazelle!” – Every Nature Program about Cheetahs

Do you think the cheetah has any idea how fast he’s going?

What about an eagle as it dives through the air to reach its prey?

Does the pelican think about his speed as he dives into the water to catch dinner?

Does the pole vaulter know how fast she’s running just before her jump?

What about the downhill mountain bike racer?

The answers to these questions are obvious.  For each to be effective, none are looking at a speedometer to determine their next move.  They aren’t referring to some magical heads-up-display to tell them how they’re doing.

In their critical moment, no measurements or brilliant strategic insights will impact the outcome.  They will succeed or fail based solely on how they perform, in the next moment.

The moment is all that matters.

Speedometers don’t make speed.  They provide external feedback and nothing else.

How often are you slowing down to check your speedometer, instead of focusing on your next critical moment?

Truth is, your moment is all that matters.  There’s plenty of time for feedback later when it’s not stealing your speed.

Microwaves and Slow Cookers

I recently heard someone make reference to their art not being microwaved.  Their art is the kind that comes from a slow-cooker.

An interesting concept.

The food (or drink) that we place in a microwave is already mostly prepared.  We aren’t interested in the process.  We just want it to be hot, and we’ve relied on someone else to handle the actual work of preparation.

With the slow cooker, it’s up to us.  We choose the ingredients.  We do the preparation.  Separately, the ingredients just sit there…waiting to be part of something.  But, blended properly, with the right amount of time and heat (energy), those separate ingredients (hopefully) combine to create something unique and tasty.

The microwave measures its cooking time in 30-second increments.  Hot dogs wrapped in a damp napkin take about a minute.  Popcorn takes three to four minutes.  Organic brown rice from Trader Joe’s takes four minutes.

Slow-cooking time is measured in hours.  Six hours is usually too short.  Eight to ten hours gets it right.

And, what about the accompaniments?  With a microwave cooking cycle, there’s only time to get your plate ready, find a clean fork, and maybe pour a glass of your favorite beverage.  Linear and task-focused.

Slow-cooking provides time for the cook to consider what goes best with the main dish.  What shall we have for dessert?  Would a loaf of fresh French bread go well with this stew?  The fullness of the dining experience is in play.

Neither method is perfect.

Ever burn popcorn in the microwave?  If so, you know how quickly it can happen.  Something so simple becomes a lump of smoking charcoal.

Slow-cooking disasters are equally possible.  Your reward for that ten-hour wait may be something that’s not even edible (at least for anyone who has taste buds).

Both methods have their place.  Both carry risk.

The question is how are you deciding which parts of your life to microwave, and which parts to slow-cook?

A tougher question might be:  Are you making the choice, or allowing someone else to make the choice for you?

Beware of the Edge

sitting-at-the-edge-of-a-cliff

I recently heard about a sign at the top of Mount Vesuvius.  It reads, “Beware of the edge.”

That’s the only safety precaution in the area.  No guardrails.  Just a sign.

I can hear it now:

“Your honor, I submit that my client had no idea he could plummet to his death by stepping over the edge of that volcano.  If only there’d been a guardrail to prevent his untimely death.”

Or,

“Your honor, we acknowledge that there was a sign that said, “Beware of the edge,” but my client must have thought he was safe as long as he stayed inside the guardrails.  Since there were no guardrails on the mountain, he was clearly misled into a false sense of safety and security…just before his fall.”

How many of us really need a sign, or a guardrail, to tell us to stay away from the edge?  Can’t we see the danger on our own, without the sign?

The truth is, probably not.

Why not?

Simple.  The edge is where the action is.  We know it’s dangerous.  We know our mind will play an imaginary leap that only our subconscious sees when we look over the edge.  We secretly like the butterflies we get in our stomach.

The edge brings sharp focus.  It’s where our imagination is most alive!

Sometimes, the edge represents the end of a long journey.  A challenging climb.  Our view over the edge reminds us of the distance we’ve traveled.  The work we’ve put in to get there.

The edge is like the proverbial flame that draws the moth.  The edge reminds us of how fragile our life is.  One step away from real danger.

How do we approach the edge, and take in its energy, while avoiding the danger that lurks just one step beyond?

It’s a question we each have to answer for ourselves.

But, here’s hoping we don’t discover the answer as we tumble over the edge.

Yo Ho, Yo Ho, A Pirate’s Life for Me!

Disneyland-POTC_sign

If you’re like me, you know the only way to turn at the end of Main Street USA is left.  Left, toward Adventureland, and New Orleans Square.  Sure, you could go for one of the “speed” rides like Space Mountain over in Tomorrowland.  Buzz Lightyear (Astro Blasters) is a good one.  Or, maybe Thunder Mountain.  The Matterhorn is re-opened, if you like to have your spine compressed (not sure why they didn’t fix that problem during the most recent refresh).

But, the best rides are definitely in Adventureland.  The Jungle Cruise, Indiana Jones, Pirates of the Caribbean, and the Haunted Mansion.  Don’t even get me started on how awesome Tom Sawyer’s Island is.

The Jungle Cruise is all about the puns.  Indiana Jones is (mild) sensory overload and a neat cave walk to and from the ride.  The Haunted Mansion is a cross between Tim Burton’s vision of the world, and old school special effects that are still cool.

The best of all is Pirates!

First you’re in a New Orleans bayou.  Crickets are chirping, a few frogs are croaking quietly, and fireflies dart about.  It’s dark, quiet, and lazy.  The swamp guy sits on his porch, smoking a corn cob pipe.  The sound of slow banjo picking comes from his house.  Do swamp guys have CD’s?  Electricity?  Does he have a banjo-playing friend in the house?  Then, total darkness, a quick drop, and we enter a pirate’s lair.  It’s clearly seen better days.  Tons of treasure gather dust and cob webs.

I’ve never known what a New Orleans bayou has to do with being in a pirate’s lair, but over the years, I’ve learned it doesn’t matter.  “Dead men tell no tales!”  Just as you figure out that all the riches and treasures in the world didn’t do these dead pirates any favors, a foggy curtain projects an apparition of Davy Jones, warning us about the cursed lives of pirates.  Our boat ignores the warning and carries us into this cursed world.

We enter a pitched battle between a pirate ship with cannons blazing, and the shore defenses firing back.  It’s a desperate battle with explosions and lots of yelling.  Somehow the shots never hit anything vital, or do they?  The battle rages on, but we pass safely under the line of fire.

The harbor comes into view.  Not just any harbor, but a “Yo Ho, Yo Ho, a pirate’s life for me,” harbor from long ago.  Pirates are drinking and singing.  Some of the less fortunate are dunked endlessly in a well.  A vain search for Captain Jack Sparrow.  Others are sold as brides.  We see drunk pirates singing to themselves and no one in particular, scheming ways to find more treasure.

The scene shifts again to a prison where the only hope of escape lies in convincing a dog to give up the keys.  The dog never budges, but always looks like he might.  Hopefulness mixed with despair.  If only the prisoners would realize that their only salvation is to find a new strategy, a new direction.  Of course, they never make this connection.  We slowly pass under a collapsing ceiling, and back into the harbor.

The town is ablaze, but nobody cares.  We know the flames spell disaster, but that’s lost on everyone in the scene.  They continue to drink, sing, and chase each other in a search for the next moment.  Some fire randomly across the water at their friends.  “Yo Ho, Yo Ho, a pirate’s life for me!”

The dichotomy of the celebratory singing and the evil that humans do to one another isn’t the point…or, maybe it is.  All the while, our boat floats lazily through the scene.

We begin our slow climb out of this cursed world as Jack Sparrow tell us to, “Drink up you laddies!  Yo Ho!”

What makes this ride so popular?  Definitely not the speed.  Is it the “escape” into another world?  Maybe.  But, is it really an escape?

Each of us can relate to being the pirate.  We’ve been dunked in the proverbial well…sometimes we do the dunking.  We’ve fired aimlessly at our enemies (and our friends) at one time or another.  Oblivious to the pain we may cause.  We’ve focused solely on the now.  Ignored the future.  We’ve looked for treasure.  Maybe we’ve found it…and yet, our search continues.

Are we nothing more than passengers on the boat, passing lazily through the scenes of life, yet never connecting to any of it?  Hopefully not.

A pirate’s life, indeed.  Time to get in line for the next ride!

 

Things I Learned in China

If my count is correct, I’ve visited seventeen countries, so far.  There’s no better way to learn about a country than being on the ground in that country.  First-hand knowledge cuts away the spin, partial news coverage, opinion, conjecture, half-truths, urban legend, and other forms of information we carry as “truth” about our fellow travelers on this planet.

Visiting foreign countries is also an exercise in adjustment.  There’s jetlag, and the obvious language barriers to overcome (even in countries with English as their official language).  There are differing customs, different transportation rules and systems, differing levels of sanitation, new foods, new spices, hardly any ice (what’s up with that?), and living conditions that range from squalor to opulence.

Each country has its own rich history.  The local people we’ve met are proud of their country and their way of life.  They’re always curious about how we live in the US, our customs, our landmarks, our system of government.  They, like us, have a sprinkling of knowledge about the world outside of their country and are eager to gain a deeper understanding through their visitors’ perspectives.

Our China trip is what I’d call the “TV highlights tour.”  If you were to queue a video montage of famous cities and landmarks in China, our tour hit many of them:  In Beijing, we visited The Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, Lama Temple, The Great Wall, and the Olympic National Stadium (Bird’s Nest).  In Xi’an, we visited The Terra Cotta Warriors, and The (leaning) Wild Goose Pagoda.  In Shanghai, we visited The Bund (waterfront), The Shanghai Museum, and Nanjing Road.  We also took a river cruise on the Huang Po River that runs through Shanghai.  We rounded out our tour with a road trip to Suzhou (the “Venice of the Orient”).  We attended some dinner shows, featuring traditional music and dance, and incredible acrobatics.

China’s airports are awesome.  I dreaded the idea of taking two in-country flights in a seven-day period.  That wouldn’t be a picnic in the US, and I assumed (incorrectly) that it would be worse in China.  The customs process, the flight and baggage check-in, and the baggage claim processes were incredibly efficient.  Shanghai has two airports.  We flew into one, and out the other.  Both were huge, efficient, and well-planned.  It probably helps that all the airports we visited were built within the last 15 years, so they have all the latest design and technology concepts built-in.

We have over 400 photos and a couple hours of video, showing nearly every angle of the places we visited.  The lessons from our China trip run much deeper than what’s captured in our photos.

The massive urbanization that has occurred in China over the past twenty years is amazing.  Nearly 400 million people have moved from the countryside and into cities across China (that’s about 80 million more people than we have in the US).  Billions of square feet of real estate, massive new roadways, tunnels, bridges, railway systems, subway systems, sewer systems, electricity generation, and all the other infrastructure required to support this massive migration have been developed over the past two decades.  More accurately, all of it is still a work-in-process, since the migration continues.

In each city, the skyline is filled with skyscrapers and tower cranes.  I stopped counting tower cranes at about 50 (on our first day in China).  Everywhere we looked, commercial or residential skyscrapers were under construction.  Single-family houses are a rare sight, something we only saw in a small section of Shanghai.  People live mostly in high-rise apartment buildings.  “Pods” of 25 high-rise apartment buildings, spanning many city blocks, are common.  Imagine the entire Los Angeles basin filled with 30-plus-story buildings, instead of just the skyscrapers in the downtown section, and you start to get an idea of how massively sprawling Beijing, Shanghai, and even Xi’an are.

Some statistics may help illustrate just how massive China’s cities are.  The total population in China is 1.35 billion.  The total population in the US is 317.5 million.  The population in Beijing is about 21 million; Shanghai, 23 million; Xi’an, 9 million.  The population in New York, NY is 8.4 million; Los Angeles, 4 million; Chicago, 2.8 million.  One other interesting statistic:  there are more people in China who speak English than there are in the US.

Our guides in each city told us about the huge growth of their cities, and the dramatic improvements in the standard of living across China.  Their apartments average 500-700 square feet.  Our guide in Xi’an talked about how her first apartment, in 1990, didn’t have a bathroom or a kitchen, and yet she and her husband found a way to raise their new son in that environment.  Now she and her husband, and their 24-year old son, live in a 1,000 square foot, 3-bedroom apartment, with two bathrooms.  She beamed with pride while describing such a luxurious apartment and said that she hopes her son will be able to keep living there after she and her husband die.

The government owns all land in China.  Long-term leases allow people to make use of the land.  The lease duration is dependent upon the type of use.  For instance, for urban residential real estate development, lease durations of 75 years are available.  This allows a developer to build a residential apartment building, and then rent or sell the units to private parties.

Citizens used to get annual vouchers strictly allocating the amount of meat, butter, and other products they could buy per year.  Goods and services can now be purchased without government vouchers.  China’s huge economic growth makes goods and services much more readily available to its population.  The only requirement is having enough money to make the purchases.

Car license plates are rewarded by lottery.  If you are lucky enough to win the lottery, you then pay the fee (in the thousands of dollars) for the license plate.  Once you have the license plate, you can shop for a car.  A Canadian ex-pat in Shanghai told us there is a healthy black market for license plates, and that it isn’t uncommon for the plate to be as expensive as the car itself.

March, 2014 is a happy time across China.  The one-child policy that has been the law of the land since about 1979, is being softened.  Violating the one-child policy brings heavy fines to the parents, equaling about 2 ½ times their annual salary.  With the new, softer policy, if you or your spouse are only-children in your parent’s family, you can apply to have a second child, 3-4 years after your first child is born.

We heard consistently about one of the many unintended consequences of the one-child policy.  Consider that each child has two parents, and two sets of grandparents who make that one child the center of their universe.  That one child carries the hopes and dreams of their parents, and their grandparents.  With no siblings and very few (if any) cousins, sharing isn’t part of the child’s upbringing.  Spoiled, un-sharing children is the result, and represents the newest generation of young adults in China.

Ironic that a Communist system that purports to be about fully-shared (communal) ownership created a new generation of citizens who have little experience sharing anything, communally or otherwise.

On our first full day in Beijing, we visited Tiananmen Square.  Our guide pointed out that Tiananmen Square is similar to The Mall in Washington, D.C.  It’s where their government officials from around the country meet for two weeks each year.  The square has numerous monuments to the history of new China (since Chairman Mao rose to power in 1949).

As we prepared to exit the bus, our guide’s voice changed tone.  She told us that there are cameras and listening devices everywhere in the square, and that many of the tourists we’d see are actually undercover police or government officials.  She asked us not to ask her where the tank was, or about the protest that took place there.  She officially doesn’t know anything about the protests.  She only knows about it from tourists like us, talking about what happened in 1989.

It’s true.  There are monuments and flags in Tiananmen Square, similar to our Mall in Washington, D.C.  But, that’s where the similarities stop.  As I looked at the monuments, mostly depicting Chairman Mao and the government’s control over the people of China, I couldn’t help contrast that theme to the theme of the monuments in Washington.

We have monuments to many of our Founders as well.  Each monument is not only a tribute to the person, but to a belief system that our greatness comes from freedom and liberty.  Ours is a government of the people, by the people, for the people…not a government whose greatness comes from its control over the governed.  Tiananmen Square is vast, treeless, and austere.  One can’t help but feel insignificant in comparison to the government buildings surrounding the square.

We asked about traveling outside of China.  Two of our three guides had done so.  Both had traveled to the US.  They aren’t allowed to travel with their family.  At least one family member must remain in China while the other is traveling abroad.  They are required to put about $15,000 in an escrow account prior to leaving China.  The funds are returned when the traveler returns.  They are warned that if they choose to remain in another country, their family members will be punished financially, and could lose their jobs.     

I learned quickly what it means to use a restricted and censored internet.  Email worked, but FaceBook, Twitter, YouTube, and Google are all heavily restricted, especially if accessed via a Wi-Fi connection.  I found that if I randomly flipped my phone out of airplane mode while in the cities, FaceBook would “work” about half the time.  I had 90 seconds to post an update or a quick photo.  Then, it would stop working.  Apparently, 90 seconds is the amount of time it took for the censoring protocol to find my phone and shut down the app’s update capability.

China is amazing.  The sheer scale of their development over the past two or three decades is unbelievable.  The people are warm and friendly (as long as they aren’t driving a car, motor scooter or bicycle where you’re trying to walk…pedestrians apparently do not have the right of way, even if your light is green).  The locals we met have the same hopes and dreams for their future that we do.  They want to have a rewarding job, enjoy their life, spend time with their families, and see their children (child) have a better life than they’ve had.

I’ve never visited a country that lacks most of the basic freedoms I take for granted.  China has rapidly “westernized” their economy and their culture, on the surface.  However, they are fundamentally walking a tightrope between the freedoms required to drive their economic growth, and the strict controls and structures of a Communist state.

I can’t help wondering what China will look like twenty years from now.  Will their urbanization continue at the same pace?  What will the “softer” one-child policy mean for the next generation of Chinese?  Will the quasi-freedoms associated with capitalist economic expansion propel the country toward real freedom in the future?  Can China continue to operate one way on the surface, while controlling its population with a velvet-covered fist, beneath that surface?

These questions about China’s future make me think of similar questions for the US.  What will we look like twenty or thirty years from now?  Will we enjoy the same freedoms and liberties that we have today?

Full story of Tank Man from a PBS FrontLine episode in 2006:  http://youtu.be/HNtA8RZ1FAA

No travelogue would be complete without some photos:

Tiananmen_Monument

mao_photo

Tiananmen Square

Great_Wall

Great_Wall_Selfie

The Great Wall

Beijing_Hotel_View

View from our hotel in Beijing

Terra_Cotta_Warriors

Terra Cotta Warriors

Bund_Panorama

Panorama of the Shanghai Waterfront (The Bund)

Old_New

Old and New in Shanghai (second tallest building in the world nearly completed)

Venice_Orient

Suzhou (Venice of the Orient)…branding is a little ahead of reality