September Chaos

I can't believe how much havoc a simple cold can wreak with one's daily life. It's been three weeks now that the whole household has been suffering from a particularly virulent head cold. R, Z, N and I have been sludging our way through each day, hanging on until we can fall into bed again at the end of it. Pretty pathetic, eh? I started on an antibiotic 5 days ago for a secondary infection; yesterday was my first really good day. Z obtained antibiotics yesterday, so she's hoping for relief in another couple of days.

And so it goes. Hence the loooong gaps twixt posts.
I only managed one mandala again this past week, but I really like it. I based it on another of Julie Keefe's designs. It was very satisfying. I must write to thank her for her Mandala Mondays, as lately I have not had the oomph to do more than color in someone else's designs.
Reading has been my salvation, and I stayed up far later than was good for me two nights in a row reading Paul Carter's memoir, Don't Tell Mum I work on the Rigs - She Thinks I'm a Piano Player in a Whorehouse. As he explains in a great video clip you can watch here, the title is a phrase from the 1960s, when working on an oil rig was even more dangerous than it is today, and the men who worked the rigs were accordingly even rougher than those he works with. Thus the notion that the piano playing job is more respectable than working on an oil rig.

I'm not sure that I'd want Paul Carter as a next-door neighbor - I certainly wouldn't want him as a steady influence in N's life (she's a plenty tough nut at age 7 as it is!) - but he's a pretty interesting guy, and his sense of humor is just twisted enough to make the book total escapist fare. He's also extremely intelligent, and I appreciate his take on the oil industry:

"To summarize my political opinions about oil, greed and the environment, both then and now:
-I firmly believe that when politicians aren't kissing babies they're stealing their lollipops.
-There is no oil in schoolchildren.
-Everyone in oil is a lying weasel . . . except me."

The book is not, however, a polemic against the oil industry. It's part memoir, part travelogue, part anthropological study, and just a rowdy, bawdy romp through the oil rig subculture, something completely new to me. From a bar-tending orangutan to a feud with a Brit-hating Frenchman, Carter's stories are all equally engaging. Carter doesn't have a particular gift for writing, but he's a good story-teller, with all that implies. He turns a nice phrase, too: my favorite is his comment about China, which was my experience in Taiwan when we lived there in the late 1980s, although it was not as true when we were there in 2000:

"The only thing I couldn't get used to in China was the gobbing. Everyone, and I mean everyone, hacks up a big ball of phlegm and spits it out on the street, every five minutes. Women, children, babies, monks, doddery old people who look like the next big gob could kill them - everyone has a good gob, all the time.
"Perhaps the answer to China's economic problems lies not in oil and gas exploration, but in utilizing its other natural resource: spit. It's a lot cheaper to find than hydrocarbons, all you have to do is set up millions of giant spittoons and find a way to convert the spit into some sort of industrial lubricant. They could spend the money on driving lessons for everyone, because when the locals aren't gobbing all over the place they are driving around like Stevie Wonder. (In China I came frighteningly close to getting flattened by anything from kids on rollerskates to rickshaws and semis, but that's possibly because I was too busy trying not to step in all the gobs.)"

Okay, so it sounds like Dave Barry guest appearing on South Park, but having BTDT, I had to admit that it was only slightly exaggerated.

Z & I have noticed that there's rather a lot of gobbing going on on our campus, actually. It's not a phenomenon restricted to one part of the world, alas.

Looking for something to follow up with, I picked up the Jo Soares novel off my shelf. Not sure whether I'd gotten it from a used book sale, or pbs, or where, but it felt like the right time to read it. What a hoot! Twelve Fingers: Biography of an Anarchist reminds me a bit of Woody Allen's movie "Zelig," in which Allen takes footage from old newsreels and cuts his hero, Zelig (played by Allen himself) into them, showing Zelig with Nixon, Woodrow Wilson and other real people. It also, however, reminded me of Lemony Snicket's author portraits, which always show Snicket walking out of the picture, or completely in shadow. The book features photographs of famous people "with" Dimitri, the 12-fingered, would-be assassin, but Dimitri is almost completely cut out of the picture so that only one arm is visible; or he has "just stepped out to obtain another bottle of wine"; or in one photo, only the legs are showing because the camera was wielded by a dwarf.
The humor is both understated and slapstick, if that makes any sense. It is a very funny book. Inspector Clouseau could not have been more of a klutz than Dimitri. I don't want to give anything away, so I will leave it at that.

Got to run - so many errands, so little gas. Oh - do click on the title of the post - it'll take you to a really good blog by someone else. But don't stop reading mine, please.



Not Nearly Enough

I just finished Peter Carey's delightful Wrong About Japan, and to my dismay, there wasn't nearly enough of it! It's a great companion to Learning to Bow, and in fact I'm having Z read both of them. I'll be interested to see which she enjoys more; I'm betting on Carey's book simply because she's such a mangaphile, but I think the style of Feiler's will appeal to her more.
Anyway, Carey's book is about his brief trip to Tokyo with his 12-year-old son. Their goal: to discover the "real" Japan - not ancient wonders, but the world of anime, manga and robots. Thanks to Z, I actually knew a lot of the people, films, books and concepts described, which was a good thing because Carey takes his subject at a dead run and there's not much time for introductions. I think a rudimentary familiarity with the subculture is helpful in reading this book; some idea of "Gundam Wing" and Hiyao Miyazaki, at the very least.

The interplay between Carey and his son is the dynamic of the book, and it is lovely. As Carey learns how wrong his assumptions about Japan are, he also learns more about his son and his son's generation. Where the otaku and the visualist fit in, not only to the Japanese world but to his son's world, start to make sense to Carey and to the reader. I am sorry that I read the book as quickly as I did; it was an extremely enjoyable experience and I wish it had lasted longer. And now I want to look up more about the cultural phenomena described therein.

R & I went this evening to a lovely interfaith dinner held by the Lehigh Dialogue Center, an organization founded by Turkish Muslims. As we waited at the door in a crowd milling around, a family introduced themselves and told us, with great amusement, that their presence had been requested because the organization had desired "a Turk at every table" in order to keep things well mixed. A chicken in every pot, a Turk at every table . . . . It was the organization's fifth annual Iftar dinner, Iftar being fast-breaking, and this being Ramadan. They invited the entire Lehigh Valley community, asking only that people RSVP, and over 300 people responded.

We sat with two women who had seen the invitation in the newspaper, and a couple from Bethlehem who belong to one of the local mosques. Our table was, alas, Turk-free, but the Hijazes were fine company despite being originally from Beirut rather than Istanbul. I took along the iPod that the IT fellow at the college had loaned me for playing around with, and tested it out - I won't do anything with the recording, as I did not ask permission to record, but I will learn to edit with it tomorrow. The purpose of that was to mess around with the iPod in order to be able to use it when I have guest speakers in my classes.

I do have a pseudo-mandala to show for this week. At Dick Blick's sale I found a medium for acrylic paint that turns it into fabric paint! I tested it on a piece of old t-shirt. After it dried, I ironed it for 4 minutes as per the instructions, then threw it in the washing machine & then the dryer. What you see here is the final result of all of that. No color loss, and it's nice and soft, unlike most fabric paint, which tends to be stiff.
So, now that I know it works well, I need to decide what I'm going to do with the stuff! T-shirts are the obvious thing that comes to mind (and both N&Z have already requested some), but surely there are other good applications. Any suggestions? Or requests?

OH: the four of us watched "The Last Mimsy" yesterday. Fun! And mandalas! N was especially excited about that part of it. R appreciated the Lewis Carroll angle, and found the original story online. I'm looking forward to reading it . . . .



What Is SCAD?

Curious about where C is right now? Click on the above link, and it will take you to the SCAD website. That's where he is, trying to get used to everything being verrry sloooow, in gentle deep-south southern fashion, which right now is driving my NewYorkCity-loving son crazy. Culture shock, indeed.
It took me two days because of interruptions, but I got another mandala done, another of Julie Keefe's lovely Mandala Mondays designs. Do visit her site & try one out! My coloring is nothing particularly spectacular, but as always, the point was in the doing, and the doing felt good! Very gradually, life is beginning to take on some semblance of balance and routine, as new classes and extra-curricular activities kick in, and the girls get used to their schedules, teachers, new surroundings and so on. I'm spending much more time in the car, but a lot of it is by myself one way, which allows me to select my own listening material, and that makes a big difference. I'll be posting reviews of audio books in the coming months, I think!

I do have a couple of books to talk about today. One is a brilliant children's book that no one should miss - 17 Things I'm Not Allowed to Do Any More by Jenny Offill, with pictures by Nancy Carpenter. Anyone who's ever been a kid should read this book. I'm serious. It's brilliant (okay, I already said that, but I mean it!). And if Ms. Offill based the
part about the beaver report on an actual experience, that teacher should be drawn & quartered. (Well, she got partial revenge - he certainly was drawn, and not very kindly, either!)
Go find this book in your library - that's where we got it. And we renewed it. And then we kept it an extra week, after taking it down to Virginia to share with N's fairy godmother, who also needed to read it. Better yet, cut Ms. Offill and Ms. Carpenter a break & buy a copy so they'll get a bit of money from all their brilliance!

Bruce Feiler, author of Abraham (which I read with great pleasure) and Walking the Bible (which I haven't yet read, but plan to), began his writing career with a wonderful book based on his year-long experience teaching English in Japan. Learning to Bow may be the most utterly satisfying book I've read all year - and if you are one of the two or three people who've been reading my blog, you'll know that I've read some pretty darned good books so far this year, so that's high praise indeed.
Feiler's experiences in Japan were very similar to my own experiences in Taiwan, with of course the obvious difference in locale. His insights into all aspects of Japanese culture, how the culture and history impact the education system and how modern Japanese educational philosophy is affecting the course of current Japanese society, make for good reading whether you're interested in education, travel, business or just your fellow human beings.

The book came out in 1991 - hey Bruce, I think it's time for you to go back & write us an updated version that includes some of the latest phenomena, most particularly students (and others) meeting in chat rooms to arrange suicides. Where does that fit into the picture?!

One of the things Feiler mentions with concern is how little downtime students - and adults - in Japan have. In fact, from the time one begins school until the time one retires, the sole exception to this is college, which is mostly play-time for Japanese students. I thought of this just this afternoon when I picked up N after school. She had begged me to sign her up for a textile-art-for-kids class at the Baum School this fall, which entails grabbing her right as school lets out & driving half an hour to the school to get there in time for it to begin.

She was excited about it this morning when she left for the bus, but when I picked her up, she was tired & cranky. "I don't wanna go, Mom!" she pouted. "But, Honey, we paid for it and they're expecting you, so let's go see what it's like. If you don't like it, you don't have to go back," I promised.

By the time we had battled our way through the traffic, she'd polished off her snack & drink and listened to more of Brian Jacques' Redwall on tape, but was no happier about the class. As I parked, she burst out, "I had school ALL DAY!!! I don't want to sit and listen to a teacher any more, I just want to go home!"

We were there, and parked, so we went in & met the teacher. The project was cool, and the teacher was nice, but N went into meltdown mode. She sat on the floor & refused to say a word. Tears coursed silently down her cheeks, but an angry frown made her look scary rather than pathetic.

I explained to the teacher that it was just going to be too much for N, with the long day and then the long drive, and apologized. Only three children had signed up & it looked as if the class would be canceled anyway, so this would be the only day they'd be holding it. N thunder-clouded her way back down the stairs, and we drove home. Once we got home, she got out her math homework & whipped through it happily in less than 3 minutes (her idea) and then went to play with her guinea pigs.

As of today, she only has one after-school activity: acrobatics. She'll come home on the bus and have 40 minutes at home before we have to drive 5 minutes to her lesson, during which she'll jump all over the place - no sitting & listening. And I think that will be enough for this year, no matter how many other things she asks to join.



I'm a Helicopter

According to the description in the above article, I am definitely a "helicopter parent" - that is, I hover over my kids. Heaven knows, I've been trying not to, but it's just the way I am. And as a result, this past week has really been tough for me, as C has been preparing to leave for Savannah.

Oh, sure, it helped a lot that he spent all of July in New York City. That was a dry run for all of us, C included. But one of the things that those of us at home learned was that he doesn't often feel much of a need to communicate with us often, so we know what to expect once he's down south. Sigh.

So - not much time this week for mandalas, what with gathering things for C's dorm room, helping Z get her school year started, and N still on her last week of summer vacation. I did find the time for one the other day, gel pen on vellum, which I titled "Morning Energy" because that's what it gave me as I worked it:
I don't expect to have much time until next weekend to make more, but after that things should settle down to a dull roar, I hope.

I have, however, finished three books recently. The first and most notable is Erik Larson's Thunderstruck.
What did Marconi's invention of the radio and Crippen's brutal crime have to do with each other? Actually there is a significant historical link. With remarkable, painstaking research, Larson weaves the many strands of these two stories, until, slowly but surely, they form one whole picture of a period about which I had previously known very little.

This is an amazing work. In places it is a bit heavy-going, but I found my time well spent, as Larson has a reason for every minute detail he includes. The race to perfect wireless communication makes for a fascinating read; and after the few hints about him, I am anxious to read a biography of Tesla.

I think you need to have some interest in the history of science & technology to fully appreciate the book, but if you do, you will find it great entertainment indeed.
This is the second in the Mobile Library series, and it's every bit as wonderful as The Case of the Missing Books, the first of Ian Sansom's marvelous books about Israel Armstrong. Poor Israel - he arrives in Tumdrum, Ireland, and first he discovers that all of the books in his library have gone AWOL and that his first job is to find them all. Now in this second book, he is accused of robbing and kidnapping the head of the local department store, and in order to clear his name, he sets out to find Mr. Dixon himself.

All I can say is that these books are brilliantly funny, and that anyone who doesn't fall a little bit in love with Israel Armstrong must be an old grouch.
I had mixed feelings about Ron Hansen's Mariette in Ecstasy. I expected to love it, and instead I found the style choppy and annoying after a while. I understand the reason he wrote it that way - it is divided according to days and periods of convent time, as it is set in a convent in 1906. But after about 40 pages, the style grated on my nerves.

The book does, however, contain one of the most beautiful descriptions of a mystical experience that I have ever come across. It is almost impossible to describe something like that in words - the mystical is, by nature, ineffable. And Hansen's ability to write as a 17-year-old postulant is quite admirable. But.

I've just started Paolo Coelho's The Devil and Miss Prym. I teach at 8 tomorrow morning, after getting N ready for her first day of first grade. I think I will retire with the Coelho now.