Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Of all the Places...

One might think that one must go to a major city, or even a minor city to get some really unusual cultural experience, however, one might occasionally be wrong about that thanks to serendipity and a really persistent Cultural Art Center director, thanks to whom I was able to enjoy a weekend of Chinese calligraphy taught by an esteemed professor from Nanjing who is also one of the most highly regarded calligraphers in Mainland China. (I wonder if that is a full sentence?)

Thanks to Karen at the MACC on Signal Mountain (claimed population of about 9,000) about 20 people were able to take an austere and wonderful 2 day vacation playing with brush pen, ink and paper. This event also allowed your’s truly to speak more Chinese than I have for years. Heaven on Earth for me.

Professor Zhou from the University of Nanjing, China ran this two-day seminar with the help and several wonderful translators. His English was only a little better than my Chinese but he was so earnest and charming and gentle, as well as totally puzzled by us Americans that the class had a sweet, soft, humorous tone. He brought us each the gift of an ink-stone, a ‘pen’ (brush), ink and practice paper. The brushes were engraved with the event of “Dr. Zhou, Tennessee, 2006” on them in old-style script. It was funny to see how moved we all were from these objects even though the translator kept saying,
“Dr. Zhou says to shake up the ink, it may have been on a shelf for a while!”

Having some knowledge of Chinese classroom etiquette I could see a little of what we were like in Dr. Zhou’s eyes. We were able to sit still for a whole 10 minutes of lecture on the ‘4 treasures’, pen technique and history before almost everyone started playing with the ‘4 treasures’ like 2 year olds. Finally he gave up the lecture and said,
“Ah, how would you like to work now?”
(as we opened our ink anyway)
“Americans are doing people, I see that.”
(as we sloshed some into the ink-stones)
“We can learn some history later”
(as we looked, puzzled, at our brushes, stiff with glue from the factory)
“Ok, ok let me show you how to soften the brushes…!” (panic)
(as we prepared to break the bristles off)

We tried to be as polite as possible, Southern American style, however we looked more like an untamed rabble and that is probably as polite as possible. We were quite a contrast, he, in his formal dark mandarin collar suit and us in our sweat, T-, tie-dye shirts and jeans. Once everyone settled down, though, and stopped sniffing their ink, everything was butterflies and bunnies, or mao bi and shuan. (Brush pen and rice paper) (I have no idea how to say bunnies and butterflies)

We began to practice strokes and fill the paper at an alarming rate unheard of in a Chinese writing class. Dr. Zhou had to show us repeatedly that it was not speed but art that timed the stroke and after about 10 pages we got the point and slowed down. We then sat in a freezing lecture hall (they don’t turn on the heat in the building on weekends) for an amazing tour through the history of Chinese calligraphy. Both the translator and Dr. Zhou would punctuate the lecture with comments like;
“I really like this guy’s style,”
The ‘guy’ being an ancient scholar 1000 years dead.
For some great examples of ancient script go to http://www.chinapage.org/callig1.html#han and click on some of the scholars.

We also saw some shots of Dr. Zhou’s son on a field trip to an ancient planetarium sight. Here was this adorable kid sitting on amazing historical stones and ancient architecture…eating Pringles.

On the first day we all went to lunch together at a Chinese restaurant on the Mountain. Someone asked Dr. Zhou if he liked the food, and after a long pause he answered that he liked American food very much, then whispered in Chinese,
“…This is not Chinese food…”

During this time he also discovered I learned Chinese in Boulder, Colorado and from then on told everyone I learned Chinese in Boulder, China. The translators and Dr. Zhou were very complimentary about my pronunciation and expressed great pleasure in that I, “Had speaking tones!” I was, of course, very flattered even if they were just being kind.

The class was so energizing and inspiring that I went home that evening and practiced before the next class. Both girls were fascinated by the process and we all spent a wonderful night making big black blotches on paper along with pictures and poems. Chinese calligraphy is a very compelling process perhaps because it has the weight of 5000 years of effort behind it.

The next day Dr. Zhou was greeted by a Daylight Savings Time deranged bunch of Americans armed again with brush pens and ink, who were working in silence when he arrived. I imagine he thought he must of tamed the circus. Five minutes later he introduced something new and whoa! Who let the dogs out!

During this class I had Robb bring the girls by since they had made pictures and practice calligraphy for Dr. Zhou. He seemed very, very moved by their efforts and was especially impressed with Ceili’s work, saying she was doing as well as students much older in China. Of course she had not only written Fire Dragon and Water Dragon in fine form but had also illustrated them with the dragons in question. Since the Dr. and I had previously discussed the possibility of marriage between our children he seemed very pleased by his future daughter-in-law. We explained this to Ceili who luckily took it with good humor and only a little suspicion.

After much attention and doting we all got back to work until a rumor spread like wildfire that we could actually buy some work of the Dr. Zhou right on

the spot. Again chaos reigned made even more so by Dr. Zhou pulling out a large brush, handmade, with bristles of rushes for large interesting works. We all gave it a good try and large paper with much ink splattering and happy dances.

In the end it seemed to be a mutually beneficial Mardi-Gras of cultural exchange, Dr. Zhou getting a close in intimate look at American excitement about learning something new, willingness and yes, that ‘doing’ thing. We had a terrific view of some of the treasures and values of China with a very fine and gentle ambassador of the best of a country that many people in the US have a very limited perception of.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

The Fun Has Just Begun

To celebrate Halloween, which seems to be a much bigger holiday than many of the major holidays throughout the US, we make our yearly trip to store X to buy some face makeup. This replaces last year’s, which has been used regularly because everyday is Halloween in our house. So today, after carefully applying the morning’s make-up, the girls came home from school and asked if they can apply more grease paint over the already large amount of purple and black. (One girl is a demon cat the other is a purple and black witch.) Our six-year-old is especially fond of face-paint, which eventually becomes body paint, then wall paint, then floor paint.

“Mommy? Do you know what a Goth is? Well, I’m a Goth princess, you know, Goths are very pale. Actually I’m half Goth princes and half normal princess. The normal princess side is pink skin and the Goth side has a darker eye.”

Her wedding dress is a big purple t-shirt and underwear since this leaves more skin to decorate. She has drawn Raggedy Anne cheeks and some scars.

I’m to wait in the waiting room because today is the Goth/princess’s wedding. She is marrying a prince who is from here, but far away in the mountains. The princess is talking to herself, sighing that that darn prince is going to take her far from here. Now she is singing a loud refrain of “Great green globs of greasy grimy gopher guts…” If you don’t have the reference you obviously never attended public school. Apparently marriage and gopher-guts have somehow been equated. Hmmm who has she been talking to?

In our neighborhood, Halloween is a tasteful and arranged affair; everyone’s house is decorated with professionally designed displays that match the architecture and garden layout. Except ours. We’ve so far thrown some pumpkins on the front step and called it a day. We tried to hang some ghosts and skeletons but the dog barked and barked, and then, deciding they were friendly guests, tried to pee on them like he does with everyone who comes to the house. Ceili also hung some fake cob-webbing around. Unfortunately, you can’t tell its fake.

The neighborhood is sponsoring a Halloween party, complete with a cart on a small tractor to take the kids around to houses in the ‘hood to trick or treat. I’m sure everyone’s costume will be tasteful and match the architecture and landscape.

Pictures coming soon.

Halloween Southern Style

Halloween Southern Style

It was a warm and comfortable night. The breeze was blowing gently, moms with strollers strolled their small charges up and down the streets chatting socially. Crowds of parents with crowds of children greeted each other congenially. Children dressed in costumes with short sleeves and/or tights roamed with flying bags filled to the top with popcorn balls and candy. A gentle rain began to fall and a neighbor drove our whole group home. When the little purple witch and the demon cat came in they asked for a cold drink. Candy packages were tied with pretty ribbon over little bags. Welcome to Halloween in the South.

This is not the Halloween I grew up with, nor the one my children have experienced so far. MY Halloween was usually the day we could expect the first snow. We prayed for it, even though it would mean wearing a heavy coat over our costumes or bulking up underneath with long underwear. There were no fairy princesses in pink dresses and dress shoes. There were hippy hikers with fatigues and snow boots. There were strange plastic garbage bag clad monsters with down coats hidden by dark green. We looked forward to arriving home to hot chocolate and sitting around a table where we would carefully sort through our candy looking for suspicious open packages which my parents feared were injected with LSD.

There were neighbors of sketchy character, who truly made the trip a little bit creepier. Fathers and mothers tightly bundled in warm coats, their hands gloved, faces wrapped, held flashlights grudgingly. They prayed the kids would get tired quick, get tired NOW. Later in the night we could count on some of the neighborhood ‘bad kids’ coming around T-P ing and smashing pumpkins, upsetting the parents mightily and kind of freaking us kids out too. And this was the nice area of town.

In Seattle kids wore warm raingear and REI was the new black. Umbrellas were de’riguer and we mainly attended door-to-door affairs in the downtown of our little town with plenty of hot drinks and not a few sips from the pocket flask.

In Wisconsin my children dressed in scarves, hats and earmuffs and we pretty much ran from house to house before our feet became numb. We didn’t want to have to carry kids home, teeth chattering and red nosed with nasal secretions running down onto our shoulders. We were all Desperate Housewives, even the men. The candy was pretty solid on arrival and we had to thaw some of it before chewing. (Frozen 3-Musketeers are a delicacy.)

This Halloween was a full on weeklong celebration with one event after another. My children dressed up in full costume on three different occasions ending finally with the actual trick-or-treating, seemingly anticlimactic after a week and fun and frolic. Who needs candy corn when you’ve had cupcakes, cake and self-decorated cookies?

I put up our decorations the night of Halloween wearing a t-shirt and no shoes. We couldn’t put anything up earlier because the dog took constant offence at the strange figures on the walls and doors. Responsible big brothers came out last on the candy collection train. They had been responsibly handing out treats to the younger generation with good will and enthusiasm. This may have been the spookiest part of all.

I also learned of an odd custom the kids called Trunk-or-treating, a bunch of church members parking in the lot of their church handing out candy from the trunk of their car. I didn’t find out if the trunks were decorated, or if maybe they had a body in there ala’ the Mafia. Did they hand out the candy or make the kids dive for it? Did they park right next to each other or some distance apart so the kids had to work to get to the next car with obstacles so that getting the treats was actually tricky? Who came up with this? Doesn’t this seem a little…weird or unsafe?

Next they'll be telling me people can legally fire shotguns in unincorporated areas...oh wait...