Saturday, September 22, 2012

No Rose Scones For You (a few Shanghai Pics)

It seems that part of me would be completely satisfied with sleeping the entire weekend away, but lowwwww, how low would it feel to wake up only for work again? The second cup of tea (on top of the morning coffee, natch), plus a bit of couch laying hasn't mollified the would-be dormant. Could be Fall. Could also be a couple hours spent this morning, using the noxious Chartpak markers to hand color the "After the Snake, Before the Bite" prints I pulled a couple weeks ago. Also a thought -- the slow arrival of which would certainly support a nice chemical dumbing-down. In any case, here we are, in the cold air, a rainy Saturday perfect for Nick Drake and Jeff Buckley.

Life has begun to assume a familiar shape. Had a handful of sales at Etsy over the past couple weeks, which was heartening after a dry spell (well, mostly because I had to close the shop while I was in China). One excited customer bought the Destiny Llama print for a friend of hers, who has a llama farm on a mountain, "I can't wait to give it to her!" How rewarding to have one's prints chosen as that special something!

One of these things is not like the other.
Still, not everything has fallen back into place. I was at the hospital for a doctor's appointment this week (which, for a nice change did not snowball into additional appointments) and carefully fished around the Canadian dollars for quarters to hand the parking attendant. The woman looked through the coins before plunking one back in my hand, muttering, "I don't know what it is, but that ain't American." Not actually sure how the Yuan got into my coin purse, since I didn't take it to China, but that's kind of it in a nutshell: little things keep popping up. Maybe they're just nice reminders. I'm not going to profess to be profoundly changed for having finally left U.S. soil for a month, but there was also a certain amount of stepping-outside-of-one's self -- or at the least, one's life -- which has not yet settled back into everything else. I don't know how to talk about it more than that.

Well, let's get settled in, shall we?

This was the view from my apartment-within-a-hotel.
Before I started doing early morning work before heading into the office, I loved to begin the day by sitting in the window bay, looking out.

View from the kitchen.
I always intended to walk a few blocks over, so I could see the water at ground level. Didn't.

Since clothes dryers aren't really used, you'll see clothes hanging outside numerous residences
Barges large and small slowly drifted in and out of view.
Storms on the outskirts of a passing typhoon made everything but the near buildings disappear

While not technically legal, a strip of girlie bars faced the hotel. The X-TRA-SEE Bar!, The Happy Sisters, Blue Angel, Spicy Girl, and most unfortunately, The Naughty Beaver. Predictably, they were shut down during the day (or at least gave the appearance of being so), before coming to neon life each evening. A handful of bored women occasionally sat out front. For all the neon (which, every self-respecting business has a neon sign, no matter what it's selling), things remained quite on the outside. No drunken men careening across the street or being tossed out for poor behavior by burlier men.

Inside, the owner of the apartment was clearly keen on the POWER of DECALS. It was amusing and mystifying. One of my neighbors from home repeatedly urged to add more decals before leaving. While the idea held appeal, time flew by and my Chinese never advanced enough (read that: barely at all) to say, "Excuse me please, I am in need of decals. Where is your selection?"
I actually grew fond of the flowers above the desk, which was good because I woke up seeing them each morning.

a little waterscape.
Are decals more cheering or depressing atop ailing baseboards?
Bonus Snoopy and Woodstock beneath the bathroom sink.
While welcoming, the dogs did not help me to understand the vexing heating system panel.
The space was serviceable, and a five minute walk from the metro --with only two stops to get to work -- so it was perfectly located. Within the first week, I started hearing an electric saw, which I initially attributed to street construction. But no: it was actually on my hall. The sawing and nail pounding would have been aggravating, were it not for being extremely sporadic in the late evenings and weekends. SAW-SAW-SAW!!! The beginning was startling. But then, after a few minutes it would stop. And that would be it. Same with the nailing. What exactly were they doing? They seemed to be there throughout the entire month. Seemed liked the slowest work pace ever, judging by the noise. Occasionally I saw men wander by in dusty coveralls. To be fair, maybe they were whizzbang busy during the normal workday. It just seemed like so much of my experience, with not speaking the language. Even mundane things are rendered mysterious. Something is going on: you know that much. But what exactly is being done or how it will shape up will only become apparent in time. Most likely it doesn't concern you, as you are not really part of this equation. Best to keep your eyes and ears open, just in case...

In any case, the view outside was much more interesting.

People setting out to work each morning

The normal crush of cabs. If a cabbie picks you up but needs to be going in the opposite direction, he will simply make a uturn into oncoming traffic. Simple enough.

A guy across the way, practicing with a staff.

 What's one of the first things most people do when in unfamiliar circumstances?
Reestablish familiarity. Luckily, this was in my office's building complex

At home, I go through alternate phases of visiting and ignoring Starbucks. But coffee was hard to come by in Shanghai. Even the coffee here tasted different, but was good -- the espresso was less sharp than the U.S. roast. I enjoyed the similar-yet-different experience, with everything naturally tweaked for regional tastes. One of the few benefits of looking entirely different: the second time in, one of the more chipper baristas beamed at me and sang out "Ehsoy Lahhhhtay!!" Hahaha, yes, please and thank you. My to-go cup was always labeled "Lady"; the departure from drink details to shorthand for "white woman" or "foreigner" cracked me up each day. 

Not to give a chain too many props, but in a sea of really embarrassing U.S. exports, which people assumed I'd like, I was pretty pleased with them. The red bean scones were FANTASTIC.
....Bested only by the rose scone. I SO ARDENTLY WISH THE U.S. PUBLIC LIKED FLORAL TASTES MORE. I counted the days I could eat this. I would have hoarded if it would have done any good.

All for now. Back to present day Ann Arbor, where I have just stopped skyping with my neighbor a few houses away -- a habit we picked up when I was half a world away. Maybe I'll try my hand at baking a batch of rose scones tomorrow...

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Ways to Welcome the Weekend

Greetings, Fine Folk.

It's beautiful outside, the sun is shining and the new big next-door dog is not in his backyard to vociferously bark and growl warnings against me; EMU's Sunday Best has (hopefully momentarily) shifted away from swinging tunes to desultory guitar strumming alongside a mournful accordian. I'm tempted in many different directions for this Sunday, but why not begin with a blog post?

Another week passed in an excessively stressful and long-houred fashion. By Friday evening, I was exhausted and downcast; but knew I'd only be more discouraged by just going home. Luckily Ginger was up for a lazy night out. I plugged myself into my ipod and plunked down on a doorstep until he showed up. To start, we drove to Chela's. On a selfish tip, I don't even want to say nice things about this new Mexican place, because it's busier every single time I go -- and I have gone 4 times in less than two weeks. There are already 24 reviews on Yelp and one friend, who definitely knows Mexican food, professes to have gone there 20 times and never been disappointed. Compatriot said she wasn't blown away, but is open to going again; on my end, I can't stop going. It's inexpensive, the flavors are fresh and good and somehow most things don't have tomatoes, which I am allergic to. Maybe it's the last part, which makes me so excited -- a cuisine that felt shut off to me, for so long, I can now totally eat! Neither of the two sauces have tomatoes; and combined, they deliver nice heat and flavor notes. Their shredded beef Barbacoa is salty and fine and lovely in either the soft corn tacos, quesadillas or Tortas. They also have potato poblano tacos. I don't taste the poblano so very much, but the creamy potato filling in its soft shell is such a nice surprise, and (naturally) takes to the added sauces quite well. It's comforting there.  A little voice says: "If you cut out most of Starbucks, it would be fine to go here every week..."

So anyway, we show up to a full parking lot. The small interior is crowded with a nice cross-section of the community. People are picking up takeout as if they have also already worked the restaurant into their schedule. The young super-talkative counter woman says, "I feel like I have waited on you guys before, I love that!"

The owner says, "Have you tried our flan?" Not yet, I say.

"Now you have!" he hands me a dessert container. Yay, bonus treat! Clearly I need to cut out that Starbucks.

We settle in to wait at a small table next to the register. I can barely uphold my part of the conversation. Luckily, there's good people watching. A young picture book Latino family sits by us: serious, pretty mother; father who is stern when he needs to be, plus one young girl and boy. The boy is adorably boisterous. He so, SO wants to get at the (house made) limeade, but he is foiled by the dispenser's height and his lack of hand strength. He makes an impassioned appeal to his father, who rebuffs him. The empty cup variously becomes a horn, a hat, something to punch his frustrated fist into. He also swings around and punches a male teen's leg as he walks past; the guy is surprised, bemused; the boy stares up at him, his mouth agape. The teen gives him a wide berth when he leaves with his food.

Several newcomers come in as we are waiting and eating; some ask what we have. I eat too much. But it so lovely. What next? The potential movies start too late, I only slept 4 hours Thursday night. "I don't think I even have energy to beat you at Othello," I say.

"Oh ho! I have it in my trunk~~~" We decide to go to the Alley Bar. Next to Ginger's car a pale aqua swoopy little BMW Z4 is parked. A tiny, corn husk of a woman leaves Chela's before us. I'd place her in her late seventies/early eighties. She has a bob of fly-away white-grey hair and large moony glasses. She unlocks the door and slides the sportiness away.

We exchange glances.

"Life. Is Not. Fair," Ginger declares. "...It's probably her son's." Or maybe she has wanted such a car for decades. Mid-life crisis guys can't account for ALL sports car ownership, can they? "NOT what I expected..." I concede.


A small orange cat with huge ears has sauntered onto my deck and has been struck still by my night-gowned presence at the dining room table. The astounding fact of my existence! Once she regains the ability to move, she uses my outdoor table and chair set as a shield, in order to gain information. She pops her head up and stares at me intently, before darting down again. She looks terrified. In the normal course of things, I am rarely so impressive and incomprehensible.
We walked down Liberty. "It's going to be crowded," Ginger complained in advance. "It's going to be loud."

"If only they had sofas." I said, "That would be SO. Nice."

It was not crowded. There were only a couple guys substantially upping the noise level. There was a leather sofa underneath the window sill and an overstuffed olive chair with fuzzy crimson floral shapes next to it. David Bowie's Fame was playing into the gloom. Well! "The baseball game is on!" There was a tender note to Ginger's voice. My Silver Smash was nicely tart. Perfect.

Ginger trounced me the first game. It felt off from the start and only got worse.

I turned to melodrama. "In my current state, it's hard NOT to take this as representative of my life~~" 

"HelllOOOO EMO!" sang Ginger.

"Screwed, whichever way I turn! AND I did part of it myself!--"

"EEEEEMMMMMOOOO" Ginger sang even more loudly.

Our second round came. We were excited. "You might be my favorite customer EVER," the waitress said to Ginger. "No one has ever clapped for their drink before."

The second game ultimately went in my favor. I marked my first triumphant move with a festive shadowboxing in his direction.

He peered at me: "Time for you to CALM THE FUCK DOWN, Spaz."

I made another good move and grinned at him helpfully. He glowered. "That'll DO pig, that'll do."

It was feeling much better. While I won that one, he delivered what was one of the best moves ever, within our collective games; I think he snagged 12/14 pieces of mine in one feel swoop; and we both agreed it was an unusually spirited game on both sides.

How wonderful to be able to separate from the week's unpleasantness and to get a bit of respite!

Yesterday I pulled 50+ prints of "What is Eaten, What is Known," so I can actually edition the designs I made for the Edsel and Eleanor Ford House "Grimmly Inspired" exhibit*. Yay! Felt exhausted and productive.

*HEY!! Apparently I got a "story award" nod in the exhibit! And Laurie Longo, local artist who has had a cool Red Riding Hood project going for years, snagged top honor for the exhibit! Go Laurie!

Prints drying, every which way.

inked block. absence of horse.

And then! Compatriot arrived in the evening, with a late birthday cake plus The Big Lebowski. Sigh. She also brought White Russian fixings, but we were all sugared out.
Looks similar to the Persian Love Cake of yore, without the candied rose petals
Swoopy saffron-rosewater whipped cream frosting (yes, same word used for car and frosting)
And inside, chocolate cardamom cake. Lovely!
 Time to head off to the Indian grocery and maybe spend some time outside. Happy Sunday, All!

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Awfully Zippy for a Necropolis

From over a week ago: Since splurging on a handful of books at Nicola's, I got (quite easily) sucked into the AAUW book sale and now have a row of books lining one edge of my living room carpet. Oi.

Mooned about Nicola's Books on Saturday afternoon and picked up a number of markdowns and newly-outs. The slim Yellow by Janni Visman was sold to me on the strength of Ruth Rendell and Patricia Highsmith comparisons, plus taut wording on the initial pages. It's a weird, suspenseful psychologically brittle novel.

The epigraph reads:

In my ideal life I am arranged alphabetically.
And I am never infected by nostalgia.

Well written? Yes. Intriguing? Yes. Was I happy to leave it? Yes.

Going by a post on Bookbrowse, the author's experience of writing it was similarly claustrophobic:

"In a desperate rush to finish my first novel, Sex Education, I was confined to my study for over a week. Anxious to avoid any distractions, I got my food shopping delivered via the internet or my husband kindly went out and got supplies. I was beginning to get cabin fever but also experienced a strange resistance to the prospect of going outside and being part of the world again. It was very easy to stay in and have everything brought to me. I began to think about writing a book in which the main character never went outside their home for the duration of the story. That was the initial starting point for Yellow. To this I brought my three other preoccupations of the time."

Last night, a few minutes before sleep I started The Brief History of the Dead.With the novel's empty-coated cover, the would-be reader is primed for mystery and dissonance. So far, I am much happier to be in this narrative world.  The premise touches off from an African belief that there are three states of humanity -- the living, the dead who are still personally remembered by those who loved them; and the ancesteral dead, remembered as a collective, but not through any still extant personal connection. In Kevin Brockmeier's constructed world, the remembered dead live in a City after their "proper" deaths, until their last living ties also die -- and then they disappear into the next unknown realm. But what becomes of the City and its inhabitants when Earth experiences a global epidemic and people begin to die en masse~~~?? A fine set-up, indeed.

Plus, the writing is by turns lyrical and magical -- within the first page the reader is rewarded with the following tale of a character's transition from life into the City:

"Jim Singer, who managed the sandwich shop in the monument district, said that he felt a prickling sensation in his fingers and then stopped breathing. 'It was my heart,' he insisted , thumping firmly on his chest, 'Took me in my own bed.' He had closed his eyes, and when he opened them again, he was on a train, the kind that trolleys small children around in circles at amusement parks. The rails were leading him through a thick forest of golden-brown tress, but the trees were actually giraffes, and their long necks were reaching like branches into the sky. A wind rose up and peeled the pots from their backs. The spots floated down around him, swirling and dipping in the wake of the train. It took him a long time to understand that the throbbing noise he heard was not the rattling of the wheels along the tracks."

I don't know, maybe too twee for some, but I prefer the author's venturing into surrealism during those disorienting parts of one's life. And throw in an abandoned three-person mission to Antarctica by Coca-Cola (for potential use of the earth's remaining glacial water, for its blessed products,natch), what's not to love? I only wish the book was larger and would take longer to experience.

The author's name nagged at the back of my head until I remembered that former Borders colleague and woman of highly esteemed literary and artistic tastes, Jeanne, had championed his earlier volume of short stories, Things That Fall from the Sky (um WOW googling calls up an alarming number of entries! Be careful people! Watch the skies!). The (also) slim volume was hiding in one of my bedroom cupboard/bookcase areas (thanks, former homeowner, a much better idea than the screwy electrical wiring projects you carried out ~).

Listen to this, it's wonderful:

"The human voice is an extraordinary thing: an alliance of will and breath that, without even the fastening of hands, can forge for us a home in other people. Air is sent tumbling throught the frame of the mouth, and we find ourselves admitted to some far, unlikely country: this must, I think, be regarded as nothing short of wondrous. the first voice I remember hearing belonged, perhaps, to a stranger or a lost relation, for I can not place it within my family: it sounded like a wooden spool rolling on a wooden floor. My father had a voice like cement revolving in a drum, my mother like the whirring of many small wings. My own, I've been told, resembles the rustling of snow against a windowpane."

What person would have told the narrator this? People rarely speak like that. And in most of our lives, what place does such language have? "Can anyone print from the printer?"

"Your voice is like the rustling of snow against a windowpane."

* {WEIRD.O.} "...Does anyone know how to change the ink? Because it looks like the error message is to do with the cartridge..."

But I'd like that. If it was truly meant, not being precious, but rather being precise and present. I remember a Thanksgiving years ago with the family of an ex, wherein we were asked to write things we were grateful for and toss them into a glass vase. I did so, not thinking about the larger picture. Mine were about details, moments within a day, because to me that's what usually stands out. I.e. today: the work day was a slog-through, stressful and unrewarding. But there were a few encouraging words, I caught a chalk artist in the midst of his design, and my friend told me about her two girls braving up to kindergarten (possibly some tears, it is a long day) and first grade (lift-up desk top! one has a cubby!). So. For me, that evened out. Back at the Thanksgiving, was mortified to find the private messages were to be read aloud, with cloyingly bright commentary: "Ohhhhh, we've got a poet amongst us!!" We slink off and wait for the stuffing. Back to present day, I should go to bed and so should you, most likely. When is sleep NOT a good thing? Check out Brockmeier if you get the chance. I expect to read an impressive three pages before I keel over.

But perhaps! Soon, a luxurious spell of reading for a couple hours. I'll be stuck in Antarctica, or will be much livelier post-death than prior-to...  

Sunday, September 2, 2012


Still searching for something to hang my hat on. Could it be that a half year of accelerated change actually begs for more? How big will it get or how high should I aim? The conservative side says, eh, take a yoga class, start reading poetry again. Retrain your mind, exhaust your body.

It's funny how adjusting the angle of your perceptions by just a few degrees can make things feel so altered. I sat in my neighbor's kitchen yesterday, while she consulted a recipe taped to a cupboard door at eye level. She grated ginger and scraped the innards from vanilla beans into a small glass bowl, while a large bowl of skinned peaches and nectarines waited to be butter-browned in a cast iron skillet. I sipped some iced green tea and failed to remember a time in the past months when I had watched someone else cooking in their own kitchen. And here, too, we were in identical set-ups, in our little rows of ranch houses. She opened the doors above her oven unit for baking powder and flour. "That's *crazy*," I told her, "Everyone knows you keep your tupperware containers above the stove~~" She laughed and told me about kids alternately astounded and flummoxed by the same houses/different worlds up and down the street. Is it the mark of a lesser mind or less maturity to want those external markers to help establish a sense of place?

Last month I met new friends who had moved from their original countries, to create lives elsewhere. I asked one man if he often missed his homeplace. "Noooo," he said. "I have never been that tied to one place as 'home.'"; he simply creates what's needed where he is. I guess we all ultimately/eventually do that, but I wonder over our different relationships to rootedness. Of course, life's work and love also create rootedness: infinitely better routes?

Stop! Buddha Time!

First Buddha I saw in the Shanghai Museum, in the Ceramics gallery:

Statue of Buddha
zhangzhou ware
Chenghui reign (A.D. 1465 -- 1467) Ming

Numerous Buddhas and Boddhisattvas were featured in the sculpture gallery. It was interesting see Indian and Chinese visual cues overlap.

Almost martial looking, Lao Jun, from Tang dynasty 618-907
painted and gilded wood
Song, A.D. 660-1279

A Stunning
Mahavairocana Buddha
Gilt bronze
The Second Year of Shengming Reign (A.D. 1163)
Dali Kingdom


 Hope Everyone's enjoying their weekend and ushering in the Fall.