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Sunday, August 31, 2014

Last Love (2013)

This is yet another movie about the end of one's life--I seem to be watching a lot of movies of late that involve actors who are at or near my parent's age.  It may be coincidence or it might be because I am thinking about my parents.  They are trying to move to be nearer to us at a time when they can do the move themselves, rather than having to be moved.

Matthew Morgan is a retired philosophy professor who's wife died, and he is left bereft.  I am sure that I do not want to feel like he does, although it is entirely possible that if I outlive my spouse and I still have my wits about me that I will be incapacitated.  His life takes a turn for the better when he meets Pauline on the bus.  She is a cha cha dance instructor who befriends him in the most genuine of ways.  I think that one of the keys to successful aging is to have friends who are younger than you, ideally along the way, so that even if you live to be quite old, and everyone who is your age is long gone, that you still have people in your life who are still alive and kicking.

Pauline does more than give Matthew something bright in his life--she is a bridge between him and his children.  Losing a spouse does not help with the task of  helping your children lose their parent--and Matthew was not a model father, so he was no better at that task than he was at moving on himself.  Pauline facilitates detente, and it is a bittersweet film with some flashes of wisdom.  And it is streaming on Netcflix. 

Saturday, August 30, 2014

The Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan

This is the tale of the very difficult life of a mother and her daughter in the waning days of the 19th century going into the time of WWII.  The story is mostly set in Shanghai, and the options for women there are severely limited.  Men control money and property.  Women are largely sexual objects to be controlled.  They are either one of several wives or they are courtesans or they are prostitutes, at least in this tale.

Lucia is the daughter of parents who do not love her--she acts out by sleeping around and elopes with a Chinese man from a traditional family who is returning to Shanghai when she gets pregnant.  This is the mistake upon which the rest of the story turns.  Predictably, the young man is unable to convince his family to accept the foreign girl as his wife, not even his second wife.  The first child is a girl, Violet, who they completely ignore, but when the second child is a son they do much worse--they steal him.  How Lucia copes with this loss is the first story.

The second part is the story of Violet, who gets stolen from her mother and sold into a brothel.  Never a good start in life, but she does manage to make the best of it, although it takes a piece of her dignity to do so.  She has some luck--some of it good and some of it bad--and in the end we hope for the best for her, but the story, while not a happy one, is well told.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Grilled Baby Zuchinni

The key here is to marinate the zucchini ahead of time (after pricking their skin, so that the flavor can enter) and using teeny tiny squash.  Larger squash should be grilled, then have flavor added--this recipe had a component of steaming the vegetable on the grill, and getting enough flavor in ahead of time to make it delicious when finished.

  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • 4 garlic cloves, peeled
  • 1/2 teaspoon coarse kosher salt plus additional for sprinkling
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 1 pound baby zucchini, trimmed

  • Blend oil, garlic, 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, and 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper in blender until almost smooth. Using fork or wooden skewer, pierce zucchini all over. Place in medium bowl. Pour garlic oil over zucchini and let stand at room temperature at least 30 minutes and up to 1 hour, tossing occasionally.
    Prepare barbecue (medium-high heat). Grill zucchini until tender and golden in spots, turning occasionally, about 6 minutes. Transfer to plate, sprinkle with additional salt, and serve.

    Thursday, August 28, 2014

    The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete (2013)

    The subtitle of this should be "When Your Father is a John and Your Mother is a Heroin Addict, Defeat is Your Only Option".  But let it not be said that Mister goes down without a fight. 

    The setting is in one of the notorious urban section 8 housing projects where the building is at least as dangerous as the streets and you can't buy fresh fruit or vegetables for miles around.  The movie opens on the final day of the school year, and Mister failing 8th grade.  His teacher delineates all the reasons that he cannot pass him and Mister's only response is "Fuck you".

    Mister is angry, but he has every reason to be.  He mother shoots up heroin in front of him, gives a guy a blow job in a restaurant to pay for the kids dinner there, and doesn't try very hard to hide that either.  She tells him to stop treating her like a child, but it is clear that she has stopped treating him like a child long ago.  When she gets arrested, she doesn't come home, leaving Mister and his side kick Pete to cope on their own.  The movie is heartbreaking but not violent, and thought provoking.

    Wednesday, August 27, 2014

    The Thoughts and Happenings of Wilfred Price, Purveyor of Superior Funerals by Wendy Jones

    This is a great book about the consequences of impulsive decisions.  The time is post-WWI in Wales.  Wilfred is the local undertaker and he has a small but thriving business.  He is an eligible bachelor.  He is carried away one day at a picnic and impulsively asks a woman, Grace, whom he barely knows to marry him.  The next day he has serious buyer's remorse but he is not quite sure how to reverse the situation.  Grace has already told her parents, who have in turn alerted the whole town.

    Wilfred tells Grace, but she is in her own fix--she is pregnant.  The proposal from Wilfred couldn't have come at a better time for her, and his backing out leaves her in a serious fix.  So instead of facing up to the situation, she keeps quiet, and Wilfred has to alert her parents and the rest of the town to the fact that their situations have changed.  While all this shuffling is going on, Wilfred has fallen for the lovely Flora, who sees herself as unable to love since her intended failed to come back from the war.  When Grace tells her father that she is with child but fails to disclose who the father is, he forces Wilfred to marry her.  All seems lost for our hero, but eventually Grace realizes what she has to do and she rights several wrongs--but not all of them. 

    Tuesday, August 26, 2014

    Simple Tomato Sauce

    I can't believe this is not already on my blog because it is my favorite marinara sauce, which is basically Mario Batali's with a little extra carrot (I love how it sweetens the tomato and balances out it's acidity).  This one is for Tucker.

  • 1/4 cup  olive oil
  • 1 onion diced
  • 4 garlic cloves minced
  • 3 tablespoons chopped fresh thyme leaves, or 1 tablespoon dried
  • 1  carrot, finely grated
  • 2 (28-ounce) cans peeled whole tomatoes, crushed by hand and juices reserved
  • Salt

  • In a  saucepan, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion and garlic, and cook until soft and light golden brown, about 8 to 10 minutes. Add the thyme and carrot, and cook 5 minutes more, until the carrot is quite soft. Add the tomatoes and juice and bring to a boil, stirring often. Lower the heat and simmer for 30 minutes until as thick as hot cereal. Season with salt and serve. This sauce holds 1 week in the refrigerator or up to 6 months in the freezer.

    Monday, August 25, 2014

    Still Mine (2012)

    This is the second movie that I have watched in the past month that features older couples and the good news for those of us in the second half of our lives is that they are still enjoying life, even when it is really hard, which in this movie it most certainly is.

    Craig Morrison is set in his ways and he is getting quite old--87 when the movie starts.  His wife of 61 years, Irene, is just as stubborn and she is also very clearly more than a little forgetful.  She is still sweet, but Craig is at once irritated by her and worried about her.  And maybe a little worried for himself, because he decides to get rid of his cows when they make a break through old fencing.  His friend Chester is both annoying to him and the one who is telling him the truth, the devil on his shoulder.

    Craig decides to build a small one story house with a nice view across the street on his own land.  Their house is in good shape, but the bedroom and bathrooms are upstairs and it takes too much wood to heat it.  Craig can afford to hire someone to build the house by selling land, but he doesn't want to do that, he wants to build it himself.  He is irritated to learn that he is going to need a building permit, plans for the house and a building inspector.  The inspector is just as difficult as Craig is, all by the book and with no real skills or knowledge himself to increase his flexibility.  After Irene breaks her hip and is going to have a walker, Craig goes ahead and finishes his house.  He is bucking the tide of many things, and while he isn't likable, he is admirable.

    Sunday, August 24, 2014

    Lucky Us by Amy Bloom

    This novel by Amy Bloom, her first since the wonderful book 'Away' came out, has all the quirks and charm that I have come to associate with her stories.  This one is about a two-timing father who has two daughters by two different women.  When his wife dies, his mistress drops his younger daughter Eva off at the wake and leaves her forever.  The father is a weaker than weak character who married his wife for her money and has no idea how to take care of Iris, his older daughter, much less take on his other offspring.  No matter, because Iris is able to manage both of them.  Eva is brilliant and Iris has hutzpah and showmanship.

    The bulk of the book is about how the two girls manage to grow up and make it in the world of post WWII, first in Hollywood and later on the east coast.  The stories are not full of lightness and joy--they are bittersweet, which is the sort that Bloom tells best.  This is a sweet quiet book which will hold you in it's palm and cradle you to the end.

    Saturday, August 23, 2014

    Green Tomato Salsa Verde

    Salsa verde is usually made with tomatillos, but this version takes advantage of all the green tomatoes that abound this time of year, especially when we haven't had much sun.

    • 4 green tomatoes
    • 5-6 garlic cloves
    • 2-3 jalapeños
    • 1/2 small yellow onion, diced
    • 1/3 cup chopped fresh cilantro
    • Juice of 1 lime
    • 1/4 teaspoon cumin
    • 1/2 teaspoon fresh ground coriander
    • Salt to taste
    Preheat the broiler. (Or, alternatively, use your grill!) Wrap four of the garlic cloves in aluminum foil. Place the aluminum foil packet, the green tomatoes, and the jalapeños on a broiler dish broil for about 10 minutes, or until the skin of the tomatoes and peppers are charred, and the garlic is soft.
    Run the tomatoes under cold water to remove their skins. Place the tomatoes, jalapeños and roasted garlic in a food processor or blender, and add 1-2 cloves of raw garlic, the cilantro, and the raw onion. Pulse until blended but still a bit chunky. Add the lime juice, cumin and coriander, and blend again. Add salt to taste.

    Friday, August 22, 2014

    Reed Flute Cave, Guilin

    The Reed Flute Cave is a natural cave carved out of the karst limestone mountains over millions of years, and has been one of Guilin’s most famous attractions for over 1200 years. The cave got its name from the verdant reeds growing outside, which can be made into melodious flutes. Inside this water-eroded cave is a spectacular world of various stalactites, stalagmites, stone pillars and rock formations created by carbonate deposition and illuminated by multi-colored lighting to create a surreal experience.
    Inside, there are more than 70 inscriptions written in ink, which can be dated back as far as 792 AD in the Tang Dynasty. They are travelogues and poems writing by Tang Dynasty literati who visited the cave. These aged inscriptions tell us that it has been an attraction in Guilin since ancient times. The cave was almost forgotten for a thousand years, before it was rediscovered in the 1940s by a group of refugees fleeing the Japanese troops.
    The most striking thing about this cave, aside from the excellent representations of stalagtites and stalagmites that have grown over centuries of time is that they have chosen to use very colorful lighting to highlight some of the formations.  It is not exactly to my taste, but it is unusual, and something worth seeing.
    There is a projected video show complete with music at a point in the cave, and again, this is in my experience a unique way to combine entertainment with a natural experience, and while it is not strictly a national park approach, it is well done, and interesting to view.  It is hard for me to take off my cultural blinders sometimes and experience something that is not how I would do it, but it is well worth the effort to do so.

    Thursday, August 21, 2014

    The Rise and Fall of Great Powers by Tom Rachman

    This is a jigsaw puzzle of a book that spans almost 25 years of the life of its heroine, Tooly, focusing on three distinct periods of time.  The earliest is 1988, when Tooly is nine years old and leaving Australia for Bangkok.  The second period is 1999, when she is 20 years old, and the final period is 2011, when she is 32 years old and more or less an adult.

    The book about constant motion. Almost every character we meet, and there are quite a few of them, is in some way rootless; the question is ultimately is this by choice, by accident, or aspiration.  Many of them have an unclear relationship to Tooly--the reader leanrs about who she is by who has been around her.  
    Fogg, the loquacious nebbish who helps Tooly in the bookshop in 2011, is almost the only character with any staying power: he was born in Caergenog and is unlikely ever to leave it, though he considers himself a Parisian by inclination. Humphrey – whose travels, we're told, took him from the gulag to South Africa – claims to have been "cornered by history". Paul seems to be on the run. Sarah seems on the run from herself. The hero-worshipped Venn impresses on Tooly the importance of being detached from the world and other people, and to a large extent, she is successful.

    The book is semi-romantic, sometimes whimsical, and at times almost fantastical.  Tooly is an orphan who manages to at once be shaped by and to overcome her past with the reader watching, wondering, and rooting for her.

    Wednesday, August 20, 2014

    Mexican Zucchini and Corn Soup

    The summer is replete with squash--I get a handful in my CSA bag every week these days, and I keep trying to come  up with new ways to enjoy it (I will admit that grilling it is the fastest way to use a lot of it, but that is good only every week or two.  This is a good recipe for a change of pace.

    1 qt. stock
    2 Tbs. olive oil
    1 onion diced
    4 cloves garlic minced
    1 medium potato diced
    1-2 chipotle peppers with adobo
    1 medium squash, sliced and quartered
    3/4 c. corn
    1 tomato diced
    3/4 c. shredded cheese
    oregano, salt, pepper, cilantro

    Saute onion in 1 Tbs. olive oil until soft, then add garlic, stir for a minute, then add the stock, potato, and chipotle.  Simmer until potato is soft.  Turn off soup, add cheese and puree.  While potato is softening, saute the squash in 1 Tbs. olive oil at high heat so it will brown, add oregano, salt and pepper.  Once squash is cooked, turn burner off and add corn and tomato, so they will cook slightly.  Add to the pureed soup, stir, and top with fresh diced cilantro.

    Tuesday, August 19, 2014

    Mountains of Guilin

    What is it that makes the Kardst mountains of Guilin so spectacular?  It is the fact that they rise from flat ground, sudden and unprecedented, in stark contrast with the land around them. It's an unusual landscape.

    How did they form?  You have to go back to the Triassic period, the time of the dinosaurs, when Guilin was under water.  The plates of the earth are moving, and at what turns out to be a very fast pace--15 cm per year between the plates of Asia and the plates of India.
    The Himalayas are one of the spectacular results of these two plates coming together, but another is that the plains of Guilin are being pushed up as well.  The mountains are made of limestone, which is soft and easily sculpted by water and wind, leaving us with these improbable looking peaks that are recapitulated on the back of the 20 Yuan bank note and in any number of rice paper paintings of mountains found throughout the country.  They are a national icon, and well worth visiting (despite the oppressive humidity, even in May).

    Monday, August 18, 2014

    Frog Music by Emma Donogue

    This author has written a number of books, but she came to my attention with her last book "Room", which was a harrowing fictionalized account of a woman who was kept in captivity for many years, escaping only when she feared for the life of her child at the hands of her captor/rapist.  The story parallels several real life events in the US and Europe, and chronicles the re-entry difficulties of these traumatized individuals.  It was spectacular.

    This book is set in San Francisco in 1878 and is about a historical crime.  The center of the novel is Blanche Beunon and her recently murdered friend, the cross dressing frog catching Jenny.  Blanche and Jenny are not easily pigeon holed, nor are either of them easy to like.  They are sassy and openly enjoy defying the roles that the mid-19th century allows for women.  Jenny pays with her life and Blanche struggles throughout the book to figure out what it means, who to trust, and what to do.  It is not an easy book to read, nor does it tie everything up into a neat package at the end, but after all the honky tonks and bars and bad men, at the end of the day it is an entertaining read.

    Sunday, August 17, 2014

    Roasted Cabbage and Chickpeas

    I usually make cabbage in the fall, but my CSA this summer has been supplying me with a steady supply of it, so I have been getting more creative than just cabbage salads (which I love, and have been making various different ways as well).

    I was roasting new potatoes, so I decided that since I had the oven on I would try roasting cabbage, and it was a great success.

    6 c. shredded cabbage
    2 red peppers, julienned
    1/2 onion, diced
    6 cloves minced garlic
    1 c. chickpeas

    Toss the first 4 ingredients in a 9" x 13" pan with 1-2 tbs. olive oil.  Season with salt, pepper, and the flavor profile that you are aiming for--I used Penzey's Singapore spice mix, about a 1/2 tsp., and it was delicious, but you could go Mediterranean as well.  Roast at 400 degrees for 25 minutes.  Add chickpeas, toss, and serve.

    Saturday, August 16, 2014

    Gloria (2013)

    Let's start off with the things that make this movie well worth watching.  Gloria a formerly wed, 50-ish office worker in Santiago who laughs easily, wails along to the sappy love songs on her car radio and craves new adventures whether bungee-jumping, smoking pot, or simpulsive getaways.
    The trouble is, most people—including her adult son and daughter—are either too busy or don't bother to notice that there is a vibrant human being standing before them who aches for intimate contact and a chance to shower someone with affection.  Poor Gloria.

    One night she is out dancing and Rodolfo, a middle aged recently divorced man, notices the bon vivant that lives inside of her, and he falls quickly in love with her--but he really loves her spirit and doesn't dig much deeper.  That is the down side of this movie, that as with all relationships that are based on initial attraction and good sex, that candle flickers after a while, and the relationship cannot be sustained on those things alone.

    The upside is that middle aged sex, with all the flab and wrinkles, is depicted unsparingly (ok, that may be the bad news, depending on what you are going for in movies, but my point is that true to the Spanish film tradition, sex is gritty).  The downside is that while Rodolfo claims to have cast off the chains of his former life, he is ruled by his two adult daughters and by proxy, his ex-wife, and that is the very sad ending.

    Friday, August 15, 2014

    The Ancient Near East edited by JamesPitchard

    I have spent the last year reading about ancient civilizations with my youngest son and today he leaves his teens behind and begins his young adulthood, so I write this with him in mind.  This summer we have been reading the original ancient texts, as translated , and I have really loved reading the original rather than a summary of it.

    One of my favorites is the Code of Hammarabi.  First of all, it reminds me of the Book of Leviticus, but much older (it is a Mesopotamian text, carved into a rock in cuneiform about 1700 BCE) and more broadly applicable to life as a whole.   The rules about judges seem almost modern to me, although the laws they enforce are about what you would expect for the culture and the time.  The Code also describes life at the time of Prince Hammarabi, which was a time when the Near East was a place where eeking out a living for those not in royalty was hard (the Babylonians did not enjoy the more luxurious life of the Egyptians--those stories are included here as well, and are equally interesting to read).

    I thought that I had a liberal education, but in reading these texts I realize that there were many gaps that I have just now been able to start filling in.  While this might sound like a chore to read, there are some very enjoyable and some remarkably accessible texts within.

    Thursday, August 14, 2014

    Little Snow Goose Pagoda, Xi'an

    The construction of the pagoda is a wonder. Because Xian is located in an area where earthquakes sometimes occur, the pagoda base is made from packed earth in the shape of a hemisphere. In case of an earthquake, the pressure can be evenly divided, thus the pagoda has remained standing after over seventy earthquakes. After so many earthquakes, only the pinnacle and the two upper floors (the original pagoda had fifteen stories) have been damaged. Remarkably, cracks which occurred during earthquakes have been closed by quakes that came later.

    A giant iron bell 3.5 meters (11.4 feet) in height and about 10 tons in weight resides in the Jianfu Temple. It makes a magnificent clear sound that can be heard more than three miles away.  Joel had a lot of fun ringing it.
    The Small Wild Goose Pagoda was built in the year 707 A.D during the Tang Dynasty (618-907).  Unlike the grand Big Wild Goose Pagoda, it is dainty and exquisite in its appearance. It is an important cultural relic and one of the remaining symbols of ancient Chang'an (the name of Xian in the Tang Dynasty).

    This multi-eave brick pagoda is thirteen stories tall, reaching 142 feet. It is square on plane and rises skyward in an elegant spindle shape. Above the ground floor, the height of each story diminishes, rendering a graceful curve to the contour. Multi-eaves are made by overlapping bricks which curve inward, a characteristic of the Tang Dynasty construction. The ground floor has arched doors facing north and south; the other floors have arched windows instead. The fine drawings on the doors reflect the artistic style prevailing in the Tang Dynasty. Inside, a narrow wooden stairway winds its way to the top of the pagoda.

    Wednesday, August 13, 2014

    The Magnificent Lauren Bacall

    Lauren Bacall died yesterday at the ripe old age of 89.  She was the seductive costar of  a number of classic 1940's movies with Humphrey Bogart, the most memorable of which (in my opinion) was 'To Have and Have Not'.  She married Bogart after this movie and had a story book romance with him until he died in 1957.  She had a husky voice and bedroom eyes, but what came out of her mouth was insightful and irreverent and for 1944 you really have to admire her.  Of course, her characters were riding high on the wave of feminine power that came with WWII, when the men were all "Over There" and the women were working with heavy machinery in factories across America. None-the-less, she created classic and memorable characters that no one should miss seeing.

    My favorite line from 'To Have and Have Not' is:
    "You know Steve, you're not very hard to figure, only at times. Sometimes I know exactly what you're going to say. Most of the time. The other times... the other times, you're just a stinker."  

    Her character really had a way with words.

    It is poignant to reflect on her death vis-a-vis the death of another celebrity this week, Robin Williams.  While his death felt premature and tragic, hers feels like a healthy one.  It was only a month ago that I watched 'Ernest and Celestine', an animated French movie that she did the voicing of the unlikable and controlling nun at the mouse orphanage who was known as 'The Grey One'--she worked up to the end, and she was wonderful at it.

     It is surreal to have an icon of the 1940's die in such close proximity to the comedic superstar of my childhood, but like Robin Williams, Ms. Bacall left a behind a rich body of work that will live on for future generations to enjoy.

    Tuesday, August 12, 2014

    Celebrate Robin Williams

    I am always saddened when someone who doesn't have a chronic painful debilitating illness takes their own life.  Robin Williams had more than his share of successes, but he also had his struggles.  I am sorry that the later won out over the former yesterday.  Depression is a terrible thing.  And the key to comic genius may carry more than it's fair share of burdens.  Mr. Williams clearly had the resources to get help, but his fame and his craft carried their own consequences. 

    Now to the celebration of his life.  More than any other comic of my generation this man made me laugh.  His hero worship of Jonathan Winters, one of my early childhood favorite comics, made him an even bigger success in my eyes.  He could precisely pinpoint the absurd in a person or a situation and make his point in a way that would make you laugh out loud.  From Mork and Mindy to his standup work to his work in movies ('Dead Poet's Society', 'Mrs. Doubtfire', and 'Good Morning Vietnam', to name a few time honored favorites, and 'Jumanji', to name one that my children watched over and over again), I have loved his work for almost 40 years, and I hope that he has found the peace that he sought by taking his own life. And the rest of us need to take care of our mental health and assist those who need professional help to get it. 

    Monday, August 11, 2014

    Muslim Quarter, Xi'an

    Let me note right off the bat that while all of my pictures from the Muslim quarter involve food, edibles do not represent the majority of the merchandise available in this narrow winding part of Xi'an, located very near the mosque. I am not overly claustrophobic, but the crush of the crowd on these narrow streets left me feeling less like spending all my disposable income and more like wanting to sit in a quiet shop and regroup.

    I found this to be the most visually appealing food available in the market--it is a giant cake that looks to be soaked with a honey syrup that is being cut in a beautiful geometric fashion for eary serving on a stick.  Food on a stick was a popular serving suggestion in the Muslim Quarter, probably because finding a place where you could sit down and leisurely nibble away at something in a bowl as just not an option.

    I always love an array of the wealth of variety for any sort of food (olives and spices would be my first choice, but these dates did look quite delicious), and there are a fair amount of these on display.  In addition to food, there is every variety of souvenir that you can buy in China available.  One rule of thumb is to assume that anything that is valuable, like jade, that appears to be too good a deal is in fact fake.  Even if it is not a good deal it may well be fake.  So buyer beware.  I bought a scarf that was rayon (even though the tag said '100% Silk')--but a very good price for a rayon scarf.  It is a sensory overload experience that whether you love it or hate it.

    Here is a great example of the manual labor that is prevalent in street food preparation throughout China.  I love watching people pounding out food, literally.  It was very tempting to want to take something like this home, but we resisted because we did not want to get delayed by customs on the way home.  This is a great neighborhood--so don't miss it, but keep your money close at hand and your backpack in front of you.

    Sunday, August 10, 2014

    The Road to Happiness

    The researchers who developed the equation pictured on the right call it a “computational model of momentary subjective well-being.” And while it may look and sound complicated to most non-mathematicians (that would be me), its developers say that the gist is pretty simple: How happy you are depends in large part on your expectations.  If you do better than you think you will, then you are happier.

    In some ways this sounds like what I call "duh" research--research that comes to conclusions that most of us arrived at long ago, like women are more complicated than men.  How much did they spend to come to that conclusion?  Better yet, what did we gain with that knowledge?

    So, in order to be contented, lower your expectations to something achievable and when you exceed that goal, you will be happy.  It sounds so easy, but in fact, it can be very hard to achieve.  Like telling people to stop smoking or lose weight.  Habits are hard to break and changing your world view can require months if not years of work.  But it is worth it.  Because you control what you control, and not much else.  Better to feel good about life.  Today is the birthday of my eldest son, and one of the things that he excels at is reworking his expectations and remaining happy.

    Saturday, August 9, 2014

    The Light Between the Oceans by M.L. Stedman

    This is a wonderful book by a new author--the only bad thing about that is having to wait for another book to be written and to hope that it will be as enjoyable to read as her first book.

    Tom is a WWI veteran who survives the war, but at great cost to his mental health--he has been saved on a number of occasions by men who did not survive, and he has witnessed a great deal of man's inhumanity to man, so that when he gets the post as a lighthouse keeper in a remote spot in Australia he is as happy as he has been in a long time.  He gets a bit of respite on occasion, and in his time in town he manages to woo Isabel, a young girl who revives a bit of the person he used to be. 

    They live quite happily alone on their island at first, but after several miscarriages, Isabel is a sad woman.  Then a baby comes ashore in a row boat with a dead man.  Isabel convinces Tom to raise the baby as their own, that the man is dead, and the mother is likely to be as well, and  what harm could it do?  Well, quite a lot of harm as it turns out, but one can't help sympathizing with both sides of the story, which had an inevitably sad ending that is paradoxically a joy to read.

    Friday, August 8, 2014

    Shaanxi History Museum, Xi'an

    This is a phenomenal museum located in Xi'an, the seat of power for thirteen dynasties and an acknowledged site where Chinese civilization progressed.  It was built in 1983, not opened until 1991, and is the first large scale modern national museum in China (which is ironic, in that many innovations that humans have made in ancient civilizations were advanced by the Chinese first, they didn't have a good way to showcase that history until relatively recently.
    The miraculous thing is that all of these things have been preserved over time, given the degree of purging of all that was old during the Cultural Revolution.  The museum is filled with hundreds of breath taking artifacts.  To give an example, the spectacular terracotta warriors on display are by no means the highlights, despite how special and wonderful they are.

    The museum is free, but in order to visit one needs to get tickets, because the museum limits entry to 4,000 people a day.  That might sound like a lot of people, but the big take home message from my trip to China is that there are a lot of people in China that want to see their country and the treasures that it contains.  This is a must see stop in Xi'an, right after the terra cotta warriors.

    Thursday, August 7, 2014

    Great Mosque of Xi'an

    The Great Mosque in Xian is one of the oldest, largest and best-preserved Islamic mosques in China   According to an engraving on a stone tablet inside, it was built in 742 during the Tang Dynasty (618-907). This was a result of Islam being introduced into Northwest China by Arab merchants and travelers from Persia and Afghanistan during the mid-7th century when some of them settled down in China and married women of Han Nationality. The Muslim played an important role in the unification of China during the Yuan and Ming Dynasties. Hence, other mosques were also built to honor them--it is well worth a trip to see the Great Mosque to see the traditional Muslim and Chinese styles.

    The Great Mosque is divided into four courtyards, 250 meters long and 47 meters wide with a well-arranged layout. Landscaped with gardens, the further one strolls into its interior, the more serene one feels. The first courtyard contains an elaborate wooden arch nine meters high covered with glazed tiles that dates back to the 17th century. In the center of the second courtyard, a stone arch stands with two steles on both sides. On one stele is the script of a famous calligrapher named Mi Fu of the Song Dynasty; the other is from Dong Qichang, a calligrapher of the Ming Dynasty. Their calligraphy because of such elegant yet powerful characters is considered to be a great treasure in the art of handwriting.

    At the entrance to the third courtyard is a hall that contains many steles from ancient times. As visitors enter this courtyard, they will see the Xingxin Tower, a place where Muslims come to attend prayer services. A 'Phoenix' placed in the fourth courtyard, the principal pavilion here, contains the Prayer Hall, the surrounding walls of which are covered with colored designs.

    Wednesday, August 6, 2014

    Terra Cotta Warriors, Xi'an

    No matter what you think you know about this incredible sight before you go to see it, nothing prepares you for the magnificence that is this sight.  These terra cotta renditions of thousands of men in the military uniform of their time, each with an individual face, is overwhelmingly beautiful and impressive.

    Xi'an was the seat of China's power brokers for a long time, so while the city today is not in the top 10 in terms of population, it has a rich history.  The emperors who died here once upon a time were buried with many men to protect them in the after life.  Unfortunately, while the emperor was dead when buried they were not. 
    Upon ascending the throne at the age of 13 (in 246 BC), Qin Shi Huang, later the first Emperor of all China, had begun to work for his mausoleum.  He was a man getting ready to die before he had even had a chance to live. But he did not want to take live men with him, so he created this masterpiece.  It took 11 years to finish. It is speculated that many buried treasures and sacrificial objects had accompanied the emperor in his after life. 

    A group of peasants uncovered some pottery while digging for a well nearby the royal tomb in 1974, one of whom is still coming to the site to greet visitors on a regular basis. It caught the attention of archeologists immediately. They came to Xian in droves to study and to extend the digs. They had established beyond doubt that these artifacts were associated with the Qin Dynasty (211-206 BC).  Thankfully it all was discovered as the Cultural Revolution was winding down, and amazingly, the site was protected from the elements within a year.

    Tuesday, August 5, 2014

    The Circle by Dave Eggers

    I would characterize this as the 21st century version of  George Orwell's classic '1984'--Eggers was clever enough not to literally date his book, and while the company/community that he creates called 'The Circle' bears a remarkable resemblance to Google, he is careful to point out that it is in the post-Google era.  The thing that is annoying about the book for the more technologically saavy is that Eggers is naive about what is currently possible and being done, but if you can follow it as a work of fiction in an undetermined time in the future (maybe the not too distant future), it is a cautionary tale rather than a book to be criticized for it's lack of up to date information.  It is particularly timely in the light of the level of scrutiny that the NSA is devoting to each and every one of our data.

    Mae is hired by her college friend to work at The Circle.  While she is on her initial HR tour of the company, they quietly take her phone and laptop out of her hands and upload all the data into the very public Cloud, and all that she does going forward becomes information available to everyone.  The very perceptive piece of all of this is that we are drawn to vicarious living, whether we are nerds (the category that most of The Circle employees reside in) or socially popular.  Mae is encouraged to spend all of her life, both professional and personal, within the company, and that she share all of her experiences broadly and publically.  I think the scene that sums up the situation best is when Mae is revealed to be the object of a fellow employees passion, and they do an expose on her based solely on the information about her available on social media.  Just thinking about that, which is possible today, gives a sense of the profound lack of personal privacy we have and where that could lead.

    Monday, August 4, 2014

    August: Osage County (2013)

    This is the last of the movies that were nominated for an Academy Award in a major category (one exception--I still have to get access to some of the Best Foreign Language film nominees) and I was very surprised that it wasn't nominated for Best Picture.  There was an open slot in that category and I thought it was clearly better than two of those that made the list.   The movie itself is densely written and masterfully acted.  It is somewhere between a 21st century Dickensian family saga and "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?".  Violet is the pill popping intoxicated matriarch of this profoundly dysfunctional clan who mistakes her disinhibited, mean spirited, highly insightful comments on each and every family member as telling the truth but in fact she is expertly exerting her control over each and every one of them, making sure that if they are successful it is not because of her.
    Her husband dealt with Violet by maintaining a steady blood alcohol level.  Her three daughters have had trouble with intimacy and no surprise there.  The story line is predictable and superbly exectured.  There are numerous memorable lines and it is the definition of an American black comedy. 

    Sunday, August 3, 2014

    Summer Palace, Beijing

    The Summer Palace in Beijing is yet another UNESCO World Heritage site in China, and if you can manage to deal with the throngs of tourists who stream through on a daily basis it is quite a site to see.

    The site was established in the Jin Dynasty (1115-1234) and is said to be the best preserved imperial garden in China.  is virtually a museum of traditional Chinese garden arts that blends rocks, trees, pavilions, lakes, ponds, paths and other features to create a poetic effect between different scenes. 

    Later, the Mongol Emperor Kublai Khan (Yuan Dynasty, 1279-1368), who wanted to improve Beijing's water supply, ordered the construction of canals to transport water from the Western Hills to the Summer Palace. He also enlarged the main lake (now called KunMing Lake) to act as a reservoir.

    In 1750, Emperor QianLong (1736-1796) of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), who travelled extensively throughout China noting places of beauty, added substantially to the gardens of the Summer Palace. He appointed designers to reproduce the styles of various palaces and gardens from around China.

    In 1886, Dowager Empress CiXi, with embezzled funds from the Imperial Navy, restored the grand gardens. The reconstruction and enlargement of the Summer Palace continued for ten years and included the Marble Boat.

    After completion of the renovation, CiXi renamed the gardens 'YiHeYuan' ('Garden of Peace and Harmony'), its official name today.

    The Empress Dowager CiXi moved her administration to the renovated YiHeYuan in 1889 and the gardens that had long been an imperial pleasure ground became the primary Summer Palace.  Tales of CiXi's excesses (including the Marble Boat) are numerous and came to symbolise the decadence of the imperial family.  What is less talked about is that the money she siphoned off crippled the military and left China open to invasion in years to come--had they been able to fend off invaders the history of China could have gone very differently indeed.

    Saturday, August 2, 2014

    New Orleans BBQ Shrimp

    This is not shrimp done on the grill.  They are none the less quite delicious, and they go with a brown rice pilaf and some greens on the side.

    • 1 lb shrimp peeled
    • 1/4 cup Worcestershire sauce
    • 1 tablespoons fresh lemon juice 
    • 1 teaspoons ground black pepper
    • 1 teaspoons cracked black pepper
    • 2 teaspoons paprika
    • 1/4 teaspoon cayenne
    • 3 cloves minced garlic
    • 1/2 cups cold unsalted butter, cubed
    • French bread as accompaniment

    In a large skillet combine shrimp, Worcestershire, lemon juice, black peppers, Creole seasoning, and garlic and cook over moderately high heat until shrimp turn pink, about 1 minute on each side. Reduce heat to moderate and stir in butter, a few cubes at a time, stirring constantly and adding more only when butter is melted. Remove skillet from heat. Serve with French bread for dipping.

    Friday, August 1, 2014

    Xi'an City Walls

    This is a magnificent feat of engineering, dating back to the Ming Dynasty.  The bricks are spectacular and the entire 9 mile perimeter of the walls is walkable and in very decent shape.   The walls were built but never breached--maybe because they were so intimidating that no one ever tried, or because they were completely unnecessary.  I spent some time learning about modern China before my trip, and I read a quick overview of world history a few years back, but the city by city defense of China is not in my knowledge base.
    What I will say is this--these are gorgeous.  There are four city gates that aptly names after the direction that they face (east, west, north and south--nothing fancy here)--I walked between the South and East gate and back and my spouse bicycled around the entire perimeter.  There are bike rentals at every gate, and the popular option the day we were there were the tandem bicycles--they allowed for independent pedaling, so one can just ride while the other madly pedals.  Perfect for  the mismatched bicyclist couples.
    Inside the city walls lie many older buildings, some in need of repair and others in good shape.  Immediately outside the walls modern Xi'an rises high into the sky--with a skyline that is fuzzy with smog and with buildings that contrast sharply with the pagodas of the wall.  I highly recommend this walk (despite the air quality--I was fine as a walker--my husband had some chest pain ), which has all sorts of shops and many public restrooms as a way to enjoy Xi'an old and new.