Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Dafen, China -- Art, Copy for Copy Sake

I recently heard a brief talk by a Chinese architect who is building an art museum in the city of Dafen, China. This is an example of the random things I DO know about modern China. I don't know what it adds up to but here, for other's curiosity is what's going on in Dafen, a city which in the mid-20th century had a population of about 20,000 and now has a population over 10 million! That alone is staggering. The old Dafen is a segment of the new Dafen which has spread like a malignant mold, apparently.

Dafen was a city of artists, and still is. There are surely some original artists there but today it is a city that produces hundreds of thousands of oil paintings which are copies of those that hang in the great museums of the world. Their main market, it seems are hotel chains. This is not, apparently, a matter of forgery but of copies for copy-sake. The picture above is from an annual competition held in Dafen these days to find the most talented painters who are given "scholarships" to move into Dafen and infuse new blood to the production of old masters.

About the new art museum: It has three stories, the ground level will be a market for copies of everything from Mona Lisa to the Van Gogh's Sunflowers and much else as well. The top floor will be studios for the winners of the annual contest. And the middle section will be a traditional museum for "real" art -- which at the moment they don't own but there is a budget for purchasing originals. Nothing in the brief lecture said if the art will be western or Chinese but apparently it will be oil paintings.

The whole thing fascinates me. I've long heard complaints about the forgeries of all kinds of goods from Gucchi purses to golf clubs to Rolex watches, Viagra and other drugs, books, CDs, DVD, pouring out of China. This seems a different take on the idea of copying Western products for Western consumption. What a strange way for a society to grow and prosper! What does this mean in terms of values - theirs and ours? I don't have answers, only questions. Every society produces many "artists" in every creative field who are mediocre or every pretty good but not superlative at what they do, but this is the only society that I've heard of that celebrates copying for it's own sake.

There are some fine artist in China, of course. In Beijing I visited a gallery in the Summer Palace grounds which had a few good pieces by art school/university professors. And I've visited a lovely gallery, The Tao Water Gallery, on Cape Cod which shows art from Chinese artists, mostly representational art, some of it very good work and I'm sure there are similar examples or original art both throughout China and the rest of the world. Still, I'm confused about what to think about what's happening in China.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

China, Obama, McCain

The written media [I don't have a TV, so don't see that medium] are full of our presumptive presidential candidates and of China in it's pre-Olympic frenzy of self-advertisement. What do China, Obama and McCain have in common beside share of headlines? Well manicured superficial facts that tell me very little that I want to read or remember. At the moment I don't like any of them very much. And I am in many ways quite ignorant about all of them.

I thought I knew a fair amount about China. I've been there twice -- and if some peruse my passports they will say I've been there four times. But no! I've been to China twice and to Tibet twice. Sunday's NYTimes had an eduction supplement as they do a few times a year. Its usual quiz was about China. I did very poorly. I wonder how many people did well because I think I am fairly well versed on the country But, indeed, there is so little I know about that vast, over-populated country.

I first heard of China in grade school, a library book with a story about fishermen who had cormorants, with rings round their necks, fishing for them. For a long time that was what I knew although I had never seen a cormorant. Gradually I learned more and think I know a fair amount of history from Lao Tzu and the Tao, the I Ching, Confucius onward and then the horror of Mao's years and the destructive force of the Red Guards -- oh, and in the middle there was Ghengis Khan and his progency who ruled China for a long while. But now I'm being told in articles and magazines about how wonderful it is that finally a middle class is buying cars and living comfortably.

And, yes, McCain and Obama are telling us they know how to solve all America's problems and the newsmen and women are analyzing what they say -- and I don't believe most of it. Things change a lot when one has been elected and get much more complicated. Likewise, all those wonderful computer whiz kids in China, those entrepreneurs -- hmm? I remember walking about the Stone Forest, a beautifully laid out park in Yunnan [with the handsomest public bathroom I've ever been in -- orchids in a vase on the washstand] and seeing the equivalent of our own bus tours to historic sites, middle aged middle class Chinese citizens who had, at last, the money and leisure to see their own natural wonders. Likewise the World Heritage city of LiJiang so crowded one could barely walk the narrow streets where all the old shops now sold the same mixture of tourist souveniers. I remember a sweet retired woman in her hutong courtyard home telling us how wonderful it was to have a pension and comfort. And a number of young women trained as guides spouting the statistics about their cities.

And I think of the Tibetan lamas and nuns arrested last March, languishsing, perhaps being gratuitiously tortured for refusing to give up their faith and devotion to the Dalai Lama. Meanwhile the Chinese honchos assume we have forgotten that brief, brave call for freedom because the media has lost interest and moved on to the athletes and the grand new stadia and the briefly clean air in Beijing, which was so smoggy when I was there I couldn't see the nearby mountains. How is one to look at all the shining news about our presidential hopefuls and about the "new" China? My answer is, with profound skepticism about all of it.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Let There Be Light

Good light has always been important -- not just important, necssary -- to me, and I've been shfting various lights I have around for nearly a year since my well loved halogen light went kaput. Why didn't I replace it? Because, actually it was ugly. Furthermore, it was also hot in the summer when I was reading near it.

For some time I've been looking at ads for the Ott Light which is supposed to have a full spectrum and is not hot, so they say. But I have a light with the new weird looking bulb and I don't like it's light so I've been hesitant about something else with a new weird bulb and those lights are as ugly as the halogen one was. Earlier this week I saw that the non-dollar part of the mid-town dollar store had a variety of lamps, standing ones and table ones all seemed to be $29 which is a good price for a decent looking lamp.

Off I went today to get a [faux] brass lamp and home I came with a full spectrum lamp which is even uglier than was the halogen lamp. I'm not sure what hit me and made me make that decision as I stood there with plenty of time to consider the pros and cons.
So I trundled home with it in it's box, the size of which told me that "some assembly was required" as the ads say. It was easy assembly, simply screwing three sections together -- not exactly a challenge.

To my true surprise, I really like the light. It seems truer and cleaner than either the usual incandescent or the somewhat difficult halogen. I have been both working on the computer and reading a novel in its light and both have been pleasant on my eyes. Perhaps this is a poor man's Ott light, probably it is a Chinese imitation, certainly it cost a lot less and the ugliness factor is about the same. It's behind my reading and writing chair and can be angled over my desk when I sit there to address envelopes and do financial stuff. I pronounce myself pleased with this new-fangled invention. We older dogs can learn to enjoy new treats.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Mirror, mirror on the wall ...

Right you are. The mirror is not on the wall but a car. Fascination with mirrors extended to the chance realization that I could photograph the bison, from the back seat of the car, and photograph Rachel watching the bison. Since Narcissis looked into that pool of water mirrors have fascinated people, be they quiet pools, polished metal [lots of ancient Egyptians are shown admiring themselves in hand mirrors] or the glass mirrors we have today, nothing is much more fascinating than our own face and body in reflection.

Some years ago a friend who is that many years older than I told me shortly after her 70th birthday, "I can't look in mirrors any more." She was a lovely young woman and is definitely not an ugly old woman but she is quite changed as are more of us. I wondered then how it's possible to avoid the bathroom mirror, or any other for that matter. But now I partly understand, I find it is possible to go in and out of the bathroom without looking into the mirror -- not from a conscious avoidance but because some part of me simply isn't so interested any more. But I am not like my friend; sometimes I do consider the changes at length -- and try to do what little can be done to make the reflection more pleasing.

Yesterday's NYTImes Science Section had a lead article about the uses of mirrors in medicine, especially to understand people's depth and dimension perception, and to understand their ego quirks/strengths/weaknesses. They said that elephants are among the few non-human creatures who recognize themselves in mirrors. I feel that someday people will understand the great intelligence of large animals like elephants, whales and gorillas. [And as an aside, I am heartened by the recent law of the Czech Republic that gives rights to large primates].

Back to self-refection [I know, pun-pun!] I will admit that for some time I've realized that I like my reflection most when I am not wearing glasses or contact lenses. Imperfections are fuzzy to unnoticeable and a few years fade away. The Times article says that adults recognize their faces in panels of faces on experimental viewings most readily if their faces are slightly enhanced -- Photoshopped, say they -- and are slower or less likely to pick out their own unenhanced face among a panel. Is this bad? So what if we think we look a little better than we do? It gives us confidence in a world that prizes attractiveness so highly, where photographs of the young and fine looking are in our faces every day. Yes, let's like ourselves and think well of our appearance. And perhaps we should act on what we can observe any time in a crowded place, people become several degrees more attractive when they smile. The attractiveness goes beyond the features and contours of the face, it suggest this is a likable person, someone you just might want to smile back at.

Monday, July 21, 2008

The "Do It again" thing in the brain

I enjoy the variety of things I learn about in my transcription job. Sometimes there are meetings at a brain institute. Lately it was a meeting at a hospital. I learned something, really very little, but enough to set me to thinking, about the locus acumbens. This is a deep part of the brain and probably not identifiable on the above MRI of a brain. From what I heard it seems to be not as deep and old as the reptilian brain, but probably only a few million years younger.

The psychiatrist who mentioned it called it the "do it again" part of the brain. She was speaking of drug addicts who use, go into rehab, relapse, go into rehab again, relapse, again and again. I thought she was trying too hard to explain something physiologically because she, nor any of her colleagues, could do anything to cure drug addiction. So if they can't talk it out and can't behavioristically reprogram the impulses, it must be somewhere very deep in the brain. Perhaps it is. Or perhaps some humans are especially susceptible to drugs -- it seems that shamen have always been around and always used various substances and practices to go into an altered mental states. Logically as a nonscientist it seems to me one doesn't need a "do it again," part of the brain. The pleasures are too immediate to need to be so deeply embeded. I would guess that if the locus acumbens controls repeated habit, they would be life preserving like the urge to migrate. The basic impulse that when it starts to get chilly and the berries are all eaten up, it's time to move south.

The brain is perhaps the last greatest mystery in this still sizable mystery called human biology. We nonscientists tend to think our "self" exists somewhere in the brain. We are afraid that when things go wrong in the brain we will stop being "ourselves." We think every self must have a brain -- that's a we I include myself in. The above picture is a drawing of a brain superimposed on the Michaelangelo "David" -- making him not just a marble hunk [pun totally intended] but a thinking person, as indeed the original David was, and so were and are all the many namesakes since.

As we get older we have fears about destruction of our brains -- this may be part of why I am always so fascianted, even with doubtful bits of information as above. I take my blood pressure medication faithfully because I have a horror of a stroke, of being locked in a body that has been paralyzecd by an accident in the brain, a brain that, it seems, can still think normally but cannot speak or control physical actions. Few things seem worse to me, even dementia which embarrasses one's relatives doesn't seem to be so self-conscious as I believe stroke victims to be. Just writing a short paragraph about it, is very painful and I really can't bear continuing to think about it. I'll have my blood pressure checked in a couple of days. That's one of the few tools we have to fight what my internist learned in med school to call a 'silent killer." Enough already.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008


A good night's sleep is a very satisfying thing. All my live I've heard older people, especially, complaining of not sleeping well. As I seem to be older, my observation is that it comes mainly from not getting enough real exercise. A tired body needs sleep and will usually sink happily into slumerland. I certainly experienced that dring the week I was walking every day on park trails for three to seven miles.

But there are times when I get a good night's tossing and turning, as was true last night. Sometimes it seems I've simply caught up on all the sleep I really need and the body says 'Basta! Turn on the radio and listen to some piece of music you can't identify." Or sometimes it says, "Stop wasting perfctly good time, turn on the light and read for a while." But sometimes something needs to be gnawed at by the semi-awake brain. Not gnawing at a worry, not solving some problem, not planning an action. Just preparing the thought process for dealng with a matter that is coming up -- could be as simple as a trip to the dentist or a vacation. Whatever. One simply accepts this is what the body wants to do, why resist? Why resent? The body is not an enemy; it is part of me and knows sometimes more than my conscious thoughts know.

It is a bit irritating when that demanding psychic level does it's rumbing and mumbling from 2;00 to 5:30 and then lapses into a very pleasant sleep half an hour before the clock radio is going to come on and wake me at 6:00. Happily I don't have to leap out of bed, I can drift awake, which is why the clock radio is actually set for five minute before th hour -- so there are five minute of music before that well rounded, unruffled radio voice starts to tell me about bombings in Afghanistan and trouble in Israel and that it's going to be 88 and humid during the coming day. I tend to think a lot of the moaning about bad nights of not sleeping come from having not enogh to do and from assuming the body is a separate entity that exists to cause problems for the "real" you. So, just where does that "real you" live? Huh?

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Power of writing

One never knows quite what will bubble up from the depths [of the earth/the past] - which is as far as I'm going to push this analogy in order to use this rather beautiful picture of a hot pool at Yellowstone. What I am referring to goes back tohow I feel about writing and partly why I've written things all my life. At some point I realized that the stories others told were becoming a part of my life experience. The first one that really seemed that way was The Yearling by Marjorie Killen Rawlings. But many others - perhaps most vividly the pseudo-funeral scene from Tom Sawyer. Anyway, I felt writing held a secret power and that Rawlings had no idea a little girl such as I was, would be moved by her story, likewise Twain. Yet they made my life richer. I thought if I wrote I might have some of that magic power and it might touch people I could never know.

And so it has, although, now I have been told via a couple of recent emails. When I movd to NYC I had a very heavy trunk of stuff I'd written. Not long after, I saw a brief notice in a New York Review of Books from the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe asking for diaries written by girls growing up in the '40s or '50s. I sent them a box of diaries I had begun keeping when I was 12 or 13. I did not reread them, I was afraid to find out how dull and dumb sounding they were. So I got a thank you and for some years was on the fund raising lists of the Library. That was over twenty yeas ago.

Now I've had a few emails from a young woman writing a Ph.D thesis on girls growing up in that period and she has been using my diaries. She even tells me that a man used them earlier for a book he's published. He didn't attempt to get in touch with me, which is okay, the diaries have no restrictions. I am surprised that this woman can find enough in the diaries to be of use, but she says they are very helpful. Who knew? In the fullness of time, she will send me a copy of her thesis. So bubbling up from much I've forgotten about my growing up years, what I wrote seems to be informing someone and enriching her understanding of what may be her mother's or grandmother's period.

Strange bits of memory were stirred up. One is that I think I wrote of going to a basketball game wearing newly made [by me] Bermuda shorts which had just made it into the fashion magazines at the time. This seemed very daring to me and I was quite pleased with myself. I don't know why that particular incident is imprinted on my memory when there were years of other things.

I have no idea what else I might have written, or even said or done, that has left ripples in the world. We never know, of course. If we think about it, a great sense of responsibility cloaks us so that, to me at least, it finally seems that the only way to live really well is to attain a state of utter spontaneous good will toward all This rare and wonderful state of mind is not impossible -- we have the example of the Dalai Lama and a few others of his sort. How did I get here? Yes, the ripples we all cause in the world with everything we do. The desire that those are positive ripples, not netagative -- but that it is impossible to actually know. Oh, my, this is all bubbling up from those depths like the magma so close to the surface in Yellowstone's geyser plateaus.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Crochety Old Woman, Redux

I was walking along a street this afternon when I heard a child shriek. It is not unusual on the family-filled upper West Side to hear crying children. Usually a parent is trying to soothe or a nanny is ignoring [or trying to soothe]. I glanced behind me and saw a little girl with a gleeful look on her face as she shrieked. A little boy, nearly the same age [3ish] took his turn. They shrieked alternately nearly the length of a long crosstown block. As they were passing me with a father near-by I said to the father, "They're not being funny." They were being horrid! A police car or fire engine has a purpose for shreiking. "They're just children" said the mother very quickly and defensively.

Since when is it appropriate, on a city street with other people present, to allow two children to scream like banshees with no consideration for whoever else is walking there or might be in the houses one is passing? These looked like or propserous middle class WASPY people. In a way I'm less surprised they fit that category than if the children were from some minority group. These seemed to be parents with a sense of entitlement -- the entitlement to freedom to be obnoxious as they chose because in some way they are among the chosen, comfortable urbanites raising children in the expensive city. They too may have been allowed to shriek on the sidewalks by over-permissive parents.

Once the subject was mentioned, even that briefly, the children seemed to lose interest and stopped shrieking. Perhaps they had a little more sense of propriety than their insecurely defensive mother. Or perhaps they were simply shrieked out. It was a tiny incident but I found it far more egregious than the many times I've heard a bawling or whining of outright sobbing child being pushed along in a stroller or held by a parent while being told, "no, we can't do that now. We're going home. No, no ice cream/candy/toy..." Children will cry, some have learned to shriek for the effect of getting on nerves ... but most parents wear a somewhat embarrassed, apologetic expression. Nannies are another story, they are not categorizable; they are so different one from another. A part of me wishes I were able to think really fast on my feet and could have said something properly cutting. Well ... the kids did stop and that's all one could hope for.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

The Family that Plays Together ...

As families go I cannot say we are close. We are physically distant and yet, I do not feel we are emotionally distant, at least not from this corner of what I consider a triangle. Leslie is in Marin County in California, Rachel is on Cape Cod and I am in New York City. Ten years ago, to celebrate the Big 6-0, Rachel and I flew to California and the three of us headed for Yosemite -- but we settled for Kings Canyon because Yosemite was still snowed in [in early June]. That was the last time the two sisters were together. So getting together for a week to celebrate my big 7-0, and incidentally Leslie's birthday on May 11, and Rachel's on July 11, we met in Salt Lake City, drove up to Yellowstone, returned through the Grand Tetons, staying in Jackson,WY three days. We had free travel days on each end spent in Utah and Idaho.

What is not amazing to me, but may be to those afficinados of the dysfunctional family -- which is to say most writers of movies, novels, TV shows and plays, as well as the lore of most news media -- is that we spent a week in harmony. No fights, not even tiffs. Nothing gooey and sweetzy-po, we're not that kind. But we were all on the same wave lengths. We all awoke early, we all got excited by every wild animal siting [the bison grazing 20 feet from our cabin in Yellowstone, the badgers Leslie photographed so well, the moose we finally found, the picas in the parking lot - big and small, we were delighted to see them all. The geysers and bubbling hot pools of mud and minerals from the center of the earth with their yucky smells and wondrous colors, the grand mountains, the peaceful valleys and calm lakes.

Our lives are very different -- VERY, and I won't go into it -- but we share so many attitudes, such basic values. It's a pleasure that I think we all share. I have always had trouble believing in the amount of dysfunction I read about. Yes, I understand that conflict makes drama and that agreement is NOT drama. There is drama in our individual lives. Leslie is dealing with a physical problem right now and we all care but we're not blowing it up into drama. I am not sure where balance and good sense comes from but I think it marks all of us. And it allows us to enjoy a simple vacation like this. It allows us to sit in one of the dullest little towns in Idaho and laugh until we have tears in our eyes about the utter simplicity of the best restraunt in town. So much was simple and good and easy going ... I wish we could all afford to do such vacations annually.

The picture at the top is our last lunch in Grand Tetons, on the balcony of a restaurant with the most scenic mountains in the US in the backgrond. The picture below is a place we never heard of until I read brochures, Antelope Island State Park, an actual island in the Great Salt Lake just a little north of Salt Lake City -- a serene, beautiful place with antelope [natch], bison and many birds.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Life Time Pass

As we approached the entrance to Yellowstone National Park the toll-taker must have noticed a head of white hair sitting in the passenger seat for, as Rachel was extending a $20 bill, he asked, "Is anyone in the car 62 years of age or older?" "Indeed." I answered. He then explained that if I had photo ID [of course I had!] I could have a lifetime National Parks pass for $10, which would admit me and anyone in the car with me -- for as long as I live! Hip-hip-horray! Love it!!!

Oh, yes, being older has its perks. I love my NYC MTA card that gives me $1 rides on all public transportation. I love going to movies before 5:00 and getting a discount. I love all those discounts in museums and other places that have senior discounts. Yes, it's very nice to save the money. But it imparts a pleasant little feeling that I've lived a good while and worked pretty hard at that living and a perk is a sweet little reward for all this time paying full price.

So far I've seen little of our National Parks. For some years I've been saying that I would continue international travel as long as possible because the US will always be closer and easier to get to. True enough! There's still much of the world to see, but, especially as people become more sedentary, going to the national parks becomes a greater pleasure. We did trail walking every day and were often alone for long periods or saw only a few people -- never enough people to make woodlands or meadows feel crowded. And this was at the height of vacation time. I'll have to do more National Park walking. And all for $10 entrance fee.