Friday, November 30, 2007

Chicken hands

We went out to eat tonight and Mari, in the parking lot, said she wanted to eat: "Chicken hands! Chicken hands!"

You want to eat chicken hands?

"Oh, no!" she said, "I mean 'chicken fingers'!"

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Laziest/most informative post ever

Wondering what we've been up to this past week? Check out my sister's blog, Meaningful Drivel. If you're reading this years from now, you should be looking at her November 2007 posts.

Yes, I write for the future.

It was great to have Pauline here. Besides being great company and fun for the kids (Mari gave her a hug every morning) she motivated us to get out and do things like skate at the Frog Pond. Come visit any time!

Wednesday, November 14, 2007


Not Starring, a website that lists parts that actors chose not to take. Like taking a tour of alternate-universe Hollywood.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Mari's Gymnastics class

I think my editing is getting better. This time I tried to cue up with the music more (music is from Manu Chao's latest).

Friday, November 09, 2007

Book review: Mindless Eating

This book has a great subtitle: Why We Eat More than We Think.

I saw Wilson's mention of Mindless Eating and gave it a read. Good stuff! Brian Wansink is a professor at Cornell and he's spent a career doing psychological experiments on people in restaurants, bars, and fake movie theaters to see how people decide what, and especially how much, to eat. For example, he gave stale popcorn (perfectly clean, just stale) to people at a matinee. People complained about the popcorn's taste. But they still ate it. And the people who got bigger containers ate more than the ones who got smaller containers. So: people will eat mindlessly at a movie, and the more you give them, the more they're going to eat.

The book is full of hilarious experimental designs. In one, they created a never ending bowl of soup.

Some fun facts: Wansink suggests portioning out your food in the kitchen and keeping to those amounts (you can serve the vegetables on the table "family style"). Make good foods easy to eat and bad foods harder to eat (put the chips in the back of the cupboard, leave fresh fruit out on the table). Use smaller containers (if you buy at Costco, put the food in smaller Tupperware in the kitchen, and keep the massive amounts out of sight) and smaller serving utensils (taller cups look bigger than wider cups; dinner plates are now 12" diameter whereas a generation ago they were 8" [for the record, ours are 10"]). The person who shops and cooks controls 72% of the family's nutrition.

He also points out that we don't notice 100 calories a day either way, so if you just cut out that 100 calories, you'll lose weight. Another fun fact: 3500 calories is about a lb. of body weight.

Oh, the answer to the obvious question is Yes, food companies use his research in designing restaurants and menus, but No, he does not take corporate money for his research which is published in respected journals like JAMA and others.

There's a website that goes with the book here.

Public Radio Podcasts

Some thoughts on podcasts that I like:

Val suggested I try listening to Radio Lab. Good call, Val! This is now my favorite radio show (sorry Wait, Wait and TAL)! Each hour presents stories on scientific ideas. They do a great job of explaining experiments and the conclusions. The production is also really creative and slick. Some of it involves using audio tricks to "illustrate" the experiments or ideas, but they also have a wonderful use of overlapping voices. The latter is hard to describe, or explain why it's good, but check it out, it sounds very casual and conversational but they manage to pack a lot of information in, and emphasize the important information in the conversation.

Anyway, some favorite episodes: "Musical Language" has some great stuff about perfect pitch, and baby talk and what it means to have musical style. "Sleep" includes amazing experiments on "half-sleeping" animals and a funny piece about Tetris and dreaming. "Memory and Forgetting" will change the way you think about, well, thinking. I think this is the one that got me hooked. The series only produces five shows a year, and has been on for three years, so there's time to catch up (as I'm still doing).

This American Life recently re-aired the worst show I've ever heard from them. It was "Mapping" and it's about ten years old. Starts out with promise, but the premise is pretty loose and the stories are a bit choppy and are especially ethereal. Although I do love the guy who was eating his way down Pico Blvd.

On the plus side, I heard "Act V" for the first time. It's a story about a prison drama group that is performing Hamlet in parts (because they are not allowed to congregate in large groups for more than 45 minutes or something like that). These guys really relate to the struggle with revenge killing and guilt. A great pitch for the idea of the Humanities as essential to moral education.

Oh and you have to hear Starlee Kline on "Break-up" trying to compose a song about her relationship and getting help from no other than... Phil Collins.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Halloween pictures

Multiple costumes!

For the Jamaica Plain Lantern Parade (pic):

Going to school on Halloween day (Mari's teacher may not have realized she was dressed differently than usual):

And for trick or treating, a Peter Pan theme:

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

China: Guanyuan Insect Market

Still editing video.

Here's the latest from our trip, Beijing's Guanyuan insect market. It's kind of like a pet store, but they sell scary stuff that's just in open boxes.

Here's the China index.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Great children's books with Pigs

So I was going to mention some books that the kids (age 3-4.5) really like and then I realized that a lot of them featured pigs as protagonists. So here they are:

The Poppleton series by Cynthia Rylant, illustrated by Mark Teague. These are short chapter books that are quite funny, and the kids get the jokes, some of them silly tricks that the characters play on each other (is that a wart?). Mostly they are about Poppleton, a pig who moves to a small town and has gentle adventures with his friends and neighbors.

If you like the way Teague draws pigs, by the way, you should check out his book Pigsty.

Mr. & Mrs. Pig's Night Out and others by Mary Rayner. These books are out of print, but I found them in the library. The first book tells the story of what happens when the Pig parents get a babysitter who is a wolf. The sequels deal with the family band, an ice cream truck, too much ketchup and other vexing situations.

The Amazing Bone by William Steig. The classic about a pig who finds a talking bone.

Hog Eye by Susan Meddaugh. Illustrated in a style reminiscent of Steig, this book is told by a clever girl pig. She gets captured by a wolf, but because she can read and the wolf can't, she has the upper hand. The first time we read this, Austin actually said, "Is this a library book? Can we buy one to keep?"

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Why Do People Kill?

My latest conversation with Austin in the car:

NPR is on.

Austin: Daddy, a lot of people get killed in wars.

Me: Yes. (Turns off radio.)


Austin: Why do people kill?

Me (after some thought): Well, if someone is going to hurt them, and they kill that person, that's called self-defense.

Also sometimes people kill to steal something.

Austin: Like pirates.

Me: Yes, pirates kill and steal people's boats.

Austin: Or gold.

Me: And also there are people who are just crazy. None of these are really good reasons for killing, are they?

Austin: No.


Austin: Or they're hungry.

Me: What?

Austin: Like, if someone wants to eat a chicken, they kill the chicken. Or if they want turkey, they kill a turkey. Or if they want to make a fire, they chop down a tree.

Me: Yes.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Mari Likes to Sit on People

That's not entirely fair, but as I was looking at some recent photos to post, there seemed to be a trend. The people you might not recognize: Amy Crosson, Elke Cramer, Mary Crosson.

From the album: We Rock the Corn and Tomato Festival.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Mari's 3rd Birthday

We celebrated Mari's birthday at a great family run orchard in Berlin, MA. The apples were delicious (especially the Ginger Golds) and we had a great time.

Here's the proof:

Monday, September 10, 2007

Comments, please!

I made my first contribution to a group blog about the Humanities here.

Unfortunately, there are few comments on that blog! If you have time to read the piece and leave a comment, I'd appreciate it since it will make it seem like I've got something interesting to say.

The other thing I should note is that I wrote for the general public, and the rest of the blog seems more targeted at scholars, etc. so maybe my post was too general. What do you think?

Wednesday, August 22, 2007


After slagging off Cars, I feel like I should give Pixar props for their latest movie Ratatouille. The reviews have been all positive so what more can I add?

Well, this: there's something really fantastic about the fact that they make you care about Remy and all the other rats individually, but when you seen them scurrying en masse, it's so completely creepy that it turned my stomach. Now that is impressive visual filmmaking.

That's all.

Scott Pilgrim

In other Canadiana news, I've recently read the first three volumes of Bryan Lee O'Malley's Scott Pilgrim comics from Oni Press. They feature slacker/bass player/moocher Scott Pilgrim and his friends in Toronto as they play in a band, meet new girl and boyfriends, break up, rollerblade through wormholes and have epic hand to hand battles to the death.

The plot involves videogame logic and manga inspired violence but overall, there's a sweet silliness to the characters that is very compelling. My favorite might be Kim the drummer who hates everyone and tries to gain sympathy from another character by telling her that she was "scrap booking" on a Saturday night (she wasn't, really). Scott's wry gay roommate Wallace also ranks highly (he and Scott's new girlfriend have a friendship based on a shared hatred of Scott's ex-).

And again, sounding like a lost Torontonian, I love the background touches of Canadian bands on t-shirts and posters, fight scenes set at Casa Loma or Honest Ed's, and late night discussions at Pizza Pizza or The Second Cup. They've even namechecked the Pacific Mall.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

TV: The Pick-Up Artist

I'm ashamed to say, I read this book called The Game by Neil Strauss in the past year or so. The reason? Curiosity. I think I read a New York Times article by Strauss about a guy named Mystery who runs seminars on how to pick up women. And his course of study is based on sociological studies and millions of attempts. Yes, millions -- through the internet, apparently there is a whole subculture of guys who try to talk to women and then post about their success or failure, leading to dozens of other guys to try out the same line on women in a different city or club. (The sociology is all about proximity studies, coming off as non-threatening, etc.)

Oh, and just to make me seem less sick, I should point out that mostly these guys are super shy and just trying to figure out how to talk to a woman and maybe get a phone number. (Strauss' book has more about sex and drugs as he joins this subculture and the group gets crazed [mostly because their girlfriends dump them {duh}].)

The funny thing about all the stuff they teach is that they sound like how Julie and I socialize at weddings where we don't know anybody. Be nice, be different, don't linger.

Recently, one of my favorite TV critics (yes, I have them -- I also like the New Yorker's Tad Friend and Nancy Franklin [who seems really sweet in a special feature on the DVD of I Know Where I'm Going]), Heather Havrilesky of Salon wrote positively about a new show called The Pick-Up Artist, a reality competition featuring Mystery, aka Erik von Markovik.

It's pretty entertaining. The casting of the loser guys is great and they're problems are nicely diverse: "Needs to shed frat boy image" "talks too much" "too nervous around women" "way too energetic." There's also a guy who loves to breakdance at inappropriate times. But one thing that I really enjoy is the fact that Mystery is from Toronto, and I think some of the contestants are, too. The Canadian accent and the overall vibe reminds me of some friends from Toronto. The hidden camera scenes of the guys striking out in bars is also very amusing.

Anyway, there's a video highlight reel on the website (important for those of us without cable -- the show is on VH1).

Friday, August 17, 2007

China's outdoor exercise equipment

In Peter Hessler's Letter from China in the Feb 13 & 20, 2006 New Yorker, he writes:
Not long after I mobed into Little Ju-er, Beijing stepped up its campaign to host the 2008 Games, and traces of Olympic glory began to touch the hutong. In an effort to boost the athleticism and health of average Beijing residents, the government constructed hundreds of outdoor exercise stations. The painted steel equipment is well-intentioned but odd, as if the designer had caught a fleeting glimpse of a gym and then worked from memory. At the exercise stations, people can spin giant wheels with their hands, push big levers that offer no resistance, and swing on pendulums like children at a park.
We found this equipment in other cities as well, including near the first place we stayed in Shanghai. Julie and I kind of liked it; like a playground for adults while the kids played next door.

Here's the video:

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Elvis Costello

He wants more of your money. Yep, Elvis Costello is at it again.

I've discovered this neat little audio newletter called a "podcast" and found one with Elvis C. talking about "The First Ten Years." It's pretty interesting but then it turns out that it's promoting yet another series of reissues for his albums. The end of each episode has featured a sneak peak at the reissue of My Aim Is True -- 26 never before released tracks! An entire live show from 1977!

As much as this has me curious, I have to admit that I feel like EC may be an acquired taste and the labels are basically fleecing the same people over and over again. Let's see how this works:

Elvis C. releases music on large pieces of plastic with grooves. Fan buys, enjoys.

Perhaps fan even buys a copy on tape for the car.

Possibly, in the 1980s, the fan buys a copy on compact disc, a format that will never degrade!

But wait, Rykodisk then bought out the rights to the early albums and produced beautiful repackagings with lots of bonus material -- b-sides, unreleased tracks and expanded liner notes.

Oh no! Rhino records then acquired the rights and put out super deluxe versions with even MORE tracks and new notes by Elvis Hisself!

And now Elvis C. is signed to Verve/Universal (the same as his wife, Diana Krall) and here comes the ultra deluxe version!

How many copies of My Aim Is True can you have? Five maybe. But how many copies of Goodbye Cruel World do you need?

To be honest, if there is an extra cds worth of material accompanying King of America I might have to get that one again.

Meanwhile, check out the podcast (I found it on iTunes).

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Nixon and Mao by Margaret MacMillan


I'm still posting about China. Lots of material to get to yet!

One of the books I read before going was Nixon and Mao: The Week that Changed the World. Okay, to be honest, I read some chapters and skimmed a lot of the middle.

It's a good book, and the writing and research are both solid, but it covers a lot of old ground. That is, if you know something about the Nixon presidency, there are passages that won't tell you much; similarly about Mao and the two main lieutenants on either side, Kissinger and Chou En Lai. That said, if you know nothing about any one of these men, there is a chapter in this book that will very readably get you up to speed on the man's history up to 1972.

The ultimate disappointment is that the "week" didn't change the world -- the idea of the week did. Once Nixon said he would go and committed to it, the balance of power and trade began to shift in the world. On the actual trip, some amusing things happened, both sides were gracious at high levels and extremely curious at the level of ordinary Chinese and Chinese and American journalists. These make for some interesting anecdotes, but the truth is, Mao was in bad shape, he met Nixon one day and the rest was sight seeing.

When we were in China, someone told us a story about a tree that Nixon planted on his visit. Chou En Lai picked it out especially for the President and Nixon ceremoniously plunked it down in a hole in a park as a symbol of the growth of Sino-American friendship. It died. The person who told us the story implied that there was something about Nixon that killed the plant.

Another story is that Mao was getting extremely irritable throughout the meeting and finally asked Nixon if he minded if he (the Chairman) smoked. Nixon said, Go right ahead, and Mao proceeded to chain smoke two or three packs.

Anyhow, and good book on a particular historic moment, but better suited for those with less knowledge of either side (MacMillan is Canadian and maybe the book's audience lies in non-American, non-Chinese readers).

Friday, August 03, 2007


I was just praising Austin for something this morning -- "Hey, you're a really good boy" (I think he was sharing with Mari -- and then he said:

"I'm as good as the ocean gives shells to the shore."

It really threw me for a loop. Maybe he'll grow up to be Seamus Heaney. (Or maybe he'll grow up to be Jim Morrison.)

Monday, July 30, 2007


That's the name of the film. Gigantic: A Tale of Two Johns.

Yes, it's the They Might Be Giants documentary.

I find it enjoyable, although since I'm blogging while watching it suggests I'm not totally engrossed. But, the point I wanted to make is that all the celebrity talking heads -- Frank Black, Sarah Vowell, Ira Glass, Dave Eggers, Andy Richter, etc. -- are, frankly, not that famous. I mean, if you know who those people are, you already know who They Might Be Giants are. It's a weird sort of C-list cult celebrity log rolling circle.

Oh, and Syd Straw is the weirdest.

And, I'm sorry, but thank goodness I haven't seen the This American Life tv show -- it's very disturbing to see Ira Glass talk and, especially, laugh. Sorry, Ira.

Thursday, July 26, 2007


I find these posts kind of tiresome (because there's no added value in me just posting a link), but Tom sent me a link to a totally cool tutorial on learning constellations. It's not what I expected and I'm enjoying it so much that I'm pausing it to write it up. Anyway, here it is.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Free stocks = free money

Remember Travelzoo?

Sometime in the 1990s, someone (Liz?) sent me a link about a company that was giving away shares in an effort to build awareness. The shares were worth, well, not much for a long time. Then the company went public, and the stock split. Sadly, I didn't claim my stock so I don't know if I'm just left holding an empty bag at this point. But this is where to go to get forms to ask to cash out those virtual shares.

What's the point of this?

Free shares of a new company! Available here: ">

You can also sign up for an iPod raffle there.

Saturday, June 30, 2007

Back From China


We're back and I intend to write about China, but I thought I'd also make this post a floating index of sorts. I'll update this with links to China related articles, but meantime, if you're a regular reader, you can skip this on your way to the new stuff below.

And if you want to link to China coverage, you can link to this all-inclusive post. How convenient!

So, live posts from China:

We're here!
First Second Impressions
Three Blades of Yangchow

Books about China worth reading (chronological by subject):

1930s Shanghai and Chengdu. The Lady and the Panda
1972 Beijing and elsewhere. Nixon and Mao
1990s Beijing. Foreign Babes in Beijing

Posts about China from home:

Children's Department Store (with video!)
Imperial Meal (with video!)
Outdoor Exercise Equipment (with video!)
Guanyuan Insect Market

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

China Stock

I'm no financial genius (I barely qualify as a financial moron), but I'm pretty happy with a stock that I bought just before we left for China: (CTRP). CTrip is basically Expedia in China -- online airline and hotel bookings.

After seeing the burgeoning new middle class in China, and the amount of travel they did at the May holiday (which will be reflected in the 3rd quarter statement), plus the increasing number of computers, it seems (for now) like a no-brainer, especially through the 2008 Olympics (I figure the Chinese government is not going to rock teh boat one iota until after that, and possibly until after Shanghai hosts the World Expo in 2010).

Anyway, the stock is doing well, and recently they announced that they will be paying dividends soon, too.

Buy at your own risk.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Imperial Meal

In Beijing's Beihai Park, Fangshan Restaurant has been serving the public for more than eighty years. The first chef had worked in the Forbidden City and so the quality of the food is said to be appropriate for the Emperor--or Empress.

From what we heard Dowager Cixi "The Dragon Lady" used to come to Beihai when it was still private property and eat a meal at this auxiliary kitchen when she was bored of the food at the Palace. Our guide Sean told us that the kitchens would prepare literally dozens of dishes for every meal so that they would be ready whenever the Dragon Lady made her desires known.

Our meal was absolutely delicious, wonderful textures and flavors and a real variety of ingredients (including camel). Recommended!

(Oh, and we didn't have the kids with us. Thanks, Ma and Ba!)

China Index

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Chinese Children's Department Store

After three weeks traveling through China – riding a superfast train in Shanghai, visiting the terracotta army in Xian, climbing the Great Wall – if you asked my kids what there favorite site was, they might tell you about the subbasement of a department store in Beijing. Not just any department store, mind you, but four floors of clothes, accessories, and toys and that aforementioned subbasement: a supervised play area where kids get to go flat out and expend some energy.

While I don’t expect many other families with 2 ½ and 4 year olds to be as foolish as mine and travel to China, there’s something about this wonderful place that gives some insight into the emerging Chinese middle class and the social changes of the last half century. And maybe, a brief description would encourage someone in the US to build something half as fun for our kids.

First of all, the store: Ertong Shangdian is a department store on Wangfujing, Beijing’s pedestrian shopping street not far from Tianamen Square. Think Minneapolis’ Nicolett Mall or Boston’s Downtown Crossing, a street lined with large department stores punctuated by more transient clothing or gadget emporiums. But then multiply by ten, because this is China. While Toys ‘R’ Us is filing for bankruptcy here, Ertong Shangdian is selling every conceivable children’s item you could want or need.

Pampers? Avent bottles? Up on 3 (although the diapers are pricey (about $.50 each) in the land of split crotch children’s clothes). But this may be useful for those dozens of parents with adopted kids we saw in the hotels.

Clothes? 2008 Olympic merchandise? On 2.

Toys? Well, toys are everywhere, but the ground floor is the main focus though mostly with foreign imports like Barbie and Legos. The latest gadget this year is a remote control helicopter that is remarkably robust – fly it into the ceiling and it just bounces off and regains balance.

Shoes, hats, backpacks? That’s in the basement along with a magician’s stage where tricks are demonstrated and available for purchase.

As you can imagine, children would be happy just to wander the first floor and basement. But there’s more.

The subbasement.

Taking the escalator down one more flight you’ll see in front of you a gated area with seats facing in. Behind the gate is an artificial beach of white sand, a water wheel turning and keeping the air humid, and the prow of a ship. And kids scrambling all over the place. There are also statues of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves on the beach, but I can’t say I understood why.

Moving counterclockwise, the next quarter is also gated. Behind this play area is a huge habitrail for children, a two story labyrinth of slides, ladders, zip lines, trampolines, swings, and kiddie pools filled with plastic balls. There may have been more but I didn’t make it to the furthest back.

The next play area was my favorite, although it sounds the worst from a liberal parents point of view: a foam combat zone. A balcony ran like a figure eight around the place and there were guns mounted top and bottom that would use air pressure to shoot foam balls into the main play space. The upper guns were protected by the netting that kept the kids from falling out and the lower ones had sandbags so kids could make trenches. And again, a selection of slides, punching bag forests, crawl through tubes and other obstacles encouraged a lot of shrieks of joy.

Each of these play areas required separate tickets. 20 Yuan a kid (less than $3) and 5 Yuan an adult. Of course, the adults could sit out front and just watch their kids tear around the playspace of their choice. Oh, and if you’re going, wear socks. Shoes are not allowed in the playspaces and neither is barefeet. I was wearing sandals the first time we went and so they offered me cloth bags to put my feet in, footwear and all. That prevented the scuffing they were afraid of but after about ten minutes my feet felt like they were in individual saunas.

My kids had a great time down there – and so did I. There’s nothing like nailing your four year old with a foam ball to take out the frustrations of all those temper tantrums on the road.

Now, dear parent, I know what you’re thinking: sounds like fun, but how the heck do you get the kids out of there without another argument and meltdown? The answer: about a dozen gumball type machines that would dispense plastic doodads – Hello Kitty figures, superballs, dinosaur egg transformers – for between 1 and 4 Yuan, that is, 12 to 55 cents each.

Also in the subbasement were a craft area (ceramic painting), a portrait studio, a nook for book and DVD purchases, and a few computers set up to run educational software that the store also had for sale.

I with we had one of these in the States.

And, here's a video I made (UPDATE: the embed doesn't seem to be working for me but if you click on the "screen" you'll link to the source at YouTube):

China Index

Tuesday, June 12, 2007


So I'm posting for the first time on the Mac. Why? Because I took some odd photos with Photobooth to share.

This one kills me. I don't mind how odd I look but it bothers me when Mari looks weird. I'm vain about her, I guess.

An experiment in eye color:

Thursday, June 07, 2007

The Mii Lebowski

This isn't very funny unless you've played Nintendo Wii and love The Big Lebowski. On the other hand, if you have...

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Terry and Francis

An Update: did you hear Terry's anniversary broadcast? She mentioned that she married Fresh Air's former jazz critic! So Francis Davis WAS on Fresh Air before. Cool.

I also saw her book All I Did Was Ask and the introduction told a funny story about how someone told her mother-in-law that Terry is a lesbian. See? I can ruin any funny story I hear.

Repeat: The Public Humanist

[Ed. note: I had the idea of having a "public, named" blog and a "private, anonymous" blog but I'm not sure if there's any point to it anymore. I don't find myself ranting much on either one, and the public one tends to lay fallow. Anyway, here's the latest post from "over there":]

I'm now listed as a contributor to The Public Humanist, a site set up by the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities with support from The Valley Advocate.

Pretty impressive list of writers there. I'm the, uh, Asian one, I guess. What's going on that it was so hard to find non-whites with a background and passion for the Humanities? Perhaps I need to write a blogpost about that.

The point of the blog is to engage in public dialogues about how the humanities frame, affect and are affected by our public, American lives. It's early on, and as I wrote, I'm listed as a contributor but have not yet contributed, but it looks to be a good discussion. Join in!

Moving platforms

I put in an order for a MacBook last week (Macrumors says the time is right)! And I'm too cheap to buy MS Office so I'm thinking of trying to use for a while until my incompatibility forces me to cough up the dough.

The reasons for the switch: digital videocamera and more digital media handling, and needed a laptop. I'm still going to use my Dell desktop rather heavily, but I've already starting deleting music files from its choked 60 Gig HD (Sixty gigs! Unfillable , it seemed). Multi-platform, baby! I hope this helps with some of the incompatibility issues I occasionally get with documents from WGBH.

Mac users, I need help: I didn't get Apple care for the machine but I have up to a year from purchase. Pete said he's never had to use it. Although I think Andrew had problems with his Macbook. Comments are needed! Is Applecare worth getting? ($249 for three years -- have you spent more than that for Mac repairs?)

The Lady and the Panda

This is a great book by Vicki Constantine Croke about Ruth Harkness (and not the memoir by Harkness herself).

The Lady and the Panda tells the story of Ruth Harkness, a 1930s socialite and dress designer in New York who finally marries her boyfriend of ten years just before he goes off on an expedition. He dies in Shanghai and she decides to take up his cause: to capture or kill a giant panda.

Back then, no one knew if pandas were fierce killers or what they ate or where they lived (except kind of generally up around Chengdu). And the only pandas that had been captured died soon after from starvation.

Harkness had a) no experience in big game hunting, b) no knowledge of China or Chinese culture or language, c) limited amounts of money, d) some nice dresses in her trunk. She did have the help of Quentin Young, a young Chinese American adventurer out to make a name for himself and get out from the shadow of his older brother Jack. And she also had a women's touch, charming officials, playing dumb when ignoring regulations and most importantly, considering bringing powdered milk along in case she found a baby panda.

It's a classic adventure story that doesn't end with her success -- she goes back to China and rethinks the whole panda hunting business altogether.

Croke tells the story well and with the private cache of letters to Harkness' best friend, she's able to tell a lot of the story through Harkness' own words. There are also some nice photos reprinted -- if you think pandas are cute, you should see baby pandas.

For travelers to China, in particular, the book has great descriptions of Shanghai in the 1930s with the International Quarter in full swing, the racetrack still in existence (not yet People's Park and the Shanghai Museum) and all the hijinks that entailed. And then Harkness returns to Shanghai as the Japanese invade the city. Other than that, most of the book takes place to the west around Chengdu.

Quentin Young's biography is told in another book that he first cooperated with and then pulled out of, called Chasing the Panda. He helps fill in some of the romantic goings on that Harkness alluded to in her books.

China Index

Saturday, June 02, 2007


After spending a day without the kids in the Forbidden City, having lunch at an Imperial Kitchen in Beihai park and then touring the Hutong neighborhood of old courtyard houses, Julie and I went to find 798, a neighborhood we read about in our guidebook. Beijing is the centre of the contemporary Chinese art scene and we took the opportunity to find some local artists.

798 is named for the military electrical engineering factory that used to operate there. The factories are now mostly abandoned (although military police could be seen guarding buildings behind chain link fences).

First we had to find the place. We had been told that the area comes alive mostly in the evening, but since the kids were taken care of it didn’t make sense to go back to the hotel and then out again – we hailed a taxi at around 5pm and luckily he knew where we were going, out to the Fourth Ring Road in the northeast, toward the airport.

Having few expectations, I was still surprised when we got there. It was not a large factory building, but rather a district of factories, with alleys running between them. Signs everywhere pointed to galleries, studios and cafes. We started to wander and immediately were struck by a lifesize sculpture of three men cast in white, carrying a woman by three limbs. Her dress was red and her white underwear was visible. In the gallery next to the sculpture, a mural sized painting of the same scene filled one wall. The receptionist explained to us that these works were based on a famous “Internet photo” of a police crackdown on prostitution about two years ago. This was news to us (and we found it particularly interesting that the news photo was found on the Internet and was considered “famous” in China).

Next place we went into was a sculptor’s gallery and studio. The piece that caught our attention was called “Big Dog.” One impression I got from Chinese art was that it was fairly literally symbolic, and not very abstract or theoretical. This could be considered facile or, if you don’t know much about China like me, it could prove to be very informative. Big Dog was a case in point. A large tableau of characters react to the death of various dogs while other canines continue to frolic animatedly. Among the characters: a blind man mourning the death of his helper dog, foreigners appalled at the scene, a child playing with a dog that had been certified. What was this about? Apparently since the 1980s, there has been a crackdown on large dogs in China and they were beaten to death somewhat indiscriminately. Julie said this area was a like a lesson in contemporary Chinese history.

Around this time, we realized we had been somewhat mislead. Yes, there were bars and restaurants that would be opening later, but the galleries were all closing around 6 or 7. And so we sped walk around the buildings. Turning the corner from that first alley, there were factory buildings that were still dilapidated and looked unsafe. In fact, we found buildings with rubble blocking half their exits, and water running out the door, and after venturing inside the unlit stairways, we would emerge into beautifully renovated, well lit artists’ spaces. Or a renovated building would sit right next to a concrete hulk about to topple over. The mix of the new and the raw was pretty compelling. I’ve already seen on the Internet comments by people about how 798 is already “over,” but there is clearly potential for more space to be overhauled.

One gallery was run by an artist named Ma Hong who sold me a small poster of reworked propaganda with Ronald McDonald and Colonel Sanders taking the place of the male and female comrades who originally stood there. Hong seemed more of a graphic designer than artist. Another work in her small gallery was a pair of paintings of Mickey Mouse and the Monkey King.

Off we went to find more open spaces when I asked Julie if we should maybe buy a Mickey/Monkey painting. We ran back to ask about prices, but it was a little high, so we left again.

Some of the other galleries we peeked into had Socialist Realist paintings of scenes from the Korean War, primitive style scenes of people wandering urban streets, portraits stretched and warped into single stripes on backgrounds.

Then we went through a long tunnel, an enclosed alleyway that was a bit spooky, especially with the doors leading off of it mostly locked. There were some stenciled images spray painted on walls (some of which I recognized as Hong’s work). We emerged from the tunnel and wandered into an art bookstore/café. Although there were many works on Chinese artists, much of it was Western oriented and almost all of it was foreign published (Phaidon, Rizzoli, etc.) and I didn’t feel like I needed to shop there. So we wandered through the café where the tables had been cleared and someone was having a press conference! There were three Chinese people and a European woman and they were making statements about art in China in front of some reporters and at least one television camera.

Back on the street, a bicycle rode up to us. It was Ma Hong. She had called her friend who had made the Monkey/Mickeys and told her that we had been interested. The friend lowered the price and we agreed to buy. Apparently they each take turns watching the gallery for a month while the other stays home creating more work. We returned to the gallery and were pleased with our purchase.

Eventually we found ourselves in the Gao Brothers Studio. It wasn’t on our gallery map – for good reason it turns out. The Gao Brothers’ signature image was “Miss Mao,” a bust of Chairman Mao with breasts (“The Communist Party is the mother of China”) and a Pinocchio nose (“The Communist Party is the mother of China”). Again, we needed some explanation of this which was helpfully supplied by one of the brothers. By this time it was well after 7 and we weren’t in a gallery but in the artists’ work space. Since we had the ear of one of the brothers, we asked him about being an artist in China and censorship. He said that he felt pretty free to make what he wanted and he and his brother had exhibited in Europe and America. However, he told us, they couldn’t show “Miss Mao” anywhere in China. How about the nude photography that was hanging on the walls? No problem. But nothing political.

By this time we were tired and found Café Cave for a drink and some decent pizza. We talked to Shaun, our guide, about some of the things we had seen (he had never been in the area, but looked forward to coming back with his friends). What do you do with your friends? we asked. Hang out, play games, go out to eat, he said. How about you? Do you like discos? Julie said she liked salsa dancing. By this time, I was getting sleepy and we packed up to head out.

And then we peeked into the next room where the tables were all cleared, the floor was bare and a mirror covered one long wall. What’s going on? Salsa class! With the music blaring, we got new life and took a salsa lesson from a great Venezuelan dancer who had lots of flair and extra moves that he put into the rhythm. He was a great teacher, stressing the basics and then showing us some of those added touches as motivation to learn. And he refused payment from us, and even complimenting me (“You’ve danced before.” – a mild compliment but thrilling for me as a salsa beginner).

When Shaun asked us what we liked best in China, we had to admit that this may have been the best night.

China Index

Friday, May 04, 2007

The Three Blades of YangChow

Learning lots on our trip. For instance, YangChow, where we are now and famed for its fried rice, is famous for its "Three Blades": barber scissors, kitchen knives and manicurists.

We had a great time in beautiful Suzhou -- the hometown of architect I.M. Pei. He's since helped the city with urban design, creating really nice boulevards with parks down the center (like Comm Ave in Boston but with a stream winding its way down and nice bridges). The food was excellent, too. After the hustle and bustle of Shanghai, Suzhou was a welcome respite. I asked our guide how many people lived in the Garden City and she told us: 5 million. I guess scale is relative around here.

My dad got a couple of mobile phones so we can find each other in these parks and tourists sites. It goes off every time we cross into a new city -- we automatically get text messages that say things like: "Welcome of YangChow! Internationally renowned city of culture! Plenty of great business opportunities!"

Yesterday we were in Wuxi near Taihu (Lake Tai -- Tahoe?) and went to this Buddhist temple called Ling Shan that was pretty impressive. A statues of Buddha 88 meters tall at the top of a hill, a giant fountain with daily water shows worthy of the Bellagio and featuring a lotus at the top of a sculpture that opens up to reveal a young Buddha, etc. There were tons of places to buy incense, throw coins into sculptures for luck, buy food, film (film places also sell memory cards and they see me and recognize which card my camera takes).

Half of me thought the whole thing kind of crass, but the other half kept thinking that this is exactly how Medieval Cathedrals were -- places of pilgrimage that were also marketplaces and festivals. The whole thing was built in 1997 and is like a Buddhist Disneyland. There are real monks, too, but there are funny "cheats" like 108 cylinders printed with the 108 sutras -- they said that instead of reading all the sutras, you could just spin every cylinder and that would be the equivalent. There was also a cool audio tour there that would sense where in the park you were and send the correct message to you.

We were warned about coming to China during the May holiday (May 1-7), and it is pretty crowded here but we figured China was going to be crowded anyway. What's nice is to see how the locals spend their holiday, like at the Ling Shan. Also, this is a good time to get married apparently, and we've seen LOTS of weddings. Couples getting their pictures taken in parks in Shanghai, a triple wedding coming out of a restaurant in Suzhou and a wedding banquet downstairs in our hotel here in Yangchow.

How are things different from before? Sometimes it's hard to tell. One thing is that the tourist areas are much, much nicer. Cleaner, better facilities, Western toilets. And clearly this is not just for international visitors but for domestic tourism. And something else -- at the temple I noticed a couple of soldiers, the first I've seen here. Last time, every airport, every street corner had soldiers and policemen. Now there are more traffic lights and fewer men with guns. It's a good change.

Okay, better get going on the next leg of our adventure.

China Index

Monday, April 30, 2007


Wow, what a day we had yesterday! We went to the Shanghai Museum (focusing on jade, landscape paintings and the ancient bronzes), the neighborhood of the Yu gardens (which is basically like a Middle Eastern souk with Asian roofs), the top of the Oriental Pearl Tower in Pudong, shopping on Nanjing Road and dinner in an old restaurant that my father remembers from when he was a kid.

Some other things to expand on later: the super high flyover highways, the pushy people, the search for a stroller (after fricking Air Canada broke ours on the way here). Okay, got to get the kids out of the house.

China Index

Sunday, April 29, 2007

First Second impressions

I haven't been in China since 1989. So here are some first impressions of this trip:

It's a lot cleaner than it used to be in the public areas, like the airport, train station, etc. That said, the streets are still have that kind of gritty Developing World grime everywhere.

The bustle (Heat and Noise) level here is really high. Lots of the shops and food stalls have spaces opening out to the street and people line up to watch them cook up fresh snacks.

My mom went out and got some breakfast food -- dumplings, soy milk, fried egg sandwiches in scallion pancakes, fried dough sticks wrapped in sticky rice -- and it was all delicious.

People are still pretty pushy. If you're standing still, you're in the way.

The kids are making a good impression. Lots of waves and smiles. At one point, Julie was holding Mari and there were about eight people behind her waving and talking about Mari.

The weather here is pretty bad, though. Lots of rain right now. It should clear up tomorrow.

The last weird thing is that Blogger is in Chinese. I'm just pushing buttons blindly where I remember things being.

China Index

We're here!

We made it to China!

How was the flight? Well, for fifteen hours, the occupants of seats 32 D, E, F, and G cried, kicked the seats in front, screamed, turned the lights on and off and called the stewardess (using the armrests of the row in front) and generally made nuisances of themselves.

We were in row 31. The kids were fine; the parents could not sleep a wink.

Once we got to Shanghai PuDong airport, we took the Mag Lev train -- 431 km/hr top speed -- to the Pudong neighborhood of Shanghai. Then we put our stuff down at a friend's apartment and went out to dinner. At this point we were up 24 hours straight (the last time I pulled an all-nighter was February 8, 2003, in anticipation of Austin's birth).

But we soldiered on! At 7pm our mini-bus was zooming out of a traffic jam toward the docks. A guy tried to wave us off but our tour guide shouted, "It's the family with a reservation!" We jumped on the boat and took off.

From the boat we saw the modern skyscrapers of Pudong on one side, lit up like a gigantic Times Square and on the other, the floodlit exteriors of the grand Bund -- hundred year old institutions that greeted visitors to the city for a century.

More soon!

China Index

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Cars Sucks (This is grammatically proper)

We watched the Pixar movie Cars the other night (or two). It was terrible. Really.

I wasn't excited with the concept but the execution was more disappointing. Here are some of the reasons:

-the world was all vehicular and there was nothing organic about it. The scenery of the southwest was beautiful but that's just rocks. No birds, no bugs, no fish, nothing living.

-it was all about American car culture. Of course. Would have been fine in the 1950s but there's something about it in this environmentally conscious age that got on my nerves. (Dinoco, the sponsor of the big race, first appeared in Toy Story and I thought it was great -- a gas station that acknowledged that petro comes from dinosaurs and implying limited supplies and a huge timeline to create it. This idea was spoiled by Cars.)

-the designs were fairly ugly. I mean they look okay, but nothing as charismatic as Nemo or Buzz Lightyear.

-the false notes of the characters reminded me of the other Pixar movie that we don't own (we borrowed Cars from the library), A Bug's Life. I'm not even sure I've seen ABL all the way through. Why? I hate the idea of four legged ants.

-the talents were wasted. Paul Newman's worst role in years. I kept thinking how much better it would have been if they just took the audio from The Hudsucker Proxy and animated it. Owen Wilson was okay, Michael Keaton was unrecognizable and unmemorable.

-it was way too long. We watched an hour one night and then realized we still had an hour to go so we had to watch the rest another night. When it was in the theaters I took Austin to see Over the Hedge instead because it was a matter of 83 minutes vs. 116 minutes.

Overall, I thought it was well-made but ill-conceived. A rare misstep for Pixar.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Foreign Babes

We're going to China! (Sorry about not mentioning it earlier, Slushy.)

In fact, we're leaving home in a week and I'm kind of freaking out.

Meanwhile, I've been reading books about China and have book review for you:

Foreign Babes in Beijing

You really need to click on the link to see how embarrassed I was to be reading a book with this cover. But! It's actually quite good.

I first read about it in an alumni magazine -- Rachel Dewoskin was an English major who graduated three years after me and then went to Beijing to live the expat life from 1994-99. She's not totally naive, though. Her father is a Sinologist and she spent her youth traveling through China with her family, took two years of Mandarin in college and spent a summer in a Chinese language program. So she arrived relatively fluent, but not totally aware of colloquial phrases.

She hated her job in a P.R. firm but they were nice enough to be flexible with her when she is offered the part of Jiexi in a Chinese soap opera called "Foreign Babes in Beijing." One thing I loved about the book was her breakdowns of Chinese phrases. "Babes"? I thought. Is that really a word? But it turns out it is -- it's the standard sign for girl with some extra strokes to indicate ... well ... babeitude.

The soap opera becomes a metaphor for cross cultural learning and misunderstanding. Jiexi is a hussy who steals a Chinese man away from his wife and then takes him away to America (although she is redeemed by calling her father-in-law Baba). Dewoskin writes about how odd it was to find out what Chinese scriptwriters thought Americans thought about the Chinese. Yes, a double mirror. Both distorted.

The book is a good overview of China in the late 1990s, from a very particular perspective, but you get to know her voice and character well enough that as a reader you can decide how comprehensive it is. One nice feature is a series of chapters that profile Chinese or expat friends and how they are responding to the changes in China as artists, journalists, businesspeople, etc.

Some interesting things she mentioned: she went out with some Chinese men but a reversed relationship -- Chinese woman with Western man -- would often end up with the man punched out by strangers at a bar. (She doesn't mention that Bush went over to China when his dad was Ambassador expressly to pick up Chinese girls. Macho Chinese guys thirty years ago would have saved us all some trouble today.)

On language: I didn't realize that ma shang (immediately; "tout de suite") is made of the words horse and on/above. In other words, it's literally "on horseback." Also, luan chi ba zhao (chaotic, often used to describe my room while growing up) uses the numbers seven and eight in the middle of the phrase.

Overall, I enjoyed the book, I felt like I learned something. (Unfortunately, I looked her up on NPR after finishing and heard an interview with her and her speaking voice was off-putting. This bothers me.)

China Index

Thursday, April 12, 2007


I borrowed the first disk of the first season of the Muppet Show from the library. Yep, the first three episodes ever of the Muppet Show, one of my favorite shows as a kid.

I'm not sure I ever saw it before syndication because I remember it being on every night at 6:30 (or 7?). I watched after dinner, with my father on the couch. So I was excited to show it to the kids. So excited that I sang the theme song and danced around the kitchen for them.

But how weird is this: they don't know any Muppets. Kermit doesn't appear on Sesame Street anymore.

And how weird is the show? The first three guest stars were Juliet Prowse, Connie Stevens and Joel Grey. I had a sudden flashback to the episode where Mark Hamill appears as Luke Skywalker -- especially memorable to me because he was the first guest star that I recognized.

The whole concept of the show -- the Muppets as character actors creating a show (just like SCTV, really) -- is brilliant. The individual acts vary in quality but here's something worth noting: the very first act, after the introduction to the very first show? Manum manum.

They clearly knew they had a hit with that one. Final verdict (after watching the Prowse episode):

Me: What a great show!
Austin: I didn't like it (although he did say of Manum manum, "Hey, we saw them in New York!")
Mari: It was funny!

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

The Beast is GOOD!

Are you thinking about showing Disney's Beauty and the Beast to your two year old?

That's what I did one afternoon. As the movie started and the curse on the prince is explained, I paused the tape and laid it out in terms I thought the kids would understand. The Beast is really a bad prince and if he becomes nice and someone loves him, he'll turn back to a prince. Okay? Okay.

Not okay. I was walking back and forth from the kitchen where I was cooking dinner and at one point I noticed Mari looked kind of tense. Usually, she's happy go lucky and doesn't care about tv and Austin freaks out because he thinks something is real. (He still talks about Disneyworld: "Some alligators are real, like we saw at the space station from the bus, but some alligators are just robots.")

Anyway, I sat next to Mari and asked, "Are you okay? Are you frightened?" She turned to me and just burst into tears. Sobbing uncontrollably. I knew what I had to do.

I made her watch more.

The first time we saw Monsters Inc, was the first time Austin realized monsters might actually live in his closet; I mistakenly turned off the movie when he freaked and he couldn't quite get over it.

So this time, I sat down with Mari and made her watch. And then the Beast yelled at Belle and she ran away. Mari started to cry again. Belle, escaping, is tracked by wolves. Mari, still tense. The Beast appears, fighting the wolves. "See, the Beast is helping her," I said, while the Beast viciously snarls at the wolves, tossing them into trees and generally getting more frightening.

Finally, back at the castle, the Beast tries to do better. He stabs at his food with a fork. He takes Belle to his library. "Look, he's giving her a present." By this time, Mari is calmer and more in control of herself.

By the end of the movie, I try to summarize the moral: The Beast looks scary, but really he's good. Gaston looks good, but really he's bad. Belle looks nice, but really she's ... "Good?" asks Austin. Yes. The moral is, you can't tell who people are by looking at them.

Julie came home and asked how the movie was. Mari went running up to her and shouted, "The Beast... is GOOD!" She repeated that phrase a few times, probably to comfort her mother.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Eating our way out of house and home

So we're planning on going on a trip, a trip that will last for weeks.

My goal? Empty out the chest freezer before we go and let it defrost while we're gone. Who says I don't have ambition?

Yes, every meal that I make will now contain at least one previously frozen item.

It's amazing how well we're doing so far -- burritos, chickens, chicken stock, ice cream.

Tonight we're eating dumplings. (Actually, we're kind of overstocked on dumplings. Anyone care for some?)


"Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple" airs tonight on PBS!

It's a really good documentary, all told by the participants (i.e. no narrator, just lots of interviewees telling the story). And it's horrifying and fascinating and a shame and a trip.

The website is pretty good, too. (Okay, I wrote some of it, but what got me was all the excellent extra interviews and media they have on there.)

Sunday, April 08, 2007


We let the kids eat way too much candy and sweets today. I'm exhausted (and so are they).

The night before, they set out a plate for the Easter Bunny:And then this morning there was an Easter Egg Hunt:
Then we put on our good clothes to go to church...
...and have brunch with Grandpa and Nana... their house.

Mari walked off about 1% of her sugar intake before...
We got to Richard's house.
And ate the cupcakes the kids made and decorated (with help from Mom).

A Visit to Franma and Lespa

Here's the photographic proof of this post:

Here's Mari yelling "Mama Mama!" Julie is looking miffed just right of this frame.
Does this woman look like she wants a granddaughter?

Foster walks her druid.
Local farm folk.

If you were hoping for a picture of Harrison, I'm sorry, he's got so much energy he ends up just looking like a blur in my photos. Next time we'll drug him and take pictures of him unconscious.