Not for present delight

July 20, 2011 § 1 Comment

I watched “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” last night…and I’m still trying to process it.  If you haven’t seen it yet, I hope it’s still playing somewhere in your area, because you should go see it now!  For once, here is a movie that has to be seen in 3D, and I imagine watching it via streaming netflix just won’t have the same effect.  It is a documentary by Werner Herzog about the 30,000+/- year old cave paintings at Chauvet in southern France.  With access to the cave rightly limited to the special few, this is probably the only format in which most of us will experience the paintings, and we are lucky that Mr. Herzog was allowed inside to document the images.  The cave itself is beautiful yet mysterious, with glittering stalagmites and stalactites among a sea of animal bones, but those cave paintings…all I can say is wow.  Some of the spaces are so tight, Herzog and his small crew must have been crawling around with their cameras and lights.  Other caverns are much vaster, and the people become small figures engulfed in the darkness.  At some point in time, a landslide sealed off the cave from the outside, immaculately preserving the paintings.  As the camera pans across the cave surfaces, and the 3D thrusts the images right in front of your face, the etchings and paintings look so fresh and alive, it feels as if they were made only yesterday.  What I found most surprising is just how skilled (for lack of a better term) the artists were.  At times the animals are rendered quite realistically, with shading that makes them appear three dimensional.  In other places there is such a fluidity of the lines and an abstraction of the figures, it seems as if they’re straight out of a modernist art piece.  The paintings are so well done that, as one of the scientists said in the film, the people must have practiced outside in the sunlight, maybe with a stick in the sand, before committing to the cave walls.

Many of the animals are painted in layers, with multiple sets of legs, and this, along with the contours of the cave walls and the flickering shadows from the camera lights gives the illusion of movement.  Herzog even makes suggestion that these paintings are a type of proto-cinema, much like the documentary he is making.  And yet…a documentary captures but a moment in time, and as Herzog also says in the film, “We are stuck in history, but they were not.”  Though many of the images look stylistically similar, carbon dating revealed that some of the layers were painted more than 5,000 years apart (!!).  Think about that for a second.  How many generations of these people gazed upon those undulating walls?  How many different hands over the thousands of years scratched at those surfaces and left behind their own marks among the others?  How many pairs of eyes watched the shadows and firelight dance across the stone walls? And the number one thing everyone wants know – Why?  Many of the scientists and historians in the film speculate this question.  Perhaps the paintings were drawn for spiritual or ritualistic purposes.  Or maybe they were done for pure aesthetic purposes, art for arts sake.  Or maybe both?  I think it’s this mystery of who these people were and what they were thinking, a mystery of the human soul, that is so intoxicating.  In the film we see teams of scientists, and even a perfumier, meticulously analyzing every single line drawn, mapping every square inch of the cave with lasers, all in order to better understand not only the paintings, but the people who painted them.  If only we can crack the code and decipher the images, we could come to some greater understanding of  humankind and where we came from.  And this makes me wonder, did the painters create these images with us in mind?  Surely the creators must have known their creations would outlive them, and so they painted not for themselves, but for the future.

I’m reminded of quote by the 19th century art critic John Ruskin:

“When we build, let us think that we build forever.  Let it not be for present delight, nor for present use alone; let it be such work as our descendants will thank us for…and that men will say, as they look upon the labor and wrought substance of them, ‘See! this our fathers did for us.”

RIP Felicity

June 14, 2011 § 3 Comments

A few weeks ago, I experienced the single most traumatic event of my recent memory – I discovered that my beloved Felicity has been…DISCONTINUED.
Who is this Felicity, you ask? Why, she only represents all the hopes and dreams of my entire childhood slash existence. That’s who.
Felicity Merriman (aka Lissie) is the American Girl doll from the Revolutionary War period. For those of you who aren’t or once weren’t a 10 year old girl, American Girl has a line of dolls, each one set in a different period of American history and with her own series of books.  These days, when little girls are bombarded with sexed up Bratz dolls and tv shows about pregnant 16 year olds, a doll that teaches you about American history seems almost quaint.

Ever since I was little, I desperately wanted a Felicity doll.  She was my favorite of all the girls, and I read her books countless times. Says the American Girl website, Felicity is a “spunky, sprightly colonial girl full of energy and independence.”  I loved her because she had red hair and freckles, and was always doing fun stuff like climbing rooftops to pick apples, riding horses to save people, and refusing to drink tea.  Unfortunately, American Girl dolls were and still are absurdly expensive – the doll alone is about $100, and with the different outfits and accessories, you could easily spend $1000 on all the swag.  My parents wouldn’t let me get one.  Once my mom said that if I reaaaaaally wanted a Felicity doll, she’d buy it for me.  But I must have been the most understanding 9 year old in the universe, because I turned down her offer.  I knew it was ridiculous to spend that much money on a doll.  (We ended up getting a dog instead, which in the end obviously costs WAY more.)  However, I vowed that when I grew up and got my first real job, I would buy myself a Felicity doll.

That is until I discovered Felicity had been archived, and now I will never be able to buy one.  I should have bought one when I first got my job in Shanghai last year.  Or even when I had an intern job in New York a few years back.  Or maybe even in high school when I had a life guarding job.  But no, now it’s too late, and my 9 year old self’s dreams will forever go unfulfilled.  There is one very important lesson to learn from this!  Never put off achieving your dreams!  Because one day their possibility of happening will expire, and you’ll have to make do with buying a stranger’s second-hand dream off ebay.

one final Shanghai post

May 12, 2011 § Leave a comment

When I was in Shanghai, I got in the fun habit of carrying index cards with me wherever I went to take notes of random things.  Also, in a land without my smartphone, I drew tons of maps to help me figure out where I was going.  Now I think everyone should walk around with index cards, just because it’s so much fun reading them a year later.

from the beginning, when I didn’t know my address or how to pronounce it –

« Read the rest of this entry »

now what?

May 7, 2011 § 3 Comments

I’ve been avoiding wordpress because I didn’t know what to write. I came home from Shanghai about a month ago, and how quickly have I fallen back to my pre-China life! It feels as if no time has passed at all, that the last year never happened. It’s like stepping into the wardrobe to Narnia, where inside time continues, where you meet new people, have these new and probably life-altering experiences, only to pop back out again where no time has passed in the “real” world. I say “real” world because my time spent in Shanghai now seems like a break from my regular life. Now I’m back and it’s time to continue along my real life timeline.

I feel just like the Pensive kids who in Narnia were great kings and queens, traveled to the ends of the world and back, fought deadly important battles, but when they came home were just their grubby little selves again.  Not that I was something great in China.  You travel abroad, hoping the experience will somehow change you and when you’re there it actually does.  But coming home, you find out that you’re still the same you and perhaps nothing has changed at all.

Still, there are the memories of your other-life adventures, and maybe just the act of remembering my Shanghai life – the freedom, the confidence, the happiness with life, the sense of endless possibilities and that I-can-do-anything attitude – is what changes me.  If I can just remember how I felt, then maybe it will trickle through and into my “real” life too.

I’m moving to New York City in a few days.  I’m nervous and terrified, though mostly excited.  But I miss Shanghai.  Not necessarily the city itself, though I have grown to love it, but for how it made me feel when I was there.  I just hope I can get that feeling back.

a mystery

March 25, 2011 § 1 Comment

My coworkers and I used to go to this restaurant called YuYuan for lunch every so often.  The food was so-so, but you could get a giant bowl of wonton soup for only 4rmb, so it was a a lotta bang for your buck.  One day after we finished eating, we stepped out into the street and saw one of their chefs sitting on the edge of the sidewalk.  He was clipping his toenails.  Obviously we never went back there ever again.  So it came as no surprise to me when a few weeks later, YuYuan finally closed down.  At first, there was a giant red sign on their door that said We’re Moving!  But I’ve discovered that many restaurants that are shutting down tell people they’re moving when really they’re just closing for good.  Saving face and blah blah blah.  For months YuYuan remained empty, just newspaper taped over its glass windows, and a giant red padlock on the door handles.

But a few weeks ago, I started noticing more and more activity around the place.  At first, it was just a couple guys sitting around and hanging out in front.  Then, I noticed that laundry started appearing, hanging from the eaves, drying in the cold winter wind.  More and more laundry appeared and soon, there was always what I assumed were someone’s last night’s socks and underwear hanging up to dry.  Piles of take out food containers and trash started piling up in the alleyway beside the restaurant, and every now and then you’d see a guy washing his hair with a bucket out on the sidewalk.  All this made me very confused.  Finally last week, as I was walking home from work, the front door was open and I peered in.  Inside the tiny restaurant, where there used to be the dingy leather booths, were now rows of beds, and even a few bunkbeds.  Maybe 15 beds total.  A bunch of guys were sitting around a dim lamp, playing cards.  Other guys were sleeping in the beds or just lounging about.  Random heaps of clothes and other miscellanous household items lying around.  A guy eating a bowl of instant noodles.  Who are these people??  Are they squatters?  But then it seems too out in the open if it’s not legal.  Some mornings, I even see a couple of the guys chatting with tapolice officer on the street corner.  Is it the old YuYuan owner and all his bffs and relatives living together?  Did the owner rent out his space to these random people?  Plus, what’s with all that laundry? Anyway I look at it, I just can’t figure it out.  Who are they?  What are they doing? So confused.

Dear Jill

March 20, 2011 § 2 Comments

The Shanghai International Literary Festival just happened over the last few weeks, and I was actually not lazy for once and headed over to the Bund to attend a couple of the events.  The tickets weren’t cheap, but you get a glass of wine at each event, so I spent two nice Saturdays happily buzzed and going from session to session.  It was an interesting mix of novelists, journalists, non-fiction writers, bloggers, and even an architect.  The last person I saw speak was Kate Jennings, someone who I had never heard of before, but now find super interesting.  I guess you could call her a radical leftie feminist type, but then again I hate to categorize people like that.  In any case, she writes everything, from novels to poems to essays, and is one of those crazy 60 year old New Yorkers that you secretly hope to be like one day.

I ended up buying her book after the talk and approached her little table to have her sign it.  Whenever I’m at author book signings (okay, granted I’ve only been to two, but still), I always get SUPER nervous, freak out and can never string together a coherent sentence.  I don’t remember at all what Ms. Jennings said, or what I said, just that I mumbled some stuff and grabbed the book and ran.  I don’t know why I get so nervous at these things, but it’s probably because when I really like the author, I want to act cool and intelligent, but also want to tell them I really like their books, but also don’t want to seem like a gushing fan, so I just spaz and don’t know what to do.  After I left, I looked at the front page to see what she had written:

Dear Jill –
Enjoy! Onward to a lively life!
– Kate J.

I guess she had asked me what my name was, and I said something that sounded like Jill?  Oh well.

Moby Dick

March 10, 2011 § Leave a comment

I’m only 80 pages in so far, but I can already say this – Moby Dick is meant to be read ALOUD.  I love how the novel sounds.

“What could be more full of meaning? – for the pulpit is ever this earth’s foremost part; all the rest comes in its rear; the pulpit leads the world.  From thence it is the storm of God’s quick wrath is first descried, and the bow must bear the earliest brunt.  From thence it is the God of breezes fair or foul is first invoked for favorable winds.   Yes, the world’s a ship on its passage out, and not a voyage complete; and the pulpit is its prow.”

“New Bedford rose in terraces of streets, their ice-covered trees all glittering in the clear, cold air.  Huge hills and mountains of casks on casks were piled upon her wharves, and side by side the world-wandering whale ships lay silent and safely moored at last; while from others came a sound of carpenters and coopers, with blended noises of fires and forges to melt the pitch, all betokening that new cruises were on the start; that one most perilous and long voyage ended, only begins a second; and a second ended, only begins a third, and so on, for ever and for aye.  Such is the endlessness, yea, the intolerableness of all earthly effort.”


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