Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Reverse Culture Shock

I am so sorry for the lack of updates lately. My ability to blog has definitely been deteriorating, which is silly because the content of my days would actually not have been very hard to record: work work work work panic! work work tiny bit of sleep work work, repeat. There were a lot of things that for some reason needed to get done before I left for vacation.

Currently, I am writing from the airport in L.A. It looks like I may be here a lot longer than originally planned, due to the combination of a delayed plane and some thunderstorms in Chicago. I have been awake for 24 hours already! Deciding to save $600 by going through L.A. instead of direct from Beijing to Chicago in retrospect doesn't seem like as good a decision as it did when I booked it. This may have been due to a change of aircraft in San Francisco which DID NOT show up in my itinerary (which explicitly said "non-stop"). In any case, this endless day has been dragging on at nearly hysterical length.

Well, I may not be in Chicago, but I am back in the United States. And get this--much to my amazement, I am having quite an extreme case of, what would you call it, reverse culture shock. It is WEIRD being back in this country which I am accustomed to think of as my own. It makes me feel like some kind of culture freak, because I surely don't belong in China. Do I really not belong here either?

Then Pocket of Bolts reminded me that I'm in L.A. Oh yeah, that might have something to do with it. I am known to feel culture shock in L.A. even when I haven't been in a foreign country.

1) Drinking fountains
OMG--why does anyone buy water? The water here doesn't actually make you sick! It's free and available even in a public place, and it tastes fine. I keep drinking at every drinking fountain I pass, just for the novelty.
2) How cold people act, how self-absorbed and incurious.
It took me ages to get used to being stared at all the time but now I feel like I'm in a world of zombies.
3) How bad people are at standing in line
I don't mean there is more cutting--really sort of the reverse. They assume the total impossibility of cutting and therefore barely bother to move forward at all. In general, as Pocket of Bolts observed too, people in the States are just not all that good at moving efficiently in groups. How's that for confirming stereotypes! Still, Chinese people seem much better at this somehow, with the result that even though everything is more crowded, it still feels like things get done faster.
4) Sense of entitlement!!!
I left something on the plane from Beijing, and realized it as soon as I'd got through customs in San Francisco. So I went to the Airline Help desk near the baggage claim. They were almost inhumanly cold and impersonal, but very helpful and got someone to bring my thing out through the customs/immigration point within a mere fifteen minutes. I was so pleased and grateful! (Though my gratitude was a matter of complete indifference to the guy at the desk. Perhaps this is because I look like a wreck and had been silly enough to have left something the size of a small baby behind on the airplane. Well... it was a long flight.) Anyway, while I was waiting there was this other lady being incredibly antagonistic. Apparently one of her checked bags had failed to materialize. But I actually heard her say, in tones of utmost injury and aggrievement, "Do you mean I just have to sit and wait here for FIFTEEN MINUTES!?!?!?!" I almost laughed in her face. She goes on accusingly: "Does this kind of thing HAPPEN OFTEN with you people???" I kept thinking that if it were China she would be pathetically grateful if they didn't just send her to the police department for a receipt: "Yep--your luggage is gone. Here's a receipt to certify you've been stolen from!" (This actually is pretty much the only response to theft I have encountered in China. They will certify that you have been stolen from, so you can claim the insurance money.
6) Wasting of food!!
At a food court, I got some tacos. 72 RMB!!!!!!! I almost choked when I realized how much I was paying for them. But I had six helpings of free salsa, some of which i drank as shots, so that partly makes up for it. Mmmm, salsa is incredibly good. Anyway, Someone had gotten a sandwich or maybe two, and had only eaten the filling, leaving ALL the bread sitting on the table. Those sandwiches cost like, $8-9 apiece! I felt like just going over and eating the bread but i didn't.
7) Terrorism paranoia!!!!!!
(Pocket of Bolts says, "Forgot about that, didja?")
There was a special security line at the Beijing Airport, and they were explaining to these Chinese people about this incredibly stupid thing about liquids and gels etc. They were laughing their asses off. This one older Chinese guy was like, "The more money people have, the more they're afraid to die! HA HA HA!!" I think you don't realize quite how ridiculous it is unless you have been living abroad and then come back. I had set my backpack at the table while I went to pick up my order of tacos y'know? It was even in my line of sight! But I could also see people looking at it really suspiciously! and sort of edging away. OMG, it might be a bomb, or WORSE--it might contain some of those dangerous gels and aerosols! Or horror of horrors, some toothpaste.
Not much used in China, though the companies are trying to get them to catch on. But you know? Cash is really a lot faster most of the time. Do people need to use a credit card to pay for a magazine!? Although given the amount of credit card debt here, maybe they can't afford their magazine otherwise...
9) Understaffing of shops and restaurants
What, only two people working there? Where's everyone else?

Okay, this list could go on and on but boarding may start soon, fingers crossed, and anyway, I keep having narcoleptic fits while writing it. I am in sorry shape and no doubt this is all really incoherent. I may try to write some more catch-up posts later, but presently I can't even contemplate it. Wish me luck in the last leg of this grueling odyssey!

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Calligraphy, Vows, Revisions

Friday last: I wake up early. Calligraphy class is not until 10, but Hammer has deputed me--because I live so close to the bookstores, and probably because I have the disposable income--to acquire some books of model characters.

When I arrived at the bookstore, it was about five minutes before opening time at 9. A small crowd was waiting outside the doors--yes, waiting for the bookstore to open at 9 AM. It did, and people poured in. The security guard at the front door was standing at attention with his hand at his cap visor in a crisp salute. Throughout the store, all the employees were standing respectfully in their designated places. For a few minutes, all the escalators went up. Somehow, I found this rather touching. No one looked hung-over or grouchy or dispirited. They all looked neutral and attentive and very still. Perhaps underneath they were grouchy and hung-over, but it didn't show!

I discovered the calligraphy section. It was rather large. There were many different books to choose from. I chose cheap crappy soft-bound ones because it seemed a safe bet. One can always get more expensive ones later, thought I.

I also went into the stationary part of the store to see if they had any of the felt pads that go under your paper to protect the table. They were under the counter so I asked for them. The employee who works in the stationary store--who in general, I should add, I have REALLY disliked up until now because she absolutely refuses to leave a person alone--said as she was getting the felt pieces, I see you in here a lot. Do you live around here? I owned that I did. I wonder if next time I go in she will be willing to leave me alone? Because when it comes to buying office supplies, it's a time-consuming and private process of contemplation for me. I really despise being rushed and prompted.

By the time I got to the class, it was only a few minutes before time. I took a seat by the window at one of the two-person desks, and after a bit Hammer came in and very naturally sat next to me. The class was neat--the professor was lectured for half of it on the history of calligraphy and the proper way to hold a brush. At some point in my life this might have been boring, but it was so closely hooked in to the tradition that I am studying--and the professor did a good job of making it interesting, and had especially lovely blackboard handwriting--that I was quite riveted.

In the second half of the class, we practiced. I liked having the model character books, which I had never used before. They make a huge difference. Hammer was frustrated. It was his first effort. I was not frustrated because I have already accepted that calligraphy is next to impossible, and I might as well strive, not for excellence, but for serene acceptance.

Most of the other students in the class were Koreans who had studied the subject in school and were perhaps looking for easy credits--or who knows what. The professor was a true gentleman, though. He said, "I can tell that some of you have done this before, and some of you are already quite good. Some of you have clearly not done this before, but I can tell that you have really understood what I was saying in my lecture." I thought this was a really tactful and nice thing to say. I can tell that I am going to like this professor.

The time went by quickly and left me in a deeply relaxed state.

I had lunch with Hammer at Farm Garden. He had never been there. Who knows what he eats usually? I could tell he found it expensive and not especially good. I had vegetables, rice, and a breaded fried chicken leg, and I had no complaints. When conversation seemed to flag, I asked Hammer if he knew of anyone who might be willing to help me out with classical Chinese, for pay? He did. He asked me suspicious and penetrating questions, apparently aimed at ascertaining that I wasn't actually looking for a ghost writer, just a tutor. Then he seemed satisfied.

After lunch, he called up one of his buddies. I had sort of meant "sometime soon", but no time like the present I guess. I met the fellow, whose actual name means Pillar. He seemed very sharp, so we negotiated a price. We'll see how it goes!

In the afternoon, I tried to work on the piece of writing I'm trying to get done in time for re-enrollment. Heavy going. I decided it was not possible to revise it to incorporate all my adviser's concerns, and settled on answering them in a separate document. I worked on that all of Friday evening and started in again on Saturday morning, sending it off in time for him to get in on his Friday evening, with apologies that it did not actually amount to a "chapter" per se. His immediate response was back to the brush-off: yeah, I'll read it when I have time.

I interrupt this blog post for a rant, which I will attempt to frame in a positive manner. When/if I am an adviser of a graduate student, I intend to make specific agreements with the graduate student about what he or she should be producing at a given time, by a given time. When we have come to a consensus, and when the grad student does his or her part of the bargain, I will also do my part of the bargain and actually read and give feedback on what the grad student has done. I will NOT abdicate adviserly responsibility by saying, "It's your project, do whatever"--and then refuse to read the "whatever" on the grounds that it doesn't interest me. I think being an adviser is actually a rather big responsibility over someone's life, and should be taken seriously. I am happy to take Adviser's suggestions about what I should be writing at any given time, but he is unwilling or unable to make them...

Probably this is the sort of thing that's easy to rant about from this side of the PhD veil and hard to actually practice, but I vow to do my damnedest if the fates actually do allow me to write a dissertation and graduate.

The one comforting thing my adviser did say, though, was that I should not worry too much about re-enrollment, "Next year will be your writing year," etc.

The rest of Saturday is kind of lost in a fog. I think I did some cleaning, but really not much to report.

On Sunday morning I worshipped in the temple of my healthier indulgences: an extra hour of sleep, tea with milk, talking to Pocket of Bolts and reading one of his papers, long shower, puttering, reading e-mail, moving slowly. Eventually I went into school and had jiaozi, which is a good light lunch, and drinkable yoghurt (suannai) for dessert.

Then I sat in the library and worked on revising the paper I am trying to do in Chinese. Slow going! You'd think that something you wrote yourself, even though it's in a foreign language, would be easy to reread. But actually, no. It's just as hard to read as anything else written in Chinese. I am irritated with myself. In order to do the serious revision of section 3 that my adviser here requested, I had to translate it into English, then move it around. At least I could listen to music while I was doing this.

The library was crowded and full of a muted bustling sound. I realized how spoiled I have been by the holiday quiet there. I was not at all pleased to suddenly having to vie for seats and elbow-room again. Sigh. There's no help for it.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Interview Meme

This one has been going around, and it is my favorite meme so far, hands down. A big thank-you to Repressed Librarian for taking the time to think up these interesting and thought-provoking questions! I'm sure I wouldn't be as good at coming up with questions as she is, but if you want me to try to do so for you, let me know and I will.

Is there any aspect of American popular culture that you miss? If so, what?
I have spent a long time pondering this one, as it's actually the hardest of the five. Even in the States, I am a person very much out of step with popular culture, so being here doesn't change much on this front. And on the other hand, there is a lot of American popular culture enthusiastically imported to big Chinese cities like Beijing, so that recently one my Chinese friends told me she has been watching the American TV shows "Prison Break, Mr. Monk, Lost, and Desperate Women", and what did I think of them? I had to admit that I hadn't seen a single episode of any of them.

So after thinking about this question for several days, I guess I have to say that the only aspect of American popular culture I really have missed badly is the holidays. Even things you might consider the cheesiest, most irritating, stupid, boring and cliche ways of celebrating holidays--I still miss them. There are holidays here of course, but they are different holidays and I feel very out of step with them. I didn't carve a pumpkin on Halloween, or have turkey with my family on Thanksgiving. I didn't have Christmas lights or eat heart-shaped candy on Valentine's day. I think I've said this before on my blog, but, it's easy to be cynical about holidays when everyone around you is celebrating them. When no one is, by some contrarian principle, you start to long for all the stuff you made fun of before.

If you could acquire a skill or ability that you do not currently have, what would it be?
Just one? How do I choose!? I'd love to be able to fly (without the aid of mechanical devices or hallucinogens). Beaming myself instantly from one place to another would be less fun but also okay. Being able to read people's minds would be good too, but only if I could choose when I wanted to and when I didn't.

Or did you mean a skill or ability that is actually possible for humanity as we know it?

On the most pragmatic level right now, I would love to be able to read boring/difficult stuff fast and well. I realize that I read everything as if it were a primary text, very painstakingly. But when the thing is too boring, I just go to sleep. Some books are made to be speed-read, but it's just not a skill I have. When I skim things, I don't get anything out of them. Relatedly, I really wish I had the ability to keep myself from procrastinating, or from having stress-related bouts of semi-narcolepsy.

What inspires you?
The promise of orderliness: charts, routines, flash-cards, quantitative measures of qualitative things, brand new office supplies. Actual orderliness would probably be stultifying, but the idea of orderliness brings out the best and most diligent in me.

Also, on a different level, historical fiction. I especially like medieval and early modern Europe as a setting. My childhood fascination with historical fiction is probably reflected in my dissertation topic, which involves the way people rethink and retell the early history of their culture.

What do you think is the most valuable lesson you have learned from your time in China so far?

Learning to rely on people I don't know very well, and to ask favors. In my ordinary life back in the States, I always tried either to rely only on myself, or on one or two people who I know very well and trust very much (really just Pocket of Bolts and people in my immediate family). That's simply not an option here. One needs all kinds of help from all kinds of people. I generally hate to ask favors--to the point of it being an obsession to avoid doing it. But here, I have gradually been forced to get comfortable with it, and even not to mind.

People here, I think, tend to see giving and receiving favors as part of a larger system of interpersonal connections. You give them and receive them almost gratuitously, just in order to strengthen the connections in any way you can. I had heard about this before I came and felt a horrible dread about having to operate in a system like this. But now that I am doing so, it's really not nearly as bad as I had feared. And I think that when I get back I will be less paralyzingly reluctant to ask for favors there too.

Have you ever played any sports for fun (not just because you were required to in gym class)?
The interesting part of this question, the part that makes it difficult to answer, is the "for fun." In middle school and my first year of high school I did track and cross-country, but in retrospect I'm not sure I did it for fun. I think I did it out of stubbornness, or desire to prove something, or wanting to be good at it, or wanting to be thinner, or some tangle of all those things together. I stopped after getting mono one spring and being too wiped out to do any running. Later in high school I did Taekwondo, which was fun but not really a sport. In college I tried one season on the sailing team, but I was too heavy and clumsy. That was fun, though, even if I was not AT ALL comfortable with the social set and never got to go to any regattas. Sailing at an Ivy League school is like a rich person popularity contest, and I didn't fit at all. It would have been forgiven if I had been fantastically skilled, but I wasn't. So I didn't try to keep on with it. In graduate school, I did various martial arts (judo, aikido) and ballroom dancing, also not exactly sports, but at least physical.

Oh, and at summer language school I played on the soccer team, two different summers. Soccer is really really fun! I love playing defense especially. However, it also makes me feel very disappointed with my body, which is slowing down and getting creaky, especially compared to all the healthy, fit college boys I had to compete with. And since I never played soccer as a youngster, my skill level is pretty low. Still, soccer has been by far my favorite sport of all the ones I've tried for fun.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

A Week's Worth, A New Friend

Now it has been a whole week of classes, and I've not written about a one. It's not that nothing happened worth writing about, but it's been kind of a hectic time.

The main reason for this is that it's re-enrollment time at my school. That means I am supposed to deliver evidence of significant progress to my adviser... by the end of this week. I think I have made some significant progress, but there is precious little evidence of it, alas! So I have been scrambling.

My initial plan was to deliver my dissertation framework document to him just for a quick check--really to see if there was anything he thought didn't fit or wasn't worth doing--then forge ahead and see how much of the previously written stuff I could refit or reuse. The result would be no whole chapters, but at least number of sketched out chapters, with some large sections written.

This plan went awry because my adviser (finally, uncharacteristically) decided to give me detailed feedback on my framework. Well, I'm glad at least he had something to say, but it was a little untimely. It caused me to spend lots of time rethinking the framework, and not much time writing. This will pay off in the end, but the re-enrollment makes it stressful.

As it stands, I have not done that much writing. Shrug. They may say nasty things about me, but I hope they will decide to re-enroll me anyway.

Regarding this blog, I think I'm going to go for the whirlwind catch-up strategy again, even briefer than before just so I can get myself up to the present.

Monday: I went to the ZM's class on the Song dynasty poet Su Dongpo. It was really superb--again. We heard all about his life and background, and it made me think how much I would like to write a novel about the guy, for he was truly an extraordinary person. Ha, maybe in another life. Maybe when I retire.

After class I also bravely asked ZM for some advice on a sources for something I'm working on. He was kind and obliging. I was flustered, but it helped.

What a cold day it was. Snow had partly melted, but then there was some that had been caught by the freeze and hardened into rigid lumps on the concrete. Apparently spring cold is a long-recognized phenomenon here. Just before the official beginning of spring it has been getting warmer and warmer--then spring begins and there is another cold snap. I find this very peculiar weather, but everyone here seems to expect it.

I went to the great kebab place for dinner. Everything I get there tastes so good. It is only sad to have no one to share it with.

Tuesday is my long day, which is to say that on odd weeks I have three classes in a row. I forgot that my first class was only an odd week class (this is an even week) and showed up for the empty classroom experience. I quickly dashed over to catch a class that I hadn't been able to go to before because it conflicted with the one. It was HORRIBLE dull. I left after one hour, but I really wanted to leave sooner.

I spent the second hour far more productively, sitting in a coffee shop and editing a little story I wrote when I was sixteen. That seems like a funny thing to do, but HJ was really taken by a description of some farm animals I sent her in a recent e-mail and wanted to read some of my non-scholarly writing. There hasn't been awful much of that, and what there was from college was too depressing. So I sent her this cute little story I had written in high school. But first I cleaned it up a bit, suffering from that funny feeling of doubleness. I felt so proud of the story at the time, but looking at it again--well, it is still an anomalously good story as far as my fiction writing goes, but the language is so awkward! not nearly as good as my adolescent pride made it out to be. I smoothed it out a fair amount. It's still no literary gem, but at least it's not an embarrassment. Ah progress. I felt oddly tender toward my past self, even as I was impatient with her unwarranted conceit.

I had a quick lunch and then went off to my next class. Interesting. The first session, last week, I had noticed another foreigner in it, sitting on the side of the room near the door. I always sit on the side of the room near the windows, so I sat there as usual last time. Now this time, the foreigner was sitting on the side of the room near the windows.

Actually, I vaguely recognized this one. He had been in one of the classes I'd sat in only once, the first term. As I recalled, he is actually doing a PhD here, I mean, the real thing. This is amazing and kind of freakish. To make it even odder, the PhD is in philology. Here's a guy so out of step with his time that it makes me look like a hard-headed realist.

In any case, I hadn't talked to him before. Some of the really hardcore China hands I know aren't interested in other Westerners at all, and I am not too into having my poor attempts at socializing be rebuffed. But I thought, by sitting over by the window maybe he was showing that he wanted to be talked to. Anyway, my normal seat was just behind where he was sitting, so I went and sat there. He was writing in his notebook. I noticed that he was writing all in Chinese, in a hand that was a marvel of neatness compared to mine. So (just in case he was a non-English-speaking foreigner, or was so hardcore he was unwilling to speak English) I said to him in Chinese, "Your handwriting is really nice."

He seemed startled and shy under a veneer of cool. He told me (in English) that he was actually taking a class. To improve handwriting? said I. I want to go!

"It's for foreigners," he said, "so I thought I might meet some other Americans. But it's fifty Koreans and me."

I decided this meant he wanted to meet other Americans, despite being such a hardcore China hand, so I said, "Well, you can meet me. I'm Zapaper." And I stuck out my hand to shake. Funny ritual! Can't remember the last time I shook hands with someone, but somehow we instinctively know when the moment calls for it.

He remembered me from back in September. I was totally impressed that he remembered my Chinese name.

This whole exchange sounds a little flirty but it totally wasn't. No chemistry whatsoever. His manner was a mix of friendly and diffident. As for me, I felt rather proud of my behavior in this situation. I started a conversation. I started an acquaintance. I even sealed it by giving him my name card so he would have my contact info. I felt like a real grown-up, or a normal human being, you know?

For reasons I'll not disclose, I'll refer to him as Hammer. Good common word, presumably google won't turn make trouble for me on that account.

I learned several really useful things in the class. YHz is an awesome teacher, not so much for her lecture style--which is much drier than ZM's--but because she is great at preparing interesting, solid, useful stuff.

Army Gal was there, and I talked to her just enough so as not to be rude. She opted not to come to the next class with me, though, and I was glad.

By the next class I was kind of brain-dead. Tuesdays are going to be hard, I can tell. On the other hand, though, it was rather interesting. The professor had an extremely Western approach to the material. I am going to have to ask her sometime whether she studied in the West or something? It was very contextualized, very much keeping the bigger picture in mind, not especially detail-oriented, and delivered in an easy to follow, informal, extemporaneous, colloquial style. Interesting. Even though it's going to be hard to make myself go to this one, I think I will try at least for a while.

Tuesday night, a tiring end to a tiring day, I also had the dissertation support group. So I rode Lincoln down to Zhichun lu and took the train to Yonghegong. I thought fleetingly about the Lama and hoped I wouldn't run into him and his girlfriend. I'm not sure why I hoped that, except for that somehow it would be awkward. Not going to reflect on that one anymore.

The diss group was relaxing, four girls having dinner in an Italian restaurant, buried in a little Beijing hutong (tiny alley full lined with courtyard-style houses), next to a Buddhist temple. There's almost something surreal about that. We talked shop. I misordered, but oh well. Live and learn. It was fun to chatter. I got some pretty useful feedback on my dissertation framework too.

On the way home, I accidentally got out of the subway on the wrong side of the enormous street. Crossing back via an overpass, I saw these icicles, lit up by the headlights. Icicles, in March. Go figure.

Wednesday, I must confess, was a pathetic loser-ish day.

I didn't have any classes. I planned to just do a full day of work. Instead, I did a couple hours work on an e-mail to my adviser at home. Sent it off, took a shower, and got a response back almost right away. Tone: no you idiot, that's not what I was talking about. Zapaper's productive work day: completely shot. It is easy to be over-sensitive when you're in my situation. I knew I shouldn't, but I just couldn't help myself. I also knew if Pocket of Bolts were here, he would roust me out of the house and make me go out and do something distracting. But he wasn't here. So I moped and sulked and hardly managed to do anything.

That's pretty much all I have to say about Wednesday, except Hammer called. If I really wanted to go to the calligraphy class, perhaps we should get together and go get supplies together? So I said sure and we set a time for the next morning after my class.

Thursday: I woke up at 5 with anxiety-insomnia. The really crazy thing was that I didn't get back to sleep until my alarm went off at 6:30; at that point, in my total irrationality, I felt very relieved to think that I could totally rely on the alarm to go off every five minutes (I have a five-minute snooze). Since there was something that could be relied upon, I should have no qualms about finally getting some rest. So unlike the way most people would feel doing half an hour of five minute snoozes, I felt luxurious. I know, I'm a freak. I laughed at myself when I finally woke up all the way. Of course I was a bit late to class, and had to have my morning tea in a thermos instead of a tea-cup.

The class was good, despite being at 8 AM. I have decided to get up at 6:30 AM every morning, not just on Thursdays. That way, it won't be such a nasty shock to do it once a week. Of course, I decided this ON Thursday, so this week it didn't help. But next week, I'm totally going to be on top of things.

I met Hammer and we went to the campus store. Yeah, they have calligraphy supplies at the campus store. It's China, what do you expect. Then we had lunch at Shan Yao. It was fun. It's hard to imagine, but Hammer has been living in China for more than six years. My mind boggled. It was really interesting to hear his story. He is oddly diffident with me, but I think he is actually just a little shy. Again, I had the feeling that the rude and tough exterior was kind of a front. He was amusingly rude, though. He had a perfect rude Chinese guy restaurant manner, antagonizing the waitresses and such. I am not as uptight about such things as I was at first, and just thought it was funny. He said that when he goes back to the States to visit his parents, they don't like eating in restaurants with him. "I tone it down," he said in an injured tone, "but apparently I'm still too rude. I guess I do spit things on the floor and stuff."

Hammer is funny. He started out as a kungfu Asia geek but turned into something else, almost by chance. He turned into something real. The kind of stuff he studies--I mean, I wouldn't want to study it, but it's impressive what he's managed to achieve. Completely outside the realm of Western academia, he has skills that a lot of Western sinology professors can't claim. It's really interesting.

So anyway, that was neat, and put me in a decently good mood for working. I won't say I got all THAT much done the rest of the day, but at least I was in relatively good spirits.

Friday was eventful so I'm going to save it for tomorrow. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Snow in March

Sunday I woke up and looked out the window. This time, the world was all white. It was hard to believe--snow in March! It was only the second time we've had snow all winter. The courtyard with its little tracks and traipses looked like an oddly beautiful sort of arabesque.

I stayed in most of the day, working and occasionally admiring the view out my window. It was a peaceful enough day. In the afternoon, I read a whole novel! Confessions of an Ugly Step-sister. It was very good. It made me think more about beauty and what it is, the ways in which it counts. When you get started thinking about something important, everything seems to relate to it.

Toward afternoon, I went out for a walk in the snow. I had been contemplating going to the Summer Palace, but by the time I got out the door it was too late and too cold. Instead, I went to nameless lake and meandered around. For no good reason, I was feeling melancholy. I tried taking pictures of snowscapes, but they didn't seem very meaningful. They needed Pocket of Bolts in them, looking big and cold. I tried taking pictures with me in them, but I kept showing up with a sullen scowl. One of the only ones that came out reasonable:

A snowscape:

By the time I got back to the campus, it was dinnertime and I was very cold. I walked around the cafeteria, which was oddly empty even though it was squarely dinnertime. I contemplated the offerings and nostalgically chose a steaming bowl of pulled noodles. Pulled noodles used to cheer me up a lot in my early days here.

After I ate, I wandered home. That's when I realized that fireworks were going off enormously, all over the city. It was like New Years all over again, except I was in instead of out. I felt a little wistful...

There was such a big wind that the explosions were blown sideways even as they put forth their lights.

Later I found out it was another big holiday, Yuanxiaojie, the Lantern Festival. I'd guessed as much, after seeing all the fireworks, and felt fretful and sad at having had nowhere to go.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Mishaps, Delights, and Rain

Friday, I'm afraid, has vanished almost entirely from my memory. My journal records that I hung around in the morning feeling sleepy. My task log records that I did a decent amount of work on both my dissertation project and the Chinese article. From this I conclude that I must have gone to the library. But it's strange for a day to vanish so completely from my memory.

I know that in the evening, I dropped my books off at the apartment and went to get a haircut. I went back to the first place I had gone, because they give a massage. I really wanted the massage! The massage did not disappoint, but the haircut did. It was one of those funny lessons in counterintuitive things about trying to operate in another culture. See, it's my fourth haircut here. After some trial and error, I have finally figured out basically what I want. I said it all quite smoothly--sideburns long, above the ears short, back shorter than most Chinese people like, please, and I sort of comb the front forward so trim that a little. I was proud of myself that I was able to express things so clearly. But somehow the result was disastrous. From this I conclude that I should just let them use their best judgement and cut my hair however they want.

Meanwhile, nothing grows out slower than a too-short, bad haircut. It's especially annoying since the last haircut I got was so good and pleasing. I should have just gone back to those guys! It bothers me more than I would expect, looking like a degenerate boy with a square face and cowlicks. No, I am NOT going to post a picture. My only consolation is that there are more than two weeks before I go to see my darling, and he loves me anyway, even with the hair. My two new friends, the Princess and the Lama, are both sequestered with their significant others, so I don't have to self-deprecatingly excuse myself by telling the tale of my apparent linguistic/coiffuristic ineptitude.

Ah vanity vanity. I suppose it is good practice in not caring about appearances, as I always claim I don't. But what I realize is that I don't care about OTHER people's appearance, don't judge them thereby. I'm not sure I trust other people to do the same! Except for Pocket of Bolts, whose theory about the subjective nature of human physical attractiveness is a constant comfort to me. I only ever argue against it because I want to make sure he really believes it.

To make up for my ineptitude vis-a-vis the hair thing, I did have a small amusing triumph at the grocery store, where I went afterwards.

I was trying to buy q-tips. I knew they should have q-tips...somewhere. But I didn't know where. Also, I had no clue of the Chinese word for q-tips, not even the first hint of a guess. I circled four or five times around the overly fancy and intimidating cosmetics and toiletry section of the Carrefour. As always, it was mobbed, making it even more difficult to see anything, as well as slow going. Finally I was faced with the dilemma--ask, or give up.

"Excuse me," I said politely in Chinese (almost all the dialogs quoted here actually take place in Chinese, by the way, except the ones with American friends). "I'm looking for something but I don't know what it's called." (That sounds kind of profound in English, but not in Chinese.) The salesgirl was one of the better and more patient ones. She prepared herself to meet the challenge. "It's white," I went on. "And small"--I gestured with my fingers--"and comes in separate individual sticks." The salesgirl said something and made an unmistakeable ear-cleaning motion, and I knew I was victorious.

They were not two feet from where we were standing.

And why, you might ask, did I not say "things you clean your ears with"? Search me. I guess I doubted whether or not that was actually what Chinese people use them for. Besides, I was buying them to clean my keyboard and the hard to reach crevices of my humidifier, not my ears.


Saturday. Rain! It must have rained all night. It was so exciting to look out the window and see it still coming down. People were walking through the courtyard with umbrellas. Umbrellas! When was the last time I saw those? I was comically excited.

No classes. I mooned around most of the morning, thinking about the meaning of beauty. I know this sounds kind of random, but since my boyfriend is a philosopher, we had a great conversation about it, which only made me want to think even more. There's a particular kind of thinking that is deeply addictive. It has its bad side--trying to find something on the internet, say, that you know should be there; or trying to fix some problem your computer is having. But its good side is this sort of thing: trying to figure something out, trying to establish a rational structure behind your rhetoric, trying to find a way to be convincing about your intuitions.

A care package came from my mom. Thanks mom! It contained, among other things, all the makings for a pasta dinner, including a fork to eat it with. Yay!! It was such a novelty, actually eating with a real metal fork. And the pasta sauce was amazingly good for being made from a mix. I think part of it was having parmesan cheese. Actual parmesan cheese! They must sell it here somewhere, but I haven't noticed any. Oh, delicious. I was highly impressed, all in all. We should all be deprived of simple things sometimes, just so we recognize how wonderful they are.

There were many other goodies in the care package. One was exceedingly decadent chocolate. I am trying to ration it. This is difficult. Another was more crack--er, I mean, novels in English. Also warm fluffy socks, which is good because it's suddenly gotten cold again. It is so fun getting care packages, despite feeling a bit guilty about how expensive they are to send overseas!

Saturday afternoon: I went to the next-door Starbucks and slogged through another chapter of the book I'm reviewing. Slog slog. It is heavy going. I had a funny experience with the guy behind the counter. I was standing in front of the menu trying to decide whether I wanted hot chocolate or cappuccino. The guy behind the counter asked me what I wanted and I said I was thinking. Then he very properly allowed me to think in peace, and I was about to be impressed. But then the other guy behind the counter, who seemed to be his boss or senior, scolded and chided him: "How come you haven't offered some suggestion? Go on!" "How about a cappuccino," the counter-man said, abashed, like a dog that has been scolded. "Or a mocha." I laughed, half amused and half irritated. "We have Starbucks in the US, you know," I said. "I understand the menu. I'm just trying to make up my mind." I'm not sure if I really got my point across. What I really wanted to have said was, it's better to leave one alone then to throw out random suggestions. But that was a bit much for my presence of mind on a Saturday afternoon. It was kind of amusing though.

After I finished my alloted slogging, I went and dumped the book back in my room and took off for some much more pleasurable slogging, a walk in the rain.

The first thing I saw was an enormous line of people with brilliantly colored umbrellas, stretching all around this building and looping back on itself. I walked boldly up to a friendly looking security guard and asked him what they were waiting for. "To buy books," he said, "and for signing." "Oh, I get it," I said after a moment's contemplation. "A famous author is here?" It seemed so. "Which one?" "Yu Dan." Hmm. I have not heard of Yu Dan. Maybe some of my readers are more up on contemporary Chinese literature than I am. I did not join the line, but I did take a picture of it, rather moved by this display of readerly dedication. I mean, it was raining and all.

I walked west along the Fourth Ring road, just to find out what was out there. Answer: not much. But emptiness in itself is interesting when one lives on a busy street surrounded by so many people and tall buildings and cars. On the south side of the road there was a golf course with not a single blade of green grass on it. That's a rare sight in itself! I wanted to walk on the brown hills, but the place well-fenced and guarded.

On the right side of the road there were first some businesses, and then a lot of nothing. The field didn't really feel like an empty field, though. It had the feeling of a place where homeless people camp. Or where something commercial and sketchy takes place. Or both. I was interested in it because it was different and an open space, but decided not to linger.

It was a long walk. I walked for more than forty-five minutes, listening to music, and still did not reach the place where the ring road turns south. Concentric circles can kick your butt, if you go far enough out from the center. I took a bus back to the campus! Had myself some dinner at one of the cafeterias, a motley assortment of dishes--I'm still not very good at harmonizing them and figuring out a pleasing combination of food groups. But I did at least fill my belly!

Then I bought some more books. More than 200 RMB worth! That many books was enough to get me very special treatment from the bookstore people. They wrapped my books up in three layers of plastic bags, gave me a special kind of receipt, and ceremoniously presented me with their card. While overall I don't set much store by it, it is novel to be treated like a VIP once in a while.

I had to buy an umbrella on the way out. It was raining really hard, not just the fine drizzle there had been during my walk. On the way home, I made a poem. Actually, it is a cross between a poem and an illustrated children's book. Only I don't have the time or talent to make the illustrations that I see in my mind. Usually I don't post poems on this blog because no one in the modern world seems to like poetry much. But since this is an occasional poem and not a serious one, I am hoping it won't offend anyone.

Written on the Day of the First Spring Rain

Tonight I wish I had one
hundred and nine umbrellas,
one for every one I saw today.

I would open them all up
in an umbrella cloud
and admire them from far away,
standing in the rain.

This One is Really Fun

As seen at Word Nerd's. I really enjoyed taking it.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Social Lies, Last Chat, First Rain

Tuesday: I can't say that the second day of classes went quite as well as the first. Actually, the classes were nice enough. One was the medieval section of the History of Chinese Literature series. The teacher is young and hard-core and very funny and enthusiastic. The other was my Beida adviser YHz's class on the early dynastic History of the Former Han. I learned a lot in both classes. However, WW, aka Army Gal, came bustling in in YHz's wake like a bad wind, and YHz's face was rather cold. Perhaps it was first day of class nerves, or perhaps it was Army Gal's importunities. Either way, I was a little concerned lest I suffer guilt by association.

Army Gal came straight over to me and sat across the aisle, then began to fuss self-importantly about this and that. I regarded her mass of coarse untidy long hair and her strong round dangerous face. I spoke to her with cool polite friendliness as best I could.

After the glass, we both walked out with YHz. I made an arrangement to meet her on Thursday morning. Then as I was parting from them made the mistake of saying I was headed off to another class. Instantly Army Gal was on me like a hawk. "What class?!" And then she would have to go to. Patiently, I suffered her to tag along behind me. The classroom was empty, though, a sign on the board saying the class would start next week instead. We descended the stairs together, I already having inklings of dread about what was going to happen next, and me without an excuse or alibi.

Are you going to the library now? I'm going too! Army Gal insisted I ride in her car with her, the fifty yard drive to the library.

It's hard to explain how or why her presence grates on me so extremely but it does, ever since that disastrous dinner we had together, when she kept telling me to hurry home and get married. Actually, she did it again as we were walking out with YHz, attempting to share a "we married woman" nudge and wink with her. Now, in her little white car, Army Gal drove slowly, and quizzed me about what I had done for the Spring Festival--I had had Peking duck with friends, I told her. At the place we went to before? she wanted to know. No, just a little place in my friend's neighborhood.

I thought with a pang about the jolly little eatery, called "Easy Time", a fine meal at the window table, fireworks blowing up right outside, and friendly undemanding conversation. Something tells me no one's ever had an "easy time" with Army Gal around.

She informed me that she had tried to call me and invite me somewhere but that the call hadn't gone through. She said this several times. I felt a great relief in me that some telephone glitch had spared me. Yes, I was feeling that curmudgeonly.

Army Gal dropped me off in front of the library and said she had an errand to do in the department. She'd catch up with me later. She'd catch up with me later. A deep and inexplicable dread filled me. I went into the library like a rat sensing a trap. I wavered. If I were given to hand-wringing, I would have wrung my hands. I hate lying. I hate it. But some people force you to. I sent her a quick text saying that a friend of mine had asked if I could help her out with something, so I was going to go do that. This was not wholly untrue, because there was an e-mail waiting from HJ with some translation questions, waiting for me to answer it. But it wasn't strictly true either. Go then, Army Gal texted back after a bit. By then I was already half-way home.

I paid for my social lie, however, for somehow I was not able to get a single bit of work done all evening. I didn't even manage to answer HJ's e-mail. The productivity gods were frowning on me for my cowardice.

Wednesday: I made up for some of my unproductivity by having a fairly decent morning. After lunch, I took Lincoln out and rode to school for a seminar. Got to the classroom, waited. Other people obviously waiting for the same seminar. At about a quarter past, we gave up en masse and trekked over to the department to check the schedule. The class would not be starting until the third week, read the announcement. The professor is a slacker, I thought, and rode Lincoln home again.

At home I just wasted time for a bit until it was time to go out again. I had found out that the Lama was leaving for five weeks of traveling about with his girlfriend, who would be arriving on Friday. It's a sort of unwritten rule that when someone's s.o. comes to visit you leave them alone. Indeed, I had been prepared to bid the Lama goodbye after our fun time at D-22 on Saturday. But having dinner together a last time had been his idea, and I wasn't complaining. It made me feel rather nice, proof that he enjoyed my company.

And I--well, especially after my depressing re-encounter with Army Gal, I felt I could do with a bit of company that didn't make me want to run screaming and tearing my hair. So I took Lincoln to Wudaokou and rode the subway from there. I like getting out of my neighborhood and the Lama likes staying in his, so it was easy to decide.

When we met, we had a few moments debate on where to go, and then decided on duck at Easy Time again. It may seem unadventurous, but somehow neither of us felt like trying to negotiate something new. We both just felt like having an "Easy Time." The waitresses, I think, remembered us from last time and put us at the same table. We ordered different stuff, some kind of noodle, and sauteed Chinese broccoli, to go with our duck, and it was even more delicious than last time.

We talked shop some, and I also learned more about his girlfriend, and other people he knows also. How I like to hear people's stories. It's strange that I'm not more sociable, because hearing about things about people's lives is so satisfying to me and interesting.

After dinner we rambled down to a really classy coffee-shop called Waiting for Godot. I kid you not. It was an awesome place, with a whole wall of funky post-cards for sale, a lot of random decor, bootleg DVDs, handwritten poems (in Chinese) written in white on the black walls. I wish I had discovered it sooner. Pocket of Bolts would have liked it lots. We had a couple of Belgian beers, and talked over some translation problems. I had offered to help, and was chagrined that I had no ideas about some of the problems, but I think I was able to give good suggestions about a few. Well, I don't promise miracles, after all--only "two heads are better than one."

I had meant to go before the subway closed, but the time kind of flew by. By the time we'd said our farewells and do keep in touches, and I'd trudged to the subway, I barely caught the last train and it didn't even go all the way. So I ended up taking a cab to Wudaokao. It would have been easier to take a cab home, but I have resolved not to leave Lincoln overnight anywhere except for my own attended parking garage. He is too good a bike to be treated carelessly.

It was a gloomy enough ride home, though, and I was glad that Pocket of Bolts was there at the end of it, even if it was only his virtual self. It really does do me good to get out and talk to people, but somehow when there is no PoB to come home to the good sort of evaporates.

The next day, Thursday, I had an 8 AM class. That was a hard thing, but it was the good medieval literature class again, so I managed to make myself get there. I can't believe that the professor cold-calls on people, not to answer questions but to recite poems! Can you imagine an English class in the US where the professor assigned the memorization of five poems per lecture, and then cold-called people to recite them the next time? Not that the recitations were perfect, but still, I was pretty impressed.

And then I had my meeting with YHz. Is it not sweet and beautiful to be praised by one's superior, and for something one really cares about? (By superior, of course, I mean not merely hierarchical superior, but superior in a sense that matters--someone you respect, someone you feel is above you in a way you admire.) That was my feeling after meeting with YHz. We had met so she could give me suggestions on my paper. Her opinion was generally favorable, and her suggestions thoughtful. If I work very hard on the revisions, she may help me publish it. I felt inspired.

I felt so inspired, in fact, that I worked on the revisions all that afternoon.

Meanwhile, it rained. Not very much, mind you--just a tiny tiny bit. But it was still rain. I was thrilled. Here is a picture to show how little rain it takes to thrill me. Keep in mind that there has been no precipitation here in months.

On the way home, I bought a stack of books in preparation for the new semester's classes. I love doing that. They're stacked up neatly next to the television, with the former getting decidedly more attention than the latter. That's just the kind of person I am!

I felt productive and ready to go. It was really a good day.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Cars and Bars, and then Here We Go Again

Now that it's this weekend... here we have last weekend part 2, plus Monday. I'm going to get caught up... REALLY I am. But slowly, slowly.

I had arranged to go to hear live music with the Lama on last Saturday night. This was definitely a peculiar thing for me to do. Pocket of Bolts does not like live music. I've been largely disappointed with it myself, on the few occasions when I've given it a try. So the two of us just more or less agree to give it a miss. But here is the Lama saying over e-mail that he'd sure like to, and here is me agreeing. Why? Because it'd be different from moping in my apartment all evening.

Yeah, I'm kind of at the moping stage of my year abroad. Even a hard-core introvert like me has a limit, and I've hit the limit.

So I find myself going out on a Saturday night to hear a band called the Carsick Cars, at a bar near Wudaokou, not too far from where I live. Since the Lama and I had both agreed that we should have talked longer on Thursday we met a bit early for dinner. Then in one of those silly reversals, we suddenly kind of felt like there was nothing much to say. I had been (silly me) sort of tense and anxious all day about the occasion. Why? why? I have no earthly idea. I'm not sure what was going through his mind, except maybe just shyness. In any case, we sat eating spicy Hunan food and talking about inane things related to academia. But you know? it works. At least there are those inane things to talk about. And after a while, I hit a little more of a groove. We talked shop, and I got a little excited talking about a Pu Songling story.

We wandered over to the bar, D-22. It was pretty full already. We both kind of wanted to sit a bit rather than just stand around waiting for the band to arrive. So walked about awkwardly peering around looking for seats. Then one of the guys who worked there suggested trying the upstairs. Thanks guy! That was awesome. The upstairs had much more of a coffee-shop feel... a really run-down expat type coffee-shop with big orange couches: comfortable. So we sat up there and drank beers. When the band played, we wandered over to the rail and looked down on them. That was cool. The band was--well, not great. But kind of fun to listen to in that they were very loud and energetic, and I had already had two full beers in the bar in addition to the one at dinner. The railing vibrated, they were that loud. I was a little worried about hearing loss, but I was grooving in the Dionysiac moment. It was all good.

Between sets, we talked for real. The Lama told me about how he had become a philosopher. I told him about how I had once caught a shark. He asked me how I'd met Pocket of Bolts, and I ended up explaining to him in addition a philosophical theory of perversion PoB and I had come up with together when we were first dating. It was this kind of conversation, mellow and fun. Sometime in there the band played again, and we wandered over to listen to them from above. The second set was different, more technical, with a lot of the sound being produced by little knobs and short term recordings and replayings. Also a girl using a keg for a drum. I was less into the second set, but the Lama said he liked it better. He smoked a lot and I felt obscurely guilty. It was... just that kind of conversation.

Eventually he said he was losing his voice (I was starting to as well) and we realized it was 2 AM. Ha! Staying out until 2 AM was pretty unusual for both of us! A cab was waiting right outside the bar, and given that there weren't too many on the streets at that hour, we waved a quick goodbye without much comment. Which was fine.

The streets were so empty when I biked home, and cold, unaccustomed moisture in the air. It was truly the feeling of early spring. But--surreal and a little sad coming home drunk, passing the security guard in the lobby asleep with his head on his arm, riding an empty elevator up to an empty room. In Chinese fiction commentary they would describe it as the contrast of dong 动 (motion) and jing 静 (stillness), i.e., renao 热闹 (warmth/liveliness) and lengluo 冷落 (cold/loneliness), an explicitly admired narrative technique, but not much comfort when it's real life. It was REALLY good to talk to Pocket of Bolts, who was all dressed for work and in his office, fresh and alert and bright.

Sunday I was a bit hung over. In fact, I didn't do much the whole darned day. I can barely remember it. My tasks log reveals that I spent one hour and 46 minutes on "Dissertation Thoughts" and one hour and seven minutes on e-mail. I guess I wrote my obligatory two pages and then caught up on e-mail. I also did some (unlogged) work on Pocket of Bolts' birthday present. Mostly I just lay around being torpid. Drinking is not all that good for my work energy.

I was a little confused about whether classes were starting on Monday. I packed up for working at the library. On the way over, I stopped by the department. Yep, people lined up for the schedule of courses!

And all of a sudden, it was the first day of classes feeling. The campus was bustling, come back to life. Here was a guy trimming trees. There were people dashing about, standing in line, laughing, chattering. Bicycles careened about with a jaunty recklessness. My spirits began to lift magnificently and inexorably, a hot air balloon slowly filling and ready to attain great heights. Everything just as it was in September, except that I had no freshman misery of knowing nothing and no one, being bewildered about the whole system.

The course schedules I had managed to get hold of again seemed like a conquest to be treasured and gloated over. But it was a conquest I made without pain or difficulty this time. And inside--whole new worlds! My resolve to attend no classes by my adviser's, this semester, evaporated completely. Suddenly the prospect of attending class every day again made me feel totally elated: it's like having a date whenever you want--every day a date with learning. I know! I sound like a total dork. But I felt like I'd found something I hadn't realized I'd lost. My mental health improved immediately and noticeably. I felt really jolly.

So I spent a few minutes in the morning planning which classes I would go to. I didn't have an misconceptions about the times. I knew where to look for notices about room changes. I had a sense of which professors did what, and the naming conventions--what sorts of courses were likely to have what sorts of content. There was one building I didn't know, so at lunch-time I went to the bookstore and bought a map. I knew just where to go. This sort of thing. It was just like a replay of my first semester, but the contrast was a huge confidence boost.

Speaking of lunch, I was so shocked by how much yummy food there suddenly was in the cafeterias again. This is when I realized that they'd been slowly reducing the variety and quality of food all through the break. No wonder I'd been getting gloomy. Maybe melancholy always begins from one's stomach... Here is a picture of the Yannan cafeteria, taken from the balcony seating area.

I only actually went to two classes. The first was an MA class called "Philological Research." It seemed like it had the potential to be painfully painfully boring. I dozed off, despite my general enthusiasm for resuming the professional student's life. After I mentally slapped myself back to alertness, I let my mind wander instead and started designing a graduate seminar I'd like to teach someday in the distant future. This was good thinking to be doing, and I made notes in my notebook while pretending to be attentive. But I don't think I'll be going back to "Philological Research" class, since it promises to be that weird Chinese version of "discussion class." Useless for me.

The other class was taught by a prof I had really liked last semester, ZM. It was a class exclusively focused on Su Dongpo, who is definitely a research interest of mine (for someday...), and I was exceedingly excited to be in the class. I hung on every word. After outlining what he was going to talk about in the course overall, ZM did a little introduction by discoursing on (the famous poet) Su Dongpo and his relationship to drinking and drunkenness. This was hilarious and fun. What a great first day lecture for college students. But only if you want to attract them rather than chase them away!

So that was the beginning of classes, and the true beginning of the second half of my time here (though because vacation is so long I am really more than halfway through). Leaving me there on a gloriously optimistic note, I am going to have to finish this catch-up post tomorrow since it is past midnight and I'm beat!

Just Plain Silly

Okay, this is a REALLY silly blog quiz. Given the choice of questions, I'm lucky it came out as well as it did. There must be one in there that's like, your grandma's panties. But I think this is pretty fair. Even if completely absurd. Seen at Starfish and Coffee.

You Are Basic Panties

You are a laid back chick with a real natural beauty.
You can make unwashed hair and minimal make-up super sexy.
Men tend to notice you show the "real you" - and they appreciate it.
And while basic makes boring for some, it looks classic on you.

Change "minimal make-up" to "none", of course. Now, if only my ass looked that good too...

Friday, March 02, 2007

Nothing but Fireworks

Hello all.

I am so sorry about my inability to keep my blog caught up with my life. And today's no better either. I've been working so hard that my brain is just mush by the end of the day, and writing so much work stuff that it's hard to face writing any more for fun. What do I feel like doing for fun instead? Hmm... staring at a blank wall seems about the right speed.

But to make it up to you until tomorrow, when I really will make a proper catch-up post, here is a big series of gorgeous long-exposure firework photos I took out my window last week. I think they are awesome. Some look like something you'd see in space, others look like scaly prickly animals--dragons and scorpions and such--and still others look like giant bright flowers, or 80s neon extravaganzas. I wish I had lots of text to pack around them, but oh well. Here are the equivalent of some 17,000 words.