Sunday, April 26, 2009

I don't have much to say, this is just my excuse for why I haven't written the post about Maps and Legends. I can't remember if I talked about my abortive attempt at grad school in this blog or if it was in the first iteration of Aunt BeaN's blog. But the short version is: it wasn't a very good experience. Not to mention that it was a very long time ago, and in a state on the other side of the country. But for some reason, a couple of weeks ago I got the idea to finally finish my master's in English. It seemed like the perfect thing. I might actually be able to get a job teaching at our community college-- and wouldn't it be one of the greatest imaginable ironies, if I could get a job using my English degree when I can't get one using all my computer skills?

So I started e-mailing the extremely nice and extremely helpful people at our state university, and quickly became overwhelmed by how out of the loop I am. I still love to read, and I still love to read criticism, which I think is something that not many people can say. But I had forgotten about academia. Just reading the course descriptions for the graduate seminars was making my stomach hurt. Do they write those things specifically to make you feel intimidated? Because if so, it was working. I'm now feeling like one of the world's six dumbest people. But I haven't given up yet. If they'll let me in, I'm going to at least give it a shot. It's going to take me six months to a year just to get my application together, because so much of what they require is no longer available to me. If any of my grad school professors are still alive, would they be willing to write a letter of recommendation for someone they barely knew more than 20 years ago? I think not. And a ten-page sample of critical writing? I think my four posts on reading Lolita are not quite going to do the trick.

So I'm no longer feeling competent to comment on Mr. Chabon's Maps and Legends (I did find out how to pronounce his name, though: SHAY-bon. I was sort of hoping for something down in your throat like Chaim, but that's not it). I really enjoyed reading it. It was the perfect travelling companion for some reason that I'm not sure I can explain. I always have a terrible time with jetlag, so I have many hours awake in the middle of the night-- so I usually make sure I have a stack of interesting books, a flashlight and a lot of batteries. This one book, even though it is quite slim, kept me happy through a whole week of sleepless nights-- it was practically a page turner. "The Receipe for Life," one of the essays toward the end, was like finding a kindred spirit at 3 a.m. Beijing time a world away from home. It's such an odd thing to find someone who can articulate so clearly an experience similar to your own, and yet they don't have the faintest idea who you are or that you even exist on the planet. But that's one of the cool things about reading, yes? Maybe I will revisit it later, but that's all for now. Well worth reading, if you enjoy reading about books and writing.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

I really wish I were a good travel writer, but I'm not. I'm not very visual, and that's a lot of what makes for good travel writing-- being able to convey what you see. This isn't the first time I've noticed this; I've been on half a dozen really wonderful trips in my life, and I've never been satisfied with my ability to convey the experience. That is my excuse for why I wrote all that setup in the previous post and haven't written anything since. I would love to be able to type out something that would give you an idea of what China was like, because it was an amazing, amazing experience. I wish we could have stayed much longer. But there's just no way I will be able to do it justice.

But there are a few things to say before I move on (in the next post, which I hope will be soon) to the Michael Chabon book I read while we were gone, Maps and Legends. Sometimes you just want to pick up the phone and thank someone for writing something, and that's the way I felt while reading several of his essays. And that's saying something, because I hate talking on the phone and I almost never want to pick up the phone and call someone. But that's another post.

So back to the topic at hand, which is the trip to China. A friend once told me her approach to vacations: rather than expecting the whole time to be a mountain top experience and inevitably being disappointed, try to be on the lookout for particular moments that are good. It's an approach that has worked well for me. So in that spirit, I'll describe a few moments from our trip.

There was climbing on the Great Wall, of course, which happened the first full day we were there. It was far steeper than I was expecting, so it was a lot of work, and since I was with my husband and my son, of course we had to go up the steep side. I sent them on ahead and kept toiling along by myself, but there was no way I was going to stop until I got to the top. My quads were quivering, my knees were aching, my heart was pounding, and since it was quite warm, I was, um..., glowing, as they say. Not exactly the time to expect any great spiritual insights. But about three-quarters of the way up, I sat down on one of the (ramparts? I'm not sure the right word to use) to catch my breath, and got sucked right into one. Not an enlightenment type thing, I won't make any claims to that, but a moment of complete, utter peace. It was lovely. And that was just the first day. :-)

The third day we flew to Shanghai, and then drove to a town called Suzhou. After lunch we visited a former Buddhist temple turned public park called Tiger Hill. It was the only time on our entire trip that I was able to find a spot to be alone while we were out and about. (There are an amazing number of people in China!) I found a low wall to sit on in an out-of-the-way corner and watched the breeze move through the bamboo for about fifteen minutes (we didn't get to stay anywhere very long on this trip). And the same thing happened. As I sat and stilled myself, I was met by a vast sense of peace and deep silence. I wanted to stay right there for a very long time.

That deep sense of peacefulness was something I sensed several times on our trip, and I'm not sure how to explain it. My sense was that it was something to do with China-- the land and the Chinese culture. But I'm not sure. It could also have been as simple as being away from all the everyday chaos and stress of my usual life. But whatever it was, it was lovely. Delicious, even. I would be willing to pay the money over again just to go back and see if it would happen again. But I would want to stay longer next time.

On the downside, the trip was pretty well scripted. It was never outright stated, but it seemed clear that the trip had been subsidized by the Chinese government. They are unabashedly trying to improve the image of China in the world's eyes, as you could tell during the Olympics. So they've arranged these trips jointly with American Chambers of Commerce, and apparently thousands of people have visited China this way. It's not the kind of travel we usually do, but given the difficulties of travelling in China, we figured it was the only way we'd ever go.

My spouse and I had a very interesting conversation with our tour guide about human rights during the tedium of a long bus ride. He is 34, and has been a tour guide for about ten years. He seemed exasperated by the insistence of the foreign press on human rights. "Human rights, human rights, human rights, it's all we hear from them," he said at one point. "But we don't feel like we don't have human rights." His voice seemed honestly frustrated. He was very clear that he didn't like the way his government controls information, but he seemed to think that the human rights issue wasn't as big as all of us wanted to make it. There were more than a few very pointed questions from members of our group about Tibet, Tian'nanmen Square, etc, and he answered them all with what felt like a fair amount of openness, although it was clear that he was wording things carefully on occasion. It was very interesting, and thought provoking. He also spoke with a great deal of pride about the people of China, and how proud they are of how far their country has come. I had a brief but distinct picture of an ancient people with a long, long history, to whom the current government is simply another flash in the pan. They aren't all that disturbed by it, they are just waiting it out. (I got a bit of the same sense when my Chinese teacher told us that he feels many of the government's more repressive policies will change once the two remaining, elderly hardline party members pass away; no one wants to change any of their policies while they're still alive out of respect for them)(which is bizarre by American standards, but makes some sense when you understand a bit about the Chinese respect for tradition, their ancestors, and their elders.).

When I've tried to talk to people about this since we got back, there's been a fair amount of gently disdainful disbelief, as if we had naively succumbed to the propaganda of the Chinese government. And maybe we did. But I did come away from it thinking that the situation was, as seems always to be the case, far more complicated than we would like it to be. We want to believe that a Communist government is necessarily bad, and ignores human rights, and that's that. But like I said, having been there, it seems more complicated than that.

Anyway. I think that's all I have to say that I can put into words. It was a great trip. I knew I would be interested, even fascinated, by the different culture, but I didn't know I would fall in love, if it is possible to fall in love with a country. There is a warmth, a loveliness, that underlies the surface that draws you in, makes you want more. There's also a great deal of cruelty, both in the current government and their past history, but we'd be hypocritical indeed to hold that against them given our own record. I hope I get to go again, and next time stay several weeks.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

I have some catching up to do. We went on our spring vacation last week, and I was hoping before I left to write some background as to what we were doing, but it didn't happen. And to explain that requires going back even further, to last fall. I mentioned during November that I was taking classes at our local community college. I finally gave up on finding a good job-- not only are good jobs hard to find in this area, but since I don't really have to work, in the current job market it seemed frivolous to take a good job away from someone who needs to feed their family. So I decided instead to go back to school, which would serve the dual purpose of staving off boredom and also possibly picking up some skills that might come in useful at a later date.

So last fall I decided to take a programming class and a foreign language. The programming class made sense in terms of possible later usefulness-- although I was an English major, my first job out of school was as a technical editor, and when I showed an aptitude for computers, I was quickly adopted by the IT staff. I've done database programming, SAS programming, CAD, desktop publishing, manned the help desk, done phone support, all sorts of technical stuff. But I'd never actually done real programming, and I'd never taken a computer science class-- most of my technical education occurred on the job.

The foreign language was just because I wanted to challenge myself. Up until the night before I registered, I was trying to decide between Russian and Chinese. Russian made more sense because there is a sizeable Russian population in the area where we live and it could have actually come in handy-- schools and the hospital are always looking for volunteer Russian interpreters. But I was intrigued by the idea of learning Chinese, and Russian was only offered at night (which is difficult if you have a family), so I found myself standing in line last August registering for the first semester of Programming in Java and Elementary Chinese.

It was the usual routine, register for your classes first, then go to the financial office and pay up (which at our small community college means walking about fifteen feet across the hall). As I was paying, the woman who was taking my surprisingly hefty tuition check said casually, "So, are you going to go on the trip to China next April?" Which I knew nothing about at that point. "It's an incredible deal," she continued, "Less than $2,000 for an eight-day tour all-inclusive." All inclusive?? Yup, airfare, meals, hotels, bus, and entrance fees at various different attractions. Even my fiscally conservative spouse agreed that it was too good a deal to pass up. So we signed up-- me, my spouse, and my eleven-year-old son. It was such an incredible opportunity that I couldn't quite believe we were doing it.

But (to take things in sequence), I had to get through fall semester first. Both classes were a great experience, even though (or maybe because?) I was the only student over the age of about 21 in either class, not to mention being older than either of my teachers. I felt like the den mother. In fact, it was so much fun that in January I signed up for the second semester of each class, plus Discrete Math, better known as math for computer science majors. I hadn't taken a math class since I took calculus in my freshman year in college (and you've heard me harangue enough about how old I am to know how long ago THAT was), so it was pretty intimidating. But it had occurred to me that it might be useful to actually have a degree in computer science, and Discrete Math is a requirement, so it made an odd sort of sense as well.

And at our community college, once you get up to a certain number of credits, the next four are free, so I figured what the heck? I might as well sign up for something else as well, since it would be free. Who needs free time? So I signed up for a one semester class in C++ programming. It was nuts. I was busy enough before I took any classes at all, and here I was with my usual life plus 17 credits. Which is why the night before we left for our long awaited trip, I was up until 3:30 a.m. finishing a take-home test for my math class (well, and packing, too) and was unable to write all this out before I left so you, my loyal readers, would know what was up. In fact, things were so nuts that I ended up dropping the C++ class, even though I really like C++. Better than Java, in a lot of ways, but it didn't make sense to drop the second semester of a two-semester sequence. I might be able to pick up C++ again some other time, I suppose. And (hallelujah!) I didn't have to take the C++ test which was scheduled for about 16 hours before we were supposed to leave.

to be continued.....