And on the other hand...

Click here for The Yin Side where the other half of me holds forth!

Saturday, January 30, 2010

50 Years of Opera in the 50th State

Missed seeing the Wolf moon last night, not just because I was sitting in an opera hall for 3.5 hours, but because it turned cloudy and rainy. This was a disappointment to the many opera-going women who had slipped into exotic shoes for the event; it was hard to tell whether the sweet young thing in the four-inch red-soled stilettos (Louboutins?) was just not quite able to walk in them, or was trying to keep them dry and pristine as she wobbled to the parking lot.

The Marriage of Figaro was confusing (it is also called a "day of madness")  but with Mozart's music it put everyone in a good mood. "I don't have any idea what's going on, but I love this" was a comment I heard from more than one person.  Everyone knows the overture for this one, but the rest of the music is less familiar, but beautiful.  The Wizard insists we saw it before, in 2001 (has it been that long?) but I really don't remember it.  The production was probably very different.  Last night's had a fine cast in a fairly simple set.  It was the yang version of my wu xia habit (chronicled in My Yin Side) --supertitles (as opposed to subtitles) to interpret the Italian, above the stage and orchestra, and action on a broad three-dimensional display (as opposed to my laptop's).  But similar in the themes -- revenge, lust, loyalty, and faithfulness.  There's also something political going on in Marriage of Figaro, but I think we missed it.

The high point for the audience was the startling reunion of the mother, played as a larger-than-life Queen of Hearts character, with her son...with whom she was in love until she recognized his birthmark.  She and the boy's father reunite, all together as a family, and with the son's real lover.  The ironic part was that the long-lost son --a stylish and charming Figaro-- and his lover were black.  (It was as surprising as the Barber of Seville's Figaro who one year performed entirely on a Segway.) I don't think Mozart had written color into the plot, but the multi-ethnic Hawaii audience found it quite amusing. It was like an element of Otello had bled into the Marriage.

As I have said before, the thing about opera is that you never know what's going to happen, but it is all part of a repeating cycle, like the lunar event that was obscured but most certainly happening.  We arrived from dinner a little late last night, just as the hall was dimming to raise the curtain. We took some vacant seats to avoid disturbing anyone already settled in.  At intermission we found our actual and somewhat better subscribed seats, as well as the Opera couple we see three Fridays each year.  (We all always get the same seats.) "We wondered where you were," they said. This year, HOT is celebrating 50 years of classic opera in Hawaii.  Mr. Opera told me he had been coming every year for as long as he could remember. Last night's program listed all the operas since 1961 and we enjoyed revisiting some memories over the past seasons; this was the fifth Marriage of Figaro in the company's history.  I'm actually surprised that HOT continues to thrive; our local symphony has declared bankruptcy (a sad phrase to see in print, how the economy affects the arts).  I suspect it's a matter of scale; the opera, which has itself cut its summer light offering, does only three productions a year. The symphony is an ongoing long-term commitment for the organization as well as its subscribers.  Mr. Opera and I agreed that it is easier to plan for three productions over six weeks than an entire season of many months.**  (Even with season opera tickets, we missed the first production in 2007, Samson and Delila, just because we weren't paying attention to the calendar.) And much as I like to hear live music, you can still enjoy a good symphony with a good CD and earphones; but live opera offers so much more stimulation (though there was a televised production of Turandot that I enjoyed a lot).

In two weeks, Wagner!

**Although that doesn't explain why people who are so inclined never fail to miss an episode of American Idol or House.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Yin in the Yang

The angelic Christmas cactus continues exuberantly, but I can tell there is yin in the yang; most of the blossoms are weakening, even though there are still buds opening. Still beautiful but beginning to pass its prime. Its red cousin wasn't as prolific this year, likely because I repotted it last spring and I think it is cramped and unhappy in the new pot.

An explanation of the strange red-orange structure at the left is warranted: it's an old broomstick propping up an equally uncomfortable large fig tree in whose pot the cactus also resides.  It reminds me of a tale the Wizard tells.  Visiting a beautiful garden in Kyoto, he observed that the graceful plum tree would look better if it wasn't propped up with a 2X4.  His host informed him, "Japanese people don't see that."  Likewise, I am blind to the broom handle, but not to the blossoms.

The Wizard observed that Westerners might prop up the tree with a thin carbon-fibre rod, painted to match the background, to make it invisible.  For my plants, it is probably soon time to just do a good repotting; I'd like to think they could hold their own.

Monday, January 18, 2010

A Multitude of Angels

Give them time, and they will come.

Big Socialist Buddha

I just finished an intriguing little memoir, "Socialism Is Great!", by Lijia  Zhang, a Nanjing woman who came of age in post-Mao/pre-Tiananmen China, eventually escaping her iron rice bowl job, inherited from her own mother, as a "pressure gauge tester" at a missile factory, to become a successful journalist and commentator.  It's a good story, well worth reading, historically later than the important but depressing and ubiquitous Cultural Revolution memoirs.  I could relate to the characters and setting, having been in Beijing for a period the year before Tiananmen. The book is full of angst and courage (and surprisingly more than a little sex) and suggests what it was like in China in the '80s, when Deng Xiao Ping had given the people a new lease on their lives, or at least loosened the leash.

But what struck me most in the book was one of the photos among the requisite dozen pages of black and white testimony these memoirs almost always have.  The image was of Lijia, looking like the eager students I met in 1987, sporting a short denim skirt, casual white shirt and scarf, flesh-colored stockings to just below the hem (the style then), posing, pretty and perky, in a factory in front of a massive Buddha head with workers on scaffolding putting finishing touches on it.

"That Buddha looks familiar to me," I thought.  (Of course, all Buddhas look alike, but not really.  In the Temple of 10,0000 Buddhas in Hong Kong, not one of the images is the same.)

But I did know this Buddha. Lijia's ICBM factory had successfully won the bid to cast the giant statue to complete the "world's largest, outdoor, bronze, seated Buddha"(which it was up until 2007, according to Wikipedia; bigger better Buddhas just keep coming, but I'm not sure where this larger one is). It was to be delivered (FedEx? UPS? ICBM?) to Lantau Island in Hong Kong.  This was well before 1997. Despite a worldwide bid for the Tian Tan Buddha, the Nanjing military factory won it, with some reference to China's 3,000-year history of bronze casting work. (Fortunately it was not to be made of poured concrete.)

I had seen the development of the Buddha park over some years through the '80s in Hong Kong, when it had no political obligations to the motherland. Then even in anticipation of the 112-foot, 250-ton statue,  Po Lin monastery boasted the world's largest Buddha BASE. (Which sounds like some kind of instant tofu soup.) For a time you could walk up the 268 steps to the platform, sans Buddha, to gaze around the mountaintop area, sea to one side, temples and mountains to the other.

I enjoyed seeing the installed Buddha again a year and half ago, although I was not happy at the commercialization of the monastery area.

Big Big Buddha

We used to get to Po Lin on a bus that took a scary switchback road to the top of the mountain, like the bus to Wudangshan without the comfort of trees. This time we approached from the airport side of the island, on a gondola sky rail. (Yes, that's smog; I don't like to think about landing at Chek Lap Kok. Although I miss landing at Kai Tak. And check out another great landing. Apparently a lot of pilots on that run do too. A chance to really use skills. )

Some years ago, I walked down the trail from Po Lin to Tung Chung, which was then a sleepy village with the ruins of an old fort to explore.  I could see that they were shaving off the geological features of an island to make way for the new airport which would replace the much beloved, but obsolete Kai Tak, more or less in the middle of the city. Now, 20 years later, there is a full fledged city at Tung Chung to support the airport infrastructure with train terminals and a shopping center.

Trail to Tung Chung

I'm glad I took that hike back then. As I'm glad I had the opportunity to bicycle on Chang An Boulevard in Beijing in 1987, sharing the route with horse carts and other bicyclists. I didn't recognize that street in 2007 until I actually reached the Forbidden City and the infamous square. From Beijing to Hong Kong, change has been the constant.  We used to think of China as a backward country.  Now it seems like the Chinese invented development. And the irony of a Big Buddha produced in a missile factory, something that was lost on Lijia until she wrote her memoir.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Think Mink

In the middle of the night I woke up thinking, damn, it's cold.  The Wizard had stolen all the covers on his side, the Emperor was practicing intense gravity exercises on the spot where my feet should have been.  I got up to retrieve the rarely used Korean "Mink" Blanket, a marvel of acrylic engineering, a two-ply plush throw that weighs about 10 pounds. The Wizard brought it back once after a trip to Seoul about 20 years ago.  The faux fur is a major export item, next to faux Louis Vuitton bags.  It is the snuggiest thing, warm as down, but with an animal weight that makes you feel cradled, swaddled even.  The Emperor moved off the bed when I threw on the rug-like cover.  I settled in, for a cozy sleep,  and he promptly came back, and stayed there for the rest of the morning, probably all day.

Yellow Emperor Prefers Burgundy Mink

When I checked my room thermometer, which varies not much more than my barometer (I always wonder if the devices really work), it was 60 degrees F at about 8 a.m. on the yin side of the building.  My cell phone weather app told me it was 58.  That's pretty much as low as it goes -- Hawaii temperature annually ranges from about 58 to 92, most usually hovering between 75 and 85.  When you are used to that little variation, 58 feels cold, and 92 is horrible.  (Which most people would call not too cold, not too hot.) My new refrigerator tells me it is keeping my perishables fresh at 34; I can't imagine living in that anymore.

I certainly hope this tempts you to consider  a Hawaii winter vacation: the state needs your tourist dollars.  Think of it as a charitable donation to education.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Like An Angel

Just a day later, the angel has wings.  As does my little roadbird.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Ordinary Time

The Roman Catholic liturgical calendar identifies the period from now until the beginning of Lent (which more or less coincides with Chinese New Year, the lunar thing) as something called Ordinary Time .  In the Anglican tradition I learned that this was just the "Time after Epiphany" identified by the color green on vestments and calendars.  But I kind of like this Roman concept (sounds like Vatican II to me), a bunch of days with no particular significance beyond being between major events. Ordinary.

But the days are really far from it.  After several recent mornings that looked like this:

I awoke to this spectacular clarity today:

It was crisp and clean and clear. It was 62 degrees in my bedroom when I got up, about as cold as it ever gets in my neighborhood.  My Christmas cactuses seem to be invigorated by the weather  too. It's not ordinary time for them!

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Overcoming PHSD

The western commercial holiday frenzy is at last over. I have overcome PHSD (post holiday stress disorder).

Yesterday on the way to work, enjoying some clear bright sunshine after a period of intense vog and humidity, I greeted my little friend, one of several neighborhood kolea ( Pacific Golden plovers).

Every morning it's as if she's waiting for me.  I just wish she wouldn't stand in the middle of the street. She should be picking through the grass for bugs.  Still, I stopped the car and took a few shots out the window; she was very close, so I could observe her feathers, the marking, the stance. I'm trying to paint this bird, Chinese style, but it's hard.

But I shouldn't worry, her wings are very strong. I think of them when I'm doing qigong; they take her to and from Alaska every year, so she probably has the sense and ability to avoid traffic, dogs and cats.

So after the roller coaster that builds and descends from Labor Day to Epiphany, I come to a pleasant halt, a breather period from now to Chinese New Year (Feb. 14), the Year of the White Metal Tiger.  Lao Hu, our household tiger and kitty wing chun expert, (who might like nothing better than to take down a kolea) has settled into his Yellow Imperial position on the new Laz-y-Boy recliner, possibly attracted by the Ed Hardy "Tiger" beach towel employed to keep the Wizard from sweating profusely on the leather.

This year, CNY not only coincides with Valentine's Day, but is just before Orthodox Lent, a period I enjoy exploiting for fasting, meditation and spiritual clarification. Fitness and weight loss too. Having dispensed with the solar/yang observances, now I can honor yin.  (I need to get myself in shape for a planned trip to China in May.)  In a moment of remarkable clarity, several of us in my office have started a qigong practice group.  It's part of a month-long company-sponsored healthy living thing for the new (Gregorian) year, (we call ourselves the Incorrigible Curmudgeons, not of the demographic or sensibility that goes for weightlifting, intense mechanical workouts, competitive ball sports or running) and I think we will be continuing this indefinitely.  My wrist arthritis discomfort already has improved from the practice. The most interesting thing is how many people not on our "team" have been attracted to the practice.  Qi is flowing through the office!

Monday, January 4, 2010

First Soup of the New Year

Looks gross, tastes great!

It's cream of mushroom soup.  Today I polished off the last of the Christmas turkey soup, microwaved for lunch at the office.  (Soup is really the only reason for having a turkey, well, except for the stuffing and gravy, but that's just soup of a different consistency.)  So sans turkey, I attacked two huge bags of mushrooms the Wizard had scored...I mean really huge, maybe 6 quarts of Criminis and ordinary mushrooms.  He'd been hinting at mushroom soup for a few days, so I chopped all those fungi, sauteed them with onion in butter, and then the fun began.  I like Fannie Farmer's old cookbook, the 11th edition (~1965) which includes butter, cream, eggs, and sugar in practically every recipe, set in really appealing typefaces.  My mushroom soup recipe falls open all by itself, the stained page testimony to its longstanding appeal. (A peculiar sense you won't get from a recipe on

The recipe is pretty simple: to the saute, you add stock (chicken), and cream (or half and half), and for a variation, some beaten egg yollks. Throw in some Minute Tapioca to thicken it up. (Minute Rice sucks, but Minute Tapioca is useful.)  Did I say to saute the onions and mushrooms in butter? No sugar. (But if you wanted to, you could...)

But, since at this point in my life I hardly ever follow recipes to the letter...they are references and reminders... there were unscripted variations.  Pork broth!  And white wine (cheap pinot grigio).  Hawaiian red salt.  And a fresh-gound pepper blend, interesting because, not only does it include black, white, green and pink peppercorns, it also has coriander and allspice.  (Probably the floor sweepings of the pepper factory, it's a little like a men's cologne. Just needs a little patchouli and cardamom.)   I've moved way beyond Campbell's Cream of Mushroom,  to say nothing of Fannie's concept.

When I was in grade school, my  clever mother used to put Campbell's CoM in my Roy Rogers and Dale Evans lunch box thermos: I had hot soup for lunch.  But my schoolmates ostracized me.  Mushrooms were poisonous.  (Mom also sometimes filled my thermos with more conventional tomato or vegetable soup with a cooked hot dog tied on a string suspended in it.  I could pull it out and put it in a bun. The kids thought that was kind of cool.)

Those tiny delectable diced mushrooms in Campbell's canned white sauce were the only mushrooms I knew (and loved) until I got married and started to cook myself.   Then I got Fannie Farmer and found out I could outdo Campbell' easily.

The Christmas cactus continues to develop.   This and the kolea are my confirmations of the tao at work.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Yang New Year

"Leave the horses in the wagon, it's all downhill from here..."

"The fireworks are over, only the smoke remains, clouding my great crystal balls."
--The Firesign Theatre, "I Think We're All Bozos on This Bus."

After being awakened a few minutes before midnight (somehow I was actually sleeping through hours of the war zone sounds of Hawaii fireworks, the way I always fell asleep on my Grandmother's mohair sofa while all the uncles and aunts and parents were carousing), we made our annual champagne toast and out on the lanai I banged my Chinese opera gong (timing precisely monitored by the Wizard's new iPhone's atomic clock app, I knew he was gonna get weird with this stuff).  Three midnight gong bangs  --the only time I am permitted to irritate my neighbors. I hope I woke up the noisy Russians downstairs.

This morning I observed the progress of the Christmas cactus that started to set blossoms at the winter solstice.  I can't imagine what this New Year has in store, but I have confidence that whatever it is, I can cope. The cactus year after year thrives and blooms; why not me?

"Ahhh!," the swami says, "The balls are clearing again. The right one is the Sun, and the left one is the Moon. Put what you want between them, and your future begins."

Great dope humor of the '70s!