And on the other hand...

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

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Flowering of Yin

It was strange that it took a stranger (a Facebook friend)  to remind me of something I usually am very aware of: yesterday's summer solstice, the zenith of yang about to give way to the gathering of yin.  I probably didn't notice the cresting and crashing of this wave because I've been fighting tooth and nail the past week, literally, overcoming an ill-fitting molar crown and an ingrown toenail.

No wonder classic torture involves drilling of teeth sans anesthetic and ripping out of nails.  I was seriously considering the idea of declawing myself, (something I would never do to the bloodthirsty Yellow Emperor who sometimes attacks me in tooth-and-nail kitty kung fu sparring).  And by far the most harrowing scene in Tom Hanks's Castaway is not the plane crash, but knocking out his own tooth with the help of an ice skate blade.  I wonder if he used it to trim his nails.  Eric Weiner says, in Man Seeks God, that he had trouble meditating in Kathmandu because he kept thinking of nail clippers and his possible lack of them. I can relate.

But all that is behind me now, the angry nail is filed, the disturbed tooth is settling,alleviating two of the most annoying and relentless kinds of pain.   So I can now better concentrate on my latest Chinese painting class assignments.  It is a blessing that my teacher returned for a session (even though she is going away again, but leaving us in the talented hands of a Chinese man who does landscape and portraits).

I was pleased to have produced for her a flower or two.  A couple of years ago she (the bird and flower painter teaching me the techniques of landscape painting) said, "Maybe in two years you paint a flower."  And over the past few months, I have been doing that.  My peonies, partly inspired by peonies I photographed a year ago in Beijing, passed muster, although I think the leaves leave something to be desired.

My Pretty Little Peony
Then Laoshi taught us another flower.  Another student had attempted a large flowering tree from a small reproduction, but it was hard to tell just what it was.  Was the profusion of yellow and red a representation of plum blossoms? Peach blossoms? Cherry blossoms?  Bougainvillea?

The note on the reproduction was "Ceiba pentandra" but no one knew what that was.  As I consulted my handy iPad, Laoshi started spontaneously painting a small group of the individual flowers for a sample for the student.

"It's kapok," I announced to the class. A tropical tree, which I always have pronounced, I think correctly, 'kay-pock', it is also known as silk cotton, with which I was familiar from life vests and flotation cushions in my boating childhood. The fluffy stuff from the kapok's seed pods is water resistant and buoyant and used to be the standard filling for such things. (Now a synthetic material is used.)
Like cotton from a tree
"Ah, kah-poke," all the Chinese speakers of the class said as they looked at the Google images of the trees and flowers.  All the while, my teacher was completing her xie yi interpretation of the kapok flowers. Without reference to any photo, she perfectly captured the cup-like blossoms of what I found, on searching, was the flower of the kapok tree.

Laoshi's Kapok Flower
No matter the pronunciation, never mind the images, we still had never seen the real flower.  Names are names and only point to the images, which only represent the real thing.

Kapok, the eponymous city flower of Panzhihua, Sichuan Province, China
"The name that can be named is not the eternal name"...the image that can be painted or photographed is not the eternal image.  I may never see a real kapok tree (although according to the Wikipedia entry there is at least one in Hawaii) but I "know" it now. (And through research, that it is the city flower of a prefecture-level city in southwest China.)  It existed before I knew its name, before I saw its picture.  The kapok's flowers will bloom and fall, its seed material will float away on the wind or stream, possibly saving the life of a bug or a sailor caught in a torrent of water. It doesn't know itself as kaypock or kahpoke, and certainly not Ceiba pentandra. (But perhaps panzhihua.)

Reference to verse 1 of the Dao De Jing is probably appropriate on this first day after the summer solstice, a moment that calls attention to the drama of the cycle of yang and yin, flowering and going to seed.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

To Change, Not To Correct

This morning during our commute together, I listened in on the one-sided cellphone conversation between the Wizard and his 92-year-old father, on the East Coast, struggling with Microsoft Word to do some complicated formatting of his latest self-published novel. (I should be writing novels at 92, but hopefully with better, easier technology.)

Dad wanted to "correct" the document, which has clearly gotten out of control.  There really should be a senior citizen or beginner version of Word. (I would like that.) But he's using it to do things that would be better accomplished with a layout program.  (MSWord can do these things, but at a great price to one's sanity.)

The filial tech support guru advised: "Change all the words to text, then copy and paste them into a clean document that you know works, and then you can change the font and whatever."  It appears that some style was inadvertently set, and along with Word's other random, inexplicable, and hidden and undocumented features and mandatory defaults, it has completely screwed up the writing/editing/production task.

"But why is this program doing this," Dad asked. The Wizard said, sometimes it's better not to try to figure out why, and just fix the problem. Just change it. Start fresh. No correction.

" 'Change', not 'correct"," the Wizard told the nonagenarian.  From a Taoist perspective, Dad has pretty much achieved immortality in the longevity sense. But an old Taoist would certainly know the difference between changing and correcting, fixing and controlling.

This seemed profound to me, especially coming out of the mouth of the more or less Confucian Wizard.  How often we long to correct things...other people, society, ourselves, when all that is required is to change and let go of the problem, to be open to change, not try to control.  Which flexibility MSWord is not designed to facilitate. (Someone once told me that to use MSWord efficiently, you have to "learn to think like Microsoft.")  Although anyone knows that when computers or software do things, they usually do it because you did something. But it can always be fixed...and provided you have backups, nothing is lost.

When we focus on "correction" we waste a lot of time.  Sometimes just changing course is all that is required.  Let go of the problem and move on.

That's what I'm working on. (Never mind that I just popped back in here to correct a typo!)

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Hey Venus, Oh Venus**

This afternoon, I got to see the "most exciting, transformative rare celestial happening ever" (or at least since the super moon and various eclipses of the past month) through a convenient 11-inch telescope available on campus.  Through it I got to observe (but was unable to photograph) the rare Venus Transit which I will now forever and fondly remember as a black Sharpie pen dot on the skin of a very ripe and radioactive tangerine.  That's exactly what the view through the scope looked like.  Much better images than I could have photographed are available here and compliments of NASA, the best animation and false-color agency in the world.

According to a lot of buzz on the more astrological and supernatural parts of the web, the transit is associated with the return of the Divine Feminine and Aphrodite, Goddess of Love (who according to the lectures I'm listening to right now is not EXACTLY the goddess of love, but more the sexual rapture part of the equation;the Venus Transit is thus a kind of New Age Rapture).  How some people will attribute legendary significance to this bit of synchronized clockwork in the sky.

Mark Your Calendar!

Curiously, at about noon, just before the transit started, my own current dreary mood suddenly abated. I had an uplifting chat with a colleague, a professor of history, about decay and death and global warming and zoo pandas and our insignificant place in the universe, although my mood was probably elevated because I had just completed a difficult draft of a document that has an imminent deadline (with drop dead dates and all that.) After a little lunch, I was more than prepared to watch a tiny uninhabitable planet get in the way of our own direct view of the sun.

Never mind that the transit looked nothing like the image above.  We stood in line in blazing heat for a chance to peer at our nearest neighbor's day in the sun.  And then returned to our air-conditioned offices to look at on-line images, which were much more dramatic.  Still, I can say I was there for something that won't occur again for another 105 years. 
Lining up for the alignment.

Better than a pinhole camera or special glasses

Pretty much what I saw through the scope.(From 2004 transit.)
So, nothing else much on the horizon until my birthday when another big celestial alignment is set to occur.  I hope it doesn't mean I'm to be sacrificed or something!
Giza, Dec. 3, 2012.
**And now, in honor of Venus, something else that won't come around again for a long time:

"Hey, Venus
Oh, Venus...
...Venus, make her fair
A lovely girl with sunlight in her hair
And take the brightest stars up in the skies
And place them in her eyes for me
Venus, goddess of love that you are
Surely the things I ask
Can't be too great a task."