Meeting Danilo

Saturday, May 31, 2008

I have just come from an introductory meeting with my second grandson. We didn't actually speak much. I shared a few soft whispers with his grandmother, while I held one hand against the top of his head, and the other against his little feet. He's still having a little trouble breathing, which explains all the tubes.

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We expect him to grow out of the breathing problem, and he looks good in every other way.

Mother and grandmother are doing well.
Father is trying to keep all the bases covered. Big brother is entertaining his grandparents.

Welcome to the family, Danilo.
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Natu Tours the Garden

Monday, May 26, 2008

From six thousand miles away, Vera asked for pictures of my garden. Vera is majoring in Quality and Safety of Food, at Shandong Normal University, in Jinan. We have been IM’ing about fruits and vegetables. Fortunately, my grandson was visiting to help me give the tour.

We started in my sun room. The tank holds Piume, the water turtle. The white pots have sweet granadilla seedlings. The black pot has a young Yellow Pitaya (Hylocereus megalanthus). Its close cousin, the Red Pitaya (dragonfruit Hylocereus undatus), can be seen at the very back of the room. Neither the pitaya nor the dragonfruit has ever blossomed or fruited for me.
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Avocados are not common in China. Vera once saw some in a supermarket. “They said they came from the USA, so the price was extremely high.”
I have two small avocado trees. This year, for the first time, I have about 15 small fruit, which will probably ripen in late fall.
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The big tree at the left is a Fuyu persimmon. It gives me a large crop every year. I love to eat them fresh, and dried, they are like candy. The little tree is a Babcock peach, new this year. Behind it is a prickly pear cactus. At my feet are potato plants. In the next week or two, Nathanael will graduate from being a baby to being a big brother. That’s his mother in the center.
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The tree is a tangerine. I get a heavy crop every year. What I can’t eat fresh, I peel and freeze, to eat like popsicles the rest of the year. The red flowers are roses, and the light green leaves are melons I call dinya, which is the generic name for melon in Russian. I found these in Uzbekistan, but they are similar if not identical to the Hami melon I saw in China (哈蜜瓜, but more oblong, and whiter flesh than a canteloup).
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These grapes are Thompson seedless, and will be ripe in July. My bilingual grandson calls them uvas, which is the Portuguese word. I also have two varieties of red seedless grapes. Behind Nathanael are Italian Honey Figs (Lattarula). They give a short crop in June, and then, after a few weeks, a longer, second crop that lasts until the cold weather hits. I dry them, freeze them, and eat them fresh.
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The red flowers are pomegranates, and will be ripe in November. The purple flowers are artichokes. By the time they bloom, it is too late to eat them. We ate some, but the flower is so beautiful we like to leave some to feast our eyes on.
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Ooh, the apricots should be ready to harvest in a couple of weeks.
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Vera tells me the most Vitamin-C rich fruit is the kiwi. My kiwi vines are two years old. I hope to have fruit next year.
I enjoy keeping my garden full of growing things.
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Hearing from Wang Mu

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I met Wang Mu (in the red shirt, between his wife and son) in 2004, at a tourist stop in Yunnan, and we began corresponding. He lives in Chengdu, where he works at a bank. He was the first person I emailed when I heard about the quake. I have assumed the communication lines were overburdened, and that I might not hear for a while, but today I received a short note. He writes, "In this horrible earthquake all of my family members are safe, but our house was broken. Now we have to live in wiqwam." I suspect his wigwam may look like this, and that his family is sharing it with some of the five million others who are homeless.

Wang Mu, I am relieved to hear you are safe! I pray that you will quickly be able to put your lives back together and rebuild Chengdu.

Posted by Brian at 7:45 PM 0 comments  

Quakes and More Quakes

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Even as Sichuan suffers from a 6.4 aftershock to the 7.9 May 12 quake, a 5.5 quake has killed eleven and injured over 4,000 in Colombia. Compared to the magnitude of the Chinese quake, the 5,000,000 homeless, and a death toll that may reach 80,000; or even compared to the aftershock, which destroyed another 270,000 homes; this Colombian quake may seem inconsequential. Yet the size of a quake is academic when the boulders rushing down a hillside are aimed at you. Some of the dead in yesterday's quake were swept from the highway pictured below by landslides. I took these photos in 1989, very near the epicenter of the new quake. The taxi I was riding from Bogota to Villavicencio was stopped while crews worked to clear a rock slide from the highway. That may not look like a major highway, but it carries all the traffic between the nation's hub and the eastern llanos.

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I had about two hours to study the topography. Farmers had tiny plots of cassava or corn, planted on hillsides that showed the scars of previous landslides. They built brick and cement houses with corrugated Eternit (a composite of asbestos and concrete) roofs to shed the torrents of rain that fell there.
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Even when the earth sits still, just the rain has the power to bring down great portions of these hillsides. It is hard to even imagine those mountains in a 5.5, or a 6.4, or a 7.9. To the rescue teams, the numbers make a difference, but to the people living downhill, it is all academic.

Meme Report

On March 12, my daughter Slowlane tagged me with a print-based meme. In turn, I tagged my new son-in-law, my soon-to-be daughter-in-law, and John Hales, who wrote the book I used for my response to the meme. Now the dust has settled. On March 29, Son-in-law responded with a discussion of the Biblical implications of the number forty, from Teologia do Novo Testamento. When I saw John at school, and he said he doesn't have a blog. Today Daughter-in-Law-Designate ties together 奢白,炫放无暇钻光, a Japanese comic book, and a definition of manslaughter. Then she tagged jeorgesmith. I thank each of those who contributed to restoring Karmic balance here at Capers, and we turn our eyes to The Dry Wash.

Posted by Brian at 7:18 AM 0 comments  

Sichuan Earthquake (part 2)

Friday, May 16, 2008

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This picture merges the images from two paintings I have in my living room. I am very fond of Chinese mountain paintings. Or perhaps they are river paintings. Yet before I went to China, I took them to be highly stylized renditions of the landscape. After all, I have divided much of my life between the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California, the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, the Andes of Colombia, and the Alps of Switzerland. I thought I knew mountains, and the rivers that run through them.

But as rescue teams continue to pull survivors out of rubble nearly a hundred-twenty hours after the first quake (and while aftershocks continue to rain down more rubble), and while teams rush to inspect the hundreds of at-risk dams in the quake area, I have an image in my mind of the photograph I didn’t manage to take. Our train from Kunming was racing toward Zhaotong amidst dramatically eroded limestone on our left, when suddenly on the right, a two-second break in the embankment revealed a straight drop of thousands of feet into a great valley, cut by a slender little river. The far side of the valley was nearly as steep, and dotted with giant boulders.

I think of the houses at the bottom of that valley, and a 7.9 earthquake.

China’s limestone provides some of our planet’s most dramatic scenery, cut away by water, shoved at precarious angles by earthquakes, and turned green by ample rains.
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At Jin Dao Gorge, in the rural hills of Chongqing Municipality, we hiked several miles between cliffs that were sometimes so close together a person could touch both sides at the same time. Add to that scene the river rushing beneath us. In the quake area, the rubble of collapsing hillsides has plugged similar gorges, creating lakes with the potential to rupture the impromptu dams, flooding hundreds of already suffering people in their paths.

In China, deaths by flooding and mudslides happen almost every year. Earthquakes that kill in the thousands happen several times each century. But the Chinese have responded to those conditions with a remarkable resilience. One of the things I noticed most during my time in China was the degree to which individual people had thrown themselves behind the national goals set forth by the leadership. Where in the United States we are often a nation of individuals, each pulling in our own direction, my impression of the Chinese was a billion and some people working as a team.

That’s a pretty impressive quality, when their stated goal is to develop the world’s strongest economy. Amidst the tragedy of all the fallen schools, in some of those very remote mountains, one of the things I will guess is that a high percentage of those children were studying English each day, because fluency in English (and several other of the world’s languages) is a national goal, as a stepping stone to building their economy. Every English-speaking traveler to China comes back to tell of being surrounded by young children who want to (or their parents want them to) practice their English. For example, that is how I met this cutie, at a butterfly park near Dali:
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My friends in China continue to tell me they are safe, and that their families are safe. I am still waiting to hear from Wang Mu, a resident of Chengdu with whom I’ve carried on occasional correspondence since meeting at a tourist stop. (He wanted to practice his English.)

Eunice, my former student, reported that at the time of the quake, her class at the Sichuan International Studies University (SISU), in Chongqing, was lining up for their senior picture. It is a language-study university. The quake disrupted them for about an hour, but then they took the picture.
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To me, this picture demonstrates both resilience and teamwork. I compare it to my own country, and wonder how many groups of students here are studying Chinese, or how often visitors from China are mobbed by school children wanting to practice their Mandarin. We are a nation with an earthquake beneath our feet, waiting to happen, and when it hits, I am afraid we won’t have the languages to address it, whether it be Chinese, Portuguese, or Punjabi. China is hurting right now, and I hurt with them. There are 5,000,000 personal tragedies (just the number of homeless). But the quake is only going to disrupt them for a short time. They are like a stream rushing down a narrow gorge, all the molecules headed in the same direction, cutting away at every impediment. Something I’ve learned about mountains: It is often the interplay of earthquakes and rivers that give them their character.

(I would like to credit the photographer for the SISU class picture, if someone can send me the name.)

Posted by Brian at 4:05 PM 0 comments  

History of my novel, Friday 10:03 (Part 14)

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Milestone: This evening, I will have the last meeting of the last class in my four-year study program for the Master of Fine Arts Degree in Creative Writing (Fiction), at California State University, Fresno. I still have one very big test to take (probably in July), and my thesis to complete. The thesis is a rewrite of the first eight chapters (about 120 pages) of Friday 10:03. The class that finishes tonight has studied The Modern Memoir. Each student will read a portion of memoir they have written, and I will read from this very blog, History of my novel. So with today’s entry, I am multitasking.

This series begins here.

In the picture, the skinny guy with a full head of hair is me, on the day I left for Europe, almost thirty-six years ago. The beautiful girl is Vicki. In my backpack, I carried the opening chapters of my novel, which I fully expected to revise and add to, while I hunkered down in Paris and turned my five years of classroom French into something useful. 

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However, my flight took me only as far as Luton, thirty miles north of London. I hiked those thirty miles and checked into a bed and breakfast. Then, since I now had an address, it made sense to write to Vicki and my parents, let them know I’d reached England safely, and then stick around long enough to hear back from them. I guessed that might take about ten or twelve days. I spent a couple of those days poking around London, and then decided I probably had time for a round trip to Ireland. I joined the Youth Hostel Association, rode the Tube to the end of the line, and stuck out my thumb. I spent a couple of days at Stratford-on-Avon, took in a Shakespeare play, and then caught a ride all the way into central Wales.

My ride let me out with the instructions to walk to a bridge that crossed a gorge, and that on the other side I would find a Youth Hostel. Unfortunately, the walk was a great deal farther than she described it, and I found myself in pitch dark and the middle of someone’s pasture. I rolled out my sleeping bag, but spent a fitful night, afraid that I was trespassing on someone’s property.

However, at sunrise, I discovered the closest dwelling had long-since been abandoned. My over-night nest had actually been quite a safe place. My map indicated that I was still a several-hour hike from the closest paved road, so I began to walk, nibbling wild blackberries and enjoying the beauty of the morning.

In fact, the rapid change from the uncalled-for anxiety of the dark hours to the pleasant discoveries of the morning, caused this agnostic to first ponder the existence of God, and then to lean in favor of that fact, and finally to praise the God-Who-Might-Be-There.

Within a couple of minutes, I came upon a small cluster of houses. A well-dressed, middle-aged woman came out of one of them and asked me where I was headed.

“Aberystwyth,” I replied, naming the major city along the central Welsh coastline.

“Then come in and sit. I’m goin’ to Aberystwyth in half an hour, and I’ll give you a lift.”

And she did, though first she gave me a cup of tea.

At this point in the story, I can’t divulge how this fits as a link in why it’s taken me almost forty years to finish writing my novel, but it does. I’ll pick up the story next time.

Earthquake in Sichuan

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

So soon after I finished my series on the great earthquakes of my life, one of the biggest quakes of our lifetimes hit China. Its epicenter was something like 200 miles from where I spent the summer teaching English four years ago (South West China Normal University), and perhaps 300 miles from the quake I described here. The 7.9 quake that struck yesterday near Chengdu is estimated to have killed over 12,000. Officials fear some 18,000 people may be buried under debris. In some areas, 80% of the buildings have been destroyed.

I quickly wrote to the students I am in contact with, and have now heard back from five. I quote them using the English names we used in class.

Solomon, a graduate student in art, was on a class field trip to Luodai, an ancient section of Chengdu. He writes, “I was right in the Chengdu yesterday seeing about the ancient town. My teacher was injured in the accident. So we came back to Chongqing last night immediately.” Solomon sent me several photographs. He tooked the first at Luodai, in the first minutes after the quake.

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Photo copyright Wang Shuo.

The second photo shows students spending the night outdoors at South West China Normal University, Beibei, Chongqing. Solomon says they spent the entire night outdoors.
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Photo copyright Wang Shuo.

Carter, going to a university about 900 miles from home, reported, “I am in Shandong now, so the earthquake didn't give me too much trouble. When I heard the news of earthquake, I called my parents and friends in the first time. However, because of the damage to communication system in Sichuan and Chongqing, it was very hard to contact with them. Fortunately, I contacted with them 2 hours later.”

Vera, also at a university in Shandong, writes, “The earthquake happened in the afternoon around 3pm, and ShanDong wasn't affected by that shake. But my home (in Chongqing) was affected by the earthquake, luckily, it was not serious. And I have made phone calls to my parents, and both of them are okay. My father even joked that he was watching the cars in the yard dancing discos.”

Eunice is a graduating senior at a language university in Chongqing. Her parents are both on the staff at a hospital in Beibei, about an hour from her university. “Yesterday was a terrible day really! I was standing on the playground and waiting for our final photographing of graduates at the moment of earthquake. When I saw flood of students running out from the classrooms and dorms I didn't realize for several seconds what happened. People all crowded on the playground with panic expression. Then, about one hour later we still took the pictures and I sent one to you. I think it has special meaning. It is the first time for me and almost all the Chongqing people to experience an real earthquake. We are much terrified. Last night I went back home and found my parents safe, which made me no more anxious. We can still feel some very light shakings every now and then, but they are not terrifying. My family are safe, and my relatives in Chengdu are also safe. The two cities have returned to peace and people are trying to help the destroyed areas in Wenchuan, Dujiangyan, Deyang and other counties of Sichuan Province. My parents aren't sent to Sichuan, but I know there has been a Chongqing medical team sent there.”

Angel is teaching English at a middle school in Guandong, about 600 miles southeast of Chongqing. She writes, “My family and I are well. Like you, I am so worry about my classmates and friends of university, most of whom are from Southwest China. Today when I saw that about ten thousand people have died from the quake, I immediately made a call on them. To my great relief, they are all safe and sound, though their houses were badly damaged. Our school will organize teachers and students to donate some money and other things to the stricken area. It's a good chance to help them. I will do my effort. All hands make work light. Only all of us unite together can we overcome the disaster. Last winter, we suffered a once-every-50-year big snow, and people all around China tried every effort to help and support each other, which resulted in the success over the anti-snow disaster.”

As I hear from other friends and former students, I will add to this post.