Personal history

sentimental journey

Autumn sun, Lincoln Park, Chicago, 1978

The above photo was one of the first that I took with my new Pentax KX SLR in 1978.  I bought the camera when I graduated from Northwestern University, and I still have it over 30 years later; I used it until I bought my first digital SLR a couple of years ago.

In 2 days I’ll fly to the USA for the first time in 5 years, in honor of my father’s 85th birthday.  I’ll visit my brother Kenton, and end my trip with 6 days in Chicago.  I’ll be returning to places I knew many years ago.  It will be a sentimental journey, but also a bit of a time warp and a culture shock. According to the internet, the Chicago temperature is in the 80s, but in my home state of Missouri it’s supposed to climb to 97 (36 Celsius) in the next few days.  Whew.  I’ll spend a lot of time indoors.

I’ll update my blog with photos, and impressions of my home country in the midst of an economic depression, joblessness, and attacks on workers, unions, and public employees.  I wonder what kind of place it will seem to me.  I’ll let you know.

a series of images

Old tree, 水井坊 Shuijingfang area, Chengdu


“Life isn’t some vertical or horizontal line.  You have your own interior world, and it’s not neat.  Therefore the importance and the beauty of music, sound, noise.  When you go outside and you’re hearing…hundreds of different sounds…all of these things are potentially beautiful.”

Patti Smith, in A Dream of Life

It’s been  while since I posted anything.  It isn’t just being busy – I am, with my schedule so spread-out that I have classes six days a week – but I’ve felt that I had nothing to say.  Other people seem to have quite a lot to say; I’ve spent some time reading a few excellent teaching blogs, and some well-written and perceptive film blogs.

The past couple of weeks have produced some indelible images.  First, there was the horrifying footage of the tsunami that devastated Japan’s coastal areas and swept away entire communities.  The online videos of buildings, cars, and people’s lives being carried away by surging waters left me dumbstruck.  Then, there were the continuing images of damaged nuclear power plants, unleashing a manmade, not natural, devastation upon the world.

I was tremendously encouraged by the images of the pro-worker uprising in Madison, Wisconsin, USA.  Increasingly marginalized by totalitarian corporate rulers, people are finally responding with a mass, democratic movement.  In spite of our government’s double-speak of “spreading democracy” via warfare and state-sponsored terror, the people taking to the streets are showing what democracy is really about.

In a quieter, more contemplative vein, I’ve watched several films lately that have stayed with me as a series of mental images.

Patti Smith – A Dream of Life [2008]

Patti Smith – A Dream of Life is a 2008 documentary, a collaborative effort by Smith and director Steven Sebring that was supposedly 12 years in the making.  There are a lot of moving images – grainy shots from moving trains, views through car windows – as well as the thoughts of a truly remarkable and very intelligent artist.  I’d seen the film before, but watched it again a couple of nights ago on a whim.  The above image of signposts made me think of signals, progress, turning points in my life.  In terms of language, signposting means giving verbal and physical cues to help your audience follow your train of thought, and to point to where you’re going next.  Sometimes we want to see signals, but they’re simply not there.   Maybe that’s why I look at so many movies: to see something of myself reflected in them, to give my interior life some shape or recognizable form.

Jean-Luc Godard, Film socialisme [2010]

Jean-Luc Godard’s Film socialisme [2010] is a confounding film, filled with exquisite images, symbolism, and (to me) mixed messages.  The image that stays with me is an exquisitely-framed shot of a reporter standing against a textured, sky-blue wall, the constantly-rotating shadow of a windmill animating the scene and creating a kind of dark aura around her.  It’s an amazing sequence.

Other films that made an impression on me were Des hommes et des dieux [Of Gods and Men, 2010] directed by Xavier Beauvois, and Mike Leigh’s Another Year [2010].    One last very Zen-like sentiment occurs in the Patti Smith documentary where she visits the grave of Beat poet Gregory Corso in Rome.  Tapping into the “river of existence” or cyclic imagery that occurs often in Buddhism, Corso’s epitaph for himself reads

is Life
It flows thru
the death of me
like a river
of becoming
the sea


Patti Smith – A Dream of Life [2008]

memories, not my own







 These are some of my mother’s photos from the 1940s, when she would have been in high school and college.  Don’t ask me to identify any of the people; the top one was probably taken at the University of Kansas and has the caption Hup, Two, Three, Four.  The next photo is in front of Fox Stores (King Hill Ave., St. Joseph MO), and the bottom one is a ghostly double exposure.   The car appears to be the same in the far right and left photos.  All are square crops from the originals.

Guitar lessons

Guitar version 4


I started classical guitar lessons last Friday evening. My teacher lives about a half mile from my apartment, so it’s walkable – that includes the trip down 5 flights of stairs from my 6th-floor apartment, up Xinan Lu, into a residential complex, then up another 5 flights of stairs to my teacher’s 6th-floor apartment.

My first lesson was a little, shall we say, discombobulating. My teacher, a graduate of the Sichuan Conservatory of Music, doesn’t speak English, so he had enlisted the translating services of one of his middle-school students. For one hour I had two people talking at me simultaneously, an exchange and relay of information that left me dizzy and extremely intimidated. Having two people in your face is challenging for someone who’s practice alone for the past 3 years, and at times my nervous fingers couldn’t even find the basic notes on the strings in first position.

Since I haven’t had a real guitar class in 4 years, I have some bad habits to break. I think that after a few weeks, when I’m accustomed to some basic vocabulary, I’ll request a halt to the translation process, and trust to my own comprehension skills.


memory – Missouri River, 1980


I have no excuse. I joined the university gym, in the sports center across the street from where I live. So, you see, I no longer have any excuse. I began the long, hard journey toward a slimmer me today, with 45 minutes on the treadmill. Have you ever noticed how they always put those wall mirrors to the side of the treadmills so you HAVE to look at how far your midsection sticks out? It’s positively evil. I also re-introduced myself to lifting weights, something I quit 4 years ago.

I had a productive day yesterday. I solved some nagging problems and, in general, convinced myself that I was doing “useful” things. You see, I don’t deal well with long, unstructured stretches of time such as, let’s say, 7-week vacations. I figured I would take the day and assert my independence, making decisions and overcoming language obstacles all by myself.

First item: I got the gym membership. It was easy. I simply wandered around the sports complex until I found the gym, and walked in. In my fractured Chinese, I managed to get the information I needed. Goodbye, love handles.

I got on a bus to downtown, and found a pharmacy that stocks my medication, which is sometimes hard to find here. I then walked into the jewelry department of a large store and asked about a battery for my watch (in Chinese). I found the repair center, and voila! – after a year and a half, my watch finally has a battery. I was on a roll, so I went to an art supply store and found a new pen holder for my metal pen nibs, which I had collected during my youth. Some of them I haven’t used since childhood. Then I found the closest thing to an X-acto type of knife for my fine cutting-out needs. Do I see some art projects in my future?

I felt pretty smug after all my small victories of self-sufficiency. Maybe it’s a result of my Chinese classes, but I decided that it was time to throw myself into life and do things on my own, with confidence. Don’t be a shrinking violet.

After all that activity, I was zonked, so I took a well-deserved nap.