It’s all done with mirrors

I’ll be your mirror
Reflect what you are, in case you don’t know
I’ll be the wind, the rain and the sunset
The light on your door to show that you’re home
When you think the night has seen your mind
That inside you’re twisted and unkind
Let me stand to show that you are blind
Please put down your hands
‘Cause I see you
I find it hard to believe you don’t know
The beauty that you are
But if you don’t let me be your eyes
A hand in your darkness, so you won’t be afraid
When you think the night has seen your mind
That inside you’re twisted and unkind
Let me stand to show that you are blind
Please put down your hands
‘Cause I see you
I’ll be your mirror

– by Lou Reed; performed by The Velvet Underground and Nico


A gilded room, a shimmering waterfall of glass, a soft glow of reflected shapes….
Salon, Hotel de Soubise (French National Archives), Paris, 1980


1. spurred or moved by a strong feeling, madness, or a supernatural power (often followed by by, of, or with): The army fought as if possessed. The village believed her to be possessed of the devil.

2. self-possessed; poised

I’m possessed by all kinds of things, notably the crazy idea that I should spend Sunday planning the lesson for my six upcoming classes. Every Sunday is the same: I procrastinate, get sidetracked, and finally resist this sensible activity like a kicking and screaming child. Part of this can be understood: in my case, a lot of teaching is intuitive; it falls into place or progresses logically from something specific that happens in class. When it comes to planning, my best ideas come to me while walking around the track on the athletic ground at school. I just can’t sit down and DO IT. Does this make me evil? Buddhism says that the misery we experience comes not from our experiences but our resistance to them. Amen. So here I am blogging instead of planning.

The spring weather is gone; it was a faux spring. Now we have cold, wet, clammy weather, but the cleanest, purest air I’ve breathed since being the mountains of western Sichuan. Thank goodness for small favors.

My childhood was marked by a love of the absurd, and, from my earliest memories, an overwhelming desire to get away. My first destinations were inside my own imagination, then I started expanding: I decided that I wanted to be French and live in Paris. I finally went there, said “OK, so I’ve seen it,” and moved on. My twin obsessions, books and travel, have for a long time now been directed to the “mysterious” Himalayan regions, including Tibet, Nepal, and parts of India such as Ladakh. I’m not alone in this; my current reading is about a woman who was possessed to undertake journeys both spiritual and physical into these regions, Alexandra David-Neel. She was also French. Mais oui.


 Alexandra David-Neel


Alexandra David-Neel, French by birth, English by education and American in temperament … led a youthful life as a student radical, had a career as an opera singer admired by Massenet, became a feminist journalist who flirted with Mussolini, tried conventional marriage in which she failed, journeyed to India, Tibet, and China, where she studied, traveled, and wrote despite famine, plague, and civil war, and where she was effortlessly at home.

The woman shed her past lives like a serpent does its old skin; in each life she buried the previous one, concealing its traces. In her very last incarnation, as the Eastern savant, she effaced her whole previous history. Why?

The Secret Lives of Alexandra David-Neel, p. xii [Woodstock, NY: the Overlook Press, 1998]




This was a woman for whom the word “gutsy” might have been invented. Before I came to China I read her book Magic and Mystery in Tibet. In the past couple of years I have read and re-read My Journey to Lhasa. It’s a never-ending source of wonder to me how a 55-year-old woman, in the 1920s, could walk cross China and into Tibet, in the dead of winter, accompanied by her adpoted son, after having been turned back four times previously (Tibet was strictly closed to foreigners). She survived, and became world-famous as the first European woman to set foot in the holy city of Lhasa.

Her prose is straighforward and down-to-earth, but it’s her matter-of-fact, never-say-die sang-froid that always gets me. If you read my posts faithfully, you’ll remember the word phlegmatic (unemotional), but sang-froid adds a French twist, and literally means cold blood. It’s self-possession or imperturbability, especially under strain.

More than once I had considered the idea of crossing the Po country …. Many maintained that the Popas were cannibals. Others, more moderate in their opinions, left this question unsettled. But all united in affirming that anyone foreign to the Po tribes, who entered their country, was never seen again.


So I hesitated a little before risking this adventure, when the words of the general decided me – “Nobody has ever been there….” All right. I would see these ranges and these passes! Truly it would be “an interesting road to Lhasa”!

My Journey to Lhasa, p. 120 [Boston: Beacon Press, 1983]

She also could have a wicked sense of humor, and hated phonies:

Once, annoyed by the antics of the fakirs, she lay down on a vacant bed of nails. She explained to a passing British tourist that she needed a nap and was lucky to find a handy couch.

The Secret Lives of Alexandra David-Neel, p. 59


I’ll mention one more person who seems to be possessed by travel, specifically in someone else’s footsteps. In the Footsteps of Joseph Rock is a photoblog showing how eastern Tibet looked in the 1920s and how the same places and people look now. Based on the explorations of Austrian-born botanist Dr. Joseph Rock, who lived in southwest China from the 1920s to 1949, it’s written by Michael, who lives in Sydney, Australia. It’s worth a look.  


Joseph Rock


The lighter side ofpossession

It’s one thing to be moved by strong feelings or even obsessions, quite another to be moved by supernatural powers.

 Of course, demonic possession is a natural for “shocker” films, lending itself to over-the-top performances and neat tricks like head-spinning and demon-channeling. My favorite performance in this category is Vanessa Redgrave’s in Ken Russell’s The Devils (1971).


    Since some of these films took themselves much too seriously, it was nice to see them lampooned from time to time in the favorite magazine of my youth, MAD ….    



(many thanks to Frankenstein’s Fun House on Flickr for the images – click on photo to visit)

Paris sera toujours….

Feeling nostalgic:  boulangerie, Paris 1980



I demand a recount

So, where do the visitors to my blog really come from? Recently, I claimed that my blog had been visited by 21 people from Reykjavik, Iceland. Then I started thinking: is that possible? Numbers can be misleading. Much of the data on is based on page loads, or even on internet queries. Maybe only one person happened to do 21 searches, or just happend upon my blog site multiple times. It kind of burst my bubble. I won’t worry about it too much, though. I can always count on some creative number-crunching from StatCounter, such as its claim that most of my “hits” one day came from England. Then when I looked at the hits by city, number one turned out to be London, Ontario. As in Canada. Is that a permissible error, or does StatCounter need a geography lesson?

Linguistically speaking

An archaeology of words: layers of posters on a New York wall, 1980
Words! Words! Words! I’m so sick of words!
I get words all day through;
First from him, now from you!
Is that all you blighters can do?
Show Me, from My Fair Lady, book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner and music by Frederick LoeweA friend of mine once said of a woman we both particularly loathed: “Everything that goes through her brain comes out her mouth.” I may not seem like the type who harbors malice, but this woman truly had a case of verbal diarrhea [no, I won’tgive you the definition; it’s rather obvious if you think about it]If I ever start another blog, it’ll be called Talk to the Hand

I gotta hand it to you.
 Gimme a hand, will ya? 


Second-hand Rose.


Hand job [whoops – did I really say that?]

To be an old hand at something

You’re in good hands



If you want to know the meaning of these expressions, try the Urban Dictionary.


Then we can move down a notch: To have one’s finger in many pies, fickle finger of fate, etc. 

Since my students and I are now back in school, I feel an obligation to make my posts more, um, instructional. I inherited some of my grandmother’s love of words, so today I’m inspired by the book I’m currently reading: The Man Who Loved China, by Simon Winchester. It’s the story of Joseph Needham, the scholar who authored the multi-volume Science and Civilization in China.

Simon Winchester also wrote one of my favorite books, The Professor and the Madman, about the making of the Oxford English Dictionary.

All right, class, are you ready? Our two words for today come from my current reading: peripatetic and phlegmatic. With a nod to Mr. Winchester, I’ll take my definitions from the Oxford English.


1. travelling from place to place.
2. working or based in a succession of places.

Derivatives: peripatetically (adverb)

Peripatetic is often linked with monks, many of whom have wandered far and wide in pursuit of wisdom or enlightenment. One of the more famous was Chinese monk Xuanzang who, in the seventh century AD, undertook an epic journey to India and back that lasted 18 years. His quest: to study Buddhist philosophy from the Indian masters and to retrieve sacred Mahayana Buddhist texts for the benefit of his homeland. His ultimate destination in India was Nalanda, an ancient Buddhist center of learning.


unemotional and stolidly calm

Derivatives: phlegmatically

The word derives from phlegm, and supposedly phlegmatic has to do with the phlegm humor (one of the moods). That’s about all I want to know about it.

The British are generally regarded as being phlegmatic: unemotional, taking it all in stride; Simon Winchester certainly describes them that way. I guess it’s part of their national character, along with the famous stiff upper lip.

So there you have two very different words, both of which occur in one book and, now, in one blog. If you want to earn some extra credit, here are a few more “p” words to research: perspicacious, persnickety, persimmon, and parsimonious.

What? You want to leave class early? Do I look like I’m finished talking? Did you hear that sorry-ass excuse for a bell yet? You put your behind in that chair and look like you’re halfway interested in learning a language. Just for that, you will take a pop quiz right this minute!


Spring is sprung

 A distant memory of spring: pigeons above Michigan Avenue, Chicago, 1978
(texture added in Photoshop)

Spring is sprung,
De grass is riz,
I wonder where dem birdies is?
De little birds is on de wing,
Ain’t dat absurd?
De little wing is on de bird!

The Land of Nursery Rhymes

Ah, the conceits of childhood. For the longest time I thought I invented that verse. It goes through my head every spring, and this year is no exception, because Spring has truly arrived in Chengdu. During my first two years in China I thought that Spring Festival – the 15-day celebration of the lunar New Year – was basically wishful thinking, especially so this year since it began January 26. That’s, like, winter, isn’t it? It certainly is where I come from.

In the past 3 days, here’s what has happened: the weather has become warm, with a hint of breeze, so I could go outside with no jacket; green buds have appeared on the bushes bordering the local streets; there are flowering shrubs and trees blossoming. Now, Chengdu has flowering plants all year, hence the sale of (plum?) blossom branches for good luck during Spring Festival. Still, it isn’t really spring until you see green (show me the money).

Autumn comes late and spring comes early here in southwest China; the gingko trees (Chengdu’s official tree) didn’t lose their leaves until December, and in mid-February Spring has sprung. In between there’s “winter:” not terribly cold but damp. A new bloom of mildew developed on some of my apartment walls, by the bed, behind the curtains. Now that I’ve starting opening the windows again, a patina of dust blankets everything. You can’t win. As a former Los Angeles resident, seasons confuse me anyway; the running joke is that L.A. has two seasons: smog and no smog; there’s also a short rainy season, mostly in January. I once waded through a rushing river of foul water in the lobby of my Hollywood apartment building, not knowing that the manager had left a water-free side entrance unlocked.

So, the seasons are different from those of my Midwestern U.S. childhood. At least last year I got to experience snow. This winter has been mild by comparison, though no one’s forgotten the crippling winter storms that paralyzed parts of China during Spring Festival 2008.

I hadn’t intended to write a treatise on the seasons, but it seemed the thing to do, what with classes starting tomorrow and the students all returning from their holiday with their families.