Wise Words…

“Sky Seasoning”

by Shel Silverstein

A piece of sky
Broke off and fell
Through the crack in the ceiling
Right into my soup,
I really must state
That I usually hate
Lentil soup, but I ate
Every drop!
Delicious delicious
(A bit like plaster),
But so delicious, goodness sake–
I could have eaten a lentil-soup lake.
It’s amazing the difference
A bit of sky can make.

With the wise words of this blog’s muse in mind, I’ll be on a writing hiatus for the next two weeks. Chengdu has been gray for days (and weeks!) on end now, so it is time to escape to a bit of sunshine and Old World beauty. This blogger is off to explore the sidewalks of Italy and Greece, but will return in October with a heart (and head!) full of tales to tell.



Seeking the Bamboo Sea

Now, I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not a numbers girl. Give me a book report to write any day over a math worksheet and I’ll be a happy camper. But, my deficient  numerical neuron firing doesn’t mean I lack a sense of judgment when it comes to the passage of time. And yet, somehow this weekend, a three and a half hour drive turned into nearly eight hours, with me and ten others from the consulate crammed, knees to chin, on a bus, headed to the great yonder of Sichuan. I’m not entirely sure what reverse magic happened to double the travel time from Chengdu to Bamboo Sea, but I do know several factors, including a bus with a regulator that capped out at 100 kilometers per hour (and believe me, I heard the GPS-voiced woman telling the driver to slow down every time we inched up on that mark) and a nightmare of road construction that narrowed five lanes of traffic to two at a toll booth didn’t help matters. But, whatever the cause of the extended road trip, the hours on the bus were well worth the aching back and crunched knees.

Bamboo Sea was a sight to behold!

After checking into our traditional Chinese-style hotel, complete with hard beds and the requisite toothbrush kits, it was time to go explore the park. (This hotel did come with a couple of bonuses as well, including Wi-Fi, heated pads on the bed and one lonely bathroom cockroach. That was definitely 200RMB well spent!) With several paths winding through the west corner of Bamboo Sea, Thad and I followed the stream, heading up it to where we could hear waterfalls, seemingly around each bend. But, there was no quitting until we reached the much lauded (a sign at every path split!) Polyester Dust waterfall. What a glorious, rustic, natural world-provoking name cascading water- Polyester Dust. Just hearing the name made me felt like I should scurry back to the consulate to grab an N-95 pollution mask, buy extra cancer coverage on my insurance and eat a couple leafy green vegetables with my dinner. (That sentence originally contained the word “extra” before “leafy,” but then I realized that since I don’t really love the leafy stuff to begin with, rather than extra, any at all would be beneficial.)

But, no outdoor trip would be complete without my lack of coordination displaying itself, this time in the form of, what else? A trip! Walking down the stairs (it’s China- stairs everywhere!)  from the peak of Polyester Dust, I got much too animated with my story about a man who dropped his trash on the trail in front of us, and with arms flapping, entirely missed the single step down along the pathway, making quite a spectacle of myself as my ankle turned under and I squawked , altering all in the vicinity that the foreigner bit the (not polyester, but more common natural-form)  dust.  At this point in my spastic life, there is little pride to be lost in such convulsive moments, so after a quick check to make sure my lower limbs were still functional, Thad hauled me back to my feet and I finished out my story about the redemption seeking Chinese litter bug.

Not content to let the rest of the weekend slide idly by with just a single moment of embarrassment,  I met Sunday morning with another great episode of Ways Michelle Is A Wimp.  You see, I’ve got a couple of phobias, but none rank higher on the freak-out list than heights. As a child, they didn’t bother me. I’d happily climb to the top of our weeping willow tree, creeping through the branches to the outer edges where the boughs made a perfect slide to the ground; I’d walk the balance beam of fence posts that surround our llama field; I’d jump from the peak of our playhouse, perfecting a nice tuck and roll as I hit the ground. None of these things were an issue. And yet, somewhere along the line, I decided I’d had enough of being off the ground. On Sunday, that (granted, involuntary) decision made my life a little rougher for about twenty minutes. Bamboo Sea is made up of rolling mountains (bigger than rolling hills, but smaller than anything we would call a mountain in the Northwest), none of which I wanted to hike. (In case it hasn’t become clear yet- I’m not an outdoorsy person. I don’t hike. I don’t camp. I get sunburnt when I even think about sunlight. The mosquito bites turned massive welts on my legs right now can attest to the fact that I should never again set foot outside a building. I’m a book girl. I read. I write. I like temperature controlled spaces. Inside is for me. Not outside. But I digress…) So, since hiking for days was out of the question, the best way to get to the top of the mountain was the cable car. For a mere 30RMB ($5!) I was able to risk my life, dangling from a metal cable in a metal tin can, begging Thad to stop turning his head or even breathing for a short while, as each of those actions rocked the car enough that my life was flashing before my eyes.  This isn’t my first pony ride on the cable car extravaganza, and every time I just pray for the end to come into sight. The problem on Sunday was that every time we inched closed to the top of a ridge and I just knew I was going to be placed back on safe ground, we’d come over the peak to see another expanse of cable pulled taut in front of us. Twenty minutes of dangling above endless acres of bamboo is pretty close to an eternity.

Eventually, after going up a ridge, down a ridge and back up another one, we reached to unloading hut, where I bailed from the cable car, possible faster than I’ve ever moved in my life. (Wait. Stop. I admit to the literary employment of hyperbole there. I’m sure I’ve actually moved faster at a fabulous shoe sale or to put a bit of distance between myself and any creepy crawly little critter. But, you get the idea.)

Before loading back up in the van to head back to Chengdu (which turned out to be a mere six hour drive!), we had one last stop on our itinerary- the setting of the famous Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon lake fight scene. (I saw famous, because apparently *everyone* has seen this movie. I am not *everyone.* As a matter of fact, I had to Google the name of the movie, as I can never get the words in the right order. I know there is a tiger and a dragon, which is awesome, and I know one crouches and one hides, which seems less awesome, but which critter is in which stance is entirely beyond me. Thank you to the primary colored search engine for its quick and efficient fact-checking prowess.)  While this connection to the popular kung-fu movie was a draw for many, I was hooked when the guides said we could rent a bamboo raft and row around the lake on it. Now, remember, I’m not outdoorsy and definitely not athletic. When someone tells me I can rent a raft and float on a lake, I kind of assumed that meant I was also renting the dude to row the boat. Nope! Apparently, I was the dude to row the boat, gently down the stream. (Well, my faithful boat buddies and I!) After a bit of a fiasco, as we didn’t know which end of our boat was the front, we got some synchronized rowing going, making a loop around the lake. As our fellow boaters sang Communist-era songs,  we just tried to keep our oars from tangling up with one another and keep our boat pointed in the right direction.

As we headed back into the city, I quickly realized what a great weekend it was to get out of town. Not only is any trip a good thing, just in general, but as it turns out, this last weekend was particularly bad on the air quality front, with the levels spiking into the 300s, which is pretty high for anytime outside of winter.  By my calculations, taking a group of consulate folks out of the terrible air this last weekend should help realign my karma. I may have lead a different group into the epicenter of an earthquake a few months ago (you can read that adventure here!), but this last weekend I saved their lungs a bit of heartache, so I’d like to balance out the CLO-karma ledger for this year! I still retain enough of my middle school math knowledge to calculate a minus one and a plus one create a nice even balance on the ethereal number line.

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Turn! Turn! Turn!

As much as I’m not ready to admit the truth, at this point there is little getting around it: fall has arrived in Chengdu. For two weeks now, I’ve been trying to turn a blind eye to the sure signs popping up all around me, but as the days go on, there is no denying it. There is a season- turn, turn, turn…

Other than the sudden turn in weather, why am I convinced that summer is officially over? One of the surest signs of impending cold is the sudden appearance of tailor-made coat shops all around town. Where one day a boutique shoe store or random fruit stall existed, the following day it is outfitted with all manner of coat material, batting and creepy mannequins displaying this year’s quilted winter coat options. These little stores pop up overnight, acting as fall’s counterpart to Punxsutawney Phil.

And of course, in China, there is no better sign of fall than the ubiquitous moon cakes that sprout up around every turn. No hotel, bakery, coffee shop or department store can slide by this time of year without offering an array of hockey puck-like treats to celebrate Mid-Autumn Festival. These uber-dense cakes filled with everything from chopped nuts to red bean paste to egg are a must-give gift for the annual holiday. They can be purchased for as cheap as a couple of kuai each to as much as thousands of kuai for fancy, silk-lined boxes used to gain favor with bosses. (Less than a candy bar or more than my car payment in the US, price on these things doesn’t matter. They are not good. Not good at all.)

Even the uptick in meetings and conference calls about air pollution are a heavy reminder that cold weather (and coal burning!) is just around the corner.

All of this I could ignore though, just blaming the appearance of coats on the turn of the calendar page to September and the requisite moon cakes on the national holiday, but yesterday I saw a sight that popped by mental it’s-not-fall-yet bubble: an old man roasting chestnuts in the alley. There’s no getting around the fact fall has arrived when the old men from the countryside load up their metal cauldrons onto handcarts and haul them into the city to sell chestnuts. In the US, the smell of pumpkin and apple pie and the musty scent of leave piles are what signal to my nose that the holidays are quickly approaching, but in China, nothing frames my mind for the upcoming festivities more than the smell of street-side roasted chestnuts. And they are here.  One roaster has taken up residence in Noodle Alley, a favorite lunch spot for all of us at the consulate and last night I noticed another one on the corner near my apartment complex.  While I can ignore the other tell-tale signs of impending cold, chestnuts roasting on an open fire in Chengdu says all there is to say.

Goodbye summer. Hello autumn.


Mother Nature Takes Labor Day Much Too Seriously

And just like that, summer is over.

I know that Labor Day is hailed as the unofficial end of summer, but Chengdu’s Mother Nature took that idea much too seriously. (Not to mention the fact that Labor Day is an American holiday that shouldn’t mean diddly-squat to Chinese Mother Nature!) A week ago, it was 90 degrees and humid, basically making us all feel like toasted cheesers. To escape the heat, we headed to QingCheng Shan to float the river and try to cool off in the mountains (click here for the tale of that crazy adventure!), thinking we had at least a month of hot weather to endure before fall arrived in western China.

How wrong we were!

Labor Day weekend rolled around, and like many of our friends and family back home, a BBQ was on the docket. The only problem is, it rained all weekend long, and with the rain came much cooler temperatures.  Starting Saturday afternoon and continuing through Sunday and into Monday morning, there was near constant moisture coming from the sky. Granted, at times it was a mere drizzle, but the rain was steady enough to keep everything moist, including my picnic tables and grill.

With an RSVP list sixty names long, this was no time for weather woes! Yes, moving inside is always an option, but not a great one, as the consulate doesn’t have a large enough indoor space to accommodate that size of informal gathering. Considering the number of kids in our community, the only good indoors area would have been crawling with little ones, like a toddler invasion sprung from the woodwork. Luckily, by Monday afternoon, the rain had stopped. (The sky had not cleared, but at least there was no water falling. We haven’t actually seen the sun in a week.) With hamburgers and hotdogs on the grill and a potluck spread of everything from spring rolls and macaroni salad to chocolate frosted brownies and fruit-covered cake, the evening ended up being a success, although I did keep an eye on the sky all night long.

Now, we’ve had rain off and on all summer long, but this last weekend’s rain definitely screams, “Fall!” rather than the hot rainy days of July and August that are all summer. Within a week, we dropped from daily highs in the mid-90s to peaking in the mid-60s. After a summer season of skirts and dresses, I think tomorrow morning it may be time for me to dig to the back of my closet and find the long pants that have been collecting dust and wrinkles.  I haven’t worn pants to work since May, but the lovely streak of brightly colored skirts and short sleeve blouses it quickly coming to an end. (Luckily, next year when we move to Kuala Lumpur, it will be summer year-round!)

Maybe Chinese seasons are just more regimented than the willy-nilly season changes in the US. Much like the Chinese government (at least in Gansu) decrees that winter cold starts on November 15, thus turning on radiator heat to schools and apartments, Labor Day arrived towing fall weather along with it.

Goodbye summer heat and humidity. Hello fall precipitation and puddles.

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Twerp by Mark Goldblatt

Twerp by Mark Goldblatt


Another young adult novel! I’m on a roll over the long, rainy Labor Day weekend here in Chengdu.

Twerp by Mark Goldblatt is the perfect companion novel to yesterday’s Sure Signs of Crazy  by Karen Harrington. Although they are not the same story, there are some great comparison points, and each reach towards a different middle school audience, while not being exclusive in their readability.

Goldblatt’s book focuses on Julian, a sixth grade boy who is writing as a requirement for his English teacher after being suspended from school for a week because of his involvement in a bullying incident. The book starts in a rather rambling sense, as Julian is just doing the assignment because he feels forced to do it, but as the novel progresses, Julian comes into his own as a writer, seeing it as a way to explore ideas and feelings that he’s not ready to share with the world.

One reason that Julian begins to love the assigned writing project is that his teachers lets him off the hook for a report on Julius Caesar and since Julian hates Shakespeare, he is happy to continue to write his own narrative. But, as literary tradition would have it, he soon discovers parallels between his life and that of Caesar, which draws him back into the very assignment he hoped to escape.

There were a couple of interesting plot points that stood out to me as I read Twerp. First of all, I found the whole thing reminiscent of The Outsiders. The story takes place in the 60s, is a writing assignment for a young man who has been in trouble and draws on literary references in a way that makes them accessible to middle school readers. Also, I liked that the protagonist was just a regular kid from a “regular” family. There were no horrible, dark secrets in his past that made him make the bad decision that lead to the writing of his story, but rather just a poor choice made on the spur of the moment with friends. I like the conversations that this could lead to in a classroom- about how each choice we make has consequences, even if we don’t intend them to. And, of course, the English teacher in me isn’t going to complain about the Shakespeare quotes and references sprinkled throughout the novel.

Mark Goldblatt’s Twerp is a great read for middle school boys. (Not that girls wouldn’t also enjoy it, but the protagonist deals with some very middle school-boy issues that are probably more relatable by the male population than the female.) It has action, it has friendship, it has competition and even a bit of love thrown in, making it a well-rounded, great read for the start of a new school year, earning it:

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Sure Signs of Crazy by Karen Harrington

Sure Signs of Crazy by Karen Harrington

sure signs of crazy

Words are a whole lot more than just a series of letters thrown together. Words can cause joy or pain. Words can bolster courage or crush dreams. To have a young protagonist who loves words and sees their potential for both good and bad is the perfect set-up for a novel of middle school self-exploration.

There are many things for the teacher in to me to love about this book:

1)      The use of great vocabulary, followed by a direct and easy to understand definition. (Think: A Series of Unfortunate Events) I adore the way Harrington fills the book with amazing words, but then doesn’t leave the middle school reader wondering what they mean. Having a protagonist that loves the dictionary and the words in it allows the author to give simple definitions right in the text of the story. I also love that each word is Sarah’s new “favorite” word, as I too am easily swayed by fun, new words!

2)      To Kill a Mockingbird. What more can I say? The entire book is based around Sarah’s letters to Atticus Finch, one of the strongest characters in American literature. I can only cross my fingers and hope that after reading Sure Signs of Crazy, a student would be curious enough to go search out a copy of Lee’s amazing book. (I’d have these two books displayed side-by-side in my classroom!!)

3)      Important issues are dealt with, but not in world-crushing kind of way. A novel whose protagonist is the survivor of attempted infanticide by her mother and now lives with her alcoholic father could very easily flow into darkness, but Harrington does a super job of seeing the world through the eyes of a twelve year old- jumping between the seriousness of her history, but also the daily concerns of a growing young lady, like her first kiss and the overwhelming options on the feminine hygiene aisle.


While the basis of the story is a disturbing one, the reader is able to walk away from the book with hope for the future. We are not a simple math problem of parent + parent = child, but rather have the choice to follow our own dreams and discover what we want out of life. Sarah is not destined to be either crazy or an alcoholic, just because that is what she comes from, but rather has an entire world of words and books ahead of her to help determine her pathway.

Karen Harrington’s latest novel is a must-have for middle school libraries and classrooms and easily earns a solid:

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