Old McDonald Had a(n Organic) Farm

For many of my friends when I was growing up, Saturday mornings meant hours of cartoons and lazing around the house as the way to kick off the weekend. With gigantic bowls full of Smurf Berry Crunch and Count Chocula settled in their laps while Pound Puppies and My Little Pony played on the screen in front of them, the other kids in my class at school followed the adventures of animated characters, Saturday after Saturday while their parents tried to catch a few extra minutes of coveted sleep. Not in my family. Saturday mornings meant weekly chores, as weeknights were filled with sports practices (my more coordinated siblings had volleyball, track, baseball, etc,. while I hung out and read my book in the bleachers), piano lessons (a time which I wished I could curl up with a book, rather than plunk away, literally deaf to painful cacophony of wrong notes) and club events. That left Saturday for cleaning the house and taking care of the animals. And animals we had! Over the years we had a variety of outside critters including (but probably not limited to) cows, llama, chickens, pheasants, rabbits, dogs and cats. The llamas, as amusing as they are, created one of my least favorite Saturday morning chores- stall mucking! There is just nothing nice about hanging out in a shed with a pile of poo, a wheelbarrow and a pitchfork. Nothing at all.

But, the point isn’t that I hated hauling llama dung from one pile to another, but that I grew up not in a city, but in what most Americans would consider rural America. (I must admit there are *way* more rural areas of the US, but for the majority of people in the States, they’d consider my house as being in the countryside.) With cornfields across the road, canals both along the side and behind our place and sugar beet trucks rumbling by in August, farm life was always close at hand. So, when I got word of a local organic farm outside of Chengdu, I must admit to having a less than ecstatic reaction to the possibility of a community trip out there on a Saturday. I had enough early mornings in the cold to not need another one, just for the fun of it. I was the only one feeling less than enthusiastic though, so plan it I did!

And, I must admit that despite the damp, cold air, I had a great time! The farm we went to is a certified organic farm, about an hour outside of downtown Chengdu.  Converting the Chinese measurements to American, I think the farm was about 100 acres, which is a lot of space to be farmed by hand. They grow all sorts of organic produce, as well as raise chickens, ducks, goats and dairy cows. The young ones along for the outing especially liked the two-week old baby goats, which were climbing all over the barn! (Okay, not just the littlest members of our entourage. I also loved them! But, keep in mind that I am a sucker for nearly all animals. I want to touch them all, whether it be the biting monkeys of Thailand, the goofy elephants of Malaysia or pig-like capybaras of Argentina. The goats were adorably fuzzy and wrestled around like puppies. I was tempted to tuck one into one of my many layers to bring back to Chengdu! I’m sure my ayi wouldn’t mind cleaning up after his cute little messes, right?)

The one thing that I was absolutely not impressed with at the farm was the ridiculously sized spiders! At first, I didn’t notice them at all, but once I focused my eyes between the trees, instead of beyond them, I suddenly became aware of a disturbingly thick web strung from tree to tree to tree. Had I wandered off the main path at all, I would have become ensconced in that thick white webbing made by spiders the size of my hand. Training my eyes to look at the web, rather than through it, I quickly realized that between each set of trees were a dozen (or more) large spiders, hanging out in the crisp autumn air, enjoying the spoils of their large nets.  When I asked one of the farm workers about them, he told me not to worry; they were small right now since it was nearly winter. In the summer, they apparently grow much larger and fall from the trees. He again assured me that I had nothing to worry about. The bites hurt really bad at first, but quickly go numb. (Um, I think that is death setting in and one *should* worry about post-spider bite numbness!)

The fall chill in the air made our outdoor lunch of hotpot all the more fabulous, as we warmed ourselves with the broth steam as we waited for the locally produced veggies to cook in the milk-based broth. By early afternoon though, we were all cold through and though and there were no complaints when I started to usher everyone back to the vans about half an hour early. Cold noses, fingers and toes were ready to head back to Chengdu, where at least for me, I hopped right into a steaming hot bath to thaw my bones after a frosty morning in the countryside.

Rewarmed, I finished the day off with a nice big bowl of Corn Pops (from Thad, via Singapore) and an episode or two of Bones. It isn’t quite the wished for Saturday morning show of my childhood, but definitely better than time spent with llama poo!

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I Feel it in My Fingers, I Feel it in My Toes

There’s a chill in the air. (Not an Idaho-chill, but still, it is cooling off enough to kill all but the hardiest of mosquitoes.)  Last week my flight back from Shanghai had English Christmas carols blaring during boarding. (Not that Christmas carols are indicative of anything more than the desire to play foreign music, as I do hear them all year long in the supermarkets, but I particularly enjoyed the evening’s rousing rendition of “Frosty the Snowman.”) And the fruit stands are overflowing with mandarin oranges. (These things are the nectar of the gods and my favorite part of late fall in Chengdu!) All of this adds up to just one thing- the holiday season is upon us!

I’m a sucker for Christmas! I know all the complaints about it being overly commercialized and I understand those sentiments, but I also get frustrated when I hear them uttered by the same people who are plowing through the Black Friday crowds to get the last Play Station 4. (Although, I hear Black Friday is losing a bit of its appeal, as so many retailers are opening on Thanksgiving. That is sheer madness!! Go home, eat some turkey, read the ads in preparation for Friday and watch the Lions lose to Green Bay.)  Christmas is what you and yours choose to make of it. If you want to go whole hog on the retail side of things, go for it. Have a prettily decorated tree with a pile of gifts underneath and stocking overflowing with sweets.  If you want to focus on the service and selfless giving side of the holiday, make shoebox kits for the homeless, teach your children to love unconditionally and put an extra effort into making others happy. But, I don’t think one has to choose between these two distinct versions of the holiday.

For me, it takes great amounts of will power to hold off on the Christmas music and decorating until the day after Thanksgiving.

I totally didn’t make it this year!

It started with the Chengdu International Women’s Club holiday bazaar on Saturday and then quickly devolved into full-on holiday-ness on Sunday.  The start of the weekend saw me manning the US Consulate booth at the bazaar, selling the Chinese silk stockings that the ladies of the consulate community had sewed over the course of the last three weeks. (It was a veritable sweatshop for charity!) After a bright, warm day that felt nothing like the white Christmases of my childhood (this is Chengdu, no sunshine, just brightness), but was filled with Santa and stockings and middle school band performances,  the holiday was coursing through my blood.  Still, I thought I could hold off for just ten more days. But no. One of my favorite Christmas movies is Love Actually, which I had been telling myself I’d watch the weekend after the turkey feast, but then we had a friend in town who had never seen it, so I just couldn’t put it off two more weeks. Into the DVD player it went!

Over the weekend, the holiday seal was broken and now I’m dying to jump in with both feet!

I’ve got boxes of decorations stashed away in my apartment’s one closet. My tree (fake, of course) is tucked away in a cardboard box on top of an armoire in the spare bedroom, just waiting for the acrobatic athleticism it is going to take to haul that thing down from eight feet up. And, my Christmas gifts are all in the mail. (I his “send” on the last Amazon order, headed to friends in DC, this morning.)

Now, all I need are the Christmas music CDs and candy canes from America that are set to arrive in Chengdu on Saturday night and a tad bit of patience to make it through two more weeks until I decorate both home and the office and let the festivities ensue!

Thumpity, thump, thump

Thumpity, thump, thump

Look at Christmas come!

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The Pentrals by Crystal Mack

The Pentrals by Crystal Mack


Weird. That is the first word that comes to mind when I think back on The Pentrals by Crystal Mack. But, weird isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Weird can be unique, intriguing and definitely a draw for many. In an era where YA novels tend to be skewing heavily to the vampire/werewolf world, it is refreshing to read a story takes a fresh view of non-human characters.  The idea of shadows and reflections being sentient beings is a fascinating one. That these images are not mere reproductions of us, but thinking, acting and even rebelling entities opens an endless world of possibilities. Like I said, it’s unique!

The Pentrals revolves around two main characters (although, some would consider them one and the same): Violet, a human high school student and Antares, a class two Shadow.  After growing more and more frustrated with the self-destructive behavior of her human, Antares, in a fit of anger switches places with the girl she has shadowed for seventeen years. (The book is never clear on what actually happened to allow this exchange to take place, but it is somehow related to a surge of fury when Violet takes a popular pill that makes its user forget their worries and space out happily.)  Once the switch has happened, it is up to Antares to not only play the role of Violet in her day to day life, trying to repair some horribly broken relationships, but also to solve a great Pentral mystery involving the rebellion of reflections.

But, before I get too lost in my thoughts about the possible narratives attached to thinking and reasoning shadows and reflections, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that I don’t totally agree with Mack’s take on the topic. Granted, it was her brilliant idea, and I do like it, but I felt like there were unexplained holes in the story or times that the actions seemed impossible. Without giving too much away, after the switch is made, Antares continues to attend some and somehow miraculously knows how to read and write, although she often talks about how much shadowing takes her full attention and she doesn’t get to follow lessons. Where would she have learned these skills?  I also found it odd that there wasn’t more interaction amongst the shadows on the floor. As they constantly skim over one another in the school hallways, why is there not a layer of relationships built amongst this population of beings? I wanted to know more about their world! The other part of the book that I found confusing was how in-stride Violet took the switch. She was initially scared of the change, but it took a mere page or two for her to fall easily into her roll of learning to be a shadow. Shouldn’t this teenage girl be horrified that she has become a literal shadow of herself?

This book definitely seems set up for a sequel, which I would pick up because I am invested enough in Antares’ story to want to know what happens once her adventures in Violet’s body end, but also because I’m hoping for a few of the plot gaps to be filled in. (I really do want to know more about the working of the shadow/reflection world!)  Crystal Mack’s debut young adult novel has some definite narrative gaps, but creates a world intriguing enough to draw me in for another round, earning The Pentrals:

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Rob Delaney: Mother. Wife. Sister. Human. Warrior. Falcon. Yardstick. Turban. Cabbage. by Rob Delaney

Rob Delaney: Mother. Wife. Sister. Human. Warrior. Falcon. Yardstick. Turban. Cabbage.  

by Rob Delaney

rob delaney

I don’t Tweet. I am not even sure if I am able to Tweet from China. (Maybe I could and I just have never had a nice enough phone to send Twitter-twatter out into the ether.) Either way, I don’t Tweet, which put me at a possibly distinct disadvantage when I downloaded Rob Delaney’s recently released freshman collection of musings. As a non-Tweeter, I had no idea who this Rob Delaney guy was, but after doing a bit of post-book reading, I’ve discovered he is the bees knees when it comes to comedians on Twitter. But then again, maybe it was to my advantage to have no preconceived notion of his comedy, as I would imagine it is not easy to translate a regular stream of 140 character humorous reflections into a several hundred page collection of essays.

So, I picked up Rob Delaney: Mother. Wife. Sister. Human. Warrior. Falcon. Yardstick. Turban. Cabbage.  blind, but left with my eyes wide open to more than I ever needed to know about some of Delaney’s down south goings-on. I guess it is the nature of comedy to expose yourself to the world, but many times, it is a literal exposure going on for Delaney. Not only do I have an inordinate amount of information about his personal pleasure choices, but I know that he has had an up-close and personal view of another human’s butt hole, as well as that he reciprocated said view to another. Wow!

Rob Delaney’s book is an interesting, although at times slightly odd, combination of marginally humorous essay mixed with recovering alcoholic reflections. Having quickly learned that Delaney makes his living as a comedian, I was surprised as the serious tone of many of the essays. Yes, there are sprinkles of humor thrown in throughout, but it is hard to find Twitter-feed type levity when talking about drunk driving, massive car accidents, hospitalization, rehab, jail time, halfway houses and the continuous struggles of an alcoholic. Had I come into this book as a fervent follower of the Twitter feed that made him popular, I think I would have been disappointed by the serious nature of much of this book. Memoir is probably a more accurate descriptor than humor.

Normally, I can’t wait to get my hands on an essay collection by a favorite blogger or comedian, but this one fell a bit short for me. The mixture between bits of comedy and the seriousness of his struggles with alchol never found a satisfying balance for me as the reader. I either wanted more remorse for his earlier actions (he talks about drunk driving as if it were just another blip on the radar) or I want a more extreme self-depreciative, dark humor. This middle ground just feels awkward. While I enjoyed his writing style, and would probably pick up a sophomore publication, Rob Delaney: Mother. Wife. Sister. Human. Warrior. Falcon. Yardstick. Turban. Cabbage.  left me sitting on the proverbial fence, earning an in-the-middle:

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We Be Ballin’

As a teenager (at least until I got a part time job hawking not-quite-Tiffany-quality jewelry at Shopko) each Wednesday night was dedicated to youth activities at church. Some weeks we met to work on personally set goals and other weeks we did group activities, outings and service projects. But, one Wednesday a month was dedicated to dance lessons, with a bit of etiquette thrown in. As the most un-athletic, rhythmically challenged person who walks the face of this earth (possibly ever), I must admit to more than a little dread when the first Wednesday of the month rolled around. It wasn’t that I was necessarily opposed to the idea of dance lessons, but not only was I terrible at it, it is a bit hard to make the case for the need to know how to foxtrot and waltz to a fourteen year old who lives in rural Idaho. But, for several years, I learned to square dance and do the two-step, in preparation for a world that wasn’t really a part of the vision I had for my life. (Little did I know…)

As an annual Marine Ball has now been penciled onto my calendar until the end of time, sometimes I think I should have paid more attention to those lessons and made a few less trips to the water fountain in the hallway.  Luckily, YouTube exists and is able to fill in my dance knowledge gaps. For instance, never in the Wednesday night sessions did we cover Korean pop music, but I was able to gallop along with the best (and highest ranking!) of them when “Gangnam Style” made it’s necessarily evil presence known last Saturday night.

While I can’t profess to actually know how to dance, at least the etiquette portion of those evenings have come in handy! Granted, in China there isn’t a separate set of chopsticks for each course of the meal, but events like the annual Marine Ball have forks lined up as if the villagers plan to pillage and plunder all night long. Add to that multiple glasses and an array of plates and it is nice to know I don’t look entirely like I was raised on a llama farm!

With three dates in tow (the husband, plus two of his best friends from high school who are in town for a visit), it turned out to be a great evening. I mingled. I MCed. I graced the head table with my presence. I danced (a little). And I left on a high note, singing none other than Bon Jovi’s “Living on a Prayer.” I would give the mingling and MCing a thumbs up, while the dancing and singing most decidedly earned a thumbs down, but in the end the thumbs of all directions equaled out to a huge LIKE. (Forgive the painfully overrated pop culture reference to Facebook. Just be glad there was no discussion of poking or tagging.)

Now my dress is hung back up in the closet, my shiny silver shoes are tucked away on the window sill (don’t ask, just know storage is tight in China), the gallon of hairspray used to hold my braided bun in place is washed out and the post-ball brunch is behind me, there is nothing left to do but set my MP3 player to push out ample amounts of “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” and “Vogue” and dream of next year’s event in Kuala Lumpur.

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And, a little bonus for my faithful readers…  🙂