culture

Back from the Middle Kingdom

I wanted to post sooner, but it took me some time to wrap my head around such an enormous and complex country like China. Our tour was a great introduction to the big cities on the East Coast but it left me with more questions than answers. A lot of people asked me why I was going to China in the first place; It’s not known for being romantic, scenic, or easy for tourists. But it’s a country that is so entwined in our economy that one day it will be hard to distinguish what’s American and what’s Chinese. Anything China does affects us – so I wanted to see what it was like firsthand.

I’ll start my travel narrative in the Summer Palace.

There were two massive dragons guarding the summer palace

The lake and mountain are man-made and based on Hangzhou:

A pagoda on top of the man-made hill

As soon as we entered the palace we saw groups of seniors practicing tai chi in the inner courtyard. We could also hear ethereal chanting coming from some distant location. We followed the pleasant sound up a hill and found hundreds of senior citizens singing in an outdoor pavilion.

Hundreds of Senior citizens come every day to sing

This was up a steep rocky hill that was hard for me to climb, and these seniors walk up it every day. I don’t know if the sense of community, the singing, or the exercise is what’s keeping them so young. Exercise is a huge part of the culture there. You’ll see people stop what they’re doing to do some stretches.

A quiet moment of reflection

The enthusiastic conductor

I had a fan on the mountain. He told Mike that a pretty wife will make him happy every day. He didn’t let a few missing teeth ruin his smile:

A shameless flirt

Stay tuned for more stories from China.

On the shoulders of giants

Johannes BrahmsAnyone who’s taken a music history class has probably heard of Brahms. He’s usually listed off with Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn and Bach as the greatest, most influential composers of all time. But like most great artists, he almost let his self-doubt keep him from sharing his work.

It took Brahms 20 years to write his first symphony. 20 years! Why did it take him so long? He was paralyzed by his adoration of Beethoven. He loved Beethoven’s music so much and thought there was nothing he could add to the canon. He even had a marble bust of Beethoven overlooking his work space. He destroyed much of his early work, thinking it wasn’t good enough to exist in the same world as Beethoven’s music. Beethoven’s influence is obvious in Brahms’ first symphony. Some critics jokingly called it Beethoven’s 10th symphony. But that doesn’t mean that it’s not a great work of art. And he was able to continue making truly inspiring and unique music for years afterward.

English: Photograph of bust statue of Ludwig v...This is a problem a lot of artists run into; either we’re undermined for being too similar to our influences, or we are too intimidated by “the greats” to make anything original.

At art school, before anyone would discuss your artwork they would ask your influences. Then when they’d look at the actual work they’d say, “This just looks like a bad Debuffet/ Klimpt/Monet.” And if you say you don’t have any influences, you’re considered naive or arrogant. Even an untrained artist is supposed to know that Grandma Moses influenced them…duh. In this case, I don’t think the artist needs to change, it’s the critics that need to get over themselves. Sometimes it seems like they’re just looking for an excuse to name drop.

This is a tip for writers, but it applies to all the arts; stop comparing yourself to the classics: you’re going to fall short. Dickens, Tolstoy and Hemingway would not have written the same way if they were working today, so it makes no sense to still try and mimic them. When I read Barbara Kingslover I think I have no right to call myself a writer, but when I read a random new release from the bookstore I think, “I can’t believe I paid for this! I could write circles around this piece of …” Painters should go to contemporary galleries rather than museums. Musicians should go to open-mics rather than concerts. Spend some time exposing yourself to attainable art, and boosting your confidence. Sometimes it’s good to say, “hey, I can do that!”

If you have a spark of talent you owe it to yourself to express it. Take your influences and put your own spin on them. As Newton said, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Imagine how boring life would be if everyone stopped trying to make art after great work already existed. The radio would only play Beethoven. The libraries would be filled with Shakespeare  and the movie theaters would only be playing The Godfather. We need a little Brahms to spice things up.

We’ll take two…make that six

 

Do you ever catch a glimpse of yourself in the mirror and think, “I am such a stereotype?”

Last night Mike and I went to a Crate and Barrel wedding registry party. Even though I’ve dreamed of this moment since I first heard about Crate and Barrel, it was so hard to take it seriously. I felt like such a yuppie. We even dressed the part. And so did everyone else.

They gave us some snacks and drinks, then taught us how to use the scanner gun, and we off on our merry way.

There’s something so bizarre about registering for wedding gifts. A part of you feels like: Wow we’re adults, we need to decide exactly how our adulthood is going to look – right down to the napkin holders. 

 

And then you realize that this milestone of adulthood is going to be paid for by others, which is about the most unadult-like thing you can do. Which made us really giddy.

Without the burden of having to pay for anything, we forgot all modesty and started adding everything we could get our greedy little paws on. “Sure we need a sausage grinder! In fact, lets get two.”

There were representatives from all the major appliance lines like Kitchenaid, Cuisinart  and Wüsthof. They asked us all these questions about our lifestyle as a couple, and I’m not going to lie to you, I felt the pressure to impress. To the knife company we said, “Oh I simply must have a good serrated knife. I bake bread every day and it’s so hard to find a good knife these days.” To the blender people we said, “Oh we make our own cat food, of course, so it’s very important that we find the right tool for grinding entire chickens.” To the popcorn machine sellers, “Does this come with a fluffer feature? I’m very concerned about my air-popped popcorn being extra airy.” With each statement about who we were as a couple, I could hear my voice sounding more and more British, and my nose going higher and higher.

We couldn’t admit that we eat out most nights.

Now I know all of you are just dying to get us a gift (hahaha), so here’s our registry. It’s not much but we’ve been living together for over 3 years so it took a lot of effort to find things we still need.

Does anyone have any other suggestions for places to register? We thought about doing a smart registry (one where you ask for money for specific things like cocktails on your honeymoon, or the future toilet in your future first home), but I was shocked to see that those sites usually charge 7% commission for each gift.

 

 

Before I go to D.C…

I decided to latch on to my fiance’s business trip and go to D.C. for an extended weekend. This is going to be great because I get to stay for free in a corporate suite and see an old friend!

Cimex lectularius, the common bedbug, from sli...

Cimex lectularius, the common bedbug, from slides at the University of Edinburgh. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Before I go, I want to make sure I give you heads up to buy your tickets to Bedbugs! I mentioned this show briefly when I interviewed my mom for mother’s day because she is the producer (this is her HeSo project). Bedbugs is a hilarious rock-musical about, you guessed it, bedbugs. Follow the story of a determined exterminator who falls in love with Cimex, the king bedbug. It’s campy, heartfelt, and creative. If you like The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Little Shop of Horror, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, or the 80s you have to treat yourself to this show.

This is a showcase, so tickets are only available for a limited time (Oct. 19-Nov. 4th). The best part is tickets are only $18! You can’t see Broadway talent for that cheap anywhere else. Bedbugs sold out at the New York Musical Theater Festival, so click here to get tickets before they sell out. I’ll be there on opening night (Oct. 21st), and for my bachelorette party (not sure which date). If you don’t live in the New York area, now’s the perfect time to visit the east cost.

I’ll leave you with a video of Chris Hall, singing Don’t let the Bedbugs Bite:

Why blogging is like Saturday Night Live

Julia Sweeney as Pat

Julia Sweeney as Pat (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I started watching Saturday Night Live when I was 10 years old. I was the only kid in my class who was allowed to stay up that late, so I enjoyed a few months of feeling cool. Since then I’ve spent eighteen years of Saturdays watching Adam Sandler, Julia Sweeney, Chris Rock, Dana Carvey, Mike Myers, Will Ferrell, Jimmy Fallon, Tina FeyKristin Wiig, Fred Armisen and so many more. These people feel like friends to me. I still remember skits from the first year I watched SNL. 

Through the years there have been hilarious moments of comedy, entire seasons of brilliance. But there were also years of half-assed sketches, terrible acting, and awkward endings. There were times when I was certain it wouldn’t be picked up for another year, but it kept going.

It’s the whole of SNL that makes it culturally significant. The mere fact that they have been showing up and trying to make us laugh for 38 years. It doesn’t really matter that some skits bombed. They were able to capture amazing moments of history just because they were still around. Because they existed for 38 years they were able to launch the careers of hundreds of comedians, and parody the careers of hundreds of politicians. The good moments have outweighed the weaker moments.

As I watched SNL this past Saturday, I thought about how similar it is to my blogging process. Sure there have been moments of half-assed posts, terrible writing, and awkward conclusions. But I have also had some brilliant insights (I’m brushing off my shoulders as I write this), and I’m proud of a lot of my posts. Just showing up and posting 2-3 times a week for over a year, I’ve been able to make something greater than its parts. The key is to keep producing.

Don’t hold yourself up to impossible standards. Don’t put something off because you’re afraid it won’t be good enough. Just do it and don’t stop. When you start to doubt yourself, take an SNL break.

p.s. I’d love to hear your favorite SNL moment. Here’s mine:

Modern medicine makes me sad

When I returned from Mozambique, I started experiencing chronic stomach-aches. I went to a gastroenterologist, and without doing any tests, or logging any of the food I ate, he prescribed antidepressants along with 3 other prescriptions.

When I went to an orthopedist for some knees pain I was experiencing, he again prescribed me with antidepressants, and explained that they can often relieve joint pain.

When I went to a sleep clinic, they too prescribed antidepressants.

prescription pad

prescription pad (Photo credit: calvinnivlac)

After the third prescription I started to get annoyed. I wondered if I was walking into these appointments with a huge cloud over my head. Or if I was breaking down sobbing without realizing it, but I knew that I was just going over the physical problems. It seems like antidepressants are just the go to drug for doctors nowadays.

Before I go further, I have nothing against antidepressants, and I think they can be very helpful when dealing with depression, but not stomach-aches, joint pain, and sleeping problems. Especially when it seems like it’s being prescribed as the first resort and not the last resort, and we don’t even know the long-term side effects of taking these pills for extended periods.

I’ve done a bit of research, and it turns out women are prescribed antidepressants twice as often as men. The Woman’s Campaign group found, “One in three of the women polled had taken antidepressants during her lifetime. More than half of these were not offered any alternatives to drugs. And a quarter were left on the drugs for more than a year without having their prescriptions reviewed.” The American Psychological Association says that women are twice as likely to be clinically depressed than men, but could it be that doctors just think that any ailment a woman has is caused by depression?

With all these doctors prescribing me antidepressants I can’t help but feel like I’m in the Victorian age, and the kind doctor is giving me something for my fits of hysteria.

Just to give you an update on my hysteria: I no longer have stomach problems because I’ve carefully monitored my eating habits and figured out the foods that upset my stomach. I no longer have knee problems because I do some simple exercises every day that help strengthen the muscles around me knee, and I no longer have sleeping problems because I practice better sleeping habits. All these improvements without a single pill!

I don’t just blame doctors for being too eager to write out a prescription. I think the majority of patients want a quick fix. They would love a pill to solve all their problems so they can continue living unconscious lifestyles. The problem needs to be addressed on both sides of the exam table.

Shakespeare in my heart

Whenever I think I’m done with this hectic, smelly city something happens to renew my love for NYC. Yesterday I waited on line (yes, New Yorkers say on line, not in line) for free tickets to Into The Woods. For the past 50 years, Shakespeare in the Park presents free plays and musicals in Central Park.  They are able to attract amazing talent such as Meryl Streep, Robert De Niro, Kevin Kline, James Earl Jones, Bernadette Peters and Ann Hathaway to name a few. Last night, 3 times Oscar nominated actress Amy Adams was playing the part of the Baker’s wife and the incomparable Donna Murphy was playing the Witch.

This line usually extends for a mile!

The lines for Shakespeare in the Park are insane. People wait overnight in Central Park and they bring sleeping bags,  blow up mattresses, I-pads, and all the books they ever wanted to read. It’s quite a scene to see every socio-economic class represented; stockbrokers sitting next to homeless men, retired old socialites next to high-school drama kids. It’s the great leveler!

Since I didn’t have time (or the will) to sleep over in the park, it took me three attempts to get tickets. The second time I went they ran out of tickets two people ahead of me! Tickets are handed out at 1pm and I got there at 9am yesterday. I was the 361st person. The wait is one of the best parts of the experience. People get so bored they let down their guards and get really talkative and goofy. The guy ahead of me was with his kids and he was a musician who helped write songs with Susan Vega in the 80s. When it came up that I was engaged he gave me tons of unsolicited tips on raising kids in the city. The woman behind me was a toy developer! They guy next to her was an actor and it was his fourth time waiting for the show. Everyone was so friendly, and when someone ordered food from a nearby deli, he got coffee for everyone on our section of the line.

The performance is in the outdoor Delacorte theater, with the backdrop of central park’s lush trees and a beautiful full moon. If you don’t know this about me, I’m a huge fan of musicals, an even bigger fan of Sondheim, and Into the Woods happens to be my favorite of his musicals, so I was pretty darn happy.

Into the Woods is a quirky, dark musical about a baker and his wife who are cursed by the witch who lives next door. They must go into the woods and collect 4 things to undo the spell that’s keeping them from having a baby. On their journey they run into characters from Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk, Cinderella, and Rapunzel. Instead of being a usual fairy tale where are the characters are truly good or truly evil, and all the ends get neatly tied, these complex characters have to deal with the consequences of their actions. The emotions are raw, the jokes are witty, and the songs are catchy. One of my favorites songs is Agony, when the two Prince Charmings, who are chasing Rapunzel and Cinderella, are competing over whose agony is more painful. One the great lines: “You know nothing of madness ’till you’re climbing her hair.”

After the show, Mike and I strolled through Central Park. It was nearly empty and it felt like it was reserved just for us. The lights from the buildings twinkled above us, and the crickets chirped. I guess NYC isn’t as hectic and smelly as I thought.

Sleep No More

Carel Struycken as Lurch in The Addams Family ...

Carel Struycken as Lurch in The Addams Family film (1991). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Last night Mike took me to Sleep No More as a belated birthday present. It’s a haunted house meets modern dance meets the orgy scene in Eyes Wide Shut. Oh and a hint of the Shinning as well. The coolest aspect of the show is that everyone sees something different – you are in complete control of your experience.

When you first walk in, you feel like you’ve stumbled into a 1920s speakeasy where flapper girls are offering you shots of absinthe, and a boozed up man on the stage is rattling off incoherent beat poetry (I guess that’s a bit anachronistic). After you get a little tipsy, you’re separated from anyone you know, given a mask, crammed into an old elevator, and told to explore the Mckittrick Hotel. By the way, the hotel operator looks like Lurch from the Addam’s family, and he let’s everyone off on different floors, and you can’t even tell if the elevator’s going up or down.

I ended up getting off on in graveyard by myself. I felt completely lost and scared and I started running just to find someone else. I ended up a child’s bedroom and I started opening all the draws and pulling papers out from under the mattress. In my mad rush to find something to make sense of, I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror and could barely recognized the masked figure who was ransacking some random person’s bedroom. It’s strange how wearing a mask makes you feel like you can do anything you want.

I won’t go into much more detail; the less you know the better. There is a show going on during the whole time, but you have to chase it. I will warn you that there’s a lot of running up and down stairs so don’t go if you’re out of shape. Or maybe this will be a good excuse to get into good shape. I would recommend going soon because Gossip girl is reportedly going to film there soon, and it will be much harder to get tickets after that. It’s truly a unique experience, and it’s only limited by your curiosity!

Only 2 more days to make a difference!

I think it’s everyone responsibility to help others and give when you can. One of my most rewarding personal experiences has been when I volunteered in Nicaragua, Kenya and Mozambique. However, I’ve witnessed some terrible abuses of donations and some very lazy, or incompetent international volunteers.

Caitlin with Desmond Tutu

My friend, Caitlin Kelley, was similarly frustrated by the volunteer situation while she was in Tanzania. She noticed that there were so many talented, motivated locals who wanted nothing more than to help their people. At the same time, there were numerous international volunteers who had to spend months learning the language and culture before they could do anything.

While these volunteers had the best intentions, they were also taking away volunteer opportunities from these locals who wanted to do good. Caitlin teamed up with her friend, Jafari Msaki, and started Africa Volunteer Corps to help train local leaders and secure volunteer positions with local NGOs.

You can get a set of these beautiful, beaded nesting boxes with a donation of $115 or more!

They have their first group of Tanzanian volunteers and Caitlin is trying to raise $5,000 to pay their living stipend. They only need to raise another $400, but the deadline is FRIDAY! Please visit the fundraising site and give what you can. Make sure to watch the video – she explains the mission beautifully. 

p.s. If you’d like to read the post I wrote about the need for local volunteers, check out her blog!