Monday, June 30, 2014

Malibu morning picture of the day - Monday, June 30, 2014

Good morning friends, family, and gentle readers,

Here's your Monday picture.

Low clouds, but not low enough to obscure the horizon. Water today is a dark grey. To the right is the view over land. It'll probably very warm again today.

I snagged a helicopter in the top picture. I got again in another picture. See? I even got the relection in our Alumni Park Lake.

Monday morning, shot before auto-adjust

Friday night

Some other also-rans. If you snap a picture too soon on my picture before it does its automatic adjustments, you get exposures like this blue-ish shot. Looks like an early evening doesn't it? Compare to an actual early evening I caught as I left campus late last Friday. If you blow up the Friday night picture, I snagged a flying bug to the left of the lamp. Judging from the silhouette, it's a beetle of some sort.

All right, one half your 2014 calendar wraps up today. What have you gotten done so far on your January to-do list? I hope you've knocked off at least one thing. The good news is you've got six months to go. The bad news is that it the speed of time's passage picks up right after the 4th of July, so I advise you get on top of things ASAP. (Enough the fatherly role.)

I had to go visit a family member in the hospital yesterday. I decided to test one of the Asian American stereotypes and tallied up all of the Filipinos on staff that I encountered. Next time you go to such a place, see if you can beat my score: out of 10 employees, 50% Filipino. Since the stereotype statement would be something like: "EVERYBODY at the hospital was an 'effin' Filipino!" I'd say we're well under the stereotype--and to my distant pinoy cousins, congrats on picking the right job sector to find employment in the Obama jobless recovery.  Well done.

Have a great Monday,


Three Loves Seven, Chapter 14, Part 3 -- "The Professor Hangs with the House Band"

Hello family, friends, and gentle readers,

TA-DAH! This marks my 100th blog post! Thanks for reading.

Apologies. I realized that for the last few journal entries of Clete's, I've gotten the project dates out of synch. Events that happened the week of July 22 should be indicated as Week 5. I'll get around to correcting those soon.

I went to a writers conference yesterday and I learned a term that applies to any of you reading this blog right now. You are "Alpha Readers"--readers of a draft work AS it is being written, chapter by chapter. "Beta Readers," on the other hand, are those who I may give this to review once everything has been put into more or less final form. So, thanks to all you Alphas out there. It would be nice if you sent me comments if you have any. If you're so inclined, post them to my Facebook page. If you're not a friend, send me a request. I accept ALL Facebook friend requests.

I'm going to throw a question out to you folks who have tried to read this thing (this was an analysis question that was brought up in one of the writing workshops): What shelf would you put this book on in the Barnes and Noble bookstore? I suppose I'd say General Fiction, but it crosses into several genres to me; which is a problem if I want to pitch it to an agent to represent for me. I'm curious what any of you might think. To me, it's mostly a satire, but there is no satire section.

We are still looking at recollections of Sunday, July 29. A lot of things happened that day. There will be a recollection of a fishing lesson in the next installment on that day as well. I'm not giving spoilers, but this should be a clue to remember details of things that happened that will come into play later when the climax starts and facts start colliding with one another.

Thanks for being here for my 100th.


Personal Journal Entry

US Time:           Sunday, July 29, 2012
Island Time:      Dragon, Month 6, Day 11, Xingqi 7
Project Date:     Week 6, Day 1

This Sunday was my day to be a good religious neighbor. I said my prayers and did my scripture reading, which is about all a go-to-church-when-possible guy like me can do on my own. My pastor, who is a pretty liberal guy, would be having a fit if he knew I was praying in a pagan temple, surrounded by gongs, charms, wheels, and stone idols, pouring water on a ocean god statue and burning incense to a turtle. But it was all good to me. I mean, wasn’t it Luther who said “Without faith, there is no sacrament?” It has to work the same for sacrilege too. It’s only fair. It was nice to be in a place set aside for quiet contemplation. 

Once Jie had taken me all about the Shrine and took me to the altar of the 10th God, the God with No Name, I knew how the Apostle Paul felt when he was in Athens when he found the altar of the Unknown God. It looked like familiar territory. Not sure why. Probably because the symbol inscribed on the little idol, the Chinese number 10, shi or sup depending on your dialect how you say it, looks like a cross.

A word about the altars. They are essentially platforms about the size of a large desk with maybe two or three tiers built up. In a couple of cases, wings are added on. There’s enough working space where you can set up, say a full dinner place setting. All of them have a sand-filled ceramic urn for holding burning joss sticks. Vessels in which you can pour oil or water or wine or anything else. All kinds of hooks and hanging clips where you can attach written prayers or banners or picture icons. Every other bit of real estate is taken up with what I would call religious folk art. Hand-carved figurines. Statuettes brought from far places, jewelry, found stones, branches, you name it. Some of these figurines were familiar—characters I had seen in small, glazed ceramic forms in family members’ homes. Old men holding canes and peaches. Guys riding oxen. Women with hair like midnight and skin the color of snow. Come to think of it, Snow White must have been a Chinese princess.

The altars reminded me of all the Chinese graphic art that I would see when my Dad would stop in a Chinese-owned business. I remember all of the colors were too bright and garish. Pictures of people looked really stiff and they had bad haircuts. The Chinese “fine art” hanging in homes were embroidered pictures of flashy animals like dragons, phoenixes, ducks, and tigers—again all done in extremely bright, over-the-top colors. At my grandmother Yin-Yin’s house, I remember she kept blue-and-white porcelain vases filled with cheap, plastic artificial flowers held in a “soil” of either washed pebbles or cat’s-eye marbles. When she occasionally set up a new arrangement she’d put a clear plastic bag (which had been saved from some earlier purchase) over it so that you could still see them, but they wouldn’t get dusty because they were hard to clean.  Of course, the bags got dusty and opaque, defeating the purpose of having a flower arrangement.  I'm a self-admitted cheapskate, but her idea of thrift made no sense to me.

I thought for years that the Chinese race was terminally cheap and tacky until I took a Chinese art history course in college and discovered all the smart guys with taste, scholars and literati, were drawing in brush and black ink only. Apparently the scholars didn’t make it over to America and open knick-knack shops. Cheap and tacky laborers and mechanics like my family were the purveyors of a 5,000 year old culture. It was eye-opening. Even my Dad’s Chinese porn was different. Chinese porn models had pubic hair—Americans did not. But I digress. Let’s get back to religion.

The other altars had centralized themes running through them according to the element or totem animal for the caretaker Guardian Princess that maintained it. Altar No. 10, though, was hodge-podge. It took on all comers. There were airplanes, mermaids, Ganeshas, statues of geisha girls, cats, a Star of David, all kinds of empty wine bottles, a couple with sequins glued all over them. These altars had the feeling of 20th-century assemblage art, heavily Asian-themed, but with none of the oppressive darkness or psychological heaviness of despair, depression, or decay that assembler-artists typically portray.

     “So each princess then keeps an altar?” I asked Jie.
     “Yes. That is their duty. Some have items outside in the yard. Maybe stone carvings that are too large to be in the Shrine. Or items that are to have water poured on them.”
     “There’s a lot of stuff on these altars. What happens when you get too much?”
     “That has not occurred in my lifetime, but when it does, we gather much of the older offerings, burn them ritually, and then put the ashes or remains at one of the sacred trees in The Grove.”
     “Who maintains Altar No. 10?”
     “That is the duty of the Sea Witch.”
     “I haven’t met her. I hope it’s OK that I used her altar without asking.”
     “On the contrary, I think she will be quite pleased.”
     “I’d like to meet her. Is she available for an introduction?”
     “I can ask her daughter, but I have heard she has been quite ill. They live nearby as we are on the border of The Outside. I can summon one of them by ringing the bell outside of the main entrance.”
     “Seems like a lot of trouble. Like I might be interrupting them.”
     “It’s possible. They have many duties as they are just two where we are eighteen in number.”
     “How often do you summon them that way?”
     “Never. When we wish access into The Grove, or into any part of The Outside, we place a written prayer on the altar. The answer comes back on the reverse. It’s always YES.”
     “Is the Sea Witch … evil?”
     “What makes you ask that?”
     “Everybody’s tone of voice changes when they speak her name. And it’s always her title. Never the name. That’s social distance.”
     “I suppose it is. Distance I mean. I don’t think of her as evil, no. But what tone do you think we’re expressing?”
     “I’d say … fear. And the word ‘witch’ in English carries a lot of negative meaning.”
     “As her name says, her domain is the sea. Which is different than Auntie Lee’s, which is the element of water. We Islanders fear and respect the sea.”
     “I understand that. I don’t like the ocean either.”
     “It is thought that the Sea Witch controls who comes onto the Island and who does not. The marine terrain is treacherous for experienced sailors.”
     “If you believe that, then she controls your destiny doesn’t she? It’s up to her whether you ever see your prince or not. That’s pretty powerful.”
     “Which is maybe why she is feared.”
     “Good thing I came by helicopter then. Hope she’s not mad at me for circumventing her defenses.”

I pulled out my note pad and wrote my meeting request, tore off the small slip, and attached it to the one of the alligator clips that was dangling from the third tier.

It took a while to make the rounds of the other nine altars. Angel’s total recall in reciting prayers for each deity was most impressive. Of course, she could be faking it and I’d not be the worse for my ignorance. And the music! It was ethereal. I asked if that was a part of their regular worship and she said “no.” There are silences, claps, and soundings of bells or gongs, depending on what ritual is being requested.

We eventually finished up and Angel excused herself to clean up. I offered to help but she would have none of it so I decided to go pay my respects to the church musicians. Feng was hunched over her instrument and I came up behind her and whispered in her ear.

     “Brava Maestra.” She nearly jumped when I said that.
     “My Heavens! Clete, you startled me,” said Feng.
     “You are quite skilled. Your music was beautiful. I don’t know the technique of this instrument, but I knew you were putting the notes exactly where you wanted them.”
     “If you were thinking about how I was playing then I failed.”
     “Not at all. But it’s the curse of being a musician.”
     “How’s that?”
     “You take up playing an instrument or singing because you hear a sound that transforms you (or maybe your mother forces you to like mine did, but at some point it’s a choice) and you just want to make that sound and spend years perfecting it. And then once you master that sound, you hardly ever get that same transcendence again. At least that’s how it works for me. You have to content yourself that you are doing that for others. But once in a while, you do go back to that time when the sound was so new.”
     “So, how was it today then?” asked Wen. “Did we achieve transcendence?”
     “Gwendolyn! Would you believe me if I told you ‘yes’?”
     “Yes, Professor, I would.”
     “How would you know that I was not just being polite?
     “That answer is easy. You are never polite.”
     “Why Gwen, you’ve absolutely cut me to the quick.”
     “And you are my teacher. I expect and demand totally honest assessments from you ... so that I can become better.”
     “You’ve done an excellent job there with her Feng,” I said. “There’s nothing better for a teacher than to have my own intellectual honesty dished right back to me. I know the future is going to be in good hands. It was transcendent in spots. Except for one persistent enharmonic.”
     “Which one?”
     “Got a minute?” She nodded and opened up the case and took the qin back out. “Hit ’em all.”

She sounded all the strings in turn, placing her fingers in line with the pearl markers that sound the higher overtones above the basic pitch.

     “THAT one. Hit the others on that string. Yeah, to my ear 3 and 5, I don’t know what you call them, need sharping especially when you hit a sympathetic fundamental. Brings me right back down to earth and reminds me that you are a human being plucking silk after all. Of course, maybe that’s what you meant to do. And I think you need to strengthen your right ring finger. Give me a run up and down.” She did. “Slightly hurried going up on the switch from ring to middle don’t you think?”
     “I agree,” she said giving me her full attention.
     “Put your hand up. Match your fingertips to mine. Press each in turn and let me test your pressure. I have a couple of exercises . . .”
     “Ahem. Thank you Clete,” said Feng interrupting. “WE are glad you found it so transcendent.”

This was bad. I’ve done it again. Feng is Gwen’s teacher. I AM rude. Time for a self-deprecating save attempt.

     “But then again. What the hell do I know?  I’ve never touched a … ‘goo chin’ is it?”
     “Would you like to?” asked Feng. “I can give you a quick introductory lesson. The stories I have heard of your being a string instrument player are obviously true.”
     “I do play guitar. A little bit of violin. Piano also. Thanks for the offer, but I’d best not start. I’ll descend into practicing hell if you give me half a chance. I’d probably constantly pester you to reserve time on it. I’ll just enjoy your talent at the blessing from God that it is.”
     “Clete,” said Feng, “that reminds me. I’ve been meaning to ask you. Why does a scientist believe in an unseen world or any kind of god? It’s not what I would expect.”
     “Yeah, I know what you mean. I have colleagues who give me shit about it all the time. All I can say is I do not know what I do not know. And the God that my mother introduced me to is the presence who seems to be able to hold that space for me.”
     “Does he answer your prayers?”
     “He doesn’t, but that may be because I don’t ask him for anything.”
     “But isn’t that what a god is for?” asked Wen.
     “That’s what your parents are for. Or having a job and making money. God is just there who made things the world the way it is and we try figure how to live in it. That’s what religion is to me.”
     “But what were you doing in your worship service there?” asked Wen. “It seemed entirely internal.”
     “Being in the shrine, looking at the words, thinking of the scripture, listening to your music, smelling the incense, hearing the fountain outside, feeling the floor against my knees as I sit on the floor—it’s all about looking for and enjoying the patterns of nature and of intelligence in the created world. If you’re at all curious, sit with me when I study my Bible and you can see my approach.”
     “If you don’t ask things of your God,” asked Feng, “what do you pray about?”
     “I give thanks mostly. Oh, I guess I ask forgiveness.”
     “Forgiveness for what?”
     “For doing bad things to others.”
     “Like what? If you do not mind my asking?”
     “What? You wanna be my Goddamned confessor? Well lately, my greatest sin seems to be irritating Lee. I guess now I’ll have to add being rude to you.” Wen put her hand to her mouth and suppressed a giggle. Feng shot her daughter a warning glance. “Did I say something wrong?”
     “It is nothing,” said Feng.
     “Say, I was wondering if your instrument has a sound hole? It’s so quiet!”
     She picked it up and flipped it over. “There are two on the qin. They are on the underside. The larger one is called the Dragon Pool, the smaller the Phoenix Pond.”
     “I see an inscription inlaid there. What does it say?” he asked.
     “This is the maker’s mark. This is a dedication poem for my great grandmother—this was made for her especially. I don’t know all the words. There are two that nobody knows and they are not in the dictionaries.”
     “Maybe it’s some Classical expression. Might not even be Chinese. If you’d like, I can take a picture or write them down and ask a colleague to give her version of what it says when I get back to the States. She’s an East Asian languages professor. If she doesn’t know, I know she’s got literary contacts in China.”
     “That would be nice to know what it says.”
     “So you two have to share using this ‘qin’ then?”
     “There is another, but it is an antique.”
     “Is it not playable?”
     “It is so old, I’m worried that if we were to fully string it and put tension on it, that it would give way and it would crack or fall apart. Would you like to see it? It’s kept here in the Shrine as one of our sacred objects.”
     “I would.”
     “Wen, would you fetch the Firebird Qin please?” Wen rose, gave a quick bow and dashed off into the back.  She returned with a large ornately carved rosewood case. She undid the latches and pulled open the hinged lid. She brought out the ancient qin and set it beside their playing model on the table.
     “Wow. This is not just any model. This looks like it was a special edition.”
     “Doesn’t it though? The lacquer is quite old, crazed, and clouded, but if you use your imagination, it almost looks like it could have been finished to look like a reptile’s skin. It was probably brownish-greenish.”
     “May I turn it over?”
     “Allow me.”
     “That pattern is carried to the back as well. The sounding holes on this one are circular rather than the elongated oval on the newer. There is rosette inset on the Phoenix Pool.”
“The figure carved into the gold is actually that of a phoenix.” The rosette was essentially a golden screen set into a carved jade border.
     “Exquisite,” said Clete. “I see there was to be another rosette to be in the Dragon Pond.”
     “Yes, but it’s been lost for generations.”
     “I can only imagine how fancy that one may have looked judging from the detail on the Phoenix rosette.”
     “In my imagination, I see it as being a highly contrived figure of a dragon. Probably why it was pried out. Likely sold for food at one point. The remaining phoenix rosette appears to be 24K gold so it’s probably valuable. There have been many hard times sustained on this island. I am glad they never sold the qin.”
     “This is quite the museum piece. Do you know the history of it at all? Who owned it?”
     “All my grandmother could tell me that it belonged to a highly educated court lady who found herself in political exile, as so many who came here found themselves.  It was passed down from mother to daughter, at least to the daughter who could play it best I suppose. It’s funny, when I was small, I always thought that if you looked at it straight-on level from the small end, it looked like a frog about to jump. It’s an optical illusion. It’s quite clever. Who could have thought of such a thing?”
     “I see what you mean. But why was it called the Firebird Qin? I was expecting it to be red or orange.”
     “I have no idea; that’s what I was told. But see here, on the case are inscribed the characters for “little” and “fire” and “bird” and “two.”
     “Have you ever heard it played?”
     “My grandmother strung it once and played it. It’s much richer than our current qin. Let me do this.” She pulled out a spare string and strung it on the third place on the old instrument. She plucked it and then for contrast plucked the same string on the newer qin. The difference in resonance, complexity, and warmness was palpable for just that one string, and even then sound of the ancient lingered longer.
     “Amazing. That’s a different fundamental than you were using earlier.”
     “Good ear. I left it at E rather than push it up to F.  I’m concerned about that much tension.”
     “So do you think you’re in the generational lineup of this Court Lady?”
     “It’s possible. I asked my grandmother the same question.  She didn’t know, but she entrusted this ‘old froggy,’ as she called it, to my keeping and she had received it from her grandmother. But it was very unclear. One thing is clear is that I love to play the qin, and so does Wen. I think because it is so quiet. It’s like thinking with your fingers.”
     “Well, it is remarkable that such an old piece of wood has held up so well in a tropical climate.”
     “You are right, but there are signs of rot. I sand down a piece of camphor every now and then and put it inside the case discourage the boring insect that might find it tasty. Sometimes I think I should donate it to someplace that can take care of it in a dry place. I have no idea how old it is.”
     “I think you should have it repaired, have the rot spliced out, and play that thing. Since it sounds that good, it seems a shame not to.”
     “I know. There are so many ‘shoulds’ on this Island.”
     “Well if you ever need a luthier, I know a guy in L.A. who does a great job. I just noticed something. May I?” I reached for it and she handed it to me tentatively. “I’ll be careful. Follow me,” I said as we walked back to Altar #10.  There was a depression in the wooden platform into which the guqin fit perfectly. The platform in turn nested into a depression carved into the stone floor. “Fits like a glove.”
     “I’ve never noticed that before,” said Feng.
     “Maestra, sound the E,” I said. She fired her index finger off and the entire Shrine resonated like one large hollow instrument.
     “WOW!” I said.  “Can I try that? It’s like an amplified bass guitar.” I stepped up and plucked the string. Again the building sounded a deep E. “This gives so much lateral support, I think we can bring the fundamental up to its proper F. Is that OK with you?”
     “It’s fine, go ahead.”

I found the tuning knob and slowly tightened it, bringing everything around us into the key of F. There was only one Chinese tune I know and I plucked it out, starting on F, ending on F.

     “What did you just play?” asked Feng.
     “A tune my granddad, Yeh-yeh, always whistled. He said he used to sing it as a work song with his crew when he traveled as a worker picking fruit.”
     “I think it comes from a classical opera.”
     “The tune is pretty catchy. Only five notes, so you’ve got to get the lengths right. Probably got repurposed into a lot of different songs eh? Do you know what the original was?”
    “If it’s the song I’m thinking of, it’s a song of longing for home.”
     “Which would explain why it got made into a work song. We all wish we could just quit and do nothing … WHAT THE FUCK?”

And then we had an earthquake. At first I thought it was recurring resonance of the guqin’s F strike. The tremor was not a big one, but enough to make us all stop.

     “Magnitude 4 is my professional opinion,” I said. “I’ll have to go back to the lab and see what we’ve got. Largest one since I’ve been here.”

Feng stepped up, loosened the string and removed the guqin from the altar platform.

     “I think this needs to be put away RIGHT now. Wen, would you please unstring it and return it to storage?” She turned back to me. “Dr. Wong, thank you for your piety.”
     “Have I been? Pious, that is?”
     “You made a offering at my altar.”
     “Is that so strange? I am a visitor.”
     “It is unusual. We DO NOT get visitors. I never thought about it before, but we never burn offerings at altars other than our own. I should probably change that about myself. You are quite considerate despite your reputation here.”
     “I’m a bad boy aren’t I? You’ve been talking to Lee,” I said.
     “Ah, that girl. She is so tiresome, but if I may comment?”
     “You’re not asking permission to address me as a friend are you?”
     “I beg your pardon?”
     “That’s what Mei said right before she took me down a few notches.”
     Feng smiled at that, “Did she? Good for her.” And then Feng went right ahead and did exactly the same thing. “Speaking as friend or not, I think you provoke her.”
     “Yeah?  Well I don’t think I do.”
     “Then there we are.” Then she just sat there expectantly.
     “So, you’re not going to follow that up?”
     “Follow up? In what way?”
     “Personal remark, belittling my understanding of things, venting frustration at me. That kind of thing.”
     “I stated my thought, you stated yours. And that is fine. I don’t feel a need to convert you to my way of thinking.” Feng just continued to hold my gaze, smiling ever slightly. “You’re holding back too, aren’t you?”

Damn but this girl was good. Strategic uses of silence. Now she’s calling me out.

     “OK. You got me. Maybe I do provoke her. You sure AREN’T Lee.”
     “She and I have very different approaches to disappointment. You probably enjoy pushing her past her tolerances. But I would like to talk to you about her sometime.”
     “How about now? Your gig’s over, right? I’m just going fishing next. I’d invite you along, but Lee will be sitting in the boat.”
     “What is a gig?”
     “Slang for a freelance musical job.”
     “Ah! Yes. We will make some other time. When we can speak privately.”
     “Sounds like a performance evaluation for Lee coming up? Or me? Look, I kid a lot about her, but really, the kid is doing a bang-up . . .”
     “That’s NOT what I have in mind. Please save your comments for then.”
     “So tell me. Is there an equivalent of an offering plate here?”
     “Do not concern yourself about it.”
     “Ah, but I must. A big part of Christian worship is to ritualize personal sacrifice.”
     “And that is done with money?”
     “Well, we certainly don’t do it with blood. Where I come from, money is the medium through which we convert work and time into something we can exchange with others.”
     “I tend not to think about money and what it means too much. Although maybe I should. I am the Island’s official treasurer. We don’t handle any currency here. All of our transactions with our suppliers and clients are done by wire transfer. And we never travel off the Island.”
     “Then I guess it would be meaningless to leave a check or cash.”
     “Ting Ting and Jie would understand your intention.”
     “Wow. I could leave a check for a million bucks! But then it’s not an actual sacrifice then. What would you suggest?”
     “Excuse me.” It was Jie. “I couldn’t help but overhear my name. Truthfully, I was listening. I hope your needs were served?”
     “I thank you, my dear. It was a blessing.”
     “You would like to give a temple offering?”
     “I would.”
     “You don’t have to.”
     “It seems fitting. I can include a provision when I settle the bill with your Island?”
     “Money is always good for the Island, but actually it’s not a bad idea that you should do something. Mother tells me that you’ve broken several taboos since arriving. We weren’t going to mention them, but she’s starting to worry if you don’t make amends that you will start to have a lot of misfortune.”
     “Oh really? Ugh. What kind of taboos?”
     “Mostly entering certain places at times when you should not.”
     “How do I get right? Not that I believe that superstitious horse shit, but ritual is important.”
     “Next time you’re at the beach off the reef, gather enough perfectly formed shells of any size to put nine each on the altars of the gods you’ve offended.”
     “How many have I offended?”
     “Seven so far. But you may as well get enough for all of them. Mother thinks it’s only a matter of time.”
     “Can I hire Eve and Eight to get them for me?”
     “No. You have to get them yourself.”
     “Figured as much. Is that the only way?”
     “There is one other. I have brought here some paper and ink and you may write out a contract. Just put yourself at the service of the gods and be ready to do a major service for the Shrine if we need to call upon you. I think that would be most appropriate. I will post it on our wall. Any of us can then claim the marker.”
     “What kind of service?”
     “We don’t know in advance. If your heart is willing, you will avoid misfortune.”
     “All right, I'll do it.” And I took up the brush and wrote out an IOU for 'requisite labor to appease any and all curses.' “You guys had best think of something soon. I’m not going to be here much longer.”
     “If nothing else, I will probably have you pray on someone’s behalf. That’s what has greatest value here.”
     “You can ask that of me anytime. You need not call in that marker for that.”
     “Thank you Dr. Wong. I will keep that in mind.”

© Copyright 2012, Vincent G. Way, all rights reserved.