Friday, February 12, 2016

Memories of China

On cold winter days in Kansas, my Mother would at times take out her old metal travel trunk.   When she opened the trunk it gave off a scent of camphor wood and incense, of tea and sandalwood. Then one by one she took out lacquer bowls, carved figures, silks, painted scrolls, small weavings, ink stamps to mark documents, books written in Chinese, and idol pictures common in the households of south China… 
The cook plays an Ehru as his daughter sings : Listen here to the Ehru:
The first tea I ever drank was her Chinese Oolong tea – and she might light a stick of incense…  and then showed us photos of the mission house where she had lived, photos showing what it was like to live in a land without roads between towns – only narrow pathways that led between rice paddies… photos of junks and water buffalo, of pagodas, river boats., and rickshaws.    
Hingwa in Fukien Provance (Southern China)
When I grew older I learned more about her experience. As a young woman she graduated from USC. It was between the two world wars and she was impelled both by the message of her Methodist church to serve mission of God by helping  the uneducated people of the world.  The Methodist missions sought  to convert people to the Christian faith, by providing education, hospitals, and orphanages in places where these services were most needed.

Spreading "night soil", collected in town, onto the rice field
This was in the age before the Peace Corp – and for altruistic young people who wanted to make a difference in the post war world,  responding to the call of church missions was one of the few  options. It was quite a rarity for a young woman raised in a small Kansas town with the prevailing attitudes of that time, to make such a bold move.
Harbor - on the coast from Hingwa
She was selected for special training to go to Southern China –the region of Hingwa in Fukien (Fujian) province  across from Taiwan… In Southern California she received training to prepare her for the Chinese mission service; and special training for creation of village schools. Finally the day came to tell her family and friends goodbye as she boarded a 'Dollar Line' coal powered steam ship travelling across the Pacific.  
River travel - passing villages

She arrived in southern China and made her way by human powered river barge up to the town of Foochow (Fuzhou)…  (She spoke of the haunting chant of the rowers at they pulled on their ores against the river current).  She was met and guided by the staff of her Methodist Mission center.  It must have been an amazing cultural shock to adapt to her new reality. My mother had first to learn the Foochow dialect of Chinese – and she was in a total immersion situation – She spoke of waking in the night with a newly learned phrase coming strongly to her mind. 
Workmen in a teashop
The prevailing religions in the region were a polyglot of traditional folk religions, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism.  There were many temples and life for the average people was guided by a strong belief in fatalism, luck, and superstition.  The Christian faith offered a positive alternative to the burden of traditional beliefs… Still the weight of traditional beliefs was slow to budge.  While there she made of collection of traditional wood block images of the various deities - house idols woodcuts used to protect the kitchen from evil spirits, to protect boy babies, idols for safety on a trip, an idol for cleanliness of spirit. She also saved joss paper (luck paper) and funeral money to burn at the time of someone’s death.
Temple in Hingwa
Often it was the poor and destitute who came first to the Christian Mission.  As my mother became more able to communicate in Foochow dialect she had more interaction with the local people. Her primary task was to set up schools to train children in basic knowledge – how to read, write, practical mathematics, and to learn something of the wider world.  Many of the children who attended the schools belonged to traditional non-Christian families.  
School children
My mother told of travelling to distant villages – travelling in a sedan chair carried by two strong men.  I think it is easy to misunderstand people, with our modern social attitudes, what it must have been like to drop into China in those years when having someone carry you was normal and natural – after all you were giving employment to two families by paying the men in this task.  

Note walkway between rice 'paddies' 
She spoke of visiting temples where Buddhist novitiates would show their indifference to pain by inflicting painful burns to their bodies with thick glowing sticks of incense… she spoke of small cages high above the cross roads with the heads of bandits on display … she spoke of abandoned children saved from starvation and raised in the mission orphanages.  And she often spoke about the prison that unyielding superstitions created around the lives of the people.  

A days outing

Sometimes she and her mission sisters would take excursions into the hills to see a particularly fine pagoda and to share a picnic lunch…I suspect they were a very close supportive group with each other. I have one of the daily journals that she kept, recording daily plays and events… much of it quite ordinary…I am astonished at her courage to make such a great step into a very different world – and I think that it is ironic that her adventure sparked a fire in my head to long to see more of the world. 
Pagoda - 

Sadly she became seriously ill and weakened (there was a prevailing belief that Western people often didn't do well living in the tropical conditions of heat and disease) – This was after all before knowledge of our modern medicine and before antibiotics … In any case she returned to America in need of recuperation.  

Not long after her return  to America she went to Kansas to regain her health and to be close to her family. Shortly later she married my father and made a satisfying life on a Kansas farm. There was one frustration in later years... Given the attitudes of the time it was difficult for my mother to find people who cared to understand her experience in China, her deep love of the Chinese people, and the thousand and one memories she held inside.  She even found those who scorned her for her wider view of the world...  Life often comes in distinct chapters - Door open and doors close... but for good or bad we are shaped by our experiences...

Saturday, February 6, 2016

"Getting down and dirty"

Photo Credit: All photos this week came from my good friend Google Images...

Once January is past, we have very little chance of any more frost. .  And if we have a few days free of rain, it becomes possible to work the soil. I have several things that I like to plant as early as possible and then hope for the best –and if a late frost happens - I will just replant…. its worth the risk and planting now you can let the spring rain do the watering

I 'dig' gardening!

1.     Fava beans are so easy to grow (a good crop to plant with kids). The plants are attractive and snails don't seem to like them  - You don't even need to do much to prepare the soil - Just dig a 2 “ hole and drop in a seed, cover up, and it will grow – They also add Nitrogen to the soil… You can go to your local Mexican market – and just buy a small pack of dry seeds – they are good to grow beautifully 
Glorious fresh Fava beans

2.     Nurseries now have 6 packs of small Kale and Swiss chard plants.  The young plants prefer a well dug soil. Mix in some compost or soil conditioner for good measure.  There are several varieties of Kale that I like better than the curly Kale with which you may be familiar. Kale and Swiss chard both grow easily. Unfortunately snails love them both too.  So sprinkle  a little snail bate around the plants.  
Swiss Chard - I like both the red stem and the green...

3.     Now is the perfect time to plant magnificent beets.  Plant seeds – they also like good rich soil with compost – plant the seeds 3-4 inches apart – they grow well in our climate.  The biggest problem with beets is that most people dont plant enough of them!

4.     Carrots are also good in the spring. Your nursery or hardware will have several varieties of carrot seeds.  Carrots are notorious for growing best in a loose sandy soil – so with our predominately clay soils select one of the shorter varieties.  Be brave and try a couple of varieties - see which one you like best...  (One of my happy memories as a child was pulling ripe carrots fresh from the soil, washing off the dirt, and eating it right there - so good! ) 
Carrots have a mystique for me
5.     You can also put in broccoli and cauliflower plants – but unless you have a big garden – they take a lot of space and generally produce only 1 good head of vegetables – I usually skip them.
Chayotes grown as a patio arbor

6.     Chayotes are a very satisfying vegetable to grow– These are grown extensively in much of the world with Mediterranean climates but they not well known here. – Go to a Mexican market and buy a good large specimen – Ideal if you have a fence that needs covering, or want a quick cover for your patio arbor.   They grow beautiful vines with rich green leaves and late in the seasons large amounts of chayote squash form.  The fruit can be kept for many weeks into the fall and winter. To learn more about Chayotes visit this site:

Radishes come in many colors and growth types

7.     This is a fine time to plant lettuce seeds and radish seeds – well-worked soil – compost – sprinkle the fine seeds.  They also need protection from snails.
One of the many types of lettuce
8.     Onion bulbs and potatoes – Now is the time to plant them both – and some people swear by them – I find that for all the space required and storage problems once harvested – I don’t grow them any more.  But they both grow very well here if you want to try

9.     One of my favorites; peas – either regular or Oriental sugar peas (or sugar snap peas>) – for only a little work they give you a wonderful satisfying crop – Only downside is that you must pick them consistently or they will stop growing. 
Cherry tomatoes also like our climate
10.If you are very brave (or some would say foolish) you can try looking for small tomato plants in your nursery soon now – I plant mine very early at the base of a south facing wall with good day time sun – and they take right off… Different tomato varieties have been developed for distinct climatic regions. Forget the large beefsteak tomatoes or most of the heirloom varieties – sure the plants will grow and you can get a very small crop from them – but you will get a much more satisfying crop with good flavor if you stick with “Ace” and “Early Girl’ varieties.

11.Summer squash (Zucchini) needs to wait another month

12.Also this month you can find small plants of Artichokes, rhubarb; …they are perennials and return each year.  Fun to grow, and both are very attractive plants
Love it or hate it - rhubarb ( Give it a change and its will grow on you)

13.Some people love 'Sunchokes' – they are sold in most Supermarkets – and you can plant them right out of the bag – they are a relative of sunflowers and have a tasty root used in soups and stews … Very easy to grow…

Sunchokes - try them first before you put in a big crop

14.Strawberry plants will soon be available soon– and providing that you can grow them on a drip irrigation line – will keep you supplied in strawberries for many weeks.  My preference is Albion  ( you can read about them here - but buy them from your local nursery ).

15.Our wonderful bay area climate has one drawback from the point of view of a gardener – Every night in the summer the cool Pacific air flows over us - We love to live in this climate – but cool nights make it almost impossible to grow a good crop of peppers, eggplant, and okra… Many gardeners will disagree – but its true – these plants need warm nights to set and develop a good crop… I have struggled with them all and only been able to get small unsatisfactory crops ( even though the foliage seems to grow well )… The Alameda County Master Gardening group gives the same advice… also the home garden group out of UC Davis…Never mind – there is so much more that we can grow well… “Live within your climate”

A growing garden

My favorite garden reference book is Golden Gate Gardening by Pam Peirce: Read reviews here:

I have made reference to adding compost – Start a compost system now with all prunings and green kitchen waste and you will have it ready to go for next year… avoid adding weed seeds and animal products.
This year you can buy sacks of compost or even redwood soil conditioner.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Faces and Masks

My advice to young teachers when they start teaching is to imagine themselves as ‘actors’ - and imagine that they are playing the role of an effective teacher… perhaps based on a blend of favorite good teachers that they have seen in their own lives…they should attempt to emulate the actors voice, their timing and delivery.  I tell them that it is OK to feel like an imposter when you first start teaching – No one else in the room will think of them as an imposter.  And if they play their role well for a few days they will discover that they are soon speaking with their own voice and responding as themselves. 

This person creates and puts on a kind of invisible “mask”.  A mask in this sense is the self that we create to deal with a certain situation or with certain people.  It isn’t a physical mask – but the way we present ourselves, the words we choose to speak, our pattern of body language. 
The Swiss psychiatrist Karl Jung called this a “persona”. And he saw it as the social face the individual presents to the world—"a kind of mask designed on the one hand to make a definite impression upon others, and on the other to conceal the true nature of the individual".

Many cultures include physical masks in ceremonies to make present certain spirits, gods, or states of mind.  Such masks can be a real aid in visualizations., and education.  How I loved Halloween when I could wear a mask and pretend to be someone else.

As I think about my typical day – I wake in the morning and have breakfast with my wife, Judy – We know each other so well that generally we don’t need special personas to interact - But there are times we choose to project a special tenderness or insistence with each other.  Then I drive to the classroom that I will visit that day and I put on a different ‘mask’ to deal with the office staff and then a different persona with my young teacher, and still a different persona if I am dealing with high school age students.  

I may visit different schools  I suppose that my demeanor changes if I am taking to a school principal, a custodian, if I stop for lunch in a taqueria, or a Chinese bakery, speaking with an Oakland Police officer, or a homeless guy… I have a different persona when I go to a baseball game, in church, and out hiking with friends.  This doesn't seem dishonest to me because I attempt to present personas that put the other person at ease, at which present myself in a positive light.  I don't think the goal is never to use different masks (personas)  - but to be conscious of how and why you are presenting yourself.

I have known people who get trapped in a persona –Let me engage in some stereotypes –(You can think of exceptions of each) – but we all know people that the labels fit  - maybe even see ourselves.  Have you met people who want the world to see them as any of these categories: tough guy, funny, intellectual, militant (fill in any political party), smart, cute, religious, techy, athletic, poetic, daring, anti-intellectual, the guy that wont take any ‘guff’ from anybody, the peacemaker, the adventurer….

 Once a person is trapped in a persona it can be difficult to expand their horizons… There are cowboy poets, and conservationist hunters; there are inner city kids that go on to make breakthroughs in medicine.  I think there are even regional personas – I suspect I would engage in different conversations with the people behind the counter of a coffee shops in San Francisco, in Omaha Nebraska, and in a little country cross road cafĂ© in Georgia. There are topics that would be inappropriate in the small towns of Northern Mississippi that might be quite welcome in the Bay Area.

Sometimes after a busy day, a good dinner… I feel relaxed and tired and I want to sit in my favorite chair and read a good book… but I have to go to a meeting – so tired and a little grumpy, I drag myself to the meeting – and ‘boing’ as I walk into the meeting my friendly, outgoing, verbal mask falls into place.  I listen, contribute, maybe tell a funny story, I act really engaged in the meeting.  Is that dishonest or wrong…? I don't think so – it makes me more productive and a better team player… than going in as a ‘rain cloud’ and sitting quietly through the meeting.  I like my collection of masks and I can be aware that I  them out and put them on more or less consciously. 

I do recall as a teen being in awkward situations where my older aunt (who required a certain persona) and my teen friends (a different mask) happened to be together… now I had a dilemma – which mask do I wear… that kind of situation can be very stressful!