Thursday, February 27, 2014

Two Pictures, One Window

This is a window on to the life in Beijing when the AQI (air quality index) for PM 2.5, the particulate matter that is quite dangerous and linked to lung cancer, is at roughly 500 and 50, respectively. Particles in this category are less than two and half microns in diameter.

The first picture was taken yesterday morning and the second, this afternoon from my home office window.

It was a late evening rain storm of minor proportions (a shower) that cleared the air and a switch in the prevailing winds. Somebody asked me what could be done and I, tongue firmly planted in cheek, said that the easiest way to avoid the inversions would be to fully mine the mountains until they are flat. Looking out the train window at China's mountains, they are well on their way to creating a moonscape within a generation in several parts of this gorgeous country.

Let's hope that the leaders here act before we get suffocated by another week of this "weather." While geography is king and much of the pollution we get comes from elsewhere on the "tradewinds" and then gets stuck here because of surrounding mountains, there are things that can and must be done.

The mood in Beijing today is ecstatic. One woman said to me that this is the first time that she has been made happy merely by blue sky. That is a sad commentary on how she has not heretofore derived pleasure from the quotidian; however, it is also indicative of a prevailing giddiness here at seeing the sun (unclothed) for the first time several days.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Mei Li: A Real Story

Seventy-five years ago, a book about a small girl in China won the second ever Caldecott Medal, today widely regarded as the "Nobel" for illustrated children's literature. It is awarded annually by the Association for Library Service to Children, a division of the American Library Association (ALA), to the artist of the most distinguished American picture book for children.

The book was called Mei Li and was written and illustrated by Thomas Handforth. The first edition was published in New York by Doubleday, Doran & Co. in 1938. At that point, China was already overrun with Japanese invaders and Europe was bracing for war. The disputed "Rape of Nanjing" (about as disputed as the Holocaust) had taken place and there were executions happening as Kuomintang forces battled it out internally with the forces of Li Jingwei and Mao Zedong, as well as their common Japanese foes. It would not be until Pearl Harbor, on December 7, 1941--"a date that will live in infamy"--that the US forces would be fully engaged.

While Handforth was making children smile in this hard time with his handiwork, he was also documenting what was going on around him. Some of it was whimsical, such as the acrobats he captured in their gyrations.

These, in turn, became images in the book.

Some of his images were gruesome and depressing. He made a lithograph of an execution happening outside the walls, as well, which I shall not share here today.

Over the last few months, I have been fortunate to take up a correspondence with Peggy Hartzell, a Pennsylvania denizen who is the niece of Mr. Handforth. She is the source of all this wonderful information.

In a recent dispatch, she reports, "Connie Tan has been translating [the book] into Chinese. Her mother-in-law is Mei Li's older sister." Mei Li herself passed away about 15 years ago but one of her sisters is still alive and lives in China. Her son and daughter-in-law plan to visit her this fall. They live in California.

Peggy sent me more real pictures of the real Mei Li (being held on far left). The girl holding Mei Li is still alive, maybe living in Beijing. The girls were all adopted by Helen Burton. "I think the oldest daughter's mother lived and worked at Helen's home," explained Peggy.

Helen Burton ran the Camel's Bell Gift shop in the Peking hotel and was famous for her hospitality. Her guest book at the hotel has the signatures of every culturally-connected Westerner who passed through Peking in the 1930s. After she was captured by the Japanese and interred in Weihsien for two years she settled in Honolulu.

"Born in 1891 in North Dakota, her father and brother both rose in state politics. She wanted to venture off to exotic places. She wound up in Peiping looking for secretarial work and it turns out she was a bit of an artist and entrepreneur. It was not long before she started her shop with candy, clothing, art and gifts of her design that she arranged to be made by locals. People from all over the world stopped by and signed her guest book." (from an account on the web)

The artist and illustrator Tom, as Peggy refers to him, lived in Beijing. Below are pictures of his door as it was in the late part of the 1930s and as it is in this new millennium.

Then there is the door of Mei Li's house as depicted by Handforth's talented hand. Maybe this was the door of Helen Burton. (Doors had great significance in the Qing Dynasty. You could tell the class or rank of one who lived behind it by various attributes. The Beijing Planning Exhibition Hall has a great explanation, if you find yourself there, but it is beyond the scope of this post.)

He was a gifted photographer and Peggy has shared with me a trove of his older photographs. Among the images she sent are two more of Mei Li. She writes, "[Here is] a photo of Mei Li with her book in hand and one about 60 years later with husband in hand. I heard that she gave one of her children to his brother who had none. Love how her smile is the same and that she didn't disappear during the Mao period."

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Grüß Gott!

This post is being simultaneously posted to Waking Green Dragon, the personal blog of Alexander Lee.
Sent on July 22, 2010 (the Feast of Lidane), from Olyphant, PA, and received some time shortly thereafter by me in Concord, NH, is a lovely letter from a woman who calls herself Caroline of Assisi. In 2008, she ran on the "Clothesline platform" for President of the United States and so we made our acquaintance. Having just returned from Assisi myself and having carried the letter in my wallet for the last three years or more, I thought that I might finally transcribe these moving words.
Despite the fact that the mendicant Caroline would rely on the hospitality of people that NH's generous Secretary of State might know for housing, her words seem to me an antidote of reasonableness and sanity in this world--a reminder that the label of "crazy" belongs more with the warlords and the robber barons of the current era than the transient masses who line dry their clothes for need...or for Jesus.
These words above and below do not reflect the opinions of Project Laundry List nor do the words below reflect my own views entirely, but I thought them worth sharing. I hope I have shown blessedly poor Caroline proper respect in my summary of her fearless evangelizing for the clothesline and in the lifestyle she has chosen to follow. If anybody knows her whereabouts, please have her write me again.
Dear Alexander,
Thank you for writing! How is Project Laundry List doing?
Please send all of the Media you generated from Time Magazine, etc. 
Keep doing what the country needs--Solar Dryers. Here in Olyphant, I live in a pubically [sic] funded  Housing project.
Yes, there is a large clothesline--yet, most residents dry their clothes in an electric dryer--costing 75¢ for 1/2 hour--or, I don't know how much time. I never use it.
So, Alex, this mindset of the country is so warped, we have been programmed--the majority of us are now totally Hedonistic--but, the people are not conscious of any of this--
It is sad! The Advertising Media is at fault--Capitalism gone Awry!
I pray to return to ASSISI, ITALY--America is too far gone--Climate Change is ignored--by the TALK Host gurus--they influence millions--telling them Climate Change is a Hoax--
So, pray, Alex, God is still in charge--Keep doing GOOD! set the Example --+ brace yourself for the catastrophic disasters--once the food supply diminishes--we will see People take notice--+ they will begin to PRAY--Yes, I sound very pessimistic; the BIBLE is our source of TRUTH--
PRAISE GOD! His mercy endureth forever!
I don't foresee me returning to N.H. unless the Country drafts me for President--.
OBAMA is helpless--the Industrial, Media Complex tells him what to do & say.
Let's live for Heaven!
Ti voglio bene,
Caroline of ASSISI

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Teatro dell'Concerto: Petite messe solennelle

I have been to exactly one opera (in Lebanon, NH) on the most tragic date of my storied dating timeline. About a week ago, I went to the Teatro dell'Opera di Roma to get tickets for a show. It happened last night, was holier than opera.

The nice Italian (Roman, actually nobody is Italian) woman sitting next to me buys tickets when she wants to see something and likes Verdi best. She said this was the first time they had done a concert, as far as she knew; it has always been operas. We were about to witness Petite messe solennelle.

She pointed out the inscription above us that said in Roman numerals (natch!) that the theater had been built in 1928; it bore the names of Benito Mussolini and the last king of Italy, Vittorio Emanuele III. A strange shadow to sit in. I asked if she knew the folklore associated with the ceiling paintings. (Vittorio was also king of Ethiopia.) She did not.

This photo of Teatro dell'Opera di Roma is courtesy of TripAdvisor

I was in Row 3, Seat 3, so close that I could see the four soloists. The soprano had me transfixed for nearly the whole show. I watched her emerald and diamond earrings twinkle. I watch the cords in her neck tighten and slacken. I watched her symmetrical mouth with awe and reminded myself that kissing her passionately might be as risky as clasping hands with a pianist too tightly. I wept during the Qui tollis peccata mundi and hung on every word during the Crucifixus.

The alto was chatty, distracting, and temperamental. When her music stand was the wrong height she grew visibly agitated and held her music in her hand instead. She mouthed or sung along with the chorus, which I suppose was her prerogative. This was odd, but showed that the music was affecting her.

The same could not be said of the bass. He seemed professional and talented, but unaware that this was a religious piece of music. His passion seemed to be for infecting the notes with his talent not infecting the Mass with his music. So, too, the tenor seemed there to do his job and he did it magnificently, but without the passion of the two women. One can tell the difference, I think, but I should judge not that I should also be judged.

You may judge the soprano's beauty and talent for yourself:

I am amazed by the paucity of video available showing her talent. Maybe I am no judge, but I think she could do for opera what Papa Francesco is doing for my Church (i.e., fill the seats again).

Monday, February 3, 2014

Pallotta Trattoria (and hotel)

I would slide into some Aligherian circle of Hell if I were to equate the meal that I ate tonight with an orgasm and it would be vulgar, as well as inadequate to describe it that way, so I shall avoid the metaphor altogether, but there is something obscene, perhaps, about ordering the prix fixe gourmet menu in the hometown of St. Francis of Assisi. Nevertheless, I went "all out" and bought the whole shebang, plus the three paired wines--enough to make me experience horrible re-flux on the way home. This was punishment for my gluttony, perhaps.

Photo from
I settled on Trattoria Pallotta, in part, because that Pallotta also the name of my bed & breakfast. In fact, the primary reason was that upon walking back up the winding switchbacks from the Basilica di San Francesco, I ran into a very rich Shanghai family on a tour with a Chinese guide calling himself "Stephano." I told him my last name was "Lee" and I work in Beijing as an English teacher. The oldest daughter asked me if I knew about "Old Dominion." She will go there next year if she gets in. "Are you interested in history?" "Not really. I will study engineering." We parted in the Piazza del Commune and I hurried back to my inn, Hotel Pallotta, fifty yards up the Via San Rufino, where earlier I had caught the last part of a Mass. (I had already been to Mass earlier at Santa Maria Maggiore at noon in Rome, before my 2:23 PM departure from Termini Station.)

Back at the hotel, I took off my sweater, abandoned my umbrella, sneaked into the darkened office of the hotel manager to locate the password for the WiFi, and commenced to search the Internet for a good restaurant. I kept coming seeing Pallotta Trattoria, where I was fairly sure the Chinese family had reservations. I slipped back down the hill, accepted a seat with my back to a roaring real fire (the draw on the chimney was loud), and examined the menu. There were two married Americans and their crying, five-month old infant and a couple of older Italian couples seated in the front room. The Chinese party was in the back of the restaurant so they did not see their stalker. Yes, I had come here primarily because I figured if they had left their country during the Chinese New Year to come to Rome with grandma and their children, then it was probably a very good place.

Here are some pictures of my meal, taken as each new course was graciously set before me. The service was spectacular. The waiter and waitress both spoke English and the maître d'hôtel, who I suspect was also the owner, could make herself understood.