Monthly Archives: January 2015

The Wild West

The Hai River, Tianjin's connection to the sea
The Hai River, Tianjin’s connection to the sea


A short message — mainly for those back in Asia and the southern hemisphere who may not be familiar with the West, the real West, the Wild West — some wild photos. Featuring genuine native-speaker sentence fragments. Sorry, it’s been a sore spot lately.  I mean.  Yeah.  Anyway . . . .

The Flight Back

My journey to America was fragmented, actually. The plane was an hour and a half late out of Tianjin, despite perfect weather (and sort-of clear air) and no visible traffic. Apparently the government had some non-apparent traffic in mind. Perhaps it’s a consequence of building the airport directly adjacent to an air force base.

Los Angeles from the clear air
Los Angeles from the clear air

It happened to me once before, last winter.  But this time the delay was greater, and I missed the connecting flight from Korea to San Francisco. So I flew to Los Angeles. I’ve decided that LAX is not my favorite airport. Considering the size of the herds flowing through the lot, they head ’em up  as well as could be expected. But, still . . .

I also found out that the American border crossings are moving towards computer-supervised systems where passengers can process themselves through customs. However, due to my general incompetence after so many hours of forced sitting, I got diverted to a human, who proved to be pleasant.

How many hours? By the time I got to San Francisco, and was collected by my long-time friend Sharon, and delivered at home, it was 26 hours door to door.  Afterwards, I slept the most I’d slept in one night for a long time. The good news was that so much sleep all at once dropped me into Pacific Standard Time almost immediately.

Point Reyes

For the first time in at least five years, I got to visit Point Reyes again, one of my favorite places on earth. My friend Arlene took me this time. We visited all the old haunts that carry so much meaning in my memory. But before we got there, we also visited a Gloria Jeans coffee shop.

The Mall-ified Gloria Jeans
The Mall-ified Gloria Jeans

As mentioned before, Gloria Jeans took over the old restaurant on the Tianjin University campus where the foreign experts used to stay. It’s an international Chain that began in Chicago, but is now mainly centered in Australia, where they’ve opened more than 400 shops. There’s also a Gloria Jeans in San Rafael, in a mall. It lacks the burgers and Chinese food of the Tianjin version, but still serves the same white hot chocolates.

Beware the Seal
Beware the Seal

Anyway, we visited the Visitor Center at Point Reyes, and discovered that the old map at the door had been crushed under the weight of an elephant seal. Sharks and Orcas also swam through the air under the high ceiling.  Otherwise, it remains the same, and it still maintains one of the best book stores of any visitor center that I know. And yes, I bought one. And yes, I also snagged one of the old style baseball caps, which they appear to be phasing out.

Kule Loklo

We visited Kule Loklo, the re-created Indian village, where I remembered Lanny Pinola, the kind and gentle soul whose forebears had dwelt there for thousands of years.  He always used to laugh and joke about the difference between his traditional diet of acorn mush and the McDonald’s down the road (actually, I’ve never seen a McDonald’s out in West Marin, though).

Traditional homes at Kule Loklo
Traditional homes at Kule Loklo

The old people, he said, had always lived to be ninety, a hundred, or much more.  But not now. Not when they’re cut off from the their traditional diet. “I’ll never see a hundred,” he’d joke. “I love McDonald’s too much. Hey, about about that for an advertisement — ‘Eat McDonald’s!  Kill you before your time!'”

He was right. He died about ten years ago, and nowhere near ninety. But Kule Loklo still survives him, even though, as he often said, no Indian would ever actually build a village there, not at the top of a hill where there’s no water.

The Educational Center

Clem Miller Environmental Education Center
Clem Miller Environmental Education Center – Panorama

Naturally, we visited the Educational Center, the destination of twenty-one pilgrimages over the years, leading groups of either forty or eighty.  My long-time camper colleague Kay is also gone, having also passed away too young about five years ago.

The field where we had conducted studies had been thoroughly  shorn into a lawn.  Yeah, that field has a lot of interesting history with my groups over the years.  Perhaps they’ll let it spring up again in the springtime. In the meantime, the dry poison hemlock sticks were cut down so they couldn’t tempt some kid.

Other than that, we didn’t explore any further, since the facility was in use at the time.  I did wonder if the daffodils would rise again by the sign at the turnoff.

Limantour Beach.

Limantour Reflections
Limantour Reflections

We also strolled onto Limantour Beach, again, remembering classes past. If you don’t know Northern California, you may be surprised at how few people were present to enjoy the beach. Only one person was actually swimming that day. Our real California is not like the more famous faux California found in the southland, like by Santa Monica. No, our beaches are made for strolling and reflection,  not for showing off trim figures in skimpy costumes. And if you want to surf, you better dress warmly.

Equus at the beach
Equus at the beach

That’s the beach where Sebastián Cermeño lost his fully-loaded and not-so-securely-anchored Manila Galleon to lashing rain and high winds in 1595. For centuries, pieces of the lost treasure, including Chinese porcelain, washed up on the beach.

It’s also where, exactly four hundred years after his loss, a small group of students huddled around a teacher in lashing rain and high winds, not just listening to the story, but experiencing it.  Yes, it was a teachable moment.

Point Reyes Station

The deceptively simple life at Point Reyes
The deceptively simple life at Point Reyes

We  briefly toured Point Reyes Station, the closest thing to a town in the region, and picked up some sandwiches at the same deli where my friends Bill and Marilyn got sandwiches, yes, many years ago.

The town looks like a simple country settlement, except that you’d better have a million dollars if you want to buy one of those simple homes, not that they come up for sale very often. I have to say, though, it’s a wonderful place to live, to breathe the fresh air, and listen to the quiet and the twittering of actual birds.  If I had the money, I’d probably retire there.

In addition to these places, we took both the Lucas Valley and Fairfax routes between Point Reyes and San Rafael. It was a day for nostalgia, as I realize even more strongly as I sit typing this in Arizona. The only thing missing was Gus Wright and his pieced-together Volvo. Well, that’s a long story for another time.

White Tank Mountains

Cholla reaching out from the ground
Cholla reaching out from the ground

Yes, I’m here in Phoenix visiting my dad. I’ve already typed more than I’d planned, but I really should include some desert pictures before I sign off.  The beach isn’t the only place where you can find sand, after all.

What you do find in the desert are a lot creatures prepared for self-defense and water conservation. Most of the plants are covered in barbs and spears. If you ever fall into cholla, you’ll be pulling them from your skin for quite a while.

Curve-billed thrasher with stick.
Curve-billed thrasher with stick.

The White Tanks are named  for some rocky pools located high up on the slopes, the most important geographic features in such a dry region. That said, it’s rained almost every day since I’ve been here, though seldom harder than what they’d call a “soft day” in Ireland. Temperatures are typical for winter – around 20 degrees Celsius.  It’s incredibly pleasant compared to winter in Tianjin.

We drove up to the White Tanks nature park a few days ago, before the rains started. I got lots of great pictures, and then we visited the park visitor center.

White Tank cacti
White Tank cacti

The last time I’d been here, the visitor center was an old house-trailer, cramped and full of animal and plant specimens.

These days the visitor center occupies a spacious showroom in a large public library, built right outside the park entrance. It’s quite professional.  Not only do they still have several cages of snakes and a gila monster, they’ve got some living black-widow spiders in their typical tunnel-shaped nests and some bark scorpions with a handy ultra-violet flashlight for making them glow. Cool.

Well, I’ve written more than enough. I’ll attach a few more desert pictures to the end. I hope the nostalgia wasn’t too thick!!

Big Skies in the White Tanks
Big Skies in the White Tanks
Gambel's Quail
Gambel’s Quail
Bird Nests
Bird Nests
A Forest of Saguaro Cacti
A Forest of Saguaro Cacti











Happy 2015

Happy New Year!

Teacher's Meeting at the Columbia RiverSo here’s our faculty meeting that took place this week at the new campus site, far away from everything else in the world.
Just kidding. Actually, we all jetted out to the Columbia River near Portland for our meeting. That’s Washington in the background.
The new campus site will be almost as disruptive as a commute to the Columbia would be, though. It’s painful to listen to all the problems that it will cause in just our small group, let alone the hundreds of other faculty and thousands of  students involved in this  exile  exodus.
It would seem that, despite its reputation otherwise, this country attaches little regard to education as a system. Of course, teachers here are no richer than their American peers, but moreover, as soon as the real estate values go up, universities are moved out to the wastelands, regardless of any impact on education, or education’s enrichment of the cities. This is not only true in Tianjin, but in most Chinese cities. Universities become outliers in far-flung satellite groups, disconnected from city centers, isolated for greater control, while rich real estate investors make a killing by developing the evacuated land.
Still, it wouldn’t be so bad if it hadn’t been handled with such utter disregard for the people affected. For example, we had long been promised public transportation for when the school opened. No ground has yet been broken for that. There’s no housing adjacent to the university. The closest housing developments lie 8 kilometers away (that’s about 5 miles). It’s a pleasant half-hour bike ride in the spring and fall, but summer and winter will tell another story.  It probably means that more cars will be purchased by people who really can’t afford them.  Unhindered by city traffic, they’ll spout even more hydrocarbons into the air.
There are also no elementary or high schools for staff families. There are no nearby businesses, at least not yet. And there are no places, other than dormitories, to stay the night on campus.
So the comparison to the wild lands around the Columbia River is not far from the mark.
Oh, and nobody will actually know for sure until February or March who will stay and who will go.  I keep thinking that if this university, the oldest in China, the foundational institution, is being tossed about like this, then what must other schools have to put up with?

Business and Education

On the other hand, a university education here is affordable even for farmers from the countryside. Nobody talks about turning the educational process itself into a profit center, like they do in the USA,  saddling students with debts unimaginable compared to when I attended university, not to mention the dismantling and privatizing of public education in general. No, they just talk about taking the land.  So I guess it could be worse.
Actually, just under two-thirds of the campus will be moving, including all the undergraduates. Those who remain should find the campus pretty roomy, at least until more businesses move in.
Actually, the connection between business and higher education is much more explicit here than it is in America. Take, for example, a shiny new building called the “1895 Building” (named after the year this university was founded) which was erected in a single year across the street from the main campus.
1895 BuildingI took this picture of it last March. It’s the building painted the color of gold bullion.
Except for some street-level shops, it houses an architectural firm attached to the university . I am told that this company ranks about the same as a normal university department in the governing hierarchy, and that it functions within the university just like any other department.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis picture shows a view from the 1895 building.  Tianjin University lies in the foreground.
The same grad students that study in the regular architecture department on campus also contribute their labor to this firm.  They do earn a small amount of pay. Oh, did I mention that the architecture grad program is not moving next year? In fact, they’ll be expanding into an otherwise abandoned building on campus.
Actually, there’s a lot to be said for business-educational partnerships.   It would seem, though, that there’s little use for education other than to gain skills to help companies make profits.

The Marvelous Weather

 It’s been cold, though apparently not as cold as Colorado or Iowa.  Temperatures dip far below freezing every evening and morning, though.
SkatersThe upside to the frozen ponds is the skating. A huge expanse beneath the lofty  Tianjin Television Tower is devoted to skating every year. I took this shot a few days ago at dusk.  The main skating area is actually in the distance. The shiny roped-off circular area closer to the camera is most likely too thin yet to be safe (?)
People here don’t simply skate. They also drive a large variety of sleds and sled-like vehicles. These can be seen by enlarging the picture above. Actually, here is another shot that shows some of them a bit closer up.

Merry Christmas

 One of my biggest privileges here has been some  friendships with a small group of journalists. I’ve written about them from time to time over the years, and also traded pictures with them on occasion.
Christmas at Gloria Jean'sIn fact, the picture at right, which portrays students celebrating Christmas at the nearby Gloria Jean’s Coffee , actually got published in a local paper, as part of a conglomeration of Christmas shots. Unfortunately, the design overlapped the pivotal figure, the girl tied to  her computer, lost in cyberspace.  Can you see her? This obliviousness to actual space is perhaps typical of our modern life everywhere.
I always contrast this connected-yet-isolated condition with my many trips to Europe back in the old days, when nobody could get in touch with me for months at a time. What a different world.  Everyone I interacted with on those trips actually interacted with me.
Christmas magicianAnyway, these parties, like all annual feasts here, always feature the same activities — lots of games where guests can embarrass themselves singing or performing silly stunts, and some planned performances, such as magicians.
Yeah, this year I attended two local Christmas celebrations, and they both featured magicians.  Maybe it’s finally time for me to bring my “dove pan” and “linking rings” from home.  Anyway, the prestidigitator in the picture at left was pretty handy with card tricks and needle swallowing.

Professional Pictures

One of my journalist friends shared some pictures with me recently. I wrote her some feedback, some response to them.  I deliberately didn’t ask what the subjects were, though I’ve since discovered that the first picture comes from a “veteran’s home.”
But hey, this is a post modern world, isn’t it? Art stands on its own. Once it’s out there, the interpretation is up to the beholder, right?
Anyway, I thought that people on this list might also enjoy these shots.  It’s an opportunity to see this country through its own eyes. And if we don’t know the exact circumstances for each shot, maybe that’s better. Believe me, if you ever come to live here off the beaten tourist path, you’ll discover that discerning the true conditions of things is rarely easy.
Anyway, these are my original reactions. If you have any, I’d love to hear them.
Veterans resthomeThe first picture with the middle-aged men strikes me as very lonely and impersonal.  The men are all dressed alike (the green jacket makes this even more clear) and they emerge from identical doors. Yet they are no group. Their circumstances push them together.
The surfaces of the building are clean, but hard and merciless. The men’s faces seem interchangeable.  They are not so hard. The unsmiling wear of a graceless existence impacts their appearance. None smile.  They should be presiding “in family” over the younger generations, their functional apparel exchanged for clothes of honor. Instead, they find themselves cut off and penned up. They don’t appear to be sick, but perhaps some other malady has pricked society into warehousing them this way.
03The baseball players, seen from that angle, tower like superheroes.  They are dirtied by the mud of good honest effort. The intensity in their faces contrasts with their older peers in the picture above. These young men are strong and confident. The  crowd together in a huddle, as a team, intent and purposed. Overconfidence stains the two at left. They lounge with hands on  hips, their success guaranteed by merely showing up.
Their uniforms, elaborate and colorful, unite them as a team — the Tianjin Lions. I would be tempted to Photoshop a blue sky with racing clouds above their heads.
53The young graduate clutches his hopes, now fulfilled. As inscribed on the stone, “dreams become reality.” The wind stirs his gown. It is a spirit that will lift him and his stone into a successful life. His smiling face tilts to one side, pressed against the rock like a young boy clinging to his mother. He is carefree. Decorum floats away into the air. The young man on the right, meanwhile, readies his cap, as if planning to fly off next. Or perhaps he’s just gripping it against the wind which streams into him from his highly-placed comrade.
BB5G3614Our mutual friend Du Hai in his days of longer, more tousled, hair, happily flashes a victory sign. He has just bagged a photo, or perhaps is about to bag it. His right hand cradles his weapon. The day is bright, with firm shadows. His quarry rests peacefully, quietly snacking. Does he snack on food, or on the latest news?  Deerlike, a brown sweater his coat of fur, he sits out of focus. He is but sustenance for the black-clad panther standing behind him, so close, so happy, so unannounced.
A women walks a bicycle respectfully through a temple. What sort of temple is it? The miraculously straight lines of demarcation enclose a lofty space above the fans, above the chandeliers. The space’s white pureness soars in contrast to the muddy browns of the world below.
BB5G3642The columns, like dim and standing arrows, transform into whiteness as they hurl into that higher plane. They point the way. Will the woman strive to leave the world of the bicycle for the ecstatic, yet spare, realm above?  Will she have to stage herself on the hard green seats, harmoniously bound to the stern, enclosing, angular walls? In the distance, a humbler figure ventures to enter. He’s escaping that same outer confusion, an indistinct world without guideposts.. It’s bright, but without form. Will he succeed where she may not?
DSC_5086The cat stares directly towards the viewer. His tongue hangs out. Is he thirsty? No, his coat seems tousled, as if he had just emerged from a soaking. Is he just happy to have escaped all his problems? It’s not always easy to perceive the thoughts of a cat. This cat himself is hard to perceive. His body stretches out of focus, but his face is sharp, emphasizing his gaze. (nice use of shallow depth of field). He stands amidst a formed, yet formless backdrop, a sheet that conceals the real world.  So much mystery here. Like the Cheshire Cat, only his eyes and his smile remain.
NG2R0256A queen sits proudly on a throne, her hair piled high like a crown. She gazes down her nose, away from her high-flying subjects, who merit not a glance. They stand at attention within the flying arch. Starched and stiff, they wait on cords. And they wait. She won’t let them clutter her perfect thoughts. She prefers the light. At first glance, all seems disheveled. True symmetry emerges only gradually. And light enters the passageway, which no longer seems as insulated as it first appeared. And still, the stuffed shirts wait.
NG2R8837Two figures huddle behind a veil of redness, reduced to shadows.  Their hands seem to touch. Perhaps they are paying each other. Perhaps they are taking things.  Perhaps they are playing at cards.  Perhaps their game will capture winnings for one of them. Perhaps one is a client, and one provides service. One smokes, addicted to nicotine. A bright, hidden light bears down on them.  An empty chair stands ready for the next actor in this shadow puppet drama. Additional curtains cover the side walls. What lies behind them?
NG2R8926The people in front don’t count. They have already rejected what she has to offer. She gazes off in expectation of others to come. Her child, of course, does count. He accepts what she can offer. Such a variety of goods, yet no one willing to buy. Feeding two mouths, she appears not careworn.  A tenuous existence, but they seem strong. They seem healthy.  Does she have everything she needs?
And how do they get all that stuff to their spot on the sidewalk? All those boxes, too many to carry very far. Who helps her?


Administration BuildingI hope that you enjoyed these photos as much as I did.   I leave you with one last winter shot – the Administration building of our school, taken three  weeks ago when it snowed. (It has not snowed since then).