Thursday, January 31, 2013

Mais Oui, It's Paris (Sweets)

Oh, yeah, le troisieme from the delightful Paris Sweets by Dorie Greenspan.  This recipe is why it is just so fun to cook straight through a cookbook once in a while.  I would have never chosen this one.  Let's take a look at

Four ingredients, and none of them are flour.  Are you listening, you gluten-avoiders?  Four ingredients:  Blanched almonds, egg whites, sugar and pecans.  The pecans are optional!

Put the sugar and almonds in a food processor and grind until fine:

Slowly add the egg whites; you don't want to make meringue so don't run it too long.  Finally, add some chopped pecans for extra nutty goodness.  (Sometime I will tell you about my love affair with pecans.)

Dollop onto the cookie sheet and bake.  (Your helper is probably not as cute as mine, and definitely not as sweet.)
I just realized that I failed to take "finished" pictures.  If you can see the shape of the cookie there, that is basically how they looked coming out of the oven.  They hold their shape very well, and are chewy and very rich and nutty.  In short, I loved them.

Why would I have never chosen to make these?  Because it just sounds weird!  And also, for some reason the blanched almond thing intimidated me.  But you can actually buy those at the grocery store, so just whirring them in the food processor is very simple.

Everyone liked these, especially one of my boys.  These truly tasted special, a little more sophisticated, and the layers of nut flavor were especially good.  I usually use only one variety of nut in a baking recipe, but I like this.  Next time I'll toast the pecans for extra nuttiness.

It's a good thing I have lost my fear of blanched almonds.  Looking ahead, they are in a bunch of these recipes!  Until next time...

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Problem with Time

Sorry for the digression yesterday.  I suppose I really do write about whatever strikes my fancy.  I love to think about education policy and my community is in a painful upheaval right now, so I wrote.
My motivation for good time management: five people.  Sometimes also the roller coaster.
January has almost passed and I never even made resolutions.  Or, more accurately, I ignored the entire idea of assessing where I am and where I'd like to go this year.  Except:
I'd like to master biscuits from scratch.
And pie crusts from scratch.  (yeesh, I sense a trend.)

Time management has eluded me these last few months.  It's as if I can't bear to think beyond the next emergency task at hand.  I have spent my time reacting, not being intentional and planning ahead.  Okay, that isn't entirely accurate--I have almost navigated a pretty major home renovation project that I'll post in a couple of weeks, when it is finally done.

I know FlyLady.  I love Steven Pressfield and Julia Cameron.  I put my entire family on Cozi.  But I can't get the big picture, and I have been struggling and avoiding the reality of it.

Until today.  I read Isaiah 38 and it hit me between the eyes.  Here it is:  King Hezekiah was doing his darnedest to fend off enemies and preserve Jerusalem, all while honoring God.  Then he got sick, really sick.  Like, Isaiah told him he was a goner sick.  So Hezekiah "turned his face to the wall, and prayed to the Lord,...Hezekiah wept bitterly." (v. 2 and 3)  And do you know what?  God decided to give Hezekiah more time.  Isaiah told Hezekiah that God said, "I will add fifteen years to your life." (v. 5)

God said, "You have fifteen more years."  I wonder, why in the world did God tell Hezekiah how much time he had left?  Would I want to know, or would it paralyze me?  The Bible tells us in 2 Kings* that these fifteen years were Hezekiah's most productive: he had ALL of his children after this illness, and he did an amazing amount of work in the temple and with the scrolls.  He got busy and used that time.  Maybe knowing what he'd been given lit a fire underneath him.  It was the ultimate clarifying moment.

I've become acutely aware of the passage of time.  Not the minute-to-minute time, but TIME.  How short the time is, that my children will still live under my roof and want to take vacations with me. How short the time is that I get to live with the best man in the world. How many wonderful things there are to do in the world, how many good books, and great meals and wonderful evenings on horseback, and how much I want to do every single one.

And how much time I've wasted.  I look back on the time when my kids were little, and it was really hard.  We had four kids in five years, and I spent so much time just wanting to hide!  There were just an awful lot of little hands and feet and short people in my house, and they all wanted something from me.  The time I spent chasing after stupid things that didn't matter--ouch.

No, I'm not sick, and no one in my family is.  But my wonderful husband hits a BIG milestone birthday this year, and it makes me wonder.  I love everything as it is right this very second (except that I would really love it if my closet were finished). But I can't freeze everything.  And I can't ignore the relentless passing of time.

I'm not failing at time management so much as I'm trying to get my head around TIME MANAGEMENT.  The kind of TIME MANAGEMENT that makes me examine my priorities and decide if this is really how I want to live.  Hard questions, because it is painful to realize how far I am from where I want to be--not to mention if that is even where God wants me to be!

A focus on this Big-T time is what would help me to free up real time for trail rides and wrestling and track meets and family dinners around the table.  Or family breakfasts if that is when we are all together under the same roof. Big-T time has hit me between the eyes lately, telling me, "You only get to do this once.  Quit messing around."

I don't quite know what to do with this Bible reading today, other than let it sit with me for a little while.  Somehow I have to get my hands around time management, while keeping an eye on TIME, too.

I ran across this earlier today, too:
"All we have to do is decide what to do with the time that is given to us."--J.R.R. Tolkien
I suppose so.

*Much thanks to the insight from my pastor's blog,!

P.S.  I hadn't planned on linking up with Edie's link-up party at life{in}grace.  But this fell in my lap this morning.  If you got here by the link, thanks so much for visiting! 

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

National School Choice Week: What Fayette County Should Do

This is National School Choice Week!  I passionately believe this is an idea whose time as come--the school your children go to should not be dependent on an accident of address.  As a parent who has experience with both public and private school, as well as homeschool, I think I have a pretty good vantage point on this issue.

My community, Fayette County, Georgia, is undergoing yet another painful round of redistricting the public schools.  My children currently attend a private school in the next county, so this doesn't directly affect my home, but it does affect my neighbors and our general sense of community.

One major issue is the threat of two community elementary schools, each one the center of their town, being closed.  (Even though they are in the towns, the schools are part of the county system.)  Both towns feel like they are losing their identity if they lose their school.

There is also the problem that this is the third time we have gone through a redistricting upheaval since my children have been in school, just over eight years. That is a lot!  Opinions are sharply divided here in Fayette County about the cause:  poor financial managment, cronyism in the planning department, optimistic growth estimates in the face of a recession...who knows.  But I have some ideas for going forward, why Fayette County ought to embrace CHOICE as one way out of this predicament.

The parents are understandably upset.  They have no say beyond electing the school board members; now they sit and wait to be told their fate.  Tons of psychological studies show that the highest stress is experienced by people who have no control over a situation.  I hate to say it, but these parents have created the situation themselves.  If they had actively chosen their child's school, they could vote with their feet by staying or going as they see fit.  Instead, they have entrusted bureaucrats and politicians with the second most important decision that they can make regarding their kids.  (Don't get mad yet.  Hear me out.)

Second, the schools have a much harder time building community when that community shifts every few years.  They are so dependent these days on the extra funds brought in by the PTOs--how much easier that would be if the parents there were certain they would be staying at that school regardless of where they chose to live!

And, shutting a school saves surprisingly little money.  I saw a statistic here in Fayette County that more than 90% of a school's expenses are in personnel.  Most of the personnel will be retained even as schools are shut; the savings to the system are minimal while the costs to some communities are enormous.

Here's what I think Fayette County should do:
  • Keep the current schools open, assuming that each facility is in decent shape and doesn't cost remarkably more to operate.
  • UNDISTRICT everything.
  • Guarantee to each child that they can attend the school closest to their home address.  
  • Allow each child to choose their preferred public school, if they choose public school.  This would be subject to space limitations.
  • Charge for buses.  (This is a big change.) Bus routes would pick up and drop off at fewer points.  
  • Pay a refund to students who opt out of the system altogether, either to homeschool or attend some alternate school.  (An even bigger change!) Calculate the refund as some percentage (30% 40%?) of the total cost per pupil in the county.  Figure that the county will save some money by not having those children in the system at all.
  • Actively market the properties that do close (or are unused right now, several of them!) to churches and schools.  Quit being afraid of the competition of private school and embrace it.
Look.  Public school parents over-value the "free" education their kids receive.  It comes at the price of powerlessness when changes are made.  Pushing some control back into the hands of parents could help to solve some of these problems.  Underperforming schools would be readily identified by the students and parents voting with their feet!

And this would help private and homeschool parents to buy into the education system in the county, too.  As it is, we like to live in the bubble that says that the public schools really don't affect us because we aren't there.  But they do matter.  They matter to the whole community.

This would even help the Board of Education take responsibility for education in our county, too, rather than just be the group that runs the public schools.  Learning and school are changing--I really think that school choice would free the system to respond quickly to these changes, by freeing the parents themselves to make the changes they see fit for their kids.

Yeah, it's a little utopian.  But something needs to be done.  I think there's a start here.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Installation: A Milestone

Our sweet little church passed a milestone today:  we installed our first called pastor.  Bill and I helped to start our church about three years ago--I remember trying to keep the dogs settled while about twenty people crowded into our family room to explore the idea of a new congregation, discerning if this was where God was leading us.

In a little while we were meeting at a local hotel, forty people some weeks, then fifty, then eighty...and we decided we needed a professional instead of sharing the duties of worship and preaching among the braver members.  We were able to call an interim pastor, someone specifically called to shepherd a congregation through a time of searching and waiting.  The Lord was looking out for us when he sent Pastor Larry and Carolyn, his amazing wife, to us.  Little did they know that this "interim" position would last well over a year!

We kept growing, now a hundred, a hundred and ten, and we moved to a rented storefront.  Pastor Larry kept preaching while we searched.  After several false starts, we found a wonderful (young) man and his wife who felt the prompting of the Holy Spirit to come to Peachtree City, Georgia.  Pastor John preached his first sermon as our pastor on Labor Day weekend, but today he was formally installed as our pastor.  We held a celebratory worship service to mark the very special occasion.

As Lutherans, our installation service includes welcoming other Lutheran pastors from the area, as well as our denomination's representatives (we are affiliated with the NALC and LCMC).  The congregation formally presents the new pastor with his stole and the clergy and whole congregation participate in a laying on of hands to bless him.  It was joy-filled.

We are so blessed to have Pastor John and his wife Cara as part of our congregation.  Since September we've continued to grow, now around the one hundred sixty mark.  While numbers don't mean everything, the fire marshal doesn't agree--we are hitting our occupancy limit and will be forced to make some changes while we look for more space.  Definitely an exciting problem!

The picture up there is the only one I took during the installation.  That's Pastor John over on the left, and Pastor Larry on the far right (seated).  My honey is standing right beside Pastor Larry; as the president of the congregation this year he got to actually present the stole to Pastor John.  That was cool.  The others are pastors and the congregation's vice president who also participated in the installation service.

Pastor Larry preached today, urging Pastor John and all of us to be diligent in proclaiming Christ to the world.  We have already been so blessed by both of these men and their fine teaching, Christ-focused, filled with grace while not shying away from the "hard parts" of the Bible.  We are so excited to see where God is leading our group, which is getting less "little" by the week.

Pastor John writes two blogs, if you are interested in an online Bible study:  a shorter one and a longer one.  If you live south of Atlanta and are interested in a liturgical church with Christ-centered teachings, please know that you are always welcome.  And if that sounds good to you but you are a little too far away, you might look here or here to try a congregation closer to your home.  My prayer is that you would let Jesus find you, and if this can help you then please use it.

Thanks be to God!

Friday, January 25, 2013

Reading Classics

What's on your reading list right now?  Do you even keep one?  I may start a Pinterest board of books just to keep track of what I want to read. (Ugh, I know, one more thing to do.)

My reading lately had gotten to be all blog posts and nonfiction, especially things like "how to remodel your bathroom" or "Quilt Binding 101," good stuff but not exactly expanding my heart's horizons, you know?

A couple of weeks ago I stumbled on the wonderful blog Life in Grace and Edie's book club.  This is nor ordinary book club--October's book was Plato's Republic.  January is The Aeneid by Vergil, so I decided to just jump in.  I'm so glad I did!  Today I am half-way done with it, and the entire book has captured my heart.  Sarah Ruden, the translator for my edition, has kept the poetry in place as she translated it.  I can't even imagine how hard that must have been.

The funny thing is, it isn't hard to read.  It is wonderful, with beautiful language and a great big story.  Already I have images swimming in my mind and heart--I don't think I will ever forget Dido's anguish over being left by Aeneas in particular.  That part of the story, a beautiful strong queen wrecked by love--this is universal.  I couldn't help but feel that this is why stories like this still exist.  It speaks to the truth in all of us.

As a side note, I noticed something interesting.  Even back then, in ancient days, people were sailing to new lands and colonizing.  Dido and the Phoenicians left Tyre to found Carthage in Libya, and the Trojans in their defeat went to Italy, becoming the Romans.  (Yes, I know that this is legend but there is always truth behind these stories that are handed down.)  How funny!  Sometimes we like to think that we Westerners, or Americans, were the first or only people to do something, for example, to settle a new country.  But it's been going on for millenia, the way of people who want to move around the globe.

At the same time, I've also decided to read Hugo's Les Miserables.  (After all, there is only so much metered epic poem that you can read at one time.) I swear I am the only person in the country who hasn't seen the musical or the movie, but I would like to read the book first.  At more than 1100 pages, the movie might be in the dollar bin by the time I get to it.  I am only about 80 pages in, but the writing and the ideas expressed are so beautiful, I just feel grateful to get to read it.  Last night while I waited for the girls to ride their horses I sat in the car and read.  I started crying over the beautiful way that M. Bienvenue, the priest, was so kind to Jean Valjean.  A beautiful book.

I invite you to read either one along with me!  Have you read any classics lately?  Any favorites?  Don't spoil Les Mis for me!

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Paris Sweets II

The second recipe in Dorie Greenspan's Paris Sweets:  Korova Cookies.  The verdict:  intense cocoa fabulosity.  These are well worth making again!  Here we go...

 The sifted cocoa and flour, which gets added to the butter/sea salt/sugar mixture.  Yes, I said sea salt.
Mix until it looks crumbly.  Then add chunks of bittersweet chocolate.  Since we only had Dove Dark Chocolate hearts on hand, I just chopped up a few:
These were added to the dough.  Shape the dough into a couple of logs and refrigerate until you are ready to eat some.  Then slice and bake.  Here are a few waiting for my cup of coffee!

Did you notice what isn't in these cookies?  Eggs!  Leaving out the eggs gives these cookies a wonderful sandy texture that begs for a warm cup of your favorite beverage.  (They are called "sable" in French because of the sandiness!) Texture is as important as taste to me when it comes to cookie deliciousness, and these were just great.  Crumbly, not chewy, but the astringent cocoa taste, sharp saltiness and smooth chocolate chunks combine to make one sophisticated, totally delicious cookie.

The recipe made about 30 cookies.  My kids liked them, but Bill and I loved them, and Korova cookies would be a great "grown-up" addition to a dessert plate or afternoon snack.  And these actually did taste like something I could imagine grabbing in a patisserie in Paris.  Score!

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

China: Why It Mattered

"Once you have traveled, the voyage never ends, but is played out over and over again in the quietest chambers, that the mind can never break off from the journey."--Pat Conroy

Isn't that the truth?  I have pondered my trip from the distance of a few months and an election.  Some trips you take to relax; this trip gave me a new vantage point to examine my beliefs, in particular my beliefs about America.  I love my country.  I believe her ideals, her birth in liberty, her rugged individualism make us the best country in the world.  The best.  I believe that to the core of my being.  I believe that God had a hand in our founding--that we were intentionally founded in a way that gives us freer access to our Creator than anywhere else, and freer access to be who God would have us to be.

Further, I believe that anyone in the world can be an American.  Anyone.  And something happened in Beijing to confirm that, less than thirty seconds really, that I can't quit thinking about.

We were in the train station in Beijing, waiting to board the train to Shanghai.  It was a long line.  As we approached the gate, the attendant was asking some people for their passports.  She was asking the foreigners, but she didn't ask one single Chinese person.  So of course she asked Bill and me...but she didn't ask Jean and Charlie.  Jean and Charlie, who hold United States passports, voted for the first time in 2012, and are proud American citizens.  The gate attendant assumed she knew that Charlie and Jean were Chinese because they looked Chinese.  And two things hit me right then:  first, no matter if I became a citizen, I could never truly be Chinese, no matter how much I wanted to be, because I wasn't born here to Asian parents; second (and more important), anyone in the world can be an American, because it isn't how you look on the outside, it is what is written on your heart that matters here.

Do you love liberty?  Do you hold "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" dear?  Do you believe you should just be left alone to pursue all the wonderful things that God has laid out for you to try and see and do in your life?  Can you dream?  Can you build big things so that your children's lives will be better than yours?  Then come!  We want you!  You are already American in your heart--you just need your passport to match.

Think of that.  We are the only country in the world where you can't guess, based on appearance, if someone is "one of us" or not. Where it is the heart that matters, a person's beliefs, and not their skin color, hair color, accent, or even where they were born.  Being American is a choice.

I used to write a lot about politics.  I still follow it, but frankly the election was enormously painful for me.  This is why:  for the first time, far more than ever before, how you looked on the outside was a reliable predictor of who you voted for.  Think of that.  Something is wrong when that is true.  And yes, it is easy to point out that I am a textbook Romney voter--white, upper-middle-class, married woman.  (Heck, I would have voted for Romney because Ann's a rider!)  I don't know what to say to that.  But when an entire campaign is focused on telling people that they must vote for a candidate because it is who they are--we are headed somewhere that I don't even understand.

America is about our heart and head, but not the things you see on the outside.  I think I glimpsed a fundamental truth about America when I was halfway around the world.  But the people who are spreading lies--and they are truly lies--about identity and belief and politics, those people are out to destroy who we are as Americans.

First we have to recognize it.  I hope it isn't too late.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Last Day in China

We took the train back from Beijing to Shanghai in the dark--nothing to see!  We rested to be ready for one last push in Shanghai:  Bill and I booked a one-day shopping tour with the appropriately-named "Shopping Tours Shanghai."  Charlie and Jean, doubting there was much to shop for in Shanghai (no, seriously) left us on our own for this day.

I don't want to do a play-by-play of our day (you can read lots of wonderful TripAdvisor reviews), but let's just say there is a TON of shopping to do in Shanghai.  Bill and I both had cashmere winter coats made to order ($125 each), and we bought some beautiful pottery at this shop.  We had lunch at a great restaurant, dumplings on the street Shanghai-style, and lots and lots of Starbucks.  Our little group of five intrepid shoppers ended the day at the Pearl Market, where I scored some gorgeous cashmere scarves as well as actual pearls!

We also got to meet Benny Peng, who makes beautiful silk-covered objects, everything from notebooks to jewelry boxes.  His items are all handmade and sold in department stores around the world.  We got to meet him and (of course) pick up a bunch of items.  One of my favorite was a little business card holder.  In Shanghai, the world runs on business cards.  Every time we visited a restaurant or shop I saved their business card.  I put all of the cards from this trip in one business card book, and now Bill knows exactly where to go when he goes out shopping or dining in Shanghai.

Bill with Benny.  We just loved meeting him!
In a food market.  This lady makes noodles of all kinds--check out the bags of flour in the background!
Also in the food market.  Eggs as far as you can see.
One stop in particular was fascinating:  the silk factory.  We saw silkworms, the cocoons, how they are spun into thread, and finally woven.  We also saw how they make silk duvets, by wetting and stretching each individual cocoon, and then pulling it out to the size of a queen-sized bed.  One cocoon.  Amazing.  (And the duvets are also amazing, by the way.  Soft, light, warm, and hypoallergenic!)

Silkworms on mulberry leaves.
Silk cocoons in water, being unraveled and twisted into thread.
Making a duvet by stretching a couple of cocoons to the size of a queen-size mattress.
A great way to see Shanghai!  One fun part is seeing the city through the eyes of a Westerner.  Our guide, Clare, was from the U.S. but had lived in Shanghai for three years.  She was really good at giving us insight into living in Shanghai as a Westerner, what she loved, what she missed.  While it would have been better to have done this trip at the beginning of the week (our finished goods could have been delivered rather than shipped), spending some quality time shopping in Shanghai was a delight.  And yes, we did enjoy sharing with Charlie and Jean all the awesome places we had found to shop!  They were shocked.

The next morning we were up early to board the plane and return to real life.  If you can bear it, I have just one more China post coming up.

Friday, January 18, 2013

How about a cookie?

In 2011 I took part in "French Fridays with Dorie," blogging my way through the wonderful Dorie Greenspan's Around My French Table.  There were about a hundred other bloggers also cooking, and it was a fun way to explore fully a terrific cookbook that might have otherwise sat largely unused on my bookshelf.

That same year I also received Dorie's smaller Paris Sweets cookbook, which is exactly what it sounds like:  a ton of Parisian desserts, adapted for the American cook.  But with very little motivation it languished on the bookshelf.  I spotted the book a couple of weeks ago, and I've decided to cook my way through this little book, in order, no skipping.

The first recipe is Punitions ("Punishments"), which are just a nice little butter cookie.  The name comes from a little joke, like "Come and take your punishment" from Grandma, who then whips out these sweet little cookies instead.

No fancy ingredients here:  just flour, eggs, sugar, butter, salt.  Some leavening.  Mix it together, put it in a ball and refrigerate.  After at least an hour, roll out and cut out--we just used my plain square biscuit cutter, and Dorie said the bakeries usually make these in simple circles.  However, the dough holds it shape really well and would be a good choice for cut-outs if you don't need a big batch.
Always good to have help in the kitchen!

Of course, the verdict is always the taste.  I made these the day of the NFL wildcard games, and they disappeared before the game was over.  I'd say they are pretty tasty!  One thing:  the instructions say to roll out 1/8" to 1/4" thick.  We all thought the thinner ones tasted better, and we liked the crunch. 

So there you have it:  a basic butter cut-out, tasty and not fussy.  A good addition to your cookie repertoire if you like small batches.  In this house, though, I like a bigger batch than this so if I make the recipe again I'll need to double it.  I can't say they tasted particularly French, but they were good.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Still In Beijing

So I left off with our seeing the Great Wall outside of Beijing.  Our guide, Andy, grew up in Beijing, in a hutong, which is an old-fashioned village still inside Beijing.  There are still a few of these little neighborhoods, glimpses into life in Beijing thirty or forty (or even longer) years ago.  He and our driver were kind enough to drop us off at the closest one to Andy's old home hutong, which no longer exists.
In the hutong.  Lots of narrow streets and motorcycles.

It was a little like Tian Zi Fang in Shanghai, in that it was just a maze of buildings with shops, restaurants, and PEOPLE everywhere.  Unlike Shanghai, though, these were one-story buildings, long and low.  This particular hutong had survived because, behind the buildings and off the main street, was a lake:

There were scores of restaurants and bars, and even rickshaws, all around the lake. Further up was a residential area of the hutong.  The further you got from the shops, the nicer the houses were--some looked like much more recent construction.  Others, well, we could be pretty certain the electrical inspections had been overlooked:

We enjoyed our long walk in the hutong, which was peaceful by Beijing standards.  But for dinner we headed back to the main shopping district near our hotel, Wangfujing Street, and QuanJuDe, THE place for Peking duck!

I can't tell you how much I wish I had pictures.  I was so busy enjoying myself that I totally forgot to take any!  Peking Duck is one of those dishes I'd always heard about but never had, and QuanJuDe is a five-story temple to this very famous dish.  All they sell is duck in its various roasted dishes.  The chef takes your order (Duck?  Or duck?), and after quite a wait they wheel your dish out to you on a cart.  We had ordered a couple of vegetable dishes to go with the duck, but they are clearly second place to the star in this restaurant.  For the four of us we ordered just one duck.  It was a good thing.

The chef presented us with a certificate of authenticity, telling us where the duck lived before arriving on our dinner table.  You can even look it up on the internet...or you COULD, if I had saved the card.  (One of the hazards of blogging about something four months later.)  He then carved the bird precisely, finishing with the head sliced neatly in two.

To eat the duck, you place a few slices on a pancake-like piece of bread, top it with some duck sauce and scallions, and pop it in your mouth.  YUM.  I'm not really a duck fan, but this was terrific.  The duck is so rich that I can only eat a couple of bites.  After we were done with the meat, the chef brings out a broth made from the duck carcass.  The richness of the duck is even more obvious--it was like drinking melted butter!

The next day we explored the Forbidden City.  Huge does not begin to describe it.  You enter through a gate, then pass a temple, then through another gate, then a temple, all starts to look the same!  Everything is huge, and yet it is all empty.  There isn't anything to give you an idea of the life of a courtier or official or servant, or even the emperor himself except for a couple of reproduction thrones.  Every bit of original furniture or clothing was pulled out of these buildings during the Cultural Revolution and burned--all of it.  No robes, no tea sets, no chairs.  Just empty buildings.

The throne room.  These are reproductions.  The calligraphy would have been done by the Emperor himself.
The view from the back of the Forbidden City up to a Temple behind the gardens.  This temple is in a separate set of gardens from the Forbidden City itself.
Behind the final temple is a garden.  This is where the empress and the concubines spent most of their time.  I certainly wouldn't call it beautiful but it seemed to be the most comfortable part of the Forbidden City.  The water and huge old cypresses made for a less "forbidding" atmosphere.

Our last stop in Beijing was the Heavenly Temple.  This is a former Taoist temple used by the emperors, but now it is just a park and tourist site.  The park is very heavily used by Beijing residents; many people come there to perform all sorts of songs, dances, or even rhythmic gymnastics.  And they seem to welcome participants. 
This little guy had the best time with these ribbons!

The temple sits in front of a mound, a set of three concentric circles, each with nine steps.  At the center of the top mound is a large, round stone.  If you go to the China exhibit at Epcot you can actually see a reproduction of this.
The front part of the park and temple.  The raised part is a lot further back.

I am standing on the raised mound here, looking back toward the temple above.  That temple is the far one in this picture.
Gratuitous picture of myself that I like.  Taken at the temple park area, though.  Check out the hazy sky!

Again, though, there isn't a sense of history at all about this place.  It is just that, a place, with some lovely painting and interesting carved stone.  There isn't any human feel to it in the least.  The people in the surrounding park were enjoyable, but they could have been anywhere.  There just felt like a disconnect between what the place used to be and what it is--in a way that I didn't feel in Europe.  A sense that history broke at some point in the recent past.

One final note about Beijing:  the traffic is without a doubt the worst I've ever seen.  Do NOT take a cab, ever.  The subway is clean, fast, and cheap--only about 37 cents per ride!  We learned our lesson after taking 90 minutes to go about six miles one day.
Bill enjoying some regional sweets:  a coconut milk popsicle and candy-coated strawberries.  Actually, the strawberries were mine but they are so sweet you can only eat one or two.

One more day to talk about, coming up...

Friday, January 11, 2013

My Week

The cabinets for my master bath renovation came in.  They were only what I ordered in that they were, indeed, cabinets.  My usually-reliable Honda Odyssey got sick and had to go the shop, where they could not fix it.  It has to go to the dealer.  My contractor had questions about phase 2 of the renovation which required me to drop everything so I could pick out appliances.  I have discovered that some people make this into a year-long project, but I only have a couple of weeks.  Comcast showed up to install our new high-speed internet but could not because the street is too far from the house.  They require a survey to get that done and it is still not complete.  And I haven't posted in a couple of days, even though I really, really want to blog more in 2013.


My contractor and I agreed immediately that the cabinets were not what we ordered, and he is having a new cabinet maker make them, from scratch, for the same price. He is dealing with the other sub, leaving me completely out of it.  My Honda's problem is a known issue, so it should be covered by the warranty.  I thought long and hard about my kitchen re-do, which I kept putting off, and now my vision is in place for this project, and I am super excited about it!  Comcast has called me or shown up every time they said they would. 

And I am here now.

It's all in how you look at it.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Beijing II

Hang on to your hat!  I'm back with more of the travelogue. 

When last we left my narrative we were having dinner in Beijing.  Today we join the narrative still in Beijing, getting ready to take a tour of the Great Wall.

But to back up...we had breakfast that morning at Starbuck's at the mall.  No kidding.  Here I am talking to the kids before they go to bed:

Our tour was arranged through our hotel (Raffles Beijing, AWESOME in the way that all colonial-era hotels are), and we met up with our guide Andy as well as a driver.  This is the way to tour the area, rather than on a bus.  We got a chance to ask tons of questions and linger as long as we liked in different places.
Bill and me with our tour guide, Andy.
Beijing is in a pretty flat area, but as you leave you enter some low mountains.  The Ming Tombs are almost encircled by these mountains--it was said that the mountains were like dragons circled around the emperors to protect them.  You can see the mountain ridges in some of our pictures. 
From the top of the Ming Tombs.  These are the "Dragon's Teeth" mountains.

Usually if you take a tour from Beijing to the Great Wall you will also have the Ming Tombs included.  They are an okay site, but I think mainly they are something in the area to look at rather than just seeing the wall.  In usual Chinese fashion, the tombs are a series of gates (single walls with openings) and temples, leading to the innermost temple.  At the Ming tombs, this is actually a hill where the emperors are buried. Their actual graves don't seem to be marked.
One of the Ming gates.
Then it was back to the van for another hour's drive through the mountains to the Great Wall.  We climbed steep steps, then a cable car with even more steps to get up to the wall.  It really is just a big, wide wall built at the absolute ridge of a series of mountains.  It exactly follows the crest of the mountains--steep where the mountain is steep, gentle where the mountain is gentle.  There is no accommodation made for human comfort.

Here's my impression of the Wall:  The emperors who built it did it because they could.  They decided to block the Mongols off, and this wall their idea.  Building it took massive manpower, but manpower is something that China has always had in abundance.  Essentially, the answer to the problem of keeping enemies out was to see how many people you could throw at the problem.  There is nothing elegant about this solution, especially when you compare it with, say, Roman architecture.  Compare these two pictures:

The Romans valued utility and efficiency, and they were happy to get some beauty along the way.  It seems to me that the scale and style of Chinese solutions is to just throw more people at a problem.  Elegance and efficiency are not highly valued--labor is too cheap, and more people are always easy to come by.

One thing that isn't easy to come by in China, it seems to me, is food.  We passed through many villages along the way to the Wall.  Houses are built right on the road, even in the smallest settlements.  Any available patch of land is cultivated.  We saw corn grown in culverts, peach trees everywhere, even basketball courts used to dry corn out after harvesting.  The most shocking cultivation was right at the Great Wall--the trees you see around are actually chestnut trees.  They were being harvested all around us as we walked on the Wall.

Our guide found it astonishing that we owned a 45-acre farm just for horses, and didn't grow any food at all on it.  He said he couldn't imagine that much land with no crop or farm animal.  He asked us about it several times.

Downton Abbey starts tonight, so I will leave my post here.  Hopefully I'll be able to finish Beijing later this week.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

North to Beijing

I suppose if I am ever going to write again on my blog, Beijing is a good place to begin.  When I last wrote, I left things hanging in the banlieue of Shanghai.  Thanks to my notes, which were much better than I remembered, I can share actual details of my trip.  My problem is that I have an overwhelming memory of Beijing that now colors my view of the city...more on that later.

We took the high speed train from Shanghai to Beijing.  Let me just say--it is AWESOME.  Amazingly clean station, beautiful train, easy trip.  At 300 km/hr, the trip takes about five hours.  We got the benefit of watching the countryside roll past as we spent the morning on the train.  I think I will quote from my notebook here:
"Past unbelievable number of cities, cranes everywhere, building.  Every place has 8+ cranes, never just one.  Complexes of apartments, not single buildings, but...

"Where does the food come from?  The construction materials?  Where do they work?

"Also passed thousands of acres of fields--rice paddies in the south, corn further north.  All hand-harvested.  We saw one (ox? yak?) farm animal, a herd of goats in a field, one dairy farm with no apparent pasture.

Over Charlie's shoulder you can see the speed:  304 km/h!
"The scale is mind-boggling.  Enormous poverty, dirt roads, brand new multi-lane highways that seem to lead to nowhere [and, I might note, were completely empty].  A country out of thin air, made of instant cities."

So there you have it.  We didn't see small towns, or even big towns.  Just irregular, hand-tended fields or enormous cities that you have never heard of.

Once we arrived in Beijing, I finally had that "A HA!  I'm in China" feeling I missed in Shanghai.  It was only accentuated when we walked down Wangfujing Street, a main shopping district that happened to be right around the corner from our hotel.  Check out what one of the street vendors was selling:
Not exactly McDonald's...

We ate lunch nearby, but had dumplings instead of seahorses and starfish in a pretty typical dumpling shop:
Not exactly McDonald's, either...
Then we walked a couple of blocks to perhaps the most famous place in all of China:

Can you find all the security cameras?

This is Tiananmen, the heart of communist China.  I have many thoughts about this place, but for now, I will share what I wrote that night:
"Walked through [a] city park (Jinshan) and around through park to entrance to Forbidden City, walked through Tiananmen.  Awful--in that it feels oppressive, just being there.  Cops, soldiers, plainclothes officers everywhere, and cameras.  Charlie [Bill's business partner] was visibly uncomfortable.  The disconnect with American freedom is profound.  The worst place I've ever been."

This is the entrance to the Forbidden City.  Mao's picture faces Tiananmen and his mausoleum.  The two buildings that flank Tiananmen Square are the People's Congress and the Museum of the People's History.
One of the People's Buildings.  They look exactly alike.
Mao's mausoleum, which stands directly opposite Mao's portrait at the Forbidden City.
We ate dinner in a mall that night, steps from Mao's portrait. The mall was glittering, clean, and full of shoppers.  We could have been anywhere in the world.