Manic Monday – 11/26/12

Good morning. A new week is set to begin, the last week of November.

For those of you dreading this week….

It’s that time of the year. When throngs of people jam the malls and the Internet demanding their bargains for their loved ones: Buying Season has officially started. Buy! Buy! Buy!

For those of you looking forward to this week….

The always funny and smart (and sometimes gross) Oatmeal has a great comic about how creativity works for him, and how artistic endeavors are most certainly not created and enjoyed in a vacuum.

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Big Art Comes to East Lansing

Last Friday evening we made our first visit to the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum in East Lansing. The opening of this museum has been much anticipated by many people, including my wife and I. Our kids, too, had taken a keen interest in the building, noting the progress of this striking building anytime we would pass by the site on Grand River Avenue.

As you can see, the museum, designed by architect Zaha Hadid, does not look like anything else in the area.

It was dusk so I apologize for the less than spectacular photos. Besides, I’m no photographer.

Henry really liked the sculpture (Containment I by Roxy Paine) in front of the museum’s entrance.

Entry to the museum is free, though a small donation is suggested. There is far more space and light inside the building than you might think just from looking at it from the outside.

The film and multimedia pieces were the highlights for me. I can’t offer more than a few impressions because kids don’t exactly afford much time to examine and contemplate. We all liked Damien Hirst’s The Kingdom of the Father, even if I think it’s a bit morbid. It’s a beautiful triptych constructed of dead butterflies. I’m wondering how Hirst explained it to his workers, “OK. Here’s the deal. I’m going to need a couple thousand dead butterflies. Blue ones, orange ones, yellow one, you name it. Then I’m going to arrange them…What do you mean you don’t know where to get a couple thousand dead butterflies? That’s not my problem! Just get them for me, already! I have a vision to execute for how beautiful death can be!”

The kids thought the museum looked cool. We even rode the giant elevator a few times because Meredith wanted to.

Meredith also liked the odd corners of the place.

In one corner on the first floor was a small canvas, about one square foot, that was red with a slight orange tint to it. It was shiny. My wife asked our son what he thought of it. He said, “That’s boring!” A middle-aged woman nearby laughed and said something about admiring the honesty of small children. I actually agree with my son on that one particular piece.

Thanks to Orson Welles and his phenomenal movie F for Fake, I often think of this Rudyard Kipling poem, “The Conundrum of the Workshops” when I come across art of dubious integrity, because in a sense all art has to fight for its own integrity. Here are the first two stanzas.

When the flush of a new-born sun fell first on Eden’s green and gold,
Our father Adam sat under the Tree and scratched with a stick in the mould;
And the first rude sketch that the world had seen was joy to his mighty heart,
Till the Devil whispered behind the leaves, “It’s pretty, but is it Art?”

Wherefore he called to his wife, and fled to fashion his work anew –
The first of his race who cared a fig for the first, most dread review;
And he left his lore to the use of his sons — and that was a glorious gain
When the Devil chuckled “Is it Art?” in the ear of the branded Cain.

Regardless, an art piece like a square foot canvas of shiny red paint is quite easy to fake. By that I mean, you could reproduce it or several similar to it, and pass them off as having been done by the original artist with far less difficulty than say Rembrandt or Van Gogh. But then we have passed out of the age of the artist as craftsperson and into the age of the artist as conceptualist.

I’m looking forward to going back to the museum, without the kids, so I can linger a bit longer around the art, and then cross the street and chow down on a burger and fries at Five Guys. Yes, there is a Five Guys across the street. Some find this disturbing. I find this comforting. Why? Because what better way to show off the mixing of high and low in much of art from the last four decades than by having a burger joint across the street from a forward-looking art museum?

What a community builds tells you what a community values. Spurred by a large gift from a wealthy art patron, our community has gotten itself a first class art museum.

I Shot Some Deer in My Backyard

Yesterday was the first day of hunting season here in Michigan. Which might explain what I saw yesterday in my own backyard. The subdivision is a safe haven. I looked out the kitchen window and what did I see but two deer making themselves comfortable. So I shot them…with my camera.

I went outside to see if I could get a better picture. Shhh, I twied to be vewy kwiet…but I’m not much of an animal tracker. I’m more of a used book sniffer.

The green seed/fertilizer spreader there in the foreground is an old one that doesn’t work. I let my kids fill it with dirt, rocks, twigs, and whatever else they find in the yard and push it around. The pile of branches in the upper right comes from some of the trees in our yard, but mostly from the half-dead trees in the neighbors’ yard behind us.

The deer eventually flashed me their white tails and ran off.

But not before one of them dropped a bunch of poop. There is deer poop all over the yard.

Last week, it was wild turkeys. I took the photo below with my phone. That’s just a handful of the nearly two dozen we watched amble through the yard.

After talking with some people in our neighborhood, we think these turkeys are all part of the same flock that keeps moving through our yards.

We did not encounter deer or turkeys in the backyards of my hometown of Northlake, IL. It was mostly squirrels, robins, with the very rare possum or rabbit.

In fact, my sister once brought home a rabbit. It came free with the cage. Several times, the rabbit got out and I and my parents had to chase the thing around the yard, catch it, and put it back in its pen.

In Shanghai this summer, we encountered cicadas more than any other creature.

Their buzzing was so loud, it drowned out sound of the traffic.

We think a groundhog is still living under our deck. We tried to trap her a few years back and ended up catching a raccoon, which we released. Then a half-dozen little ones appeared and then disappeared. That’s how we found out the groundhog was a she.

This is all to say I’ve had more experience with critters in my six years here in Michigan than I did in all of my life before. It’s definitely Pure Michigan.

China Debrief

One day in mid-September, I cleared out my laptop bag. I was going to put my laptop and some very early drafts of stories I’m currently working on into the bag in order to take them with me to a local cafe. What I didn’t realize is that I hadn’t even opened my laptop bag since returning from China. This is what I found.

Boarding passes, train tickets, museum brochures, zoo tickets, and one Alpen Fruit & Nut bar with Milk Chocolate. The Alpen granola bar is a surprising remnant from my ceaseless and frustrating attempts to find items at Chinese grocery stores comparable to items in U.S. grocery stores that my kids would eat. In this case, the Alpen chocolate bars were one of those. They cost roughly $3.50 for a box of six at the Carrefour. The Quaker granola bars the kids prefer here in the USA were not to be found anywhere.

Friends have told me that my wife and I are brave for doing the trip to China and bringing the kids. I always suggest that “crazy” is also a good characterization. I have no idea what our kids will take from the trip. As their father, my hope is that our trip to China will have at least broadened their understanding of this big planet on which we live.

Recently my son Henry said he liked the amusement park rides at the park. He was talking about the rides at Lu Xun park. It was the place where I learned that while in China you just need to barge your way in front of people, shout “Liang zhang piao!” and hand the ticket agent the money for the ride tickets. Otherwise, someone else will cut in front of you, leaving you holding your money waiting for a turn at the box office window that will never come.

(On a side note, I have to say that the word xing, meaning “please,” is the most useless word you can learn in Mandarin. I don’t think I heard it spoken once. The Chinese just barge in and start demanding and bargaining. To hell with pleasantries when you’re fighting for your own needs in a country of 1.3 billion people.)

With kids, the Chinese were very friendly towards us and quite curious. It definitely got my wife and I better attention in restaurants. I can’t help but think that they were a disarming presence. But sometimes the Chinese curiosity (especially what I dubbed the “Chinese Paparazzi”) was too much for the kids. After about three weeks, whenever a Chinese person would try to say “hi” to them, the kids would turn away from them. They were shutting down. Near the end of the trip, Henry said, “I can’t wait to go home, where I’m not famous.”

On the other hand, as difficult as it could be trying to take the kids around Shanghai, they definitely made many of our interactions with the Chinese easier. Without them, I was just another laowai who surely must be working for a western company in China temporarily. Most Chinese were surprised to learn I was not some kind of British  business person. I was surprised to be taken for a British business person.

Things I miss about Shanghai (and China)

  • Walking – we walked everywhere, because we could. There is something freeing at times about not having to rely on a car to get you everywhere. Most Americans associate owning a car with freedom. That’s because the only way to get around the USA is by car. In China, between the public transportation, high-speed trains, and airline connections, you don’t need a car to get around. This is very similar to Europe.
  • Coco – Their bubble teas and fruity ice-cold drinks were perfect for hydrating and comfort on those hot and humid summer days.
  • Lilian Cake Shop – Those egg tarts are unbelievably awesome. Their other pastries are very good, too.
  • The Food – So many different kinds of wonderful regional specialties. The culinary adventures are near endless in China.
  • Museums – There are so many museums dedicated to showing so many different aspects of Chinese history. It’s an old and well-documented culture.
  • The View from Our Hotel Room – Waking up to that neverending skyline every morning was a thrill. Seeing it light up at night was a delight. At least when it wasn’t smoggy.
  • Adventure – Every day I had the sense that a new adventure was there to be had. Shanghai has so many things to see and do. As much as we were able to do, we did not get to see the aquarium, nor did we take a cruise on the Huangpu River. Maybe next time.

Things I don’t miss about Shanghai (and China)

  • Beijing cab drivers – It is my sincere hope that I never have to see the look from a Beijing cab driver that they give you when you hand them your hotel’s card and they read the address, near some famous Chinese landmark (Forbidden City, etc.). It’s a look that easily translates to, “Gee I’ve never been in that part of town before. Forbidden City? What is that?”
  • Isolation – The experience was far more isolating than I could have ever predicted. I assumed the other professors would bring their families. They didn’t. So there wasn’t anyone to pal around with on our daily adventures in Shanghai.
    There were days when the only other adult I spoke English to was my wife. There were many days when the kids and I went out and about our business in Shanghai and never saw another laowai.
    There were weeks that went by when our kids did not speak to any other kids, because there were no other kids for them to talk to or play with. A two week trip is one thing. For kids, being each others’ only companions for six weeks in a foreign country and sharing the same bed is a bit intense. By the end of the trip, every single subway trip resulted in the two of them bickering and fighting. No day passed without at least a half-dozen squabbles or shouting matches. There was also the Highest Timeout in the World. Towards the end, I was tired of the fighting and the whining.
    Since we returned home, Henry and Meredith have gotten along much better.

Would I do it again?

If by “it” you mean travel to China in the same exact way in the same exact conditions, then the answer is “no.”

I don’t want the four of us crammed into a two-room hotel suite for a month and a half without so much as a hot pot, or easily available laundry facilities. (I could write an entire post on the challenges of doing laundry for four people at the SISU Guest House.) Two weeks? That’s okay. For a semi-long-term stay? Hell, no. I’d prefer a place with at least a stove, so we could cook our own food.

I don’t want my wife to experience the stresses and difficulties she endured while teaching in the Summer China Program. The trip was ultimately worth it, but let’s just say that many Chinese students have a far more open attitude towards sharing test answers than their American counterparts.

My wife and I do not regret the trip in any way. We are so glad we went to China. It was such a unique experience; amazing, exhilarating, baffling, frustrating, challenging, yet oh so rewarding.

I want to go back to Shanghai, Nanjing, and Hong Kong. I want to see the Terra Cotta Warriors. I want to go see Jiuzhai Valley-Huanglong National Park. I want to go see Wulingyuan National Park….I want to go back to China.

Manic Monday

Good morning. Welcome to another edition of Manic Monday.

First, the Bad News: Venice was flooded with water as high as five feet above the normal level. According to the Guardian,

Venice’s high water, or “acqua alta”, said to be the sixth highest since 1872, flooded 70% of the city and was high enough to make raised wooden platforms for pedestrians float away. The record high water in Venice – 1.94 metres in 1966 – prompted many residents to abandon the city for new lives on the mainland.

I’ve been to Venice, not when it was flooded. What I remember most were the canals, the gelato, and the quiet. Without cars, trucks, and scooters it’s a very quiet city. I’d love to go back.

Be sure to check out the Guardian’s photo gallery of the flood.

[Photograph: Luigi Costantini/AP]

Now, the Good News: Something very cool and unique comes to my little corner of the world: the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum. It officially opened this weekend.

Perhaps, it wasn’t a day for thinking small. In remarks earlier that morning, Eli Broad, the billionaire philanthropist and Michigan State University alumnus whose donations, ultimately totaling more than $28 million, had given the project life, said the museum “has the potential to do for Michigan State University and East Lansing what Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim did for Bilbao, Spain.”

I’m hoping to get over there soon, sometime this week. We’ve been watching the construction the past year or so. Our kids are actually very curious about the building. It does not look like anything else in the entire state of Michigan.

DIY Publishing 101, Part 6 – Get ISBN Numbers

This is the sixth, and final, post in an ongoing series about DIY Publishing. Previous installments can be found here: One, Two, Three, Four, and Five.

Get ISBN Numbers

Each book published needs an ISBN. What’s an ISBN? An International Standard Book Number. Which means that the term “ISBN Number” is redundant. But it has passed into common usage, regardless. The number is the long string of digits you see on the bar code on the back of the printed book. You’ll see it, too, included with the information about the ebook wherever it’s sold (Amazon, Smashwords, Barnes & Noble, etc.).

Bowker has the monopoly on ISBN numbers here in the U.S. Like all monopolies they charge whatever they feel like charging. They charge $125 for one ISBN. For CHICAGO TIME, I needed three ISBNs:

  • one for the ebook sold through Smashwords
  • one for the ebook sold through Amazon.com
  • one for the printed version sold through Amazon.com

If I bought just three, it would have cost me $375. Luckily and oddly, they charge $250 for 10 ISBNs. I bought 10 for $250. I plan on writing more books.

There are a lot of pros and cons for using the ISBN numbers provided by Amazon, Smashwords, and CreateSpace. It’s also true that some ebook sites offer free ISBNs.

I won’t go into a long explanation about the problems with free ISBNs versus buying your own, because Joel Friedlander over at The Book Designer does a much better job than I ever could in a highly informative post, titled, “ISBN 101 For Self-Publishers.” In that post he gives two reasons for owning your ISBNs.

  1. The ISBN contains within it a “publisher identifier.” This enables anyone to locate the publisher of any particular book or edition. If you use a “free” ISBN from an author services company or a subsidy publisher, that company will be identified in bibliographic databases as the publisher.
  2. Owning your own ISBNs gives you the ability to control the bibliographic record for your book. This is an important part of your book’s metadata, and is a key component in your book being discoverable by online searchers. This has a powerful influence on your efforts to attract search engine traffic to your title.

I’m possessive. I bought ISBNs because, from a business standpoint, I wanted to be known as the publisher of my books.

One more thing about ISBNs. For the printed version, you need a bar code generated from a combination of the ISBN and the price. I paid Bowker $25 for generating the bar code. You can find all kinds of widgets on the Internet that will generate a bar code for you. Personally, I didn’t want to risk any problems with the bar code not having a high enough resolution or being plain wrong. So I stuck with Bowker. Once I had the bar code, I added it to the cover in the place I had blocked out for it.

With this post, I hereby wrap up my short guide to DIY publishing. If you have any questions please feel free to post them in the comments or send me an email. I’m happy to help those who are thinking about becoming an indie author. Go for it! I don’t regret going indie one bit.