Sunday, November 21, 2010

10 Minutes: A Play

Here, the Steiny Road Poet is not asking for your ten minutes, maybe only one.

She has written a ten-minute play entitled "Who Killed Jackie Bass." The title is a statement not a question. This poetic play is important to the Poet because it is a memorial to a murdered relative.

The play has been submitted to a competition and now the Poet would like your help in putting good energy into the universe so that even if the play doesn't make it to the stage this summer, the title will get caught in collective consciousness.

Here's a quote from the play:
"Did you ever meet Jackie Bass? You wouldn’t forget her. She had smile larger than her hands and her hands were so warm—they were better than gloves in January."

So, please, no applause now—just give the Poet a cyber-hand and send along your star-powered energy to keep this title alive.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

If asked earlier this summer, the Steiny Road Poet would have said political operas are not her kind of torch—that she would rather ignite something more exotic. However, by accident or intervention from the universe, she got involved with the Dana Beyer campaign that would have put the first transgendered woman into a United States political office. The Poet was told that if the candidate got 5,000 votes, she would win. Dana Beyer made her goal but the three incumbents got more votes and kept their seats.

What did the Poet learn?

1.    Hard work and integrity are not enough to win. Does this sound like the business of getting an opera on stage? While Ms. Beyer visited 10,0000 doors in her district and people whom the Steiny Road Poet met after the fact were impressed by the candidate’s sincerity, intelligence, and record of achievement, it did not enable the candidate to push past the weakest incumbent although it was respectably close. Apparently a teacher’s union push made the difference in getting a significant people out of their apathy to go down to the polls to vote.
2.    Ordinary people, including the Poet, do not like being interrupted by phone calls about who to vote for. They especially hate robo calls. Never mind that you haven’t read the literature or websites on the candidates, who wants a computer generated call to tell you what to do? Do the Millennials have this right about  not communicating by direct phone calls? Text them or grab them by the sleeve or there is no exchange. More people told the Poet that coming to their doors to talk about Dana Beyer was the preferred communication. And OMG, the deluge of paper sent to each household! An entire forest went under in just the Maryland primary election alone.
3.    With some voters, there is no winning ever. A handful of people said, “I am not a Democrat” despite being carried on the Democratic register. “It’s too much trouble to change parties,” one bubby told me while asking me why I thought the Democrats were not responsible for our government’s huge debt. When the Poet pointed out (much against the instruction of her campaign manager’s advice to never argue with the voter) that Bill Clinton left office with U.S. finances in the black and George W. Bush left the American people in a deep red hole, the old woman looked at the Poet blankly. Then the Poet realized the woman had been brainwashed by someone close to her and so she backed away quietly. Also there were people who complained bitterly about how many times campaigners came to their doors and this was their reason not to vote for a sufficiently qualified candidate.
4.    Privacy? Unless you have zero contact with the world, people with Palm Pilots know where you live, how old you are, and how you voted in the last election.
5.    This was not entirely a thankless job. In this market, there were people with advanced degrees walking door to door in 90-degree heat to carry the message of candidates like Dana Beyer. They weren’t volunteers either and they got less pay in their pocket after taxes than minimum wage. However there were some people who understood how hard the job is and they thanked the Poet for doing this work.
6.    Some people in one of the wealthiest counties in America do not keep up their property. Just stepping onto their porches was dangerous.

Did the Poet run into people she knew on the campaign trail? Yes, other poets, composers, a government official she worked with long ago and she also campaigned on a street where she once lived with her parents and siblings.

Does the Poet have any ideas for an opera? Yes, she thinks she could write a 10-minute opera about the incredible people who came to the door to talk to her. People like the friendly bubby who was making stuffed cabbages, the deaf woman she signed with based on having learned how to say more with her finger tips, the woman who arrived home on her bicycle and insisted the Poet sit down with her on the front porch to talk about the candidate’s politics, the rabid Republican spouse of a registered Democrat who wasn’t home, just to picture a few.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Three Gun Shots: A Blood Simple Case

If someone tapped me on the shoulder and asked me if I am Li Changdi, I might answer like Louis Jourdan (he was in the 1958 film Gigi) did once in Positano (the Steiny Road Poet was at a table near where he was sitting on that dazzling piazza by the water) -- "I used to be Li Changdi." Now Li Changdi is a little gun shy -- don't point at her and ask her to speak to you in Chinese. She can still say Ni hao (hello) but she's getting nervous about the bloody lot of words she is supposed to have mastered.

The Steiny Road Poet fell off the learning-to-speak-and-write-Chinese wagon back in March after she completed her classroom project which had her represent herself as a Chinese broadcast film critic. This is where this post starts as the reviews are beginning to appear for Zhang Yimou's remake of the first Coen Brothers' film Blood Simple.

In Chinese, Zhang's film is called San Qiang Pai An Jing Qi (translated as The Stunning Case of Three Gunshots). Changdi would tell you that san is the word for three. The American title is A Woman, a Gun, and a Noodle Shop.

What was really hard in the classroom film report project was finding out how to say Blood Simple and the Coen brothers in Chinese. Her laoshi (teacher) said find out by yourself. So she called up a neighbor who is from Beijing and got the words: Xue Mi Gong bei Ke en Xiong Di. Changdi guesses that xue means avenge but she has no leads on mi gongXiong Di translates as brothers, so the rest of the phrase is by (bei) the Coen (Ke en) brothers.

Does she want to see Zhang Yimou's film? Yes, because out of all that struggle to say a few simple things in that Chinese film critic report like, "Xiang xiao le ma?" (Do you want to laugh?), she still harbors the idea of learning more Chinese.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Matteo Ricci: Chinese Mapmaker & Composer

Jīntián wǒ kànjiàn lǎo dìtú de Zhōngguó hé Měiguó. Today I saw an old map of China and America. (Changdi hopes she chose the right Chinese words and applied the correct grammar. She also apologizes for not capturing the importance of this particular map but her Chinese is limited.)

The Chinese Meetup Group of Washington, DC made a field trip to the Library of Congress to see the first map (dìtú 地图) in Chinese to show America, in fact, the Americas including such details as Cuba and Jamaica.

The world map, known as the “Impossible Black Tulip of Cartography,” was drawn by Matteo Ricci (October 6, 1552 – May 11, 1610), an Italian Jesuit priest, one of the founding clerics of the Jesuit China Mission. The Chinese call this six-panel map that measures 5 ft (1.52 m) high and 12 ft (3.66 m) wide Kūnyú Wànguó Quántú 坤輿萬國全圖. The Italians call it Carta Geografica Completa di tutti i Regni del Mondo, "Complete Geographical Map of all the Kingdoms of the World." This is the map that changed how China dealt with the world because it opened China for commerce with other nations.

Take note that the map is on display at the Library of Congress Jefferson building only until April 10, 2010. It is part of the ongoing LOC exhibition "Exploring the Early Americas." (Located on the second floor and all the way at the back of this exhibition, this map is not easy to find!)

When the map leaves DC, it will go to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and after that to its permanent home in the James Ford Bell Library at the University of Minnesota.

It’s also important to understand that in 1601 Matteo Ricci (the Chinese called him Lì Mǎdòu 利玛窦) was the first Westerner to enter Beijing’s Forbidden City and also the first Westerner to buried in Beijing. His remains are in a tomb the Beijing Administrative College but when he was buried there it was a Buddhist temple. Ricci learned classical Chinese but he was also a composer. Recently Changdi heard the Folger Consort play a piece of Ricci’s music.

Changdi was surprised that she could read many characters printed on this map!

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Steiny Road to China: Step 9 GOING TO THE WATER WELL

What drove the Steiny Road Poet to start learning Mandarin and to become Li Changdi was the wish to communicate with people she would meet in China. In Beijing, she and her Gang of Eight (along with 16 other Grand Circle Tour travelers) were taken to one of the hútòng 胡同 neighborhoods that flank the Forbidden City. Hútòng comes from the Mongolian word hottog, which means water well. Typically tourists enter the alleyways of the hutong in bicycle rickshaws.

What does it mean to live in a hutong neighborhood?

Well, people share toilets, bathhouses, courtyards. While you might have kitchen appliances, you don’t necessarily have running water. Actually the typical hutong quarters are most likely one room and there is no central heat or air conditioning. In the winter, it is cold in these honeycomb residences. The fact is, there is no privacy and everyone knows your business.

By these standards, the residence we visited was on the high end. The lady of the house who was a snuff bottle artist had two rooms. Her niece, who is learning her aunt’s art, assisted with our visit for tea.

We were surprised to see the aunt had a French poodle and the dog was decked out with a hairdo of orange ears and lime green tale. Apparently people living in the hutong are now more economically able to afford pets.

However, hutongs in Beijing are being demolished and replaced by modern buildings. The people are being bought out by the government and moved to high-rise buildings.

To see what it is like living in a hutong, check out Michael Myer’s YouTube film and read his book The Last Days of Old Beijing: Life in the Vanishing Backstreets of a City Transformed. He said the hutong streets could be compared to Venice canals. Changdi thinks only a former Peace Corps worker like Mr. Myer’s could stand to be so close up and personal with his neighbors for the two years he lived in the hutong. One thing he did have was broadband Internet, but Changdi experienced the People’s Republic of China’s stranglehold on social networking websites like blogs, Facebook and Twitter and so even broadband couldn’t necessarily help a Westerner escape the eyes of the hutong.

More photos from Changdi's visit to the snuff bottle artist.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Steiny Road to China: Step 8 – POWER TO THE PEOPLE

In the month of November, Li Changdi, a.k.a. the Steiny Road Poet, got on a plane at Dulles International with her husband and six good friends for a flight through Tokyo to Beijing. The Gang of Eight traveled for 22 days through China partaking of such cities Beijing, Shanghai, Suzhou, Wuhan, Yichang, San Dou Ping, Chongqing, Xi’an, Gui Lin, and Hong Kong. We were part of a Grand Circle Tour.

What we liked about the GCT was that we met ordinary people in their homes and communities. We went to visit people living in a hutong community in Beijing. We saw a performance of students and teachers at a kung fu school and after we talked to them. We met relocated farming families. We went to an elementary school where 5th graders were learning English.

Because there is so much to tell, Changdi is going to parse the trip into small pieces. Meet her trip manager Song Peng (Nick) and in this photo he is painting her Chinese name as souvenir to take home.


In Beijing, we did what all families do, and that was, we went to Tian'anmen Square and had our photo taken with Mao Zedong. Yes, the Chinese people still hold Chairman in high regard despite the devastation of the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, and the massacre in Tian'anmen Square. In this photo, you see Changdi with her husband Jim. Does he have a Chinese name? No, but sometimes he responds to Jimbeau.

Mao’s photo hangs on The Gate of Heavenly Peace (Tian'anmen). Tian'anmen is the entrance to the Imperial City. It is across the street from the Forbidden City. The scale of Tian'anmen Square is huge. While Changdi and her Gang of Eight were in Beijing, they traveled through this square twice. Some of them actually considered coming back a third time when President Obama was there. However, the Gang froze the first two times and they had no real desire to get squeezed by a mob (no matter how warm that would be) when these friends all live close enough to the White House where Barack Obama lives with his family.


On the left side of the Gate, the characters read: 中华人民共和国万岁 or “Long Live the People’s Republic of China. In pinyin, one pronounces the Chinese characters as zhōnghuá rénmín gònghéguó wànsuì.

Here’s how the characters form their meaning.

中华.................... 人民...................... 共和国 ...................... 万岁
zhōnghuá ............. rénmín ............... gònghéguó ................ wànsuì
Nation of China..... The People.......... Republic .................... long live

As a beginning student of the Chinese language, Changdi knew the words and characters for zhōngguó meaning “the country of China” 中国, gòngrén meaning “worker” 共人, and suì 岁 meaning “years of age” as in “How old are you? 18 years old.” and in pinyin” “Nǐ jīnnián duō dà? Shíbā suì.” So while Changdi didn’t know on the spot what the characters said, she recognized elemental parts.


The right side of the Gate reads: 世界人民大团结万岁 or "Long Live the Great Unity of the World's Peoples." In pinyin, the characters read “Shìjiè rénmín dà tuánjié wànsuì.” You might notice the Chinese language doesn’t bother with plural case as in People versus Peoples. Certain aspects of Chinese is a lot easier than English.

世界 ...................... 人民....................................... 团结............... 万岁
shìjiè...................... rénmín ................................. tuánjié ........ wànsuì
world...................... the people............. great............. unity .......... long live

Because the words “rénmín” and “wànsuì” are used in both sentences, there is a musical repetition to the message as well as psychological emphasis on “long live” and “the People.” Another detail of interest is that the character 万 wàn (meaning “10,000”) has built into its construction 力 lì meaning “power” and this character is one of the basic elements (or radicals) making up many other characters in the Chinese language.

If one understands how important the written Chinese language is to the people of China, one can get a glimmer of what these two sentences mean to the Chinese people. Mao was a master of language and he was able to bring power to the powerless and this has a couple of meanings. He declared everyone in China equal so that each person became powerful and he made China equal to the other nations of the world after China suffered centuries of domination by foreign nations. Perhaps this is still a game of smoke and mirrors, but to see China today, one cannot doubt that China is a world leader and that every Chinese person, in some way, has power unparalleled to counterparts under the governments or dynasties that ruled before Mao Zedong.


While Changdi has never embraced the tenets of Communism, she has come to this insight about her own relationship with Mao. Changdi realized that the image of Mao seeped into her subconscious in the early 1970s and this most likely happened with Andy Warhol’s series of silk-screen portraits of the Chairman. In 1980, Changdi bought a black-and-white print entitled “Manhattan Moonlight” from the cityscape artist Armin Landeck who was a good friend of her close friend poet Robert Sargent. After the print was signed by Mr. Landeck, framed, and hung, Changdi wrote this poem.


Let Manhattan Moon raynnn down on me
Fingertips clicking, nails tapping on the iron door
Mao Tse-tung’s bald face deflecting the bright moonlight
Chairman’s bar silhouette without a Warhol grin
Street sliding off the checkered Earth
Buildings challenge-dancing to the artist’s gait
Tap, tap, click, click, pop
Let Manhattan Moon razze night

--Karren L. Alenier
in The Dancer’s Muse

Jimbeau was surprised to know that the image of Mao, however subtle, hangs in their living room.