Speaking of artistry…

Disneyland has this new show called “World of Color” now playing in California adventure land. Well, it’s not new exactly…it opened up in 2011. It’s a spectacular water show, complete with music and video projections. It’s similar to Fantasmic…except it’s a whole lot bigger. I have to say, it looks absolutely stunning! I haven’t seen it in person, yet, but plan to later this year. It took several years to put together and cost Disney $75 million dollars. Yikes! But if Disney is wealthy enough to buy the Star Wars franchise, I suppose $75 million is chump change.

An Artist’s Life

As I’m sure you’ve figured out by now, I love books. I’ve been reading books, and even making up my own stories, since I was five years old. The only thing is, I’ve been reading the same kind of literature for as long as I can remember — mostly 19th Century British literature. I’ve always loved Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, the Bronte sisters, etc.. As Mr. Bennet from Pride and Prejudice would say, these authors have “been my old friends…these last twenty years at least.” I used to read Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre once a year. I’ve read Austen’s books so many times that I can quote them. It’s not that I’ve never read an author that wasn’t a 19th-Century Brit — it’s just that I’ve always tended to gravitate towards this kind of literature. Recently, however, I’ve felt a strong urge to seek out other authors and other subjects. I felt it was high time to expand my reading material and get out of my “comfort zone.” Which brings me to my current subject…

I’ve been reading a fascinating memoir titled Just Kids, about the life of musician/writer Patti Smith and her relationship with artist/photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. I’m throughly enjoying it so far. It recounts Patti and Robert’s struggle to make it as artists while living in the slums of New York during the tumultuous 1960′s. They work hard at small retail jobs to make ends meat, sharing stale bread, eating water-and-lettice soup, while at the same time devoting themselves to their respective talents. They stay up all night in their colorfully-decorated apartment listening to records and painting or writing. It’s a great read, and I definitely recommend it. I have to say, it’s gotten me thinking about the whole concept of the “starving artist.” It’s such a cliche idea now-a-days, yet there are still people out there today for whom this cliche is a reality. I can’t help but admire those who have the courage to devote themselves full-time to their art, even at the risk of financial hardship. Reading about such struggles in Just Kids makes me a little envious. I have always lived a very sheltered and protected life — always played it safe. I’ve never been quite brave enough to throw myself, head first, into my writing career. I have a friend who, even though she received a respectable degree from a good university, has decided to throw caution to the wind and pursue an acting career full-time.  It’s not an easy life, but it she seems to be enjoying it.  There are times where I wish I could make the same kind of commitment to my writing.

Then again, I could be over-romanticizing things. Financial hardship is never easy. I’m very lucky to have the job that I do. Working at a mortgage company is not brilliantly exciting, but it is a learning experience. Besides, why can’t I make a commitment to my writing now — with or without financial hardship? What’s stopping me? Perhaps it’s psychological.  Having now entered the Rat Race, I’ve realized how easy it is to become too complacent with one’s life…to work, pay one’s bills, and get comfortable just living day-to-day, and pay check to pay check. For those of us who’ve always had the urge to be creative, such a life can sometimes seem inspiration-less. But then, even the greatest writers and artists can go through periods of boredom and “artist’s block”.

Today, I happened to read something which addresses this notion of the “artist’s block”.  I bought a new book called The Bird King; an artist’s notebook. It displays a series of sketches and paintings by illustrator and children’s book author Shaun Tan — an artist I only discovered recently. His introduction to the book begins as follows:

I”m often wary of using the word ‘inspiration’ to introduce my work — it sounds too much like a sun shower from the heavens, absorbed by a passive individual enjoying an especially receptive moment. While that may be the case on rare occasions when an idea pops into my head for no discernible reason, the reality is usually far more prosaic. Staring at a blank piece of paper, I can’t think of anything original. I feel utterly uninspired and unreceptive. It’s the familiar malaise of ‘artist’s block’ and in such circumstances there is only one thing to do: Just start drawing.”

- from The Bird King; an artist’s notebook., pg. 4

 

“Just start drawing.” I suppose, were I apply this phrase to myself — or any writer, for that matter — it would be “Just start writing.” So there you have it. Very simple advice. I suppose that’s what starving artists like Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe did on a regular basis. They didn’t doubt or second-guess themselves. They didn’t hold back. They just did what they wanted to do. Even if what they produced was less-than brilliant, they did it anyway. It’s inspiring to read about people who, despite all opposition, had the courage to go for what they really wanted in life. And, artist or not, I think we could all learn a little something from them.

Just a quick recommendation…

I’ve been so busy with work this past week that I haven’t yet had a chance to sit down and compose my next post. It will be done, however, and I will post it this weekend. ^_^

Just a quick note — if you’re a fan of Charles Dickens, like I am, I highly recommend this BBC miniseries. It’s a dramatization of Little Dorrit,  the novel that I mentioned in my last post. Among other things, you’ll get to see Andy Serkis (the voice of Gollum in Lord of the Rings) playing an dastardly Frenchman. His accent is so delightfully over-the-top, that it puts me in mind of John Cleese’s French guard in Holy Grail. 

Charles Dickens was right…

As briefly mentioned in a former post, I have been hired to work full-time at a mortgage company. This is probably one of the last things that I, as an English major, was expecting to be hired for — but apparently, the company is new and expanding rapidly. They’ve hired several people who, like me, had degrees but no prior mortgage experience. They put us all through two weeks of intense, information-satruated training, and then determined which department would fit us best. I was put in the Quality Control department. And perhaps this is a fitting position for an English major, after all, because my job is to review and examine mortgage documents for accuracy. Dealing with mortgages can be an extremely complicated, paperwork driven process. A Quality Control Associate like myself ensures that there are no mistakes in any of the documentation. This has been quite the learning experience, and I definitely like my job so far.

Our company is a third-party vendor that handles short sales for large banks…and if you don’t know what a “third-party vendor” or a “short sale,” is, I  suggest looking it up. It’s interesting stuff, but I would have to devote a lot of space to explaining it. I was hoping to keep my post relatively short today, so I’ll omit long-winded explanations.  In any case, dealing with mortgage documentation has given me a greater appreciation for Charles Dickens. How so? Well, one of the many things he satires in his writing is the needless complexity and ridiculous amount of paperwork present in the Victorian legal system. It reminds me, a little, of my own company. They are extremely strict about what they will and won’t accept on mortgage documents. For example, if a client’s name is “John Robert Smith” in our company computer system, it is expected that all documents in John’s loan file should be signed with that exact name. If his purchase contract reads simply “John Smith,” without the middle name, the file is rejected. John Smith and his agent would then be required to add a Name Addendum to the file, which is basically an extra sheet of paper stating that “John Smith and John Robert Smith are the same person.” So there you go…lots of needlessly complicated paperwork. It puts me in mind of the Circumlocution Office from Little Dorrit. Arthur Clennam goes to the Circumlocution Office hoping to enquire about Mr. Dorrit’s legal problems, only to come out more confused than ever:

“‘I want to know [about Mr. Dorrit's legal circumstances],’  said Arthur Clennam…

Oh! [said the clerk] ‘you had better not bother yourself about it, I think.’

‘Not bother myself about it?’ [said Arthur.]

‘No! I recommend you not to bother yourself about it.’ 

This was such a new point of view that Arthur Clennam found himself
at a loss how to receive it. 

‘You can if you like. I can give you plenty of forms to fill up. 
Lots of ‘em here. You can have a dozen if you like. But you’ll 
never go on with it,’ said [the clerk]

‘Would it be such hopeless work?…’ [asked Arthur]. 

‘I don’t say it would be hopeless,’ returned [the clerk], with a 
frank smile. ‘I don’t express an opinion about that; I only 
express an opinion about you. I don’t think you’d go on with it. 
However, of course, you can do as you like. I suppose there was a 
failure in the performance of a contract, or something of that 
kind, was there?’

‘I really don’t know.’ 

‘Well! That you can find out. Then you’ll find out what 
Department the contract was in, and then you’ll find out all about 
it there.’ 

‘I beg your pardon. How shall I find out?’ 

‘Why, you’ll–you’ll ask till they tell you. Then you’ll 
memorialise that Department (according to regular forms which 
you’ll find out) for leave to memorialise this Department. If you 
get it (which you may after a time), that memorial must be entered 
in that Department, sent to be registered in this Department, sent 
back to be signed by that Department, sent back to be countersigned 
by this Department, and then it will begin to be regularly before 
that Department. You’ll find out when the business passes through 
each of these stages by asking at both Departments till they tell 
you.’ …

Arthur Clennam looked very doubtful indeed. ‘… I am obliged to you at any rate,’ said he, ‘for your politeness.’ 

‘Not at all,’ replied this engaging young [clerk]. ‘Try the thing, and see how you like it. It will be in your power to give  it up at any time, if you don’t like it. You had better take a lot of forms away with you. Give him a lot of forms!’

With which  instruction [the clerk] took a fresh handful of papers…and carried them [off into] the Circumlocution Office…

I guess things haven’t changed to much in the business world.

The Royal Ballet’s “Alice in Wonderland”

I’ll begin this blog by stating, very briefly, that the old journal I wrote about in my last post was given as a gift to my good friend Esmond before I left the UK. And speaking of the UK…

While in London, I was a regular attendee at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden. I am a huge fan of opera, musical theatre and ballet, so being in London was the perfect opportunity to indulge myself. I attended the theatre on a regular basis – something I quite miss here in California. London’s West End is the European equivalent of New York’s Broadway, and it offers some of the finest opera and theatre in the world. The ROH is a beautiful white stone building with roman columns lining the front. A section of the ROH used to be a flower market, as evidenced by the gorgeous, arched glass window standing several stories high. It is here that the bar and the lovely Balconies Restaurant are located. My aunt visited me in London during May of last year, and she and I had a fabulous dinner at Balconies before attending a performance of La Bohéme. During my time in London, I had the pleasure of seeing The Marriage of Figaro, La Traviata, La Bohéme, Falstaff, Don Giovanni and the Nutcracker ballet at the ROH. As brilliant as these shows were, however, it was the Royal Ballet’s performance of Alice in Wonderland that really amazed me.

The Royal Opera House

The Royal Opera House

My originally plan was to write a review for this ballet. The problem is, I love the show so much that I have found very little fault with it. This is therefore much less a review than a lavishing of praise upon something I really enjoyed. Then again, a review does not necessarily have to involve criticism. I am such a fan of Alice in Wonderland that I bought myself a DVD of the performance and have been unable to go an entire week without watching it at least once. I love everything about it – the colors, the costumes, the music, the staging, the lighting, the dancing – everything. Much as I love opera, this dance was by far my favorite ROH show because it was so creative and fun. Alice has a lot to offer – a funny and fast-paced story line, acrobatic and expressive dancing, gorgeous music, the use of screens to project visual images on stage, as well as a cast of rambunctious, colorful characters. I highly recommend the Royal Ballet’s Alice in Wonderland to anyone who is a fan of Lewis Carroll’s fairytale. It successfully captures the imaginative, playful, and sometimes moody spirit of the original story. Even if you aren’t a particular fan of ballet, this show is so visually stunning and entertaining that it has a very wide appeal. One of the things that truly amazes me about ballet is the fact that it can convey an entire two-hour story with absolutely no dialogue – just movement and visuals. That, to me, is a truly admirable feat. But don’t take my word for it. Watch the show for yourself!

Tales from London

So I’ve decided to cheat a little bit and repost an entry from one of my other blogs. I’ve been extremely busy lately, and thus unable to update my blog as often as I’d like. I’ve recently been hired by a mortgage company, and the starting date is Monday. Hooray for employment! In any case, this was a blog I wrote while I was in London. Enjoy!

Written Feb. 17th, 2012 in London, England

Hey everyone! Today I’m going to write about something a little different. Instead of detailing what I’ve been up to, I’m going to blog about something I’ve learned.

I’ll go over what I’ve been doing briefly. I’ve spent the majority of my time studying for school, of course. This term seems to be going by so much faster than the last one! I’m already almost halfway through! This next week is Reading Week, which means that I won’t have classes. I’ve only had two outings these past few weeks that are of interest. I went with my friend Raney to see “The Importance of Being Ernest” at the Royal Haymarket Theatre. It was an amusing play — most Oscar Wilde plays are. The director made some interesting staging choices, combining a modern set design with Victorian costumes. I also went with my friend Esmond to a place called Merton Abbey Mills, a very small and extremely old market town on the outskirts of London. There is an old building, formerly a water mill, situated on the banks of a small river. Its old water wheel is still intact, and spins flawlessly! It is now used as a pottery store, and the plain wood interior (complete with noisy spinning water wheel) is very quaint. Esmond and I had lunch at a rustic cafe, strolled passed the unique little shops, walked across the river to observe the animals at a local farm, and then had drinks at the local pub, which is also right next to the river. I had a lot of fun!

This afternoon I decided to explore the South Bank of the Thames. I already live on the South Bank, but I’ve spent the majority of my time exploring the North Bank of the Thames. The North Bank is where my school is located, as well as many of London’s most well-known monuments (St. Paul’s, Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, etc.) It turns out that the South Bank has many interesting place to explore that I had never even noticed before. There are many shops – some of them tiny art galleries – and restaurants. There is a weekend carnival that has multi-colored children’s rides and carousels located directly underneath the London Eye. There is a cool concrete area, completely covered in graffiti, that young boys use to skateboard. There is also a small book fair where they sell used books. It is here that I made a very interesting discovery. While rummaging through the piles of books, I came across a section that had some vintage collections. And when I say vintage, I mean very old books, published more than one hundred years ago. I found a book full of old journal articles called the “Chambers’ Edinburgh Journal,” which had originally been published in 1853. It smelled musty and had yellowing pages, but the black cover and spine were still surprisingly strong, so I bought it. It was only £10 – a deal you could only find in Europe, where hundred-year-old antiques are commonplace. I wanted to learn more about the book I had just bought, so I did some research. Here’s what I found out:

The Chambers’ Edinburgh Journal was founded by brothers William and Robert Chambers in 1832. It’s basically an old newspaper/magazine that was originally published in Edinburgh, Scotland, and then later moved to publish in London. The journal ended up lasting for over one hundred years, from 1832 to 1956. Much like newspapers today, the Edinburgh Journals were published on a weekly basis — every Saturday, to be exact — and would probably have been purchased at a newsstand or stall. Each journal is sixteen pages long and contains an eclectic mix of articles — art reviews, book reviews, moral essays, travel writing, popular science, short stories, and poetry. There is even an index at the beginning of the book that lists all the articles by subject. If I had to give the modern equivalent, I would say that the Edinburgh Journals is a cross between a newspaper and a magazine, as it provides both entertainment and information for its readers. The book I bought contains all the journals that were published from July to December of 1852. The pages are yellow and the binding is a bit ratty, but it is otherwise in fantastic condition and is very easy to read. I love history and literature, so I am ecstatic about my new purchase! I’ve already starting reading the first journal (published Saturday, July 3, 1852). The first article is a review of several art galleries in London, and the review is called “The Art Season”. You can imagine my surprise when I happened to read the title of the second article: “Bill Williams: A Story of California.” How awesome is that! This was a piece of travel writing about a group of men from Manchester who sailed to California in search of gold. They at first landed in San Francisco, then sailed down to Sacramento, where they were planning on digging for gold. Among other things, it gives a description of what Sacramento looked like in 1852:

“…at length, we reached the new town, the golden city, which takes its name from the river, christened in old times of Spanish voyaging by some discoverer for his Catholic majesty…When I first saw it, it consisted of some hundred huts and tents, a large frame-house, in which an advertising board informed us there was an ordinary, a gaming-table, and all manner of spirits. And there was a timber wharf, somewhat temporarily put together, at which we landed. Yet the city was rising, as cities rise only in the western hemisphere: broad streets and squares were marked out; building was going forward on all sides; while bullock-wagons, canoes, and steamers brought materials by land and water. The enterprise and vagrancy of all nations were there, as we had seen them at San Francisco; and those not engaged in building the town, were going off in caravans to the gold-gathering.”  

Isn’t that amazing! I’m so glad that I bought this journal. It’s incredibly fascinating. The book has “Volume 18″ written on the cover, which means that it is only one in a whole series of Edinburgh Journals. I wonder if all the journals (1832-1956) are still around? If so, I’m very tempted to start collecting them. In fact, it makes me want to collect lots of old periodicals. The improvement of print technology in the 18th and 19th Centuries created an explosion of publications, of which the Edinburgh Journals would have only been one.  In any case, the volume I have is a piece of history – an ancestor to modern newspapers and magazines. I’m absolutely delighted with it, and I can’t wait to read more!

Seeing the beauty in one’s own backyard

I may not be traveling at the moment, but I can certainly learn to appreciate “my own backyard,” so to speak. One of the things I learned while living in another country is that it’s so easy to take your hometown for granted. I live only forty-five minutes away from Los Angeles, one of the most vibrant cities in the world. Yet, having been raised in Southern California, I’ve always just assumed that there was “nothing to do” here. This was especially true when I was a teenager.  By contrast, I have a friend born and raised in Taiwan who is now living here in California. She’s always up to something – camping, river rafting, attending shows and art exhibitions, etc. I used to wonder how she kept herself so busy, and how she managed to find so many cool things to do, even in “boring” Southern California. What a silly girl, I was! Not to mention spoiled. I have now come back from spending a year in London, as well as a month on the East Coast, and it has enabled me to look at my hometown with new eyes. I now realize that there are many things – the rugged landscape, the warm weather, the beaches, the trendy city nightlife, the good food, the glitz and glamour of Hollywood – that make Southern California (or, as the locals would say, “SoCal”) unique and exciting. I think I’m going to take it upon myself to explore what’s in my own backyard. I’m beginning to develop a new appreciation for the place in which I grew up…and in the end, shouldn’t we all do the same?

Speaking of appreciating one’s own city – yesterday I did something that I’ve never done before. I went down to a local church and volunteered to help feed the homeless. It’s extraordinary to me that, despite my hometown’s rank as one of the safest cities in the nation, there is still such a large amount of homeless living here. I suppose I hardly need say that helping those less fortunate than yourself always makes you thankful for what you have. I admit that there are times when I’m too apt to be dissatisfied with my life. After living on my own in another country, especially in such an exciting city as was London, going back home can be kind of depressing. As explained in my last post, I moved back home to live with family after graduating from college in London, and I am now in the process of job searching. People keep telling me how bad the job market is out there. Here I am, a college graduate living with relatives, and apparently I’m entering the job market at a very difficult time. It’s no wonder that I sometimes feel anxious about my life and my situation.

My volunteer work, however, has given me a little more perspective. I arrived at the church in the evening and met with a girl named Liz, the supervisor of the food drive for which I was volunteering. She was a hip, attractive, red-headed young woman sporting an edgy, shoulder-length hair cut. She introduced herself, unloaded the blankets and bags of food from her car, and then led me inside. The room we were in was small and plain. Liz explained to me that it was used every Monday as a soup kitchen and sleeping place for the local homeless, and that we volunteers were there to help set up and prepare for their arrival. We placed mats, blankets and sleeping bags along the perimeter of the room and arranged the food – vegetables, fruit, and pizza – on a small table. It wasn’t long before the homeless began to show up. They arrived one after the other – ashen-faced, carrying all of their belongings in backpacks and satchels. There were men and women alike, most of them middle-aged or older. We served them food and coffee, and did our best to make them feel comfortable. One woman in particular caught my attention. She was tall and thin, with straight, sandy-colored hair and a long, narrow, care-worn face. Despite her somewhat ragged appearance, she didn’t look like the stereotypical vagrant. Had I passed her on the street during the day, I never would have guessed that she was homeless. I’ve often read that the majority of the nation’s homeless are either drug addicts or mentally ill.  This woman was neither. She was completely normal and quite intelligent. She was, in fact, a working-class adult who had hit hard times. When I spoke with her, she explained to me that she was “newly homeless”. She had originally made her living as a cab driver, and this occupation had sustained her for some years. The recession, however, had taken its toll. She explained to me that fewer and fewer people were paying for cabs, and that competition had become too harsh for her to handle. She had lost her job and, no longer able to pay her rent, she had lost her home. During the conversation, she asked me what I did for a living. I told her that I was a college graduate and aspiring writer.

“Oh,” she said, “I’d always wanted to write. Children’s novels, actually.”

“Really?” I said. “That’s great! You should do it!”

“Maybe,” she said. She shrugged her shoulders. “I never really had the time. I’m sure you’d be much better at it than me, though. You’re the one who’s educated.” She smiled.

“But that doesn’t matter,” I insisted. “I’m sure you’d have a lot of cool stories to tell.”

She shrugged her shoulders again. “Nah, that’s alright. You’re a sweet girl, though. Thanks for the food and blankets.”

I didn’t speak to her long enough to learn whether she had any friends or relations to help her. I guess she didn’t, given the circumstances. What a strange coincidence, I thought to myself. We were two people with the same dream, but with vastly different lives. And, if I’m being honest with myself, fate had presented us with vastly different opportunities – dealt us immensely different hands. Hearing her story made me much more grateful to be where I am. What right do I have to complain, really? Through the support of my family, I’ve had the opportunity to attend school and acquire two degrees – something many Americans have been unable to afford. I’ve also lived in another country for an extended period of time. How many people can say that? Right now, I’m living with my uncle and his family in a nice house, situated on top of a hill on a beautiful tree-lined street. It’s quiet and peaceful, especially in the early evenings, when the hazy yellow sun hits the craggy hills behind the house, and all you can hear is the faintest breath of wind. If you climb to the very top of the street, you can look out over the tips of the trees and see a spectacular view of the entire valley below. It’s not a boring place, not at all. My hometown is really quite beautiful, when I stop to look at it. Come to think of it…those are the key words. Stop. Look. Slow down and enjoy what you see around you, even if you’ve seen it a million times. It’s an almost meditative process, really. And in today’s fast-paced, tech-savvy world, I don’t think we slow down enough to appreciate our own lives.

Take the time to re-explore the familiar. Slow down and look with new eyes — with renewed vigor. You may be surprised by what you find.