Monday, July 27, 2009

Famous Cam Still Working

After seeing Half Blood Prince recently, Cameron and I have been working our way back through the earlier books and movies. Honestly, I'm gonig to feel a pang when it's all over. I actually found myself worrying about the final movie(s) and how they'll treat certain scenes, or even if they'll include them...silly, because even through we are very big fans here, we really don't take things personally when it comes to the movies.

We also laughed especially at some of the big action scenes--Quidditch, for example, or the GoF sequence where Harry fights the dragon--because it really is movie magic that turns a hell of a lot of standing around into what you see on the screen. With all those special effects, what the actors are actually doing bears little resemblence to what you see...and the setup would take hours for each shot. I assumed that multiple cameras were shooting multiple angles on shots--they are, but scenes are filmed, then re-set up (lights, props, etc.) for a different camera and a different angle. So a scene might be done several times for one angle, then reset up for several times at another angle, and then again...

Last week, as many of you know, Famous Cam went to work, leaving the house at 4:30 am and returning at 8:30 pm. It was brutally hot and humid that day, and he was at the Forbidden City (nary a tree in sight) wearing pants. He spent about 5 of those hours in front of the camera.

Today he left at 6:00 am and go back about 6:30 pm. He spent about 2 hours in front of the camera, all of it sitting in a cafeteria. It is unbelievingly, mindnumbingly dull, at least for the extras. Jaden Smith, the lead, comes and goes throughout the day; presumably he has other things he's working on or rehearsing, or he's doing school work. But it does mean that he (a 12 year old) works 15 hours a day, 6 days a week, which is pretty amazing. It's clearly an industry where, no matter what you're doing, you spend a lot of time waiting for someone else to do their thing. I suppose the leads and the directors are constantly busy, but there are always so many people just waiting for whatever it is they do to happen.

I confess, I stopped going. Really, watching Will Smith for 12 hours just wasn't worth it. And when the kids are on set being filmed, it can be difficult to see them and impossible to hear anything--Cameron can barely hear the dialogue when he's in the scene! He continues to be happy for the opportunity, but happy on the days he doesn't have to go, too. He's scheduled for this whole week and has to leave at 5:00 am tomorrow.

Of course, if something like this every showed up, you know I'd be there all day, every day. Pathetic, yes, but true.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Don't They Have People For This Stuff?

By that I mean "people on your own staff", not these helpful folks at Vanity Fair who edited Ms. Palin's resignation speech. It really brings into focus how poorly written it was. Politics aside, it is ridiculous that this woman, or any other public figure with a staff, appears in public sounding the way she does. I think she falls into the very very misguided pit of thinking that a) she can do this sort of stuff herself, and 2) she sounds like regular folks. I think this was an afflication of George Bush as well at times. And don't remind me of Dan Quayle--I never could figure out why the handlers allow them to make so many missteps, given that so much of what they say is prepared for them and (I thought, at least) rehearsed.

Sorry, but this "regular folk" wants those that represent her to be able to construct a complete and concise sentence. Or at least make use of those that can.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Why Are We Here?

We are caught between two worlds. The best and the worst of our current home, and definitely the best of the States. It's no secret that there are a lot of things we don't like about Beijing...most of them having to do with any large city, so living in New York or Chicago would provoke the same feelings...but the living in Asia and all its attendant issues really is pretty good.

But when we go back...the convenience, the ease and comfort of the expected and the predictable. The friends, our family...I remember how much I miss it all. We are having some great experiences and adventures, but trust me...there are many many days when I'd trade it all for cheap groceries and a Target run. For seeing friends and family more often. For knowing how my day will go when I start out. For GoogleMaps and the ability to ask directions and read a road sign. It's not just China. My friend Calandria (you can read her here but her new blog will be here) is moving her family to Spain in a few weeks. They are all fluent in Spanish, but I suspect there will days, even on the blissful Mediterranean, that she'll want to chuck it and run for the good ol' USA. Yet, they're going. And we went. And so do thousands of people--there are approximately 250,000 documented expat workers in Beijing alone!

I can't explain it. Neither Mark nor I are risktakers, really we aren't. Many many days this whole experience still feels like an aberration, a blip in an otherwise comfortable suburban Midwestern existence. I still surprise myself when I think that we may well watch Cameron graduate from high school here. It's just that somewhere there's a little voice in my head that whispers, "Not here" when I think of living in the States. I can't explain it. I feel bad when we talk to friends and I hear them justifying their lives, lives that we lived not too long ago. It's as if they feel like they should do something more or different, or feel somehow "less" because of the decisions we've made. They haven't, obviously. The best thing you can do for your family is to what is best for your family. You do the best you can, you make the best decisions you can. That's all we 've done. And there is a definite cost to living as an expat. Read studies on third or cross-cultural kids and their resulting difficulties from living as expats. Our children live lives that are very normal for them, but will that prepare them for another kind of life? So many times I wonder if we are doing right by them...

And then I hear that voice again. "Not there, not yet." I simultaneously want and don't want my old life back. How can that be?

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Hooray for Harry Potter!

I liked “Half-Blood Prince” movie a lot. After the trainwreck “Order of the Phoenix” HBP was a welcome comeback. Yes, it was definitely stripped down…but it really does have to be…but it did bring back some what I think JK Rowling does so well—the normalcy of teenage life. Admist love potions, hexes, and jinxes, she captures the humor and angst of first loves and the ins and outs of friendships so well. I find myself relating to and remembering similar incidents from my own high school days.

That being said…it is the penultimate movie. Things are moving toward the close and there’s always something, isn’t there?

First of all, Dumbledore. I take this seriously—apparently I haven’t forgiven Richard Harris for dying. I definitely haven’t forgiven the “new” Dumbledore for grabbing and shaking Harry Potter in “Goblet of Fire.” Good grief—Dumbledore never lost his temper, a fact that Michael Gambon might know if he bothered to read the books (which he famously refuses to do). Just look at them…

One looks kindly and grandfatherly, yet you could sense the power behind those twinkling eyes. The other one…looks like he needs a shower. One of the scenes that I thought fell short was Dumbledore’s drinking the potion to retrieve the locket. Knowing what he was reliving, I was expecting to finally see this Dumbledore show some range of emotion. I know Gambon is supposed to be a major theatrical force, but I’ve been so underwhelmed and irritated by him that I was looking forward to seeing him. Alas.

And while we're at it, the Inferi. Corpses raised from the dead to do the Dark Lord's bidding should, I think, look a little less like Gollum and maybe a little more like, oh, I don't know...the undead, perhaps? Just my opinion.

Then there's Snape. Snape is my favorite character, both in the book and on the big screen—he’s so complex and is the mysterious link to so much of the past and the present. A critical scene is when Snape finally takes off the gloves and confesses he’s the Half Blood Prince. His reaction to Harry calling him coward becomes clear eventually, but it is an important piece of understanding his character. To have him quietly mutter a few lines and then walk away was a big disappointment.

In fact, the final battle being eliminated was a bummer. My friend, who hasn’t read any of the books, thought the ending was a letdown, so I’m sure fans did, too. I suppose they are saving up for the big final showdown in the final film. Still, I would have sacrificed the Weasley’s house burning in order to see the final battle. And the Weasley’s—why torch the house? Where are they supposed to live when Harry goes there for his final summer? How are they supposed to have Bill and Fleur’s wedding now? The fan in me is a bit worried about the upcoming films.

Still, it’s been a great ride so far. Cameron was 6 when we first saw “Sorceror’s Stone.” We have been to midnight showings and book sellings. We have debated the merits of the characters and the plots (Dumbledore vs. Gandalf, or Voldemore vs. Magneto in a cage match). We've gone from this:

to this:
The doors that Rowling opened with her stories have been a part of our lives for so long now. We’ve loved every minute!

Too True.

Happiness is not achieved by the conscious pursuit of happiness; it is generally the by-product of other activities.

--Aldous Huxley

It's Times Like These You Really Need a Friend.

Today at the pool a family (mom, dad, little boy) came in. Dad was wearing a Speedo, and I've seen enough of those now that they don't really turn my head. Except Dad's was riding up a bit, reminding me that male waxing is not overrated and leaving me thinking "can't he feel that thing riding up in the back there?"

Then Mom got ready for the sun. And she was wearing...a bikini. Thong. THONG. A full-on butt-baring piece of floss in the back. Yep. She wore it walking to the shade. Bending over to adjust the chaise lounge. Diving into the pool. Surface diving in the pool. Out of the pool. Yep.

Not a Brazlian supermodel. Not an overweight woman who has no business in something like that. Just

And I mourned the absence of all of my friends. Such a topic of conversation should not be wasted and yet, it was. *sigh*

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Bits and Pieces from the Forbidden Palace

This one's for you, Grammy and Grandma!

Incredible detail from an 18th century clock. When the clock strikes the hour, this man writes 8 Chinese characters on a small piece paper with a (real) tiny brush and ink!

16th century water clock.

Detailing from a model showing the earth, the moon, and the sun.

Handle on a large copper vat for water storage in case of fire.

Crazy water spout.

Military uniforms from the 15th century.

Detailing from the emperor's walkway.

Forbidden City

Who hasn't heard of the Forbidden City? Construction finished in 1420 and it was the palace for the emperors of the Qing and Ming dynasties until 1911. Like many historic buildings in China, though, what you see is not the original. Many of China's buildings were made of wood--fires and wars over the centuries destroyed most of the original structures. It's hard to imagine the scope of the palace...but at 7.8 million square feet, it's BIG. Big enough, at least, that the millions of Chinese that were there didn't make it seem too crowded!

As the sacred residence, the Forbidden City was well-fortified. In addition to the Great Wall up north, the city (Beijing) at that time was surrounded by a wall (which was torn down to make the 2nd ring road). The palace itself is surrounded by a huge stone wall and moat. Inside, the City is a huge series of courtyards and gates. Interestingly, it's all paved...the imperial garden is a small patch at the back. It's hard to imagine the thousands and thousands of people that lived there, never venturing outside the walls. The emporer's walkway runs down the north/south axis of the palace and only the emporer was allowed to walk there.

Thousands of pieces of art and history are housed in the City. During the Japanese invasion in the 1940's, many of the pieces were pillaged or sent to Taipei. Enough remain, however, to get an idea of what was happening during the time. The science displays, although small, show the people's interest in astronomy. And the clock display, with clocks both made in China and given as gifts from Europe during the19th and 18th centuries, was spectacular.

Beijing was typically sweltering. It was great touring with Cameron. I've said this before, and he'll wilt with embarrassment (again) when I say that he is a great date for travel. He's easy going, is interested in art and history, knows a lot about a lot of different things, and has stamina. It was fun to have the just the two of us along for the ride today. With life and kids it's hard to get time with just one at a time, especially for a whole day, making this a great day!
I've complained that we haven't seen much of Beijing since we've been here. With Cameron's schedule, he'll have a couple weeks with no work before school starts, so I plan to take in as many sights (a couple a week) as we can. I'm sure Noah will be thrilled when he hears that, knowing how he loooooves to go sight-seeing!

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

First Ever Sneak Peak of Famous Cam on the Set

Haha. Fooled you there, didn't I? For those of you who want to know how exciting it is to be on a movie set, there it is. Even the interest in seeing Will Smith and his family at work does eventually grow old. Cameron was up at 4:00 am and got home at 7:30 (horrid horrid traffic meant a 2 hour drive that took 40 minutes in the morning) and again waited all day, along with 20+ other kids, and then went home. It was overcast and stifling hot. He didn't have to go in today, so he is taking full advantage of sleeping most of the day away.
I know it was hard for him to watch the boy who has the part he wanted who worked all day with the stars. I think Cameron has grown 3+ inches in the past few months and his voice has changed. Standing next to the other boy, he clearly looks and sounds much older and standing next to Jaden Smith and the other Chinese kids he is much older looking--I wonder if that made a difference. Part of it, too, is the extreme boredom waiting. He has to be on the set at all times, so they can't hang out in the (air-conditioned) building, and that wears after awhile.
Watching the process, though, and you realize that EVERYONE stands around A LOT. Except maybe the directors. It takes time to move the lights and equipment. Then stand-ins step in for lighting and planning. Then there's rehearsal, running through the scene several times, stopping to adjust the equipment. Then they start filming, doing the scene multiple times. Then, they repeat all of the above so they can shoot the very same scene from a different angle. Then, again from another angle. The star (Jaden Smith) generally leaves the set when the filming of the scene is done and comes back for the rehearsal and the next filming segment. But there are over 100 people on the set and at any one time 90% of them look like they're just standing around. The "entourage" that goes with Jaden includes a bodyguard, acting coach, tutor, hairstylist, makeup artist, assistant, personal photographer, and other assorted people. It's interesting to see that the Smiths are almost never alone...they are almost alway surrounded by people. I think it would be so tiring, but they are here working so maybe it's because of that that they are always surrounded! You can see why movies cost so much with so many people! And this movie isn't one with special effects, stunts, etc.

This was Cameron's big moment of the day...standing in for the lighting and setup! I do have some other pics of the set, but I'm hesitant to post them. It was surprisingly hard to get shots of Will Smith. Anytime a camera or phone comes out someone pops up and says "no". On the other hand, I have 12 hours a day to absorb it all into my memory!

Tiring? Yes. Interesting, too, though, and I know that once Cameron gets a chance to get started, he'll be having a much better time!

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Steven Curtis Chapman

What a great Sunday to be at church! Steven Curtis Chapman showed and led the service with great music and a great message. We've been big fans of his music over the years. They have adopted 3 children from China (in addition to their 3 biological children who are all teens/young adults) so they have a special connection to this place. One of the children was adopted from an orphanage run by a couple in our church so they have maintained the frienship and financial support of their organization.

It was relatively big news last year when their youngest daughter, who was 4 years old, was killed when one of their older children backed up a car and hit her. It was horrifying to read about something so tragic and you wonder how any family, even a tremendously faithful family, could overcome the pain and guilt of losing a child. As humans we tend to want to believe that good people are exempt from tragedy, yet we all know exceptions to that statement. The Chapman's message today, though, was one of amazing faith and peace. He spoke with such calmness and conviction of the assurance of God's plans and the knowledge that they would be reunited again. It was evident that the pain of losing their daughter was still fresh and very painful; to hear their message of hope and faith was so inspiring.

One of the more challenging verses in the Bible are 'We know that in everything God works for good, to those are called accoring to His purpose." It sounds great in general...but it requires a tremendous act of faith. At those times when you are searching for that good, you are probably in the midst of pain, or confusion, or anger. You probably can't understand why things are happening, or why they are happening to you. And in the midst of everything, you're supposed to look for good? Faith is essential, because so often the good doesn't appear except through hindsight.

It's these kinds of situations where I don't know how people who don't have a faith manage. It's impossible to make sense of something so senseless. One of things that Chapman said today that has kept them going was the knowledge that the past they had shared was small when compared with the future they will have together again someday. They just don't believe that they will never see their daughter again. And their convication gives me hope. It was a powerful reminder that we can't understand everything that happen, either to us or around us. We can't, and we don't have to. We can place our faith in God, who is beside us every day, to carry us when we can't walk, to guide us through the darkest times, knowing that in the end we will see everything clearly.

Through the donations and support as a result of their loss the Chapmans have funded a project in China called Maria's Big House of Hope. It's a center that provides medical services for special needs children and orphans, a service that is desperately needed here.

It great how things work--an unexpected treat like Steven Curtis Chapman leads to a profound message, which leads to a sense of peace that is still with me. I hope the Chapmans know that they are working the good in their message and their music.

German Shepherd in Training

Saturday, July 11, 2009

One Wacky Cat

After taking 40 pics this morning, this is the only one where Mao is actually standing...although I think that gleam in his eye is not due to the camera flash. Mao is a great cat--affectionate, sweet, loving. He adores Peter and often shows his affection by ambushing him when he walks by or gently waking him up by gnawing on his ear or tail.

On the other hand...people either love cats or really hate them. And Mao is the walking talking embodiment of what people find bizarre about cats. Now that I've spent a few days at home in the house with him (and granted, he was alone for 3 weeks, so he may just be overly happy to see me still) and there are issues. First, he talks. ALL. THE. TIME. He's banned from bedrooms because he loves to sit right on your chest and talk to you at 4 am about all his woes. He follows me through the house, talking non-stop. Meow, meow, meow, meow.

Ava and Noah collect things. All of Noah's elephants are missing their trunks. Ava has lost several cats' ears and tails. Yesterday morning, I watched Mao get on the bathroom counter and systematically knock each and every bottle off the counter. Very calmly. Later, I watched him try to clear the dining room ledge under the window. This explains a lot.

We have a large baobob tree made of banana leaves that we used as a Christmas tree in Tanzania. It's not long for this world now--Mao has gnawed holes, loosened branches and pounced it over and over every day.
He's very tidy. After he uses his litterbox, he is very careful to cover his business...he sometimes spends 10 minutes or so covering things up. Scratchscratchscratchscratchscratch.

This morning I was trying out a new yoga tape (which I'm sure is very relaxing once you can do the poses without your arms shaking like aspens in a windstorm and you catch your breath). Mao spent the 40 minutes racing back and forth through the house. Up and over the furniture (my leather chair bears scars now). Under and over the table. Up and down the stairs. Back arched, tailed puffed. No leaf on any plant is safe. A brief pause to clear the dining room table of my cell phone, a basket of pens and pencils, and 3 dvds, then back to racing through the house.

He really is something else. I just never noticed it before at this level.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

The Point of Arkansas

There are, of course, a few people (those that live in Arkansas, for example) who already know what the point of Arkansas is. For us, it was a spectacular lake, a wonderful house, and four practically perfect days with Max and Gina, dear friends from Tanzania.

A Good Day Fishing...

...still requires a lot of patience, because it doesn't go like this:

Just keep waiting...

Just keep waiting...

Just keep waiting...

Sometimes the pros take some time to trade fishing tips and advice.

Everyone can always learn something new, right?

Attitude (and a good sense of style) goes a long way.

But with the right teachers...

Finally, there's the pay-off!