Tuesday, December 23, 2008




You know that you have arrived at a certain point in your life when the only lust that you feel is for a mini-van. In my younger days, I drove many makes and models of vehicles, mostly bought very used and cheap from a relative or friend. The first car I owned was a 65’ Chevy Impala three door that I bought for $100.00 from one of my brothers, I don’t remember which one since they both had owned it back and forth a few times. It had once been a four door until one of my brothers; again I can’t remember which one, got mad at it one day and kicked in one of the back doors so hard it would no longer open. I was twenty-one and in college and to that point I had either ridden my bike to get somewhere on campus or taken the bus, all well and good if you are going to class, but quite difficult if you were trying to do the grocery shopping, not to mention I went to college in northern Ohio where the winters and snow last half the year so no bike riding most of the school year anyway. Though this first car was somewhat a sad thing, it ran and was welcome, although it burned almost as much oil as it did gasoline leaving a huge cloud of heavy white smoke in my wake. And if it hit a bump at a rate of speed higher than 10 miles an hour, the whole thing began to shake and quake violently for a few minutes until it settled itself down again. I sold it a couple of years later for $50.00 to some high school kid, that car sure did get around; bless its little metal heart.

At some point not long after the Chevy I got an old Delta 88 that I was convinced was trying to kill me. Its wheels came off twice! The first time it was a broken tie rod. The second time something somehow sheared the center part of the wheel rim away, it looked like someone had come along and used a giant can opener on it. Both times I was able to feel something was wrong and pull over before the wheel completely fell off. Finally, I went out one morning and when I started it the battery exploded and the hood flew up and I decided that I had had enough! I got the title out of the house, laid it on the seat along with the keys and called the junk yard to come get it.

The one exception to my ownership of used cars was a 1994 Ford Ranger, the only new automobile that I have ever bought from a dealer. I drove that little truck to 275K without once changing the timing belt and it was still going strong when I sold it. That was the vehicle I owned when I adopted my first daughter 7 years ago, but having a baby in the front of a truck just plain wasn’t safe or comfortable, so I also got a used 1994 Isuzu Trooper, which was like driving a tank; it could plow through just about anything. That one I sold several years ago, again, still going strong at 300K and with its original engine! You can’t say I don’t get my money’s worth when it comes to vehicles I’ve owned.

The car/truck I have been driving for the past 3 years is an old Ford Explorer, again, bought used from a family friend and believe it or not, it is a 1994 model… I just can’t seem to get beyond that year. It now has 185K on it, has only two doors and I have two rather large child seats in the back. I have become amazingly adept at lifting my youngest, who weighs 23 pounds, one handed into her car seat on the opposite side of the back seat, then stretching the length of the car to strap her in, then somehow managing to wiggle my way out again, I must then wait for daughter #1 to get in and settled then readjust my driver’s seat for the billionth time and get myself in. When it is raining we all get soaked and cranky going through this procedure, the mom most of all. Once recently, there was a piece of paper on the backseat floor and as I was kneeling on it to strap in daughter #2 the paper caused my knee to slid sideways and I ended up stuck on my belly with my legs poking out and waving helplessly. I had to reach around and push the front seat adjustment forward in order to give myself enough room to get some leverage, (thank goodness for yoga!), my 8 year old laughing her head off at me the entire time. Oh, my lost dignity.

Although this old Ford has been amazingly faithful, and I bless it and give it a little encouraging pat each time it starts in the morning, I have for some time (some time being at least seven years now) lusted after a mini-van. I have always bought what works for my lifestyle rather than what looks good, trucks and small SUVs have worked for me because I have two kids, two pigs, two dogs and a cat to haul, and all the stuff that goes with that kind of brood; groceries, bags of feed, bales of straw, bicycles, the occasional stray creature, not to mention garage sale purchases that might require a bit of room. Plus, I commute about 90 miles a day for work and have relatives that live from Ohio to Florida, requiring space to have handy whatever we might need for whatever situation might arise. I have a very strong Boy Scout mentality (“always be prepared”), so should a situation ever arise where we might be required to live in our vehicle for say a week, I’m ready! Food, water, stroller, books, toys, diapers, candles, matches, glow sticks, blankets, bungee cords, rope, flash lights, hand warmers, gloves, hats, extra clothes, weather radio, tissues, baby wipes, karate gear, plastic bags, maps, port-a-potty, yup, I’ve got it all. Can you say “preparedness”? Needless to say, we need some travelin’ room when we roll, so a mini-van, which in reality are not really all that mini, is what I have had my eye on for years but have been unable to budget for. Though as the Explorer began its inevitable wind down, and I adopted a second child this past September, I just had to try and swing it. I have been saving and had planned to go to the local CarMax in January in hopes that I could find a deal. I was hoping they would be desperate and had been keeping a watch on the internet to see if prices were coming down at all…nope, but I was gonna try and get what I wanted for the price I could afford. Then, out of the blue this week, a co-worker in my department sent around an email offering her 2005 Honda Odyssey for sale for 2K less than I wanted to spend and half of what I thought I would have to spend! Wah hoo! I stared at the email a moment in wonder, what a fabulous coincidence! “M.”, my co-worker, is well organized and meticulous, her family had bought the van new and I knew it would have been well taken care of, and sure enough, she had all of the service records in order in a binder; every oil change! The van was spotless and she was even going to throw in the dual DVD player. I told her that if she threw in the holiday air freshener dangling from the gear shift we had a deal and within 30 minutes it was mine, the object of my long held desire!

As we went over where everything was and how everything worked, M. practically apologized saying that it was a basic model and didn’t have all the fancy features that it could have had. Are you kidding me? This amazing vehicle appears downright futuristic to me, the newest vehicle I have owned was made in 1994! I’ve never even owned a car with airbags before and this van not only has them in front but on the sides. The dash board panel glows like a space ship and tells me if the van needs something, this is more than my kids currently do. It balances itself, it self regulates, and it lets you know when something is wrong, even if your tires need air, goodness! Its passenger side airbag activates automatically only if someone larger than a child is sitting in it. This van’s keyless entry (that cool little push button door unlocker thingy), makes the use of a key to unlock anything almost crude, no more fumbling in the dark to find the keyhole while hold one child in my arms and having the other jump up and down beside me in her impatience to get in, with a push of a button on come the lights and open go the doors, fantastic! It has little cubbies everywhere to store stuff, even in the floor! And cup holders! Lots of them! A family can never have too many cup holders. It has a CD player; my last car had only a broken tape player. And FOUR doors?! Two of them sliding? Oh wow! I feel like I am finally taking the great leap forward! But of course, you who live in the 21st century are already familiar with these kinds of features.
Of course, there has been some getting used to this new-fangled family conveyer, like the first time I stopped to get gas and couldn’t figure out how the little gas door opened since it apparently locked automatically when closed. There I was, running late to work, 17° outside, hunting for some sort of button or latch amongst all of the controls. Just when I was about to resort to the manual, I found it down by my left foot, fortunately, it had a little image of a gas pump on it, otherwise I would not have guessed that that was what I was looking for.

And the second day I owned the van I put the key in my pocket while helping the kids out of it and apparently leaned against the panic button! Yikes, the lights flashed, the horn kept up a loud distressed honking, I looked around in horror... Lucky for me I had asked M. that very day what would happen if I pressed that button, so I knew that was what had probably happened. I didn’t ask how to make it stop however, I tried pressing the button a second time and that caused it to cease. Whew!

So we now ride in the lap of relative luxury among modern conveniences. I feel so much safer now and driving is, well, if not a pleasure, at least more enjoyable than it used to be. The kids of course love it almost as much as I do. Although daughter #1, in her loyalty, wanted to know what would now happen to our poor old Ford, anyone in the market for a mature but sturdy Explorer cheap? We’ll throw in a holiday airfreshener.

Just as a side note: In China, their mini-vans truly are mini (see photo). They were incredibly cute and actually looked like there was a decent amount of space on the interior. Unfortunately, they were not mini enough to fit into my suit case.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008


All the tea trees in the world have their organs either directly or indirectly from China, and Asia still produces 90% of the world’s output. China’s tea culture dates back to as early as six thousand years and along with silk and porcelain, was introduced to most of the rest of the world about one thousand years ago. Not until the seventeenth century though did it become the latest craze in Europe and America.

While in Beijing, we were taken to the Lao She Teahouse, which is an amazing combination tea museum, tea café and entertainment house where a succession of short shows are performed before a live audience. Guest are treated not only to examples of time-honored Chinese entertainment forms, but are also served a menu of traditional tea cakes and most importantly several different kinds of tea, one for each season.

Our guide Judy arrived with us to the tea house but didn’t stay to watch the performance. She said she had seen it several times and told us that most young people are not really interested in this kind of “old fashioned” theater. She said she might go off and probably text her friends and meet us after the show was over. And I couldn’t blame her, it had been a very long day of steering us around Beijing, we had already been to the local “Dirt Market” (kind of like a giant flea market), and to the Han MeiLin Museum, both of which I will write about later. And now it was into the evening and she had brought us to the teahouse, she deserved a break from us, no doubt.

Upon entering the Lao She Teahouse we were greeted with musicians playing water harps and an Er-Hu, a two-stringed fiddle whose base is positioned on the knee and bowed. The two together produced a sweet and delicate sound in which to browse the first floor with its indoor fish pond. Making our way up the grand staircase we viewed many displays of traditional Beijing Opera costumes, beautiful artwork; paintings and calligraphy, and a really cool set of panoramas depicting the evolvement of the Chinese tea house. (see photos)

The room in which the performances were to take place was crowded with elaborately carved square tables and chairs. Chairs being arranged all around the table right up against each other so that it was difficult to get in and out, but cozy. We shared our table with several other guests. Throughout the approximately two hours that we were entertained I was amused also with watching the audience. What did others find exceptionally worthy of applause? What made them oooww and ahhhh or left them flat? I was also puzzled as to the actions of several of the audience members around us. One woman at our table who told us she was visiting from, um, can’t remember, but some other country besides the USA or China, was there because she had traveled with her boyfriend who had business in China but was now busy with a meeting. She had brought her laptop computer and stayed on it the entire show, barely glancing up at the wonderful acts. Then she and a server spent a lot of time negotiating the sale of a large quantity of moon cakes, the conversation just went on and on… and on, until she finally obtained a huge stack of boxed cakes. Another young Chinese woman behind us was texting on her cell phone the whole time while one of her companions actually lay down across the chairs and fell asleep! There were quite a few tables that engaged in conversation throughout the performances, though generally in undertones. Which all made me wonder why many of the audience had come to the tea house at all if not for the entertainment?

The first act up was a Tea Ceremony; a woman dressed in traditional clothing gracefully prepared a cup of tea while a musician played the Er-Hu. This was the spring tea, a light and refreshing green tea which was being served up to us in traditional covered tea cups as we watched the performance. Further delicacies were placed before us such as green tea cakes, small tasty spring rolls, sweet and delicate candied crab apples and of course, Moon Cakes, it was after all the first day of the Moon Festival. Between the acts at intervals the next “season” was represented with another tea preparation demonstrated and a new tea served to us. The tea leaves were loose inside the cup and before she left us, Judy had demonstrated the proper way in which to hold and use the cup; the hand holding the cup part sort of reaches around away from the body and the cup is tilted forward while the other hand is used to position the lid for blocking the flow of the tea leaves. It was a bit awkward, but indeed, looked quite elegant when done right. We all pretty much resorted to our old clod-hopping American ways after a few sips done properly. The tea representing summer was cold, I wasn’t expecting that, I always think of Chinese tea as being served hot.

We were thrillingly entertained for over two hours with a magic show, and short selections from Beijing Opera; a man and a woman appeared on stage dressed in resplendent costume with full face paint and high pitched voices. Quite unlike anything in Western culture’s entertainment venue and though interesting, we decided we were glad that we hadn’t elected to attend a full performance of Opera which could mean many hours of gong banging and singing in a language we couldn’t understand.(Go here for a performance clip)

There was also a master opera “face changer”. This is really fun to watch, a masked person, in this case a man, comes out in full opera regalia. The mask he wears is highly detailed and elaborate. He prances here and there, sometimes spinning on the spot and when he is facing you again, the mask has magically and completely changed! Or he will put his hand before his face moving it from top to bottom and a new face on the mask will have appeared by the time his hand has reached his chin. He even got right down into the audience so that people could witness the change up close, and still it was remarkable. (Go here for an example of this kind of performance).

Another performer was part musician, part comedian; he did amazing bird calls as well as used his voice to imitate a high pitched musical instrument, everyone laughed and clapped at this, and it did sound quite funny. Lily especially liked his recital as well as the shadow puppet play which was fun!

There were women with rings and sticks that twirled and tossed and spun. There was a magic show and acrobats and a very entertaining “long spouted teapot” pouring performance where men with tea pots that have spouts that are about 3 feet long prance and twirl and seemed to defy gravity while dispensing into tiny cups in unison their important amber liquid.

The evening ended with a Kung Fu demonstration, with bare chested men flying through the air over one another and tumbling and kicking and chopping. Lily has been a marshal arts student for three years now, so she was quite impressed seeing what could be done if one just practiced enough.

The evening was enjoyable and tasty, the perfect ending to a lovely day visiting several exciting Beijing sites.

KKW ©2008