Archive for May, 2012

Japanese Gardens

Saturday, May 26th, 2012

Raked ground "ocean" and rock islands

Japanese Garden bamboo

Recently I had some time between two places I needed to be and a free ticket to the Japanese Friendship Garden in Balboa Park so I thought I’d zip in, see it quickly, and be on my way.

Wrong! Can you zip through something Zen? No.

The garden is there as a calm place of refuge. So, no zipping. Funny how it works. The entire garden is a place of stillness, designed to be a retreat from hectic daily life. I was lucky to be the only one there first thing in the morning when it just opened. So I did have a solitary experience. But I’ve been to see the polar bears at the zoo first thing in the morning and, trust me, alone in a garden is not the same as alone watching huge things splash in water.

The path through the garden gently curves and is made of different textures, not an even surface, so you have to pay attention to where you are putting your foot. It gently suggests that we pay attention.

The garden is very carefully designed to display certain principles and symbols and to share space with the surrounding southern California canyon that it looks down on. I know something of the symbolism of rocks and water from Chinese painting and a Japanese garden incorporates rocks and water as expressions of a wider world. Japan is a nation of 3000 islands. Naturally water is important. So water basins and waterfalls are in the garden to reflect that larger environment and to produce the calming sounds of water.

Water Basin

Rain water in stepping stone


Water basins and ponds do that. When I was there, it had just rained and I had the additional pleasure of seeing water caught by chance in a stepping stone. Water, the ocean, is also represented by raked sand or gravel. Koi represent longevity but these guys are used to tourists and are pushy fatsos. They rushed to the rim of the pond as I stood there, barging into one another with mouths wide open, obviously looking to be fed. They are a bit of comedy in the garden.

Rocks, usually an odd number of rocks, represent islands. Bonsai trees, living trees sculpted as miniatures, bring to view the gnarled twists of large trunks. Both present the concept of the garden as a reduced scale of a wider world.


The Exhibit Hall had some of Taemi Tsuda’s botanical illustrations. They are detailed studies of small things, cherries, crab apples, crocus. Very much the same subjects as Chinese painting. Here, though, the paintings show the vitality of the object through its botanical details. I couldn’t get a picture of them but the exhibit is there until June 3, 2012.

Taemi Tsuda’s small paintings were my favorite “encounter” in the garden.

Except for the fatso Koi.


Book Review: The Milestone Tapes

Friday, May 18th, 2012

In her novel The Milestone Tapes Ashley Mackler-Paternostro tackles the difficult subject of dying.

The story centers around Jenna, a young wife and mother who is dying of cancer. Jenna tries to anticipate what her husband and daughter will do without her; she remembers the milestones of her life. She wants her own life to have been significant; she wants her daughter to remember her. To accomplish all this she chooses ten milestones from her own life, records the story of each, and leaves the tapes for her daughter to listen to when she passes the same milestones. That is how Jenna copes with “the hopeless realization that life will go on without her.”

The first part of the novel shows us Jenna in the present: the story of her life completed. The second part is her grown daughter’s story and the retelling of her mother’s life via the recorded memories.  This is a good plot device for presenting characters. Much of Jenna’s coming to grips with death is tedious–her hearing her medical details, her changing energy levels and fatigue. Mackler-Paternostro show us that. But mainly she shows us Jenna’s life prior to the diagnosis of cancer, her husband’s love, her own mother’s death. And a nice use of a subplot is Jenna’s sister Sophia’s life deconstructing in divorce as Jenna’s life is approaching death. With Jenna’s daughter’s seventh birthday party, Mackler-Paternostro juxtaposes a young, growing life with one that is ending. So we see the circular nature of reality.

The story is most effective and the scenes most engaging when presented in present tense with dialogue rather than recounted in a distant narrator’s voice. We feel the characters in that intimate presentation, as when Jenna’s husband says, “You’re here, and that’s all I’m focused on. You, right now–that’s it.” When Mackler-Paternostro shows us Jenna from within, the character is powerful:  “The comment was loaded. Jenna could feel its sharp edges.”

Less effective is the remote story telling:  “Jenna would sit up at night. . . .”; “They would often open a bottle of wine. . . .”; “Four years in Port Angeles flowed by.” When we are only told what happened, rather than put in a scene to hear the dialogue and feel the emotions, we lose contact with the characters.

Mackler-Paternostro gives some nice descriptions (we wish for more): “The evening mist rolled in, light, like the shaking of a snow-globe, swirling, disappearing before it reached the ground.” And “Thick waves of grey clouds spit a faint mist against the picture windows. . . .”

One line seems to catch the whole story: “Sophia worried a loose thread on her light, summer weight sweater.”

Like a loose thread, Jenna’s life needs tying up, fixing, sorting out. It is a life which only has one more summer to live.  So The Milestone Tapes touches on that loose thread and deals with it for us.

Museum of Making Music

Thursday, May 3rd, 2012

View from Museum of Making Music

Music Merchants Building, Carlsbad

Up the hill from the Pacific and the Carlsbad Flower Fields and to the side of Lego Land there is a charming museum all about music–things to play it with and its American history from 1900 to present. It is a small space tucked into the larger business building of the National Association of Music Merchants.

The museum space is divided into five galleries arranged chronologically. Each combines written, audio, and displays of musical instruments and music producers.  Lots of buttons to push to hear history and samples of music. Lots to read about the displays. A some very nice “play me” instruments that you can strum or drum and listen to yourself through headphones. Gallery 1 shares with us the early piano and organ music of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s highlighting John Philip Sousa and Tin Pan Alley. The history of music marketing and manufacturing is detailed more on the web site so you don’t need to take notes as you go from gallery to gallery. It’s a wonderful web site.


display of instruments

Gallery 2 takes us into the “Roaring Twenties”, jazz, player pianos, and phonographs. Gallery 3 moves to the mid-thirties and the forties; Gallery 4 into the 1950’s, Elvis, and skyrocketing guitar sales. Gallery 5 brings us into the 1980’s and the different Rock styles. The audios and displays really highlight each time period. The instruments are carefully preserved in cases, from violins to accordions to  a valve trombone.  If you know the instruments you can spend a lot of time finding the one you used to play.

You absolutely have to put on the head phones and strum or tap on the beautiful strings and drums as they come along with the sections.  I tried the harp and the steel drums but I bet the guitars get a lot of  use.

"play me" harp

"play me" guitar