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11 May 2012

The Noodle Shop Refuge

呼和浩特火车站 , 内蒙古  Hohhot Train Station, Inner Mongolia

The train arrives early in the morning. Seven a.m. On the platform I am shocked by the frigid pre-dawn air. My nostril hairs coalesce and freeze to the inner walls of my nose. Breath clouds condense into ice crystals and flutter to the pavement as new-fallen snow.

Out of the station, I seek breakfast. I am hungry and need heat. My stacks of warm layers are failing me. Woolen high socks, long underwear tops and bottoms, thick pants, fleece, gloves, hat, scarf, long wool coat. My fingers and toes are fast transforming into blocks of wood. The cold doesn't notice that I want it to stay out.

I sidle into an alley, following a gaggle of blue-green uniformed school children. Urban survival tactics. Follow the kids to food. The hub is a Hui noodle place, similar to the kind we have in Yinchuan, with children swarming in and out of it. The warmth and bustling atmosphere sucks me in and sits me down. Cliques of kids gather round each low table, gabbing, scarfing breakfast, copying homework. The place is buzzing like a hip bar at midnight, but with a youthful spark that adults typically bury sometime in their teens.

One boy laughs and pokes his chubby friend in the chest. Not to take such an assault lightly, the second boy pushes his round belly forward and bounces the poker out of the circle of children. Roars of laughter. A light-hearted scuffle ensues. Another boy with glasses and a very serious look on his face swats the ruffians away while he feverishly tries to copy a friend's homework before class begins. He's running out of time. My egg noodle soup arrives.

School time approaches and the crowd thins. Kids grab books and scramble out into the icebox. None are wearing warm hats or gloves. Just their warm-ups and yellow baseball hat, standard school uniform. I'm not too surprised, having seen the industrial thickness long johns all Chinese own and wear under their clothes. And they don't stop at one pair: more layers of underwear equals more warmth. It's a simple formula.

"So remember, we're parked right next to the golden elephant with the monkey and bird on its back."
The hearty soup disappears fast from my bowl. Fried egg, noodles, suantai, the crunchy, tasty green stem that grows off the top of a garlic bulb, and spicy broth. Warming from the inside out. Reluctant to exit this cocoon of comfort, I pull out a book and get cozy on the dented metal stool. Clangs emanate from the kitchen. Steam clouds the glass doors and condensation drips down the mirrors lining both walls of the narrow shop. There is a small break in one of the mirrors where a tattered menu with the list of noddle dishes hangs.

The famed Wutasi, Five Pagoda Temple, at nightfall.
I've learned over time that, unlike the US, when seeking out a restaurant of high quality in China you must find the dingiest joint possible. The one with the busted door, white tile walls, tiny, uncomfortable seats, and god-awful lighting is bound to have the finest cuisine. Good service doesn't always come with great food, but you'll find that a smile goes a long way with any disgruntled fuwuyuan, waiter or waitress. Most are pretty excited to have a foreigner in their midst.This noodle shop has highly satisfactory decor, as decor goes. And fine service with a grin.

Fully warmed and satiated, I decide to brave the elements once more. I've got places to get to. The laoban, proprietor of said establishment, informs me of how to get to the Agricultural University by bus. I am taking an exam there in two days and seek to create a hassle free test day by locating the place first thing. The magnetic pull of the warm, delicious refuge is difficult to overcome, but I finally break free of its spell and march into the cold.

04 January 2012

2012: The Year to Follow Your Dreams

A few days before the New Year I was talking with my sister, Kate, when a realization dawned on me. Over about a year's worth of conversations I had noted that more often than not she was lacking her usual luster, like someone had turned the volume down in her life. Absent was the buoyant, airy, sparkling energy I know is native within her. We explored some possible origins of these sentiments and unearthed what seemed like a likely cause: not following her dream.

My mom and Kate, two of the prettiest ladies I know.
Kate is living in New York City, an infamously rough place to reside, survive, and thrive in, and it has been eating at her. But she is there for a reason. New York is one of two American foci of the acting universe, a center-point that the film and theater world revolves around. To be in New York is to be in the thick of it, a cultural capital of the art and the craft. And Kate wants to act. That is her dream.

But there has been a disconnect. Kate is in the right place and she's thinking about acting, but not actualizing her potential. She hasn't actively been seeking, pushing towards, discovering her life as an actress. And this has been the cause of her unhappiness. Kate has identified her dream, she knows it, it resides in her heart. But instead of swimming all out toward that goal, digging into her reserves with every stroke, she has just been treading water.

A breaching humpback in Icy Strait, Alaska. Photo by my mom.
And how many of us are doing that right now? Treading water? Getting exhausted there in the open ocean while our unexplored island is just on the horizon? How many of us have tasted inspiration, been invigorated by an activity, or been driven toward an unlikely goal, only to then ignore those impulses, just sweep them under the carpet like so many dust bunnies? Dreaming is impractical (so we are instructed by our culture), it goes against productivity, economic growth, and security. It's risky to dream, and risk is scary.

A stunning fall day in the Elk Mountains, Colorado.
But who cares? Why live according to a boring formula that does not suit us? Why plod along a paved super highway with reinforced guardrails penning us in, the black asphalt stretching on forever in a long line of cars? Why live a mundane life?

Equally as important as acknowledging our dreams is acting on them. It takes hard work to get anywhere. If you want to be good at something, do it. Master it. Make it a focus of your life. When we are working hard, focusing with a clear mind on our task, the universe then conspires in our favor and our life begins to drip with serendipity.

This kind of action, this sort of embracing, is not easy. It often involves sacrifice. Paring down your life so you can focus on your dream. Dropping excess baggage can be psychologically demanding when we've been holding onto it with a white-knuckled death grip for years. Radical lifestyle changes or periods of uncertainty can set us free, but it is frightening to take these kinds of risks.

The lovely Erin Fleming framing Wilson's Arch, Utah.
Seeing as 2012 is alternatively going to be the end of the world or the beginning of a global spiritual transformation, why not end our habitual ignoring of what matters most? Let us embrace our dreams, dare to follow our hearts, and live our lives, instead of waiting for them to live us. The only moment to enact change is now. And since we all could die tomorrow (whether from global apocalyptic catastrophe or a car wreck), now seems like a pretty good time to begin to live.

Kate and I inspired each other. We volleyed ideas and they gained weight with each transfer. Let's stop wondering how to live a happy life and instead just do it. We have both clearly identified a craft we want to pursue, to fully embrace and give it a chance. See if it fits. Then if it doesn't, we can happily discard it and move on, knowing that we gave it a go. Up until now we have been floating, not entirely idle, but also not emphatically driving toward our goals. I want to write. She wants to act. Now we shall turn want into action.

With one life to live, who can afford to wait? Let us launch headfirst into 2012, The Year to Follow Your Dreams, and encourage ourselves and those around us to shed our unnecessary burdens and discover our potential for happiness and fulfillment. To try what we've always wanted to try. To follow our hearts. To ditch the asphalt and walk down the yellow brick road instead.

(Just another day on the job. Laurelyn and I enjoying the wonders of Green Lakes Valley, Colorado. Summer 2010.)