|Conversations with our Parents|
|on the Topics of Everyday Exploration, Play, Learning and Risk|
The following conversation is a composite that has been edited down from three separate conversations, all of which took place during the third week of August 2004. The conversations were conducted via telephone between the cities of Bellevue, Washington; Chicago, Illinois; and Cambridge, Massachusetts. Mary Barry is a retired primary school and special education teacher and the mother of James Barry. Alice Evans is an artist, landscape designer and the mother of Hui-min Tsen. Wen-ti Tsen is an artist, retired union film projectionist and the father of Hui-min Tsen.
James Barry: Okay, so what we’re doing is we’re building a little sailing dinghy, and we’re sailing not really across Lake Michigan but along the shore of Lake Michigan to Indiana and there to Mt. Baldy, and what that is is there’s a whole bunch of sand dunes on the other side of the lake, and they’re really large sand dunes, and right next to Michigan City, IN, there’s one called Mt. Baldy, and so we’re just going to that. It’s like a common place for day trippers from Chicago, and they do a race there every year since the World’s Exposition here in 1893. So we’re sailing there, and we compare ourselves to Magellan and other great explorers and circumnavigators and stuff.
Alice Evans: So what do you want? What’s the tone?
Hui-min Tsen: And so, well, this is more informal just by nature, um so, since it’s a conversation. So we’re just looking for a fairly normal conversation.
HT: Informal, um, and we’ll have a number of topics that we are kind of interested in talking about, but it is really wherever the conversation leads us. We don’t know.
JB: Do have a favorite explorer or era of exploration or anything like that, or just exploration in general, just how do you-- that?
AE: Oh... Oh, how do I get into that? Um, I’m not sure about a favorite era of exploration. I think it’s interesting to try and imagine in the context of the time what these people were setting out to do. I mean a lot comes to my mind, and I think exploration takes place from so many, from so many levels: interior, exterior-- you know very large like, you know-- rock-- you know, space ships going out or people with microscopes, or I mean, its all ideas that are, that are being explored, and that, you know, that change our relationship with the world.
HT: There’s one that you used to mention to me that you really liked that was a botanist.
AE: Oh sure, oh yes, good, that’s... good, you were, yes. I really loved reading about the early botanical ex... um, um, expeditions. I’m talking about mostly the ones that happened here on the American continent. I always sensed there was an idealism and a love for the world that was inherent in some of these explorations, so I love the journals of the, of say William Bartrum and John Bartrum, who set up the first botanical garden in the United States in Philadelphia, and the way they, the way they wrote about plants and the way they exchanged their materials with each other that went across political boundaries. [...] It was when Linnaeus was first beginning to try to categorize, botanical classification. [...] They would, these guys would send collections of seeds and plants packed very, very carefully hoping, to some destination in Europe, hoping that the seeds would still be viable and the, you know, the plants would make it. Um cause, they just wanted to know about the world. [...] So if they-- say some fighting was going on in the Netherlands or France was at war with England, they would send things to Germany or to Sweden and say please hold this for so-and-so until fighting dies down and then forward it, forward it on. There’s a very international society of people, and actually, there was very practical application because they were, they were, you know, looking for better ways to live, and a lot of it was medicinal-- plants that had medicinal application.
HT: Do you enjoy that when you go to someplace new, just wandering around and getting lost?
Mary Barry: Yes, well, when I was younger, I really did get lost on purpose. Basically, let’s take this road that way and see where it ends up. I don’t mind traveling. [...] But now, I don’t-- I really have more of a plan than I did when I was younger, you know, when I go someplace. I know I’m going to be there for a day… I try to do things in a circle, even in my daily life.
HT: Hmm… in what way?
MB: Well, it sounds really weird, doesn’t it? Like when I start, this sounds weird; I don’t know what you’ll think about this, but when I start out the day and I have lots and lots of errands, I think of it as a circle. Starting here and going doo-doo-doo-doo-doo and around and get everything done, and I end up back. Does that make sense?
HT: Physically in a circle?
JB: So you don’t have to backtrack or…
MB: Yeah, like so-- say, I had to do ten stops in a day. Say, I had to first go to work and from work I had to do all these different things, some of them took me to Seattle, some to… so I plan it so I do it so I’m not backtracking, right. I do it like a circle, and I think of it kind of as an adventure. I don’t know if that’s retarded, or if that is… but um, I look at things like that… Let’s do it as a circle.
Wen-ti Tsen: Well discovery, yeah um... the most pointed periods of my life are quite likely through traveling, moving from one point to another. The travels would be like when I left China when I was thirteen and then the journey from China to Europe, to Marseilles in France, and we took an ocean liner, and it took thirty days from one point to another, and every stop that was made was like a discovery, and it, also, it is the transition from the childhood in China to a teenage-hood in Europe now looking back. During that period, there is a lot of observing of all sort of stuff, which is not very clear, but it just opened up all these new territories. Looking back now, it is a demarcation definitely and, which later on, instigated the idea of using travel as always, as a point of new discovery, new finding of self. [...] For me, these discoveries are always a spiral movement, without saying that upwards and downwards aren’t good and bad, but is always a kind of spiral. So when you return to a point, that point is very different from the equivalent point of the spiral, so there’s a three dimensional movement at the same time.
JB: Does this play itself out in your work or in your life in general?
WT: No doubt, yeah-- the art that I do, it’s always like a journey. It’s totally unknown. You go out into something. When it gets to the point of being known, then it just starts to get boring.
JB: But with your, kind of, contemporary life, like right now, do you see, kind of, everyday life exploration-- does it play itself out?
AE: This year, I decided I would make time to work in our own garden again cause I just love... It's not a very big garden; it's a city garden, so it's small, but somehow I've managed-- and I was thinking about this this summer-- I have managed to have that small garden open up like a universe to me. [...] And so, this garden is small, but I've done so much with it, you know, for the years that we've lived here, and I'm just kind of amazed at how, how actively my imagination has been engaged by this not very big garden, and this summer, it has had all these surprises: the way, you know, plants have grown in together or the way the light comes through, or I mean. I've worked to make it look like this, you know, it's not like total accident. I kind of, you know, sort of know what I'm doing, but at the same time when it actually happens, it's endlessly, endlessly, endlessly interesting.
HT: I think it's really wonderful when you explore how much the scale shifts, um, just of the world. Like, you can start looking at something very detailed; like, when we were first beginning this project, and um, it seemed like it would be a very small difference to get to Michigan City. Like it, well-- it didn't seem like it would be that long, and we didn't know the lake conditions. We knew it was just beyond the horizon when from the twelfth floor of the building, where the studios are, we could on a clear day just barely see the factory or the power plant next to Mt. Baldy, but then as we start to try and actually do it, things shift scale. And so, all the things that lead up to sailing there and starting the journey and the journey itself, suddenly, all seems much larger than it did initially.
AE: I think for people who still go out on the water there's no way they can get away from knowing those things, you know, [...] and we had to learn to, you know, take wind and tides into consideration. It gave me a view of the world that the world is very big, very powerful; I'm very small and you, somehow, I mean... [...] This is just some aspect that ties into very big forces. You can't get away from it, you know. You work within, you know, these actual natural parameters.
JB: Yeah, no, no, I grew up next to the coast. I didn't do that much boating or anything, but I grew up next to the ocean, and that was something. Well, there are two things that I always remembered, things that I miss being in the Midwest. I've been here for a while, well eight years now, and it's um like going to the coast looking out over the sea, the other side was, over there, was Japan, and we used to get a lot of, you know, little floats and bottles and different things like that, and that was always amazing to me. And here the other side of the lake it's, it's Michigan. It's not as, as romantic as a totally different culture and stuff. But also when I was a kid we had, my mother used to live out on the ocean, and uh, there was a storm once and it picked up a house, and it pulled it out like a hundred yards, and it flipped it around, and it just dropped it there. It looked totally normal, but it was on the beach.
JB: And um, they actually jacked it up and took it back and put it back exactly where it had been, and it was, it was actually, it was fine. It was this little box house. [laughter, inaudible]
AE: Wow! What an adventure. [...] Did you really actually find things that had floated in from Asia?
JB: Oh, yeah, my mother was, she was a really good beachcomber. We um have, I've got um-- Hui-min's seen it-- I've got a, what do you call it, a lifesaver off a Japanese boat.
JB: And uh-
JB: Whiskey bottle and, uh, and a few floats, those little glass floats, and uh-
JB: They don't use those anymore, though. You can't find them, but she had just tons and tons. When she moved, she gave it all away, but um, we have a few things left.
AE: Oh fantastic! That must have been so exciting.
JB: And uh, there was no TV out there and basically no radio, but you could get AM. You could actually get Russian stations.
HT: Yeah, this is actually something. When we were talking about the conversations, we, we wound up talking about play and you know, and how exploration relates to play and how our project is play, and one of the things we were talking about is that play isn't necessarily for a purpose. You know, you don't know where it's leading you.
MB: I’ve been thinking about your exploration. Do you want to know about different ways you explored as a little kid?... Okay, I’ll tell you one way. Other kids sold lemonade, not you. You had those, I think you must have gotten the rocks at the coast, those flat rocks. You sold rocks. You painted them and sold them. You had little rocks. I remember Grandpa bought some. And you had a sign ‘Rocks for Sale.’ [...] I remember you and your rocks, and the other thing I remember the most was your costumes. This was when you were little, you know. You couldn’t have been more than three or four cause we didn’t have Joe yet, and you were six when Joe came, six-and-a-half. But uh, you would dress up in all these costumes, and one in particular I remember. You were four. We had gone over after Christmas to Seattle, and it snowed, and we couldn’t get the station wagon and all, and we knew we couldn’t get it, so Dad came over, and you were dressed-
JB: Yeah, I remember this. We went to the dentist.
HT: It was just costumes for, not for Halloween or anything?
JB: No, no, it was just normal, everyday kind of things.
MB: I think one of them, it had like an ice pick.
JB: It was a little camping set, I remember it, and a tool backpack.
MB: Yes, I remember that, and then you had stuff around your waist too, and you were wanting to stop the traffic to let me by, you know to cross the street, and Debbie said, 'Mom, I’m not going with that kid.' And then when it really-- it snowed, you said, 'Don’t worry Mom. I’ll get you home. I have this trusted--' I forget what it was, a little-
JB: It was a little shovel.
MB: Oh yeah.
JB: I think I shoveled the walk.
WT: I remember distinctly one summer I had a lot of fun bouncing a ball against a wall. This was pretty old, like twelve or something, about ten or something. I just spent a lot of time pretending to play tennis or something, but it was with bare hands. But sort of like bouncing the ball on the ground, and then it would bounce back and catch it and all that stuff, and then at a certain point, I think it’s just the transition between one age period and another; I think it was also coming to the fall and the weather was getting a little bit dark, and I just kept trying to stretch it, and then suddenly, it seemed like a stupid activity. It stopped being a play at that point and became a just being stuck there, like recreating that moment of enjoyment. That’s kind of curious. I think it’s the exploration that makes play fun, so it’s not so much the play but all the exploration… with no purpose maybe, with no purpose ahead, no pre-conceived concept.
JB: Well, what about, we’ve been talking about exploration and equating it to learning, as a form of learning.
MB: It is, the greatest form.
JB: Do you have anything to say about that?
MB: I’m not an elite scholar, but I feel that-
JB: Well, you’ve been an educator for many years.
MB: Well yeah, I know, I know, but I think... well, of course, it all goes back to that one theory from a long time ago that you learn through doing, but no um, I think it’s more than that because you have to have the ideas first, and then you have to do the stuff. But exploration is the greatest thing.
JB: That was something we’ve been talking about, though, wonder and action and discovery.
MB: Yeah, once you have an idea, you think about it, and you stew over it. Yeah, whatever you do, you think about it first, and you think why not, why couldn’t I do that? And then, you think of how you’re going to do it. You plan it out, and then you do it. But I think it comes to every facet of your life; that exploration, just like the way I go about my thing. [...] I think it’s down to really basic everyday things in life like trying a different road, trying a different way to get someplace, and the wonder of it all, not always going the same way but doing something a little different. But I don’t know. That’s the just the way I look at it.
HT: But uh, you were going to ask a question, right?
JB: Oh yeah, this thing about risk and with learning something and potentially losing something, and just, if that comes into your work or life at all?
WT: I don’t quite understand, where does the risk... the risk of losing what you had before or...
HT: Yeah well, there’s a psychological risk and the physical risk, but that’s not as interesting. Anytime you go into the unknown, you take a risk, and so anytime you learn something you take a risk.
WT: I think it’s absolutely necessary. I think if you don’t do that, then you just... you are a dot.
HT: A what?
WT: A dot. Not even a circle, a circle at least you move around and go. So any movement involves some risk, I think, and any movement away from the starting point becomes a risky thing.
HT: Do you ever feel that it's not worth it or do you ever feel scared in the process that it's not worth it?
AE: Yeah, it can be really scary. Especially... let's see, when I... tell me if I'm off track with this, okay? When I decided to go back, to go to school again to study landscape, it took me two years to make up my mind to do that because I had a total identity crisis because I was a visual artist. I was a painter. How could I give up painting to go and study a hard to learn, a technical skill that had a lot to do with art, but I had to really do paving and drainage and all sorts of technical things, you know, to become a responsible person in the landscape. [...] I kind of wanted to see what it was to get out there with people with bulldozers and actually constructing things, and so I've learned a lot.
JB: With children, a lot of the impetus for exploration is a form of play, and really our project very much relates to that because these are things that we’re both interested in. The idea of building a boat and going sailing is very fun to both of us.
WT: You’re still building the boat, are you? Twelve foot, that’s sort of...
JB: It’s small.
WT: For a boat, it’s rather small, right?
JB: Yeah, but it’s very wide.
WT: It’s sort of stable?
JB: Yeah, it’s really stable, very long centerboard.
WT: And it has a mast, right? It’s a sailboat?
HT: Yeah, it’s a sailboat.
JB: And a bowsprit, so it has a jib and a mainsail. So it should be fun to sail.
JB: What about watching us, watching your kids explore, was that ever difficult?
MB: No, I rather enjoyed it. I rather encouraged them. They thought I was crazy.
JB: You gave us kind of free reign.
MB: Yeah, I thought you were creative and interesting. No, maybe that’s why I caused too many problems because then after Dad died, I didn’t think everything was so funny, but before I thought everything was... I really encouraged that. Remember Joe? Remember you?
JB: You did stop us before we, like-
MB: I didn’t let you kill each other, like you sending your brother down a hill in the green machine.
JB: Oh, but we did that all the time.
MB: Yeah, I know, but I just saw that one. Oh, he was in the wagon, and you sent him down that big hill.
JB: Was it ever difficult to watch your own children explore?
WT: There’s always a kind of conflict of feeling. One is you really like the children in their earlier state of dependency; usually that makes a kind of happiness as a parent. [...] So that even at the earlier stage, the parent, a well adjusted parent let’s say, would be promoting the sense of exploration within the protective area of dependency. So I remember, actually, with Hui-min’s sister when she was, must be, four or five from her nursery school one day, I went to pick her up and told her just walk home because we’ve walked home many times together, you know. She knew her way already, so I told her to walk, and I walked about a block behind her. At first, she kept looking back, and then she just went on walking and found her way home. Then there was another time with Hui-min. I think she was a little bit younger, and there was a path in Harvard Yard that had two gates, and the gates at the other end come back to the same point, so the path diverge through two gates, and then the gates lead to the same place afterwards. I told her to take one path, and I would take the other path, and she went on to do that, and I went to the other side of my gate, and there was no Hui-min. I think that was-- then after retracing, I went all over looking for her going back to the place, and luckily, she went back to pretty much the same point from when we separated and was quite scared.
HT: Yeah, it was conceptually beyond my brain at that time.
WT: Yes, I think that was the difference, though. I think I was too overly confident with experimenting with her sister so that I was experimenting with her at a much earlier age, which is not the proper moment.
HT: It was very scary.
WT: No great damage. I think that’s the kind of thing... you do it a little bit consciously, trial and error kind of thing. Sometimes you make a mistake. If it’s okay, then nothing is drastic, I think. So as they get older, one would encourage them to take the risk. Naturally, I feel kind nervous when you start talking about wet suits and a mile off shore and that kind of stuff, big storms and things, but it’s one of the things you need to go through. I mean Hui-min doesn’t need to go through it, but it’s-- I cannot stop her from doing that.
HT: You wouldn’t want to, either.
WT: No, exactly, that’s what I mean. Actually, I would encourage you to risk that because it’s in that risk that the movement is coming through. For myself, I don’t quite understand enough about the project to know, if the risk is worth the risk, whether the project is worth the risk but assume that she does, that you do.
MB: One really scary thing that happened, mother always said that I was extremely independent, years ago, my mother always visited people that were sick cause at one time a terrible thing that our society did, they put the mentally ill almost like in cages, and they put the terminal ill in the same place when they didn’t have money. There was this dear woman, a friend of my mother’s, and I used to love her mother. Her mother had been a missionary, and I think Elizabeth had been a, had been a, like a librarian, but she got cancer, and she didn’t have any money, and she was terminal. I don’t know if... they didn’t really have insurance in those days, you know, in the forties. And they put her in this mental institution called Stilacum, and my mom and I took the bus out to see her. I must have been quite young, and I remember visiting her, and I got bored, and I went across the hall. My mother said, 'Don’t go by that room over there.' Well, you just never said that to me, as a kid, you said don’t look at the sun, and I would look at the sun. I was really young. I wasn’t in school. I’m sure of that, and I was better to take places than my brother. I’m sure that’s why my mother took me. I had light colored hair, but not blonde blonde but a reddish brown, and it was curly when I was little, kind of curly, and it was kind of long. And this lady kept saying, 'Come here little girl.' My mother said, 'Don’t go over there.' My mother was very stoic and matter-of-fact. It wasn’t like, 'Dear come here, sweetie.' She’d say, 'Be quiet. Don’t talk to me; I’m busy. Stay out of the kitchen; I’m doing the wash. Don’t bother me with that.' I would even make up things to get her to pay attention to me. So I went over there, of course I did. I went over there, and the lady grabbed my hair and tried to pull me through the bars. At first, I tried not to let my mother know because I knew I was going to get in trouble, and I whispered, 'Let go of my hair.' And she just kept saying, 'What a nice little girl.' And see they had, this was a terrible thing, they had at this, they had mental people right there in the same ward as the terminal but across the hall. But the mentally ill had like a jail. They had bars that went totally across. You know, they had like a door you’d open and close, but it was from ceiling to ground. Can you visualize that? And then a bed in there, just a bed. I don’t know if there was a toilet. But it was gross, and she was really wild looking and kind of scared me. That was one time I had ventured, I realized, too far, but I thought I could get out of it, and I kept saying, 'Let go of my hair, let go of my hair.' Pretty soon, she was really pulling, so I had to let my mom know. 'Ahh, Mom,' and she was really mad at me. All I remember is they got me out of that lot, and I got loose and my mother grabbed me, really grabbed me, and pulled me back in to see Mrs. Keiper. Now, is that what you were looking for? And I can tell you when we were in the orphanage, and I can tell you about our adventures there.