Mr. Chatterbox

By staff January 1, 2004

After the recent scientific disclosures about my racial identity (I am 16 percent East Asian, as revealed in our October issue), I find myself consumed with curiosity about my roots. I always knew I was different from the other children. There was always a secret part of me, a part that even I didn't understand, a looming presence way in the back of my mind that, once acknowledged, would explain everything. And now I know what it was.

Asian genes.

Naturally, I am now looking at Asia in a different light. After all, this is supposed to be "our" century. Everybody's talking about the Pacific Rim. So much is happening in this part of the world, and I have begun to follow it with avid interest. For instance, have you heard about all those rat poison murders in China? Hundreds of people have died. It turns out that snack bar proprietors poison each other's food. Now, when was the last time something like that happened in our so-called "West"?

But let's face it. Rat poison murders can only go so far in explaining a people. You need depth. What did I know of Asian art or thought or philosophy? Oh, sure, I knew what a stupah was, and I'd studied the Kama Sutra in great detail. But now, with the stunning news that these were my people, I decided that it was time to get to know my heritage better. Yes, it was time to visit the Museum of Asian Art.

The museum has been in Sarasota for several years, but I'd never been there. I'd heard that it was quite small and I was worried about getting my money's worth. I also heard it was located in a bank vault, which didn't sound quite right. In fact, there were so many caveats that it just sounded too weird. Now that I've been there I find it's not weird at all-it's fabulous!

First of all, that bank vault business. That's one of the best parts. It really is in a bank vault, in that big building right across the street from Sarasota Ford. Talk about the perfect metaphor- there's nothing like a bank vault to point out that what's inside is immensely valuable and unique and worth salivating over, no matter what it is. And this is a great bank vault, all carpeted and beautifully lit, protected by banks of guards sitting behind bullet-proof glass. Yes, from the security point of view alone, the Museum of Asian Art puts every other museum in the world to shame.

The space is small but not fatally small. It just means that rather than run through glancing this way and that you're going to have to slow down and really look at things. Luckily, the labeling is terrific and they tell you what you have to know about each object.

The current exhibit, I immediately realized, was perfect for me, because it was about Asian religions. Maybe I should switch! I decided I'd go through them very carefully and see if any were calling out to me, because, frankly, me and Presbyterianism had come to a fork in the road.

The first religion was Buddhism. If you're like me, you're never quite sure if Buddha was a real person, or if you worship him directly, or if he's the one with the grin. I do seem to remember something about the tenet that we are all but insignificant grains of sand floating in the universe, but I had already learned that on my own.

Well, it turns out that Buddha was a real person-Siddarth Guanyin-and he has a real Sarasota kind of story to tell. He was very rich and raised in sheltered luxury in the Asiatic equivalent of a gated community. But he was unhappy. He felt his life was empty. So he began a quest for enlightenment. Sound familiar?

The museum has a great collection of Buddhas from all over. They all have the characteristic features-the cross-legged pose, the hand held in the gesture of teaching, the pendulous earlobes, the wisdom bump. That is not a knitted skullcap a la Justin Timberlake, by the way; it's curls. And he's sitting like that because he's just attained enlightenment, or "nirvana," ignoring the distractions of the demon Mara.

Buddhism is certainly a contender, I thought, moving on to Daoism. Dao, or Tao, means "The Way," and I liked the sound of that. In all those martial arts movies, isn't that what they're looking for? According to the directions, you're supposed to ignore dictates and seek the underlying pattern of the universe. Obey the impulses of nature! I immediately knew this wasn't for me, as keeping these impulses under reign is something I've been perfecting over the years; otherwise I would have done a lot of damage. Besides, Daoist art seemed a little unimaginative, the same thing over and over- this guy sitting there holding either a bookmark or a pocket knife, I couldn't tell which.

Frankly, I'd heard the call. It was Buddhism and I wasn't going to let any fancy art distract me from my new beliefs. Still, I enjoyed the rest of the museum, particularly the Jade Room. You should see these things. Out of a single piece of jade they carve mountains and grottoes in the most intricate way. You can stare at them for hours. The Chinese also seem very interested in luck and longevity; but frankly, with my new-found beliefs I think that sounds a little desperate and calculating. So . . . Western.

The Museum is the brainchild of a very interesting woman named Helga Wall-Apelt. She grew up in Germany and got a medical degree there, but Asia always called to her; so she specialized in Eastern medicine, things like herbs and acupuncture, and had a practice here in Sarasota. Along the way she and her late husband amassed the collection that I had just seen part of. It's unique in the country. In fact, it's the only Asian art museum in the Southeast. Plans are underway for a permanent home; I understand they already have a piece of land on the South Trail, right near Waffle House. Now here is a project we can all get behind.

To celebrate Chinese New Year on Feb. 6, the museum is having its annual gala at Michael's on East. There will be a traditional lion dance and procession plus excerpts from the Sarasota Ballet's version of Madame Butterfly. Everybody in town shows up; it's one of the hot parties, and the honorary committee reads like a Who's Who of rich people seeking enlightenment. They're giving a special award to Helene Noble, who hopefully will sit cross-legged and achieve nirvana.

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