Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Hairspray!

I have an awesome new haircut. And my awesome haircut guys have a website! Who knew?

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Refuge

There are many important historical sites along the Kona coast, in among the coffee and macadamia nut groves. Two of the most important (particularly for a student of Marshall Sahlins) are the heiau complex at Pu'uhonua o Honaunau, and the nearby Kealakekua Bay. We visited both Saturday morning, driving the coastal loop of Route 160. I wish I'd thought to take a picture of the road itself, which is a good paved route with nice shoulders up to Pu'uhonua, but which reverts to a single-lane road (that's one lane for BOTH directions) for the four-mile stretch between the two sites. It passes over a deserted coastal flat of grass and brush, beneath looming cliffs (the tops of which are populated). However, I was too busy attempting to squeeze an oversized Ford sedan safely past cars coming in the other direction.

The first site we saw on Saturday morning was a refuge of the post-contact type, one of the Big Island's famous painted churches. A number of the European missionaries who worked on the Big Island brought with them the sense that churches should be decorated on the inside, and with varying degrees of skill, they painted the interiors of the wooden churches where they served. St. Benedict's Painted Church in Honaunau was both built and decorated by Father John Velghe, a Belgian missionary priest. It is a white Gothic Revival saltbox on the outside:

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but inside the walls are entirely painted with Biblical scenes and mottoes in Hawaiian. This was my favorite scene, depicting Belshazzar's Feast and the handwriting on the wall:

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The writing itself is in Hawaiian, and reads "Ua emi loa oe Ua pau kou aupuni Make no ka pono," meaning basically "You are found wanting; your kingdom will fall; you shall die." It's an interesting image, especially because Fr. John seems to have taken pains to make the text on the wall legible to his congregants; of course, the point of the handwriting on the wall was that neither King Belshazzar nor any of his advisors were able to interpret the words "Mene, mene, tekel, u-pharsin," and that it was necessary to call in the Jewish prophet Daniel to explain the meaning of the text. Daniel is there in the image, pointing to the words, but the words themselves are clear rather than mysterious.

We drove down the hill to Pu'uhonua o Honaunau, a site famous as the location of a heiau of refuge (pu'uhonua) where kapu-breakers could seek expiation and avoid the usual death penalty - assuming they could reach the site ahead of pursuing justice. The heiau is located on a flat lava-flow forming a point that extends out into the sea. For ordinary people, it would effectively have been accessible only from the water, since the point is cut off from the main part of the island by a residential site for members of the ali'i class, entry into which would likely have been kapu for the maka'ainana (ordinary people). A legend says that Ka'ahumanu, the famously intractable wife of Kamehameha I, fled here once at the age of 17, after her early unfaithfulness came to light. (She later became his famous wife and the politically powerful kuhina nui of three successive reigns.)

Visiting the site, you come to the ali'i village first, which contains several reconstructed hale of various types, along with other features such as a canoe landing (once reserved for the ali'i and now roped off for the endangered honu, or green sea turtle, which likes to come and bask on its sheltered sandy shore). There are even kanoa (bowls, probably used to prepare 'awa for drinking) carved into the lava flows which jut up through the sand here and there.

From the village, you approach the thick lava-rock wall that marks the boundary of the refuge (this photograph is taken looking across the inlet of the canoe landing toward the boundary wall):

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The wall is eight or ten feet high, at least that thick, and was apparently built around 1550. The angles of the corners and edges are still acute. As a transplanted New Englander, I have a certain appreciation for dry-stone masonry and the skill it takes to lay a really good dry-stone wall (i.e., without mortar), and the fact that this one is still in such good shape after 500 years on the shoulder of an active volcano is really impressive. Though there are no frost heaves on the Kona coast to throw down these walls, regular and sometimes catastrophic earthquakes (most recently on Oct. 15, 2006) can potentially do much worse; but here they have not.

The hale in the picture was reconstructed in the modern era, the original (or at least older) one having been dismantled as a "pagan" monument by Lord Byron in 1825. It is called Hale o Keawe, the original structure having been built around 1650 to house the iwi (bones) of Keawe and other important ali'i. The mana of Keawe is thought to protect the site. Beyond it is a high stone platform of about the same date as the wall, and a much older (and more or less ruined) rectangular platform whose use is no longer remembered. The modern Hale o Keawe is surrounded by ki'i (wooden images of the akua, or gods):

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In the second picture, you can see an elevated scaffolding platform on the right, for the depositing of offerings.

The word ki'i has come into English not from Hawaiian but from the southwestern Polynesian languages such as Maori, in which the word is "tiki." This is true of other borrowings such as taboo (Hawaiian kapu) and ti (Hawaiian ki), the name of a plant. The function of ki'i is different in different parts of Oceania (sometimes they represent gods, sometimes ancestors, and of course sometimes both), but one thing they have in common is their use to mark the boundaries of sacred or significant sites. Obviously there is very little connection to fruity rum drinks with an umbrella in them, which is the first thing some people think of when they hear "tiki."

The kapu system was broken in 1819, but Pu'uhonua still serves as a refuge for one kind of wanderer:

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The honu still grazes on limu (seaweed) in the tidepools of the site, and when we were there it was attracting as much interest as the rest of the site, to say the least.

The last refuge we visited on Saturday was Kealakekua Bay, a deep natural harbor four miles north of Pu'uhonua, famous as the site of Captain Cook's encounter with the Hawaiians in 1779, during his third voyage, at the height of the makahiki season, and of his subsequent death several weeks later. When Cook entered the bay, the locals were observing the makahiki at Hikiau heiau in the bay, which was dedicated to the god Lono. Here is the heiau today:

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Here is how the heiau appeared to William Ellis, an artist aboard Cook's vessel. Interestingly, when one of Cook's sailors died, he read the funeral service inside the heiau, making it the site of the first Christian service in the islands. The lava-rock obelisk behind the red truck was set up in the 1920s to commemorate this fact. There has been some suggestion that the Hawaiians took Cook's arrival as a manifestation of Lono's presence or power (or indeed that they saw him as an incarnation of Lono, sculptures of whom are hung with white kapa cloth in a way that resembles a square-rigged sail), and that this was somehow connected with the misunderstandings that led to the battle in which he was killed several weeks later. The site of Cook's death is marked by an obelisk set up on the shore in the 1790s by later British explorers; the site where it stands has been deeded to the United Kingdom. The obelisk, being white, is visible across the bay from the heiau site:

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(You can see it in the center of this picture, behind a sailboat.) St. Benedict's church is still a refuge, for its parishioners at least, and for those who rest in its graveyard; Pu'uhonua o Honaunau no longer serves to protect kapu-breakers, but only sea turtles; and while Kealakekua Bay is no longer an anchorage for sea-going ships, its reef is a protected wildlife reserve. The snorkels and sea kayaks bobbing across its surface are signs of its new status, and the informational placards posted on the shore, which identify the reef fish and corals, serve the same purpose as the lava-rock walls once did: to mark the entry into a place of refuge.

We have too many Bibles.

OK, I guess in some sense you can never have too many. But we just realized that we have two Tanachs (JPS and Soncino), a Tikkun (Torah reader's practice volume), an Oxford Jewish Study Bible, and two copies of the travel edition of the Etz Hayim chumash. We also have a handful of siddurim, a couple of Torah commentaries, and a lot of assorted Judaic literature in English. The thing that is "too many" about this is that while we have six Bibles, there is a lot of other stuff that we don't have at all: Mishnah, Gemara, Tosefta, all the Talmudic literature, in fact. Of course what we do have is the most important, the core of the tradition; but there's still a lot missing. It will be interesting to see, eventually, if we are the kind of Jews who develop a serious Judaica library; we are serious about books, of course, but how much study will we be able to do in the future?

Sunday, December 28, 2008

North Kohala is depressing

OK, actually, North Kohala is beautiful, and the winding mountain road that snakes along the ridgetops of the peninsula from Kamuela to Kapa'au is a sight to behold (though, as much as I appreciate our friend's loan of the car, I do not recommend a 1993 Ford Crown Victoria for hugging the tight curves). I sit on a Ph.D. committee in archaeology, for which the student is investigating the ways in which Native Hawaiians altered the natural landscape, and the ways in which this functioned to make the landscape meaningful. North Kohala is the focus of the investigation, so it was really great for me to see the place and get a sense of it. But this project is also key to why I found the place a bit melancholy. First, however, a description:

Kohala is the oldest of the five volcanoes that make up the Big Island of Hawai'i (Kohala, Hualalai, Mauna Kea, Mauna Loa, and Kilauea; some would add a sixth, Lo'ihi, which is still rising from the seafloor). It is the only one of these which is truly extinct. Half of Kohala is already gone, having slipped into the sea in a landslide of such violence that portions of the volcano have been found on the seafloor 130 miles away. This created the spectacular pali cliffs near Waipi'o Valley. What remains is some of the flattest land on the island, and this, together with being the oldest land on the island, means that the district of Kohala contains the most fertile agricultural soil on Hawai'i, since the lay of the land prevents water from running away too quickly, and taking nutrients (and new soil) with it. In the last century or so, it has been used to raise sugarcane, a practice made possible by the construction of the famous Kohala Ditch system of irrigation tunnels and canals. What remains now after the departure of sugar cultivation is a windswept landscape of grassy pastures and brush, some of which is used for cattle ranching and wind farms. The sense you get, hiking along the coast, is of a vast and lonely landscape, wild and nearly deserted.

We hiked a couple of miles from a remote airstrip to the main cultural site on the northern tip of the peninsula, which is Mo'okini heiau, a famous luakini heiau that overlooks the strait between the Big Island and Maui. A luakini heiau is a site where blood offerings were made, including both animal and human sacrifices. Not far away are the birthing stones where King Kamehameha I, who united all the islands into a single kingdom in the late eighteenth century, was born. It's a spectacular site, and one that people like us might not ordinarily be able to visit, except that the kahuna nui of the heiau lifted the kapu of entrance in 1978, for educational reasons.

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Here I'm standing at the back of the heiau enclosure, a long rectangle encircled by a low stone wall. You can see the remnants of some earthworks extending down the center of the photo, and the heiau itself to the right (looking rather low in this perspective, but actually 15 or more feet in height).

Here are some images of the features of the heiau itself:

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Looking in toward the interior of the large stone structure. We did not feel comfortable entering, but there were obviously some features inside. This Flickr photograph shows an aerial view of the heiau in which you can see some of the foundations inside the inner structure. Obviously it was a complex space.

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Modern hale pili (grass house) used for ceremonial purposes.

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Large stones set in the makai (seaward) part of the enclosure.

There is a rather unfortunate plaque set into a stone along the west face of the heiau, which declares that it possesses unusual value in illustrating and commemorating the history of the United States:

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No doubt this was set up with the best of intentions to preserve the site, but most information suggests that the heiau predates the United States by at least a thousand years. The plaque is clearly seen by some as a mark of possession left by a colonial power, since the words "United States" and "U.S." have been nearly scratched away, presumably by visitors to the site.

Nearby is the complex that contains the birthing stones where Kamehameha I is said to have been born, perhaps in 1756:

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Like the heiau, it once had wooden hale (houses) within the compound, and perhaps other features, now long gone. Both sites command a view of a lonely, windy landscape that seems deserted, which would be mournful in itself. But if you look around the sites, you see many stone features on the surface:

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These are nearly all man-made structures, stone foundations that once held wooden houses and other structures. The truth is that Kohala was not always a deserted landscape; the richness of the soil meant that before the decimation of the Native Hawaiian population by introduced disease, this was an intensely farmed and populated district. North Kohala is not a natural desert; it is a landscape of ruins.

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It is this that gave us the sense of melancholy when visiting the Mo'okini heiau. Although Mo'okini is still an active place of worship and remains under the care of the hereditary kahuna nui of the site, so many of the other houses that once stood here, the fields and groves and other marks of human intervention in the landscape, are now discoverable only by those who remember the accounts of the past, and by archaeologists.

As a professor, you always expect to learn from your students, and every project has the potential to open up new perspectives. It is my hope that the archaeology project I'm helping to supervise will leave me with a sense of the shape of the Kohala landscape when it was still a rich and populated district, and the meaning that the Hawaiians' labor of construction, farming, and living instilled into the built landscape.

Things I missed while I was away

Apparently, an eighteen-hour blackout, which we didn't even know about because we spent Friday night at the awesome Manago Hotel with no television, and we didn't bother to get a newspaper, thus making us apparently the only residents of the state who are not following the President-elect's vacation on a play-by-play level. My parents, six thousand miles away, knew that O'ahu was blacked out, because it meant that Obama was blacked out, and that earned it national coverage.

I feel a little badly for the guy. Is it really necessary to report that he bought a shave ice? Honestly, it would be more newsworthy if he DIDN'T buy a shave ice.

Friday, December 26, 2008

In memoriam

We are not at home now (obviously) but I just learned that our landlady died yesterday. Not at all unexpected; she'd been in hospice care since Thanksgiving, and we knew it would probably be this week, but it's still sad. RIP Virginia; we will miss you.

Winter in Hilo

Rain falling at a rate of two inches per hour on the corrugated steel roof of the house we're staying in kept us up off and on all night, and lightning and thunder, which we almost never see in Hawai'i, continue to light up the sky. Flash flood warning, indeed. It's starting to feel normal.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Missing Pele

The visitor services at Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park are centered on the Kilauea caldera, although the park itself covers large portions of Mauna Kea as well. The most active eruption at the moment is the Pu'u 'O'o vent, which is located on the shoulder of Kilauea, and from which lava flows into the sea at a location outside the park, on the southern shore of Puna district. So what you see in the park, while impressive, is not the most dramatic of the sights to be seen.

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Kilauea caldera, and the large crater within it called Halema'uma'u, were once a lake of fire (between about 1823 and 1924); now the caldera and most of the crater are covered in hardened pahoehoe, and the only lava is dimly visible from the air at the bottom of the current Halema'uma'u gas eruption. Still, the crater presents a moonscape unlike anything I had ever seen. A ridge sloping westward from the crater (to the left in the above photo) is the remains of a lava curtain that erupted from the crater floor in, I think, 1984; and gas vents and other upwellings appear all across the crater floor. It was once possible to hike across the crater floor, but the high levels of sulfur dioxide from the gas eruption make it deadly now, so we saw everything we saw from the northwest portion of the caldera's rim (the southwest part is in the gas plume, hence closed to the public).

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Here is a view of the caldera wall, with the long slope of Mauna Kea behind it. We are at 4,000 feet here, and Mauna Kea looms another 10,000 feet overhead. There are plenty of nice (and very low-key) walks along the crater rim; we hiked a 2.2-mile portion of the trail between Volcano House and the Jaggar Museum and observatory. Along the trailside are steam vents, where groundwater sinks into cracks in the earth:

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and comes out as steam:

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The wind at this altitude is chilly and relatively dry (at least by local standards) so you notice right away when you walk through a cloud of steam from one of these vents. The visual effect is like something out of a Hollywood movie; you never expect to see the ground steaming by itself. Other vents bring sulfur gas to the surface from much deeper cracks, and deposit it as yellow crystals on the rocks:

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Click through for more pictures from this trip.

The Park Service provides really excellent educational information about the geologic forces that shaped Kilauea, the formation of a shield volcano, the history of eruptions and so on, all spiced with sketches and quotations from 19th-century US and European travelers like Mark Twain, who visited in about 1867. But there is almost no information about the Hawaiian cultural significance of the site, which is, after all, the seat of the fire goddess Pele, and one of the most important cultural sites on the island. There is plenty of information on the conservation of the endangered nene, 'amakihi, 'apapane, and other indigenous birds. But there is almost no information on, for example, the rituals connected with eating 'ohelo berries, an indigenous relative of the blueberry and cranberry, which was sacred to Pele.

We have spent much of our vacation here visiting cultural sites like Mo'okini luakini heiau, so the absence of cultural information at the Kilauea site was peculiarly noticeable. The experience of visiting the caldera of an active volcano is overwhelmingly powerful; it is very easy to understand how this site was considered to be particularly full of mana. What's hard to understand is the way in which the official interpretation of the site fails to present or even acknowledge this, beyond an impressionistic sculpture dedicated to Pele that stands in front of the Volcano Art Gallery. It seems unlikely that the park rangers, who live in the neighborhood and surely must be aware of the significance of the site in their care, are unaware of its history. But it doesn't seem to be part of the official story.

We've been thinking a lot lately about how we should live in these islands, as outsiders coming from the dominant and dominating Mainland; it's important to us to find a way to be here, rather than carrying Chicago or the other cities where we've lived along with us. Understanding the way in which these landscapes we traverse were and are made meaningful by and to the Hawaiians seems to be one very important part of that approach. The earth isn't just earth; it has footprints on it, and if you look closely enough, you can see where they tread.

Hanukkah traditions

It is traditional on Hanukkah, in honor of the miracle of the temple oil lamp burning for eight days on one day's worth of oil, to eat fried foods: latkes and jelly donuts are traditional for the Ashkenazim. Lacking the facilities to produce either this year, we instead ate Hanukkah malasadas, sitting on the lanai at Tex's in Honoka'a. They were every bit as good as our friend, who recommended them, said.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Coqui tuning

We are spending a week in a friend's house near Hilo, while said friend is away visiting family for the holidays. The house is a little plantation cottage in a village outside Hilo proper, set on a hillside just high enough to see over the neighbors' houses and down to the wide Pacific ocean. (Pictures of the view later, when we get home and I have a cable to transfer them from the camera. As usual, I forgot to bring it.)

The ecosystems of all the Hawaiian islands have been drastically altered over the last two hundred years by the introduction of non-native and often aggressively invasive species, although the effects are different from island to island; Kaua'i, for example, has no mongoose, and hence has a much wider variety of ground-nesting birds than the other islands. Over the years we've been hearing about the coqui frog as one of the most troublesome of the invaders. It's problematic because it eats insects that indigenous species also depend on, but as far as humans are concerned its main characteristic is its incredibly loud song, which sounds "co-QUI, co-QUI" all night long. And I do mean all night long. I was a bit concerned about the noise from the main road just a few blocks away, but cars rushing by at 55 mph are nothing to the sound generated by thousands of quarter-sized frogs.

At a distance the sound melds into something like the chirping of crickets, but much louder; individually, the call "co-QUI" starts low and jumps up a major seventh. Occasionally some individual will make the octave jump, a consonance that strikes the ear immediately as somewhat out of place in the generally jazz-flavored cacophony.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Excellent student typo, final exam edition

"Seven Sages of the Bamboo Groove" (I want to be one!)
What she meant.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Electronics

Himself and I have decided, as a Hanukkah present to each other, to replace our television. This is not a great indulgence as the one we are using, while it works fine, was used when I bought it for $50 in 1994, and has only one input (and that for a coaxial cable). I'm not sure if everyone will realize how primitive it is for a television to have only one input. It doesn't even have RGB cables! The only reason we can even hook it to our DVD player is that it's a joint DVD/VCR player, and as a result still has coaxial in AND out ports. So it's about time to upgrade.

Although my basic default position on television has been an inherited knee-jerk snobbery, the truth is that the more time I spend in academia, the greater my appreciation for the value of mindless entertainment, as witness my treasured subscription to Entertainment Weekly (thanks, mindyfromohio!). Television commercials still make me want to scream, especially with their repetitiveness, and the majority of what's on is not of any particular interest to me; but the latter is, I think, only to be expected in a world of hundreds of channels. Especially as an academic, who is trained to have narrowly critical interests, I'm not surprised nor especially put off by the range of things I am not interested in seeing. I am sometimes fascinated by it: did you know there's a Polish-language broadcast on local-access cable here? Samoan, Tagalog, even Portuguese I get, but Polish?

But there's enough good stuff, from Anthony Bourdain (I'm a huge fan) to Antiques Roadshow (professional interest), that I do want to see things now and again. And then we Netflix such a range of things too. So we've invested in a DVR and, once the after-Christmas sales come up, we're going to get a smallish LCD TV monitor. The combination will allow us to play DVDs, stream video from the Netflix site, and record the shows that we do want to see so we don't miss them due to our evening obligations (like Compline choir, and student art openings).

At some point, however, I am clearly going to have to hook it up to the laptop and play some World of Warcraft - just to see the awesome.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Rain

After last Thursday's deluge, the rain continued to bucket down right through Sunday, and major flooding occurred all over the island. The newspaper reported gamely that the people who organize the annual marathon had sprung for waterproof timing equipment, which probably put somebody's mind at rest at least. But most of the pictures were of flooded-out houses, some of which were floated right off their foundations by the force of water, and highways disappearing under the runoff. We were relatively unaffected, except that we optimistically went out to the mall on Saturday and found the crowds totally undiminished by the weather (we turned around and high-tailed it back home). It was impossible to watch a DVD on Saturday evening because the rain was so loud, and we had a small pond instead of a backyard (about six inches deep at its maximum, I think); but we were fine.

Yet even a short walk outside during this downpour revealed the endless ways that water could sluice over and off things, a variety of form and fluid dynamics that beggared even English-language description, which hardly ever finds itself at a loss for words. The visible slow erosion of red volcanic soil at the corner of the neighbor's yard sent a rusty flume feathering across the black pavement. The runnels coursing down the muscular trunk of a kukui tree seemed to add ridges to the topography of the tree, until the eye detected the movement of the water. And above the valley floor, pounding curtains of rain wavered across the space between the mountain ridges. Our valley is famous for gentle rains, said to be the tears shed for a lost girl long ago; the violence of this past weekend's rain seemed full of a destructive delight, the water raging over everything in its path and rushing in wherever gravity allowed it to go.

Got my first spam comment

I must really be somebody now :)

Thursday, December 11, 2008

I love weather, but this is ridiculous

I woke up on time this morning, not because I heard my alarm clock, but because the volume of the rain falling, which drowned out the sound of my alarm clock, fortunately also made it impossible to sleep. We are in the midst of a violent rainstorm with flash flooding, mudslides, closed highways, closed schools, etc. It is also the last day of classes for the semester, so we had to be here. I drove to work instead of biking, going the long way around the edge of the valley to avoid the intersection that always floods. The rain has been falling at a rate of up to 3.8 inches per hour (!) all over the island, and the narrow volcanic valleys mean it is all running off in a huge rush. Some people's houses have been flooded (not ours, but our back yard had 4 inches of standing water in it when I left).

The city has actually opened evacuation shelters for people displaced by flash flooding. I didn't realize that they recommend you bring things with you to the shelter: drinking water, personal hygiene supplies, but also tinned food that does not require cooking. They particularly recommend Spam, which is sort of classic for this place. Welcome to the shelter! Bring your own Spam!

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

My office

Here's the interior of my office, for a "day in the life" view:

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The overloaded bookshelves are concealed here, out of frame to the left against the left wall and front wall of the office, and to the right behind the door. This is what I see when I raise my eyes from the computer:

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Click through to Flickr for a version with notes explaining all the images.

Walking the duck

For all those who thought I might have been joking about the man and boy walking their duck in the evening:

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Monday, December 8, 2008

For those who loved The Little Prince, with apologies to Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Here is a view of my office from the outside, including the giant baobab tree around which the building is constructed:

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It contrasts pretty sharply with the skinny little palm trees in the middle of the frame, which bear huge clusters of red fruit that the mynah birds love to eat. This is why every once in a while one of them will wander in through an open window and make off with something from my desk. It's just the neighborhood bar to them, after all.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

They're heeeeeere....

This sketch by my cousin R. left me rolling on the floor laughing, and I don't even celebrate Christmas. Possibly you have to live where I do to appreciate it. But I just picture the Christmas trees marching onto the beach to claim the island for, I don't know, the North Pole? Actually considering where most of the trees come from, I think we might just have been annexed by Oregon. Shh, don't tell anyone.

Fear for my students

I've been trying to suss out why I've been so depressed lately about teaching and about my students. (As an aside, this also explains the light blogging lately.) Like most large state universities, we have a very diverse student body in terms of preparation and ability, but the thing most of them have in common is that they've been singularly ill-served by their education up till now. One frequently encounters students who are perfectly able, but to some greater or lesser degree underprepared for college.

I'm not the kind of professor who wants to spend a lot of time grousing about teaching remedial skills, although I can't deny that it's disappointing to know that some of our students may never get to experience what I think of as the best of college education - the transformative engagement with difficult intellectual, personal, moral and ethical questions - because they're still working on things they could perfectly well have learned in high school (and in some cases, junior high). I realize that I had a particularly elite education starting in high school, but some of the problems I encounter in my writing-intensive courses center around skills I learned in my entirely ordinary rural public junior high school. IN THE SIXTH GRADE. So this is not (entirely) about the differences between an elite and a general education, except to the extent that it continues to drive home to me just how privileged the holders of elite educations are. (One of the results of my current job situation is that I can no longer read my college and grad school alumni magazines, because they send me into screaming fits of jealousy over the resources available to students there. It is unbearable to think about what I could do for my students given the same kind of resources, which I never will be.)

I believe that it is my responsibility to teach the undergraduates I have, not the imaginary students I think I ought to get. In fact it's not something I have any control over (my graduate students are a different story, and there choosing them is in fact part of my responsibility toward them); I have to begin where they are now, not where I think they ought to be, in order to be of any use to them whatever.

I teach a lot of writing-intensive courses, because my discipline is itself writing-intensive, and because, unusually for my field, I have been trained in the teaching of writing. It's the thing I have to offer, so I offer it. These courses are incredibly labor-intensive, given the need to give personalized feedback on all student writing assignments (four papers plus weekly reading responses), and the work itself may be part of what's getting me down.

There's also the effect, universal among teachers, of the fact that every batch of students has to learn the same thing for themselves. After a number of years you can end up with the feeling of "Haven't they learned it yet??" Of course, it's not the same students who've been flogging away at (for example) the problem of modernity in contemporary Chinese art year after year; it's a different bunch every year, so you have to be able to get yourself over that feeling pretty quickly. But honestly, I don't think that it's either the workload or the repetitive nature of the job that is wearing me down.

I think what's really bothering me is a sense of how little understanding some of these students have of what they read, and how little control they have over the meaning of what they say or write. I do everything I can to help them with this: my entire writing curriculum is based on techniques for giving them more control over language. It matters a little bit that they come out of my courses knowing something about the art history of China, but it matters a lot that they learn, somewhere along the way, to say what they really mean. Similarly, the fact that they miss so much of the meaning of what they read is terrifying, not because it's really important that they master the debates on Shang bronze decoration (these are in fact important debates, but only in a relatively limited context), but because it is clear that they are potentially at the mercy of people who have a better command of the language than they do (including, terrifyingly enough, myself).

As citizens, they are already responsible for understanding complex moral, political, legal, financial, religious, and other sorts of questions. How will they defend themselves from manipulation through rhetoric, an increasingly common political tool, when they seem totally unable to perceive rhetorical gestures? How will they be able to make decisions when they seem unable to evaluate the quality of the sources of information they encounter? How will they decide what to believe and what to disbelieve? It's not that I think education is the only possible key to a good life; for most of human history most people did perfectly well without it, as a good chunk of humanity still does. But whoever said that knowledge is power was right in so very many ways, and this is doubly or triply true in an information-heavy society like our own, with thousands of pages of documents, contracts, insurance forms, regulations, tax returns, ballots, mortgages and so on governing so many facets of our lives. At root, I am really afraid of leaving my students powerless in the face of this rush of information; or, perhaps more accurately, I am afraid of the limitations of my ability to empower them.

Vayetzei

Rex gave a great drash on Parashat Vayetzei yesterday.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

You know you live in a city without many Jews when...

... you're responsible for the oneg Shabbat, and you call the wife of the congregation president to ask where to get challah, since the glatt kosher deli in your neighborhood has closed, to nobody's surprise, for lack of business, and she tells you that you can't lose by going to Agnes' Portuguese Bake Shop.

Fog

We were scheduled to fly out of the small municipal airport of Inlawville on Monday morning, on a twin-prop plane that would take us to San Francisco for our Long Flight Home. Unfortunately, Inlawville sits on a river delta that is prone to thick fog in the fall and winter, and on Monday it was utterly socked in. Like, can't see the other end of the terminal socked in. Like terrifying drive on the highway to the airport socked in. Ours was the third SFO flight scheduled to leave Inlawville that morning, at 11.00, and when we got there at 9.00 both previous flights had been cancelled. It wasn't looking good for us.

The flight was listed as delayed till 11.48, which already would have meant missing our connection in SFO, and the auto-check-in kiosk helpfully informed us that our only alternative was the same flight tomorrow. Naturally we didn't believe this for a moment (although knowing that it was the Monday after Thanksgiving, we did realize alternatives were probably going to be limited) so we asked for assistance. It turned out to be possible to get on a later flight, leaving SFO at 2.45, which went instead to Nearby Large Town, whence we could get a short-hop flight home.

We thought all was settled, as we waited in the boarding area, until we heard our names on the intercom. We were asked to return to the ticket counter, outside the secure area. It turned out that the airline had given up on the twin-prop taking off in time, and had decided to pay for us to travel to SFO by van. As this takes about an hour and a half, it was no problem at all; we made our later flight, which was delightfully uncrowded, and despite having some trouble getting dinner while waiting for our short-hop flight home, due to the one restaurant in the airport being full of the passengers of a delayed Alaskan Airlines plane, we ultimately got our nachos and our trip home. We arrived five hours later than we'd planned; but you can't have everything.

Friday, November 28, 2008

The fleeting image

We're in Northern California, at my in-laws' place, for Thanksgiving, and sharing the house with Kingsley (the in-laws' dog, a gigantic malamute) and Quilted (brother-in-law's minuscule corgi). Kingsley is massive, slow-moving, and dopey, which is a bit surprising in a sled dog; Quilted has the businesslike manner of a herding dog, and does not suffer fools gladly.

After dinner last night we took Quilted for a walk around the block to work off the worst of the tryptophan coma in the crisp night air. Behind the house is a long, narrow public park which runs beneath a high-tension transmission line, connecting to an area of public wetlands along the riverbank. As we entered the park, we saw a pair of slender, fleet-footed coyotes, ghostly gray in the faint light of streetlamps, trotting silently back toward the river. They moved so quickly and easily that they seemed insubstantial. In Norse mythology, the god Odin was attended by the two ravens Huginn and Muninn, or Thought and Memory, who flew out every day to gather knowledge and return it to Odin. Although the raven has its place in North American mythology as well, particularly in the Pacific Northwest, I wonder if the All-Father of Northern California might not send out these ghostly messengers instead.

When the coyotes go running through the park at night, Kingsley howls impotently through the reinforced back fence; but Quilted stands utterly still, all her trembling attention focused on the fleeting footfalls and the trace of wildness scented on the cold night air.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Watch me talk about art

An academic of my acquaintance recently reported being invited onto the PBS show "History Detectives" as an expert consultant. This made me green with jealousy, as it is one of my geekier fantasies to be on a PBS or History Channel show as an academic expert. It's happened to people I know; why not me? I have only been on local programs, which is awesome, but I still hold out hopes for the big time.

Following is my entire professional videography so far.

TV spot in which I am interviewed about the exhibition of Qing jewelry I curated in 2007:

Excelling the Work of Heaven (not embeddable, sorry)(but let me point out that this was filmed LIVE at six o'clock in the morning. Manolo does this every day but I think I should get extra points for speaking in complete sentences.)

Video of pieces from the exhibition of ethnic textiles in southwest China, now ongoing (I am not the curator but only one member of the research team):



I should note that the remark about "moving into the twentieth century with the rest of us" was made in the context of talking about how the ethnic minorities of southwest China are NOT "living fossils" as some of the literature would suggest, but in fact live in the modern world just like everyone else. It sounds kind of odd in the context of the video, but that's my fault, I guess.

Credit for editing this piece should go to the editorial team for the university's alumni magazine. They made me sound awesome (you should have heard all the umms and ahhs they cut out). In my continued effort to reduce the Googleability of this blog (or more precisely, to discourage Google from associating this blog with my actual name), here is the link to the page describing the exhibition.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Scientific sense of humor: help me complete the list

OK, here's the thing: The scientists appear to be beating out us humanities/social science types in the realm of public academic silliness. Witness:

Dance your Ph.D. (Why are these only science degrees?)
The Luxuriant Flowing Hair Club for Scientists

vs.

Geoffrey Chaucer Hath a Blog

Surely I must be missing something. What else is there?

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Famous people

I have been given the opportunity to work with a local collection of Chinese painting and calligraphy, and received a handwritten list of works in the collection to start with. I decided to put it into a database so I could figure out what was there.

I haven't seen any of the works yet but the list of names is a who's who of China's long process of modernization: from Lin Zexu, the Qing official who confiscated and burned (with lime) all the British opium in Guangzhou, thus precipitating the First Opium War, to the three generals who put down the Taiping Rebellion, to the reform officials, including Kang Youwei, who authored the Guangxu Reforms, to the Empress Dowager, who resisted them, and poor old Puyi himself, the last emperor of China. There's the first chancellor of Peking University and the first president of Shanghai University, the first prime minister of Manchukuo, the great Peking Opera singer Mei Lanfang and several of his colleagues, two or three of the epigraphers who first deciphered oracle bone characters, and, oddly enough, the first translator of the Enuma Elish into Chinese. There's an important author of May Fourth Movement vernacular fiction; the first Chinese oil-painting teacher to introduce nude models in a life-drawing class; and the author of the first modern history of Chinese philosophy (still widely read). Add to this some works by major Ming and Qing painters and it's quite a collection of characters, all told.

Obviously I have to see the works to figure out whether they would make an exhibition, but it seems like the thing they all have in common is that they were all made by people who were in one way or another involved with the great question of the 19th and 20th century: how was China going to become modern? It's a question over which wars were fought, so it wasn't a purely academic one.

So it seemed just the icing on the cake, so to speak, that the last piece on the list was a work of calligraphy by the 19th century General Tso (sometimes called, in dialect, General Gau). Of General Tso's (General Gau's) chicken.

Yum.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Water under my feet

Today I rode my bicycle over the playing fields of the elementary school on the way home. They are a bit overdue for mowing, which delights me, because left to itself, the grass on the fields sends up a feathery, seedy stalk with many branches of tiny, pale flowers. The grass was about a foot high, and as each pedal reached the bottom of the downstroke, it dipped into the grass tops as into a flow of shallow water, feathering over the tops of my sandaled feet.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Quote of the day

From my cousin R, an acting student, kvetching about sturm und drang among her castmates: "Theater people can be kind of dramatic."

Oh, the awesome.

My NaBloPoMo ambitions seem to have crashed and burned, though I have hopes of getting back into the swing of things. While you wait, go look at the best Obama victory headline ever.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Nusach

"Adon Olam" is a synagogue hymn that often closes Shabbat morning services. It can be sung to any tune, and there are many traditional ones (including a Sephardic tune with alternating Ladino verses that our congregation often uses). But since it marks the end of several hours of services, it's also often the occasion for slight levity. Some of our service leaders have gotten in the habit of singing it to popular tunes that fit the theme of the day. The lyrics are in iambic tetrameter and fit a number of tunes surprisingly well (most famously, "Take me Out to the Ball Game," although in that case the fit is a bit awkward). Today we sang Adon Olam to the tune of "Hail to the Chief," and it was amazing how this strophic march, originally written in 1821 to a lyric by Sir Walter Scott, fit the Hebrew words perfectly.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Seen on campus, Engrish edition

Oversized T-shirt on a skinny Asian skaterboy type:

"STARS AND STRAPS FOREVER"

Heh.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

And a chair.

Rex's colleague E. is in town to give a talk and hang out with the other specialists in their field. The last time we saw him was at a conference held in Italy last summer. The conference was apparently pretty good (I spent the three days looking at art, naturally) but the conference dinner was a bust. It cost 54 euros per head and was held at a fifteenth-century palazzo and garden. The setting was extraordinary but the dinner was a sad buffet of macrobiotic food served on paper plates (with earnest explanations of what tofu was: I'm not sure who thought it was necessary to explain tofu to a bunch of anthropologists and cultural studies people). We were not provided with any tables or anywhere to sit down, so everybody was milling about trying to balance their paper plates and their disposable wine cups. At one point E. came up to Rex and said:

"Fifty-four euros, Rex. Fifty-four euros!! For fifty-four euros, I want a PIECE OF MEAT, and a CHAIR."

Election analysis

Rex gives a pithy analysis of Barack Obama's election (hee hee).

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Old school technology

Yesterday we tried to break some of the tension by going to Costco, figuring that not everybody would have the day off like us civil servants, and that therefore the lines would be shorter (we were wrong, by the way). Waiting at a traffic light, we saw the guy in the car next to us light his cigarette with the glowing red coils of the car cigarette lighter. I realized that it was the first time I'd ever seen someone use the car cigarette lighter to light a cigarette. And he evidently didn't have to unplug his cellphone charger to do it.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

All I have to say is:

IT'S ABOUT FUCKING TIME.

Congratulations, Mr. Obama. I'm looking forward to the next four years.

*Now* I remember

So yesterday I was left with a thought that escaped me, leaving only a visual setting for that thought, which didn't help me at all (take that, Matteo Ricci). Today I remembered what I had been thinking!

It was about "Charlotte's Web."

I have been listening to an audiobook of Charlotte's Web as read by the author, E.B. White. If you are at all an aficionado of audiobooks, run out and lay your hands on this one, because White has one of the best reading voices ever. It reminds me of my New England farm-town childhood, but it also reminds me of a few other things.

I realize how rich White's vocabulary was. Templeton the rat says "I am a glutton, not a merrymaker." Wilbur says "I didn't mean to be objectionable." Charlotte herself comes on the scene with "Salutations!" I remember loving all those words, indeed, learning to love them, like a box full of chocolates with different centers: sopping, bough, interlude. But I also learned to love the specialized, slightly archaic vocabulary of English agriculture: gander, broadcast, silage, mulch.

I also find that I no longer want to be Fern. That is, I hear the story now, still with Fern and Wilbur at its center, a little girl and a little boy (pig); but I find I identify much more with the Arables and the Zuckermans, despite their good-natured blindness to the wonders that go on in the barn. Their obvious love for Fern and Avery seems the dominant note of the opening chapter of the book. I think I am reading Charlotte's Web as a parent, rather than as a child. The fact that I am not (yet) a parent does not seem to deter this reading one bit.

Better than an alarm clock

Our windows are always open, and every morning we hear the Dawn Chorus: the conversation of birds at first light, staking their territory at the start of the day. But even more reliable is the 6.30 AM Elderly Japanese Neighbor, who is in the habit of putting his car key in the ignition before he closes the driver's side door, with the result that we could set our watches by the "bong... bong... bong" every morning.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Vanishing Tūtū, part two

RIP Madelyn Dunham. I'm sorry you couldn't make it to the big day.

On having a visual memory

I have a near-photographic memory, which probably explains my choice of career. By photographic I don't mean perfect, but rather extremely visual (and spatial). I remember how to spell words by visualizing them on the page, then checking to see if they look right. I can't remember anybody's name until I've written it down, or at a minimum until I know how it's spelled so I can visualize it. I learn historical periods by pegging them to artistic styles, and I didn't learn the dynasties of China until I started learning Chinese art history (in fact, the worst grade I got in college was in a Chinese history class). Works of art stick in my memory by the hundreds, but I can't learn how to play a game by having the rules explained to me - I have to see it unfold to understand it.

Sometimes this is useful, and sometimes it is not. It's useful in retrieving information, as I can often visualize where on the page the information is located; and its applications to art history are obvious. However, on the way in to work this morning I thought of another topic to blog about, and now I can't remember what it was. I can remember precisely what I was seeing at the moment I came up with this idea (I was whizzing past the agricultural science laboratories, with the parking lot on my left across the street and the big Mindanao gum tree on my right); but I can't for the life of me remember the idea itself.

Vanishing Tūtū

We commute to work every day by bicycle, along a route which is mostly downhill going in, and mostly uphill coming back, and which passes along residential streets in our valley. The streets on the valley floor are mostly straight and meet at right angles, but as the ground rises the streets grow more winding. We live on the side of the valley, so the first few blocks of the commute are along twisting roads. Rapid development of this area has meant that the houses are crowded very close to the road, especially since there are no sidewalks (another artifact of the recent and rapid development of land here).

One house we pass has a chain-link fence separating its short driveway from the street. It used to be that every morning, on our way in to work, we would see a spectacularly wizened and tanned old lady with a shock of white hair, sitting in a molded plastic chair and watching the world go by. If you waved, she would wave, and we would call out "Hello, tūtū!" as we whizzed past. She was often still there at the end of the day (or had returned to her post, perhaps), and would shout encouraging if incomprehensible things as I slogged up the hill ("Going to the high school dance?" or "There's a sale at the market!"). We didn't know her, in any real sense, but then we did know her, in the sense that you know somebody you see and greet every day.

Since we came back from Europe, we haven't seen her at all. The orange plastic chair is tilted up against the fence, to cast the rain off, and nobody sits in the driveway day after day. We see other people in the yard occasionally, members of a local-Japanese family, but it would seem weirdly prying to ask them what might have happened, especially since we know what might have happened, and since we don't know them at all. But we wonder, every time we see that orange chair. She's gone, but her place in the world isn't.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Saturday night in the 'hood

Last night our neighbors had a kanikapila (for my Irish relatives: a session) and as a result we watched the last three episodes of "Angel" season four to a background of ukulele and falsetto harmonizing, with occasional bursts of applause at surprising moments (like just after Angel agrees to take over Wolfram and Hart).

Actually, how many of you are out there?

My sense of this blog is that six people read it. Until recently I would have said five: my mother, my mother-in-law, my uncle, my cousin, and my maid of honor. But I recently learned that my high school roommate also reads it (hiya C!) so hey! Six people! As far as I know nobody links to it except for myself. But I do wonder if anybody ever wanders by randomly, and if so, whether they stay for any time at all. I once got some nice comments from a person named Mokihana, and I wonder if she ever comes by these days.

I don't really have any stake in being widely read; but I'm curious to see who passes through my little patch of virtual real estate. Does anybody know about good blog tracking software and how to put it on a Blogger blog?

Saturday, November 1, 2008

National Blog Posting Month

So I thought I would try NaBloPoMo, like so many other people are doing. I would like to post more frequently on my blog, and maybe this will be the incentive I need. But it did get me thinking about why I blog.

Frequent readers (all six of you, that I know of) will have noticed that this isn't really a personal diary, in the sense that it doesn't explore my interior life. Not only am I not comfortable posting my personal feelings on the internet, for all sorts of reasons, but in fact I have always loathed the idea of keeping a journal in which one records one's feelings. Every time I've tried it in the past, usually out of a sense that I was the kind of person who should be keeping a journal, it's degenerated in one or two entries into self-centered wallowing. The truth is, I'm more mentally healthy when I don't take my emotions that seriously. And I'm not interested in dealing with the confidentiality issues that come with talking too much about other people on my blog.

Instead, I think of this blog as a place to record interesting things that happen to me, or that I see. This comes from a deeply rooted sense that wonderful things are always happening around us, if we only take notice. I mean "wonderful" in its old sense of "inspiring wonder" - I'm not trying to be all Hallmark or Pollyanna as much as I am trying to build a testament to the awesome weirdness of everyday life. Sometimes the things that happen are very small, like a Muscovy drake going for a walk in the fields of the elementary school, or transient, like a double rainbow on Yom Kippur, or the blooming of the cereus hedge. These kinds of things demand that we pay attention to them, observe and describe them.

I think I feel something close to an ethical responsibility to notice these things. This definitely comes from my early training in English composition (high school, I'm looking at you), in which my first assignment in my first class in my first semester of freshman English was to find a place, visit it every week, and describe what I saw, how the place changed over time. I chose a thicket of elderberry bushes behind the soccer fields. Somewhere I still have the lab book in which I described how the berries withered and turned dark with the approach of a New Hampshire winter. Through readings (Maxine Kumin, Annie Dillard, Chet Raymo, Aldo Leopold - all books I still own) I learned the magical power of close observation; but with it came a sense that the magic could easily pass you by, if you weren't looking for it. And somehow I got the feeling that all that wonder shouldn't stay in your head. That's when I decided that awe at the world is in itself an imperative to write.

I owe a lot to the English teachers I had over those four years; not least, I owe them major chunks of my career, as I can recall many occasions when my ability to write carried the day more than anything else. But I also owe them this sense of amazement, and the desire to record it. So here it is, the wonderful and the weird. The question is, can I do it every day? Can I find something worth remembering, every day of the month? Here's some of the latest:

On Thursday a student came to one of my colleagues' classes totally plastered, with a 40oz bottle of beer, a new low in the undergraduate "What were they *thinking*?" sweepstakes, which has heretofore been dominated by female students showing too much skin.

When I went to vote early on Friday (Halloween), my ballot was collected by a poll worker dressed as Bozo the Clown.

The best Halloween costumes I saw Friday night were a 2-year-old dressed as an ear of corn (with a breastplate of egg-carton "niblets" spray-painted yellow, and a green stocking cap with raffia tassel - the best part was the foam-rubber pat of butter strapped to one arm), and a 5-year-old dressed as a red dragon. The dragon costume was good, but even better, his father went as a damsel in distress and his mother went as a knight in shining armor.

Onward!

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Post-modern Halloween candy

W. from the gallery office just came across the hall with a plastic pumpkin full of Halloween candy. I depend on the gallery office for the occasional sugar rush as they are usually well supplied with unhealthy treats, so this was kind of par for the course. (I try to return the favor whenever I travel, coming back with something yummy.) I discovered that among these mini candy bars were Crunch bars, which I usually like; but these were filled with caramel, which I found very off-putting. I want my Crunch bars to be crunchy, my peanut butter cups to be full of peanut butter, my Snickers to contain peanuts... you get the idea.

W. agreed and went on a long and hilarious riff on the problems of post-modern Halloween candy. The basic issue seems to be one of category creep, due to marketers in the candy companies who worry that they will lose their jobs if they don't keep redefining the product. How is it new and improved (to choose a random example) to put caramel in a 3 Musketeers bar? Isn't that just a Milky Way? The Wikipedia entry on Reese's Peanut Butter Cups lists twelve different varieties that exist or have existed. This is all kinds of wrong. What's next? Rolos filled with something other than caramel? Different flavors of Mounds?

I am a member of the generation of children whose cosmic worldview was rocked in 1982 when the movie E.T. introduced Reese's Pieces to the world. You can put peanut butter inside an M&M shell? So I'm no stranger to the cognitive value of radical change. But I'm here to advocate against the post-modern category-breaking that leads to things like caramel inside a Crunch bar. In the wake of postmodernism, we rediscover the value of received forms and traditional categories. So this is my stump speech in support of traditional values when it comes to Halloween candy. Respect the sacred relationship between chocolate and peanut butter!

That said, I still hate Dum Dum Pops.

It wasn't mold

It was ants, or possibly termites. Eating my duplicate copies of articles from Ars Orientalis.

Sometimes I hate the tropics.

Monday, October 27, 2008

There's a fungus among us

My office is not air-conditioned, nor is it closed to the outside, with the result that insects, geckos, and the occasional bird can and do wander in. In a tropical climate, any small pocket of under-circulated air is prime mold territory, and I found a truly spectacular infestation today in the bookshelf behind my office door. The destructiveness of the tropical environment never fails to amaze me - this mold had sent filaments under the paint on the bookshelf itself and the film of paint peeled away from the steel when I wiped up the colonies, leaving a fungal roadmap on bare metal.

Most of the casualties were fairly dispensable (extra copies of articles, spare envelopes, etc - if it were really crucial I wouldn't keep it back there) but sadly one of the near-casualties appears to be my Ph.D. diploma. The folder it came in is a total loss and the diploma itself is stained along one edge. It makes me wonder about my continued qualifications: Can I still teach with a moldy Ph.D.?

Friday, October 24, 2008

Voodoo economics

We bank at the local credit union and are pretty well insulated from the effects of the crashing economy by the simple expedient of (a) banking locally and (b) having spent our twenties and early thirties in graduate school, and therefore never having made more than about 17,000 a year until quite recently. Still, as I stood in line this morning to make a deposit, it was disconcerting to see a thick book, apparently bound in leather, with the gilded title "Spells" on the cover in thickly ornamental Victorian script, resting on the tellers' counter.

(It was actually a box of stealth Halloween candy. Probably just as well.)

Phantom signature

I bought a drawing board today to help me in my project to design a pattern for a filet-crochet tallit. The tallit will be 36 x 72 inches, and I'm making the pattern half-size, which still means it's 18 x 36 inches and therefore pretty ungainly. The drawing board gives me a good surface to work on even when the table is laden with books, which is pretty much all the time.

The board was shrink-wrapped in a layer of plastic that was held away from the board's surface by the large clipboard-type clips on one end of the board. I strapped it to my bicycle's luggage rack and rode awkwardly home. Arriving home I stowed my bike in the back of the house, where the slanting rays of the sun illuminated everything. I realized that I must have leaned on the board to sign the charge slip when I bought it at the bookstore, because although the denting of the plastic that this caused was invisible, the sun was projecting my shadow signature out of nowhere onto the surface of the board.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Yummy lentil soup

It is not exactly soup weather here, but it is soup weather elsewhere, so I thought I'd post this riff on a lentil soup recipe Cinnamon posted recently on Gaper's Block. Here's what I made last night (in about half an hour) with what we had in the fridge:

Olive oil
One sweet Italian sausage (turkey, if you're us)
One onion
3 cups of chicken stock (more, if you want a really soupy soup)
1 tsp. ground coriander
1 tsp. ground ginger
1 cup green lentils
5-6 cloves garlic
A bunch of curly kale
Salt and black pepper

Crumble the sausage and brown it in the olive oil under medium-high heat (you want a lot of browned bits). Remove from the pan, scraping up as many browned bits as possible, and set aside. Put a little more oil in the pan and saute the onions, also over medium-high heat. Don't stir too much: you want them to get browned on the edges, just like the sausage. When they're mostly translucent, add the spices and fry for a few seconds till they become fragrant. Add the chicken stock and bring to a boil (again, scraping the bottom of the pan). Add the lentils and boil, covered, for 20-30 minutes, until they are nearly done (still a bit of crunch). While the lentils are boiling, chop the garlic coarsely and add to the soup. Pull the kale leaves off their stems and tear into manageable pieces. When the lentils are nearly done, pack the kale into the pan and cover to steam. When it has cooked down a bit, stir it into the soup. Cook at a simmer for 5-10 minutes, until the kale is dark green and tender but not mushy. Stir the sausage bits back in, season with salt and pepper and serve.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Back in the day

I'm thinking of having an actual sit-down dinner next weekend so have been thinking of dinners in our past. Two of them were actually blogged for posterity, so here are the links to:

Colonialism in the Pacific Rim Themed Dinner for Eight (Rex did the actual write-up, in case you couldn't tell)

Americans Eating Kale: a Dinner Party for Eight

It makes me all nostalgic for the days when I was a graduate student and actually had time to think about these kinds of things. But rather than mourning the past, I'm thinking of them as benchmarks to reach for in the future. Excelsior!

Monday, October 13, 2008

Best receipt ever

My friend Karl's friend Ben has what Karl has described as a "most unusual receipt." He's right, of course, but I think I may have topped him:

receipt067

Saint-Germain is a Japanese bakery in town, where I went to pick up some pastries one morning this past weekend. Among the bearclaws, danishes, andagi, turnovers, an pan, curry puffs and other baked goods, they offer something called a "Jesuit Custard," which is a triangle of puff pastry with almonds on top, split horizontally and filled with pastry cream. If anybody knows why this should be called "Jesuit Custard," please let the rest of us know. Meanwhile I am waiting for the St. Francis Xavier An Pan.

(ETA: Wonder no longer; AKMA came through with the answer to this question in the comments. Thanks AKMA!)

Friday, October 10, 2008

And on Yom Kippur it is sealed

The liturgy for Yom Kippur is very repetitive in structure: major prayers such as the High Holy Days Amidah (six times longer than the usual version), the Vidui (breast-beating litany of sins, in an alphabetic acrostic), Ki Anu Amecha (about the mutuality of the relationship between God and man), and Avinu Malkeinu (much-beloved prayer, "Our Father and Our King") are repeated over and over again through the day. Another thing that gets repeated is the covenant between God and Abraham, articulated in the book of Exodus as Moses and the Israelites stand at Sinai. It is a list of thirteen attributes of God, which begins "Adonai, Adonai, el rachum v'chanun" (The Lord, The Lord, God compassionate and merciful). It is one of the centerpieces of the Yom Kippur liturgy of repentance, because just after delivering it, God says to Moses, "Tell Israel that whenever they mention these attributes, I will pardon them."

Our morning services for Yom Kippur took about four and a half hours, after which we took a break before the afternoon services and havdalah. When we left the house, parched and hungry, to return to services in the late afternoon (Yom Kippur is traditionally observed with a 25-hour no-water fast), we emerged into a fine and luminous misting rain, common in our neighborhood this time of year. With the sun at our backs, it produced a spectacular double rainbow that lit up the entire valley.

Rainbows aren't as rare here as they are in some other places, but they are still remarkable. There is a special Jewish prayer to be said upon seeing the rainbow, which blesses God for remembering his covenant with his people. Usually this is understood to refer to the Noahide covenant, between God and all the people of the world (not just Jews), made after the Flood. But having spent all day chanting the covenant of Sinai, it was hard not to feel that we were not the only ones remembering the covenant; that something of what we said was being heard.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

My first meme

OK, I'm giving in and posting my version of The Omnivore's 100, which started with the Very Good Taste food blog. Here's how it works, if you haven't seen it before. VGT made a list of unusual foods that they think every true foodie should try. They want to know how many of these items others have tried, so here's my list. I should note that my list of things I've eaten includes things I've tried in the past but wouldn't eat now because they are treif.

They say:

1) Copy this list into your blog or journal, including these instructions.
2) Bold all the items you’ve eaten (I'm using color since the boldface doesn't show up well in this theme).
3) Cross out any items that you would never consider eating.

The VGT Omnivore’s Hundred:

1. Venison (both by itself, and in really old-school mincemeat, when I was a kid. Also, moose)
2. Nettle tea
3. Huevos rancheros
4. Steak tartare
5. Crocodile (treif)
6. Black pudding (gross, treif)
7. Cheese fondue (mainstay of many a grad school party)
8. Carp
9. Borscht
10. Baba ghanoush
11. Calamari
12. Pho
13. PB&J sandwich
14. Aloo gobi
15. Hot dog from a street cart
16. Epoisses (not yet, but oh how I love stinky cheese)
17. Black truffle
18. Fruit wine made from something other than grapes
19. Steamed pork buns (no longer, alas)
20. Pistachio ice cream
21. Heirloom tomatoes
22. Fresh wild berries
23. Foie gras
24. Rice and beans
25. Brawn, or head cheese
26. Raw Scotch Bonnet pepper
27. Dulce de leche
28. Oysters
29. Baklava
30. Bagna cauda
31. Wasabi peas
32. Clam chowder in a sourdough bowl
33. Salted lassi
34. Sauerkraut
35. Root beer float
36. Cognac with a fat cigar
37. Clotted cream tea
38. Vodka jelly/Jell-O
39. Gumbo
40. Oxtail
41. Curried goat
42. Whole insects
43. Phaal
44. Goat’s milk
45. Malt whisky from a bottle worth £60/$120 or more
46. Fugu
47. Chicken tikka masala
48. Eel
49. Krispy Kreme original glazed doughnut
50. Sea urchin
51. Prickly pear
52. Umeboshi
53. Abalone
54. Paneer
55. McDonald’s Big Mac Meal
56. Spaetzle
57. Dirty gin martini
58. Beer above 8% ABV
59. Poutine
60. Carob chips
61. S’mores
62. Sweetbreads
63. Kaolin (Are you kidding? This is porcelain clay!)
64. Currywurst
65. Durian
66. Frogs’ legs
67. Beignets, churros, elephant ears or funnel cake
68. Haggis
69. Fried plantain
70. Chitterlings, or andouillette (treif, thank goodness)
71. Gazpacho
72. Caviar and blini
73. Louche absinthe
74. Gjetost, or brunost (gjetost is one of my favorite cheeses)
75. Roadkill
76. Baijiu
77. Hostess Fruit Pie (I am a pastry snob)
78. Snail
79. Lapsang souchong
80. Bellini
81. Tom yum
82. Eggs Benedict
83. Pocky
84. Tasting menu at a three-Michelin-star restaurant. (We had the prix fixe.)
85. Kobe beef
86. Hare
87. Goulash
88. Flowers
89. Horse
90. Criollo chocolate
91. Spam
92. Soft shell crab
93. Rose harissa
94. Catfish
95. Mole poblano
96. Bagel and lox
97. Lobster Thermidor
98. Polenta
99. Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee
100. Snake

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Mission accomplished

Sign on the campus Indian lunch place: "We want to make you HAPPY and FULL OF CURRY."

Monday, October 6, 2008

Further encounters with domestic fowl

My route home from work sometimes takes me along a path that cuts behind the fields of the local elementary school. There are two ways to get to the road from behind the school: during the day, when school is in session, the fence around the school fields is locked, and you exit through the gate of some buildings belonging to the School of Tropical Agriculture. After hours, the Ag buildings are closed and the gate locked, but the school fields are open. If I come home between 4.30 and 6, I often find a community youth soccer league or baseball practice going on. After 6, the fields are usually deserted except for the occasional dog walker or frisbee thrower.

Today I got caught up in a research question at work (when exactly did Empress Dowager Wenzhao of the Northern Wei die? - answer: in 496 CE, according to her epitaph inscription, and contrary to some modern historians' reports, so there) and was late leaving, so as a result the fields were empty as I arrived. Just entering from the street side were a middle-aged man and a teenage boy, ambling idly along and tossing a football back and forth between them. Waddling along between them, the midpoint of the invisible line connecting the two, was an enormous white Muscovy duck with a spectacularly warty red face. I asked if he ever caught the football but apparently he was just along for the walk.

Because I am not usually prone to losing small objects, I still have the extremely low-tech cell phone that I got when we signed up for service four years ago. It doesn't have a camera, so no picture of the duck. Rex, who lost his in May and in consequence has a schmancy new one, reminds me that if only I were more forgetful I would have been able to show you that I'm not making this up.

Parashat Terumah

Today I signed up to give a d'var Torah (or drash, that is, a meditation on the week's Torah reading) for Parashat Beshallah, which is coming up in February. So I'm posting the d'var Torah I did last February, on Parashat Terumah (Exodus 25:1-27:19). The passage is about the building of the mikdash, the tabernacle that held the Ark, and it's full of a lot of details about how many cubits and how many golden pomegranates and goatskins and whatnot. It's very confusing, because it's hard to see how it relates to our own experience in the modern day. Here's what I said:

Terumah
3 Adar 1, 5768 (2/9/2008)

Terumah is on some level the art historian’s parashah, since it is all about stuff and its meaning. So I’d like to offer an art historian’s drash. Like other parashiyot, this one raises a lot of questions including: why call for the building of the mikdash at this particular moment, after the giving of the Law? And what does it mean to call the mikdash a sanctuary built (in God’s words) “so that I may dwell among them?”

I’d like to focus on a particular line that sticks with me every time I read this parashah. In giving instructions for the building of the mikdash, God says to Moses, “Exactly as I show you… so shall you make it.” The question here is why is it so important that the mikdash be made so exactly according to what seem on the face of it some fairly arbitrary specifications?

One commentator (Yehudah Halevi) sees in this a link to the idea that we cannot approach God except as He commands us, on His own terms, and not according to our own need. This is an explanation that I have some sympathy for, as it goes a long way toward explaining why it feels meaningful to me to pray in a language that I still don’t understand very well; it’s a matter of bringing oneself to God, and not demanding that He bring Himself to us. Still, it doesn’t really explain all those acacia posts and goatskins and gold lampstands.

It is possible to see in this parashah, as in so many others, the echo of the ancient Near Eastern context in which our ancestors lived. It’s been pointed out by some commentators that this kind of a highly detailed and iconographically specific temple description is a textual genre known from other Near Eastern traditions besides our own.

Many, many commentators read the details of the building and its furnishings allegorically. Thus Don Isaac Abravanel suggests that the menorah is made of “pure gold” to remind us to be careful of impure ideas, and it always faces the Holy of Holies, reminding us that true wisdom is always in harmony with the Torah. This is a deeply familiar approach for most of us. We are well accustomed to the idea that every detail, turn of phrase or omission, must have some meaning, and that that meaning is often expressed associatively, metaphorically, or allegorically.

But while it is familiar, this explanation is not entirely satisfying because it still fails to explain the sense in this parashah that details of wood and bronze are somehow inherently important to God: “Exactly as I show you… so shall you build it.” Is this God’s need, or is it perhaps our own need? Allegorical explanations seem unsatisfactory here, because of the way they seem to restrict God.

The mikdash is built so that God may dwell among us, but we know that God cannot be contained by something we ourselves have built out of acacia posts and linen cloths. Solomon says something very close to this in describing the building of the First Temple (in a section of 1 Kings quite close to today’s haftarah reading): he addresses God, saying “even heaven and the heaven of heavens cannot contain You; how much less this house that I have built?” And in fact our tradition is full of stories telling us that God dwells everywhere.

This is not God’s need.

We’re left, then, with the idea that it may well be our own; and yet, bronze sockets and twisted linen and purple and crimson dyes are so foreign to our own experience that it is hard to see how, from this distance of years. This is where the insights of art history become useful.

Art history recognizes that it is a basic human impulse to imbue objects and materials and spaces with meaning, and not just that, but also to use objects and materials and spaces to create meaning in our lives. And we value the ability to recognize that meaning, to know when things and places are significant. Materials in particular are sometimes the source of that meaning, as is the act of making.

A few examples: I’m wearing tourmaline earrings that were a graduation gift from my parents, and while I would wear them because they are my parents’ gift, they were chosen because tourmaline is the state gemstone of Maine, my first home. They are meaningful for their material. The Chinese Bronze Age is different from the Near Eastern Bronze Age because the Chinese discovery of bronze technology did not lead to the manufacture of bronze tools and weapons. In the Near East, and many other parts of the world, the introduction of bronze is primarily a technological innovation, and the material is valued for its practical uses. In China, bronze became a spiritually marked material, and was restricted to the casting of sacrificial vessels; Bronze Age farmers in China still worked with stone tools.

This tendency to ascribe meaning to objects, and their materials, and their manufacture, is really fundamental to the way we as human beings experience the world which is God’s creation. The peculiar exactness of God’s instructions as to the building of the mikdash is not a sign of God’s own interest in architectural design, but rather a response to a very human way of ordering the world and of making it meaningful. God commands it because He knows our nature – this is for our need.

In order to make ordinary things holy – a tent, a curtain, a table, a lamp – we are asked to make them ourselves, out of materials we have given freely (which is the meaning of the word “terumah,” a free-will offering), the finest which may be available, and in a way which is unlike ordinary things. This is necessary in order for us to understand the extraordinary, the indwelling of God among us, which transforms the everyday earth into holy ground.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Cuter than your average mongoose

On my way to work, I bike through the parking lot of a local Catholic girls' school. The ride is mostly downhill from home to work, so I tend to do most of my observing on the way home, when it's uphill all the way and I'm moving slower. Still, this morning as I zipped along, I noticed something moving under the carriage of a pickup truck up ahead. As I drew nearer, three baby mongoose, the size of chipmunks, nose to tail, trotted across my path. The last one turned to watch me as I went by, too young to be afraid.

There is ordinarily nothing particularly cute about a mongoose, a ginger-colored weasel-like animal with red eyes. But these, it must be conceded, were adorable. Too bad I didn't have the camera.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Feral chicken tales

The feral chickens that roam the woods around where we live (and pretty much most of the city) are descended from domesticated chickens that were themselves still pretty close to the ancestor of all domesticated chickens, the red jungle fowl (Gallus gallus). As a result, they are strikingly fledged, the males with plumed metallic green tails and extravagant ruffs in gold or red. You get the sense of how these fowl are related to other, showier birds like the ring-necked pheasant. Still, a chicken is still more or less a chicken. They are not particularly wily and are prone to idiotic behavior.

This past weekend I was doing the laundry at the laundromat, which is on the floor of the valley where we live, in a small shopping center surrounded by a parking lot. The parking lot is planted with monkeypod trees for shade. Somehow a feral rooster had wandered out of the woods and into the parking lot, and had gotten spooked up into one of these trees, probably by a passing car. He obviously had no idea how to get down or what to do about his predicament, and sat in the tree crowing robustly for the time it took me to wash and dry several loads.

L'shanah tovah

A sweet new year to you and yours. May you be inscribed for blessings in the Sefer L'chayim.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Simultaneous translation

The exhibition I've been working on opened Sunday, and a cadre of scholars from China (who'd written essays for the catalog) came for a symposium we organized to go along with it. We were all limited to 10 minutes (not that most people kept to this) due to the need to translate all the presentations from one language into the other.

For translating the English presentations into Chinese, we were able to hire an interpreter from the grad program in translation and interpretation, who came with fancy headsets for all the Chinese visitors. Translating the Chinese presentations into English was harder, as our scheduled translator quit (or something happened, I don't know what) two weeks before the symposium. We (English-speaking China scholars) ended up doing the translation ourselves, though not simultaneously.

I translated for a speaker who was improvising his talk off the text of his PowerPoints on a computer screen as I sat next to him looking over his shoulder. I thought it would help to have the text in front of me, and it was helpful for those long lists of river valleys and artifact typologies. But it appears that my brain treats reading Chinese and understanding what I'm listening to as two different problems, and I found myself doing simultaneous translation after all, as I read what was on the screen (at speaking speed) and tried to connect it with the (slightly different) version of the talk I was hearing. I had to translate between my ears and eyes before I could get anything to come out of my mouth. By all reports what I did say made sense, but I am not sure whether I can take any credit for that.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

New bird

Today near the beach I saw a Black-Necked Stilt feeding in shallow waters. I'd never seen one before, although they don't appear to be uncommon. I am a desultory birder but enjoy seeing new species, and would add this to my life list if I kept one. It's such a surprise to see a new bird here since the ecological niches are so narrow that, although we have some unusual species, the total number of species is small. More, the birds you see on an everyday basis are limited to six or eight species. The birds I've seen often enough to be regulars are:

Zebra dove (Incredibly fearless, to the point that you are sometimes amazed that the species manages to survive)
Mynah bird (Snappy dresser, lots of attitude)
Lace-necked dove (Imported from China, where I've seen them in reality and in paintings)
Nutmeg mannikin (Tiny, travels in flocks)
Waxbill (Ditto)
Java finch (Wears a morning coat to everything)
Red-vented bulbul (Loud. "Persian nightingale" a very misleading alternate name)
Red-eared bulbul (Louder, cheeky)
Red-crested Cardinal (Rex: "Like a bird with the head of a totally different bird")
House sparrow (They're everywhere)
Rock dove (pigeon)
Jungle fowl/feral chicken (Frequently cross roads, cause still unknown)
Cattle egret (Tall, ghostly wading bird)

Slightly more unusual sightings:
Black-crowned night heron
Black-necked stilt
Ring-necked pheasant

Un-hip; or, my career as a Tahitian dancer

I wanted to take an exercise class, and I wanted something (a) aerobic and (b) likely to strengthen my core muscles, since I tend to get backaches from standing up to lecture and since my daily exercise regimen of biking to and from work is pretty much all about my legs. So I looked into offerings at the university's Leisure Center, which offers dance classes, exercise classes, scuba certification, snorkeling trips, surfing lessons and a lot of miscellaneous stuff from ceramics to home brewing. I loathe regular old aerobics in the same way I loathe most exercise for exercise's sake, thanks to my innate laziness and a history of sadistic gym teachers. So I decided to go for dance instead. It was a toss-up between belly dancing and Tahitian dance, but I went with Tahitian on the grounds that it meets twice a week instead of once.

Tahitian dance has several forms, but I'm learning 'ote'a, which is what you usually see billed as "Tahitian dance." (See YouTube for about a zillion examples.) 'Ote'a is the most frenetic of Polynesian dance, in my experience, and also the most frankly sexual. It was originally danced by men but now is danced by both men and women. Women dancing 'ote'a keep their feet flat on the floor, heels together, and keep their shoulders still and level. All the movement of the body happens in between those two points, and it's focused on the hips, which shake and swivel and move in a figure-eight (or so I'm told; we haven't gotten to that part yet).

Traditional dancers wear hibiscus-fiber skirts with hip tassels that emphasize the movement of the body, and high feather and fiber headdresses that emphasize the dancer's height. We are only required to wear a pareu (Tahitian sarong) wrapped as a short skirt, which is considerably simpler, and it doesn't really do much more than put us in the mood - like wearing a gi to karate class, it's not like you couldn't do it wearing something else, but wearing one creates the right atmosphere. Even so I bought bike shorts today to go under my pareu so I can stop worrying about what happens if I shake the darn thing off.

The music for this form of dancing is basically just drumming, but there are several types of drum involved and the rhythms are quite complex. I like drumming and it's cool to listen to these driving beats - it's as if the energy of the drumming drives the movement of the dancers. It's the physicality of the rhythm that does this. Rather than the drum being an accompaniment to the dance, or the dance a response to the drum, it's really more as though the drumbeats settle in under your breastbone and set something in motion.

'Ote'a is HARD. Not only does it take a lot of core strength to move your hips that fast, it takes a lot of coordination to remember what to do with the rest of your body while you're at it. All the while you are dancing, you are holding your arms at shoulder height or higher, in a series of set gestures. And the ball-and-socket design of the human hip is tested to its limit in this case. I am finding that it's the muscles and tendons on the OUTSIDE of my hips that are feeling the most strain; and how do you stretch them? It's clear at least how far I am from the particular type of fitness this requires. So far in my life my hips have done pretty much everything I wanted them to do, so feeling this un-hip, so to speak, is a new experience. Oddly, I am liking it a lot.