Friday, August 29, 2008

When worlds collide

Apparently the next big thing in Paris is the ukulele. Best line: "Les milieux étudiants américains tombent alors amoureux de cet instrument qui évoque autant les chemises à fleurs que les vacances version vahiné."

Fruits of the forest (a sculpture installation)

Last night, after sundown, I walked along a forest trail at 1000 feet altitude, through an abandoned grove that was once used by the ag school for the test-planting of experimental varieties of macadamia nut. The nut trees are still there but the forest has overwhelmed them, and philodendron vines hang down to brush your face in the dark. A giant tree fern grew beside the trail and lifted 12-foot fronds over our heads. The air was still, humid, neither hot nor cool but somehow neutral, as if there were no barrier of skin between ourselves and the night.

Flickering oil torches lined the path and somewhere off in the brush a generator whirred unobtrusively, providing power for the pools of light cast here and there by lamps. In the velvety darkness, they were like little clearings, ringed round by dimness as impenetrable as brush.

In the first of these, huge globes of many-colored glass hung from the trees in clusters, set into rings of black metal at different angles, like the planets in an orrery.

In the second, the openings of a strangler fig trunk were filled with translucent natural-rubber castings of human navels, lit from behind and shining softly like eyes.

The stream gully that cuts across the trail had been crossed by a rotting wooden bridge, now replaced by a replica with support beams in termite-proof recycled plastic and cross-ties of high tensile strength cast glass, which reproduce perfectly the weathered grain of the wooden originals. Lit from below, the bridge's visibility made the gully invisible, and it was as if a section of the trail itself had somehow begun to glow where it emerged from the leaf mold.

Finally we came to a tall tree with torchlight puddling among its buttress roots. Just beyond it, from high overhead, a string of frosted glass rudraksha fruit (Elaeocarpus grandis) stretched to the ground and lay scattered among the fallen leaves. The exterior surface of each fruit was frosted and smooth, but the faceted spikiness of the nut was left as an empty space inside, catching and scattering the light of the fiber-optic cable on which it was strung. The individual fruits glowed with a cool, bluish, moonlike shine.

True words about art

The blogger Black Hockey Jesus on the power of music: "I love it when this happens. I love it when some art form invades my life like some freaky alien and makes me bigger and stranger."

Read the whole entry.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Settlers of Catan, cupcake edition

This summer we got ourselves and our folks hooked on the famous board game Settlers of Catan. The Queen of Cake, whoever she is, has gone one better and created the Settlers of CaKEtan. See if you can keep from eating it long enough to finish the game.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Geckos I have known

Chuck Norris (see below) is not so much a gecko as a member of our family. But there are other geckos that are an indispensable part of our everyday life as well:

1. The Safeway Geckos: Sun themselves on shopping carts, leap confusedly onto your hand when unexpectedly pushed into the air-conditioned store. Best removed to an outdoor tree or shrub by the nearest eight-year-old.

2. The Bicycle Geckos: Sun themselves on the tires of my bicycle, and scare the bejesus out of me when I go to get the bike to go home.

3. The Office Geckos: Laid two eggs on my windowsill last winter, which hatched into babies that promptly disappeared. I blame the mynah birds that hang out on the ledge outside.

4. The Windshield Geckos: Sun themselves unobtrusively on the car, then scurry across the glass as you drive down the street at 25 mph. Bonuses are granted for windshield wiper avoidance when it's raining. These guys stagger away once you've parked, saying "No, man, really, I'm fine..."

5. The Car Wash Gecko: Only once, so far. I found him clinging for dear life to the driver's side mirror as I parked in the lot of a Chinese restaurant just after leaving the automatic car wash.

6. The Gold Dust Day Gecko: At the old place. Mostly just sat around in the potted rosemary looking glamorous.

Chuck Norris is back

Chuck Norris is a medium-sized gecko, missing his right rear leg, who lives in a pied-a-terre behind the cookbooks in our kitchen. Last year he would sometimes keep me company when I was up late correcting papers, yelling at me ("chichak, chichak") from his nook on the wall. It was companionable, even though that's probably gecko for "Turn out the light and go to bed already, I want to hunt." Despite his disability he is a champion cockroach hunter and when we got back from France, it was clear that he had enjoyed having the run of the kitchen while we were away (gecko droppings everywhere, hooray). But then we didn't see him for weeks, and we started to think, what if Chuck was gone? What if it was some other gecko, one we didn't even know, who was running around eating the roaches? How long do geckos even live? It was almost too much to consider.

This morning Rex went to turn on the radio and there was Chuck, hanging upside-down from the ceiling of the nook where the microwave and radio live. We're so relieved. I'm going to have to keep an eye out for him and get a picture sometime soon.

ETA: Chuck Norris is a Common House Gecko (Hemidactylus frenatus). According to this site, "The average lifespan of the House Gecko is 5 to 10 years with proper care." Hooray! Granted that we don't know how old he is now, still, Chuck could be with us for a good long time yet.

Monday, August 25, 2008

How time flies

This year's crop of freshmen were born in 1990, when I was a freshman in college. That's a kind of parallelism that should mean something, but probably doesn't. A turning point? Thank goodness we have the Beloit List, famously compiled by professors at Beloit College to remind us all of the life experience of our frosh. It's useful as a reminder of the chasm that divides personal experience of the world from "history" - for me, it opens up some time during the Nixon presidency, and I'm sure some professor once thought of us, "My god, they don't remember the Kennedy assassination." I wonder if I could make a similar list for the incoming freshmen in the fall of 1989? Kennedy and King have always been martyrs, Berlin has always had a Wall, and China has never been entirely closed. What else?

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Local psychedelic

The bark of the funkiest tree ever, the Mindanao gum tree:


Mystery solved

There is a gangly shrub growing in front of the Catholic school on my daily commute to work. Every fall as I bike through the school's parking lot, I notice it and wonder what it is.


It has a five-petaled pink flower like an apple or strawberry blossom:


but most striking of all are its weird almond-shaped spiky fruits, bright red:


A comment from a friend on my Flickr page identified it as an achiote bush. Achiote seeds, or annatto seeds, are used for their natural yellow-orange pigment. They are used to color everything from butter to that weird orange cheddar cheese (I'm looking at you, Wisconsin) to, around here, Filipino rice dishes. So actually, the open pod with seeds inside that you see at the upper left of the second photo is full of achiote/annatto seeds.

Bonus: Now I finally know why the annatto plant is also known as the lipstick plant.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Jackfruit season

A house in our neighborhood has a jackfruit tree with one big fruit growing on a stem that projects directly from the tree trunk at shoulder height. The little old Japanese man who lives in the house cuts down most of the fruits before they are ripe, because the tree hangs over the sidewalk and a jackfruit to the noggin could be lethal. But he apparently left the one on the trunk. Today I was walking by while he was working in his garden picking starfruit (carambola). The starfruit are ripe now and people are giving them away all over the place. As he pottered past his jackfruit tree, he reached out and patted the fruit in a friendly way, as if to say hello, I'm just passing through, but how are you today?

A few other things that happened this summer

We stopped in Maine to see my family on the way home. We saw some beautiful ships under sail:


This is the coastal schooner Stephen Taber, out of Rockport, built in 1871 and the oldest continuously operating commercial vessel in the US. We often see it or one of the other windjammers in Stonington harbor or Merchants Row.

And we had ice cream made from the milk of happy cows:


(The sign says, "The ice cream is made from scratch on a small farm in Maine. It is rich, creamy, delicious and old fashioned in both quality and taste. The cows on the farm are well loved and cared for. They are pasture fed and all have names. They are not injected with any steroids or hormones and fall asleep to music each evening.")

Friday, August 15, 2008

I'm a published photographer

One of the photographs I took in Paris has been used (with my permission) to illustrate the online guide to the city at My first photo credit, I suppose.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Now what?

We're back from Europe and back to our everyday lives, and this would seem to mean there is no longer anything to blog about. But the extraordinary resides in the ordinary. Today, on my usual bike ride to work, I zoomed at full speed through a gigantic cloud of honeybees. In retrospect, they must have been swarming (in the parking lot of a Catholic girls' school?) but at the time all I knew was that I was being smacked by hundreds of tiny bulletlike bodies. Fortunately none of them stung me, as the last time I got stung by a bee while riding my bike, the sting came with a nice staph infection.

I'm going to start carrying my camera again, in hopes that the extraordinary will continue to wait around the corner to be discovered.