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.

Night-blooming cereus

It's September again and the cereus are blooming.

(Photo by Ulf Eliasson, used by permission)

The road we take to come home from choir practice passes beside Punahou school campus, which is enclosed by a low wall of volcanic stone over which a riotous hedge of night-blooming cereus spills. The hedge is closing in on two hundred years old; it is said to have been planted in 1836. In the autobiography of Queen Lili'uokalani, she recalls making a trip to Punahou as a girl to see it in bloom. Night-blooming cereus looks like a large and somewhat disreputable Christmas cactus, sprouting fist-sized, artichoke-like buds. These open at night into baroque blossoms of white and pale green, spiky, sepaled and the size of a child's head, every foot or so along what must be half a mile of hedge. Being on a bicycle puts me at eye level with the flowers; I push my way up the hill past blossoming branches that jut out crazily over the sidewalk or spike headlong down the dark stone.

When I was in college, the custodian of my residential house was a guy named Gene. Gene was one of those intellectual eccentrics that all universities pull into their orbit, a banjo-playing tai chi instructor who made sculptures out of found materials in his spare time. Gene had a night-blooming cereus in a pot, carefully cozened through the Boston winters, and about once a year it would send out a bud. Word would fly around the dormitory and a group of students would always convene with folding chairs and thermoses of coffee to stay up all night and watch it bloom – a rare and delicate exotic. Who knew if it would bloom another year?

The Punahou cereus hedge has bloomed every night for three and a half weeks, every September for 172 years. I think it's a different variety than Gene had – Hylocereus rather than Selenicereus – but the whole thing seems emblematic of the distance between the two worlds.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Another mystery plant

Someone who lives in a very nice house on my way to work has these planted in a big concrete planter out front:


The plant grows in great profusion, with needlelike leaves, almost like a horsetail or casuarina. Scattered throughout are these neon-red trumpet-shaped flowers, which look like they're floating in among the greenery. It's a beautiful effect. Anyone know what these things might be?

ETA: Thanks to R's friend W, I now know that this is Russelia equisetiformis, the Firecracker Plant or Coral Fountain. W is apparently also the one who pegged the achiote plant earlier, so I have to give him equal credit with the local agricultural extension office's Ask the Plant Expert service.

OK, so the camera doesn't hate me.

One of the pictures of the winged beans did actually come out. Here it is:


Let me repeat, they were delicious.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Atlantic Mo and Pacific SEB

My cousin, Atlantic Mo, is an awesome painter who lives on the shores of a totally different ocean from me. Go here and look at her paintings. RTW!

Friday, September 5, 2008


Walking across the grass toward an appointment this morning, I heard the feral scream of fighter jet engines in the sky overhead, another demonstration or training run from the air force base. The sound is a marrow-deep growl that sounds like power and death; our first Memorial Day here, living near the military cemetery, we were startled out of our sleep by the sound as fighters flew over the cemetery in salute. The jets fly so fast that it's hard to localize the low-frequency sound, but I looked up by instinct anyway, and saw a flight of mannikin finches zipping across the flawless blue sky in missing-man formation.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Winged beans; or, the camera hates me

For days now I've been trying to get a picture of Chuck Norris when he comes out to hunt at night. Usually it's when we've got the lights turned down low for optimum watching of old Xena DVDs. But the little guy moves so damn fast that I am beginning to recognize I will never be able to catch him. And if I did, I don't know how to turn off the flash on the camera, so the only kind of pictures I can take of small objects at close range have all the depth washed out of them by the flash.

It's not a bad camera; I can take awesome pictures of people and things at a reasonable distance, by daylight. See?


See? But when you want to get a picture of a fast-moving gecko in low light, or of the winged beans we had for dinner last night, well, there is no joy in Mudville. Sigh.

The winged bean is basically what the name suggests: it's kind of like a green bean, but with four ruffled flanges or "wings" running the length of the pod. Here's a public-domain picture (by Wikipedia user Hans B.):

If you slice them across the axis, the cross-section looks like an X, with a tiny bean at the center. I've seen these on sale in China and here, but never bothered to try them. I was at the farmer's market on Saturday and bought some really awesome smoked marlin for making fried rice. The little old auntie who was selling the marlin talked me into the winged beans too. She recommended garlic, ginger, and oyster sauce, but as Rex and I do not do the shellfish thing, we looked for another recipe, and Rex did them up PNG-style with crushed peanuts, onions, and hot pepper flakes. What I didn't know was that it was more of a nostalgia trip for him than for me, since winged beans are indigenous to PNG and a staple of highland garden-plot agriculture. Good thing I didn't suggest having sweet potatoes too.