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


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.


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


"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:



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:


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.