Sunday, December 27, 2009

Triage

We're moving in two weeks, and we've begun the purge of books and CDs that we no longer use (to be donated to the Friends of the Library sale) and clothes that we no longer wear (Goodwill all the way). This can result in the occasional "what the hell?" moment when we realize that not only can we not remember when we got a book or CD, but we can't remember *why* we got it in the first place. Sometimes the answer is "for curiosity's sake," as when I found myself calling down the stairs to my husband, saying "Honey, do we need to keep 'Cavies for Fun and Profit'?"

[N.B. "cavy" is a specialist term for "guinea pig."]

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Names for the Twins that have been Suggested by our Friends

(given that the level 2 ultrasound appears to show a pair of boys)

  • Cain and Abel (obvious no)
  • "John and Jon, or vice versa" (thanks, John)
  • Ephraim and Manasseh (sons of Joseph, referenced in the Shabbat night blessing of sons ("May God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh") - too obvious, and to my New Englander's ear sounding too much like characters in a Hawthorne novel, or early Great Awakening tent revivalists. Though himself admits to liking the idea of having a kid who goes by "Manny")
  • Eep and Oop (what?)
  • Jacob and Esau (I mean really, with all that stuff about the birthright and the pot of lentils, it's just asking for trouble. Plus what if neither of them has a full head of hair?)
  • Bubba and Bruno (maybe if they become surf bums)
  • Luke and Leia (did you miss the part about two boys?)
  • Anakin and Amidala (same problem, plus overt incest reference)
  • Uz and Buz (extremely obscure Biblical reference, Book of Habbakuk)
  • David One and David Two (David, have you met John?)

Nobody, surprisingly, has yet gone with "Heckle and Jeckle," but I'm sure it's only a matter of time. Still, a lot of them are better than Twin A and Twin B, which are their technical names at the moment. My mother calls them the Alphababies for this reason.

ETA: From comments to Rex's Facebook posting (these are all anthro references):
  • Franz and Alfred
  • Rivers and Haddon
And from a Byzantinist friend:
  • Castor and Pollux
  • Hypnos and Thanatos (I ask you)

Monday, December 21, 2009

Real estate

Last Friday we signed all nine million forms required to close out our purchase of the new apartment. It will be official as of Thursday - nice Christmas present for a couple of Jews. There is a lot to do after that - asbestos abatement work begins next Monday, followed by cleaning, then moving (oh, and at some point we have to figure out a temporary replacement for the kitchen tiles that were removed - stick-on linoleum squares for now, probably, ultimately to be replaced with ceramic tile... and also a new ceiling surface treatment, ecch). We don't have much furniture, but what we have includes a few pieces that are probably too big for the new space, but which we're going to try to make work anyway.

The fact that it's all been slightly anxiety-making for me was brought home by the dream I had last night, in which we moved to Hong Kong and into university housing. Our new apartment, brand new in an all-white space-age mode, contained lots of amenities including a washer-dryer, fancy kitchen and bathroom, private lockable door leading straight into the library (!), vending machines, personal transport cubicle (like a little box that could be programmed to travel along the subway routes), and wall-to-wall carpet. Very odd.

Back in the saddle again

Hong Kong was great - at least the conference was great; it was so involving that I never actually got to see any of Hong Kong itself. Impressions: fantastic public transportation and infrastructure, organized, over all quite wealthy (a shopping center on every block, and I'm not speaking metaphorically). My favorite part was that I could speak Mandarin to anyone and they wouldn't blink an eye. In the Mainland, you have to go through this song and dance ("Oh, you speak Chinese!") while people get over their surprise. Of course it is flattering, but also rather repetitive after a while. Interestingly, before 1997 I would probably not have been able to get around on Mandarin, since Cantonese is the majority language in Hong Kong and the Cantonese rightly saw Mandarin-only policies as a kind of language colonialism. But Beijing speaks Mandarin, and over the last twelve years it has been to Hong Kong's advantage to talk to Beijing, to negotiate its carefully balanced "one country, two systems" policy. And it is carefully balanced - different currency, different lifestyle; even the visa system is different. I thought I'd use my multiple-entry PRC visa, left over from the summer, to enter, but instead I got in on a 90-day stamp, no visa required, for US passport holders. (This will also probably be the last trip I take on this passport, which expires in March 2011. Rather nostalgic, actually.)

I worried at first about remembering to look right instead of left when crossing the street, but as it happened the subway stations and shopping malls and office buildings (and even the university where the conference was held) are connected with pedestrian walkways and tunnels. It was pouring rain the first two days I was there, but I didn't have to get an umbrella because I never had to go outside, despite the university being two subway stops away from the hotel.

The one thing I wouldn't do again is take a trans-Pacific flight while pregnant. I don't have much of a belly yet, but still, fitting into those teeny seats was a colossal drag, to say nothing of getting up all the time to pee. On top of it all I'd assumed the flight time from Honolulu to Taipei was comparable to Honolulu-Tokyo (six hours or less). Nope. It takes ELEVEN hours, during which (because it was technically a night flight from the point of view of Taipei time) we were fed at hour two and again at hour eight. And me without a snack. I could go six hours without eating before I was pregnant, but not now. Soooo hungry. And then in Taipei there was barely enough time to make the connection - certainly not enough time to find some Taiwanese currency and buy munchies. Sigh. Fortunately Taipei to Hong Kong is only about an hour and a half. Bizarrely, on the way back, I flew from Taipei to Honolulu via Tokyo, which you'd think would take longer; but in fact we spent less than eight hours in the air. I don't know how to understand this difference in flying time. Three extra hours? Where'd they go?

So I came home exhausted and jet-lagged, but it was a good trip intellectually and professionally. And now I don't have to go anywhere for a good long time, thank goodness.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Hong Kong

For some reason all Sinologists are tremendous foodies. I think it has to do with the place of food in Chinese sociality. On Sunday I am going to Hong Kong for the first time ever, to give a paper at a conference at City University. I mentioned this to the Chinese Studies crowd at a meeting yesterday and immediately got a list of places to eat. Looking forward to it.

Monday, November 30, 2009

My first sewing machine

I talked to my mom on the phone yesterday - she is planning to make me some maternity clothes, and not a moment too soon either - I am beginning to "pooch out" as they say and it is only the first step toward becoming Simply Enormous. So I was thinking about sewing machines. She said that her forty-year-old Bernina, bought in Thailand while my father was posted there during the Vietnam War, was broken, and that they no longer made the part to repair it. It's the end of an era - the Bernina was a Sherman tank of a sewing machine, with a million different settings and everything in enameled metal or shiny chrome. It made me think of my own sewing machine, which I bought at a yard sale down the street from the house my parents lived in before the current one. I know that they moved in to that house in 1986, and lived there four or five years, so it must have been no later than about 1989, because I was still in high school when I bought it. My mom and I had wandered down the street to check out the bargains and saw it, and I borrowed the money from her on the spot when I saw that it was only $25. It wasn't new then - the woman who sold it said her daughter had bought it for college and never used it. I don't know how old it was exactly, but ten years doesn't seem impossible.

It is a portable Kenmore machine, with a little case and a handle to carry it. It doesn't do the fancy stitches the Bernina did - machine embroidery and decorative applique edgings and whatnot - rather, it does straight stitch, zigzag, mending stitch, blind hem stitch, and buttonhole stitch (with nifty plastic foot guides so you always make them the same size). But it has some of the workhorse features of the Bernina, including all metal fittings (the spindle that holds the thread, which pulls out of the body of the machine itself with a knurled knob, is metal - it's plastic in later Kenmore machines, I've observed) and a heavy enameled metal body. All the accessories pack away into little compartments and boxes that are cleverly built into the machine itself. It does everything I need it to do and nothing more, including fit into my tiny Asian-style living space, and I hope (knock on wood) that it never breaks down.

When we bought it from the yard sale, it was entirely intact, with all parts present and accounted for, except for the owner's manual. I thought this was a lost cause (heck, I'm still surprised to find out that you can buy a replacement carafe for a coffeemaker, and what could be more logical than that?), but my mother, who knew more about this kind of thing than I, called Sears Kenmore customer service and ordered a shiny new replacement manual. I still have it. I took it out of the box it lives in the other day when I was looking for some elastic to replace the band of the sleep mask Rex wears to keep out the light at night. I noticed, with a combination of nostalgia and amusement, that it was beginning to yellow with age.

I guess impending motherhood is making me think about my own mother a lot lately (see several recent blog entries), but the other thing that it makes me think about is the passage of time. I am now old enough to have seen a certain amount of water pass under the bridge, as it were, and finding the sewing machine manual, twenty years after my mother mail-ordered it from Sears, reminded me of that. And of the time that will begin to unfold starting next May - a whole new era. Rex observed that impending parenthood pushes you toward a new kind of friendship - that you aren't just friends with people who think like you, but more and more frequently with people who have similar experiences to you (like parenthood, and now twin parenthood). It's another way of being connected backward and forward in time. For me, being pregnant (and our families' reaction to the pregnancy) has reminded me of the way that I am made from other people, that my body doesn't just belong to me but is part of something larger, and producing something larger - in fact now it even belongs in part to Rex's family, whom I didn't even know until I was over 30. Not that anybody has been obnoxious about anything, but rather that there is a little whiff of possessiveness that this whole situation brings to the fore. Sure, they're my children, but they're also Rex's children, and they're the grandchildren of four different people, and the cousins of some as yet hypothetical other children... and so ad infinitum. You can obscure these connections to some extent when you are a single person, but marriage and children tend to remind you of how they have really been there all along.

Surrounded by family

This weekend we finally broke the news to family and friends that we are expecting twins in May. After weeks and weeks of keeping our mouths heroically shut about it, we spilled our good news. It was an amazing experience, to be surrounded by such a rush of congratulations and warmth. From our colleagues to the members of our synagogue, everyone was overjoyed. Our families are farther away, but they sent their love from a distance too. It reminded me that we have the families we are born into, or marry into, and also those that we choose. We are surrounded by family near and far. For the babies to be born into such love and support is a wonderful thing. I think we are very fortunate.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Pate brisee

My mother has taught me many things over the years - far too many to count, of course, but among them are the tricks to making some things turn out really well: a good spaghetti sauce, a flat felled seam, a proper cake-style gingerbread. Many of these are food (cheesecake, hummus, mock boursin) and the techniques are often designed to allow one to eat well on a limited budget. But Thanksgiving allows me to rock two of the culinary skills I value particularly highly (not least because they are less than universal): flaky piecrust and gravy based on a roux made from pan drippings. For our Thanksgiving potluck, I'm making an apple pie to bring to our friends' house, where I'll take over the roasting pan and make the gravy. Himself is making two kinds of stuffing, his family's traditional Ashkenaz recipe, and a fancy one made like a savory bread pudding, with mixed mushrooms and parmesan.

My favorite gravy-making incident took place at the Salvation Army soup kitchen where my dad volunteers. I forget whether it was Thanksgiving or Christmas, but turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing and gravy were on the menu. I volunteered to make the gravy. There was a limited quantity of pan drippings, and we were worried about how far they'd stretch. I set a gigantic flat-bottomed roasting pan across three or four industrial gas burners, and scraped all the drippings in. I kept adding flour to the roux, then the potato cooking water to thin it out. It wasn't enough. More flour, more potato water - it still tasted good. We started to serve it. Not enough. More flour, more potato water, and still it tasted like turkey gravy. As far as we could tell we had discovered the bottomless pan of gravy. There ended up being enough for everyone plus the volunteers. Who knows, maybe we had been visited by the Gravy Fairy.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Watching

Rex has been enjoying two television series on DVD lately, which are both acclaimed in their own way: "Mad Men," which is critically praised, and "Arrested Development," which was a cult hit. I find them both intolerable. Both are extremely well crafted, and Mad Men is also visually beautiful. But both demand that you take pleasure in watching people treat each other cruelly, and entrap each other in intolerable situations because of their unwillingness to tell the truth.

On the other hand, last night I rented two animated films, "Kung Fu Panda" and "Up." I watched them in that order but should have reversed it. Poor Rex, who was playing around on the computer while I watched, enjoyed "Kung Fu Panda," but found "Up" depressing for the way its story centers around loss. The central character is an elderly man, voiced by Ed Asner, who strikes out on an adventure that was once a dream he and his late wife shared; he does so at that particular moment because his house is threatened by development and he is threatened with being put in a nursing home. For me, and for many watchers of "Up," this poignancy is part of the sweetness of the story; but for Rex it was just depressing.

So I suppose I have to concede that I might be missing something in "Mad Men" as well. I'm reserving judgement on "Arrested Development."

Friday, November 20, 2009

Jiffy Lube

I got the oil changed in the car today, which always makes me think about my relationship to my vehicle. We don't drive much - less than 3,000 miles a year - since we commute by bicycle and live on an island that is 35 miles long. (This leads to unintentional humor when the AAA tries to sell us the gold membership by telling us that we can get a tow as much as 100 miles from home. If my car were 100 miles from my house, a tow truck wouldn't be much help.) And we're pretty frugal, so we didn't want to pay for any more car than we were going to use (for running errands and going to shul). So we drive a 1998 Corolla with 78,000 miles on it. This is low mileage for a nearly twelve-year-old car, and it's a Toyota after all, so it's been pretty reliable. Things wear out periodically - the radiator went a few months ago, but then it was the original radiator, and had reached the end of its usable life. It has some cosmetic issues (some small rips in the fabric of the ceiling, for example) but because we don't care, we got it for $1000 under blue book when we bought it three years ago. Generally speaking, it's a good car: reasonable if not stellar gas mileage (and we only fill it up once a month anyway), easy to park, and it's worth relatively little so the insurance payments are low.

The challenge is that it is the first car my husband and I have owned (the first we have owned together, and the first he has owned ever - I shared custody of a Honda Civic with my girlfriend N for about two years back in the early nineties, and my folks lent me their old Mazda for a year when I was in grad school and teaching all over Chicago). The point is that neither of us has very much experience owning an automobile. The result is that it can be very hard to tell, of the many strange noises a twelve-year-old Toyota can make, which are the ones we actually have to worry about. On top of this, there's the American culture of automotive competence. We are supposed to know something about our cars in a way that nobody necessarily expects us to know something about our computers. As it happens, himself and I both know more about our computers than about our car. But it makes interaction with auto mechanics - even the guys at Jiffy Lube - a little bit touchy sometimes. "Do you want a flush of your automatic transmission fluid today?" I don't know, do I? What counts as due diligence for a reliable but ancient old car you don't drive much? Usually I answer "No," and then I ask Mr. Noga (my mechanic) about it the next time I go in. He and his second-in-command, Scott, are extremely patient with me but I do end up feeling like they must roll their eyes at me as I am leaving.

Fortunately, after a few years of ownership, we are starting to get the hang of what needs to be taken seriously and what can be safely ignored. For instance, we know that the fact that the air conditioning doesn't really work is mitigated by the fact that you can always roll the windows down. And the windshield washer fluid system has never worked right (though the wipers are fine) and more recently has given up entirely. We suspect it would be expensive to fix, possibly involving replacement of the whole system. However, a roll of paper towels and a bottle of Windex in the back seat are extremely economical.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

In the watches of the night

I keep thinking about segmented sleep, which is what I seem to be getting lately. I can't decide whether it's work stress that's causing it, or whether the fact that I'm finally teaching medieval art next semester has caused me to revert to historically attested patterns. Clearly I should have my balance of humors checked.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

A few things worth looking at

Advanced Style. "Proof from the wise and silver-haired set that personal style advances with age."

Bio-Diversity. Surprising interpretations of autumn leaves.

Bent Objects. Delightfully insane visual gags constructed out of everyday objects. Recent entries are mostly about the release of the Bent Objects book, so go into the archives for a taste of the actual work.

Dogblog. Leashed dogs of San Francisco, with commentary that is at once dry, and also revealing of the author's deep love of dogs. My favorite entry: Dog in a Sidecar.

Sense of snow

Last night I picked up the alumni magazine from my high school - an elite preppie boarding school in New England which drew many international students - and saw a picture of a woman I'd known way back when. She came in the same year as me but came in as a sophomore when I was a freshman, so she was a year older. She was from Curacao, in the Netherlands Antilles, a place which at that time I'd never heard of. In the magazine, she was shown with another alumna from the same class, pushing their children on swings in a snowy backyard in Massachusetts, where she now lives. And I remembered that the earliest memory I have of her is of walking across campus in the dark of an early winter evening, coming back from the dining hall, with the first snow of the season falling. It was her first snow ever, and she looked up at it in wonder as it fell on her face in big fluffy clusters of flakes. "I thought it would be like little ice cubes," she said, amazed, as I, a lifelong veteran of many more severe winters than we ever had at school, looked on.

Now I want to write her and tell her that the tables are turned; I live on a tropical island and have learned as an adult about things she no doubt knew well as a child: about shade-promoting architecture and louvered windows, tile floors and cross-ventilation, about geckos in the house and mold in the closets and automotive roach abatement. I want to let her know that I finally know what cotton sweaters are for.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Neti pot: a verdict

It is a deeply strange thing to do. But boy, does my nose feel better. Allergies begone!

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Follow-up on the comose fig story

Finally, some movement! Now there is an online petition to save the comose fig on campus: it's located here and anybody can sign it. The Powers that Be have been notified and perhaps there will be some movement now. We're waiting to see.

The campus paper Ka Leo has also published an article on the threat to the tree.

Allergies

I am allergic to our apartment. Or maybe to our immediate neighborhood, which is one of the wettest and therefore moldiest in the immediate area. You know something is not right when even a trip to the grocery store brings instant relief. I suspect mold as it's not the right season for mango pollen, which is the ragweed of the tropics in early spring. Mold, by contrast, is year-round. This is making working from home considerably less appealing than it might be otherwise; even my un-air-conditioned office is better for my nose than this. It's enough to make a person get air conditioning, if only for the air-filtering qualities.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Falling off the wagon; bat mitzvah time

Whoops! I didn't write a post yesterday. This would lose me my NaBloPoMo cred, except that I was slightly ahead of the game with some multiple posts from last week.

Today I went to shul and was surprised (not because it was unannounced, but because I'd forgotten today was the day) to find that it was the day for an adult bat mitzvah, for a member of the shul, in her sixties, who is herself already a grandmother. The parashah for today was "Chayyei Sarah," or "The Life of Sarah," and around this reading she organized a women's service, conducted entirely by the women of the shul. As it happens our most active leyners and service leaders are for the most part women, so it wasn't such a signal shift from the way things usually go. It was, however, a lovely service.

As someone who came to Judaism as an adult, and as someone whose friends' children are all mostly under ten, I haven't been to many bar or bat mitzvah celebrations. So it was news to me when Mordechai (a senior member of the shul and one of our most reliable Kohanim) came around with a basket full of what looked to be high-end Halloween candy. When the bat mitzvah finished her leyning, everybody suddenly pelted her with Ghirardelli chocolates, and she danced around the bimah while the shul's children scrambled for the goodies and we sang a song whose lyrics say "This is a joyous occasion not just for us, but for the whole people Israel."

Thursday, November 12, 2009

On language

Among the things I am proud of is the fact that I am fully bilingual in English, my first language, and (Mandarin) Chinese. And one of the ways I achieved bilingualism, along the way, was full immersion - throwing myself into the language wholesale, until at one point there were several years where I couldn't climb a flight of stairs without counting them off in Chinese, counting forward on my way up and backward on my way down. That was how I taught myself facility with numbers in Chinese. This meant not just thinking in Chinese as much as possible (I still dream in Chinese now and again, and I once had a roommate who claimed I spoke Chinese in my sleep, though I'm still not sure how she'd know), but also trying to get into the mindset behind idiomatic Chinese - not just thinking *in* Chinese, but thinking *like* Chinese, as it were.

But as I get older, I am less and less willing to throw myself into a culture and a mindset like this. Having as I do some rudimentary anthropological training, I am more and more aware of the weirdness of even claiming to be engaged in "total cultural immersion." I think part of the price of becoming bilingual the first time was a certain amount of self-othering, and I'm less and less willing to engage further in it. For this reason, I don't expect ever to become as proficient in a third language, although I continue to learn and use them, especially Japanese, German, and Hebrew. There is unlikely to be another moment in my life when I can dedicate so much headspace to language - although learning languages is one of my favorite things to do, and I sometimes wish I could do it again.

The other thing holding me back, oddly enough, is my deep and pervasive love for the English language. I delight in English, with its overstuffed vocabulary and ridiculous spelling conventions. My work requires a lot of writing and speaking, and I relish the time I spend wrangling words, sometimes more than I do the content of the words I'm wrangling. I love to read and speak Chinese, but so too do I love to read and speak English. I suspect sometimes that one of the things holding me back from pursuing further language study is an unwillingness to relinquish my deep engagement with English for the time it would take. I'm not exactly proud of this, but it's an interesting thing to realize about oneself.

Today's mantra

"I'm NOT getting a cold, I'm NOT getting a cold..."

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

How do you know?

One of the basic premises of all formal scholarship is that it is very difficult to really, really know something. We are taught to doubt our first impressions, gut reactions, instincts, and to look for proof (of facts), for reason and evidence (in support of arguments and interpretations), etc. We learn to be suspicious of any easy or obvious explanation, and to guard against oversimplification. And above all we're taught to be vigilant against the thing that we *hope* to be true, lest we unconsciously massage our research toward showing it to be true despite evidence to the contrary.

While I feel ultimately that such a rigorous model of knowledge is important and useful - I think much popular and civic discourse suffers from an insufficiently rigorous standard of knowledge, honestly - it can also be a personal handicap. We are in the process of buying a condominium, which would be our first owned home, and we are in the middle of home inspections and asbestos testing and reviewing the condo documents and all that entails. As a result, we are being asked to review and evaluate whole categories of information that we have never encountered before or are unequipped to readily understand. Despite the fact that we are two of the most overeducated people you could ever hope to meet, it is proving a challenge to draw conclusions from all this data, especially when they are (a) potentially expensive conclusions, (b) legally binding conclusions, and (c) made under deadlines that have to be met for the whole process to finish up by the closing date in late December. But add to that the intense consciousness of how ill-suited our experience and intellectual toolset is to the task we face, and the result (for me, although not necessarily for my extrovert husband) is a sense of deep trepidation.

I suppose the only comfort is the immortal words of Zorba the Greek: "To live is to ask for trouble."

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Brought to you by the number 40

Today is the fortieth anniversary of the first broadcast of Sesame Street! They're apparently celebrating with a special episode in which Michelle Obama plants carrots with Big Bird and Elmo, which almost makes me want to stay home and watch it. Amazing to think that Sesame Street has educated two or more generations of American kids. May it live on to see three.

Monday, November 9, 2009

More about the monarch butterflies

Apparently monarch butterflies in Hawai'i and other tropical places don't migrate because the climate is so mild year-round. But the best part about the monarch butterfly on O'ahu is that it is often found as a white morph, where the orange color of the normal butterfly is replaced with white. These white monarch butterflies are rapidly increasing as a proportion of the local monarch population, because apparently the birds which feed on monarchs around here (evidently there are in fact some birds that can tolerate the noxious taste of the monarch butterfly) don't recognize the white ones as a prey species. Awesome. Now I need to go out and find me a white monarch butterfly.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Thoughts while my neighbor is outside the window catching monarch butterflies

And why is it that we have monarch butterflies in the first place, what with it being 2700 miles over open ocean to the nearest continental land mass? Aren't monarch butterflies migratory?!?

I'm commenting on student paper drafts, an integral part of my process in the teaching of writing (in the context of art history). The first draft, I always say, is where things begin; not where they end. Students have a hard time believing this, having been trained that writing is something that you either do well, instinctively, or you don't ("can't") do. Balderdash. Anyhow, this kind of commenting work is labor-intensive but, I think, important. But here's the thing: I teach the same kind of writing every semester, but the students are always different. As a result, I find myself making the same comments, semester after semester, and thinking "Haven't you got this YET?!?!?" when of course these students are a totally different batch than the last round. (Except for that one guy who takes all my courses; he should really have the hang of it by now.)

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Happiness

Happiness has many definitions. Today it meant driving to Costco along the water, under a Maxfield Parrish sunset, with my husband in the seat beside me alternately channelling Smokey Robinson and discoursing on the phenomenon of the tenor falsetto.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Discoveries

Today, while trying to FINALLY put together high-quality scanned images for an article I have coming out soon, I discovered that I can use my department's digital imaging lab to do some minor Photoshopping of my scanned images. This is handy enough but I am going to have to find many more reasons to do a lot of Photoshop, because the lab is AIR CONDITIONED. Which is more than I can say for my own gecko-infested office.

Meanwhile, I was trying to figure out what to make for Shabbat dinner. (A friend's Facebook suggestion: "Reservations!") And then himself pinged me on the computer and reminded me that we have a date for Korean barbecue with some friends. Awesome.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Rainy day

Here's why I didn't mind getting wet and muddy riding my bike in to school in the rain today:

manoa rainbow1

I took this picture from the lanai before I left the house at about 8:15 AM.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Credit where credit is due

No, really, I can say it...

Congratulations Yankees on the World Series win (sigh). Nice playing!

Ballot question 1

OK, I admit. My home state of Maine rocks significantly less today than it has in the past. Yesterday Maine voters narrowly approved a ballot measure to repeal the earlier order permitting gay marriage that had been signed by the governor earlier in the year. As with Prop 8 in California, this is immensely depressing but perhaps not surprising. The ludicrous idea that heterosexual marriages are somehow harmed by the existence of gay marriages has surprising tenacity, and it is also not news that conservative Christian movements want to legislate their narrow view of morality. Ta-Nehisi Coates, whom I am proud to call a friend in another context (*ahem* online video games), has an interesting perspective on the story read in light of the history of the civil rights movement.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Pickles

Last night I dreamed that I was making some kind of brine-cured mixed-vegetable pickle, or maybe kimchee, in the middle of the night. The proportions of salt, sugar, and water (and for some reason liquid smoke) in the brine were causing me a lot of anxiety and every time I turned around I needed to run out for another ingredient. People kept dropping by with random bits of advice as to what I needed to put in for seasoning. Finally I got the brine boiling, the vegetables in jars, lined up on the counter in the totally fictitious kitchen where I was cooking (nominally my parents' kitchen), and as I poured the brine from the pan into the first jar, I was jolted awake by the clock radio, playing a choir singing a triumphal Baroque chorus. I'm not sure whether the universe was congratulating me for my successful pickle-making, or rescuing me from the tyranny of a dream in which it was somehow incredibly important that I get these pickles right.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Daylight saving time

Throughout the summer we are six hours away from East Coast time, and must calculate accordingly when calling the relatives or planning long flights. But we don't observe daylight saving time (the length of the day doesn't vary appreciably from winter to summer when you're close to the equator) and as a result, every November or so we magically move one hour closer to everybody we know out of state. It's as though the huge distances that separate us have somehow been reduced by a little bit, with no more than a wave of the hand.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Morning light

Yesterday I had cause to drive through the city on the freeway just after dawn. I don't usually do so - we do get up relatively early, but we don't commute by automobile and indeed don't get anywhere near the built-up parts of the city in an ordinary workday. I live in a city that's been the victim of extremely poor to nonexistent urban planning and incredibly uninspired architecture - we have all the variations of Poured Concrete Slab that you can possibly imagine (one-story shopping center with parking as frontage; two- or three-story walkup apartment building; block-shaped highrise), jammed together with the few wood-frame buildings that have survived the tropical climate and the termites, and the result is unharmonious and inefficient. For such a beautiful place, it can be awfully ugly, nothing gracious or lovely in the built environment, as if nature were the only source of beauty. But bathed in the light of a clear dawn, all the edges and angles of the apartment blocks were sharpened and defined to a shimmering clarity, and every dull concrete surface licked with gold. The sun was behind me and illuminated every surface rising above the elevated roadway, while beyond and below it the sea, still untouched by the light, lay dark and calm in the still morning. The only clouds in the sky were scudding white puffs over the water, distant on the horizon, as yet unlit by the sun, and seeming to move through a separate, predawn world.

National Blog Posting Month

A blog post every day for a month? Can I do it? Only the Shadow knows for sure...

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

World Series

It's that time of the year again! And once more, I am rooting for my other favorite team, Whoever Is Playing The Yankees.

(Go Philly!)

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Maine CONTINUES to rock



An 86-year-old WWII veteran speaks in favor of marriage equality for gay and lesbian couples, at a public meeting on Maine's marriage equality bill on April 22, 2009.

Ficus benjamina comosa

See what happens when I complain about not having anything to blog about? Suddenly a Cause brings itself to my attention, and refuses to be ignored. I am on a crusade to save a tree.

My favorite tree on campus is a massive comose fig tree with multiple trunks that curve around one another to support a graceful canopy of little green leaves and marble-sized yellow fruit. (The species is known as "weeping fig" for its sweeping habit.) Probably as a result of strategic pruning, its several enormous trunks do not meet, but frame a complex, baroquely shaped negative space in its interior, edged with buttresslike roots. It is a spectacular tree.

comosefig1

This is a general view of the tree, which fails to do it justice because of the shrinking effect of the wide-angle setting I used on the camera. Better is this shot of just the trunks, although even here the angle was not quite right to capture its spacious enclosure.

comosefig2

As it turns out, this tree was planted on campus by the botanist-explorer Joseph Rock, the first official botanist of the Territorial government, and later to become a preeminent specialist on the botany of southwest China, especially Yunnan, where he also did important early ethnographic and ethnolinguistic work with the Nakhi. It is said that the novel Lost Horizon, the source for the idea of Shangri-la, was inspired by his adventures in the Himalayan foothills.

Now, it is in danger of being cut down as part of the Campus Center expansion.

The original architect's plan for this expansion took the tree into account, building up to it but leaving it in situ. But some political objections led to the powers that be (not the architects, actually) rotating the expansion ninety degrees so that the narrower width, which would have spared the tree, was exchanged with its length, and the tree has to go.

I occupy a building whose design was fundamentally altered to spare a monumental baobab tree that was slated to be cut down in construction. I know it can be done. What I'm having trouble with is figuring out who to complain to. I signed a petition the other day to save the fig tree. Now I need somewhere to take it further. As my friend Greg said, "Even if you don't care about nature, a hundred-year-old tree is not something to be tossed aside lightly." And he's right. Many of us will not live so long ourselves. This is not just botany; it's history, and a history we can't afford to destroy at our whim.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Good writing

This blog is a space where I purposely don't write about my work. Instead of writing about the things which are central to my life, I write about the peripheral things. Of course sometimes that means that the peripheral things get driven off the mental desktop entirely, when life gets busy. One of the big things I had on my mind is now off my plate (an article for a journal which had to be turned around in editing very quickly in order to go into the special issue that's Coming Soon, I hope), along with a Giant Pile of Midterms (tm) which had to be corrected over the weekend. As a result, I've had more than two brain cells to rub together, for a change, and I've been thinking about television writing.

We've been watching the show "Castle" on ABC recently, and enjoying it a lot - it's a fluffy show, but it has tremendous ensemble appeal - great chemistry between the principal characters, including Nathan Fillion as a crime writer, Stana Katic as the NYPD officer he's partnered with, and an actor whose name I've forgotten as Fillion's smart teenage daughter. His eccentric actor mother, who lives with them, is also a great character. Even the staff of the police station where much of the action takes place have real substance and character. There would have been a time when I would have just sat back and enjoyed it, but I'm now married to a guy whose critical faculty is always in gear, so I find myself taking a page from him and starting to think about why the show works so well. Specifically, I'm wondering about the interplay between "chemistry" and writing.

It's obvious that many members of this cast have great chemistry: Fillion and the women who play his daughter and his mother, Katic and her supervisor, Katic and Fillion etc. When I think of "chemistry" I think of a kind of alchemical mix of personalities - like these are people who like each other and work together well as colleagues, and it comes through in the show. I have no idea how true this is. Then there's the writing, which Rex thinks is definitely key to this show. And it's true that it's very sharp and witty (in one recent episode, the case kept taking a turn for the weird, and every time it did, Fillion's character would say "Best...case...EVER!"). Fillion's character, a writer, often annoys his partner by trying to solve cases by arguing from narrative consistency or other literary principles, which sometimes works and sometimes doesn't, but which makes for a particularly endearing personal quirk. The only thing that comes close to becoming a kind of narrative tic is the scene where Fillion's character, who plays an endearing and slightly doofus single dad, has a discussion with his very perceptive teenage daughter in which she says something insightful which causes him to suddenly realize something crucial about the case he's been working on. (This is charming, but kind of repetitive.) But mostly the writing is really smart.

I think that somehow this is the combination of things that attracts me to a television show. It's rare that I become a "fan" of a show - I'm too fickle and busy to be a fan of anything, really - but others I can think of (the X-files, Buffy, 30 Rock) have what seems to me to be something of the same qualities of chemistry between cast members and smart, witty writing. But what is the balance between them? Now, one of my oldest friends (hi M!) is a successful television writer, who has been on the writing staff of a number of major network shows. So she's probably going to read this and think "What a noob." Fortunately, this won't be the end of the world. What do you think? Has anybody seen this show? What is the relationship between chemistry and writing?

Friday, October 16, 2009

Blog drought

I have a couple of big things on my mind which I don't want to blog about, and as a result I am having trouble coming up with mundane things I do want to blog about. Today I had an 8 AM doctor's appointment, and on the way home I took the car through the car wash. I rarely do this as it rains so often here, but occasionally it needs doing. I have a deep and unreasonable love of the car wash. It's such a surreal experience, like being attacked by soapy Muppets. But then I never know whether I'm supposed to tip the guys who run up afterward and dry off your mirrors. Sigh.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Daily awesome

From Yahoo News:

Female athlete sets new shot put world record. The athlete in question is Ruth Frith. She's 100.

ETA: Apparently it was a world record for her age group (100-104). Still.

(H/T Shakesville)

Friday, October 9, 2009

Milestones

I don't think I'm breaking any confidences by writing that my parents just hit two milestones, one deeply impressive, one, shall we say, a bit more trivial. The impressive part is that they recently celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary. I've always admired them for their strong and vibrant marriage, still more now that I am actually married myself and have a better sense of what it's actually all about. They are my role models. Congratulations, Mom and Dad!

I'm obviously not in any position to offer them any advice on marriage. But the other milestone is one to which I might actually have something to contribute. After holding out for at least 30 years, my parents just got cable. So I've been thinking about cable-channel shows that I might recommend to them. I myself got cable for the first time in my life when we moved to our current apartment three years ago (cable comes with the place), and while the vast majority of what's on even basic cable channels is of little to no interest, there are a few shows I have really come to enjoy:

  • No Reservations: Anthony Bourdain's humanistic travel-cum-food show, which is a bit uneven, but in the best of which he presents the food of a particular city or country as understood through the people who love it and cook it. This is what makes it so much better than his "rival" shows on the same channel, with Andrew Zimmern, who is always shown eating alone. Travel Channel.

  • Modern Marvels: Also uneven, but at its best a fascinating introduction to industrial processes, materials, and technologies. The one about cheese was awesome. I think this is on the Learning Channel.

  • Castle: A new find for me, a somewhat fluffy but enjoyable crime show whose detective team is a police detective and her crime-novelist partner. The crime novelist, played by Nathan Fillion (yum), lives with his mother and daughter, who are really engaging characters as well. Whoops, I just looked up the network and realized it's an ABC show, which they actually could have seen on broadcast. Still.

What would you recommend to someone who's getting basic cable for the first time?

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Ring of Fire

It's been an amazing week for geologic activity in the Pacific Rim. Yesterday we had yet another tsunami warning after a quake of nearly 8.0 off Vanuatu. Fortunately, not only did we not get a tsunami, but neither did Vanuatu. The Samoan quake was almost immediately eclipsed in world reportage by the two or three (I've lost count) quakes in Indonesia, and by massive and destructive typhoons in the Philippines. Here locally, there are much bigger Samoan and Philippine communities than Indonesian, so the first quake remains a human interest story as the Samoas dig out from under the rubble. There are some amazing stories of survival being told, as ever when people are pressed to the breaking point. Local relief projects are being ratcheted up among the Samoan and Philippine communities. I wish I could find the news story from Vanuatu, though, which was full of the relief of their reprieve from disaster. On one island, everyone hiked to the highest point and waited together for a tsunami that never came. "At least we got some good exercise," said one woman.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

First-class snark from the Ming dynasty

From the painting critic Li Kaixian, writing in 1545:

Jiang Zicheng's painting is "like an Indian monk, his entire body clothed in precious objects, yet giving off a putrid odor."

Lin Liang is "like the sticks on a woodgatherer's back or the dried wood at the bottom of a stream - carpenters wouldn't even look at it."

Guo Xu "is like an old Confucian trying to learn farming: his strength is not equal to his fellows' and he grows more weeds than grain."

Wang E "is like an official of the Five Dynasties: his hat is of black silk but his person is that of a butcher."

Bonus, from He Liangjun, writing about twenty-five years later: "As for the likes of... Zhang Lu of the North, I would be ashamed to wipe my table with his paintings."

H/T: Richard Barnhart, "The 'Wild and Heterodox' School of Ming Painting," in Susan Bush and Christian Murck, eds., Theories of the Arts in China, Princeton University Press, 1983.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Tsunami warning

The tsunami sirens go off around here the first weekday of every month, at noon. You hear them - a strangely anachronistic sound, reminding one of air-raid sirens in a British war movie - and then they're over. In the front of the phone book (but who has a phone book any more? We get them distributed by the university) there's a map of evacuation zones, and directions (inland where there are roads, up where there are high-rise buildings). But the last actual tsunami we had (three years ago) was 11 inches high. It was technically a tsunami, but except for the loss of some bait buckets that weren't nailed down to the wharf, nothing much happened.

Yesterday there was a tsunami warning, subsequent to the huge undersea earthquake off the Samoas. Most tsunami are caused by undersea seismic activity (as the Indonesia earthquake of December 2004) so the Pacific early warning system leapt into effect right away. The earthquake took place at 7.48 AM local time; we had our warning by 8.15, even though a projected wave would not have reached us until 1.15 PM. It was absolutely amazing.

Of course we had no significant tsunami after all: the water rose about 18 inches and then subsided. If there had been a big wave coming, we'd have heard the sirens three hours in advance and been asked to evacuate. As it was, my morning class was underattended due in part to students having to pick up their kids from cancelled daycare and whatnot. But we were fine. It was the Samoas and other nearby islands that were not; they had only ten minutes between the earthquake and the wave arriving. Some things you really can't prepare for, even with a string of observation buoys and seismometers strung around the Pacific Rim. Sometimes there isn't enough time.

ETA: The aid effort is being coordinated through the New Zealand Red Cross. Here is the link for donations. Please give if you can.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Halfway there

I am officially halfway done with my crocheted tallit, eight months after I began designing it.

tallit_progress6

It's becoming a monster. It's going to be the biggest tallit in shul. But I do really like how it looks.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Just because Indiana Jones was fictional, that doesn't mean archaeology isn't sometimes totally awesome



Experts Awed by Anglo-Saxon Treasure found by a metal detector-wielding hobbyist in an English field. (Picture credit: NYT)

My students rock very hard indeed

I asked a group of students to do a presentation about the techniques used to manufacture this late Neolithic vessel from eastern coastal China. Such vessels (here's another example) are clearly luted together from a number of separately shaped parts, but how many and in what order isn't always clear. In order to figure out how this worked, exactly, they MADE THEIR OWN. I present to you (by permission) the neo-Neolithic whiteware gui, mammiform legs and all. Isn't it awesome?

studentgui

(Modern reproduction of a Longshan whiteware gui vessel, in high-kaolin clay, unfired state.)

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Yamim Noraim

They're not called the Days of Awe for nothing. The cosmic metaphor of God's own Book - the Book of Life, or the Book of Remembrance - opening for inscription on Rosh Hashanah and being sealed on Yom Kippur - is unbelievably powerful. (Actually, the Book of Life - Sefer Hayyim - is literally the "Scroll of Life," which reminds us that the metaphor was established before the invention of the codex, the bound book with pages.) The wishes of the day (Rosh Hashanah) are surprisingly deterministic for a people who usually don't believe in either predestination or an interventionist God. "May you be inscribed for a good year." I think it's a sign of something in my journey into Judaism that some of these prayers, which only come round once a year, are beginning to have the visceral pull for me that some of the hymns of my childhood still have, despite my deliberate departure from Christianity. I find I'm developing a top ten list. So, currently in the running for Favorite High Holy Days Prayer, we have, in no particular order:

  • Adonai, Adonai, El rachum v'chanun (the Covenant)
  • Ki Anu Amecha (We are your people)
  • Avinu Malkeinu (Our Father, Our King)
  • Zochreinu L'Chayim (Remember us for life)

I think there will be more as the Days progress.

The other thought I had came during the services for the first day of Rosh Hashanah. The Torah reading is the story of Sarah's miraculous pregnancy and the birth of Isaac (and, more uncomfortably, of the casting out of Hagar and Ishmael), while the Haftarah is the story of Chana's prayers and the birth of Samuel. Rather a collection of barren women. I chose Chana as a Hebrew name, not realizing I was going to end up with the Hebrew equivalent of "Jane Doe" (Chana bat Avraham v'Sarah), because I liked her attitude: she's one of the first women of the Bible to pray on her own behalf, to talk to God on her own account. Even though her husband, remarkably for their time and place, does not hold her barrenness against her, she goes to the temple to petition for a child, and the result is the prophet Samuel. At the time I was thinking of Chana's prayer as a kind of active religious commitment that could stand against the traditions that say that women don't have to say the prayers, go to the services, read the Torah, but can just stay home and raise children and cook for the men. In too many contexts that exemption became a prohibition, and women were barred from many aspects of observance. So I identified with Chana for her independence of faith, and for her voice raised in prayer. But now, of course, it's Chana's inability to bear a child that is making me think. I don't want to take from her the simplistic lesson "just pray and God will give you a child," because it's never that simple, and sometimes prayers go unanswered for reasons we can't understand. Anyway I'm much more capable of understanding the workings of reproductive medicine than prayer, though we're certainly trying both approaches. So what is the lesson of Chana? Don't give up hope? I can't reasonably do as she did and promise to dedicate my firstborn son to the service of the (now nonexistent) Temple, even if I wanted to (and what's with that "and no razor shall touch the hair of his head?"). Eli thought Chana was drunk, having heard her muttering her prayers. I think possibly the lesson is "keep praying out loud, no matter what people think of you." We'll see how it goes.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Surprise movie recommendation

We recently saw the movie Local Hero, made in 1983. We can now no longer remember how it got in our Netflix queue, but what we knew about it when we started was that it was a fish-out-of-water story about a Houston oil company man who is sent to negotiate the purchase of a Scottish village in order to build a refinery. So we expected some kind of heartwarming tale pitting a big, heartless, polluting business against a rural community clinging tenaciously to its traditional way of life.

What we got was far more complicated, and more interesting. The plot summary suggested that the main plot point turned around a character called Ben who was unwilling to sell his stretch of beach, thus potentially holding up the sale. So we expected the story to be about McIntyre (the Houston oilman) being sent over to Scotland to convince Ben of the error of his ways, but in time coming to realize the error of his own.

Instead here's what we got: McIntyre is sent over to negotiate the deal before Ben even enters the picture, so Ben's resistance is not initially the pivot of the plot. Rather, he's sent over because the villagers are not "Telex people," as McIntyre describes himself, and the negotiations have to be conducted in person. It's once he gets to the village that the movie gets really smart. For one thing, it's smart about what it's really like to live in a remote, bucolic village whose principal industries are all of the 19th century variety (in this case, seaweed processing and extraction). It reminded me very much of my own backwoods hometown. You see how everyone works two or three jobs, trying to scrape together a living, and how the way things work locally might be seen by people from the outside as skirting the edge of legality (as when a Russian fisherman drops in for a community ceilidh). The eccentric landlord of the pub where McIntyre stays is also the town CPA and becomes the representative and negotiator on behalf of the villagers, who are, as it turns out, keen to sell their property in exchange for a chance to get out of their near-poverty. And he negotiates hard with the oil company on behalf of his community (This is where I turned to Rex and said "Are you having fieldwork flashbacks yet?").

There is a certain amount of slapstick in the process, as McIntyre gets to know the community and they get to know him, and any number of funny, eccentric characters (the town punk rocker; the minister, MacPherson, who's actually an African exchange student who stayed; the pub regulars); there's also the beautiful marine biologist, who works in the bay and who thinks the property purchase is going to build a marine laboratory rather than a refinery. And there's McIntyre's boss back in Houston, the oil mogul whose personal obsession with astronomy is as important to him as the land deal (he keeps calling McIntyre on the town's only phone box to ask about the night sky in Scotland). But these characters, far from being caricatures, are eccentric in a closely observed, deeply affectionate way; they are eccentric the way real people are eccentric. The slow pace with which the film unfolds helps you see this.

I don't want to spoil the movie entirely, so let me just say that it doesn't end as you would expect. Ben and his resistance to the sale enter the story near the end, and prompt McIntyre's boss to come over in person. What's remarkable is that the sale does take place, but not in the way or for the purposes that you think it will, given the beginning of the film, and that the plot ends up turning, not on Ben's resistance, but on his relationship with McIntyre's boss. It ends happily (the refinery is not going to be built) but a little wistfully, as McIntyre goes home to his '80s-tech Houston condo (hi-fi, microwave, Cuisinart).

It's a small, finely drawn movie, and very much worth seeing, though certainly a period piece, in its '80s ambivalence toward capitalism and its complete lack of three-dimensional female characters. Burt Lancaster plays the oil company boss, and I'm sure that it was the unexpected depth of the script that led him to take on such a small-scale project. It's really not trivial to experience a movie that really transcends its potted plot summary, and this is one. Watch it.

Friday, September 18, 2009

High Holy Days

So tomorrow is both Rosh Hashanah and Talk Like a Pirate Day. The possibilities alone are making my head spin.

Shanarrrr Tovarrr, everybody.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Tuesday morning links

I don't spend enough time linking to things that I see around the web. Herewith, an attempt to change that with a list of awesome things I've seen lately (in no particular order):

Thirty Mosques in Thirty Days is made of awesome. Best wishes to all the Muslims who are fasting their way through Ramadan right now. Since the Jewish Yamim Noraim (Days of Awe) are coming up at about the same time that Ramadan ends, let me wish you all an easy fast (which is what Jews wish each other for the much, much shorter fast of Yom Kippur) and a joyful Eid ul-Fitr.

The blog "No, Not You" offers Sexual Assault Prevention Tips that are guaranteed to work.

My friend Natalia is very smart and thoughtful. Here is her response to Stanley Fish's recent NYT piece on teaching writing.

ETA: There is nothing especially funny about insomnia, as I can attest as the wife of a chronic insomniac. But this is extremely funny. My favorite is the dream pie chart, with the 35% piece for "Pointless."

Monday, September 14, 2009

Milestones

I am fabulously myopic and have worn glasses full-time since I was 7. Today, for the first time ever, when looking at some very small print at short range, I found that I had to take my glasses off to focus on it clearly.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Real estate

We're starting to look at real estate around town, as a way of beginning a process that we hope will end with purchasing our own apartment. There are a zillion variables here, including downpayment size and our own degree of job security, but you have to start somewhere, so we've started by looking around to see what might be available in our price range. We are middle-class DINKs, so in any other real estate market we would be looking at modestly sized houses, but here we are looking at one-bedroom apartments under 700 square feet, which is smaller than what I had in graduate school. Sigh. But leaving aside the fact that we will probably turn 40, possibly as a family of three, and still not have a spare bedroom to put up guests, looking at apartments does bring a certain reality to what has previously been an entirely theoretical discussion. It lets us think a bit about what we want from a living space, given what we can afford.

Oddly, I find that I feel very strongly about having the kitchen spatially separated from the living/dining space, even if only by a countertop/island kind of thing. For what we can afford, a separate kitchen is way too much to expect, but I feel much better about the half-assed nature of a living room with a kitchen on one wall if there's a spatial divider of some kind. I'm not sure why such a thing should have so much psychological value, although the inevitability of a kitchen population of human commensals in this part of the world may have something to do with it. It also turns out that I care about the quality of the appliances and countertops.

Although a lanai is a pretty common feature of apartments around here, we saw a nice one on Saturday that had none - but it was in a building that had a common space in an interior courtyard (with teeny pool) so that there was still a place where one could sit out and read articles or correct papers. Closet space is turning out to be something I care about more than I realized, and this place had both a bunch of closets and an associated storage unit; then there's cross-ventilation and ceiling fans (for our continued efforts to live without air conditioning). I am beginning to suspect I will have to give up on the ideal of having enough space for two desks (two workspaces) but perhaps those tiny corner desks from the office supply store might do the trick. You never know.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Soundtrack

Somehow, my local grocery store has obtained a copy of the soundtrack to my childhood. I grew up in rural Maine in the 1970s and early 80s, and the radio stations played a lot of country and western, easy listening (often one and the same) and heavy metal. So I have powerfully nostalgic reactions to a series of rather unlikely (if you know me and my usual folkie/choral musical tastes) musical tracks, several of which have been playing recently in the Safeway:

Dolly Parton, "You Left Me (Just When I Needed You Most)"
Glen Campbell, "Rhinestone Cowboy"
John Denver, "Annie's Song"
Mary MacGregor, "Torn Between Two Lovers"
Barry Manilow, "I Write the Songs"

And so forth. The tonal demands of background music explain the absence of AC/DC and Lynyrd Skynyrd, but otherwise I'm right back in the cab of my best friend Heather's father's truck, rocking out and sharing a Mountain Dew. Funny where we end up after so many years.

Things I have learned along the way

I was helping clear up after Compline the other night when I realized that among the skills I have acquired over the past 38 years is a highly developed ability to carry several music stands at once without whacking anybody. Around corners, even. It makes me want to come up with a list of other specialized but unexpected skills I have developed over the years. What about you?

Monday, September 7, 2009

Occasional pet peeves, local grocery store edition

OK, graprao basil is not an adequate substitute for sweet basil, and garlic chives are not even close to a substitute for real chives. I'm just sayin'.

Two easy salads we like a lot

I have been trying to work out recipes for salads we can take for lunch on work days - just grab and go - and recently have been through a lot of recipes for chicken salad, pasta salad, potato salad, etc. Following are the two winners: healthy vegetarian salads made without mayonnaise.

Original rice salad (really, I just made it up)

1 package shelled edamame (green soybeans, usually available frozen)
1 bunch scallions
4-6 cups cooked brown rice, cooled
1 bottle of Annie's Naturals Goddess Dressing

Toss the cooled rice to fluff and separate the grains. Chop the scallions coarsely and mix in. Blanch the edamame, dunk in cold water, drain and add. Finally, pour the bottled dressing over the whole thing and mix well. Chill and allow flavors to meld. (The dressing is based on sesame and chives, with a vaguely Asian flavor.)

Unoriginal pasta salad

1 pound short pasta, cooked and rinsed in cold water
1 to 1 1/2 cups sundried tomatoes in oil
1 bunch fresh basil
3/4 cup pitted kalamata olives (or so)
1 12-oz package crumbled feta
1/2 cup capers, rinsed and drained
1/4 cup white wine vinegar
6 tbsp. olive oil
1 clove garlic
Salt and pepper

Cook the pasta, drain and immediately plunge into ice water to cool. Drain again and toss with a small amount of olive oil. Chop the tomatoes and basil coarsely, and quarter the olives. Toss tomatoes, basil, olives, feta and capers with the pasta. Make a dressing by mincing a clove of garlic and muddling it with about 1/2 tsp. salt. Let stand for 5-10 minutes, then add vinegar and olive oil. Whisk to emulsify. Add pepper to taste. Pour dressing over salad and mix for longer than seems necessary, to ensure even distribution. Chill to allow flavors to meld.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Unforeseen consequences, hair dye edition

I had my hair color redone on Tuesday. I got carded on Friday night. I was so surprised I barely remembered what to do.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

The people that you meet each day (a cast of characters)

Everybody has people in their life that they know by sight but not in any meaningful personal way, or with whom their interactions are relatively restricted. These are the people in your neighborhood, in the sense of the old children's song. After a while you acknowledge them, because not doing so, when you clearly know each other to say hello, seems inhuman (of course there are exceptions, people who make it clear they don't want to be greeted). And yet you know little or nothing about them, and there isn't any particular impulse on either side to move beyond hail-and-farewell. To a certain kind of mindset (mine), these people invite idle fictionalization. So here they are, in no particular order, names changed to protect the innocent, or because I have no idea what their names are anyway.

Grim UPS guy

Delivering for UPS is probably a pretty thankless job in my neighborhood, which is mountainous with lots of narrow and absurdly winding streets. It also rains practically every day. The UPS guy is a serious, weathered, lean, and quiet character, of indeterminate European ancestry, with hair of a subdued color, streaked with gray, and a small, neat mustache. He keeps his head down and gives off an air of trying to get through a minor but distasteful task with dignity. I'm sure there's a perfectly innocent explanation, like the job is boring, or he has other things on his mind, or that's just his natural neutral expression; but the fiction writer in me jumps straight to the thought that his mind is on his oppressed brethren in Ruritania, and that he just has to get through another year or two of this work in exile before he can return to claim the throne and restore the monarchy.

Ti leaf-bicycle guy

Cheery, skinny, spiky-haired, Asian, age unclear; dressed in T-shirt, running shorts, and slippers, with his face nearly hidden behind oversized '80s-style round plastic-rimmed glasses. He pushes a bicycle (I've never seen him ride it and the tires look dubious) with a hand-lettered sign on cardboard, reading "GOD BLESS." In one or both hands, or affixed to the bicycle somewhere, he always has a couple of bunches of ti leaves. Might be homeless, but reasonably well-groomed in a Richard Simmons 1970s kind of way, so my money is on "extremely eccentric" instead. I can't decide, for narrative purposes, whether he is a slightly wacky evangelical Christian or just a guy who wants to wish everyone well in a slightly religious way. Either way, he is always moving, always going somewhere. He seems like one of those people who have a deeply seated purpose in life, but one that maybe not everybody else can understand, like he's carrying out some duty known only to himself.

Tuxedo man

Frequenter of the university libraries, possibly homeless; a tall, thoughtful-looking man in middle age, with a scruffy, but trimmed, beard, always seen wearing cowboy boots and a tuxedo with pleated-front tuxedo shirt. No bow tie. Possessions in a collection of plastic bags; inevitably absorbed in a book. One occasionally sees him in the grocery store as well, buying food. Not knowing his story, I imagine him as a down-on-his-luck concert pianist or accompanist, always ready for the next concert.

Cheery checkout lady

Likes to speak Chinese with me when I come through the grocery store checkout line, after that one time I came through wearing the Threadless "Communist Party" T-shirt (Marx, Lenin, Stalin, Castro, and Mao, yukking it up with plastic cups of beer, took a certain amount of explanation). Unshakably positive attitude, possibly a single mother. I could probably get her whole life story if she weren't on the clock every time I see her. If I ever see her outside of the Safeway, maybe I will ask her.

Okinawan Roy

85-year-old Army veteran, served in occupied Japan (but don't call him AJA), lives somewhere around the neighborhood and hangs out near the sidewalk tables of the sandwich shop. Full of stories about the neighborhood fifty years ago. Finally explained why there's a graveyard in the front yard of the neighborhood theatre. Another one I'd like to get to know better, and another story I might actually learn one day.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Rex's one-line review of the Council of Nicaea:

"Like 'I, Claudius,' but with bishops."

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

T-shirt review, second day of school edition

Seen from the looooong checkout line at the bookstore, where I foolishly went today.

The usual:
  • Beer T-shirts (Hinano, Primo, Hinano again)
  • Band T-shirts (lots of names I didn't recognize)
  • Surfing T-shirts (ad nauseam)
  • Trendy logos (Ezekiel, Hollywood, Juicy Couture, even Abercrombie and Fitch)

The unusual:
  • "Giraffes United Against Ceilings"
  • "Haiku are easy/But sometimes they don't make sense/Refrigerator"
  • "Mac Daddy" (as text in the screen of a Mac Classic)

Monday, August 24, 2009

First day of school outfits (an incomplete list)

A few outfits I've seen strolling by on students in the last half hour, and what they seem to be saying:

On a tiny Asian woman: Turquoise tunic top, wide leather belt, several long chain necklaces, enormous hoop earrings, skintight black bike shorts, five-inch black platform heels with studded straps. "I'm going to dominate my coursework this semester."

On a skinny blond-haired man: Blue and white seersucker pajama bottoms, band T-shirt, slippers, emo hair. "I'm planning on sleeping through my classes, just so you know."

On a very large Pacific Islander man: Football jersey, lavalava [sarong], flipflops, ponytail, tattoos. "Don't call it a skirt, man."

Monday, August 17, 2009

David Hockney blues (with apologies to Patricia Barber)

(ETA, giving credit where due: It was Tommy Francisco who suggested, brilliantly, that they sing a different shade of blues in the California Delta. As for Patricia Barber, she sings a song "If I were blue" that evokes some of the same imagery.)

We spent the weekend at a friend's wedding in the California Delta, the floodplain formed by the convergence of several large rivers on their way to San Francisco Bay. I didn't really know before this that California had a delta, and it took me a little while to figure out the general geography; but by the time I had it down, we were driving with another couple out along the winding roads beside the levees. We passed dusty, sunburnt hayfields, recently mown, and orchards heavy with yellow pears. Tall, square California Victorian houses stood close by the roadside, their proximity as much an indicator of their vintage as anything else; in the age of fast-moving motor vehicles, you build farther from the road. Their size is a relic of a previous age, too, when space was in greater supply, and their height a sign of a building tradition that hadn't yet caught on to the cooling properties of single-story houses. They stand shaded in their copses of still taller pine and cypress and sycamore trees, which stand head and shoulders above the fields and orchards. The broad, lazy, slow-moving river, the levees, the dusty fields, and the withering sun made for a very Huck Finn sort of scene, transplanted from another delta entirely, where they sing a different shade of blues.

To complete the picture, the wedding was held at a sort of robber baron mansion, built circa 1917 in a late Belle Epoque Italianate style. It wasn't as bad as it could have been: many things that strictly speaking ought to have been gilded were not, for example. The wedding itself took place outdoors, under a wrought-iron gazebo that stood for a chuppah, and was utterly adorable, from the hat and white rose left across one seat for the bride's deceased father, to the top-hatted three-year-old nephew as attendant, to the participation of the couple's Old English Sheepdog, Bilbo (as ringbearer, naturally). A pair of butterflies danced together over the gazebo as the couple pronounced their vows.

The interior of the house had been optimistically redecorated with a Victorian profusion of reproduction paintings, chosen according to a slightly cockeyed logic that was fascinating to an art historian. The airy dining room where the dinner was held, with its faux frescoes, was densely hung with reproductions of Canaletto paintings (views of Venice) and plaster Roman reliefs. The "Hemingway bar" contained engravings of the great houses of Europe, alongside a rather tatty zebra skin and several antelope heads. I didn't see the interior of any of the suites on the third floor, where the wedding party stayed, but a number of the closer friends of the couple, ourselves included, spent the night in rooms on the fourth floor, which let onto a central attic full of sofas and low tables. The rooms themselves were named after misspelled painters, a strange collection, but one that seemed logical enough when we saw that the "Van Gough room" was decorated with oil reproductions of Van Gogh's paintings (sometimes more than one reproduction of the same work, actually), along with a copy of Leonardo's "Lady with an Ermine." By contrast, we stayed in the "Michael Angelo room" which was decorated with reproductions of paintings by Joshua Reynolds and William Holman Hunt. I know, I don't get it either. There was a plaster bust which may have been a reproduction of one of Michelangelo's works. The other two rooms were the "Leonardo Devinci room" and the "Pablo Picasso room" but we didn't see the decor of these.

Our friend A. immediately opined that the decoration of the central chamber put her in mind of a bordello. I wasn't quite sure myself, although it did have a certain amount of dark red velvet drapery and gold-colored fringe. The art was an odd collection of several rather nice reproductions of Classical Greek bronzes (heads and torsos) and a jumbled mass of reproduction paintings of nudes in the coy nineteenth-century French Academy style, including Ingres' Grande Odalisque and The Source, Bouguereau's Le Printemps and Nymphs and Satyr, and others in the same vein. I think the count of exposed breasts alone could explain A.'s reaction. That said, the intent of the place was brilliant: to allow some of the guests to stay on late into the night (and indeed overnight) and avoid the danger of driving home along narrow, winding, levee-edge roads after a protracted party. We didn't get to bed until three, which made it hard to get up the next morning; but get up we did, and wind our way back along the river's edge, out of the slow-moving, sun-baked delta and back to urban reality.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Movies I love: a (possibly self-revealing) list

There are plenty of movies I like; but this is a list of movies I love. I think the difference is a measure of emotional engagement. I think there are critical reasons to like all these movies, of course. But in fact, the way I like them implies a kind of abandonment of critical detachment, a kind of total immersion that, from a certain point of view, is the goal of the moviemaker’s art. I’ve included a few miniseries but not television shows (although there are some of those that I love too, like certain seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The X-Files). “Xiao ao jiang hu” counts as a miniseries for its bounded narrative arc, despite being told in 40 episodes (it is the film version of a novel that was first published in serial form in Hong Kong newspapers, which is an interesting parallel in print to this kind of Chinese long-form miniseries).

I’m sure there are others, or have been others; other selves (at other times) would have come up with a different list, and this is partly informed by the movies I’ve seen recently, and with my husband. At any rate, here are the ones I could think of, in no particular order (except that I think the first might actually be my favorite movie). The question I have now is, what can I learn from this list?

  • Cold Comfort Farm
  • Stage Beauty
  • Angels in America (HBO miniseries)
  • The Fifth Element
  • Galaxy Quest
  • Singin’ in the Rain
  • Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day
  • The Mummy Returns
  • Keeping the Faith
  • Horatio Hornblower (the miniseries)
  • Onmyoji (1 and 2)
  • Shaolin Soccer
  • Raiders of the Lost Ark
  • Pride and Prejudice (Ehle/Firth version, natch)
  • Strictly Ballroom
  • The Brothers Grimm
  • Secondhand Lions
  • The Cider House Rules
  • Hot Fuzz
  • Xiao ao jiang hu (miniseries)
  • Sabrina (both versions, for different reasons)
  • Mary Poppins

Sunday, August 9, 2009

The art (history) of pastry

This is a pear-and-chocolate Danish I bought yesterday at the bakery:

medieval

but I think it looks like a medieval carved ornament, with its twisted ogival frame and the slices of pear in the center making a rosette. (Underneath: a layer of dark chocolate and a layer of mascarpone cheese. It was delicious.)

Friday, August 7, 2009

Conversion disorder

One last China anecdote. I had a really funny high-altitude conversation with my driver at Binglingsi, when I was explaining the difficulty of mentally converting from English to metric or Celsius to Fahrenheit when you're used to thinking in one or the other. I said "You know, today's temperature is about 30 degrees C, you'd have a hard time thinking of it as 85 degrees F. And the temperature of boiling water..." He broke in "Yeah! 92 degrees."

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

The homeland of Qin; and leaving China

Tianshui is four hours by bus from Lanzhou, an easy trip especially if you are well set up with bottled drinks, biscuits, raisins, and yak jerky. I went to the wrong bus station at first, Lanzhou (by virtue of its geography) having several bus stations to save the buses contributing to the midtown traffic jams; but the right one was right around the corner and indeed I didn’t even have to walk the whole way, finding as I did a large purple bus rounding up passengers for Tianshui on the way. Unfortunately I’d forgotten that these kinds of semiofficial buses are less likely to leave on schedule, but the result of the delay was a much-needed toilet break an hour later, before we got on the highway, so it all worked out. Of Chinese bus station toilets themselves, the less said the better, though there is a kind of strange locker room camaraderie to them if you can get past the flies.

Tianshui is a small city of about 3.5 million people in southeastern Gansu. I thought of it as a bit of a backwater, since it is not usually a tourist destination and is not especially developed or cosmopolitan. It gives the feeling of a small and sleepy place, but it is apparently the second largest city in Gansu after Lanzhou. I had just described it as “a small city of a couple hundred thousand” but remembered my American tendency to underestimate the population of Chinese towns and looked it up. 3.5 million surprises me, but the figure does include the surrounding county. Some statistics note that around 75% of that population is “agricultural population,” suggesting they live outside of town, so maybe my sense of the city’s population wasn’t so radically wrong after all (one-quarter of 3.5 million is 875,000). That’s the lesson of China’s population problems, though, where a county of three million can be an underpopulated backwater. It’s technically about halfway between Lanzhou and Xi’an (about 330 km in either direction), though as I found out later this doesn’t make the trips equivalent in duration.

I chose my hotel poorly, as it turned out, but at least it was cheap, centrally located, and the sheets and towels were spotless, by contrast with the floors and walls. Just fine for one night. It was also across the street from a mosque with two halal restaurants in the entry courtyard, so I was well set up for food. I immediately found a driver to take me out to the cave temples of Maijishan, rather than waiting for the bus, since it was later than I had planned. Maijishan (“Haystack Mountain”) is a rocky promontory in the hilly country south of Tianshui, carved with some of the least accessible cave temples in China:

maijishan

It was worth seeing, but I went as a tourist and most of the caves are not directly accessible in that case (they’re closed and locked and you can just peek through the grating). So I didn’t get much other than a good sense of the site and its geographical location, a sense of place, as it were: which is important for cave temple sites nonetheless. And after five hours on a bus, the up and down stairs was good for me.

I left Tianshui early the next morning on a bus for Xi’an. Tianshui is the ancient populated center of the homeland of the Qin people, who moved out of southeastern Gansu to conquer the Warring States in the third century BCE. The First Emperor, Qin Shihuangdi, he of the terra-cotta warriors, was first prince and then king of Qin before he invented the role of emperor and gave himself the title (“huangdi,” which he coined). The tombs of the predynastic Qin are scattered around eastern Gansu. Other traditions that became fundamentally Chinese seem to have been born here too: Tianshui is the site of a temple dedicated to Fu Xi, one of the snake-tailed creator deities (Nu Wa is his consort and, in many stories, the prime mover: Han art shows them twined together, holding architect’s tools), who was evidently a local boy. But being in Tianshui, and the country around Tianshui, reminds you that the Qin were really strangers to the fertile plains of the loess plateau. The land around the settled areas is mountainous and thickly forested, not so dry as central or western Gansu, but still less well watered than the Central Plains. The road east from Tianshui leads through a series of harrowing river gorges, over (and sometimes under) mountain ridges and rocky valleys, with little villages clinging to the hillsides here and there. It’s good orchard country, with apples and pears widely grown, and at one point an otherwise tedious traffic jam was enlivened by the purchase of crisp, juicy peaches from the side of the road, a local pale-green variety that always look underripe to me, but which tasted delicious. The land was a little European-looking, actually, with the dry-cultivated fields and agricultural valleys, with little temple-crowned walled settlements clustered on the defensible upland ridgetops. Few fortified towns survive in the Central Plains area, and none whose fortifications are so easily understandable (by the lay of the land). It had a post-medieval feeling, like the setting to a historical novel.

The bus ride from Tianshui to Xi’an, ancient capital of so many dynasties, replicates more or less the journey taken by the Qin from their homeland to imperial conquest in the upper Yellow River basin. At 330 km, it should have taken about four hours on the highway, except that the highway wasn’t finished yet - we saw the elevated double roadway under construction from many different vantage points on our winding, rocky journey. Instead, we took the regular road, potholed, dusty, goat- and donkey-ridden, and twisting torturously through the dry valleys. It was a wonderful leisurely trip for anyone who loves landscape and scenery, as I do, and I had enough juice in the iPod for the whole trip; but it did take ten hours, going downhill almost all the way, including two hourlong traffic jams, one in the mountains and one in downtown Baoji. I knew we were in Shaanxi when we descended out of the mountains onto a plain marked by little agricultural villages scattered along the flat land. I’d forgotten how heavily Christian southern Shaanxi is; many of the villages along the roadside had their own Christian churches, in either sort-of-Gothic or pseudo-Baroque styles, rising above the low farmhouses. When I began to see the gigantic tumuli of the Han imperial tombs clustered to the north of the road, I knew we were almost there.

The Han imperial tombs are built to the north of the imperial city, in what is now the town of Xianyang (incidentally also the site of the Xi’an airport). This is standard fengshui for tomb-building: the important tombs are always sited on high ground “behind” (to the north of) the city. But in the case of Xi’an it means that the Wei river runs between the city and the necropolis. To travel to the tombs meant crossing the Wei river, and so crossing the Wei river itself became a kind of metaphor for death or at least for the journey to the afterlife. This can sometimes make a trip to the Xi'an airport unnecessarily metaphysical. We crossed the Wei river in reverse, so to speak, from the city of the dead to the city of the living, and pulled into the long-distance bus station, under the city walls of Xi’an.

Arriving in Xi’an meant I was almost done with my travels. Arriving in Xi’an meant I was back in China proper, back to a series of relatively urban destinations, back to a last few stops where all I had to do was spend some time in some new museums. I was more worn down by travel and seven weeks of stomach upset than I realized: after being thwarted by some garden-variety bureaucracy one time too many at the Xi’an Municipal Museum, I nearly lost it entirely and had to go have an ice cream and get a grip, thankfully anonymously. Fortunately, it was in Xi’an that I discovered the Jinjiang Hotel chain, which I would absolutely recommend to anyone traveling in China these days. I stayed in another one, subsequently, in Taiyuan, and had no regrets.

It used to take twelve to fourteen hours to get to Beijing from Taiyuan by train, because you had to travel either south via Luoyang and Zhengzhou, or north via Datong and the Inner Mongolian border. Now that they’ve finished building an impressive set of tunnels *through* the Taihang range, a fundamental rule of transport in north China has been altered once and for all, and you can get to Beijing from Taiyuan in three hours on a modern electric high-speed train. Taiyuan to Shijiazhuang is even faster. I arrived back in Beijing exhausted and half-sick, and my plans for last-minute tourist shopping were in disarray; but I was determined at least to keep my dinner date with an old friend from college, W, now teaching in a university in Beijing, so I took a nap and a shower and set out.

He had suggested a restaurant called The Vineyard, which turned out to be a European restaurant, slanting Italian, in the Yonghegong neighborhood. It was only a few subway stops away from where I was staying in Dengshikou, and I emerged from the new subway station into the oblique golden light of a northern summer evening. The swallows of Beijing were looping crazily around the red-and-gold eaves of the Yonghegong temple. The restaurant was in a hutong (alley) where residents were puttering around, old grannies bringing out old wooden stools to sit in doorways and potbellied uncles hanging their pet birds in the trees to sing. A little boy, his head shaved except for a patch above his forehead, scooted his blue plastic horse-on-wheels over the uneven asphalt, absently munching on a popsicle. It was an evening designed by the world to remind me of why I’ve loved living in China, and especially in Beijing, over the years.

The dinner was an odd meal with which to end a Beijing sojourn: an olive platter, arugula pizza, and pinot gris. It was delicious, however, and so very sweet to catch up with an old friend. It confirmed my sense of what getting older is like: we grow, if anything, more like ourselves, as old insecurities peel away and we settle into our own skins. I hadn’t seen W in seventeen years, but he was still himself; just at a different place along the road (and married to a delightful wife, herself a legal scholar of note). I once asked my friend Carter-san, who’s known me since about 1990, what I was like as a college student. “You were just as geeky as you are now,” she said judiciously, “but you didn’t realize you were allowed to enjoy it.” The things I come to realize about myself now are often things that have been true all along, if only I’d allowed myself to admit it. One of the things I’ve learned from Rex, who is one of the few people to challenge me to ask myself what I really want and what I really like, is how rarely I’ve asked that question of myself, preferring in general the much safer (from a moral point of view) question of what I *should* want. It’s still a hard one to answer, but I think that the answers to the question are going to be important, and it may be my oldest friends who help me to recognize what has been essential in me all along.

My real culinary farewell to Beijing took place in the cool of the following morning, when I found a place near the hotel to have youtiao (fried dough, or as Rex put it, “morning bread”) and soy milk for breakfast: the quintessential Beijing breakfast, and then off to the airport to take off for home.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Rust: a symphony in four movements

I hope it is not too schizophrenic of me to be posting my last China entries now, interspersed with reports of things that have happened to me more recently. Here are some things I saw on Isle au Haut last week.

Allegro

rust_2

Moderato espressivo

rust_3

Adagio

rust_4

Andante cantabile

rust_1

And for an encore:

Maestoso morendo

rust_mushroom

(This is actually a half-gnawed mushroom growing in pine duff, not the rusted railway spike it appears to be. The other images are, from the top, an anchor chain falling across a wellhead, the head of the anchor wrapped with the same chain, a lost fender propped in the woods, and another anchor with its chain.)

The reqing are everywhere; or, Binglingsi and the world’s best driver

One of my students, also a veteran of exhausting back-country travel in China, has commented that “the reqing are everywhere.” “Reqing” is a Chinese term meaning “warmth” in its social sense, referring to the genial hospitality and openness that is the flip side of the total lack of privacy in modern China. And it’s true, the reqing really are everywhere -- local Chinese people who will invite you into their homes or to join them at table in a crowded restaurant, just because they want to get to know you or ply you with questions about your income, marital status, and lifestyle. My latest encounter with this phenomenon involved the driver I hired to take me part of the way to the Binglingsi caves. These are located in a canyon at the edge of a large reservoir formed by the building of a dam across the gorge at Liujiaxia, about two hours from Lanzhou by bus. For a long time (since the building of the dam in the sixties or seventies) the access to the site has been strictly by boat, and I expected to have to hire a boat and pay for all the seats in the boat if I wanted to have time at the site. As I discovered when I got to Liujiaxia, this costs close to six hundred yuan these days, nearly 100 US dollars, which was more than I wanted to pay. But apparently it is now possible, through either the building or improvement of roads, to drive from Liujiaxia to the cave site, and paying for all the seats in a car was only 260 yuan. That’s how I met Mr. Cui.

I actually love driving through rural Chinese villages, observing the agricultural and social life of remote places, and the often stunningly harsh landscapes into which they are set. I want to know more about what I’m seeing; but many Chinese people have trouble understanding my interest, thinking of villages and the countryside as backward, something to be ashamed of. To my delight, Mr. Cui wasn’t one of these. He seemed to find my interest in rural life entirely natural, and was happy to talk about what we saw.

terraces

Our road wound through one high-altitude village after another, past terraced fields at 2000 meters and above, dry fields watered only by sparse rains and planted, oddly enough, with potatoes and maize. The intensely blue-flowering plants growing thickly in rows around the margins of the fields turned out to be sesame, of all things, and I saw patches of big orange flowers, which seemed to be poppy, from the bus as well.

We talked about a lot of things: the effective segregation of Han and Hui villages, the function of small man-made caves by the roadside (they’re root cellars - finally, an answer!), the absence of groundwater which means that villages on the weather side of each ridge grow vegetables and those in the rain shadow grow grain, trading over the top of the ridge. Mr. Cui described a village diet based mostly on potatoes, which meant we had something in common, and I described the potato fields of Aroostook County, and the schools that let out for weeks during the potato harvest. I told him about the Irish potato famine and its influence on immigration to the New World. I translated the old Yiddish rhyme, which I learned from Joan Nathan’s cookbook (“Sontag bulbes, Mondag kartoffeln, Tuesday and Wednesday potatoes. Thursday something new! a novelty! a potato, Friday on Shabbes potatoes” -- which translates well into Chinese, a language that also has several words for potato) and he nodded in recognition. I tried to explain latkes.

The drive was about two hours, but we were thwarted at the very end by road repairs and had to walk the last half mile, which was obstructed by a bulldozer, three mules, some goats and a red cow. Binglingsi itself is in a canyon whose mouth overlooks a spectacular screenlike ridge above the reservoir:

formations

Its cave temples are for the most part historically significant enough, but being neither so well preserved nor so numerous as contemporary caves at Dunhuang, they are generally overlooked. The exception is Cave 169, which I had come to see, and which is a natural cave thirty or forty meters above the riverbed. It is damaged as well, but still preserves some nearly unique cave paintings and an inscription dating to the year 420. Accessing it involves a precipitous ascent on wooden steps built into the cliff face, dislodging pigeons in the course of the climb:

binglingsi

I was accompanied by a junior tour guide, a girl in her early twenties, whom I expected to bemoan her posting here, so far from any center of population. But she turned out to be a Buddhist, who felt the sacredness of the site deeply, and a lover of solitude, which is indeed hard to come by in China. She was glad of the quiet and even suggested, shyly, that she wished she had her own room in the worker’s dormitory on-site. It seemed an appealing place to work; quiet indeed, since the economic crunch and the record low water level of the reservoir have both recently put a damper on tourism. There were not more than two other groups of visitors in the afternoon I spent on site. The slow pace seemed to cultivate an atmosphere of congeniality between the site’s caretakers; I heard a lot of near-familial banter between the (mostly male) security guards and the (mostly female) tour guides, and even the grizzled old monk who’d wandered down from the Tibetan monastery up the valley was given a respectful but not formal greeting, like an uncle, as we passed. The guide seemed slightly awed to be escorting someone who actually knew what they were looking at, but not too awed to wrangle over a few questions of interpretation with me.

On the way back, we gave a ride to one of the site’s staffers, an administrator who was looking for a lift back to Liujiaxia. Having paid for the ride already, I had no objection, and he bought a watermelon by the side of the road which we demolished at a little overlook with a view of the reservoir. He and Mr. Cui were apparently old friends, and launched into a lively discussion of village life that was utterly fascinating. They were both interested in the differences between the Chinese and US legal systems, but I was not well acquainted enough with the former to be much help. During the course of this part of the conversation, however, I learned a lot about village land rights and redistribution, along with the function of village cadres (among other things, the management of land rights and dispute resolution seem to be central). This conversation ended as we puttered down into Liujiaxia with a two-man contrapuntal discourse on the corruption that both men insisted was endemic to Chinese government and regulation.

Ironically, Mr. Cui turned out to have his own connection to the Northern Dynasties material I had just seen. When he told me his last name, he said “My family started out in Shandong, then moved west to Henan and Shaanxi, and some of us ended up out here.” He was right, but he was describing events 1500 years old. He had just recounted the Northern Dynasties career of the Cui lineage of Boling (in Shandong), an immensely influential family that played a role as courtiers to the emperors of several northern dynasties starting in the fifth century. He was, as it turned out, a Boling Cui himself, and aware of the fact despite the fifteen centuries between him and his famous ancestors.