Saturday, January 31, 2009


1. Kentucky Fried Chicken (but not too often)

2. The neighbor's tangerine tree, which is full of shining fruit that nobody can reach.

3. A spanking new radiator in the car.

4. A mechanic who was so excited about getting the radiator parts for less money that he called me, twice, to tell me about it.

5. The way banana leaves get raggedy in the wind, like big green feathers.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Grace in Small Things: 1/365

1. Tuna-salad-and-kimchee temaki from the 7-11.

2. Shabbat will come in six hours, whether I am ready for it or not. If I fail to be prepared for it, or fail to get enough work done today, it will still come.

3. Kurt Elling's "Nightmoves."

4. Mynah birds, and their attitude.

5. A reliable mechanic, even if he does think I'm an idiot (and in the realm of things automotive, he's perfectly correct).

This is what my blog is about.

Grace in Small Things.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Endangered species

We went hiking on Sunday - usually a work day, but we had the chance to go out to Ka'ena Point with our friend E and his visiting uncle, so we took it. It was a pretty amazing trip - the walk itself, along a disused section of dirt road, was not so remarkable, but the point is unique in being the only place in the inhabited islands where the rare Laysan albatross nests. It's a threatened, though not endangered, species. Here's an albatross, nesting:


They're much more impressive in flight, and one obliged us by buzzing us at very close range: huge, beautiful, graceful, and utterly free, carelessly slipping from one rising thermal to the next. On top of the close up and personal view of rare albatrosses, what looked like a discarded tarpaulin on the rocks turned out to be a snoozing specimen of the spectacularly endangered Hawaiian monk seal. Behold, a rolled tarp on the rocks napping Hawaiian monk seal:


This picture, taken with a zoom lens, is the closest we dared get, as we humans are legally required to stay at least 100yds away from any beached monk seal. However, a previous frame shows a couple of visiting idiots ("Look at that big seagull!" he said to her at one point as an albatross zoomed overhead) getting up close and personal. Lucky the seal only flapped its tail at them and grunted - they've been known to bite.

On the walk back, we noticed an ancient vertical lava pipe eroding out of the cliff face, surrounded with the horizontal layers of lava it had laid down over the centuries:


For sheer geology, it was one of the coolest things we saw all day, but after we fell exhausted into bed, I couldn't get out of my head the thought of what it would be like to encounter one of these holes in the rock that was still enclosed, perhaps concealed with trees and other growth. It's a long way down, is what I'm saying.

Friday, January 23, 2009


Just how slow is molasses in January? Under certain circumstances, it has been clocked at speeds of about 35 mph, which if you ask me, isn't very slow at all.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Lady Bird Johnson; or, yet another mystery tree

One of the roads I take to get to and from work is lined with distinctive-looking trees. They're slim and sinewy, with a high, spreading crown, and rough gray bark. Here's what they look like:


And up close (a view of a knotty joint):


Their most distinctive feature is their leaves, which are dark, glossy green on the top, and bright, matte copper on the underside. When the wind blows and they turn over in great waves, the tree looks like it is made of beaten metal. Here is a view of the leaves which shows the contrast between the velvety underside and the smooth top of the leaves:


My former landlady Virginia (z"l) once told me that these trees were an African variety, planted during the Johnson administration under Lady Bird Johnson's beautification campaign, and chosen because they do not drop their leaves and thus create less mess. I don't know how true this is: for one thing, the trees do drop a purplish-black, olive-shaped fruit, which creates a mess of crushed fruit on the sidewalk. For another, these trees don't look big enough to be forty years old, unless the variety in question is extraordinarily slow-growing. In the tropics we are used to fast-growing tree varieties like the monkeypod and other leguminous trees, which can grow to immense size in a hundred years or less, so that giant trees around the city, which look as though they must be four or five hundred years old, are actually considerably younger. This must be a very slow-growing type. But of course, I don't have any idea what kind of tree they are. Do any of you?

Cusp, part 2; or, lift every voice and sing

Of course, today we are on a cusp of a different kind, as we enter the Obama presidency. As a University of Chicago graduate, I was an Obama constituent back in the Hyde Park day, but I'm even gladder to be one today. I have "Lift Every Voice and Sing" stuck in my head, and for once, having a song running on my internal loop over and over again isn't maddening; it's elevating.


It has been unusually clear here, after a weekend in which a tropical storm pushed through, threatening high winds. As a result, the mountain peaks at the head of our valley, usually swathed in clouds, are visible for once, and the distinctive skyline of my neighborhood is clear:


The camera focused on the passive-solar hot-water tank in the foreground, rather than on the mountains in the background, so you really don't get the sense here of how crystalline the air has been, as if everything is seen through a giant magnifying lens. Usually there is a haze of humidity in the air that obscures distant vision. The strange clarity makes distances seem smaller, as if you could reach out and touch the sharp ridgetops.

I grew up in a part of the world where the mountains are made of granite, old and worn-down and smooth. I grew up thinking that old mountains are rounded and gently shaped. When I first saw the breathtaking crags of the Rockies, I thought, this is what young mountains look like: all knife edges and sheer faces and angles.

But when you live on a shield volcano, you learn that it's the rounded, smooth mountains that are the youngest. The lava flows so slowly out of this kind of volcano that it forms a gentle, rounded slope rather than a dramatic cone (which was deeply disappointing to a four-year-old of my acquaintance, when he finally got up close and personal with Kilauea). Cliff faces and sharp ridgelines are formed by the landslides and erosive processes of aging mountains. The most dramatic pali cliffs and toothy ridges of our own island are signs of the progressive destruction of the old volcano by time and wind and water. The skyline shown here is the edge of a giant caldera wall, seen from the outside (we live in the zone between two ancient shield volcanoes, each now half fallen into the sea). These are the old mountains, by the standards of the Pacific Ring of Fire, anyhow; and the deceptively gentle slopes of Mauna Kea, rising nearly 14,000 feet above sea level, are smooth and rounded and brand new.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Managing my office ecosystem

I live and work in the tropics, and my office is neither air-conditioned nor sealed to the outside. As a result, I am not alone. There is no getting around this, so the trick is to manage it. The pest species that live in my office are:

  • very tiny but extremely numerous ants (I don't know what they are eating, since I keep no food in my office, but they nest in stacks of paper and were ultimately responsible for the partial destruction of my Ph.D. diploma last fall)
  • Silverfish (I know what they are eating, and it's my expensive and hard-to-replace books)

The predator species include:

  • Small jumping spiders (that for some reason live behind the posters on my bulletin board, so there is Daily Drama right in front of me when they come out to hunt)
  • Some other kind of spider (from the evidence of the webs, which the jumping spiders don't build, in undisturbed corners)
  • Geckos (sometimes. Despite not being chameleons, they come and go, they come and go)

Occasional visitors:

  • Mynah birds from the fruiting palms outside
I haven't seen many ants recently since I broke down (after the diploma incident) and put out ant baits. The silverfish are not numerous, but occasionally I see one, so I know they've got some kind of sustained population somewhere, and I shudder to think where; but until I get tenure I'm not going to have the time to go through my entire book collection to find the Silverfish Fortress of Solitude.

The mynah birds aren't that much help; they don't come in very often, they're useless when they do (the last one who actually took something when he left took a used blue Kleenex, which doesn't do a thing for my bug problem), and they'd be just as happy to eat the geckos as the silverfish - in fact, probably happier.

The spiders appear to be pretty efficient, judging from the number of desiccated ant corpses I swept up under my desk recently; but as with anything in the insect world, it's a war of attrition. A certain amount of spider predation appears to be built in to the ant game plan. So while I try to encourage them (tiny spider cheers, not changing my posters too often) I feel that they are long-term partners, not short-term solutions.

The geckos could probably be counted on for some serious bug control, except that they are too infrequent visitors. The guy two offices down has a gecko who actually sleeps on his laptop's power converter (which is always warm) but do I have that kind of luck? No. I'm telling you, next time I find gecko eggs on the windowsill I'm going to move them indoors and train them up on the power converter from birth. So what if they leave gecko poop all over the walls? It's a small price to pay. Chuck Norris (of blessed memory), the unstoppable three-legged gecko of Puhala Rise, will forever be remembered for his stunning ability to catch and scarf down roaches. In his memory, I'm looking out for Chuck Junior: The Office Edition.

Yes, for volume and efficiency, it seems like geckos are the best possible approach. So that's my New Year's resolution for my office for 2009: More Small Reptiles.

Monday, January 12, 2009


I enjoy crocheting, and I like fine, finicky work; so of course I like filet crochet. Recently I completed a design for a tallit (a Jewish prayer shawl) to be executed in filet crochet, and bought six thousand yards of bamboo-fiber thread to do it in. (At two dollars a skein, it's at least a cheap hobby.) If I can do one row a day, it will still take me about fifteen months to finish. Am I completely crazy to think that this will ever be done? Here is the design, which I like enough that it just might keep me going through the project. If I can just get in the habit of working through faculty meetings, it might even be done in the foreseeable future.


The text is from the synagogue hymn "Adon Olam" - it reads "Adonai li, v'lo ira" which means "The Lord is with me; I will not be afraid."

Rolling stock

It's the first day of school, but something interesting already happened to me before I left the house. The gutter guys showed up to replace the rusted-out gutter that's been keeping us awake for more than a year with its banging. I never really thought about how guttering is made and cut, but if pressed I probably would have guessed that it was made in precut lengths and that gutter-repair-and-replacement people had to drive around with a lot of long pieces of stock in the back (or on the top) of their van. But no! The truth is much cooler.

These guys had an amazing trailer hooked to their van. Mounted in the back of the van was a roll of sheet steel about 18 inches wide. With the van doors open, it fed into a hand-cranked machine on the trailer, which automatically bent it into a gutter-shape, and brand new guttering wound itself out the other end. All these guys had to do was to figure out how long a piece they needed, crank it out, and cut it to the right length. But because they were carrying a compact roll of sheet steel, it could be pretty much as long as they needed it to be with no seams or joins. Brilliant! I hope somebody out there knows who came up with this great idea, because someone should be getting credit for it.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

In memoriam, again

John DeFrancis, 1911-2009.

Buster; or, the things your body remembers

This is Buster.


Buster was my horse, for about an hour and a half this past Sunday. What happened was that my graduate student, who is a horsey person, and her mother, who actually owns horses, invited me up to the North Shore for a morning on the trail, which we followed up with lunch at Jamesons. It was really a delightful day.

There was a time, in the distant past, when I knew what I was doing (to a limited extent) when I got on a horse, and when I really knew my way around tack and a horse barn. It became clear to me right away when I saw Buster (and Toby and Mele) that those days were long gone, although not totally forgotten. Fortunately, Buster is a retired trail horse, so that I was far from the worst rider he'd had, even so.

Buster is part draft horse, big-boned and solid, with a rolling, ambling walk. Riding Buster, you really know where the plunking bass line of the stereotypical Western ballad comes from. This is as opposed to Toby, who is a beautiful blonde horse whose soundtrack is clearly something from Project Runway, and Mele, who at least on Sunday seemed to be grooving to something suspenseful from the soundtrack to a horror movie ("Gasp! A rock! Egad! A cow!"). Meanwhile, Buster ambled along, slower and slower if I didn't keep encouraging him to move forward.

We rode around the perimeter of the ranch where the horses are boarded. It's a former dairy farm, which still keeps a small herd of little black cattle for roping trials. The perimeter trail was deeply overgrown with grass, which Buster munched enthusiastically, and low-hanging trees, which he wasn't concerned with as they were all higher than his head. I made it through with nothing worse than a shirt full of seeds and leaves. At one point we encountered the cattle, who were behaving like herd animals ("You go talk to them." "No, *you* go talk to them!") but otherwise we meandered along through high grasses and under banyan trees. It was a great time.

It was also a great lesson in the differences between body learning and mind learning. I'd forgotten almost everything I learned, mentally, but my body remembered a number of things I wouldn't have counted on. For instance, the parts of the under-surface of the horse's hoof still escape me; but I remembered instantly how to run my hand down the inside of the horse's leg to get it to pick up its foot for hoof cleaning (and, instinctively, how to brace myself for the occasional horse who will then lean onto you). I couldn't remember the rein signal for "back up" (it's "pull back on the reins of a standing horse") but I did remember to lean back when the horse spooked. Very odd. Buster was a good sport, despite the contradictory signals I was no doubt sending him. I'm sure he was relieved to get back to the pasture after we were done, though.

After all that, we got a table at Jameson's very quickly, and ate lunch facing the beach. A fish sandwich never tasted quite so good.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Happy New Year

Welcome 2009! 2008 turned out to be a year which, on the whole, we're probably all pretty happy to put behind us, since it was full of exploding mortgages, financial meltdowns, and ongoing war. Yet it was also the year in which we (personally) spent the summer in Paris, in which I finished my book manuscript, in which my mother's scary diagnosis was followed by successful surgery and good prognosis, and in which we (collectively) elected a black guy president. So I can't complain. My goals for the new year are simple: a solid book contract, a kick-ass tenure dossier, and a new addition to our little family. None of these things are in sight yet (particularly the last, so pipe down, relatives), but just because you can't see all the way down the road doesn't mean you aren't on the right track. I wish the same for all of you.