Monday, March 30, 2009

People who should have a blog

Today I went to Long's (drug store) to pick up some roach traps and coconut milk (not to be used together). The coconut milk is for making Thai curry for dinner tomorrow (because we have some graprao basil that needs using up) and the roach traps are, well, because we live in the tropics where roaches are not a sign of poor housekeeping but just a part of the domestic ecosystem. Now that Chuck Norris has moved on to greener pastures, we have to look elsewhere for our roach control.

As I went to check out, the cashier asked me in a chipper tone, "Did you find everything you were looking for today?" I said I had, even though what I was looking for was a strange combination of things. "That's nothing," she said. "One guy came through earlier with a bottle of drain cleaner and a package of straws."

I suggested she start writing short stories or at least keeping a blog. This is the cashier who was hip enough to recognize my Kingdom of Loathing t-shirt a couple of weeks ago. Clearly she is a person of discernment and should be encouraged.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

The act of making; or, why a tallit?

Last night I had dinner at another faculty member's house in the next town over. The guest of honor was a visiting fiber artist from Baltimore. Since I live near the university, I was asked to pick up a student on campus and bring her over the hill to the party; it's possible to arrive by bus, but not at all easy, so I was happy to do it. I'd never met this student before, but I knew her by sight, as part of her graduation project in fiber arts involves dressing all in green, all the time, which has included painting her Chuck Taylors and covering her glasses frames in green electrical tape. This makes her memorable, even in a department full of art students and their generally DIY vibe.

On the way over and back, we talked about making things and wearing them, and the way it can alter your sense of self-presentation or even identity. I found myself explaining my tallit project to her. This is the filet crochet project for which I posted the design earlier. Here's a status photo:


It's slow going.

In talking to her, I found myself explaining how the wearing of a tallit was not explicitly prohibited to women, but that traditionally women were excused from the obligation to wear one just as they were excused from so many other obligations, on the basis of their domestic responsibilities. In many communities this has evolved into a prohibition of sorts, in which the fact that women don't have to wear the tallit generates the ruling that they should not wear it. But modern Jewish women have increasingly taken on the mitzvah of wearing tallitot while doing daily prayers, which has led to a growth industry in women's tallitot with the names of the Four Matriarchs and so on.

I appreciate and even admire the spirit in which women have taken on the obligation of the tallit, while at the same time feeling a bit uncomfortable wearing one myself. Feminist leanings notwithstanding, it still feels like taking on a practice to which I have relatively little right, or connection. I have difficulty taking possession, as it were, of the practice of wearing tallit. I know the halachah involved, and the prayer you say before putting the thing on, but I don't feel any ownership of the act itself. This bothers me.

Last night, in describing this situation to the student, I realized that this explains why I've chosen to make one. Ultimately, it seems I'm hoping that the act of making a tallit will change my relationship to the object (indeed the whole class of objects, tallitot); that making a tallit, which involved research into the correct form of the thing, the fibers from which it is permitted to be made, the rules as to decoration, and so on, along with a pretty involved design process and, of course, a nit-pickingly exacting technique, will give me the kind of ownership of the practice that I am finding it so difficult to claim otherwise.

It will be interesting to see if I'm right about this.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Faustus gets it right

The essential function of art is moral.

For more humane, moral art (in the form of an autobiography of sorts) see his book Swish. I am proud to say that we go way back.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

And what the hell does "begorrah" mean, anyway?

Despite or perhaps because of being the descendant of Irish immigrants, I am extremely ambivalent about St. Patrick's Day. This is probably the result of having lived in Boston and Chicago most of my adult life. Even setting aside the twee sweater-wearing folksong-singing stereotypes (I'm looking at you, Clancy Brothers), the denatured leprechauns with their pots of gold, the pseudo-Mardi Gras atmosphere, all things Riverdance, and the green dye poured into the Chicago river every year, I have difficulty finding any real connection to the land of my ancestors. How is it still "the old country" 135 years after my ancestors made their North American landfall? If I were ever to visit Ireland, I'd be a foreigner there (albeit, it must be admitted, a very familiar-looking foreigner). I am neither Catholic nor Protestant (I'm not even Christian). I have no particular stake in "the Troubles" other than a hearty wish that, starting right now, nobody else should have to die over them.

What did I inherit from my Irish ancestors other than my coloring and my freckles (and possibly my love for cabbage and potatoes)? Certain patterns might be observed in my extended family, like a tendency toward large families, a lot of marriages between outspoken women and taciturn men, an overall Catholicism, and so on. But I'm Jewish (by choice), childless (not by choice, still working on that), and married to a loquacious extrovert. Some of what I am must be informed by the immigrant experience; my grandfather remembered seeing job listings marked "No Irish Need Apply," and I lived for years in the former fiefdoms of Mayors Curley and Daley. But I can't quite identify where those connections live, and it doesn't seem to justify the wearing of the green today. Much in the same way that flying the American flag was co-opted by jingoism in the post-9/11 era, a claim to be Irish on St. Patrick's day is more about green beer and block parties than about anything I can recognize as identity. So I'm staying out of it altogether until I can figure out where I stand.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Mahogany fruit

Here's the picture that should go with this blog entry about the fruit of the mahogany tree (click through for higher-res version at Flickr):


Unclear on the concept in Chicago

This should be about as effective as trying to insist that Anish Kapoor's sculpture "Cloud Gate" not be referred to as "The Bean:"

Sears Tower name to change to Willis Tower

Wednesday, March 11, 2009


I am Jewish, and I am a choral musician, so I spend a certain amount of time with the Christians, performing in churches. I don't know what it is about this town, but I've already met a deacon named Sexton and a choirmaster named Crosier. When I meet a minister named Thurifer, I'll know it's time to leave.

Weird plant blogging; a continuing series

I haven't managed to snap any pictures yet, but there are two mahogany trees near the library that bear modestly pear-sized, pear-shaped, khaki-colored fruits. The fruits are carried with the pointy bit upward just like actual pears. The only weird thing is that the stem goes in the bottom end. And why the heck not?

Sunday, March 8, 2009


On Friday night, I went to a production of the Noh play "Sumidagawa," staged by the graduate program in Asian theatre, of which my cousin R is a member. It is one of the most mournful of Noh plays, in which a madwoman arrives at the Sumida River ferry crossing and asks for passage. The ferryman learns from her that she is from the capital and is wandering in search of her son, who was kidnapped and sold into slavery a year previously. While crossing the river, another traveller asks "What's going on on the opposite shore?" The ferryman explains that it is a memorial service for a young boy from the capital who fell ill along the road and died a year previously. As you might imagine, it comes out that this is the woman's lost son, and she is too late to do anything but chant the Nembutsu (Buddha-name chant) by his tomb; but his ghost appears and chants together with her before disappearing again.

The son's name is Umewakamaru (here is a bunch more information on the tale of Umewakamaru, which apparently appears in other sources than just the Noh play). Seeing this, I realized that, setting aside "-maru" as being just a masculine ending for a boy's name, this legendary child had the same name as my Chinese name, which is Long Meiruo.

To explain: Here are the characters for Umewakamaru.
梅 = Jp. Ume (plum blossom), Ch. Mei (plum blossom)
若 = Jp. Waka (young), Ch. Ruo (like, as if)
丸 = Jp. Maru (archaic ending for a boy's name, now used for ships), Ch. Wan (ball)

And this is my Chinese name:
龙 = Ch. Long (dragon), Jp. Ryu (dragon) - my surname
梅 = Ch. Mei, Jp. Ume
若 = Ch. Ruo, Jp. Waka

It's actually slightly creepy, given the nature of the Japanese legend. I think what this means is that my Chinese name, which sounds both auspicious and poetic in Chinese, is actually deeply inauspicious in Japanese, especially as the voicing "umewaka" can also give 埋め若 in Japanese, which can mean "to bury the young." Good thing I have much less creepy names like ケーイトさん (Keito-san) to fall back on.

Monday, March 2, 2009

The refrigerator gallery, humanities/social science geek edition

One of these things is not like the others (a list of stuff currently on display on the door of our refrigerator):
  • Cute pictures of our friends' and relatives' children (x8)

  • Pre-Prop 8 wedding photograph of RBL and da partner at City Hall in Sacramento

  • Invitation to the religious ceremony they're having in April, for which I'm missing my 20th (!!) high school reunion

  • List of emergency phone numbers

  • Fax from Claude Lévi-Strauss

  • Announcement postcards: friend's newly released book, my art exhibition from last year, Matisyahu concert

  • Take-out pizza menu

  • Grocery shopping list (blank, as always)

  • Magnetic bottle opener

  • Large collection of politically liberal, animal, and art magnets (Winslow Homer, van Gogh, Ludwig Bemelmans' Madeline, ridiculous Bush quotation, provocative pulp novel cover, loon, green lizard, etc.)

Says it all, really.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Period piece: An American in Paris

Last night we watched the movie "An American in Paris" on TV. I hadn't seen it since I was a kid and my family rented it back in the heady early days of rental movies (I think we saw it on a gigantic primitive laserdisc, but I can't be sure). My mother always loved showtunes, so we had a lot of original Broadway cast recordings of this and that, and as a result my relationship to musicals is frequently very song-focused; I usually know all the numbers but have never seen the show (and have, at best, a very vague grasp of the plot). This has often meant that I've been disappointed with musicals I've seen performed, often because of the broad strokes with which their stories are painted; I remember being surprised to discover the streak of racism and classism running through "Oklahoma!," for instance, or the sexism of "Kiss me, Kate." I probably should have expected it, given that the mid-century musical has vaudeville, minstrel shows, and music-hall song as well as Gilbert and Sullivan among its ancestors. But the result is that I am a bit ambivalent about seeing musicals.

"An American in Paris" is a kind of loosely plotted vehicle for a series of Gershwin songs and an extended arrangement of the 1928 symphonic tone poem of the same name, along with the dancing of Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron. As long as you don't really expect a lot of narrative sense, it is delightful, both visually and for the music and dance. Shot entirely on Hollywood sets, it nonetheless evokes the spaces of Paris for people like us who have also spent extended periods there. Many of the song and dance numbers are sweetly exuberant, and both Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron are extraordinary dancers.

What struck me about the movie, made in 1951, is its vision of the relationship between the Americans and the French in the immediate postwar period, which is warm and affectionate, but also characterized by some very particular stereotypes. As you watch "Jerry Mulligan" mugging for a crowd of children on the sidewalk in front of his neighborhood flower shop, you see him play the cowboy, the GI, and the jazz dancer, and then promise "demain, bubblegum pour tout." And despite the fact that this scene is made by Americans, for Americans, it is here that you can see how, at a particular moment in time, American brashness could be understood by the French as a form of flamboyance. A certain post-WWII affection for Americans is entirely understandable on historical terms, but the film frames the figure of the American in Paris in terms that are especially striking if one is used to travelling internationally as an American in the present day. American brashness still has some international appeal, especially in its new hip-hop clothing, but it's no longer associated with well-scrubbed white guys from Perth Amboy, New Jersey, like Jerry Mulligan; and it has acquired overtones of ignorance and provinciality that were perhaps once less prominent. Similarly, the American vision of the French is today far less effusive and extroverted than in 1951.

The film is visually beautiful, with gorgeously incidental Technicolor gestures of saturated hue; the camera panning over a crowd scene will move smoothly past a woman in a fuchsia suit, or a long green convertible limousine. This makes the all-black-and-white costumes of the Beaux-Arts Ball scene still more striking, when they finally appear. Other details of the film are also evocative of the time period: a smoke-filled basement jazz bar where Jerry Mulligan takes socialite Milo Roberts is decorated with reproductions of the cave paintings from Lascaux, discovered in 1940, while the singer Henri Baurel, played by Georges Guétary, sings "I'll Build a Stairway to Paradise" on a huge curving staircase with lighted risers, accompanied by chorines in skimpy gowns and bizarrely faux-Breton headdresses. The number ends with a flourish in which lights come up on two tableaux of these women in architectonic groups, holding up candelabras: Rex commented "Those girls can now say that they've appeared on film playing a chandelier."

Ultimately, the film is worth seeing for its moments of visual beauty (even during the bizarre dream-sequence ballet set to the "American in Paris" suite), its stupendous dancing, and its wonderful music. It really reminded me of what an important composer George Gershwin was, and how rich his music is, beyond the standards that have become a part of the "American songbook." The melodies of songs like "'S Wonderful" and "I Got Rhythm" are only the beginning. Somehow, the visual richness of the movie adaptation helped me to hear the richness and complexity of the underlay beneath the songs, and the themes that were adapted over and over again for incidental music throughout the film. It was an evening well spent.