Thursday, April 30, 2009


I have been trying lately to articulate why I feel so strongly about living in a house that is cleaned regularly and on which some degree of order is imposed. Joanna of The Modernity Ward hits the nail on the head by drawing a distinction between housekeeping and homemaking. More on this later; but I have come to realize that the act of homemaking, in my family, was an expression of ultimate love. To care about those you live with is to want to make a space welcoming and generous for them.

I've got to sit down sometime and think about this more, but now it's time to watch Buffy with my husband.

ETA: Here's some more on homemaking as an act of profound love from Marta of My Goodly Heritage.


Although I disavowed my Christianity by converting to Judaism, I was in church choirs for years (OK, I still am) and I retain a real fondness for hymns, which are the folk music of popular Christianity. They often are, or become, a form of vernacular poetry, and many of them are really powerful:

'Tis by thy strength the mountains stand,
God of eternal power.
The seas grow calm at Thy command,
The tempests cease to roar.
The thirsty ridges drink their fill,
And ranks of corn appear.
Thy ways abound in blessings still,
Thy goodness crowns the year.

The above is by Isaac Watts, the "Father of English Hymnody," and was set to the vigorous fuging tune Rainbow by the eighteenth-century Massachusetts composer Timothy Swan (MIDI links in the Wikipedia article). I love hymns not least for the way they reflect their time and the way belief was shaped in different periods, from the stark puritanism of Watts' Broad is the road that leads to death to the stolid but strangely ecstatic Welsh Methodism of Guide me, o thou great Jehovah to the nearly Transcendentalist mysticism of Dear Lord and Father of mankind.

It's not just the words, I think; it's also the music: from the stout irregular Geneva Psalter meter of Comfort, comfort ye my people to the sentimental Victorian expressivity of The day thou gavest, Lord, is ended to the Georgian modernism of For All the Saints, whose tune "Sine Nomine" is by Ralph Vaughan Williams. There's even one Christian hymn borrowed straight from a 15th century Jewish source: The God of Abraham Praise is simply an English paraphrase of the Yigdal.

Once, when I was in college, a member of the alto section in my choir was taking a geology course which was giving her terrible trouble. One Sunday the closing hymn was the abovementioned "Dear Lord and Father of Mankind," which is based on a poem by John Greenleaf Whittier, called "The Brewing of Soma." The poem comes out of late nineteenth-century discovery by Westerners of the religious literature of India and East Asia: in this case Whittier is imagining the Vedic priests drinking the hallucinogenic soma to induce religious ecstasy. Whittier was a Quaker and an abolitionist, and thought that excessive ritual in Christian worship was akin to the drinking of soma: an experience that obscured rather than made straight the way to God. The next-to-last verse of the hymn is as follows:

Drop Thy still dews of quietness,
Till all our strivings cease;
Take from our souls the strain and stress,
And let our ordered lives confess
The beauty of Thy peace.

The alto confessed that she nearly burst into tears at singing this, since she had an exam on Monday which involved some fiendish equations related to strain and stress in plate tectonics. I'm not sure that Whittier would have foreseen this interpretation; but the last verse goes:

Breathe through the heats of our desire
Thy coolness and Thy balm;
Let sense be dumb, let flesh retire;
Speak through the earthquake, wind, and fire,
O still, small voice of calm!

Comfort indeed for those oppressed by geology class.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Charles Rennie Mackintosh

I can't remember where I found this graphic, but I love it:

Charles Rennie Mackintosh was a Glasgow School designer in the Arts and Crafts Movement, many of whose designs are still familiar today, particularly the Mackintosh Rose.

Empty nest syndrome

We got back from Inlawville on Monday to find the nest outside the window was empty, except for the lone unhatched egg. No babies, no adult bulbuls, nor even any trace to show where they had gone. It seems likely that a travelling cat might have got them, since cats do come through the backyard space now and then; and the parents seemed a bit oblivious (not seeming to notice when the first baby was half out of the nest, so that they actually sat or trod on it when roosting). I can't imagine that the remaining chick could have fledged so fast; more likely that this clutch has failed for this particular breeding pair. Fortunately the bulbul is nowhere close to endangered; so life goes on, cats and all.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Somewhere between forty and death

RIP Bea Arthur (1922-2009). Sad to know you have strangled your last velociraptor.

Quote of the day 4/26/09

"I never saw *stuffed* roadkill before." - My mother-in-law, after narrowly missing driving over a plush donkey on I-80 between Sacramento and Davis.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Red in tooth and claw

The baby bird who was outside the nest yesterday has died, whether of cold or of neglect is unclear. RIP, little guy. We are now rooting wholesale for the remaining chick (who may be a dude, for all we know).

Thursday, April 23, 2009

A face only a mother could love

Here's a better picture of the babies in the nest (eep, hope that one doesn't fall out! I didn't dare touch them - felt badly enough getting close with the telephoto lens):


The adult bulbul is a fairly attractive bird, but the babies are weirdly reptilian. If ontogeny really does recapitulate phylogeny, I would say that their dinosaur is showing.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Bulbul baby buggy bumpers

Say that five times fast.

Well, the baby birds are here. It's good news although it does mean that we were utterly wrong to think the nest had been built on Saturday while we were out; the bulbul egg apparently has at least a twelve-day incubation period, so they must have been here near on two weeks without our noticing (and it's right next to where we park our bikes!). Here is a pile of baby bulbuls snoozing in the nest:


There appear to be two, although there were three eggs. The babies are tiny, about the size of a nutmeg, featherless, and blind; so apparently they judge when their parents are here with food by noticing the sway of the nest when they land. Hilariously, this means that when the wind blows, they both pop up with their beaks wide open:


(Sorry for the blurry picture, but I didn't want to get too close or stay too long.) The breeding pair are being run totally ragged looking for food for these two. Back and forth, back and forth. I'm wondering whether a donation of mealworms wouldn't be welcome.

From here on out I plan to photograph them regularly. We'll see how they grow.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Twenty years

It's twenty years since my graduation from high school, though I can't go to my reunion because it's next weekend. Next weekend is also the wedding of the awesome RBL and da partner, who, bonus, live in Inlawville, so we can also get some family time in. Inlawville is in northern California, which is also much closer to us than southern New Hampshire.

This also means another twenty-year anniversary, however: I graduated from high school on June 4, 1989, the day of the Tian'anmen Square Incident. Now that my funds for research travel have finally come through, I realize that I'll be in Beijing on June 4. In general you can expect plenty of travel blogging while I'm in China, but it strikes me that June 4 will be an interesting day to observe the daily life of a city that is almost unrecognizable as the place I first got to know 21 years ago, on my first China trip. I wonder what I should look for, when that day comes around.

Saturday, April 18, 2009


We came home from a hike today to find that a red-whiskered bulbul had built a nest in the 'ohia tree by the back door. This tree is very short and separated from the end of the couch by only a louvered window, so we're up close and personal with the nest, which is only about four feet off the ground. Now the question is going to be, how can we watch these birds without driving them off permanently? The nest is round and cuplike, with three speckled eggs:


I got this picture by sneaking up and shooting when the bird was off the nest. Here she is on the neighbor's fence:


These bulbuls are very assertive, not to say rowdy, birds, and ordinarily they appear to fear nothing. But a nest is something else entirely. We'll try to stay away from her except when we need to get our bicycles out. The only shot I could get of her actually sitting on the nest was from inside the house, through the louvered window and its screen:


This is one where it's worth clicking through for the large version. What to do? We hope this means we'll get to see the young'uns hatch, and fledge, and fly. But it doesn't always work out that way, of course. We'll do our best to make sure it's not us getting in the way.

Maurice and Fifi

My father is a champion keeper of houseplants; he still has a Boston fern he gave my mother on the occasion of my birth 38 years ago. When we were kids he came home one day with two tall potted plants; a potted palm of the areca type and a different plant with whorls of dark, glossy, rubbery leaves. They were exotics, not like anything that grew locally (like many houseplants, native to the tropics or subtropics). He named them Maurice (the rubbery-leaved plant) and Fifi (the palm), and as kids we imagined them as slightly outre visitors from a faraway place. Dad nursed them through eight or nine Maine winters at least, if memory serves, though I don't think they're around any more.

Now, of course, I live in the tropics, and the effect of taking a Saturday hike around the neighborhood is that I am reminded that we've ended up in just that faraway place. Maurice's cousins grow in huge numbers in the forests where we walk:


while Fifi and her sisters are still a bit too sophisticated to grow just anywhere: they're usually found in people's yards.


Hardly outre at all, really; around here they fit right in.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Beer and Pop Tarts

-- What Rex claims we are having for dinner, once the sun goes down and Passover is finally over. For once I am not going to argue for better nutrition.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The tables, turned

Once, a long time ago, I saw the original film "The Mummy" with a coterie of Egyptologists from the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago. It was highly educational.

Tonight I watched "The Mummy 3" (whatever its official title is) with himself at home. The mummy in this case is not Egyptian, but Chinese - a reimagined Qin Shi Huang Di, played by Jet Li, with his terra-cotta warriors. Rex sometimes complains about watching this kind of thing with me, because I can't shut up about the details of the sets and the historical inaccuracies. I had high hopes for this one, because the earlier Mummy films were fabulous, though when I heard that there was no Rachel Weisz in this one, warning flags went up. But as a Sinologist, I know that Chinese culture and mythology are robust enough to support any number of Tolkienesque reworkings into fantasy, so I keep waiting to find someone who will do so. Jin Yong (the novelist Louis Cha) is the most successful so far, but he writes in Chinese; I've read and enjoyed many of his novels in the original, but the translation problem is a barrier for Hollywood. I'm still waiting for the definitive fantasy novel or film based on really Chinese historical models.

The Mummy 3 is not it. It has some brilliant moments (the zombie army that the immortal witch Michelle Yeoh raises to fight the reanimated terra-cotta warriors is made up of the bones of corvee laborers worked to death on the Great Wall of China and then buried in its pounded-earth foundations, which is a fabulous riff on the Meng Jiang Nu story), but it also mangles history, culture, and geography (a Qin-era sorceress received the secrets of immortality from Buddhists in Turfan? Qin Shi Huang Di himself is made immortal, and the witch's curse broken, by the waters of Shangri-la?). On the other hand, this also opens up the way for some no-holds-barred damn-the-anachronism fun (Qin Shihuang vs. the yetis in a face-off involving the supernatural control of avalanches!).

So the history would be fine if that were the only problem: as one of the Egyptologists said after the first movie, "It's archaeologically inexcusable, but what a great ride!" The problem, however, is also with the writing. The third film is lacking the sizzle and pop of the first two: the repartee and obvious chemistry of Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz are replaced with a by-the-numbers father-son conflict, and the "romance" between the younger leads is utterly unearned. Too bad; the movie is not exactly a waste of time (and certainly shows the advances in CGI we've seen since the first movie) but it is not what it could have been, and what it could have been was fantastic.

Footnote of the day; or, how's that again?

"Kumbhanda: a kind of demon having testicles the shape of water jars."

(From Leon Hurvitz tr. Scripture of the Lotus Blossom of the Fine Dharma (The Lotus Sutra), Columbia 1976, p. 66.)

Monday, April 13, 2009

Gargoyle needs

When I was in college in Boston, a shop opened in the Back Bay selling gargoyles and gargoyle-related paraphernalia. It had a sign on the door reading "For all your gargoyle needs." I reflected, at the time, that it had never occurred to me that I even had gargoyle needs. To think, all this time, that they had been going unfulfilled.

I had a similar experience the other day when my graduate student stopped by and (in the course of a much more topic-appropriate conversation) mentioned that she had gone diving with her father. "It was a great dive," she said. "I saw my favorite nudibranch." Which flashed me right back to the gargoyle experience. Why on earth don't I have a favorite nudibranch?

Especially because for all-around awesome weirdness, nudibranchs leave gargoyles in the dust. Exhibit A:

(This is a Spanish Shawl (Flabellina iodinea). Taken in Scripps Canyon, La Jolla, California by Magnus Kjærgaard, and published at the Wikimedia Commons under a Creative Commons license.)

Saturday, April 11, 2009


I don't wish to reopen the seder debate in this blog, as I feel far too defeated by the discussion that ensued. But there is a larger discussion going on here and there on this topic, so I wanted to put up some links here as a way of keeping track of them.

AKMA's post on the subject, which makes me proud. I wrote something that AKMA found worth replying to!

The LutherPunk's post on the subject.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church of America's official position (which is against Christian seders).

A Seattle rabbi's perspective.

Monday, April 6, 2009

What happened to the "Christian seders" post

Greetings to regular readers and commenters:

I've taken down the last post but one, which was my rant about Christian "seders" held during Holy Week. A friend pointed out that I was making an ethical error in not drawing a distinction between ignorance (Christians who assume that modern Jews are just like the Jews of Jesus' lifetime) and evil (the historic blood-libel against Jews for the crucifixion of Jesus). I think this happened in part because I had just sung for (and hence sat through) a Palm Sunday service that was heavy on the "Crucify him!" part of the Passion story. But this should just teach me not to agree to any church gigs at this time of year. Although I think ignorance is dangerous precisely because it can lead to evil, despite the intentions of those involved, I don't wish to accuse liberal Christians who haven't done their homework of anti-Semitism.

I realize that taking down the whole post means taking down some of your comments. I've archived the post and the comments personally. I don't mean to shut down the discussion, but I don't know any other way to handle it, given that I have neither the time nor the energy to reframe the discussion more neutrally. Thank you all for reading it and taking it seriously, and particularly for conceding me my right to be angry while still engaging my points on their merits or lack thereof.



While we're on the subject of appropriation, here are some pictures I took this weekend when we finally paid a visit to Doris Duke's Honolulu estate, which she called Shangri-la, after the fantasy Himalayan valley from the movie "Lost Horizon." It's an extraordinarily odd place, though beautiful in many ways, with a strange mixture of authentic Islamic art and strange kitschy Orientalism. It's kind of the Isabella Stuart Gardner Museum of Honolulu, to be honest, with spectacular ocean views of Diamond Head.


It's definitely worth a visit, though the tour guides spend a lot of energy in praise of Doris Duke the person - I suppose that there are people who come to the house because they want to see where she lived, rather than because they want to see the collection. I felt a bit badly for our tour guide, who obviously felt challenged by a tour that was made up of Muslim students from the university (plus us - and in the spirit of ecumenism, we were very grateful that the student organizers kindly set their tour for Saturday afternoon instead of Saturday morning to accommodate a couple of Jews who wanted to go to services in the morning).


Rather a peculiar place all round, but undeniably lovely, despite the oddity of some of the uses to which she put her collection.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

The Talmudic Vimalakirti; or, reading as a Jew

I am not one of those Jews who thinks that Judaism and Buddhism can be smoothly integrated. For one thing, I'm a strictly original-texts kind of a girl, and it takes a lot of textual gymnastics to make the two traditions come together, even given the oddments of Judaic literature (like the parallel stories of Korah and Devadatta, or the bits of Pirke Avot) that turn up in the Tripitaka (for more on this, see the work of Prof. J. Duncan M. Derrett of SOAS). For another, the Buddhism with which I'm most closely involved is the early Chinese Mahayana tradition (fifth and sixth centuries): before Chan (Zen) was even founded, before most of Japan had even heard of the Buddha, much less taken over and organized the hell out of the whole religion.

Lest I sound ungrateful, let me observe that the fact that the history of Chinese Buddhism is also the history of Japanese Buddhism, combined with the fact that the Japanese are, on the whole, extremely careful scholars who also care deeply about publishing beautiful books, has provided me with almost all the reference books I regularly use in this part of my research. However, there is a slight tendency to project the later sectarian divisions of the Japanese sangha backward onto Chinese history, with the result that it can be very tricky to figure out what's actually going on when you think you've found the image of the third Chan patriarch on the wall of a sixth-century Chinese cave temple. I'm just sayin'.

For my current research, I'm re-reading the three most popular Buddhist scriptures of the pre-Tang period (roughly speaking): the Vimalakirti-nirdesa sutra, the Lotus Sutra, and the three Pure Land sutras. I have read them before, of course, as part of the basic literacy required to be a specialist in Buddhist art of the period; but my work doesn't often involve close work with the scriptures, as the sculptures I study are often just as reflective of popular Buddhist ideas and practices as with the abstruse points raised in the sutras themselves. Hence, re-reading.

I was reading the end of the Vimalakirti-nirdesa (the "Expositions of Vimalakirti," an extended treatise on the doctrine of non-duality) the other day and came to an extended description of the actions of the bodhisattva. The Buddha says that the bodhisattva does not exhaust the conditioned, nor dwell in the conditioned [i.e. that the bodhisattva realizes that the phenomenal world is impermanent, and thus does not dwell in/become attached to it, but also realizes that other beings are still tied to the phenomenal world, and thus does not abandon it or them, but remains to bring others to wisdom]; then he goes on to explain what "not exhausting the conditioned" means. This is a long description of attributes, including things like "Thinking of the paramitas as one's father and mother" and "using the sword of wisdom to cut down the thieves of earthly desire."

My first reaction to some of the above was "Why are the paramitas one's 'father and mother' and not one's 'mother and father?' And why is earthly desire called 'thieves' and not a 'thief?'" Granted, the sutras are already kind of Talmudic ("The bodhisattva does not exhaust the conditioned. Now, what is meant by not exhausting the conditioned?" etc.) But the instinct to look not only into the words of the text, but the order of the words and the choice of the words, is basic to a lot of Talmudic reasoning. So on some level, it seems I'm a JuBu after all.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

It's official

I just went into my 9.00 class and gave the lecture I'd prepared for my 3.00 class. I'm now a certified absent-minded professor.