Wednesday, May 27, 2009


So after a certain amount of sturm und drang over the subject, I did color my hair. And I'm pretty happy with the results. It was expensive, so I may not do it always, and it smelled funny and took a bunch of time, and next time I'm bringing my own magazines; but it was fun. It's basically been returned to my original color - nothing fancy, just what I had in high school (even my haircut is similar to what it was then). And although I didn't do it because I wanted to recapture the past somehow, the effect is that I keep glimpsing the past out of the corner of my eye, reflected in mirrors and car windshields.

The part of the past that it's caused me to remember is that the dark brown color of my hair was an aspect of my looks in which I always took more or less unalloyed pleasure. I grew gray so gradually that it wasn't something I felt I'd lost, exactly; but I find now that the feeling of pleasure, simple and straightforward, is still there. So I'll keep it for a while, at least, and see how things go.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Packing principle

I need only one, and it is this. China is full of lovely, affordable shoes and T-shirts. But underwear and bras in my size are not to be had for love nor money.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

News flash

The bulbuls are back! Or maybe they're different bulbuls! It's hard to tell. But a nesting pair have moved in to the raggedy shell of a nest where the chicks were hatched a few weeks ago, and they're fixing it up with bits of coconut fiber and dryer lint. I can't tell whether they intend to incubate another clutch of eggs, or if they're just taking advantage of the current low housing prices and mortgage rates to flip the place once they have it spruced up a little.

Sovereign Earth

I bought a new camera this weekend, for my upcoming fieldwork trip to China (stay tuned for China-blogging!), and I need to learn to use it fast. As an exercise in figuring it out, I biked over to the Chinese cemetery in my neighborhood and spent an hour wandering among the graves. We live in a valley, and the cemetery climbs up a hill in the back of the valley, culminating in an elaborate tomb complex at the summit:


It's only when you reach this summit and turn around, however, that you realize why the cemetery is situated where it is. The highest point in the cemetery commands a view of the valley in which the city is perfectly framed between two mountain ridges, extending seaward like enclosing arms:


In other words, the feng shui of the site is unmatched. The land where this cemetery stands was identified by a geomancer in 1852 as a nexus of "dragon veins" or energy channels in the landscape, and purchased gradually by the local Chinese community at his behest. It is he who is buried in the elaborate white tomb at the top of the hill. It is the sort of position that would once have been reserved for an apical ancestor, the founder of a lineage; it's not clear whether the geomancer left any descendants, but his role in the identification of the site and the subsequent founding of the cemetery makes him the effective founder of the community which is represented by the graves. Communal Qingmingjie (grave-sweeping day) rituals are held at his tomb every year on behalf of the whole community.

Like all cemeteries, this one is full of ordinary tragedies: the loss of a parent in old age, the death of a soldier in wartime. Here is the double grave of a mother who died at 33, one day after giving birth to a baby girl, named in her memory, who lived two weeks.


Not knowing any of the people buried here, what's more interesting to me is the way in which the individual graves, and the cemetery taken as a whole, paint a picture of the immigrant Chinese experience. A cemetery is fairly overdetermined as a focus of community identity in the Chinese diaspora: regardless of the extent to which issues of filial piety actually governed family relations in the "old country," descent, family origin, and the responsibility to care for the graves of one's ancestors all become signs of Chineseness when one has left one's native soil behind. Early immigrants sometimes wanted to be returned to China for burial after their deaths, but not all were able to; and one sign of the growing permanence of the Chinese community here was no doubt the purchase of the land where this cemetery is now located.

The connection with soil is made explicit in some of the larger family grave sites, which have a small altar behind and to the east of the main burial complex:


This is dedicated to "Sovereign Earth" (后土), a very ancient and unpersonified deity of the earth. It's interesting that these altars are not dedicated to the more popular "Earth Lord" (土地公 or 土地神), who is a tutelary deity of earth, anthropomorphic and usually quite literally personified (the "Lord" in "Earth Lord" is a feudal rank of nobility, like "Duke"), but also understood to be tied to a particular place. I wonder if it was felt that you couldn't bring your local earth god with you when you emigrated; perhaps you had to appeal to a much older and much more universal earth deity.

At the foot of the hill there's a life-sized statue that I first took to be Confucius, who, while he is not much worshipped in the PRC today, is the patron saint of the Chinese diaspora, particularly of the upwardly mobile Chinese diaspora, in many places around the world. The sword should have been a dead giveaway; ironically, it was not Confucius, but the First Emperor of Qin (Qin Shihuangdi), in an image whose sculpted face in particular was strongly influenced by the terra-cotta armies with which the emperor was buried:


I forgot to check the plaque which dates the statue, but it can only have been made after 1974 when the terra-cotta warriors were discovered (and likely after 1976 or so, when the discovery began to be publicized). The First Emperor was a notable tyrant and Legalist, infamous for the harshness of his punishments and the degree of control his government exerted on his citizens. He was also the first ruler to unite all China proper (at the time, the territories occupied by Chinese-speaking peoples; not as large an area as the modern PRC), and so he has been admired by some as a great unifier. Mao Zedong was one of those who admired him for this. The 2002 Zhang Yimou film "Hero" reflects a resurgent admiration for this aspect of Qin Shihuangdi's persona, but the film has been criticized for what is perceived as a totalitarian slant, as it justifies the sacrifice of the individual for the good of society. As a symbol of Chinese identity in the diaspora, Qin Shihuangdi is less literary than Confucius, and considerably less pacifist. He embodies the martial (武) aspect of Chinese civilization, by contrast with Confucius, who embodies the civil or literary (文) aspect; but truth be told, there are many historical figures who could serve in his place, any one of whom would be a less belligerent martial symbol, including the third-century general Guan Yu (關羽), eventually deified as Guan Gong ("Lord Guan"), the god of war and commerce. One wonders what it says about the current historical moment that the First Emperor stands here instead of someone else.

The gravestones that I saw today dated largely from after World War I, which was about the time that management of the cemetery was systematized and organized under a Chinese community association. Earlier, and largely unmarked, burials were at this point collected and reinterred in a columbarium near the summit of the hill.

People who died in the 1920s and 1930s had not infrequently been born in the mid-nineteenth century, and as a result had lived through the fall of the Qing dynasty and the founding of the Republic of China. Most of these were born in China, but some were born locally. Either way, their ancestral village is often marked on their gravestone along with birth and death dates.


Mrs. Chung, nee Lu, is here recorded as a person of Bailongjia village, in Longshui (county?), San Wui (Xinhui) district, Guangdong province; but it's not entirely clear where she was actually born. One's ancestral home is not necessarily the same as one's birthplace: a friend of mine, Taiwan-born, is a member of the Taiyuan Wang clan, though he has never been to Taiyuan (in central Shanxi province) and his ancestors have lived in south China for centuries.

Unexpectedly, my epigraphic skills came in handy here, even though I normally use them on inscriptions from 1500 years or more ago. But some of the same obscure terms are in use here. The main inscription reads 民國顯妣張門羅氏太君之墓, or "The tomb of Grand Lady Lu (Luo) of the Chung (Zhang) family, an exemplary (deceased) matriarch of the Republic of China." The term 妣, which I've translated as "(deceased) matriarch," is an obscure character used to describe a mother after her death. There are similar terms for a deceased father (考) which also crop up on these stones. These aren't commonly used characters, and the terms are rarely if ever used in spoken language. But their use here is probably part of the sense of a need for "correct" usage on something as permanent as a tombstone (although there are other eccentricities of usage that I'll describe below). What I'd like to know, instead, is why she's described as belonging to "the Republic of China." On the surface, it would seem like simply an indication that she came from China; but she was born under the Qing, and died after the ROC was driven out of the mainland and reconstituted itself on Taiwan. Perhaps this is a case of local Chinese aligning themselves with the ROC as the legitimate government of China (and drawing a distinction between themselves and the PRC on the mainland).

Another thing to notice about Mrs. Chung is that no first name is recorded for her. Her name is "Chung Lo Shee," but "Lo Shee" isn't a personal name - it means "nee Lo (Luo)." This might be a case of a daughter not being given a formal personal name (another woman whose grave I saw had the personal name 七妹, "Seventh Daughter"), but it's just as likely that Mrs. Chung had a personal name, and it just wasn't considered appropriate to record it here. This is similar to the usage in formal family genealogy books - wives who "marry in" to the family are recorded, if they are recorded at all, according to their family name only (as "nee Something"). Some family genealogies do leave the women out.

Interestingly, some women's gravestones observe this convention in the Chinese inscription, but give the woman's personal name in the English. Here's an example:


Mrs. Nip has a personal name, Sun Yung, which is totally absent from the Chinese inscription. It's relatively late, dating to the 1980s, but some older stones were also carved in this same way, in a kind of intersection of the English and Chinese conventions. Having a foot in both worlds is, of course, one of the hallmarks of being an immigrant.

Most of the names on the tombstones here are transliterated according to the native dialect of the family who put them up: Nip, Chung, Yap, Lau, Kwock and so on. This is not remarkable except if you learned Chinese in the last twenty or thirty years, with the increasing hegemony of Mandarin that has followed on the growth of the People's Republic of China (where it is the official dialect) and its adoption in other areas of the diaspora, especially Singapore. To me, the families listed above are Nie, Zhang, Ye, Liu, and Guo; and it's interesting to see how the names change in different dialects (here mostly various Wu dialects, related to Hokkien and Taiwanese, and Yue dialects, related to Cantonese). Here's one exception:


According to his tombstone, Mr. Li was an official of the local ROC consulate; so it's not too surprising that he pronounced his name in Mandarin. He also transliterated it in Wade-Giles, the late nineteenth-century system that was used in mainland China before 1949, and is still used in the ROC on Taiwan. Although the divide between Wade-Giles and pinyin (the Mainland Chinese system used under the PRC) is less and less politicized these days, to the extent that (I hear) you see pinyin in Taiwan sometimes, in 1957 it must have been a fairly intentional statement of affiliation to insist on Mandarin transliterated in Wade-Giles. In Pinyin, he would have been Li Jiaxiang, which looks somewhat differently. I saw only one pinyin tombstone on my walk today:


This handsome black granite stone belongs to the Liang family, but I wonder how long they have been calling themselves the Liangs (as opposed to the Leongs, which is the Cantonese pronunciation). Both the Liangs, who were fortunate enough to lead long lives, were born in the last years of the Qing dynasty, in a family whose roots were in Zhongshan prefecture of Guangdong Province, much like those of many other families buried in this cemetery (and like Sun Yat-sen, for whom the prefecture was renamed in the early twentieth century). They were born, in fact, more than forty years before the pinyin which is now used to transliterate their names was devised, and in a family whose native dialect was certainly not Mandarin. And any time before the last decade or so, the use of pinyin would have been a pretty distinct political statement of affiliation (even just symbolic affiliation) to the PRC.

I wonder if what we see here is the result of the current generation returning to their "roots" and learning Chinese in school, where one inevitably begins with Mandarin, even if there is the opportunity to learn Cantonese as a "variant" dialect later on. There are a couple of nonstandard details here that suggest a certain unfamiliarity with transliteration conventions: Liang Song Bai would conventionally be "Liang Songbai" and could well be "Liang Songbo" - "bo" being an alternate pronunciation of the final character, and, of the two, the one more likely to be used in a Mandarin personal name. Similarly, Mrs. Liang's name in Chinese is actually Cai Jinshan, not Cai Jinxian (and there are no hyphens used in pinyin). I'm quibbling, of course - the Liangs can and should spell their names however they want to - but the sudden appearance of pinyin, however nonstandard, suggests the way in which Mandarin, transliterated with pinyin, has ceased to be a mark of Communist backwardness and has become the most modern-looking of the transliteration systems.

Other variations in inscriptions also suggest the way in which memory changes things, especially as China recedes into the past with the passing of time. This is a fairly typical grave from the cemetery:


On the right is the tombstone of Mr. Fong Koon Yick (Fang Guanyi), who died in 1937, and was outlived by 43 years by his wife, who passed away in 1980. When she died, her children (no doubt) erected the marble stone on the left to both their parents, and incorporated their father's original stone into the enclosure of the plot. But if you look more closely, you'll notice that the second character of the father's name (Koon, or Guan) is written differently on the original tombstone and on the later monument. Both characters are pronounced the same, but the meaning is different. The older tombstone also has Mr. Fong's style-name (zi), which was Jiehong (and here I have to apologize to him and his family for not knowing the correct Wu or Yue pronunciation which he no doubt used). I suspect that relatively few immigrants after the first generation had a style-name, which is a kind of formal name used in particular social situations among the Chinese literati. Here's a close-up of Mr. Fong's original tombstone:


It gives his family's place of origin, his names in full (and he is listed as 顯考, "exemplary deceased patriarch") and his date of death, but not his date of birth. The differences between it and the newer stone (which has both birth and death dates, but no information on the place of origin of the family) are interesting.

Several stones contained characters I was unable to read, much to my surprise (because I read obscure and ancient funerary inscriptions as part of my work, I don't expect to be stumped by a 20th century graveyard). Here's an example:


Two women who were married into the Leong family (perhaps two wives of the same man?), nee Au (Ou) and nee Wong (Wang), are commemorated here, with the dates of their deaths. The problem is that the years of their deaths, at the tops of the two outermost columns, are given in some kind of shorthand that I didn't recognize. Looking at other, similar gravestones, it was obvious that they were four-digit years according to the Western calendar (note that they all start with a vertical stroke, for 1); but I had never seen this system before. It turns out that these are called Suzhou numerals, and they are the last survival of a positional numbering system that predates the abacus, which used rods on a counting board for calculation. It enabled Chinese mathematicians to do advanced calculations (especially once they figured out how to use zero). So according to this gravestone, nee Au died in 1912, and nee Wong died in 1917. Seems hard on Mr. Leong.

A fuller study of the stones in the graveyard could be a really interesting portrait of the Chinese community. There are other Chinese cemeteries; how is this one different from those? Where are more recent Chinese immigrants (especially the post-1976 wave of Mandarin-speakers from Taiwan and the mainland) buried? It's not really my field, but it could be an interesting story, given how much I was able to see in just an hour spent schlepping around the place.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Folksongs of the American child

For some reason my inner DJ has been playing a greatest hits of songs I learned from other kids in childhood, some of which came with clapping games and some of which were more stand-alone. The playlist has been going something like this:

  • Miss Mary Mack
  • Hagalina Magalina Hootensteiner Walkendeiner Hogan Logan Bogan (Was Her Name)
  • Great Green Gobs (of Greasy Grimy Gopher Guts)
  • Miss Lucy Had a Steamboat
  • There Were Three Jolly Fishermen
  • Eeny Meeny Miney Mo
  • When Johnny Boy was One
  • The Farmer in the Dell (aka The Cheese Stands Alone)
  • The Doughnut Shop (to the tune of Turkey in the Straw)

I was amazed in high school to learn (quite by accident, during a reminiscence exercise in English class) that a friend from Opelousas, Louisiana, thousands of miles from Maine, also knew "Hagalina Magalina." I think these are the folksongs of the playground - the ones that are passed from kid to kid like big secrets, partly because we had this vague sense that the grownups wouldn't approve. I might never have learned "Great Green Gobs" if my brother weren't a Cub Scout (and totally in love with the phrase "one full ton of all-purpose porpoise pus").

And it strikes me how many of them get their lasting power from the way they play with language. "Hagalina Magalina" is obvious, but the alliteration of "Great Green Gobs" is another, and "Johnny Boy" has a refrain that uses the word "Pinocchio" as a repeated nonsense word, which makes no sense, but it sure is fun to say. "Miss Lucy" is all about seeming to say naughty words and sheering off from them (through double meanings) at the last moment: "Miss Lucy went to heaven and the tugboat went to... HELL-o Operator...." The song"Three Jolly Fishermen" is the same, except it's more explicit about its avoidance ("They all went down to Amster-hmm;" "You mustn't say that naughty word;" "I'm going to say it anyway;" "They all went down to Amster-DAMN").

What have I left off the list? Surely there are more.

ETA: Of course there are more. Now that I've started thinking about this I can't stop.

  • The Ants Go Marching One by One
  • The Littlest Worm I Ever Saw
  • John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt
  • The Grand old Duke of York
  • Do Your Ears Hang Low (bonus! it has extra verses I didn't know about. "Can you semaphore your neighbor with a minimum of labor?" Hee hee.)

John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt clearly follows the "fun to say" rule, but the others don't really. I do think that a few of the more Edwardian ones (The Farmer in the Dell; The Grand Old Duke of York) were more likely taught to me by my awesome first grade teacher, at recess time, along with the games that went with them. I have a visual memory of her standing in the middle of the circle, demonstrating "The cheese stands alone."

Monday, May 18, 2009


Following is a drash I gave on parashah Behar-B'hukkotai at shul on Saturday. I'm happy enough with it, but I don't think it's especially original or insightful: these portions of the Torah are the ones that are hardest to relate to contemporary life in the diaspora, so in wrestling with this one I took on the relatively conventional question of just plain making sense of the text. I don't think I've answered in any way the question of how to relate the text to contemporary life.

22 Iyar 5769 (16 May 2009)

There are a couple of ways in which this should really be Rex’s drash: for one, it’s his bar mitzvah portion; and for another, parashah Behar is about land tenure, which is his specialty. However, having called him in at the last minute to take over one drash already this year, I had better do this one myself. But of course on some level this is the academic parashah, since it’s all about the sabbatical. Not that I’m senior enough to know what that is like. As a Jewish academic, I would say that at least we can take some credit for originating the idea, but as it turns out part of the point of this portion is that that credit doesn’t actually belong to us.

As usual, there are a number of different themes in Behar-B’hukkotai, and the fact that this is a double parashah (sometimes these two are read separately, depending on the number of Shabbats in a year) makes it even less coherent than average for the last two books of the Torah. As we know, the divisions of the parashiyot are occasionally somewhat arbitrary, and they’re certainly man-made; it was Maimonides who divided the Torah in this way during the twelfth century. But we tend to assume the Rambam knew what he was doing; and we know that we’re called to find some meaning in each parashah nonetheless.

So I’d like to start with something that hit me during my first reading of this portion, before I got into the commentaries and definitions and whatnot, and that is that Behar-B’hukkotai, taken together, are a reminder of the way in which the seven days of creation left their stamp on the shape of the world that followed, from the eighth day onward. The beginning of the portion contains the laws of sabbatical and jubilee, in which the agricultural land of Israel must be allowed to lie fallow every seventh year, and after seven of these cycles, the fiftieth year is declared a jubilee, in which land which has been alienated by sale or debt is to be restored to its original holders, and in which the contracts of debt-slavery are annulled. But the sevens don’t stop there: later in B’hukkotai, God lays out the rewards of observation of the law, and the punishments for not doing so. The list of punishments is much longer than the list of rewards, and over and over we hear that God will increase our punishment sevenfold in proportion to our disobedience.

The cycle of sabbatical and jubilee years seems like the ultimate reverberation of the act of creation through human time. The parallel between Shabbat and the sabbatical year should be obvious; to make it even more so, the Etz Hayim translation says “You shall count seven weeks of years,” meaning seven times seven years, before the jubilee. The seven-day rhythm of Shabbat is reiterated through longer and longer cycles of time, so that a sevenfold multiplication becomes the very standard by which multiplication is measured, even by the hand of God meting out punishment. It occurs to me that the jubilee, which happens every fifty years, is the largest sevenfold multiple of time that will comfortably fit into the span of a human life (which can also be measured in these terms: remember that the allotment of threescore years and ten, as numbered in the Psalms, is the same as ten sabbatical cycles). It makes me wonder, as a historian, whether there are larger sevenfold divisions of time that we’re not hearing about, because the span of human memory is too short to perceive them. Part of the debate about how literally to take the Biblical account of the timespan of Creation is sometimes resolved by suggesting that the days of the first week were longer than the days we experience today. Behar seems to suggest that the whole span of time is divided according to the days of the first week, and that these cycles of seven may multiply into geologic time.

There are three main themes in this parashah. The first is the division of time into sabbatical and jubilee, with its implications for land use and tenure. The second is the redemption of the debts of the poor and the manumission of debt-slavery. And the third is the price for redeeming offerings made to the sanctuary. As in much of the book of Leviticus, these themes are punctuated by several irruptive asides detailing the rewards of obedience and the punishments for disobedience, framed in terms of agricultural fertility, peace, and victory in war.

The laws of sabbatical and jubilee, plus the material on the redemption of slaves, are often taken together as a progressive model of political economy, designed to keep the land from being exhausted from overuse, to keep wealth from becoming concentrated in the hands of a landlord class (thus introducing a widening gap between rich and poor), and to keep families from becoming permanently enslaved by insuperable debt, while encouraging tzedakah, or charity, on the part of those who can help those less fortunate than themselves. It is true that these seem to be the intended effects of the system laid out in parashah Behar, but they are not sufficient to explain it. In general, instrumental explanations of this kind are unsatisfactory for explaining the forms of culture. The laws of kashrut cannot be explained with any thoroughness as a system of food hygiene, any more than the sabbatical and the jubilee can be explained as a proto-socialist model of political economy. To do so confuses cause and effect.

To complicate this further, most readers take the land-use provisions of the cycle of sabbatical and jubilee to refer only to the land of Israel, such that Rashi, for instance, counts the seventy years from the Babylonian captivity to the completed rebuilding of the Temple (586-516 BCE) as making up for seventy sabbatical and jubilee years that had not been properly observed. The punishments of B’hukkotai suggest that exile from the land of Israel is not only punishment for the children of Israel, but is also meant to allow the land its sabbaticals after all. It’s not entirely clear what this means to Jews living in the diaspora, especially when we may not necessarily consider this a form of exile.

Oddly enough, it is the third theme of Behar-B’hukkotai that helps offer some insight into the meaning of these linked parashiyot. The material on the price of redemption of things dedicated to the sanctuary seems like an odd coda to the story of sabbatical and debt-slavery. It is meant as a guide for those who choose to dedicate a person, or a piece of land, or an animal, to the sanctuary; apparently the actual practice was to give the value of the thing dedicated to the temple, rather than the thing itself. It is essentially a list of prices. But the list contains a particular set of stipulations, reminding the reader that firstlings, first-fruits, and tithes cannot be consecrated to the sanctuary in this way, because they already belong to God. In other words, we are reminded, it is not meaningful to dedicate as a freewill offering that which you already owe (a firstborn son, a tithe of grain). In other words, the commitments made by human beings cannot supersede those established by God.

Once you notice this, you realize that it is a thread that runs through the entire parashah: the idea that the contracts, the covenants of God supersede those made by humankind. The lesson of the jubilee, for example, is that the rights to land are established by God, and may not be changed permanently by human acts. Lev. 25:16 says quite explicitly that what you sell when you sell agricultural land is not the land itself, but a number of harvests, and so the price must be prorated according to the number of years until the jubilee. Similarly, Lev. 25:23: “The land must not be sold beyond reclaim, for the land is Mine: you are but strangers resident with Me.”

Later, we are reminded that slavery cannot be permanent, at least for the children of Israel (and there are some rather uncomfortable implications to the clear indication that other peoples than ourselves may be permanently enslaved, bought and sold as property). Again, Lev. 25:55: “For it is to Me that the Israelites are servants: they are My servants whom I freed from the land of Egypt, I the Lord your God.” We cannot serve a human master when we are already and forever the servants of a divine one. Over and over in this parashah, we are reminded that God’s covenants with the children of Israel come first, and cannot be altered by human action.

Ultimately, this also makes sense of the stange interpolation of rewards and punishments that intervene several times in this parashah, which otherwise seem somewhat arbitrary. The moral problem of reward and punishment is a big one, since we do observe that bad things happen, as they say, to good people; and as a result the list of rewards and punishments, which echoes the version from Deuteronomy that we recite at the end of the Sh’ma, is troubling. We read that obedience will mean that God will cause timely rain to fall for our crops, that our harvests will be rich, humans and animals fertile, times peaceful, and armies victorious. The list of punishments is considerably longer, ranging through pestilence, starvation, cannibalism, and exile from the land. Yet in real experience, we regularly see virtue unrewarded and evil unpunished. It’s a major ethical problem for which a variety of solutions have been proposed over the years, from those who suggest that the reward for obedience will be given in the world to come, to those who maintain that the shape given to our lives by the observation of mitzvot is its own reward.

But note what happens at the end of all these punishments. The people confess their wrongdoing and atone for their sins. They perform the act of teshuva, of return; and God remembers his covenant. Lev. 26:44: “Yet even then, when they are inthe land of their enemies, I will not reject them or spurn them so as to destroy them, annulling my covenant with them: for I the Lord am their God. I will remember in their favor the covenant with the ancients, whom I freed from the land of Egypt in the sight of the nations to be their God: I, the Lord.” As with the counting of the jubilee year, this is a reminder that the covenants of God cannot be changed or altered by the actions of humankind; and ultimately it is this which protects us.

As human beings, we have free will. We have the power to change the world; at our best, to repair the world, to work for justice. But we don’t have the power to break God’s covenants with his creation, including the land itself, but also including ourselves. And so finally, this explains all the sevens scattered through the text. As we sang during Shachrit: V’shamru b’nei Israel et ha-Shabbat; la’asot et ha-Shabbat l’dorotam b’rit olam. “The people Israel shall observe Shabbat, to maintain it as an everlasting covenant through all generations.” God’s covenant with us shapes time itself, and echoes far beyond the limitations of the week.

Shabbat shalom.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Favorite book

Millicent and Carla Fran, who have an awesome epistolary blog, write that Gaudy Night by Dorothy Sayers is their favorite book. It is certainly my favorite thinking woman's romance, and I readily admit to reading Sayers more for Harriet Vane than for anything like mystery or its structure. Oddly, I can't read Gaudy Night right now, because so much of it is about the life of the mind in academia, which isn't going so well for me right now. I think it will be an important sign of something when I can get back to it.

Hair color, feminism, junior high school, paradox, and me (please comment)

So suddenly I want to color my hair.

My natural hair color is a dark chocolate brown, which I always liked very much, especially because it's unusual when combined with light-colored eyes (mine are slate blue). I've been going gray since I was 21, which is close to 17 years now; currently I have streaks of nearly white hair at both temples, plus an all-over sparse (but thickening) mix of silver threads among the dark. My hair is baby-fine, and, in the tropics, wavy almost to the point of curl. Grown long, it is flyaway and insubstantial, but with the right short cut it has body and life. With the white at the temples, it has a certain amount of dash, in fact.

I've never colored my hair before, for a variety of reasons, foremost among which, it must be admitted, are laziness and thrift: I never wanted to be bothered keeping it up, nor spend the money it costs to maintain artificial hair color.

Rex's position is that I shouldn't dye it for the same reasons he shouldn't wear a toupee to cover his bald spot: because it's silly to feel badly about what is real and natural. This is a position I largely endorse. For one thing, he is sexy as hell, and I've never known him with hair. For another, like him, I am not amused by jokes about the tragedy of turning 30 (or 40, or whatever), nor am I very sympathetic to midlife crises that result from the widening of the gap between long-held fantasy and progressive reality, especially since the fantasy, in such cases, probably wasn't all that sustainable to begin with. The inability to understand how a person who isn't 21 can be attractive (or how a person who isn't at the pinnacle of their earning power, or their career, can be successful), isn't a tragedy of passing time; it's a failure of imagination.

And there's this other thing, too, the feminist angle. I remember being very surprised, in high school (I went to boarding school), to meet girls from the South, whose mothers had taught them to apply makeup, and who wouldn't go out without it, because nice girls always took the trouble. As the daughter of a mother who never used a lot of makeup, but more, growing up in a small and remote New England logging town, I always understood that nice girls didn't, or if they did, they didn't much. Later there was an increasingly feminist undertone to the idea: the thought that wearing makeup (and shaving one's legs, underarms, etc.) was un-feminist, because it meant pretending to be someone you were not. There's more to this, and it lies in the transition from elementary school to junior high: the moment when everything changes, for girls at least.

Flashback 1982. I was not especially attuned to fashion, boys, etc. My best friend and I spent a lot of our time in the woods, identifying edible plants and building elaborate fantasy worlds based on the novels we read. We played a lot of D&D. My mother, to her eternal credit, never pushed me to model more conventionally feminine behavior. I think she was more interested in us being who we were.

But gradually I noticed things: pegged pants, denim blazers, skinny neckties. Girls in gym class ridiculed me for not wearing a bra. I started wearing one. They mocked me for not shaving my body hair. I started shaving, badly. They ridiculed me for wearing "high-water pants," which I didn't understand. I cut my waist-length hair into a short, feathered hairstyle over the summer of 1984. On the first day of eighth grade in the fall, a small knot of girls backed me against the lockers and accused me of trying to imitate the two Vickis (the Heathers of our school, both dark-haired like me). They told me they'd make sure that nobody was fooled. It was garden-variety harassment - junior high is a painful experience for any thinking person - but it stung, and in particular, it left me with a strong sense that I shouldn't try to be like other people, that I shouldn't try to make myself attractive, because I would only fail, and fail in a way that would be publicly ridiculous. I remember going to the seventh grade dance (before I cut my hair) in a white oxford-cloth button-down shirt with a skinny necktie in turquoise and black, with my long hair in a ponytail on the side of my head, wearing a white newsboy cap, big dangly white earrings, acid-washed, pleated-front jeans, legwarmers, and ballet flats. I spent most of the evening in the bathroom weeping, unable to bear what I thought must be the ridicule of everyone who saw me, but wanting so badly to be part of what I thought everyone else was part of that I couldn't bring myself to leave.

Looking back, I am radically pissed off about this, not so much for what I went through at the time, which, as I say, was pretty much par for the course of junior high, but rather for what it caused me to miss out on over the years that followed. I became so convinced that it was impossible for me to be part of any normal social group that I talked myself out of all the kinds of experimentation that you're supposed to do in high school: experimentation with identity, experimentation with relationships and emotion. It didn't help that I went to prep school, where they kept us too busy to experiment much anyway, and where there was a pretty big gap of experience and social class between me and some of my classmates. When I think back on the friendships I didn't follow up on, the outings I didn't enjoy, the life I chose not to fully live, it makes me furious. And it's still a residual problem to this day. The voice of instinct - you do not belong; this is not for you to enjoy - still echoes in my head. And it's been such a fucking waste.

I have a picture of myself taken on Cape Cod in the summer of 1984, in the backyard of Aunt M's house in Brewster, when we were visiting my cousins. AtlanticMo and her sisters were fascinated to discover that I'd never worn eye shadow or mascara, and didn't know how to apply them. So they made me up, with blue eye shadow (1984, remember?) and raccoon-style eyeliner, curled lashes and mascara. In the picture, I'm holding my cousin C, who's nearly two, and smiling shyly, showing my braces. I remember seeing this picture and thinking it was dangerous. It seemed important never to let anyone see me like that.

It's not a dangerous picture, of course: it shows a dark-haired thirteen-year-old in '80s-style glasses, wearing too much makeup, a little shy and awkward, wearing a plaid flannel shirt and hefting a curly-haired toddler. In the picture, I look like exactly who I am, or who I was at the time. And, looking back, I realize what I should have done. I should have let Mo and the others, who were fond of their eccentric rural cousins, teach me how to make myself up. I should have taken them up more often on trips to the mall and pizza at Sbarro's (Coming from such a small town, it had never occurred to me that you could go to the mall, or to a restaurant, without your parents). They were willing to make room for me in their normality: I should have let them.

Which brings us back to the feminist angle: because although of course there is a feminist argument to be made against cosmetics and body modification, against changing ourselves to please others, there is also a feminist argument in favor of doing what pleases us with our bodies. And at this point in time, I think the argument for pleasing myself has more power than the argument for letting the gray hairs fly free, as it were. It's not that I don't like the gray; it's striking, interesting even. It's that under all the other reasons for not coloring my hair before this (laziness, thrift, feminism), the voice that says this isn't for you: other women can do it, but you stay away is still hiding. And I'd like to give it the metaphorical finger.

I think.

What if I hate it?

It's only hair, right?

Wednesday, May 13, 2009


Himself and I are on our third bicycle pump, though now that we've learned to keep it inside out of the rain, maybe it'll last longer. This one is a bit fancier than the last two, but we didn't realize how fancy. Today he was using it to pump up his tires and accidentally hit a hidden switch in the handle, causing a little compartment full of valve adaptors and other accessories to swing out. Who knew? Now I find myself searching for the concealed popcorn dispenser in the TV remote, or maybe a stash of new red marking pens in my desk at the office.

Excellent student typo, final exam edition

"Emperor Qianlong receiving tribute from the Kayaks." (She meant "Kazakhs.")

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Small-town life (long-distance edition)

Last Friday night, we went to the university choir concert downtown. The director of the choirs is a recent acquaintance and our own director (a grad student in music education) was singing. Before the concert began, I heard a woman behind me talking about being here from Maine for a month to do research. I turned around and said "Hey, I'm from Maine." One thing led to another, I mentioned the name of the island where we have a summer camp, and the next thing I know she's saying "Your parents went to my wedding!" She is the daughter-in-law of my parents' friends. She's been here for a month and I had no idea! Six thousand miles from home, and this kind of thing still happens to me.


Because we had a couple of conversions to celebrate, which require a mikvah immersion, and because the only kosher mikvah in town is the Pacific Ocean, our chavurah met last Friday morning as the sun came up to daaven Shachrit on the beach. It was a beautiful clear day after weeks of overcast and haze: surfers and swimmers came and went (and looked at us funny - lots of tallits and even a few sets of tefillin, and tefillin look very odd if you've never seen them before) as we chanted. A couple of outrigger canoes slipped out silently through the shallows, toward the outer reef, and in the far distance a huge container ship moved across the horizon toward the docks. Two of those weird Army helicopters suspended from their double rotors buzzed across the sky.

Mikvah immersion requires that you be naked, and this was accomplished by going in wrapped in a pareu, which was unwrapped and held up by attendants as a curtain/mechitza for modesty. The converts emerged from the water one by one, dripping wet and singing Shehechiyanu. An elderly Italian tourist stood by and watched, almost in tears. "Che bello," she said, over and over again. She was a Jew from Torino, and had seen or known of many a mikvah immersion, but never one like this. "I say Shehechiyanu for me, too. Because I see it, the first time."

Shehechiyanu is the prayer that you say when doing something for the first time. "Blessed are you Lord our God, ruler of the Universe, who has kept us in life, sustained us, and brought us to this moment."


My home state of Maine has made same-sex marriage legal. It's not over yet, because there's the possibility of popular opposition currently being referred to as a "citizens' veto;" but as one of the grooms in the same-sex wedding I attended two weeks ago said, the truth is that we already won this one. This is just the cleanup.