Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Tsunami warning

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

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

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

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

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Halfway there

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


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

Friday, September 25, 2009

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

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

My students rock very hard indeed

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


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

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Yamim Noraim

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

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

I think there will be more as the Days progress.

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

Monday, September 21, 2009

Surprise movie recommendation

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, September 18, 2009

High Holy Days

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

Shanarrrr Tovarrr, everybody.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Tuesday morning links

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, September 14, 2009


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

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Real estate

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 8, 2009


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

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

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

Things I have learned along the way

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

Monday, September 7, 2009

Occasional pet peeves, local grocery store edition

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

Two easy salads we like a lot

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

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

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

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

Unoriginal pasta salad

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

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

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Unforeseen consequences, hair dye edition

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