Wednesday, October 28, 2009

World Series

It's that time of the year again! And once more, I am rooting for my other favorite team, Whoever Is Playing The Yankees.

(Go Philly!)

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Maine CONTINUES to rock



An 86-year-old WWII veteran speaks in favor of marriage equality for gay and lesbian couples, at a public meeting on Maine's marriage equality bill on April 22, 2009.

Ficus benjamina comosa

See what happens when I complain about not having anything to blog about? Suddenly a Cause brings itself to my attention, and refuses to be ignored. I am on a crusade to save a tree.

My favorite tree on campus is a massive comose fig tree with multiple trunks that curve around one another to support a graceful canopy of little green leaves and marble-sized yellow fruit. (The species is known as "weeping fig" for its sweeping habit.) Probably as a result of strategic pruning, its several enormous trunks do not meet, but frame a complex, baroquely shaped negative space in its interior, edged with buttresslike roots. It is a spectacular tree.

comosefig1

This is a general view of the tree, which fails to do it justice because of the shrinking effect of the wide-angle setting I used on the camera. Better is this shot of just the trunks, although even here the angle was not quite right to capture its spacious enclosure.

comosefig2

As it turns out, this tree was planted on campus by the botanist-explorer Joseph Rock, the first official botanist of the Territorial government, and later to become a preeminent specialist on the botany of southwest China, especially Yunnan, where he also did important early ethnographic and ethnolinguistic work with the Nakhi. It is said that the novel Lost Horizon, the source for the idea of Shangri-la, was inspired by his adventures in the Himalayan foothills.

Now, it is in danger of being cut down as part of the Campus Center expansion.

The original architect's plan for this expansion took the tree into account, building up to it but leaving it in situ. But some political objections led to the powers that be (not the architects, actually) rotating the expansion ninety degrees so that the narrower width, which would have spared the tree, was exchanged with its length, and the tree has to go.

I occupy a building whose design was fundamentally altered to spare a monumental baobab tree that was slated to be cut down in construction. I know it can be done. What I'm having trouble with is figuring out who to complain to. I signed a petition the other day to save the fig tree. Now I need somewhere to take it further. As my friend Greg said, "Even if you don't care about nature, a hundred-year-old tree is not something to be tossed aside lightly." And he's right. Many of us will not live so long ourselves. This is not just botany; it's history, and a history we can't afford to destroy at our whim.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Good writing

This blog is a space where I purposely don't write about my work. Instead of writing about the things which are central to my life, I write about the peripheral things. Of course sometimes that means that the peripheral things get driven off the mental desktop entirely, when life gets busy. One of the big things I had on my mind is now off my plate (an article for a journal which had to be turned around in editing very quickly in order to go into the special issue that's Coming Soon, I hope), along with a Giant Pile of Midterms (tm) which had to be corrected over the weekend. As a result, I've had more than two brain cells to rub together, for a change, and I've been thinking about television writing.

We've been watching the show "Castle" on ABC recently, and enjoying it a lot - it's a fluffy show, but it has tremendous ensemble appeal - great chemistry between the principal characters, including Nathan Fillion as a crime writer, Stana Katic as the NYPD officer he's partnered with, and an actor whose name I've forgotten as Fillion's smart teenage daughter. His eccentric actor mother, who lives with them, is also a great character. Even the staff of the police station where much of the action takes place have real substance and character. There would have been a time when I would have just sat back and enjoyed it, but I'm now married to a guy whose critical faculty is always in gear, so I find myself taking a page from him and starting to think about why the show works so well. Specifically, I'm wondering about the interplay between "chemistry" and writing.

It's obvious that many members of this cast have great chemistry: Fillion and the women who play his daughter and his mother, Katic and her supervisor, Katic and Fillion etc. When I think of "chemistry" I think of a kind of alchemical mix of personalities - like these are people who like each other and work together well as colleagues, and it comes through in the show. I have no idea how true this is. Then there's the writing, which Rex thinks is definitely key to this show. And it's true that it's very sharp and witty (in one recent episode, the case kept taking a turn for the weird, and every time it did, Fillion's character would say "Best...case...EVER!"). Fillion's character, a writer, often annoys his partner by trying to solve cases by arguing from narrative consistency or other literary principles, which sometimes works and sometimes doesn't, but which makes for a particularly endearing personal quirk. The only thing that comes close to becoming a kind of narrative tic is the scene where Fillion's character, who plays an endearing and slightly doofus single dad, has a discussion with his very perceptive teenage daughter in which she says something insightful which causes him to suddenly realize something crucial about the case he's been working on. (This is charming, but kind of repetitive.) But mostly the writing is really smart.

I think that somehow this is the combination of things that attracts me to a television show. It's rare that I become a "fan" of a show - I'm too fickle and busy to be a fan of anything, really - but others I can think of (the X-files, Buffy, 30 Rock) have what seems to me to be something of the same qualities of chemistry between cast members and smart, witty writing. But what is the balance between them? Now, one of my oldest friends (hi M!) is a successful television writer, who has been on the writing staff of a number of major network shows. So she's probably going to read this and think "What a noob." Fortunately, this won't be the end of the world. What do you think? Has anybody seen this show? What is the relationship between chemistry and writing?

Friday, October 16, 2009

Blog drought

I have a couple of big things on my mind which I don't want to blog about, and as a result I am having trouble coming up with mundane things I do want to blog about. Today I had an 8 AM doctor's appointment, and on the way home I took the car through the car wash. I rarely do this as it rains so often here, but occasionally it needs doing. I have a deep and unreasonable love of the car wash. It's such a surreal experience, like being attacked by soapy Muppets. But then I never know whether I'm supposed to tip the guys who run up afterward and dry off your mirrors. Sigh.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Daily awesome

From Yahoo News:

Female athlete sets new shot put world record. The athlete in question is Ruth Frith. She's 100.

ETA: Apparently it was a world record for her age group (100-104). Still.

(H/T Shakesville)

Friday, October 9, 2009

Milestones

I don't think I'm breaking any confidences by writing that my parents just hit two milestones, one deeply impressive, one, shall we say, a bit more trivial. The impressive part is that they recently celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary. I've always admired them for their strong and vibrant marriage, still more now that I am actually married myself and have a better sense of what it's actually all about. They are my role models. Congratulations, Mom and Dad!

I'm obviously not in any position to offer them any advice on marriage. But the other milestone is one to which I might actually have something to contribute. After holding out for at least 30 years, my parents just got cable. So I've been thinking about cable-channel shows that I might recommend to them. I myself got cable for the first time in my life when we moved to our current apartment three years ago (cable comes with the place), and while the vast majority of what's on even basic cable channels is of little to no interest, there are a few shows I have really come to enjoy:

  • No Reservations: Anthony Bourdain's humanistic travel-cum-food show, which is a bit uneven, but in the best of which he presents the food of a particular city or country as understood through the people who love it and cook it. This is what makes it so much better than his "rival" shows on the same channel, with Andrew Zimmern, who is always shown eating alone. Travel Channel.

  • Modern Marvels: Also uneven, but at its best a fascinating introduction to industrial processes, materials, and technologies. The one about cheese was awesome. I think this is on the Learning Channel.

  • Castle: A new find for me, a somewhat fluffy but enjoyable crime show whose detective team is a police detective and her crime-novelist partner. The crime novelist, played by Nathan Fillion (yum), lives with his mother and daughter, who are really engaging characters as well. Whoops, I just looked up the network and realized it's an ABC show, which they actually could have seen on broadcast. Still.

What would you recommend to someone who's getting basic cable for the first time?

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Ring of Fire

It's been an amazing week for geologic activity in the Pacific Rim. Yesterday we had yet another tsunami warning after a quake of nearly 8.0 off Vanuatu. Fortunately, not only did we not get a tsunami, but neither did Vanuatu. The Samoan quake was almost immediately eclipsed in world reportage by the two or three (I've lost count) quakes in Indonesia, and by massive and destructive typhoons in the Philippines. Here locally, there are much bigger Samoan and Philippine communities than Indonesian, so the first quake remains a human interest story as the Samoas dig out from under the rubble. There are some amazing stories of survival being told, as ever when people are pressed to the breaking point. Local relief projects are being ratcheted up among the Samoan and Philippine communities. I wish I could find the news story from Vanuatu, though, which was full of the relief of their reprieve from disaster. On one island, everyone hiked to the highest point and waited together for a tsunami that never came. "At least we got some good exercise," said one woman.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

First-class snark from the Ming dynasty

From the painting critic Li Kaixian, writing in 1545:

Jiang Zicheng's painting is "like an Indian monk, his entire body clothed in precious objects, yet giving off a putrid odor."

Lin Liang is "like the sticks on a woodgatherer's back or the dried wood at the bottom of a stream - carpenters wouldn't even look at it."

Guo Xu "is like an old Confucian trying to learn farming: his strength is not equal to his fellows' and he grows more weeds than grain."

Wang E "is like an official of the Five Dynasties: his hat is of black silk but his person is that of a butcher."

Bonus, from He Liangjun, writing about twenty-five years later: "As for the likes of... Zhang Lu of the North, I would be ashamed to wipe my table with his paintings."

H/T: Richard Barnhart, "The 'Wild and Heterodox' School of Ming Painting," in Susan Bush and Christian Murck, eds., Theories of the Arts in China, Princeton University Press, 1983.