Monday, November 30, 2009

My first sewing machine

I talked to my mom on the phone yesterday - she is planning to make me some maternity clothes, and not a moment too soon either - I am beginning to "pooch out" as they say and it is only the first step toward becoming Simply Enormous. So I was thinking about sewing machines. She said that her forty-year-old Bernina, bought in Thailand while my father was posted there during the Vietnam War, was broken, and that they no longer made the part to repair it. It's the end of an era - the Bernina was a Sherman tank of a sewing machine, with a million different settings and everything in enameled metal or shiny chrome. It made me think of my own sewing machine, which I bought at a yard sale down the street from the house my parents lived in before the current one. I know that they moved in to that house in 1986, and lived there four or five years, so it must have been no later than about 1989, because I was still in high school when I bought it. My mom and I had wandered down the street to check out the bargains and saw it, and I borrowed the money from her on the spot when I saw that it was only $25. It wasn't new then - the woman who sold it said her daughter had bought it for college and never used it. I don't know how old it was exactly, but ten years doesn't seem impossible.

It is a portable Kenmore machine, with a little case and a handle to carry it. It doesn't do the fancy stitches the Bernina did - machine embroidery and decorative applique edgings and whatnot - rather, it does straight stitch, zigzag, mending stitch, blind hem stitch, and buttonhole stitch (with nifty plastic foot guides so you always make them the same size). But it has some of the workhorse features of the Bernina, including all metal fittings (the spindle that holds the thread, which pulls out of the body of the machine itself with a knurled knob, is metal - it's plastic in later Kenmore machines, I've observed) and a heavy enameled metal body. All the accessories pack away into little compartments and boxes that are cleverly built into the machine itself. It does everything I need it to do and nothing more, including fit into my tiny Asian-style living space, and I hope (knock on wood) that it never breaks down.

When we bought it from the yard sale, it was entirely intact, with all parts present and accounted for, except for the owner's manual. I thought this was a lost cause (heck, I'm still surprised to find out that you can buy a replacement carafe for a coffeemaker, and what could be more logical than that?), but my mother, who knew more about this kind of thing than I, called Sears Kenmore customer service and ordered a shiny new replacement manual. I still have it. I took it out of the box it lives in the other day when I was looking for some elastic to replace the band of the sleep mask Rex wears to keep out the light at night. I noticed, with a combination of nostalgia and amusement, that it was beginning to yellow with age.

I guess impending motherhood is making me think about my own mother a lot lately (see several recent blog entries), but the other thing that it makes me think about is the passage of time. I am now old enough to have seen a certain amount of water pass under the bridge, as it were, and finding the sewing machine manual, twenty years after my mother mail-ordered it from Sears, reminded me of that. And of the time that will begin to unfold starting next May - a whole new era. Rex observed that impending parenthood pushes you toward a new kind of friendship - that you aren't just friends with people who think like you, but more and more frequently with people who have similar experiences to you (like parenthood, and now twin parenthood). It's another way of being connected backward and forward in time. For me, being pregnant (and our families' reaction to the pregnancy) has reminded me of the way that I am made from other people, that my body doesn't just belong to me but is part of something larger, and producing something larger - in fact now it even belongs in part to Rex's family, whom I didn't even know until I was over 30. Not that anybody has been obnoxious about anything, but rather that there is a little whiff of possessiveness that this whole situation brings to the fore. Sure, they're my children, but they're also Rex's children, and they're the grandchildren of four different people, and the cousins of some as yet hypothetical other children... and so ad infinitum. You can obscure these connections to some extent when you are a single person, but marriage and children tend to remind you of how they have really been there all along.

Surrounded by family

This weekend we finally broke the news to family and friends that we are expecting twins in May. After weeks and weeks of keeping our mouths heroically shut about it, we spilled our good news. It was an amazing experience, to be surrounded by such a rush of congratulations and warmth. From our colleagues to the members of our synagogue, everyone was overjoyed. Our families are farther away, but they sent their love from a distance too. It reminded me that we have the families we are born into, or marry into, and also those that we choose. We are surrounded by family near and far. For the babies to be born into such love and support is a wonderful thing. I think we are very fortunate.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Pate brisee

My mother has taught me many things over the years - far too many to count, of course, but among them are the tricks to making some things turn out really well: a good spaghetti sauce, a flat felled seam, a proper cake-style gingerbread. Many of these are food (cheesecake, hummus, mock boursin) and the techniques are often designed to allow one to eat well on a limited budget. But Thanksgiving allows me to rock two of the culinary skills I value particularly highly (not least because they are less than universal): flaky piecrust and gravy based on a roux made from pan drippings. For our Thanksgiving potluck, I'm making an apple pie to bring to our friends' house, where I'll take over the roasting pan and make the gravy. Himself is making two kinds of stuffing, his family's traditional Ashkenaz recipe, and a fancy one made like a savory bread pudding, with mixed mushrooms and parmesan.

My favorite gravy-making incident took place at the Salvation Army soup kitchen where my dad volunteers. I forget whether it was Thanksgiving or Christmas, but turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing and gravy were on the menu. I volunteered to make the gravy. There was a limited quantity of pan drippings, and we were worried about how far they'd stretch. I set a gigantic flat-bottomed roasting pan across three or four industrial gas burners, and scraped all the drippings in. I kept adding flour to the roux, then the potato cooking water to thin it out. It wasn't enough. More flour, more potato water - it still tasted good. We started to serve it. Not enough. More flour, more potato water, and still it tasted like turkey gravy. As far as we could tell we had discovered the bottomless pan of gravy. There ended up being enough for everyone plus the volunteers. Who knows, maybe we had been visited by the Gravy Fairy.

Sunday, November 22, 2009


Rex has been enjoying two television series on DVD lately, which are both acclaimed in their own way: "Mad Men," which is critically praised, and "Arrested Development," which was a cult hit. I find them both intolerable. Both are extremely well crafted, and Mad Men is also visually beautiful. But both demand that you take pleasure in watching people treat each other cruelly, and entrap each other in intolerable situations because of their unwillingness to tell the truth.

On the other hand, last night I rented two animated films, "Kung Fu Panda" and "Up." I watched them in that order but should have reversed it. Poor Rex, who was playing around on the computer while I watched, enjoyed "Kung Fu Panda," but found "Up" depressing for the way its story centers around loss. The central character is an elderly man, voiced by Ed Asner, who strikes out on an adventure that was once a dream he and his late wife shared; he does so at that particular moment because his house is threatened by development and he is threatened with being put in a nursing home. For me, and for many watchers of "Up," this poignancy is part of the sweetness of the story; but for Rex it was just depressing.

So I suppose I have to concede that I might be missing something in "Mad Men" as well. I'm reserving judgement on "Arrested Development."

Friday, November 20, 2009

Jiffy Lube

I got the oil changed in the car today, which always makes me think about my relationship to my vehicle. We don't drive much - less than 3,000 miles a year - since we commute by bicycle and live on an island that is 35 miles long. (This leads to unintentional humor when the AAA tries to sell us the gold membership by telling us that we can get a tow as much as 100 miles from home. If my car were 100 miles from my house, a tow truck wouldn't be much help.) And we're pretty frugal, so we didn't want to pay for any more car than we were going to use (for running errands and going to shul). So we drive a 1998 Corolla with 78,000 miles on it. This is low mileage for a nearly twelve-year-old car, and it's a Toyota after all, so it's been pretty reliable. Things wear out periodically - the radiator went a few months ago, but then it was the original radiator, and had reached the end of its usable life. It has some cosmetic issues (some small rips in the fabric of the ceiling, for example) but because we don't care, we got it for $1000 under blue book when we bought it three years ago. Generally speaking, it's a good car: reasonable if not stellar gas mileage (and we only fill it up once a month anyway), easy to park, and it's worth relatively little so the insurance payments are low.

The challenge is that it is the first car my husband and I have owned (the first we have owned together, and the first he has owned ever - I shared custody of a Honda Civic with my girlfriend N for about two years back in the early nineties, and my folks lent me their old Mazda for a year when I was in grad school and teaching all over Chicago). The point is that neither of us has very much experience owning an automobile. The result is that it can be very hard to tell, of the many strange noises a twelve-year-old Toyota can make, which are the ones we actually have to worry about. On top of this, there's the American culture of automotive competence. We are supposed to know something about our cars in a way that nobody necessarily expects us to know something about our computers. As it happens, himself and I both know more about our computers than about our car. But it makes interaction with auto mechanics - even the guys at Jiffy Lube - a little bit touchy sometimes. "Do you want a flush of your automatic transmission fluid today?" I don't know, do I? What counts as due diligence for a reliable but ancient old car you don't drive much? Usually I answer "No," and then I ask Mr. Noga (my mechanic) about it the next time I go in. He and his second-in-command, Scott, are extremely patient with me but I do end up feeling like they must roll their eyes at me as I am leaving.

Fortunately, after a few years of ownership, we are starting to get the hang of what needs to be taken seriously and what can be safely ignored. For instance, we know that the fact that the air conditioning doesn't really work is mitigated by the fact that you can always roll the windows down. And the windshield washer fluid system has never worked right (though the wipers are fine) and more recently has given up entirely. We suspect it would be expensive to fix, possibly involving replacement of the whole system. However, a roll of paper towels and a bottle of Windex in the back seat are extremely economical.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

In the watches of the night

I keep thinking about segmented sleep, which is what I seem to be getting lately. I can't decide whether it's work stress that's causing it, or whether the fact that I'm finally teaching medieval art next semester has caused me to revert to historically attested patterns. Clearly I should have my balance of humors checked.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

A few things worth looking at

Advanced Style. "Proof from the wise and silver-haired set that personal style advances with age."

Bio-Diversity. Surprising interpretations of autumn leaves.

Bent Objects. Delightfully insane visual gags constructed out of everyday objects. Recent entries are mostly about the release of the Bent Objects book, so go into the archives for a taste of the actual work.

Dogblog. Leashed dogs of San Francisco, with commentary that is at once dry, and also revealing of the author's deep love of dogs. My favorite entry: Dog in a Sidecar.

Sense of snow

Last night I picked up the alumni magazine from my high school - an elite preppie boarding school in New England which drew many international students - and saw a picture of a woman I'd known way back when. She came in the same year as me but came in as a sophomore when I was a freshman, so she was a year older. She was from Curacao, in the Netherlands Antilles, a place which at that time I'd never heard of. In the magazine, she was shown with another alumna from the same class, pushing their children on swings in a snowy backyard in Massachusetts, where she now lives. And I remembered that the earliest memory I have of her is of walking across campus in the dark of an early winter evening, coming back from the dining hall, with the first snow of the season falling. It was her first snow ever, and she looked up at it in wonder as it fell on her face in big fluffy clusters of flakes. "I thought it would be like little ice cubes," she said, amazed, as I, a lifelong veteran of many more severe winters than we ever had at school, looked on.

Now I want to write her and tell her that the tables are turned; I live on a tropical island and have learned as an adult about things she no doubt knew well as a child: about shade-promoting architecture and louvered windows, tile floors and cross-ventilation, about geckos in the house and mold in the closets and automotive roach abatement. I want to let her know that I finally know what cotton sweaters are for.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Neti pot: a verdict

It is a deeply strange thing to do. But boy, does my nose feel better. Allergies begone!

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Follow-up on the comose fig story

Finally, some movement! Now there is an online petition to save the comose fig on campus: it's located here and anybody can sign it. The Powers that Be have been notified and perhaps there will be some movement now. We're waiting to see.

The campus paper Ka Leo has also published an article on the threat to the tree.


I am allergic to our apartment. Or maybe to our immediate neighborhood, which is one of the wettest and therefore moldiest in the immediate area. You know something is not right when even a trip to the grocery store brings instant relief. I suspect mold as it's not the right season for mango pollen, which is the ragweed of the tropics in early spring. Mold, by contrast, is year-round. This is making working from home considerably less appealing than it might be otherwise; even my un-air-conditioned office is better for my nose than this. It's enough to make a person get air conditioning, if only for the air-filtering qualities.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Falling off the wagon; bat mitzvah time

Whoops! I didn't write a post yesterday. This would lose me my NaBloPoMo cred, except that I was slightly ahead of the game with some multiple posts from last week.

Today I went to shul and was surprised (not because it was unannounced, but because I'd forgotten today was the day) to find that it was the day for an adult bat mitzvah, for a member of the shul, in her sixties, who is herself already a grandmother. The parashah for today was "Chayyei Sarah," or "The Life of Sarah," and around this reading she organized a women's service, conducted entirely by the women of the shul. As it happens our most active leyners and service leaders are for the most part women, so it wasn't such a signal shift from the way things usually go. It was, however, a lovely service.

As someone who came to Judaism as an adult, and as someone whose friends' children are all mostly under ten, I haven't been to many bar or bat mitzvah celebrations. So it was news to me when Mordechai (a senior member of the shul and one of our most reliable Kohanim) came around with a basket full of what looked to be high-end Halloween candy. When the bat mitzvah finished her leyning, everybody suddenly pelted her with Ghirardelli chocolates, and she danced around the bimah while the shul's children scrambled for the goodies and we sang a song whose lyrics say "This is a joyous occasion not just for us, but for the whole people Israel."

Thursday, November 12, 2009

On language

Among the things I am proud of is the fact that I am fully bilingual in English, my first language, and (Mandarin) Chinese. And one of the ways I achieved bilingualism, along the way, was full immersion - throwing myself into the language wholesale, until at one point there were several years where I couldn't climb a flight of stairs without counting them off in Chinese, counting forward on my way up and backward on my way down. That was how I taught myself facility with numbers in Chinese. This meant not just thinking in Chinese as much as possible (I still dream in Chinese now and again, and I once had a roommate who claimed I spoke Chinese in my sleep, though I'm still not sure how she'd know), but also trying to get into the mindset behind idiomatic Chinese - not just thinking *in* Chinese, but thinking *like* Chinese, as it were.

But as I get older, I am less and less willing to throw myself into a culture and a mindset like this. Having as I do some rudimentary anthropological training, I am more and more aware of the weirdness of even claiming to be engaged in "total cultural immersion." I think part of the price of becoming bilingual the first time was a certain amount of self-othering, and I'm less and less willing to engage further in it. For this reason, I don't expect ever to become as proficient in a third language, although I continue to learn and use them, especially Japanese, German, and Hebrew. There is unlikely to be another moment in my life when I can dedicate so much headspace to language - although learning languages is one of my favorite things to do, and I sometimes wish I could do it again.

The other thing holding me back, oddly enough, is my deep and pervasive love for the English language. I delight in English, with its overstuffed vocabulary and ridiculous spelling conventions. My work requires a lot of writing and speaking, and I relish the time I spend wrangling words, sometimes more than I do the content of the words I'm wrangling. I love to read and speak Chinese, but so too do I love to read and speak English. I suspect sometimes that one of the things holding me back from pursuing further language study is an unwillingness to relinquish my deep engagement with English for the time it would take. I'm not exactly proud of this, but it's an interesting thing to realize about oneself.

Today's mantra

"I'm NOT getting a cold, I'm NOT getting a cold..."

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

How do you know?

One of the basic premises of all formal scholarship is that it is very difficult to really, really know something. We are taught to doubt our first impressions, gut reactions, instincts, and to look for proof (of facts), for reason and evidence (in support of arguments and interpretations), etc. We learn to be suspicious of any easy or obvious explanation, and to guard against oversimplification. And above all we're taught to be vigilant against the thing that we *hope* to be true, lest we unconsciously massage our research toward showing it to be true despite evidence to the contrary.

While I feel ultimately that such a rigorous model of knowledge is important and useful - I think much popular and civic discourse suffers from an insufficiently rigorous standard of knowledge, honestly - it can also be a personal handicap. We are in the process of buying a condominium, which would be our first owned home, and we are in the middle of home inspections and asbestos testing and reviewing the condo documents and all that entails. As a result, we are being asked to review and evaluate whole categories of information that we have never encountered before or are unequipped to readily understand. Despite the fact that we are two of the most overeducated people you could ever hope to meet, it is proving a challenge to draw conclusions from all this data, especially when they are (a) potentially expensive conclusions, (b) legally binding conclusions, and (c) made under deadlines that have to be met for the whole process to finish up by the closing date in late December. But add to that the intense consciousness of how ill-suited our experience and intellectual toolset is to the task we face, and the result (for me, although not necessarily for my extrovert husband) is a sense of deep trepidation.

I suppose the only comfort is the immortal words of Zorba the Greek: "To live is to ask for trouble."

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Brought to you by the number 40

Today is the fortieth anniversary of the first broadcast of Sesame Street! They're apparently celebrating with a special episode in which Michelle Obama plants carrots with Big Bird and Elmo, which almost makes me want to stay home and watch it. Amazing to think that Sesame Street has educated two or more generations of American kids. May it live on to see three.

Monday, November 9, 2009

More about the monarch butterflies

Apparently monarch butterflies in Hawai'i and other tropical places don't migrate because the climate is so mild year-round. But the best part about the monarch butterfly on O'ahu is that it is often found as a white morph, where the orange color of the normal butterfly is replaced with white. These white monarch butterflies are rapidly increasing as a proportion of the local monarch population, because apparently the birds which feed on monarchs around here (evidently there are in fact some birds that can tolerate the noxious taste of the monarch butterfly) don't recognize the white ones as a prey species. Awesome. Now I need to go out and find me a white monarch butterfly.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Thoughts while my neighbor is outside the window catching monarch butterflies

And why is it that we have monarch butterflies in the first place, what with it being 2700 miles over open ocean to the nearest continental land mass? Aren't monarch butterflies migratory?!?

I'm commenting on student paper drafts, an integral part of my process in the teaching of writing (in the context of art history). The first draft, I always say, is where things begin; not where they end. Students have a hard time believing this, having been trained that writing is something that you either do well, instinctively, or you don't ("can't") do. Balderdash. Anyhow, this kind of commenting work is labor-intensive but, I think, important. But here's the thing: I teach the same kind of writing every semester, but the students are always different. As a result, I find myself making the same comments, semester after semester, and thinking "Haven't you got this YET?!?!?" when of course these students are a totally different batch than the last round. (Except for that one guy who takes all my courses; he should really have the hang of it by now.)

Saturday, November 7, 2009


Happiness has many definitions. Today it meant driving to Costco along the water, under a Maxfield Parrish sunset, with my husband in the seat beside me alternately channelling Smokey Robinson and discoursing on the phenomenon of the tenor falsetto.

Friday, November 6, 2009


Today, while trying to FINALLY put together high-quality scanned images for an article I have coming out soon, I discovered that I can use my department's digital imaging lab to do some minor Photoshopping of my scanned images. This is handy enough but I am going to have to find many more reasons to do a lot of Photoshop, because the lab is AIR CONDITIONED. Which is more than I can say for my own gecko-infested office.

Meanwhile, I was trying to figure out what to make for Shabbat dinner. (A friend's Facebook suggestion: "Reservations!") And then himself pinged me on the computer and reminded me that we have a date for Korean barbecue with some friends. Awesome.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Rainy day

Here's why I didn't mind getting wet and muddy riding my bike in to school in the rain today:

manoa rainbow1

I took this picture from the lanai before I left the house at about 8:15 AM.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Credit where credit is due

No, really, I can say it...

Congratulations Yankees on the World Series win (sigh). Nice playing!

Ballot question 1

OK, I admit. My home state of Maine rocks significantly less today than it has in the past. Yesterday Maine voters narrowly approved a ballot measure to repeal the earlier order permitting gay marriage that had been signed by the governor earlier in the year. As with Prop 8 in California, this is immensely depressing but perhaps not surprising. The ludicrous idea that heterosexual marriages are somehow harmed by the existence of gay marriages has surprising tenacity, and it is also not news that conservative Christian movements want to legislate their narrow view of morality. Ta-Nehisi Coates, whom I am proud to call a friend in another context (*ahem* online video games), has an interesting perspective on the story read in light of the history of the civil rights movement.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009


Last night I dreamed that I was making some kind of brine-cured mixed-vegetable pickle, or maybe kimchee, in the middle of the night. The proportions of salt, sugar, and water (and for some reason liquid smoke) in the brine were causing me a lot of anxiety and every time I turned around I needed to run out for another ingredient. People kept dropping by with random bits of advice as to what I needed to put in for seasoning. Finally I got the brine boiling, the vegetables in jars, lined up on the counter in the totally fictitious kitchen where I was cooking (nominally my parents' kitchen), and as I poured the brine from the pan into the first jar, I was jolted awake by the clock radio, playing a choir singing a triumphal Baroque chorus. I'm not sure whether the universe was congratulating me for my successful pickle-making, or rescuing me from the tyranny of a dream in which it was somehow incredibly important that I get these pickles right.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Daylight saving time

Throughout the summer we are six hours away from East Coast time, and must calculate accordingly when calling the relatives or planning long flights. But we don't observe daylight saving time (the length of the day doesn't vary appreciably from winter to summer when you're close to the equator) and as a result, every November or so we magically move one hour closer to everybody we know out of state. It's as though the huge distances that separate us have somehow been reduced by a little bit, with no more than a wave of the hand.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Morning light

Yesterday I had cause to drive through the city on the freeway just after dawn. I don't usually do so - we do get up relatively early, but we don't commute by automobile and indeed don't get anywhere near the built-up parts of the city in an ordinary workday. I live in a city that's been the victim of extremely poor to nonexistent urban planning and incredibly uninspired architecture - we have all the variations of Poured Concrete Slab that you can possibly imagine (one-story shopping center with parking as frontage; two- or three-story walkup apartment building; block-shaped highrise), jammed together with the few wood-frame buildings that have survived the tropical climate and the termites, and the result is unharmonious and inefficient. For such a beautiful place, it can be awfully ugly, nothing gracious or lovely in the built environment, as if nature were the only source of beauty. But bathed in the light of a clear dawn, all the edges and angles of the apartment blocks were sharpened and defined to a shimmering clarity, and every dull concrete surface licked with gold. The sun was behind me and illuminated every surface rising above the elevated roadway, while beyond and below it the sea, still untouched by the light, lay dark and calm in the still morning. The only clouds in the sky were scudding white puffs over the water, distant on the horizon, as yet unlit by the sun, and seeming to move through a separate, predawn world.

National Blog Posting Month

A blog post every day for a month? Can I do it? Only the Shadow knows for sure...