Saturday, August 19, 2017


The ever-spot-on Tom Toles. (His caricature of the prez is all hairpiece, low brow and pouty-mouth.) Looking forward to the eclipse being over!

Friday, August 18, 2017

Rain tapestries

 My office windows aren't the soundest, but rain can be very pretty.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Wednesday, August 16, 2017


As our prez continues to undermine  the moral fabric of our culture and government, I found respite in doing something constructive: the double pleasure not just of making something tasty but of successfully recreating something you enjoyed in a restaurant! (The internet helped too, of course.)

Chop and sauté: onion, celery; red pepper, garlic; tomato paste; tomato; eggplant; let cool with capers, golden raisins, olives, vinegar.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Lerner's permit

It was back to familiar turf today, the first of three talks I'm giving on New School history as orientation activities for the new school year begin. Today was super early: I was presenting as part of training for the student fellows who will help with orientation of new students, the first of whom (some international students) arrive Thursday. Academic year 2017-2018 itself doesn't start for another thirteen days!

Of course I can't give the same talk twice (it's hard enough giving it once) so today's was a turbo-charged version of the talk I've given over the years to the first year fellows - also peers who assist incoming students in the transition to college - at Lang. But this was different. Lang students are only a part, not even the biggest part, of the incoming class. Most of the new students - and conceivably most of the Orientation Fellows - are Parsons students. So I couldn't just tell the usual story, where the New School starts up in 1919, has mishaps and adventures of various kinds with adults, artists and refugees before eventually being jolted into its final form by the body blow of the merger with Parsons from 1970! So I told a messier, truer story, where what makes us new now, what (ideally) makes our newness more than mere novelty-seeking, is the fact that we bring together quite disparate legacies which have only recently begun cross-pollinating. The progenitor to Parsons started in 1896! The New School, I extemporized, is the "umbrella," the framework for pedagogical exploration and innovation, but the family is bigger and more complicated than that.
Since these were students I was talking to, I also wound up emphasizing the contributions students have always made to this experiment. Before showing the always popular student updatings of the Orozco mural's now stodgy-seeming "Table of Universal Brotherhood" I talked about Gerda Lerner, whom we celebrate for having taught the first college course on women in American history in 1962. Our promotional story makes it seem like we reliably generate pathbreaking courses decade after decade from some central inspiration but the real story's more complicated, and more inspiring. Lerner's course was a trial balloon, and cancelled for low enrollment the first year it was offered - but The New School was willing to give it a second try, and then it flew. No central vision here, but an infrastructure for experimentation, and an awareness that change takes time. As important was knowing that Lerner was at the time a student here, completing her BA!

Monday, August 14, 2017

If the best is the enemy of the good, evil is the enemy of the wrong

A president shouldn't have to say "racism is evil." Indeed, saying it - not to mention two days after a racist rally set out to produce terror and mayhem, and generated the nation's first vehicular terrorist attack on a crowd of innocents - suggests he doesn't believe it. That's a word we reserve for the worst things, and this president clearly doesn't think racial thinking is one of the worst things.

"Evil" (as you know, this is something I've thought a lot about for a long time) names an outside threat, claiming for the namer a higher ground by fiat, an absolute purity. It arrests thought, silences opposition and undermes the possibility of engaging the vilified by anything but violent means.

Besides, this nano-president (I quite like that phrase used on "Morning Joe") depletes language by only ever using superlatives. He doesn't engage the middling world where we, and our moral reasoning, live. Reaching for hyperbole is what he does where others think.

Do you think he could just say "racism is wrong" - bringing it within the range of things that people like us might be implicated in, wittingly or unwittingly beholden to, might need to examine our hearts and lives for, might need to change our lives to address - and mean it? Make it a moral question, nor something safely metaphysical? Rejecting such moral reflection and self-awareness seems central to his political brand, and is central to his threat to our democratic culture.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Confronting white supremacy

It shouldn't need saying but it clearly does. White supremacy is America's besetting sin. It doesn't go away when denied but only goes deeper. It's deepened by suggesting parity between people bearing torches and Confederate and Nazi flags and those who show up to pray and protest in response. It's strengthened by the moral failure of a White House which normalizes domestic terrorism as part of some sort of long-term culture war, one where the white guys in polo shirts with tiki torches and Nazi slogans are just standing their ground... Shame. And sorrow. And resolve. We people who think we are white made this monster, as it has made us; it's our moral task to confront it. 

Friday, August 11, 2017

More kora

Perhaps I'm the only new yatri willing to supplement, perhaps supplant, my own Kailas kora experience with those of others. But how beautiful to keep discovering more, like this view, taken from the point, on the first day of the (three-day clockwise) kora, where you're closest to Kailas itself, shot by a non-PRC Chinese guy - his photo essay, "Kailash kora: washing away a lifetime's bad karma," is written in traditional characters: 岡仁波齊 轉山 . 洗盡一生的罪業 . Nice to be reminded that the part of the kora's sense of epic significance is the great variety of mountain formations you encounter on your way, including some that are so strangely shaped as to pretty much force you to tell some sort of story about them. This traveler has a good eye for these, and had great luck with weather and light. His 4.5 minute kora is worth a try.

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

New yatris

My latest piece on Kailas (so far there have been a few talks, one five minutes long, and another soon to appear in a volume of photographs one of our party took last year) is going to be rather playfully structured. Its subject is people (including me) for whom Kailash, and the trip there and around it, don't have a set, given meaning, as arguably they do for those Tibetans who come circumambulate, and those Saivites who come seek darshan of the god. The experiences of these people - new yatris, I might call us - are worth considering, I argue, because there are more and more of us, and because negotiating between the needs and desires of the more fixed and the more exploratory visitors will be an increasing challenge as Kailash becomes a more accessible world religions tourist site.

This point is a little different from that of Alex McKay, who laments the 20th century framing of Kailas by "world-religions" discourse. It functioned before, as most sites in the Himalaya did, in much more local ways, defined by idiosyncratic "renunciates" and existing well beyond the reach of organized systems of ritual and scripture. The idea that Hindus and Buddhists have since time immemorial been making their way there is itself part of this modern framing, McKay argues. (It seems some think his argument exaggerated and wilfully ignorant of local-language literatures. I found my way to the new yatris - I originally called them "yatris of the future" - in part as a way of referring to McKay's historicizing without pretending to be able to assess it.)

Whoever the yatris of the past were, and of more distant pasts, more and more of the yatris of the future will be different from them. Even those who hail from the Hindu and Tibetan world will be engaged in something new, and understood in new terms (perhaps including heritage, nature, spirituality). But those from farther afield, from China, Russia, the West... we are the most uncontroversially new yatris. While some of us may be devotés of one of the historic traditions for which Kailash is important, most will be coming to a place known to have great spiritual significance for many other people. "You are trekkers," I will never forget a South Indian man in a red duffle coat passing me at Dolma La saying as he looked down from his pony, "we are pilgrims."

The "mountain sacred to four religions" description names the trekker's awareness, and I'm coming to think that only really means something for the new yatris. Old yatris encountered people from other traditions, sure; that's common enough across Asia. A few of them might have triangulated from this (the way Bernbaum thinks encountering different religious accounts of a place refreshes our depth experience of its "sacred mystery") but most were presumably some kind of uninterested inclusivist: others rightly sensed there was something going on here but didn't get the whole picture. There was nothing to learn from their misconception. (You wouldn't make the arduous trip just to find out if something was really going on there, if Shiva really had his abode there, if it really was the crystal palace of Denchog!) (On the other hand, this didn't mean the misconceptions of others were dangerous and needed rooting out, just uninteresting.)

The new yatri is a pluralist - which in many cases (as Tomoko Masuzawa forcefully argued) is universalism under another name, but might (also) include all manner of seeker openness. Each of the different takes on the mountain seems potentially significant, even if none of them can be taken as final. (The closest to final might be what each person gets from their encounter with the mountain.) The experiences of other yatris, new and old, are an object of fascination. Old yatris arrived with manuals telling them what a properly primed mind and heart would be permitted to perceive. The new yatri knows there are many manuals. She might think minds and hearts can be primed to perceive different realities, but hasn't come in search of only one of these realities.

Now have I any evidence for my claims, and especially for the gross generalization that all these "new yatris" have structurally similar experiences? Not a lot. But also not just nothing (or nothing but my own inchoate gut feelings). Since returning from my second kora last year I've watched more than my share of videos and read more than my share of accounts of other new yatris. With faux modesty I'll say I'm just discussing those which I found most interesting, but they should add up - as they have for me - to a vivid sketch of this emerging breed.

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

Eyes on the street

The flowers in our window box are comparing notes with the blooming Japanese pagoda/Chinese scholar trees down the street. Let's hope all beings keep watch over errant humanity in this frightening moment.