Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Muy bonito

1491, described in the post below, is an important book but not a perfect one. For one thing, the cultures of the American west are barely mentioned. How could Mann write that Cahokia (opposite the Mississippi River from present-day St. Louis and little more than a bunch of mounds) was the only city north of the Rio Grande when there's Chaco Canyon's wonderful and mysterious Pueblo Bonito? (I found this lovely picture here.) Sure, it's only one book and Mann has the developments of over 10,000 years of an entire hemisphere to cover, but the Anasazi aren't so much as mentioned! Definite East Coast bias, here!

Monday, July 30, 2007

Cultural cringe

While in Australia I gained a new understanding of indigenous cultures and their relationship with land, and vowed it would change my approach to the native peoples of the Americas. I also learned the term "cultural cringe," which describes what settler Australians used to feel when they went to the colonial metropole. Well, my first effort to deepen my awareness of the former has led to a vicarious experience of the latter!

I recently finished reading Charles C. Mann's 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus (Vintage, 2005), an important book which brings together decades of research on Precolumbian cultures which has somehow failed to find its way into common knowledge. Most Americans - including yours truly - still picture the Americas at the time of first contact (another Australian term, I think) as sparsely populated by hunter-gatherers, except for the improbable city-states of the Aztec and Inca, even if we sort of know that European diseases wiped out huge numbers of people. Well, how wrong can you be? The Americas were teeming with people, many in complex urban cultures, some of which built on urban traditions as old as if not older than the first urban cultures of the "old" world. And the landscape, far from being wild, was in many areas modified and maintained by human populations - just like in Australia. The ideal of wilderness so important in the US describes what happened to the land when the traditional custodians of the land (another Australianism!) had been wiped out by disease and displacement - as much as a fourth of the Amazon turns out to have soil improved by human ingenuity, too, and to be so full of fruit trees because they were planted there. The book is an education! (There's a fairly detailed summary of the book in wikipedia.)

I should have known all of this. Indeed, weirdly, I did know a fair amount of it piecemeal (my Japanese friends know all about American injustices to the Indians), but my overall picture hadn't really absorbed them. My paradigm hadn't shifted from the old one which was our version of the legal monstrosity invented to justify European claim on Australia, terra nullius. It has now. And I feel something like the cringe the Spaniards must have felt (at least some of them) arriving in Mexico or Peru, encountering cities grander and more populous and cleaner than anything in Europe. The continent's a graveyard. (Not that much didn't somehow survive anyway.)

And - this will sound strange, I suppose - there's nothing new about this world at all. Sure, human beings arrived here long after they had settled Africa, Eurasia and Australia - but at that time none of us were doing much of anything. The earliest city in human history may have been built in Norte Chico, north of present-day Lima, arising out of agriculture - yes - but from the domestication of cotton (for fishing nets and textiles), not food.

Over the course of my year in Melbourne I occasionally (more often than I admitted in this blog) felt that Australia was another planet, albeit one very successfully made over to feel just like home. Now it is my own continent (hemisphere!) which seems another planet, and we but adventitious interlopers... Erich van Daniken in reverse: the extraterrestrials who destroy civilization rather than bring it.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Not castles,

Today was the U. S. Sandcastle Open. It took place in Imperial Beach, as close to Mexico as you can get from here without leaving the United States, and it seems like everyone in San Diego was there - on the beach or circling around looking for parking. I found the entries - built by teams in five hours starting this morning - a pretty under- whelming lot in situ, smallish and unambitious. The most common motifs were coiling things like octupi, giant squid and dragons - easy to make, where's the challenge? Few were castles or otherwise architectural - I was looking forward to gables and drawbridges and winding staircases and impossibly ornate arcades, perhaps because a group of people made a remarkable 3-meter-high model of Mont Saint-Michel on a beach just north of here a few years ago. (I suppose it took them more than a few hours.) The cleverest of today's entries was this double-sided Mount Rushmore.
I've posted three other pleasing entries in the next post ... funny, they look more impressive in photos than they did in life. They seemed diminutive compared to people crowding around, many of whom made the biker pigs in "The three pigs: the revenge" (see below) look slim.

Sand sculptures

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Yes, Dr. Seuss it is.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Cathedral of learning

Yesterday's mystery pic was a detail of the wonderful library of UCSD, the University of California at San Diego, perched atop Torrey Pines a few miles south of here. It's a lovely place to study: since the shelves of books fan out from the center, you're always looking out into the surrounding eucalpytus forest. I used to come here as a high school student and listen to music, back in the old days when the music collection was all LPs and I had, believe it or not, a small yellow motorcycle - are my parents cool or what?

Since then, the USCD campus has grown by leaps and bounds - lots of new construction this summer too - and the library's spread underground. And it's been named (or renamed) Geisel Library, after Dr. Theodore Geisel, a famous local writer. Anyone know what he was famous for, and under what name?

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Mystery pic

What's this?

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Carbon (or is it guilt) offset

I don't know about you folks in the northern hemisphere, but the year I just spent in drought-stricken Australia was enough to make me go green. Global warming no longer seems a question but a reality. We've got to do what we can to stop producing greenhouse gases!

Easy to say if you live like a tribal Aborigine. Very hard to say if you're a globe-trotting cosmopolitan like myself, for there's no worse thing to do than fly (even though I use public transport for everything else). While in Australia this was a sort of theoretical problem for me - I pondered the bad karma of the poor antipodean who not only had to travel long and expensively to get most places, but had to add to global warming everytime s/he did so. Now that I'm sort of an honorary member of the Australasian diaspora - worse, in a way, since I don't have to go there every year from here on in, though I'd like to - it hits home. So what to do?

One option is so-called carbon offset: determine how much CO2 you cause, and pay to cancel it out, either through planting of trees or contributing to the development of green energy sources. It's controversial, I gather: it may not deter people who can afford to pay for the offset from doing things needing offsetting (rather the way Papal indulgences became a way to sin more easily). Many carbon offsetting hucksters exist, too, who will take your money but it'll never find its way to tree-planting or green energy.

I decided to trust the organization recommended by the Social and Economic Justice Committee at my church, http://www.nativeenergy.com/. And I've done it: I've paid off the 10.2 tons of carbon (!!!) produced by the 20,742 miles of my round trips New York-Melbourne and now New York-California. It cost $132, a satisfying amount. (When I checked some sites I found on my own the other day it came to about $5 for New York-San Diego one way, which seemed too slight to have any effect, absolving or deterrant.)

Was this a silly thing to do? A fool and his money, no? Better than the fool spending the money on more air travel? And I'm no Dostoyevsky: I'm not likely to hop on cheapo flights just for the thrill of then offsetting the carbon. But will it make me travel less?

(The photo has nothing to do with this subject; it's just some very beautiful wild flax - my father tells me it's called Mountain or San Diego Mahogony - I found in a nearby canyon a few hours ago.)

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Paper thin

I picked up a copy of the Los Angeles Times today. It's shrunk! Like the Wall Street Journal and soon (I believe) the New York Times, it's narrower than it used to be. It feels like a toy paper. And when you try to do that complicated annoying page-turning thing, folding it inside out, all the fun is gone. I suppose you're less likely to hurt someone standing nearby, but it feels cramped, like being stuck in a crowd, even when there's nobody around. All the bother with none of the grandeur. Never again will holding the newspaper open let you stretch your arms out wide. Gone forever that delirious moment where the newspaper opens up like a spinnaker to completely efface the world around you...

Speaking of the Los Angeles Times (which I generally consult online), a few days ago they carried a long and fascinating article by William Lobdell, a reporter who covered religion for the paper for eight years - he was excited at the possibility of showing the generous heart of religion and not just the scandals usually covered by the mainstream media - but has now asked for another beat. In the article Lobdell recounts how having to cover the shenanigans of prosperity gospel televangelists undermined his faith as an Evangelical, and how covering the clergy abuse scandal in the diocese of Los Angeles and beyond slowed and finally arrested his movement towards becoming a Roman Catholic.

It's a story of disillusionment and sadness - there's no triumph in his new-found scepticism - which, in today's issue (but not yet online), generated some quite interesting responses from readers. It shows that even a well-intentioned journalist will end up focusing only on religion's ugly side, says one. It's an honest confession that a thinking person cannot stay religious, says another. It's proof that human institutions will always disappoint us, but that God uses them to test our faith, says another...

Monday, July 23, 2007


Here are two pictures of one of the hummingbirds who zoom at unbelievable speed around my parents' garden. There are two hummingbird feeders, and a pair of hummingbirds jealously guard them against marauders in aerial maneuvers which would put the air force to shame.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Well groomed

P and D, two very dear friends of mine, are getting married today! Well, technically, they're married already - the deed was done in the Chateau Frontenac in Quebec a few weeks ago. Today is just the Blessing of their Union. But since they are both churchgoers the religious ceremony is no afterthought.

"Churchgoers" may be the understatement of the century. P is an Episcopal priest, and in that priestly way he's been marrying people for years... (He celebrated the 40th anniversary of his ordination last year.) But now, finally, he gets to get married.

"Aren't you going to ask what it feels like?" P asked me the other day. I suppose that should have been the first question I asked (especially when you actually like the people your friends are marrying, and in this case I love them both) but I never go straight to the point. In any case, before I could finish saying "I was getting there" he told me. He hadn't expected it to make such a big difference, but it did. Enormous, and subtle too. D spoke of "waves of joy."

And, P said, it's got him thinking in a new way about singleness, and the church's failure to acknowledge and value it. This struck me as a bit odd at the time - surely he's known many many single people over the years, many of his friends were and are single - but as I've thought it over it sort of makes sense. In the ages before it was a possibility to get married, all gay people in the church were in a kind of limbo (even in churches where gay people didn't have to pretend to be single). The church recognized partnerships no more than did the state, so everyone was de facto single - at least no institution had recognized anyone's movements beyond that. You could make a commitment to another person but to the church it was as if nothing had happened.

Now, with states (a few) and churches (a few) licensing and blessing gay unions, new possibilities open up. Not just the possibility publicly and before God to declare your love and make your commitment to a partner - the obvious (and wonderful!) one. But also - I think this must be what P was getting at - in some analogous way the possibility of asserting and receiving recognition for status as single. Not single-by-default. Not single-because-we-recognize-no-commitment-you-could-make. Definitely not single-nudge-nudge-wink-wink. But single-by-choice. Single before God and man. It's an interesting thought, like and unlike the vows of celibacy which some have seen as the only Christian alternatives to marriage...

But this is your day, Peter and David. Congratulations and much love!

Friday, July 20, 2007

You can't cross the same ocean twice

I'm back on the Pacific again! As my father and I drove down towards the ocean from Torrey Pines, on the way back from the airport in San Diego, I was thinking of the last time I saw the Pacific surf - in Sydney, not much more than three weeks ago. (Returning the favor, I suppose: at Bondi Beach I felt that the surf was familiar.) I grew up aware of Asia on the other side of the horizon, but my gaze never dipped below the Equator. I've lost my northern hemispheric innocence!

This picture is from a book by contemporary Chinese artist Hong Hao called "Selected Scriptures"; this is page 2123, and is one of the most successful of its many attempts to deconstruct the familiar map of the world. I've only seen this on line, but discovered it there because my interest was piqued by some works of his included in a lovely exhibition of representations of journeys, landscapes and maps now on in the Met's Chinese galleries. Much of that unfamiliar land mass is in fact the Pacific, inverted east/west and land/sea.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Flowering narcissus

You'll have gathered (I must have mentioned it in this blog at some point) that my friend C and I are team-teaching a course on Religion & Theater, starting in September. We've spent much of the last week working on our syllabus, which has given me an excuse to read lots of plays. What fun! Some are revelations, like Stephen Adley Guirgis' The Last Trial of Judas Iscariot, the play with which we'll close our course. Some are too weird or too old-fashioned, like T. S. Eliot's fascinating The Cocktail Party. And then there's things so weird and old-fashioned that it almost seems we need to confront students with them.

Case in point, The Divine Narcissus, an "auto sacramental" by 17th century Mexican nun Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (that's her at right with the mongo brooch), which I just finished reading this morning. To my religious studies eyes it's an absolute marvel, an audacious and in its way remarkably successful act of theological appropriation of pagan myth, just what you'd want on Corpus Christi in colonial Mexico. The real Narcissus is Christ, willing to die for love of his image - Human Nature - in the fountain of the Virgin (and the true Echo is Satan)! To our students, however, it will seem like the worst kind of intolerance and imperialism - especially if they read the opening "Loa" in which the figures of America and her Aztec husband Occident are cajoled and threatened into accepting Christianity by Religion and her thuggish conquistador husband Zeal!

And yet, sometimes it's a reason to assign something that it's something students would never in a million years otherwise get a chance to read, let alone to understand. You know, knock their little worlds, or - as a friend of mine in grad school used to put it - watch the little gerbbil brains race. No question that it will be - if we dare assign it - fun to explore with students the possibilities opened up by typology (Ovid had long been mined for proto-Christian messages) quickened by an assertive view of transubstantiation. Here's a little taste, after the Divine Narcissus dies for his love of Human Nature, and returns in triumph.

He arranged to leave
a reminder and a sign
in memory of his death,
as a pledge of his affection. ...

He wanted to remain
as a white flower,
so that his absence would
not be cause for apathy.

No wonder it flourishes today,
since in times past in his writings
he called it flowers of the fields,
and lily of the valley.
In white dress is its veil
over his loving designs,
a disguise to the gross
cognition of the senses
He wanted to remain hidden
in ermine white
to assist as a lover,
vigilant and zealous.
Who, as the soul’s spouse,
is jealous of her wanderings,
spying on her from windows,
lying in wait around corners.
Generous as he is,
he stayed to grant new favors.
but did not want to give a gift
that was not beneficial.
He showed his love
with loving extravagance.
He did everything he could
the one who could do anything he wanted.
As food for our souls he remains,
generous and kind,
nourishment for the just,
poison for the guilty.

(The float with the fountain appears.
Next to it a chalice with a host on top of it.)

See from the clear fountain’s
crystalline edge has come
the beautiful white flower
of which the lover says:

This is my body and my blood
martyred so many times
for you. Repeat this
to commemorate my death.

Surely the brazenness of the appropriation is part of Sor Juana's intention. Indeed, not appropriation but decoding. Should we do it? The original is apparently a masterpiece of Spanish poetry, not something you really feel in this translation. Does it tell us anything important about theater and religion, the religion of theater, the theater of religion? Perhaps...

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Rubber and glass

I'm off to California day after tomorrow, returning August 14th. My in-and-out fortnight in New York looks like it's achieved all I hoped it would. I've found a place to live, updated the syllabus of one course and nearly worked out the syllabus of the another, which I'm team-teaching. I've met up with many old friends, run across several colleagues, students and ex-students whom I'm glad to have seen again, seen some movies, and even found time to be nostalgic about Australia.

I've told my colleagues that I'm not really back yet and would rather stay out of the loop for another month, but it hasn't always worked. You may have heard me refer to the New School as the So New It's Getting Old School - well, that clearly hasn't changed. Loads of brilliant new half- solutions to vaguely defined problems... I'm still hoping that if I stay out of the loop another month things will have righted themselves, or at least returned to more or less where they were when I left! Oh well...! Perhaps there's some consolation to be had in these wise words from our Director of Budget and Administration as he heads off for his vacation:

I wanted to say, that as we start the new fiscal year, I am proud to be a part of a great group of people to work with, and most of all, I can honestly say that the flexibility the University possesses in its management will make it stand far ahead of other places. Mistakes happen, and along side of that excellent results, which blend for an interesting scenario of mostly good news for the university, its employees and students. Flexibility and trust is the key to good morale, and I know, although difficult to accept sometimes,does have its advantages, like rubber over glass.

You're only as happy as you want to be (and vice versa).

"Rubber"? "Vice versa"?

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Snow in July!

This, believe it or not, is the the street off which my sister lives! It is winter down there, of course, in that land I left not a fortnight ago but which now - especially seeing these wintry scenes! - feels like it's a planet of its own, spinning on a different orbit though around the same sun... If only I could hop a Space Shuttle and be there as my younger nephew discovers snow, the elder rediscovers it, and my sister sighs in relief, "it's so nice to have seasons again!"

I'm sore tempted to post the picture of my nephews bundled up and playing in the snow, but (as you'll have gathered) I won't trust the blogosphere with pictures or names of loved ones, especially theirs. (If you want to see the picture send me an e-mail and I'll see what I can do.)

Monday, July 16, 2007


Had an archetypal New York experience today - went to see Woody Allen's classic "Manhattan" (1979) in a new print at the Film Forum with old friends K and F. I'd only seen it once before, the eve of my prelims at Worcester in 1985. At that point I was close in age to 17-year-old Tracy (Mariel Hemingway); now I'm a year from the age of Isaac (Woody Allen)! The film didn't exhilarate me as I'd expected - it seemed long and the characters less interesting than we were supposed to think. But - K and F convinced me - this may be because these characters have become such types of New Yorker existence: some people may be like that already, and others come to New York to become that way!

Instead I marveled at the cinematography, brilliant use of black and white with the action moving from one edge of the screen to another in ever striking ways. Almost every scene is like the famous one above. The movie poster and its most famous still is cut from the middle of the right half, but the sublimity of the scene comes from the rest.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Friends in the papers

My soon-to-be-flatmate T has an article in the Op-Ed section of today's New York Times! It's one of the arguments from his latest book, The Zen of Fish: The Story of Sushi from Samurai to Supermarket. Very exciting!

But I learned of something even more exciting yesterday, also involving a newspaper (and other media, too!). P, the husband of my friend C, just had a stunning experience, thanks to the Times of Rio de Janeiro, O Globo. P is a photographer and human rights educator who's worked in several countries including Brazil. He collects "found photographs" and a few years ago, in a flea market in Rio, found a stack of photographs of people at Ipanema Beach.

Small format and now sepia-toned black and white, they seem to have been taken in 1962 and 1963. Most are of beautiful women, but there were also two self-portraits in a mirror, and a picture of a man in a dentist's office. P somehow managed to track down the dentist in question, and learned that the photographer - who had been his patient, had polio, and lived in the same building - had recently passed away. Eventually 4000 more photographs turned up.

P has put a few dozen of the photos into an exhibition for the Photography Biennale in Rio. The exhibition is called "A Última Hora do Verão," the last hour of summer, which P explains as referring to three things: it was the last year before the arrival of Kodacolor pictures, it was the year before the world discovered Ipanema, and - most poignantly - it was the year before the coup d'état which led to two decades of military rule. In every way it was the end of an era - though nobody could have known it would end, or how.

Anyway, P struck a nerve with this exhibit. O Globo featured some of the pictures on its front page (and more in its glossy Sunday magazine), putting all of them on a website (which I haven't been find, though I know it was in the June 24th issue; these pics I found here). Within a day, the paper received e-mails from people who recognized (or were!) some of the women in the photographs; by the next day, every single person in the photos had been identified, and O Globo gave half of another front page to a photo of two women from the photos, then and now.

The whole thing is so wonderful, so moving - and, P reminds, so political - that he's been asked to make a documentary film about it. I can hardly imagine what fascinating conversations he will have with these women, hearing how their lives changed (or didn't) once the verão ended...

(PS This was my first time to try Babelfish, the free internet translator - named of course after a denizen of Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. It worked perfectly in helping me get the Portuguese name of P's show.)


The deed is done - I'm to be a Brooklynite! Here's a satellite view of the five boroughs of New York City. Brooklyn is lower center. Notice two big green splotches. The one slightly to the right is Prospect Park, and just above it is the neighborhood named Prospect Heights, my new home. By subway it's directly linked to southern Manhattan, so closer to where I work than, say, the Upper West Side.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Too grand

Can you believe I've never been to the New York Public Library before? I'd long meant to go, but it was never urgent enough. Well, my many happy hours at the State Library of Victoria finally motivated me to make it there yesterday. Together with lovely Bryant Park, the NYPL occupies a two-block area which used to hold a water reservoir for the southern part of Manhattan. It's a Beaux Arts building like the best of them; it has huge faux-Renaissance ceilings, some painted with pink clouds and others with mythological scenes; there's so much marble it might give the Taj Mahal a run for its money. The main reading room is up a giant-sized staircase to a "third floor" which is really a ninth floor. (The picture below, which I found online, confirms this.) It's all very, very grand.

Could it be too grand? Compared to the SLV, which feels like a natural extension of the street life of Swanston and Lonsdale, the NYPL feels like a fortress, indeed like a great ship - an ark! - far removed from the street below. Great treasures are here made available to anyone (good on ya!), but it's clearly a treasure chest. A mighty temple to learning, to the supreme importance of books and knowledge, their care and their distribution: what's not to like? And yet it felt strangely disproportionate, even more so than the national libraries it evokes. A great hall like this is perfect for an opera house, or a museum. But books seems so quintessentially private, intimate... Why the monumental mass?

I know, I know; as a teenager I too I sought refuge in a library (the magic mushroom at UCSD) which seemed to offer an escape from a cruel and barbarous world. And I've spent many hours in the vast acreage of the new Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris (arrayed around its weird captive forest), enchanted by the sense of being a worker bee in the great hive of knowledge. (Unlike the NYPL and SLV, only scholars are allowed in there.) And besides, once you get the book you're looking for, even if it's not rare and hasn't been used by famous people in the past, the rest of the world vanishes... doesn't really matter where you are. All that is true. But for a sense that these books are now, as they always have been, also part of the world... I commend the SLV!

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Beautiful New York day

You'll have gathered that our heat wave has broken. (I was caught in the breaking, drenched yesterday evening by a downpour which wouldn't stop!) And so today was one of those lovely summer days when New York City seems like it must be the most wonderful place in the universe. How could I have doubted that it makes sense to stack so many people on top of each other in so narrow a place? When the air's clear and the sky a jewel blue you become aware of the air between the tall buildings as if it were a giant fresh-water lake - why not share the pleasure with the strangers along the busy, beautiful lakefront?

So, what did I do to take advantage of the glorious weather? Well, I walked through Chelsea in the morning, had an improvised lunch of aged chêvre, fresh baguette and raspberries with my mathematician friend J in the courtyard of our college, strolled through Washington Square Park in the mid-afternoon to the NYU library (to watch some videos for the course on "Religion & Theater" class I'm teaching with my friend C this coming semester), from the library along Bleecker Street past coffee-lover's paradise Porto Rico to Sixth Ave., where I took a bus all the way up to 72nd St., from where I walked up Broadway to my friends' place (stopping for a quick dinner at Ollie's Noodles - their "juicy small buns" are a good approximation of my great discovery in Taiwan). When I arrived at my friends' building the sky to the east was an opulent royal blue, but to the west out the window there was still color, as you can see. (No final confirmation on Brooklyn digs, in case you're wondering, but it seems a near certainty.)

Where to live?

This is the view out the window of the place I'm staying - on the 19th floor of a landmarked tower on the Upper West Side, looking out over the mighty Hudson toward the George Washington Bridge and the Tappan Zee.

It'd be nice to live on the Upper West Side and sort of archetypal but it's not an option - the people I know who live here all moved in twenty years ago or more. Besides, I've set my sights on Prospect Heights! Indeed, I might by this evening have confirmation of a dream of a place an old friend of one of my Melbourne friends is leaving. I'll tell you all about it when as and if - wouldn't it be awesome if Melbourne found me a place in Brooklyn?!

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Old and new

I've been back to school the last two days to work out my syllabi for the coming semester, and have been having some very sweet reunions with friends and colleagues. Those with friends were planned and the sweetness expected. But those with other colleagues were unplanned and sweet in other ways. More in a way than my friends - whom I could e-mail and phone from Melbourne, and did - it's these other people I've been mutely missing: being part of a world of people who care about the same pedagogical things, laugh at each other's jokes, share dance and movie recommendations, and occasionally lunch together. You couldn't live off just such friendships, I don't think, but they do enrich life considerably! It's good to be ... home!
By the way, this is the rather frenetic image produced from the New School's latest makeover. Presumably it's not supposed to convey a sense of panic that one has missed the train - or is about to be run over!

Monday, July 09, 2007

Where the spirit moves

"Ratatouille" wasn't the only highlight of yesterday (Sunday). I also went back to the Church of the Holy Apostles, "my church" I suppose. It was lovely! I'd forgotten what it sounds like when a congregation of well intentioned people with American vowels sings all four parts of a hymn - at St. Peter's, only the choir gets the SATB score. (I did catch myself doing Australian vowels at various points: poth rather than path, Lohhhd rather than Lowered, etc.!) And I'd forgotten what it sounds like to hear a sermon preached by a woman.

I'm not sure what it is about Holy Apostles that so appeals to me. I'm not actually close to very many people there, though it's nice to see familiar faces (and more than I expected welcomed me back like the prodigal son). I like the liturgy but even more I think experiencing liturgy in a space which has several lives - Mondays through Fridays the Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen serves 1300+ lunches in the same space where we worship on Sunday, and, on Friday nights, Congregation Beth Simchat Torah. This multi-purposiveness is "New York City" to me (though most other places do it serially, or out of financial necessity) but also religiously meaningful: a sacredness maintained and even enhanced not by cordoning itself off from the profane but by welcoming it in.

The window (you can just make out Descent of the Holy Ghost in the lettering above) is one of Holy Apostles' jewel-like rondels, stacked three high around the otherwise white church; click on it to see the central etching (?) and how it's bravely holding on despite having been shattered at some stage in its long history.

Sunday, July 08, 2007


Found a delicious way to escape the 95 degree heat this afternoon: I checked out Pixar Studios' newest animated film "Ratatouille." And it's absolutely fantastic! I can't remember the last time an audience gasped and clapped in delight at a film - or the last time I was physically bouncing up out of my seat in something close to rapture.

A film about a rat who becomes a celebrated Parisian chef doesn't sound promising, I know (I was apprehensive) and then when you find all the characters talking like Americans it seems worse (I was worried). But this is Pixar, the most inspired studio out there. Along with some Japanese animators they're the best argument for the artistic potential of animation. And they're the best proof that G-rated films force film-makers to be smarter and funnier than even PG-13.

And they've done it again. "Ratatouille" is a marvel and a delight. To enjoy this film you don't have to like animation, fine food, rats - or even Paris. Go see it if you've a chance. As the Michelin Guide might say, it vaut le voyage.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Wonders of seven

PS Did you hear that a new list of the Seven Wonders of the World has been assembled, based on 100 million votes from around the world? It's Chichen Itza, the statue of Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro, the Great Wall of China, Macchu Pichu, Petra, the Colosseum and the Taj Mahal. (Who were those 100 million?) The list was unveiled today, an auspicious day for fans of the number seven: did you notice that?


The great New York put-down (I've used it myself on numerous occasions) is that some place or thing or person is overrated. With respect to NYC itself, however, you deplore how the place has ceased to be itself, lost its edge or its soul, its grub or its sparkle. I indulged in a bit of that yesterday, and could continue in that vein, having seen a few more architecturally worthless "boutique" condominium towers today, including the southwest corner of Union Square, which used to be busy with shoppers and strollers but has now been withdrawn from public circulation by a building of terrible banality. The problem isn't just that the buildings are unattractive, but that they somehow lack conviction. Instead of boldly (or humbly) asserting itself as a whole, as what for better or worse it is, each of these buildings dives the space it takes up into smaller glass bits and stone bits and concrete bits and metal bits as if the building is hemming and hawing, uncertain that it can or should actually fill the space. (Quite possibly the problem is with the developers rather than the architects; these gawky buildings unwilling to assert themselves as wholes may be the logical conclusion of building condos.)

However, going on a Saturday food shop with my friends J & A today I found myself more in the overrated territory. They've just come back from five months in Bologna (J on a Fulbright at the University, A taking time off from her work as a lawyer for the Children's Law Center) and they're in acute withdrawal from Italian food culture. In the markets in Bologna, they said, the people know the fruits and vegetables they're selling. They'll advise you on which tomatoes to buy for whatever you're planning to cook. And they have nothing which isn't for eating today or - carefully distinguished - tomorrow. Not like here, where even the "organic" produce (whatever that means these days) seems indifferently mass-produced - and tomatoes don't taste like tomatoes!

Even the famous (to foodies) Union Square Farmers' Market was not the real thing for them. While I thought we picked up all sorts of delicious-looking vegetables (ruby-red radishes, zucchini flowers, young broccoli florets, rainbow chard, black cherries, heirloom tomatoes, two-colored corn, etc.), they frowned grimly through the whole thing.

Dinner (delicious) was resignedly American - the corn, a cucumber salad with scallions and grape tomatoes, and a slab of sirloin grilled to perfection, though it was served finely sliced and sprinkled with fresh rosemary and olive oil, hardly the American way! (I found a yummy non-American wine to go with it, a shiraz from - of all places! - Bendigo.)

I'm accustomed to thinking of New York as food heaven - yummy fresh produce, fresh cheeses from all around the world, etc., etc. - and it's certainly a cut above what you'll find in many other parts of the country (or so we believe). But today it felt like a hardship mission.

I remember Japanese friends saying that vegetables in the US are watery because they're grown past their natural size, European sneers at American bread, and Australian contempt for American lamb. Noticing the latest brands of spice rubs and simmering sauces at Fairway (my favorite market in NYC) and Citarella this afternoon I did wonder if we're so devoted to sauces because our raw materials aren't as flavorful as those of more deeply rooted gastronomic cultures...

Friday, July 06, 2007

Stomping grounds

I'm sitting here in the Jefferson Market branch of the New York Public Library, one of Manhattan's few surviving Victorian gothic buildings. (It was a market and police station and a women's prison before its present incarnation as a library.) (Picture source.) And I'm in shock! I wandered around the neighborhood where I lived 2002-6 and in just a year many things have changed. The building I lived in has been repainted, from mud brown to cement grey - it remains the ugliest building in the city! But new ugly buildings are rising all around. And in the space next to my favorite neighborhood cafe, Paradise, a row of little shops has been swallowed by a giant pit from which a new monstrosity will doubtless emerge. In the Upper West Side neighborhood where I'm staying, three ugly new highrise condominium towers have reared their ugly heads, and many of the charming little family-owned shops have been replaced by chain stores, as the "greedy co-ops" (as my friend J describes them) which own the spaces have jacked up the rents. While the mouse is away, the cats do play!

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Useless knowledge?

As we were admiring some odd plant my last day in Australia, my sister mentioned the names of the parts of the plant (I didn't know them and don't now remember), and remarked: wouldn't it be nice if we didn't have to learn all this useless knowledge? (or something to that effect) One might snarkily observe that her botanical knowledge had just proved its usefulness that very moment - admittedly somewhat limited, since I didn't remember it! But it's an interesting question. I take her point to be that there are many more useful things one might have learned, and/or also that we might live more fully if our minds were less cluttered. (As someone not endowed with a reliable memory for details, I've learned to make a virtue of approaching things with a mind unsophisticated by the sort of knowledge we academics are supposed to seek on every topic - surely it's more valiant to go into battle unarmed but eager!) And yet: is there any such thing as useless knowledge?

My sister's question comes back to me as I step back into a New York life in which Australia, to put it bluntly, might as well be on the moon. Most of the things I learned (and many of which I mentioned in this blog) are at best esoteric. But is it useless knowledge?

Maybe the question should rather be: does usefulness correlate in any significant way with knowledge? I'm reminded of those Aborigines whose intimate knowledge of their land and its every inhabitant, a knowledge more supple and detailed than anything most of us can even imagine, can seem less than nothing to an outsider, or to a life divorced from the life of the land. I'm reminded in a different way of Hector, the old-fashioned teacher in "The History Boys" who fought the idea that education should be useful: one learns things one can't understand now so as to be prepared when things one can't yet imagine come.

As you may know I am a devoté of "liberal arts education," which aims at a kind of higher usefulness which, to the utilitarian presentist, seems closer to uselessness. At some level it isn't about usefulness at all. It's important to learn how to learn, we say. Or (for American students especially!) to know what knowledge is, and that there is always more to something than you first think. I'd want to add that it's important to know that everything fits together somehow (we need not be able to spell out every link), and that you therefore can't really fully know anything until you know everything - or at least that one should never stop expecting things to fit together, to complicate and illuminate each other. An open mind is more important than a mind full of knowledge (though it's better to know something, and to keep learning!).

It's too soon to say what Australia will contribute to my understanding of things, but I've no doubt it will be a valuable contribution. And since mine is a permuting mind, a gift that keeps on giving!

These pictures are from a wonderful picture book called The Arrival by the West Australian illustrator Shaun Tan. In sepia-colored sketches laid out like photos in an old album, it tells the story of a refugee, a man who makes his way to a strange and distant land and later sends for his wife and daughter. (The picture at top shows the city where he arrives; the one immediately above the life-cycle of an indigenous plant.) The book is without words. Tan has managed to evoke the continuing strangeness of an unfamiliar country - not only its architecture and writing and clocks are different, but the animals and even the foods people eat. Tan started with the accounts of his father, who arrived in Perth from Malaysia in 1960, but mixes in material from migrants (as im- and emigrants are called in Australia) to America, too. The resulting story succeeds, I think, in speaking to and for any experience of being a stranger in a strange land.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

For spacious skies

Made it from Macedon to Manhattan in one day, albeit a rather prolonged one! My sister and nephews saw me off at eleven this morning, and here it is, eleven in the evening, and I'm back at the apartment of my dear friends J and A on West 90th Street! And yet though it's nominally a day, I have in fact switched hemispheres and seasons.

Wasn't sure what I thought about being back in the US when the plane came into flat murky Los Angeles, but once I made my connection, oh boy! After a little cat nap I awoke with a start to find the Grand Canyon spread out below me. I've seen it before this way, and have lived in the Southwest too, my first love affair with land. But this time I saw it with new eyes. I saw how young the land is, and what a difference rivers make, especially in soft sandstone landscape. (In Oz, there are few rivers, in part because there are few mountains to feed them; and few mountains because its continental plate hasn't buffeted by others. Its contours are the wear and tear of a land mass left to its own devices.)

In fact, America pulled out the stops. After the Grand Canyon and its friends (including so many dust-colored buttes on the horizon it seemed like a herd of bison) came some mountains with traces of snow, and then - I may have dozed off again in the interim - the land was a grid of white- rimmed squares of green in every direction: the country cousin of the grid in Manhattan. And like Manhattan's, the fact that each was precisely the same size as the others let you notice that each has its own character, its own patches of various greens, the occasional white farmstead, and (possibly visible only from the air) the contours of the land before settlement. Above them, and also stretching in all directions, an armada of cloud piled high. The view was vast, and I remembered a snatch of a song: for spacious skies. It took me a long time to remember that it was "America the beautiful," and even longer to remember how it begins. It was so spectacular and vast it seemed almost unfair. Australia, back in the distance, seemed a dried apricot by comparison.

And then came the Great Lakes, with a great city on the shore (not quite visible in the photo, about a fourth of the way in from the left), and then late afternoon clouds like romantic American landscapes of the mid-19th century. Eventually we hit a dense blanket of cloud, tinged in orange and presided over by fantastically shaped piles of cloud in the distance. When we dipped under it was suddenly night, water below - the Atlantic now - and just as I mentioned to the woman sitting next to me that on one charmed 4th of July evening I'd flown out of Newark for Europe and seen local fireworks displays blooming like flowers out the window below, it happened again! Thanks to friendly tailwinds we arrived early, just in time to see little bursts of firework all over below in what turned out to be a rain-wet New York. (This video hardly captures it, but might give you some vague idea: imagine little explosions off in the distance as far as eye can see!)

It felt like completing a years-long trip around the world. Now to bed, since in Eastern Standard Time it's past midnight!

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Flying the coop

... or is it flying back into the coop? In any case, I fly tomorrow morning, after a last day and a half with the family in Macedon. (These cockatoos are regular guests here, too, and they were in fine form this morning. The one who looks like he's perching in the tree at right is in fact flying away.) It was a lovely day, bright and cool. I was thinking about the possibly very muggy heat of New York in July, and wondering what reverse season shock is - they say that reverse culture shock (coming back to the place you know best) is the toughest kind. But then we happened on a tree so splendidly oblivious to seasons south or north as to make all worry seem silly. It's the "ume" plum which - at least in Japan - is the harbinger of spring! It'll make the perfect stepping stone between a southern winter and a northern summer. Au revoir! It's been a wonderful year.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Bush tucker

Saw a terrific little exhibition of Aboriginal art at the Mossenson Galleries on Derby Street, Collingwood recently. New to me were works by Loongkoonan, an artist who's nearly 100 and only started painting a few years ago. These painting weren't in the show, but are most like them of those images I could find on line. Many of her works, including these and those in the exhibit, are called Bush Tucker. (Tucker is Australian for food; bush tucker in this case refers to food gathered by women.) Did you know the supposed wilderness and desert (she's from the Kimberley) of Australia was so full of good things?

It reminds me of a passage I've just read in a very iffy (if very well written) book which purports to be about the Aborigenes, Bruce Chatwin's The Songlines:

Le désert est monothéiste. Renan’s aphorism implies that blank horizons and a dazzling sky will clear the mind of its distractions and allow it concentrate on the Godhead. But life in the desert is not like that!

To survive at all, the desert dweller — Tuareg or Aboriginal — must develop a prodigious sense of orientation. He must forever be naming, sifting, comparing a thousand different ‘signs’ — the tracks of the dung beetle or the ripple of a dune — to tell him where he is; where the others are; where rain has fallen; where the next meal is coming from; whether if plant X is in flower, plant Y will be in berry, and so forth.

Chatwin was perhaps more of a nomad than the Aboriginal people he met around Alice Springs in the mid 1980s, but here he's on to something. I've enthused about Rover Thomas' paintings before (and love them still) but I'm starting to wonder whether they don't appeal so to the likes of me because they're full of solid expanses, empty of detail or bright color - the urbanite's view of the land, not that of the person who's made it her/his own in bare feet and knows every crag and the uses of every tuft growing on or under it.

Glad I stayed around long enough to start to see the world which paintings like Loongkoonan's describe!


Had a wonderful farewell dinner Saturday night, the kind to make you achingly sad to be leaving. Since some people I would have invited are abroad, we were seven, and since I forgot to pull out the camera until after R and J had left, you'll have to make do with V, D, E and K. It was one of those charmed evenings when everyone's engaged, everyone's interested in everyone else, conversation never lags ... and the time just flies! Conversation covers everything except people's work, and has no need of recharge by cheap politics or gossip. Everyone's actually learning stuff, not that it feels like learning - it feels like a Symposium, one of the dinner parties Kant characterized as the "highest moral-physical good" at the end of his Anthropology from a pragmatic point of view. It helps when your friend V has, against orders, cooked up a storm, indeed outdone herself cooking an Indian feast, and you've added insult to injury by producing cheeses from the Queen Victoria Market. These include an époisse you portentously introduce as "the ultimate test of friendship" (it is true that the woman in the French cheese stall recommended getting something less demanding for the uninitiated!) but everyone just dives in.

How lucky I am, you are thinking, to have met such lovely people - and then one asks: well Mark, how will your thinking be different for having spent this year here? You bide for time, you start "among the ways..." and trail off, and then surprise yourself by producing a list which swells through subheads to include four big things:

(i) a newly ecological way of understanding the relationship of humanity and nature, no longer based on a contrast between culture and "wilderness," learned from (textual and imagined) Aboriginal Australians;

(ii) a new and different understanding of the adventures in the Americas, made possible by acquaintance with a different "new world" colonized by some of the same people if not at exactly the same time, how strange and precarious the hold of European peoples on distant continents, already inhabited;

(iii) an understanding that the European empires - notably the British - continued to be important for far longer than your American-centric education told you, and

(iv) awareness that the Asian future - China and India - is here already.

The best thing, of course, is that none of these is something you'd have thought you needed to learn a year ago. None of them is what you came to Australia for, and yet - lucky you - you learned them anyway! Nothing beats travel, huh, unless it be spending enough time in a place that you can make really good friends.Tomorrow (Monday) it's adieu Mebourne, and Wednesday morning, my end-of-independence day, it's farewell Australia. But I'll be back!