Friday, May 29, 2009

A slice of Turkey

Yes, I'm afraid the tour I'm going on is called "A slice of Turkey," but since the operator is the wonderful Australian company Intrepid (with whom I had such a great time in India two years ago), I'm letting it pass.
It's just a week, and then I'll be on my own in Istanbul for a few days. Not sure how easy it will be to update this blog en route (conceivably very easy), but I'll see what I can do!

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Piri Piri

While talking with a friend about my imminent trip to Turkey, I remembered the Piri Reis map discovered in the Topkapi Palace in 1929. My journalist uncle Don gave me an article about it when I was an impressionable youth (about the same time, and possibly in the same magazine, as photos of the remains of spontaneous human combustion which I remember to this day). The article claimed the 1513 Ottomon-Turkish map showed the outline of the continent of Antarctica beneath the ice sheet - something Piri Reis could only have known from extraterrestrial intelligence! Turns out that it fits the coast of Patagonia better... Oh well, it remains a remarkable and beautiful map. Seems unlikely I'll get a chance to see it in Topkapi - I gather it's not on regular display. But I will at least be in the same building with it in three days...


There's nothing quite like the surreal groundedness of Ben Katchor. (You must click to read the real estate agent's unwittingly sublime patter!)

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Prop 8 stands

There she stood in the doorway;
I heard the mission bell
And I was thinking to myself,
"This could be heaven or this could be hell."

Monday, May 25, 2009

No way of knowing

I'd forgotten what a chore it is to do research on Job. Not because there's too much material on the Biblical figure (though there is), but because there's many times more material on jobs. So I've found a dozen versions of The Book of Job Descriptions, The Book of Government Jobs, The Book of Job Interview Tips; job listings for Eustace, TX (I was searching for St. Eustace, whose story is Job-shaped); and, funniest of all, a bulletin for job offerings for Knights Templar in Britain (Job was patron of the Knights Templar a very long time ago) - who knew they were still around, let alone have a public website! No, in fact the funniest of all is putatively about the Biblical character, the children's book Tried and True Job which starts:

Job got up in the morning,
Had some food, and got dressed.
He had no way of knowing
He was starting a test.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Frieze frames

Happened to be in the neighborhood of the neo-romanesque Church of the Guardian Angel (21st and Tenth) yesterday, one of the unknown gems of New York religious architecture. Made in 1930 to look old - like a building constructed over a long time, whose planned stone cladding was never completed - it sports a lovely romanesque-deco frieze.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Green spaces

Out the window this morning I found the Empire State Building afloat on a sea of green! (Three months ago the view was all blues and browns.)And Washington Square Park (with its own view of the Empire State Building) has reopened, with a new fountain. Just in time for summer!

Friday, May 22, 2009


Took an old friend from Paris to MoMA this morning, and so had a chance to gambol through the standing collection, and be charmed again by David Smith's "Australia" (whose name I had not noticed before), and to see the show "Tangled Alphabets," dedicated to the work of two Latin American artists who've not been the subject of an exhibition in the US before, and didn't know each other. I'm not sure what showing them together achieved, but it was good to get to know them, especially the Argentinian Léon Ferrari, whose drawings in incredibly fine lines inspired by writing (and music) entered further dimensions of wonder when translated into dense sculptures of finest wire. And then I popped into "Into the Sunset: Photography's Image of the American West," which was a hoot: photography and the West do come into their own at the same time, as the exhibition argues. Home! And then I encountered another old friend, Ansel Adams' "Moonrise, Hernandez, NM" (I was a big Ansel Adams fan as a teenager, and probably had this picture on my wall even before I lived in New Mexico). For some reason, seeing it again made me tear up.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

No referee

At our divisional graduation ceremony today, the dean recalled his own graduation, when Joseph Brodsky was the speaker, and apparently said "life is a game with few rules and no referee, which is why so many people lose and so many cheat." The dean went on to say that this was true but not the end of the story, for the world changes in ways nobody can imagine before they happen. Desmond Tutu "didn't happen before he happened," nor did Aung San Suu Kyi, or Barack Obama. An elegant way of making the obligatory commencement speech points that (i) graduates should be themselves, and that (ii) they can change the world.

But I was intrigued and a little depressed by the Brodsky quote, which seemed like an odd thing to say at a commencement. Was there a larger point he was making? I turned to my trusty friend the internet and found this (with no citation): Life is a game with many rules but no referee. One learns how to play it more by watching it than by consulting any book, including the holy book. Small wonder, then, that so many play dirty, that so few win, that so many lose.

Versions of this turn up in lists of quotes about rules and about referees (never with a citation or a larger context) - but not commencements. What I found on searching for "Brodsky + commencement" was a line from an address he gave at Williams in 1984: The surest defense against Evil is extreme individualism, originality of thinking, whimsicality, even—if you will—eccentricity. That is, something that can't be feigned, faked, imitated; something even a seasoned imposter couldn't be happy with. That hits the obligatory points in its way, I suppose.

Another Brodsky commencement speech turned up, too, this one given at Dartmouth in 1989, and this time the whole deal and not just a soundbite. It ends: What's good about boredom, about anguish and the sense of meaninglessness of your own, of everything else's existence, is that it is not a deception. Try to embrace, or let yourself be embraced by, boredom and anguish, which are larger than you anyhow. No doubt you'll find that bosom smothering, yet try to endure it as long as you can, and then some more. Above all, don't think you've goofed somewhere along the line, don't try to retrace your steps to correct the error. No, as W. H. Auden said, "Believe your pain." This awful bear hug is no mistake. Nothing that disturbs you ever is.

I'm glad our dean heard Brodsky on a good day!

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Art and science

The great photographer Berenice Abbott, known for her pictures of New York cityscapes, was also a fan of science. Indeed she believed that photography had a special role to play in promoting science: itself at once science and art, it's the perfect intermediary. I reckon she's right. The photo at right confirms what I know but find I still intuitively refuse to believe - that gravity pulls no more strongly on a large object than on a small one. The witty picture below of a ball shot straight up from a moving toy train shows that the arc of its movement is composed in part of the vectors of an uninterrupted horizontal movement parallel to the train. The other photos - most taken in the lte 1950s at MIT, though she started the science project while directing the photography program at the New School in the 1930s - are less didactic but no less beautiful.
From Berenice Abbott, 2 vols. (Göttingen: Seidl, 2008)
1:247, 253, 237, 243, 223, 221 and (below) 209

Tran 84

This is the kind of story I love. It turns out that Sriracha, the sweet-hot sauce with all the Southeast Asian lettering on the bottle, is American as apple pie. Well, I dunno about apple pie, but as American as fortune cookies, chow mein, California rolls or Tabasco. According to an article in - where else? - the Times, David Tran (a Vietnamese refugee of Chinese extraction) extended a family tradition on arriving in America:

“I knew, after the Vietnamese resettled here, that they would want their hot sauce for their pho,” a beef broth and noodle soup that is a de facto national dish of Vietnam. “But I wanted something that I could sell to more than just the Vietnamese,” he continued.

“After I came to America, after I came to Los Angeles, I remember seeing Heinz 57 ketchup and thinking: ‘The 1984 Olympics are coming. How about I come up with a Tran 84, something I can sell to everyone?’ ”

He succeeded, and the article cites everything from fancy restaurants and national chains to kimchi carts and facebook fan pages as proof. The highest form of praise is imitation, of course, and through it Sriracha-like sauce now is being made in Asia:

Over the last decade, a number of imitators have entered the sriracha category. A recent visit to grocery stores in the San Gabriel Valley, near the Huy Fong headquarters, yielded Cock brand sriracha from Thailand, Shark brand from China, Phoenix brand from Vietnam and Unicorn brand, also from Vietnam.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Plus ça change

Got an e-mail today from someone I haven't seen or heard from in about twenty-two years. We were at uni together - read PPE at Worcester College, Oxford (iconic view below) - and shared a suite in our second year on the fifth floor of a residence hall which has since been trimmed to four stories to harmonize with a new quad. I remember a shared anxiety about the temptations to social climbing, and vowing not to be changed by Oxford in ways we would not otherwise have been changed. (Those were wordy years, made worse by the manic precision demanded by our philosophy tutors.)

He now evidently teaches economics and marketing at a private school in Bangkok but sounds unchanged: Having come across your name on the web, I am reassured that you continue to grapple with the problems of good and evil. Nothing so lofty for me I’m afraid. I attempt to justify my educating the children of a financial elite on the grounds that I do so sufficiently badly that they are less privileged than they otherwise would be.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Classes end!

Today was the last day of classes for this academic year. We spilled into a Monday to make up for the Presidents' Day Monday a few months ago, but the school already seemed to have entered its sleepy summer state.

Sunday, May 17, 2009


Something amazing's happening on the roof of the Metropolitan Museum. It's called "Maelstrom" and by an artist named Roxy Paine, whose stainless steel trees you may have seen in other parks - but nothing like this, which is simply transcendent. Well worth a visit to the Museum!

Saturday, May 16, 2009


Foreclosures are spreading across the country - disproportionally to poorer and minority communities. Our place in Prospect Heights is on the border - the map below (both are from the Times) shows a foreclosure a block east of us, and many more beyond that and to the north. You can be sure that some of the same people who were targeted by predatory lenders with subprime mortgages they didn't need are now not getting help refinancing mortgages which could yet be salvaged.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Our local ginkgo is flush with new green.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Reading New York City

The exhibit is up, and it looks terrific! It brings together student work from seven first year "Reading New York City" courses (Natural History of NYC, Nueva York, Photographic New York, Poet in New York, Psychology in a City of Immigrants, Scenes of Recognition: Philosophy in the City, and my own Religious Geography of New York), and three of us faculty assembled (curated!) it pretty much from scratch over 5 hours today. It came together beautifully, capturing the variety and interplay not only of courses and of the aspects of New York City explored in them, but of student perspectives - which, in a seminar college, is what it's all about. The most compelling piece in the exhibit is the table below - made wholly of material salvaged from the Meadowlands Park in New Jersey, whose hills are composed almost entirely of NYC garbage. The student, Zackary Lauth, wanted to find a way to capture the spirit of that place - its reeds had sustained a wicker furniture industry and its clay produced bricks in the 19th century - and so decided to carpenter a piece of furniture using only what he found there as raw materials. But he was struck also by the beauty of insouciant nature making a home in our waste (he showed the class a photo of a wild bird's eggs in a nest furnished of old plastic bags!), and so filled his table with a miniature Meadowlands, with bits of broken brick and marble (perhaps from the old Penn Station, whose rubble was dumped there?), oyster shells and worn glass - and seeds of grass and oregano.

He dropped the table off in my office last week waterlogged from recent rain and smelling like freshly turned soil. Over the weekend, the grass sprouted. And just today tiny little leaves of oregano appeared.
Don't you want to come explore this city with students like these?

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Notes from our penultimate discussion in Exploring Religious Ethics.


As shops close, the ghostly names of long-defunct businesses sometimes emerge... Who knew the 99¢ store on 14th Street used to be a clothier! And yes, the Balducci's next to my old apartment has closed. (The NEW YORK SAVINGS BANK was visible before, when Central Carpets closed.)

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Monday, May 11, 2009


Remember the Thomas Hart Benton murals which used to grace a conference room at The New School? Well, I've just learned how to use aprogram called Google Sketch-Up, and with it have managed to recreate - in barest outline - the room with the mural wrapped around it. I need to do some more research to find out just where each individual painting was placed, and to be able to estimate the space between the floor and where the mural started, and what the windows looked like... but you already get a sense of it, no? (In Sketch-It the pics are much clearer and you can circle around, go up and down, closer and farther away... Pretty exciting, huh!

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Morality as religious practice

Our last reading in Exploring Religious Ethics is one of the wisest. Have a taste:

The emphasis in Buddhist morality is on the cultivation of a personality that cannot but be moral, rather than focusing upon the morality of particular choices and acts. But it is not the will that can create such a personality, no more than I can pick myself up by my own collar. It is to the training that the will must be applied, from which virtue will naturally flow. "Hit the horse, not the cart," as the Zen saying puts it. The exercise of the will is, of course, needed by all of us from time to time in order to avoid doing harm to others or ourselves; the impulse to act wrongly is blocked short of action, but, if possible, there should be an open, nonjudgmental awareness of the feeling that has flared. This requires much practice... Willing virtue into one's life is a notoriously unsatisfactory way to bring about changes in behavior. Whether we fail or succeed, either way we lose. The ego and the superego live in fear of one another; when ego is indulged there is guilt; when ego is repressed, there is a nagging feeling of self-deception arising from knowing that one's "saintliness" wan not genuinely obtained. The saintliness achieved by willpower alone is obsessed by evil and depends for its existence on evil. ...
The authentic moral personality emerges through the ripening of wisdom/compassion. This ripening takes place through a system of spiritual training that includes the practice of morality as a part of the practice of mindful awareness. Through trying to conform to the moral precepts, we incite an emotional revolt. Without either suppressing that revolt or being possessed and carried away by it, we open ourselves in full awareness to containment of that upsurge.
Ken Jones, The New Social Face of Buddhism: A Call to Action
(Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2003), 128-9

A great many of the themes we've discussed in the class are touched on here, and in a way which many of our Christian ethics texts could harmonize with.

Nearly summer

Look out the window towards the Empire State Building - all the Spring flowers gone! And out my office window - the red tips have given wayto lush green! (Compare with the same views less than a month ago.)