Friday, July 31, 2009

Religious savvy

Last week I stumbled on this nattily designed book in a store in Chelsea specializing in nattily designed things. I picked it up expecting to be disgusted by crassness and ignorance but was instead rapidly won over by subtle wit and intelligence. It's accurate, too, even where it's tongue in cheek. It's the work of a company in Venice (Los Angeles) called Knock-Knock whose humor, the founder explained to me (thank you, Facebook!), "is in the concept and the editing/ curating, but the execution is totally straight." Bingo! Modeled on Consumer Reports-like guides to choosing cars and the like, it works brilliantly not only as a spoof on religion but as a mirror of the religious consumer and what scholars called the "voluntarist" tradition in American religion. But no scholar has offered so handy a synthesis of 99 religions (it probably helps to be in LA to find that many). Not to mention prefaced it with so user-friendly an account of varieties of "seeker" spirituality, and added, for those whom even these 99 leave uncertain, a guide to starting your own religion that actually makes business sense! The Savvy Convert's Guide has a fold-out table which summarizes the page-long accounts of the 99 religions, rated and compared with respect to Sex Regulations, Dietary Restrictions, Time Commitment, Cost, Conversion Difficulty, Afterlife Quality, Traditional, Rate of Growth, Holidays, and Aesthetics. I'm going to introduce this book to the students in Theorizing Religion this coming semester, right after I give them a chance to try out the Belief-O-Matic - which, however, doesn't realize it's a spoof.

Thursday, July 30, 2009


My Brooklyn neighborhood's been steadily gentrifying in my absence, and the latest arrival actually makes me happy. Neither organic nor ironic, neither togs for tots nor spas for their mas & pas: it's a used bookstore!

Wednesday, July 29, 2009


At the exhibition "Dutch Seen" at the Museum of the City of New York today I was wowed by some enormous portraits by Hendrick Kerstens. They command the eye the way Dutch Golden Age portraits do, but on closer inspection prove to be very contemporary. Don't know what I'm getting at? Know that these are called "Napkin" and "Bag," respectively.
I actually went up there with my friend J to see the exhibition of the Mannahatta Project, which was also worth the trip. It was full of interesting information, like the comparison of land use below - we'd never thought about the space sidewalks take up but lo, it's comparable (when other paved areas are added in) to the space occupied by roads! Here's the Lenape village at the Collect Pond, where City Hall now sits. The exhibition was moralizing but in an unexpected way. The central ecological concepts used in the project were applied straightforwardly - non-metaphorically - to the human ecology of contemporary New York, as in the mini-sermon on diversity below. Is this also a claim of causality, or a call of filial piety to the underlying diversity of this place? Some of the torrential rains which have been soaking NYC today delayed our departure from the museum, so we headed upstairs to see the Stettheimer Dollhouse, which J knew but was new to me. Someone Stettheimer spent 20 years on it, and was well connected: the artwork hanging in its rooms is all genuine, much of it by renowned artists. (Not Chuck but close.)

Monday, July 27, 2009

Hot. Muggy! Sudden downpours accompanied by timpani help only a little... Thank goodness the subway's air-conditioned!

Sunday, July 26, 2009

California fresh Mex

Tried out this quick easy recipe, which I found in the free monthly bulletin of Jimbo's, our local organic supermarket in Del Mar, on some New York friends tonight. Big hit! It's vegan but you'd never know it. In fact, your mouth will tell you you're eating a taco with cheese and ground beef, even though there's in fact no taco shell, no cheese and no meat. Then it'll ask for another.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Swan Song?

Saw a rather extraordinary thing in the big atrium of MoMA this afternoon, Song Dong's work "Waste Not," which comprises everything his late mother hoarded in her Beijing house. "Waste not," a translation of the slogan wu jin qi gong, is an attitude which lets nothing go which might someday be of some use - a name apparently also used for Song Dong's mother's generation. She passed away this year, but her collection had been exhibited before her death, first in Beijing and later in Tokyo; she helped Song Dong lay it out, and enjoyed pointing out that the seemingly useless hoarding had turned out to have a use after all. The exhibition mentions the transition of useless to useful, quotidian to art object, as well as the collaboration of generations, a kind of filial piety. (No mention is made of the transition to being a memorial.) It is fascinating, but is it art? I know, that is a meaningless question. I'm not asking about artistry or craft. I'm really asking if it's ethical or at least profound. Thought-provoking it certainly is - though I'm pretty sure the thoughts provoked in Beijing (where it will have represented also the contents of neighborhoods being leveled), Tokyo and NY will have been different, but mostly voyeuristic. It invites voyeurism and then refuses it. Her life is here, and it isn't, so don't you go thinking you know her! There's a pathos about it, of course, about a life so haunted by material need that it became a storehouse of useless material. But don't draw any conclusions! These are objects a whole generation hoarded; many of these are things his mother presumably never used. What might such a hoard from our own lives look like? What might seeing it tell us? What would others who saw it think? Is it even about us, about art? Perhaps it's profound after all, and even ethical, in another way - more than Song Dong's act of filial piety we are seeing the self-emptying love of a mother for her son and his art. Her bed and stove are here - where did she sleep her last years? Did we kick her out? I'm liking it more as I think about it, but I suspect we're supposed to feel uneasy at our reactions.

(I found the pictures in the slideshow accompanying the Times' review; there's also an amusing video of the installation here.)

Friday, July 24, 2009

Cross country

Back to NY for 10 days of catching up - from the blue of the Pacific, over deserts, sparsely settled land (each of those white spots is a house), Marimekko agriculture, and finally right over midtown Manhattan to JFK.
Remember Ted Rall?

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Here are some gorgeous maps of ocean surface temperatures around the world. (Source.) The local upshot: the water's 68. Perfect!

A humanist creed

What's not to like? (From The Humanist, May-Jun 2009, 27)

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Identity theft

Looking through a box of old things, I found this evidence that a creepy looking individual tried to impersonate me seventeen years ago in Tokyo. Or was it me trying to impersonate someone creepy? 不思議!

Monday, July 20, 2009

Small world

This picture's new (see as a video) but I imagine the view's unchanged.

Biblical heroes, angels, saints and martyrs - in LA

Took a quick trip up to Los Angeles over the weekend, satisfying in many ways - including the unsettling way in which the fruits of all times and places are available here but jumbled, cracks showing. (But cracks are the way the light gets in...) At the UCLA Library I found a book of lovely Byzantine illustrations of the Book of Job - above: Job's friends holding their noses, tearing their clothes, weeping. (It would make a striking cover for a book of interpretations of the Book of Job, no?) At the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion I saw ABT's lavish and heartbreaking production of Prokofiev's "Romeo and Juliet" (Kenneth MacMillan's choreography, principals Paloma Herrera & David Hallberg, both as light of foot as angels); dramatically it mops the floor with "West Side Story." I stayed over with my friend G, who lives in the Village Green, a survivor from the idyllic Los Angeles of the 1940s with broad expanses of green between light-filled apartments: easy vehicle access from the outside, but not a car in sight from within. It's also where she experienced her first earthquake - she described a vaguely exalting experience of connectedness to the earth which reminded me of my first earthquake in Japan, which was similarly thrilling - once I decided that being on the second floor of a 2-story wooden dwelling I was probably safe to enjoy the rocking and rolling! (I grew up with earthquakes, but you don't really get in the groove on the ground floor, at least if it isn't The Big One.)
Sunday my friends G, D and I had great Huevos a la Mexicana at a place called La Abeja (in a neighborhood I think is called Mt. Washington), and popped into the new cathedral for a peek; that's Joan of Arc at right, in the remarkable computer-stitched murals of the communion of the saints by John Nava. And then, since it is LA after all, to an LA original: the Museum of Jurassic Technology. It's hard to know what to say about it; most people just rave and say that you have to experience it for yourself. (Telling internet plug: go check it out if you want to see a museum that isn't your everyday snooze fest type museum.) I'll say it's remarkably well done, and does awaken the memory of a credulous wonder to which LA products from "The Twilight Zone" to "The X-Files," "Magnolia," and "Mulholland Drive" also appeal. What's real? What's true? Maybe everything is a hoax, the real and the true too. Perhaps in these post-modern times we are open to the truly real only in things we suspect may be hoaxes, and the true martyrs to truth are those who pursue chimeras they, despite all odds, are convinced are true. Who needs religion or art or even science when you've got unexplained mysteries, an appreciation for craft and quirk and misunderstood genius, and feel the resonances between Noah's Ark and the trailer park? (I confess: there's probably a sense in which the university library, the ballet, the cathedral are my snobby trailer parks, my hoaxy Arks.)

Friday, July 17, 2009


Can you believe this is my thousandth blog post ? ... I can't either !

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Still lives

I've been meaning to post this picture for a few days now; after a day spent with books, at home and in the UCSD library, its time has come.
There was a painting by the forgotten American still life painter John Frederick Peto at the Timken - a pile of old books - which interested me enough to get me rooting around online. (Yes, I routinely google artists I encounter in museums!) There I found "Take Your Choice" (1885), which I vaguely recall having seen at the National Gallery of Art, where it now resides. I don't know if the old book still life is unique to Peto, but this one of books for sale cheap has a pathos not foreign to the great still life vanities... but also the hope that some forgotten treasure (like Peto!) might be found, and given new life. (That bright sunlight, not something to which books are accustomed!) For these books are other people's books, people you haven't met or couldn't perhaps ever meet. In them the past (pun alert:) still lives, and so do alternative presents.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

False consciousness of place

Another hot one in Southern California, humid with temps to over 100 in inland areas. You wouldn't know it in our part of Del Mar, though, which is cooled by breezes from the ocean. Walking down to the beach (no car for me!) from a house which doesn't even have an air conditioner I feel very virtuous indeed. But of course folks inland aren't car- and AC-dependent by choice. We were just lucky enough to get a place on the coast while it was still affordable.

"We"? "Lucky"? "Affordable"? Walking down the other day I found myself recalling the argument of what might be the last published essay of Val Plumwood, the pioneering Australian ecofeminist who, I just learned, passed away suddenly last year. Entitled "Shadow Places and the Politics of Dwelling" (in the March 2008 Australian Humanities Review, available here), the essay is a frontal attack on the recently fashionable romanticization of place - especially of homelike places, our own special "dwelling" places - as a "false consciousness of place."

The dissociation of the affective place (the place of and in mind, attachment and identification, political effectiveness, family history, ancestral place) from the economic place that is such a feature of the global market is yet another manifestation of the mind/body dualism that has shaped the western tradition. (141)

"Special places" are refuges from the realities of globalization and consumerism, and make us ignore our responsibilities for other places and those who live there - even as we depend on those other places, indeed, in too many cases, on their despoliation. Since we're in fact not really fully connected even to these places, our attachment to the "places" we think make us who we are often has an ideological abstractedness to it which can quickly morph into nimbyism, xenophobia and nationalism.

As an Australian, Plumwood was especially aware of the way in which Aboriginal ideas of land can be used this way by settlers. The Aboriginal idea of "country" is too quickly assimilated with the false place consciousness of "dwelling" which is, Plumwood suggests, Heidegger's most pernicious legacy. "Country" is better thought of not as "our place" but "our ecological footprint." Truly to learn from the Aboriginal conception we should cultivate an affective connection to all the places which economically support our lives, and a sense of responsibility for all places which are important for anyone. Plumwood proposes

a place principle of environmental justice, an injunction to cherish and care for your places, but without in the process destroying or degrading any other places, where ‘other places’ includes other human places, but also other species’ places. This accountability requirement is a different project, and much more politically and environmentally demanding project, than that of cherishing one’s own special place of dwelling. It is a project whose realisation, I would argue, is basically incompatible with market regimes based on the production of anonymous commodities from remote and unaccountable places. ... [and] with an economy of privileged places thriving at the expense of exploited places. (147-48)

Powerful stuff, and powerfully convincing. It really (and pardon the pun, there's no better way of saying this) hit home.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Don't take it with you

Here's an old rendition of a story I thought I knew.

There was a certain pious man among the heathen named Job, but he [thought that he had] come into this world only to receive his reward [here], and when the Holy One, blessed be He, brought chastisements upon him, he began to curse and blaspheme, so the Holy One, blessed be He, doubled his reward in this world so as to expel him from the world to come.

B. Baba Batra
qtd. in Judith R. Baskin, “Rabbinic Interpretations of Job,”
in The Voice from the Whirlwind: Interpreting the Book of Job,
ed. Leo G. Perdue & W. Clark Gilpin (Nashville: Abingdon, 1992), 101-9, 107

Monday, July 13, 2009

Urban Legend Washes Up in Quake Aftermath

I heard about it here - on this computer, from two friends on the East Coast. (Thanks!) Massive Squid Wash Up in Quake Aftermath in nearby La Jolla, the next town south from here! Other accounts report an Attack! And guess what caused it: an Earthquake (4.0 on the Richter scale)! Its epicenter was Less Than 20 Miles Off Shore, and the squid started washing ashore Minutes After the quake. People all over San Diego county felt the tremor! Squid on the La Jolla beach are an absolute novelty - I have never seen squid in the 42 years that I’ve lived here on the shores in La Jolla, stammered one eyewitness. A veritable Tentacled Tsunami worthy of a horror film!

eTurboNews found a stunning picture to go with the NBC Channel 4 text: It was of course squid plural, not squid singular. And they were Humboldt squid, who get to about 3 feet long (with tentacles) and can weigh up to 40 pounds. Not quite the Giant Squid which came to mind initially, huh. But still, look at that picture! The Kraken live!!!

Now why didn't I know about this? Did I overlook it in Sunday's paper? As I tried to find out more, I started to wonder if any of it was true: there's a suspicious absence of photos online, just the news reel from the local NBC station. Is it a hoax? As far as I can tell much of it seems to be true, but not all of it. There was an earthquake, and there were Humboldt squid on the beach. But the squid started arriving a few days before Saturday, so the quake wasn't the cause. (Nobody knows the cause yet, though Humboldt squid do pass by these parts in this season; recent swings in ocean temperature might have confused them.)

And these aren't the first squid to turn up at La Jolla either. Turns out the canyon off the beach is a renowned place for scuba diving to see squid, though it's the smaller white market squid rather than the red Humboldt variety. (Check out this groovy video.) Red, did I say? Yes, red. The picture above is indeed of squid on the beach at La Jolla, but not last Saturday, which messes up the story in all sorts of ways. As eTurboNews' source duly reports, it's a 2002 event with many more (but smaller - 1-2 foot) squid, the last time (perhaps) that bystanders who'd lived there all their lives said they'd never heard of squid at La Jolla.

(But isn't the truth in this really about the way the imminent implosion of the state of California is being blamed on the economic downturn when, in fact, things have been fishy for a long time?)

[16/7: Scott Meyer's cartoon in the newest Reader shows how it's done.]

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Now I see

Since there's a Poussin in Melbourne, I wasn't as surprised as I might have been to find a Claude at the Timken Museum in San Diego's Balboa Park. But somehow I was unprepared to find a Philippe de Champaigne in this tiny museum, let alone one as striking as "Christ Healing the Blind" (c. 1655-60). The lovely city across the river, emerging from mist even as the airy blue mountains shrug off clouds, surely represents the world the blind will now be able to see. But it's also a world which the sighted cannot see, or don't want to: they're all walking away from it in a terrible hurry - with Jesus to Jerusalem, I suppose - and heading straight for us. But we're looking straight past them at the shining city... Do we know more than they do, or less? Have they seen enough, seen too much? Will the landscape's splendor curdle also for the blind men? Or have even the sighted never truly seen? And what does it mean that the only ruin (in a genre saturated with ruins) is on this, the dark, darkened, side of the river? Is the image of a resplendently whole world offered us by painting a temptation we viewers (in a world whose deepest truth lies in its ruins) should resist? I love Christian art!

Saturday, July 11, 2009


Summer at last!

Here are some of the hummingbirds to whose territory my parents' house (with its two feeders) belongs; they sit atop this yukka and divebomb any intruder who tries to sneak in for a sip. Not the ruby-throated ones, but plenty remarkable.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Up and away

One of the pleasures of summer is the arrival of the newest Pixar movie. (Remember "Ratatouille" and "WALL-E"!) What with traveling all over the place I've had to wait on this year's, but first chance I had I was in a cinema watching this year's treat, "Up." It's lovely, but I'll have to disagree with the Los Angeles Times' Kenneth Turan (with whom I agree more than any other critic) and agree with the snarky reviewer for the San Diego Weekly Reader (who likes almost nothing) and say it's a minor work. Full of imagination and wit, yes - no need for PG-13 guffaws. Taking on unpromising topics - a 78-year-old man escaping the threat of a nursing home by inflating helium balloons to fly him and his house to South America - yes. Moving without being sentimental, yes. Nods to great movies past (even Werner Herzog's "Fitzcaraldo"!!). And, like all the Disney animated films (this is an underappreciated fact, I think - don't tell the Family Research Council), about alternative families. Butwhat struck me about this one is how it floats up right alongside Clint Eastwood's in every other respect entirely different "Gran Torino" in presenting the unlikely bond beyond between a white widower and a fatherless Asian-American boy as a vision of how America's past might survive into the future. Omoshiroi ne, this aperçu. A Pacific Rim insight, I dare say. And not noticed by the critics and pundits, who are unlikely to have seen both films. (I admit I only watched "Gran Torino" because I was in an airplane, but am very glad to have seen it. It's a great film.)

Thursday, July 09, 2009

An Oz of prevention?

It was good to return to Australia after 18 months. I managed to catch up with most of my friends in Melbourne, and the several mini-trips to Melbourne made it seem like several visits to my sister's family in Mount Macedon, too. Enough train station meetings and sending-offs for it to have felt like a far longer visit!

In Melbourne I managed a not unimpressive culture binge, too: I saw Warwick Thornton's highly praised "Samson and Delilah" (a beautifully shot dark fairy tale about Aboriginal life), the popular MTC production of "August, Osage County" (missable), a nice exhibit on the Ballets Russes in Australia and their enduring legacy, the NGV's impressive little Asian collection, and (as you already know) the John Brack blockbuster - twice. Melbourne is a remarkable world of culture.

But what most struck me this visit that was that no fewer than four Australian women I know have been diagnosed with breast cancer since I was last there. Three have had mastectomies, and all have been through chemo. All seem to be doing great, thank goodness. But still: I don't know very many people in Australia, and I don't know (or don't know that I know) very many women who've had breast cancer. Why so many? My hypothesis (some Aussie friends have provided some confirmation) is that there's a rigorous and effective preventive health campaign in place, and, perhaps, a new means of diagnosis which catches cancers earlier than before. And there may in fact be an increase in the rate in recent years. Nevertheless...

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Across the water

I'm back in the US, almost three-fourths of the way through a 41-hour 8th of July. On the 7th I discovered that the fountain in front of the Royal Exhibition Building, turned off for reasons of drought when I lived in Melbourne, is back in service. Earlier in the day I found some reeds worthy of Pascal in the pretty reservoir at Macedon. But you mustn't get the idea that the drought - now in its 13th year - shows any sign of abating; the reservoirs that count (this one's no longer used, except for swimming) are at barely 25% of capacity. Water restrictions are in place also in Southern California - here our town of Del Mar as seen from the plane this morning. Until desalination technology makes big strides, it's water everywhere but narry a drop to drink.

Monday, July 06, 2009


Just one more post on Brack, who seems to be lying in wait everywhere I happen to go this visit to Australia. At the Gisborne Public Library this morning I found a (not just) children's book called The Aussie A to Z by Heath McKenzie. Its "J is for Jumbuck" page for some reason apes John Brack's most famous painting, "Collins Street, 5 pm" (1955). As Brack's works often refer to earlier paintings, a not unfitting tribute...

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Camel's Hump

The slightly lower second peak of Mount Macedon is called the Camel's Hump. Even on a moist winter's morning with a few instants of sunshine, it's a nice little bush walking ascent from the carpark.