Monday, January 31, 2011

It comes around

My sister recently had the excellent idea of getting a Spirograph set for her her son's eighth birthday. This was more easily said than done: the wonderful toy we remember loving is no more. In fact, it seems to have disappeared soon after our generation finished playing with it. Recently a new version has appeared but it's so inanely simple you'd think that the American child now lacks attention and manual coordination, too.
So what to do? We found old Spirographs on eBay. I signed up, learned the best sets are just a year younger than me, and - once the Christmas rush was over - scored two nearly complete sets, which makes a near perfect set for my nephew - and there's most of a set left for me, too.

PS Don't you just love this blog's occasional unintentional visual wit? I swear, the hors d'oeuvres below were not Spirograph-inspired!

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Quite a spread

A bunch of friends came over last night to help me celebrate my birthday with a dinner. Casting about for a menu I decided to try for a culinary tie-in to all the places I've lived - 9 countries, and 4 US states! I managed all except one of the states, albeit one where I spent 9 years.

Beets with orange and mint
Bresaola (Italy, where I lived c. 3.5 yrs)
Guacamole (chile from New Mexico, 2 yrs)
Mixed olives

Porcini risotto with roasted brussel sprouts
and sautéd shiitake mushrooms (Japan, 3.5 years)

Baby arugula and radicchio salad
with mini-heirloom tomatoes (California, 11 yrs),
balsamic vinaigrette with pumpkin seed oil (Austria, 2 yrs)

Aged Gorgonzola
Appenzell (Switzerland, first days)
Brie, Chêvre and Livarot (France, 1 yr)
Cheddar (New York, 7.5 yrs.)
Sage Derby (England, 3 yrs)
served with assorted breads (Germany, .5 yr)

Sticky date pudding
with butterscotch sauce (Australia, 1 yr)

Japanese green tea

Good company (sorry about the picture), much wine and a Skype visit by my parents helped make for a memorable evening. Thanks, everyone!

Friday, January 28, 2011

Nielsen rating

So, two orchestras in two days, both at Lincoln Center - the Budapest Festival Orchestra under Iván Fischer, and the New York Phil under Alan Gilbert. The former program was Haydn and Stravinsky, the latter Beethoven, Sibelius and Nielsen. Why was the former so much more fun?

Perhaps it's because Fischer's a marvelous showman. The concert started with the orchestra - missing its first violins - beginning Stravinsky's "Scherzo à la Russe." Fischer materialized from somewhere, encouraging the audience to clap along. (Really? Really!) Then violinists flowed in from both sides, taking up positions on risers at either corner of the front of the stage, standing, like serenading soloists, arriving in place just in time for their part to come on. We'd stopped clapping by then, but the circle was complete, everyone in the hall was engaged. For the immediately following "Tango," two of the second violins tussled over an instrument and began to dance. Then Haydn's "Oxford" Symphony (no. 92), suddenly serious but with that characteristic twinkle in Papa Haydn's eye: Fischer milked the playful, profound pauses. After the interval, Haydn's C-major cello concerto, then the suite from "The Firebird," a journey through foreboding and enchantment to magic and public celebration. My heart's still racing with joy.

I bought my (ridiculously cheap) ticket for this concert because of the "Firebird," and because my father has taught me to love Haydn (and because my Japanese friend had told me that Fischer was all the rage in Japan), but by the time the concert rolled around there was an additional impetus. Times opera critic Anthony Tommasini had completed his semi-serious compiling of a list of the top ten classical composers, and while Stravinsky was included, Haydn had been somewhat guiltily dropped. He couldn't after all include all four of the Viennese, Tommasini explained. And besides, Haydn was included after all through his influence on Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert. Hmmm.

Beethoven was the only one of the New York Philharmonic concert's composers to make Tommasini's list (we heard a rather bombastic interpretation of the eighth symphony), but a different kind of promotion was going on. Alan Gilbert spent time with the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra before taking up the baton here in his hometown, and is a great advocate for Scandinavian music. In particular, we learned from the program, he thinks Carl Nielsen's symphonies deserve to be better known, indeed to be staples. He's "an even greater symphonist than Sibelius," we read in the program, "and that's really saying something!" And Sibelius, we learned, only entered the playlist a few decades ago because of one of Gilbert's predecessor Philharmonic Music Directors, Leonard Bernstein. In the next few years, Gilbert intends to introduce all of Nielsen's symphonies to New York.

I bought my (ridiculously cheap) ticket for this concert because the Nielsen symphony on the program was the second, "The Four Temperaments." Once upon a time, I wrote a whole article on the tradition of the temperaments, and it still has a special place in my heart. I knew Nielsen's symphony from CDs, but had never heard it performed. It's a doozy! Some interesting thematic development happens as each movement (named after a humor: Allegro collerico, Allegro comodo e flemmatico, Andante malincolico, Allegro sanguineo—Marziale) finds and then integrates a contrary mood, just as the humors were thought to do. In fact, the theory of the temperaments has affinities with the four-movement symphony, with its contrasting but calibrated movements, and distinct but interrelated themes.

Should Nielsen displace one of Tommasini's other two post-romantic composers (Claude Debussy and Béla Bartók) in the list? Probably not. But the world wouldn't end if we replaced the occasional Beethoven symphony with one of his. Or with one by Beethoven's teacher, Haydn.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Kin dread

A Snow Day meant no class meetings today. Instead, I puzzled out how to convey (that is, after first somehow understanding) the complicated kinship rules of the Yolngu people who are our first object of study. These diagrams from Howard Morphy's 1984 Journey to the Crocodile’s Nest: An accompanying monograph to the film “Madarrpa Funeral at Gurka’wuy” help show the weave of patriliny and matriliny - a little!


Wednesday, January 26, 2011


My friends who've been in New York the last month are weary of snow, but I'm delighted we're getting more of it. We had a dusting last night, and another this afternoon, an amuses gueule for what was to come. I thought the storm might have missed us when I headed into Avery Fischer Hall at 7:30 (details tomorrow - tonight was the first night of an orchestral double header), but when the concert was over: blizzard! And Prospect Heights 45 minutes later, oh my! Big flakes hurrying skitteringly by (wiggly lines record twirling, surely), our front gate had become a padded quilt, the kitchen window an impressionist igloo wall.


Like last year's, POTUS' SOTA - the President's State of the Union speech - cheered me more than I'd dared hope. He's still standing. The rhythms, the cadences, weren't his best - he seemed to lose confidence in some of his veiled barbs as he said them - but compared to the weird mix of ingenuous piety and goofily smiling fear-mongering of the official Republican respondent, he seemed in charge, forward-thinking, adult.

One rhetorical misstep surprised me, though I haven't seen the pundits pounce on it (not that I've searched much). It's the closing, when he told of the American whose small company, Center Rock, made the drill-bit used in the rescue of the Chilean miners last year. We haven't heard about him because he came right home, not wanting to distract from the joy of the rescue.

[L]ater, one of his employees said of the rescue, "We proved that Center Rock is a little company, but we do big things."

We do big things.

From the earliest days of our founding, America has been the story of ordinary people who dare to dream. That's how we win the future.

We're a nation that says, "I might not have a lot of money, but I have this great idea for a new company." "I might not come from a family of college graduates, but I will be the first to get my degree." "I might not know those people in trouble, but I think I can help them, and I need to try." "I'm not sure how we'll reach that better place beyond the horizon, but I know we'll get there. I know we will."

We do big things.

The idea of America endures. Our destiny remains our choice. And tonight, more than two centuries later, it's because of our people that our future is hopeful, our journey goes forward, and the state of our union is strong.

I'm all for big things, but how can one not hear "but a small company/country" as the phrase is repeated? I'm not a fan of overweening American exceptionalism, but somehow I missed the cocksure attitude of "we're the envy of all nations and the apple of God's eye" characteristic of SOTU speeches. For all sorts of reasons I appreciate the attention to "ordinary people" (and it was moving to see the triangle of Biden, Boehner and Obama in this context), but why allow even an echo of "small"? Perhaps it's the adult thing to recognize that, in the 21st century, Americans' best hope and our best contribution will be to be like those ordinary people who do great things without renouncing the value of the ordinary, indeed in the service of the ordinary, the decent, the human.

Maybe it's not a rhetorical misstep at all, but a quite deliberate suggestion that the step away from nationalist megalomania is a step back to our best selves. Maybe those who fetishize the word "exceptional" will hear this. I fear that those for whom it is not ordinary human dreams and decencies but divine favor (you heard this in Congressman Ryan's opening preachment) that makes America elect among the nations won't buy it. But are they as numerous and immovable as they want us to believe? Let's hope Obama's right. We know that even most American Evangelicals mean by "Christian America" something like the culture of ordinary effort, initiative and mutual care that he described.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Back to school

Both of my classes started today, bright and early: they're back-to-back 8-9:40 (Exploring Religious Ethics) and 10-11:40 (Aboriginal Australia and the Idea of Religion). The former started with the first of Krzysztof Kieslowski's "Dekalog" films, a haunting story with an uncondescending sense of the comforts of religion in the face of the tragic limits of human knowledge. The latter worked from an empty map of Australia I drew on the chalkboard - all desert! - with all its big coastal cities facing gamely outward, to this lovely map of a fully hospitable continent.

Monday, January 24, 2011


What better thing to do of a cold cold evening than bake bread?!


We're having quite a winter of it! Here's the scene Friday very early morning as the latest snowstorm tapered off. Not much of it has melted. And here's the view this morning, the single digit temperatures (9ºF =-13ºC!) making pillars of cloud of air vents one doesn't otherwise see.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Sacred suburb

Although I've been told that you could drive forty miles in any direction and still be in Houston, the area (Montrose I think is the name) we're in feels old suburban. Houston's in the heart of car country (you see the great petroleum refineries of Galveston as you fly in), but you can walk (yes, walk!) in fifteen minutes from my friend's mother's place to a sort of museum district, the quietly impressive complex of the Menil Collection.

A deliberately unimposing Renzo Piano-designed main museum - in which a Kurt Schwitters exhibition offered a recreation of his famous Merzbau (left) - anchors a series of other spaces in a near silent residential neighborhood free of commerce. (No coffee shop!) The most famous part of the complex may be the Rothko Chapel, but my breath was taken away by Dominique de Menil's final project, the 1997 "Byzantine Chapel." Inside a bunker-like building, two 13th century frescoes looted from a Cypriot church (the looters had broken them in 38 pieces which they intended to sell separately) and saved by the de Menil Foundation are presented in a quite extraordinary setting designed to undo the vandalism and restore their religious power: a virtual church designed by architect François de Menil. I don't think I can describe the experience of that space within a space (actually outside of space, since the vault's ceiling is invisible in the dark, all light either radiating from luminous glass or natural light washing down the far concrete walls). The suggestion that it's a kind of reliquary box doesn't quite describe it; it feels as much like a kind of extraterrestrial mausoleum of a vanished earthly civilization. I explored it from every angle like a reverent moth, unable to keep pace with waves of feeling: wonder, sadness, desolation, joy, calm... as it seemed old and new, intimate and grand, abstract and concrete, dead and alive. The frescoes themselves are only a small part of it, necessary but not sufficient.

I'll just say it's a reason to go to Houston.

Friday, January 21, 2011

South of Houston

Greetings from Houston! "Houston!?" you may well ask. It's not a city I know or have had any particular reason to visit. But a close New York friend has been here with her ailing mother, and someone needed to fly her nine-year-old daughter down to be with her for the weekend, and I was available (our Spring semester only starts Monday!), so here I am.
Getting here I've learned that, while you can't bring even a water bottle or a tube of toothpaste into an airplane terminal these days, you can take someone else's child to another state without anyone batting an eyelid. I'd been fretting. Surely someone would want to know why I was traveling with a little Ethiopian girl (and with a different surname)! Someone should want to know! Another of my best friends has worked for several years in Family Court in New York, and I've heard of many cases where a child was taken out of state - and beyond the reach of the State Courts - by an irate parent who had been denied custody or visitation rights. (Many of the "missing children" on milk cartons are in fact kidnapped by family.) Nothing can stop a car driving out of state, but I would have thought that at an airport (not least because of the vast apparatus of airport security) there would be some checks.

When I worried about this on the phone to my friend in Houston, she reassured me that children travel domestically without ID anyway; people would just assume I was her father. And in fact it went without a hitch. But I'm still unnerved. I'm glad we made it here, but it freaks me out that it should be have been possible.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Stars in my eyes

Met today with FM, an anthropologist of Aboriginal Australia. Since the acrylic painting movement in Aboriginal arts began among people he studied, the Pintupi, he's done important work not only on Aboriginal culture but also on the international phenomenon of Papunya painting. A great resource at my doorstep! Beyond citations and suggestions, I was hoping he'd tell me where one could go see Aboriginal arts in New York City: it's become clear to me that traditions as embodied as those of Aboriginal Australians can't be understood without at least some contact with or experience of concrete places or representations; I haven't been able to find reference to anything in NYC's museums and galleries.

I got lots of great citations and suggestions, but nothing on the local front. The nearest collection of Aboriginal art of any value is in Charlottesville! What to do? The more we talked, the more convinced I became that this class, of all classes, needs some shared lived experience with the object of study. I've already packed the first part of the class with images of Australian landscapes; just photos and video but I'd been counting on following up with actual painted representations of Dreamings with which we could share the space of a gallery at least (with the productive problems and ironies that entails). No such luck! What to do? You can't speak of concreteness in the abstract!

Then I was saved. As FM was showing me Howard Morphy's Aboriginal Art (London: Phaidon, 1998), a PostIt-marked page opened (298) with an image on it - tiny in comparison to the original's 372 x 171.4 cm, but plenty powerful: Yanjilypiri Jukurrpa (Star Dreaming), 1985. (Below: do click to make it at least a little bigger.) FM told me that a similar Milky Way painting by one of its three painters, Paddy Sims, is the subject of an interesting film I should be able to get my hands on. The art dealer/filmmaker David Betz had been fascinated but perplexed by Sims' description of his painting as depicting the "lifting up of the Milky Way," until he happened on an old photograph of a ritual in which a log wrapped in black materials was ceremonially lifted up by a group of men reenacting the work of the ancestors. (In desert Australia the Milky Way is perceived not as a stream of white but as the black shapes within a sky awash with stars.) Aha!

As FM recounted this, I had the same goose-bumpy epiphany Betz apparently describes (and FM had clearly had too). And I had my concrete lived landscape too.

Better, it's a piece of landscape we share not just vicariously in a gallery but in our own lives. It took me back to a night I spend sleeping under the Milky Way when I went on a group backpacking trip to King's Canyon, Kata Tjuta and Uluru (part of my trip by Ghan across the Red Center in June 2007). Here's how I described it in my diary at the trip's end:

Camping under the stars is a trip, though the flip side of a clear star-studded night is that it’s very cold; I think few of us slept well, as emerged when we slept far better the next, overcast and less frigid, night. The stars were not as bright and piercing as I’d expected from photos, perhaps because the half-moon was bright enough to illuminate things. When Scott [our guide] awoke us early next morning - five - well before the sunrise, the moon had set. I reveled in the Milky Way which is indeed so thick with star that you notice black spaces between the stars more than individual stars - Claire [another traveler] had been told by a guide on a tour she’d just completed in the Kimberley that Aboriginals saw a giant emu up there, and wasn’t it interesting that they look not at stars but at spaces between? It seemed entirely natural this night, perhaps also because I’m not trained to see constellations in this [the Southern] sky. Does the Milky Way always go from one horizon to another, and move slowly across the sky like a windshield wiper? (Actually, it rotates, as the films at the Desert Museum in Alice Springs showed.) I think it was too cold for deep thoughts for it wasn’t until later - and not the second night either, I think, but when I was thinking I should find a way to stay out under the stars a night in Kakadu until I thought of the bugs and the like there - that it occurred to me how radically different sleeping under the stars every night must be. Wherever you go, it’s the same sky - instead of having the same bed into which you flee from a harsh and indifferent world - you sleep in the sky, are cradled by it, rocked. What was that line about turning with the movement of the Milky Way from Yorro Yorro? If it’s safe to be exposed, then not sleeping under the stars seems like cutting yourself off from that grand embrace, like shutting yourself needlessly off from the most important sources of being. You’re at home there, it is your home. And not just because it’s the constant. Because one is so vulnerable when asleep, most open and trusting...

Not Bruce Chatwin, but good enough for me. Saved by a skyhook (take that, Dan Dennett!). And Yorro Yorro's already in the syllabus, too!

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Mix up

Everyone hates "wintry mix" - a stew of freezing rain, snow and sleet. It certainly make for unpleasant walking - slush in all its slushy forms. But when you look up you sometimes see some lovely ice sculptures.

Monday, January 17, 2011

A bridge too far?

I'm working on the syllabus for my new course, "Aboriginal Australia and the Idea of Religion," which I'll be teaching along with "Exploring Religious Ethics" in the semester which begins next week. It's a course I proposed soon after returning from Australia in 2007, but it hasn't had to move from idea to practice before now. What was I thinking? Actually, I know what I was thinking: representations of Aboriginal culture play a decisive role in Durkheim's Elementary Forms, Freud's Totem and Taboo and Eliade's Sacred and Profane. Tracing their views to their sources, and comparing these in turn with more up to date studies, could shed light on the theory of religion, its history and the problems in its practice. We might learn something about Aboriginal traditions, too!

There's still a shadow of that rather too academic project in the current syllabus - we follow an account of the sacred pole of an Arrernte ancester named Numbakulla from the description in Spencer and Gillen's The Arunta: A Study of a Stone-Age People to Eliade, through critiques of Eliade's interpretation and appropriation, and back to understandings of Arrernde traditions today. But most of the course will be about Aboriginal traditions today, which can challenge many a received view of the nature of time and space, sacred and natural, etc., but are obviously worth exploring in their own right. But how teach that, especially as a novice in the field, and thousands of miles from the territories of the Dreaming? Quite a challenge not to pull an Eliade myself.

It's still a bit of a work in progress, the syllabus. Ethical and methodological questions will continue to be important, though different ones. Instead of seeing the modern Western interpreter simply as uncomprehending and exploitative colonist, we'll also be looking at the role of ethnographers and historians in chronicling traditions threatened by settler Australian culture - and reinvented in response to these threats. The picture's much more complicated and fascinating. In the making of the film "Ten Canoes," for instance (our topic for the first few classes), film-maker Rolf de Heer and the Yolngu community of Ramingining worked with photographs taken by ethnographer Donald Thomson in the 1930s in order to revive a forgotten tradition of goose egg hunting - and tell a new/old story.

Indeed, the relationship of scholars and Aboriginal traditions can be a highly politicized one, never more so than during the so-called Hindmarsh Island Bridge controversy in the 1990s, when some Ngarrindjeri women tried to stop the construction of a bridge connecting an island in the mouth of the Murray (they call it Kumarangk) to the mainland, on the basis of secret women's teachings that keeping those places apart was necessary to the survival of the Ngarrindjeri. As secret teachings, they could of course not be shared (though they were at one point represented by sealed envelopes at a hearing), and these women's claims were declared a "fabrication" by a Royal Commission (some other Ngarrindjeri women claimed never to have heard of the tradition), and the bridge was eventually built. During the hearings, anthropologists were accused of colluding with the women. Had not earlier scholarship shown that Ngarrindjeri culture lacked the codes of secrecy characteristic of many other Aboriginal peoples. And besides, women don't have sacred knowledge, do they?

How would one (who?) know?

The case is vastly more complicated than I can describe here, but know that a later report, in 2001, vindicated the Ngarrindjeri women's claim, and in July of last year, the South Australian state government recognized the authenticity of the "women's business." The picture at top (from here) is of Ngarrindjeri in a symbolic crossing of the bridge. Especially in light of Ngarrindjeri elder Tom Trevorrow's explanation - "We may use the bridge to access our land and waters but culturally and morally we cannot come to terms with this bridge" - this seems like a powerful image of the forced reinventions of Aboriginal traditions.

Some gaps are meant to stay unbridged. But in time, especially colonial and postcolonial time, nothing meant to stay apart is safe from being bridged. How do I teach without invidious bridge-building?

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Ghosts of Christmas past

Seems like I haven't been away that long - the streets are full of Christmas trees! I thought at first that they had been buried in the snowdrifts, and only just reappeared like Ötsi as the snow started to melt. The truth is a bit more prosaic: there wasn't room on the sidewalks to throw them out, or on the streets for the mulching trucks. But this is pleasing in its own way: the Christmas trees got to stay longer in people's apartments...

Friday, January 14, 2011

Back to Winter and man-made landscapes...

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Wave fantasia

The weaving of the waves on Torrey Pines State Beach, as seen near end of day from Yucca Point, with Purcell's 13th Fantasia for Viols, from my first CD. (This little four-arrow square at bottom right expands it to fill the screen.)

Wednesday, January 12, 2011


I'm heading back to snow and cold tomorrow, so it seemed a good idea to stock up on desert warmth at the San Diego Botanic Garden today.
Sigh. And another eighty people a day die of gunshot wounds.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Site lines

Some highlights of the Stuart Collection of site-specific sculptures at UCSD. Robert Irwin's "Two Running Violet V Forms" (1983), whose translucent blue dances with the colorless color of the eucalyptus. (I didn't notice the blue UCSD bus when taking this picture!)

Nam June Paik, "Something Pacific" (1986):
television as part of the American landscape.

John Baldessari's entrance to Geisel Library, "Read/Write/Think/Dream" (2001): as students go in and out of a vestibule (with giant images of students, pencils, palm trees and surf), glass doors in primary colors slide back and forth (a little like the tide) to make more colors.

Alexis Smith, "Snake Path" (1992) leads up to Geisel Library;
from here, the library looks like a rattlesnake's rattle.

Bruce Nauman, "Vices and Virtues" (1988) wrap around this building. FAITH/LUST starts a series (alternating lights at night) which continues with HOPE/ENVY, CHARITY/SLOTH, PRUDENCE/PRIDE, JUSTICE/AVARICE, TEMPERANCE/GLUTTONY, and FORTITUDE/ANGER.

And coming later this year, atop a building facing the Nauman,the latest installation of Do Ho Suh's "Fallen Star."