Sunday, July 31, 2011

Tokyo daze

On an unusually and refreshingly cool day in Tokyo, walked with friends to Meiji Shrine and its grand forest, found a fairy tale castle hidden among the office buildings in Shinjuku, and heard Bon odori practice in Honkomagome. (In the middle of the day I was in a bookstore!)

Saturday, July 30, 2011


Buddhas and Bodhisattvas galore! Flyer for an exhibit introducing Buddhist figures at the Kamakura Museum. and some etiquette tips on how to comport yourself around Buddhist 仏像 statuary.

Posters for an exhibition on 空海 Kûkai at the National Museum: 98.9% National Treasures and Important Cultural Properties!
The 大仏 Great Buddha of Kamakura in life and in udon noodles.

地蔵菩薩 Jizô in Kamakura; the first is inside the Butsuden at  建長寺 Kenchôji, the second from a mizuko kuyô site at 長谷寺 Hase, whose souvenir shop also sells the squishy colored Jizô keychains at the end.
Blooming now in Japan ...

Friday, July 29, 2011

Sights expected and unexpected

To stave off jetlag, I walked southeast from the little ryokan-style hotel I'm in staying in at Ikebukuro (not a part of Tokyo I know at all). Starting with the owls (fukuro ふくろ) with which Ikebukuro fudges its name (it's actually pond (ike 池)-bag (fukuro 袋), not pond-owl), I made my way through the claustrophobic passageway under the train station, wove through cyclists on a broad shopping street, and continued past the demolition of a neighborhood's last wooden house as an elevated expressway roared above. At the big cemetery of Zozoji I passed a station of the city's last surviving streetcar. The headquarters of the big publisher Kodansha displayed recent work. Under a sullen sun I had a look at Kenzo Tange's rather wonderful Catholic Cathedral of Saint Mary (a gift of the city of Köln), a Lourdes cavern rather jarringly facing it, and ended my trek at the ritzy hotel garden of Chinzanso, which boasts a medieval pagoda brought from rural Hiroshima in the 1920s.

Thursday, July 28, 2011


Back in Japan, after nearly five years! Actually it's even more than that since I had a proper visit. From 1987 I spent three and half years here (1987-89, 1992-3) and visited faithfully every year until my Paris year 2001-2; after the two visits in 2004 and one in 2006 it was just the few days stopovers between Australia and California in January 2007. Much has changed in all this time, and on a first day back it's hard to distinguish the silent oppression of this hot season (I was last here in this season in 1995) from the particular anxieties of this year, with the full consequences of natural disaster and political weakness still unknown. Anyway, the Keisei train to Nippori felt like a local country train (it's not) with people in teeshirts and shirtsleeves and minimal air-conditioning. A dirty white sky made all colors dull except for some fields of ripening rice, whose green was luminous. As we approached Tokyo through clusters of new high-rise apartments this shape appeared on the left. It's the Tokyo Sky Tree, the tallest tower in the world, and twice the height of its predecessor the Tokyo Tower. You would have heard of it, I'm sure, had the day it reached its full height in March not been the day of the earthquake. It was unharmed, but not the return to global player status it was meant to show...

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Cargo cult

One can't visit friends without bearing gifts, especially Japanese friends!

Monday, July 25, 2011

Japan plan

I left it unbelievably late, but I've finally worked out an itinerary and accommodation for my Japan trip. I'll be in familiar places, mainly, though it's been a long time since I've spent quality time anywhere in Japan. Of course I'm seeing friends, too, and the right way: not just once.

• 4 nights in Tokyo (including a big exhibition on Kukai, and daytrip to Kamakura with, if I dare, a dip in the ocean at Enoshima)

• 2 nights in Matsumoto (Japan Alps, west of Tokyo: a castle [above], zaru soba, and meeting the 3-year-old daughter of friends)

• 2 nights in Kiryu (Gunma Prefecture, north of Tokyo, where my Japanese family lives)

• And 2 more nights to wrap things up in Tokyo (permitting visits to kabuki and breakfast at the Tsukiji fish market).

Sunday, July 24, 2011


Today was the day - hundreds of same-sex couples legally wed all over the state of New York! My friend C, court attorney in the Bronx, was with her judge among the court officials who volunteered to open shop today. As joyful teary couples of all kinds passed through - one had been together for nearly forty years, another for seven months - the judge asked them how they'd met, what it meant for each of them: moving answers all. Most brought witnesses; a mother of a groom who lived too far away to be there in person participated by speakerphone! To the question "why today?" couples said they didn't want to wait a day longer! For the Times Ron Barrett drew a lovely, loving picture of a diverse community of lovely, loving couples.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Thank you very much o mister robotto

Saw what might be history's first modern dance with hovering, swooping, light-flashing robots tonight, Pilobolus' "Seraph," developed and performed with the MIT Distributed Robotics Lab. Enough said. (Pic)

Wednesday, July 20, 2011


I'm flying high, a little bit at least! The writer friend who challenged me to write that personal narrative about the Aboriginal Australia course finds, after reading the first half, that I "write very well," with great "energy." He's even asked me to participate in a reading series he coordinates! Me a writer? Hooda thunkit!

I'm haunted by having been told early in my graduate career that I had a tendency to write "teutonic prose" - by which I think the speaker meant something like a Wagnerian orchestra of a sentence rumbling with qualifications, subordinate clauses and parenthetical observations. Here's an example of what he had mind, with the excuse of triple authorship, at least one thinking in German while writing in English:

"Introduction" to Lived Religion: Conceptual, Empirical and Practical-Theological Approaches: Essays in Honor of Hans-Günter Heimbrock, ed. Heinz Streib, Astrid Dinter and Kerstin Söderblom (Münster: LIT, 2008), ix

Tuesday, July 19, 2011


A friend whose favorite director is Sidney Lumet took me to see "12 Angry Men" at Film at Lincoln Center's Lumet festival. What a great film! I know it, of course - saw the stage revival in 2005, too, and even screened it for a class on Religion and Democracy. But of course since the last time I encountered the film, I've been on a jury myself. It's no accident that I posted a still from it the day before closing arguments - it was my image of what we were doing, its difficulty and its nobility. How does it hold up in comparison to an actual jury deliberation? Pretty well. I wouldn't go so far as to say that you could find each of the play/film's types in our jury, but a good many of them. We had everything from the dogmatist who declared her/his mind couldn't be changed to the immigrant civics lesson. (Not sure who I would have been.) Less drama, of course, and less class prejudice (it was gender stereotypes which we had to wrestle with), and, perhaps thankfully, less of the sense of a battle being won 11-1, 10-2, 9-4, 8-4, 6-6, 3-9, 2-10, 11-1. (We were stuck at 6-6 for a long time.) The lesson that just talking will uncover things, especially with a group of strangers, was certainly borne out. And in our trial as in the film (another strength of the film), you never find out if the verdict reached was the right one. (For as much as I can tell you about our trial, look here.)

Monday, July 18, 2011

Religion, lived and visible!

Turns out "lived religion" isn't just a movement among historians and sociologists of American religion excited by the promise of religious ethnography. "Lived religion" appears also to be the name of another movement - unrelated to the American though kin in its enthusiasm for the ethnographic - in Europe, at the boundaries of religious education, "World Christianity" and pastoral praxis. I don't know much about it, but I just received a fat collection called Lived Religion: Conceptual, Empirical and Practical-Theological Approaches: Essays in Honor of Hans-Günter Heimbrock on interlibrary loan (Heimbrock seems to have made a distinction between gelebte [lived] and gelehrte [taught] Religion); it has over three dozen contributors! I also got myself a copy of Elizabeth Koepping's Food, Friends and Funerals: On Lived Religion. Both books appeared in 2008, and both were published by the same German publisher (LIT, in Münster)! I don't alas have time to read them right now, but I note a sweet new definition of religion in Koepping: "being a person in the visible and less visible world" (2). Nice!

Sunday, July 17, 2011

On a roll

On a whim I got myself a pair of those shoes with the rounded soles, good for backs, they say. It's true! In no time, back tension all gone (though my calves at first ached as if I'd been hiking in mountains)! Good for the posture too!

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Guide to strange places

The great Cleveland Orchestra and their fine Austrian director Franz Welser-Möst have just completed a mini-festival of Bruckner at Lincoln Center, half of which I've had the delight of attending. The premise for this first New York Bruckner festival in many years is that Bruckner was a kind of minimalist, and in the first three concerts Bruckner symphonies were paired with works by John Adams. On Wednesday, I heard Adams' "Guide to Strange Places" (2001) and Bruckner's Fifth and was riveted by both.

Tonight it was only Bruckner, as the glorious Eighth was on the program (the sprawly 1887 original version). I really got the proto-minimalism - especially in the scherzo (whose brass refrains I decided were what the hosannas in heaven sound like, on and on, never the same, always resplendent) - and from there it was widening waves of marvel. How does this music work so powerfully? For the first third I fleetingly imagined other arts - opera, dance, film - which might complete or complement what I was hearing, but of course neither voice nor movement nor image was required. Then it was marveling that human beings - 2700 of us on a mid-July Saturday night in New York City! - could be moved by it: we're a profound species if you give us a chance. Cameo here for philosophical phenomenology, please, which makes its case most compellingly when you start with music and time.

And from there, wow. I lost track of time. (What's 92 minutes among friends?) I remember a French friend describing a trip to the Tuareg desert as worth three months of analysis (ça vaut trois mois de psychanalyse!), and this was like that - because, I think, of those elements of Bruckner's art which now seem prophetic of minimalism. Guided by the endlessly iterating and looping music (a flatfooted critic apparently called this symphony the Riesenschlange!), constant rediscovery in moods of tenderness and cloudy dissonance and ultimate triumph, I followed a string of images and feelings backwards and forward, which ultimately took me back to a boy - a preacher's son, can it be? - I met in a village in rural Bavaria when I was fourteen, who seemed the perfect friend. I wanted to live his life, a sort of 19th century life, with him. I've no idea any more what his name is (Thomas perhaps?) or if he's even alive. I have thought of him periodically, though, over the years - a life I might have had in a German fairy tale - but only tonight realized he was my first love. Funny where great music can take you...


I can't claim to be an Isabella Stewart Gardner, but I have wound up with a few nice things in my place of various provenance. Yesterday a handmade Mexican vase called out to me from the Forest Floor, our local antique and curio shop. Its shape, patterns and even color go deliciously well not just with the shape and structure of a print from Oxford but also with the weave of the rattan chairs I found on a stoop in Park Slope and the pattern on the cushion I inherited with the apartment, no? Come by and see 'em!

Friday, July 15, 2011

Voice from the whirlwind

... whimpers trying to be a bang

Thursday, July 14, 2011


At Congregation B’nai Jeshurun tonight, a splendid Celebration of Marriage Equality in New York State. BJ's Panin el Panin social justice group decided to make striving for full equality for LGBT people one of its causes twenty years ago (1991 was also the first same-sex blessing at BJ), and for the last five years a dedicated group (called the BJ Marriage Equality Hevra) has contributed to interfaith and political organizing on the marriage issue. Today "victory for all loving couples" was celebrated with a kind of wedding. It was put together so well, so thoughtfully.

From under a huppah, several sets of people introduced and read the "Seven Blessings of Marriage Equality," put together by the rabbis. Read them with me! The first was introduced by an interfaith couple (one of the two B'nai Jeshurun shares with Holy Apostles, as it happens).The second was prefaced by a man who as a teenager was witness to the earliest blessings of gay unions in 1971 in a church in Manhattan, but at that stage could never have dreamed he'd see it at a synagogue. He invoked the memory of many who didn't live to see this day. The next was introduced by a recently wed straight couple, who read out a statement as they’d read it out at their own nuptials a few weeks before the marriage equality vote, lamenting the way marriage had been made a political issue and a way of excluding people and committing themselves to making it available for all loving couples. Next, a Hevra member, straight mother of three with a van, said she and her husband had been involved in this struggle although they “had no horse in the race”: except that they do, two horses, in fact — their commitment to social justice, and their commitment to their faith. Fifth came the other BJ-CHA interfaith couple, who described the ways they’d had to sideline themselves in discussions of marriage before, but when they had availed themselves of legal marriage in Connecticut found to their delight that it seemed entirely normal. A policeman even tore up a parking ticket when they told him they'd just gotten married. The next was introduced by an older lesbian couple who’ve been dreaming of marriage for a long time, and while looking forward to finally tying the knot, reminded us how many other injustices endure. The several co-chairs of the marriage equality Hevra read the last.

Then one of the rabbis called up the woman who had challenged BJ to face this issue twenty years ago to crush a glass. It's reminder of the destruction of the temple, she reminded us, of all that is broken in this world and also of the hope of making it whole. And then there was dancing!

Geographic illiteracy

I sort of hate to admit this, but there is a lot about this map (in the spirit of that most famous of New Yorker covers, Saul Steinberg's 1976 "View of the World from Ninth Avenue") that is spot-on. Of course, as a Southern Californian I know that LA and SF are more than an hour apart, and that more than wine is grown up north. But the precise location of Nebraska?