Thursday, February 28, 2013

Tree taken

What remains of the tree in front of our building, damaged in that storm in 2010, was taken out today - only errant woodchips remain. Hope we get something nice in its place!

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Public / private

An interesting topic which came up during my tutorial advising group's discussion at Radiance: higher education as a public or private good. (Okay, so that's the language I proposed for it, but the topic arose organically from the conversation.) Like many students at our school, they find a contradiction between our "progressive" aims and our price-tag. If a kind of education is accessible only to wealthier students, how progressive can it be? One of our number, a Canadian, sees progressive liberal arts becoming something like its opposite under these circumstances, entrenching privilege by giving upper class students the illusion that they have encountered the excluded rest.

Too true. As our dean says, the "business model of higher education is broken." I'm excited to be at a place where efforts are being made to do something, but there's not much we can about the structural constraints of a labor-intensive small-class curriculum in an expensive city reliant for funding on its students - "tuition-driven," we tend to say, but "debt-driven" is the more difficult truth.

What made yesterday's discussion different from similar discussions I've had (believe me, the topic is on everyone's mind) was the international perspective my group brought. One is, as I've said, Canadian, and was in Montreal during some of last year's student protests against tuition raises. Another transferred from a big-lecture state school in New England, but by way of study abroad in Turkey, where several friends recommended he finish his studies in a state-subsidized European university. To the others the idea that public education might be free, or substantially subsidized by, was eye-opening. I told them of my British classmates at Oxford who (how things have changed!) not only paid no tuition but received a stipend for living, almost like a wage for being a student.

The day when higher education will again, or at last, be a universal right the way K-12 schooling is, isn't coming any time soon. But it's worth appreciating one of the ways in which our current system fails us. Since students and their families have to pay, or borrow, so much for an education, they naturally think of what they get as something that's theirs, something they scrimped and saved for, worked hard for, spent years paying for. It's a private good. Caught in this system we can hardly imagine that society might invest in you, making your education a public good.

Question of the day: is liberal arts, as currently configured and imagined, constrained by - even as it challenges - the idea of higher education as a private good?

Tuesday, February 26, 2013


So this was the day Mark told his Buddhism & Liberal Arts advising tutorial group to meet at the Museum of Modern Art, to soak in the opaque warmth of Wolfgang Laib's "Pollen from Hazelnut" in the atrium, reflect on a reading from David Loy's A Buddhist History of the West: Studies in Lack over coffee, and to strongly recommend a look at "Inventing Abstraction: 1910-25." Good ideas all, especially the lack-abstraction connection, but... MoMA's closed on Tuesdays!

We were fine. The lobby was open. You could watch traffic on 54th (as above, flashing). Even better was watching the people breezing in from 53rd - as each of us had done - looking surprised and delighted that it was so empty and then haltingly, each in her own way, slowing down in confusion or consternation at the unwelcome realization that the museum was closed. Lack of museum! (Surely someone's made a video of just this, and sold it to a museum of modern art somewhere?)

The students took it in their stride. Maybe it's even a relief when the big cultural institution stands there mute (or when your teacher blows it!). And as a consolation prize, each of us filled in one of the I went to MoMA and... cards which you can fill in, scan, and, eventually, see projected overhead with others saying things like great art! and fell in love and I can't believe my eyes! It was as I imagined - all here in real life. memorable. Here's the 15 seconds of fame mine received:
Instead of spending time with Laib and then repairing to the museum café for our convo, we made our way to Eastern Radiance, a Chinese tea house on 55th Street, where we tittered over the purple descriptions of our An Xie Tie Guan Yin and Yellow Mt. Mao Feng tea. And - whaddaya know - talked, and talked! Our topic was "School/Life" and being off-campus freed up conversation nicely. Two students eventually had to return to school for another class; the others stayed another hour.

Monday, February 25, 2013

A pleasure

Here's rather a sweet poem I found, for use in my advising tutorial. (I think what I'll do is ask students to tell of an experiences corresponding to each of the three wondrous lines of the second stanza.)

I am a student

I am a student.
I have been a student as long as I remember.
And it is a pleasure to be a student.

It is a pleasure to learn that I don't know.
It is a pleasure to learn that I already know.
It is a pleasure to learn that I was mistaken.

It is a joy to learn from Great Masters.
It is a joy to learn by sharing what I learnt.
It is a joy to learn how to be what I am.

I seek to learn about the world around me.
I seek to learn about what I actually am.
I seek to learn how to be a proper human being.

Clouds show me the nature of my world.
Rivers show me the nature of myself.
Babies show me how to be more human.

I am a student.
I will be a student as long as I live.
And it is a pleasure to be a student.

Gangtok, 18th January 2003

[Different parts of this stand out for different people. I'm all about the second stanza. For my friend G it was "Rivers show me the nature of myself," for my Advising Tutorial students it was "Babies show me how to be more human," for my friend L it was "I seek to learn how to be a proper human being."]

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Absorbing read

It's taken me forever to finish this book - I picked it up (actually, got a free copy) at AAR in November - but I'm finally through. Don't take my slow process through it as a sign of lack of enthusiasm. To finish a book for as scatterbrained a person as me requires multiple acts of recommitment!

But in this case it took a long time also because it's such a good book, so incisive. (Sometimes I don't finish something because I don't want it to come to an end.) Ostensibly a study of the Vineyard churches, a new Evangelical movement (another Southern California gift to contemporary religion!) which encourages its members to talk with God all the time, it's really about faith in the modern world. This becomes explicit at the end, but I sensed it as I read. I've never been part of a Vineyard type congregation, nor been tempted to be. But the efforts, anxieties and rewards described here resonated with me - a surprise, as I'm not a very diligently religious person.

T. M. Luhrmann is a psychological anthropologist, now at Stanford, who cut her teeth in earlier studies of neopagan and psychoanalytic cultures. As well as anyone I've read in a long time she maintains a neutrality in her writing, neither simply accepting nor contesting Vineyard people's accounts of what's going on. A sign of her success if the embrace of her book by Evangelicals, who recognize themselves in her account, no less than by the outsiders she refers to as "skeptics." She manages somehow to report that studies find religious practice lead to happier and healthier lives without endorsing or relativizing these practices.

Like William James, in the distinguished lineage of whose Varieties this book belongs, When God talks back ends with a carefully stated endorsement of the reality of the experiences studied. In my own way I have come to know God. I do not know what to make of this knowing. I would not call myself a Christian, but I find myself defending Christianity. (325) But Luhrmann's done more than James, who sat in his study reading memoirs, and then concluding God is real because he has real effects. James thought himself constitutionally excluded from such effects, but Luhrmann allowed these effects to happen to her. She let Vineyard texts, sermons and groups teach her to pray, even engaged a spiritual director, and began to understand parts of church teaching not just as so many intellectual doctrinal commitments but as having an emotional logic of their own. (325) She writes all this on the last page of her text, which I am proud to say I didn't sneak a peek of before time. You sense it long before. It suffuses the rigor, sympathy and care with which she writes.

One can only hope that the book is read widely. It would be nice for smug skeptics to appreciate that Christians are not credulous dupes but find God hard to hear, and work hard - on their own and even more together - to sift his voice from their own. (Vineyard practice, we learn, is all about teaching you how to feel God's presence, in intimate detail and in your daily life.) They might initially be disappointed that these Evangelicals are less interested in explaining things (even evil) than feeling related to things, but should eventually be relieved at not having to work so hard at imagining them pathological and irrational. Maybe they'd even admit to participating in analogous efforts to coax a meaning for the cosmos into reality. Evangelicals might find in her work confirmation that non-Evangelicals can be trusted to listen, and to hear.

I found When God talks back a bracing read in part because of her ability to write so sympathetically - virtually from the inside - about a worldview she does not share. Not because I felt she was invading "my" space, but because her place within it reminded me a little uncannily of my own. The religious studies scholar's cap sometimes stays on when I go to church. This doesn't undermine the experiences of the significance of ritual, of community, etc., as I encounter it, I think. (Rather, it's more like "aha, so that's what that theory was all about!") But it does make me wonder if what I'm getting isn't perhaps more generic, or at least more general, than the Christian trappings in which I meet it.

What particularly intrigued me, and unsettled me a bit, too, was learning about psychological studies which find that some people are more open to "absorption" experiences than others. Luhrmann introduces a 34-statement test called the Tellegen Absorption Scale:

The scale ... has only one statement that could be construed as religious. Instead, its statements describe experiences of nature and color and music. They describe textures and smells. There are statements that assert that you, the scale-taker, sometimes experience things as a child; that you can "see" the image of something when no longer looking at it; that you sometimes discover that you have finished a task when your thoughts are elsewhere; that different smells call up different colors; that you often sense the presence of a person before seeing him or her; that you can become oblivious to everything else when listening to music; that you sometimes keep listening to a fascinating voice. (195)

Many more people have these sorts of experiences than you might expect. And it turns out that people who give positive responses to many of these are also more likely to have had experiences of hearing religious voices that seem to come from outside their minds, feeling God's touch on their shoulder, seeing angels, Jesus, etc. The sorts of practices the Vineyard encourages teach people how to become more open to the sorts of experiences psychologists define as "hallucinations" but Luhrmann more gently defines as "sensory overrides": moments when perception overrides the material stimulus (216). Being able to immerse yourself in, to savor an experience beyond immediate stimulus is demonstrably a boon in many circumstances. It's about perceptual bias, not perceptual deficit (219).

I haven't taken the test but the discussion suggested that I'm in the absorptive pack. I suppose I've always know this, but in this setting it was unnerving. Why? Well, Luhrmann's discussion suggests that religious experiences are mediated by factors of personality as much as by whatever religious objects they may have. And besides, the capacity for absorption isn't only a good thing. High absorption people are highly suggestible in the false memory department, etc. I guess I've known that part, too, always picking up, as few of my students do, the point in Schleiermacher's Speeches on Religion where the church is born: powerful experiences of passivity, of being acted on (Schleiermacher's language now, not the Vineyard's or Luhrmann's) must surely be unsettling, and the first thing one might expect someone who has such an experience to do is to describe it to trusted others, to make sure one isn't being acted on by a malevolent force. That is why, the inventor of modern "religion" thought, Once there is religion, it must necessarily also be social. (trans. Crouter [CUP 1996], 73).

Powerful stuff, and powerfully contemporary! This account barely scratches its surface but When God talks back is a great book. It'll open your eyes, about others and also perhaps about yourself. Read it!

Daily bread

Actually only the second baking of the year, but the best loaves yet!

Saturday, February 23, 2013

and improved

Our college is nearing the end of a first stage of a strategic planning process. Over a year of small and large group meetings with students, faculty, staff, alums, parents, funders, etc. have produced a 16-page document which articulates our strengths and vision and the challenges we face (like the January Moodys industry outlook below) we face. I was part of a some conversations but had nothing to do with larger process.

Until this week when, somehow, I ended up the point person for "the document." At a faculty meeting last week the dean distributed the latest draft and invited faculty to step forward to help revise it. I don't remember stepping forward, though I did send a page of suggestions; I guess everyone else stepped back. In any case, at a mini-retreat yesterday, while other faculty and staff giddly explored new directions, I got to anchor the "document table." Some colleagues who'd helped tweak the document earlier in the week joined, too.

We fixed a lot. The change I'm happiest about is in a sentence about what makes our signature seminars so important.

students speak naturally and frequently about critical thinking as fundamental to what they learn here, about seminar dynamics that include having their ideas challenged by peers, and about the high level of engagement in the class.
students speak frequently about critical thinking as fundamental to what they learn here, about seminar dynamics that include having their ideas challenged and improved by peers, and about the excitement of collective inquiry, experimentation and discovery.

While still wordy, I think that makes clear why we do what we do. It's not just about critical thinking, challenge and engagement for their own sake, not just about individual exploration and ideas, but about discovery and building things together, about better ideas.

Finding the right words won't address the larger problems identified in the Moodys report, but at least they make clear why our chatty and labor-intensive approach is worth fighting for. Back to you, dean!

Friday, February 22, 2013

Prokofiev over Wagner

It wasn't quite a fair match, I grant you, Sergei vs. Richard.

I saw Pacific Northwest Ballet perform "Roméo et Juliette" last Saturday afternoon and was so entranced by it that I got myself a recording (Lorin Maazel and the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra) and have been steeping myself in it. As of Wednesday I don't need to listen to it any more. Tragic and glorious, the multifaceted, tonally entirely distinctive but coherent musical world is with me, different parts coming to mind at different times - and all the time. It's like when I fell in love with Janacek's musical world through the "Cunning Little Vixen." I might add that the production was beautifully done, too, often wonderfully witty choreography by Jean-Christophe Maillot, lovely lighting, and a very dashing Romeo, the freshly principal dancer'd James Moore. In another life I'd like to be a dancer in that production.

Still, "Parsifal," which I saw at the Met last night, is a big dose of Wagnerian magic. Although a drearily unbeautiful production with lots of singers standing or slumped for extended periods of time (the knights were lucky to have chairs in the first act) and tedious anxieties about the redemptive power of heterosexual union, it was magnificently sung. René Pape's Gurnemanz was exquisite. (A taste.) And it is nearly six hours of its own kind of musical steeping. Besides, "Parsifal" is the first opera I saw at the Met years ago, standing at the top of the Family Circle, watching Jessye Norman inch across the stage moaning "Dienen... dienen," and then redeemed. I can still remember being lifted by the ascending chromatic Leitmotif of the grail, which seemed to stretch my spine long after the opera's end.

This "Parsifal" leaves you where it finds you, in post-apocalyptic twilight. "Romeo and Juliet" tells of a world of doomed happiness, but it was Prokofiev waiting for me in the plaza of Lincoln Center.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Invisible cities

View from my office, late winter afternoon.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Meanwhile, in Rome...

It's none of my business, really, but I can't resist posting this...

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Liberating arts?

The second session of "Buddhism and Liberal Arts" was as exciting as the first! Turns out we have lots of thoughts about Buddhism - especially about meditation. (Very interesting discussion about the value of journaling about meditation, something a New School instructor requires of his students.) The prompt "liberal arts," however, drew a somewhat embarrassed blank, and some rather cynical views when I prodded. (You wouldn't guess that from our whiteboard, though: we brainstorm around "Buddhism" next week.) It's curious. These are just the sort of students who should be at a liberal arts college and they're doing everything right (like finding out about "B&LA"!), but they've been given no articulate sense of what we're doing and why it's worth doing. It's easier to say what liberal arts is not, one said. What's missing seems (at least at first) to be a sense that liberal arts might involve a truth that sets you free - that there might be objective truths and not just endless varied interpretations in matters human. Let's see if they have similar expectations from Buddhism. Next week we meet at MoMA.

Monday, February 18, 2013


This amazing picture was taken on a whalewatching cruise off San Diego on Thursday. Apparently it's the biggest known "mega-pod" of common dolphins ever seen. The captain described it as an unthinkable seven miles long and five miles wide, estimated the number at 100,000. I remember encountering a megapod when we went out in 2009, scores of dolphins zooming by like stitches on a sewing machine, but that will have been as nothing compared to this enormous convocation...

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Stressing out

This is a fun book! It takes apart the idea that "Buddhism" is a science rather than a religion, that, indeed, the Buddha anticipated all the latest scientific discoveries. Lopez has a great sense of the historical contingencies of the western discovery (invention) of Buddhism, and offers compelling reasons why westerners would be drawn to a tradition that apparently didn't force a choice between religion and science, and why Asian Buddhists would seek to present their tradition as philosophy, psychology, science - anything but "religion." These together led to the construction of a "Scientific Buddha," whose connection to actual Asian traditions is limited at best. Lopez comes not to praise but to bury him.

The heart of the argument is a take-down of the late 19th-century idea that Buddhist karma is like evolution, and the late 20th-century idea that Buddhist meditation is about stress-reduction. In fact, Buddhism seeks to lead people to extinction and its meditation traditions are about "stress induction" - making us see the world as a prison, a nightmare, to be escaped at all costs. (Lopez is rather Theravada-focused in this part of the discussion...) What drives evolution, Lopez suggests, is precisely what Buddhist practice tries to wean us from!

Far better, Lopez concludes, to let Buddhism be what it is, instead of reducing it to a mere confirmation of something else. If the past has a future, it is in its description of an alternative world, one that calls into question so many of the fundamental assumptions of our scientific world. (123)

Saturday, February 16, 2013

ERSEH can you see!

Updated poster for our big conference. You can watch it online and even submit questions digitally if you can't make it to New York!

Friday, February 15, 2013


The odds are mind-blowing. The very same day we were waiting for an asteroid to pass closer to the earth than any in a very long time, a meteorite slammed into the atmosphere from the other direction - the biggest such event in a century. And the scale: the meteorite may have been no bigger than a car, but it produced waves of sonic booms which shattered windows and injured people for hundreds of miles. Golly.

Actually what's not news is that objects should be hitting earth from various directions. Turns out that smaller objects in enormous numbers drop by continually, adding up to 80,000 tons every day. Most are tiny and burn up in the atmosphere. All it takes to make the streaks in the sky we call "shooting stars" is a meteorite bit the size of a pea!

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Another one gone

The Barnes & Noble bookstore at 8th Street and Sixth Ave has closed!

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Giving way

On pedagogical principle, I never ask students to do something like a free writing assignment without doing it myself. Amazingly, the assignment does its work on me too. I surprise myself every time.

This time we were moving from the Jataka Tales to Fear and Trembling, a big leap I grant you! But the final Jataka - the final life of the bodhisattva (future Buddha) and the longest - tells of a father who gives his children away, Prince Vessantara. The part of Fear and Trembling we'd read provides four sketches of the story of the binding of Isaac, each quite different, focusing on the many different things which might have been going on in the silence of that story - all in service of the larger argument that people think they understand Abraham but in fact refuse to abide long enough with the story to face the central monstrous paradox of it. Kierkegaard invites/forces us to wonder: what look was on Abraham's face when he raised the knife? What went through his head, through Isaac's? How did they remember it? There is no answer in the text, and that is part of its power and terrible significance - if we don't quickly fold it into a banality like "testing" or "giving the best you have."

I thought we'd try the same thing with the story of Prince Vessantara who, banished by his people for giving away the source of their prosperity, goes into the forest with his wife and two children. Along the way the future Buddha gives away their chariot, horses, etc., too. He came into the world wishing to give unstintingly, whenever asked, to good and evil without distinction, and when he demonstrates a particularly spectacular feat of generosity, the earth trembles.
Eventually a wicked Brahmin named Jujaka (the Jatakas' stock villains are Brahmins) finds the family in the woods and asks to have Vessantara's children as slaves. The bodhisattva graciously obliges. But - and I read this part of the oldest surviving textual version to class on Monday - there is much pathos in the scene. (It has inspired much art, like the Thai depiction above.) The children hide in a lotus pond but Vessantara finds them and asks them to let him fulfil his vow. They acquiesce, but cling, crying to his legs. He weeps, his tears falling on their backs, but passes them on to Jujaka, who binds their hands together and leads them away, beating them. When Jujaka slips and the children escape, running back to their father, Vessantara returns them to Jujaka.

The story's awful, even when you know that the children are ultimately reunited with their father, Jujaka dies of overeating, and Vessantara goes on to become the Buddha. So I was curious how the class remembered it, and asked them to take ten minutes to write the story of Vessantara, Jujaka and the children. I did too (see below). But an interesting thing happened. None of the students wrote about it! Some tried to tell the whole story of Vessantara, starting with his birth and barely getting into the tale before time ran out, others hurried through many of his fabled acts of generosity in a matter-of-fact summary way. I suggested that there was something so appalling about the story of his giving away his children that we couldn't bear to dwell on it, and the class agreed. We hadn't shared, perhaps even with ourselves, how disturbing the religious celebration of Vessantara's generosity was to us. (Richard Gombrich thinks it records the structural pain of Theravada societies, where most families give up sons for the monasteries.)

For my part, I did much the same thing as my students avoiding the terrible scene, and without planning to. (The point of writing exercises is that you just write, and keep writing, seeing where the process of writing takes you.) I started out writing about Vessantara, then switched to the perspective of his children, and looked away at the crucial moments. I felt Kierkegaard watching scornfully but couldn't help myself. It makes an eloquent little story, making the looking away a sort of literary trope. But it was a looking away nonetheless...

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Charmed I'm sure

The first meeting of my Advising Tutorial, "Buddhism & Liberal Arts," was like a dream. Somehow, seven students I don't know had found out about it, and five of them are free Tuesday afternoons - something that never happens. And what a fascinating bunch! From first year to senior, a linguist, a dancer, a global studies major, a libertarian socialist anarchist (whatever that may be), with various generally non-academic exposures to Buddhist traditions and eager to find out more. Our time together was framed by tangerines - everyone got one with the syllabus, and at the end of our discussion we passed around Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh's description of mindful tangerine-eating, each reading a section, and had a second. Here's some of it:

When you children peel a tangerine, you can eat it with awareness or without awareness. What does it mean to eat a tangerine in awareness? When you are eating the tangerine, you are aware that you are eating the tangerine. You fully experience its lovely fragrance and sweet taste. When you peel the tangerine, you know that you are peeling the tangerine; ... If the tangerine is real, the person eating it is real. That is what it means to eat a tangerine in awareness.

Children, what does it mean to eat a tangerine without awareness? When you are eating the tangerine, you do not know that you are eating the tangerine. You do not experience the lovely fragrance and sweet taste of the tangerine. When you peel the tangerine, you do not know that you are peeling the tangerine; ... Eating a tangerine in such a way, you cannot appreciate its precious and wonderful nature. If you are not aware that you are eating the tangerine, the tangerine is not real. If the tangerine is not real, the person eating it is not real either. Children, that is eating a tangerine without awareness. ...

A person who practices mindfulness can see things in the tangerine that others are unable to see. An aware person can see the tangerine tree, the tangerine blossom in the spring, the sunlight and rain which nourished the tangerine. Looking deeply, one can see ten thousand things which have made the tangerine possible. Looking at a tangerine, a person who practices awareness can see all the wonders of the universe and how all things interact with one another. 

Children, our daily life is just like a tangerine. Just as a tangerine is comprised of sections, each day is comprised of twenty four hours. One hour is like one section of tangerine. Living all twenty-four hours of a day is like eating all the sections of a tangerine. The path I have found is the path of living each hour of the day in awareness, mind and body always dwelling in the present moment. The opposite is to live in forgetfulness. If we live in forgetfulness, we do not know that we are alive. We do not fully experience life because our mind and body are not dwelling in the here and now.

All more easily said than done, as we confessed to each other! I'll bring more tangerines next week. Eating together (and, in our last session, cooking together) is a big part of my plan for the group's  journey.

Incidentally, I didn't have to buy these tangerines. I dropped off some leftover Spanish chickpea stew with a friend who's hurt her hand and can't cook, and she surprised me with this bag!

Adieu, Fbg St-A!

Just learned that our Parisian friend F, as whose lodger I spent 2001-2, has had to move to a smaller apartment in a different arrondissement. End of an era! And so unthinkable that, despite the many times I've been there, from childhood until just a few years ago, I never thought to take a picture of the building itself. What I have got are views down the rue Faubourg Saint-Antoine toward Bastille from street level, and lots of pics taken from the window of Parisian life unrolling along it!
Yes, that's the Tour de France among the protest marches!

Monday, February 11, 2013

The two cultures confront scale

Saw two powerful representations of the melting Arctic ice world recently: multimedia performer Cynthia Hopkins' "This Clement Earth," at St. Ann's Warehouse, and the film "Chasing Ice," a documentary about the photographer James Balog. Both try in their ways to make the enormity of climate change real to us, a challenge because the scale is so great we can't fit ourselves into a picture of it, certainly not ourselves as agents. Balog and his team use photography to create time lapse sequences of the alarming thinning and retreating of glaciers - and some live footage of enormous calvings (some of which you've seen). It's a heroic struggle against the elements to assemble scientific proof, and also exquisitely beautiful, very close to the paralysis of the sublime. Hopkins takes a different approach. She incarnates three unlikely figures to talk to us: the shade of a Cheyenne girl, murdered at the Sand Creek massacre of 1864, mutely foreseeing our civilization's collapse. An extraterrestrial who has taken the form of a goofy good ol' boy to tell us how lucky we are to be at one of those rare moments where a planet supports us, and to have the chance to do something to keep it that way a little longer. And a woman from 300 years in the future come back to sing hippie songs urging us keep doing the things that make her post-civilization world possible, where all signs of industrialization are long gone and New York City is seen through the bottom of a boat. The hokeyness of it all stops short of heavy-handedness (except in the dead Indian) and manages somehow both to capture the staggering scale of the crisis and maintain some hope that human ingenuity might do something. (The Greenland pic above's from somewhere else again.)

Sunday, February 10, 2013


Sunday dinners continue! Tonight we toasted a friend's finding a dream job - in Adelaide! (Another friend, whose recent dissertation we also toasted, arrived after the picture was taken.) The food was Spanish with an Aussie hint - Australian honeys to the berenjera con miel - which bloomed at the inevitable but always popular sticky date pudding.

Saturday, February 09, 2013

Finding Nemo

A monster storm farther north, Nor'easter Nemo brought us a nice amount of snow - 8" perhaps - glorious to see on a clear windless afternoon walk to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden and Museum.
These last two are a little artsy - Kusama Yayoi-like patterns in the frozen pond of the Japanese Garden, and ice on my window behind a wooden ornament from the Monastery of Christ in the Desert in Abiquiu.

Friday, February 08, 2013


I love the way snow looks around lights at night through a camera.

First year of the rest of your life

As I wind down my term as chair of the first year program, the thing I'm happiest about having introduced is the "Reading NYC" curriculum which, this year for the second time, is taught entirely by alumnae/i.
What better way to help first year students imagine a career at Lang and beyond than providing alum mentors sharing ways of integrating the seminar and the city? The alumnae/i community is jazzed, too.

Thursday, February 07, 2013

Red sky in the morning

Not sure I much like the look of this color combination from NOAA...


This once was Saint Vincent's Hospital... all gone.

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Clear light of Day

In "Exploring Religious Ethics" today we did three things. We discussed an essay by the one-time head of the Vatican's Congregation for the Causes of Saints, Cardinal José Saraiva Martins, defending JP2's many canonizations. We looked at the discussions around the campaign for canonizing our local hero Dorothy Day. And the students led their own discussion about a topic one of them selected. All very interesting!

As far as these students are concerned the Vatican's the Kremlin or the Death Star, so most felt that canonizing Dorothy Day would be coopting, tokenizing, smothering, silencing. Besides, didn't Day famously say Don’t call me a saint — I don’t want to be dismissed that easily? She also apparently said: I loved the Church for Christ made visible. Not for itself, because it was so often a scandal to me. Romano Guardini said the Church is the Cross on which Christ was crucified; one could not separate Christ from His Cross, and one must live in a state of permanent dissatisfaction with the Church. Guardini's surely right but of course that doesn't settle the question if the co-founder of The Catholic Worker, pacifist and critic of capitalism, reformed Bohemian repentant of a past abortion and avid churchgoer really was a saint.

The objective question came up, though. Could one be a saint and not know it? Surely! Could one be a saint and not Catholic? Not so clear, at least for Rome (I wondered about "anonymous Christian saints"), but we needn't be bound by Rome. In William James we've encountered a definition of saintliness which doesn't hinge on a holy spirit, and yet suggests that some kind of empirical validation is possible. There's a fact of the matter: some people are categorically different from the rest in a ways appropriately defined as saintlike - it's not just a question of interpretation. Then the question in the case of canonization is as much about the Roman Catholic Church as about the saints whom it certifies - only God makes saints, but does the church recognize all the saints He makes? Instead of absorbing the holy heroes and rubbing off all their interesting edges, might the church not be moved by accommodating a new kind of saint? It's happened before, many a time. The addition of 500 saints needn't mean expansion around a fixed center, but could move the center of gravity of the church.

We didn't talk about the objective possibility of saints in the final section of class, but about something in its way related. The student leading the discussion wanted to talk about the uncertain ethics of "being yourself," which quickly led to questions about public and private, social roles and hypocrisy, the different things which make people happy (including, evidently, murder and bestiality), if and how people change, whether medications estrange you from or allow you to be your self, if God made you the way you are, if some selves are bad, and - something of a relief - whether there is even such a thing as a self at all, and if you could know it. Intense, passionate debate, and more than a semester's worth of good hard questions for ethics.

It was all over the place, that final discussion, but everyone was there.

Tuesday, February 05, 2013


We're due for some snow in New York tonight! But I doubt it'll be as beautiful as the perfect flakes we saw in icy-cold crystal-clear Chicago.
Those sheetlike icicles, incidentally, are under a train bridge.