Friday, July 31, 2015

Shakespeare in the park

Exactly what it looks like - a charmed outdoor performance of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" on a warm New York night! Gorilla Rep Theater Co. in Washington Square Park as the blue moon rose in the east. Memories of the Royal Botanical Garden in Melbourne where I first learned to love this play.

Blue sky

The sky was so big-blue and full of summer clouds I went up on the roof to take a picture. Quite a view toward Manhattan! And new graffiti, too.

Thursday, July 30, 2015


Fiddling with the syllabus for my post-China "Theorizing Religion" I'm deciding to juxtapose China and the US in a religion/law discussion. We'll read Yang Fenggang's essay on "Red, Black and Gray Markets" for religion in China, and a piece Winnifred Fallers Sullivan wrote for "The Immanent Frame" after the Supreme Court's Hobby Lobby/Wheaton College decision last year - the one which granted "closely held" corporations liberty of religious conscience. That decision will doubtless be in the news as gay marriage finds its way across the land, one wedding caterer at a time, and it will be stimulating to have a discussion which transcends the American case.

The two pieces will also fit into what's become the organizing theme of this iteration of the course, "religion-making" - a term I borrow from a recent book by Marcus Dressler and Arvind-Pal S. Mandair but will use more broadly than they do. Defining religion and religions (and secularisms, too) is something done by all sorts of entities - scholars, crusaders for and against particular faiths, and the state too. The academic space won't be presented as the privileged site for such definition, but as the one which best allows critical scrutiny of this broader phenomenon. In these two pieces we'll see not encouter the travails of state definition of religion, but the difficult question whether the state can avoid defining religion. As the name of the post (also the name of one of her books) "The Impossibility of Religious Freedom" suggests, Sullivan thinks it cannot.

And then, rereading Sullivan's piece, there's this challenge to liberal views of religion as something essentially private and ecclesiastic:

American religion today does not happen in churches. Many American Christians have, for a long time, engaged in a kind of DIY religion free from the regulations of church authorities. Their religion is radically disestablished free religion, defined not by bishops and church councils, but by themselves—ordinary Americans reading their Bibles, picking and choosing from among a wide array of religious practices. Indeed, Americans have always been incredibly varied, creative, and entrepreneurial in living out what they take to be their religious obligations—religious obligations that range far beyond the prescriptions of the mainline churches, which seem staid, contained, and tamed to the many who consider their own religious practices, unapproved by traditional religious authorities, to be alive with the spirit. They find their religious community and their religious fields of action in places other than churches—including the marketplace.
Justice Sotomayor claims in her dissent in Wheaton College to have “deep respect for religious faith, for the important and selfless work performed by religious organizations.” Why is the exercise of religion by Hobby Lobby any less deserving of Justice Sotomayor’s, or of the US government’s, respect than the work of the Catholic Hospital Association or the Little Sisters of the Poor? Why should churches and religious orders be obviously and unproblematically exempt, particularly in the aftermath of a series of sexual and financial scandals, while Hobby Lobby is not? Why disdain the representations of the Greens and the Hahns that they consider their businesses to be a religious ministry? Where is it written in the Constitution that only the religious practices of churches or church-related non-profits are entitled to accommodation?

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Prospect Place's third snow season

I guess I'm never in Brooklyn this time of year: I had no idea that half the trees on my block erupt in huge fluffy blossoms, blanketing the street below in cream-colored petals. These trees (known as Japanese Pagoda or Chinese Scholar Tree) bring us a third snowfall, with Winter's white and Fall's ginkgo gold.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

At home in New York

Folks ask me if I'm glad to be back in New York. What an odd question. Of course, it's my home! And it's New York! And, well, it's mid-summer, so my schedule is free and I don't have to see anyone I don't want to. Miss Shanghai? Truth be told: no. My life is here. But I'm glad I had the chance to be there for long enough to start a real relationship with China.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Offense & Dissent redux

Remember Offense & Dissent, the exhibition I was part of putting together last year? (Here was my guided tour through it.) It's back, in a glorious new online form! The website includes a conversation among my co-conspirators and me, which they wrote up against a deadline while I was in China. (When consulted, I approved the words they had put in my mouth, unnerved and also moved at how well they'd captured my voice.) Apparently it all started with me jumping to a conclusion...

Sunday, July 26, 2015

New York Sunday morning

Got up at practically the crack of dawn this morning to attend the early service at the Episcopal Church of the Trans-figuration, catching this view on my way there (of Marble Collegiate, not Transfig). After a year of dearth (except Tokyo) I'm awed NY has so many Episcopal churches.

Saturday, July 25, 2015


Strolling in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden is always a joy - one of the many things that make me happy to be back on the block. To think I can walk there from home - how lucky is that? (It wasn't something I paid any attention to when I had the chance to move to Prospect Heights eight years ago from Australia.)
Late summer is of course when the lilies bloom and the echinaceas beam. But I was struck today by the blossom-like patches of tiny petals fallen from this blooming tree; they're caught by invisible spider webs, suspended like galaxies above the green below, so evenly spread across the ivy that it looks like design.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Violent States of America

I have a friend coming to stay with me from China in the Fall so rediscovering the everyday violence of this society is doubly a shock. How will things appear to him, I ask myself? Should I be encouraging him to come at all? The Washington Post article whose headline I posted above includes a quote from an Economist editorial after Charleston:
It gets worse. 204 is only a small fraction of the number of people killed by guns in this country this year and every year. And, as the country has become aware in the year I've been away, 204 is barely a third as many as have been killed by the police so far this year. Like Sandra Bland. Unlawfully arrested Sandra Bland. Heartbreak. Horror. Tragedy. Shame.

Thursday, July 23, 2015


I've been reading the volume on the 易经 Yijing in the series which published my book on Job, Richard J. Smith's The "I Ching": A Biography (Princeton, 2012). Strange to say, the Book of Changes is something I've never studied, nor been directed to, even during my near-year in China. I'm starting to see why. This foundational text of Chinese civilization is profoundly strange, a divination manual become philosophy become almanac, in the process linking and cross-linking everything that every was or will ever be. Half way through Smith's book, and half way through the Changes' historical run, there seem to be no constraints on the interpretations people foisted on the eight trigrams (permutations of three broken or unbroken lines) and their sixty-four combinations. But it's not quite true that I've had no encounter with it before. In my office, which I've happily reclaimed after my absence, I found an illustrated translation picked up at some point (I don't remember where) during my first China trip in 2012. And preserved between its pages, some flowers I pressed outside Shangrila!

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Taking liberties

The first stage of our liberal education pedagogy seminar MetroCITI MetroCITI ended today - 15 discussion-rich hours, during which we ten instructors and four researchers got to know each other, and started what will certainly be an energizing discussion spread over monthly meetings for the coming academic year. They'll be at once refreshingly general (since we're from all sorts of different fields and institutions) and helpfully grounded (since we'll be sharing experiences from the courses we're teaching). Three veterans of the program came today to share their experiences and their advice. I'm already sensing the possibilities of this space which they described, as a space for reflection, experimentation and collaboration.

I wasn't the only one left with one nagging question, though. What is meant by "liberal education"? The term, as I understand it, emerged a few years ago to replace the universally uninspiring "general education," the catch-all for things university students are expected to do outside their chosen majors. "Liberal education" adds some cadences of liberal arts, and also emphasizes the civic significance of the formation students receive in a well-delivered higher education setting. But still, what is it? One of my fellow participants asked the director of the program this question point-blank. She said she didn't know; she'd read lots of literature on it, none of it satisfactory. Our project is part of her attempt to get beyond discussions focused on curriculum and on educational philosophy. Perhaps what makes liberal education important can best be appreciated if we can observe it in the classroom.

Well and good; I'm on board. But of course I've just come back from China, where nothing called "liberal" would be welcomed, at least officially. I didn't have much opportunity to reflect on it while there, but the question of liberal education (or more generally liberal arts education) is close to my heart. I've thought for a while that its future must lie in engagement with the new constituencies and old traditions of Asia, especially India and China... but I confess my thinking was only on the level of curriculum and educational philosophy. What I found in China was a different kind of challenge. Universally valid education or western cultural imperialism?

My own accounts of what I try to do when I teach invariably gravitate toward the language of democracy: another no-go in PRC. Our director's work is grounded in American ideals of freedom and equality, too. (Liberal: liberty.) Is "liberal education" too narrowly American? One of my fellow seminar participants grew up in France; he thinks that may be so, too. I'm not backing away from my earlier formulations, not at all. But I was given pause by our director's pitch-perfect synthesis of statements by two US Secretaries of Education:

Anna Neumann, “Staking a Claim on Learning:
What We Should Know about Learning in Higher Education and Why,”
The Review of Higher Education 37/2 (Winter 2014): 249-267, 263

Her point in offering this was that there's precious little "liberal education" in these statements. I agree - I think this might describe the concerns of quite different governments, including that of the PRC. 

So what does "liberal education" add, and is an education incomplete without it? Is it worth paying for for oneself, for others, let alone for every member of one's society? 

I remember when I first went to China in 2012 and some students at Kunming University asked me what I thought about democracy. I often say something along the famous Churchillian lines - the worst system except all the others - but I think on that occasion I made it about the growth of knowledge: that the best ideas will come out if everyone has a voice, which will produce a better world for all of us. When I gave the faculty commencement address at Lang in 2006 I emphasized that our kind of seminar learning would make the world a better place because of the "democratic virtues" students developed by being in class with others and learning to expect to learn from everyone in the room. Education isn't just about individual development; it's a public good, and liberal education teaches us to see and value it as that.

What do I think now? I'm not sure. Do I think it's about making the world a better place? Yes. The whole world, and in the same way? Not necessarily... Stay tuned!

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Heat wave

Just made it through my first heat wave this summer... It's enough to make me waver in my determination not to get an air conditioner. On the other hand, it was perfect for my newest luddite joy, a laundry drying rack (Italian design)! In China I was reacquainted with the world norm of air drying, better for clothes and environment.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Priorkn, meet Subjmatkn

In the pedagogy seminar today we talked about a particular episode in a class A, our leader, observed a few years ago, and described and analyzed in her Presidential Address to the Association for the Study of Higher Education in 2012,"Staking a Claim on Learning: What You Should Know About Learning in Higher Education and Why." We get to watch as an Intro to Modern Philosophy course grapples with Cartesian doubt.

It's a very nice series of vignettes, as a student goes from Descartes "makes sense but it's just not working for me" through understanding it and even making an insightful connection with something she learned in physics class in high school, by way of the instructor's assuring her that Descartes "is with you" as she worried and struggled with the implications of radical uncertainty. Another student introduces "The Matrix" as an analog. Cool!

I was looking forward to discussing this, but wondered what else we'd be doing in today's 3-hour meeting. Well, we spent the whole time on it! The more we parsed what was said, imagining what was going on in the heads of that student and that instructor, discussed doubt in general and in the particular context of this class, the role popular culture examples can play in class, etc., etc. the more miraculous it all started to seem. A told us she'd had to listen to the recording of the class several time to discern all that was going on (not to mention multiple readings of Meditations on First Philosophy and watching "The Matrix"). These sorts of transformative interactions happen all the time in our classrooms but what happens in the "black box of the classroom" is missing from discussions about the value (in all senses) of a liberal arts education. It's one of A's major projects to find ways to convey the magic. And not just for skeptics. Those of us in the thick of it don't have the chance to replay and reflect like this either.

So what's the diagram on the whiteboard about? It's about the encounter of a student's "prior knowledge" with the "subject matter knowledge" of an instructor. The former includes much more than book learning: it refers to every part of a student's background and experience. For the student in question, a commuter who was probably also the first in her family to go to college, this is the knowledge of the world to which she returns every night - and a world into which she may well not be able to translate what she's learning (and vice versa).

For the instructor the knowledge in question isn't just disciplinary and teaching knowledge, but knowledge of curriculum - where the course is going, how it fits in with other courses, colleagues (with whom she may share a syllabus, and who may have told her what to do in it), etc. And in the background of that lies her own experience of the encounter of Descartes' radical doubt and who she was when she encountered it.

Anna Neumann, “Staking a Claim on Learning:
What We Should Know about Learning in Higher Education and Why,”
The Review of Higher Education 37/2 (Winter 2014): 249-267, 252

In the kinds of learning and teaching that make it all worth while, all these things are brought to bear. It's much richer and deeper than the idea that some piece of knowledge (Descartes) gets transferred from one head to another, or the generic descriptions of active learning creating a more educated workforce for the new information economy. True liberal education is about particular lives (=priorkn) encountering particular transformative content (=subjmatkn): "the power of a subject of study — well taught — to shape a learner’s mind" and enable her "to chart a fulfilling life." What a noble profession!

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Little cathedral around the corner

The Roman Catholic church I see out my kitchen window, St. Joseph's, has become a co-cathedral. It's been through a restoration and is now surely one of the most splendid religious spaces in Brooklyn. I'll go back soon with a better camera, but these snaps should give you a sense. Surrounding the altar, a row of life-sized (well, human sized) angels in an array of colored robes. They're a little androgynous, all white. 
But from either side one is bathed by images of the Virgin Mary appearing to folks around the world - the New World is of course well represented. But one is also Chinese, looking a lot like Guanyin - she was too bright for my cell phone camera, so here are the Korean and Filipina ones.
As you leave the church you see two enormous murals, Our Ladies of Lourdes on the right and Fatima on the left. Embedded within the latter is a vision of genocide and the destruction of war, and two men in white: one looks to be John Paul II, the man in glasses may be Maximilian Kolbe. [or Oscar Romero?] Saints alive!

Saturday, July 18, 2015


Sometimes the world really feels deliciously small. I'm not sure I've mentioned it, but the sublet of my Brooklyn apartment while I was in Shanghai did not work out as planned. The original subletters left early, and I had a hard time finding anyone to stay. (I was reluctant to let someone unknown in, so relied on people known by people I knew.) At one point my friend H, who teaches in Illinois, told me one of her ex-students was moving to New York from Kentucky - good enough for me. He came with a friend who turned out to be from Australia. In the end it
turned out they had not actually met, and he never made it, but she did. And when she left she found me another Australian... who noticed that one of my tea towels was from Mount Macedon Primary School: how did I come by such a thing? My nephews go to that small country school. Turns out she had been a student there too! I was delighted that she was staying at my place! I finally got to meet her today - she was picking up some things she'd left in a closet. Turns out she lived in Paris before coming to New York, and now works for the tourist promotion office of Languedoc... so she brought me this lovely fleur de sel as a gift. But the thing is: that's precisely the thing I brought people as a gift when I lived in Paris! Tiens!

Friday, July 17, 2015


I feel down one of those wormholes the internet is famous for - I could retrace my trajectory but it's hardly significant - and found this: Older Brother Chun Religion: Believe in Older Brother Chun, Receive Eternal Life! Brother Chun is the nickname of Chinese pop star 李宇春 Li Yuchun, whose fame peaked about 2009 (according to Wikipedia). She's known as 春哥 Older Brother Chun because of a certain tomboyish look in her youth. Her cult following was especially strong among students. One of my undergrad friends at Fudan (the wonders of WeChat) told me:

it feels like a kind of joke when I was a high school student 5 years ago. It was really popular among us and students shouted "信春哥,不挂科" [Believe in Brother Chun, Don't Fail!] when teachers were to give out exams papers. That is the only ritual.

I'd love to know this following became self-consciously, if parodically, religious - what images of religion fed into it, etc. I'm intrigued also because of the gender switch at its center. Apparently the step from brother Chun to eternal life (and then on to more pressing things like exam success) was the formula 铁血真汉子,春哥纯爷们 Made of Iron and Blood, Chun Ge is Pure Male, often posted with photoshopped pictures of Li's head on a muscled male body.

This is no more "really religious" than the Flying Spaghetti Monster religion, but that doesn't mean it isn't interesting from a religious studies perspective. And it wasn't just students invoking Li's co(s)mic gender switch. Apparently signs were also seen on condemned buildings with the words: 信春哥 房子不会被拆 Believe in Brother Chun, House Won't Be Demolished. More than parody's going on there.

Black boxes

In our seminar on liberal education this morning, we were asked to think of a "key idea" central to our discipline and ways we might teach it in an engaging way in one of our courses. Sound easy? It wasn't, at least for me. Does my discipline have any key ideas like that? Everything I could think of was a second-order thing (we're comparative after all) or a negation, something you'd need at least two sittings to teach. ("Religion is not belief" is what I wound up saying.) Having by coincidence just read through Dynamics of Faith, the great book about religion as "ultimate concern" written by Paul Tillich when he was just across the street at Union Theological Seminar, I was rueful. A few generations ago the "key idea" question would have been easy to answer: the sacred, ritual and myth, ultimate concern, transcendence, etc. But my generation sees all those theories as falsely universalizing, rooted in (and rooting for) very specific western religious experiences.

And since those same "Protestant" conceptions are the common sense notions continue to animate American culture - and our students - our teaching involves a key un-learning. The place of the pleasing but problematic universals is not taken by new, better universalizations but by pluralism, local knowledge, and new questions arising within and between specific traditions... sometimes universal ones! And yet, of course, we (try to) teach this... To the extent we do, how do we do it?

The image is of an installation in the office next to our seminar room at Teachers College.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

As the world turns

This animated map shows how religion spread across the world.
This animated map shows how religion spread across the world.
Posted by Business Insider on Monday, July 13, 2015
This is cool... or is it?

Wednesday, July 15, 2015


One of the tasks of this month is revisiting and revising the syllabus for "Theorizing Religion," my old standard course. (Under one name or another I've taught it all but a very few of the years I've been in the profession.) I've told people that this revisiting, and its enactment, will likely be the main venue for rendering explicit what the year in China has done for/to me as a scholar of religion. But I didn't expect the effect would be quite so strong and quick...

I met yesterday with the brilliant young woman (an alum, too) who covered the course in my absence. I'd encouraged her to make the course her own, and was looking forward to learning from her innovations: she's more political, interested in different traditions than I, and has a different generation's sense of what's important. Just before we got together I called up the 2013 syllabus on my computer for a quick look ... and found, to my shock, that it left me completely cold. I could remember being pleased with new assignments I'd come up with to meet student interests (and blindnesses), and pretty satisfied with the outcomes, but, looking them over yesterday I found myself entirely uninterested.

I don't think it's just that it's been a while, and that you had to be there at there at the time, and that my sense of the "demands of the day" has been dislocated. It took me a while to find a way to describe it - it only came to me today. It's not that Chinese religion, or the scholars I encountered there, have reoriented my understanding. Rather, something perhaps best called disoccidentation has happened to me. To borrow a word from Dipesh Chakrabarty, the American religious (and religious studies) tradition has for me been "provincialized." It seems of at best local interest. And local in the way nonwestern traditions have been rendered local by colonialism and its legacies: not important for people elsewhere to learn about, and maybe not even important for people there to understand. Better to teach them about a clearer, more central, deservedly normative instance.

But if my thinking has been disoccidented, it's also been decentered. The American context has been provincialized, but there's no new center. (Certainly not China.) Let me take a few days to see where this upset takes me...

Tuesday, July 14, 2015


So we had our first MetroCITI meeting at Teachers College, Columbia yesterday. (There are 4 more scheduled for the next week and a half.) I'm not sure how they managed it, but our group of ten includes faculty teaching in eight different disciplines in the natural sciences, social sciences and humanities, half of us from 4-year and half from 2-year colleges; we are also five women and five men, though most of the group are pigmentally challenged. My Lang colleague (a chemist) and I are among the among most senior people there, I think, and perhaps the only ones from a private institution... we're in for discussions about "liberal education" not only more interdisciplinary than most I've been part of, but also in a context at once more general and more focused than the liberal arts college of a university. Our brief is to share our experiences and perspectives on teaching liberal education (the broader area comprising liberal arts/general education) to first generation college students and students from historically underrepresented groups in the New York area. How exciting!

Monday, July 13, 2015

Child's play

Don't think I've left China behind, or that it's let me go. For instance I've started watching Michelangelo Antonioni's 1972 documentary "Chung Kuo/Cina," my handy dandy projector giving me an image as big as a small movie theater. This long scene starting about twenty-odd minutes in (about 6 minutes into this YouTube instalment, which begins - be warned - with a C-section) shows children at play. Says the narrator:

Each big factory maintains a school, where the workers can send their children. Starting from childhood, they are prepared for the future life in a collectivist society. Their grace makes us forget that almost all songs they’re singing have political connotations.

I heard about the film in China but there wasn't a convenient way to see it. I'm watching it now because there's a clip from it playing in the Met's "China Through the Looking Glass" show - another scene of children singing - and I noticed some older Chinese tourists half-audibly singing it under their breath. (My blurry picture at right shows the display, as you come down the stairs from the China galleries, with a clip from the famous model opera "Red Detachment of Women" playing, along with fashion inspired by parodies of Mao portraits). I was born the same year as the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. Watching these kids I found myself thinking that if I had also been born in the land of the GPCR, I might have been one of them. What a life would I have had? How would I have made sense of it today?

Sunday, July 12, 2015

House rewarming

Sunday dinner tradition is alive and well! Seven friends came over, all of whom have at one point lived in this apartment, too. I fashioned a rather rich rigatoni with gorzonzola and toasted walnuts, improvised the salad below, and managed two simple Chinese dishes (one was dumplings I bought in Chinatown). But I was happily upstaged by ex-flatmate V's cheesy flan at the end, and the cheese extravaganza at left, brought by my first flatmates here, to start.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Friday, July 10, 2015

Blue sky day!

Yes, I took at trip to the Met  today - actually already my second since returning. The first time my aim was the anti-anti-orientalist fashion blockbuster "China Through the Looking Glass," which bothered me big time. This time it was the exquisite miniatures of "Sultans of Deccan India, 1500-1700: Opulence and Fantasy," but I had a second taste of the celebration of chinoiserie, too. I'll tell you about it some time.

Thursday, July 09, 2015

Buddhisty stuff

Come the Fall, I'll be teaching three courses. One will be a new take on New School history. The other two, repeats/updates, will be where I process my China experience. For "Theorizing Religion" this will obviously be so. But I'm also repeating the "advising tutorial" I piloted in Spring 2013, "Buddhism and Liberal Arts" (B&LA) a not-quite-course designed to help a small group of students reflect on and take ownership of their educations and vocations. How might my China year affect it? I had few discussions of "liberal arts" there. And except for tourism, as during Longhua's shuilu rite in November or the Datong expedition last month Buddhism pretty much fell off the radar screen entirely. 

I think it's good for me to admit this. Buddhism in contemporary China is associated with wealth, with old temples being rebuilt and big opulent new temples being built throughout the land. An article I found about shuilu described a contemporary Buddhism which caters to lay people's desire for showy rituals rather than dharma talks, and one whose priests are less likely to be meditators than to choose that line of business to become wealthy (perhaps leaving after a few years to get married). I know that's not the whole story, but it's the one I heard from non-Buddhists, and somehow I never found my way beyond them. 

To some extent, I'm sorry to say, I reacted the way many a western Buddhophile reacts to the lived Buddhism of Asia - distaste and shock at what seems a samsaric comfort with wealth and power, and an encouragement of karmic calculations and superstitious devotions. I'm sorry to say it because I recognized it but did nothing about it. I reminded myself that the western image of Buddhist otherworldliness is an accident, an artifact of its peripheral position in our societies; that lay meditation is a modern departure from practically all historic religious traditions (not to mention a bourgeois self-indulgence); and that western religious traditions past and present, too, are waist-deep in the demands of real people's real lives. Buddhism in China, as everywhere it's been important, has been many things to many people.

B&LA was going to need an overhaul anyway. My "Buddhism and Modern Thought" course of Spring 2014 made me reflect on and take ownership of Buddhism's involvement with political power along with the legitimacy and inevitability of what's known as Buddhist modernism. The original B&LA was a Zennish rumination on getting beyond "dualities" which bedevil thinking about education and vocation: school/life, study/practice, contemplation/activism, personal/political,
spontaneity/discipline, self/nonself, and path/destination. That still seems helpful... we'll see.

In the meantime, I've been reconnecting with my Buddhist modernist self - you know, the one with all the Buddhist stuff in his apartment, who gives himself little dharma talks from time to time. (Perhaps I should just call myself a 文化佛教徒, a cultural Buddhist.) Consider, for instance, that I had forgotten what most of the stuff in my apartment is, and that over the past year that stuff has been used, moved around and sometimes broken by people I've never met; I was apprehensive about returning to survey the damage... A great opportunity for non-attachment, not to mention cleaning house!

Or so I thought. But the minute I rediscovered things, from forgotten clothes to not so attractive dishes I brought back from Japan ages ago, clinging snapped right back in place. (The apprehension was just the clinging coiled for return.) Indeed they've been insisting on being restored to their old places. I sometimes think about objects having lives of their own, but here it's clear that this is all about me. I'm working on it, a little. I'm pushing back at the neurotic recreation of what was, after all, a largely accidental array... or at least appreciating it as a largely accidental array, which might, accidentally, endure for a bit longer (or a lot longer) until some new accident happens. I want the new accidents, and the openness to them.

I'm not sure that makes any sense at all. There's probably nothing "Buddhist" about the predictable ambivalence accompanying any return from travel, especially a long sojourn like the one I've just completed. One wants to be the same person who left and also to be a new, different person, wants to come to some sort of terms with how (shockingly!) easily one left the old and with how (shockingly!) easily one now slides back into it...

I leave you with some pictures I took on the N Train crossing the Manhattan Bridge back to Brooklyn this afternoon. I was trying to get the view of Brooklyn Bridge, East River and Southern Manhattan - including the new tower where WTC once stood, but the Manhattan Bridge wasn't having it, though I snapped away with abandon. When looking for the least obstructed view in iPhoto I realized that the obstructions are interesting, too - notice how they're torqued by the camera! - and that the obstructedness was part of the view.

Wednesday, July 08, 2015

回国: 1 week

Wednesday means I've been back stateside a week. The charms of New York, amply on view during the July Fourth weekend, have made way for the rest of the story. Yes, our subway runs 24 hours a day, but it can break down at any hour. Sure, our streets are full of all kinds of people, but more of them than you can bear to imagine live there.

As I've been catching up with my friends and colleagues here, I am struck by what a lot can happen in a year. During the exactly one year I spent away from New York some have finished degrees and a few have published books, three found great jobs (two on the West coast), one inherited five million dollars, one is becoming the man they always were, one learned how to walk, two have lost parents, one became a teenager, one now repeats everything he says, two spent time in Italy and two visited sites of all three ancient American civilizations, one lost one set of hair with chemo and looks great with the new set, one ghost-wrote a much-quoted speech for a past prime minister, one got a dog, and at least one found love.

But a year also isn't that much time, something borne home to me by the fact that some of the food in my larder is still good. The popcorn still pops, and, more surprising still, the natural peanut butter is still good, protected by the oil which floats on its top. (The other things in the photo are new.) Ein sonderbar Ding, die Zeit.

Tuesday, July 07, 2015


Did you know that dinosaur kale makes a terrific pesto? You do now.

Monday, July 06, 2015

Read all about it

On Thirty-fourth street at Penn Station I found a China Daily - the only western language newspaper available in China (except for local spin-offs like Shanghai Daily); picked one up, too, at the "promo- tional price" of 25¢. But this is America: not far away was the more well-established Epoch Times, published by Falun Gong.