Sunday, January 31, 2016


I have some new neighbors!
A little flighty, though...

Saturday, January 30, 2016


 It's been a while... Brooklyn Botanic Garden, splendid in every season!

Friday, January 29, 2016

Missing in action

I went to a very disappointing exhibition today, and I'm very glad I did. It took me a little while to realize this, but it was worth it! An exhibition about works of mostly ancient art that are lost to looting, accident or deliberate destruction (like Daesh's in Iraq and Syria), it's called "The Missing: Rebuilding the Past." Its online version is called themissingexhibit. From what my friend N had told about it, I thought I'd be encountering miraculously recreated works, snatched from the jaws of oblivion by newest technologies, and giddily conferring a special kind of "aura" on them. Instead, the exhibit seemed empty, as, of course, it was. The works are lost, gone. Brilliant efforts to record and reconstruct are being made, but none is trying to conceal the absence of the lost original.
The closest to what I was expecting to see was Morehshin Allahyari's "Material Speculation: ISIS, Unknown King of Hatra" (2015), an effort to reconstruct works destroyed in the museum of Mosul, "a museum that had been too under-funded to achieve full photographic inventory documentation of its holdings." Each resin figure contains a flashdrive with all the information she has been able to gather about the original object and its fate, including maps and videos. This information and 3-D printable files of her reconstructions, will be available online for anyone interested. A spectral afterlife...
Spectral too Palmyra Photogrammetry (Conan Parsons)'s recreation of an ISIS-destroyed theater at Palmyra generated by weaving together information from hundreds of tourist snaps - many originally with the tourists on camels in the foreground! It's too late to get any new information (a high quality 3-D reconstruction requires hundreds of thousands of 2-D pictures) but there are sure to be more old snaps, though probably not of the back and sides, or of places the camel rides didn't go. My time in China has made me less dismissive of recreations (or perhaps inured me to them) but this exhibit, without a single artifact, did a good job evoking the complicated realities of loss.

Thursday, January 28, 2016


I'm trying not to let the dispiriting freakshow of the Republican primary race draw me in, but when I saw this story in the Los Angeles Times today I couldn't help thinking: this is how to make America great again.

Cedrick is the son of Lilian and Marcos Argueta, both of whom came to the United States as young adults – she from the Philippines, he from El Salvador. Lilian, a licensed vocational nurse, works two jobs at nursing homes. Marcos is a maintenance worker at one of those nursing homes. He never went to high school.

Cedrick's teacher, Anthony Yom (who himself came to the US from Korea when he was twelve), shepherds all his AP Calculus students through. This year, 17 of the 21 scored a 5!

Wednesday, January 27, 2016


This is the funky new classroom where I'm lecturing on Job and the arts! It's in the new University Center, and, were all the registered students to show up (many are delayed returning because of the weekend's blizzard), would be nearly full. And full of a kind of student I hardly know - judging from the students in my discussion section, it's about 90% students from the Parsons School of Design: fashion design (6), communication design (3), product design (3), illustration (2), fine arts (2), architecture (1), integrated design (1), drama (1); one Langster! 
An especially good thing, then, that I started with Anna Ruth Henriques' exquisite memorial to her mother, The Book of Mechtilde. Henriques tells the story of her mother's life and death (to cancer) in rich colors and symbols from the many religious and cultural traditions which flowed through this Jewish Jamaican family, framed in a delirious skein of patterns from nature (mainly Taíno and African), all held together by the entire text of the Book of Job, meticulously written out in gold pen. (There are sections of prose and poetry written to accompany them - which my teaching assistants and I took turns reading aloud.) There are 40 of these panels in all, and I showed them all, one by one (and again in the intimacy of the discussion section). (I've put some together here in sets of 4 for convenience, but they should be encountered serially.)
I wanted students to get a sense of the Book of Job as something that's not just a story on a page, but something more and different, a story already in the culture, in the air (I've done this before). That it's Job that frames Mechtilde's story is never mentioned in Henriques' own text, and yet it's this story that, in a quite profound way, holds Mechtilde. The carefully written words are hard to read, but they're not there for reading: you already know the story. What you see in the micrographia is time, care, devotion. Mechtilde's story and Job's are different - most prominently at the end - but bound together in Mechtilde's mourning daughter's patient love.
To the students in my discussion section this seemed a beautiful and powerful thing to do with text - no sense that the biblical text was somehow being used, or even abused. This class of designers and artists won't need to be weaned from a too text-focused understanding of things! When I mentioned that Henriques now works as a jeweler, there were murmurs of assent: these images look like jewel settings, one said, the doodly lines look like metalwork of various kinds. (And indeed some of Henriques' jewelry is metalwork of this kind.) Another suggested that the inaccessibility of the text was key, evoking the power of text from times when most people were illiterate, knew texts held power but couldn't access it themselves. How very exciting to be exploring Job and the arts in such company!

PS Through the wonders of FaceBook, I'm now in touch with Henriques! A friend of a friend is a friend of hers... and Henriques now lives in New York, so we'll be getting together.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Religion without religion

The new semester is underway! The two of my classes which are being taught at Lang, my two Religious Studies seminars, started today. (The University Lecture starts tomorrow.)

But I'm worried for the first of them, my old fave "Exploring Religious Ethics." Only eight students were registered, and only five of these showed up today: unless something dramatic changes, the course may get culled. And of those who came today, 3 are BA/BFA students; a fourth is a first-year. Where are the Religious Studies minors and majors? For that matter, where are the others who should be interested in ethics? Our curriculum has few
courses in ethics, but perhaps it can't sustain even this many! Worrying indeed.

"Lived Religion in New York," on the other hand, is at capacity; it's going to be a lot of fun. I know none of its students (though I see all the minors and majors). A strangely LREL-free semester beckons...!

Monday, January 25, 2016

Day after the blizzard: bright morning, browning afternoon.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

The storm has receded...

Knowing the will of heaven

I mentioned that two of my forthcoming classes are reboots of classes I've taught before - "Exploring Religious Ethics," most recently taught in Spring 2013, and "Lived Religion in New York, in Fall 2011. These might not seem like a long time ago, but for someone with a memory as sieve-like as me, a very long time.

I can say that with confidence because - thank goodness! - I'm an assiduous diarist. (I took it up in earnest at the start of the new millennium, even before this blog entered and enriched the mix in 2006.) I've been going back through the quite detailed accounts I jotted down of each session of those classes - what we discussed, what worked, what didn't, interesting and surprising contributions various students made, notes to self for what to do differently next time - as if discovering a lost treasure: I'd forgotten almost all of it! I flip back and forth between shame and mortification that I've forgotten not only our discussions but many of the students who were part of them on the one hand, and relief and gratitude to my diarist self for recording as much as he did on the other. (As I read them I'm also aware that most of what happened in last semester's classes is doomed for oblivion, as the classes' being scheduled back-to-back left me no time to record and process what happened in each class.)

Happily, even brief descriptions bring back a lot: the memories are fuzzy but they're there, if triggered. Memory is all about triggers, of course, as I recall learning from Milan Kundera's Book of Laughter and Forgetting. (I think: wasn't that the book where a woman, who's just lost her husband, tries to recollect all the summer holiday trips they went on and isn't able, succeeding finally in completing the list only once she's given up and lives on, new experiences triggering recollections of the forgotten memories?)

I just had what some might see as a big birthday (in Roman numerals, I'm L size now), and it triggered two interesting memories which I can't recall the last time I entertained. Both are from when I was a teenager.

The first was someone else's fiftieth birthday - my father's. We had a big party for him - perhaps a surprise - but what I remember is the card of invitation which I designed. A grid of little boxes perhaps sixteen or twenty, each with a line drawing and a name or description, and the question: What do these things have in common? The things were stuff like teflon and the zipper and some kind of radiation, and people like Carl Sagan, Sofia Loren, Brigitte Bardot - and my father. What they all had in common, of course, was that they were all fifty years old that year! I have no seventeen year old child to do that for me, but the research would be a lot easier today - see what good company I have!

The second memory occurred to me as I was gloating over how I'd bypassed the anxiety of approaching fifty by having the birthday a year early, if unplanned. (That it was fifty I had, by Chinese reckoning, attained was embedded in a reference to Confucius.) Even without the Chinese counting, it's clear that I've just completed my fiftieth year. Anyway, it came to me that I tried to avoid another milestone once, which sounds a lot like fifty: fifteen! In my "best little boy in the world" way I was wary of turning fifteen, which I had heard was the year when children became rebellious and rude. I assured my parents (and myself) I was going to skip it, go right from fourteen to sixteen! 

Saturday, January 23, 2016


We had a bit of a snow storm today. All non-emergency traffic was forbidden after 2:30 so the city became a winter playground! I took a turn in Prospect Park, getting a little frosting myself in the process!
Check out those eyebrows!

Friday, January 22, 2016

Snow days

New York City is gearing up for what may be a very big blizzard over the weekend. At my local Brooklyn supermarket: shovels, salt, and sleds!

It'll be a weekend of shoveling, salting and sledding in another register for me: the new semester begins next week, and my three course syllabi aren't yet finished. Two are repeats/updates, and, while they've been on the backburner of my mind (is there such a place?) for the last weeks, I've only recently started thinking concretely about the updating, which needs to take into account what was learned from the last iterations (Fall 2011 and Spring 2013, respectively), new material in the field, the new terrain of issues in 2016 - and the contours of the semester's schedule. Wish me happy sledding!

Back home

A long day, a long trip, but smooth: informal taxi to subway line 2 to MagLev to Pudong (left), AA128 to Dallas, AA262 to La Guardia, taxi, home!
I don't usually fly into La Guardia, but flights into it routinely fly over my place in Brooklyn. This time I got to be in one such flight at a clear midnight. Can you make out Lady Liberty (left edge), the Brooklyn Bridge (two-thirds), Lower Manhattan (to its left), Midtown Manhattan (right edge) and Flatbush Ave heading lower right. That's where I am!

Wednesday, January 20, 2016


And so another China visit ends, certainly not my last! I'm not quite sure what the summer holds but I hope to find a few weeks back here as part of it. It's been really nice reconnecting with people in Shanghai (for some, my return proved for the first time that my interest is for real) And I never did make it to Beijing...

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Bang for your buck

A store I enjoy going to here is Japanese - DAISO. It's a distinctively Japanese thing, a 100円ショップ hyakkuen shoppu whose every article costs exactly 100 yen - no more, no less. Unlike 99¢ stores in the US unloading cheap, unwanted and past prime merchandise from elsewhere, products here proudly sport their own label. In this land of cheaply mass-produced stuff it's kind of stylish, being Japanese.
There's clearly a world of designers and manufacturers (many of the the latter presumably here in China!) who aim for just this this market, devising nifty things which add incrementally to the pleasure of your life. Kitchen, bath, storage, stationery, toys, accessories... (I'm wearing DAISO fleece slippers as I speak, and will take an inflatable DAISO headrest with me on the plane Thursday.) There are also always discoveries, too! Who could resist these 12 mini-sponges for just $1.50?

Monday, January 18, 2016


Visiting the 上海博物馆 Shanghai Museum today, I enjoyed the horizontal unrolling of a landscape by 沈周 Shen Zhou (below is a scene near the end - we've traversed mountains and rivers on our way from right to left, and after this comes a long expanse of open water, with just a little hint of another shore to end it far beyond to the left)... and then, making my way along a pedestrian overpass toward 大世界 Dashijie station, was inspired to try to capture a panorama of my own. The Shanghai Museum is about a third of the way in, starting from the left.
My cell phone did pretty well here, I think, doing a double take only once (two red flags!). Actually, I'd been planning to try a panorama here before. Both an overpass and an underpass - an elevated highway roars overhead - one floats a little like the viewer of a landscape painting.

Sunday, January 17, 2016


On a bitterly cold final morning in Qingdao, we checked out the old German area, including neo-romanesque St. Michael's Catholic cathedral and the 栈桥 Zhanqiao pier at whose end now stands the pavilion which graces the label of Tsingtao beer (descended from the German brewery set up in 1903). Germany commandeered the area in 1897, losing it to a siege by opportunistic Japan when WW1 broke out. (The Republican government's acquiescence in Japan's continued rule after WW1 helped sparked the May 4th movement in 1919.) I have somewhat complicated
feelings about the German presence here, perhaps not so different from that of Germans who hoped to get their own Hong Kong at a time when the great powers had Concessions up and down the Chinese coast. They've no business being here at all, of course, but no less business than the French who still roam Shanghai, or the English and Americans whose bank buildings, duly nationalized and now commercialized, are the pride of the Bund! Qingdao prizes its distinctive architecture, and I enjoy my queasiness at this unexpectedly familiar landscape. (My generation's Germanness is queasiness!)

Saturday, January 16, 2016


崂山 Laoshan, the highest peak along China's coast, is one of the sacred mountains of Daoism. This isn't the highest point, but you get the idea. What took my breath away here was not the craggy skyline, spectacular though that is, but the grid-like rock pattern on the nearer mount. I've seen such grids in landscape paintings and assumed they were a convention (and not one whose point I saw). Turns out that, like the mottling of other mountainsides by bushes, the slender waterfalls falling great distances like a single straight white line, and the pines on bulbous promontories above oceans of cloud, these conventions are based in actual scenery! I've had the experiencer more than a few times now of discovering that works I'd thought stylized, abstracted, transformed by an artist's distinctive vision are in fact, well, pretty realistic. It's happened in Australia and in Paris, too: the perks of living abroad! (But still: am I now seeing this mountain here, or, with eyes trained by painting, seeing a Chinese sacred mountain?)

Friday, January 15, 2016


Greetings from Qingdao, where it feels like dusk all the time! The picture of the sun setting over the Lutheran Church (this was a German colony for a brief spell) was taken at sunset, but air - AQI over 300! - was soupy brown all day. Laoshan might be more refreshing tomorrow; if not, there's always beer: Tsingtao is made here.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

The practice of everyday life

It's another week until I leave, but here are some things I'd forgotten about China, for all their being a part of every day I spent here. We're heading to Qingdao for a few days, and I might forget I remembered them...

People use coupons - generally found online, accessed by cell phone - everywhere. Indeed, there's almost always a coupon for a place, so even if you've already finished a meal somewhere, you might still find you can pay ¥88 online for ¥100 of food (for instance), and the waiter or waitress will patiently wait while you punch away at your cell phone for part or all of your bill. If you haven't noticed the deal, the waiters will tell you about them; if one coupon doesn't work, they might suggest another. They don't do this for tips, since there's no tipping here. Sometimes it seems like they're giving friendly advice, but not always; they may seem vaguely bored, but never impatient. A big part of being a waitress or waiter here is waiting - menus are often the length of small books, and they wait patiently while people go through them page by page... I still don't quite understand the service ethic here; waiters or shop assistants seem neither on the side of the establishment or the customer, but more like accidental bystanders.

Motorcycles drive at night without their lights on, often in packs just as their light turns red; at the best of times some of them drive soundlessly on the sidewalk. Like bicycles, many drive on the wrong side of the road. Drivers beware: anyone might appear at any time from any direction! The same goes for pedestrians. Whenever you want to cross from A to B, someone, on foot or wheels of some kind, will materialize going from B to A, into or out of a doorway or laneway you hadn't noticed was there, and others may appear at the perpendicular too. Alertness is constant, though it seems nobody's paying attention. Nobody stops unless they have to. It comes back to me that I first felt the miracle of still being alive every time I made it home from Fudan on my bicycle, but later came to take it for granted that, still miraculously, none of the collisions I saw about to happen around me (and sometimes involving me) actually would.

Going into every metro station there will be a security checkpoint (or several) with someone watching a monitor and one or two people directing people to place their bags and briefcases in the scanner. Most people walk right through, bags or no bags. My friend X had been trying for a long time to get me not to put my backpack in the scanner, which I did out of a habit of law abidingness and a sense that guests should be on their best behavior (especially in a police state) - I also used to feel indignant at those who seemed to me to think themselves too good to participate - but I have seen the light. Walk past the people directing you to put your bag in and some will say something; some will gesture, half blocking your way; some will even hold onto your arm. But if you keep moving they'll let you go through. At one point, when someone seemed to be blocking my way I put the backpack on the belt, only to have my friend angrily snatch it away... and nobody did anything. Another time my backpack actually went through and the monitor-watcher asked my friend if there was a bottle of water in it. I said there wasn't, which he relayed to the security team, who said something about how it had looked like there was - and let us pass without checking. It's a gigantic farce, really. X's view is not that the system is ineffective (which clearly it is) but that "I've already paid for it" through his taxes, probably to line the pockets of some party insider who makes unreliable scanners. Maybe it's a make-work scheme, I once speculated; no difference, he said, they're getting paid and shouldn't get in our way. And they don't.

I'm amused that I forgot about these things, but I suppose that's just the thing about everyday life. When you're in it, you participate without noticing. When you're not in it, it's out of mind, too. But I wanted to jot them down here, if only so that I can at some future time note that they have, once again, slipped my mind - something I'll only know, as this time, by surprise at reentry.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Tidal river

 Went for a second visit to the new Shanghai Natural History Museum 上海自然博物馆 today. Where else can you see, in a glorious "River of Life"
together, living and extinct species from land and sea? There's a different conception of time and of contingency at work here, perhaps.

Religious geography!

Details of 邱志杰 Qiu Zhijie's wall-size map at the Dunhuang exhibit.