Friday, February 27, 2009

Dinner with M2

On Tuesday I had dinner with my sister. She is my second older sister--in Chinese, Er Jie--, I will call her M2. It does not sound like such a remarkable event, but upon reflection I realized that she and I have not had an extensive one-on-one interaction in years, maybe as much as a decade? We have lived in different places, and led busy lives. When we have seen each other it's mostly been at big family get-togethers where there are always many distractions...

I have vivid memories of M2 from when I was a child. She is nine years older than me, actually my half sister. When my age was still in the single digits, she was the coolest person ever born (as far as I was concerned). Everything that belonged to her was the coolest thing in the world. Everything she was interested in, I was interested in too. I try to imagine how annoying I must have been! But I didn't see it that way at the time of course. Later I developed a feeling of diffidence toward her, though I couldn't say exactly why.

Anyway, a conference brought M2 to Chicago this week and she called me up out of blue. I went and met her near where she was staying and we had dinner. I still felt some of that former mystique, a sense of great privilege to be in the exclusive presence of my childhood idol. At the same time, I am an adult now; well, we both are. The childhood strangeness that I think formerly interfered with our ability to develop a real sisterly relationship has been to some extent overcome, perhaps?

We had a really pleasant conversation, at least I thought so. We had more in common than I would have expected, personality-wise. We do such different work, and I have always imagined that we would have formed our respective identities around very different sorts of things. And yet there is something quite similar about our personality styles, our experiences of certain things.

In any case, I was really glad we did it. It was a good start. It is strange to talk of "starting" a sibling relationship in one's 30s, but there you have it. That's still how it feels.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Butterfly: Peacock Pansy

These are some pictures of the third painted origami butterfly I made. (The other two are here and here.)

I finally felt satisfied with this one. It is what I had in mind when I started thinking about making them. That's a satisfying feeling.

This butterfly is modeled on one called Junonia almana, or peacock pansy butterfly. Of course origami wings are not the same shape as real wings, so it is a little altered in proportions.

Still, I fooled Pocket of Bolts when I first showed it to him (from across the room). He thought I had somehow caught a real butterfly. A proud moment. Here's the not-folded version.

Now I have been resting on my laurels. I started another one, but satisfaction is not as good a spur for art as dissatisfaction. Or maybe it's just that I've been doing other things... you know, like the things I'm actually supposed to be doing.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Random Walk: Harold Washington Library

I have long been fascinated by randomness. I'm not sure why. Ever since I was little, though, I have liked the idea of it. It seems impersonal but also vast, inexhaustible, like an undiscovered country all its own. Of course it's also potentially disappointing and frustrating. I'm sure all explorers have their share of disappointments though. Borges pays marvelous tribute to the idea in "The Library of Babel." In a world of pure randomness, the ratio of sense to nonsense is terribly low.

Fortunately, the Harold Washington Library is not a world of pure randomness. Given the contents and the target population, there's not even all that much chance of my coming across a book in a language I can't read. So since I'm working here for the day, I used my Excel random number generator to choose a random floor (4), a random number of turns (9), what the turns--or non-turns--should be (left, left, right, left, straight, right, left, straight, straight), a number of steps to walk (8), and a side to reach my hand (left). This resulted in the following book:

4000 Years of Service: The Story of the Wholesale Tobacco Industry and its Pioneers, by Joseph Kolodny, copyright 1953.

The date is key. No sign of health risks, or addiction, or anything at all troubling about tobacco. Tobacco is just plain good business in 1953.

I was quite struck by the number "4000 years." In my field (ancient history), we might occasionally run into a number that large, but mostly things 4000 years ago are the province of archeologists. In China at least we're not even talking oracle bones or bronzes, but rather painted pots, bit of jade-work. Well, 4000 years is not the length of time that people have been using tobacco, or if so only incidentally to the subject matter of this book.

It turns out that the National Association of Tobacco Distributors (NATD), which figures most prominently in this particular publication, established a "Half-Century Club" to honor those tobacco industry figures who had been in the business for fifty years or more. I guess the club had about 80 members. Anyway, it's a bit astonishing that this book came to be. It's a whole lot of dross. Some history of the tobacco industry and its importance to America, an address delivered by the author at the inaugural meeting of the half-century club, and an bunch of nice black and white portraits: pioneers of the tobacco industry. Lastly, some essays on the future of the tobacco industry. A whole lot of stuff those guys didn't see coming.

It's odd that this book is taking up space in the library's reference section. On the other hand, since the inaugural meeting of the NATD Half-Century club took place at the Palmer House here in Chicago, I suppose it's a little piece of Chicago history. It is fairly disturbing nonetheless.


It's amazingly and amusingly difficult to take a standard passport picture of yourself, especially if you don't have a tripod and if most of the walls in your apartment aren't white. At right is one of my many failed attempts before I finally gave up and asked Pocket of Bolts to take it for me. I would have done that to begin with except that old PoB has been working unusually hard--which, workaholic that he is, is very very hard--ever since his colleague has been here visiting with us.

Anyway, I liked this picture even though it's a total failure for standard passport photo composition. I'm trying to grow my hair out a bit--I think the end goal is shoulder-length or a bit longer, but with bangs? maybe? Right now though it's pretty silly, tufts sticking straight out by my ears unless I kind of plaster them down. On the other hand, that's also kind of cute sometimes.

It's not that my life has been uneventful lately, but there are various things I don't quite feel like putting up on the blog just yet. Possibilities that have not yet come to fruition and might not--things like that. I did put up a new post on Book Draft though. And if I owe you an e-mail, I'm sorry--I'm really behind right now!!

Friday, February 13, 2009

How I Know We are Healthy

Both Pocket of Bolts and I have been feeling under the weather all week. There were no particular symptoms, just a general feeling of what PoB describes as "assy-ness," feeling like ass. Occasional moments of scratchy throat, runny nose, headache or stomachache, but everything come and gone almost before we noticed. Mostly a general feeling of tiredness, like the kind you'd be tempted to ascribe to depression except for that we're both extremely happy at the moment. If we got excited about something, we could easily shake off the malaise, although it would be waiting for us again when we came back down.

We both took it easy on the exercise, took naps and extra vitamins, and generally babied ourselves a bit. Today, I at least am finally feeling back to normal.

It's funny to say that this feeling mildly sick is proof of our robust good health, but I'm pretty sure that what happened is we have been fighting off some really nasty bug, just fighting it off quite successfully. I should add that we haven't been sick the entire year, at all. This is the first time, if this even counts. For myself, I put it down to the virtues of spending every other day in my pajamas. For Pocket of Bolts, who goes in to work all day and gets coughed on by students, it must be something else. Probably it's because, as he announced to me early on in our relationship, he has "the immune system of a Panzer tank column." He's a tough one all right. One of his many good qualities.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Warm Front//A Date

I put on my wool socks and then I pulled on my leg-warmers up over them. I readjusted my pants legs, buttoned up my wool sweater, shrugged into my down coat. I checked to make sure my Polartec gloves were in my coat pockets. I reached for hat and scarf. Pocket of Bolts was sitting on the couch with his computer. "Could you check the weather for me?" I asked him. I don't typically wear hat and scarf for short excursions unless the weather is in the teens or single digits.

"Sure thing," Pocket of Bolts said. "... Right now it's 38 with a high of--"

"You're shitting me. What did you say?"

"Thirty-eight, as in, above-freezing 38. Melting-snow 38."

Neither of us could quite believe it. I looked out into the courtyard. It was an expanse of thick white buttercream, with only the two paths carefully cleared. "It doesn't look like it's melting," I said skeptically.

"Well, it's a glacier out there," Pocket of Bolts said. The sun was shining through the windows. It did feel, well, almost a little bit warm.

I dropped the hat and scarf, shucked off my down coat and leg-warmers, and shimmied into my wool coat instead. After weeks of looking like a black puff-ball every time I walked out the door, I felt quite dashing with my figure almost visible in the slim charcoal lines of my medium-weight coat.

Fancy that, I thought as I stepped out into the courtyard. The feeling of the air on my face, which had of late varied only along the limited spectrum between "cringe-inducing" and "agonizing" could now be characterized as merely "bracing." Out on the sidewalks, the dog-shit encrusted snow-banks were shrinking a little. The sun was doing its best to be warm. It was actually enjoyable to walk along.

Later when I got home from my reading group, Pocket of Bolts and I went for a run. An actual run, outside.

We weren't the only ones to have this idea. Along the lake-shore path in the last hour before sunset, it was almost as lively as it was last June, although everyone was a lot more heavily bundled. The atmosphere was downright cheery. The harbor was so frozen up, but the path was quite clear and clean.

This evening we decided we deserved some fun, so we went out to dinner at Miller's Pub (which turned out to be an awesome restaurant--we hadn't been there before) and saw a strange but interesting film, Fear(s) of the Dark, at the Gene Siskal Film Center. We love going on dates, and never fail to have a good time. This one was no exception!

Thursday, February 05, 2009

The Four Winds

The paleography class yesterday was really interesting. For some reason I was really aesthetically fascinated by the material we were studying. I kept wanting to copy the text instead of analyze it. It was so beautiful. I guess that means it's time I should make another butterfly. Instead, though, I came home and copied out the text with my watercolor brush. (Somehow I've misplaced my calligraphy brush. That's okay; the original is carved in bone, not painted.) This inscription is a chart of the four winds and four directions, just their names. The left part has been broken off, though the content can be supplied from other inscriptions. The especially hairy character third from the bottom is the character for wind, a borrowing from the character we now translate as phoenix... but which looks an awful lot like a peacock when you look carefully at its development.

I'm not going to post the original picture because it makes my clumsy painting look pretty bad, but it is a marvelous picture. Pocket of Bolts said that oracle bone script looks savage and disconcerting--as if they're trying to depict something but it has become detached in an uncanny way from the things they are trying to depict. Actually, that is just about right. It is far more pictographic and less differentiated than modern Chinese script, but it is already much stylized and simplified. They are, and aren't, pictures of things.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

The Breathing Sandwich//Dreadlocks

It was COLD today. This is how cold: I packed myself a sandwich before I left the house this morning. We're not talking a hot sandwich here, just some bread, some deli sliced turkey and lettuce and mustard. I walked to the El, and, having just missed a train, decided to sit down and eat my sandwich. You know how when you exhale in cold weather and you can see your breath? Well, while I was eating I noticed that I could see my sandwich's breath as well. Honestly. I even held my breath to double check that it wasn't from me. My sandwich was faintly but perceptibly exhaling white mist. I pondered this phenomenon, and concluded that it must be from the moist, room-temperature bread (since the other ingredients had been refrigerated). I'm just saying, that is some cold weather.

Elsewhere in the news, I yielded to my fascination with dreadlocks yesterday to the extent of photoshopping some dreadlocks onto myself to see how I'd look. These particular dreadlocks happen to belong to Tracy Chapman (thanks Tracy). Pocket of Bolts called the results "disconcerting." The thing that surprised me, as well, was the extent to which I look like my brother! I guess dreadlocks would not be effective in making me look more feminine, although I still think they'd be pretty cool. I've had it with being mistaken for a boy, though. I want to look like a woman.

At right is a picture of my brother for comparison. It was taken some years ago. He's much leaner and handsomer now. But you can kinda see it, can't you?

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Butterfly: Malachite

Here is my next draft butterfly. It is still not perfect, less symmetrical than I meant it to be, and I have to think some more about the underside and how to deal with the fact that the origami pattern is far from anatomically correct. Still, I felt fairly pleased with it.

It's interesting to note that the undersides of the wings have a quite different tone, a sky-blue color that doesn't appear at all on the top. After thinking about it for a long time I decided that this must be because when seen from the top by predators it would camouflaged against leaves and soil, but when seen from underneath by predators it would be camouflaged against the sky.

This is the unfolded paper. This butterfly pattern was modeled on Siproeta stelenes. Some of the web photos I looked at are here and here. Also here.

By the way, new Book Draft post here.

Monday, February 02, 2009

Superbowl Sunday

If you can believe it, Pocket of Bolts and I spent yesterday evening watching the Superbowl. I told this to my mom and she said, "Where did you go?" See, we have TV but no cable, and we only get one channel. Exactly which channel varies depending on what happens to be plugged in to the TV. It turns out that with our new DVD player, the channel we get is NBC (a bit fuzzy), and that happened to be where the Superbowl was playing.

Now neither Pocket of Bolts nor I are great sports fans, but we'd had a tough week, and the Superbowl seemed like a good excuse to eat our favorite sinful meal (pizza and beer) and kick back for four hours. We thought, if we got bored with the game we could always switch over to one of our Netflix. But as it turned out, the game was incredibly exciting!

We had no personal stake in the result at all. Pocket of Bolts was nominally rooting for the Steelers (the Stillers, if you're from Pittsburgh) because he's from the East Coast. I can't maintain any constant loyalties and always tend to be rooting for the offense or the underdog, whichever seems more appropriate. Oh, and for anyone who has long black hair coming out from under their helmet. The Stillers were a classy team, but those Cardinals were really scrappy. We howled and jumped up and down. It was especially humiliating that the Stillers got safetied, but on the other hand, they shouldn't have thrown so many punches at the guys on the other team. Unnecessary roughness indeed! It was a marvelous thing, seeing Harrison's end-zone interception followed by the lumbering hundred yard run for the touchdown. All in all, it was not the slightest bit boring (except for all the ads).

I've noticed this before about football: it works a lot better if you follow the entire game closely from the beginning, because a lot of the pleasure is in the narrative arc. This is unlike continuously played games like basketball or soccer where reverses can and do occur instantaneously. In football, they generally happen in a slower and more formal way, but they are correspondingly more momentous. And of course instantaneous reverse (like fumbles and interceptions) are downright shocking.

Anyway, it's not something I'd want to watch every day or even every week, but it might well become an annual tradition.