Thursday, December 31, 2009


south window

I shrugged off the folks in the Midwest who had never heard of Arches National Park, when I mentioned I was headed that way over Christmas. It's not unusual for folks around here to know little about the American West. Maybe it's because they think of it as one lump sum of mountain ranges and cowboy hats; maybe it's because they don't think of it much at all.

But when we mentioned it to the executive chef at our Denver hotel (who prepared an exceptional meal for us that I really need to Yelp) and she'd never heard of the lovely little gem of a national park just six or seven hours distant, nestled into the red rock canyon country just outside of Moab, Utah, cousin to the marvelous expanse that is Canyonlands, I got nervous.

This is all ours, America. This is the land we wrestled away from the folks who had it first, with gunpowder and infectious disease. This is what we fiercely claimed we could never live without. This is the country we abducted like a young bride from her kin. This is the land we killed for.

And while none of that is right, the very least we can do it pay our respects.

For god's sake go see it.

Monday, December 28, 2009

cookie's homemade irish cream

What you'll be needing after a day kicking around
Arches in the cold and snow. (And I do mean cold:
teens and single digits for most of the day while we
were hiking the snow packed trails.)

sweetened condensed milk (1 can)
half & half (1 pint)
vanilla (1 Tbsp)
chocolate syrup (2 Tbsp)
whiskey (1 cup)
coffee (double shot of espresso or 2 Tbsp instant)

Blend. Pour over ice. Distribute among the tribe.
Pass the jug of leftovers.


Posting by cameraphone from
Grand Junction, CO


Originally uploaded by suttonhoo
Posting by cameraphone from
Arches National Park
Just outside Moab, UT

Sunday, December 27, 2009

gefilte fish, institutional size

Stopped by the bagel deli of my youth to grab
a bite for the road. Their bagels aren't quite up
to NYC standards (or Philly, as my Fishtown-
dwelling brother pointed out), but they're pretty
good for West of the Mississippi.

Posting by cameraphone from Hampton and
Monaco in Denver. Headed for the hills.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

in the bubble

in the bubble
Originally uploaded by suttonhoo
Watching my little niece play some indoor soccer. The slaughter is on.

Posting by cameraphone from a Denver suburb.

Friday, December 25, 2009

leur immobile beauté

Photograph: Martin D'Orgeval

Le 1er février 2008 à 5 heures du matin, un incendie a ravagé Deyrolle, magasin historique d'entomologie et de taxidermie situé au cœur de Paris. Les collections de milliers de papillons et d'insectes rares, d'animaux empaillés de tous horizons et de minerais divers, formées depuis sa création en 1831, s'envolèrent en fumée, ne laissant de traces que dans la mémoire de générations de rêveurs fascinés par leur immobile beauté.

From the text accompanying Touché par le Feu, a collection of photographs by Martin D'Orgeval documenting the conflagration of Deyrolle, a historic shop of taxidermy and entomology in the heart of Paris »

Thursday, December 24, 2009

3-letter word for delicious

Swiss cheese & sour cream omelette with my sister's
ugly apple chutney on the side.

It may not be pretty but it's *delicious*. And it's breakfast.
Or rather: lunch. Working from home to avoid the ice on
the roads and I didn't realize it had gotten so late.

Posting by cameraphone.
Getting ready to launch into Christmas.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009


Originally uploaded by suttonhoo
Ducking the crowds in the darkened sanctuary of the church that hosts our PADs shelter in the wintertime. We always manage to overstaff these things, and the do-gooders generally trample each other in an effort to make sure everyone's fed and bedded.

Frozen rain is falling outside; sleet sheeting every surface with ice.

Tonight a well-dressed gentleman walked in long after everyone was signed in and chatting over their plates piled high with fried chicken and mashed potatoes and green bean casserole. He said, "this is my first night homeless: what do I do?"

Eat, we told him, and warm up some. Then we'll do the paperwork.

Posting by cameraphone. Dry & warm & and a little bit heartbroken.

daydream believer

self-portrait as embryo

we feel pain and pleasure
we yearn

and in order to find out how
to minimize pain

and maximize pleasure

we think

Found in The 20 W sleep-walkers by Ladislav Kováč1 of Comenius University, Bratislava, Slovakia in the current issue of EMBO Reports.

Also found in Kováč1's piece, as directly quoted:
  • The energy output of the resting adult human body is equal to the power of a 100 W electrical light bulb.

  • The brain alone consumes 20% of the body's chemical energy, even though it accounts for only 2% of the body's mass. Metaphorically speaking, we all have a 20 W light bulb burning in our head, even when we lie still in complete darkness doing physically nothing.

  • The brain as a whole shows no difference in the energy budget between ‘resting’ and ‘busy’ states.

  • The brain guzzles up—per unit weight—as much energy as the heart muscle, about 16 times more energy than the skeletal muscle at rest, or as much as the leg muscles during a marathon race.

When the brain receives no signals from the environment, a considerable part of its energy is used in daydreaming: the human mind may be spending as much as half of its wakeful time daydreaming (Klinger, 1990). This comprises not only the creation of fanciful stories similar to those we dream during the night, but also the rehashing of all possible and impossible alternatives of the past, present and future activities.

This interior universe of daydreaming creates a continuous series of fictional rewards and punishments, which steadily builds up the unique and idiosyncratic personality of every human individual by conditioning. This may explain our capability to work for years on our career, tenaciously, with self-restraint and self-denial, as if we were motivated by the mirage of an ultimate reward.

Apparently, it is not the latter in the remote future, but our present fancies of it that provide immediate, positive rewards and function to reinforce our deeds.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

delayed in detroit

delayed in detroit
Originally uploaded by suttonhoo
Flight cancelled due to snow in Chicago. Rumored to
be booked on the 8.10, but with snow in Chicago who's
to say we'll get off the ground? That said, all on the
ground sources report nothing more than light flurries.
Reserved a one-way rental car just in case, but after
waking at 4am I'm not sure a 5 hr drive home through
the snow is a stellar plan.

This snowman, btw? Entirely made of balloons --
even the coal and carrot facial features.

Ah the miracle that is man.

Posting by cameraphone from DTW.

Monday, December 21, 2009

oll raigth

This video is maddening -- almost entirely because the Italian who strung together a pop song from American-sounding nonsense (sometime in the 70s, it seems) pulled off the tonality so perfectly that I spent all my time listening trying to make out what they're saying.

Via @yourperil.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Saturday, December 19, 2009

take it straight

take it straight
Originally uploaded by suttonhoo
That strange frothy microbrewed substance in the IV bag that looks like a nice small-batch wheat beer? That's my plasma.

This is the second batch; the first batch had already been returned to me, along with saline, in an icy transfusion after the blood center extracted a concentrated dose of red blood cells from what I gave them. How much was that? I got *two* "be kind to me I gave blood stickers" over the usual one. So two pints, but they gave me all the leftovers back. At the end of the hour the phlebotomist handed me a form to sign saying: "sorry I forgot about this before."

The consent form detailed the strange side effects I was already feeling -- weird tingling in my lips; severe chills; nausea -- and states at the very last: "Long term side-effects from the depletion of lymphocytes are unknown." That would be my white blood cells; the ones that fight infection.


Also in the small print: a prohibition against donating blood if you are a man who has had sexual contact with a man anytime since 1977. This question comes up some time after one is queried about sexual contact with an individual who is HIV positive, male or female.

So basically gay men are out, just because they're gay, unless I'm reading that wrong.

It may not be marriage, but it's still discrimination, and it made me even more curious to read Martha Nussbaum's pending release on the politics of revulsion in which she theorizes that much of the antagonism to gay marriage is rooted in homophobic disgust over queer sexuality.

I want to see where she goes with that and whether she draws a parallel between sexual discrimination and our sorry history of racial segregation.

Separate drinking fountains come to mind.

From Disgust to Humanity by Martha Nussbaum

good for you and me

Photo: H. Armstrong Roberts

Why I want an i-pod touch

Although I am only ten, I want an i-pod touch. Here are 3 main reasons I should get an i-pod touch for Christmas. I really want to get one.

The first reason why I would like an i-pod touch is because if I get one now, I won’t need any other i-pods. K has a shuffle and a nano and barely uses them. The i-pod touch can last years without needing a new i-pod to keep you entertained. I really wish you would consider getting me the i-pod that will last a lifetime.

The next reason I would like an i-pod touch is because how much it can do. This amazing i-pod has music, free games, and much more. I will always get free games never a game you have to pay for. Just a regular i-pod can’t beat an i-pod touch. Not even 2 of them are as amazing as an i-pod touch. And dad, If I got an i-pod touch, I wouldn’t be asking to play your i phone.

The last reason why you should consider getting me an i-pod touch is well, just listen. Think, you bought K 2 i-pods and if you bought us all 2 i-pods it would be like this. Why not just buy 1 i-pod that for each of them that they will use a lot and not have an i-pod that they don’t use sitting around the house, make that 2 because neither one of those i-pods are as good as an i-pod touch. Please please please get me an i-pod touch.

These are 3 main reasons why I want to get an i-pod touch; they are good for you and me. Please consider getting me one, and if you just don’t want to get me like you did with my DS, you can get gift cards but I would really really like an i-pod touch.

PS. Sydney and Natalie both have an i-pod touch

A letter from my niece, M, to her father, posted here with both her consent and her dad's.

I was mostly impressed with the three-point essay construction.

Friday, December 18, 2009

the dark socket of the year

The dark socket of the year
the pit, the cave where the sun lies down
and threatens never to rise,
when despair descends softly as the snow
covering all paths and choking roads:

then hawkfaced pain seized you
threw you so you fell with a sharp
cry, a knife tearing a bolt of silk.
My father heard the crash but paid
no mind, napping after lunch

yet fifteen hundred miles north
I heard and dropped a dish.
Your pain sunk talons in my skull
and crouched there cawing, heavy
as a great vessel filled with water,

oil or blood, till suddenly next day
the weight lifted and I knew your mind
had guttered out like the Chanukah
candles that burn so fast, weeping
veils of wax down the chanukiya.

Those candles were laid out,
friends invited, ingredients bought
for latkes and apple pancakes,
that holiday for liberation
and the winter solstice

when tops turn like little planets.
Shall you have all or nothing
take half or pass by untouched?
Nothing you got, Nun said the dreydl
as the room stopped spinning.

The angel folded you up like laundry
your body thin as an empty dress.
Your clothes were curtains
hanging on the window of what had
been your flesh and now was glass.

Outside in Florida shopping plazas
loudspeakers blared Christmas carols
and palm trees were decked with blinking
lights. Except by the tourist
hotels, the beaches were empty.

Pelicans with pregnant pouches
flapped overhead like pterodactyls.
In my mind I felt you die.
First the pain lifted and then
you flickered and went out.

Part the first of a lovely poem by Marge Piercy called My Mother's Body which I found at the Poetry Foundation.


Happy Hanukkah.


Ghost Hearders
Originally uploaded by
Having visited hundreds of sites all over the world, including Lascaux and Chauvet in France and the Côa Valley in Portugal, [archaeologist David S. Whitley] believes the Coso Petroglyphs to be one of the most important rock art sites on earth.

Mr. Whitley estimated that there may be as many as 100,000 images carved into the dark volcanic canyons above the China Lake basin, some as old as 12,000 to 16,000 years, others as recent as the mid-20th century.

In Rock Art Redefines Ancient in today's New York Times.

The Coso Rock Art District, just off the road between L.A. and Vegas, has defied disturbance because it also operates as a firing range for U.S. Naval air weapons.

Go figure.

It's open for visitors (during which time I'm pretty sure they turn the bombs off). You can arrange a tour through the Maturango Museum »

You can also take a Flickr tour:

Monday, December 14, 2009

xmas on 6th ave

xmas on 6th ave
Originally uploaded by suttonhoo
Hi ya New York.

Posting by cameraphone.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

bella voce at the abbey

bella voce at the abbey
Originally uploaded by suttonhoo
Curtain at 7.30
Posting by cameraphone

the black book

Illus: Sunlight Soap Advertisement from The Black Book

Dear Mrs. Morrison,
Someone sent me a copy of The Black Book and if at all possible I would like to have two more. I need one copy to give to a friend, another to throw against the wall over and over and over. The one I already own I want to hold in my hand against my heart.

A letter from a prison inmate to Toni Morrison, editor of the Black Book while she was an editor at Random House, upon the book's initial release in 1974, cited by NPR.

The Black Book has been reissued in commemoration of its 35 year anniversary »

the red book

Illus: Carl Jung, The Red Book

To the superficial observer, it will appear like madness.

Carl Jung in the unfinished epilogue to his Red Book.

Jung's Red Book is on exhibit at the Rubin Museum of Art in Chelsea through mid-February.

The New York Times has posted a slideshow of Red Book folios (registration required) »

Sunday, December 06, 2009

hello, louis. (you're looking lovely.)

Roadside stop to see Louis Sullivan's Merchants Bank in Grinnell, Iowa. I wasn't expecting the green-patina gilt running along the columns and the facade, but the impact in the weak winter sun is remarkable.

It's Sunday, which means the bank is closed and we couldn't get a peek at the interior, so we had to make what we could of the art glass from the outside. Still: stunning.

Most remarkable is the way this jewel box by the grand-daddy of the Prairie School who fathered the emergence of modern architecture feels right at home in the quiet farming town of Grinnell, wearing its Sunday best without putting on airs.

Like the well-mannered Midwesterner it is.

Posting by cameraphone on the road home.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

just like the ones I used to know

snow blows.

We have learned to be a little sad and a little lonesome, without being sickly about it. This feeling is caught in the song of a thousand juke boxes and the tune whistled in streets and homes, 'I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas.' When we sing that song we don't hate anybody. . . . Away down under, this latest hit of Irving Berlin catches us where we love peace.

The poet Carl Sandburg, referring to how Irving Berlin's 'White Christmas' captured the spirit of life in the U.S. in the early years of WWII. Cited in this morning's Wall Street Journal.

According to the WSJ Irving Berlin's White Christmas is the best-selling song of all time: "Guinness World Records puts its sales at more than 50 million copies, with album and other sales taking the total above 100 million."

Friday, December 04, 2009

tom thumb

tom thumb
Originally uploaded by suttonhoo
The sign may say "hamburgers" but it's pretty clear,
upon walking into this place just outside Ft. Dodge, Iowa,
that the place is known for pie.

Everyone in the joint has a slice before them, and the pastry
cases are full with freshly baked specimens in glass pie pans.

Sour cream raisin with a meringue mountain topper for the
brave; cherry for the traditionalist; rhubarb for me.

Posting by cameraphone from the road back to Omaha.

angel's wings, coat room

angel's wings, coat room
Originally uploaded by suttonhoo
Back at the church for sandwiches and
cake post-interment. (The church ladies
have been busy.)

Posting by cameraphone from Humboldt, IA

power up

power up
Originally uploaded by suttonhoo
Posting by cameraphone
from Omaha, NE


Originally uploaded by suttonhoo
Road tripping to Humboldt, Iowa from
Omaha, Nebraska to bury mr. hoo's gram.

Posting by cameraphone.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

shipping & receiving

shipping & receiving
Originally uploaded by suttonhoo
On a mission to find a good cup of
coffee in Omaha. So far: failing.

Posting by cameraphone.
Memorial service later.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

nightscape, Iowa

like deep sea fish
angling by luminescence
combines crawl corn rows

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

conference call

conference call
Originally uploaded by suttonhoo
Posting by cameraphone
from the office

Sunday, November 29, 2009

blue hydrangeas & strawberries marinated in wine

blue hydrangeas & strawberries marinated in wine

The memory is of my grandmother, dropping a frozen strawberry into a glass of white wine.

Or maybe it was champagne.

Whichever it was it was filled to the brim and she drank it to the bottom, devouring the berry, laughing, alongside my Bompa, who drank -- did he have a glass of the same, or was it one of his martinis? Carefully created, as my father recently reminded me, by gently stirring the gin ("so as not to bruise it") and pouring it into a martini glass that had been prepared with a twist of lemon, expressed around the lip. If there was vermouth at all it was a trace of vapour only, released when he passed the open bottle over the glass like a priest blessing the saved with his smoky incensor.

They drank theirs while I had my root beer float and we watched the Sound of Music curled up on their davenport. (There were no couches in my grandmother's house, but there were three davenports.) When the credits rolled my grandmother sang "Climb Every Mountain", lustily smiling through her song, knowing every word, hitting every note.

They said it would come like this: memories welling up from the dark earth long after it was carefully tamped down. This one was triggered as I tore through the index of Ginette Mathiot's classic I Know How to Cook, recently released in translation by Phaidon, and spotted the strawberry recipe. I was looking for ways to prepare the abundance of celeriac (p. 523), turnips (p. 559), carrots (p. 520) and squash (no squash. squab. but no squash) that I've acquired from my winter CSA share.

I'm pretty sure this is a cry I've been cradling in reserve ever since we drove the distance this last week to Omaha and I stepped into Mr. Hoo's dying grandmother's room, turned off the fierce fluorescent over her head and pulled open the curtains to allow the morning light into the room.

I was startled by the hydrangea bush that stood in the sunlight just beyond the glass: dried, brown, done. Close kin to the blue bush that bloomed bright outside my grandmother's window this last summer, while she made her last ascent.

Strawberries Marinated in Wine
fraises au jus

Scant 4 1/4 cups strawberries
Superfine sugar to taste
1/2 bottle red wine, maraschino liqueur or Champagne, chilled

Prepare several hours in advance. Wash, drain and trim the strawberries and place in a bowl. Add sugar to taste and just cover the fruit with wine, maraschino liqueur or Champagne. Macerate in the refrigerator for several hours before serving.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

we'll keep the moon beside us

Video: ลอยโคมยี่เป็ง (Yi Peng Festival)

If you can't make it to Thailand for the lighting of the lanterns, you can always pick up a pack of three Firefly Lanterns from the Science Museum in London »

Friday, November 27, 2009


Originally uploaded by suttonhoo
Practice this thought now; turn it over in your mind; fabricate a muscle memory inside your imagination. Because when the day comes and you approach the bed of the dying your first impulse will be to say nothing. She may almost certainly say nothing to you. You may sit stiffly and look on politely before you look away. It may seem impolite to stare as her breath grows labored and her eyes grow wide.

If you have practiced this thought the compulsion might come to you easily, and gently you will take her hand. You will stroke her skin with its sheen like rice paper; you might fear that it will tear like tissue beneath your fingertips. If there's lotion close you might think to warm some in your hands and spread it on her thirsty skin.

Address her shoulders, her sternum. She may respond with a sigh of ease. She may not.

Rub her tired traveler's feet. They are dry and turned in on themselves and weary.

Practice this thought now, because the dying need to be touched like the newly born do. The dying need to know we're near.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

food desert

food desert
Originally uploaded by suttonhoo
It may be impossible to find a decent meal on Thanksgiving in America.

Or, at the very least, in Omaha, Nebraska.

Unless of course you've planned ahead. If you've shopped in the days before for the bird that you will stuff and truss and the cranberries that you will simmer until they pop and the Karo syrup that you will transform into the inexcusably sticky mess of a pecan pie that is the hallmark of a successful Thanksgiving -- if you've done all this then you will eat.

But if you descend out of the long dark drive from Chicago upon family tired and worn from a month of hospital attendance and the tired resignation that the patient has decided she is done, then you will find refrigerators empty and grocery stores closed and everyone too busy with the business of keeping her company on the long road home too worry too much about the rest of it.

And you will find a seat and settle in.

Posting by cameraphone from Omaha, NE

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

tanker truck of coffee

tanker truck of coffee
Originally uploaded by suttonhoo
Posting by cameraphone from I-80 in Iowa.
To grandmother's house we go.


solo rio

Last night I missed the Moth StorySLAM by a whisker. Through a series of misfires my companion and I got on the long rainy road into the city too late, and the show had sold out by the time we arrived. Every month Moth hosts a StorySLAM in Chicago, where you throw your name into a hat and, if it’s selected, you have five minutes to tell your story. I’ll try again next month. The theme will be different so the story will be fresh. This time around it was “Blunders.”

This was the story I carried rain-soaked into the city.

My ex- likes the tell the story of the time he spent in Kenya as a kid, when his father was on a meteorological mission, seeding clouds to turn hail into rain. And he likes to tell about how, when he returned with his family to Clarksville, Tennessee, he would entertain the kids in the playground with stories of the zebras and the lions and the giraffes; with stories of the bush babies whose many eyes blinked and glowed in the headlights as the family returned in the dark to the tea plantation they rented while they were there.

He liked to tell the kids about the monkeys that lived in his backyard.

All this led to a Parent-Teacher conference in which his teacher pointed out to his mother that, while B was bright boy, he had an overactive imagination, and he was he was in the habit of telling lies. For example: he liked to tell the students that he had monkeys in his backyard.

To which his mother replied: “We’ve just returned from Kenya. We had monkeys in our backyard.”

I loved this story; I loved how the man I loved was unjustly accused and exonerated in the end. I loved it until I learned that I had married a liar, and a wondered then if it was a plant, a decoy, designed to distract me from all the stories that were untrue.

When we finally arrived at that awkward middle place between deciding to divorce and signing the decree, we had dinner one night at one of our favorite places, a cheap sushi joint on Broadway in Seattle. Over dinner he told me he was sorry; over dinner he told me everything would change; over dinner I told him I didn’t believe him. Then I asked for the check.

They brought us a couple of fortune cookies with the bill and B cracked his open. He laughed a little and handed it to me with a tear in his eye. It read: “A liar is never believed, even when he tells the truth.”

But this story isn’t about that blunder. This story is about when his family was still in Kenya, and his mother wanted to ask the academic wives over for tea. She asked the gentleman servant, a man named Jealous whose services came with the house they had rented for the season, to help her prepare a place for tea by clearing a small overgrown area near the house, under an ancient spreading shade tree; a tree that had been planted by some British colonial who knows when, or maybe had been left to stand when the other trees were cut down around it. A tree that offered shade from the hot African sun. A perfect place for tea.

“Clear it?” he asked, concern in his voice.

“Yes,” she said.

She left him to his task, which he approached reluctantly. She returned later to find he had cleared the grasses away, and then he sharpened his axe. He took his axe to the trunk of that ancient spreading shade tree.

He cut it down.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Sunday, November 22, 2009

no pictures, please.

no pictures, please.
Originally uploaded by suttonhoo
Renzo Piano's Modern Wing, AIC
Posting by cameraphone

Saturday, November 21, 2009

so about those Terra Cotta Warriors

Terra Cotta Warrior

I left for D.C. on Wednesday knowing very little about the Terra Cotta Warriors that I was going to see on display at the National Geographic Museum, and I returned home knowing just a little bit more than that.

The only difference between then and now is that now I have pictures, and having pictures means that I have a responsibility to say something that matters about these guys.

So I went digging and this is what I found -- sources vary and are cited below. I offer them to you now along with an apology if any of this is old news:

  • Long before the Warriors were “discovered” in Lin Tong in 1974, locals told stories of unfortunate ancestors “who dug too deeply in the earth and saw the face of a ghost, half-hidden in dirt,” and were plagued with bad fortune for their trouble. [1]

  • reflective

  • The farmers who were sinking the well that brought the warriors to light were at first ignored by local officials. The bureaucrat who was called in to examine the torso hauled in to county headquarters by Farmer Yang (which was no mean feat -- each Warrior weighs between 300 and 400 pounds) left it languishing in a back storeroom for some time before he declared that it was maybe 100 years old and not all that interesting. By chance an archaeologist from Xi’an heard about the discovery and recognized its significance.

  • The tomb was sacked and burned by enemies of the state before it was completed. The Warriors were buried in the warehouse where they were awaiting placement. It's believed that this is the reason several rooms of the tomb were found empty.

  • An elaborate river scene within the "entertainment center" of the Necropolis was, however, completed before the attack. According to the exhibit placard: "The longest hall takes the form of a river with a bank on each side, paralleling a river system above ground. Bronze birds, including cranes, swans, and geese were placed along the underground river's length. The 46 birds in the flock are all in naturalistic poses, each one slightly different."

  • Terra Cotta Warrior

  • The Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang or Shihuangdi, on whose behalf the 8,000+ warriors were interred, was the first emperor China ever had.

  • According to Chinese officials, his burial chamber has yet to be excavated.

  • Under his rule the entire country took on the name of his home state Qin (because all of China had in fact been swallowed by Qin -- pronounced “chin”), and it’s thought that the western name “China” is probably derived from this place name.

  • Historians were largely unkind to Emperor Qin and described him as a hard ass who distrusted scholars and burned books. Some suggest that this description was politically motivated and not entirely true.

  • funky money

  • Under the first Emperor’s rule weights, measures, language and currencies were standardized -- and coin standards included some crazy shapes like spades and blades, in addition to the traditional circular form which ultimately won out.

  • Emperor Qin started construction on the Great Wall of China. Most of the “pounded earth and stone” that comprised his Wall was later replaced by brick in the Ming Dynasty, but some fragments of the original structure still remain.

  • His terra cotta soldiers were not, in fact, individualized portraits, but: "an early feat of mass production: a small and quite limited repertoire of body parts were joined together in a multitude of combinations, with details worked by hand afterwards. Then the whole figures were painted. Endless variety of costumes, hairstyles, hand positions or facial features was therefore possible, but in no way were they individual portraits. The clay warriors were stamped with the name and unit of the foreman of a group of workmen, as part of an elaborate system of quality control." [2]

Jane Portal also reports in The first emperor: China's Terracotta Army that:

The First Emperor wanted to live for ever and go on ruling eternally. Following several assassination attempts on his life, he tried to achieve physical immortality with the help of alchemists who prescribed pills and potions featuring large amounts of mercury. He also sent groups of envoys to the mythical isles of the immortals off the east coast to seek elixirs of immortality.

civilian official

Given that, I shouldn’t have been so easily awed by the findings of researchers at Stanford who recently ran a chemical analysis of the Chinese Purple pigment used on the Terra Cotta Warriors -- a rare, synthetically derived pigment that some have speculated was received in a trade with the Egyptians long before the Silk Road became established. Please bear with the lengthy excerpt -- this is fascinating:

In order to address these questions [of provenance], we re-examined the chemistry and the morphology of purple pigments found on one of the Qin Terracotta warriors. By combining our findings of the technology used in the synthesis of Chinese Purple with existing archaeological evidence, we conclude that Taoist alchemists invented this pigment as well as the related pigment Chinese Blue independently from any Egyptian influence.

These chemical maps and maps of the crystallographic orientation suggest that Chinese Purple was synthesized using lead flux melting, a process very similar to that for glass making. Diffusion of heavy elements such as Ba, and even Cu, is very sluggish even at 1000 C and limits the grain sizes in a solid state synthesize to a few microns, as is frequently seen for solid state synthesis of high Tc superconductors which have similar heavy ion composition. However, if the pigment crystallites grew from a melt, as Pb elemental map and the grain growth morphology suggest, then the grain growth kinetics are not governed by diffusivity of individual ions, but by the flow due to thermal convention, which is significantly higher than solid state diffusion. Therefore, the presence of large pigment crystallites (20μm-50μm), in conjunction with the growth morphology suggest that pigment crystals grew in presence of liquid and probably even precipitated from a melt.

top knot


Historical records suggest that Taoist alchemists are responsible for the making of these barium-lead-containing glasses. It is known that jade holds a special status in Taoism.

Taoist believed that jade, which they considered to be a magical material, not only held the power to preserve a human body and spirit (Needham and Lu 1974) but also was an elixir for achieving physical immortality (Ko 320). In the pursuit to understand and obtain such a precious material, the Taoist monks started to synthesize it themselves. Several records in ancient Chinese texts mentioned Taoist monks making jade (glass) by fusing stones. As recorded in “Lun Heng” (Wang 27-97), “the Taoist monks used to make five-colored jade with five stones....” More importantly, it also mentioned that glass could achieve a certain appearance when different raw materials were added during the process, “Suihou (the duke of Sui) made beads out of several ‘medicines’ which were more shiny and appealing.”

As we know today, the barium glass has a larger refractive index than that of a normal glass. This would give barium glass a certain turbidity and a jade-like appearance. Glass (Jade) makers would have found this by trial and error. Barium minerals, such as Barite (BaSO4) or Witherite (BaCO3), are reasonably common in central China. This mineral is unusually heavy and forms “appealing” crystals, so the Chinese, as careful observers and curious chemists, would no doubt have found and experimented with it. In this process of imitating jade, they discovered the recipe of the barium containing glass. Then, the copper minerals, Malachite (Cu2(CO3)(OH)2) or Azurite (Cu3(CO3)2(OH)2), could be added later to obtain different jade colours. We believe that this experimentation led to the eventual discovery of Chinese Purple. [3]

The researchers report that the Chinese Purple wasn’t used much before this occasion, and was seldom seen afterward, which they suggest is an indication of the declining tide of Taoism.

Before then, however, as Jennifer Oldstone-Moore reports in her book on Taoism: origins, beliefs, practices, holy texts, sacred places, Taoist "individuals knowledgeable in techniques for achieving immortality -- the fang-shih, or ‘gentlemen with recipes’ -- were hired by imperial courts to reveal their secrets.” [4]

And so it would seem that Qin contracted with Taoist fang-shih to act as celestial tailors -- clothing his warriors in immortality to ensure his rule for all eternity.

Terra Cotta Warriors: Guardians of China's First Emperor
National Geographic Museum
1145 17th Street NW, Washington DC
Exhibition open daily from 10AM to 6PM
Hours extended to 9PM on Wednesdays, and the first 200 to line up by 5.30 will receive free entrance at 6PM.

kneeling figure

[1] Seth Faison, South of the Clouds: Exploring the Hidden Realms of China. St. Martin's Press, October 2004.

[2] Jane Portal and Hiromi Kinoshita, The first emperor: China's Terracotta Army. Harvard University Press, 2007.

[3] Influence of Taoism on the Invention of the Purple Pigment Used on the Qin Terracotta Warriors, Z. Liu1,3, A. Mehta1, N. Tamura2, D. Pickard3, B. Rong4, T. Zhou4 and P. Pianetta. Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lab, Stanford University, Stanford, California 94305

[4] Jennifer Oldstone-Moore, Taoism: origins, beliefs, practices, holy texts, sacred places. Oxford University Press, 2003.

p.s. The invitation to attend the bloggers’ preview of the exhibit was my excuse to have a lovely play day in the middle of the week in Washington D.C., and the excuse came my way only because my Twitter buddy @bobcatrock spotted the open call for bloggers on Flickr and passed the link my way.

Thank you thank you thank you, Mr. Bobcat. As excuses go, it was one of the best.


Thursday, November 19, 2009

the eleven virtues of jade

The wise have likened jade to virtue. For them, its polish and brilliancy represent the whole of purity; its perfect compactness and extreme hardness represent the sureness of intelligence; its angles, which do not cut, although they seem sharp, represent justice; the pure and prolonged sound, which it gives forth when one strikes it, represents music. Its color represents loyalty; its interior flaws, always showing themselves through the transparency, call to mind sincerity; its iridescent brightness represents heaven; its admirable substance, born of mountain and of water, represents the earth. Used alone without ornamentation it represents chastity. The price that the entire world attaches to it represents the truth. To support these comparisons, the Book of Verse says: "When I think of a wise man, his merits appear to be like jade."

Confucius (551 BC - 479 BC)

Spent a little time on Wednesday at the bloggers' preview of the National Geographic Terracotta Warriors exhibit in Washington D.C. More pics and thoughts to come. First: Must. Sleep.

circular pendant (5th-6th cent b.c.)

p.s. yeah: I'm not sure that "wise man" counts as number eleven, but Confucius said there were eleven virtues so there have to be eleven virtues, right?

what makes for a best day ever?

Converging on Washington D.C. to have lunch with your big sister and your little brother and fill your lungs with oxygen-rich big gulps of laughter pretty much does the trick.

And okay, to D's point, maybe not the best day ever; but almost definitely the best Wednesday ever. Rounded out nicely by dinner with an old friend and a bliss-filled few hours at the Phillips Collection, on top of the whole National Geographic thing.

Plus the kindly Kimpton upgrade to a freakin' suite at the Hotel Helix (where this shot was taken) didn't hurt.

(Love you guys.)

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Goodnight, Mr. Jefferson.

Goodnight, Mr. Jefferson.
Originally uploaded by suttonhoo
Posting by cameraphone from Washington D.C.
and one of the best days ever.

inverted canyon

inverted canyon
Originally uploaded by suttonhoo
A topographical map of the Grand Canyon floats overhead at the National Geographic Museum in Washington D.C.

Spent a little time here tonight previewing the Terra Cotta Warriors exhibit at a blogger event -- pics and opinions to follow soon.

Posting by cameraphone from Washington D.C.

appropriately inconvenient

Germany observes
no official holiday
on November 9th

the day when
20 years ago
crowds breached
the Berlin Wall

November 9th is
the date
on which Kaiser
Wilhelm abdicated

on which Hitler
to overthrow
the Republic

when Nazi gangs
attacked Jews and
their property

the genocide
to come

Found in the 16 November issue of the New Yorker
George Packer writing in Talk of the Town

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

what is it good for

Illus: Joe Kubert Star Spangled War Stories #137 "War That Time Forgot" Page 4 Original Art (DC, 1968)

Last Sunday our Unitarian minister wrapped up a Veteran's Day service about homelessness among our Vets by admonishing the congregation to create a world in which we never go to war again.

With some discomfort I realized I don't believe such a thing is possible.

I once I did.

In part, I've been spoiled by stories. Good stories, true stories, real stories all have conflict at their heart. The best stories portray the transformation that occurs when that conflict is conquered and resolved.

Conflict originates in the struggle for power, something that, frankly, all of us should grasp for. Owning our own strength, claiming our will to power, is what makes us human and gives us the courage to find the capacity to fulfill the dreams that drive us forward.

But of course, conflict occurs when the will to power of an individual or an entity treads on the autonomy of others.

Conflict cannot be entirely prevented in world that honors democracy and freedom, because preventing conflict means squelching free will and freedom of expression.

War, of course, is conflict out of control; conflict that requires severe remediation; and is often driven by individuals who have exerted their will to power at the expense of others' right to live. War should be the last measure, always, but can we really imagine a world in which it falls out of our lexicon? Falls off our list of options?

What matters more, I realized with a start, having been raised to believe that a conflict-free world of peace is possible, having felt always that soldiers are doing something inherently distasteful, something ultimately shameful; what matters in a way that is more real to me now than dreams of an abiding peace ever were, is to ensure that when the fight comes -- because I'm sure now that it will come -- what matters is that it's a fair fight. [1]

A curious side effect of this realization is that my conflicted feelings toward soldiers -- the career guys who serve honorably and take their duties seriously, several of whom I'm proud to call my friends -- has been transformed into one of greater respect and deeper gratitude.

This idea that war will always be with us is old news to a lot of folks; it's a curious revelation to me because it contradicts my usual posture, and maybe it will shift again as I grow older and greyer and long for pastoral landscapes and quiet places full of courtesy.

As I write this, such a place seems hard to come by.

Speaking of fair fights: The original comic art of Joe Kubert, who inked Tor, Tarzan, and Seven Soldiers of Victory for DC Comics is on auction through Friday »

Also related: How a soldier is working for peace by fighting poverty (see The End (Jake's Story) at the top of the pile) »

[1] Granted: Given the current constructs of war -- in which the poor and disenfranchised are the most likely to die and the multi-national corporations are the most likely to profit -- there is much work to be done to ensure the fight is fair.
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