Friday, May 14, 2021

Monday, May 10, 2021

Toward summer dormancy

By mid-May of a dry year, the trailside maiden hair ferns that were lush emerald green a month ago are on their way to being leaf litter. But still catching the eye with their delicate fan-shaped leaves and ebony stems.

Sunday, May 9, 2021

The crazy reproductive life of gall-inducing wasps

"Cynipid wasps are responsible for the most extreme galls in color and shape. Galls that look like miniature stars, sea urchins, golf balls, cups, saucers, clubs, teardrops, goblets, and bow ties are among the fascinating shapes that stir the imagination.... 

"Cynipids typically exhibit an ALTERNATION OF GENERATIONS, called HETEROGONY, with a spring sexual generation emerging from a different gall (often from a different plant organ) than the summer-fall generation of unisexual females (agamic generation). The latter females overwinter in diapause as prepupae (usually in the galls) and then pupate and emerge in spring, timed in harmony with the development of the preferred plant organs. Eggs produced and deposited by these females result in larvae and galls of the spring sexual generation. This alternation of generations is rather rare in the animal kingdom but also known in aphids and rotifers. This interesting alternation of reproductive modes confused early entomologists, as the alternating generations of the same species induced galls with different morphologies. This led researchers to believe the different galls belonged to separate species or even other genera."

Ronald A. Russo, Plant Galls of the Western United States, p. 48

Tuesday, May 4, 2021

The Morning of the Poem

I have been working my way through James Schuyler's Collected Poems, and not everything he wrote stands the test of time, but much of it does. Weighing in at just over 40 pages, "The Morning of the Poem" is his masterpiece. Stream of consciousness, in long, free lines, its music is reminiscent of Whitman's, but where Whitman sought to write the universe, Schuyler zeroes in on the particulars, naming namesРof friends, lovers, flowers, shopping lists, bodily functions, food, Faur̩. It begins and ends with that most mundane sensation: having to piss, and holding it in (quite literally, in his case). The forces of life, love, and beauty keeping death and despair at bay. Do read it.

NYRB roundup

Three works of fiction from NYRB. 

Fat City
Leonard Gardner

Set in gritty working-class Stockton in the 1950s, Fat City tells the tale of two boxers– one past his prime, the other aspiring– who are not quite good enough to make a living at it, but without any better options. Written in a hard-boiled poetic style, the depictions of the boxing matches are violent and vivid, but many of the best scenes are on the street, in a bar, car, or apartment, or out in the fields, where the protagonist Billy Tully occasionally puts in a grueling day of hoeing or picking to make ends meet.

To say the novel is a depiction of toxic, self-destructive masculinity would not do it justice, because both of the men want nothing more than love, and their relationships with the women in their lives are sometimes tender, if also confused, bitter, and ultimately failed or failing. A sad and beautiful little book.

Alfred and Guinevere
James Schuyler

"It may be I'll grow up more of a sportswoman type and wear tweeds a lot with matching saddle leather accessories. In that case I wouldn't wear jewels except a short string of pearls now and then and just lipstick. Don't you love tall pale women who walk very fast?"

"I think it's better to be more feminine and not look hard. What's your ambition?" 

"I'm not sure yet. It's important to give it a lot of thought and not make any serious mistake, don't you think?" 

"Oh very. Have you found out your aptitudes though? They're a good clue. Mine are for dancing and managerial. My first ambition is interpretive dancing—gypsy and light-classical—and my second is hotel management." 

That's Guinevere talking with her friend Betty. Alfred is Guinevere's younger brother. Schuyler never had children of his own, but this charming and funny 1958 novella– the poet's first book– captures their voices, inner life, and undercurrent of anxiety about what's up with Mother and Daddy. Lovely.

The Rider on the White Horse
Theodor Storm

I ordered this one because it was translated from the German by James Wright, the wonderful poet. The title novella is a kind of a ghost story, but mostly a tale about small-town politics, envy, and the very specialized business of dikes and dikemasters. Worth reading if you are into that sort of thing.

Saturday, April 24, 2021

Lindley's blazing star

I have only ever seen this beauty (Mentzelia lindleyi) at Sierra Vista Open Space Preserve, above east San Jose. It is blooming in abundance right now on the slopes high above Alum Rock Canyon, alongside patches of California poppy (similar from a distance) and purple owl's clover. The flower is altogether a joy to behold, with its day-glo color and five sculpted petals, but the abundant, graceful stamens are the highlight.

Thursday, April 22, 2021

Up your game, dudes

The gender gap in vaccination rates is about ten percentage points. The article presents a variety of theories that might explain this, but never quite gets to the most logical explanation, which is that–relative to women–men are (1) dumb and (2) selfish, not necessarily in that order. Pretty far down in the article it is noted that men are more likely than women to be Republicans, and Republicans are more likely to be vaccine skeptics, but this seems to me to be a corollary of my base theory.

The title of this post is ironic, because there is little reason to expect it to happen.

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Homage to the Filet-O-Fish

Jane Hu writes well, and has excellent taste in fast food. It got me thinking... did I learn to love dim sum because it reminded me of the Filet-O-Fish?

The Filet-O-Fish became my menu item of choice. Its virtues are too many to count; doing so would be futile. As McDonald’s only seafood-based option, the Filet-O-Fish’s semblance of relative health appealed to my parents. Luckily it was also McDonald’s most delicious item. It played to my Chinese palate: While other McDonald’s buns were toasted, the Filet-O-Fish’s was steamed, much like the baozi. From its honeyed starch to its tangy tartar and savory fillet, the taste of the Filet-O-Fish carries an ineffable umami-ness. At once sweet and sour, it reminds me of orange-chicken sauce: a plausibly Chinese flavor mass-produced in America. Eating one always felt transportive — the equivalent of Proust’s madeleine for my Chinese diasporic upbringing.