Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Learning faces

An anonymous face, once learned, stands out and becomes easily recognized and identified in a crowd.

This is true of any process of learning -- words, symbols, paintings, names, book titles, quotations, kanji characters, car models, and whatever. As an art historian I was trained in connoisseurship and learned to detect individual styles in works of art. Yet I am slow learning faces.

I have taught classes, and at the first meeting, I see all those new faces, all anonymous. In time I begin to recognize them by and by. Some faces are easier to commit to mind than others -- those with distinct features, that is, those with distinguishing traits by which I register the face: a wide forehead, an aquiline nose, a big mole, a pouting mouth, a receding chin, etc. Conventionally good-looking faces are harder to remember. I admire their beauty but they get lost as a blur once they merge into a crowd.

The face I learned to recognize remains indelible in my mind. A chance encounter after many years with someone I knew is sometimes disorienting because the face fails to match the one etched in my mind. Conversely, I see a face from the long past and it takes me a moment to realize that it can't be the person I identify it with because it is undoubtedly no longer that face, having aged surely, perhaps even beyond recognition.

These thoughts come to me time and again watching ballet and trying to learn the faces of the dancers. Male dancers are easier to remember; their more bony features distinguish individuals better. Ballerinas, with their hair pulled back, identically dressed, and holding a pasted grin on the face, are very difficult to learn. But a few faces in the corps that I managed to recognize, once learned, stand out in the line up immediately as the curtain rises; and, once learned, they are never forgotten. But the rest remain all alike.

It is curious that the face I learned to recognize was anonymous and totally indistinguishable, if undistinguished, too, before it became recognizable.

There is nothing very substantial about this observation. But I find it fascinating and a bit mysterious. I had to get it out of my system.

Faces, faces, faces

Living in New York, I see many faces. Since I go everywhere on foot or by public transportation, instead of driving in the protective but isolating capsule called the automobile, I can say I see hundreds of faces everyday.

I enjoy looking at faces; in particular, I enjoy watching faces in the subway train, where seats are generally arranged in two parallel rows facing each other so that I have a panorama of faces across from wherever I sit, and I can watch them without being recognized that I am watching.

Faces come in all shapes and sizes, and I scrutinize them. I compare their features. Noses are fascinating. But I study eyes and eyebrows and foreheads, too; I examine the hair and hairlines; I examine the forehead, nostrils, lips, cheeks, chin, and the complexion. Yes, the ears, too, and they are most fascinating. I check out the bodies and their comportment, as well as the hands and feet; but the faces keep me busy. I recognize different ethnics stocks from all over the world.

I imagine how those age-worn faces looked like when they were young, and, conversely, I try to project what those tender young faces will look like decades from now. I wonder where they came from and where they are heading, and how they spend their day. I speculate what kind of work they do and whether they are what they look like or they look like nothing like what they do for living. I get curious what book a person is reading if she or he is reading and strain my eyes to see the title and patiently wait for the book to get tilted just so that I can read the title.

And I realize I missed the stop I was going to get off at. Oy vey.

Sunday, March 28, 2010


I don't know if the dead grieves, their own death or those whom she or he had left behind. It's something I will not know until I'm dead; but, then, I won't be able to tell anyone alive.

But death ravages the bereaved. It wrenches our heart and tears our body and soul; and we grieve privately and mourn in funerary rites publicly. To those of us reared in older cultures, the American custom of mourning turned upside down into celebration of life, which is more and more prevalent of late, seems a curious perversion. It bespeaks optimism cosmetically forced on the dead; it is meant to comfort the bereaved but deprives them of the indispensable process of healing. The wake does not celebrate; it tries to make the loss bearable as we mourn. Funerals are for grieving.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

A Bomb Exploded

A bomb exploded in the neighborhood. It was a fine April morning in 1942. The blast was shattering; the whole house shook. As a nine-year old, I thought I was deafened and blinded momentarily. It took only a few seconds to realize that I was alive and so were Mother and my sister two years younger. Father was already away in Singapore.

Air raid warning was in effect for a few hours that pleasant morning, but as best as I could remember it was only another practice warning. Shortly after 12:00 noon, we heard the All Clear siren. So, the three of us sat down for lunch. Right at that moment there was the blast and the earth shook and appeared to collapse. After that it was all quiet. The blast was nothing like an earthquake tremor -- even the very intense kind; we knew those well. This was a detonation though I had no idea what it was; I didn't even know the word. It was a completely new experience.

Four months had passed since the outbreak of the war, and the radio fed us news of Japan's continuing victory overseas. As we ate, we wondered what the blast was. We said it was perhaps an explosion at an armory somewhere; but we also thought we saw the shadow of a huge plane flying low over the house; but the idea of an enemy plane flying over Tokyo was simply unreal.

But that was what it was. We learned later in the afternoon, that American planes flew over Tokyo and bombed the city. We figured that the plane that came our way targeted the Yoyogi military training ground, north of the residential area, Aoyama, where our house stood. Either the bomber missed the target badly or, more likely, it dropped one left-over bomb on the way back from the mission. I never knew the extent of the damage it caused. I only know that it did not close enough to decimate us.

But we also learned that afternoon that a five-year old boy, returning from a friend's house minutes after the All Clear siren, was found dead up on a branch of a huge tree.

The blast was a tremendous shock; but in retrospect it was only a firecracker. Before long, Tokyo was subjected to massive air raids that made bomb blasts a routine event and severed body parts strewn on sidewalks a common sight. As a child, I was spared from seeing them in the flesh; but I heard enough about them. Later, the city lay in conflagration under the nightly raids of incendiary bombs that unbundled in midair like fireworks out of control and came down with an ominous hissing sound. Eventually we were evacuate and took refuge in a remote village, where we were safe but starved from shortage of food.

In 1952, after finishing high school, I sailed to California. It was not until 1970 that I learned about the first air raid over Tokyo. John Toland's book, The Rising Sun: The Decline and Fall of the Japanese Empire 1936-1945 came out in that year, and I read it with interest. In it, I read that on April 18, 1942, at dawn, sixteen B-25 bombers, each with four 500-lb bombs, flew from the aircraft carrier Hornet and reached Japan's mainland and accomplished the very first air raid of Tokyo virtually unsuspected by the Japanese military. Lieutenant Colonel James H. Doolittle commanded the mission.

So, that was it. The blast struck terror. But we were evidently well outside the damage radius of 450 meters or 1500 feet where the bomb fell. So, our house did not collapse -- for the time being; but I was awakened with a jolt to the reality of the war.

Monday, March 22, 2010

William Christie's Hand

What a hand it is, his left hand. I was at BAM (Brooklyn Academy of Music) last night for the performance of two Baroque operas, Charpentier's Actéon and Henry Purcell's Dido and Aeneas, conducted by William Christie, founder and artistic director of the ensemble, Les Arts Florissants.

The performance was consummate -- instruments, singing, and stage direction -- all so exquisite, all as I anticipated from my knowledge of the group in recording. But it was Christie's left hand that mesmerized me.

He conducted while playing the harpsichord; so, even though occasionally he stood up and used both arms to conduct, he was relying predominantly on his left hand. By luck I sat in the fifth row to the side and could watch his conducting intently. His whole arm was eloquent but, in particular, his hand danced as though in a choreography set to the music. It waved dreamily, it rippled nervously, it fluttered like a leaf in the breeze, then, suddenly it whipped, tumbled, and crushed the air, then the fingers curled in a violent grip and then opened in explosion, and then wriggled spasmodically, and gently glided afloat in the air, all in perfect unison with the music, capturing all the musical subtleties and dramatic excitements.

Watching his hands, one heard the music articulated meticulously and ever so expressively, which is no surprise, since the conductor's hand was guiding the musicians and the singers to do exactly that. Obvious. Still mesmerizing just the same.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Knowing What One Does Not Know

To be able to say "I don't know" with confidence, when we don't know, shows that the speaker knows exactly what she knows and what she doesn't. It is the most valuable knowledge one should acquire early and adhere to continuously. It promotes learning to the extent that it presses one to fill the gap in a hurry in order to avoid saying it too often and looking foolish. I owe this advice to Mother, who insisted that I say "I don't know" unless I know for sure that I know what I know.


Knowledge does not promise understanding. I lived abiding by this dictum; I adapted it from the quotation attributed to Heraclitus: Much learning does not teach understanding. In my mind, knowledge is totally intellectual -- useful but incomplete. Understanding is experiential and all-encompassing; it mobilizes intellect, senses, and emotion. This is what art is all about; this is its raison-être.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Early March

Snow in March flutters,
melting as it falls; it makes
my coat all too black.

Cold wind on the cheeks
is not making me shiver.
Spring is almost here.