Sunday, December 25, 2005

The shock and awe of Christmas morning

Morgan experienced her first ever Lockett Christmas this morning ... and I think the look on her face and her dad's perhaps says it all ...

The blitz of holiday cheer my parents are capable of delivering can be measured in megatons. Best left to the seasoned pros ...

Merry Christmas, everyone.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

And the stockings were hung, etc etc

Happy Christmas Eve, everyone ... I just finished helping lug up all the gifts from the basement to put under the tree, and think I may have herniated a disc. I tried to beg off, claiming that my fragile belief in Santa would be in jeopardy, but no dice.

Looks nice though, don't it?

Tonight I will engage in what is perhaps my favourite of Christmas pastimes -- sitting in front of the dying fire with the room lights off and the tree lights on, something strong to sip on and some appropriate music playing (trying to decide between Bing Crosby or something solemn and orchestral -- or perhaps I'll give "A Child's Christmas in Wales" another listen).

This past week has been lovely. I have done nothing, save read and shop and wrap gifts. I indulged my reading sweet tooth a bit and read Bernard Cornwell's The Last Kingdom, an historical novel about the Viking raids on England in the ninth century. I've also seemed to have started something of a Christmas reading tradition: last year I went a bit nuts reading Philip Roth, making it through five of his novels; this year I've managed two. I'm not entirely sure why the novels of America's favourite acerbic Jew seem to be a good fit with me for Christmastime, but I'm just going with it.

Well, I think I'm going to go in search of that drink of something strong and enjoy the tree. I'd wish everyone visions of sugarplums tonight, but I don't think I'd know a sugarplum if it bit me on the ass. At which point, the visions of sugarplums would probably be nightmares.

So skip the sugarplums. Seriously.

But raise a glass.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Dickens and the city

Something over a decade ago, my parents started collecting, as part of their general Christmas-decor mania, the "Dickens Village" collectables -- figures and houses designed to evoke A Christmas Carol specifically and Dickensian England more generally. When it began, it really was like a little parochial hamlet in the English countryside.

We're well past that now.

Seriously, we've moved into a sort of Dickens Urban Sprawl. We're very soon going to need a Dickens Mass Transit to maintain economic infrastructure and quite possibly a Dickens Nuclear Reactor to provide energy for this bustling metropolis on display in my parents' living room.

It's really my brother who is the one to blame for this unchecked growth, providing every Christmas, like clockwork, a few new buildings, to the point where my father had to add an extra four feet to the trestle-table on which the city is built. My parents, this year, said no more ... please! We have no more space. To which my brother, predictably, laughed at them and refused.
I think at this rate next Christmas I'll be sleeping on the couch because the Dickens Megalopolis will have taken over the extra bedroom.

You think I exaggerate? Please to see, starting at the city's west end and moving east:

We are arriving at a point in this city's development that we might soon expect to see some urban decay. To that end, I am on the lookout for the Dickens Whitechapel and Dickens Red Light District; perhaps some Dickens Tenement Housing, and some little figurines of Fagin and the Artful Dodger, and perhaps Jack the Ripper just for good measure.

But then, my parents don't seem to amenable to my suggestions for such social realism ...

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

RIP Leo McGarry

I was very saddened the other day to learn that John Spencer, the actor who played White House chief of staff Leo McGarry on The West Wing died of a heart attack. It's a testament to his talents as an actor that I would feel the loss so keenly -- he was a perfect fit as the exacting, rough-edged but compassionate McGarry, and brought a great depth to the character.

It was also a tragic example of life imitating art, as his character suffered a near-fatal heart attack at the beginning of last season.

This season, Leo McGarry had stepped into the role of the democratic vice-presidential candidate. From what I've gathered, the show was three episodes ahead of itself, which means that four episodes from now they're going to have to take a rather severe narrative turn.

But then, speculating on how a television series will adapt to the tragic death of a cast member is perhaps a bit macabre. Enough to say, we're made poorer in the loss of such an actor.

Ah John Spencer, we hardly knew ye.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Greetings from ChristmasLand

Ahhh. Back home. I am that anomaly of the academic world (and probably the wide world too): the person who not only has a civil relationship with his parents but actively gets along with them and looks forward to spending time at home, something I have blogged about before. Every year I end up being part of a conversation in early december with colleagues in which everyone but me shares their dread of the necessity of spending time with family, and relates their version of what I think of as the Christmas Calculus: threshold of time able to spend with parents multiplied number of divorces and remarriages divided by reasonable excuses for absence (children, other commitments, etc) plus distance necessary to travel minus savings on food and drink while being at home, all to the power of traumas, grudges and annoyances suffered during adolescence.

Seeing how bad I am at math, I'm doubly glad I've never had to do that calculation.

Mere hours after being home I was sitting by a fire with a single malt scotch and catching up with my parents. And then after dinner I wandered over to see my brother and sister-in-law, and, more importantly, my niece -- now almost five months old but grown well past that. A solid, and disturbingly strong (my finger, ouch) baby.

And then the next morning, the traditional cutting down of the Christmas tree at the tree farm we've been going to since before I was born.

There is a picture somewhere of me at the age of three, holding the very tip of the tree in an attempt to help my father drag it along. I'd say this was progress, except I was much cuter back then.

But speaking of cuteness, this year was the first year little Morgan joined us -- her first tree felling, which she experienced from the vantage of a Morgan-sized sled. She seemed a bit ambivalent about the experience, perhaps because she was bundled up so tightly that any movement was kind of impossible. She did like the movement of the sled over the snow, which we know because whenever the sled paused for more than a few seconds, wails would emerge from the depths of that baby-scented fleece. So when we stopped to actually cut down the tree, my sister-in-law Michelle was obliged to walk her in a slow, tight circle on the path to keep her happy.

Photos of the trimmed tree, and the shrine to the season that is my family home, to come.

But one more gratuitous niece picture before I go: the lion cub in winter, as it were.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

The divine Dylan

No, not Bob Dylan, but the guy from whom Bob stole his last name: poet Dylan Thomas, whose "A Child's Christmas in Wales" is currently playing on my iPod.

I'm feeling quite festive at the moment, in spite of the oppressive gray rain outside; though I think this feeling has more to do with the fact that I have a mere five essays left to grade, and those I will strategically leave to grade during my American Drama students' final exam tomorrow. If grading essays is worse than writing them, proctoring exams is comparable -- not quite as bad as writing exams, but so crushingly boring that one does well to have a distraction on hand. And while I suppose I could watch a DVD on my laptop with the earphones on, that might not appear quite as professional as grading papers.

But back to the divine Dylan, whose glorious language is a pleasure in and of itself. Indeed, my three favourite Christmas stories -- How the Grinch Stole Christmas, A Christmas Carol, and "A Child's Christmas in Wales" -- are all so poetic and lyrical that they practically read as Christmas carols in and of themselves. Listen to the rhythms of Dickens as he describes Scrooge, in what is one of my favourite passages of prose: "Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster."

But Dylan Thomas trumps even Dickens ... "A Child's Christmas" is a simple, short story that merely details a typical Christmas day for the young Dylan, and the first sentence beautifully expresses how memories merge together in the mind's eye: "One Christmas was so much like another, in those years around the sea-town corner now and out of all sound except the distant speaking of the voices I sometimes hear a moment before sleep, that I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six."

Read that out loud to yourself! Words given the quality of music ... One of Thomas' principal pastimes was to sit in his local pub with a pint and make lists of his favourite words. When you read his poetry, often the meanings of his combinations of words makes little or no sense: you have to read them for the sounds they make.

John Updike once said of Vladimir Nabokov that he wrote prose "the way it should be written -- exuberantly." The same is doubly so for Dylan Thomas. Listen to this description of the snow of his youth: "it came shawling out of the ground and swam and drifted out of the arms and hands and bodies of the trees; snow grew overnight on the roofs of the houses like a pure and grandfather moss, minutely -ivied the walls and settled on the postman, opening the gate, like a dumb, numb thunder-storm of white, torn Christmas cards."

Or of the postmen: "With sprinkling eyes and wind-cherried noses, on spread, frozen feet they crunched up to the doors and mittened on them manfully."

"Mittened on them manfully." I love alliteration.

Or of some "useful" gifts received on Christmas day: "pictureless books in which small boys, though warned with quotations not to, would skate on Farmer Giles' pond and did and drowned; and books that told me everything about the wasp, except why."

Or of a "useless" gift (much preferred, or course, to the useful ones): "a celluloid duck that made, when you pressed it, a most unducklike sound, a mewing moo that an ambitious cat might make who wished to be a cow."

Or of his roaming around the snowbound town: "I would scour the swathed town for the news of the little world, and find always a dead bird by the Post Office or by the white deserted swings; perhaps a robin, all but one of his fires out."

I love that ... so vivid an image of the red bird lying starkly on the snow, melancholy yet still beautiful.

I love writers who can, with the sheer elegance or force of their language, take the mundane and make it sublime. Dylan Thomas, Alice Munro, Kazuo Ishiguro, John Banville, Don DeLillo, George Eliot, James Joyce ... just to name a few (seeing as how I'm still in listing mode).

Listening to "A Child's Christmas in Wales" makes me forget the gaudy tinsel that permeates the mall the day after Halloween, the incessant advertising, the bludgeoning pressure to buy buy buy, and the adult anxieties that accompany much of this season. It even makes me forget the likes of Bill O'Reilly and his *%#%@# "war on Christmas" rhetoric.

Yes, feeling very festive this afternoon.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Holiday reading

In the comments on my last post, Lesley made the following suggestion: "I think at some point, you should do a post about books you recommend for people like me. Namely, people who don't read much, are only looking to be entertained but still need that little bit of 'enlightenment' by reading something that is actually 'worthy'."

Hmm. Tough call, because reading is such a personal endeavour, and what I love might be boring or annoying to someone else ... as is, in fact, often the case.

Also, "enlightenment," or "worthy" literature for that matter, are tricky notions. In the pre-WWII years there was a group of literary critics in Britain (including TS Eliot) who advanced the idea that a cultivated appreciation of art, literature and all forms of "high" culture would improve people morally. Of course, as literary theorist Terry Eagleton wryly observed, that idea kind of got blown out of the water when people realized that Nazi death camp commandants whiled away their leirsure hours reading Goethe and listening to Mozart. So I tend to reject the idea of "worthy" literature or reading.

But at the same time, I do know what you mean Lesley ... because some things are quite definitively brain candy and others not, and there is an intangible but deeply felt satisfaction in finding a novel that is at once challenging, disturbing and enjoyable that one does not find in, say, formulaic and predictable fiction.

So I have some reservations about making such a list, not least because it's entirely likely that people might pick up one of the books on my recommendation and end up throwing it into a wall half-way through with the curse "&%$#% Lockett! Last time I listen to him. English professor, my ass ..."

Or something like that.

Still, I cannot resist making lists or recommending books. So as long as we all understand that these are books I found enjoyable and engaging, and that I don't necessarily expect others to like them, we're all good.

Isabelle Allende, The House of the Spirits
Paul Auster, The New York Trilogy
Pat Barker, Regeneration
Julian Barnes, Flaubert's Parrot
Sebastian Faulks, Birdsong
Timothy Findley, Famous Last Words
Ursula Hegi, Stones From the River
Milan Kundera, Immortality
Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Love In the Time of Cholera
Haruki Murakame, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle
Gloria Naylor, Mama Day
Jeannette Winterson, Written on the Body

Monday, December 12, 2005

End of term (almost)

Five days.

I'm almost there -- I just cleaned off my desk after finishing up the final bits of work on English 2000, my Medieval-18th Cent course. Essays handed back, exams graded, final grades submitted. And now time for round two: final essays to grade for American Drama, then the exam on thursday ... which leaves me exactly 24hrs to grade the exams and submit the marks.

Piece of cake.

Of course, given that there is a stack of essays to grade, I'm inevitably finding other tasks that are just relevant enough to take the edge off the guilt of not turning my attention to the more immediate concern.

Part of this isn't strictly avoidance, but the little annoying quirk of my mind to tend to leap ahead to the next major project while the one at hand still needs to have some loose ends tied up. So I've been doing some course prep for next semester; I'll be teaching a first-year and a fourth-year class (I hit for the cycle this year, teaching-wise: first, second, third and fourth-year courses), the former an introduction to the study of prose fiction, and the latter a senior seminar on Depression-era American literature.

Can I tell you how excited I am about these classes? I'm such a geek. No surprise perhaps on the fourth-year, but I've populated the intro course with some of my favourite reads: In Our Time by Ernest Hemingway; Pride and Prejudice, the only drawback of which is I'm now kind of obliged to see the Keira Knightly film -- rest assured, anyone in my class who watches the film without reading the novel is in for a nasty shock; Elizabeth Smart's divine By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept; Chronicle of a Death Foretold by Gabriel Garcia Marquez; and Time's Arrow, that exquisite mindfuck by Martin Amis.

Sigh. God, I love books ...

I've also been sketching out ideas for a graduate course for next year. I have to say, this is my favourite part of this job: thinking up ideas for courses and organizing them. A year ago this past summer, the FIMS associate dean at Western called me and said they needed some new courses for the fall, and would I be willing to teach one? I said sure, what do you want me to teach? "Anything you want," she said. "Just have it on my desk in two days."

Now that was fun. What emerged was the Alternative Realities course ... which, coincidentally, is one of my ideas for something to pitch to the department here.

There's also some standard Lockett fare I could peddle -- a course in conspiracy culture (which would also be recycled from MIT at Western), or something on the literature of the Cold War Consensus.

What's been tickling my mind lately however is a course on "endings" -- teleological and eschatological readings, especially in terms of the frequent claim, seemingly made once a decade that we've arrived at the end of history (it must really piss off those writers that people ignore their books and go one making history anyway). This could be fun, because it could be, in essence, all about the American fascination with apocalypse ... so in addition to literary works, there could be a whole sub-section on disaster movies. Also, I could inflict those vapid Left Behind novels that I ranted about way back when on the students ...

Ah well. Back to work.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Global warming my ass

The lovely weather I've been able to gloat about lately in comparison to southern Ontario's cold and snow came to an abrupt halt yesterday. I woke up and saw a blinding expanse of white outside -- so of course stayed home and did work rather than expose myself to the elements. I even stayed away from the windows for the most part, on the assumption that if I couldn't see the snow, it wouldn't see me. Or something.

This morning however I could practice no such avoidance, as I'd agreed to proctor an exam for a colleague. Walking out into the parking lot, I was treated to the following image:

My poor car ...

Several things were clarified for me, or at least certain purchases were. I now know I should probably buy:

- Snow tires, or possibly an M1A1 Abrams, for traversing this city's hills.
- Cross-country skis, or possibly a sled with a dozen huskies.
- A garage.
- A massive gravitational manipulator that will shift the earth's orbit enough to make Newfoundland's climate more like Barbados (what do you think -- Sharper Image? LL Bean? EBay? There's got to be one available somewhere ...)

Speaking of Barbados, I'm beginning to think it's time to shift my research area so as to exploit my family history on that island and get a grant that would let me spend the winter months in the Bridgetown archives.

Those archives are great. I could easily use up a half hour a day doing research there. If only there were other ways to spend my time in Barbados ... oh well, I'm happy to suffer for my scholarship.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Impostor syndrome

It doesn't go away -- the sense of being somehow substandard, the anxiety that someone somewhere has made a mistake and soon they're going to figure it out, and arrive at the office door saying "I'm sorry sir, but we just realized that you're not, in fact, smart enough to be here."

We call this impostor syndrome, which starts on day one of grad school and then proceeds to dog you for -- apparently -- the duration of your time in academia. I've blogged about this before (I think), and I will undoubtedly blog about it again. You would think that the various validations along the way -- acceptance to grad school, passing comps, successfully defending the thesis, getting hired -- would be mitigating factors. I suppose they are, and sometimes can contribute to feelings of supreme confidence; but just as frequently there is the sense of somehow having pulled the wool over everyone's eyes. I think this has much to do with the evaluative nature of this profession: there's always something to prove.

All of this is by way of my first time in the role of a thesis examiner. Given that it was only slightly more than a year ago that I sat across the table defending my own thesis, it seems absurd to me that I get to play the opposite part now. And of course, that all leads to the sense of myself being tested as much as the dissertation's author ... which is so absurdly self-centered that I'm kind of embarassed for having introduced this topic at all now ...

I'm happy to say this has a happy ending -- apparently I know what I'm doing after all. A bit of a relief, that.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Awash in confusion in TVLand

So with Seth and Summer in Providence next season, and Ryan and Marissa apparently at Berkeley, what will The O.C. do? Will we get parallel storylines? Or will they reveal a la Buffy that there's been a university in their immediate vicinity all along, and everyone will go there? And will all these rich, beautiful people who live in a perfect climate suddenly realize that they're rich, beautiful people who live in a perfect climate and finally stop moaning over their trivial neuroses?

Maddening, maddening questions ...

I think all the TV shows I watch should exist in the same universe, and every episode should be a crossover episode. So Jed Bartlet would be everyone's president; Gil Grissom would have been on hand to examine the crime scene when Trey was shot; when Trey comes out of his coma he gets sent to prison at Oz and becomes Schillinger's bitch; Josh Lyman visits relatives in Star's Hollow and hooks up with Lorelei; Rory ends up getting a job at the White House, as she meets their two principal job requirements, which are having a photographic memory and the ability to talk really fast; anytime anyone dies, the funeral arrangements are handled by Fischer & Diaz; and at some point or another everyone gets saved from vampires by Buffy.

That's all I ask. If I were king of TV, that's how it would work ... that, and I'd make reality TV lethal -- anybody "voted off" would be tossed in a pit with lions. Now that's reality television I'd watch ...

Wednesday, November 30, 2005


I was "interviewed" the other day by my friend and former student Alex on the whole phenom of blogging ... I suspect my response came a bit late for use in her essay, but I quite enjoyed the process, largely because it got me thinking of this whole odd revolution in self-expression--this assortment of autobiographical, editorializing, ranting, exhibitionist online writing more diverse than a handful of snowflakes.

Anyway, I thought I'd post my answers to (some of) Alex's questions, given that that were in fact thought-provoking for me. Hopefully I'm not breaking any copyright laws should my answers actuall make it into Alex's article ...

1. Why do you blog?

My blog started as a way of keeping in touch with friends and family. I moved from London, ON this past summer to St. John's, and wanted a way of keeping people posted on the major events in my life without resorting to lengthy mass emails that tend to annoy more than engage. This way, I can give people a web site and they can tune in (or not) at their own leisure.

That was the initial reason for starting, but now I quite enjoy the forum. I certainly don't limit myself to "significant" occurrences -- my entries range from musings to political rants and editorializing to personal narrative to more considered philosophical meditations to observations of the odd or quirky. And certainly one of the best parts of blogging, for me, is inspiring comments from readers -- I often measure the success of a post by the number of comments I get. I enjoy the dialogue that can happen.

2. Are blogs and blogging culture interesting to you? do you actively read/comment on the blogs of others?

I went from being more or less indifferent to blogs to being an avid reader the day I started my own. It was at that point that I began to appreciate the scope of the blogosphere -- people I didn't know would comment on my blog, and I would follow their links back to their pages, and sometimes would comment there. My own contact list has expanded in this way, as I have developed online acquaintances with people.

3. If I were to say that blogging is changing the media world and how journalism functions in our culture, would you agree/disagree? Why/why not?

Yes and no. On one hand, blogs are coming to fulfill that promise that techno-gurus and electronic new-agers sermonized about in the mid-nineties when then internet was first really getting its legs; that is, the promise of an infinitely interconnected forum that provides for genuinely free speech and expression, and a resource for those wishing an alternative to the mainstream press. And this phenomenon has certainly had its impact on that very same mainstream media, if for no other reason than both CNN and FOXNews have "blog updates" in which an anchorperson of some description provides a very brief rundown on how major news stories are playing out in the major blogs.

On the other hand, this presence of the blogs in mainstream media is nothing if not superficial -- a mere tip of the hat to the phenomenon itself rather than any sort of genuine engagement with the medium. As for a change in "journalism" itself, we have to remember that this is a profession with a set of standards in terms of how information is gathered, researched, confirmed, and presented ... the freedom of the internet is a double-edged sword insofar as it does not provide for any sort of vetting process or set of standards for how information is to be presented. And while this may provide a niche for those working outside the mainstream, at the same time there is nothing to prevent people from posting blatant lies and claiming them as truth. I suppose one could say that this makes for skeptical readers, a media audience less inclined to accept reportage at face value and more inclined to confirm "facts" for themselves ... I certainly hope this might be the case.

I think that, overall, blogs make us redfine our standard understanding of "media," for at their best they are less sources for news than for debate and dialogue. At their best, they offer us that which is entirely absent from the mainstream media, which is to say a vigorous debate that steps outside of political talking points. They are not "media" in the traditional sense, but a reinvention of it; nor are they "journalism" in the traditional sense, but they offer a skeptical and discerning reader a great resource for stories and news that work against the grain.

In other news, check out The DeWaard's raccoon. Let's hear it for urban critters who know they're always safe co-habitating with sensitive students.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Oh where the time goes

First off, to answer Eano's query: the weather in St. John's has been consistently kicking the ass of the weather in London. We've been averaging about 10+ degrees, more or less alternating between gray & wet and bright-autumn-crisp. Gotta love that Gulf Stream.

So no, the weather hasn't gotten me down. The main reason my blog has gone un-updated till now is sheer busy-ness, mostly to do with my needing to clear my desk before this past weekend, which I spent in Montreal.

Ah, Montreal ... how I do love that city. Especially when I can sit with Kristen at a cafe window overlooking a snowy street with a ridiculously expensive latte. Good times.

This is not to say that I didn't have anything to blog about. Many possible topics surfaced in my mind, but I was generally too exhausted in the evenings for the past two weeks to do much more than meld with my couch. So, in no particular order, the blogs that weren't:

The homoeroticism of the movie Jarhead (apparently marines in the desert really like to take off their clothes).

My new love for John Irving, having just finished reading The World According to Garp--not as good as Owen Meany, but still a very entertaining novel.

Exactly why I loathe the thought of seeing the new Pride and Prejudice based on its trailers (hint: Mr. Darcy does not brood, he glowers). This may still be a post one day, though.

Reasons to look forward to a trip to Montreal (this would probably have made it to print, but Kristen forbade me to post a picture of her).

The disturbing new trend on some blogs I've encountered to post countdowns to Emma Watson's (aka Hermione Granger's) eighteenth birthday.

These among others. You get the idea.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

For the want of a camera

I really have to learn to always have my camera at hand ... perhaps the most startling thing about St. John's is the number of times I'm suddenly treated to a spectacular landscape -- one I'm intimately familiar with, yet which is radically transformed by the light, the clouds, the weather. This morning and yesterday morning I crested the hill that looks down over the MUN campus: a pretty cool view anyway, framed as the campus is by a high ridge covered in coniferous trees behind it. Yesterday there was a brilliant sunrise at my back and black clouds in front of me that looked like they were hovering just mere feet over the ridge, and thrown into stark, inky relief by the blazing sunlight ... or as my late Grandmother Jean once famously said, "it's darker because of the light."

This morning I noticed that the sunrise was coming marginally later, not boding well for the time soon when my days will be going from darkness to darkness between going to work and coming home. The sun had not yet crested Signal Hill as I left, but by the time I was again looking down at campus it was perfectly horizontal, just above the horizon, and setting all the windows on campus ablaze with light.

Two pretty spectacular pics I now wish I'd been able to take.

On the other hand, there are some notable photo ops that occur on a regular basis simply around my apartment. My dryer had recently gone on the fritz; I was without it for about a week. Upon its repair, I was apparently not the only one excited by this:

"Ah yes. I remember this place."

"Yes, this will do nicely. Can we perhaps get some warm linens in here?"

"Lovely. Now, begone and be sure to fill my food bowl, boy."

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Here we go again ... sigh ...

So, as we've all heard, the town of Dover, Pennsylvania voted out eight school board members who favoured the teaching of intelligent design and voted in eight new people who promptly turfed that idiocy.

Nice it is when sanity occasionally prevails.

But of course the good most Reverend Pat Roberston had this to say to the heathens: "If there is a disaster in your area, don't turn to God, you just rejected him from your city. And don't wonder why he hasn't helped you when problems begin, if they begin. I'm not saying they will, but if they do, just remember, you just voted God out of your city. And if that's the case, don't ask for his help because he might not be there."

Can this man not open his mouth without saying something stupid?

Well, let's see .... here's Robertson's appraisal of 9/11: "We have insulted God at the highest levels of our government. And then we say, 'Why does this happen?' Well, why it's happening is that God Almighty is lifting his protection from us."

Or his opinion of George W. Bush: "The Lord has just blessed him ... It doesn't make any difference what he does, good or bad. God picks him up because he's a man of prayer and God's blessing him."

Or his wisdom on the U.S. constitution: "The Constitution of the United States ... is a marvelous document for self-government by the Christian people. But the minute you turn the document into the hands of non-Christian people and atheistic people they can use it to destroy the very foundation of our society. And that's what's been happening."

Hmmm ... are you suggesting, Pat, that non-Christians are unfit to lead, or otherwise generally incompetent? "Christians are the only ones really ... that are qualified to have the reign, because hopefully, they will be governed by God and submit to Him."

Oh, come on now ... surely Hindus, say, might have a good idea now and then: "If anybody understood what Hindus really believe, there would be no doubt that they have no business administering government policies .... Can you imagine having Mahatma Gandhi as minister of health, education, and welfare?"

I see. Well, at least we have both men and women to do the necessary -- no? "God's pattern is for men to be the leaders, both in the church and in the family... Women should listen and learn quietly and submissively. I do not let women teach men or have authority over them."

Uh-huh ... so I'm guessing you have issues with feminism, do ya? "The feminist agenda is not about equal rights for women. It is about a socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism, and become lesbians."

Lesbians. Gotcha. Anything else? "[Planned Parenthood] is teaching kids to fornicate, teaching people to have adultery, every kind of bestiality, homosexuality, lesbianism ..."

I see. Are you suggesting that there might be reprecussions for such behaviour? "Such people are sinning against God and will lead to the ultimate destruction of the family and our nation. I am unalterably opposed to such things, and will do everything I can to restrict the freedom of these people to spread their contagious infection to the youth of our nation."

Oh, but tell us what you really think, Pat. "How can there be peace when drunkards, drug dealers, communists, atheists, New Age worshipers of Satan, secular humanists, oppressive dictators, greedy money changers, revolutionary assassins, adulterers, and homosexuals are on top?"

Pat, I'm not entirely sure what you're saying. Can you perhaps make a much more extreme and paranoid claim? "Just like what Nazi Germany did to the Jews, so liberal America is now doing to the evangelical Christians. "

Hmm, so I guess it isn't possible for him to open his mouth without saying anything stupid. Which means I get to recycle a picture used by Brian F. of the MIT posse, back when Robertson advocated assassinating Hugo Chavez:

My heartfelt apologies to douchebags everywhere for the unfair comparison.

Friday, November 11, 2005


James Joyce once famously said that the best way to write an anti-war novel is to not write a novel about war. In the years since I first read that little piece of wisdom, I've gone round and round a few times in terms of whether I agree or not. In the end, I think it's an insoluble question -- when we engage artistically and aesthetically with the issue of warfare, there is always an extent to which the material must embrace its subject matter, must lose a certain amount of critical distance and hazard becoming in some small part a glorification. I think this was Joyce's principal insight, something echoed by the great film auteur Francois Truffaut, who maintained that there can never be any such thing as an anti-war film because the medium inevitably turns it into a thrilling spectacle.

At the same time, art offers the most powerful and poingant critiques of war, critiques whose rhetorical force vastly eclipses the academic or journalistic, which can so easily stray into pedantry. Who recovers quickly from the gut-shots of such novels as Mailer's The Naked and the Dead, Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms or Heller's Catch-22? or films like Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket or A Bridge Too Far? paintings like Picasso's Guernica? poetry like that of Wilfred Owen? And yet each in its own way aetheticizes warfare, or else (as in Catch-22) renders it as an experience so absurd as to pull the teeth of its own critique.

I'm pondering this today for a variety of reasons:

  1. It's Remembrance Day
  2. I've been watching the HBO series Band of Brothers
  3. An article in the most recent Harper's Magazine has put me into this head space
  4. Mulling over these heavy questions is vastly preferable to grading essays
Band of Brothers, like pretty much everything else HBO has done, is truly remarkable -- the more so because (from what I'm gleaning) has no pro- or anti-war agenda. It is really just about the experiences of a specific company of soldiers from Normandy onward, and does an extraordinary job of rendering what I imagine things were actually like (this of course being the sticking point -- I can only imagine). I find it slightly ironic that the series was produced by Tom Hanks and Stephen Spielberg; it is everything that Saving Private Ryan tried, and failed, to be. If ever there was a film trying desperately to be anti-war that ended up becoming a cliched glorification, that was it.

The Harper's article I'm referring to is titled "Valkyries over Iraq" is sort of an extended review of the film Jarhead, something I'd had no interest whatsoever in seeing, but now am keen to do so (for a very intelligent and thoughtful consideration of the film, see Mister Eano's comments here). The film is based on the memoir by Anthony Swofford, a marine sniper who saw action in the original Desert Storm; the Harper's article focuses on a particular scene in which marines are riled up to a bloodthirsty fervour by being shown war movies -- and the movie in question is Apocalypse Now; the scene depicted is the infamous "Ride of the Valkyries" raid by Robert Duvall's airborne cavalry on a village at the Mekong Delta so the film's main characters can begin their journey upriver.

As the article points out, Apocalypse Now is eminently an anti-war film: yet here a movie theatre full of marines, all intimately familiar with the sequence, shout in enthusiasm, speak the lines in unision with the film, and generally get entirely juiced by the depictions of violence meant to give audiences a sober consideration of war's horror.

The thing is, the scene is pretty thrilling -- not so much because of the violence, but because it's a piece of first-rate filmmaking. The very genius of the sequence is to inspire a certain engagement ... it really wouldn't work otherwise, and to a certain portion of the audience, our satisfaction and empathy is the most horrifying thing about it. We can't help liking Robert Duvall's psychotic colonel, and somewhere in ourselves agreeing that we love the smell of napalm in the morning.

But of course, here is the problem with aestheticizing war (or anything, for that matter): nuance only works for some. Which is not to make a simplistic division between "smart" and "stupid" audiences -- we all have our own idiosyncratic buttons, and that which pushes those buttons and inspires a certain reaction in me will do something entirely different for someone else. No, what I mean is that any engagement with something emotionally charged one way or another poses dangers for the artist in that if one wishes to approach something truthfully there is, necessarily, the need to embrace it. The world is full of bad art that is pedantic. Really, that should be left to professors like me.

But all this is central to the whole issue of remembrance, too ... how do we pay homage to our veterans while abhorring war? It's questions like this that make me understand the appeal of conservatism: if war is invariably a valid option, there's no concern here. Unfortunately I cannot quite separate myself from my liberalism, nor can I embrace the other militant side of the equation that tars all militarism with the same brush. Hence, I found myself in a strange emotional situation about a week ago ...

I got the poppy I've been wearing this past week from a very frail-looking elderly veteran sitting at a card table outside the liquor store near campus. He was in his dress uniform with a myriad of honours pinned to his chest, reading a paper, and looking (to my overly sentimental mind) rather lonely. And so very very old and tired. It occurred to me there that we will very soon no longer have any living witnesses to this century's two world wars, no more actual people to remind us of those momentous, excruciating and tragic events, and our collective memory will be relying on archives, history books and (sigh) Hollywood.

I'm not given to weepiness, but I found myself actually fighting back tears. I dropped a ten-dollar bill in the donation box, which prompted a pleased and surprised "Thank you" from the veteran. I wanted to say, "No, thank you," but I didn't actually trust myself to respond, so just nodded, pinned on the poppy, and left.

It was a very odd moment. While being an avid consumer of war movies, novels and history books, I'm hardly a pro-military aggression person. Quite the opposite: in so very many ways I am the stereotype of the anti-war milquetoast lefty liberal. I abhor what's currently happening in Iraq; I was pleased beyond words that our Prime Waffler kept us out of that war; and I adhere to the quaint notion that wealthy nations with advanced and powerful militaries are morally obligated to lead with the olive branch, even when that entails suffering at the hands of a lesser force. My fascination with representations and histories of war in fact has much to do with not really getting it, not understanding the drive to aggression. I watch and read and study in the hopes of understanding. That, and there's the added fascination that comes with instinctively knowing I would be a thoroughly crappy soldier.

At the same time, I am immensely proud of my country's military history. Little known fact: we have the third best-trained military in the world, just behind Israel and Switzerland. And so on Remembrance Day I always make a point of paying tribute to our soldiers, particularly considering that my little brother was one for a while.

I have at times be given grief over this by leftier or pacifist acquaintances, who have considered this mere glorification ... who have believed that straightforward denunciation of militarism in all its incarnations is the only acceptable moral stance -- ergo, wearing a poppy in tacit support of both veterans and active soldiers is the equivalent of celebrating violence and warfare.

Suffice it to say, I consider this mere idiocy -- simplistic, reductive idiocy that is the flip side of unthinking jingoism. And worse, it's lazy thinking. Not even Noam Chomsky buys that line of thinking.

It is in fact Chomsky that made what is, for me, the most critical distinction between systemic militarism and individual action: namely, that the individual soldier's behaviour on the battlefield has more to do with the general philosophy or lack thereof informing those at the helm of the war machine. He was speaking specifically about Vietnam, saying that such tragedies as the My Lai massacre, while horrific, should be, in the morass of ambiguity about that that war was about, hardly surprising. Chomsky actually decried the practice of villifying soldiers returning from Vietnam -- arguing that while, yes, they had their own morality to answer to and should certainly not be excused for war crimes, the genuine criminals are those who prosecute such a war. And while he was talking about Vietnam, I think the events at
Abu Ghraib are of a similar character; it is criminally naive to imagine that this was merely a few bad eggs acting outside any authority. There is, to my mind, a direct causal line from Donald Rumsfeld to Lynndie England. If there's a metaphor for the US presence in Iraq, Abu Ghraib would be it.

Actually, as with so many things, Shakespeare said it first. A soldier in Henry V's army warns the disguised king -- not knowing to whom he's speaking --
that if the kings cause for war "be not good, the king himself hath a heavy reckoning to make, when all those legs and arms and heads, chopped off in battle, shall join together at the latter day and cry all 'We died at such a place'."

I say all this by way of saying that, whether we agree with the motives behind a given war or not (and as far as WWII is concerned, I think that's a no-brainer); whether we abhor the violence of warfare or not; whether one believes in the need for a military or not -- I believe we have a debt of gratitude to our soldiers, active or retired, living or dead. If the cause be not good, deplore the war and those who orchestrate it, but honour those who fight it.

Wow, this was a long post. If you made it to this sentence, thanks for your tenacity. :-)

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

The Command Module, or My Niece the Cyborg

Some assembly required.

"Ah, at last -- my cybernetic augmentations!"

"The firing system for the lasers must be somewhere here ... "

"Ahh! Dad, no! I haven't finished merging with the machine yet!"

"That's better. Now, to world domination and beyond!"

Sunday, November 06, 2005

I exist! At long last, I exist ...

... at least in terms of the English Department's web site, where I'd been a nonentity since my arrival in August. But now I'm listed on the faculty page, along with my specializations, educational background, and contact info. Of course, now the margins on the page are screwed up, and they've got my office phone number wrong, but who am I to complain?

So, riddle me this: at long last I have a living space with my very own office, and yet when I've been doing work at home this weekend and last, I set up my laptop in the living room thusly:

I'm truly insane, I think. It's not even a particularly comfortable way to work, but it's proving to be a whole lot more productive than when I work in my office. This I do not understand, but then doing work at home as opposed to the office has proven sketchy at best this year -- so if this setup is working I'm not going to knock it, other than to offer a big ????? about my dodgy psyche.

I do wonder however if I've managed to effect such a radical separation of home and office that my home-office -- or "study" I imagine would be the better word now -- is anathema to getting work done ... and having the laptop set up on a chair in the living room emphasizes to some idiotic part of my subconscious that this is merely temporary and we'll be getting back to the couch-melding and TV-zoning that is the room's primary function -- and in the process perform a psychological sleight-of-hand that lets me actually get a productive day of work at home done.

It's a good thing my subconscious is kind of stupid.


Well, it's definitely November here in St. John's, as was heralded by our first actuall snowfall yesterday. That did however give way to a brilliant fall day this afternoon, so I went for a long walk enjoying the crispness of the air.

It's also nice that the temperature is now holding steady, as opposed to the up-and-down oscillations that make the question of where to put the thermostat a bit annoying ... finding yourself by turns waking up to a freezing room, or coming home to something slightly short of a sauna, depending on what the weather's doing outside. At least steady cold answers the question for you, and also provides cute pictures of a cat deprived of sunbeams:

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Morning and Arcadia

I'm starting to get the hang of this early-rising thing. I've been in my office by 7:15 every day this week. It's still excruciating to get myself out of bed when the alarm goes, but I'm getting into the groove of putting in that hour or so of work before the rest of the department starts trickling in. The only person there when I arrive is a very sweet member of our janitorial staff (sweet, because she forgave me for accidentally scratching the hell out of a hallway she'd spent a week waxing, when I dragged my bookcases all the way from a storage room into my office).

Anyway, we have our routine ... when she sees me she says, "Put out wit' the cat this mornin, were ya?" To which I always say, "No, no ... the cat gets to sleep in."

Not the most witty repartee, but when there was someone else doing the rounds one morning, I missed it. Odd how these things settle into you.

The waking process has been made easier this week by daylight savings time ... although it's now invariably dark when I get home, I get to drive to work in the daylight, and my office is nice and bright when I walk in. In fact, this morning it was quite brilliant out -- enough to give me pause. And for once I had my digital camera on me.

It occurs to me I haven't posted any campus pictures. Well, here's the view from my car in the parking lot at 7:15 this morning:

My building:

This is where my office is. Unfortunately, you cannot see it here -- the window looks out on the roof joining the original Arts & Admin Building and its newer Annex. It's on the third floor there, just tucked around the corner. Not the best view, but at least it lets in light.

In other news, I was reminded the other day that the English Department's November show at UWO is up and running! Something near and dear to my heart, given that I directed it three years running, 2001-03 -- Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Major Barbara, and Macbeth. Ah, memories ... My fondest memories are for Macbeth, except for a single cast member who will remain nameless (in part because you're not supposed to say his name, especially in theatres -- you know who I'm talking about, people). Possibly the best cast & crew I ever worked with, again with that one exception.

Which makes me delighted that my magnificent Lady Macbeth, Jo Devereux, is directing this year's show. And she's chosen one of my all-time favourites, Tom Stoppard's Arcadia. Which makes me deeply, deeply jealous that I cannot be involved in any way. And missing, quite painfully, that theatre community we had there. Break a leg, everyone ...

So for my London readers, GO SEE ARCADIA! Two nights left (well, three nights, but I'm guessing that if you're not already on your way to the theatre right now, you're probably not planning on seeing it tonight). 8pm, Talbot Theatre on UWO campus. First of all, it's an amazing play, one of Stoppard's best -- even rivaling Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Secondly, with Jo at the helm it promises to be a solid production. Thirdly, it stars my dear friend Scott Brubacher, a wonderful actor and brilliant composer (he did the music for the show). And fourthly, if you go closing night, hang out to help strike the set and mention my name, you might just be permitted into the cast party. Apparently, they're continuing the sangaria tradition I started, which is enough of a reason in and of itself (way to carry the torch there, McCubbin!).

Jo sent me some rehearsal pictures, so here's one I thought was nice: Scott as the tutor Septimus Hodge, and Seema (whose last name I don't know, sorry) in the lead as the precocious Thomasina:

Don't let the surroundings fool you -- that's a rehearsal shot in Conron Hall. I'm going to guess that the sets and the costumes in Talbot Theatre will be somewhat more lavish ...

I especially like the tortoise. Apparently he was found at Canadian Tire.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005


I torment my students on occasion with "fun with words," impromptu little vocabulary or etymology lessons. Sometimes it's apropos of what we're studying; sometimes it's just me getting exuberant over certain words I just think are cool. Lately, the mot du jour was "specious," which gave me an excuse to quote Lisa Simpson's use of it vis a vis the bear patrol. That of course led into a explication of certain logical fallacies, most notably post hoc, ergo propter hoc. Which, incidentally, is a phrase I know solely for the fact that it was used on the West Wing once.

Wow, I can really get pedantic sometimes, no? Ah well. Deal.

Other favourite words: malevolent, quotidian, melifluous, amsculescent, putative, dessicated, illuminati, liminal, interstitial.

OK, I made one of those up.

Anyway, the one running through my head today is an all-time favourite: serendipity. Defined basically as a happy coincidence. It's making the rounds because of today's Savage Chickens posting. Savage Chickens, listed among my favourite links here, is a blog of insane chicken cartoons that range from the groanworthy to the inspired ... and I used one a few posts ago to punctuate my entry on the fading appeal of boneless-skinless-chicken breasts (yet another fascinating episode in my intellectual musings). During the post I briefly considered and quickly dismissed the possibility of turning to tofu. And then this morning? This cartoon:

Glass houses, chicken-dudes. But seriously, if you haven't yet done so, check out Savage Chickens ... truly inspired.

Monday, October 31, 2005

The exhausting excitement of Halloween

Well, my lovely niece Morgan was apparently all set for Halloween, costume and all, but the excitement of it all overwhelmed her ... and this little piggy? Just went to sleep.

Well, I've had Halloweens that have been like that ... except that I was in my 20s, I wasn't wearing a piglet costume, and there was a lot of beer involved. And I didn't look nearly as cute when I was passed out.

But it was really almost exactly the same.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

A wyrd-ass lawsuit

Or perhaps I should say a stupid-ass lawsuit. A Winnipeg-based folk group called "The Wyrd Sisters" is attempting to get an injunction that would prevent the distribution of the fourth Harry Potter film Goblet of Fire. Their dispute is over the fact that at the Hogwarts' Yule Ball, the band playing for the students' benefit is also called the Wyrd Sisters.

Now: I'm fairly ignorant of most matters litigious or legal, especially when it comes to this specific issue. Given the historical and literary significance of the phrase "Wyrd Sisters," to say nothing of its proliferation both in common use (and the fact that Terry Pratchett wrote a novel with that very title), wouldn't we be on fairly shaky ground here in laying claim to exclusive rights over that phrase? Doesn't fair use laws cover this? I mean, in the end, the one party that might have a claim would be the estate of William Shakespeare, if it still existed (or possibly Sir Henry Neville, if that recent book is to be believed) for the original use of the phrase in Macbeth.

One way or another: I wouldn't want to be this Winnipeg group if the lawsuit ends up being successful and the film is prevented from being distributed in Canada. Legions of spurned Harry Potter fans would probably not be a pretty sight.

Besides which, the collection of musicians they've got to be the Wyrd Sisters in the film is pretty cool: Jarvis Cocker, formerly of Pulp, and Radiohead guys Phil Selway and Jonny Greenwood.

Friday, October 28, 2005

A freezer full of chicken

I'm going through a food aversion right now that I really hope is temporary, because boneless & skinless chicken breasts are pretty much my protein staple -- simple, quick to prepare, and relatively inexpensive, to say nothing of generally healthy (ignoring the steroids they feed them, the filthy conditions in which they're kept, and that pesky little influenza thing running around now ... but then, that's sort of situation normal for any non-organic meat, and I'm thinking the organic stuff will only become affordable for me once I make full professor. It's best not to think of it).

I'm wondering if I've just reached boneless-skinless-chicken-breast critical mass. This sort of thing has happened before -- it happened, for example, with pasta. Like every single other person who has ever had occasion to move out of his parents' house, I pretty much lived on pasta for a few years, until it finally got so that I could barely look at it any more. I still eat it on occasion, but only if it's a special recipe and really good, and I hardly ever eat it in restaurants any more.

So perhaps this is my issue. One of the problems of course is that, as far as protein sources go, boneless/skinless chicken breasts are about the blandest of meats in existence -- they're really only a few rungs above tofu. The trick is finding ways to dress them up. And I think I'm at the end of my rope. The following are my standard tricks:

  1. Marinate in basalmic vinegar, olive oil, salt and pepper. Sear in an extremely hot cast iron skillet, then continue to cook in a 400 degree oven until done. This version is particularly good when shredded and served as part of a salad.
  2. Cut into nuggets or strips, dust with flour, and cook in a skillet or wok until golden. Drizzle on soy sauce, cook until soy has carmelized on chicken.
  3. Same procedure as above, except instead of the soy sauce, toss in a mixture of equal portions ketchup, Frank's Red Hot, and red wine vinegar. Sort of like boneless wings.
  4. Fried, for when you say to hell with the arteries, and don't mind the extra work: dust with flour, dip in egg wash, and battered (beer, flour, whipped egg whites).
  5. Crispy chicken fingers: flour, egg wash, then roll in pulverized nachos (blue corn, preferably).
And then I have a few others not as interesting or involved for when you simply can't be bothered, which I won't enumerate. Suffice it to say, I've had my fill of boneless-skinless-chicken-breasts.

The problem is, they're such a staple that of course I always make a point of buying a mega-package of them whenever I do a serious food shopping trip, which I then freeze and slowly deplete over about two weeks. Except in the last week or so, I've been eating anything but ... all exacerbated by the fact that any produce I buy here has a shelf life of about 48 hours. Which is to say, any veggies I buy on monday, if they're not eaten by wednesday, they're liquid. So I tend to make a lot of food runs on my way home from work, stopping off to pick up salad makings.

Of course, me being me, I'm never quite (a) awake enough or (b) organized enough to take one of said chicken breasts out of the freezer in the morning to thaw before leaving in the morning. I do have an ingenious and quick method of thawing which involves ziploc bags and warm water, but lately I'm too exhausted and hungry at the end of the day to wait even that long. So I usually end up grabbing an unfrozen chicken breast at the grocery store, along with my vegetables ... and then, I'll spot something that would be ever so much better and more interesting to eat that tasteless-boneless-skinless-chicken breasts.

The result is that I cook something not-chicken-breast, and toss the new chicken breasts in the freezer. It's getting kind of crowded in there.

So while filling my freezer with sadly neglected chicken breasts this past week and a half or so, I have instead eaten:

  1. perogies
  2. pizza
  3. ribs
  4. refried-bean burritos
  5. chicken wings (yes, it's really just the boneless-skinless breasts I'm bored of)
  6. steak
  7. cheese and crackers
  8. soup
  9. an omelette
I do want to point out that, while this partially reads like a list of instant frozen food or take-out, only the perogies and the pizza fit that category. I was particularly pleased with the chicken wings -- I've figured out an ideal recipe that avoids the necessity of frying them. More on that in a future post.

Still, not the healthiest round-up. Maybe it's time to explore tofu.

No, strike that. That's when I know I'm ready for the soylent-green world.

And for Eano (and Paige now, too): "Work is the curse of the drinking classes." Amen.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Of ducks, creepy guys in cars, and the party that was

So I'm ambivalent about the whole Halloween thing this year -- there are, from what I've gleaned, a few parties happening, but I'm suffering from a lack of inspiration costume-wise. No possibilities have struck me beyond recycled ideas. I suppose I could always do the one I've been keeping in my back pocket and be Postmodernism Man -- the superhero who fights for Pastiche, Schizophrenia and Incredulity To Metanarratives everywhere, but I'm not entirely sure what form that would take. I could also do my old Satan costume (vaguely appropriate, given that I'm teaching Paradise Lost right now), which has the advantage at least of being stylish ... a black suit, black shirt, red tie, Matrix-style sunglasses and a stick-on name tag that reads "HELLO ... my name is The Adversary, Devourer of Worlds, Beast that is Called Dragon, Angel of the Bottomless Pit, Destroyer of Kings, Father of Lies, Lord of Darkness."

You have to write really small on the name tag. Anyway, suggestions are welcome.

More ducks today. I turned into the parking lot at campus this morning and had to slam on the brakes as the two cars in front of me did the same. I sat there for a few seconds wondering "WTF?" and thinking about blowing my horn, and then saw a line of four ducks in a line emerge from in front of the first car, mildly ambling along, taking no note of the fact that they were holding up traffic.

Sure is getting crowded around here.

And THEN, as I left my car and walked up toward my office, I passed a guy sitting in his driver's seat, smoking a cigar, with his laptop propped up on his steering wheel, blithely cycling through porn. I ask you -- at eight in the morning? Never mind the porn, cigars are disgusting before dusk. Fortunately the day levelled out at that point and did not persist in being weird. Too bad, in a way.

About a week and a half ago, Lauramas was celebrated in London ... I regret not being able to be there for the festivities, but at least my part of my and Kristen's gift made it ... apparently it was quite the night. I did call and speak to everyone there, which was nice, if a bit sad for me. Ah, the old gang. I miss you guys.

As you can see, my half of the gift here was some homegrown t-shirt wit. I kind of figured that, being from PEI, Laura would appreciate this kind of Atlantic Canada separatism. You actually see a fair number of these shirts around about town here, but I figured that they'd be scarce in Ontario -- hence satisfying Laura's rather visceral need for tight-fitting t-shirts with kooky slogans.

I'll always remembered her glee when she received the shirt she'd ordered with the saying "Save the Drama for Your Mama." Or her abject jealousy at seeing an acquaintance wearing a shirt she wished she could have bought first -- depicting a map of Idaho with the slogan "Idaho? No -- You da ho!"

Yeah. If Oscar Wilde was alive today, he'd be making pots of cash writing copy for t-shirts. And quite possibly running the swankiest gay club in London. But the t-shirts would have been what funded the club.

And on that note, yet another gratuitous Wilde quip for Eano: "America is the only country that went from barbarism to decadence without civilization in between."

You know, I think that one is my favourite, now that I think of it.

Ah Patterson, you sexy beast. What woman could ever resist your seductive charms? Give us a haiku, baby.

Friday, October 21, 2005

An evening with the delightful Mr. Manguel

Yesterday evening MUN's English department hosted a reading by Canadian/ Argentinian novelist, poet, athologist, raconteur and generally freakishly-well-read guy Alberto Manguel. He read from his latest book, A Reader's Diary, which has a pretty cool concept: he took a year to re-read twelve of his favourite books, one for each month, and keep a diary of his reading experience.

I had been asked beforehand to be one of the faculty members to accompany him out for drinks afterward, which of course I agreed to readily (the chair said he wanted "young and energetic" faculty to entertain our distinguished guest; to which I responded, "Well, I'm young ..."). And I have to say: Mr. Manguel (Alberto to his friends) is charming, gracious, and utterly unpretentious -- something rather unusual in the CanLit world, in my experience. This is doubly impressive when one considers his credentials: a speaker of something in the area of five languages, vastly well-read, author of numerous essays, novels, scholarly books, and a noted anthologist. Also, he spent two years as the personal secretary of Jorge Luis Borges! I have now achieved one degree of separation from the master. Conversation with him was akin to what I imagine meeting Umberto Eco would be like, only without the terror and crippling sense of intellectual inferiority. To speak to Alberto Manguel was to be in awe of his erudition, but he is so gracious, and so interested in what everyone else has to say, that one feels very comfortable and at home with him.

(An aside, to my Alternative Realities students: I mentioned that class to him apropos of the Borges we studied, and he ended up grilling me for about fifteen minutes about the material on that course. As it turns out, he's quite the fan of Dark City).

I told him, as we sat down to our drinks at the Fairmont hotel bar (Mom, Dad -- our server was Georgina!), that throughout his reading I kept making lists in my mindof what my twelve books would be ... he responded that he wished I'd mentioned them in the question period -- that he'd been hoping the audience would share their own life-changing reads. It was at this point that I realized I was in the presence of a pretty singular guy: never in my encounters with various Canadian literatti have I met someone so interested to hear what other people thought on a subject. So we went around the table for a while as everyone shared their own selections.

And so once again in this blog we come back to reading lists. This morning as I had my coffee, I tried to make my definitive list, insofar as that's possible. My criteria weren't quite the same as Mr. Manguel's -- his reader's diary looks back over a life of reading; I don't feel I have nearly the experience to do the same. I settled on twelve books that have changed my life in one capacity or the other. And as before, I look forward to reading other people's lists in the comments, in whole or in part ...

And unlike previous lists, these are in order -- chronological, that is.

  1. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings
  2. Homer, The Illiad
  3. James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
  4. Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
  5. Thomas Mann, Death in Venice and Other Stories
  6. Northrop Frye, The Anatomy of Criticism
  7. Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Love in the Time of Cholera
  8. Tom Stoppard, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead
  9. W.B. Yeats, Michael Robartes and the Dancer
  10. Jorge Luis Borges, Labyrinths
  11. Noam Chomsky, Necessary Illusions
  12. Arthur Koestler, The Sleepwalkers
Understand, these are books that, at the time, made a huge impact ... not all of them still have the same effect today (for example, Joyce's Portrait was, appropriately, an epiphany when I read it ... now Stephen Dedalus just pisses me off). But for the most part, they are books that still resonate for me.

And in closing: gratuitous Wilde quotation for Eano! "But what is the difference between literature and journalism? ... Journalism is unreadable and literature is not read. That is all."

Thursday, October 20, 2005

John Donne: the Meatloaf of his age

So I do this thing when teaching poetry and my students just aren't getting it: I paraphrase it for them, usually trying to make it funny. As teaching techniques go, it isn't bad ... it relaxes the class, gives them a sense of the poem's big picture, and lets them know that the material isn't merely arcane code designed to frustrate them.

But then there are times when I wonder if I don't perhaps take it beyond the point of usefulness. Yesterday, for example.

We're doing John Donne's poetry this week, which is a joy to teach: it's beautiful, striking, and all about sex. What's not to like? Anyway, we started with "The Flea," in which Donne addresses his would-be lover, who is presumably refusing his advances -- or at least not letting him get to home plate. But look, says Donne, this flea that just bit me has bitten you (eww--bathe much?). Our two bloods have mingled in this little guy! It's like we're married already! Can we get busy now?

Or something like that. I think the nadir of my paraphrasing came when I compared "The Flea" to those torturous arguments made in the back seats of cars by teenage boys to their dates. "You might say," I continued in a rhetorical flourish that I'm glad I didn't make during my thesis examination, "that 'The Flea' is the 'Paradise by the Dashboard Lights' of Jacobean poetry."

Yup. I said that. It's the kind of thing that would probably give Harold Bloom a massive coronary, but I have to imagine it's got its negative aspects too.

On the other hand, there might be something to this Meatloaf-John Donne connection. One could certainly explore it in a scholarly article, especially in terms of Donne's lesser-read poem "Bat Fleeing Hades":

Like the black-wingèd bat that flieth swift
From the darkling halls of infernal Dís,
So I soon from thy lap will flee, upon
The early tremblings of rosy-cheek’d dawn.

Or we could look at Meatloaf's "Elegy on his Mistress Tripping Out." Or Donne's unpublished mansucript Ballades of Powere (Occasioned by the Great Tavernne Fyre).

Truly, a fruitful area for literary research.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

I'm turning into my mother ....

... which is a bit of a concern, considering that, given the jokes she posted in response to my ducks post, I think my mother is turning into my father.

I'm not sure what my father is turning into, but then he's always been a trailblazer.

Why am I turning into my mother? Because I'm starting to keep her kind of hours. I seem to remember blogging way back about how I lost my ability to do work in the wee hours during the trauma of studying for comps, and that early morning became my most productive part of the day. Well, that hasn't changed, and in the pressures of everything I need to be on top of, I've been finding there isn't enough time in the day. I've been trying to work evenings, but it doesn't work for me unless my back's really against the wall.

So this week I've been getting to the office for 7am, give or take ten minutes. Ack.

This is my mom's schtick: she's the early riser, no matter where, no matter what the situation, always up before everyone else (except for one memorable occasion I heard about when my parents were sailing in the Thousand Islands, and fellow boaters brought over Goldschlager one night, a liqueur my mom had never experienced ... suffice it to say my father had the anchor up and the boat well under way when mom stirred). Letting her book a flight for me is hazardous, because I can usually be guaranteed to need to be at the airport sometime around 5am. As long as I can remember, mom's been stirring before dawn.

Not that I'm entirely transforming into this early-bird sort of paragon: getting up that early is extremely painful for me. It's a cruel twist: my best and most productive hours are early in the morning, but it takes a herculean effort for me to actually get up. So I guess I'm turning into my mom with baby steps ... though anyone who knows the family will tell you I tend to take after her anyway, in terms of personality and character traits. Though I do seem to be channelling that dreaded father humour these days, and I've certainly inherited dad's taste for fine whiskeys ...

At any rate, I kind of like taking after my mother, if for no other reason than that it puts me on the right side of Oscar Wilde's comments on the subject: "All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That's his."


Monday, October 17, 2005

I love research funds ...

Well, it was almost a crappy day.

In an attempt to get myself on (a) a better sleep regime and (b) a more productive work schedule, I made a point of getting to campus extra early today, and hope to make this the norm. I find I just get so much more work done in my office than at home, and the last three weeks or so were difficult, with my office computer in the loving embrace of IT. However, last friday I found my old computer, given up for lost, sitting in my office again and apparently in shipshape again. This cheered me to no end, and I girded myself this morning for a productive week.

Not that it could ever be that easy -- the trusty but crusty old machine, after its brief return to life on friday, went into the light this morning. At which point I had one of my now-patented kick-the-desk-and-let-loose-with-an-expletive. Fortunately, I was the first person into the department this morning and no one heard me this time.

But then, when all seemed lost -- a package awaited me in the mail room. My new laptop, purchased with my startup research funds, had arrived! Ain't she purty?

Ah, to again be computerized and mobile ... a lovely thing indeed. Which is, in fact, why I dedicated research $$$ to it -- to have a computer I can travel with to conferences &c. And also to watch DVDs on airplanes. Let's not forget that! Four episodes of The West Wing will fit almost exactly into my travel time between St. John's and TO ...

This is one of those things I'm still trying to adjust to. Having spent so long as a grad student and part-time instructor, I feel almost guilty being given money for research. Not that I'm not going to take it, mind you ... you just get so inured to being given so little and being kept on such thin ice when part-timing it that anything even slightly beyond that feels positively decadent.

And I have a research assistant, too. I realized when I had the RA assigned to me that I didn't even know where to begin -- never having been one myself, I didn't know what RAs did! So far I've kept mine busy making runs to the library, and slowly realizing why I never saw full-time profs in the stacks while I was a grad student.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Canada's greatest crimefighting, nazi-busting hero ever

A long time ago in a galaxy far far away (1996 Toronto), I played a very very small role in a production of Julius Caesar. How I got involved in the show isn't important -- the usual sort of actress-lives-upstairs-introduces-you-to-friends routine, coupled with a drunken offer to take a role while at a party. What is important is that it got me back into theatre, which I pursued with gusto once I got to Western.

What is also important is that out of its rather large cast and crew, I made one friendship that endured. I didn't quite appreciate at the time what a bad show it was (merely being excited to be back on the stage), or for that matter how exploitive a four-week run with two matinees a week was of upaid actors (while I was doing my MA, no less) ... but it was a positive experience if for no other reason than I made friends with a guy named Gregg Taylor, with whom I've kept in sporadic but generally consistent contact over the past nine years.

Gregg is one of those guys who can actually write with wit, humour and intelligence, and to my mind his greatest invention has been a radio-play titled The Adventures of the Red Panda--a six-episode series in the tradition of The Shadow whose hero is the titular Red Panda: Canada's greatest crime-fighter from the 1930s who has been drafted into the military as an uber-secret agent.

The brilliance of the series lies in taking the typical American war-movie perspective--i.e. that the US was the only country who actually fought WWII--and doing it from the Canadian perspective, where we Canucks are the vanguard in the fight against the Nazis and other allies mere hapless hangers-on. The series features such memorable characters as Baboon McSmoothy, the Red Panda's Austrailian sidekick; Prime Minister Mackenzie King, reduced to gibbering infantilism by a German Insanity Ray; his dog Sparky Fitzking, now the actual leader of Canada's war effort; Baguette of the French Resistance; and a host of wonderfully villainous Nazis.

Leaping into the 21st Century, Gregg and his group, Decoder Ring Theatre, are now offering the Red Panda as MP3 downloads and podcasts. I highly recommend a listen ... I first heard then five years ago after they were first recorded, on a couple of cassette tapes Gregg gave me which I circulated as widely among friends. And at long last there's been a new episode produced, though it is not (to my mild disappointment) a continuation of the WWII storyline, but an adventure from the Red Panda's prior career as a wealthy gadabout with a secret crime-fighting identity. Still: very funny.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Campus ducks

I was walking yesterday morning from my car to my office when I realized I was being accompanied by a pair of ducks. They had emerged from some underbrush beside the walkway, and our paths converged on the stairs leading up from the parking lot. Quacking amiably, they walked up the stairs beside me. At the top of the stairs, our paths diverged again.

What is this special affinity ducks have for university campuses? Every university I've ever spent any length of time at has had its share of campus ducks, who seem to like to hang out on expanses of concrete, unperturbed by the press of humans around them. Indeed, they are often like pushy New Yorkers, quacking irritably if you get in their way. In the aftermath of a rain storm, they can be found hanging out in the many puddles that dot the concrete, in spite of the fact that -- as was the case at York and is the case here at MUN -- there's a perfectly good pond right on campus. But they'd apparently hang out in the public areas of campus. I wouldn't be at all surprised to one day see a gaggle of them wearing Roots or the Gap, sitting on the steps of the student center smoking and reading.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Wednesday is the new Monday ...

... which unfortunately makes Friday the new Wednesday. Of course, that's not so bad when you figure that the new Wednesday simply becomes the regular Friday, and then your week is over on hump-day.

Or something.

Though I can't really claim a four-day weekend per se, as I did spend the better part of it grading ^%$#$# essays. I was tempted to do a blog last night titled "I H8 grading," starting along the lines of "Remember that touchy-feely shit I pulled two posts ago about giving thanks? Well, fuck that. My life is miserable as long as I have essays to mark ..." etc etc etc. I refrained from writing it though, as it would have become far too tempting to write out a list of student malapropisms and circuitous sentences, and I probably shouldn't be that impolitic in my blog.

ANYWAY ... one way or another, I went to bed early last night in an attempt to get a good night's sleep, and had one of those nights where you're never sure where tossing and turning ends and sleep begins, because you never get far enough into sleep to know for certain that you are actually asleep. And this is not a good thing for me, as I have a tendency to sleepwalk and have waking dreams--usually which consist of getting freaked out over something in the room, leaping out of bed, turning on all the lights in the apartment, and standing in the middle of the living room in a mild panic until I slowly come back to myself. Of course, there are the milder versions too, where I reprogram the alarm clock in my sleep (this happened recently) or something along those lines.

Last night was a winner. I vaguely remember getting freaked out ... not enough to leap out of bed in a panic, but enough to get dressed in a heavy sweater, my jeans and my socks, just so I would be ready should I need to make a dash for the outdoors. I woke up an indeterminate amount of time later, sweating madly under my duvet, wondering why the hell I was fully dressed?

I also had a West Wing dream at some point in which either (1) my cat was playing the character of Will Bailey, or (b) Will Bailey had become my cat. I'm not entirely certain what was the case.

Do you see a resemblance here? 'Cause I sure don't.

Oh, and I also became convinced at one point that a swarm of tiny red midge-like insects was coming out of a hole in my wall. I didn't leap out of bed and turn on the lights, though. It's entirely possible that Will/Clarence saved the day by doing something presidential.

It was enough that I took my temperature this morning to make sure these weren't fever dreams. And no, they weren't ... just my own imminent psychic rupture, I imagine.

I do think that this was all partially due to the wind. We've had some windy days here lately in St. John's, we have. Today there was a sustained wind speed of 45km/hr, with gusts up to 60, which the Beaufort Scale classifies as a "near gale." Hmmm. A "near" gale. My ass that's a "near" gale! It sounded like there was a banshee howling outside my window all last night, and it continued throughout today. In fact, it was so windy this afternoon that, in a further exhibition of my imminent psychic rupture, I grabbed my camera and drove up to the top of Signal Hill to get some pictures of the turbulent sea, and realized that I really need to buy some good gloves soon.

Important lesson: whatever the windspeed is on the ground in St. John's, it's substantially higher atop Signal Hill. I think I'm going to mount a small windvane on the hood of my car, so that in the future I can park into the wind. When I opened the door, with the wind coming from behind, the door was ripped out of my hand with enough force to make me momentarily fear it was going to be ripped right off.

And then I stepped out of the car and discovered that gale force winds make it hard to zip up a coat not already zipped. Good times.