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 ...