Wednesday, August 31, 2005

From the peanut gallery

While I was unpacking my various boxes of files in my office the other day, I kept an eye open for all my old course evaluations -- thinking after my mention a few posts ago that it would be fun to relate some of the extremes of opinion. Didn't find them, however, and slowly came to the realization that I must have accidentally tossed them during my move. Argh!

But then, when all seemed lost, I came across this year's batch, which had escaped because I'd stowed them somewhere in a different file folder.

I usually get a handful of crushingly bad reviews, and was going to post some of those -- but I guess I must have been doing something right this year, as I didn't get any that were really malevolent. Too bad, really -- they can be kind of funny.

Most of my bad reports this year were kind of predictable ... the usual batch of people complaining about my digressions and tangents in lectures or that I'm condescending or unapproachable. The biggest complaint this year by far however was my diction. Here's a typical complaint from English 117 (pop culture):

"Your level of diction (though impressive) at times makes understanding course content difficult and more confusing than it actually is."

I like the "though impressive" qualifier.

I guess I must be improving or something -- no one really seemed out for blood. Usually there's at least one. I think the worst I ever had (perhaps deservedly) was from my course on cynicism and apathy that I taught for MIT. Here's a very close approximation:

"This guy was awful. He was so high on himself but couldn't teach to save his life. He made me want my money back. He shouldn't be allowed to teach university."

I laugh at that one now, but at the time it had me depressed for a few days.

But then there are the good ones. A not-so-random sampling:

""Really enjoyed this class. Most interesting lectures I have attended in my three years." (Pop culture)

"It was a pleasure to attend lecture." (Alternative Realities, MIT)

"I found Professor Lockett both interesting and articulate. Rather than lecturing for the entire class, he had the desire, ability to draw his class into discussion, enquiring. This I found stimulating, engaging." (American Lit) (nice comment, but I don't think I communicated the basics of grammar, language to this one)

"The class was excellent, informative and fun. I have nothing to suggest other than to continue teaching the way you do." (American Lit)

"Good job. Lectures are interesting, even the digressions." (Alternative Realities, MIT)

Then there's the damning with faint praise:

"Decent enough professor. Seems all right." (American Lit)

"Covered the course material in his lectures." (Pop Culture)

One of my favourites:

"Enthusiastic and funny. Dr. Findlay kept me interested!" (??) (Pop culture)

And the ones that are just funny:

"Funny but sticks to the subject matter. Well groomed." (American Lit) (I do like to look my best for class, it's true)

"Excellent professor. Likes his cat a little too much." (Pop culture)

"You rock, sir!" (American Lit) (party on, student dude!)

"He was distractive because I found him attractive!" (Pop culture) (can I go back and give this person a retroactive A+?)

OK, this has turned into a bit of a self-love fest. And yet I don't care ...

I wish I hadn't lost the old ones ... the kill-the-prof comments really are worth a read.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Summer reading III

Last post in this series, I promise.

Ok, so on rereading last night's post, perhaps it sounds a bit shrill ... and Anjelika's comment about students being unwilling to share is well taken (thanks), but I was hoping to put them at their ease. If nothing else, we can all certainly get into a brief discussion of what everyone thought of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (I'm going to go out on a limb an assume that out of a class of 50, some people might have read that one ... and Harry fans tend to be voluble).

Also, if at the hint of a question from the prof every students buries their face in their notes to avoid talking, that's something I've had to deal with a few hundred times in the past. Alas.

Except for the aforementioned MIT guys. Just try shutting them up. Seriously. Have you read their blogs? Imagine them in class. ;-)

(I just realized, that's the first emoticon I've used in this blog -- how amazingly inappropriate in an entry essentially on literacy).

As for my summer reading, here's the lot:

Karen Armstrong, The History of God (in process)
John Irving, A Prayer for Owen Meany (in process)
J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (oh my GOD)
Pierre Berton, Vimy
H.G. Wells, The War of the Worlds
H.G. Wells, The Time Machine
Gwynne Dyer, Future Tense: The Coming World Order
Gwynne Dyer, Ignorant Armies: Sliding into War in Iraq
Karen Armstrong, The Battle for God: A History of Fundamentalism (required reading -- seriously)
James Connor, Kepler's Witch
Wayne Johnston, The Navigator of New York

There's more, but I'm not going to list all the stuff I read for the children's lit course I taught this summer (though Run Spot Run was a page turner -- where is he running to? a comment on the existential malaise of consumer society, I thought; running to stand still, as it were; very Beckett), or what I've read for my upcoming courses. Of all the above, I have to say that The Battle for God was the one I would say, if you're going to read anything on this list, read it. It provides an extraordinary and often terrifying insight into the growing influence of fundamentalists around the world, charts their history, and demonstrates -- this is what got me -- that more than anything else, they're a product of modernity.

Keep the lists coming -- I'm enjoying them.

In other news, my office is taking shape! I got my bookcases finally dragged in (literally: I may well be persona non grata with the custodial staff for scratching up part of the hallway floor), and today my desk chair arrived -- so I could at last dispose of the orange 70s-era chair I'd been using till today. And as promised, office pics -- still a little institutional, bit a lot more me.

Monday, August 29, 2005

Summer reading II

So on the heels of my last post, I've been thinking, and have decided that the first thing I want to ask my new students on the first day of class is: So what did everyone read this summer?

No preamble, no hey-I'm-the-prof. Just ask the question, point-blank. This will be an interesting experiment. I figure I run a certain risk of alienating some students who will see this as professorial posturing or condescension, but then, knowing my classroom style, it's pretty even money they would end up thinking that about me anyway. Remind me some time to do a blog about course evaluations I've had.

I've been thinking about my summers in undergrad. I sometimes miss that clean break from the academic world, the four months of summer employment that allow for a brain decompression and enough of a taste of the working world to make you desperate for school again at the end of August.

But the best part about those summers was the reading list I'd compiled throughout the year -- all of the books whose titles intrigued me, those books I'd picked up on a whim at the university bookstore but never had the time to get to, the "further reading" suggested by professors ... when I worked for my uncle doing housepainting and reno work, I'd often spend anywhere between 1-2 hours a day on transit making my way around Toronto to our work site. Luckily, I'm not one to get motion sickness, so I'd pass that time reading. I'd usually be early, so I'd stop at a Coffee Time or Tim's for a coffee and muffin and read there for another half hour. That was the best part of the summers ... now that I don't have that same break as I did before, I get very nostalgic for it. There was something beautifully incongruous about sitting on the subway in filthy paint-spattered clothes reading Faulkner.

So I wonder ... will any of my students be summer readers? I will ask them out of interest, but also to start laying a certain amount of philosophical groundwork for my courses: namely, that reading is the whole point, not just of an English degree but of a liberal arts degree generally; that if you ever want to be a good writer, I can teach you the mechanics of it but only reading a wide range of styles and texts and subjects will lend your own style and vocabulary sophistication; and that the best way to a more subtle and nuanced (my word again!) understanding of the world is to learn as much about it as possible. Of which reading is, granted, but one strategy ...

Sorry about this lengthy meditation, but it really does proceed from a consistent bafflement that so many university students I've encountered in the past have so very little curiosity and so little desire to explore the wealth of stuff a university education holds out to them beyond what they need in order to maintain their required average.

(A quick apology to Alex and Sylvia, who were subjected to a more upbeat version of this tirade day after day this summer and last for SAO).

Part of the Signal Hill hike I do every saturday takes me through the Battery, a small village right down by the harbour. On the gate of one of the more flamboyantly decorated houses there is a sign (one of many) declaring "Education is not the same thing as intelligence!" Now, I do have to agree wholeheartedly with this: I've know far too many well-educated morons and far too many incredibly intelligent people whose schooling stopped well short of university to ever claim the opposite. I wouldn't want to give the impression that I think the more degrees a person has, the better they are (or to put it a better way: can you imagine the disastrous consequences if professors ran the world? the mind cringes).

So what has everyone been reading this summer??

Sunday, August 28, 2005

Summer reading

I'm in a reading dead zone right now. It's a space issue. My apartment is not yet set up to be conducive to read in -- in spite of my comfy Ikea chair in the living room, the living room is still too spartan sans couch, coffee table, etc. I read when I go to bed, but that only accounts for a couple of pages before I fall asleep. And I don't yet have a spot I can set myself up in downtown, a coffee shop or cafe with seats comfortable enough to settle into for the better part of an afternoon.

There are a lot of pubs with such seating, but the lighting isn't great and, besides which, pubs are kind of depressing in the afternoon.

In London, my place was Williams Coffee Pub at Richmond and Central. The coffee there was mediocre and the food not great, but they had these amazing booths where you could spread out and spend the afternoon reading, working or just doing the crossword. It was an ideal place for someone like me, who ideally needs a change in scenery some time around lunch. My perfect off-campus work day was to be up relatively early, spend the morning in my pyjamas with my coffee at my desk, then switch locales for the afternoon (it would have been even better if I could have continued wearing my pyjamas, but I guess we can't have everything). Before the insanity of the move caught up to me, I was being quite productive in my last few weeks in London ...

But I have no reading space here. I'm actually ploughing through my course texts and research material quite well when on campus, but I'm missing my non-class, non-research related reading that gives me a measure of sanity.

I love reading. I suppose that, for an English prof, that should go without saying, but then I've always been baffled by many English students' reluctance to read. Why are you majoring in English, I've often wanted to demand (and indeed have, on occasion). I go a little snaky when I don't have the time for non-work related reading (though one of the lovely things about this career is I can justify such reading somewhere in the back of my mind as being maybe, possibly, one day relevant). And I read pretty promiscuously ... not just novels and fiction, but an awful lot of history; good political writing is a joy; and lately, largely because I want a better understanding of the troubling ascendancy of the religous right around the world, I've been getting into some theological stuff.

Or at least I was before arriving. Right now Karen Armstrong's The History of God is gathering dust on my bedside table, as is John Irving's A Prayer for Owen Meany. On the other hand, this all probably accounts for why I've been so prolific with my blog -- a sublimated reading strategy? I guess we'll see what happens once I get back in my reading groove.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

Put ten bucks in to just keep the tank topped up ...

Did my usual Saturday routine again, brunch at Nautical Nellie's and the Signal Hill hike ... and then ran up to the grocery to grab some odds and ends, and on the way home thought "hmm, gas is getting low ... better fill the tank." But as I pulled into an Esso, I nearly drove into the station wall when I caught sight of the gas prices.

We're up to $1.15 a litre. Not sure where the prices are at in the rest of the country -- I discovered on the way out here that Quebec and the Maritimes averaged about ten cents more than Ontario -- but this was a pretty insane hike, considering that the last time I filled the tank it was $1.03/litre.

And while the car owner in me groans, the rest of me is actually kind of happy; a lot of the reading I've done this summer has dealt with environmental concerns, especially in terms of various civilizations' different successes and failures with their resources and their concomitant success or failure as civilizations.

Quick aside: Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs and Steel and Collapse; Jane Jacobs, Dark Age Ahead. Required reading. Margaret Wente wrote a scoffing column a month or two back in which she mocked the premises of these books -- namely, that we need to have an eye to our present excesses in consumption and environmental rapine, or we're likely to go the route of previous collapsed civilizations -- as just so much doom and gloom, easily contradicted by the obvious prosperity and accessible amenities of Western society. Which, in typical Wente fashion, entirely missed an observation made in all three books: that civilizations on the verge of catastrophe are often oblivious to their peril because of their carefully crafted comforts and decadent culture. Just ask a wealthy Roman about those pesky Visigoths banging on the door.

ANYWAY, when I look at high gas prices it fills me with a certain satisfaction (provided I have a full tank). Oil is what drives the modern world, but oil is a finite resource -- and the fact that this is not an issue front and center in national debate as opposed to something shouted from the periphery baffles me. Even with the skyrocketing costs of oil, the "Mess o' potamia" as Jon Stewart calls it, and the increasing evidence that we do in fact have the technology to explore alternative energy, our oil consumption continues to grow. And that's just the West -- the Asian appetite for oil is only going to grow exponentially in the years to come. With our current rate of consumption, not factoring in Asian growth, optimistic -- optimistic -- forecasts say current oil reserves with be effectively gone in 40-50 years.

Pessimistic forecasts say 5-10. But even with the rosier outlook, we're still looking at an energy catastrophe of almost apocalyptic proportions in a half century ... are we really so short-sighted and selfish to think that isn't our problem?

Apparently so, considering that Hummer production has only increased of late.

So I go, I go, I go to the gas pump with a smile. And reminding myself that it's still cheaper than what they pay in Europe.

Friday, August 26, 2005

Office decor

I decided yesterday that the institutional white walls of my office were getting to me and something needed to be done sooner rather than later. So last night I went a little crazy with my colour printer and printed off a slew of pictures in sizes from 3x5 to 8x10. Everything from images taken off the net to photos from my digital camera ... and then I went and bought some self-adhering hooks and finally hung my Crouching Tiger poster, which I was waiting to have done for me (having discovered the hard way that my walls are quite nail resistant). But the wheels of, well, everything run pretty slowly here and I was despairing of ever seeing it on the wall.

So the poster is up, and I have a ton of pictures that I've arranged, tetris-like, over my desk and over the computer. Now, there's a very careful semiotics of office decor in universities, especially what you put on your door. It's all about what kind of professor you think you are. Do I want to seem esoteric? avant-garde? a renaissance man? Do I want my pictures on display to reflect my wholehearted immersion in my relatively narrow field of study, or do I want to convey the impression that I have a very broad range of interests? Do I put up images from pop culture to eschew scholarly pretension? or do I go with a spartan office and blank door to make people think I'm simply too busy to be concerned with such trivialities? (of course, there really are some profs who are simply too busy and preoccupied with their research to be concerned with such trivialities, but they tend to be looked on as vaguely freakish).
So what is the semiotics of my office? You judge. A random sampling of my new decor:

Movies -- carefully balanced between the artistic ...

... and the silly.

The boys ...

... and the Man ...


The good doctor.


And of course, some relatively obscure but topical art to give people the impression that I know more about painting and art history than I do. This painting is "Bordando el Manto Terrestre" (always be sure to mention the title in the original language), or "Embroidering the Earth's Mantle," by Remedios Varo. Significant because it is mentioned in Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49.

Coming soon in a future post: Chris' Academic Survival Guide, or How To Sound Smarter and More Well-Read Than You Are.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

How we've all grown up ...

Got an email yesterday from my Dad, which he had forwarded from a family friend, Paul Lewis. The Lewises and my parents have known each other since university, and have two daughters -- Jennifer and Holly -- the same ages as myself and my brother, respectively. So of course when we were little kids we got thrown together to get into all kinds of mischief whenever the Lewises and the Locketts got together for dinner.

The last time I saw the daughters was high school. I've seen Paul and Chris Lewis many times in the last number of years (they both came to my thesis defense party, bless them), but have only heard report of the daughters' doings. Both are married, both very successful -- Jennifer in the hotel industry, and Holly as an actress.

This in fact was the gist of the email from my Dad -- Holly has done a huge amount of work on the Toronto theatre scene, working with such minor, insignificant, barely-worth-mentioning theatre troupes as SoulPepper, CanStage and Tarragon ... and now is in a new film arriving soon called These Girls.

It's very strange. I remember Holly as a bratty blond waif with a mischievous grin that was disturbingly similar to the one my brother used to wear (still does, actually). She's married and in feature films ... Jennifer's married and runs hotels ... Matt's married and has a baby ...

Tenure-track professor or not, I still feel like the miscreant. And I kinda like it.

Oh, and by the way -- for all you Buffy / Angel fans -- notice who the star of Holly's film is?


I'm firmly convinced that if Jesus were alive today and preaching his gospels in the American midwest, he would be pilloried by the pundits at FoxNews for being an anti-gun, anti-war, bleeding-heart, quasi-communist, weak-kneed liberal milquetoast.

Exhibit A: Pat Robertson. Execute the leader of a sovereign nation for speaking against the US? That's the kind of rhetoric one has come to expect from Pat Buchanan or Anne Coulter. But one would think that as a man of God who has presumably "let Jesus into his life," Robertson might have absorbed some of the lessons of the Gospels ... or perhaps I skipped that class in high school when they taught us that section in the Book of Mark when Jesus goes on at length about black ops and wet-work.

Robertson's words are yet another spectacular demonstration that the religious right -- or at least those members who are politically inclined these days -- simply miss the point of Christianity. I might have stopped being a believer a long time ago, but that has a lot more to do with philisophical issues and with idiots like Robertson than with any quarrel with the basic teachings of any major religion. The basic premise of the Gospels is still startlingly relevant, but healing the sick, clothing the poor, feeding the hungry -- these things are all out of step with the conservative American go-it-alone philosophy. Robertson et al should look away from the Book of Revelations for a few minutes and take a refresher course on the basic tenets of what Jesus would do.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Top 10 reasons to love The Daily Show

OK, so after a hint at this list a few posts back, here's my paean to The Daily Show, whose fake news offers more insight into the political arena than any of the supposedly "real" news shows aired on FoxNews, CNN, MSNBC, or really, anywhere else. It's a sad state of affairs when a comedy show outdoes self-described solid journalism to be ... no, no, I'm getting ahead of myself. That's #2.

10. Mmmm .... that's good satire.
Gone are the glory days of SNL, replaced by the increasingly stupid humour of its last decade of recruits, to say nothing of imitations like MAD TV -- still occasionally capable of being quite funny, but entirely without the sharp intelligence and wit that defines good satire. The Daily Show delivers said wit and intelligence, well, daily (or at least monday-thursday). One of my favourite examples? During the height (or depths) of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth campaign against John Kerry, The Daily Show did a bit on documents that had surfaced challenging George Washington's war record, suggesting that he did not in fact cross the Delaware. The accusers? The Continental Skiff Boat Oarsmen for Veracity.

9. Captions
There's always a moment of delayed laughter on the show when the caption to whatever graphic Stewart has up behind him sinks in. Always funny, usually quite brilliant. I like the idea of the show employing a battalion of caption writers who've been trained in wordplay and puns from years of studying James Joyce. My favourite ever? For a story of Moqtada-al-Sadr, "Sadr House Rules."

8. The Guests
Or not so much the guests as the fact that Stewart, unlike Chris Matthews, actually plays hardball. Seeing him rip into the inconsistencies of some pundit or politician's argument is good for the soul -- it's an example of and articulate and incisive intelligence you NEVER see in the mainstream media. And celebrities are not exempt ... I still chuckle when I think of how mercilessly he mocked Jennifer Love Hewitt for merely doing the movie Garfield.

7. Indecision 2000; Indecision 2004
The first put The Daily Show on the map as something apart from typical comedy; the second actually made waves with the media world and the two political parties. The end of Indecision 2004, on election night, made me want to laugh and cry at the same time, as in the dwindling moments Stewart did a round-up of some congressional race race results -- including a Republican whose main issue was "lesbianism rampant in high schools" (he won) and another whose principal strategy on the campaign trail was to call his opponent a fag and offer to fight him (he won too). The wry expression on Stewart's face -- when the comic facade crumbled for a moment and we saw his genuine disgust -- said it all.

6. America, The Book: A Citizen's Guide to Democracy Inaction
Oh, where to even begin with this one? so many brilliantly funny moments ... right from the inside cover with the school stamp where students write in their names, and the warning that the school adminstration is aware that "I.P. Freely" and "Dujuana Blowme" are not real names ... to the abortive first attempt to start the chapter on media, where the author loses it and starts ranting ... to the study questions and exercises at the end of each chapter ... to the naked pictures of supreme court justices that got the book pulled from Wal-Mart's shelves (because we're sure that's the real reason).

5. Stephen Colbert, Samantha Bee, Rob Cordry, Ed Helms ....
... and all the rest of the "senior" correspondents who have passed through the show. While the principal setpiece is undoubtedly Jon Stewart, this is an ensemble show. The "news reports" that range from the Cooter Festival to gay penguins at the Central Park Zoo are brilliant both for their very subject matter and for the invariably clueless people that get interviewed. I watch those segments and am never sure if they're staged or not ... don't these people know they're being mocked?? Part of me recoils from the possibility that there could be that much stupidity in the world ... as Stewart himself once said, laughing, after a particularly extreme segment, "Why do people keep letting us interview them?" My favourite reports? Samatha Bee's aforementioned segment on the gay penguins ("OK, I think we can agree--male-on-male penguin sex is disgusting. But girl-girl penguins? That's hot"); the report on the town Dr. Phil called the worst in America; and again with Samantha, the bit on the guy doing the film about Michael Moore. We all lament the fact that Stephen Colbert is leaving, even though I'm certain The Colbert Report will be brilliant. And on that note, we segue to ....

4. This Week in God
Oh, where to even begin. This has to be one of the funniest sequences on television ever, and, like the rest of The Daily Show, manages to sneak in some pretty serious commentary just under the radar. In a world where so many people are getting religion wrong, this irreverent take on timeless questions is a breath of fresh air. Recently, I was rendered helpless with laughter when Colbert did a bit where he tells off a god -- choosing this time the Aztec god Queztacoatl, and giving him five seconds to retaliate. "Queztacoatl ... you're a pussy."

3. Jon Stewart's comic instincts and timing
See my earlier post for my original comments on this one -- but I'll add here as well Stewart's beautiful incredulous silences when one of his "correspondents" says something insane.

2. The most incisive political commentary actually available on the air
Yes, it is a sad fact of the times that we have to look to Comedy Central for something approaching genuine political critique. It is however somewhat appropriate that, in the George W. / Karl Rove era of politics when the truth is simply whatever the adminstration happens to say it is on a given day, when a "mission accomplished" banner can be hung after little more than an initial skirmish, when high-ranking officials get medals for royally fucking up, and the mainstream media simply reiterates what gets handed down from the white house spokesperson ... it makes sense that satire, irony, sarcasm and sheer absurdity are our means to the truth.

1. Crossfire!
I think this was a moment when we saw the real Jon Stewart -- when we saw his very genuine outrage at the current state of affairs in the media, the outrage which is the self-sustaining fuel for the brilliance of The Daily Show. All facades down, earnestly asking Tucker Carlson and Lou Begala to please please please "stop hurting America." Stewart's critique, as usual, was both cogent and devastating, and left his hosts absolutely baffled. Stewart was ostensibly on Crossfire to promote America, The Book, but wasn't sticking to his script. And they had no idea how to respond to this ... Carlson kept accusing Stewart of not himself being a good journalist, to which Stewart responded "the show that leads into mine is puppets making crank calls, " i.e. you're asking for journalistic integrity from a comedy show? wherein lies the problem ... the hosts of Crossfire, it was obvious, have little clue as to just what "journalistic integrity" means, and Stewart's bad behaviour made this painfully obvious. Plus, Stewart called Tucker Carlson a dick, which is something I think we've all wished to do at some point or another.

So there you have it. I welcome comments, or even better, competing lists ...

And a thanks to my former student Andrew, who made some helpful suggestions after my original post. As a tribute, a picture of Andrew -- or "the DeWaard," as he apparently now likes to be called -- from an MIT camping trip this past weekend, the pictures of which debauchery are now spread all through the blogs of my former students listed at right. It gives me a warm, proud feeling to see such pictures of my students -- a feeling that I've somehow taught them well.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

On nuance (part one)

[Warning: rant inspired by 24-hour news to follow]

“Nuance” is currently my favourite word. Unfortunately, it also seems to be the favourite word of almost every left-leaning media or political critic more than one foot outside of the mainstream (I’m being charitable to publications like Harpers here in including them in this peripheral group—there’s a strong argument to be made to the contrary, but let’s leave that for the moment). The lament both from the left and occasionally from the right when it comes to our 24-hour news world is the lack of “nuance.”

It annoys me that so many people are using my favourite word so promiscuously. It further annoys me to be in agreement with all of them.

I had CNN on the other morning as I was getting ready, and they had a correspondent in the Gaza strip reporting on the often forcible removal of Jewish settlers. And of course, though the vast majority were going peacefully, if perhaps reluctantly, the cameras were superglued to one skirmish in which a few militants had linked arms and were being hauled away by the military.

The fixation of the media on the violent and sensational elements doesn’t really surprise, of course, nor can one entirely blame them. What bothered me immensely—what always bothers me immensely about CNN and their imitators—was the inane commentary. Here’s an approximation:

“Yes. Yes, they seem to have linked arms. They have linked arms and are refusing to move. The soldiers are being forced to drag them.”

“And they’re resisting, Sheila?”

“Yes, they’ve linked arms.”

“Are they holding onto anything?”

“Just each other. There’s a tree there—they might have chained themselves to it—but I don’t see anything like that yet. They just seem to be holding on to each other.”

(cut back to main desk)

“There you have it. Settlers have linked arms in resistance to being removed from Gaza.”

This is just a taste—I swear, this one piece of reporting went on for ten minutes. Endlessly repeating what was happening. Over and over. This might have been forgivable if this was a radio report, but of course WE COULD SEE WHAT WAS HAPPENING. We could see that the settlers had linked arms, that they were resisting the soldiers; there was nothing the correspondent (I really should put that word in quotes, except that everything she said exactly corresponded to the visual) reported that wasn’t immediately obvious and apparent. This kind of “reporting” reduces the news to a kind of fundamentalism of the visual: nothing that isn’t immediately depicted can be weighed intellectually, contextualized, historicized, or interpreted beyond the strict parameters of what might be sensational and/or hysteria-provoking (at which point, all bets are off—“The authorities say it was probably kids with a roman candle, but for all we know it might be terrorists with a dirty bomb!”).

At least this was a real event. The inane-O-meter goes into the red when it’s someone filming a black limo for twenty minutes speculating on why Michael Jackson hasn’t emerged.

OK—part one of screed completed. Look for part two soon.

Monday, August 22, 2005

The further adventures of Percy the Puffin

You all remember Percy the Puffin, right? My niece Morgan's new friend -- who is apparently very protective of his new ward, as my brother commented when I originally posted pictures of him:

"08.10.2005: Our house has now been secured by said Puffin. He has nested in Morgan's room and is prepared to attack all unwelcome visitors. Please proceed with caution. Pictures to follow."

And the pictures have followed: above, Percy nested in the crib, keeping it safe, looking rather dangerous. They're fast little things, they are. Worse than killer rabbits. And here below, flaking out with the lovely Morgan herself -- but still vigilant, to be certain.

And it's my brother's birthday today! The brat turns 30 ... which is sort of beyond the realm of believability for me. How can my little brother be 30? I think there's been some sort of mistake. I'm still trying to wrap my head around the fact that my little brother is married and has a baby ...

Oh, and for clarification for those who've never met my brother: I say "little brother" but he is about two inches taller than me, a few inches broader, and in the days when he was in the army and was more muscly (and I was svelter) his favourite party trick was to pick me up by the ankles and shake the change out of my pockets. Though he might herniate a disc trying that today, I still have to suffer his physical torments that, he says, are ongoing retribution for when I would beat him up when we were kids. I'm sure his memory is faulty, though ... I was always as sweet as pecan pie to my little bro ... usually.

So happy birthday, Matt. Have a good one. Enjoy yourself, knowing Percy is on the job.

Another day, another doctor

This entry is dedicated to my friend Amy, who today defends her PhD thesis in history at Western. Amy and I did our undergrads together at York, and so both suffered through its incredibly ugly giant concrete buildings and 70s-era decor (orange furniture galore). I remember talking to Amy when she first got accepted at Western (I'd been there a year at that point), when she was delighted to be attending a university that looked like a university, right down to the old-style buildings and ivy-clad walls.

Ah -- but Amy studies history. So where does that put her? In the giant concrete Social Science building with its 70s-era orange furniture. She was rather bitter.

I know things are going to go well for her today as, besides being just really smart, she also has the great good fortune -- as I did at my defense -- of having the Blackmore as her extra-departmental examiner. The Blackmore just tends to make all things better.


Sunday, August 21, 2005

The joy of braising

I'm annoyed with the weather today. They've been saying all week it was going to rain , and what do we get? Sunshine. I'd been looking forward to a cozy wet sunday where I could putter around the apartment and take a long time to cook a nice sunday evening meal. Not that the weather changed those plans -- it's just that a cold or rainy day is more amenable to the kind of cooking I was planning.

I realize how absurd it is to wish for rain and cold in Newfoundland ... kind of like carrying the proverbial coals to Newcastle. But that's where my head was today, so I don't know what to tell you.

I'd been looking forward to doing this cooking all week ... I bought some lamb shanks a few days ago, and had an afternoon of braising in mind. Braising is currently my favourite form of cooking -- the long slow simmer over several hours that turns tough cuts of meat into fall-off-the-bone tender goodness. It's sort of the opposite of grilling; in grilling, it's all about the meat itself, the choicer the cut the better, and don't you dare cook it for a minute longer than is absolutely necessary. Braising on the other hand is more about the marinade and the liquid in which you simmer things ... and the longer you cook the meat the better. Not the strategy of cooking you want after a long day at work, when speed is of the essence -- but perfect for a lazy sunday, when you have nothing much else to do and the aromas from the oven permeate the home. It also solves that cooking conundrum wherein the tastiest cuts of meat are often the toughest (shanks, for example, or flank steak, or pot roast).

So this evening it was lamb shanks on the menu, a recipe I've devised in an attempt to replicate that frighteningly good lamd shank they serve at Ferrovia, a restaurant around the corner from my parents'. I'm close ... I think I need to get a pressure cooker to master it entirely, but I've managed a reasonable simulacrum of the original.

This recipe, I should add, is not for the impatient. The longer it cooks the better, and therefore should ideally be started no later than 4pm.

My own particular trick with braising (I do it with pot roast, too) is threefold: first, vinegar is your friend! In particular, basalmic or red wine vinegar adds an amazing tang to what might otherwise be a bland piece of meat. Second, make certain to sear the meat beforehand, ideally after it has either been marinating or dressed with a dry rub. And finally, always be sure that at least a third of the meat is exposed: do not submerge it entirely in the braising liquid, but let part of it get roasted and even slightly charred. About every half hour, turn the meat so the exposed section is immersed and another part is exposed. The roasting/simmering alternation adds an amazing texture.

So, yet another in the ongoing series of Chris' recipes (I think I missed the boat -- I should have a show on the food network).


[Caveat: I don't work from exact measurements when it comes to spices &c ... what you have here is a rough approximation]

heat the oven to 400-450 degrees

2-4 lamb shanks (you can get them relatively cheaply frozen from Loblaws) rubbed with olice oil
1 cup red wine
2 cups vegetable stock
2 tbsp tomato paste
1/2 cup basalmic vinegar
5 garlic cloves, crushed
2 onions, diced
4 stalks celery, diced
4 carrots, peeled and diced
water to bring liquid to cover shanks 2/3

Dry rub:
1 tbsp rosemary, pulverized
1tbsp kosher salt
1 tsp basil
2 tsp fresh black pepper

Apply the dry rub to the lamb shanks.

OK, here's an optional part: for those pressed for time, take the pot / deep skillet / roasting pan / Dutch oven / etc. and put it on a burner on medium heat. Add olive oil. When oil is hot, sear shanks until golden. Remove shanks and add diced onions, carrots and celery (if you're cooking this meal to impress people, make a point of referring to this mixture as a mire foix) as well as the garlic. Sautee veggies until starting to brown and carmelize. Deglaze with red wine. Add the stock, tomato paste, and the vinegar. Bring to a simmer. Add the shanks, and pour in water until 2/3 of the shanks are covered. Bring again to a simmer. Cover, and let sit for 15-30 min. Remove from burner and place in the over. Cook for 2-3 hours, turning shanks every half hour as described above.

Alternative for those in no rush: toss the garlic, onions, celery and carrots in olive oil and crushed rosemary. place in the base of your roasting pan. Place the shanks with dry rub on top and roast in a 450 degree oven for one hour. Remove the shanks. Place the pan over a burner on medium heat and deglaze veggies with red wine. Follow instructions as they now merge with those above.

For those wanting to be very fancy, before applying the dry rub, cut slits in the shanks and insert slivers of garlic.

Serve with Chris' killer garlic mashed potatoes (recipe in a future post).

I tend to prefer the longer method (it's what I did tonight) because you get a much deeper and more complex level of flavours from the roasting. One way or another, it's a wonderful way to spend a sunday afternoon, especially if you've got a bottle of red wine and a good movie on TV. As things happened, Sense and Sensibility was playing ... I caught it about a third of the way in. One of those rare movies that manages the trifecta of acting (Alan Rickman, Emma Thompson, Kate Winslet), directing (Ang Lee) and writing (Jane Austen). All in all, a good way to spend a sunday, even if it didn't rain.

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Good day

Today was very pleasant ... I was up relatively early (9:30 is early for a saturday, for me), did some reading while having my coffee, and then wandered downtown for a while. I'm starting to get into the habit of having brunch at Nautical Nellie's on saturdays (they have an amazing English breakfast), and then hiking the Signal Hill paths. My goal is to be able to do the insane stair section heading from North Head to Cabot Tower (pictured in a previous post) without getting winded. Not quite there yet. But it's excellent exercise. My calves are getting some kinda scary definition to them -- would that climbing stairs had the same effect on abs!

And now I'm settling in the have some wine, some dinner, and watch the rest of the second DVD of Firefly. I have to say, I'm loving Joss Whedon's post-Buffy series, and cursing the nimrods at FOX for cancelling such a good show. It takes all the best elements of SF and Westerns, and has the kind of dialogue and characters that made Buffy and Angel such good shows.

But, like Buffy and Angel, what I like most about it is that it is very, very smart ... in figuring a future 500 years from now in which the planetary frontier is essentially the same as the American frontier of Hollywood westerns, Joss does two things: (1) makes literal the truism that SF is, as a genre, displaced romance narratives, and (2) completely trashes the sickly-sweet utopianism of the various Star Trek series that assumes human beings will all evolve to a higher moral consciousness. In Joss' future, humans are still venal, greedy, treacherous and, well, assholes. Which makes them that much more interesting, and makes for much more nuanced and textured characters. Further, instead of being a high-ranking officer in the principal galactic force a la Picard, Captain Mal Reynolds in Firefly is a brigand, whose ship seems held together by duct tape and willpower. Very Han Solo ... except that Chewie here is the beautiful Gina Torres, who Buffy/Angel fans will recognize as Jasmine (and 24 fans will recognize as Julia Milliken from season 3). And Mal Reynolds had a great run on Buffy in the final season as the scary-psycho preacher Caleb. It's nice that Joss looks after his own ...

In short, I do recommend it ... it makes me think there's a great MIT course in there somewhere looking at the conflation of the SF and western genres of film and TV: "Final Frontiers" or something. You could do Star Wars, Aliens, Firefly, Mad Max ...

But I wax nostalgic again.

Friday, August 19, 2005

Do you know what it means to miss MIT?

I heard Harry Connick Jr.'s song "Do You Know What it Means to Miss New Orleans?" on the radio the other morning, and it's been running through my head all day, except with the word substitution you see above.

Yes, MIT -- not the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, home to the Reverend Chomsky, but Western's media studies program in Media, Information and Technoculture. I had the great good fortune to teach there while at Western, and it proved to be a formative, rewarding and occasionally joyful experience. Because of its interdisciplinary nature, I was given the opportunity to design courses from the ground up that incorporated literature, film, television, media ... I taught a course on conspiracy theory twice, one on alternative realities, and one on cynicism and apathy (I think this last one was a bit of a failed experiment, but a valuable learning experience nonetheless -- for me, and I hope for at least some of the students). I taught courses that ran the gamut from William S. Burroughs to David Cronenberg to Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

But the best thing about MIT? The students.

Yup. If there's one thing that gets up my nose in the classroom, it's apathy and disengagement from the subject matter on the part of the students ... which was why the interest, enthusiasm, intelligence, audacity and sheer intellectual balls demonstrated by many of those who passed through my MIT classes was like cold beer on a hot patio (to use an analogy amenable to said students). Since becoming an active member of the blogosphere, I've discovered that many of my former students are taking over cyberspace -- you will notice that the blogs to which I'm linking now include a category dedicated just to them. What I love is the almost painful nostalgia it gives me -- all of them written in frank, incisive and often eloquent prose that I well remember from essays graded.

If I'm sounding sentimental here ... well, I am. It is gratifying as an educator to see former students doing well (speaking of which, congrats on the job there E-Diddy). Also, as I will never be in a position to teach you guys again, I can be sappy without it damaging whatever shreds of classroom authority I might have had left (oh, stop laughing).

And so here I continue my ongoing series of people I miss with a collective shout out to all those amazing MIT students who give me hope for the current crop of UWO grads: Alex, Jason, Justin M, Justin P (aka J.Po, aka Max Power), Gah-Yee, Michelle, Paige, Andrew, Noreen, Ashley, Poolie, David, Sarah, Joyce, Meghan, Stephen B., Stephanie, Brian, Avik, Angel, Graham ... and of course Sylvia, who never actually was a student of mine but would have been if Memorial hadn't so inconveniently offered me a job. Sorry about that.

I'm leaving a lot of people out, for which I'm sorry ... but as the Bard said, the age is in, the wit is out (let me know if I've forgotten -- I can edit!) . And send me blogs I can post to.

Anyway, this is my tribute -- thanks for suffering through my classes, and for probably teaching me at least as much as I taught you. Cheers.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

The six degrees of HBO

Well, after just a few weeks, I am a complete convert to Such a wonderful system--$25 a month, 4 DVDs at a time, and as many DVDs a month as you can watch and mail back. Which wouldn't be quite such a deal if there weren't so many amazing TV series I've never seen out on DVD ... I spent last week working my way through season 4 of Oz, and just now watched the first two episodes of Firefly, Joss Whedon's post-Buffy/Angel attempt at an SF series that was not, unfortunately, given much of a chance. But more on Firefly and all things Joss in a future post.

I currently have Band of Brothers, Queer as Folk, Carnivale, and Deadwood on order ... if nothing else, the DVD allows for the perusal of all these innovative TV series that I would not otherwise be able to see until (a) they reached network television three years down the road in heavily edited form, (b) I spent obscene amounts of money to buy them, (c) ever.

And I never thought I would say this, but a cable network is -- in some small way -- a force for good. I'm of course speaking of HBO, whose programming is the antithesis of the all-reality-all-the-time crapfest that seems to now dominate television (so much more severe in the summer months -- Supernanny? I mean, come on). Watching Oz, I am in awe -- I would walk out of a film after such writing/acting/directing and be dazzled (a rare occurence in the SilverCity universe at the best of times), but to sit and think to myself, this is television ... it makes you re-examine your media biases. To the point where I included a unit on "smart" television when I taught pop culture ... and, much to the dismay of my TAs this past year, I included a question on one of the midterms that asked, "Can television be art?"

Now that I have the maritimes and Quebec between us, I can say to poor John, Selma and Prabhjot ... yes, I did that deliberately to make your lives miserable for a short time. But I suspect you knew that. [insert diabolical laugh here]

One thing I do love about the HBO universe is its overlap with the Law & Order universe ... not, unfortunately, that they share characters (oh, how I would dearly love to see an episode in which Jack McCoy showed up to shake down Schillinger in an attempt to get evidence for an ongoing prosecution) but that they share so many actors. And what's even better is that whoever happens to be on Oz tends to show up on a Law & Order show as their diametric opposite -- like Christopher Meloni, who plays Chris Keller on Oz, a borderline psycho gay-killer, is Det. Eliot Stabler on Law & Order: SVU.

So, ladies and gentlemen, I give you, for your geeky pleasure, the six degrees of HBO (caveat: not exhaustive! I welcome additions):

Christopher Meloni
Oz: Chris Keller, inmate
SVU: Det. Eliot Stabler

Edie Falco
Oz: Diane Whitlesey, corrections officer
The Sopranos: Carmella Soprano
Law & Order: recurring defending lawyer role

B.D. Wong
OZ: Father Ray Mukada, prison chaplain
SVU: Dr. George Huang, psychiatrist

Dean Winters
Oz: Ryan O'Reilly, inmate (the Iago character!)
SVU: Det. Brian Cassidy
Sex and the City: some guy Carrie slept with

J.K. Simmons
Oz: Vernon Schillinger, inmate, leader of the Aryan Brotherhood
Law & Order: Dr. Emil Skoda, psychiatrist

Kathryn Erbe
Oz: Shirley Bellinger, convicted and executed for killing her children
CI: Detective Alexandra Eames

Kirk Acevedo
Oz: Miguel Alvarez, latino inmate
Trial by Jury: Det. Hector Salazar
Band of Brothers: Sgt. Joseph Toye
(also, I think he's the hispanic, short version of Holm)

Ok, I'll stop there ... but there are many, many more ... and I haven't even watched Carnivale or Deadwood yet ...

Two characters from Oz I do want to mention, however -- first, good old Ernie Hudson, who plays the hard-ass yet compassionate warden -- but who I'll always remember as the fourth ghostbuster. And Harold J. Perrineau, who I think is one of the finest contemporay American actors we have -- who played the wheelchair-bound Augustus Hill, but who I first noticed in his brilliant turn as Mercutio in Baz's Romeo+Juliet. I was ever so happy to see him on Lost this past year ...

OK. Geeking out done with. Return to your families and friends.

Sticker shock

I got my first full paycheck today, which was an ambivalent experience ... on one hand, it's a great moment, the first tangible reward for a new job. But then I looked at the net pay ...

I'm sure everyone's heard this story, from a parent or whomever, of the first paycheck at the first real job, when it suddenly hits home just how much of your money goes elsewhere ... well, that was me riding up in the elevator this morning, after picking up my pay stub at my mailbox. The poor sweet old lady beside me was treated to me suddently bursting out, as I looked at my bottom line, "Oh, you're shitting me!" To her credit, she didn't flinch or look at me. Most likely, she was just saying inwardly, "Ah, new junior faculty."

It's not so much the tax as the other deductions ... we spend so much of our part-time job lives thinking of the utopia that is benefits that we forget they cost something. I did a quick calculation when I got to my office -- I take home 58% of my pay. On the other hand, I now have donated $188 to my pension plan here at MUN.

So a whole lot of the expenditures I was planning for this pay period will have to wait ... I'll just keep repeating the mantra "pension-dental-medical-tenure" over and over.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Finding my inner Toby

I saw this cartoon the other day and had to laugh, as I'm sure would any veteran of department / office cocktail parties. I think they're probably particularly bad with regards to university functions, as there is that sub-section of grad students and/or professors who choose academia as a career because it fits in nicely with their particular brand of social ineptitude. All of whom come out of the woodwork to drink cheap wine in one of the department's "social" rooms on such occasions as it is offered. Of particular arduousness was the inevitable meet-the-creature days in the first two weeks of school when there was a polite, awkward mixer where the new grad students met their peers, during which I inevitably felt the overpowering urge to shake one or two of the new arrivals by the shoulders, shouting "You DO realize that in academia you will one day have to interact regularly with other human beings, right??" Now THAT would be an orientation session I could get behind.

So why would I go to these events? Same as everyone else -- free booze. That, and it was worth it to meet the cool newcomers, whose numbers usually balanced out the social retards. Still, I tended to find myself getting drunk very quickly because I was often chugging drinks down quickly to have an excuse to get back to the bar and out of a given conversation. Not that there was any likelihood of me emerging from those events sober -- I mean, let's be honest, there was free booze. But it tended to happen much more rapidly than it would have otherwise.

This is on my mind now for two reasons: (1) I am and the verge of a string of such meet-the-creature, new faculty type parties; and (2) I found myself, quite literally, trapped in conversation for A HALF AN HOUR with someone yesterday, and I was desperate for an empty glass of wine. If I'd been a raccoon in a trap, I'd have gnawed my leg off.

What was doubly annoying about this was I KNEW this was a danger -- I'd had the same thing happen with this same individual back in February when I was here for my interview. And yet I couldn't walk away from the conversation. I'm such a wimp. Something similar happened in London not long before I left, when I got trapped at Williams Coffee Pub by a former acquaintance who has ... well ... gone a little crazy. And I couldn't extricate myself there either.

I've come to the conclusion that on such occasions I really need to find my inner Toby. Toby Ziegler, that is, the prickly communcations director on The West Wing, whose talent for succinctly dismissing things of no interest or import to him is quite wonderful. Some of my favourite moments:

TOBY: I'm going to make a suggestion which might help you out, but I don't want this to be mistaken for an indication that I like you.

JOSH: No. You're listening to me, but you're not understanding me.
TOBY: No, I'm disagreeing with you. That doesn't mean I'm not listening to you or understanding what you're saying - I'm doing all three at the same time

TOBY: Why were you standing behind your office door?
JOSH: It’s this thing that’s supposed to reduce stress. I—
TOBY: I don’t care.

TOBY: Sam, I’d like you to meet the poet laureate, Tabitha Fortes.
SAM: Well, hel-lo! I was quite the poetry lover in my—
TOBY: Nobody cares.

I'm thinking this could be a life-saving talent to develop. As new faculty, I of course want to ruffle as few feathers as possible, but I'll also be a target for adminstrative stuff no one else wants. And this department is, furthermore, very chatty ... it's difficult to walk down the hallway without falling into a conversation, which is usually quite pleasant, but if you're not careful it can eat up an afternoon of work-time very easily (of course, this also seems to be how things get done here -- no official sceduling, just a series of pick-up meetings that happen in the hallways).

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Reason #3 to love The Daily Show ...

… Jon Stewart’s comic instincts and timing.

Last night he had his former lead “correspondent” Steve Carell on as a guest (promoting his new movie The Forty Year Old Virgin, which, frankly, looks like shite). Carell, of course, had been a pioneering member of the show’s wonderful ensemble – leaving it to go on to such memorable film roles as the asshole anchorman in Bruce Almighty and the … um … other asshole anchorman in The Legend of Ron Burgundy.

But all mocking of poor career choices aside, it was obvious on last night’s episode the kinship between Carell and Stewart – or, at least, their inspired ability to draw out an awkward silence beyond that which is normally possible for mere non-comedic mortals. I appreciate the kind of stage chemistry that can pull that off … for what felt like an eternity, Stewart and Carell sat staring at each other, taking weirdly synchronized sips from their coffee mugs and starting sentences that never reach their first syllables. I was dying … not the least reason for which was that, having directed some theatre, I so appreciate the kind of talent it takes to make that moment.

And on that note, I begin the first in a series of people I miss … I should say that this is in no particular order—not a ranking! Just an occasional (in the true sense of the word) tribute to certain people who have made an impact on me in one way or another.

And the first entry is a certain Mr. Jan Weir—who played Richard III for me, as well as the Player in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, and who always had that kind of comic timing that kept audiences in the palm of his hand. I thought of him this evening in the silences between Stewart and Carell—because Jan has a great instinct for letting a moment hang, for letting the silence do the work for him. A rare talent, I must say.

PS -- Check out Laura's blog - she has cat pictures!

Monday, August 15, 2005

The Mummy lives

About two weeks ago I came upon what might well be one of the funniest web sites ever ... Overheard at Western, a blog dedicated to recording the more comically inane comments made on and around UWO campus by people who are supposedly in the process of getting a university education. In my eight years at that august institution, I was party to ever so many such comments, not infrequently made in class or written in essays. I think my absolute favourite however was a conversation I overheard on a bus heading up to school about four years ago, between two dudes who are living proof that Bill & Ted and Beavis & Butthead are not the products of abstract imagination. Unfortunately it loses something in writing it down -- you need that particular timbre of voice. Imagination the speakers as Keanu Reeves and ... um ... Keanu Reeves.

DUDE #1: Hey, I saw that movie The Mummy last night.
DUDE#2: Hey, cool. What was it like?
DUDE #1: It was cool. It was all, like, there was this guy, he was all, like, Indiana Jones ...
DUDE #2: Sweet.
DUDE#1: Yeah. And he like went down into the tomb, and the mummy was there, and the mummy was all like "RAAAAAA!" and the guy was all like "WHOOAAAA!"
DUDE #2: (pause) Cool.

Sadly, I did end up seeing The Mummy shortly after (how could I not?) and, well ... Dude #1's review is pretty much on the money.

I imagine I should start doing a running "Overheard at MUN" segment -- which may or may not prove that only the names of the universities changes.

In other news, I went hiking again on saturday around Signal Hill. I'll only bore you with one more picture, just to emphasize that there are certain parts of the path that make you fear for your life. This is "chain rock," named for the length of chain they've bolted into the rock (I assume). I didn't quite capture the fact that to your left is a sheer face of rock going up about twenty feet, and to your right is a sheer face going down to the ocean. I colleague of mine mentioned this weekend that last Christmas day, it was a freakishly warm 12 degrees, and he decided on the spur of the moment to hike this trail ... only to realize when he got splashed with spray from the winter ocean at Chain Rock that perhaps hiking there in the winter wasn't necessarily the smartest thing.

I get to this section in the summer and I have that thought, but then that's just me ...

Saturday, August 13, 2005

I miss my cat

Someone once said that cats are the soul of a house ... and I'm sure the world, evenly divided between cat and dog people, is similarly divided between those who agree wholeheartedly and those who disagree vehemently.

Well, I'm in the first category. I miss my cat Clarence, who is presently cooling his heels (paws?) with my parents until I can fetch him when I visit home in September.

A person without a cat is like a butler without a snooty aristocrat to torment him with whims and caprices. And because I've held off this long without posting any cat pictures, here's a gratuitous few for the right-thinking half of the world:

Friday, August 12, 2005

Lit .. ur .. a ... ture?

Here's a standard professorial joke that pretty much works well for any of the liberal arts (just substitute crucial text of given discipline for Twelfth Night, say, The Republic for philosophy, or See Spot Run for sociology):

PROFESSOR A: Have you read Twelfth Night?
PROFESSOR B: Read it? I haven't even taught it!

This particular little joke is hitting kind of close to home as I start to prep my classes for the coming school year -- on one hand, a 3rd-year course on American drama, and on the other an introductory survey course that takes you from the Middle Ages to the 18th century. The first is more my speed, but the material for the second is mostly made up of stuff I haven't read (a) since I took a first-year survey course in my undergrad, or (b) at all. Right now I'm trying to decide on whether to teach Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, one or two of the Canterbury Tales or Beowulf as the representative medieval text. Sir Gawain would be the easiest for me, but I don't like it; Chaucer would be the most fun, but my middle english is shaky; and I've never read Beaowulf.

Yup. Never read it. I don't know what's more embarassing -- the simple fact that, as a professor of literature I never got around to it, or that I was able to go through three degrees in English without having to read it. But then, I went to York for my BA. A lot of theory, not so much canon. It all makes me think of the scene in the novel Changing Places where a visiting British professor at a big American university teaches the faculty the game "Humiliation" in which you take turns admitting works of literature you've never read -- more points being awarded to the more canonical works.

One professor doesn't get it at first and keeps naming obscure little pamphlets; but when he finally understands the point of the game, he wins it at one go when he admits he's never read Hamlet. His triumph is short-lived however -- he's denied tenure the following week, principally because the department can't see fit to grant it to someone who's never read the Danish play.

And no, I won't be initiating any games of Humiliation at MUN.

Actually, it's a bit weird to be teaching exclusively literature this coming year -- in my four years as a sessional at UWO, I of course taught anything I could get my hands on (part-time profs are a little like migrant workers standing at the roadside hoping against hope that the farmer in the pickup truck will come by and offer them work) ... which ended up being a lot of non-literary courses for film and media studies. Let's compare the lists:

Shakespeare (x2)
American Literature
Modern Drama
The Postmodern Novel
Children's Literature

Conspiracy Culture (x2) (Media)
Screening Postmodernism (Film)
Popular Culture (x2)
Cynicism (Media/Film)
Alternative Realities (Media)

And then there are two that don't quite fit -- a course on Shakespeare on Film that was cross-listed between English and Film, and Writing 101.

The second list are the kind of courses that get vilified in the conservative press -- that yearly series of op-ed pieces by people like Margaret Wente who ridicule them, asking with rhetorical
heaviness "Is this what university education has come to?" So I'm naturally more proud of them. And after all, the real question at the end of the day, to quote George W. Bush, is "Is our children learning?"

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Big day

Well, I got a taste of how things happen from here on in ... I got up to campus at 10am, and within an hour was asked by the department chair to take part in a grad student's advising team, and then asked to to participate in a thesis defence that's scheduled for the end of September. And then when I checked my mail I found that about half of the exams from the course I'm still technically teaching at Western had arrived ... and then the grad chair dropped off the aforementioned grad student's working draft of the thesis thus far. Whew.

Things happen fast.

And in somewhat more sensational news, I was woken up last night by the sound of a droning car horn out in the parking lot behind the parking lot behind my place. I looked out the window to see that a car was on fire! Seriously! It was blazing away merrily. I called 911, to be told a firetruck was en route. So of course I sat on my sill to watch the show.

Interesting thing -- movies would have you believe that once a car catches fire, it blazes for a few minutes before exploding in a massive fireball. In real life? Not so much ... Every few minutes there was a loud bang and a small gout of flame burst from the car. It burned for about ten minutes before the fire truck arrived (not comforted by that response time). I was looking forward to seeing the fire put out, but unfortunately it was not to be ... the fire truck parked itself exactly between my view and the car. Robbed of further spectacle, I went back to bed.

I still have no idea what exactly happened -- I checked the paper today, and saw nothing, and there was nothing on the news. Hopefully this isn't a common occurence ... I'll keep everyone posted if I hear anything.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Zombies aren't so scary when they're fast

So as I mentioned two posts ago, I watched the remake of Dawn of the Dead with Canada's own Sarah Polley last night as part of an attempt to scare myself into not feeling lonely. And while the film did have a lot of shocks and "Bleah!"-boogeymen-jumping-out-of-dark-corners scares, it entirely lacked the haunting sense of dread that has invariably stayed with me whenever I've watched a zombie movie.

Now, when it comes to scary movies I'm about the biggest wimp there is (shut up Hansen), so the fact that I watched a good chunk of the film from my kitchen table rather than the living room isn't a surprise. But wheenver I've watched a zombie flick, be it as awful as Resident Evil or as hilarious as Shaun of the Dead (a film I cannot recommend enough, by the way -- if I ever teach pop culture again, that film is Exhibit A), I'm literally sleepless for a week afterward. And it's not the eight-year-old "ohmygawd what's that noise" type of fear (which I do still get, and yet again, shut up Hansen), but the odd fascination I seem to have for that particular apocalyptic scenario ... in other words, I'm not up jumping at noises, but putting myself in my mind in the Omega Man (awful, awful film) situation, imagining my familiar surroundings populated by zombies and (even worse) having to put down friends and family who've been zombified.

Hence, having heard what I've heard about 28 Days Later, I'm not sure this is a film I should see.

At any rate, I kind of expected Dawn of the Dead to have this effect too. I've been wanting to see it anyway, as it was principally filmed in Thornhill Square, a mall right around the corner from my parents' place, where I held two part-time jobs in high school, and which is now in the process of being demolished. And, well, anything with Sarah Polley in it is a good thing.

But it didn't faze me. And the conclusion I've come to is that it's the zombies themselves -- instead of the inexorable, lumbering, barely vertical George A. Romero species, in this version we have very swift zombies that positively sprint toward their prey. While that makes for some better jump-in-your-seat scares, it lacks the dread that comes with the spectre of inexorability implicit in hundreds of slow-moving zombies. The Romero versions suggest a terrifying mindlessness that the remake lacks -- we have countless scenes where the zombies turn, see a human, and fixate ... immediately leaping into a sprint to attack. Never mind the logical gap (lumbering slow zombies at least nod toward the notion that reanimation of the dead probably has some difficult physical issues to deal with); this new element suggests a consciousness that somehow makes the undead less frightening.

Actually, the best interpretation I've heard of this new film is that, while the zombies of Night of the Living Dead were (a) thinly veiled communists, or (b) mindless conformists and the ones of the original Dawn were mindless consumers, the zombies of the remake are terrorists -- innocuous until they spot their quarry, at which point their attack is swift and deadly.

My own take is that swift zombies are more amenable to gun culture. While slow zombies are easily dispatched with a cricket bat, a la Shaun, swift zombies require firearms. All the more reason to stock up on your guns, middle America ... who knows when the UN or the zombies (tomato, tomato) are coming?

A puffin always arrives at its destination

This is Percy the Puffin -- my niece Morgan's newest friend. Percy was found in a souveneir shop on Water Street, and he says it's been his life's dream to go be friends with a baby girl in Ontario. How convenient is that?

He's also living (well, stuffed) proof that sometimes Canada Post gets things spectacularly right -- he was only mailed this past Monday, and apparently he arrived the next day.

But of course we didn't want to send him off without showing him some of his native province ... so he came out to Cape Spear and to Signal Hill, and also just spent some time chilling beside Quidi Vidi Lake.

I think it's always important to get pictures of stuffed puffins in their natural habitat.


Well, the reality of the move is finally sinking in. Kristen left this afternoon, and I've been doing about everything I can to feel less alone. I went for a long run after she'd gone, I watched the remake of Dawn of the Dead ... and I'm a leeeetle bit drunk. I figured maybe exhaustion, fear and alcohol might lessen the blow, but now I'm sitting here in front of the computer trashed, terrified and depressed. Talk about backfiring plans. Zombies are less scary when you have someone to hug.

Monday, August 08, 2005

Yet more gratuitously beautiful scenery

Went for a 2hr hike today all over and around Signal Hill. One of the things this province has done brilliantly is make all kinds of hiking paths that cross and crisscross not just St. John's but pretty much all of the Avalon Penninsula. And not for the faint of heart! These contain some narrow paths on the sides of sheer rock, some steep walkways and lots and lots of stairs. Exploring Newfoundland is good exercise, something they should probably work into their recent tourism blitz -- "Newfoundland: Blast Your Quads!"

What's kind of fun about the Signal Hill paths is that, while sort of touristy, they're also packed with locals out getting their exercise. In particular, we passed an awful lot of middle-aged women in spandex shorts with Evian bottles slung over their shoulders in those special neoprene holders. In other words, this is where the soccer moms of St. John's come to do their power-walking.

And I'm all about signing on to that! I kept thinking as I hiked through this amazing landscape -- this is an enjoyable walk. I'm thinking every weekend, weather permitting ... partially to supplement my running with something a bit different, partially to get myself into shape for the Eastern Trail in a couple of weeks.

And what, pray, is the Eastern Trail? You may well ask ... it is a further network of hiking paths, actually connected to some of the ones in St. John's, which take you down the east coast of the Avalon Penninsula. They are broken down into day-long outings ... each trail is just long enough to connect outports with handy B&Bs. I've been thinking that one of the things I want to do is explore on weekends ... of course, this might turn into a pipe dream once I realize just how much work I'll be doing here at MUN. Hopefully I'll be able to get out once or twice before winter sets in, though ...

Seriously though, that actually has me worried. I've been told, vis a vis starting a full time academic position, that what you thought was a full schedule before was positively leisurely. I've actually been told by more than one person to make sure I've made a point if unpacking everything before classes start, because anything still in a box on Labour Day will still be in a box in April.

Not that I'm complaining. I'm still loving being able to answer, when people ask me what I do, that I'm a professor ... and not have to follow up with explanations about what it means to be part-time, etc etc. And I get to use those lovely words "tenure-track." Ah. Oh, and there's that added bonus of getting a job in a field you love. That's kind of cool too.

In sadder news, today is Kristen's last full day here ... she flies home tomorrow afternoon. I'm guessing that's when the full impact of moving this far away will finally sink in ... her being here has made for an interesting continuity between London and Newfoundland, and the week-long vacation of driving out east has merged with the settling in process here in St. John's, to the point where it hardly feels like I've left home at all -- it feels rather (and I know how weird this sounds) that London has suddenly grown some extraordinary landscapes, to say nothing of vaguely Irish accents. This last element sort of came through about an hour ago when we had drinks on the patio of a bar that, for all intents and purposes, could have been Barney's.

So I guess my vacation effectively ends tomorrow ... I've been putting off getting my administrative stuff done on campus, but that will be the new project -- along with putting together all my new courses for next year, finishing off the distance studies course I'm still technically teaching for Western, and breaking out all the research work I'd been doing post-thesis and which has been languishing in file boxes.


Sunday, August 07, 2005

Fish cakes!

Well, so much for getting healthy. Given that I've postponed the chowder attempt for at least a day or two, I realized I'd been soaking some salt cod in the fridge that was now not needed -- and loathe to toss it, I decided on an appetizer for tonight's dinner.

Yes, fish cakes -- a Barbados recipe, actually. One of the colonial legacies left in the Caribbean by the British is a plethora of salt fish-based recipes. Gotta love the imperial mentality -- here we are in this island paradise, with some of the most delicious fish in the world (dorado and flying fish are my favourites), but we don't trust that. Oh, no ... we can't eat what the locals do. So what becomes a staple product in the pre-refridgeration days? Salt cod, imported from Newfoundland. And when you go into a restaurant in Barbados, two things you're pretty much guaranteed to see on the menu are fish cakes, made with salt cod, and salt fish and ackee. I'll explain the latter one in the future.

For the adventurous:


1 fillet salt cod
4-6 potatoes, boiled and mashed
1/2 cup flour
2 eggs
Barbados hot sauce (recognizable for being yellow with red flecks) to taste
1/2 sweet onion, diced fine
1/2 canned corn niblets
lotsa oil, preferably vegetable or canola

Soak the salt cod overnight, then rinse. Flake it into the mashed potatoes. Add onion, hot sauce and corn. Mix. Add eggs and flour. Mix again. Heat the oil (really hot -- keep the fan going). Make sure there's enough oil so that the fish cakes can be completely immersed. To shape the cakes, I like to use two spoons. Scoop out a spoonful of the mixture, then smoothe it out with the other spoon. Drop in oil. Let fry until they are about the colour of the picture above.

For an ideal dipping sauce, mix a small amount of the hot sauce in mayonaise.

At the edge of the world

Went to Cape Spear today, which is the easternmost point of land in North America. And given how beautiful a day it is, and that it's a Sunday, I think most of St. John's was out there with us. Sort of like a day at the beach where the beach is sheer rock being pounded by massive waves. There are signs all over the place warning you not to leave the marked path and venture too close to the water, but as you can see in my third picture, most of the locals here blithely ignore them.

I have to say, Cape Spear is a very cool place, and not just because of the scenery. There is something vaguely vertiginous about being on the very edge of your continent. A sort of geographical angst. Hey, I think I just invented a syndrome! Look out for me on Dr. Phil ....

Suddenly it seems everyone in the city is wearing tank tops and short shorts (which is not infrequently alarming) and a lot of skanky old men are walking around shirtless. It occurred to me that this must be what passes for a heat wave in Newfoundland -- it reached 25 degrees this afternoon, and if the city ever collectively managed to wear less clothes than it did today, we might be in some dangerous territory.

I took advantage of these dangerously high temperatures to go for my first substantial run since leaving London over two weeks ago. I went twice around Quidi Vidi Lake, which totals about 7 1/2 km. I was amazed that I had the wind for a run that long, considering that I've spent so much time being stationary behind the wheel of a car, eating fried food and drinking da booze. But I tells ya, clean air makes all the difference ... I think in the three weeks before I left London, there were maybe three or four days that didn't have air quality warnings.

So, keeping with this healthy turn, tonight it's fish for dinner (unbattered, even!).

Saturday, August 06, 2005

The new digs

I'm sure the honeymoon ends when I have to endure my first winter storm, but at the moment this city has me entranced. When you can pretty much step out your front door and see the scene to the left here, that's kind of cool. What you're looking at is the mouth of Qidi Vidi Harbour -- photo taken from one of the many walking paths that wind through St. John's. Mere minutes walking from downtown, I might add.

Speaking of my front door, I believe I promised some pics of my new apartment, so here we go. First up is my building from the outside. What I love about it is that it used to be a high school -- a high school gone condo! I used to have dreams about that happening to St. Robert's back in the day ... wait, those might merely have been dreams of the school being demolished to make way for a new highway. Either or.

And here are the rest of my apartment shots for good measure. As you can see, the office is pretty much tricked out but the rest is still a bit spartan. I see shopping at poster stores in the future ... I thinking a couple of big JW Turner prints will work for some of the blank spaces on the walls.

Not much else to mention, aside from the fact that a very late lunch precluded the attempt at chowder, so more on that tomorrow. We did grab lunch at the infamous Ches's Fish & Chips (everyone I know who's from Newfoundland has informed me that it's a moral duty to eat at Ches's at least once while here; and having tasted it, I must concur).

ODD LOCAL QUIRK DU JOUR: This might seem like a weird thing to point out, but none of the parking lots in big retail districts connect here. We were up at Staples today getting some stuff for my office -- right in the middle of a serious collection of big box stores, everything from Future Shop to Wal-Mart to Costco -- and none of the parking lots connect, even when they're adjacent. For those from London, imagine going up to Chapters at Masonville, and having to pull back out on Fanshawe Park in order to get to Pier One, and then again to go to Loblaws. That's essentially what we were doing this afternoon.