Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Untitled Newfoundland Zombie Project

So with Christmas over but the holidays still in full langor, my mind turns naturally to thoughts of zombies.

Last January, as I mentioned on this blog, I was coming back from the gym on a foggy and wet evening. I paused on the pedway between the Aquarena and the track, arrested by the view—a lot of people moved about in the fog as indeterminate, ghostly forms, lit by the hazy nimbuses surrounding the street lights. It was very eerie and, indeed, haunting, and the seed of a thought took root in my mind. I had recently been making use of the extensive tunnels underneath MUN—themselves quite creepy in places—and I imagined a horror film narrative in which individuals trapped inside barricaded buildings by the requisite zombies are forced to venture into the tunnels to find food and other necessities. Fighting their way through the dark tunnels, they would establish safe zones and routes between buildings by killing the zombies in the tunnels and barricading them … suffering of course casualties along the way, etc etc.

This idea has had a surprisingly vibrant half-life in my imagination and has been a frequent topic of conversation with some friends and colleagues. I once even mentioned it to our new Dean of Arts as a group walked back through the tunnels from a reception for pre-tenure Arts faculty a few weeks ago.

At any rate, the other day for my own amusement I knocked out a sketch of the prologue for the script, in which two graduate students go running around Quidi Vidi Lake on a Saturday morning in October, and are beset by a mob of zombies (inspired by my own eerie run in thick fog this past August after watching 28 Days Later for the first time). This little diversion demonstrated two things to me: (1) I suck at writing dialogue, and (2) this was fun.

So I was thinking this might be entertaining as an ongoing project … the various conversations with friends and colleagues have cemented certain elements in place, the big one being that the story must have a specifically Newfoundland character and take place at (and under) Memorial. The other necessary plot points are as follows:

(1) The prologue takes place at Quidi Vidi Lake, and the protagonist must make her way from there to MUN. She is a biochem grad student. I don’t know why she feels compelled to go to school after suffering zombie attack and losing her boyfriend, but there we are.
(2) The hockey team must be involved, wearing their jerseys and using their sticks as weapons. The obligatory defensive goons will be in the vanguard of the various fights, and if they end up resembling the Hanson brothers, that wouldn’t be a bad thing.
(3) The principals must start out at the Field House, barricaded on the top level with zombies wandering around the track area. From there they will venture out to the Smallwood Center to find food, and the science building to get access to chemicals and stuff for improvised weapons.

So here’s the tentative plan: I will write segments and post them (either here or elsewhere) and solicit comments and suggestions. I have no idea where this story will go, so the plot is very open-ended. Also, I’m still a Newfoundland neophyte and will need advice on the nuances of the various in-jokes and personality conflicts that would make this a uniquely Rock-flavoured zombie film. The last thing I’d want is for it to devolve into an extended Newfie joke …

Also, I can’t promise anything resembling regular installments, especially once the semester gets busy. This well might wither on the vine.

But still—any thoughts?

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Christmas Eve wrap-up

Happy Christmas Eve, all ... it's been a tough time around here on the Lockett homestead for me lately, what with all the resting and relaxing and eating and drinking ... I've had to pace myself. Tonight we had our Christmas Eve dinner of roast beef and yorkshire pudding, so I'm trying to type through a food & wine stupor that would stun a team of oxen in their tracks. But I soldier on, because I'm just that much of a trouper.

Yesterday evening we had my Dad's family over. And what do you think was the focus of everyone's attention? I'll give you a hint: she isn't quite 18 months old, she likes throwing potatoes on the kitchen floor, and she's already a Leafs fan:

The last time I saw Morgan, at Thanksgiving, she was just starting to walk. She has in the interim learned to run. A few interesting facts about my beautiful niece:

(1) She recognizes herself in photos, and when asked who that little girl is will point to herself.
(2) She can make animal sounds for cats, dogs, mice, lions, sheep and owls.
(3) She can imitate the mannerisms of penguins, beavers and rabbits.
(4) When asked "What does M-O-R-G-A-N spell?" She points to herself. When asked what any combination of letters spell, she still points to herself.
(5) She likes to dance, which at the moment consists of bouncing unsteadily up and down and occasionally falling.
(6) She laughs and laughs and laughs. Unfortunately this picture is slightly blurry, but you get the idea:

When she spotted our log Rudolph on the deck, it held her fascination for a full five minutes:

Oh, and there were other people here yesterday too. Watching Morgan in rapt fascination here are, from left to right, my Aunt Rose, Uncle Mike and Aunt Carolyn.

Here are my cousin Lauren, Aunt Theresa and Aunt Rose.

Lauren and her dad, my Uncle Ron.

Lauren, who I'm pretty sure was Morgan's age about three weeks ago, just finished her first semester at Western. So: to my UWO people, heads up! If you see Lauren around, say hi and give her food. In three months, you can also give her beer.

In other news, the Dickens megalopolis suffered this year from congestion issues when my parents' installation of a gas fireplace in the living room forced my father to shorten the table on which the Victorian urban space resides. Though this did curtail some of its incipient suburban sprawl and rejuvenated the downtown businesses.

And just a half hour ago we carted down all the presents from upstairs to put under the tree.

So on the night before Christmas, I wish everyone the best of the season. May your stockings tomorrow be full of exceptionally cool stuff. Slainte!

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Late entry ...

And I am shocked and ashamed that I forgot one of the greatest Christmas songs of all time in my previous post.

How could I forget The Pogues? "And the boys in the NYPD choir were singin' 'Galway Bay' / And the bells were ringin' out for Christmas Day" ... For your viewing and listening pleasure, dear friends, I give you "Fairytale of New York."

My top five Christmas songs

I've been thinking about this one for a few days ... how to choose? Do I go by the song itself, or the specific version as sung by a particular person/group?

Because so much of the pleasure of Christmas for me lies in memories and associations, it's impossible to separate a song from its given performances. So "The Little Drummer Boy" in the abstract is nothing to write home about, but as sung by the duet of Bing Crosby and David Bowie it has particular resonance for me. So I'll start with my top five in the abstract, then move on to the real list:

5. Silent Night
4. Adestes Fideles
3. Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas
2. Good King Wenceslas
1. God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman

Yup, I'm pretty much a traditionalist with just the basic songs. And now the other list:

5. "The Twelve Days of Christmas," as sung by John Denver and the Muppets.
This, I think, is one of my favourite Christmas specials, and you hardly ever see it aired any more. And a quick perusal of Amazon didn't turn up a DVD of it ... what gives? Why has this most treasured of Christmas specials been consigned to oblivion? Just watch John Denver's face as he sings with the Muppets -- few humans have ever entered the Jim Henson world with quite that ease.

4. "The Little Drummer Boy" as sung by Bing Crosby and David Bowie.
Haunting is all I can say about this version -- and a great cross-generational moment. Originally aired as part of Bing's holiday special in 1977. The banter preceding the song is a bit stilted, but kind of funny anyway. "You're the poor American relation?" Hehee.

3. "White Christmas" as sung by Bing Crosby
Yup, more of Der Bingle ... the voice without which Christmas wouldn't just feel right.

2. "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" as sung by Barenaked Ladies and Sarah McLachlan.
This is the song that had to be on the list simply because I love the original carol. Pretty much any version will do for me, but I particularly like this one -- mainly for Sarah's vocals. Sorry about the generic video; there wasn't anything else attached to the song on YouTube.

1. "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" as sung by the Charlie Brown ensemble.
This never fails to make me cry. Unfortunately (and oddly), nobody has posted the song itself on YouTube, but there's a whole bunch of Linus' monologue available ... which is almost as good.

Runners-Up: Loreena McKennit singing "Good King Wenceslas"; "Auld Lang Syne" at the end of It's a Wonderful Life; the sequence on the first season West Wing Christmas episode, in which "The Little Drummer Boy" is sung by a boys' choir at the White House while Toby attends the funeral of a homeless Korea veteran; all of the jazz piano in the Charlie Brown Christmas special; "Do They Know It's Christmas" (the original!); Sting, "Gabriel's Message"; Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, "Marshmellow World."

What's everyone else's list?

Friday, December 22, 2006

Dear Donald Trump

You're a dick. Of course, you are well aware of this fact, given that you've made a career out of it, and The Apprentice is really about being the Biggest Dick -- both in terms of its celebration of business machismo and its corrective to Dale Carnegie ("How to betray friends and foster enmity" would be a good subtitle).

What you might not appreciate is that you're a stupid dick. In fact, you might well be the only person in the television-watching universe who doesn't grasp this fact, which is quite an achievement. At the very least, you should considering firing whoever handles your PR. Assuming that this row with Rosie O'Donnell is genuine and not a publicity stunt, you've entirely taken the wrong tack, and continue -- bafflingly! -- to dig yourself deeper in the muck.

The best thing for you to have done was NOTHING. Ignore it. Laugh it off. Shake your head pityingly. Communicate to everyone involved that O'Donnell's comments didn't even appear on your radar. You had a golden opportunity to respond with class, and you blew it.

You know why? Because Rosie O'Donnell merely said what was on everybody's mind, which is "Where the hell do you get off dictating others' morality?" Even here, you could have responded with something like "Because I own the damn show, and it isn't about me, it's about the public perception of Miss America." Which is not going to sway anyone who, like me, already loathes the show, but would at least be a straightforward and logical answer.

Instead, you got down in the gutter and (1) mocked Rosie O'Donnell's weight and appearance, (2) took shots at her lesbianism and (3) threatened legal action. Legal action? Are you kidding me? Is your massive ego really so fragile that you can't resist fighting back with insults and specious claims of being libeled?

Sorry, stupid question.

As for the insults, that's what we in the business call an ad hominem argument, Donald -- a logical fallacy in which you do not respond to the substance of someone's claim but dispute it by impugning them in some way. Rosie O'Donnell is unattractive, ergo her words are meaningless. Of course, I really don't expect anything less from a man whose pursuit of arm-candy has become so obsessive that you literally purchased Miss America.

PS -- Thank you also for wasting the airwaves and my brain cells on this. Especially around Christmas. I suppose I should take my own advice and ignore it all, but I really felt someone needed to call you a stupid dick. For cathartic reasons.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Storming the consumerist citadel

So today I ventured out into the raging torrents of humanity to do my last-minute Christmas shopping. Except that it was also my first-minute Christmas shopping. How is it that I always manage to do this to myself?

Except that today I think I have to go ahead and crown myself king of efficient shoppers: everything taken care of in the space of a single day. Not that I have a vast number of people to shop for, mind you, but still enough to make compressing all of it into one day more than a little nerve-wracking. Which made the efficiency and ease of today's shopping a little eerie ... I'm waiting for the other shoe to drop. Now I'm getting nervous that I've made awful choices.

I went out to do the last few items this evening, which was oddly pleasant. Odd, because of course I was in the midst of the last frenzied rush of people who, like me, had left things right to the end but lacked my apparently zen-like calm in the midst of chaos. But I rather enjoyed wandering around the mall this evening looking at the faces alternating between crazed panic and shellshocked consumerism-induced torpor.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Christmas hibernation

The first few days of Christmas vacation back in TO at my parents' place is a little like a luxurious submersion ... I always get lost in the comforts of home, eating well and drinking well and sleeping in and just generally doing absolutely nothing. Then after a few days, usually wakened by the fact of my yearly tradition of last-minute shopping, I emerge blinking.

Really, it's quite nice. As I've said before on this blog, I'm one of those apparently rare people in academia who quite enjoys spending time with his parents. And wow, do they know how to do Christmas. My mother is sort of like Martha Stewart without the evil: she manages to decorate the house with a critical mass of Christmas decor that in anyone else's hands would be unavoidably kitschy, but with her deft touch is rather astounding. And the Dickens Village continues to grow, annexing suburbs and exurbs like a Victorian megacity.

Also, I've been able to see my niece Morgan a few times since getting home -- pictures to come when I replace the batteries in my camera and upload them to the computer.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Pre-holiday miscellany: categorical issues

Well, my bags are packed, etc. and I'm ready to be leeeeeaaaving on a jet plane for TO in a couple of hours, so I thought I might kill some time by doing some blog housework.

First thing: someone needs to educate me about this whole Blogger Beta thing. Every time I sign in, Blogger's informing me that my new beta-version blog is ready to go. I have thus far resisted switching over because I seem to remember Erin complaining about beta screwing up her blog when she switched ... and though her site now seems to be clicking along smoothly, I have a phobia about all things computer-cody.

It wasn't an issue before, except that now I can't seem to be able to comment on some blogs that have switched. They want me to sign in with my Google account, which I don't have, and though they say "you can also use your Blogger identity," there doesn't seem to be anything allowing me to do so. So I did sign up for a Google account, which should--I would think?--be redundant. And does switching to Beta clear this issue up?

Second: this became an issue when I decided to add some new links. I got an email from my old friend Susan, who's a diplomat working in Egypt, in which she included a Flickr photo album. So I thought, hey, let's add that to the friends' list. No worries there.

I'd also noticed recently that Passionate Rationality, the blog of former UWO media student Dallas Curow, has me listed under the links. Now, I only know Dallas by reputation (a pretty stellar reputation, it must be said), never having met her (I don't think) or had her in any of my classes at Western, but she is part of a network of former students whose blogs I have listed here ... and has also been munificent enough to take the troubled Brian Fauteux (Rants, Rock, and Reason) under her wing. In spite of not knowing her personally, I've linked to her rather splendid blog -- check out the photography! -- in the "friends" section, largely because it would be weird to have a whole new section titled "Western Media Students I Never Met or Taught But Who Are Dating a Student I Have Taught, and Whom I Know By Reputation," and then have poor lonely Dallas as the only one listed.

ANYWAY ... I attempted to say as much in the comments on her blog yesterday, which is when I discovered what I now believe to be the Beta issue when my comments wouldn't stick.

I've also added another former student, Jennifer Wilhelm, who after a year's hiatus seems to be having a go at something approaching regular entries on her blog. Keep it up, Jennie -- don't make me put Stephen Colbert put you on notice ...

Third: I've added a new category that I hope will grow, one dedicated to MUN bloggers. At present there are only four blogs listed, two by English grad students I know, and two by people I haven't met (I believe). I will add to this list as I learn of more blogs.

OK, time to get myself ready to head home. The next blog entry you read will be posted from the parents' study. Slainte!

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

The ghost of hair past

So it must be approaching Christmas -- I've been wandering around alternating between humming "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch" and trying to get Band-Aid's "Do They Know It's Christmas?" out of my head. The latter was on the radio the other morning, and got lodged in my subconscious rather firmly ... so I finally caved and called it up on YouTube when it occurred to me that I hadn't seen the video in ages.

My god, was my thought as I watched it, the hair! Or as Mr. Kurtz might have said, "the hairror ... the hairror ..." This is why I watch the return of 80s fashion with dismay. I can deal with the skinny jeans thing and the various other little trends that have resurfaced, but if we ever go back to having that kind of hair as fashionable, shoot me now. No wonder we suffered an ozone crisis back then ... with the sheer volumes of aerosol hairspray needed to maintain some of those do's, I'm surprised we didn't all asphyxiate on the particulate matter in the air.

Even Sting manages to have bad hair, though his not-quite-a-pageboy cut is infinitely better than Bono's mullet. Yeah, that's right there Mr. Hewson, you better wear that hat in the second half of the video. Please, hide your shame.

I was reminded, on searching for this video, that the song was redone in 2004 under the modified ensemble name "Band Aid 20," with an updated cast of characters, like Chris Martin, Dido and Robbie Williams (though Bono insisted that he get to sing his line from the original, even though they'd already recorded Justin Hawkins singing it). Though the hair in this one is much better on the whole, it lacks the power of the original ... and I kinda cringed at the sequence in the video where all the singers stand around in tearful silence and watch a b&w video of starving African children. That I found somewhat overdone, largely due to the fact that I couldn't help imagining the director haranguing them to "come on, look sadder."

Anyway, here's the remake.

Monday, December 11, 2006

"... and all the exams were tied neatly with a bow ..."

If I had more of a penchant for doggerel, right around now I would probably be compelled to compose a ballad a la The Night Before Christmas along the theme of finishing my grading for the term and the general pre-Christmas feel here in the groves of academe.

And we should all breathe a sigh of relief that I am not, in fact, so poetically inclined.

But that being said, I can say with a massive sigh of relief that I am DONE for the semester. I just submitted all my final grades for my twentieth-century novel course, having spent yesterday and today ploughing through the exams that were written on Saturday evening.

Saturday exams? Evil. Saturday evening exams? Doubly so. But then, that particular timing does have the advantage of being ideal for a post-exam outing. Thus, I and a not-inconsiderable portion of my American novel students ventured down to the Duke of Duckworth for some well-earned pints.

For all the relief of being finished, I'm a bit sad ... I had two amazing groups of students this semester, and teaching was genuinely a joy. I never had the feeling I get for a few days once a term, usually toward the end, in which the thought of dragging myself into the classroom makes me feel like Sisyphus. Didn't happen this semester. Which has me worrying a bit about the other shoe dropping next turn.

As I sat here, getting toward the bottom of the stack of exams, I engaged in one of my favorite Christmas traditions, which is to listen to Dylan Thomas reading "A Child's Christmas in Wales." Given that I blogged at length about the Divine Dylan last year, I won't chew over any of my favourite phrases and locutions ... but I found the story provided an ideal backdrop for the last stage of my teaching duties this term, and the beautiful rich rolling Welsh accents putting me in in the perfect headspace to break for Christmas.

Perhaps tonight I shall watch How The Grinch Stole Christmas ...

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Today's weather in backwards-world

Well, Al Gore did warn us that global warming could have the effect of visiting the extreme weather that is de rigeur in one part of the world on other locations.

Case in point: Laura, in London, sent me this picture yesterday. Isn't that supposed to be the image broadcast from St. John's to the rest of the country? Possibly the weather gods got a memo mixed up ...

Friday, December 08, 2006

"An Ontarian in Newfoundland": the Coles Notes

So, apropos of the weird using-this-blog-to-see-if-I'm-a-prof-you'd-want-to-take-a-class-with phenomenon, I thought I might try to make the process more expedient for people currently wading through old posts on my cat, the St. John's landscape, politics, books, etc. etc. by offering some representative entries.

Because I figured, well, this blog can sometimes be a bit schizoid. It has no theme ... it's principally what's in my head when I write a post. Which could get confusing if you're trying to figure out what I'd be like in the classroom.

Really, you're probably better off asking former students. Especially the one who said, on that "He's self-centered and arrogant and that's on the best of days." (I normally wouldn't suggest you use that individual as your resource, but then I write this post in the middle of marking papers, and it's at times like this that I think wistfully of low enrolments).

So here's the breakdown: in no particular order, posts that feature:

Me being pretentious 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
Narcissism 1 2 3
Humour 1 2 3 4 5
My cat 1 2 3
My niece 1 2 3 4
Controversy 1 2 3 4
Food 1 2 3
My impressions of Newfoundland 1 2 3 4 5
Other students' impressions of me 1

I hope that helps. I also had a category for "excessive verbiage," but really that's almost as plentiful as the pretentiousness ... and, oddly enough, has a lot of overlap.

Thursday, December 07, 2006


So I've been told by more than one person that some prospective students have been checking out this blog by way of figuring out whether they want to take a class with me next semester.

Which makes me wonder: which way does the blog make them decide?

Which makes me further wonder: would I want to take a course with the author of this blog?

Honestly, I couldn't tell you -- though it might account for the slow but steady increase in my readership over the last month or so.

In what has turned out to be yet another way to distract myself from work, I signed up to SiteMeter at the end of last August, which gives me a breakdown of hourly, daily, weekly, monthly and yearly visits; sites linking to my blog from which some visitors came; their locations; and even a world map dotted with my readers. And every week SiteMeter emails me a breakdown of site traffic over the course of the previous seven days.

It is really too cool.

So here's this week's traffic so far:

So we topped out here on Monday with not quite 130 visits*; although the trends are by no means steady, I do seem to get Monday spikes -- everyone slowly getting into the work day, presumably, surfing the net in preparation for settling into whatever the new week brings.

This constitutes a new high, by the bye ... I haven't yet broken 130 visits in a day, but I've been steadily working up to it, as the monthly chart shows:

I like this. It's like my own personal Dow Jones. My yearly numbers haven't had much chance to do anything interesting -- again, I've only been on this since August -- but still! look at that steady increase ... up over 400 since September.**

Even more entertaining than the charts are the breakdowns giving the locations of visitors. While I have a predictably overwhelming Canadian contingent, with a healthy number of American hits ... and then a weird grab-bag that has run from Switzerland, Indonesia, Korea, Brazil, Britain, New Zealand ... It's always interesting to see which far-flung corner of the globe has found its way to my humble little blog.

And even more interesting is the information page for each visitor (don't worry, it's anonymous), which indicates which page they came from to get here, if the referring page is linked. So sometimes I see the URLs of other blogs that link to mine (usually the Newfoundland BlogRoll), but most frequently I see what Google searches turn my site up. Often, it has to do with various searches about Newfoundland generally, though there have been a few "running music" and various "reading" searches.

HOWEVER ... the most common Google search that brings people to my blog? I shit you not: "pickled weiners."


*Though it should be said that, as I use my own blog as a portal to other sites I visit frequently, a significant number of those visits are probably me.
**Which, again, might simply represent an increase in my own procrastination.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Ten things that are less enjoyable than grading papers

1. Being lost in a mall at Christmas while the muzak has "My Heart Will Go On" stuck on repeat.

2. Listening to a morning drive-time DJ sing topical parodies of "Achy-Breaky Heart."

3. The coffee from the Science Building cafe I am currently drinking.

4. Being lectured for a half hour by marketing types about "brand loyalty."

5. Nickelback.

6. Watching Bill O'Reilly win an argument with someone (doesn't happen often).

7. Reading German philosophy.

8. Bathing my eyes in a solution of Ajax and pork drippings (though this one is really sort of borderline)

9. Writing a blog entry as a means a avoiding grading papers and realizing you've almost reached the end of your proscribed list.

10. Grading exams.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

The rumours you heard were true ...

Newfoundland has the bomb!

So watch it there, Harper.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Painted into a corner

It occurs to me as I reread my last post that my words could be taken as somewhat disparaging ... or rather, that I was making a blanket commentary in which I sneered at non-academic responses to academic presentations. Hopefully, it was not taken as such: as I said, one of the things I love about public lectures is, very specifically, the fact that non-academic responses tend to keep us -- or me, at any rate -- on my toes because they don't get couched in obfuscatory academese.

Anyway, I come back to this because the question that I did make some fun of has ended up being somewhat haunting, largely because I've been following the arguments and debates following the election of the Democratic House and Senate. I don't envy those guys. They were elected principally because of the general disgust with the increasingly egregious errors made by the Bush Administration, and the arrogance with which those errors were made. They face a multi-trillion dollar debt,* and a war that has become a no-win situation. What's the answer? The Democrats won't have one, for two very simple reasons: (1) any action of any decisiveness will be hamstrung by their own divisiveness, their own lack of vision, a recalcitrant White House, and a hostile and vindictive media, and (2) there is no answer ... at least none that is palatable.

When history writes the book on George W. Bush and company, I sincerely hope that they are damned for painting the country into an impossible corner. Personally, I think the most sensible thing is immediate withdrawal from Iraq. It would be catastrophic, but not as catastrophic, I think, as tends to be portrayed. One has to wonder: how much worse can it get there? Of course, the answer to that is entirely dependent on the degree to which the American presence is a deterrent or a catalyst ... not something

Of course, this is a moot point. Sooner or later, the stream of flag-draped coffins coming home will pass a tipping-point (if it hasn't already), and withdrawal will be a political imperative. But that, I think, in spite of the weight of opinion now against the war, will be later rather than sooner. Even as opinion shifts, the memory of the Fall of Saigon and the twenty-year stigma of having "lost" in Vietnam must be in the front of politicians' minds. Simply abandoning Iraq altogether would seem too much like being chased out by a rabble of insurgents.

More significantly, there's the simple humanity question: having made this mess, it is the United States' responsibility to fix it. But again, how? Staying longer means more American deaths, more Arab resentment of the American presence, and more possibility (indeed probability) of Abu-Gharib style debacles. Immediate withdrawal means total descent into civil war, the probable ascension of a militant theocracy (in at least parts of the country), and the creation of an Afghanistan-style terrorism enclave.

All of these are just possibilities, of course. The point is that we are now officially in a lose-lose situation, which has been dropped in the lap of the new Congress and will be similarly left to whoever occupies the Oval Office in two years time. I can't imagine that the new Congress will do anything more than proceed by way of baby steps, which is already in some circles being portrayed as a vindication of the Bush Administration's policies. Whatever happens from here on in will prove disastrous in one way or another, and what drives me up one wall and down the other is the near-certainty that the people actually trying to solve these problems will be blamed. It needs to be remembered that we were brought to this point by a small number of people whose arrogance, inflexibility and willful blindness brooked no dissent and dismissed contrary views as anti-American.

I don't envy the new Congress; I don't envy whoever next occupies the Oval Office; and I don't envy Americans generally. The wisdom of Solomon would be insufficient for the current situation.


*from America's inception up to 2000, 42 presidents borrowed a combined total of $1.01 trillion from foreign governments. From 2001-2005, the Bush government borrowed $1.05 trillion.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

The academic's guide to surviving question periods

Hey, it's December. When did that happen?

It's December, and as if to drive the point home, they're calling today for freezing rain and then later on, snow. I knew this was worrisome when I woke to the sound of one of my neighbours scraping ice from their windshield underneath my window. Fortunately, I don't have to go anywhere today ...

Classes ended yesterday, thus bringing to an end my second first semester here at MUN. Amazing the difference a year makes. I was rather surprised last year how at sea I felt, how hard it was to adapt to a new academic and scholastic environment, and -- in spite of the fact that I'd had four years of teaching under my belt, not counting my four years before that as a TA -- how much I felt like a neophyte in the classroom.

I've still got a ways to go, but the difference this term was palpable ... though I have to credit a significant part of the easier time I had this go around to the fact that I was blessed with a really good group of students. My 20th-century American novel course was one of the most enjoyable classes I've ever taught -- and I'm not just saying that because I know some of my students now read this blog (see how sucking up can work both ways, guys? though my timing is is bad ... I should have made outrageously flattering comments before course evals).

It's been a while since my last entry, so I should do a post-lecture round-up. First of all, I am pleased to say that it was standing-room only at the Ship ... not that it takes many people to fill the place. It's not a particularly large pub. But still: "standing-room only." I like the sounds of that. AND I was told that this was one of the best-attended lectures in recent memory. Though I suppose if you put an image of the World Trade Center on your advertising, you'll get a lot of people coming out to see what you have to say ...

Also, it was videotaped for ... well, I'm not sure what for. Posterity, I guess. That in and of itself isn't so much of a concern for me, though it did freak me out immediately before when I had my obligatory sense of impending doom and academic catastrophe. The thought of having a record of my shame and stupidity was a bit daunting. But beyond that, and more immediately a concern at the time, was the fact that in order to be seen on the video, I had to be lit with the stagelights ... the effect of which was that I could not see my audience. At all. Which is a problem, given that I like to be able to gauge how I'm doing in a lecture situation by audience reaction, which isn't always vocal enough for me to rely on hearing alone.

But all that being said, the lecture was well received, and we have what can only be termed a lively question period. And if you've never been to a public lecture -- and more significantly, if you're an academic and you've never delivered one -- it is an interesting experience. I've done one in the past, as part of the London Public Library's Media Literacy Series, back before getting that PhD thing. I lectured then on conspiracy theory; and if there was ever a topic to bring the wingnuts out of the woodwork, that was it.

The thing is, when you present a lecture or a paper to an academic audience, there is a kind of unspoken etiquette to the questions ... though etiquette is the wrong word, because it's not necessarily about being polite. I don't know the right word, though "verbal dance" might come closest. What I mean is this: even when you have an antagonistic questioner, someone really out to attack you, it's almost invariably couched in academese (the official language of pretension and pomposity). So the antagonistic questioner's attack might begin with this: "Well, this is obviously a very important issue and deserves serious inquiry [suggesting that your talk has not accomplished this], but I think you've misstated one of the key points here, and I have to take exception to your reading of X ..."

So even as you see that you're about to get tagged, the preamble gives you a chance to steel yourself and think of responses that don't include "Bite me!" or "Fuck off!" Though let me tell you, sometimes the temptation to say just that is overwhelming ...

Variations on the annoying question: "Well this is interesting, but what does it have to do with MY specialty?" (e.g. "This paper on the geopolitical impact of globalization is interesting, but how does it address the history of the book?"); the twenty-minute ramble, which is exactly what it sounds like: i.e. the questioner goes on and on and on, finally trailing off with a lame question like "So what do you think of that?" (my favourite response to one of those was by Judith Butler, who had just delivered a keynote at a conference at UWO -- when her interlocutor finally trailed off, she stepped away from the lectern and very pointedly gestured at it, inviting him to come down and deliver the lecture); and of course, the question that is not a question.

All of these have stock responses one can give, most frequently "Well, I hadn't thought about it that way ... would you like to talk a bit more about what you mean?" Which almost always works, since most obnoxious questioners really just want a chance to grandstand.

So public lectures can be a bit dislocating -- but also, I believe, invaluable to academics as a way of keeping yourself honest and not getting entirely lost in the scholarly echo-chamber -- because the questions you get from non-academics (a) have none of the verbal dance we insulate ourselves with, and (b) often come entirely from left-field. Which can be in equal measures humbling, educational, aggravating, and amusing.

Case in point, from my conspiracy theory lecture: the questioning gambit I now think of as the "What about Gandhi?" question. Having talked at some length about Kennedy's assassination and its role in the American consciousness (a topic I returned to, incidentally, in the Ship lecture), I was grilled rather mercilessly by a woman about various other assassinations that had not had conspiracy theories spring up around them, and why this was the case. Now, keeping in mind that I was being asked about incidences I had broad but not specific knowledge of (for example, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand), I could not speak with much detail, and made a point of saying so. Unsatisfied with my answers, she would cut me off and ask me about the next assassination she had in mind, finally culminating in a somewhat angry and disdainful, "Well, what about Gandhi?" To which I responded with some exasperation, "What about Gandhi?", which I think angered her further. Fortunately, I was then rescued by another questioner ...

This past Tuesday, I must say, the question period was very enjoyable. Tough, but enjoyable -- I had a couple of very sharp and pointed questions that cut right to the heart of my discussion and addressed some of the gaps in my argument (some I was aware of, some not). Which, though it puts you on the spot, is exactly the kind of thing you look for when working through ideas.

The "What about Gandhi?" question this time around was asked by a woman who prefaced herself with a preamble about the state of the world and America's role in it -- the war in Iraq, the excesses of American imperialism, etc etc. The question she came to was "So what's the answer?"

And she wouldn't let it go! I said, quite frankly, that I am in no way qualified to give an answer to the world's problems, but she persisted with it for some time, until I finally said something trite about public discussions like this being a start.

You know how, an hour after something like that you come up with the perfect answer? I now wish I'd said, "Ma'am, if I had that answer, I wouldn't be a junior English professor at MUN ... I'd be Jesus. And frankly, I don't want that gig, seeing as how the retirement package is kind of rough."

Sigh. If I had a time machine, I'd be wittier than Oscar Wilde.

Friday, November 24, 2006

My poster and my press release

So, I get a press release! And a very cool poster, as shown above. This is very exciting. And a little terrifying, considering I still have half the lecture still to write.

Here's the PSA:

The end of history on tap at the Ship

On Tuesday evening, patrons of the Ship Pub can engage in a discussion about the end of history when Dr. Christopher Lockett presents “History's Better Angels: American Exceptionalism at the End.”

“I’m going to talk about the end of history and the way that relates to American culture,” the English professor explains. “My general argument is that American Exceptionalism—the school of thought that America is the exceptional nation, the indispensable nation—is deeply invested in the concept of history’s end.”

The concept is rooted in two opposing notions. The first, which dates back to the Puritan settlement of America and finds its base today with the religious right, is apocalyptic. “The Puritans viewed the new continent as a battleground for Armageddon,” Dr. Lockett says. “Certain sectors of the religious right still firmly believe this, that America is God’s ultimate weapon in the endgame with Satan.”

The opposing view is utopian, and supposes that history is a cumulative process that eventually arrives at its ultimate or perfect form. This isn’t a new idea, Dr. Lockett notes. The very idea that history is linear and progressive suggests an end-point. Philosophers from Hegel and Marx to such contemporary neo-conservatives like Francis Fukuyama have envisioned an acme of humanity’s social evolution.

“There’s this idea, advanced most recently by Fukuyama in The End of History and the Last Man (1992) that American-style liberal democracy is the natural end point for human development,” Dr. Lockett contends. “The flaw in this brand of exceptionalism is that if the entire world does adopt the American model, then America ceases to be exceptional.”

The question he finds most interesting, however, is the anxiety that arises over what happens at if this ending point is achieved. “There is a deep ambivalence in the writings about this, largely because of the sense that conflict and challenge leads to progress. What kind of world arises then in the absence of such difficulties?”

Dr. Lockett’s talk will employ American novelist Don DeLillo’s book Underworld (1997), which he calls a “fairly comprehensive critique of this concept,” and Walter Benjamin's figuration of "messianic time," as alternative modes of thinking these forms of history.
Lockett’s exploration of History's Better Angels gets underway at The Ship on Duckworth Street, St. John’s, at 8:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 28. Following his remarks, open discussion will be invited.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

The Deadwood

The goatee goes in cycles, the longest of which was effectively all of last year. But sometimes it only lasts two or three weeks before I lose it.

One of the fun things about the process is that after I shave it, catching a glimpse of my reflection is kind of a novelty for a little while -- and the longer I had it on, the longer my newly naked face is a source of pleasant surprise.

The last hairwatch instalment (which will in fact be the last), I commented on my scruffiness and that I'd be losing it soon. Well, that turned into a lie -- as my pic from the Pratt Lecture night revealed (because I know that everyone is so fascinated with my facial hair that you tune in every day for an update, and inconsistencies in my posts spawn all sorts of commentaries. Hey, bear with me ... what else is a blog if not a digital forum for self-obsession? These are things I think about ....). As it turns out, I was just lazy. Sometimes I let the damn thing grow for the simple reason that I hate shaving my upper lip.

ANYWAY ... I figured this time I'd shave it off in stages. And so for your viewing pleasure, I give you the look I like to call "the Deadwood":

All I need now is a hat. Hey, come to think of it:

All right, it's not exactly the OK Corral or anything ... actually a whole lot more noir than Eastwood (which is, in fact, a major plus). But yes, this is my new hat, which has had me making a list over the last couple of days.


1. Keep my head dry.

2. Greet people by touching my fingertips to the brim.

3. Really get my Indiana Jones impersonation off the ground.

4. Talk with dames.

5. Look at people menacingly from under the brim.

6. Lurk under misty streetlights with style.

7. Engage in witty, colloquialism-strewn repartee with saucy cabbies.

8. Look really suave behind the desk of a backstreet office, with slatted shadows from the venetian blinds fretting my still, poised form.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Pratt Lecture 2006

It occurs to me that I haven't been the best documenter of things here of late ... In particular, I've never posted pictures of any of my friends and colleagues, or for that matter of much to do with work or play here in town. Well, here's a fusion of the two: work AND play, in the form of the 2006 Pratt* Lecture. As a member of the organizing committee, I was very pleased at it's success this year.

This annual lecture, sponsored by the English Department, features a prominent artist, writer or scholar; past lectures have been delivered by Ursula Le Guin, Linda Hutcheon, Seamus Heaney, Northrop Frye, David Lodge, Stan Dragland (to name a few). This year, we were fortunate enough to have Susan Gingell, a scholar of Canadian poetry and poetics at the University of Saskatchewan, who last night delivered a wonderful lecture titled "Towards a Poetics of Noise: Writing the Oral in the Canadian Context."

First the lecture, then the reception, and then the obligatory migration to the Duke of Duckworth for pints. Very very fun night.

First pictured: my friend and colleague Andrew Loman (19th Century American Lit), also on the committee, given the task of being the AV geek for Susan's powerpoint.

Susan at the lectern.
At the reception: Nancy Pedri (Lit Theory, World Lit), Don Nichol (18th Century, Textual Crit), and Don's wife Mary Walsh. Yes, THE Mary Walsh, Marg Delahunty herself of This Hour Has 22 Minutes fame.
I somehow managed to cajole some of my students** into coming to the lecture. Below, Rebecca, Rex and Jonny.
Duncan, Alana, Jill, Lauren, and Alex.
The woman of the hour, Dr. Susan Gingell, and my good friend Danine Farquharson (Contemporary Irish Lit, Lit Theory).
I'm with Stupid. Andrew and I are the Batman and Robin of American Literature in this department. Guess who's Robin? (Hint: I'm pointing at him).

Wow, that is a bad picture of me.

Nancy again with the incomparable Noreen Golfman (Canadian Lit, Film Studies ... oh, and in her spare time she's the Associate Dean of Graduate Studies).

*A NOTE FOR MAINLANDERS: The Pratt Family is Newfoundland's most accomplished and distinguished clan of artists, writers, and general raconteurs. E.J. Pratt (for whom the lecture is named) was a highly-regarded poet (they named a library after him at U of T); Christopher Pratt is a remarkable painter, whose works many consider cold and clinical, but I am quite taken with them.

**To clarify: Rex, Alana, and Alex are not my students, but friends of my students who apparently have an interest in the aesthetics of noise or the oral tradition. This means it's very likely I'm spelling Alana's name incorrectly (sorry). Though she and Alex did ask me what I was teaching next semester, I suspect they were just being polite.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

The November lull

I seem to recall that it was about this time last year that I let my blog lag for a week and a bit ... something about November, perhaps. My apologies to my loyal readers for this unexpected hiatus, though I'm not nearly as delinquent as some people I could mention.

Not that my life has been exceptionally exciting this past week. The highlights are as follows:

1. I have a new hat. Having learned the hard way that unmbrellas are pretty much useless here because of the wind, and needing something to keep the frequent rain off my head, I opted for an Outback-style oilskin fedora that matches my Outback-style oilskin coat. I'm inordinately excited about this purchase, principally because I have at long last found a hat that looks good on me. It's one of the benefits of getting older, I think -- this same hat would have looked ridiculous on me ten years ago. I'm thinking of it as my Carlsberg years hat.

2. I'm delivering a public lecture in a week and a half or so, the writing of which has been preoccupying me the last few days. It's under the auspices of the Philosophy Department, and takes place at the Ship Inn Pub downtown. You've gotta love a lecture series that takes place at a pub. My talk is titled "History's Better Angels: American Exceptionalism at the End," which is deliberately vague because I'm still in the process of working out precisely what I want to say.

3. I have decided I need to buy a dictaphone. I was interviewed for the campus newspaper yesterday about the public lecture, and where I have been banging my head against the wall trying to articulate on paper my argument, I provided my interviewer with a lucid and succinct summary of the gist of my talk. I was tempted to ask her for a transcription of what I said. The thing is, this happens with distressing frequency: I'm having a hell of a time getting something written, then say exactly what it is I was to say in casual conversation. Of course, I then don't remember precisely what I said. So I'm thinking a dictaphone is in order.

4. My friends Nancy and Marco had a great party on Saturday night, with a spread of food to die for and lots and lots and lots of wine. I don't remember much about it.

5. As part of my research for this lecture, I've been reading a lot of Hegel, which is not something I recommend unless you happen to (1) need a reason to drink, (2) love circuitously written abstractions on dialectics, history and the Absolute Spirit, (3) are determined to understand the origins of our unspoken assumption that history is linear and naturally progressive, or (4) are masochistic.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

I take it back ...

... THIS is the most beautiful headline I have seen in months.

Now, not to quibble, but it's not as beautiful as "Rumsfeld Torn to Pieces by Pack of Wild Dogs," or "Rumsfeld Accidentally Sucked Out of Toilet Hole on Air Force One," or even "Rumsfeld and K-Fed Beat Each Other to Death with Shovels in Ultimate Fighter Championship Cage Match" ...

But it's still pretty sweet. Time for the Dance of Joy Redux.

As we all breathe a massive sigh of relief

Well, thank god. I jumped (well, sort of fell and crawled, really) out of bed this morning and turned on the computer, and there was one of the most beautiful headlines I have seen in months.

Democrats take back the House. The Senate still might break left (though from the looks of things, the recounts and legal wrangling that seem inevitable will probably have this thing tied up for a few weeks still), and SIX, count 'em, SIX (that's 6, sechs, seises, sei) gubernatorial races went to Dems, including Ohio and Pennsylvania.

I'm so happy I could spit. Or do the dance of joy. Now let's just pray that the Democrats are not in fact as balls-less as everyone seems to think they are.

And on this occasion -- Numfar does the Dance of Joy for the midterm election results:

Friday, November 03, 2006

Of interest

Here's a really interesting article I found in Rolling Stone online detailing the overwhelming consensus among presidential historians naming George W. Bush as the worst president in history. And an article titled "All Hat, No Cattle" written in 1999 detailing in very precise terms why he was nowhere near qualified for the presidency. As they say, it's not as if we weren't warned (not that I could have voted on the matter or anything) ...

Also: the video for "The Saints are Coming," the Skids' song covered by U2 and Green Day for Katrina relief. Kind of portrays an interesting alternative history, doesn't it?

And since Bianca recognized my Family Ties reference in my subtitle, I'll keep it for one more post.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

An inadvertent truth

What John Kerry was supposed to say: "Do you know where you end up if you don’t study, if you aren’t smart, if you’re intellectually lazy? You end up getting us stuck in a war in Iraq. Just ask President Bush."

What he said: "You know, education, if you make the most of it, you study hard, you do your homework and you make an effort to be smart, you can do well. If you don’t, you get stuck in Iraq."

Poor John Kerry. He committed the biggest sin a politician can commit: he spoke the truth. And what's worse, he did it accidentally.

The shitstorm of condemnation from the American right, the punditocracy and the West Wing itself are doing a very good job of blustering and posturing and condemning Kerry's remarks as destructive and demoralizing and calling on all proper Americans to support the troops and their sacrifice. If only the Bush Administration would support the troops with more than rhetoric, it might have a leg to stand on here.

In some ways I imagine I should be grateful to Bush & co. for their spectacular vindication of my career choice: to listen to them, you'd think that not only is the pen mightier than the sword, but that words in and of themselves possess more power than bombs and bullets. Anyone criticizing the war, challenging its premise, calling for withdrawal, etc etc is putting the troops in danger; anyone calling for Rumsfeld's resignation erodes the fighting spirit of the men on the ground; anyone exercising first-amendment rights in anything less than a full-throated endorsement of the war effort gives heart to the terrorists and hamstrings the individual soldier (I'm waiting for Rumsfeld to produce the precise calculus: telling a joke about Bush = a kidnapping; demanding a schedule for withdrawal = an ambushed convoy in Tikrit; espousing liberal values = a spate of car bombings; and so on ...).

You know, I'm an English professor, and I had no idea that mere words had such immediate and concrete consequences. I'm so naive. Here I was imagining that things like proper body and vehicle armour, troop levels that concur with the recommendations of all the experts, and a coherent war plan that took local history and contexts into consideration might do more to protect the soldiers on the ground, and that not cutting their pay and veteran benifits would be good morale boosters. But then, I'm a milquetoast liberal university elite (with the collection of wine bottles to prove it), and don't know from military tactics.

So I shudder to think of where John Kerry's "botched joke," falls on the harm-to-the-troops scale of unguarded speech ... I suppose we'll be hearing soon of Baghdad blowing up and Osama bin Ladin being named as the new U.N. Secretary General. So it goes.

Especially, as I've said, because he's uttered a truth, one that flies in the dearly-held image of the U.S. military as being exclusively populated by committed, competent, elite units. This of course couldn't be further from the truth: with as massive an armed forces as the U.S. has, it can take all comers -- and what standards of intelligence, psychological stability and physical ability have traditionally been in place have been steadily eroded since the Iraq war began in 2003.

The most pervasive representation of the American soldier used to be the dogface G.I., the grunt who spent as much time peeling potatoes as firing a gun. Somewhere along the line that innocuous private was eclipsed by the uber-soldier, be he a Navy Seal or a Delta Force Commando, and the vast majority of our cinematic wars in the last twenty years have been fought by elite warriors bearing advanced weapons in small squads, taking on massive numbers of an undifferentiated enemy. The troubling truth of enlistment isn't so much that 99% of those signing up won't ever go near a Seal training facility or pilot an F-15, but that enlistment is a last resort for so many recruits escaping grinding poverty with no other prospects for employment besides an Army uniform.

And in the need for greater numbers to shore up the current war effort, recruiters, to quote the article I link to above, "are now being authorized to pursue high-school dropouts and (not to mince words) stupid people." Standards for education and intelligence are now at their lowest level since the Vietnam war. Which is kind of terrifying when you consider that that kid you know in high school who flunked Grade Nine three times and had a predeliction for setting his neighbours' pets on fire is being given an M-16 and a belt of grenades.

So Kerry tells an inadvertent truth: without education, without prospects, young Americans could well find themselves fighting a war whose principal architect has himself little regard for the benefits of an education. The blind leading the blank.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006


Morgan's second halloween ...

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Hairwatch: day 61, plus Halloween meditations

I have to say, now that the patchy bits above my temples are getting less obvious, I'm liking the do right now -- and I've gotten enough compliments to make me overcome the lingering misgivings. We might be keeping it at this length for a while.

(And for those who are concerned about such things, no, I am not growing back the goatee -- I just need a shave.)

Happy Halloween, all ... driving home from campus tonight I passed the hordes of wee ghouls and goblins out looking for candy. It was raining and cold, and yet there they were -- and so today's Non Sequitur cartoon seemed apt for the climate and context in which I live:

See, this is how I know that I've irrevocably reached adulthood -- steamed clams and lobster claws would be quite welcome in my Halloween loot bag. Though I might find myself complaining "Where are the damned mussels, lady?"

(On the same lines, I stopped at the liquor store on the way home to grab a bottle of wine and was suffused with the desire to walk up to the clerk and shout "Trick or treat!" with an empty plastic bag outstretched ... if that didn't get me arrested in and of itself, when I returned with the moral obligation to toilet-paper the store ... well, I've never seen a Newfoundland SWAT team in action, and don't really care to).

Unfortunately, I did not myself dress up this year -- which makes it now four years since I've done the costume thing. This must change! I miss dressing up ... and one day, I swear it, I will in fact emerge on Halloween night dressed as Postmodernism Man -- fighting for schizophrenia, pastiche, and incredulity to metanarratives everywhere!

I just have to figure out what that would look like, and it's all good.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

On notice!

That's it. I'm mad as hell and I'm just not going to take it anymore!

On notice:

Oh, and please join me on the bandwagon:

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Old friends

Looking back now, I think it was at the leading edge of the SSHRC stress that I found myself without any new reading material. I had all my stuff that I needed to read for teaching, all the stuff that I was feverishly working through for the research proposal, but I suddenly found myself sans bedtime reading that was unrelated to both. Sometime immediately prior to when the grant-writing started to take over my life I read The Nine Planets by Edward Riche, a gift from my friend and colleague Danine and a brilliant little satire on the political/literary scene here in St. John's (and only my second genuine sampling of Newfoundland Lit -- I really have to get on that at some point) ... but after that I had no book waiting for me. And as the SSHRC ridiculousness grew, I became really quite frantic for some reading that would take me away from all that.

So I did what I frequently do, which is to grab some old standbys off the shelf and sit them on my night table -- because what I was really looking for was something to read in the half hour or so before I fall asleep.

My first grab was one of my favourite books by one of my favourite SF writers -- The Kraken Wakes, by John Wyndham. That's a name everyone will probably know from grade 9 English: The Chrysalids, anyone? But work past the instinctive high school anti-nostalgia there. Wyndham doesn't get nearly the credit he deserves, to a large extent (I do believe) because we all have to suffer through The Chrysalids in grade 9. But really, give the man a chance. The Chrysalids, when you get down to it, is a pretty decent book. The Day of the Triffids is even betters, and The Midwich Cuckoos is downright creepy. And for those arachniphobes, try out Web: a story about a group of people attempting to found a utopian society on a deserted South Sea island, only to discover that it is ruled by a species of spider that hunts in packs.

But to my mind, the best of the lot is The Kraken Wakes. This is the story of an alien invasion ... an alien species that comes from a planet with (we assume) a masively higher atmospheric pressure than ours. So they colonize the Deeps -- the deepest parts of our oceans, and then slowly assert their dominance over two-thirds of the Earth's surface. It took me years to find a used copy of this novel, because it was out of print. No longer -- when in TO over Thanksgiving, I wandered into The World's Biggest Bookstore, and found that it has be re-issued. Read it. A great dystopian yarn.

But, as with all JohnWyndham's novels, it is not that long, and I soon needed to find more bedtime reading. So I have been returning to one of my favourite crafters of historical fiction, Bernard Cornwell. You might know him as the creator of the "Sharpe" novels -- a series of stories set in the Penninsular War that follow the adventures of one Richard Sharpe, a British officer promoted from the ranks by none other than the Duke of Wellington himself.

Cornwell is a master of retelling military history in fictional form. Sharpe's tales take us from the Battle of Talevera to Waterloo and, while somewhat formulaic, are always entertaining and educational.

Alas, though I once owned most of this series, most of them have been loaned or given away. I did still possess two titles however, and they were distracting for a few days. Meanwhile, I have ordered the BBC film verions over, and have been watching those -- some pretty cool made-for-TV movies starring the incomparable Sean Bean as Sharpe (muskets, villainous French, silly hats -- what's not to like?).

My sole two Sharpe novels dispensed with, I stayed with Cornwell, whose ability to produce prolific historical novels of some quality makes me hate him. The Sharpe novels were just his first sally into fiction -- he has also written a four-book series set in the American Civil War, a novel about Stonehenge, a trilogy about an English longbowman during the Hundred Years War, a still ongoing series about the Viking raids on the British coast, and -- my favourites -- a trilogy of novels about King Arthur.

This is what I am now working (or re-working) through. Collected under the moniker "The Warlord Chronicles," the novels The Winter King, Enemy of God, and Excalibur re-imagine the Arthurian legends from a rigorously historical perspective. Granting the premise that there was a British leader named Arthur in the fifth century, Cornwell tries to imagine what he might have been like. The Romans have been gone from Britain for several decades: they leave behind their roads, villas, and forts, but the technology they used to build them is a mystery to the British; Christians infest the landscape, trying to shoulder out the British gods; the remnants of the Druidic orders, Merlin among them, fight to re-establish the old religion and reconnect with the old gods; and the Saxons increasingly encroach on British territory, invading from the east. Arthur is the last, best hope: not a king or even a knight, but a warlord whose dream of a peaceful, united Britain flies in the face of the invading Saxons, the internecine rivalries of the British tribes, and Merlin's own vision of a Britain given back to the old gods.

I remembered some time after delving again into The Winter King the pleasure of revisiting well-trodden books. Old friends.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Friendly plugs

Two shout-outs to some of my London peoples today. First, a great big over-the-internet hug to Jo Devereux, who recently sent me all the publicity material for Mrs. Warren's Profession, this november's Big Show for UWO's English Department ... which Jo of course happens to be directing.

Brave woman. I directed a play by George Bernard Shaw once, and barely lived to tell the tale. Mind you, I do sort of blame Jo for that. I wanted her to play Lady Britomart in Major Barbara, but she was "too busy." Please.

So, for all those of you back in London, go see Mrs. Warren's Profession. As far as Shaw goes, it's far less wordy and onerous than most of his plays. It's the story of an unrepetent prostitute and madam (Mrs. Warren) who uses her considerable wealth from the world's oldest profession to send her daughter to school and essentially buy her a respectable middle-class life. And of course in Shaw's hands, it's a lively and very funny dialogue about wealth, morality and capital.

Also, Jo will do a great job with it. It's running at Talbot Theatre on campus from Oct. 27-28 and Nov. 2-4, 8pm, tickets $10 at the door.

In other news, I got an email the other day from Mulligan letting me know he has joined the blogosphere with a site he calls Three Leaves Falling -- a name whose significance I have yet to glean. Apparently it's the handle with which he comments on friends' blogs. I was unaware he comments on friends' blogs, as he never seems to have left his imprimatur on this one. And yes, I'm very hurt.

Nevertheless, I choke back my pain and point to the masthead to the right, where Sean joins the ranks of blogs this blog calls friends. It seems to be a meditation on things philosophical, but I wouldn't let that stop you.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Ninety-six hours

Ninety-six hours -- that is precisely the time that elapsed between walking out my door on thursday morning at 4:15am to go catch my flight to Kingston, and walking back into my place at 4:15 this morning after my flight landed at 3:30. A weird symmetry, wouldn't you say?

So I'm back ... four days in Kingston, ON (would that it had been Kingston Jamaica, but I just haven't been all that good at picking conferences in exotic locales). All in all, a very good conference. I would have given my eye teeth not to have gone last Wednesday, but as is the way of these things it proved quite enjoyable and (academically) profitable. And at least I have proven to myself that, as long as I happen to be presenting my paper toward the end of the conference, I can leave with one-fifth of it written and be good to go when the bell rings (though I was literally writing my conclusion at the lectern ten minutes before my session started -- I'm going to feel like such a hypocrite when I run the session on conference paper writing for our grad students this year and sternly warn them to have it finished well before departure ... hopefully none of them find this blog before then).

I feel rejuvenated. SSHRC knocked me out well beyond what is reasonable to be knocked out by such an ordeal -- which is part of the reason I was behind the eight-ball on the conference paper -- but I cancelled classes for today and spent the afternoon recuperating. As luck would have it, I had a slew of DVDs in my mailbox today courtesy of and Kristen, so I've spent my time today watching Aaron Sorkin's Sports Night and the shows K burned for me between catching up on email. And now I feel ready for the semester's second half.

Speaking of good TV, I think I inadvertently made my name for myself among the various delegates at the Canadian Association for American Studies by mentioning Buffy in passing during a question period. There had been a keynote address about witch-hunting in American history, and later, asking a question about I paper on Martha Stewart, I just mentioned in passing -- apropos of nothing -- the episode in which Anya identifies The Martha as a witch, claiming "no one could possibly do that much macrame without invoking the powers of darkness!" Everyone laughed, it relaxed the room, we moved on to more serious matters.

The thing is, for the rest of the conference I kept having people come up to me and say, "Hey, you're the guy that asked the Buffy question!" And we're not just talking grad students, but tenured professors here. I got the knowing nod in the hallway between sessions ... the acknowledgment from fellow academics of being in the Buffy club. It's like being given a masonic handshake.

Interestingly enough, that incident wasn't the only Martha reference on the show. Trying to find the exact wording of the quote (I got it a bit wrong in the session), I found this one:

Cordelia: When did you become Martha Stewart?
Buffy: First of all, Martha Stewart knows jack about hand-cut prosciutto.
Xander: I don't believe she slays, either.
Oz: Oh, I hear she can, but she doesn't like to.

I might have a career at this.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

The new digs

So once again, I'm a bad blogger. I'll do my best to post a new Top Five Tuesday next week, but if I fail again, it might be time to put that particular idea out to pasture.

I should probably post today however, if for no other reason than that I'm heading to Kingston tomorrow for a conference (thus maintaining my streak of attending conferences in exotic locales) for four days, and am uncertain of what my internet access with be like. Hopefully there will be wireless in my hotel room. Should that prove amenable, I may even post pics from the conference! Because I know that all you papparazzi followers simply LIVE for pictures from academic conferences on American exceptionalism ...

In other news however, I can finally post pictures of my new office, in all its resplendent colourful glory:

No, your eyes do not deceive you -- that is in fact colour you see on the walls of a university office. I'm still not entirely sure how I managed to finagle that, but I sure ain't complaining. I've been dying to have an office with genuine colour forever.

There's the added bonus that it's almost twice as big as my old one. Seriously. When it was still empty, I felt as though I could play raquetball in here. Maybe I still will ...

At any rate, I do have a fairly steady stream of people who stop and poke their heads in in astonishment at the green -- and I encourage them in no uncertain terms to demand colour on the walls of their offices. I hope to be in the vanguard of a revolution.

It still needs some decorating, but then I'm not in a rush ... I imagine I'll be in this office for a good while, so I figure I'll take my time and do it well. One investment I'm definitely making is a floor lamp or two, and a nice desk lamp ... at which point I'll be able to turn off the flourescent lights forever.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Done done done done

Well, today has felt like the final episode in a season of 24. True to form, my SSHRC application came right down to the wire, and I found myself running hither and yon getting all the signatures I need so that I could get it to the office of research in time for them to include in their mass shipment to Ottawa. Had I missed that, I'd be couriering it myself to get it to its destination by the end of business Monday.

To compound things, I have moved into my new office, which has not had (1) internet, (2) a working phone, and (3) a printer that doesn't leave huge blotches in the middle of the page.

(this last one isn't the fault of the office, but a printer cartridge I need to replace).

Given that part of the SSHRC application has to be completed online, and I'm probably not impressing anyone with a blotchy application, so I spent the better part of today working out of friends' offices.

Of course, now that the application is done and submitted (yes, let's say that louder, it's DONE and SUBMITTED, the beast is DEAD! Hail to the King, baby ...), my internet connection has decided to work. I feel as though I am the victim of a massive conspiracy of technological objects.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

A very Morgan Thanksgiving

I'm a bad blogger of late, I do admit. I've missed two Top 5 Tuesdays in a row, and haven't yet given my postmortem on the whole TV appearance thing (aside from obsessing over mannerisms, of course). But then, this past weekend was Thanksgiving, and I was in TO for the festivities -- seeing Kristen, my family, and of course the wee Morgan. Who is getting less wee by the second, and whose walking abilities grow apace. I spent the better part of an hour on monday afternoon watching her chug back and forth over my brother's living room with her popcorn-popper. Pure entertainment. As Matt commented, "Yeah ... we don't watch TV any more."

Look at that face!

Hmm ... something as of yet un-childproofed ...

Under Mom's watchful eye ...

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Mannerisms I have that I was only vaguely aware of, but now which, having seen myself on TV, I will be very self-conscious about

1. Counting off points of discussion on my fingers.

2. The exent to which saying "umm ..." figures in my verbal thought processes.

3. Leaning my head back and to the right and staring off into middle distance as I try to frame a statement.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Stay tuned

Well, this is it folks ... tonight at 8:30 ET on Bravo, I make my television debut. I'll keeping track of my screen time so that I know how much of my fifteen minutes of fame are left afterward.

I'll either come across as reasonably smart, or as a complete knob. I don't think there will be much space in between ... so by all means, enjoy.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

The grant proposal that wouldn't end

Believe it or not, I'm still up to my eyeballs in SSHRC. I have SSHRC-for-brains. I'm a SSHRChead. You wouldn't believe the SSHRC that goes on around here.

Fortunately, the deadline for submission is, to say the least, a soft deadline. The applications go out mid-october, but we need to get them into our department first ... and that deadline was this past monday, but our grants officer is just as happy if I take an extra day or two, as she's already up to her eyeballs vetting the applications she's already received.

But I'm almost done. Seriously, I'm now talking end of business today. I'm reasonably sure.

In other news, I'm going to be moving offices soon. When two vacated offices came on the market, I put my name in ... but given my utter lack of seniority, I figured they'd be snatched up by profs higher on the food chain. In the end? Not so much -- people seem pretty happy with the offices they have, and I certainly wouldn't have bothered if it weren't for the fact that the office I nabbed is, swear to god, twice as big as my current one.

AND -- I managed to get it painted an actual colour! That's right. A colour. Goodbye institutional white. They put the second coat on yesterday, so my new digs are good to go. I brought my digicam to campus, so I will be documenting the moving-in process.

Any guesses to what colour it's been painted? Stay tuned.

Friday, September 29, 2006

Hairwatch: Day 29

And for those who've told me I brood too much in these webcam shots:

That's a smile! Sort of, anyway.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Almost got it

Almost! I'm almost there. I had a breakthrough yesterday late afternoon and pounded out four pages that weren't crap (I think -- I haven't looked at them again today yet), and I'm narrowing in on a succinct summary of the project.

Remember in high school when you dreaded having to write essays longer than 500 words? Now the prospect of writing anything shorter than that fills me with dread. I swear that the hardest part of my thesis was at the very end of it all when I had to sum up almost three hundred pages in the page-long abstract that goes at the very beginning. And right now, trying to make some sense of the snowdrifts of notes and research I did this summer and synopsize it is like trying to ram a basketball through a funnel.

But I'm almost there. So of course I'm writing a blog entry ... though I find often that a few words on the blog at the beginning of the day can be a bit like stretching before a run. Some times it is genuine procrastination and avoidance, but sometimes it's a little like my morning coffee -- a warm and comfortable start to the day.

I'm not sure what it is today.

My project, by the way, in case anyone is interested (if you're not, now's the time to skip to the bottom and see if anyone has posted a comment) is a book-length study on the Cold War as a recurring theme in contemporary American literature. Or more specifically, it's the way in which certain novels re-imagine the formative Cold War years (i.e. the 1950s) in terms of a betrayed or absent masculinity. I'm tentatively titling it "Spectral Fathers: The Cold War and Postmodern Memory." (Say what you will about the quality of my scholarship otherwise, but I have a damn good knack for titles -- and never mind that my subtitle is sort of stolen from Paul Fussell. It's not stolen, it's an homage, dammit).

I was reflecting this morning on the weird way in which I've arrived at this topic. Not too weird, I guess ... in the course of writing my thesis I encountered a lot of the issues and questions I'm now pursuing, so I guess there is a causal line here. It is odd though insofar as my literary and scholarly obsessions are so often antithetical to my personality. I've never had anxieties about masculinity, mine or anyone else's (well, except for the usual teenage angst), yet here it is as a central theme in what will preoccupy me for the next few years. I'm utterly un-paranoid, yet my thesis was about conspiracy theory. I am fascinated with military history, yet know that not only would I be a lousy soldier, but that actually participating in a battle would leave some unpleasant stains in my pants; as a sub-topic of military history, I went through a phase when I was fascinated with submarine warfare, though I am pretty damn claustrophobic. I have read extensively about terrorism in Ireland, to the point of publishing a paper on it, though I cannot conceive of what would lead an individual to that sort of extreme of violence.

And so on. I guess in the end one of the things that motivates me is a fascination with states of mind and preoccupations that fall entirely outside my range of empathy. Which, I guess, is sort of the point of literature in general ...

OK, this has ceased to be a warmup for the day and is now officially procrastination. Once more into the breach ...

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Top 5 Tuesday will return

Sorry folks ... I have only so much RAM in my head, and it's SSHRC week. Something has to be jettisoned. I have some ten pages of this proposal still to write, rewrite, get vetted by various colleagues and administrators, and then write again. Oh, and there's some teaching and paper-grading in there somewhere, too.

Who, I want to know, decided that it would be a GOOD idea to have such deadlines right at the beginning of the school year?

Monday, September 25, 2006

Monday miscellany

I am eating a ridiculous amount of salad lately. I bought a massive bag of mixed greens from some famers outside the Churchill Square Dominion for $3, and am now trying to eat my way through them before they go squishy. I may be a few days away from developing a twitchy nose.

This morning, I introduced my second-year class to Lacanian theory. That was fun.

For several days running I have forgotten to take home my travel mug from my office. I am now scared to open its lid.

Keith Olbermann is my new hero.

I discovered the other day that the Left Behind series of evangelical novels, about which I have ranted previously on this blog, have now been used as the basis for a computer game -- one in which you go around trying to save people's souls for Jesus after the Rapture, while thwarting the forces of the Antichrist.

I have "Ghost Riders in the Sky" stuck in my head, which would not be particularly annoying, except for the fact that I keep hearing it as "ghost writers in disguise."

We've started doing The Sun Also Rises in my 20th-century American novel class, which means I am developing an inordinate desire for carafes of cold white wine.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

He's baaaaaaaaaaack ...

Aaron Sorkin, that is. The one serious onion in the ointment for my plan not to renew my cable this year was that I would be missing the new Sorkin show, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. But my lovely Kristen has come to the rescue with a DVD recorder on loan from her sister, and in my mailbox this past friday, there it was ... the television experience I've been looking for since Sorkin left The West Wing (or was fired, I've never heard the definitive version of the story) and my formerly favourite show did a nose dive into mediocrity.

Studio 60 is pure Sorkin gold ... fast-paced, smart dialogue, complex characters, and a rhythm to the action, the movement and the script that is symphonic. If I sound like I'm overstating the case here, I am -- the show is still a bit shaky, and needs to sort itself out over this season, but television writing and directing on this level is like oxygen. Sorkin's continued success and popularity gives me hope in a world saturated with the various There-But-For-The-Grace-Of-God phenomenon that is reality TV.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Random cat photos

Facts about my cat:

He is named for the character Clarence in Richard III. I got him the summer I directed that particular play, and was determined to name him after one of the characters. I had narrowed it down to Ratcliff, Catesby, or Clarence. My friend Erin, who played Catesby, has never forgiven me for my choice. My friend Jeremy, who played Clarence, feels a certain kinship because of it. My friend Mike, who played Ratcliff, I'm fairly sure doesn't care one way or the other.

He is afraid of apple cores. When I eat an apple and don't throw it away immediately but put it on the coffee table as I read or watch TV, he approaches it as if it were something dangerous. dropping himself as low to the ground (or table) as he can, he slinks up, then feints at it with his paw four or five time before actually striking it ... at which point he leap backward as if he has received a shock, only to repeat the process.

He loves the hallway in my building, and when let out will gallop up and down several times before he lets me bring him back inside. When he runs, his hindquarters start to overtake him, so he ends up looking sort of lopsided.

He likes being patted from head to tail in unbroken strokes. As you do this, he pulls himself along the carpet sideways with his claws so that you have to stagger along with him.

He was a runt when I got him. He was impossibly tiny, whiny, and sucky. Within two months he had transformed himself into Hunter-Killer-Beast, and was determinedly attacking the feet of any guests I had. No one has been able to explain this change in his personality.

He practices psychological warfare. He seems to dislike alpha-male types in particular, my brother and Sean Mulligan being his principal targets. He begins by launching a terrifyingly aggressive campaign of stalk & attack for several weeks, but after that will just sit placidly at the feet of his quarry, staring at them impassively, until they crumple into a paranoid fetal position.