Friday, September 30, 2005

The cat came back: part three, or Clarence's Big Hallway Adventure

Really, it was only a matter of time.

This morning I stepped out of the apartment, remembered I needed something else, stepped back in, and went into my office. I heard the door creak and dashed back out into the hallway to be treated to the following image:

His escape made, he proved very reluctant to be brought back into the apartment. And believe me, my cat can be slippery when he wants to. I was doing very well time-wise this morning, ready to go at 8:15 ... only to spend fifteen minutes chasing Clarence up and down the hallway as he explored and sniffed at every other door but mine.

And then when I got home this evening, there he was -- out the door like a shot. Having had one taste of freedom, dammit if he wasn't going to go again (it was this evening, incidentally, that these pictures were taken -- while tempted this morning, I did not in fact prolong the experience by playing wildlife photographer). He seemed less enthused the second time however. I guess the novelty of my building's hallway wears off pretty quickly.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Well, that's hardly surprising ...

Here's a fun test courtesy of my friend Amy ... it tells you what level of Dante's Hell you're destined for!

I myself will apparently end up in Level 6, the City of Dis. What brand of sinners are consigned there, you ask? Why, the heretics, of course! I guess apropos of my post on the saintly Dr. Reverend LaHaye, this is to be expected. So I'll languish with the heretics in the City of Dis ... which I'm told has some fabulous pubs and night clubs.

But you know what they say -- that the boredom you get in Heaven is worse than the excitement you get in Hell.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

le divan, il est arrivé!!

Ah, finally ... a place to flake. Somewhere to crash. To zone. To vegetate. And somewhere guests can sit. I think I need to have a couch-warming party.

I was concerned that this inaugurated a new era of vacuuming cat hair, given that the upholstery does seem likely to attract and hold it ... but Clarence seems content to have unrestricted access to my Ikea chair now, and has been generally indifferent to the new addition. Fingers crossed.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Rapture? I’ve got your ^%$%# rapture for you right here, you ^*%%$#$ leave-it-to-beaver, evangelical homophobic, fundamentalist mother^&*%$!!!

Ick. Ick ick ick ick ick ick. Ick.

I feel like I need a shower.

I just finished reading the novel Left Behind, the first of a series of twelve depicting “the Earth’s last days,” written by evangelical preacher Tim LaHaye and general prose hack Jerry Jenkins. Simply put, these novels begin with the “Rapture,” the supposedly prophesized moment at which all genuine born-again Christians get miraculously assumed into Heaven, leaving the rest of us behind to suffer the seven years of tribulation visited upon the earth by the Antichrist. Hence, “left behind.”

You may have seen this parodied on The Simpsons.

Why, you may ask, am I subjecting myself to this? Good question. The Left Behind series (which has in fact been trademarked) is enormously popular in the US—especially, as you might imagine, in the so-called “red” states, where the vast majority of Dubya’s fundamentalist Christian vote emerged. They have sold over 70,000,000 copies thus far. No, that’s not a typo. Seventy million. So as someone who is both a scholar of contemporary American literature and popular culture, I have been thinking for some time that this is a phenomenon I should have at least a passing familiarity with.

Fundamentalism in any form is something I find utterly baffling. On his website, Tim LaHaye says, as part of his doctrinal statement, that “We believe the Bible should be interpreted normally, as with any other piece of sane literature, by a consistently literal hermeneutic.” Which is a fancy way of saying that anything written in the Bible is literally true. Not symbolically or metaphorically true. Literally. Adam and Eve in the garden, six days of creation and a seventh of rest, a flood covering the entire earth, a boat that can carry every single species of animal, God stopping the sun in its tracks to give the Israelites the time they need to defeat their enemy (a scriptural passage used to refute Galileo, incidentally), etc. etc. etc.

I don’t even know where to begin with this. What, for instance, does he mean by “any piece of sane literature”? Literature can be sane?? Or does that mean that any piece of literature that needs to be read metaphorically is insane? Maybe this is a new strategy I should use in my class: “Hey kids! In Holy Sonnet #14, John Donne is asking God to rape him! I know that seems weird, but hey … that’s what it says.”

Of course, LaHaye &co. themselves are simply being disingenuous—the very act of writing a series of speculative novels about Bible prophecy itself denies any sort of literal interpretation of scripture and moves into the realm of fabulation. And while Left Behind consistently claims that the end-times prophecies are laid out simply and transparently in the Bible for anyone who cares to look, anyone with a skeptical mind and a passing familiarity with the Bible knows this simply isn’t the case. The Bible, especially the Book of Revelations—the lynchpin in these readings—is written in highly symbolic, metaphorical, oblique and suggestive language. Ignoring the fact that any Bible in English is a translation from Greek and Aramaic—and in some cases from Latin, which makes it twice removed from the original text—a literal reading of scripture is simply impossible anyway. And the so-called “literal” readings we get, such as with the evangelists you see on late-night TV tying themselves in knots trying to assert that Kofi Annan is the Antichrist and the war in Iraq is outlined in detail in Revelations, are themselves playing the symbolism game, but in a manner so reductive and simplistic that if my students did that in their essays, the best they might rate is a C-.

It is however the arrogance of it all that infuriates me—the suggestion that in a world of six billion people with hundreds and thousands of holy texts, religions, sects, splinter groups, cults and congregations, a few hundred thousand have found the key to salvation. Perhaps I’ve read too much Joseph Campbell, but the underlying beliefs and mythologies of all these groups bear too much resemblance to each other for me to ever buy into the exclusivity of a single, reductive, chauvinistic claim to the capital-T Truth.

And the idea of the Rapture itself strikes me as little more than the ultimate revenge fantasy. Think of it: the belief that at some indeterminate point in the future, all born-again Christians will be lifted up into Heaven, leaving the rest of us liberal, urban, agnostic, atheist, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, gay, lesbian, etc etc. people behind to suffer the strife let loose on the earth by the Antichrist while they look down from their cushy clouds in smug satisfaction. The most lucid statement about the rapture in the Bible is 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17, in which St. Paul assures his persecuted followers that those oppressing them will get their comeuppance. Now, forgive my non-literal reading, but this does rather strike me as a tired Apostle trying to buck up the troops—don’t worry, you’ll have the satisfaction of watching them suffer for a change.

Little of this would really bother me if it weren’t for the fact that evangelicals and fundamentalists actually wield a rather large amount of political clout in the States presently, and that this particular ideology represents one of the ugliest species of American exceptionalism to rear its head, ever. One would think that if you had a genuine belief in the Rapture and the end of days you’d be content to let the world literally go to Hell, to let gays marry and liberals control the Supreme Court. After all, the countdown to Armageddon (according the Reverend Dr. LaHaye) is marked by these such signs and more. Why not just let it happen? But no, there is remarkable triumphalism within the religious right these days. I would think they would be disappointed by a born-again president, a hardcore right-wing Supreme Court, an emasculated UN, and a hobbled left wing, as these things can only serve to slow the coming of the day when they’ll be granted their rightful place beside God.

Looking over the good Reverend LaHaye's website, one finds countless links to other sites engaged in ultraconservative political activism; one also finds a huge amount of marketing. LaHaye may be destined to be raptured up to be Jesus' cup-bearer, but in the meantime we're encouraged to add to his fourtune by purchasing the books of the Left Behind Series, any one of his almost fifty theological tracts, the children's version of the Left Behind books, the Left Behind handbook (believe me, based on the subtlety of the novel I've just read, anyone who needs a guide to these books must be developmentally retarded), as well as a host of Left Behind paraphernalia. Quite the booming business he's got going.

But then, I suppose there's something to be said for living out the pre-tribulation days in comfort. I wonder if he's looked lately at Matthew 19:24 -- "It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God."

Now, how would you read that literally?

Saturday, September 24, 2005

The parents have landed!!

Yup, the 'rents are visiting for the weekend, which is a prospect I know for many people would inspire dread and despair, but not me. I have the best parents in the world, and I'll put mine against anyone else's in a parents-off anytime, anywhere.

Of course, the whole good-relationship-with-the-parents thing, coupled with the concomitant happy childhood, means I'll never be a poet or novelist of any note ... not having had any family trauma or fucked-up growing up phase, what would I have to write about? But then, that's a small price to pay. Of course, I am a little bitter about that inability to become a novelist ... hmmm ...

We did the rounds today of St. John's, starting with the Signal Hill and environs hike (at the points where the stairs were particularly brutal, Mom accused me of trying to get my inheritance early), then had lunch at Nautical Nellies and wandered around dowtown for a bit ... and then made our way out the big boxville where they treated me to my apartment-warming gift of a new couch. It arrives on Tuesday -- it's blue and it's sectional!!! My apartment will finally be made whole. Look for pics here on tuesday night. Also, it has a sofa bed, so I'll be set for visitors. Seriously. I look forward to visitors.

Then we rounded it out with dinner at the Fairmont Hotel, where they're staying. I have to say: for those who might think St. John's a parochial backwater with no culture to speak of, come and eat at this restaurant. It easily ranks in the top five meals I've ever had -- and that's saying something. I had one of the best Caesar salads I've ever had to start, and then an entree of caribou and scallops. I'm still feeling the glow from that dinner.

A fabulous day. And one more to enjoy tomorrow ...

And Percy the Puffin's relatives living on Signal Hill wanted me to say hello ...

Thursday, September 22, 2005

On the joys of running in circles while listening to 80s hair bands ...

I saw a girl today at the gym who I'm fairly certain was genetically predisposed to go to Western, but obviously has had that dream thwarted. She was blonde -- very coifed, not a hair out of place -- and dressed in low-rider hip-hugging black sweats and matching tank top, both with purple piping; a pastel purple iPod mini on her arm; pale purple running shoes; and one of those South Pacific style bead belts that hangs fairly low around the waist. Seriously. I have no idea what was up with the belt. At first glance I figured she was done with her workout and on her way out, but no, she went an joined an aerobics group working out in one of the spaces divvied up in the middle of the track.

Remember that list I posted a ways back listing things I missed about London? This caricature, not so much.

So in the aftermath of my aborted run yesterday thanks to the iPod freezing up, I went a little longer than normal today -- actually just shy of an hour. It's kind of satisfying to see other people start their runs while you're already on the track, and then finish while you're still going strong. Ah, small pleasures.

So you may well ask: why did I not just do my run anyway yesterday, frozen iPod or no? Or maybe you're not asking that -- maybe you know as well as I just how excruciatingly boring running can be in the absence of two principal criteria: (1) Scenery; (2) Music. When I'm running outside, be it around Quidi Vidi or the Thames back in London, I find music obtrusive. I like those outdoor runs; I find them so contemplative, almost zen ... but I need to have something to look at. Conversely, when running indoors, either on the treadmill or the track, music is an absolute necessity to distract me from the crushing tedium of running in place or running in circles.

And not just any music will do! I need something upbeat, energizing, with a good rhythm. And a rousing refrain, something that makes you pick up speed without thinking. The iPod is the greatest invention ever for this, because it's so easy to make custom playlists that you can select based on mood. Some days it's cheesy retro and disco (top picks: Village People, Boney M, Dead or Alive), some days it's just loud and angry (Rage Against the Machine, baby!).

But there are some songs that are always good to run to, no matter what the mood. So, in no particular order:

Chris' Top 10 Running Songs

The Killers -- Somebody Told Me
Bon Jovi -- Livin' on a Prayer
Quiet Riot -- Come on Feel the Noise
Green Day -- American Idiot
U2 -- Out of Control
Weezer -- Buddy Holly
Boney M -- Rasputin
Rammstein -- Du Hast
Metallica -- Enter Sandman
Yakoo Boyz -- Scotland the Brave [techno with bagpipes!]

So, yes, a somewhat ecclectic list. But try it, and tell me afterward that each of these songs doesn't have a moment or two when you start sprinting in spite of yourself ...

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Not my best day so far ... no, really not at all

Today's sequence of events:

1) The computer in my office did not turn on. Or rather it did turn on -- repeatedly. It got to the "Starting Windows" screen, then turned off and rebooted. And did it again. And again. When this happened the fifth time, I kicked my desk and let loose with an expletive that rather shocked the student outside my door waiting to see my neighbour. IT said it's a virus they're familiar with and will be by tomorrow -- which in MUNspeak is Friday or Monday.

2) Murphy's Law is playing out at full strength: yesterday evening, upon finishing my lecture notes for today and getting ready to go, I thought "should I print them out?" No, of course not! Print them out tomorrow -- when your ^%%$#@# computer isn't working! So, yet more seat-of-the-pants lecturing. Which isn't something I mind doing, except when I've actually gone to the effort of writing the damn notes out in detail. It's fine when I've been swamped with other work, out till 4am or just simply lazy, but not when I've actually been conscientious! Stupid computer.

3) Upon sitting down to hurriedly jot down the broad strokes for both my classes, I spilled my entire coffee over what I'd written so far.

4) Running out to go find paper towels of some description, I shoulder-checked my door jamb with a force that could well have put down Ti Domi ... but unfortunately, the door jamb was unimpressed.

5) Realized about three minutes into my improvised lecture on Doctor Faustus that I'd forgotten my text in my office and had to run to get it.

6) While trying to make a point in American drama on a play about working-class people in the 1930s, asked why is was significant that three generations of a family all lived in the same apartment -- and upon seeing the sea of blank faces, attempted to simplify things by asking, "Ok, let me put it this way -- why do we find it kind of pathetic to see a thirty-something man who still lives with his parents?" ... and then, scanning my students, realized that I had probably mortally offended, or at least deeply depressed, about a half a dozen of the men in my class.

7) Right after class, decided to hell with this, I'm going to go work out now. Which I did -- went through my weights routine, but was really looking forward to running the track to work off the day's annoyances. And thirty seconds into my run, my iPod froze up. It's done this before -- it simply freezes, stays like that for an hour, and then comes back to itself with a dead battery (anyone else have this happen?). But this of course spoiled my run, so I just packed myself up, stopped for a bottle of Jameson and a ready-made dinner on the way home, and turned to the blog for a much-needed rant.

I suppose I should be happy at this point that my car started -- that would have been the cherry on the cake of my day.

But now I've vented, I have a glass of Irish in front of me, a pizza baking in the oven and a cat who seems to sense the mood and is trying to make things better by sitting in my lap and licking my hand. Which makes it really hard to type, but I appreciate the sentiment.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

The cat came back: part two, or Computer Tower Triptych

Well, Clarence has settled into the swing of things pretty quickly here -- though I think he's a bit annoyed with my new computer, as it doesn't have the kind of monitor he can lounge on, leaning over the screen to bat at whatever happens to be moving on it. He's having to make do, as you can see here, with the tower. It's comforting to have him there -- my own little angel in the house. An angel who's petulant and needy and aloof all at the same time, and will occasionally leave little love marks down my arm with his claws. Much closer to a Miltonic angel than a Hallmark one, I think ...

I'm starting to fall into a routine here, which is good ... I'm pretty much on campus each day by 8:30, and then I round the day out at 4pm by working out at our rather impressive sports complex (which I must say puts Campus Rec at Western to shame -- not that that's really difficult). Teaching from 11-12 and 2-3 monday, wednesday and friday (not the time slots I would have chosen, but then I am the new guy), with office hours in between.

And here's a shock -- students have actually been coming to my office hours. WTF? This is a brand new thing for me ... usually office hours are empty stretches of time during which I can pretty much count on getting work done until around mid-November when essay panic starts to set in in earnest. Every year in my first classes I strongly encourage, cajole, implore and indeed all but beg students to make use of my office hours, telling them it will actually benefit them. But never till now have my office hours been so busy in the first few weeks of school ... don't get me wrong, I like this, this is a good thing, but I just have to get out of the habit of assuming I can use those two hours to prepare for my next class. Yesterday I had to wing it for the second half of my american drama class.

Which, as you all know, is difficult for me--I almost never wing it. Really. Hardly ever.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Bruce almighty

No no, not that vaguely disappointing Jim Carrey movie ... I'm talking about the king of B-movies, Bruce Campbell, the lantern-jawed wonder we know and love from the Evil Dead films. If ever there was someone who raised schlocky, tongue-in-cheek television and film to an art form, Bruce is the man. Hail to the king, baby.

This post is apropos of watching one of his recent movies, Bubba Ho-Tep ... and how beautifully absurd the film is! Elvis -- played of course by Bruce in impressive lambchops, big-ass gold sunglasses and lots of makeup -- is alive and living in a nursing home in East Texas, having years ago switched places with an Elvis impersonator named Sebastian Haff in order to get away from the insanity of the limelight. Unfortunately, Haff was as fond of the booze and pills as Elvis was and died of an overdose. Elvis could never come back to his rightful place, having lost all evidence of the switch in a barbecue accident in his trailer park.

And so he finds himself, aged and decrepit with a broken hip in his past that forces him to use a walker. His best friend, played by Ossie Davis, thinks he's John F. Kennedy.

Elvis: No offense, Jack, but President Kennedy was a white man.
JFK: They dyed me this color! That's how clever they are!

As if this pairing wasn't beautiful enough, the decrepit duo discover that the recent deaths at the nursing home were the result of an ancient Egyptian mummy come back to life, who must sustain himself by sucking the souls of sleeping mortals out of their, um, assholes.

JFK: He was after my soul. Now you can get that out of any major orifice of a person's body—I read about it.
Elvis: Oh, yeah? Where, man? Hustler?

The mummy is pure Egyptian white trash -- sporting a cowboy hat and boots. Hence, "Bubba" Ho-Tep (some text helpfully defines "Bubba" for us before the movie begins as "Cracker, redneck, trailer trash").

What I loved about this film, besides the myriad conspiracy theories assembled (this film so gets a mention when I rewrite my thesis in book form) is Bruce's portrayal of the sad, aging, forgotten Elvis. For such an absurd premise, the film offers some remarkably poignant moments. The balance of reviews I've read pan the film for being so slow-moving -- it takes a good forty-five minutes, halfway into the film, before the whole mummy part of the plot really gets moving. But to my mind, that is one of the great strengths here ... Campbell's Elvis has some genuine pathos in his voice-overs as he lies motionless in bed, disingenuously pondering why fame and fortune couldn't fend off the ravages of age, whether Lisa Marie would visit him if she knew he was alive, and going over obsessively all the mistakes he made on the road to fame. You end up feeling for him enough that, when he girds himself for action finally, it is actually an edifying moment.

Elvis: Ask not what your rest home can do for you. Ask what you can do for your rest home.
JFK: Hey, you're copying my best lines!
Elvis: Then let me paraphrase one of my own. Let's take care of business.
JFK: Just what are you getting at, Elvis?
Elvis: I think you know what I'm getting' at Mr. President. We're gonna kill us a mummy.

This is followed by a shot of Elvis and JFK advancing down the hallway, ready to do battle--Elvis in his trademark white jumpsuit and walker, and JFK in a presidential suit and motorized wheelchair.

I loved this. Not a film for everyone, but despite its absurdity and deliberate B-movie quality, it actually contains some lovely meditations on the value of life and the depredations of age, to say nothing of forgotten icons and the culture of fame.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Da month o' da Laura

Yes, it's that time again -- the month-long run-up to the greatest of holidays, the feast of feasts, the celebrate-good-times that transcends even Kool & the Gang. Of course I'm talking about Lauramas, October 14, the day upon which we rejoice in the anniversary of the great redheaded wonder's birth. Yes, Laura is god and Mr. Darcy is her prophet. And Mr. Bingley is her, um, valet (for those unfamiliar with The Laura's accolytes, see here).

Such an occasion naturally cannot be contained in a single day, so we lesser mortals must needs begin our devotions a month in advance. Hence, I declare September 14 to be the first day of The Laura -- for such is how she must be addressed in this holy month.

I realize that some may not be conversant in the practices and rituals of Lauramas. For those living in London, this could be critical, for you may well encounter her on the streets (she likes to mingle with the mortals on occasion).

Should you encounter the individual pictured in these images here, it is customary to place an offering of food on the ground 5-7 feet away, and then prostrate yourself with your head on the pavement and hands outstretched in her direction. Good food choices are generally anything fried, though perogies will curry particular favour with the exalted one. In a pinch, a Tim Hortons coffee will do, especially if it happens to be before noon and she looks grouchy. Failing that, she likes songs to be sung to her, particularly those of Sloan, Bloc Party or Interpol.

In the seven days before the DAY, we observe The Seven Stations of The Laura: (1) motionless on the couch through eight hours of CSI; (2) an attempt at pilates which ends on the patio of either the APK or the Runt Club; (3) coffee at Williams; (4) coffee at Starbucks; (5) bumping into random stationary things like door jambs, coffee tables, parked cars, trees, etc.; (6) ignoring your blog; (7) and on Lauramas Eve, the ceremonial eating of the mac and cheese with Manhattans.

Happy Lauramas to all!

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

The cat came back: part one

The drugs, they did nothing! Nothing!

Well, that's not entirely true -- they made my cat hate me because of the trauma involved in force-feeding two little pills to him, and they kept him absolutely quiet during the 10-minute drive from the airport to my apartment. But as for the airport/airplane experience? Sedation, my ass. Although I suppose this is a question of degrees ... just how wired and insufferable would he have been without the drugs? You know, I never intend to find out.

But yes, Clarence's first flight made for quite the adventure. Air Canada requires that pets taken in the cabin are kept in a soft-sided carrying case ... which made perfect sense to me up to the point in the departure lounge when the woman with the rat-like lap dog, which she had on a leash as opposed to being inside its soft-sided case, came over on his extendable leash to explore. Unfortunately, I was distracted by what I was reading and didn't figure out what was happening until I heard the snakelike hiss emenate from Clarence's bag, and then watch the bag roll over rather violently in the direction of the rat-like dog.

The problem with soft-sided carrying cases for pets? The pets quickly discover they have a measure of control over their environment.

I think the dog and its owner nearly had a coronary. Though I must say, the venemous look the woman gave me was very nearly worth the price of admission.

The worst moment however was coming through security, when I was required to remove Clarence from the bag (in the event that I was an enterprising terrorist who had managed to cram a measure of C4 in with my cat -- though some who have met Clarence might just describe him as a WMD). So here I am holding my cat, who doesn't like to be held at the best of times and is several weeks overdue for having his claws trimmed, walking through the metal detector (or the "freedom threshold," I think it's now called in the US). Had I thought this through, I probably would have removed my belt and shoes before attempting that first passage. As it was, I walked through tightly clutching my sharp-nailed cat and off course set off the alarm.

Cats do not care for high-pitched squeals. I have a set of claw marks on my shoulders, which were turned into gashes when the security woman walked toward me with the squealing wand, at which point my cat attempted to make his escape up my chest, over my shoulders and back through Terminal 1. He very nearly made it, but for my own tenacious refusal to have to go running after a cat through an airport.

The woman demanded that I then take off my belt and shoes and walk through again. I was at pains to suggest that perhaps I should put Clarence back into his case--at the moment still on the other side of the x-ray machine, or "freedom monitor"--before doing so. For reasons passing understanding she seemed very reluctant to do so until one of her supervisors, with an exasperated air, told her to wait.

The silver lining in all this was that the flight was not full and I had an empty seat beside me, so I only had to stow Clarence under under the seat for takeoff and landing; and the guy who sat in the third seat was amenable to cats (I'd kind of been hoping that it would be the rat-dog lady, but alas it was not to be). I suppose I shouldn't complain too much. He was well-behaved for most of the flight, with the exception of the periods when he attempted to burrow through the sides of the case. He was also, predictably, not pleased with the takeoff and landing, but he appears to have survived. Upon deplaning however he made his displeasure known. In response to the pleasantries offered by the stewardesses as we exited, he let loose with a low, threatening miaow of disappoval he usually reserves for large animals on the other side of the window.

The stewardesses looked somewhat offended and not a little hurt.

And then home ... and as I said, I think this was the point that the drugs finally kicked in. When I let him out in the apartment, he nosed around for a moment or two before again curling up to sleep for half an hour -- very uncharacteristic Clarence behaviour upon encountering new territory.

But now he's back to exploring, and has already managed to knock over most of my picture frames as I sit here typing. Ah, it's good to have him home.

Hello hello (hola!)

Well, these old guys sure do know how to show the young 'uns how to do it ... twenty-five plus years at this game and they only seem to keep getting better. Say what you will about the music, whether the albums are up or down, they peaked in 1984, in '87, in '91, they've sold out, they're repeating themselves, they never lived up to the promise of The Joshua Tree, or Achtung Baby or whatever. Blah, blah, blah.

I don't care about any of that. To say U2 still know how to put on a show is a drastic understatement.

Tonight: the Air Canada Center. First show of the third leg of the Vertigo tour. Seats? Floors, baby. Where on the floor? In the ellipse. How far from the stage? About five bodies.

The show itself? Quite possibly one of the best I've ever seen anywhere, anytime, by anybody.

After a rather frustrating long wait in line to get into the general admission area, the waiting paid off (or at least was made worthwhile) at the point where they scan your tickets to see whether you're in or out of the ellipse. For those unfamiliar with what I mean: for the Elevation tour, they had a stage in the shape of a heart, the inside of which housed the prime floor seats. The band has gone with the same basic idea again, this time with an ellipse. The ellipse tickets are randomly scattered amongst the floor seats, and you discover whether you're one of U2's elect after passing through the turnstile and having your ticket scanned.

And yes ... Kristen and I were among the elect. The chosen few, you might say ... which brought us within spitting distance of the stage.

And what a show. I won't attempt to describe the light show ... for that, see if you can get your hands on last month's Wired -- William Gibson has an article in there that does the show much more justice than I can.

Tonight's play list:

I Will Follow
Electric Co.
Beautiful Day
In a Little While
I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For
City of Blinding Lights
Miracle Drug
Sometimes You Can't Make it on Your Own
Love and Peace or Else
Sunday Bloody Sunday
Bullet the Blue Sky
Miss Sarajevo
Pride (In the Name of Love)
Where the Streets Have No Name
Old Man River

Zoo Station
The Fly
With or Without You

All Because of You
Fast Cars

Total Concert Time: 2 hours, 20 min.

Spotted: Corporate break dancers. While we were outside waiting in the endless lineup, a trio of kids with a ghetto blaster and T-shirts saying "Fido after hours series" danced for the benefit of the generally unimpressed U2 fans.

Also spotted: Former students Sarah and J.Po. Sarah was en route to the peon seats in the bleachers; J.Po was meeting a friend at Union to go see Bloc Party. Which I imagine rates somewhat higher on the cool-O-meter, but with a much inferior light show.

Unfortunate decision in this tour's concert tees: Some of the shirts were black and sporting a red "V" that looked painted on. Very striking, but I couldn't help thinking of that 1980s alien invasion series.

Unfortunate repeated gesture on Bono's part: During the refrain of "City of Blinding Lights," he kept touching his heart and raising his hand in salute to the crowd. While presumably a heartfelt gesture of love and community, it looked disturbingly like he was zieg-heiling.

Watching my favourite band age: Adam has let his hair go grey, but it looks really good on him. Bono looks pretty rough, and needs to get some exercise. Larry is Larry--actually gets better looking as he ages--but needs a haircut. And I think Edge is ageless. He pretty much looks exactly the way he did when he first adopted this look (watchcap, goatee) back in the Achtung, Baby days.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Freedom has a scent, like the top of a newborn baby's head ...

So my TO weekend serendipitously intersected with a shower for my niece Morgan, thrown by my cousin Jeff and his wife Christine. An afternoon of playing pass-the-baby? Delightful ... and I have a memory stick full of images now. Huzzah!

The proud grandfather, my dad.

Trying to provoke a reaction.

Who is this crazy idiot?

Asleep on Grandma's shoulder, stage one.

Stage two.

The proud Papa.

Thursday, September 08, 2005


Just some random thoughts tonight ... too tired to make anything particularly cogent.

I was out with my colleague and new friend Brad this evening, playing pool and drinking pitchers of Rickards ... and we were both lamenting the depredations of age, the fact that neither of us has quite the drinking/partying stamina we had in our twenties. Or for that matter, the ability to pull all nighters to get assigments done ... I personally blame my comprehensive exams, which completely changed my body clock so that I was incredibly productive in the morning, mildly productive in the early afternoon, brain dead between 3-6pm, and (sometimes) mildly productive in the evening. And after 10pm, intellectually kaput. Prior to the trauma of comps, I was perfectly capable of working at whatever hour of day was necessary. Ah, damn you comps! How you ruin the lives of so many grad students!

Anyway, as I walked home up the insane hills that slope up from the harbour, I started thinking about things I miss about London. First and foremost, I of course miss the people there (well, certain people). But however much I might put down that humid, bland, soulless bastion of conservatism that is London, it did have some high points and locales that I wouldn't mind transferring to my new home. Here they are, in no particular order:

Williams Coffee Pub -- specifically, the booths
Sammy's Souvlaki @ 3am
Richmond Row on a mild, sunny afternoon
The Runt Club
running beside the Thames between Queens and Oxford
Campus Hi-Fi
UWO campus generally
City Lights bookstore
Covent Garden Market, esp. the cheese shop
The Grad Club

And now, for a change of topic: a new picture of my niece Morgan!

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Bicycles, as in being like the riding of

I think I need two blogs ... one for my diary-type entries for the benefit of friends and family, and one as an outlet for my various rants and editorializing. It feels strange, rereading yesterday's post, to be now writing about my first day of teaching ...

Two blogs. Tempting, but this already has much of the feel of a useful proscrastination device. Two blogs and I think tenure would already be in jeopardy. So everyone will just have to accept that every so often I'll be going off on something or other.

But before switching topics, a vintage Jon Stewart line from last night's show: "Did the government do nearly enough for the victims of Katrina? Short answer, no. Long answer, NOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!"

Ahem. So, yes, I had my first two classes at MUN today ... and was terribly nervous, at least for the first. My hands were actually trembling as I handed out the syllabus. But then I started to warm up a bit and got back into the classroom groove. It was made easier by the fact that the first classes are kind of paint-by-numbers -- Hi, I'm the prof (or "content provider," I think we're called these days), here's the syllabus, don't hand in papers late, don't plagiarize, etc etc. I've pretty much got the patter down, as anyone who's taken more than one class with me can probably attest. I always find a way to work the word "fuck" in there just to keep them on their toes.

They seem like good groups ... very affable, very keen. Interestingly, my introductory survey course was much more forthcoming on the "what did you read this summer?" question, whereas the third-year course on American drama -- who are all, presumably, actually declared English majors -- had almost nothing to say. Except for one girl who listed about five substantial novels, including Brave New World and Moby Dick. Seriously ... who reads Moby Dick over the summer holidays? I was impressed, but in hindsight I wonder if the rest of the class' recalcitrance was because they were worried about looking bad next to their classmate.

In a previous post, I mentioned in passing the new "variables" that would make this experience rather different from Western. Here are the ones I've sussed out so far:

1. Newfoundland's economic history makes for a very broad cross-section of students. Many are first-generation university students, i.e. they're the first in their family to ever do post-secondary education. How this plays out will be interesting to see: at UWO, I would estimate that 90-95% of students come from parents who went to university (often Western!), and in many cases had grandparents who did the same. On the other hand, there are a lot of students who come from the upper echelons of Newfoundland's economic strata, mostly from St. John's where, as the provincial capital, there are a lot of government jobs.
2. Newfoundland's demographics are such that about half the people in the province live in St. John's, but there are literally hundreds of tiny towns and outports of a few thousand or even a few hundred people. One of my students comes from a town of 250; she said that her intro to chemistry class last year was larger than her home town.
3. I want to know what crazy-ass administrator decided that fifty students constitutes a "small" class.
4. I'm not allowed to take attendance. Or more specifically, it's a university rule that you cannot build an attendance/ participation grade into the course. However, because of this, I was strongly encouraged by senior faculty to change the line "You must come to class" to "You should come to class" in my syllabus; I was also informed that consistently taking attendance all semester, if for nothing else than as a way to learn names, could lead a more litigious student to appeal a grade based on the premise that his repeated absence was used prejudicially against him. Which makes me want to know: when does failing to make allowances for a student's idiocy become grounds for appeal?

Overall, it was a good day. I'd forgotten how exhausting lecturing is. Afterward, I drove down to Water street to treat myself to a meal out and, more importantly, a pint of Guiness. I've discovered (for me) the three times at which beer is at its most delicious: (1) after a day of sailing; (2) after the rehearsal or performance of a play; (3) after a lecture.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

The thin veneer

According to the news this evening, the floodwaters in New Orleans are starting to recede ... but it will be weeks, months, before that stricken city can begin to return to a faint resemblance of normality. Of course, we will have moved on to the next big sensational story in the 24-hour news universe well before that. I'm laying bets that CNN will all but forget about Katrina in a week or so.

This prospect bothers me. I feel as though we should be starting and ending every news night with those horrific images of the people stranded on their roofs, huddled in sweltering, filthy shelters, and peering in abject fear from behind cracked doors, until the broader lessons have been learned. Our memories are too short; the spin machines are gearing up to full power, and what big-picture issues are there are getting swamped (poor choice of words) by anecdotal boy-rescued-by-dog types of stories. Too soon those images of human beings reduced to bestial conditions will have faded from memory. I only pray there isn't a celebrity breakup in the next few days to speed up the process.

Watching an interview with a Canadian couple who had been trapped in the midst of the chaos, I felt an uneasy sense of life imitating art, or at least, life imitating B-movies: they survived largely because they managed to hole up with a few others in a dowtown mall, where they found a decent cache of food and protection enough from the roving gangs without. Their description of the nights full of terror, hearing the screams and howls in the dark outside, of seeing men and women reduced to glassy-eyed zombies, made feral by fear and hunger, echoed Dawn of the Dead so strongly that I know I'm having nightmares tonight. It may seem odd or inappropriate to make this filmic connection, but that experience of living in terror of people regressing to base, primal violence strikes me as the most elemental lesson this catastrophe should be teaching. While there are many stories of heroism and sacrifice, they are vastly overshadowed by the mere anarchy loosed on the city by the stripping away of the thin veneer of civilization. The old adage that any society is only three meals away from revolution came crashing down on the US a week ago when the underclass of a major city were violently cut off from whatever last wisps of hope existed in their lives.

A few things to think about:
1. New Orleans is the 9th poorest city in the States.
2. The city is 3/4 African-Americans, the vast majority of whom live around or under the poverty line. In all the images of the hordes of refugees, I did not see a single white face.
3. Several large buildings in wealthy areas, such as the casino, could well have handled the overflow of refugees, but instead bolted their doors against them. The affluent actually hired armed security guards to patrol their properties, leaving most of the refugees to cram into the sweltering and unsanitary stadium.
4. FEMA and other environmental groups were aware well in advance of Katrina's size, power, and trajectory; the resources were present to evacuate people, yet nothing was done beyond issue the call for people to get themselves out of the city -- leaving those without vehicles without any means of escape.
5. This past June, the Bush administration sliced $71.2 million from the budget of the New Orleans Corps of Engineers, a 44 percent reduction.
6. The Office of Technology Assessment is a governmental advisory group that used to produce such plans as "Floods: A National Policy Concern" and "A Framework for Flood Hazards Management." It was eviscerated by the Republicans.
7. Thirty-five percent of Louisiana's National Guard is currently serving in Iraq. Most of their heavy vehicles that would have been ideal for getting in and out of the worst-hit areas are likewise in Iraq.
8. The vast majority of the money that had been devoted to the upkeep and repair of the city's levees--the very levees that burst and flooded the city--had been "re-allocated" to the war in Iraq and Homeland Security.

In the end, I think it's no surprise that the people of New Orleans feel abandoned by their government and their country, because the abandonment was happening long before the hurricane struck. And it should come as no surprise that a segment of the population reacted in the brutal way they did -- because, as any first-year psychology student will tell you, for people to have such a disregard for human life they usually must first regard for their own as worthless.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Atkins = insanity

Gotta love the Italians. Never mind Dante, Michaelangelo, the Medicis, Petrarch, Calvino, Levi, etc etc. They gave us pasta and amazing wine and an attitude toward food that North America would do well to learn.

So yes, the lasagna worked out ... which is good considering that I now have enough to keep me fed for a week. It really is one of those all-or-nothing meals, isn't it? Either you make it for a large group of people, or you commit yourself to an awful lot of leftovers. Both eventualities are happy-making; in the first case, you get to have a sumptuous dinner party, in the latter case ... well, cold lasagna is one of those absolute goods in life. And actually fun and easy, assuming you have a good sauce as the base.

I'd love to be able to claim original authorship of the meat sauce I use, but it's more or less totally ripped off from Food Network illuminatus Mario Battali. But when something works, it works -- though it is highly recommended that vegans, vegetarians and people with heart trouble not come within a city block of this sauce:

4-6 slices of bacon
1 package stewing beef
1/2 lb ground pork
3-6 hot Italian sausages, pricked
4-6 cans crushed tomatoes
salt and pepper to taste
1 bay leaf
2 tsp basil
1 onion, diced,
4-6 garlic cloves, crushed
1 tbsp olive oil
1/2 cup red wine
1/2 cup basalmic vinegar
2 carrots, grated

Heat your stew pot over a medium burner. Fry the bacon in the olive oil until crispy and the fat has been rendered out. Remove bacon (as it's recommended you start this sauce around noon, you might as well make yourself a BLT now). Add onions, garlic and sausages. Sautee until golden.

While those ingredients are getting to know each other, brown your stewing beef in a separate skillet. Deglaze the onions, garlic and sausages with the red wine. Add beef to the pot, then brown the pork. Add it as well. Toss in spices, vinegar, and grated carrots. Add crushed tomatoes and mix everything together. Bring to a mild boil, then immediately reduce to a simmer. Let sit over low heat for 5-7 hours (seriously -- this ain't an instant meal).

When the sauce is about ready, remove the sausages. You can do two things with them: save them to make sandwiches with, or slice them up and use them as a layer in your lasagna (I did the latter tonight).

I'll skip the lasagna assembly ... it's pretty paint-by-numbers.

A nice way to round out the last evening of summer. It's a shame I do not have a balcony. I did however watch the second episode of season four of Six Feet Under (I watched the first on friday). Disk two is on order from Zip ....

Some Buffy Trivia: In the Six Feet episode I watched tonight, Claire goes with a friend to a poetry reading (oh, so many bad memories), which featured, among other things, a weasly looking little guy who reads a terrible poem about his ex-girlfriend's clitorous. The guy seemed really familiar -- and I suddenly realized he was Tom Lenk, who played Andrew on Buffy -- the wimpy member of the geek trio in seasons 6 & 7.

Glad to see he's still getting work, but creepy to hear him speaking in explicit terms about female genitalia.

One last deep breath

Happy Labour Day everyone ... I hope the weather is clement wherever everyone is, and you can enjoy the last day of the summer, your last opportunity to wear white pants & shoes and not be castigated by random fashionistas.

I am -- perhaps unsurprisingly -- in a contemplative mood today, feeling more than I think I ever have the pivot of my world in making the transition from summer to new academic year. I don't teach until wednesday, but I'm making a concerted effort to get myself back into the academic headspace, reminding myself that I can no longer use the excuse "oh, it's still august" for sleeping in a little later, or knocking off and leaving my office earlier.

I'm taking advantage of this last day of vacation to be very sedentary and do very little. I'm doing my elaborate sunday meal this evening, having put aside a bottle of wine and the second episode of the fourth season of Six Feet Under to accompany what is hopefully going to be a very large lasagna. I have the meat sauce on simmer already, and it is starting to permeate the apartment ... yummy. I figure a seven-hour simmer should be enough to bring all those lovely flavours together. While it cooks away on the back burner, I've been reading, watching TV, and playing the odd round of Counterstrike on the computer -- in other words, enjoying certain mindless pleasures before re-entering the classroom this week.

I am inordinately nervous about teaching this semester, and I don't know why. Or rather, I do know why but am wondering why it's reducing me to a state of stage fright I haven't had since I did my first-ever lecture as a TA in English 020 eight years ago (it was on Othello). Four years as a TA and four years of full course loads as a sessional, and I think I've pretty much got the basics down ... and yet this nervousness. New school? New province? A whole new set of variables that, while I can tick them off in my head, I still don't know what they'll entail? All of the above I suppose, but what worries me is the suspicion that at the root of it all is the nagging question "will they like me?"

I shy away from that, because I shouldn't give a damn; because wanting to be liked by your students is a surefire way to lose respect. My biggest mistakes in teaching were with my first-ever class as a sessional, where wanting to be likable somehow crept into the forefront of my classroom concerns, and I never won most of the class back when I realized what was going wrong and tried to correct things ... but the toothpaste was kind of out of the tube at that point.

My father, who worked something in excess of thirty years as a grade school teacher, vice principal, and principal, often said "If they love me, I'm not doing my job." Sorry Dad, but I realize in hindsight that this is a bit disingenuous -- I happen to know that when my father was a teacher, he was invariably the most popular in the school; and when he was a principal, he struck the perfect elementary school balance: i.e., the primary grades adored him and the grades 7-8 lived in abject terror of him. I'd amend Dad's dictum to say, if they love you, you probably are doing your job, because with love comes respect; if you want them to love you, you're certainly not doing your job; and chances are they don't love you at that point because they have no respect.

Not as brief and catchy as Dad's motto. Probably a good reason I'll never be a political speechwriter these days ... except maybe for John Kerry.

Sorry for the confessional nature of this entry, but it does feel better to say these things out loud. Or to see them in print. Either or.

That sauce is starting to smell good. If the lasagna works out, I'll post a picture of it later ...

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Happy new year!

I hate big box stores, both on principle and in terms of genuine from-the-gut hatred. Since its inception I've called Chapters the Death Star ("That's no moon, it's a bookstore!" "It's too big to be a bookstore!"). The one exception to this general hatred however is Staples.

Ah, Staples. You must understand my love of stationary supplies and stationary stores. The excitement other kids would have at Toys R Us was mine when I could walk into a Grand & Toy. So when the big-box phenomenon spread to include all things stationary, there was not a single molecule of my being that did not embrace the glory of the warehouse-sized building packed to the rafters with pens, pads, folders, notebooks, organizers, highlighters, duotangs, paperclips ...

Excuse me, I need to pause for a moment.

OK, I'm back. I made a trek out to the Staples by the airport (ensconced in what I think of as BigBoxville, including Future Shop, Old Navy, Superstore, CostCo, Sportcheck, Petsmart, etc etc) a few days ago, and found myself in the midst of a horde of parents carting around sullen kids getting ready for the new school year. Normally the presence of that many teenagers would fill me with the urge to build a pipe bomb, but this time I was pleasantly transported to all the Septembers in my past. I'm with Paige here on this one -- the new year doesn't begin in January, it begins in September. For twenty-nine years now my life has been organized around the academic year; new year's day for me is whatever the tuesday after Labour Day is. I've always had a lovely feeling of expectation and hope at the end of August, even in the better part of my high school days when I genuinely hated school. A sense of new things to come.

As you might imagine, I'm getting that sense tenfold right now. A new school, a new career, a new start; plus, the happy realization that the rhythms of the academic year are now officially the rhythms of my life to come.

And as we tend to look back in december, I've been very reflective over 2004-05 ... to put it mildly, a bit of a banner year for yours truly. Three milestones: finishing the PhD (finally!!), getting hired at MUN, moving out to Newfoundland.

Those are obviously the big ones. There were others (in roughly chronological order):
--MIT 384, "The Universe Next Door: Alternative Realities, Virtual and Otherwise" ... though I didn't know it at the time, my last MIT course, and (in my opinion) the best
--Kristen and I celebrated one year together in January (given the vagaries of my love life in the preceding seven years, this was in fact huge)
--I finally taught a course in American Lit, which is (technically) my field
--I taught a fourth-year seminar
--I had my first scholarly article published in a peer-reviewed journal
--I became an uncle

I have a sneaking feeling I'm forgetting things ... but these at least give the broad strokes.

It's been a good year, to say the least. And 2005-06 is shaping up to be, at the very least, interesting ...