Sunday, January 29, 2006

34 years + 1 day

Though I suppose I am now technically in my mid-thirties, I refuse to acknowledge that until I turn thirty-five ... at which point I will be in my mid-thirties until I turn forty.

Thirty-four still counts as early thirties, right?

I unfortunately find myself in a profession in which admitting to only twenty-nine has its drawbacks, seeing as how a certain amount of experience is assumed, and that makes a too-young professor a bit suspect. So I'm thinking if I'm going to freeze my age, thirty-one might be the best bet.

Thirty-four. Get outta here. I can't have been around that long. Of course, when I interact with my students, that's a generation gap that invariably makes me feel old. I get very amused when speaking to former students, now in the last year of their degree or just finished, who speak in exasperated tones about how "young" the first-years they meet seem to them.

Ha. I'm not that far away from being, reasonably speaking, old enough to be my students' father. I think when that realization seeps through you can find me down at a local pub well into my seventh pint.

Not yet though. Still only early thirties.

Friday, January 27, 2006

Good night, and good luck

I went last night to see Good Night, And Good Luck, George Clooney's extraordinary film about Edward R. Murrow's fight against Senator Joseph McCarthy. The film begins and ends with an address Murrow made to colleague in the broadcasting industry five years after McCarthy was finally brought down. A few lines from that speech really resonated with me: "This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, it can even inspire. But it can only do so to an extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it is merely wires and lights in a box."

I love this passage because it expresses a fundamental frustration I have with television's 24/7 crap-a-thon, or rather for the justification programmers give: "Hey, we're only giving the people what they want." I think this is defeatist and condescending. Underselling the intelligence of audiences becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Murrow addresses this sentiment, having suggested that "exposure to ideas and the bringing of reality into the homes of the nation," far from being an exercise in futility, would find far more traction with the viewing public than many believe: "To those who say people wouldn't look; they wouldn't be interested; they're too complacent, indifferent and insulated, I can only replay: There is, in one reporter's opinion, considerable evidence against that contention. But even if they are right, what have they got to lose? Because if they are right, and this instrument is good for nothing but to entertain, amuse and insulate, then the tube is flickering now and we will soon see that the whole struggle is lost."

Sing it, Ed.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

och, ya wee, sleekit, cow'rin, tim'rous beasties!

by Robert Burns, Scotsman

Fair fa' your honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftain o' the puddin-race!
Aboon them a' ye tak your place,
Painch, tripe, or thairm:
Weel are ye wordy of a grace
As lang's my arm.

The groaning trencher there ye fill,
Your hurdies like a distant hill,
Your pin wad help to mend a mill
In time o' need,
While thro' your pores the dews distil
Like amber bead.

His knife see rustic Labour dight,
An' cut ye up wi' ready slight,
Trenching your gushing entrails bright
Like onie ditch;
And then, O what a glorious sight,
Warm-reekin, rich!

Then, horn for horn, they strech an' strive:
Deil tak the hindmost! on they drive,
Till a' their weel-swall'd kytes belyve,
Are bent like drums;
Then auld Guidman, maist like to rive,
'Bethankit!' hums.

Is there that owre his French ragout
Or olio that wad staw a sow,
Or fricassee wad mak her spew
Wi' perfect sconner,
Looks down wi' sneering, scornfu' view
On sic a dinner?

Poor devil! see him owre his trash,
As feckless as a wither'd rash,
His spindle shank, a guid whip-lash,
His nieve a nit;
Thro' bluidy flood or field to dash,
O how unfit!

But mark the Rustic, haggis-fed,
The trembling earth resounds his tread.
Clap in his walie nieve a blade,
He'll make it whissle;
An' legs, an' arms, an' heads will sned,
Like taps o' thrissle.

Ye Pow'rs wha mak mankind your care,
And dish them out their bill o 'fare,
Auld Scotland wants nae skinking ware
That jaups in luggies;
But, if ye wish her gratefu' prayer,
Gie her a Haggis!

Happy Robbie Burns Day, everyone.


Tuesday, January 24, 2006

O brave new world, that has such weenies in't!

So I woke up this morning feeling arrogantly self-righteous, disdainful of the unemployed, and vaguely hostile toward my gay friends.

Plus, I had really bad hair.

Can't put my finger on it. Something in the air? Something in the water?

Friday, January 20, 2006

Life in the tunnels

Finally, after a semester and change here at MUN, I'm starting to avail myself on a regular basis of the rather intricate series of above- and below-ground tunnels that interlace the campus. They're actually rather impressive: you can pretty much get anywhere on campus without ever having to venture outside. Western could learn a thing or two, and finally develop the tunnel I always wanted there -- the one that would have gone directly from my office to the Grad Club. Alas that that was never to be, but maybe others may benefit from it in the future. Get on that, would you Davenport?

The above-ground tunnels, or "pedways," are particularly cool; made mostly of glass, they offer a great view of the campus as you make your transit, and they often cross roads and streets, so you get to look down on traffic in various crappy weather. Last week I was crossing from the track to the gym on a particularly foggy evening, which had cloaked everything in an eerie haze. It put me in the mind of atmospheric horror films; it occurred to me that you could make a pretty creepy movie about a group of people trapped on a campus by some sort of monstrous incursion (to make it a film to really freak me out, it would ideally be zombies on the outside), in which the main characters would have successfully barricaded themselves in one building, but of course have no food or supplies ... and so have to make forays out into the tunnels to see if they can make their way to the kitchens &c out at the student center.

You'd have to set it on an American campus if you wanted access to guns. Or I suppose you could have one of the forays be to the police center where they'd break into the gun locker. But I think it would be entirely more scary if the characters would only have clubs and hockey sticks.

Of course, this sort of thing has been done (Aliens or Dawn of the Dead, anyone?). Still, every time it gets dark and foggy here I imagine this will make its creepy way into my mind.

Friday, January 13, 2006

First sentences

There's a running joke among English professors, of the (hypothetical!) class you have not only not prepared for, you haven't even read the text in question. The solution? "We can learn a lot from a close reading of this novel's opening paragraph ..."

All joking aside though, I do rather love looking at opening sentences. In my first-year course this week, that's what we're doing -- looking at a selection of opening passages from a variety of novels and considering how the tone and voice set the stage for the story to come.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez is a master of the opening sentence:

"Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice."
--One Hundred Years of Solitude

"On the day they were going to kill him, Santiago Nasar got up at five-thirty in the morning to wait for the boat the bishop was coming on."
--Chronicle of a Death Foretold

"Over the weekend the vultures got into the presidential palace by pecking through screens on the balcony and the flapping of their wings stirred up the stagnant time inside, and at dawn on Monday the city awoke out of its lethargy of centuries with the warm, soft breeze of a great man dead and rotting grandeur."
--The Autumn of the Patriarch

A great opening sentence is one you can roll over in your mouth like a slowly melting candy. They are even better upon returning to them after having read the book in question: seeing the groundwork they lay, appreciating what the author is doing right out of the gate. Some of my favourites:

"He speaks in your voice, American, and there's a shine in his eye that's halfway hopeful."
--Don DeLillo, Underworld

"With a single drop of ink for a mirror, the Egyptian sorcerer undertakes to reveal to any chance comer far–reaching visions of the past."
--George Eliot, Adam Bede

"You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino's new novel, If on a winter's night a traveler."
--Italo Calvino, If on a winter's night a traveler

"One summer afternoon Mrs. Oedipa Maas came home from a Tupperware party whose hostess had put perhaps too much kirsch in the fondue to find that she, Oedipa, had been named executor, or she supposed executrix, of the estate of one Pierce Inverarity, a California real estate mogul who had once lost two million dollars in his spare time but still had assets numerous and tangled enough to make the job sorting it out more than honorary."
--Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49

Then of course, there are the classics:

"It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife."
--Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

"Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo."
--James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

"Call me Ishmael."
--Herman Melville, Moby Dick

Or the simple and chilling:

"They shoot the white girl first."
--Toni Morrison, Paradise

Or the comical:

"Having placed in my mouth sufficient bread for three minutes' chewing, I withdrew my powers of sensual perception and retired into a privacy of my mind, my eyes and face assuming a vacant an preoccupied expression."
--Flann O'Brien, At Swim-Two-Birds
"I was never so amazed in my life as when the Sniffer drew his concealed weapon from its case and struck me to the ground, stone dead."
--Robertson Davies, Murther and Walking Spirits
OK, enough. I could do this all day -- how geeky is that?

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Brain is love

Welcome to semester two of the freshman faculty experience. I realized yesterday that the sign on my office door needed updating, as my office hours have changed. I decided that while I was at it, the image I have over my name should switch too ... last term it was Dr. Strangelove; this term I think I want to be The Brain.

What are we doing in class today, Dr. Lockett? The same thing we do every class -- trying to take over the world. Mwuhaha.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Back on the Rock

Well, it is good to be home ... nice to feel like I'm getting back in a rhythm of things, and nice to know tomorrow I'll be in front of the classroom again. I've been working today on class prep ... getting the lectures together, and giving myself a schedule of work for the next few weeks. I love this deep breath moment, and the sense of having things mapped out. Of course, that maybe lasts a week before my carefully parcelled packages of time are all jumbled together in something resembling fractal geometry, but it still feels good to have a plan.

That, plus New Year's resolutions. I actually have some this year, not the least of which is to get back into shape and fit back into a disturbing number of pairs of pants that are too snug now to be comfortable (which is a euphemism meaning I can barely get them buttoned. Oh, beer, look what thou hast wrought).

And after three weeks away, it's also good to be back with the cat, who is currently making me suffer for my absence. He doesn't leave me along. It's been like a feline love-fest since I returned, punctuated by the occasional burst of petulance (i.e. tiger-like attack from behind a chair) to remind me of my perfidy. That, plus reproachful endless miaows whenever I'm otherwise occupied (such as now).

So, happy 2006 ...

Thursday, January 05, 2006

A mile high blog

I’m not a nervous flyer, but there’s a moment right after takeoff that always gets me a little—as the plane ascends, angling steeply upward, the feeling of forward momentum ebbs, leaving me looking down at ground that is still a little disturbingly close and the sense that we are hanging precariously in the air without moving. It’s a moment that always makes me think of Douglas Adams’ description of the alien ships at the beginning of The Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy: “They hung in the air the way bricks didn’t.”

So I’m writing this entry mid-way back to the Rock, sitting in the second-to-last row of an Air Canada Jazz CRJ-705, a small two-engine regional jet that looks a little like a Gulf Stream’s poor cousin. There’s a sticker on the back of the seat in front of me that helpfully says “Coming soon to this space in front of you: a digital audio/video system YOU can control.” I’m thinking seriously of removing it and placing it on the back of one of my car’s headrests.

Meanwhile, I’m wondering why I neglected to put a DVD in my carry-on, given that taking my laptop home for the holidays did little more than make my bag annoyingly heavy on the way out and back. Always I have such utopian plans for the work I’ll get done over the holidays, and always I do next to none of it. At least I could have watched a movie for however long my battery would hold out (not long, I think). One year I will learn.

Ah well. At least I can bash out a few words to cut and paste into the blog when I get home. It passes the time, at any rate.

Very strange it is to be returning home after three weeks vacation—it will be an adjustment, and not just for the weather (though I’ll be sure to include a “Holy Crap!!” at the snow to keep Lesley happy). It was a lovely Christmas and New Years’ (though my unwise packing for the trip means that the balance of my Christmas gifts will have to come by mail in the next little while), made even better by the fact that I was able to spend nearly a week in London with Kristen, and to see a lot of friends in the old burg. London, in its odd way, still felt like home—I guess living somewhere for eight years(!) makes its streets and landscapes second nature, in a way St. John’s has yet to do for me (weirdest thing about walking around London? It felt impossibly flat after five months of my new home’s steep inclines). Hitting old haunts and relaxing at Kristen’s in the mornings doing crosswords and reading the paper over coffee made me feel painfully nostalgic and more than a little sad.

Which is not to embark here on a maudlin sentimentalization of London; far from it. The best things there for me are the people, and I certainly cannot complain about the circumstances that took me away to Newfoundland. Even as I mope a bit in the inevitable post-holidays depression (and gird myself for another long stretch of missing Kristen), I’m pretty excited about the new semester. One thing you can say about a curriculum entirely composed of half-courses: while aggravating on some fronts, it allows for a renewal every semester. I do rather like starting from scratch, and I’m looking forward this weekend to getting myself set to go. Replete with new clothes for Christmas!

I love airplanes and airports for that reason—they signify transition and change and possibility. Even if they do sometimes feel like they’re hanging in the air like bricks.

Like how I came full circle on that one?

Monday, January 02, 2006

The year in review

As anyone who reads this blog knows, I love lists—both making them and reading them. So some of my favourite reading comes this time of year as the incessant best- and worst-of lists emerge in the newspapers starting in the week or so before Christmas. Not that New Year’s tends to mean much to me—as I’ve stated here before, for me the new year starts the day after Labour Day. Also, I dislike New Year’s Eve as a holiday, and generally do my best to stay away from the greatest excesses of its revelry.


What’s funny this year is how little I am familiar with most of what’s being listed, especially in terms of best and worst films. If 2005 has resonance for me with regards to movies, it is probably the year in which I saw the fewest theatrical releases ever. Much of that has to do with the general lack of decent films that made it to London and St. John’s (often what I did go see was quite dreadful), but in the last few years I have found myself less and less inclined to go to the cinema anyway.

Also, a quick review of the G&M’s best books of the year drove home the cruel paradox of being an English professor—namely, that for someone whose job is largely to do with reading, I am utterly unfamiliar (for the most part) with this year’s publications. Ask me about anything between 1947-1963 and I can help you … but not so much anything that is still sitting on the shelves in hardcover.

So here is my highly subjective review of the year … a banner one for me, for obvious reasons, but which was so rife with disasters and tragedies that it makes me feel mildly guilty to feel good about it. Still, here were some of the highlights and lowlights from my limited perspective:

Best Book: Collapse, by Jared Diamond. Having picked up Guns, Germs and Steel and been entranced, I didn’t hesitate to buy Collapse while it was still in hardcover. Diamond is a brilliant thinker and writer, and presents his arguments in an admirably lucid fashion: asking the question of why some societies fail and others do not, he examines such examples as Easter Island, the Viking settlements in Greenland, and the Anasazi in the American southwest, and holds them up in comparison to our own current global political and environmental messes. He’s not pedantic, and he’s also not a doom and gloomer, offering possible fixes that are both pragmatic and doable. A highly recommended read.

Greatest Guilty Pleasure: Finally, after two years of deferring its publication, fantasy writer George R. R. Martin released A Feast for Crows, the fourth book of his Ice and Fire series … a series I have been following since 1996. For those who have also been reading it, you know what I’m talking about. For those curious to read it, I’d consider waiting until the series is done. The books are like crack, and the wait between installments is excruciating.

Most Addictive Television Show: Hands down, Lost. With my old stand-by The West Wing long past its best-before date and many shows I used to follow now on too late (you’d think they could do something about that hour-and-a-half time-shift out in NL, but no … with all the 10pm shows on at 11:30 out there, I just no longer have the stamina to follow the likes of Law & Order any more—thank god The Daily Show gets replayed every day at 5:00), Wednesday nights became the TV staple. Loving that Sayid. And how can you go wrong with a former hobbit as an erstwhile rock star and heroin addict?

Music Highlight(s): Again, not really a contest—unsurprisingly, the boys from Dublin are in the forefront. Seeing the Vertigo tour twice, first in Toronto and then in Montreal, and both times from the floors. Montreal was doubly good because of the opening act: The Arcade Fire, that endearing bunch of geeks who make some pretty great music and who got extensive kudos from Bono. Plus, Daniel Lanois playing along to “Bad” in the encore didn’t suck.

Most Aggravating Conservative Pundit: Wow, what a field to choose from this year. Pat Robertson’s double whammy of advocating Chavez’s assassination and then condemning Dover PA for turfing intelligent design (OK, he’s not exactly a pundit, but has earned a place on the list) was bad enough; Tucker Carlson’s characterization of Canada as the “retarded cousin” made his bow tie seem intelligent by comparison; but the winner this year has to go to Bill O’Reilly for his sustained campaign against the supposed “war on Christmas” in which he managed single-handedly to supplant “liberals” as the conservative boogeymen with “secular progressives.” He constructed an elaborate conspiracy theory in which the combined forces of secular progressives, the ACLU and corporate America were working in concert to destroy Christian America by replacing “Merry Christmas” with “Happy Holidays.” Now … I’m no expert on conspiracy theories—hardly having given the topic any thought at all, really—but that’s even weak compared to the idea that Martin Luther King and Elvis faked their deaths and are using U2 as a front to perpetrate their pernicious ideas of racial equality and political progressiveness (seriously, that exists).

Best Response to Stupid Conservative Punditry: Jon Stewart, who ridiculed O’Reilly’s paranoia by declaring that he hated Christmas and would not rest until families celebrated December 25 at “Osama’s homo-abortion pot-commie jizzporium.” Oh, Jon.

Best Film: Of the few I saw in the theatre, I think Jarhead is in the forefront—really not what the trailers would lead you to think, it is a very intense, well-written and –shot film that challenges our conceptions of war generally and Gulf War the First in particular. Coming a close second? March of the Penguins—how can animals manage to be that dignified and that absurd at the same time?

So much for the lists—happy 2006, everyone.