Tuesday, December 30, 2008

year-end catch up

it's been so long since i've blogged -- over a month -- that i'm not sure i remember how to do it anymore. and i'm not sure what to write about, so many ideas have come and gone.

i was going to write about post-course tristesse, that sense of loss and desire i still experience when i watch my students write their final exam. i look at each serious head, bent to the ruled booklet, and wonder exactly what will become of katie the nurse, or johnny the class clown (what's he hiding? when he does finally take himself seriously, how painful will it be?). i look at hac, who's spoken english for under ten years yet wants to write like the BBC commentators he reads online: could i have spent just a bit more time with him in my office, talking writing? over in the theory class, i'm still marveling at the single mom who brought her 8-year-old to exposure's trans day of remembrance, thrilled at the varsity hockey player whose world was blown wide open by eli clare's gender ambiguity -- gender wealth? -- and curious as to what motivates alex, the quiet military guy who didn't miss a trick all year. i watch them write and i think, hard, about who they seem to be now and who they might become, and hope that what i've been able to offer these past few months is enough. in this way, teaching is painful, and it only becomes more poignant by realizing, as i have this year, that so much of what's just happened will be forgot -- by them, by me....

i was also going to write about more generally about what it was like to be back in the classroom after so many years away -- i loved it, obviously -- but also what a mysterious thing it is to learn something, by which i mean: i know that i am different from two or three years ago, but the difference is so evanescent that i can't really pin it down. i think differently, something like that. and so, yeah, i get tired, but i don't (can't?) work beyond my limits any longer. i was savaged on the dep't listserv, and just moved on. i was flattered, no doubt, to be nominated by my students for a teaching award, but it didn't serve as a measure of my sense of worth. a therapist might say i make better decisions now, but as usual the decision-making process is so habitual and, well, quick that it never feels like you're sitting at the table saying no to the day's special in favour of the tried and true.

christmas has been really good, one of the best ever, in both edmonton and ottawa, and i was going to write all about that: my sister's life-changing brussels sprouts, how my uncle got up at 5 in the morning to purchase a wii fit, the conviviality around dan and tony's dinner table, what it's like to spend evening after evening just visiting with good friends and family. among other things, we've seen a ton of children this christmas, and i really enjoy my relationship with them: laura's diva style, morgan's love for shoes, maggie's ballet and daisy's made-up song, eria's cuteosity, stella's blue pjs, harriet's brute intelligence, the other morgan's shy, sardonic and dangerously passionate approach to the world -- i feel lucky, on an almost daily basis, to have exactly the relationship with children that i want to have.

i was going to write about how aunty jo told everybody at boston pizza that yes, heather and maureen are going to ottawa this year but she just didn't feel up to it. i was going to rave about how many new design blogs i've found (though i suppose you can see them in the blogroll) and how keen i am to rearrange everything on the main floor of the house. i was going to talk up the exposure board for anyone interested in arts and culture and event planning and hard work and fun. i was going to mention that my first column in unlimited magazine will be posted here after 1 jan.

but now here we are, 2008 is on its last curtain call, its brave bow turned bored and its glance to the techs in the rafters more and more worried: any second now the curtain comes down for good, and there will be no time left to write any of that.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Exposing my self

i've been wandering around all day in a fog. over the last hour or so it's occurred to me that it's because i'm tired. my feet hurt. my knees hurt. my hips hurt. okay, all of that can be traced to dancing in ridiculous heels last night -- but the outside of my forearms? my neck? i guess it's like this when tension leaves the body.

what i've realized during the last hour of slow consciousness (see slow food, slow growth) is that although i am tired, i am also really and truly better than i was a year ago or two. it's not just that i didn't pass out in the middle of the night and rip my forehead open, as i did at the end of exposure '07. and it's not that i find this easy: although i wrote breezily a few days back that i had lost track of my identity as dr zwicker, that kind of emotional dislocation is profound, for me. this week of supreme highs (bathhouse) and fears (will people come to the festival? will they like it? will our small board survive it?) and frustrations (which aren't worth rehearsing) and fragmentation (from 9-9:30 i'm schlepper, from 9:30-11:00 i'm teacher, from 11:00-1:00 i'm hzwicker@ualberta and zwickerhzwicker@gmail, then dr zee, then doctoral supervisor, then, starting at 4:00, professional lesbian, then sombre audience member) and neglect (does walking to the car count as exercise? how many nights a week is it ok to eat trail mix for dinner?): this kind of disaggregation is precisely what the doctor didn't order.

but i'm ok. i'm not great. in particular, i'm still bothered by that perennial sense that i should have done more; it grieved and guilted me to leave the party last night, for instance, knowing how much work it would be to take it down, and i can't believe i forgot, literally forgot, to go to play on friday night after the amy fung event at the ARTery. i feel uneasy, unsettled, uncertain -- all those "un"s suggesting that i don't feel any identifiable thing, just the opposite of many things. my sensitivities are dialed up, so i still don't know whether i'm right to be upset about the unlimited business, and i am spending way too much time fretting about people who are, really, tangential to my life (but did KW seem out of sorts to anyone else this week?). i don't know what i'll do with all this unclaimed time on my hands, nor how i'll survive without sending and receiving a hundred exposure-related emails a day. i worry, what if my sense of self really is predicated on being indispensable to others?

as i pause and read the paragraph i just wrote -- slow consciousness, remember? -- i'm struck by the repetition of "not knowing." apparently, i find it emotionally dangerous not to know. (my name is heather, and i'm a control freak....). but it's puzzling, nonetheless. isn't the unknown one of the main things to love about art? and isn't risk built into dealing with people? i'm all about grooving on folks who are unlike me, and i love seeing a painting or a photograph or a performance or a room -- the starlite lounge last night comes to mind -- that startles or intrigues or comforts or moves me into a different mental and emotional space.

it's odd, then, homeopathically odd, that the things that scare me the most are the things i seek to do. i probably should have been a bank teller, not a teacher who falls in love with her classes right before they end. i should work on safe events like the olympics rather than start-up queer arts and culture fests. i should make friends with the old and settled, not the up-and-comers who regularly leave this city.

"expose yourself" was the slogan of this year's festival. it's only now, as i spend a day musing and loitering, that i really understand that challenge. i'm pleased to discover that i'm well enough to meet it.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008


in a word: incredible.

we planned for 100, hoped for 125, and we were past that number in the first hour. all in all, we had close to 400 people at the bathhouse over the evening.

everybody was there: swarthy men and bright-eyed graduate students, groups of curious girls, swishy boys, pretty boys, grown-up women, transfolk, drag queens in street clothes, dykes -- friends, strangers... i wish we'd had a tape recorder at the front door, just to capture people's first reactions on walking into the dark red maze. some were anxious and wanted direction: "which way should we go? what should we not miss?" others were just excited: "OMG i can't believe i'm here!" yet others came through the door and you could actually see them adjust their facial expression from nervous to cruisy to cool.

we had art pieces in a dozen rooms and along the halls. marshall set up spotlights to augment the dim and highlight the art, and we provided flashlights for people to use if they chose. norman omar's painting of half a dozen men in towels leaning up against one another covered one hallway, for instance; we installed shane golby's rabbit hutch along one wall and put CW carson's terrifying clown images into three rooms on the opposite wall. one of my personal favorites was dolan badger's installation about fucking the indian (again).... really powerful, and beautiful, understated and bold, at once. anthea black silkscreened a gayle rubin room, a patrick califia room and a cynthia plaster room that you could only view through glory holes. the TVs throughout the bathhouse are all wired together. on one, we screened tom kalin and gran fury's AIDS has not left the building, on the second, sandi somers' whimsical the panty portal and on the third, a buck angel porn called buckback mountain (confession: it was hard not to go with v for vagina). seeing these three together, as you could in the movie room, worked surprisingly well.

we printed e.g. crichton's dirty soap prints on waterproof paper and hung them around the shower and on the floor. we had paige gratland's celebrity lesbian fists, silicon, displayed on black slate. josee aubin oullette took over the steam rooom and filled it with simple ink drawings of the everyday objects that get transformed by being in a bathhouse -- towels, lockers, pillows, beds, keys. it was a little treasure hunt of a maze, illuminated with sexy blacklights.

upstairs, four performance artists held court. antonio bavaro was dr glockensprockensphree (?sp), dispensing advice for the sex addicted. put a coin in her slot and kristine nutting opened the door to her confessional. todd janes's tearoom allowed for anything -- anything -- and was really moving, a space for intimacy in the place you generally come to avoid it, while julianna barabas, wearing a full-length white greek dress, washed, massaged and oiled your hands while singing to you. many people commented that hers felt like the dirtiest piece of all.

anyway, it was a marvelous evening, way beyond our wildest dreams. more than any of the art in particular, the night itself was the event: wandering halls, getting lost in the dark, bumping into strangers, imagining yourself in the sling next to the chainlink fence.... the crowd was perhaps the best art installation of all.

for pictures, program and rowan bayne's exquisite blog on the event, go here. for todd janes's take on his own art, go here. jackson's photos are all over, esp at the exposure fb page.

tonight? i sat on the sofa for five hours, catching up on design blogs and without a trace reruns. that's bliss of another sort.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Who what where when

in about 12 hours the second annual exposure festival will be half over.

it's a fantastic festival. loud and queer was a sellout; james loney was incredible (i blogged about it here); and i've just come in from screening the incredibly moving she's a boy i knew, by vancouver film whiz gwen haworth, also in attendance to field questions and comments from the audience. tomorrow we deck out the bathhouse with art for a one-night extravaganza that has buzz all over -- well, actually, all over the country: the rumour is that CBC is running the story nationally.

but i am tired.

i knew from last year that this week would be tough, but knowing is not the same as living fatigue. my days are peppered with paying artists' cab fares, chasing down films that don't arrive, finding a stepladder, troubleshooting stanchions, speaking to media (a special hell, for me -- remember, i don't like vacation snaps), and trying to keep everybody else's spirits up. over in another email account, i still have my day job to attend to, and i feel worryingly distant from my colleagues and students this week. dr zwicker, i wonder: who's that? if it weren't for ted's can-do and mo's just-don't, i don't think i'd be standing at 10pm this monday night.

how tired am i? going to a command-performance queer meet-and-greet this afternoon, i found myself sharing an elevator with a woman from the united way, heading to the same event. dammit, i thought, small talk 31 floors before i'm ready. i did what i always do in such circumstances, which is channel my sister, the fund development officer who can chat up anybody. as the elevator doors closed on us, i arranged a pleasant look on my face and said, "united way! november's a busy month for you, isn't it? one of your busiest, i think i've heard. barb, is it? let me introduce myself, i'm heather zwicker. i teach in the english department at the ufoa but this week i'm also the board chair for exposure, edmonton's queer arts and culture festival." she looked a bit uncomfortable, like she was trying to find the right words to say. quick: be chipper. what would shannon do? "it's a multidisciplinary arts and culture festival," i said, "and hasn't it been a fantastic week in edmonton? salman rushdie was here on thursday, and thomas king spoke at city hall on saturday -- oh, and the university mounted a historical production of orfeo on saturday, did you catch that? i didn't, i was actually giving a paper at the parkland conference, but i heard that it was stunning, and i'm sorry i couldn't have been two places at once, because the films they showed as part of the festival of ideas sounded just phenomenal." i smiled super-brightly, then paused to inhale. she seized her moment. "sorry to interrupt," said barb, reaching for the door open button, "but i think the elevator isn't moving." and indeed, there we were, right where we started. just tireder.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

The not-so-silent auction

i should have stopped to think, but you know me: i love an auction. where else do you get that one-on-everyone competitive thing in a shopping experience where the deals are guaranteed and all the money's going to a good cause? it's pretty heady.

but speaking of "pretty" -- and i'm saying this because i love you all -- if you're ever offered a cosmetics package at a queer festival, stop and think. the stuff is going to be drag-queen-friendly. it's not just the shave cream (which, at least, is travel sized), or the gold lip gloss (which can't look totally gold once it's spread all over your lips); it's not just the turquoise eyeshadow (turquoise will be making a comeback any day now), or the enormous powder puff (i've been meaning to get some enormous powder). it's not even the false eyelashes. well, it's a little bit the false eyelashes, which i can't see wearing to my day job.

no, the really difficult part here is that there are things in this package i can't even begin to identify. like "solar bits." body glitter, you might be thinking, pityingly (what kind of femme is she?). but it's black, and not "black" like somebody with dark skin might want to wear, but, like, jet black. read the tag line, you're thinking. okay: "pearlized clusters." does that help? didn't think so.

so after the excitement of my big "win" (and that's another thing about silent auctions, but isn't "winning" so much better, so much less greedy and ostentatious, so much luckier, than just "buying"?), i'm left with a bag of cosmetics that make me feel inadequate. which, when you step back for a second, is one big reason you'd buy cosmetics in the first place.

while i'm handing out silent auction advice: beware of the pity bid. if nobody else has bid on something by the second intermission, they're not going to, and you're going home with a stack of brad fraser books.

on the upside: mo seems to like her new watch.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Keep hope alive

i had one of the worst sleeps in history, yet i'm perfectly content. every 20 minutes or so i woke myself up asking, "is it true? is it really true?" happily, over and over i could put myself back to sleep with a comforting yes: yes, Barack Obama has been elected president of the united states.

i've been caught off guard by how much this election means to me, what it means, symbolically, for the US to elect a black president -- but also an urban president, a liberal, a cosmopolitan. the footage from kenya last night was meaningful not only because it was east africa, which always stirs me, but because for the first time in living memory, maybe the first time in history, the white house has lived connections to another part of the world. it makes it that much more difficult for america to recede into an isolationist exceptionalism.

and then there's the fact that he's african american. like everybody, i've known this all year. when i taught the james baldwin story "sonny's blues" to my first-year students earlier this semester, we ran through the history of slavery, the invention of the cotton gin, the urbanization of african americans in the north, the harlem renaissance, and the nascent civil rights movement. we watched billie holiday sing "strange fruit" (yeah: it's on youtube), and i ended the discussion by saying, "and that's why it's a big deal that there's an african american running for president."

in spite of all this consciousness, there was something, i don't know, different and shocking and inescapable and wonderful about seeing barack and michelle obama with their daughters on stage in grant park chicago last night, knowing that all four of them -- the whole family -- will be moving to the white house this winter. throughout the campaign, something, i suspect it's tokenism, though it's also the fact of cosmopolitanism and the fact of liberalism and the fact of complexity, something made it possible, perhaps even necessary, to see past the fact of barack's blackness (to invoke fanon). but the whole damn family is black, and they're all part of the big show now, all four of 'em, and it's michelle who's going to be walking the razorline of smart, stylish, self-possessed and supportive, and there will be black girls (black girls!) playing in the back yard of 1600 pennsylvania. obama's election is a Big Deal.

so i'm happy today. i'm happy for my former student, linda, who teaches in small-town arkansas. she writes, "There are just no words... I think there were scenes across the South and the nation akin to that which Maya Angelou describes when Joe Louis won the title of Heavyweight Champion of the world. ... I can't wait to get to school this morning. I can't wait to see Dr. Mallory, my colleague who taught in segregated schools and was a student at SAU when blacks were not allowed anywhere on campus outside the classroom. I can't wait to see my black students."

i'm happy for my friends al and sue in seattle, sue in particular being a lifelong democrat.

i'm happy for jesse jackson, whose "keep hope alive!" speech i was fortunate enough to hear in california in the fall of 1988. that's 20 years ago now, and 20 years after MLK's murder -- though at the time the '60s felt ancient, while the '80s feel like yesterday to me now. there is a world of learning there.

i'm happy for deidre and hector, their son eric and the baby they'll have in february. they're new yorkers, and maybe new yorkers don't have to feel so freakishly out of kilter with the country they're a part of, the country they were repatriated into after 9/11. i'm happy for new york.

i'm happy for all three of marcia and leerom's kids, who will grow up with barack obama as their president, and i'm happy for marcia, who protested nuclear arms at the original ground zero in nevada in the 70s and 80s, and i'm happy for lee and the progressive synagogue the family's part of.

i'm relieved and happy and relieved and -- did i say relieved? -- for the whole world this morning.

there's no one to feel unhappy for. during mccain's concession speech, which i agree was very gracious, i realized that in a profound sense he never had much to lose during this election. he's old, he's white, he's conservative, he's male -- the world remains his oyster. he can live the rest of his life off the "i ran against barack obama" stories if he wants to.

right now, though i hasten to add that i'm high on hope and sleeplessness, i don't even feel terribly unhappy about the queers who can't marry. there is work to be done, no doubt, and not least with conservative african americans who, if polls can be believed, voted overwhelmingly in favor of the bans on gay marriage.

but this morning hope is tangible, and i want to remember that "hope" is for us too. not just americans, not just african americans, not just democrats or centrists, but all of us who live for progressive change. there is plenty to despair about in the world, especially over the last 7 years, and there's always room for better. facebook status updates are being qualified already, from last night's jubilation to a more measured tone that notes the disappointments of prop 8.

i get it. but as for me, i'm not going to change my update yet. hope is an unknown territory, and i'm going to take the risk of living there a while.

Sunday, October 26, 2008


my sister's firm just laid off a bunch of people (it's heeeeere, the global recession) and she got called to toronto for a meeting at the same time as her husband is at a conference in chicago. "no problem!," i said, breezily (i was sweating on the inside, but what help is that to her?), "we'll take care of the kids for a couple of days."

it's not all four of them, allah be praised, just morgan (4) and everett (2). when i arrived, the house was spotless and the kids were in a great mood. nobody cried when mom left, perhaps because i'd already sat them down in front of the TV. i left them quietly amusing themselves and went upstairs to put a chicken in the oven for dinner. working in my sister's kitchen, the sun pouring in the wall of west windows onto their shiny new hardwood floors, i thought: maybe i shouldn't be so terrified of children. i'm always thinking how tiring they are, and how i've never wanted to be anybody's mother. i never consider this feeling, the quiet sense of peace and love that most people associate with 'family.'

at which point everett walked into the kitchen and projectile vomited.

we are all familiar with the phrase "projectile vomit." but the reality? whole other thing. as my friend aimee says, you think it's a dead metaphor, but it turns out to be a cold, clinical description. i haven't seen anything like it since elementary school. he stood in one spot and spewed puke, three times, in a one-metre radius. there was barf on the cupboards and barf on the floor. his clothes were soaked, and his shoes. his sister's clothes. her shoes. i couldn't imagine his little stomach could hold so much, yet there it was -- and still coming. my sister wasn't even at the airport yet.

five minutes later he was bouncing on the bed in his PJs, the entire episode forgotten.

and where was mo for all of this, you ask? hockey. we made a deal: she'd go to her hockey game in the afternoon, and i could go out to the big exposure party tonight. however, i find that the evening's events have quite sapped my urge to disco.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Grumpy old professor rant

remember dana carvey's grumpy old man? turns out it's hard to write a rant like that, but here goes:

i’m old, and i’m not happy. everything today is “improved,” and i don’t like it. i hate it! in my day, we didn’t have social networks. we didn’t have e-mail, or facebook, or google. we didn’t even have friends. if you wanted to be a professor, you took your pencil and went to the library by yourself, looking for a stray idea in the card catalogue, until the librarian shooed you out with her cane and you went back to your underground apartment to eat a cold can of beans. that’s the way it was, and you liked it. you loved it! look at me, i’m a phd, i made terrible life choices.

in my day, we knew how to take it like a man. we didn’t have writing groups or reading groups. our supervisors didn’t talk to us. we never saw the light of day and we didn’t need it. we could stuff our dreams into a box in the dark. we didn't whine about employability or making a living. you stayed in the program for ten, eleven, twelve years, until you were so miserable and pathetic they couldn't kick you out, so you stayed in the academy, with other freaks like you. that’s the way it was and you liked it. you loved it! hallelujah, i'm a professor. and i'm gonna make you pay.

The fear of doing it differently

i have grading on my desk, so i’ve taken the opportunity to prepare a meaty missive "on the question of a second-year doctoral seminar," a hot-button issue in our department right now. essentially, we're exploring the possibility of developing a year-long, team-taught doctoral seminar that will provide structured support for students, help them prepare a thesis proposal, and engage with each other, and with a group of professors, on a topic of general interest (conspiracy, the book, e.g.).

here's what i have come to. what follows is long, which you might welcome if you, too, have a desk full of deadlines and a passing interest in academia. if not, wait for tomorrow or sunday: i'm working on a "grumpy old man" episode on this very theme.

point 1: the “timely completion” issue is disciplinary
according to the research on canadian graduate studies, the problem of long doctoral degrees is disciplinary, not program- or university-specific: “On average, it took doctoral students in canada 5 years and 10 months to complete their studies. However, while all required more than five years to graduate, only social sciences and humanities students required six years or more” (Garth Williams, Doctoral Education in Canada 1900-2005, available at www.cags.ca).

in part, degrees can be shortened by reducing degree requirements. but CAGS research tells us that it’s not the number of program requirements alone that determines timely completion, but the ways in which students are supported. one of the 12 recommendations in The Completion of Graduate Studies in Canadian Universities: Report and Recommendations, 2003 (rev. 2004, and also available at www.cags.ca) is: “Foster academic and social integration into research teams, scholarship discussion groups, teaching and other departmental affairs. This is especially important in areas of scholarship where graduate students have typically worked in relative academic isolation, engaged in solo scholarship.”

point 2: we should prepare students for a big job market
too often, arguments about graduate studies become anecdotal. professors cite their experience (“i loved being left alone!”) or their assumptions about who their student are and will become (“this is the only unstructured time in an entire career!”).

i’m sympathetic, but i’m not convinced. the thing is – graduate student readers, stop up your ears, put your hands across your eyes! -- most of our students are not going to get the jobs we profs currently hold. my job is marvelous: the dep’t is collegial, our students are talented, our teaching load is reasonable, our research profile high. sadly, most academic jobs in the country today are not this plum. so i think a seminar that provides opportunities for students to negotiate complex ideas with people unlike themselves could provide essential collegial skills.

moreover, we might want to think about a doctoral degree as a bit broader than pre-professorial. to paraphrase williams (cited above): graduates from engineering and the life sciences routinely find employment beyond the academy as well as within it. HSS doctorates, on the other hand, are prepared for academic jobs alone. as a result, only 34.8% of humanities PhDs make over $55,000 per year (2005 figs). i have read this report many times, and still can't believe i've read it correctly, but those are the numbers.

that can't be the best we can do. as i watch world capitalism crumble, i worry that a doctoral degree in english is about to seem as wise an investment as a fannie mae mortgage. i wrote the metaphor lightly, but it works: it's like a subprime mortgage, a don't-pay-now-pay-later boondoggle on a life without the market value you might prefer.

which leads me to my next point:

point 3: humanities research matters to public intellectual life
this wasn't my point; a colleague made it; but it's a good one. all the thinking i'm aware of suggests that we need labile lateral thinkers if homo sapiens are going to live to see the twenty-second century. my sense is that people in other disciplines as well as non-academics in general are interested in the perspectives that students of literature and culture have developed through long study (and i mean "students" here in the broadest possible sense, the sense in which we are all students of life). my worry is that we sell ourselves short, hide behind obfuscation and the fear of getting things wrong, fret about the impurities of politics, and put the safe thing (that batch of papers, that editing deadline, and so on) ahead of the messy and imperfect engagement in public life. hardly surprising, since we haven't been trained for it. why not start by giving graduate students a chance to try out their voices as public intellectuals in a (relatively) low-stakes seminar?

the peroration:
if the problems at the root of our doctoral programs are disciplinary, i’d love to see us take this opportunity to re-imagine our discipline’s possibilities. if we were to offer the heather zwicker school of doctoral studies (takers? anyone? uh, hullo, is this thing on?), students would work in inter-disciplinary learning partnerships for the entire four years of their degree. we would abolish the standard dissertation-as-monograph requirement; instead, students would work in genres appropriate to their specific area of research and the contours of the problem they’re taking on. there would be no courses and no exams, but plenty of colloquia. and, of course, these innovations would attract fame and funding enough that I could retire at, oh, 51. but I digress.

can a single proposed seminar accomplish these things? of course not. but to the extent that it carves out a space for students to work with each other, and not just with a supervisor; for students to collaborate intellectually across fields within the discipline, if not beyond it; for doctoral students to develop the networks of support that might sustain them through the grind; and for all of us to think just a wee bit more imaginatively about how to educate ourselves and each other – to the extent that the proposal carves out a space for all of these possibilities, i am in favour of it.

or, to put this slightly differently, particularly for those of you whose eyes glazed over some time ago and are searching for the punch line: yes, we need to teach our students to research; yes, much of this work is solo; yes, we all made it through our own doctoral programs, sinking, swimming or treading water – but I can’t believe that’s the only way to do things. If we remain committed to virginia woolf’s harsh dictum that “we face the fact, for it is a fact, that there is no arm to cling to, but that we go alone,” could we not put it off for just one more year?

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Extraordinary evening

back about a year ago, i got a note from a colleague alerting me to the fact that a well-known lesbian writer from the UK was moving to alberta and wouldn't i like to befriend her. i wrote immediately to valerie mason-john to say hey let's get together when you're next in town and don't worry, it's a dry cold.

she hasn't moved here yet, but she emailed in september to say she was coming to visit her partner who lives in ponoka. we bandied about various ways of getting together (how about lit fest on thursday night? no, can't do that -- but i'm going on friday? no, that won't work for me, etc) until she said, "look, we're having a dinner party on saturday night. if you and another person wanted to come, we'd love to have you." i demurred politely -- we were supposed to be working on my sister's new house all day, so we'd be tired, plus i know how precious visiting time is, you don't necessarily want to share it with strangers, and is it really environmentally, which is to say socially, acceptable to drive all the way to ponoka for dinner? -- and picked up the thread of other possibilities: tuesday afternoon? breakfast on wednesday?

she stopped emailing and immediately phoned all three of my numbers, from london, to insist we come for dinner.


i'll confess, i agonized a little. for one thing, what to wear? i've seen valerie's photo online and in the tellingly-entitled femmes of power, so i knew she'd be nearly six feet of gorgeous, from boot-tips to hair. all i knew about her partner was that she's cleaning up in alberta's oil patch -- "cleaning up," i took it, in the metaphorical sense, not like some kind of ecodyke. so, once i was dressed, there was the question of wine. why, oh why, am i such an oenological dunce? in my mind's eye, i had us spending the evening in witty repartee around a formal dining room table trimmed with this season's accoutrements. i thought: it will be a new-built country estate. i wondered: will there be servants? from what i hear, oilpatch people burn bricks of money to warm their cold, cold hearts.

of course, i was completely off base. it wasn't oil people, it was country people. there were ten or eleven dykes, all smart and creative and edgy and intriguing and warm. we came from various places -- BC, massachusetts, UK, edmonton, ontario, the michigan womyn's music festival -- to this sweet '40s bungalow in ponoka. the house, it turns out, was built by an architect who saw a magazine picture of a california bungalow and set out to recreate it. cheryl has been restoring it by hand since she bought it a few years back. among her friends were ranchers from nanton and some sheep farmers en route to nova scotia. another couple there had just returned from running a wilderness outfit in the chilcotin. everybody was a writer and a reader; everybody was friendly and funny and sexily self-possessed. the food was tasty, by which i mean: it tasted like food. the smoky beans were cooked with fresh young coconut chunks and .... mmmm, are those artichokes? ours was the only wine, since everybody else opted for valerie's fresh-squeezed carrot-and-ginger juice. there were no clamshell greens. instead, tiny cherry tomatoes fooled around with seedy figs on a bed of hand-torn leaves.

there was a forthrightness to the evening that even this morning fills me with wonder. imagine inviting total strangers to an intimate dinner party. it's not that we might have been axe murderers -- that's unlikely -- but we might have been awkward, or pretentious, or dull. next to my sense of wonder is a sense of ... well, happiness. i love those women. i'm totally committed to the exposure brand of queer, but there's nothing like a lesbian of a certain age to really make me swoon.

the dyke dinner party in ponoka made my world a little bit bigger. i'm not quite ready to stop dyeing my hair, but i am seriously considering michigan this year.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Getting out the vote

my mother is a mensch. she went to see aunty jo a few times in the hospital, especially when mo and i were in argentina, and has been threatening to pay her a visit at home ever since. last week, she made good on it. joyce is in fine form these days, probably the best we've seen her in ten years. for all that she demurs, i think she likes having her laundry done for her, and, allah be praised, she's using her walker. "i don't know if you knew this," she confides, "but i didn't used to care for the walker." "no?," i ask, ordering the muscles in my forehead to raise my eyebrows. "but, you know, it's actually very convenient. if i go to safeway, i can put things right into the basket." she points to the basket. she throws an accusatory look my way, for holding out on the best part: "also, if i get tired, i can sit down on the seat for a moment."

you don't say.

anyway, jo being in fine form, she enjoyed my mom's visit, which is also to say that she got her to check on a doctor's appointment, pick up a few things and then stand unsteadily on the bed in her bare feet to change a burnt-out bulb. having thus softened her prey, she -- i think the verb is "hornswaggled" -- mom into coming by again yesterday to take her out to vote.

mo and i agonized when we heard. see, we know two facts about jo and elections. fact one: four years ago, joyce announced that if she lived in the US she would vote for george bush "because his wife is really pretty." fact two: jo lives in a swing riding, the one riding in alberta that might not go conservative. mo and i whipped over to the elections canada site to review the candidates: conservative incumbent rahim jaffer, liberal candidate claudette roy, and NDP contender linda duncan. how would joyce vote? what was she thinking? we figured the french name put paid to the liberal. we know she'll always go for the man, in this case particularly if she saw a picture of RJ, who is politically odious but in a dishy sort of way. but would handsome trump white? could you get any more good old-fashioned anglo-saxon solid-citizen than "linda duncan"?

as it happens, we needn't have worried. mom writes:

As Joyce is putting on her shoes, she says something about voting, which I didn’t catch so I just did the discreet “Hmmmm.” Then on the way up the ramp – what a trek – down the sidewalk, around the building, circle the flower beds, round the stairs to the ramp, up the ramp, the wind blowing icily around our ears the entire time – she says something to me about McBain. Catching on, I explain that Mr McCain is in the US election. She looks a little confused. So I tell her we have Mr Harper and Mr Dion, Mr Layton and Ms May. No help. We shuffle behind the cardboard shield – which I proceed to knock over - and I read out, in a good strong voice, the names and the parties – no doubt to the consternation of the scrutineers. She looks a little more confused and whispers to me “what should I do?”

to my mother's credit, she couldn't bring herself to have the dear old soul vote for the marxist/leninist party, so they "chose someone else."

the voting out of the way, jo moved on to the real agenda: how about a trip to kingsway mall, she angled, and then boston pizza for lunch?

and that's really the thing about elections, isn't it. everybody's got an agenda; it's often obscure; somebody's always surprised; somebody's always disappointed (there was no BP yesterday) -- yet sometimes, just sometimes, there's a happy ending in spite of it all.

linda duncan won by 442 votes. and who knows: one of them might have been jo's.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

E-night evil (postscript)

first of all, it's not true that everything here in alberta was a foregone conclusion: as i watch, votes are still being counted in one hotly contested seat. sure, the contest is between two conservatives, but let it not be said we have no drama.

in all seriousness, though, i'm totally heartened by the ND showing. look at the alberta numbers! it's either new democrat or green in virtually every alberta riding. (second, i mean.) even the tar sands' filthy lucre gave some consideration to people, culture and the environment.

and as for my actually-existing citizenship, our on-the-fly solidarity: have these dismal results destroyed it? no, i have to say. just as the numbers started rolling in, i got an email from database matt. next up: electoral reform.

E-day in e-ville

i'm writing this blog post after casting my vote but before the ontario results ironize any westerner's ballot -- wait, i drifted dangerously close to cynicism there, so let me move along, because i want to rave about vote-swapping.

for the 3 of you who didn't do it this time around, here's how it works: you email a guy named matt saying who you like to vote for (NDP in my case), who you're willing to vote for (liberal -- i dunno, elizabeth may was great in the debate, but she's personally pro-life and although she says it doesn't make a difference to the greens' policies, i'm not 100% convinced, and besides, the greens in canada still have some wacky neo-con fiscal policies behind all that concern for the planet). anyway, vote-swapping: matt puts all this info into a huge database and then, a week before the election, sends you your match. if i vote liberal here in edmonton centre -- a swing district! -- my partner casts "my" ND vote somewhere else (calgary, in this case, in a conservative stronghold where layton's party comes in strongly second). at the end of the day, the NDs get the same total number of votes, which translates into money, but the anti-conservative/anti-Conservative vote is deployed in the places where it will make the most difference. it's just-in-time coalition-building, on-the-fly solidarity; it's everything web 2.0 should enable us to do.

that's the theory. in practice vote-swapping is even better. it personalizes the concept of the "canadian electorate" in ways i hadn't anticipated. i emailed my vote swap partner -- christopher from calgary -- and said, "i'm in if you're in." he wrote back to say, "yeah, sure, and good luck unseating the cons." as email exchanges go, this was unremarkable. except: except i now know there's someone out there, a total stranger, who's thinking hard about this election and who shares some of my convictions (that, say, arts matter). more to the point, and astonishingly, given that we're strangers, we trust each other.

which is really what elections are all about, and why they are normally so fraught and difficult and full of betrayal. sitting around on election night and watching the numbers roll in -- remember, i live in alberta -- i find myself routinely bewildered, wandering the metaphorical wilderness in the aftermath of civilization's breakdown. i get glummer and glummer as the night wears on, wondering how on earth my neighbours, my family members, my coworkers (surely not my friends?) can bring themselves to vote for a political party that denies human rights to entire categories of people, that believes torture is acceptable, that loves money more than children, et cetera. i usually drink a lot, on election nights.

but this year? this year it's all going to be different. 'cause this year, i know that while i'm pouring another stiff one here in the swing riding of edmonton centre, my buddy christopher-from-calgary is pulling for the same results. we might win, we might lose, one of us will almost certainly have a conservative MP -- but in the big picture? look out. the left is organized, and we have email.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

No good deed...

in addition to all the work i'm scrambling to do, i'm organizing a birthday party for my sister, who's turning 40. (what do you mean, which of us is older? back to my story!). the deal was, she'd pick the date and provide me with the guest list and i'd do the rest.

since this event will take place a week from today, i made some time on wednesday to send out invitations. shannon had thoughtfully provided everybody's email address in an excel spreadsheet, so all i had to do was cut and paste. the data was dirty, as they say in the biz -- lots of duplicate addresses and so on -- but shannon is working fulltime and mothering four children as well as selling one house and taking possession of another, so i didn't pay this much mind. busy myself, i came up with some wording that was serviceable, if not fancy, and fired away.

i got home from work around 10 that night to a message from a sheepish sister. turns out that somehow she sent me the wrong file. she sent me, in fact, the address of everybody she'd ever sent an email to -- friends, colleagues and family, but also their old UK landlord, some guy they bought a chair from on ebay, and all the parents of the kids she coaches.

so, it's going to be a big party. if you're reading, this, you've probably been invited, and we'll look forward to seeing you next saturday night.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Heather Mallick, my hero

The CBC, like the globe and mail of a few years ago, has rolled over on heather mallick. i guess she wasn't as "deferential" as palin demanded (and, yeah, that's her adjective: she wants journalists -- journalists! -- to be "deferential" in their handling of her).

here's the column, since removed from the CBC site:

Heather Mallick
A Mighty Wind blows through Republican convention

Last Updated: Friday, September 5, 2008 8:48 PM ET
By Heather Mallick, special to CBC News

I assume John McCain chose Sarah Palin as his vice-presidential
partner in a fit of pique because the Republican money men refused to
let him have the stuffed male shirt he really wanted. She added
nothing to the ticket that the Republicans didn't already have sewn
up, the white trash vote, the demographic that sullies America's name
inside and outside its borders yet has such a curious appeal for the

So why do it?

It's possible that Republican men, sexual inadequates that they are,
really believe that women will vote for a woman just because she's a
woman. They're unfamiliar with our true natures. Do they think vaginas
call out to each other in the jungle night? I mean, I know men have
their secret meetings at which they pledge to do manly things, like
being irresponsible with their semen and postponing household repairs
with glue and used matches. Guys will be guys, obviously.

But do they not know that women have been trained to resent other
women and that they only learn to suppress this by constantly berating
themselves and reading columns like this one? I'm a feminist who
understands that women can nurse terrible and delicate woman hatred.

Palin was not a sure choice, not even for the stolidly Republican
ladies branch of Citizens for a Tackier America. No, she isn't even
female really. She's a type, and she comes in male form too.

John Doyle, the cleverest critic in Canada, comes right out and calls
Palin an Alaska hillbilly. Damn his eyes, I wish I'd had the wit to
come up with it first. It's safer than "white trash" but I'll pluck
safety out of the nettle danger. Or something.

Doyle's job includes watching a lot of reality television and he's
well-versed in the backstory. White trash — not trailer trash, that's
something different — is rural, loud, proudly unlettered (like Bush
himself), suspicious of the urban, frankly disbelieving of the
foreign, and a fan of the American cliché of authenticity. The
semiotics are pure Palin: a sturdy body, clothes that are clinging yet
boxy and a voice that could peel the plastic seal off your new

'Turn your guns on Levi, ma'am'
Palin has a toned-down version of the porn actress look favoured by
this decade's woman, the overtreated hair, puffy lips and permanently
alarmed expression. Bristol has what is known in Britain as the look
of the teen mum, the "pramface." Husband Todd looks like a roughneck;
Track, heading off to Iraq, appears terrified. They claim to be family
obsessed while being studiously terrible at parenting. What normal
father would want Levi "I'm a fuckin' redneck" Johnson prodding his

I know that I have an attachment to children that verges on the
irrational, but why don't the Palins? I'm not the one preaching
homespun values but I'd destroy that ratboy before I'd let him get
within scenting range of my daughter again, and so would you. Palin's
e-mails about the brother-in-law she tried to get fired as a state
trooper are fizzing with rage and revenge. Turn your guns on Levi,

Palin has it all, along with being vicious and profoundly dishonest.
Just hours after her first convention speech, the Associated Press did
a good fast listing of her untruths and I won't dwell on them.

I did promise to watch the entire convention so you wouldn't have to,
but I discovered a neat trick. I switched between the convention and
the 2003 folk music mockumentary A Mighty Wind on Bravo.

They were indistinguishable. Click on a nervous wreck with deeply
strange hair doing a monologue on society today and where it all went
wrong. Are you watching Christian belter Aaron Tippin singing Where
the Stars and Stripes and Eagle Fly in the Xcel Centre in St. Paul or
the actors from Spinal Tap remixing the 1966 version of Potato's in
the Paddy Wagon?

Who delivered this line: "To do then now would be retro. To do then
then was very now-tro, if you will." Was it Rev. James Dobson of Focus
on the Family talking about Bristol Palin's shotgun wedding or was it
a flashback to the Kingston Trio?

The conventioneers are nothing like the rich men who run the party,
and that's the mystery of the hick vote. They'd be much better served
by the Democrats. I know Thomas Frank answered this in What's the
Matter with Kansas?; I know that red states vote Republican on social
issues to give themselves the only self-esteem available to their
broken, economically abused existence.

Lie works for Palin
But surely they know Barack Obama is not planning to finish off the
ordinary hillbilly when he adjusts tax rates. He's going to raise
taxes on the top 2% of Americans and that doesn't include anyone at
the convention beyond the Bushes and McCains and random party
management. So why cheer Palin when she claims otherwise?

Is it racism? I'm told that it is, although I find racism so appalling
that I have difficulty identifying it. It is more likely the dearly
held Republican notion that any American can become violently rich, as
rich as those hedge funders in Greenwich, Conn., who buy $40-million
mansions unseen and have their topiary shaped in the form of musical

When Palin and Rudy Giuliani sneered at Obama's years of "community
organizing" — they said it like "rectal fissure" — the audience
ewww-ed with them. Republicans dream of a personal future that
involves only household staff, not equals who need to be persuaded to

So I'm trying to imagine the pain of realizing, as they all must at
some point, that it is not going to happen for them. It's the green
light at the end of the dock. It's the ship that never comes in, gals,
as Palin would put it. But she won't because the lie works for her. It
helps her scramble, without compassion, above all those other tense
no-hoper ladies in the audience.

American politics isn't short of smart women. Susan Eisenhower, Ike's
granddaughter, who just endorsed Obama, made an extraordinary speech
at the Democratic convention (and a terrific casual appearance on The
Colbert Report as Palin was speaking). The Republican party has
already consumed nearly all of its moderate "seed corn," she said
aptly. Time to start again.

Eisenhower, a scholar and journalist, has a point. Or am I only saying
that because she's part of the thoughtful demographic that I'm trying
to reach here? Think, Heather, think like a Republican! The Skeptics,
shall I call them, are my base, and I'll pander to them as ardently as
the Republican patriarchs tease their white female marginals.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Work week lurch

the semester is announcing its groove.

sundays are a gift, a day of rewards so sweet i forget, temporarily, what's coming 'round the bend. sundays are walks in the autumn gold, or a yoga class, waffles with fresh fruit and yogurt, newspapers in bed and feeding peanuts to the bluejays who eat out of my hand. sundays i phone friends in other cities, refuse to read my email, remember to look at the sunshine. sundays are short.

mondays are a grading and class prep day. i go to pilates in the morning and spend the rest of my time (barring meetings, of which there are, predictably, several) trying to get ready for the week. i'm teaching two new courses and supervising a directed reading. all the material in both undergraduate courses and some of the material in the DR is new, and in a fit of enthusiasm i embraced technology -- make that technologies -- in both classes, which presents a fairly steep learning curve of its own. mondays are a big day and i spend much of my time banging my own forehead with a fist and asking, "what were you thinking??"

tuesday, though, i feel good. i'm ready to teach from 9:30 to 11:00, though it rarely goes well, for reasons i haven't fully divined. there's the certainty that i will humiliate myself on some small point ("the eli clare text is finally available at the bookstore!," i might announce, for instance, to which my puzzled students respond, "what book?" since, it turns out, it is indicated exactly nowhere on the syllabus), but there's something else i can't put my finger on -- the material is too difficult, or i'm speaking too quickly, or the students are too shy, or something. i struggle through even though my feet start hurting after an hour.

i don't teach again until 2:00, which is like hiking up a steep hill and settling down at the top for a sandwich: there's always some sharp stone digging into my back and reminding me that i can't relax yet because i have another class to get ready for. in three hours.

my new practice is to leave the building and go for a swim at noon. (it used to be running until i got the arthritis diagnosis.) even in the pool i feel a certain anxiety and spend much of my time calculating how fast my laps are and how many i'd like to do, subtract the total from 1330, which is when i have to get out of the pool, or actually before, because i have to get back up the hill, and also when will i actually eat lunch? even so, it is good to swim.

the 2:0-3:30 class goes reliably, though i'm always careening between too much and too little. i'll work our way around to a really great point, only to realize, godawfully, that we're only ten minutes in and i've blown my wad. fifty minutes later i am in a panicked rush when i realize we're not going to get through everything. for example: we've only listened to 3 of the 9 tracks i put on a playlist to teach the blues. even though i made the point with billie holiday. this is pacing, and it comes with experience. comes back with experience, i should say. i hope.

every tuesday so far i've had something on right after class: a meeting with the chair, a talk by a visiting scholar, women's studies 20th anniverary, a book launch. so i don't get home until 6-something. by the time we've eaten and i sit down again to work, i'm a) tired; b) panicked; and c) behind. again.

wednesdays have become miscellany day: meetings with graduate students, meetings with the canadian literature centre, meetings with visiting scholars, meetings with my directed reading student. the great thing is that amy and i do the directed reading on foot, which gives wednesdays a great sense of being in it: in the ideas, in the moment, in the city. we walk from the university to wherever it makes sense to go, talking rebecca solnit or jane jacobs or linda goyette or lucy lippard as we go. it's so exciting that i need a nap afterward.

but there is no napping on wednesdays because those are exposure meetings, which seem to run longest when the agenda is shortest, which makes me by turn frustrated with others and doubtful of myself, neither of which puts me in the best frame of mind for coming home and getting ready to teach again on thursday --

-- which is just plain tiring. by thursday the pre-class shuffle, the 2 x 90 minutes of standing and pacing and trying to understand where 30 other people are coming from, and running two or three computer programs and translating theories i don't believe in to language students will understand, and then sitting in my office trying to catch my breath before doing it all again in a few hours -- by thursday it's all just.hard.work. and so i skip the workout, not because i don't think it would help, i know it would help, but the question is, would it help more than staying behind and clearing my inbox just a little? the bad decisions continue into thursday night, when i feel capable only of watching trash TV.

friday is a day of reckoning. i guiltily reply to emails and read student proposals, apologize to my collaborators, open dinning letters from various editors and, if i'm lucky, balance my chequebook. my sense of embodiedness is most acute in the evening, when i feel my sitting-bones drawn to the rare-earth magnet otherwise known as the sofa, where i sit and watch TV or, if i'm feeling particularly lively, play tetris and, lively or not, eat cheese popcorn and peanut M&Ms and salt and vinegar chips and chocolate and dried mangos and regular popcorn and licorice if we have it. all of which sets up a terrible hangover saturday morning, my mouth raw from the acid and my body still struggling to metabolize all that fat and sugar. it takes all day to rouse myself to run, though i'm always happy to have done it. after the saturday chores, of course.

this weekly descent is the epitome of mindless living, and i find it particularly distressing because of the painful knowledge i have gained over the last two years. when i was away from the university i still worked, but i also slept sufficiently every night. every night! i exercised regularly and prepared healthy meals. i quit working for the day when i was too tired to be productive -- often, in fact, i quit before i hit that point. i took evenings off, to hang out with mo or read magazines or even, sometimes, novels. but the point isn't what i did or didn't do -- believe me, my life is hardly exemplary -- but for the most part, i made decisions about what i was doing. i lived mindfully.

the hectic life i have returned to is, i think, typical of the lives all my friends lead. freelancers, professors, artists, parents, editors, teachers, fundraisers -- everybody is working way too hard all the time. the details change, but the sense of being stretched too far and tired all the time seems common, even when we like our lives and our jobs, which most of us do. i want to register, before it all gets normalized again, that this is a bad way to live. it is dangerous. it's unsustainable.

while i've been trying, for two weeks now, to figure out why i am so tired all the time, something david suzuki said has been pinballing around the edges of my consciousness. naturally, i can't remember it word for word, but the gist was this:

happiness has a direct correlation to sustainability. the things that make people genuinely happy are environmentally low-impact and personally/socially regenerative. what people like to do, what makes them happy in a deep and abiding way, includes spending time with loved ones: friends or family or lovers or tricks or comrades or animals. we are happiest when we live in our bodies. we thrive on being creative, whatever that means to you; unless your hobby is, say, reproducing dupont substances in your basement, pursuing a hobby tends to be environmentally friendly, and have you ever met a bitter scrapbooker? happy people spend time alone, spend time in nature, spend time being active and spend time being still -- they spend time, they don't "save" it or "waste" it -- all of which is not just neutral but actually good for human beings and good for the planet. unlike driving, shopping, fast food and television.

i think this is profound. and while i don't yet know how to solve this issue for myself come monday or, worse, thursday, it's something i'm thinking about. you know, in those days after days after days when i'm not finding any time to blog.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

i have been pondering anthony's suggestion of the golden pradas (see his comment on the last post) but no. i hate flats. it has something to do with not having dainty feet; flats tend not to suit me. but mostly it's because i can't get over their metaphorical literalness, if you'll allow me to say that: their "flatfootedness." there's no wit to flats. worse, as with birkenstocks, flats have always suggested to me a person who would say "my comfort is paramount, far more important than your aesthetic pleasure." it would kill me to be such a person. i cringe just thinking about it. shoes are all about putting visual thrill out there in the world, for myself and for others. even when they hurt, they give me huge, if masochistic, satisfaction.

here is how i solved my problem. tell me you still feel a tiny bit of a thrill?

and yes, i'm afraid that's it for now. the week is coming at me like a water cannon, and i haven't so much as a slicker for protection.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Terrible truth

for ethical reasons i won't blog about my students, which means it's been hard to write much over the last week. and who am i kidding, it's been hard to find ten uninterrupted minutes. going back into the classroom after being away for so long is shocking, exciting, depleting, disorienting, sobering, thrillingly scary, and absolutely crammed with realizations, most of them banal yet resonant. among them: teaching is tiring. it takes an incredible amount of energy to respond to 40 people at once. i'm not exactly complaining; i don't mind the work; it's just hard. it's like cooking a multi-course dinner party for a dozen friends. several hours into the prep, your fingers pruny and your feet aching, you find yourself wondering how this ever seemed like a good idea. when the wine starts flowing and conversation pools around the candlelight, though, it's all good.

and then there's all the other beginning-of-term stuff that ramps up. meetings, to be sure, and graduate student committees, and proposal-writing workshops, and office hours and major grant deadlines and so on, but also the socializing. next week i will be out monday, tuesday, wednesday, friday, and saturday evenings, entertaining visitors, attending talks, putting in an appearance at the obligatory department party. again, it's not that i don't enjoy it (well, okay, i could live without twinkling at the dep't party); it's just that after about 90 minutes of hanging out with anybody, i need a nap.

around the time that cycle ends, grading will start coming in.

all of this is doable, i keep saying, as long as i pace myself. right? right??

but the truly heartbreaking realization -- banal yet resonant -- is this: i am actually going to have to break down and get myself some comfortable shoes.

now, that i might not surive.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Best saturday things

  • finding the mousetraps empty
  • having the market to myself
  • running into leslea at amy's AGA show
  • albrecht durer's trees
  • getting a pass from the parking patrol
  • dropping off flowers to a friend
  • a free night.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Bad feminist

the following ad floated to the top of the debris pile otherwise known as my inbox the other day, advertising the newly reconstituted faculty women's club (originally called the faculty wives' club, if memory serves):

The Wine & Cheese Social will be an opportunity for both newcomers and returning members to check out the club and our many activities: from Art Gallery Tours to Golf, Book Groups to Bridge, or Gourmet Dining to Dog Walking - just to name a few. We have activities that meet during the day, in the evening, and even occasionally on the weekends.

i know i'm not supposed to feel envious -- but, wow: what kind of a charmed life would you lead if you had time to take in dog walking groups?

Thursday, September 4, 2008

The fray

today was my first day of teaching in something like two and a half years, and i've been nervous about it for some time. (hmmm, could that be what the terrible back-and-neck pain is about? nah...) would i remember how to manage a class? would i recognize my students? would they respect me? okay, let me be honest -- would they like me? do i still care about that? and how do i feel about caring or not caring? am i patient enough for teaching? is the syllabus organized? have i thought of everything? OMG, i need a key and a code for the smart room. what if they hate iclicker, what if they hate world writing in english, what if they act snooty and superior? and what am i going to wear? (yes, chie mihara shoes, but what else?)

there were a few mishaps. for one thing, i went to the wrong room. i teach in the humanities centre on thursdays and the business building on tuesdays but somehow i got it backwards and walked right into BUS 4-13 at 2:00 today. as karma would have it, there was an MBA class there. after i raised my question ("uh, do we perhaps have a scheduling conflict?"), the prof said, "oh, you seemed so pleasant i thought you were going to ask whether you could be in my class!" then he put his hand on my back and leaned in. i was so flustered by the whole thing that i didn't really absorb it at the moment, but in retrospect i kind of (kind of) wish i'd said, "no, no, that was last week's plan B. since then my partner has convinced me that i'm already qualified for whatever an MBA would qualify me to do, and besides, the ethos in the b-school is just way. too. conservative, so i'm moving on to plan C, which is to become an electronic mashup artist."

what i actually said was, "oh! no! uh, no, that's not it at all." then i pointed stupidly to my syllabus, which clearly stated the wrong information. the prof canvassed the class, none of whom proved to be english 123 students, and then acted very solicitously (in the other sense), walking me down to the admin offices where i called the english department which, reliably enough, gave me the totally wrong information ("you're supposed to be in tory 1-107!"), allowing me to deduce, all on my own, where to go.

so, yeah, i was late. and i was nervous. my timing is off; the classes weren't paced well. and there are many mistakes on my syllabus: readings listed that i've since learned we won't be able to do, unconfirmed class visits, days titled something provisional like "web 2.0" or "local writing." most dreadfully of all, the assignments don't add up to 100%. i hate being a stereotype of an english professor.

but the most surprising thing to me is how much poorer my memory is. i used to memorize every student's name in the first class. before your eyebrows head to the stratosphere, i had a simple trick: get students talking about themselves and listen with one ear. meanwhile, use your real attention to write down something visually striking about them. you have to give yourself permission to write whatever strikes you: "porn star," "pig eyes," "plain girl," "vivacuous" (which is my favorite student neologism of all time). of course, you must burn this piece of paper later that night. my theory is that meeting someone is an overwhelming experience, there's so much coming at you at once: visual details, mannerisms, emotions, expressions, stories, hopes, desires. it takes a certain length of time to quiet the riot in the brain, and the discipline of focusing your attention on the one visual detail that will connect a name to a body helps.

anyway, i tried to do that this morning. i had the students reveal their favorite book or movie or band. while they talked, i tried to jot something down about their physical appearance, things that might trigger my memory five days from now, when i see them again. even at the time i thought it was choppy, but when i got back to my office afterward i could see what a total disaster it was. my notes do not say things like "meathead" or "aniston hair" (not that anybody does that anymore, but you take the point) or "generic white boy," all of which would be meaningful to me; they say things like "blonde" or "glasses" or "headband." the last is particularly disappointing, since one of the tacit rules of this exercise is that you do not focus on the ephemeral -- maybe he's the kind of student who wears a preppy sweater, but he could just be behind on his laundry, or terribly ironic -- whereas a descriptor like "pinhead" will identify him even in a metallica t-shirt.

so, i have no idea what anybody's named, and will have to struggle along through the class list. what i'm left wondering is why i failed. am i just out of practice? and if so, unpracticed at what: meeting people? memorizing? or being blunt? is the problem that there is so much noise in my head now that i can't actually see people for themselves? or is the failure not about memory or distraction but about cognition: is it harder to multi-task now? and that, in turn, makes me wonder what other pleasures of aging might be in store.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Kafka's workshop

i don't know whether it's years of working with students, who are themselves infantilized at every turn, a weird protestant frame of mind, or a historical hangover from the mid-1990s, but the cheapness of this place floors me. i try to be a professional, but unfortunately it's in spite of the roadblocks in my department.

for those of you who think being a professor in english at the university of alberta is all bonbons and choice parking spots, let me disabuse you. here is a partial list of the things i pay for:
  • a computer. that is, if you're not comfortable using good ol' wax tablets. if you buy a computer on a research grant, the university owns it -- but you have to pay for repairs. is there tech support? sure! at the moment, there are 3 guys for over 300 professors, half a dozen digital humanities research labs, and hundreds of teaching websites.
  • photocopying. i've just had a big fight with our administrator over this one. there's a new system in place -- but we're only allowed to transfer a certain number of our old copies to the new system. "photocopies are a liability," she explained to me. "you were given an allotment for a given year; if you didn't use them, i wonder why not." uh, because i'm trying to use less paper? because i was on sabbatical? because the last year i was teaching full-time i ended up on medical leave? any of those sound legit? but why am i photocopying on the first day of teaching anyway, you ask?: because although my first-year english course was designated full and closed according to the student registration system, it turns out that someone else in english has been enrolling students hand over fist during the last three days. don't even start me on this.
  • letterhead: yeah, that's right. we get an allotment of l/h at the beginning of the school year, and if we need more -- for instance, because more than a dozen students request letters of reference -- we have to go and ask a secretary for more. she will pause before unlocking the cupboard, to ask, "how many more sheets do you need?"
  • whiteboard markers. okay, technically, you can request 2 at the beginning of the schoolyear, but if you lose them, replacements are on you.
  • voicemail, long distance, voicemail-to-email: here's how it works. every three months you get a receipt for your administrative expenses. on the front page is a total, usually under ten dollars. stapled to this front page is the evidence, mostly strips of paper cut from a massive detailed phone bill. if these calls were made for "legitimate business expenses" -- if, for example, you're a graduate coordinator recruiting students from outside the 780 area code -- you can write an explanatory note on this bill and return it, and the department will pay for those specific calls. are your eyes swimming? exactly. think of this: it is somebody's job to go through the phone bill for a department of 56 professors, 20-30 sessionals, 120 graduate students and 8.75 non-academic staff members and scissor out long distance charges, access-code by access-code, in order to recoup this money. now, when long distance was ten cents a minute within canada and we were facing 21% budget cuts, this was perhaps -- perhaps -- understandable. (in one of the most gob-smacking trades of all time, the department of philosophy in '94-'95 got rid of professors' telephones completely, in order to maintain research assistantships for their students.) but in the twenty-first century? what's the fear, that we'll go hog-wild on long distance? jesus h. christ.

this kind of nickeling and diming takes a toll. it tells instructors that they are not professionals, that the work of teaching and learning, research and administration, should be done just like it was done in graduate school. result: we internalize this ethos, we become bad professionals. and the money issues bleed out into other things, more serious things, like time (oh, i'd love to go to my kid's soccer game, but this article was due yesterday), attention (i'll check my email just one last time before i go to bed), or a sense of self-worth.

practices like these also tell department members that they are not trusted, and that "the department" (whatever that is) does not care about the quotidian concerns of its teaching staff. it downloads the importance of teaching onto instructors: if it's important enough to write on the board, you'll find a whiteboard marker! if you want to use new technologies, you'll figure out how to build, fix and maintain them yourself!

don't we hear such messages about teaching and learning from the general public often enough? do we really need it at home, too?

Monday, September 1, 2008

Library stacks

i wasn't far into my job when i learned that the life of the mind involved less reading than you might imagine. i started a stack of books called "books to read this summer." when the summer of 1994 came and went, i started a new stack of "books to read this summer," and moved the unread to "books to read next summer." when i had three years of summer reading piled up, i started a stack called "books to read upon my retirement." what's next, "books to read before i die"?

every sabbatical is an opportunity to start anew. and every sabbatical ends with the glum realization that, once again, i have read far less than i meant to. here is a record of my misspent time, organized according to the tippy stack of books i will schlep back to the university this week, unread:
  • mike davis, planet of slums and david harvey, the new imperialism. i was going to read these in service of a doctoral student's project. maisaa defended her thesis back in january. oh well.
  • brian massumi, parables of the virtual. i bought the book because i was intrigued by the following: "critical thinking disavows its own inventiveness as much as possible. because it sees itself as uncovering something it claims was hidden or as debunking something it desires to subtract from the world, it clings to a basically descriptive and justificatory modus operandi. however strenuously it might debunk concepts like 'representation,' it carries on as if it mirrored something outside itself with which it had no complicity, no unmediated processual involvement, and thus could justifiably oppose. prolonging the thought-path of movement, as suggested here, requires that techniques of negative critique be used sparingly. the balance has to shirt to affirmative methods: techniques which embrace their own inventiveness and are not afraid to own up to the fact that they add (if so meagerly) to reality." still sounds promising. but 256 pages of massumi? i started blogging instead.
  • latin american spanish: been there, done that. sorta.
  • henry giroux, the university in chains, george fallis, multiversities, ideas and democracy, james cote and anton allahar, ivory tower blues, clark kerr, the uses of the university: guess i never did write that book about the contemporary university.
  • CD the dreaming gate. "enter a shamanic 'dreamtime' with the entrancing didgeridoo music of inlakesh and hemi-sync (TM)." fine. i'm never going to crack the cellophane. but why on earth, you might be wondering, do i even own such a thing? spite. i did a leadership training thing at the banff centre last fall. it was generally good, but they hired a chiropractor to do one of the sessions, and i hated him. we all did. (jen, you're reading: am i right?) he was at once simplistic and self-satisfied, offering the most simple-minded advice you could imagine. cleaning him out of free CDs was our way of trying to recoup the hours of our time he soaked up without apology or shame.
  • naomi klein, the shock doctrine. wait, no, that stays. i am totally going to read this book. any day now.
  • douglas coupland, the gum thief. in hard cover. what was i thinking?
  • houston wood, native features: indigenous films from around the world. houston, my friend, i love you. and i am glad, very glad, to own your book. but, uh, i didn't get around to actually reading it. yet.
  • barbara gowdy, helpless. wait, i have a new barbara gowdy? for real? i love her! wow. oh, what a treat.
  • buenos aires, a cultural history. if i didn't finish reading it in BA, i'm unlikely to finish reading it here. still, it's such a good book i think i'll leave it in the reading stack for now. i'll read it when i finish tomas eloy martinez's the tango singer. also in the stack.
  • sun tzu, the art of war. i bought this thinking it might be helpful before heading back to the faculty of arts. and who knows, it might. that stays in the stack.
  • chip kidd, the learners and the cheese monkeys. now that he's not coming for exposure this fall.... oops. wasn't supposed to spill those beans. on the other hand, i did read alison bechdel's the fun home, which is a marvelous story of her relationship with her dad: complicated, recursive, intensely literary, funny.
  • john mcphee, annals of the former world. as i recall, i was reading this 696-page book around the time i joined facebook, so it's there under favorite books, making me look mannered and self-important (yet not so mannered and self-important that certain high school friends are afraid to befriend me). it's a geology of basin-and-range land formations across the united states. it goes with ellen meloy's three books, also still in the unread stacks: the anthropology of turquoise, eating stone and the last cheater's waltz. they stay, this trio, reminders and models of what nonfiction can be.
  • steve fuller, the intellectual. here's what it says on the back: "covering the intellectual from ancient greece to post-9/11, steve fuller introduces past exemplars -- voltaire, sartre, bertrand russell -- alongside many living examples, in this fascinating road-map to the intellectual life." is it really a road-map to the intellectual life? 'cause, like, that would be totally useful. on the other hand, how can you write a history of the intellectual in under 200 pages? on the third hand, short is good, i actually might read a book that short.
that's not bad, right? i've got rid of some stuff? still in the stack, to be read any day now: three books by rebecca solnit, mike davis's in praise of barbarians, fiction by coetzee, erdrich, vassanji, oliver sacks's musicophilia. oh, and the taschen twentieth-century design book. maybe i'll start there, just a quick browse ...

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Who needs freud?

the school term starts tomorrow, and i'm not even close to ready. in fact, i've developed some awful neck injury over the last few days. i can't look over my shoulder, which doesn't bode well for going back to the faculty of arts. i have no idea what i've done, but the neck is the mind/body connection, and it only hurts when i try to relax.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Morbid affection

for the last few days, while i've been missing kim, i've realized how gorgeous grief can be. i don't mean the deranging immediacy of loss. but grief, years later, has texture and substance. it's like salt licorice: acrid and sour and sweet, chewy. you want to gorge on it. grief is as besotting as desire. it is desire. it gives you a place to go that is exactly the place you want to be, and so very much better than the place you are. during a conference session yesterday i put an attentive look on my face and then wandered off to printers inc bookstore, the san francisco docks, highway 280 under the stars. yesterday afternoon, i could hardly wait to get to the gym so i could be alone with my memories.

grief's syntax is beautifully labile. remember this ... and this ... and that other time. but also: oh, he would have loved conor oberst's new album, and the DNC, and blogging. no matter that it's not true; kim's taste in music was actually terrible, he would never take to bright eyes, he would have despaired of the democrats (he did despair of the democrats). the coordinates, the conjunction -- i like conor and i like kim -- offers a new way to work the old, a shred of licorice caught in a molar, something more to chew. in this way grief is different from nostalgia, which just sentimentalizes the past. grief wants everything: the past, the present, the futures that might have been. and you want it too, want it all, can't get enough. you want sight and smell and taste and touch. you want the past in the present, life for the dead, death in life.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

August again

i'm looking at a picture that was taken during my first semester at stanford, 20 years ago. it's a picture of a "typical graduate class" and it was published in the stanford newspaper, presumably alongside a story about "typical graduate classes" at stanford. i'm not sure how i got a copy; it must have been several years later, when i worked part-time for the stanford development office while trying to write my thesis.

the picture show regenia gagnier's nose and the back of marjorie perloff's head. facing them are my dead. eric shocket is sitting right up at the table with his arms crossed easily, fit and confident, laughing. back against the windows, looking skeptical and tough and a bit soft around the middle, is kim gillespie.

i'm sitting back along the wall, too, hiding from the camera as usual. at this moment, the moment the picture is taken, we know nothing. as i look at the picture now, i am struck by that particularly: how little we know. there are notebooks and pens on the table, but nobody is taking notes. since majorie perloff is there, the topic was undoubtedly modernism, maybe gertrude stein, maybe ezra pound. we know nothing about this. we don't know pound was a fascist. we don't know how hard graduate school is going to be. romy kozak is in this picture; she doesn't know she's a lesbian. rob latham is there, wearing his miami-drug-dealer freak. we don't know that he's going to turn out to be the star. we don't even, at this point, know each other's names.

which means that, even in such a pool of ignorance, i know less than nothing. i don't know that eric and i will take to meeting in the mission district, late at night after our work is done, at a bar called las palmas. i haven't touched his buttery lambskin yet, or the stucco wall behind it. i don't know that he will keep the photograph i took for him, keep it for years and years after our affair so that there it is on the wall, shocking me, as he forever takes a pie out of the oven in his obituary shot.

of kim i know one thing, knew it the second i heard him talk. but i don't yet know drinking newcastle or driving around LA or losing days or breaking into the neighbours' or teaching courses together or running on the beach or running into his wife or reading the first volume of capital or worrying about the heroin. i don't know what will happen at the british bankers' pub on the first night of the gulf war. i don't know about despair or the twisting weight of hope or how to be sardonic. or grief. i don't know grief, then.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Aggressively happy

writing to a dear friend the other night prompted me to tell the story of riding home from the gym the other day, on my excellent bicycle, when i caught myself thinking: so this is happy. i panicked for a second -- maybe it's manic? -- but, no, i know what manic is and this was just happy. happy. so strange.

i was so happy, in fact, that when i saw a miserable-looking couple walking toward me pushing a baby carriage, i gave them a big smile and said, "look at the hawk, cruising over victoria park." (actually, i yelled it, since i had my ipod on.) the woman in particular was nonplussed: she continued to look on the brink of infanticide. the man in the couple gazed half-heartedly about him, and i rode on, thinking what a shame.

afterwards i was thinking about this, and it made me realize that happiness has an aggression to it that you'd never imagine from, say, reading tolstoy. happiness is such a bitch of a high that you're not really happy, not high enough, until everybody else is happy too. it's like outdoorsiness. if you've ever curled up with a good book on a chill winter day only to be interrupted by a hikingrunningskiingskating keener, you know the feeling. rebecca solnit tells a story about the sierra club taking inner city new yorkers out to tuolomne's bracing fresh air. they were completely baffled by it. "you want us to what? walk? up the mountain? but why? why on earth would a person do that?"

apparently, not everybody wants to get high.

Monday, August 25, 2008


i am totally unready for the week to begin. the trouble with the good life is that there's not enough of it. seriously. i had a great weekend: a kicked-back friday night, good friends over on saturday, waffles piled under mounds of fresh fruit on sunday, woodworking project complete, the market, sunshine, bike riding -- but somehow in there i didn't find any time to read, or run, or make muffins, and now the week is coming at me like a proctologist's finger, and i'm just sayin' can't i have a bit more lube?

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Working wood

i like to say it started around the time mo and i bought this house. i had to save myself from ebay: enamoured of the cedar ceilings and eager to fill an imaginary space with pure objects, i started jonesing for arts and crafts furniture. turns out all the genuine stickley pieces sold for far more than their reserve, and even cheap ebay purchases add up, so eventually i hit on the bright idea that i should make the furniture i crave.

(an alternative beginning: a few years before his retirement, my father visited a financial planner who asked, among other things, how important it was for him to save money for the next generation. "your mother and i thought you should know, heather, that our answer was 'not very.'" this morphed into a conversation about wills in which it emerged that my father was planning to leave his workshop to my cousin bevan. "bevan!" i said. "bevan? i always sort of thought i'd want it. you know, given my interest in woodworking." "uh," said my father, legitimately, "what interest?")

at first i thought i might build a dining room table and chairs for the new house. subtly and with kindness, my dad talked me down to a side table. you do the arithmetic: if a side table took me three years, can you just imagine if i'd done a dining room suite? we'd be eating on TV trays well into our dotage.

i've always liked the look of arts and crafts furniture, and i love its philosophy. the arts and crafts movement emphasized honesty in materials and methods. its furniture is balanced and unembellished, unpretentious. finishes are minimal and lines are clean. the designs let wood be wood, emphasize its strength and the beauty of the grain. arts and crafts furniture is how the tradition of william morris and john ruskin found its way to north america. their emphasis on everyday beauty and the democratization of style has always resonated with me (i swooned the first time i saw a real william morris peacock design at liberty in london).

no point taking shortcuts, so i found myself a pattern in one of my dad's old fine woodworking issues and set about to get the materials. as i recall, windsor plywood had just enough quartersawn white oak, which is relatively stable. here is a useful little discussion of quartersawn vs plainsawn (vs riftsawn) lumber. oak tends to be porous and hard; it can be chippy and unforgiving; but it takes to fuming and staining and oiling and waxing with equal ardour. it's a relatively predictable wood and less dear than, say, cherry, mahogany, or walnut. for this reason, and because it was plentiful in the northeastern US in the late nineteenth century, when gustav stickley set up shop with a view to making good furniture accessible for everyone, it tends to be the most commonly used wood in arts and crafts furniture. and did i mention the medullary rays? here's another discussion of quartersawn wood, this one with more philosophy.

anyway, i built this little table. i learned how to plane and split wood. incidentally, chez papa you split wood by taking it to your friend keith's place, since dad owns a big jointer/planer and keith owns ... shoot, i forget: the machine that splits wood (but not a wood splitter, which is something else entirely). i learned how to make mortise and tenon joints, one of the staples of arts and crafts furniture. although in my imagination i had always thought i'd do it the old-fashioned meditative way, by hand with a chisel, i had done just enough woodworking not to demur when dad introduced me to the mortiser. there is no hardware in my little table save little biscuit joints holding the three pieces of the top together and a few little l-fasteners to secure the top. structurally, it's arts and crafts all the way.

that was all two or three years ago. we got the house, i learned how to refinish the floors, i scraped wallpaper, scraped stipple, scraped by. what with one thing and another, i let the table sit. also, i was undecided as to how i wanted to finish it. part of me wanted to fume it: you put it in a tent with aqueous ammonia and the oak darkens immediately. there's a famous story about a bank, behind schedule, that was finished overnight by fuming the entire building. part of me wanted to test the rust treatment: you put an iron nail in a tub of water overnight (or longer). when you rub the rusty water onto oak, it blackens. part of me felt that you just couldn't go wrong with tung oil, which hardens and protects the wood while bringing out the grain.

in the end, i went with tung oil, and am i ever glad i did. the first swabs on the legs brought tears to my eyes, the wood was so pretty. i worked in the tung oil on the top with 240 and 320 silicon sandpaper, so it feels like glass. there's an aliveness to the look of this table, especially its base, that i think pays homage to the oak tree itself. it's just an everyday object, but every time i set a coffee cup on it i'll know it, heart to finish.