Thursday, December 31, 2009

Prospero ano nuevo

those of you who know me know that i hate new year's eve. it's a set-up. no matter what you do, it's a given that someone else - someone you know - is at a better party, with better outfits, drinking fancier drinks, eating tastier food, with sweller swells and funner gossip.

on the other hand, there's nothing i love more than a list. and if the list can be somehow rule-bound and ceremonial, yet compellingly game-like, so much the better.

so, here, to mark the year's shift, are the questions we asked about 2009 (and my answers in parentheses):
  • what's the best thing you did for yourself this year? (return to acupuncture)
  • what's the best thing you did for someone else this year? (taking care of jo)
  • what's the best thing someone else did for you this year? (jo-ann, july)
  • what's the best gift you gave this year? (problematic answer, but: turning exposure over to jen)
  • what's the best gift you received this year? (iPhone)
  • what's the most stunning thing you saw? (bryce canyon)
  • the most amazing thing you heard? (one of our students' edm soundscapes)
  • most memorable sensory experience? (biking thunder mountain)
  • biggest surprise, pleasant? (oct 24th)
  • regret? (pass: too scary)
  • best new person in your life? (deidre's baby, elena)
  • best money spent? (hiring a housecleaner)
  • best thing you read? (anthropology of turquoise)
  • best new thing, complete or incomplete? (uh oh, no answer - unless empanadas count?)
well, it doesn't entirely deodorize 2009, but this list does remind me that the year wasn't all bad. there's always something new, something beautiful, right?

tell me your answers, or suggest more questions. for instance, i'd appreciate a question that allows me to say how grateful i am to have any readers, after being such a negligent blogger this year. but enough about me. what moves you, makes you feel alive? what makes your heart glad? what turns your senses on?

what made your year?

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

This part, right here

i'm mostly ready to go home, yet i feel reluctant to leave. the pull of home includes our bed and the cats. ("the bed" is not metaphorical. i love that actual mattress, those specific sheets, the pillows, the bedside lighting.) i want to ramble around in my own kitchen. i need to be sure that everything in the house is shipshape - a quick peek would do, a tour through all the rooms to be sure our tchatchkas are still arranged the way i like them, the wireless is working, birds are still frequenting the backyard, nothing's happened in the spare room. i miss the intellectual stimulation of everyday life: reading the newspaper, talking to friends/colleagues, teaching. i want to live the heather-and-mo life again. i want to be dry.

on the other hand, there are many things i'll miss about being here. for one, the breakfast pastry run. i typically head out around 7:30 to walk the four blocks to zermatt's. some sellers are opening up, but most shops are still shuttered and sleepy. police officers lean on the town square's walls, chatting. locals hail each other on the street while their dogs check out the action. at this hour, you hear mexican radio as trucks unload wares at the back door and municipal streetsweepers prepare for the day.

another thing i'll miss is the magnificent frigate bird. you look up in the sky and there is the most incredible creature, elegant of wing and long of tail. when the frigate bird sees something intriguing, she forks her tail to hover in one spot until she's satisfied. on the windward beach the other day, i hoped and hoped and hoped - and feared - she was looking at me.

also, i'll miss her opposite, the stout workaday pelican. with their big waterbird wings they cruise just over the waves. when they see a fish they fancy, they divebomb with the force of a kid's cannonball, swallow, then sit on the waves quite proud of themselves.

i will miss bare feet that are never cold (as they are in edmonton, even in the summer). i will miss being able to walk out of the house at any hour of the day or night wearing...whatever you happen to be wearing. i will miss the sight of the ocean just two blocks down the road. i will miss the walkable city. i've thought a lot about scale, these last few days, what it means for a road to be a single lane, how great it is to live within five blocks of the mercado municipal, with its mounds of papayas, peppers of every kind, and beans. you don't have to shop like you live in the suburbs; you can just buy what you need that day. i realize this is a trite observation, but it really matters.

so: as the lovely jen has said: i hate this part, right here. i'm mentally prepared to move on, but it's not quite here yet. especially given certain recent (international) events, there will be a whole lot of agony between leaving and arriving. so for today, let the beach - sun, sand, fish, quiet - be enough.

Monday, December 28, 2009

How to eat in cozumel (for nat)

  1. go to del sur and order a couple of bacon, cheese and plum empanadas. the owner, rene, will cook them for you while you wait, and marvel. how many ways are there to crimp an empanada? at least 13. throw in a dulce de leche empanada for dessert.
  2. don't lose heart when the rainstorm means you can't barbecue the steaks. redirect the pecans and pomegranate for the salad toward an ersatz persian chicken dish. no butter/oil in the kitchenette? good thing the coffee cream is so thick you have to serve it with a spoon.
  3. cross the street from your hotel and give sabores a try. the owner serves lunch in her own living room from lunes to viernes. first, she brings you a big jug of jimaica juice. then, hot chips with a couple of hot salsas. soup is next - say, carrot cream. by the time your chicken tacos in mole sauce come, you wonder how you'll do them justice, but the mole's thick chocolate smoke makes it easy. no, really, you really can't have dessert.
  4. buy gelato/helado in the middle of the afternoon. after all, you didn't have dessert with lunch.
  5. go to kinta. order one of everything. mahi mahi in guajillo sauce? yes please. red snapper and cream cheese rolled in panko and deep fried? crunchy on the outside, dreamy on the inside. potatoes smashed with truffle oil and garlic, served under mayan pulled pork? scallops and prawns skewered with fresh local chilis and served with a cranberry-pineapple salsa? three-milk bread pudding with banana ice cream and mexican chocolate? well, you get the idea.
  6. look for the biggest plate you've got. nope, that won't do. bigger than a dinner plate. a serving plate: yeah, that's the ticket. pile it high with shrimp, fish and conch steeped in lime juice and onion. fan a perfect avocado on top, serve it beachside, and call it an appetizer on the menu.
  7. ask for guacamole with everything.
  8. go back to del sur and try the chorizo and cheese combo. add a quince empanada for dessert. if you must, say they're for your housebound parents.
  9. get up early enough that zermatt's bakery is not sold out of the buns con queso crema, or the damp whole wheat biscuits, or the cuernitos. have an espresso on the patio.
  10. take a pineapple to the beach.

Playa del carmen

the idea for our current trip to cozumel started back in april when i was visiting dear NY friends with a new baby. elena is a sweetheart of a girl. as is always the case with little babies, though, you might set out to do something first thing in the morning, but after the feeding and the napping and the bathing and the changing and the feeding and the napping and the changing, you generally leave the house at the crack of 4PM.

i'm not complaining. it was a wonderful trip for many, many reasons, the least of which is that elena's dad being from puerto rico and elena's mom being a former NACLA editor made me think, briefly, that we should spend christmas in playa del carmen.

boy did we dodge a bullet there, or so i feel after having spent the day across the water in playa. it's definitely the maya riviera, complete with too-good-for-you attitude. i felt like a slovenly dullard, the way i always do in such places - think laguna beach, pacific heights, chelsea (UK or US). if i can be permitted a cheap imitation of tolstoy, it would be that rich people are the same the world over, or so i learned years ago in dalkey. after the disorienting north-of-the-liffey train stations, where bruised, middle-aged women stared down beer-swigging irish louts, we landed in a completely different, yet completely recognizable milieu of bottled water, white walls, blue skies and sangfroid. for playa del carmen, add women with beautiful, sandy feet in platform flip flops and buff boys in everything quiksilver.

finding myself in the magical land where everything is organic, charming and chic unearths wealth-dripping fantasies and a delicious meanness. i look around and think: chanel sunglasses with the logo on the arm? did you really think we wouldn't know otherwise? i wonder why that woman doesn't hire a trainer - and, for that matter, a new esthetician. honey, just because lady gaga wears white spandex doesn't mean you can. as for that guy over there, does he think being rich gets him off the crocs hook? and OMG what were they thinking with that house? i know african slate costs a lot, but it is absolutely hideous in that quantity.

making fun of rich people is one of my favorite sports. if my moral centre quavers momentarily, i remind myself that owning a vehicle that runs on the blood of the spotted owl must take the edge off being mocked by the likes of me.

of course, what yearns behind this nasty little commentary is the conviction that i would make a better rich person. i really do believe i would make a fabulous dowager. i would be trim, generous, tasteful and carefree, not to mention truly stylish. i would throw fabulous parties. i would eat fabulous food. i would have a fabulous body, a carefully cultivated icon to exercising well, sleeping deeply, and medicating appropriately. if i were rich, i would make the world a more beautiful place, starting with me. i want the opportunity to be the folks i see, but improved. when you think about it, it's kind of a generous pedagogical impulse. right?

unfortunately, playa del carmen did not open this satisfying avenida to me. i wanted to be that principessa (but with a wrinkleless brow and a better handbag) - or, rather, i wanted to want to be her - but instead playa unleashed the sniffy inner cheapskate that i hate. what makes a bathing suit worth that many euros? even if it's directly from florence, at that price it should come with a gorgeous italian lady! and are they serious: a matching cover-up? puh-leeze. although it is true that nobody wears white linen like the rich (oh, the look of white linen against a caribbean sea!), it is also true that big bucks make for big mistakes, at least judging by senora frumpy's baubles.

why didn't playa let me play out my rich girl fantasies?: not rich enough. there's a certain number of galleries, sure, but there's also a few too many wholesale-priced yucatan souvenir stands and 50%-off-silver touts. who wants to eat at a white-tableclothed restaurant if your gaze lands on seven minimum-wagers hastily ironing boxes of textiles from guatemala? no. i like my rich places to be well and truly rich, so rich it hurts all the way down to the core where your self-esteem should live.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

My newest self-improvement project

yeah, yeah, lose ten pounds and get out of debt - but the real 2010 challenge is to be less misanthropic, more generous, less pissy, more forgiving, less impatient, and more indulgent.

and i'm going to start by liking cruise ship people.

i have a ways to go. cozumel, it turns out, is the second most popular cruise ship destination in the world. not that that came up in any of the research i did before coming here. "hotel people" and "cruise people" are separate species. we all use the www, but don't frequent the same sites. it's like the other side of facebook. (don't believe me? go explore hard christianity in fb.)

cruise ship people walk down the san miguel seafront wearing balloon animals on their heads. they give strip restaurants high reviews in trip advisor. they carry ginormous drinks in ginormous receptacles from places called "fat tuesdays." they use words like "ginormous." cruise people move like a swarm of goatfish from recommended activity to recommended activity. they like activities to be cheap and predictable, thrilling yet safe. cruise people like senor frog's and carlosncharlie's.

or so i grumble, mashing my way down avenida melgar after a big boat disgorges.

but that kind of misanthropy is easy. the harder task is to imagine why people would go on a cruise in the first place. and a good place to begin that project is with the unsettling admission that the largest concentration of locals we've seen has not been in the town square or on the windward coast or at a devotional meeting, but at mcdonald's.

money matters. cruises offer you 15 nights for $1800. you can't be an "independent traveler" for that.

then there's the family aspect. several of the families we've seen around the cruise ships are multi-generational. how else can you travel with built-in childcare?

then there's the ease factor. you get on the boat and for the next two weeks someone else makes all your decisions. you move from bed to buffet waylaid only by the pleasures of kingston, cozumel, miami beach. the older i become, the more attractive such not having to think about it sounds.

plus, people are different. not everybody is like me. some actively like disney, seek out casinos, prefer large groups, feel safer in herds. see cultural studies 101.

to appreciate people who are just like me is easy (not that i've accomplished that either). the real task is to throw my imagination across the widest cultural gulf i can imagine, and smile indulgently at the white folks with a three-hour jet-ski rental on my quiet playa.

i'll let you know how it goes.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Christmas with the Ps

in this case, P stands for predator:

we ran into a shark while we were snorkeling. there is no photographic evidence, but i bet there's a trace of one kind or another out there in the water. sharks are big.

then, on the way out of parque punta sur, we saw these fine fellows:

one of the strangest aspects of being here is realizing just how mammal-centered i am. we've seen birds, dragonflies, iguanas, fish, butterflies, rays and slugs, but apart from one raccoon-like coatimundi on the side of the road, no mammals to speak of. there aren't even many cats or dogs on the island.

it's disorienting in general, but particularly rattling when it comes to possible dangers. i've read grizzly attacks: their causes and avoidance. i know how to respond t0 a black bear. i avoid rutting season in the mountains, and i know what to do if i run into a coyote in the river valley. but i have no concept how to navigate around a predator in its 360-degree aquatic comfort zone.

so today, i think we'll visit some mayan ruins instead.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Lizards laze

our iguanas love the sun. they crave heat. they choose the top of the wall at the back of the property, where they can look down on the little deck lizards and, i suspect, on us. they look like rocks. they ignore the turkey vultures that make the little lizards scamper. they can move fast, but they'd rather not. periodically they do a series of fast lizard push-ups: the better to smell? to show off? to communicate? just because they can?

they taste the wind with their tongues. they loll their heads about sluggishly, then hold them high. every now and then one snags an insect, but not a dragonfly. too much trouble, you can hear them thinking. every now and then, an insect appears to snag them: gowdy, the iguana on the right, just scratched her head with a scaly toe, then circled around to face the other direction.

these iguanas don't sleep, exactly. these lizards laze.

23 Dec, Cozumel

rosie's morning snorkeling tour really is all that: first el cielo, the heavens, where we drift over a sandy firmament dotted with star(fish). then the columbia shallows, with una tortuga - smaller than the honu in hawaii but every bit as moving: you simply have to believe in the future of the world when you see a turtle swim so fast with those ruddy little fins. finally we snorkeled the palancar reef, where we saw a porcupine fish the size of madge, with its bashful long eyelashes - and, to close off the event, a barracuda.

afternoon spent lounging by the pool, my new insight being: nobody really cares if you act the good girl and run the household errands, and nobody really cares if you're bad. barbara gowdy, the resident iguana and i lazed around the back yard with mo while the
Ps slept.

dinner at kinta, an inventive mexican bistro with exquisite creations: shrimp-stuffed avocado, mahi mahi in guajillo sauce, and three-milk bread pudding with mexican chocolate and cajete. afterward the square was full of famillies - 23rd the last day of school, perhaps? everybody has their virgen spruced up with christmas lights, and some have santas too. one particularly exuberant display has inflatable santa visiting the inflatable creche. there are candles burning near the big shrine in the square, with photos of people's loved ones. bring health, prosperity, recovery...

on the way home we pass a small storefront packed with worshippers so numerous they added rows of chairs well into the street. a pinata hung goadingly over the devout, who were listening to what, a sermon? a peroration? a set of prayers? children retreated down the street to race paper airplanes.

you can feel the "feliz" in feliz navidad.


hot already, but i run anyway, black dog at my heels. i wonder again when it will break, and this morning feel something shift.


in two days i will believe that the slurry sentimentality is worse.

Monday, December 21, 2009

In which i come clean and describe my penance

gentle reader,
i have not been entirely honest with you. though it is true that we are on a caribbean vacation, and though it is true that we are in a tropical paradise, it is decidedly not true that we are sunning ourselves silly. in fact, we have barely seen the sun since we arrived last wednesday. wednesday was a hot day. i know that because wednesday is the day we arrived, first in toronto, bleary from the red-eye, and finally in cancun, where it took 100 minutes to retrieve our luggage. after an hour-long drive to playa del carmen, our cabbie dropped us at a cobblestone maze with a vague "alli" and a toss of his head to indicate where the ferry terminal might be. at least, we hoped that's what he was indicating.

we bumped our suitcases over cobblestone cuartos looking hopefully past the senor frog'ses and the carlos'n'charlie'ses and by and by we found the terminal. around that time, so did an entire cruise ship. they filed by us in approximately 15 groups of approximately 24 passengers who were approximately inebriated, until the pier was chockablock with human beings. we looked at each other in dismay, but what to do? once the wind was in our faces and the sun - still up at 5pm - was in our eyes, we lost all sense of tribulation.

however, we found it again, forcibly, on the san miguel side, where we schlepped our bags several more blocks to the hotel. gentle reader, though it pains me to reveal my unworldliness, let me admit that the charms of cozumel were initially hard to discern through the rivers of sweat and the sleep-deprived shakes.

this is the context for the relief we felt at thursday's cloudiness. "we couldn't ask for better weather for acclimatizing," said brian. "no," agreed mo, "and it means my sun allergy isn't acting up either."

on friday's drab we putzed around town, shopping and eating. saturday we moved from the hotel to the villa and spent the rest of the day marveling. sunday we gave in and just moped. (you're wondering just how deep my dishonesty goes: the ray, you're thinking, didn't you see a manta ray yesterday? yes, gentle reader. from the car.)

today we summoned all of our canadian can-do and soldiered to the beach in spite of the wind and drizzle. you know those guys who break out the shorts on the first day in march that the temperature goes above minus 10? today, we were those guys. we packed snorkel gear, rashguards, fins, books and sunglasses and headed for chankanaab national park.

it was not the most auspicious outing. first, mom slipped on the weedy steps and fell ass over tea kettle into the drink. i sprinted over as fast as i could, knocking japanese tourists heedlessly out of my way and diving straight in, without a thought, to rescue brand new fin #2. (oh, and mother, of course.) hence we both started the day out cold. with great care, the four of us selected the single windiest palapa in all of chankanaab, where we shivered for a while, making a show of reading our books. but we were really there for the fish so we headed in.

i got immediately swept into a sea of plastic garbage and swallowed a pint of dirty seawater.

dad's equipment didn't work (again). neither did the backup equipment.

mo got separated from the herd and headed back to shore, getting well bashed on the way.

we broke for lunch, which we ate shivering under sun shirts and sarongs, and then we gamely headed back in for a somewhat shorter dip. how cold was it?: the frigid outdoor shower was a positive relief. we huddled back under the palapa to debate our next move - the botanical gardens? a little browsing in the tourist stands, perhaps? - when i looked up to the godless black heavens and said, "uh oh."

we barely made it to our little chevy four-banger when the deluge began. and by deluge, i mean hurricane-force rains and a cold brisk wind. storm sewers regurgitated. cyclists were up to their bottom pedal in it. shopkeepers had gone home for the day.

and speaking of home: when we arrived at our lovely villa, we discovered that the roof leaks. and the lanai doors leak. and the air conditioning units leak, sending water coursing down the kitchen walls. the pool has overflowed into the yard. as i key these words, we have 21 bath towels and 3 bathmats pressed into service - we soak 'em, wring 'em, put 'em back down - and still the water is trickling past my feet.

so this post is for those of you who have been thinking of me malevolently this week. edmonton, i'm lookin' at you. you too, new york/philadelphia, with your five-foot blizzard. and don't try to look innocent, ottawa, you know you've been muttering under your breath.

oh yeah: here's a taste of what we saw.

kinda makes you wonder what it's like in the sunshine.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Swim vs fly

you know that old question: if you could fly like a bird or swim like a dolphin, which would you choose? today i saw the answer, a manta ray cruising the caribbean turquoise under a soft december sky.

Saturday, December 19, 2009


i was a jesus girl for a while, but at heart i'm an aesthete, so what i love about christmas is good harmony. we're lying around our villa listening to christmas carols and it's causing me to remember all my favorite christmases:
  • christmas in vienna, 1977: we were so jet-lagged and cold we could hardly stay awake, but the singing at that cathedral, in the candlelight, was the reason i went to graduate school
  • christmas at zengelwood, 2004: never thought i'd buy a house, never thought i'd live with someone, never thought i'd be hosting my sister's clan on mo's brother's hand-me-down table, in the room we stripped (and stripped and stripped) of wallpaper, and painted
  • christmas on the beach, kauai, 2002: christmas without snow, without cold, without ceremony, without guilt. was that really seven years ago?
  • christmas at baden baden, 1976: "stille nacht" on the guitar in the crisp german air
  • christmas at shannon's, 2008 (not xmas day): somehow everything was just perfect, the food, the family, and darien actually eager to sit with us at the table with her half glass of wine
  • christmas at dan and tony's, 2008: great wine, easy camaraderie, interesting people, the love of chosen family, a diane von furstenberg dress
  • christmas at the zwickers', 1988: the last christmas before my sister married, she came over and spent christmas eve night with me in the spare room in mom and dad's basement. there were some painful conversations that night, but i still treasure it
  • christmas morning on 63rd street, 1974ish: i got a massive box of crayons and stubbed my toe on the metal box, but wes and bernie and phyllis and neal were there with us. (i saw neal's name on a doorplate at carleton many years later.) was that the year i got a pair of cross-country skis?
  • christmas at braemar circa 1987: they're reading the christmas story and shannon leans over to say, "just imagine: your own cousin is eight months pregnant and you have to hear about it from the angel gabriel!"
it's a cliche to say, but they really do seem to go faster and faster, these yearly demarcations. i am peering under the bottom of my glasses to write this post, and my father is napping for the second time today. i've been so focused on 2009's meannesses (the promotion debacle, the psychosis, the nursing home) that i have neglected to reflect sufficiently on the precious fact that everybody i love is on solid footing. if i could have one thing for christmas it would be to gather them all in my arms and protect them from ill health, doubt, loss.

it is so much harder to take life lightly.


seven years ago, i booked a two-week trip in kauai for mom, dad, mo and me. we didn't know then that it would become a triennial tradition, of which cozumel is the latest iteration. it tends to go the same way every time: i get antsy about booking something and spend the month of may scouring the internet for independent places that offer something the average tourist never gets to see. i corral my travelling companions, lay out options a to j and ask for their opinions. "they all look lovely, heather," my mother will say. mo knows better, but sometimes picks the wrong one or two. my dad will typically ask something like, "are we going to mexico?" result: heather gets in a huff and books exactly what she wants. everybody is happy.

for the kauai trip, i thought it would be swell to spend one week on the touristy coast and one week in the rain forest. "they all look lovely, heather," said mom. "i like this place," said mo. i gave her the stink eye and she stopped opining. dad said, "kauai: is that the big island?"

the rain forest cottage might have been just as advertised, but it was not at all what we had expected. for one thing, it really rains in the rain forest. every day. nothing ever dries. ever. as for "charming": mo and i slept in a loft six feet above the kitchen and two feet below the thatched ceiling, while mom and dad slept on the sofa bed which extended into the same kitchen. there was a hammock; the moment mom sat on it, it collapsed. there were geckos; they seemed particularly fond of our little loft. (candor compels me to admit that, to comfort mo, i told her geckos had tiny little pads on their feet - true - that meant they would never walk on bedding - not so true.) we took advantage of jim's homemade trails. imagine slippery red mud through ravines overgrown with kudzu and other relentless greenery. add the rain trickling down your neck. add bright white ked's (mom's). miserable, right? now add the twist: wild boars chasing us back to home base.

the week on the coast was a little better, though i learned that "isolated" is not always synonymous with "desirable." mo and i walked in and laid immediate claim to the only double bed in the property, leaving my parents the twin beds across the hall. everything in the coastal house advertised the "jerry jones discount," which was the same everywhere: a measly five percent if it was recognized at all. the beach was across the street, as advertised; what was not so clear from the internet is that this was the beach where the american navy boys drink.

oahu/maui three years ago was better.

but cozumel this year is definitely the best.

we started at las anclas, a chic boutique hotel run by the kindly pedro and his gay son ayal. if you have time, click through that link and look at the photos. perfectly located, it's close to everything you'd want nearby (markets, restaurants, beach promenade, ferries to the mainland, taxis) and far enough away from undesirables like the cruise ship terminals and the air-conditioned mall. you can't help feeling cosmopolitan and superior at las anclas.

this morning we relocated to casa tropicale, which is further from the downtown core, closer to the airport, would require us to do our own cooking, and might not match the description on the internet, which among other things refers to the property as a "villa." i was relieved by las anclas (we return there next week) and a bit apprehensive about casa tropicale.

i needn't have worried.

i am writing this post from the kitchen;s breakfast bar, which is four feet by eight feet of bright white tile. this gives onto a dining room table set for eight but that could easily accommodate ten or twelve. beyond that is the living room, which gives onto the courtyard with fountain and pool. out the side door - sorry, one of the side doors - is a carport, a screened sitting room, a sand sink, an outdoor shower and a gear room. over near the maid's entrance is a laundry room and a powder room done, like all the bathrooms are, in mexican tile. there are two principal bedrooms here, each of them the size of a typical hong kong apartment. each bedroom has its own terrace. there is a kids' bedroom we are not using, but if you want to use it, please know that it comes with its own giant bathroom and its own giant lanai. there is another common lanai on the second floor, making a total of three on that level alone. the entire third floor is a rooftop terrace with areas for lounging, areas for eating, areas for sunning, areas for reading, areas for drinking, areas for getting away from each other should more than one of you be on a given level at any given time. did i mention the (non-collapsing) hammocks? the six-burner stove? purified water on every level? the fridge stocked with beer and soft drinks?

i am hereby redeemed.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Dancers in the square

of all the things i've seen today --
  • a pink plaid store
  • mayan women making tortillas
  • the panaderia cozumelania, lost for two days but appearing suddenly right where the guidebook said it would be (though, regrettably, not until early afternoon)
  • the peacock blue of hotel las anclas's walls in the slant afternoon sun
  • lunch in someone's living room
-- none was as beautiful as the couple dancing alone in the square tonight. the band was from merida and excellent, playing latin standards with such energy and skill that they warmed everybody against the wind storm. our couple, she in slim dark trousers tapered to the ankle, he in a long white cardigan buttoned at the bottom and proper men's dress shoes, danced the steps they learned in the '40s. they were light on their feet, precise and nimble, if a little less showy now than then. you could see the frailty, but you could also see the joy, the tribulations, the blessings, the losses, the daughter living in america, the redecorated living room, the shrine to the virgen de guadeloupe (shabby now), the ninos who don't speak spanish, the comforting sufficiency that comes from decades of living in this place, and the things they don't admit, each one promising instead: fear not, my love, i will always dance with you.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009


each year professors are required to submit an annual report detailing how we've spent our time. we list the courses we teach, the students we supervise, the research we've published, the work we have in progress, the service we undertake, supplementary professional activities, honors and awards. it's an electronic form so you don't really know how long it is until you print out the 4 or so pages at the end of june.

once you've done this, your department chair provides a summary assessment.
you report, she evaluates, putting an increment recommendation (0.5, 1.0, 1.5, 2.0 or 2.5) next to your file. an increment is worth a certain amount of money, keyed to the salary scale, which in turn is keyed to rank. the chair sends the entire department's assessments "upstairs." in the case of a department like english and film studies, this involves literally moving papers from the third floor to the sixth, but in most cases it's metaphorical.

upstairs in the dean's office, an associate dean reads all the annual reports and summary assessments for a group of departments; in my case, five (about 140 files). i advise the chair if things seem unclear or if i think someone is being undervalued or overvalued. we meet, and chairs talk about the agony they go through weighing an assistant professor's apples against an endowed researcher's oranges.

even at this point, none of this is binding, because the faculty evaluation committee makes the ultimate decision. the faculty evaluation committee, FEC, is comprised of chairs plus an equal number of elected representatives from across the faculty of arts. associate deans have to be there too, but we are non-voting observers slash resource people. FEC reads every file - the binders by this point are unluggable - and arrives at the final decision of how many increments each case merits, in a scarcity context: increments are limited to 120% of the number of faculty members in arts.

that's the process, in a (five-month) nutshell.

people tell you FEC will be exhausting, but you don't really know what it's like until you've been there.
the big confab takes place during the first week of december starting at 8:30 every morning. the multi-day meeting is highly confidential. by friday afternoon, we emerge with an increment recommendation for all 400-some academic staff members.

people who have been through the experience typically say the following about FEC: "it's time-consuming, it's
expensive, it's difficult, and it's exhausting - but it's ultimately worthwhile, because it's fair."

i have been thinking about this all week, as i sit mute and unvoting in the same seat at the same table in the same room, day after day. that it's time-consuming and expensive can't be denied. yes, yes, biennial or triennial evaluations of tenured faculty - great idea (and you should vote for that faculty association any time now). but how is it exhausting? and is it ultimately fair? these are the questions i've been turning over this week.

i find FEC exhausting emotionally. i feel a wide range of hard emotions in sometimes quick succession: fear, rage, frustration, incredulity, envy, irritation, trepidation, resentment. people who've been around a while also find humor - which i admire, but can't get to. i feel that too, my rawness. i am not inured. there are things i don't want to know, things i don't want to witness. i feel uncomfortably complicit and want to be back outside. it reminds me of how i used to feel about doctoral candidacy exams. a PhD exam used to be all i could do in a day, would come home stunned and needing
to have a good cry before heading to bed at 9. i felt for the students, that was part of it, but mostly i cried with dismay at our inability to imagine things differently. what kind of anti-creativity turns an opportunity to engage with student work into a brute instance of institutional humiliation? students never fail, but they never have to, as long as they know they could.

(these days, i take candidacy exams as given: not my favorite part of the job, but a necessary evil. eh, what are you going to do? i register that as a loss.)

as for fairness: well, it depends what you mean by fair. if you mean procedural justice, which most people do, then FEC is absolutely fair: astonishingly so. cases are evaluated, not individuals; it's not personal; the year's work is under review, not your past, not your prospects, not your personality. most of the people in the room have their own files in the mix (chairs' are done by the dean), so there is a weird and radical democracy at work. i understand what colleagues mean by saying it's a fair process.

but if by justice you mean something other than a liberal process based on individualism - distributive justice, perhaps, or restorative justice, even retributive justice (which i am sadly not above); if you want the university to be a place that actively makes the world better; if you yearn for external markers to match your internal sense of what's fair; if you believe meaning is only made in complicated contexts, dissensual communities and vexed histories: if these are the things you value, then you would probably want something other than FEC.

i suppose at the end of the day - at the end of this day - i don't know where to find what's captured in this fragment of poetry, written about the changing light in long june days but relevant to december's dark as well:

because of course we all must try
and do our best to buoy one another
to know remember and hold dear
what it means to work by increments

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

And then again...

from that same file, called "great email," and from that same period, 3 months before i started my job, this dot-matrix fragment:

... raft of management strategies going on now, largely because the traditional english areas are - get this - claiming minority status. they feel marginalized by the interest in the "new" (read feminism and postcolonialism), and so the grad committee has reorganized so that we provide "balanced" coverage at the grad course level. which means fewer poco courses, mandatory sign-ups for the early stuff. in other words, it's not about us, and the real problem they are worrying over is Whither English over the next quarter century? .... the department needs to hear more about rigorous models approaching cultural difference (not blanding it out into pop theories of "difference") that don't buy into simple national boundary issues, and that means we have some work ahead of us. daphne read, you, and i will do some summit work on this, and OBVIOUSLY we are not in competition with one another, no matter what SB would hope or think.

i've been going crazy lately but heather it's great to hear from you. write write write. have a wonderful break in ireland.
XO stephen

A message from the sister(hood)

from: shannon zwicker, mcconnell fellow
subject: connections
date: fri 5 mar 93

i am entirely disillusioned today about the university and its role in society (as opposed to most days when i am merely disillusioned with my job).

i have determined the function of a penis. in addition to acting as most men's primary cerebral organ, it is essentially a handle to make "manager shopping" easier. it works like this: an organization enters the management supermarket, filled with aspiring young managers, many of them (and most of the women) well qualified. the shelves are stocked with these managers, and the organizations take the easy way out. they grab the ones with the convenient handle, ignoring the ingredient labels entirely. after all, it's easier that way - no one will question their choice. the penised model is, after all, the most popular model in use.

i have determined this after observing men in positions of power in the university. ...

do i sound a little bitter? this has been a weird few months. i have given up my search for a mentor entirely - i am now in search of a half decent manager. can't find one anywhere and am not tempted to stick around and continue to look.

(shannon left the university for the private sector shortly after this.)

And now, a word from hothead paisan

so two days after the 20th anniversary of the montreal massacre, we get a story in the globe and mail fretting that women outnumber men at university. the implications for family life are particularly scary: "faced with a dwindling number of potential mates who are their education equals, ... more women may take a pass on the traditional family, or be more willing to leave it when things don't work," worries elizabeth church. what's worse, "more men may find themselves tending to hearth and home."

this is followed by an editorial in the same newspaper -- an editorial, by the way, based on its own story -- called "the male minority" that comes down hard on the side of indira samarasekera's inflammatory october comments about the "demographic time bomb." specifically, her fear is that "we'll wake up in 20 years and we will not have the benefit of enough male talent at the heads of companies and elsewhere." what's that you say? - you thought at the current rate it would take 260 years to move from 4.5% to 50%? silly girl! you never were any good with numbers. in addition to coming down hard on samarasekera's side, the editorial comes down hard on the undergraduates who produced clever posters satirizing the comments: the samarasekera response team was "soon collared by campus security, but were not disciplined." insert disapproval here.

and that editorial gem sits right next to a new piece of idiocy from margaret wente blathering on about the absence of systemic misogyny in canadian culture. stop me if you've heard this line of argument before, but mark lepine was a random homicidal lunatic and not a garden variety misogynist. dec 6, pace wente, "has been an annual excuse for fevered breast-beating over the moral failings of society and the persistent inequality of women – as if the glass ceiling or the lack of universal daycare existed on the same moral continuum as homicidal misogyny."

what world are these people living in?

admittedly not mine, which this week involves supersecret meetings evaluating faculty members' performance over the year. i cannot talk about these meetings - what happens in room 5.20 stays in room 5.20 - but i will assure you that the academy intervenes before our classroom presence translates into actual material success.

all of this begs the question of exactly how few women students we should be aiming for (pun intended). what would be the ideal ratio for preserving heteronormative family structures and the current wage inequity between men and women? i ask so i can start advising my smart, hardworking women undergraduates to drop out.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Freedom 45, where are you?

it being 14 above today and me not working well anyway, i went for a run in the river valley. at 2:15 the only people about were the blue-rinse crowd. they tend to be friendly but i am not. i am angry and resentful. i fantasize about retirement all the time, even though i live in a world where no one wants to retire. my people, the academic tribe, boast about never wanting to go. this suggests that most academics have a better worklife than i do, or a higher pain threshold.

but i digress. when i get there, to freedom 55 (okay, 60: i really don't think i can make it to 65), what will i think of this moment in my life? will i remember what it's like to be buried under unanswered emails and unfulfilled expectations? will i recall lying in bed all night fretting about the work to come? will i feel the panic about teaching, the panic about grading, the panic about missed deadlines and eleventh-hour demands? will i remember feeling pissed on by all the dinks in the world?

or will i think: she ran so fast, then, and missed it all.

Saturday, September 19, 2009


this afternoon i spent an hour and a half with 799 other people at the winspear centre listening to randall stout describe the philosophy, technology, materials, intention and process behind the new AGA.

architects, it turns out, are pretty knowledgeable. where did stout start his talk? with freud. freud! (the affective vs the symbolic.) then he showed us pictures of the tobacco sheds he played in as a kid in tennessee: drying racks like monkey bars and light streaming through the ventilation gaps. you understood immediately how he grew up wanting to bend light through buildings and turn space into place.

the big ribbon on the AGA is called the borealis, but it also translates the river. stout talked movingly about the north saskatchewan, the way we protect the river's wildness from the urban grid with a band of green. he showed us aerial pictures that prove it, and he referenced american rivers, cemented in by the army corps of engineers, or commercially developed, or plain dried up. (he's from los angeles.) he said he went for a walk this morning down by the river, and then he described the feeling i've had a million times when you came up the 100th street stairs: a sense of surprise and loss and anticipation that lasts the 100 metres while you leave behind the river and enter the urban core.

stout walked us through the design process, showing paper models ("we're about the biggest consumers of scotch tape in southern california") being translated to computer models ("no," said mo, "you can't have one," referring to the wand that that reads along x, y and z axes to translate three dimensions to two) being realized in the kansas factory ("yeah," in his tennessee twang, "they're pretty big") and finally shipped to edmonton. he paid homage to the steelworkers who worked through the cold winter to assemble the borealis, and he was kind enough not to mention the snowfall was actually in april. he showed us artists' conceptions of the gallery in summer and winter, during the day (the zinc exterior goes from orangey-green to gray-blue as the sun moves from east to west) and during the night (when its brilliance will be irresistible). he mentioned the key-controlled service elevators for catering. he showed us the slatted fir ceilings and the fir veneer walls. he promised that the building would surprise us in the snow.

we fell in love with randall stout, all of us, because of the way he loves his building ("mine for four more months," he said, "and then it's yours") and the way he let us love our city. nobody used the term "world-class." nobody compared us to new york. nobody mentioned potholes. stout talked easily about churchill square, chancery hall, the winspear and the LRT, deftly omitting the library and subtly complimenting gene dub's work. he didn't ever mistake calgary for edmonton. he talked about this one place, this single downtown corner and what you could do by reflecting the sky and quoting the river and making a wall of glass. and in the human figurines that populated the artist's model -- the tiny people walking by, going in, coming out, loitering in churchill square, wearing jason wu, air kissing, doing lunch, speaking french, parkouring, meandering, trysting -- we saw ourselves.

one last thing: half of the folks at this talk were under 30.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Virginia made me

reading three guineas at an impressionable age left me with a deep distrust of ritual. i couldn't go to convocations. funeral rites creeped me out. i still have a hard time chanting at protest marches. i can't even do the soccer cheer before a game: "3-2-1-snipers!," i mouth. but of all of these, nothing was so suspicion-inducing as marriage.

well, today's news is that after decades of principled objections to marriage as a hetero/sexist institution, and years of scorning gay marriage, i have put down my bow of burning gold. i've decided i am in favour of gay weddings. the way i see it -- now -- life's too short to dismiss other people's happiness. people want to marry. they want a wedding. for reasons passing my understanding, they want to organize flowers and families so they can stand in front of a crowd of people and say aloud the kinds of things i've always thought best whispered in someone's ear, or uttered to end an argument, or stumbled over in a home depot aisle.

gay weddings show culture morphing and changing. we'll take this aspect of the tradition, but no thanks, not the 'wife' bit. we'll say what we think the basis of a strong relationship is (in connie and val's case, the integrity of individuality and a commitment to sympathetic engagement with each other, which is about as good a definition as i've heard) -- and then we'll make the state sanction it. it's bold and creative, when you think about it. does it solve the issue of disproportionate state goods going to coupled people? does marriage, reworked, shed its baggage of dispossessing women of their personhood? does it undo monogamy's dyadic structuring of desire? of course not. but it turns out you never get tired of hearing the line "by the power vested in me by the province of alberta." it's all i can do not to throw my fist in the air and say, 'take that, fascist fucks!'

more profoundly, i think we can thank gay weddings, along with drag king culture, for a revitalization of butch fashion. people dress for a wedding. the girls looked good, of course (and val was resplendent), but the real treat of last night's soiree was the dudes. there were turquoise shirts with suspenders. there were tight dark vests over proper white shirts. there were cuff links. there were suits. there were funky glasses and short haircuts and brogues. there were ties. there were stripes: thin white stripes and thick white stripes and oxford stripes and pinstripes. there were boots, and there was leather, and there were hats -- so many hats! -- and exquisite manners everywhere. there were dudes with dudes, and there were dudes on their own, and some of them danced with their ladies and some of them danced with the family, and none of them danced with the buxom rugby player from connie's team, which was just fine since it turned out she and her equally zaftig husband could cut quite a rug when the hiphop was playing.

to tell you the truth, it was all very queer.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Stop clamouring, audience of one!

ok. i'll write again.

but first take a peek at the tenured radical's excellent post on workload, its mystifications and inequities (thanks, nat!).

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Two other ways of looking at it

from daniel coleman's in bed with the word:
hard-hearted, cynical audiences are usually smart. you can't tell them anything they haven't thought about before. critique, clever interventions, intriguing arguments, and brilliant analyses are the bread and butter hard-hearted people chew up and spit out without stopping to breathe. the chink in the armour of cynics, however, is sorrow. (p. 101)

from frank donoghue's the last professors:
... professions do not prepare their members to deal with layoffs, chronic unemployment, or underemployment. ... when professors get fired, they cry. moreover, no profession more fervently believes in the myth of meritocracy than academics. the conviction that somehow one's talent alone ultimately determines one's place in the hierarchy of academic labor gives rise to a constellation of fantasties: my charisma as a teacher will be properly valued; my completed dissertation or published book will confirm my rare intelligence. in short, someone will discover me and celebrate my intellectual powers. since these epiphanies almost never happen, meritocracies have the effect of making everyone feel insufficiently appreciated. (p. 63)

Monday, August 3, 2009

What not to do (part 4)

from up here on the plateau, a partial list of things to avoid if you hope to be promoted in the university:
  • good teaching. in particular, do not attempt pedagogical experiments. do not move into a new area. do not team-teach. do not teach extra-to-load. do not pick up teaching from colleagues who fall ill. do not assist colleagues' teaching. do not use new technologies. do not concern yourself with the relevance of your material to the students in your class. do not co-publish. do not teach graduate students to teach.
  • responsible supervision. every time you are about to answer an email from a graduate student, ask yourself, "will this get me promoted?" you already know the answer. do what most people do, and leave that chapter sitting on your desk. eventually even the most talented doctoral students give up and drop out.
  • mentoring. it's supposed to be hard for other people.
  • publishing where people might actually read you. obviously, this makes your colleagues look bad.
  • arts and culture festivals, extra-academic boards, or other demonstrations that you take seriously the concept of community engagement. "sweetheart, we didn't mean it!"
above all, if you imagine change and work for it, you might as well pull the trigger yourself.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Not bitter part 3

the OED defines bitter as "one of the elementary sensations of taste proper: obnoxious, irritating, or unfavourably stimulating to the gustatory nerve; disagreeable to the palate; having the characteristic taste of wormwood, gentian, quinine, bitter aloes, soot: the opposite of sweet; causing ‘the proper pain of taste’ (Bain)."

so maybe i'm a little bitter. but also:
  • morose: "sullen, gloomy, sour-tempered, unsocial."
  • humiliated: i have thought a lot about humiliation this month, not just my own, you'll be glad to hear, but the routine humiliations of everyday life. i think about GB and what it must have been like to struggle with recalcitrant despondency, particularly in a world that takes chipper as a prerequisite for lovable. i look around and wonder how humiliating it feels to be chronically obese in the new 21st-century moral order: those hungers must mortify you. i think about the endless humiliations of poverty, being 50-something years old and standing in line after line after line. humiliation, it seems to me, accretes and compounds until the night you find yourself texting from the west side of the high level bridge.
  • angry: the chinese say anger is a function of liver imbalance, as are resentment, frustration, irritability and bitterness. the job of the liver meridian is to keep energy flowing smoothly throughout the body. when it doesn't: migraine. (huh.) in this case, though, it's hard to say exactly what i'm angry at. an anonymous reviewer? a poor chair? a corrupt process? "the system"? this is me, punching fog.
  • dismayed, disgraced, discouraged, disconcerted, disheartened and, perhaps most of all, and most inarticulately, disappointed.
taste of soot.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

New knife

i need a new knife. my old knives have been sharpened too often to hold an edge for long. they tire, dull.

i know who could advise me on a knife. and if she were sitting here now, i would ask: do you feel your knife's well balanced? are you familiar with its edge? did it feel heavy at first? unbecoming? what about the action, the hard thrust upward: did you have to get used to that? did your palms sweat or did the knife's handle warm with your caress?

i said, "less obedience, more boldness. less talking, more listening."
she said, "pass me my whetstone."

Monday, July 27, 2009

I'm not bitter part 1

98% of all publications (articles and monographs) in the arts and humanities are never cited.* professors don't even check each other's precious monographs out of the library.

i'm just saying.

* Deborah C. Rohde, In Pursuit of Knowledge: Scholars, Status, and Academic Culture. Stanford UP, 2006.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Miss joyce regrets to say

mo and i head over after work to change the sheets and swap clean-for-dirty laundry and check in on the food situation, make sure she has her pills and so on....

... but when we arrive, jo's on her way to the bank, so says: "i'm terribly sorry, but i just can't accommodate you today."

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Going without

i'm going public because i can't believe i'm the only one in my predicament. which is, in a word, underpants.

here i am, a fully realized adult woman about to start a new job, and i haven't got a decent pair of gaunch. i'm not asking for the moon here, just a reliable brand: cotton, comfortable, and sold by the half dozen. i don't want to think about my panties, at least not most weekday mornings; i want them to fit. and by "fit," i mean that they should cover my ass -- ideally, my entire ass -- while staying below the waistline of whatever i'm wearing on top. i want them not to ride up (or, at the risk of being indelicate, "in"). i'd like something a little more up-to-date than my jockey french cut standbys (oh, 80s, i miss your pleat-front pants) yet not quite as trendy as little boy shorts (which, unless you have the thighs of a little boy...). i don't want control top, shape-enhancing, butt-lifting technology, just label-free, soft-elastic, no-polyester everyday undies. why am i forced to choose between gaunch that sit low on my hips yet strangle my legs and something seamless that goes to the rib cage? i know it's a global recession, hanes, but did you lay off all your good ideas? and i'm sorry, but bamboo?

like i say, i can't believe i'm the only one making do with four-year-old rags. so if you have suggestions, gentle reader, bring 'em. until them, i'm going commando.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Running goat creek

the only lasting effects appear to be the blister on the bottom of my right foot and a bruise in the middle of my back. otherwise, running 19km is a lot like running any other distance, only it takes longer.

i set out like the kid in a brain bucket at the playground, with a litre of water, snacks, a rain shell, fleece and my iphone in a backpack, a garmin on my right wrist and a canister of bear spray in my left. at the goat creek trailhead, the wind persuaded me to add a windproof vest and change to yoga pants. (i changed back to the original outfit within 750m.) mo kissed me goodbye, i turned kate's garmin on, and within seconds -- stepped into a deep mud puddle. hence the blister.

the first 7 km were good and strong, with a perfect downhill grade. it was all sunshine and mountains, good tunes and no bears. the next 6 were tougher. at km 14-15 i thought the garmin must be broken. 16-17 were easy, and the last 2km were physically hard (i was astonished at how tired i felt) but mentally easy (no question of quitting now).

i used the running room's 10-and-1 system, loosely -- which probably means i didn't use it at all?: i find it hard to stop when things are going well, and i make any number of excuses to avoid starting again in the middle of an uphill grunt, my favorite excuse being that my sports physician last year cautioned me to "avoid hills." (i'm pretty sure he meant downhills.) anyway, i didn't have a goal beyond the curiosity as to whether i could do this run or not, and i didn't exactly train for it. i went in prepared to walk as much as i had to. i would estimate honestly that i walked 1.5 minutes for every 10 minutes that i ran, which is okay for a first run at that long a distance. i was slow (3 hours to run 19km, at 6.5 km/h on average, or a pace of 9:11) - but i guess that does include changing my clothes, digging around for a powerbar at km 8, eating a fruit bar 2km later, texting mo around km 13, and running with a pack.

at the end, i felt strangely flat. i thought i would feel elated, depleted, proud, amazed, high or ... something. i was definitely tired, nauseated, and migrainous, but emotionally blank. i shuffled through the banff springs parking lot and stretched my calves while i waited for kate and mo to take me to the hot springs.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Roughing it at lake o'hara

by the third night i could stick my feet all the way down to the bottom of the sleeping bag without flinching.

what can i say: it's a phobia. i can't put my hand or foot anywhere i can't see. when most people lose something under the driver's seat, they reach down and retrieve it. me, i go to therapy.

so it was no small accomplishment, getting used to the sleeping bag. and it did make the rest of our rough life seem easy by comparison: pulling water from a stream, sleeping in common quarters, using the stinkiest outhouse in tarnation, cooking for a dozen, going without electricity, without showers, without email, facebook, twitter, wikipedia or blogging.

from 21-24 june we stayed at the ACC's elizabeth parker hut up in lake o'hara. although EPH's popularity means that most people enter a lottery for a chance to stay there, we have an in through family friend al hunter, who's been going there regularly since 1959. every year he puts together a ragtag group of campers including, for the last four years, my folks. also along: al's son craig and two of his colleagues from BC social services, al's daughter jody and her 23-year-old son sam, and our friend katherine. it was a shockingly good group, generous and fun and easy to be around, with the right combination of together and alone -- and fantanstic food: blueberry pancakes and ham for breakfast, fresh chili for dinner, dried meats and hummous for lunches, along with organic vegetables and penticton fruit, single-malt and st andre cheese at 5. most importantly, the ear plugs worked.

what people love about camping at lake o'hara is that you start at such high elevation that it's easy to get to the wiwaxy gap, or the yukness ledge, or up to abbot pass. even with the weather pissing rain, or blowing snow or, on wednesday night, hailing, we had some great hiking. and mo's pictures can make anything look beautiful:

nothing like chilly hiking to make even a sleeping bag feel cozy.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Heart healing

at first i didn't think i would like her at all. i like my clinics clinical. so when she said, "it's just you and me for now, so i thought we'd keep it casual, you know?," i almost fled. but as mo has pointed out to me, i am always better when i get acupuncture regularly, and so i stapled my butt to the chair and filled out all the forms.

it turns out, she's the most intuitive healer i've ever met. she listened to my pulse with her eyes closed for a long long time and then she said to me: "the reason you find it hard to make decisions isn't because you can't make a plan or execute it. that's the reason most people find it hard, but that isn't it for you. what's hard for you is that you don't know what you want. you don't know how to listen to your heart. or maybe you forget. it makes for very good dreams, do you dream a lot? your pulse also tells me that you are sweet and generous, and you do a lot for other people, and you worry for them. but the last thing you want is for them to see inside the garage. the allergies are there too, i can feel them, but they are insignificant. your heart is blocking the connection between what happens here [she touched my belly] and your head. the pain must be enormous. well, i can feel it. i know it is. we should work on this."

work we did, and more shocking talk, and i have been walking around in a heavy daze since.

From 12A

Sunday, June 14, 2009

What I felt at geek camp

it's sunday night and i'm already forgetting what the week was like, which i do not want to do, because i felt some things last week at geek camp that i have not felt in a very long time, good things, things i do not want to forget.

excitement: by the end of the week i was seeing possibilities for creativity and partnerships and interactivity and scope for the imagination (thanks anne) that i have never seen before in an academic context. this edmonton course is going to be great, and i can see now how it might turn into something really vital and living, a kind of citizens' treasure trove. a whole new way of thinking collectivities and narratives is starting to take shape, and although i can't yet be cogent about it, i get a thrill when i think about what we might make. but it wasn't like this all week; first, there was --

agony: on monday i felt i belonged. for sure, there was all kinds of technical vocabulary i hadn't mastered, but susan brown is emphatic that tools can't be solely in the hands of the developers: tell them what you need, she insists, and hold their feet to the fire until they make it. ah, bossy. i can do bossy. monday's good feeling lasted into wednesday morning, by which point i was also feeling impatient with a lot of the tools we were looking at: how many ways can there be to build a concordance? something turned on wednesday afternoon, when i started to understand just how enormous this world is, how hard it is to build a single tool for textual analysis, how elusive a good interface can be. i have a notion of what i want, which is better than the inkling i started with, but it's nowhere near an idea. and so while everybody else started beavering away on this project or that, i walked around in a fog, so lost i didn't even know what the questions were, let alone how to answer them. i was trying to have an idea -- anything, please, i'll take a frog in a paper bag, a cheese rind, a cliche -- but nothing doing. i was in the bad place. i know that place is also called "thinking," but it does not seem like it at the time. it's a space of total incoherence and despair. you feel so stupid you figure you must be the stupidest person in the history of stupidity. you are legendarily dumb. cretin doesn't even come close. and then you do something really idiotic (in my case, locking myself out of my dorm room in the middle of the night, so that i had to pad over to housing services in my nightgown and nightguard, barefoot and squinting), which just goes to show.

of course it's not stupidity, but its opposite. maybe not exactly the opposite -- which would presumably be coherent verbal brilliance -- but rather a mysterious process of working things out that go deeper than your words can reach. it's virginia woolf's elusive fish (something about the body?), it's winston churchill's afternoon naps. it's thinking, and it is so agonizing that it makes me wish i worked in a t-shirt factory.

so, what got me over?:

generosity: there are lots of stories to tell about my conversion (so it feels) to digital media, and the most common one is how i bought a mac and it changed my life. true enough. but i have also been blown away by the generousity of online communities. design blogs, for instance, or etsy, or any of the other blogs i follow (see the scroll bar at right) are filled with people who put their stuff out there and then genuinely encourage you to do the same. it was the same in victoria. i met this guy from seattle -- an advanced PhD student, brilliant, named jentery sayers -- who has basically taught the course mo and i are trying to see our way through for the first time. he sat down and walked me through his classes, showed me some of his students' (public) work, confessed to the pitfalls and offered to send material. the whole vibe of the camp is like this. people were genuinely curious and really open-minded, which is what i always hoped to find in an academic community, but so rarely's as though digital humanists, having had to learn their material from the group up, took the opportunity to rethink what "work" might be. and so we actually spent a few days more or less hackfesting, working together in a room on solo projects punctuated by sidebar conversations with whoever might find the topic interesting.

i've come away feeling humbled and excited, grateful and anticipatory. and i learned a lot, even though none of it was actually on the syllabus.

Thursday, June 11, 2009


watching graduate students i've supervised ... fledge ... is an unanticipated joy of academic life. i spent a wonderful evening last night with nicole. her victoria house is very, well, nicole: clean, colourful, restful and exciting to the eye at once. even though we're not great about keeping in touch, the catching up comes fulsomely and easy. she was wonderful as a student and makes an enviable colleague now. we talked some shop, and we talked about how her son is over six feet tall, and i got to meet one of the doctoral students she's supervising, and we were still talking strong by the time we finished the scenic drive back to my residence room.

this morning, facebook told me that linda is a tenured associate professor at southern arkansas university. i never had any doubts, of course -- she's the best thing to happen at SAU since civil rights -- but it's gratifying to know that everybody sees that now. she still keeps a wild and tender menagerie of lucky cats, dogs, horses, all in the plural, all in clover. she is big on the paint horse circuit, and her students all adore her.

on day 1 of geek camp, aimee introduced the multi-media course she's teaching. all i could think while she was talking was what a thrill it would be to be her student! she is as smart and stylish and spunky as she's ever been ("just because we're smart doesn't mean we have to make ugly things," she mock admonished the group of 150), and wiser. her daughter's third birthday was the day before she flew to victoria, and she missed her husband's yesterday -- which is to say, she knows something about what her passions cost.

they are just great, these women, and so are shazia (tenured and living in macomb, pulling together a big pakistan-based research trip for her sabbatical -- her sabbatical!) and maisaa (living and working in beirut with the UN). sometimes i can't believe the things i get to do for the sake of a paycheque.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Learning by design

or, to view my post on geek camp as a wordle:

What i learned at geek camp

so i'm at the week-long digital humanities summer institute in victoria, trying to figure out how to realize the edmonton project that keeps banging around in my mind - a citizens' site for grafting urban narratives into digital cartographies. i'm learning a ton, obviously, though thankfully i learned long ago how to smile and nod and follow along even when i do not have the first clue what's being talked about.

i'm also learning about myself as a learner.

to back up, a second: i believe that it's bad for a person to always be in the position of teacher, to be the one who knows everything, or feels she has to. i think it's bad for the ego and i think it's bad for the spirit. it's too easy to grow conceited, and exhausted, and you stand to lose the magic of unknowing, the productive agony of learning. there's nothing like being a student to remind you, as a teacher, of what it's like out there in the other half of the room. you miss one simple instruction, a turn in the discussion, and suddenly you're in the bad place, lost, confused, sullen and feeling stupid. so -- call it part of the great self-improvement project otherwise known as my life -- i try to seek out studenthood when i can.

turns out, i am a model student. every day i sit directly in the instructors' line of vision. deliberate? nope. but unwavering. i follow their demos with an intelligent look on my face. i smile and nod and look quizzical at just the right moments. again, let me stress, none of this is deliberate. faithfully i raise my hand and ask questions at exactly the right moments. i am very comfortable with this mode of instruction. i like them to show me everything about a program -- and by everything, i mean everything. let's do a title search. then, a subject search. i know you said author searches work the same way, but perhaps we could try one out just to be sure? after that, i like to be left alone to try all of this again, on my own. "reinforce the object lesson," is how they put it in ed theory. i am a painfully structural, top-down, linear thinker.

meanwhile, since it's geek camp, the guy on my left is double-tasking on, it seems, a shakespeare paper. i disapprove of double-tasking, and turn my body away from him, slightly, to convey this to the instructors. the whiz kid on my right has immediately grasped the implications of zotero and has been constructing a resource-sharing circle for modernists at the university of washington for the last 15 minutes, even though the rest of us (i.e., the instructors and i) have moved on to a JiTR demo. "dude!," i want to say, "that's not on the syllabus!"

is this the kind of learner i want to be? not at all. i want to be all web 2.0, freeform exploratory and shit. i want the labile mind of a born-digital 22-year-old, not the behavioral spine of a middle-aged schoolmarm struggling with the DH limbo. so, i'm writing this blog -- firefox tab 10 of 12 -- even though the rest of the class is looking at timeline demos. where i'm coming from, that makes me pretty much a bad ass.

but i gotta go; i think they're moving on to monk ("metadata offer new knowledge") and i don't want to miss anything.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Why I hate gardening

first let me clarify. it's not the idea of gardening i hate. i love the idea of gardening, the elemental notion of oneness with nature, coaxing life itself from the earth, watching, literally, for the fruits of your toil. i can see the attraction of playing in the dirt, getting muddy, remembering what it was like to be a jobless, worry-free, unmortgaged kid again (though let's be real: i was never that kid). i get that it's sensual: the warmth of the sun, the hose livening in your hands, the gorgeous ache in your muscles at the end of what must be the most honest day's work. i love being out in nature, and i love nature itself, as rendered in a yard, love having tomatoes, herbs, lilacs, trees, and flowers.

but as for gardening itself? i detest it with a passion rare. my hatred is visceral, emotional, and unequivocal. i loathe it with every fibre in my being -- and that's saying something, since when i garden i actually feel every fibre in my being. my knees hurt. my feet cramp. my back aches. my neck hurts from the inevitable sunburn. sweat runs into pools at the bottom of my glasses, which then slide down my nose so i can't see anything. dead branches macerate my legs and splinter my hands, usually right on top of the raking blisters. mosquitos torment me, so add welts the size of a quarter and dirty smears all over to this pretty picture.

but it's not just the physical misery that does me in. gardening is soul-shatteringly dull. i would rather watch golf on TV. in slow motion. sure, you can thrill to the idea of gardening for a little while ("look at me, making things grow!") but when that smug four seconds is over, it's man against the intellectual void. the only thing to keep the mind alive is pure antagonism: to caragana, to crabgrass, to suckers, to ants, to tools that won't stay sharp, to the cultural ethos that says it's "wrong" to spray the whole damn mess with industrial-strength pesticide and head indoors to read a book, antagonism to chicory (chicory? is that what it is? the rhizomatic weed i hate the most?), antagonism to the very activity you're wasting a precious sunday on -- time you can never have back, time you know you will regret on your deathbed because you already regret it now. oh, it's mentally tough, gardening.

and then there's the endlessness of it. you weed and weed and weed and weed and weed and weed and weed and weed and weed -- and then you think, well, that's a job well done, good for me, time for a break: and only three minutes will have passed. no matter how hard you work, the yard is never finished. crabgrass and weeds, apparently fueled by some mysterious antagonism of their own, just keep growing back. ants triumph over doktor doom. plants need fertilizing, or separating, or augmenting, or watering, or composting, or banking, or deadheading, or mulching, or cutting back, or staking, or shaping, or something. the yard never achieves the serenity of a clean room.

year after year i subject myself to the agony of gardening. why? because i believe that gardeners are a higher class of being, and i want to be a better person. homo plantarum is patient, forgiving, and way, way less anal than me. i want to be improved. i want to be zen enough to view weeding as an opportunity for the mind to play. i want to experience childlikeness. i want to welcome the wild, live a life shaped by elemental principles, take lessons from an earthworm.

and i really want a yardboy.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Saturday perfection

it's the very best if you can start your saturday on the night before, playing soccer in the sudden, sodden spring. this means you'll sleep a sleep so untroubled that the only dream you'll remember in the morning is that you started a new tube of toothpaste. you won't even remember that dream until you go to brush your teeth and think: that's odd.

take your coffee back to bed. say good morning to that sleepy person lying next to you. snuggle the cats. leaf through the globe and mail, saving some for sunday. when you get up, tell yourself you have to drive to the farmers' market rather than ride your bike because they'll have bedding plants. then buy a huge hydrangea with eight blue globes: there, you had to drive. run into jen, smiling in the sunshine. run into carmen, who tells you todd is still in the hospital but doing better. carmen herself is doing better, you note. load up the car with hydrangea and go back for an herb garden.

at 11:45 you realize you're going to be late for your lunch date. at the exact moment you text ted to say "i'm running ten minutes late," he texts you to say "i'm running ten minutes late." over vancouver rice bowls at the ARTery, mutual friends trickle in. karen's taking her dog to hip hop in the park. amy's maybe going to check out the office show: me too! the vue writers are staying for the live music, a girl named jill and her ukelele, but we sneak out.

hey, do you want to just park at your place and walk down? i do. the show is ... well, i like blair brennan's shrink-wrapped tools. gerry morita dances. someone sings. alice major reads. it's the office as figured by people on artists' grants. as you walk back out into the sunshine on 124th street, you think how this is ultimately what you'd want, artists on grants thinking about an office rather than artists in offices dreaming about grants.

ted says he'll walk you a bit. then amy runs after. we meander until we're at our place. does anybody want a drink? better: a fudgsicle. we haul mo away from her yard work, sit on the deck drinking ice water in glasses with green palm trees. our grass is greening too.

after ted and amy leave, you do a little solidarity yard work: put the amazing hydrangea into a pot, clear a couple of beds. just when the heat is starting to feel oppressive, you hail your new neighbours in the back alley: lovely liliane, 8 months pregant, and 3-year-old julia, who has a new bike. romanian, edmontonian, downtown dwellers, friends of david and susan's: me too! julia is determined to get herself up on the swingset, then the rings. we women watch her, our chat sweetly empty. the afternoon melts away.

what could make this day better? you grill your food: no cleanup. you get a message from dear friends saying that all is well, meaning they are well, meaning all is well. you put on the etsy dress you bought on impulse, which of course fits perfectly. you walk to the roxy to see darrin's new play buddy. you hold hands.

walking home you catch the scent of night blossom. you can't tell what it is, exactly, and you can't tell where it comes from, but you can't get enough of it. you would lose yourself here if you could. too soon, it evanesces, and you are home.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Starting from the bottom up

it was about a year ago that jo was in the hospital and we didn't know what would become of her. she's settled into the new normal now. she uses her walker, we change her sheets, she concedes to a bath, the druggist blisterpacks her multivitamins and her estrogen (there are some wars we stopped fighting).

yesterday when i stopped by she admired my shoes. "you're such a one for the shoes!," she said. "oh jo," i demurred, thrilled to bits. five minutes later she said, "you don't really bother much with your hair, do you?"

i guess when i'm an old lady, i really will wear a purple hat.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Funk city

all of edmonton is in a funk. friends won't return calls. my parents don't want to leave the house. colleagues are absent. nobody knows what to do with all this snow -- and cold! -- in may. while we've often got snow in may, usually it's a literal out-of-the-blue thing, a blip in an otherwise lovely month. this year, it's like winter hasn't ended. as a result, everything is out of kilter. stores are filled with the kind of food you'd normally seek out at this time of year: corn on the cob (such as it is in may), fat portobello mushrooms, cold salads, steaks, and burgers. but my thoughts are tending to roasted squash soup, hearty risotto, spaghetti and meat balls with garlic bread (comin' to your place tonight, jen!). so i wandered around the grocery store yesterday with a cart of ginger, garlic and toilet paper.

it can't last forever. right??

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Jiggedy jig

after we've been away in "the little house," so dubbed by darien and laura four years ago, i'm always struck by how very big our "big house" is. it has a room entirely devoted to my computer, for instance. there's another room for sleeping, a choice of indoor bathrooms, a kitchen you can stand up in, and several different reading lairs. how can this place seem so small by february of every endless winter?

so we are back, and it is cold and rainy here, but greening up. we have not missed a thing: not the daffodils, not the tulips, not the crabapple blossoms. all of that is yet to love, and loving it will take all my attention, and i will forget about many of the things that seemed, just hours ago, unforgettable. so in between putting away the camping gear and putting in the laundry and putting out affection for princess and the hen, i want to spend a few minutes putting down some wonders and oddities, the kind of jumble you have in the back of your car and the back of your head at the end of a road trip.

under the heading remarkable campground sights: two blue-rinse ladies in matching mauve sweatsuits walking matching white bichons at 6 AM.

under the heading sounds that make you wonder: the campground that played XM radio "love songs" constantly ... in the bathroom. i shaved to "the first cut is the deepest." billy joel crooned "i love you just the way you are," but i showered anyway. modesty compels me to stop there, but you can imagine other odd pairings.

startling things: all the US national park bumph uses the phrase "geologists say..." to introduce FACTS -- FACTS, people!!! -- concerning natural phenomena. also: the lingua franca of bryce canyon is in fact french. and: nanton alberta is totally gay.

under the heading freeway signs that cause you to wonder:
  • Young Family Living Farm, next exit
  • Action Wood Waterbeds
  • BJ Services, Ltd.
  • Dirty Jo Punsters in Spanish Fork, "spicing things up since 1990"
  • Pot Roast to DRIVE for, 17 miles ahead
things that made my heart glad: the fields of purple crocuses in the blackfeet indian reservation. being buzzed by a black-chinned hummingbird in zion. highway 287. learning that the california condor, having been declining in number since prehistoric times, is making a go of it in monument valley. seeing my favorite alpine flower with the excellent new name "revel paintbrush." mo's Authentic Western Style.

things to covet: trailers by safari condo.

and a random prediction: iceberg lettuce will make a comeback.

there. really home now.

Old lady road trip

i notice my advancing years most starkly when traveling. for one thing, i can't drive like i used to 20 years ago. back then, i would do a 38-hour drive (san francisco to edmonton, for instance) in about 43 hours, stopping on the side of a nevada two-lane for a wee nap or two. now, if i was so foolish as to "nap" on the side of the road, i would fall immediately into a deep yet fitful state complete with snoring and drooling. the state trooper would find it hard to so hard to wake me he'd just leave me there for the next shift to rouse. then, i would spend all day griping about how my back hurts, and my neck is kinked, and i slept funny on my arm.

so when we don't camp, we stay in motels.

but not just any motels. i used to be of "the chaper the better" view where motels are concerned: why overpay? and then there was the kitsch aesthetic. i would thrill to the bedspreads you can slide right off of, the plastic-wrapped plastic cup. now, i think of things like the quality of the mattress. hampton inn is a good chain, we've discovered -- a chain! -- because of their special serta bed. (don't worry, we're not quite going to order one for home yet, though if you want to....)

and what about noise? used to be, i could sleep through anything. now: well, one morning in moab i shushed the frat party next door with a single teacher-look. old lady! back in yakima two years ago, i reached in through the truck window where a younger version of myself was napping and switched the radio right off. we're in room 214 now, but we were first checked into 208. i had us moved somewhere quieter.

the finickiness of old age extends to road food. no longer for me the big greasy spoon breakfast. i will burp all the way to the next town. also, it makes me sleepy. and the last thing i need is an order of hash browns on my hips ... forever.

driving itself is more tiring now, and more stressful. it takes more effort to keep my eyes on the road. my eyes tire faster. my neck cricks and my back aches. i know more than i did two decades ago, know that i make mistakes and that others make mistakes, and that mistakes are always worse at 60 miles an hour. saddest of all -- i will admit this here, once, and then go back to pinning our routes on mo -- i understand the attraction of the interstate.

of course, there are compensating virtues. for one thing, i've woken up at 6am this fine sunday morning, without an alarm. even after blogging i should be able to make it to smitty's for the senior breakfast special.

Friday, May 15, 2009


Ellen Meloy, on Utah desert:

"I am not that presumptuous to think I could speak or paint or write the natural history of my home colors. I know only that they are to blame for intent and motion, for an asymmetrical journey of wonder and of trouble. ... An aesthetic sense, an intuitive link between a chromatic band and emotion can grow as strong as a fingerprint, defying logic and inviting the helpless surrender of a love affair. Intoxication with color, sometimes subliminal, often fierce, may express itself as a profound attachment to landscape. It has been rightly said: color is the first principle of Place."
-- "The Deeds and Sufferings of Light,"
The Anthropology of Turquoise