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.