Sunday, January 31, 2010

AGA: that went well

i'll admit that when my sister sent out an APB earlier this week begging for volunteers to staff the AGA's opening days, i put myself forward for the love of my sister rather than the love of standing around all day checking coats.

i was wrong. the reason to do it is just to be there.

i've rhapsodized about the space before - more than once - but let me say it again: the building is stunning. i love looking at it from the outside. i love looking at it from the inside. i love being in it. i love the way it feels and i love the way it makes me feel. i love the way it moves people, literally and figuratively. the looks on people's faces! edmontonians own it already, some of them because they built it. one guy said, as he made his way up the stairs, "i had something to do with this railing": wonder in his hands. another woman couldn't wait to tell me that her girlfriend was one of the metalworkers.

if you have to be stuck in the eternal present of standing and waiting (milton), then you'd want your here to be the AGA and the now to be its grand unveiling.

another thing to like about the gallery - and this riffs on jo-ann's comment to friday's post: the AGA takes its audience seriously. the first stop on the tour was the janet cardiff and george bures miller installation the murder of crows, a challenging piece in every sense. stereotypical middlebrow audiences probably do not expect to walk into an installation of 97 stereo speakers and one gramophone conveying a 30-minute soundscape lamenting the horrors of war and the terrifying seductiveness/seductive terror of dreams. but they were gamers, curious and open-minded, taking it all in. (the best part about working that gallery was seeing how the sound of a single human voice, even a sleepy slurry one, refocuses a room. the dream brought everybody back from the perimeter.)

and speaking of that - being part of something bigger than yourself - it's always cool to be part of the inner circle, and volunteers get treated well. for the day you're working, you're the heart and soul of the gallery, the without whom, fed and watered and thanked profusely, given access to the secret volunteers' entrance. even though the work itself is a lot like retail, the day is actually nothing like it, since you don't have to do this job, you're doing this job because you're a good person. ok, so it's not the grand dame of edmonton volunteer gigs - it's not folkfest - but it takes the edge off not being rich enough for friday night's gala and not being artsy enough for saturday's.

people dressed up! women wore skirts and suits and dresses, tall boots, heels. many men wore jackets, some ties, one, a tux. a precocious seven-year-old walked through the galleries with her notebook and pen at the ready. a suave long-haired high-school boy pronounced the AGA "sweet." churchy-looking people approved. in spite of the hurry-up-and-wait, nobody wanted to miss a thing, or at least that's what they told me when i offered to fast-track them past the line-up for the storm room directly into karsh.

i know where they're coming from: if you're really going to be here, you shouldn't miss a thing.

Friday, January 29, 2010

The entomologist is not my enemy

i was at a meeting the other day about why it's so hard to tell media-friendly stories about research in arts. the president's speechwriter was there - she called the meeting - and it started with the declaration that she (and the president) want to brag about arts, but they don't have the material.

at first blush, it seemed easy to supply story ideas - what about the big CURA grant on the uses of theatre for sex education? why not talk about community-service learning? surely we haven't driven the $4 million triple-matched kule donation into the ground yet?

the more we talked, though, the more apparent the problem became: there is a profound misfit between the narrative parameters of communications and the work we value most. if "communications" is defined as an audience-driven medium based on an emotional connection (parents, for instance, want to hear stories about how their children will succeed; prospective international students want to be assured they should choose the UofA; donors and government officials want to hear how their investment is changing the world), and if "the work we value most" is defined as contemplative scholarship, there is a thought-provoking gap between them. why is that? in this post i begin to speculate.
  1. the anti-superstar thesis: our breakthroughs are modest and historically specific. we uncover new information about a culture's child-rearing practices, or we write a new play, or we find a (slightly) new way to think about agency. none of these are in and of themselves world-changing, the way an insulin protocol for diabetes promises to revolutionize healthcare. related: our discoveries rarely look forward. related: we expect modesty from each other, look down on self-promotion.
  2. the "we eat our young" thesis: in the sciences, if a biomechanical engineer is asked about the work of a theoretical physicist, he is likely to say, "well, it's not my area, but she 's a good scientist." asked about someone who works in an entirely different field from our own - say, an expert in nineteenth-century ukrainian gothic literature - i am likely to raise my eyebrows and refrain from answering at all. partly this is about the crisis of methodologies and disciplinary breakdowns, but partly it's a result of the way we code our work politically and therefore morally, and use those codes to police each other.
  3. the reason vs emotion thesis: much of the work we value is highly abstract and very specific. well, lots of scientific work is specific, so let's put specificity aside and concentrate on the abstraction. this is different from the basic vs applied research question, too (though that is obviously at play in all of this: see below). what i'm after here is more the distinction between reason and feeling. put bluntly, it's hard to imagine an emotional connection to a new conception of sovereignty, or a theatrical technique, or demography.
  4. the feedback loop: communications likes stories that reassure. look again at the examples i gave above, and you'll see what i mean: my kid's gonna be alright, i'm making the right decision, our investment was good. arts research frequently uncovers less comfortable truths. racism is alive and well in canada, women writers are still getting short shrift, arts grads don't always gets jobs right away - and we have a critique of the job market to boot. these stories might engender a strong emotional reaction, but not the one we're after.
  5. the basic vs applied thesis: i've left this one for last because it is so obvious. our work rarely has direct application to policy. and yet my puzzlement is that the same is true for many sciences - hence the title of this blog post. the big distinction in the academy is not between arts and sciences, but between curiousity-driven research and applied research. there are fewer distinctions between an entomologist and a political scientist than there are between an entomologist and an engineer. who is the enemy of the humanities? not the physicist or the mathematician. so, do they have this problem? and if so, how do they address it?
maybe the problem lies in the generic conventions of communications, which might underestimate its audience (more thoughtful than we imagine?), or curtail ideas by focusing on singularities (why not a dialogue? is this why podcasts work?). i'm not done thinking this through yet, so your inklings, brilliant notions and crackpot theories are welcome.

Monday, January 25, 2010


halfway through the afternoon, apropos of nothing at all, i felt my spirits lift. while i was sitting at my desk dutifully answering emails, something ... lightened. i paused mid-mail, startled. you couldn't call this feeling happiness, exactly, but it was the spiritual equivalent of switching a carry-on bag from one hand to the other.

of course, it wasn't apropos of nothing at all. at the exact moment i felt my spirits lighten, there was a thinning of the clouds such that you could believe that the sky, behind the dismal grey, really was blue. this isn't something i was aware of seeing. i was staring at my computer; i felt this strange sensation of lightening; and when i looked out the window i saw that, literally, the sky was lighter.

it only lasted for a moment, but it made me understand, for real, that i am suffering from seasonal affective disorder.

in one way, it's my own fault, the wages of never really believing in SAD. c'mon, i think, it's winter: of course you feel down. 'tis the season ... for hibernating. winter is why god invented hot tea, bourbon, cashmere. the idea is to get out into it - run, ski, skate, walk! - then come indoors for hot chocolate next to the fireplace. don't wish winter away; take it for what it is. love january for its long yellow light and blue sky against white, for the hissing sound of snow on leafless trees and ice fog on the river. that crispness you feel, that sting in your fingers, is how you know your urbanized body is still, somehow, natural. winter is for reading long novels. winter is for cooking with cinnamon. winter is for rallying.

this year i'm all out of rally.

what makes me think this is fullblown SAD? first, there's the bitchiness. at least, i think that's what you call picking approximately 473 fights since december 21st. then there's the sleep disorder. i head to bed early, unable to stay awake, only to lie in bed for hours, unable to fall asleep. exhibit three: migraines, at the rate of 2-3/week. i think a synomym for that is 'serotonin deficiency.' another symptom: i can't concentrate on anything, every day is an endless agony, yet i am obsessed by how many minutes of daylight we are (not) getting. i bought three iPhone apps for this, every one of which, worryingly, calculates sunrise and sunset differently. as for listlessness: yeah, i guess so. budget crisis: whatever. promotion: who cares. prorogued parliament: i'll post the protest on facebook but there never was a chance i'd go. my boss could come to work wearing socks and crocs and i wouldn't give a damn.

still, you can find most of that filed under winter blues. however, even i cannot make myself believe that normal people cry all winter long. it used to be daily, but lately i find myself crying more or less every waking hour, for no reason. i cry while i brush my teeth in the morning; i cry on the way to work; i turn around twice in my office and have to scrounge for the kleenex. i look out the window and cry; i don't look out the window and cry. could i paint a more pathetic picture?

i am doing everything the books say to do. i am exercising as much as i can, which is to say as much as i can force myself to do it. i am keeping regular hours. i am eating whole grains and spinach, taking vitamin D. i see people: resisting the sofa's lures, i go to dinner parties, watch plays, attend evening meetings. today i spent an hour at the muttart conservatory (mo's idea, for the record, not scott mckeen's!), just so i could see green things. it all helps, though never for very long. i was ok in the muttart, but i burst into tears again in the parking lot.

diagnosing yourself with a named disorder makes you feel at once more and less crazy. although i cry all the time, i don't actually feel sad; the emotion i feel is not what you would call unhappiness. what i feel is ... well, it's not really a feeling exactly, more like the absence of a feeling, unless you count bewilderment as an emotion. i feel lost in an endless grey, befuddled by the lack of (emotional) bearings. in this sense, i cry like a baby. disoriented, i grope around for precedent. do i always feel like this in winter? are all winters this bad? if this one is worse, why? how can it be, after two weeks in mexico? can i blame genetics? chemicals? environment? am i at some sort of age-related watershed - must i fashion a new, more equatorial, life?

or maybe i just need some fucking sun. in the name of all things holy, is that really too much to ask?

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Cheaper'n a trip to vegas

red glass tealights from the $1 bench

blue polish whisky glass, $5 at zocalo (polish whisky not included)

cherry tic tacs, $1.05 at the corner store. bonus if your g/f loves 'em.

hand-tied bouquet, $30 at zocalo

turquoise glass vase, $15; daffodils, $4; pool of water where the vase leaks, n/c

pungent basil, $6.99 at planet organic

metal water bottles, $6.74 each at london drugs

yellow and orange mugs, $6 each (zocalo); red and yellow flowers $3 a stem (zocalo); fruits from planet organic; dish from savannah, 2008; mexican talavere plates $2605, including airfare and two weeks' accommodation in cozumel

preserved lemons!

I am so starved for color that i....

  • can't bring myself to discard the purple and white orchids, even though they are dead
  • bought an ochre dress, a multicolored boucle coat, cayenne tights, and yellow brocade shoes - online
  • plan to cook an acorn squash even though i basically hate the taste of acorn squash
  • changed my gmail theme to "turf"
  • wear a pink undershirt ... everyday
  • put on matchy matchy orange gloves, an orange scarf, and an orange bag - with my red and black dress
  • ordered the enchiladas tres colores, because they were called 'tres colores'
  • found my period exciting.
(don't worry, i won't keep the yellow background forever.)

Thursday, January 21, 2010

January despair

WILL THIS GODFORSAKEN MONTH NEVER END??? i am starved for sunshine, desperate for color, chilled to the bone, and it's not even that friggin' cold. my retinas can't take it anymore, this grey on white on grey, this wintry dim. my optic nerves have atrophied.

in addition:
january entices EVERY GROUCH IN THE WORLD out from the woodwork, and they all have my email address. apparently it is my job to assuage hurt egos, smooth over disagreements, and make nice with people i don't even like that much.

i can't stop eating.
i can't stop sleeping.
i can't find a thing to write.

i have Routine Fatigue. each day is a monumental struggle as i think: no, i simply cannot [brush my teeth/check my email/make a meal/say hello] one more time. every morning i drag myself to the bathroom and wonder, "do i really have to wash my face again?" i mope down to the kitchen and bemoan the human addiction to food, to coffee. i am a january robot. sammy-juice-yogurt-fruit for mo: check! sammy-water-veggies-fruit for heather: check! diet food for madge. kitten food for fidget. shoes and boots and coats and keys and gloves. set the house alarm. open the garage door close the garage door. drive the same roads to the same job for the same meetings. monday tuesday wednesday thursday migraine. saturday errands. jo. sunday short. repeat.

i have been doing this for my whole life and it is STILL JANUARY. how is this possible? i'm getting older; time should be flying; i should be dragging my feet to slow these painted ponies down. have i fallen through a crack in the space-time continuum? has the earth itself got stuck? is this - the here, the now, the endless endless winter - all we've got and all we'll ever have?

january, you are not for the faint of heart. and you are not for me.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Best vacation?

one of yesterday's questions - what's the best vacation you've ever had? - is still rolling around my otherwise empty head.

my first inclination was to say buenos aires, because i so love that city. but that answer ignores how dirty it was, and the fact that i was robbed, and how lost we were with porteno spanish, and how ready i was to go home when we did. the objective evidence suggests BA was not in fact our best vacation, if by that you mean a smooth period of carefree bliss where everything goes well and every moment brings new pleasures.

then again, if it's moments you're talking about, i'd have to name nevada 2006. in the last week of our trip, we both started to feel maudlin, and arriving at great basin national park only made it worse. "it looks like jasper," we agreed. we sat glumly in a campsite for a few minutes, then got back in the car and headed south for six more hours, ending here:

another great vacation: new york city, the year i got tenure. we stole five days around the november 11th holiday and visited deidre in manhattan and catherine in brooklyn. the city was so loud we couldn't sleep, and as i recall the weather sucked, but it was the trip we learned to vacation together. i was advocating for van gogh at MOMA and dance at the joyce, while mo's idea of heaven was a corn dog at coney island. (i wasn't aware until then that coney island was in new york.) going to NY with mo made my world bigger.

or maybe we learned to travel together the summer before, in waterton. each of us planned a day, free from debate by the other. on my day, i hiked carthew-alderson, an 18-km one-way trail, and on mo's day we tore around red rock canyon on rented scooters.

the northern alberta tour of atrocities (summer '99?) - to hythe, where wiebo ludwig had just been arrested for the first time, and to fairview, home of the cooper-snider murder case - was filled with calamity: the car failed to start at the end of a deserted dirt road well into the front ranges, and the french press coffee maker exploded, burning me quite badly, and we almost hit a deer. yet i think of it fondly. ditto the southern BC tour of atrocities the following summer. we saw TB sanitoria, WWII internment camps, and logging clear-cuts, but on april 28th we caught the first ferry of the season across lake revelstoke, under a bright full moon.

this spring's trip to utah would qualify as a bad vacation, given that we received troubling news about a dear friend early into it. i found it hard to completely relax while worrying what was up at home. yet that's also the trip we saw bryce and zion, cycled the colorado and hiked horseshoe canyon. so - a good vacation, no?

london, feb 2007, was terrific: imagine taking kids to the tate.

riding that little cesna to molokai (may 2003) was like taking a holiday to the 1950s. watching the planet produce itself at volcanoes national park was mind-blowing even in the sulfurous deep night heat.

we had fun in boston 2004 - remember taking the train back to NY with crazy phyllis? and what about the first season we had the tent trailer? lightning storms at big knife; the river boat tour of chicago; scottish glens and irish roundabouts; shell casings in the black rock desert; making it out of death valley alive. oh, our first ski trip together, when mo was so broke she wore brown corduroys, a fuscia headband, the purple skis we bought at play it again sports, and the yellow-red-turquoise OP jacket she had in high school! laughing ourselves silly at the KFC in red deer while we counted out our last thirteen cents. hope BC....

the word vacation comes from the latin vacatio, meaning freedom or respite, and it's been in use in english since at least 1386. vacation is frequently paired with leisure, also signifying freedom or opportunity. and this confluence points to why i think vacations are important: by definition, they make things possible. vacations release you from the habitual, take you away from your everyday preoccupations, and thereby put you in the way of the unexpected. you can have unexpected moments in the everyday - yesterday felt like a vacation - but these moments stand out when they're decontextualized.

by this definition, every vacation is a good one.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Urban saturday

ever since listening to randall stout talk about the AGA, i've been jonesing to get inside the building. this morning, shannon set it up.

the AGA is as photogenic indoors as it is from outside, even on a dull day. i hadn't expected to see art, but two of the opening shows are mounted. the goya drawings were hard to focus on, given my excitement, but the karsh photographs blew me away. karsh canadians was the first art book i ever remember seeing in our house; karsh was the first photographer i knew by name. and here he was, along with everyone who mattered to the twentieth century. "who's that girl?," asked morgan (5). "that's queen elizabeth," i answered, "but it was taken when she was still a princess, nearly 60 years ago." "what about this girl?" "audrey hepburn. and look, morgan, that's pierre elliott trudeau, canada's most famous prime minister. here, let me show you this one." i knelt down and put my arm around her. "this is one of the most important people who's ever lived. he was in prison for 27 years, but when he got out, he ended racism in south africa." morgan's eyes widened in seriousness, and then she and her friend were off for another look at HRII's tiara.

as for me, i turned around the gallery slowly, gobsmacked. there was glenn gould, concentrating so hard you could hear him humming. fidel castro. helen keller. rene levesque. mies van der rohe. pablo casals, forever playing to that expectant stone yard. these images are so iconic you actually forget they're also somebody's photographs - that is alfred hitchcock, not a portrait of him. behind me someone said, "oh, man, i remember that one. that's levesque!" after a seeming lifetime of annie leibovitz's pictures of l'il kim and courtney love, it was really moving to stand face to face with nehru.

the building is complex enough that everybody could have their own favorite vantage point. "they should call this the eva peron balcony," said ted. mo wandered off to be alone with the northwest corner of the fourth floor. i like the juxtaposition of sharp angles with the whispery borealis. the scupture garden faces east, so unusual and interesting. i ran into people i've met through work, people i've met through shannon, people i've met through exposure. we got taken up to the fourth floor (not part of the official tour); we got to walk through the restaurant. the elevators are so new the stainless walls are still wrapped in plastic.

when we'd had our fill - who knows what time it was? - we repaired to the duchess bake shop for cappuccino and scones. (not mo, because a perfect saturday for mo always includes the laundry.) the sun was out, and it was nudging toward zero. ted and i got caught up at one table for two, while nat and susanne sat at another; when a table for four opened up, we reconvened there to talk about how to plan a good vacation. after ted left, the three of us headed across the street to thread hill, my favorite boutique. because today was a magical day, everything was 25-70% off. once nat and sus headed back to their puppy, i made my own way home, stopping at don antonio's for hot salsa and corn chips ("buenas tardes a usted," etc) and at hellas greek food for feta and olives, the sun still echoing gently off the 124th street walkups.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The jo report

did i mention we were in mexico for a couple of weeks? and did i mention that for the two months before that, aunty jo was in hospital - at the grey nuns, a day trip from here?

i did?

well, i know i didn't tell you this bit.

the day we left for mexico, everything was going tickety-boo. ok, it was 54 degrees below zero, and my car broke down, and i had a migraine, but other than that, everything was going tickety-boo. i aimed to be home mid-afternoon, with one last task to accomplish, finalize my packing, run the dishwasher, and head to the airport.

when i walked in the door at 3:05, the phone was ringing. it was the head nurse at venta care, a northeast edmonton nursing home. "we have a bed for your aunt," she said, "do you want it?" i stammered and hemmed and hawed (furiously texting mo at the same time) until she said, curtly, "i can't save a bed for two weeks." and that was that.

but of course the second that's that, you worry you've made a big mistake. with mo AWOL (or in a two-hour meeting, whatever), i called the social worker at the hospital. "take the bed," she said, "there's a 5400-person waiting list."

i text this to mo.

when i called the head nurse back i got her voicemail. the facility's switchboard confirmed she was gone for the day. "that can't be!," i wailed. "i talked to her just five minutes ago!" but it was so. "well, can anybody else help me?" claire was kind enough to offer to stay late, if i could get there by 4PM. "i'm on my way."

i text this to mo.

remember, i have no car and it's 54 degrees below zero. meaning that i when i call for a cab, i'm on hold with dispatch for a looooooooooooooooooooong time. 3:19 turns into 3:26 turns into 3:31 and i'm starting to panic. i hold with the landline on ear 1 and use the cellphone at ear 2. call mo: still no answer. call my parents' place: busy. call my mom's cell. turns out she's actually with jo - at the grey nuns hospital, a day trip from here. yellow cab tells ear 1 that my call is being answered in the order it was received. at 3:34 i get through to my dad on ear 2: can he drive from southeast edmonton to northwest edmonton, pick me up and get me to northeast edmonton by 4PM? he can, he says, and he will!

three minutes later he calls back to say, oops, i forgot, your mother has the car and she's at grey nuns.

by this time my texts to mo contain language i'm actually hoping she doesn't receive.

long story long, i get to venta care, claire and i whirl through in about five minutes, and i say: we'll take it.

text mo.

the actual move happened while we were in mexico, and there were some ins and outs i'm still not clear about - the match was broken, the match was mended, there was a short stay somewhere interim - but she's definitely got a bed at venta care, so the last few days we've been catching up to the big move.

she hates it, of course. "a ROOM? you expect me to live in a ROOM? i had a whole apartment! you have a house!" well, we say, really the whole complex is your living space - think of it that way! "i like to cook for myself," she says, "i like to buy my own groceries." oh, jo: you mean that pound of hamburger with the best-before date in may? or are you referring to microwaving the frozen meals-on-wheels you leave on the counter for a day and a half? we ask, how's the food here? "oh, the food's okay," says jo. then, recalling herself, "i have such a sore mouth, though." ("hmm," said the nurse thoughtfully, "doesn't slow her down much at mealtime.") don't worry about your sore mouth, we crow, there's a dentist on staff! we'll put in the paperwork for a consult! she looks at us levelly, then changes the subject.

"where's all my things?" "in storage, jo. everything's in storage." "what about my furniture? my double bed, 2 bedside tables and a dresser?" "your bedroom furniture is in storage." "in the living room i had a sofa and a chair, and two long tables - my TV sat on one of them - and my dining room table was round: where is all of that?" "that's all in storage too." "what about the things in the kitchen, my dishes and so on?" "storage." "eh?" she hasn't heard us. "STORAGE! IT'S ALL IN STORAGE!"


what we didn't put in storage was her walker, so that we could bring it to her at the first opportunity. we were relieved to see that ventacare had given her a loaner so she could get by. we apologized profusely for her inconvenience, said we'd thank the ventacare people for the loaner and return it. she barely flits an eye in our direction. "no," she says, "this is my walker." i think she's misunderstood, so i try again. "they loaned you one when you moved in, but this one, here, this is your actual walker. remember, the one without the cushion?" "that's not my walker," she says. mo tries: "jo, hon, it is! i brought it from your apartment myself! look, it has your name on it." "well," she says, "that's strange. i don't know why my name would be on that walker when this is the one that belongs to me." we're slackjawed. "look," she says, "how mine has a little basket, and a cushion on the seat...." and bright black paint, we can see now, and shiny reflective decals, and unpebbled wheels.

she's got to be kidding. she spent years resisting the walker. and now she's a freakin' conoisseur?

ultimately, i think it bodes well for ventacare. i think the way to keep jo happy is to ensure she always has something new to despise. next week i'll sign her up for a perm at the in-house hair salon. nothing will make her love her tablemates more.

Friday, January 1, 2010

It's a dry cold

i woke up in the middle of the night, puzzled as to why i couldn't sleep - god knows, the 16-hour trip home was tiring enough.

turns out it wasn't the middle of the night, it was 7:44 AM and still pitch-black. the wind was howling around the northeast corner of the house.

i wondered, not for the first time, whether we should have come home at all. it was minus 28 when we landed. our plane was the lucky one; the next two couldn't disembark right away because their doors were frozen shut. the head cold that was a mild annoyance in the tropics (the tropics!) is turning into something of an ordeal, what with all my mucus membranes having dried to wafers. i have already scratched off a full-body tan. how can your heels, knees and elbows turn to leather in under 9 hours?

i'm not whining. i'm from here, albertan enough to know that only people from ontario whine. YEG is full of true albertans. you know them by their hoodies and, when it gets super cold, the oilers jersey on top. these guys prepare for the cold by hunching their shoulders and shoving their hands deeper into their pockets. i see their can-do moms, too, stoic in sorels and ski jackets, their skin wrecked. i admire the spirit of these true albertans, if not their judgment. for they do not convince me that human beings are meant to live in a climate this inhospitable, a climate where you might, oh, die if your bus runs late.

we know all of this but, living here, we forget it sometimes. things get normalized - shoveling, chapped lips, cars you have to plug in, static electricity, socks in bed, danger pay for jobs like newspaper delivery - and we get on with it. i know i will adapt to that again, that sometime later this afternoon i'll shrug my shoulders and keep 'em up there until i'm back indoors again. but right now, before i have acclimatized, i want to offer the heretical opinion that we were not meant to live in such inhospitable circumstances.

or, to be more specific, i was not meant to live in such a place. mom, dad: start 'splaining!