Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Edmonton archive

the last question on my engl 380 final asked: what would you put in an archive of edmonton?

and this is what they said:

the sign from the garneau theatre; a soccer ball and a muddy boot; my bike; the key to my first apartment; a chunk of asphalt from the 23rd avenue interchange; a lump of coal; the steamer trunk my uncles brought from ireland; the guitar pick i caught at the starlite room; a library card; a bus pass; something i grew in my backyard; the space between the business building and tory; the ticket stub to the first fringe play i ever saw; linda goyette's book; the edmonton grads' basketball; a jar of black gold; my family's porcelain sink; my lister hall identity pass (which i was technically supposed to return); the chuck taylors i'm wearing right now, which look ten years old from all the walking i've done even though i only bought them in the fall; the eagle feather that fell in front of me one day; a copy of treaty six; the suffragists' signs; a bloody truncheon from the hunger march; my human skeleton; an ad for a 99-cent peep show; the first sweater i wore when i moved here from the philippines; several oilers jerseys, "to remind me of watching hockey with my dad"; a metis sash; the board game i used to play with my roommates; my mother's recipe book; my 1994 pontiac grand am; a toy car -- the kind with the doors glued shut; a piece of birch bark; my daughter's pink blanket, "full of mythic power"; a uhaul trailer; anybody's spare car key; a jackrabbit and a magpie; a skate; a casino chip; a snowsuit because it proves we survive our winters; a program from the pantages theatre; a vial of water from the WEM water park; my signed copy of the edmonton queen; a paintbrush; an antique saw; the wreath that adorns the misericordia hospital every christmas in spite of the death and disease inside; a picture of the river valley from the LRT bridge, from the high level bridge, from macdougall hill, from the humanities centre; a poem i haven't written yet; a passport and a return ticket.

Sunday, April 26, 2009


coming home from our soccer practice today, mo and i witnessed an assault: two guys hitting and kicking a third guy, punching him in the gut, kicking him in the kidneys, kicking him in the face -- the face! -- once he'd fallen to the ground, right on 124th street. it's the grossest thing i've ever seen in real life, though even now i have to say that witnessing the assault itself, through the vehicle's window frame, seems like something i saw on TV, it's so far beyond my normal experience of the world.

i still don't know what i feel. i don't know what the word is for that kind of shock (why us? why then? what if we'd left two minutes earlier, half an hour later?) and horror (two on one, the kidneys, the face) and relief (that it didn't last longer, that there were two cops a block down the road) and fear (that's our neighbourhood). distress, perhaps. dismay?

the assailants ran into an apartment building when we turned around, and the cops pulled up, and another car slowed. the police officers went after the assailants so for a while it was just the weird april snow falling on this thin middle-aged man lying crunched up and completely quiet in a driveway. other people stopped. a taurus-driving white guy, scrawny, with a big cowboy hat and a cellphone holder on his leather belt got to the victim first. then a middle-class woman
in a minivan -- you know the one: well-kempt, solid, pleasant -- hurried over; she too had a cellphone, but when she realized emergency services were on the way she went back to the van for a fleece jacket which she laid over the victim. she wanted especially to find a way to use the arm of the jacket to cradle his head, which was bleeding. i was really touched by that. it was a good fleece jacket and you know she's not going to see it again, but she did not hesitate. a church lady, that one whose garden you'd never let your dog wander into, hung back a little way. she wanted to be sure the cops would "catch the creeps."

we stood around until more police cars came, and then the fire engines with paramedics and finally the ambulance. once the victim had been loaded into the ambulance another paramedic sprayed something onto the small pool of blood left behind on the sidewalk; it foamed like seafoam, but pink. then just the snow, and a long drive
six blocks home.

In decision

say, hypothetically, that you're a mid-career professional trying to weigh a job you already know you love (teaching, research, summers to plot as you see fit, a manageable level of known frustrations) against a position -- let's say, since we're speaking hypothetically, an administrative position that would give you a chance to make a difference in the institution, collaborate with good people in an atmosphere on the brink of change, and potentially set you up for other possibilities down the line. how do you make a decision?

first there's the gut reaction, which in my case is contradictory.
heart: i love teaching, don't make me panic like that!
head: oh, wow, that's so tantalizing, tell me just a tiny bit more...
stomach: what'll that get me?
back: bring it.
supraspinatus: oh no you don't.
feet: shoes! shoes!

then there's the pro/con list, a useful heuristic that ultimately tells you what you already know: there are pros and cons to both sides.

so then you ask people. mo knows me better than anybody in the world and i seek out her advice and listen to it. but mo is also the one who talked me into investing in a pyramid scheme back in 1997.

my father? no help. "you had to know this is coming," he said; when i whined "yeah, but not so soon...," he laughed and said something about how life is what happens while you're making other plans.

friends and colleagues are great, but cursed with a thoughtfulness that is guaranteed to complicate everything. i don't need new ways of thinking through the issue; i need crisp direction.

i need cosmic guidance.

horoscope 1 points out that "someone might not even realize what they are saying or asking. the end result might be a lot of confusion. ultimately it will be your choice which way to go." thanks. horoscope 2 is equally helpful: "a new moon in your sign makes this a weekend full of potential. whatever dreams you have and whatever plans you have made, now is the time to do something about them. believe in yourself and you will triumph, no matter what the odds against you are." which is nice, but hardly full of direction, and that bit about the odds against me is unnerving.

happily, the oracle has an internet connection. over at, the oracle divined hexagram 35, "progress," changing to 61, "inner trust." in the oracle's own words: "35. the marquis of kang made use of given horses. they multiplied to a great number. every day they mated three times during the daytime. progress by making effective use of opportunities." that hexagram transmogrifies to "61. inner trust of piglets and fishes. good fortune. it is beneficial to cross the big river. it is beneficial to persist. have confidence like the piglets and fishes have. things go well. this is a good moment for big undertakings. keep going on."

at (the oracle apparently has a couple of online sites), astonishingly, i also draw 35, the progress hexagram primary, and 51, shock, as the secondary: "shock brings success. ... the superior man examines himself and sets his life in order." indeed.

i cast three runes, which said:
- make up your mind
- it is a beautiful gift, but every gift has strings attached
- follow your heart.

i did a mah jongg reading.

i napped on it, and when i woke up i realized: the stars are right, the oracle knows what he's talking about, the runes point the way forward. the reason it's such a hard decision is that there is no bad choice. i can't say exactly when or how i came to a decision; it's not a mere function of logic yet it's more complicated than following your heart. through suspending both possibilities for a time, one of them has shaped itself as the future. and so -- i know what to do.

Thursday, April 23, 2009


i suppose it's a good thing they finished their finals one by one, or i really would have burst into tears. as it was, just a constant trickle as each 380 student walked out the door of tory 1-107 and on into their own lives. those students were so smart, so fun, so inventive and brave that if i live to be 100 years old i'll never see the likes of them again.

so i figured i'd better try to see as much as possible today, take 'em all in. that's what i do while they write their final exams, i look at them surreptitiously and extrapolate twenty years into their future.

take kate (not her real name): accomplished, professional, well married and set, she will look back on her "college years" with a good sense of humour and will never understand how amazing it was to have done all 5 courses in the honors program while founding a new students' association. elise's marriage fell apart this semester. she's lost about 15 pounds and taken up smoking, but she also found ways to make the course material speak to her. for obvious if unspoken reasons she had to abandon the project that involved transcribing her mother-in-law's story, but her final paper was a goodbye to the house she's being forced to give up. she's going to hide the obituary in a closet before she walks away for the last time. i'd love to be a fly on the wall when she starts dating again.

the class clown, in turns out, has ambitions to study romantic literature at leeds; he wants to be just like jim mulvihill. i would never have pegged obedient-looking fern for a race radical, but she is. will her relationship last? and will she like being a public librarian? oh, she doesn't know that yet, hasn't even applied to library school. and what about jeremy: will he stay here with his family, or will he take his beer-drinkin' truck-drivin' poem-writin' tattooed self up north? could go either way. that big filipino guy is the real thing. i wonder if he knows it. he does too much salvia for now, and i suspect he's battling a bunch of other demons too, but he has the quirkiest mind i've seen in a decade. i hope he follows up with marshall. oh, and what about those two in the back: i never did figure them out. they look so different in summer clothes.

and another one walks out, and another one, and another ... and by 11:10 when i've called the exam it's just me wondering: really, could i really walk away from this fulltime?

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

I heart my physio

it's a good day when i get to see oliver. that's not his real name, that's just what i call him. we have that kind of relationship, the kind where i give him pet names and he laughs at all my jokes. it's my shoulder that brought us together, my supraspinatus to be exact, but our relationship has gone beyond that now. oliver would do anything to heal me, and i would let him. do anything.

why do i always develop such a crush on my PTs? i do not know. i am smart enough to recognize transference when it pulls back the cubicle curtain to say hello, but i've never developed adequate transference in psychotherapy sessions. with counsellors i feel nervousness and shame. with my GP, performance anxiety. i'm neutral with my dentist. but check me into a physiotherapy session and i turn into a daddy's girl.

that's right: this does not happen with physios who are women. with them, i am a co-conspirator, a professional ally, tackling together this ruptured tendon or that torn hamstring. i do not wear my best bra or thrill to the prospect of ultrasound gel. we compare notes dispassionately on range of movement, avenues of treatment, prognoses and cautions. i want their respect. and when i earn it, sure, i think of baking them banana bread, but i don't spend long hours wondering whether their wives would mind me sending postcards from hawaii.

oliver knows everything. he speaks in latin phrases: swoon! his office is full of dangerous technical equipment -- stationary bikes, exercise balls, floor mats, you name it -- and he is the master of them all. "have we had you on the arm bike?," he asks. the arm bike! "no," i say, "but i sure would like to." he picks up a piece of surgical tubing and i feel my heart race: is that for me? he tells me to do three sets of exercises. i do four. i can tell by the furrow in his brow that my shoulder is a puzzle, but i can also tell, by the tender seriousness in his gaze, that oliver is not afraid of a rotator cuff injury. when i'm in pain, he's in pain. we share every triumph.

sometimes it's hard to be oliver's favorite. today, for instance, the girl in the next cubicle said, "okay, well, i'll call you tomorrow after that appointment." what? i retracted my scapula extra hard while i chewed on this. the thing is, though, our relationship just won't work if i get territorial. i can be generous. right? can i? i test out "generous," and it comes out magnanimous. little miss pre-op next door can't touch what oliver and i have.

when he comes in next to check on me i say, "i took the plane back from new york yesterday with a group that had just run the boston marathon." meaning: we should train for a marathon together, oliver. he says, "oh, i missed watching it this year." meaning: i missed you too, heather.


i bet he can't wait for tuesday at 9:30.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Rant: stop kicking my students around

my usual post-course tristesse was derailed by two distressing media stories: from msnbc, the claim that university students are less prepared than they used to be, and from the globe and mail, margaret wente's alarmism about how much university costs. put this together with heather mallick's recent column, "time to shrink the university,"and you have the makings of -- well, sit back and get comfy, 'cause i feel a rant coming on.

let's start with the first one: students have inferior writing and numeric skills, say ontario professors. moreover, they're immature, they rely too heavily on the internet, and they believe they are entitled to good grades with minimal effort.

this latest hand-wringing variation on the "kids today" lament has about as much originality as a britney spears cover. (britney spears, if you didn't catch the reference, is a pop star.) such facile idiocy is unbecoming in people with advanced degrees -- "colleagues," i'm ashamed to admit -- though one also has to wonder how the questions were put to them.

take the complaint about writing. bullshit! the students i teach are prolific texters. while this means they don't necessarily know the ins and outs of the formal essay, they certainly understand that different mediums carry their own conventions. they tend to be brilliant with repartee and they understand the value of brevity. true, they don't read a newspaper, but in cruising multiple news sources online, they have learned how to synthesize different perspectives on a single topic. this, i presume, is part of their "over-reliance" on the internet (a series of tubes, right?) -- as opposed to what, i wonder: the olden days when students would go to the library to identify a poetic allusion? right.

i'm going to leave aside here the dig at high school teachers, post-secondary's favorite whipping post, though i will say for the record that the high school teachers i know work very hard, often (and especially in post-klein alberta) in conditions not of their choosing.

defending high school teachers is not my mission here, but i won't hear my students insulted this way. do they know everything? of course not. the students i taught this year -- incidentally, in english 123, 224, 380, sociology 492 and english 567: in other words, at every undergraduate and graduate level -- struggle to analyze literary texts, and they find it hard to sustain an evidence-based argument at the length of 1500 words.

and yet, i've just graded a stack of the most remarkable essays.

how did we get here from there? by dint of what we in the biz call "teaching" and "learning." and yes, margaret wente, it's expensive! it involves things like thinking, hard, sometimes for years, before i walk into a class. it means standing in front of a room trying to think of a new way to explain something i feel i've said a hundred times already, but clearly not effectively enough yet, because they don't understand. sometimes, after class, it means going back to my office, or down the hall to my colleagues, or to the dreaded internet to figure out how other people have done what i'm trying to do. it means knowing more than my students, and keeping up in the field: "research," we call that.

on my students' part, learning involves the agony of staring at a blank computer screen trying to think of something to write -- then writing it poorly -- and then figuring out how to improve it. it means making use of time on the bus to do your reading. it means taking a chance every time you open your mouth in a discussion, in a room full of strangers.

or it involves a student and me sitting down at a desk together to solve the problem of how to limit a huge topic -- say, interracial relationships between chinese men and white women in 1920s edmonton, to name just one of the fascinating topics my students came up with -- so that it can fit into 8 pages. it means schlepping to the archives, getting ethics clearance, reading beyond the course material, all of which my students did this term. of course it means piles and piles of marking (on my part) and a whole lot of suckin' it up (on theirs) in the necessary awfulness of grading. do you know that a student who got -- who earned -- an F on her major paper last semester came back to take another class with me this term? either she's completely unclear on the concept of grade-grubbing entitlement, or her interest is actually (say it ain't so!) in learning. you know what else? she's pulling a solid B this term.

these are my students. yeah, they're online all the time. yeah, they're more comfortable talking about what makes a text "relatable" than they are with what makes it work. does the word "relatable" make my skin crawl? you bet it does. would i rather wear my eyelids inside out than say, yet again, "liking or not liking a novel is a great place to begin literary analysis, but it's not the end result"? yes, oh, god, yes.

but then i sit down to a stack of papers and read what it's like when someone gets it -- finds his voice, takes a stand, solves a theoretical problem or just frames it enticingly -- and all of that falls away in the shadow of what really matters. we read, we think, we teach, we learn. we evince frailty and courage, and evoke compassion and care. we excite each other, even though we also sometimes disappoint each other. we demonstrate our human capacity for change and growth and creativity. we assert that the world can be different, better.

tell me again how this is too costly?

heather mallick, who normally has the breadth of vision to look beyond her own backyard, says, "when I look at higher education, it seems that everyone — from professors to teaching assistants to students — is unhappy with his or her lot."

not me. and, if i've done my job right, not my students.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Still a bit drunk

good friends over for dinner, and cancer-free. the last week of classes. linda goyette, todd babiak, alice major and marshall watson came to this morning's english class. sweet ted writes to say the collages i admired "what seems like a lifetime ago" have just been picked up by the douglas udell gallery. mark's band is playing an iraq benefit on saturday night. adam's made a breakthrough in his writing. eria is crawling. mo and i are heading to the desert.

it took me three decades to commit to the project of being alive, and now it all flies so fast, so final. i feel a wild and impotent despair: how sweet life is.