Friday, November 5, 2010

Drumbeat day 2

less exhausted and a bit less excited tonight - which is probably good, all things considered.

spent the bulk of the day with the digital storytellers. the goal was, head out into the raval and tell a story digitally. most people did admirable projects like documenting the immigrant experience, but i'm shy of that sort of thing in a context i don't know well - i don't even speak catalan! i don't know how to tell anti-gentrification rhetoric from anti-immigrant rhetoric! i wanted to find some way of getting at the gendered ways we walk through cities, and somehow my iphone's mic wasn't working, and i wanted to upload on the fly - so i made a quick tumblr, forgetting for a moment that tumblr is resolutely linear in time, so the whole thing is backwards.

here's my quick story: you can see how it serves as a stub for other possibilities. you could:
  • incorporate movement, find a way (video??) to capture the start-stop-loiter pace of this kind of walking
  • map these consumer forays
  • play this route (meander? derive?) off against a "proper" city map/recommended walking tour: i think of lines on google maps, against which these forays splay off in unruly ways
  • use images here like a database (caitlin's idea) and connect across city spaces - which is super interesting if you shop small local designers, as i like to, since you won't repeat chanel online etc.
  • add voices - audio - to reflect the many forms of consciousness you embody at the same time: i want this, i hate this, i hate myself for wanting it, but it's so beautiful, but shouldn't you be reading The Economist, etc
  • insert audio on a map: for instance, a happy chord for every store that thrills you and a dischord for every disappointment - the seeming indie that turns out to be a chain, shoes made of plastic, knock-off desigual, a leather shop w/o bags
  • QR-mark your preferred shops so as to make a secret society of underground shoppers, maybe across continents.
ok, enough on that. i had one hour; i did a tumblr!

good talk and great projects in that group: could not believe what people did in an hour. esp the guy from NY (ok, ok, a documentary producer for some 20 years now - obviously his stuff was going to be good!). lots of emphasis on video, although the he-said/she-said twitter story that @jacksondevious and @iamjessklein did was also interesting. a single hashtag would have made it cohere, but what was interesting was the interruptions from overseas and other friends saying things like, "show us a picture [of the market you're describing]." really opens up the narrative.

tried to hit the wikipedia event in the afternoon but it was clearly too late; that conversation was well along.

which brings me to a few overall comments:
  1. love love love the facilitating. no audience Q&A, no long talks, no reading. here is some stuff on that.
  2. agree with the critiques about how english it was. see jon beasley-murray's, for one. worse, although i was shocked when i first arrived (secret confession: i was worried EVERYTHING would be in spanish/catalan, and that i wouldn't understand a word of it), i'd grown used to it by day two. honestly don't know what you'd do otherwise, though: there were people here from germany, italy, hungary, spain, france - and that's just the linguistic groups i know of. is english the de facto language of the internet?
  3. the academy is not totally broken. yesterday i was all about storming it; today i felt like, hey, look, we do a lot of nuanced critical thinking there and that's good. i was missing it by today. it was good to be around that again. (i swear i will remember that!)
  4. don't understand the passion for badges. if you want accreditation, why reinvent the wheel: plenty of institutions accredit, it's one of the things they do really well. but why a badge? or, let me put it this way (which is a bit different from JBM): how do you know that you won't turn into the big bad evil other? how will your boutique practices not produce exactly the kind of mindless stamping you loathe in others, once these badges are operating at an economy of scale? if you're all P2PU and DIY-U, then be that. no halfsies.
  5. HASTAC folks are brilliant.
  6. hack ethic of working is inspirational. can't we write this way?
  7. agree that it was hard to have the "move among plenty of options" and "bear down to work with folks" ethos (ethoses?) operating at once. also agree open-web and open-ed folks didn't work together enough. though thrilled to see anne balsamo's project taken up by mozilla!
  8. i am not a 20-something coder/hacker/tech - which is why i am home blogging about the whole thing (uh, before i forget) and not at the party, which started, let's see, about half an hour ago.
it's midnight now and i'm to bed.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Mozilla drumbeat

haven't blogged here in ages, what with the new one - and these notes are not really for public, but just so i will always have them in the cloud. i want to capture the weird and dizzying excitement of the day before it is gone completely.

mozilla drumbeat festival, barcelona, 2-5 nov 2010

not a conference, but a "festival." the morning starts with 8-min keynotes. we are sitting in a bifurcated room - the typical rows, but doubled, and facing each other, screens on left and right. such a startling change from the authority of the single expert.

mitchell baker from mozilla: we want an open web; mozilla is still a nonprofit and that's not easy; help us build the tools you want to have.

cathy davidson whipsmart: everything about our education system was designed in C19 industrial era - keeping time, long days, standard deviation, multiple choice tests (i wonder about structures of attention: what's that amstud guy's book again). in C21 this isn't going to work - we are the last generation to learn like this. be an "edge thinker."

then, selling the day's events. the "structure" of the conference is spatial and temporal. different orgs/presenters/builders have tents and time slots. one person from each of these stands up and gives a spiel in the opening session: "we are tagging videos in multiple languages. if you know a lang, esp a lang that isn't widely spoken here, come work with us." "we are hackbus." [think tie-dyed boogie van, outside MACBA getting a parking ticket as he spoke.] "we hack virtual and real spaces." among other things, human sculptures - slo-mo flash mobs? they drive around europe freeing the web from corporate interests. they all wear black t-shirts and many of them black hats. they look like anarchists, but brainy ones. they spend all morning sitting in the square under a big square black umbrella, these white european boys in their black tshirts, hacking away at ... something. everybody's laptop (no macs, btw) is festooned with stickers that say things like "mp3 is not a crime." hackbus invites people to come hang out with them.

HASTAC is "storming the academy," "storming the syllabus," "storming the gradebook." and at the end of each day, offering yoga.

local action = city tours.

video lab.

html5 and web development for OER (open ed resources).

P2P = peer to peer learning.

and so on. so much stuff i want to do, and everybody witty and short-spoken and clear. the room itself is fantastic (second floor of the contemp art gallery annex, clean white lines inside old stone walls). around me, people are texting, emailing, blogging, tweeting, microblogging. this is the beginning, for me, of feeling slightly disoriented: somebody's talking! you should listen! i am a product of industrial education and canadian politesse....

a "humble invitation to be totally present to this experience." oh, and: we are a half hour behind but the entire schedule has already been adjusted on the wiki. when we arrive we have badges, but no other materials. everything is online.

HASTAC, "storming the cloud." anne balsamo does an exercise that doesn't quite work, where we represent a tag cloud. she recovers amazingly - stunning facilitator, stunning teacher (when someone accuses mo of saying something anne is right there: "i probably said that") - and poses the question: "we know that the next generation is going to learn through tag clouds, that's how they'll learn -- "

[Sidebar: that's how they'll learn?? my students are learning through tag clouds?? we are lost, lost....]

" -- so given this, how can we train students to look for minority representations and not just at the big font in the bright colors?" big discussion. the whiteboard in the tent turns out to be a permanent board for post-its, so anne writes over the blue tags in red ink as people make suggestions about a better way of sorting data. i am thinking: but this is a problem of politics, which unfolds in time, and it is a problem of language, and i don't know how to solve that. but the time thing is interesting. someone - a Duke FutureClass kid - proposes the internet as a democratic space of unfettered mobility, the opposite of offline space. i say, 'but the problem with conceiving of the internet that way is that, if it's a democracy, it's a democracy that unfolds in a never ending present. you're tired of digg, you move to del.i.cious and start all over, as if digg never happened. i want a tag cloud that represents time, so you can see obsolescence begin and change start to happen." someone says, "yeah, colors greying out?" i'm thinking and listening and speaking, and therefore learning (learning b/c speaking, b/c listening, b/c taking a chance: i know sweet fuck all about tag clouds when you get right down to it, but i know we talk a lot at hook and eye about tagging well) and my brain feels stretched and it's not even 11am yet.

i watch the hackbus boys for a bit. still hacking.

lunch. caitlin talks about her AR lab. we talk about how hard 2010 has been. the food is only ok.

after lunch, walkshop. this is a recap of a city walking tour a group of 3 did with adam greenfield a while back. who's from the tech side? who's from the pedagogical side? i'm alone with a bunch of web developers from berlin. what kind of technology do we have for hacking the city? we all have iphones or android systems but there's an awkward silence til one of the berliner boys (there are three of them, each with his own company, sharing space in an old mannequin factory) says, "it's not about the technology, it's about the data plans." exactly. bring on the open web already!

the idea is to visit data rich sites in the city and both capture and upload meaningful urban data. a data rich site could be: a wifi hot spot, a place where city officials gather data (CCTV, e.g.), etc. still not totally clear on this. posterous is the gathering site. everything is done by QR. i download a QR app before we leave the building: thanks, guefi. then we all troop out to experience the city.

along the way i ask peter bihr about the upcoming conference cognitive cities.

the first stop is a QR code on the MACBA wall. our phones read it, translate it, and take us - to the wikipedia entry for MACBA. there's a small silence while we digest this slightly disappointing piece of news. then a guy named Dan from england asks, 'but what if you want different information about this place? what if you're drunk and want to know how to get home? what if you want to know opening hours?' the organizers say, yes, yes, maybe a list of links would be good. i say, "what if you want all of that information and more - what was here before this building, what it looks like inside, what has happened here in the past and what kinds of meaning it has for ppl? and what if you want to know all of that at once? why can't our technologies deliver thick meanings?" the guy standing next to me says, "why not think of a city like a playlist." "embed a memory stick in the space itself." ("that would never survive in barcelona," says one of our organizers." "or in rome," says imke.) somebody else says - i think the guy from sound cloud: what if every building had a tone and you could inhabit the city like a soundtrack. i thought, shit, yes. tone, color, sound: not just visual representations.

just then a man walked past us, looked, and started clapping a complicated rhythm. he stopped walking, kept staring at us and clapped the same rhythm again, then again. we stared back, until one of the berliner boys got it, and clapped a syncopation in return. they did this for 30 seconds and then our interlocutor walked on, apparently satisfied. i thought: that's it, exactly. city.

next stop was at a data rich corner: a TV screen in a bar, sponsored by (you can't make this stuff up) projects images of barcelona into the street, in order to tempt passersby into drinking at their olde style taverna. on the opposite corner, a video camera guards a street which is already restricted entry. only official security and corporate minions have the key to unlock the bollard to drive down the street. all of this is the newest incarnation of low-tech control: the "entrada" and "salida" signs demarcate the one-way ins and outs of tiny passageways, and on the opposite corner is an apartment building that used to be guarded by a super with a pay-to-enter scheme - until the tenants used ("hacked") the payphones outside to bypass his draconianism. they would phone whoever they were visiting, hang up before the call was answered, and the visitee would throw down the keys. i wonder about the less formal invigilation of city space, but don't ask.

nick shows us his augmented reality streetmuseum app, which overlays historical images into present urban streetscapes - in real time. stunning.

when the tour is over, we dissipate. i go to a nearby bar with one of the organizers, the manchester guy, who's been living in barcelona since 1993 and can't get away, and his friend patrick the anarchist and their friend who speaks less english than i speak spanish, i order saffron gin, they order beers, and they tell me about how the euro has destroyed spain, how corrupt the spanish government is, and so on. it's fun - for a while, but i want to see what's up with hackbus ("i hate those fucking hippies," says patrick the anarchist) so i pay and leave.

the evening keynotes are similarly short and sweet: pay attention to arduino, which hacks *hardware.* see their lamps for artemide - swoon. question of how to manage/assure quality esp in context of formal ed = big ongoing question. the kid who invented wordpress was so young he couldn't buy a drink in his country. FML.

a big learning today = everybody, tech developers as well as intellectuals, wants what i want, but it's not possible to achieve just yet. this is part of why it's taken me so long to articulate it. the kind of multidimensionality i thought a tool could show me is something that is not only hard to think but also hard to build.

at the end of the day: who had fun? who learned something? who's coming back tomorrow? i wonder when i lost this feeling of excitement at the end of a conference, and promised i'd write this down before it gets lost. my brain needs glucose.

oh: fantastic fucking haircuts at this event. and the t-shirts ("you AUTOCOMPLETE me") are good too.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Academic fashion: an oxymoron?

i haven't written for a long while, in part because i have been musing over a new style - needing one, wanting one. i love what blogging has taught me about writing, but i feel i understand the witty peroration and i want to try something new. and/or i might write a more focused, issue-specific blog (stay tuned).

but for those of you who might be interested, here's what i recently had to say on the topic of "academic fashion" (it's forthcoming in ESC: English Studies in Canada, later this year - remember, you read it here first!):

What to wear is always a loaded question, even in academic circles that pretend to be above such vulgarities. In fact, pretending to be above such vulgarities might be the quintessence of academic fashion, judging from the results of a quick google search on the phrase. Comments on the web range from the casual:

“As an academic, I see nothing wrong with jeans and tee-shirts. Anything more complex is more trouble than it’s worth.”

to the ardent:

“I wear a t-shirt and shorts (unless it’s too cold for shorts) to teach in. I wear that to conferences too. Call me crazy but I got into academia on the theory that it was my brains that mattered not my looks. I wear a tie for no man.”

to the downright polemical:

“I’m an academic. I spend most of my day sitting at my computer or working in the library. There is nobody looking over my shoulder. No one is going to fire me because there is a hole in the elbow of my pullover. Why shouldn’t I wear what I like? Why the fuck should I have to copy the dress code of ‘people over thirty who work in public relations’? GIVE ME MY FREEDOM! GIVE ME MY MOTHEATEN OLD PULLOVER!”


Mind over body: Descartes still rules the university, in an unholy alliance with Calvin and Weber. We are a sober people, we academics, suspicious of glitz and flash and self-promotion. We are socially positioned in a way that works against stylishness, too. We may be wealthy by global standards, but we earn the salaries of public employees. Since we work all the time, we have few opportunities for frivolities like shopping. And while we might have broken down the ivory-tower stereotype conceptually, for the most part our campuses still tend to be enclaved in the city: fashion is not something you can easily fall into, the way (I imagine) you could if you worked in a downtown office tower.

Mind over body, work before play, frugality above all: the antithesis of fashion.

But what if you’re embodied? Let me make an old-fashioned move here and assert that the stakes are different for women. Expectations are higher, exhortations are more urgent, and possibilities are more loaded. Men might get away with motheaten sweaters, but women generally don’t. Fashion is highly gendered, and gender normative – so when I refer to “women” in this context, you should hear white, middle-class, slender, gender-conforming women. Academics are not outside that interpellative address, no matter how much we might want to dismiss “couture” as a despicable ancien rĂ©gime.

Too brainy for mass-culture girlishness but still interpellated as feminine by popular and academic culture, women are caught between the diabolical anxieties of being pretty enough and being smart enough. As a result, we get it coming (“It’s scary that you know a woman’s a social scientist when she’s wearing a certain type of dress or skirt and some awful-looking clay pendants”) and going (“She should spend as much time on her lectures as she does on her outfits”). And lest you think it’s only our students who police our fashion, remember the flak Elaine Showalter took for ‘coming out of the closet’ as a fashionista in the Dec 1997 Vogue? “I was once so desperate for a shopping fix at a Salzburg seminar on gender that I visited a dirndl factory,” she confesses. Condemnation was swift and brutal. Showalter’s irresponsibility – her betrayal of the sisterhood, her callous consumerism – was the talk of the academic gossip circuits, briefly. Warning taken: if you read Vogue and your teaching evaluations, keep it to yourself.

Fortunately, web 2.0 means that if we find ourselves confounded by our closets or confused about consumption, we can turn to the growing world of academic fashion bloggers for help. Threadbared, hautest of the academic couture blogs, discusses “the politics, aesthetics, histories, theories, cultures and subcultures that go by the names ‘fashion’ and ‘beauty.’” Others are more practical. AcademiChic is produced by “Three feminist PhD candidates at a Midwest university, on a crusade against the ill-fitting polyester suit of academic yore,” while The Glamourous Grad Student will tell you how to look good on fifty dollars a year (or, in her words, “share how I balance a grad student stipend with a desire for magic in my life and wardrobe”). My personal favourite is Fashion for Nerds, “Bringing Style to Science, One Outfit at a Time.” Characterized by the familiar generousity of the blogosphere as well as its DIY ethos, these blogs focus on how academic women can put together work-ready outfits by combining off-the-rack purchases from H&M or Banana Republic with vintage finds and the comfortable shoes you already own. They are not preachy – the bloggers use themselves as examples, focusing on what they like about the outfits they wear – but most posts include references to the origin of pieces just like a regular fashion magazine spread might. It suggests their followers find such advice necessary.

Do we know enough to steer between the Scylla of not-pretty-enough and the Charybdis of not-smart-enough? Let me distil our bloggers’ advice, along with observations from two decades in the academy, in a list of Do’s and Don’ts for the Professorial Woman:

  • Do shop locally. (Exception: Matt & Nat. A Matt & Nat bag could be driven around the world in a Hummer that runs on the blood of the spotted owl and it would still be sacrosanct. Ditto clothing from Mountain Equipment Co-op.) Don’t shop big box stores. (Except Winners is okay, and the aforementioned H&M, and Banana Republic, and Club Monaco, and Anthropologie, and HBC and Sears.)
  • Do look sharp, energetic, and youthful, but don’t look like your students. How? Search out the section of the mall not devoted to turning women into girls, while avoiding the stuff your elderly piano teacher used to wear. Hint: if you’re surrounded by cougars and MILFs you’re getting warmer.
  • Do dress in a way that commands respect. However, don’t appear too corporate: remember, you don’t want to look like you work in PR. A jacket is okay, a cardigan preferable. A suit is a no-no, unless you’re gunning for an administrative position, in which case you fail the “smart enough” test. Canadian academics prefer tights to hose, boots to pumps, and skirts or pants to dresses. Blacks, blues and browns are safest, although you don’t want to appear too monochromatic. And don’t wear too much black or you’ll be taken for an artiste.
  • Do cultivate a bluestocking look to prove you’re intelligent and appropriately gendered, i.e., neither head-turningly feminine nor inattentively androgynous. (If you’re intentionally butch, don’t worry, your students will discipline you on ratemyprofessor.) Don’t advertise your sexuality: no heels higher than two inches, no extreme makeup, no bling, no ink, no piercings, no cosmetic procedures. Do consider the academic bob, which will mark you as safely, permanently, numbingly middle-aged. Do wear funky glasses, the signature look for the brainy woman, but don’t wear funky hats (not white enough).

Got it?

If you’re able to walk that fine line, if you can strut your stuff on the academic runway without losing your balance in the face of blinding surveillance by students, colleagues, administrators and the general public, you might be tempted to make academic fashion the next feminist front. I’m tempted, regularly. But to what end? For the right to sit in fusty libraries wearing motheaten sweaters? Or to walk to meetings in Christian Louboutins? Don’t get me wrong: I want to work in a place with more kaftans and Pumas, nose rings and suits, and smart trousers on transmen. But let’s shuffle this up the priority line only after women start earning a hundred cents on the dollar.

Meanwhile, let’s agree that most days it’s enough to brush your hair.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Department of Penury

so, we're building a new deck (the last one being so rotten that last year a roofer fell right through, with knock-on effects to our insurance rates), and it is somewhere between $$$$$ and $$$$$$. there's the need for a new structure. then there's the fact that we don't want composite, but real wood. as long as we're doing it, we may as well do it right, and make something that covers over a problem area in the yard. then, of course, we don't like the spindles you can buy off the rack at homo depot, and we prefer 6-inch decking to the narrower, commoner 2x4s, and we both like the modern look of stainless steel and glass. doing the deck also means taking care of that problem area at the north side of the house, and if the bobcat's going to be here digging concrete piles anyway, why not regrade? etc.

the whole thing is going to cost in the neighbourhood of $30K. we do not have $30K sitting around in ye olde bank account. (a quick peek suggests that we have $509.08.) but since shortage of money has never stopped us from spending, we have a plan. my mother rents the basement for her business, blue sky publishing. we plan to reproduce the following on glossy paper and send it to her in the mail:

Dear Blue Sky Publishing President,

We are making some exciting changes at Zengelwood! When you return to work, you will notice that we've replaced your virtual blue sky with The Real Thing!! That's right. For a limited time, see the sky from your underground workspace!

But that's not all! In the near term, we will be refurbishing the BSP entryway. Your corporate headquarters will be covered with premium Brazilian ipe supported by state-of-the-art concrete pilings. Because we spare no expense for you, our valued tenant, you will see stainless steel screws, fine-milled rim boards and custom glass railings.*

In celebration of your new improved workspace, and to thank you for your patience during this construction period, we would like to offer you, our valued tenant, one of the following options of your choice:
1) A one-time limited rent special of $1000/day for the month of May
2) A binding non-retirement agreement for 14 years.

Don't wait! Act now! Our agents are standing by to take your call. Remember: at Zengelwood, your livelihood is our life.

Heather Zwicker
Chief Financial Officer
Department of Penury

*You may in fact see some of these stainless steel screws down by your entryway. You may keep these as a souvenir of this exciting period in our growth.

we're open to other offers, too.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Protest culture

i've been thinking about the culture of protest. things at the university are bad, and people are understandably scared and upset. the story that caught on mediawise is that various departments might lose their telephones. meanwhile, on the south side of edmonton, a woman walking home with her friends in the early hours of the morning was jumped by a pack of guys calling her "a dyke." police response was... lackadaisical, to say the least.

particularly in regard to the second of these issues, the response on facebook has been swift, supportive, and fierce. within 24 hours, a "community response project" garnered over 400 members even though the group's organizers had no clear plan. the facebook description reads: "A group dedicated to crafting a queer, systemic response to the recent assault against Shannon Barry (and others). We would like to organize, give us ideas! Posters? Protest? Let's think grassroots."

i didn't join, even though i love and respect the group's founders. i didn't join even when i saw friend after friend after friend after friend become a member. and i've been wondering why. it's a holdover from church, i think. call it commitment issues, but i have a hard time becoming a member of something that will demand unforeseeable things of me, and i'm particularly leery of protests.

i've done a fair number of protests in my time. i've demonstrated for abortion rights and i've defended abortion clinics. i marched against the first gulf war and the second gulf war; i protested the mid-90s provincial budget cuts more times than i can remember; and just last january i stood next to my dear friend in churchill square reading the names of the children bombed by israeli security forces. i was briefly imprisoned after the rodney king uprising. as street credit goes, i've got a little.

i have to confess that the notion of responding to the shannon barry beating with an old-fashioned protest left me feeling weary and disaffected. in fact, i found myself siding with the do-gooder white guys who urged people to take this up with the edmonton police service's LGBT liaisons. similarly, i have not written to lambaste my faculty association, or the dean, or the provost, or the president or the premier or the prime minister. instead, i keep trying to point out that when the province of alberta incents funding expensive professorships on soft dollars, institutions are left vulnerable to exactly this kind of financial crisis. we could see this coming for years. in other words, it's a complex problem that can only be solved by understanding the big picture of how universities are funded and administered today -- which in turn would require grasping a medium-sized picture of how units beyond the humanities are affected by this budget crunch -- which might produce the necessary (if not sufficient) conditions for solving this problem.

what i often suspect about protest culture is that people are not in fact interested in "solving the problem." historically, of course, taking over the streets has been hugely effective. see french revolution, see civil rights, see the troubles in northern ireland. even now, occasionally, marches can bring tears to my eyes: think of the battle in seattle, 1999, or the worldwide -- worldwide! -- protests against the US invasion of iraq in 2003. or if you like, just think of how ian mcewan uses that as a touchstone in his novel saturday.

but me, i'm all about solving the problem. this is terrific when the issue at hand is keeping a dissertating student on task, or getting a deck built, or giving advice on some interpersonal conflict, or building a better graduate program, or fixing a logical lapse in something i'm trying to write. i don't mind fighting because in some profound way it's not personal: i believe that we can think our way through both process and desiderata, so that investment in any given position is inconsequential next to arriving at a better (if not ideal) solution.

but "solving the problem" is not always what's called for. life doesn't work like the OCD challenge of keeping a clean inbox. as i've been reminded at several points in personal relationships (ahem), sometimes people just want to bitch about a bad day at work without transitioning into a brand new career, or register disappointment with their families without launching the entire unit into intensive psychotherapy. when professionals lose their telephones, they worry that their jobs will be next. unrealistic fear? probably. unreal? obviously not. on a political level, sometimes people just want to stand up and say, clearly, unequivocally, and quickly (i.e., without making this their life's work): this is unacceptable. society is wrong. you cannot do these things in my name.

sometimes the most interesting stuff takes place when you're that simple and honest. over on the shannon barry community response project, a critique of the way hate crimes legislation bolsters surveillance and incarceration is shaping up. folks are not taking to the street, they are taking to their heads and their hearts, and the results are really moving.

i'd like to become member 423 -- if they'll still have me.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

May 2

found on a telephone pole, good friday 2010:

i need to express myself to stay sane i'm shy this is where i live i don't see my history written on the body of this city sometimes i am so sad sometimes i am so lonely seeing something i've made, outside, in my neighborhood helps and so this is where i am making my home i have responsibility for this place this city needs more color this city needs more vibrancy this city needs more creativity this city needs more spontaneity, this city needs less bureaucracy i sometimes can't sleep at night my heart hurts i can't just leave the past behind i can never finish things but i create all the time and can't throw them out i have lots of doodles around my house i taught myself to draw and think i mostly suck but some people like it i have things to say that i don't want my name attached to i love seeing other people's creations i am inspired by other people's creations i am inspired by art galleries art galleries too often only show Art art galleries make me sad this city is too gray this city needs histories written on its walls this city is a place this place has histories these histories are neither simple nor just i don't know them well enough i want people to tell me theirs i want to learn this place is not easy i don't want to be sad i don't want this city to be so cold it will be fun to...are all artists people say "we are all artists" but don't often enough ask what that means there is a lot of amazing stuff being created by you and me all of the time i want to experience it there doesn't have to be a "middle man" i have staples i have tape i have thumb tacks i have flour and water i have ideas i have dreams i have a future i find inspiration in so many things i would probably find inspiration in you lots of people would probably find inspiration in you if you wanted to let everyone else know what this place, this life is like for you. if you wanted to share.


Friday, April 2, 2010

Miraculous things

i woke up at 645 this morning, my right arm lying peacefully next to me.

there are at least three miracles embedded in that sentence: first, no sling; second, no pain; and third, to wake up presumes that i slept -- which is the greatest miracle of all. nights over the last five weeks have been their own special hell. for the first couple nights, i slept in the spare room (if you could call it sleeping, those long hours of narcotic drift). on the third night, paranoid and borderline delusional with the combination of percocet, pain, and sleep deprivation, i came crying back into our bed. which was better, to the extent that it's a more comfortable mattress to lie on for hours at a time.

there is no way to sleep comfortably while you're wearing a sling, and you are required to wear it all night every night. next time you can't sleep, fold one arm across your midriff and imagine keeping it there for eight hours. the first thing you realize is that you can only lie in your back, although after a couple of weeks you figure out how to lie on your unoperated side, as long as you bolster the damaged arm. (the logistics of this are just as complicated as you might imagine.) as for sleeping on your tummy, or the other side, as for snuggling, or sex, or even reading comfortably in bed -- forget it, sister. even that 45° turn, from good side to back, is a major night endeavour.

i'm sure it doesn't help that i'm normally a good sleeper -- a great sleeper, in fact. it's a major blessing of this lifetime, worth the knock knees and the TMJ. i go to bed when i'm tired, i fall into a deep sleep within minutes, and i wake up wholly and completely seven or so hours later. i am that irritating person who says to the chronically insomniac, "have you tried chamomile tea?" they must feel about me the way i feel about people who suggest taking an aspirin for a five-star migraine. my standards for sleep are high, and i have come nowhere close to meeting them these last five weeks.

but enough about that: it doesn't bear reliving. i slept! without a sling! and woke up pain-free!! on this weekend of all weekends, the credulous days when people believe all manner of things -- that jesus is the son of god, that lamb's blood can protect you from the state's functionaries, that a four-day weekend is long enough to do all of the spring yard cleanup, that failing to land a SSHRC means something about you as an academic -- i am prepared to call this my own spring miracle, and i will add to the list of miraculous things pretty bras, pullover shirts, pulling up socks two-handed, a good haircut, retrieving my own glass of water and shaving my pits.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Slow days

it isn't all bad, of course. take yesterday morning: sun flooding the kitchen and mo gone to work, leaving me to my quinoa and david gray -- an actual CD played through speakers, not an earbud track: an unformed day brought to you by my new theme song, "life in slow-motion."
while I was watching, you did a slow dissolve...
life in slow motion, somehow it don't seem real
i do seem to be moving so slowly i might dissolve. it's hard to get used to. no one has ever accused me of being a dawdler. one of my graduate students refers to me as "a woman of instant execution." i am fatally attracted to a clean inbox; i honor fordist efficiency; and i always believe there is room to accomplish one more thing before the minute/hour/day/week is up. to take 15 minutes to unload the dishwasher, because every dish is a separate, left-handed trip, is deranging. the 90 minute shower is a new and alien experience. how it can take a person over 20 minutes to dress in the morning i can't fathom, but it does, every day.

for these reasons, i don't find my days long. even when I do nothing, they are full. but it's more than that. i am on good terms with solitude. watching sunshine move across hardwood floors, reading books, thinking, blogging, walking to the neighborhood flower shop -- all of these things make me deeply happy, particularly when they unfold at a junkie's easy pace, on a smooth percocet plane.

one of the unexpected pleasures of convalescing has been music. i walk a lot -- can't drive -- and when I do, i listen to a broad range of music. normally, my tunes are running-trail functional: the scissor sisters, lady gaga, new pornographers, and a Much Music dance album from the 90s keep me working out. when I walk, I listen to fanfarlo, vintage joni mitchell, the new gorillaz album, iTunes impulse buys like chile fuerza, new yorker darling esperanza spalding, eric clapton unplugged. stars, always. the shins, of montréal, conor oberst (all his projects), the mixed tape andrea made me with the BeeGees and fine young cannibals.

i see things when i walk, too.

i have seen odd little houses in my neighborhood:

and houses with cheerful trim:

and artworks' yellow and black display.

i have seen late afternoon sun turn industrial space soft and beautiful:

and i have seen the spring come in this year. it takes place so imperceptibly you can't believe anything is happening, yet winter has dissolved, and the world is different.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Feel better

when i was a little girl, i thought your feelings were located in your armpit. i remember overhearing someone say, in mock distress, "you're hurting my feelings!," and thinking ah, so that's what sensation there is called. feelings.

one of the most mystifying aspects of recovery has been the emotional valence of healing. some things make sense: frustration, fear, anxiety all fall within the predictable emotional range. more difficult to understand has been melancholy. i've felt melancholic a lot over the last week, and I have tried to figure out why: i know that I tend to turn fatigue into sadness, for instance, and it stands to reason that once the shoulder is feeling a little better i would have room to process all the subsidiary effects of the surgery: the trauma to the body, the dependence, the assault on my self-esteem, the self-brutalizing blame for getting myself into this position in the first place, and so on. you don't have to be deeply freudian to figure that's all got to come out sometime.

still, i do expect some connection between what happens in the moment and how i respond. so to feel sad today, after a good weekend, and on my way out of physio, which came after a spell in the hot pool and a ride on a stationary bike with a good book, was surprising. i mean, what i just described -- a little exercise, a good book, some flirtation, my time my own -- is pretty much the ideal life. i couldn't understand why i felt so blue, like everything was dissolving. i wondered if it was dismay over how quickly time is passing while i measure my day in shoulder flexion. i wondered if it was about missing the river valley, wanting to see how all my running trails smell in the spring. i wondered if it was about my job, if i was starting to fret about going back. i wondered if i was doing the right thing with my life, whether i am on the right path. or maybe it's the gray day, or something hormonal, or plain old garden-variety physical pain sublated into an emotional register. i thought about all of these things as i cried my way up the 105th st hill.

my acupuncturist took one look at my tongue and said, "gotcha." she could see weakness in the heart meridian. the heart is the emperor of the body in chinese medicine, and the emperor was not on his throne. as a result, all of the other portfolios were scrambling around, not knowing how to do their business -- like canada under mackenzie king, perhaps. surgery can mix up the meridians themselves: a coup de corps. my acupuncturist said that typically when this happens, people question everything: their jobs, their partners, where they live, how they act, what they want -- everything. you feel lackluster about your work, you wonder about your destiny. i'm not saying it's necessarily like this for you, she said (i continued to say nothing), but you don't have to worry. the cause for how you are feeling is not coming from outside, but from inside. what we need to do, she said, is call the emperor back to his throne.

i was in.

the points were completely different from anything we've done before. she needled heart one, heart three, and heart seven. heart seven, down by the wrist, connects the heart and the head. it allows you to know what you want, and to do it. heart three, inside of the upper arm, is the destiny point. she said, "pay attention to the images that you see while this needle is in." (i have more thinking to do about these images: the green, the water, the books.)

heart one, first point on the heart meridian, is like sticking a needle into the center of your heart, down through the myocardium to the endocardium, between the atria and ventricles, to wake it up. this point will recall the emperor and make you feel like yourself again -- which it did. within a half-hour the melancholy had receded and i was back to myself: curious, competent, outward-looking and vital.

the point is located in your armpit.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

How to know the body

i keep thinking about the photos my surgeon showed me. they were circular images printed eight-up on a glossy 8.5 x 11 page, two across and four down. showing me these pictures was his answer to my question "what exactly did you do to my shoulder?" i thought he wasn't paying attention to my query, but within a few seconds of shuffling he produced this sheet of photos, stapled to a series of other, narrative documents about the surgery. to him, these pictures were the answer.

the images would have been taken by an autoclavable arthroscopic camera inserted through a small hole in my shoulder at the beginning of the operation, when the team was deciding how to proceed. they have the beautiful precision of a high-resolution digital camera, if the slight blurriness of an extreme close-up. the bones were luminous and white (so, this arthroscopic camera must have a light source?) and there was, oddly, no blood -- in fact, no red at all. flesh, it seems, is putty colored. to me the most startling thing in these photos was amount of space in the shoulder: i had thought it must be densely packed, like an electrical socket with its confusing capped wires, but it appears instead to be hollow, like a mouth. the joint was photographed against a murky and distant-looking background of puce tissue.

the beauty of these photographs to me was almost entirely abstract, like a mona hatoum installation. i could not even begin to orient the images i was seeing with the body i inhabit. the surgeon pointed to one photo after the other and i pretended to understand, but i didn't -- at least, not in the way he did.

my experience of my shoulder has nothing to do with reason or causality. some days it feels good; other days it hurts a lot. some days i make great progress on my exercises; other days I can barely move. i cannot directly connect one day's activities to the next day's sensations. there is only an uncertain connection between painkillers and pain. while i can see a definite improvement over the last four weeks, it is virtually impossible to parse that improvement into shorter periods. healing is an uneven, illogical, and intuitive affair, and i often find myself yearning for the certainties of science.

the certainties of science, expressed with a certain geekiness and large, gentle hands are part of what i fall for in my physiotherapist. (i have written before about my crush on "oliver.") you could call it transference, this belief that if i endow him with preturnatural healing powers, and if i put myself under his spell -- the spell represented by physiotherapy's advanced knowledge of bodily kinetics, together with its mystical language ("med load," "tenodesis," "suture") -- i will be healed, wholly and completely. my role in this transferential relationship is to believe, to adore, and to adhere: to be the best patient possible.

(quick aside: this terminology, borrowed from psychotherapy, is imperfect. i don't recall ever feeling exactly this way about my parents, which is typically taken to be the ur relationship reenacted in psychotherapeutic situations. i have never heard anyone else talk about the relationship between physiotherapists and clients. nonetheless, transference remains the most compelling explanatory framework i have.)

on wednesday, it was hard to play my part. the shoulder hurt a lot. i lay on my narrow PT bed and tried to do my exercises, without much success. oliver stood at the head of my cubicle for a moment. "quiet today, huh?" he watched me struggle with the sixth repetition, and he probably saw me start to cry. then he did the most astonishing thing: he came and sat in the chair next to my bed. he described the surgery for me in the fullest terms i had heard yet. he told me how my body was healing. he said "you have every reason to be in pain."

in the days following our wednesday appointment, i became more and more amazed by his kindness and intuition. on friday i asked him how he came to respect the body so. i told him i understood the seduction of science, the lure of diagnostics, prognoses, crisp pictures, big words -- but that his treatment on wednesday suggested something different, a patience and a gentleness they don't teach in university. so how did he come to possess it?

he smiled and said, "through the science."

Friday, March 26, 2010

A formal feeling?

after a bad day, a sense of relief.

relief is undertheorized. it's good -- the pain has receded, you can think clearly again, moving is possible, life is possible -- but it's not simple. relief is not really the present; it's the fulcrum between a difficult past and a promising future. you could take the experience you've just had and use it to re-create yourself from the ground up. to feel relief is to bargain: i will drive more carefully, i won't drink red wine, i will stretch my muscles religiously. under the terms of relief, you could be anything. if everyday life rehearses st. augustine's plea 'lord, make me good, but not just yet,' relief puts us in the dizzying place where we are ready to be good, now: being better starts this instant, and lasts forever more.

but in addition to a sense of freedom, there is something else, something darker. relief is confusing, disorenting. i'm not surprised that people cry with relief; i'm one of them; i cry with relief. i weep because i can, because i am free enough from pain to focus on something other than the pain itself. i weep at how good it is to live without this pain, for now. pain is difficult; pain is unpleasant; pain is deranging and dismaying. it delimits your world. pain is infantilizing, offering the inchoate frustration of an infant, if also an infant's irresponsibility. pain is trying. and so to feel relief is to be through the trial, to have passed whatever kind of test the excruciation had in mind, to have made it to the next phase, but the complexity of relief has something to do with not knowing what that means, not knowing what the terms of the trial were, not knowing whether you "passed," and, if you did, what that means.

there is also, in relief, a sense of loss. i feel, "thank god that's over. i made it through." but i also feel, "something's missing, it's gone." think of the way you felt at the end of junior high, or when your child exits a difficult phase, or the moment you realize you are well and truly over someone. it's not that i want the pain back, not exactly, not even for the comforting way it grounds me in the moment. perhaps it's that every minor experience of relief puts us in touch with the ultimate sense of relief we know we're heading towards: freedom from these bodies, release from the tedium of human existence, the end of our own and others' suffering. in spite of the 'what's next' excitement, it's impossible to avoid suspecting that this, after all, was living, and there is no going back.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

One month later

now that I finally have my dragon taking dictation properly, i can fill in some of the gaps from the last long month.

the day of the surgery we watched a lot of curling. although the operation was scheduled for 130, I had to get to the grey nuns hospital by 1030 so they could clip on a hospital bracelet, get me changed into a gown, and... well, i'm not really sure what the rest of the time was for. mo was with me, of course, and we sat in the preop room with about five other patients and their partners watching olympic curling. those of us heading into surgery shared dehydration headaches. time passed quite slowly in that room, although as I think back on it it doesn't quite seem like three hours of curling (I did learn a lot about the game, however).

in a way, the surgical experience starts when they call your name. you give up the bathrobe and your eyeglassses, you get into the gurney, and they wheel you to the ER on the lower level. as the elevator descended, i said to the porter, "wow, it's all very symbolic." but he didn't understand what i meant. in the waiting bay, the surgeon stopped by to see me. i told him i had changed my mind about the surgery, that i was too scared to go through with it, that the shoulder hasn't hurt that much lately, and that i'd trade a little pain later for a drink of water now. he put a hand on the bedrail and said, nicely, "right. we want to do this surgery for your 70s."

they did five or six things. first, they sent in an arthroscopic camera and took pictures of the shoulder joint. at my first follow-up appointment, i got to see these pictures, which were stirringly beautiful. i had no idea what I was looking at, exactly, but the luminous white of bone against the milky backdrop of tissue made me understand, immediately, why someone would want to be a surgeon. they trimmed the labrum. at the follow-up appointment, the surgeon pointed to the photo of a fringe made of flesh, then to the after, all clean lines and absences, and said, "see? all tidied up." as I had known they would, they repaired the supra spinatus, which is to say they reattached that torn tendon to its bone. (i always think of chicken.) in addition, they shaved the bones and cartilage in my shoulder; they drained the bursa; and they repaired, repositioned, and stapled down the biceps tendon. i've been led to understand that this is rather a lot of work.

my first sensation back on the ward was in my elbow. i thought, distinctly, i cannot keep my elbow bent like this for 6 to 12 weeks. the second sensation was heat in the shoulder -- the inflammation. mo was there, which was enormously calming, and my parents too. there was a lot of morphine. morphine feels good, but not at first. the best hit is intramuscular, and it burns for the full 90 or so seconds it takes to empty the syringe. i was awake for most of the night, or at least I remember seeing nearly every hour on the clock, though it was difficult to connect those hands on the wall to anything meaningful. it's a strange way to spend time. you're aware of every hour passing, yet the experience has absolutely no narrative form.

everybody tells you to stay ahead of the pain, and this is excellent advice. for the first two or three days at home, I was taking 12 to 14 Percocet a day: an amount that astonishes me now, but which felt barely sufficient at the time.

when you dream about having time away from work, there is a lot of it: days stretch out voluptuously. in fact, i find the days quite short. partly this is because everyday life takes so much time. getting dressed takes the better part of 40 minutes; getting undressed and into bed a good half-hour; and then i have physio exercises that take about 25 minutes per set, and I do three sets a day. add in a walk, an iPhone game or two, and there's your day. i like being alone.

i have good days and bad days. on good days i feel jubilant, excited, triumphant: i am getting the better of this injury. on bad days i feel completely dismayed, convinced that it will never heal. the lesson is that i have good days and i have bad days, and i'm sure there's a wealth of wisdom in that.

there is a lot of frustration. simple things -- like pulling up yoga pants, or putting on a headset, or fixing a bowl of soup -- take astonishing amounts of time, and call on a patience that does not come naturally to me. bathing is extremely awkward and extremely painful. particularly before i got my stitches out, it felt almost impossible. i had to sit in 2 inches of water, and i washed my hair by bending over my knees. i cannot wash my left shoulder very well, i cannot dry my back, and things like hair product and eyeliner are out of the question. if -- heaven forfend -- something like this should happen to you, and you are my friend, here's what I will do for you: i will give you one hour a week in which you can ask me to do anything. i will clean your shower. i will drive you to the river valley and wait for you to walk. i will run errands. i will chop onions so that you can make soup. i will cull your e-mail if that's what you would like.

there is a lot of pain. before the operation we asked how the pain of shoulder surgery might compare to the pain of knee surgery. the guy we were talking to, the hospital's physiotherapist, fumbled for a few seconds and then gave up. "there is no comparison," he said. "it's super painful." i find the pain fatiguing, particularly at the end of the day, and four weeks later it is still hard to sleep.

there is a lot of abjection. i was not prepared for how abject this experience would be. for one thing, it is very dirty. i am clumsy with my left hand, and so routinely spill food -- on me, on the counter, on the floor -- none of which are easy to clean. for another thing, it is hard to feel pretty when you rotate two pairs of yoga pants and can't pluck your eyebrows. the emotional abjection is of course the most difficult. last saturday I had a work party. my responsibility was to bring a course of Spanish cheese; everything else was done by others. buying the cheese was the subject of a specific excursion on friday; indeed, it was last friday's organizing principle, since I can only really do one thing per day. saturday morning I pulled together a serving tray, serving utensils, and laboriously printed little cards to identify the cheeses. (they looked like they were written by a four-year-old.) i planned my shower with enough time for a rest afterwards. mo did the laundry, but together we worked out how to organize the loads so that my best yoga pants would be clean for the event. the party was lovely, but it involved a lot of standing and honestly it was hard to talk to people i work with when i'm not in fact working with them. after one hour I thought I might faint. when i realized i had forgotten the damn cheese, i just lost it: burst into tears and fled out the back door, humiliated.

naturally, i feel guilty. it's a difficult time at the university, with budget woes and layoffs in the offing. i am acutely aware that the work i am not doing is being picked up by others, who are already busy. at the same time, the university is full of workaholics, and the place is redolent with stories about Prof. X., who took no more than a week off, and Prof. Y., who was back at work the day after his operation. i am not immune to the sense of obligation these stories entail, even though my best self scorns them.

whatever difficulties i may have, being insufficiently loved is not among them. friends have been wonderful: solicitous, generous, thoughtful, and attentive. i marvel at my great good fortune.

now my computer battery is running low, and it's time for a nap. believe it or not, composing this post has taken the best part of the day.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

The pleasure of being mo

a sunny sunday afternoon, olympics all day, a black cat on the back of the recliner, laundry thumping away in the basement, and a montreal smoked meat sandwich on white bread for dinner - in front of the canada-US game on TV. i do love that girl.

(but i'm going out.)

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

How to fix things using money

i like to think being a "committed materialist" means more than just an approach to interpreting literature. and so here is a list of things i've bought for my convalescence:
  • yoga pants. the pre-admission nurse said, "wear something loose and comfortable to the hospital that day." i said, "like a full skirt?" when she faltered i saw what i must do. wouldn't you know it, there's a new boutique in the 'hood offering fair-priced made-in-canada yoga togs that are not by lululemon, a company i have scorned ever since reading their tag: "these pants are perfect for hatha yoga - or just for walking to and from your yoga class!" puh-leeze.
  • a deep freeze. mo has wanted one for ages, but i have resisted, something about the 1972 christmas pudding my mother recently found in hers. (okay, by "recently" i mean the mid-80s, but still.) i didn't want a deep freeze, i didn't think we needed it, and yet i have already filled it. which is especially remarkable given that they won't actually deliver it until tomorrow afternoon.
  • a one-handed pepper mill. look, we all have our thing. some people require strong fresh coffee, some people need nice things to look at, some can't survive without sunshine, and some of us view freshly ground pepper as one of life's necessities. actually, i think everything i just listed here is essential. (note to self: lay in more coffee.)
  • a new mouse. truthfully this is one of those things you just slide in once you have a good justification going. i hate my mouse, but feel compelled to use it because it was a hand-me-down. now, though, i'm going to have a brand new spanky bright one that will never forget who it is or what it was designed to do. not that i'll be able to use it.
  • a kindle. yeah, yeah, the sony got better reviews and yeah, yeah, the iPad is coming soon - but not soon enough (mac) or cheap enough (sony). the kindle is ... well, it's surprisingly small, and super light, and people say they love it. i haven't spent hours and hours with it, but so far it doesn't read footnotes properly and i'm afraid there won't be enough material, and/or that i won't be able to afford to keep it stocked. i'll get back to you on this one.
  • from ever-thoughtful mo, an electric toothbrush! this gets an exclamation mark because it makes your mouth vibrate! it makes your hand vibrate! you can hear it from inside your head!
  • a new coat. my boucle spring-weight car coat from modcloth has a nice swing to it and should be able to accommodate a sling.
next up: cute PJs and one of those retro ice bags.

thank god i live in canada and don't have to pay for the surgery itself.

Monday, February 15, 2010

How we eat now

for me, growing up in edmonton in the '70s and '80s, food was a source of aspiration - aspiration to adulthood, to wealth, to sophistication. my image of being a self-realized grown-up was precise. the city was toronto, the season was winter, and the partner was mark. i saw myself coming home from an exciting day as an academic (i had no idea what graduate school actually involved, how infrequently you'd actually leave the house, but never mind) to a 1920s apartment building with thick white paint peeling off the door, which opens to billows of steam: mark is making pasta. the sound of cello and the aroma of tomatoes, garlic and basil envelop me in a reassuring cloud of insulating cosmopolitanism.

while waiting for high school to end and this magical adult moment to arrive, i would visit the food floor at woodward's on breaks from selling men's shoes on main. the woodward's food floor is the first place i saw a delicatessen-style counter. they are commonplace now, whether genuine or merchandising tricks flogging saputo as local, repackaging maple leaf to look artisanal, but in 1983 the woodward's food floor was where white people learned to browse exotic cheeses. i embarrassed myself mightily by asking for "gorGONzola," but i forgot all about that when i cooked it with real mushrooms (real mushrooms!) in a four-cheese sauce. i served it over fresh pasta, another revelation (it was the '80s); the recipe came from the silver palate cookbook before julee rosso and sheila lukins, those indefatigable manhattan purveyors of whimsy and excess ('fly to another city for lunch!,' 'use a round of stilton for a striking centrepiece!,' 'for your next tailgate party, hire a hot air balloon!') parted ways. my mother's 40th birthday was that year, i believe, and we took her to avanti, a white-tile nouveau italian restaurant with crisp cobalt trim.

i thought i would eat like that forever. truth be told, i did pretty well in graduate school, something about living within walking distance of an organic grocery and downstairs from a landlord who liked to try out his recipes - croque en bouche, saffron-scented pilaf, four-course tuscan feasts - on a willing party. but cooking with a full-time job seemed beyond me. by the end of the 90s, mo and i had descended into a four-dish rotation with seasonal variations: lentil soup, stir-fried vegetables with tofu, shepherd's pie, beef stew in the winter; caesar salad, hamburgers, green salad with apples and cheese, steaks in the summer.

one day, i reached my limit. i simply couldn't face another lentil soup, so i set out to expand our range of foods. i learned my way through categories like root vegetables, pork chops, grains. turns out i do like butternut squash, don't like acorn squash, and now i know how to make a beet palatable, something i thought improbable. (best use of a beet: raw, in a salad with granny smith apples, mild feta and fresh mint under a lemony white balsamic vinaigrette.)

we've done well enough that a typical weekday meal here now involves 2 or 3 different vegetables alongside an interesting protein dish. turkey scallopini in mustard cream served over brown rice and sauteed spinach is a staple chez nous. we eat red peppers almost daily. last wednesday we had moroccan chicken (gourmet magazine cookbook), pomegranate-glazed carrots (fine cooking #101), asparagus spears in orange-tamari marinade sprinkled with candied ginger (something i made up) along with a simple nutted couscous. we also like to roast things, as in tuesday's dinner: portobello "chick'n" lumps (from the frozen food section), matchsticked parsnips and carrots with thyme butter, sweet potatoes with rosemary and garlic, tricolor peppers finished with feta and balsamic. it's a simple meal - it all goes in the oven - but thrills the eyes and mouth. it's more than i thought you could ask of a tuesday.

this is how you can live when you don't have children - and perhaps when you do, though i can't fathom how you'd manage it. i have become so habituated to this style of cooking and eating that i have forgotten how to do things differently. as a result, i feel quite panicky about not being able to cook post-surgery. i'm trying to store up some things ahead of time - chicken with pumpkin seeds, carrot ginger soup (good for nausea, i'm thinking), spinach bechamel lasagna, black bean soup, lentils - but with cookbooks tacitly subtitled either "make it tonight with what's just off the vine" or "how to devote 18 hours to a ganache," i'm finding it hard to think of things you'd make in advance and cook from ... the freezer.

i suppose i'll think of it as just another constraint - like cooking without leeks-onions-scallions-shallots, or figuring out how to use all the broccoli and bananas we get from our grocery delivery service each week. i enjoy the challenge of cooking-with-constraints and have long thought that a better version of iron chef would be teflon mama: "you have 45 minutes to feed four hungry people. the fridge/freezer contains two kinds of mustard, half a jar of pickles, a few sun-dried tomatoes, a cup of milk, two tablespoons of raspberry jam, three wizened carrots and a chicken breast. go!"

suggestions would be welcome.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

In which the oracle gives a tiger to a horse

chinese new year's:

i like the tiger in the centre, of course - a strong start to a strong year - but as always the tiger also indicates conflict with authority. (who, me?) moving to the east, the quadrant at the bottom of the photo, and representing the self: the peacock, the mature lady looking into a mirror warns that success brings pride, which may lead to vanity. "overbearing self-confidence" is another way the oracle puts it. the insect in the third position is a surprise (i'm more of a jade girl, the endless hard work, the perfectionism) but i take it the insect refers, perhaps, to the scurry of post-op care? it's being watched over by the orchid guardian, pleasure to work, inversely represented in the south (right quadrant) where the woodcutter guardian (hard work) looks over the carp, card of sagacity, pleasure, longevity. interesting. what exactly is the oracle suggesting about the relationship between work and play, between refinement and rest, activity and consequence?

the inner me (position 2, back in the east) is the unicorn. the unicorn! i don't think i've ever pulled the unicorn before. the unicorn represents honesty and foreknowledge, possibly even clairvoyance. look for her again up in the west, where this "urgent need to see into the future" is obstructing me - along with the north (pain, privation, poverty, distress: who wouldn't be opposed?). the way through? (position 8): the knot, the most enigmatic of all the signs. something needs to be tied or untied; what that is, only the spread can tell. see tiger.

then there's the north, the mysterious long-term future (represented by the left quadrant). first the white card, the page waiting to be written, the document to be realized, the contract to be signed. second, the phoenix, a bird that exists only in the reign of a benign emperor and that promises joy and splendour. third, the enigmatic mushroom, signifying something "so wholly unexpected that the querent will be forced to recall the oracle's foreknowledge of a remarkable event."

should be an interesting year.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Full thickness partial tear

that's what they call what's wrong with my rotator cuff, and they're fixing it on 25 feb. they open up the shoulder, send in a little camera, and make a to-do list for while they're in there. might as well shave that bone. could check the bursa. and is that tendon what's causing the impingement?

the operation is done with me sitting up - "but they strap you in," said the pre-admission nurse, helpfully. it takes about three hours and requires one overnight in the hospital. then i spend six to twelve weeks with my right arm in an immobilizing sling.

let me repeat that: six to twelve weeks.


the awesome news is, that means no shoveling, no dishwasher-unloading and no email. i'll be off work for a long time. i'll read on the kindle. the medium-awesome news is, no chef's knives. the anti-awesome news is, no driving and, if internet stories can be believed, no sleeping. also no texting, no bras, no tidying, no shoelaces, no river valley, no shaving, and no making mo's lunches, for a long time. it's actually pretty staggering, when you think about it.

and i have been thinking about it - mo's insisted i do, even though she doesn't know that's what she was saying. she said, "practice with your left!" i'm glad i have because it demonstrates that i have no idea what i'm capable of. not in that character-building way; in that complete-absence-of-judgment way. brushing my teeth is messy but doable; however, i almost took out my own eyeball with the hairbrush. i can make coffee, allah be praised - but feeding the cats? i anticipated that it would be hard to open a pull-tab can with one hand, and it was, but the real poser was how to dish out the food one-handed. you stick a spoon in a can and then more or less chase the can all around the counter. on the other hand, so to speak, i can flip an omelet left-handed. who knew?

more than anything, after an hour of practicing i was mentally tired. it was incredibly hard to actually think about every little thing you do. how do you pull up a knee sock one-handed? (slowly.) how do you get coffee and the newspaper back up to bed with you? (two trips.) how do you grind pepper? (you don't.) it gives you huge respect for what babies must feel like at the end of the day - at the end of every day: hours and hours of trying to figure out the simplest little things, in a body that won't behave the way your mind says it should, turns out to be exhausting.

but what i anticipate to be really really tiring is being tolerant. as i'm fond of saying, i can only be who i am, and who i am is ... particular. fastidious. fussy. (some people use unkinder words.) post-op, i am going to be ridiculously dependent on mo, who is going to be working ridiculously hard managing - well, everything. here is a likely scenario: she will come home after a full day at work and start fixing us dinner, based on whatever she's picked up on her way home. in the course of unloading the dishwasher so that she can reload it so that she has room to make dinner, and with the cats yelling at her for their supper, it could be that she puts the bowls, or the cups, or the glasses, or (god help us) the plastic containers away in the "wrong" order. i will see it. i might have to actually watch it happen. and i will have to live with it.

i mean, consider the alternatives for just a second.

right? surgery will make me a more tolerant person, or it will give me a stroke.

my only hope is the painkillers, which i hope are strong and plentiful. 'cause i have a feeling i might have to share.

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!