Goin' Down the Road (1970)

A few weeks ago, a forum was held in Nova Scotia that revealed a province on the cusp of a severe labor shortage after decades in which the population aged, the birth rate declined, and generations of young workers moved west to pursue better and (perplexingly, given the current situation) more abundant jobs.  For a province that has been steeped in persistent unemployment problems for decades, this is a bewildering problem to wrap our minds around, but it may have severe consequences for the funding of social services as the number of paychecks contributing tax dollars to these programs declines rapidly.

It is against the background of this apocalyptic labor reversal that I watched the first film in my informal effort to watch more Canadian, and specifically Maritime, cinema: Goin' Down the Road.  This was, by all accounts, a landmark film for Canadian cinema, a work of neo-realism that treated the archetypal Atlantic Canadian story with greater truth than (according to Pauline Kael, so the story goes) John Cassavetes's films could lay claim to.  Two unemployed (and, such is the depressed state of the Maritime provinces, unemployable) young men leave their native Nova Scotia for the brighter prospects of Toronto.  Once there they discover that the Toronto relatives whose support they had counted on are too ashamed of their provincial broadness to answer the door (the finks are actually depicted hiding behind the curtains of their house while snarking about our heroes' behavior).  They had dreams of white collar success (symbolized by an attempt to acquire a career in advertising), but they can't get any but the most transient jobs without a university education that would have been largely useless to them in Nova Scotia.  Between them, they get and lose minimum wage jobs, frolic in the parks of Toronto, knock up and marry a girlfriend, buy three rooms of furniture out of the back of a magazine (including a color tv - "If they could see this at home!") and then lose the ability to pay for a three-room apartment.  Eventually they are crammed into a tiny tenement flat - husband, pregnant wife, and their friend (who is the only one bringing in a paycheck) - and they begin to wonder how they are going to be able to afford to eat their next meal.

So it is a jolly sort of film.

For me, the interest of this movie was largely historical and geographical.  It has all the possible faults of neo-realism - hamhanded acting from inexperienced performers, sentimentality, and shaky production values.  But it is an exquisitely typical representation of a particular cultural moment of almost Dreiserish economic deterioration and despair.  And I should note that the film's ending, although necessarily grim*, is oddly hopeful as well.  This is a film of the road, like so many films about economic depression, and the road is equally a symbol of the endlessness and the falsehood of hope and progress.

But the most appealing moments of this film, for me, were the Nova Scotian ones, the ones that are a portrait, both alien and quintessential, of my new home.  Thus the opening of the film is a grittily lovely montage of Nova Scotian still lives: a field of abandoned, rusting cars; mist rising over a lake; a fishing boat tilted and half-submerged in still, dark water.  Stunning.  It makes me reflect (both affectionately and scathingly) that this might have been a more successful film if no one ever spoke in it.

A worthy watch, but not necessarily an enjoyable one.

Goin' Down the Road
dir. Donald Shebib (Canada, 1970)

*It involves (SPOILER) assault, police pursuit, and spousal abandonment.

Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1997)

I have a passion for Werner Herzog.  I haven't watched as widely in his oeuvre as I would like, but his Grizzly Man is one of the most enjoyably teachable "texts" I have ever included in a course.  Students just have so much to say about its many layers of identification and incomprehension.

I have Rescue Dawn, Herzog's fictionalized account of the German-American pilot Dieter Dengler's imprisonment in and escape from Laos during the Vietnam War, out from Zip.ca right now.  But then, while here in Los Angeles, I discovered that Herzog's earlier, documentary account of the same subject (Little Dieter Needs to Fly) was available on Netflix's increasingly excellent digital streaming service, and I decided that it would be irresponsible, really, to watch the "remake" without watching the "original" first.  (This had nothing to do with the fact that Netflix's digital streaming seems novel and sexy to me, since I don't normally have access to it in Canada, while my Zip.ca rentals - some of which I have had out for months - seem like an onerous duty. Absolutely nothing.)

Dengler grew up in war-torn Germany, and saw his first airplanes when bombers attacked his quaint town during the Second World War.  He becomes entranced by flight when he sees an enemy plane fly mere feet from his bedroom window as a child, the pilot gazing in at him and the machine-gunners shooting everything in sight on the ground.  It is a character note for this unusual man that this terrifying experience leaves him with a profound love of airplanes: little Dieter needs to fly.

Although trained as a blacksmith and church clockmaker, Dengler takes off for America as soon as he reaches his majority.  After arriving on these shores, he immediately joins first the Air Force and then the Navy in hopes of becoming a pilot. While flying a mission over Laos, his plane is hit and crashes, and he is found by enemy forces who hold and torture him.  The film is his account of this imprisonment, and the several attempts at escape he makes, one of which is finally successful.

There are a few things I want to highlight about this film, which was (I think) interesting without being truly fascinating.

First and most strikingly, there is the oddity of Dieter Dengler's affect while describing the horrors of his past.  He is endlessly energetic and cheerful when talking about the past, regardless of how gruesome it becomes.  This cheer flags only once, and then only slightly, when he describes the fate that met his companion in escape, and the depression that descended on him afterwards.  The heartiness of Dengler's cheer reminds me of my own uncomfortable impulse to smile (or even laugh) while receiving painful news or communicating a horrific story.  It is involuntary and defensive - exuberance as a response to terror - but it inevitably seems somewhat ghoulish. Is his (and my) odd relish in treating this horror just a defensive desire to turn pain into a positive emotion?  Or is it the joy of a good story that overrides one's natural sense of seriousness? Or are these two things one and the same? ("He hides behind the casual remark that this was the fun part of his life." - Herzog.)

Secondly, I am struck by the strangeness of the scenes in the Laotian jungle, in which Dieter Dengler tells his stories in front of a group of impassive Laotian "stand-ins" who help to reenact some of the forced marches of Dengler's imprisonment.   What a seriously odd documentary technique, returning to the scene of the trauma to re-embody the action of the film with the key principle actor playing himself - less theatre as we know it now than a sort of a spirit journey.  But the film doesn't emphasize the reenactments (apart from one scene in which Dengler - filled with chipper smiles - tells us that this is all hitting a bit close to home as he jogs through the jungle).  Instead, he mostly just relates crucial parts of the narrative to Herzog and the camera, standing against a backdrop of armed Laotians and verdant jungle.  But what are we to make of his relationship with people who are meant to represent his former captors (who would still, one would think, represent captivity to him), and yet have been hired by the filmmaker.  What are we to make of their wary silence throughout the unfolding of Dengler's narrative?  They form an impassive shadow audience for this film.

At one point he tells a story about a villager who stole his engagement ring, the only thing he had been allowed to keep during his imprisonment.  When he complains to his Vietcong guards, they return to the town, and he feels a rush of satisfaction in thinking he will get his ring back from the thief.  Instead, they drag the villager in front of him and chop off the man's finger before pulling the ring off and handing it back to Dengler.  Never mess with the Vietcong, Dengler concludes with his normal energy, and then catches a minute flinch from the Laotian man standing next to him.  "Don't worry, it's just a word," he says, throwing an affectionate arm around the (I presume) uncomprehending man.  He catches up the man's hand in his and spreads it out: "At least you still have your fingers...."

Thirdly, I have to mention the bear that Dengler encounters on his brutal escape journey, in which he walks, starving, embattled, and finally alone towards Thailand and safety.   It is the single most Herzogian moment of the film:
He was just like a pet.  Of course, I knew this bear was there, he was waiting to eat me.  [Thoughtful pause.] When I think about it, this bear meant death to me.  And it is really ironic that the only friend I had at the end was death. 
Stephen Colbert and Werner Herzog need to get together and talk about their bear issues.

But of course, as Herzog is quick to point out, in the prim and sympathetic tones that make his narrations such an endless delight for me*, death didn't want Dieter Dengler.  He crashed multiple times after this incident, but he endured despite himself.  This makes it particularly intriguing that the film has an addendum from several years after its release, depicting the sharp ritual precision of Dengler's military funeral at Arlington.   Military jets flew over his grave to honor him.

Little Dieter Needs to Fly
dir. Werner Herzog (USA/Germany, 1997)

A postscript: I have a question for any of you who know more than I do about this film and Herzog: Why is Little Dieter in English if it was made for German television?  There must be a good reason having to do with financing and original audience, but I have yet to comprehend it.  Enlighten me, bitte.

* See the brilliant parodic video (the accent is far more pronounced that Herzog's ever is) "Werner Herzog reads Curious George":

On Dance, Ice, Aesthetics and Competition

We have (much to D's distress) been watching a lot of ice-skating and ice-dancing 'round here, and I have to say: I am coming to prefer the ice-dancing.  It is ferociously difficult and, it seems to me, considerably more technically inventive and artistically thoughtful than ice-skating has come to be in recent years.*  Ice-skating (both pairs and singles) is now so disjointedly technical - it is all angular preparation for difficult jumps and awkward transition between elements.  There is a smoothness and an emphasis on line and precision in ice-dancing that I admire.

So I was interested to see this Salon piece in which figures from the world of dance (dance of the non-icy variety) talk about how they feel about Olympic skating.

* Also, I adore the Canadian ice-dancing team with a bizarre teenage passion.  My friends eventually had to ask me to stop exclaiming over how very remarkably Canadian they were.  Finally we decided that if Harry Potter, Prince William from 8 years ago, and Noah Wyle ever produced a genetically engineered love child, it would be Scott Moir of the (oh so Canadianly named) Moir and Virtue.

The Mystical Sport of Curdling

Michael Scott reflects on my new favourite sport.

Video Recaps | Full Episodes | Webisodes

And there are no winners, no losers: only poetry.

Sunday Salon: On Romances of Redemption

At midnight on Wednesday, this was the view from my bedroom window: virtually pristine snow.  Roads untouched by automobile tire, walks untrod by human foot.  Our weather had been remarkably dry throughout the waves of Snowpocalypse and Snowmageddon that pummeled the rest of the East Coast and then miraculously missed Nova Scotia on their way to torment Newfoundland.  But then the better part of a foot of the most flawless, fluffy powder fell on us at midweek, as if to say "Why Vancouver, Canadian Olympic committee?  Why, when you could have had the wonders of the Maritimes?".  So I spent the latter part of the week first admiring and then shoveling layer after layer of stunning snow.

And then on Friday, I went to Los Angeles.

My life is nothing if not one of contrasts.

Typical LA story from yesterday's post-prandial ramblings: I was wandering down the streets of Culver City (one of the original studio towns, Culver City features some really classic sites of cinema history, including the original Tara from Gone with the Wind, which now houses the offices of Culver Studios), debating the merits and (rather loudly) demerits of the final season of Joss Whedon's Dollhouse with my partner D and our friend C.  After a not unsympathetic but also not very flattering critique of some of the actors, D said to us "Neither of you caught that, did you?".  "What?", we asked.  "Well, Felicia Day just walked by us."  Felicia Day, star of Dr. Horrible's Sing-along Blog and, yes, Dollhouse.

I was sick when I left Halifax (and even while I shoveled that vengeful abundance of snow), and waking up to drive to the airport after only 3 hours of sleep certainly didn't help. But when I woke up at 5:30 in the morning, it was to this: the CBC announcer from Nova Scotia was just dedicating the day's programming "To Mrs. Crosby. Thank you, Mrs. Crosby...." for having giving birth to the man who scored the game-winning goal in the previous night's Olympic hockey game.  You see, I (and the rest of Canada) am fanatically in love with the young Sidney Crosby, hero of Halifax and winner (with the Pittsburgh Penguins) of the Stanley Cup.  Now (indeed, at this very moment, since the US v Canada match is on in the background as I type this) he is leading the Canadian Olympic hockey team on a very hopeful (read: stressful) attempt at the gold. This may be the first time I have ever rooted against my home country in the Olympics.  It is strange how little disloyalty I feel for it.  So as I drove by Sidney's suburban hometown of Cole Harbour on the way to the airport, I too said "Thanks, Mrs. Crosby...."

I am interested to see how US Olympic coverage differs from Canadian coverage.  One notable factor is this: the way the positive (rather than belligerent) nationalism of the Olympics is being tied to our civic duty to participate in the census.  I have always been fascinated by the census (and am in fact a little perturbed as I ponder how I will be counted now that I am a citizen but not a resident of the U.S. - will I be counted?  I can't even remember whether I was counted in 2000, when I was a college student), an ancient and idealistic civic and intellectual exercise. But to tie it to the feelings people have about patriotism, duty, and national effort surrounding the Olympics seems particularly interesting.    Especially since many of the ads make it an issue of regionalism rather than nationalism: "You can help your own communities by being counted in the Census...."  Intriguing.

Despite the tumult of snow and travel and illness this week, I did have time for a bit of blogging (a bit of blogging being a pleasure akin to another favorite phrase of mine - a "nip of nappage"):

So, what am I up to this Sunday?  

On the series of long-haul flights I took Friday, I devoured most of Sense and Sensibility, which was the first Jane Austen novel I ever read.   I haven't, in fact, reread it since that first time in 1993.   It is, like all Austen's novels, utterly engrossing - a page-turner of the best possible type.  But now I am stretching out the final chapters for as long as they will last, unwilling to have it end.  

In fact, I had an odd experience: all of the plot points I remembered (from my reading of two decades ago and the screen versions I have watched since) from the novel except the happy ending itself had already taken place when I reached about a hundred pages from the end.  What on earth is left, I asked myself?  How on earth is it going to take her another hundred pages to get these couples together?  But the fascinating thing about S&S is that Austen has to bring two couples together who present different romance problematics: Elinor and Edward are kept apart by their own sense of ethics (to succumb to their love would be to commit a breach of moral duty, which would be to render oneself unlovable), while Marianne and Colonel Brandon are kept apart by the fact that Colonel Brandon is not, at first, the romantic hero.  If this were a modern romance, I can't help but feel, Marianne would somehow have ended up redeeming Willoughby (the dashingly handsome charmer who rescues her in a moment of grave need), because love conquers all obstacles.  The modern romantic temperament leans much more to Marianne's Romantic (in the Byronic sense) point of view, while Austen puts her thumb pretty heavily on Elinor's restained, responsible, self-sacrificing side of the scale in Sense and Sensibility.    More on this soon when I have (alas) finished the novel.

I arrived in Los Angeles to a marvelously large pile of YA and romance novels I had ordered online (they are so much cheaper to buy used in the States than in Canada).  In fact, D put all the books that had arrived for me in a bin under the bed, which he then demanded I heft out from its hiding place as an object lesson in the perils of excessive book buying.  Little does he know this only further filled me with the delight of anticipation.

In an effort to smooth the horrible transition between Austen and the absence of Austen that will attend my finishing Sense and Sensibility, I have started one of this secret cache of novels, Patricia Gaffney's To Have and to Hold, which has been described to me by several wonderful sources as the most controversial romance novel of the last fifteen years.  

You see, Gaffney's hero "rescues" her heroine from prison: he is overseeing her hearing for indigence and vagrancy, a state she has fallen into after she has served a ten-year sentence for her husband's murder (Did she do it? For the longest time, she won't say.), failed to find a position because she is a felon, and been expelled by a series of communities who don't want her cluttering up their local charitable rolls.  So our "hero" (this novel proves how genre-breaking it is by requiring numerous scare-quotes to surround all discussions of genre conventions) thinks to himself, surely it would be best if I offered her a position as my housekeeper, thus removing her from peril, relieving the county of the cost of either supporting or trying her, and solving some of my domestic problems.  And then he, unsettlingly, thinks how extremely erotic it is to have such a woman in his house and in his power.

At 115 pages in, I haven't yet encountered in any sort of forthright way the most controversial aspect of the novel, which is (apparently) this: the hero essentially imposes his sexual will on the heroine, even eroticizing her resistance, despite the fact that she is clearly impelled by her fear of prison and traumatized by the memory of a sexually abusive husband.  So the narrative challenge Gaffney sets herself is one of redemption: is it possible to bring two people together in an ethically as well as emotionally satisfying way when one of the parties is so traumatically much at fault, and when their relationship is suffused to its very foundations with a sinister inequality of power.  Can the heroine's feelings about him change?  Can ours?

Gaffney is a nuanced and literary writer (by which I mean that she pays close attention to questions of language, character depth, and narrative form), so this is the perfect companion and transition piece of Austen, who deals with so many similar questions, in somewhat less... naked form.   Even now, in the final moments of the novel, (spoiler alert?) the responsible Elinor, of all people, is feeling terribly torn between her sympathies for the two men who love her sister. As she sees (with approval) Marianne's feelings about the kindly and devoted Colonel Brandon slowly improve, she actually feels a corresponding pang of regret for Willoughby (Willoughby!!), despite the fact that we (like Elinor) know that he is guilty of, among other things: cravenly misleading Marianne for his own amusement, with little initial intention of marrying her; leaving her high and dry for a richer, more unpleasant woman, whom he has since married; bad-mouthing his newlywed wife and claiming to still be in love with Marianne (seriously tasteless); and, worst of all, knocking up Colonel Brandon's teenaged ward, leaving her without a means of support or a way of getting in touch with him while he went off to woo Marianne.  Ick. And he has the infernal gall to imply that it was the young girl who seduced him, and Brandon who misrepresented the circumstances of the seduction for his own amorous purposes.  

Willoughby is, perhaps, one of the literary originals of the irresponsible, solipsistic sleazebag.   Nonetheless, his claim that (despite his flaws) he came to love Marianne, and that his current, unhappy marriage is punishment enough for all his errors is compelling to our readerly view that the absence of love is the definition of despair, and Elinor (despite herself) is compelled to sympathy as well.  This is how Austen forces us to question the implications of the romanticism (small "r" - we might also call this sentimentalism) and Romanticism (the idealizing of complete emotional "truth" and transparency) that governs our sympathies.  And Gaffney is engaged in a somewhat similar project.

Righto: D and I are off to the theatre tonight for a musical workshop at the Kirk Douglas in Culver City, after a morning of playing "Ticket to Ride" (the game of 19th century train travel) and "Settlers of Catan" (the game of, well, sheep farming and bricklaying) with our friends, and an afternoon of Olympics-obsessing.  I hope you are all having such a pleasant Sunday!

The Rebellious Ward and the Cranky Invalid

(On this the last day of classes before what is ominously called "Winter Break" rather than "Spring Break" in Nova Scotia, after having slaved away conquering Mt. Grademore so as to be able to return papers to my students, and while on the very brink of international travel at the crack of tomorrow's dawn, I have fallen ill.  Bah.  So what better way to pass the time while mustering the strength to go to the office and pick up another batch of papers from my mailbox before slithering miserably home again than to review the novel I finished yesterday.

What moves me to this rare act of reviewing, you ask?  Well, there is a glitch in a bunch of Joan Wolf ebooks I just bought from Fictionwise [hrumph], and it takes the following form: I can open the ebooks, but only a single, tantalizing time.  If I ever close the file  to look at another another ebook, phantom errors immediately crop up that prevent me from ever opening it again, and I am forced to delete it and download the file a second or third or fourth time.  Gothic, eh?  I think my ebooks might be possessed.  It is like some nightmarish bibliophile's version of the movie Speed.  I have enjoyed a long back and forth in the form of eReader comments with my last book, but if I go on to read anything else from the overflowing cornucopia of my eLibrary, there is a very strong chance that my file will be corrupted, and all the brilliance of this comment-dialogue will go the way of all earthly things.

So review it I must, before laying eyes on even a single sentence of another ebook.  This is a great motivator.  Thanks, evil spirit possessing my eReader!*)

Righto: let's transition from Sycorax Pine's epic of gothic horror, The Cranky Invalid, or The Trials of the Demon eBook to Joan Wolf's considerably briefer The Rebellious Ward, shall we?

Catriona MacIan is the spirited daughter of a wild Scottish maiden and her English love, a man who marries and impregnates her in their romantic youth, and then promptly disappears while on a trip home to speak with his family.  Fueled by her Celtic pride (a certain amount of ethnic essentialism is necessary to all the characterizations of this novel), Catriona's mother hides the fact of the marriage from her family rather than force her beloved to return against his will, even when it becomes clear she is pregnant.  Little does she know, but the only thing keeping him from her side is a lack of a pulse - he died of a sudden illness before announcing the marriage to his family.

So after her mother dies in childbirth**, wee Catriona is raised by her maternal grandfather amidst all the craggy Scottish gothicism a girl could wish for, until her guardian dies as well and she is sent off to live in (shudder) England with her father's family, who are probably unbearable, repressed tyrants straight out of a Dickens novel. 

But this isn't a Dickens novel, so everyone little Kate (as she is called by everyone but the hero, who has too much dignity for nicknames) encounters treats her with endless kindness, from her great-grandmother to the stable-boys.  Hers is a childhood filled with death, but somehow without scars; it is a very, very well-behaved world she lives in.  At one point Kate confronts the idea that perhaps the hero (the young duke, who is her new guardian, and some dozen years her senior) is just humoring her rather than displaying a genuine desire for her childish company (and she is still very much a child at this point, perhaps aged 10 or 11):

Her face fell.  "You were just being polite."

"I was being polite," he returned imperturbably, "I am always polite.  But I meant what I said."

Yes.  Everyone here is always, always polite.  Well, except for our dashing hero, Edmund, who doesn't remain imperturbable for much longer.  He is (bien sur) the pride of Cambridge when we first see him and then the catch of the marriage market in the decade that follows: a very young Duke with an advanced sense of personal and familial responsibility, a talent for mathematics and astronomy, and an exceedingly pleasing face.  He divides his time throughout his twenties between the London Season (where he avoids getting hitched and engages in a long affair with a discreet widow), academic pursuits with continental mathematicians, and the attempt to impose some sort of intellectual and moral rigor on the otherwise hopelessly spoiled and irrepressibly free-spirited Catriona.

What kind of hero is Edmund?  He has a pinch of Mr. Knightley, if Mr. Knightley were more obviously motivated by jealousy and inadequately suppressed desire.  Knightley, after all, is fairly skilled at sublimating his desire for Emma into his persona as our heroine's flawless, externalized superego of a handsome scold.  Badly done, Emma!

And Wolf walks a careful line in describing Edmund's highhandedness.  He laughs almost as much as a chides, and during early descriptions of Catriona's childhood, he shows a laudable tendency to correct her not as a means of controlling her, but rather of challenging her, of demanding that she live up to her intellectual and moral capabilities.  She must do her maths work before he will explain astronomy!  So she does her maths work, and then revels, with all the enthusiasm of puppy love, in his explanation of a prize he just won for comet calculations.  Yes, comet calculations.  And when, as a young (and increasingly magnetic) teenager, she lures her enamored older cousin George into taking her to see some theatricals (corruption!) at a local pub, Edmund calmly confronts the boy for the total lack of spine he demonstrated in acquiescing, but then turns his rage on Catriona for exploiting the effect her magnetism has on the weaker personalities around her.  He has enough respect for her to hold her to account for her own actions.

And here we begin to see that Edmund's clear-eyed demands that Catriona take responsibility for her own rather charmed life bleed constantly and messily into less clear-eyed desires.  Because correcting her is about controlling her, about asserting his ducal authority over a girl whom he wants both desperately and inappropriately. (While discussing whether Kate is to have a dowry that will outweigh her alleged illegitimacy on the marriage market, the dowager duchess sees him scowl. "He could look very feudal sometimes, his grandmother reflected. 'Of course I will settle money on Catriona,' he said stiffly, 'I have always intended to provide for her."')

I don't mean to cast aspersions on Austen's Mr. Knightley, whose paternalistic superiority I feel the most profound and exasperating affection for (much like his feelings for dear Emma), but in some ways Edmund's obvious tetchiness about his own desire makes him a more satisfying hero, because he is a less admirable one.  As Kate grows up (or, more accurately, fills out), his lectures become increasingly appalling, and they have always had a touch of imperialist snideness to them.  When she was a child, he forced her to learn French with the following conversational tactic:
"Only savages," he told them bitingly, "know no language but their own."
Ahem.  All right.  But then, after a few years, the sons of the local squires begin noticing Kate's, well, really very good seat during a hunt.
"You did splendidly, Kate," said Squire Winthrop.  "You put the boys to shame."

"Indeed.  Miss MacIan can hunt with us any time," said Mr. Matthews, a young man from the next parish.  He looked at her with something in his eyes that Catriona did not recognize.

"Let's get going," said Edmund's suddenly cool voice***.  "It's getting chilly sitting here." And obediently Catriona had allowed her horse to fall in beside his.

"That Matthews fellow is a bit of a commoner," Edmund said as they rode home together.
"Why do you say that?" asked Catriona, surprised.  "I thought he was very nice."

He looked at her in silence for a minute.  "Did you?" he said then.  And changed the subject of conversation.

She is fourteen when this conversation takes place.  And Edmund is just settling into a permanent state of anxious swivet.  When he chastises her for leading her smitten cousin George down that primrose path to the hellish enticement of theatricals, the conversation goes extremely badly for them both:
"But Edmund, I didn't know there would be a man there who would behave so badly.  It wasn't my fault he was drunk." [...]

"That man," said Edmund, taking a step closer to her, "was Lord Margate, son of the Earl of Wethersby.  He was not drunk.  He just mistook you for a common doxy."

Catriona's eyes flew wide open, and color flushed into her cheeks.  "But why should he think that?" she demanded.

"Look at you." Edmund's hand came out and ruthlessly plucked a few pins from her hair. He pulled out some hair along with the pins, and Catriona's eyes watered with the sudden pain.  "You certainly made every attempt to play the part," he went on, "wearing your hair in that ridiculous fashion, painting your eyes."

"I did not paint my eyes [...] And I only put my hair up because I was trying to look older."

"Well, you succeeded in looking like a whore."
Whoa there.  So, in contrast to our sentiments about Knightley, who we can't help but feel is giving voice to the qualms we are ourselves feeling about Emma's character ****, I think readerly sympathy in this little debate is clearly on Kate's side.  It is indeed not an act of justice to hold Catriona responsible for the erratic male response to her rather striking good looks.  Why aren't men responsible for behaving with respect towards women they encounter in pubs? Should she wear a paper bag over her head every time she fancies a bit of theatre?  Why does he keep trying to tamp down on the very liveliness that is the source of his delight in Catriona? (These are rhetorical questions, of course.  We all know why.)

And when George kisses her under the mistletoe at a family Christmas party, Edmund really goes off the deep end:
"You are not a child any longer, Catriona," he said sternly.  "You are a young lady.  And young ladies do not - romp about - as you do."

"But everyone here is my family!" She protested.

"Not everyone.  And even family can be disgusted by rowdy and hoydenish behavior."

Disgusted.  He had said disgusted.  "But everyone likes me, Edmund," she said in great bewilderment and hurt.  "No one is disgusted."

"They will be if you continue on the path you are traveling." There was a little pulse beating in his right temple. "You should never allow a young man to kiss you like that," [...] There was a note of temper now in his voice.  "You are being frightfully obtuse, Catriona, and you force me to tell you that the circumstances of your parentage make it necessary for you to conduct yourself with even greater discretion than most young girls." Catriona did not answer, only sat and stared at him out of wide distressed eyes.  "You don't want people saying 'Like mother like daughter,' do you?" he concluded very grimly.

It took a minute for his words to register, and when they did Catriona felt as if he had hit her across the face.
"Hmm," say my comments.  If this were an Austen novel, these sorts of conversations would be a sure sign that we are looking at a false hero, the dashing figure sent into the novel to distract (temporarily, but often nearly disastrously) the heroine from the less flashy, plainer, more ethically sound hero.  Because the truth of the matter is that it is Edmund - handsome, funny, affectionate Edmund, whom Catriona has loved for years - who throws the apple of discord into her charmed life.  No one has ever mentioned her potentially unconventional parentage to her before.  No one has every said anything to her that would detract from her liveliness or contentment with what she has been given.  And he is a sexual hypocrite, hardly a model of chastity himself, as Kate points out in a highly satisfying rant that sends him running off in a fit of annoyance later in the novel. But what in Austen would be a big sign reading "Honey, you can do better.  Maybe not handsomer, but better.  Remember that quiet, stern fellow from a few years back?" is skillfully wrought by Wolf into an indication of the burning, tormented desire that somehow humanizes our too-perfect hero.  We love him not just in spite of, but because of the fact that he tends to express himself (and that inadequately suppressed desire) in the most unfortunate terms.

He is single-handedly responsible for everything that makes Catriona unhappy in the world. Before he gets to her, she is universally beloved and sheltered from those whose judgments would shame her.  But through Edmund's increasingly bumbling (and unreflective) attempts to rein in her excessive liveliness (i.e. keep other men from casting heated looks her way) she is born into a sense of alienation and an awareness of her own ambiguous place in the social structures of England.

 In fact, it is actually the false hero who has the more supportive relationship with Catriona, despite being such a notorious rake that Edmund can't stand to see them in the same room together.  When Senor False Hero warns her that her reputation might be compromised by being seen in his company, she none-too-blithely repeats Edmund's words:
"I hadn't thought of that.  People might say 'Like mother, like daughter.'"

She had thought her voice was expressionless, but something of her feeling must have shown, for he said roughly, "What swine said that to you?".
Sigh.  Our swine, that's who.  My Everything-I-Know-About-Identifying-Romantic-Heroes-I-Learned-From-Jane-Austen metre just blew a gasket.

OK: there is a certain amount of creep factor (and thus intellectual interest) in the differences in age, maturity, and authority between these two.  Or, perhaps not so much the age difference as the fact that Edmund pretty much raises Catriona, and that "raising" seems largely to entail instilling her with a feeling of social and sexual shame.  When the moment for declarations finally comes, this is what our swiny beloved says: "I've been in love with you since you were ten years old. Isn't that a disgraceful thing to admit?"


In his defense, he goes on to claim that "I didn't realize it until I returned from France in November.  You threw yourself into my arms, and it hit me then quite catastrophically that you weren't a little girl any more," and he has been behaving with morally impeccable (if narratively exasperating) restraint since that encounter.  But we have known for much longer, and this raises a provocative tension in the novel.  How can we reconcile the (in romance, primally imperative) drives of love and desire with the guardian-ward relationship, with its unequal power structures and parental overtones?  What is one to do when one's soul-mate (to use a term that is certainly not Wolf's, but is so often implied in the model of love presented here and in so many other romances) hasn't, um, quite finished growing up yet?  I'm looking at you, Jacob Black.  Thank you, thank you, thank you, Joan Wolf, for dealing with this question in a more nuanced way than the ucktastic final book of the Twilight series did.

OK: now I need to discuss the other factor that I found most admirable, fascinating, and ultimately disappointing about this novel, but in order to do so, I need to venture into spoiler territory.  Up until this point, I have been fairly spoiler free (apart from implying, to everyone's shock, I am sure, that there comes a point in this romance novel at which the two protagonists speak to each other about their feelings), but what follows is a discussion of the way Wolf uses narrative structure to create uncertainty and suspense, and I am going to ruin the way her devices function if you read on without having read the novel first.  So go read it, and I will meet you back here in a couple of hours.  Or you can, you know, just skip from here to the footnotes, if you are in a desperate hurry.

Righto: so Joan Wolf makes (what seems to be) really brilliant use of an innovative prologue here.  The novel opens, not as my plot summary implied, with Catriona's childhood in Scotland, but with a visit from George to his adult cousin Catriona.  "How is the new addition?" he asks.  "It's nice to have a daughter at last," she replies.  After some more small talk, which (smitten as he still is) he finds it difficult to concentrate on, he finally comes to the point: while looking through some old dusty books from her father's library, he has found a marriage certificate for her parents.  She is legitimate.
He moved his feet restlessly on the carpet.  "I wonder what Edmund will say."

"Edmund?" She looked at him a little sharply.  "What should Edmund have to say about it?"

After all these years her voice still changed when she said his name. George wondered if she realized it.  He wondered if her husband did.  "I think he might have a great deal to say," George managed to get out.

Catriona rose and walked over to the window. [...] She glanced down at the paper in her hand.  It couldn't make any difference now, she thought.  But once... God, how important it would have been to her ten years ago.

"It can't matter now," Catriona said to George. "To Edmund or to - anyone else."
My god, I thought after reading this.  I have no idea who this Edmund is or what his relationship is with our Catriona (whoever she may be), but this romance novel is actually going to be conducted under the constant shadow of its own failure.  She is going to have to get out of this marriage she is in now (with a man whom she gives a melancholy little wave from the window) in order to be reunited with this swiny Edmund fellow, a man who allowed her illegitimacy to stand between them.  How will this fadge? (This is a Shakespearean usage I am trying to resurrect. What do you think of my chances?)

This looming pall filled the first two thirds of the novel with discomfort for me (punctuated by Edmund's constant disgruntled references to the dictates of propriety and the realities of her illegitimacy), and this was absolutely fascinating.  For one thing, in an age where divorce was disgrace and annulment was out of the question for a couple that has clearly already had several children, death or widowhood looks like the only way out of this marriage for our fair lass.  And there is something that troubles me deep in the pit of my ethics about doing away with an innocent character for purely narrative reasons: life shouldn't be sacrificed at the altar of our romantic cravings.

Of course, Wolf knows that she is putting us through exactly this sort of calculation.  She even gives us a secondary character who has followed that path:
"I married a man I didn't love. [...] I had quarreled with Ian, you see, and he went off to South America."

"But everything turned out all right for you." [Catriona chimes in, looking on the bright side, as is her wont.]

"Yes."  There was a shadow of strain around Frances's lovely eyes.  "Because Rob died."

"Yes," Catriona almost whispered. "I see."

"Sometimes I ask myself what I would have done if I had been married to Rob and Ian came back. And then I think, God, I'm glad Rob died.  And he was such a good man, Catriona.  He was so good to me." Frances's face looked almost haunted.
Hoping for this sort of an outcome is like committing murder in your heart.  It left me feeling a bit queasy.  And this nausea (perverse reader that I am) was the sign of how brilliantly Wolf had constructed the beginning of The Rebellious Ward: here, I thought, is a romance that is going to make us feel guilty for wishing for the HEA.  How... astonishing, and clever, and tricksy.

Which made it rather disappointing when it turned out to be a much more conventional novel after all, with an opening gambit that was not so much a revolution in the genre as a sleight-of-hand. Oh, I thought, OK.  Now instead of examining how far I am willing to go (morally) to see the lovers back together, I am left with simply a muted sense of satisfaction in my HEA, since it didn't have to overcome some of the obstacles I anticipated.

But after all, this is a novel peppered with references to All's Well that Ends Well, a play whose title could be the motto of the millennia-old romance tradition but whose plot is hardly a testament to the uplifting promise of a happy ending.  I found myself wondering about the parallels between the two works.  Bertram, the hero of All's Well, is the most unappealing piece of heroic irresponsibility Shakespeare ever put on stage, and while Edmund certainly leaves him in the dust when it comes to charm, I couldn't help but feel that there was a clue here as to how we are to view Edmund's relationship with Kate.  The heroine of All's Well, you see, is beloved by everyone but the hero, and she has to chase him all over the world and finally capture him by means of the ever-handy bed-trick in order to force him into marriage.  This is not remotely similar to what happens in The Rebellious Ward.  But Edmund's moral superiority is a false front here: the trajectory of the story is one in which he needs to learn more than she does.  He needs, in other words, to be captured - to be tricked into happiness - by the structures of romance itself.

So I am not sure I can say that the novel itself "ended well."  Since I was so fascinated by how this knot of potential ethical disasters would resolve itself, the conclusion comes together a bit too quickly.  I had grown attached to the characters and exasperated by their failings, so I felt I deserved a longer bask in their happy ending.  This is a novella, in truth, at just 132 pages, and I suppose that the fact of it is that I would have preferred it to be a novel.  But all's well: golden lads and novellas all must, as chimney-sweepers, come to dust.*****

The Rebellious Ward
Joan Wolf (1984, USA)

*This same demon has apparently inserted a fair number of very silly typos into my ebooks, the best of which occurs when our heroine casts a glance across the dance floor at the hero while conversing with another man: "Over his shoulder she caught sight of the duke's black head. He was glistening courteously to Mrs. Mason-Burgley, and had reverted to his usual air of cool, worldly elegance."  An air he apparently maintains through constantly application of some sort of an unguent. It must be my library demon making him glisten so politely.  I know it couldn't possibly be that publishers aren't devoting enough attention to editing (actually editing) ebooks.  [And yes, I know that there is nothing so likely to result in the appearance of typos all over one's writing than criticizing the errors of another.  I am resigned to that. I have just corrected four or five in this post alone.]

**Because the labor-related mortality rate of heroic parents in romance is somewhere around 80%, despite being negligible for the endlessly fertile heroines, no matter how delicate of constitution and slim of hip.  Clearly some major advances in gynecology were made between, well, twenty years before any historical romance is set and the "present day" of the novel.

*** So cool and distant that it has become magically detached from his person, and capable of saying things on its own.

**** It isn't that I had no qualms about Catriona's character.  She has a troubling tendency to sexual passivity, in a very particular sense; that is, she tends to bestow affection on men simply out of a feeling that it would be vaguely unfair to withhold it.  This leads her into a variety of kisses that she suspects (really?) Edmund would not approve, as well as into the odd engagement.

***** Yes, this post is littered with traces of my recent classroom encounter with Everyman.  What can I do?  As a reading experience (and a memento mori) it has a "long tail."

Legos and other Literary Delights

Student presentations, when they go right, bring so many blessings into my life, beyond even the obvious one of relieving me of 15 minutes of class time to plan.  The greatest of these blessings come in the form of sublime YouTube videos, previously unknown to me.

The highlight of last year's presentations?  A little something called "Strindberg and Helium":

This year?  Well, this year my accidental syllabus genius* led me to teach the medieval morality play Everyman on Mardi Gras (message: earthly delights - oh, I beg your pardon - Earthly Delights will not avail thee! Death comes to us all!) and Doctor Faustus in the midst of Lent (message: intellectual delights will not avail thee! Death comes to us all, even those with tenure!  For verily God grants neither tenure nor promotion to those who despair.).  And what touch of sublimity did today's student presentation impart to my Intro to Drama class?

Two words: Lego.  Everyman.

*     *     *

Other literary and theatrical tidbits that are striking my fancy this week?

For the first time, the work of a female playwright will be performed at Shakespeare's Globe.  This is great news, of course, and the play has a subject that particularly fascinates me (the 18th C asylum of Bedlam, where society used to flock to see the spectacle of the mad on evenings when the theatres seemed too tame).  But shouldn't this have happened already?  I mean, the modern Globe has been in operation since 1997, and it has been producing new works alongside Renaissance ones ever since.   Hmm.

*     *     *

The book editors at the Washington Post recommend books to read while bundled up against Snowmageddon.  Notice how many of them take place in Atlantic Canada.  And then notice how few of the "summer" reads they discuss take place here.

*     *     *

Flashlightworthy, a blog devoted to short lists of recommendations on specialized topics, recommends both the Best YA titles of 2009 and (in honor of Valentine's Day, which I prefer to call Stoppardian Mathematician Day) the Best Young Adult Romances.

*     *     *

NBA players are bibliophiles too! The single sentence from this delightful article that most fills my heart with glee?

Miami's Dwyane Wade isn't afraid to admit that one of his favorite books was Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice," which he first read as a student at Marquette.'

*     *     *

A rarely discussed benefit of eBooks?  They strip away the public aspect of reading by one more layer, eliminating the intellectual declaration that is the book cover.  Instead, people can just read what they like, without worrying about the readerly persona they are presenting.

Now, I prefer a paper book every time, I have to say, but I do enjoy reading romance in eBook format.  Why?  Because I can't bear romance covers.  I know that for many they are part of the delight of the genre, but the fewer abs and pecs and heavingly ahistorical flouncy dresses that are on display while I read my romances, the happier this reader is.

Also, what a delight it is to use my eReader's comments feature to carry on a continuous dialogue with the characters of the novel.  Take my recent reading of Anne Stuart's Black Ice:

Suave assassin-operative: 
He couldn't be sorry he told her - if he died, he'd regret that he'd held that back from her. 

Sycorax Pine's marginalia:
Nope. You'd be dead.

Righto.  Back to Mt. TBR and Mt. Grademore - the twin peaks of my personal Alps.**

*Ah, accidental syllabus genius.  Really, it is the only true syllabus genius.  Previous known instances include unintentionally assigning Martin Luther King's "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" and Frederick Douglass's "What to the Slave of the Fourth of July?" for discussion on the day Barack Obama was elected, or fortuitously choosing to cover elegy and memorial on Canadian Remembrance Day before I even knew that such a holiday existed

** I will leave the David Lynch fans among you to determine which is the White Lodge and which is the Black... or whether, perhaps (can it be?), they are both... oh no!

De rerum peepura

It is that happiest time of year: amidst the blizzards and snowdrifts, the good folk at the Washington Post see a glimpse of springtime at the end of the tunnel of winter, and make their annual call for the Peeps Diorama contest.

And, bless 'em, they reminded me of last year's finalists in the process.  Take a look at the link for a glimpse of all things peepish.   My favorites?

  • A UFO landing entitled "The Day the Earth Stood Peeped."
  • "Relitivipeep," which stages one of Escher's famous staircase-laden worlds
  • ...and the final, dystopian diorama, in which factory peeps on an assembly line fill box after box with little marshmallow "peeple."

Quotable: Beyond the Beyond

She wasn't even lucky enough to be demoted into that lamentable subset - 
those mega-losers that even the losers pick on.  

She was beyond that, in Sycorax territory.

                 -Junot Diaz
                                                               The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

There is a certain honor in being a native of that territory, I think....

Sunday Salon: On Olympics and Outhouse-cocoons

I am utterly, utterly Olympics-mad.  I know that there are problems with the Games: they are emblems of globalization, funneling money into vast corporate projects with limited long-term usefulness and fostering nationalism when their putative purpose is to shore up internationalism.  But (and this is when it becomes obvious that I am a liberal rather than a radical) I can't help it: I believe in the idealism of the transnational project of peaceful competition, mutual respect, and the pursuit of achievement, even when it fails to meet its own standards.  The striving is all.

So in honor of the Olympics, I give you this cairn or inukshuk (the inspired Olympic logo for Vancouver) that D and I happened upon along the Fundy Shore of New Brunswick this summer.   Fundy sees the most extreme tides in the world: while we stood on this "beach," the tide began coming dramatically, visibly in, minute by minute.  Soon this wee inukshuk would be an island.

I have a particular fondness for the Winter Olympics, because I love obscure and poorly funded sports.  The more alien a sport is to my understanding, the more I want to watch every moment of it, and learn about the histories of the athletes who have dedicated their whole life to it.  Similarly, in the Opening Ceremonies, I weep voluminously over every team with just one athlete.  Imagine the pride in achievement, I blubber quietly to myself, to be the first Ghanaian (for instance) ever to qualify for the Winter Olympics, like the evocatively named "Snow Leopard."

What did you think of the opening ceremonies?  These are the first Olympics I have seen from outside the States (although there may have been one in my childhood that I watched from France - I can't quite remember), so I am struck by differences in coverage.  Essentially Canadian nationalism (Will this be the time when Canada finally wins a gold at home?  Will it? WILL IT???) replaces American nationalism in shaping the media coverage, all the more so in the opening ceremonies, in which Canada represents itself to itself, and itself to the world.  My Canadian friends felt that the way the First Nations performers were incorporated into the ceremonies had the ring of craven exploitation, of pretending to an attention to the history and concerns of indigenous peoples that the government does not, in fact, demonstrate in everyday practice.  In my Intro to Drama course on Tuesday, I am going to ask my students to talk about the Opening Ceremonies as a type of public national theatre, like the tragedy and comedy of fifth century Athens: how did the Games define their audience?  How did the allegory of national values work?

So, what have I been up to this week, apart from Olympics-obsessing? 

My mother was stranded here on a visit with me in Nova Scotia after Snowmageddon prevented her return to Washington, DC, so she went with me to a reading of the poems of Canadian poet-playwright and eccentric James Reaney that I participated in.  Reaney's poetry was a revelation: funny and vehement and odd beyond belief.  My poem was an "Invocation to the Muse of Satire," and began with this ritually rhythmic, deeply satisfying-to-speak introduction:
With Punch's stick (he holds it in his hand)
Beat fertility into a sterile land
and ends with another nod to the violently regenerative role of satire in society:

Has no one seen the country where your cure has nursed?
It is a land of upturned privies with occupants inside them
Crawling out through new tops like astonished moths
Bursting from their unusual, foul and dark cocoons.

I can't recommend the Reaney works I heard at the reading highly enough; more on this, I hope, when my copy of the book comes in.  They are all filled with this sort of vivid, irreverent imagery.

I just finished 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School and Bettie Sharpe's Ember (hope springs eternal in the reviewer's breast that I will have posts up about these soon), which were both profoundly satisfying defamiliarizations of their very different subjects (the nature of the architectural spaces we move through every day, and the idea of personal agency in the world of fairy tales).

Now I continue on with my long-term projects (Sense and Sensibility and the Beckett trilogy), and pick up The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, in the hope of finishing my heavy hardback copy before (hurrah!) leaving for Los Angeles at the end of the week. (Did I mention that in Nova Scotian universities, there is no Spring Break.  Instead it happens in February and we call it "Winter Break." A bit grim, eh?  Still, I shouldn't complain - the weather has been milder here this winter than anywhere else on the east coast I have ever lived.)

I am in the middle of watching Jules and Jim for my 1001 Movies Project (and, more pressingly, my Get My Tivo Cleared Off So That I Can Record More Obscure Olympic Sports Project), and it is quite, quite brilliant.  I heart Jeanne Moreau.  And so, apparently, do both Jules and his buddy Jim.  It has been a long time since I have enjoyed a love triangle so completely.  (Wait, untrue: LOST and Hunger Games both have really excellent love triangles, as do True Blood/the Sookie Stackhouse novels.  That's right, I just compared Truffaut to LOST and Charlaine Harris.  That's the way I roll.)
A couple of posts from the week gone by on Sycorax Pine:

Righto: short-track speed-skating calls, and I needs must answer.

The Evaluation Psychodrama

You may remember that I expressed some wailing anxiety after reading a RateMyProfessor review of my teaching, a castigation by a student who seemed to regard me as the most irritating person whose presence s/he had ever been condemned to endure for any length of time, a student who nonetheless gave me a puzzlingly positive rating.  Apparently by numerical measures I was a better than average (or at least adequate) instructor; it was only on an aesthetic level that s/he objected to me in the most visceral possible way.

I made the very great mistake of reading this review just before teaching a class at the start of the semester, and it shook my confidence for weeks.  I have a (fairly common, I know) personality quirk that is uncomfortable in everyday life and particularly disastrous for a teacher: a compulsive wish to have everyone I encounter like me.

Pedagogical philosophy and the status of teachers is shifting right now away from an authoritarian model (the teacher has all the power and information, and they require absolute respect from a relatively passive body of students) to a commercial model (the teacher provides a service for which the students are paying a substantial fee, so they have the right to treat the classroom as a place where they achieve concrete improvements to their future job prospects, and are entertained while they receive these services). You can see where this cultural shift, although positive in many ways (including the fostering of a less inert, more creative student body), is a disaster for the insecure and perfectionist: you have to woo the students, and if they don't learn, it is because of a failure on your part to be sufficiently magnetic on a personal level.  For instance, the evaluations that my students fill out now contain this question (among more than 30 others): does your instructor enhance presentations with the use of humor?  I mean, I do, but surely a professor shouldn't have to be funny to be effective.  We aren't, after all, stand-up comics.

Word bubbles through academic circles of studies being done that disprove this new ideal of classroom management: different fields and skills require different teaching methods, they say, and the most effective teachers are often those who are most flexible and open to experimentation, rather than the most entertaining or likable.

But this is not necessarily how the students feel when they fill out evaluations, or how instructors feel when they read them.

In the course of my half-decade or so of teaching at the university level,  the nature of my evaluations varied sharply with the institutional attitude of the students to both authority and the act of evaluation itself.  My attitude, and the one I wish more students would take up, is this: students should adopt the same measured tones that their teachers use when evaluating them.  Suggest concrete areas for change and improvement, noting possible solutions as well as identifying problems.  Do not make personal attacks.  Be aware of what is within your teacher's control and what isn't.  Be honest with yourself: would you have responded better to the class style or absorbed more information if you had done more of the reading and attended more classes?  Or is there something that the teacher could have done that would have encouraged you to be more attentive?

Part of the problem is that most students don't understand the varied purposes of evaluations: they are intended to help instructors improve both their teaching style and the course itself, but they are also used by many colleges and universities as part of the hiring, contract renewal, promotion, and tenure processes.  What you say on evaluations can change your professor's life in concrete and vital ways.  Negative evaluations (although usually only in bulk) can deprive your teacher of his or her livelihood.  So be careful and constructive.

In general, students are very fair in their evaluations.  At my first teaching gig, a prestigious and authority-admiring institution, the majority were.  They were noticeably and understandably harder on me when I was a TA than when I was teaching my own class: I believe this is partly because I was a better teacher by the time I was given a course to run on my own, and partly because undergraduates sense that TAs are slightly below them on the university totem pole.

After getting my doctorate, however, I also taught at a competitive liberal arts school with a strong institutional identity of iconoclasm.  Evaluations here were traditionally harsher there: students considered it their right and duty to confront and question authority, so they did at every possible opportunity, challenging assignments as too many and too hard, arguing with class policy, and savaging professors online and in end-of-semester evaluations.

Since I had always gotten very positive feedback from my students at school #1, I was shocked by not just the content but also the tone of these evaluations at school #2.  Students would call me "a sweetheart" - a term whose condescension becomes apparent once you ask whether they would be comfortable using it to describe a waitress or housekeeper to her face - before insulting my class.  The power dynamic was dramatically different.

So, after reading my RateMyProfessor review after my first semester at school #3 (where I have been enjoying my job immensely), I was not only shaken in my confidence but profoundly reluctant to read the official evaluations when they came in a few weeks ago.  What if they were so profoundly unfair that  they shook my confidence and undermined my teaching for the rest of the semester? Perhaps I should wait until summer to look at them.  Developing a thicker skin is one of my priorities, but in my first year at a new job, I feel precarious enough to make this more than usually challenging.

After some good classes on Thursday buoyed my spirits and UNC's defeat by Duke reminded me that all earthly glories are fleeting and I must adopt a stoic attitude towards loss (I was teaching Everyman this week, remember), I decided on Friday to bite the bullet and read the damn things.

And they were among the nicest evaluations I have ever received.  Constructive and interesting suggestions for change, honesty about issues that were curricular as well as some that were within my control, appreciation of my enthusiasm for teaching.   Reaction: giddy glee.

And then, a comment so nice that I want to have it embroidered on a set of throw pillows:

Which characteristics have been most valuable to your experience in this class? Her friendly nature and her dedication to the work.
Which characteristics are most in need of improvement? She is a very nice teacher.  She does not have to improve.  She is perfect.

Ahhh.  So untrue, and so very satisfying to hear.

The Mystery of Pub Crawls

One of the delights of my new job is this: my students are forever surprising me.   When they can get a word in edgewise amidst my constant chatter.  This (the surprising, not the getting-in-of-an-edgewise-word) never used to happen; I knew where my students' thinking was heading, and on a good day they would head that direction with sophistication and enthusiasm.  But I always felt that the lack of surprise in the classroom was a sign that I was holding them on too tight a rein.  Teaching is often as much a process of letting go as it is of asserting control.

This week, we are deep into medieval theatre in my Intro to Drama class.  First we had the nun Hrosvitha, the first woman playwright of Europe, and her rollickingly comic saint's play about miraculous rape-escapes.  Then we had the "Crucifixion", a single pageant from the longer York cycle of mystery plays, which are an account of the history of the world (in biblical terms, from the Creation of the universe to the Final Judgement) in a series of small "pageants" performed by various trade guilds in a procession around the city.  The guilds would often be assigned pageants that were appropriate to their craft (or "mystery"): the shipwrights were quite likely to get the Noah stories, and the goldsmiths the Adoration of the Magi.  The pageant we read this past week, the Crucifixion, was performed by the pinners, a guild who crafted pins to hold together pieces of wood, and anything you might, say, want to attach to pieces of wood.

Eurggh, right?

In the "Crucifixion," we see a group of soldiers who have been instructed to nail Christ to the Cross.  They think he is a wizard, and taunt him extensively while going about their task, which they anticipate will bring them great "worship" (or esteem - they are confused, you see, about what sort of worship they should be pursuing) in the community.  

But there is a problem.  They are not, actually, very good at the job of pinning.  Whenever they managed to get one limb pinned to the cross, they find that another is a good foot away from where it is supposed to be.  And they are always squabbling amongst themselves in a manner so contemporary and human that it (along with the incredible gruesome detail of the play) has led the anonymous author to be called "the York Realist."  

So they get out the rope and begin stretching Jesus's body to make it fit the cross.  A lot of technical discussion ensues about the details of the pinners' work, amidst the gory slapstick of what is, essentially, a torture session.  Finally they are done, and they lever the cross off the ground (where Christ has been largely invisible to us) and into a hole in the ground.  

And suddenly we are in a different play completely.

Gone is the slapstick.  Gone is our attention to the everyday banter of the pinners/soldiers.  Instead we (the medieval, Christian audience) are looking at the most holy of holy images, and we aren't laughing at all.  In fact, the very idea that we laughed before makes us somehow complicit in the torment of Christ.  

Forgive them, Father, Christ says at this (literally) crucial moment.  They know not what they do.

And that, in a nutshell, is medieval dramatic irony.

So before we moved on to the bleak pilgrimage of Everyman, and because they had just turned in a paper (and were probably a little hazy on the reading), we embarked on a mini-project to dispel the mid-semester glaze from their eyes.

What, I asked them, would the modern equivalent of a medieval mystery cycle look like in Halifax, NS?  This involves answering three questions:

  1. What does the history of the universe look like, from our particular perspective?  The medieval communities composing and performing these plays had a easy map to the history of the world: the Bible.  It told them everything vital that had happened in the past, and everything that would happen in the ultimate future (a period of time in which demon-filled Hell Mouths loomed large, just as in Buffy.) The present day was largely made up of a series of echoes of Biblical history.  Our cycle, I told them, didn't have to follow this Biblical conception of history unless it appealed to them.  Instead, they might consider what the crucial events that define world history are, from their local perspective.   Their answers?  Well: the Halifax Explosion.  The Holocaust. The Beatles. 9/11.  The Election of Barack Obama. Sidney Crosby bringing the Stanley Cup home to Halifax.
  2. How would your modern mysteries use the space of the city, symbolically or through processional motion, to draw everyone into relation with this grand sweep of history?  One group toyed with the idea of performing on the Harbor, each play on a different boat, so that the ships of the Halifax seafront were a sort of modern pageant wagon (the elaborate carts that we believe some of the medieval mysteries were performed in).
  3. Who would perform your pageants?  What is the contemporary equivalent of trade guilds?  Sports teams?  Rival universities or departments?  Different trades?  Neighborhoods of the city?  In other words, what smaller communities are in competition that can be drawn into the larger community that is Halifax by the structure of the mystery cycle?  This is what the original plays did: they said "Yes, compete against each other for the glory of the guild: show us who has the greatest ingenuity and resources to devote to performing their elaborate pageant.  But though your efforts at competition will contribute to the glory of your individual guild-community, they will also contribute to the glory of the town we are all apart of, and, beyond that, to all of Christendom."  For guild, for city, and for God.
What did the final group come up with?

Well, they said, our mystery cycle will be a sort of modern processional theatre, a drunken revel. What better than a pub crawl? 

The Creation (they told me) would take place in Alexander Keith's Brewery, where Halifax's history is enshrined (it is the site of the continent's oldest farmer's market) and the beer itself is born.  Various other moments in Biblical "history" (like the expulsion from Paradise) appear in appropriately named drinking establishments. The Last Judgement takes place at a pub called The Bitter End. The Hell Mouth would be the drunk tank.

Well done, I said, and laid out with tremendous expertise.  I will call you "the Artists of Dionysus."

And then they went off, to pursue what I can only assume will be further research on the project.

Sunday Salon: On Curling and Maritime Disaster

As I sit here in unexpectedly dry Nova Scotia, contemplating the three feet of snow that have just descended on Père Sycorax in Washington, DC in the second round of the Snowpocalypse and contentedly remembering the ceaseless mocking I got from so many friends along the east coast on the subject of the impossibly frigid northernness of my new home, I thought I would open with a picture from my autumnal trip to Puerto Rico.  There is something about it that tickles my more Baroque sensibilities: the combination of Caribbean landscape (palm trees and all) and the revelatory, Rococo roils of clouds and light.

All week my home has been flooded with light - more light than we got during out drenched day of sightseeing in Puerto Rico, with the curious effect that it feels warm and summery here.  But how have we (my visiting mother and I) spent our week, apart from working, cooking, cleaning?  We have devoted ourselves (in the absence of any sort of success for our beloved Tar Heels in our traditional winter sport of college basketball) to becoming curling junkies.

Those of you who live south of Minnesota and Scotland may find this raises the hackles of your skepticism, but curling (the icy equivalent of shuffleboard or  bocci or pétanque) is an incredibly engrossing spectator sport.  Which is lucky, because at any given moment in the day, it is showing on at least two major Canadian sports networks.

We are now deep in thrall to the personalities of the upstart PEI (Prince Edward Island) women's curling team, knee-high in incomprehensible discussions of the button, peeling, and all the minute considerations that come to bear when delivering the rock.  We have taken to yelling "HARD!!!" and "Whoa! WHOA!" at each other at unexpected moments around the house, which I am sure endears me to my neighbors. (Be sure to take a look at Stephen Colbert's attempt to decipher the sport and earn a place on the US Olympic Curling team, which includes an intervention in which Stephen prompts the guys to talk about how hurtful it is when the skip, or captain, screams instructions to the sweepers with what can only be described as bloodcurdling urgency.  That is the tone my mother and I have adopted in our domestic cries of encouragement.)  Still, it is preferable to last week, when we watched the entirety of True Blood's first season in an unnaturally short period of time.  After that, I kept catching my mother looking covetously at my jugular, just at the periphery of my vision.

Today we had a bit of an outing to the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, down at the Halifax harbor, which, rather like curling, is unexpectedly delightful.  The exhibit on the 1917 Halifax Explosion (the largest manmade, nonnuclear explosion in history) was particularly moving.  It was finally brought home to me why Haligonians consider the city of Boston to be bound to them by indissoluble bonds of kinship: after the collision of two foreign munition ships caused the fiery destruction of all of the buildings and many of the residents of the North End of the Halifax peninsula, and a blizzard made life untenable for a now homeless population taking refuge in military tents, the city of Boston and state of Massachusetts immediately sent ships filled with doctors, medical supplies, and donated housewares to their neighbors to the north, the other major port city of the Northeast, with which Boston had been doing daily business for centuries.  The total value of Bostonian support to the struggling city of Halifax came to $750,000.  Three quarters of a million dollars! In 1917!! To this day, Haligonians speak with fondness of Boston, and send them the annual gift of an enormous Nova Scotian Christmas tree.

The Halifax Explosion was the Haiti or Katrina of its day, drawing support from the other corners of the Empire (a huge gift from Australia), from the monarch himself, from the governments of Canada and the United Kingdom, from the company that owned the culpable munitions ship, from various churches, and from the city of Chicago (which sent $150,000, but gets no Christmas tree for their troubles).

The Museum also boasts an enthralling exhibit on the Titanic, whose messy aftermath the port of Halifax was almost solely responsible for cleaning up. Bodies clogged Nova Scotian waters and washed ashore in the days after the collision.  90% of men on second class tickets died in the disaster, I learned, but nonetheless the assertion that women and children were allowed into the life-rafts first seems to hold only partially true: adult men on first class tickets had a significantly higher rate of survival than children from third class.  And when every available Haligonian boat brought the salvaged bodies back to Halifax to be embalmed or claimed, the first-class passengers were brought ashore in coffins.  Second- and third-class passengers were placed in canvas body-bags.  Because death may part us, but it doesn't relieve us of class.

While we were there, we saw a rather surreal event: a theatrical performance about the second Canadian winner of the Victoria Cross, an Afro-Canadian soldier whose parents were escaped slaves from the American south.  This was not, in and of itself, surreal, but the piece ended with a hip hop performance by the youthful actors about the importance of self-esteem and self-determination, a performance which culminated in the assertion that we have no excuse for indolence, now that "we have a black president." Wait, my mother and I whispered to each other, Obama is the president of Canada?  We were still grappling with this question when everyone began to laugh and cheer, and the play as a whole concluded with a room-wide chant of "OBAMA! OBAMA! OBAMA!", which left us (the only people in the room who had voted for Barack) feeling oddly ... co-opted?  flattered? indoctrinated? proud? unsure what this had to do with nineteenth-century warfare?

What have I been reading this week? In class, we have moved out of the sex farces of last week, alas (Lysistrata and Joe Orton's What the Butler Saw), and into a pair of reflections on the violent intersection of religion and sexuality (Peter Shaffer's Equus and Dulcitius, a miracle play by the tenth century nun Hroswitha of Gandersheim, in which an evil Roman governor tries to rape some virtuous Christian maidens, but is miraculously befuddled by God into assaulting some kitchen implements instead).  The students don't seem to be wholly on board with this shift of gear. I, however, think it is a fantastic transition, and continue to harangue them about the social or moral value of comedy.

I continue to make my slow way through the Beckett trilogy of novels (my blogalogue partner's thought-provoking reflection on the first novel can be found here) and Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility, which has taught me never to entail my property, always to leave specific instructions for the care of my daughters before I die, and, according to the refreshingly callow Marianne (a.k.a. Sensibility), that I somewhat beyond hopes of romance myself:

     "I know very well that Colonel Brandon is not old enough to make his friends yet apprehensive of losing him in the course of Nature.  He may live twenty years longer.  But thirty-five has nothing to do with matrimony."
     "Perhaps," said [her sense-filled sister] Elinor, "thirty-five and seventeen had better not have anything to do with matrimony together.  But if there should by any chance happen to be a woman who is single at seven-and-twenty, I should not think Colonel Brandon's being thirty-five any objection to his marrying her."
     "A woman of seven-and-twenty," said Marianne, "can never hope to feel or inspire affection again; and if her home be uncomfortable, or her fortune small, I can suppose that she might bring herself to submit to the offices of a nurse, for the sake of the provision and security of a wife.  In his marrying such a woman, therefore, there would be nothing unsuitable.  It would be a compact of convenience, and the world would be satisfied.  In my eyes, it would be no marriage at all, but that would be nothing.  To me it would seem only a commercial exchange, in which each wished to be benefited at the expense of the other."
Oh, the shocking, thrilling cynicism of those last lines, which so cruelly (and with the myopic certainty of teenaged romanticism) pinpoint the harsh selfishness of many marriages.

I have read two remarkably enjoyable romances in the last couple of days (The Proposition, by the reliably fascinating Judith Ivory, whose exquisite, tormented Black Silk I just gave to my mother, and Laura Kinsale's newest, the charming and hopeful Lessons in French), and I hope to review them soon.  I am also on the very brink of finishing the mind-expanding 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School by Matthew Frederick.

And, lastly, I have recently been glancing back over the now surprisingly long history of my blog.  I will leave you with a few of my favorite posts from the nearly four years of Sycorax Pine.  Till next week!

  • The Pie of Dorian Gray and Other Tidbits , in which our heroine attempts to bake her first pie, and discovers in it an emblem for life in Los Angeles.
  • A Little Touch of Harry in the Night, in which the author examines the nationalism of Harrys and Jacks, and thereby draws into comparison such disparate wastrels as Harry Potter, Shakespeare's Henry V, the heroes of Lost and 24, and (implicitly) the miracles of image-rehabilitation that are the current British princes.
  • Returned! , in which yours truly reveals why her first romance novel will be largely based on true events from her own life, no matter what Marianne might say of her.
  • The Road, which has proved to be the most traffic-generating moment in the illustrious history of Sycorax Pine.
  • O Who Would be a Pudding, in which our heroine delves again into questions of national allegory, focusing this time on anthropomorphized Marsupials and Puddings rather than Harrys and Jacks.