Fast away the old year passes

December 31, 2011

Here's how we celebrate the New Year en famille Sycoraxienne: D is with his family in NC, I'm with mine in DC, and we're watching the first season of Friday Night Lights again and weeping over Tim Riggins's emotional repression.  Seriously: it's one of the finest, deftest television series ever made, one of the canniest critiques and romances of American self-conception, and it makes me want to reread this enthralling oral history of the series:
"I want to build up this all-American quarterback, this hero. This wonderful, beautiful kid with his entire future ahead of him. His biggest decision in life was whether he was going to take a full ride to UT or Notre Dame. He's got the hot girlfriend. He's got the loving parents. And he's going to break his neck in the first game. We're going to create this iconic American hero, and we're going to demolish him."
Here's what strikes me about Friday Night Lights after several trips through it (it's endlessly rewatchable): this is a show that actually respects production and process.  This is a show that admires its set dressers and the work they do, that dwells on the details of costume and object to build a richly layered world of ironies and motivations, that gives its cameramen (and -women?) the freedom of improvisation and its actors the latitude to practice their craft with spontaneity and nuance.  Not to mention the fact that it presents masculinity as a state of emotional complexity and depth, teenagers as beings of tremendous and harried ethical responsibility, and marriage as a matter of negotiation and conflict, mistakes and respect.

So, FNL with the parents, champagne at ten, and then an evening of syllabus work and blogging.  That's how we send the year out chez Sycorax.  Bring it, 2012.

'Tis the season for social allegory

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Last night while sitting interminably on the tarmac in Baltimore after a terrifying aborted landing at foggy National Airport I came to know my fellow passengers quite well, a social microcosm à la John Ford's Stagecoach: a federal marshall, a man who organizes off-shore call centers, a soldier just returning from deployment in Afghanistan, a nice couple from Fredericton who were delighted to encounter another Maritimer, an enraged solipsist who kept belittling the staff for not letting him off in the middle of the runway, a flight attendant who sang "Twinkle twinkle little star to us" over the course of what was supposed to be a 20 minute flight from Philly and finally declared firmly, "We have to get to DC. I BELONG in DC."

As the hours wore on and we encountered diversion after diversion, mechanical failure after mechanical failure, I did think, "Wow, it's not a good sign that we are now explicitly discussing how we will divide up the labor when we have to form a new desert-island society in the style of LOST."

When we briefly deplaned in Baltimore, the enraged solipsist left our little band of brothers/proto-society in a cloud of luggage-oriented recrimination. But before he did, he got the number of the woman sitting next to him, who had been parroting his every gripe like Echo and Narcissus for the last three hours. "Should I give you my number or my email?" she asked anxiously. He shrugged, and began grinding his teeth in the general direction of the gate agent. "Which would you *like*?" she persisted. "Whatever," he replied, focusing his glare on a pilot who was emerging from the gate, "This is insane. UNACCEPTABLE!"

"Are you kidding me?" I thought, "Who picks up women while behaving like a tool? Who consents to be picked up in these circumstances? What about this experience made you think, Now THERE's a guy I want to spend more time with. Maybe even the rest of my life"?

Happy Solstice.  They're all getting longer from here.

On the Holy Family, Domestic Labor, and Losing One's Pants

Fragments from holidays with my nonna, who, at 91, is the most entertaining person I know.

Taking my grandparents home from Thanksgiving involves painstaking choreography to establish everyone safely in the car. "Watch your head, Watch your head, WATCH YOUR HEAD, ok, wow, very deftly handled," I say to my grandmother as she lowers herself into the passenger seat. "Yes," she replies, "but now I appear to be losing my pants." "That's just the sign of a successful Thanksgiving," I say confidently. We're nearly home by the time we stop laughing.

*     *     *

And my grandfather's no slouch in the hilarity department, although somewhat less intentionally than my nonna.  The other day, I got this report from my mother: 'Tried to explain Occupy Wall Street (Nova Scotia, DC, St. Paul's London, Oakland, Portland, etc. etc.) to my nonagenarian parents. Finally, my father said, "wait, was this during the Depression?".'

*     *     *

In this holiday season of creches and carols, I always think of my grandmother's quest to find a single painting of the Holy Family in any of the world's major galleries depicting Joseph engaged in domestic labor or, more pointedly, childcare. 

"Oh sure," she would say, "he'll do a bit of carpentry or tend the donkey. But meanwhile Mary's got her arms full of books and Jesus and sometimes John the Baptist for good measure. Do we ever see him change a diaper, read a story, or play with the baby?". 

She was indescribably delighted when she finally found a late Renaissance image of Joseph making what appeared to be an omelet.

*     *     *

This recalls to me some summertime tales of my grandmother that I don't believe I ever told here. It all started with brunch at Great Falls with my grandparents. A drink arrives for me. 

Grandmother: "What *is* that?" [She's having a mimosa.] "Did you order it?" 
Me: "Er, yes. It's a Coca Cola." 
Grandmother: "That's amazing. It looks extraordinarily like a *Coca Cola*." 
Me: "It's extraordinary, yes." 
Grandmother, with quiet disgust: "I just couldn't imagine any daughter or granddaughter of mine ordering such a thing."

Conversation, needless to say, unfolds naturally from that point. 

My grandmother: "I so admire how you keep up with friends from all different times of your life." 
Me: "Oh, well, I'm not that good. It's just easier in the age of Facebook." 
My nonna, darkly: "Maybe TOO easy."

Me: "Uh, what do you mean by that?"
My nonna, who's never been on Facebook except to be shown pictures by my mother: "People feel free to post the minute details of their day, and its nothing but trivia."
Me: "Well, but there's..."
Nonna: "Trivia!" [Now she's really yelling.] "TRIVIA!!!"
Me: "I had no idea you felt so strongly...."

(We've had this same conversation several times since then.  "How do you know this?" I ask her.  She gives me a knowing smile and a sidelong glance: "People tell me things.")

On the way home from brunch, my grandmother doesn't care for the way another driver honks at us. So, naturally, this is what she says: "I don't know any rude hand signals. I must learn some. I think receiving a rude hand signal from a nonagenarian woman would be a very effective deterrent in situations like this, don't you?"

She immediately transitioned from this to telling me about witnessing her father have a heart attack (from which he shortly died) when she was a teenager. I'd never heard this story before.

It was a roller-coaster drive back from brunch.

An Affection Altogether Ignorant of Our Faults: The Canine Romance

Tuesday, December 6, 2011
Waikiki, HI

Outside of a dog, a book is man's best friend.
Inside of a dog, it's too dark to read.
(Groucho Marx)

Often I find myself buying romances on the strength of a recommendation from someone I really trust.  As with all other genres and art forms, my taste doesn't run so much towards particular sub-genres, tropes, and tones as it does towards innovation, quality, and complexity within a particular form. (This is how I got looped into romance reading as a literary scholar at all, not to mention comics, horror films, anime, reality dance competitions, curling, etc.) So from time to time I just take the risk and buy while thinking that the less I know about what I am about to read the better.

And then I open up the ebook, and it has an adorable puppy on the cover, and I think, "Oh Jesus.  What have I done." (I can't even make this last a question, so heavy is the weight of dread upon my soul at the sight of that cheerful furball.)

Jean-Honore Fragonard "Girl with a Dog" (c. 1770)
Dogs and erotics
Seriously: what's this about?
I don't know why I have such an entrenched bias against dog-themed romances, but I encountered it again when I cracked (clicked?) the e-spine of Nikki and the Lone Wolf*.  I think it is the feeling that the text I'm reading has been so heavily engineered to fit within a marketable trope.  ("Banksia Bay," goes the tag-line for this series, "where lost dogs heal lonely hearts.")  I feel the burden of the commodification of literature particularly heavily when I see that I'm being manipulated by an adorable mammal.  But also, as an inveterate cat-person, I feel alienated by this creaky, ubiquitous association between dog ownership and romantic healing:  why dogs, I find myself asking?  Why associate dogs, of all creatures, with romantic (or, more unsettlingly, erotic) triumph?  Why not cats? Too on the nose?  I suppose the same must be true of snakes.  When are we going to see a rash of romances (a phrase that I should really put on my "never use again" list) about people brought together by their mutual love of ferrets?  Judith Ivory's already laid out the seminal text for that movement in The Proposition, a Pygmalion tale about a rat catcher and his linguist love. [And see Laura Vivanco's excellent note below on the continuing role ferrets have had to play in the scandals of romancelandia.]

I'm troubled by the idea that dogs have an entrenched role to play in a certain genre of romance because they set out a silent, adorable and adoring model for love as faith.  What the routinely skittish protagonists of a dog romance see in their canine companions is love that is patient and kind, love that does not envy, does not boast, and is not proud, love that does not dishonor others, is not self-seeking or easily angered, and that keep no record of wrongs.  Love that always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.  Beautiful, Biblical stuff - the love of dog as a model for romantic love, which itself becomes a model for love of god.

But, curb the canine and call me Darcy, I myself prefer romantic love with a touch of pride about it. Not love as self-abnegating devotion.

There's a certain irony here: despite my initial stomach-churning sense of dread, I often quite enjoy a good dog-themed romance.  One of my favorite authors, Jennifer Crusie, frequently features dogs in her  books, and they are fully-fledged characters, with as much personality and autonomy as any of the human players in the drama. And certainly I am a sucker for the sentimentalization of animal-owner relationships, and perhaps this is why I so resent being manipulated by them when they are in less skillful hands (or more blatantly mobilized by publishers) - I will snuffle into my drink about an ill-treated animal, but I'll also resent you for exploiting this empathy cheaply.

In Nikki and the Lone Wolf, Marion Lennox draws a vivid portrait of Horse, a massive and mistreated wolfhound who draws the hero and heroine from their homes one gothic night by howling inconsolably at the ocean.  His owner threw him overboard to drown, but still he's faithfully waiting for this abusive scoundrel, and will be until the hero can persuade the heroine to take a dominant tone with the poor misguided soul (and thereby provide a new home, a new bond of love).  Horse is a great character, as are his owners, but the resolution [SPOILER], which comes by way of a massive community-wide oceanic search for the beast, after he goes swimming off into the ocean like he's Edna Pontellier, desperate to find his mistress (who has herself, with irksome parallelism, stormed off in a fit of romantic pique), seems not just implausible but also exasperating.  Is this the model of love we're looking at, I found myself asking, suicidal, irrational devotion that takes a village to soothe?  If so, the hero and heroine are right to resist it.

*Is it piling on to talk about these silly titles?  Admittedly this one is less egregious than the previous two in the series, Misty and the Single Dad and Abby and the Bachelor Cop, but it's the formula that gets me.  Heroines get a name - a diminutive, early 90s identity - while heroes get a social role.

Mink in the Woodpile, Mongoose in the Engine

Monday, December 5, 2011
Honolulu, HI

Right: so.

The term is finally over, and Mt. Grademore and I have cast conniving, sidelong looks at one another, packed our weighty selves into suitcases, and left for Hawaii.  No kidding: Mt. Grademore on parade takes up half my freaking luggage.  But now, after only four flights and a total of 27 hours of travel, here we are in sunny Oahu.  And within 24 hours of arriving in Honolulu, I could already cross "hug a cylon" off my to-do list. Such is the benefit of having a partner who works on Hawai'i Five-0.

Best story to come into our lives recently as a result of D's time in Hawaii?

When D was last with me at Farfara (our new house in Nova Scotia), he got a message from the friend who'd been his replacement on the show for the previous three weeks. "I came back from a hike and started your car," it read, "but it was making a terrible squealing noise.  When I lifted the hood, I discovered that there was a mongoose in your engine."

"In Halifax, do you occasionally find a moose under your hood?" asked one witty friend of ours, upon hearing this story.

"No," I replied, "but D did find a mink in the woodpile the other day."

"Mink in the Woodpile," chimed in another, "Best lesbian bar name ever."

I couldn't help it: "'Mink in the Woodpile, Mongoose in the Engine' sounds like the title of a conference paper I'd write." I paused to reflect. "It's subtitle would be 'Constru/icting Sexualities from Atlantic to Pacific."

"Mieux vaut un mangouste dans son moteur qu'un tigre (Proverbe Chinois du 3eme Millenaire BC)," intoned a French friend, who then sent me this video:

In the face of that brilliance, what was there really left to say?

Just this: "When I form my mongoose conference panel, the second paper is going to be titled 'Mongeese: Allegories of Collectivism.'"