Infernal Contortions, Nether Contemplations

See how he's made a chest out of his shoulders;
And since he wanted so to see ahead,
He looks behind and walks a backward path.

-Dante on the sorcerers and false prophets
The Inferno, Canto XX

 "It used to be," says my mother over breakfast yesterday, "that when you went out with your kid, your kid was like an actual person."

"Um. What?" I'm a little surprised to find my personhood in question so early this Thanksgiving morn.

"An actual person. Someone you would talk to. People used to come up to me on the bus and say, 'I can't believe how you talk to your daughter!'. Now your kid is just someo
ne to be kept quiet with technology so you can concentrate on your own screen."

(You may remember that my mother told me, upon receiving news that I'd acquired a smartphone, that I was "up to my eyeballs in assholedom."* She feels strongly about hypermediation.)

"We first noticed this in London," interjects my father, "All of these parents, pushing around their kids in strollers and hushing them while they tapped away at their phones. Contemplating their own assholedom."

"Is that the new navel-gazing?" I ask.

"Yes," says my mother. "But it requires a twist."

"My tablet!" I cry, rushing out of the room for my computer, "Meet it is I set it down!"**

Washington, DC
November 23, 2012

*My mother: "So what's new with you and D?" 
I: "Not much. We found an apartment and moved into it. He's working. 
We're continuing our transition to being assholes with smartphones." 
My mother: "Mmm."
I: "For instance, today he realized he'd forgotten some paperwork
 he needed for work, so I offered to photograph them using an 
app he'd downloaded that turns iPhone photos into PDFs, 
and then email them to him so that..."  
My mother: "OH MY GOD: you are up to your eyeballs in assholedom."
** This joke would be better if I actually owned a tablet. 
 But what can you do: sometimes Shakespeare won't be held back by the mere mundanities of fact.

On This Day

Friends, both virtual and corporeal, who support, question, correct, and laugh. The interest and energy of my students. A range of places, limpidly beautiful, that feel like home when I return to them. D: just D, in every way. Independence. A job that's exhausting and challenging and thrilling. Language. Prospects for peace. Food as a metaphor for social communion that slips between the secular and the divine. The reminder that the things we love are ephemeral and fortuitous, and we should kiss the joy as it flies.

Washington, DC
Thanksgiving, 2012

Contorted by Literacy

Hallo, America! You didn't all have to rush to the airport to welcome me back to the warm bosom of the mother country, but I appreciate the gesture.

Of course, the warm embrace got a little cooler when the first thing I saw upon deplaning in Dulles was an entire store filled with shirts that read, "Don't blame me! I voted for Romney." Can we just retire that as a political concept, elephants and donkeys all?  It's not patriotic to hope that your country will fail so that you can gloat.

My parents, bless, picked me up last night at the airport an hour outside of my hometown. I'd been in the car for less than a minute when my mother told me not to be such a brown-noser. But she hasn't yet told me, with a glint in her eye and a tongue in her cheek, that I'm a Nasty Bit of Business*, so I'm counting this one as a win.

I told  my parents that I've been having back and neck problems from, as my friend Ch.  told me, gathering all my intellectual discontent between my shoulder blades.

"We'll, no wonder, if you're always hunched over a computer or a book in that unnatural pos
ition," says my librarian mother, "I've always felt that you were going be a wizened, contorted old crone by the time you were 40."

"This is going online. Right this second," I mutter from the back seat.

"Just so long as you're not all bent over as you type it," floats back the inevitable reply.

Washington, DC
Thanksgiving, 2012

*"Nabob" when she's feeling particularly pressed for time.

Luck in the Library

A student came to my office for a meeting yesterday. As our discussion of his paper revision wound down, he stared at his bag, looking vaguely abashed. 

"Also..." he said, after a moment, "I'm, um, writing a paper for another class about the ideas we talked about from Aristotle earlier in the term." He leaned over to take a slim, battered volume from his backpack. "So I went to get the Poetics from the library. And there was an envelope in it." He finally met my eyes. "And inside, there was a note, and it talked about you."

"Um." (I said wittily.)

"It told me to come to your office."

"Oh!" I sighed, both relieved and strangely disappointed in my Da Vinci Code speculations, "That's my student's documentary. My Honours students each have to document one class from the term, and turn it into a work of art. This student was dealing with a class in which we discussed and practiced Dadaism, and talked about chance relationships with documents and archive. So she made her documentary in the form of a paper chase, in which her colleagues (or other random students) would encounter the clues when they opened library books, and either discard them or follow them as they wished."

"Okay," he said slowly, while I laughed and laughed with the delight of chance success. 

Halifax, NS
Tuesday, November 20, 2012

A Murder of Logos

Wish me luck: today was the day when I proved to the Canadian government (nay, all of Canada) that I am a competent speaker of English, in a series of tests that consumed the day from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.  I won't find out the result, on which my application for permanent residency depends, for another thirteen days.  While I fret away the time (because really, how beyond embarrassing would it be if I did poorly on this test?), I thought I'd give you a blow by blow of the day.


I have a nightmare in which anxiety about the oral test causes me to break, suddenly, into a logorrheic deluge of academic jargon. "I don't know what language this is," my examiner will jot on his notepad, "but it sure isn't English."

Wait: is "logorrheic" a word I should avoid in my oral test?

10:00-10:30 a.m. : The Oral Test

I think I may have nailed my spoken English test, given that my examiner kept grinning at me delightedly throughout the highly scripted exam, as if to give the questions a certain hipster irony.

But I will say this, nation of Canada: if you wanted me NOT to break into academic logorrhea, WHY did you make "celebrity" the subject of the exam? I mean, how am I supposed to respond to a question like, "Why do you think society focuses so much on celebrity?" without breaking out the jargon? At one point I found myself talking about rituals of surrogation and sacrifice.

God, I hope they'll still let me stay in this country.

Noon-4:45 p.m.: The Written Test

Update #2: I may have thought, when I took the GREs, that I would never again have to take a standardized test. I may have thought when I took the SATs that I would never again fill in a computer-legible sheet of bubbles. I may have forgotten, in the years since I was a child, that I am historically terrible at reading comprehension tests, despite having devoted my entire career to it, because of the curse of the overanalyzing mind.

This was hubris, all of it.

Side-bar: The Aural Test

Also: I have become a terrible listener. During the "Listening" test, I became distracted when the first two questions were about a woman who was registering for a drama workshop ("Did they just say 'drahma'?" I thought, "Ha! Suck it, Canadian pronunciation! Wait: was that the information I needed for this question? DAMMIT.") and an account of how a woman undertook the research for her dissertation ("OH GOD, HOW IS SHE EVER GOING TO FINISH A PROJECT WITH THAT SCOPE?? THIS MAKES ME SO ANXIOUS.").

So if they deem me an unworthy speaker of this fine language, I think we'll know why.

The Aftermath

I call D as I leave the testing facility, which is temporarily at a university just to the north of mine that goes by the unsettling moniker, "The Mount."

"It's 5 p.m., and it's already pitch black," I say to D bitterly, "What's that about?"

"Daylight Savings?  Northern latitudes?"

"Well, I don't care for it. Not at all.  It's gothically gloomy, and freezing cold, and RAINING, and I have a long steep walk ["the Mount," remember?] back to my car because there was nowhere on campus I could park for four and a half hours." I shift to a stage whisper: "Also, I'm really grateful that I teach where I do, because this campus is so freaking... outdoorsy.  Which is beautiful, but, I mean, we live in CANADA.  It's freezing cold and I'm about to fall down this hill."

"Yeah, I couldn't hear any of that," comes the reply from Honolulu, where it's morning, and 80 degrees. 

"Well, I'm trying not to yell my criticisms while I'm actually still ON this campus.  Although, come to think of it, I am creepily alone in the middle of these woods.  Where am I?"

Eventually I reach rock bottom, orient myself, and begin climbing the next bit of hilly allegory to where I parked my car.  It gets even darker.

A large bird flies overheard to land on a well-populated power line.  "Oh, wow: there's quite a murder of crows sitting right above my car. Two, four, six, eight of them."


"Oh wait," I peer through the thickening dark, "There are some more of them... No, it seems like... Oh my God.  Every surface of every tree is completely covered by crows. And all the houses.  I'M NOT KIDDING, D."

"I believe you!" he say urgently, "They've come to eat your liver."

"Oh God, I've got to go."


8 November 2012