I've moved!

You can now find me at www.sycoraxpine.com.  Frabjous day!  Please don't forget to redirect your subscriptions to my new address.

See you there....

The Banal Omnipresence of Pants

Today, D rolled out of bed, walked sleepily into the living room, and said, "I'm going to jail."

"I know, honey," I replied, a tremor in my voice. "I'll wait for you. No matter how long it takes.  As long as it's today."

I'm in Honolulu now, where D is in his last couple of weeks working on the show that has kept him here for two-and-a-half years.  It's bittersweet, really.  But they've decided to ease his leave-taking by spending much of the penultimate week filming in one of the state's rare prisons. 

In terms of the surrealism that television production has wrought in our lives, is this up there with the time he came home to discover he was inadvertently covered in the fake gore of Criminal Minds, and spent hours channeling Lady Macbeth, all scrubbing and muttering? Who's to say?

From Halawa Prison. Strangely, this is also the mood D's in when he gets home.

I did feel an echoing twinge of dismay, edging into full-blown guilt, that while I planned to go off snorkeling with a visiting friend, D was in jail.

"The worst part about jail," D said to me, while breaking down why it is that we couldn't visit him on the highly secure location shoot, "is that they make us wear pants."

"Yes, that's the penal system and its endless oppressions," I said supportively.

"I really hate pants," he sighed. 

"I have bad news for you: in the frozen north, you are going to have to wear pants *every* day. Unless you take up my suggested kilt regimen, which my mother and I agree is a look you could totally rock."

"I do have good legs." He settled back into resigned anticipation: "Ugh: prison." Cry of despair: "PANTS."

"It's true what Baudrillard said, I guess: the prison only exists to obscure the fact that it is pants themselves, in their banal omnipresence, that are carceral."

December 8, 2012

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

The Gauge and the Gambol

Here's how the day began: I was peering anxiously at Liverspot's engine temperature gauge* as I bumped down Farfara Way, wondering if it was behaving eccentrically (it wasn't), when I nearly veered off into a wooded ditch to avoid hitting a young buck who was standing in the middle of the road. Liverspot's never had the most responsive brakes.

What does she do in there with all those bricks of paper?

Here's how the day ended: I went off to schedule my English language tests for immigration - both written and oral - and to reflect on how embarrassing it would be if I failed them. Coming home, I slowly chased a deer back up the driveway, trying my best to imagine that a car could gambol.

* Yes, my car's name is Liverspot.  S/he's a 2001 Camry, and a particularly unappealing shade of brown, so I gave the car an avert-the-evil-eye name.  What of it?  (Although I can't say it's been particularly successful, since last Monday s/he left me by the side of the road in a cloud of smoke.  But that's a story for another day.) 

Luckily we have another car, a 4WD Escape designed to help us navigate our long, LONG, steep, and gravelly driveway in the snowy winter.  

How steep is the road to Farfara (our house)?  Every single new visitor who has ever come to our door - including every delivery man and one group of Jehovah's witnesses - has had the same first comment: "That driveway! I bet it's a nightmare in the winter."  "Tell me about it!" I always say, "I live here!  Wait, is that a Bible you're holding?".  

So we had to get an SUV to handle the driveway in the winter. (How did I go from being the person who didn't even know how to drive five years ago to owning two cars, one of which is an SUV? I don't like the direction this is heading - it begins to feel as if I'm, in Mère Sycorax's words, "up to my eyeballs in assholedom.")  It's grey, sleek, and comfortable, with a cool-running engine, impeccable brakes, and inexplicable multi-colored disco lighting for your feet.  I call it "The Barge She Sat In."

Farfara, Nova Scotia
30 October 2012

The Mousening

I just spent the last half hour in solemn confrontation with a mouse in my kitchen. It began with a rustling on the counter; I ran into the kitchen in time to see him scurry behind the toaster oven. "I CAN SEE YOU!" I accused at high volume, to his great alarm, "YOU SHOULD KNOW THAT I CAN SEE YOU RIGHT NOW."

That is when I decided to video-conference D in for the rest of the mouse battle.

"Ok," I said to him, when he asked what was going on and what he was looking at, "I've trapped a mouse behind the toaster oven, using the Tardis cookie jar as a blockade. So unless this mouse is a Time Lord, there's no way he's getting away."

I think our mouse might be a Time Lord.

I also quickly came to regret bringing my own backseat mouse-trapper to the battlefield. D  kept asking why I wasn't using a box with a stick tied to a string, as I erected increasingly elaborate Rube Goldberg contraptions.

Here's how the confrontati
on ended from D's POV:

D: "Why don't you fasten those two cookie racks together with a twistie tie?"

Sycorax Pine: "I don't know whether I have a twistie tie. Let me just see whether there's one in... AAAH!!!! AAAAH!!! AAAAAAAAAH!!!!!" The video feed shudders with in a clatter of baking tools and hideous screams.

D: "What's happening? What am I looking at? Why am I talking to our food processor now?"


D: "Where is he? What happened?"

SP: "Behind the dish drainer. Look, little friend, I just want to humanely trap you and take you outside so I don't have to call the exterminator to kill you. Can't we come to some sort of understanding?"

Mouse Time Lord: [!!!]


SP: "Look, if you aren't in the trenches, you don't know what it's like."

SP: "Do you approve of the account of the mouse battle I posted online?"

D: "Yes, but you are still leaving out a crucial part of the story."

SP: "That I was outwitted by a mouse?"

D: "That the mouse didn't escape via a TIME MACHINE, but rather through a weakness in your defenses. It's like being a Time Lord, but even more like just walking through an open door."

I concede nothing. 

October 27, 2012

The Vivid, the Gothic, the Spiderporcine: Thief of Shadows

Winter Makepeace: what a name. I would object on the grounds of generic overexuberance (let's not forget that his sisters go by the similarly abstemious names Temperance and Silence, and one of them ran off with a semi-reformed ne'er-do-well named Lazarus), if I hadn't just come across three separate, apparently devout ancestors named "Love" (each after her grandmother) in my genealogical explorations.  Three Loves amidst a sea of Margarets.  That's my kind of naming.

In this fourth in Elizabeth Hoyt's Maiden Lane series, the ascetic Winter Makepeace, overseer of a foundling's home in down-at-the-heels St. Giles, is by night the Thief of Shadows, a super-hero avant la lettre called the Ghost of St. Giles, who wanders the streets defending the disenfranchised and forgotten.  Quite early in the novel he finds himself at the tender mercies of Lady Isabel Beckinhall, who is working very hard to convince the world of how scintillating her surface is, and how very little lies beneath it.  The romance that unfolds after she rescues the Ghost from a rampaging mob, all without ever removing his mask is nice enough - the lovers are likable, and the skepticism about the rapaciousness of an aristocratic economy is welcome in a historical romance - but nothing feels particularly wrenching or revelatory. Isabel in particular never really gets off the ground for me as a character: although she's kind and realistically self-questioning, her various characteristics don't ultimately congeal into a coherent personality.  Winter's does to a greater extent, because he is the more unusual persona, but the problems which lend conflict to the romance (having to do with his self-denying tendency to devote himself fully to any task he takes up, whether it be superheroic scurrying about on rooftops, running a children's home, or caring for a family) are all too easily solved when love (sweet clarifying love) helpfully reshuffles his priorities.  I wish that unusual characters like Winter would maintain their distinctiveness (in his case, his chilly austerity) when and after they fall in love, rather than thawing into a rather generic heroic suaveness and confidence.  My favorite scenes with both Winter and Isabel were those in which they were uncertain: it's their prickliness that drew me in, not how polished and dashing they could be.

The gothic genre (to which this book only lightly belongs) has developed a reputation for drawing its personalities in broad, bravura strokes, but I'm not sure a really skillful evocation of the genre should  should mean half-hearted characterization as much as it means dynamic environmental tension.  These characters were psychologized (and likable) but they weren't vivid.  And in the gothic mode, everything should be vivid.

Stray notes:

  • The editor in me feels honor-bound to point out that there are some infelicities (as they say) in the writing here: sporadic and awkward archaisms, unnecessary interjections of "telling," etc.  It's fairly rare, but I'd like to have seen these ironed out.  Know that this also isn't a piece of decorous realism: if you are seeking a painstaking evocation of historical social mores, go elsewhere.  Hoyt's more interested in building a warm affection between her characters (which she does deftly in all of her novels that I've read), and they routinely find themselves in situations that defy the period's standards of social decency. 
  • Speaking of which, there's one scene of rather explicit banter about how hard Winter and Isabel like their mattresses - all par for the course, except that they are having this conversation over the head of Isabel's young ward, who finally asks why they are speaking of riding their mattresses when they should be sleeping in them.  Honestly, now, I thought, thinning my lips schoolmarmishly: there's a time and a place, people. Innuendo is decreasingly sexy as you add children to its audience. Am I approaching withered old stick status, or is this icky?
  • For a time, it seemed like the plot was settling into a too-familiar, "Will she guess his secret identity?  Will she be torn between attraction to two men who are in fact the same person? What does it mean to be jealous of yourself?" territory, but Hoyt blessedly avoids getting too tangled in this (because her heroine isn't an idiot).  It's possible that in this section, I may have found myself repeatedly humming the "Spiderpig" theme. I admit nothing. 
  • A whole crowd of hurrahs (and some spoilers, for the wary) for a novel which contains both an unashamedly untouched hero and a portrayal of infertility that doesn't end with love as the magical cure. More like this, please.

Thief of Shadows (2012)
Elizabeth Hoyt 

[Note: This was my first experiment with reviewing a book from NetGalley, and I'm torn about how to negotiate the ethics (and legalities) of indicating the source of books I've received from publishers/authors rather than from libraries/purchase. I'd like just to be able to tag them as galleys, but tags in my blog template are only searchable, not always visible. In future, I'll mark these books as "Galley," "ARC," or "Publisher-provided" in the ratings section of a post, and do my utmost to ensure that the free nature of the text doesn't affect my the nature or tone of my reviews.]

Saturday, Septemeber 15, 2012

Lost Spirits and Formal Sporrans: The Angels' Share (AFF)

And the Atlantic Film Festival begins, with this frolic of a fairy tale about whisky and redemption, a sort of SIDEWAYS that, in place of neurotic, pretentious, SoCal yuppie wine geeks, gives us scarred, working-class, Glaswegian ex-cons. Which, to me, makes it about a million times more charming.

It's not a deep film, and it's a resolutely sentimental one, but it left me in an awfully good mood.  Ken Loach draws his main characters with his wonted decency and detail, although tangential characters sometimes descend into the sort of caricature that left me with the uneasy feeling that if the film had been set in London instead of Glasgow, it might have starred Hugh Grant.  (One character is so profoundly foolish that even his companions can't quite believe it.)  A large portion of the film dances at the edge of neorealist inaudibility, or perhaps muttered incomprehensibility, and to be honest these were my favorite sections: this film could do with a bit more muddiness, a bit more obscurity in its moral message.  I loved The Angels' Share best when it seemed not to care what we thought, or whether we were even keeping up.

What saves it from utter didacticism as a tale of the last big score that allows a fundamentally decent man to escape the trap of criminality and violence is the performance of Paul Brannigan as handsome, scarred Robbie (and, needless to say, the way Loach patiently frames that performance).  Robbie's just been told by a judge that he's had his last chance, and only gotten it because of the stabilizing influence of a girlfriend who's just about to make him a father for the first time: when next he finds himself in trouble, he's going to prison, and probably for some time.  Brannigan's Robbie is fiercely smart and mutely shameful; he discovers an unusual perceptiveness to the nuances of whiskey, a drink he never cared for before, but despairs of ever getting a legitimate job when the violence of his past is written in sharp cuts on his face.  In every scene, his eyes show his ambition warring with his despair and regret, like a doppler map of coming weather.  I was half in love with him myself by the film's end.  (Wait, am I not supposed to admit that?)

The film's title, like everything else about it, is both squirmingly earnest and defiantly evocative.  The angels' share is the percentage of spirit that evaporates every year from the stored whiskey: it represents what is lost, but also what is offered up.  It is the spirit of generosity and the poetics of pragmatism, and it emerges as a social metaphor for those who've been written off.  I found myself warming to the title the more I thought about it, even in its final, most literal invocation.

"Everything about this film screams Nova Scotia," said the festival programmer to us as we took our seats, "It's set in Glasgow; it's about people turning their lives around; and, you know, stealing booze."

Sure enough, when our Dogsberrying group of misfits make their way to the Highlands in kilts, and "I'm gonna be (500 miles)" started up, a not insignificant portion of the audience (including me, and not just because I was expecting the Doctor to show up) sang along in clear, broad Scottish accents.

On the other hand, this is the sort of film which rousingly plays the Proclaimers as kilted Glaswegians seek out legendary whiskey in the Highlands. You've been forewarned.

 The Angels' Share
dir. Ken Loach (2012)


Here, share in my good mood:

And now, a personal tangent:

At the film, I had a revelation. When D  moves to Nova Scotia, I'm getting him a kilt to celebrate. My mom and I agree that he will rock it. (And the best part: it will be a major victory in his ongoing war on pants.) Now I just had to find out what my mother's family tartan is.

There followed this series of manic midnight messages to D in Hawai'i, who was having an unusually frantic day on set and probably did not appreciate a thousand questions about how he would look in a skirt: 

"Ugh: apparently we are lumped in with the MacLennans, a clan with a singularly hideous tartan (What's that whirring, thumping sound? Is it my ancestors spinning in their collective Presbyterian graves in Glasgow and Northern Ireland?)."

["Hmmm," wrote my sister-in-law after examining the MacLennan tartan, "not sure who decided that green, teal and red should all go together."

"Ancient clan warriors," I replied, "who'd been up all night drinking and painting themselves with woad. Never trust the color-sense of a woad-covered man."

"I'm tied down to it," I went on to the unresponsive D, "but I don't think you should be. I think instead I'm going to get you a plaid from one of the clans represented by characters in the Scottish play. Unless you indicate a favorite, I'm leaning towards MacDuff. (Although I really think you would look best in MacDonald. But we can't totally throw signification and association out the window and declare your allegiance to a Haligonian bridge, for God's sake. That way lies madness.)"


"Do you prefer your sporran in muskrat, badger, or leather? Or shall we go the full Canadian with beaver? Too on the nose (so to speak) for a crotch accessory?"
[No answer from D.  Odd. Clearly he needs some local context.]
"This wins the prize for Canadian non-story of the summer. It honestly reads like an Onion article:

The Halifax artist donned a kilt last October and has since decided that he prefers it over pants.

“You don’t feel so confined or something,” says King, 40.

Pants for men in the Western world seem to be pretty much the norm in modern times, but for most of history, it wasn’t. Even Romans thought pants were for barbarians.... He wants to wear the kilt “because it is a more authentic type of clothing or something and has a history to it.”"


"Do I detect an ominous silence from D?" my mother interjects, "I mean, you can lead a man to a kilt, but ..."

And he doesn't even know yet that this kilt (even without the [everyday] sporran, the socks, the matching tartan things that hold up your socks, the dress sporran, the ceremonial knife, and the Jacobite jacket) is going to cost as much as a mortgage payment. Shhh. No one tell him.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Doe (A Deer, A Female Deer) vs. Me (A Name I Call Myself)

Look, this is what it means to live by yourself in the middle of nowhere: I just had a prolonged conversation with a deer and her two fawns.


"Oh, look: the deer are back! Aren't they beautiful?" [Snap pictures and message them to D. Text this commentary: "My new friends!" Then: "Why is this deer looking at me like he is about to make everyone I've ever loved disappear?.... Seriously, I just looked up after spending several minutes painstakingly typing that, and he was still staring. Hadn't moved a muscle."] "Wait, are they eating my lilies?" [Open window.] "Hey! You! Don't eat those."


[Look up suddenly, like they are all three thinking about making everyone I've ever loved disappear.]


"That's right. Step away from the lilies. It's the better part of valor."




"OK, think it over. You'll come to the right decision in the end."

DEER, in an obviously scathing commentary on our hierarchy of power: 

[Duck heads and begin to eat again.]


"Don't make me come out there."




"I'm coming out there. You're gonna wish I hadn't." [Storm out the door. Pull up short when I see...]


[Stare at me even more intensely. Stomp in a show of territorial assertion.]


[Stomp in a manner that should have been highly deer-eloquent, but in a human just seems petulant.]


[Stare at me in perplexity. Look at each other like a couple at a dinner party seeing their friends begin to have an embarrassingly public fight.]


"Don't you give each other that look. I'm not crazy. (I do wish I were filming this, though. I think these deer are condescending to me.)" [Point off into forest.] "It's been nice, but I think you'd better be on your way."

DEER, after a pregnant moment: 

[Disdainfully turn and make their way into the woods in a leisurely single file that says nothing so much as "I'm not leaving because you've won this argument, I'm leaving because I'm bored."]

I'm just sayin': if Calico-Colored Guinea Pig shows up, I'm staying inside the house:


Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Taking the bit between the teeth

Well, that was a false start.  But I remain undeterred. There's so much to blog about - our trip to the former leper (Hansen's disease) colony on Moloka'i and the heart-grinding reading I did while there;  Satyajit Ray's Chekhovian Music Room and the Fellini-tinged, pharaonic wonder of Cairo Station, the weeklong visit from my Dorothy Parker-esque grandmother, my wrangle with Spinoza - and the term's just beginning this week.  So... what better time to blog up a storm?

Happy Labor Day, all.  May your labors be fruitful and fair, and your three-day weekends be giddy and hedonistic.

Monday, September 4, 2012

The Return (of the Repressed)

Oh, my fine friends, I have the same sad story to tell that rings like a bell-tower carillon on too-long-dormant blogs all over the nation. It’s been some time since last you heard from Sycorax Pine.  Much has happened this summer: I’ve been to London, Washington, and now am happily ensconced in Honolulu, where D’s been posted for work.  But since being here, I’ve been sunk in the most pernicious slough of writer’s block that has hit me in some time.  Work writing, pleasure writing, and increasingly even reading of all but the most escapist sort, has filled me with a paralyzing anxiety that bodes no good for the looming tenure process. I have a clutch of projects on the go, and clutch them I have, fretfully and fruitlessly, to my erratically-pulsing heart. 

Sadly, a rockin' new haircut and Carolina blue espadrilles didn’t help me kick anxiety’s ass.

So I have to break the stalemate, and I hope to do it with more regular blogging (and apparently with some exuberant mixing of metaphors, if this post is to set the trend).  My hope is that by putting aside a daily time and space for writing here, I’ll prime the pump for all my other projects.  We’ll see how it goes. 

And, in the meantime, how I’ve missed you! And oh the many things I wanted to blog about that have faded into the mists of time!  Cursed mists. They cling and expand, and if I don’t record a film, a book, a play in writing, swallow the experience whole.  Here’s to a little sunshine amidst the humid anxiety.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012
Waikiki, Hawai'i

Cell Phone Solipsism: On Selfishness and Spectatorship

Last night the woman sitting next to me at Pina Bausch's completely sold-out "The Window Washer" spent the first half hour of the show deleting old emails on her smart-phone before (blessedly, although only after several loud yawns and a number of quite stony stares from me) falling fast asleep for the remainder of the half.

I was at first relieved to find that she had disappeared after the interval, but unfortunately her friend one seat over (who kept calling her a "clever girl" and stroking her in a possessive manner before the show started) stayed. Before the second half had really gotten under way, he began checking his phone every five minutes, in apparent agony over the time the show was taking out of his life. Finally the man on his other side whispered harshly, "That's incredibly rude. Either turn it off or take it outside." Ten minutes later, exactly in the middle of one of the night's most solemn and tragic dances, I had to get out of my seat to make way for his early departure.

I've spent much of the last fifteen hours imagining what the level of the Inferno devoted to Cell Phone Solipsists must look like.

I'm thinking a Clockwork Orangesque hyperexposure to blaring/glaring non-stop technological spectacle, precluding sleep or any other sort of rest or solace, for the rest of time.

Of course there are theatrical contexts in which dividing your attention between the performer and other objects is appropriate. I myself always take notes in a small journal at the theatre: I find that what I lose in emotional absorption I more than make up for in retention and critical openness.  The distinction here is between distraction that changes your own experience of the work of art and that which actively changes everyone else's experience of the work.  Seriously, if you are blithely lighting up or leaving on your phone in any place defined by its communal darkness and quiet, or by the absorption of a group of people in attention to a single, easily disrupted task, then know that you are being a giant jackass. If you intentionally do this (as in the case of last night) after an explicit announcement telling everyone to turn their phones all the way off because the light disturbs neighboring spectators, I think you should be banned from experiencing artistic pleasure for the rest of your life.

Apparently I'm not much of a Futurist. Tant pis. I am, however, making great progress on being a desiccated curmudgeon.  And I
look forward to the day when some other desiccated curmudgeon (following me and Rousseau) derides a newer technology for disrupting our absorption in tweeting and texting. 

Tuesday, June 19, 2012
London, UK

The Uneasy Eye

We're in London, after a brief stop in Boston for D's monthly needle-in-the-eye.  Did I ever tell you why he's being subjected to this slowest of all medieval tortures? 

A few months ago, when he was flying back to work in Hawai'i from a brief sojourn home to Nova Scotia, he called me from an airport in the midst of the seventeen-hour journey and said, "The vision is funny in my right eye." 

"That doesn't sound good," I replied, "I think you should see a doctor as soon as you get to Honolulu."

Thirty-six hours later he was completely blind in that eye.

Lucy, Patron Saint of the Eye-Afflicted, painted by Domenico di Pace Beccafumi (1484–1551)*
The ophthalmologist could see immediately that there was some sort of a rupture or blockage near his optic nerve; this sort of condition often spontaneously improves on its own, so she told him he should go away and come back in a week.  In the intervening days, his vision didn't improve, and he thought that he could feel a distinct pressure behind that eye. Of course, he's highly suggestible, so we didn't know what to make of this particular symptom. When he came back a week later, the doctor was openly alarmed.  The pooling of blood behind his eye was dramatically worse; it threatened now to detach his retina.

So he's been having monthly shots, direct to his eyeball (eurgghh), of medicine that will reduce the inflammation of these blood vessels, restore normal circulation, and prevent new vessels from being formed that would obscure or bypass his optic nerve (thereby causing permanent damage to his sight).  These are shots that are much more readily available in the States than in Canada or Britain, so he's made a sort of pilgrimage to the closest eye clinics from sea to shining sea, as we strove to preserve the shape of our summer as best we could.

All in all, he's been a stoic about it; untroubled by the Bunuelian prospect of sharp objects entering his eye. (Several of our friends, experienced medical professionals all, winced to hear about this treatment, telling us that the eye was the last part of the body that still evoked squeamishness in them.  "Is it because it's a delicate sac of goo?" I asked.  "Yes," they replied.)  It's our hope that he's come to the end of this particular brand of torment, although the original optic nerve troubles still plague his sight in that eye, because the secondary problem of swelling has been largely taken care of by his needle-courage, which was worthy of a bit of medieval hagiography.

* Is anyone else unnerved by the way in which St. Lucy's breasts seem to mirror her four hostile, wary eyes in this painting?  I'm reminded of the famous round of ghost stories between Lord Byron, the Shelleys, and others that ultimately inspired Frankenstein.  Here's how a doctor who was a fellow guest describes that fateful day
Began my ghost story after tea. Twelve o'clock, really began to talk ghostly. L.B. repeated some verses of Coleridge's Christabel, of the witch's breast; when silence ensued, and Shelley, suddenly shrieking and putting his hands to his head, ran out of the room with a candle. Threw water in his face, and after gave him ether. He was looking at Mrs S., and suddenly thought of a women he had heard of who had eyes instead of nipples, which, taking hold of his mind, horrified him.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012
London, UK

And Circuses

In honor of D's arrival, I give you here (reported verbatim) a conversation I had with him a week or two ago:

Sycorax: "I've been thinking a lot about you lately."

D: "I've been working a lot lately."

Sycorax: "I see how it is: you've been spending all your time thinking about your true love, Poor Man's Process."

D: "Yeah.  I have to say, in the scheme of things I love, there's you at the top, slightly under bread, then all the way down to Poor Man's Process at the bottom, just under having a needle stuck in my eyeball."

[Pause, while I contemplate that he encounters all of those things with fair frequency, except, well, me.  Lucky man, to get to be with the things he loves.]

D: "You would have ranked higher, but I mean, seriously: it's bread."

The Ambush of Absence (and its Comforts)


One of the delightful things about Kristin Cashore's devastating new book, Bitterblue, is the opportunity to see what has become of the hero and heroine of her previous novel, Graceling.  It's not much of a spoiler, I think, to say that they have succeeded in battling out exactly the relationship they wanted - a relationship that strikes a teetering, struggling balance between a fierce need for freedom (and privacy) and their passionate desire to lose themselves in their love.  It's a relationship founded on frequent and lengthy absences - not just lengthy but longing absences - and sometimes on desperate needs to leave. And they've succeeded in the face of sustained bafflement from many of their family and friends, who cannot conceive of a happy ending that doesn't entail a marriage, children, and above all, sustained togetherness.  Katsa, the ferociously self-sufficient warrior, and her sensitive beloved, Po, call into question the perniciously entrenched idea that love is constant co-presence.  These two can only breathe because of the space that absence allows them.  Love - indeed, self-respect - would be impossible if they were, as historical fiction likes to put it, living in each others' pockets.

It's typical of Cashore's subtle exploration of our social conventions of love that she managed to convince me wholeheartedly of the health of Katsa and Po's relationship, while at the same time showing the sad exclusion that those who love them sometimes feel in the face of their passion.  They are so self-sufficient, independently and as a dyad, that the other members of their close-knit adoptive family - the young queen Bitterblue, Katsa's childhood friends, the man who once wanted to marry her - feel excessive and excluded.  I longed for Katsa and Po's reunions in Bitterblue, but with their companions I rolled my eyes in affectionate exasperation at the playful exuberance of their passion and winced at the searing tumult of their disagreements.  There are times when they desperately need to get a room, and yet if they were more private and self-contained then Bitterblue (whose point of view we follow) would lose the pleasure of witnessing their joy, and so would we.  And yet, for all their amorous absorption, they are not bad friends: they are instinctively loyal, and vast in their love for their small circle.  When push comes to shove, as we saw even in Graceling, they will each place the best interest of a friend above that of their beloved. Each feels confident that the other can handle adversity independently; it's a love founded on respect and confidence, rather than a desire to protect.  Or, rather, it's a love that struggles to put aside the desire to protect as a sign of that more vital element of their relationship: respect.

Bitterblue takes her exasperation with Katsa and Po's tumultuous suffering - suffering she has no small part in creating, since it is often her need for help that sends them apart - to their friends Giddon and Bann.  Giddon - whom I think of as the stealth hero of this novel, or perhaps a hero-in-waiting - was once in love with Katsa himself, but is now much closer to Po.  Bann... has an altogether subtler relationship to the public and private faces of love.  Suffice it to say that I hope to get a much closer look at Bann and his romance in future books.

"Is it always like that? [...] I mean," said Bitterblue, "is it possible to have a -" She wasn't sure what to call it. "Is it possible to share someone's bed without tears, battles, and constant crises?"
"Yes," said Bann.
"Not if you're Katsa and Po," said Giddon at the same time.
"Oh, stop it," Bann protested.  "They go long stretches of time without tears, battles, or crises."
"But you know they love a good blowup," said Giddon.
"You make it sound as if they do it on purpose.  They always have good reason.  Their lives are not simple and they spend too much time apart."
"Because they choose to," Giddon said, rising from the table, going to bank up the dying fire.  "They don't need to spend so much time apart.  They do it because it suits them."
[...] [S]he saw clearly enough that Katsa and Po had something sustaining, deep, and fierce.  It was a thing that she envied sometimes. [...] "It's just that while I'm sure that I would like the making up, I don't think I have the heart for constant fighting," she said, "I think I might prefer something - more peaceful in execution."
Giddon cracked a grin.  "They do give the impression that no one else has nearly as much fun making up."
"But people do, you know," said Bann, perhaps a bit slyly. "I wouldn't worry about them, Lady Queen, and I wouldn't worry about what it means.  Every configuration of people is an entirely new universe unto itself." (374-5)


I've been thinking a lot about togetherness lately, since watching my grandparents' last moments together in the hospital room.  They were married sixty-nine years ago this August, and hadn't been apart for any significant period of time since the end of the second World War.  They'd spent virtually every moment of the day together since my grandfather retired at the age of 51.  He was 92 when he died last month.

He didn't suffer in that last week in the hospital, when some extraordinary things happened that I may feel strong enough to write about later.  At the end he wasn't in pain, he wasn't frightened, and he clung to my grandmother's arm with both hands while smiling and laughing at the things we said to him.  I miss him - with a terrible, deep hollowness - but I can't feel pain about the way he went.  I hurt instead for what my grandmother suffers now.  When he slipped into a coma she was frightened that he'd be alone.  She sat with him whenever she could, stroking his cool hand and speaking, in a low voice, a slow assortment of things she felt she should say and things she felt she must say (the distinction is crucial, but the overlap is great).  "Dear one," she would say to him, "we're here with you.  Three generations of your ladies.  Lucky man."  In the face of his looming absence, it was his loneliness she worried about - his solitude a cipher for her own.

On the night my grandfather died, after we had gotten the call from our family doctor at about three in the morning, and been to the hospital and back, I slept in my black clothes on the chaise longue in their living room so she wouldn't wake up by herself in the apartment.  "Wake me if you need anything - anything at all," I told my grandmother as I helped her into her bed, "Wake me if you need to talk.  You'll find me laid out on the chaise, your very own odalisque." "Madame Récamier," she corrected on an exhausted sigh, never one to be caught outside an allusion even at the worst of moments.  In the morning we made breakfast together, as we had done in the decades of summers I spent with them in London.  We talked, we shared jam, we both tried to laugh.

But this was the first breakfast we'd ever had together without Grant.

There's no one whose relationship I admire more.  (When I told this to my mother in my late teens, she passed the compliment along to my grandmother, who was strangely taken aback.  It had never occurred to her that their marriage was something to be admired.  In fact, she once told me, when they had only been married for a little over a half century, that she wasn't sure that she believed in the institution for people today.  Marriage ruins a lot of perfectly good relationships, she told me, straight-faced and serious.)  In three decades of knowing them, I saw them fight frequently (sometimes spectacularly, for people who didn't believe in raising their voices, and thus never did), I heard them tell each other innumerable jokes, and I watched as they rationally discussed every decision as equals.  It wasn't a flawless partnership - there's no such thing - but, looking in from the outside, like Katsa and Po's friends, I wouldn't wish for anything different for them.

Still, as I watched her suffer in the terrible novelty of solitude I thought, "Please, please, let me never be afraid of being alone."

"I keep wanting to talk to Grant about everything that is happening," my grandmother said over and over in those weeks.  "I don't know when I'll stop thinking that."

Perhaps never, I thought to myself.  Perhaps in time.

What can you do about that?  Loneliness is terrifying, and to be separated forever from a person you love is an ache past bearing.  There's no getting around grief.

But I also began to think of how separation is figured culturally as the antithesis of love, and solitude as the enemy of happiness. Their love didn't just stop with his sudden and wrenching absence, any more than the conversation in her mind did.  I often find myself reading novels, particularly novels that lay out the idea that love is fundamentally a species of togetherness, and thinking, "It must be agony to live alone, vulnerable and bored, and to be parted from the person you love indefinitely."  So keenly is the suffering of separation depicted that it often takes me quite a long time to realize that I am reading the novel while cozily ensconced in my library, at the heart of my otherwise empty house.  Sometimes I even take the next step and realize that it has been some months since I last saw D.


And yet: I'm happy.  Maybe happier than I've ever been before.  When D and I first embarked on this long-distance love, a decade ago, I hated it.  I was bored without him.  I needed constant reassurance, both of his love and about the validity of the decisions I was making on my own.  I couldn't understand why we were apart.  It was, I think I can safely say, fucking miserable. But as the years went by, I became more comfortable.  I learned a confidence - in both myself and him - that I doubt I would have come to without the distance.  The more often people told me that it must be SO HARD for us to be apart, and we must find a way to fix this problem immediately, the more I found a ferocious feminism, a proud individualism, in my happiness. There is nothing that we MUST do, I thought as I looked these people in the eye.  Stop using sympathy as a blind for control, I even grumbled on my less generous days.

Most of all, I learned the richness of the pleasures of solitude.  Alone, I am self-determining.  I notice more about the world around me.   I cultivate my own friendships, and he his.  I never have the chance to lose myself in him, or he in me.  And gradually the romance of self-obliteration faded for me.  Love wasn't about mutual absorption and constant co-presence.  A lot, I told friends, has to be sacrificed at the altar of togetherness. Instead I began to think of love as anticipation.

D arrives tomorrow from the long season in Hawaii.  I've talked to my grandmother every day this week - she's in the hospital, having fallen while arranging some condolence flowers (adding injury to the insult of grief).  She would ask me about my progress through Mt. Grademore, which has been slow as I sort through the mourning process and the unexpected travel.

"I have a hard deadline of Friday," I told her a few days ago, "I can't think of anything else until then."
"And when is D coming?" she asked.
"Oh, well, then that's your real deadline.  Work towards that. If you finish your marking on Friday, then you have two days to relax, and tidy, and groom yourself before D arrives."
"Groom myself?"

Grooming aside (or perhaps included), this was advice about hedonism rather than about slavish devotion.  My grandmother understands very well the pleasures of togetherness, and also its tedium.  She's always been, no less so now in the face of a permanent loss, a great believer in day-seizing, and an advocate of reveling in small pleasures wherever you can find them.

I can't argue with the pleasures of presence; I feel them as strongly as anyone else.  But there's something glorious about absence, something whose loss I would feel if D and I were always together.  There's the pride and pleasure of solitude and self-sufficiency, and there's also the thrill of the about-to-be and the remembered.  The subjunctive mode of the relationship, which gets lost a bit in the indicative realities of day-to-day companionship.  I love D; adore him, even.  Every time I made him laugh in the last week, I felt like my heart stopped. I'd take his companionship above anyone else's, without a second's pause.  But there's enjoyment in the longing, and there's strength in defying it.

Sometimes an end of absence - or its anticipation - is like being given a gift.  A gift of the thing you had most forgotten.  Of something which, if needed, wouldn't be half so desired

But there can be no end to absence without the absence itself.


A few days after my grandfather died, I went to a concert at the Kennedy Center with my grandmother. It was a series that she had bought because my grandfather enjoyed it so much.  I took his ticket and sat in his seat; I stood in for him in this one last pleasure, this final duty. Now, she said, she didn't know whether to renew for another season: "I can't decide whether it is a good idea to get just one ticket," she said to me, looking fretfully down at her hands on the programme.  The world now is a constant series of surprising solitudes: the one ticket to the symphony, the one English muffin in the toaster oven in the morning, the one name on all their letters from friends.  To be a widow is, in more senses than one, to be constantly ambushed by unity.

"I don't know, Nonna," I said to her, as she worried, "It depends on whether you'd enjoy the concerts.  But perhaps I'm not the right one to ask, because, you know, I do everything alone."

I stopped, wondering how this would be received.  After a moment, she gave me a soft, sad smile. 

Saturday 5 May 2012
Farfara, Nova Scotia