Tuesday, June 30, 2009


This is largely an update post. My grandmother's funeral has been set for this Saturday, so I leave on Friday and come back on Monday. Another whirlwind trip home. And I just finished the first of the two presentations this week. It was the third of the day, so everyone was a little a burned out when it came to questions. The professor talked a fair bit, but I'm still hard pressed as to say whether it was the good kind (he was really into my topic) or the bad kind (he was trying to cover all the stuff he thought I should have said). I've got more to say about both subjects, but I'm cutting it off here; otherwise, I'd just be procrastinating on presentation 2's work.

Later Days.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

My grandmother died this morning. It was something we were all expecting. She had a stroke during my grandfather's funeral, and she really wasn't the same since. Combined with the mobility problems she had beforehand, her quality of life hasn't been very good in quite some time. I feel guilty I haven't spent more time with her over the last few years--especially when I was still living back home. But it was really difficult to accept the difference between the woman there and the woman I knew. Other family members stayed closer--my uncle, my mother, and my cousin, especially--and for this, they deserve all the credit in the world.
I saw her, briefly, during my last trip back home, and I'll admit it was in part because of my mother's insistence. Now, of course, I'm really glad she pushed me to do it. I didn't really get a chance to say goodbye, but she knew who I was and was happy I was there, so I'm glad I could do that much. Shortly after that, my mother sent word grandma had stopped eating on her own, and I think we all felt it wouldn't be long after that.
My grandfather had passed away in a similar fashion: a long, drawn out deterioration, so that the end wasn't sudden, but seemed almost like a natural progression. The big difference, and what's really eating me right now is that we knew right beforehand, and the family was more or less together. This time... we knew it was coming, but not how close it was. My brother was off on a biking trip, my parents are in Vancouver at a wedding, and I'm... well, I'm here. Even my uncle who was on call didn't make it in time. My grandmother died alone. I don't entirely mean that; there was a compassionate care staff on hand, and our thoughts and prayers were with her. But I wish some of the family had been there. I wish I had been there. And I wish I was there now. But I'm out east now, and I've still got these two presentations to write, and classes to attend, and none of that is going to stop and wait for me to catch up.

Later, maybe, I'll do a post about how my grandmother meant to me, and how much she means to me. But for now... I've got work to do.

"About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well, they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on."

"Life's what happens when you're busy doing other things."

Later Days.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Sask Trip Day 6: The Best Thing Ever

To bring the story back up to speed, I'm in Saskatchewan, it's June 6th, and my mother's retirement party has just ended. My brothers and I then proceed to drive back up to Someplace Else. We take two vehicles, and I wind up in the family van with the middle brother. (Known now and forever more as MB.)

We're about 20 minutes from Someplace Else when we see a vehicle by the side of the road, with its driver standing beside it, arms waving. We stop, and a brief conversation takes place. His car has been damaged from hitting... something... and we agree to give him a ride back into town.

The subsequent drive was one of the most amusing things I've ever experienced in a moving vehicle.

In essence, we had a long talk with the guy. Well, I say talk, but 'monologue' would be a better description. If someone is giving you a free ride, I think offering something of similar value is appropriate; in this case, we got a life story. (He overpaid, frankly. If there had been more time, we would have had to give him two anecdotes and a reminiscence for change.) He started out simple. He was in town for a band council meeting, and was heading back after visiting some friends. That much we got out of him between his attempts to phone his family. ("Hey S----! I just got in an accident, and the airbag caved my head in, but I'm fine. I SAID I JUST GOT IN AN ACCIDENT AND THE AIRBAG---" Imagine this three or four times.)

Next, he confided that he had two sons who would have been about our age--if they hadn't both died at young ages from horrible accidents, which he proceeded to describe. Which segued nicely into describing his daughters (one just finished a degree, the other's in law enforcement) and we slowly steered the conversational boat into less rocky waters. Then a tempest came out of nowhere, as he switched to the other family tragedy: his brother had been the victim of a hit and run, that, he told us, was probably not an accident at all but arranged to look like an accident by a man who had it in for him. Try bringing that up in conversation with people you've known for less time than it takes to watch an episode of the Simpsons. See how that goes.

The final bit came as we drove through the city to his room at the Ramada. You may have been questioning our choice at picking up a hitchhiker to begin with. Don't worry, so did our hitchhiker. Here's how the conversation went, as close as I can remember it:
"You gotta be careful who you pick up these days. Never know who you're going to get. One time, I was driving with my wife and my daughters, and they were just little things then, and we saw a hitchhiker, and my wife didn't want to stop, but I thought, well, he could use some help, and we stopped. And we drove him to Banff, it was just a few miles, and I told my wife that she had nothing to worry about. But that night, hey, we were watching tv, and he was on the FBI Most Wanted!
"It just goes to show you, you never know who you pick up. He could be dangerous, or have a gun."
"You don't worry about me, though--I don't have a gun."
(Thoughtful pause.)
"'Cept the one I keep in my pants, for the ladies. (short pause) And that one don't work so well no more."
(dead silence)
Around that time, we reached the hotel. I think he sensed he may have touched a conversational line, so he apologized a few times, thanked us, and disappeared out of our lives forever.

But not our hearts. Or my conversation, for weeks after.

I read a lot, and I aspire towards writing. But there are very few works or writers I know that could get away with a character like that. And God bless 'im for it.

Next installment: At long last, Day 3. Also: drinking in the afternoon.

Later Days


Before we begin today's installment of a trip that happened almost a month ago, a quick update. Due to scheduling errors, I have two, yes two, presentations due next week. One's on Tuesday, and one's on Thursday. The Thursday presentation is on George Packer's Village of Waiting. My approach on it isn't exactly unique--it's got waiting in the title, and I want to look at how Packer fails to engage with time. I'll be borrowing from Foucault's account of repetition and discipline, and McClintock's discussion of panoptic time, which means it may just be my most theoretically inclined paper ever. I've got a good feeling about that.

Less good is my feeling for the other class. I'm presenting on "Private Occasion in a Public Place" by David Antin, and I'm having a hard time coming up with an approach. Antin's gig is that he gives "talking poems," which means he comes to a conference, talks for 20 minutes off the topwith a tape recorder, and calls it a poem. He then transcribes what he says, taking out all the punctuation and capitals and adding some random spacing. And this is also a poem. Unfortunately, the biggest question I can come up with regarding him is "Is this a poem?" which is a pretty old hat question. But it's the important one, in his case, so... so we'll see what happens, I guess.

Later Days.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Sask Trip 5: Mushy Parental Edition

There's been a bad turn in the family recently, and I'm kind of hoping this post will be a bit of a morale booster. I'm also hoping it will go a bit of the distance towards a proper Father's Day gift, since the two minute phone call I made yesterday arguably falls a bit short.

For those still following at home, I'm nearing the end of day two of my Sask Trip. At this point, the shopping expedition is over, and my brothers and I are on a brief road trip, to attend my mother's Retirement Banquet. She is/was/always already (Althusser joke!) retiring after decades of teaching this year, and she and the other retirees in her school division were being honored by the division at a banquet. I'd changed my original departure date and skipped a class so that I could be there, and--to skip to the ending--I was really glad I was there.

It was, not that I have a lot of experience, a fairly typical event. The food was good, albeit slightly ridiculous (dessert was a cup of whip cream, with graham cracker crumbs--what is that? Did Jello prove too difficult?). The cash bar was well-stocked. The speeches were more or less what you'd expect from such an event--some really heart-felt reflections on teaching, a few good jokes, and a lot of jokes whose goodness depended heavily on how much you'd invested in the aforementioned cash bar.

I wasn't there for the event. I was there to spend some time with my parents--given that there was an NDP convention that weekend, our paths weren't going to cross too often. I was also there to give some support to my parents, something that isn't easy to do with a few hundred kilometers normally in the way. So basically, my role that evening was to look appreciative while ignoring the complaints of a brother who didn't like being out past 9 pm on a work day. (Seriously. That was his complaint. Now repeat 10 times a half-hour for about three hours.) But even though I was removed from most of it (except for the thank-you speech given on behalf of the retirees by my mother, which was well said, even if it was short on 18th century literary quotations), I couldn't help feel that there was something missing from the affair. Something that was not only a part of a teacher mass retirement, but a necessary condition. It was about half way through the proceedings when I figured it out.

What's missing was the students.

To me, growing up in a family with two teachers as parents, I know that students aren't the only part of the job. There's marking, dealing with parents, being forced into the bureaucracy, lesson plans, textbook budgets, and other thoroughly unpleasant activities. But the students that are the important part. That the auditorium wasn't filled to the roster with children giving testimonies these people made in their lives--that felt wrong to me. Now, I know that that wasn't the purpose of the banquet, and I know that, in my mother's case at least, the public student acknowledgement was coming later. But it was at that point that I really realized that I was glad to be there--not only glad, but lucky. Because for my mother, at least, the students weren't missing. There were three of them sitting right at that table, come especially for her.

Let me be explicit here: as a life spent in academia, I've had a lot of teachers. I've had elementary school teachers, guidance counselors, high school teachers, tutors, TAs, professors, and every possible variation you can imagine. But my first and most important teachers are my parents. While others have taught me how to do this subject or that, they've taught me how to be a person and everything you can say to me to my credit should properly be creditted to them.

All right, let's bring this Hallmark moment to a close.

Happy Father's Day, Dad.

Congratulations on the retirement, Mom.

And whatever happens in the next few days, your family member out east is thinking about you, and is proud to be your son.

Later Days.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Short Four: Key Events

So when I got home after a fairly lengthy day, I realised I had left my keys in my suit pocket. And my suit in office. The key to which would be... yeah. As long readers are well aware, there have been problems with keys. This time, though, it's not a problem. Previously, I've stated my intention to operate under a level of greater self-confidence and self-worth, which is fine and good, but really needs to be accompanied by actually, you know, being better. To change past behaviour. After the last time I locked myself out, I started wearing my house key around my necklace. Boom, no problem there. I keep my spare bike key in my book bag-- no problem there. And after the memory card thing, I keep multiple back-ups of EVERYTHING. So no computer data lost for the weekend. The only thing I can't get to is the office, and I can fix that on Monday. So while I can only go so far in controlling my absent-mindedness, I can control its consequences. Which is cool.
...And that's it for today.
As you were.

Later Days.

Short Three: Kong, Bitches.

After the ball game, there was no time to rest on the laurels, because there was a party to get to. And what a party! Honestly, the hostess in question does the best spread anywhere I've ever seen outside a professional catering service, and is a step above many of them. And I got to drink out of a jar, a fact which felt very special to me for reasons I can't entirely explain. And the host taught us all to play mahjong, and, I gotta say, I'm hooked. For most of us, we didn't really a good grasp of the rules until the end of the game, so you gotta play again some time after that.
In my case, I had a minor advantage in that I--entirely unknowingly--had played mahjong before. Apparently, that was the mini-game included with the video game, Suikoden IV. Only they didn't call it mahjong. Or use the same number of tiles. Or the same name of tiles. And they changed some of the rules. So, yeah, not a great advantage. But there's still something interesting about learning a new game, something that's different from other forms of learning. Makes you think that maybe those ludologists are on to something.

And on a totally mushy note, a day like this makes me realise how lucky I am to have made the friends I have since coming here.

Fun mahjong fact: (source: wikipedia) If all four West tiles are discarded in a row, Chinese legend has it that all players will die shortly after. Which would have put a damper on the party.

Later Days.

Short Two: And an Era Ended

Remember how I never won a co-rec league never, ever, ever? Remember this? Well, today, we had three ball games. The first scheduled game we were, well, throttled. I think we lost 15-1. Then, because we had an hour to kill, we played a non-league game with the other team. Again, throttled. The third game... a win. Finally, a win. And we were finally against a team that was roughly our skill level. And I can proudly say I pulled my weight. I went from outfielder and catcher to second baseman, which plays to my strength. My strength being that I can't throw a damn ball more than 10 feet. Oh, wait, that's the other thing. Weakness. But by being infield, I can actually contribute something meaningful--I made two outs. Yeah. Take that, past 26 years of physical inferiority! Anyway, the main reason we won is our allstar player I alluded to earlier, but I think all of us made a contribution. (I know we did; one less player, and we would have forfeited.)

So, the streak is broken, the curse is lifted. Bring on the women, dancing, and wine. (That's how victory works, right?)

Later Days.

4 shorts. Well, shorter.

I'm taking a bit of a break from the Sask Trip Chronicles; today was so action-packed it needs to be discussed in the here and now (Here's a taste though: Next up is the Retirement Dinner, then it's the Hitchhiker story). I'm going to try four different posts than the usual super long one; if my oft-silent audience prefers one type over the other, let me know.

First: U of Blank had its English Colloquium over the past two days, and today was my day to present. I play the old hand at this, but to be honest, it's only my third real conference. My particular presentation was on the good ol' Chevalier d'Eon, who, as a blog search will tell you, has shown up once or twice before. (Some day, I'll have to do a full post on the fellow/femme.) I know this sounds arrogant, but I've never had any doubts about my presentation abilities, so I was expecting it to go well. And it did. The paper wasn't greatly attended, but those who were there seemed to enjoy it--and it passed muster with the eighteenth-century professors in the room, which I guess is the real test. An extra line on the cv is always nice, but what I really appreciated about the colloquium was the chance to hear what other graduate students (and professors) are working on. It's a reality of our profession that we often need to keep such work close to the chest, both for modesty and career purposes, so it's really great to hear people I respect get a
chance to show off their stuff.

Plus I got to trot out the suit. Gotta love the suit.

Later Days.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Buying the Book: Sask Trip Part IV

We're still in the midst of the "shopping" story portion of the Sask trip home. According to de Certeau, shopping is one of the every day activities through which consumers express their independent paths through state spaces. Of course, it also demonstrates that we're all stuck in state spaces. For today's act of shopping, I went to buy a ball glove. Long, long story short, and 16km later, I've got a ball glove. Despite everything I've said about my baseballian aptitude, I still maintain it's an investment in the future. I'll probably play again at some point, right?

The reason I bring this up now (besides the fact that it happened about three hours ago) is that, in a sense, part of the value people associate with things is how difficult they were to come by--although it's not a straightforward relationship. If it takes you a few seconds find a prized item you've been searching for, all fine and good, but a truly epic hunting makes a much better story. And if the trip to the local grocery store to buy milk takes several hours because you forgot to wear socks, you may get a good story out of it, but you're not going to feel too happy about that milk afterwards. This glove took the better half of a day and a very long bike trip, so it was slightly more difficult than I expected. Will that translate into a greater appreciation of it? Well, no; in the case of something like a ball glove, the difficulty of procurement in terms of calculating overall value is overshadowed by utility: if it works well in the ball game on Friday, that's much more important than any other measure I can think of.

Still with me? Good. The third part of my shopping trip on Thursday, June 5th, was to buy a book for my middle brother as a belated birthday present. How does gift giving fit into the discussion above? Well, the story of how you got the gift is largely unimportant; if you tell it, you run the risk of making it more about yourself than about the person you're giving it to, which slants the gift-giving towards personal indulgence over actual giving. (And yes, I realise that that's exactly what I'm doing now.) A wise man once noted the other peril in giving a book:"buying a book as a gift can become an overthinker's nightmare--you have to consider not only what the intended receiver means to you, but what you mean to them, what the book means to you, and what the book will potentially mean to them." Well, I said that. Right here. Still true though. So, as far as shopping for gifts go, you're in a double-bind. On the one hand, you want to limit the amount of time spent getting the gift as much as possible. But on the other hand, you want something that is meaningful and expressive. My brother asked specifically for a book because he wanted something to read during his big cross-country trip at the end of the month, and, supposedly, I know books.

My first choice was George Packer's "Village of Waiting." It came up in my postcolonial class; essentially, it's Packer's account of his time in Togo in the 80s, working as an English teacher for an African school. I thought (and still think) my brother would like it; it's thought-provoking, humorous, and just contentious enough that you can have fun picking apart Packer's arguments. But I couldn't give him my copy, since I needed it for the class, and assumed I could easily find a copy in Someplace Else.

I assumed wrong.

My other brother and I searched two separate bookstores, and came up blank. So we searched for a new book. I wanted something nonfiction and with a political edge. Of course, since I don't read a lot of that type, it was hard sluffing. We finally found a book (or at least my little brother did) called... I honestly don't remember. I remember it was hardcover, which I approved of, since it made it closer to the amount I spent on the younger brother's last birthday present, and that it was signed, which the middle brother would approve of, since it meant the book had value beyond being, you know, a book. So, with absolutely no ceremony, I handed him the book. He thanked me, but not without a wince that he quickly covered up. It was at that point that it hit me. Someone going on a long cross-country trip was looking for one primary factor in a book: that it didn't take up a lot of space. So the hardcover? Bad choice.

Moral: Gift-giving is best left to professionals.

This turned out to be much longer than I thought. There's probably a metaphor to be drawn between the post and the discussion regarding ease in shopping, but I'll let you decide whether it's worth the effort to retrieve it.

Later Days.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

A Short Bit

*In response to the deluge of comments (all three; well, mostly the last two) in the ongoing capris saga*:
Let's keep it friendly, guys. The important thing to remember is that, not for the first time, I was laughed at for dressing like a girl. Isn't that the sort of thing that should bring people together?
And as for the totally unwarranted short comment, I am so shocked you would go there that I'm speechless. Ed from Full Metal Alchemist, is there anything you'd like to say?

Thanks, Ed.

Ally McBeal? Anything you'd like to add? Perhaps in the form of a catchy song?

Keep keepin' it classy, McBeal.

Later Days.

I truly believe Beavis and Butthead ruined the phrase "corning" forever: Sask Trip Part 3

Ughhhhhhh. I'm very glad I got a little ahead for my classes while on the trip, because it seems I'm going to spend the lion's share of this weekend indoors fighting off a monstrous cold that I believe I picked up from certain family members during my trip back. I take small condolence in knowing that I spent most of my infectious days at a university and in airports, so at least I've spread it as far as possible.

Anyway, after the clothes shopping was done, the next phase was finding the right wedding gift. I was, frankly, dreading this part. Searching the store from top to bottom, interacting with salespeople, trying to figure out how to wrap the inevitable abnormal shape, using the user-less-than-friendly registry--all activities that are less than fun.

It was also only the second time I've ever used a registry. This particular couple had registered with Sears, which made it a bit easier than the first time, in which the registry was split between a Home Hardware and Home Depot. (And until I typed those out just now, I honestly never thought of the connection between them.) I understand the concept of the registry. It prevents people from struggling with what to buy, saves relatives who may not actually know the couple very well from... uh, getting to know the couple very well, and saves the bride and groom from receiving 50 million or so toasters. But it still feels... impersonal. I suppose there's nothing preventing me from getting them something else, or something else in addition to the registry gift. In fact, that's exactly what I did for the last couple: in addition to some fairly cheap saw or something, I included a copy of "My Best Friend's Wedding," just because:
a) I thought the bride would like it.
b) It's the best wedding movie.
c) It's the best movie period. (No, it is. Don't argue with me on this.)

But I didn't do that this time around, largely because once you count the plane ticket, my presence was all ready enough of an expensive gift. (Don't get me wrong, I wanted to go and I'm glad I went. But man, I've NEVER spent that much money on anything that didn't provide me shelter or an education.) So my brother and I searched for a 5-piece corning ware set instead. And it went very, very easy. We found kitchenware, a salesperson came up to us and identified the right set, the box was simple to wrap, and she took care of updating the registry. Admittedly, my parents took care of providing the card and wrapping paper, (thanks for that) but all in all, it was two consecutive painless shopping events.

Imagine that.

Next time: buying the book.

Later Days.

Friday, June 12, 2009

I Prefer to Call Them "Damn, These Look Good on Me": Sask Trip Part

Part of the early problem with the blog was that it was taking too much time to decided on a topic. So, I'm pretty much going to milk the trip home for all it's worth. ALL it's worth. Enjoy.

The first notable activity on my first day back in Someplace Else (if you're ever picking oft-repeated pseudonyms, btw, be sure to pick something shorter) was a shopping expedition. I needed a much delayed birthday present for my middle brother (born in February, so, yeah, late), a gift for the wedding (the purpose of the trip), and some new clothes. My little brother was acting as chauffeur and fashion consultant, since the family decided years ago that I cannot be trusted with anything resembling a fashion sense. I, on the other hand, maintain that black socks and shorts are a perfectly legitimate wardrobe choice.

Anyway, I picked up a pair of shorts, two pairs of pants, two t-shirts, a button-up shirt, and... well, therein lies the problem. They're a pair of shorts. Sort of. They're shorts that go past the knees, to about half way past the ankles--but stop well before they reach the ankles. And they tie off at the ends.

Yes, all right, they're capris.

And judging by the mocking I received in grad class on Wednesday, (mid 20s males can be so cruel), given that they were my brother's idea, I'm not the only member of my family with questionable fashion judgment.

Being English students, of course, the mocking consisted of what the proper label for such apparel was. Manpris? Clam diggers? Man-diggers? Hepris?

And, though I am clearly on the defensive, and can no longer speak objectionably, I still want to say: Really? Is that where we're at? I am, arguably, in one of the most liberal, open-minded places in the country (or at least as close as you can get to it inside an institutional setting), and we're still hung up on gender designations and clothing? I'm dwelling way more on this than anyone in the room did; a few comments, and no one cares. But still.


Okay, that takes us 1/3 of the way through the shopping trip, and 1 and one-twelfth seventh through the entire trip. Stay tuned tomorrow, when the subject shifts to the exciting topic of corning ware.

Later Days.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Back: Sask Trip Part 1

I don't want to be overdramatic about this, but I talked to a few of my readers (the majority of which skew to an older demographic than I anticipated; thanks for telling all your friends, parents), and they were encouraging, and I think the blog itself has been a mostly positive presence for me, so here we are.

I'm going to keep it simple for a little while. A lot happened on my trip out west, and I'm going to rehash it, at great length.

My plane left on Wednesday, June 3rd, right after my art and persuasion course was over. Right right after; I actually asked two of the presenters if they would talk really quickly to hurry things along. (In my defense, I mostly didn't mean it.) There were three significant aspects to the plane ride:

1. The book. The Blank airport has a lovely feature: a book lending cart, asking anyone who's willing to drop off a book, or make a small donation and take one. Mostly, the books were all of the bodice-ripping Harlequin romance types, but I managed to snag a copy of Nathaniel West's "The Dream Life of Balso Snell." I read this book in the second year of my undergraduate, and remember absolutely nothing about it, except that it was a very trippy read. So far, I've read the first four pages, in which Snell enters a Trojan Horse through its anus (it's very explicit on this point) and immediately meets a tour guide. So I'm glad my memory of it holds up.

2. The companions. My flight was leaving with a group of sixteen ten year olds who were part of a series of exchange visits between Blank and Somewhere Else--and only those two locations. Frankly, this is a long way from the jackpot of field trips. So I spent my entire 5 hour flight--and 3 hour layover--in the company of very excited and excitable 10 year olds. That was fun.

3. The layover. Since Blank is a little ways away from a delta hub, it has one flight out west per day, and that goes to Calgary. And from Calgary, I transfer to Someplace Else. Now, that means I've spent a lot of time in the Calgary airport. The one good thing about the Calgary airport is that it's the only airport in this country in which you are guaranteed to find SOMEONE in a cowboy hat. And that is worth a lot.

My plane arrived at 11:00 pm or so. And the rest will wait for another time.

Later Days.