Monday, October 29, 2012

A little self praise.....


With a cup of coffee to my left, Monday morning beckons, the day after I worked the annual "Open House" event at my university.  I was surprisingly upbeat when I dragged myself to the office yesterday. I lapsed only briefly, snapping at a co-worker for giving me a series of tasks to do without saying "Good Morning" first.  I must admit, it was pretty repugnant of me to lower myself to concerns over formal propriety. She was actually quite stressed, as volunteers who promised to help her set up the information tables didn't show.  Perhaps there were too many Halloween parties and their after effects to absorb.  Imagining careful disguises, these invisible volunteers were able to perform- in the purest sense of Comedia dell'Arte- a one act play of seduction that ignored their deficiencies of personality and appearance, bedding an object of affection in a rapture of rambling  drunken confessions, sloppy coitus, and later, regret. Sleeping past the moment when they could realistically perform perfunctory acts of personal hygiene and stagger onto Campus, they chose instead not to diminish the glow of the preceding evening in their wretched state.  Regardless of the reason, they failed to show and my co-worker was left to do most of the work herself.  For my theatrical part, I was prepared to take the stage to inform inquisitive parents and their children about the programs we offer.   Ever the serious actor, such  lowly requests were too much for my ego to bear, hence the reproachment.  How precious of me.   I also informed a tour guide with a full audience that giving a seminar to Psychology students ( one she attended) should never include jokes at the beginning, middle, or end of the presentation.  Another cheap shot, again unwarranted. Maybe I was resentful at having to skip a day of rest.

I love watching the dynamics between generations - when two parents are present I am curious about how their mix of genes created the child that stands before me, not quite ready for adulthood, but  ready to leave their juvenile adolescence and the insipid politics of high school behind them.  One frequently notices the oddest of contradictions - the face of the mother and the personality of the father - a dangerous mix as it can yield irrational expectations.   I met future students who will not survive the Residence experience and will be targeted as aloof or weird by their fellow students.  I also met those who will glide into their new academic environment as if a room had been reserved for them at birth, a consolation prize for slicing the umbilical cord.   We had many student volunteers who did show - I remember many of them when they first began their studies.  They too were a wide eyed with expectations, some of which were met, may of which were not.  Victims of broken relationships, poor program choices, social awkwardness, and administrative red tape, they will leave this school shortly, older and more cynical.  I wonder how we failed them - I promise a lot at these orientation events - the classic carnival barker and huckster salesman ready to sell you a good Banlon shirt from the trunk of my finned Chevy.  I always tell students not to give their parents more news than they can handle - I do the same thing when trying not to damper the enthusiasm they have about attending university, especially ours.  Still, there is little regret.  Life is not simple and even amidst the burled wood, oil paintings,  and polished brass work of the venue for this event. There is still some tarnish that you might as well learn to overlook.

Monday, October 22, 2012

On reading.....

About 16 years ago, on his 80th birthday, I walked across town to deliver my father's final birthday present. He died a few weeks later, and our parting was not an amicable one.  I think of him still, sometimes with a tinge of nostalgia, sometimes with resentment  or a bit of both.  When tilting to the nostalgic side, I think of his quotes.  Some may not have been his, but he made a convincing they were..  One in particular was a reply to my mother who chided him for not having many friends.  My dad looked at her dryly and said "Why listen to the words of fools when I can read the words of kings?"  Adjusting for gender, that statement stayed with me.  He was an avid reader, as our mountain of books- where most men would place bowling trophies and underwear- would attest.  In the end, it may have played a part in his demise.  When my parents bought a condominium in 1994, the reduction in space from their old, dilapidated, but roomy apartment required him to get rid of most of his collection.  True, there were guides to accounting practices from 1954 and triple copies of "On the Road" and "Our Lady of the Flowers", but a lot of great works of fiction, cultural theory, history, art history, theatre, and political science had to go.  It broke him.  He became depressed, clinically so, and it took months of treatment for him to accept his new house and the aesthetics of surroundings based more on the scenery of Mount Royal and varnished wood than a sea of paper and stale glue.  I say aesthetics honestly - he certainly didn't have time to catalogue the mess, and spent most of his final years reading newspapers and magazines.  Had he lived longer, he would have been a geriatric convert to the Internet, no doubt.

His love of books hurt him in another way - he became quite the hermit and misanthrope, rarely seeking the company of anyone other than my mother and occasionally me.  I think he would have benefited from a few more actual friends.  Still, I can see why he caught the isolation bug.  I just finished one outstanding novel, "Carnival" by local writer, Rawi Hage, and have quickly been absorbed in another, "The Marriage Plot", by Jeffrey Eugenides.  Despite it's mixed reviews, I find it truly entertaining.  I guess it has a lot to do with having been a college student in the early 80's- the music, dress, political issues, and eternal love triangles of the emerging story bring me back to a more innocent time of youthful folly, and the dilemma of students facing life after their undergrad degree is something I face daily.  It also makes the people around me, strangers mostly, more annoying.  I love my immediately family, my students,  and am sympathetic to the shared flaws of my family of co-workers.  Everyone else astounds me with their selfishness, general rudeness, self-importance and ignorance.  A waitress undercharged me by ten dollars yesterday and was astonished when I didn't pocket the money.  I'm in debt like many others but know she has to be in worse straits if she is waitressing at a tacky restaurant on a miserable, industrial boulevard. For others -content in ripping her off- I guess it's a way of clawing back from a society that taxes us to death and preys on our low self-esteem to sell us things we don't need.  I know I should just "let go" and show empathy for those who struggle in silence as I do.  Everyone just seems so miserable, yet arrogant about how it can't be their fault.  I believe in taking ownership of personal failure.  Writers and kings do it so eloquently, as this little passage from "The Marriage Plot" will attest:

 "Some people majored in English to prepare for law school.  Others became journalists.  The smartest guy in the honours program, Adam Vogel, a child of academics, was planning on getting a Ph.D. and becoming an academic himself.  That left a large contingent of people majoring in English by default.  Because they weren't left-brained enough for science, because history was too dry, philosophy too difficult, geology too petroleum-oriented, and math too mathematical -because they weren't musical, artistic, financially motivated, or really all that smart, these people were pursuing university degrees doing something no different from what they'd done in first grade: reading stories.  English was what people who didn't know what to major in majored in."

Friday, October 19, 2012


It shouldn't matter, but it does.  Most Canadians with any sort of cultural acumen know Sarah Polley.  As a child, she was Sara in Road to Avonlea, before growing up and becoming first a serious actress, then an astonishingly gifted young film maker, directing "Away From Her", a film about a couple torn apart by dementia.  She also made a fairly good pitch for the title of "authentic", pulling her name out of a short film when she found out it was used as a margarine ad.  I admit to having been a little perturbed when she named her most recent feature film, "Take This Waltz", and ode to the famous Leonard Cohen song.  While I'll admit to being a big fan, I find this fetish with our local poet and song writing hero to be a bit tiresome at times.  Still, I plan to see it.  With this in mind, the mention of her name, even at 5:30 in the morning while I answer anxious student e-mails and chase away hungry cats, still elicits attention.  This morning, my local radio show was discussing her latest effort, the documentary, "Stories We Tell".  In it, Sarah reveals her biological father to be Harry Gulkin, producer of Canadian films such as "Lies My Father Told Me" and "Two Solitudes".  Born in the same Montreal Jewish ghetto as my parents, Harry's brother and sister and law ate at our apartment when I was a child- my parent's friendship with them was not an enduring one, but I always remembered their name and its association with 'Lies", a film  about a boy and his rags collecting merchant grandfather, which closely approximated their childhood   Ok, Sarah is not a Jew, even I know that.  My own son, by the virtue of his Catholic mother is not either, but suddenly there is a feeling that Ms Polley is part of the "club" so to speak.  Cynically, neither of us could not even begin to understand what it was like to grow up in the huddled masses of first generation Jews in Montreal- battling anti-Semitism, the embarrassment of their immigrant parents, poverty, and wondering in awe what life in Mr Cohen's side of town (Westmount) was like.  Only my parents' anecdotes allowed " the light to get in' (thanks Leonard).   Perhaps her biological father told her  stories too- he is still alive and in need of a Wikipedia page as I speak.  Nevertheless,  knowing that we share the same roots and can trace our fairly recent ancestry back to the Shtetls of Russia is an anthropologists dream, demonstrating the phenomenon of kinship.  I once went to a university lecture from a former performance artist turned academic about  collective unconsciousness in Judaism.  I always greet these events with a combination of scorn, intimidation and curiosity. Some academics in attendance slept, while other members of the local Jewish community were there for the free food. Still, maybe there's something to this after all.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Step Up, Step Back

"Be aware of how much 'space' you are taking up in a conversation and when you need to let others have space to voice their opinion".

Yup, I'm in trouble.  One hour away from facilitating a table on helping university students at a "Consultation Fair" and I realize my deficiency in one key area.   My whole life has been about "stepping up" and "being up",  compensating for being too short, too plain, or any other perceived inadequacy that I felt the need to account for by being loud and proud.   This is new territory for me- academic group dynamics. I was just getting used to my white, male, cis, privilege  when all of a sudden I remembered what a loud mouth I am.  In the "real" world outside the leafy campuses and tweedy professors of collegiate life, shouting to be heard is the norm.  Reservation leads to solitude and lack of participation leads to cobwebs and people forgetting your name.  This ain't real though.  Mouthy not mousy, I have to be on my best behaviour   It's not that I don't respect the opinions of others, I just love the sound of my own voice.  I really have to get over it.  There are a lot of people who genuinely make me laugh - so hard in fact, it becomes embarrassing when the brilliance of another's wit leaves you smirking on the Metro, the last bastion of the mad person with a bus pass. Ok, I'm ready - these kids have a lot to say.  They make my job a joy every day, full of ambition and ideas and little fear of failure.  I can't understand why   some staff feel the need to be rude to students.  Is there not a "hubris of youth"?  Was it not so long ago that they obsessed over the right music and the right politics and the right art and the right sex?  I guess amnesia is an antidote for some. I can't forget that I've had it pretty good - no divorces, children to support that don't live under my roof, good health, and a youthful spirit that makes me want to fill the space with my own ambition and ideas.  STEP UP, STEP BACK!!!

Friday, October 12, 2012

The Champions of Self Congratulation

They announced the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for 2012:

Yes indeed, the European Union, a fractious union of countries with different ethnic groups, economies and religions, gathered under one currency, are the purveyors of non-violence for this year.  I see this in it's subtextual form.  By the way, forgive the pretension of the "s-word".  I am in full costume this morning, two weeks before Halloween:    I also have to meet with some potential donors to the University and their daughter, and want to look the part.  It's funny how "professorial" and "hipster" can converge aesthetically, separated only by age (I'm too old for the latter).

Anyway, back to the domain of my ancestors, Mother/Father/ Europe.  In subtext, the real meaning of this award is "Thank you Europe, for looking deeply into your hearts and not killing each other on a mass scale, something you have been accustomed to once or twice a century or so".  Thanks for dumping the Hitlers, Stalins, and Mussolinis, the Francos and Salazars and various other enemies of democracy.  Sure it took you a few years after 1945 to get it right.  The last two Princes of Iberian slaughter only met their demise in the 70's,  Eastern Europe erupted in bloodshed in only the last twenty years, and anyone visiting Central Europe these days has to tiptoe around without disclosing their ethnic background for fear of reprisal.  Yeah, it ain't perfect, but the colonial wars are more or less over, if you don't count their legacy that will last long after.  I do give them some credit.  They have tried, abolishing the death penalty, trying to unify economically, and generally attempting to match their external civility and good manners with less oppressive regimes that have attempted to emancipate women, aid the poor and dispossessed, improve the environment, and build bike paths.   Recent events in Greece and Spain prove there is a long way to go, BUT, if neither country embraces the far Left or far Right to a great degree, it's a good sign.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Spot on....

Listen was bound to happen.  Americans, many of whom are bored and embarrassed by a culture viewed by many as crass and infantile, have forsaken Larry the Cable Guy and Jersey Shore in favour of the linguistic style of their former colonial masters, whose tea and blood they happily spilled in the Boston Harbour a few centuries ago.  Blame it on the Harry Potter series, an almost sexy royal couple, or the delicate soap opera. Downton Abbey, or just accept the fact that Anglophilia is just simply a hard fetish to break.  I confess to being a bit of one too - perhaps it was my dad, indoctrinated by a legion of benevolent British teachers, anxious to bring civilization to the colonies in the 1920's, or maybe it was just a love of music during my coming of age in the 1980's, where almost everything British was cool:

Like many of the colonized, I am not above the odd act of rebellion.  I often like taking the piss (Anglicism?) out of England every now and then.  I recently wrote a reference letter for a student who was applying to British schools, chiding them for their ridiculously strict admissions policies, while knowing all the while that back at the home front  we are not much better.  Canadians often infuriate me with their obsession over the Queen and the Royals in general, and I know I would not likely fit into polite, British society, bearing a loud voice, an absence of manners, and a general ambivalence towards soccer/football.  Still, as I whip out my first Salvation Army tweed jacket of the season and drink from my David Bowie mug, warm thoughts of snogging in a London flat seem just spot on right now....