Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Deep, deep disappointment ...

About half a dozen of my students are currently on exchange in England at our campus at Harlow. They make frequent day trips into London, and I ask you, none of them was there for this:

U2 play surprise gig in London
Band dust off rare track for acoustic show
NME, November 23, 2007

U2's Bono and The Edge played a surprise gig tonight (November 23) at London's Union Chapel. Playing as part of Mencap's Little Noise Sessions, the duo surprised the audience with a four song set which included rare track 'Wave Of Sorrow'. The identity of the 'special guests' was shrouded in mystery when introduced by host Jo Whiley as "a new band with a lot of potential: "Dave the guitarist is very nervous...If he makes a mistake forgive him, he's new. The singer is very shy."

The band opened with 'Zooropa' track 'Stay (Faraway, So Close)' with Bono reading the lyrics off a sheet on a music stand. The singer changed the lyrics: "You can go anywhere/ Miami, New Orleans, London, Belfast and Berlin" to " You can go anywhere / Miami, New Orleans, Belfast and Islington," which was met by roars of approval from the crowd. After the track finished The Edge said : "I hope you like our new direction."

Launching into 'Desire', Bono ad libbed parts of INXS' 'Need You Tonight' into the track. He sang the lyrics "I've got to let you know / You're one of my kind." He started clapping before taking out a harmonica to play on the track's distinctive finish. Bono introduced 'Angel Of Harlem' by saying : "This is our only Christmas song." After a false start which saw the singer sing the start of 'Like A Rolling Stone' by Bob Dylan over The Edge's riff, the duo continued.

Bono then introduced the next track by saying : "So about 20 years ago we started a tune on 'The Joshua Tree' and yesterday we just finished it. This song is based on the experiences that my lovely wife Ali had in Ethiopia. You forget that this was the land of the Queen Of Sheeba...I was 25 and it was an extraordinary time to be there ... It was an overwhelming experience. This (song) has never been played before. Just don't tell Larry (Mullen) and Adam (Clayton) we're doing it ... Oh Adam's here! This is for you sir."

They played 'Wave Of Sorrow' with The Edge playing the keyboards. Bono said : "Thanks for being so generous," and The Edge said: "I hope you didn't notice there were a few mistakes but I was told that was okay...I felt the love."

I am deeply, deeply disappointed that none of my students serendipitously happened to be at exactly the right place at exactly the right time to witness something I had no idea was happening to watch a band they probably don't like and send me pictures.

Obviously, I have failed in my pedagogical mission to inculcate young minds with a nigh-clairvoyant obsession with U2 that allows them to sense when and where the band will play surprise gigs. So much for getting tenure, now.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Adventures in the local cuisine

It's been a comfort food type of weekend here in St. John's, with a grey and rainy saturday and a bright but cold sunday, the kind of weekend where I spend more time in my pyjamas than not. And while in an ideal situation that entails sitting in front of a fireplace with a favourite book, I alas have no fireplace and instead have a mountain of essays to grade. It is probably good that I do not have the former when I have the latter. (To any of my students stumbling across this blog entry: that was a joke. I hardly, hardly EVER think about burning essays. Hardly.)

Still, it is very pleasant to lounge around the house on a chilly sunday when dinner is cooking away in the crock pot over a slow nine hours. I love my slow cooker. I camped out at the dining room table all day with the aforementioned stack of grading and multiple pots of tea while the stew I prepared at ten o'clock this morning filled the house with its savoury, peppery fragrance (I like pepper in my stews).

The above picture, alas, doesn't do my stew justice ... in fact, it looks a little gross. I need smell-o-vision.

At seven pm the buzzer went off and I ladled out a bowl of one of my favourite comfort foods for a cold evening, beef stew. And to get just the exact measure of comfort, it must be served on top of a slice of white bread (the kind that's really bad for you -- I'm talking wonderbread here), with a second slice put aside to sop up the juices after.

But the carb level in this stew was somewhat higher than usual, thanks to the addition of a local ingredient I bought recently on a whim and have been since stumped as to how to use it. I'm referring here to hard bread, or "brewis," a staple of the traditional Newfoundland cuisine left over from the days before refridgeration.

Now, I have to explain something: I have now read a respectable number of novels of Newfoundland historical fiction, and one of the recurrent meals mentioned is "salt fish and brewis." I think it's one of those things you have to include (a lot) if you want to be seen as writing authentic historical fiction about Newfoundland. And when I walk past Velma's Restaurant on Water Street, a homey little eatery specializing in traditional Newfoundland fare, "fish and brewis" is there on the menu (alongside the cod tongues, jigs dinner, lassy mogs and figgy duff ... no, don't ask).

The trouble is, I've never had any frickin' clue what "brewis" is, and I certainly never connected it with the bright red bags labelled "Purity Hard Bread" that are ubiquitous in all the grocery stores here.* That was, until I bought a bag out of sheer curiosity.

Now let's be clear on something: to call this product "hard bread" is misleading. Really, to be accurate, it should be named "rock bread" or "titanium bread" and come with warnings that this product should never never be used as a weapon, for it might cause serious harm.

I've read enough C.S. Forester novels to know that the British Navy subsisted on hard biscuit that they would have to dip in water to make them even gnaw-on-able, but my first attempt to nibble on a piece of Purity hard bread probably would have led to an emergency dentist's visit had I persisted. Happily, the instructions are pretty clearly and neatly laid out on the bag: break up bread into smaller chunks (I have, fortunately, a very serviceable cleaver), and soak overnight (at least) in water. Keeping them in the soaking water, bring them to a near boil -- but stopping short of an actual boil. Salt and pepper to taste.

See, here's the thing: they were kind of yummy. I was pleasantly surprised. Even after sixteen hours of soaking and then being nearly boiled, there was substance enough to the bread to be al dente, and while bland in and of themselves, a little salt and pepper -- and, I discovered, a few dashes of white vinegar -- made for a nice snack. Now, the full preparation as described on the bag called for the preparation of scrunchions, another traditional Newfoundland dish -- fried pieces of pork fat -- along with a gravy made from the drippings, plus the requisite salt fish.

I don't know if I'm ready for that yet. The pork fat gravy, maybe, but my preferred way to eat salt cod is fried in a fish cake or in a fish chowder.

HOWEVER ... While preparing the stew this morning, it occurred to me that hard bread, broken up sufficiently small, might make for a nice addition to the stew's broth -- sort of like dumplings, but with a bit more substance. And what do you know? Nine hours of simmering sped up the soaking process, and the bread absorbed the broth to become very flavourful ... it almost made my requisite slices of white bread redundant. Almost.

Sometimes when I think of my alternative academic paths, I imagine I might have become a military history. On days like today, I think perhaps a food anthropologist ... like so much else here in Newfoundland, the traditional cuisine speaks more powerfully to a concrete, lived history than almost anywhere else I have ever been. Hard bread, or "hard tack" as it's also called, is of course a holdover from the days when baking aboard ship was simply impossible. Brewis (which gets its name from the process of breaking it up for soaking, or "bruising" the bread) would not spoil for weeks, indeed months. And in a place of deep, isolating winters, a large stock of hard bread would keep a family in good stead for a very long time. That it is still so ubiquitous in massive corporate grocery chains here makes me happy.


*A note for mainlanders: "Purity" is a traditional Newfoundland company specializing in baked goods, of which hard bread is merely one of many offerings. Walking into a Dominion Superstore here is pretty much like walking into one anywhere in Canada, which is why I'm always cheered when, upon walking down the cookies & crackers aisle, I am presented with a wide span of shelves all in the trademark deep red of the Purity products, such as the "Jam-Jams" and their quite excellent cream crackers. It is the grocery store equivalent of walking into a liquor store here and seeing an entire wall given over to Lamb's Rum. Seriously.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The every morning drama

One of my grad students, Ruth, sent me this video -- it's something anyone who is owned by a cat can empathize with.

Though I'm removing blunt objects from my room after watching it.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Autumn in St. John's

Today was one of those brilliant St. John's autumn days that approaches the sublime, where the air is crisp yet oddly warm (for November), the sky is perfectly clear and the air itself energizes you. Autumn in this city is infinitely changeable (had it gone from brilliant sunlight to fog and rain in the space of a half-hour it would be par for the course), but capable of truly stunning beauty. I think autumn here is our trade-off for the pretty uniformly springs we get ... I keep getting warned that winter can make its first appearance by late October, but thankfully my time here hasn't seen that happen yet -- thankfully I've seen these amazing autumns stretch into December, and I'm keeping my fingers crossed for that to happen a third year in a row.

Today's weather was made that much nicer by the fact that I now have a backyard. The view from my office window:

Saturday, November 17, 2007

The status game

As I was leaving the house this morning, my mind in its random ramblings replayed a few bits of the Monty Python Dead Parrot sketch. "Lovely bird, the Norwegian blue! ... 'E's not dead, 'e's pining for the fjords!"

The upshot of this being that my status line on Facebook says "CJ is pining for the fjords."

Of all the various crack-like elements of Facebook (they have online RISK through Facebook now! I am so never getting work done again), one of my favourites is the status line. Scanning through my friends at any given time offers a range of status updates ranging from the hilarious to the absurd to the genuinely informational. Sometimes all at once, as in my fellow-CAAS member Jennifer's, which currently reads "Jen is wondering if getting teary-eyed at the sight of coffee is a bad thing." Given that I happened to read that one before I'd had my own first sip of java, the empathy in me was overpowering.

And the hated IS ... if there is one thing that unites regular status-updaters, especially those who like to be funny or creative, it's a hatred of the fact that we are constrained to using the present-tense passive verb ... leading to sometimes awkward locutions (which as an English professor can be really galling), and the delimiting of possibilities.

Anyway, I thought I'd share a random sampling of status lines that were current as of a minute ago ... leaving out names of course in the interests of whatever privacy may actually be left in the age of Facebooking.

... is not being aloof, friends, just insane with overwork.

... is confused.

... is calling it karma.

... is one letter away from a scream.

... is even more useless than yesterday.

... is I hate when people just write random stuff here without following the proper grammatical sequence that follows the conjugated verb "is."

... is wickey, wickey, wha, wha.

... is what I'm trying to say.

... is no longer ill. All praises be.

... is the eggman.

... is aspiring.

... is paid the dollar, sidekick rings what's up holla!

... is Lessing, Schiller? Definitely not Hegel.

... is perpetually baffled.

... is finding out that it is actually possible to eat too much pastry!

... is itching for a new razor.

... is pale in intensity with good legs and a long, dry, clean finish.

... is lacking bounce-back-ability.

... is driving to Ottawa. Home of the shitty-ass Sens.

... is as she appears to the left.

... is on a midnight train to Georgia.

... is a winter wonderland!

... is genuinely excited about her horoscope.

... is at the level of barely functioning.

... is exceedingly drunk, and is pondering the beatific benefits of red wine.

... is trying hugs AND drugs.

... is oh so quiet (shh! shh!).

... is walking a very fine line.

... is gonna pick the meat from the big city bones, because the hot is getting cold.

... is too cool for school.

... is in a plain brown wrapper.

... is a source of nine essential nutrients.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

I'll put $20 on Derrida for a fourth-round knockout ...

One of the things I've been doing this term is schilling for my second-semester special topics course. Given that our department doesn't currently have a course in literary theory prior to fourth year -- and even then, it's only the students taking the honours degree who have to take it -- a few of us made the case last year for an intro course at the second-year that would be mandatory for English students. So as a trial run, next semester I'm offering a second year special-topics course on the subject.

The trouble is, getting most students to study literary criticism (like poetry) is a little like getting them to eat their vegetables. It helps if that's the only thing on their plate. Or if it's mandatory. Or followed up with dessert. And given that if should I get less than a certain number of students in the class it will be cancelled, a fairly aggressive marketing campaign was called for.

So I went to classes pitching my course, telling them why it would be beneficial. Also (this is the "dessert" part of the vegetable pitch, if you like) that we would be only doing one book in conjunction with the various essays, which would be used sort of as a "control"--a single work that we'd workshop in class in by way of the different critical schools under consideration. The book? Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.

So in addition to my traveling salesman schtick, I've also been putting up posters of this kind around the building:

I have a whole series of them: Harry vs Lacan, Harry vs Roland Barthes, Harry vs Aristotle; at the prompting of one of our profs who wished for some feminist content, Hermione vs Helene Cixous and Hermione vs Virginia Woolf; also, given recent "revelations," Dumbledore vs Freud; and just to round things out (and at Loman's suggestion), Draco Malfoy vs. Karl Marx.

The things I do for the sake of pedagogy, I tells ya.

I was actually pleased with my campaign. There's now a buzz about the course, and if as one anonymous commentator suggested, the posters are "gimmicky" (this was scrawled atop one of the posters on a colleague's door) ... well, meh. I wasn't about to get bums in the seats with the ever-so-sexy course title "An Introduction to Literary Theory and Criticism."

Also, there's a method to my madness: I want in this course to approach a text that students will likely (a) be very familiar with, even if they haven't previously read it, and (b) if they have read it, probably have not done so with a critical eye. And out of all the Harry Potter novels, Azkaban has the most interesting stuff happening in it while still being mercifully short.

I sent the Harry Potter vs Aristotle to a friend in philosophy, thinking he would get a kick out of it, and he promptly sent me back a revised version that was utterly hilarious. I was going to post it too, but then thought better, considering it has adult content and the friend in question is currently going on the job market (plus, I am untenured). Suffice it to say: Harry Potter vs Plato. With an, um, interesting photo of Daniel Radcliffe from his appearance in the play Equus. 'Nuff said? Heh.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The Reading Sickness

I'm glad I re-launched the blog today, because now I can post this little gem ... starring two of our grad students, Tom and Kyle. I was absurdly gratified that the book Kyle's reading is what we're doing next week in my course, though I suspect it was chosen for the title.

Breathing space

This semester has been a perfect storm. And while I might blame Facebook for its depradations on the blogging world (and mine in particular), the fact of the matter has been that I quite simply haven't had the time and/or brain power to be a particularly good blogger. Or even a passable one.

I make no promises that this will change much, but I do promise to try. I miss my old blog here, truth be told. As do some people who have told me so in no uncertain terms. So I'll get myself back on something resembling a regular regime: I'm thinking once a week won't break the bank, especially now that I feel like I'm finally on the downslope of the semester.

The hump I had to get over was this past weekend: I was in Montreal for the annual Canadian Association of American Studies (CAAS) conference, an organization I renewed my membership in at last year's conference in Kingston. Unlike last year however, when I was just a participant, I found myself this year in the thick of organizing the conference ... which meant a significant amount of work smoothing out details, increasing (exponentially, it seemed) the closer we got to the actual conference (which incidentally included the writing of my own paper). This conference, I might add, would not likely have happened this year at all without the long-distance work done by a handful of some of my truly amazing colleagues. As it turns out, not mentioning any names, the one person we were relying upon to organize stuff in Montreal turned out to be a little bit of a tool. And when I say "a little bit of a tool," I mean the Platonic form of human-toolness. Normally I wouldn't be so impolitic as to vent such professional grievances in my blog, but this was an extreme case and I kind of hope the individual in questions stumbles across this entry. Not likely, but entertaining to imagine.

The upshot being that there was a lot of frenzied running around and brushfires to be put out by the conference committee, and from wednesday through sunday I think I got a cumulative total of twelve hours sleep -- between the going out with colleagues in the evening, and the insomnia that had me up at 4:30 most mornings.

That being said, the conference went off quite well, and I was privileged to see a significant number of truly amazing papers. I was also pleased to see that a lot of the good presentations were delivered by grad students, including at least one former Western student.

And now I'm back, and staring at a stack of marking that has come to feel like a really bad credit card debt, one for which I'm paying interest on until the end of term. But without the conference looming over my head, I feel as though I can breathe a bit more.