Friday, 29 October 2010

7 Quick Takes (62)

1. I watched some movies last weekend: Splice and Eve and the Fire Horse.
Splice is a Canadian bio-horror movie about a pair of sceintists who make designer organisms for a living. They decide at one point to (illegally) experiment with human DNA and create a human-hybrid named Dren. As Dren grows up, maturing in ways completely unexpected, she becomes harder and harder to keep a secret . . . and harder and harder to manage.
It's a pretty good movie, especially considering that it's Canadian-made; it's creepy, and builds suspense without much violence or gore for most of the movie. But about two-thirds of the way through the movie it gets disturbing, fast. Let's just say that the characters who made Dren have some issues themselves. And let's just say that inter-species sex will always be uncomfortable at best. (And I just got myself some weird visitors from Google again.)

Eve and the Fire Horse is also Canadian-made, about two girls, Eve and Karena, who live with their parents in Vancouver in the 1960s. Their parents have immigrated from China, and Eve (the protagonist) and Karena live in a hodge-podge world of "Chinese superstition" (what an awful name for that religious tradition, by the way), Confucianism, Buddhism, and poorly-understood Catholicism. It's in the style of Big Fish in some ways, with flights of imagination unfolding before your eyes. I suppose you would call it magic realism? Anyway, it deals with racism, family dynamics, guilt and grief, and spiritual life. I might write a proper review of it some day.

2. At church, they played Disney songs for hymns. If this interests you, I wrote out the service at this post.

3. I discovered Gerard Manley Hopkins this week. Some of his poetry was assigned in the class I am a TA for. Hopkins (1844-1889) was a Jesuit priest, and his sonnets are beautiful, rich, and complex; they require a good dictionary, and are worth it. I encourage you to take a look at them.

"The Starlight Night"

Look at the stars! look, look up at the skies!
O look at all the fire-folk sitting in the air!
The bright boroughs, the circle-citadels there!
Down in dim woods the diamond delves! the elves'-eyes!
The grey lawns cold where gold, where quickgold lies!
Wind-beat whitebeam! airy abeles set on a flame!
Flake-doves sent floating forth at a farmyard scare! --
Ah well! it is all a purchase, all is a prize.

Buy then! bid then! -- What? -- Prayer, patience, alms, vows.
Look, look: a May-mess, like on orchard boughs!
Look! March-bloom, like on mealed-with-yellow-sallows!
These are indeed the barn; withindoors house
The shocks. This piece-bright paling shuts the spouse
Christ home, Christ and his mother and all his hallows.

4. I also discovered Erasmus Darwin's The Loves of the Plants. Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802) was the grandfather of Charles Darwin and a celebrated botanist. His The Loves of the Plants is a poetic re-writing of Linnaeus' famous work in the reproduction of plants. Linnaeus analogized stamens and pistols as men and women having romantic liaisons, and Darwin followed suit in Loves. What Darwin did differently, however, was place agency on the female characters rather than do as Linnaeus did and put agency in the male characters. This work would be very very fruitful for gender studies on a number of levels, but one of the more immediately interesting is that female polyamory shows up time and time again:

Two brother swains, of COLLIN'S gentle name,
The same their features, and their forms the same,
With rival love for fair COLLINIA sigh,
Knit the dark brow, and roll the unsteady eye.
With sweet concern the pitying beauty mourns,
And sooths with smiles the jealous pair by turns.


With vain desires the pensive ALCEA burns,
And, like sad ELOISA, loves and mourns.
The freckled IRIS owns a fiercer flame,
And three unjealous husbands wed the dame.

An interesting formal note is that Darwin's footnotes, which explain the botany behind the poem, take up more space on the page then the poem itself.

5. I did a lot of picture-taking today, and I am exhausted from the walking. I really wanted to get the autumn colours in the Nitobe Gardens and on Wreck Beach. (Will upload shortly.)

For more 7 Quick Takes, visit the host of the carnival, Jen Fulwiler at Conversion Diary.

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Disney Hymns

This post was written on 24 Oct 2010, though it will not be published until later in the week.

[Note: I am frustrated with how the video embedding turned out, but I can't seem to fix it.]

Today the church I recently began attending gave an interesting service: all of the hymns were Disney songs. The first hymn that we sang in church this morning was "Colours of the Wind," from Pocahontas. Before we started, the priest told us that as mother she felt a lot of the Disney sungs "hit [her] in the gut" as she watched the movies with her children, even if "they aren't in [her] language." So she asked us to notice whether we thought the hymns were appropriate. If they spoke to us, why? If they did not speak to us, then this is an opportunity to ask why they didn't, and what it is that we expect of hymns. Either way, as she said, "it's a win-win."

"Colours of the Wind" struck me immediately as more animistic than orthodoxy might allow; however, many traditional hymns in fact give the natural world the same attributes, where the mountains praise God. If traditional hymns use this personifying language, then "Colours of the Wind" could be included in our liturgy. (And also, may I say, what ideologically loaded flirting that is.)

The second hymn, in the midst of the Scripture readings, was "Feed the Birds" from Mary Poppins. It seemed to be an appropriate bridge between the first hymn and the following hymn. While this was not the first time I'd heard the song before, I certainly did not remember it. It is quite beautiful.

The third hymn, located before the Gospel reading, was "God Help the Outcasts" from The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Originally, they were going to use "The Bells of Notre Dame", but the choir had difficulty with that song. I thought this a shame; once I said that the opening to the The Lion King was perhaps the most impressive animated opening, and he said that actually that honour belongs to The Hunchback of Notre Dame. If you watch it, you will see why. It's very impressive. But back to the Outcasts.

"God Help the Outcast" was a better choice for the service than "The Bells", though, as the Gospel reading was Luke 18:9-14. This passage describes a proud man who thanks God for not being a sinner, and a sinner who begs for mercy. I think, if you listen to the song and read the passage, you'll see a connection. In particular, given the sorts of struggles the church and the world are going through today, this is an appropriate selection. Then again, in every historical moment there has been division within Christianity over those who excluded, between those who wish to continue excluding and those who locate Christ among the excluded... That tension will recur endlessly in a religion which worships a God of the Outcast.

The first of the Offertory Songs was "Circle of Life" from The Lion King.

I knew this one fairly well, having learned to play it on the piano once upon a time. I love this song, but it seemed less obvious to me what it had to do with God. It does, of course, have to do with the mystery of the world and the enormity of its structure. It has to do with cosmic harmony, with the organization of the universe at large. I suppose that is a fairly religious thing. It taps into what those faded and overly prettified pictures of flowers and forests and waterfalls are trying to say, and does it in a way that doesn't make jaded me groan. If not explicitly religious in content, it contains some of the vibrant awe that is a part of religion.

The second Offertory Song was "Be Our Guest" from The Beauty and the Beast. This was very appropriate: it introduced Communion, where we are guests at God's table. The unrestrained joy of this song is perhaps not what we are used to, though I have attended Communion services which emphasized joy, not solemnity. The culinary references, and the candlestick character, seem especially related to Communion.

I should note that the version we sang was somewhat shortened, excluding a lot of the song which referenced the movie's narrative. Oh, and after the curse is broken, what does everyone eat on? The cutlery and crockery have become humans again. And the furniture, too...

Somewhere in there (I'm not sure because it's not in the bulletin) we sang "You'll Be in My Heart" from Tarzan.

This one has interesting lyrics to it; I'm sure it's not supposed to be read religiously, but when placed in the context of a church service that reading leaps out of the words. As is often observed, religious poetry and romantic poetry are often interchangeable.

The Closing Hymn was "A Whole New World" from Aladdin. Do I need to explicate this one? Perhaps it's not obvious to a non-Christian what this would have to do with Christianity. There is a trope common in Christianity that the world looks differently--literally, is new--when you convert or have a religious epiphany.

So. What do you think of the service? You must imagine this taking place in a somewhat liturgically conservative Anglican church. I have two interesting observations: 1) Context matters so much in interpretation; 2) There are many ways we can go about making church services more welcoming to newcomers, given just a little creativity on our part.

Sunday, 24 October 2010

The Villian's Fall

In working on a forth-coming post, I noticed something: a disproportionate number of Disney villains fall to their deaths. Sometimes the fall itself isn't what kills them; sometimes they are stabbed and then plummet as they die (ie. Maleficent), while sometimes what kills them is the sudden stop (the villian in Tarzan--artfully done, by the way). (Well, OK, technically the sudden stop is ALWAYS what kills a person in a long fall...) Scar and Hades both go for a tumble and then get attacked by their own minions.

A second theme, played well by Jafar and Ursula, is to be defeated by your own hubris.

I thought about this and my conclusion is the obvious one: even while the heroes defeat the villian, they get to keep their hands clean of the villian's demise. In fact, they even get to try and save the villian sometimes, but the villian's own treachery or fury prevents them from being able to do so.


(Of course, Disney villians aren't the only ones who have to place "Fall Hazard" on their Workplace Safety Assessment forms. Villians in George Lucas movies seem prone to this fate as well. Consider Boba Fett, Palpatine, Mola Ram from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Dr Elsa Schneider from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade... even Luke Skywalker took a tumble that one time, and he's a good guy.)

"I Want To Know Why People Don't Know Who I Am"

I promised to write this post a while back, and I am now fulfilling that promise.

I was sitting in the Student Union Building, eating a peach and doing readings for a class about Asian Canadian Studies. The SUB wasn't empty, but it was nearly so. A few tables down from me was a group of older middle aged women, and a young man approached them. I didn't hear their exchange exactly, but I did hear one of the women say, "We're trying to have a conversation, here." He said something to the effect that that's what he wanted, too, but they rebuffed him anyway.

He came over to me, sat across from me.

"Hi," he said.

"Hello," I said. "How are you?" I continued looking down at my readings. What did he want?

"Alright," he said. He paused, and I waited.

"I'm trying to figure out why people don't know who I am."

Who are you, a B-list celebrity? I wondered. In truth, I was uncomfortable. I didn't know who he was, but I didn't want to insult him because I did not recognize him. He was young, around my age. It was hard to tell whether he was older than me or younger than me. He wore a hoodie, dressed in the nondescript layers I associate with the homeless or the out-of-luck. He hadn't shaved for a few days.

"How do you mean?"

"I feel like people don't know who I am when they see me. I think people know who you are when they see you."

I put my readings down. "Who do you think I am?"

"I think when people see you, they think you're intelligent. That you know what you're doing, that you're confident. What are you studying, law or philosophy?"

That day I was clean-shaven; I wore new(ish) blue jeans and a dark-blue collared button-up shirt with verticle stripes. I had a pocketwatch in my pocket, for Pete's sake, with the chain hanging out in a loop like I was some sort of dapper gentleman. Next to me I had a backpack; I had had my feet up on the edge of the filthy table when he arrived. I supposed I did look as he described, but on another day--say, two days from then, when I hadn't shaved yet--I might look more like he did, though not nearly as world-weary or perpetually out-of-place.

"I'm studying English," I said.

"That's like philosophy," and we talked a bit about what I did in English.

"Do you think," he asked, "that there's more to you than people see?"

Oh boy, you have no idea, I thought, but of course the things people don't see are the things I don't want them to see and I couldn't say that. "I hope so," I answered instead. "I think most people have something... deeper... that others don't see, or see right away."

It was a lame answer, but it would have to do.

"Who do you think you are?" I asked. "What is it that people don't see?"

It took a while for him to answer coherently; it was like he was gathering his thoughts aloud, though perhaps it wasn't that he was speaking unclearly but that I didn't know what to listen for. Eventually, he said, "I guess I have what you'd call schizophrenia."

"How does that manifest for you?" I asked. If I recalled anything about abnormal psych from first-year (and I remember a lot of it), it was that schizophrenia can be a diagnostic grab-bag. If you have a number of unique and life-altering psychiatric symptoms, you are often shoved into the "schizophrenia" category. Someone telling you that they're schizophrenic implies that they have delusions or hallucinations, but the details of those experiences can change dramatically from individual to individual. How they interpret those experience also changes.

Again he explained, and again it took a while for us to figure out this whole communication-of-ideas thing. "When you scratch your nose, I think I did that. When you cough, I wonder what I did wrong to make you cough."

"Wait. Tell me if I got this right. When other people do things, you feel somehow... I don't know..." The word that hung in my mind was "guilty," but I didn't want to put the shame of that word onto him.

"--responsible," he said. "And I don't feel responsible for my own actions."

Something clicked for me. "So you internalize external events? Is that right?"

"Yes. [pause] I've never met anyone who understood that so quickly before."

"I've taken psychology courses, and I research similar things on my own time. I've heard of it before."

He seemed interested. "That's good. You study psychology."

"I did take a psychology course, years ago," I corrected.

We talked some more about the way people think, and so forth. I mentioned my interest in reading blogs and watching YouTube channels not just about but by people with DID. I had no idea whether this guy had Internet access on a regular basis--from what he said about the pidgeon wandering under his chair (apparently he often let it outside, but it always came back in), he may very well have lived in the SUB--but I wasn't going to speak "down" to him or make any unfounded assumptions if I could help it.

Sometime later he said, "I sometimes have what you'd call mystical visions. I feel connected to world, you know? Connected to a higher power. I think everyone feels that some times in their lives."

(In case you're curious, that could be due to unusually synchronized activity between the tempororparietal lobes in the left and right hemispheres of the brain. Unusually decreased activity in this area results in a loss of the sense of self; overly synchronized activity results in a confusion between self and non-self. This happens during meditation sometimes, and during psylocibin trips. Perhaps it also happens in folks with schizophrenia.)

"It's interesting that you'd say that," I said. "I've always... I've studied mysticism in school, you know, and I've always wanted something like that. To see... more... but--are you familiar with Buddhism?"

He nodded-shrugged.

"Have you heard of monkey-mind?"

He shook his head. "No, but I'd like to hear more about it."

"It's a Buddhist term for the sort of consciousness that just races. Confused thoughts, one after another. It's like a monkey running around in your head, grabbing things at random. Buddhists say most people spend their lives having monkey-mind. Meditation is the opposite of monkey-mind." As I spoke, I realized that this description might have different connotations for a person with schizophrenia, but I went on. "I have always had monkey-mind. I have never... not had monkey-mind. But I would like to have a mystical vision one day."

"You're still young," he said.

Soon after that he stood up to leave. Something in his eyes showed me he had already wandered off mentally, that he had had the conversation he wanted. When he stood, I put out my hand. "My name's Christian. What's yours?"

"John." He shook my hand.

"It was nice to meet you, John."

"You too," he said, and wandered off. I wished he had stayed; I had almost finished my peach, and after my peach came the cookies, and I was prepared to offer him two (of the four). But he seemed rather intent on leaving.

I watched him as he left, and I watched the few people around him react to him. They ignored him entirely, adjusted their stride to move around him, but as far as their faces went he might not have existed. It reminded me of Neverwhere, if you've read it.

He walked with his hands out from his body at a 30 degree angle, his fingers splayed and twitching a little.


I couldn't do my readings.

The conversation I had had with John unsettled me. I wanted to rush through the SUB, find him, ask him so many questions. These readings didn't matter. School didn't matter. My problems were nothing compared to his. My experiences were dry, void, without meaning. His life and his problems thrummed with potency. But I didn't want to intrude. I saw in his eyes that when he left me, he left me. He had had his conversation. My pursuit would be seflishness.

I packed up my stuff and left the SUB. I wandered campus, finding my way to the Rose Garden in a light Vancouver rain. I climbed up onto the cement edging of the central flowerbed and paced it, thinking in a fury. How could I justify studying English? How could I explain my experience with John to my classmates, to the faculty? Did any of the faculty leave their Ivory Tower? One of my professors had once said, ventriloquising the 'common people', "What's going on up in that Ivory Tower? What do they do up there?" What do we do up here, I thought.

It took me forty-five minutes. In that time I established that my Asian Canadian Studies course had practical applications; we discussed issues of justice, policy, identity. My Eighteenth Century course... less so. But I was learning skills that I could apply elsewhere. I would be a professor who taught the students of tomorrow; I would be an author who provided enlightenment to the masses. Or not. But my responsibility was to make this education work. And I would champion volunteerism in academia. Get us out of the Ivory Tower for a while, working with things that more immediately mattered. And I knew how fleeting this crisis of mine would be...

I still hope to meet John again in the SUB. Maybe I would get a chance to introduce him to some of my new friends. Maybe he would recognize me as someone who listened to him...

My life hasn't changed since I spoke to him, but in that conversation, I realize looking back... in that conversation I saw a vague sillhouette of something... more...

I wish I had a moral for you, here. A nice take-home message, packaged in a quotable, gnomic little phrase. Preferably with assonance or metre or parallelism or internal rhyme. I don't, though. You will have to supply your own.
I also said I'd link Leah's post on sin once I wrote this; at the time, I thought this post was going to take a different shape, one more related to her post. Something along the lines of the following: "It turns out that all he wanted was a conversation. He didn't need money; he needed someone who would take him and his experiences seriously. That is free to give, but it seems so costly... etc. so forth and sentamentality." But that's not how I wanted to write this in the end, because I DON'T know what he wanted or needed, and I still don't know what it cost me or gained me.

Friday, 22 October 2010

7 Quick Takes (61) - Deluxe Edition


1. Two Saturdays ago the housemate and I went slack-lining in the pouring rain. It was one of the first Vancouver downpours I'd been in since arriving here. Not that it was pouring when we started, but it certainly worked its way up into a heavy rainstorm. We had to give it up because the line was very slick and water was streaming into my eyes. Everything was wet; it wasn't until the next day before my shoes and backpack were dry.

2. Two Sundays ago I started attending a new church. It's little, Anglican, and people mainly by elderly people. What sold me on it was the sermon, which referenced Lloyd Alexander's Chronicles of Prydain. I was also informed that an up-coming service would have Disney songs instead of hymns. Further, they do not seem to be on the conservative side of the Anglican controversy, which is important to me. For instance, that is specifically why I am not attending St. John Shaughnessy.

3. I was grading papers for a long time last week, among many other things. That ate up a lot of time, and as such I do not have as many interesting things to tell you... but those I have are rather interesting.

4. I received a verbal death threat last Thursday. I was walking down an alley near where I live; "alley" is not really the right word, though. "Lane" is better. It's between residential properties in a high-end neighbourhood. "Alley" makes me think dark and narrow and urban. This was not those things.
It was about 3:00 in the afternoon. I had just got off the bus, and was headed home. Suddenly a man calls out to me, asking me why I had been looking in his van. I said I hadn't been; until that moment, I had noticed that there was a van. He said I had, that he had seen me. I said, no, I am going home from the bus stop. He didn't believe me, but did wonder back into his backyard when I denied it sharply enough. I continued walking away (maybe after muttering some words I don't normally use). A quarter of a block later I hear someone holler, "Hey!" I turn, and there are now four guys. The largest (in girth, but he looked pretty capable) asked what I thought I was doing. "Going home," I said. He said, "You look in the van and you're dead!" Then he and one of the other guys started walking toward me.
I started walking away, while taking my cell phone out of my backpack. I dialled 9-1 and held my finger over the 1, ready to call the police with just a moment's notice. I continued looking over my shoulder to check their progress towards me, and to let them see that I had my cell out.
Upon exiting the lane, crossing a side street, and entering my own back lane, I could no longer see them and they could not see me (due to the angles). Thus when I went in through the back of the property I live in, they could not see me and so they don't know where I live. I called the police then, but there was nothing they could do.

I don't go to the bus stop that way any more. I don't know what was in the van, and I don't want to know.

5. I invigilated an exam on Friday. It took one hour; I was paid $50. During that time I did readings while the students wrote. That was the best-paid hour I have ever worked.


6. Last Saturday a housemate and I went slack-lining, and I took about 6 steps. Since it was a shorter line, that meant that I almost completed a line. I also broke through a personal "wall" at the third step, which I never managed to complete.

7. It is autumn here. The leaves are turning and falling; it's beautiful on a sunny day, but today was rainy and overcast.

9. Today I visited the newly-opened Beaty Museumof Biodiversity. It is quite neat. I might write a post about it.

10. Can one write a take about friendship? How does one write meaningfully about friends? I am making some, and I am strengthening friendships. I am also getting somewhat more familiar with second-year MAs I do not know very well because I have lunches in the Grad Lounge sometimes. But there are two people here who I am starting to know rather well; they are quite different from each other, but we three have special Wednesday-afternoon time due to overlapping office hours. One of them is an atheist guy from a Catholic background; the other is a girl from a Salvation Army background who is exploring the Anglican Church. We have begun to be able to predict what one another would be interested in and have started to create a language of references to past shared events (generally conversations). How does one quantify this to describe it? I don't know. Of course, I am getting to know more and more people comfortably, but these two seem to be stand-bys, though I really only ever see the female one Wednesday and Thursday.

The 7 Quick Takes carnival is hosted by Jen Fulwiler.

Monday, 18 October 2010

Poetry from the MoA

I am going to do something I will likely regret. Due to my continued absense from this blog, resulting in equal parts from overwork and procrastination, I feel the need to post something, even if it's not great. As such, I am going to present some shoddy poetry I wrote at the Museum of Anthropology. I thought it would be cool to go to the MOA and sit down in front of artifacts and just write free verse poetry on the objects I saw. And on this forum I am going to treat you to the poor poetry I wrote.

The Lion and the Owl (in the Koerner Ceramic Gallery of the MOA)
15 Oct 2010

Gold and baroque
--as baroque as a piped waltz--
the lion holds his shield and helm
which blends into his unruly chest
On the red shield is his little twin
rampant and roaring as silently as his larger self
Ornate golden lion, your glazed stare
plumbs the empty space before you

Smooth, blue, yellow, and white
--as plump as a jar--
the owl too looks wide-eyed into
the air, shining with the tinny chords
He comes to the lions shoulders,
his wings by his side hold no shield
His own flat plumes will do for his colours

Hamsalagamł (bumblebee masks) at the MOA
15 Oct 2010

Eight faces, eight dwarf cherub faces
their yellow seive-noses high between their eyes
cheeks sink down
and there is a man, a boy-man
looking at you across the room from an armchair
trying to see you with his poet's pen
seeing only your empty faces
But are your faces empty?
What history would those eyes dream
which looked through yours?
What do your eyes dance?

On Bill Reid's Haida Bear in the MOA
15 Oct 2010

the bear looks on
the canoe down whose length he stares is more polished than him,
worn with the grease of hands
but it is painted in the same colours, its prow the same red as his tongue
the man he sees through the arches is traced with the same black veins,
but these veins contain yellow and white,
unlike the bear's
the double serpent on the arch is the same weathered wood as the bear's long claws but they do not see that
the bear, from his corner, looks on

In the shadow on the chairs in the MOA
15 Oct 2010

there is a hummingbird
with a long beak
and folded wings still as wood
and it sits on a disc held by
seven stiff men who hold
their hands palms out against their many faces
--some faces shorn off--
and their small doll-feet hang suspended
above the eagle's cracked face
with a fissure running deeper than the frowns it cuts
past the pale end-less beak
over its chest and down its leg
into the claws that
clutch a disc sitting on
the heads of twelve men with unreadable expressive faces
and naked formless bodies and
who in their turn stand on
the head of a creature, human-like,
with no nose but a knotty hole
and the fault running through her eye
(she holds a child, damaged
in her sibilant asymmetrical arms)
and her knees turn together and that
crack still runs between them right down
to her crooked feet and vague toes
which hold the weight of them all.

Saturday, 16 October 2010


I am busy grading papers. I will not be posting 7 Quick Takes or anything else until life calms down again.

Christian H

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

"False Synecdoche"

In my discussion group I am going to do a close reading of the following poem with my students. The poem, like the readings every week, was assigned by the professor; we TAs merely teach what she decides. Of tomorrow's readings, I found this poem the most interesting, or at least the most interesting given the time restraints of 50 minutes for the close reading. I suppose I should give you all a language-alert. Anyway, without further ado, here is...

"Mary Magdalene's Left Foot"

I saw the picture in Newsweek or Time
and couldn't believe who was back in the news.
But there it sat, encased in antique gold
and pedestrian prose, apart from the rest
of her imaginably lush lost body,
which it recalls with false synecdoche.

The news is littered with the bodies of women
--whores, some--who have returned to minerals,
a pile of iron and zinc and calcium
that wouldn't even fill a shoe. We glimpse
of Mary Magdalene a golden whore
that never ached for flesh or grew hair coarse
enough to scrub mud from a traveler's foot.

But gold is meretricious flattery
for the whore who washed Christ's feet with tears,
who rubbed sweet oil into his sores, then kissed
each suppurating wound that swelled his flesh,
knowing that it was God's clear flesh beneath
its human dying. And that is more than you and I
will ever know of where we place our lips.

Andrew Hudgins, Saints and Strangers (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1985)


So, I wonder, what think you?

Sunday, 10 October 2010

Happy Thanksgiving!

...while I try to think of today as something other than a commemoration of horrific colonial violence.

Friday, 8 October 2010

7 Quick Takes (60)

1. The weekend was very busy, as I was writing a paper. I spent almost the entire weekend working on the paper, procrastinating, and berating myself for procrastinating.

2. I also had a fascinating conversation on Sunday with a complete stranger which I promise I will recount sometime. Just not right now.

3. On Tuesday I forgot to bring the book that the lecture was on (A Midsummer Night's Dream). So I went to the library before class and got a copy out. Which turned out to be a commentary on the text, and not the actual text itself. I also forgot to bring a good pen, and was forced to use one that clots all the time and seeps through the page. This was embarassing, as I'm the TA.

4. I presented the paper I wrote over the weekend on Wednesday. The class opened with the professor going around the room asking each student to discuss their reaction to the readers. During this exercise I discovered, based on what the other students were saying, that I had done the wrong reading (for one of the four articles). And, of course, written my paper on the wrong thing. So I had half an hour of fretting in silence, followed by the pleasure of admitting, in front of the class, that I'd screwed up. Fortunately the prof seemed OK with it, and other people said I had a good paper.

5. On Thursday I had another pedagogy workshop. It was very helpful, and I learned new ways to mark papers. On which note, I have a pile of papers to mark.

6. I watched Magnum Force the night before last. (Sorry for the chronology confusion.) I haven't much to say about it; I'm not quite sure why I'm including this Take.

7. Have you read Tristram Shandy? I haven't read much of it yet, but what I have read is fascinating. I will warn you that if you have no interest in literature as literature, this book will likely not appeal to you in the slightest. If you are interested in literature as a formal experiment, then it will interest you a great deal.

Conversion Diary hosts this meme.

Sunday, 3 October 2010

A Promise Post

Today I had one of those experiences. You know, one of those entirely unexpected conversations with a stranger that throws you off balance for at least an hour afterwards? One of those conversations that changes things. Maybe not forever but, hell, there's no reason it couldn't be forever, either.

The thing is, I have a paper due on Wednesday and the forces of the universe have aligned such that I need to be strict about time management, so I can't actually tell you about this conversation at the moment. Thus I am making this promise post, as a way of committing myself to writing about it once I have the chance.

Saturday, 2 October 2010



The Saturday Evening Blog Post is a monthly blog carnival in which participants showcase their most favourite post from the last month. (This month I made a mistake and posted one from October. This was largely due to the fact that I didn't have any decent ones from September.) This carnival is hosted by Elizabeth Esther, so please head over that way to see more.

Friday, 1 October 2010

The Village Utopia

I have a thought experiment for you, to help you think about what a model society would look like, and whether your model society would work. It's also an excuse to have free reign designing things in your mind, which I always enjoy.

Imagine a small village in the foothills. It could be Montana, or British Columbia, or Scotland, or Burundi. The country or continent is irrelevant. What is important is that this village has enough natural resources to support a comfortable, if simple, life in the village with minimal or no outside contact. For all intents and purposes, this village has sovereign autonomy; either it is legally recognized as a separate nation, like the Vatican, or it is wholly unpoliced by the national government. Either way, the municipal government has complete control over this community. Further, the village is largely isolated; the distance between it in the nearest neighbours is prohibitively great, or the terrain is prohibitively intraversable to make travel easy.

For minor and unimportant reasons, everyone in the village wants to move away within a year. There is nothing wrong with the resources; there is no disease; there is no threat of invasion or war; there is no climate crisis or malevolent weather system. Perhaps there are schisms in the community, or maybe everyone has been struck by pathological wanderlust, or maybe the municipal government has lost everyone's trust and no one feels like they can at this point make a better go of it. It doesn't matter. Every single person wants to move out, even though there is nothing wrong with the village.

And here's the fun part: the mayor has decided to give sovereignty of the village to you, on the condition that you use the village to design the perfect village utopia.

The people in the village who run the administrative stuff (post officers, treasurers, garbage people, repair people, civil engineers, grounds staff, peace officers, and whoever else you might need) are going to be around for a year, so they can train their replacements if need be. Other than that you can populate this village with whoever you like. Or, more accurately, you can populate the village with whoever would be willing to live in the village as you design it. You can have a screening process, if you will, and because you have sovereignty, there is no one to say you can't disallow people from joining your utopia. Further, we can posit some sort of simple exportable resource, a lucrative one, so that you can import whatever technologies you desire. (OK, so your village is supposed to be isolated. Let's say there is a teleporter in the village that can only teleport non-living materials.) All of your food is produced by the village itself in the surrounding area.

Let's say that your village has a population of between 200 and 5000 people. You can pick which.

My question is, how would you design your village? You have sovereignty, and everyone in your village, because they can join freely and will only join informedly, will go along with whatever rules you set up at the outset. This means you have complete control over a willing populace... at least, in as far as you stick to your initial rules.

If you want, then, you could have a communist agrarian nudist colony, or a free-market free-love society, or a 1950s nostalgia community, or a scientific outpost maintained by indentured serfs, or a reconstructed Viking fort. How would you design what, in your opinion, would be the perfect village to live in?

What sorts of technologies would you allow?
What kind of laws would you have?
Would you institute a representative democracy, or some other form of government?
Who would live there? Is there a specific demographic of people you would have living here?
What ideals would your community be built around?
How would you approach issues of property ownership, taxation, welfare, and other economic matters?
What activities/spaces would you use for in community-building?
If you are into civil planning, how would you organize the physical space of the village?
What sort of housing/family structures would your citizens live in? (Nuclear family, extended family, communal living halls, cloistered cells...)
Would there be a specific religion, areligion, or political philosophy necessarily shared by all people?
How would you use police? Please remember that, although you can pick who lives here, and everyone lives here willingly, these are still real people living in your village. Some of them may commit crimes.
What sorts of cultural artifacts would be predominate in your village? (ie. Chinese cuisine, Greco-Roman theatre, surfer-bum fashion, country-western music...) Or would you be more cosmopolitan?
What sorts of urban cosmetic features would you have? (ie. solid gold statues of Aphrodite in the main square, Dutch windmills, old Mississippi homesteads, mango trees growing up out of the sidewalk... think civil design and architecture)

OK, that's enough questions. Design your village. Once you're done, come back for the rest of the activity.

Hopefully you now have your little model utopian society mapped out. If you want to write up a description on your own blog and link to that post in the comments section, I would greatly appreciate it. In the meantime, are you ready for the rest of the activity? Good. Let's do some experiments.

Imagine four generations have passed. You are deceased, but the little village you have put in place is still trucking. So are all of its social norms, laws, community codes, and so forth. Further, there has been almost no immigration or emigration. What this means is that the original settlers, those who elected to join the village, are dead, and the people now living there were born there, and due to the relative isolation of the village, moving out isn't a viable option. So my first question is, what would it be like to live there if you did not choose to live there? What would it be like to live there if you do not want to live there? Would it be possible for someone to be born in this society who was not welcome there, and what would it be like to be them?

Back to the present. You know that nice exportable resource which generates enough income to get you whatever technology you want? It's gone, or it's no longer valuable. What happens to your village when your only way to afford imports is gone?

A change in climate decreases the quantity and quality of your foodstuffs. It is much more difficult to produce enough for your village to eat, though it would be possible to produce enough if the majority of the village worked on agriculture or other necessary industry for regular worker hours. Would you reallocate all of your citizens to agriculture, or would you require that most of your citizens work harder so that a few citizens can continue working at whatever "non-essential" jobs you wanted them to work at (ie. research, theology, science, art)? Or were you strictly subsistence in the first place?

A flood nearby has required some of your nearest neighbours to flee to your village for refuge. They are radically different from the sorts of people who live in your village, and they have entirely different social norms and beliefs which they are between hesitant and unwilling to give up. How do you receive these refugees?

And my last question, I think, is most interesting: Would you, as you are today, be welcome in the village you designed? Would you be able to adhere to its customs and laws? Or would you only be able to live in your village if you were a different person than you are now?

I'd like to hear your answers to these questions, too.

7 Quick Takes (59)

1. I think we'll see a general decrease in the quality of my 7 Quick Takes because I am always exhausted on Friday afternoons and evenings. We may also see a general decrease in the quality of this blog. I will try not to let that happen, but I just want to throw that out there.

2. I did some more slack-rope practice last weekend. Not much to report there. I feel like I'm plateauing. Part of the problem--my recurring problem--is what the Buddhists would call monkey-mind. My racing, busy, non-stop mind is (as usual) getting in the way.

3. Oh! On Saturday I had a field trip with my Asian Canadian Lit class, where we went to Chinatown. That was interesting; I learned a fair amount about the Chinese community in Vancouver, stuff that changes how you see history. For instance, did you know that there was a developed Chinese community in Vancouver when the city was founded? That there was a time during which there were more Chinese settlers in coastal BC than European settlers? That, unlike Eastern Canada, it is far from clear that Europeans were the 'legitimate' settlers and that Asians were late-comers? (This last one implicates Asian Canadians in "colonial guilt," by the way, something that most of the class picked up on.)
At the end of the tour around Chinatown, we ate a Chinese restaurant. I had barbeque duck on rice, which was quite good.

4. My property-manager's little girls have taken the visiting the tenants in the basement (including your truly). They are hilarious and adorable, about the only thing preventing us from being seriously annoyed by the frequent invasions of privacy.

5. I went to see Henry V at Bard on the Beach last Friday evening. Have I told you that yet? It was quite good. Alessandro Juliani, who plays Gaeta on Battlestar Galactica, played King Henry. I do like that play, and this was a better version of it.
Shakespeare's a funny guy, though. A recurrent theme throughout Henry V is that the audience must create the setting with their minds. The Chorus often asks us to imagine the horses and the castles and the ships, to see these meagre costumes as rich robes, to see this players as dukes and kings. What occured to me during the play (for the first time, oddly) is that this request to see the stuff as what it represents actually diminishes our imaginative capacities. Instead of helping us imagine a real setting (which we can normally do perfectly well on our own, if we're any good at watching theatre), it calls attention to the actual props, the actual stage, and the actual actors. It calls attention to the imaginative process itself, and throws that process for a loop.
Given what I know about Shakespeare, having studied a number of his plays, I'd have to say that this isn't a stylistic blunder on his part but rather a deliberate choice to make us see part of the playmaking process. But here I'm getting into the Intentional Fallacy, so I will merely offer this idea of his intentions and allow you to make of it what you will.

6. Being a TA is really forcing me to think critically about what doing English is. Having to explain the process of thesis-generation, making arguements, and reading symbolically is a challenge in and of itself; having to explain departmental culture, the different schools and methods of criticism, and strip high theory into non-specialist conversation is a whole other ball game. It is humbling because I increasingly realize that I don't know precisely what I'm doing.

7. On Wednesday I at last brought up in conversation with some classmates that I am Christian. This was a hugely anxious moment for me because these classmates had made some off-the-cuff remarks that seemed disparaging of religion. And yet in the end this allowed me to have a good conversation with one of them, an atheist, about politics, religion, academia and so forth. It turns out that he has a great deal of respect for religion and a great deal of scorn for Hitchens and Co. That was a good conversation in so far as I felt more able to be myself (and I was less concerned with whether he, at least, was judging me for being Christian, though I cannot be sure about the others), but also because it followed a graduate seminar on Hume and Voltaire which settled about three quarters of an hour before class ended into an attack--a gentle attack, but an attack--on religion in general, Christianity in particular. So I was feeling rather unhappy about that seminar. After all, there were only eight students, including myself. I usually speak in class, even when out of my depth, so my silence during this conversation was conspicuous to me, if not to the others.
It seems that in university in general and some seminars in particular, at least as far as Queen's and UBC are concerned, that people just do not think there are Christians in the class. It never occurs to them. I am sure people from the Southern US will be boggled by this statement, but up here, in academia, there is an assumption of atheism/agnosticism/apathy, which manifests as a comfort in not just critiquing Christianity, which is fine and probably necessary, but treating it and its adherents dismissively. But I never want to say anything because I'm afraid I'll confirm their biases by being, I don't know, some polemical and overly defensive fanatic. Though you could just ended that sentence at "afraid."
Which is to say, I was happy to have this conversation immediately afterwards, especially as the classmate I had the conversation with was also in that particular seminar.

That was too long.

I encourage you to visit Jennifer Fulwiller, host of the 7 Quick Takes meme.
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