Thursday, December 30, 2010

These Days...

In its latest iteration, the purpose of this blog was to offer me a place to write semi-creatively.  My academic life doesn't often offer that chance, of course.  I like the space to develop a less than rigorous thought, a space for musings rather than theories, and, seemingly, a place to be a sentimental ass.
These days, I've had the occasion to write even more creatively. Sometimes this writing takes the form of the limerick, the most reviled of poems. But it has also taken the form of quick and dirty short fiction, composed on demand, and on the fly. I'll spare you the details, but there is very little time for editing or even forethought in this particular type of writing.  It is closer to story telling than story writing.
This appeals to me greatly.
I was, the first time I tried this, quite pleased with the result, and furthermore, pleasantly surprised by well I seemed to do it. Subsequent attempts seem to bear out these impressions. I thought about it for some time, wondering if I had discovered a new ability (like my seeming ability to sew and quilt, also discovered, or rather, re-discovered, this holiday season).
I have decided that no, it is not a new ability at all. As a younger man, I often played role-playing games, specifically the venerable Dungeons & Dragons, and an integral part of such a game is the ability to create and flesh out narratives on the fly, and often in response to changing, sometimes random, variables.  It is in this crucible that I forged the ability to weave a tale on short notice.
I think maybe it has something to do with having found my muse, as well.
I argued with someone last night that the countless (nearly endless) hours I had spent were not, as my interlocutor suggested, wasted. I did not trot out this particular example in my defense, raising some vague point about creativity instead. I was not deeply engaged in the argument, and my opponent was a difficult person to argue with in any case.
Now, however, sitting, with time to really contemplate, I realize that the time was not wasted, that my ability to weave a story quickly is a real skill, and that it seemingly brings some small amount of joy to some people. This may be a small thing, but it pleases me to no end.

Monday, December 27, 2010

"And there will come a time, you'll see..."

Ah, Christmas. As I was telling my sister today, my favorite of all holidays. She didn't believe me, of course. She thought I was being sarcastic, as I have a tendency to be.  She is a fan of Thanksgiving, as well.  Personally, I can pass on Thanksgiving.  But Christmas? The finest of all seasons.  Deck the halls, and all that.
This Christmas was, however, a bit small.  In recent years, my uncle has joined us for Christmas, and, occasionally, so had one of my mother's cousins.  In addition, of course, there was also my recent ex.  None of the above joined us this year, and so, Christmas lacked a certain sense of people.
This is not to say that Christmas was in any way bad. It most assuredly was not.  It was, in fact, rather nice. I would not pass up this time with my family for anything in the world. However, with only the three of us, it seemed... well, quiet, I suppose.
I am fond of saying that if all you can say about your life is that it is quiet, then you are not in such a bad place overall.  Unquietness can be unpleasant at times.  Drama, and all that.
Balance, I suppose, is the key.
The lack of some people, clearly, was more profound, more pointed, than others. No offense to my uncle or cousin, of course. There are instances, in any given day, but more so now, during the holidays, when one is flooded with memories of those absent. Someone who is in similar situation has begun to describe these pointed moments as twinges, which I quite like as a term to describe the fleeting moments of sharp, sometimes painful memory.  I've full on adopted the term, expanding it even, to include twinge-y (in all fairness, she may have coined this one as well), and twinginess (almost certainly mine).
These moments pass, and they are not all bad. Some have that wonderful bittersweet quality of summer romances, and some are downright pleasant. Of these latter, most revolve around my father, gone these last 6 years, but still very much present.  While these memories certainly constitute twinges, as I recognize that he is not here to share this Christmas with us, I am nevertheless comforted by the memories of him. In particular, the shared memories, and the stories, that pass between my mother, my sister and I, as well as his family, many of whom live here, in the land of his birth.
I spend a better part of the day yesterday shooting skeet (or something very much like skeet, anyway), a pastime my father was very fond of, and that he taught me.  I like to think that he would have been happy for me to do so.  I didn't shoot well, but I enjoyed myself, and that is something he taught me as well.  Twinge-y, yes. Sharp, poignant, yes. Sad? Not so much, Gentle Reader. Not so much.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas Eve

My Uncle, who unfortunately can't join us this Christmas, called tonight, and in the course of our conversation, asked me what I had done today.
I replied, quite truthfully, that I had slept in, and then spent the rest of the day making meat pies (tourtière for the Québécois/es out there).
I ate the pies.  Well, part of one of them, anyway.
All told, this is not a particularly bad way to spend a day. I, at least, enjoyed it.
Today is the first time I have ever made tourtière, despite repeated threats to do so in the past.  In addition, I attempted to recreate a meat pie of my youth, made by a friend of the family who has since passed away.  I grew up on Joan's meat pies, and while I love the ones we now buy from my Aunt, I have never forgotten the moist shredded meat and potatoes that filled the pies of my younger days.
Today, I set out to make Joan's meat pie, and, by all accounts, succeeded.  It was like tasting the long passed days of Christmas as a child.  It was a wonderful moment indeed.
In a conversation with my Grandmother yesterday, she described the act of baking bread as magic.  I too have often considered cooking to be a magical act, and I was joyed to hear the matriarch of a family of 13, presumably having cooked more than any one person should every want to cook, describe it so.  To have recaptured a part of my past, in the form of a long lost food, makes the act even more powerful.  I made the dough for the pie crusts from scratch, another first for me.  There is something about flour and it's attendant ingredients that highlight the strange processes that occur in cooking (the magic, for lack of better terms).  It changes so dramatically, depending on what is added (butter, water) or applied (pressure, heat).  To handle dough, to work it, to transform it, especially when making bread, that quintessential foodstuff, staple of the West, is a profound experience.
In addition to my culinary exploits, I also had the pleasure of attending the Christmas Eve service at the local Church.  It was a lovely event, and one of the readings struck me.  In a responsive prayer, the lay reader exhorted us to "approach Christmas with the joy of a child".
Having rediscovered the taste of the meat pies of my childhood, and having revealed in the magic of cooking those pies, I feel like I have, in fact, approached this Christmas Eve with the joy of a child.
And that is a beautiful thing.
Merry Christmas, Gentle Reader.  The Best wishes for you and yours this holiday season.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Into the West...

My return to children's literature continues with The Chronicles of Narnia, that theologically inspired opus of C. S. Lewis.  Last week, reading it quietly as I passed the time in the company of a friend, I was struck by the following line:
"If you have been up all night and cried till you have no more tears left in you—you will know that there comes in the end a sort of quietness" -C. S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
Theologian or not, the man can write. No doubt about it.
This kind of stillness is not unknown to me.  I felt it some years ago, the morning my father died, the house no longer wracked by his ragged breath, and devoid of the kind souls who had been clustered around us for days in support, who had left us to grieve in silence.  It is a particular quietness, and I remember it well.
Yesterday, as I sat at his grave, contemplating the year that is soon to be no more, I was reminded of that particular quietness.  The cemetery where he is buried is small, and well away from things. It was deserted, and quite still. I felt that sort of quietness again, and somehow, for the first time in what seems a long while, it made me comfortable.
The land of my ancestors is currently being torn by storms, and the pounding of the surf is incessant.  Le Fleuve, often so calm and inviting, is stripping the shores away, reshaping the land.  There is a sense of menace and power that is at odds with the overall peacefulness of the otherwise pastoral setting. It leaves me on edge, a reminder that death walks here too, no matter how comfortable I might feel in the stillness. Very much like someone I know, someone who possesses a certain wild energy, and whose energy sets me on edge the same way the storm does now.  Like the storm, their energy reminds me of that tenuous divide between the quick and the dead. And it reminds me of which side of that line I inhabit. And that is a welcome reminder.
Still, the beauty of this place is profound, storm or no storm. A walk in the woods this morning, with the brilliant green moss only just covered in a layer of snow (no cross country skiing yet, dear reader), left me near speechless.  The barren fields and leafless trees surrounding the cemetery offer their own brand of beauty, as does, of course, Le Fleuve, the mighty St. Laurent. I am lucky, I think, to sit here, in the house my father built and died in, and be able to contemplate the beauty of the land he was born into, and the beauty of life in general.  Lucky indeed, dear reader.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

"Close the door in case you stay"

Recently, in a series of discussions focusing on why I like Christmas (and I do so like Christmas), several things became clear:
I am a sentimental Jackass
The Academic year lends itself to the Christmas Break being special
The Holiday Season can be a bit unreal, outside of time, and powerful
A few words on these observations.  One of the reasons I like Christmas so much is the lights. Really, you may ask, the lights? Sentimental, yes. But I can't help it.  It is a profoundly dark part of the year where I hail from, and the extra lights everywhere, on lamp posts, houses, balconies, storefronts, my apartment, trees, squirrels, ladies of the night, etc., etc., ad nauseum... It makes the world seem softer, somehow, warmer, more welcoming. Blankets of fresh snow help as well, muffling the harsh sounds of the city, the flakes obscuring vision, blurring edges, forming unseen shapes and swirls. Obviously, my love of the yuletide is geographically situated. My one Christmas in Florida was a profoundly unsettling experience.
I'm also a fan of the constructedness of the the holiday, a la coke-ad Santa and the all that Norman Rockwell happy horseshit. I love it. I know what it is, but I buy into whole hog, willingly. I'm wearing a Santa hat right now. Alone, in my apartment, with a Santa hat on. I think it helps that largely, I get on well with my family, and to go home for the holiday (only a few more days to go before I leave) is no burden, but rather a joy. I understand why some people might not like Christmas, and I don't hold it against them, but I do so enjoy it.
As an academic, my schedule makes Christmas more meaningful as well, as it constitutes not simply a division of the year, a holiday among holidays, as it must be for 9-to-5ers and other employed types.  The semester, in academia, ends in December, and a new one begins in January.  The cycle stops and starts afresh.  It is not simply a break in undifferentiated time, but rather a null space between two distinct periods. The holidays, for me, are in a real way outside of normal time. And that makes them a powerful time indeed.
Which brings me to the third point.  The holidays have some inherent magic, some build up, and release of, potential energy, of power.  Like Carnivale, or Mardi Gras, they represent a time when things can happen, strange and exciting things, with little or no repercussion on the real day to day life that falls outside the holiday season. Part of this is tied up in the academic cycle. Surrounded by profs and students, I am acutely aware of the heightened sense of energy on campus this time of year.  There is potential in that energy. Part of it is the frantic rush of holiday shopping, when Ville-Marie sings with the
sounds of commerce. Either way, there is magic in the air, and I love it.
I'll be home soon, for Christmas, amongst family and friends. It won't be a perfect Christmas, and I suspect there will be a few rough patches. But it will be Christmas, and a few days later, the new year. And we can all begin again, anew.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

"Of Making Many Books There is no End..."

...and much study is a weariness of the flesh.
It has been a profoundly long semester. My first course was fantastic, at least from my point of view. I'm not sure if my students would agree, although I suspect some of them might. But it took an awful lot of energy, and I am weary. A bone-deep kind of weary, one that sneaks up on me in the afternoon, a thief stalking a thief.
But this is at an end now. In celebration, last night, out with one of the boys. Today, a book buying binge. Tomorrow, a feast (also to celebrate the birthday of a food loving friend; the proverbial two birds, I suppose).
What, gentle reader do you suppose I bought today? For me, and only me, I purchased the following:

Steak, by Mark Schatzker
The Emperor of All Maladies, by Siddhartha Mukherjee
Room, by Emma Donoghue
Fragile Things, by Neil Gaiman (suggested by a book loving friend)

I purchased some gifts for other, in the form of books, as it is Christmas season, but I suppose I shan't post the specifics in a public forum, fearing to ruin the surprise.
And the menu, you ask? For the celebratory feast? Thus:

Hors D'Oeuvres - Danish Crispy Pork Cracklings
Entree - Detroit-style Sliders
Main - Classic Standing Rib Roast, Yorkshire Pudding, Red Wine Pan Gravy, Roast Potatoes w/ Parsnip and Leek, and Sauteed Greens.
Bread - Sullivan St. Bakery's No-Knead Bread (whole wheat).
Dessert - Torta Tres Leches (I'm not making this one. It is being brought by my guest).

Should be good. I may very well slip into some kind of food coma, true, but there is always a price to pay for the good things in life.
It has been, gentle reader, a very long semester indeed. But, by Friday night, when my final grades are submitted, Christmas Break will have begun, and all will be well with the world...

Saturday, December 11, 2010

"Take me home, country roads"

"All through this conversation his voice was growing slower and richer. More like the country voice he must have had as a boy and less like the sharp, quick voice of a cockney" - The Magician's Nephew, C. S. Lewis.
This, apparently, has happened to me lately. At least, under certain circumstances.  Someone pointed it out to me some weeks ago, and I was happy to see it in print this morning.  Perhaps, like the new King of Narnia (the voice in the above quote), I am affected by some magic, sometimes, some sort of wild power.
Nevertheless, it is fitting that my voice returns sometimes to that of the country boy. For I am, at the heart of it, just that. In fact, I was recently asked, "So, where are you from, exactly, with the sea, and the forest and the mountains?". I had, apparently, been rather hyperbolic in my stories about my youth, about my origins.
Although, the truth is not far off. I did grow up in the mountains (the appalachians, granted), and by the sea (le Fleuve, but the water is salty where I live).  The forest, well, it was more pastoral than primeval, but it was a sort of woods, a forest, and it had trees.  There are deer there, and rabbit, partridges and foxes, so it might as well be a forest, really.
And it is to this pastoral wonderland that I shall return, for the Christmas Break, in all my boonie-rat glory (since a someone recently took umbrage at my self-description of "red-neck", I'll try boonie-rat on for size. I like rats, so it is sorta apropos. They might not agree).  Winter is a wonderful time in Metis, where I hail from, so long as one doesn't mind crushing isolation.  And snow.  Armed, however, with second-hand cross country skis and borrowed boots, I intend to conquer the backwoods, snow and all.  And the presence of family, and the magic of Christmas, should offset the isolation.
Baked goods, and with any luck, a Christmas goose. Hot cocoa by the wood stove. Family dinners, Christmas Eve in the country Church (United, or Presbyterian, but who am I to complain).
Ah, the country. The mountains, the sea, the forest. I really am from there, and I am awfully glad when I get the chance to go back.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

"Ain't it good to be alive?"

I was reminded, lately, by a very good friend indeed, of a pearl of wisdom that I once cast before the swine.  He reported that I once said, "The greatest thing about life is that even when it sucks, it's so good".  Last night, for reasons I'll leave unexplained here, I needed to hear this, having forgotten that I said it in the first place, and lately, having forgotten its essential truth. I fear The Rolling Stones would agree.
This post has been a long time coming. Originally, it was to be a martial post, all blood and war, sturm und  drang.  It was inspired by a quote I had read on the verge of sleep the night before, "He swore this terrible oath: 'Hook or me this time'".  Hook or me, this time.  I muttered that terrible oath, with some vague substitution for the name Hook, to myself, and sleep overtook me. The simplicity, the brutality of the quote appealed to me, the flat out declaration of total war. 
I had decided to declare my intent to fight, or to die trying. I would answer the enemy as Governor-General Frontenac had answered the English request to surrender in 1690: "Non, je n'ai point de réponse à faire à votre général que par la bouche de mes canons et de mes fusils".  It was to be a warning, a declaration to the world that war was upon it, that the horsemen had ridden, and to make ready, and to tremble.
Alas, I realized, not necessarily on my own, that my terrible oath, my sworn duty to press the enemy, to hound at ever turn and to seize every opportunity, would cause far more damage than I was willing to inflict on the world, and on myself.  War is not a pretty thing, and euphemisms of collateral damage and acceptable casualties aside, I cannot bring myself to believe that all is in fact fair in love and war. One must always consider the consequences of one's actions. Lately, taking solace in the notion that in humankind's two greatest endeavours, no quarter is asked nor given, I have done things that, in retrospect, I am not overly proud of. Having lost the moral high ground, I find my defensive position to be ever more untenable. The enemy, faults aside, has become the better man (may have been from the beginning, truth be told) and that weighs heavily on my heart. Collectively, perhaps, at the heart of it, we are not animals, and maybe, just maybe, I shouldn't act like one.
To some, this would appear to be a surrender. Have I given up, gentle reader? Have I acknowledged that I have lost?  I'm not convince that that is true. Maybe I'm changing the game. Like the early Christian before me, maybe I'm subverting the drama of the arena, making my surrender more powerful than the perceived victory of the Roman could ever be. Maybe, in turning the other cheek, in throwing in the towel, I can reclaim some of that high ground, and I can rest more easily. To lose is not always to be defeated, and to surrender is not alway to quit. Knowing that life, as much as it might occasionally suck, really is pretty good, sorta helps, too.