Monday, December 26, 2005


I am off to the Modern Language Association Conference tomorrow. At present, my paper on Njal's sagais still a page too long, but my PowerPoint presentation is just about ready.

While in DC, I'll be staying at the pop art Hotel Helix which, Mike Rhode tells me, is quite new, part of the dressing up of downtown. It's probably good to be a little way away from the main conference hotels--there is no anxiety quite like the job hunt anxieties at MLA. Think of it: thousands of people competing for hundreds of jobs, all trying to shine as brightly as they can for days on end. Having been on both sides of the table, I know it's an exhausting process for everyone.

Say, isn't there a good used bookstore in DuPont Circle...?

Wednesday, December 21, 2005


Today is the shortest day of the year. Is it any wonder that in these darkest days cultures around the world celebrate festivals of light? We all need reassurance that the light will return and with it hope. My best hopes for you all this season; may the coming year bring much joy and many useful challenges.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Medieval Traditions

We had our largest ever graduation at UHD. It's funny to see everyone in these costumes that haven't changed all that much from the twelfth century or so. Many other things have changed, however, when the medieval universities were explicitly Christian and almost exclusively male. I had to read out the names of the graduates of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, so I had an anxious time preparing to read monikers which come from all over the globe and show the wonderful diversity of our campus life. I'm just glad I didn't know I was going to end up on TV, too! Yikes -- our departmental administrative assistant, Ruby Brown-Hogan, told me she saw me on the news. Am I destined only to be photographed in funny hats?

Saturday, December 17, 2005


Thanks to all my pals for remembering my natal day. I suppose I wasn't surprised to see a big Sanrio bag on the table this morning :-) and I've already been out for breakfast. Tonight is the medieval music concert with Collegium Mysterium and then dinner at Collina's. Here's a faboo card from my pal, the fabulously talented Elena Steier:

Friday, December 16, 2005

Can You Read This?

If so you may be in a minority!

A new study published by the Department of Education reports (and reported in the New York Times and other newspapers) that literacy has fallen significantly for recent college graduates, as well as alarmingly amongst Latinos. Working at an open admissions university, I have seen this trend first hand. It is one of the challenges of working here to balance a classroom with a wide array of student preparedness.

What the study highlights is not this problem, one educators know well, but the overall impact of the failure of education in this country. The study reports that only 13% of the population achieves the level designated "Proficient." This is the top level of measurement, mere proficiency, which they define as:

• reading lengthy, complex, abstract prose texts as well as synthesizing information and making complex inferences

• integrating, synthesizing, and analyzing multiple pieces of information located in complex documents

• locating more abstract quantitative information and using it to solve multistep problems when the arithmetic operations are not easily inferred and the problems are more complex

Only 13% of the population? What percentage of the population graduates from some college? Surely more than 13%! Yet so many are apparently incapable of the skills required to pass my Freshman Composition course. Clearly, we are falling down on the job. It's easy to see why: education has no value, but it has prestige. As John Gardner wrote,

We must learn to honor excellence in every socially accepted human activity, however humble the activity, and to scorn shoddiness, however exalted the activity. An excellent plumber is infinitely more admirable than an incompetent philosopher. The society that scorns excellence in plumbing because plumbing is a humble activity and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because it is an exalted activity will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy. Neither its pipes nor its theories will hold water.

Here's to honoring excellence!

Friday, December 09, 2005

Kong is King

We went by the theater early and saw no line, so we went off to dinner. When we got back the line had formed. A guy went up and down the line as it lengthened warning folks to get rid of any cell phones with cameras as they would not be allowed in. Gene was without his Treo and felt naked, but we complied. They frisked purses and gave us all a going over with the wand (ahhh, should I rephrase that?), plus had staff with night goggles checking out the audience for surreptitious filming. Very serious.

From the very first frames, Jackson cues us that this is loving tribute to the original, from the art deco credits to the loving evocation of 1930s New York (as reconstructed in New Zealand). Yet he gives the film an edge of modern sensibilities in reconfiguring the characters and the arc of the story. Over all that may be the biggest problem, the uncomfortable mismatch between 1930s sensibilities and those of the 21st century, especially when it comes to problematic things like racial portrayals and what you might call moments of "movie magic," i.e. things that happen because they need to do so. However, that's really a quibble for post-viewing discussion over drinks with friends (and in large part due to Jackson's faithfulness to the original story). And occasionally he lingers just a little too long on the faces of Watts and Kong; the film could be cut without major sacrifice, but --

In short, it was a fantastic ride and I loved it.

Naomi Watts is luminously filmed and made up so she glows like a vintage Hollywood star. She brings a surprising new sensibility to the role (including her comic work) that makes her more appealing to modern temperaments without discarding the traditional feel of the part. Jack Black is reined in somewhat from his bombast, although he is supposed to be a bit of a hustler and manages to make the director who will get his film done at any cost both sympathetic and eventually, suspect (one can't help seeing a little self-criticism from Jackson). While the on-board fate of the writer played by Brody may be a little too on the nose, he does admirable work in making us believe his role, as does the more comic turn by the "hero" Kyle Chandler. Terrific supporting cast including Andy Serkis, Thomas Kreschmann as the captain and Evan Parke as Hayes. A good number of in-jokes (most horror related) sprinkle the opening half hour, at which Gene and I were about the only ones laughing.

Oh, wait -- you want to know about the ape, right? Well, I've never been big on monkeys and apes (apart from Hanuman and Gene, the monkey man whom I love for reasons unexplained), but I may have been won over. Looks good. Which is to say, believable, moving, real -- scarred, emotive, authentic. An animal, not a human in monkey skin -- one of the most affecting things is that his non-human (but intelligent) nature comes through. The island and all its amazing creatures look good -- and terrifying in most cases. Jackson does a terrific job of giving the audience stunning moments of awe, then jerking you painfully into terror (one of the most beautiful and sweet versions of this comes near the end).

If you want to know nothing at all before you see the film, stop here. If you don't mind knowing the arc of the story (which is much the same as the original) without any important spoilers, continue:

You know Kong fights a dinosaur. You have NO idea. Absolutely amazing.

You know there are big bugs. You have NO idea. I was squirming in my seat.

Joey: the bats! You will love them.

You know we end up on the Empire State Building. I have a terrible fear of heights and vertigo. I was near collapse by the end and sweat was pouring off my hands as my knees went weak. One of the interesting choices was all the long shots of Kong atop the building, making him look so tiny in the big city, so lost.

In resisting the desire to completely anthropomorphize Kong, the ending seems even more bitterly cruel. Watts is our conduit to Kong throughout and the face of our grief, our empathy, and she does an incredible job of conveying thoughts and emotions without any words -- as does the face of Kong, both familiar and alien. Like us, but not us.

In the end, it's a movie about a giant ape. Some might find that silly. It is silly. But it works -- it is spectacle. And Jackson's humor and thoughtfulness make it work. Unexpected turns keep the action lively (and yeah, sometimes quite funny), and the familiar story takes on new resonance. It may be a touch of nostalgia, but it delivers. I laughed, I cried -- I was totally absorbed. It was really cathartic.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Twenty Five Years

That night I was driving back from my late night shift at Toys R Us, pleased to hear cuts from Double Fantasy on the radio, until I heard the announcement that cut so sharply.

I don't like to dwell on death days: I'd rather remember the beginnings, the creations, the wonder. I turn away from television programs that glorify the fifteen minutes of fame awarded a mentally-deranged gun nut because he killed someone famous. And as always, I turn to funny things to make me laugh.

Of late, there's the appearance of John Lennon on "Not Only...But Also..." which recently came my way. It's got John playing a men's room attendant and also performing in one of the In His Own Write pieces. The great book of the Beatles' connection to British humor has yet to be written. Think of it: George with the Pythons and Rutles (and pre-Python Rutland Weekend Television, singing the Pirate song and playing "Pirate Bob") or all the Beatles on Morecambe and Wise (which at least we have audio now on the Anthology). What made them a success from the start? Their charm -- a large part of which was due to their shared sense of humor and the absurd. It was always there -- sometimes hidden away in the fan club Christmas messages, sometimes more directly in the songs and in the films.

Today, let us always remember that "It's a laugh a line with Lennon!"

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Ritual and Response

I attended a meeting today for graduation. I will be a marshal (yet, I get no badge -- how is that fair?), so there are additional duties I needed to know about. Graduation is already a step back in time to the medieval universities and their rituals and robes. Now I have additional complex steps within the ritual. Some marshals are banner-bearers, some student-herders; I will be a name-caller. The unpleasant scrutiny that "fame" brings (in this case, a faculty award is all the fame it needed), also carries extra duties and responsibilities. I will be visible in a public ritual, something I have usually sought to avoid. Middle child syndrome: always hungering for the spotlight, but inevitably uncomfortable in it.

I was struck by the gravity of the ritual, and yet the reluctant recognition that it could not be controlled. "Try to get the students to stay" was the theme, whether it was to get them in line for the procession or in their seats after the walk across the platform. And then there's the arena itself--keep off the grass! Minute Maid Park has to be maintained in game shape. What to do when rituals collide? No victory laps for the graduates; decorum must be maintained!

Sunday, December 04, 2005


I have been immersing myself since this summer in British comedy, mostly vintage, but not exclusively. Some of it has come via trips to England, some via Ebay, some via friends (thanks Brad! and James). It's odd how much of this is resurrected from my teens. Why is that someone raised in Mid-Michigan was exposed to so much British comedy? Curious, eh?

I can't recall for sure the exact order of things. I know that around the same time our local PBS channel at MSU was showing Monty Python, their sister NPR station was playing not only the Goon Show but also I'm Sorry I'll Read That Again. Just about the time I had got hooked on the shows, they also began to broadcast The Goodies. Then there was finding A Poke in the Eye with a Sharp Stick (probably in Wazoo Records or FBC in East Lansing), the first of many Amnesty International comedy benefits. This introduced me at last to the genius that is Peter Cook.

Well, I think that was the chain. It all seemed to happen at once. Maybe I actually found the Beyond the Fringe LPs before that. I can't really tell anymore. As Gene has noted recently, when I get obsessed with something (or re-obsessed in this case), I go all out. Between the long awaited release of many of these shows on DVD and the wonders of the internet in making available recordings no longer available (thank to things like the BBC wiping tapes -- ayiiii!), I am reveling once more in this terrific comedy. Things I never thought I'd see, like At Last the 1948 Show and Do Not Adjust Your Set have actually been released here (and yes, I have them).

Best of all? The humor stands the test of time. While the occasional timely joke falls flat, most of the humor remains fairly timeless. Unfortunately, there will always be pompous idiots, craven politicians, misguided wars and hypocrites. And perhaps, too, there will always be some kind of C. P. Snow, ravens who must be taught to swim and, somewhere warm, four Yorkshiremen who reflect on life as it used to be.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Phi Kappa Phi

I was delighted to be invited to join the honor society Phi Kappa Phi. There will be an induction ceremony on Friday night. However, I received a second surprise yesterday: they had two speakers in a row cancel on them, so one of the organizers asked me whether I'd like to read one of my short stories in lieu of actually delivering an academic presentation. Given the short notice, I certainly wasn't ready to give a scholarly talk! But I am more than willing to read a story. Considering the proximity of the source, I think I'll read "On Buffalo Bayou," which recently appeared in the New Texas Literary Journal. I hope they like it.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Buy Nothing Day

Fighting against the tide of gaudy sales circulars and blaring advertisements, many are joining in a worldwide phenomenon, Buy Nothing Day. The advantage to this particular organization is that it costs you nothing -- and frees you from consuming for at least one day. While other people are lined up outside Wal-Mart at 4 am, you can be snuggled in your warm bed. While other people come to blows in mall parking lots, you can be relaxing by reading a book. While other people swarm to buy gifts they don't really need for people they don't really like, you can be sorting through your belongings to decide what you can give away. It's a win-win situation!

Monday, November 21, 2005

Expanded Interview

The expanded version of the interview I did with Diane Saarinen is available for download in PDF format from New World Finn and falls on about page 23. You can also get the much easier to manage paper version by subscribing. In the interview I talk about writing and my work on Unikirja. Thanks again are due to Diane, who first interviewed me for Quiet Mountain Essays.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Review: Walk the Line

We had free passes to see this last night and dutifully made our way outsde the loop to a megaplex we'd never seen before. The night was hosted by the Houston Chronicle (source of our free passes) and some local country radio station (Gene always argues that since their call letters are KILT that they should be playing Scottish music, but I digress). Ironic of course, considering how little support country music stations gave Cash over the years. But nice freebie posters (we grabbed a handful, so let us know if you'd like one).

From the very first frames Phoenix's Cash is sweating profusely -- he seems to burn all the way through the film. It's a flame that powers his inspiration -- and his danger. It kind of helps that I already know a lot of the story, although this is not really so much a biography of Cash and Carter, as the account of their inevitable collision. From the first moment when little J.R. hears 10 year old June on the radio (a moment, Gene pointed out, that would seem totally over the top if it weren't true), it seems they are careening toward one another as much as they try to hold back.

The flame that is Cash crashes through life unable to shake off the shadow of his brother's untimely death, unable to knuckle under to the "realities" of life his wife Vivian tries to get him to reconcile himself to absorbing. But he's unable to ignore the siren song of music, of fame, of Carter's good girl charm. While Vivian tries to bank the flames, Witherspoon's Carter feels its draw but resists surrendering to it. It's wonderful to watch these two inhabit their roles. Phoenix becomes Cash, growing into the voice of the battered penitent, while Witherspoon brings out the amazing strength beneath the polished professional exterior. There's a wonderful scene where a Southern woman puritannically rips her apart with matter-of-fact cruelty, and she responds with conciliatory words of apology that show both her well-trained persona and the depths of her pain. While her life is sketched even more lightly than Cash's, there are many moments of delight, such as when she and her folks chase off Cash's would-be drug dealer. If only her legs weren't so skinny! It's inhuman.

Phoenix will undoubtedly receive the bulk of the acclaim, but they both do terrific jobs appropriating this story of a love that burns and nearly consumes them both.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

The Libertine

Well, I got all excited hearing this long-awaited film would finally be released, but of course that proved premature (it still doesn't have a rating). While it will be released in New York and Los Angeles, it won't hit the sticks (including the fourth largest city in the nation) until January. In the meantime, we can all visit the official website and view the trailer.

The film covers the life of 17th century poet, dramatist and, of course, libertine John Wilmot, the Earl of Rochester, who had a master's degree by 14 and died by the age of 33. He wrote love poems, dramas and scorn:

Were I - who to my cost already am
One of those strange, prodigious creatures, man -
A spirit free to choose for my own share
What sort of flesh and blood I pleased to wear,
I'd be a dog, a monkey, or a bear,
Or anything but that vain animal,
Who is so proud of being rational...

Monday, November 14, 2005

And then suddenly --

I died! I'm just glad there are tentacles. It's all in chapter eight, part two, of Richard Crawford's Fred, Again. Here's another passage showing the true life of the college prof:

Hurriedly, she grabbed her satchel and thrust the ancient book, as well as a few reference materials, into it. This made the satchel extremely heavy and bulky, but as a liberal arts professor she was used to that. Almost as an afterthought she grabbed the thirty student essays that she was supposed to be grading and put them into the satchel as well...

Ha ha -- Painful accuracy there! Sounds like most days for me.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Dancing into Death

Who knew it? That I secretly teach swing dancing in my off hours?

Well, that's according to the novel in progress by my Horror cohort Richard Crawford. Here's a sample:

“Right. Okay.” Fred cleared his throat. “Do you have any contact information for this Doctor Nefario? Any way of getting in touch with him should, say, a class be canceled for any reason?”

Joe nodded. “Yep. In fact, we may have to use it tonight if Doctor Laity doesn’t show up to teach. Where is that woman?”

Fred nodded sympathetically and said, “I understand. We’ve got a few slackers down at the precinct.”

“You don’t understand,” Joe said. “This is totally unlike Doctor Laity. She’s a professor of literature or medieval studies or something at the University. You don’t get to be a professor like that if you’ve got sloppy work habits and can’t come to work on time. She’s never late. Never even called in sick. I have to say,” he added, “I’m a bit worried about her.”

This is all part of NaNoWriMo, the write a novel in a month project that unfurls talent every November. It's a great kick to get going if you've ever thought about writing a novel. Try it! And stop by to see how I get killed in Richard's novel...

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Lights! Cameras!...Inaction?

Robert forwarded me the link that allows folks outisde the Bard world see the camera set up in his office to look down at the construction of the Gabrielle H. Reem and Herbert J. Kayden Center for Science and Computation at Bard. So far, it's less than riveting. Yes, we are trying to get Robert to turn the camera around so we can see the clown painting, or else to find some way to get puppets in front of the lens so it will look as if monsters are attacking the building site.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Review: Mirrormask

We were really looking forward to this film designed by Dave McKean and written by Neil Gaiman. It was only playing at one theater in town, so we finally hied ourselves over to catch it before it disappeared. At the matinee showing, it appeared that we would have a private screening, until just after the film started a woman came in and sat right behind us in the otherwise empty theater. Sigh.

Reviews of the film have been mixed (or just negative) and it's easy to see why. While visually stunning and inventive, the story drags. It's a simplistic tale of good v. evil writ upon the life of a (pre?) teen girl, but that in itself is not a problem -- how many great narratives have begun with just that frame? No, the problem is that movement from one point to the next is not propelled by story but by what seems to be the desire to create another stunning tableau. And they are stunning whether gorgeous or menacing, but that's not very engaging. Because of the lack of engagement, the Neil moments stand out a little more nakedly: funny, sure, but unconnected (I still think Neil needs an Anthony Blanche to warn him away from the dangers of charm). While the actors manage to round out the characters, they are forced by the plot to become little more than chess pieces, moved by the need to get to the next tableau rather than by the need to accomplish something.

There is a fun cameo by Stephen Fry.

The visuals are amazing, melding live action and special effects seamlessly for the most part, creating incredible creatures and wonderful buildings. But the film, in the end, is a big picture book with the rudiments of story. The pictures are amazing. When one character appears without the omnipresent mask, it's a bit of a let down. I immediately thought of Garbo's response to the revelation of Jean Marais at the end of Cocteau's La Belle et la Bete: "Give me back my beautiful beast!" Why settle for anything less than the extraordinary?

Monday, October 31, 2005

Happy Halloween!

Where ever you may be, hope the tricks and treats are great -- eat lots of chocolate!

UPDATE: here's why we miss our good friends so much this time of the year -- here's the Joey Zone and Perilous Cheryl as Papa Legba and Marie Laveau at Ralph's Diner in Worcester, MA, photo courtesy of Sasquatch and the Sick-a-Billys drummer, Miss Natalie.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

That Feeling of Accomplishment

Halloween cards are in the mail! I was despairing of actually getting a card out this year, but the right conflation of events finally coaxed it out of me. What were those events? Well, first a meeting that I needed to attend but didn't need to hear everything at, so I could scribble in the back of the room the ideas I had had for the card (as well as get some grading done). The original idea didn't pan out, but I had a new (simpler) inspiration which seemed much more fruitful. Then it was off to teach the third class of the day and finally make it home (after a stop at Star Pizza -- yum!), where I realized I had left the piece of paper with my notes on it in my office. Perhaps, I thought, it just wasn't going to happen.

Then there was waking up at quarter to four; it was difficult to get back to sleep and so my thoughts turned to what I had been trying to write earlier. I knew I would likely forget all I had thought, so I got up and wrote down the new version, and it seemed better (of course, it was the middle of the night). I had to try not to trip over the cats ("what are you doing up? this is our time" "I'm going to follow her" "No, I am!") on my way to my office and back, but I finally got back in bed and eventually fell asleep,

Convinced I had dreamed it, I got up this morning and sure enough, there were the new scribbles on a pad next to the computer, so I typed it up and fixed the layout and started printing. I went off to my class in the Woodlands and then came back to finish printing. Then Gene and I sat to fold, sign, envelope (ow! paper cuts -- some lucky people are getting a little blood with their cards) and stamp the cards, before I ran out to the post office to send them off.

It may seem a little silly just for Halloween cards, but getting something done -- having tangible results -- is always a great feeling. Now it's time to get back to work on projects with less immediate feelings of accomplishment.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

"Fiasco" no fiasco

Thanks to some of my generous colleagues (and friend Peter!) we had a reading of my new play Fiasco last night. It seemed to go all right; that is to say, people laughed (it is meant to be a comedy). I was able to see errors and typos, as well as judge where it might need to be expanded or cut. It does make such a difference to actually hear the words out loud. It was a bit embarrassing that I was laughing more than anybody, but you do have to write to please yourself. At least I wasn't the only one laughing, so that was all right. Some folks were reading it cold, so the laughs came unexpectedly. I had actually forgotten parts that I had written -- is that odd? Not for me. Once I've written something, I tend to forget it. It is almost as if someone else wrote it; I kid about channeling Peter Cook as I wrote this play, ha ha. But it is wonderful how creativity just pours out of your head surreally (when it does), and depressing when it doesn't. The sad truth is that sometimes the flow just dries up. Usually it means that it is time to feed your head. Go out for a walk, read a good book, see some engaging art, or even watch a film. Dive into conversation with interesting people -- it fills the well once more.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer (1970)

I took advantage of a bad cold to finally relax and watch this film. An oddity from 1970, this film takes a cynical look at advertising, politics and the often thin line between them. Co-written by Peter Cook, John Cleese, Graham Chapman and director Kevin Billington, it's no surprise the satire bites. The film is also stocked with terrific mainstays of British acting including Arthur Lowe and Denholm Elliott; and that's not even mentioning the role played by recent Nobel prize winner, Harold Pinter. As the superb review at IMDB says:

"... it is a truly wonderful thing to behold Peter Cook, Denholm Elliot and the great Harold Pinter (as an fantastically smarmy TV talk-show host) appearing in the same frame trying to out-smarm each other. It's a three way draw. Brilliant."

But the reviewer is also correct that the overall effect is unsuccessful. While Peter Cook is unsettling and surreally charming as Rimmer, there's also a remoteness that keeps the characters from ever becoming engaging, although Denholm Elliott very nearly succeeds in making the too-easily-corrupted Peter Niss, if not sympathetic, at least believable. Given the current climate of bald-faced media manipulation by politicians, this film seems far ahead of its time. The ease with which the sociopathic climber Rimmer succeeds, moving from deceit to dissembling to outright murder (and perhaps more chillingly, from ad exec to eventual dictator), hits a little too close to home to be very funny anymore.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

A Star is Born: Finnish Style

Multi-talented Finnish musician/storyteller/performer Ulla Suokko just added one more line to her resume: TV personality. I was alerted by intrepid Finnish-American reporter Diane Saarinen that she had heard (by way of Gerry Henkel) that Ulla had appeared on Conan O'Brien's Late Night show. I was aghast to have missed Ulla's television debut, but fortunately, I am married to a very clever man and within minutes, Gene had located a clip on the internet.

Apparently this all came about because Conan's show is now broadcast in Finland, and Finnish fans have started showing up at the tapings in NYC, which delighted Conan -- even more so when he decided that he had a more than passing resemblence to Finland's President Tarja Halonen (note that Finland's president has no qualms about posting her resume on line). He has decided to help in her re-election effort for that very reason (although as an extremely popular president she doesn't really need much help).

So, they prepared a "campaign advertisement" for Finnish television, with Conan and Ulla portraying a couple at the dinner table. Ulla did most of the talking, since the ad was in Finnish (much of it very silly but positive things about Halonen's presidency, like "now we have more carp!"), but Conan repeated the final lines about voting for her "because she looks like me!" in Finnish. Very funny.

Undoubtedly, after this performance Ulla will be much in demand for television roles -- and who knows? Are movies next? I wouldn't be at all surprised. [In the interest of full disclosure, I should note that not only am I a friend of Ulla, but I also worked with Conan's dad at Harvard Medical School.]

Sunday, October 16, 2005


It is probably a good thing to give your paper in the first panel of the first day of a conference. Not being much of a morning person, I had given my paper and answered questions before I even had a cup of tea (I foolishly assumed there'd be coffee service at registration). Consequently, I was barely awake. Things went well nonetheless, so perhaps I should consider such a thing more often. I spoke about Old English charms, in particular about a charm to return fertility to a field that (I argue) treats the body of the earth much like the body of a human, in particular much like the body of a woman.

The conference was at the M. D. Anderson library at the UH campus across town. They're also hosting a lovely little exhibit of medieval manuscripts which will be a fine extra credit opportunity for my students, I think. There were some beautiful examples of manuscripts, and they were matched with a nice display of the tools and techniques of manuscript production, as well as recreated pieces of manuscript art produced by some Fine Arts students.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Departure (Delayed)

I’m writing this as I wait to find out whether my flight will be leaving four hours later as I have just been told or whether the weather will make that unlikely. They aren’t very forthcoming with information. They try to avoid saying anything and don’t like to put up on the board that the flight is delayed.

Well, the conference ended better than it started. It helped a lot that Rod and Elena came up to hang out for the afternoon (thanks again, I really appreciated it!) We went to the Witch History Museum which was a hoot. All these tableaux with Sears mannequins dressed as Pilgrims. It was clear 1) how old they were (Elena pointed out the authentic cob webs) and 2) how much our knowledge of the history has diverged from the original narrative the mannequins tell. So there was a clear split between the rhetoric of word and of image. We got out just in time to go over to the Boys & Girls Club for my talk. To my surprise there was a pretty good crowd (I expected a half dozen at most, including me, Rod and Elena. There were forty or fifty people there, I think, and fairly enthusiastic. At least they seemed to laugh in the right places (“oh dear, I’ve got a huge lump on my arm! What do you suppose caused that?”) and asked a few questions, asked for my card at the end, and best of all, bought the books I brought with me. Yay! It was a fun talk – one I’ll have to repeat. Of course I tried to cram way too much into the time, but hey, I do that.

We had a great dinner out on the Pickering Wharf at the Captain’s and then Rod and Elena had to head back to Connecticut. I ran inside in time to catch Sharyn November’s storytelling hour. She’s the editor of Firebird, the YA imprint of Penguin, and a really lively individual and a straight shooter. Although the picture she painted of the editing world was far less glamorous than some audience members hoped, she clearly loves her work and gets a serious charge out of it. It was clear from the way she quizzed audience members on their current reading and recommended writers they might not have heard of yet. Besides, she folded an origami crane while she was talking.

It was an easy transition to Charles de Lint’s story hour, since he’s one of the those writers she edits, and anyway, he was already sitting in the audience. He started off reading his story from the forthcoming Firebird anthology (Firebirds are Go! just kidding), which Sharyn has convinced him to expand to a novel. It was both funny and touching. Then it was coffee hour time. Charles and MaryAnn explained that they liked to have more informal sessions to allow fans to ask questions and eat -- they brought chips and salsa. Sharyn stayed to kibbutz and had people laughing out loud often, especially when the two Canadians kidded her about her fascination with their Canadianism. Eventually Charles and MaryAnn got back to making music, stopping in between songs as usual to tell stories and explain connections. I finally couldn’t resist asking if Sam were there, and sure enough, he was along for the ride -- and we were also introduced to MaryAnn’s little bear Ted who travels with Sam, but seldom gets the spotlight. Charles was aghast to hear one young woman suggest that Sam the Monkey was really an ape, but said it didn’t really matter anyway. “His name is Sam the Monkey,” he said, which didn’t necessarily mean he had to be a monkey. “My name’s Charles de Lint but it doesn't mean I'm made of lint.”

A lot of songs, mostly different from the night before, except for ending on “Cherokee Girl” (which has continued in my head all day -- when will they finish their CD?). They sang Charles’ crow girls song, “Bad Girls,” which he described as a sort of Tom Waits/Ennio Morricone/Pink inspired tune. MaryAnn (or should I say, “Blind Citrus Harris” as she was introduced) even played harmonica on one song rather than her usual turns on mandolin and shaker. At the end, Charles signed books and we reluctantly left, to await the (last!) yellow school bus back to the Sheraton.

And now is only the waiting -- I should do work, but somehow I don’t much feel like it. At least I have plenty to read…and a computer!

[Written: 10/10/05 3.45 pm -- the plane was delayed about four hours, so I finally got back to the house about 11.45pm]

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Charles de Lint & MaryAnn Harris

Last night I was delighted to have another opportunity to see these two perform. Unfortunately, it was at the conference-who-shall-no-longer-be-named, so that meant it was held in the gym at the Salem Boys & Girls Club (according to the grafitti in the girls' locker room, "the YMCA is much better") which was a nice echoey cinderblock-walled cavern. There was sound equipment but no sound technician, so none of it was working. They finally gave up and just pushed the equipment aside, asked everybody to pull up close and performed an intimate acoustic set. Meanwhile conference staff chatted amongst themselves, laughed and talked loudly, people came in and out shouting, leaving the door open so that the noisy hallway ruckus competed with the singing. They actually had to stop singing at one point to ask someone to close the door. It was disrespectful and unprofessional of the conference staff.

Those problems aside, it was a delightful show nonetheless. And no, not just because they played my request "Crow Girls" right away, or what would have been my second request (the song about the dog that Karen Shaffer [who is not coincidentally Charles Vess' wife, and who co-curated the Mythic Journeys art show last year]) without my requesting it. Everybody sang along with the chorus of "Cherokee Girl," the song Charles wrote for Terri Windling, which he hoped would help send healing thoughts her way as she was suffering from a cold. The two of them told stories, finished -- or corrected -- one another's sentences. "We're married," MaryAnn added superfluously with a smile. The stories were always fun and gave little snapshots of their lives and adventures. As usual, they performed some Fred Eaglesmith songs, including one called "Good Dog" which brought tears to a few eyes. There was a tribute to author and conservationist Edward Abbey, and a Dave Alvin song about a painter who worked long enough to get money, went out into the desert to paint, returned only to sell paintings and get supplies. One time he just never came back. The chorus was something like "they never found your body, never understood your mind." Very moving, but they also had plenty of upbeat songs, like their paen to Highway 105, the route they take to their school-bus cottage on the lake.

It was a bit dark and the PDA takes only so-so pictures, but here's a blurry one (that too speedy shutter):

Saturday, October 08, 2005


No, not talking about the conference (yet), but a play that I have been working on. I have Act I done (I think) and I'd love to hear feedback. As I don't have to worry about it being "published" as I would with a story (you can't generally get plays published anyway, until they have been produced), I will make it available here for download. I should let you know it's about 50pp long, so you don't just download and start printing. It is of course a comedy -- or rather, I suppose, a satire. Naturally, it has been heavily influenced by my immersion in British comedy of late (thanks to all who contributed to that, especially Brad--those CDs have been wonderful!), but I hope still sounds like me and not as if I am channeling Peter Cook (though it felt like that at times).

Out my window it's a beautiful fall day, a little drizzly with the leaves only beginning to turn. But I can see miles and miles of trees and it makes such a difference. Yesterday when one of the bus drivers took us along the shoreline, I realized just how much I miss the water, too. Bayous just aren't the same. They are either nigh invisible trickles or raging floods. It's good to be in New England, if only for a visit.

Off to Pottermania! (I just realized that my blog still maintains central time, so I added the hour.)

Friday, October 07, 2005

Haunting Salem

What is it? A lunar landscape?

Nope -- just the patched over ceiling of my hotel room. But did you see the gorgeous crescent moon last night? And two planets clearly visible nearby -- Venus? Mars?

Well, after a 45 minute wait I finally got on a shuttle bus (you know this conference is going well, right?) for the 40 minute ride to the other hotel, but I did manage to do a little touristing and shopping. What's Salem without a visit to the cemetery?

Here's the last known resting place of both Nathaniel and Jon Archer. And of course, I couldn't resist swinging by the Pirate Museum.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Tires, me and OAPs

Early in the morning I was on my way, off to Intercontinental for my flight to Boston. Everything was going smoothly—I even got a seat in a row all by myself, so I could go back to sleep—until I realized we were not moving. I was behind a big tour group of elderly folks with matching bags and IDs, the women with big Texas hair (some of it synthetic, some natural; well, when I say “natural” I do mean it grew out of their heads. What was done to it after that had nothing to do with nature.) who were chatting merrily so no one seemed too concerned.

I thought maybe they were waiting on a vet to sedate the dog that we could hear barking madly, but no. The captain comes on the intercom to say that we needed a new tire and it would take 45 minutes to an hour to accomplish that. After a little more time, they decided we needed to get off the plane, but told us not to go too far. I barely had time to call Robert and annoy him at work when they called us to reboard. We were all set to go when they realized that two people were missing from the tour group. Their friends tried phoning them, but they had left their cell phones off. One of the tour leaders loudly proclaimed that she would not depart without them, and in her firm resolve I imagined the story of another tour who had left one behind, disappearing into the jaws of an itinerant crocodile. But they arrived at last, out of breath, deeply embarrassed and greeted with applause.

After that things went smoothly, and I stretched out across my empty row and slept most of the flight (not used to those early hours!). Before I knew it, we were descending into Boston. I weaved my way among the retirees on the jet way and walked out the door of Logan to find an Avis bus just pulling up, and hopped on it to go get my Ford Focus. There’s always a lot of traffic north of Boston, but two rotaries (and a pass nearby Malden, Adrean!) later I was approaching Danvers and the Sheraton. I got in all right and they had a registration desk for the conference too, but not my registration stuff (forgot to send my last owl). Then I get to my room and find there is not, in fact, internet access because the wireless network cannot be found in my room. Nice eh? So I’m writing this in Word in my room, and if the free wireless does work in the lobby as the front desk now says (after three calls and no answer!) then I’ll put it up. If not, I’ll be entering these when I return.

Well -- the free wireless in the lobby isn't working, but I finally found a spot in the room where I can get the wireless signal: between the room door and the bathroom door. Lovely -- welcome to the Fawlty Towers of the North Shore.

Witching Hour

I'm off in the morning to The Witching Hour: The Harry Potter Symposium where I'll be talking about Anglo-Saxon magic and charms. It should be a lot of fun. It will be interesting to see what academics have written about Rowling's books. Best of all it's in Salem, MA. This means October in New England, "foilage" and friends, if all goes well. If nothing else, it means a tiny break in a very busy semester. Yes, I did have the hurricane days, which did help, but I have had far too many deadlines to meet in the first six weeks of the semester. Why do I do this to myself? (well, in the hopes of getting more than a few days off.) But the fellowship applications went off Monday (ten copies! for one of them), so there's just this weekend and next (TEMA) and then I can draw a little breath.

Then there's only MLA... (eek). But I should have plenty of time to get that paper polished before the last week in December. Right?

Monday, October 03, 2005


Courtesy of ANSAX, I have links to the Irish Repertory Theatre's musical production of Beowulf complete with "Celtic harp"(!), as well as a review of the new Icelandic film, Beowulf and Grendel which ANSAXer Murray McGillivray describes as "a fine job of depicting the period imagined by our poet" if still a "a 'modern riff' on the Beowulf story." Some wag also forwarded a link to some McSweeney's writer's riff on the story. With both Benjamin Bagby and Julie Taymor's works in the new year, it promises to be a real golden year for Anglo-Saxon scholars.

Saturday, October 01, 2005

New Publication

I just got an email from editor Suzanne at Quiet Mountain Essays that my short non-fiction essay "Picking up the Chalk Again" is up with the rest of the new issue. As always, there is an interesting mix of feminist points of view: I am paired with Helene Kylen's biographical essay about "midlescence," the term she coined for a rebirth of adolescent enthusiasm in midlife. She ends the account of her ups and downs with the positive reflection, “Never let the presence of the thorn stop you from enjoying the rose.” Wise words indeed.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Weird New England

Perilous Cheryl tells us that at last Joe Citro's Weird New England is out and features a bunch of her pictures and well known male model, the Joey Zone. Buy it today! And don't forget to visit The New England Anomaly.

Running Up That Hill (Again)

The Guardian reports that Kate Bush will finally be releasing her new single, the first in twelve years, next month, then a double album the first week in November (in the UK anyway).

We've seen some old clips of Kate recently due to, I suppose, the very small world of British showbiz. A while back we got the box set of the Secret Policeman's Balls (Amnesty Int'l benefits) and there she was, singing "Running Up that Hill" with her mentor Dave Gilmour. The oddest thing was a short clip of her (thanks Jeff) on Peter Cook's Revolver singing "Them Heavy People" where her performance was edited with clips of the ball from The Prisoner (the refrain of the song is "rolling the ball..."). And I swear I saw a young, pre-punk Billy Idol in the audience. Have to watch it again -- not entirely unlikely after all, given the small world of British showbiz.

It can be a good thing -- think of all the collaborations owed to it, not least of which would be Monty Python. All of them worked on various shows and projects and at just the right moment, together. Unlike the US, where people are instantly pigeonholed by their first success, it is possible in the UK to go from pop star to novelist to chat show host. But here -- well, maybe Fitzgerald was right, except when it comes to movies.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Saturday Morning

We got up a bit later than expected because it's not only overcast, but with all the windows covered, it's a bit dark. But we're fine and even have power and cable (and cable modem). There are some good gusts of wind, but not very much rain. We hear there's big rain outside of town to the north and west, but not so much here. So far, so good.

Friday, September 23, 2005

Friday Afternoon

Well, the winds are picking up, but Rita is now only a category 3 and the eye is losing cohesion. We have found all the folks we thought were evacuating still in town. Fortunately, that means we could take the Honda over to Jim and Angela's. The bottom of our driveway is not much higher than the drainage ditches, so the car closest to the road would likely get wet, and the Honda sits so low. With just one car parked by the garage door, we should be all right.

The windows are covered as much as possible (which makes it rather dark in here, despite the sun still shining outside). Just checked in on Peter who also offered us a port in the storm -- if our power goes out, we will probably think about taking him up on that. Of course, we would bring movies with us ;-)

Fingers Crossed

It appears now that the eye will pass to the east of us -- the second best outcome for us (the best, of course, being that it dissipates off the coast, which seems a rather remote possibility at this point). This will put us on the better side of the storm, though there will still be significant problems with flooding and winds. We're still expecting to be without power at some point for an undetermined length of time, but we filled the freezer with 2 litre bottles full of drinking water, there are plenty of bottles in the fridge too. We'll do the final preparations this morning and then, just wait and see.

I have to take the bird feeder down soon, but it's very busy right now with a bunch of sparrows filling up before the storm arrives. Kipper is sitting on the window seat, eyes glued to their fluttering wings. Even Maggie is prowling around when she would usually be asleep. They can no doubt feel the difference -- air pressure? or just the quiet? It's not silent, but quiet enough that every sound magnifies. A car driving down Main Street reverberates here. A dog barks, and the echoes resound across the streets as the next dog picks up the cry.

No paper this morning -- it's amazing how much of my morning routine depends on poring through the paper. I guess I can read it online, but it's not the same. But the radio is on, "bringing us news of fresh disasters," to steal a line from Beyond the Fringe (must write up that review, absolutely brillant DVD!). Perhaps it's time to turn off the radio -- obsessively retelling the tragic story of that bus does not add anything new.

Thanks for all the kind wishes, folks. It's always wonderful (and humbling) to know how many people care about us.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Hurricane Updates

Hey folks, just to let you know we will be staying in our house in the Heights, which is expected to be well out of the flood surges. We do have to worry about winds, though, and are doing our best to prepare for them. Lots of water, movables inside. Yes, we're going to fill the bathtub.

Cell networks are already overloaded, so calls may not go through. We'll plan to update you all via the blogs because that will be the simplest thing. We will probably lose electricity, so we may not be able to email as constantly as usual, but we'll do our best to update Fri and Sat when the worst of it will be.

Wish us luck -- hope for the storm to reduce or at least track further east. We'll try to keep warm and dry.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Rita's Blowing Into Town!

And campus is closed as of noon today. Officially, they're evacuating the city. Unofficially, many people wonder if it isn't policial nervousness motivating the rather stringent measures. I'm trying to finish up work and water my plants because no one but emergency personnel will be able to get on campus after five today. And no, the hurricane is not expected before Friday. We'll see -- I'm hoping that it either dissipates or tracks further south, but we won't know for a couple days. A few stolen hours of freedom, however, are always welcome -- maybe now I can catch up on my work (assuming light and power of course!). Do students guess how much their professors relish the unexpected day off too?


Good news this week: I'll be going to Kalamazoo, the big annual gathering of medievalists in that most unlikely of spots, Kalamazoo MI. I'll be giving a paper on a panel about using modern texts to teach medieval ones. I'll be giving a paper on the two films Anchoress and Sorceress and how they can be used to give students a better picture of life in the middle ages for women. I'll also be part of a roundtable put together by Rebecca Roundhouse on "Writing the Middle Ages for Young Readers" with some other fiction writers, including Tracy Barrett who was at Dairy Hollow before me.

Monday, September 19, 2005

National Talk Like a Pirate Day!

Arrrr, mateys -- check out the main site for the celebration and tips on how to spew the nautical jargon.

Sunday, September 18, 2005


In between trying to get actual work done, we slipped off to check out the 20% off sale at Half Price Books, as all good bibliophiles must. As usual we found a few things too good to pass up -- especially at that price. As some of you know, I've been on a British comedy kick for some months now -- or should I say a more pronounced kick. I suppose I have been on a British comedy kick since I first saw Monty Python in my early teens (or did hearing the Goon show come first? I cannot remember anymore; maybe Robert does). Anyhow, this summer I have been immersed in reading things like Sunshine on Putty and A Great Silly Grin as well as the scripts in Peter Cook's Tragically I was an Only Twin. Thanks to a certain online auction service, I have also found some terrific (and cheap!) DVDs as well.

On Friday, we watched a recent Ebay purchase, Not Only But Always, the film based on one of the biographies of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. It was pretty good as these things go (condensing anyone's life into 100 minutes is going to leave out a lot). But what a surprise to be looking through the drama section at Half Price the next day, and find a UK edition of Dud and Pete: The Dagenham Dialogues. I just stared at it for a minute -- it just seemed a little too much like a thought made manifest, but it's real enough. How odd, though, that it should make its way to a suburban Texas bookstore at just this time.

I think one the funniest things I heard recently was when Alan Moore was interviewing Brian Eno for Chain Reaction, a Radio 4 show, that Eno said when he and Bowie get together they slip almost unconsciously into Pete and Dud voices. I've found my own inspiration from all this by writing a very silly play. I'll be sure to pass it around when it's done.

"I've got a viper in this box. It's not an asp..."

Monday, September 12, 2005

Two in One Day

My copies of two different publications arrived today! First up is my short story "On Buffalo Bayou," dedicated to Ray Bradbury, which appears in the latest edition of the literary journal New Texas. It is my only story set in Texas, but I guess my attraction to water was just too strong -- after all the UHD campus is at the confluence of the Buffalo and White Oak Bayous. All kinds of things dwell on the bayou...

My other piece is the account of the Conference on Women and the Divine this June in Liverpool. It appears as "Coming Together from Many Nations" in the new issue (36) of The Beltane Papers. As usual it has a gorgeous cover, this one by Maria Snedecor. And I'm right "next door" to my pal, intrepid Finnish-American reporter Diane Saarinen. Of course, TPB is full of great essays and lots of reviews, too.

Gene got an amazing publication in the mail, too; perhaps he'll write about it on his blog.

Friday, September 09, 2005

Publication: Circle

I have a short piece in the latest issue of Circle magazine, pp 19-20. It's an account of the presentation I made at the conference on Women and the Divine in Liverpool this summer. A longer account of the conference itself will be coming out in the latest issue of The Beltane Papers, but this short piece allowed me to talk about my "ritual about ritual."

My first priority right now is my medieval academic work, but I don't want to let my work on ritual studies get too far behind. It's hard to have so many interests sometimes. There simply aren't enough hours in the day...

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Beowulf Bouncing Back At You!

All of the sudden, Beowulf is once more in the news and in the imaginations of folks around the world. Up today, the musical in Ireland. Coming soon, the Icelandic film which seems to have only the most tangential relation to the poem. And going into productiom (perhaps)is Neil Gaiman's take on the story which has been attached to rumors like Angelina Jolie playing the "Queen of Darkness" (FYI: there is no such character in the poem).

I'll see 'em all if I can. After all, I survived Lambert's Beowulf, so I am hardy enough for any of these -- however silly they may end up. Yet I await most eagerly Benjamin Bagby's full-length production slated for the Met next year. I have seen him twice perform the first portion of the poem. He performs much like an Anglo-Saxon scop in Old English with a reconstruction of a Saxon lyre. It's quite amazing.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Review: Meet the Beatles

No, not the album, but Steven Stark's new book about the cultural influence of the group. He argues that they helped create a feminising influence on culture in both their music and lives. I would write at greater length, but I sent off a query to the Journal of Popular Culture and they may be able to use my review (completed tonight). I would recommend it for anyone who is interested in reading about the group's influence as well as what they said and did. I wouldn't have thought it possible, but I did learn a couple of things I did not know about the Beatles (really!) including tour manager Neil Aspinall's affair with Mona Best (!) which resulted in, among other things, a son. Stark loses steam by the end, but it was a fun and interesting read throughout. A little too Paul-reliant for my tastes, particularly considering how Mr. McCartney has tried to ret-con the past now that there are fewer folks to disagree with his "memory" of what happened, but on the whole Stark's narrative proves entertaining.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Tori in Houston

We made the long journey downtown (5 minutes!) to catch Tori's show at the Hobby Center, AKA the ripoff joint that adds a $9.50 service charge to each ticket. Nonetheless, it was worth it all, even if the Hobby Center staff seemed a bit nonplussed by the young tattooed and hair-challenged crowd. Like the couple sitting behind us, they had no idea what they were in for. The Chronicle had made jokes about the "Tori's Piano Bar" section of the concert (where she plays audience requests sent over the internet), saying she wouldn't be playing "Freebird." "So, what's this Freebird she won't be playing?" asked the annoyingly loud clueless woman of her neighbor. The kids explained it was a song by Lynyrd Skynyrd, who no doubt was similarly unknown to her. She not-so-surreptitiously complained about not being able to see over my hair, as if I had Texas hair. Hey, at least she wasn't sitting behind Gene! Being at the front of a section, we also had voluminous leg room -- hurrah!

The opening acts were both good. Gone were the whiny boys of the past couple tours. First up was The Like, a trio from SoCal who play stripped down rock. The bassist looked about 14 and the drummer like Cousin Itt, but they played straighforward music despite the vocalist being a bit muffled. After that the Ditty Bops came on. They were fun and playful, a sort of jazzy bluegrass style like a stripped down Squirrel Nut Zippers meets Dame Darcy.

Tori came out in a pink chiffon dress and played "Original Sinsuality" against a backdrop of a big apple tree with a snake curled around it. As usual, the audience was screaming for her. She segued into a rather long journey through "Beauty Queen" and "Horses." So it was a surprise when she dipped further back and produced "Caught a Lite Sneeze" which sounds quite different with only her own accompaniment; although, as usual she was doing a lot of the dual keyboard playing -- one hand on a piano, the other on an organ, and her swaying between. Also as usual, it was a treat to see her intereact with fans, complementing them on being "such great comrades" and happily complying with shouted demands to "show your shoes!" (she's well known for her shoe fetish).

A note on the merchandise table (where Gene bought me the cool pirate bag and an iron-on patch!) said some of the money would be going to the Red Cross for victims of Katrina. Thoughts of New Orleans seemed to guide her choice for the piano bar section. After a long intro about "her survival" she segued into a cover of the Animal's "House of the Rising Sun," although most of audience didn't seem to realize it was a song about New Orleans and that's who "she" was talking about. Tori then tried to figure out a song her make-up assistant requested, which she had never played, but then finally decided it wasn't going to happen and sang her way out of it, "maybe in the encore..." Instead she did Elton John's "Daniel."

There's not so much story telling as in the past -- one of the things I particularly loved -- but she does tend to do longer intros to songs, sometimes incorporating stories, or explaining the genesis of songs, such as the sung introduction to "Taxi Ride," the tribute to her friend, the late Kevyn Aucoin. There was a mood of wistfulness throughout the show, broken by a rare appearance of the sprightly "Happy Phantom." I don't think I have had a chance to hear her play it live before, and the easy joy of its bouncy melody and positive lyrics provided a respite before diving into the depths of "The Beekeeper," a song about the pain of loss and dealing with death.

She came back for two encores, finally ending with a slow rendition of "Baker Baker" before giving her last waves to the adoring crowd. We all trailed out to the parking garage. Since we were on the fifth floor, Gene and I enjoyed the not-completely sweltering night (a rarity!) by leaning over the edge of the wall gazing at downtown (well, you can't see the stars with allt he light pollution). The bayou was an oily black and the gaudy ferris wheel drew the eye. There's not much to see in Houston at night. I remember Ulla saying it looked more like an Eastern European nation. But traffic wasn't moving for a bit, so we spent the time thinking about other concerts -- like running down to NYC from UConn to see Cibo Matto at the Bowery Ballroom when they debuted Stereotype A. A long night, but worth it.

See the whole set list from The Dent.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Wee Publication

A short essay I wrote will be appearing the October issue of Quiet Mountain, a journal of women's writing. You may remember them as the place where I was interviewed by Diane Saarinen (August issue). Yay! My essay is about the ambivalence many teachers feel at the end of the summer; however much you love teaching, the freedom of summer is an illusion we have a hard time giving up.

Monday, August 29, 2005

Rogues and Pirates

There was an ad in the Sunday NY Times for a new YA book, Capt. Hook by J. V. Hart and illustrated by Brett Helquist. The letter from the author (screenwriter of Hook) says:

"Growing up in Texas, my gang of neighborhood kids would gather on Saturdays to act out movies like ROBIN HOOD, THE WOLF MAN, and CAPTAIN BLOOD. I discovered then that playing the bad guy was a lot more fun than being the hero. The villain always had the best lines and the big death scenes... "

Even better, the website also says:

"In the spirit of the Peter Pan charitable legacy, a portion of the author’s royalties will go to the Peter Pan Children’s Fund, an organization that supports children’s hospitals through philanthropy programs."

Rogues with good hearts, what could be better? I'm going to keep my eye out for the book. Speaking of rogues, I am trying to find out whether the ever-fabulous Vic Reeves' Discovery series Rogues Gallery will ever come to the States. Vic looks into the lives of famous rogues like Dick Turpin and Black Bart.

Sunday, August 28, 2005

Return of the Pikebone Kantele

At last, it has returned! Earlier this summer, Gerry Henkel sent me the pikebone kantele he had made, but it arrived at the writer's colony broken. Over the summer he repaired it and, after dealing with some problems caused by the US Postal Service, it has arrived. It looks beautiful, even in this hazy PDA picture of it sitting on one of my drums:

You can see a better picture here. I mentioned its return on the Kantele Players Guild list and Jane Ilmola of 3 Rivers Kanteles mentioned that she had a link to a real pikebone kantele. From their website, click on the link for instruments, then click on the Martti Pokela collection. You can scroll down and see the boney kantele.

The pikebone is traditionally the source of the first kantele. According to the Kalevala, the runesinger Väinämöinen made the first instrument from the jawbone of a giant pike he and his cohorts had wrestled from the sea. Its strings came from the tail of Hiisi's mare. You can find a version of the tale here, and more about real pikes here.

Thanks, Gerry! I am so lucky.

Friday, August 26, 2005

Publishing News

Two new items this week:

Grimma Gaest: I wrote this short essay on Beowulf for a collection on cannibalism and eating "the other" [terminology from literary theory, defining the one who is not "us" the assumed narrator -- it can mean women to a male point of view or indigenous people to a colonialist POV, etc.]. My piece focuses on Grendel as the horrific "other" to the warriors of the story. He turns their world upside down and breaks the most fundamental taboo by eating them.

The Sorcerer: Thanks to S. T. Joshi I may have another piece to write for Greenwood Press. The collection is Icons of Horror and the Supernatural and I would be writing the section on the figure of the Sorcerer from antiquity to the present, in literature and popular culture. I'm just awaiting official word (and a contract) from Greenwood.

I was going to write a review of Weird Tales of the Ramones, but Gene beat me to it!

Monday, August 22, 2005


No, the title doesn't actually have to do with the first day of classes today, although there were stumbles aplenty. Funny how a summer with a lot of contemplation makes you forget what it's like to speak through three classes in a row. So I just finished a mug of Throat Coat tea.

As it happened, while trying to find something else, I ran across this short review (at Gothic Press) by Gary Wiliam Crawford of my encyclopedia entry on Ramsey Campbell:

Laity, K.A.  "Ramsey Campbell, 1946-    )."  Supernatural Fiction Writers:  Contemporary Fantasy and Horror.  2nd ed.  Ed. Richard Bleiler.  New York: Scribner's, 2003.

A good biographical and critical survey with a selective bibliography.  Discusses Campbell's subtlety and his use of urban settings that make Campbell's work more immediate and gripping.

It's also right below the review of the previous volume's entry on Campbell (an accident of alphabetizing), and I'm relieved that it shows me in a favorable light. It's also a mark of the desperate writer who is cheered by such a small thing.

Campbell is not only a wonderful writer, he's also a savvy film reviewer. See his film reviews at BBC Liverpool.

What is it about me and that seaside town? I'm currently reading Steven D. Stark's Meet the Beatles, which I will review as soon as I finish it. So far, I'm enjoying it and -- can you believe it? -- finding out a couple things I did not know about the Beatles.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Sandman Papers

I recently received and signed my contract for the essay "Illusory Adversaries?: Images of Female Power in Sandman: The Kindly Ones," which will be a part of The Sandman Papers, a collection of essays on Neil Gaiman's comix series edited by Joe Sanders. It will be forthcoming "between April and September" of next year from Fantagraphics. I originally gave a version of this paper a few years ago at the comics area of the Popular Culture Association Conference. It's great to see it heading toward published form.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Encyclopedia coming soon

I heard from editor S. T. Joshi that World Supernatural Literature: An Encyclopedia will be out from Greenwood Press this September. I wrote two entries, one on Clive Barker and another on The Books of Blood. It also features a lot of folks I know like Faye Ringel, Richard Bleiler, Stefan Dziemianowicz and many others. Greenwood lists a slightly different title. Who can say which will be the one that ends up on the cover?

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Review: Grizzly Man

We got free passes from the Brazos Bookstore to see Werner Herzog's new film, Grizzly Man. It's the story of Tim Treadwell, amateur grizzly observer who, with his girlfriend Amie Huguenard, was eventually killed by a grizzly. They gave us "Grizzly Man" water bottles when we came in. Very odd -- celebrate the horrendous death of this man with a refillable water bottle! It had measurements on the side, but it also contained a piece of paper which disavowed any attempts to use it to measure anything. Ah, the weird world of film promotion.

If you're familiar with Herzog's work, you know to expect no easy answers. Herzog lets Treadwell's remarkable footage speak for itself most of the time. Treadwell becomes an intimate part of the grizzly world in Alaska, maintaining a foothold on the dangerous periphery of the bears' lives. Through his lens, we see them: powerful, individuals, enormous! The up-close view of grizzly life will perhaps be Treadwell's greatest contribution.

But there's also the unravelling of a deeply damaged person. In the months of solitude, Treadwell turns to his camera as to a confessional. His disgust with the human world emerges clearly, as do his erratic mood swings. The childlike delight in the beauty of the remote paradise clashes with his increasingly antagonistic anger toward perceived enemies of his sanctuary. Companion interviews with Treadwell's friend and family fill out the portrait of a deeply troubled man. The grizzlies provide an initial rescue from substance abuse, but seem to become another destructive obsession. It's hard not to see Treadwell's choice to remain longer and longer among the bears as a kind of intricately orchestrated suicide.

In the end, Herzog cannot resist imposing his own view of nature as chaotic and cruel. Over footage of the bear that most likely killed Treadwell and Huguenard, Herzog expresses his view of the grizzly's "blank stare" and sees him as a cold killer, without acknowledging that his reaction is just as shaped by his expectations as Treadwell's was. Neither can see nature without romanticizing or demonizing it. But Herzog chooses from the hours of footage sequences that show the amazing lives of these animals, their beauty and their power; the footage itself inspires awe in the simplest form for these magnificent creatures who live in a harsh and alien world.

There are some extremely horrific moments, though not the deaths themselves. There is an audio tape of the event, taken by Treadwell's video camera with the lens cap still on. In a overly self-conscious moment, Herzog listens to it in front of Jewel Palovak, Treadwell's former girlfriend and co-creator of Grizzly People. Herzog asks her to turn it off, declares she should burn it and never listen to it, which makes the scene feel much too exploitive. Similarly, the scene where uber-creepy coronor, Franc Fallico, hands Treadwell's (still functioning) watch to Palovak while explaining that it was found on his severed arm, is both awkward and, well, creepy. Likewise, Fallico's singular dramatic recreation of the death scene adds new resonance to the bizarre coroner, now a seeming staple of television.

The film is fascinating. I'm not sure how I feel about Treadwell in the end. He was deeply troubled, no doubt, and perhaps misguided. What really stays with me is the ironic difficulty people have dealing with nature. Living in the midst of a mostly unnatural city which seems at times paved end to end, I can see how the separation from the natural world leads to both Treadwell's and Herzog's viewpoints, either romanticizing it as a lost paradise or demonizing it as dispassionate killer. That separation is the real tragedy.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Gender & Ecstasy

I received another acceptance to a conference today; better yet, it's in England. Hurrah! It's for the 2006 Gender and Medieval Studies Conference at Emmanuel College, University of Cambridge. Here's the topic:

Joy of Warriors: Juliana’s Masculine Ecstasies

The Cynewulfian poem Juliana features a harsh connection between physical pain and spiritual ecstasy. The young virgin saint’s very body becomes the alchemical cauldron that converts the sadistic torture of her fiancé into a public spectacle of pious triumph. While the events take place in ancient Rome, Cynewulf’s singular vision replays the drama in the realm of Anglo-Saxon warrior poetics. Juliana’s power derives not just from her divine connection to the god who is the
wigena wyn (joy of warriors), but also from her embrace of hegemonic masculinity. Because heroic behavior to the Anglo-Saxon audience was equivalent to the strict warrior code, even female saints like Juliana (although this can apply as well to Judith and Elene) could become heroic by performing masculine behavior. Her appropriation of masculine vocabulary and action has immediate effects on those around her, including the demon she holds and tortures while herself in prison. The demon recognizes her as wigþrist ofer eall wifa cyn (most battle-ready of all woman kind) and the warriors gathered in the city respond to her courage with the clashing of weapons. In her final ecstatic speech of triumph before her martyrdom, Juliana employs martial language, reminding her audience to keep on their guard and watch for the clamor of battles. In Cynewulf’s heroic poem, the virgin saint transforms from a passive canvas for divine presence to an active warrior for ecstasy.

Even more fun, one of my colleagues also submitted an abstract, so it's quite possible we'll both be going (ahem, assuming our department can afford to send us).

Monday, August 08, 2005

Ten Seconds of Fame

As my friends all know, I am never keen to have my picture taken. Video is worse, so it is with great ambivalence that I learn I am to be featured in the 30th Anniversary promo video for UHD. I'll be in it for about ten seconds. Of course, it will take about two hours to film that ten seconds -- or even less than ten, come to think of it. They're going to use some footage from the awards ceremony from May.

Adding to the ambivalence: I only got this opporunity due to the recent death of poet Lorenzo Thomas. Lorenzo was our big name in the English Department, well known in the world and respected by so many people. He was a big part of the Houston Poetry Fest; I saw a number of the Poetry Fest folks at Lorenzo's funeral.

The wheel of life, always turning...

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Clive's Bible

I'm working on editing my essay on Clive Barker for an anthology on sexuality and the gothic Other, and came across this excellent interview with Barker in the L. A. Weekly. Dennis Cooper is the interviewer. All right, back to work --

Monday, August 01, 2005


I am interviewed by intrepid Finnish-American reporter Diane Saarinen (international woman of mystery!) at Quiet Mountain Essays, a journal of women's writing. Quite an honor to be the featured interview.

There are some other interesting reads there, too. I really enjoyed Kat Mead's "Authoress Despair," about the vagaries of film versions of writers. I admit it -- I love those films even when they're awful. Even if they're not awful, they are usually nothing at all like reality. But the reality of writing could not be more dull to watch, so I understand why filmmakers dwell on the angst and crumpled papers. On the more serious side, there's an essay on "Advertising and the Exploitation of Female Sexuality" by Chineze J. Onyejekwe, which not only highlights the phenomena but also discusses efforts to address the problem. There are also a number of related links that provide fascinating reading.

Sunday, July 31, 2005

Dandelion Zen

Among other things, I have been reading Ray Bradbury's Zen in the Art of Writing. It's a great inspiring kick in the pants. Bradbury writes with such enthusiasm about writing, it's hard not to catch it too. His descriptions are lively and engaging. He describes stories like this:

"They run up and bite me on the leg -- I respond by writing down everything that goes on during the bite. When I finish, the idea lets go, and runs off."

Bradbury conveys well the excitement of creative work. He also tells great stories: meeting sideshowman Mr. Electrico who claimed to know him in another life or, feeding dimes into a pay typewriter to furiously type Farenheit 451. He also gets to the heart of what makes the struggle worthwhile:

"What is the greatest reward a writer can have? Isn't it that day when someone rushes up to you, his face bursting with honesty, his eyes afire with admiration and cries, 'That new story of yours was fine, really wonderful!' Then and only then is writing worthwhile."

Of course he's also distressingly sexist. It's always "he," always. I remember why I lost patience with him in later books. The Halloween Tree was terribly misogynistic. But I could not do without The October Country, or Dandelion Wine or Something Wicked This Way Comes. It's a pity though that he could never see the little girls who ran through the fields just as wildly as his beloved young boys.

In the end, it's the work that matters. As Bradbury writes, "Every morning I jump out of bed and step on a landmine. The landmine is me. After the explosion, I spend the rest of the day putting the pieces together. Now, it's your turn. Jump!"

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Tori Tori Tori!

I got tickets to the Tori show in Houston September 3rd. Hurrah! There was a fan club sale yesterday but I only found out about it last minute and the tickets I came up with were near the back of the Hobby Center so I decided to take my chances with the real sale. I found out there was a special Ticketmaster pre-sale today (tickets go on sale tomorrow at noon) but it requires a password.

Hmmm. Let's see -- her latest single and video is "Sweet the Sting." Let's try "sting" -- bingo! Two orchestra seats. I just wonder why it wasn't on any of the BBS...

Thank you, Ticketmaster, for the $9.10 service charge per ticket!

Good thing her shows are always worth it. Always surprising, always intense -- you never know quite what she'll do, or sing, or what story she might tell. This tour even includes the "Piano Bar" where she will play cover songs the fans have requested, just like in the old days when she played in a bar and took requests. Fun! Hmm, what request shall I send?

Friday, July 22, 2005

Charlie & The Chocolate Factory (SPOILERS!)

Memo to Tim Burton: Find a competent therapist and deal with your issues, so you can stop making movies about how much your daddy did not love you.

Three disappointments in a row from Burton: the less said about Planet of the Apes, the better; Big Fish could just as easily have been a "fine Lifetime movie" as we refer to them; and then, Charlie. Sigh. I wanted to like it so much. I do love the original, but this seemed an ideal remake, one that would -- according to Burton -- stick closer to the book. Well, hmmm -- except for the ENDING.

Here's where I talk about a lot of things that SPOIL both movies, so if you haven't seen either yet, avoid this!

The overall problem are those changes -- creating a backstory of a mean dentist dad who won't let the elborately braced Charlie eat any candy who, like an evil Sauroman, throws his Halloween cache (yes, supposedly in England -- I know, I know) on the fire. Even Christopher Lee cannot keep the maudlin sentimentality from dripping off the screen. Burton's Wonka is damaged goods, a germophobic man-child. Yes, comparisons to Michael Jackson are inevitable, but despite Depp's gamest efforts, the film falls flat. His Wonka seems on the brink of collapse.

While Wilder's Wonka -- as Gene never fails to point out -- acts as a kind of YHWH in his little candy land, Depp's Wonka is apparently powerless. Things just happen and he is helpless to stop them. While the earlier film allowed all good children to vicariously enjoy bad children (for once!) getting punished, the new film barely fleshes out the bad kids. Rather than revelling in their just punishments, we feel (if not sorry for them) very little at all. Burton's Wonka seems more like a serial killer than a man who loves candy, one who has surreptitiously planned the "accidents" occurring to the children. He's terrified by that grey hair, not realizing an inevitability of passing the baton. The ridiculous assertion that Charlie must choose between his family and the factory betrays Burton's own ambivalence, not Dahl's.

The squirrels are a hoot; but think of all the weeks Burton spent trying to train them. What a waste of time, when he could have been developing the roles of his fine supporting cast. Pity. And what is with Helena Bonham-Carter's teeth? Like most films of late, more attention has been spent on appearance than on content. And let's face it; however much you tart them up, the Oompah Loompahs will always be colonialist baggage.

The one shining light is Freddie Highmore, who continues to show the wonderful qualities he brought to Finding Neverland. He infuses Charlie with spirit and thoughtfulness as well as wonder. He was one of the reaons I had high hopes for this film, because the glaring error of the first film was Peter Ostrum as Charlie. Never mind that he wasn't English; he was unbearably homely and a poor actor. He had to be the emotional center of the film, but he created a vaccuum. Wisely, he became a veterinarian rather than continue acting.

The grandparents are wonderful from David Kelly on down. James Fox is totally wasted as Veruca's stuffy father, and it's a crime to give so little rein to the often hilarious Missi Pyle. Way too much effort was spent on the musical numbers which already look dated ("word!") rather than clever. The only song that works is the Wonka theme (one of those catchy Elfman bits that sticks in your head like taffy) sung by robotic dolls that spark then catch fire, melting horribly, even losing an eyeball.

It's the best moment of the film.

Like the running subtext of cannibalism, which is enough to disturb but never gets developed in a meaningful way, there are all kinds of potential themes. If only Burton realised that subtext is where the power lies. Psychological issues need not lead to bad filmmaking. Look at Hitchcock. His unresolved issues created some of the finest films of the last century. He even turned loveable Jimmy Stewart into one of the most disturbingly repulsive characters ever in Vertigo. Dahl's book is full of themes both wonderful and troubling. Burton should have read it more closely -- and he should have relegated his own problems to the subtext.

Thursday, July 21, 2005


Back from Trinoc*con where we had a chance to laugh with Joe R. Lansdale hisownself (who's got a damn spiffy website). I'm happy because I even got to be on a panel with him (and Lee Martindale, my "neighbor" in MZB's Sword and Sorceress XXI and always a hoot) and I didn't get too tongue-tied. We had a lot of fun at Joe's reading too, and ended up with his copy of Bumper Crop from which he read such fun stories as "Billie Sue," "Chompers," "Bar Talk," and "Fire Dog."

Of course the best part of the con is staying with Susan, and hanging out with Mildred and Birdie. And of course, Gene managed to add to the fun by making both me and Birdie spew things out our noses laughing (or across the kitchen floor in my case -- at least it was the tile floor). Laura rounded out the crew once again, although she managed not to spew liquids out her nose, she did share her uncanny ability to mimic a cat purr. That's got to fit in a story somewhere...

I had a lot of fun serving on panels, giving a talk on weird facts from the middle ages and of course, doing a reading myself, something I always enjoy. I performed a version of "Raven Sister, Cuckoo Sister" with my kantele, then read one of the new short stories "Eating the Dream" to a small but appreciative audience. We all had fun with films like Lost Skeleton of Cadavra, the dubious Evil Alien Conquerors, Terminator (which Gene had never seen), and Peter "Lord of the Rings" Jackson's tastelessly tacky Meet the Feebles. We also nearly fainted to see a picture of Jackson in a recent entertainment mag -- he's lost 70lbs and had lasik surgery.

Always hard to return to reality after so much fun -- thanks again to Susan for being the hostess with the mostess (food, fun and beer!) and to Mildred and Birdie for...everything!

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Goin' to Alaska (er -- no, North Carolina)

We're off to Trinoc*con in the morning. It will be fun seeing our pals Susan, Mildred and Birdie (and all the cats!). And of course, we're also guests at the con. Lit GOH is Joe Lansdale his own self, so that will be
fun too. With luck, I will have time to send updates from NC, so we'll see whether the Horror curse gets invoked (either that yet another chuckle-filled showing of The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra.


Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Words Do Have Meanings!

I received a message from one of the (too many) email groups I am on publicizing an event entitled "Dancing with Dionysus." After describing the camping getaway, a note at the end clarified that it was a "drug and alcohol free event."

Named after Dionysus?

I realise that learning Greek and Roman culture, history and literature has become a thing of the past, but surely people look up names before they use them? Or is there some kind of irony at work?

Our campus has a local chapter of BACCHUS, an organization which says it is "an international association of college and university based peer education programs focusing on alcohol abuse prevention and other related student health and safety issues." Nothing wrong with that -- but why call it Bacchus? Yes, it stands for "Boost Alcohol Consciousness Concerning the Health of University Students," but is there an intentional irony? Or an attempt at an elaborate bait-and-switch? Maybe they hope that students in search of a bacchanalia will stay for a sobriety talk -- yeah, that's likely.

Sunday, July 10, 2005

Beyond the Fringe

Recently we went out with friends to see a local production of Beyond the Fringe at the Main Street Theater. Yes, it was an American cast performing the quintessentially British show; yes, they were doing accents. Okay? We'll just let that lie ("but you wouldn't let it lie..!"). It's amazing how well most of the bits stand up even with an American cast and setting. They offered a couple of updates -- substituting Blair for Macmillan, changing a line referring to African-Americans to Latinos to make better use of regional racism -- but for the most part the pieces work with little change. Perhaps, as in the case of the Civil Defence sequence, one can never overestimate the callous disregard politicians and bureaucrats will show the public. In many cases though, it is simply the loopy acknowledgement of just how foolish people are. Although I tended to hear the original voices of Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Jonathan Miller and Alan Bennett in my head, the cast -- which unlike the original, actually included a (pregnant) woman -- did a credible job of handling the humor, although sometimes cultural differences were a detriment. For exmaple in "Take a Pew," Bennett's send up of a clueless Anglican minister's sermon on the apparently randomly chosen verse ("But my brother Esau is an hairy man, but I am a smooth man"), much of the humor is wrung out of the lines by Bennett's very dry and understated delivery. The MST version went more for the Joel Osteen-type bombast (not surprisingly). But some bits are just so funny, it doesn't matter who's reading the lines (well, provided they have some sense of timing), like Cook & Moore's "Frog and Peach" and "One Leg Too Few." Oh, and "The Great Train Robbery" remains one of the funniest wordplay bits ever.

I just finished Sunshine on Putty which I enjoyed despite a lot of reservations about the style (and the accuracy -- if he got things wrong that I knew like mistaking Smokey Robinson for Otis Redding (!) and calling Tod Browning's Freaks "the great silent classic," how many more things did he get wrong that I wouldn't know?). But as an overview of the 90s comedy in Britain, it hasn't much competition yet. Someday more people will realize the genius that is Vic. In the meantime, I've started Humphrey Carpenter's (much more competently written) A Great Silly Grin and, as usual, am always amazed at what a small country England is.

Speaking of amazing: in a theater we saw the trailer for Rob Zombie's new film which appeared to be entitled The Devils Rejects. Saw TV ads too. Finally, this weekend, it was changed at last to The Devil's Rejects. In all the many months of creating, marketing and exploiting the film, no one noticed the missing apostrophe? Wow. It's still incorrect on his website, which is needlessly Flash enhanced. How many posters did they print then fix?

Wednesday, July 06, 2005


My short story "Vipunen" has just come out in the summer issue of New World Finn (v6 n3). It's another of the Unikirja stories and is based -- oh, so loosely -- on Runo 17 of the Kalevala. That runo has been interpreted in various ways, including musically by Estonian composer Veljo Tormis. My version is a comic one; a hiker falls into the mythic realm (i.e. into Vipunen's belly with Väinämöinen, the ancient rune singer) and is unprepared to deal with what transpires.

Thanks go out to Gerry Henkel, editor of New World Finn, who has been enthusiastically supportive of my work and who illustrated the story with the mythically elemental paintings of Joyce Koskenmaki. Thanks also are due to the Writers' Colony at Dairy Hollow where I completed the story earlier this summer.