Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Beethoven in the rain

This week I am working to three deadlines: a journal submission, and two different talks, to be delivered Thursday in New York, and then Friday here in Philadelphia with Tom, my collaborator.

So I am working like a demon in my little apartment, and haven't done the reading for David's graduate class today, and think I will probably call by his office later on and become an apology.

I'm writing up the paper I gave at ANZAMEMS last year to be one of three responses to Bruce Holsinger's The Pre-Modern Condition. Oh. Yes. I posted it on the blog. But I'm making it a bit longer, and have also realised I have left all my photocopies of Umberto Eco at home. There are various versions of the essays I want to cite, so I will have a messy day in the library trying to untangle them all for the footnotes.

Anyway, I worked at my desk all day yesterday, from 9.00 in the morning when mist hung low over the city, till about 6.00 when the sun was shining and it was about 18C. I went out for a walk and bought myself a little present (it was my birthday, though it was actually already over in the land of my birth; and I'm really saving up the celebrations for New York, when Paul and I can celebrate both our birthdays together): Lang Lang playing Beethoven's Piano Concerti #1 and #4. Absolutely wonderful, fluid rich sounds. I'm playing it through the ipod but can't wait to get it home and through the proper amp. and the big speakers.

I'd walked south along Broad St till there were not that many people walking around, stopping at a very imposing building that turned out to be yet another Philadelphia college of the performing arts — this is a very cultured city. I turned round, and almost at that point, the wind picked up, and the sky started to go that pale duck-egg green of a storm with fast-moving grey clouds against the westerly sun. I picked up my pace, and felt the pressure drop. Would I get home before the rain? No! Suddenly all hell broke loose in an immense hail storm. I took shelter in a car park: no one was leaving for fear of the stones beating up the cars, let alone people. I guess it lasted about ten minutes: even when it stopped hailing, the streets were white with the rain.

Then suddenly it was over, and I scurried home the last few blocks, water still pouring off awnings and car parks above street level. This morning? Blue skies again, and fluffy white clouds.

And congratulations to Meli at Northern Lights, who is handing in her PhD thesis today. Let's hope she's going to have the energy for some celebrations herself!

Saturday, March 28, 2009

You Know You're in North America ...

  • when you can buy organic blue corn chips, and scoff them down with divine spicy mango and lime salsa (yep; found a great deli on 13th street) from a jar, but tasting fresh and not over-pickled. I don't know how American folk survive in Australia when the only corn chips you can get are over-processed and taste like twisties. Love that dark blue crispy goodness. The packet says blue corn is a Hopi and Zuni tradition. I don't know where those tribes are from, or where they are now, but blue corn makes great chips.
  • when the streets are named after numbers or trees. Philadelphia was laid out on a grid, like Manhattan (and Melbourne), so 1st street runs north-south along the eastern side of the city, and along the Delaware river, and then the cross streets, running east-west, have names like Vine, Spruce, Walnut, Chestnut, Pine, Locust, Cherry, Lombard and Filbert, though with the exception of the two widest streets that intersect neatly at City Hall, the even more generically named Market and Broad. It will be blindingly obvious to locals here, but I hope useful to prospective first-time visitors to the US to note that the numbers along the streets don't always run consecutively, but locate the address much more precisely in relation to the numbered streets. So, my address is 1601 Sansom, because it's on the corner of 16th street. The numbers go along a bit, then start again at 1701 on the corner of 17th st. Makes it very easy to know which block of the street is the address you want. (Took me several visits to work this out, I'm sorry to say.)
  • (and at one of the great ivy league universities) when the library is still busy at 6.30 on a Friday night. I spent the day in the well-stocked library yesterday, and was impressed by how hard everyone was working. If there was a moment's talking, it was only a moment. And at 6.30, it was still busy. David's graduate class is full of voracious readers. He says you give them a chapter to read and they are just as likely to read the whole book. Currently, at least, on Penn's home page is a picture of the recently re-modelled stairwell in the English department. Pretty nice, huh? Wonder if they change that picture of Will around much.
  • when, after a hard day's slog in the library (really, really working hard to see if the insights of medievalism can help us read medieval texts), you decide to treat yourself, and you can walk just five blocks from your apartment, waltz in to the Kimmel Centre, and pick up a ticket for that evening's performance of Gil Shaham playing Khatchaturian's Violin Concerto and the Philadelphia Philharmonic belting out Dvorak's 8th symphony. The Centre is amazing. It is several venues enclosed under a soaring glass arched roof; and the concert hall we were in is like being inside a multi-tiered cello: all curves like a cello's body (sometimes just one or two rows of seats along the side walls), and all — floor, walls, ceiling — made of lustrous dark red wood (Cherry, perhaps?). I was in the front of the top tier, but the sound was still pretty good. I don't go to that many classical concerts, but this was splendidly enjoyable, and I'm not sure why I don't go more often. I am also honouring the injunction of (a different) Paul who recommends "lots of treats" to counteract homesickness and the exhaustion of study. So, in the next few days, I have to send off the latest draft of the paper Tom and I are giving here on Friday, work on the revisions of my ANZAMEMS paper from Hobart for submission to a journal, and also put together a talk for NYU on Thursday. Chapter One is now locked into place, so I'll extract from that.
  • when, generally, you feel the mixture of exhilaration of being in a different place and the luxury of hibernating away, writing and reading in a pristine apartment with few distractions, or a calm and productive library, but you are also looking forward to the rest of your family joining you in a couple of weeks for the pleasure of exploring another city. I'm almost at the end of the quietest writing time of my trip away, and will start travelling and socialising a bit more quite soon.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Michelle Grattan draws a line

Reporting on Anna Bligh's historic victory in Queensland (first woman state premier to be elected, rather than coming to office upon a retirement), in an election many thought would see a massive swing (in the end the Labor party looks to lose only about 6 0f 89 seats), Michelle Grattan writes in The Age:
The comfortable victory of Premier Anna Bligh draws a line over a string of recent setbacks at the state level for the ALP, and the Prime Minister Kevin Rudd yesterday praised Ms Bligh's "gutsy performance".
Hmm. " ... draws a line over". Is this a (sub-editorial?) mistake for "draws a line under", or is it a new usage that acknowledges the way we now produce text, as in a blog, so that the most recent comes at the top of the "page"? Have people been doing this for ages (drawing lines "over") without my noticing? Or is it a usage common from commerce or business, where one tends to file with the most recent on top?

Anyone else seen this before?

Glorious blue skies and Sunday morning sunshine over the city in Philadelphia this morning. A little work on the second section of Chapter Two, then I'm off to the Art Museum. And that's another thing. Why are big civic art collections called museums in the US, and galleries in Australia?

But I'm increasingly thinking the language problem here is mine. I went to the wonderful Reading Terminal Market yesterday (undercover; huge variety of stalls, though not the aisles and aisles of fruit and veg I'm familiar with from the Vic Market in Melbourne; and apparently some Amish produce), and asked for a large tub of tabbouleh and a small of babaganoush, whereupon the attendant produced two small tubs of babaganoush and a large tub of hummus. Anyway, I'm now stocked up on home-made lentil soup and falafel, as well.

Proves I was right to contact the travel agent in Boulder by email, though, rather than by phone. Who knows where I would have ended up?

Friday, March 20, 2009

From the streets of Philadelphia

From the windows of my tenth-floor apartment on 16th and Sansom, I look out across a series of even taller brick buildings: offices and apartments. Go to Google Maps here, or follow the link below and click on "street view" to see my corner and the Oakwood apartments. My windows are up on the far left of the tenth floor on the larger side of the building.


View Larger Map

I do not have a camera with me on this trip, so it's going to be up the words to describe the city. I am getting to know its patterns and its grid, laid out in the seventeenth century by the quaker William Penn. I am not far from the half way point between the Schuylkill and the Delaware rivers. It's about a 25 minute walk east to the Delaware, and the same distance west, across the Schuylkill, to the university. Every day I'm walking an hour or two, up and down (east and west, that is), getting a sense of the different areas, the shopping malls, the "historic" district and its rows of eighteenth-century houses. Lots of people around; and daylight saving started a while ago, so it's pleasantly busy in the early evening, and I feel quite safe. It's not as if I'm in a business district that's empty at night. Lots of people smoking in the street, though. I'm intrigued by the big City Hall in the middle of this grid, arching over Market St, so that it blocks the view, but allows you to walk under its carriage ways. I might even go and do a tour tomorrow.

On the other hand, I might just stay in my pyjamas and write — as I did today — for six hours. Unusually, I'm sleeping in late, but then just hitting the computer when I wake, and working well. I have a library card already, and will start to work in the library soon, but at the moment, it's been great to be away from all the books and files. Makes it easier, somehow, to see the shape of the chapter. And so the first chapter is just about locked up into a state where I might be able to give it to someone to read.

So far, this is turning out to be a good balance of hibernatory writing time, with the perfect amount of social contact. Having an apartment is so much nicer than being in a hotel; there is no doubt. There are lovely people here, too; I'm getting to see the graduate students in action; and there are lots of fabulous events and speakers. I've just missed Stephen Greenblatt, but Chris Cannon and Anthony Bale are coming through town in the next few weeks.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

From Melbourne to Philadelphia ...

... is a very long journey indeed. Yes, I know: relative to C19 or earlier travel it's a breeze, but even at jet speed it's still pretty punishing. And that's when you have tail winds all the way, and when connections are easy and timely.

I was sitting in the midst of a bunch of US and Canadian fire-fighters, all on their way home after a month helping out in Victoria. I've never seen such a massed force of quietly gentle and politely heroic masculinity. They were modest about what they had done; and reticent about what they had seen. The man next to me wanted to show me pictures on his camera of his grandchild, and raced through his pictures of the campsite (he was a logistics specialist), apologising for the photograph of the dead wombat ("well, I'd never seen one"). They were all being very well looked after by the crew.

It's now the end of my first full day in Philadelphia. I've gone for several walks, cooked a meal in my little apartment (actually, it's quite a decent size, and beautifully fitted out, with its own laundry facilities and proper kitchen, and quieter than a hotel). Maybe it's the cooking? I don't feel too much of the horror homesickness that dogged my stay in London hotels last July.

I also lasted about two hours of David's graduate class this afternoon before the jetlag hit, when I gave up trying to make intelligent interventions, and just sat back and marvelled at his students: so well-read, engaged, and articulate. They are, of course, graduate students, so they have more experience than my honours students, but what really impressed me was the efficiency of their discussion. They are so articulate they can raise a problem or a question in such a way as to focus discussion for a few minutes — discussion that always seemed to be moving forwards, never back or around in circles — before another topic arose. David has won heaps of teaching awards, and it was great to observe his style first-hand. Jetlagged himself, he still directed and guided, while trusting the student presenters to do their work well, as they did.

I have a few little chores to do for home, but tomorrow morning I'm just going to stay here in the apartment and start knocking Chapter One into shape. As I always say to my students, you'll probably write the introduction several times before you write it for the last time. But it's time for that last re-write, now.

Friday, March 13, 2009

One day to go

Just taking a moment after another day's scattered running around: just time enough to start the usual pre-flight routine of wondering of why I would leave my loved ones and my home and my files and my books, let alone why I would submit myself to the horrors of a long-distance flight.

There are good reasons, I have to remind myself. A sabbatical from a workplace is a good idea, both for those going away, and for the ones you leave behind. And even though I increasingly get homesick, I do usually work very productively when I am away, and there will be fewer distractions than at home. I will also get to give talks in some fantastic university communities, and I know I'll get really helpful feedback and lots of ideas as I pull the book together. Leaving all my archives and specific Garter material behind will help, I hope, in the process of looking past these wonderful, seductive trees to see the wood, getting past the weird and wonderful anecdotes to pull an argument together. I'm going to read and read. I'm going to contact my publisher soon and arrange a meeting in the next few weeks. I'm going to do some work with Tom on the medievalism book as well (I spent the morning sketching out the first part of our talk for Penn). I'm going to hang out with David's graduate Chaucer class at Penn; I'm going to see friends in Philadelphia, New York, Boulder, Washington and Kalamazoo. And then for the second month I'm away, I'm going to be doing all these things with my beloved man and boy, including a trip to Amelia Island in Florida, we hope, to see Paul's "American father" from his AFS year, when he was 16 (goodness, just two years older than Joel will be in a week's time).

Given all this richness, it seems silly to be fretting about what coat to pack, or how terrible I'll feel on the Dallas-Philadelphia flight after 19 hours in planes or airports. I have a new ipod (blue, if you must know), and think I might read Sense and Sensibility on the plane, while thinking about how Samuel Dundas was such a compelling Don Giovanni last night in one sense (devilishly attractive in his white boots and silk shirt and long white brocade coat), but strangely weak in the final scene. The first time I saw this opera — I think it was an Australian Opera production — the final scene showed the progressive degeneration of Giovanni's household, as one of the attendants lazily smoked a cigarette, his arm describing a slow arc, up and down, with the smoke and the little red dot. This production did a similar thing with red curtains and cushions, but couldn't muster the same horror of the final descent. Must see the Joseph Losey film again before too long.

Anyway, one day to go, then I will be blogging from Philadelphia...

Friday, March 06, 2009

Fragments I Have Shored Against My Ruin

On the day before his execution, Charles I called his two youngest children to him: Princess Elizabeth, aged thirteen and Henry, Duke of Gloucester, aged nine. He took young Henry on his knee and suggested he never let them make him king, as they would then cut off his head. The child replied, "I will be torn to pieces first".

Charles then shared with the children his last remaining wealth: "diamonds and jewels, most part broken Georges and Garters" which he had secreted "in a little cabinet ... closed with three seals".

The pathos of this scene is immense. It is both ordinary (jewels and garters and necklaces almost always break, eventually) and exemplary of the greater break in the body, and in the traditions of the monarchy that would follow the next day. In my draft of chapter five, I wrote today: "don’t we all have a supply of broken jewellery we neither repair nor discard?" I'm leaving that stand for the moment, but can I really get away with that question in my draft? Is this making my book appear too casual? Or is it the personal voice that we all crave?

It's resonant today, too, as I have been to the jeweller's today, the wonderful Robyn at Small Space Jewellery, to seek some repairs. The white gold and blue topaz earrings I bought in Beechworth last year need reinforcing, and the beautifully light beaten gold earrings Paul brought back from Beirut need gold hooks, not whatever metal was used by the man on the street stall. I've also been to the shoemaker's today, for some repairs on some boots, including the brown leather cowgirl boots I bought in London in 1982. What is it about imminent travel that sends me to these artisans, to repair and renew my accoutrements?

But what a moment for mortality. All those odd things lying around the house, waiting for repair, or use. Or in Charles's case, the detritus of office, the residue, the remainder, the fragments shored against his ruin.

OK. Enough mortality for now. It's Friday night: time for pizza, good red wine, lollies, and a movie, then falling asleep listening to the cricket from South Africa. Bliss!

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Imagining the Weather

I've just come back from my morning walk. I drove Joel to school with the cello, and paced around Princes Park at top speed for half an hour. There's light rain coming down, and I was wearing jeans, t-shirt and long sleeve fleecy. But today is a day of total fire ban, and for the first time last night, with millions of others, I received a text message from the Victorian Police warning of severe winds and fire danger. The radio is full of emergency warnings, but the burden of many of them is that we must stay alert, despite the rain. Forecast top for Melbourne is only 31, but the fire index — that measures temperature, humidity, wind, drought conditions, etc. — is rated over 200 in some parts of the state. The index is designed to range from 1 - 100; and it was well over 300 on February 7. The real danger is the cool change that's going to come through this afternoon, with the possibility of lightning strikes.

It's almost impossible to imagine today as a day of hot wind and fire. Let's hope I'm right.

Meanwhile, The Age website has an article about snowstorms in New England, Washington, New York and Philadelphia. I will have to think very seriously about the coat question before I leave for that last-named place on Sunday week. I do have a couple of coats, but they are all too short, too light, or not waterproof enough for snow. I bought a beautiful green tapestry-style coat in St Louis with fake-fur collar and padded lining, the November we were there, and the locals laughed pleasantly at my sense that I was set up for winter. And by mid-December, when we left, I could see what they meant. I guess I should wait till I'm there to buy something appropriate.

It's very difficult, despite the best evidence of a range of media, to imagine yourself experiencing alternative weathers. I went to New York in July a few years ago, leaving a cold Melbourne winter, and loaded up with coats and jackets I never took out of my suitcase once. Of course this would not be a problem in England: I had to buy a leather jacket there last July.

But what is it about the weather, that even with the help of the fanciest websites and predictions, you really only believe it when you see it with your own eyes, feel it on your own skin?

Update: Oh. I see. Here comes the wind.


Evening update
: Winds are still high; and it's still warm. There's so much wind the firefighters in the four major fires still burning have had to be pulled out; and there are trees and powerlines down all over. Apparently there's rain in the south-east, but nothing here yet. We've just been sitting over a glass of wine and some home-made bakewell tart (thanks, Kt!), and I realised there's a thin film of dust or grit on the table. We went outside to say goodbye and the sky is that yellow grey that presages a storm, but the wind is still hot and northerly. I heard someone on the radio on the edge of an area that was burnt out a few weeks ago: she said all there was around the house was ash; and the wind was just lifting it up and blowing it everywhere, so she had lost count of the number of times she had wiped the kitchen bench; and could not get the taste of ash out of her mouth.