Monday, April 27, 2009

In Which We Join the Paparazzi for Beyonce

Sometimes when I'm too tired to get up off the couch, I do a little channel-surfing at home. It doesn't take very long, as we don't have cable, and have only six or so channels to nip around. Sometimes I run into the Letterman show. I don't really enjoy this rather smarmy host, or his over-rehearsed formula, or the self-promoting adulation of that guy on the keyboards, but the writers are funny enough; and his visitors often edgy and nervous enough to make a good spectacle.

Where we are staying now is just one block [update: I blogged a while back about an apartment on the Upper West Side, but the photos made it appear far too small for the three of us for a month, and instead, I found us a larger place on West 53rd, at Eighth Avenue] from where the show is shot. Around 5.30, just as the traffic really starts to heat up, the crowds start to gather to see the stars exit the stage door. Big black cars and vans with blackened windows line up, and the stage door opens and closes constantly as assistants and security men prepare the way. The serious paparazzi are there, and last week Paul switched between masquerading as one of them, and then taking photos of them:
He's probably just an ordinary person squinting into his camera to do his job, but that tall blonde one really does look predatory, doesn't he?

We wait for about thirty minutes. Joel and I find a little barricade to stand on, opposite the stage door on the other side of the narrow street, but a man comes and moves it away. Big lorries and vans drive slowly down the street in peak-hour (sorry: rush-hour) traffic, to the moans of the crowds on our side of the street whose view is blocked. And suddenly, there she is, a vision in white. We all cry out her name and cheer. She stops, poses, and smiles for the cameras.

After a while she is ushered into her car, and heads west. People with big glossy photographs held with elastic bands on stiff cardboard rush after her, and contrary to my expectations, when her car stops at the lights, the window is wound down and she signs a few.

I like Paul's photos very much, but we realised we were not true paparazzi when he said, as we walked back to the apartment, "I should have taken the telephoto lens." Oh well, another day, another star.

When Worlds Collide

I’m drafting this blog entry on the train back from DC to New York. Normally I prefer to write directly on line, but I want to play with temporalities and textualities a bit here.

First up, on a tourist note, Washington is extraordinary. The weather was celestial, the monuments and memorials and cemeteries (we visited Arlington) all grand beyond expectation. It also struck me as a very beautiful, very liveable city. I’d spent a rushed day in DC a few years ago; it was great having a bit more time to take in more things, though we only scraped the surface of the wonderful museums along the National Mall. Strangely, we kept sleeping in, and starting late. But we had had two late nights before we left New York (Il Trovatore, and Billy Elliott) and then there was the nervous energy it took for me to get ready to give my talk, and to give my talk, and for P and J to hear my talk (a first!). So there’s no point beating oneself up about not touring every inch of every museum.

In any case, the real highlight of this trip was the human one. Jeffrey and I have spent more time reading each other’s blogs than we have in person, and I think all bloggers will recognise the pleasure we took in spending a bit more time together, and in my case, getting to know the person behind that giant brain a little better. He is the perfect academic host, for one thing, organising my visit with a generosity, a thoughtfulness and attention to detail I can only aspire to.

But because it turned into a family visit, it was even more lovely than the face-to-face encounter of bloggers. In the company of one’s own family, there is no point in trying to maintain a grand public presence, such as one is sometimes tempted to do at conferences, and so yesterday afternoon, as Jeffrey took us to the magnificent National Cathedral (a towering, gleaming Gothic elevation on the top of a hill, sheltering a beautiful terraced and secluded garden in its shadows), and then out for an early pizza with his family, then back to his house to sit in the lamplit garden to sit drinking sangria and pleasantly exchanging stories, it was the perfect way to get to know one’s fellow blogger a little better; and the perfect thing for travellers far from their own home and garden. We did a little academic gossip but there is nothing worse than academics boring each other’s families with such things, so we were pretty restrained. Alex and Joel traded pieces on the piano, the delightful Katherine drew me a kangaroo, and the two families just progressively relaxed into each other’s ways and dynamics. Alex in particular opened up as the evening went on, turning into a charming conversationalist and political commentator.

Jeffrey and I kidded about writing each other’s blog entries about the visit, and about who would get in first. Because he didn’t spend the morning at the Folger Library’s birthday party for Shakespeare, and spend time checking bags out of the hotel and in and out of union station, and then spend three and a half hours on a wirelessless train, he has the advantage of opportunity, should he wish to get in first. We are also heading out to dinner as soon as we get back into the city, so I won’t get to post this till later tonight. But my blogging vow is to post this before I check out In the Medieval Middle.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Smokey Rain

It rained, and was cold all day yesterday. I was glad of the big black alpaca coat I had bought in Boulder (on a huge sale, but still hugely expensive: still, my winter coat problem is solved for the next 20 years, I hope). We struggled with umbrellas and the worn out soles of Joel's shoes, in and out of libraries and the subway, all day, then in the evening, the rain really started pelting down. We nipped out to buy provisions at 6.30, and all you could see, at either end of 8th Avenue, was grey mist; and from our little balcony, the top of the Hearst Tower, the building we use as our landmark, a few blocks north of us, was shrouded in mist, looking like smokey rain is supposed to look. Here's the building in sunny architectural light. It was the first skyscraper to be started after 9/11; boasts some impressive green credentials; and has won at least one award.

Lying in bed last night, listening to the rain rushing through the pipes and splashing onto our little patio, I couldn't help but wonder (Oh, sorry for SATC syntax there) about what such a tremendous amount of rain could do for parched southern Victoria, and how at home, if we heard such rain, we'd rejoice at the way it would soak down a few inches and relieve the terrible dryness of the earth. But all I could see in my head, as I drifted off into sleep, was rain running off grey buildings, into the grey streets, and down into the East and the Hudson rivers. Manhattan was a long thin island floating on the water, rising in the flooding rains; and water running away off the land, and never finding a single tree.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

New York, New York!

Oh how I am coming to love this city! This is not my first visit, but it is the first time I've genuinely enjoyed being here. It's such a luxury living right in the heart of the action, with, for once, a reasonable travel budget plus my family, so the pleasures are doubled or tripled every time we go out. Walking along the streets, if you are a fast walker, is not an unmitigated pleasure, as it's crowded, and the blocks are so short you have to keep stopping, but then on the other hand, in five short blocks we are in Central Park...

Lovely things we have done in the last few days:
  • travelled to Summit, New Jersey, to visit with Paul's American brother, his contemporary from his year as an AFS exchange student in 1975. We had Thanksgiving with Rick, Sue and their daughters in 2005, and it was like just picking up again after a few weeks. How odd, though, to discover that Sue and I were born within about an hour of each other: a weird synchronicity there.
  • attend high, high church at St Thomas's on Sunday, on what, if we were attentive to our liturgical calendars, we would have realised was his feast day. For someone brought up to sing harmonies on Methodist hymns, Anglican hymns are pretty anaemic, but the choir was spectacular, with an anthem from William Byrd, and a splendid organ voluntary by Bach, played on the second, obviously brand-new organ.
  • visit the Met, and follow Joel's progress from the fourteenth through to the early twentieth century, stopping only for coffee and coconut cup cakes in the cafe overlooking the great hall. Wonderful to look down and see five enormous urns filled with nothing but huge clouds of pink and white dogwood. The same tree we planted in the garden when Joel was born, but each vase held sprays taller than his tree.
  • walk home from the Met through Central Park on a sunny warm spring afternoon, dodging bikes, roller blades, and dogs.
  • and on Friday, attending a wonderful conference on Practical Knowledges at NYU:
  • For me, two highlights: the second paper I've heard in five months by the wonderful Seeta Chaganti; and realising not only the talent among the speakers, but also in the audience. If I'm lucky enough to be in the same room as people like Carolyn Dinshaw or Mary Carruthers, it's usually because they are plenary speakers on whirlwind tours of Australia, but here they were, just popping in for occasional sessions or chairing talks. How amazing it must be to work in a city where there are this many medievalists. (OK, I'm marking, but now putting aside my community-of-medieval-scholars envy now...)

In spite of all this gadding about, I'm still getting some work done. Today I've worked at both the NYU library, and the New York Public Library on the next phase of a formal book proposal with my collaborator, and have sent it off to him to work on next: we are hoping to have some discussions with a prospective publisher at Kalamazoo. Next task is to revise my paper for DC. It's the same topic I spoke on at NYU a few weeks ago, but questions and comments there made me want to re-think bits of it.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Perry's stopped at the red

So, we get off the subway and were walking back to our apartment this afternoon, and a block from our front door we walk past the stage door to the Letterman Show. We have seriously been thinking of going: they tape in the afternoon, then you watch yourself on TV that night, apparently.

Anyway, there were crowds of folk, and photographers, and big black cars. J and I are on one side of the street; P with his big camera lining up with all the others, looking very professional.

And who should come out, but Matthew Perry from Friends. AND ... I recognise him! He looks around briefly, and I observe a neat jacket and rather a lot of hair (I saw an ad the other day for some kind of hair-thickener that coats your hair with texture, a bit like fuzzy iron filings: all the stars use it, apparently!). There's a riotous click of cameras, and he's off, closely followed by a small blonde woman who we hear is on the new series of 24. The convoy of cars pulls away, and things start to quieten down, and then we see two big men with big sheets of paper (for autographs?) calling, "Quick! Perry's stopped at the red," and they race off. We say, but already I know we won't, that we'll walk past every day at 5.30 to see who's in town.

Still Waiting

Waiting for Godot was absolutely extraordinary. Funny, poignant, cruel, hopeful and despairing in all the right ways. Goodman was an amazing Pozzo, just carrying that body around the stage. The scenes where he cannot sit down, and cannot rise from the ground were just mesmerizing. This was the Goodman from Barton Fink, and the West Wing, not Roseanne. All five actors were remarkable. I knew Nathan Lane, but not really John Irwin, though P and J recognised his face on the playbill from other things. When they took their curtain calls, I was waiting for that break in concentration, the gracious and relieved smiles that signalled the release of tension. But there was none. The little boy kept his nervous empty smile, and the others all remained just about blank in expression. Goodman, particularly, remained inscrutable, distant. A remarkable refusal to concede the theatricality of the event, to mark the boundaries between their play and our lives.

And my second weather pixie is now set for Central Park, NYC: I wish the name of the city would appear on the widget, but can't see how to program this.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Together again

Oh, the ease and bliss of travelling with family! Look, I was just fine in Philadelphia, but we are now all together in our apartment in New York, and every hour, as we establish our little routines here, and catch up on what we have all been doing over the last month, and as Joel makes me a cup of tea, and Paul cooks our dinner, I can just feel the pressure of travelling, and doing everything for oneself, easing.

I came up by train yesterday: enormous heavy suitcase, travel bag and shoulder bag that all had to be lugged everywhere when you go and buy a salad for lunch or a bottle of water at the station. From now on, all my travels on this trip will be much easier. P and J arrived from JFK around 7.30, and we sat a bit, then went out and had a Mexican dinner.

This morning, we walked for couple of hours in Central Park, checked out the beautiful gothic church of St Thomas (and even made plans to go to a service on Sunday: apparently their choir is wonderful), and booked tickets for tonight to see Waiting for Godot, with Nathan Lane and John Goodman. The theatre is two blocks from our apartment.

And our apartment looks a lot like this:


These photos are from the Oakwood website, but it really does look like this. I thought these might be photos from a larger 2 bedroom place, but these fittings are almost exactly as we have them. Against expectations, this one bedroom place is even bigger than the Philadelphia version (so funny, though, to see the same teatowels and cutlery, even the water jug). Joel has a comfy sofa bed in the lounge. Normally, of course, this kind of place would be well above our means, but in these troubled times, hotels and apartment companies are desperate to fill their rooms, and so specials abound. The day after we are booked to leave here, for example, the price is set to double...

Tomorrow, perhaps a jaunt to the Strand bookstore.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Farewell to Phillie

My last night in Philadelphia. I'm just going to try and finish a report on an article tonight, then pack up in the morning, and get an early afternoon train to New York. The rest of the family are on their way, and they'll arrive there tomorrow evening.

When I think of Philadelphia, my image is that of Liberty Place. I'll paste it in again.


Of course at street level, or at the tenth floor level of my apartment, it looks nothing like this. I can't see the building from here; just some other apartment blocks and glimpses of 1930's office towers. Walking along the street you're just as likely to be huddling into your coat against the wind, or fighting with your umbrella to stop it from folding inside out. The shops are smart; the food is pretty good; the little neighbourhoods within the city are neat, too. But there are people living on the street, asking for money, or sleeping in doorways, or even just curled up on the street. People just step around them.

Last week I was in Boulder for a few days to give a talk. You fly into Denver and drive along some very very flat, low industrial terrain for about forty minutes, and then suddenly the mist clears and you can see the foothills, and then the Rockies behind them, still snow-capped, and stretching along, wider than you can take in. From everywhere you look, the mountains look quite different, and if you get to drive up into them even a little, they will take your breath away with their beauty. Cliffs, rocks and trees, with little by way of undergrowth — quite unlike the bush or the tropics. You are 5430 feet above sea level, so you feel a bit dehydrated and dizzy.

But it's a different world, in other ways, too. Boulder is a small, affluent and white city. It's sporty and outdoorsy, but also a bit of a haven for hippies, organic farmers, etc. A lovely farmer's market on Saturday morning. Extremely pleasant for people like me, though there is still poverty. We'd had a spectacular meal, indulging in the best of local produce and organic foods, and then spilled out into the streets. We saw a homeless man in a wheel chair, and I remain haunted by his face: brown skin drawn tight around staring, vacant eyes. Beth gave him some money, but I still hesitate to do so. There are good arguments for assisting organisations, rather than individuals, but I haven't done that either.
I stayed with two different friends in Boulder. One lives out in a new suburb. Eerily quiet; with very few people around, though the house was a beautiful warm and golden place inside, and surrounded by trees and trellises. But because it's only just very early spring, the trees are mostly still all white. We walked around the new estate, with houses ranging from large to enormous, and came to the rise of the hill where the old farmhouse still stood, and looked over at the mountains. It was mid-morning, and the air and the light and the mist were all a stormy blue grey; and the trees and mountains white and cloudy. Ethereal, silent and still.

My other friend's house is much closer to campus: an older, more cluttered house, and an older street, and I think a bit more neighbourly, so she has colleagues who live over the road, for example.

When I travel, I can't help but wonder what it would be like to live in the place. I could see myself in either Philadelphia or Boulder — and both universities, while quite different in style, are also very good ones. But while I sometimes hanker to be in a place where I might have more medieval colleagues, I'm very pleased to report that being here hasn't made me particularly dissatisfied with my lot. I'm also very pleased to say I've not felt too homesick, or beset by anxiety about my work.

And something of a revelation, too. Jeffrey gave me a copy of Poems for the Millennium, Volume Three, and I keep picking it up and turning up some new, or some familiar gem. Follow that link and check out the contents page if you want to see what "romantic and postromantic poetry" looks like these days.

Now, on with that report, then a little preliminary packing.

Bye, Philadelphia

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Work and Play

A few busy days since I came back from New York and my talk at NYU. It was a very rushed but utterly delightful trip (train from Phillie; lunch with Chris; long walk; talk, with pointed, knowledgeable and generous questions; dinner with the nicest imaginable group; good night's sleep in this lovely hotel; train back in the morning).

I then started a couple of busy days with my writing collaborator. We gave a talk together on Friday at Penn; then spent a couple of happy days wandering the streets, checking out the new Galileo exhibition at the Franklin Institute, eating and drinking with his cousins, with our mutual friends, at Time, at Parc, and at the Sofitel. We made good progress, I think, and sketched out our talk for Kalamazoo sitting in the sunshine at Rittenhouse Square which is almost exactly at this degree of greening (though much more crowded on Sunday):
Picture of Rittenhouse Square Park
The next few days have been a bit slower (though I did write out the first draft of that talk on Monday night), but I have now put together my talk and most of the powerpoints for Boulder. I leave tomorrow afternoon. I also slipped out this afternoon and bought a pair of shoes and two —TWO — frocks. What was I thinking? Perhaps something about giving all these talks...

Yesterday, though, I went out at 4.00 and did a tour of the amazing masonic temple. It was begun in 1868, and thus pre-dates the city hall. It looks very much like a cathedral:
Masonic Temple In Philadelphia In The Daytime

I really don't know that much about the masons, and our tour guide wasn't too forthcoming. He was a young mason, very keen to normalise the activity of the fraternity and to demystify freemasonry. The interiors of this building — the Egyptian Hall, the Corinthian Hall, the Renaissance Hall, the Gothic Hall, etc. — and the staircases, hallways and ceilings, are all pretty spectacular. Check out this site to do some on-line tours or look at photos.



Click here to see a larger imageClick here to view a larger image.Click here to see a larger view.

Masonry here is on a much larger scale than the little lodges I'm familiar with: tiny buildings in little country Victorian towns. I guess most lodges in American country towns are tiny, too. But in this country it's sometimes hard to remember how BIG everything is. I picked up Time Out, too, in New York, to get a sense of what's on, and what we should book tickets for. Absolutely mind-boggling, to see what's going on there. A month suddenly looks like no time at all.


Friday, April 03, 2009

New York vignette-ette

A tiny note from New York, because it's late and I have to get up early to go back to Philadelphia...

My host, Chris, described a fabulous picture he'd seen of the Obamas meeting the Queen. He commented on how they seemed to dwarf her. In between lunch and my talk tonight at NYU I walked and walked, from 4th street up to the New York Public library on 42nd street, and back, and picked up a copy of the paper. It's the New York Post, and while the photograph (queen, possibly shrunk a little through being 82 years old and all, in pink dress; Barack in nifty suit; and Michelle in — oh my goodness, the kinds of clothes I wear: black skirt, white singlet top, black cardigan) is great, in that the Obamas are really so very much taller (the Queen's hair meets her forehead where the second row of Michelle's pearls sit), the caption is priceless:

ROYALTY!
And Mrs. Windsor, too

Apologies for the syntax and punctuation in that last sentence: we had a very lovely dinner after the talk.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Philadelphian Vignette

A beautiful French patisserie, Miel, serving the best coffee I've had in this city so far, and a pristine display of beautiful art — I mean, cakes. I decide to have my coffee there, and the new owner gives me a lovely plate on which to eat my baguette, and takes pleasure in making my coffee "in the right cup." I sit at the bar facing the street, and am struck by a woman wearing a smart short red skirt, black boots and jacket, and a black fur hat — it's really a circlet — with a red flower in the side, over long, well-groomed blonde hair. She comes into the cafe, and asks for the smallest bottle of water they have and sits next to me, eating handfuls of cheerios, rattling round loose in a big opaque plastic bag. She strikes up a conversation with the man next to her, who's reading the New York Times, and asks if he's raising children into the world.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

It's Always Like This

So, yesterday was a GREAT work day. I got to the library at 12.00 and didn't leave the building till 7.30 (there's a little cafe downstairs), when I sent off to my co-panellists my revised talk. That left today to sort out my talk for NYU on Thursday, and Wednesday morning to sort the powerpoints.

In this talk, I'm ambitiously trying to skip through the preface and the first two chapters of the Garter book, to produce what I hope will be a coherent thematic thread about the "mythic capital" that circulates around the Garter story. There is plenty to do. And so by contrast with yesterday, I dithered and dithered, and finally took myself out of the apartment at lunchtime and ended up doing a tour of the Philadelphia City Hall, which took an hour and a half.

I may have to buy a camera in the end (I found this photo on the web), but I remembered the little camera in the phone, though I still haven't worked out how to get a decent sized image. The sky was blue all around, so the view from the top, from the 360 degree gallery just under William Penn's feet, was pretty nice. This picture shows Penn's shadow on the roof of the amazing masonic temple, whose tower you can see to the left, above (that's next week's tour).
The City Hall is truly monumental: the tower is built on solid granite foundations. For many years, it was the tallest building in Philadelphia. Then they built this beautiful building — Liberty Place, which is just a block from my apartment:

And the legend has it that it was because it reached higher than Penn's statute, that was why no Philadelphia sporting team ever won a national contest. They then built the Comcast centre which is even taller, but apparently they put a little statue of Penn on its very top, and after that some team won something. Nice story, though.

OK, now back to this paper. After all these years, I kind of know not to worry too much if I seem to be delaying the completion of something like a paper: it's a sign that I really am in control of the material, and that maybe it's going to be better if I don't have a complete script for performance. We'll see...