Friday, May 29, 2009

Shameless Request for Assistance: Medievalist Stained Glass

I have a theory. And a deadline. Not the most comfortable collocation.

The theory is that many medievalist films shy away from representing "real" or "realistic" medieval stained glass when they show interiors of churches. There are a number of possible reasons for this:
  • technical: "real" medieval windows can seem very dark
  • practical: (a) they might distract from the main action and (b) their scale and point of view is all wrong for the big screen
  • respectful: real medieval stained glass shows Biblical imagery that sits uncomfortably, potentially, with the chivalric ethos that dominates much medievalist film
  • ideological: (a) real medieval stained glass would risk interpellating the viewer as Christian; and (b) the medieval church is often presented as corrupt and forbidding, not joyful and celebratory
  • aesthetic: movies like their churches to appear either austere and cold (Name of the Rose), not full of riotous colour; or lit by candles: e.g. the wedding scene in Camelot
  • stylistic: medievalist movies prefer abstract or new age symbolism to Christian symbols (The Magic Sword: Quest for Camelot; Excalibur?)
There are a few other things I want to talk about here: Vincent Ward said, for example, that when making the coloured stock parts of The Navigator he wanted to use a colour palette that drew on the vivid reds and blues of medieval stained glass. I also want to talk about the scene in the Tale of Beryn where the Pardoner and the Miller try and decipher the stained glass images in Canterbury Cathedral.

What I have to do now is watch as many medieval movies as I can in a short time. And it is here, dear readers, that I would welcome your input, whether it seems to confirm my theory or not.

What can you remember about the representation of stained glass, or glass in churches, in medievalist movies?

Srsly, my deadline is very tight; and this is for prospective publication in an on-line format later this year. I wouldn't normally present such half-baked ideas on the blog; and am just going to risk someone thinking this is a good idea for an essay and writing it instead. I reckon I can do this faster than just about anyone, anyway!

I'll be very happy to credit assistance, either by name or pseudonym, as you prefer.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Dumb Things

Check out this terrific article by Melissa Gregg in yesterday's Australian. It tells you many of the things that are wrong with the Australian research sector. In a nutshell, you are encouraged to do research that will assist Australia's "national interest" (10% of points on our national grant scheme are allocated on this criteron); yet it's almost impossible to publish such research outside Australia (and pretty hard within Australia too, for that matter). Yet without "international" publications, it's almost impossible to get strong rankings on any of the myriad indicators of research success; and also almost impossible to be successful in the same national grant scheme.

I also like this in the article:

When marketing decisions have direct power over career advancement, scholars are rewarded for producing palatable research that appeals to a preconceived audience. Those who choose not to pursue original research about their own country are actually rewarded.

Meanwhile, the time that junior scholars could spend writing original articles to improve their prospects is increasingly invaded by administrative requests.

Hours are spent wading through spreadsheets to correct journal rankings amassed by bureaucrats, and compiling lists to prove the "impact factor" of one's writing.

The situation is nothing short of alienating. The highlight of the job - getting published - has become an exercise in minimising losses from poor odds.

This reminds me of the first many eye-opening things I learned when I did the HeadStart leadership programme a few years ago. We were asked to share an "ethical" issue with the group; and the economist among us raised precisely this problem: he wanted to give something back to the Australian community by studying national issues, but if he did so, his department would suffer in the national rankings. How could he best serve his community if he was to be penalised by serving his community?

So it's not just junior scholars and early career researchers who are experiencing this disenchantment, although I can see that having a degree of job security does diminish the anxiety. But I have certainly spent far more hours and resources than I care to name, wading through bureaucratically-generated spreadsheets and unwieldy databases trying to account for myself and my field.

Yes, I have no problem with accountability. But it would also be good to feel trusted, too.

The latest dumb thing we have been presented with is a proposal for all student essays to be submitted electronically, so that staff can either mark online (l'horreur! l'horreur!), or spend their time printing out student work; and then putting the assessment back on line. One more example of a relentless drive to bureaucratic uniformity, developed in isolation from professional or pedagogical concerns, and that pays no attention to the way we work in the humanities.

Sigh. Luckily, I've had a lovely morning at home, on research leave, sorting out the jumble of Garter stories in the C16 and C17 to the glorious accompaniment of Keith Jarrett's Köln concert. My aim? to try and preserve something of that freedom and passion in my writing.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Home from the Country of the Sick

So, I'm on this clinical trial, right? When I started my treatment, I was seeing the oncologist every three months; and every six months would fill out an odd questionnaire that investigates things like one's experience of hot flushes, depression, joint pain, mood swings, vaginal dryness, insomnia. All the expected joys of chemically-induced menopause, then, plus the less common side-effects of tamoxifen and triptorelin, the trial drug: various forms of osteoarthrities, DVT, coronary failure, etc.

Gradually, as I continue to thrive, and show no sign of any recurrence of a tumour, I've been seeing Mitchell less and less, until yesterday, when, after a discussion mostly about New York, Daniel Barenboim, and the difficulties of the Australian university system, he suggested I don't need to see him for another twelve months. "We're going to let you off the leash," he said to me six months ago. We also had the discussion we have most times about whether I should have my ovaries removed; and I'm glad to say there now seems no real reason to do this.

The symptoms of the drugs have settled down somewhat, I'm glad to say, and while I still have another two and half years of daily Tamoxifen, plus monthly injections of Triptorelin, and while I still have to line up for an annual mammogram, ultrasound and review with Suzanne, my surgeon, for the next few Octobers, it seems I am on the homeward journey from Sontag's country of the sick, on my way to rejoining the women of my age with just the usual and ordinary struggles of menopause and the usual risk of breast cancer.

If you'd asked me, two years ago, how I'd feel about seeing Mitchell only once a year, I would have had a bit of a panic: I quite liked being under his regular care. Now I feel quite secure about it. And perhaps that's what he sensed; and perhaps that's what's encouraged him to cancel my visa to the country of the sick, and send me home.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Domesticity

Such an odd thing. After two months of apartment living, using the loathsome dryer, or draping clothes from hangers and on the tops of doors and benches, and after months of drought, I've just had to run outside and bring a load of washing in off the line. The rain isn't heavy, but I bet after all the dust and dryness in the air, it's filthy, so I'm pleased to have everything dry inside. And then I heard a little rustling in the piles of autumn leaves, and the little cat Mima was also making a dash for indoors.

A lovely domestic routine, breaking up a day of writing on Chapter Three. Time to stop soon, anyway, to be a good mother and make raspberry friands to serve at the Middle School production of Grimm's Fairy Tales tonight. Joel and Meg, cast for their twin Germanic blondness, I'm sure, have to play Hansel and Gretel very straight, as the witch, a less than German-sounding boy called Paddy, is apparently show-stealingly hilarious.

But such a pleasure to be writing, and really feeling I am starting to finish some of these chapters. I've sent the Preface and the first two chapters to friends to read, too; another sign of finishing.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Home; or, a friend in the supermarket

It was a long day. Flights and connections were smooth, and we travel enough to benefit from (or pay for) tiny increments of ease and comfort: shorter check-in queues, access to the British Airways club at JFK, seats at the very front of economy with an extra two inches of knee room. Travelling Qantas all the way also meant we had only half an hour at LAX before we started to board. Travelling with each other meant no one had to think twice about climbing over, or being climbed over by family members for trips to the bathroom. We all slept for a good chunk of the LAX to Melbourne flight, and then I watched the surprisingly good Twilight over breakfast. Even so, there's no denying that 21 hours of flying, plus all the packing, waiting and queuing (especially at Melbourne: it took ages to get through all the queues), makes for a very long day.

Being home again is just lovely. I walked into my pale green study and sighed with happiness. Joel headed straight to the piano. Paul headed for the garden. And then I found the little cat, drinking fish-flavoured water from the pond in the back garden. She's so old, now, she doesn't bear grudges any more when we go away: she just seemed happy to see us. We went to visit Jean, who is quietly awaiting the results of tests last week. We went to bed at 9 and slept through till 7.30 (well, those of us not getting up at 4.00 am to go back out to the airport, that is).

This morning, as I promised myself, I worked on my Garter book, then went shopping. And the first person I found when I walked into Piedimonte's was my friend Paula, home from work to look after Lucien, who'd just had three teeth extracted, the poor thing. There's nothing like the comfort of finding a friend in the supermarket to make you realise how much you miss the networks of friends and family.

My new resolution is to write and revise in the morning, but in the afternoon, to read and do chores. So now I'm going to process some bills and write some emails, then have another look at Paul Veyne's Did the Greeks Believe Their Myths?

Friday, May 15, 2009

Last days

I never really blogged properly about Kalamazoo. It was an odd conference for me, because I spent a lot of time at meetings of various kinds, rather than going to sessions all day, as I do at NCS. Moreover, many of the sessions I did go to, including the two where I spoke, were really meta-sessions, talking about the way we do scholarship, rather than the scholarship itself. Which it is very important, sometimes, to do, perhaps especially at times of crisis. But it’s also very pleasant to contemplate a return to my two book projects, and the larger research project that will soon start demanding my attention too. The meetings I had, with collaborators, editors and publishers, were all very productive. Ideas for books are becoming plans for books; book manuscripts now have proper deadlines for delivery, and one of the presses with which I work is re-thinking some of its conventional expectations about the kinds of work they will publish. So in that sense, the conference was a great success for me, though I came away still feeling pretty much as I did the day I arrived: overwhelmed at the sheer range and variety of medieval scholarship, and despairing of ever really feeling on top of it.

This is our last night in the US. The cable satellite is down, so after a game of Scrabble we are all at our laptops. Plenty of time, tomorrow, to start packing up for our 7.00 pm flight and the horrors of the journey. When we get home, we’ll head up to Ceres to let the chickens out (one day I’ll blog about these chickens, I promise), and in the afternoon head out to visit Jean, who’ll have some more health tests next week. Alas, Paul will be on a plane again first thing Monday morning, on his way to Port Moresby.

This afternoon Joel and I made a last, tired trip to the Met. We’d spent a good few hours there a few weeks ago, but wanted to see the Temple of Dendur again. When he was a boy of about five, we had shared a deep fascination with all things Egyptian, and today we meandered around, feeling weirdly at home with the mummies, the drawings and the carvings, the faces of sarcophagi so serene.

On the way home, I found the three piano showrooms I’d walked past last week. We went into the least intimidating-looking one, and got into a bit of a discussion with the piano-maker there, that was way over my head in terms of the technicalities. Still, we are thinking it’s time to start saving to buy Joel a new piano, and you may as well start at the top. I realise I know almost nothing about how to do this.

After a while, Joel asked if he could play, and the two brothers agreed. Joel sat down quietly at a big Steinway, and felt his way into a G major chord (as he told me later: wish I had perfect pitch, but I don't). I wondered what he’d do, but he just started to play a few gentle arpeggios, and then started improvising around them. He was not intimidated by his surroundings at all; just played gently but freely, working up confidence gradually, but still barely testing what this beautiful instrument could do; and I could tell he was happy. They were closing up, but they've invited him back tomorrow morning, and I'm sure he'll go. After a month away, his fingers are itching to play.

The other night we went to Carnegie Hall to hear Daniel Barenboim lead a program of works by Elliott Carter, an American modernist composer. The highlight was a sonata for piano and cello: when the bow first moved across the strings, I could feel Joel's intake of breath. Piano is his first love, but a month away from both instruments is starting to show. At the end of the concert, Carter, who is now 101, was helped up onto the stage and took a few curtain calls and bows to rapturous applause. As we were leaving, an old man said to Joel, "Well that's history in the making. You won't forget that!"

We also made our pilgrimage to the Cloisters museum on Tuesday, and on Wednesday got down to the opposite end of Manhattan Island too late to get the ferry out to Ellis Island, and instead walked across the Brooklyn Bridge in the sunshine. So many wonderful things to do. So little time. But time now to head home and pick up the threads of our real lives, our own beds, our garden, and our little cat. This time tomorrow, we'll be in the air, flying home.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The boy is back in town

Yay for Geoffrey Chaucer! After a period of exile when his blog was taken over by the Lords Appellant, he has reclaimed his blog spot and tells us he was at Kalamazoo, dancing and all, in most jocound fashion.

Jeffrey is blogging about serious issues of anonymity and professionalism, and the future of the discipline. It's an interesting question on which he and I clearly have a mild disagreement: I think anonymity can sometimes be a good thing. Yes, it can be used improperly; but it can also be used provisionally, experimentally and playfully. The world of medievalist bloggers — sometimes anonymous, sometimes pseudonymous, sometimes named — shows us how hard it would be to be absolute about this question, since one of the points of blogging, for me, at least, is to blur the distinction between the formal/professional and the more informal and personal.

But I feel I'm rambling: time to try and harness the energies unleashed at Kalamazoo and get to work on my book.

Monday, May 11, 2009

The Blossom of Parting

Much to blog about from the last week, getting to the big Medieval Studies congress at Kalamazoo: over 3000 medievalists all doing their thing. It was my first time, and judging from last year's blogs, it's not unexpected to blog several times, as reflections and patterns emerge.

My first foray into Kalamazoo blogging is conditioned by what I did last night. I landed at La Guardia, jumped into a cab and dumped my bags at the apartment, and then we headed down to 27th street, the Jazz Standard, to hear the Branford Marsalis quartet. We queued early, so were sitting right down the front. We watched a young man emerge from the curtains and present bouquets of Mother's Day flowers to the women at a side table; and someone told us this was Marsalis's 18 year old drummer, Justin Faulkner, who, for legal reasons, has to have his parents in the room whenever he plays in clubs. (He's still a high school student in Philadelphia.) When the quartet appeared ten minutes later, everyone clapped and cheered, and Marsalis said, "how're you doing?" to Joel, who was sitting within three feet of the stage.

The music was extraordinary. They had played the club all week, two shows a night, and Marsalis sounded a bit tired as he introduced the band, but when they started to play, the fatigue dropped away. Most of us were mesmerised by Faulkner, in any case, who watched Marsalis and the others obsessively, while also putting out the most complicated rhythms imaginable, driving, fighting with, and fighting for the music, every step of the way. I watched his foot tapping the cymbal pedal in one rhythm, while his hands pounded and flew across the drums and cymbals, several other rhythms chasing each other around the kit. He would grin wildly, or concentrate with his tongue sticking out. His dialogues and flytings with Joey Calderazzo on the piano were utterly engrossing. Marsalis was great, too, but this review explains precisely my sense of the relation between the leader and the other players.

The most bittersweet thing they played was second on the list, a composition by Calderazzo called "The Blossom of Parting." Reminding me a little of the poignancy and complexity of a riff on "Autumn Leaves", the music is sweet and low, setting up the movement of loss and parting and reunion between drums and piano, with the sax sailing across like the movement of clouds over water on a sunny day. Many of us were in tears.

Not the second time for me that day. Tom dropped me at Detroit airport, and though I'd managed my other partings from dear friends (some of whom I had not seen since before I had had to face my own mortality through illness), this one, with the one I will probably see again soonest, threatened to dissolve me. The final blossom of parting.

The previous night I was seriously thinking of not going to the dance. I was exhausted, and feeling I could imagine the sweaty crush of scholars quite well from the peace of my hotel room. But in fact, it didn't take much persuading. The others in my dinner party were equally ambivalent and when various denizens of Babel threatened not to speak to us again, and when JJC said I would not be able to blog about Kalamazoo if I didn't go, then the decision was made.

We got there, and in five minutes were on the dance floor, throwing ourselves into the crush with abandon, as that's the only way to do it. I did observe that I was not among the 80% - or even the 90% - of the youngest on the dance floor, but didn't care, really, about that. I was even doing well enough in the high heels I was still wearing, and was able to twist down the ground and stay there a long time in "Shout". The fact that my knees then locked and that I had to be helped up to my feet by a former editor of Studies in the Age of Chaucer, I record here for posterity and my own shame, just to get in before any camera or iphones that might have recorded this event. Shudder.

We left at the perfect moment for leaving - just after the call for last drinks - so I didn't get a chance to bid goodbye to Tiny. But he knows how I feel.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Shadows and clouds

It's a dark, rainy Sunday morning in NYC. We are far from home. We learned last night that Paul's mother is in hospital, so we are going to phone every day. He, or all three of us, may go home early. So there is a shadow over us.

As I write, Joel is having his first shaving lesson. I can hear the twinned voices of my partner and child, just working away on the same wavelength of reason and instruction; question and answer. The timbres of their voices are completely distinctive, but also similar.

Before Joel disappeared into the bathroom, I ran my hand over his cheek and could feel that, yes, the down was no longer quite so downy; and indeed, the shadow of the moustache that has been growing for a few months now was starting to look a bit untidy.

For the first three or four years of his life, Joel's two grandmothers would each come and spend a day with him once a week. When it was Jean's turn, she would bring books, musical instruments, a tape recorder and tapes, and different selections of toys and games. They would have boiled eggs for lunch, and kept collections of "egg people", the upside-down shells of the eggs, decorated with different faces and hair, in the egg cartons on the window sill. She would also bring her camera; we have wonderful photos of those days they spent together.

When Paul and his brother and sister were still very young, she trained as a kindergarten, then a primary school teacher, and by the time of her first heart attack in 1990, she was the principal of the large junior school in one of Melbourne's most elite private schools.

The years Jean would come to care for Joel were in the times before we re-built the back half of our house. I am not exaggerating when I say the bare concrete floor was cracked and uneven; that the elm trees at the front of the house were sending up suckers where the floor boards ended and the concrete began; that the ceiling of the kitchen was covered in specks of plaster; that many of the walls were bare lathe and plaster. Jean would sweep and sweep, and one day discovered the reason why she could never finish getting the floor under the cupboards (themselves sitting on piles of bricks) truly clean was because there was a gap between floor and wall: she was actually sweeping the garden into the house. It was brutally cold in winter, though not unpleasant in the little sun-drenched area next to the laundry. On sunny summer afternoons, that area was unbearable.

She and Joel would sing and laugh and play music much of the day. Of her six grandchildren, Joel is the one who carries that music in his body. Not only does he play and sing; he plays in the air, with his hands, even when he makes no sound.

Eight or nine years ago, after Jean had recovered from two more smaller heart attacks, she said to Joel that she hoped, if he married, she would be able to come to his wedding. "Of course, Nan", he said, not understanding why she wouldn't.

He has emerged from the bathroom, quietly pleased, the smooth contours of his face more precisely defined. Without the shadow of that moustache, he looks, in one sense, younger. But there is no doubt that today, he has also grown up a little more. In these shadows, in these clouds, we are all growing up a little more.

Friday, May 01, 2009

Best. Gelati. Ever.

Still so much in love with NYC there is hardly time to blog. Of course, I am doing some work as well: have just finalised a book proposal for the medievalism book; and have also been reading PhD drafts and writing references. But Paul is away in Canada for a few days, so I'm doing things with Joel in the afternoons too.

The night we got back from DC, we had dinner with a friend down in the NYU-owned apartments in Washington Square. We spent Monday at home exhausted from travelling, then spent Tuesday afternoon at the Museum of Natural History, including the fabulous Planetarium show — Cosmic Collisions. Again and again in this city, I just get overwhelmed by the scale and the depth of its collections. We toured three out of four floors, marvelling at brilliant dioramas and ethnographic/anthropological displays. Room after room of displays that were perfectly presented. Sometimes one drifts through museums, but these taxonomies of evolution made perfect sense. I really felt I was learning things. Each new branch of species development — the second cavity behind the brain, the cavity in the hip that made it possible for legs to move forwards not sideways like lizards —had its own wing or gallery, with introductory film narrated by Meryl Streep.

On Wednesday we saw Ionesco's Exit the King with Geoffrey Rush, Susan Sarandon, and Lauren Ambrose (Clare from Six Feet Under). Sarandon's part is difficult — the voice of reason is never particularly amusing or engaging — and I'd heard she'd had bad reviews, but I thought she was ok; and in any case, I could listen to that beautiful rich voice for ever. But Rush was just extraordinary: melodramatic, poignant, mournful, joyful, acrobatic and absurd. We booked the cheapest seats online at 60% prices, and were right up the back of the balcony. But the top half of the balcony was empty, so before the play started, we were allowed to move down to the front and sides of that tier, so in effect, we probably had $80 seats for $40. Still and all, I'm glad we saved and saved for this trip so we can do all these things, and not worry too much about the cost. The recession helps, too, without a doubt. Interest rates on our mortgage are down, and competition for our business in New York is high. The second half the play probably does drag on a little, as the King slowly dies, and after it was over, Rush seemed to relish prancing about the stage taking the most elaborate, ballerina-style floppy bow, and bringing all the rest of the cast with grand gestures, as if both demonstrating his own athleticism and flexibility; as well as his relief that he could reverse, or deny the long process of decrepitude.

Today, we wandered down below Canal St, meandering around China Town down as far as the river, in between Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridge, then up around City Hall and back into Little Italy. Joel is developing a knack for finding good places to eat. He found the "Excellent Dumpling House" in Lafayette St, listed in Zagat, and offering incredibly cheap and fresh food. Then later, a gelateria and pasticceria that reminded me of a smaller, less chi-chi Brunetti's (in Carlton), where we had excellent coffee and shared a trio of key lime sorbet, raspberry and tira-mi-su ice-cream. We are no strangers to good Italian ice-cream in Melbourne, but the lime was tangy and sweet; the tira-mi-su included pieces of cake in perfect balance with the gelati; and the raspberry tasted like truly fresh raspberries. Maybe it was because we'd been walking for hours, but every mouthful was like a new act of an opera in the mouth. We then bought Joel purple hi-top Converses for half the price we paid in Melbourne, and congratulated ourselves on the ease with which we found our way home.

I then took myself off to St Thomas for evensong. This time, the boys were there as well singing, and the music was Gibbons, Byrd and Tallis. Jackpot!!

But one of the downsides to this excess of riches is the excess of packaging. Everything is triple packaged. We aren't being as careful as we would be at home, but if we buy a pack of prosciutto, it comes sliced with a piece of waxed paper between every slice, a plastic envelope, and a re-sealable plastic box. A cup of coffee and a muffin comes with a cup, a lid, a cup holder, paper around the muffin, a plastic fork and a handful of napkins in a paper bag. A loaf of bread comes in two plastic bags. We sat next to a woman at the theatre who lives in Denver, but moved there recently from California. She had not been able to throw away her polystyrene coffee cup: "we gave up using these in California 100 years ago", she told us.

P.S. I knew I'd forget something! The other night we walked up a little onto the Upper West Side, and came across a museum of folk art. Inside, an exhibition of wildly inventive quilts on the theme of jazz and blues music made by African-American women, and to celebrate the opening, a free concert from Julliard jazz music students. Wild rich sounds filling the gallery space. More beauty, everywhere you turn.