Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Pur Beurre

Can I do this? Is this allowed? Just put up images of delectable pastries from the day Miss I and I went to choose her birthday cake?  Now the unnecessarily sinister name of "Divorce" for the half coffee/half chocolate puff pastry seems unbearably dear.  I was hit hard at dinner tonight (tears and everything) with the shock of wondering "Was that really us?" Was that really our little family out there in Brittany, France? Trying to figure out the library cards, awed by megaliths, endlessly curious about said pastries, gladdened by our friends on the island.  Was that really us, or is this just more daydreaming? More escapism from administrative stress, or student confessions of sexual assault, or that one student who finds nursing "gross" but works at Hooters, or the student who needs Lancelot to be completely heroic instead of tormented, or how to finish this article on visual narrative on time, or whatever?  We're at the part of the semester when we need to replenish, the part of the semester where I'm asking "What's It All For?" way too often. It's for the consciousness of our common humanity - the only thing that will make things better, the every elusive realization.  Do pastries remind us of our common humanity? They come closer than you'd think - as do all simple but profound pleasures. 

Monday, September 27, 2010

Wind of Greed

In what must be a rare moment of self-allegory, Miss E had just declared herself the "Wind of Greed" when I took this picture.  I had thought to take a snapshot of her and her dad, and she totally took over the idea to declare: "I am the Wind of Greeeeeeeed!" - it's not a particularly nice sentiment, but it also turned out to be a pretty empty allegory in that she exhibited nary a bit of greediness all afternoon.  Whence these phrases from this child? Is this a love of sounds (she also loves the sound of, and thus saying "Dayton, Ohio" and "Peyton Manning" - some love of "a/eyton" sounds?)? or some elated response to the beautiful fall day spent in a park (with playground equipment!)? or maybe you'll say it's the outfit (yes, she dresses herself).  No matter, it's the elation we're taking away from it - throughout the rest of the week-end, I found myself saying "Wind of Greed!" whenever something good or triumphant happened (grading done for tomorrow; class prep, too; made some headway on my article that's due October 8; timed my slow-cooker recipe to actually coincide with dinner, that kind of thing).

This week-end was very explicably lovely - a lot of really nice things happened, and I want to remember them.  Medievals had their own way of feeling lucky, which I will remark upon in a minute - this is mine.  Here's Miss I at the end of her piano lesson, when she was invited to play her pieces on the organ in her piano teacher's home (!) - she loves the organ because it's harder, louder, wilier ("pulling out all the stops," as one does when the organ blasts in full, is fine for Miss I, as long as she gets to do the pulling.). She gave the piece "My Pony" an entirely new tenor, I tell you.

The idyll continued with apple picking with friends that afternoon.  This must mean that somehow it got to be fall.  I keep thinking of Brittany, and what it must look like now, as the leaves are turning (spectacular?) colors, and the flowers in our friends' garden retire for another season, bowing out of color and form until an increasingly anticipated spring.  Miss I is talking a lot about missing France and wanting to go back.  Miss E is here just gleefully picking apples. Wind of Greed!

 Pissarro was clearly there: the shade that an apple tree provides, the encouragement you have to give the fruit to come down off of the tree, the wariness about rotten apples on the ground, the desire to bite into a freshly picked apple.  Mister M wanted to be sure we had this painting in our minds - it works!  (There's an article by the Marxist art historian, T.J. Clark that will set your mind right about apple picking, labor, and class, though - so that you may not suffer too long under an idyllic delusion with this painting.)

Eating out at a wonderful creole place with our friends and what turned out to be our oodles of combined kids, and Miss I celebrating her first ever bite of "Gator on a stick" - not a euphemism or a fake-out, that really is alligator on a stick (soaked overnight in buttermilk or some such incongruous but delicious idea).  I like this photograph - I swear those two look like they're on the second night of some fabulous cruise or something.

And then to go hiking in the woods the next day, and find Mister O discovering a vine-branch-like tree and deciding to swing from it.  He actually remained pensive - something soothing about this position?

The Wheel of Fortune helps in times like these.  Actually, it helps more when things are going badly - then you can look forward to things going well.  But I'm going to try to savor the climb back up to the top of the wheel this time around.  That eager anticipation signified by the figure climbing up the Wheel on the left, and its Latin "I will rule."  At the top: "I rule" - simple and absolute. Then, my favorite because of the verb construction itself: "I will have ruled" (the end of the reign approaches!).  Down below: "I am without a reign" (and haven't we all felt that way?).  I think that I go through five rotations of that Wheel of Fortune during the average day, but this week-end, it was all up and top.  After class tomorrow I'll be feeling "I will have ruled" as I mull over what I could have said, how else I might have prepared, what these students are taking away from all this; by the early afternoon I'll be well under the weight of anxiety and tremulousness about my article and all the things that seemed so halfway smart yesterday will seem ridiculous tomorrow; but then I have coffee with my dear friend and then I go get the kids, and then indeed all will be well, and we can shout out: "Wind of Greed!" with glee.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Dutch Courage

Oh my.  Is this how we solve our problems?  Turns out that this was a synopsis exercise from one of the stories at school, and that the last word is supposed to be "gift" - as in to cheer Rick up.  Still, I have this terrible image of this poor Rick, passed out on our couch and the kids bringing him a little pick me up. !!!  There's no medieval connection to pursue here, since gin has its origins in 17th century Holland (who knew?) - it's a fascinating history, but I'm glad that Rick is destined for a gift instead of gin.

 This may be a post without a medieval connection (although there's much to say about class prep for "Love and War" tomorrow: Ovid!, and event more about the piece of medieval narrative that I'm writing: video games!). On Wednesdays we go to have dinner with my dad.  This is both a continually sad affair (brain injury, nursing home), and a happy one (this picture of our motley little crew making its way to the dining room).  It's the kids who make it happy: my dad is regaled by Miss E in her tutu and tap shoes, Miss I playing the piano, and Mister O giving him the latest on the Percy Jackson series.  They love to go see their grandfather, which is so amazing to me, since my dad is mostly so unresponsive emotionally.  But they ask nothing of him - just do their stuff, and tell him their tales. It's true that he never interrupts.  Smile (or cry).

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Transcendental Medication

Anybody have any? Transcendental medication, that is.  Coffee with a dear friend produced that phrase (by accident) this afternoon, and I'm sticking with it.  Miss I's Princess Cupcakes might be the closest thing to transcendental medication that I'll ever see in this house: the frosting is made out of softened vanilla ice cream and pink lemonade mix powder (and yes, that does taste terrible) (but she was happy).  It's Monday and it's already been a very intense week, one in which you struggle to make sense of the complexities of fear and loathing that have gotten us to the various injustices that we're confronting.  An incredible colleague brought the film maker and producer of the documentary film Prom Night in Mississippi to campus for a screening of the movie.  Not to be missed - and it wasn't: there were two overflow rooms, and more than 300 students came and stayed for more than an hour of Q&A afterwards.  When the story of the desegregation of a prom in Mississippi, in 2008, (yes, 2008) is told so well, people want to talk.  Maybe film is the ultimate transcendental medication.

Was there a sense of social progress in the Middle Ages?  Social justice? Social change?  Ideas changed, shifted, were created, but, as I think about it, within a very different meta-narrative structure.  Social change here and now generally (hopefully) entails more rights for more people - that's the big narrative push.  There's no such over-arching narrative to medieval shifts of ideas. The discourse on race, for instance, creates and denies difference pragmatically. But Augustine does argue against the idea that anyone would be abandoned by God (this in the defense of the potential salvation of monsters); and Chrétien de Troyes does state that Marie de Champagne gave him the "matter and the meaning" of the Lancelot tale he wrote (this in troubling the smooth waters of authorship and originality).  I could come up with more ideas that signaled some resistance to power structures that alienated or oppressed others.  But they would be isolated moments (which have survived because one can vividly teach them/learn from them), wouldn't they?  Perhaps the difference can be understood in terms of rights (the narrative and moral drive of modern social progress) vs. articulation (or expression, of ideas that resonate with social progress today).  Take the examples that John Boswell gathers in Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality (especially the Aelred of Rivaulx passage which has now been read in several weddings of former students and that of my brother), and which always make students marvel in their rich and textured articulations and expressions of gay desire.  Of course Boswell's interpretive methods have been critiqued (it assumes an essential and transhistorical gay identity (not very Foucauldian, which argues that all sexualities are constructed within historically specific time periods - but honestly some days, it's ok to put Foucault aside) he took the texts too literally, it's all metaphor, etc.) - but it still resonates with students when Aelred compares his love for a novice with the marriage of John and Christ.  You can't teach gay rights in the Middle Ages, but you can explore the articulation of gay desire, gay experience.  After watching the movie tonight, I keep wondering if articulation/expression isn't the first part of social change.  See?

Maybe looking at art is the ultimate transcendental medication.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Watermelon Pie!

Tonight was rare bliss: Mister O was reading a Percy Jackson book, Miss I was waxing on about bugs, Mister M was at karate, and I was playing the piano, when all of a sudden, out of nowhere, Miss E comes running up behind me and shouts "WATERMELON PIE!" - like, really loudly.  Did a number on the Grieg "Nocturne" I was playing.  As I get ready to grade a set of responses to readings, I'm still laughing. There's no such thing as watermelon pie, right? (Wrong) What was she thinking of? This? or This? Sigh, she probably knows that all I could ever muster is This.  Where would one eat watermelon pie?  Watermelon itself is so messy.  Maybe this is one of those times when medievals did have the answer.  G'night!

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Lamb and Lucidity

Ok, so the kids are eating berries, and the photograph isn't from today, but "Berries and Lucidity" doesn't quite have the ring does it, and this picture would make me happy on any day: nothing like the luxury of eating berries with your back turned to the stunning backdrop of a glistening lake and rustling trees.  I love kids: one intense aesthetic experience at a time.  And this is what I want to struggle with a bit: I had my moment of lucidity when I was fully focused on the lamb I was cooking for dinner tonight, stopping for that first fragrant burst when the meat really starts to cook, waiting for the oregano and cinnamon to start working together without getting lost, looking after the eggplant to see how it was absorbing the flavors.  All sorts of alchemy, all sorts of reactions happening right there, and each seemed more beautiful than the last.  Let's be clear, it was not an epiphany (for that, I can always go to M.F.K. Fisher), it was pure, unknowing escape - thoughts and worries really falling away as the little sensual feats before me took over. (Note: the thoughts and worries are the garden variety, no worries: is ballet for Miss E tomorrow? did I schedule that meeting? when will I write that proposal? what's it all for?) I felt seriousness of purpose and clarity of thought - lucidity.  But let's face it, lucidity is elusive. It comes, it goes, it shimmers on the surface of the little control we think we have. 

In the Middle Ages when you were stressed out by insistent and plaguing thoughts, you went to sleep.  Actually, you read a bunch of problematic books from classical antiquity, and then you fell asleep, and then you woke up in a dream allegorical landscape where lucidity is over-rated and (now that I think about it) nobody eats lamb or much of anything else.  I've been thinking as much about narrative frames as narratives these days (how the frames within which we tell our stories condition those stories) and dream allegories present some pretty incredible frame. Here you're seeing the author/writer/narrator at his medieval desk (and both Mister M and I have lusted after that desk - how cool is it?) on the left (nobody knows who the onlookers are: you and me?), and the dreamer (perhaps or perhaps not at all the same person as the author/writer/narrator) in bed on the right.  The image is from the incredible MS. Douce 195 copy of the the Roman de la Rose, a manuscript richly illuminated in tales of classical antiquity - those which provoke and trouble.  My favorite part is the little dog, utterly alert and looking at us - hoping we'll be distracted enough to let a little piece of lamb fall.

Monday, September 6, 2010


Short blog, but I don't want to lose this one. The other day, we were eating out and Mister O and Miss I were sidetracking into puerile and gross conversation and I interjected: "Could you guys try talking about something interesting?" and Miss E piped up and said "Ingredients!"  I love that.  Very interesting. And now, whenever I'm sitting there trying to think of something intelligent to write for a class or seminar discussion, I keep thinking "ingredients!"

Have you ever read a medieval cookbook?  They are very much the stuff of oral tradition (no precise quantities like today, just pinches and bits of this and that).  They also do things like combine yogurt, marmalade, and mustard.  My favorite thing to think on right now in terms of medieval ingredients is the late medieval-early modern concern with what spices from the East would do do the European temperament.  Would spices of Arabie loosen the morals of the men who ate them? What of the women who cooked them?  You need to have a very microcosmic-macrocosmic view of the world to make that kind of fear work, but the human body's humors had to be kept in balance - and goodness knows what those peppers and spices could do. Interesting to see how these ideas linger. In the end, no matter how many invectives priests wrote in sermons against spices, medieval women loved their saffrons and their cumin.  Thursday, we start reading the Alexandreis, and I'll end with these verses that luxuriate in multiple ingredients and their senses.  The Alexandreis was written in the 1180s by one Walter (Gautier) of Châtillon - the passage comes as Alexander prepares for war with the Persian king Darius and, in doing so, thinks of all the world he has yet to conquer. The translation is by David Townsend from the 2007 Broadview Editions translation.

Such is the site of Asia: gentle growth
of forest shadows it, where rivers flow.
It glories in its various regions' praise.
The elephants of jewelled India shriek,
that country which sows twice and reaps as often,
The Caucasus arises to the north;
the scent of Paradise blows from the East.
Assyrians, Medes, and Persians hold the land
whose name is Parthia, now, and next to this
Mesopotamia stands, receiver of
the wealth of Babylon and the Chaldean realms.
Then come Arabian lands, made redolent
with incense of Sabaea... [I.473-485]