Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Happy Birthday, Iris

Iris in Paris, France
My little woman turned 8 today.  She who reads biographies now, and snuggles into bed with her Big Book of Science at night.  She who brings ailing family members bread and a banana because they're good for you, now eat up.  She who builds complex machines to do simple things. She who deems her sister's use of underwear as a hat "disconcerting."  She who has always loved moving silently in the midst of strangers, free in the absence of the obligation of having to say something.  She who spoke not a word until she was two years old, and then it was "I do it."  She who was born on her own, sparing me any pushing at all, and brought the delivery room to delighted laughter in that primal act of independence and pluckiness.  She whose assertive use of intuitive spelling in a report resulted in the pilgrims "unforchintly" not finding a suitable port on their first go around. She whose friends wrote her a birthday song which includes the lines "you're smart as a dictionary," and "everything we see from you is like a star shining in the sky."  She who rescued a frog and took it into a movie theater to show it a good time.  She who loves so deeply and silently.  She who treasures her two grown up friends, Mademoiselle Marnie and Daefid Stein.  She who still puts her head on my shoulder sometimes when she needs time to think.  Oh Iris, I'm so glad you're here.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Once More Unto the Breach, etc.

And so here we sit (sweat, panic, work), the week-end before another rousing semester starts on Monday.  Mac (to the left) and Iris returned safely and ecstatic from Paris and Berlin (Iris has asked, presciently, "Where's the graffiti?"); my Crusades classes ended fine (world enough and time, I would bemoan a winter storm thwarting our Medieval Times spectacle - grr); and our little community is regathering unto itself.  Modern and predictable as our timetables are, I wonder if there was a "beginning of the semester" feeling when Abelard was about to teach a new class.  I rather doubt it. When I participated in Jean-Claude Schmitt's "Images" seminar at the Ecoles des Hautes Etudes in Paris, his opening remark was "In this, the tenth year of our seminar..." - and then a smile, a collective shift of the shoulders, and the whole group got back to its work, negating any pesky interruptions to the task at hand.  Here (and I think I mean America), there's a sense of a fresh start each semester - better readings, savvier assignments, a more ambitious meta-narrative, more effective means of engaging students, and (as one of my favorite colleagues says) "a moratorium on negativity."  And yet, it's all (lucky, marvelous) continuity, isn't it? I know that, but what I feel is the new, the possible (some perpetual naïveté).  Still, I like to think of Abelard hunching his shoulders right before crossing the threshold into his classroom space and saying "here we go."

And so genius friends of ours organized a Mad Men dinner party last night, based on The Unofficial Mad Men Cookbook, written by a cousin of one of the friends.  At first, we were all very focused on the cocktails, truth be told, but then, without even conferring with each other, we all realized that we could actually play dress-up as well: nude hosiery was procured, heels were donned, lipstick applied, and dainty purses found.  The guys were bedecked in hats, drank second martinis rapidly after firsts, and admired each other's shoes.  It was a complete blast.  I will confess to tremulously confessing to my friends at some point "Thank God feminism happened" - how can I be so freaking humorless? (And yet it's true - charivari for us, stricture upon stricture for them).  (Having said all that, the show itself is brilliant at letting you feel the phenomenal power shift that's occurred since the early 1960s - as my friend said "The show horrifies [in its sexism and racism and bigotry], and we are eager to be horrified.")

I volunteered to make the Beef Wellington, epic in its construction and phenomenal in conception.  And so what can I do but leave you with the scene from Woody Allen's Love and Death in which Napoleon frets that Wellington will invent an eponymous dish before he will?  Onwards, friends!

Friday, January 20, 2012

So Many Crusades, So Little Time

Having battled our way through the first three Crusades (oof), we now encounter the Medievalism chapter of this Winter Term course (to be followed next week by an all-too-rapid excursus into the Fourth Crusade, much dwelling on the meeting between "the saint (Francis) and the sultan (al-Malik, al-Kamil)," during the Fifth Crusade, and a quick dispensing of poor, misguided Louis IX (dies of dysentery at the walls of Tunis in 1270 - yish).  To initiate All Things Medievalism, we screened King Richard and the Crusaders, the 1954 Hollywood extravaganza so well commented by Lorraine Stock in her essay from the anthology, Hollywood in the Holy Land.  Rex Harrison is in brown-face as a wily Saladin, and George Saunders (whose voice sounds familiar because he voiced Shere Khan in the Disney Jungle Book movie) is Richard III. Some totally hot young guy in really tight tights whose hair never actually moves plays Kenneth of Huntington, the Leopard Knight, and Virginia Mayo plays Lady Edith, she of the perky bosom and perfect lipstick.  These movies are so delightful to watch and hate, but so incredibly useful for talking about Orientalism in their triumphalist naïveté.  Considering that Winter Term classes are not supposed to be "too academic" (whatever the hell that means) (clearly a point that frustrates me), I was proud that we at least talked about Orientalism via Delacroix (Sardanapolus) and King Richard.  I'd screened the movie at home (and read significant chunks of Sir Walter Scott's 1825 The Talisman on which it is based) and so hearing the dialogue a second time, was struck by how many times Crusaders say things like "I want to help" - "I'm here to help you" - "We want to help."  It sounds so naïve now (the students laughed at those lines, experienced viewers of Crusader films made in the post-Vietnam era that they are), but that easy triumphalism is almost hypnotic.

So it's with wonderfully mixed anticipation that I prepare to take my students to Chicago for the day tomorrow.  The Art Institute will provide us with that glorious Dieric Bouts "Weeping Virgin" and the Arms and Armor exhibited (which a few years was displaced by Indian Art - how interesting is that?), and then it's on to the D'Arcy Gallery at Loyola and finally (drum roll, please) MEDIEVAL TIMES!  Last time I went 8 years ago, it was still close enough to 9-11 that they were flying an American flag during the finale.  This time?  We shall see how medievalism is doing in the Heartland!

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Being There

As I write, Iris and Mac are in the midst of a lunch with David and José in Paris and Eleanor and I are sitting here telling Darwin the cat all about the house on the island and Brittany in general and David's macaroni and cheese in particular. Oh, and their giant dog, Dooby. And the garden. And the water wheel. And that barbecue that one time... I have multiple conversations remembered in my head and dozens more desired. This most wonderful of friendships. It lives! One often mentions the fantasy of being a fly on the wall, but seldom have I so wished to hear what my Iris will say or how David will reply or what Jose has been researching or what Mac has gathered from French culture to discuss. They've been in Paris almost a week and all reports are vigorous: Iris is keeping pace with the students - actually, wait, that's the least of her concerns. Iris is keeping pace with her dad (and probably inspiring the students to do the same) - nothing more driven and half mad with glee than an art historian in an art town. More art!

Mac arranged a tour at the Opera Garnier and here's my small wonder amidst so much opulence. The palace of the big bad bourgeoisie (it actually brings to mind the Soviet metro stations that a student of mine studied in the spring). Oh wow! Eleanor has of her own found her little viewfinder slide show of Carnac (how do kids do that? how do they find small things put away months ago? I'm still hunting articles in my office these days). She is flipping through the images with happy sighs. Does each one of us have a place of Eternal Return of place (and, yes, accompanying loves)? Iris for Paris? Brittany for me? Carnac for Eleanor? Might it work that way? These particular landscapes that we can travel again and again step by step - not according to their events, but solely their spaces, views, and emotions. Now I wonder what those are for Mac, for David, for José, for my Oliver. He stirs, and there is snow outside, so on must go the hot chocolate and the snow pants and away we'll go to whatever adventure he has planned! Santé to all in Paris, France and "Kenavo," too!

Friday, January 13, 2012

Les Poulains

Marriage of Melisende and Fulk of Anjou (June 2, 1129)
Daughter of a Crusader King (Baldwin II) and a Armenian Princess (Morphia of Melitene), Melisende (herself Queen of Jerusalem from 1131 to 1153, and then Regent Queen from 1153 to 1161) utterly fascinates. Late as it is, and with tomorrow as busy as today, I can do little more than register my fascination, but with each study of the Crusades, a new obsession emerges. This time, it's the Poulains, pullani - Melisende and those like her, those born of Crusader settlers in the Holy Land who would never see France or Germany or Italy or England. Second generation colonials who were native (all the more so because their parents had so eagerly gone native). They often spoke Arabic, dressed Frankish in the streets, but in loose Arabic clothing at home, they patronized local musicians, their servants were Arab (sometimes Christian, sometimes Muslim). The art they commissioned picked up traces and gestures of both the visual languages of both Muslim and Eastern Christian (Greek, Egyptian, Armenian, Syrian) art.

And today in reading the wonderfully engaging Sacred Violence by Jill N. Caster, I came across this term I had just seen in John Tolan's Saint Francis and the Sultan that morning (and boy the anticipation for that episode!): Poulains, or in the 12th-century Latin: pullani. The young colts, the young ones, the children of Crusaders. I marvel at the term itself: the vigor and rebellion of the term. And some were: Melisende's sister Alice wanted Antioch all to herself no matter what; and Melisende herself stood up to both her husband and her son for rule of the Kingdom of Jerusalem (and won, mostly). Were the any different from any other children of colonials? Do we understand them if we only think of 19th century colonial offspring in India? It can't be that simple. So wherein the difference? How do we come to understand these Poulains (and how do even the medieval French come up with these perfect terms?)? What were their experiences of the world? Where's the book about them? Are they hybrids, liminal, multicultural, truly between two worlds, or not at all? The "We who were Occidentals have now become Orientals" line from Fulcher of Chartres's chronicle Historia Iherosolymitana, written between 1100 and 1127, gets quoted a lot, but listen to the rest of it:

For we who were Occidentals have now become Orientals. He who was a Roman or a Frank has in this land been made into a Galilean or a Palestinean. He who was of Rheims or Chartres has now become a citizen of Tyre or Antioch. We have already forgotten the places of our birth; already these are unknown to many of us or not mentioned any more.

Some already possess homes or households by inheritance. Some have taken wives not only of their own people but Syrians or Armenians or even Saracens who have obtained the grace of baptism. One has his father-in-law as well as his daughter-in-law living with him, or his won child if not his stepson or stepfather. Out here there are grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Some tend vineyard, other till fields.

People use the eloquence and idioms of diverse languages in conversing back and forth. Words of different languages have become common property known to each nationality, and mutual faith unites those who are ignorant of their descent. Indeed it is written, "The lion and the ox shall eat straw together" [Isai. 62:25]. He who was born a stranger is not as one born here; he who was born an alien has become a native.

Our relatives and parents join us from time to time, sacrificing, even though reluctantly, all that they formerly possessed. Those who were poor in the Occident, God makes rich in this land. Those who had little money there have countless bezants here, and those who did not have a villa possess here by the gift of God a city.

Therefore why should one return to the Occident who has found the Orient like this?

Indeed. And they didn't. They and their generations stayed as long as they could (until 1291 and the fall of Acre). This text is quoted pretty extensively in the film Kingdom of Heaven (the students did a nice job of gasping in realization). It is this outrageous vision (Fulcher called it a miracle, along with God's will to enrich all (Christians) who go to the Holy Land). And at the same time, his own fascination, his own desire for the place is so palpable. We talk a good deal about medieval "fluidities" (boundaries not quite set as solidly as they are in the modern era). Is that what this is? There's more to be interested in as well: marriages and alliances (and confrontations) with Eastern Christians, especially Armenians and Greeks/Byzantines. One could go to Cyprus and really revel in the breakdown of boundaries (the incredible art historian Annemarie Weyl Carr has, and the results are utterly fascinating). For now, it will be bed instead of Cyprus - but with many questions of homeland and knowledge (and of course Melisende commissioned stunning manuscripts and was involved in the Holy Sepulcher refurbishing and, and, and...)

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Hope and Hop

And so here is a last picture of Iris stateside, well equipped my darling, for this next chapter: pink beret that actually says "Paris" on it along with the Eiffel Tower: check; swank satchel packed with Mr. Popper's Penguins: check; new watch that totally tells time: check; iPod with French folk songs: check.  And in all this, what fills me with gladness in this picture is how her satchel turns her little t-shirt which reads "Hope" into a message of "Hop."  A nice little surprise, that's all - something to put a little skip in our step as we come back from this difficult week-end.  We were able to e-mail her and her dad that Darwin had a great vet's appointment: that he's healthy, although taking antibiotics just to protect him further, that he'll be ready for a companion in about 10 days, and that his proud little tail and his really loud purr bode very well indeed for a lifetime of adventure.

And he's settling in, is Darwin.  With tremendous liveliness and affection.  Oliver is overjoyed and Eleanor honored but uncertain - he nuzzles and paws and purrs and it's not so much the memory of Miss Frizzle that's going away as that presence of death that's dissipating.  Darwin's scamper seems to defy it somehow.  I've been screening many a Crusade movie for my "Crusades: Fact, Fiction, and Film" class (today: Youssef Chahine's 1963 Saladin) and with the many Baldwins involved in the Crusading history of Jerusalem, I've slipped and called him Baldwin several time - the name shares just enough letters with Darwin I suppose.  Though he could be a Lion-Hearted if ever there was anyone in our household who could be. 

Times when someone in this house is away, we always find ourselves living half here/half there - maps of India and lots of Indian food cooked over the summer during Mac's travels, now huge maps of Paris and Berlin on the dining room wall frame dinner conversation.  The Paris map has Metro lines super-imposed which let the mind wander.  They're staying at the Opera Cadet on the Right Bank (it always cracks us up how our school insists on these fine hotels for the student trips - I'm done with youth hostels, but come on, whatever happened to the shower-down-the-hall hotel experience?).  No complaints, posh is nice.  They're sleeping now and tomorrow Mac will continue to show students 19th century Paris (his course) with a tour of the Opera Garnier (nice!).

It would be nice to start thinking and writing about classes and this article I'm so excited about writing, but for now, it's just nice that things are nice.  Darwin purrs on my lap, there's a bit of reading about Reynauld de Châtillon as the elephant of God before bed, and then, yes, rest.

Monday, January 9, 2012


This phrase "ill-equipped" is how I'm trying to understand (forgive myself for? reconcile with?) our second animal loss in as many months. The guilt of giving Sawyer up continues to linger, and now there is the death of little Miss Frizzle. "Mistakes were made" is another phrase, although different mistakes in different ways with different repercussions entirely. We picked up the cats from their caretakers barely 24 hours after their spay/neuter surgery, and were told that she had "a little cold." I can now figure out that our little girl cat was already severely dehydrated, had already stopped eating and drinking and was in really bad shape. She should have never been handed off to us, she should have never left the animal hospital, she probably shouldn't even have been operated upon (she was just 2 pounds, said her chart), especially if she had a cold (of any size). She needed critical care.

We were ill-equipped.

But we knew enough to know that something was wrong. So we coaxed her all the first night, went to our local vet (as opposed to the butchers where she had her operation) and picked up anti-biotics and food that I could give her through a syringe, and we fed her every two hours, then every hour, then towards the end, we were giving her water every 15 minutes. She died in Mac's arms while the kids were watching a movie and I was upstairs crying really hard because I knew she wasn't going to make it. I had just looked at her, her pupils enormously dilated, and knew. And the presence of death, that awful secret knowledge that death has, is just so terrible. Even in a small animal that had only been in our home for 24 hours. Again my children wailed, again we held them and said things. Mac concluded at one point that she was already very far gone when we picked her up, that we were actually her hospice care. And she was loved up all day long: Iris held her and held her, and Oliver and Eleanor talked to her, and Oliver's best friend spending the week-end with us reassured her. She was surrounded, this tiny little creature, as she faded. I get the comfort of that idea (and it's helping the kids a lot), but Mac and I agree it's not a role or a burden we'd seek out for our children to bear. Mistakes were made: these lovely cat ladies take shelter overflow kittens and have them fixed and then find owners for them. But they're not veterinarians. They have a lot of love, and there's quite a bit of God in the e-mails back and forth, but they didn't see it either. Our vet is frustrated with them as I found out Saturday morning when I went by for the medicine. Now I wonder: has this happened before? None of that really matters, does it? Miss Frizzle is gone, death was here and it felt present and I'm having a hard time shaking that presence, and I don't know that writing is making any sense of this at all at this point.

But there is also Darwin - the little boy cat that we adopted from the same ladies. He is thriving and tearing through the dining room as Mac and I sit here and write. He is lively and wonderful and affectionate and very social and he purrs and purrs and he is here and present, too. He eats heartily and shows tiny balls with bells inside no mercy and he makes us very glad. Something went very wrong with Miss Frizzle and we were ill-equipped to deal with it. But something is very right about little Darwin. No jokes yet about the survival of the fittest - I want him big and strong first.

There is also Mac and Iris on their way to Paris and Berlin as of 9 a.m. tomorrow. I'm not sure why I take very great comfort in knowing that they're going to meet up with our most wonderful friends from Brittany for lunch one day at the end of the week, but I do: I find myself daydreaming of Iris talking to David about goodness knows what by then, and all being right with the world as it always is when we're with them. Memories of the garden have always been a haven, but I now realize that their friendship is just that as well.

I'm looking at Darwin and thinking of my 17 years with Tiki, my cat who saw me through graduate school and all three children's infancies and everything in between, and all of the haven that she provided. Losing little Miss Frizzle, thinking about huge Sawyer, looking at little (really little these kittens) Darwin, I know that I'm seeking that haven again, but this time with more at stake because of the kids. It's not the Irish monk and his cat, it's something else - Darwin will show us what it is.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

A-Crusading We Will Go

Crusader walls of Caesarea
Today was the first day of "The Crusades: Fact, Fiction, and Film," and all was good: enthusiastic students, some work with the five versions of Urban II's speech, the first part of Terry Jones's wonderful documentary, and great expectations for the discovery of the Holy Lance of Antioch tomorrow.  Today was also the release of Student Opinion Surveys from last semester, and since one student dubbed me as having "exceptional clarity of thought," (!) I though that I would treat myself to a little helpless fascination with the Crusaders in the Holy Land. Helpless, because I'll never fully understand the volatility of piety and pragmatism that hurtled those thousands of people to Jerusalem, seized thousands more to stay and set up principalities and counties and kingdom, and compelled untold thousands to replay the animosities and loves of the Crusades over and over again for coming on one thousand years now.  Fascination, because though so much (the zeal, the violence, the colonialism, the insanity) of the Crusades repels, the sheer will of everything involved continues to hold me.  I started class off with Fulcher of Chartres's "We who were Occidentals are now Orientals" quote, and another by Bill Clinton about how the massacre of the First Crusade is a story "that is still being told today in the Middle East and we are still paying for it" (the quote is from a speech he gave at Georgetown, the citation is from Competing Voices from the Crusades by Andrew Holt and James Muldoon, Greenwood World Publishing, 2008). That set a nicely ambiguous tone from which I could present the image above, which has become emblematic for me of this helpless fascination.

When Crusaders came to Caesarea, necessity deemed that they build their defensive walls rapidly, and so they used whatever materials were at hand - here, columns of Herod's beloved Caesarea that still strew the rocks before the beach today.  The walls of the Crusaders were built from the ruins of the Roman Empire.  That never ceases to move me. I know that many things were built up from the ruins of the Roman empire (countless cities, roads, laws, habits), but there's something about the immediacy and raw energy of using ancient marble columns to shore up the wall of a burgeoning Christian empire that captivates.  Herod's grand vision, the fervent striving appeal to Roman grandeur and triumphalism that he built up all over the Holy Land (think Massada, think his expansion of the Temple Mount, think the Herodion) shaped Caesarea, itself a kind of crazy idea (he built a harbor out into the sea by sinking enormous pylons, he had a hippodrome, an amphitheater, everything a good Roman city should have).  And then, a thousand years later, another crazy idea: a Christian empire in the Holy Land. In both instances, a grandeur wrested.  And so I shall oscillate wildly for the next three weeks as we tread not so carefully through the texts and images of the Crusades.  One always has high hopes for Winter Term: that the three hours of daily teaching somehow won't stop us from writing that book review or revising that class or starting on that article due March 1.  I would like to not be deterred, but for now, I'll just revel in this clarity of thought idea.