Friday, April 30, 2010


This photo in today's NYT, by Jeff Overs, is truly ridiculous - Nick Clegg and Gordon Brown doing a kind of uneasy cabaret routine together. This is a news photographer's dream - getting two people in apparent choreographed synchronicity when, of course, it's highly improbable that they had planned their chorus kicks.

It's strange following a general election from afar - I guess this is only the second time that I've done it. In 2005 I was giving a lecture at a liberal arts college somewhere in upstate New York - the kind of weird tiny place that you'd expect a murder mystery to be set in - and I bargained to be put up in a hotel - I think it was a Comfort Inn - with internet. But there wasn't a connection strong enough to carry the BBC broadcast, so I gave up my favorite practice of listening to all the results coming in, and went to bed in a disappointed sulk. This time, of course, I've carefully planned to be in front of the TV in Wimbledon. But what will it feel like to be detached from the outcome? I'm very glad that I don't have a vote, because I don't have to wrack my conscience about where to put my X. And two out of the three candidates don't figure in my own political experience - gone are the days in which I can cheerfully say that I was involved in an Oxford revue with Tony Blair. This is not, I should say, a contact of which I'm particularly proud, and I can't really claim to have known him well, in any case, since he was a Clean Living Boy - so far as I could tell - and didn't mix a whole lot with my particular dramatic crowd - except when his band Ugly Rumours played for a Marlowe-inspired musical called Faustrock. For the sartorial record, he had a particularly bad-taste pair of purple loons. They would clash badly with his current orangey tan. It's unbelievable that the Labour Party thinks that it's a plausible strategy to wheel him out on the campaign trail - if they are trying this as a gamble, it shows how bad things must be.

Thursday, April 29, 2010


...or what I would call Chrysanthemums, or Chrysanths - labeling these things "mums" was a weird piece of American English that it's hard to get used to, still. In my world "mums" were those mothers who - ubiquitously - were, well, not my mother (whom I called by a diminutive of my father's name for her - Hetta, short for Henrietta - the fact that she's actually called Joy is a whole other story), since she thought that to call a mother "mum" was to confine her to A Role. Context - when Alice asked her if she had an apron that she could wear when cooking at Christmas, my mother fixed her with a basilisk stare and said - you mean, A Badge of Slavery? We are, of course, talking about people whom we'd call "moms" in America, anyway.

Arriving at Raleigh-Durham airport this evening, it was great to be met by a graduate student - Anna - from England! Ah! she said, she didn't realize that I was British. I'm not sure that I do, always - but it was so great to talk to someone who - well, talked the same language. And we could compare how frustrating it is to be thought Australian, wherever we are. And to discuss the impossible awfulness of the non-choice (not that I have a vote, but still) in next week's General Election. It made me realize how much of the time, here, at one level I essentially speak a foreign cultural language - it even had the relief of coming back to an anglophone existence after a couple of weeks in France or Italy speaking only those languages. Unexpected, but very welcome.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010


Even I can tell that one of the big, tall cedar trees out front has developed an unencouraging, even a malevolent list towards the road. If it were to fall, it would not only take out a neighbor's car or two, but a whole lot of electricity cables, with dire effects to the apartment block next door, and therefore probably to our bank balance. So it has to go (and this is quite apart from the root system that disrupts our basement). It has, indeed, a whole lot of white chalk crosses on its trunk, as though it has the Black Death.

I just hope that I'm out of earshot when it comes down. I've always thought of tree saws as murderers - partly because there was a large, benign, noble cedar at the bottom of Hillside when I was little, which the people in #16 - the Tylers? - took down because it blocked their view, and that was the end of a historical living thing. And then Wimbledon College School, at the end of #21's garden, took down all their big trees and built a swimming pool and squash court. I used on summer nights to listen to the wind in those trees, and to the sound of the Stones' Satisfaction playing at the Youth Club dances, and plan how to sneak down to the fridge and steal some lettuce hearts, since some misguided person had told me that they contained cocaine. One will believe anything, when one's eleven.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

crowning glory

There probably is some reason why this magnificent crown is sitting in the rear window of a car in Parking Lot 9, but I can't quite work out why, off hand. Nonetheless, I can scent, in the wind, gently, a whole series of car-rear-window pictures heading this way. Better, for now, than walking forty or fifty yards and encountering the muddy wasteland that's this year's Tent City. I always look forward to its radical promise, but this year the actual sun has yet to catch up with its ideological optimism.

Monday, April 26, 2010

wounded wall

One of the things that I loved about the Wangechi Mutu exhibition in Toronto was the Wounded Wall - one long wall of the exhibition where the surface had been damaged - attacked with a hammer, and holes made in it that she's then painted red, as though the wall itself was bleeding. In the video describing her working methods that accompanied the exhibition, she explained how this attack on a wall was a way of shaking up the customary reverence and respect associated with a gallery. As she says, people who are used to art on display know how to "behave" in a gallery - shades of C19th anxieties about letting in the unwashed hordes. But rather than sharing in that C19th debate - either of dread that dirt and grubby breath will somehow pollute the pictures, or that, on the other hand, the working-class public should have the chance of seeing important art - Mutu actually reflects on what it's like to attend an exhibition if this is unfamiliar cultural territory. It's weird, she points out, to walk into a white cube, with lots of space, and other people present - and no one talking to you. And as she says, all these dead things staring back is a scary experience. So - attack a wall: demolish its pristine superiority.

The only trouble is - this wall isn't in an art gallery. Most regrettably, it's in our basement. And it's leaking wet New Jersey rain, once again. Yes, the contractors have Plans to Do Things outside to stop the leaks. That being said, they won't be the first, or even the second, contractors with ambitions in that direction, though their ambitions are, shall we say, way more ambitious, and involve removing concrete, a lot of ground, and a large tree. But - illuminated by, yes! - flash, this wall doesn't look at all promising.

Sunday, April 25, 2010


...not that these are, in themselves, green tightly curled fronds, but this sculpture was somewhere out beyond my right elbow in the Art Gallery of Ontario's restaurant, whilst I was consuming a most delectable springtime omelette involving goats cheese and, yes, fiddleheads. It seemed appropriate to be looking out onto these metallic spirals. My thanks to Jennifer to suggesting this as a place to have lunch: great food, great company.

And it was a wonderful gallery, too. I was really struck by an exhibition on the work of Wangechi Mutu, who does extraordinary collages - some large, some postcard size - of African women's bodies, their pieces cut out of magazines and collaged together, ornamented and colored and modified by intricate ink designs (and the occasional patches of earth, or stuck-on pearls). She takes, and refuses, two stereotypes: the hypersexualized black body of porn magazines, and the image of the Ethnic African Woman, complete with big earrings, cloth headdresses, etc. - cuts out some of the images, refuses to use the most titillating pieces, and refashions African women, cyborg-like, so that they are powerful, difficult, dangerous, beautiful: it's feminist art for the 2000s. And I loved the video, as well: "Cutting" - her, as an Africam woman, silhouetted against a hilltop at dawn, her machete clanging down, repeatedly, on a pile of wood - a timeless scene. Only, of course, it wasn't - that was the twist: she filmed herself undertaking this labor not somewhere in her native Kenya, but near Presidio, Texas, close to the Mexican border - so this is about the transnational repetition of hard daily labor by women, not something taking place at an exotic distance.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

window ledge the supermarket to the side of the hotel. This place was crawling with photographers this morning - I felt very self-conscious whipping out a practical point and shoot (which, oddly enough, was all that I'd taken with me on my sortie to buy a cappuccino) when everyone else seemed to have at least two Nikons slung round their neck. For today was the Canadian News Photographers Association convention taking place in the hotel, and I felt that, indeed, maybe I should stay there, and not head off to give a keynote at another conference... But the Victorian Studies Association of Ontario proved to be excellent, and even though my paper (on neo-Victorian photography) wasn't as coherent as I would have liked in parts, I was so richly supplied afterwards with ideas and material and questions that my whole faith in conferences was richly renewed.

Given that I was talking about technical manipulation of images today - largely through manual means, though Photoshop played a role in some of my examples, one would have thought that I'd have done a better job on this image, which is crying out for the background to be Gaussian Blurred and desaturated. But without a Wacom tablet, and on a very small laptop, this proved to be more frustrating than trying, say, to crochet a lobster, so I gave up. Even without some help, though, these still gleam out as a highly cheerful collection of vases.

Friday, April 23, 2010


We've had bad trouble in Santa Fe with birds - usually towhees, whom I always suspect aren't very smart - flying straight into our windows, startling the cats considerably, and then landing, stunned (or worse) on the ground outside. I bought some black silhouettes from an on line source, which was a really bad idea - they seemed to have been cut out of black bin liners, and totally failed to stick. York University, Toronto, however, seems to have found some far more permanent way of sticking artificial bird outlines onto their windows: so permanent and unremovable, indeed, that they have become repositories for scratched graffiti, rather like large flat cactus leaves.

I always enjoy coming to Canada (though I'm always in hotels where people party up and down the corridors. Come to think of it, that's currently true of the US, too - I must just stay in the wrong hotels). It manages, at best, to merge all kinds of good British things (Penguin books, people wearing funky clothes, Cadbury's chocolate) with the better parts of American life (evidence? tonight's dinner at Pangaea, perhaps, which was wonderfully US/Canadian organic fusion; a functional cab system), plus the comfortably downtrodden (witness the peeling grey concrete of York - which, on the Keele campus, could well have been Keele, England) - plus the fun feeling of being abroad when one realizes that on certain occasions it's easier, indeed, necessary, to talk French, not English, even here - or the taken-for-granted Canadian-ness of the fact that I'm being picked up in the morning by a couple of married (to each other) women. I've always thought (major theme of The Transatlantic Indian, of course), that the internationalism and multiculturalism of Canada is never perceived of as sexy (except, perhaps, by Canadians) for the self-evident reason that it is Canadian - and that this is most unfair.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

the den

I've always loved the fact that our graduate end of year dinner and awards ceremony migrated from Sophie's Bistro to the gay club next door - this year we went one better and had the whole occasion in the club itself. But a disco with no disco ball? Only Chinese lanterns, what looked like an electric ring of Christmassy mistletoe, and - yes - Scarlet Knights and Rutgers banners and pennants. Very strange. But it didn't stop us being celebratory, and toasting not just students and relevant faculty members (only I would have done better in the respect in my own speechifying if I'd woken up to the fact that I had to give a speech at the precise moment that it was due a little earlier, and wasn't busy trying to purchase a gin and tonic at the time) - and above all, amazing, wonderful, incomparable Cheryl and Courtney in the grad studies office.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

before a poetry reading

there's something about an empty podium that hovers halfway between expectation and rather awkward self-conscious solidity. This evening's was standing in the lower gallery of the Zimmerli, waiting to be occupied by Tom Healy and Gabrielle Calvocoressi, whose poetry worked extremely well together - Tom's more sparse and brittle; Gabrielle's the more incantatory, offering snippets of history and landscape that threatened, or promised, to break off into much longer stories - and then the protagonist moves on, or walks on, and leaves a scene that might have been glimpsed out of a car's rear window or by the head's quick turn. I particularly liked "Acknowledgement, 1964" - if there's an analogue to someone asking about an exhibition, "what picture would you most like to take home?" - then that was the poem I wanted to put into my purse.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010


I don't normally go to long, depressing meetings about "The Budget Situation 2010-11" - held for a group of people herded together under the heading of the Academic Leadership Program - in order to take pictures of the rapt audience. It's just that my camera is always with me, and it came out to take pictures of the slides that we were shown (how was I to know that they are now publicly available on line... at least, we're told that they will be: I just went to try and make a link, and only encountered documents with titles like "Effectively marketing your academic department"). And then the little camera was resting on the table, waiting for the next chart that would illustrate how the different components of cuts that add up to about 95M less next year from the state of New Jersey can be represented in bright shades of red and green - and I saw the image that appeared on the screen, and clicked.

The faces say it all: Robin Davis, the Executive Vice-Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences is behind the nearest, rather oddly designed coffee glass (as though we are all about to consume Irish Coffee at 9 a.m.) - I don't recognize the others, but none look cheerful. How do we find 95M? The answer was clearly not going to emerge, and the strategies of Enlarge the Business School! Enlarge the Engineering School! didn't answer how SAS can deliver 100 and 200 level courses to their students without more people to teach them, and without adequate, non-crumbling classrooms. "Be like the University of Michigan," didn't seem like an instantly achievable solution, either, and there were various unconvincing aspects to being told that New Brunswick was like Ann Arbor. It's not that we expect there to be solutions - there clearly aren't any obvious ones - that is, any palatable ones (or presumably the state would cut us even more, since we would be perceived as manifestly inefficient) - and these expressions just convey the sense of a room full of numbed bafflement.

Monday, April 19, 2010

tower window

The tower - and indeed, the attic as a whole - is coming along, although I have days when I seriously doubt that it will be finished before about next January. The floor is now chosen. Then when that is installed, the baseboards and trim can be nailed in. Then a fan. Then an a/c unit, that meets some new extra-special efficiency specification, and may or may not arrive by June, or so. Then there are other problems, like the tree outside that's leaning at what even I admit is a precarious angle over the road, other people's cars, etc. And the leaking basement, which of course is probably leaking because of roots from the same tree. There are some days when I think that quite the simplest thing to do would be to go and live in a tent in the back yard, although that would probably fall foul of some Highland Park zoning regulation.

This tower window is, of course, protected with paper from all the painting and plastering that's been going on round it. I'm just adopting it as a handy metaphor for a day when there hasn't been too much light shining through anything.

Sunday, April 18, 2010


The New York Post is never one to soft-peddle news, but this is emphatic, to say the least. At a St Anne's brunch (these things are held bi-annually in NYC, and coincide with a more general Oxford University get together) it was not a little amusing to hear that there are currently 30 heads of Oxford colleges stuck in New York, and wondering whether they can possibly charter a liner home (I think not: seemingly all the berths on cruise ships have already been snapped up). As Tim Gardam, St Anne's principal put it, it's like a disaster movie ("Ash," we thought) with the script by David Lodge.

Meanwhile, it was an exceptionally beautiful day in New York.

Saturday, April 17, 2010


It has always struck me as most unfair that Princeton should get tigers, whereas we got stuck with Scarlet Knights that - whatever their size - always manage to look as though they are put together from the same kind of Airfix kits with which I used to glue together model airplanes, rather messily. This is one of two rather wary beasts outside Nassau Hall, donated by the class of 1879. Not that they have been there since that date - 1879 was in fact the year in which the class got it spectacularly wrong in making their gift, since they gave two large lions to guard Nassau Hall's portals: they changed big cats for these ones, made by A. P. Proctor, in 1911.

But of course we could have had tigers here, if we hadn't slid from Dutch orange into Rutgers red. Princeton kept on with the orange - and then students started to write their class numbers on their orange ribbons with black pens - and the rest is stripy history. Red and black doesn't really produce quite the same effect (though maybe we could have had a ladybug as our emblem? Or a red and black beetle like Helluomorphoides nigripennis? A couple of these, four feet high and six feet long, might look quite fetching waving their feelers in front of Old Queens).

Friday, April 16, 2010

petals on a damp, brown ground

I have now spent half

an hour finding that Ezra

Pound wrote haiku

with metaphors that

were far more subtle than I

can possibly build.

Nonetheless, campus

today was lit up by pink

petals fluttering.

[apologies, Ezra! But I thought of you when I saw the trees: semi-Oriental pink blossoms will do this in a very Pavlovian way...

The apparition of these faces in the crowd ;
Petals on a wet, black bough. ]

Thursday, April 15, 2010

another flamingo

...this time in downtown New Brunswick, and out of focus - an example of what happens when one takes a flashless picture when one's scurrying out of a restaurant, and one's left with little choice of what to use as an image at the end of a long and non-photographic day (though I wish that I'd poked the camera lens into the wonderful bag of bagels that Becca brought to class from Brooklyn this morning). So I had to do some rapid doctoring to this bird, which I suddenly saw among the ivy at the back of the Frog and the Peach: what puzzles me is how kitsch it is, or isn't, in its intention. But then, very many pink flamingoes leave me puzzled in that way.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

a riddle

Ic eom wunderlicu wiht, wifum on hyhte,

I am a wonderful help to women,

neahbuendum nyt. Nængum sceþþe

The hope of something to come. I harm

burgsittendra nymþe bonan anum.

No citizen except my slayer.

Staþol min is steapheah; stonde ic on bedde,

Rooted I stand on a high bed.

neoþan ruh nathwær. Neþeð hwilum


I am shaggy below. Sometimes the beautiful


ful cyrtenu ceorles dohtor,

Peasant's daughter, an eager-armed,

modwlonc meowle, þæt heo on mec gripeð,

Proud woman grabs my body,

ræseð mec on reodne, reafað min heafod,

Rushes my red skin, holds me hard,

fegeð mec on fæsten. Feleþ sona

Claims my head. The curly-haired

mines gemotes seo þe mec nearwað,


Woman who catches me fast will feel


wif wundenlocc-- wæt bið þæt eage.

Our meeting. Her eye will be wet.

Just for once, I'm not heading the page with a picture... but here is the answer to the riddle, #23 in the Exeter Book Manuscript, which proves that the Anglo-Saxons were a filthy minded lot...

As I posted to my FB page status earlier, I really didn't think I would come upon the phrase "copulating female onions" in a colleague's (completely fascinating) description of her current work on gender and Anglo Saxon ... but I did. Or rather, I never anticipated coming upon the phrase anywhere. Only if I'd learned AS from riddles, or, indeed, been taught it by Stacy, I might have found it a great deal more interesting than grimly memorizing lines about Byrthnoth standing steadfast on the strand. The Wanderer and The Seafarer and The Ruin were a great deal more to my lyric taste: somewhere I didn't quiet grasp the idea that there was an interesting culture out there - just a whole lot of stuff to be learned by rote. I greatly admired Mr Watson, married to the woman who had the unfortunate task of drumming the material into me and the rest of my year at St Anne's - she had us over, at the end of our first Michaelmas term, to drink mulled wine and eat mince pies and listen to a gramophone record of Beowulf being read. Only we all found it so excruciating that when she went to the kitchen for refills, he ripped it off the machine and put on the Private Eye [the satirical magazine] Christmas record instead...

This seems to be the week for alliums (allia?) - though one thing that I think I've learned today is pre-Norman Conquest onions were probably quite different from the ones that turned up in this week's organic vegetable order. I suspect they were more like shallots - bulbous, but then with long whitish-green tops shading, yes, to red. Or the riddle wouldn't make a great deal of sense: there's not much that's phallic about this vegetable - though, as Jonah reminded me on FB, there's always Marvell's "vegetable love," which has more to do with slow growth - no arugula need apply - than with adoring one's leeks and red kale.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010


There was a good bit of garlic in tonight's dinner - my Buffalo Herder's pie, an inventive take on Cottage Pie, or Shepherd's Pie, made with ground buffalo (complete with the very Navajo addition of juniper berries) and red enchilada sauce. I don't think it could be termed very healthy, but it was certainly (like yesterday's plates) calming. This is almost the end of the Peñasco Blue garlic - from the garlic farm that sells its plaited bundles in the fall in Santa Fe Farmers' Market: by now, the one and a half remaining heads are starting to look a little yellow and flaky. This could be a sign that we're getting to the end of the semester, too - starting to run down kitchen supplies before the summer - at least, the fact that the end is crawling into sight is something devoutly to be wished.

Monday, April 12, 2010


Sometimes, the calmest and most comforting thing about a day is evening sunlight falling on piles of plates stacked in a cupboard.

This picture is by way of a response to Mark's comment, a few days ago, about the public nature of blogging - a form of exposure that is made all the more direct if one's completely upfront about doing it under one's own name, and if the blog's name, too - as his and mine's both are - is blazoned loud and clear on the departmental website. It would be indiscreet, impolite, discourteous to write what one's thinking when away from home on so many occasions - let alone to document said occasion with satiric photographs - even if the creative temptation, as both photographer and writer, is sometimes sorely there (note to readers in mid-Texas - I didn't find myself holding back with relation to anything about the BWWC conference - fear not! - and I was, after all, far too blatant about what I thought about the view from and around the College Station Hilton). More frequently, it's in relation to immediate work circumstances that I find the greatest pressure to be circumspect - not going into any details about why I was glad to get home to a tranquil cupboard of colored plates, a glass of chardonnay, a sliver or two of cheese that we brought back from NYC last Tuesday, Alice's amazingly good lentil soup, and sitting outside with her in our backyard, which quite extraordinarily has developed thick green leaves on the trees over the last couple of days. And in this, there is, perhaps, a moral about being obliged - forced, maybe? - to look outside one's immediate and overwrought responses to a day.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

farewell to aggieland

Aggieland airport - a very small affair, where they open the security check-in for each individual flight with much flourishing of explosive-detecting wipes ("when Eddie came back from Baghdad, he set the whole thing off," I heard one person say). It's decorated with some fairly fetching loops and swirls of what appears to be high-end chicken wire, mimicking propellors whizzing round (it's not exactly a major jet aviation center), or maybe some late-Futurist painter, like Prampolini or Dottori or Tullio Crali, indicating the dynamics of propellor-driven flight. Once trundling down the runway and lifting off, however, the best of all possible views was suddenly apparent: masses and masses of wildflowers: Texas bluebonnets, Indian paintbrush, and lots of small blue and yellow points of color.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

college station and british synonymy

Dawn comes in bright over College Station. It still looks vaguely like I imagined Ulan Bator to look (but I googled Ulan Bator, and it turns out to be huge, and have mountains in the background, and Chinese temples, and yurts on the outskirts. I haven't seen any yurts here). It's been an excellently stimulating day, from a panel on the digital humanities this morning through to Felicity Nussbaum's talk on Hester Thrale Piozzi this evening - someone about whom I've never really thought about, but whom I can very readily see can be obsessively interesting.

So I've found myself ACTIVE, ASSIDUOUS, SEDULOUS, DILIGENT and INDUSTRIOUS in reading up about her this evening post dinner - and became hooked on her British Synonymy, which is a completely wonderful discursive prototype of a Thesaurus - one never knows if she's going to make reference to a classical text or to Italian customs or to large sized sheep in Leicestershire - it's as though her mind grabs at the first source that comes to mind, and this in itself suggests what fun she must have been as a conversationalist. She differentiates between near-synonyms through building up sentences with examples that show the varied occasions on which one might, indeed, use the words, making quite fine discriminations - sometimes with the effect of writing a whole imaginary plot: "...a man FORSAKES his mistress, ABANDONS all hope of regaining her lost esteem; RELINQUISHES his pretensions in favour of another; GIVES UP a place of trust he held under the government, DESERTS his party, LEAVES his parents in affliction, and QUITS the kingdom forever." What a rat.

Tomorrow, I may turn Hester into a cube. But that's another subject, and I'm still working on that.

Friday, April 9, 2010

weapons of choice

- that may, indeed, be plunged deep into me with embarrassment: tonight was the first time ever that I've been introduced, when giving a talk, by someone making reference to my blog. Lesson 1, o fellow bloggers, do not ever refer to the place where you are speaking, and where you are, indeed, happy to be, as Nowheresville (for I have now seen more of College Station, and I can, indeed, affirm that there is a here, here. Indeed, there is a huge campus here. A huge campus. Imagine all of Rutgers's campuses moved onto one flat space of former farmland, with huge Texan stars over the parking garages).

However, it is Texas (and I should come clean about my anti-Texan prejudices, largely drawn from the way out-of-towners drive around Santa Fe too fast), and when one buys a nail file in the hotel gift shop (for I had snagged a nail so that it had the unpleasant serrated edge of early barbed wire), it comes complete with a little embossed metal initial, like a cowboy belt. So I have lined this up with my lapel-pin knife (essential for departmental meeting wear), since they certainly suggest a choice of weapons. Lesson 2 - until Apple makes an iPhone with a flash - take pictures in daylight when you want detail.

In fact, I am unlikely to turn these weapons inward. They are more likely to be driven, with vehemence, through the door that separates me from the room next door, in which it sounds as though there are seventeen cheerleaders, nine football players, and an uncountable number of bottles of vodka.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

very much nowheresville

I'm sure that College Station, TX, probably has its delights, but the facade of the Hilton isn't one of them. Yes, I have deliberately used the CameraBag app on my iPhone to render it 1974-style, which is somehow appropriate. Even though all the conference, so far, has been in this hotel, and we haven't yet been bussed off to Texas A&M campus, I have already learned a good deal about the institution. Somehow, I thought its name was related to Hymns A&M - the Church of England standard pew issue - but it's not Ancient and Modern, here, but Agricultural and Mechanical. And this area is also known as Aggieland. The principal local crop is sorghum. The George Bush Presidential Library and Museum is here. "Let future generations understand the burden and the blessings of freedom, Let them say we stood where duty required us to stand," the brochure in my room quotes GB as saying in 1991. Since the accompanying picture shows him and Barbara standing in College Station (actually I don't think it does - it's a fairly crude piece of photoshopping) the inference, of course, is that one only hangs around Aggieland if duty requires one to.

[Disclaimer! This doesn't refer to the conference itself! Just the environment...]

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

sunset over texas

and seen from a rather small plane, with only four passengers, bouncing along under and round a thunderstorm (and avoiding, visibly, at least one twister), between Houston and College Station. It was the kind of ride in which the options are (a) hysteria (b) stoicism as one gets one with next week's teaching prep or (c) deciding - and the sunset helped - that it was rather fun, in a fairground ride sort of way. (c) is always much easier for me on prop planes than on large anonymous jets that start to throw one around somewhere off the coast of Newfoundland just when one's decided to go to sleep.

I arrive in College Station to find not just an entire cellophane wrapped basket of treats (an eclectic collection - a blue star of Texas fridge magnet clip, some starburst fruit chews, some coffee, a snickers bar, and a bottle of zinfandel (but no corkscrew), among other things...), but that I've forgotten my camera smart card downloader - good job I had the sunset on my iPhone, too. But if Joel Sternfeld can shoot a whole book of images of Dubai on his iPhone, I should be able to manage a three-day conference...

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

facebook friends

It's become a modern journalist's trope: when she or he becomes stuck, up pops a little article about "facebook friends" - how the very notion of a "friend" does or doesn't map onto "real" friendship; as though "a friend of mine" can't, even in a non-virtual sense, already mean anything between someone with whom I exchanged confidences about favorite ponies when I was eleven; and someone I went to bed with a few times; and my very, very best friend to whom I'll tell everything and whom I could call up at 3 in the morning and she really wouldn't mind. Probably.

But this, found on New Brunswick station? Scrawled (but not inartistically - note the neat spacing and placing of the letters) on a USPS To...From... sticky label? With a little drawing, somewhere between a slightly paranoid spook and a condom ad? Does it suggest that we don't actually know our FB friends, and that they could be stalking us without our knowing, and pop up anywhere? 0r, at the very least, that we don't have a clue whom among these friends would be leaving tasteful graffiti at the railroad station? Why no capital "I"? Is that meant to be extra-super-casual, or self-indulgently, e e cummings like self-effacing? Is it indeed friendly, or menacing?

Monday, April 5, 2010


I'm really not at all sure what possessed me, when I moved here, to buy a folksy mailbox with a moderately ineptly painted pineapple on it (I suspect that it was a late night ebay brainwave), though I've ended up being very fond of it. The pineapple, it would seem, is a symbol of hospitality, of warmth - slightly oddly, one might think, for they are rather angular and spiny, and not at all the kind of fruit one might hug. The argument goes that they were sweet - and when taken back to early Renaissance England, they were unusual among fruit for being sweet (or, one might say, that sweet, since there are plenty of nectarines and apricots and curious peaches dropping their way around Renaissance writing). Still, whatever the origin of the associations, it makes sense to paint them on a mailbox outside the front door.

But. When I was little, and we lived in Naworth Castle, in Cumberland, all the posts on the turns in the stairs in the Morpeth Tower - the tower that we rented - had dark oak carved pineapples on them, and I'm quite sure that's why, at some level, I fell for this mail box. I was always told that these had been carved after the great fire of 1844, which a hundred and twenty years later still worried people as a precedent, and that these pineapples were protection against fire (and I'm sure that there was a Victorian fire insurance company whose symbol was a pineapple?). Curiously, I just found an Illustrated London News page documenting the fire for sale on ebay: I've always thought that my dread and horror of fire might have come from people talking, at Naworth, about what we would do if it ever happened again. But maybe I could even, at a historically minded neighbor's, have come upon these illustrations? If I'd seen the second one, full of sizzling canvases and exploding suits of armor, it would explain a lot. I can't, through googling, however, find any links between pineapples and fire prophylactics.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

more mystery art work

I cannot swear absolutely blind that this is the same house on S. 4th street that displayed a rejected painting of ballerinas a year ago, propped up against a tree... but I think it may well be. Which really deepens the mystery of last year: this - this artifact is in such a radically different style. Last year's was a nearly finished, or a deliberately unfinished oil sketch, whereas this looks like shag pile carpeting.

And what is it? My first impression was that it was a shaggy buffalo silhouetted against a glowing western sunset, but I think that I've seen too many pieces of bad art in windows of (probably now closed) tourist art stores in Taos, and I think I'm wrong, unless the artist couldn't quite decide how to do legs. Maybe a mountain goat? Maybe an overly clumpy pine branch? And then it strikes me that the sun is in a weird position, and in fact, if one turns it upside down, there is, it turns out, a quite recognizable promontory with pine trees sticking out. But it is, all the same, a quite remarkably horrific monument to bad taste.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

celebratory lilies

Very Georgia O'Keefe - though not by design. It's been a very celebratory day, with Alice's book having a stunningly good full page review in the New York Times - imagine! - and also in the San Francisco Chronicle, and these miniature calla lilies were most thoughtfully brought to our doorstep by An Admirer, sitting in a glass vase nestled in bright lettuce green paper, in turn reflecting off our magnificent juicer. Hmmm: our magnificent juicer, which I bought a week ago, and which we unpacked, and admired, and in relation to which we've not yet done much more than wonder about the best angle from which to photographs objects reflected in its shiny surface.

Friday, April 2, 2010


- that's as in oarsmen, not as in having a bad disagreement - the kind of joke that sounds as though it should be found several times over in Jerome K. Jerome's Three Men in a Boat (1889), only I can't be bothered to check. Indeed, I know that "rowing" and "rowing" does turn up as a labored joke in some well-known novel - maybe Grossmith's The Diary of a Nobody (1888-9 - and you'd think I'd know the answer to that, one way or another, since I edited it).

Here is an eight, scudding down the Raritan, and not looking at all impressive as they did so. I tend to think of oarsmen and women as a happy sign of spring, which also means that I get mentally precipitated back to England, walks on the banks of the Isis, numerous college boats crowing the river, and coaches on bicycles pedaling at dangerous full tilt down the tow path bellowing through megaphones. The transportation of choice here on the Raritan was a ridiculous looking flatbed launch - the kind of thing one would expect to find at a seaside amusement park, one step up from a two-person pedalo. The words, of course, drifted across so that only one in three was audible, but every time the hapless crew were - we watched them at rest - told to turn to port, for example, only about five of them looked in the right direction. Very unpromising. And when their blades hit the water, they were very splashy. Rarely do I allow much ex-Oxford-snobbery to surface, but it rose up, today, unbidden.

That being said, I am most grateful not to be on the banks on the Isis, which is, of course, what the Thames is called in Oxford. More complicatedly, this is the river that flows south about eight miles to Dorchester, where it joins the River Thame, thus becoming the Thame-isis. Or Thames - or so Victorian etymologists were keen on pointing out. The true mystery for me in all of this is in the international quality of the willow tree (just seen coming into green leaf in this picture). For in England, I'm hopelessly allergic to the things, my eyes gumming up into miserable red swollen slits when they are in blossom (usually timed, in my past, for summer exams). By contrast, the American version wafts past me in delicate white fluffy hypoallergenic tufts.

Thursday, April 1, 2010


This is my left ear, and it hurts. So does the right one, but I can't take pictures of them both at once (and indeed, found it quite remarkable that I could get even one in focus, and in the frame, indeed, given the odd angle). Or maybe "rings" is better than hurts: my head hurts; my eyeballs feel uncomfortably swollen. This is the effect of Noise - and what's worse, I can't bear to think that I'm growing into a cranky old person who complains, yes, just like my father that Restaurants are Too Noisy. This one, Sahara, serves most excellent Middle Eastern food - at least, the starters and a kind of pizza with cumin seed are good - the main meaty course not so interesting - but (and this was the second time I'd been with a group, and it was the same last time) the noise bounces off the ceiling, and I feel most jangled and as though I've been angrily buffeted by cymbals. This intensified after a large table of RU frat/sorority peoples arrived, partying (and there was a great deal of that outside, too, and skateboards and frisbees and suddenly the kind of warm night that makes one think of cars with their tops down and Springsteen songs playing, but I can cope with noise like that, very happily, since there's space between me and it). This all seems pathetic, but true...