fire parade, toronto island, august 2014

I don’t know. I mean, village festivals used to be all about serious superstition: connecting with the earth in order to beg its gods not to destroy us with fire, flood or famine. So when a bunch of us hipsters with our aging-hippie parents gather at midsummer(ish) to make paper lanterns and parade around the island and watch a shadow-puppet show and listen to the drumming and gather round the biggest beach bonfire I’ve ever seen IRL…well, aren’t we just playing at paganism? Isn’t it sort of fraudulent and voyeuristic and nostalgic?

These were my thoughts…until I became swept up in the sheer audacity and fun that is the Shadowland Theatre Company‘s annual Fire Parade on Ward’s Island, Toronto. The babble of the crowd drowned out by the roar of the flames. The ring hastily widening as the air heats and the sparks shower down. And then the collective “Ahh,” as the flames died back just enough to expose the metal cormorant rising, phoenix-like, from the bonfire (cormorants are invasive to Canada and are rapidly defoliating the Outer Harbour).


How do I love thee, JT? Let me count the ways


Justin Timberlake is my boyfriend. Let me be clear: I’m not talking here about some childhood crush. Back in the NSYNC era I wouldn’t have recognized his name, and I had no idea Justin was ever a Mouseketeer. Nor did I care enough about Britney Spears to notice the gentleman on her arm, when they were a thing.

No, I only recently started dating Justin. I first noticed him in The Social Network: his sexy, spoiled-brat Napster maverick completely stole the movie for me. Wait, I thought, isn’t that guy a pop singer? Then came Friends with Benefits. Oh, man, who is this man who looks so comfy in his own skin onscreen? Who does this little song-and-dance imitation of Kriss Kross in a 5-second, comic scene and floors us with his talent?

Justin, I love your pedigree, now that I’ve been googling you. You were raised in front of cameras and you’re utterly at home there. Last night I stayed up late watching this making-of FWB video, and your costars say they’re deeply intimidated by your natural acting ability. Your director says it’s like working with Fred Astaire: you can do anything he asks, effortlessly. But it’s not just your talent I love; it’s the fact that you’re so clearly in it for the joy. The whole time, through all the bloopers and gag-reel material, you’re either laughing your head off or struggling to keep a straight face.

I love your attitude to music. Your songs are so silly! Gossamer-light lyrics and fluting, easy harmonies that offer perfect soundtracks to the Fred Astaire-esque mini-movies that are your music videos. You entertain, Justin, full stop.

What more could a girl possibly want in a boyfriend?

noticing splendor

noticing splendor

Tiny blossoms. They’re right there in my front yard, but I keep walking past, fast. And blossoms are short-lived! Time to slow down–just a couple of extra minutes before hopping on my bike–take a good look, put my nose to the scent, gauge how the light hits. Say hi to the neighbor lady (always sweeping!) and let her talk to me from the sidewalk while I snap some pictures.

That’s my lilac in the center. Daphne, bottom left (Hello, sweet lady! I thought you’d died an icy death, but here you are!). Periwinkle, geranium, lily-of-the-valley.

a word from Poe

Most writers–poets in especial–prefer having it understood that they compose by a species of fine frenzy–an ecstatic intuition–and would positively shudder at letting the public take a peep behind the scenes.

-Edgar Allan Poe, 1846

all kinds of awesome

Horace Walpole, man. Now there was a gent who knew how to have fun. In 1746 he moved to the village of Twickenham, bought a villa called Strawberry Hill and decided to turn it into a Gothic castle-slash-themepark. Using drawings of medieval cathedrals as his guide, he knocked together turrets and gargoyles out of plaster and papier mache. He filled the mansion with his vast collection of historical curios (including Henry VIII’s jeweled dagger and an Elizabethan necromancy mirror made of black obsidian) and threw open its doors to daytrippers from London.

Then he wrote a little novel called The Castle of Otranto, claiming to have translated it from a crusades-era Italian text. When it sold well and he finally fessed up to the authorship, he told a friend that the story had come to him in a dream.

“I am writing; I am building. . .My buildings are paper, like my writings,” Walpole said in 1761, “and both will be blown away in ten years after I am dead. If they had not the substantial use of amusing me while I live, they would be worth little indeed.”

I love the fact that Walpole’s prediction was 240 years off. The Strawberry Hill Trust has just finished restoring his house, and his book reappears yearly on Gothic course syllabi worldwide.

There’s a lesson here for us dabblers and dilettantes, hoarders and hobbyists. Even if you make stuff purely to amuse yourself, even if your stuff is insubstantial or fake, even if your stuff doesn’t make you rich and famous–your stuff still counts.

Two and a half centuries from now, it might even be revered.

if you graph it, they will come

At the Dirt Exhibit in London I got to see John Snow’s “ghost map” graphing cholera cases during the 1854 outbreak:

This map helped prove that cholera spread not through “miasma” in the air but tainted water (the deaths marked on the map cluster around the Broad Street pump). It’s commonly credited with contributing to the birth of epidemiology.

Here’s another map, this time pertaining not to disease but to literature:

This version was drawn by Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer via Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With A Thousand Faces.

The hero’s journey (Campbell calls it the “monomyth”) may not have saved as many lives as Snow’s map. But it arguably led to the birth of literary criticism.

QOD: dog days of August

“Nature, as we know her, is no saint.  The lights of the church, the ascetics, Gentoos and corn-eaters, she does not distinguish by any favor.  She comes eating and drinking and sinning.  Her darlings, the great, the strong, the beautiful, are not children of our law;  do not come out of the Sunday School, nor weight their food, nor punctually keep the commandments.  If we will be strong with her strength we must not harbor such disconsolate consciences, borrowed too from the consciences of other nations.  We must set up the strong present tense against all the rumors of wrath, past or to come.”

-Ralph Waldo Emerson

talent versus hard work

Over the last week I’ve heard the word “talent” twice, in contexts that got me thinking about its meaning and how we apply it for good or ill:

1. There’s a young filmmaker at my school whose first work has met with success.  Her films are edgy and whimsical, typically involving a simple storyline seen through an impressionistic, melancholy lens.  “An incredibly talented young woman,” I’ve heard her described.  “She’s got the gift.”

2. I was describing to an acquaintance the grueling spring schedule of a writer friend who has self-published a novel and is now being invited to participate in more festivals, conferences, readings, forums and book clubs than he can handle.  Recently his book was nominated for an award, and now he’s busier than ever.  My acquaintance sniffed and said, “That’s not talent. That’s just hard work.”

So what’s the difference, I wonder?  There is  a difference, of course.  A truly untalented artist could work as hard as s/he wanted without achieving recognition; on the other hand, we all know how many highly talented artists died in obscurity.

Last night my friend Mary stayed up late and made this movie to celebrate her mother’s wedding.  It took longer than she thought it would, she said; she’d wanted to get the details just right.  When I watched it, I was astounded at her talent.  Not just, Where did she learn to do this? but also, How did she think to do this?  Where did she get these great ideas?

When the student filmmaker I mentioned earlier made a promo video for our program, I discovered just what makes her talent so talented:

a) she’s a highly organized, adept communicator; b) she listens astutely to what her client wants and what her audiences needs to take away; c) she collaborates with other talented artists; d) she works within a consistent yet evolving aesthetic, perfecting her technique and developing a coherent, recognizable body of work; e) she delivers on time and follows up to make sure everything works for everybody.

Sounds like good work habits, doesn’t it?  I’m not saying creativity has nothing to do with talent.  On the contrary, I think creativity feeds into each aspect listed above.  Is it too much to claim there’s as much artistry in how you work as in what you produce?

According to T.S. Eliot, talent is measured by its relationship to artistic tradition, from which an artist needs to break (=novelty), but to which s/he also needs to respond (=”historical sense”).  How does an artist access tradition?  “If you want it,” says Eliot, “you must obtain it by great labour.”

In other words, according to one of the 20th century’s most talented poets, talent is hard work.

Eliot, Thomas Stearns. The Sacred Wood. London: Methune, [1920];, 1996.

Tolkien’s traumas

Last weekend I was trying to plow through a whole pile of books on women’s pacifist writings from World War I (the folly of trying to meet a research deadline at the end of a teaching term).  But I got distracted by Mark Heberle’s essay* on the way J. R. R. Tolkien’s WWI experience spurred and influenced his fantasy writing.  The “shadow of war” Tolkien describes as having hijacked his youth is felt throughout Middle Earth in the form of Mordor’s shadow and the Eye of Sauron peering ominously at the hobbits’ doings.

More specifically, Heberle traces how Tolkien found early solace for dislocation and orphanhood in the dragon-slaying tales he invented as a child.  The young writer then became fascinated with language.  An obsession with one obscure, Anglo-Saxon word in particular, Earendel, prompted Tolkien to create a whole suite of fantasy stories to “house” it and other words he discovered or made up.

It’s a remarkable testament to the healing power of stories.  Trauma studies has observed that the process of telling one’s story, and especially of finding a sympathetic audience for it, is integral to recovery.  Instead of simply describing his losses to a therapist or family member, Tolkien went way further: he transmuted his pain into heroic fantasy, and in so doing created a story that resonates with readers of all ages and tastes.

I was surprised at Haberle’s revelation that Tolkein “later regretted the way in which the narrative voice [particularly in The Hobbit] is almost overly familiar and intimate.”  This grandfatherly voice is my single favorite thing about his books, so I’m glad it slipped past Tolkien’s inner censor, even if it embarrassed him later on.

*Heberle, Mark. “Tolkien, Trauma, Childhood, Fantasy.” in Under Fire: Childhood in the Shadow of War.  Ed. Elizabeth Goodenough and Andrea Immel.  Detroit, MI: Wayne State UP, 2008.  129-42.

Shakespeare’s April fool?

I saw Karen Robinson as Titania at the Dream in High Park Theatre in Toronto. This photo is by Tim Fraser for National Post

“Thou shalt remain here, whether thou wilt or no.

I am a spirit of no common rate,

The summer still doth tend upon my state;

ANd I do love thee.  Therefore go with me.

I’ll give thee fairies to attend on thee;

And they shall fetch thee jewels from the deep. . .”

Shakespeare really got under the logologists‘ skin with this one.  In this speech from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Titania is spelling her first name acrostically–that is, using the first letter of each line.  Well, almost (the AN is grouped).

So was it an accident?  Those in the know say no.  Statistically, it’s simply too unlikely that a seven-letter name could be spelled out this way.  Of course, no one in the audience would have heard the acrostic, so this must have been an actor’s private joke, or maybe a witty tweak by whoever transcribed the play into the form we know today.

I am going to give the man who singlehandedly added 1700 new words to the English language the benefit of the doubt, and say that Shakespeare gave Titania an acrostic simply to amuse himself.  Even masterpieces gets boring, when you’re cranking them out two a year.