Saturday, January 5, 2008

Fourth Impressions of Toronto: Inscrutable Grates and Giant Snowballs. Uncut, Unedited, and Imperfectly Spell-checked!


Hello everyone, nippers and scholars and hardy pensioners and handsome middle-aged people,

I write from my little bit of warmth in the fridge of Toronto. As of fourteen minutes ago, it was three degrees celsius at Toronto's Pearson International Airport, according to a reputable-looking website (ie. one without those insane flickering ads that have led to many psychedelic deaths among the epileptic and the elderly, and much psychedelic cursing among everyone else). Not very impressive, I know. But mark! Three days ago the said source said that, at the said location, it was -11 degrees celsius, excluding the wind-chill, which was -16! Mark! This is only two degrees higher than the safe temperature of your average home freezer, according to HRDS recommendations! What's this like to live in? Well, I have to say that I was a bit disappointed. Walking around in that weather* is not really that much more punishing than biking to the University of Canterbury on a frosty Christchurch morning in June**, or climbing Mount Roy on a cool day in Wanaka .***

Notwithstanding all of the above and more besides, it is easy to be caught out by freezer-weather, which is why I have barely left my room for the last two days, suffering as I am from three different kinds of head-cold and an internal thermostat that is broken but still very lively, making sudden shifts and spasms every so often. This is not helped at all by the temperature in my room, which is governed by the Inscrutable Grate in the Ceiling. The Inscrutable Grate is a very fickle Grate, by turns breathing fire and breathing nothing. If only it would average itself out, then I would be perfectly cosy and fine. But it is Inscrutable, you see, and no amount of love or persuasion will change its ways. As it is, the changes in room temperature are perfectly modulated so as to set up a kind of resonance pattern with my internal temperature, so that the superposition of the two is more vicious and variable than you would imagine, if you took each one on its own.

However, I have company. I have a snowdrift of tissues, Schubert in my laptop, and a book called Trilby by someone called du Maurier. The first thing is good for resting upon, the second is restful, and the third is also restful, but in a charming and invigorating way. (It's all about love and artists, and has just the right amount of levity for those topics – not so much as to demean them, but not so little as to take the fun out of them). Trilby is partly for fun, but partly for scholarship. (By contrast, Silas Marner was entirely for scholarship). You see, I have this thing called a semester. It starts on Monday and inside it there's a whole bunch of "papers." One of them is called "The Victorian Unconscious", and du Maurier is on the reading list. This may seem a weird course for a student of the History and Philosophy of Science. But it is perfectly normal for a weird student of History and Philosophy of Science, so everything's OK. My positive reason for going into this subject (yes, there were negative ones as well) was that I intended to "engage, broadly speaking, in an investigation of the connections between science and literature" (paraphrased from my statement of purpose, written almost exactly a year ago – ah, those innocent, broadly-speaking days!). And what better way of approaching this topic than through a study of Victorian ideas about the unconscious mind, as articulated in the novels of the time? Is that a rhetorical question? Does it matter? Regress threatens. Was that meant to be funny? QED?

Believe it or not, graduate studies are designed to train the student in the clear articulation of complex ideas, and I was asked to do some of that last semester. However, much of my training was in other skills. In History of Physics, I worked on my ability to skim-read enormous and complicated books and try to review them in a way that was not only succinct but also did not betray my superficial understanding of the subject-matter (hint: when you're stuck, try paraphrasing the introduction of the book). In this course I also made inroads towards a competence in a) improvising answers to difficult questions by twisting the question so that it was relevant to things that I could talk about without embarrassment b) developing a proper reverence for the work of historians of physics (such precision, such clarity, such mastery of two difficult and widely parted disciplines!). In History of Psychology I learnt a bit about how to write academic articles. I also learnt a bit about giving an oral presentation without boring everyone (hint: be a facilitator ie. let the others do the thinking and talking, and listen to them in a posture of earnest puzzlement – even if they find it boring, they've only got themselves to blame, clearly). In Philosophy of Science I transferred my earnest puzzlement to another area of academia where that posture gets you a long way. What else did I learn in Philosophy of Science? Um. That I'll never make a career out of the subject, and maybe not even a hobby. Does that count? Probably not, if it's based on a single course in the topic.

My main impression of last semester was one of permanent tiredness. Not weariness, you understand; not apathy, not dreary insomnia. But tiredness all the same – lots to do and not much time for bed.**** And at the end of it, a fever of drop-boxes and footnotes and printers that don't print and bad undergraduate essays about the "it could be 10 000 to 100 0000 years in Darwin's only Diagram in the origin of geology, it does'nt matter", and bits of refill with badly-written notes on them (mine). A scholar's paradise! I will remember it as the semester that I discovered procrastination. Have you tried it? I find that it works best with a fast internet connection and a relatively up-to-date graphics card, in which case Youtube is only a couple of clicks away, and Fry and Laurie are not much further. I found that if you watch this skit enough times in a three-day period, it actually ceases to be funny! (But I just discovered that this remarkable effect tends to disappear after a week or so. "hey sesame, the cigar is intact! Now explain that!" Good work Dr. House! It's almost as amusing as a Masters student trying to say something new and perceptive about the logic of scientific discovery).

I also spent long hours gazing out the window of our third-floor common room, admiring the snow. In Toronto, you can tell a New Zealander or a Jamaican by the way they actually enjoy the snow; indeed, by the way they become increasingly sappy and childish in proportion to the growing anger and bitterness and grumpiness and tendency-towards-muttered-imprecations of the local people. But I stopped doing this after one day I stared for an especially long time and the next day there was a large sculpted penis in the courtyard below Victoria College, made entirely of snow (yes, it really existed – I checked with others). However, this did not stop me from contemplating the snowy vista in my long-cultivated attitude of profound idiocy. And the day after that, the large penis had been replaced by its female equivalent. So I stopped gazing after that, afraid of what might happen next.

But the snow! In December we got the biggest fall since 1990, and it really was an impressive dump. It fell like a dream on the sleeping earth! (I'm pretty sure someone has said that before, but but.) They are good at getting rid of it over here. If the same thing happened in Christchurch then I think the city would be paralyzed for a week. In Toronto they start clearing the roads pretty much as soon as it stops falling, and they're clear by the next morning. There's still big piles of the stuff on the side walks, though, which is insanely fun. And the parks are all white as well, pristine and wet-looking and just crying out to be run across in tramping boots (thanks dad).

Other things I've done are. Going to nightclubs and dancing (the cold does strange things to your head). Met up with a couple of New Zealanders (Uschi and Kyi Kyi, no less). Tried to have fun at TRANZAC, the Toronto Australian and New Zealand Club (for a while I called it the TNZC, but I relented when people starting make rude remarks about my spittle). This club is on a street just off the main drag in Toronto (called Bloor Street, for some reason). But when you go and look at the place it might as well be just off SH6, somewhere between Hokitika and Houhou.***** Uschi and I agreed that it looks like a rural RSA, but we couldn't say whether this effect was deliberate or not. Unfortunately it was 4:30, and it opened at 5 o'clock, and there are many more evenings in which to explore the bars and tables and floors of this place, sticky with beer and home-sickness. So we hung a left off Highway Six and ended up in the Annex, whose unique hue and flavour is instantly recognizable by the signs on the lamp-posts, which say "The Annex."

More things are. I saw "I Am Legend," which is a bad advertisement for all sorts of things, including religion, Bob Marley, zombie movies, and (of course) Will Smith. The only virtue of this dreary film is that it shows how lucky we were to get "28 Days Later." I saw various other memorable movies, which I've forgotten. I looked forward to the arrival in cinemas of "I'm Not Here," the film where Kate Blanchett plays Bob Dyan and where the trailer makes rash statements about Dylan's abilities and historical importance. But it hasn't turned up yet, despite various sources suggesting otherwise. Is this just Toronto cinemas being behind the times? Or is the whole "movie" just a huge ironic joke devised by a few newspaper reviewers, cinema owners, Dylan publicists, and youtube whizzes? Is this the true significance of the "film's" title? Mysteries abound. Expect updates.

In other news, I bookmarked "The Press", in the hope that I would learn about more earth-shaking events in New Zealand. I was instantly rewarded when I found a lead article featuring Simon Power and the Corrections Department, in which the former expressed deep concern about the worrying tendency of the latter to dress up as famous inmates at office parties. In my remote opinion, there's only one thing worse than the phrase "political correctness gone mad," and it is the readiness of political leaders to pursue spurious political gains by putting out pointless press statements that rely for their success on nothing more than the righteousness and gullibility of a outspoken minority, and are of interest to no-one except the ardent supporters of the said political leader, who rally around this tiny ignorant cause, and the ardent opponents of the said political leader, who rally around a cause that is just as tiny and ignorant, namely the opposite cause, and to neutral commentators, who decry this fresh outbreak of "political correctness gone mad," and to Murray Deaker (is he still alive, by the way? I miss him, in a strange, insane sort of way.)

But that's bye the bye, and to be fair I have only looked at The Press on one occasion since I got up my dinky bookmark. Well that's all for now methinks. Did I miss anything? A few bits, let's be honest, but nothing that won't come to light in Amnesty International's upcoming report on the subject. Enjoy the footnotes, such as they are.******

Michael.



*in six thermal layers and scarf (a scarf? Yes, lads and gents, I have worn a scarf. I have charmed the woolly snake. I have enveloped my virgin neck. Yes, I have sucked the warm fluff! Well, it seemed quite important to me – I used to think that they were worn only by females and Art Garfunkel (but wait, what's that on the cover of Blonde on Blonde? A woolly tie?)

**in short shorts and a wind-jacket.

***I've always wanted to do that – but it's more time-consuming than it looks, and I promise not to do it again. PS. look out for the hidden treasures of the full-stop.

****[censored]

*****Yes, you're right, I cheated on the place names. But who needs local knowledge when you've got Google Maps?

******That's all I've got time for, and I suspect that you were thinking the same thing. I hope you had a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. And if you didn't, I'm glad it's over for you.

*******These emails are mass emails, but they try not to be spam emails. Let me know if you do not want to receive these mass emails in the future. It's easy! Just click on the following link! www.biggermember.com


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