Saturday, 20 January 2018

Discomfort and disquiet

I get that what I experience as pain is probably nothing compared to what others experience. But this is my blog and I’m uncomfortable. In the sense of “you may feel a bit of discomfort”. In the sense of “you will know great pain.”


I have had three serious back spasms in my life. The first in 1984, then in 1990, and in 1996. Each had a similar progression: Rob is fine; Rob falls to the floor in blinding pain; Rob is unable to move for about four hours; usually with the help of a handy dorm-mate or friend Rob gets to some kind of medical service; and then Rob spends several weeks in various degrees of pain and discomfort while things work themselves out.


I am currently experiencing something akin to a back spasm, but have skipped steps 2 and 3, having not had an obvious 'event'. Since just before Christmas, my lumbar back has been ... off. Ranging from a little twingey to sharply owie to basically okay. With better days and worse days. Starting Thursday I guess, I went from ‘not great’ to ‘downright owie’. Which I’d still characterize as ‘occasional’ or ‘episodic’. There are times, particularly if I’ve been standing up straight for a while, or lying down for a while, when I actually can’t tell much is wrong. Until I move.


But similar to previous experience, the pain is in my lumbar back. In previous episodes it started clearly in one spot (one doctor looked at my back, and saying ‘oh yeah, right there’ was able to shove his knuckle into the middle of it). This didn’t start in one spot all at once, but sort of started ‘vaguely my lower back’ and has started to concentrate in a spot just to the right of the base of my lumbar spine. Which as I recall is actually a vertebra or two lower than I think it was in the past, but that could be just not remembering exactly correctly. Or it could really be different. We’re definitely approaching the sacroilial end of the lumbar spine, I think.


So depending on how I move, I get an acute (both in terms of sudden and in terms of sharp) pain that happens when I try to move, particularly going from relatively curved over (slouched) to a properly curved lumbar spine. I’m better the straighter I can keep my back. So standing up or sitting down, or lying down is kind of an adventure of trying to realign my spine. I can actually bend over (a bit, with my back straight), get down to one knee (for instance, to pick up the slice of turkey I dropped on the floor because I dropped it trying to get it onto my sandwich from the wrong angle), get myself in and out of bed, in and out of the shower, on and off of the toilet, and so on. But twingey twinge. I have taken, apparently, to trying to turn my gasps or squeals of surprise and pain into warblings of familiar songs. Most recently the Star Spangled Banner. “Owie, Ow ow ow Ow”, like a one-man Muppaphone.


I’ve also noticed a familiar post pain-flare symptom, which is that a dull ache seems to radiate around and down my right ilium (hip bone), as if those muscles that attach there (notably quadratus lumborum) are either working really hard either trying to keep me upright, or are getting yanked on by my (erector spinae?) muscles in spasm. Which is why I have decided this is an actual muscle spasm, and not just me getting old and decrepit and increasingly out of shape. I mean, I’m sure it doesn’t help, but this is different.


What I learned from three previous trips to the doctor is once you get vaguely ambulatory, it’s best to stay that way—there’s no benefit from three weeks of bedrest. Also heavy muscle relaxers don’t really help a lot, especially if you get so depressed on one you become afraid to take it in the third day.


So I’m not just going to crawl into bed and hope it goes away, although I plan to spend as much time as possible flat on my back for the rest of the weekend probably. My immediate problem, aside from being in variable degrees of pain, is that weekend was meant for the reading of manuscripts and marking of papers. I could probably still read, standing up, with the tablet, but this plan doesn’t allow me to make notes trivially, which is kind of the point of reading. I think marking papers, which pretty much requires me to bend over a stack of papers for a couple of hours, is not going to happen.


If I feel better tomorrow, I might try to rig up something that will let me stand at my desk so at least I can read on the screen comfortably, and possibly type notes with the keyboard. But for the moment, I’m just going to try to not collapse in pain crying.*


I used to own a pair of forearm crutches that I bought cheap off a friend who had CP (I think she was switching to a wheelchair--anyway she had a set she sold me for $20 or something), because it was easier to bear my weight on my wrists and shoulders than my back. I also made my mother buy me a drafting table when I went off to grad school so I could sit more upright when I read. I left the drafting table in California because I couldn’t figure out how to move it to Wisconsin in my car, and I finally got rid of the crutches when I moved in 2015. So of course I’m wondering if having kept them would have made anything easier. On the other hand, this is Canada and it can’t be that hard to get a pair of used forearm crutches from somewhere. Which I probably won’t need again for another 20 years, in which time I will get rid of them just in time for my next spasm. I guess.


In brighter news, this is Canada, and you can get OTC methocarbamol, which I’d never even heard of before I came here. Marketed specifically for back spasms, it may not help, but it isn’t going to hurt—I’ve never gotten depressed or scared on it, and its potential for abuse is extremely low.


*I’m not actually a crier. That is, about pain and horror. It has been known for me to lose it over a coffee commercial**, or the odd sporting event, but that’s not the same. So I don’t actually cry, unless I’m actually in personal despair, which I’m unlikely to be unless I become seriously disabled by this. Which is, to say the least, unlikely. But knowing I have, likely, a week of serious hobbling is going to get me down, especially if it means I can’t get what little work I was looking forward to doing done.


**It’s an old Folgers one that comes around again every once in a while, with the teen boy bouncing a basketball in the kitchen, when his brother comes home from the army, and the coffee he has wakes up the mother. “You two never could let us sleep. My baby! My baby!” That one. Excuse me for a sec.***


*** Also, it’s been about 40 minutes of me sitting here typing and not doing any work, which I can already tell has been a huge mistake. In more ways than one. Ow owie ow, ow ow ow owie ow.****


****O Canada.


Wednesday, 20 December 2017

Journey to Canadianness (Canadianity?)

This has been sitting in my drafts folder for a couple weeks now. Time to get it up.

Okay, so this story starts last year. Well, actually it starts in the spring of 2000 when I was offered a job in Canada, my birthday that year when I actually entered Canada as an immigrant, and the following year (it says in my papers but I can’t be bothered to look it up now) when I ‘landed’ as they say, becoming a ‘landed immigrant’ as they used to day (now they say ‘permanent resident’). And a couple years ago, when I started thinking about it seriously. And last year, finally, when I took the plunge and started getting pictures taken and finding all my documents and looking up the actual procedures.

So there’s all kinds of paperwork. You have to have pictures taken, not quite like passport pictures, but anywhere that does passport pictures should be able to do them, pay the fee, fill out the application and supply copies of all your documents. These include but are not limited to:
  • Your record of landing
  • Your passport at the time of landing
  • Any passports during the previous 5-year reporting period
  • Any Permanent Resident cards issued during that period
  • Two pieces of government-issued ID, one of which must bear a photograph (it’s never clear whether your current passport and PR card are sufficient, so I submitted my drivers license and my Manitoba health card, which together are acceptable)
  • Proof of language proficiency (in either English or French). As a native speaker of English born in, and until moving to Canada resident in, the USA, I assumed this wouldn’t be a problem. The typical case is that you pass a TOEFL or something. The easiest was to submit a diploma from an institution of higher learning (or something like that) completed in an English speaking institution from an English speaking nation. My PhD from UCLA sufficed.
  • Many signatures and things attesting that everything was true and complete, that I had never been ordered out of Canada, that I had in the last 5 years not been incarcerated or convicted of a felony anywhere, and so on.
  • You pay on line and get a PDF receipt, which you submit with everything else.
There’s a thing on the website that tells you how long it currently takes to complete the process, or maybe it was 12 months to process the application and schedule you for your exam. If the second, they were pretty darn close. Because I submitted all my documents the week of The Election. That Election. I would have anyway, but whatever.

Then (it says explicitly) you won’t hear anything until they need something else. So some office in Vancouver or somewhere checks your application, and a few months later, they send something telling you to get fingerprints done.

The last time I needed fingerprints, I was told to go to the RCMP, who told me they don’t do fingerprints for background checks anymore, and that I should go to City Hall, or the Public Safety Building, or whatever they called it, and have the Winnipeg Police Service do it. Which I did, and they did, and all was happy. But in the meantime, the Winnipeg Police Services has moved, and only do it by appointment a couple days a week, or seriously for like an hour on Thursdays for walk-ins.

So I went with the Commissionaires. I’m not 100% certain who the Commissionaires are, but they do background checks and fingerprinting for these kinds of things. So anyway, last winter sometime, because there was still snow on the ground, I went in and did my fingerprints, which were magically transmitted to wherever they needed to be transmitted to (again in Vancouver, as I recall).

Then, of course, you don’t hear anything until they need something. So skip ahead to November 9th or something like that (interestingly enough, almost exactly 12 months from filing), when I get a letter telling me to appear on Monday, 11 December, at an ungodly hour of the morning (8:15) downtown, in some building I’d never heard of, to do the citizenship exam, and be sure to read the little book which has everything I need to know about Canada for the exam. Except the names of the Prime Minister and Governor General, and the opposition parties and their leaders at both the federal and provincial levels. Which several practice exams asked about, but didn’t come up on the actual exam, presumably because it wasn’t in the little book.*

So I’ve read the little book carefully a couple of times, and done dozens of practice exams on the internet. And I’m fine. So I take time last week (after my last class) to do a little more prep, read the little book again, do a couple more practice exams, and watch curling on TV. I spend more time than I should have thinking about booking a room downtown, figuring it has to be easier than driving up at said ungodly hour of the morning, deciding driving was probably good enough or worst case the bus (just in case, bought a bus card‐which they spell Peggo, but seem to pronounce ‘paygo’, in a weird case of capitulating to the raising-before-velars crowd—to avoid the whole thing, I just called it a bus card and didn’t have a problem) and most of the weekend anxiously looking at the weather forecast, which was for 5cm of snow Sunday evening, and more overnight (it said <1cm 4am="" 5cm="" almost="" another="" anywhere="" basically="" could="" every="" from="" hour="" mean="" nbsp="" new="" no="" p="" snow="" to="" until="" which="">
I went to bed right after the curling final (which ended a little after 9pm), did my usual read a comic book, do a crossword puzzle, play some game or other, watch some YouTube, take my insulin, and try to go to sleep routine, having set the alarm for 5:45am, which meant I could do my usual check Facebook, check Twitter, crawl out of bed for coffee routine, and still have time to check the weather and decide not to drive in and hike to the bus stop, or call a cab, or whatever. Woke up at 5, and couldn’t get back to sleep, because typical. So by 5:30 I was up and about, looking out the windows to see not really 4cm of (new) snow on the ground. Which is not really a problem to drive through, since I live on a fairly major highway and everything will have been plowed and sanded, or at least driven over by dozens of semi trucks overnight, all the way downtown.

So I leave right about 7, figuring best case it would take me 30 minutes to get downtown and parked, worst an hour. Went to Starbucks. Went home to pick up my phone because I’d forgotten it and no way was I driving in the snow without my phone, and ended up hitting the road for real about 7:25.

Let me tell you 7:25am is apparently when the universe decides to go to work in the mornings, because where there was no traffic really at all at 7am, there was serious traffic. Took me about 10 minutes to get up to the next major highway crossing, then about 20 to get up to the one after that. And that was just traffic. There wasn’t a stall or a crash or a lane closure or anything all the way up.

Pull in to the parking lot adjacent to this building I’d never heard of at about 8:05, which all things considered isn’t bad time. Paid to park ‘for the day’ because that’s how this lot rolls, and got inside in plenty of time to sit for 15 minutes waiting for something to happen.

Which it did. Eventually, I think just ahead of 8:30, the 14 or so of us were herded into the testing room by a tall young man name Will, along with a dozen or so of my closest strangers, and spent about 10 minutes listening to Will explain to the assembled group what was going to happen, how to mark the form (you circle the letter of the correct response), watching Will check IDs and getting my exam form in its very official blue report folder and its pages all carefully encased in sheet protectors.

I took some of that time to try to place Will’s accent, which I’m still not sure about. His vowels weren’t quite local, and his dentals were sort of stoppy. He also used ‘okay’ as a tag a lot more than I think I’ve ever heard up here. If you don’t know what that mean, ignore it. My linguist friends are sure to appreciate. (Right?)

Will tells us to start, and about 2 minutes later I’m done. Being dutiful, I carefully checked my answers, reread the questions to make sure I’d read them right, and I raised my hand so Will’s helper (a young woman whose name I didn’t catch) could let Will know I was done. Will came over, checked that I’d filled in everything appropriately, and sent me back to the waiting room. At which point it was about 8:37.

Where I waited another 15 minutes or so. I assumed being the first one out, I’d be the first one called in for the interview, but I was second. So whatever.

A very nice not-as-young-as-Will-but-I’m-getting-to-an-age-where-everybody-looks-young man called Frank takes me into a little room and asks to verify all my documents and engages me in conversation to assess my English skills, because since last year having a document proving your language ability is not good enough anymore. As I said, I didn’t expect to have a problem, and I didn’t. Meanwhile Frank is checking my documents (you have to bring in all your originals).

Here’s the thing about passports. They don’t always stamp them, particularly when travelling by car into the US. One of the things in the paper work was to account for any absences from the country during the five year period the application covers. So Frank went through my most recent passport and found all four(?) of the stamps, which were helpfully on one page, and verified that I had in fact declared those absences from the country, along with a handful of others. So at least I didn’t have any documented absences that I hadn’t declared.

Frank and I had a nice chitchat about linguistics, sociology and criminology, how old my landing document was (because you don’t land anymore, you become a permanent resident). Frank asks how I thought the exam went. I say something like ‘okay, I guess’, and he tells me I got 20/20 on my exam, which obviously is a pass, and congratulations, at some point you’ll get a letter telling you to appear at a swearing-in ceremony, where you’ll do the oath with anywhere between 50 and 300 of your closest strangers, and get your citizenship document. I asked what the difference between ‘swearing’ and ‘affirming’ (the oath gives you the choice).** Frankwaits patiently for me to put all my stuff back in the poly enevelope and get out of his office so he can do it again with the next person.

So in one to three months, I’ll get a notice to appear one to two months thence, to swear (or affirm) in.

Will inform when hat happens.

*Just because I looked it up, the PM is Justin Trudeau of the federal Liberal party. The opposition parties are the Conservatives, whose leader is Andrew Scheer (that happened in the last couple months) and the New Democrats, whose leader is now Jagmeet Singh (which happened even more recently). I don’t think there are any Greens or independents in the House of Commons right now. The Progressive Conservatives (Brian Pallister) are in power in Manitoba, and the main opposition party is the NDP (but I have no idea who the NDP leader is. I know who the last one was, because he was Premier for a lot of my time here). The Liberals aren’t an ‘official party,’ because they don’t have enough seats (I think they have three right now, and you have to have five(?) or something like that to qualify for the good offices, I guess). There are two independents, one of whom was a federal cabinet minister for the Conservatives back when they were in power, so I don’t know what, if any, his relationship is to the local Progressive Conservatives (or for that matter the federal Conservatives, who aren’t Progressive Conservatives but are the result of a merger between the federal Progressive Conservatives and the Canadian Alliance Party (itself a merger of the Reform party—which was formed form a right-wing arm of the PCs—and certain PC defectors at the time), which was funny because when they merged, they briefly became the Conservative Reform-Alliance Party until the news satire shows got a hold of what their initials were.

None of which was on the exam, but is fun to talk about.

**The difference is whether or not what Frank described deftly as a ‘deity of faith’. You swear to a deity. You just affirm to whoever is in the room listening. Or something like that. I’m going to have to make a choice sometime, I guess, but then I’ll be swearing allegiance to a Queen and her heirs, so whatever.






















Thursday, 19 October 2017

It's ba-a-ack...



Prologue

So. Hey there. Been a while. Sorry. Gonna break this one up into sub-plots because a) there are a lot of them and b) this post is going to go on forever. Maybe I should break it into parts.
Lotta stuff happened in the last, ahem, year(?), and went unreported. At least here. If you are a FB friend then you were treated to a more-or-less real time commentary.

So over last school year, once we got back from the strike and back on some kind of sensible schedule, I managed to develop some enthusiasm for work, extra curriculars, and personal stuff. Started a couple necessary projects, making plans for my second bedroom, looking at my finances, etc. All was good.

One project was developing the plan for the next phase of my research and working out the details. Another was starting a textbook for a class that pretty much only I (in the world) teach the way I teach it.

Part 1 (Adventures in Healthcare)

A couple of years ago I was having trouble with my right shoulder and was diagnosed with frozen shoulder syndrome. Basically the joint capsule seizes up and greatly restricts your movement, often painfully. Typical pattern is 6-9 months coming on, 6-9 months with you, and 6-9 months going. At the end of which you have close to the range of motion you had before. Fortunately, it only really hurt when I tried to do something the capsule just wasn’t in a position to let me do. There are those who experience excruciating, debilitating pain, pretty much constantly through the coming and with-you stages. Saw a physiotherapist off and on for a year who gave me a slew of stretching exercises that we knew weren’t likely to do a whole lot—it’s just the nature of the problem—and did my best to compensate.

At some point I developed a problem with my right Achilles tendon, specifically where it inserts into my heel, and probably involving the bursa between the tendon and the calcaneus (the heel bone). Which found me going back to the physio for a few times. Gave me some stretching and strengthening exercises, but basically not much he could do about the actual ‘injury’ until it healed itself. Which typically it does. Like the shoulder it was mostly ‘make sure nothing gets worse and try to make sure it doesn’t happen again’. He looked at me once and said ‘Usually people come to me, I give them some exercises, they feel better, and I look like a genius. Then you come in with these other things.’ Or something like that.

In the meantime, I’ve done something to my other shoulder, so while I have almost 100% movement in my right shoulder almost anything that isn’t just ‘typical’ movement, especially if it involves any rotation, hurts. A lot. Although not often while I’m doing it, more just after I stop. So after a couple years of making sure I pulled on shirts and jackets over my right arm first and twisting my other arm back to get the thing on, I now basically hurt myself every morning. Also every night when I turn on my CPAP machine and turn off my bedside lamp. Or try to lie on my left side, which seems always to either press on the joint or roll my humerus forward in ways that do not feel good. Sometimes quite a lot. Looked it up and basically whatever it is (it isn’t frozen shoulder, could be rotator cuff, remote possibility of the beginnings of arthritis, but shoulder-specific arthritis is relatively rare. But so is retrocalcaneal bursitis, which is probably most of what is going on with my Achilles tendon, and apparently I beat those odds. So there you go.

Anyway, physically it kind of feels like I’m old and falling apart.*

*Side story: Justice Thurgood Marshall retired from the Supreme Court in 1991 at age 83. At a press conference (as I recall with the other Justices) he was asked why he was retiring. His response was “I’m old and falling apart.” Given in an exasperated, cantankerous, ‘what a stupid question’ kind of tone. He became my hero and role-model for cantankerous old man-ness.

Part 2 (Misako Kondo Hagiwara, 1920-2017)

In the spring, my mother (who wasn’t in the best of health) started to decline. She lived with one of my sisters back in the Seattle area, more or less since my father died, and I live 1300 miles away in a foreign country, so there wasn’t much I could do about it and wasn’t really expected to. So the local family experienced more angst preparing for ‘the inevitable’ (which shouldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone—my mother was 92 and not in the best of health), with trips to doctors and hospitals and convalescent care to hospital to palliative. Which all things considered could have been much worse and gone on a lot longer.

My mother passed on April 17th. I’d talked to another of my sisters a few days earlier with the change to palliative and what would happen then. I’d been expecting, in the worst case, a ‘come home now’ message, which I was actually kind of prepared for. Fortunately the message wasn’t come home now, so much as ‘what’s going to happen is going to happen, probably sooner rather than later, big arrangement issues were made (seriously) decades ago, so local family would figure out how to deal with the rest, and we’d figure out sometime later to get the family together and do the memorial and the interment’ and so on. Which we did Mothers Day weekend. Which was a week with the mishpucheh*, and actually more fun than it should have been, even with the whole mishpucha and the usually getting-on-each-others-nerves. With somber moments, of course, but always punctuated with in-family eyerolls and good humor.

*Side story: I grew up, sort of, believing mishpucheh meant something bigger than a mishigas. Mishigas is a Yiddish-origin word which used to mean something like ‘riotous mess’ from a basic meaning of ‘craziness’ (I think this is the same root as meshuga). I think I learned mishpucheh in the context of something like “Such a mishigas, the whole mishpucheh”. Mishpucheh (or apparently, having just looked it up, mishpocha) is another Yiddish-origin word that means ‘family’, especially ‘extended family’ construed broadly. A gathering of which in a lot of families inevitably means some kind of mishigas. So there you go.

But the upshot of my mother’s decline is that I spent more psychic and emotional energy on the inevitable toward the end of the delayed (due to the strike) winter term than was good for me, and, well, things went haywire. Regular sleep patterns? Out the window. Anything resembling a considered diet and sensible food choices? Gone. Exercise was also, at best, a marginal priority, since at one time or another I couldn’t move my arms or stand or walk comfortably. So that.


Part 3 (… So I’m working on it)

Emotionally, the enthusiasm and momentum I’d worked up basically went ker-poof. And while it wasn’t much trouble to get up in the morning, or the circa-noon, and go about my day in public as a mostly functional person, there wasn’t a lot of available attention span, and almost no energy, for doing anything that wasn’t really immediately necessary. What there was was a lot of staring into space, or at the TV or internet enabled equivalent, not actually paying attention to anything. Also the spending of a lot of money on I’m not entirely sure what. Well, I am, but nothing exciting.

So that sucked. And I didn’t really start to feel like myself again until July, which I devote primarily to the Fringe Festival. Which having committed to not worrying about money, or diet, or blood sugar, or that kind of thing for the 12 days of the festival, I actually enjoyed a lot more than I expected. Of course it helped that two of the new food vendors had a sausage-dog ‘noriyaki’ thing on an egg bun with nori and some kind of amazing barbecue sauce and a flourish of Japanese mayo, and pulled pork and some really juicy brisket on poutine.

August was taken up trying (and often failing) to prepare for classes and trying to wind up our inaugural Winnipeg Theatre Awards season. And trying to get up at a human hour of the morning consistently, and not making any more of a mess of my state of life than I could help.

Then, just before classes started, the class I had managed to do some prep for (although not enough) got cancelled due to low enrollment. Which sucks. A) I (along with others) was sure this topic would be a big draw for students, so when there was little-to-less interest to speak of by mid August things were bad. B) I ‘owe’ a course now, which means I’ll probably end up doing 3 in each term next year.* University people know that teaching expands to take up all the time it can at the best of times, so any discipline I have to get stuff done that isn’t class stuff, which I don’t have a ton of, will be spent trying to get work done, with limited momentum going into it.

*Side story: Although I did read the proposed workload guidelines (which by the contract we got that ended the strike are negotiated between the Faculties (i.e. deans offices) and the faculty (i.e. the academic staff), and it might rend up reducing our teaching loads by one course every two years, so maybe I’ll catch a break and only have a 3-2 as scheduled.

Okay, so the point of this post is to actually publicly promise a few things. I’m more likely to do things if I think other people are watching and waiting for the results, so here goes.
  • I’m actually writing at textbook for that class that only I teach the way I teach it (so if I want a textbook, it’s pretty much up to me to write it). I started that earlier in the year, and kind of lost the thread toward the end of fall term, and my mothers’ decline. Last week I finally opened up a couple of the chapters that I did get some work into before everything blew up. And they were gibberish. I don’t mean poorly organized, full of typos, etc. I mean flat out ‘I can’t imagine a native English speaker with a PhD writing like this, at least not without some kind of brain injury’. I exaggerate. But bad enough that really, I can keep the outline, but I have to throw out the crap I have. But I’m working on it.
  • I’ve also decided to develop a ‘workbook’ of activities relevant to a course in acoustic phonetics (my specialty). I had an idea like this, intending to develop it relative to an existing textbook, but I think I have made peace with the fact that the free, open-source software that ‘everyone’ uses for this kind of thing isn’t the evil, deranged, project I always thought it was. Don’t get me wrong, there are ‘quirks’ galore, and it is far to easy for people to use it without knowing what they’re doing. But that gives me a hook for the workbook. So as with all new projects, I’m excited about this one. But I’m working on it.
  • I’m going to re-start my Mystery Monthly Spectrogram webpage. Maybe as a blog rather than a webpage, but whatever. I haven’t updated it since 2009, when a) I went on leave and b) the computer that ran my preferred software (the one that nobody uses because ‘everybody’ uses the free one) died, and I couldn’t run the software I had on the new computer (there was a DRM ‘dongle’ that plugged into the parallel port to make the program work. Guess what, they don’t make parallel ports anymore.) And replacing it was prohibitive. So maybe not monthly, and I may make more liberal use of the ‘features’ of the free program than I had intended (playing with the format, to make it easier to produce the figures the way I want them—which was one of my objects to the program in the first place, it’s cumbersome graphics system). So maybe not ‘monthly’ (‘quarterly quandary’?), but regular. So I’m playing with the software and the graphics and the presentation, and I’ll try to have something going somewhere by the end of the year. So I’m working on it.
  • I’ve got two things that I need to prepare for the Ethics Board, having to do with my next project. Last year I developed a project for my acoustic phonetics class that a) could end up in the workbook, and b) has some special ethical issues owing to the classroom basis of the data-collection and analysis. And storage. This task is actually a reasonable dry run for a part of the tasks in my next ‘big’ research project, both in terms of general method and as ethics submission. So one and a third birds with one stone. So I’m working on it.

There’s a couple other non-work projects that I’m trying to put into the mix, including this blog, but this is not the time to go into those. But I’m working on them, as well as getting my diet and blood sugar back on track. To that end, I have acquired a new glucometer, because new toys always get me a little more excited to check my blood sugar.

Saturday, 5 November 2016

Thoughts on the UMFA Strike 2016

Okay, it’s about money.  What it’s not about is salaries.

It is true that University of Manitoba pay scales are the lowest of the U13 Canadian universities. It’s true that every contact for 30 years before the 2001 strike had salary increases that failed to keep up with inflation. Just FYI..

It’s about protecting the quality of the University of Manitoba. The University of Manitoba Faculty Association (UMFA) is there to advocate for full time faculty, librarians, instructors, and head coaches.  It isn’t the Excellence Task Force.  There are limited ways for UMFA to exert its influence on the University. And one of the ways is negotiating salaries. And yes, that is about our ability to make mortgage payments and pay for our children’s schooling and all that.  But that’s not all that’s on the table, and for many, probably most of us, it isn’t the top priority.

The quality of our university is under assault. For the last several years, the Faculty of Arts, as an example, has faced a 5% cut to its budget.  Meanwhile, more Vice Presidents and Assistant Vice Presidents are created, and their offices staffed.  The Faculty of Arts budget covers payroll for all Arts staff, including members of UMFA, members of CUPE (including part time and sessional instructors), AESES (support staff), office supplies, upkeep, overhead, and so on.  Salaries in most positions are collectively bargained.  There aren’t that many budget lines that the Dean can wield discretion over.  

So, librarians (who cannot be protected by tenure) are laid off, classes that could be taught by sessionals (people hired term-by-term to teach single classes--last check about 1/3 of undergraduate hours in Arts) are not offered; remaining class sizes increase. Instructor workloads are increased. Dead computers aren’t replaced.  

All of this harms the university, diminishes student experience, devalues the education we can offer.  So yes, it’s about money.

Without competitive salaries, the UofM cannot hope to attract and retain quality staff.  Who in their right mind is going to choose to come to Winnipeg to make less money than they could make elsewhere?

Research is threatened.  The creation of arbitrary ‘performance metrics’ at a central level undermines quality research, because it forces researchers to prove their value in page counts, in ‘impact fators’, in funders’ dollars brought in, in hours spent at a desk or in a lab, or appearances at conferences--in short-term tangible output, rather than long-term quality of scientific and scholarly results.

Collegial governance is threatened. Consolidating decision making in an increasingly bloated central administration means decisions are made by people far from the front lines, many of whom are not scholars, who don’t have to do their own paperwork, who don’t have to budget down to the box of paperclips.  Without buy-in, let alone input or even consultation with academic and support staff on the front lines of their budget dollars.

Academic freedom is threatened.  As we become more and more beholden to arbitrary ‘output’ and securing funding from outside sources, we trade our academic freedom to pursue the issues we think are important, for work that looks good in a press release, that will attract funders’ dollars.  Scholars can be threatened with less funding, less staff support, less money for graduate students, if they don’t do sexy, high-output, highly fundable projects.  

So yes, it’s about money.  But it’s not about salaries.  It’s about building an academic institution of the highest quality possible, and in the end that’s going to cost money.  But it also requires an environment where academics’ opinions and experience are valued, where support staff and graduate students are valued, where undergraduates can receive not only information they need but experiences in critical thinking, judgment, argumentation, even grammar and writing style, supported by academic and support staff who aren’t under constant threat.

Brian Pallister, premier of the province of Manitoba, has imposed a mandatory one-year contract extension on ALL unionized public employees, with a 0% increase in salaries.  If the university doesn’t comply with that order, the province can cut funding even further. Talk about a threat to the academy.  But that also means that salaries are off the table.  So it couldn’t be about salaries, even if we wanted it to be.

As of 1 November 2016, after being without a contract since March, after months of negotiations and a last-ditch attempt at mediation, UMFA has gone on strike.  It’s inconvenient for everyone.  It’s frustrating for everyone.  You’ve paid for a quality university experience, and strike action is impeding that. That’s true. But it’s also the only way we have to fight for the things that go into building that quality university you deserve.  That you want.  That we all need.

So, in the end, it is about money.  But then everything is, just as everything, in the end, is about politics. It's about building and maintaining a quality university: excellence in instruction, in undergraduate experience, in graduate and professorial research.  And in the end, quality costs money. I get that. But there's so much else on the table before we get to salaries.

#WeMakeUofMHappen #ReadyForAFairDeal #UMFAStrike2016

Wednesday, 10 June 2015

The journey toward home ownership

So I’ve left a lot out of the blog, and I’m going to rectify that now. Sit back, cuz it’s gonna go on a while.

Several years ago, a banker talked me into an Registered (Retirement) Savings Program, or R(R)SP (sort of a Canadian IRA) and a Tax-Free Savings Account (TSFA, sort of a Canadian Roth IRA, if I understand what a Roth is). The TSFA was so I’d have an interest bearing savings account that I could have automatic deposits directed to, because obviously without such a scheme I am incapable of ‘putting money away’ on my own. And interest. That’s post-tax dollars, so the only freedom from taxes if on the interest, up to some amount of deposits a year. Something absurd like $5000 which I couldn’t hope to get to even if I worked at it.

The RSP was sold to me not because I should be saving for retirement, which I should, but because there’s a scheme where you can take out money for a first mortgage (or a mortgage of a first home, or a primary home, or something) without penalty (with the proviso that you have to pay it back in some specified amount of time, but if I was able to save it in the first few years, I could certainly pay it back in the next). So I’ve slowly been building a little bit of savings toward a down payment on a first house.

So for a while now, the banker has been pressuring me to buy something, because equity and so on. Never mind that in the meantime my banker went away and was replaced by a random dude I don’t know. Not that my banker wasn’t originally a random dude, but at least she called me asking if I wanted to arrange some investments, as opposed to this random dude who inherited her extension, when I called to find out about a mortgage.

Okay, so the reason I was inquiring about a mortgage was that I decided that this was the year. Actually I decided a couple years ago that next year would be the year, and started looking in earnest. My idea was I could read listings and visit open houses and whatnot at my leisure, which I did, until I found a place that I wanted to do something about, and then I could do something about it.

The change this year was that apparently someone in my building (on my floor) has complained about a ‘smell’ that was determined to be coming from my apartment, and in February I was threatened with eviction if I didn’t do anything about it. Since still have no clear idea what this smell was or where it came from, I have even less clue about whether or not I got rid of it. But in dealing with it, I cleaned up my place enough that they didn’t evict me. But anyway, whether it was in March or the end of July (at the end of my lease), this was Clearly The Time.

So I called a realtor and actually started looking at places with professional assistance. Once I wasn’t getting evicted, I found a mortgage broker. (Banker #1 and Banker #2 both did pre-pre-approvals on me and assured me that they could get something together in something like 24 hours, so if I’d been evicted, I would have just gone with that, but since I didn’t and had a few months to plan, I decided that due diligence would be for me to shop around. And since I have no idea how to shop for a mortgage, I engaged a broker.) And in between the start of this story and the end Banker #2 went away and was replaced by someone else. And she needed somebody else to do something later on in this story. So in case you’re counting, we’re on Banker #3.5.

So Realtor has been feeding me listings, and every couple weeks we went to look at a few. Meanwhile Mortgage Broker has been shopping my specs around, working out interest rates, insurance rates, different down payment schemes. I don’t pretend to understand any of it. At some point she or the lawyer or somebody will tell me to appear somewhere with some kind of money in some specified form, and I will.

So, we looked at a bunch of places, and of course, after dithering for weeks and weeks, we settle on what I call door #2, i.e. literally the second place we looked at. It’s not what I thought I wanted (which was something like a townhouse, rather than something like an apartment, with a private garage in very short list of places in town. It met all my other specs for an apartment though (two bedrooms, two baths, underground parking, in-suite laundry. Second floor, for going up and down stairs to the garage–because I can do two flights easily, three flights sometimes becomes problematic, but four is painful, at least going up). In my price range. Reasonable value per square foot, or however you calculate value. New build, more or less completed and available more or less any time.

So I did it. On Saturday, April 25th, I put down a deposit on an apartment-style condo in the ‘village’ called St Norbert, just south of what I think of as Winnipeg proper. (The current city of Winnipeg was amalgamated from several distinct municipal domains in the 1970’s. So technically St Norbert is a ‘neighbo(u)rhood’ in Winnipeg. But it’s just south of The Perimeter (highway) which in my mind encircles Winnipeg Proper (although Winnipeg Proper in this sense includes stuff that isn’t technically in the city of Winnipeg, and there are places, like St Norbert, which are technically in the city of Winnipeg, but not within The Perimeter). (This sense of Winnipeg Proper may be something I just made up all on my own.)

So deposit deposited, paperwork gone through, Offer to Purchase made, and condo I got the condo documents, which gave me seven days to fulfill the conditions on my end of the offer, which were a) lawyer approval, and b) securing funding. So I get the Realtor to recommend a Lawyer, and the Lawyer(‘s assistant) agrees to take on the Offer to Purchase (it was pretty boilerplate and the Lawyer expressed general concern about whether the unit would be available by the proposed July 7 possession date, which since it’s basically finished it will be) and gives his approval. The Mortgage Broker nails down a deal with a lender I’ve never heard of (but apparently is the largest non-bank mortgager in Canada); we talk about what happens if I or the mortgager defaults, what happens if I sell, what happens if I die and so on, followed by the signing of papers and so on. Lawyer and Mortgage Broker send paperwork to Realtor, who sends it to Seller, and barring unforeseen Acts of &deity;, it’s all gonna happen.

So I went off to a conference in the third week of May, and since then I’ve been purging and packing. At least that was the plan. Mostly I’ve been dithering and worrying. But I have engaged a moving company, who are coming on July 13th to move everything I tell them to move, so I have until then to get packed. And purged.

I’ve also had a meeting with Banker 3.5 (since April, Banker 2 has moved on and Banker 3 needed assistance to do something magical with my RSP), and I think now I wait for the lawyer to call with a dollar amount, and instructions about who to write the check (or get the bank draft made out) to, and when/where to show up with it. I still need to do condo insurance (which Realtor told me I’d need to be able to prove I have before I take possession). I’ve called the cable/internet company to arrange my change of service. I need to call the phone company and cancel my landline, and do something about reserving elevators and informing my current landlord that I’m not renewing my lease. And purge. And pack. Fortunately, I’m sort of taking June and July off, to do all this. So here I go.

Friday, 21 November 2014

Not a train wreck: thoughts on Titus Andronicus (generally and at the Black Hole Theatre)



Okay, this is sort of not a review of Black Hole Theatre’s production of Titus Andronicus. For the record, BHT did a really good job.  I recommend it highly.  This is more about musing on a) problematic plays in general, b) Titus Andronicus as example of same, and c) what I like about small theatre companies with limited resources and other ‘constraints’.

BHT is the University of Manitoba’s Department of English Film and Theatre’s theatrical production department.  Every year they do three full productions a year, contribute to the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre’s annual Master Playwright festival, and several one-hour lunch-time, in a smallish space deep in the bowls of University College.  So mostly students under the direction of the Theatre Program staff, with limited resources. And an odd play space.

It’s interesting that they’ve chosen Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare’s first and arguably bloodiest tragedy, for their season.  It’s problematic for a bunch of standard reasons—the principal villain, or at least the one who soliloquizes and monologues most about this motives, is described as a Moor, which as we all know from college Shakespeare is code for ‘black’ and ‘object of mistrust’.  Aaron, in fact, is sort of the archetype that Othello eventually turns upside-down, but with nearly equally tragic results.  

So there’s the potential blackface problem, and if not, you have to find a non-white actor who a) can do it and b) doesn't set anyone's triggers off. (Trigger warning, it's not possible to talk about this play without setting off someone's triggers.)  There’s the blood and gore problem.  There’s what could be a rather comical set of impersonations that are always hard to do with modern audiences.  By modern standards, the cast list is very long.  There’s the language.  There’s the (trigger warnings) the rape and dismemberment (thankfully off stage) of a central character who spends quite a bit of the rest of the play sobbing, shrieking, or bleeding.  There are more dismemberments on and off stage, as well as the the typical murders you get in a Shakespeare tragedy. There’s the limitations of space, the company, the money, and everything. But it’s Shakespeare.

This is apparently the first time anyone has mounted a full production of Titus in Winnipeg. Possibly Manitoba.  So when I first heard they were doing why they didn’t take the hint that no one mounted it. Maybe they were looking for the challenge.

Well, happily, not a train wreck.  Really well done, although (as is typical) some of the decisions were … odd. Like any production in a first run it could use quite a bit of tightening up.  Some of the actors were stronger than others, which is always the case in this kind of company, some of the actors were better able to embody and portray their characters, and get through their language and physicality, better than others.  But no one did badly.  I’d say everyone did pretty well or better.

In terms of stuff they got right, most of the central characters were handled really well.  We can argue about specific choices on specific lines or in specific scenes, and if you want I’d be happy to go one about it, but basically it was an evening well spent.

There are, literally, dozens of speaking parts, and one of the ‘problems’ is that even if you double everybody, you still have a fairly large cast for a small company.  They did it with 27. Which was more bodies than I’ve ever seen in that space at one time.  In many BHT performances it could easily outnumber the audience. Stuff that was sort of odd, but worked in context:  Except for Lavinia and Tamora, and possibly the nurse, the characters in the play, as I recall, are all men, but the cast many of them with women, and played a few of them as women.

Soldiers, Goths, random Romans, were pretty much equally distributed among the men and women. There’s really no reason for an occasional soldier, herald, tribune, supplicant, to be a woman instead of a man.  One of Tamora’s sons was played by a woman, which was an interesting choice considering (trigger alert) he is one of the rapists.  But Marcus (brother of Titus) was played as Marta, and played as a female.  Bassianus, who (trigger alert) doesn’t survive the first act, was played as Bassiana.

Marta works except that it throws off some of the verse, especially when Titus’s sons have to talk about Aunt Marta.  Bassiana is an interesting choice because she ends up marrying Lavinia (or intending to) early in the play. So there are places where they have to talk about Lavinia’s wife. Which isn’t a problem for a modern Canadian audience, but 10 years ago would have been more difficult.  It also throws off some of the verse. There’s a few substitutions of ‘brother’ with ‘sister’ but without also doing something about ‘brothers’, which bugged me, as someone paying attention to the verse and the language, but I’m probably the only one.

These are minor quibbles, and were interesting choices.  More odd was the choice to play the Goths, or at least Tamora, her sons, and Aaron, her attendant, as goth, complete with leather and fishnets and eye makeup.  The Goth tribals, when they show up in the second act (in this production), are wearing variations on war paint (potentially problematic) in black (potentially problematic) mostly dressed in camo fatigues (huh?). Which given their status a warriors was intresting, but it definitely took the edge off the goth thing.

They cast a tall skinny white guy as Aaron, the Moor/villain, who was having a little too much fun being a psychopath for my taste (several actors must have taken maniacal giggling lessons from the same teacher), but it worked. They did not, thank heavens, put him in blackface, opting to goth him up with tattoos on his face and neck (and elsewhere).  But then a major plot point occurs and they have to give him a baby son. And they used a brown doll.  And a lot of his speeches at that point become about dark skin and thick lips and slave imagery and so on.  This is problematic.

I’d have been happy with just a rolled up blanket and not doll. I’m fine with a white actor playing one of Shakespeare’s Moors.  The doll was … odd.

I’d also have been happy with fake blood. By which I mean symbolic blood, or suspension-of-disbelief-okay-I-accept-there’s-blood-but-there-really-isn’t blood.  But they went with regular stage blood.  Everywhere.  Between Lavinia spurting and spitting up, and the tossing of dismembered body parts around, there was blood everywhere. (Note to directors, using the severed hand to squirt blood at characters was effective, but a human hand doesn’t contain that much blood and not in such a sway as you can make it squirt by squeezing it.)

Stage blood is typically corn syrup and red food coloring.  And it’s sticky.  And for the rest of the play, you can see and HEAR the actors walking through the sticky blood and tracking it around the stage. Eye. Roll. At intermission, I expected somebody to come out and mop it up, but I guess knowing that a lot more was coming in the second act they didn’t bother.  But scrrrp scrrp scrpp with every actor’s every step was kind of obnoxious. As was watching perfectly clean costumes get stained out of context.  (For the record, wasting time mopping up blood between scenes would have been disruptive, so good choice there. But it is for that reason that finding Some Other Solution might have been a good choice. 

Lucius (son of Titus, and presumably father of Lucius, grandson of Titus—another problem intrinsic to  the play is just keeping track of all the Lucii—for those not familiar, they are a subset of the Andronici, but there are Andronici who are family and there are Andronici who are just followers, and keeping them all straight can be difficult, especially when the actors playing them, at any given moment, might be a solder, a retainer of someone else, a Goth, or whatever.  Anyway, Lucius) spent most of his big speech in the last scene stalking around the set (scrrp scrppp) with a napkin stuck to the sole of his boot.  Which so distracted from the gravitas of his speech, considering basically at that point everybody else has died.

So what am I saying? Titus is a rough play. For technical and practical reasons. It’s an early Shakespeare play, so combine the language problem with the not-precisely-well-translated-to-modern-audiences form, complete with the implausible plot elements, and plenty of—well, odd choices.  (One of which included, in this production, clown make up and fright wigs. Eye. Roll.) I mean, the play is difficult, the resources limited. Ya gotta do what ya gotta do.  And what they did was actually put together a really good small-company production of a very hard play.