Saturday, June 26, 2010

Skool Daze : Part III

Greetings and Salutations, Loyal Followers.

Needless to say, after living through the debacle detailed in my last entry, myself and a few trusted com padres shifted into a beautiful old Victorian house in the south end.  The rent was an ungodly $1200.00 a month but split amongst five other, housemates, the pain was assuaged considerably.  I'm confident that our monthly rent likely paid for the owner's intended flippage as well as the pretty, decorative historic certification plaque that I now see affixed to the front of the house when I drive by it.

Even somewhat dilapidated at the time, the house had real character.  In order for me to procure my own humble cell, I agreed to move into what I now realize was a drafty, stucco-covered broom closet.  But, like my first room in residence, I really didn't mind.  All I needed to do was cover the window with my "Rising Sun" Japanese flag, hang up a few posters of Sherilyn Fenn (I'd still hadn't learned my lesson even at this advanced stage) and fire up some righteous tunes and I was instantly at home.

The basement was cool in a "Silence of the Lambs" sorta way.  It was completely unfinished with an inexplicable pit in the middle of the floor which the owner had dug for some odd reason.  A part of me was expecting to wake up any morning naked at the bottom this fissure next to a bucket filled with St. Ives body lotion, the poodle-encumbered owner standing above me demanding that "It puts the lotion on it's skin!!!" 

The kitchen in that house spoiled me completely on any future galley-style apartment offerings I've been forced to use since.  Old brown flagstones, a sizable mobile island and a huge dining room area insured that despite the amount of people living there, cabin fever wouldn't be an issue.  I still remember cooking one of my first off-campus meals in that space.  A buddy of mine came into the kitchen one evening and saw me pouring gobs of vegetable oil into a T-Fal frying pan.

"What the f#@%  are you doing?"

"Cookin' hamburgers," I replied merrily, adding more oil to the several millimeters deep pool already present.

"What are you gonna do, deep fry 'em?" he chuckled.

I stopped my diligent efforts for a moment and turned to him.

"Whattaya mean?"

"There's enough fat in those hamburgers to fry them without adding more oil.  If you cook them in all that grease you're gonna give yourself a coronary."

He started to walk away and I looked at my handiwork thus far.  Just before he left the room I shouted:

"Yeah, well...d'uh!  I knew that!  And if you knew anything about cooking you'd know that I was just, uh, y'know...seasoning the pan." 

He stopped dead in his tracks, spun around and rebutted:

"It's a non-stick pan, you retard."

I was pretty pissed at him at the time but in retrospect he probably added years to my life that day.

We had the space and the tranquility to study in own domiciles now.  Before, if you wanted to read a book or write a paper you invariably had to leave the floor and go to the library since having a room on campus is the equivalent of a dog standing in the middle of a circle of people who all all crashing cymbals wearing pants made entirely out of "Beggin' Strips". 

It was a damn good sight that the house afforded relative solitude and freedom to concentrate.  I was going to need it.  The course load I'd taken on was to be the most challenging yet.  Here's the academic shotgun I was staring down:

ENGLISH 323 : Practical Criticism

The course that proves the old adage: "opinions are like a**holes, everybody's got one."  Taken directly from the "St. Mary's University Department of English Handbook" from 1993, the course description reads: "The intention of this course is to train students of English in discrimination."   Wow, I know those were less politically correct times, but that's ridiculous!  Oh, wait, there's more: "to train students of English in discrimination in reading and the formation of judgments at first hand, by examining some kinds of good and bad literary experience."  Man, am I ever glad I looked that up because I couldn't remember a damned thing about this course.  Having said that, it's likely the reason that I currently have over two hundred and fifty movie reviews on "Facebook".  I don't know if that's something to be proud of or just confirmation that I've got waaaaay too much time on my hands.

I'm actually being unduly harsh on ole' 323 here.  As I examine my notes and papers from the class it actually looked kinda fun.  For example we would have to read two poems and turn a critical mind to proving that one was superior over the other.  This often resulted in me savaging what I considered to be the lesser of the two works.  Bitchy comments like "the content of poem 'B' is trivial when compared to Herbert's 'Virtue' (and) lines like 'The smiles of Joy, the tears of Woe/Deceitful shine, deceitful flow' gives the poem an inappropriate lyrical quality that reminds one of a commercial jingle."

I then piled on by lambasting a series of images in the poem "that are more confusing then enlightening" and go on to assault "a plethora of cliched images in the final lines."  I bring down the critical hammer blow with the final, damning rant: "poem 'B' immediately hits the reader with everything there is to say, then move in a degenerative order away from the theme by offering only emotional oaths and vapid imagery."

Gadzooks, I was like the Rex Reed of the poetry set!

The second part of the course was considerably more boring, mainly because we jettisoned the practice of our criticism in favor of studying already-established theory from famous philosophers and critics.  When the prof's introductory notes included the refreshing yet intimidating admission: "The experience of teaching this course...taught me that students find the material challenging and sometimes frustrating, because of it's difficulty" you know you're in for a real treat.

My final marks was around an A+ and B- respectively.

ENGLISH 404 : Chaucer & the 14'th Century 

I loved this friggin' course.  It dealt primarily with the poetry of Geoffrey Chaucer, as written in the original Middle English.  Now, at face value, this might sound more tedious than watching someone play video game  golf, but I assure you, it was not.  The first four weeks of the course was spent putting the Canterbury Tales into it's cheeky, naughty context and there was not a dull moment to be had.  In fact, the Tales are rife with betrayal, drunkenness, infidelity, humiliation, slapstick humor, rivalry, tragedy, and bad taste.

So, essentially it's a Medieval version of "Kourtney and Khloe Take Miami".

The prof was a magnetic gent names Dr. Cyril Byrne.  He was a stocky fellow in his fifties with a pleasing, measured voice that he used to great effect in reading the cantor of Middle English.  He even managed to make the frequently pervy bits sound classy, like this brief snippet from the bawdy "Wife of Bath's" tale:

And why in all the books is it said
That the husband must pay his wife in bed?
And what should he use for the payment
If he doesn't use his privy instrument? . . .  

"Heh, heh.  Uh...heh, heh, heh. She said 'privy instrument'.  Heh, heh."

On rainy and windy days when he'd be running slightly late, Byrnes would often bomb into the classroom beet-faced, wearing a heavy Aran sweater with his ample trouser legs barely tucked into galoshes as an afterthought.  His hair was thinning and the tuft protruding from the front of his pate seemed almost self-aware.  During lectures when he's become particularly animated, the tuft would seem to come alive as well, detaching itself from the front of his head to move independently and point at students who made the mistake of looking away for a second.  He's dutifully smooth it back in place but eventually it would break free from his flypaper forehead and start singling people out again.  It was eerie.  

Professor Byrne took great pains to point out just how salty Chaucer's works were.  It taught me a very valuable lesson early on: art doesn't need to be highbrow and wanton pretension can sometimes be death.  Shakespeare knew this as well.  Both of these literary titans were often more interested in amusing the groundlings then heads of state because they knew in the end they'd end up reaching more people that way.

Professor Byrne was nothing if not thorough in his quest to to highlight Medieval naughtiness.  I remember when I first started working at Sears a customer wanted me to send their order to the "Quinte Mall" in Belleville, Ontario.  I almost lost it during the call, curtesy of Professor Byrne's detailed description of what part of the female anatomy Chaucer was describing when he used the word "Queynte."

I might as well have sent the package to "Prepuce Plaza".

Anyway, he considered the general line of my analysis of Canterbury's characters to "work well" and regarded my  examination of the "Wife of Bath" very favorably, describing it as a "very well researched and decently written paper".  


I finished up with an A-.

ENGLISH 444 & 446 - Shakespeare's Comedies and Tragedies

This wasn't my first introduction to Shakespeare.  Waaaay back in Grade Nine or so we'd covered "Romeo & Juliet", which completely fascinated me.  The alpha and omega references, magical language, uncompromising resolution and laser-sharp commentaries on human nature were all mind-blowing  to me.  It was like nothing I'd encountered in my life up to that point.  The fact that Shakespeare composed these works hundreds of years ago and they were just as fresh today as when they were written is no small feat and it taught me about the immortality of artists. 

Now I couldn't admit it liking it at the time for fear of being blacklisted.  Er, more blacklisted than normal I mean.  Some of the knuckle-draggers in the class had taken to calling it "Fag-eo and Fag-iet" and made it clear that anyone who expressed an affinity for such things was clearly  a freak.  It's memories like this that make me wish I could go back in time with just a fragment of the confidence and conviction I posses now.  I'd soon tell these organ donors to shove their small-minded, homophobic thoughts where Paddy stuck the dough ball.

For the record I have no idea what that means, I just remember that when I was a kid sometimes I'd hear my Mom say "I felt like telling him to stick it where Paddy stuck the dough ball" whenever she was pissed off at someone.

I'm sure it's not dirty or anything...

Anyway, given my vested interest and previous familiarity with the Bard I thought I'd cruise through these classes.  But I didn't quite click with the prof.  Which was another interesting thing about university: sometimes, despite a uniform application of effort and producing papers from the same head space that gave you an instant "A" in any other class, occasionally you'd fail to have a meeting of the minds with a prof.  Sometimes they were predisposed to you and sometimes hey weren't.  Occasionally if your first effort wasn't up to snuff it might "typecast" you for the entire year, especially if the prof was particularly uncommunicative.

And that's the way it was with these classes.  All of my quizzes were marked 23 or 24 out of 30.  My papers were always returned with monosyllabic and totally unhelpful feedback like: "Good." 

Regardless of my final "B" grade, I loved covering Shakespearean plays like "A Midsummer Night's Dream", "The Tempest", "Hamlet" and my all-time fav "MacDeath", er..."Macbeth". 

Good times.

ENGLISH 416 -  The Romantic Movement

Prosecuted by the regrettably named "Dr. Seaman", this class would also prove to be one of my best.  It gave me a chance to study the works of some of my beloved poets such as Blake ("The Tiger", "The Sick Rose"), Coleridge ("Rime of the Ancient Mariner", "Kubla Khan"), Shelley ("Ozymandias") and also some not-so-favorites.

I never really dug Wordsworth very much.  My opinion of Wordsworth is best exemplified in this exchange from a "Monty Python" skit:

Inspector: Morning, madam, I've come to read your poet.
Woman: Oh yes, he's in the cupboard under the stairs.
Inspector: What is it, a Swinburne? Shelley?
Woman: No, it's a Wordsworth.
Inspector: Oh, bloody daffodils. 

Because of my relative lack of interest in some of these poets, my quiz marks suffered a bit.  I managed to bounce back considerably when I delivered a top-notch term paper about symbolism in "Rime of the Ancient Mariner."

Looking at the essay now is hilarious.  The comments seem to be written by the professor in spite of himself. Over the course of twenty-three pages the infrequent, conservative-looking check marks begin to grow in size and frequency.  On the last two pages the margins become awash with what amounts to an appraisal orgasm.

"This is most interesting!" he notes at one point,  going on to add "This is very good!" and the nicely back-handed "Is it really your own?"  After scribbling an excited-looking "Excellent!" he proceeds to write: "Wonderful conclusion!  A very thorough and, I must say, energetic review of some very boring material, turned to good account.  You persist to the end and draw the same conclusion.  Earned your A+!"

As if realizing too late that he's gushed like a soccer mom at a "Twilight" red carpet event, he hastily adds: "The paper isn't really that good, but it is such a relief to discover somebody who can think on their feet, that I can't give you a high enough mark!"    

Wow, way to make a guy feel special. 

I ended up with an A- in this one.

ENGLISH 418 - 19'th Century Novel   

The professor, Dr. Perkin, was a relatively young, bespectacled, pasty fellow with a side-sweep hairstyle, who was typically clad in the standard issue prof uniform of hunter green sports coat replete with elbow patches.  Despite his wilting countenance and mannered demeanor he was possessed of a wickedly sharp and understated sense for humor.  In the very first class he announced the following to the huge gathering of students:

"I'm about to illustrate the required reading list to the best of my abilities.  If you don't think you can cope with it you may want to consider transferring out of this class immediately."

From some unseen reservoir beneath his desk, Perkin began to produce one Penguin Classic novel after another, stacking one atop the other in front of him.  Just as he obscured his own face behind the growing pile of books you could actually hear the collective sound of about twenty chairs pushing back as a slew of students jumped up, fled from the classroom and made a beeline for the Registrar's Office.

This class ran hot and cold for me.  For every "Pride and Prejudice" with it's still-relevant criticism of social order and iron clad gender-roles there was a "Mr. Sponge's Sporting Tour" (which was about as exciting as it sounds).

For every tragic and bleak diatribe about the human condition exhibited in "The Mayor of Casterbridge"  there was a draggy epic like "Vanity Fair", which I'm sure worked fine as a serial but as a self-contained, nine-hundred page novel it was just death.  I really felt that it made it's point within the first two-hundred pages then proceeded to beat that theme to death over the next seven hundred, all the while making in-jokes about some contemporary source of ridicule that no modern reader would have any concept of.  

For every "David Copperfield" which attacked the venerable institutions of education and family there was an "Ivanhoe" which wallowed in anal-retentive descriptive minutia.  It wasn't enough for Sir Walter Scott to write: "the knight rode around the corner on his black stallion".  Noooooo!  We had to get an itemized description of what the knight was wearing from head to toe!  And just when you made it though this without slipping into a coma, Scott proceeds to describe what the friggin' horse is wearing in OCD-levels of detail!  I often (sometimes unfairly) wrote off some of these works as gratuitous examples of  "research masturbation" when I grew bored with it.

But even studying what I thought were flawed works taught me the importance of being sparse with description (to give the audience a chance to visually interpret their own customized version of the story) and how critical it was to keep references general to the human experience.  I soon realized that these tenants go to great lengths to keep works relevant, even after hundreds of years.

My final mark was in the B+ range.

ENGLISH 424 - 20'th Century American Literature   

This was one of the unexpected highlights of my year.  Up to this time I'd been told many times by elitist outsiders that taking English at St. Mary's didn't make sense, given the school's reputation as a Commerce school.  But one of the big perks about attending a university with a comparatively small and intimate English department was that you quickly learned to navigate the academic minefield and avoid the bad professors.

And the opposite was also true.  At the time, Dr. Michael Larsen, the professor for this course was also the acting Dean of Arts.  I was told by countless people that if you could take a class with him lecturing, you were in for a treat.

I was not to be disappointed.

The copious amount of notes I took for this class speaks volumes about how important humor can me in effective communication.  Here are some of Larsen's finest quotes:
  • "Thanks...I always wanted one of these," Larson on a newly discovered meter stick in the classroom.
  • "Okay, people!  Anton Chekov, he played hockey for who?"
  • "Has anyone here taken a science?  A natural science?  Like witchcraft?"
  • "Okay, next week we start 'A Farewell To Arms', which is widely regarded as perhaps the most famous literary work about leprosy."
  • "Yeah, I don't care so much if your essay is a day or two late.  Papers are like wine, they age with time."
  • "Well, as you all know the book of 'Exodus' in the Bible is about Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt to Truro, Nova Scotia for that big shopping mall experience."
Needless to say the man commanded constant attention.

Thanks to this class I developed a life-long love for early American literature.  I got a chance to read Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Steinbeck, Faulkner and also added poets like T.S. Elliot and E.E. Cummings to my pantheon of heroes.

I fared well under Larsen's unconventional tutelage.  My papers came back with replies than ran the gamut of a modest "Good work!" to a sweetly polite and earnest: "An interesting and well-written essay.  I really enjoyed reading it."

I know it's all relative but I can only imagine some of the crap these people have to wade through from mentally threadbare students every year.  Even something that's reasonably coherent or semi-conscious must a be a real treat.  

This one was an easy "A" for me.

And, oh yeah, since I figured "when in Rome" I took one commerce course in Marketing that year just to see how the other three-fourths of the university lived.

I hated ever second of it.  It was as boring as watching paint dry.  Old-school, extra-fumy, long-drying paint in a terrible color like puce. 

I think I finished up with a "B".  Despite how supposedly practical this innocent little elective was, a truth dawned on me as I wrote the final exam in the Tower surrounded by hundreds of students all wearing pastel colored polo shirts and deck shoes.

There were hundreds of potential competitors all sweating profusely around me.  I had an epiphany that upon graduation I would need to compete with all of them for that prestigious job of managing a KFC outlet.

If I was to stand out amongst all the sheep in that room I would either need to distinguish myself with exemplary marks or exhibit an inordinate amount of passion for business.

I was in possession of neither of those two qualities.

And that's when the doggie-door sized  entrance to my Commerce career mercifully swung shut.

The Canterbury Tales (Oxford World's Classics) The Oxford Shakespeare: The Complete Works 2nd EditionPoets of the English Language, Vol. 4: Romantic Poets, Blake to PoeDavid Copperfield (Penguin Classics)A Farewell To Arms


And here's this week's comic.  It's an older one so the art is pretty crude.  I'm going to try and scan all future comics and doctor them a bit in Photoshop before I post them, so until then, please be kind...

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