Things That Are

An extraordinary collection. Leach’s voice is allegorical and ironic, knowing yet naive, more poetry than prose, and cagey.

Near the middle point in an essay called “God” we learn that the people’s words—not the animals’—are like stones, hard to swallow and heavy and they say “God” and “God” and ”God” and it is too much to bear. God’s words are outdoors. They are the bat, the frog, the animals, the woman walking among them in the night.

Leach speaks his language, ornamenting it with a glorious, exuberant English, and in full-throated peals, hymns praise for a world.

But that is not all. Pandemonium is here too and a night sky and so very very many of the fireflakes that tug at a mind or a soul, fueling caprices. And this great bear we see is made of stars. And the beast feeding on jellyfish clinging to the sand is a star. And you? “You be the moon.”

Do you want to be? Because you can be, if you want to be. Here in these essays.

Be the moon.

Belligerence knows no tempo.

—Amy Leach, “Please Do Not Yell at the Sea Cucumber”

A New Wiki Project

In 2013, I experimented with using a wiki in some of my classes for the first time. In those first experiments, I was learning what a wiki could be used for, how students interacted with them, how to fit them into the other assigned work and, most alarmingly, how to manage and host a site used by dozens of people simultaneously. It was a lot and things changed quickly as I learned and improved.

Since those first projects, I’ve never not included a wiki component in at least one of my courses each semester. My expectations have changed dramatically though because students responded without the enthusiasm that I naively and laughably assumed they’d have. (Hope springs eternal, right?) In fact, students were often openly resistant to the project for a variety of reasons. Some of these were:

  1. a sense that the wiki made a course they took to fill a requirement more difficult than it would have been if they’d taken something else.
  2. a genuine ignorance about how to use a computer for anything other than opening a browser and clicking on links or opening a word processor, typing with minimal formatting, and then printing.
  3. a distaste for the aesthetics and UI of a site that was different from Facebook, Instagram or [fill in the blank].
  4. a sense that the old guy in the front of the room was trying to “play computer” with the kids and didn’t get that there was an app that did [whatever the day’s assignment was] so much better than the wiki did. “Maybe we should be using that, sir?”

A lot of my energy in the early years of using a wiki was spent figuring out how to get students past these initial objections to the project.

Early on, I made the first of these worse by being unable to explain what the wiki was for and how it would help make the course better in terms students could understand. I knew why we were doing the wiki and what it was for, but what I knew was embedded in and dependent upon a context my students didn’t share. So I was still doing the basic pedagogical work of figuring out how to speak what they needed to know in terms they could understand. In terms of assignments and requirements, I was working from hunches, experimenting and it would take me some time to get a handle on both what to assign and how to explain why I was assigning it. After the first two wiki projects, I scaled back expectations so I could figure out through experiments how to speak clearly about what we were doing and why. This took some time, but I think I’m there now.

The second problem, student’s inability to use a computer—which was often (nearly always) paired with an obsessive, continual use of social media on their telephone—caught me off guard, but it was easier to address than the first. A wiki is perfect for posting how-to instructions and examples. I wrote and recycled these year after year and now have a set of mark-up pages ready to drop into each new wiki. These work.

The final two objections I kept running into were different in kind from the first two. In both three and four, students, confronted with something they didn’t want to do, were offering a reason why the thing they didn’t like was in fact crippled by a failing that made it worth ignoring. The first semester I ran the project in a class, I took these objections about aesthetics and alternatives at face value without recognizing that this was just a familiar classroom swap: the real student-side problem—I don’t want to do this—was being replaced by a teacher-side problem with the assignment. This isn’t mean-spirited or manipulative on the students’ part. It’s just being a student and is exactly equivalent to complaints that a book is boring. I don’t change the booklist to match what they want to read; instead I explain why it’s worth reading what we are. But it took me a few semesters to realize that, confronted with complaints about the wiki being ugly or awkward or old-fashioned, I just needed to explain why we use a wiki rather than [fill in the blank] and what the look and UI of the wiki make possible. This responds to the real problem—I don’t want to do this—by showing them why doing the project is useful. This too works.

I’ve kept using the wiki all this time because I think that exposing students to structured writing and to hypertext is valuable and that the combination of metacognition and practical skills required by the project equip them to be better students. Now, has that been the outcome semester after semester? No. But I’ve never had a semester where the wiki has been a failure. Students figure things out and do the work and usually do it well, which given its scale and how difficult I found it to organize and manage initially feels like a success.

(Don’t get me wrong. Sometimes things have been incredible. One year for example, through a quirk of scheduling, I taught an intact group of students two semesters in a row. We built a wiki together in the Fall and they reacted with familiar dismay and crocodile tears over having to do extra online work in an old-fashioned platform. Everything worked, but they were a vocal group and, when I was planning the winter term, I decided not to include a wiki on the syllabus. But then, three or four weeks into that second semester, they asked if there was anyway to reactivate the previous semester’s wiki because they were annoyed at having to organize and prepare the work they were now having to do without the wiki because doing the work was harder without it. Now I don’t want to exaggerate: what they wanted was mostly the ability to coordinate group work with shared buckets of materials and lists that they could edit together, things in other words that they could do with something like Google Docs. Still, they were thinking of these tasks in terms of a persistent set of linked documents rather than one-off document lists. This was important and I was happy.)

So looking back, what I see in these experiments is a productive encounter between my initial enthusiasm for what I believed possible with the project and the predictable, not completely unreasonable questions from students about why doing work on the wiki was worth their time. I’ve learned to address these and in the process, I think I’ve learned better how to use the wiki in class, how to integrate it into required classwork, and also how to present it to students.

Now a new semester is starting, and using these experiences, I’ve completely rethought the wiki project. The new project is more extensive and is more tightly integrated into the core assignments of the courses, both of which are big changes. I’m writing about it here now because what I hope to do over the course of the semester is to speak about those changes in some posts and comment on how things have gone.

But as a starting point, I wanted to look back over the past few years, partly as a transition, yes, but partly as an acknowledgement of the completely unglamorous work of sticking with the wiki long enough to get a sense of how to use it better. And perhaps most importantly, it’s a way to acknowledge that work depended upon the cooperation and support of students who sat in my course doing their best to make things work as I figured things out.

So acknowledgements made, it’s time to move on and to talk about how the new project is put together and how it works out. I’ll get to that soon…

The Wife

When I watched Glenn Close win her Golden Globe in January, I learned that the film The Wife was adapted from a novel of the same name. Googling, I learned it was by Meg Wolitzer, the author of The Interestings and the editor of last year’s excellent Best American Short Stories. (The “excellent” isn’t a given in the short story series–or at least, what counts often doesn’t match my taste. Wolitzer’s matched mine closely.) 

I ordered the novel and, reading it, realized that I like what Wolitzer does: careful, serious development of characters within relationships defined by history, and all of this handled without affectation or self-importance. She writes novels, and I’m going to read more of them.

God’s Own Country

This film began screening on the festival circuits and in cinemas around the same time as Call Me By Your Name. So perhaps inevitably, many people I knew took sides, arguing that one or the other was extraordinary and the other dishonest posturing. Now I love a heated movie debate over a second pint as much as the next guy, but this particular one annoyed me for two reasons.

First, there still aren’t enough smart movies about gay experiences, even today with all the progress of the past few decades. Yet, here, suddenly, are two great movies out at the same time, and rather than rejoicing and reveling, the conversation becomes a fight over which one “counts” and which one doesn’t, often based on something as ridiculous as whether we see dick or we don’t. (Yes, Merchant Ivory, as much as I love him, made himself a stooge for the wrong side of these dust-ups.) Now, again, don’t get me wrong. Arguing the relative merits of dick versus no-dick over a second pint can be fun, but when that pint is gone, I want everyone to come together to thank the cinema gods that we have both options beautifully projected on our screens and I want us to enjoy them both.

Second, too often, the debate seemed to ignore how different the two films’ stories are. Call Me by Your Name is a classic and moving story of coming out and first love. God’s Own Country is a movie about a young man—very much out to himself and seemingly out-ish to family and friends—finding love, unexpectedly, across lines of cultural and regional prejudice and then struggling to turn that love into a stable relationship. The man’s sexual habits, his unhappy family situation and his general immaturity all threaten to sabotage the budding relationship. The film’s deep beauty emerges from his honest confrontation of his shortcomings and genuine efforts to overcome them.

What I love about Call Me by Your Name is the nuanced portrait of the amorous freedoms of the green space, which I think of as a realm of magic and possibility evoked by countrysides and forests seemingly untouched by social systems consigned for a moment to an “elsewhere” hidden beneath the horizon.

What I love about God’s Own Country is its willingness to acknowledge the need for apologies, to imagine their intricate difficulties, and to trust in their power to heal. I watched its last fifteen minutes waiting over and over for the sad parting shot I expected it would use to skip out before the heavy work of making things right had to be confronted, but that shot never came, and the two men end their story together in a farmhouse trying to make a life from what they find there. The beauty of it left me overwhelmed, but—and I guess this is the final example of my point—that beauty takes nothing away from the equally beautiful but fundamentally different closing shot of Call Me by Your Name‘s Elio crying silently by the fire as his heart breaks for the first time.

…despite their posturing I’m guessing (hoping?) my friends understood that as well.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

A familiar classic that I watched on the fly the other night. It’s a Cold War paranoid fantasy perfect in both its conception and execution. This is not news.

What caught my attention throughout the film was—unexpectedly and disorientingly—Dana Wynter’s costumes, which are just great. She enters the movie in a beautiful sleeveless confection with a bodice that reminded me of tissue paper stuffed into a gift bag.

Why is she wearing this fancy affair mid-afternoon in this sleepy California town? But then she slips on the matching shrug jacket and everything makes sense. What had seemed like a provocation becomes a smart and snappy ensemble perfect for slipping into and out of this store and then that one. And there are so very many errands to run. Wynter however has the look of someone ready to tackle and to conquer her to-do list. With this much spunk, it’s no wonder Kevin McCarthy looks at her the way he does.

The least interesting of her dresses was a classic black number with gloves and a fur stole that she wore for the souper manqué in the second act. It’s beautiful but depressingly appropriate. Still, watching her walk away from a fresh martini to stare anxiously at a budding (haha) human form made me wish my sleepy Quebec town had a fancy restaurant so that the Beav and I could drop in for elegant nights out.

Scene from the 1956 movie Invasion of The Body Snatchers, starrring (L-R) King Donovan, Kevin McCarthy and Dana Wynter. Carolyn Jones is in the background. (Photo by Herbert Dorfman/Corbis via Getty Images)

Later Wynter wears a sweater tucked into a belted skirt, a look introduced to me by Olivia Newton-John singing “Summer Nights” in Grease. I fell in love with it then and have never recovered. Wynter considers this an outfit made for running from emotionless alien mobs. Excepting the heels and the hose, perhaps it is.

Wynter’s best outfit appears only briefly early on, and for reasons I cannot fathom, the Internet doesn’t care enough to have produced a single still of the scene. McCarthy has stayed the night and when he gets up Wynter is making breakfast in the kitchen. She cracks eggs at the stove for an omelette as they talk and is wearing a cowboy shirt tucked into high waisted jeans. It is pure butch play, casually done with cool disregard. The scene lasts only a minute but was the high point of my screening. If I can figure out how to pull a still from the iTunes movie I’ve purchased, I’ll post it. But for now, the outfit will remain undocumented. Alas.

We the Animals

One of the most moving films I’ve seen in a long time. The narration—multimedia, impressionistic—was thrilling and the performances offered up by the youngest son and his father are just extraordinary.

On a personal level, I have near unbounded sympathy for young, lonely characters who, naively and without pretensions, live a rich imaginative life and are made to suffer for it. The final scene of the boy collecting his journals and drawings from the garbage and then walking off across the field broke my heart.

Blackkklansman

This is virtuoso work: multiple levels of discourse, multiple audiences, multiple modes of address, all delivered in a tone that sits confidently in the uncertain space between humor, seriousness and horror.

The Rider

What I didn’t know going into this movie was that it was a kind of docu-fiction: real people playing characters with different surnames who live the experiences the actors have lived themselves. It’s an interesting set-up: not, I think, because of grand epistemological implications but because it creates a context for non-actors to give extraordinary performances within a crafted narrative.

The star here, Brady Jandreau, resembles a very young Heath Ledger often enough for it to be unsettling yet he brings enough depth to his role to keep the resonance from obliterating him (as by all rights it should). This is a western, which means it’s a film about being a man in American culture, but the familiar generic iconography is held at bay. The landscapes are beautiful but seldom soar and seldom feel metaphorical. Brady is just a young man in the middle of nowhere with no money and few prospects, who’s had the one thing he loved and was good at, taken from him by bad luck. Now he’s got to figure out what to do.

I found two aspects of his story extremely moving. The first was the two scenes where we see Brady training horses: the first horse had never been ridden before and was terrified; the second had been badly trained and now bucked fought. In both cases, Brady’s attention to their expressions, his patience and his steady hand, look like love. Genuine, full-blown love. The care he shows these animals reveals that he is a good man. This is the ballast for the film.

The second set of moving scenes is of Brady working in the local pharmacy or grocery store. As he explains to an acquaintance, money wasn’t coming in so he took a job. This is what was available. Despite the situations thrown at him by people who see him as he works—for example, when he’s recognized by two boys who have watched him ride and view him as a hero—Brady’s reactions have little to do with pride. He’s working and seems to feel no embarrassment over the kind of work he does. Instead, his exchanges with other people at work, which I’d expected the film to frame as humiliations, serve as reminders of the work he loved which is no longer possible. The emotions at play are sadness and grief rather than shame or anger. The film’s realism is grounded in this choice of emotions.

All of which is to say that this film is beautiful and I enjoyed it a lot.

All Systems Red

One of the books in this series showed up in a “best of” list on Ars Technica and it looked interesting enough that I ordered the first in the series. It showed up recently but I’ve been busy and it sat on my desk untouched.

Then today, after a long six days of work with another starting up again tomorrow, I saw it and decided to give it a whirl. Ten pages in, I’d already laughed out loud hard enough to get choked and have to get some water.

The set-up is simple: Murderbot is shy and doesn’t like being around people because they get awkward and that makes him awkward and sorting through the layers just isn’t worth it because ultimately he doesn’t much care about their problems. He’s downloaded hundreds of hours of shows and he’d just like to watch them in peace. Unfortunately he’s got to go through the motions and do his job, otherwise someone’s going to figure out he’s hacked his governor module and is a free agent.

So these humans he’s with on this mission? They wind up in trouble on a faraway planet and they aren’t terrible and he kinda likes them. So he helps them survive the murderous plots of a rival survey group, and they in turn wind up helping him.

The whole thing was light funny and more-or-less perfect for a quick read on a lazy Sunday by the fire. On a more serious note, the few glimpses we have of the the mysterious larger context dominated by the Company and the rest of the economic and political powers gives plenty of hints that this is a story happening in the world that Google and Facebook built: a capitalistic panopticon become simply “the way things are.”