Wednesday, September 14, 2011

David Foster Wallace on Roger Federer: A "Director's Cut"

I have been spending some of my browsing time at the still-newish, still-figuring-it-all-out Grantland.  For those unfamiliar, Grantland is the brainchild of Bill Simmons to create a new space for long-form journalism on sports and popular culture, plus a healthy dose of Web 2.0-oriented materials (including a podcast network, blogs, and my personal favourite, a weekly feature called "The YouTube Hall of Fame").  Perhaps my single favourite initiative at Grantland, though, is the "Director's Cut," which is being edited by Michael MacCambridge.  Director's Cut offers a re-publishing of a widely-respected piece of sport journalism and then, like on a DVD-commentary, uses footnotes to allow the author to be interviewed (by MacCambridge) alongside the essay.  The first one of these, a 1980 feature by Tony Kornheiser for Inside Sports, was fascinating in no small part because the author has stopped writing (he does television and radio for ESPN) feeling he is out of words, that his literary gun has no more bullets in its chamber.  And when I say "fascinating," I also mean "terrifying" as the essay that is printed alongside the footnotes is full of wit, insight, respect for the subject (Nolan Ryan, then of the Houston Astros) and for the reader, and it all seems so effortless. And then "it" went away.

As good as the first instalment of this feature is, it is the current incarnation, a re-publishing of DFW's essay on Roger Federer (from 2006) that I would urge anyone reading this to go visit and read immediately.  (And then perhaps  read the Kornheiser instalment, too, if only for the chance to see the 1980 Houston Astros' uniforms one more time.  Shudder.)  Besides being deeply influenced and inspired by Foster Wallace, I think this particular essay is a master class for all storytellers, especially those of us who struggle with the challenge of conveying our sense of amazement, wonder, and excitement with our subjects to our readers without becoming hackney abusers of exclamation points, the word "amazing,"or, heaven forbid, emoticons.  (Good lord, re-reading that previous sentence makes me want to yell at some kids in the neighbourhood for being on my lawn and playing their music too loud.)  MacCambridge cannot interview DFW, of course, but he contextualizes the essay's making and publication with some fresh new information and perspective.  For DFW-junkies, that alone makes the Grantland feature a must-read.

Anyway, please go read that essay.  It is amazing.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Two Years of Rust

Because I have been fielding some questions from students and colleagues about my whereabouts and going-ons for the last couple of years, I thought a long-overdue blog post was warranted.  What follows is narcissistic, navel-gazing, and perhaps a candidate for #humblebrag.  Forewarned.  Better stuff will be coming in the weeks and months ahead as this blog gets a soft re-boot of sorts.

After teaching since I finished my PhD in 2002, the last two years provided a most welcome break from the grind.  Thanks to the generation that preceded me in the university, and provided vastly improved working conditions for academics,  I benefitted from not only a sabbatical in 2009-2010 but also a parental leave for 2010-2011.  I managed to stay rather active in those 2 years, especially with 2 new edited books (well, one brand new and one "new and improved" from the first edition),  some conference and public presentations, plus examining doctoral and M.A. theses, doctoral comprehensive examinations, and chairing an OGS committee (not in history -- for which all historians let out a big "WHEW") for the first time.

Closer to my academic home, I was also part of a new initiative called "DH@CWorks" (website forthcoming), or "Digital History at Carleton Workshop."  At the website, we shall be promoting a wide range of new research by students and faculty, done in the context of our courses, that are contributions to the burgeoning field of digital humanities and digital history.   Among the the things that I will be contributing is the development of a both an immersive interactive website and a mobile computing application related to the place memories of 20th-century childhoods in neighbourhoods around Carleton.  More details about this can be read about at the CCPH Tumblr page.

This fall, in addition to teaching a third-year course in Historical Representations I am also coming home to Canadian Social History.  I could not be more excited to teach the course which has best defined me as a teaching professor, and I will be teaching with the second edition of Home, Work, and Play for the first time.  The usual combination of nerves and excitement that accompany us on that first day are going to be on steroids for me.  I already feel bad for my students:  a hyper, excitable professor at 8:30 on a Tuesday morning is nothing less than terrifying.  Apologies, 2304ers.

I am also very excited about the crop of new graduate students coming to work with me this September, including 3 new public history M.A. students doing different-but-complementary research on the commemorative practices of the War of 1812.  Road trips next summer to the north shore of the St. Lawrence and the Niagara Peninsula are already planned.  It will be a spectacular nerd-fest for those of us there doing fieldwork.

If I write one more word about myself, I might vomit on my keyboard.  So that's it.  I am back, I am rusty, but I am also excited.

(As an apology for this post, here is something beautiful:

LA Light from Colin Rich on Vimeo.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Michael Chabon on Being Where You're At

Along with David Foster Wallace and Jonathan Franzen, I consider Michael Chabon absolutely essential reading.  While each is perhaps best known as a novelist or author of short fiction, it is their respective forays into literary nonfiction which I read and re-read consistently for inspiration.  (The novels and short stories are purely for my inner self which does not belong to anyone but there!)  Recently, Chabon was a guest blogger at Ta-Nhehisi Coates' blog over at the Atlantic and while his post on his rediscovery and renewed obsession with hip hop is a great read (who else would use Borges to explain why Wax Poetics is so seminal to postwar American culture?), his 10 January 2011 post made me both think and smile.  Here are the bits that spoke so loudly to me, but please read the whole post at the Atlantic site:

The real Telegraph Avenue runs straight as a steel cable, changing its nature more or less completely every ten blocks or so, from the medical-marijuana souks of Oaksterdam, past the former Lamp Post bar where Bobby Seale used to hang out (now called Interplay Center, where you can "unlock the wisdom of your body"), past Section 8 housing and the site of a founding settlement of the native Ohlone people at the corner of 51st Street, past the Niebyl-Proctor Marxist Library and Akwaba Braiding and a buttload of Ethiopian restaurants, ending in an august jangle at the gates of the Cal campus, and I guess that for a guy who likes hanging around the borderlands--between genres, cultures, musics, legacies, styles--the appeal of Telegraph lies in the way it reflects a local determination to find your path irrespective of boundary lines, picking up what you can, shaking off what you can, along the way. But can you claim a home in a nameless place, at the edge of a wandering border?

Or is your "hometown" only, ever, the place where you grew up? For me that would be Columbia, MD, from shortly after the late-'60s opening of that "planned community," in a vast stretch of former tobacco country south of Baltimore, through its idealistic heyday of the 1970s. I haven't been back in years, and at any rate could never hope to return to the Columbia where I grew up, still exuberantly dedicated to becoming the hometown envisioned by its founder, James Rouse--multiracial, multiethnic, ecumenical, economically diverse, green and heavily playgrounded and bicycle-friendly, fulfilling the promises of the American experiment one neocolonial tract house at a time. That Columbia, to the extent that it ever existed anywhere but (at least) in the imagination of one little white boy, has long since faded away.

Maybe your hometown is always an imaginary place: the home of your imagination. If so, then mine--at its best, at its most vivid--whether the vanishing rainbow of Columbia, or the shifting restless polycultural territory manifesting in the joint between Oakland and Berkeley, is a place a lot like this place right here, a place to which people come most of all, I think, because they want to live around people who are not like them, because that is the very thing they have most in common, because they are dedicated to the self-evident truth articulated in one of the founding documents of my hometown, that it ain't where you're from, it's where you're at.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Place Memories in Song

In honour of the publication of Placing Memory and Remembering Place in Canada, I offer two great bands, two great songs, and two very different place memories.  In Rush's Subdivisions, a lament for being stranded and somewhat lost in a non-place, where the dreamer and the misfit are all alone;  in Arcade Fire's We Used to Wait, the lament is about the anomie of the wilderness downtown, where youth was spent just waiting for something to happen.  Both songs and both place memories resonate very deeply for me.  I left my hometown when I turned 19, travelled 600 km, and felt blessed relief.  By my mid 20s, though, I spent a lot of nights in the downtown streets of my adopted home looking, waiting, and wondering what I had been so eager to find.   What about you?

Rush, "Subdivisions" (1982)


Sprawling on the fringes of the city
In geometric order
An insulated border
In between the bright lights
And the far unlit unknown

Growing up it all seems so one-sided
Opinions all provided
The future pre-decided
Detached and subdivided
In the mass production zone
Nowhere is the dreamer or the misfit so alone

In the high school halls
In the shopping malls
Conform or be cast out
In the basement bars
In the backs of cars
Be cool or be cast out
Any escape might help disprove the unattractive truth
But the suburbs have no charms to soothe the restless dreams of youth

Drawn like moths we drift into the city
The timeless old attraction
Cruising for the action
Lit up like a firefly
Just to feel the living night

Well some will sell their dreams for small desires
Or lose the race to rats
Get caught in ticking traps
And start to dream of somewhere
To relax their restless flight
Somewhere out of a memory of lighted streets on quiet nights...


Arcade Fire, "We Used to Wait" (2010)
(note: this video can be customized at:


used to write,
I used to write letters I used to sign my name
I used to sleep at night
Before the flashing lights settled deep in my brain

But by the time we met
By the time we met the times had already changed

So I never wrote a letter
I never took my true heart I never wrote it down
So when the lights cut out
I was lost standing in the wilderness downtown

Now our lives are changing fast (x2)
Hope that something pure can last (x2)

It seems strange
How we used to wait for letters to arrive
But what's stranger still
Is how something so small can keep you alive

We used to wait
We used to waste hours just walking around
We used to wait
All those wasted lives in the wilderness downtown

oooo we used to wait (x3)
Sometimes it never came
(oooo we used to wait)
Sometimes it never came
(oooo we used to wait)
Still moving through the pain

I'm gonna write a letter to my true love
I'm gonna sign my name
Like a patient on a table
I wanna walk again gonna move through the pain

Now our lives are changing fast (x2)
Hope that something pure can last (x2)

oooo we used to wait (x3)
Sometimes it never came
(oooo we used to wait)
Sometimes it never came
(oooo we used to wait)
Still moving through the pain

we used to wait (x3)

We used to wait for it (x2)
Now we're screaming sing the chorus again
We used to wait for it
We used to wait for it
Now we're screaming sing the chorus again

I used to wait for it (x2)
Hear my voice screaming sing the chorus again

Wait for it (x3)

Monday, August 9, 2010

Not Far From the Truth...

with respect to how some desperate first- and second-year undergraduate history students, confronted with an exam question they do not know, will plunge in and write, with great conviction, an outrageously wrong (but always entertaining) answer.

(See the full-size original here:

Get Fuzzy

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Some Summer Silliness

With the return of Mad Men for another season (a show I have yet to watch -- I know, I know), the Interwebs are abuzz with some wonderful faux Mad Men advertisements.  This is my personal favourite:

"Mad Men Season 11"

This is courtesy of the sublime Adam Lisagor, aka lonelysandwich.

Given the advertisements in the "Home" section of Home, Work, and Play, though, this one also caught my eye:

The original appears on Jezebel and is one of many that appear as a result of their call for submissions for a Mad Men-inspired contest.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Reporting, Selling, and Linking: An Update

What did I do on my sabbatical? Pretty soon I will answer this question for my employer, but in the interim here are some of the highlights:

The second edition of HWP arrived on shelves in early May and it represents a rather thorough makeover from the first edition.  The changes were not from dissatisfaction with the first edition;  instead, they come from our commitment to offer a reader that seeks to reflect the current state of the field.   The most serious changes emerged, not surprisingly, for the "Play" section as the literature on recreation, leisure, and sport has been explosive in the four years since the first edition of our book.  We also re-worked our lengthy introduction to the book, explaining some of the new themes (such as transnationalism) and new points of emphasis (such as sexuality) that define this edition of the book.  The book remains focused on "social space" both in the readings chosen and in the visual primary documents included at the end of each section, as social historians have become even more spatially-oriented (and aware) in the last half decade.  There are lots of reasons for this, and in the introduction to the book we make mention of several.  But one reason, and I offer here it as a personal observation, is the influence of environmental history on social history:  for the last twenty years, the influence has tended to be chiefly the other way around, as environmental historians drew inspiration and guidance from social historians.  We have arrived, it seems, at a point when it is more apt to describe the relationship as more dialectical, defined by cross-fertilization and exchange.  Readers of HWP will hopefully see evidence of this in several of the new readings.

Coming this November from UBC Press, Placing Memory and Remembering Place in Canada is the second collaboration I have enjoyed with Jim Opp.  This project began in the Spring in 2007 when a so-so plenary presentation I gave to the Underhill Colloquium became the basis for a conversation between us about what I was really doing in that paper and what Jim was thinking about with respect to his own work on photography, memory, and history in the Prairies.  Our conversation quickly expanded into what we admired and were inspired by in the literature and what we felt was missing (or perhaps not being emphasized enough) in terms of our scholarly thinking.  Those conversations became the blueprint for the above book, a collection of new, interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary scholarly writing by us and by ten collaborators from across the country.   Our fellow authors are, in order of appearance:  Cecilia Morgan, Frances Swyripa, Alan Gordon, Russell Johnson, Mike Ripmeester, Patricia Gentile, Steven High, Kirsten McAllister, Matthew Evenden, and Joan Schwartz.
How we wrote this book will, one hopes, become more common for all scholars in the social sciences and humanities just as it is already well-establish in Quebec's scholarly culture.  After consolidating contributors, Jim and I applied for and received a SSHRC Aid to Workshop Grant that, in combination with wonderful support from Carleton, allowed us to pre-circulate first drafts of all the chapters and then meet for two days of intense-but-exhilarating conversations about them.  There were no formal, lengthy presentations as is common at larger conferences.  Instead, it was a group of  16 (our contributors, minus Joan Schwartz, plus four doctoral students and our editor at UBC Press, Melissa Pitts) engaged people sitting around a common table having discussions about what it was we were doing and how we were doing it.  We worked through each chapter in order and then, at the end, had an open session about the book as a whole.  In between we took our meals together and talked about endless other things, sometimes related, sometimes not (thankfully!), to the placing of memory and the remembering of place.  We left the workshop in the summer of 2008, retreated to our homes, and produced the next drafts.  Full of inspiration from our experience at the workshop, Jim and I went to work on an introduction that is, we feel, unusually ambitious for an edited collection.  Following the peer review process, we decided to approach one of the foremost scholars of these scholarly themes, Joan Schwartz, and asked if she would be interested in writing an Afterword for the collection.  Not only did she agree to this, but Joan wrote a remarkable essay that is no mere conclusion, a re-stating what has already been said.  Instead, it is an essay that uses the insights of the book as a point of departure for a intensely personal and scholarly reflection on place memories and places of memory in our everyday lives.  In every way, and exceeding our wildest hopes, it became the 11th chapter of the book.

Along with Jess Dunkin, I am co-organizing this Fall's Shannon Lecture Series in Canadian Social History.  The central theme of the series is certainly related to Placing Memory and Remembering Place in Canada, especially my own chapter in the book.  It is also central to Jess's own doctoral work and scholarly thinking.  More details can be gleaned at our website, and more are forthcoming, but a few words can be added here.  In addition to being very excited about our lineup of scholars, we are equally excited about the participation of a film-maker John Greyson and singer-songwriter Miss Emily Brown.  Both have thought a great deal about the past and their relationships to it (intellectually, artistically, personally, and politically) and visible traces of this reflection can be seen and heard in their art.  We think their participation in the Shannon's adds not only new scholarly insights into storytelling and the social effect of stories, but it will also inspire our audience in ways they may not expect.

This is Henry John Reyburn Walsh, who on 19 May 2010 transformed this sabbatical experience from 'satisfying' to 'unforgettable'.  As shown above, he has more than a hint of a sense of humour and timing.  And most wonderful for me is that when I hold him I see his incredible mother looking back at me through his eyes just as I do when I hug his sisters, Hope and Emily.

While we had no idea our year away from Ottawa was going to be anything other than an adventure for the four of us, we could not be happier that those plans got radically changed and we are returning to the nation's capital as a quintet.  It is the third time I have become a parent, and it is no less wonderful, exciting, and terrifying as it was / is the first two times.  My one regret is Henry came along too late to make it into the Acknowledgments for either HWP or Placing MemoryLandscapes of Longing is going to be for him.  As it should, since it's his fault I am still not quite done.  (Not really, Henry!  Daddy also likes to make "jokes.")