Monday, December 28, 2009

What will I do?

I’m often asked these days what I will be doing during my leave after my term as Dean ends. My answer is usually “A lot of hiking and kayaking.” That of course is a flippant answer because the reality is that I have two signed book contracts and several conference gatherings are already arranged and those things are going to take up a good deal of my time. So, the hiking and kayaking, while absolutely real as activities I will be doing, may not be taking up all my time. Unfortunately (or fortunately depending on your perspective) I’ve just been reminded of another activity which I will have to fit in to my busy schedule of enjoyable things to do: cross-country skiing.

We’re up at Mount Washington for our annual Between-Boxing-Day-and-New-Year’s-Eve ski holiday and today I decided to venture out cross-country skiing rather than go downhill. It’s been a few years now since I went Nordic. Once Lucas started skiing downhill, I joined in too. For a few years I pretended to be doing resort telemarking but I found I don’t really enjoy the groomed runs and longed for proper powder. So, it seemed best to simply go Alpine-style. It’s fun, for sure, but not a lot of exercise except for the occasions when I wander onto black diamond runs (much to Beth’s displeasure) and have to work very hard to get to the bottom (I don’t really know how to ski but I’m always up for an adventure!).

This year I brought my cross country stuff with me (we bought a ski box for the car so there was lots of room for it) and today just seemed like a good day to go. I headed through the Alpine Village where we’re staying in the direction of Raven Lodge.It was a rude awakening to feel how shaky I was going down the hills just trying to get to the first trail. I knew my recent infrequent practice would have had an impact on my skill level (such as it ever was) and I knew before I set off that there was no way I could manage what used to be my favorite run here when we first came up here – taking the Hawk chair up to the top and going down the back “Upper West” trail. Still, it was a bit of a surprise to me to feel how little contact with the snow those tiny skis gave me as I (tried not to) zoom down hills.

Once at Raven Lodge I did what I intended to do and set out on a moderate trail – “Paradise Meadow”, “Jack-Rabbit”, and “The Far East”, about a 10 k loop of moderate skiing. (Here's the map of the area -- 1.13 mb download though). I followed the trail in a clock-wise direction. I was the first person on the trail for the day (the only person I ran into during the first 45 minutes or so was the groomer who was just finishing off his work on the trail for me). After about 30 minutes that wonderful feeling overcame me: here I was in the middle of Strathcona Park, no one around, feeling fit and my gear in fine tune, just simply enjoying myself. Overall, it was a great run although I might do it in the opposite direction next time which seemed to be the more popular route, I noticed later, and then I’ll see if there’s less uphill going that way (just joking!).

I took a break at the Lodge for an hour or so, enjoyed a couple of cups of good coffee and a freshly baked muffin. Then I set out again. My confidence up, albeit knowing I was a bit tired, I set off on “Jutland” and then up the very aptly named “The Grind.” A two and one-half kilometer uphill, I tried hard to remember those instructions from my several seasons of skating lessons at the Canmore Nordic Centre – head up, alternate poling, use the legs not the arms – and eventually I made it – exhausted – up to “Lower West” which was a relief, at least in relative terms, and that took me back to the Alpine area.

Cross-country skiing attracts a varied group of people, including some older folks – older than me by a few years, certainly – who seems to maintain the classic style of skiing, even if their kick-and-glide tends to be more of the shuffle on most occasions (at least most of them don’t wear kickers and long socks anymore). I wonder what’s going to happen to those of us who see cross-country skiing as skating and not classic style – will we be able to maintain that cardiovascular output when we get to the age of those old-timers? I can’t ever see giving up my short skis and long poles, if only for those few moments of bliss that are produced when all systems seem to be flowing so well (and the terrain is flat!). I guess that’s another reason to make sure I use my time of leave profitably so I can maintain that needed level of fitness.

PS Update -- I went out again two days later. I discovered I had forgotten how to find ther edges on my skiis. After a bit, I remembered but not before I'd fallen and twisted myself in such a way as to make every stride thereafter painful. Still, I did survive "Lower West", "The Grind" and "Raven's Revenge" (in that order) and while I'm worn out and aching, it's good to know I can still do it!

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Joy of Academic Travel, part 2

When academics (other people too maybe, I wouldn't know) travel, many of them spend their time in foreign places doing all those cultural things like visiting museums and art galleries. I've even heard some brag about the number of "shows" they went to in London or New York. Not me. I don't waste my time on that stuff. Me, I follow my own 4 "S" rule of travel: soak-up sounds, sights and smells. That's done by simple wandering, usually (but not always) with a map in my pocket (safely out of view, safely stored for a quick glance while walking).

Being as I am in Copenhagen, I followed my normal pattern. I've been here three times before, as best I can remember, so I've wandered a good part of the main city before. When Lucas and I were here, we did parts I wouldn't have normally wandered to, like Tivoli Gardens, so I have experienced the city in a variety of ways. I do conclude that most of Copenhagen is pretty weak on smells (certainly compared to the urine and vomit of London) and sounds are pretty limited other than the odd siren, it seems. Yesterday I wandered to Christiania. I'd been down that way before -- the jaunt took me past some churches with amazing architecture (a spire with dragons wrapped around it; a spire with an external spiral staircase going up it), sights that had attracted me before (always from the outside only) -- but I've never quite got this far previously. Christiania is a part of Copenhagen that "broke away" in the '70s and became an independent free-living/thinking enclave. Today it looks somewhat anarchist in character -- graffiti blending with brightly coloured buildings, litter fairly frequent, the cobblestones getting ever more uneven, dirt tracks functioning as roads -- but its eclectic buildings (shades of Hornby Island in an urban setting!) certainly set it apart. Hard not to observe too, of course, were carts along the street displaying their wares -- chunks of hash of a variety of kinds and colours (not that I stopped to ask, naturally, being of the "not wanting to look like a tourist" kind of guy; the local tourist pamphlets helpfully contextualized the visit before I got there), all openly for sale. And what were those little seedlings I spied over in a corner in one commercial square? I'm not sure but I do wonder.

Seeing the nature of the merchandise, it suddenly dawned on me why there were large "no photography" symbols scattered around the area in assorted odd places. I was glad I hadn't pulled out my phone to snap a few pics for this blog: my Danish just isn't up to explaining myself.

Monday, October 26, 2009

The Joy of Academic Travel

I'm sitting in Ibsens Hotel in Copenhagen on a slightly dreary day, having arrived last night from Victoria via London. The trip over here was uneventful, if somewhat boring because I had been to London just three weeks ago and the movies on the plane had changed only slightly and the vegetarian (non-dairy) special meal was absolutely identical to what I had on my previous trip, right down to the very white bun-wrapped-in-plastic and grape jelly for breakfast. Not that I fly expecting to relish the food particularly but sometimes the element of surprise makes it worthwhile. Anyway, I made it here, even taking the Metro from the airport and figuring out the ticket machine (okay, so the help menu was in English but the credit card pad for paying was all in Danish) -- not that anyone checked the ticket and, unlike London, one doesn't even have to surrender the ticket at the end of the trip.

Ibsens Hotel is nice in that European way of hotels: relatively spartan and small rooms, even though I requested to upgrade to a more spacious room (which, apparently, I got, cost unknown right now). There are few of the "trimmings" that one comes to expect in North American-style hotels -- things like a coffee maker, kleenex, and face soap are missing, and it appears one must go to the "luggage room" to use an ironing board to take the wrinkles out of one's shirts. Still, the breakfasts are amazing (although I failed to find any Nutella which seems a prominent memory from my previous trip here and something Lucas particularly enjoyed on the occasion he was here with me). Ibsens seems to be the place the University of Copenhagen uses regularly: I met a fellow academic at breakfast today whom I finally placed (after he told me his name twice) as someone I had met in New Zealand when I was there in August; he's here lecturing at the University, I'm here for a conference sponsored by the University.

One of the real joys of academic travel for me is having the opportunity to go for a run in the morning before the meetings start (or, as with today, on one's "tourist days" that are allocated for catching up with jet lag or simply for procuring a reduction in the price of the plane ticket by staying a sufficient number of days). My earlier trip to London this month was disappointing in terms of running because I don't find downtown London a viable place to run (although I did see a few brave souls out). Copenhagen, on the other hand, is wonderful for running. The hotel is quite close to the lakes and also the botanical gardens and, while there are a few traffic lights to cross which sometimes force me to stop (something I don't respond well to), for the most part it's very pleasant trail running with passages under the road in some critical places so as to allow me to keep up my pace. The nice thing about running when away is that it all feels so relaxed, such a pleasure, such a privilege. Time seems a lot less pressing when away (not that there aren't papers to read for the conference, writing projects that I swore I would do when here, emails to keep up with) and it feels as if I could run all day (if only my body would allow). I felt so good when I got back this morning, even proud of being able to feel so good afterward, and I spent several minutes in the shower plotting out my schedule for the next few days so as to make sure my run would fit in (and so I wouldn't miss those breakfasts!). The conference itself is at a retreat centre, somewhere outside Copenhagen as far as I can tell, next to a forest (perfect!). Unfortunately, the schedule has us starting at 830 am on Thursday with breakfast at 730! Well, another of the joys of academic travel is jet lag, of course, so it's likely that I'll be up nice and early that day anyway, ready for a pre-breakfast run! Let's just hope there's coffee in the room there or it could be a real challenge.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

A painful problem of sizeable proportions

In nine months (almost exactly) I will finish my term as “Dean” and will return to being “Andrew” or “Andy” (depending on which stage of my life you met me and in which context). I will be enjoying (absolutely) two years of “administrative leave”, having accumulated an extra year by virtue of having held my position for ten years non-stop. There are all sorts of implications to this that go beyond losing having my phone answered and my mail opened for me. The one that has struck me rather forcibly is moving out of my office. As you might imagine, one of the perks of being Dean is having a nice office – I’ve been told by some my fellow deans that the view and the windows make this space some of the best on campus. In this office I was able to have a number of book shelves installed (probably going higher up the wall than the latest earthquake requirements would allow) to house a part of my book collection (mainly odds and ends, if the truth be told: my specialized collection on the Qur’an and its interpretation I have kept at home). Interspersed with those books are several shelves of learned journals which are supplemented by a collection at home as well (some stashed away in boxes). These journals are sets that, for the most part, start in the late 1970s.

The question I have been tangling with recently is what to do with the journals. This is a question which has always plagued academics (I remember a colleague in Calgary who would throw away one journal almost as soon as it arrived if there was nothing of value to him in it) because they seemingly accumulate so quickly and take up such a lot of space. Few of us can afford to have the issues bound into volumes, so years of cardboard magazine boxes are now a feature in many offices. They certainly are in mine.

But the question of storage space is not really the one that faces me. I can always buy more bookcases for home and make my home office look more like a real library with shelves running parallel across the room. The real issue is should I bother? Almost all of my journals are now available online, mostly through JSTOR, some through commercial providers. All of the articles are there, available at my fingertips, ready to be stored on my local computer as PDFs or printed out and filed away (another outmoded way of storage, a change to which is less painful to confront). So what’s the point of keeping 30 years worth of the Journal of the American Oriental Society which takes up at least 12 feet of book shelf space? Absolutely none. But what am I supposed to do with them? Throw them away (well, recycle the paper at the very least)? That is simply so painful for anyone who loves the written word and who harbours the thought deep down that perhaps, one day, all these journals should be read cover-to-cover (now that really would be an audacious plan!) . But thinking about it more realistically doesn’t make it any easier: to think that I won’t be able to browse through my collection and read articles that I just happen across on subjects that I know little to nothing about but which somehow capture my fancy.It also makes me realize that I would lose a significant part of my own memory: I won’t have that reminder that I’ve been enjoying this academic life for over 30 years!

A suggestion may be that there must be a possibility of selling these journals or shipping them overseas to a needy university library somewhere. This appears easier said than done. The former is a pretty limited market, it appears – there are over 400 listings on for individual issues (plus some single off-prints) of the Journal of the American Oriental Society at prices ranging from $4 each and up – sets comparable to mine seem to sell for around $500 at most. Thinking that I’m going to be able to rid myself of the hard copy journal s this way also brings to mind my futile attempt to sell some REALLY valuable sets of magazines – Equinox and Harrowsmith – via which produced absolutely no interest but did elicit much ridicule of me around my home for the effort. It seems that everyone faces essentially the same problem: magazines and journals expand to fill available space and are incredibly difficult to excise from one’s collection of printed material. The idea of sending these overseas is, I suspect, naive: not only would these journals prove incredibly expensive to ship but it’s doubtful that such specialized works in the humanities would prove of substantial appeal to overseas universities which face their own (far more real) demands on space (and cataloging and binding...).

So ultimately I view this as a problem provoked by the amazing development of online resources. Ten years ago it was common to hear complaints about the Library’s eagerness to replace paper with electronic resources. Today, that’s not a common sentiment: virtually all of us have come to realize the benefits of being able to access all this material no matter where we are and no matter what hour of the day or night. Printed journals now retain their prime value only for the first few years after being issued (when often online access is limited by the publisher).

All I can say is that it’s a dilemma, a very painful one.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Time to read

I don't often seem to get much time to read any books these days, let alone novels. But my mother-in-law gave me a book for Christmas that has shown me, once again, how much I enjoy the experience once I'm captivated by a text. This time it was Joseph Boyden's Through Black Spruce. There are a couple of reasons it grabbed me quickly. One is a trivial matter but it really helps me: it's written in short chapters, perfect for taking the attitude that one can just read a bit in a few minutes and then get on with "more important work". In the end, as it turned out, I consumed the entire book during a few extended sittings. The other reason for the book captivating me is more personal.

Back in 1967 I was a junior forest ranger in Mattawa, Ontario. That's a summer I still remember quite vividly for all sorts of reasons: the people I met in the park where I was stationed, the endless planting of seedlings wrapped in their tiny plastic containers, the bear the rangers had to shoot and that we got to eat (as best I can remember) afterward. But the key part was that when the camp was over I was convinced by one (or was it two or more?) colleagues to join them in hitching up to Cochrane and taking the Polar Bear Express train up to Moosonee. I remember we didn't get very far hitching so we flagged down a Greyhound bus at a railway crossing (where it had to stop) to get us to the train. I only have vague memories of the train ride and only a few glimmers of what we might have done in Moosonee (and Moose Factory where I recall we also visited) but, for my companion, I do remember that it involved a girl and alcohol. But I don't know what it involved for me and I can't remember why I would have even agreed to go, except for the idea that it was far away from Toronto to where I would be returning soon.

Anyway, the point is that Through Black Spruce is centered around Moosonee and Moose Factory. While my memory of being there may be faint, those places still resonate with me and they lured me into the story. For me, the book also provides a fascinating view of native life that, in my recent years in Victoria, I have come to know more about. In fact, of all the new things I have learned at UVic, it is those things that my Indigenous colleagues have taught me that I think will stay with me for the longest. It's certainly not that I have learned a great deal, I admit, but I have over the years here started to get a glimmer of some of things that are at stake in being a native person in Canada. And for me, as the privileged-white-boy immigrant to this country, it's something I should have learned on my trip to Moosonee but I am ashamed to admit that I didn't. Joseph Boyden seems to have found a way to convey to me some of that knowledge in the form of a novel.

There's something else about the novel that really struck me too, something that resonates with me strongly in quite a different way. That's the account in chapter 21 of Will's reflections on "bush life" after he flees Moosonee for an island in James Bay. His thoughts on simplicity, alone-ness, being with nature, filling time with the little things that need to be done, running around naked caked in mud -- those are the experiences I treasure (okay, not the last one so much) when doing things like backpacking and kayaking. Or maybe I fear them too. Says Will, "Loneliness grew like moss out there, crawling onto my legs and onto my arms."

It's a book worth reading and contemplating. Thanks, Louise.