Friday, June 29, 2007

Garden Spot: Oxford Edition

Unlike my colleagues who have spent their time productively transcribing, taking care not to inspire the wrath of special collections librarians, my time here in England has been spent taking care of children, as we visit with their British relatives.

In a comment for the last post, Muse offered her favourite pub in Oxford, the Royal Oak on Woodstock Road. Thinking about her post, I realized I'm hard pressed to identify my own favourite, as many pubs have either changed hands or gone corporate (a sad development), and my criteria have shifted over the years, from quality of atmosphere -- and of the lager -- to the pub's capacity to accommodate my children (. . . so I can enjoy the atmosphere and the lager. Cue the Underworld, "Born Slippy": "Shouting lager, lager, lager, lager. . ."). In that respect, I suppose I do favour the Fishes -- off the beaten path, indeed off the Isis tow path, but with a super garden, climbing frame, and Aunt Sally pitch for the kids. A good time can be had by all.

Where children and an aging liver make pub crawls impracticable, garden tours are still in the offing. Though funny, showing Stroke around today, we did actually hit a couple of high-profile pubs: the King's Arms, across from the Bod and the Sheldonian Theatre (the pub where British academics go to see and be seen), and the Turf (known for its Bill Clinton apocrypha), with a quick stop in ye olde Bear as well. I trusted her to find the Eagle and Child herself (and thus the "famous pubs of Oxford" tour is about complete).

But as I haven't posted from my own garden for a while -- I reckon that bleeding heart has about petered out by now -- I submit to you some shots from today's meandering. Above you can see the garden outside Christ Church, as you head into the meadows. Below we have a magnificent row of lavender:

This last shot, taken in the private garden behind Christ Church, put me in mind of Andrew Marvell, so I follow it with "The Mower, Against Gardens."

LUXURIOUS man, to bring his vice in use,
Did after him the world seduce,
And from the fields the flowers and plants allure,
Where Nature was most plain and pure.
He first inclosed within the gardens square
A dead and standing pool of air,
And a more luscious earth for them did knead,
Which stupefied them while it fed.
The pink grew then as double as his mind ;
The nutriment did change the kind.
With strange perfumes he did the roses taint ;
And flowers themselves were taught to paint.
The tulip white did for complexion seek,
And learned to interline its cheek ;
Its onion root they then so high did hold,
That one was for a meadow sold :
Another world was searched through oceans new,
To find the marvel of Peru ;
And yet these rarities might be allowed
To man, that sovereign thing and proud,
Had he not dealt between the bark and tree,
Forbidden mixtures there to see.
No plant now knew the stock from which it came ;
He grafts upon the wild the tame,
That the uncertain and adulterate fruit
Might put the palate in dispute.
His green seraglio has its eunuchs too,
Lest any tyrant him outdo ;
And in the cherry he does Nature vex,
To procreate without a sex.
'Tis all enforced, the fountain and the grot,
While the sweet fields do lie forgot,
Where willing Nature does to all dispense
A wild and fragrant innocence ;
And fauns and fairies do the meadows till
More by their presence than their skill.
Their statues polished by some ancient hand,
May to adorn the gardens stand ;
But, howsoe'er the figures do excel,
The Gods themselves with us do dwell.

Source: Luminarium.

If you don't hear from me, it means I am in Italy and without internet. Arrivederci!

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Oxford Times

Ordinarily when I come to England we stay with my mother-in-law, in Iffley Village, Oxford (right above the Iffley locks, it's a short run down the Isis tow path to the Abingdon Road, at the Head of the River, then up to town). Beautiful.

This time, however, we're staying with brother-in-law somewhere in Cowley (having spent the day yesterday disoriented from jet lag -- minding the children seems to intensify it -- I'm not entirely sure of my coordinates yet). Said bro-in-law and wife are scads of fun, and have wifi (I think mum-in-law still has only BBC1 and 2 on the old "wireless": bless). So here I am, gumming up the interwebs up the road from where Roger Bannister broke the four-minute mile. I'll be showing Stroke that ring a little later (it's yer basic track; you gotta mentally cue the Chariots of Fire to get any gestalt from the experience).

But I realized that some early mod online greats are in the vicinity. Flavia? Muse? Anyone fancy a pint?

Friday, June 15, 2007

Sod it

Meet my magnificent bleeding heart:

Beauty, eh? At its peak it measured more than five feet across. Since then the blooms have fallen, and I'm waiting to see what happens once it goes dormant (i.e., bleeding hearts, like astilbe and other plants, wholly retire once they've bloomed). What will I do with that five-foot-square plot?

It’s odd, playing adoptive parent to someone else’s garden. That garden is mine now, of course, but I didn’t plant what is now finally emerging with confidence (from a soil less alkaline than my last patch of clay, though still far from acidic; which is to say, big blue hydrangeas? don’t count on it). Plants — and insects — are cropping up that I don’t recognize, and I’m having a hard time telling friend from foe at this point. Are those hardy geraniums I’m seeing in patches? Lovely; I hope so. Those fire engine-red beetles? The kids like them, but they don’t look too friendly, at least not to those asiatic lilies. And lo: asparagus! (That’s how it grows!? You don’t say.) And so forth. I’m resolved to play wait and see for some time, which is exciting, though I’m impatient: I’m ready to get busy and mix it up, make it mine.

I do find myself missing my old garden, wondering how it’s getting on, and what the new owners are doing with it. Did they cut back the butterfly bush? Are they training the clematis? Yes, I have even thought of driving past to see, were I to return (though that Chicago trip has now been deferred to December, as my MLA panel has been accepted).

For those who have been here for a while, you’ll remember that my old Garden Spot ran in a column in the sidebar, and featured photos from the Chicago garden. Much like moving from the US to Canada, the translation from Old Blogger to New initially did not go well: the move altered (irrevocably) much that I liked about my old template; I've had ongoing formatting problems; and, ironically, the new sidebar options (meant to simplify formatting for users) made doing the G-Spot column (which I used to work in, old-fashioned-like, inserting HTML into the template) more difficult. Somewhere in there there's a metaphor for emigrating.

I started scouting out new turf for Jardiniere, but since the bee and other recent developments, I've decided it's probably best to stay put and work through all of the transplant shock (a term for when plants experience a "growth check" upon being transplanted, but I trust you're with me here on the symbolism). This means that my garden posts will now be incorporated into the main frame: if you don't care about gardening, hopefully you'll find some digital respite resting your eye on the photos.

If you were reading last autumn, you know that I moved everything (which wasn’t much) from the two front east-facing beds to the side of the house — to clear that palette, as it were. I had intended to bury a blast of bulbs, but . . . well, if you were reading at all last autumn (there wasn’t much to read), you know not much happened other than emigrating, parenting, teaching, and dissertating, and I was fortunate to have accomplished any of that. (I just discovered the bulbs in a box in the garage.)

But this past spring, amid grading, road trips to Toronto and Montreal, remaining talks to give at Queen’s and some dreadful illness it took weeks to kick, I managed to make the rounds of a couple area nurseries and get started in the front beds. Measuring roughly 5′ x 20,' they border the front of our limestone house, so I’ve decided to work the grays and blues, accented with muted pinks and whites: delphinium (let’s hope they come back for me here!); foxglove; globe thistle; Russian sage; artimisia; campanula; phlox; salvia; iris; stonecrop (I love the variegated variety); perennial baby’s breath and miniature mums; and other assorted plants to make for a cool-themed herbaceous border. The plants are young (i.e., immature, aka relatively inexpensive), but they should fill in nicely in the years to come.

What is wood on our house is gray with white trim, so I potted all white annuals for the front porch: big chunky pansies (I find the small ones too mincing, and too unforgiving if you get behind on the deadheading); african daisies (the vanilla ones with the deep eggplant centres); creamy snapdragons; verbena; etc. As you can see, the annuals are fairly prosaic (again, aka affordable) — but all white and grouped together, they make a lovely soft statement against the gray.

Indeed it’s the first time that I’ve gardened white (and I’m pleased with it). My last house, in Illinois, was mustard brick, one of those midwest split-levels designed to look like the work of Frank Lloyd Wright. While there were a dozen such houses in our neighborhood (i.e., hardly one of a kind!), I worked the faux-prairie style as much as possible, and white didn’t work. I suppose it's only apt that it works so well here in the Great White North.

Here's my handiwork so far:

Beauty, eh?

By the way, they say that "summers in Kingston are the best." And they're right.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

My Tale of Two Cities

I've come to realize that, living where I do, I've inadvertently returned to the cartography of my childhood. Don't get me wrong: I live in another country (yet another post that's been on the potting bench for a while. . . I'll get to that request about "Canadianizing my vehicle," I promise). But just as I grew up in the exurbs of a small, prestigious university city, I now reside in a rural township east of Kingston and Queen's. Hop on I-95 in Connecticut, and you could head for Boston or New York City. Two hours either direction on 401, and I can be in Toronto or Montreal. I finally hit both in the past month or so, to two strikingly, and surprisingly, dissimilar experiences.

Sure, Toronto has the non-threatening, prosaic feel of a midwest American city, and Montreal is just so . . . French. In Toronto, I attended the annual meeting of the Canada Milton Seminar. In Montreal, I saw Arcade Fire in concert.

At one venue, the atmosphere was hot, the audience was on its feet, and you couldn't hear yourself for all the commotion. At the other, the attendees sat in stern and solemn silence, cool and reflective throughout the event.

You probably think the latter was the Milton conference, right?

Nooooo, mes amis, that seventeenth-century indie rocker John Milton has one serious, and spirited, fanbase.

While I "do early modern," I am not a "Miltonist"; I attended the Seminar to become more conversant in Milton studies, and to meet my new colleagues at the University of Toronto. I was nervous going in, as this gathering is a relatively intimate affair, and the in-jokes and asides traded over morning coffee confirmed that the Milton community is a pretty tight group. By the end of the day, however, these Renaissance scholars were dressing each other down in ways that would've made the fiercest Roman orator blanch.

Of course it's tempting to summon anti-academic truisms about battles fierce and stakes small, but it was captivating to see celebrated scholars so passionate about their subject that professorial politesse went the way of the Tudor bonnet. Given the way initial hugs and "how are you's" degenerated to finger-pointing and loud shouting across tables, I have come to call the event the "Milton Family Thanksgiving." (Which, as a staunch Puritan, Uncle John couldn't really mind, right? Of course, let's see if I'm ever invited back! Once a black sheep . . .).

As for the Arcade Fire show, I've never been so infuriated by a concert audience. While I feel critics did the band a disservice by overhyping them in ways that invited a backlash -- and I do think that Funeral is superior to Neon Bible -- the somber demeanour of this hometown, "neighborhood" crowd -- why I was determined to see this **particular show -- was, well, mystifying, verging on maddening. I confess that I abandoned all professorial politesse, trying to rouse at least a couple rows of Quebecois to their feet. (Maybe they sniffed out that I was American: they viewed me with cool and utter disdain.) Thankfully, my companion, though Canadian, was fully game and in good form: Stroke and I danced like fools to a tight and predictably talented set, as well as its -- sniff sniff, I'm still whimpering in disappointment -- sole encore.

Win, if you're listening: I don't blame you. I would've shoved that drumstick up 'is bleedin' arse. And the next time I make the drive (where "No Cars Go")?

I'm bringing some Miltonists.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Final round

Flavia has been busy being fabulous this past weekend, but I wanted to follow through on her comment about the spelling bee protesters, to remark how the protests held yearly at the national bee relate to disputes about spelling in early modern England.

The demonstrators outside the Washington Grand Hyatt represent the Simplified Spelling Society, which campaigns to replace our current orthography (or "right writing") with a strict phonetically-based spelling system (gotta luv the placards: "Enuf is enuf!" "Spelling shuud be lojical"). Promoting what it calls "the alphabetic principle," the society echoes several sixteenth-century humanists, such as Thomas Smith, John Hart, and William Bullokar, who sought either to amend or to replace the Roman alphabet we use with an alphabet in which each letter designates one, and only one, English speech sound.

(Everytime I write that last phrase I think of Monty Python's Life of Brian: "How much do you hate the Romans?" "A lot." Humanists in England didn't hate the Romans; to the contrary, they wanted to be just like them. As the Romans adapted the Greek alphabet to Latin, spelling reformers attempted to adapt the Roman alphabet to English.)

Here's a portion of Thomas Smith's reformed English alphabet (from De recta et emendata linguae anglicae scriptione, dialogus [1568]; from EEBO):

Far out, huh? Suffice to say that these early spelling protesters were unsuccessful, at least in reforming a scheme defined by systemic variation (i.e., we still spell some words phonetically, some according to etymology, some language of origin, etc.).

Where these reformers were successful, however, and why we owe to them the present-day spelling bee -- where their phonic-hooked descendants get their annual fix -- was in promoting the idea that everyone should conform to the same spelling. I have written how a spelling bee is only competitive, or suspenseful, when systemic irregularity is the rule, not the exception. Even more fundamentally, however, a spelling bee requires consensus that there are "correct" and "incorrect" spellings, and that correct spelling -- being a "good speller" -- is admirable and worthy of public reward. As these humanists sought for their crude and unruly language the rule and regularity of classical Latin and Greek, they saw an opportunity to distinguish themselves by making a contest out of correct spelling.

Somewhere along the line, though -- well, the lines got crossed, as reciting the letters of orthographically complex, even dubious, words became the index of mastery in the mother tongue, and parrotting the standard spelling of obscure terms became a mark of distinction and exceptionality. (It's a paradox, no doubt, though one we rarely think about; rather, we tend to displace our discomfiture at this sociolinguistic oddity on to the spelling bee contestants themselves . . . ) Historically speaking, the ends of humanist spelling reform, to advance to higher rounds of social status via language, far outlived its initial phonetic means, indeed "the alphabetic principle" (ding!).

Instead, as the reformers' newfangled alphabets gave way to other innovations, spelling reform inadvertently generated the texts we now regard (and admire) as the repositories of standard English. Realizing that noone would use his reformed orthography unless taught, John Hart writes what is arguably the first English textbook, A methode, or comfortable beginning for all unlearned, whereby they may bee taught to read English (1570; still, noone really buys it, except for one fabulous exception, Thomas Whythorne, who writes his autobiography in Hart's orthography; now there's a read!). Other schoolmasters object to the prospect of a new English alphabet, but see in English pedagogy -- that is, in the process of teaching English as a subject of learning (it had been known chiefly as a "mother" tongue, learned at home) -- a means to teach "uniform," or correct, English, indeed (chiefly) English spelling.

Writing his Elementarie (1582), Richard Mulcaster additionally proposes a book in which extant spellings could be "fixed," both corrected and stabilized, in print. Reprinted this year (yep, that's 2007!) by U of Chicago P, and reviewed here in Inside Higher Ed, Robert Cawdrey's A Table Alphabeticall (1604) usually gets the credit as the "first English dictionary," but this title is misleading. First, foreign language dictionaries -- i.e., Latin-English, French-English, etc. -- had been in print for some time, for the benefit of enterprising humanists and courtiers traveling abroad to the continent. Attempting to "define" "hard wordes in plaine English," Cawdrey's volume takes the model of the foreign language dictionaries, but applies it to the vernacular -- i.e., yielding an English-English dictionary -- effectively suggesting through translation how "learned" English comprises a second, or foreign, language. More than 20 years earlier, however, Mulcaster had printed a list of words expressly for the purpose of establishing the correct, or standard, spelling. Having printed what amounts to a "reference text," Mulcaster and his Elementarie get my humble nod for the "first dictionary."

Of course, some early modern dictionaries aspired to deviate from emergent standards in English. Appearing to flout the very process of language standardization, so-called "cant dictionaries" compiled terms in use by "rogues and vagabonds," the criminal underclass. You'd think that humanists would have applauded this exercise, having stomped out scholasticism by conceiving language not as divine dictation (the "word(s) of God"), but as the product of human, or social, consent. To the contrary, spelling reformers were among the most vocal in their contempt for cant "standards" and "reference texts." In Logonomia Anglica (1621), Alexander Gill writes:

Regarding that venomous and disgusting ulcer of our nation I am embarrassed to say anything at all. For that detestable scum of wandering vagabonds speak no proper dialect but a cant jargon which no punishment by law will ever repress, until its proponents are crucified by the magistrates, acting under a public edict. But since this entire jargon, together with the filthy language of criminals, has been described in a strange book, and because it offers no benefit to foreigners, I shall exclude it from my discussion. . . (104)

Feel "crucified" by English spelling? You should, if you're not mixing with the right crowd. (Again, with the Life of Brian: "Crucifixion or pardon?" "Pardon. . . nah, just kidding, crucifixion!") For Gill and other early English language zealots, the criminality of these "wandering vagabonds" lies as much in their deviation from legal codes as in their presumption to devise their own code of language. Make no mistake, Gill protests how "that detestable scum," in developing their own argot, filch humanists’ (newly acquired) jurisdiction in English.

With dictionaries now in print on everything from unix code to classic rock, we are accustomed to the idea that dictionaries translate arcane jargon into "other words" used more commonly in English. (See Bryan Curtis's piece in Slate on a recent variation of the "cant dictionary," Randy Kearse's Street Talk (2007), which Kearse wrote while in prison.) What endures in this conceit is the notion that there are "correct" and "incorrect" usages, that there's such a thing as right and wrong, and that there are stakes in choosing to conform and/or deviate (interestingly, I just learned that Richard Rorty has died: RIP, great pragmatist, and condolences to his friends, family, and followers).

What also endures is the competition among social groups to determine what qualifies as "correct" -- indeed, dems be da stakes, and it's in this light that we might view the Simplified Spelling Society (which bears the most unfortunate of acronyms; were ya thinkin about the letters there?). That is, by privileging their spelling system over that now in use, the, er, SSS proposes to challenge not only the ortho-lexicographic powers that be(e) -- aka Merriam-Webster, McGraw-Hill, etc. -- but also a society that, having deferred to humanist innovation in language, has publicly consented to the importance of correct spelling, enough to yearly, if often satirically, admire and reward it.

Guud luk!

With that offhand gesture, I conclude this year's series of posts related to this year's bee. (See you next year? Dunno.) I welcome the new readers who have come here as a result of this year's competition, and especially welcome their forthright expertise; by all means, stick around, keep me honest! (If my blog were a bee, I wouldn't have made it into the second round . . . ding! ding! ding!).

I would be lying, however, if I did not confess some distress, and not a little hand-wringing, over the considerable traffic (we're talking thousands at this point) generated by searches for Evan O'Dorney and autism. At first I was mystified, as the number of inquiries (and visitors) progressively increased while the bee itself began to recede. Conducting a few searches of my own, however, I realized that Evan's post-bee appearances (on CNN, the Today Show, the Jimmy Kimmel Show, etc.) prompted the surge.

I've been dismayed by the tenor of discussion on some of the online message boards. The venomous ignorance, about everything from spelling to autism to home schooling to, well, basic facts about adolescence, is enough to make you want to ferry your kids to a deserted island, far far far from the madding crowd. I'm grateful that none of that intemperance has appeared here, though, just as I was concerned about the propriety of my initial remarks, I have since worried that what I wrote functioned to fan the flames, by making a further spectacle of this impressive, though vulnerable (and who isn't at 13?), young man.

Now as ever, I wish Evan O'Dorney and his family all the best for the future, and, without getting too preachy (believe me, I know I tend to the ponderous!), I hope that this site has offered those searching, whether "neurotypical" or somewhere "on the spectrum," some resources for further research and reflection.

Next up (in no particular order): Horace's compendium of advice for grad students; my tales of Toronto and Montreal; decisions about Jardiniere (ach, I think I'll just do my gardening bit here); and I suppose I should say something about Sgt. Pepper . . .

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

A New Start

This post is for the many readers who have been coming to this blog on a search for "Evan O'Dorney and autism" (or suchlike). As I wrote in both my conclusion to my live bee blog post as well as in the comment section, I am neither professionally qualified to diagnose Evan nor personally willing to render the kind of assessment (on the basis of a few minutes' observation, in exceptional circumstances) that Evan and his loving family may not be prepared to hear. (And for all we know, they're fully on board, and merely choosing not to lead with that information -- to which I say, fair play.)

Rather, I, like you (and all for our various reasons), need to learn more. No doubt our concern for and about Evan prompted these searches. But wherever his journey leads him -- to math camp, hours spent "expressing himself" at the piano, and hopefully time well-spent with family and friends -- we can all benefit from a little more understanding.

So here are some resources on Autistic Spectrum Disorder, sometimes known as Pervasive Developmental Disorder. As I confessed in a comment, I have not read all of these exhaustively (and again, am not professionally qualified to rank them). In selecting what to put here, I have prioritized those sites and resources that contain information related to the identification and diagnosis of autism as well as its treatment and other forms of support.

Given the context in which we're approaching this issue, it seems appropriate to start with some definitions. Here are links to the (US) National Institutes of Health, the (UK) National Association of Mental Health, and the Autism Society Canada, each of which give fairly comprehensive overviews of the condition (and its related conditions) as well as information on resources in each country.

As for books, I can recommend Quirky Kids (suggested by our neurologist back in Chicago), and a pamphlet called "Talkability: People Skills for Verbal Children on the Autism Spectrum," available through The Hanen Centre (and which came recommended by the speech therapist on my son's "team"). The former speaks more generally about kids with developmental disorders, and the latter gives practical advice for helping kids with autism "connect" in a day-to-day setting.

I have not read, but am interested in reading, the following: Ten Things Every Child With Autism Wishes You Knew, and Ten Things Your Student With Autism Wishes You Knew; 1001 Great Ideas for Teaching and Raising Children With Autism Spectrum Disorders (which seems overwhelming, but would appear to appeal to Evan's interests in math!); and the work of Temple Grandin.

Resources online include Autism Inspiration and ABA Child (clearinghouses for information, materials, and strategies), The Autism Acceptance Project (which promotes public awareness about autism), and The Autistic Self-Advocacy Project (which provides resources and support for adults with autism).

If you live in Kingston or Ontario (I've got to help out my neighbours; after all, it's been plenty hard for us to learn the system here), there is the Autism Intervention Program at Pathways; the Play-Talk Program at the Child Development Centre at the Hotel Dieu; and if you have young children in need of pre-school or child care, Community Living Kingston will help support the program you select, and has an excellent resource handbook for "Services for Children with Special Needs." I have yet to check out Autism Ontario, and a new program called Leaps and Bounds.

Finally, it wouldn't be right for me not to point all of you to blogs, which, as with blogs generally, provide the salve of recognition and understanding (dare I say connection?) that professional sources may not supply. The Autism Hub claims to collect "the best of autism blogging" (though I have yet to spend decent time with it, to make the match that's right for me). I do hope to follow the recently launched Normal is Overrated, written by "Cody" (who also blogs at Cody's Journal), and as I noted, I am starting my own, but writing it anonymously (so get in touch -- there's an email link in the Profile -- if you'd like to follow it).

This list is just a start, but I hope it is helpful to you. I am grateful to any of you who write in with other resources, and grateful to Evan O'Dorney, too, for inspiring us all to learn a little bit more about ourselves and one another, indeed the many different ways we all learn and communicate.

Coming up: a post-bee wrap-up relating today's competition to debates about spelling in early modern England; and my contribution to Horace's compilation (at To Delight and Instruct) of advice posts to those either starting or considering grad school. He's collected a worthy crop so far, and to be commended to undertaking the task. It seems only apt for me to discuss (and I think I can say I am qualified here) grad school, academia, and family concerns (i.e., bearing and raising children). Even more apt? That I can't write that post right now . . . the kids are screaming!

More soon.