jeudi 30 avril 2009

Stop and stare at the flowers



Leisure
William Henry Davies
What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.
No time to stand beneath the boughs
And stare as long as sheep or cows.
No time to see, when woods we pass,
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.
No time to see, in broad daylight,
Streams full of stars, like skies at night.
No time to turn at Beauty's glance,
And watch her feet, how they can dance.
No time to wait till her mouth can
Enrich that smile her eyes began.
A poor life this if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

mardi 28 avril 2009

The Middle Ages



Marie de France, at her writing desk


The main difference between being a graduate student when you're in your twenties (as I was) and being one when you're in your fifties (which I am) is that when you decide to skip class, it isn't because you stayed up too late partying. It's because you stayed up too late meeting a work-related deadline and must meet another one by tomorrow.
Another difference is that when you're in your twenties and you skip a class, you might feel guilty but you don't feel disappointed. In your fifties, you feel disappointed but not guilty. I would rather be discussing Marie de France and her fabulous lais (ballads, stories) with a bunch of twenty-year olds than putting the finishing touches on an annual report.
When I decided to begin my graduate work in French studies with a course in Ancient French instead of taking the Nouvelle Vague cinema class that sounded way better, I felt virtuous. I was opting for the good and utile over the easy and fun. Indeed, Ancient French is an entirely different language from modern French (quoique..) and it is very difficult. The fact that it often appears in verse form doesn't help. However, I had no idea that it would be so fascinating. I think part of the fascination lies in the difficulty. I am beginning to understand that most of the things worth doing, and most of the things that procure satisfaction, are difficult to do.
Not that I think everything should be hard. Far from it. For example, some people (people who watch Oprah too much?) seem to think that a relationship is something hard to maintain and that it requires work. Nonsense! If it requires too much work then it is not fun and probably not worth pursuing. I think that it should be easy, natural and enjoyable at least 75% of the time or it won't work over the long run.
What does this have to do with Marie de France? Nothing, really, except maybe that relationships have not changed all that much since the early Middle Ages. In the Laostic (laostic is a slang term among the ancient Bretons for rossignol, which is French for nightingale), the female protagonist is mal mariée and in love with her neighbor -- one of two barons in the town of St Malo and a bachelor. Her husband is the other baron. She and her lover work out a system for communicating with one another, but they eventually get busted by her suspicious husband. All that work for naught.

vendredi 24 avril 2009

The Amazing Grace of Leonard Cohen


I wanted to find a way to remember every song Leonard Cohen and his talented troupe of musicians/back-up singers delivered to us last night. Turns out it was easy. His first and second set and encore songs were posted on the Internet somewhere:

First Set

Dance Me To The End Of Love
The Future
Ain't No Cure For Love
Bird On The Wire
Everybody Knows
In My Secret Life
Who By Fire
Chelsea Hotel
Waiting For The Miracle
Anthem

Second Set

Tower Of Song
Suzanne
Gypsy Wife
The Partisan
Boogie Street
Hallelujah
I'm Your Man
A Thousand Kisses Deep (recitation)
Take This Waltz

Encores

So Long, Marianne
First We Take Manhattan
Famous Blue Raincoat
Sisters of Mercy
If It Be Your Will
Democracy
I Tried to Leave You
Whither Thou Goest





I was eleven years old when I first heard of Leonard Cohen. "Suzanne takes you down to a place by the river.... Goodbye Marianne..."

As a ninth grader, we studied the poetry of rock music, and I discovered the words "like a bird on the wire, like a drunk in a midnight choir, I have tried in my way to be free".

That's when I realized what poetry was and also when I realized I would never be a poet. I tried, but the results were frankly embarrassing. In my defense, let me say that I set an impossibly high standard for myself. I would either stand tall in the company of Leonard Cohen, Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan or forget about it. The world is not the worse for the fact that I chose to forget about it.

But the world is immensely richer thanks to Leonard Cohen, the master of "self investigation without self indulgence", which is how he himself put it in a recent CBC interview. That's what makes his lyrics so much more than pop or folk songs. They are ballads; they tell a story; the story is very personal and yet it resonates in everyone who has been burned and thrilled by love. In the interview, he talks about love, about men and women and how difficult it is to make the connection work. And yet how vital the connection is, how exhilerating it feels when it works, how depressing it can be when it breaks and you know it is irretrievably broken.

The best moment in the interview is when he breaks into song ("Non, je ne regrette rien") in reply to the question of whether he regretted having had multiple loves and hence multiple failures in love as opposed to one true love story. I loved his reply. "For I've seen your flag upon the arch and love is not a victory march, it's a cold and it's a broken hallelujah...." Leonard Cohen has clearly had failures and victories. And he isn't finished yet. This is the third act. I hope it never ends.

At the beginning of the interview, which I didn't see until I had given my post a title and an introduction, he talks about performing and about achieving a state of grace with the audience. He implies that this has as much to do with the audience as it does with the performer. He and we achieved that state of grace last night.

dimanche 19 avril 2009

Gotta a whole lotta work


It's a seasonal thing. Just as the weather improves enough in Seattle to make being outdoors pleasant, my most difficult season begins. Annual reports - can't live with 'em and can't live without them.

The challenge this year is particularly difficult because of the global financial crisis. You have heard of the global financial crisis, haven't you? From an accounting perspective, emergency rules were passed in France. These have to be deciphered and explained. And performances were generally disappointing for my non-public sector clients. These too have to be explained, but using the language of hope.

I may be a "fake" writer and an eejit to boot, but I am still expected to produce actual content under very tight deadlines.