Sunday, October 18, 2009

PowerPoint, a Freudian slip, fairy fears

"R.E.M. Succumbs": so they titled their first videos; for me, I succumbed to my first home-made Power Point presentation yesterday. I gave at an Irish Studies conference up in Northern California a talk on the invention of the concept of "Celtic Buddhism." Needing to make this extremely esoteric topic understandable, I had to sadly jettison Yeats, Joyce, Beckett, and Banville and my lit-crit baggage.

Lightened, I decided to focus the projector on what could be seen by my audience: the visual counterparts to the words and concepts I selected. I edited down first my 15,000-word article from my ongoing research, finished earlier this year. (If I hope soon to expand rather than to contract. Any takers?) 9,000 words for a CD-Rom for the forthcoming proceedings of the "Alternative Spiritualities in Ireland" conference at the National University of Ireland, Maynooth, two weeks hence were sent off-- last week-- to meet their limits.

Then, I revised my 2,800-word, twenty-minute talk, paring off sentences and adding more, trying to keep the sprawling talk within its own boundaries. Shadows lengthened the afternoon after our arrival up North. Days before my paper, I recited to myself over and over, the last time after we descended-- a week after "Fern River" and "Quail Hollow" as I wrote about last week on this blog-- again upon our patient hosts four hundred miles away (this time it took four hours each way with a flight rather than seven by car) in the hills above Santa Cruz.

I talked to the forest and the wind. I felt like a Franciscan; Poverello of Assisi's statue sat silently next to me, steadily peering out of his cowl over neat rocks and patient flowers towards a koi pond. I paced about near him, if out of sight of hosts and spouse, cat and dogs, tv and house, behind a redwood circular wall under a canopy of the same trees on a slope full of welcome shade. I practiced in a delightfully appropriate setting of a hot tub strewn with pine branches and needles across its cover by a recent storm, where their tutelary statue of Buddha had to be moved from its niche to safer ground after the gusts. I kept it in my eye as I walked about the enclosure as if an Irish ringfort or Celtic rath, a bard declaiming to bird and tree my own utterances of ancient wisdom as Samhain neared.

This is demanding work. It's difficult when you must hack out thousands of words sweated over during months of labor. Then, you must re-think the talk as given to people who haven't the slightest idea (unlike Yeats, Joyce, Beckett, or Banville) of whom you're talking about. I find my research often delves into the fringes, off the deep end, from conventional scholarly pursuits. As an outlier myself, I sympathize with past self-taught scholars, misled autodidacts, ignored profs from obscure colleges. What they may have in their own time assembled might, as yesterday proved, inspire good-natured ribbing from later scholars, but it also provides a salutory lesson in humility.

I found that on the first page of my talk, the second slide, I made an impromptu shout-out to an audience I was not sure knew what in blazes I was getting at. Maybe more scholars should do this. Or, perhaps they don't, as their expertise honed at far more conferences and weekly seminars than I can attend on a limited expense budget and a year-round teaching load compares to my own, to my detriment.

Well, do you know what a "lingam" is, off-hand, without looking it up now on Wikipedia in a pop-up tabbed search box on your browser? I figured not everyone might have, but I blurted out that it meant "vagina," rather than "phallus," as many in the spirited audience corrected me instantly. A bit nervous as I was but three minutes into my presentation, not sure if the Power Point remote would work, in a bright room where the slides could not be seen easily, testing my voice against my height and a microphone that refused to let me do other than bend like a giraffe and talk down at it while craning my gaunt neck to keep scanning the crowd for essential eye contact. I mixed up "lingam" with "yoni," as the fact that the passage from the 1894 antiquarian author of "Old Druids and Old Irish Religions" had been discussing immediately after "secret recesses." Freudian slip?

I recovered instantly, shrugging in exaggerated fashion: "Well, they're all connected anyhow." I guess it got a second laugh, or else the first laugh had turned into chortles of derision at my lack of cred, me being after all the outlier barely above "independent scholar," which I do label myself-- if as one "who happens to teach," such is the cognitive dissonance between my academic investigations and the way I earn my daily keep in the classroom. (At least, as my wife noted, I kept my eyes off the Bangladeshi in a sari who sat immediately beneath the podium, every time I enunciated "Hindu" or "India" or "Orientalist." I was too tall to really see her in my line of skewed sight unless I peered down at her, an owl from a perch.)

It's always awkward to face a new crowd and size them up as to what you know vs. what they know. Conferences can be deadly dull, even more than classrooms, when the speaker fails to convert their paper into a true talk. Making the leap for me from text alone to images works this time, but I predict as most of my research relies far less on the actual eye rather than the mind's eye, that my PP'll be deployed sparingly. No endless bullet points, no word-for-word articulation of what every stunned audience member must stare at for the next 58 slides, 12 charts, 10-point font, fourteen-hued pie chart thinly sliced. There's a small grace to reside in the humanities, however poorly treated we are by the number-crunchers for whom I labor.

I read a Jesuit's autobiography long ago. He founded the Legion of Decency against smut in 1930s American movies. This crackdown of the Church against Hollywood's gin molls and original gangstas led to or paralleled the Hays Code 1933-68. This was a book I found neglected, understandably, in high school. We had "spiritual reading" regularly and I was curious about what made a man so rigorous. As you know if you visit this blog, I roam widely and always have in my book choices. Anyway, early on in his scholasticate training, Fr. Daniel Lord suggested, or demanded him being S.J. old school, that if you taught, you should never sit down. I never do when speaking to students. I move around and feel on the days they present (PowerPoint's almost a given for them) the lack of movement in my spine and on the plastic chair.

There, in flourescent rooms amidst the canned-course lesson slides that accompany now most of my classes if not yet all (wait 'til next year), I must use PP for certain lessons for certain courses now and then, but I still feel like I am tethered to them whereas I like to roam and prowl a classroom with marker in hand, podium more as a center to stalk about rather than an anchor to weigh me down. Our classes lack the remote for the PP, so one must be often, as many profs remain to their detriment whether tied to a podium or lashed to a stool, caught behind a console, tapping the keyboard forward.

Me, I like to wander, intellectually and professionally. My magpie's nest, my flotsam and jetsom paper, on the other hand, benefited I trust from the input of my wife and Dr. Bob our host and friend, who kindly accompanied me to the conference session and sat through the other papers: I was the middle speaker. Kara Donnelly from NYU delivered a complementary discussion on Roddy Doyle's story from "The Deportees"-- a Gothic Gaelic tale "The Pram." A Polish nanny, a new fixture in a modern South Dublin far changed from Doyle's native Northside two decades ago, enters an upscale home, fearsomely helmed by a yuppiefied hard-charging mother, to exact the Old Country's slow justice on an Irish woman too caught up in her own power-trip to listen to her family or nurture their love.

This clash foreshadowed my own look at how hyphenated identities in Ireland reveal globalized and localized unease, and encouraged healing by answering venerable longings. Romantics and Victorians may have invented the concept without historical proof; today, people invent the concept and deny they need "historical verification" for their belief system to be constructed in a Foucauldian realm. Mary Wack from Western Washington U. followed with a talk about how a vengeful fairy (in the wake of not the cute Disneyfied wee folk but as we Irish truly know-- my ancestral farm harboring a "fairy fort" I would never dare enter; see Eddie Lenihan's "Meeting the Other Side" and my review on Amazon US if you doubt my caution, for cautionary tales) haunted a Limavady farmer all the way to America to wreak spectral terror.

I pondered with my colleagues briefly afterwards how all three of our talks had delved into Irish culture's fear of, and love of telling each other about, the attraction to the spirits of the Otherworld. Roddy Doyle, Celtic Buddhists real or imagined, and an Ordnance Survey's 1830 recounting of a cottier's report all witness to the Irish fascination with that we cannot hold down, but which we determine to be as real as the space we fill with these words such as I type to you today. We love conjuring up tall tales, mandala fusions, and family spook-stories that speak to very real emotions that reveal even in our material world of today, how much we listen to the voices we cannot see, past, present, and, perhaps tonight for you in your bedroom, the future.

(Photo taken by me on our earlier visit up North, with Buddha in his niche, August '09.)

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