En Guarde

Andrew Alexander Photography.

Andrew Alexander Photography.

Kayla and I ready ourselves to spar, confidently taking stances opposite each other. A few words suffice to quietly introduce the scene, then I resolutely attack, swinging my makeshift sword towards her right shoulder with all the power I can muster. She promptly parries, yet is effectively forced backwards as I bitterly shoot a mock glare at her. For we are no longer Jennifer and Kayla, friends of old, but powerful archenemies, firmly locked into a duel which could ultimately decide the fate of an entire continent.

Gracefully deflecting her returning blow, I spin to the side, lithely swinging down to the right in a move I know Kayla can rarely block. But she quickly sidesteps, narrowly averting the blow with the tip of her sword. I let out a sigh of frustration even as I briefly acknowledge with a nod her skill, and fluidly swing to the side to effortlessly strike once more.

Yet as the battle steadily wears on, I slowly tire, and Kayla gradually begins to seem ubiquitous as her endurance solidly proves its worth. Though I can still neatly sidestep, deflect, or dodge most of her blows, I am now on the defensive, my strikes becoming progressively more timorous as she smoothly attacks with audacious accuracy. My blocks are evanescent now, only momentary barriers.

I back away frantically, in an attempt to gain strength through a pause, but obtain only a fleeting second to rest. Swiftly gathering all of my power, I lunge without warning, aiming to precisely duplicate the force and alacrity of my initial attack. Our swords meet brusquely with a loud crash.

The tension is abruptly severed, and we suddenly burst into friendly laughter, watching the washcloth insulation on the tip of my sword go flying sharply off, gently sailing through the air, and landing lightly in the boughs of a tree a few yards away.

[From a “vivid language assignment” – which I obviously interpreted as “use lots and lots and lots of long adjectives/adverbs!” – for an online English class with Stanford, written in Sept. 2005, age 12.]



Who first conceived of the idea I do not remember, though I think the tent poles were probably my fault. At any rate, my first memories of anything resembling swordfighting date to my good friend R’s [or “Kayla’s”] backyard, and various surrounding parks, where two fantasy-novel-enthralled pre-teens battered away at each other with heavy, rusty, metal tent poles that had been salvaged from my garage, with a couple of segments slotted together to form “swords” about four feet long. They were topped with our mothers’ obligatory safety precaution – padding, in the form of washcloths attached with duct tape to the tips. (This was supposed to prevent us from stabbing each other in the eye. Practically speaking, the washcloths usually flew off in the first few minutes of a fight.)

Now, R and I were both possessed of a certain amount of common sense – and, even at that age, first-aid training: I don’t recall a conversation in which we explicitly said “head/neck strikes are not allowed” – but I also don’t recall either of us ever trying to land a strike above the shoulders. We weren’t trying to hurt seriously each other – we knew quite well that our parents would ban swordfighting practice if that happened! – and we were both quite good at “tapping” or “tagging” each other, rather than swinging a “sword” full force into anyone. And as we both quickly became competent at parrying, successful attacks usually only happened towards the end of a fight.

Nonetheless, we were swinging around heavy metal poles, trying to actually hit each other, so some bruises did inevitably result. After all, we had no training, no protective equipment, no vocabulary to describe different types of attacks or parries, and no knowledge of how parries were even supposed to be done – aside from the obvious fact that if you’d stopped your opponent’s blade from hitting you, something was clearly working.

Anyone with any background in stage combat or risk management is probably cringing in dismay.

I did learn a little bit of stage combat in high school, in drama club over lunch breaks. This was with foam swords, and basically consisted of learning five main attacks and the corresponding parries – conveniently numbered 1 through 5 (idiosyncratic numbering system, though: I’m not sure where the teacher had trained, but her numbering system was consistent neither with FDC, modern fencing, nor any organization I’ve trained with since). And I did, for one memorable assignment in Grade 11 Drama, write, choreograph, and perform a script that included the Macbeth/Macduff duel. (The script was a conversation between Shakespeare and Burbage, set in the middle of a rehearsal of Macbeth. A few liberties with historical casting were taken: Shakespeare, aka me, played Macduff.)

This total lack of serious fight training did not stop the JR Theatre Group from creating a film version of the prologue of The Golden Crown when I was about fifteen: we knew a little bit about film editing, less about cameras, and nothing about lighting, but we nevertheless betook ourselves – armed with storyboards, homemade costumes, swords, pages of written choreography, and handheld digital cameras – to a convenient nearby forest, to film a chapter that revolved almost entirely around a duel between the novel’s primary antagonist, Morcel (played by R – the inevitable result of a theatrical group composed of four girls was that every male character was always cross-gender cast), and his archenemy, the elven swordswoman and sorceress Kerowin (me).

Kerowin - Film still

Screenshot from The Golden Crown: Prologue.

For a couple of kids with no training, it was moderately ambitious – among other things, the filmed choreography includes a contest of strength that ends with R doing a back roll with sword in hand, the two of us duelling while standing a couple metres in the air on a slanted tree trunk, and then me jumping out of said tree and rolling. (Not with sword in hand – I didn’t have a clue how to do that at the time, so I simply threw the sword down, jumped, rolled, and then picked it up afterwards!) I also didn’t know aikido or shoulder rolls at the time, so it’s much closer to a gymnastics dive roll than anything that would pass FDC safety standards. I think our parents were simply glad that no one was injured. But the choreography also lacked sophistication, or any real sense of how a fight would actually go: in retrospect, I set up whole sequences of attack #1-2-5-4-2-3-1-etc. without any consideration for whether that would make sense in a real-life scenario. (Where are the openings? Why is the character making that move?)

It was not until I was seventeen that I first made my first foray into the world of stage combat training for professional actors – via a decidedly backwards route.


Want me to write about archery? I can write about archery …


Full disclosure: despite being an enthusiastic amateur actor, I wasn’t originally looking to use stage combat in the theatre at all. I’d recently finished the first draft of a prequel – Southern Stars – to The Golden Crown, and in the process of writing said draft, had come face to face with the fact that I didn’t really have the first clue how to write a fight scene. (A bit of a problem for a fantasy novellist!) Archery, yes – the scenes where (a much younger) Kerowin and Morcel run around trying to teach themselves how to make and shoot bows and arrows are probably some of the better scenes in that draft, because I was drawing directly on – at the time – some fourteen years of archery background, a lot of relevant memories of childhood escapades, and enough experience teaching beginners to know exactly what mistakes were inevitable. But the moment my characters had to pick up a sword – or, much worse, throw a punch? I was thoroughly out of my depth, relying on vague clichés from other books, and I knew it.

Solution? Well, the logical solution seemed to be straightforward: if I wanted to be able to write a fight scene, then I needed to learn how to fight. Internet research ensued, and the result was an email to the coordinator of the Fight Directors’ Canada National Workshop, asking whether I would be allowed to take the Basic Actor-Combatant course in August – a two-week intensive workshop that covered unarmed, quarterstaff, and single sword. (The website said you were supposed to be eighteen. I was going to be several months shy of that.)

A few emails later – and with the requisite parental permission/signatures acquired – I was officially signed up. A few months later, my mother dropped me off at Concordia University in Montreal, for two weeks dedicated to nothing but fight training, where I quickly discovered how much I didn’t know about stage combat:

a) My fellow participants were, for the most part, professional actors, or professional-actors-in-training at reputable conservatories, and all of them were substantially older than I.

b) Any experience I had pre-FDC involved a sword in my hand. And I had never been in a “real fight”. No playful wrestling, no schoolyard scuffles (homeschooled!), no martial arts classes – nothing. Not surprisingly, unarmed required a much greater learning curve than single sword.

c) Dance background was almost as much of a hindrance as a help: on the one hand, I was used to learning choreography, I was reasonably flexible and not terribly out of shape, and lots of pilés do make holding a fighting stance for long periods of time much easier. On the other hand, in any fighting style (unarmed!) that required ‘getting down and dirty’, I stuck out like a sore thumb: the quality or style of movement required to actually-make-the-audience-believe-that-you’re-in-a-fight-and-getting-hit-and-trying-to-hurt-someone is obviously very different from the graceful, elegant, balletic movement that had prompted so many new acquaintances in my teens to ask  “Do you do ballet, by any chance?” or “By the way, are you a dancer?”

d) When they described it as an “intensive”, they meant it. The basic and intermediate classes were in the studios from 9 until 6 (8:30 until 6 if you wanted time for an individual warm-up before the main group one; practically speaking, due to aforementioned ballet training, I always did want to do my own warmup – one of the reasons I got into the habit of showing up absurdly early for theatre-related things was the necessity of doing my own twenty-minute warmup before any rehearsal, since acting warm-ups never seem to involve anywhere near enough stretching). The advanced students had class in the evenings as well, until 9pm. Our evenings were dedicated to either private practice (I probably did more than five hundred lunges in my bedroom), to homework, to masterclasses, or – later on – to practicing the choreography for the test fights with our fight partners.

e) It was also, of course, incredibly exciting, and way, way too much fun.

When I arrived back in Ottawa (and promptly started first-year university), I was eager to continue training, but quickly ran up against the minor detail that FDC did not offer regular classes in Ottawa – where the theatre scene is much smaller than in Toronto or Montreal. So I managed to get down to Rapier Wit – Canada’s oldest stage combat school – in Toronto for a couple of weekends in the fall, and then signed myself up for fencing lessons through the university.

Starting fencing after stage combat was yet another amusing transition – while I already knew the names of all the parries, attacks, disengagements, and so forth, and while some things (parries) stayed exactly the same, stage combat attacks are generally designed to not actually touch/hit one’s opponent. The adage usually cited is “cut for stage, parry for real” – for example, if the choreography calls for me to do a cut with a rapier to a fight partner’s right shoulder, and for them to parry it, I do the cut in such a way that even if my partner completely forgets to parry, or parries ineffectively, or freezes, forgets the choreography completely,  and stands there blinking, I will not hit them: my blade should always stop 6-12 inches (basic) or perhaps 4-6 inches (intermediate) away from their shoulder.

Needless to say, this does not work in fencing, where if one expects to touch one’s opponent (and thereby score any points!), one must thrust and cut on-line, i.e. actually aiming at the other person.

The other minor detail that I discovered, particularly after switching into the theatre program at the University of Ottawa: I was suddenly one of a reasonably short list of people in the city with any professional training in stage combat. This generally meant that if I was in a show that had fight scenes, the fight director(s) would appoint me as the fight captain – regardless of whether my character actually had to fight or not. (Cordelia, in King Lear, for instance, never picks up a sword onstage. That did not stop me from helping the fight director demonstrate techniques, running broadsword warm-ups and fight calls in a floor-length white gown, or orchestrating a series of handoffs so that the twenty-odd combatants in the final battle could share twelve swords between them.)

As I became more involved in the theatre scene in Ottawa, I discovered that the city did have fight directors around, and very good ones too, which led to the opportunity to tag along and assist with a series of shows, and to keep up my own training with private lessons in new weapon systems, like rapier & dagger, knives, and broadsword. I had every intention of finding a way to get my intermediate & advanced certifications, but it seemed as though I’d need to be in Toronto in order to do that: while going to the FDC Nationals intensive again was a possibility, the next few incarnations were held quite far away from Ottawa – Newfoundland and Alberta, to be precise – and that would have been expensive, especially when there was no guarantee that I would manage to learn everything quickly enough in a two-week intensive to pass. (As you move up the levels with FDC, the number of fights & weapons required for tests also increases – and two weeks is not a long time to acquire all the necessary habits and muscle memory.)

So while I had many good reasons to accept the University of Toronto’s offer of admission to their MA program, this was one that I don’t think anyone in the English department imagined! Pretty much as soon as I arrived in Toronto, I started intermediate classes at Rapier Wit, and since I’d been looking at their weekend firearms courses for a couple of years  without managing to find a date that would let me get down to Toronto, I quickly signed up for those as well.

Intermediate Smallsword

Chauvelin vs. the Scarlet Pimpernel. Intermediate Smallsword.

Oddly enough, I didn’t do a lot of theatre at the University of Toronto – but on the other hand, I’d chosen to put the emphasis for the fall semester firmly on stage combat training, which meant four hours a night for two-to-four nights per week, and effectively precluded performing in (or teching!) evening shows until January. I was also suddenly back to being one of the least experienced/knowledgeable fish in a much larger pond – a position which is a) good for me, b) means I learn more, and c) inspiring.
In January, with Intermediate completed, the five of us from the class then set our sights on doing Advanced the very next year – which led to, among other things, regular group gym sessions in preparation for a certain instructor’s infamously difficult warm-ups. (This is notable only because it’s the only time I’ve ever spent in a gym – between ballet, tap, jazz, archery, swimming, canoeing, figure skating, and backpacking, “exercise” has never been something I’ve bothered making separate time for!)

But while everyone else did indeed take Advanced the next fall, I moved to Oxford. And back into a student theatre scene with even less awareness of stage combat training than Ottawa’s – there aren’t many professional fight directors in Ottawa, but they do exist (and unsurprisingly, end up working on a lot of shows as a result!) and directors – as a general rule – were used to working with a fight director, knew when they needed to employ one, knew to listen to said fight director, knew that fight calls needed to happen, and didn’t do silly things like telling the actors to ‘just slap each other – it’ll be fine’.

Oxford has no resident stage combat instructors or directors that I’ve been able to find in two years of diligent searching. If a student show wants to employ one, they’re paying travel expenses (and perhaps accommodation) for someone to come from London. Which is not easy for regular rehearsals, or for student budgets.

On my first show in Oxford, however, for which I was assistant stage manager, an actor went to A&E (emergency room). The character needed to walk onstage and pretend to slip and fall. No one thought about trying to choreograph this, or teaching the actor how to do a stage fall, or anything … until we got to the scene in tech, about 36 hours before the show opened. That is the wrong time to try to teach a (physically uncoordinated, unfortunately) actor with no background in stage combat how to do a front fall. It is equally the wrong time for the director to be insisting that the actor can just hurl themselves at the floor face-first and they’ll be fine. (Or for the director to be insisting that yes, it absolutely has to be a front fall – not a side fall, or a back fall, or anything normally teachable to uncoordinated beginners.)

Long story short, hurling yourself at a hard floor repeatedly is in fact a bad idea, and led to this particular actor thinking he’d managed to dislocate his elbow – hence the trip to emergency. (It wasn’t dislocated – merely badly bruised – but the point stands.)

Thus began what became a bit of a one-woman crusade to fix or at least drastically alter the Oxford student approach to stage combat – and instill a few principles that had seemed obvious to me but were mostly unheard of when I arrived: If you’re doing a fight scene, you need a trained fight choreographer. You need to teach your actors choreography, use proper techniques, tailor it to their physical abilities (i.e. don’t give them things they can’t do safely!), and rehearse your fight slowly in advance, gradually building up speed, so that when it comes time to perform the show, your actors have been doing the movements for weeks, know them inside out and backwards, and can convincingly act and sell the scene while remaining in complete control.

Somewhat as a result, I’ve ended up doing a lot of fight choreography while in Oxford. At the two largest student venues, I’ve been the fight choreographer for almost every student show that’s needed one for the last year and a half. It’s an imperfect solution – I’m very much aware that (with my Intermediate) I’m not a certified Fight Director or Instructor, and in the interests of not misrepresenting myself have thus had to start many, many conversations with this information: ‘So, I’m not a certified fight director – I only have my Intermediate Actor-Combatant – but … [insert advice here]’. In most cases, though, it’s been quite clear that if I don’t try to teach the actors, the director (with no background in stage combat) will do it themselves. Which has, quite literally, led to things like people getting punched in the face hard enough to knock them out mid-performance. (I was not working on that show.) In a few cases, where what the director or production team wants is clearly beyond what I’m comfortable teaching, I have said ‘You need to hire a professional – I can’t be responsible for teaching or supervising that’ , but in the main, it’s been simple stuff – straight out of the basic unarmed or basic single sword playbook: The Effect (unarmed), King Lear (unarmed & knives), Living Together (unarmed), His Dark Materials: Part II (unarmed & knives), Hamlet (smallsword), Pentecost (unarmed & blank firing gun), The Three Musketeers (smallsword), RENT (unarmed & found weapons), The Arbor (knives), Richard II (unarmed & broadsword), Twelfth Night (smallsword)

And I’d like to think that as a result of insisting on them, over and over and over again, some of the underlying principles have become more widely known: when a show needs a fight choreographer, how to work productively with one, straightforward things that productions can do to help keep their actors safe.

Regan takes out Gloucester's eye - King Lear.

Regan removes Gloucester’s eye with a fork – King Lear.

I’d also like to think that shows have been able to realize more interesting and complex and dramatic fight scenes as a result. Certainly I’ve done work that I’ve been proud to see onstage. For The Three Musketeers (and Hamlet), we brought an instructor from London for a week before term started, and ran a intensive smallsword certification course under the BASSC for most of the cast. They – and the stage manager – passed their fight performance test, and thus had professional, industry-recognized certification before we even started choreography or rehearsals proper. Philip Pullman specifically complemented the fight scenes in His Dark Materials: Part II. The actors in King Lear and RENT and Richard II rose magnificently to the challenges they were given.

Photograph by Dan Grimwood.

Photographs by Dan Grimwood.

The Three Musketeers. Photography by Dan Grimwood.

Most recently, working on The Ruby in the Smoke (a world premiere theatrical adaptation of Philip Pullman’s novel of the same name) has been a joy. Perhaps partly because the director, one of the actors, and the lighting designer all have existing basic certification, I’ve not had to expend any energy at all explaining (or having to continually argue for) how the process should work, but have simply been able to get on with creating the fights with the actors. And at least in my biased opinion, they’ve done a very good job.

Ruby in the Smoke - rehearsals

Fight rehearsal for The Ruby in the Smoke

So while I still need to work out how to get my Advanced certification while in the wrong country, that hasn’t stopped the fun, the challenges, or the fight scenes!

Jennifer at the Hackathon

(or: the lengths to which I will go to write an article)


So, there is a reason why I’ve looked pretty sleep-deprived for most of the last week: I spent last weekend surviving on caffeine, ice cream, and pizza, at the University of Toronto Computer Science Student Union’s first annual thirty-six hour hackathon.


…. Wait, what?


First confession: I know practically nothing about computer science. Second confession: when the science editor of The Varsity drafted me to write about CSSU’s coding marathon, I was more than a little skeptical.


I mean, let’s be honest. I can handle math; I can handle physics; I can handle chemistry. I’ll happily answer questions on Riemannian manifolds and the Hamiltonian operator, and I’m not overly fond of biology, but if you hand me a textbook to memorize, I manage just fine. But programming??? The only programming languages I know anything about are HTML, CSS, and Python – and when I say I know “something” about Python, I mean I know how to get IDLE (= the shell you write stuff in) running, and how to make it print “Hello world” and do basic arithmetic. I’ve never taken a computer science course in my life, despite the fact that my mother has told me more times than I can count that it would be fun and I’d probably enjoy it. (Her reasoning went along the lines that she was good at math and consequently liked programming; I was good at math; therefore it was probable that I would like programming. Or something like that. The last time my mother programmed a computer was also back in the days when Cobol and punch cards were still a thing.)


Third confession: my mother was right, and computer science is actually really cool, even if it took  thirty-six hours of almost no sleep for me to realize this, and even if I still only know ever-so-slightly-more-than-nothing about it.


So, in no particular order, a few highlights from the weekend:


– Explaining to my aunt that a “hackathon” does not involve illegal hacking

– One hacker doing his level best to convince me that Linux was much better than Apple, complete with demonstrations – at 2:15 AM

– An introduction to Puppet (= tool for managing the configuration of certain types of systems), at 2:30 AM

– Perching on a bench on the second floor of the Engineering building at 2:15 AM the next day madly writing down notes, because the recorder on my cell phone had run out of space half way through the interview I’d just done

– Finally figuring out what “API” meant and what the difference between “frontend” and “backend” was

– All the projects designed to improve University of Toronto’s registration system, ROSI, which is apparently as notorious as the University of Ottawa’s Rabaska

– Every coder who nonchalantly mentioned that they had to learn a new programming language or two in the first two hours of the event in order to work on their project

– Hand to ASL: the app to recognize and interpret sign language

– Webkin: the project that used a Microsoft Kinect to let you make a webpage by simply standing in front of a voice and motion sensor, saying what you wanted on the page, and then pointing to where you wanted it

– The talk on legal aspects of creating a new start-up

– The raffles at 2 AM and 4:30 AM and other insane hours of the night, and the fact that almost everyone was still awake and attended these

– Unlimited free ice cream at 4 AM

– One of the organizers: “We got over 600 cans of Red Bull and there were none left this morning”

– The approximately seven hours of judging and final presentations

– All of the organizers who welcomed me, introduced me to people, and answered my (at times) rather clueless questions

– Every single participant who not only had a brilliantly creative idea, but was willing to take the time to explain it in a way that an English student could understand how it was designed and how it was going to work

– The moment the science editor assured me that no, I didn’t have to stick to the 500-word limit she had originally suggested



** There is a reason I got away with doing this – my research proposal for graduate school grant applications is in a state that I am moderately happy with, hence my ability to take the weekend off as a break from research.  Post on those applications is coming soon, I swear. **

“The Pleasure of Finding Things Out”


Toronto International Film Festival. Chess Club. Memorizing paradigms. Carmen. Rapier Wit. Auditions. Physics Colloquium. Robarts. Gerstein. Teaching Fundamentals Certification. HH Chamber Strings. Copyediting. Translation assignments. Archery Club. The Mythgard Institute. Astronomy and Space Exploration Society. SSHRC and PhD applications. Quizbowl.

Free time???

I’m borrowing the title of this post from a Richard Feynman book because it really is a good phrase to describe my first two weeks in Toronto! I’ll get back to books, language, and science shortly, but since I haven’t written anything about Toronto yet and I’ve been doing a lot of exploring, I’m going to hit a few of the highlights:

Free Food

What can I say? Every student organization at this university has concluded that it is impossible to hold an orientation or a welcome without giving out free food. Grad House had a barbeque the night I arrived, the Graduate Student Union hosted a barbeque the next night, and the Graduate English Association has hosted more receptions than I can count. The Graduate English Association also seems to operate on the principle that no meeting is complete without visiting a pub afterwards and distributing free beer. (I say “free” … I am sure it’s included in my student fees somehow.) Grad House also hosts weekly coffee nights, and though 9 pm is much too late for coffee as far as I’m concerned, the cupcakes are delicious.

Grad House

The graduate student residence is lovely – I seem to have won a room on the Floor of Sepulchral Silence. This has a number of distinct advantages, the foremost being that I can study quite contentedly in my room if I don’t feel like walking to one of the libraries or to my individual study carrel in the English building. My suitemates are possibly quieter than me, if such a thing is possible! For violin, piano, vocal, and monologue practices, there is a music room in the basement, which has a well-tuned piano, sound-proof walls, and has been free every time I’ve stopped by. The subway is a very short walk; the bank is across the street; the library is next door; and there’s a grocery store within a block. Also, a ten-minute walk will put me in Chinatown, where there are a couple of fabulous inexpensive bakeries.

And for someone who’s used to getting up at 6:30 am to commute to 8:30 am classes, the five-minute walk to the Jackman Humanities Building is definitely a luxury!

On Stage: Carmen and Rapier Wit

About a month and a half ago, an audition notice went out for dancers and extra performers in a production of Carmen that just finished playing in Ottawa at the National Arts Centre (Opera Lyra). I had to talk myself out of auditioning, and I’m sorry to have missed it, because quite a few of my friends ended up performing! Last Friday, however, I did make it out to the ‘Buddies in Bad Times’ theatre here in Toronto, to see their production of Carmen. There were some stellar performances from the leads, and the most interesting thing about the production, for me, was the director’s choice to set the production in post-WWI New York City, explaining Don José’s erratic and violent behaviour as a consequence of post-traumatic stress disorder.

My own theatrical endeavours have also begun – I’m doing my next level of stage combat certification with Fight Directors Canada, so Tuesday nights I do two hours of unarmed martial arts followed by two hours of broadsword, and Wednesday nights are two hours of smallsword followed by two hours of rapier and dagger. Rapier and dagger is one of my personal favourites (two blades equals twice as much mental gymnastics equals twice as much fun), but I’m also a big fan of smallsword, because it requires so much precision. Smallsword is also the one weapon where I can keep switching hands – I’ve made a point of learning to be ambidextrous when it comes to stage combat, but whether you’re right- or left-handed doesn’t really matter for broadsword or rapier and dagger, since you automatically use both hands anyways.

About a third of Tuesday’s class was dedicated to obstacle rolls, which was a great refresher – it’s a lovely technique to be able to pull out of your back pocket on set, or on stage, mostly because sporadically dive-rolling over a hospital bed dodging bullets, or picking up a rapier mid-roll, or rolling over a table with a quarterstaff in hand … well, just simply looks awesome. It’s also a technique that I’ve had to spend quite a bit of time practicing over the last few years, because when I was first introduced to unarmed stage combat techniques in Montreal back in 2010, I’d never done an aikido roll in my life – I didn’t even know what one was.

I’ve also had a few auditions , and though I won’t hear anything definite for a few days yet, it was good to dust off some of my monologues from the spring and play with them again.

The Physics Colloquium

The University of Toronto’s physics department has a weekly colloquium on Thursday afternoons, where invited speakers from all over North America give a one-hour talk on some aspect of their current research, followed by a time for questions and discussion. Last week’s presentation was by Jim Sethna, of Cornell University, and concerned the mathematical methods that scientists use to model reactions in systems biology. It was a cool presentation for a number of reasons – one, his research draws on fields that normally don’t talk to each other much (using differential geometry and geodesics and hyper-ribbons to work out problems in cell biology); and two, the mathematical results are beautiful.

He and his team have been looking at a long sequence of protein reactions (it’s not just a single sequence – there are two secondary pathways and a feedback loop thrown in as well, but for simplicity’s sake, it’s a series of reactions that results in the production of a certain amount of a new protein). Theoretically, in order to create a model that would accurately describe the results, they would have to account for forty-eight different independent parametres; when you actually look at the equations, this works out to a system of twenty-nine (non-linear, of course, everything interesting has to be modelled by a non-linear equation!) differential equations. It’s impossible to find these individual parametres with any degree of accuracy – the most accurate ones vary by a factor of fifty, and the least accurate can vary by factors of almost a million.

However, it turns out that certain combinations of parametres affect possible predictions more than other combinations of parametres. One of Professor Sethna’s recent students, Mark Transtrum, worked out a way (which makes perfect mathematical sense, but does require a decent knowledge of differential geometry to understand, so I won’t go into depth here – for details, the department posts recordings of all of their colloquia online*) to figure out which combinations of parametres were “stiff”, and which ones were “sloppy” – in other words, which parametres could be effectively discarded while maintaining a model that fit the experimental data as well as the original model. A conceptually parallel approach, known as renormalization, has been actually used in quantum field theory since the 1940s.

Bottom line is that instead of a system of twenty-nine non-linear differential equations with forty-eight parametres, it becomes a system of six differential equations with twelve parametres (AKA it is, in fact, possible to solve!) and the new model still makes highly accurate predictions about the amounts of the different proteins that are produced.

This week’s colloquium – and yes, it’s definitely in my calendar – is entitled “The Lunar Surface: A Dusty Plasma Laboratory”, and will include an update on the status of the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer mission, which was just launched on September 9th.

The Varsity

I used to copyedit and (very occasionally) write for the University of Ottawa’s student newspaper, The Fulcrum, so over the summer I did a little research on U of T’s journalism scene, and sent off an email to the senior copyeditor of The Varsity, which has been published since 1880 and therefore is apparently the second-oldest student newspaper in Canada. Saturday and Sunday afternoons, therefore, have been spent with pen and highlighter in hand – correcting spelling errors, changing awkward wording, and adding the missing Oxford commas.

I’ll also be writing for the science section in a few upcoming papers – I had already purchased tickets to the inaugural Toronto Science Festival, coming up at the end of the month and featuring a keynote talk by astronaut Julie Payette, so I’ll be covering that, and apparently I’ve also been volun(told) to write a couple of other articles.


I play academic trivia because it’s a great deal of fun, it’s a good way to meet awesome people, and it’s a guaranteed way to learn quirky, interesting, or simply bizarre random facts – not because I’ve ever been exceptionally good at it. However, I thoroughly approve of question packs that allow me to power questions on Tolkien’s obscure works and minor characters in Carmen, and then have bonus questions on both a) founder of structural linguistics Ferdinand de Saussure and b) black holes, event horizons, and the work of Jacob Bekenstein and Stephen Hawking on the “no hair” theorem. (Packs that include both Tolkien and black holes are pretty rare!)

Oh, Yes, Classes …

Lest everyone now think that Jen is spending all her time in Toronto taking in the sights and running around to various extracurriculars without doing any work, I should probably mention that everything I’ve talked about thus far is what I’ve been doing in my, er, free time, and that the majority of the hours of any given day have actually been spent buried in books, translations, and linguistic paradigms.

I have three classes this semester, and the highlight of the entire week was a guest lecture in my Old English course, given by Professor Andy Orchard. Prof. Orchard has taught at the University of Toronto for years, but is leaving to take up the Bosworth and Rawlinson Professorship of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford – the post that Tolkien once held, and arguably the single most prestigious position in the field. He’s an excellent lecturer, and it was really quite exciting to meet him in person after having read far more of his books than I should probably admit to.

My other classes are Old Norse (we’re currently translating selections from the Prose Edda), and Critical Topographies, which is common to all English MA students at the University of Toronto and charts developments in literary theory. It’s quite similar to the critical theory course I took as an undergrad, but with about twice as much reading. I have already read about half of the reading on the course syllabus, thanks to previous work, so for those who have accused me of starting to write final essays on the day the assignment is given out … in the case of Critical Topographies, I must confess the accusation to be justified. And in the case of Old English, I have no final essay, but over the last couple of days I’ve finished the weekly translation assignments through until almost the end of October; I can claim no such diligence in Old Norse, though, mostly because I don’t know it nearly as well!

The other major project I have underway is my research proposal for PhD applications – but that’s going to have to be a separate post, because it’s almost midnight.

… and because I’m both a Tolkien nerd and an Old English nerd, I have to close, at least once, with the following:

Wes þú hál!


The Books I Can’t Live Without?


I move to Toronto tomorrow morning. So instead of doing something practical, like rushing around like the proverbial headless chicken wondering what I have forgotten to pack, I’m writing a blog post about books.

There are all sorts of things that I’m terribly excited for when I get to Toronto. The program, the classes I’m taking, the professors, the library resources, living next door to “Fort Book,” the theatre scene (and the three auditions I have lined up for my first week!), the discounted student tickets to the National Ballet, stage combat classes, the fact that the athletic centre is right across the street …

But when I accepted my offer of residence at Grad House, there was one thing I was definitely not looking forward to: sorting through my books. If you’ve ever been to my house, you know that the basement is home to a 4,000-tome family library, and that’s not including any of my father’s books (roughly another 4,000 volumes, split between his study at home and his study at work). Upstairs, I have six full bookcases of my own, including a large one that takes up most of the closest – when forced to choose between removing two-thirds of my clothes and letting the myriad unshelved books take over the floor in ungainly heaps, I opted for ditching the clothes.

And honestly, that is pretty standard for me. I am a fairly uncomplicated nerd in many ways. When I go on vacation, I always come back with a stack of new books, because I always run out of things to read – even if it’s only a three-day trip. I have never been known to splurge on handbags or heels, but when armed with a debit card, it is a dangerous thing to send me into a bookstore unaccompanied or without a budget – especially a really good used bookstore, like the one I discovered in Vancouver this summer. And when, a couple months ago, a friend asked me what I would do with a million dollars, my answer was straightforward: order a hard copy of the Oxford English Dictionary (20 volumes, $1,000), go to Oxford for my doctorate ($150,000), buy some more books, and put the rest of the money in the bank.


At Grad House there will be only one small bookcase in my room, and bringing additional furniture, aka more bookcases, is strictly forbidden.

Drastic measures have been required. Ruthless sessions of sorting have been followed by adding just one more back onto the pile … and one more … and one more … followed by more ruthless sessions of sorting.

But the six bookcases taking up all available wall space in my room have been whittled down to just over fifty volumes, which fit in two small crates, and generally fall into one or both of the following categories:

– The first, and largest, category is for books that are directly related to my studies (Old English textbooks, E.V. Gordon’s Introduction to Old Norse, various editions of Beowulf, the complete Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records, the Prose Edda, the Poetic Edda, and quite a few others).

– The second category is for books I have decided I do not wish to live without. The Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records fit into this category quite nicely as well – there are really quite a few books from category one that also belong in category two – but this is really the category for stuff like the Complete Works of William Shakespeare, the Complete Sherlock Holmes, Watership Down, and The Silmarillion. 

What’s most interesting about the second category is not only what I’ve included – which might be a totally different set of books if I was posed the same question ten years from now – but what has been left on the shelves. There are, for instance, virtually no fantasy books other than Tolkien’s in the pile for Toronto. When push came to shove, only Tolkien and Eddings made the cut. And three-quarters of my (many) Tolkien-related books are still on the shelves, including most volumes of the History of Middle-Earth – except The Book of Lost Tales, Part 2, and Lays of Beleriand, which did make it into the crates for Toronto.

Most of the Great Books of the Western World series will be left behind – as much as I’d like to have Newton’s Principia Mathematica handy, I won’t use it regularly, and somehow I’m pretty sure Robarts Library has a copy if I really want one. (Actually, I know they do, because I just looked it up … not only do they have translations in abundance, they have original copies in the Rare Book library. I may be geeking out about that one.)

Most of my dictionaries have been left behind. Only Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged is coming; all the books on Latin and Greek word roots are not. Neither is the Etymological Dictionary of Modern English, nor Bioscientific Terminology, nor the Rhyming Dictionary, nor the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, nor the Finnish, Spanish, French, or Latin dictionaries that usually sit right beside my bed – again, either I can access an equivalent online, or I’ll just have to walk the two hundred metres from residence to the library.

Which is the most amusing part of the whole problem, for me. Not only am I going to be living right beside the main library of the University of Toronto, which has one of the largest library systems in North America, two of the largest branches of the Toronto Public Library are within walking distance.

Whatever books I am taking, therefore, are the books that I want to have within arm’s reach.


Quite probably, but still – here’s the list:

Category 1:

1. Beowulf (bilingual edition, trans. Seamus Heaney)

2. Beowulf (bilingual edition, trans. Howell D. Chickering)

3. A Choice of Anglo-Saxon Verse

4. Old English Shorter Poems

5. The History of the Kings of Britain (Geoffrey Monmouth)

6. Morte Darthur (Thomas Malory)

7. Arthurian Romances (Chretien de Troyes)

8. The Sagas of Icelanders

9. The Saga of the Volsungs

10. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

11. The Monsters and the Critics and other essays (J.R.R. Tolkien and in category two, but it definitely belongs here as well)

12. The Prose Edda

13. The Poetic Edda

14. An Introduction to Old Norse (E.V. Gordon)

15. An Old High German Primer (Joseph Wright)

16. A Primer of the Gothic Language (Joseph Wright)

17. The Canterbury Tales (Geoffrey Chaucer)

18. Word-hoard: an Introduction to Old English Vocabulary (Stephen A. Barney)

19. A Guide to Old English (Mitchell and Robinson)

20. Medieval Latin (ed. K.P. Harrington)

21. Wheelock’s Latin

22. The Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records (6 volumes)

23. The Norton Anthology of English Literature (6 volumes)

24. Paradise Lost (John Milton)

Category 2:

25. The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Arden edition)

26. The Complete Sherlock Holmes (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle)

27. The Silmarillion (J.R.R. Tolkien)

28. The Hobbit (J.R.R. Tolkien)

29. The Lord of the Rings (3 volumes) (J.R.R. Tolkien)

30. The Book of Lost Tales, Part 2 (J.R.R. Tolkien)

31. Lays of Beleriand (J.R.R. Tolkien)

32. Polgara the Sorceress (David Eddings)

33. Watership Down (Richard Adams)

34. The Three Musketeers (Alexandre Dumas)

35. Mara, Daughter of the Nile (Eloise Jarvis McGraw)

36. A Conneticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (Mark Twain)

37. Linear Algebra (Nicholson)

38. Quantum Mechanics (Scherrer)

39. Modern Physics (Serway, Moses, and Moyer)

40. The Singer’s Musical Theatre Anthology (soprano, 3 volumes)

41. The Bibliophile’s Dictionary (Miles Westley)