Privilege for $200

It’s been a while since I’ve reflected on my experiences in my MFA program. One very significant figure, whom I’ve discussed in previous posts, was Professor Joseph K, who served as my early mentor, friend, boss, and later silent tormentor. This post is Part 21 of If You Want To Go To Grad School.

We’re at a party early on for the University’s MFA program and I mention working with Professor Joseph K. You ask me what he’s like and I’ll try to give you a sound byte answer. After all, this is a party, and the conversation’s not supposed to be too deep. So, here’s what I say: Joe’s a good guy and I work very well with him. I also enjoy his workshops a lot.

My answer would change much later, as I was only one year into my academic and professional relationship with Professor K. Being his secretary didn’t pay much, but I liked it better than working in the supermarket. There, I was paid better and I had benefits, but with Joe, I had keys to the mail room and his office, and I had a code for the English Department copier. I had a place to hang my coat, to read, to study, and even to write. I even had my own desk so I wouldn’t use his. What I had lost in practical terms, I gained in privilege. Which is essentially the case with anyone who goes into something arts or humanities related. I also harbored great hopes that my association with Joe would benefit me in the future. Perhaps I would become an editor or a professor, or even an editor-professor like Joe.

Continue reading “Privilege for $200”

Lessons Learned At Warp 10

Going with the Star Trek metaphor in “Set A Course For Earth,” the ride at Warp 10 hasn’t been a fun one. I’ve wondered if there would be enough plasma in the warp drive and if the dilithium would last for the duration of the trip. I’ve had my dealings with life’s Romulans and Borg. Now it feels like I’m within a few parsecs of Earth, but not quite there yet. Between 40 Eridani and Procyon is where I am now.

Of course, the real life details are much more mundane and less fun. Here are some lessons I’ve learned in the past few months.

Communication is something I’ve been learning. Ironically, for someone who majored in English and Creative Writing, my ability to communicate was nil. I could conveniently blame this on a bad childhood or being an introvert, but my childhood’s long been over and social skills, though it may take more work for some, can be developed. My mother certainly tried to teach me that I shouldn’t just let people come to me if I wanted to articulate something, but that I should go to them. If someone takes the time to ask the questions, great; however, I should speak up for myself and make my needs known.

In approaching the various community colleges in San Diego County for courses in the fall, I had to approach the English department chairs or the professor in charge of hiring. No one is going to search through the list of people who possess English MA’s or PhD’s and ask them if they want to work for their schools. One is crazy to think that a school may hand a full time job to them as an entitlement for earning a post-baccalaureate degree. I’ve had to communicate with these people and keep in touch with them so I get assignments when they are available. My silence would certainly lower my prospects and would definitely not serve me well in the long run, especially when I want to apply to a full-time position.

If I had better communication skills when I ran the labor union’s mailroom, I would still have the job. I didn’t know what was expected of me because I didn’t ask, and I got the axe in the end. At times I felt bullied by some people (the accountant, my boss, and a couple of organizers), and this would not have happened if I stood up for myself. Speaking up for myself when I feel like I’ve been unfairly treated is a form of communication I’ll use in the future. Getting walked on is a failure to communicate (and the memory of it is enough for me not to let it happen in the future).

I’ve also been learning to listen in the past few months. I’ve never really been a good listener, and it’s amazing that I have even achieved mastery in the English language along with learning French and Spanish. Perhaps this is the reason why I don’t speak Japanese very well. It is a language where one needs to listen to the context and respond in kind. This is very important when something isn’t stated directly. However, when things are stated directly in any language, it is important to listen.

The ability to listen to criticism and grow from it is an important one. As a writer, I’ve learned how to handle criticism, especially when it seems like the critic ripped my work to shreds. A manuscript’s draft, especially in the early stages, is far from perfect and an outside evaluation is helpful. I may or may not agree with what someone said about my text, but if that person took the time to read the work and give their observations, then it would serve me well to listen to what they have to say. The same goes for hearing what someone says to me about me.

I could take someone’s observations about me as an attack on me or grow from it. In the past, I would have taken it as a tear down and feel like there wasn’t much I could do to change it (or that the person was mean when the comment wasn’t cruel at all). Yesterday, my class at the language center was off to a less than perfect start, and the director had a talk with me about the student’s comments about me. I listened to what he had to say, took it as an opportunity to address my weaknesses that day, and made my lessons this morning a better experience for my students. I took it as an opportunity to grow, not as an indictment of failure.

In a situation where someone does or says something that is unfair, I should still take the time to listen to what this person says or does. My response (speaking or standing up for myself) will demonstrate that I have heard what they have to say and that it is not the right way to go about what they really need to say.

This will sound redundant, but I have been learning to learn. As someone who has spent too much time in college and graduate school, it has been easy to portray myself as a man of learning, but real learning doesn’t always get you an A or a degree. Instead, it comes from communicating, listening, and taking action. In communicating with others, I send forth my statements and questions, and in turn I receive responses and further questions. One can communicate all they want, but listening is a key component. In order to synthesize information or experience, taking time to observe is necessary. Ultimately, the risk of doing is necessary to learn. By communicating and listening, I am learning how to do these things. In the past, I may taught my students that learning isn’t passive, but it’s certainly taken me a while to learn that myself. It is an active and ongoing process.

Now, Alpha Centauri doesn’t seem so far away. And then it’s a parsec or so en route to Earth.

If You Want To Go To Graduate School (Part 19)

Last time in this series, I discussed my own 9/11 craziness and explored Professor Joseph K’s “Madness in Literature” course. It’s been a while since I’ve written any installments for this series, so here’s a link to the introduction if you want to read up. This latest entry is the story of a friend I met in the program.

Liza Radley
If any of my MFA experiences were like Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories or Cabaret, then Liza Radley was my Sally Bowles. She had that classic gamine appeal, somewhere between Audrey Hepburn and Liza Minelli*. Artsy and free spirited without having the affected persona that often accompanies those traits, Liza commanded attention nonetheless. Though small in stature, she was outgoing, openly passionate, and loudly opinionated, which made her a memorable presence as a poet.

I met Liza at the first or second week mixer for new MFA’s. It is difficult to remember everything about someone at those meetings. I also met her on the bus ride home from one of my fiction workshops and on a bus evacuation of the campus during 9/11, but neither of those meetings had much impact on me. Even though she was never my girlfriend, a date had the most impact on me in getting to know her as my friend. Since Liza was new to town, she often took new friends to Hipps, a notorious drag queen nightclub was in the district where she lived. Somewhere between my time at Professor K. office doing journal work and her time at the poetry journal office, we agreed to meet at Hipps at the end of the week. I put on my favorite iridescent shirt and boots, while Liza showed up in a simple red chemise. Oddly, some blonde women who looked like they were from the more conservative eastern part of the county thought Liza was a drag queen. We both found that perception strange and amusing, and something about conspiratorially watching the drag queens humiliate selected patrons was fun. After Hipps had its run, we went down to a British styled pub, where Liza flirted with an Irish bartender who knew nothing of Seamus Heaney. At the end of the night and our drinks, we walked arm and arm for a couple of more blocks and crashed at her apartment. We had breakfast at a Russian restaurant a block north of her place, which was good for our hangovers.

I soon started to hang out with Liza and Alexandra, a gifted, but conservative poet who pursued having a close friendship with Liza. Occasionally in the orbit of the Liza/Alexandra nucleus were Brandon, the mid-western surfer poet who sounded had more of a southern California accent than I, and Gabriel, a textbook Gen-X type who always had something sarcastic to say about everyone. There were a few times where Alexandra, Brandon, Gabriel, and I hung out and played cards and drank lots of red wine. Then there was the time where we went to Monster Trucks at the stadium. Liza made spontaneous plans to go to to the event and got Alexandra and Gabriel on board. I got the message late, so I bought a ticket from a scalper and tried to find them once there. If I had a cell phone, locating them would have been easy. However, I spent an hour canvassing a few levels, and finally met my friends by chance. I described it as a “happy accident,” which Gabriel would make fun of for a while. That night, I also met Topher, her on and off boyfriend of the past few years who would become central to the drama of her life in the next year.

Before Topher was back in her life, she dated a nerdy guy from the Essay Composition department. I don’t remember if I’ve met him on any outings, but I do remember hanging out with him for a bit at the Halloween party at her boyfriend’s house. Liza wore a small, tight black dress, a cowboy hat and boots, transforming the outfit with spiderwebs and Arachne on her skin, done with eyeliner. My skirt was longer, of course. I had a Chinaman’s cheongsam and I wore that. Some other people, such as Brandon dressed up as an Australian outbacker and Gabriel in a priest’s outfit, were present. There was one guy, Hosea, whose form-fitting skeleton costume highlighted the shape of his ass, which I kept looking at throughout the entire party. For a while afterwards, I would refer to him having a nice ass if I couldn’t or didn’t want to remember his name. Liza and her boyfriend retreated at one point from the party to his room, where they had loud sex that could be heard by everyone in the living room. They would date for a short while more, though the Halloween party is the last time I can concretely remember them being together.

Since Brandon and I were quick friends and we were in the “Teaching Composition” course together, we would often talk about our mutual crush on Liza Radley. Mine was the gay man’s type, which doesn’t go anywhere and is often expressed in an admiration and friendship, while Brandon’s was very strong. Of course, I had an attraction to Brandon, making this a “bizarre love triange” of sorts.

After the Christmas break, with Liza Radley, Brandon, and Alexandra back in town, there was a small get-together. I met up with Liza, Alexandra, and Gabriel at a Japanese restaurant for dinner and the party later moved to Liza’s apartment with card playing, conversation, and copious amounts of red wine. Brandon crashed the party, drank wine out of a Pyrex measuring cup, and took his shirt off and gave me a lapdance while I commented on how sexy he was. When the party was over, Alexandra went home and I got a ride with Gabriel. However, Brandon remained, and then it would be a story of he said/she said.

to be continued…

*Liza Minelli’s portrayal of Sally Bowles in Cabaret.

If You Want To Go To Graduate School (Part 18)

In the last few posts, I have explored the week of September 11. Now, I’ll go back earlier in the year to discuss Professor Joseph K’s Madness in Literature seminar.

While Joe’s fiction workshop was small (approx. 11 people), his graduate literature seminar had close to twenty. While the workshop had MFA creative writing students and MFA hopefuls, the seminar had MFA students and MA English students. This would give me my first taste of the dichotomies that existed within the English graduate study programs at the University.

I have heard about the divide between the fiction and poetry, but it was only hearsay at this point. Poets were those people who could not string enough sentences together to tell a story, while writers lacked the lyrical talent necessary to compose a poem. At least that was what the two camps would tell themselves. Faculty of both disciplines fed into this rivalry. Lana Zhang, the celebrated poet published by a major literary press, definitely favored the poetry students. The poets, encouraged by her, banded together to protect their territory from the doggerel writing fiction writers. It often shocked the poets when a storywriter or novelist actually turned out excellent verse, better than anything they hoped to write. And the fiction writers, no doubt, resented the prejudice. Joe, while he denounced this attitude, perpetuated it in his Madness in Literature course.

Joe, of course, favored the MFA students. While I was not yet a graduate student, I fell under this category. Most of the MFA’s were on friendly terms with him. Some were readers for the journal; others were devoted followers. I can’t remember a single creative writing student in the class that disliked or distrusted him at the time, though that would change later. We were all appreciative of his unorthodox approach to literature, looking outside of the canon to find voices of the subversive and the marginalized. I suspect many were drawn to taking the class because they wouldn’t have a serious term paper to write. He had his students do a presentation on one of the books covered in class and a final presentation on one of the themes of Madness in Literature. Also, he required a journal to be kept on all of the reading, turned in during the final week of class.

Since Madness in Literature’s course number was one for literature, not creative writing, there were many MA’s enrolled in the class. Perhaps they did not realize what they were getting into. Some may have known Joe’s reputation, but decided to take the course anyway. And, a few others seemed to have an affinity with Joe.

I have always suspected that being in academia is some kind of game, and the most successful students may not necessarily be the brightest, but ones who know how to play they game. They know the language and how to use the clichés. Oh, the term is jargon. The MA students, no doubt, spoke fluent academese and were accustomed to praise from their professors. Many MFA’s, on the other hand, adopted a different kind of game plan. Many of them gravitated towards writing for the love of the craft, but praise may have been rare from the literature professors. They, for the most part, weren’t aspiring literary critics. The creative writing faculty may have provided some kind or refuge from critical and theoretical nature of literary study. And the MFA program had a language and game of its own.

The literature students were no match for Joe. They appeared to be staid and conservative in comparison to him. The creative writers perceived this and ganged themselves against the MA’s. Joe often favored the MFA’s, showing preference for their ideas in the seminar’s discourse. Joe, or at least his persona, openly eschewed canonical authors. When an MA student proposed doing his final presentation on Virginia Wolff’s madness, Joe dismissively said that was old school. Since I had seen Joe’s personal library, I knew he did not completely subscribe to that view. However, he saw the graduate lit students as orthodox, unremarkable, unreceptive, inflexible, not even worthy of the A’s or B’s he gave them. Then again, was an A or a B even really worth anything in any graduate course?

Many of the literature students were more grounded in the canon, especially the specializations they were drawn to. They were not accustomed to thinking of the avant-garde feeding into literature, unless they were post-modernists. Their ways of talking about literature did not fit in with how he discussed it. They were confronted with the bizarre, the outré, the experimental, the independently published, even stuff that was downright bad. Some of the outsider writers weren’t that good at all, but their ideas were worth discussing. It may have been one thing to be required to read badly written stories, but seeing a sexually explicit German film, Taxi Xum Klo, was definitely much for some. Some scenes left little to the imagination; pornographic, though strong, would be accurate. Like most of work Joe presented, there was supposed to be something beyond the obvious. Or was there?

Beyond Joe’s choice of material, we were treated to Joe’s work. One story of his may have been included in the reader he prepared for the class. During one of the times we met at his home, he did a dramatic reading where he played Charles Manson. His stories were often like two character plays without dialogue tags or description of the characters. His subjects were often sexually unconventional people or murderers, sometimes even both. At this point, he was writing a body of creative work about serial killers, so his work qualified as madness in literature. None of the MA’s cared that Joe was a minor league literary star, a power broker in the avant-garde literary community. I’m sure a certain percentage of the MFA’s also shared similar sentiments. However, the MFA’s in his class treated him like a god. Their reverence was certainly rewarded.

To be continued…

If You Want To Go To Graduate School (Part 17)

September 14, 2001
Adam Hyde was quick to complain to the Department Chair, Karen Muir, about Professor Joseph K. Around 9am, I met Joe in his study and he showed me the e-mail the chair forwarded to him. Adam wrote a long, rambling, and at times incoherent letter complaining about the injustices he suffered from Joe, especially being asked to leave. Among the issues he listed, Adam claimed that Joe was insensitive to his disability (weak writing hand) and that he felt alienated by Joe’s left wing political views. He mentioned Professor Beltran, but could not spell his name correctly. After we read the e-mail, Joe was on the phone with the department chair. I would have to meet with her to tell her my side of the story.

After an hour of hanging out at Joe’s house, I walked to the university and went up to the top floor of the Humanities Building to meet with the chair. Dr. Muir was a dry, dowager type who could have been a character in an Edith Wharton story. Her light yellow hair was cut in a pageboy and she wore large, round glasses. She often wore two tone cardigans (à la Chanel) and baggy trousers to match. After she let me into her office, I sat down to tell her my side of the story. I told her about the e-mails and the hostility. She listened, but she also told me Joe’s actions concerning Adam were unprofessional – he could not ask someone to leave his class. I would later learn more about this issue when I taught as a TA. She then asked me if I wanted Adam kicked out of the program.

While I may have not liked Adam, I did not feel I could advocate kicking him out of the program. While I may have suffered some duress, I don’t think it was enough to completely justify me saying to expel him. I thought of the possibility of someone wanting to kick me out of the school, especially if I felt the accusation was unfair. I would want the administration to hear my side of the story and to show charity in dealing with me. I don’t think anyone’s right to study should be based on if others like him or her. If someone wants to study and they’re qualified, then they should by all means pursue it. At the time, I really did not know if Adam had what it took to be in grad school. I only had Joe’s word for it that he wasn’t a good writer and got in through politicking. Dr. Muir, during our conversation, mentioned that Professor Beltran believed people could be cured of mental illness through writing. I wrote about an insane narrator trying to become sane; Adam was the real thing. I could have easily countered that he belonged in a mental hospital, but didn’t. However, I decided to treat Adam the way I wanted and told Dr. Muir my decision. I confirmed it later in an e-mail, and she replied that she thought that was wise.

A year later, things would go bad between Joe and me. He gave me the silent treatment and acted openly disdainful towards me. I’m sure he would have loved to kick me out of the program at that point. All I had to do was something extremely egregious, especially towards him, and I would have been out. I hadn’t envisioned this when I had the talk with Dr. Muir, but I was glad I did not ask for Adam to be expelled.

Later in the evening, I went out. Gillian invited me to a party at a bar near the community college in downtown, so I took Hartwig along with me. Before that, we went to a rooftop party, which was packed, of a 1920’s hotel in Uptown. Soon, a FedEx plane descended to land at the airport. It was one of the first planes seen in the city since Tuesday. Life was returning to some semblance of normality. While people were scarce on Wednesday, they were everywhere on Friday. Everyone was out to party harder than usual, but no one certainly forgot what happened. Hartwig and I watched the planes fly across the sky and then hopped to a few bars before meeting Gillian and her friends. They seemed to like Hartwig, who then entertained them with his stories about his roommate, a supposedly straight man who gave hints of desiring him. Like most life of the party people, Hartwig had a few stories he would use over and over. It just was not apparent to me yet.

Since I quit the job at the supermarket, I had let my hair grow out for 14 months. I would chop it off the next day.

To be continued…

If You Want To Go To Graduate School (Part 16)

September 13, 2001
Adam Hyde was a sixty-ish, bald, pudgy man who always had something sharply critical to say about anything. He definitely was not liked by a lot of students (and some faculty, such as Joe). He was angry about one thing or another, talked about values, and often espoused arch-conservative positions. As far as I knew, he was a loner and possibly schizophrenic or borderline. He definitely was not wealthy, which would have qualified him as eccentric.

But, he was off-center. He often directed his rage at certain professors. In one poetry class, he called the professor an Amazon. He reported the doings of Tatiyana to the English Department chair. In the fiction workshop we were both in, Joe was his favorite target. Adam felt that Joe’s political views, especially during the discussion following 9/11, was radically left-wing. He felt marginalized by it. He was also angered by a presentation that Andrew and I did for the class the first week. Andrew presented a clever idea of collaborating, while I showed my hybrid text and image work. Soon, I would become on object of Adam’s wrath.

We developed a correspondence – I created an e-mail list for the class and he e-mailed me. I sent a link to my personal website and he made some odd comments on one of my stories. Joe had us pair off and collaborate by e-mail on a fiction writing exercise. Adam was paired off with Dr. Jules. He could not get in touch with Dr. Jules because I made a mistake in transcribing his mail address. He meanly pointed out to me that it was my mistake. I got a few other pecking e-mails during the week, but then there was one too many. He was past being mildly rude, and then made a nasty remark saying, “Since you are so full of yourself, I feel I can say this…” My handling of the e-mail list and the work that was presented in class were both attacked in the e-mail.

I overreacted. I felt I was being stalked by Adam. I told Joe about it two hours before class time. He thought I was taking it too personally, but he drove me to his house and gave me a valium. It really did not ease my anxiety, but I come to class high and dizzy. Some of the stairwells in the building had buffers installed to soundproof them with the subway station construction. I spun around and kicked one of the buffers. I continued to dance as I walked through the hallway to the classroom. Gillian observed my behavior was a cross between my fictional diva and The Sound of Music. Though I was giddy, I was still angry at Adam for the offensive e-mails. I drew a picture of him with an axe through his head. I just hoped he would go away.

Joe led a discussion of 9/11 and everyone’s response. We all had our say. I think Adam may have said something very right wing. I don’t remember. When it was my turn, Joe said that I shared with him an interesting idea the day before. I told him I thought it was possible the government set this up or knew about it and let it happen (because it was beginning to play into their approval ratings). He then shot me down, saying that idea was easily attacked. There never was an explanation for that remark. Perhaps, I was too high to ask for one. However, I think this was another incident that would lead to the decline of our relationship, professionally and academically.

After the class was over, Joe confronted Adam about the stalking issue. Adam denied it, but it was what Joe needed to ask him to leave. After a brief discussion, Adam felt no choice, and I went to Joe’s house afterward. Morgan greeted me with a hug, saying she was sorry for me dealing with Adam. Andrew came along for the after-class visit, and Joe disclosed to us the story of how Adam got invovled in the program. Joe and Tatiyana did not want Adam in the program – Adam was a nightmare for Tatiyana to deal with in one of her workshops. Joe sided with Tatiyana in her recommendation. Joe said that Adam worked with Jonathan Beltran and this was one of the students Jonathan would want in the program. Joe accepted some of Jonathan’s sponsored students so Jonathan would accept his. Adam was definitely a political pawn in the admission game. Joe resassured Andrew and me that he, Tatiyana, and Jonathan were unanimous in accepting our applications. I only have Joe’s word for it, but it would be reasurring to know this later when I fell out with him.

Joe put me up for the night in Morgan’s room. I slept soundly with another dose of valium.

If You Want To Go To Graduate School (Part 15)

I’m not going to present this in a diary format. The date on this and yesterday’s post simply place it in context of September 11.

September 12, 2001
The next day, after the national freak-out, we were expected to return to life as normal although the nation’s borders were still closed. I never paid much attention to airplane noise in the sky – it was as quotidian as the compound engine hum of cars on the freeway. Sometimes I was annoyed when the planes would soar over where I was and drown out a conversation or a moment with noise, but I missed them when the sky was completely silent. Nothing flew that week, not even the Cessnas. My family’s home is near a small airport Cessnas launch from and there was always at least one per day that would fly over the house. The sun was bright, the sky was blue, and the summer heat was still around, perfect for going to the beach. The beach was the furthest thing from my mind.

I don’t remember going to Teaching Composition that day. It was normally held on Mondays and Wednesdays, but I don’t remember going to class. I do remember, while wandering around on campus, I met up with Joe without any plans to do so. Joe told me about his computer having some problems, so I went with him to his home. It was a basic issue with Word and I did what I could. I don’t think I was successful. Joe, nonetheless, was grateful, and he treated me to dinner at an Uptown Italian restaurant.

Once there, Joe, his girlfriend Morgan, and I all had the eggplant parmigiana. Joe and Morgan were vegetarians, but I was not. Every time I dined with Joe, I avoided ordering dishes with meat. I didn’t mind eating vegetarian. During the early part of my limbo year, I went on a vegetarian diet and lost some weight. I stopped after a while, eating meat on my own or whenever my mother made dinner, but I thought it would offend Joe to eat meat around him. However, this fed into Joe’s impression of me that I was a vegetarian and it would later shock him when I made it clear that I wasn’t. But that would happen a few months later.

Earlier, when I rode with Joe to his house, we talked about the events of the days before. I was seriously shocked that this stuff would happen, especially on American soil. I was also frightened that this could be what the Bush administration would need to define themselves. An ineffectual oil baron’s campaign successfully rigged the election so he could come President, but he seemed lazy and indifferent to the responsibilities of the Oval Office the first few months of office. Everything he said was idiotic, such as when the Santana High shootings occurred earlier in the year. Once the World Trade Center imploded from the impact, Bush would say the things that American needed to hear. And his approval ratings rapidly rose. I told Joe I couldn’t help thinking the government set this up. I wish I had never said this to him.

Joe said this incident really hasn’t shocked him, that he’s been writing about these issues for a long time. He had long had an interest in Terrorism as a subject for writing; he had even devoted one of his University Press Journal’s issues to the theme. The issue of low-tech insurrection was in the zeitgeist – he wrote a pieces earlier in the year about Anthrax and other simple mechanical weapons. The terrorists aboard the four airplanes only used box-cutters and little else.

After the meal, Joe, Morgan, and I rode through one of the empty streets of Uptown. On most Wednesday nights, many people would cross the streets to go to a bar or restaurant, but most people chose to stay home this evening. Joe commented that a time like this would be a good time to smoke a joint – especially with people being in a reflective mood. Joe then drove out to the suburbs to drop me off, but I didn’t smoke a joint at all. Instead, I accessed a nasty e-mail from one of my classmates.

To be continued…