If September 11th wasn’t reason enough to cancel a party, then there was a much more down-to-earth excuse the following year. In the party that welcomed the new group of students (including yours truly) the year before, my friend Rosalyn took a fall down a flight of stairs. It was the type of mistake anyone could have made, had they been a little too close to the staircase that led from the living room to the basement floor. While there were handrails, the rectangular hole in the floor that showed the stairs was hardly noticeable. With drinks, high heels, and the stairs’ low visibility, anyone could have tumbled down and hit their head. But it had to be Rosalyn, one of the people who lobbied for the party.
At the Universtity, the English Department traditionally sponsored a welcoming party for the MFA program at the beginning of each academic year. Fortunately, it wasn’t held on campus grounds, but in the home of a student. She was a retired English teacher-turned-professional MFA student as she had been working working on her degree for nearly a decade. The benefit of an off-campus party is the warm atmosphere only available in someone’s house, a gorgeous spread, and the alcohol. The last item is definitely essential as it facilitates socializing, but more importantly, it’s expected. The one that was held in my first semester in the graduate program would be the last one of its sort.
Henry O’Donough, this post-modernist professor at the University, kept office hours in the afternoon and “bar hours” on Thursday night, on the border of the City, between one of its eastern suburban neighborhoods and the exurban neighborhoods of two cities with names that translate into English as “The Table” and “The Box.” Most of the students who came to this little strip mall dive bar to hang out with the esteemed scholar, interviewer, and editor of several postmodern anthologies, including one that is a perpetual best seller for Duke University Press. And Professor K, ever trying to hold on to the tail of the fast-moving Zeitgeist, has a decent story in O’Donough’s best known anthology. Strangely, during my first year of knowing Professor K, I would go to “bar hours” to hang out with Henry and some classmates, past and present associates of Henry’s, and to unwind from Professor K’s classes, which were always held on Tuesday and Thursday nights.
Professor Joseph K is the pseudonym of a professor I worked with when I was in graduate school. The name, of course, is borrowed from Franz Kafka’s protagonist of The Trial. This professor, author of small tomes, and armchair anarchist is the nemesis in much of my previous posts about him. Here, he finds himself in the midst of something I really wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. He’s definitely in that category
It’s funny that Professor Joseph K would find himself in the midst of a Kafkaesque nightmare at one point in his career. Some time after I ended my academic and professional association with him, he found himself the subject of a University investigation. I only have second-hand information on this subject. Given that I had been a student and employee of his for two years and that the investigation occurred while I was still in the MFA program, I’m surprised I was never interviewed as a witness. Getting back to the subject at hand, the reason why the University was looking closely into Professor K’s affairs was that a student felt their grade was at stake after she objected to attending Professor K’s class when there was a sexually explicit presentation.
In this Six Feet Under episode, Olivier is caught in unprofessional conduct by Claire and tries to buy her off with a grade of her choice.
I should be over something like this. As much as I can dwell on the whole MFA experience and what a racket it was, people like the Professor Joseph K are a joke. Unfortunately, my dealings with him and his self-serving behavior haunt me to this day. At the start, he was the mentor figure, the one who gave me admission to his inner literary circle. In the end, I got tossed aside. As much as he told people that they should do what’s beneficial to them as writers, he wanted people to take his workshops and tell him how brilliant he was for publishing his slender little volumes of deviant behavior. Regarding his writing workshops, there wasn’t much to get out of them. Publishable in his terms meant “I publish you, you publish me.” As a grad school friend of mine said, fiction could not create a villain as evil as Professor K.
“Strangers When We Meet” is how I have felt about some people I’ve known in the past.
The jobs were one lesson in impermanence since they were all short-term. Unlike the grocery store, where I stayed on for one reason or another even though I hated it, I didn’t have to stick around if I didn’t want to. I could always move on to something else, provided I found something. At the same time, I found my relationships with people weren’t always permanent, whether I had control or not.
Continue reading “Lessons in Impermanence, Part II”
Yesterday’s post took me down the proverbial memory lane regarding Professor Joseph K*. I’ve written several posts about him in the past, starting with when I first met him. Like the relationship itself, looking back upon the whole experience has been an emotional roller coaster. Several years ago, when my friendship with him disintegrated, I was hurt and angry. I’ve had some time to process those feelings over the past several years and I can now look at it a little more calmly and objectively, but I don’t think I’ll ever have anything close to “warm fuzzy feelings.”
At any level in college, students find mentors in their professors. That was the nature of my relationship with Professor Joseph K, or Joe, as I’ll refer to him from time to time. At the time, I thought he was different from all the other English professors at my university. He had a post-modern cool about him. He wore black clothing and sunglasses indoors. His course materials were outside of the canon, which I found intriguing. As I got to know him, he became very paternal towards me. Like my father, he had a very dry sense of humor. I would later learn that he could be just as mercurial.
There were some positive things, especially early on. When I took his upper division course in my last year of college, he gave me some confidence in my abilities as a student and a thinker. One of the things he did was to invite me to take a graduate course the following semester. I was, at the time, trying to find direction as a writer experimenting with various forms. Joe was the editor in chief of an avant-garde literary journal with the university press and he invited me to be part of the editorial team. He soon promoted me to assistant editor when my predecessor found himself too busy to do the job. He saw some of my work, gave me some encouragement, and helped me put together an application packet for the MFA program. He also wrote a letter of recommendation for me.
During the time I waited to get into the program, I had a place to hang my coat and a room of my own to read and write. Joe gave me a key to his office, and it was mine during the daytime. Joe often only came to the office at night before his classes.
As far as publishing goes, he gave me the lead to a journal that took one of his works and I got published alongside him. It was the Gold Lady’s debut. In Joe’s journal, some of Richard Kostelanetz‘s “one word stories” were accepted and I did the artistic formatting. I got to be a published writer and artist within a few month period.
Joe did not make extravagant demands upon me. All I did was check the mailroom for his mail and submissions, logged the submissions, and did a few other errands. He was a pain in the ass during the manuscript editing process, but even that wasn’t bad. I wasn’t expected to bring Starbuck’s coffee to him piping hot, nor was I expected to got unpublished Harry Potter books for his children.** None of the deadlines he gave were unreasonable, even when it came to dealing with the galleys.
I house-sat for Joe a few times. Like the office, the borrowed home during his times away served as a place where I could benefit creatively. He owned thousands of books and it was nice to have access to his personal library. It was a quiet place, away from family, so I occasionally had a place where I could do some work. Of course, there was an episode that wound up becoming part of the university’s MFA lore. It involves some cookies, but I’m not saying anything more.
to be continued…
*Pseudonym from the protagonist of the The Trial by Franz Kafka. The name change is designed to protect the guilty and even the innocent.
**The Devil Wears Prada.