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.
In my last post, I discussed the joy of dealing with incomplete grades for students. For anyone who doesn’t know what this entails, it is a basic right students have in the event they are not able to compete the coursework for a semester. There may be some variations on this policy from school to school, but here are the basic conditions:
- The student needs to fill out an agreement with the instructor regarding their need to finish their coursework beyond the semester.
- There is usually one assignment that’s needed to satisfy the requirements for a student’s grade, but there may be more.
- The student has one year from the end of the semester date to complete their work.
- After the conditions have been outlined in the agreement and the instructor turns in the agreement, the student’s grade is recorded as “I” or INCOMPLETE.
- Here is the dangerous part: If a student does not complete the work necessary for them to get a passing grade, their “I” or INCOMPLETE will turn into an F.
I’ve never took an incomplete in college. I’ve never been a big fan of paper work, and the less there is, the better. Now, this is an unrealistic desire for someone in my profession. When I was in graduate school, there was some silly piece of paper to turn in to some office every week. Of course, this is a gross over-exaggeration, but I don’t think I’m too far from the truth. The incomplete was simply another document to fill out.
Given that, I did not make it a habit to approach my professor mentors and tormentors for incompletes. I usually finished my coursework by the end of the semester, even it killed me. There were many times where it almost did.
There was only one semester where I ever approached a professor to do an incomplete. It was a course on the great world novel and I chose to my semester paper on Shusaku Endo‘s Silence. This novel’s theme was suffering, which I would ironically experience as I struggled through the year to do the paper.
For some reason, it took me a while to decide on using this work as the topic for my paper. However, it would take me a long while to get it done. I often found excuses not to do it. The following semester, I dealt with drama. I had a personal and professional falling out with the professor who helped me get into graduate school (a cautionary tale against doing graduate programs in your undergraduate alma mater). It didn’t help that I worked as assistant editor for his disturbingly sick literary* journal at the time (I formally resigned mid-year shortly after any sign of friendship and personal regard disintegrated on both sides). I had an unrequited interest in a supposedly good friend of mine who took advantage of it. He lived in my apartment for a while and he didn’t hesitate to cash in the benefits when it suited him. He rejected me at a point when I started to think I had a chance with him. I then kicked him out of my apartment, but my woes were far from over. I wound up seeing a counselor that spring semester to deal with both issues, and one of the things that came up in the conversation from time to time was the incomplete.
In the aftermath, I was dealing with the emotional issues listed above, but I still struggled with getting a silly essay done. I still had to do creative writing for the workshops and readings for the lit courses in my program, which also had essays. I kept putting it off and putting it off, but the incomplete was always on my mind.
I did manage to get it before the year was over. The paper wasn’t great at all; however, I didn’t let it turn into an F. I just couldn’t afford it.
After that, I vowed never to take on another incomplete again. To use a cliché, it was a monkey on my back. I could not stop thinking about it even when I wasn’t working on it, and that was a constant distraction. As for the drama that served as a nice excuse? It soon passed. From time to time, I had to deal with the former mentor on a bureaucratic level. As for so-called friend, I realized he was useless and I never fell into that unrequited trap again. I am glad that the counselor didn’t let me forget about making sure I satisfied the incomplete.
Knowing that I don’t work well like this, I always feel some concern for students who take this on. As a teacher, I’m not too crazy to being tied to any class for a year.
*This is not a statement of literary conservatism on my part as it is more of a pot shot.
I thought my website on the University server was lost forever. Naturally, after I graduated, my computer computer account was deleted a year later. Not that I really cared, but some of my writing files were on that incarnation of ShindoTV, and recreating those files can be a bitch. I don’t like to type things over if I don’t have to. Unfortunately, I don’t have a secretary so I really don’t have a choice in the matter. I found all my fears and anxieties were unfounded — there’s an internet archive that keeps track of most of what’s put on the web.
Here is the archive for my website on the university server.
Here’s the mirror site on my personal computer account during the university years.
Someday, this blog will be stored in the Borgified web archive. I remember Seven of Nine saying something about when a Borg dies, they live on the collective memory, so that what I feel has happened to my dead websites.
Click on the links if you want to see the early millenium models of ShindoTV. Better yet, enter in your web addresses into the Internet Archive.
It’s always interesting when you know someone with a pattern of close, but short term friendships. Yesterday, a fellow alum from my alma mater’s English program and I compared notes on Liza Radley*. He had his falling out with her a couple of years ago and I fell out with her last year. Without getting into too much detail, she picked fights with both of us when it came to expressing her disappointment. Regarding my colleague, Liza screamed at him on the phone until he hung up. I, on the other hand, got some very insulting e-mails. I then fell into the worst trap of all–responding. I recalled some event where she failed me and put it in the reply. That ended the friendship right there.
She also fell out with close friend and poetic collaborator Alexandra and then Shelly, her best friend from her undergrad years. Who knows why it happened, but the news about Liza dissolving her frienship with Alexandra spread quickly through the university’s MFA program, which was such a gossip mill.
A couple of years before my “break-up” with Liza, I was seeing a counselor who asked me in one session to rate the healthiness of my friendships on a scale of 1 to 10. I think I rated Liza 3 or 4. Not good at all.