Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Now What?


My first year of full-time professing (which, I must assume, is the act a professor performs) is in the books. It is not my first rodeo, however. Indeed, I have been professing semi-professionally, without the title, for some time now. Now with the nebulous title, “adjunct professor,” I can lay claim to a vocation that is as enigmatic as it is intuitive. Enigmatic because so many, including many of us, cannot say what, exactly, it is we do. We are more than just teachers; we are more than just researchers; and when it comes to professing, speaking for myself at least, the ambiguity of language itself leaves me questioning what that actually means. While I do, for the most part, know what I am doing, I am often not as good at doing it as I wish. My dissertation advisor at LSU once told me that his job extends well beyond mentoring his advisees through grad school. He is part counselor, part friend, part colleague and part many other things, as necessary. That’s the intuitive part - we know we are more than teachers and we can feel that what that is is an important distinction, but I cannot articulate with any more precision what that “more” actually is.

I am also left with a monumental “now what?” One of the benefits of this job is the several blocks of “free” time we are given during the year. Some outside of academia see that as more “vacation” than they get (or more than we deserve), but the fact is that many professors never stop professing through the summer and other breaks. If we are not teaching summer classes, we are researching or preparing for upcoming classes. Although the life of an adjunct professor (or visiting professor, or part-time faculty, or lecturer, or temporary faculty - all of these terms are relatively synonymous) does not entail the rigors of attaining tenure or reaching other non-classroom goals, we are still charged with being ready. And being ready means preparation. For me, this summer, that means doing a significant amount of preparatory work to be ready for the fall semester - to fill the shortcomings revealed in my first year in order to be better next year. It’s not all “vacation,” but it is self-directed. There is no clock to punch, no one to answer to, no students and no superiors. That’s not just me, anyone who takes this job seriously does not look at summer as “summer vacation.”

But some of it is. That’s where the “now what?” comes in. In the past eight years, my summers have been loaded with an abundance of “free” time, but not all of it was and, depending on which summer we’re talking about, it might have been difficult to differentiate it from the preceding spring or the upcoming fall. This is the first summer since 2009 in which I am not a grad student. My graduate career officially comes to an end in August, but for all intents and purposes, I’m done. I threw in the towel on the Ph.D., but I am coming away with another MA just before I time out on it. What that means is more time this summer. It doesn’t mean I have all summer, but a much larger proportion of it belongs to me. Now what? Part of that what is this - writing. I am also going to be reading for my own entertainment, enlightenment, interest, etc., too. But I will be reading for “work,” as well. I’ll be reading a new edition of a textbook and creating curriculum for one class in the hopes I will get a section or two next fall (adjuncts rarely ever know what we will teach until just before we get to teach it). But even with that, I have a lot of time on my hands.

Years ago - at least 10 years, probably more - I discovered something in me that I kind of knew was there, but never paid too much attention. Very broadly defined, it can be called “art.” Or artistry, or an artistic nature, or artistic talent (aren’t all talents artistic?), but to be as clear as possible, let’s just call it “art.” I found art in me. I always wished I had art in me, but felt that when it came to such things, I was not so blessed. I could not sing, I could not play music, I could not draw, I could not paint, I could not sculpt, I could not write poetry. I still can’t, but I can write. I don’t know how or why this “gift” found me, but for a long time I wished a different one did. I am not exactly a “voracious” reader, but there have been long periods of my life that I could be described as such. I don’t know if there is a genetic component and I can’t (nor will I) say that some definition of “god” bestowed me with this ability. Despite all this, I finally acknowledged and embraced not only the fact that I have this artistic talent, but, more importantly, that I have art in me. Furthermore, I believe everyone does. Some are obviously more gifted than others (I am among the “others,” not the “some”), but we all have it.

There is a much larger work of art, larger than anything I have produced thus far, lurking somewhere inside of me. It is painfully obvious that it is not a dissertation, but there is something. There is a big piece of art struggling to get out. It is, perhaps, serendipitous that this urge coincides with the first summer in a long time that I have the time I do. I have a “now what?” and the “what” occurring at precisely the same time. So, I will be writing - and this is the start. It is not a bad start considering today is the first day into the now what/what collision. I have a lot to say, I have a lot of ways to say it and, now, I have a lot of time to get it said.

That’s what.

Saturday, April 09, 2016

The Dark and the Light


When I deactivated my Facebook account in February, I did so because the dark side of Facebook was overpowering the light. In fact, the negatives had been outweighing the positives for some time. That is not to say there are no positives, if there was nothing good about it I would not have reconfigured and reactivated my profile after a six-week hiatus. The changes I made are part voluntary and part how I have my security (and other) settings set, and part removing the mobile app from my iPhone. That last part is probably the best part - I no longer take Facebook with me everywhere I go. It no long lives in my pocket.

Among the things I do like about the Facebook is the "On This Day" feature. Since my Facebook history reaches back to 2006, it gives me a pretty good idea of where I was, what I was doing and, probably most importantly, how I was doing over a long and particularly important part of my life. Not always, and certainly not everyday, but sometimes these are pretty significant insights. Today’s is particularly profound. Two years ago today, after a crazy and difficult two years prior, I felt like I was at the end of my rope. I was struggling with not only whether I would be able to finish what I had started at LSU, but in broader terms, what I would do next. I was, in a word, scared.

That post two years ago is now private, but I did not delete it like I do with some posts and comments that are no longer relevant. It is still there because as the years come and go, on this day I will be able to not only see just how "bad" things can get and still be survivable (though, my actual survival was never really in question), but also see how things look from one side can look completely different from the other. That post two years ago received an outpouring of love and support in more than 100 comments and it also generated calls and texts of concern and support. After I wrote and posted it, I took my Harley out for a ride, put some Grateful Dead on the stereo and got lost in the Louisiana bayou back-roads. By the time I returned and read all those comments, my outlook was better.

What I resolved that day - and many since - was that I am indeed capable of finishing the work needed to earn a PhD. Further, I resolved to do that work. Since then, I did cross some serious hurdles in that effort, however, I have not (and now I know) I will not write the dissertation needed to complete the degree. It is not that I am not capable or that I think I am not "PhD material" as I lamented in that post two years ago. I know I can do it, but I also know I will not. It is not beyond my capability; it is beyond my willingness. It took a lot, and I mean a lot of soul-searching and introspection to come to that realization. I am not only okay with my decision, I feel freer than I have in a very long time.

So, were my four years in Baton Rouge a waste? Not even close. I would do it again without hesitation. Not only was the experience at LSU one I could never have dreamed of or replicate, I also made some new friends who will be the lifetime variety. I got to spend some time with family in Louisiana that I otherwise would not have. Further, my connection there is such that it has attained the status of “home.” It was for four years and now it always will be, despite the fact that I will never get “used to the weather.” It also wasn’t a waste in terms of academic achievement - I did complete more than enough to receive a second Master of Arts degree. Finally, all that time in Louisiana shows up in Facebook’s “On This Day” feature almost everyday. Do I need Facebook to make those memories real? Of course not, but it sure is nice them along side the struggles I overcame. There is no question that the two are distinctly connected.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

On Books and Things


Some years ago I had a mentor who would say all people have at least one book in them. He probably would not have said that to me, but at the time I was trying to get that book out of me. After a little more than five chapters I found myself at a standstill. Those five-plus chapters are still there, languishing in my computer’s archives, and they have been joined by a handful of other attempts to get that book out of me. So far I’ve only hit dead-ends. At present, I have two, maybe three books floating around in my head. There was one more, one that was actually at the top of my priority list, one that would have to be written before anything else could. It is a book with a very specific designation and designed to accomplish a very concrete goal. That book was going to be my dissertation.

Past tense? Yes, past tense – “was,” not “is.” Of course, the decision not to write my dissertation necessarily includes the decision not to finish my Ph.D. While I am not blazing any sort of new ground in languishing in ABD (“all but dissertation”) land – many have taken the very same route through grad school – it still took a great deal of soul-searching to conclude my graduate career. Some will say and have said things like “why give up when all you have left is just a dissertation.” I have reasoned the same thing, many times, but those two words “all” and “just” significantly minimize what a dissertation actually is. It is a book and in the world of books it is an exceptionally difficult one to write. Although the type of work is not beyond my capability, it is patently obvious that it is beyond my willingness. After recommitting more times than I can remember – with nothing to show for it – I can no longer con myself into thinking that this project is one I am going to finish.

So what does all that mean. Let us recap: After numerous attempts at college since 1981, each with slowly and gradually better results, I returned once again in the fall of 2003. I was 40 years old with a total of about two years of college credits scattered all over the place, both geographically and academically. The upshot was that while I had enough credits to be a junior, they did not meet all of the requirements. This was neither surprising nor important, I had a specific vocational target in 2003 and planned to obtain an AA degree and start a new career as a counselor. That was it - an AA degree and go to work.

For reasons that are beyond the scope of this essay, I never got that AA degree. I transferred to California State University, Sacramento in the fall of 2005, this time with the credits where I needed them to be a junior. And my grades, almost 25 years after graduating from high school, were better than they ever were in my entire life up until that point. I graduated from Sac State magna cum laude in 2007 with a BA in journalism and government, worked briefly as a journalist and went back to school in the fall of 2008 fro an MA in communication studies. That foray into grad school (and the subsequent master’s degree) led me to Louisiana State University in the fall of 2011 to begin work on that Ph.D. All of the work I have done at LSU, without a dissertation, is not worth nothing, however. I have completed enough (actually, more than enough) to be awarded a Master of Arts degree from LSU as well. The total then is one BA and two MAs, not too bad for someone who flunked out of San Diego State University in 1985.

But still, the idea of “just” a dissertation haunts me a little bit. Another mentor of mine who is also a very good friend is concerned that I will regret this decision later in life. I cannot say he will be right or wrong, I honestly don’t know. I can say that whether I regret it or not, I will survive and I will quite likely have something to say (write, share… something) about that experience as well. Because that is what all this is – experience. It is also why I do not regret making the attempt. It was definitely not a waste of time or money. The experience of going so far away in pursuit of such a lofty and elusive goal – a goal I really have no business being so close to in the first place – is an accomplishment in and of itself. I left SDSU 21 years ago with a 0.7 GPA and today I have not one, but two master’s degrees, both from very highly regarded schools. The “failure” in getting my Ph.D. is still success by any objective measure.

So, back to those books. Now that the mental strain of writing something I could not bring myself to write is relieved, I can put effort into doing what is calling me. In the meantime, I have a job teaching that rewards me in ways money cannot, but it is also sufficiently financially rewarding (barely, a rant for another time) so that I can pursue my other interests, namely getting those books out of my head. One of them, a compilation of many of these blog posts, is largely already written, but there is still a science-fiction apocalyptic novel and a memoir that are trying to free themselves. It’s time I gave them a way out.

Monday, March 07, 2016

"It"


Once upon a time, a few years ago, I thought I might write a novel. Although it would be decidedly fictional, I would, like many novelists do, base it on so many experiences. My thinking was (and to some extent still is) that my trials and tribulations – both those that were self imposed as well as those that were just “bad luck” – could be used to sculpt a compelling narrative. It could be an adventure, it could be a tragedy, it could even be a comedy depending on how I chose to put the pieces together. I didn’t think about it that thoroughly at the time (a theme that would have to appear in any story I write, it is the story of my life), but that didn’t stop me from plunging in. I started to write it. I even created a blog to post it. After three chapters, despite very positive feedback from the few who read them, I stopped.

I haven’t written any fiction since. I would say that I haven’t even done any “creative” writing since, but that is as false a statement as is the genre “creative writing.” All writing is creative. True, the creations are not all beautiful, the creations do not all rise to the level of art, or at least not good art, but the act of putting words together to create something that did not exist before is, by definition, creative. However, when it comes to making stories that did not exist before, the work of fiction and the writing of novelists, it means more than creating just new combinations of words. Most of the stories created run along familiar themes, many are adapted from age-old ideas and many, while still running along these familiar themes, are also about us – all of us – not just the lives lived by those who write, but about all of our lives.

It seems the human experience in all its unlimitedness is mostly nuances of very old, very familiar stories. Love, love lost. Good versus evil. Triumph. Tragedy. Greed. Redemption. And a host of other common themes make up the walls of the box we all live in. My story was based on a reality/dream sequence that would come to some resolution in the end, but leave the reader wondering (as I do in real life) what is really real. I was simply retelling a new version of what happened to me about 15 years ago. It was surreal, but in a fiction/non-fiction sense, it was firmly rooted on the non-fiction side of the tracks. So, even my one solid attempt at this so-called “creative writing,” my one serious attempt at fiction, was simply an account of what I dreampt combined with changing the names (to protect both the innocent and the not-so-innocent).

Recently, the ideas have started coming at me again. The creation part of these ideas involves, obviously, new writing, but it also involves creating new stories. The hard part, as always, is transforming the ideas into words; the act of giving life to my characters and painting a landscape for the world they live in is creative, sure, but it is also a lot of fucking work. It’s all stuff I didn’t think about when I attempted to do it before. But it’s also stuff I’ve done over and over and over and over again. It’s simply a different level of abstraction. The stories are limited, but the characters, the world and the time in which they act are left to the imagination of the writer. It’s not that I could not imagine such stories – I believe everyone is equally creative – it’s the ability, the willingness and the desire to do the work of creation. That, for me, has always been a moving target. When everything is just right (and “just right” is not something I can create, apparently), the words just poor out of me. When it’s not, I am shut down. Something has been seriously not right for a while now. I don’t know what it is, but I do think it is near the end.

Therefore, the moral of this story extends well beyond the story itself. Also, what is not written here is important, too. This story is not over yet. The particular sub-plot or chapter or part xx could be a story of triumph, it could be one of tragedy, it is already in some ways comedy and in terms of love and love lost, those elements exist as well. But how the end comes about is still not known. A mushy, gooey happy ending? I’ve never been much for those, but to experience one for once would be nice. Life, and my life especially, is not nearly so neat. Life is messy. It seems as though I haven’t much choice in the matter, but in the big picture is could be worse. Much worse. One thing is sure -
it won’t get written unless I write it. And by “it,” I am not talking about some novel.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

The Time Has Come


I finally pulled the trigger. I decided to deactivate my Facebook profile. It is odd to me that this is such an emotional decision. Maybe “emotional” isn’t the right word, but it is almost like severing ties with a close friend or a loved one because the relationship has become dysfunctional, at best, or toxic, at worst. And the fact that I have this love/hate relationship with not only an inanimate object, but also a virtual one is an idea that does not sit well with me. It is all the more reason to move on. There is a great big real world that Facebook can only capture the briefest glimpses of; I want, I need, the whole enchilada. As I posted in my last Facebook post (a virtual “Dear John” letter, of sorts), the platform, while still very useful for probably too many things, has, in its enormity, outlived its usefulness. It is too pervasive, too all-encompassing, too omnipresent, too omnipotent and too omniscient. Sound like god-like qualities? Yes, to me, too. It is just too much.
 
Still, as freeing as this moment is, and as pivotal as the plug-pulling will be this time tomorrow (I did give a one-day notice along with info on how I can be reached outside of Facebook), it is bittersweet. Among my idiosyncrasies, my desire to be connected and know what is going on in the world (a moving target, right now the world is a very big place) has been fed like never before with the dawn of the age of information and its primary agent, the Internet. While I have no intention of removing myself from the information grid, this particular node known as Facebook has gained way too much of the pie. It has increased my tolerance in that what I must now know includes the petty, the ridiculous, the scandalous, the hatful and the inane. To use a recent Facebook viral colloquialism, “Ain’t nobody got time for that!” Furthermore, I find myself constantly condensing my thoughts on very involved and complicated subjects into tiny little Facebook bite-sized chunks.

I am already past the Facebook “read limit” (about 100 words, give or take) in this blog post. But there is so much more. I have fallen into perceptual errors on more than one occasion – instances where the “reality” depicted on Facebook was nowhere close to reality. I have run into instances where I have seen sides of people – masked by the quasi-anonymity of distance mediated by the Internet – that I did not know, might not be real and I do not want to know. It might not be any coincidence that the polarization we see at a national – even a world wide – level is due, in part, to the removal of cordiality, decorum and respect that is necessarily part of face-to-face communication.

Overall, I am drowning in the vastness of “too much.” Too much everything, all the time, all at once. I have had this Facebook account since 2006, but never really started using it until about a year later. In that time, I have witnessed the medium explode. It is wondrous, it really is. But it is also too much. The novelty was bound to wear off. Nothing lasts forever – Facebook won’t, either. For me, it has run its course. Sayonara, Facebook.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Another Piece of the Pie


Don McLean's classic, "American Pie," has been the subject of interpretation and reinterpretation since its release almost 45 years ago. Some verses are not very thinly veiled (the "girl who sang the blues" likely refers to Janice Joplin, for example), while others are much more cryptic. McLean himself famously will not reveal what the lyrics meant to him when he wrote them, saying instead that they mean whatever we (the audience) believes they mean. Fair enough, such is art. But the overall theme of the song, especially when taken in context with McLean’s history and other professed beliefs, speaks of a theme we hear a lot of - especially during election time.

The song is a lament, a funeral oration - it is mourning the passing of a happier, purer time. It memorializes the post-war 50s and the "good times" that disappeared in the 60s. The turning point, for McLean, was "the day the music died, but the plane crash that killed Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper is simply a place holder. However, if you weren't male, white and Christian, the 50s were not so great for you. The strides made in the 60s and since, although they came with a great deal of upheaval and even though some things - some would argue some good things - were lost along the way, were absolutely necessary for this nation to live by what its founding documents say. However, by 1971 when “American Pie” was released, McLean (and others) had had enough. Some, like Nixon and his "silent majority," tried to regain what was lost. Others, like McLean, were more realistic. McLean's response was his famous funeral oration. For him, the day the music died was the day America died - at least the Utopian America he believed existed in his youth.

Still, the song does what all good art does - it opens a new perspective. It means different things to different people and what those things are depends significantly on what we experienced in the years of our lives. It places a lens on the past and offers a vision to the future. And that interpretation (if it is really good art) is open to multiple reinterpretations. So it has been for me with "American Pie." While I can certainly see how McLean and others feel as though the idealism so often cast into the 50s was lost to the 60s, it is also worth noting that that Utopian idealism is more fabrication than it is reality. If everything was so great for everyone, the 60s would have looked just like the 50s, and, truth be told, rock would be, in fact, quite dead. By the time 1960 rolled around, the dripping sweet, substance free music was already being panned as vacuous and a passing fad. In the meantime, real serious things were going on in the world.

There are numerous accounts in “American Pie” of musicians who have passed – and prophetically, at least one who would be shot down in his prime in the coming years. Some died due to their own excesses, others for other reasons, but none died from old age. None died a “natural” death (as though any death could be anything but natural). With them and the many other artists of all stripes who have passed since, their talent and their continued work necessarily died with them. And, as these early rockers age, they are beginning to succumb to “old age” as well. But there is something in McLean’s masterpiece that he fails to grip, something that is also true of “American Pie.” The art itself lives on. It is true of “American Pie” already. Those who listen today can find much more recent events to link its metaphors to and, likewise, find within its lyrics an entirely different and, hopefully, more optimistic future ahead.
http://www.foxnews.com/entertainment/2016/01/18/american-pie-singer-don-mclean-reportedly-arrested-for-domestic-violence/ 
For Mclean, however, it could be that parts of the 50s (and earlier) are not so easily set aside. Although this recent turn of events does not mean, in and of itself, that misogyny is part of what McLean is mourning, it is true that misogyny was but one of the many paradigms the 60s helped to redefine. No, this recent turn of events might not mean anything at all in terms of life then and life now. It could just mean that McLean is an asshole. I guess that is up to us (the audience) to decide that as well.