Sunday, February 21, 2010

I swear this is what it looks like


Yes, buds. I saw them with my own eyes. Buds on trees. Pierce School yard. It's real.

I hope Feb. 21 is about the right time for this -- not toxically early, scarily early.

Because I found it touching, reassuring, like, get a little choked up reassuring while listening to Otis Redding on the iPod. Soul stuff. There are buds.

Exactly What I Want

Blue Cup Espresso

Cold sunny Thursday, I drag my depressed ass in to Steady Eddy's all bundled up in my worn black leather coat, black LA cap, black and blue scarf Audrey made for me, my raggedy bag and backpack slung over my shoulder. I want to be alone and do some work. The ritual of it comforts me, climbing the painted concrete steps to the little cafe, plopping down at the table of my choice. Chris and Lisa would welcome me but leave me alone. We're known to each other, a lovely thing.

"Double espresso," I say.
"And a sprinkle of cinnamon?"
"Yeah, and lemon peel. And...could I have it in that blue cup?"
There's only one like it up there -- it's my favorite.

I tear off the corner of a Splenda, stir it in, and take my first sip: the bracing sweet and bitter taste of it perfectly curling my tongue. One simple cup on a shiny table, silver spoon, somebody who says, "everything okay?" Out of the cold, alone but not lonely, on a wintry morning before stepping back into the fray.

A miracle: Exactly what I want.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Apparitions and Late Fictions

Pile of new books waiting for me, thrust onto the slush at the back porch, the UPS guy's thick boot prints in fresh snow up and down the driveway alarming me when I got home from work -- there've been breakins lately. But in the Amazon box, a store of pleasures. Here from old friend Tom Lynch, continuing his remarkable literary career in his newest, Apparition and Late Fictions:

It was his favorite thing -- to hunt the stealthy, transparent, invisible fish, to know enough about its habits to isolate it in all that dark water, to present a fly or an egg of his own making, the right size and color, at the right angle at the right depth at the right speed to trigger the thing to animal desire, then to fight the thing in its own environs, counting on his knots, his timing, and the proper setting of his drag, then to catch the thing, to hold it, and then to let it go. -- From "Catch and Release"

Thomas Lynch
Oh, yes, you can tell this man started his writing life as a poet. Sheer rhythmic satisfaction, such loveliness and precision.

Walking Quotidian

Enough blessed light now for after-work walking in fluffy snow. Watched the flakes land on my old leather coat sleeve: old magic retrieved. IPod in the pocket the greatest invention since the flush toilet...I am in my own world, listening to Laurence Juber's lush "PCH" and reclaiming peace in my own life, remembering the night we saw him at Alva's on Eighth Street in San Pedro...just him sitting on a stool on that little stage, a gorgeous night with my husband and our friends, the West Coast commune. Lucky to have sturdy, sunny memories to get through February. Lucky to have life that thrives apart from assholes. Lucky to have the quotidian familiarity of legs and feet doing what they're supposed to do, gently walking, my hoodie snug over my head, my worn black gloves.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Under the Street Light, February.

Walking out to the dark parking lot after yoga tonight, an intensely surreal moment. I saw my old red car waiting for me under the lights, the old car I leeched from my last marriage; originally "sporty" when I was young, now all streaked with salt, chunks of ice and snow stuck in the wheel wells, the car I'd carefully parked under those lights so I'd feel safe when I came out alone. Clicking my keys to unlock it for probably about the 27,000th time, a wave of extreme sadness and weariness washed over me...tired of the way things are, the drudgery of Flint and trying so hard. Day after day and now year after year, the same old red car waiting for me. For just a moment all the delusions and illusions fell away, and what was left was nothing more than the downright deadening repetitiveness of life, how utterly ordinary it is most of the time, how we're trapped in so much daily angst, how it never lets up. I wonder if this how people feel just before they die -- like, enough already.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

So Much for My Dream of the Professoriate

When I was a freshman in college at Miami U. of Ohio, I rushed a sorority and joined it -- Delta Delta Delta -- even though I didn't really "believe in" sororities, and often made fun of them. I just wanted to see if I could -- me, nerdy preacher's kid who needed braces and couldn't play bridge -- because in high school I'd been the outsider, never one of the "popular" kids. To my astonishment Tri-Delt took me and for a year or so I paid my dues and even "went active," hanging out at beer bashes, taking diet pills to stay skinny, and acquiring a collection of mohair sweaters and A-line skirts.

But then I "de-activated" -- again, I think now, mostly because I could. I could say that the girls of Tri-Delt wanted me -- with a 4.0 GPA, I helped prop up the chapter's much-prized average. I was proud of that. Back then saying "no" was a rare act of power for me, and it did me good to spurn the girls of Tri-Delt when I'd had enough.

Silly me.

And now I've just gone into strangely similar territory.

I thought it might be possible to become part of another club: the professoriate.

Maybe at heart it's a club I don't want to join. And maybe, at 60, I'm way too old and life is too short to play another Tri-Delt game.

Whatever. At some point in the past few months, I convinced myself that the fact that I'd written a novel, published dozens of poems, essays, reviews, articles and stories, won some prizes here and there, re-organized and wrote large hunks of UM - Flint's recently successful Self-Study document for re-accreditation, received the 2008 Teaching Excellence Award, chaired a significant search committee, taught 780 students in the last five years and countless hundreds more in 14 different courses over the past 16 years, designed three Green Arts classes, created two graduate classes from the ground up, taught three students who won Hopwood Awards for writing at the UM, organized and facilitated visits by a half dozen visiting writers, wrote columns for East Village Magazine that are read by more people than read almost any poetry magazine in the country...well...I thought that would be enough to get me into the club.

I thought I might get to be a professor.

Universities, as most people know, are hierarchies -- caste systems based in part on whether you've attained the dire-sounding "terminal degree" in your field -- usually the Ph.D. It takes eight or ten years beyond high school for most people to get a Ph.D., and at the end of it, usually they've produced the notorious dissertation that's supposed to be the biggest hurdle of academic achievement -- a book-length research or scholarly project. All this, obviously, is a major life commitment. And if and when they get a job -- no small feat these days -- they're subjected to another long series of hurdles, often mediated by geezers long past their productive years, many of whom have become embittered, pointlessly pompous and sadistic. It all seems far from the ideal many of us cherished about "higher education." It's not an easy life.

What I am, in contrast, is what UM calls a "lecturer" -- one of the 200 or so folks on the faculty who teach more sections for far less money than the supposed Brahmin caste, those who are tenure-track or tenured. In exchange for my larger course load and smaller salary, I am not required or expected to do research or publish, though as what's called a "Lecturer IV," the highest status available to me, I get a three to five-year contract -- no small matter -- and I am expected to deliver service, keep up in my field, and serve on campus committees.

Like many of my "lecturer" colleagues, my path into academia has been unconventional. I started out with a bachelor's in journalism, worked as a reporter for a while, went into the Peace Corps, then came to Michigan for two years of graduate school -- in social work. With my M.S.W. I came to Flint for a job at a non-profit counseling agency, and then decided I wanted to return to writing. So I picked up a low-residency -- but competitive -- M.F.A. at Warren Wilson College while continuing to manage a program for about a hundred of Flint's most down-and-out street wanderers. With the writing degree under my belt, I started teaching part time at UM - Flint, and that was 1993. I was hired full-time in 1998. I'm grateful for this job, which allows me to write, talk about writing, read writing, and of course, teach writing for a salary that has gradually increased to a base pay of about $44K over the years. That M.F.A., by the way, is considered the "terminal degree" in my field, creative writing. But clearly I came to academia through the back door, and I've never struck the proper attitude of deference. I've got a mouth on me and frequently don't honor the fences that divide the various categories of livestock in the teacher corral.

In my department I can't vote on certain things; at commencement line-ups I'm always sent to the back of the pack; and as I mentioned above, I teach more classes and get paid much less than my tenure-track colleagues. But I have the support of a union, the UM-wide Lecturer Employees Organization (LEO) which has valiantly negotiated two contracts for me and the other members of the bargaining unit, and they're embarking on a third round of bargaining this spring.

Despite all this, my vanity florid, and getting to a point where I wanted...hmm...practical acknowledgement, I allowed myself to get sucked into trying to join the Brahmins. There's something about being consigned to a marginal slot in the hierarchy year after year that gets undignified and makes a person feel sort of wild. So when the department got approval for a new post -- a tenure-track creative writing job, and I seemed to meet the qualifications, I decided to give it a shot.

But the big kids decided not to let me interview for the position -- the post will bring in somebody new to do what I've been doing for many years. And I've been ticked off, furious, livid.

The main problem is that they wanted a secondary area in something I don't have: Queer Theory, Feminist Theory, or Genre Studies, for example; pedagogy in English Studies, Digital Humanities, or Composition/Rhetoric in postcolonial rhetoric or the rhetoric of gender, race, and class. Whoa.

This is code for Ph.D. graduate training far from my duke's mixture of social work, journalism, Peace Corps, poetry in bars, sticky divorce and, in general, the messy dramas of 30 years of eking out daily life in unglamorous postcolonial Flint, Michigan.

My secondary area of expertise, unfortunately for my dream of the professoriate, is the humble freshman composition, the low-status branch of "comp/rhet" devoted simply to trying to teach first-year writers to write. What was I thinking?

The more I think about it, the more I suspect I should appreciate the freedom my non-tenure track position affords me, if I still get to teach the classes I've been teaching. But I'd have really liked the academioids to see my value and invite me into the clubhouse. Of course, this usually isn't how the world works. It's not hard work that the world recognizes, especially delivered by an impertinent crone like me. I'm hopeless for the job. I've got gay friends of course and a few theories about them, for example -- but I have to face it, I can't tout Queer Theory inculcated by the dons.

Over the years I've rolled my eyes at the memory of how I fought to get into Delta Delta Delta, only to sneer with the privileged knowledge of an insider once I arrived. Yet here I have been in recent weeks, practically an old woman, struggling to get a chance to do it again.

I don't even believe in tenure -- or, at least, the kind of pointless hazing that goes with the tenure process these days -- and even with that being pretty clear for me, I wanted to be "one of them." I wanted one more fight, seduced by the dignity-bruising aphrodisiac of somebody trying to stop me.

I guess I'm not far from my Tri-Delt days after all.

Silly me.

But at least I still have a job, and tomorrow I get to go back into the classroom -- without tenure worries to distract me -- and talk about writing with two classes of interesting, almost impossibly lively students. I could do worse.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

On the other hand

...Anger is a powerful physiological experience, as I've been experiencing. Adrenaline, I've been telling myself, is there for a reason: to propel fight or flight. As always, the conundrum is this: What does one do with the instinctive energy of fight or flight in a supposedly civilized world? In a fresh bout of sleeplessness which I fully understand -- kept awake by adrenaline -- I devise one scenario after another. Some for revenge. Some for justice. Some for escape. Some for vindication. Whatever, my body is sending me an insistent message: DO SOMETHING. Interesting how the body is programmed for adaptation. It knows when it is threatened, attacked and insulted. It knows what to do: flood the system with energy. And here I am, rooting around in a mucky pen of passive aggression, bullies and a distorted template of anachronistic noblesse oblige. Move, move, my body says. I'm appreciative that my body has its ancient human responses. I just have to figure out how to make it work for me. Could righteous wrath be the fountain of youth?

Friday, February 05, 2010

I think I'm beginning to understand

...that life is simply like this, cycles of worry and doubt and disappointment punctuated by the considerable pleasures of daily life. It's just the way it is. I understand these days how a human plodding through life eventually asks, "what does this all mean?" and how she might conclude, "there is no particular meaning" just as reasonably as any of the grander answers offered by the world's gurus and priests.

So I get up early, my fierce little chip of consciousness in the world a mystery of idiosyncrasy, the "me" I have to carry through all this pulsing, fleeting life. The house is a mess. I make a cup of tea, load the dishwasher, sort bills and throw away junk mail. At the dining room table, I sweep off crumbs from last night's dinner with Ted: lift off the brass candlesticks and pull off the long tablecloth to toss down the laundry chute.

It was lobster stew in the new blue bowls and macaroni and cheese in heavy little ramikins. I found an old opened bottle of red and poured myself a glass -- just enough left to go with dinner. We held hands and I offered "grace," the two of us warmly agreeing to that moment of "yes," our customized version of childhood ritual, not exactly our fathers' prayers, but words of gratitude nonetheless, thrown out to the universe, the impulse toward that Something Else.

So, though I'm technically alone down here, snuggled in my bathrobe in the LazyBoy, sipping my mint green tea, my black laptop warm on my thighs in this quiet hour before a February dawn, I also understand -- increasingly and with compassion -- that I'm part of the human race, and we're all like this from time to time -- ticked off and unappreciated, stopped from getting what we want by obtuse and stupid others, hurt by illness, politics, or nature, propelled by the adrenaline of anger and hope...we travel perilously in this world. If I didn't have to march out into it in just an hour or so, I think I've calmed myself down enough that I bet I could go right back to bed and sleep. And sleep. And sleep.

But I can't. It's time to get back out there.