Pomp, Circumstance, and the Woodchuck

I completed my requirements for my master’s degree by taking a seminar in metaphor, which would have been somewhat leaden if not for of its bubbly instructor.  My efforts in class included discussions of the Great Chain of Being and the metaphorical implications of proverbs, the latter including a nod to the original Mickey Mouse Club’s Jimmy Dodd, who regularly performed a brief musical salute to the subject.  Serious stuff, mind you.

I wish I could say I owe any talent I now have as a writer to Mrs. Seery, my second-grade teacher who hugged me before the entire class after I delivered my written re-cap of the class’s visit to the Ho-Ho-Kus, New Jersey, bakery.  Or to Mr. Chaffee, my English “master” at the boarding school.  A Yale graduate; navigator for a World War II bombing squadron in Europe; Vietnam War opponent; erudite; eloquent; witty; a natty dresser―I was in awe of the man, although he rarely gave me anything better than a “C”.  On the other hand, “No boy could have written this,” he said of a short story―a tale of love and death that aspired to Hemingway―I submitted to the school’s literary magazine, of which he was an advisor.  But I did write it, and I later proved to his satisfaction that he was mistaken.  I held no grudge, for with those few words he had in a way conferred upon me not only literary license, but manhood.         

But I cannot honestly extend the line all the way back to Thomas Chaffee and beyond: too much alcohol, marijuana, and intellectual laziness existed between him and my matriculation at UNM.  No, it was the university that was responsible for whatever succeeded in my master’s thesis.  I’m grateful to every one of my professors at UNM.  That said, my readings of Proust, Lessing, Camus, Garcia Márquez, Lawrence, Woolf, Hunter S. Thompson, Sandra Cisneros, Simone Weil, Barbara Tuchman; my limp analyses of Dickens, Graham Greene, and George Lakoff; my discussion of the iconic San Francisco de Asis church in Ranchos de Taos, New Mexico, which, as a non-Catholic, I should never have attempted―all take a back seat to my master’s thesis, the only achievement of which I’m truly proud as a graduate student.

Throughout my time at UNM, forever the solitary reader and writer, I had given virtually no thought to attending the university’s graduation ceremony.  Linda, however, had given it plenty.  She practically insisted that I don gown and mortarboard cum insouciant tassel.  No surprise.  She was, after all, proud of me.  And she did support us throughout my education.  So I agreed.

And then it occurred to me to invite my father to attend the ceremony, to finally proudly witness his son graduating from an institution of higher learning.  My father rarely got angry, so I never forgot the time, over the Christmas holiday at my sister’s house in darkest New Hampshire, when my father―and mother―trained their guns on me and fired.  It began with my sulking refusal to join my family in a game of Scrabble.  The next thing I knew, Mom and Dad trotted out a litany of bitter disappointments with me that they had accumulated over the years, including the fact that, although I graduated from Hobart, I never participated in the college’s graduation ceremony. 

So, although my mother was no longer around―she had been gone a decade―I thought my father would leap at the chance to journey from New Hampshire to witness me receiving a diploma at the UNM football stadium on a June morning.  To my surprise, however, he chose instead to do what he’d been doing for years in June following his retirement: go fishing for a week in the backwoods of Maine with several of his former business associates.  Was my father getting back at me?  Absolutely not.  My father was never small.  Yet I never questioned him about his decision, and he never offered to explain. 

It was a typically sparkling early-summer morning in New Mexico when I graduated.  At 44, I was undoubtedly one of the oldest students to be honored.  A decade earlier I would not have imagined such a moment.  Still, it was strange being decked out in a gown and cap.  I don’t doubt I looked dignified, even “scholarly,” but at times throughout the ceremony I felt like a woodchuck draped in a lace mantilla.


Processing Words

I composed my master’s thesis on the word processor of an IBM personal computer, which I had now owned for some five years.  Since owning several PC’s and a couple of laptops, I’ve never written a letter, article, or formal piece of creative writing with a typewriter, manual or electric.  When I write with a pencil and pen, it is only to enter raw, free-writing notations in my four-by-five-inch wire-bound journals, which I cherish as much as my finished manuscripts. 

Count me among those who love electronic word processing.  Like most writers, my literary mind is always working: I rarely get through a day when I don’t observe something, no matter how mundane, and then, in my head, attempt to render that something in the most fitting words.  Yet I cannot truly weigh the effect of a word, phrase, or sentence until it exits my brain and appears either in graphite or ink on a piece of paper, or in pixels on the screen of a computer.  And then I often tinker with what I’ve written, right down to the word.  Surely the software pioneers of word processing, while not necessarily creative writers themselves, had an intuitive understanding of this tendency. This yearning. This neurosis.  Sure, one can draw a line through an unsatisfying word, phrase, or sentence, a la Hemingway and millions of other scribblers who sweated over paper prior to the nineteen eighties, but the shortcoming remains in view, an annoying distraction.  Word processing banishes the imperfection, or at least sidelines it for reconsideration at a later date.  (I have an ongoing text file I call the “bone pile.”)  As surely as a human being is constantly weighing the most mundane decisions on a minute-by-minute basis, the writer is constantly weighing words.  Electronic word processing thus lends itself well to the obviously dynamic process of literary composition.   

Of course, the potential hazard of this is that the article, short story, or book is never written; the pile of raw clay―that is, the first of many necessary drafts―never makes it to the potter’s wheel or the pedestal, because the writer―and here I refer to the prose writer, not the poet―enthralled by his or her ability to tinker, erase, and replace on the PC or Mac, obsesses for hours over a word, phase, sentence, or paragraph and fails to projectile vomit the commonly recommended daily yield of a thousand or so words, fails to acknowledge that successful writers never get it perfect the first time and that a published book is the product of entire manuscripts drafted multiple times.  (And I’m indebted to John Nichols for this truth.[1]  

The final draft of my master’s thesis, printed on my dot matrix device―at the time, another fabulous innovation―numbered some 29,000 words.  I successfully discussed―as opposed to “defended,” which smacks of an adversarial relationship that did not exist―my manuscript with my thesis advisors: two professors of English and one of American studies.  Today, my thesis, along with thousands of others with identical bindings, rests in the basement of UNM’s Zimmerman Library, accessible to all, likely read by none. 

As I have written, my thesis yielded a piece in a literary journal.  In addition, my profile of Bobby won honorable mention at The Frank Waters Southwest Writing Award for Literary Achievement.  The highlight of that award was attending the awards ceremony on a beautiful fall afternoon at Frank and his gracious wife Barbara’s home in Arroyo Seco, New Mexico, just north of Taos and at the foot of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.  It was a thrill to meet the great, aged Frank Waters, still lucid but now wheelchair-bound and wrapped against the chill in a colorful serape, and stand amid the chattering aspens and upon the soil that so anchored, mystified, and inspired him.  The following summer, Frank died at the age of ninety-two.

[1] Meanwhile, John, who told our class that he wrote by hand all of his first drafts and typed all subsequent drafts of his novels, and who, with typical humor, once dismissed the word processor as the technical equivalent of “Little Lord Fauntleroy,” is now, if videos of him on the Internet are any indication, writing electronically.  The lure is obviously irresistible.


An Example of a “Process” Rhetorical Approach I Never Shared with My Students

How I looked forward to the day of the final exam!―although not simply because it meant the end of reading and commenting upon at numbing length those dreadful papers.  In a clever stroke, the UNM English department (and, I suspected, many other higher-education English departments across America) designed the exam and its method of evaluation in a way that I was certain would relax those teaching assistants who, due to lack of experience, likely needed some soothing justification for their unappetizing plans to flunk one or more of their students. 

The department fashioned three different topics for the exam―for example: “What did Ralph Waldo Emerson mean by ‘A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds . . .’”―one of which the student was free to choose.  Each exam was identified only by the student’s university identification number, and each was graded on a pass/fail basis by three teaching assistants, with the majority grade―or, in the case of complete success or failure, the across-the-board grade―determining the student’s fate.  A failing grade theoretically meant the student was required to repeat the course.  Ideally, such a blind “pass” or “fail” evaluation confirmed the assessment of the student’s regular instructor.  The failing student could challenge his or her evaluation with the English department, with the student’s instructor perhaps acting in the student’s defense.  

On a December afternoon, as the fall semester neared its end, in a spare room of the humanities building, I and about a half-dozen of my fellow assistants, brandishing pens, sat on the carpeted floor or at desks amid stacks of exam “blue books.”  The atmosphere was buoyant, often giddy, as we read exams and gaily entered our “P”’s and “F”’s and mercifully nothing more on the insides of the books’ back covers.  No holds were barred, no imagined feelings spared.  Occasionally a direct quote from an exam was tossed out by a grader for the group to . . . consider.  Some quotes amazed us with their insight, even their poetry.  More, however, were received with incredulity and merciless, chortling ridicule.  (To wit: “I question evolution.  How does a cell walking out of the ocean for the first time know its going to some day be a guys ear?”)  Because that was the point: It was finally our turn to blowhole. 

Several days later, I received the results of the evaluations of my students . . . and was rather amazed―and heartened―at how my standards, such as they had evolved, aligned with those of my fellow instructors. 

A final, traditional letter grade for each student who passed the final exam was assigned by the student’s personal instructor based upon the student’s performance throughout the semester.  Several of my students who had performed poorly during the fall, yet had managed to pass the final, put me in that twitchy “D” realm―twitchy because a “D” student was required to repeat the course as well.  However, after several beers, I issued each of those theoretical “D” students a “C” and hoped each was going to major in engineering.  In each of my two fall classes I awarded several “A”’s and about as many failures, with no students contesting my grades. 

Nonetheless, throughout the semester, I had an increasingly nagging feeling that I, my fellow assistants, and even the English Department were lowering the bars for each of the passing grades.  That is, grade-inflating.  However, a few beers with said assistants at a popular bar on Central Avenue directly opposite the campus would make this feeling go away, providing I didn’t spot a student I was preparing to flunk imbibing there―perhaps, like me, to drown a concern―as well.

I went on to teach another semester.  Again, despite the frustration, I enjoyed teaching, including the camaraderie with my fellow assistants, many of whom were pursuing their doctorates.  Yes, they were busy cranking out those “scholarly” papers I so derided.  Yet I respected their hard work, their love of literature, the pleasures they took in reading and writing, and their eloquence and wit on any number of topics literary or mundane.  I was as proud of being a teacher as I was of being a computer programmer.


Until Drops of Blood Form on Your Forehead

Teaching was indeed often “fun,” yet not without its frustrations.  I suspected my students dreaded reading Only Yesterday only slightly more than I.  I had never heard of Frederick Lewis Allen.  Unless it addressed, however tangentially, Hemingway’s experience as a meteoric literary figure in Paris, twenties American history, formal or “informal,” rarely interested me.  In high school and boarding school, I struggled through everybody’s twenties classic, The Great Gatsby.  Still, Allen’s writing, if often dry, was accessible; his subject matter pulled the student, if only for a little while, out of the drivel of Friends and Seinfeld and the mindless tumescence of “Me So Horny” 2 Live Crew; and the book’s various rhetorical techniques offered topics for discussion and writing.  Nonetheless, my “lectures” on the book were often met with bewilderment and silence. 

The second half of the course was somewhat enlivened with the next text: a collection of essays.  Its authors spanned the ages, from Swift and his famous “A Modest Proposal” (which, to my private embarrassment, I had no recollection of ever reading) to Stephen King and his explanation for our fascination with horror.  The essays, which could be read in a sitting even by the most easily-distracted youth, illustrated basic non-fiction rhetorical techniques: description, narration, compare and contrast, evaluation, process, argumentation, etc.  Many of the essays were interesting; one, Jessica Mitford’s discussion of embalming, was morbidly fascinating.  Yet generating classroom discussion of even contemporary matters was difficult.  Was I that unprepared, frightened, lacking in confidence as a college freshman?  Probably.  In any event, I enjoyed the discussions, lopsided though they often were.

What I quickly came to dread, however, was reading, commenting on, correcting, and grading the students’ papers―six per student, seven hundred to one thousand words per paper.  In the words of the great Thomas Wolfe, briefly a college instructor himself, the “huge damnation of that pile of unmarked themes . . .”  The grammatical ruin and ideational impoverishment of eighty percent of the papers throughout the semester staggered me.  Every ten days or so I’d face another mountain of tenses in disagreement; sentences incomplete; capital letters disregarded; periods missing; ideas tangled and incomprehensible; correction fluid applied with all the delicacy of a bricklayer; margins, lines, and paragraphs ill-formatted, even with papers obviously “word-processed.”  Slack-jawed, staring into space, I wondered, among other things:  Have any of these kids ever read a book cover to cover?  And: How many hours of MTV have contributed to this rhetorical wreckage?  And: Which concerns “Destini”―a student of mine rarely modest in matters of midriff―more: her ability to write or the visibility of that lightning bolt tattooed on the base of her spine?[1]  

[1] Speaking of which, the older I get, the more I am of the opinion that the masters distinguish themselves with education; the rest, with tattoos.  


And You Feed Them for a Lifetime

It wasn’t until my third year at UNM that I realized a graduate student could get some potentially worthwhile experience and earn money in the process by becoming a university teaching assistant instructing freshman composition.  The assistant received a modest stipend, was provided a shared office in the Humanities building, and was required to take several classes in composition theory while teaching. 

On the one hand, the bookish introvert I fancied myself to be recoiled at this possibility.  I simply couldn’t imagine myself in a blazer, dress shirt, bolo tie, khakis, and penny loafers standing―or, perhaps, sitting with an I’m-on-your-side casualness on the edge of an imposing desk―before thirty pimply eighteen-year-olds variously bright-eyed, asleep, anxious, and bored, pontificating on rhetorical approaches, syntax, theses, logic, and diction.  Then again, the eagle hadn’t flown for me in three years and I was beginning to feel guilty about it.  Furthermore, after graduation, a part- or full-time job teaching English at one or more of the various community colleges within a commute from my home in Albuquerque did strike me as a respectable way to make extra income while reaping royalties from my “underground bestsellers” and generally establishing my œuvre.  Of course, I invited Linda to weigh in on the idea of husband-as-professor.  I never doubted that she minded being, in Rilke’s words, a “guardian of my solitude.”  Still, a natural extrovert, she felt that teaching, in addition to bringing in some money, would expose me to new people and new experiences and thus do my craft and sullen art some good.  So I applied for the assistantship, and was accepted. 

Standing outside Mitchell Hall on a late-summer morning, professorially decked out, I clutched my Samsonite attaché case.  It was stuffed with thirty copies of my course syllabus and the text, assigned by the rhetoric department, for the first half of the course: Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920s by Frederick Lewis Allen.  I felt reasonably confident as I prepared to teach my first class.  I strode into the building, made a left turn down the first-floor hallway to my classroom, realized what I was about to do . . . and commenced to come apart.  My hands shook and my face flushed.  Surprised, astonished, terrified by the multiplying cracks and splinters in my composure, I paused in the hallway, furiously attempting to understand what was happening and pull myself together.  A minute later, I entered the classroom, breathing shallowly, feeling as if I were staggering, aware of but avoiding the thirty pairs of limpid eyes on me. 

After placing the Samsonite on the massive metal desk at the head of the classroom, I picked up a stick of chalk and prayed my trembling hand would legibly write “Mr. Davis” on the blackboard.  After I managed my name, I recalled the mantra―offered by Mike, my thesis advisor who also happened to be in charge of the freshman composition program―that was supposed to soothe the nerves of the novice teaching assistant: “You know more than they do.”  When I first heard it, the obviousness of it seemed to render it useless.  But, by heaven, it worked, and I relaxed somewhat as I scribbled my office location and hours. 

Throughout the fifty class minutes, as I went over every line of my syllabus with the students, I variously stood, paced easily a few feet to the left and right, and, yes, even sat on the edge of my desk like a lovable, venerated coach delivering a pep talk.  Finally, I issued my first writing assignment: “Four hundred to five hundred words telling me about the last book you read.”  I wanted to “get a sense of your skill levels,” I explained to my students. With this, a young man in the back raised his hand and tentatively asked, “Can I write about a biology book?”  Obviously a budding science or engineering major, I thought. In any event, almost certain he was referring to a textbook assigned by his high school, I was tempted to somewhat jokingly and with smug erudition reply, “Yes, if it’s On the Origin of the Species.”  Then, realizing this might be met with thirty baffled expressions, I instead offered to the young man: “How about a book from your high school English class?”  He thought for a moment, then smiled and nodded, which I regarded as promising.  By the end of class, I was thoroughly relaxed, thinking: They respect me, perhaps even fear me.  Wow.  This might be fun.  And I then proceeded a door or two down the hall to meet my one additional class.