Monday, October 29, 2012

The limits of politics


As you might imagine, with just over a week before the presidential election in the United States, politics is everywhere: polls and more polls, reports on the campaigns, yard signs, television ads, accusations from one group leveled at another, pleas from this organization or that for donations to help them fight the good fight.  It's hard to avoid, and to an extent--of course--one shouldn't avoid it.  After the debacle of 2000, no one can reasonably argue that elections don't matter.  Certainly this one matters, when the possible winner and his running mate espouse economic principles of the robber barons and would like to return the U.S. to that age--as if that worked out well the first time.   Of course it bothers me that at least 50% of the public, almost none of whom will ever be robber barons, appear set to vote for a man who will immediately begin to work against their interests.  (I think only in America could this happen.)  And yes, I make my jokes about having to move to France if Mr. Romney wins.  (Jokes?)  And yes, I laugh at or cheer various anti-Republican pictures or messages that come to me via Facebook; and yes I've given money to the Democrats; and yes, of course, I'll vote.  At the same time I find myself caring only so much.  I find myself switching the radio to another station when the reports come in; I find myself not reading the latest from the campaigns in my daily newspaper.  I find--because I've always found this to be true--that when I am most engaged, most animated, and most angry about a political issue, I am engaging only the outermost rind of my mind, not the inner place.  Not the place where I live.

When I first got out of college and was living in the Washington, DC area, I tried, like so many people, to find a job on Capitol Hill.  This was Washington, after all.  Jobs on the Hill were considered sexy.  That's why everyone wanted them.  I went around to a few Senate and House offices, put in some resumes, gave what might have sounded like an honest effort but really wasn't.  Because my heart wasn't in it.  I suppose I would have taken a job if one had been offered, but I knew what a long shot that was.  And those odds didn't actually bother me.  I knew, in the end, that I needed to go to art.  After all, it was the only thing I cared about. There was a reason I majored in English and not journalism in college.  There was a reason I filled out my electives with courses like Art History and Theatre History and Ethnomusicology.  These were the disciplines I cherished, the kinds of learning I respected.  And if you put me on the spot I would have to admit that what I actually think, right now, is this: 99.9% of what gets debated on Captiol Hill and around the country in various statehouses, what fills the pages of newspapers and the chattering air time of television talk shows and the screens of political bloggers, finally in the deepest sense does not matter.  In the deepest sense, art matters a lot more.  It matters more than anything.  In the end, art influences and determines a culture more than anything else.  Art is the culture.  Human history, for me, is one great big wheel that turns on the energy of art.  So for me, if that poem does not get written, or that song is not composed, or that film isn't made, or that sculpture is not completed, the consequences for society are far greater than if this or that bill passes; even if the poem or song or movie or sculpture is created by an unknown person who remains unknown, along with his or her piece of art.  The making of art matters that much.  This all might sound like mystical gibberish, but it's what I really believe.  I think, as an artist, I have no choice but to believe it.  But here's the thing: It's not a choice.  It's not what I choose to believe; it's what I do believe.

One thing I noticed as I researched my Van Gogh novel, and what I've thought about since I finished it, is how little Van Gogh commented on, or seemed to care about, the political climate of his day.  Such concerns almost never come up in his letters.  To learn about the hot political issues of Van Gogh's time one needs to abandon Van Gogh altogether.  I didn't think about such issues when I composed the book and, to my occasional alarm, do not mention them at all in the novel.   But  maybe this isn't so surprising.  After all, over the course of his thirty-seven years, Van Gogh lived in four different countries and was never in his heart a citizen of any of them.  He never felt embedded enough to see their political causes as his own.  He was always passing through and on to a greater mission.  The mission?  Well, his first career out of school was art dealing.  But this was less a personal mission than an aspect of his family's legacy; it was not a career he felt passionate about and against which he quickly soured.  His first real mission in life, few people know, was to become a minister like his father.  Say what you will about Van Gogh's epilepsy (as most now define his condition) or his "craziness" (as others put it more crudely), when you read his biography what comes across is a kind of Asperger Syndrome fixation on One Thing, and an Asperger-like inability to read emotional clues, especially the clues that might get in the way of the One Thing.  And the One Thing was never political in nature; such matters were simply off his radar of concern.  For a time, as I mentioned, the One Thing was to become a minister.  After that dream rather painfully crashed to death in the mining region of Belgium, he decided on a different and--for him--better One Thing: to become an artist.  If not for his ability to fixate ferociously on a goal, to work doggedly at that goal whatever the consequences, Van Gogh would never have become Van Gogh, and we would not have the paintings that we enjoy today.  The man was simply not blessed with an immense amount of natural talent.  What he was blessed with was an unprecedented willingness to work and a fixation on his mission.   It was this and not his "craziness" that made him brilliant.

He had a tendency to Asperger-like fixation when it came to woman too.  What I mean by that is that he apparently would decide a certain woman was The One and would henceforth proceed to ignore every single clue she sent him that said the opposite.  A few times in his life he tried to impose his romantic will upon the women he fell for.  He once even claimed that it didn't matter if a certain woman loved him, because he had more than enough love to make up for what she lacked.  Together, that is, they still added up to a 100% worth of love.  Now this is quite a pathetic argument, and about as unsuccessful in practice as you can imagine.  If he was less dogmatic in temperament, he would have understood that one cannot argue a person who does not love you into love.  It's not a matter of intellectual debate.  (Which is not to say, of course, that love is not a matter of mind.  In fact, I think of love as a profoundest meeting of minds, that certain feeling that you and another person share one mind.)  I don't think Van Gogh ever felt such love for anyone.  What he felt was obsession.  Which is why, despite his genuine talent for friendship, he never enjoyed a successful romantic relationship.  By the time he lived in Arles, he had long since given up on the possibilty of marrying--or enjoying any kind of exclusive relationship with a woman.  He even stopped visiting prostitutes because--so he reported--he had become impotent.  (This might, however, have been partly due to his peculiar fascination with Paul Gauguin.  Around the time of Van Gogh's famous breakdown in December 1888, Gauguin had become the One Thing.  And many commentators, with reason, read homoerotic language into the letters he wrote to and about the man.)

So Van Gogh's Asperger qualities--and I apologize if I seem to be using the term loosely--came with good and bad.  It ruined his chances with women.  But it also made him impervious to, and mostly ignorant of, the poltical debates of his day.  And that, as it turned out, was a blessing.  Freed from the many distractions and disheartening pettiness of civil affairs, he lived not in the rind of his mind but in its core.  And from out of that place came what really mattered.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Compliments and characters


A seemingly casual question emailed to the Writing Department by one of our resident linguists set the building afire yesterday with observations and anecdotes.  It is thought, the linguist said, that historically women have been valued for their appearance and men for their performance.  She wondered aloud, because a class of hers just had, as to whether this was still true today.  When you get compliments from your students or co-workers, are they more typically about matters of appearance or performance?  Simple enough question, with a sufficiently mixed response.  One male faculty member said, "Well I so rarely get complimented on anything that I don't think I can count in either category." I had to laugh at that.  Two female faculty members said that their compliments run about 50/50; but, of course, one of them pointed out, if the students have any sense of decorum at all they should know not to say anything about a professor's appearance.  I said that given my nonexistent fashion sense I don't typically get appearance compliments; more likely it's compliments on how this or that class goes, or about something I wrote.   One guy recalled that women sometimes say they wish they had hair as full-bodied as his rather exuberant ponytail.   One woman expressed relief that she is no longer told to smile by passersby in the hallway.   Eventually this all lead to a series of gratuitious, and rather humorous, compliments for each other.

Going right from one of these discussions into an afternoon classroom, I decided to raise the question to my class.  When you get complimented, what are you complimented for: appearance or performance?  Responses were mixed.  One female student told a story about a preschool class in which all the boys and girls were required to compliment each other once a day.  And you couldn't repeat someone else's compliment to a person.  You had to think of an original one yourself.  (What a great lesson--not only in observation and intuiton but in composing!)  The few male students in the room basically complained about the fact that no one compliments their looks.  The female student spoke up again, complaining about the behavior of men in bars (and virtually everywhere else).  "Why do guys think that just because a woman leaves her house, they can all surround her?"  She's afraid to even go to the bathroom at bars, she said, given the array of men that lingering and waiting for women to come out.  We worked through a few related topics: e.g., the perseverance of the phenomenon of catcalls, especially the driveby kind.  Why would you do that, I asked one guy.  "Well," he said, "because you know you can get away fast!"  No, I explained, you don't understand.  I'm not saying why are you able to do it, but why would you want to do it in the first place?  Surely, you don't think a woman is flattered by that?  He seemed perplexed.  One male student opined that men make hit-and-run catcalls because they would like to bestow a compliment on a woman but basically are too scared to do so directly.  The catcall allows them to express their enchantment at her beauty without getting caught.  Well, I said, that sounds downright pathological.   I don't think he saw my point.  Finally, we got to a subject that I think underscored all the day's questions, from the very first email sent around by our linguist to my student's complaints about catcalls.   Is it possible, I asked, for a woman to get tired of being complimented only for her appearance; that is, wouldn't an attractive woman finally get depressed at being seen as nothing but a pretty face while the rest of who she is gets ignored?  Yes, one girl intoned, without hesitation.  Two other girls in class disagreed.   Said one, "I'd never get tired at being complimented about my appearance."

It was a fun, quick, light discussion, but it put me in mind of a complaint I read from one writer a couple of years ago.   In an article in the AWP Writer's Chronicle, she pointed out that the female protagonists in short stories and novels--especially stories and novels written by men, but not only in those--are almost inevitably presented as being beautiful, as if this is a requirement for virtue and for esteem.  Not just pretty, mind you.  Not just "interesting looking," but obviously beautiful.  The writer pointed out what a cliche this was, first of all; but worse than that, it suggests that women who are less than staggeringly attractive can't possibly ever be someone's love interest or the center of a story.  Why not be a more clever, more disciplined writer and develop a more realitstic, more nuanced vision of your female characters, to say nothing of women generally?  Instead of making your protagonist simply Hollywood beautiful, give her a unique and idiosyncratic feature, something that is truly her own.  This all seemed like very good commonsensical advice to me, and made me wonder if at times I was guilty of this same sloppy approach, which is prevalent not just in pulp historical romances but to an extent in historical fiction generally, and not just in historical fiction but in all fiction generally.  Not that my heroines have ever been cardboard cut-outs--they weren't; not ever--but it occurred to me that I could probably put more work into making them as idosyncratic as possible, as idiosyncratic in appearance as they were, for me, in personality.  I brought this issue to the attention of one fiction writing class--which I should say was especially guilty that semester of this particular kind of sloppiness--and urged them to be a bit more broad-minded about their protagonists.  The reaction from a couple of male students was automatic and unwavering.  No way.  It's my story, and I'm going to make the woman beautiful.   Yes, of course, I said, it's your story; but how about making your story more artful; maybe more realistic? No, I want a beautiful woman as my protagonist.   I should have fought harder on the point, but I didn't.   I would now.  I wish they had been in class today to hear our discussion about compliments.   But then again, they might have been among those in the trucks bestowing driveby catcalls.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Learning about Hilary


No, not that Hillary, which is spelled differently anyway.  There's a probing profile in the most recent New Yorker magazine of English novelist Hilary Mantel, who is doing quite well for herself since she won the 2009 Man-Booker prize for her historical novel Wolf Hall.  I must shamefully admit that I have not yet read Wolf Hall--that is, until I started it yesterday. (So far so good.)  The profile, authored by Larissa MacFarquhar, is chock full of fascinating information about, and insights from, Mantel as well as some rather pointed commentary about historical fiction.  There's too much of interest in the profile to cover in one little ol' blog post, so go get the magazine and read it.  (Maybe you have already.)  But a couple things really stood out for me that I'd like to discuss.   First, MacFarquhar provides this rather loaded statement early in the article: "These days the historical novel is not quite respectable.  It has difficulty distinguishing itself from its easy sister the historical romance.  It is thought to involve irritating ways of talking, or excessive descriptions of clothes.  The past, in fiction, has more prestige than the future, but as with the future, its prestige declines with its distance from the present."  Really?  Really?  Are literary opinions really as myopic as that?  After Atonement and Girl with a Pearl Earring and Quiet Americans and The Book of Salt and Memoirs of a Geisha and Oscar and Lucinda and Cold Mountain and Ragtime?  Even after Wolf Hall itself and its followup Bring Up the Bodies, which won--just five days ago--the 2012 Man-Booker Prize?  (This is the first time, by the way, that both a novel and its sequel have won the award.  Kind of like the Godfather movies.)

Maybe so.  I hate to say it, but maybe it's so.  After all, Mantel enjoyed a long career as writer of mostly contemporary realist novels before she started Wolf Hall.  And the reason she wrote mostly contemporary realist novels was because her very first fictional project, a historical novel set in the French Revolution, something she labored over painstakingly and lovingly for four years, was rejected out of hand by agents and publishers.  As in without even reading it.  As in without reading past the first sentence of her query letter.  In the profile, Mantel tells a horrible if telling story: "'I wrote a letter to an agent saying would you look at my book, it's about the French Revolution, it's not a historical romance, and the letter came back saying, we do not take historical romances. . . They literally could not read my letter, because of the expectations surrounding the words 'French Revolution'--that it was bound to be about ladies with high hair.'"  I've encountered the same blind prejudice, and much more recently than 1979, when Manel's first book was so soundly beaten back.  Just weeks ago, I received a rejection letter in the mail from a magazine that is expressly commited to longer stories.  The long short story may be the hardest fictional form to publish these days, so it's disheartening when one of the few periodicals seriously devoted to the form--a form which may be my favorite--delivers a laundry list of what it will and will not accept in terms of content.  One thing it will not accept, the rejection slip explained, is "genre fiction"; and under the many kinds of fiction listed as "genre" there was "historical."  Oh, really?  So if I write a serious story about characters I care about and set it in the present, that's okay.  But if I write a serious story about characters I care about and set it in the past it becomes "genre fiction"?  Since when is human experience a "genre"?  I have never in my whole career ever thought of myself as writing genre fiction, even when I wrote a novel that includes as part of its reality the idea of humanity being watched by an extraterrestrial race.  (No, I'm not crazy, and, yes, it's actually a very serious book.  Think of it as literary realism with aliens.)

This gets to the unique double nature of historical fiction, its "unstable reputation," as MacFarquhar puts it.  Historical fiction is both a means of writing pulp and of getting to the most serious psychological realities of some of the most fascinating people and periods of the past.  I just don't understand why a two-headed creature should so constantly be defined by only one of its heads.  Especially by those who should know better.

Side notes: #1 The article on Mantel got me thinking of various other matters, related and unrelated to the author herself.  One interesting tidbit that comes up in the profile is that prior to composing Wolf Hall, Mantel's favorite of her own novels was The Giant, O'Brien, a mythological treatment of Ireland.   I am not one to ever tell an author (not even one of my students; especially not one of my students) as to where his or her imagination is "allowed" to go, but I have to admit to a certain disappointed sigh when I read Mantel's commentary on her book.  I think Ireland has been mythologized by the English quite enough already, thank you.

#2 For historical fiction's sake, to say nothing of Mantel's, I'm glad that Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies have earned such acclaim.  I hope the same is true of the third book in the trilogy, upon which she is currently working.  But I can't help but notice--on both sides of the Atlantic, but maybe especially on our side--an enduring fascination with Englands that no longer exist, whether that be Arthurian England, the England of feudal castles, the England of the Tudors, the England of the Enlightenment, Victorian and Edwardian England, the England of E.M. Forster, or the England of the great manor houses, those institutions that so famously came to an end not long after World War I.   In short, the England of costumes and of Empire.  Something about this has long pestered at me.  As much as I love Shakespeare and the literature of his contemporaries; as much as I love eighteenth century novels; as much as I love Austen and George Eliot and the Brontes and Wordsworth; as much as I was charmed by those Merchant-Ivory period films in the 1980s and 90s; as much as I think television shows like Downton Abbey are craftily written and brilliantly acted (and probably a hell of a lot of fun to be involved with), I hope we can all recognize that it's a good thing that the world depicted in such films and shows is gone.

It's been a while since I spent a serious stretch of days in England--2006 really--but when I go there I'm always struck by the same idea: England's best days aren't back then; they're right now.  This is not to underestimate the fiscal difficulties the country has recently suffered through.  I am well aware of such difficulites--we started them!  But England ranks not only as the leader of the EU but as one of the leading socialist democracies in the world; arguably the leading socialist democracy that is also significantly mulit-cultural.  In the various quality-of-life and happiness surveys that get released periodically, the Scandinavian countries inevitably come out on top.  But they are relatively small and relatively homogeneous entities.  As an American, I tend to think that heterogeneity is valuable on principle, something to aspire to whatever its drawbacks.  In recent decades, England has faced--and met--the extraordinary challenge of remaining both heterogeneous and socialist.  It's a country from which the United States could learn a lot--if we could ever get over the seductive lie that being American always means being Better.  It's a country in which, right now, probably the highest percentage of its citizens ever enjoy a passably comfortably life and a passably good education--a far higher number than under the Tudors, at least.   That is no small feat.  It is--and should be--a source of national pride.  And it's why I'm glad that for every Merchant-Ivory costume drama or The Tudors or Merlin there's a Four Weddings and a Funeral or a Love Actually to remind Americans that there happens to be a vibrant England of NOW.  I'll take that England over Forster's anyday.  Except you can keep the rain.  

Monday, October 15, 2012

Good news all around


As a writing teacher, you are regularly bombarded with requests to review this or that manuscript: to critique them, to edit them, to suggest publication venues for them.  These requests, understand, don't come from your own students--who get enough of your opinion anyway--but usually from total strangers, people in the public who make cold calls to Writing or English department offices, begging the secretaries to suggest names of faculty they should contact; or occasionally they come in the form of a mass email from a colleague who has been put in touch with one such stranger; and sometimes it's literally a matter of a person walking the halls of your building, manuscript in hand, hoping someone will listen to him.  Almost always it comes as a shock to these folks to hear that editing manuscripts is a time-intensive affair, work for which people actually get paid good money in the real world.   Almost always, word of having to pay for the service is enough to guarantee that the person hangs up, doesn't write back, or leaves your office.  Often with a mumbled reply along the lines of "Well, I don't really have much money to spend, and I didn't think I would be asked to actually . . ."  (Exactly what do they think writing professors do all day anyway?  Apparently, we are just staring out our windows, puffing contemplatively on our pipes, waiting for the next person with a project to come knocking, because god knows we don't have enough to do critiquing our students' work!)

This scenario took a different, better turn several weeks back when from my office desk I spied an older, nattily attired gentleman in the hallway knocking unsuccessfully on another faculty member's door and looking noticeably disappointed when no one answered.  I asked him if I could help him.  As it turned out, the man had written an essay that was quite important to him, and he was seeking editorial assistance.  Plus, he had brought along a short story written by his wife decades earlier, something they had discovered at the bottom of her desk drawer during a recent clean-up.  He thought his wife's story was a stellar piece of work, and he wanted some feedback about it.  Despite the fact that he stated up front he was willing to pay for the editing services--he was a retired professor himself, he explained, and he knew what a professor's time was worth--I resisted. As a writer there is always another writing project you need to get started on, and as a teacher there's always the next class to prepare for, so this resistance has become a necessarily automatic reflex.   However, as the man visited with me and told me more of his life's story, I became interested.  He'd grown up in Arkansas's delta region, in a home with an alcoholic father who on a regular basis drank up his meager paycheck, leaving his wife almost nothing with which to hold the house together.  Determined to escape from that home and that environment, the gentleman before me had--every day for four years straight--hitchhiked from his small town to the nearest university, which was twelve miles away.  (And not once, he declared proudly, was he late for class.)  His college education allowed him to become a science teacher in the local school system--just the escape he had worked so long and hard for--and years later he became a university professor.  This experience of making it through college at long odds was the subject of his essay.  As he sat in my office and told me these things about himself, it occurred to me that I was the one who should be helping the man with his essay.  And I wondered if I should offer to do it for free.  When he left, I told him I would spread word among the rest of the faculty to see if anyone among us was interested in picking up editing work, but I already knew which among us would probably be doing that.

As it turned out, I didn't do the work for free, but I did suggest a rather paltry fee--which this genteman immediately quintupled.  "Uh, okay," I mumbled, astounded.  How often is the counterbid higher?  His essay was certainly rough, but it had potential; obviously important stories were embedded in it.  In the critique I wrote for him, I encouraged him to bring out these latent stories, to put flesh on the skeleton of what he'd created.  When about a week later he came to my office to pick up my critique (and the critique for his wife's short story), he thanked me politely, paid me immediately, chatted for a few minutes, and then left.  For weeks I wondered if he thought he'd gotten his money's worth.  Well, it was to my true delight that he came by last week to inform me that my critique had helped him a great deal and that he had indeed revised and expanded the essay.  He was starting to understand, he said, what it needed.  He asked if I would look at it again; again for a fee.  Of course I said yes, and I was thrilled to see that he had made wonderful improvements to the piece.  There were still a few small matters to attend to, but it was so much better grounded, better realized now.  When I met with him a couple days later, he told me he hoped to publish it, and he even had three perfectly sensible venues in mind.  I encouraged him to send it out.  With the extra work he'd put in, he'd done justice to his own story; and in its new state it deserved to be heard.  He kindly took my joke that he'd proven himself to be one of my best students, and he asked if I would consult with him about a few other of his life stories he'd like to tell.  Certainly, I said.  Any time.

Lagniappe #1:  More good news for my Van Gogh novel!  One short chapter--it depicts a kind of stand off between Vincent and his exhausted, exasperated younger brother in Theo's cramped Paris apartment--has been accepted for the anthology The Man Date: Fifteen Bromances, forthcoming from Prime Mincer Press in 2013.  An up-and-coming outfit headquartered in Illinois, Prime Mincer is set to release its first title after several years of publishing Prime Mincer Literary Journal.  I'm very excited about this development, because the anthology will feature some impressive writers--Rick Bass for
one--and the competition to get in was fierce.  When I saw the announcement for submissions, I immediately thought of Vincent and Theo, those literal brothers, struggling to survive together in a one-man space in the spring of 1887.  The dark side of "bromance."  It seemed like a different, but appropriate, fit for the theme.  I'm glad Prime Mincer agreed!  For anyone interested, another chapter from the novel was published last year in New Delta Review.  Hit this link to read it.

Lagniappe #2:  I had the pleasure of attending a wedding of a former student this past weekend.  She was easily one of the best young writers I've ever taught, and the theme for the entire wedding was writing.  The bride even sported a pair of shoes with pages from The Odyssey découpaged on them.  The ceremony featured several fine poems.  I don't know about you, but I find reading poems at weddings to be a dicey, dangerously treacle business.  But all the poems in this ceremony were terrific.  One just blew me away.  It's from the inimitable e.e. cummings.  Like a great number of cummings's poems, it's a sonnet in diguise and known by its first line: "I carry your heart with me."  Who else but cummings could be at once so sweet and so profound?  

Monday, October 8, 2012

Unreal university


I had some great historical fiction news to pass on to everyone this week, but given certain developments at my university I think I will hold off on those until next time.   Some facts have come to light about a recently resigned UCA administrator that are so disturbing--so mind boggling--that I'm having a hard time thinking about anything else.  So for those not particularly interested in university politics, you might just want to skip this post.  Still with me?  If you've read this blog before, you might remember a post from early in the summer in which I complained that adminstrators at my university see themselves, and only themselves, as the real university and everyone else--meaning the actual academic departments--as something decidedly less real.  [To my knowledge only a single current administrator--our provost (whom I respect and thank for this)--has set foot in my department's building in the last two years.] Well, new information has come to light that suggests that the administration's conception of life outside Wingo Hall isn't just dismissive; it's unreal.

The week wasn't going very well anyway after a local newspaper revealed the nature of raises given to UCA athletic coaches last spring.  These raises were at the least a very tacky thing to do, given that faculty are told over and again that NO MONEY exists for raises.  It was probably this tacky quality that made our president keep mum about the raises until September.  But it didn't help that he then tried to claim that the raises were funded mostly with "private money."  No, actually, according to the newspaper report, they were funded mostly with public monies, monies derived at least partly from a fraudulent tutoring scheme in which coaches were supposedly being paid for supposedly delivering supposed tutoring, tutoring that was actually delivered by subordinates--for no pay at all.  We were originally told that the public portion of the raises came from monies available because the atheltic department had not used all of its salary allotment for the year.  That may or may be true, but even so it's a fact that no academic department at UCA can simply hold on to unspent salary money and direct it to other of its employees in the form of raises or bonues.  The administration regards such money as its own and takes it back.  An academic chair who tried to give a raise to an employee in this way would be slapped down.  Hard.   But at UCA it's a been a recent tradition--going back through three presidents--that when it comes to atheltic salaries, the rules that the rest of the university follows are rendered meaningless.  (A previous president allegedly laundered money through an advertising agency in order to give our football coach a raise.  His successor maintained a policy in which student fees designated for non-athletic purposes were funneled without apology to the athletic department.)

So as UCA shenanigans goes, this is pretty standard fare.  What's disheartening isn't really the raises themselves--which the coaches, like nearly all UCA employees, probably deserve in the abstract--nor even the fact that UCA's faculty never get raises, but that whenever funding is needed for any academic initiative the answer is inevitably no.  This could mean funds to hire a faculty member to replace another who has left so that we can continue to deliver important classes to our students; this could mean adding additional faculty members with important new skill sets in order to deliver vital new classes to our students; this could mean offering travel money to faculty so that they can attend conferences at which they disseminate their own reseach and hear about research done by others; it could mean replacing old and/or failing equipment so that academic departments can simply carry on their daily business.  (Right now, the laser printer in my department's work room is inoperable.  Why?  Because it needs a single black toner cartridge, and no money exists in our budget to buy one.  Yep.  You heard right.  We can't afford a toner cartridge.)  The underlying problem is that the reflexive response of this adminstration to academic needs is always to say no, even while it apparently bends or breaks the rules of the university in order to say yes to athletics.  Listen, I love football.  I've watched my university's footballl team several times and always enjoyed it.  But apparently the administration needs reminding that while the athletic department impacts part of the student population, academic departments impact 100% of the student population.  Without a football team, the university's academic mission, and the lives of nearly all its students, would continue unaffected.  But without UCA's academic side, its football team would have no reason to exist.

This less-than-real state of affairs turned unreal late in the week when the activites of one former administrator, who resigned early last summer, were made public.  This man, a close friend of our current president and until recently the second highest-ranking official at the university, one who had a job with the Nixonian title of "Chief of Staff," allegedly made a habit of loaning out the master keys to the university to young male "friends" so that these people could break into faculty offices and burglarize them.  These thefts allegedly included the theft of examinations, which the thieves then sold to other students.  According to the police affidavit, the chief of staff once even ACCOMPANIED his young male "friend" on one of these raids.  Now think about that for a minute.  He is the second highest ranking official at the university (and formerly its chief legal officer) and he is allegedly participating in a criminal assault on a faculty office.  According to the affadavit, these raids happened not once but several times, with faculty from across the university being victimized.  Such alleged actions go beyond a gross indifference to the academic mission of the university; they amount to open warfare upon that mission.  By someone at the highest levels of the university's administration.

I think it's a fair question to ask, as was asked of Mr. Nixon about a different break-in: What did the president know, and when did he know it? After all, the alleged key-loaner was the president's close friend, his old college pal,  and his chief of staff.  I am not suggesting that information currently exists that proves the president knew.  I certainly have no such information.  I am simply saying that it seems unlikely the president could not have had even the slightest sense of what someone so close to him did on a regular basis.  To questions about this new scandal, the president so far has only offered a stony "No Comment."  A more appropriate response would be: "This is disgusting, sickening behavior, utterly unbecoming an official at a university he puports to serve and a violation of the principles of my administration.  I'm glad he's not working here anymore."  But apparently all the president can say is, "No Comment."  Not a good sign.  We already know, by his own admission last summer, that this president was told by his chief of staff, midway through last academic year, that the master keys to the university were "lost."  The president knew that the security of the entire campus was compromised, and he apparently told no one for months.  He only revealed this security breach several weeks after the chief of staff''s young "friend" was caught on camera stealng prescription drugs out of a university office.  What did our president say immediately after the theft happened and his chief of staff promptly resigned?  "We thank him for his service to the university."  Thank him?  How about we thank the police investigators who have since uncovered this man's alleged criminal acts (there are more I haven't mentioned) and will soon have him behind bars awaiting bail?  That's who I'd like to thank: someone in public service who is actually doing his job.

As a contrast, let me point to Dr. Teresa Sullivan, the president of my alma mater, the University of Virginia.  Early last summer, Dr. Sullivan--who earned her Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Chicago--submitted to a forced resignation rather than enact certain academic cuts and redirections being forced upon her by the university's Board of Visitors, cuts and redirections that violated the nature, spirit, history, and mission of the university.   In short, she chose to be fired rather than do something that violated her own, and the university's, academic integrity.  Well, the entire campus, along with UVA's substantial network of alumni, rallied around Dr. Sullivan, and she was eventually reinstated.  The Board backed off.  Academic honor won the day.  The case created glowing headlines around the country for Dr. Sullivan and the special academic place that is "Mr. Jefferson's University."  Compare that to how quickly UCA administrators are and have been willing to throw academics under the bus.  Compare that to the kinds of headlines UCA administrators have been earning for their university over the last eight or nine years.  Anybody see a difference?

Life will go on at UCA, of course.  It always does when our administrators make a criminal mess of things.  We're pretty well used to it at this point.  As always, it will be faculty who will pick up the pieces, who will teach and advise students, who will grade papers, who will fill out graduation forms and who will generally hold the university together--and without raises.  What still remains to be seen is how many administrations my university must suffer through before we find one that understands that academics is at the center of any university's raison d'etre, that sees academics as something other than a sideshow that only exists in order to be robbed.

Monday, October 1, 2012



You've probably noticed that it's the rare creative person who is only creative in one aspect of his life.   The impulse to make new things--and make things new--can take on many faces in any one individual.   We can all think of the singer who is also an actor, the actor who is also a writer, the poet who is also a graphic artist, the comedian who is also a painter, the painter who is also a songwriter, the novelist who is also a terrific web designer.  Heck, I know people who wear five or six different creative hats.   For me, when I'm not writing, the creative impulse most often takes the form of cooking.   Not that I'm constantly concocting the most avande-garde dinners or trying for flavors so new they are alien.  With cooking and me, it's creativity in the most fundamental sense: it's the satisfaction of making something with my own two hands.   (And maybe a few knives.)

I can't understand people who say they "don't cook."  (So you're committing yourself to eternal take-out?)  Cooking is one of those essential life skills, isn't it; one of the reasons homosapiens have survived this long?  More to the point: What's not to like?  More to the point of this blog: It has lessons to teach about writing.  (You knew that was coming.)   True confession: Possibly my favorite two to three hours of the week are Saturday evenings in the kitchen, listening to NPR or Pandora, sipping from a beer, and assembling an interesting meal.  Cooking is a very centering activity; it's extremely peaceful, except perhaps at the very end when you are trying to making sure your plat principal, your salad, and your loaf of bread all are ready at the same moment.  (And after a little practice, that's no real sweat either.  Just takes a little planning.)  There's almost no aspect of food preparation that I don't appreciate.  There's nothing like the feeling of knowing that the garlic and onions you are putting into the pan with the heated oil were cut with your own hands.  And it's not simply a matter of food freshness--although that's undeniable.  What's most important is the feeling that you are participating as fully as possible in the creation of your own meal.  No, I don't can my own tomatoes, and I've never handmade my own pasta (although I probably should), but I've certainly passed on the presliced mushrooms at the grocery store in favor of the whole ones, simply because I wanted the pleasure--and the participation--of cutting them myself.  I've passed on pre-shredded cheese because I prefer both the taste of the stuff I shred myself and the knowledge that I did so.  I won't go near bottled alfredo sauce (or almost any bottled sauce except soy), and it's been a long time since I bought one of those silly lime-shaped containers of lime juice.  It takes two seconds to juice a lime, and the flavor of the fresh juice is more than worth it.

Do these activities add time to your meal prep?  Of course they do, but what's the rush?  You've got a beer, and your Pandora station is on.  Life is good.   Since when do we all have this notion that meals are supposed to be prepared quickly, and, even worse, that if a meal takes longer to prepare it is automatically degraded in some culinary existentialist equation?  For the French, longer is better.   For the Italians, slower necessarily means more supple flavors.  Only Americans seem to suffer from this strange notion that good meals can be created instantly.  No, they can't.  And even if they could, that wouldn't make life any better.  At least not for me.  That would take away my favorite two to three hours of the week.  It would also strip me of at least half the satisfaction I take when I bite into one of my Saturday night meals.  (Here I should probably clarify that I do cook during the week as well: more "weeknight style," but even weeknights don't justify instant meals.)  

There's a quotation I put outside my office door last spring.  It's from the nineteenth-centuryAmerican sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, a famously painstaking perfectionist.   He said, "A good thing is not better for having been made quickly."  (I suspect what he really was trying to say was: "Almost everything made quickly is pointless.")  This seems true not only of sculpture, and not only of cooking, but also of writing.  Especially novel writing.  Most especially historical novel writing.  Sure, there are cases of great but quickly wrought poems or stories or essays.  Even novels.  But there are many more cases of quickly wrought poems and stories and novels that are terrible, or unappetizing, or simply insufficient.   The writer was in too much of a hurry to be done.   Good cooking certainly requires skill; it requires experience and the knowledge that comes with it; it requires intuition; it requires concentration.  But it also requires patience.  Rushing a meal can ruin it.  It's never worth it, whatever the circumstances.  And I feel that way about my own writing.  Whenever I've rushed off a manuscript to a magazine or to an editor, thinking the manuscipt was good enough, it's never been a successful move.  The flaws that are evident to me are triply so to outside readers.  Better to take the time--and maybe that's a hell of a lot of time--to get the manuscript as best as it can be in your own two hands.  Because that's the only way the manuscript stands a chance.  More importantly, that's the only way it ends up being worth reading.  It took me some time to come to this understanding, but it's perfectly clear to me now that no one gets recognized or respected for their middling work, no matter how much of it is published.  The only thing worth recollecting--and the only thing that we do recollect--is the truly great stuff.  So take your time, chop your own mushrooms, and afford yourself the necessary patience to make something worth eating and worth recollecting.