Skip to content

On becoming a doctor of philosphy in English

I graduated this weekend, having successfully jumped through a myriad of academic, creative, and administrative hoops. Some of those hoops were incredibly enriching (six years of graduate coursework with excellent peers and faculty), and some of them were Hellishly awful (dissertation formatting, four North Dakota winters). At the end of all that, I got to sit through four hours of ceremony and monotone name-calling (of the “John Allyn Smith” variety, not the “You bloated warthog” variety), and was rewarded with a fancy black gown with three velvet chevrons on the sleeve (knowing only too late that I should have gone to a doctorate program in Norway, where graduates get swords. Swords!), a floppy velvet tam, and a pink and green hood, which could never function as a proper hood, and which I will probably never wear correctly.

And since I am now done with school (eep!), I can use words like “cogitate” and “ameliorate” in casual conversation. Were I responsible, I would weigh in on the value of college education in the creative arts, slog into the debate about MFA programs, or get busy translating exam answers into book chapters or conference presentations. But I really don’t want to, and now I don’t have to. I probably will eventually, but for now, it is nice to say, “Fuck all that,” and not have to worry about it.

And because I’m done, I can also begin, perhaps, if my brain is sufficiently recovered, to talk a little about my comp exams. If you’ve been through comp exams, you know, like I do now, that nobody on earth cares about your comp exams, how hard they were, how hard you worked on them, the long hours into the night you spent writing them, the wrong time-management strategies you employed, the short-term effects of caffeine and nicotine overdosing on the writing process, or anything else that goes along with having taken doctoral exams. But, perhaps like me, you have horror stories and triumphs you’d like to share. Lucky for me, I have this blog, which pretty much nobody except my lovely, patient wife reads. And I have, like all other takers-of-doctoral-exams do, the best taking-doctoral-exams story ever told to tell.

Here’s the shorter version: My last of three written exams, the pastoral. My committee members are the eccentric-but-possibly-brilliant department weirdo, chairing the exam, the surly-but-caring department chair, and the eccentric-and-surely-brilliant other department weirdo. All three are experts in some kind of pastoral tradition. My interest in the pastoral as a mode of writing is predominantly in what counts as pastoral writing in contemporary poetry. Most people apply the term incorrectly, and I’ll save you the pain of providing my explanations as to why that is or how it manifests.

The day of this final exam, I am at my most worried. I’ve passed the first two without requests for revision, and almost nobody, just on principle, passes all three without revision. This is also my most uncertain topic and committee. I’d only studied with one of them (the surely brilliant one), and none of the potential questions were about the craft of writing, so none of them would be easy to bullshit my way through.

The questions came. The first was nigh-incomprehensible, featuring both an unclosed quotation, and an open parenthetical. I had little idea what it was asking, so I used Wordsworth’s Prelude to describe the history of the pastoral mode of writing, and firther describe how that work altered the conventions of the pastoral forever. That answer would be as close as I got the contemporary pastoral poetry. Only missed it by 200 years, so not bad for English lit folks.

The second questions was about William Empson, who was a kook, and modern at least, but I had to illustrate ideas from Empson using classical, Elizabethan, and Romantic examples.

The final question was the one that got me. “How is the tension between poetic composition as imitatio and poet as vates resolved in pastoral poetry? Use examples from the Classical (Theocritus, Virgil or Mantuan), Early Modern (Sidney, Spenser, Milton, Marvell, or Pope), and Romantic (“Michael,” “Endymion,” or “Adonais”) periods to illustrate.

It’s a perfectly legitimate question. I could refer to content, form, rhetorical strategies, I could talk about issues of translation and the layering of problems of imitation that arise from it. I was prepared to talk at length about Virgil, Milton, Marvell, Spenser, “Michael” or “Endymion.”

I didn’t do that though. I’ve always had a curious-to-me impulse to mess things up. Usually over some foggy idea of principles. I once quit my teaching job, and thus my doctoral program by calling my comp director an academic Nazi in front of the department chair (who happened to be on this particular exam committee). I had weeks of detention in 7th grade algebra for showing up the teacher. I’m like the book critic in Tobias Wolff’s “Bullet to the Brain,” who can’t stop himself from being a smartass even when he knows it will get him killed.

I was tired. My brain was mush. I was out of cigarettes, and had two hours to write ten pages on that last question, which came nowhere near to my interests in the subject (to which many of you PhDs may respond by saying, “You don’t get to choose!” but in my program, the candidate develops the questions in conjunction with the committee, so it had been my stated desire to specifically address the contemporary pastoral poem), and which included an author, Pope, which wasn’t even on my exhaustive reading list.

So I said, “Fuck you” to my committee, in a very academic and I daresay well-written manner. I called them philosophical assholes and dunces, blamed them for the coming apocalypse in our culture, and passed without a request for revision.

Here then, is that answer:

Vates and imitatio

ON IMITATION

Splay the oozing Theophrastus on a catapult.

Pull the pus-covered cart to the Pellaen walls,

and cut the tensed rope.

Let the assholes of Assos preach about Truth and Form:

In the real world, a philosopher flying over a burning city is strangely beautiful.

And strange beauty sings that poetry is not bound by imitation.

~Ammonides (Translated by Alexandra Papiditsas and Kent Johnson. Chicago Review 48.4 (Winter 2002/2003): 100.

The question of the nature of poetry as received, and divinely-inspired or as mere imitation of actual things is ancient and well-trod territory. In the context of tensions visited by the pastoral mode, the vates/imitation tension is certainly present, but an analysis of it will only serve to cover that same territory. The problem with this issue as a critique of any kind of poetry is that it is grounded in the composition process rather than the composition itself. All art is both inspired and imitation. Language itself is an imitation, but of divine inspiration. It was with the Word that God created the world, and the languages of humanity are a pale reflection of that language, a weak imitation. But it is still divinely inspired, so the tension is irresolvable.  Added to this conundrum is the impossibility of knowing the poet’s mind at the moment of composition. Any poet or writer can claim inspiration, and how can the critic argue? That the poem is constructed of language relegates it to imitation, but that does not necessarily mean an a priori rejection of inspiration. That the poem is composed, and then likely revised several times, only confirms the impossibility of solving that tension. Perhaps the poem is divinely-inspired to begin with, but how to assess the revision? Could not the revision also be inspired? If the original inspiration is divine, how can it be revised? as divine inspiration implies a perfected first effort, if the poet is properly attuned. Certainly many pastoral poems invoke and thank the gods, God, or the Muses (or whomever), but those are the speakers of the poems, not the poets themselves (at least for the most part, until the Romantic period). But to resolve that tension, to be certain of whether the poem is inspired or imitation hardly seems useful, and in the extension of such an argument, the result seems like it must end in tautology.

The issue can be addressed by way of Wordsworth’s Prelude, already here discussed at length, and unavailable based upon the listed choices. Even still, the point is illustrative. Throughout The Prelude, Wordsworth clearly believes himself to be inspired by Nature, whose gifts and sights are often referred to as divine. In Book I, the wind on his cheek stirs in him the “mild creative energy.” Even though he did not respond to that particular moment of inspiration in the moment, who can say he was no less inspired still when he recollected the emotion from tranquil repose? That being said, the poems were substantially revised at least twice. Is inspiration or imitation derived from the speaker, or from the poet? And what of a presumably autobiographical speaker? These questions cannot be answered.

One author on the list does seem to engage with these issues directly though, and that is in Pope’s Dunciad especially Book the Fourth. This book was an addition to the original three fourteen years after their publication, a sharply satirical response to social, religious, and political tensions in England. In Book the Fourth, the empire of the goddess Dulness has been removed from London, to Westminster.

The section, “The Educator,” begins, “Now crowds on crowds around the goddess press, / each eager to present the first address” (lines 135-136). Dunces vie with one another (“Dunce,” derived from John Duns Scotus, “whose name had come to stand for silly and useless subtlety, logical hairsplitting.” Pope’s Dunces “waste their time on grammar (words alone) or the ‘science’ of the collector (things alone); they never comprehend that word and thing, like spirit and matter, are essentially dead unless they join” (Norton 2574).* From the tumult gathered around the goddess, a man appears, a “pale boy-Senator” holding up his pants with both hands.

            Then thus. “Since Man from beast by words is known,

words are Man’s province, words we teach alone.

When reason doubtful, like the Samian letter,

points him two ways, the narrower is the better.

Placed at the door of learning, youth to guide,

we never suffer it to stand too wide.” 149-154

The senator advocates restricting all education, but especially literature and the arts. “As fancy opens the quick springs of sense / […] we load the brain, bind rebel wit” (lines 157-158). The goal is to stifle thought, to foster the spirit of Dulness.

Book the Fourth concludes in the apocalyptic triumph of Dulness, who in the midst of celebrating the primacy of her empire, “but yawned. All Nature nods: / what mortal can resist the yawn of the gods?” (lines 605-606). Pope could be commenting there directly on the subject of inspiration. But instead of breathing in beauty and Arcadian dreams, the populace, unable to resist, is inspired instead, to sleep. Dulness reigns supreme as words have become meaningless. The Logos has no power, and so all the world falls asleep, in a brilliant reenactment of Satan’s threat in Paradise Lost “to return the world to its original darkness” (2574). The speaker, in desperation, tries to invoke the muse, if only to “relate” who was inspired by Dulness first and last, “’Till drowned was sense, and shame, and right, and wrong— / O sing, and hush the nations with thy song!” (lines 625-626).

But it’s too late. “In vain, in vain,–the all-composing Hour / resistless falls: The Muse obeys the Power” (lines 627-628). The muse, the only thing left with a sense of what words mean, cannot resist the power of Dulness. This is a powerful satirical indictment of an anti-arts education, but also serves to highlight part of our present problem regarding the irresolvable tension of inspiration and imitation: The Muse, however one defines it, serves the Power. Wordsworth’s muse was Nature, but whatever Nature inspired was in service to God. And yet what God inspired was for Wordsworth to recreate in language, what only existed in actuality (so if the tension is irresolvable, if Pope can be trusted here, that is how God wants it).

In the second coming of Dulness, she brings with her apocalypse, and rainbows, the “sickening stars,” wit, and

            thus at her felt approach, and secret might,

Art after Art goes out, and all is Night.

See skulking Truth to her old cavern fled,

mountains of casuistry heaped o’er her head!

Philosophy, that leaned on Heaven before,

shrinks to her second cause, and is no more. (lines 641-644)

In essence, the humanities have died. The antichrist, Dulness, has extinguished all which had been (all things common, perhaps, to an Arcadian Golden Age: love, interest, beauty, understanding). Genesis is finally undone, no “human spark is left, nor glimpse divine! / Lo! thy dread Empire, CHAOS! is restored; / light dies before thy uncreating word” (lines 652-654).

In essence, Pope’s argument is that God’s Word is undone by a failure to recognize the full range of meanings in language, in trying to separate word from object, spirit from matter, to split the hairs of inspiration and imitation. Each is a version of the other, and no matter how the terms may be applied, the tension between them cannot usefully be resolved.

* As Pope was not on my reading list, I wanted to make sure I specified the version I used for this essay:

Pope, Alexander. “From The Dunciad.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The

            Restoration and Eighteenth Century . Vol. 1C. Eds. M.H Abrams, Stephen Greenblatt.

NY: Norton, 2573-2579. Print .

Letter to an Old Friend

Dear Mel,

I’ve been thinking about that trip to Ensenada. I remember much of it very clearly. Elizabeth’s cramped yellow Volvo, no air conditioning and the heat. The massive pot holes and random cows in the road in Mexico, and the graphic “Don’t drink and drive” accident re-creations on the roadsides. The market in Ensenada, the resort we didn’t stay at, the one we did, Playa Mona Lisa, I think. Drinking Tecate on the beach, and the resulting heat stroke.

What I remember most though, was you pulling me aside one afternoon. It may have been the day we got there. You said something along the lines of, “Everyone is having a terrible time.” I said something like, “Yeah, me too.” And you said something like, “It’s you. You’re complaining about everything and criticizing everyone. You’re making everyone miserable.” I probably said, “Nuh-uh,” or something similarly dumb. But I thought about it then, and I think about it now. I’d been such a negative person for much of my life, expecting everything to be tailored to what I wanted, but I had no idea what I wanted. I just wanted. And not knowing made me an angry person, which just made me more negative.

I remember that trip fondly, but I don’t know if anyone else who was on it with us does. I hope I mellowed out after that, but I doubt it. I probably pouted and sulked and drank. I certainly didn’t believe you for a long time.

But I always remembered what you’d said. “It’s you,” you said. Eventually, I understood what you meant, a failed marriage, and most of my twenties gone.

Thanks for having said that.

thom

A Good Friday

Today is Good Friday, a day I don’t have to work, which by definition is a good Friday. But this is officially Good Friday, a holy day, the day of Christ’s crucifixion (as far as I understand things. My education into the calendar events of Christianity is slow. In my defense, Lani isn’t positive either). There are probably some Catholic things I ought to do today, but I don’t know what they are, and not being a big fan of ritual anyway, I likely wouldn’t do them if I knew what they were. I can honor Christ’s sacrifice, I think, without knowing exactly how to do so. For instance, I can rejoice that God was willing to sacrifice His son, who lived the perfect life to die in my place, though I do not deserve such grace. Frankly, I probably don’t deserve the grace of a day off of work either. I have papers to grade, which I have had for a month or so. I also have some final selections to make for the new issue of the journal.

Instead, I spent the morning in the yard. I dug in the earth, prepared beds for vegetables that we’ll eat all summer and fall, and hopefully into winter, spent good time with Sam, and generally had fun on a sunny day in a soggy April. The chicks are getting their feathers. The coop is finished. The garden beds are coming together. All of these things honor Christ, in my eyes. Becoming more intentional in my interactions with His creation. Teaching my kids responsible behaviors. Practicing skills I’ll share with the children of West Central this summer, through Project Hope’s Riverfront Farm, providing them with skills that may help them overcome poverty, crime, drugs, boredom, and who knows what else. So I hope. We are also participating in Plant a Row for the Hungry, donating a row from the garden to local food banks. I hope that the simple fact of fresh eggs will help me build meaningful relationships with my neighbors. I feel really good about these things, and if they don’t honor God, or Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, then I guess I’m a bad Christian. But I don’t think there was much doubt about that, anyway.

Sam and his Tonka trucks were a great help.

Using the dumptruck to fill in gaps in the pathway.

Sam fills in gaps in one of the pathways we put in.

Lani turned dirt and weeded a bed which will soon be potatoes.

Put in two pathways and the two semi-circle beds today.

January, 2011

I don’t make New Year’s resolutions.

I’ve been going to church for one year. I was baptized in August, and began to take communion a few months earlier, meaning I accept the blood and body of Christ into my body, literally or metaphorically, depending on your position (metaphorically, for me). Yep, I’m a Christian now, after years and years and years of what can only be described as apathetic agnosticism. I won’t go into all of that now. I began and completed my doctoral examinations, passing each the first time (which, from what I have heard, for my institution, is rare), and published a book for Alan Botsford (Walt Whitman of Cosmic Folklore). I became the editor of a literary journal, taught many students many things, intended and not, fixed my Jeep twice. I felled, cut, hauled, stacked, split, and burned over five cords of wood. I scolded my children, wrote some poems that were no good, and some that were, cooked many meals, saw one nephew out of my home, and later, accepted another into it, made love to my beautiful wife on many occasions, walked over twenty miles in search of deer, shot at zero deer, shoveled 150 feet of driveway several times, read forty-four poetry manuscripts for publication, loved my children, washed many dishes, many clothes, planted, watered, weeded, harvested, processed and ate tomatoes, garlic, onions, Brussels sprouts, lettuce, peppers, green beans, sweet peas, carrots, eggplant, tomatillos, fingerling potatoes, squash, and cucumbers, celebrated my wife’s triumph over cancer, hoped (and prayed) for my father and father-in-law’s triumphs over cancer, hunted for elk, petted my cat, watched the snow fall, and done several other things.

I intended nor resolved for none of those things.

Except perhaps going to church. By December of 2009, I had planned to begin attending Vintage Faith Community, where my friends Jeff and Rylie attended church. Also, I had planned the garden. But it didn’t turn out the way I had thought it would. Nothing did.

So what could I resolve for 2011? Love more? Write more? Welcome more people into my home? Cook more? Drink more? Walk more, hunt more, camp more, live more in love, more independently, more off the grid? Love God more? Listen to more beautiful music? More birds?  More love, more love?

Yes.

I resolve many things. And shall not know them, but by what I cry, by what I shout only to the moon, what I shout-what lies I tell to my friends-only by what I leave behind, after another long, dumb year.

Sometimes my day goes like this

Some people think that teaching isn’t a real profession, that it’s a cop out for those who have no real skills in life, enough so that there is a cliche: Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach (to my eternal chagrin and shame, I once said this to a teacher, while I was a high school student. I was an ass. Deepest apologies, Mrs. Becker, I spoke from abject ignorance). Maybe from a certain perspective the cliche seems true. I was a skilled retail bookstore manager, and could have kept on doing that. I am also a proficient carpenter, lumberjack, baseball player, marksman, lover, gardener, landscaper, video game player, and time waster. I could, with certain exceptions, make a living at any of those professions, should a profession apply to them. Really, I was too lazy to be a great ball player.

Sometimes, getting Facebook updates from my trucker friend and his constant driving, loading, and unloading, from Spokane to Castlegar, to Winnipeg to Ontario to Lincoln, to Sioux Falls to Fargo to Red Wing, to Omaha to Minot to Boise to Denver to Vancouver and back to Spokane, or a social worker friend who works late shifts, or my brother who works forty or sixty hours a week fixing the planes you fly on at not much better than minimum wage, or my father-in-law working the graveyard at Summer Falls or Main Canal generating hydro power, I do feel like, with my four day work-week, eight hours of office hours every week and eight hours of class time each week, that I’m not really pulling my societal weight. If it makes those other friends of mine feel better, I don’t make very much money. Teaching at the professor level is really not that great a job, money-wise, starting out, and I came to this profession later than some. Still, I make enough. Some months, just enough. Still, I have summers ostensibly off, and weeks at a time in winter and spring. More than most. I will say this though: my work comes home with me. I dream about it, I stay up until one or two in the morning grading papers, reading material for the next day’s lecture two or three times a week, and I think about my students all day, every day. While my clock hours, in my office might be less than a tradesperson’s might be, I often long for a job I can leave at the job site. Still, the job isn’t without incredible rewards.

This was my day today:

I woke up at 7:30, saw Lani off to her unrewarding, recently notice-given job, and checked my email. With the journal, you never know who might email in the middle of the night, even though I was up until one the previous night/morning waiting for an author or student to email a submission or question.  Just in case. After email, I get my coffee, finish getting dressed, make sure the kids have breakfast, and say “time to brush teeth,” at which time Sam, my youngest, starts to cry for whatever reason (he hasn’t played with his sticker books enough or finished his cartoons, but it could be anything). Emma is usually pretty good at this time, because, thank God, she likes going to school, and knows that that’s next.

I deliver Emma to school and Sam to daycare at 9:00. It’s a Friday, and I don’t teach until 3:15, so I have some time to run errands, or to prep, grade, read ahead, prepare a lecture, meet with students, accept or reject submissions for the journal, fine tune the layout for the journal, fine tune the cover for the journal, plan the journal’s launch party, find ways to drum up subscriptions, or play Angry Birds on my phone. Today, it’s errands.

First stop: U.S. Forest Service office to get permits for my weekend woodcutting trip. Meet a nice guy named Dave at the counter, also getting a wood permit. He’s a tradesman, HVAC now, working on a big job in town. Next month he’ll be in Wenatchee, then in Moses Lake installing duct work in the new BMW plant. He’s been an apprentice for three years, and had been a concrete man for fifteen years before that. But the bottom fell out of the housing market and he couldn’t find work. His wife has been out of work since January, but recently got hired here in Spokane. His mother-in-law lives with them. He has eight cords already and needs eight more to heat the mother’s cottage, his home, and his shop. His sixteen year old son…if only kids today listened to their parents. Dave remembers what he was doing at 16, and it wasn’t good. He has a lazy eye, and it makes looking at him difficult, because I never know which eye is working. I try to be genuine, and I am interested in his story. As a writer, I am always interested in everyone’s story. The lazy eye throws me off. I find myself wondering if I want him installing HVAC in my house if I can’t tell which of his eyes is good. The woman at the counter bails us both out with maps. I’m a total sucker for maps, and she has two different maps of the same areas. Dave and I are cutting wood in the same plot, which helps, logistically, but pretty soon, I want him to go away, for this to be my story, my triumph.

These three maps details the 3-digit Forest Service road numbers for all of the roads in the vast Colville National Forest. These three maps also show where current timber sales have been granted. You may not cut on designated timber sale land. But look, these other four maps (different scale, different territory) delineate the six-digit Forest Service road numbers, and are more accurate. They include topography, but not timber sales. Combine these maps, and you will know where to cut. Dave and I look at each other and wish each other luck.

Next stop: the General Store. I need a two-inch trailer hitch and baling twine. Hitch, pre-mounted on a stinger, no problem. Baling twine, sold out. I’m still thinking about Dave, and about Lydia’s story about two childrens’ misadventures in a turtle pond, which I’ll be talking to her about in an hour. She has created three different thematic overlaps without realizing it. One is age, another time-of-year, another physical geography/the scene in which the story takes place. They all work well together, i just need her to realize it.

To school: My office is usually broiling hot, even on these early fall days, so I open some windows. I’m blessed enough to have three of them, and the room cools down fast. I check my email again. You never know.

Lydia comes by, and we work on her story for 45 minutes. During that time, I convince her that she is in fact onto something in the story, convince her of what those things are, that she is in fact a good writer and that she should not only keep this story, but add an adult narrator frame to fix the point of view issues, andaccentuate the three overlapping tropes she hadn’t realized were there. She leaves excited about the story, about writing, and, though I won’t give myself too much credit on this one, excited about what life might offer her,as a writer of stories.

It’s noon, now, and I have more errands. I go to Target first, to find a lamp for my office. It has fluorescent ceiling-lights, but they hurt my eyes, and are aesthetically displeasing. A CFL floorlamp will help light the back corners of the office on gloomy fall and winter days. While staring at the bewildering choices and wondering what each will say about me as a professor and person, my phone rings. Earlier in the day, my friend, who was to help me the next day with woodcutting, had texted me, asking what the plan was for the following day. I’d answered, knowing that he was at, or was soon to be at, a doctor’s appointment with his wife. When the phone rang in the lighting aisle at Target, I had no ideas beyond what we’d be doing the next day. The appointment had not gone well. Had gone, in fact, as badly as it could have, and not for the first time this year. I won’t supply specifics, but there, under the awful glow of fluorescent ceiling lights, my heart broke for my friend. He’s a perfectly stoic hero, but his voice carried his grief, and I offered my ridiculous, “Geez man. I’m sorry.” I hung up and cried in the lighting aisle at Target.

And this is the shitty thing about life. I had stuff to do. I cried for my friend, picked a stupid lamp, paid for it, and went to Brucchi’s and bought a sandwich. Practicality being what it is, I called my dad, told him I didn’t need his rig after all, nor his saw, called the rental place and told them to cancel my trailer reservation. All of this, while my friend is coping with his wife’s horrendous pain, and I have nothing to offer him except “Geez man, I’m sorry.”

I go back to my office, try to put together my stupid lamp, figure out I need a screwdriver I don’t have, and eat my sandwich while reading the Inlander. Meanwhile, I feel like a douche, as my friend and his wife suffer.

Then:

The best class I have, my absolute favorite. Upper division, English majors, book editing and design. This is the class I live for. It’s my own design, and I’m not sure anyone else on the campus could teach it. This is what I have to offer.  Today they are workshopping each others’ potential blog posts for the R&S website. We start with  a discussion of what we’ll be doing next week: typography and actual design. The Gap has recently produced a ridiculous new logo, and we talk about why. Here, I find purpose.

The workshops go on, small group style. I circulate. Three or four are potentially publishable. Most are not. That’s the nature of writing in an academic setting. You can grade on effort all you want, but eventually, you have to say to them: “You are good,” or, “You are not.” Among the best of the pieces is a brilliant student trying to cope with the death of her beloved grandfather. That coping is somehow juxtaposed with a gratuitously ultra-violent film, and the essay pulls it off. Her colleagues do not understand, and pick it apart, which I only catch too late and try to put an end to. Eventually, I succeed. This is one of the best short essays I’ve ever seen, and I can’t say to her colleagues, “Hey, you’re just wrong. In a few years, when you’re better writers or readers, you might get it!” But that’s what I’d like to say. I do what I can. Overall, the class goes well, but I keep thinking about my friend and his sorrow. I keep thinking about it. And the death of my student’s beloved grandfather, and the inherent beauty in Lydia’s story, and my own children, learning to count to 100 by fives, and by twos and tens and I’m not there, one son in Germany with his mother and he won’t talk to me, another son at day care learning that Halloween is just a time about candy, “Check the syllabus for the reading, we’ll start the design unit on Wednesday.” What matters if nothing matters? What matters if it all matters?

I keep three students after class. They are the ones I’ll publish, the ones who have it, the ones I can’t grade on talent, to whom I can’t say, “Holy fuck, you kill me with your brilliance. I wish I’d been half as perceptive or good or talented or committed as you are when I was your age.” Instead, I say, “Send me drafts by Monday, and we’ll see.”

On my way back to my office to head home, I talk with one student about the incapacity of her peers to adequately assess her writing. “They don’t get it. That’s how it will be, sometimes forever. You’re that good.” I don’t say that. Instead, I say, “Take it to another professor you trust, see if they agree.”

On my way back to my office to head home, I stop by a colleague’s office to say someone he recommended for the journal’s cover art might come to visit. He then recommends her brother, a musician, and calls up some music. I sit in my colleague’s office and listen to this music. Fuck. Me. Fuck me. The music is unreasonable. This 20-something white guy sings like a 70-year old blues or soul master. It’s just beautiful, as these moments often are. Liv walks in with Arlo, and we all talk about that. And I think, on various wrinkles of my brain, “This guy could make R&S look really cool with his bluesy sound,” and “Arlo and Liv are so awesome,” and “Fred is the coolest guy ever,” and “C’mon God, [my friend and his wife] want this so bad. Please help them, please,” and “This is my job? I couldn’t find these people on my own if I wanted to.”

And then I’m back in my office. And then I’m leaving. And then I’m walking past the English building, the art building, and someone calls my name, says, ‘Hey Thom, hey!'” It’s two former students, separate years and separate classes. One is filming the other in a parkour and poetry sort of film. Urban running and words. I watch for a few minutes. Two guys I love, and two guys I never would have put together. I watch for a few minutes and leave. Home to my kids, my wife, my next day of wood cutting. It’s a different kind of day, tomorrow. I’ll be grieving for my friend, hoping for my students. I’ll be cutting down trees to store for my family’s warmth come December, planning, reading, preparing.

I don’t make HVAC systems work in new factories. I don’t fix your airplanes. I don’t make your life safer. I teach teenagers and twenty somethings how to write, how to edit, how to design, how to be in this world. And if you don’t think that that is work, the best possible work, then talk to me some more, and we’ll see.

The reasons I neglect you, blog.

So, it’s been a little while. And I was on such a roll, posting regularly. But it occurs to me that posting what I eat for dinner is about the most banal thing I could do. Not that I won’t continue to do it, but good lord it’s dumb. On the other hand I have to teach a personal essay workshop in January, so this is sort of like practicing for that.

So a new school year is about to start. It’s been a good summer. Couple camping trips, some excellent gardening, saw family. And worked. Not like a real job, but I worked quite a bit for someone on summer vacation. The best part about all that work was not getting paid for it. Through a series of happy coincidences (some might say, according to God’s plan for me), I became the editor of Rock & Sling, a literary journal with a Christian attitude. We started collecting submissions in the spring for an issue to come out in December (please subscribe), and I didn’t really have to do any work on it this summer. But like many stupid academics, I take my job a little too seriously, or to put it another way, I want to do my job too well.

So instead of spending every moment I could with the kids (not that there wasn’t plenty of that), or weeding the garden (again, plenty of that went on as well), or volunteering to communities in need (did some of that, too), or reading hundreds of books for my doctoral exams in the fall (if I never read about the pastoral again it will be too soon), I worked, on average, twenty to thirty hours each week on the journal. I knew this would be the case, and I have no regrets. So far, it has been awesome. It’s a journal returning from a two-year hiatus, and I’ve been contacted by a number of people who loved the journal before and can’t wait for it to come back (subscribe). I’ve got seven or eight students who have worked all summer (for free, bless them), some of whom will continue to volunteer during the school year, even though they’ve graduated. I’ve got great cover art. Whitworth has given me an office (in an un air-conditioned building, alas) of my own (a rarity for lecturers here), a sweet new laptop with a 21-inch external monitor and dock, and the full Adobe CS5. All in all, it’s a great deal, and I feel lucky (or blessed, depending on your persuasion). And I could have not done the work this summer. It’s possible I could have gotten through it in the fall, but as I noted to my interns as we prepared for our final meeting of the summer, we’ve read over 300 pages of submissions so far. I’ve probably read half again as much that didn’t need to be considered by them. I knew this was the deal when I took the job. An ass-load of work, for little to nothing in return, except for the pleasure of having made this great journal, and getting to teach some pretty awesome students about the process. It’s hard. It’s time-consuming. It’s awesome.

That being said, I still have forty or fifty books to read for my exams (in November), three classes to make syllabi for (classes start in two weeks, plenty of time), and the usual family/home stuff.

This summer I also prepared the paperback version of Alan Botsford’s Walt Whitman of Cosmic Folklore, and helped the author plan a book tour for the fall. That only took a couple hundred hours.

I could make things easier. I could not be a publisher, or an editor. I could be in the garden every day, keeping it weed free. I could spend some of that time writing some poems (gasp), or spending more time with Reader Leader and the kids. Maybe I could have trained the dog to walk on a leash. But I didn’t do those things, and I won’t make it easier on myself by not doing those things that the world would never notice were they gone. The literary world doesn’t need Sage Hill Press, or Rock & Sling. But I guess I do.

Hot-house cooking

Doldrums. Dog days. Heat wave. Whatever you want to call it, it’s been hot here lately. Not oppressively hot, but hot enough I don’t want to be outside, or inside. We don’t have AC, just some fans, and that keeps it tolerable along as no other variables are added. Like having the stove or oven on. Or moving. At night, we use wet towels on various body parts to stay cool. So cooking has sucked lately. Which, other than just because it’s awesome, is why we grill so much. At least it isn’t inside. The house stays cool until about 2 or 3, then the front of the house is in full sun. We don’t open our blinds or curtains, but it’s a brick house, old insulation, and there just isn’t much we can do to keep it cool. Once the sun is on the front of the house, it starts to cool down in the back, so we migrate from the front porch to the deck, and it stays manageable.

Unless we need to do some cooking. Two night ago we had the Mother and Mother’s Husband over for dinner. Kept it very simple. Grilled tri-tip (and the remaining raw bulk of Steak Night’s failed ribeye) over a salad of lettuce, peas, red onion (most of which came from the garden), blueberry vinaigrette, and parmesan. It was good. Conversation was good, and the evening turned out fairly cool.

Reader Leader has had a burr lately to make ice cream, and for whatever reason, yesterday was the day. I stayed away from the kitchen most of the day, opting for an afternoon nap in the basement, where it was tolerably cool. Now, when Reader Leader decides she’s going to make ice cream, she’s not fooling around with a gallon. What’s the point? All that effort, and one gallon? One flavor? Pshaw, she says to that. P. Shaw. Cherry, plum, strawberry, blackberry. That’s just what got made yesterday. There’s more coming, including a rumored dark chocolate-cayenne. I dislike dark chocolate (chocolate of any kind, really), but that sounds intriguing.

Making ice cream in our house means noise, as does just about anything in our house. Often, she’ll run the machine in the garage, but yesterday, it was in the kitchen. All day. And loud. Continued exposure to loud white noise makes me a little cranky, so at about 5, I decided I wasn’t making dinner. No problem, Reader Leader says, we’ve got everything for tater-tot casserole. I love tater-tot casserole. Any time you can mix two cans of cream of mushroom soup with meat and frozen potatoes, and finish it by melting roughly a pound of Tillamook cheddar over it, well, the result, as the Dissertation Faerie calls it, is food porn. I marveled at Reader Leader’s willingness to stand in the already-hot kitchen for another hour,  brown ground beef, and <shudder> preheat the oven. I even got the meat out of the freezer for her.

At having entered the kitchen long enough to put the frozen log o’ beef on the counter, and in said time sweat off several pounds, I quickly retreated back to the deck, played some Bejeweled, and tried not to read an essay called “Arcadia Redux.” It’s not a bad essay, in fact parts of it are very good, but I need some time away from pastoral theory. So tonight I’m starting a biography of Baudelaire by Sartre. Cuz that should be fun.

Anyway, an hour later, Reader Leader comes out of the kitchen, sweat running off of her, hands me a piping hot plate of hotdish, and flops down with her own. We love this dish. I’ve been known to eat an entire pan of it. But it comes out of the oven at about 300 degrees, roughly matching the temperature in the kitchen. We ate it. But didn’t quite enjoy it as we ought to have.

But we now have lots of ice cream, and waffle bowls to eat it from. Huzzah!

Forecast for tonight: Burgers from leftover log o’ beef. Probably nothing fancy. Already thinking ahead to Saturday night’s fish fry with three dinner guests.