Tuesday, March 31, 2009

 

In Which the Waiting is the Hardest Part...


My mom marched me down the hall to the classroom where Mr. F held court. And with each step--especially when we passed the spot in the hall where only a few hours earlier I'd been made to stand, and cry, and surrender my Story Book--I began to rethink accompanying my mom to talk to Mr. F. I knew from experience that my mother could be hell on wheels and would not tolerate anyone having at her child, especially for a wrong he had not committed. In fact, judging from her muttering as we walked, I think it's safe to say she was in a state of disbelief over the man's behavior.

She wasn't the only one who was incredulous. Up until that point, I naively understood that there was only one kind of teacher--the beneficent, wise adult who loved all children equally and who only lost their tempers in the face of the most outrageous childish behavior--and even then only to children who really deserved it. It had never occurred to me for one minute that there might be a teacher who would take an unreasoning dislike to a kid--to me in particular--and who would so utterly lose his cool in the presence of that child, and of other children, never mind another teacher. It was an awful thing to realize, I can tell you. It had a way of making the floor beneath my feet feel unsteady somehow. I felt that I had uncovered some kind of secret I was not really meant to know and the knowing of it made me feel terrible and small and scared. I can still recall the utter misery of that feeling on that day.

Although, I must say, it was wonderful having my mom with me. As a child, I was much closer to my mom than to anyone else in my family and having her by my side--slightly leading the way, in fact--made me feel hopeful, despite my intense trepidation. True, she never coddled me or was mushy or drippily affectionate to me--certainly not in the way she would be to my offspring some two decades hence. But she never failed to tell me and my brother that she loved of us, and she had always made it clear that we could count on her at any time for anything. She was the very definition of "unconditional," and I just knew that, long before I was even aware of the word's existence. That knowledge made up for rather a lot in my life.

My father, for example, sobering up after some awful night's tirade against me or my mom or my brother, could be disgustingly lick-spittle in his fawning affections and cozening attentions, in a way that I sometimes, to be completely honest, wouldn't have minded my mother displaying. But I had come to decide that these emotional states were apparently an either-or proposition as far as parents were concerned, and it would be years before I had my mind changed about that. For the moment, though, I was all too glad to take the quiet confidence and fortitude that my mom excelled at displaying, even if it came with a rather less florid demonstration of her love.

Heavens, wasn't that a digression? And not at all what I know you came here for. So let's jump right to the action in Mr. F's classroom.

The man himself was sitting at his desk at the head of the classroom, diligently--one might even say, studiously--ignoring the door and focusing on some papers on his desk. Next to him, within reach of his right hand, was my Story Book, closed and sitting flat on the desk, although I noticed with a certain proprietary annoyance that a few pages were sticking out at odd angles, as though they had been pulled from the book and placed back haphazardly.

My mom's sensible shoes made a hard clacking on the linoleum floor as she strode smartly up to the desk, and this noise prompted Mr. F to look up. He glared, hard, at me first, then looked my mother in the face, his eyes brightening.

"Well, good afternoon, Mrs. M," he began, a broad, beaming smile on his face, and as he said this, all I could think was that Mr. F was some kind of comic book super-villain, the kind who could seem superficially sane and lucid and even friendly, but the moment you turned your back, he'd become the Joker and start spraying you with acid. I wondered if my mom would be fooled by this show of false bonhomie, possibly even think I'd made this all up (I had, in my brief panic and confusion, forgotten that I had my teacher as a witness to Mr. F's bat-shit craziness).

My mom smoothly cut across him, her Boston accent sharp in that tiny Midwestern classroom. "Oh, are we feigning kindness and civility for this exchange?" she asked. "Or would you rather resort to raging and screaming and shouting, which you evidently prefer when dealing with students? Because I'm perfectly happy to address you either way."

Mr. F's smile faltered only slightly. "Oh, now Mrs. M, aren't we going to be friends? I just need to talk to you a little bit about MM's attitude, and then--"

Well, to her credit, my mom heard him out, and I'd relate it all for you here, but of course you heard most of it in my last post, and from the big man's mouth. I did note that he'd changed tack a little. Instead of going with his original accusations--that I was making up stories about my classmates and then passing the stories around school--he instead told my mother that he'd noticed that I was getting too big for my britches (I swear that was the phrase he used) and that he felt I was doing myself no favors to draw attention to myself in my obvious grandstanding way.

"I've seen the way MM uses his little book here to get a lot of attention and I think that sort of thing can go too far," he concluded, patting the book.

If his speech had flummoxed my mother (I can tell you it had me gaping a little), she didn't reveal it. She simply snapped her hand out. "That book was a gift from me to my son and I'll thank you to give it back," she said.

Mr. F hesitated for a moment, looking darkly at me, then put his hand on the book.

"Oh, but first--" my mom said, causing Mr. F's hand to linger a moment on that yellow plaid cover. "I'd like you to point out to me the pages where my son engaged in his 'malicious mischief-making,' as you called it this morning. I'd like you to point out to me the parts where he wrote anything remotely negative or untrue about any child in this school."

Mr. F froze, which I noticed only because I froze too. It was only then that I made a mental scan of every page, every story in my Story Book. In the stories I wrote, I had included nearly all of my classmates at one point or another. I had written in some goofy things about myself and my best friend Shawn, too. I might have even gone so far as to include my Big Brother in a story or two and to make mention of the fact that he was a bit of a tubbo (which, you must understand, wasn't malice. That was factual reporting.) Had I said anything that Mr. F, crazy as he was, would have construed as malicious towards my classmates? On the one hand, I knew I hadn't--I had always taken special care to make the villains of the stories entirely fictitious. But Mr. F had completely unseated me, made me doubt myself.

Moreover, I thought later, my mom was taking a big chance. It dawned on me only then that she had never once asked me if I had ever written anything bad about my classmates. Like I said, the word "unconditional" was not in my vocabulary then. But I already had a living definition.

(Also, I found out years later, my mom was in the habit of regularly reading through my assorted story books and folders at night when I was asleep, which must have taken a serious bite out of her evenings. By the time I started high school, I had written enough of these stories to paper the house.)

"I'm waiting," my mom said now to Mr. F. And I noted when she did that she was using the Mom Voice. Mr. F noticed this and he didn't like it. He squirmed for a long moment, torn between maintaining his smiling façade and turn into the man I was already coming to think of as Crazy F. Finally, he grabbed the book and handed it back to my mom. "Well, I haven't really had time to go through--" he started. Which, by the way, couldn't have been true. He must have read enough to realize he'd been severely misinformed about the nature of my writing, and just couldn't admit it. Which left him only one other option: to feign disinterest and claim he hadn't really had a chance to read my little juvenile pootlings. Which was actually an even bigger mistake.

My mom knew it. And she pounced.

"So, let me get this straight: Based on the accusations of one of your students, you accused my son of writing lies about his classmates. You accused him of this in a loud and terrible voice, to the extent that I'm sure most everyone in the school must have heard you. And now, you ADMIT you haven't even bothered to prove your accusation?" My mom was seething now--there was no steam coming out of her ears or anything, but the temperature of the room had risen by about 20 degrees.

I waited for my mom to say it, to point out what was obvious even to me: that Mr. F had just done the very thing he'd falsely accused me of doing, the great big sausage-fingered hypocrite.

But she had too much class to point out the obvious. Instead, she simply said, "Mr. F, do you have any idea the ridiculous position in which you have just placed yourself?"

Mr. F was standing up now. Somehow he didn't seem so tall. "Mrs. M," he began, "I don't think there's any need to get so riled up about this--"

"I'm waiting," my mom said, once more. It seemed like a non sequitur, and it shut Mr. F right up. He looked at my mom quizzically.

"Waiting?" he said.

Mom threw her head to the left, to where I'd been standing like a statue for the past minute or two. "For your apology to MM."

And then began The Waiting in earnest

The thing about my mom was, she could Wait like nobody's business. Her Waiting was more like Weighting, like a damn dwarf star had just landed on your back. Her Waiting pressed you into the ground, made your eyeballs squeeze out of your head until you couldn't stand it anymore and you gave in and did or said whatever she wanted. If Waiting had been an Olympic event, my mom would have been Mark Spitz.

We must have stood there, the three of us, long enough for someone to sculpt a statue, for someone to paint a commemorative plate (The Waiting). My mom Waited and Waited and Waited.

Thing was, Mr. F, who was, after all, crazy, seemed strangely resistant to the Waiting.

I could sense that he must be feeling the crushing pressure--God knows I was ready to spring up and apologize to me. Whole minutes passed. Some students came in and collected books from their desks and left (not without first offering some quizzical looks). The janitor came in and mopped the floor in the back. Darkness began to fall.

At least, it did in my mind. With growing dismay, it was dawning on me that I was about to see my mother lose. That she was going to blink first, break the silence, let Mr. F get away with not apologizing for the shit he'd put her son to.

Mr. F continued to stare her down, mouth unmoving.

Finally, after an eternity, my mom shifted and turned. I could swear I saw a smirk on Mr. F's face as my mother turned to face me.

I couldn't look at her. I couldn't believe she'd lost.

And then, she winked at me...

Monday, March 30, 2009

 

In Which My Writing Days Are Over (circa 1978)...



Having a tough Monday, for some reason.

I'm coming up fast on my third month of unemployment, having exhausted the freelance work I drummed up, and come to the end of the job opportunities I sought in academia. Well, to be fair, I haven't heard back from the last place I interviewed with, but they were supposed to call me by Friday and it occurs to me that the only reason they didn't call me by Friday was because they offered the job to someone else and they're waiting to hear back from that person before they cut me loose, so it comes to the same thing as far as I'm concerned.

So, having a lousy day. I wouldn't say I've struck rock-bottom, but if I were to let go right now, I wouldn't have very far to fall, you know?

To top it off, today is my mother's birthday, which is just something I'm throwing in there because I can. Honestly, there's no reason it should be weighing on me, except for the fact that she should be alive to celebrate it. Or not celebrate it, as was more often the case. My parents were never big on celebrating their birthdays. But I still would have called her. I could stand to have a chat with her about now, come to think of it. Not because she would be comforting to me in that way that moms can be to their sons. Just the opposite. My mom knew, all too well, that feeling sorry for oneself was a bad habit to get into, worse than cigarettes or heroin or not returning your movies to the video store on time, and I can't think of one instance, ever, where she poor-babied me.

I hope that doesn't sound bitter, because I don't mean it as such. The truth is, some of the defining moments in my life occurred when I was brought low and my mom refused to let me feel bad about it.

In particular, I'm reminded of a grammar school teacher who, for a time seemed to take a personal interest in crushing me.

This would have started some time in the fifth grade, which would have made me nine going on 10. My family had only six months earlier moved from northern New England to the Middle West. I was therefore the new kid, and while I was braced to be treated with a certain amount of animosity, in fact my classmates welcomed me with exemplary kindness and equanimity.

It was Mr. F who made my misery his personal business.

Mr. F was not even my teacher--he taught the next grade up. But because our classes were so small--this was a very tiny town in the middle of Kansas--we 5th and 6th graders had many classes together, as well as recess and lunch. This gave Mr. F a chance to observe me and what he came to see as my "attitude problem" without going to the trouble of having me as a student and actually getting to know me. Then it was just a matter of waiting for me to step Out of Line. Or close enough to what passed for Out of Line in his fevered imaginings.

But the first I really knew of any of this was a wintry spring morning in late March. The morning Mr. F completely blindsided me.

In those days, my brother and I walked to school. It wasn't far, but on that cold morning, carrying my bookbag all the way over the bridge and up the slightly steep hill to school, I was a little winded. And as soon as I stepped into the corridor of our school, my glasses immediately fogged over from the heat. So I really was blind when I felt a strong hand grab me through the shoulder of my big old padded parka and shove me roughly up against the wall.

I peered over the top of my glasses to see a furious blur glaring back at me.

"Don't you give me one of your smart-aleck looks!" Mr. F boomed.

For some reason, I wasn't allowed to set down my bookbag, so I was forced to swipe my glasses off my face with one hand and rub them awkwardly on my sleeve. When I put them back on, I got a good, if slightly smeary, streaky look at Mr. F glowering down at me.

He was a big man. I recall that he stood taller than even our tallest basketball players, and those included some eighth graders who'd been held back two or three times, so I'm thinking Mr. F stood over six feet. He was a bulky fellow, with a great bulbous nose, and fleshy, jowly face. His grey hair was cut very short and square in flattop fashion. He looked like nothing so much as a drill sergeant gone slightly to seed. But with his towering presence and great booming voice, he made quite an impression when he was right up in your face like that, let me tell you.

Despite my tendency to be a bit of a smart-ass, I had never really been in terrible trouble as a kid. I was not a discipline case. I was generally respectful to teachers and could count on the fingers of one hand the times I'd got in trouble, and usually those amounted to a short rebuke shouted across a classroom or hallway for an unthinking moment of childlike carelessness or exuberance. Up to that point in my brief life, I'd never done anything to warrant a teacher actually laying hands on me and throwing me up against a wall and bellowing at me like a lunatic. I was scared shitless.

"What--? What--?" I tried.

"You don't say a word! Not. One. Word! To me!" he yelled, spittle flecking my glasses as he stabbed a great sausage-like finger in my face. "You get enough chance to run your smart-aleck mouth as it is!"

I shut right up and just looked up at him. Peripherally, I was aware that we were beginning to attract a bit of a crowd. It was first thing in the morning, after all, and lots of kids were coming through the door I'd just entered and we were sort of blocking the hall. A few boys--sixth graders who were actually students of Mr. F's--gave me little smirks behind their teacher's back, then passed on into their classroom. My own big brother, who had been only a few steps behind me, had entered, walked behind Mr. F, gave me a look of concerned curiosity that seemed to say What the hell did you manage to do in the five seconds you've been in school? then walked on. BB was my great protector for most of my elementary years, but it was understood that helping me with a teacher--especially a possibly unhinged one--was well beyond his powers.

A few of my own classmates had passed as well and one of them must have said something to my own teacher, because after a few awful moments of Mr. F staring at me, saying nothing (yet allowing me to say nothing), Mrs. B, my teacher, appeared meekly at Mr. F's side.

"Is there a problem?" she asked. "Did MM do something?"

Mr. F smiled an awful leering smile as he looked down at me. "Well, you tell us, MM. You just tell us, mister! You want to tell your teacher what you did?"

Seldom have I felt more helpless. Here I was, just a nine-year-old squirt with this towering great (and, I was beginning to feel certain, crazy) authority figure hunched over me, having only moments earlier shouted me into silence. Now he was asking--daring--me to speak.

"I don't--what??" I spluttered.

Mr. F narrowed his eyes. It was a terrible, dangerous expression, and I felt fear as I have never felt in my life. I had dealt with grown-ups with bad tempers--my own father, then pretty well embarked upon his career as a drunk, could have his mean, mean moments--but this was the devil I didn't know. And that uncertainty preyed on me.

"Where's your book?" Mr. F demanded, his hand suddenly held out, sausage fingers hinging in a gimme-gimme gesture.

I stood there, pinned to the corridor wall, only too aware of the growing weight of my bag, which was full of books of every kind.

"Book?" I repeated.

"Don't play dumb with me!" he bellowed, stabbing me in the breastbone with a sausage finger. "Your little yellow book that you write all your malicious thoughts in! Your writing days are over!"

I'm sure I gaped when he said this. Mr. F could only be referring to the book I simply knew in my mind as The Story Book. It was a hard-bound book with an unfortunate yellow-plaid design on the cover. But I didn't care about that. What I liked about the book--which had been a gift from my parents--was that it was full of blank pages. The previous year, my last teacher in New Hampshire had remarked to my Mom during a parent-teacher conference that I had a gift for storytelling. This didn't come as much of a surprise, I shouldn't think--both of my parents had brought me and my brother up on stories and it was natural that we should start telling a few of our own. But my teacher's novel suggestion had been that my parents encourage me to write mine down. So they got me the book and that's what I had done. Initially, I had tried to keep a travel diary of our trip from New Hampshire to Kansas, but that got boring fast (drive to Kansas yourself and you might understand why). So I started writing fiction. Mostly I wrote adventure stories--just one or two pages long--starring myself and my old friends from New Hampshire, who I missed.

But just lately, I had discovered that my new classmates were great fans of the Encyclopedia Brown stories and a series of books in our library which we referred to as "Minute Mysteries" (although this wasn't quite their correct title). In any case, sensing an audience for solve-it-yourself stories--which I quite liked too--I tried my hand at writing a few during lunch, over recess, and sometimes during class when Mrs. B would give us a chance to do some creative writing. Those first stories were, I'm sure, terribly derivative of the Encyclopedia Brown stories--probably even plagiarized. But what made them special was that I included myself and other kids from our class in the stories. That little hint of verisimilitude made them very popular and in short order, my distinctive little yellow-plaid book regularly made the rounds among the fifth graders. Only a few days earlier, on a rainy day in which we'd been forced to have recess indoors, I had enjoyed the quiet pride that came from watching my classmates jostling for rights to read my stories next as several of them sat on the bleachers in the school gymnasium. To be fair, the older kids had hogged all the basketballs in the gym, so there was a distinct shortage of distractions, but still it had been a fine moment for a young writer, to see his reading public clamoring to sneak a peek at his latest work. My only regret was that I hadn't had the forethought to charge my friends money for reading privileges.

But unbeknownst to me, my work had drawn an unintended audience, which in turn brought in the critics, a moment that any writer should expect, I suppose, but which had caught me completely off guard. In the event, one of the sixth-graders had asked my classmates what they were reading and he got a garbled answer, or one that was beyond his ability to fully grasp. Instead of understanding that a young new talent in the school was writing entertaining mystery tales that included his classmates as characters, this fellow gleaned only that the new kid was making up stuff about other kids in the school. And it must be bad or embarrassing because why else would people be lining up to read it during recess? So this kid passed his intelligence along to his teacher, and that was it. I was officially Over the Line.

When Mr. F relayed the "fact" of my writings to my teacher, it's hard to tell who gaped more--Mrs. B or me. To her credit, Mrs. B--who had read one or two of my stories and liked them (or to be more precise, liked that one of her students was taking an interest in doing something creative) haltingly tried to explain the true nature of my writing to Mr. F, he wouldn't hear it. He demanded the book there and then, assuming I suppose, that he would be able to prove in a trice that I was the malicious nine-year-old libeler he took me to be.

I have to admit, as scared as I was--and I was pretty goddamn scared by this point--some little voice in the back of my head rose up in indignation. Bad enough that I had been falsely accused of writing the grammar school equivalent of tabloid journalism, but I was now being asked to give up a personal possession--a gift from my parents--unfairly.

I hesitated for a long moment, long enough for Mr. F to turn bright red in fury and begin screaming his head off, his spitting lips only an inch from my sweating forehead.

"How DARE you defy me, you little busy-body! You malicious mischief-maker! You had better GIVE me that book. RIGHT. NOW. RIGHT NOW DO YOU HEAR ME?" I swear, he was practically gibbering.

It's actually a good thing Mrs. B was there, not just because I think it was only her presence that kept Mr. F from tearing my limbs from their sockets, but also because she provided a sober, nodding witness later after school when, still shaking and sobbing like a trauma patient, I related the whole awful story to my mother.

Who, when I was finished, instead of drawing me to her breast and stroking my hair and letting me get snot all over her sweater, simply put a steadying hand on my shoulder and said, "All right, pull yourself together."

Sniffling, I looked up into her eyes, and almost instantly, I stopped crying. Not because I saw an impatience and hardness in my mother's gaze that told me my histrionics were no longer going to be tolerated.

No, instead, I saw actual raging fire in her eyes, and understood that very shortly Mr. F was going to find himself in the likely unprecedented position of wishing he'd never been born.

And I thought that was something I rather wanted to see...

Friday, March 27, 2009

 

In Which We Sweat It Out...



Well, that's the problem with realizing you're not going to be offered a job you're interviewing for while you're still in the middle of interviewing for it. The problem? Rampant, virulent apathy sets in. I'm enough of a pro that I think I could have put on a brave face and given it my all, but I was already given to understand--in some strange and overwhelming psychic way--that the search committee had decided for themselves that I was not job-offering material. Had perhaps NEVER been job-offering material. Had perhaps only been a token Other Candidate they felt compelled to bring in, just so they could say they had cast their net wide.

How else to explain the almost casually indifferent way they were treating me, making me eat dinner in the airport food court (and paying for it out of my own pocket, did I mention that?), trying to put me up in a hotel where the electricity had gone out, forgetting to let me (or anyone else) in on that fact, or on the fact that they had put me up in another hotel? Or could it just be that the committee was the most colossal assemblage of fuck-ups this side of my own extended family? In which case, actually, you'd have thought I was a shoo-in.

But no, whatever the reason, it was clear they didn't want me, and so the apathy set in pretty badly by Wednesday night, when I was back at my hotel. Indeed, I think it's fair to say the apathy has not gone completely away even at this late date. Honestly, I can’t think of any other reason why it's taken me so long to muster the will to write this final installment.

My body evidently felt the same way, too. Felt that things were so godawful and that tomorrow--the day of my so-called research presentation (which the search committee had insisted I make, despite my telling them I had no research agenda, having been working in the field for the past two decades)--was going to be even worse. Thus it was, I think, that my body decided to make things just a little more interesting.

Which is why I awoke at about 5:30 the next morning with severe chills and what turned out to be a 103-degree fever.

It was the flu, of course, and it was so bad that when I turned on the news that morning, the first thing I saw was an item from the local broadcast station telling me that all area elementary schools had actually canceled classes because too many kids were coming down with this flu. And it was hitting people with the speed of a bullet train. One moment they were fine, the next they were sprawled sideways across a bench or large piece of furniture, sweating profusely into the fabric and complaining of the bed-spins.

I can't honestly tell you if I do well with fevers or not, because in the event it's all pretty much a blur. On the one hand, I'm generally aware of how sick I am and, if the circumstances demand it, I can often pull my shit together for brief intervals--usually no more than a few hours--before collapsing in a moist, gibbering heap. I would consider that an argument in favor of "good." On the other hand, if I get a fever that goes anywhere above 102, I start hallucinating, and that can be bad. Not just bad, but potentially embarrassing. The last time I had a fever like this, I was at Disneyworld with my family and I was holding conversations with multi-colored giraffes. Given the venue at the time, I pretty much fit right in. But what was I going to do if I started seeing giraffes in the middle of this research presentation, which I was going to be delivering in about three hours? The entire faculty would be there. Granted, one of my last lucid thoughts the night before had been the realization that, honest and for true, I didn't have a prayer of getting a job offer, and after the way I'd been treated, I wasn't even sure I wanted an offer. Some sixth sense just seemed to tell me that I wasn't going to be able to play nice with these people if I had to deal with them on a professional basis every day.

And yet, I seemed to understand that I was already on a path here and I owed it to myself, if to no one else, to see it through.

So I threw on some clothes and staggered off across a busy road to a nearby convenience store, where I paid an extortionate amount for a small bottle of Tylenol--at the price per pill they charged me, I think I could have bought some crystal meth for cheaper. I swallowed half the bottle in one great gulp, figuring my liver would just have to deal with it, then staggered back to the hotel, stopping only once--in the middle of the busy street, of course--to notice that all the cars and all the people in them were beginning to glow. I often see haloes when I have a high fever. Well, I thought, at least that should make my interview more interesting.

By the time my ride came for me, I was dressed and packed and checked out, although it must be said I was checked out in more ways than one.

"Are you all right?" my ride asked. She was another member of the search committee, actually a very nice woman who taught graphics at the school and was a little younger than I. I had spent a lot of time with her yesterday and this morning could only hope my proximity to her the day before hadn't dosed her with the bug as well. But she looked okay to me now. In fact, she had a lovely purple aura around her.

"Pretty good," I finally answered her, in a cracking voice (high fevers for some reason always take my voice back to around puberty, and suddenly I'm Peter Brady, singing "Time to Change.")

Well, evidently I didn't look fine. In fact, it turned out that, despite (or perhaps because of) having ingested about five grams of Tylenol, I was sweating profusely and no doubt my eyes were dilated so wildly that my upper face must have been all eyebrows and pupils.

"Oh my, you've got this flu. It's really going around," she said, as she more or less poured me into her car. "My kids have it and this morning my husband woke up with it."

Oh, well, gee, I wonder how I got it then? I thought to myself--at least I hope I thought to myself. Then there was a jump cut in my memory.

When I came to next, I was walking down a hallway in the communications building--no idea where my luggage had gone, or the 20-pound messenger bag I'd been toting on my shoulder for the past 36 hours. I didn't care about the suitcase, but I did need that bag, as it contained my laptop and a folder full of copies of my resume and several positive student evaluations from classes I had taught as an adjunct. I had hoped to hand these out at my research presentation as a way of making my point that, while I may not have vast research experience and have only been pottering around the last 20 years writing books and magazine articles and things, I had at least made an effort to get some academic experience under my belt.

And then I rounded the corner and found myself in a conference room full of scowling academicians with assorted auras, most of them wavy and pinkish, reminding me of nothing so much as a baby with conjunctivitis. I sat down, noting then that my messenger bag had somehow preceded me into the room, then remembered that I had already been in here, but had postponed the beginning of my presentation to lurch off to the bathroom to mop my brow. And possibly to throw up.

Well, all I can say is, I don't recommend giving a presentation to a room full of college professors when you have a raging fever and no control over what is coming out of your mouth. Unless, of course, you're pretty certain you're not going to get the job, at least. I honestly don't recall what I said--I'm pretty sure at one point I referred to my 20 years in the industry as "real" work, compared to academic publishing, which I suppose is not the most diplomatic thing to say.

Ah, but what the hell? If I was sure of anything at this point--aside from the certainty that I was really sick--it was that I had absolutely no hope of changing anyone's mind about offering me this job. So perhaps it's just as well that I have no real recollection of what I said.

And before I knew it, I was out of there. My next clear memory is of running through the Cincinnati airport, wondering if I was even supposed to be there. I only knew I was in Cincinnati because I remembered it as being the airport where you can spend time riding every moving conveyance--an escalator, a tram, and even a bus--except, it seemed, an airplane. And then, after another blank interval, I found myself fumbling with a key, trying to open the door to my car in the airport parking garage, until it dawned on me that I was trying to get into someone else's car.

Then I drove home in a quite unexpected state of perfect lucidity, which lasted long enough for me to get through the door, tip the contents of my bag into the laundry room, take a long, hot shower, have a lavish vomiting spell in my own bathroom (and to wonder idly when exactly it was I'd managed to have a meal of red beans and rice). Then I fell into bed and slept for the next 18 hours.

When I awoke late the next day, I felt a bit ragged around the edges, a bit shaky still, but my fever had broken, never to return. Neither did my memory of my last day interviewing for the job, alas. Just the same, it came as no surprise later that afternoon to get an e-mail (and I just knew that, after the hospitality I'd experienced, these were not the kind of folks who would actually call me up and tell me anything themselves) announcing that the school was going to extend their search for their new professor. Wow. So not even could they not bring themselves to call and speak to me, they couldn't even properly reject me, opting instead to leave me dangling. Except, of course, that I refused to dangle. I could read rejection between the lines. I had been told more than once that they had planned to make a decision--and an offer--within 24 hours. So my performance--and I have to admit that here I DID wonder what I might have said during the final stage of my interview--had served only to tell them that they needed to keep looking.

Which was just as well, Her Lovely Self and I decided, after I recovered a little bit more over the weekend and related to her everything I could remember about my two-day interview. To her everlasting credit, my wife was disgusted on my behalf, and wondered aloud whether I should continue to subject myself to academic interviews, if this was how I was going to be treated. I was so touched by her show of solidarity that I actually agreed with her.

Until another college called me almost exactly a week later and asked if I could come and talk to them about their open faculty position.

Which, incidentally, is where I've been between writing parts two and three of this post. I apologize for the delay and wish I could tell you anything about the latest interview. I can tell you that I was treated infinitely better than the first school, but I seem to have become a little superstitious about these things, and I don't want to fill you in on any details until I get word--yea or nay--from these folks.

In the mean time, I'm just going to try to work on some personal projects. I have a book proposal that I am patently NOT making any progress on, for one thing, and the Éclair has decided that potty training is something she's interested in, and God knows if I'm qualified for anything these days, it's dealing with pantloads of shit. In fact, she just appeared by my side, and announced her desire to visit the bathroom, although judging from the conspicuous load in her little overalls, I think it's safe to say that her timing is a mite off.

But at least she's giving it the old college try.

And so am I.

Have a lovely weekend, all.

Yours,
From Somewhere on the Masthead


Tuesday, March 17, 2009

 

In Which The Lights Are Out, And Nobody's Home...



Well, look on the bright side: I didn't break my wrists.

Or even bloody my nose.

But that does very little to assuage the fact that doing a face-plant on hard industrial linoleum hurts. In fact, it's been my experience that taking a fall face-first in the dark actually increases your pain, much the same way that wind chill increases the intensity of cold weather. Because you can't see what you're about to hit, of course. It could be anything. You could be at the top of a steep stairwell about to do an impromptu gymnastics routine down into the boiler room. Or there could be a booby trap laid there before you--something with spikes perhaps. Or there could be a wad of gum stuck right on the floor in front of you. Or a splash of vomit. Or a booger. I think you take my point.

Luckily, and as far as I know, I made no contact with anything other than the floor. And I once the flashes of light in my head subsided, I tried to get up.

But...you remember that soft, unyielding thing I tripped over? Well, it was still there. Right behind me. Know how I knew this? Because it appeared to have grabbed me. It was muckled onto my ankle like a randy, leg-humping dog.

I really wanted to shriek. But some part of me was reminded that I was here on job interview and it was entirely possible--although I hoped unlikely--that this was part of some elaborate test for the job. If that was the case, I thought shrieking would be bad form. So I settled for some quiet whimpering as I shook my leg. And shook and shook. Whatever it was, there on the floor in the dark behind me, it sure had me good.

Finally, I twisted around and, summoning every ounce of courage I could muster, I reached a shaking hand down to my ankle and felt my pant-leg caught in the grip of something unexpected.

It was a zipper.

It was my suitcase, of course. The one I had set down and opened in my fruitless search for a flashlight. Somehow, I had managed to stick my foot straight into the front compartment, the one I had just unzipped, and got my pant-leg stuck in the teeth of the zipper. Gingerly at first, and then with exponentially increasing vigor, I tried to yank my pant-leg free, but it was stuck.

Oh God, please don't let this go where I think it's going to go, I thought to myself, thinking that of course this predicament was going to quickly degenerate into a situation involving me taking off my pants and trying to fish a new pair out of the suitcase, only to have the lights come back on then and find myself surrounded by students and, just to complete the whole sublime tableau, a few members of the search committee.

But luckily, it never got to that point. Because as I was working to free my pant-leg from the suitcase zipper, I heard a clomping sound behind me and turned just in time to catch a knee in my face.

I heard a startled "Wooooulllph!" and then a foot came smashing down on my hand and someone tripped over me. And my suitcase. And they didn't land any too nimbly either. All at once I felt a great, sweaty mass fall upon my upper torso and head, driving me back so that this time I hit the back of my head on the hard floor. The weight was terrific. I literally could not breathe, all the air coming out of me in a huffing, spit-flecked sound that echoed dully in the darkness. For a second, I feared my eyes would squirt free of their sockets, brains come dribbling out of my ears, that's how crushing the weight was. Then it was gone.

I sat up again--rather more slowly than last time--and by some miracle, my hand came to rest on my cell phone. I picked it up and flipped it open and let its feeble bluish screen light reveal the face of a startled security guard, who had evidently been upstairs, making his rounds.

"What--? What are--?" he began, then he found his own flashlight and shined it brightly in my face.

In a slightly breathless tone of voice, I told the guard that I was supposed to be staying in this hotel--using the term very loosely now--but when we got here, the lights were out.

"We?" he asked, looking around, and then at my suitcase.

I explained that the faculty member who'd picked me up had left--in fact, I was semi-certain he was gone altogether. The guard stood up, brushed himself off and then grabbed his walkie-talkie from his belt and began barking into it, all the while keeping his flashlight trained on me. There were a series of garbled, static-riddled grunts and woofs in reply, and then the guard gave me his full, stern attention.

"The hotel is closed, sir," he said.

I couldn't help myself. "Oh, really? Is that what this is? Here I thought the staff was trying to conserve energy by shutting out all the lights. Wow, well thanks, because that sure fills in some blanks for me."

The guard gave me a stony look, but I didn't give the tiniest shit. My leg hurt. My wrists were both feeling rather sprained, and my nose felt squashed flat. Plus, I was pretty sure that beads of this man's sweat had actually dripped onto my forehead and was even now mingling with my own dewy perspiration.

I bent down and picked up my bag, after first groping around on the floor to make certain nothing had fallen out of it--it would be my luck that the bag had disgorged all of my underwear. Then, satisfied that everything was where it was supposed to be--except, apparently, for me--I turned and headed back down the hall to the loading dock. Behind me, the guard made more woofing noises into his walkie, but I quickly lost track of him because, just ahead of me, feeling his way along the hall, was a slightly familiar shape. The professor who'd driven me here from the airport. Apparently he had not ditched me. Or if he had, he'd since suffered a twinge of conscience and had come back.

Actually, it turned out that he had gone looking for an office where he knew there was a phone, but the phones were out. In the end, we stepped back outside where he promptly took out his cell phone and began making some calls.

In short order, he got hold of the home number of the assistant who had made my reservations and she brightly informed the professor that the hotel was closed (hey, I could have told them that). But she had made a reservation for me at a real hotel, just down on the main drag out of town. In fact, we'd gone right by the place about 30 minutes earlier. Why she never bothered to tell anyone about this change in plans is a mystery, but it didn't matter. I was glad to have a place to sleep, and I think the professor was relieved that his job candidate wasn't going to have to spend the night on his couch. Within the hour, I was safely tucked into bed at a nondescript motor court, where I fell asleep amidst a sheaf of papers, most of them notes for the lecture I was going to give tomorrow.

I'll spare you a detailed recitation of that Wednesday, my first day of interviews. It consisted of the usual meet-and-greet with each member of the faculty. I had a long and somewhat illuminating chat with the dean, who asked me for an overview of my research presentation, which was going to take place the next day.

This was more or less the same question the professor had asked me on our drive to campus the night before, but it unsettled me a little to have the same question asked of me again. Had these people not looked at my resume? Did they not see that I had 20 years of practical field experience in magazines, books, newspapers, and Web sites, but had done no academic publishing? In fact, no one I knew in the field had done academic publishing until they, you know, started working in academia. Why was this such a deal to them?

I didn't ask the dean that. Instead, I said, "You know, I really don't have a research presentation per se. I just really haven't had the time to pursue that kind of work. I do have a couple of areas I'm interested in exploring."

"Oh?" the dean said, perking up. "Such as?"

"Well," I began, "you know, I have a pretty extensive background in health journalism. Most newspapers and magazines devote at least a little space every issue to health coverage. It's a topic of great interest to the public. And academically it's an area of great interest too." And here, I ticked off a list of colleges and universities that I knew had recently begun offering health-journalism classes, or even offered health writing as a minor or area of concentration. "Actually, I'm surprised this school doesn't have such a program," I added. It was true. The university was, after all, offering all kinds of health majors in conjunction with a large local hospital--the biggest of its kind in the state, in point of fact. "Anyway," I went on, "I've long thought about writing a book on health-writing. It could be a text for such a class, and would certainly add to the body of critical analysis about the field, yes?"

The dean nodded. "Well, that's great that you have a nice little book idea there," he said. "But the way our tenure track works, you'll probably want to publish something on health journalism as a journal article first."

Well, this was going beyond disconcerting and treading on "annoying" territory. "I have to admit," I finally said. "I thought this school placed a higher premium on bringing in professors who had extensive, practical experience in their field. Surely that's important to the school, too? The sort of thing prospective students and their parents look for, yes? I mean, they're not going to be reading academic journals. Wouldn't they--and you--look for schools whose teachers had been in the trenches?"

The dean looked pained. "Oh no, no! I mean, yes. I mean, well, you're absolutely right: we do place a premium on practical experience. But we also expect our faculty members to publish in the academic field. You can't just write a book and call it good."

"Really," I said.

The dean nodded. Then he said: "So I take it then you have not published any journal articles or have a set agenda for your research."

Somehow, I had the feeling I was trying to call this guy, but the phone was ringing in another room. "That's right," I said. "Because I've been busy working in the field. But I'm a quick study, you know. I'm sure I can learn all there is to know about the process."

"Good, good," the dean said absently, jotting some notes on a clipboard in front of him. Then he abruptly stood up, shook my hand and walked me down the hall to my next interview.

And I would have been prepared to dismiss what had just happened. I was willing to believe these folks weren't fooling themselves as well as me. I was fully capable of believing that they'd read my resume and brought me in because of my field experience and the dean was just a little out of touch, a man flailing in a dark corridor, feeling for a lightswitch. And I just happened to be a suitcase he'd tripped over.

Yes, I was prepared to believe all that. Except that, as soon as I was seated in front of the professor the dean brought me to--my next interview--the first words out of her mouth were:

"Tell me a little about your research goals, MM."

And just then, I knew I wasn't going to get this job...

Thursday, March 12, 2009

 

In Which I Take Leave of My Faculties...



Well, I know I promised to tell you all about my recent trip, and my first official interview for a job in academia (actually, my first official job interview since becoming gainfully unemployed back in January), but then I got home and a couple of things happened.

One of those things I'll tell you about towards the end, but the other was a growing sense of profound apathy about the job. Not just because it became patently clear I wasn't going to get an offer, but because nothing of very great interest happened during my trip--well, at least when compared to the rest of my life.

Still, I've never let a lack of anything interesting get in the way of my writing before, so we might as well jump right in:

As my plane was on final approach into the airport, I reviewed my notes for the umpty-ump time and walked myself through my itinerary for the next 48 hours. For starters, as soon as I got off the plane, I was going to have to look out for my ride. This is the first lesson of interviewing in academia: Colleges and universities seem remarkably disinclined to spend any kind of money to bring you in for an interview. I appreciate that everyone is on a tight budget these days, but you know something's awry when the search committee is willing to cut several hours of your visit short because you found a flight back home that was $100 cheaper than the one they were originally going to put you on.

And to top it off, they won't let you rent a car, even though their location from the airport may be decidedly remote. No, instead, they were going to send someone to pick me up. At first, I found this vaguely alarming, as I imagined that they were going to dispatch some work-study undergrad to fetch me. I don't know what kind of driver you were when you were 19 or 20, but I was a pretty horrible one. Of course, that didn't stop me from using the gas pedal more or less continuously when I was in the car. So I could all too easily picture some gangly youth bundling me into the passenger seat of his dented little Hyundai and then embarking on a 90-minute careen through the countryside until we hit campus—possibly quite literally.

Well, my fears were assuaged--sort of--when I got a call on my cell phone and discovered that in fact I was going to be picked up by a member of the faculty--the head of the magazine department, if you want to know the truth. And so it was, a little after 5 o'clock that Tuesday evening that this pleasant, if somewhat distracted 60-something man met me at the bottom of the escalators, whereupon I assumed he would bundle me into his dented little Hyundai and off we'd careen. Instead, he suggested that we dine there at the airport--there apparently being a dearth of restaurant selections en route. You know your prospective employer has a different idea about wining and dining its job candidates when your welcome-to-campus dinner is eaten out of paper sacks in the airport food court, some 85 miles from campus itself. All I can say is, it was a first for me.

But I made the best of it. The professor and I chatted a bit about campus life, about the generally parlous state of the magazine industry, and about the professor's research work. Which reminded him of something. "Are you doing your research presentation tomorrow, or on Thursday?" he asked.

"Thursday," I replied, my itinerary already committed to memory (having looked at it only about a thousand times since it had been set the week before). "Although, of course, I really won't have that much of a presentation to give," I reminded him. A week or so earlier, when this man called me to conduct the requisite telephone interview, he informed me that all candidates would be evaluated over a two-day period. Each day would be packed with meeting various deans and chairs and members of the faculty, all scheduled around two important events: One day, we'd be expected to present a lecture to a live class at the school. The next day, we'd be expected to deliver a presentation about our research agenda to the entire faculty. This had disturbed me when it was first mentioned, and I said as much.

I could be wrong about these things, but I always envisioned the proper study of journalism to take place in a kind of trade school environment. And I mean that in the best possible way: journalism, whether in newspapers, magazines, broadcast, or online, is a trade, learned best on the job (hence the need for an internship or two), and under the tutelage of people who have actual experience in the field. The two schools where I studied the trade certainly felt this way--much was made of the faculty's broad experience in the industry.

But of course, this is also an academic setting, and to varying degrees, schools expect their faculty to contribute to the body of knowledge about the field. To that end, most professors--certainly most on a tenure track--are required to do some form of research, whether it's an ambitious survey of editors across the country, or a simple analysis of media coverage over a specific event.

As I told this professor--and as I thought should have been obvious from my resume--I had spent 20 years in field, actually doing my job, not analyzing how others did theirs. I had an intellectual interest in certain areas of the field and I had no doubt those interests could be translated into academic research or a journal article or two. But I wasn't going to pretend I had this kind of research experience when I didn't.

I had been assured this wasn't an issue--that of course the school placed an appropriate level of emphasis on field experience. And I believed them. I mean, why would they waste their time and mine bringing me out to campus if they felt otherwise? And yet, it was clear they still expected me to prepare some kind of presentation about my research agenda. It was all most confusing.

But I didn't give it much thought. After nearly two months of unemployment, after 7 weeks of sitting shivering in my basement, hunched over my old computer, I was glad to get out, glad to go on an interview, even glad to have dinner in an airport food court.

I even enjoyed the 90-minute drive back to campus, talking shop with the professor, and learning all sorts of interesting facts about the area. There was only one fact whose discovery brought me up short.

"So where exactly is this University Hotel that I'll be staying in?" I asked as we crossed the city limits and I found myself reviewing my itinerary yet again. When I was an undergrad, the University Hotel at that school had been a fine affair indeed, a 10-story edifice run with commendable efficiency by the Sheraton hotel chain. I assumed it to be the same here, but a quick scan of the horizon revealed no tall hotel—no tall buildings of any kind, except perhaps the university's bell tower, and I was pretty sure I wasn't going to be staying there.

"Oh, it's just up here," the professor said, pointing to a squat, dark building, half of it covered by scaffolding and Tyvek sheeting. And I realized with a sinking heart that it was a university hotel quite literally, was in fact run by the school and its students (some of whom, I could only hope, were actually majoring in hotel management). "It's real nice," the professor assured me as we pulled into the darkened lot. "They're giving it quite an overhaul," he added, as if this statement supported his previous one. But there was no arguing the point: they sure were getting an overhaul. As I watched some Tyvek flapping in the breeze on the third floor, I could only hope I was going to be staying on the other side of the building which, to be honest, looked like every dormitory I've ever seen or lived in. I imagined a cheerless couple of nights sleeping in a narrow metal cot, beneath a single flickering, fluorescent light fixture, surrounded by cinderblock walls painted the color of infant diarrhea.

But I realized I was being overly cynical and remonstrated myself for this attitude, as we got out of the car and I grabbed my small suitcase from the back. Just because I'd had dinner at the airport and had to be driven to campus by a member of the search committee, that was no reason to suppose that my visit here was going to be in any way disastrous, or even uncomfortable.

Which was a thought I enjoyed for about 30 more seconds, right up until we got to the front door of the hotel and found it locked tight.

"Hmm," the professor said absently, as he stepped back and gave the hotel an appraising look.

"As you sure they're, um, open?" I asked.

"Oh, of course they are," he said, with just a hint of sharpness. "I'm sure we're just at the wrong entrance." Personally, I wasn't so sure. After all, there wasn't a single light on in any of the windows on the floors above. Not one. And as the professor strode down a dark sidewalk that ran parallel to the building, I took an extra second to peer in through the window set into the entrance door. In the interior distance I saw what looked like a check-in desk, completely unmanned, illumined only by the faint glow of an "Exit" sign nearby.

I trotted down the steps and followed the professor who, absolutely undaunted, took me on tour of the building from all sides. In the end, we tried every door and found one open, Naturally, it was the door next to the loading dock.

"Now we're getting somewhere," the professor said, glancing at his watch. "And good thing too. I really need to be getting home." He stepped inside. I followed him. And found myself in complete and utter blackness.

"Listen," I said, not wanting to upset the man. "I'm really thinking something's off here. Maybe we should call--"

"No, no," he insisted as he clomped blindly down the corridor, running his hand along the wall, feeling for a light switch. "I was told your reservations were confirmed for two days here."

Yeah, well, I'm not sure how comfortable I feel staying at a hotel that doesn’t have a single light on, that appears to be completely abandoned, and whose only open entrance is off of the loading dock, I thought, but commendably said nothing.

In a few moments, we rounded a corner and found ourselves standing directly under the "Exit" sign I'd seen from the other entrance. Just in front of us was a broad, flat desk, with a sign bearing the legend "check-in" hanging helpfully over it. It was completely unlit. It was obvious to me that we were the only human beings in the building.

Just then, I felt the tiny hairs on my neck begin to rise. I half-expected to stumble over a body there in the darkness, or to find the staff bound and gagged in a broom closet, while somewhere nearby--perhaps even crouched behind the check-in desk--killers or terrorists or perhaps just an unbalanced student with a gun--lay in wait. Quite unbidden, I found myself taking a fractional step behind the professor, putting his bulk between me and the desk.

"Well, this can't be!" the professor said hotly, then rounded on me. "Did you get a call or message that your reservation had been changed?" he asked, a hint of challenge in his voice, as if perhaps it was my fault the university hotel was so desolate. Of course, I'd received no such call and said so as meekly and companionably as I could. The professor kept looking at his watch—it had become almost a nervous tic by now.

"Well, you wait here for a minute," he said finally and, with a hint of impatience, strode back the way we had come.

Oh great, I thought, and began fishing through my bag for a flashlight. I didn't have one, of course, so in the end I had to take out my cell phone and use the screen light to illuminate my surroundings. The few extra lumens it put out did nothing but exaggerate the shadows and general gloom around me, although the feeble light did at least extend my vision just enough to see that there were no bodies in the immediate vicinity. I did, however, notice a light switch on the wall. I went over and flicked it up and down several times, but nothing happened. I looked around the check-in desk to see if there might be a note, a bloody handprint, anything to indicate why the place was deserted, but I was thwarted.

I was about to look for a phone--thinking it would have a campus directory with it and I might be able to call security--when I heard a car engine rev to life close by and felt a cold fist close around my heart.

Are you kidding me? I wondered as I stumbled toward the locked entrance. Did this guy just ditch me?

In my haste to reach the entrance to see if this was so, I tripped over something soft but unyielding in the corridor before me. And as I fell, both arms splayed forward in a way practically guaranteed to break my wrists, it occurred to me to wonder if this wasn't all part of some elaborate set-up. If perhaps the job interview had already started, and this was part of some complex psychological evaluation.

And then I contacted the floor with my face and finally saw some light--the bright spotty kind that flashes up brilliantly just before everything goes completely dark...


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