Tuesday, March 04, 2008


In Which We Are Ready, Wisewise...

Twenty years ago (more or less):

I straggled across the street, the icy slush running over the tops of my shoes and soaking my socks as I clomped up the steps to the plaza of the communications school. Inside the second building, I turned right and sloshed my way down about five doors, stopping at the office whose door was propped wide open, and wreathed in a cloud of blue smoke.

"JK?" I asked, tapping the doorframe.

The old man looked up from the stack of papers that he was covering with ash and a healthy smattering of red ink. He peered at me over the top of his glasses.

"MM!" he croaked, then glanced at his watch. "Christ! It's ten of eight. It's positively illegal for you to be up so early, isn't it?"

"I've got my Com Law final at 8:30," I mumbled as I fished through my backpack. "So I figured I'd drop my story off early." I handed him the story and he smiled as he read the headline.

"Ah! The post office story. Can't wait to read the goods on Aunt Bab-ra."

"I rewrote the query like you said and I'll pitch it to
Yankee first."

JK nodded. "All well and good. Now, what in the name of God is wrong with your head?"

My advisor and Magazine Writing professor pointed a nicotine-stained finger at the left side of my face, which was noticeably puffed up.

"Ah, well, that was my, um, karate final last night," I muttered.

JK parted his lips and a near-silent braying laugh escaped from him. It was a rare thing to get him to laugh and despite my agony, some part of me--not my jaw, anyway--was secretly pleased. "You should have stuck to fencing, like I told you. What was it? Punch? Kick?"

"Kick," I said, cupping my jaw in the palm of my hand as I sat. "I was only supposed to match three opponents to get my purple belt, but the sensei miscounted and had me match a fourth guy, fella who was going for his green belt. Lotta wheel kicks in that crowd. Anyway, I knew what he was going to do, but I was just too goddamn tired to get my hands up in time, so...pow. Knocked me right over. Saw stars and everything. My girlfriend took me to the ER and they X-rayed me. Nothing broken, but the guy sprained my neck and my jaw. They gave me some Tylenol-3 for the pain, but I was too scared to take it--afraid I'd pass out and sleep through my final. So..."

"So instead you pulled an all-nighter and here you are, looking like bedraggled hell. You honestly think you can take the final? I'm sure Wright would give you an extension.'

"No way," I said. "I want to put Com Law out of my misery."

JK smiled at that again, then turned his attention back to a sheaf of papers. It wasn't our Mag Writing finals he was grading either, but a stapled bunch of papers with names on them. JK's class list for next semester. I suddenly found myself holding my breath.

"Well," he said, taking a long drag of his cigarette. "I suppose you came here to do more than make your deadline."

"Well," I echoed, "I guess I was wondering--"

"You were wondering if I was going to let you into my graduate-level writing class in the spring. The class that has only 9 students. The one that I never let undergrads into, unless I think they're hell on wheels. And even then, I only let in two, at most. Sometimes not even that many."

"Oh yeah, that one. Yeah, I guess I was a little curious."

"The Yankee gift for understatement. But I'm a Southron, boy. Can't think of a single reason to let a no-account New Hampshireman like you in. You who don't even have the sense to duck when someone kicks you in the head. Who couldn't even get into Toby Wolff's limp-wristed crowd of fantacists."

"Ah, but I'm excellent comic relief," I pointed out.

"That you are. But the chairman made a stink. Said your grades didn't warrant letting you in. You did earn only a C in his MAG 205 course. A frigging survey course, and you got a C. What ails you boy?"

"Aw, JK, that course was crap. We didn't even do any writing. You've read my stuff. You know what--"

The old man put a hand up and I quieted instantly. "I know. Fact is, you're one of the best undergrad writers in your year. And am I right--you're not even 21?"

"I'm legal three weeks after graduation. My parents sent me to kindergarten at 4. Not my fault."

"Jesus, not even 21. And already you're writing this book about your town, your uncle."

"Well, I'm a long way from a book--"

"I know. You're too stupid to know better. You're ready, skillwise, to write the damn thing, but you won't feel ready, wisewise, until you're 40." He exhaled a cloud of smoke at me. "But hell, maybe if we get you writing in my class next spring, we'll see if we can't prize that book out of you a little sooner."

My jaw stopped aching. "Seriously? But you said the chairman--"

"Oh yeah, him. Told him to fuck himself. One of the benefits of tenure. You may discover that yourself one day."

"Not me. I can't teach. I could never do what you do."

"Not right now. Get out there and rub some of that green off. Do some freelance. Get yourself a real job at a really big magazine. Then come back and inspire the hell out of these kids. God knows I'll be dead by then and they'll need someone else to do it."

"I dunno--"

"Luckily, you have some time to think about it. Although right now, you better get to your final."

"Oh shit, yeah!" I stood up to go, then turned back. "Hey, JK, thanks for letting me in your class I know I don't really deserve it--"

JK waved my paper at me, the way one waves away an offensive smell. "Please, stop. Spare me the false modesty. Grow yourself an ego that befits your talent. And we'll see you after the break."

With that, my friend and mentor saluted me with his cigarette, then kicked the door shut in my face.

Twenty years later (more or less):

I bounded across the street, the icy slush running over the tops of my shoes and soaking my socks. But I hardly felt it as I skipped up the steps to the plaza of the communications school. I stopped for a moment, staring in awe at the third building that had sprouted up--all shining and decorated with the words of the First Amendment--since last I was here. Then I walked in to the second building, feeling my nerves jangling as I thought about the afternoon ahead.

As I often do when I'm nervous and excited, I caught myself grinding my teeth and stopped there in the vestibule, took a moment to exhale, to unclench. I leaned my head this way, then that way, stretching my neck and working my jaw, trying to relax. As I did, I felt more than heard the dull crunching sound on one side of my jaw. I rubbed the small knot of scar tissue just down from my cheek, the souvenir of my long-ago karate final.

Then I turned right and sloshed my way down about five doors, stopping at the office whose door was propped wide open. No blue cloud wreathed the doorway--the campus buildings had long ago been declared smoke-free--but in all other respects, the atmosphere of the place was the same.

I poked my head in to the office and an older man with a beard looked up at me. I didn't expect to see JK, what with him being retired from the place for the past 18 years, and furthermore dead for the past 7. But I could feel his presence, nonetheless. I was ready, wisewise.

"Professor G?" I said, extending my hand to the unfamiliar face. "I'm the Magazine Man, and I'm here to inspire the hell out of your kids..."

Wow, that's great. You've mentioned this for some time, but I didn't think you'd actually do it! Guest speaker or actual career change? I can't wait to find out. Good for you!
Very nice story writing there, MM. You really took us back! Sounds like your old professor was a very wise man. He definitely had your number.
How cool. Loved it.
Jealous all over again. My experience with potential mentors at The University was – well, it was different from yours, that’s for sure. Maybe I was just in the wrong program, maybe I lacked your people skills; in retrospect, I think it’s more the latter than the former. But it’s entirely down to my experiences with University faculty that I lost all interest in TV/Film production.
You should really work on not letting me check on your posts when I'm at work! I get so caught up I forget to answer the phone, or respond to people. I'm basically an MM zombie. Ha!
All I could picture was JK Simmons character, J. Jonah Jameson in Spiderman (The Bugle Editor-in-Chief).

You've come full circle, as JK prophesied.

Very interesting...
Wonderful!! Can't wait to hear all about it.
Wow... fantastic post. I love when you tell a story like that. What a friggin talent. Can't wait to hear the rest :)
So where's the book? ;)
You know, I hate your cliff hangers...I will check here everyday like 3 times a day until you update....I cannot wait to hear what happened....wow, I actually have goosebumps!
Man, I love this sort of thing - a story with the same setting for varying time periods, comparing the differences between then and now in a character's life. Good stuff!
Great posts! I can't wait to hear more!
Well, MM - you inspire the hell out of me too. Thanks for that.

Can't wait to
Great story, as usual. Have missed your blogging. Don't you love those crotchedly old men who don't like anyone but actual talent? He probably told the other guy to fuck off while denying entry to his graduate class to one of the other guy's favorites.
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