Dealing with It

This second round of chemotherapy is not uncomfortable so far, the only pronounced side-effect being a pervasive sleepiness that leaves me unable to do much more than listen to audiobooks. (Have been listening to Andrea Wulf’s magisterial The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World, which I found endlessly fascinating.) I remember the sleepiness from my first round of chemo & in comparison with that round this one has been pretty easy so far; but persistent sleepiness, while pleasant enough at first, gets pretty boring after a few days. I’ll open my laptop with the idea of writing something & ten minutes later wake up staring at the screen, mouse still gripped in my right hand. I am missing that manic phase a few weeks ago where I wrote a long poem & revised many others, wrote long blog entries, etc. etc. Now all I can manage are these little squibs. I like to think my body is putting all its energy into dealing with cancer cells & doesn’t have the reserves left over for intellectual activity–or is that just fanciful? Probably. Feeling a bit more alert this afternoon, so maybe this is a phase to be passed through. I would like to get back to doing some creative work, which is the one thing, really, that makes my situation tolerable. I’m really not interested in distractions, these days. I want to be working or sleeping, basically, with the two of them balanced in some kind of homeostasis. That & talking to friends give me a sense of well-being, the feeling, perhaps an illusion, that I have some control over my situation.

And what is my situation? I’ve used the word half-a-dozen time above & it could, I realize, begin to sound like a euphemism for having cancer–an avoidance of the harder language. Actually, it’s a term of art in Jean Paul Sartre’s philosophy that means something like “the human condition applied one case at a time”–it is always particular, never general. So my situation is having cancer, but also of being able to do a large number of things not directly involved with my diagnosis & associated disability, especially my lack of easy mobility. I won’t say that every trip to the kitchen or bathroom is a struggle, but every trip involves a walker & the inability to carry objects easily from one place to another. I use the walker because there is pain in my hip, but if it were only pain I would not use the walker; the pain is a signal of weakness & lets me know I cannot trust those particular muscles to support the weight of the left side of my body. (I’m sorry if this much description seems self-pitying–perhaps it is–but I indulge the descriptive language in an attempt to set out a phenomenological understanding of just what my situation is–to be clear about it.)1

Continuing to use Sartre’s language, one must pay attention to one’s situation in order to keep from falling into “bad faith,” or merely playing a game with one’s situation. Sartre’s humorous example of bad faith is the supercilious French waiter with his stiff yet condescending manners & neatly balanced tray falling into the game of pretending to be a supercilious French Waiter. In Zen, we often talk about acting spontaneously. Acting spontaneously, one cannot fall into bad faith; but to back up one micron from spontaneous action is to plunge headlong into bad faith. My sickness has made me acutely aware of the ease with which my situation can lead to bad faith–to being The Perfect Zen student, or the Good Patient, or any kind of exemplary role. So, I can be a Zen student, or a patient, or a grumpy old man, just so long as I am owning that identity at that moment. Aside: From the patient’s perspective, it is very, very easy to see which of the medical staff is acting in good faith & which not. So obvious as to be comical.

Enough existentialist navel-gazing for one afternoon. In some of these posts it feels as if I just keep circling the same set of irresolvables without being able to dive into the center of what becomes not much more than a semantic tangle. Well, that’s what we language-heads do! [Throws up hands in mock disgust, then laughs–ironically?]

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  1. Ironically, such attempts at clarity often lead to twisted syntax & clotted meanings, with footnotes appended to parenthetical expressions. Language does not map directly or easily onto experience & often must be tricked into doing any mapping at all.

A Teaching Career (Part II)

Without irony or apology, I can say that I have liked university teaching over the years because it left time to do other things. This of course plays into the “cushy job” clichés about professors–at least under the old, pre-adjunctification of the profession. I would have led a much less happy life had I stayed in journalism or gone found a job that required be to be on the scene nine to five, five days a week. I suspect I would have become a bartender or waiter. In any case, even working as an adjunct in Bellingham, then in San Diego (where I drove all over the county in my VW Beetle to put together a “career” of teaching gigs at San Diego State & a couple of community colleges). Some days I logged more than a hundred miles in a succession of little Bugs, and then finally a camper van.

I saw an ad for adjunct positions at San Diego State while I was still living in Bellingham & applied for it because I knew I could crash at my aunt’s house for a month before my first paycheck came in. San Diego was, after all, my hometown. My mother had lived and worked there as a young woman.  The position I was hired for also paid a bit better and offered somewhat more work, so I drove the entire length of the West Coast of the US in four days, landing in Chula Vista a few days before the semester was to begin. I loved the big bullpen where all the adjuncts had their desks. No illusions about the class system here.1 But there was a lively intellectual atmosphere–along with a lot of bitching–in the bullpen & I became quite close to ca couple of my colleagues, though those friendships, sadly, did not persist a few years later when I moved east to take a job at an obscure place called Clarkson University, which, in those days, was really a glorified tech school.

My Iowa MFA turned out to be considered an important credential, both within the department at State & among the English Department heads at Palomar CC & a couple of other places. I soon had a very full slate of teaching jobs spread across the county–but I still seemed to have a lot of time to write poems. (I tended to grade papers in big marathon sessions filled with angst & swearing & coffee, leaving long afternoons for rereading Wordsworth & Whitman & Berryman & Bishop only a few blocks from the booming Pacific Ocean. (In which I almost drowned one fine afternoon, but that’s another story: Avoid riptides.) So, despite the anxieties of freeway driving in an underpowered vehicle, the first few years in San Diego were miracle years during which I began to write my first fully adult poems.

And about time, too, since I was in my mid-thirties by this point. (Did I mention I had taken a rather leisurely–even by the standards of the times–ten years to accomplish my BA in Seattle at the UW, from 1969 to 1979? That was something of an extended boyhood!) I was almost thirty by the time I finished up at Iowa & moved back West, having lost my first wife M. during the first semester of grad school–a not uncommon phenomenon, I was to learn. In Bellingham, just before leaving for San Diego, I had begun going out with one of my students (the rules were different then) & she soon joined me in San Diego. That was my wife Carole & we are still together more than three decades later.

Well, that paragraph is a bit of a temporal & spatial mess. To return to something like a narrative, I can pick up with Ocean Beach, perhaps the last real counter-culture neighborhood in San Diego. Leaving my aunt’s guest room after a month, I found a couple of rooms to rent in a beach shack in Ocean Beach. I was still grindingly poor, but Carole joined me & we began to live like the latter-day hippies I suppose we were, shopping at the coop & breakfasting in a couple of fine diners, with occasional Mexican dinners out if the occasion (like a paycheck) warranted it. I was writing the poems that would fill out my first two books, the letterpress chapbook The Light of Common Day and my first full-length book, Customs. I was deeply fortunate that Kim Merker’s Windhover Press did the chapbook–it remains the most beautiful presentation of my work to this day. And the Univ. of Georgia Press also did a fine job of helping me edit (Thanks, Stanley Plumly!) a slightly too-long manuscript into something like a unified whole.

I had been publishing in journals, but these two books convinced the English Department at State that they should give me a (still not tenure track) full-time position. Additionally, the started assigning me upper division Literature creative writing classes to teach. If the job had had any potential of shifting to the tenure track, I’d probably be writing this from the West Coast rather than the East. You would have thought that my picking up my first of two NEA Creative Writing Fellowships would have tipped the scales in my favor, but it did not. Carole & I spent nearly five months in Europe spending the NEA money & soon after returning I was offered the job at Clarkson. It was not an easy decision to make. Neither of us had ever lived anywhere but the West Coast & Carole was now in grad school (in History) at UCLA.

We agreed that we’d move our digs East but that she would continue at UCLA until we figured out what was going on. We were bi-coastal fir two years, until Carole received her MA & decided not to pursue the PhD. I think it was her legitimate decision–she didn’t want to teach–but I still feel bad about her not finishing the doctorate, which she could have done with ease.

Thus began my Clarkson teaching career, which would run twenty-seven years, until a couple of weeks ago. I’m not going to try to produce a narrative of all those years, but will shift gears in the next part of this account & write more about teaching itself, in the classroom, rather than my particular experience of it as a job. [To be continued . . . ]


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  1. It was probably stronger at State than it would have been at University of California branches–the full-time faculty at State knew they were in the faculty underclass when compared to the faculty at U-Cal, so they enforced their local privileges pretty strictly.

Favorite Poems: “Gnostics On Trial”

Even if Linda Gregg had not written many other fine poems, “Gnostics on Trial” would assure her a place among the poets who have written seriously about our moral dilemmas. Technically, it is hard to imagine a better put-together poem, its compact form packing a terrific moral & aesthetic (which the poem argues are the same) wallop. Gregg’s poem is a faultless example of the short lyric as practiced since the mid-twentieth century. And there is not much on the horizon, I think, likely to take the place of this now venerable form, or mode, of poetry. The short lyric remains essential even as new & hybrid forms proliferate around it & it seems to be holding its own, occupying the place–the evolutionary niche–formerly occupied by the sonnet.