Sunday, May 17, 2009

When the Student is Unprepared, the Teacher Appears

The industrious and decidedly non-correct-thinking blogger Steve Sailer recently shone a light on his own dark night of the soul for readers:
I don't know why people speak so highly of dreams all the time: e.g., the American Dream, "I have a dream," Dreams from My Father, etc.

If my dreams are representative, then the real American Dream is that you're in the classroom for your final exam but you haven't attended a class or opened the book all semester, and for some reason you're wearing your pajamas, and you really have to go to the bathroom.
That's our dream, too, one that we still have, periodically, although it's been many years since we actually worried about taking a written exam (in our "waking" life). Judging by conversations we've had over the years with others of our rank and station, the not-ready-for-the-test dream is the great night terror that roils the collective unconscious of America's college-educated middle class. In our particular version we also are sometimes wearing pajamas or are otherwise dressed inappropriately, although the part about having to use the bathroom doesn't ring a bell. Usually the professor--and it's never a specific professor, as best we can recall--is passing out an exam or a blue book and we're suddenly overcome by panic, wondering why oh why we forgot to come to class or read the textbook and generally what the hell we're doing there. Sometimes we think we might be able negotiate, to come up with a line of plausible BS to feed the prof so that we might be excused*, but we invariably conclude that such a ploy would be hopeless and slump into despond. Once, and we remembered this one clearly, we thought we might have been drunk for the entire semester and had chosen an inopportune moment to sober up.

Needless to say, we always manage to awaken before we're forced to demonstrate how truly unprepared we are.

*During our years in the "adjunct professor" game we heard many imaginative explanations for long absences from class. These almost always were told by a female student and involved one of the following elements: 1.) a break-up with a boyfriend resulting in 2.) a change of medications that didn't work as expected or 3.) a death of a loved one resulting in 4.) a change of medications that didn't work as expected. The best one we heard was up in Aggieland, where they usually don't lie, cheat or steal, from a young lady who constructed a magnificant tale regarding the death of an uncle in the World Trade Center on 9-11 and her subsequent six weeks' disappearance from class. As much as it pained us we ended up giving her an 'A,' because she turned out to be the best student in the class.

Monday, May 11, 2009

When the Student is Ready, the Teacher Appears

From "Freeing a Mentor from His Mythology," on the relationship between still-breathing Steve Earle and long-gone Townes Van Zandt, by Anthony DeCurtis, in the Sunday New York Times:
To all but a handful of his closest friends Van Zandt was a remote, elusive figure, apt to disappear and turn up with equal unpredictability. As mentor to Mr. Earle he was hardly a steady, guiding hand, and he was much too stoic to dispense sage advice about songwriting or anything else. The premise of their relationship was something like, if I didn’t think you were good enough to do it yourself, you wouldn’t be here. He did, however, recommend that Mr. Earle always put the top back on the bottle so that the alcohol wouldn’t spill when it inevitably got kicked over and, when injecting drugs, to use clean needles every time.

He also instructed Mr. Earle to read “War and Peace,” though Van Zandt had not read the book himself, as Mr. Earle discovered to his surprise when he dutifully returned with questions about it. “I just thought you should,” Van Zandt idly told him.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Put Together Like an Old Pistol

Jane Ely liked to eat, drink, smoke and shoot the shit, activities that she often pursued simultaneously and with carefree determination (until it all caught up with her). She may have said a curse word or two along the way. (No one, not even the hardest core rapper, ever enunciated the word “motherfucker” quite like Ely did.) Exercise, for Ely, was bending an elbow to down an adult beverage—we don’t believe there were many she disliked—or lighting up another Camel non-filter. Late at night, in a barroom, she’d strike the match off a well-manicured thumbnail.

Ely, who died Monday of a "lung-related disease", wrote about politics and toiled in a variety of editing jobs at the now-dead newspaper out the freeway--she worked there long before it moved to the freeway--as well as the surviving paper downtown. When we went to work at the former back at the dawn of the Reagan Era, Ely schooled us, and as it stands with most of the people who have been our teachers over the years we never quite got around to fully expressing our gratitude.

Going to lunch with Ely was always a trip—a long trip. Back when she was still living large and hard, she favored ample servings of heavy foods—chicken fried steak drenched in gravy, or the deep-fried and glazed meatstuff she’d forage from the buffet line at a hideously greasy Chinese joint called Yummy Chow on Bellaire near Stella Link. She took her meals at a leisurely pace (our mode of fortification was and is to stuff everything down our gullet in 5 or 10 minutes, especially if we’re hungry, then have coffee while waiting for everyone else to catch up). About 30 or 40 minutes into it she’d put down her knife and fork and pick up her lighter and a Camel. After a couple of deep drags she might place the cigarette in an ashtray, pick up the knife and fork and slice into her slab of meat—slowly, methodically, painstakingly (Goddamn, our mind would scream, hurry up and eat so we can get back to work!) She’d take a bite or two, then return to the smoldering cigarette. This may have been at the mid-point of the meal, or only a third of the way into it. You’d arrive at the joint when it was jam-packed with the lunch hour rush, and by the time Ely had snubbed out her last Camel yours would be the only party left and the help would be hovering to clear the last table.

In the long intervals between bites Ely would regale the company with stories from her vast repertoire (she repeated some, but not many). These were usually winding narratives that never saw the light of the newspaper and often were intended to emphasize that this or that public figure was much less than he or she was cracked up to be, perhaps even a buffoon or an unreconstructed asshole. She had sound judgment and a keen eye for a person’s essential character.

Ely had her favorites, and while she seemed to prefer moderate Republican types like Tower, Hutchison and the senior Bush—a predilection we never understood—we recall her speaking fondly of such disparate Democratic types as Eleanor Tinsley, Anthony Hall and Bob Bullock, among others. These were not necessarily politicians she agreed with all the time, but people she perceived as honorable or genuine and, mostly, as gracious in private (at least to her) as others pretended to be in public. She did not seem to care for Phil Gramm or Bill Clinton, and indicated she didn’t understand the appeal of either.

Publicly and privately, Ely was scrupulous about presenting herself as objective and non-partisan, a journalist who’d give everyone a fair hearing. When we started covering politics at the now-deceased rag she suggested, among other things, that we not vote in party primaries, advice we continued to follow long after we quit covering politics. But it was clear that Ely was one of what even back then was a dying breed—a liberal Republican steeped in country-club gentility (we believe she attended Stephens College, a toity women’s institution in Missouri—a resume entry that was somewhat at odds with her raffish Front Page persona—and we’d always heard she came from an “old” and “good” Fort Worth family). Although generally intolerant of malfeasance and incompetence in government, the one issue on which we recall Ely expressing a strong opinion was abortion: She was fiercely pro-choice, and we suspect that in her later years she was not entirely comfortable at Republican gatherings. (We wonder now what she thought of Obama: We figure she saw right through him but might have been tempted to vote for him nonetheless, although she'd never say.)

As an editor Ely was sparing with compliments, but when she gave you one you knew it was real. If she thought something was lacking in your reporting or presentation, she’d come at you sideways, gently, with a drawn-out question that would usually begin “Were you able to ask …?” or “Did they say anything about …?” Out on the freeway one late Saturday night, after we had batted out a forgettable breaking story butt up against deadline, we awaited Ely’s judgment so we could be dismissed to get on with whatever frolic we had planned. Concluding her editing, she lit a Camel, blew a burst of smoke on her computer screen and without looking our way pronounced the story “put together like an old pistol.” We took it—and we hope we took it the right way—as an acknowledgment of craftsmanship. It’s a compliment we stole and have passed on to younger people over the years, but sparingly, and only when deserved.