The Real World

Ten twenty five PM.

Over thirty years ago, the name of Henry James was huge at the UO English Department; but when I ask around now, hardly anyone has read his work. Last year I began rereading his Portrait of a Lady and got bogged down because I knew that no one else had any enthusiasm for James. If I could, I’d return to school in a time machine like a shot and take the class on James with Professor Hines. At least then I’d have other people around me to discuss it with; whereas in reality I feel transplanted like some anachronism of a better, more civilized time. I was never meant for living in the real world, nor was the real world meant for a person like me. I am an outcast from El Dorado, the Gilded: perhaps Arcadia, where the Golden Age lingered on and never went out of style.

Or maybe school was intellectual Toys R Us: but is the transition to the real world growing up or growing narrow and rigid and poor in imagination? Like the child who is silenced from asking questions by a parent who’s lost all curiosity. Yet in a place dark and forgotten, the same questions are on everyone’s lips. 



Quarter of eleven at night.

Three hours ago I sat between purple cloud and pale sun to left and right of me. But I reflected, what if no contrasts existed objectively, and my old Chaucer professor was misled? I recall having a problem with his classification of female and male into polar opposites: because in biology, there are such things as Turner’s and androgen insensitivity, which blur such distinctions. Also I had read James Baldwin, with his passages on androgyny and what this meant for human experience. The Chaucer guy came from the school of Aristotle and Freud and described himself as an old fogy, getting older and fogier every day. His lectures were hilarious and very fun, and Chaucer by nature was bawdy and hysterical. At the same time, at least one student I spoke with had disagreements with the professor: I ran into her in the library the morning of the final exam. Her perspective on the class made me self conscious of mine; and then I had to go take the test. I remember filling up my blue book with essay answers while thinking about taking a trip to see my brother at his place in Michigan. And that’s what I actually did for the last week in June and beyond the Fourth of July. I had a wonderful time. 

Two Schools (in the Rain)

Two o’clock in the morning.

Outside you can hear the sound of the spring rain in the darkness. A train horn two miles off blows a chord and the voice carries like a whale’s under water. The rainy night has a suppressant effect on everything here below: even kind of narcotic and dreamy, though I see nothing out my window. Without relevance, a few lines from Four Quartets come up:

Garlic and sapphires in the mud

Clot the bedded axle-tree.

The trilling wire in the blood…

Yet I catch myself trying to be an encyclopedia. Sometimes reason and knowledge seem overrated, where it might be better to create from original experience. There are close to eight billion opinions in the world today. Somehow, all these appearances eclipse the thing in itself, or the objective essence, so that there is no truth beyond our conception of it. If there were, then we still couldn’t grasp it.

The secret sits in the middle and knows.

Amid the pouring rain, I hear my gutter overflowing on the front porch, reminding me that it needs cleaning.

When April, with its sweet showers,

Has pierced the drought of March to the root…

Mentally I can almost see the office of Prof B— in Prince Lucien Campbell Hall, some 33 years ago. On his door he had tacked a political cartoon that made fun of Marxist criticism by applying it to breakfast cereals, such as Postmodern Toasties and Foucault Flakes. He was quite outspoken about it. His physical aspect bore a resemblance to Geoffrey Chaucer himself, though he probably worked to cultivate this appearance.

In only two years at the university I went from New School “modern theory” to the Old School of Freud and common sense realism, and I graduated on the “old major” in English.

It kind of put the kibosh on the philosophy I started out with, so now I admit it’s very confusing. Things changed after I quit taking French classes…

Intellectual Sun

Ten thirty at night.

If I knew the value of money like most people, then I’d probably be greedy for wealth and for power. My mother, however, taught me to curse what she called filthy lucre when I was growing up. She didn’t foresee the effects this would have on my future. Yet I think it turned out pretty good for me after all. In college, I found myself somehow herded into a small band of students who cared more about quality of experience than getting the grades and graduating as quickly as possible to start making money. Today, the issue of freedom still puzzles me. Is freedom the power of laissez faire capitalism, or instead is it having the free time to use your brain as you like, and appreciate the beauty and grace of the life of the mind; in other words, intellectual beauty? And there are plenty of people who resent intellectualism, including my family besides my late mother. It’s an absurd way to feel about it; you either value money or you value something better that money can’t buy. We delude ourselves to think that an education is exclusive and denied to us by whatever forces we can imagine. Where there’s a will, there’s a way, or else there was never a Ray Bradbury or a Bernard Shaw.

The life of the mind finds a way, like a flower towards the sun.

A Debt

Nine ten AM.

The sunshine this morning is very nice, though it’s extremely cold with a frost on everything. I slept in today and woke up in a better mood. I’ve gone to the store where people were fairly pleasant and polite to each other. It feels like a diurnal time somehow rather than benighted in a melancholy mood. Credit the sunny day, I guess. Aesop has had a half can of breakfast followed by his chicken jerky from the market. I keep forgetting it’s Saturday and church is tomorrow: I have an impulse to skip it because I can’t agree with the pastor’s collectivism, or his emphasis on the rights of society over the individual. A great drama on that topic is The Crucible by Arthur Miller, which I read again 13 years ago. It’s probably time to read it yet again for fresh inspiration… The thought of it reminds me of a teacher from high school, Mrs Taylor, who passed away some time ago. I heard of it only afterwards when I walked into my old school out of curiosity or wanderlust five years in the past. The doors were open, so I let myself in and made my way to the office and spoke with the secretaries. The news made me sad because I would’ve looked up my old teacher and let her know she was appreciated. In a way, I owe her for my recovery. 


Two thirty.

Since this morning the Rush song “Witch Hunt” has played in my head, probably for the last few lines of the lyric:

Quick to judge, quick to anger

Slow to understand

Ignorance and prejudice

And fear walk hand in hand

I’ve heard this song be misinterpreted so ridiculously by those with ultra conservative values and attitudes, themselves the very thing the song criticizes. They are the “madmen fed on fear and lies / To beat and burn and kill.” And then I guess they just disregard the conclusion.

But it’s been on my mind for a reason today, as well as my schooldays when life was really pretty happy for me, from ninth grade to graduation from college. Others in my family tend to disparage education, saying that higher ed is impractical and a waste of time. But simultaneously they hotly resent people more knowledgeable than themselves, or just plain more intelligent. I don’t know whether the situation is fair or unfair, or who’s to blame for the inequality of it. What is the origin of inequality among people? And what am I supposed to do about the yawning chasm between me and some of my relatives? The whole thing gives me a headache. For today, I don’t regret that I’m spending Thanksgiving Day by myself with my dog. Fortunately a dog can’t argue with you or spit nails if you utter one fifty cent word. 

The Underdog

Nine o’clock at night.

I had a dream that a T. Rex killed my dog. Aesop went up against him fearlessly to defend me but the huge lizard chomped him down. Obviously I was sad afterwards. I wonder what the dream means. Does the dinosaur symbolize something, maybe the monster of society or of life itself, and my dog represents the brave but puny individual whose valiant fight is futile? The story ends up the opposite of David and Goliath: the underdog, against tremendous odds, loses the battle. What are they battling over? Still, Aesop’s self sacrifice to the T. Rex kept me alive a bit longer, so his death was not vain. One more observation: the name “tyrannosaurus” means “tyrant lizard.” Thus, the real tyrant could be anything you can imagine: the Church, or perhaps a group of unjust politicians trying to topple democracy. But usually when I think of something threatening, it’s the menace to liberal scholarship and to education as I remember it. And of course, “Aesop” is the fabulist and moral teacher of antiquity.


In the years after Star Wars came out, the cable company here didn’t offer much to choose from. However, we got channels from Portland and also one from San Francisco: KTVU, Channel 2. This last one was a lot of fun for kids in the afternoon. At three thirty or so they had the TV Pow game in between Tom and Jerry cartoons, hosted by Pat McCormick, who also did Dialing for Dollars with a movie every weekday. And then at five o’clock it was Captain Cosmic, who would show old Flash Gordon serials and also talk about Star Wars miscellany for avid fans of George Lucas.

I don’t know when I quit watching Channel 2; maybe after I got to seventh grade and started reading regular books for fun. Also I couldn’t watch tv during the afternoon anymore because I had homework to do every day. And my mother usually helped me with that. In all fairness, I think it was my mother who taught me how to write decent prose, and that was when I was in junior high school. It’s kind of amazing to recognize that now. I learned a great deal in seventh grade from Mom and from my reading teacher, Cathy Cheleen. The latter taught us not to use run-on sentences, and Mom said to make them short and punchy. She told me to use synonyms for the same things for variety; and I still heed her advice even today.

It’s probably the Coke that made me write to you again. Sometimes it makes me feel really good. When that happens, I try to seize the day and take advantage of the good mood.


Five o’clock.

What do you do when satisfaction is a long time coming? I guess you settle for less than what you really want. And maybe life has a project for you, as in an Emerson essay: we don’t use nature, nature uses us. Perhaps in hindsight it all makes sense to the individual. There was a plan all along, and your ego didn’t form it. I tend to forget this perspective. “But if all this should have a reason / We would be the last to know.” It’s a more religious way of looking at the puzzle. High school taught us to go out and conquer happiness, but it seldom works that way, and I think it’s backwards. Once I was assigned to lead class discussion on “Barter,” a poem by Sara Teasdale, but I had no clue how to interpret it. Many years later, it seemed like a big joke at my expense. What did I know of ecstasy? I was very shy, quiet, and withdrawn. I was more cut out to be a priest than a Don Juan… If Robert Burns is right about the best laid schemes, I try to remember that the real Schemer is not you or me.


Wee hours.

I hear rain on the roof and on the patio cover, while it’s pitch dark outdoors. A very old song from Andre Kostelanetz plays inwardly: “Calcutta.” This is a souvenir of my senior year in college when I took a religion class and also biology. I still have a soft spot for the religious studies department at the university. The place was just a hole in the wall on the second floor of Chapman Hall the last I knew. It may not even exist anymore: the department was always on the chopping block. The administration talked about merging it with the history department or moving it over to Northwest Christian College, but as of ten or twelve years ago it still remained open. The university in general makes me think of my dad, who had a fiscal job in the psychology department for at least ten years. He found a good niche there for himself and seemed fairly happy with his occupation. Quite a few times we had lunch together in his office or we’d go out for Italian food occasionally. Life back then was very secular for me because of who my parents were. But today it’s anybody’s guess where I belong, though I’ve been doing the same things for a handful of years, in the same comfortable places… Just now the day is dawning gray and wet. I wonder how the weather is in Calcutta?