June 06, 2010
“There’s this you, here, you know. Talking to me. And there’s the you watching you talk to me. And in the book, there’s the you in the book and the you reading the book and the you watching you reading the book about you.”
His eyes got big. He extended his arms out, palms up, and thrust them at me a couple of times like he was trying to give me something large and heavy that he was about to drop.
I held my hands up, palms forward, in self-defense. “YEAH. I KNOW. You’re insane.”
The invisible thing fell on the floor, and his arms fell to his sides.
“Well, you’d like it. You WILL like it.”
This was the sort of conversation I had with him—Gemini Joe, we’ll call him—without fail. This was his way of telling me to read a book. The truth was I didn’t know. I almost never knew what he was talking about. I told myself it was because he was a Gemini and thus made no sense to begin with, but the truth was, he was a seeing person leading me, blind and stupid, into a new way of thinking.
In this case he was talking about Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler.
Sometime earlier, after I sent Joe an indignant (later revealed to be “frustrated”) email about how I didn’t get poetry and what was the point and I’d rather read or write a novel, he recommended the notion of “hanging out with” poetry.
At the time, I was an anthropology major. A scientist.
“It’s not me,” I’d say, “I’m too logical for that crap.”
Take one poem. Just one poem, Becky. One that interests you, even if just barely, and put it in your pocket and carry it around for a week at least. And take it out and read it once in a while. The same poem. At least a week. Promise me. Do it once. If you don’t like it, I’ll never bother you about it again.
So I did it. And it worked. I was not an anthropology major for long.
Gemini Joe was one of many English instructors I’d had in my already protracted undergraduate career. He was not a full professor but an MFA holding an adjunct position at a community college. It was 2004 or 2005. I was 26 or 27. He was only 6 or so years older than me. We were peers in age, for all intents and purposes, and by this point, friends.
After class, we went out for beers and played half-sober games of “Top Five” with a handful of my other classmates. He got buzzed, read drafts of poems we’d written unrelated to class, and wrote things like “Hamburgers!” in the margin after furiously circling a whole stanza. He held an open house at a local bar and grill at the end of the semester, inviting us all to drop by and keep him company while he graded (our) papers.
I suspect these experiences are not what employers are hoping to draw into their human resources arsenal when they put “4-year degree” in the minimum qualifications of job descriptions.
I learned more about myself, relationships, reading, and writing in those two years than I did in the other 12 years of my on-again, off-again higher education combined. Community college was inexpensive, weird, potentially unprofessional, and, in almost every way, nothing like college is supposed to be.
I cannot recommend it highly enough.
In the roughly year and a half during and shortly after Gemini Joe’s creative writing class, I wrote nearly 300 poems, published a handful of them before I even had an associate’s degree, began blogging furiously, and was even picked up by some fancy-pants fellow in L.A. who was going to start a brand new kind of online publication in a bid to change the literary world. In short, I became a writer.
Just like that. A writer. I could call myself that. No MFA, no internship, nothing.
Still, the stigma attached to community college is at once obvious and insidious. What’s more, no one will admit to its existence. It’s a dirty pair of panties in the middle of the dining table at a dinner party. I remember, when talking to people about where I was going to school, all but apologizing for being a poor, attention-seeking ne’er-do-well.
They’d say, “Ooh…that’s a good way to go. I have a friend whose (subtext: unemployed, imbecilic, criminally insane, and terribly ugly) son is doing that.”
“You know, it’s cheap and I was a bit of a rebel in high school, so it was a good way to get my GPA up. And it’s much more personal than a big school,” I’d say.
Everything I said was true, but feeling the need to say it was suspect. I felt dirty even humoring it. I knew that wasn’t me. I knew—at the risk of tooting my own horn—that I was smart. Smarter than most, and even if not, certainly smarter than the condescending asshole who was grilling me about where I was going to school. But there I was, feeling like a poverty-stricken, imbecilic, criminally insane person. I vowed—however subconsciously—to make people, maybe everybody, but especially people like that, eat my dust.
When I did transfer to a 4-year school, it was Tally ho, motherfuckers.
I got straight A’s. I landed on every class like a sucker punch, interrogating instructors and giving impassioned treatises in class. I mocked their predictable academic and personal politics; I chastised them for their lack of interdisciplinary awareness and for misleading people who were too young to know any better. I was Don Quixote with ‘roid rage—a monstrous pain in the ass. When I did graduate, finally, I huffed and panted and steamed like a Pamplona bull in the Plaza de Toros. And like the bulls, just like that, I had run all that way to find nowhere to go.
In the meantime, or somewhere along the way, unfortunate realities stuffed me with fear and loathing and bureaucratic anonymity and a titanic sense of resentment, making writing impossible.
Gemini Joe couldn’t get a better teaching gig. His wife was pregnant with their second child; he went into house flipping towards the end of the housing bubble and nearly lost his ass. I’m not sure, but I think after writing training manuals for a notable health insurance company for a while, he began creating some kind of digital networking and web-networking strategy to sell to businesses. He started some kind of consulting firm. Really, I don’t understand what he’s doing. He’s not teaching. He’s not writing. Not like he used to.
Good teachers (not to be confused with good scholars) go begging. Good students get a special name on a piece of paper.
Having lived the dream, finishing both high school and college before the age of 50 (unlike either of my parents), I find myself here. Home, as far as I’m concerned.
I paid tens of thousands of dollars and read dozens of books, hundreds of poems, sacrificed hundreds of hours—to earn the relief of coming back to what I was doing before I signed on for the whole mad affair in the first place.
In case you were wondering, I did read it. Joe’s recommendation, that is. If on a winter’s night a traveler is still my favorite book.