2.20.13.news.leadingvoiceslecture

Jeff Selingo’s new book, College Unbound: The Future of Higher Education and What It Means for Students (New Harvest, 2013), finds the editor at large for the Chronicle of Higher Education articulating the challenges to contemporary higher education. He also explores possible new directions for a future in which learning may well be unbundled from many of its traditional structures.

I interviewed Selingo and published a short version of our conversation at the Huffington Post under the title “When the Jobs of Tomorrow Don’t Exist Today: Jeff Selingo on College, Liberal Arts, and the Possible Future.” Here, I let the conversation expand to its full flowering, and then move at its close to issues of contemporary publishing.

Irreverence is the champion of liberty and its only sure defense.
~ Mark Twain

 

The debate regarding a MFA in Creative Writing/Poetry is getting really old. Those of us who care about the art of poetry are quite aware of each side’s stance—on the one hand poetry is treated as a calling (Anti-MFA; the romanticism of outsiders who lead reckless lifestyles and who place the judgment of a “successful career” as a poet into the hands of posterity), on the other hand poetry is treated as a career (Pro-MFA; careerism, wherein schooled poets explicitly strategize with other schooled poets, publishing each other’s poems and books in order to stay on track to tenure and/or to maintain a recognizable status of “success”). Without a doubt, the Pro-MFA side is the sovereign of literary publications and the publishing system. It is for this reason that the Anti-MFA side comes off as the aggressor in this debate; the Pro-MFA side deflecting its opponents’ jabs with an aloof air of boredom, or at times with an agitated sense of exasperation. The bottom line is that this debate, this nonsense, must be brought to closure. And so, please bear with me as I rehash a few issues here in a swift attempt to finally, and thankfully, put an end to the MFA debate.

I first posted this on Thursday night. I apologize to everyone who read the first version, because with all the typos it looked like the ramblings of a drunk. The reality is someone edited the story without my consent. I’ve contacted the editors at TNB about the issue and I’m assured it will be handled properly.

In any case, this is the second part of a story I posted on June 15th. I intended to follow up much sooner, but unfortunately I had to take a little break from the Internet.

If you don’t feel like going back to it, I’ll give you the Hollywood pitch of the previous post: A college kid (me) meets the girl of his dreams,  but there’s a problem: She has a boyfriend already. So the natural question of part two is if the erstwhile lovers can overcome this obstacle, and if so, how3?

The last post ended when Sophia invited me to a fraternity party she was officially attending with her boyfriend, Jack. At the party, which was also a concert, Jack spent most of his time wandering around talking to his friends, while Sophia and me listened to the band together. At one point we wandered off the fraternity grounds and found an old playground across the street. We sat in a couple of old swings and looked at the sky. The stars were too bright, like someone had turned the power up too high, and neither of us said anything for a while. When I finally looked  Sophia again, she was staring into my eyes, leaning close to me, and I knew the moment called for me to kiss her.

But when I moved toward her, she pulled away. I remember this like it was yesterday.

“1 have to go,” she said.

“Why?”

“Jack’s waiting.”

“You mean wasted?”

Sophia stood up and glared at me.

“Don’t do that.”

I was angry with her but I tried to pretend like my comment was a joke.

“Don’t do what?”

After she walked away, I 4resolved not to see her again. I felt like an fool for being so drawn to a girl who couldn’t or wouldn’t return those feelings. I still spent time in the computer lab every day, but luckily the summer schedule changed and she didn’t come by anymore. But then one day, maybe two weeks later, she showed up in my ICQ chat list and wrote me soon after.

“I installed ICQ on the computer in my apartment!” she wrote. “We can talk on the Internet now. 1sn’t this cool?”

And pretty soon we were talking every day again, about everything and nothing. She told me about her family, about her classes, about a boyfriend in high school who once hit her after dropping a touchdown pass in the waning moments of a playoff game. I 5told her about my mother, how her bullying had affected my early relationships with girls, that I staggered through four years of high school without asking a single girl on a date. Or we just chatted about whatever was going on at that moment in the day. This was a dumb thing to do, obviously, because the only way she was ever going to see what we meant to each other was if I took it away from her. But I couldn’t bring myself to play games. I wanted to know what she was doing, what she was thinking, and I wanted her to know the same things about me.

I was also still learning to play the guitar.

You see, I’d never let go of this idea, the one I had back at the concert. If Sophia liked men who played guitar, why couldn’t I be one of them? And what could p9ossibly be more romantic than singing to the woman you loved, in front of the world, and declaring your love for her?

After working my way through a book about guitar chords, called CAGED, I started practicing a particular song—“Only You” by Yaz. I know it’s a sappy song. It’s embarrassing . But you have to consider my mental state at the time. I felt like I was living in a fairy tale. I felt like I had to prove my love to her, like a prince longing for a faraway princess. I just had no idea the fair maiden I was after was Rapunzel.

It wasn’t easy to work out how to play that song on the guitar, considering the synth-oriented sound of the original. I think I practiced in front of the mirror about 5000 times. I know for sure my fingers bled. But finally I decided I was good enough to make it through the whole thing without screwing it up too badly, and that’s when I wrote to Sophia on ICQ and invited her to join me for a drink at a bar called Ike’s.

I knew her boyfriend, Jackass, would be out of town that weekend, and I knew on a Saturday the bar would be packed. But that was the entire point, to make the scenes as dramatic as possible. My biggest fears was that Sophia would turn me down, but to my surprise she accepted readily. In fact I remember precisely what she wrote after we decided on a time for that Saturday night:

“This is gonna be a night to remember.”

After Sophia agreed to meet me (this was Thursday), I  drove to Ike’s and spoke to the bar manager. He was a surly bald fellow who listened to my story and looked at me Ike I didn’t have a Y chromosome in my body. But eventually I convinced him this would be a story he would tell for years afterwards, and he agreed to let me set up in a corner of the bar. He even arranged for a spotlight, and told me he’d turn down the other lights when I got ready to play.

On Friday I practiced until my fingers would no longer obey my commands. I played the song over and over and over until I was sure I could play it left-handed if it came to that. On Saturday Sophia wrote me on ICQ and confirmed the time we were to meet, which was 8 P.M.

I arrived about two hours early and spoke first with the bar manager. Then I had a few drinks. While I waited for Sophia to show up I struck up a conversation with some strangers and told them my story. They seemed to enjoy it and helped me watch the door. I kept watching along with them, first hoping she would arrive on time, then laughing to my new friends about how women never arrived on time for anything, and finally agonizing over if she would ever show up at all.

I’m sure you can guess what happened. That’s the whole point of telling this, right? By the time 9:00 rolled around, most everyone around me was watching the door for Sophia. The embarrassment was intense, severe, crippling. Here I was, terrified of getting up in front of a crowd of drunken strangers, ready to declare my love for a woman who was bound to another, and she never bothered to show up at all.

Turns out that Jack, ostensibly out of town, had actually staged an elaborate proposal for the girl of my dreams. While I waited in the bar for her, ready to play the guitar with bruised fingers, ready to sing to her, she was with Jack. Probably having sex with him. Isn’t that what people do after getting engaged?

So yeah. I’m not a fan of true love. I mean, it exists, I have firsthand knowledge that it does, but in the end I think it’s too rare to ever hope it might happen to you. When it does, chances are the timing is going to be off in some way or another. And they’re probably not even that happy. Did you ever notice how the person texting you, the one calling you, is never the one you wish were calling you?

It was a long time ago. I should probably get over it. I mean I am over it.

Yeah, I’m totally over it.

I met her in at a fraternity house before my senior year of college, which is surprising considering how much I disliked most Greeks.

But in this case it was summer, the university mostly a ghost town, and just about anyone left on campus was invited to a big fraternity party. The place was packed. Booze was everywhere. Ice chests packed with beer, kegs standing in lines like soldiers, more vodka and whiskey than an entire liquor store. And the food. Tables stacked with pizza boxes, chips, cookies, even several boxes of Twinkies. It was somewhere around ten o’clock and I’d already gorged myself on pizza, but since I was drunk I thought I was still hungry. The Twinkies were almost florescent under the warm lights in the dining room, so I unwrapped two of the little yellow cakes and smashed them together to make one big one. This seemed like a great idea at the time. But just as I opened my mouth to take the first giant bite, someone cleared her throat behind me.

I turned and saw a girl, miraculously gorgeous, and felt my face flush red. She was one of those blonde coeds so attractive that it was impossible to say anything witty to her. If you tried to approach someone like that you wouldn’t even be able to make your mouth move. And yet she was definitely standing there, seemingly materialized from nothing, watching as I prepared to inhale a ball of fake yellow cake. I waited for her to cut me to the quick. I winced at what she might say.

What she said was, “That’s a big Twinkie.”

And that’s how it started.

* * *

For the rest of the party, the two of us were inseparable. We took Jell-O shots together in the kitchen, played pool in the game room, and spent hours sitting on a sofa, just talking. I remember we turned all the lights off because of a huge saltwater fish tank that stood against the far wall. The tank was lit from inside and cast the entire room in a flickering blue light, almost ethereal, and which somehow added magic to our drunken conversations. Or so I believed at the time. By the time she was ready to leave, I felt like I’d known her for my entire life. Which I realize sounds trite and not very creatively expressed, but anyway that’s how it felt.

Her apartment was nearly two miles away, and mine a bit further, but neither of us were sober enough to drive. So we walked. After a few minutes of “accidentally” brushing our hands against each other’s, I finally laced my fingers between hers, and she let me. I didn’t feel awkward or nervous like I normally would in a situation like that, where I might be trying to gauge the feelings of someone else, wondering if she felt the same, if I was moving too fast or not fast enough. It was all completely natural. And when we finally arrived at her apartment, I didn’t hesitate to ask for her phone number. I assumed we’d be seeing a lot of each other in the coming days and weeks, so logistically this was the next step.

But her answer was, “I can’t, Thomas. I have a boyfriend.”

It probably seems profoundly egotistical to say so, but I couldn’t believe she was serious, boyfriend or not. We were in college. How close could they be? Of course it was lost on me at the time how I could apply the same logic to myself.

“Don’t you want to talk to me again?” I asked her.

“I do,” she answered. “Very much so.”

“Then let me call you.”

But she wouldn’t. When I asked why she’d spent the whole night talking to me, why she let me hold her hand, she blamed it on the alcohol.

“Sophia, come on. I’m sure you’ve been drunk a hundred times, but did you have a night like this?”

She didn’t answer. She just hugged me and told me it wasn’t meant to be and walked away, and I felt like I had just reached for and missed the most important opportunity of my life.

* * *

Today we take things Facebook and instant messaging for granted, but back then social networking was still theoretical because the Internet didn’t exist in its present form. However, installed on all the machines in the computer lab was a chat program called ICQ, and then, just as now, people used computers more for wasting time than doing actual work.

I was in the lab one day during the summer session, scrolling through the user names on ICQ instead of studying, when I saw one that said “SophiaP.” I’d never had a reason to ask Sophia for her last name, but I also couldn’t imagine there were many people on campus with that first name. So I sent an unsolicited message, and to my delight it turned out be her. She was sitting in the back corner of the computer lab and smiled when I stood up.

We chatted online for more than an hour. About movies we liked and songs we couldn’t live without and why both of us were taking classes in the summer instead of spending it at the beach like her boyfriend. She told me about another summer party the following weekend, where a new indie band called The Flaming Lips would be playing. Her boyfriend was driving into town for the concert, but she invited me to join as well, so I did.

I never saw the boyfriend at the party. He spent most of his time in the bar and I spent most of mine outside watching the band. I’d never heard of the Lips back then but their live show was already fantastic, lit beautifully in hues of blue. Sophia joined me for a while. We moved in rhythm to the music without making much eye contact, dancing together even if neither of us was willing to acknowledge it.

At one point she leaned over to me and said something like, “This music is so spacey, as if it came from another world” and it made me think of our first night together, talking on the sofa, bathed in that ethereal blue light from the fish tank. I was young and surely impressionable, but the whole situation seemed preordained to me, too perfect, almost as if someone had scripted it that way. It just didn’t seem real, how easy and natural it felt to be with her, and it was in that moment I decided I couldn’t give it all away, boyfriend or no boyfriend.

After all, I was a budding screenwriter who felt like he was living in one of his own stories. If someone was going to write us an ending, it might as well be me.

“You just like men who play guitar,” I replied to Sophia.

“I do. You should learn to play.”

And that’s when I had the first inkling of an idea, how I could push this story toward a happy ending. The only thing left was to find a way to make it happen.


In 2007 I left university. Before founding Beatdom and fleeing Scotland I was suffering a bit of an identity crisis: I defined myself as a student, and yet for the first time in my memory I was about to leave education. I was about to head off into the big bad world and so I went mad. My brain worked too much and made little sense. I wrote thousands of words every day, painted pictures and played guitar on stage – despite having no real talent for any of these things. I was just desperate, I suppose, to find my place in the world.

*

That first paragraph assumes that the answer to the question posed in the title is me. I am Rodney Munch.

That’s not necessarily true, as you will see. I have called myself Rodney Munch for various reasons at various times, but so have other people. Presumably, there is someone out there who was given this unfortunate title at birth.

“What the fuck happened to your hand?” I asked.

“Red Sox.”

“Yeah… I hear ya.”

***

In the spring of 1988, I was a sophomore at a small Catholic liberal arts college outside of Boston. Although I majored in Classics, my attentions were overwhelmingly devoted to rugby. I craved the social dimensions of the rugby lifestyle as much as the bone-crushing action of daily practice and weekend matches. And while our club were admittedly the poster boys for hooliganism (a decidedly un-Catholic brand of leisure), we nonetheless took our sport very seriously. We played fall and spring seasons, practicing nearly every day of the week and playing matches every weekend.

As one of the better teams in the Northeast, we competed against some of the best colleges in the country. This meant that while the rest of the school were filling up pubs and parties on Friday evenings, we were all laying low, saving our bodies for the games the next day and our livers for the post-game drink up with the other team.

My priorities were out of whack, I dedicated my time to battering my body from all sides, and I missed out on many traditional college experiences for the sake of my team. But man, I loved those years.

***

On your average American college campus, Saturday mornings are left to scholars and athletes. The former are jockeying for the prime study spots in the school library (wherever that is), and the latter are putting their pre-game mixes together, their game faces on, and if their nerves allow for it, addressing the most important meal of the day.

It was on a Saturday morning that spring that I bumped into Jim in front of the school cafeteria. Jim wore the school’s baseball uniform, with a shiny purple pitcher’s jacket fending off the spring chill. I wore purple and grey rugby sweats over my uniform, my gear bag slung over my shoulder. We nodded and trudged up the stairs together, two soldiers preparing for battle.

***

Jim and I had known each other for years, growing up in the same part of the city and attending the same classes in high school. He wasn’t one of my closest friends, but we hung out occasionally, always having great chats about baseball and music. Inevitably, the discussion would always land on The Cult and their 1985 classic album Love. I was a big Cult fan too, but nowhere nearly as intense as he was.

One day in high school, Jim plopped down next to me on the school bus. He looked concerned.

“Man…”

“What’s up?” I asked.

“I heard something kind of fucked up.”

“Yeah?”

“Ian?  Ian Astbury?”

“Yeah, what about him?”

“I heard he might be gay.”

“Really?  No shit?’

“Yeah.”

“Wow.”

“You know what? I don’t care. He fucking rules.”

This was significant to me, because we went to an all boy’s Catholic high school, where jocks were placed on pedestals and phrases like “fag” and “gay” were recklessly and spitefully used to demean anything perceived to be different or, God forbid, weak. It would have been socially risky to embrace an openly gay artist in that environment at that time.

But Jim didn’t care. He knew who he was and he knew what he liked, and if his favorite vocalist turned out to be gay (which Ian Astbury is not), so be it. Jim loved the music and that’s all that mattered.

Jim was bad ass.

***

As we met on the cafeteria steps that spring morning, I saw that Jim’s hand was freshly bandaged.

For the second time in as many weeks, Jim’s frustration with our professional baseball franchise had taken on a physical manifestation, with Jim pitting his pitching arm against an inanimate object. Predictably, the conflict was brief, painful, and humbling.

I had witnessed the first incident about a week before, when I dropped by to see if he was up for a party. I heard The Cult’s “(Here Comes the) Rain,” halfway down the hallway and found him standing next to his stereo, breathing heavily and seething. The floor was covered with a gaggle of items that clearly belonged on his dresser, but which had recently been swept to the floor.

“Sox lose again?”

“Yup.”

“Hey. You up for heading off campus?”

“Nope.”

I left him to search for acceptance.

On this recent occasion, as we picked up trays and entered the kitchen (Jim holding his tray in his good hand), Jim explained that on the evening before, it was a window pane that received the brunt of his ire. It had been 70 years since Boston had won the World Series and it appeared that 1988 was not going to be the season to end the drought.

As we sat across each other in the cafeteria, Jim’s primary concern was how he would explain the consequences of his choice to his coach.

Jim was expected to pitch that day.

I don’t recall if I was playing at home or away that day. In fact, I don’t remember who we played or whether we won or lost. I just remember sitting across from Jim and shaking my head as I commiserated with his predicament.

***

A few days later, they found Jim’s body.

He had taken his own life in our dormitory.

Having just seen Jim only a few days before, seemingly fine, apart from his concerns with the Red Sox, I was at a loss for explaining what had happened.

I entered the Kübler-Ross grief cycle when my roommate found me in the library.

“Joe…” he began breathlessly.

“What’s up?”

“It’s Jim… He’s dead. They found him in the dorm…”

Shock.

The kind of shock that blocks out all sound and sends the room spinning.

“No fucking way,” I protested.

Denial.

“Yeah man, I just heard. It’s him. Some of the guys are in [another friend’s] room now if you want more info.”

The other friend was one of our buddies from high school. There were fifteen of us who went on to this small college, and we were all relatively close.

On the way over to my friend’s room, I skipped the bargaining stage and dabbled in anger.

That selfish prick,” I thought, “what a gutless way to check out. Why didn’t he come talk to any of us?” I wondered.

Anger soon subsided and depression hit me like a rogue wave when I entered my buddy’s dorm room and walked into a circle of tear-stained faces. There was no testing stage at that point- just acceptance.

***

Jim was not the first suicide in college.

One year before, another guy from our high school, who was one year ahead of us, took his life while visiting his family for the weekend.

Mick was a year ahead of us in high school. Captain of the football team and coming from a long line of jocks, he was cocky, popular, and most beloved by the coaching staff and faculty.

Mick went on to the same college I eventually did, settling in as a smaller fish in a quite larger, co-ed pond. By the time my friends and I arrived on campus, Mick had toned down his swagger. He seemed more subdued and approachable. Certainly not morose. It felt more like he was simply feeling more comfortable in his own skin.

News of his suicide rocked my friends and me. Here was a kid who seemingly had it all- looks, popularity, grades- nothing but pure potential ahead of him. There were no signs- just the final sign off.

Mick’s funeral was packed. My friends and I sat in the back of the church, all breaking down as Mick’s older brother himself lost it, telling his brother’s coffin how much he had always enjoyed tossing around the football before Thanksgiving dinner.

It was an awakening- an unwanted and unforgettable lesson that you never know what someone is enduring at any given moment.

***

I was told that Jim left notes, though the contents were never fully revealed to me.

I know one was to his family, and another to his girlfriend, whom Jim had dated for some time and who was a classmate of ours. Most unsettling however, was the note that he left for Mick.

None of us could get our arms around that. To our knowledge, Jim had not been all that friendly with Mick. Certainly no more or less than any of us. Not to mention that Mick had been dead for nearly a year by the time Jim took his own life.

This detail unnerved me. It pushed farther away the possibility of understanding Jim’s mindset in those final days.

News of this note caused me to consider the possibility that Jim might have been mentally ill, which was not at all easy for me to stomach. Even to this day, the possibility sits like an unwelcome visitor in my mind. Yet one who has a right to be there.

I had always assumed that people who took their own lives were selfish and narcissistic, yet somehow clear minded and therefore responsible for their actions. Conveniently, this also made them responsible for my feelings.

As more sketchy revelations emerged, we all realized that we would never understand what had happened. Acceptance of this uncertainty was our closure.

***

On the afternoon of Jim’s death, I sat in the window of my first story dorm room, staring out at the plush green hill across from the building, doing my best to process what few feelings I could identify.

Then I saw a ghost.

From around the corner of the dorm came a kid with curly blond hair and the red baseball jacket of our high school. Same eyes, same nose- it was Jim.

It was either a bad dream or a horrible joke.

I looked closer as he walked up to me- it was Jim’s younger brother, still in high school. He was an eerie clone of his brother. Despair held his head down like a yoke. I wanted badly to leap out of the window and run over and hug him. Instead I sat there.

“Hey… I don’t know what to say… I’m so sorry about your brother…”

“Do you know why he did it?”

He was somewhere between depression and testing.

“I don’t. I have no idea. I’m sorry.”

He looked down at the ground and continued to walk, as if the answers to his questions had a physical location.

I swung my legs back into my room, put on Love and let the tears rain down my face.

***

I have many regrets from my college years. I should have been a Modern Languages major instead of Classics. I should have drank less and studied more. I should have visited home more on the weekends.

But one of my biggest regrets is that I don’t remember my final moments with Jim more clearly.

I don’t pretend to think there was anything I could have or should have noticed that morning- something that I might have used to prevent Jim’s death. It was clear, even at the time, that Jim’s fatal impulses were well-kept secrets held only by him.  Jim had a plan and he wasn’t going to let anyone try to talk him out of it.

I just wish I recalled more about that breakfast. I wish I could remember more vividly remember Jim talking about his hand. What inning it was when the game went south. Which player’s mistake had been so costly. Who they were even playing.

I wish I could remember what we talked about, period. I just remember sitting across from him in the middle of an empty school cafeteria, looking at his hand. That’s it.

Yet at times I wonder if that final meeting was actually perfect. Two friends sitting across from each other in a near-empty dining hall early on an overcast spring morning, each in our purple and gray uniforms- two soldiers in the same army, heading off to different battles. A private moment that was exquisite because it was so ordinary.

Two buddies having breakfast.

The most important meal of the day.

The title is the beginning of “Heavensgate”, by Christopher Okigbo, the greatest modern Nigerian poem, and I think the greatest modern African poem.  Okigbo is my patron saint, and my personal Janus (he died in the war that gave life to me), so it’s appropriate to pour out for him before I take a draught.  The second proper and good thing for me to do is to introduce myself.  I’m Uche Ogbuji, computer engineer and aspiring poet (I think I have a fair bit of skill with verse, but I set pretty daunting standards for myself).  I recently started reading TNB, following my dear friend Erika.  I’ve enjoyed my time here, so I was thrilled when she recommended me to Brad as a contributor, and twice thrilled when Brad welcomed me.