Tuesday, September 10, 2013

What a Concept

I tore up – well, deleted – this post a number of times before getting to this version of it because I wasn’t entirely sure what I was really trying to say.

I had posted on my Facebook page last week about how surprised I was to see the students back at Columbia. It had reminded me of a crack my late father-in-law once made about the perfect university being “no students.” It was a crack – I remember at his memorial service how so many of his former students praised his dedication and commitment. He was a great teacher, but even great teachers have to let off steam sometime.

And it also made me think of all the different kinds of institutions of “higher learning,” whatever that means – maybe better to say “post-secondary” schools -- there are: the big “research schools,” the “teaching schools” (you mean you can’t do both?), the small liberal arts colleges, private colleges, community colleges, “land-grant universities,” “for profit” schools (as if schools with big endowments and big sports teams don’t make money).

And somewhere in that mess of categories is Columbia, where I do most of my teaching. It’s an arts-oriented college – I don’t say “arts college” because there’s also a lot of allied marketing and media aspects to the place. But it’s “artsy” enough.

And we have the biggest Creative Writing program in the country – at last count, five hundred students majoring in one Creative Writing degree program or another: Fiction Writing, Creative Non-Fiction, Poetry – at grad and undergrad levels.

Five hundred students.

Hell, if I handed out M-1s and hand grenades we could take over Kenosha, not that I’m sure what we’d do with it once we’d taken it, but we could.

Five hundred Creative Writing majors. No wonder I’m happy here.

Yes. I’m happy here. I’m happy at a job.

And that’s the strange feeling, and why I couldn’t figure out what I’ve been trying to say. I’ve had so many jobs where I’d spent so many hours in sheer misery – I mean, MISERY. MISERY. MISERY! Repetitive tasks under bad circumstances and bad conditions, often working with some really great people but also working for some – some, I say – terrible bosses.

The notion that you can have a job and that it can be good and rewarding and challenging and fun – and that your colleagues and bosses have your back … it almost seems, well, radical.

It reminds me of a couple of linked incidents that occurred to me shortly after I started grad school at Northwestern. One of my professors was Barbara Newman, medievalist extraordinaire and the go-to person on Hildegard of Bingen. I had a conference with her where we discussed a paper I was working on (which later became the basis of my thesis/Master’s Essay). She asked me how I liked doing the research and running down answers to questions in the library. I started to say I found it interesting and compelling and … I halted.

“Ye-e-s?” – like she was expecting and coaxing the next word out of my mouth.

Finally, I said it: “Fun. It’s fun.” I may have said it like I was confessing to a murder.

She smiled and nodded. “That’s it. My work is play.”

That was it. The bookcase could have tipped over and crushed me. I wouldn’t have noticed.

It was not that this was a great revelation. Somewhere, way back in the past, I knew of this – work could be play. And play was learning. In some ways, play is the most intense and meaningful learning we ever receive.

Yes, yes, of course. I knew that. But could I do that? Was it a possibility for me?

Teachers had been telling me, counselors (some at least), family (at times), friends, even, have said, “No. Not for you. Shut up and get back to work.” They had me convinced.

When I went back to my job (I worked full-time all through my academic career; I don't know what going to school "just as a student" means), after meeting with Professor Newman, and mentioned this notion to a colleague – that work can be play – she snapped. “The hell it can! @%$#@ (*&#@(!!!!!” she said. Then added, “@*#&# @*&# @(*&@$@!!! !!! !!!!!!”

I don’t think she thought it was a good idea.

But the idea never left me. If work can be play, play is something more than “play.” There’s more to it than just an enjoyable way to learn, but it’s important – especially when we’re learning about the arts and even – yes, even – the humanities.

Columbia may not be a perfect school – oh, it has problems, the same problems as many other colleges, and a few that are unique to the place. But there’s an attitude, and an atmosphere and a collection of people that are on the same wavelength.

I can work here.

And be happy.

And I have to get used to being happy at what I do – when I’m not writing.

I am almost always happy writing. If I’m not happy writing, it’s because I’m too busy writing to know how I feel at all. It’s not bliss, per se, but it’s engagement. I’m one with the job of writing. Happiness, writing and me are all synonyms.

The trouble, for a long time, has been getting me there: seat of the pants on the seat of the chair. When I’ve experienced something that can be called “writer’s block,” it is, I suspect, a part of me that’s saying, “This can’t be work. You mustn’t do this – if it’s work, you shouldn’t be enjoying it. If you’re not miserable you’re not working hard enough!”

This isn’t to say that writing, or teaching, isn’t hard work. It is. That’s not the hard part I’m still trying to get my head around.

It’s not that hard work can’t be enjoyable if you’re loving the work. It’s not that you can love the work – I’ve been believing that since way back in the sixties, and after that, when all my classmates “knew” that the only important thing was making money, and didn’t matter how much you hated your job because, so they thought, it wasn’t your life – you can have your life after work: drink beer, watch TV, play pool, get food poisoning on a cruise ship and other fun things. It's not that at all.

It’s that I can be happy.

What a concept.

I’m in the department office, or in the library, and I run into former students or teaching colleagues, and I’m happy to meet them, and enthused, and even if I’ve had a terrible walk from the train station, or my head exploded from a migraine early that morning, they ask me how I’m doing and I say I feel great. Not because it’s the expected answer, but because in spite of the little disappointments (and a few big ones, maybe) I’m happy.

I’m working at it.

Now all I have to do is figure out how to make a living.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

What I Learned from Frederik Pohl

My day, like it must have been for most members of the science fiction community at every level, was thrown off by the news of the death of Frederik Pohl, one of the most distinguished and accomplished practitioners in this field. Many have described their sense of loss. Many have tried to outline his accomplishments. Many have recounted personal anecdotes and memories of a complex, brilliant and beautiful (for all his rough and gruff exterior) man. Anything I would attempt to say of that sort would be a repetition of what someone has already said or will say better.
So let me tell you something that I learned from him. Not everything – too much to go through just what I learned reading his stories and novels – but just a little thing.
Some years ago, he was doing a presentation at a con – I don’t remember which one and I don’t remember when. I think it may have been a Q&A session after a reading. One question came from someone in the audience who was very impressed with Pohl’s expertise on a number of topics, especially scientific topics. The audience member asked where Pohl received his doctorate. He assumed, it seemed, that anyone who knew so much about anything must have a doctorate.
Fred said, without any particular pride or embarrassment, just answering the question as honestly and forthrightly as possible, that he was high school dropout. Not only did he not have a “higher” degree, he didn’t have the basic “twelve years of agony” one – though a few years ago, when he was 89, his old alma mater did award him his diploma, an honorary one, but a diploma at last.
The questioner was a little surprised, as I presume many other members in the audience were. I had read Fred’s autobiography, so I knew about his educational background, or lack thereof, if you chose to see it that way.
Which I didn’t.
The thought occurred to me: Never let schooling get in the way of a good education.
Fred Pohl was one of the best educated human beings I knew of. And his education crossed all boundaries. Literature. History. Politics. Science. Technology. It didn’t matter. If he was interested in something, he sought out the answers to his questions in any way available to him.
In our culture, terms like “autodidact” and “polymath” get thrown around. In academic culture, these terms get tossed around with more skepticism and not very much respect, even contempt. The perception is that the self-taught are not up to the real snuff, as if they haven’t “paid their dues.” In some ways I can understand that attitude. In some cases I might share it, since I’m sure some autodidacts are lousy teachers. But I can’t really condone it, because it seems to rate the taking of classes and the following of a curriculum over what you learn in the course of your studies – that the latter isn’t “valid” without the former. Or, to put it more simply, how you learn is more important than what you learn.
I don’t think that sort of value judgment ever got in the way of what Fred Pohl wanted to do. He pursued his interests with passion, enthusiasm and determination. He was open to new ideas and willing to take them to what Theodore Sturgeon called “the next question.” And what he learned, he shared.
It’s not that degrees or programs are bad things. Quite the contrary. But they’re not the only things. We tend to forget that. A lot.
Fred Pohl’s passion for knowledge and his desire to share what he learned embodied what is best in the field of science fiction, and what I love most about it.
There may have never been a time when the field wasn’t divided into camps and cadres of folks who knew, or at least suspected, what everyone else was doing wrong with science fiction. Hell, as a Futurian, Fred Pohl hung out with a gang who did their share of that. But the “beauty thing,” in the current parlance, about Pohl was how often he looked out and beyond all that internecine criticism.
And it’s probably one of the things we should remember about Frederik Pohl now, as many will eulogize him in the next few days, and as we’ll remember him from here on. That science fiction, like humanity, is a work in progress, and it doesn’t help to worry about what does or doesn’t fit within the boundaries, for the boundaries are ever-expanding.
May we do half as good a job of not letting our schooling get in the way of our education.
My deepest condolences to Betty Anne Hull and the rest of the Pohl family. 

Sunday, September 1, 2013

A Small Poem for San Antonio

I've been reading all these posts from attendees of the San Antonio worldcon and thinking, "Boy, people sure do love worldcons when I'm not there."

But I was at the last San Antonio worldcon in 1997. That's the only way I remember the year Princess Di died -- I'd heard the news just as I was heading over to the Hugos.

It was also the place where I read "The Measure of All Things" to an audience of one in an enormous room. And he insisted on sitting near the back. But he liked it, and requested a copy, which I was only too glad to send.

Oh yeah, and I remember attending an afternoon reception with these folks from something called Alexandria Digital Literature. You see, e-lit was going to be the next big thing. They were only about a dozen years ahead of their time.

I had a great time there. Got to meet Michael Moorcock on the hotel elevator. Heard some great jazz at The Landings. Was on a panel about Ace Specials. Another panel on the near-thirtieth anniversary of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Also got to hear Betty Anne Hull interview GoH Algis Budrys -- and to hear Budrys sing a Lithuanian folk song. No one mentioned it in the eulogies, but that man had a beautiful voice.

Got a poem out of the experience, too.

This originally appeared in Tales of the Unanticipated number 23, which came out in May of 2002. Eric M. Heideman's the editor, but the poetry editor at the time, if I recall,  was the incomparable Rebecca Marjesdatter.

I have locked a poem away
to keep it small.
There it is, on a little yellow pad
in a white envelope
in a book bag, away from the light.
I haven’t opened them since I left
San Antonio, a city with far, far
too much light.
In such a city, a poem might grow
to the size of a granny, a big
granny – sumo-sized; a gleeful
smiling face of pasted wrinkles hovering above
these jeep-sized water balloons of arms, thighs, belly –
What a jungle of poetry that city
would be if it were not as prosaic
as all get-out, which is what the poets
do – get out.
Get out and get out. If poets
can breathe the San Antonio air
it is only after midnight, or later
when the Riverwalk restaurateurs
begin to disperse, and the periwinkle
clickety-clack malls are bright
and empty,
and the Menger shuts its back doors
and the Alamo chapel bathes in golden
strobes and wears a silver moonlight
rim like a white feather of panache.
The bar of the Crockett Hotel is as crammed
as a rush-hour bus with ghosts
and the bank behind the Texas Theater’s fa├žade
dissolves, and you can walk through the doors,
pay your fifty cent ticket and drag
a bag of popcorn into the grand
auditorium and watch the rusty, rosy
Ben Johnson faces as big as sea serpents
weather away in the Texas air on that big screen
as they hoot and holler on horseback
(and their daughters shop at Dillard’s for
bookish little jumpers and black berets).
There is a breeze alive along the
Riverwalk, now empty, potentially
dangerous, potentially clairvoyant
potentially transitive, and off you go
like a brushfire as the antique
light poles and contemporary aluminum
signs bang and slap
like drummers in a rhythmless purgatory.
At street level, jeeps and trucks
blow down the street, unfixed and ownerless
and orphaned, rolling on their sides like laughing ushers.
The light is like sand blown southward,
collecting in corners under the mammoth mosaics
and makeshift murals.
From the observation decks, the last
gray-eyed tourists look down on the invisible city
and remark upon the fleeing light,
the absence of which makes every
orange and red neon bar sign
blaze like molten ingots,
and leaves on the tongue of every
San Antonian the residue
of poetry, dry and tart,
vacated, expatriate, available,
until the sun rises
and I put this poem back
into the yellow pad, snap it shut,
seal the white envelope
and stuff it into the book bag.
See? I’ve left it out too long.
It was meant to be
a small poem.