On Beards

So I’ve done the stereotype and grown a beard while on sabbatical. Like luminaries before me—Colbert, Letterman, and Stewart—as soon as I was off the stage I was off the razor.

This is not my first go around with growing a beard. I tried it back around 2000. I knew little about beard growing then, and there were not web sites devoted to beard growing like there are today. Blogger was merely six months old at that point. We are in a beard growing renaissance today, as attested to by the Portlandia song “Dream of the 1890’s”  (I have no interest in carving my own ice cubes, however.) We’re probably in the midst of a post-beard-rennaissance decline but those of us in the rural Midwest are slow to catch on to fashion trends.

Back in 2000, beards were for old professors and young professors who wanted to look more like old professors. My first beard attempt looks silly in pictures now, more like I had an overzealous and misguided sideburn than an actual beard. For this attempt, which started with an innocuous comment by my wife: “Oh, are you growing a beard?” I heeded some new advice I read: if you’re starting a beard, don’t touch it for at least a month. Well, okay, not at first. I tried trimming it too soon and it got weird and narrow again, which is okay if you’re an aging boy-band star, but not if you want to look like an actual adult. So I left it alone.

Beard hair grows in stages. First the scratchy first-day stubble that makes one’s face like sand paper. Next is days two through five which is a pleasant, rough shod, unshaven look that feels soft on the face. Day six begins a new stage, which is best described as “oh my god this is so fucking itchy why would anyone ever want a beard!?!” Once I get to two weeks, that feeling passes and people start to think I’m either growing a beard or working on a manifesto. Today it is soft and quite pleasant (the beard, not the manifesto, which is scratchy and apocalyptic). The only bit that drives me nuts sometimes is the inverted pyramid that grows under my bottom lip, and I do get out the Wahl clippers and trim that to a 2 or 3 sometimes (ask a barber if you don’t know).

On my 44-year-old face, the beard has come in fuller than it ever did in on my 29-year-old face, but my 29-year-old beard did not have the twin streaks of grey now present on my chin. As I age, the hair on my forehead has begun to receed a bit, but my theory is that it has merely relocated as I recently had the first-time experience of a barber trimming hair that had grown out of my ear. Some follicles must have relocated to my face because previously bald spots have started to grow in. During Beard Attempt 2000, the sides of my mustache refused to meet the top side of my beard and now they are good friends. Side note, this is also the first time I’ve ever written “my mustache” without any irony. I do have to wash and condition it, and I like using an olive oil hair treatment my wife had in the cabinet which, upon further investigation is a tiny bottle of olive oil for the same price as a large bottle of olive oil you can buy in the baking aisle.

It takes awhile to get the neck line and the cheek line right. It’s hard to get both sides even, and the temptation is to keep trimming both until you’ve got back to the aforementioned narrow weird beard. I have the neck line even now, but it looks like the edge of a shag carpet now that it’s getting longer and I may have to work at tapering it (or fading it, as the kids say).  Another piece of technology that I have now that I didn’t have back in 2000 is the MacBook and the Photobooth app. I can see how my beard looks from the side and the bottom if I shoot a short video of it. My fear is I will forget to delete said video and run for president someday and it will go viral. Scratch that. If Ben Carson can declare the pyramids are grain silos and prison makes you gay and still be a viable candidate then my solo beard video will not be a disqualifier. (Neither will my spotty productivity as I mused during the previous election. [Oh how I miss you, Herman Cain.]) But I’m still not showing that video.

Ultimately my goal is a respectable, possibly literary beard, maybe like Ernest Hemmingway but without all the misogyny and alcoholism.

Photo on 10-25-15 at 6.01 PM

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MFA Days, Part I

I am sure this is the first of many posts to come about my MFA degree at Western Michigan University. Those years, 1993 to 1996, were some of the most formative of my adult, professional life. There have been many benefits to my time spent in MFA land (most notably, the degree allowed me to land a tenured job at a university). But it was not entirely positive.

I would definitely do it again, and probably would be more serious about it, but of course one cannot know that, not having already done it when one starts. I formed some strong views then about art and life and the relationship between the two, and I thought myself rather revolutionary for those views, but mostly I know I just created a persona that would fit in.

I began the degree already behind, already marked as a second-tier student. I had a relatively low GPA for graduate school. I had done my BA in English with a creative writing emphasis at WMU after a failed attempt at an Engineering degree (another long story). I got A’s in my creative writing workshops along with praise from professors, but B’s and the occasional C in literature courses, not due to lack of reading ability or writing on my part, but due to procrastination and an inferiority complex. WMU had these weird classes—the 500 level courses—that both undergraduate and graduate students could take. I took my Dante course that way, for example. Of course the graduate students dominated the seminar and had rich intellectual resources to call on. I was a junior, just getting going in my heavy-duty literature courses (beyond the intro/survey courses) and I found myself in a class with master’s and doctorate students, some of them from the Medieval Institute, who could actually read Italian. I sat silent the entire course, took copious notes, tried to wade through The Divine Comedy, researched my ass off, and still got a C in the course. I tried to make a connection with the professor once during a smoke break where a few of us were sitting in the stairwell listening to him prattle on about basketball. In my nervousness I ended up saying something about natural ability that came out sounding horribly racist. His most stinging comment on my papers was “You need to read your Virgil again.” The assumption, that I had already read The Aeneid, put me in my place. I did buy a copy of it that semester, but it still sits unread on my shelf to this day.

So, I got accepted to the MFA program on the condition that I complete two graduate-level literature courses with a B or better. I was also told that I would not be getting an assistantship, for two reasons: my sample paper for the application was “flawed,” and, since I was already at WMU, having done my BA there, they did not need to use the assistantship to recruit me. It was explained to me that they would rather produce two or three graduates rather than a single one with a BA, master’s degree, and Ph.D.

The outcome of this denial was that for the first year of my MFA, I was an outsider. One thing that I learned quickly as an undergraduate is that there is a strong difference between the idealized world of college presented by high school teachers, guidance counselors, and college brochures and the real world of being on campus and getting a degree done. Colleges are inhabited by people: flawed, political, limited people, and thus the experience will have flaws, politics, and limitations. The same is true for graduate school. The graduate students with assistantships, often younger students fresh from their bachelor degrees, had a bullpen of offices on the eighth floor of Sprau Tower, and had the shared experience of being through a week-long boot camp to learn how to teach and struggling together through their first teaching experiences (or had a year under their belt and were doling out advice). Naturally, they formed strong bonds, and were the insider folks. They talked about teaching (which I hadn’t done yet) they spent meals and evenings together, and they got invited to work on department projects. I was stuck on the outside, mostly with the middle-aged graduate students, those who has been away from school for a long time and had children and jobs and lives outside of graduate school. Just like in high school, I was with the outsiders and didn’t get to sit at the cool kids table at lunchtime.

There was another outsider group created by good intentions with unintended consequences. There were a couple scholarships reserved for minority students that gave them the same money as graduate assistants. The intent of the program was to relieve them of the burden of teaching so they could focus on their studies. The result was that they too felt marginalized, and they were denied the teaching experience that was essential for any hope of a continuing career in academia.

So I started the first week terribly nervous and with a strong sense of purpose. This was it. No more fooling around as an undergraduate. Time to grow up and get real.

An Awakening: Why T.S. Eliot is like Sushi

I did not feel destined to be  a writer.  I often did not know what I wanted to do in life and still often feel this way.  My younger brother got all the decisiveness genes.  From junior high on, he always wanted to work with plants.  He started with my parents’ lawn, began working in a nursery in junior high, and today he works at a large commercial greenhouse.

I’ve been less decisive.  I did very well in school: almost all A’s, almost top of the class (3rd), some scholarships for college.  Somewhere in the ninth grade I got the idea to be an engineer of sorts.  I spent three years looking at colleges, especially their engineering programs.  When it came to decide where to go, I picked Western Michigan University.  I had been accepted at every University and College I applied to, but picked WMU because I had nagging fears: What if I fail?  What if I decide I don’t want to be an engineer?  WMU also had a good financial aid package, and I went to a football game on a visit and had a blast, so in the fall of 1989 I packed up and moved to Kalamazoo, MI.

My nagging doubts turned out to be true.  I did fail.  I did not want to be an engineer.  These events shocked me.  I never failed. I was the smart kid.  In high school, people came to me for help with their homework, or to do their homework.  In fact, some of the only money I’ve made from poetry came from writing poems for hire for a huge poetry project we did in Senior English. Give me a dollar, a subject, and ten minutes, and I’d have a poem for you.  My teacher, Mrs. Lamothe, said to me about writing, “It’s too bad we didn’t know this about you sooner.  We could have worked on you.”

Writing wasn’t a real career I thought.  On my many visits to colleges, however, I talked to lots of college students, and the English majors seemed the coolest to me.  They had weird tastes in clothes like me–I grew fond of the all-black outfit as a senior. They had an easygoing way to them, and a detached curiosity about everyone else.  They were also given to grand statements like “I’m never getting married; marriage is an oppressive, failed institution.” Way cool.

But I had been told repeatedly that I could succeed at whatever I wanted to, and engineers made top dollar right out of college.  I took piano growing up, and loved playing with synthesizers, samplers, drum machines, and sequencers, and I met a guy who graduated and worked for a speaker manufacturer as an electrical engineer, so I picked that.  I did well in all subjects, but science and math came easiest to me, so the choice made sense.

I had this artistic bent, though, that kept surfacing, kept me from being too serious.  I thought working as an electrical engineer in the music industry would be a good compromise: make money working on gadgets during the day, play with said gadgets in the evening. But I was wrong.

In one sense, my immaturity killed my first year of college.  I did not handle the freedoms of living on my own too well.  I gained nearly forty pounds.  I spent a lot of money on clothes and vodka.  I skipped a lot of classes.  I found the engineering and science classes really boring.  Big lecture halls, often first thing in the morning, no one noticing if you were sleeping instead of paying attention.  Worse, many of my professors and teaching assistants assigned homework but didn’t check if you actually did it.  My pre-calculus class involved lecture and recitation sections.  The T.A. assigned us homework, and went over the homework problems the next day, but never collected them.  If you didn’t do them, that was your problem.

That was my problem.  I hated the tedium of work done as a mere exercise.  So I didn’t do it, and I didn’t learn.  I got low grades my first semester, a 2.75, and was in danger of losing my partial scholarship.  My parents gave me a long pep talk in the garage after my grades and bank account were reviewed.  We talked about strategies for doing better, and my mom wrote me all sorts of inspirational notes and hid them in my things when I went back to college.  They bought me books and tapes too. The idea was that I could work really hard and get a 4.0 and save my GPA.

I did not get inspired.  In fact, I got a 1.92 that semester.  My mother pondered if I was a drug addict, because how else could a smart person do so badly in college? She tried to scare me and told me maybe I should go into the Army like my cousin.  What had really happened was after a couple of weeks of trying hard, the old habits came back, much worse this time.  I decided quickly that the problem was the wrong major.  Whatever tiny spark of motivation or interest I had left in engineering totally died then.  That made the classes even harder to endure.  (But I did start a band!)

I did do reasonably well in one class.  For my general education requirement, I had elected to take the Introduction to Literature course (interesting, after all the literature I read in high school, that I had to be Introduced to it again.) I had also done really well in the Industrial Communication class I had taken the first semester, without too much effort (true, I recycled a paper for the major project, but the teacher singled it out to the rest of the class as an amazing piece of research on fractal geometry).  So I picked English.

That summer, I went off to Germany for eight weeks.  My parents had hosted exchange students when I was in high school, and I went to live in Hamburg with one of them.  I learned many things that summer.  I spent lots of evenings on my own reading when Jan, my host brother, went off to work as a summer trip counselor for young kids for three weeks.  I read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I kept a real journal for the first time in my life.  I learned to like beer, and I learned to enjoy beer like an adult, for its flavor and as a compliment to food (I really recommend learning to like beer in Germany).  I learned perspective that comes with living outside of your home country.  For example, the year being 1990, most young Germans I met weren’t so happy with Americans messing around in the Persian Gulf.

I also studied poetry seriously for the first time.

Way back in the 10th grade (it seemed way back at the time) I had my first visceral experience with a poem: “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”  I related to Prufrock’s indecisiveness and middle-aged angst because it was angst.  I too had those awkward and failed attempts at romance.  I suffered through intense feeling coupled with crippling hesitation that I just called shyness.  I felt indecision about how to be weighing on me, hundreds of options, no feeling about how to begin.  I felt (in teenage angst) what Eliot and the other Moderns felt about the increasing fragmentation of Western culture.  The opening stanza still feels electric to me, after dozens of readings:

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherised upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question . . .
Oh, do not ask, ‘What is it?’
Let us go and make our visit.

The tone, oh the tone! It had such a lovely desperation.  A speaker who wants something, probably something dirty, and wants the listener to just comply.  This speaker seemed embarrassed and awkward for the asking. These lines reeked of unfulfilled, embarrassing desire.  Sort of like being a horny teenager.

I felt for the first time what Emily Dickinson famously said about good literature:

If I read a book [and] it makes my whole body so cold no fire ever can warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only way I know it.

This is no embellishment.  I remember getting chills reading “Prufrock,” despite reading it begrudgingly, only as an assignment.  Literature was one of my least favorite subject in high school.  I had a couple of uninspiring teachers. We would read something incomprehensible from another time and place (why do they not start with some contemporary literature??) and the teacher would ask us what we thought it meant and then would tell us we were wrong and what it “really” meant. We then took tests with multiple choice questions that had either nothing to do with interpretation and meaning (“In what year did Hawthorne write ‘Young Goodman Brown’?”) or treated interpretation as if it were a fact to memorized, like the boiling point of water (“What is the theme of Julius Caesar?”).  In any case, there was no point to reading the literature because the teacher would tell us what it meant anyway and only wanted those notes regurgitated on an exam.  I had a sense that the method was missing the point.

But damn, that Eliot poem grabbed me.  His Selected Poems was the first book of poetry I bought.  I took it to Germany with me and spent a lot of evenings reading it. The language had some kind of incantatory power that I loved; even when I had no idea what the sense was, the language, the imagery, the music was like nothing else I had encountered.  Ever. The experience was like when I tried sushi for the first time a couple of years ago.  I had an idea what it might be like, and I was totally wrong.  It was new and exciting and eye-opening and often I can’t stop thinking about it. Textual wasabi!