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Sunday, April 24, 2011

No Success Like Failure: UNLIMITED POWER, by Anthony Robbins

“Today’s the day.”

*****

I slept on the couch on my first night as an unemployed man. Not because my wife banished me because I reeked of beer and whisky, though I did. And not because I was no longer welcome in my own bed on account of failing her. She was four months pregnant. My two-year-old son slept in the other room. She never once said anything that made me feel as if I let our family down. She didn’t have to. I placed that burden on myself, and pretty easily too. I slept on the couch that night because, for the first time in over 15 years of marriage, I didn’t deserve to sleep next to her.

A couple of friends from work had taken me out after. They patiently stood by as six o’clock hit and I continued cleaning out my desk. I wasn’t leaving voluntarily, but neither was I one of those escorted-out-the-door-by-security casualties, those poor souls suffering the added humiliation of a perp walk, though being unemployed hardly qualifies as a crime. It’s just made to feel like one in this country. I had had two weeks, but I had been busy, you know, working. I dumped coffee mugs, calendars, awards into the trash with a sweep of my arm. It was a Friday.

“You want this?” I asked, holding up a Chicago Manual of Style, one of three I had accumulated in my five years on the job.

“Sure.”

“You know, I can bring you anything you can’t carry,” my other friend said.

“I’ll just be another minute.”

“No rush.”

They were both wearing their coats. They had their messenger bags strapped across their chests. I surveyed my desk one last time. Only a few items remained: a pig fashioned out of a corkscrew and pushpins; a handwritten note that said “a shy, stuttering man playing Bingo”; a pencil drawing of an executive meeting in which one of the participants had pulled a gun, another of the men sitting at the table saying, “What the shit, Dave?” These had all been parting gifts to me by co-workers who had also been let go in the past year. Now I was passing them on to the next person who would eventually find himself in our position, though to convince him of that now would be impossible. I didn’t put anything new under the tree.

I gathered my computer and my ID.

“Turning in your gun and badge, huh?”

I walked into my manager’s office. She was rarely there past six o’clock; on a Friday, unthinkable. The day before she had told me that if I had everything I needed to get done done by lunch that I could leave early on my last day. I thought at the time that she was being benevolent, a kindness. I now realized that her day was linked to mine: Someone had told her that she wasn’t going home until I did. It was nearly six thirty. She had a husband and two kids of her own waiting for her in Jersey. She wouldn’t be home until nearly eight o’clock. Her son would be asleep by then. I counted it a small victory.

“Here you go,” I said.

My ID was so faded that it could have belonged to anyone. She put it in her desk drawer, next to the salt, soy sauce, and rubber bands. The computer she locked away in a cabinet, though she didn’t remove the key from the lock.

“Good luck,” she said.

“Thanks.”

We didn’t shake hands.

I walked back to my desk.

“You ready?”

“Let’s go.”

The bar was called “Ear Inn,” the “E” in “Ear” created by shaving off the round parts of the “B” in “Bar” on the neon sign out front. The bar dates back to 1817. The ceilings were low, the floors uneven. We were in Soho, about two blocks from the Hudson. I could see why the bar would have thrived, people coming off the water and stopping at the nearest spot for a drink, especially on a January night like this, the wind chafing my cheeks, not wanting to venture too far into the city. This’ll do.

We had a pint of the house ale, then another and another and another. We ordered food. We talked about work, then the Knicks, then all the crazy shit you could put into a coffee-table book about the Japanese. Arcades. Robots. The things they cram into vending machines alone. When the check came my friends reached for it.

“We got this,” they said.

It was still early, and I wasn’t nearly drunk enough to go home, but they had fianc√©es to attend to. No shit, both of them getting married in the next year.

“Take care,” one said, as he disappeared down the steps of the subway station.

“Stay in touch,” said the other, as he headed east on Carmine. I tried to commit his personal email address to memory. Jesus. I didn’t even know his email address. Practically every minute I had spent with him was at work.

I stepped into another bar, ordered a three-dollar Bud Lite, with a tip it’s four. I took a piss, checked in at home, called my friend in Queens. He didn’t answer, so I left a message. “You up for a drink?” I asked. “If so, hit me back.” I returned to the bar. Within minutes, my phone buzzed.

“I thought that might be you,” he said.

“You want a drink,” I said. “I mean, if you want, I’m up for a drink.”

“Sure, I’ll have a drink with you.”

“What’s the name of that place right off the train?”

“I can come to you,” he said.

“No, that place right off the train.”

Somehow you can fly from New York to Iceland in five hours, yet it can take an hour and a half to get from Manhattan to Long Island City. I didn’t want to lose my buzz, so I ran through the Village to the train. I looked like a character from a disaster movie. I dared not turn around and see the wreckage that was my life gaining on me. I arrived at the platform just as the train was pulling in. Winded, I grabbed a seat. Everywhere around me people were chattering excitedly. They were dressed to impress, jacked up on the promise of the night ahead. It was almost nine o’clock. Their night was just beginning. The most devoted among them would see the sun rise. My overstuffed bag was heavy on my lap. I folded my arms across the top much like I had seen my wife do on her ever-expanding belly. At least I could unburden myself when it got to be too much. She still had a long way to go, though it suddenly felt much sooner than it had before. What are we going to do?

Scampering through the Village, un-cool though it must have looked, paid off. I beat my friend to the bar. By the time he arrived, I was two more drinks in.

“How’s it going?” he asked.

I pointed halfway down my pint and told him that I would answer that once I got there. That was when the whisky started.

Two hours later I was saying, “We ought to move to LA, you know. At least in LA they pay you to fail.” We made plans. Big plans. Then we sat and drank some more.

When we left the bar, my friend lit a cigarette.

“You want one?” he asked.

“No, thanks.”

Apparently my self-destructiveness had its limits. We walked a block in drunken, frozen silence. We reached where he would turn left and I would continue straight.

“You OK getting home?”

“I’m good.”

“You sure? You could get a car. I’ve got money for a car if you need it.”

“I’m good. Really. Thanks.”

“OK. Well.” We hugged. “Next time I see you, I expect you to have your shuffleboard game down.” I nodded. “That or pinochle.”

“OK. See you.”

“Be safe.”

I ran/walked in whatever direction up Broadway is in Queens—north?—rode the M60 through Harlem, took the uptown A the rest of the way home. It wasn’t that late, but it felt late.

My wife was asleep. At least I had achieved that goal. If only they were all that easy. I could have crawled in next to her. She would have understood, on tonight of all nights. Instead I opted for the couch. My only fear was that she would wake up and think something was wrong. Well.

Three hours later my son woke up crying. It was still dark outside. The partiers from the train were still going strong. I startled awake. My head felt like it was trapped between a mallet and a tree stump.

“I’m here,” I said, as I staggered into his room to console him. I hoped he couldn’t smell the failure on my breath.

The first chapter in our proposed coffee-table book.
 
*****

“How you feel is not the result of what is happening in your life—it is your interpretation of what is happening.”

*****

No satisfactory answer exists for why I have Anthony Robbins’ Unlimited Power: The Way to Peak Personal Achievement on my shelf, so I might as well tell the truth. In this instance, the truth happens to be the same truth that Pete Townsend alleged when authorities discovered child pornography on his computer: I have it for research. I can’t speak for Townsend—the world still awaits Lil’ Tommy—but in my case the truth is indeed true. I was going to write a play that featured a motivational speaker as a central character, which also explains why I own Stephen R. Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and Arthur K. Robertson & William Proctor’s Work a 4-Hour Day. The idea was to immerse myself in the way these men think and then create a character whose behavior belied the degree to which their bravado masked their insecurities. The endeavor was doomed from the start, and I never got past a cursory flip of any of these books. Bravado they had to spare, but they revealed no insecurities. That I would have had to provide on my own.

I could have chosen to examine any of these three books for the purposes of this project. I opted for Robbins because, if you came of age in the 1980’s, he is the guru, the don, the alpha and the omega of self-help. Fuck Dr. Phil. Robbins didn’t need a PhD to prove his worth—his formal education extends no further than a high-school diploma—and he damn sure didn’t need Oprah to catapult him to the big time. He did so on his own with a series of infomercials that included the likes of Fran Tarkenton and Quincy Jones sitting at beach-side locales and discussing their successes in tones so earnest that they just had to contain the secrets of eternal happiness. They just had to! In his seminars, Robbins pioneered the mike-strapped-to-the-head look long before Madonna made it fashionable, which freed his hands to slap five with the men, to hoist the women below their asses in ways that weren’t in the least bit lecherous or creepy, and to extend his long arms across the stage so widely that he appeared to be supporting the world entire.  

The Human Chin
 
I remember him mostly because he was gorgeous. He was tall—his bio says six foot, seven—fit and tan, with a face that could fairly be described as “chiseled”: his cheeks just a little indented little like a young Ah-nold and his Tank McNamara-chin that played well when facing the camera but must have been garish in profile. His black hair was soft and lush—the guy had a career as a shampoo model if this brainwashing thing didn’t work out—but I envied nothing so much as his teeth, which were as straight and gleaming as mine were/are crooked and dull.

My friends and I would tune in to mock him in the same obnoxious way that we would ridicule Bob Ross as he painted his “happy trees” on PBS. If Robbins was the OP (Original Phil), the we were the OBB (Original Beavis and Butthead), though we lacked Butthead’s sophistication and never would have survived on basic cable.  

“Hey, check it out. The human chin is on.”

“How much pussy you think that guy gets?”

“I don’t know. Why don’t you ask your mom?”

“Fuck you.”

“I wonder how he avoids ‘pit stains.”

In hindsight, our insistence that Robbins could only be viewed ironically might have been more of a defense than our impressionable young minds would have admitted: The guy was good, damned appealing, dare I say even magnetic. If we didn’t keep a wall of mama jokes between us and him, we might end up picking up what he was putting down.

*****

My copy of Unlimited Power is a paperback from 1986. The sticker on the cover says “10% off pub. retail.” The price on the back says “$12.50 in USA.” Today the book retails for sixteen. The pencil mark on the inside cover says “50 cents.”  I bought it at a library book sale in Lawrence, Kansas, around the turn of the last century. The price on the inside cover is just above a black-and-white photo of Robbins. He looks like a more handsome version of Mitt Romney, though, to be fair, in 1986 Mitt Romney was probably a more handsome version of Mitt Romney too. The picture catches Robbins mid-sentence. His mouth is open. His hands are extended as if to show the size of the fish he recently caught, which, now that you mention it, might not want to be the image he wants to project. The lies that fisherman tell and all.

Beneath his picture, the words: “We can change our lives. We can do, have, and be exactly what we wish.”

Who better to get me off of the couch?

Life is Godzilla. I am a million fleeing Japanese. Can Tony Robbins be the scientist who saves me from myself?



Wednesday, April 13, 2011

An Elegant So-Leu-tion

Those of you who followed the introduction to this blog--particularly Part 3, "Remainders"--know that the issue of books encroaching on our space has been an ongoing conversation between Leu and me. The short version is that she says Get these books the hell out of here and I say No. To further complicate matters, we're expecting a second baby in June, and he's going to sleep right where the second bookshelf is now. (Hmm, two kids, two bookshelves. Never made that connection before....)

In any case, I think Leu might secretly be using this as an excuse to get rid of what's been a real eyesore for a long, long time now. The image at the top of this blog is a photo of what our shelves look like. I've always been kind of partial to that full-to-bursting look, but I can see where that's a bachelor-type thing, like a cardboard cutout of Princess Leia in that outfit from the beginning of Jedi. Here's an outtake of the current version of shelves that didn't make the final cut:
 Here's another:

These are in our son's room, mind you. When he goes to bed at night, the poor kid doesn't know if he should ask us to read Goodnight Moon or the Greeks. He wakes up sweating in the middle of the night.  "What's the matter, buddy?"  "I dreamed I was living in the stacks at the library...."

Well, apparently one advantage to staring at these damn books for the past five years (in this location, anyway) is that Leu started doing what she does, which is putting things together. "We sure do have a lot books with red spines," she says to herself one day, or "What an interesting shade of blue." Then she rents a car, goes to Home Depot, disappears into the bedroom for a while, and voila!
And:
As I told her, it's perfect:  aesthetically pleasing, functional, and inherently bookish. In addition, it got me to thinking about the color palate that publishers use to choose their covers. Those blues and greens are a little too similar to be coincidental. They must come out of focus groups.

But this is not an entry to indulge in over-analysis. This is an entry to share. Enjoy the brevity while it lasts, because I promise to be back soon with overly long musings about my life as a reader.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Composting Down: SOLVE FOR X: ESSAYS, by Arthur Saltzman (Part 5 of 5)

And yet, the line that stings the most from Solve for X is from an essay called “Because I Said So,” which is a meditation on arrogance. In this essay, Saltzman writes, “And how about the one about the writer who creates a fan page for himself on the Web, complete with prospective dust jacket photos (judiciously lit and artfully posed) even before he gets a book contract?”

A blog is hardly a fan page, I realize, but a sudden rush of guilt surged through me when I read this line. It was as if he reached through space and time and smacked me hard across the cheek with one of his meaty palms. Am I cheating? Am I ungrateful? Would I be so critical if he were able to respond? Most of all, would he approve, and why, after all these years, do I yearn for his approval anyway?

I wonder sometimes how much his influence prevented me from more vigorously pursuing a teaching career myself. For the longest time, that was the idea: undergrad, grad, PhD, then teach. Like Saltzman, like my own dad. The company line says that abandoning the PhD had more to do with my own father than it had to do with Dr. Saltzman. I am an American, after all. I’m supposed to surpass my father, not become him. And plenty of evidence exists that I have been trying to do just that ever since I parted with the path that he chose for me. Before he retired, my dad was a theater director. I write plays. It doesn’t take Freud to figure that one out.

But it wasn’t my own father whose voice I couldn’t get out of my head when I was in front of the class, teaching a syllabus that looked suspiciously like Dr. Saltzman’s Contemporary American Fiction course from years ago. My class was called “Recent Popular Fiction,” but that only because the department believed more people would enroll in “Recent Popular” than “Contemporary American.” But don’t let that fool you. It was the same class. I was just the substitute.

I insisted on circling up the desks. I listened impatiently, tapped my foot, took over after the freshmen had floundered long enough. If a discussion wasn’t going in such a way that I could work in one of his decades-old insights, I would steer it so it would. I even dressed like him: khakis and a blue button-down shirt, loafers. On more than one occasion, I’d contort my mouth like he did, point demonstratively to the page with an albeit less-fleshy finger but with my hand nonetheless cocked in the same way that he cocked his: the wrist farther away from the body than the finger with which I/he was pointing.

I’d be in the middle of class, in the middle of a lecture that was at least half not my own—at least—and I’d think, Who am I? Whose voice is this? Am I teaching or acting? And if I’m acting, who am I acting for? For whom are you babysitting?
I never felt like this space was truly mine.
I did not keep my one o’clock. I told my manager I wasn’t feeling well, rescheduled the meeting, and left for the day. “You don’t have a job,” Saltzman was fond of saying. “The job has you.” I’ve used that line several times myself. I’ve claimed it as my own.

I was working in Lower Manhattan at the time, on the 22nd floor of a building directly across the street from Ground Zero. Vendors were selling glossy photos of 9/11, the planes flaming brilliantly into the buildings that once provided shade where I now stood. I headed south on Church Street, past a deli that had good pastrami. Saltzman had often complained about the lack of a decent deli in Joplin. A deli and jazz. “I mean a real deli,” the kid from Chicago would say. “You know?”

I passed the teenagers, newly dismissed from school, their daily lessons vaporized by the ether of hormones. I continued south. Walked and walked and walked until I could walk no farther. New York Harbor. The southernmost tip of the island. Statue of Liberty. Ellis Island. I wanted to name Jonah “Ellis.” Leu preferred “Jonah.” Staten Island Ferry. Jersey.

The irony is not lost on me. Toiling away on my own lyrical essay. Using him as my raw material. Some might even say disparaging the dead. I don’t think so, but I see the point. I’m the least reliable person to answer that one.

I sat down on a bench. I had a book in my hand. I didn’t remember picking it up. Always carrying a book with me. It’s a habit I developed years and years ago, back when I was an undergraduate at Missouri Southern.

*****

I’ve stayed in touch with a number of my professors from those undergraduate days. My advisor throughout those years has remained a good friend. He visited the city last year with his wife and daughter. We had lunch in our neighborhood. I was in his class when his daughter was born. She started college last year.

Dr. Denniston, the Shakespeare professor who played the role better than Olivier played Hamlet, he recently friended me on Facebook. I don’t know if that’s a win for Facebook or a loss for Shakespeare.

Leu and I stayed in better contact with Joy’s ex-husband than we did with Joy, not out of any sense of taking sides, but that’s just the way life broke. He’s in Pennsylvania now. We almost went to Jeremy’s bar mitzvah but backed out at the last minute. Jonah was due soon, and we were watching our money. Not the best reason, I know. We made vague plans to meet with Jeremy again when he and his dad came to the city for the U.S. Open, but that, too, never developed. Jeremy’s dad is remarried now with a young son of his own named Jonah. We knew but had forgotten. We agreed that it probably wouldn’t have made a difference. Sometimes I think of him and his new life and Joy and hers. I wonder if she thinks it was worth it. I know that’s unfair, but I do.

We last heard from Joy when Leuinda was pregnant with Jonah. She responded in the comments section of a blog we had started. There was an ultrasound photo of Jonah at 12 weeks. “Well, this is beautiful, obviously,” she had written.

I say that was the last we heard from her, but the truth is that Joy and I exchanged several emails over the past month in regards to this essay. I invited her look at any early draft. I figured I owed her that much anyway. She’s been exceedingly supportive, even about the things that I thought might strike a nerve. She’s torn between filling in some of the gaps and letting them stand. For example, she knows the true identities of “EMS” and “WHG.” My guesses were wrong, though when she revealed them to me my first thought was “Of course.” I’ve probably got plenty of other things wrong too, but correct matters less to me than accurate. My favorite of her notes is “if there’s some way for you to include his great 3-pt. shot in there….?” Sure, Joy. I can do that.
"WHG"
I last heard from Dr. Saltzman directly in July 2005. By that time, I had abandoned the PhD for an MFA in Playwriting, a move that, for better or worse, no longer had me wondering whose voice was in my head when I was in front of the class. The writing program was a grueling one, and I read very little for pleasure during those two years. After graduation, I was starved for fiction, ravenous for novels, and even hungrier to share what I had been reading with someone, so I dropped him a line. The email was called “Message from an Old Student and Friend.” It begins, “Hello, Dr. Saltzman. Kirby Fields calling, here. I'm sure this message feels as if it is coming from out of nowhere, and I suppose it is, but you have been on my mind.” From there I catch him up on what I had been reading and where it had taken me. Jonathans begetting Jonathans: Franzen, Lethem, Safran Foer. I then say, “Anyway, the point of this fairly rambling (and name-dropping) e-mail is that your Contemporary American Fiction class set me on this course over 10 years ago. I do believe I bend in this direction anyway, but you were certainly a profound influence. I guess the point, finally, is that the course lasted a semester, but what you inspired has lasted a lifetime.” I again express my admiration for Objects and Empathy before inquiring if anything new is on the horizon and wishing him well.

Twenty-four hours later, he responded:

Great to hear from you, Kirby, and I'm glad to hear that English 350 continues to percolate up into your consciousness (or is it compost down?). You may be interested to hear that I’m teaching a course entirely devoted to DeLillo this coming fall for our recently established Senior Seminar. As for my own reading list of late, I've read some British fare—The Line of Beauty, Money, and Saturday—and I’m currently in the midst of Lynn Sharon Schwartz’s The Writing on the Wall. Some American things I've enjoyed recently include O’Nan’s A Prayer for the Dying, Norman’s The Bird Artist, and Wigins’s Evidence of Things Unseen. Always on the lookout for teachable, classworthy texts, which means I get to write every purchase off.

“Best of all, and relevant to your kind interest, my new collection of essays, entitled Nearer, should be out by the end of the summer from Parlor Press, so you and literally tens of others can check for it on line in a month or so. I have two other collections currently being seriously considered (read: looked at skeptically when they get around
to it), so the writing career is going full throttle, or as full throttle as a Honda Civic gets, at any rate.

“Keep in touch, Kirby. Hope all goes well both on and off the page.

“Best always,

“Art”

*****

I don’t know that we have come to terms yet with how to reconcile death and the digital age. Or at least I know that I haven’t, anyway. Sure, I’ve stumbled upon the odd Facebook memorial page—and they can be rather odd—but, thankfully, those whom I’ve lost haven’t had much of a cyberlife. Grandma and Grandpa had a rotary phone. What will happen when the generations that live more and more online pass, yet their status updates, their likes, and their blogs live on? I don’t know about a whole new layer of grief—Kubler-Ross won’t need a rewrite—but I do know that those of us who are left behind might want to prepare ourselves for reminders that appear as unbidden as a pop-up window.

Dr. Saltzman did not have a Facebook page, though one now exists in his memory. He did not post videos on YouTube from his book signings at the local Hasting’s. He never tweeted, though I would love to have seen what he could have done with 140 characters. He did, however, have a personalized page on Amazon.com. There’s a bio, a picture that serves as the author photo from his books, taken by the same man who photographed our wedding, by the way. The text is pretty standard fare: “I am a Professor of English at Missouri Southern State University and the author of ten books of literary nonfiction and contemporary literary criticism….”

What follows, however, is anything but standard and is more revealing about the man than any quote or photograph or link that masquerades as true insight nowadays. What follows is a Wishlist, some 40 items long, of books that Dr. Saltzman added between January 2005 and December 2007. He died in January 2008. Presumably, the list is for people who would like to buy him a gift or, perhaps, he used it as a reading version of a Netflix queue for himself. Whatever the purpose of the list, I counted it a legitimate find, the top of something below the surface that held the promise of so much more. Looking it over, I felt a little invasive, but not so much that I didn’t pore over all 40 titles.

The World Without Us, by Alan Weisman, is on there. Leuinda has that one. I bought it for her after our most recent trip to Glacier National Park in an effort to help her forget that she is surrounded by concrete. A book by Jonathan Lethem, the title of which I don’t recognize. The Brooklyn Follies, by Paul Auster, available at the time, used, for one penny. And then there’s a slew of stuff I would never have heard of otherwise, which couldn’t have been more appropriate: Like You’d Understand, Anyway: Stories, by Jim Shepard; Curves and Angles: Poems, by Brad Leithauser; Cheap Follies: the Pleasure of Urban Decay, with Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer; Biting the Wax Tadpole: Confessions of a Language Fanatic, by Elizabeth Little; and this, which sounds like I’m making it up but I swear I’m not, I swear: 1001 Books to Read before You Die.

I feel his loss most acutely when I read a new release that I know he would have enjoyed. Part of me feels guilty, because I know he would have gotten more out of it than I do. He would have found ways in, forged connections, discovered the means to make something new.

And that, for me, is the hardest part: all of those books that remain unread.

Currently #2,195,375 on Amazon.com. He's making a move.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Composting Down: SOLVE FOR X: ESSAYS, by Arthur Saltzman (Part 4 of 5)

I would actually add “language” above “books” on my nonbinding list of things that Dr. Saltzman valued, which, in case you’re not keeping score at home, makes “language” number one with a bullet. This love of language, this adoration of individual words, is both what drives his essays and what gets in their way.

When I started reading Solve for X, I kept a list of all of the words I was going to have to look up, but the list didn’t take. There were simply too many of them. “Noumenal,” “cruet,” “bathysphere,” “pasha,” “orrery,” “colophon,” “lagniappe,” to name but a few. Reading with a dictionary in your lap might work for office hours, but it’s hardly convenient on the A train. (Insert note here that the Kindle has a built-in dictionary.) That said, I was ready for the love affair with language, expected it even. After all, this was the man who spent five solid minutes rhapsodizing over the elegance of the word “latitude,” and I still remember him lingering over “fetishistic” for so long that I thought, Sheesh, just get a room already.

So, too, was I ready for the similes and metaphors that are so painstakingly labored that they overwhelm the rest of any given page: “with apologies to the battery of high school math teachers who passed me hurriedly up the line like a leaky bucket” or “One enters [a hotel bed] like an incision, sliding into sleep like a letter into its envelope or an afterthought between parentheses” or, appropriately enough, “Surfing a long sentence can be a heady, splendid ride, but in these cases [i.e., some carefully selected sentences by Henry James] the enterprise is doomed. Either it will dash itself against a period like a boulder or tear its hull against elliptical shoals.” Remember, I minored in the man. I saw this kind of shit coming.
"Orrery."
What I didn’t anticipate was his ever-deepening interest in disciplines that were not his own. When he branched out 20 years ago (give or take) he did so in the areas that I hinted at before: sports, popular culture. He would talk about ordering a record from a television commercial that promised all of the hits by “the original artists” and then tell us that when he eventually received the album the cover band interpreting the songs was called—wait for it—the Original Artists. (Ba-dum-pa!) That kind of thing. In Solve for X, however, his tangential targets are weightier, their language—and this is key—more specialized.

Joy and Jeremy birdwatch—remember her poem from The Paris Review—and Dr. Saltzman took great pleasure, not so much in getting out there with his binoculars and his mud boots, but, rather, in studying his Peterson’s before he even left the house: “Out of love, I am learning the topography of birds,” he writes. “I am practicing the positions of their superciliaries, their scapulars, and their secondaries.” He’s boning up out of love, all right, and I don’t doubt his love for Joy, but so too does he commit himself out of love for such words as “superciliaries,” “scapulars,” and “secondaries.” Later, he references a vocabulary card full of architectural terms, as far as I can tell, just so he drop “ornate astragals,” “volutes,” “abaci,” “fillets,” and “helices.”

It is almost as if he so mastered the vocabulary of his own discipline that he had to investigate others in order to satisfy his desire for words, words, and more words. The vampire who runs out of victims at home has to move a town over. The net effect is 25 essays that are ostensibly about such varied subjects as footnotes, Dante, and the Second Amendment, but that really all end up being about the same damn thing: language.

Did I say that 2,700,000 sounded about right? I’m starting to think it’s a tad high.
A test that Dr. Saltzman eventually would have passed.

Which leaves teaching, which I’m not convinced he was good at—not in any Dead Poet’s Society kind of way, anyway—and which I’m even less convinced he actually enjoyed. I don’t think he liked teaching anymore than an addict likes turning tricks. They both did what they had to do to in order to feed their addiction, only in Dr. Saltzman’s case the addiction wasn’t as illicit as the meth that ravaged so many of his neighbors. The addiction, for him, was writing.

There were rumors, especially around the time of his divorce, that he was trying to get out of Joplin, that he was trying to score a teaching gig elsewhere. I heard that he even landed an interview at a school in one of the Carolinas but that he failed to impress in person as much as he did on the page. A fellow professor confided to me in an off-the-record kind of way that Saltzman was rarely at his best when he was under pressure. All of that sarcasm eventually turned to bitterness after all. The most remarkable part of this story for me was that Saltzman would ever feel pressure. I always wondered if he would have actually taken the job, were it offered, what with his daughter still in the Midwest and all. What about Joy? What about Jeremy?

I know that I certainly would have taken it personally if he had left while I was still there, such were my feelings of proprietorship toward him. He played favorites in the classroom, and I was definitely one of them. There’s no denying that. I know this essay would be far more interesting if I were not, if I just kept to myself in the back row, soaking it all up in silence and never confessing how much he meant to me until it was too late, but that would be a lie. I was a favorite. He liked me, and he knew I liked him. I showed up every day, had done the readings, turned in my assignments on time, typed, with the tracks from the dot-matrix printer stripped away. I regularly demonstrated thought even if I never told him anything he didn’t already know.

Swear to god, I raised my hand and contributed maybe three times in four years. Once we were discussing E.L. Doctorow’s “A Writer in the Family,” and I wondered aloud if Doctorow might be punning on “writer/righter.” Saltzman said, Of course he is, and carried right on.

I thought I was going to have a fucking heart attack.

"Fillet."
In one of his forays into the sciences, Saltzman writes of his interest in books for beginning physicists, books that I was surprised to learn were on his shelf, with titles like Fear of Physics, A Beginner’s Book of Since the Beginnings, and The Universe Shut Up in a Nutshell. Amateur books. Books for rookies. About these books, he writes, “When obsession gets the better of me, I’ll open one to see how long I can sustain some semblance of coherence before I blear. I’m seldom more than ten minutes out of port before the fog sets in.”

I read this passage and thought, You son of a bitch. This is what your students felt. This confusion. This impenetrability. This, well, you said it yourself, this fog. This is what your students felt when you forced them to read John Hawkes, Toni Morrison, or Marilynne Robinson. Yes, “forced.” You made choices. You knew what it was like to be them. You were not unaware.

*****

But one guy—a football player, not to be all stereotypical about it—would sit in the middle of the desks with his head cracked back and his mouth agape and he would openly snore throughout the class. “It’s getting really hard to look at this everyday,” Saltzman once snapped loudly enough that the guy blinked awake for a moment before drifting back to sleep. Another guy, in a poetry writing class, wrote an ode to a truck that he found at the junkyard. The poem included the line, “If she turns over, I’ll be in love.” Saltzman's job was to provide an earnest critique of the poem. He approached it with the same care that he approached a poem by William Carlos Williams or Dianne Ackerman.

His final exam for his writing classes asked each member of the class to bring to the last meeting a passage they liked from a book. Any book, any passage. That was it. Just bring a passage. This was around Christmas, so I brought in Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s “Christ Climbed Down.” Saltzman hated the Beats, sided with Truman Capote’s typing-not-writing criticism, but that wasn’t the point. The point was read. Share.

Inevitably, three people would bring in something from Parade magazine and one wouldn’t bring in anything at all.

The first paragraph of my midterm about John Updike begins: “John Updike is not a writer. This may be a shock to some of you who are familiar with some of his 20+ books, but I am going to have to deny him that title. He uses letters only to transcend words and builds passages and sentences[,] putting them on paper as a painter would but swipe a single stroke from his brush on the canvas.”

It only gets worse from there. Much worse. And I was one of the good ones.

Is it any wonder that he was bitter? Is it any wonder that he couldn’t constrain a desire to be elsewhere, to do better?

People believed him to be so cantankerous, so curmudgeonly that he became known as “Dr. Saltzman, That Teacher at Southern Who Hates Everything.”

It wasn’t a nickname he deserved, but few would argue that it wasn’t earned.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Composting Down: SOLVE FOR X: ESSAYS, by Arthur Saltzman (Part 3 of 5)

I always pegged Dr. Saltzman as a writer first and a scholar second. Actually, check that. I always pegged Dr. Saltzman as a reader first, a writer second, and a scholar third, which by no means diminishes the man’s scholarship. As a scholar, he had this annoying ability at cocktail parties to know more about Chaucer than the Medievalists, more about Shelley than the Romanticists, and more about Joyce than the Modernists, or, well, it must have been annoying for the Medievalists, the Romanticists, and the Modernists, anyway. A conversation about Queenie from Updike’s “A&P” would spiral into a digression about Falstaff that went on for so long that I had to check my syllabus to make sure I was still in my Short Story class. Of course, the putative title of the course had little to do with anything, as Saltzman would liberally pepper throughout any given class references to Bill Cosby from I Spy or to Linus from a long-ago “Peanuts” strip or to Harry Caray from the Cubs broadcast booth the afternoon before.

This was all part of his postmodern bent that I sensed but couldn’t articulate at the time and was thus unable to identify as part of my attraction to him: Whereas other professors snootily guarded their dissertation-ordained portion of the Western Canon (caps theirs), Dr. Saltzman welcomed all comers: Henry IV, or should I say 1HenryIV, The Canterbury Tales, “A&P,” I Spy, “Peanuts,” The Sound and the Fury, To the Lighthouse, and whatever WGN showed after the latest Cubs loss—these were all equal, or at least they were all equal insofar as their ability to provide raw material was the same. And that, for him, is what it all was: Raw material for his own writing.
Dr. Saltzman before eating his dinner while standing up?


He confesses as much in “Why I Don’t Write Best Sellers,” an essay that I knew I knew before I read a single word because he riffed on the theme often enough in class. In class, he would say, “Faulkner tried to write a potboiler, and he ended up writing Sanctuary,” a point that was lost on me because, not having read Sanctuary, I didn’t know if it was good or bad. (For the record, I have since read it, and I still don’t know.) In the essay, Saltzman refreshingly discusses the relatively recent shift in the English classroom away from primary texts and in favor of this ephemeral thing called “theory.” He’s kinder about the matter than John Goodman’s character is in David Simon’s Treme, who laments that all English majors want to do anymore is study themselves, but there is, nonetheless, an undeniable sense of loss in Saltzman’s ruminations. He notes that 25 years ago “not all of us freshly minted Ph.D.’s had as yet been outplaced by theorists, nor had we as yet detected their smoke on the horizon. We persisted in believing that there were still jobs available for honest sentences to do and, a savagely constricted job market to the contrary, that there remained tenurable occupation for their makers….Some of us even dared to imagine that our own language, as though enriched by context, occasionally lived up to the level set by the language that set us analyzing.”

The “us” in that last sentence should not be overlooked.

In some ways, the movement away from the deep read that characterized his previous work was the best thing that could have happened to him, for, as he knew—and as those humbled professors at the cocktail party knew—he could hold his own with the Lukacses and the Bakhtins and the Foucaults if he wanted to. He just didn’t want to. And, as he writes, even if he did want to, “I knew myself to be recidivist at the core. While the ostensibly reformed alcoholic keeps a flask beneath his mattress and gin-filed aspirin bottles tucked back in his sock drawer, I would secretly imbibe from a stash of smoothly intoxicating sentences. I might rinse with Ricouer or gnash Derrida like anise seeds to cover my breath. But by my wistful expression and my wobble, you’d know what contraband I’d been sneaking.”

As of this writing, Solve for X is number 2,746,682 on Amazon’s list of bestselling books.
I still don't know if this is any good. The cover, however, I'm pretty sure about.
After graduation, I helped start a readers group that included former and current students and a few select members of the faculty. Dr. Saltzman was one such member. We would give each other assignments—find a piece of prose that feels especially poetic or a passage from a 19th century novel of which you are especially fond—and we’d meet in restaurants or at people’s houses or at bookstores and snack and drink and talk about literature with a capital “L,” which I still believed in at the time, but mostly for me anyway it was a way to continue the classroom experience after the diploma was in hand. I don’t know how much I actually liked college and how much I just clung to it because I didn’t know what else to do.

Saltzman was a gracious member of the group. He and Joy were an open secret by that point. She was part of the group too, and I liked seeing the two of them interact as partners rather than as colleagues. They would arrive and leave together, pay for their part of the tab with one bill. At the end of the night, he would help her into her coat. One time, we were leaving Books-a-Million after one of our meetings. Books-a-Million is a discount, warehouse-type bookstore in Joplin that includes a Starbucks rip-off inside and always smacked of For All Bible to me, but maybe that just comes with the territory. In any case, it was Leu, me, Dr. Saltzman, and Joy. We were walking to our cars. I said, “Have a good night, Dr. Saltzman.” He said, “Kirby, you’ve graduated. We’re not in class anymore. You don’t have to call me ‘Doctor.’ ‘Professor’ will do just fine.”

*****

Is it heretical to say that somewhere in the 2,700,000’s is probably where Solve for X belongs? After all, Amazon’s list of bestsellers measures a readership that can hardly be described as discerning. Four of the top 10 bestselling books help their readers either gain money or lose weight, and the top spot is occupied by a story about a boy who travels to heaven and returns to share what he has learned. Yes, he travels to that heaven. As the book’s summary says, “[T]he disarmingly simple message is heaven is a real place, Jesus really loves children, and be ready, there is a coming last battle.”

I imagine Dr. Saltzman’s reaction to someone who tried to pit his work against these chart-toppers would be something along the same lines as what the guitarist for REM said when a reporter compared his band’s waning sales with those of Britney Spears, who, at the time, was looking down at the rest of the pop world from her perch, panties be damned: “Whatever she has, we don’t,” the guitarist quipped.

Come on, I can hear Saltzman pleading, don’t put me in the same ring with that. It’s not even a fair fight. In “Bestsellers,” he aligns himself with Borges, who claimed that he wrote “perhaps for a few personal friends.” Saltzman notes, “I’m with him, grudgingly, in that it ends up being primarily a few friends who read and do not begrudge me my writing.”

Of course, he’s right. To set him opposite Amazon’s hardest hitters rigs the fight. There’s no way he can compete with such accomplished authors as Barbara Streisand and Sammy Hagar, both of whom are currently in the Top 20.

His bigger problem is that I’m not even completely sure that I like Solve for X, and I probably qualify as one of his “few friends who read and do not begrudge [him his] writing.” The truth is that I find it uneven at best. A few choice essays elevate the majority of the work that is otherwise self-indulgent or, most unforgivable of all, boring.

One of the great temptations of evaluating a life so prematurely interrupted is that you want to predict where it would have gone from there—like calculating end-of-year totals based on a player’s performance at the All-Start break—and Dr. Saltzman wasn’t even at the break, not in his new career yet, anyway. He was, let’s call it, a third of the way in, another seven to ten books easily ahead, maybe even more. He had received some recognition, some awards. Another book followed, so clearly he had some reserves. If he had continued at this trajectory, how high would he have gone? I want to project a life in which he sustains himself through his writing. I want him to leave behind the students who weren’t deserving of him anyway. I want to grant him a retirement party in which he is himself the first one to leave. “Smell you later,” he says, as the door clangs shut. He does not look back.

But I can’t. How far would he have gone? The answer, at best: Not very.