Sometime c. 1980 I turned in an assignment for a journalism class I was taking at the University of Texas. My professor was the great Red Gibson, a truly wonderful teacher.
The class was Editing and Layout, and we had to submit several pages of annotated headlines—the headlines literally cut from various newspapers and pasted onto heavy paper, and then annotated by hand, commenting on font, size, how they were written.
Gibson looked skeptically at my submission. He said, “You know, in twenty years you’ll be the only person who can read this.”
I said, “Yeah….”
“The more you write, the more it’ll look like you,” Gibson said. “Right now it looks like a dog wrote it.”
Well, Gibson was right. Forty years later I'm pretty much the only person who can (easily) read my handwriting. Even thirty years later, in the early days of my teaching career, students were complaining about my handwriting.
I mean—yeah—it’s all kinds of slurred-up.
But, so what? So it’s slurred. I see it as a big part of who I am, like having blue eyes or being bald. I like it. It’s me.
Still, I’m aware of the hard-to-read slurringness. I type almost all my comments on student work. Almost. Because sometimes, when pressed for time, I just—write….
And occasionally some people get pissed. Here’s a comment from my evals:
It’s not fair that we have to type and he just writes and nobody can read it
He expects us to read his illegible handwriting
So…a few years ago, when I was teaching in Kansas, a couple of students made snarky rude comments about my handwriting. My feelings were hurt. But then I had a moment of inspiration—I thought, I'll prank those youngsters and digitize that thing! Ha!
And I made my own font--LMW Olblique.
Still, I got a nice font out of it....
Like the last Academic Incivility post, this happened in my first semester at Pittsburg State. At some point, in November or so, the “Director of Graduate Studies”—let’s call him Dr. Dumbass, a squirrely-looking skinny little ball-headed tubercular guy who always dressed in black—asked me to visit his Intro to English Studies class, a class for first-semester MA students. And I said, kind of reluctantly, though still foolishly wanting to be a good departmental citizen, Yeah.
It was an evening class. I had to stay late after my own very long day of teaching, and I stumbled into his class tired and worn out. I took a seat at the foot of the seminar table, near the door.
And Dr. Dumbass introduced me. “The newest member of our faculty...” blah blah blah blah whatever whatever fuck infinitum, “...a former gay male porn star.”
I sort of woke up at that. I asked, “What?”
He smiled. “A former gay male porn star!”
And—I didn’t do anything. Nothing. Didn’t say anything. I didn’t tell him to fuck off, I didn’t get up and march around to the other end of the table and punch him in his stupid fucking nose. I didn’t do anything. I was tired. Worn out, worn down. I just sort of thought—Fuck, whatever. I went on and talked with the class about teaching and writing and stuff. Whatever.
A couple of days later I encountered Dr. Dumbass in the hallway. He said, “Hey! Here’s our former gay male porn star!”
I asked, “What the fuck are you talking about?
He made a surprised face. “Not that there’s anything wrong with that!”
I said, “Well, knock it the fuck off.”
It wasn’t until a long time later that I learned that there is a porn star named Mick Lovell (also known as Mick Phillips, google at your own risk—seriously NSFW). No doubt Dr. Dumbass was trying to google me prior to class and got my name backwards and misspelled and was—dumbassedly—amused. Or maybe he spent all his time in his office looking at porn!
Anyway. This was rude, of course, but it was a rude department, and what happened to me is nothing compared to how badly other people in the profession are treated—especially women, and women of color. Academia is like life in that it is too often full of people in power (or “power”) who enjoy stepping on anyone they can.
Obligatory book plug: I have two novels set in the often petty and frequently absurd world of higher education—you should read them!
Professed is a comic novel filled with the struggles and rivalries and oddities and many weirdnesses American higher education...Get it in paperback and Kindle....
Normal School is an academic noir filled with murder, embezzlement, and lots of entertaining bad behavior. You can read sample chapters at the Normal School website! And you can buy it on Amazon in paperback and in Kindle!
It's January. Been January for 31 days now. I'm trying to do things....
I’m not a big believer in nostalgia—I mean, I do like the past, but I see it as kind of place, a setting for my stories, not as some golden cheerful smiling misty-eyed fake memory mess. We all have pasts—we all have stories, and if you follow those stories you can sometimes fall into a wormhole of memory that comes out somewhere else and is quite startling. And so…I was looking at something or other online, and I saw a reference to Mankato, Minnesota, a town where I lived from 1965 to 1976 and did much of my growing up. I went to Google Streets at looked at my old house (I did that a couple of years ago, too, for a blog post) and then I followed the cam around to other places in the town. I haven’t been to Mankato since 1979 or so, and, as you might expect, it’s a very different place now. Interesting, in a dreamlike way, familiar and strange at the same time. But then I saw the water tower on Balcerzak Drive—and, oh—a story came clawing up out of the deeps of time.
We—us kids—we used to climb that tower!
In the days of my youth, those apartments on the left were there—they were brand new—but the building covered by shadows wasn’t there, and softball fields were all cornfields. This was in high school—junior year, senior, 1975, 1976. We’d park at the apartments and sneak across the cornfield and—kick—the door at the base of the tower.
Boom. The door would open, we’d jump in, and shut it behind us.
Inside was a circular stair winding up and up and up.
Then there was a little platform. From the platform on up there was a ladder—inside a tube—running up through the water tank itself.
Then there was another platform at the top of the ladder. Stand on that and you were inside the tank. Shine your flashlight down at the water—and it was always scummy and covered with mats of algae or bacteria or—just scum.
Then there was another ladder up to the top of the tank. This ladder was kind of scary, because it went up at an angle, and you were out over the scummy water.
Whoever was the first up the last ladder would—ease—open this big hatch and lower it gently onto the tank top.
Then you’d go through the hatch and onto the top of the tank.
It was scary! The top of the tank was curved and seemed to slope sharply. No railings.
But! You could see for fucking ever! I told people I could see all the way to Waseca, about thirty miles to the east.
Maybe I could just see the lights of Waseca reflecting up into the clouds. Still—a long way.
My only time as the first up the ladder, I didn’t gently ease the hatch to the surface of the tank—I fucking dropped it and it BANGED and echoed around and my buddies cussed me out. Still we went up through the hatch and stretched out on the tank, looking out at the world.
Then there was someone yelling at us down below.
“Mike Westlund! I know you’re up there!”
It was Mike’s sister, who lived in those apartments. I guess she heard the banging of the hatch.
“You get down from there right now or I’ll tell mom!”
So—we came down off the tower before we even had a chance to engage in youthful bad behavior. I fucked everything up.
Forty years ago—the early hours of January 1, 1980—I was witness to the murder of Anthony Noble Sparks.
A cop told me it was the first murder of the decade in the state of Texas.
It was a pretty traumatic event for me—and worse of course for poor Sparks, and for his family, wherever they are.
I’ve written about it (sort of) fictionally twice—in the story “It May Be a Day, it May Be Forever,” (my first published story, found in the collection The Messes We Make of Our Lives), and in the novel Professed. I’ve never written about it factually, in a historical/personal context, though maybe I will at some point.
A few years ago I was in San Antonio and found myself a few blocks from the murder scene. I went looking for the New York Pub. I found the address, but the building was totally different—remodeled beyond recognition or just replaced. It was vacant. Where's Spark's ghost?
Does anyone but me think about Sparks forty years on?