Look Forward, Angel

Today I began re-reading Thomas Wolfe’s 1929 classic book, Look Homeward, Angel. That’s not, by the way, Thomas Kennerly Wolfe, the dandy who was born after Angel was written (and who composed Bonfire of The Vanities) but Thomas Wolfe of the ruffled hair and leather trunk filled with wild manuscript pages.

Seems odd to me, as I look back to the time when I first read Thomas Wolfe’s tomes, that I picked them off the bookstore shelf. I cannot remember whether or not I read a back-cover blurb and there discovered similarities between Wolfe’s tale and my own. I suspect that I chose the books quite by accident, and just because the work extended itself for a countless number of pages. I owned time to spare for matters of the heart and soul, and I intended to make good use of that time.

I recall sitting on bus stop benches, waiting for my ride to work, and forgetting my life for sake of absorbing Thomas’s (the book and its sequels are autobiographical in nature). My focused absorption felt like pure pleasure, greater pleasure than I had endured with my ex-wife in bed in Philadelphia. Thomas Wolfe spoke of love and of adventure, but adventure took center stage. I had tried out romantic love and found it lacking, but my entanglement with the unknown day-to-day events as I encountered them on this fresh, sunlit coastline, satisfied me and left me feeling certain that I would survive, that I knew how to work and earn my keep, that I therefore would not starve to death.

A few years back I read a vague article written by a book reviewer for The New York Times (sufficient years back in time that I read this article as it was printed on paper).

This stuffy reviewer, an expert without the talent to pen a book of his own, as is so often the case, opined that one could read Thomas Wolfe’s work — and appreciate the same — only when young. He insisted that any attempt to re-read these novels once old age approached would result in disappointing boredom.

At the time, I let this reviewer’s opinion slide its way across and beyond the top of my head. I was, after all, preoccupied then with the toils and troubles associated with a job in education. No time, I thought, to test a theory.

As I look back now to my years inside the trap known as the education profession, I am reminded of how disgusted I felt each time a colleague would insist to me that teaching students left no time for reading other than research articles, and certainly no time for the fun of reading novels. “But we’re scholars, aren’t we?” I’d say. “We insist that our students read, no?”

And the blank look that traced my sad remark left me frustrated with the lot of ignoramuses with whom I felt forced to contend each day.

I never gave up on reading novels as I worked my jobs, and research articles sickened me more with each passing paragraph. But not until today did I decide to test that long-ago, stuffy reviewer’s theory regarding the works of Thomas Wolfe.

Now wouldn’t I seem facile and silly if next I were to say that Mr. Stuffiness was wrong, that Look Homeward, Angel is a fine work for retired old farts to enjoy?

Yes, I would seem ludicrous indeed. And truth be told, I haven’t yet re-read enough pages to warrant a wise opinion on this subject. Let it be known, however, that I love old-fashioned books. Know, as well, that most of today’s genre fiction is, in my not-at-all-humble opinion, absolute trash that competes best — if at all — with the likes of television dramas. Brain dead stories. Pabulum for the semi-literate among us. Meaningless repetitions in the key of mediocre.

So, I’ll let you know in time to come how all comes out. I’ll read all of Look Homeward, Angel, then continue with the prize called Of Time and The River, top that off with my second read of The Web and The Rock, and finish the journey with You Can’t Go Home Again.

Yes, I’ll let you know how I feel when I feel it. For the moment, however, I’m certain of this fact: reading Thomas Wolfe’s books will afford me more pleasure than watching television dramas could ever hope to offer me. As well, and as if you need to hear me say this, I am at least as stuffy a man as the New York Times reviewer who so impressed me several years ago.

By the way, and on a completely separate note, I this morning — after tussling with Thomas, penned a couple of Letters To The Editor, in which I wrote of the bloated claims of today’s educators. Retirement is sweet.

The Dragon Eats His Tale

I am these days still adjusting to the idea, and the reality, of retirement. Yes, there is the pleasure of floating round my house each morning, speaking with my cat, washing dirty laundry, clearing out possessions that I will not need again. My leather briefcase sits empty inside my closet. The shirts and trousers I wore to work each day now hang slack and ready for the rest. The infamous vest sweaters I each morning buttoned in order to disguise the pouch of stomach that everyone knew I owned are no longer necessary. I eat healthier now, and the pouch makes its slow retreat.

Yesterday, I paid for what I expect will be the final two orders of clothing I will require for now and until the end of my days, a dozen inexpensive tee shirts — some bright orange for the occasion — and an equal number of pairs of socks.

Cutting down expenses brings its own measure of satisfaction, because — on average — I never required what I now delete from my life.

Magazine subscriptions left to expire. Internet web space where I for so long planted my stories, stories that nobody read, now abandoned. A land-line telephone number soon to be discontinued, one attached to an answering machine I never answered. A few boxes of books waiting to be sold to someone who will treasure them. All of this and more.

A couple of friends wrote to me to say that I sound bitter when I write about my time spent in education. I wrote back to say that they are right. But I care no more to dwell on bitterness. I want no more, nor less, than to tell the truth.

When I was a young man living in Philadelphia, PA, I sat through faculty meetings, my heart filled with hope for what I might accomplish by way of my budding career. I held on to that sense of optimism for many years. I enjoyed my several assignments in that city. As well, the soft pretzels — smothered in yellow mustard, and sold by street-corner vendors — added to my love of what I then considered would become a future made of hard work and promises fulfilled.

An early, somewhat foolish, but passionate marriage ended in divorce. I came home from work one afternoon to find the typical, trite note: “I need some time alone.”

I fell into a great depression, one from which my friends thought I might not rebound. I lay on an antique couch, maroon brocade and high-wing arms to support my head and feet, and swallowed youthful self-pity for several months. I took time away from my profession. “I need time to think and to recuperate,” I told my superiors. Truth was, however, that I surrendered to the taste of Mary Jane and wine.

Wintertime in every sense. After midnight, and on till two or three in the morning, I took myself on long walks through the pinch of blizzard winds, followed trolley tracks in order to avoid the depth of snowdrifts. I saved my coins and spent them on Philly cheesesteak sandwiches and six-packs of pissy beer.

Until I’d had enough of the long, wild beard that I’d allowed to hide my face.

I quit the job to save my soul, then quit the city to save my heart.

I traveled to a distant coast.

There I quick acquired yet another assignment in education. I returned to graduate school. I taught myself to speak a second language. I breathed in deep and hoped again to sail my way toward progress.

I loved the newness of the journey, but I grew tired of fighting useless battles where education was concerned. Each day in class after class I faced poverty, ignorance and utter stupidity. Administrators pretended, for sake of their careers. Colleagues closed their eyes against the yellow smog of indifference. The drive to work and back became a series of freeway accidents that no one seemed to remember. Each morning a helicopter occupied by a news crew swept the sky and reported on the turmoil; a good day was when people were maimed but not murdered.

And next came July 1984. My place of employment at the time was shot up by a maniac. One student killed outright, another lying on the ground, her guts hanging free and bloody, separate from the rest of her body. The institution’s custodian had his foot blasted away forever. A passerby plugged in the face. If you’re of a mind to commit research, and not in the mood to trust my word, then look it up.

Inside the building, I pulled a woman backward from the door she was about to open. I led her and perhaps five other people, as we crawled along the floor closest to the windows (not farthest away, as the so-called experts like to advise; close means that the next bullet might fly over your head instead of at it).

The story behind the mayhem was one of those tales that a writer of novels would never dare to expect an agent or a reader to believe. The man who pulled the triggers of a twelve-gauge shotgun and a second high-powered rifle that afternoon was once a citizen of Jim Jones’s colony. The poisoned Kool Aid brigade. One day, months before he unloaded lead, he went to town to shop for supplies. He returned to the colony to find his family lying dead with the rest of the crowd of insane corpses.

On the day after the shooting spree, the city’s sheriff visited our faculty to make a speech, just a few words of praise for our bravery. But I had had enough. This was not the future I’d imagined during those heady days in Philadelphia.

Once again, I packed my bags and made my way toward a better clime a few miles northward. Once again, I acquired another assignment in education. One last time I tried to fill my lungs with hope.

And for a while I felt relief. The people with whom I last worked were sincere, talented, experienced and friendly. My last supervisor is a person I’ll always admire, because she owns a heart and applies the same to her job. Because she treats her colleagues with respect. Because she’s savvy and clever.

All of this, however, was never again to become enough for me.

Why? Because the reality inside the classroom felt like a greater burden than ever before. Lack of responsibility for one’s own actions. Blame. Excuses. Weak justification for poor behavior.

And how did our government respond to this despicable predicament? With yet more demands. Demands that we continually administer tests, as if test results would someday change the nature of a welfare state. Demands that we force students toward intelligence by making the curriculum more difficult. Demands that we suffer the supervision of peripheral employees, folks who rarely, or never, saw the inside of a classroom.

I felt myself back where I had begun, only this time round soft pretzels smothered in yellow mustard could not salve my pain.

I was Jonah, this time inside a dragon who was busy eating his tail.

Am I right? Most likely not. I realize that friends with whom I worked will see the matter in a different light.

But am I right to pen these words? Damned straight I am.

And am I bitter?

Yep, although I hope to move beyond the bitterness before I write my book.