Monday, October 31, 2005

Samhain and the Son of Indictment Day

God, they never stop. Drooly toddlers in fluffy rat costumes have ceased, but they've been replaced by coeds reacquainting themselves with the child they were last week. Ah, youth, or so said Conrad in that wonderful story. A hungover bastard would turn off the lights and refuse to answer the door. I'm hungover, but no bastard. Still, I never purchase putrid supermarket candy...the stuff is proof that a good marketing plan can sell anything. A cartoon character and a fancy wrapper, combined with enough air time on the tee vee, and the kiddies could be munching on turds cooked up by Sammy, my six-toed cat.

Thankfully this is a holiday of dim lighting. I took whiskey last night at a student bar. It wasn't pretty. And then the tricky treaters arrived. I gave one puzzled kid a new jar of pink mustard purchased in Dijon in my dear Bourgogne. I wept when I realized he would likely toss it in a trash bin, but what is one to do? They come asking for gifts...and such is all I have to give. Another child in a pathetic plastic costume, mask affixed by a green rubber band, received my pity and a five-dollar package of beef jerky purchased from a gas station in a moment of weakness. I gave away a brand-new Waterford pen from a visiting writer appearance (what they were doing giving a capitalist instrument to an artist at a public institution confounds me still), a new package ofAAA batteries, a sketchbook and six drafting pencils, wine charms that can double as earrings, a can of Vienna sausages (another weak moment), a wax-sealed wedge of Gruyere cheese and a new bottle of Thai peanut sauce. The last visitors were a pair of coeds in togas dressed as, I assume, my favorites among those daughters of Zeus: Melpomene and Polyhymnia. They both had straightish, longish, blondish hair, but made up for it by exposing a healthy expanse of stippled, goosefleshed legs, it being a chilly, rainy evening as one expects on this holiday. As a reward, I droped them each a 375 ml bottle of Nobile Montalpulciano that I'd purchased for a recent flight home from Pisa. The only reason I still had them was because I ended up sleeping the whole flight. Each seat on the plane had one of those horrendous television screens on the back of the headrest, and it was all I could do to squeeze my eyes shut against that horror. Why must that great American plauge of the culture-sucking labotomy machine infest even the seatbacks of trans-Atlantic flights? No matter, the girls appreciated the wine, though I doubted either owned a corkscrew (linger, dears, Professor Trout will oblige, but alas...).

In any event, I'm thankful today that I don't teach class on Mondays because I enjoy this holiday and I've a hangover to nurse.

So back to the story of my proseful and theme-challenged student, Miss Elizabeth Lowell, that cuddly little cocker spaniel--who can't seem to reach beyond that mortared cell of fundamentalist thought in which her kin imprisonder her--for a topic for her fiction. I will continue our dialog where we left off:

Spanielpuppy: It's just that I'm a little concerned. I mean, it's hard, being in college, for someone who believes the way that I do.

Trout: Of course it is.

Lowell: I just hope that it doesn't affect my grade.

Trout: Why should it?

Lowell: You said some pretty harsh things about Republicans.

Trout: True. Though if it makes you feel any better, Democrats are little better...they're simply worthless while Republicans possess a mendacious incompetence.

Lowell:'s just that I'm not afraid to admit I believe in...a Culture. Of. Life. (sic), and I don't want you to hold that against me. I want my work to stand on its own.

Trout: (covers mouth to suppress a gag) Ms.'re a veryfine writer.

Lowell: I am (cheeks pinkening)?

Trout: Of course you are. You're one of the best pure wordsmiths I've got.

Cutiepup: (smiles)

Trout: It's just that...I think you're forcing things a little.

Alittlelesscute: (frowns) Forcing?

Trout: particular, the theme in your work...

Lowell: See! I knew it would come down to this.

Prof. Trout: It's coming down to nothing...

Lowell: have a problem with my theme.

Trout: Well, yes I do. But not on ideological grounds (lie). It's just that the theme is forced. You're starting out every assignment with...abortion, or rather anti-abortion, or the "culture of life" or mind. I'd prefer that you put the story first. Discard all of the white noise in the background.

Lowell: Story?

Trout: Yes...that's the important thing. You have lovely instincts. For example...the career woman character of yours, on the park bench...tough as nails, a mannish cut to her skirtsuit, but fire-red fingernails. She's had a passion for Modigliani since she was a girleen, but recognized her lack of artistic talent early and sought a degree in pharma, then law school. She remembers childhood summers on the Iowa farm fondly but couldn't imagine living anywhere but Manhattan. She's a lovely creation.

Lowell: (cautious) Thank you.

Trout: But then what she sits on the park bench, she spots the other woman...

Lowell: With the children...

Trout: Right...West Indian, shiny black braids bursting out of her floral bandana--nice touch, by the way--and towing two mulatto bambinis. Fire-red Nails looks at West Indian Nanny with the kiddies, and what does she feel?

Lowell: Regret.

Trout: Right. Regret for her abortion. Regret for her career and her childlessness. Regret that she gave up the baby because becoming pregnant during her toughest semester at Fordham was just bad timing...

Lowell: I was just trying to show...

Trout: I know what you were trying to show. But you were trying to force a trite Mormon Film Festival plot onto some vivid, veryfinewriting. You gave up on the story.

Lowell: But...

Trout: But, nothing. The story was in the fire-red nails. It was in the flower-print babushka. It was the Iowa farm girl and the West Indian nanny. That's the story. It's the characters you draw. It's the details. Its the language you use. The story is not about some abortion that happened off-stage fifteen years ago.

Lowell: It is.

Trout: (grows angry) No, no, no. Your rushing. You're forcing. You're not following the story. Writing begets story. Theme does not beget story. Story should come first. You're starting off writing fiction, and your ending up writing brochures for Jerry Falwell.

Lowell: (bites lip, folds arms [squeezing her puppycutebreasts], and closes herself off) So what do I have to do to get an 'A' in this class?

Trout: (sigh, scratch of the beard) Drop the theme. Not that theme simply because it is right-wing lunacy and I still happen to believe in those silly little enlightenment notions from the likes of Jefferson and Old Fritz. Your subject is your own. But it has to follow the story. The story that you are writing, and not the youth pastor at your childhood church. You are a fabulous prose writer, Ms. Lowell...


But I lost her. She stopped listening to me. This was the first thing that I've said in the classroom, incidentally, that I actually believe, and she heard none of it. I figure I've got half a semster to win her over, but that would require dismantling twenty-four years of spiritual torment. I really don't care if she is pro-life...that's lovely...but if she can't see her own stories, how does she ever expect to be a writer? How do any of them? No matter. She demanded to know her grade and I scratched my chin and stared at the ceiling for a moment, pretending that I actually keep a record of such things, and then blurted out: "You're getting a low A, borderline B. You're doing fine. One of the best in class." This statement was unfounded. I grade arbitrarily. Since I've published a dozen books over the years, my colleagues rarely question me. If someone actually cares enough to argue a grade, I usually give it to them after asking them to perform some obscure task. I once asked a student to cook a Tuscan braised lamb dish that takes several hours...ostensibly to teach her the rewards of slowing down her process, but actually because I was hungry. I was hands-off and professional, though I still fantasize about her wearing my chef's apron and not much else.

In any case, I fear Ms. Lowell will tighten up even further. If she's fretting about a grade and actually caring what I think, then she'll lose that music she's discovered in her prose. This is the crux of the reason that all writing classes are pretty much destined to fail. You can't please a teacher, an institution or a process.

Fuckallofit. In any case, so hath passed another Halloween.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Indictment Day

And so in celebration of what shall henceforth be known as Indictment Day, I sent my students home early. The grad students, no longer accustomed to snow days, left reluctantly, grumbling some inanity concerning the cost of tuition. I sympathize, but then the privatization of our public universities is not my responsibility. Our particular state institution is 80 percent privately funded, and the students pay a ridiculous amount to attend this middle-class Harvard.

Enough digression.

To celebrate the good work of mister Fitzgerald, I sent the kiddies home with a modest assignment reading seventy pages from my second book. I initially hadn't planned on using my own work in the curriculum, but the department director insisted.

Director: The students may not be acquainted with your work, and reading it might energize your class.

Trout: But it will make me feel like an asshole. "Okay kiddies, today we will be! Whee!"

Director: I think you're being a little modest (grimace, aboutface, walkaway).

Trout: (muttering) Dearest director, just because you've assigned your petite assessment of Hawthorn's lesser (sic) works to your students, don't expect the Trout to follow suit.

But then I've had my fifteen seconds. In any case, after the dismissal, one pert little writerette lingered near my lectern. Buttonnosed. Tightcurled. Frecklefaced. You might call her cute if her creator had just eased up on the spaniel puppy features. But still, for a moment, I thought that I'd finally found my new teaching assistant.

Then she spoke:

Puppygirl: Uhm...Mr. Trout

Trout: Yes, m'dear?

Cutiepup: May I ask...

Trout: But of course, Love.

Puppypup: Indictment day...

Trout: No worries, Love, we'll have a makeup (makeout?) session at some point. I just feel a lump (hollow echo) on the Warmonkey's skull is an event worth celebrating...

Cutiecutiecutie: You're a liberal?

Troutietrout: Why, yes!

Puppygirl: But my stories...

Trout: Yes?

Puppygirlie: Umm...I'm Lowell...Elizabeth Lowell...

Trout: Ah yes... (suddenly remembering)

Allow me to intrude here. A few background notes are needed to fuel the drama. Miss Lowell is a very fine writer. She's close to the best in the class, though that's not saying much. Still, she has a handle on this whole prose thing. She's a little cute (imagine) with her phrasing, but somehow it works. For example...she'll engage in Fun With Capitals on occasion. Also Fun. With. Punctuation. And then there's the runtogetherwords that someyoungauthors are sofondofoverusing when they're tryingtobetricky. But for some reason, in the case of miss Lowellypuppy, it works. She hits her sentences in stride, and the tricks always pay a bigger role in her stories. She's "inventing her own language," as a critic might say. And her invented language reinforces her theme.

But that's the problem.

The theme in all of Miss Lowell's assignments to date has been that of strident antiabortion polemic. Strident. Antiabortion. Polemic. Stridentantiabortionpolemic. Thus her concern. She had finally realized, as a result of Indictment Day, that her fat, sensualist, bearded, drunken, lefty, socialist, communist, anticapitalist collegeprofessorvisitingwriter was...m'gosh...a liberal. Liberal! And so, she now worried that her fundamentalist mindlessness might endanger her grade.

To be continued...


Bimonthly posts are less than I had hoped, but then this semester has taken me by surprise. No matter as I don't imagine there to be much of an audience. In any case, I plan to write more even though I'm not used to this steady employ, and the amount of work required to wade through the muck produced by a handful of literary pretenders is astounding. What's more, I still have not secured a teaching assistant.

What would he do? my department director asks.

She would grade prose, clip her nails, type memos, fetch espresso, &c, &c, &c.

How would a grad student judge prose from other grads with similar or even greater experience?

Easy, she would judge it while sitting on a stool by my office window, twirling her straight blond hair in her finger while wearing tight jeans and one of those second-skin tops cut short to expose dainty love handles in the manner that is fashionable among the youngsters these days.

A nonresponse from the director.

A shitty grin from the trout.

And so on.

But fuckitall. Until I secure an assistant I will refuse to drown in this sea of coming-of-age-sagas, childhood angst, pale apings of Nelson Algren, the venerable Faulkner, giggly softcore porn, &c. &c. Okay, maybe the giggly softcore porn is tolerable for a sensual, aging fatty like me. But the rest is intolerable. Overwork has never benefited the trout.

My first marriage ended after I invested far too much time in two novels; it was for naught as they were both roundly rejected by the critics. But I was young and ambitious, and Lila was younger and lonely...and that's a story for another post.

Incidentally, I spotted Lila at the Irish Catholic funeral of a mutual friend last year. Though I should have been mourning our lost O'Higgens, I couldn't help but notice how the black dress hugged her hips, which had filled out with age to a not-so-unpleasant circumference. I stared at her robust fanny through the weepy testimonials and by the time the priest gave the benediction I had a full-on erection. I remained in the pew until the church emptied, feigning penitence.

The funeral was, thankfully, not catered but potluck. There are plenty of gourmands among our crowd, so the dishes were even lovelier than Lila's ass, but of course, being an Irish funeral, it was beer and no wine. I keep an emergency kit in my truck, so I fetched a bottle of Vouvray and two of those screwtogether camping wineglasses. I shared the vino with my ex, though it wasn't enough to coax her back to my motel room. The tart had remarried, and I, the cuckold, returned to the church to weep and stare at the bloody Catholic Christ.

The upshot is that I've re-earned a spot on her Christmas card list. And Lila is still remarried. And I now weep inconsolably over the loss of my first (and best) wife more often now than before the funeral. And O'Higgins is still dead.