Surrealist Doodle

Surrealist Doodle
This was used as the cover of Karawane in 2006 and I have included it in on a number of bags and postcards over the years. Someone on the subway asked me if it was a Miro. I was very flattered!

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Chapter 4 of My Accursed Novel

CHAPTER: SABBATICAL



At thirty-seven, Clark was finally starting to receive recognition for his work within the department. He felt the pressure to keep up this momentum. Yet, his work was becoming less engaging. He had always enjoyed academic research. Otherwise, he would not have opted for the university. Maureen was wrong to accuse him of hiding behind academia. Writing and doing research was, for him, a way to learn continuously, to connect his life to the past and dream about visions of the future. But now it was work . . . career advancement. Fifteen years ago he had railed against his own smug self-serving professors who had no life in them, the ones who were there putting in their time, publishing for prestige, not because, in his opinion, they had anything to say. Career advancement was not something Clark ever thought he would concern himself with. That was for men with two-syllable names like Michael. Or Robert. Or Charles, who was occasionally Charlie, but never Chuck. Sandy blonde-haired men named Michael who wore turtlenecks and blazers and went to faculty dinners to schmooze and be seen. Burnt out intellectuals with a home on the lake and an office no student was ever invited into. It was not for political radicals and revolutionaries who taught classes on anarchy and social upheaval in the twentieth century. Not for PhD's who wrote about the necessity of dissent in society and had their TAs over for beers on the weekend.



But lately Clark had picked up a new vocabulary. Not one that indicted the intellectual hegemony at the University. Not one that challenged the increasing conservatism on his campus. One of conciliation and peaceful coexistence, as the cold warriors had once agreed to. He knew these people didn't understand what he devoted his life to. It was just a cute childish political theory that he was clinging to for career survival. the Soviet Union had disbanded, socialism was dead. Liberalism as they understood it was dead. The more he started to "move up" within the department, as one of the few remaining "radicals" teaching political science, the more he proved them right.


Maybe it was the final nail in the coffin of the Left. Conservatism's grip was so tight, they could indulge the remaining irrelevant leftists on the faculty. Rush Limbaugh had once said that if he were running the country, it would mean that liberalism had completely died out, but he would want to keep a couple of liberals around in the universities to remind people that they once existed. On his more cynical days, Clark suspected that he fit that bill.


"Morning Clark. Will we see you at the party tonight?"


"Hi, Harry. What party?"


"Remember? Book reception? The Rise of Conservatism? We will see you there, won't we? We're counting on you to provide some lively debate. A little 'point-counterpoint'."



"Oh, yeah. Uh, look, Harry, some things have come up at the last minute. I'll try to make it, but don't be offended if I don't, o.k.?" Clark reached into his office mailbox and looked a few envelopes, trying not to look at the insulted stare of his colleague. He was in no mood today to provide that kind of academic gladiator entertainment. "I'm really sorry, Harry. I'd like to explain it to you, but I've got to get to class. You know how they are. If I'm not there, they'll use it as another excuse to duck out."


"Look, I know you're upset about Maureen. But Clark, you have responsibilities here. You can't just drop everything because you have a broken heart." Clark looked incredulous. "Besides," Harry squirmed, making a tactical shift, "it'll do you some good to get out and be among friends."


"Friends," Clark muttered absently. "Yeah, probably. Look I'll do what I can, but I can't make any promises. I really have to go now."



Clark decided to take some time off that summer for research. He needed to immerse himself in his subject for a while -- just for the sake of the project. He wanted to see if he could get back some of his enthusiasm. He walked into Harry's office with great deliberateness and stood over the desk, trying to convey to Harry the urgency of the projected.


"Well, you know we 're really counting on you," Harry had told Clark when he first heard his request. "A lot of other people already have their vacations and their own study projects planned," Harry said, leaning forward over his desk. Clark was fond of Harry, despite the fact that Harry was a career academic. Maybe even because of that. If Clark saw a younger version of himself in Maureen, as she had contended, he sometimes wondered if Harry represented his future.


Harry had brought Clark into the department. He hired Clark initially as a part-time instructor while Clark finished his dissertation. He had taken a particular interest in Clark's career and had supported him through his tenure application. Without Harry, Clark's career might have been very different. Clark appreciated this fact. But moreover, like everyone else in the department, Clark genuinely liked Harry.
"What's the matter, Clark? You haven't really been with us all semester. Since . . . well, Maureen left town, you haven't been coming to receptions, or seminars, or departmental meetings. Are you nursing your wounds, or is there something else I should know about?"


"No, I think it's just a little burnout. Have you looked at my request for a sabbatical this summer? I really need it."


"I have seen it but it's very short notice. A lot of other people have already put in for the summer off."


"They're just intro classes, Harry. Any Graduate Assistant could handle them. I may not be able to do this much longer if I don't get a break from it. Come on Harry, be a sport."Clark paused and leaned forward. “Why am I here, Harry? Because I’m brilliant? Because I provide a counterpoint to the rest of the staff?”


“Now you sound like Maureen.”


“What’s so wrong with that? Because she is occasionally right, does that make me her mouthpiece, Harry? I heard some kids . . . some students walking down the hall complaining about how much money they pay to go here and they can’t even get their professor’s attention. Is that why we’re here? To take their money, or the state’s money, so we can study and do research as if we’re the students?”


“What’s gotten into you, Clark? You know we’re a research university, not just an overgrown high school. What we do when we’re not in the classroom is just as important as when we are. What’s the matter with you?”


“I need time off. I’m no good to those kids right now. What the hell am I doing here, anyway? Nothing I do matters, Harry. Nothing.”


Clark slumped into the chair and stared at Harry.


"Let me see what I can do But if I approve this, you owe me, Clark. When you come back in September, you'd better sparkle."



On June 3rd, Clark gathered together his last armful of mail and walked out of the Arts and Sciences building. The warm air hit his face and called for him to follow it. There was even a scent in the air that brought back memories. He remembered his senior year, exams over, the week leading up to receiving his sheepskin in the dark hot nylon cap & gown. Then, a summer off to do whatever he pleased before facing the responsibilities of adulthood. He walked down the cement steps of the social sciences building and like that 22 year-old, threw his papers across the parking lot. They skipped across pavement and cars like stones over water. He was going to do all of the things he couldn't do 16 years ago.


That night, Clark worked furiously on his research which he had begun during the past semester. The role of intellectuals and artists as mercenaries in the Spanish Civil War, something he had been fascinated with for years. The intellectuals and artists, sleeves rolled up, fighting side by side against an evil enemy, in defense of their ideals. It made his own life seem squeamishly safe and secure. Tonight he felt consumed in his work. He wrote free form for hours, without referring back to sources or meticulously writing down documentation, as he had come to do for all of his "scholarly" articles. He would go back later and fill all that in. Now, he was writing with a passion for the subject, reinventing and conceiving the things he had been studying for years.


Maybe this summer he would spend more time on marches and protests and activities that the department had discouraged. An arrest or an incident, Harry was afraid, would jeopardize the reputation of the department and possibly endanger endowments and donations to the department from successful alumni. But he was on his own time, now, and he didn't have to worry about such things. He thought again of Maureen. She would be proud of his resolve. She would have a million different suggestions of things he could do. She had always made it her job to know about as many different groups and activities as possible, like a clearinghouse for all the campus activists and radicals. She would definitely have pointed him toward some of her own pet projects.


Clark sat up in his bed. there were papers beside him, like a sleeping lover passed out after a night's passion. Half open books had fallen to the floor. He rolled over and looked at the clock. It was 8:37a.m. He flipped the covers off and shuffled to the bathroom. He knew it would no longer be enough just to write about his fantasies or to act them out. For 15 years he had read about men and women of action, while he merely talked about it. While he told others about their exploits. He had infiltrated the system, as he once put it. But had he brought anyone else in there? Had he really changed anything, they way he said he would?


All of the subtle confrontations he'd had over the years were starting to come back to him. And he wasn't feel good-natured about them this time. He was angry at them and angry at himself for seeing it as just good natured debate. The resident radical. He used to revel in the notoriety. Now he was just suspicious of his reputation. He was sure they all saw him as an old hippie, someone whose ideals were cute at one time, but that obviously had not held up in the real world. If they had, he would be the head of the department now, and the world they taught their students about would be a very different one. They wouldn't be discussing the Gulf War or the notion that dissent was bad for morale. That distasteful theory of General Westmoreland's, actually blaming the dragging out of the Viet Nam war on the protesters and their effect on troop morale, had become an accepted part of the country's attitude toward war. If the hippies and the peace protesters had accomplished anything at all, it would be this theory, that was seen as an anachronism. Not the peace movement itself.


He remembered Maureen coming in, shaking but exhilarated, throwing her banner down on the floor and slamming her body into a chair at the kitchen table to begin writing a letter to the editor. "They almost beat the shit out of us. Three women. The fuckers."


"What? Are you ok?"


"Yeah. We showed up at their little 'Support the Troops' rally."


"Maureen!"


"Yeah, well, we almost chickened out. We sat at McDonald's and talked about it. It was scary. There were at least 50 people there. But we decided to tough it out." She started to laugh as the absurd memories came to the surface. "They were really friendly to us at first. Then we unrolled our banner and eventually someone stepped off the curb to read it and all hell broke loose."


"What did it say?"


"Same things as theirs, only a little different. Support the Troops. Bring them home alive."


Clark put his arms around Maureen who was scratching out a letter to the editor, pausing periodically to give him the details of the day. After someone had noticed the content of their banner, which was draped over an American flag, things got very heated. The three women--Maureen, her friend Cindy, slightly younger, 19 and barely 5 feet tall, and Donna, a woman slightly older than Clark, an original Sixties Radical they knew from the peace coalition--vainly tried to discuss their feelings with the pro-war protesters. Before they knew it, the three women were surrounded by a crowd. Donna was wrapped up, mummified in the flag, and the crowd was becoming increasingly angry and hostile. People were spitting on them and contesting their right to be associating an American flag with their banner. "That could be me," one young woman shouted angrily. "All the more reason," Maureen told Clark, "that you'd think she'd want this stupid thing stopped. Is this what equality brings us? To be equally stupid in our blind patriotism. Is this what I've been marching with the feminists for?"


"Baby steps." Clark rubbed Maureen's shoulders. They were tight like rubber bands stretched to the breaking point. She sat back in her chair for a moment and relaxed her back. Then, the tension broken, she snapped back forward to the paper in front of her. Then she got up and started pacing.


"Fuck that. Anyway we thought for sure these rednecks were going to beat us up. And the whole time, there was some guy there with a camera on us. Just us. I don't know. It wasn't a media camera. Police? FBI? Thank God someone stepped in and calmed it down a little bit. I don't even think about what could have happened. And then . . ." Maureen whipped around, pointing to Clark, "do you think the cops are any help? We've been assaulted. Assaulted. Three women and a mob of mostly men, and do you think they'll let us file a complaint? Hell no. We went back to Donna's house for a while and called the media to see if we could get some photos to corroborate. But, no, just as bad as the cops."


The last of a dying breed. He sometimes thought he saw amused nods and smiles when he began talking about his field. After all, it wasn't serious politics, the way you could talk about the Russian Revolution, or the Bill of Rights. It was all theory and idealism. Even the Russian Revolution had fallen apart. The Left was just a charming idealist anachronism, it's danger dismantled like an obsolete missile, or a memento brick left over from the Berlin Wall. And how could he argue with that? If they had succeeded, Maureen would not have had to go through that. She wouldn't have been still fighting the same battles Clark and his friends, and Donna and her friends, had already fought in their youths.


Clark looked at himself in the mirror. He looked like every other aging hippie professor at the damn university. Shoulder-length auburn hair. Trimmed beard with just a little bit of conspicuous shagginess to it so as not to look too groomed. Jeans and worn tennies with a tan sportcoat to dress it up. He pulled a pair of scissors and his razor out of the drawer and took a deep breath. He cut his beard and his hair down as close as he could, as large chunks of hair began falling to the floor. As more and more of his bare head began to appear, he found himself hoping that his skull was not too oddly-shaped, as he would have to live with this for quite some time. The razor buzzed and his skin tingled, shaving his face closer and touching up his nearly bald scalp.


Then he walked to the kitchen in his underwear, foraging for food he wouldn't have to prepare. He felt a restlessness that he didn't know how to cope with it. A call to action, but with nothing to be done. he needed to get out of the house. Do something different. Whatever that was. He gave up on any foraging to be accomplished in the kitchen. He returned to the bedroom, pulling on the pants and t-shirt he had left huddled in a pile a few hours earlier. He grabbed a backpack and some notebooks and headed out the door.


Down the street was a coffee shop. Clark had always meant to spend more time there, but never got around to it. He was not a neighborhood regular. Most of his coffee had come from the vending machine down the hall from his office. He walked toward the cafe now, stopping along the way to get a paper from a newsbox. He looked at the people around him. Many were street people who came in during the day to shake of the heat and have a place to sit for a little while, until the waitress kicked them out, anyway. Buoyed by his new life and his new resolve to do the right thing, he told the waitress, "Breakfast for everyone. I'm buying." It felt good. It fit with his new resolve about what he was going to become. Ironic that it was Maureen who had brought about this change in him and now she wasn't here to see it.


In his mind, it was always the fight that had ended it. The Last Straw Fight that so many couples have. Until then, everything seemed ok to him. Just a little creative tension. Romantically flawed, but the complemented each other. At least, he'd thought so. But maybe that was the root difference. Where he saw creative tension, intellectual differences among well-meaning people, she saw co-option. It still surprised him that she usually managed to maintain herself without coming across as too rigid or self-righteous. She challenged people to be more, without indicting them for what they already were.


Except, of course, for Clark. There were different standards for the people she was closest to. Of her brothers and sisters in arms she expected more. Purity, honesty. Anything else was too damaging to the work that had to be done. But for ordinary people, for the people she talked to on the street, like the ones in this coffee shop, she had compassion and kindness. She believed that they were on her side, but they just didn't know it.


"Listen to them on the bus. In the cafeteria. Are you that removed from everyone but your students?"


Clark had to admit, his students did not fill him with great hope. They were lazy. They were victims of television. They didn't do their work because they stayed out drinking all night.


"How is that different than not doing it because you took over the Dean's office and smoked pot all night."


"Oh come on. You can't be serious. It was very different. We believed in something. We weren't just numbing ourselves stupid."


"You were turning on, dropping out? Anyway, that's not all of us. And it's not the people out there. They hate the government. They want something different. They've just been programmed not to listen to us, because we're just 'radicals'. We don't need to educate them--we need to deprogram them."


Maureen believed in the proles, as they would have been called forty years ago. The ordinary people were not stupid, and in her mind, it was the radicals who were stupid for being so condescending. "Who wants to work with a bunch of people who think they're better than you? Who wants to live in a society that's run by a bunch of removed intellectuals who think you're stupid and lazy. How is that better than a bunch of corrupt businessmen who think you're stupid and lazy but at least sell you a tv or make a movie to take your mind off of it. They can't dance here, so they don't want our revolution."


Clark looked up to find a bill sitting on his table. He looked over at the waitress and smiled, turning over the slip of paper. $128.72. He pulled a credit card from his wallet and laid it on top of the bill, after writing in a $30 tip. Suddenly this picture seemed ridiculous. Patronizingly buying breakfast for the local down-and-out with his Gold Card. Very radical. Even this smallest action took no risk on his part. Fraud. Irrelevant. Dangerous. You're right, Maureen.


He unzipped his backpack and pulled out a notebook. He began making two lists. Everything he owned and everything he felt he needed. Soon, a third column emerged, precipitated by the television and VCR. It was important to keep up, to use very possible avenue to educate oneself, even if it was easy to use them for frivolity and escape. Thus, the first items under the "unsure" column. He tried to be ruthless in his determinations. Car? There was a bus stop right in front of his house. The city had a good transit system. Many people managed just fine without a car.
Artwork? Everyone needs some aesthetics in their lives. Bread and Roses, as the activists would say. He tried to discriminate between the things he was attached to, things that meant something to him, from the ones he had for show to prove his "good taste". Art for company's sake. He listed every book, every piece of music, every stick of furniture he owned in this same way, winnowing out those things he felt strongest about from the things he owned because he thought he ought to.
He walked mentally through the house, picturing each room. A too big house for just him. Two stories. Two bedrooms. A den, extra half-bath, slightly winding stairs. he had bought it when he was brought onto the faculty full-time as a reward for "making it." When he met Maureen later, and she moved in, he was happy to have a nice home to offer her. It was a place they could grow into, with family and friends. There was room for him to work and for her to have her meetings. Plenty of space for files and posters and placards and brochures and fax machines. When she left, a few months now, he tried to fill the space up again, reminding himself that it was his home long before it had become their home. Was he now ruthlessly taking stock of his own life or was he trying to find an excuse to run from the empty space she had left behind? He added the house to the sheet of paper, crossed it out, and moved it to a different column five times before making his final decision.


He had become so intent in this activity that when he looked up, two hours and twenty minutes later, he was disoriented. Was he in the kitchen? The school snack bar? Faculty lounge? He was still in the coffee house, with a hot cup of coffee that had been silently refilled several times throughout the morning. His credit card was still lying on top of the bill at the corner of the table, but with the bill now marked. Thank you. J


"Want anything else? You've been pretty engrossed in that."


Clark smiled up at her. Thank you but no. He gather his things into the backpack, took one more sip of coffee, and left, sent on his way cheerfully by the other waitresses' goodbye and have a nice days.


At home, Clark pulled out his lists and began to pack up the things on his keep list. He went to the store three blocks over to get more boxes. He set aside several rooms for the things that didn't make the cut. He pulled out the phone book and began paging through the yellow pages. Abortion. . . Accounting . . . Arts . . . Attorneys . . . Auction . . . He wrote down a few numbers. It was Saturday evening and he didn't expect to get ahold of anyone. He wrote down some numbers and put the paper up on the refrigerator. Then he went to the stereo and pulled out some music, some anachronistic idealistic music and went upstairs to grab his books and his notes from the previous evening.



Clark rolled over and touched Maureen. They were walking on a plaza among dozens of other people. The sun was shining and the trees, planted among the cobblestone, gave off a comforting shade. Maureen giggled like she used to when they first met, when he said something particularly witty or sarcastic. She blushed the first time he talked about Helen Caldicott's notions of nuclear missiles as phallic symbols and unfortunate terms like Minuteman and hard and soft silos. She giggled that way now, and he brushed her cheek with the back of his hand. He pulled her chin toward him to kiss her, putting his hand on her shoulder, and she stood up abruptly, dashing off into the crowd as if she were completely unaware of him.


Clark chased her up the steps and slants of the plaza, but she kept walking, quickly and with purpose, without looking back. She was not trying to taunt him or even get away from him, but no matter how quickly Clark walked he couldn't catch up to her. Eventually she disappeared completely and Clark stood still, looking around for her, with a kiss still sitting on his lips, wishing for its intended.


Clark got out of bed and immediately began making phone calls. By the next day, he was loading up his "keep" list into a U-Haul. In the afternoon, around three o'clock, as Clark was nearly done, a woman in her middle forties pulled up in front of the house and walked to the front door, carrying a clipboard and a briefcase. Clark invited her in the house and showed her around. She began making an inventory of everything. She tried to engage Clark in discussion about the relative value of each item, but he wanted no part of it. After about an hour, he signed some papers, handed the woman his house keys and said that he would be in touch with her after the auction to collect the proceeds.


"Oh, I almost forgot these", he said, turning around and handing her the keys to his car, a perfectly ordinary burgundy two-door sedan parked in the garage.


"Are you sure about this?" The woman asked him. "Where are you going? Leaving the country or something?"


"Not at the moment," Clark smiled. "Just cutting out the unnecessaries. You know--live simply, that others may simply live."


The woman looked at Clark for a moment, not sure what he was talking about, and then went back to her list. "Well, whatever you're doing, Good luck. Where should we send the check?"


"Ill be in touch."



It was the first and only apartment Clark had looked at -- a cheap, furnished efficiency with the bedroom doubling as the living room. It was on the other side of town from all the other professors, and was also away from where most of the students lived. Only his books and clothes would remind him of his "old" life. He didn't forward his phone or mail.


Clark began to unpack the small moving truck, which was the size of a pick-up truck and camper top. He used the cupboards in the kitchen to hold his books, having kept only a few dishes and pots. He carefully unwrapped a few framed posters and paintings and hung them around the apartment. Taking stock of his wardrobe--tweeds, workshirts, jeans and tennies. He went down to the Goodwill store to pick up some t-shirts and denim jackets--a little less of the "uniform" he had worn for the past ten years, a uniform that had allowed him respectability while still feeling like he hadn't totally given in.


Clark hadn't been on a city bus in years. The following morning, having unpacked the truck, he returned it to the rental agency and walked over to the corner stop. He decided to ride the bus for its full route just to see where it went. He tried to listen to conversations around him. He wanted to see these people the way Maureen had talked about them. There was a mother pulling a crying child onto the seat roughly. "I'll give you something to cry about. Quiet!" A couple of people smelled like alcohol. Clark double checked his watch. 9:43 a.m.


A few students, between 18 and 20, Clark guessed, with heavy laden backpacks, got on the bus. New students always took too many books with them to class on their first day. Clark mused that any other summer, he would be handing out a syllabus right now, trying to keep the attention of 18 year-olds who were still accustomed to having their summers off and who would much rather be playing frisbee at the beach than learning about the differences between communism and capitalism, and who, citing Stalin and the arms race, would passionately deny that it was purely economic theory.
Over the course of the summer Clark rode all the buses just to see where they went. He tried to use the time to sit and think, without feeling pressure to work on his book or be somehow productive with his time off. He found himself in parts of town he had never been in before--housing projects and gentrified GI subdivisions. He didn't always like the people he saw on the buses. At the back of the bus, teenage boys peppered their language with "mother fucker" the way someone might use common pronouns. Young mothers yelled at screaming children, tired from too many trips from preschool to social worker to shopping mall to grocery store. The children would squeal over things they wanted from afar but couldn't have, missing out on toys and candy and everything else their hearts thought they desired. In ten years, maybe these children would be sitting at the back of the bus yelling motherfucker this and motherfucker that.


Then there were the just-too-loud, usually insipid, conversations, the ones that drown out any other thoughts Clark might have been trying to have. He would hold his breath, feel his chest tighten and his face clench, trying not to jump up and scream for everyone to shut up. These were not the ennobled working class Clark had been so passionately wanting to set free. He wasn't sure these people were ready to accept power, to be emancipated.


Clark worked through the summer and his manuscript began to take shape as a book. The direction of the work was starting to change in light of his experiences in the real world. He was starting to think that Maureen was right about him, but it no longer bothered him. Maybe it was all abstract to him, but he was starting to wonder if he could have sustained his belief in freedom and liberation all this time if he had been living this life for the past twenty years. He wasn't sure he would be able to see humanity's salvation in the small, rare acts of insight and decency of ordinary people that Maureen had always lectured him about. He was becoming much more sympathetic to the notions of the Bolsheviks--the idea that a small, organized group of revolutionaries would have to lead the masses until they were ready to lead themselves. Clark's research was now leading him to try to discover exactly where and when it went wrong. The betrayal of the revolution was the problem, not its lack of populism, as Maureen would have countered.


Every day Clark tried to remind himself of the life he wanted to live. He wanted the distinction between his old and new lives to be clear cut. The book was helping him figure a lot of things out for himself, to work out some questions in his own mind. But it was still all theory. Where would it lead him? This wasn't exactly a romance novel, a mass market paperback he was writing. It would be published by and for the same people he had just walked away from. At best, it might become a textbook in a some junior or senior level class. It was just a small puddle jump from the life had was leading three months ago. It was not Hemingway fighting Franco in a Barcelona trench.


1 comment:

Fluffy Singler said...

So, for those who have been reading my accursed novel so far, do you have any comments or constructive criticism?