One morning, back when I was an Army deep-sea diver, we were sent down to the port to replace a ship’s screws that had been bent by flotsam in the Chesapeake. It was snowing, and we had to drop a 50-pound weight off the pier to punch a hole in the ice before I could slide into the brown water. When I got under the ship, the big nut on the end of one drive shaft wouldn’t come loose, so, with a Broco rod hot enough to melt granite, and the optimism that her captain would remember not to start the engines and make me his chum, I set to work. Sergeant Courtly, another diver in the detachment, who was the son of a Belizean government minister, sat wrapped in a sleeping bag in our step van back on the pier. He sipped hot cocoa from a thermos cup, dreamed of his barrier reef, and now and then, as if he’d just figured it all out, he pushed the lever on the comms box and said to me down my umbilical hose: “Jacques Cousteau fucked me up.”
Who wasn’t seduced by Cousteau’s TV specials? The gleaming Calypso is filmed from above by her own Dragonfly helicopter, the ship’s wake like a comma in the blue water. The underwater shot looks up waveringly at the white hull, and on deck, somewhere near the sun, real men do the things that men do with other real men, while dressed in rubber. Soothing words from the captain in voiceover, then frogmen splay their fins and fall into the sea on clouds of silver bubbles. What I had seen in all that as a child—and still saw at the age of 22—was a chance to test and prove myself, so now I was under some rusty tub in the James River, working on a case of hypothermia and overbreathing the rig’s capacity to deliver air. Sergeant Courtly, who had shed his illusions, sat plotting how to bypass a clerkship in the Ministry of Works and go straight to the Belizean House of Representatives. Who was the fool?
I was thinking about this in my office, a big room with exposed pipes, like the hold of a ship, in which there’s the occasional electrical fire. Adjunct lecturers and graduate teaching assistants share the space, and the gray walls and ancient furniture reinforce the feeling that we’re all a utilitarian afterthought. Happily, this does not dampen spirits. Two grad students near the door gossiped about peers who had praised the wrong critic in a seminar; two adjuncts on the couch argued whether the director of rhetoric or the director of graduate studies should be on a calendar they were imagining, to be called The Studs of English. A parliament in the back hooted over a faculty member who got his mistress hired in another department.
Call it proto-scheming—learning social behaviors that will aid them at other highly competitive research universities. I began to feel, like Sergeant Courtly, that I was not in my element. After all, as an adjunct, I’m not in any graduate-student cliques, and I’m not even permitted to imagine the secret lives of tenured faculty. Adjuncts may be the lumpenproletariat of the university, but there’s freedom there. Clearly, that attitude won’t take me far. By failing to see the need to be engagé, I place myself at risk of being perceived as a loner, as a nonentity, or, in the lingo of hardhat diving, as a “waste of O2 [pronounced ‘oh-two’],” as men once said of Sergeant Courtly.
All of us see wrongly, much of the time, for many reasons: ignorance, animosity, sentimentality, piety, the poisonous effects of that sitcom where Ted Danson does spit-takes at the counter of some diner, wearing a stethoscope. True seeing requires context, maturity, humor, and a sense of measure.
Take my relationship with the Countess Tolstoy. We raced across the state to rescue her when her time had run out at a shelter, since she was obviously a sweet dog, and it wasn’t her fault she looked like a beer keg in a yak coat. But at home she sits in the shadows in our backyard, radiating some creepy vibe that evidently says, “Suffer the little animals to come unto me.” And when the possums come grinning to her, as they surely do, crawling under the fence from the dumpster where they eat their last suppers, she clamps her chompers on their spines and shakes until their brains come loose. I’ve begun to run out of the Ziplocs that I turn inside out on my hand to pick up corpses. Last week, I missed spotting one for a couple of days, and when I finally got to it, its tail came off in my hand. I tried to pick up the rest, but it felt like a wet paper sack filled with rice pudding. I called my friend Frenchy and began to extol the Countess, what a great watchdog she was, how great she … “She sounds like a fine dog,” he said. “I don’t want her.” But my squeamishness had blinded me. Our vet says the dog gets fresh air, exercise, and a lot of joy from her slaughters, so now I’m very happy. We all need help seeing properly.
Cézanne sometimes painted in Pissarro’s studio, which he described as a place to learn to see. I try to help my students see the possibilities, good and bad, in their words, and I try to bring my own experiences as teacher, reader, writer, deep-sea diver, bus driver, cook, snake handler, father, husband, son, brother, and human being to bear.
One student in my workshop wrote a short story about a young woman at her first Phish concert. The protagonist saw the best minds of her generation pee in a field, and when she was riding back to Inner Station with her friend, wind tousled her honeyed hair. Suddenly, she felt so wild and crazy and free that she drained the last mouthful of her warm strawberry wine cooler, tossed the bottle out the window, and it shattered on a tree stump. The end.
It’s touching—even lovely—that the character, like the author, is sure that no one ever raised hell before that moment. But the story contains no hint that the narrative voice itself knows any better. Its fault is what Emerson criticizes in those who have “no range in their scale”: “What is not good they call the worst, and what is not hateful they call the best.”
I can help with scale: I knew a guy in a combat engineer battalion who was looking for trouble one night for no good reason other than he was an alcoholic and people called him a half-breed, and he tried to get me to fight but I laughed it off, so he went and got the blanket off his bed, soaked it in gas, shoved it under the door of a guy down the hall, and lit it on fire so he could burn through the door and get his stereo back.
Now that guy knows how to party.
In my literature and rhetoric classes, too, I ask about ways of seeing. What are the limitations, for instance, of the ecstatic worldview of Thoreau? (Frenchy says, “That guy went to the woods because he wished to live deliberately, and to pull his pud.”) Or, when the burly kid in the John Deere cap insists the black helicopters are on the way (prompted by rhetorical analysis of a speech by Bill Clinton, who may be riding shotgun in the lead chopper), how might our discourse community help him be less afraid?
Facilitating seeing is no small matter. Gertrude Stein wrote, “Gertrude Stein never corrects any detail of anybody’s writing, she sticks to general principles, the way of seeing what a writer chooses to see, and the relation between that vision and the way it gets down.”
When we write, we unconsciously build ego walls that keep us from seeing “that vision and the way it gets down.” There are very few writers, apprentice or professional, who believe they suck. Compare two memoirs from True World War I Stories, from Lyons Press. Both men thought they were writing well. The first is calm and clear-sighted:
“I landed in France with a medical unit attached to the 7th Division in November 1914. I was a boy just turned seventeen, straight from school, and all the thrill of romance and adventure was on me … There was a wonderful march through the streets of Southampton at midnight, amid crowds of cheering and delirious people. A woman had thrown her arms round me and kissed me, thrusting cigarettes into my pocket … At Poperinghe … the casualties poured into the clearing hospital day and night; there was no rest; the smell of blood, gangrened wounds, iodine, and chloroform filled the twenty-four hours. [T]hough often terrified and worn out by the unaccustomed heavy labour, I grew more and more anxious to play my part.”
Now listen to the hysterical tone of the second:
“Lark, a weazened, foul-mouthed, little lump of unconscious Cockney heroism, nicknamed under the usual order of such things ‘Sparrer,’ lies o’ nights untroubled, I suspect, by any nightmares occasioned by his part in the blood-spewing earthquake of eleven years ago that made his Whitechapel of to-day fit for heroes to live in. His job done, it is forgotten, except perhaps for periodical arguments in the public bar of his ‘Local’ as to the exact position in Etaples of a certain Red Lamp. Lucky man, may his shadow, always attenuated, never grow less.”
I read this to Frenchy, who said, “Hey, I’m no writer, and that wasn’t my war. But I’ve got one word for this guy: Dick. Head.”
When it comes to being an effective teacher, the ability to facilitate seeing trumps other matters, such as teaching persona, entertainment value, or maybe even interest in students’ immediate needs. As an undergrad, I had an English professor who spent two class periods talking about his neighbor’s new red car. He tried to quell the inevitable student mutiny—an ugly scene, in which my classmates raged that he wasn’t teaching us anything—by declaiming, “Teachers teach. I’m a professor. I profess.” (I hope to say that one day at some cocktail party.) But in some fashion I can’t explain or defend, he helped me see Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” by topping his car-envy soliloquy with a denunciation of neurotic middle age and a dramatic reading of the poem that included eating a fuzzed peach (“like a young girl,” he said), juice dripping off his goatish beard.
Three people who can help you see: John Balaban (johnbalaban.com/books.html), Anne Sexton (currently dead, but no matter; go find Transformations ), M.F.K. Fisher (The Art of Eating ).
Three people who see very well indeed, but when they get their third bourbon onboard, it’s anybody’s guess: Jack Dempsey (dempseyart.com), Frenchy P. Leveille (formerly of Honolulu, Hawaii), Karl J. Groninger (currently of Baghdad, Iraq).
One guy who can’t see at all: George W. Bush (“One of the great things about books is sometimes there are some fantastic pictures.” — U.S. News & World Report; January 3, 2000).
Look, it’s worrisome that young readers write me, “I’m thinking of taking the money my parents gave me for tuition and investing it in a Sex Wax concession on the North Shore of Oahu. Oronte, you’re an Internet humorist. Do you think I should drop out of college?”
So let me be clear: college forces you (probably) to read, listen to and consider things you might not have found on your own. That’s good. Autodidacts are often eccentrics. (Look at me.) And there’s a real chance that someone, somewhere, will help you to see. Truths are as reassuring as the sound of air coming down an umbilical hose.