Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Adventures In Academia, Part Two

Part Four: Planting Seeds
Friday could have been a lousy day, let's be honest. We'd made the trip down, we did what we'd come there to do, caught a live show, and had already eaten a great day's worth of food.

Thank God it wasn't. I stayed up Thursday late night, thumbing through the extraordinarily thick program of panels for the following day. Why not, I thought to myself. There has to be something that is worth attending, right?

The first one of interest I saw for Friday was a panel chaired by Maxim Furek, who I'd met the previous day. His topic was an abstract of his recently-published book, 'The Death Proclamation Of Generation X: A Self-Fulfilling Prophesy Of Goth, Grunge, And Heroin.' It's something for families, especially those with small children. [Lying.]

Two things fascinated me: one, he discussed an era of popular culture and entertainment that I at least knew tangentially. Sure, I was shitting my pants in the heyday of Gen X, but I'm still doing that in the heyday of Generation Y! [Kidding, I haven't shat myself since elementary school.] But seriously, the 90's just happened - or I can at least vividly remember it; my memories dating back to the 80's possess a phantom like quality, bits and pieces, like the day Nick was born and a few other select highlights - and now it truly is history. There is so much to be discussed, from the media's monopoly over America's emotions (OJ, Columbine, etc.) to examining the subculture that was Gen X.

What really caught me was the study of various generations. We never had a President from the so-called "Silent Generation" elected (though McCain would have had this distinction had he gotten in), for example. This says a lot about this generation, wedged between the "GI Generation," which gave us 7 presidents (JFK through Bush I) and the "Baby Boomers," whose impacts upon society are still felt today. Furek focuses solely on Gen X, though I had to ask him about my own generation, known both as the Millennials and Generation Y.

I posited that maybe, just maybe, we are more cynical, having grown up on lying Presidents ("read my lips: NO NEW TAXES!", "I. Did. Not. Have. Sexual. Relations. With. That. Woman. Ms. Lewinsky...that depends on what your definition of 'is' is.", and of course "Iraq has weapons of mass destruction and can be linked to 9/11), the birth of a non-mainstream media (the Internet), where fact-checking is now a Helluva lot easier, and yes, the 9/11 attacks.

He said these were great points, and based on the cycles in the 1991 book 'Generations' by William Stauss and Neil Howell, the Millennials are part of a Hero/Civic cycle. We'll be the ones to get a lot of things done in our lifetimes for future generations. It's interesting to study, and something I'd like to get more into.

There is a list of exhaustive proportions as well, divvying generations up by name, class, and cycle. Really, really cool. As with the previous day, Dad disappeared when I was talking with Maxim.

Maxim's book sounds great, I just wish I actually had the wherewithal to purchase a copy! I'm not one to shill for anybody, you all know this, but he emailed me after the conference and asked if I was interested in using his books for any classes I was teaching. I explained that I was about to graduate and go on to an MA program, but I was flattered he thought I was an instructor.

But this got me thinking, and this is more something that set in post-conference than immediately after: Professor Michael McGerr (a true gem of a professor at IU) is a member of the Baby Boom. Glenn Gass is, too. Both teach on the history and music, respectively, of the 1960's. I grew up in the 1990's, viewing it from a safe distance contemporaneously, and now able to look back and do some critical thinking. Who's to say I wouldn't one day do a class on the history/music of the 1990's? Just a seed of an idea, left to germinate in the old greenhouse between my ears...

In the exact same room, there was a panel on the topic of humor. The other three lecturers could have gone up and done jumping jacks for 20 minutes for all I cared - the one I was there to see dealt with Frank Zappa's use of humor and its relationship to the carnivalesque. It would turn out the other speakers were great, too, just like the guy who talked about Tom Stoppard alongside the Beatles fan the day before.

My ears perked up when the speaker said she did her Master's thesis on Frank Zappa. Naturally, I made a b-line towards her after the panel, in sync with Dad pulling yet another disappearing act. I told her I'd gotten into grad school and I, too, planned on studying Zappa. My only real question on the subject: "Did you have to deal with Gail?" The answer was no. Thank God. For me, this was pretty much a green light to do Zappa in my MA studies.

Basically what I'm saying is that by Friday afternoon, I had the next year or so of my academic career mapped out.

Part Five: Mommy, Wow, I'm A Big Kid Now!

This part is almost sheer anecdotal drivel. At dinner, I ordered a strawberry daiquiri, since it was only a dollar (and as it turned out, in a cup that is too small for my average number one - see previous entry for info on the number system for bodily functions). But Dad ordered a Sam Adams - it wasn't like Wednesday, where he ordered what I ordered. He actually ordered a beer!

I know, I know, "52 year old man enjoys a beer in New Orleans," stop the presses. Maybe it's not such a big deal...for you. When I was really little, I think I saw him drink beer once in a while. Mom had the occasional wine spritzer. Then, they just...stopped. We were told underage drinking led to nothing short than death or teen pregnancy like most other Baptist families. I was floored Mom was fine with me ordering an Irish coffee on my 21st birthday.

So yeah, it was a little (and by a little I mean VERY) weird to be sharing a drink with my old man. I felt like a grown-up.

Part Six: A New Friend
That night, Dad turned in almost alarmingly early. I think there was a bit of unconscious bad blood because I had decided I was not going to go to Muncie for Easter at the church where Nick is a youth leader...again, something that set in later. At the time, it was more like, "He's a little...strange, don't you think?" I had initially thought he was in a good mood until he realized how much things were costing. I did feel bad about that, and tried to order as cheap as possible.

My objective, once Dad went to bed - since I had no intention of sleeping at 10 PM - was pretty simple. Here we are, at an academic conference. I'm rubbing shoulders with experts and people on the way to being experts in all sorts of areas of popular culture. Surely I could meet somebody who could make for an enlightening till dawn type of company?

I talked to Shelley for about an hour and a half, hoping I'd see Tom, Maxim, Eric (see Adventures In Academia, Part One for more as to which of the multitude of guys named Eric I've met that I'm talking about), the dude who complimented my Zappa shirt on Thursday wander through the lobby...someone? Anyone? Near the end of my conversation, I told Shelley I saw someone I sort of knew - the guy and girl who had bummed me a clove cigarette the night before - and figured I might as well drum up a conversation somehow.

This may come as a shock to you, but I can at times be cripplingly shy. Put me in a situation where I don't know anyone and I could very well be over in the corner, gulping down my fifth cup of lemonade. It's because of this that I didn't quit smoking when Katrina dumped me in September of 2005. I realized it was a great way to start up chit-chat that invariably turned into friendships.

(As a complete side-note, if I hadn't been smoking with some buddies outside Wright in November 2005, I wouldn't have seen Sarah Murto, I wouldn't have asked her to prank call Johnson and ask for phone sex, I wouldn't have gone up to her room after to thank her for making my evening, and I wouldn't have met her roommate, who was a cute little girl with magenta-colored hair and red-framed glasses named Shelley.)

I made a promise to myself: I was several states away from what I call home, Shelley was nowhere to be found, I didn't know a soul in that lobby, so I was going to go up and just start talking to someone. Anyone who was there and up at 1 AM was clearly an attendee of the conference; that alone could be a topic of discussion. So I walked up to this pair and ask if they had any more cloves. No, they had just run out. The girl offered us her pack of cigarettes - which, had I know what was to follow, I would have accepted gladly - but we passed, taking just one each.

His name was Joseph. He hailed from North Carolina, but was attending school as an MA student in San Francisco. His lecture was on Wednesday, on Stephen King. He reminded me a lot of Graham, in a good way in that our professional interests may not overlap, but we both love learning so damn much that we enjoy hearing about it. (Graham's majoring in Linguistics, for example.)

A basic question of "What's grad school like?" was happily answered. There's more reading and more writing, but it's in areas you're interested in. I can't complain about that. I'm not saying I won't eventually, because school can be stress-inducing, but it's a lot less daunting. We also had a lot in common with our fields of study. He had professors saying his critical and analytical approach is well-founded...but he's still writing/talking about Stephen King. I've had just the same problem - and will continue to, I'm sure - with rock and roll music.

"Why rock and roll history? Why The Kinks? Why Frank Zappa?"
I swear to God, if I get these questions again from someone under the age of 65 I'll break a bottle over their head. I'll tell you why - it's fucking relevant, that's why! The same reasons we discuss the poetry of T.S. Eliot or the music of Bach, Beethoven, or Chopin - that's fucking why! If no one does it, they'll be lost forever!

Joseph didn't ask that question - nor did I ask him the same thing about horror films/literature. When we told the other what we spoke on, the mutual reaction was, "Oh, cool!" Another problem we've both had is past examples of criticism/analysis of our respective interests. For me, it's people who will write at great lengths about how bitchin' somebody's guitar solo is, paying no mind to the lyrics - plenty of books of that caliber out there. For Joseph, it's horror fans who are more interested in the depictions of gore and violence than what the films are trying to say.

We both agreed, yes, it's fine to praise the aesthetic qualities of the work...ok, you know what? I'll just say what he said, so much less boring than me:
"Of course I notice the gore in the movies - but it's one of those things you talk about in the theater when you see it happening in the movie! It's not something you write about in your review of the movie!"
(See what I mean?)

But no, I knew exactly what he meant. We shared some of our life experiences, swapped emails, and before we knew it the sun was coming up so we called it a night/morning. There's those one-off bonding experiences you have with someone that produces just as fruitful of a bond as a friendship that has lasted years. I hope I'll see him again, whether it's just once or twice a year at conferences, or if luck will have it we'll find ourselves living in the same city at some point in the future.

For my readers - have you ever had something like this happen to you?

Whatever the case, it made for a great ending to this little story arc that started back in August when Tom invited me to the conference.

Epilogue: The Dark Horse Goes South
As we were driving up Canal Street from the hotel to the Interstate, I decided to ask Dad what was up with him vanishing after the panels. His answer was honest, and more than a little touching:
"This was your thing, I didn't want to get in the way."
My natural response was to say, "But you wouldn't have," but I didn't. Let's be real a way, he would have. Anyone would have, whether my guest had been Eric (brother), Shelley, or Mom. Whatever conversation I was having with whoever would have turned into "The program sounds really exciting, I've heard great things about Boston - Oh! This is my fiance, Shelley. She's a Kinks fan, too..." or "Oh! This is my father, Eric. He's a Kinks fan, too."

Is there any way to get this point across without sounding like a dick? I knew what he meant.

Dad was a little feisty on the drive to the airport, frustrated at the traffic and the markings for the car rental place being so bad. I hadn't gone on a proper family vacation since Los Angeles in 2005 - that was a real shit-shower in and of itself, with (don't laugh) Mom telling me to shut up because I thought the Californian landscape was beautiful but she thought was ugly, and that I only claimed to like it because she didn't...mind you, this was the vacation to celebrate my graduation from high school - and thus hadn't really seen "Dad mad at traffic" for the better part of four years.

What was once intimidating, and subsequently rubbed off on me for years afterward as a practitioner of low-level road rage, I saw now as just...stupid. We had plenty of time, we weren't getting charged by the mile, we'd used up maybe a gallon of gas, so where's the fire? Though I'd mellowed out as a driver since quitting my job at the mall, I've made a conscious effort after getting back to just take it easy. We're all going to get to where we're headed eventually. If you're an extra ten minutes late, who cares?

He wasn't a happy camper at the airline desk, either, having to print out our tickets and what-not. I kept thinking, just mellow out, we aren't late, and it's just a stupid policy. Joseph walked by, tapping me on the shoulder and saying hello - I tried introducing him to Dad, but in his struggle with the ticket machine barely muttered "Hi, how you doing." I bid Joseph safe travels, and we parted ways. Oddly enough, he was changing planes in Dallas before going to San Francisco. Strange how these things work out.

On our way into the airport, I was treated to a free slice of physical comedy. One of the security agents, fat, mustachioed, and all-around dumb looking decided - for reasons completely unknown to me - to kick the rope barricade around the baggage check. (You know the kind I'm talking about? They use it to cordon off bathrooms - sort of a poor man's velvet rope - they also have it at movie theaters now.) The rope became unfastened and snapped back to the pole, but the dumbass had kicked his leg too high and landed flat on his back. Adding insult to injury his phone came out of his pocket and broke into several pieces.

I'm still laughing about it now.

Both flights - to Chicago, then to Indy - Dad didn't talk. I can't help but wonder what was on his mind. It had to have been my not attending Easter services in Muncie. Mom and Dad had both told me Nick would be giving the sermon, while the rest of the service would be put on by his youth group. I'm not against showing support, but
1.) I hate Muncie.
2.) Really? Church? I don't even like going to church in Seymour, going to one in Muncie just compounds this.
3.) I decided in advance to factor in that I was probably not going to be sleeping much Friday night. Lo and behold, I went to bed at 6 AM and woke up at 10. I would not have been much fun due to lack of sleep...then factor in numbers one and two.
4.) Honestly, I really just wanted to sleep in my own bed.
5.) I missed Shelley. She sure as Hell wasn't about to share a car ride with my mom from Bloomington to Muncie, she had a paper to do and I had her laptop. So I would have been flying solo.
6.) Going from an academic conference in 80 degree weather to a complete shit-hole of a town in Indiana that, if memory serves, was enjoying weather in the balmy 40's was not my idea of a good time on any level.

(Eric [my brother] told me Nick's "sermon" was little more than a quick "Thank you all for coming this morning" speech, less than five minutes, and that the service itself ran around a half an hour. Nick and Mom we apparently in dour moods, Nick in particular acting like he couldn't be bothered. Oh, yes, and Mom brought Lily - yes, the family dog - with her. So she had to be dealt with in the car. Seriously.)

After we landed in Indy, I thanked Dad for coming along and witnessing what I considered a pivotal point in my life, between getting into grad school and being there when I read the email to seeing me speak, etc. I also thanked him for covering the expenses and making everything happen.

He told me he was going to walk to where he parked - I needed to take the shuttle to my lot - so he gave me enough money to cover the price for parking and as I stood waiting for the shuttle, he just said, "See ya!" and was gone. No "I love you," no "Take care," no hug, no "I'm really proud of you"...nothing.

I popped Tommy into the CD player of the PT Cruiser and got home right in time for the fade-out of "Listening To You". Perfect timing. Have I ever mentioned that album ranks as one of the all-time best night driving albums? No? Well, it is.

Other than the really odd ending, this really was a life-changing experience. When I told Glenn about it the next Tuesday, all he could say was, "Well, welcome to the world of academia!" Leave it to Glenn to sum it up perfectly. And what a welcome.


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