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I try not to ponder, very often, the irrelevance of a MFA in creative writing. I try not to picture myself emerging at the end of my schooling in my mid-thirties, qualified only for the same soul-suffocating jobs I’ve worked my entire life. I try not to dwell on the fact that, like a PhD, a MFA is considered a “terminal” degree, a hopeless disease for which I’ll spend a few years studying.

Many years ago a MFA may have helped the writer land a college-level teaching position. But those days are long gone. More and more schools are discovering that a graduate writing program can be a dependable source of revenue, and like the algae that spread over my neglected childhood aquarium these programs have proliferated. I counted twenty-six ads for MFA programs in the most recent issue of “Poets and Writers” magazine, each ad promising that aspiring writers such as myself will “find your voice”. And with each new program more over-educated writers are let loose upon the choked marketplace.

Publication, along with education, has become the new minimum qualification for college-level teaching jobs. A well-regarded book or two will get you a job faster than any degree.

I don’t even know if I’d like teaching. I haven’t had the experience. But since teaching is one of the few career paths available to the writer, I often wonder lately if I’d make a helpful presence at the front of a classroom, or if my anxieties about everything I don’t know would cause me to jerk about like a demented puppet before the bewildered students.

The other night I dreamt, for the first time, that I was a teacher. Or that I was trying to teach. There’s a difference. I dreamt that I was teaching writing to a group of young boys. There were only ten students, proof that it was just a fantasy. About five of them were actually paying attention to me. This seemed like good odds for the situation, so I was working it to the best of my ability.

My agenda for the class was to teach them about adverbs and adjectives. One of the most common pieces of writing advice given out is that strong sentences contain as few of each as possible. A little websurfing brought me to a decent example. First, the bad sentence:

“Making a strange high-pitched noise, the small figure moved very awkwardly away from the dead body of his master.”

Then the better sentence: “Squealing, the dwarf stumbled from his master’s corpse.”

There are exceptions to this rule, of course, but for beginning students it’s a pretty safe concept to introduce. In the dream I passed around copies of a book review written by a former student.

“Now what I want you to do,” I said, walking among the desks, ” is to cut out all of the superfluous words.” The few boys who were paying attention to me furrowed their brows. I kept repeating these directions, over-pronouncing “superfluous” as if through careful diction I could impart the meaning. “Cross out all of the words that aren’t necessary. Cross out the adjectives and the adverbs.” I was warming up, determined to mold this motley gang into a disciplined group of young Hemingways. “We’re pruning each sentence like a tree, down to its essence. So if the sentence reads ‘The brown dog barked crazily,’ then we edit till it reads, simply, ‘The dog barked’.”

Meanwhile strange events were unfolding. As I wandered among the desks I noticed that the class was changing behind my back. I’d turn to find that more students and desks had sprouted up behind me. And the students themselves were growing older, bit by bit, till the class was comprised almost entirely of adults, some of whom I knew in real life. One second there’d be a half-empty row of fidgeting preadolescents. The next second I’d turn to find the row full of friends and co-workers. Bearbait, dressed smartly in a black shirt, was bent over his desk, pencil in hand, staring at the sheet of paper and its paragraph.

I circled the class like a seasoned pro. But anxieties were devouring me from within. Who was I to teach anything? I was walking a tightrope; with each uncertain step my arms pinwheeled for balance. I paced about with a queasy smile frozen around my words, convinced that if I just kept moving nobody could pin me down as a fraud.

“Superfluous,” I repeated.

A few minutes passed like this, the students slashing away at the paragraph before them, the desks filling behind my back with older students. When I had decided that enough time had passed, I asked Bearbait to read his edited paragraph. He reddened slightly and glared at me. I pleaded silently with him. I needed to make him an example. He glanced down at his page and began to read aloud hesitantly. And as he read I realized, with regret, that he had succeeded at the task. He had crossed out all of the adverbs and adjectives. He was not helping. I needed a mistake to demonstrate the principle, but he was giving me none. Until the end, when he read aloud the last sentence; “I enjoyed this excellent book.”

“A ha!” I cried out in spite of myself. I took his mistake and ran for it. “What word needs to be cut in that last sentence, class?” Bearbait blushed again and I turned away from his reproach. The class was quiet, but I felt a palpable energy from them, a hunger of sorts. Each of them toed the line of their uncertainty. I turned slowly, scanning the class. And now every desk was occupied. It was standing room only. They watched me expectantly, their numbers increasing with each of my deliberate steps. And I realized, with a start, that underneath my nerves something thrummed, something threadbare yet alive. I turned, withholding the answer for another second, pride tearing through my desperate disguise.

The other day, while waiting at Burgermeister for my to-go order, I picked up the local gay rag, paging through it distractedly. And there among the ubiquitous phone sex ads was something a little different:


We represent a handsome GWM HIV-, age 51, 6’0″ with brown hair and eyes with a muscular build. As a physician in San Francisco, he loves travel, good food, volunteering, independent films and dogs. He’s looking for a man in his 30’s to 40’s, slim, energetic, and adventurous. Are you warm, caring and spiritually aware? If you enjoy watching pro football that’s a plus! Respond to Ad Code 2663. (Never a charge to respond – FREE).

Find him at:

Free memberships to exceptional men ages 21-35.

Yeah, right. Like he actually volunteers.

We are now officially as lame as straight people. Yay, team.

Party in the Comments

Last week at a restaurant I saw some graffiti in the bathroom. It read:

If one does not love too much, then one does not love enough.

Underneath someone else had scrawled Shut Up.

Thank you, I thought.

Tonight I came home to find several e-mails waiting for me. I think it must mean something (I don’t know what) that I rarely get e-mails from people disagreeing with something I’ve written, or being just plain rude. It probably just means that I write more about personal and not political issues.

Interestingly enough, I wrote a much longer draft of yesterday’s post, a draft that dealt more with the Reagan/AIDS issue that is currently raging through blogdom. Between sentences I was surfing, reading other bloggers’ opinions, other editorials, other message boards. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that I’ve never seen such a heated debate (that’s the polite word). Seems like Reagan’s death has pulled scabs off old wounds, wounds that never healed quite right.

It’s easy to stay within my little blog-buddy circle and think that most bloggers have similar political beliefs as I do. But that’s such a fallacy. Just a little Googling of Reagan and AIDS will prove otherwise. After reading so many articulate opinions on either side of the debate, I got a little overwhelmed, and confused. And in the end I think it’s fair to say that I was a coward, and I deleted most of my post and quoted someone else.

Obviously some of the people who e-mailed me tonight disagreed with Michael Bronski, the man I quoted. Some people thought it was rude (or undemocratic, even) for me not to have comments enabled on my site, where they could tell me what they thought of my indirect opinions. A couple of people called me names. One person questioned the veracity of my relationship with Alfredo, the guy in Nicaragua who was killed. Which was strange, as that had nothing to do with my point (which was that Reagan broke the law and was not, in my book, a hero). But it still stung.

Here’s the thing about comments: I used to have them. And I used to love them. I checked them constantly, and I gauged the worth of that day’s writing by the response I got. Or the lack of response. Then I started to have technical problems with the comments, and I went through a few weeks of trying various applications with mixed results. But I think the final straw came when I posted this rather long, very heartfelt story that I had poured much of my energy and emotional self into. And later I checked the comments where someone had written “Oh my God! I USED TO LIVE IN MINNESOTA TOO!!!”

That was it. That was when I realized that I had comments for all the wrong reasons.

It was painful, for awhile, to live without them, to not have them to check in on, to not have them as validation for my efforts. But eventually I came to appreciate the simplicity of my site. And I appreciated that having to respond by e-mail made the conversations I had with others more interesting and insightful. It may be more honest to say that I’m probably just a control freak, and I don’t want inane comments tainting my precious site. Sorry, folks, this is a Cheerocracy.

Maybe it is undemocratic of me to express my opinion without letting others comment. But frankly this whole issue illustrates why I am drawn more and more to books, where the author has the space and the time to create a little world, or an extended argument, books that allow for depth of detail and insight rare in the Land of Short Attention Spans. Books that deal with ambiguity. With the author’s own weaknesses or questionable motives. I’m just so tired of everyone on the Internet always being so RIGHT. Myself included. I hate writing short posts, which is where I almost always falter on my soapbox, or soak in my own pretentious sentimentality. I write short posts so that people won’t think I’ve quit blogging. So they’ll keep reading. Which is fucked up. Yesterday’s post didn’t do justice to the thoughts and feelings I really have about Reagan and AIDS. After all, I wrote my undergraduate thesis on the “Sociological Effects of AIDS on Gay Men”, back in 1993 (when I was a tad precocious. Unlike today). So a few sentences won’t work. I’m beginning to realize that I’m not particularly well-suited to the Internet, as much as I love its freedom.

Here I am, back on the soapbox. Time to climb down and get some sleep. Nite, Johnboy.

Dangerous Curve Ahead

I tend to have one or two close friendships, rather than a wide circle. More than one or two and I begin to feel a little too spread thin. But for those one or two friendships I’ll devote myself wholeheartedly. This tendency of mine to put all my eggs in one basket has its serious disadvantages; during times of conflict, for example, which are bound to happen when one focuses so intently on another. Or worse, when one of us moves away. My best buddy Brian moved down to L.A. yesterday, and I’m more than a little bummed. I won’t have our Monday and Friday and Saturday and the occasional Sunday nights to look forward to anymore. I’m a creature of habit, more than I care to admit, and those conversations over a cheap dinner in the Castro sustained me over the last year and a half. I know I’m moving to New York in a couple of months, and I know we’ll stay friends, but I’ve got that stupid Bananarama song “Cruel Summer” in my head. The flipside to the disadvantages, of course, is that such a good friendship pays off enormous dividends. Brian is like a brother to me, such that for once the words fail me.

Most of the time I’m damn excited about the life headed my way. But every day I get a glimpse of it, the enormity of the change, and I think oh my God…

Cowboy of Denial

My students ask me how all of this could have happened. They are all smart, they understand politics, they understand the fear of AIDS, they understand how complicated and confusing history and life can be. But they cannot understand such indifference, even when politically motivated. I told one of my students that the most memorable Reagan AIDS moment for me was at the 1986 centenary rededication of the Statue of Liberty. The Reagans were there sitting next to French President Francois Mitterand and his wife, Danielle. Bob Hope was on stage entertaining the all-star audience. In the middle of a series of one-liners Hope quipped, “I just heard that the Statue of Liberty has AIDS but she doesn’t know if she got it from the mouth of the Hudson or the Staten Island Fairy.” As the television camera panned the audience, the Mitterands looked appalled. The Reagans were laughing. -Michael Bronski, The Truth About Reagan and AIDS

My first reaction, upon hearing of Reagan’s death on Saturday, was oh great, now we have to hear about how wonderful he was for the next month.

Of course my resentment against Reagan is personal. His administration secretly sold arms to Iran and used the money to fund the Contras in Nicaragua, an army that was extremely unpopular in that country. I know everyone’s sick of hearing it, but I visited Nicaragua a couple of times in high school, which is where I had my first crush, a 17 year old boy who was later killed by the Contras. I don’t think “hero” when I hear Reagan’s name. On the contrary, he makes my stomach turn.