Friday, November 16, 2018

Part XI: The Way Mike Worked -- The long road to a career as arts administrator

Arts administrator.

Nice alliterative term. Features the noun arts, which we all know is a right-brain function, with administrator, which is decidedly left brain. I always felt that I had some of the left and some of the right. I wasn't artistic, but I did enjoy the arts, as in the kind of art you see at galleries and museums and that which you see on stage in the form of theatre and music. My music tastes were shaped by the '60s and '70s, preferring rock and roll to the classical, what used to be called "longhair music" before there were actual long-haired hippies rocking out to Led Zep. My father loved classical music and played the loud stuff: Beethoven and Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky and Ravel. 

Dad loved the bagpipes.The only concert he ever took me to was the Black Watch, the military band that used to scare hell out of Native Africans, Afghans, and any other peoples the Brits yearned to subdue. He played bagpipe records too, probably to escape a house filled with squabbling kids and a frazzled wife. I was usually reading. I can still read when it's noisy. All through my childhood, my father played his stereo at night.

While studying creative writing at CSU in the late '80s, I supposed that I would teach if my fiction didn't start bringing in the dough. I was a teaching assistant, teaching freshman comp and eventually, creative writing to the young and restless. Much to my chagrin, I discovered that an M.F.A. in 1990 could land you a teaching job at a community college and maybe as a college adjunct. But I set my aims higher. I applied to colleges and universities all over the U.S. I snagged a couple in-person interviews, too, at the Modern Language Association conference in late December in Chicago. They bore no fruit. Too cold. I didn't stay at the conference hotel right by the waterfront but one that I could afford a few blocks away. 

During the three-day event, I encountered many young people engaged in the job search and, when they had a few minutes, attending some of the pedagogy sessions. I went to a few of those. The one I remember best featured Chicago hard-boiled crime writer Sara Paretsky. I'd read a few of her books and she was fascinating and funny. She talked about the movie being made based on her novels, V.I. Warshawski starring Kathleen Turner. She cracked up the audience when she told how the male director tried to talk Turner into showing a bit more skin as she battled the bad guys. Paretsky wondered then if Hollywood might not be ready for a female private eye. The talk filled me with joy until I again ventured outside into the snow and wind. I'd been living in Colorado for 12 years and knew snow and cold and wind. But there was something evil in the wind that howled off of Lake Michigan. 

In 1991, I was 40 and possibly unemployable. I started thinking that I might have to go back to the corporate world. I was broke and had a family to support. What to do?

That's when I started thinking of life as a working artist. The prospect filled me with dread and by the spring I was up to my cerebral cortex in depression. I'd been depressed before but never like this. I couldn't sleep and couldn't concentrate in class. We took off for a spring break trip to Tucson. I sat in the back seat; Chris and Kevin sat up front.  At one rest stop in New Mexico, I bolted off into the scrub, headed for God-knows-where. Eventually I stopped and returned to the car. Chris and Kevin were concerned. I was just a bundle of angst.

It wasn't much of a spring break. My psyche broke, or was breaking. On our way home, we stopped for the night at a cheap motel in Albuquerque. I was created a few miles away in 1950 after my newlywed parents partied in Old Town and then went back to their cramped apartment and had sex. It was about this time of year, too, mid-March, when the crab apple trees were trying to bloom and snowstorms collided with the Sandias. That was happening right this moment, the mountains squeezing fat snowflakes out of a Pacific Low. In my angst-ridden state, I didn't feel like driving or doing much of anything Elsie but hunkering down to wait out the Apocalypse. We waited through two nights. And on the third day, I arose from my somnambulist state and drove us the 500 miles back to Fort Collins. In this state of anxiety, my heart raced and I imagined scary things that would never come to pass. If one snowflake fell, by God, I was going to park this thing and never get out. But it didn't and I didn't. My wife wondered if I had flipped my lid. My son was confused by Dad"s odd behavior. We got home, eventually.

At this point, my experience with therapy consisted of three talk sessions with a therapist in training at UF Health Services. I was 26 and had just broken up with a long-time girlfriend or she had broken up with me. I was depressed and confused. After walking by the Health Services building a half-dozen times, I went in and asked for an appointment. I met with a guy who may have been younger than me, and we chatted. I quit after three sessions because I started to feel better. Not really -- spring was in full bloom and I found many outdoor things to do including spring break at the beach. Nothing like a little suds and sand and surf to ease a person's psyche or at least preoccupy it.

Back to 1991... A week after the trip to Phoenix, I was in the office of the campus psychiatrist.  A real shrink, not one-in-training. He sized me up pretty quickly and put me on a small dose of Prozac, a mind-altering drug. He warned me that it would take a month or more for me to feel its effects. I asked him about any unwanted side effects. Reduced libido, dry mouth, weight gain. I figured I could live with all of those, for a short time at least.

On a nice spring day, a guy I knew from my Denver church shot down his estranged wife in front of her workplace and then killed himself. The Denver Post article about it said that the killer had been under the care of a psychiatrist and was taking Prozac. Experts quoted in the article debated the pluses and minuses of the drug known generically as Fluoxetine. I read all of it but didn't have to as I knew that Prozac was involved. During our next session, I asked the psychiatrist about dangerous side effects such as murder. He took my question seriously but advised me to be cautious when reading about antidepressants because a lot of misinformation was circulating and the Internet was in its infancy. I stuck with the program and gradually, as spring turned to summer, I began to feel better.

I signed up for the arts education project at the Colorado Council for the Arts (now Colorado Creative Industries). They planned to send me to a small town in eastern Colorado for a semester to teach writing in the mornings and model my writing skills in the afternoon. I'd get paid a stipend and would stay at a teacher's house. I could see my family on weekends.

That summer, I worked on my thesis, taught composition at AIMS Community College in Greeley, and served  as the English Department rep to the CSU Fine Arts Committee.  I learned how to stage events, some of them quite big. I was charged with bringing writers to campus. Over the course of 18 months, I worked with Gwendolyn Brooks, Etheridge Knight, Maya Angelou, Linda Hogan, David Lee, Larry Heinemann, and others. It was a thrill to meet some of the writers I had read. As I shepherded them around campus, I had some one-on-one time with them, asked them about their work, tried to get tips to help my own writing.

I brought Etheridge Knight to the Larimer County Jail where he coaxed a group of inmates to try out their poetic voices. Knight had been a jailbird himself, and a heroin addict after being wounded in the Korean War. He spoke from a deep well of experience. I spoke to Heinemann about the voice he used in Paco's Story, winner of the National Book Award. When I picked the novel off of the library shelves, I was hooked by the voice, a dead grunt who addresses a man named just "James" ("This ain't no war story, James") and narrates Paco's tale in a "sad and bitter voice." I took David Lee on a tour of his old dorm which now served as offices for me and my fellow teaching assistants.  It was a thrill listening to the diminutive Brooks reciting the "We Real Cool" poem that's included in almost every 20th century poetry anthology:

All of this took time away from my writing and classes. But it was this experience that led me to my 25-year career as an arts administrator.

You just never know where life will lead you. 

No comments: