I'm avoiding watching any Rodney Dangerfield movies.
It's ten years since the last time and I've gone back to school, so Rodney and his unavoidable fish-out-of-water-in-college slapstick classic looms large, but I'm just not ready for him yet. Although I worked as a writer and editor for the past decade, I've never had a writing class, so I joke that I'm finally going to learn how to write. This kills my friends, but sails past my new co-students, whose blank faces seems to say "Well, yes, we're all here to learn to write." Anyway I'm ecstatic: We'll do "writing exercises," I figure. We'll read about writing, and talk about writing, and read each other's writing. We'll take years to write a single chapter: To a journalist, even contemplating such focus is luxurious; absolutely the deadliner's equivalent of bonbons in a bubble bath. Study! We'll actually study writing, instead of just spitting it out.
But first, I have to physically get there. First I have to wade through a bureaucracy, fight crowds, have my picture taken, find the classroom. In these endeavors Rodney threatens to rear his bug-eyed head, because in spite of my best totally grown-up preparations, I find myself lost on campus with minutes to go before class starts. The building in front of me has no sign. Is it the one I'm looking for? I can't tell, but the building in front of me is connected (why?) to another building, one properly identified but not an exact match with the map I'm holding. Laugh track! She's going to have to ask an undergraduate, and you know how they like to hang their butt cheeks outside their pants these days! Can I say "ugg" and leave it to mean more than boots? Young people think everyone wants them, wants to be them, wants plastic surgery to be like them. They literally have no idea how much we want to avoid them.
Later, on my way to the student store, I stop suddenly. "How do people take notes these days?" is a question I will have to ask when I get there. Everything about the question is wrong: It's oversimple, and anyone I could ask would be saddened. Using the phrase "these days" is cartoonish. Besides, if the answer is "People take notes on a computer," then I have to buy a new computer, and I don't want a new computer.
Think: How many old people in your college classes seemed not to know they were old? In spite of the unending stream of a) "You're too young to remember _______" and b) "I'm so old?" I have done these things, for which I'm truly sorry. But I just didn't know I was old.
Luckily, in the student store, it's clear nothing has changed in ten years. Nothing. People take notes on paper, it's obvious, which they keep in books, folders, three-ring binders, or in spiral-bound notebooks they bought here or at a drug store. The more pretentious of us use name-brand journals that have ribbon markers and elegant elastic closures. This is the same as it was hundreds of years ago, let alone ten. Furthermore, using ball-point ink to befoul the pages of a book is still the best way to make that book, that paper book, into an instrument of study. In a final show of reassurance, the bookstore yields the fact that no sticky-note innovations have happened in ten years: not even the colors are new. Rodney Dangerfield slumps against a bookshelf, wipes his brow, looks into the camera. "Whew, ya know what I mean?"
One of my classes somehow has a poet in it, even though I am studying creative nonfiction. "What if we worship books so much we couldn't dream of writing in one?" the poet asks. The professor is so nice to him. "If you would like to use sticky notes, or if you would like to use a very light touch with a pencil, you can do that, and then erase your marks later," he says. "But you must hold and mark up your books in this class. No - " and the word "fucking" is implied so hard it's essentially audible " - e-readers. You must be holding a marked-up book when you come to this class."
Inter-genre philosophical differences aside, we're in it together, my classmates and I. We want to read about writing, and talk about writing, and read each other's writing. I love them each unreasonably, admire and adore them, am forced to stop myself from plotting to help them. "I've gone to a lot of war-poet readings," says a modern-art-obsessed veteran of two tours in Iraq. A woman who came to San Francisco directly from her undergraduate work at St. Olaf's (The one from The Golden Girls!) went to Cuba to find her grandfather's grave, but never found it. How will she write about all that? We get to find out, and I feel lucky. Standing in hallways holding books and papers brings an epiphanic sense of boat-sharing I think I missed last time; it's epic, in moments. Each of us is contained in a skin only ours! Yet we're much the same, and huddled under the selfsame fluorescents! In our program, we've come from near and far and feel as though we're at the same time one and many. It feels like home.
Let's go out for a drink because we're one and many. I'll point at you across the room, and make a circle in the air with my finger, indicating "gather your people." You'll mouth "Where?" and I'll wrack my brains to think of somewhere to sit, drink, and be able to hear each other all at the same time. When we get there we'll talk so fast and so much we'll pretend to ourselves we don't have to pee because we don't want to miss anything anyone says. It will feel like a new home.
I'm still the eminence grise around here, though. If I had forgotten about Rodney, a friendly bartender can help. He's seen us come in, seen us dropping our coats and digging into wallets to storm his fortress and he initiates offensive strategies. Charging into our very midst, barkeep calmly and with the concentration needed to spot a fake asks for our identification, the proof that we are, one and many, old enough to drink. He takes cards, examines them carefully -- many are from out of state -- and nods solemnly. You're good. You're good. Thank you. With his head down, he doesn't realize he's got my ID now, so the laugh comes unexpectedly. It doesn't stop as he looks up at me, himself fifteen years my junior. "Oh my GOD," he says, "that's hilarious." I can't get no respect, but no matter. I'm here to learn how to write.
is a San Francisco based writer. She was born in Moffitt Hospital at the UCSF Medical Center, but grew up in a mobile home on a farm in hippie country, now called wine country. Some people think this makes her a San Francisco native, and some don't.