“And thereby hangs a tale.”

  • Living in the Shadow of Affirmative Action

    January 24, 2016, by

    Perhaps because I am not Caucasian. some friends and colleagues have been asking for my opinion on the broiling brouhaha over the whitewashed Oscar nominations for 2016.  To one such query, I replied cryptically, “People should stop whining, and just get on with it.”   Not surprisingly, my politically incorrect response was met with uncomfortable silence.  Truth of the matter is, I have kept quiet about my own encounters with affirmative action for thirty years.  I have managed to “get on with it,” but I think perhaps the time has now come for me to tell my story.

    Up till the mid-1980s, I was content to be a “lecturer” in the English department at the University of Kansas, because the half-time appointment gave me a lot of time to pursue my own writing.  However, being on half-time also meant that mine was not a tenure-track position, that there were only a limited number of courses I was allowed to teach, mostly classes in Freshman/Sophomore Composition & Rhetoric,  with “Introduction to Drama” occasionally thrown in as a reward.  This went on for a number of years, and then an opportunity presented itself in the mid-1980s.  There was suddenly an opening for a creative writing position in the department.

    Although I was known at that time primarily as a playwright, having written nine plays, one of which had been presented at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and two of which had been produced Off-Broadway in New York, I had also already published a collection of my earlier, prize-winning short fiction.  Out of curiosity, I asked the chair of the department if I should apply for the creative writing position, because I could teach playwriting as well as fiction.  “Why not?”  he smiled amiably.  “You have all the right qualifications.  Besides, it would make Affirmative Action happy.”  Although I was startled by his remark, I tried not to dwell on it.  So I applied for the position, submitting all the necessary documents required—samples of my work, reviews from the press, student evaluations, letters of recommendations from peers and colleagues, etc.

    Weeks went by. I heard that there were a lot of applications from all over the country, but that the committee in charge had narrowed down the list of candidates to six, who were all going to be interviewed at the MLA convention in December.  My name was not on the list, but I was told that I was still being considered.  “Should I go to the MLA convention in Chicago?” I asked.  “No need,” a member of the committee reassured me.  “We know all about you and your accomplishments, so there is no need for us to interview you.”

    At the start of the spring semester in January, the department was told that two of the applicants who had been interviewed in Chicago were being invited for campus visits for further scrutiny and evaluation.  No more was said about my application, so I simply assumed, quite correctly, that I was no longer being considered.  The two candidates who were brought in were Carolyn Doty and Tom Lorenz, both of whom were novelists.  When their campus visits were over, the department was overjoyed to learn that the administrators in Strong Hall had been so impressed by both Carolyn and Tom, they had decided the department could hire both of them, even though only one position had been advertised.

    Another couple of years went by.  After I turned 44 and had given up all hope of ever teaching anything beyond Freshman/Sophomore Composition & Rhetoric, with “Introduction to Drama” occasionally thrown in as a reward, K.U. had a new chancellor, Robert Hemenway, who was very concerned about the lack of diversity among the faculty.  He sent out word that anyone of color who was already on the periphery at the university, should be brought into the fold quickly, bypassing the usual national search.  The same English department chair who had encouraged me to make Affirmative Action happy, now took it upon himself to champion my cause with the new chancellor.  Thus, in 1989, I stopped being a “lecturer,” and became a legitimate tenure-track professor at K.U.  Another lecturer with whom I had been friendly, a lesbian from Australia who was also a novelist, confronted me at a party shortly afterwards and said drunkenly, “I may be the right gender, but my skin is the wrong color, and my eyes are the wrong shape.”  I don’t know how many others in the department shared her opinion.

    So that’s how I was hired, in my mind not because I was good or because I had invaluable experience to offer my potential students in creative writing, but because I was a person of color whose presence on the faculty would prove that the University of Kansas was a colorful oasis.  Feeling very much like a second-class citizen, I was determined to prove my worth by working harder than anyone in the department.  In 1989, when all this happened, I convinced my good friend Grant Goodman to fund not only the first Asian-American Festival at the University of Kansas, bringing in an astonishing array of Asian-American artists and scholars for a week-long celebration the likes of which has never been rivaled at the university, but also the creation of English Alternative Theatre (EAT) to produce the plays yet to be written by my future playwriting students.  Sometime in the early 1990s, Carolyn Doty took me aside and said, “Stop doing so much.  You make the rest of us look bad.”  In the intervening years, even though I have won every single teaching award the University of Kansas has to offer, it never seems enough, because the feeling of being a second-class citizen has never gone away.

    When I finally decided to retire in 2010, there was a great deal of controversy in the English department as to whether another playwriting teacher should be hired to replace me.  By then, Carolyn Doty had died, and Tom Lorenz argued very persuasively that there were more students interested in fiction writing than in playwriting, so it was more important to hire someone in fiction.  The new chair of the department was caught in a dilemma, and she asked me if I knew of any young playwrights of color who could be hired the same way I was hired back in 1989, bypassing a national search, so the department could have its cake and eat it too.  A former student told me about Darren Canady, a young African-American playwright originally from Topeka who had moved to New York but who still had strong ties to Kansas. I put forth his name, and he was hired after a whirlwind campus visit and interview.  Darren has not kept in touch with me since he was hired five years ago, so I have no idea how he feels about the way he was hired.

    But, back to the broiling brouhaha over the whitewashed Oscar nominations for 2016.  I have yet to see Chi-Raq or Concussion, so I have no opinion about whether or not these movies or anyone involved with their creation should have been nominated for any Academy Awards.  Having lived all these years in the shadow of Affirmative Action, forgive me for thinking that the brouhaha is brouhohum.

    Posted in: | Comments: 4

  • Grant Goodman Exposes Sex Slaves

    January 17, 2016, by

    Nearly two years after his death, Grant K. Goodman’s scholarly research on the subject of “comfort women,” a euphemism for the sex slaves working in the official brothels established throughout Southeast Asia by the Japanese Imperial Army for the pleasure of its soldiers during World War II, continues to provide key evidence that such atrocities occurred even though the Japanese government continues to deny the truth.  The most recent account of Grant’s role in exposing all the details of this lurid chapter in Japanese history appears on the front page of the The Lawrence Journal World on 17 January 2016 (http://www2.ljworld.com/news/2016/jan/17/document-proving-wwii-comfort-women-now-home-ku-li/).

    Another story which Grant frequently told, but which is not mentioned in the Journal-World article, is that Gen. Douglas MacArthur was believed by many Japanese to be a deity for having defeated the divine Emperor and the Japanese Imperial Army.  Thus, hundreds of young Japanese women wrote letters to Gen. MacArthur after the war, offering to bear his children because he was “a god.”  Grant translated all these letters, along with the incriminating documents about the sex slaves, and turned them over to the war office.  He kept a copy of “Research Report No 120: Amenities in the Japanese Armed Forces” locked up in his safety deposit box but, unfortunately, he did not keep copies of any of the letters.  But they are there, buried somewhere among the archives, waiting to be discovered by the next generation of historians and scholars.

    Posted in: | Comments: 20

  • Bowie, Burroughs and Me

    January 12, 2016, by

    David Bowie died on 10 January 2016.  He was 69 years old, three years younger than I am.  The only album of his that I owned was Ziggy Stardust back in 1972 and, later, I was a big fan of three of his movies—The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), The Hunger (1983), and Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (also 1983).  There were rumors that Bowie visited William Burroughs in Lawrence, Kansas, but our paths never crossed.  Not in the usual way, anyway.  I have already written about all this in paulstephenlim.com (under the subsection “Limoscenes” for my play Lee and the Boys in the Backroom).  You can read the full entry there, but I am reproducing below the part that deals with David Bowie.

    Because of my friendship with William S. Burroughs and James Grauerholz (see also my NAKED LUNCH entries in the “Limerances” section of this website), it was only a matter of time before someone would suggest that I adapt something by Burroughs for the stage. I forget now who made the initial suggestion. It might have been James Grauerholz himself, or it might have been Mary Doveton, the artistic director of the Lawrence Community Theatre, where my plays CHAMBERS and FLESH, FLASH AND FRANK HARRIS had originally premiered. I was intrigued by the suggestion, and immediately read all the published works of Burroughs. The dramatist in me responded best to the novel QUEER because it was the most linear of Burroughs’ books, and also because it was a tragic love story on many levels.

    When James and William both agreed to let me adapt QUEER for the stage, they also gave me permission to look through and use carte blanche any of the unpublished correspondence during the time period of the novel (1949-1952) between William and his friends back in the United States, among them Allen Ginsberg. How can any playwright resist this offer? And so I looked through the letters in the filing cabinets in Burroughs’ house in Lawrence, and the structure of the play began to emerge and evolve.

    I showed big chunks of the play to William and James as I finished writing them, and they both seemed very pleased. After they read the first draft, the only suggestion I got by way of feedback from James was that I should cut some of the puns I had introduced into the text. James told me that, although William was a wordsmith and loved wordplay, he was not really a punster. And so I combed through the script and cut out most of the puns, this being perhaps the only time I’ll ever confess to being caught with my puns down.

    Back in 1987, I wasn’t sure if calling the play QUEER, like the novel, would be a good move, even in a liberal town like Lawrence, KS.  However, back then in America, within the homosexual community, even with thousands of people dying of A.I.D.S., it was well known that many gay men continued to have unprotected sex in gay bathhouses and also in the dark backrooms of gay bars and xxx-rated movie houses. I tried to draw a parallel between Lee’s promiscuity in Mexico forty years earlier, with what was going on within the gay community in America in the late-1980s. And, of course, there was that lusty song, “The Boys in the Backroom,” which the gay icon Marlene Dietrich had sung in the movie DESTRY RIDES AGAIN. I thought the song was rousing and carousing, maybe even arousing in a different context, and that’s why I decided to call the play LEE AND THE BOYS IN THE BACKROOM. In retrospect, maybe I should have had the guts to just call it QUEER, after the novel from which it had been adapted.

    My friend Paul Hough was not available to direct this play. I did not think there was anyone else around who had the right “sensibility” for the material, so I decided to direct it myself for the Lawrence Community Theatre, May 8-12, 1987. Because William S. Burroughs is who he is, and also because James Grauerholz is a superb publicist, the production attracted a great deal of attention. I remember there being a great deal of talk about another production, Off or Off-Off Broadway in New York, but this never actually materialized.

    James informed me later that I had never actually entered into a legal arrangement with William to adapt the novel and/or the letters, that there was no contract, that I had no right to pursue other productions of the play. Besides, he said, there were other “more important people” who were also interested in adapting the novel QUEER, not for the stage, but for the movies. Among the names he mentioned was David Bowie. But, to make matters worse, James dropped some hints that both he and William never really liked my play. Because of this, James and I stopped talking to each other for a long time. But we eventually made up before William died. We’ve never talked about the play again, and there has never been another production of LEE AND THE BOYS IN THE BACKROOM. Nor has David Bowie (or anyone else) ever adapted QUEER for the movies. But this may still be forthcoming.

    Posted in: | Comments: 2

  • If I Had a Gun…

    January 1, 2016, by

    For 24 years, the whole time I was in the Philippines prior to leaving for the United States, I knew that my father owned a gun.  I can’t tell you what kind it is, or what it looks like, because I never actually saw it.  I only heard it. Because, every New Year’s Eve, my father would take out his gun from wherever it was hidden and, at the stroke of midnight, he would slip out into the backyard and fire celebratory shots into the night sky, the noise competing with all the exploding firecrackers in our Manila neighborhood.

    My father died in early December of 1969, a year after I left for America.  I don’t know what happened to his gun, but some years later I heard from my siblings that, late one night, when my mother heard someone walking stealthily on the roof of our old house in Sta. Mesa, she apparently found my father’s gun and did what he did, slipping out into the backyard and firing warning shots into the night sky, frightening not just whomever was up there on the roof, but also all future intruders.  Those gunshots were to let everyone in the neighborhood know that my mother had a gun in the house, and that she was not afraid to use it.

    I am truly conflicted about this story about my gun-toting parents, because I’ve always been afraid of guns.  I’ve never had one, and I don’t ever intend to acquire one, the NRA and the second amendment be damned.  But, that said, if I actually had a gun, I think I might have put it to good use in some of the following situations:

    On the highway, whenever someone passes me on the right, or when someone cuts into my lane without signaling.

    In grocery stores, whenever anyone with tons of groceries decides to use the checkout line marked “For 14 items or less.”

    On airplanes, whenever there are mothers who do nothing to stifle the penetrating screams of their crying infants.

    In restaurants, whenever the avaricious owner fails to honor my reservation for a semi-private room, then sends me a long non-apology via voice-mail explaining why my party of nine was bypassed for a party of twenty because “twenty is more than nine.”

    In posh hotels, whenever affluent one-percenters give me the finger because I’m wearing my Bernie Sanders t-shirt.

    At home, while watching the news on television, and it’s (almost always) about Benghazi or Hillary’s e-mails or, worse, the latest pearls of wisdom from Donald Trump, Ben Carson, Ted Cruz, Carly Fiorina, Mike Huckabee, ad nauseam.

    In the classroom, whenever an overly enthusiastic student will not shut up and give those who are more timid a chance to speak. When I started to feel this way, about five years ago, I decided it was time to retire.

    I may be a son of a gun, but thank God I don’t have a gun.  Now, if I had a hammer, guess what I would do with it?

    Posted in: | Comments: 4

  • Steve Harvey’s Epistle to the Philippians

    December 22, 2015, by

    Never mind that host Steve Harvey mistakenly referred to people from the Philippines as Philippians.  The recent brouhaha over the crowning of the wrong Miss Universe is a good time to reflect on other memorable beauty pageants for Filipinos.  Pia Alonzo Wurtzbach is not the first Miss Philippines to go on and win the coveted Miss Universe title.  She is, in fact, the third, the other two being Gloria Diaz (1969) and Margarita Moran (1973).

    While we’re at it, there’s an equally impressive line-up of winning misses from the Philippines who have also been crowned at other beauty pageants.  To date, we’ve had one Miss World (Megan Young in 2013); and no less than five Miss Internationals (Gemma Cruz in 1974, Aurora Pijuan in 1970, Mimilanie Marquez in 1979, Precious Lara Quigaman in 2005, Bea Rose Santiago in 2013).

    That’s nine beauty queens…and counting!  Each one had more than 15 minutes of fame in the Philippines.  They’ve inspired generations of capable young Filipinas not to be humble nurses and teachers, nor anonymous servants and nannies, but to aspire to fill out those swimsuits and evening gowns, and to weep copious tears of joy when it all pays off.

    If Filipinos were downright ecstatic each time one of its pulchritudinous brown women hit the jackpot, they were upright orgasmic whenever one of its priapic brown men managed to bag a foreign beauty queen—e.g., when Virgilio Hilario married the first Miss Universe in 1952, Armi Kuusela of Finland; or when Jorge Araneta married the first Miss International in 1960, Stella Marquez of Colombia.  And, of course, when President Ferdinand Marcos bedded Hollywood starlet Dovie Beams amidst much fanfare in 1968-1970, and then dumped her.  Dovie Beams was one of 239 people subsequently credited in the cast of The Kentucky Fried Movie (1977), in which she had a bit part as “the concubine.”

    That’s how you get over colonialism.  That’s progress.  St. Paul couldn’t have said it better in his Epistle to the Philippians.

     

    Posted in: | Comments: 0

  • My Life As A Publicist (?!?!!)

    December 3, 2015, by

    Back in 1959, when my all-male Catholic high school in Manila staged The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial by Herman Wouk, the Christian Brother (F.S.C.) in charge of the drama club arbitrarily assigned me to take care of publicity.  I was all of fifteen years old.  What did I know about writing press releases, or how to go about getting the newspapers to publish them?

    There were five metropolitan newspapers in Manila at that time, so I bought and studied them all, analyzing the many news and photo releases, little realizing this would lead to my life as a publicist.  Back then, not only did I write the press releases, I also hand-delivered them lovingly to the offices of all five metropolitan newspapers, even managing to befriend some of the editors at each paper.  I think they were amused by how determined I was to get my drivel published.  Thus, I became the go-to guy whenever any of the campus organizations at La Salle needed publicity for whatever events they were sponsoring.

    Some years later, when I was a very bored and disaffected freshman at Ateneo University in the outskirts of Manila, two of my newspaper contacts started their own public relations agencies, and they both asked me to help on a part-time basis as their Man Friday.

    Monching Lopez handled all the publicity for an upscale theater which showed M-G-M movies exclusively.  Through him, I got to meet some movie stars who came to the Philippines to promote the films they were in—e.g., Alain Delon for Henri Verneuil’s Any Number Can Win (he was rakishly charming), and Sue Lyon for Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita (she was surprisingly shy).

    Borromeo Rausa handled all the publicity for the new Araneta Coliseum, reputed to be the world’s largest domed coliseum at that time, modeled after Madison Square Garden in New York.  Besides huge sporting events, the Araneta Coliseum also brought in a wide array of popular American entertainers, among them Harry Belafonte, Eartha Kitt, Johnny Mathis, the Everly Brothers, Ricky Nelson, Neil Sedaka.  I hope to write about my close encounters with the starry kind sometime in the near future.

    And then I dropped out of college altogether in 1962, going to work as an advertising copywriter for J. Walter Thompson for four years, and then for Philippine Advertising Counselors for two years, the exact same period covered by the hit television series Mad Men.  Like Don Draper, I sold my soul to the devil, and when I could no longer stomach the trivia that ruled my daily existence, I quit and left for the United States in June of 1968.  Sometime in the near future, I hope also to write about my life as Don Draper.

    In the United States, I went back to school at the University of Kansas, where I took writing classes from Ed Wolfe in the English Department, and Ron Willis in the Theatre Department.  Thanks to these two inspiring and encouraging professors, for the next twenty years, I wrote short stories and plays, things of more substance and permanence than press releases and advertising copy.

    And then it began all over again.

    When I was hired by the English Department at K.U. to teach playwriting in 1989, it became evident very quickly that the only way my playwriting students can grow as playwrights, is for them to be able to see and hear their words performed by actors who can act, in front of audiences who can react, in order to get valuable feedback for their visions and revisions.  And so I founded English Alternative Theatre (EAT), a one-man band in which I had to do practically everything—from booking rehearsal spaces, to directing, to helping with scenic and lighting designs, to gathering props and costumes, to keeping tab on all receipts and accounting for all expenditures and, last but not least, to writing press releases!

    Of all these tasks, the last one now proved to be the most difficult.  What’s the point of mounting a production, rehearsing every night for four or five weeks, if you can’t get the word out to audiences?  How do you write press releases referring to yourself in the third person without seeming self-serving, full of hubris?  Ultimately, this was the last straw.  When I retired from teaching in 2010, and English Alternative Theatre was finally laid to rest, the biggest relief was that I did not have to write any more press releases, no longer had to beat my own drum.

    But not for long.

    After a hiatus of five years, I’ve decided to direct a couple of staged readings of plays for Card Table Theatre at the Lawrence Public Library.  Last summer, we had only 16 people in the audience for one performance of Collected Stories, a prize-winning play by Donald Margulies.  And  tonight (December 3, 2015 at 7 PM), we will have one performance of my play Flesh, Flash and Frank Harris.  There are fourteen actors playing over forty parts in this play.  Their wondrous work deserves to be seen.  What if we get less people in the audience than there are actors on stage?  And so, two weeks ago, I began to write press releases again.  To quote T.S. Eliot:  “In my end is my beginning.”

    I sent the items to the only newspaper in Lawrence, but as of today, no ink has been wasted on us.  Print has not been helpful this time, but will social media come to the rescue?  Will the family and relatives of the actors, and all our Facebook friends in the area, help save the day?  Will enthusiastic hordes beat down the auditorium doors at 7 tonight at the Lawrence Public Library?

    Watch this space.

    Posted in: | Comments: 0

  • My Life As An Actor (?!?!!)

    December 1, 2015, by

    For some unfathomable reason, in the summer of 1969, when I was a new student at the University of Kansas, I decided to audition for a couple of Shakespeare plays being presented on the main stage at Murphy Hall.  On the form that I filled out at the audition, I indicated that I did not want any major speaking parts, that even just a walk-on would be fine, because I merely wanted to see what it was like to be “an actor.”  To my surprise, I was called back and cast in not one but both of the Shakespeare plays.

    The first production was Julius Caesar, directed by Jack Brooking, who was reputed to be the best director in the theatre department at that time.  I did triple duty—as a revolting peasant (along with Ric Averill and many others) in the crowd scene cheering Caesar’s triumphant return to Rome at the top of the play; then as a soldier fighting bravely alongside Marc Antony; after which us soldiers flipped the front panels on our shields and we suddenly became soldiers fighting alongside Brutus.  Late in the play, I was a sentry overlooking Brutus’ camp. It was my job to climb a tall scaffold, to stand guard and alert everyone about approaching strangers.  Whenever this happened, I was to shout out the one and only line I had in the play, “What, ho!”  I practiced the line endlessly, trying out many variations.  Only trouble was, I discovered during rehearsals that I suffered from a severe case of vertigo. It was impossible for me to stand still on top of that tall scaffold, trying not to look down, sweat streaming down my forehead, into my eyes, which I could not wipe because I was supposed to be standing at attention, ever ready to shout “What, ho!”  I had visions of me plunging from that scaffold, breaking every bone in my body.  To this day, I don’t know how I survived the ordeal.  The only note I got from the director after each rehearsal was that my “What, ho!” needed to be more vigorously forceful, with an exclamation point, rather than timidly uncertain, with a question mark.  (When I shared this story years later in one of my classes in the English department at KU, an innocent sophomore asked if all my warning shouts of “What, ho!” meant there were prostitutes offering their services to soldiers on the battlefield at that time, and whether this contributed to The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire.)

    The second production I was in that theatrical summer of 1969 was The Taming of the Shrew, directed by guest director Jerome Kilty.  In this one, I was a cowering servant in the household of Petruccio, suffering all the physical abuses he heaped upon us.  It was a fun production, and there were great parties after many of the rehearsals, one of which I hosted at 1108 Avalon Road, the house near campus I was living in at the time.  I had such a good experience with this production, I tried out the following year for my third and final appearance as an actor.

    This time, it was One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, Dale Wasserman’s adaptation of the novel by Ken Kesey, to be presented in the tiny black box at Murphy Hall.  The director was Piet Knetsch, an amiable graduate student originally from the Netherlands.  I told Piet the same thing, that I wanted only a small part, preferably with no lines to learn.  He was most accommodating, and cast me as Ellis, a catatonic inmate who identified with the crucified Christ, arms forever outstretched.  Ellis also happens to be incontinent, and the other inmates make fun of him mercilessly whenever they catch him wetting himself on the cross.  I asked Piet how we were going to achieve this rite of passage, and he said nonchalantly, “Drink lots of water before the show, but wait till final dress.”  When final dress finally arrived, I did indeed drink lots of water, and I did indeed pee on cue, warm streams marking their progress down my green pajama bottoms.  The lights in the small space we were performing in were really hot, and soon you could see the steam rising from where I stood.  Piet quickly called for a break, and the costume designer was asked to hook up a clever device which would allow me to “relieve” myself more hygienically. Thus, all ten performances of the play went well, even though I thought it was rather sacrilegious for people to laugh at the crucified Christ wetting Himself.  Six hours on that cross, from nine in the morning till three in the afternoon.  Surely, He had to go.  He was human, after all.  The Redemption would have been meaningless had He not really died on a Friday, and then really resurrected on Sunday.

    As for me, I never appeared as an actor on stage again, after that.  But my admiration for what actors do continues unabated, especially these past couple of days, when I have been in rehearsal with a very talented cast of 13 actors, directing them for a free staged reading of my play Flesh, Flash and Frank Harris at 7 PM on Thursday, December 3rd, at the Lawrence Public Library.  Come, and be amazed.  No one pees on stage, but Old Frank does give a vivid description at one point of how he uses a special enema of his own invention.

    Posted in: | Comments: 0

  • Thanks Be to G(rant).

    November 26, 2015, by

    Growing up as I did in Manila, even with the all-pervasive colonial influence of the United States, the yearly gross consumption of food on the last Thursday in November simply was not part of our cultural appetite.  Hard to imagine Filipinos as Pilgrims, not even as Filgrims, except perhaps on the receiving end.  But, after I left the Philippines for America in June of 1968, and was invited to spend my first Thanksgiving with the kind and gracious family of Grant K. Goodman in Cleveland, Ohio, I have become a well-fed convert, proceeding to spend the next 45 Thanksgiving celebrations with Grant.

    Every year, starting around Halloween, I remember Grant getting spooked by the idea that no one would invite him (or us) for Thanksgiving.  Finally, sometime in the mid-1970s, vowing to be spooked no more, he decided that we would give the party ourselves, that we would gather as many “orphans” as we could around our table, sometimes alternating in our respective homes, sometimes at the Lawrence Alvamar Country Club buffet.  This became a tradition among the “orphans” until two years ago, when Grant died unexpectedly in April of 2014.

    Although I am not spooked by the idea of no one inviting me for Thanksgiving now that Grant is no longer with us, I was very moved when Toots and Jerry Schultz welcomed me into their home last year, and equally moved this year when David Bergeron and Geraldo Sousa asked me to join them for the traditional dinner at their home later today.  I had six invitations this year, and was sorry I had to turn down five of them.  I’m sure that, somewhere, Grant is relieved I am not alone on this day which meant so much to him.  My only hope is that all the other “orphans” who used to gather around our table have had invitations as well.  If not…

    I am now resolved that, next year, thanks be to G(rant), I will continue the tradition he started.

    Posted in: | Comments: 0

  • My Academy Awards Story

    February 27, 2012, by

    It happened over twelve years ago.  I remember it was a Sunday afternoon.  I was working in my stuffy little office in the bowels of Wescoe Hall at the University of Kansas.  No one else was around, so I left open the door to 1070 Wescoe even though it doesn’t help to increase the air circulation  nor to decrease the claustrophobia.  The building is locked on weekends, accessible only to those who have keys to the pearly gates, and who are foolish enough to work even on God’s own day of rest.

    Imagine my surprise, therefore, when, out of the corner of my eye, I espied a stranger scurrying along the corridor outside my office.  This he did, not once or twice, but three times.  He was tall and gangly, scruffy-looking, perhaps in his late 30s or early 40s, perhaps a disgruntled former student who has come back to wreck havoc and seek vengeance.

    Summoning what little courage I had, I stepped out of my office, and saw the intruder peering intently at the sundry newpaper items and cartoons tacked on the door of the office next to mine.  “Excuse me,” I mumbled, “can I help you?”

    “Just waiting for Jack,” he replied vaguely.  He was referring to Jack Healy, the affable Graduate Teaching Assistant who had the office next to mine.  But Jack’s name was on the door for anyone to see, so that was no proof that the guy actually knew Jack.

    “Oh?  It’s Sunday afternoon.  Do you have an appointment?”

    “Jack said he would meet me here.”

    “The building is locked.  How did you get in?”

    “The side entrance by the dumpsters is open. Someone has propped the door open.”

    “We’re not supposed to do that.”

    “Well, someone did. Maybe Jack was here earlier and propped it open for me.”

    “Would you like to come into my office while you’re waiting?  We can try calling Jack at  home, to see if he’s on his way here.”

    He came in as I looked up Jack’s number and dialed. No answer. Awkward silence. He was quietly surveying the odd knickknacks I had in my office.

    “How do you know Jack?”

    “We were in school together, in Nebraska.”

    “Oh?  And what brings you to Lawrence?

    “I’m looking for locations for a movie I’m making. Jack said he would help.”

    “Really?  What sort of locations?”

    “Fraternity houses.”

    “Hmmm.”  Another awkward silence.  “So, you make movies?”

    “Yes, I’m a director.”

    Then, skeptically.  “Might I have seen anything you’ve directed?”

    Citizen Ruth was at Sundance in ’96, and Election came out in ’99.”

    “You made Election?”  I was genuinely astonished.

    He nods.

    “Are you Alexander Payne?”

    Again, he nods.

    I start to gush.  “Election is one of my favorite movies!  You know how Reese Witherspoon scrunches up her little face when she’s deviously plotting her next move?  That’s exactly the same look my dog Mykee gives me whenever she decides she’s really alpha and I’m omega.”

    He smiles.

    “Oh. And you know that scene where the jock says his prayers before he goes to bed?”

    I paraphrase the line, laughing hysterically:  “And thank you, God, for giving me what, I’ve been told by all the girls, is a large penis.”

    He smiles again. “Chris Klein is a very funny actor.  He’s like that, too, in real life.”

    It’s all very convivial now.  “So, you’re looking for fraternity houses for your next movie?  What’s it called?  What’s it about?”

    Before he could answer, Jack Healy arrived, and off they went, to look at fraternity houses at the University of Kansas in Lawrence.  As it turned out, the movie was About Schmidt (2002), with Jack Nicholson.  But Alexander Payne did not use any of the fraternity houses Jack showed him that day in Lawrence, choosing instead to go with the ones he was already familiar with, in his hometown in Omaha, Nebraska.

    I have, since then, followed Alexander Payne’s Hollywood career with personal interest.  Although Election was nominated for an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay in 1999, it didn’t win that year.  But, all the awards would come shortly thereafter. About Schmidt won the Golden Globe for Best Adapted Screenplay in 2002; Sideways would win his first Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay in 2004; and, no surprise to me, The Descendants gave him his second Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay in 2012.

    I left my office in the bowels of Wescoe a long time ago, finally moving up in the world, to the third floor of the same building, where the offices turned out to be equally airless and claustrophobic, but that’s no longer any concern of mine because I retired two years ago.

    A recent email from Jack Healy indicates that he, too, is moving up in the world.  After having been Associate Dean of the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences at Central Methodist University in Fayette, Missouri, he will now be the Dean of the College of Humanities, Arts & Social Sciences at the University of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio, Texas.

    As for my dog Mykee, she is now nearly fifteen years old, is severely deaf and arthritic, has not responded well to her second major surgery for cancer and her extensive chemo treatments, has now lost almost all her fur, and shivers pathetically in her nakedness every time I take her out to do her business.  Interestingly enough, she still has a mind of her own, still scrunches up her little face whenever I catch her doing something naughty,  but she no longer looks like Reese Witherspoon in Election.  If anything, these days she looks more like Jessica Tandy in Driving Miss Daisy. I dread the day when I have to drive her to the vet one last time.

    But…onward and upward with Alexander Payne.  At age 51, he is still remarkably trim, and there is nothing scruffy about him.  He is graying nicely, and looks very distinguished indeed in his tux as he shows up at the Golden Globes and the Academy Awards to collect his various awards.  Needless to say, I’m a fan, and I’m looking forward to seeing the next one, and the next one, and the next one.

    Posted in: | Comments: 6

  • My Harlan Ellison Story

    October 20, 2011, by

    (This is the first in a series of entries about visiting writers I’ve encountered at the University of Kansas back in the 1970s, when I was working on my M.A. in English, and was still quite undecided about what to do with the rest of my life, whether to pursue an uncertain future as a writer, or maybe a more traditional career as a teacher engaged in academic research and scholarship.)

    Although I had read a great many science fiction novels when I was still in high school in Manila, I did not encounter the work of James Gunn until years later, when I was a student in the English Department at the University of Kansas, where Gunn was actually one of two faculty members who taught creative writing (the other one was Edgar Wolfe).  I quickly read most of Gunn’s books, which he preferred to call “speculative fiction” instead of “science fiction.”  And, to this day, one of my favorite novels is Kampus, his Kafkaesque novel about what campus unrest would be like in the near future, a novel which I also taught regularly in a class about depictions of life in academia, alongside other, more canonical works like Hard Times by Charles Dickens, Beneath the Wheel by Hermann Hesse, Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis, Changing Places by David Lodge, etc.

    Living amongst many colleagues who were Doubting Thomases, disdainful of anything which smacked of genre writing, in which science fiction was held with the same disregard as historical romances, James Gunn tried his best to bring some respect and legitimacy to the world of speculative fiction. To that end, he brought to the campus some of the hot, young writers who were making names for themselves not just in books, but in the movies as well.

    One of the hot, young writers Gunn brought to KU was Harlan Ellison, whose apocalyptic short story “A Boy and His Dog” had just been made into a movie, an underground hit, a cult favorite among the hip and the restless.  I was lucky to get a seat in the classroom where Ellison was giving a lecture. When he strode into the room energetically, for some reason I thought he looked like a younger Groucho Marx, minus the hat, the glasses, the moustache, the cigar.  Maybe it was just his grin, the gleam in his eye, the promise of unpredictability.

    Actually, I don’t remember much about what Harlan Ellison said that day, in the formal part of his presentation. What I remember is what happened afterwards, during the Q&A, when one of undergraduate creative writing majors raised his hand and asked the inevitable question, “Mr. Ellison, can you give us some advice on how to get our stories published?”

    “That’s simple,” Ellison smiled. “Where would you like to get published?”

    “I don’t know,” the acolyte fidgeted uncomfortably in his seat.  “Maybe Playboy…or Esquire…or The New Yorker.”

    “Well, it makes no difference where you want to get published,” Ellison grinned. “All you need to do is go buy some recent issues of your magazine of choice, read all the stories that are published in them, then sit down and write one just like them.”

    “Are you serious?”

    “It’s the same editor who has been deciding what stories to publish in the magazine.. Those are the kind of stories he likes. So sit down and write one just like the ones he likes, and chances are he’ll like yours, too.  That’s how you’ll get published, sonny.”

    “B-b-b-but…isn’t that like…selling out?”

    “You didn’t ask me about artistic integrity,” he grinned again, his eyes gleaming. “You asked me for advice on how to get your story published.”

    There was dead silence in the room.  The students felt betrayed.  Now they have to look elsewhere for another Moses to lead them out of the wilderness of creative writing classes.  To this day, one hears the same arguments being tossed around by MFA students—Isn’t this writer too commercial? Hasn’t that writer sold out? Aren’t we all just better off writing things which we can admire and discuss endlessly in our workshops, never mind if our stories never get published in any magazine anyone recognizes?

    But, back to Harlan Ellison. I thought it then, and I think it now.  He told it like it is, and for that I admire him. He’s been laughing all the way to the bank, right from the very beginning, when he was writing for such TV shows as The Loretta Young Show, Ripcord, Burke’s Law, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, The Outer Limits, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Star Trek, The Flying Nun, etc. And now, it’s my understanding that, after nearly four decades of being an underground cult favorite,  A Boy and His Dog is finally going big-time. It’s in pre-production, being remade as an animated feature, due out in major theaters in 2012.

    Quite fortuitously, James Gunn is also still around.  Although he retired many years ago, Gunn still shows up daily in his English Department office in Wescoe Hall at the University of Kansas, as hale and hearty as one can expect for a gentleman his age.  Maybe it’s time Gunn invites Harlan Ellison back for another campus visit, once more to share his craft and craftiness with our MFA students.


     


    Posted in: | Comments: 10

  • Comments(0)

Comments are closed.