Archive for the ‘Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’ Tag

Mentors Series Part Two: Gene Dawson   2 comments

I don’t have a photo of Gene I can upload, but here’s one of me contemplating a work of art that Gene would have liked. If anyone reading this can send me a photo I will replace it.

A few months ago I wrote a post about an early musical mentor of mine, Thomas Manshardt. I studied piano with Tom when I first entered the University of Regina back in the mid 1970’s.  (That post can be found by clicking the archive button on the left side and selecting July 2012. A second post that is germane to this time of my life – if you really have nothing better to do – is my post entitled “Brahms,  Gothic Script, Shakespeare, Serendipity and Other Considerations” from January 2012.)

After studying in Germany, I came back to Regina with a renewed love of the English language, and the realization that I would never be a concert pianist. I returned to the U of R as a full-fledged English major. I wanted to be a writer. There are not many people whose decision to become an English major and beyond that, a writer, could be seen to be practical, but that was certainly the case with me. My parents were certainly relieved. A possible strategy for young people intent on pursuing an essentially impractical career path . . .

It was early on in my pursuit of a degree in English that I met my second mentor and namesake, Eugene Dawson. It’s hard now to explain the impact Gene had on my life – not just mine, but on so many others at that time. Brash, American, seven times married, prescription pill-popping, dope smoking, hard-drinking, irreverent and above all funny, Gene was unlike anyone I had ever met before or have met since. He brought true joy to the horror of human existence.

Gene taught a class in black humour which I took, and it was in his class I was introduced to the work of Mordecai Richler, Louis-Ferdinand Celine, Joseph Heller, Nathaniel West and Kurt Vonnegut Jr. to name a few. In fact, like Vonnegut, Gene was a Hoosier, and they certainly shared many qualities, in particular a sardonic sense of humour and a wary way of regarding the goings on in the world. It was, as they say, “a cheerful nihilism.”

Before long Gene had me working as his teaching assistant. At that time at the U of R, a TA in English essentially taught grammar as a part of English 100. “But Gene, I know nothing about grammar,” I said. “I know,” he replied, “This is the only way you’re ever going to learn this shit, by teaching it. Just don’t let them see you sweat.”

And so in this way Gene brought me into his world. Before long, a second year student, I was a fixture at the Faculty Club on Friday afternoons which led to some legendary late night sessions with fellow students and faculty members Bernie Selinger, Dale and Barb Hauser, Ray and Ruth Mise and numerous others.

On one such legendary evening, I seem to recall I was standing atop a table in a restaurant in south Regina drinking flaming Sambucas. Certainly, my life as an English major was far different than it had been as a music major. Of course, there was no looking back and no regrets.

In the words of Bryan Adams, “Those were the best days of my life.”

We called him the old man, yet he was younger than I am now when he suddenly and sadly passed away. So full of life and laughter, he left a hole in many of our lives. At his wake, we tried to honour him through irreverence, but to no avail. Gene was gone and we all knew we would never see the likes of him again.

If Manshardt taught me about the high European tradition of art as a way of life, Gene taught me in his populist American way that it was all right to be myself, with no apologies needed. He taught me that no matter how much shit the world was flinging at me, there was always something to laugh at, even if it was an uneasy laughter. Thinking back on it, it brings to mind the lines of T.S. Eliot,

And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker

And in short, I was afraid . . .

Do you understand what I’m trying to say about being with Gene? There was always laughter, but it was always a little on the nervous side. But my god, how we laughed at the whole damned thing.

I fear I am doing none of these men justice, and am falling short of the mark trying to capture their greatness. Yet when I Google them, I get nothing, and so at least it’s a start.

Thanks for reading . . . Here’s a beautiful song by one of Gene’s and my favourite artists . . .

Some Thoughts on Teaching   1 comment

A million or so years ago, when I was completing my BA in English at the University of Regina I was hired by my mentor and namesake, Gene Dawson, to be his TA. This meant that I was thrust in front of a class of engineering students barely younger than me to teach them something about English grammar, which I knew very little about.

“Stay one chapter ahead and don’t let them see you sweat,” was the advice given to me then, and many times since in other situations. Anyone who plans on a career in education would do well to have that bit of advice tattooed on some part of his or her body.

I survived the class and learned something about English grammar, an increasingly rare skill to have. Here’s an example, free of charge. “Between you and I” is incorrect because between is a preposition which is followed by an object and never a subject; therefore you should be saying “Between you and me.” If you’ve been saying “Between you and I,” now you know better, so stop it. You see? Grammar can be a wonderful thing!

Since then I have taught in many place, mostly in creative writing, mostly playwriting. I have led workshops for young playwrights from around the world at World Interplay in Australia. I have taught kids from the hood in Harlem, in New York City. I’ve taught in Singapore, Lethbridge, Regina, Toronto, Vancouver and other places, classes ranging in time from a few hours to a full university semester.

My mother and her mother were both teachers. They say that the desire to teach, the need to teach, may well be hereditary, passed down through the genes. I have no reason to doubt this.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it has to do with the photo I poached and placed at the top of this post, and it comes from a Zen parable which goes like this . . . A Canadian scholar was seeking the wisdom of a famous Zen master about the secret of education. She was invited to have tea with the master. He began to pour the tea into the cup, and then continued to pour as the tea filled the cup, spilled over the edge, filled the saucer, ran onto the table and the floor, but still he kept pouring until finally she exclaimed: “Stop, Master, you can’t get any more tea into that cup!”  He stopped pouring and said, “You have learned what you have come to learn from me.” And that was the end of the lesson.

Through all the teaching experience I have had over the ensuing decades since I dazzled that class of young engineers, maybe the one thing I’ve learned is when to stop pouring it in. We tend to think in quotas, of material that must be gotten through, and so we keep pouring and pouring even as our students’ eyes glaze over because their cups are full. I believe more and more that if we just allow the time and space for our students to probe the essence of the thing we are teaching, they will somehow get it, if they are meant to get it. This is certainly true in the arts. You might not want to use such a philosophy in teaching pilots how to land an airplane, or surgeons how to cut.

Just allow . . . it’s harder than it seems. It takes a measure of wisdom and patience, and a healthy ego.

Another thing I’ve learned comes from the Hippocratic Oath, which doctors say, and I think it wouldn’t be a bad idea to make teachers say parts of it as well.

                              I will prescribe regimens for the good of my patients according to my ability and my judgment and do no harm to anyone.

I always think if nothing else, if someone comes to me because he or she is interested in the theatre, don’t let me destroy their love for it. If nothing else, even if they learn nothing, do no harm. People learn in their own time, at their own pace. Maybe something they hear today will lie dormant for years, and when the time is right, suddenly it will make sense. I’ve known this to happen. A delayed reaction, sometimes by years. Finally it sinks in. We can’t always control when that will happen.

So. Just some thoughts on teaching on a cold snowy day in Calgary.

I honestly think it’s the highest calling.

Something by one of my favourite authors, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. was swirling around on Facebook the other day. I shared it with my students at St. Mary’s University College and it seems like a reasonable way to end this bit of rambling. I believe what he says is true, and that in part explains why I have spent so much time and energy over the years teaching the next great generation of artists.

Enjoy! And thanks for reading,

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