Tag Archives: UIUC

I may not be loyal to you, Illinois

Lake Mendota, Madison, 6 Aug. 2013

Lake Mendota, Madison, 6 Aug. 2013

Enjoying the sunset and the locally made ice cream at the UW-Madison Union Terrace last night, my wife and I (as UIUC grads)¬† found it hard to sell our alma mater to a student who was considering attending a Big Ten (or “Big Variable” Conference, where “Ten” has an evolving, non-ten value) school. His priority seemed to be a school that has a reputation for winning athletic programs, and that’s not what Illinois is known for. (It’s better known as the birthplace both of HAL and of the Web browser, not to mention being the alma mater of Roger Ebert, Hugh Hefner, and Ron Swanson).

But I’m glad I went there for the latter five-eights of my undergrad semesters. I was taught by some good professors and some great T.A.s, learned a lot about writing and editing at The Daily Illini, and met terrific friends (including my wife — I got my “M.R.” degree, as well as my B.A., at Champaign-Urbana).

But, alas, those twin cities lack some of Madison’s features: Both are on water, but the Boneyard Creek (a stream so ugly it got paved over in Campustown) is no Lake Mendota. Madison’s rolling hills offer vistas; Champaign County is damned flat. Madison has a skyline and urban planning that connected the university to the state capitol via State Street; Champaign city exists only because the Illinois Central railroad passed two miles west of Urbana.

Maybe I’m just a little bitter that my wife keeps getting alumni mail from the university we both went to, but I get no such acknowledgement of my graduation. It’s no big deal, of course, but it’s just the kind of little indignancies I like to nurse and be petty about.

Also, I realized yesterday that I don’t own any Illinois-marked garments because, really, navy blue and orange aren’t my favorite colors.

I still recommend the University of Illinois to those of my students who can afford to go to a four-year college and who want a public school, but I’m not sure, with all the cutbacks in state aid over the last several years, that it’s still as good a school as the one I went to. On the other hand, I’m not sure anymore what it means to say a school is “good.”

The longer I’m a teacher myself (though at a high school), the more I see individual students having particular educational experiences that are not necessarily attributable to the school itself. Students having different teachers for the same course will have diverse experiences, and of course, students bring their own interests, abilities, cultures, values, and backgrounds to their own educations.

So I guess I’m not sure if it matters where one goes to college — or, let’s say, it probably matters in such profound and unknowable ways that it almost doesn’t matter where one goes, any more than it matters which shoes I wear today or which book I pick up at the bookstore. Whatever one does, one learns from it. I learned from attending two other colleges before transferring to UIUC that it’s OK to try things out and if they don’t feel right, to find something else.

And that’s one of those profound life lessons that nobody really teaches in a classroom in any college.

*Titular note explained here.

I dreamed this morning of transparent lobsters

This is nonfiction prose about a real dream whose content was, as usual, fictional.

A student came into 1st hour this morning and told me he had dreamed about me. I told him that I had dreamed this morning of transparent lobsters. He thought my honest answer was pretty amusing.

I was on a fishing boat with a wooden deck and only a railing between the deck edge and the water, and I was helping a woman in a rain coat (I’m not sure who she was), but there was a pile of sea creatures dumped on deck, as if from a net, and there were beige¬† ribbons of kelp and transparent crayfish-sized lobsters — see-through but substantial, like a jelly bean after its color candy coating has been cracked off and dissolved. Really, they could have been transparent crayfish instead of transparent lobsters, but I had the feeling/knowledge that I was in a saltwater setting rather than freshwater, and we were somehow near a dock, not more than a few feet off a dock, and we were hurrying to pick these transparent lobsters up before they crawled to the edge of the deck and dropped back to the water.

I’m not unaware that it’s boring to hear people’s dreams. There’s nothing at stake, of course. But this one above feels, for whatever reason, a bit poetic, or maybe that’s just me.

Writing about this dream reminds me that I wanted to post here the only poem I’ve published that was chosen by an editor who was not also me:

You know how in a dream you know it’s somebody

but it doesn’t look like him at all?

i met kerouac

a ride operator in a 2nd-rate theme


he was plump and balding

but young, looked about 30.

turns out it was some other jerk.

(By the way, I’m assuming I have the copyright here, not only because I signed no contract conferring those rights, but also because this was published in the student-run literary magazine of student work at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, LittleAmerica, volume 27, in, I think, spring 1994. By the way, this magazine also contains three poems by a writer named Steve Elliott, whom I don’t remember meeting but who may be this Steve Elliott.)

The striking thing about this poem is that, by now, I don’t really remember having this dream and I don’t remember writing it, and what I do remember is finding these words (excepting the title) written in my handwriting from a few months before I submitted the poem. It was far better than the poems that I was trying to write consciously as poems, at the time. But then, and now, it seems to be something that passed through me, a poem that happened, and I’m not sure how I was involved.

And so, in this way, I am probably as close as I’ll ever get to being able to encounter my own work as another (not-me) reader would encounter it. I don’t mean this to sound egotistical, but I’ve been thinking lately that I wish I could read my own writings without the context that I can’t helping bringing to that reading act. Of course, it helps to let time pass before looking back, but even if the words feel new again to me, I know that they are my words, and for that reason alone I won’t be able to think about them the same as others’ words. This isn’t really a problem, per se, not a big deal, but an aspect of creating that maybe is inherent. On the other hand, nobody but me has the insider sense of my writing process and the changes in my pile of work, etc.