by cheri block
Throughout my career, I have encouraged many people and students to write: to write a blog, a short story, a novel. Even now, when engaged in conversation with a stranger or an intimate who seems to be involved in a curious activity–knitting bears for impoverished children, working in the stem cell research department at Stanford, tree-trimming, olive orchard consulting, preparing for a colonoscopy, performing six colonoscopies a day, hearing most of the Northern California Catholic priest abuse cases-you get the picture– I will suggest to said stranger or intimate, “Why don’t you keep a journal.” Usually these people just look at me with the type of stare that you see on people’s faces in a doctor’s office waiting room.
“You never know when what you are doing might become a book, ” I usually proffer.
Then, I return to all of the wonderful and horrible experiences I have had and wish I had taken my own advice. Consider a book about a 10-year-old’s summer horse camp escapades, or one about an English Department that was more dysfunctional than the guys in Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Or maybe a book about opening a business or building a house and dealing with the City Planners. The best book might have been a version of Chevy Chace’s Vacation, a narration of our trip in a motorhome around the entire perimeter of the United States in 30 days with a pre-teen and a full-blown hormonal teenage girl riding in the same vehicle. Add my parents in the motorhome for one week of the trip and the heat of summer, the six break-downs, and the rejection at the Canadian border because we were packing heat….now that would have been a very funny book.
So. Where is this leading?
I will be blogging about two events going on in my life.
First, I am embarking on my Master’s thesis and thought you might enjoy The Trial or in German, The Process. This will be a year-long experience and has already provided some angst and humor.
Second, next month Hizzoner and I are going to do something that HE has always wanted to do: drive lonely Highway 50 from the Bay Area to Chicago. We understand that there really is nothing on Highway 50 through Nevada and Utah. Colorado holds some promise. We’ve rented an SUV and will drive about 230 miles a day, stopping in small places, finally motoring into our beloved Chicago. When we’ve told our friends and family of our trek, the usual question is “Why?”
So, here we go!
Entry One: The Thesis
It all started with yet another meeting with the program director at Stanford. Except. The meeting in her office had shifted its location from a cozy corner next to Coupa Cafe to a large efficient Spanish styled building close to El Camino Real. This building–its configuration and location–were new to me but newness has never been my problem.
Three of us met to disentangle my unrealistic notions for my thesis. Like a small determined orphan with her feet dug into the sand, her arms crossed in defiance, and her eyebrows fixed in a dark line, I have refused to give up on my idea in a stubborn unproductive defiance. My pleadings in e-mails and face-to-face meetings have been rejected with a capital R.
Never mind that the editor of the Kafka Society of America liked my idea and thought it sad and silly that I not be afforded the opportunity to explore the English translations of Kafka’s writing.
I would not be allowed to write on Franz Kafka’s work because I do not speak or read German. In a conciliatory gesture, encouraged by both my husband and writer Andreas Kluth, I said, ”O.K.” and when I said OK, all I heard was the K. And then it all came to me.
I’ve been in my own Kafka novel for about a year now, trying to have it my way. Like the meaning behind the elusive figure at the end of The Trial who throws his arms out while Josef K. is executed at the quarry, there really was no hope.
I had come prepared to suggest a new thesis idea (my 25th), one which would center on some interesting question and its answer that would emanate from the writing of American Flannery O’ Connor and its relationship to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s, which I know well.
I walked in to the program director’s office and noticed the small teapot and cups on the window sill. Shelves of books from ceiling to floor closed in on me. Posters of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival added color. Only the supportive face of William M. Chace, my favorite professor full of patience and generosity, seemed to offer some hope that today, I would receive the necessary blessings for my new thesis idea.
“Before we begin, ” I began, ” I’d like to tell you both that I have given up on my idea to write about Franz Kafka.” This statement caused a visceral drop in my blood pressure and I instantly felt as though I had unloaded a big secret in a therapy session.
William M. Chace looked surprised. The program director said, “Wait, hear what Bill has to say.”
William M. Chace had done some research in an effort to forge consensus and allow me to pursue my interest in Kafka but do it in a way that would adhere to the rules.
“Why don’t you take a look at these authors, Cheri, and see what you come up with.” He then pulled out his notebook and began listing names, only several of which I had heard of: Henry Green, Rex Warner, the Muirs, W.G. Sebald, Saul Bellow, and Dan Jacobson. I feverishly copied the names in my notebook.
The meeting proceeded along, with the little tea-pot on the window sill, nodding her approval and relief that tension would not fill the air.
My Flannery O’Connor and Nathaniel Hawthorne plans evaporated. I felt excited and dizzy and left the office. Dr. Chace put on his ball cap; I thanked him and the program director; we all left at the same time.
My roller bag and I entered the elevator on the Garden level. In the elevator, I realized that I had not paid attention to the floors and at Stanford, they don’t have pictures of frogs, birds, and butterflies to remind us which floor we are on. I hit number three with a shaky hand.
Up to the third floor I went and exited the elevator. No, this isn’t the floor I came in on, I thought.
Now, the possibility that I might run into Dr. Chace in the elevator concerned me. He would wonder what I was doing.
I decided to take the stairs and drag my roller bag down by the handle. On the second floor, the stairs ended. The air became thick. I felt slightly claustrophobic. Josef K. and that damned teapot came into my thoughts.
The elevator faced me, so I got in and hit number 1.
The door opened.
There stood William M. Chace, coming up from the Garden level. He looked at me with a curious glance. I instantly felt self-conscious.
“Hello, Dr. Chace,” I said, “It’s great to be in your air-space and thank-you for your kindness today.”
“Well, Cheri, let’s see what you come with,” he said matter-of-factly.