Monday, October 26, 2015
I met Paul Friedman at the University of Illinois in the fall of 1968, when I took the first of two short story courses from him. As I recall, Paul was one of three professional writers hired by the university to teach literature. (Subsequent to my course work with Paul, he became director of the creative writing program at U of I.) On that first day of class, he walked in wearing jeans, a Navy pea coat and a wool cap. None of us recognized him as the instructor until he sat down at the desk in the front of the room. When he spoke, it was apparent that he was from New York and somewhat reserved in front of 25 people. He did not fit the prototype of an opinionated university literature professor.
As it turned out, I learned more about literature from Paul Friedman than from any other person in my life. Over the span of one year's time, we covered a couple dozen short story writers, somewhat in chronological order. For each author, we read between eight and fifteen short stories. We'd discuss one or two of those stories in class and then be tested on any of the stories when the infrequent tests rolled around. Much of our grade was based on our participation in class and the papers we were required to write. We started with Nathaniel Hawthorn and progressed through Edgar Allan Poe, James Joyce, Thomas Mann, Franz Kafka, Herman Melville, Stephen Crane, D. H. Lawrence, Sherwood Anderson, Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner, among several others.
Autumn of 1968 was not a good time in my life, because I knew my father was terminally ill and would probably die before the end of the year. I was struggling to decide whether I should pursue a career in computer science or as an English professor. I very much wanted to be able to tell him my decision before he died. In the first course I took from Paul Friedman, just as we began reading James Joyce's Dubliners, I realized that I knew very little about how to read a story. I read the words and could remember the plot and characters, but the deeper meanings eluded me. Although I loved literature, I suspected there was much, much more in a story than what I was understanding.
So, I decided to visit Paul in his office and ask for help. I had no idea what I was going to say to him, but my request for help quickly turned into a confession that my father was dying and I very much wanted to learn to read on a level that did justice to the brilliance and depth of the stories AND that somehow those two things were related. Paul understood and told me he would help, but I left without knowing how that would happen.
In class the next day we began discussing "The Sisters" from Joyce's Dubliners. He said that James Joyce always wrote stories that could be interpreted on multiple levels, perhaps more levels than any other writer, and that it was possible for all of us to understand those levels with a little work. Very soon I noticed three things happening that stunned me. First, Paul was actually using phrases that we had used the previous day in our conversation, with meanings that were very different from our original meanings. He was teaching James Joyce using some of our own words! Second, he did not look in my direction at all for the better part of an hour. Although I was one of his more active students, he was obviously addressing me without looking at me. Last, because Paul was teaching on multiple levels, I was understanding the story on multiple levels--for the first time. It was an amazing thing to experience.
At the end of the hour, after he gave the assignment for the next class and students began gathering their books to leave, he turned deliberately and stared right at me for a few moments. I knew part of that hour had been for my benefit alone. He smiled kindly and walked out.
Paul pushed me to learn to read. From the day that Paul introduced the concept of multiple levels and the use of symbols in a story, I began reaching for those deeper meanings and enjoyed reading much more. He taught us to use the Publication of the Modern Language Association (PMLA) to research stories in depth. The PMLA contains a cross-reference of all critical articles that have been written about any particular story over the course of a year. One story I researched was "The Cask of Amontillado" by Poe. After reading seven or eight critical articles about that story, I was ready to write a term paper on it, because I understood it through and through.
One of my proudest moments in learning to read was an in-class discussion I had with Paul concerning Ernest Hemingway's "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place." The story really comes down to interpreting whether the old waiter or the young waiter says each line, as they observe an old patron sitting in their late-night cafe. The source of each comment is not revealed by Hemingway; that's the whole challenge of the five-page story. At the end of an hour, I had at least partially swayed Paul to my interpretation, but my elated feeling of success faded that evening. Something bothered me about it, and I went to the library to research the story in depth. Several articles into my research, I discovered that a publisher's error had misprinted two lines of dialogue in the story--running them together as if one person had said them. Of all stories for such an error to occur! And, yes, our edition had that error in it!
At the next class, I told Paul that we both had been right in our analysis. Of course, the victory was mine because I had learned from him how to read on a consistently deeper level.
Paul pushed me to appreciate rewriting. Paul once told me that there's no such thing as good writing--only good rewriting. I have used that quote more than any other quote in my life, and it has been a very valuable piece of advice I've passed along to others. Although Paul never critiqued my writing other than term papers, for I was primarily writing songs in those days, he has been looking over my shoulder for decades. Whenever I've written something--a letter, technical paper, proposal, business report, song, essay or blog--it is the rewriting that has been most critical to its clarity and success. That's been true for 45 years.
And Finally.... For many years, Paul and I would meet over coffee and discuss books and life. I remember discussing Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Raymond Carver with him, and our opinions coincided about those writers. I was also delighted to be given signed copies of two of his books, "And If Defeated Allege Fraud" and "Serious Trouble".
We primarily knew each other during the last six years of the Vietnam War. I saw him during campus demonstrations in 1970, where he was an island of common sense amid the oceans of student emotions. Because I believed strongly in the precepts of being a conscientious objector and discussed those beliefs with Paul, I asked him to write a letter in support of my sincerity--not in support of my position, but in support of my sincerity--and send it to my draft board. He wrote a most incredible letter, which I still have. The depth of his letter revealed not only that he was a beautiful writer, but that he knew me well.
Paul lives in the Los Angeles area now and is still writing every day. Before contacting him recently, I last heard from Paul in 1997, after I had written to him and thanked him for all he'd added to my life. In a style that instantly recalls his writing and his teaching voice, he replied in a letter, "I appreciate what you said, and since in certain ways it is as--what?--hard to hear certain things--even very nice things--as it is to say them, let me simply be direct and economical: It was great of you to say what you said; I'm extremely pleased."
So am I, Paul.
Monday, October 12, 2015
My father, Gerard Aaron Cowan ("Jerry"), was born in New York City in 1908 and was raised in a Jewish New York family with money. His father was a tailor, and his mother was a dress designer. They owned and lived in a five-story brownstone building on the upper west side of Manhattan, and a 1910 census documents that my father, his parents, two sisters, two or three cousins and three servants lived in the building. It appears that my grandparents separated some time in the 1920's, when my grandfather moved to San Francisco to manage a clothing store. Both of them died in the 1930's.
In the 1990's, I was very fortunate to find over 2,000 family letters in old boxes saved by one of my aunts. Although the exact reasons are not ever mentioned in those letters, I surmise that the Great Depression and poor investments were the primary causes of the loss of wealth in my father's family. Prior to 1930, there were many references to vacations, including extended trips to Europe, and purchases of gifts. Beginning in the early 1930's, all of that disappeared and was replaced by frequent requests for small loans and references to good deals on small purchases. Such was probably the case for millions of families in the United States at that time.
I have several pictures of my father as a young man. In all of them he was well-dressed and "dapper." He looked very much like Humphrey Bogart, with the same self-assurance and carriage. One early picture shows him in riding togs atop a handsome horse. He was always the cosmopolitan man-about-town.
I know my father did not attend college, and there's some question about whether he even finished high school. He was, however, really intelligent and an entrepreneur at heart. All of what he did in his life was self-taught, for he was a voracious reader and resourceful dreamer. During his life he chose to work in building supplies and kitchen designing, and at least three times he built his own small company. He was an incredible draftsman and could design an entire kitchen in under ten minutes. As a young kid, I saw him do that many times, and I still have his drafting board, which he built for himself almost 60 years ago. He was also a born salesman; he could sell ice to an Eskimo.
My father was 60 years old when he died of colon cancer. I was 19 years old and a sophomore in college. All of my summer jobs were spent doing work at his little building supply company, where he taught me accounting, inventory, draftsmanship, sales and hard, physical labor. Those were great summers, except for the last one, when I ran the business and visited him in the hospital twice a day. My father insisted that I return to college at the end of that summer for my sophomore year; another person he hired would step in to run the company for a few months.
I really had one purpose in mind when I returned to college. I wanted to be able to tell my father, before he died, what I would be doing for the rest of my life. I had been a math major, but was tiring of that, so I was taking my first computer science course and continuing with my English literature studies. I would either pursue a career in computers or become an English professor. Although I loved reading, I fell in love with computer programming, and I told him of my decision a couple weeks before he died, on December 4, 1968.
I could list dozens of things he taught me, and they would probably be very similar to what other boys learned from their fathers. My great love of sports, especially golf and baseball, came from him. But beyond the normal things a father teaches a kid, he taught me, by example, how to conduct oneself in life. I wanted to be like him, so I constantly observed him. I would say that he was the greatest influence on my life, and thus, the most remarkable person.
My father pushed me to think analytically. He never told me I had to be anything, but he gave me the analytical tools to succeed in whatever I chose to do. He taught my sister and me to play chess when I was 7 years old (and my sister was 6 years old). He began teaching me math shortcuts and puzzles when I was 8 years old, such as how to multiply two numbers in the teens (e.g., 19 x 17) "in my head," without the use of paper and pencil. He was equally good at both deductive and inductive reasoning, and, by his example, I became good at both. He constantly challenged me to be analytical.
My father pushed me to work hard. No one in my life ever pushed me to work as hard as my father did. When kids were working 20 hours a week at summer jobs, I was working 50 hours and getting paid for 40 hours, at $2 an hour. Most of it was physical labor, like unloading a semi truck filled with boxed kitchen cabinets. He didn't have to tell me twice to do things, because he worked harder and longer than I did. Instead, he would bring me a soda pop (temperatures were often in the 90's) and tell me to rest for awhile, then get back to work.
It was natural that my discipline for physical labor carried over into my school work. Working three or four hours on homework was nothing compared with unloading a hot truck for eight hours. School was a vacation from summers in that respect.
My father pushed me to take on responsibilities. Where my mother wanted to do things for me, my father wanted me to do things for myself or for others. When given a task by my father, I was never asked whether it was done yet. He knew I was focused on finishing the task, so he gave me greater and greater responsibilities. On the day I returned home from my freshman year of college, I was told that he was dying of cancer and that I would have to run the family business for the summer. He gave me his car and asked me to drive him to the hospital.
Because of his great push, both direct and subtle, for me to take on increased responsibilities, I never thought that I couldn't do something when I was growing up. I learned that from him, too. There was no room for self-doubt or excuses, because I didn't see either in him. (I did go through years of self-doubt after his death, and I was pushed by other remarkable people to get past that, as I address in other articles.)
My father pushed me to be organized. My friends know me as someone who is organized to a fault. I get that from my father. In running a small kitchen business, he knew where every piece of paper was, and he pushed me to be equally as organized. Since every kitchen sale was a project, from initial design to delivery of the cabinets and appliances for installation, he pushed me to be project-oriented. I am that way to this day. He typically had 20 projects going at once, so he pushed me to multi-task like he did.
My father pushed me to practice kindness and be respectful. As a young man, my father probably faced much more anti-Semitism than I ever did. He changed the spelling of the family name from "Cowen" to "Cowan," to make it appear more Irish. (His father had changed the spelling from "Cohen" to "Cowen.") He believed, in business and in one's daily life, that you should practice kindness and respect all people. I remember distinctly and was surprised at how highly he spoke of Dr. Martin Luther King, as he first made me aware of the civil rights problems in this country in the 1960's.
He was described by people as a "gentleman," but that really came down to treating people in an honorable, fair and caring way. His deals were sealed by handshakes, and he taught me to address all people properly and with respect. If I ever forgot to do that, I heard about it.
Although there were many times I saw his kindness and respect of others, no episode stays with me more than the time that he and I delivered a few kitchen cabinets to a retirement center. He had donated the cabinets and could easily have dropped them off at the back of the building, but we parked and walked through the building from the front entrance. He intentionally got several steps ahead of me and forced me to walk through the hallways alone, gazing at all of the seniors sitting in wheelchairs or using walkers. It was an overwhelming experience. When we were done delivering the cabinets, he said only, "I hope you were paying attention." His intent, I'm sure, was to show me that seniors should not be put somewhere and forgotten.
And Finally.... It's easy to over-emphasize the influence that my father had in my life, but if anything, I have under-estimated in this article what he did for me. My mother did a lot of things for us kids also--she taught us to read, got us to schools and took care of us--but she never pushed me the way my father did. He changed the course of my life more than any other person has.