Tuesday, July 5, 2011


As I've mentioned in the past, I'm pretty adept at small talk. I'm confident I know what questions will be on the social gathering mid term, if you know what i mean.

All adults should be prepared with concise, perhaps cute, or at least interesting, answers to the following, because the answer to these questions guide the rest of the conversation, or stop it dead, depending on what you say:

1. At a gathering for a mutual friend: "How do you know so and so?" (oddly, i've heard second hand from only one person that white people, but not black people, ask this question. Can anybody dispel or support this claim?)

2. "Where are you from?"

3. "What do you do?"

Case in point, for all my fellow MFA poets out there, while in school, when asked question 3, we'd obviously say something along the lines of, "I'm in grad school." Not necessarily poetic, but clear and to the point.

And, since most of us know how to engage in polite small talk, the obvious next question would be: "Oh, what are you studying?"

To which we'd reply, "Creative writing. Poetry specifically."

And then the conversation could proceed in three likely ways (at least for me... I can no longer speak for every single grad student studying poetry):

1) The conversation dies because this person has no interest in talking with a person who goes to grad school for poetry,
2) the person asks if I'm a fan of poets I either do not care for, or more likely, have never read, making me looking quite stupid considering I'm going to grad school for this,
or, the most likely, 3) the person asks, "So what do you want to do with that degree?"

Because education is invariably tied to occupation. You study something, not because you are just interested in it, but because you could possibly make a living wage based on the knowledge/skill you gain in the subject. Sure, we'd all agree accounts payable might be interesting enough for the average person to read about on Wikipedia, but it's unlikely you'd pursue a degree in it just for the orgasmic high of a balanced ledger.

(honesty alert: i had a hard time writing that last sentence because i didn't know who I'd offend with which career I'd choose to highlight. I know nothing about accounts payable and apologize to anyone who feels a real passion for it and would do it for free).

Anyway, while I was still in school, it was easy to shrug off this question with an insouciant blow off:

No, an MFA won't help me get a job necessarily. But, I'm an artist and I'm more concerned with feeding my art than myself.

But when the student loans stop coming in, you realize, shit, that wasn't quite truthful was it? I'm actually very concerned with feeding and drinking myself. I'd shoot my art in the throat for an Italian hero, post degree.

So yes, I still get that "What do you want to do with that degree?" question nowadays, especially as I'm still job hunting. But here's a question that took me more off guard, asked by an acquaintance with whom I've hung out many times:

"So... what are you qualified to do?"

Ummmm.... well, I guess all the things I was qualified to do before I got the MFA, except now I'd like a bit more money for it because I have to pay back student loans. Or actually, I might be a little less qualified nowadays because time has passed and I've forgotten things I used to know... but, yes, I'd still like to be paid at a Master level, please.

Among the many things for which a grad degree in poetry does NOT qualify me to do (along with neurosurgery, semi-pro lacrosse, and cosmetology) you can add "passing the Oregon State driver's knowledge test."


Whenever I move to a new place, there's about an eight day window of productivity for me. It's the time when I'm still fresh, still new, and willing to unpack and organize my room, meet neighbors, help the homeless, set up a new daily routine, and generally get settled and become part of my new community.

So enthusiastic and eager was I when I moved back to Portland last month, that on my second day in the city, I braved the DMV to get my license, title, and registration all switched over. I had two proofs of ID, three proofs of address, and my DNA sequence and blood type all handy and ready to go.

Everything seemed to be going way too easy. The lines were short, the forms were simple, and all my documents were sufficient, miraculously. I was being helped by an Asian dude who was all laid back and seemed to love being at the DMV. You could definitely see him being the smart ass, but lovable, partner in a buddy/cop movie, or the smart-ass, but lovable, roommate in a buddy/cop sitcom.

Then, as he was finishing up my title and registration, said, "Okay, my man. All you need to do now is take the Driver's Knowledge test and you can get your license."

I was not expecting that. "Ummm... so what happens if I fail?"

"Man! You gotta think positively!"

Well if this DMV fella I just met believes in me, I guess it can't be that hard, right? I mean, he doesn't seem too nervous about it. And, c'mon now, I had just driven across the entire country, and at least a third of the way, I was pretty much asleep. So I felt confident I knew the rules of the road.

Apparently not. After paying a $5 testing fee, I sat at a computer where I'm sure dozens of 16 year olds sat all day before me and had taken the same test and passed. So many questions, and so much uncertainty. Can a Class C license allow me to drive a fire truck? How far behind an intersection can i park? If I have a green light, but see a man with a cane at the corner, should I still go?

No practical real world questions for me to answer, like "How do you eat corn on the cob while changing lanes on the freeway," or "How do you give a douchebag the finger with your toes?"

I got a little more nervous with each wrong answer, but still that Asian DMV guy seemed completely unconcerned, so I assumed I'd done enough to pass. Right? Again, apparently not.

"Aww, you failed? What happened?" he asked when I came back to the counter with my failing score.

What happened?! You fucking gave me false confidence in myself. Thanks Asshole for the worst test prep coaching in history and taking my $5 testing fee without first perhaps suggesting, "hey you know people do fail this test, so maybe you should grab one of those free DMV manuals, read it over, and come back when you're ready."

It took me quite a while to finally pick up the DMV manual and read it through (it was past my 8 day window of productivity... same thing with finding a real bed, so it's likely I'll be sleeping on a mattress on the floor for the rest of my life in Portland), but I eventually read the whole thing. I returned to the DMV, and while still not perfect, received a good enough score to be granted driving privileges in the great state of Oregon. The same Asian dude was there again, but he had clearly forgotten me because he just sees $5 bills instead of people's faces.

So, even with the very pragmatic Master of Poetry degree in my pocket, there are still things to learn, including how to drive safely. Coincidentally, as I left the DMV, i actually saw a blind man crossing the street, but worry not friends. Thanks to my diligent study, I remembered to let up on the gas, apply the brake gently, and NOT hit the man. Now that's knowledge you can use in real life.

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