Going into AA
Why? Well, here's the thing. While my hosts for the Jewish Book Festival – Fran and Irwin Martin and their U.M.-attending daughter Stacey – were wonderful beyond belief (free meals, gift baskets, and even a tour of town that included a walk by the spot where JFK publicly announced the formation of the Peace Corps), I can't say that the rest of AA was quite so welcoming.
As I approached the lectern (bema?) for my reading, I saw an audience full of flat-line (as in no smiles) faces. And that barely changed throughout. Seemed aside from a few who were nodding along and smiling, the rest were there either because they were part of the festival and would have thought it rude not to attend (though not to stare blankly) or they had been coerced into coming for extra credit by their very smart/hip professor (more on him to come) and so had no real interest in the event.
As I chatted on about sex on Nazi flags and rebellions against parents and swastika-mocking Jews in general, I saw the yawns of the young 'uns boldly exposed to my face and I began having flashbacks to my first year in grad school when I taught freshman composition. Now, in case you've never taught freshman comp, the first thing you need to know is it's basic. The second thing you need to know is it's attended by kids straight out of high school. And the third thing you need to know is that those kids are, almost to the person, only taking it because it's a required course. In other words, they're there because they've had an academic gun pointed at their heads.
As a result, they're pissed. Not at you necessarily, but at the process. And yet the process isn't there to attack. Just you. You're the one making them string sentences together. You're the one trying to get them to organize their thoughts. You're the one forcing them to think in the first place. They're hung over for god's sake. Why can't you just leave them alone!
So what they do is either hand in the lamest of lame essays ("my grandmother was great because she was nice. Nice like … well, nice. I just don't know how to describe it") or they sit there and yawn in your face – and sometimes they even put their heads down on their desks and go to sleep.
In a way, I can't blame them. Writing the traditional five-paragraph essay isn't exactly getting to wax poetic. But, hey, it wasn't like I was asking them to write about the Federal Reserve Bank or why Dust Is Drier Than Dirt. I was letting them talk about whatever they wanted. I guess they just weren't sure what that was. I mean, how can you talk anyway when your mouth is full of Pabst?
I can only guess that was the same situation at the AA reading. I mean, these were kids form an American Studies class. You would have thought an American Studies topic focused on punk rock might have slightly interested them. But it was the day after the MAJOR Big Ten game between UM and Ohio State, and as I saw the night before when I arrived and spent nearly an hour going a quarter of a mile in traffic, these folks take their football SERIOUSLY. Even the Martins couldn't stop talking about it. In fact, they were in mourning to a certain degree, U-Mich (sounds kind of Yiddish, doesn't it?) had lost and lost in a big way. As Fran repeated, "It's bad enough to lose, but it's really bad when your team doesn't bother to 'show up.'"
So there I was, going on about punk rock and Jews – two decidedly football-challenged areas – and there they were, yawning and shifting in their seats and making me want to say, "Hey, listen up! Lenny Bruce died for your sins!!"
By the time the Q&A rolled around, I was greatly relieved. Not too surprisingly, there were no questions from the kiddies. But, as I soon realized, there were from the organizer of the festival, a woman in a sensible dress who looked as if she'd just stepped in something unpleasant.
"You talk about the punks making fun of Nazis. Is that really something that we want with such a tragedy of enormous proportions?"
I explained that it wasn't necessarily something that we wanted, but that the punks weren't making fun of the Holocaust, they were making fun of the Nazis to underscore how laughably absurd they were. As I go into at great length in one chapter of my book, the "camp" response to oppression is a way of underscoring how ridiculous the oppressors are and so robbing them of their power. Much the same could be said of Jewish humor in general. It's a way of mocking the oppressors and satirizing their ridiculousness.
"It's like Mel Brooks did in the Springtime for Hitler portion of The Producers," I concluded, thinking that was that.
But I was wrong. Sensible-Dress had a few more choice words for her book festival's final author.
"Well, I didn't like it when Mel Brooks did it and I wrote him a letter telling him so."
So much for the fabled Jewish sense of humor. And so much for Ann Arbor. I'm not sure that I'll be visiting their environs again anytime soon. Or at least not their Jewish Community Center.
I can only guess Comrade Mel feels the same.
Oh, but wait. As promised, I wanted to tell you more about Bruce Conforth, the American Studies professor with whom I shared beers and a fascinating chat.
Not only did Bruce tell me about his own Jewish youth playing in bands in the Lower East Side between 1969 and 1980, he clued me into the fact that he had a pic of a certain punk superstar all dressed up in her high school prom dress. Now, I can't say exactly who this is, since Conforth's students are forever trying to figure out what band it was in which he played, but trust me, to see this punkster in her prom dress is something of an impossible dream for me. And yet, if Bruce lives up to his promise, he just may send me a scan of it. And if he doesn't mind, I'll share that scan with you. Oh my heart, be still.
Ok, enough for now. Thanks again to the Martins, Dr. Bruce and the folks who asked interesting and provocative questions about the book both during the reading and after. But to the students and certain organizers of the festival, I bid you a not exactly fond adieu. A bit cheesy to treat a guest who you have come to see like so much cheesy fondue.
In the spirit of Thanksgiving, I say to you, Gobble Gobble Hey,