Saturday, August 23, 2014

Fourth Saturday's Loneliest Liberal: In praise of Augusts

Then & now

By James Knudsen

August is here! I suppose it’s everywhere else too, but here in the San Joaquin Valley it means we are enjoying the last days of summer and some of us are getting the new school year underway. I am currently in the second week of the Fall 2014 semester at Fresno City College. It wasn’t always this way.

The way I remember it, school never started in August. September was when school started. A couple of days of school and then a day off to go the fair. The days were usually summery warm but, in those days, autumn was punctual and first chills of fall were upon us by October. It remains to be seen whether fall will arrive this year or fall completely off the radar.
    Getting to my classroom now involves a commute of 48 miles. While some may find that unthinkable, I find it to be an effortless commute when compared with the daily commute I made from Hollywood, California to Fullerton, California while in graduate school. That commute involved some of the worst traffic Southern California has to offer. But I find both of those trips preferable to the eight-block bicycle ride I made for many years to attend St. Aloysius Parochial School. Nowadays I travel in heated or air-conditioned comfort, depending on the season. The only thing that would get Morissa and me driven to school was rain, monsoonal rain. Not other conditions, like freezing cold – I dreaded sunny mornings in December, it meant we’d had a clear, frigid night – or fog – every other place I’ve lived thinks they get fog. Those places get mist, haze, a marine layer. None of it has ever met the standard set for fog by my hometown of Tulare four decades ago. So, while I now have one of the longer commutes I’ve had, it’s still not the longest, and on balance I enjoy this one more. Amazing what air-conditioning and stereophonic sound will do for one’s outlook.

And attire is certainly different. At St. Aloysius you wore a uniform. The uniform in my day was as follows: Boys – collared, white dress shirt, long- or short-sleeve, green pants, and green sweater...which nobody wore except on picture day. Girls – I can’t go there...suffice to say it was something I could never pull off, but no one ever gave me the opportunity. The point is, we were much more formal in those days.

    I teach in my pajamas. I’m not kidding. The classwork involves considerable work on a yoga mat, and pajama bottoms work beautifully. When I want to project the image of “the man in charge” I don something vaguely military in its styling, like cargo shorts and an olive-green polo shirt. Compared to pajamas the look is positively professorial.

And then there’s the coursework. This semester I am fortunate to be teaching two performance-based classes, Beginning Acting and Voice for the Actor – it’s the one with yoga mats. I cannot recall a single subject at St. Aloysius with a title as lengthy as “Voice for the Actor.” They all had one-word titles: Reading. Math. History. English. Religion. Readers older than I could offer tales of even more rigorous learning by rote than those I can offer. But, I do recall diagramming sentences.

Much has changed in the journey from student to teacher. Some things remain. Church remains. Then it was daily mass attended before classes began. Now, it is my classroom. It’s right there in my syllabus:
...This is an acting course. Acting, done right, requires the actor to be vulnerable. To do that, the actor must feel safe. Behaviors that prevent an actor from feeling safe include, but are not limited to: texting, watching YouTube, talking (whispering is talking), entering the room during a scene and walking in front of the audience, eating, and just being rude. This is my church. Conduct yourselves with the same reverence you would afford your place of worship....
    Then I was told to seek communion with a god, and, looking back, I don’t recall anything ever being especially moving. Now, I seek communion with many mortal gods. And when the work is truthful I sense something that I cannot explain with any of the powerful tools afforded by modern science. I feel a presence. I understand my fellow human beings a little better.

Copyright © 2014 by James Knudsen


  1. The character of August, and what happens in August, and how, change over the years. Today's Loneliest Liberal has recorded some of those changes.

  2. Bravo James! A clear exposition of your teaching goals.

    For those who haven't lived there, the fog in the valley is "radiation fog"- rising from the damp ground instead of condensation of air borne moisture. So they hang at ground level creating "zero/zero" visibility.

    I once came out of a live theater event in Fresno having to drive to Tulare in that "Tule Fog"- a long scary trip. The only gain the current drought may bring is fewer fog days, since the ground water has been significantly reduced.

  3. as ever, james, quite nice. thanks. i too remember diagramming sentences...i'm just not sure i could DO it again now?