I always used to write down the wonderful, often hilarious, always perfect things Jake said in class and in meetings and at the bar and in emails. [I kept meticulous notes about almost every day of my life from when I was sixteen just up until a few months ago.] Jake always used to tell me to take notes, to carry around a notebook because it could be the prosthesis that held everything I could not always carry. He also said, constantly, “ABW, Ali. Always be writing.” So I will always be writing.
In the spirit of remembering, and because there is nothing else I have the capacity to do right now, here are some examples of the things Jake used to say, the things he used to do, the ways in which I used to react. These are all from my journal back in the fall of 2007 when I first took a class with Jake [which is to say, I was newly nineteen when all of this transpired, and brilliance was a new thing to me, and Jake was a new thing to me, and I was in awe every day that I spent with him]:
1. My English professor, Jake, said “symbolic spelunking” today. That is a ridiculous occurrence in itself. Then, he referred to the “literary grotesque.” I mean com'mon, the guy is a genius when it comes to putting together words into phrases and sentences. He's probably the most accurate and articulate person I have ever met.
2. Girl: “I'm having trouble reaching the word count for the first question, do you have any suggestions?” Jake: “Write more.”
3. Email from my English professor: “Reminder: no class tomorrow. Work on your exam. Reminder: class resumes on Thursday with a continuation of our last discussion PLUS stories by Welty and Vonnegut. Reminder: exams due on Friday. Reminder: extra credit available for submissions to Vonnegut contest or Copper Nickel contest. Reminder: Breakfast is the most important meal of the day.”
4. We were talking about Tim O'Brien's short story, “The Things They Carried” and I was talking about the significance of lists. The point of the day, Jake said, was to convince an imaginary group of hooligans on the street that O'Brien's story was valuable and should not be erased from literature. Yeah, Jake likes making up crazy things. So I was talking about lists and he went and wrote on the board “epideixis” which is more or less when something points itself out as being a list. He said that the hooligans are tired of old epideixis and what's the big deal. Then this guy Devin said some stuff about it and Jake yells, “This ain't yo daddy's epideixis!” We convinced the hooligans in the end.
5. Jake: 5,000 words is my preferred length for prose. I can write 5,000 words a day.
I got to know Jake first through the comparisons he always made. He would pair two seemingly disparate things, and in doing so would make the kind of observations that exploded my mind:
1. In American Short Story today, Jake compared Gertrude Stein's writing to avant-garde jazz. He then played us some Coltrane off of his iPod. Then, to discuss the significance of what Faulkner and Stein were doing with their writing style and language, he alluded to Snoop Dogg...When a kid said that people that like Faulkner like him for the stories (namely the plot and actions), Jake was like, NO! and explained how Faulkner is a true revolutionary with his style and how he used southern vernacular to wield power over other writers, which led him to receive awards and acclaim over other more typical writers. I was in awe. That class is so amazing.
2. I just had a meeting with Jake. It went really well. We talked out my ideas and I figured out how to begin thinking about them. He made an analogy to help me understand better what I am trying to accomplish. He said that when you make a mix tape, you sometimes might put a song right next to another song and those songs may have the same beats. If they do, when the person listens to the second song, they will pick up on the beat, maybe more than on the lyrics or melody because the matching beats of each song are put next to each other. If you matched songs with the same melody, the listener would notice the melody maybe more than other aspects of the song. This is what I'm supposed to do with my paper. Take the Amy Hempel story that I've chosen to explore and put it next to other short stories we've read that utilize similar ideas or techniques so that the stories bring those ideas out of one another. My topic is language. More specifically the conscious use of language to make decisions and how that affects or defines the author/narrator relationship. Also, Jake somehow knows that I have aspirations to be a writer. How does he know this? And he got grumpy when I said I only write papers the night before they're due. I did this to see what he though about such a practice, already knowing what the answer would be. He told me that I am cheating myself if I do that because such actions do not afford me the time to reformulate thoughts or be more articulate. He told me to start my paper today. And so I shall.
Jake’s encouragement was always the highlight of my day:
Class ended with Jake saying “incredible” in response to my discussion of thresholds and satellite characters in the stories we'd read. I was very proud of myself because I really respect Jake and it is always nice when someone you admire says something good about you.
And somewhere in my journal, toward the end of the semester, this:
In English today I realized how amazing Jake actually is. And why he acts the way he does. And that I need to always be around people who have the same sorts of ideas about life as he does. The same interest in paying attention to certain things. In particular he was talking about how all of the time no matter what he is doing he is viewing relationships in terms of power. His relationship with his family, his peers, his students, strangers, etc. And that's what he writes about.
I want to tell you all the other things Jake said, how supportive he was, how he gave me the strength to fight the things I fight every day. Not just in my career, but in my life. When my Facebook status read “feels like someone poured acid down my insides,” he was the only person to ask if I was feeling less acidic the next day. Whenever I would rush into a meeting late because of some ridiculous thing or other I'd been mixed up in, he was the first to make sure I was doing ok. When I got stuck in a riot during the DNC in 2008, I told him my mom said that if I were arrested, she wouldn't bail me out of jail. He told me it didn't matter, because he'd bail me out of jail, no matter how ridiculous my crime. When we last met for drinks, as we left Bull and Bush, where we always met to catch up, he hugged me and said “You're not going to understand this right now, but I just want you to know that anything you ever need from me, ANYTHING, EVER, just ask me, and it's yours.” You could tell he'd been saving this till the end of our meeting. I was speechless. I felt, suddenly, like everything was possible in my life, because I had such an incredible person on my team, always.
But I don't need to tell you this. Because if you knew Jake, you know how he took care of his people. You know that he would do anything for the people he loved. He always used to tell me, “That's my problem, Ali. I always say yes.” He taught me to say yes. To take care of my own. To fight for my place in this world. He taught me that I am smart, that I am talented, that I am capable, that I WILL get whatever it is I decide I want.
Ali Pearl is a PhD candidate and doctoral fellow in English literature & digital humanities at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. Her work is published or forthcoming atQuarterly West, LIES/ISLE, and The Fiddleback.