This is a repost of a book review I wrote in 2015. The book was written by my former philosophy professor, Dr. John Peale. I am posting the review as it was originally written in 2015.
Yesterday, I posted about my old philosophy professor, Dr. John Peale. My post was about my initial impressions of a book he wrote in 2012 called Just How Far From the Apple Tree: A Son in Relation to His Famous Father as well as a couple of memories I had of college, when he taught me. I admit my first post about Dr. Peale is a bit critical and negative. Having just finished his book, I think I can be a little less critical with my review, which is what I’m going to write today. I found the second half of the book more engaging and interesting than the first part, which was mostly about his long academic road to being a full professor of philosophy at my alma mater, Longwood College (now Longwood University).
Dr. Peale’s book is mainly about his life and some of his experiences growing up the son of famed preacher and author Norman Vincent Peale. He writes Just How Far From the Apple Tree as I would expect a professor to write. His style is scholarly and somewhat formal, with no contractions or slang. Though he does use the first person as he relates his life story, the book comes across as more than a bit dry. There were a few times when I swore I read the same passage twice. I hadn’t read the same passage twice; instead, Dr. Peale had repeated himself. My guess is that this book didn’t get much attention from an editor.
The second half of Dr. Peale’s book, the part I hadn’t yet read when I wrote yesterday, shows a side of him that is more relatable to me. In that portion, Peale comes down from the academic high horse and writes about things he’s faced. I mentioned yesterday that Dr. Peale has battled cancer and alcoholism. He writes that he has been diagnosed with cancer three times. The first time was in 1991, after a trip to China. His wife spotted a crusty lesion on his back that turned out to be melanoma. I believe he was dealing with the melanoma when I had him as a professor. Ever since 1991, he’s been living with cancer.
Dr. Peale is also an alcoholic. Having read about his battles with alcoholism, I have a bit more empathy for him. I grew up with an alcoholic father who exhibited a lot of the same behaviors Dr. Peale describes in his book. In fact, in some ways, I think Peale’s situation was worse. My father, to my knowledge, was never arrested for drunk driving. Dr. Peale was stopped three times. The first time was in 1971 in North Carolina’s Outer Banks. A lawyer managed to get the judge to reduce the charges to reckless driving, sparing Dr. Peale’s record until many years later, when he got drunk in his office and decided to try to drive to Hampden-Sydney College. He ended up running off the road and passing out in the car, where he was confronted by a police officer who spotted the almost empty bottle of gin next to him.
I must admit, I was surprised to read that Dr. Peale was caught drinking and driving, was arrested, and had come very close to spending the night in jail. He was charged with a DUI and finally entered treatment, but continued to drink. The third time he was stopped, the cop let him off with a warning. It took a little later before he finally hit bottom and admitted his problem. He went into rehab and joined Alcoholics Anonymous. Unlike my dad, Dr. Peale was able to quit drinking entirely and has apparently been off the sauce since March 2000. I applaud him for that.
Reading about Dr. Peale’s struggles with drinking reminded me of my dad… finding him in various positions in a state of extreme inebriation. Like me and my mom, Dr. Peale’s wife found her husband passed out more than once. Like me and my sisters, Dr. Peale’s children had to deal with their father’s anger issues, much exacerbated by booze. Dr. Peale writes that most alcoholics are angry people dealing with deep, unresolved pain. I believe it. I saw it firsthand in my own immediate family. Dr. Peale’s pain apparently came from his experiences being his father’s son and feeling like he couldn’t measure up. He writes that he once felt like his life amounted to nothing. He didn’t appreciate or value his accomplishments. He felt ashamed of who he was and drank to try to erase that feeling of shame and despair. His story is one I can relate to.
I think Dr. Peale’s book improves dramatically beyond the 45% mark. The first part of it was off-putting to me and reminded of me of my in person impressions of him. The second part, the part where he actually reveals part of himself that is painful and personal, redeems the effort that went into reading his book.
Dr. Peale is obviously very committed to A.A. He is one of the many people it’s worked for, although not everyone is as successful with it as he’s been. I think it helps to believe strongly in God for A.A. to work. Dr. Peale believes in a higher power and I think that, along with having a sponsor who is a good friend to him, has helped him overcome his addiction.
Anyway… I’m not sure his book is something that would appeal to a lot of people. I think it could appeal to people who are interested in the Peale family, but only if an editor revised it and removed the redundancies and stiff, formal, academic style Peale uses. However, as a former student who attended the university that employed him for so many years, I will say that I found some value in Just How Far From the Apple Tree. If anything, it was a good reminder to me that everyone has a story and everyone is fighting a battle of some sort. While I didn’t necessarily appreciate Dr. Peale as a professor, I can appreciate him more as an author.
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This is a repost of an article I wrote for my original blog on September 1, 2015. I’m reposting it today because I plan to repost the book review that followed it and is referenced in this article. I’m mostly reposting it as it originally appeared almost five years ago.
I am going to preemptively issue a disclaimer. Ordinarily, in a post like this, I wouldn’t name names. Since this story has to do with a famous person, his famous offspring, and the book written by said offspring, I’m going to name names in this post. Apologies to anyone who is offended, because I intend to be brutally honest.
The other day, I started a new Facebook group. It’s called Random Bullshit. I started it on a whim and at the suggestion of a local friend after we became disenfranchised from some of the local Facebook groups. I decided to make the group fairly open to new members, even those who don’t live in Stuttgart, as long as they don’t mind oversharing and raunchy humor. Right after I started the new group, the subject of philosophy professors came up after I put up a link to my post about how I discovered what enemas are. One of my friends said he’d mailed an enema to a former philosophy professor at Ole Miss who had given him a poor grade. I suddenly remembered my former philosophy professor at Longwood University, Dr. John Peale.
Dr. Peale’s philosophy course is, to date, the only one I have ever taken. In fact, I took the class because I had to; it was called Ethics and everyone at my school had to pass it or something similar to it as part of our general education requirements. If I recall correctly, the class didn’t meet for the entire semester and was only good for two credits.
With a course name like “Ethics”, I figured I would find the class stimulating. I remember looking forward to it. I thought it would be an interesting class, but I was mistaken. In fact, the only two things I remember learning from Peale’s class are Immanuel Kant (as in, I know he existed and was a philosopher) and existentialism (as in, I know it’s a philosophical theory). I don’t remember being very impressed by my professor, who came across as pompous, arrogant, angry, and overbearing. I do remember getting a C in the course, but that was no big deal. I got C’s in a whole lot of classes, including many of the ones I took for my major. I never claimed to be a brilliant student. I came away from Dr. Peale’s class not particularly interested in any further study of philosophy. Other former students’ mileages may vary.
One of my best friends in college temporarily had Dr. Peale as an advisor. One day, he went to see the professor to plan for the next semester’s classes. While he was sitting there talking to Dr. Peale, my friend noticed a bunch of books on the professor’s bookshelf written by Norman Vincent Peale. Norman Vincent Peale, who died at a ripe old age on Christmas Eve in 1993, was a very famous minister and author. He wrote The Power of Positive Thinking as well as many other well-received books. He was also a founder of Guideposts, an uplifting little magazine that my grandmother used to keep conveniently stationed by her toilet. I guess they made good reading material.
My friend, whose parents were big fans of Norman Vincent Peale’s books, asked Dr. Peale if he was related to the famous author and preacher. The good professor said, teeth clenched and with a noticeable edge to his voice, “He is my father.” Fortunately, my friend had the good sense not to press the issue further and got on with planning the next term’s courses.
I had mostly forgotten about Dr. Peale until the other day, after bantering with my friend about enemas on Facebook. That just goes to show you that I have a mind that can find a tangent with anything. Anyway, as a result of that bantering session, I had a sudden flashback to Dr. Peale’s philosophy class and being publicly embarrassed when Peale yelled at me for an answer I gave that must have seemed stupid to him. I don’t remember what I said or why Peale thought it was dumb, but I do remember how I felt. Fortunately, the incident occurred toward the end of the class period and I was able to slink back to my dorm with relative ease.
At the time, I had never heard of Norman Vincent Peale and had no idea that Dr. Peale was related to anyone important. I didn’t know he had some personal issues that affected him deeply enough to write a book about his dad. I just wanted to get through my Ethics class and was having a surprisingly difficult time of it. It’s not a pleasant memory. In Peale’s defense, I think he was going through some rather serious health issues at the time and that may have affected his demeanor. He retired from teaching just a few years after I took his class.
I decided to search for Dr. Peale to see what he was up to these days. I found a blog that he wrote a few years ago and that’s where I discovered the book he wrote about his difficult relationship with his father. Because I am nosey and find human relationships fascinating, I decided to order the book, Just How Far from the Apple Tree?: A Son in Relation to His Famous Father. I’m about halfway through it and will probably eventually post a review on this blog. For now, I will comment that the book does shed some light on why Dr. Peale came across the way he did to me and my friend. Despite growing up very privileged, well-traveled, and financially supported, according to his book, Dr. Peale never felt appreciated, regarded, or properly loved by his parents. In particular, Peale felt neglected by his famous father, who was supposedly not “there” enough for him.
I don’t mean this to sound snarky because I can understand feeling bitter about having parents who don’t appreciate their offspring. I have felt the same way sometimes about my own parents. I think a lot of people have this problem and I know it’s a real issue. On the other hand, the book also reveals a lot of what I observed when I had Peale as a teacher. He is more than a bit impressed with himself.
After graduating from an excellent boarding school in Massachusetts, Peale studied at Washington & Lee University, a fine Virginia school in Lexington, located right next to Virginia Military Institute. Virginia Military Institute and, to a lesser extent, W&L, are a part of my personal history. My dad, an uncle, and quite a few cousins went to VMI. Bill and I got married there. A couple of my cousins are W&L grads, too. In any case, I know for a fact that W&L is a very good private university in a beautiful town.
Before he went to college, Dr. Peale went to Scotland to work. He spent a gap year harvesting salmon with his friends, which he admits was a lot of fun. He also got to travel to London and Paris after exploring the Scottish countryside. While catching salmon swimming upstream was hard work, it sure wasn’t digging ditches, cleaning horse stalls, or flipping burgers.
Next, Dr. Peale went to Boston University, where he earned a master’s degree and met his wife, Lydia. Boston University is yet another excellent and pricey university, though maybe it wasn’t so costly in Peale’s day. Peale followed up by attending Union Theological Seminary in New York, a school he writes his father was against his attending, because Norman Vincent Peale thought it was too liberal. John Peale’s choice apparently caused friction between father and son, though they were never actually estranged.
Having later graduated from seminary, Dr. Peale was qualified to be a minister. However, though he claims to be a “gifted” minister, Peale felt a calling toward academia, a choice that he claims upset his father. So he went to the University of Chicago, where he studied, and taught courses at nearby Elmhurst College. Then, he went to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he earned a doctorate and taught courses.
Dr. Peale writes in his book that he enjoyed financial support from his parents, who helped him and his wife, Lydia, and their children live comfortably and travel extensively. One time, his parents even attended one of his lectures; they sat in the back as he taught and weren’t obtrusive. However, Norman Vincent Peale apparently didn’t show his son enough support for his choice to be a teacher over a preacher. That lack of regard, apparently, really offended the younger Peale, which seems to be the whole basis for his book. Peale writes that after his lecture, his father wasn’t effusive enough with praise, and that clearly seriously wounded Peale’s ego.
Peale repeatedly boasts about his successes as a teacher, awards he’s won, rewarding relationships he’s enjoyed with his students and colleagues, and his alleged talents as a musician and minister (and I only write “alleged” because I have never been in a position to see or hear for myself). More than once, he writes about the great schools he attended and the many countries he’s visited, including China several times. Peale is fascinated by China and was fortunate enough to be able to indulge his curiosity by engaging in in depth study. Despite that, he’s unhappy enough to write a book about his father, the man he admits helped him to become who he is through financial assistance and genetics. According to him, who John Peale is is pretty damned special and accomplished. But based on what I’ve read so far, Peale is wickedly pissed because his famous dad never recognized him as being as great as Peale himself thinks he is.
Again… I don’t mean to sound too snarky about this. I understand that feeling unappreciated by one’s parents is difficult. A lot of other writers have written about this very thing: Pat Conroy and Frank Schaeffer are just two of my favorite writers who have had difficult relationships with their parents. The struggle is real.
On the other hand, there are so many other things in life that are much more difficult than not being “appreciated enough” by a parent figure. In fact, Peale has even experienced a couple of them himself. This is a man who has battled cancer and alcoholism, two significant life challenges that can try a person’s mettle. He doesn’t write much about those experiences, though; instead, he chooses to try to convince readers of how accomplished he is. Moreover, besides being able to travel a lot, marry his sweetheart, have children, and study at some great schools, he’s had a career in a field where few are able to flourish. How much in demand are philosophy professors these days? How much in demand were they when Peale’s career got started?
Has Dr. Peale ever had to worry about the basics in life? Has he ever gone hungry or wondered how he was going to pay the rent or keep the lights on in his home? Has he ever lost a child to suicide or a tragic accident? Besides his health issues, has Dr. Peale ever experienced any true adversity outside the ivory tower of academia? Were his parents abusive or hateful to him, as Pat Conroy’s father was? Did they neglect him? Based on his book so far, I have my doubts. But I’m not quite finished reading it, so I will revisit this topic again when I have. Suffice to say, while I don’t remember learning a whole lot in the so-called “gifted professor’s” Ethics course, I am definitely learning something from his book.
I belong to a Facebook group that is dedicated to us old fogies who went to Longwood University when it was still Longwood College. I love nostalgia groups. I have a really long memory for obscure details and I like to share them with people who can add to them or are amazed by them. Yesterday, I really got on a roll and started three threads in that group.
The first thread was about the Tea Room at Longwood. It was basically a “fancy” restaurant for students. For five bucks, you could have a steak dinner… or something like that. I only got to eat there once. I didn’t know it existed for most of my time there. I was in a music fraternity for women (Sigma Alpha Iota) and a regional representative came to visit our chapter. We took her to dinner at the Tea Room. I remember enjoying the experience.
Sadly, a few years after I graduated, the building the Tea Room was in caught on fire. They rebuilt the Rotunda, but I don’t think the Tea Room survived. A bunch of people had memories of it, though… and lots of people like me didn’t know it existed. I’m glad I had my one chance to try it. Longwood actually had good food in the 90s, though.
The second thread was about French Pool. In my day, French was a dormitory, but I guess at one time, it was a gym, and I believe right now, it’s a computer lab. When I was at Longwood, French had racquetball courts and a pool. Other people said that it also had a basketball court, but I don’t remember ever seeing that. I do remember swimming in French Pool one time. It was an indoor pool, but there were garage doors that opened so that you could get some outdoor weather. The pool at the Natural Bridge Hotel and Conference Center was also like that, back in the day. And, just like the pool at Natural Bridge, they also closed the French Pool.
When I was at Longwood, the French Pool was kind of on its last legs. It was often closed. However, it was a really pretty pool– very old school, and kind of small. I read that Longwood got rid of its other pool, which was in what was known as Lancer Hall when I was a student, but is now called Willett Hall. I remember swimming in the pool at Lancer Hall when I was a freshman. A friend of mine was a lifeguard there. We used to go in the evenings and I remember doing flips off of the diving board (which I figured out how to do quite by accident). That pool also had a natatorium, which allowed people to watch swimmers from a window under the water surface.
I guess the pool has been drained because it looks like the college is going to open a new convocation and events center and the old pool is obsolete, having been opened in 1980. Hopefully, they will include a pool, since I doubt people want to have to go to nearby Hampden-Sydney, a private men’s college, to use their pool, or rent an apartment off campus to have pool access. Especially since the “Hamsters” can be a bit snobby about Longwood. The funny thing is, when I was at Longwood, you had to pass a swimming test in order to graduate or take a swimming class and pass it. Now they don’t have a pool? WTF!
And finally, there was more talk about Erin McCay George, whom I have written about a few times on this blog. Erin George, author of the book A Woman Doing Life: Notes from a Prison for Women, was editor of the school newspaper when I was at Longwood. She abruptly left school before graduating. Word on the street was that she left because she was caught embezzling money intended for the newspaper to fund a trip to England to meet her boyfriend, James George. She met James George on the Internet when it was still in its infancy.
I posted about how Erin had run a couple of really controversial stories in the paper that had the whole campus outraged. I wrote about that in this post, which includes links to two posts I wrote for my original blog about how I came to realize that Erin had written a book about prison life that is now being used in a lot of criminal justice classes. Anyway… after reminiscing with people who were at Longwood at the time and knew Erin, I’m beginning to think that the spicy newspaper stories from 1992 that so upset people on campus were, in part, intended to be a distraction from what she was doing with money that she had allegedly stolen from the student newspaper.
Longwood had, and probably still has, a strict honor code. Lying, cheating, and stealing were not tolerated. Since she was evidently creatively using college funds to enhance and advance her relationship with her British boyfriend, it could be that the scandalous news stories were intended to shift focus from her alleged illicit activities to the content of the newspaper. Or maybe it wasn’t…
Erin went on to marry her boyfriend and then, just six years later, shot him in the head at point blank range for $700,000 in insurance money. She was eventually sentenced to 603 years in prison. Of course, she won’t serve that many years because it’s impossible, but I think it was mainly passed down to ensure that she is never released. Parole was abolished in Virginia in 1995, although some convicted felons can be released from prison early if they meet certain requirements and if they committed their crimes when parole still existed. Erin committed her crimes after parole was abolished.
Anyway, it’s clear that a lot of people didn’t remember the newspaper scandal in the 1990s and even fewer knew that Erin was in prison and had written a book. I reconnected with someone who was at Longwood when I was and knew Erin, explaining that Erin had a friend in one of the few eccentric English professors at Longwood during that time, a man named William Woods. I had Mr. Woods for a couple of classes. He was a lot of fun. I seem to remember that in the early 1990s, when this was going on, Mr. Woods was obsessed with Madonna’s Sex book, an expensive “coffee table” book that was full of erotic images. At the time, it was considered very risque.
I remember Vanilla Ice (Robert Van Winkle) was popular then, and Madonna had dated him. I think some of their sexy pictures were in that book and Vanilla Ice broke up with her over it. According to a Huffington Post article about their relationship, Vanilla Ice said of Madonna to the British tabloid, News of the World,
“She was older than me and a great lover… But I broke up with her after she printed that book because I was hurt to be an unwitting part of this slutty package. It was disgusting and cheap. We were in a relationship yet it looked like she was screwing all these other people.”
Since Mr. Woods was supposedly Erin’s ally, and he was so fascinated with Madonna’s Sex book (as well as the Price Club), I wonder if maybe he influenced her to dedicate an issue of the Rotunda to “safe sex”, which included the free distribution of condoms in the paper. Of course, at that time, one of the fraternities at Longwood also used to have an annual “safe sex” party, which included t-shirts one could buy. I believe that fraternity was eventually kicked off campus for hazing. That’s just speculation from yours truly. I really don’t know where the truth lies. Still, so many years after all of that happened, I kind of wonder if the prosecutors who worked to bring Erin to justice ever looked at her time at Longwood, which led up to her relationship with her victim and his ultimate untimely demise. Looking back on that time, it’s clear that trouble was brewing years before it culminated in murder.
I read a couple of old news articles about Erin George’s case and they implied that she confessed to the murder, claiming that George would not give her a divorce. According to those articles, one of her former cellmates said that Erin told her that her husband, James George, “had it coming”. But looking at the evidence– George was buying insurance but backed out because he was a smoker and it would cost too much– and two days later, Erin falsified his signature on paperwork and paid the premiums with a secret account she had… and then claiming that it was “normal” for her to sign his name on stuff since she “handled the business in their relationship”, I can’t help but think of Bill’s ex wife. Bill’s ex, a narcissist who abused him, also “handled the business” in their relationship, to disastrous results.
I doubt very much that James George refused to give Erin a divorce. I think the issue was, she simply didn’t want to have to deal with him anymore and murdering him for insurance money was the easiest way, in her mind, to make sure he was out of the picture for good. She clearly wanted to split from him, but she wanted to make sure she got paid handsomely without incurring the high cost and personal risk of divorce… and would never have to deal with custody issues, his influence regarding their three children, or the children having a stepmother. But again– just my speculation, having been married to a man whose ex wife was also very destructive (though thankfully not yet murderous– that I know of, anyway) and similarly narcissistic. I will admit that I don’t know anything more about this case than what I’ve read and deduced on my own, based on my own dealings with this type of person. I could be wrong, and I doubt we’ll ever know the real story.
Sometimes, I wonder if I missed my calling as a true crime writer. On the other hand, looking back at Erin George, I wonder if, had she been slightly less narcissistic and antisocial, she might have had a great career as a provocateur or paparazzo. She clearly had little fear of publishing things that would upset people. Longwood, in the 1990s, was a pretty conservative place– though not as conservative as Liberty University, just down the road in Lynchburg, was– and still is.
Posting the link to Erin’s book for those who are interested. As an Amazon Associate, I get small commissions from Amazon when sales are made through my site.
This is a flashback post I wrote on February 23, 2018. I was fondly remembering my very first English professor at what was then known as Longwood College. I think it’s kind of a cool memory, so I’m reposting it as is.
Because I’m tired of writing about politics and mean-spirited people who send me hate mail, I’ve decided this morning’s post will be about one of my old professors at Longwood. He was an interesting character and I loved his class, although his methods were very unorthodox. I’m not sure, but I don’t think he got a lot of love from the other English professors. It’s probably because he was a very eccentric man… or at least that’s how he seemed to me.
Last night, I looked up Otis Douglas III. There isn’t a whole lot about him online. I never knew how old he was, but when I knew him, he had a rather rumpled look, with wild white hair and old sweaters. Some might think of him as an “absent minded professor”, although I never really thought of him in that way. I figured he was well-seasoned by the time I met him in 1990. He’d been teaching at Longwood for almost as long as I’d been alive.
The class I took from him was called Rhetoric and Research, otherwise known as English 100. It was a basic class that almost all freshman took upon arrival at Longwood. It was supposed to help us learn how to write.
A short blurb about my former English teacher from a 1974 issue of The Rotunda… If any of my classmates are reading this, I highly recommend checking out the whole paper. It’s a hoot! Especially the letters to the editor!
As I was researching Mr. Douglas, I learned that his family was from Reedville, which is a town not too far from where I grew up. I’ve only been to Reedville once. It was in 1998, when a friend and I caught a ferry there. She was working for a bike tour company, scouting out places to do new tours. Since she was visiting my neck of the woods, she and I got together and spent the day driving around the Northern Neck of Virginia. We stopped in Urbana and Irvington, then went to Reedville with bikes, which we brought to Tangier Island.
Tangier Island is a tiny, fascinating place in the Chesapeake Bay. It’s accessible from Reedville, Virginia, Onancock, Virginia, and Crisfield, Maryland. Unfortunately, environmental concerns now threaten Tangier Island’s existence. I’m sure there were concerns in 1998, too. Beach erosion and serious storms are big problems for the little island. I’m just glad I got to see it twenty years ago. It’s a very interesting place populated by just a few families who have been there for generations.
Mr. Douglas’s roots were apparently near the water, not far from Tangier Island. I found evidence that he has many kinfolk from Reedville and the Northern Neck, and ties to the College of William and Mary. I also noticed that there was a United States Navy minesweeper known as the U.S.S. Otis W. Douglas. She was purchased from the Douglas Company of Reedville, Virginia in 1917 for use in World War I. Sadly, after serving in Brest, France until 1919, she encountered storms on the way back to the United States and sank. I’m not sure, but it appears that the Douglas family of Reedville might be linked to McDonnell-Douglas, the company that makes airplanes. At least the Wikipedia article about the ship implies that maybe it does. Reedville is not a big place, so I can’t imagine there were many other Douglas families there in the early 20th century.
I grew up near the water, in fact in a county not far from the Northern Neck, but my family comes from Virginia’s mountains and valleys. I found out that Mr. Douglas’s father was kind of a famous man. Mr. Douglas is the son of Otis Douglas Jr., a very well-regarded football player and coach who once played for the Philadelphia Eagles. I don’t have to read too much about Mr. Douglas’s father to know who he is. The photo of Otis Douglas Jr., included in his New York Times obituary, reveals that his son bears a striking resemblance. In fact, when I looked at Otis Douglas Jr.’s picture, I was momentarily stunned by how much he looked like a cleaner cut version of his son.
I learned in an obituary about Mr. Douglas’s sister, Eleanor, that their family moved a lot, due to their father’s career in sports. They lived in twenty-six states and Canada. Mr. Douglas never mentioned any of this in class. Much like my former philosophy professor, Dr. John Peale (son of Norman Vincent Peale), he kept it quiet. Instead, he engaged us with stories about how to publish articles and talked about how difficult writing well is.
My very first English professor at Longwood was very intent on teaching his students how to gamble. I remember Douglas telling us that writing well is one of the hardest things a person can do. He taught us that it takes many drafts to get something just right. He wanted us to write many drafts of papers about rather mundane subjects. Our class consisted of nothing but keeping a portfolio with assignments that I recall seemed either bizarre or tedious.
Mr. Douglas didn’t have us write essays. He’d have us write directions to locations. We had to pay close attention to specific details as we wrote our directions. I found the process pretty boring, although I enjoyed Mr. Douglas’s offbeat teaching style. He wasn’t like any of my other professors. He would tell us stories sometimes, but mostly, he talking about playing games of chance, like Blackjack.
He even had us learn the basics of shooting craps. I had never shot craps before I met Mr. Douglas, and I haven’t in the 27 years since I was a student in his class. I don’t gamble. But Mr. Douglas taught us the basics of the game, and as he taught us, he had us write about how to shoot craps. It was bizarre and I’ll never forget it, because it was so unconventional.
I also remember the one final paper I wrote for that class. I really don’t know where my wild streak comes when it comes to writing things down, but for some reason I decided to write a paper about sadomasochism. I titled it “The Chains of Love”. I think I was inspired because I was reading a lot of Nancy Friday’s books at the time.
The late Nancy Friday was famous in the 1970s for writing My Secret Garden, which is a book about women’s sexual fantasies. It was shocking and groundbreaking at the time. I think it was published in 1972 or thereabouts, right around the time I was born. In those days, people evidently didn’t talk frankly about sex, but it was obviously a topic of interest. Nancy Friday went on to write several other very successful books about sexual fantasies, most of which I read when I was in high school and college. Because there’s a provocative side to my personality, I guess I decided to write about them in Mr. Douglas’s class. He must have liked my paper, because I got an A in the class. I had been told by an older hall mate that Mr. Douglas didn’t give out As. Obviously, she was wrong about that.
Incidentally, I was a piss poor English major. I mostly got Bs and Cs in my major, except for classes that focused on creative writing. I also got an A in a non-fiction writing class. That class was taught by a similarly eccentric professor named Mr. Woods, who would never correct anyone who called him “Dr. Woods” by mistake. Mr. Woods could be spotted riding his bike around campus. I had him for two classes. One class mostly involved him talking about Madonna’s Sex book, which had just been published and was causing a scandal. He also talked about the Price Club a lot. I got an A in his class because I wrote about being flashed while riding on a bus on I-95. I’m sure I’ve written about this incident before, but since I’m in a stream of consciousness mood, I’m going to write about it again.
It was during my junior year spring break at Longwood and I had gone on spring tour with the Camerata Singers, which was the auditioned choir. We went on a recruiting tour every spring break that generally culminated in New York City. We’d perform at churches and schools, then take in a Broadway show.
The choir was usually pretty exhausted by the end of the spring tours. Such was the case in 1993, as we headed south toward our college. I was looking out the window, daydreaming. Some guy in a bright yellow car pulled up alongside the bus. I looked at him. He looked at me. I looked away. He dropped out of sight. When I turned to look out the window again, there he was. But he’d pulled out his penis and it was kind of flopping there as he drove alongside the bus, flashing everyone who happened to be looking out the window.
Naturally, I let out a yell of surprise, which woke everyone up. I think more than a few people were traumatized by that guy, getting his jollies exposing himself while speeding down Interstate 95.
I figured I might as well get some traction from being flashed, so I wrote about it and actually drew a crude picture of what I saw. Mr. Woods was apparently impressed. He wrote, “Oh my God! Is that what I think it is!” And yes, the paper got an A.
Mr. Woods was often compared to Mr. Douglas. The two of them were kind of outliers in Longwood’s English department back in the 90s. They were affectionately regarded by students, especially those who were kind of slack. I’m not sure they were as well-regarded by other professors. I remember being at a department social and mentioning to one professor– one I never had, though she had quite a reputation– that I liked Mr. Douglas’s class. I noticed a flash of kind of a disgusted look on her face. Then, she diplomatically said, “Well, he has what you’d call an artistic personality.”
Maybe that’s what’s “wrong” with me, too. My whole life, I’ve been annoying, bewildering, shocking and offending some people, while apparently delighting others. My husband seems to adore me, even if my parents never really did. I never had a lot of really close friends or even too many close family members. Some people I thought were “close”, actually weren’t. And yet, here I am, married to the nicest guy ever who loves my inappropriate sense of humor and love of shock value. On the other hand, maybe my experience is everyone’s experience. Maybe everyone feels like they’re “weird” and eccentric. I may have to think some more about that today as I wait for the weekend to begin.
I am sitting here realizing that I have a lot of time on my hands, time that I’m using to look up people I used to know, learning their histories. I hadn’t thought of Mr. Douglas in a very long time, but it appears that he has a very interesting story. I love it when I make these discoveries and uncover cool stories. It feels kind of like striking gold.
This is the one interesting comment someone left on the original post. S/he also took Mr. Douglas’s class. I want to preserve it, so I’m reposting it here.
Unknown May 1, 2018 at 3:53 PM
Great stuff! I enjoyed reading your article. I was in Dr. Douglas’s class In the Fall of 1990. I vividly remember one afternoon, when Mr. Douglas came in the the classroom, and overheard a female student say, ” Guys suck!” Otis paused and responded “They’re not supposed to.”
It was classic Mr. Douglas.
You nailed it… we wrote papers on how to play Craps.
Another interesting story that I learened is that he taught two of my friends a system to win at Craps, and had them go to Atlantic City to play for him, as I think he was banned from Casinos because of his system of winning. (Think of the movie 21 with Kevin Spacey.)
Is Mr. Douglas still living?
knotty May 1, 2018 at 4:45 PM Thanks for the comment! I don’t know if he’s still living. I think he moved to Charlottesville. I had him Fall of 1990, too, and I remember he was in Richmond at that time.
A couple of days ago, a friend invited me to join a group for military spouses against racism. I hesitated for about a day before I accepted the invite. It’s not that I’m against fighting racism. I do think it’s a serious problem and I am always open to learning new ways to be a better person. I like being in groups where resources are shared and people can discuss things openly and calmly. At first, it looked like that group might turn into something useful and good.
Nevertheless, I still hesitated joining. I was right to hesitate. In my experience, Facebook groups, especially those involving the U.S. military, tend to degrade very quickly. In the past, I have hung on in those types of groups for much longer than I should have, trying to take what was good and leaving the rest. But I am now at a point in my life at which I don’t want to waste any time on bullshit. While that group started out pretty well, this morning I could see that it was rapidly turning into a shitstorm. 2020 is one big shitstorm on its own. I don’t need any more thrown at me on social media.
In this case, the shitstorm was prompted when an admin posted that the word “picnic” is a derogatory, racist term. I was a bit perplexed by that revelation. I had never heard of “picnic” being offensive. It’s used a lot in Germany. It’s generally a term used to describe dining al fresco, often while sitting on a blanket with a basket full of food.
There’s even a play called Picnic, that I remember being performed at my college when I was a freshman. Longwood University, then called Longwood College, has a long history in the fight against racism. It’s located in the town of Farmville in Prince Edward County, Virginia, the location of one of the worst resistances of massive integration in U.S. history. Prince Edward County is also the location of a well-known fight for civil rights. From the link:
During the 20th century, Prince Edward was the center both of one of America’s worst episodes of massive resistance and one of the bravest moments of the Civil Rights struggle. In 1951, the student-led strike at Moton High School, organized by then-16 year old Barbara Johns, produced the majority of plaintiffs in Brown v. Board of Education. The public schools, however, were closed for five years beginning in 1959 rather than integrated. And yet it was here also, four decades later, that a majority of voters opted to make Douglas Wilder the first African-American to be elected governor in any state in all of American history – yes, that happened in Virginia.
I couldn’t imagine my racially conscious college putting on a play called Picnic if the word “picnic” is racist. I decided to look up the history of the word to find out if it was, in fact, derogatory. What I found out is that for the past twenty years or so, there’s been an urban legend going around the Internet claiming that “picnic” is a racist term. However, the story about “picnic” being offensive is false. The word was first used in France in the late 1600s. It was first used in English in 1748, and in those days, it had no racial connotations whatsoever.
So how did this rumor get started? Well, it seems that back in the days when lynchings were completely acceptable, some white people would have a picnic while they watched. It was entertaining for them to watch black people being lynched. They’d eat, drink, and be merry. At some point, the word was supposedly bastardized to mean “pic-a-nig”, or so I learned as I read that thread, which eventually swelled to over 250 comments before I finally decided to leave the group. Because some people “picnicked” while lynching people, somehow there were people who felt that the term “picnic” should always refer to the practice of white people having an outdoor gathering involving food while watching black people being murdered in the most horrifying ways.
Some people correctly pointed out that the word “picnic” isn’t a racist term. They provided the usual links to proof– and the links were good ones, from legitimate academic sources, as well as popular and reputable sites like Snopes.com and Politifact. But the person who started the thread soon became very agitated and, though she was an “admin” for the group, sank into name calling. She repeatedly called one articulate poster a “Karen” (and if you read this blog, you probably already know how I feel about that) and accused her of being “passive aggressive”, a term which I have a feeling she can’t accurately define. I watched her escalate the situation more and more with some concern. Other posters were calling her out for being immature, but she insisted that she was just calling people out for being “racially insensitive” because people were refusing to agree with her that the word “picnic” is triggering and they didn’t want one more word to be considered “bad” due to racism. It seems like people who are against racism would want to see fewer offensive words rather than more words– but here they were, arguing over whether an innocuous word should be deemed “offensive” due to what some people did during lynchings.
If you are a regular reader of this blog, you might also know how I feel about burying language and symbols. I understand why people think it’s the right thing to do. It’s certainly easier to ban words and symbols than it is to reclaim them and encourage people to change their attitudes and enlighten themselves. However, it’s been my experience that when people ban words and symbols, new ones tend to crop up. Moreover, by banning a so-called “offensive” word, you still haven’t dealt with the negative attitude that led up to its creation. It’s more like an “out of sight, out of mind” solution that only hides the problem instead of fixing it.
On my original blog, I once wrote a post about an argument I got into with a guy who insisted to me that it’s offensive to use a word like “niggardly” when describing one’s money habits. Niggardly, by the way, is NOT at all a racist term. It has nothing to do with racism, doesn’t have the same etymology as the racist term “nigger”, nor is it even spelled like the racist epithet. The guy who was arguing with me is a teacher, and he has a habit of being very overbearing with his views. I don’t like overbearing people, probably due to my own personality quirks. His “style” was not making me want to change my opinions, yet he kept hammering away at me, insisting that people have the right to be offended by the word “niggardly” because it sounds like a racist epithet. And rather than encouraging people to educate themselves so they won’t be offended when no offense is intended, he thinks we all should just quit using that word. I didn’t appreciate his heavy handed approach. I found it disrespectful and disdainful. It didn’t make me inclined to listen to or consider his viewpoint.
I will grant that there are other words that mean the same as niggardly does. We could all just say “stingy” or “miserly”. It basically means that a person is tight with their money, and there are other ways to say that without using a word that sounds so close to an insult. And frankly, if I were a teacher, I would absolutely encourage my students to choose a less controversial word simply because it’s better to avoid an unnecessary fight with someone who has a less developed vocabulary. However, I would also want them all to know that the word is not akin to the “n bomb”, and that if they see or hear it, they should not take offense if it’s being used properly. It’s not an insulting word, even if it does sound like a word that is very insulting.
I feel the same way about the term “picnic”. If you feel better calling an outdoor gathering involving food a barbecue or a cookout, by all means, call it by those terms. But I also want people to know that if the word “picnic” is considered racist by some people, it’s because it was wrongly hijacked. Its original meaning had nothing to do with racism. And I don’t think it’s right to give bad people the power to change language in that way. Why should we? It’s not the word that’s “bad”. It’s the asshole who is using language to be hurtful and demeaning that is “bad”. Words are neutral.
I didn’t like the way the admin, who by the time I left the group had been stripped of her admin powers, was insulting and berating people. I also noticed that she wasn’t the only one engaging in that behavior. The attacking and uncivilized behavior was distasteful to me, and some of it seemed like it would cause more problems than it solved. I felt my stress levels rise just reading everything and seeing all of the visuals… and I wasn’t even involved in 99% of what was being shared in there.
For instance, I noticed one member had posted screenshots of an American man who works in a German military town. The guy has responsibilities in a major military facility, but his personal views are on naked display. He used monkeys to make his point– the old “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” illustration, which commonly uses “three wise monkeys”, a concept that originated in Japan. Someone in the group determined that the mere use of monkeys was inherently racist and people were talking about trying to get him fired. While I personally disagreed with what I saw on his page, I also think there’s a fine line between calling out racism and ruining people’s lives by threatening their livelihoods.
There are real costs associated with call out culture and mob mentality. The aftereffects of publicly shaming people and making them infamous don’t always just affect the perpetrators; they also harm people associated with them, some of whom are completely innocent, and cause the problem to get worse. Imagine if the guy they were discussing so fervently has young children. These women go after this guy’s job by making an “ICE” complaint. The many complaints cause the man to lose his job, and his family eventually spirals into poverty that leads to other serious family issues like divorce or alcoholism. The young children grow up in that bad environment, and hear about how it happened. How do you think that might affect how they view military wives, particularly those of color? Will they be grateful that someone took a stand and made the guy pay for posting the three wise monkey emojis, even if what he wrote wasn’t particularly racist in nature? Or will they be angry that a group targeted their father and caused his life to go south, thereby causing their lives to go south, too?
I think most people respond better to kindness, reasonableness, and understanding than they do shaming, insulting, threatening, and attacking. I was hoping that group would be a place where people could have intelligent discussions without fear of being attacked or insulted. Unfortunately, I saw evidence that what was originally intended to be a place for sharing ideas and understanding had turned into the usual military wives Facebook group, with lots of people immediately adopting an adversarial tone rather than taking a moment to collect themselves and giving people the benefit of the doubt. And frankly, I’m just too old, crotchety, and impatient for those kinds of groups anymore. So I will continue to do my best to educate myself outside of that group. It’s probably better for my mental health. Maybe I am a “Karen” after all.