February 20, 2019

Why My Teacher Became My Hero

My mother’s childhood friend — pale skin and green eyes and the kind of tameness deemed desirable in a wife — would stand before the mirror in her parents’ house and watch herself grow old. Past her prime and dangerously close to becoming “spoiled” (as in, gone rancid), she would count her laughlines and crow’s-feet, the creases in her neck, and say out loud, “I waited too long.”

That was in Tehran, 40-some years ago. My mother’s friend was 24.

My friend’s son, 20 years later, ran into an old family acquaintance here in Los Angeles. The son had been trying to get into medical school in the United States. He was in his third year of applying. “So,” the lady told him, “you never did become a doctor.” He was 27.

It’s a wretched predicament, knowing that others see you as a has-been, or feeling that you’ve failed at some crucial task of life, that your time has run out, the train has left without you and taken with it your friends and contemporaries. Maybe you weren’t as lucky or smart as they; maybe you made one mistake that cost you. And now you’re old and still waiting for love, or parenthood, or the kind of career success you know you deserve. The rest of the world has given up on you, and maybe you have, too. Maybe you’re still trying — you keep dating, try to adopt, apply for jobs, write that next book — aware that you’re probably kidding yourself, feeling like the proverbial Sisyphus.

If it hasn’t happened for you so far …

My former professor and later colleague, Shelly Lowenkopf, sat on the patio of The French Press on Anacapa Street in Santa Barbara earlier this month and described his typical day: He writes for about four hours, reads for a couple, writes for another three or four hours, reads for a couple more. One or two nights a week, he teaches writing. He’s 83 years old.

He’s published more than 35 books, edited upward of 500. He’s been editor-in-chief and publisher at more than one major house, and taught at USC and UC Santa Barbara for 50 years. He’s been mentor and guide and cheerleader to countless other writers. But he still hasn’t achieved the kind of success — the million-dollar contract, the Pulitzer Prize, an endowed chair at a major university — that he deserves. So he keeps writing, he says, because that’s the only way to get to where you want to be.

It’s a very American thing, this refusal to be beaten by life, to accept the limitations of age or innate ability or even science. What others may see as the wisdom to know when to submit to fate, Americans see as weakness, even cowardice. Here, you’re never too old; it’s never too late. But even by American standards, Shelly is remarkable.

His Instagram account is a daily tribute to the beauty of his town. His passion for engagement in local and national politics would shame most 20-year-old activists. He’s able to celebrate every one of his students’ achievements with just as much enthusiasm and generosity as he did in his own youth. He’s able to believe, still today, that books matter, words matter. His most recent book, a collection of short stories, is titled “Love Will Make You Drink & Gamble, Stay Out Late at Night.”

He’s 83.

He drives me around Santa Barbara to his usual haunts, talking about his current project and the one after that, and all I can think of is the people I knew in my childhood for whom it was always too late, and all the ones I met later, in America, whose ships never came in, and all the young people I know now, kids in their late 20s and early 30s who feel they’ve missed the window of opportunity. If you’re not famous or gorgeous or rich by now …

I try to explain some version of this to Shelly. I say something like, at some point, one has to wonder if one more book will make a difference.

And he gives me a lesson:

“You’ve got to keep moving forward,” he says, “or else you’ll become that which you were afraid of when you were young.”

Gina Nahai’s most recent novel is “The Luminous Heart of Jonah S.”