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So Soon to Die; Locust Cry

How can a love like ours be ending?
It's the talk of the town.

 

 

Marty Symes,
Al  Neiberg,
Jerry Livingston

 The day after I got the news that Professor Ed Copeland had died of a stroke, I woke up with the feeling that I wanted to put something in his mailbox because I was always putting something in his box. Groves of trees, forests were sacrificed because I wanted him to see some junk I'd just written, or a quote from Mark Twain, or Raymond Chandler, or some damn thing. But, this morning I knew it'd be like throwing paper airplanes at the moon.

 I had some private feelings that I had to tell him about, as well as give him a dub of Waylon doing Billy Joe Shavers songs, or the Nat "King" Cole trio with Irving Ashby on guitar, or something else essential for his education or memory. I would crack him up with the joke about where lawyers come from, or ask him about the exact diction of a Basho haiku. When I couldn't corral him, I'd put something in his box. Several times a week for as long as I'd known him, I'd put something in his box.

Whenever I'd give him an article to read, or some long quote or lend him a video, I'd usually say, "This WILL be on the quiz, and will amount to your WHOLE grade, and MAY determine what you'll be doing for the rest of your life." He'd always laugh.  He loved my act.
A college campus with its Doric columned buildings, off campus burger and malt shops, libraries, coffeehouses, trees lined malls, and ethnic restaurants is the world where we lived.  University time was divided by quarters, not by seasons. Someone said something about "the real world" and I remember Copeland Sensei saying, "This IS the real world," with a lot of force.

I suppose that as a professor he still had a lot of bureaucratic goombah goombah to put up with. He was always qvetching about the endless committee meetings and meaningless paperwork that they seem to think are necessary for running a school the size of Mankato or Moorhead, Minnesota.  The University is so inefficient and convoluted that they make the IRS look speedy, sensible, and humane.

Copeland Sensei came to the University of Minnesota in 1957, and had the college accouterments of that period, the penny loafers, the thin horned rimed glasses he used to peer at you over the top of, and the sweaters—don't forget the sweaters.

Whenever you'd call him up he'd answer the phone, "Copeland," kind of military.
He didn't have a strong background in social sciences, so I'd lend him Allport's book, The Nature of Prejudice, or give him something by Watzlawick, Beavin, and Jackson on digital and analogic communication, or something like that.  Nobody likes to be uke (the person who gets thrown in judo) all the time.  Although, maybe his interest was just another way of encouraging me.

A lot of us called him Copeland Sensei, because he taught Japanese and Sensei means teacher. He'd studied at Berkeley, had been speaking Japanese about fifty years, and was a heavyweight scholar who'd spent his time rooting around in the Man'Yoshu, the "Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves" and other Japanese poetry.

In the world of Japanese scholars Copeland Sensei knew everybody. He'd refer offhandedly, to a disagreement he had with Donald Keene's translation of some line of poetry, or  comment about Gary Snyder's beatnik pea coat uniform from when they were in college.

But, he was sincerely humble. I remember his slowly, patently, teaching me Hiragana, the Japanese phonetic alphabet. His colleagues wouldn't dirty their hands on something so common and servile. What do you think teaching assistants are for?  He took the time, sat with me in his office with his tall frame leaning attentively forward, listening to Dick and Jane mouth Japanese syllables as if the listening were fresh and exciting. Copeland Sensei couldn't have heard them more then thousands of tens of thousands of times over the last fifty years. But, he didn't rush me, and he showed delight at each small victory. “WOW. BABY’S TAKING HIS FIRST STEPS!!” How many teachers show their students that kind of care?

He liked to ride the big waves, too. He could talk about stories and writing with the combination of scholarship and humanness that I've almost never seen at the university.  Or, we could talk about music, or food, or travel, or women. He was like a Zen master and a regular guy at the same time.

Sometimes he'd give you these answers that were so simple, direct, and obvious they'd be like a Zen story.

Student: What should I do now, master?
Master: Have you eaten your rice?
Student: Yes Master.
Master: Then, wash your bowl.
•••

Both, the Taoists and the Zen Buddhists value human-heartenedness (if I said "above all," that would be a misunderstanding of Zen). The last time I saw him in his office, I don't even remember what he said—something to the effect that he might be around another ten years— but, I do remember that he chided me for the lack of an enthusiast response,  "You should tell me 'No!' That I'm going to live a long time."  

What I really learned from Copeland Sensei was Taoist human­-heartenedness. The academics would probably say "he cared about his students" or somesuch, because that's the only case they have to put it in.

I'd just seen him in Dinkytown, near the university, the week before and he was cracking wise as usual. "I'm going to get a T-shirt made that says, 'It Used To Be Fun Around Here,'" he told me.

Whenever I'd see him, he'd make sarcastic slams about his colleagues, especially the new ones who liked to have offices, the title, and the paycheck, but didn't like to see students. He had this silly old fashioned idea that the university was there so the students could learn and the professors were supposed to help them.

There are three kinds of disciples: those who impart Zen to others, those who maintain the temples and shrines, and then there are the rice bags and clothes hangers.

 

Nyogen Senzaki

Copeland Sensei loved his students. Every time I talked to him he was always telling me how wonderful one of his close students is. He would say over and over and over again what a exceptional person Akiko Tsutsui is and what a beautiful attitude she has and something about Makoto "the department's baby"; or he got such a kick out of talking about Yen Sensei, "Mr. Yen's sporting a snappy cap. I think he's got a new girlfriend...;"   Or how smart Matsuyama-san is, "...I think she's my brightest graduate student." (then he would usually make a joke about how pretty she is, something so gentle you weren't sure he'd said anything. Except it was every time. There was nothing lecherous or improper about that, just an appreciation, (that's sadly—but, understandably—out of fashion);  Or, he'd say "Miss Ha is as beautiful on the inside as she is on the outside." He didn't beat it to death though. I don't think I heard him say it more than six or eight times. Sometimes when I ran in to him in the Nolte coffee hole or if I'd knock on his office door to schmooz, he'd be with Andy sensei. They always looked like they were trading secrets and swapping lies. He got love and loyalty from his close students, and he gave on the flip-flop.

I'd lend him video tapes, among them Scorsese's "Mean Streets" and Bogart in "Beat The Devil" written by Truman Copote.  "Mean Streets" had been an MA project at NYU for Scorsese.  DeNiro, Harvey Keitel, and some really  pretty black woman who played a  stripper—I found out later that Copeland Sensei loved beautiful Black women.  "Mean Streets" is a drama about young gangsters in Little Italy, and I was kind of worried if he'd like it or not. He was after all a professor in his mid sixties. Well, it gassed him, and he kept talking about it for days. Every once in a while he’s pull a line out of it.  He’s ask me, tough faced, "You calling me a mook?"

Professor Copeland knew about literature and language like nobody's business, so it was kindergarten when we talked about detective stories and films. He loved country music and Merle Haggard. Can you believe that? I would give him C&W tapes and he would go nuts and give me back Merle and George Jones and Hank. I would put tapes in his box and sometimes he'd mail me one back.

I 'd give him Bessie Smith ("Empty Bed Blues", "Send Me To The 'lectric Chair" and a bunch more). So, maybe he'd give me Dinah Washington doing Bessie or Carmen...shit he promised to roll me a dub of Bittersweet. It's out of print. Now I'll never get it.

 There's a lot of things I'll never get, now.  I figured he'd be here to help me learn Japanese. And. he was extravagantly supportive of my writing. "You're an artist, Billy. You don't have a choice." Copeland Sensei backed me up and always believed in me even when I didn't believe in me.

 A couple of months ago I asked him about buying a beginners Kanji dictonary with Hiragana above when I went to San Francisco . "It's too hard," I told him. "You'll need it later, don't ya think?"" he answered.

"Don't ya think?" usually went after his opinion, like the Japanese desu ne?  Or, when he was explaining something he'd usually tag it with "is that OK?" to see if you made the corner. When you showed him that you understood some part of whatever the lesson was, he'd say, "That's it. That's it." It was something like the Japanese grunting along as you're talking to let you know they're interested and following you.

He got a kick out of a leather case for business cards that I carried Kanji cards in.  "We'll have to have a test," he said insistently. I interpreted that to mean that he saw my commitment and took me seriously. The "test" was approval and encouragement.

Another thing I'll never get is to take him to is the sushi . We'd been planning that lunch since early fall. The last couple of times he'd said, "In the spring when it warms up."
We'd made it to Thanh Quan a vietnamese restaurant and Hiep the owner’s wife had told him proudly that "this (indicating me) is my teacher."  You could see he dug that. We smoozed for a couple of hours over lunch. It was heaven. And, I figured the next time we'd go to sushi.
Everybody calls Wang Xiaoming, O Sensei—O means the main one or major, in this case teacher.   It was a loving joke—, and I had been working on teaching her English, and she has made such breakthroughs that it took the strength of Samson not to call him up and tell him, but I figured we'd surprise him and knock him on his ass when we had her talking like a regAlar Yankee by the end of the summer.
•••

A couple of times when people friged (he'd read The Naked and the Dead and would have laughed)with me, I saw the cat get his back up. I'll bet other students have got their own stories about how he stuck by them. Like, when I was taking day school Japanese I and having trouble. The Professor, a young woman who is Japanese, had what Copeland Sensei called, the typical idea Japanese idea that everyone was the same and should be able to learn the same.  When he was talking about her you could tell that he didn't dig her attitude. One of her TAs, followed suit and was not helpful. So, I wrote a letter to the chair of the department that this TA, Mr. Ish , was arrogant and rude to me, justifying it by saying, "Japanese is a very hard language." Since I wasn't cutting the mustard, this Mr. Ish told me maybe I should drop the class. Copeland Sensei felt that the job of the university was to help me learn it, and took some shots at the TA, calling that boy a "linguist" with a tone and pitch that pronounced him only a step above a leper. Some of my best friends are linguists. So anyway, I dropped the class and Copeland Sensei's took me under his wing and I've been finding out ever since that Japanese is a very hard language .

 Another time, Copeland Sensei was team teaching a Japanese film class with "a colleague". I'd tried unsuccessfully to make contact with the "colleague"  who taught film before.  I’d left him a package of some radio documentaries, a list of my awards, and half a dozen newspaper stories about me, hoping to learn more about film. I figured that I could both learn and contribute to the class, but I hadn't counted on the arrogance and self importance of folks who teach that kind of stuff. The "colleague" just pointedly ignored me.  The Big Dis.

One morning Copeland Sensei and I were having a cup of mud before the film class and the "colleague" came by and talked to Copeland Sensei, acting like I didn't exist. Copeland Sensei made a comment about Billy here to get the "colleague" to acknowledge me. But, when you don't want to, you don't want to. I figured that Copeland missed it, but he didn't miss a trick. ever.   He was pissed. He said to me, "He KNOWS how I feel about you. That's a real slap in the face." He didn't drop it there because I heard the story related to me by several other graduate students who told me how offended and angry Copeland Sensei had been. He was personally insulted, and I know the "colleague" dropped a couple of notches in his eyes.

The university is changing so that everything is measurable and bean countable. Human-heartedness is unprofrigingfessional. You've got to look good to the grants, my dear.   Caring and learning just aren't cost effective. Is it any wonder with colleagues talking about hard-hearted "standards," that he wanted to don his "It Used to Be Fun Around Here" T-shirt and thumb his nose at the dons? I mean, why did he retire when he did? Do you think he wanted to spend more time at the lake? He just couldn't stand it any more. Nothing was going to change, might as well give up the ghost, don't ya think?.

So he retired. But, it made the University so much more foreign and unfriendly with him gone.
I told him how much it scared me to have him leave.
"I'm not dying, ya know," he reassured me.
•••
What destroyed me was that here we'd been within blocks of each other, within feet of each other, for a quarter of a century, and we'd only just met, relatively.   I liked him so much that if he wasn't married I was gonna propose.  And, I figured we were only at the hors d'oeuvre, only in our salad days.  But, NOOO!

"Jesus Christ," I'd ask him sometimes. "What the hell am I doing hanging around the university in middle age?"
"Living your life, don't ya think?" The answer was so Copeland I should have been able to predict it.

When I told him that I was teaching Kazumi English by having her read to me every day from The Big Sleep, he smiled and looked at me like, "brilliant." Chandler often wrote  that he was trying to write in the American Idiom and when it was used right, it cou ld say any damn thing. I never thought that Chandler wrote about L.A. and that Copeland Sensei came from there. I suppose it was just one your Jungian Synchronisms.

A month or so ago, he told me that he'd just re-read Chandler's Farewell, My Lovely. That one's got some guy on the street,
as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food...

Last month I stayed in L.A. in a sleazy hotel where
furtive-eyed men slid words delicately along their cigarettes, without moving their lips.

 

 

"Spanish Blood"

I wrote Copeland Sensei a Chandleresque postcard describing this same hotel full of junkys and pensioners. He knew the mise en scene  because he grew up in L.A. in those same sun drenched streets.
•••
The guy hated the form and the bullshit.  I figured here was my chance to learn something about haiku, so we agreed to do a directed study about Basho and somehow we never got together on it.  Is that, I never got it together? We worked on those first few lessons of Japanese instead. Well. the quarter was over and I still didn't know jackshit about Basho. We talked about what we should do. I said, "You call it. You want a paper; I'll write a paper. I've got a masters, I've published a lot of articles. A paper's easy. When do you want it? A couple of days be alright? What I wanted was to learn about haiku and Basho from you." So, we just pissed it off and he gave me a B. No form; no bullshit.

Sometimes he looked like he was going to come on stuffy, but he never did. And, a miss is as good as a mile.
•••

 

April is the cruelest month....

 

 

T.S. Eliot, “The Wasteland”

Then I get this message from O Sensei on the machine. I figured she had a paper she wanted help with and that it would hold until tomorrow. When I called her the next day, she told me when the visitation and the funeral was.
That first night I sat up and watched Juzo Itami's comedy, "The Funeral." The next night, the night before the funeral,  I went to the Sakura, drank a couple of Kirin, and started to write some notes about Copeland Sensei.
A lot of us had trouble sleeping. Akiko told me she took sleeping pills. God only knows what private hells each of us was going through.

•••
I've never been big on open coffins. They don't look like they're sleeping to me. That isn't what I think "good" looks like.  It looks like cosmetics and plastic and cotton holding the cheeks of a stuffed doll, but somebody must like it. I guess it jams it home that this isn't a misunderstanding. Right up to that second when I saw him in the coffin I was sure that there was some  slip-up. I'd just seen him a few days before. This isn't possible. Somebody made a mistake.
The chapel was packed at the funeral with people spilling into the next room holding a dozen or so chairs. Copeland Sensei wasn't religious, so the prayers must have been for some of the living, don't ya think?

I expected it to be bad because of the prayers and open coffin and all, but it was as swinging as that kind of thing gets. I think he would have approved.
A few people talked, remembering him. Professor Phillis Larson who teaches at Macalister, got her Ph.D under Copeland Sensei and talked about onshi, the teacher I'm most indebted to, and his rep as someone who cared about his students. Because Copeland Sensei was a painter of both Japanese and Western styles, she talked about his collecting wood block prints, and his study of the shakuhatchi.  Professor Larson pointed out the obvious by saying that what he did isn't validated these days.   Caring about your students is as unusual at the university as dancing bears. After Copeland Sensei had invited her to be at Minnesota, Professor Chun-jo Liu, one of his colleagues for 35 years, also talked about onshi.   Somebody else talked about the feeling that he is, even now, still in his office because you could usually find him there.
 
After the funeral and the cemetery, O Sensei and I went and stood in front of his office door, and both fell apart. It was almost as painful as seeing him in the coffin.
To paraphrase the Chinese poet, Li Pai:
Without Copeland Sensei to burn the office light
Who will stop at the door, now?

I gotta say, Professor Silverman nailed it in his eulogy, though. He talked about how he wanted to show either "Tokyo Story" or "The Seven Samurai" with Toshiro Mifune scratching himself and yawning. When I'd finally gotten deep enough to think about anything but a samuari movie, Copeland Sensei told me to see his fav rav, Ozu's "Floating Weeds" which, of course is a killer.
Professor Silverman talked about how when Copeland Sensei was a translator in the Army in Japan after the war he used his liquor ration to buy wood block prints. And, that he had studied the shakuhachi.

"He preferred Spring and Fall," Silverman said. "because they were times of change."
About Mishima, the modern Japanese who had publicly ritually disemboweled himself, Copeland had said to him "He's a pretty good writer, sometimes, but otherwise he's just terrible."
Copeland Sensei loved champagne, and after sipping some with Silverman he'd made it into a gag.  "Very tasty." he said.

Professor Silverman talked about when Gerald Vizenor, an author with much haiku to his credit, had been Copeland Sensei's student,  he'd been sent a note from the Professor saying, "I see you looking out the window. What do you see?" Vizenor had answered with an original haiku. After three days Sensei gave him a haiku translation about the autumn, or some damn thing, in response.

His wife's nephew sang Amazing Grace at the funeral, which was beautifully done and moving, and would have cracked Copeland Sensei up at the irony.

Both of his sons played music at the funeral. David played a short classical piece on the guitar, and Daniel played "When You Wish Upon a Star" from Walt Disney's Pinocchio.   Perfect, perfect.  Copeland Sensei would have loved it.

On the way to the cemetery to bury him, to—what do they call it —"the internment," it drizzled. Wang Xiaoming said, "The weather cries for several days."  There's Jung again and another one of your Synchronisms, or if you want to get literary, Ruskin called it pathetic fallacy when you credit nature with emotions. When Tao Yuan Min's got all these fishes crying at separating with his friend, that's pathetic fallacy. If it "cries for several days" when Copeland Sensei died, that's pathetic fallacy. I'm only telling you this  because I know he'd have it on the quiz.  
Everybody did a couple of prayers lickety split, and then they got in their cars and hit the freeway.

It's an orthodox Jewish custom to cover the casket with dirt ("you don't want to leave it for the goyim"), but it's also a kind of closure that helps with the grieving process. Akiko Tsutsui and Akiko Uchiyama told me that the Japanese don't want to leave it for the goyim either. So, after everybody else left the cemetery Akiko Tsutsui  and Yen Sensei and me each put a shovelful on. Maybe we should have done it with our hands instead, Japanese style. I would have rather we had done the whole job, but you know, you've got your unions.…  Akiko wanted to go back the next day and make sure they'd finished it right, so we did.

It looked like they'd just poured all this loose, wet dirt in the hole, and Copeland Sensei was down there. I couldn't stand it. I knew that it wasn't really him, even if people said he looked "good," and like he "was sleeping." He'd already dusted, and we were just planting a memory.  Is that Ok?

•••

Tsutsui-san told me the stone was up in June and that it said he was a “first general,” or something.  It would have been just like Copeland Sensei to not tell us something like that. 
The next day I had to drop by Professor Christopher Robin’s house, but he’d stepped out for an hour.  Since he only lives a few blocks from the cemetery I thought I’d kill an hour visiting Copeland.  I walked and walked over the area, still it took me about twenty minutes to find him even though I thought I knew exactly where he was.

There was a stone up, but it didn’t say “first general,” it said First Lieutenant, U.S. Army.
Yan-san asked, “It didn’t say anything about being a professor of Japanese?” There was also a raised cross under the name.  Copeland Sensei wasn’t a believer, but his wife was.  He went to church once in a while because he thought it was pretty—the stained glass and all that.  It killed me to see the stone, what was on it, and what was missing.

“He’d been forced to go to church as a kid.  Didn’t you ever talk to him about it?” Tsutsui-san asked.  “He didn’t like to force people and he didn’t like to be forced.”
When I told Dr. Professor Shapiro about it a week later he got a little salty.  “It denies who he was.”

It’s scary how the people who are supposed to be closest to us don’t know us at all.  Obviously his wife’s memory is different from the man I knew.  Maybe she didn’t know him as well as she thought.  Or, Akiko and Yan-san and I didn’t know him.  I know somebody didn’t know somebody. 

 

 

 

not his real name