If I’m in a reductive mood, I could say that Paul Hendrickson saved my life. It’s not that I’ve ever been suicidal, or even close: my lows are frequent but never get that low (thank God)—but anyone is aware that life can go in different directions, and the spring I took his class, everything was set up for me to take a dive.

In mid-August of the previous year, 2001, when I was in Central Park to pick up some tickets to a Chekhov play, I happened upon a murdered man whose bullet-induced death has made an occasionally fertile nest in my dreams. He was shot in the belly; I found him in the bushes with a tiny gun by his side and flies preparing the next brood in his shaved-bald, black scalp. The image inspired the first piece I wrote for Paul.

Incidents stemming from that same month gave me the subject for my third. It was about an actress ex-girlfriend for whom I still had profoundly confused feelings and a complicated relationship. A week and a half after finding the man I refer to as “The Dead Guy,” she and I had stood on the rock-covered roof of her beautiful apartment building on Houston and Elizabeth, and with the Twin Towers idling in the background, peacefully, she told me she had a rare illness. It was the same one that Jack Kennedy had had—Addison’s—and it was terrifying because I knew nothing about it except that it was rare and didn’t play nice with your adrenal gland. Three months later, at that exact same spot—whose tranquility had been detonated by two fireballs, leaping civilians, collapsing steel, and dust—she told me that what they thought had been Addison’s had turned out to be a kidney cancer that was in danger of spreading to her liver.

What I didn’t know when I wrote that piece was that the whole story was a lie, fabricated for reasons and with human capabilities that I question—futilely—to this day. But the questions were immaterial at the time: by that winter, a trio composed of the violent death I’d discovered, the realization of terrorist-based fears I’d held since high school, and the premature mourning of a girl I had once been in love with (and still half-was) had left me alternately reeling and numb.

Then I met Paul. After applying my way into his English 145: Advanced Non-Fiction class, I immediately bonded with him, as do so many of his students—so many it’s ridiculous to try to count—and we started what would become an intimate friend-slash-mentorship.

I’m one of those people who can put on a wiseass, extra-confident face to cloak the fear. Paul saw through it with a half-glance. And because he was born to take confession, most of the intimate details came from one side. I’d write him long e-mails about the fear and hurt doing noxious things to my brain, and he’d write back—usually that day—500-1,000 words loaded up with empathy and encouragement. He’d frequently read the classroom-relevant parts of my e-mails aloud in class, and, after I wrote letter-length reactions to other people’s work, he’d take me aside and tell me how impressed he was with my thoughtfulness and effort.

At that point in my life, I hoped and half-believed that I could be a writer—that I was, in fact, damn good—and needed someone to bolster my insecurities and affirm my half-beliefs. Paul was a natural for that role.

I took to calling him Dr. H in e-mails and in class, and he took to calling me Dr. Dan, or Dan-o, or sometimes the mixture of both. I considered myself one of his favorite and most talented students, ever, even though a girl named Katherine Newman C’02 had a bigger gift with language. One student who has insisted on anonymity has said that “he can be overly effusive, so you can’t know if he’s being genuine,” but I believed (and still believe) everything positive he told me about me. That he said it with a preacher’s passion mixed with paternal feeling did most of the trick. That he wore his own fragilities on his goofy baseball cap did even more.

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©2006 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 03/01/06

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FEATURE: The Passion of Paul
By Dan Kaplan

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