By Andrew Lawrence Crown
Copyright © Andrew Lawrence Crown, 2015. All rights reserved.
My office at the university was cold on this particular morning, as it usually was in December, the final month of the term. I sat at my desk bundled up in two coats on top of a sweater and a layer of thermal underwear, attempting to complete the paper work and administrative duties I considered to be the bane of my existence and the unfortunate lot of educators across the globe and the world over. I adjusted my winter hat which had the word ¡°Chicago¡± embroidered on the front, still shivering and complaining of cold toes under my two layers of socks in the way of commiseration with my office mates who were by and large Filipinos accustomed to living in the tropical heat and for whom a cold Korean winter was a novelty to be endured with a kind of childlike wonder and astonishment. Having grown up myself in the Chicago suburb of Homewood, I was used to the cold, but for my Filipino colleagues this cold winter weather was something entirely new, so much so as to lead them to proclaim with an ecstatic joy on social media the work of the almighty God at the least sign of snowfall. While they threw snowballs at one another and played in the snow like children, it took no small amount of fortitude for them to endure the low temperature outside as well as inside the university buildings, a real challenge to those with a more tropical disposition.
¡°Can one die of the cold?¡± they wanted to know.
¡°Yes,¡± I told them. ¡°Wear a hat when you go outside because so much of your body heat is lost through your head.¡±
Only a few of them followed my advice since they, and especially the women, did not want to mess up their hair.
After completing filling out my attendance sheets, no simple task since they were all printed in Hangul, the Korean language, I decided to pay a visit to the office down the hall where I had heard the heater was working and running full blast on account of the successful efforts of Luther Martin, the former engineer turned English professor, at fixing the heating unit. That office, unlike the icebox where my desk was situated, also had two sets of computers, printers, and a fax machine and scanner, all assembled and networked by Luther who had recovered all of this equipment from the university trash, saving it all from the landfill in order to make good use of it. All of the technology in Luther¡¯s office worked perfectly due to the engineer¡¯s efforts to save it from the dump, just as Luther had salvaged his life from the trauma of serving in Vietnam during the war by marrying an Asian woman after being ordered to kill Asian people by the U. S. military. Luther having been married to a Korean woman for over thirty years, now was ready to ease himself into a comfortable retirement after he planned to teach English just a few more years in South Korea until he reached the age of 65, the mandatory retirement age for university professors in this country.
Just as I anticipated, Luther approached me when I entered the office and sat down on the comfortable and warm leather couch, and he immediately peppered me with questions about my Alma Mater, as was his habit to do, since he so dearly wanted his son to enjoy all of the benefits of the superior education schools like The University of Chicago and The University of Illinois could offer to Luther¡¯s son, if only he were qualified for admission to them. I must add here that Luther was in his free time an ordained evangelical minister who readily admitted that he had come to work and live in Asia in order to heed the call of the Lord God himself, who Luther believed had spoken to him in a manner of visions and signs, urging him, requiring him, Luther claimed, to come East to save souls and preach the gospel, first to the Chinese, and afterwards to the Koreans.
¡°There are sinners here in this city, on this campus, and in our midst,¡± Luther habitually proclaimed. ¡°The Almighty has called on me to minister to them and save them from perdition. I cannot pretend to be deaf to the voice of the Lord when he speaks to me so strongly and directly.¡±
Now, for those who have not traveled much overseas, and particularly for those who have never visited South Korea, such language and religious ego might appear a tad unusual. But for people like me who have spent more than a few years living and teaching in a foreign country, and especially for people who have lived and worked in South Korea, the enthusiasm of the born again missionaries is a phenomenon we have all encountered here. The expatriate life, and especially the life of the western foreigner living and teaching in South Korea, is something of a magnet which attracts more than its share of strange birds of several types, birds of a religious disposition being chief among them. Consequently and out of sheer necessity I had long ago learned how to humor and tolerate such devout true believers as Luther Martin, keeping them on friendly terms in a spirit of sympathetic understanding, myself being quite religious in my own personal and unobtrusive way, only as a Jew rather than as a born again Christian.
¡°My son finished the last of his applications a few weeks ago,¡± Luther told me. ¡°He took your advice, conveyed to him back in Colorado through me via Skype, and he submitted applications to engineering departments at ten universities, some of them being the same ones you applied to way back when you finished up and graduated with the highest honors from The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. My son also heeded your advice and studied for the ACT, and it worked. He raised his composite score from a 19 to a 25 and his ¡°reach¡± school is Yale, as was yours.¡±
¡°Luther,¡± I responded. ¡°Do you really think he has a shot at Yale with only a 25 composite? That is a respectable score, but not quite in the Ivy League range.¡±
¡°I wanted him to apply to all of the schools you applied to,¡± said Luther. ¡°Why were Yale and Princeton, Michigan and Chicago all within reason for you, but not so for my son? What is the difference between you and my son?¡±
This was the question so many of my colleagues wanted to know the answer to. Why was I qualified for The University of Chicago when they were not? So many times I had tried to explain that I had never served on an admissions committee and could not give them the answers they wanted to hear. I could only try to explain just how competitive the entire application game was and how difficult it was to enter a school like The University of Chicago, and especially how difficult it was to earn a full ride scholarship to a top program like the political science and political theory programs at a school like Chicago. It was true that I had done just that, but this did not necessarily mean that they could reasonably hope for the same for themselves or for their children. They never seemed satisfied with my answers, no matter how patiently and scientifically I attempted to explain and describe everything I knew about the college and graduate school admissions process. Indeed it was a very competitive game, and for some reason I faced an insurmountable difficulty each time I tried to explain how the entire process and system worked to my incredulous colleagues and friends at Gyeongju University.
¡°I graduated at the top of my class at The University of Illinois,¡± I tried to explain. ¡°My standardized test scores were also very high.¡± I hated to steer the conversation down this well-trodden path as I was certain I would only once again excite the jealousy and envy of my colleague Luther and everyone else in the office within earshot. Envy and jealousy; one learns the meaning of those bitter emotions after one graduates from a school like Chicago. Having graduated from that school over twenty years ago, I had long ago grown accustomed to the feeling of walking through life with a target on my back, as every sad soul who had for some reason or other been unable to climb as high as I had and make it to an elite school like The University of Chicago, or even The University of Illinois for that matter, displayed an annoying tendency to vent all of their frustrations and disappointments in life at me. As a graduate of a top school, I symbolized exactly what they were not, but had always dreamed of becoming. I usually attempted to fend off their sometimes exceedingly embittered and acrimonious attacks with as much compassion, equanimity, and honor as I could muster. However, after having experienced this state of being a living target for all manner of invective and disenchantments for so long, I sometimes responded to the real nefariousness of their envy and spite with a self-confident and assertive quip, which my colleagues and friends, I daresay even my own relatives, often mistook for a smug kind of vanity and egomania.
¡°Luther, listen. I know you want the absolute best for your son, and I too wish him the best of luck with all of those applications. Just try to be reasonable. Yale is one of the top universities in the world and I simply don¡¯t believe a 25 ACT score will make the cut. I am sorry. Really I am. Dreadfully sorry.¡±
¡°Paul,¡± Luther continued. ¡°What is the difference between my son and you? I want him to have everything you have. I want him to be as educated and successful as you are. What is wrong with that?¡±
¡°There is nothing wrong with that,¡± I responded calmly. ¡°I am simply advising you to be realistic about his chances, that is all. Luther, tell me honestly. Is your son applying to college at the age of thirty-one because he wants it for himself, or is he doing it more to please you, his father? I remember you told me previously that he was earning a good living in Colorado working as a fireman. Now, in my opinion there are only a handful of professions more honorable than that of fireman, as your son has devoted himself to saving peoples¡¯ lives and property in a career which is certainly more solid and secure than our tenuous year to year, contract to contract existence as expatriate professors, living our lives here in South Korea as foreigners and subject to the seemingly arbitrary whims of a foreign culture. Your son in contrast can look forward to job security, good benefits like health insurance and a respectable pension, while spending his life devoted to the service of others and thereby conferring a great benefit to society.¡±
¡°But I want more for him than a blue collar life,¡± Luther countered. ¡°I just want him to be more like you, to have all of the advantages and confidence an elite education has given to you. I want him to read like you read and to write like you can write. What is wrong with that Paul?¡±
¡°There is nothing wrong with anything you want for your son, so long as he wants it for himself and not simply to please you. I must tell you however that simply wanting it is not necessarily sufficient for all of it to come to pass. He must be qualified by the numbers and the data; the G.P.A. and test scores, the letters of recommendation and writing sample and essay. The entire application must convince the admission committees that he is qualified and has earned the right to attend a great university or college.¡±
My attempt to realistically reign in Luther¡¯s extravagant hopes and ambitions for his son always seemed to open up long festering sores; mainly Luther¡¯s own disappointment in his own failure to achieve what I had achieved, with all of the hopes of the almost retired engineer being transferred and projected onto his son, as if it was the sole purpose of this dutiful son to realize all of the forgone ambitions and unrealized dreams of his father. I had no doubt that all of this was true and had grown accustomed by now to watching how everything I said, no matter how understanding and helpful I tried to be, had a tendency to get a rise out of the evangelist. He lost his temper and the invective poured forth onto me, the living breathing symbol of everything he and his son were not and could not become. All of this was true even though the engineer was a very successful and professionally competent graduate of Iowa State University, who had, for more than thirty years as an engineer, saved up for a very comfortable retirement.
¡°I want to know why we cannot be like you Paul,¡± Luther said. ¡°Why can¡¯t everyone attend a school like Yale or Chicago? Why did Illinois reject me after I got back home from Nam? Had I not demonstrated my integrity and worth by serving my country with honor? Why wasn¡¯t I good enough?¡±
I took a deep breath. Clearly the target was once again on my back as it often is with the uncountable people who viewed me as the living embodiment of their forgone hopes and ambitions. They all wanted what I had and all of this was routine for me by now. If it were not so aggravating and annoying I would have been able to laugh it off and smile more freely about it, aware as I was of the irony in it all since my life as an expatriate English professor was something of a struggle financially because my salary was mediocre at best compared to the living so many of my old friends and acquaintances from Chicago¡¯s south suburbs were making for themselves and their families. In fact, more than a few of the guys I grew up with were making a killing back home in the States as bond traders and real estate investors and in other business related careers, even though many of them had only earned average grades at ordinary schools like Eastern Illinois University or Western Illinois University. The lack of prestige or honors on their resumes had not prevented them from getting their piece of the pie, and I knew that many of them who drank and partied away their college years while I had my nose deep in my books reading the footnotes, were doing exceedingly well for themselves.
¡°Luther,¡± I tried to say with genuine compassion and understanding. ¡°You served your country honorably as a soldier, and you deserve the gratitude all veterans deserve. I am sorry Urbana-Champaign rejected your application so many years ago. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and especially the renowned engineering program at that school, is not for everyone. I read recently in an alumni newsletter e-mailed to me only a few weeks ago that the median ACT score at the big U is as high as a 29. If Chicago and Illinois accepted everyone they would cease to be what they are. That is to say that if everyone could get in they would no longer be elite institutions. All of this talk of universities and education brings to mind two quotes I know of about how a person can acquire for himself all of the advantages of a superior education. The first quote is from an illustrious political theorist at The University of Chicago, Joseph Cropsey, who before he died a few years ago was the literary executor of the another widely acclaimed Chicago theorist, Leo Strauss. Cropsey was fond of saying that if you want to lead your life as an educated person, as a man of letters or science, you really do not need a prestigious university like The University of Chicago. At least as useful or possibly more useful to you as you strive to become an educated person is a simple library card for use at the local public library. Were Cropsey alive today he might add that in addition to the library card, a computer with internet access or an e-reader would help you in your lifelong quest for wisdom.¡±
¡°That is what they taught you at Chicago, is it now?¡± Luther said, looking as though he were mulling it over in his mind and considering the possibilities, while he also still looked at me with envy in his eyes even as the veracity of Cropsey¡¯s advice sunk in.
¡°What was the second quote, Paul?¡± Luther asked me, with real irritation in his voice. ¡°I am beginning to understand the first one well enough and I am not certain whether I agree with it or not. But now tell me, what was the second bit of advice?¡±
¡°Oh yes,¡± I stuttered, having almost forgotten to mention it myself. ¡°I believe it was the always controversial and iconoclastic musician Frank Zappa who said that if you want to get laid, go to college. If you want an education, go to the library.¡±
Luther frowned without concealing his evangelical disapproval of the off color joke. Immediately afterwards he continued with the questions, as if I had all of the answers even though I knew I certainly did not. Nothing could be farther from the truth, so I tried my best to help him without encouraging unrealistic aspirations.
¡°Paul. I know I have said it before, but I want to say it again. I do not want my son to be a blue collar kind of guy. I want him to be an intellectual or a scientist. I want him to be able to write poetry like you do and to read Parmenides or The Wealth of Nations.¡±
It appeared to me that Luther, like many of my colleagues at the university mistakenly believed I was some kind of a poet because I had previously read a few of my limited repertoire of poems at an open mike event on campus planned and organized by some of our faculty. In reality, I knew I had only written a few poems and viewed myself to be a writer of short stories and the occasional essay rather than a poet.
¡°Luther,¡± I continued. ¡°All of your ambitions for your son are quite admirable. In the final analysis however, it must be your son and not you who wants what you want. You cannot go and study at a school like Chicago for him, just like you cannot live his life for him, or rather force him to live the kind of life you have always wanted for yourself. He has to want to do it, and he must do it if it is what he wills, on his own.¡±
Luther looked like he was thinking it over, his state of agitation subsiding somewhat before he earnestly asked me another question.
¡°Paul, you are a writer of fiction and you aspire to be a man of letters. I¡¯m just a retired engineer and one time Vietnam grunt here in South Korea to finish up my life of work while doing my best to save as many souls as I can with my preaching and ministering. Tell me a story now, won¡¯t you, about what it was really like to study at a great institution like The University of Chicago. I know you are a Jew and a deeply religious man in your own way, and I trust you and your opinions. Tell me a story about Chicago so I can talk to my son about it and let him know what he is up against.¡±
I sat quietly on the office couch for a few moments trying to think of what to say in order to accurately and honestly convey the essence of my experience as a graduate student at The University of Chicago in the early 1990s. After a few long moments of silently pondering the possibilities, I decided to tell Luther and the five or six other faculty members who had gathered around me in the office not about a typical day in Hyde Park. Instead I resolved to tell them all the story of what it was like for me, how difficult it was for me, to leave Chicago.
¡°All right Luther. I will tell you about what it was like for me to leave The University of Chicago the first time I attempted to do so, without earning my Ph.D., even though I had written a superior master¡¯s thesis and had dutifully earned my master¡¯s degree in political science. It was over twenty years ago, in the spring of 1994. I had finished clearing out my room at International House, the graduate student dormitory on 59th Street, a few weeks prior in a fit of emotional turbulence. I must admit that there were even some tears as I was unable to view what I, at the time, and without the benefit of hindsight or the maturity of age and experience to moderate my feelings, viewed as the most tremendous calamity of my entire life. The difficulty of leaving the place, in concert with some very real and serious genetically and biologically inherited predispositions, had forced me to take a leave of absence from the Department of Political Science, during which time I had determined to get my head back on straight again. You have to understand that emotional disturbances and maladies have a long history in my family, on both my mother¡¯s side and my father¡¯s side, and without going to deeply into the details, I must confess that I herald from a long and troubled line of strange birds, to put the matter lightly. Nevertheless, I had finished the master¡¯s thesis in the area of American government and race relations during my leave, and the thesis passed muster with flying colors even though it had catapulted me into this period of tremendous strife and confusion. I admit I was in the most sorry emotional and psychological state when I wrote the thesis. In hindsight I must confess that I believe I was only able to overcome my maladies through my sheer intelligence, gumption, and perhaps most crucially, the appropriate regimen of psychotropic medication. After The Department of Political Science conferred the master¡¯s degree I knew I had to get away for a while; for just how long I did not and could not tell. I only knew I had to get my head back on straight again and that to do so I would need to leave Hyde Park and go somewhere else, anywhere else, to find my share of R and R, relaxation and recuperation. Try to understand that I was, at just that time, still a very young and inexperienced man, only in my early twenties and lacking the kind of perspective and wisdom which only experience and maturity would eventually grant to me. I had attended the university on a full scholarship that covered all of my tuition and living expenses, but all I could think of was how I wanted to leave Hyde Park and go someplace far away where I could hopefully reassemble the shattered pieces of my psyche. It was not that I was completely incapacitated by a complete breakdown. It was closer to the truth to say that I simply had suffered what my biological predispositions towards higher intelligence, but also emotional disturbances, had afflicted me with during the period of life when such maladies commonly express themselves and come to fruition.¡±
¡°Jim, my good friend from childhood and adolescence in Homewood, and later downstate at the big U in Urbana-Champaign, was at precisely that time about to embark on his own journey of self-discovery. Though he urged me not to throw my hands up in surrender and begged me to remain in Hyde Park and continue in my quest to become a social scientist, I convinced him that I simply had to leave, if only for a short while. Jim, who was early in his youth identified as a gifted child, had purchased the old reliable Honda Civic from his parents who had never contributed to the payment of his college tuition, but had instead forced Jim to pay his own way through college in an effort to teach him something about the value of work and money. Jim decided to drive cross country from Chicago to Santa Monica, California, where he would try to make a life for himself. A graduate of The University of Illinois in finance, he was not making use of his degree as he was delivering pizzas for a living and paying half his meager salary to his parents who were charging him monthly rent to occupy his childhood room in their house in Homewood. Like me, Jim was hungry for a fresh start someplace entirely new and different. Having lived in Illinois our entire lives, we were both excited about the prospect of relocating to California where we would share a three bedroom house in Santa Monica with another guy from Homewood, our best friend Leo Schwartz who was a photography student at the elite art school, the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena.¡±
¡°Jim drove the Honda from Homewood north to Hyde Park in order to pick me up at International House where I had gathered together the last of the items I wanted to bring with me to California. The beautiful old dormitory had been built nearly a century before with money donated by the Rockefellers, and about half of the students who called it home were foreign students from abroad. After I brought down to the car the last of my belongings, Jim helped me pack them into the small trunk and back seat. Several of my graduate school friends were gathered on the lawn outside of the dormitory and near the Midway Pleasance to see me off, but not without first counseling me to remain in Hyde Park. I told them by way of the old cliché that I had to go someplace where I could find myself. They responded by telling me that I would find myself through my research if only I would give it one more try and remain in Chicago, where I was born, the son of parents who grew up in the old Jewish communities of Hyde Park and nearby South Shore, and where my friends told me I belonged. My Japanese-American girlfriend, at the time a graduate student at Chicago and a graduate of Cornell University, met us in front of International House, appearing to be very disconcerted and unsettled by my decision to drop everything so suddenly, leave Chicago, and try to start all over again in California. She wanted to know if all of this meant the end for our relationship. She did not cry, but it was obvious to me that she was feeling uneasy with a real concern for me and my future. Nonetheless, all I could think of was how to get out of there as soon as possible, in spite of the fact that my rash decision to relocate had led Tomoko to start thinking about finding herself a new lover since I would soon be out of the picture. I already knew he was a certain Roger, like me from The Department of Political Science, but unlike me, focused like a laser beam on his studies. Roger knew exactly what he wanted to do with his life, in sharp contrast to me who could tangibly feel the sense of being adrift with my dreams of someday, somehow becoming a writer of fiction.¡±
¡°Does this mean you are through with me?¡± Tomoko asked me.
¡°I don¡¯t know,¡± I answered half-heartedly. ¡°I just know I have to get out of here and figure things out for myself. Perhaps after I get settled down with a job in Santa Monica, you can come and join me there after you finish your course work for your master¡¯s program and write your thesis.¡±
¡°I have spoken to Roger about your situation, which is really our situation,¡± Tomoko continued. ¡°He wants to go out with me and he told me you running away to California means that you and I are finished.¡±
¡°I suppose it is only fair that I say you are free to see Roger,¡± I said. ¡°He really is so much more mature than I am as he knows precisely what he wants to do with his life. Right now at this moment I have to admit I have not a clue concerning what I will do career wise. Thank you for all of your help Tomoko, and for being there for me in my time of need. I know my little crisis has been hard for you to take. I know I remind you too much of your brother.¡±
Tomoko¡¯s younger brother had struggled for most of his life with some very serious psychological issues. My own situation reminded her too much of the pain she had endured for most of her life watching her brother fight what often seemed to be a losing battle against his illness. I believed I was doing Tomoko a favor by removing myself and the burden I was from her life. I was intent on setting her free from her role of confidant and counselor. I understood it would be a relief for both of us if I handed her over to Roger.
Jim interrupted my thoughts to inform me that the Honda was all packed up, filled to the brink in fact, and that we could leave if I was ready to go. He asked me one more time if I was certain I wanted to do this; to leave Tomoko and Chicago behind, to leave everything I was connected to and that was of crucial importance to me in Hyde Park.
¡°The department has given me a leave of absence,¡± I told him. ¡°I can always come back if I can somehow pull myself together. I feel lost and adrift right now. I have to get out of here.¡±
¡°Alright then,¡± Jim said with all the enthusiasm he could muster. ¡°The car is all packed and ready to go. If you are ready, than so am I.¡±
¡°I bid Tomoko farewell, but without a kiss or hug, and I also said goodbye to my International House friends who had gathered to see me off. Jim and I got into the car and we drove away from Hyde Park, Tomoko, International House and The University of Chicago, and, I hoped, away from everything that had left me with a sense of confusion and uncertainty. It was true I was running away from my problems instead of trying to face them with more courage and find myself through my research. All the same, I was at that time certain I needed a change of scenery where somehow, some way, I would get that troublesome head screwed on straight again.¡±
¡°We drove away in the Honda, both of us excited about the prospects that lay ahead, unknown and unseen. As the Midway Pleasance disappeared in the rear view mirror when we turned off of 59th Street, Jim tried unsuccessfully one more time to convince me I was making a mistake, perhaps the biggest mistake of my life. My graduate school friends were right, Jim told me. I could find myself through my research and it was a terrible waste of my talent to leave the program so suddenly. I reassured him that the leave of absence left the door open for me should I have a change of heart and pull myself together in California. Jim felt better about it after that. He told me he would read my master¡¯s thesis when it was my turn to drive and I thanked him for it as we turned onto Lake Shore Drive at the 57th Street exit and commenced our long journey.¡±
¡°And what an adventurous trip it was to drive all of the way from Chicago, the city of my birth, to Santa Monica. The events of that long journey are better left for the telling of another tale. However I cannot help myself from making a few remarks about some of the highlights of the long road trip. I will never forget the beautiful natural scenery we saw, and I was especially moved by the natural splendor of Bryce Canyon and Arches National Park in Utah. The multiple shades of red and orange rocks and pillars shaped and sculpted by the winds and millennia of erosion were dazzling, spell binding natural works of art to leave me breathless. Then there was a visit to an arts and crafts stand just off the highway in the middle of the Arizona desert where Native Americans sold handmade jewelry and art to passing travelers. As we were chatting with some of the artists and craftsmen, Jim told them about my background and education and about our destination, Santa Monica, and what we hoped to do there. One of the women selling her artwork begged me to stay there on the reservation and teach social studies at the reservation school. The school principal even drove up in his pickup truck and asked us to follow him in the Honda so we could take a look at the school and meet some of the young students. I seriously considered accepting the job offer and spent not a short time talking over the possibilities with a few of the children, teenagers, and parents of the tribe. All I needed to do, they told me, was to unpack my things out of the Honda, send back home for my other essential belongings which could be delivered by truck or post, purchase a SUV or pickup truck which were ideal for driving through the desert, and I could commence my career as an educator on the reservation in a manner of weeks if not sooner. Jim advised me to give the idea some consideration, but in the end I decided that the isolation of a desert home and life might not be good for my mental health. With some reluctance, Jim eventually agreed, so we thanked the Native Americans for their offer and hospitality and we continued westward towards California and Santa Monica.¡±
¡°While I drove we listened to some Irish folk music on a cassette tape which Jim had brought back from a year in Ireland where he had worked in a pub in a small and somewhat isolated village through a work exchange program he learned about from a flyer posted on a billboard near the quad downstate in Urbana. The music helped keep me focused on the driving, which was quite treacherous at times when we drove near sheer drop cliffs and through the canyons and mountains. One false move with the Honda and we would be hurling down to our deaths over the cliffs, the driving all the more difficult for me since I was not used to driving stick shift which Jim had taught to me somewhere near the less freighting and endless plains and corn fields of central Iowa.¡±
¡°One particular moment I will long remember. We were making our way through the twisting and turning mountain roads of Utah, when all of a sudden a large brown eagle with a massive wingspan swooped down toward us from atop a death drop ravine to glide elegantly and low right in front of the Honda for several long minutes, as if he were leading the way to help us on our journey. I thought to myself at that instant that now, this is America. I have seen and found America and I came to understand why the folks out West call this land God¡¯s country.¡±
Jim changed the cassette tape and I listened to Tom Waits for the first time in my life. Waits would become one of my favorite artists some time later when I commenced my travels overseas, even though I do not believe my own writing, which I feel I have earned the right by now to call my art, is as self-consciously bohemian in the hard boiled style like the avant-garde music of Waits.¡±
¡°Jim read my master¡¯s thesis while I drove carefully past the cliffs. When he finished reading he told me bluntly that I was making a mistake leaving graduate school. I told him that I simply could not tolerate Hyde Park with my mind in the state it was in. Jim said it was a damn shame and that he was dreadfully sorry. He asked me if I was contemplating driving the Honda off one of the cliffs due to my troubles. I laughed aloud and told him of course not, promising that I would eventually pull myself together again because the medication was highly effective, and I still had confidence in myself and thank you for Tom Waits and the Irish folk music. What I really wanted to be was a writer. Then I confessed that during my first few weeks of graduate school when I was deeply immersed in the statistics course, Data Analysis for Political Science, I had secretly sent away for applications for admission to the nation¡¯s top MFA in Creative Writing programs. While my more mathematically inclined professors at Chicago were doing their best to shape and mold me into a social scientist, with the emphasis on the science, I was fantasizing about writing fiction and poetry. I told Jim about the stack of incomplete MFA applications in my closet at International House and I told him there were two words to describe how I felt about the pile: cognitive dissonance.¡±
¡°Then it was Jim¡¯s turn to reveal to me a secret more troubling in his mind than my secret stack of MFA applications. He announced to me for the first time in his life that he was in fact a homosexual who hoped he would have the opportunity and will to come out of the closet in Santa Monica. He also said he was seriously contemplating driving the Honda off one of the cliffs. Again I laughed aloud as I told him I had always known he was gay and that this revelation was no surprise to me. We talked about how during our high school years we used to drive from party to party in the south suburbs, all of the guys talking about the beautiful girls of Homewood-Flossmoor High School and their magnificent breasts, while Jim alone remained silently uninterested, drinking a beer while driving, so tired and bored by all of our mirth and raving hilarity, the result of our raging adolescent hormones. Jim simply was not interested in girls the way we were in high school, had only once or twice hooked up with a coed during college, so I was not the least bit astonished when he came out to me in the Honda. Jim told me not to laugh because this was serious because he was deathly afraid of contracting HIV. I tried to reassure him that he could take precautions. He asked me if I still wanted to be his friend now that he was openly gay and did I think he was destined to go to Hell? I told him to calm down. No sweat, and was he serious about wanting to drive off one of the cliffs? He said he was serious and consumed by fear, wondering if there was anything left to live for when he contemplated the rejection he might receive from family and friends. I told him not to worry about it and that if he were a good person and was careful not to lie to people or use his superior intelligence to delude them and take advantage of them as he sometimes did growing up as a gifted child, then he would not have to worry about going to Hell. The thing to remember is not to use another human being as a means to an end, because each individual person is an end in himself or herself and a child of God. He felt better about it after we talked for a while, delving into philosophical and theoretical issues I had examined in graduate school which interested him greatly. I decided I would drive past the cliffs even though I was not so good at driving stick and that he could remove all thoughts of suicide from his mind. I told him life itself was a gift from God, a cause for rejoicing, and just look out the window at the fantastic scenery because it certainly was true that this was in fact God¡¯s country, God¡¯s gift to you and to everyone.¡±
¡°There were other important moments and adventures on our trip, the telling of which will have to wait for another time and story. When we arrived in Santa Monica and met up with our good friend from Homewood, Leo Schwartz, he took us to the nice little three bedroom house we planned to rent together. For about a week we hit the beach and a few parties and bars where Jim hooked up with another man for the first time in his life. I was happy for him but urged him to take precautions and use protection. Jim promised me that he would. We met many young people at the bars, some of whom wanted to hear about my experience in graduate school. I sometimes waxed eloquent, especially when I talked about my thesis, which led more than a few of them to advise me to go back to Chicago and write the dissertation. I had a hard time convincing them, and later myself, that I was here in Santa Monica to stay.¡±
¡°At the end of our first week in Santa Monica, on a beautiful cloudless and blue-skyed Sunday afternoon, one of Jim¡¯s new friends drove all of us in her convertible BMW to the Getty Museum and Gardens. Jim told me to wander alone and freely through the museum and its grounds, to think deeply about the art and how understanding it could contribute to the realization of my literary ambitions. He told me the gallery of classical Greek art with its statues and painted pottery was not to be missed. I immediately went there and saw images of the Satyr painted on ceremonial plates. I studied the faun in silent meditation and all I could think of was Clifford Orwin¡¯s class on Thucydides¡¯ History of the Peloponnesian War and the vandalism and of the Hermes statue attributed to Alcibiades. I realized there was so much more for me to learn about Plato and Aristotle and dozens of other crucially important political philosophers. Afterwards, as Jim¡¯s friend drove us in the convertible past beaches where surfers in wet suits were waiting in anticipation of the perfect wave, I decided I would call the department in Pick Hall and see if there was still enough time left for me to register for classes for the spring quarter.¡±
¡°Kathy Anderson, the office manager for The Political Science Department answered the phone when I called from the three bedroom house in Santa Monica. I told her I thought it was a shame to let the scholarship money go to waste and that I felt strong enough and healthy enough to give graduate school another try, at least for the spring term. Kathy put me on hold while she asked a few questions of the department chair. She was back on the line with me again and told me I was doing the right thing, and that the chair wanted to thank me for thinking about the department¡¯s funding. Kathy informed me it was the chair¡¯s suggestion that I enroll in a course on James Fennimore Cooper, to be team taught by political theorist Nathan Tarcov and the writer and one time Guggenheim and MacArthur Fellow, Chicago alumnus Bette Howland. Kathy also told me I should read Howland¡¯s book W-3, her 1973 account of her own struggles with mental illness. Although I did not realize it at the time, the course on Cooper was to be a crucial one for me in my development as a writer. I convinced Jim to drive me to the airport as soon as I could purchase a ticket to O¡¯Hare with my credit card. Jim believed I was doing the right thing, even though I was just then running back to Chicago as fast as I had run away from the same place only a few weeks prior.¡±
I finished relating my tale to Luther and my other assembled colleagues. Luther thanked me for being so honest and told me he would talk about my experience with his son if I gave him my permission. I told Luther, certainly he could tell his son everything I had told him and that I had nothing to be ashamed of. I never did write the dissertation and earn the Ph.D. from Chicago, but I wanted Luther and everyone else to know that I was quite content with my lot and that I knew how to put my library card and my fiction website to good use. I stood up from my comfortable seat on the couch and returned to my office to commiserate once again with my office mates about the temperature and the broken heating unit. Back in my office I felt the cold once again on the outside in spite of my two coats and thermal underwear, a feeling fortunately mitigated to a great extent by the soothing therapeutic warmth I felt on the inside.