What Do You Want To Do When You Grow Up? (Part 3)

Love walks in. That’s probably the easiest explanation for what happened on the eve of me leaving the U.S. for Guyana. It was the fall semester in 1987 and it was the start of what I think of as the “fun years” in college. I was at SF State still taking general ed courses and film classes and still working in radio doing weekend air shifts at KKIS in Concord. Owing to a combination of being in radio and wanting to work in the film industry (as a director, of course), I cultivated what I thought was an artsy look (i.e., long hair, wore lots of black clothes, a black overcoat and a black pork pie hat), but I’m sure I looked like a poser. I may have thought I looked like a poser, but my look seemed to attract a girl or two.

Endings and Beginnings

Around October/early November I started dating the room-mate of one of my friends. Like all new relationships, things were fun at first, but then…well, it became a case of “It’s not you, it’s me.” I just wasn’t into her. I wanted to be an artist, and here I was dating a preppie!  “Callow,” that’s what one of film professors said about a screenplay I wrote a semester before.  I had no idea what the word meant then (I had to go the library after class and consult a dictionary), but callow also describes my attitude toward the girl I was dating.  I wanted to break it off, but owing to inertia, I continued to see her.

1987 was also the semester Julie and I were in the same class (Speech 150).  When we noticed each other on the first day of class, she thought I was full of myself (probably right) and I thought she was a some rich girl who got dropped off at the wrong school.  We didn’t talk all that much because I think the two of us figured each other out based on the clothes we were wearing.  How callow of us! That was also the same day our professor said that he’s gone to more weddings because people meet in this class than any other class he teaches at the university. I looked around to see who I would potentially want to marry, and my eyes never landed on Julie — nor did hers land on me. Clearly, we didn’t know what was coming in a couple of months.

One day, I came into to class and Julie was all dressed up and holding a nice bouquet.  I asked her why she was dressed that way, and she said she was going to meet her parents after class.  I commented that she was a good daughter for bringing flowers.  She said she was nervous because this was the first time she was meeting her dad and she was worried that he wouldn’t like her.  I said, “Oh, he’ll love you!”  That comment seemed quite touching to her, and she stopped seeing me as that guy who was full of himself.  As the semester wore on, she realized I was an okay guy and she started to like me, but I was completely oblivious.  By December, the semester was ending, and I think Julie figured she better make a move to see if I was interested in going out, so she wrote me a letter basically asking if I wanted to hang out. I got the letter on a Friday.

I was flattered, but also a bit dense. I thought Julie just wanted to hang out as friends, but my girlfriend at the time could figure out Julie’s intentions. Like I said, I wanted out of the relationship, and wanted to use my upcoming trip to Guyana as an excuse to break up, but I didn’t know how I would tell her.  I spent Friday night and Saturday morning with her and, truth be told, it was an awkward night.  We got into a bit of a fight after she made some really cutting comment about me. Now I can take good-natured ribbing, but her comment had a lot a venom. After she blurted out what was clearly bottled up inside her, I started getting my things together to make tracks out the door.

“What are you doing?” she said in an alarmed voice

“That was a shitty thing to say. What do you think I’m doing.  I’m leaving.  Later.” I said as I got my arty-farty overcoat on.

“Wait. I’m really sorry. I shouldn’t have said that. That was a dumb thing to say. I don’t want you to go.  We were having such a nice evening, and I just ruined it with a stupid comment.” And then the tears started flowing, followed by more pleading for me to stay.

I thought about it for a bit…and then took off my jacket and stayed the night. In the morning, we had a quick breakfast and then I was off to work at the radio station.

She called on Sunday just to chat, and I figured this was a good time as any to tell her about me wanting to end our relationship. She said she’d wait for me until I got back from South America, but I said I wanted to break it off with her because it wasn’t fair to either of us if we were separated by countries. I couldn’t bring myself to tell her the truth: I wasn’t into her, and I wanted out.  So I said some things that was complete BS — which she accepted, but probably didn’t believe.  I hung up and immediately said “I feel as if a great weight has been lifted from my shoulders.” And because I’m prone to being both dramatic and annoying, I repeated it a couple more times as I threw myself on the ground in relief.  About an hour later, the phone rang.  It was her, and she had clearly thought about our conversation:

“I don’t get it. I called earlier just to talk and then at the end we broke up. Why?  I don’t think you’re being honest with me.”

“I can’t talk now. I’m on the way to a family function and I have to leave now.  Can we talk tomorrow?” I said in all honesty.

“Okay, but please be honest with me about why you don’t want to be with me anymore.  Can you just do that for me?”

“Yeah. Okay. But I really have to go now. I’ll talk to you tomorrow.” I hung up the phone, and the “great weight” returned.

We met on Monday evening, and I reiterated that I wanted to end our relationship. I felt horrible, but I told her it was because of my upcoming trip and… (Okay, here’s where the truth she wanted to hear came out)…I didn’t think there was any chemistry between us.

Tears. Anger. Resentment ensued…and finally a hug between us.  She said she was done dating “good looking guys who can’t figure out what they want”…and then offered to drive me home.  An awkward request, but one I agreed to out of guilt, I suppose.

On Tuesday I called Julie to let her know that I read her letter and to see if she’d like go to lunch. After class on Wednesday, we got some pizza and got to know each other outside of Speech 150. Lunch was okay, but I wasn’t interested in dating anyone. I was fine with the just “hanging out as friends” as she put in her letter. After all, I had a few friends who were women, so I didn’t think Julie was interested in anything serious. I just thought she was new to the City and was looking to connect with people and make new friends.

Like I wrote just a few sentences ago, lunch was just okay for both of us. Julie said to me months later that all I talked about at lunch were my friends and radio, so she knew I wasn’t all that interested in her. After our meal, I drove her back to her apartment. When we parked in front of her place, I pulled a Chandler Bing (you know, from Friends) with my parting comment.  Instead of just saying so long, I said “Hey this was fun, we should do this again.” Julie said “Well, if you’re serious, let me have your phone number.” I gave it to her and she called a few days later to invite me to her company holiday party. After that party, my feelings for her and not wanting to date completely changed. I saw her two more times before I left the country, but clearly I was falling for her pretty hard.

Love sometimes has bad timing.

It’s Not All About You, Ted

I was supposed to spend five months in South America, but I was back in the U.S. after three weeks. Partly it was because when we got there, my grandfather was fine and there was nothing for me to do there. The other part was I wanted to get back to see Julie. But while I was there, I got to see first hand where my parents grew up. My mom was raised on a rice plantation that my grandfather owned. Her father did alright and had a pretty good place, but it was no picnic growing up there. Life on a rural plantation in Guyana was very hard, but because my grandfather was a kind of local mucky-muck landowner, she and her siblings lived better than many people in her small town.  My father, however, grew up dirt poor. I mean really poor. They had very little to nothing, but because my father was a good student and he had support from his family and church, he was able to leave Guyana and study medicine in the U.S. I had heard stories most of my life about my parent’s journey from a small South American country to the U.S. But what struck me about Guyana was how incredibly poor everyone was, and how incredibly lucky I was to live in California where I could pursue whatever I wanted. Most of the people I met who were about the same age me and were envious that I was in college. They knew their lives weren’t going to have the opportunities I could potentially have and weren’t shy about telling me so.  Every time I said I wanted to be a film maker, I would hear a variation of the following, “If I could go to college, I would do study hard and make something of myself.  I would major in business, or engineering, or medicine. I wouldn’t waste my time studying film.”  Guyanese people are many things, but telling you the brutal truth is not something they shy away from.

When we finally left Guyana, I was talking with my mom on the flight home about the experience I had and how I was going to change my major to something more practical.  Film making was out.  Being a writer was out.  Doing anything creative was just o-u-t out. I convinced myself that I didn’t have much talent as a writer or a film maker, so I thought I would study a subject that would help me understand more about the world. I chose political science because I thought I would eventually become a lawyer and I needed a thorough grounding in politics.

When I came back to California, Julie and I started dating again …and we’ve never apart from that moment on.

Let’s Get Serious…I Mean Really Serious

For the next two years, I really dug in and studied hard about the various sub-disciplines in political science (i.e., theory, American politics, comparative and methods). A whole new world of information was opening up my mind and I really took to the subject — my grades got better, too. When I graduated, I was ready to work for a year (or maybe two) and then think about grad school to become a professor of politics. That whole flirtation with being a lawyer was squashed when I took an undergraduate course that was modeled on a first year law class. I hated every minute of it, dropped the class and vowed that I would never subject myself to such silliness again.

In 1990, there was a pretty deep recession (nothing like the Great Recession), but it was bad. That was the year I graduated with my B.A.  No one seemed to be hiring, and the jobs I was trying to get weren’t happening. I fell back into radio working part-time at two radio stations doing essentially board-op work. How I hated it. It seemed like I was regressing and I was getting really bummed about the fact that I went back to school to better my job prospects — only to have fewer opportunities.

I spoke with my father about going to grad school to eventually get my PhD. He said he would pay for the master’s program at SF State in political science and support me for the next couple of years. I was accepted, and off I went to back to school — only this time it was different.  The coursework was more intense, the students vastly smarter, and the workload was more than a full-time job, but I was enjoying the process. When I completed my degree, it came time to apply to PhD programs. I was advised by one of my academic mentors to apply to American Studies departments because my work showed that I was more interdisciplinary than other students. I split the difference by applying to both political science and American studies programs. I was rejected from every political science PhD program I applied to, and accepted by both American studies programs. One was in Hawai’i, the other was at the University of Pennsylvania. I chose Penn because, according to my mentor, if I wanted to teach in California (which I did), going to an east coast school was the best way to better my chances of getting a tenure-track position in my home state.

By 1993,  Julie and I had married and, sadly, it was also the year my father died.  Because he was a pretty compulsive saver, my father left me (and my siblings) some money. I used the money I inherited to move to Philadelphia and to pay for the first semester of my studies at Penn. The unfortunate thing was that I was admitted late to the American Civilization program at Penn, and that meant there was no money for fellowships and tuition waivers for my first year. But I figured I was investing in my future, so I was willing to spend the cash. In the summer of 1994, Julie and I drove from San Francisco to Philadelphia and were ready to start the next phase of our lives in a place neither of us knew much about.

Philadelphia is a hard place. The people have tough exteriors, they don’t like to mingle with people outside of their class and neighborhood, and the city has many impoverished areas. In short, it’s a segregated city. Coming from San Francisco, this was a shocker because in the City at that time it wasn’t segregated all that much. Most people lived in diverse neighborhoods and people tended to befriend one another regardless of race, class, gender or sexual identity. Coming from that environment to one where class and race were real barriers to interaction was tough to take, but we soldiered on while suffering intense homesickness.

Things got better when Julie got pregnant and had our one and only kid, Maya in 1996. Now we were young parents without a family support system. We thought it was going to be really hard to care for an infant without family around, but the two of us adapted to the new addition to our family pretty fast. The routine of feeding, diaper changes, colic, walks, etc. was a nice but demanding change from fretting about seminar papers, reading, and prepping for teaching. I felt more rooted with Maya in our world and all the grad school drama didn’t matter all that much.

It took two years of coursework, but I finally finished all the requirements for me to move on to the dissertation phase — which is the final project you do before getting your doctorate. It’s a long process (dissertations in the humanities usually take 2-4 years to complete), but one that demonstrates that you’re writing at an advanced academic level and your research is good enough to get published — that is, if you’re willing to revise almost everything you’ve worked on.

However, before getting the research phase of the dissertation, you have to pass a comprehensive final exam. Some people have oral exams, but my exam was a three-day written test that covered American history, American religions, and 20th century American politics. I had a bibliography I assembled (something like 20 books for each subject) and was given test questions to write on. I was pretty sure I’d pass because no one was really out to “get” me; my professors just wanted to know what I knew about these subjects and designed comprehensive questions that allowed me to explain what I knew. I passed that tests and was advanced to the dissertation phase — which was also our cue to get out of town. Like I wrote earlier, Julie and I were terribly homesick, and “the plan” was to move back as soon as I completed my coursework and comprehensive finals. So off to California the three of us went. For me to start researching my dissertation, for Julie to find another job, and for Maya to be closer to family members.

It took longer to settle on a dissertation topic than I hoped. I had two aborted projects that I did preliminary research on, and then I finally found a topic that seemed doable — but it almost made me quit grad school.

More Hurdles On The Road To Being Bona Fide

In 1998 (If my memory serves), I flew back to Philadelphia with a dissertation proposal in hand. My understanding was that it was a fairly pro forma meeting and there would be some guidance and suggestions on avenues of research. Nope. It was announced at the outset that it was to be a “final exam” with me defending my research. Huh? What the what! That opened the floodgates for a couple of professors who wanted to know how well I knew my research. It was a quite an attack.  Any answer I gave to their questions  just seemed to annoy one particular professor more and more. He looked out the window when I spoke and had this “You’re just spewing bullshit” smile on his face while he shook his head in disapproval. I was getting really pissed off. I mean, I flew 3000 miles at my own expense to defend a project that I thought was a go, only to have the chair of my committee say that this proposal was to be a final exam — an “exam” that I had not prepped for. I felt blindsided, pissed off, and not in any mood to take this abuse I felt came from people who were just showboating in front of each other. When the torture was over, I was asked to step out of the room so the committee could vote to approve or not approve the project. I was in the hallway waiting when I made up my mind to quit if they voted not to approve. I was getting my speech ready to tell Professor Smug to shove it when the chair of my committee walked out with a big smile on his face asking me to come in. Before I even sat down, they all said congratulations and signed off on the project.

For the next two years, I worked on my dissertation by researching at UC Berkeley, SF State and Stanford University. And in a case of “what’s past is prologue,” I started working part-time at a local radio station. My brother worked there, and I was looking for a little extra money, so I did some fill-in and weekend on-air work. The radio work was fine, but I was eager to start teaching and getting my academic career started.

A friend from SF State’s grad program was doing some adjunct work at Santa Clara University and was quitting for a teaching gig in L.A. He asked if I was interested in taking over a couple of his classes, I said yes, and started my first teaching assignment. I was so nervous the first day that I could barely keep focused on what I was trying to tell my students. It was a horrible debut, but one I’m sure that is not uncommon for new teachers. It took a while to get my footing, but once I locked in, I realized that I knew more than I thought I did when teaching students about political theory. It’s never easy teaching a class. There’s a ton of prep work, lectures to write, a syllabus to construct, tests to figure out, grading policies, etc. When you develop a course, you do so with the understanding that you’re creating a contract between you and the students, and that contract has to conform with the university’s policies for classes. In short, you have to pay attention to the details or else you’ll paint yourself into a corner. I think my syllabus impressed the full-time faculty, and toward the end of the semester, the department chair asked if I was interested in teaching more classes when I completed my PhD. I said that I was getting close to finishing and would keep in contact. When I finally finished my dissertation, I set off to Philadelphia to turn it in. After one hiccup, it was accepted by the university.  However, not one of the professors who were involved in my dissertation project were there to congratulate me. Granted it was summer and Penn was a ghost town. Most professors left town for three months, so I can’t blame them. The only professor who was around was one of my favorite profs who took Julie and me to lunch. After that, I could pretty much officially call myself “Doctor.” I had made it. It was a long haul that took years of study, sacrifices, two major moves and just a tremendous amount of tenacity to achieve the level of education I attained.

It’s a shame it my academic career didn’t work out.

Click here to read part 4

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