The next to last step in finishing my PhD work is underway. I take comprehensive exams over every book written in the Spring. I have a n approved and finalized reading list and have started gathering the ones I don’t already own. So, naturally, I am trying to take stock exactly how it came to be that I live in Oklahoma and am reading in American Cultural History of Science.
Many people I know knew, or at least said they knew, what they wanted to be when they grew up. My wife, it seems, knew she wanted to be a teacher since she was a fetus. I have exactly 0 recollection of ever actually answering that question. For the record I don’t think I am in any better position to answer it today than when I was in the third grade when the people around me wanted to be firefighters, police officers, astronauts, and elephants.
I have been thinking about this for over a year now. The bulk of this self reflection inertia comes from getting back into comic books and a few other pop culture projects involving boardgames, online forums, and facebook groups. Two things more recently have finally funneled my thinking down to pixels on a screen: I had to travel to be in a wedding and I read an article about having three selves.
Last weekend my best friend was married in Galveston. This, in and of itself, is not a major catalyst for life review but the contextual happenings really have been. You see, Galveston is only about an hour and a half from where I grew up. I haven’t been back in over a year and that last trip was for a funeral. So it involved a lot of back and forth on figuring out who to visit on the mad dash and how to work it all into one day. Sunday was going to a be a marathon of visiting, or so I figured.
As soon as he heard I was coming back through that part of Texas a family friend decided that I would need barbecue. Lunch was at 2 and after eating one of the best meals I have had in a very long time, we sat at the table and visited for two and a half hours. About what I was working on in our special collections, what I was reading for comprehensive exams, what they had recently read or seen. I stayed longer than I had planned, but it was tough to leave good company even when I did, but I had to get to my grandfather’s so I could get back on the road to Oklahoma.
I call my grandfather every weekend. He turned 85 back in May and at times seems that he is a bit bothered when the doctor tells him he is healthy. His lungs are solidifying from the bottom up. They’ve been doing this for an incredibly long time, but it has gotten worse in the years I have been away. I believe that this trip was the last time I would actually get to see him and I haven’t been down in over a year so I figured we’s get to catch up on things. The short answer is, it was a weird trip. A lot has changed at the old place, but it was the inside that was the weirdest. Of course I arrived during the weather which is turned up super loud because he doesn’t want to get hearing aids because he isn’t going to live long enough to get a value from the purchase (serious reason). So I excuse myself thinking that by the time I get something to drink and wash my hands the weather will be over and we can visit.
When the weather went off, he changed the channel to golf. The man has not cared for golf for as long as I can remember, but now was hoping that someone wouldn’t win this year since he won last year. He never turned off the television. I asked him about the cows and the garden. That and the wondering what other people were going to do with their life was the extent of the conversation. I did need to use the air compressor before I left so he saw me out the the garage.
–This never happened, but I always think it could have.–
I tell you all that because afterwards it was a 7 hour drive back to the house and my audiobook ended 3 hours in so I had a lot of drive time to think about things. It really threw into focus the keeping up appearances thing I went through as a kid. In school, and around my mother’s parents (who lived in the same town, I never realized that growing up close to both sets of grandparents was such a rare thing until years later) I was social and outgoing. At home, when my dad was home, and around the other side I was expected to be seen and not heard. Everyone there treated kids like small adults except my aunt that wouldn’t let me eat hard candy without someone in the room because I would choke to death (this was the case until I was a teenager).
This was the house that was full of books though. World book Encyclopedia, all the Louis Lamour books, Clive Cussler, a few classics. This grandfather gave me a copy of The Red Badge of Courage when I was in 6th grade and talked much about his favorite book being 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Never anything about it that I can recall, just how many times he had read it. I was expected to get good grades and not get in trouble.
In junior high my homeroom teacher presented me with a certificate she made that awarded me “A Genuine Ace Ventura” (I have looked for this thing for 3 days with no luck, but I have it framed somewhere) because I made her class “interesting.” I did dress up like that for halloween one year, and do look more than a little like him. At my grandparents every time Jim Carrey appeared or was mentioned someone, usually my grandmother, would engage in a full tirade against how much they hated him, how stupid and ignorant he was, and that anyone that acted like that should be committed. (there were a lot more frills and dressings in my grandmother’s versions, but I will save those for another day and a another post with a more restricted MPAA rating).
It was also during jr. high that I had to get rid of my comic books. I had only recently been reading X-men and Wolverine. First from what was available at the grocery store and later the comic racks at Books-A-Million. My dad declared them a fire hazard (seriously). So two big boot boxes had to go.
My mother’s dad paid me $10 every 6 weeks for an all A report card. It was an allowance of sorts, but he also paid me to mow the yard. Education was important to them too, but they weren’t surrounded by the trappings of it. I was in high school when he died. My grandmother continued to ask about school and what I was going to do when I graduated, etc. Everyone knew I was going to college. It was expected. I expected it too.
My grandfather had went to college for a year, but his job schedule interrupted it and to this day thinks that it works like it did in 1953. I applied for every scholarship I could find and wasn’t eligible for any because I wasn’t Pell Grant eligible. To my surprise we weren’t poor, at least according to the government. So I went to college for mechanical engineering, knowing little about what they did. I am color blind so electrical and chemical were out. I went for a year and got all the required core courses I needed. Then I quit.
I had started working as a carpenter when I was 14. I worked school holidays and from the day after school let out for summer until the day before school started back. I continued to do this half days while I was in college. I left the company the summer I left college and went to work for a commercial construction company building banks, schools, and car dealerships. After layoffs for winter I took a job as a boilermaker. I figured working turnarounds would give me a chance to see what the engineers were doing and what I could do if I wanted to go back to university. Every single older man that I ever worked with constantly wondered about why I wasn’t in college and would talk about staying in, and what they’d do if they could. The ones I worked closest with became sources of life experiences that were different than anything that I was familiar with. More than one became mentors in their own right.
In August 2006 I went back. I picked up right where I left off in mechanical engineering in May of 2002. I started working in the seafood market at a new grocery store in town. The first air conditioned job I ever had. Unfortunately management required us to use the case in a manner in which is wasn’t designed and the mold that could never be completely cleaned out from under the case meant I was having asthmatic reactions to allergens. Something that had never happened before in any refinery I had ever worked. I needed to have an inhaler just to go to work, and had to go to the ER more than once.
-I used to really like this song until 1 million CSI intros, but it still fits-
I also applied to transfer out of Lamar and was accepted to the University of Michigan only to not be able to afford the 45000/year out of state tuition. I decided to check out anthropology and transferred to LSU to get a better chance of doing fieldwork only to find that I still had to do it through another university. I was there for two weeks, before going back to Lamar for cheaper tuition and applying for a field season in Belize with the University of Texas.
My final year at Lamar I was accepted into the McNair program. After graduating I went on to work with the program as their graduate mentor while I was working on my own MA. I tried to make sure every first generation student didn’t go into college or projects with the skewed notion of university that I had. Mainly that families thinking that being smart meant you got money for school. Once I finished at Lamar I applied to OU and my graduate assistantship with the graduate college allowed me to continue that work without being under a federal grant. Currently I am working in our special collections in the library on their new exhibits side of things.
So much of this seemed like a type of schizophrenia being different people around different people and all the while losing who I actually was when I was alone. Was I just going to school because it was expected? Had I just went to far to turn back? What did it mean for having a family (my wife and I were married the spring after we graduated undergrad)? I still don’t know, really. I think the worst thing you can do is figure out exactly what you want to do, since for me it makes everything unrelated seem like a waste of time, or you get what you want and you hate it. That is why I love this Oscar Wilde Quote:
“If you want to be a grocer, or a general, or a politician, or a judge, you will invariably become it; that is your punishment. If you never know what you want to be, if you live what some might call the dynamic life but what I will call the artistic life, if each day you are unsure of who you are and what you know you will never become anything, and that is your reward.”
Otherwise trying to deal with this light version of cognitive dissonance eventually took its tole and I didn’t -couldn’t- keep it up anymore and started cutting ties and getting out and living on my own. It took years for my own interests to bubble back up to the top. Realizing how much I enjoyed watching and reading the old Ghostbusters stuff the resurgence of TMNT stuff and finding there are literally thousands of people who are actively collecting this stuff helped. Although it is nearly impossible for me to humor something that I do not care about anymore. I suppose that is a small price to pay for self-awareness.
Most recently–this past week, in fact–I read this piece in three selves in the NYMag. It looks like it is normal, it is just easier for all three to assume oneness if you stay in one place and that one place is homogenous enough that you never feel the need to get out. College was my way out. I say college and not education, because I haven’t learned anything in any four walls that I couldn’t have on my own. It is the institution (and I mean that in all versions of the word) of university that has allowed me to find out what is out there and what I can contribute to it. I am not sure what much of it actually means for anyone but myself, but hopefully someone will see that it isn’t always a structured path that gets you where you want to go. The most recent hashtag on twitter has been #FirstSevenJobs and most of the people I follow have filled it with tech support, waiting tables, or something similar.
Sometimes it isn’t the people that embody what you want to be that provide you the most support.
-What I think every time someone thinks they know what I’m about-
Take all of that for what you will. I have to go find food, one of my three selves is hungry.