Tag Archives: Friends

Returning to the Donut….MMMMMMM….Donuts.

11 Aug

About a year ago, I posted the news of my impending, and what now seems to have become an annual, Petscan. Well, it’s time for another one.  A text to my oncologist in late  June began the process.  Three weeks later, when I hadn’t even received a notice from my insurance company delaying the procedure (a common occurence),  I texted my oncologist again and learned that either he or the folks at the lab slightly misspelled my name.  So some guy named Eric Greenburg, or Erich Greenberg, or Erick Greenburgh got a referral for my scan.  So we began again.  This time, success!  A week after my text, the insurance company sent me an e-mail delaying my procedure by 45 days while they research the need for the test.  Then a week later, the referal arrived. Earlier this week I called the scan place,  spoke to the same guy I spoke to last year (which was kind of comforting), and made my appointment.  Thursday, August 18th, first thing in the morning. 

And so the process begins.  On Wednesday morning I start a 24 hour carb fast.  Not even a piece of fruit until I am done with the scan on the 18th.  On the 18th I am given radioactive sugar, and then placed into what looks like a large donut as they test the size and metabolic activity of my tumor (a structure that one of my friends assures me is my ancestors seeking to live close to my heart–I love that idea).   Then scantasia begins, my family’s celebratory embrace of all the carbs I couldn’t eat the day before.  A flavored coffee and muffin in the morning, Italian food at night.  Then we wait a week for the results, which I am always nervous about no matter how certain I am of thier positive outcome, and, God willing, have Scantasia part 2, the celebration of good news.

As you may recall, last year in an effort to drag all of you into my life and my concerns, I called on all of you to make the day before my scan a carb-filled wonderland for you and yours.  You may not think that stuff like that matters, but  I certainly can’t argue with the results of the scan.  So I am calling on all of you to return to this evolving tradition.  On Wednesday, August 17th, I call on all of my family and friends to double down on their carb intake.  Have some pizza, some pasta, a hoagie (or sub, or grinder). If you are a hipster, please curate a selection of locally brewed, artisinal IPAs and the drink every last one of them.  Or, if you’re like me, have a whole mess of cookies.  When you do, I will feel your good wishes, and that helps my state of mind a lot.  Maybe this year you could take some pictures of your carbs and share them on Facebook?  It might seem like a cruel taunt at my carbless existence, but I think I would dig it. 

Whatever you choose to do or not do, just know that I appreicate your interst, kindness, and support. Naturally I will share the results of the scan as soon as I get them.

As Always….Stay Tuned.

 

Back to Blogging

22 Jun

For the Blog

A couple of years ago, I wrote a blog post that explained my three week absence from blogging.  At that time a friend of mine asked on Facebook, “Am I expected to read a blog about why you didn’t write a blog?”  Good question, and I suppose he didn’t have to read my blog, but as a good friend, he did.  So I apologize to that friend in advance, because, once again, I write this blog to explain why I haven’t blogged.

 It’s been a long time since I last wrote and posted a blog….a very long time.  By my count it’s been about 10 months, when I announced the result of September’s Petscan. A lot has happened since then. In personal news, my daughter travelled to Israel, where she lived and studied for nine months.  Amy and I learned to live in an empty nest without too much trouble.  The New York Giants had an awful season, revealing their complete lack of an NFL caliber defense.  And I have spent much of the past academic year teaching California history at a local university part time, which is fun, but also very time consuming and frustrating.  In the broader world….well, you all know what’s gone on in the broader world—a dismaying election cycle that seems to signal the rise of the demagogue as a legitimate type of candidate in American politics, a growing divide between rich and poor that makes our current age seem very much like the late nineteenth century’s gilded age, and never ending violence and terrorism at home and abroad, just to name a few.  And all of this Emma’s trip, the changes to our household, the teaching, the election, all of it, has kept me from blogging for the past ten months. Let me explain.

First, I have found it difficult to blog for personal reasons. Like I said, a lot has happened over the past ten months, but not all of it happened to me.  My daughter has learned a number of important lessons about life and living on her own. My wife spent much of the Fall getting back on her feet after her terrible bout with pancreatitis and the other issues that arose from that horrible illness.  And Amy and I both spent nine months without a child around figuring out what married life is like when parenting is no longer the prime directive. All of these experiences are filled with stories—some painful, some funny, some depressing, others uplifting—but most of these stories are not mine to tell.  They happened to someone else, or they are personal moments that I shared with others, and so to tell those stories feels wrong, like I would be violating someone’s privacy.  That was never the intention of this blog.  Over the past few years the point of this blog has been to share my thoughts, my concerns, my fears, and my happiness and to see how that public sharing is received and how it helps me learn and grow.

The election has kept me from blogging too.  To be clear I have discussed politics regularly—especially on Facebook—but I have not found the experience beneficial. I have spent the past ten years or so of my life trying to keep my discourse and engagement reasonable and respectful, but these days American politics knows no reason nor respect. This is true for the politicians and the public, and for the right and the left.  Naturally Donald Trump and his supporters are the most severe examples of this new political tone, but one cannot ignore the vitriol hurled at Hillary Clinton from the left nor the frustrated jibes from Clintonites (like me) aimed at Sanders and the Sanderistas. Since the New York primary many of us believe that Bernie’s campaign and the actions and outbursts of the so called Bernie Bros have been driven by destructive hubris rather than productive care and concern, and our language has reflected that frustration.  I have gotten into a number of discussions and debates this election year, and each time I do I feel angry, frustrated, hopeless, and even a little dirty.  I am not naïve enough to believe that American politics are historically decent and noble, but these days the rules of political engagement seem to have changed considerably. People are angrier, meaner, less respectful, and when I find myself in the midst of these debates I feel angrier, meaner, and less respectful too.  I surely have no desire to spend my time blogging angry and feeling awful, and so politics have been off the table as well.

Even if I could find an appropriate topic for blogging, I have had very little time to dedicate to such an enterprise.  As I mentioned above, I have been teaching this year, this in addition to my full time job at the museum.  I have taught three back to back quarters of California history, which has been great fun, but my preparation, grading, and the demands of my students have taken up a lot of my free time.  As Amy can attest, I have spent most Monday evenings grading quizzes and most of the rest of the week grading papers or reading the week’s assigned readings.  Sure I have read this material in the past….numerous times, but I am also 51 and my memory is less photographic than I would like, so every week I read the homework assignments along with my students—well along with those students who actually take the time to read…there seem to be fewer and fewer of those students every year.

Throughout it all, Emma’s trip, the election, the teaching, and everything else that has happened this year, I have wanted to blog.  Blogging connects me to my broad network of friends (particularly those who live a great distance from me). Writing in a format lengthier than the average Facebook post helps me think things through, and as always, there is a lot to think about.  And of course, blogging has been a way for me to share the never ending saga of the lemon sized tumor in my chest and my, now, annual requirement to have my body scanned to see if anything has changed.  One of my greatest concerns about my failure to blog is that my little corner of the virtual universe will become merely a place for me to share test results. Indeed, sometime this week I will reach out to my oncologist to arrange my next Petscan (the first one in ten months). 

But I want this blog to be more than that.  I want to return to my earlier focus on writing, on the ability to communicate well, to be more vulnerable and honest, and to share my thoughts and thinking.   Recently one of my yoga teachers (yes I take yoga now, and I love it) described the practice as an investigation into two essential questions—what is my purpose? and what makes me happy? (I probably got that wrong, but I think I captured the essence of her statement).  Prior to her comments, I had always thought of yoga as bound up in other questions like, “Why does that hurt so much?” or “Will I ever be able to bend that deeply?” and other such inquiries.  But my teacher’s point resonated with me. Whatever its outward rewards, when I am at my most relaxed and engaged, yoga helps me to focus and think more clearly, and in my most successful moments of yoga I have had some initial thoughts about purpose and happiness.  I think our purpose in this world is to be as fully present and fully engaged with the moment and the world around us as possible.  Too often our ability to appreciate life and each other is obstructed by our inability (or at least my inability) to think about the here and now.  Too much of life, mine and the lives of other people I know, is bound up in endless worry about things that have happened or may happen in the future.  I think we are at our happiest when we can appreciate the moment, any moment, more fully.

Yoga helps develop the focus and calm necessary to being fully present and engaged (to say nothing of how great it’s been for relieving the many aches and pains that come with aging and being overweight), but blogging helps, too.  Sure, very often my blogs are obsessed with the unfixable past and the unknowable future, but the process still keeps me deeply engaged with my thoughts and the process of thinking. And coming to really know and understand my thinking has a beneficial effect on me. Writing a blog is a days-long enterprise.  I take an idea and I work it out on the page.  The more I write, reread, and edit my work, the more in tune I become with my thoughts, the clearer my focus becomes, and I am able to articulate my ideas more clearly and fully.  Overtime, I begin to understand things about myself that I did not know, and the comments from friends and other readers reminds me just how lucky I am to know so many wonderful, thoughtful people. It’s a kind of meditation, one that I have missed.  For the past ten months I haven’t had that experience in my life, and I really would like to regain it.  For now, I suspect, my blog will once again focus on my upcoming Petscan, but I am going to do my best to get back into the process of thinking and writing.  I apologize in advance for those of you who feel obliged to read my work.  I appreciate your patience and willingness to spend a few minutes reading my latest rant, and I thank you for your time and your friendship.

 

As always…stay tuned.

A Less Than Modest Proposal

2 Sep

Baagel Doughnut

In an effort to generate a little positive energy and test the boundaries of my considerable hubris, I would like to declare September 2nd“Eat Carbs for Erik” day.

As some of you may recall, I have my PET scan on Thursday the 3rd.  For those not familiar with the process, the PET depends upon the fact that tumors and other forms of inflammation metabolize sugar at much greater rates than the rest of your body.  The day before the procedure you abstain from all carbohydrates, and on the day of the scan, the medical technician pumps a syringe of radioactive sugar into your bloodstream, which then gets quickly metabolized by your tumor.  So that’s what I’m getting ready for, and it begins with a day without carbs…then a 6 am check in, a 7:30 or so injection, an 8:30 scan, and a 9:30 muffin and caramel latte.  Then we await the results, which I hope and pray are good, and then on to Scantasia!

I call on all readers of my blog, all people in my social universe, indeed all people on the planet to spend September 2nd ingesting and enjoying bready, sugary, creamy, carby treats. And when you do, please think of me. Have a bagel for me!  Have a doughnut for me.  Have a waffle, a roll,  or a pancake for me!  Have a cookie for me, actually, take two, they’re small.  Overcome your South Beach, Atkins, Paleo, Gluten abstinence, 21st century diets and dive into the cornucopia of carbs.  And when you do, when you taste that delicious sweetness, send some positive thoughts my way.  I swear I will feel them.  Who knows, maybe I will even taste them!  And I will be forever grateful. 

As Always….stay tuned.

In Memoriam

19 Jan

lost-overnight-in-woods

About two months ago—just before Thanksgiving—one of my closest and dearest colleagues died after a lengthy battle with cancer.   For a number of reasons I have not written about her untimely demise on my blog—until now of course.  First, there was my own medical condition and my new PET scan to discuss, which came up shortly after her passing.  Lazily, or selfishly, I figured that since the original purpose of this blog was to share my ongoing health saga with all of you, that topic took precedence over sharing my feelings on the loss of this extraordinary woman.  Perhaps of greater importance, though, until now I wasn’t quite sure what to say about her passing.  I have found so little comfort in my own encounters with loss, and while my religious tradition’s communal response to death provides a wonderful network of support, I find very little in Judaism that directly addresses how individuals can or should process the loss of loved ones. At the very least, those kinds of prophetic and rabbinic insights seem inaccessible to an interested, though undereducated, layperson.  Ultimately, the single most insightful commentary I have heard on loss in the past few months comes not from a rabbi or other sage, but instead from a recent viewing of Sondheim’s Into the Woods.  In that musical’s finale, Sondheim reminds us that “Sometimes people leave you/Halfway through the wood.”  That’s it.  No mystical or holistic reasons for loss, no majestic communion with the Almighty, no useful instructions on how to cope with the passing of a loved one, just a factual assertion that loss exists.

And yet I cannot shake the phrase from my head.  Day after day I sing the passage to myself, partly because of the beauty of Sondheim’s melody, of course, but also because I am beginning to believe there is great wisdom in this simple assertion—sometimes people leave you halfway through the wood.  And while this may seem cold, though it is certainly not meant to be, I have come to see that any statement about a person’s passing is inescapably banal. Death is the one act we will all undertake someday.  To be sure, it can be a terrible and frightening thing to consider (it sure messes with my head), but it is also one of the most common events among living things, something we share with every being on the planet.  Plants die. Earthworms die. Dogs, lions, great blue whales…they die. And humans…we die, too.  What matters more, I think, is how we lived, and what that life has meant to those who surround us (I know, trite…but invariably true).  And so while I was first inclined to write about the great nobility and strength my friend demonstrated in her battle with cancer (and believe me, she was incredibly brave), I have come to see that any fitting tribute should recognize what a glorious and blessed coincidence it was that I should meet her in the first place and how, together, we did some really wonderful and meaningful things—actions and projects that have and will continue to have a positive influence on countless young people in Los Angeles and beyond.

While this may seem somewhat Pollyannaish, I can honestly say that it was a miracle my friend and I ever met—one of those everyday miracles we take for granted too often.  Had each of us followed the career paths we had envisioned for ourselves in our young adulthood, there was really no reason my friend and I should ever have met.  She came from a line of successful advertising executives and made a career for herself in that field.   I began my professional life (such as it was) as a singer and actor and had the kind of middling success that enables one to continue to perform for a little bit of money and still less recognition.  Had she continued in advertising, and had I achieved greater success on stage and screen, we never would have met.  But that’s not where life took us.  One day while working on the original ad campaign for the McRib (that’s right…McRib…I shit you not) my friend met and fell in love with the man who would become her husband.  It was love at first sight, he has told me, and apparently she must have felt the same way because the group dinner where they first realized their feelings for each other was arranged by my friend as a way to spend more time with her future husband (something she confessed to later in life).  After a year of long-distance romance—her in Chicago and him in LA—my friend moved to Los Angeles and within a few years was married.  I wound up in Los Angeles in the fall of 1990. My future wife and I came to the city after spending several years working in regional theater in the South.  She found work almost immediately as a scenic artist, and within a few months I had a long-running gig at Universal Studios.

So we were both in LA. Still, our career paths (those of my friend and I) were different and divergent. But parenthood changes everything.  As my friend’s children grew, she took an interest in arts education and developed an extremely successful arts program in her children’s school district. And fatherhood altered my career path, as well.  Over a few years I weaned myself off of show business and studied history, planning to teach the subject in high school.  After a series of twists and turns we both wound up at the Autry National Center, though initially at different times and in different departments  In 2009, though, when I was offered my current position, my soon to be colleague was already one of the most valued employees in our department, and I was about to be her boss.  Kismet!

And yet, as with all great buddy films, we really did not like each other at first.  My colleague was extremely driven, often to the point of being defensive and inflexible, and I, as I so often can be, was very full of myself and what I knew (or thought I knew) about how to run my department.  But within a few weeks, after I had observed her in action, I came to realize that I was fortunate enough to be partnered with a force of nature, an extraordinary educator, a caring and formidable mother, and over time a good, good friend.  As one coworker recently observed, no one who met this person could ever forget her.  She was a small, compact woman bursting with energy.  She had a missionary zeal for creating engaging and educational experiences for students of all ages and socio-economic backgrounds. We both believed in the power of education to transform.  We both believed that children rise to the level of content and the expectations placed in front of them.  We both believed in the power of second chances, and we both believed that talented teachers were excited to find new ways to approach tried and true subjects.

My friend took a nascent partnership with eighth grade students at a local magnet school and provided the kind of forethought and scaffolding it required to become one of our more successful and respected programs–an award winning, living history program in which we trained our eighth grade charges to teach younger students (fourth-graders) about the life, labor, class, and gender issues on a 19th century Mexican rancho.  The program was popular, engaging, intellectually rigorous, and of greatest importance convinced students of the importance and excitement of research and teaching. Indeed, oftentimes our program was the only reason some of the poorest performing students bothered to come to school.  The structure and novelty of the project certainly played a role in the students’ love of the program, but I have no doubt that one of the most rewarding parts of their experience was the time they spent with my friend and colleague. She made those kids feel special, important, valuable, competent, and intelligent.  Indeed she made everyone she came into contact with feel that way.

Over our almost five years together, my friend and I took on new projects for the museum.  We partnered with an organization in LA that offers arts education to at risk youth, and my friend played an important role in training their teaching artists and providing support for their classroom teachers.  Together we hired an extraordinary staff of bright young people, many of whom continue to change the lives of the 50,000 or so students we see every year.  And though she had no previous experience in the field, my friend soon became the education lead on all exhibitions relating to the cultures and histories of Native Americans.  I assigned the task to her because I knew that she would immerse herself in the topic with extraordinary depth and passion.  Indeed, after my friend’s passing, I had to notify several members of the local Native community because she had worked so closely with them for so long.

And now she’s gone.  She left us halfway through the wood, with so many things to do and projects to oversee.  I know that she desperately wanted to stick around, and I know, as well, that she would give me a very hard time for the sentimentality (and length) of this post.  And so I will just close by saying that I miss my friend very much, and I hope that, over the coming years, my work will be a positive legacy to her memory.  And I hope, as well, that I will stumble into some new friend on this side of the wood and that we come out the other side together.

As always…stay tuned.

Gratitude in Tough Times

4 Aug

 

keep-calm-have-an-attitude-of-gratitude

 

It’s been a tough summer…a tough summer in the middle of a tough, tough year.  War in Israel, mass slaughter in Syria, a passenger plane shot out of the sky—the horrible collateral damage of an ongoing war in Ukraine.  Here at home our government has devolved into hyperbolic political theater, as our Congress adopts a well-practiced posture of outrage and contempt, and our President seems quite incapable of stewarding the roll-out of his signature healthcare legislation (it’s true my liberal friends. I know too many young people who have had an incredibly difficult time with “Obamacare” to pretend otherwise).  On the personal side of the tough-times ledger there is my ongoing engagement with health, healthcare, and well-being.  I have a lemon-sized tumor in my chest, which fortunately is not cancer and has not grown but can still scare the bejesus out of me from time to time.  I am poked, and prodded, and scanned, by doctors on a regular basis.  I have developed a touch of arthritis in my spine (up around my neck) and must see a physical therapist once a week.  Beyond health and well-being I have experienced other types of personal challenge and sadness, as well.  Those who are regular readers of this blog know that recently an old friend was killed in a terrible car crash down in Texas.  And then, just a few weeks ago, another old friend died.  This death was not as shocking as the loss of my former classmate.  The person in question was a docent from our museum, and he was almost 90 years old at the time of his passing.  Still, he was a good guy.  I had known him for years, and I liked him very much.  He was kind, pleasant, charming, and baked cookies every week for the docent corps (and for me).  Such commitment to the culinary arts should not go unnoticed or unapplauded.  Like I said…a good guy.  When I learned of his passing, I turned to a colleague and exclaimed, “My God could this summer get any worse!!!???” 

As the words left my mouth I already regretted saying them.  First of all, things could, and have, gotten worse.  The war between Israel and Gaza goes on, bringing terrible loss of life and sadly sowing the seeds for decades of mistrust and anger on both sides. Syria has gotten no better.  Ukraine has gotten worse.  Fifty, some odd, thousand kids from Central America, some of whom will receive refugee status, others of whom will be sent home, live in a legal and existential limbo in detention centers near our southern border while the politicians continue to feign outrage and concern but do little else as they prepare their rhetoric for the coming election.  Then, last week, in a kind of cosmic slap in the face, a water main break at UCLA wasted some 10 million gallons of water—this in the midst of an ongoing drought in California (we’re at four years and counting). Like I said…tough times.

But my regret at having implored the heavens also emerged from a second reality that had nothing to do with these worsening circumstances.  I regretted asking if things could get any worse because to do so was to ignore the many blessings that exist in my life and the world.  My bizarre condition has not proven eminently dangerous, but rather a medical oddity that has put me in touch with some wonderful, attentive doctors and has generated expressions of kindness and concern from around the world.  This summer, I turned fifty, and that milestone has been marked by really wonderful celebrations in LA and NY, granting me the privilege of spending happy times with friends and family.  Indeed, just recently I spent the day with old friends from my high school days, people I haven’t seen in years.  We ate and drank to excess, shared stories about our lives and our children, and in general just had a good time.  I have a loving and supportive family, a rewarding and engaging job, two crazy dogs, and a host of other blessings that make me one of the luckier people on this planet.  Even the passing of my docent friend came with its own set of blessings.  He lived a long life.  His death was neither incredibly sudden (he kind of faded away over an 18 month period) nor cruel, painful, or prolonged (he was at the museum every week for all but the last few months of his life, and I understand that his passing was painless and peaceful).  I was lucky to know him for as long as I did, and he will live in my memory and the memory of countless others who toured the museum with him, knew him personally, or ate his cookies. 

In the wider world things remain pretty bleak, but there are still small signs of hope.  We have seen a kind of radical empathy emerge from the awful murders of the Israeli and Palestinian teenagers whose deaths signaled the beginning of this most recent war.  Some three hundred Israelis travelled to the home of the bereaved Palestinian parents to mourn their loss and let the world know that such heinous acts are unacceptable to many in Israeli society.  Across the globe, Jews and Arabs have participated in the “Jews and Arabs Refuse to be Enemies” initiative.  In America, tolerance and legal acceptance of and for marriage equality is on the upswing, and our nation’s damaging and expensive war on drugs seems to be winding down.  At the very least, the nation’s politicians are beginning to rethink the political calculus of the “tough on drugs” rhetoric and legislation that began in earnest in the 1980s.  And in a somewhat mixed blessing, football season begins soon.  While I continue to worry about the ways in which the sport has damaged the lives of many athletes, I still love the game and look forward to the season.  I don’t believe for one second that the Giants stand a chance of even making the playoffs, but to paraphrase a friend, with every new season there is new hope. 

Gratitude is tough in tough times.  I don’t wish to seem too Pollyannaish, nor do I want people to think that my appreciation of my good fortune blinds me to the very real suffering and misery that exists on this planet.  But what is any one of us supposed to do…spend our lives contemplating only suffering?  We need hope.  I am reminded of the story of how rescue workers at ground zero in Lower Manhattan would hide in the rubble so that rescue dogs could discover live bodies.  The dog’s trainers found that the endless stream of death proved too dispiriting to their K9 coworkers and the only way to spur them on was to offer some hope of life.  If a dog (a wonderful creature, but hardly the most sophisticated of thinkers) needs that kind of hope, we human beings must require at least as much and likely more.  And so in tough times I try my best to count my blessings every now and then.

Finally, please know that I am not writing this post to lecture or cajole my readers into appreciating the good that surrounds them.  The aims of my blog are much more modest than that.  I merely want to let any interested parties know what’s going on in my world, to share my thoughts publically in a relatively safe environment, and to see if and how they resonate with my readers.  If this posting helps you in any way, great.  If not, that’s fine too.  The fact that anyone reads these posts at all adds to my already considerable blessings, and I am grateful for that.  And I hope that my family, friends, and other readers have much to be grateful for, as well.

 

As always, stay tuned.

On the Loss of Old Friends

12 Jul

HHS

 

Throughout my recent cancer scare, I have, quite naturally, been confronted by the idea of my untimely death.  Let’s face it, when you’re talking about cancer, people speak to you about survival averages, and those averages account for those who live through and those who die from the disease.  To be clear, though, pondering my premature passing was not some newly discovered habit of mine.  Indeed, it is a deeply entrenched, longstanding practice (some may call it a personality flaw).  Worrying is one of my most notable habits of mind, and to a professional worrier like me, premature death has always been a major cause for concern.  I wouldn’t say the thought of dying keeps me up at night, but it certainly finds ways to seep into my thinking throughout the day.  Recently, even before the current war with Gaza, I was confronted with news that would, to some extent, shake me out of my foolishness and remind me that while I navel gaze and contemplate my imaginary death, real people are dying every day.  And what is worse, some of those real people are friends and colleagues.  Worse still, some are the very same age as me, making their passing extraordinarily untimely, unexpected, and unfair.  Don’t get me wrong, I knew that the folks I went to high school with, those who graduated from, say, 1980-1985 would begin to die, but I assumed that process would begin later, as we entered our 70s or 80s.  Sadly, though, the process began just a few years after our graduation, and has continued sporadically over the past thirty-plus years.

Quite recently this cruel eventuality —the premature deaths of my schoolmates—once more became a painful reality when I learned of the sudden death of a onetime friend.  He was a nice guy.  He was one of a few neighborhood kids I hung out with in the 7th and 8th grades.  In high school we kind of went our separate ways, but he was always around and was always a nice person.  About two months ago he reached out to me on Facebook and I was delighted to see that he had a rich fulfilling life and a wonderful family.  All of that came to a screeching halt when he and his wife were involved in a terrible car accident, a crash that took his young life (he had just turned fifty a week or so before) and left his widow in ICU.  Although I had not spoken to him in years, and had not been close with him since our brief stint in a youth soccer league back in the late 1970s, I have found that his death has had an unexpected emotional impact on me.  I mean, sure, one can feel bad about this sudden and cruel loss of life, but for some reason I spent the weekend after his passing utterly devastated by the news.  My heart breaks over his death and for the loss and pain his family will have to endure.

Sadly, this old friend was not the first of my former classmates to die.  Nor is the loss of Harrison Huskies from the 1980s a recent phenomenon.  Their passing began within just a few years of our graduation.  The recent loss of my old friend, and my upcoming birthday, I will turn 50 very soon (God willing), have got me thinking about those who have passed over the decades, and I feel compelled to write about them here in this public forum as some kind of memorial to them.  I realize that any words I can offer are insignificant, and that even my interest in sharing their stories is evidence of my colossal hubris, as if somehow my little blog is capable of providing a worthy memorial for the passing of these young men and women.  It can’t.  Still, they were good kids, good people who, to my knowledge, went on to be good (and possibly great) human beings.  The world is diminished for their passing, and we are all likely better for being reminded of them and their lives.  I suspect that others from my class have passed of whom I am not aware, and I may have even forgot some names (my memory is not what it used to be), but to my knowledge, below is a list of my former classmates (or the spouses of classmates) who have passed away over the past 30 some odd years.

The first classmates’ deaths I can recall came just a few years after graduation. One night two friends were driving home from a bar and were in a terrible car accident.  He was an eccentric, former military school student with a charismatic personality and a shock of dark hair. He smoked Phillip Morris unfiltered cigarettes and spoke like George C. Scott in his role as General Patton.  He was a hoot, and I liked him very much.  She was a lovely and talented young woman who sang in the chorus (we were good friends in 9th grade).  She married young and was taken from us young.  The other driver was apparently under the influence of alcohol and drugs, and as is so often the case, he lived while my classmates died.  I wish I could say that I still think about them all the time, but I don’t.  My brain is too filled with other memories (happy and sad) to recall too much from my childhood.  Still, I do think about them from time to time, and it breaks my heart to know that their lives and potential were cut so short.

I think the next person we lost too soon was the wife of a close friend.  Forced to deal with incredible physical pain, she took her own life.  My friend, her husband, has somehow carried on and has become a regional leader in the fight against suicide.  I cannot even imagine the magnitude of his loss, and I continue to marvel at his strength and conviction.  But, then, I always thought he was the bravest of all of my close friends.  He proved it too!  He served on numerous police forces across the country (as did his wife) before switching careers (another incredibly brave act). As for his wife, she was beautiful, loving, a wonderful mother, and from what I understand a damn fine cop.  Her family and the rest of the world are diminished by her passing.

Then there was the little red-haired girl who I sometimes sat next to in ninth grade humanities class.  Apparently she grew into a beautiful and brave red-haired woman who gracefully fought and with equal grace succumbed to lymphoma—the same disease doctors originally believed that I had.  Her passing gives the lie to so many physicians who told me that, “If you must have cancer, this is the cancer to have.  The tumors just melt away in chemotherapy.”  Apparently not.  Her friends and family have created a charitable foundation in her honor.

Then there was my close friend who died of AIDS. His is an unimaginably sad story.  Orphaned by the age of 15, he was raised by relatives (including his barely legal brothers) until he reached his majority.  Fortunately he was also cared for by a number of very fine and decent parents in town, including my own.  Indeed, my dad helped him with his college applications.  He was accepted to school out here in LA, and pretty much left without much of a trace.  In LA he came out of the closet and, regrettably, found himself part of the generation of gay men who became ill with AIDS long before people knew much about the disease or how to treat it.  And yet, he somehow survived for a decade with the disease.  About a year after I moved to LA, we got back in touch and became very close. My wife and I, and he and his partner (a wonderful, caring, older man who deserves a great deal of credit for his care and support) became good friends—spending time in each other’s homes, enjoying the holidays together, etc. Eventually, though, the good times came to an end, as my friend began to be squeezed between the symptoms of his disease and the side effects of the drugs used to treat him—this was just before the widespread use of anti-retroviral drugs.  The night before he died we said goodbye and promised to come back in the morning, but before we could make it there, he was already gone.  Dead at 31.  I still miss him very much.

I know that these are not the only people in the world to have died these past thirty-plus years.  I know that others have suffered greatly.  I know that there is a war in Gaza right now that has and will claim hundreds of people’s lives, many of them very young.  I know that my sense of loss may seem selfish.  But the loss of average, everyday people, people not caught up in war or some other kind of violence…their deaths matter, too.  And whether the sentiment is selfish or not, I miss these people, and am both saddened and angered by their premature departure from this world.  And above all, I hope that those of you who read this (including me, I guess) will stick around for a long time.

 

As always, stay tuned.

Me and the Ph.D.: A Defense and A Meditation

21 Jun

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Today I try something new.  As part of my effort to broaden my blog’s scope, I will take an opportunity to publish something I wrote that never got published.  A few years ago, a recently minted literature Ph.D. wrote a scathing condemnation of the humanities’ Ph.D.  It was a pretty brutal piece, and a lot of friends and colleagues shared it on Facebook and through other forms of social media.  I found the article to be a little whiny and EXTREMELY hyperbolic (which has become the default style of internet discourse, I fear).  And so I set out to write a response and have it published in the Huffington Post or some similar aggregator of blogs and opinions, but I got no takers.  So if no one will publish my post, I will do the next best thing (save keeping my damn opinions to myself) and self-publish.  So, without further ado, I offer my modest defense of the humanities’ Ph.D.

 

Over the past few years numerous scholars have taken to the internet to condemn the humanities’ Ph.D., or at the very least question the financial, intellectual, and emotional benefits of graduate education.   My membership in  “The Versatile Ph.D.” , for example—a list serve for people with or pursuing advanced degrees—has not resulted in me learning more about the diverse uses of a humanities doctorate (my main reason for joining the site in the first place), but instead subjected me to countless laments about the ways in which graduate education destroys marriages and families, limits intellectual curiosity, and ultimately fails to deliver on the promise of a tenure-track career in academe.  This last point (the narrowing of the tenure track) was most cleverly expounded upon in Larry Cebula’s 2011 posting, “No, You Cannot Be a Professor,” a biting and brutal explanation of the realities of professional academia. And most recently my Facebook page was awash in repostings of Rebecca Schuman’s Slate piece, “Getting a literature Ph.D. will turn you into an emotional trainwreck, not a professor,” an apologia in which Schuman laments her pursuit of a literature Ph.D. and rails against the field’s failure to adequately reward her (or, in fairness, most recent humanities grads) with an appropriate tenure track position. 

Having recently completed a history doctorate at a large and competitive research 1 institution, I can certainly attest to the truth of the above-cited condemnations of the humanities Ph.D., and I routinely advise smart, young, ambitious history educators and public historians to avoid the pursuit of such a degree if at all possible. Nevertheless, I am uncomfortable with the overwhelming vitriol which has emerged in these recent denouncements of the humanities Ph.D., particularly in the forums of The Versatile Ph.D and Schuman’s Slate piece—a somewhat overwrought screed in which she bitterly compares the foolhardiness of graduate study and the pursuit of an academic career to carelessly smoking four packs of cigarettes a day and hoping you don’t get lung cancer.

To be sure, graduate education has the potential to be an all-consuming, soul-crushing, pursuit, a seemingly Sisyphean process in which the individual’s intellect, insight, and intelligence are routinely challenged, questioned, and discounted in an effort to socialize them in a particular set of intellectual and discursive behaviors.  And yes, the rewards bestowed on those who survive this intellectual boot camp are precious few.  This is due both to the changing business model of the university, as well as to the failure of graduate programs to adequately prepare their charges for careers beyond the academy.  Two or three years removed from their hooding ceremonies, a number of my colleagues, exceptional historians deeply steeped in the practices and traditions of academic history, have been unable to secure full-time employment in their chosen field.  And what is more, I have a number of dear friends who received their doctorates over a decade ago who continue to move from adjunct gig to gig like so many jazz sidemen. Indeed, one of my colleagues has only somewhat jokingly suggested that we should cease to describe the search for post-graduation employment as an academic “job market” and call it instead a “job lottery.”

The truth of these struggles and challenges notwithstanding, there was much about my graduate experience which was incredibly valuable, rewarding, and irreplaceable.  And in light of the Ph.D.’s recent bad press, I would like to take a little time defending the pursuit of such a degree—not because it’s a good idea, mind you, but because if the five or so of you who read this article find yourself inexplicably drawn to taking the degree, it is worth remembering the rewards such study bestows.

First and foremost my graduate studies helped me form a vast network of smart, inspiring, kind, and generous friends. You read that right…friends.  Despite the intense competition for TA positions, attention from professors, as well as fellowships and other funding, I can honestly say that my colleagues in graduate school were, and continue to be, good, good friends. Thanks to the diversity of historical study at UCLA, and the way in which scholarly research and the job market, such as it is, has dispersed my colleagues across the country and the world, I can count on coffee or meals with longtime friends in a great deal of the US, Europe, and the Middle East, making times away from my family a little less lonely.  In December-January (2008-2009), for example, I spent a cold, dark, and somewhat lonely month in Jerusalem doing dissertation research at the Central Zionist Archives.  Thanks to Facebook, my graduate student friends in country quickly arranged to dine with me, spend the Sabbath with me (Jerusalem all but shuts down on Saturdays), and share in my discomfort with old-school Israeli bathrooms, in which the only thing that stands between your shower and your toilet (no tub, mind you) is a thin, plastic curtain.

Graduate school friends are like your friends from summer camp or a high school sports team.  They have shared in your struggles and frustrations.  They’ve sat in the same library as you for hours on end and furiously written book reviews and other works to meet the end of the quarter deadline.  Like you, they have the inside scoop on which professors were generous with their time, grades, and funding, and which professors were just colossal pains in the ass. And this kind of shared experience lends itself to a predictable and heartwarming camaraderie. One Friday night several years ago, a drunken graduate colleague and I (who was just as drunk) sat around my apartment and railed at one of our professors as our non-graduate student spouses looked on.  We decried our mentor’s admiration of an earlier form of graduate training modeled on the German University system.  We loudly and angrily condemned his unrelenting questioning of our dissertation proposals and other work, and then, as the powerfully inebriated often do, we did a 180 and expressed our undying love for him, for his generosity, and his commitment to our emotional and professional well-being, and somehow, we felt a little better about our lot in life.

But graduate school friends do more than provide a shoulder to cry on.  As a diverse body of scholars interested in different fields of study, geographical regions, temporal eras, and research methodology, graduate school colleagues broaden one’s intellectual horizons.  I know that the academy is often mocked for the way in which encourages a kind of politically correct group think, but such hyperbolic, Fox News-like condemnations of the academy are largely false. I can honestly say that I learned more from my cohort of up and coming scholars than I did from my professors, and I know that a number of my professors believe that is very much the point of the graduate school experience.   Through my interactions with my grad school colleagues I learned a great deal about the history of the wider world, the field of economics, the uses of social science, and the history of American jurisprudence.  I have come to see more clearly the ways in which gender, race, and class obscure and/or enhance our understanding of the past and the world around us.  I have learned (as best I can) how to harness today’s technologies to quantifiably study the peoples of the past (and present), as well as how to use those same technologies to communicate our work to a wider audience.  And of greatest importance, thanks to these deep and fulfilling friendships, my learning continues, through conversation (in person and on the web), through correspondence, and through reading my colleagues’ works as they continue to learn and grow.

Satisfying this interest in learning and growing is, or should be, one of the greatest benefits of graduate education.  It certainly was for me.  To be sure, like Schuman, I have seen the ways in which adherence to a particular theory or methodology can limit that learning and growth. The graduate student is often taught to drop names, to be aware of the latest trends in scholarship solely to feign in depth familiarity with them in casual conversation, much in the way that an actor drops the names of the latest hot director or producer.  Still I have also seen how graduate studies can help foster greater intellectual understanding and personal development.  Familiarity with the works of theorists like Habermas, Gramsci, and Foucault, of the Yale School of consumerism, or the Subaltern Studies scholars of the 80s and 90s (see how I did that?) is, or should be, a tool meant to enhance our understanding of humanity and the world. The best graduate programs open the doors to this kind of knowledge and encourage us to continue to research and explore throughout our careers.  I suspect one can develop this habit of mind without entering graduate school, but how many people can honestly say they would do so without the compelling pressure of a 30 page paper on the subject by quarter’s end?

So yes, graduate school experience was emotionally and intellectually exhausting. It is not for everyone, and maybe it shouldn’t be for anyone, these days.  It left me deep in financial debt, as well as creating personal and professional debts to friends and family that can never be repaid.  But the experience did not leave me “an emotional trainwreck.”  Actually my wife thought it appropriate to observe that I was already pretty unstable before the degree so…there’s that.  Nor am I or most of my close colleagues sorry we took on the challenge.  The ultimate reward of graduate school was not, or at least should not be, a 300 page dissertation, or a tenure track position.  The rewards were more personal, and powerful. Quite simply I am a better person for having taken the Ph.D.  I am more intellectually open, more interested in the world and its diverse peoples, a more engaged and engaging speaker, and I am blessed with a vast network of friends and colleagues who continually help me learn and grow.  Frankly, what more could anyone possibly ask for?