Sunday, February 3, 2008

Grad School Days (2)

((I turned 65 yesterday, which is the main reason I've been thinking so much about the old days of school and otherwise. So please forgive the ego stuff--I'll be better soon, honest!))

The first thing a newly graduated male, 18 or older, had to think about in 1964 was military service. Vietnam was starting to heat up, bodies were being called up... There really was a draft back then, and within a couple of years, as some may remember, it became a huge issue--vocal resistance, draftcard burnings, young men fleeing to Canada or using their parents' clout to get exempted somehow (hmmm, sounds like a President or two I've heard about).

I didn't have much to worry about, actually. I had gotten married as a Senior, and my then-wife was pregnant, so I had that solid bit of protection. And if I moved straight on into grad school, that too would serve as a shield of sorts. I had already signed up to continue on at the UW and had proved myself sufficiently as a serious Senior that I received another scholarship and a part-time Teaching Assistant job. (I worked at Safeway stores too. Yeah, those were the days: a 32-hours-a-week job as grocery clerk, a teaching schedule to fulfill, graduate English classes to wrestle into submission, creative writing that drove me to pen and paper, and a fledgling marriage and pregnant wife to worry about.)

What I really hadn't settled for sure, and this drifted in and out of our lives for a few years, was what career I wanted. Working on a Master's Degree, I was in line to become a college professor and publishing poet, but I quickly learned that academia was--sadly? luckily?--not for me. I disliked the over-zealous, competitive grad students, I found many professors arrogant and mean-spirited and boring, I still got A's but foolishly resented the drudgery of lengthy footnoted papers and such. But, really, it was down to me. Back at Northwestern, I had joined and then quickly dropped out of ROTC; and the same stubborn resistance to order-taking I'd felt then seemed to influence my attitude toward academia. I could do the work and often beat out other grads for honors, but I didn't want the results, or the pressure, or... I don't know.

So I was casting about for what to do next. Safeway store clerk didn't seem the answer. A side note for a moment. One of the customers where I worked as stocker and cashier was an ex-wife of country singer Tex Ritter; she would come in from time to time with their preteen daughter. She looked at me one evening and said, deadpan, "There is no safe way," then walked out. (I've split the store name in her sentence, because I believe that's how she meant the layered pun, with which I belatedly agreed.)

Here's where one's snap, or even considered, decisions can affect a lifetime... I'd have a Master's in Lit by summer 1966, trained to do only one sort of thing, teach Lit or write. So I applied for various teaching jobs, and was offered positions at regional community colleges, even at Pacific Lutheran University (where I would be a sort of guest poet teaching creative writing), but turned them all down--in the case of PLU because I didn't want any religious stuff hanging over my head. (Would I have found things that onerous, really? I was desperate for excuses.)

I applied to New York University's famous film school (one of very few existing back in those distant days) and was offered a slot but no scholarship money. Then-wife and I had already agreed that she would be an at-home Mom, so I would have had to work full-time in NYC as well as go to school. (I was too unsure of costs and my stamina and resolve--basically chicken. Another opportunity wasted.)

I applied to a university in the Sussex area of England where I would supposedly continue on towards a Doctorate in English Lit, imagining that the slightly exotic locale might inspire me onwards--was welcomed too, but passed on the opportunity again, still convinced that the money problems couldn't be overcome. (No Thomas Hardy or Jane Austen environments on our horizon.)

Clearly, I just wasn't brave enough to tackle the challenges each opportunity offered.

Finally, lazily, desultorily, I settled for becoming a writer-editor for the University Relations Office at the UW, initially preparing press releases and alumni news for the campus Alumnus Magazine. And I did all right at the small stuff, and soon was writing full-length magazine pieces, and then I moved on to Seattle Magazine, where... but I've already covered that experience in an earlier posting. (See chapter titled A Whale of a Tale, from May 27 last year.)

The point is this: I finally, for better or worse, was off on a full-time writing career--which would carry me into film work, and then advertising and production, in and out of poetry and plays, and eventually around the world and back again, to become a semi-retired bookseller.

But I coulda been a contender. I had my chance at academia, and campus literary lion, and New York magazine stardom, and successful Hollywood screenwriter on strike, and who-knows-what-all might have been... but passed on them all.

Rightly or wrongly, here I sit, blogging. School days do part-shape one's life.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hey Mr E, the locale might have been different had you made different choices, but the writing is still as magical no matter where you are...thanks for the inspiration!