On bifurcating paths

How do we end up where we are? The other day a visiting student asked why I became a college professor, and I was at a loss for words. The bifurcating paths of my own life seem chaotic, capricious, and strange. How does one pick a major? Deciding a path of studies is simple for many, but how did a boy from the prairie of southern Minnesota decide to study a language to which he has no ties, neither genetic nor tradition? I had no family in Spain. None of my family had ever been a Spanish teacher or a professor of literature. My people are farmers who tilled the ground, raised chickens and pigs, milked cowes, bailed hay, and picked corn. Nobody had ever conjugated a verb in Spanish, no one had ever read the Cid or Don Quixote, no one had ever worked in a university, written a scholarly paper, or published a book. So an economics professor who didn’t know me put me in a Spanish class when I was a freshmen, but only because I had already studied Spanish for five years in junior high and high school. I had done that because my mother and the Spanish teacher were best friends who had met in the League of Women Voters. So what happens if the Spanish teacher’s husband doesn’t get a job in the local college that brings him (and his Spanish teaching wife) to my home town? What would have happened if I hadn’t had a politically active mother who was interested in social justice for women? Where do the bifurcating paths begin? Does it matter that my father had a terrible job in another town that motivated him to search for better work in the town where I grew up? The paths have been splitting over and over again for decades and continue to split even as I write this. So I majored in Spanish at an American-Lutheran-Swedish school whose specialty was really pre-med majors and Lutheran pastors. After I graduated I couldn’t get a decent job, but I was motivated to go back to school by a random comment by a favorite History professor–“What about Middlebury?” he said. After I graduated from Middlebury I decided I wanted to live in Europe for awhile, so I did that. Six years earlier, in 1980, walking past a bulletin board at St. Louis University in Madrid I saw an advertisement for the graduate program in Spanish at the University of Minnesota. I applied in 1985, they loved me, I loved them, and I graduated with my PhD in medieval Spanish literature in 1993. The combination of happenstance, historical caprice (Franco was dead), luck, coincidence, serendipitous causalities, and unnatural timing have carried me through the vortex of the space-time continuum to this place called Waco. If the dominoes had not fallen in a very specific way, I might be someone completely different, but even knowing that, I wouldn’t change anything, and I say that as if I had any control over any of that chain of choices and happenings. I am the most unlikely person doing a most unlikely job given my history, family and circumstances. How does this happen?

On bifurcating paths

How do we end up where we are? The other day a visiting student asked why I became a college professor, and I was at a loss for words. The bifurcating paths of my own life seem chaotic, capricious, and strange. How does one pick a major? Deciding a path of studies is simple for many, but how did a boy from the prairie of southern Minnesota decide to study a language to which he no ties, neither genetic nor tradition? I had no family in Spain. None of my family had ever been a Spanish teacher or a professor of literature. My people are farmers who tilled the ground, raised chickens and pigs, milked cowes, bailed hay, and picked corn. Nobody had ever conjugated a verb in Spanish, no one had ever read the Cid or Don Quixote, no one had ever worked in a university, written a scholarly paper, or published a book. So an economics professor who didn’t know me put me in a Spanish class when I was a freshmen, but only because I had already studied Spanish for five years in junior high and high school. I had done that because my mother and the Spanish teacher were best friends who had met in the League of Women Voters. So what happens if the Spanish teacher’s husband doesn’t get a job in the local college that brings him (and his Spanish teaching wife) to my home town? What would have happened if I hadn’t had a politically active mother who was interested in social justice for women? Where do the bifurcating paths begin? Does it matter that my father had a terrible job in another town that motivated him to search for better work in the town where I grew up? The paths have been splitting over and over again for decades and continue to split even as I write this. So I majored in Spanish at an American-Lutheran-Swedish school whose specialty was really pre-med majors and Lutheran pastors. After I graduated I couldn’t get a decent job, but I was motivated to go back to school by a random comment by a favorite History professor–“What about Middlebury?” he said. After I graduated from Middlebury I decided I wanted to live in Europe for awhile, so I did that. Six years earlier, in 1980, walking past a bulletin board at St. Louis University in Madrid I saw an advertisement for the graduate program in Spanish at the University of Minnesota. I applied in 1985, they loved me, I loved them, and I graduated with my PhD in medieval Spanish literature in 1993. The combination of happenstance, historical caprice (Franco was dead), luck, coincidence, serendipitous causalities, and unnatural timing have carried me through the vortex of the space-time continuum to this place called Waco. If the dominoes had not fallen in a very specific way, I might be someone completely different, but even knowing that, I wouldn’t change anything, and I say that as if I had any control over any of that chain of choices and happenings. I am the most unlikely person doing a most unlikely job given my history, family and circumstances. How does this happen?

On Casablanca (1942, movie)

The first time I saw this movie was in a nasty old movie theater in Madrid where the customers smoked in the theater while drinking cans of beer that they bought out of plastic tubs in the lobby from a guy who looked a hundred and six, but was really forty-five. The year was 1980, and the last vestiges of the old regime were still lurking around in dark corners like wild dogs. The print of the movie was horrendous–scratched, patched and worn out. There were subtitles in Spanish that only proved that the person translating the dialogue didn’t know English, and he didn’t want to learn English, either. So I sat there in the dark with my three cans of beer and watched Rick and Ilsa fall in love in Paris, I watched her walk into his gin-joint in Casablanca, I watched Rick tell Ilsa to get on that plane and support her husband because “I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” He’s in tears, she’s in tears, and you know they will probably never, ever see each other again. She walks with her husband to the plane knowing that that part of her life is over. I know the film was made on cardboard sets in Hollywood. The movie theater stunk, the film was worn out, the beer was warm, but none of that mattered. I was enthralled by what I consider to be one of the top ten movies of all time. Ilsa is beautiful, erotic, passionate, and crazy-in-love with two very similar guys. Rick is cynical and tough, believes in nothing, trusts no one, but he’s a romantic and a sentimentalist. The rest of the ensemble is brilliant as they orbit the stars. The entire film is bathed gently in a thousand tones of gray that wrap the characters gently in their soft shadows. Gray is so pervasive in this film that the entire final scene is played out against a thick fog which completely erases any need for scenery at all. Finally, the bad guys have been thwarted, the good guys have flown away on a plane, and the hero and his plucky sidekick walk off into the foggy night. The ending is not neat, a million threads are left hanging, but the cynic has conquered his cynicism just a bit and perhaps has even found a little bit of himself again. Anyone claiming their nationality to be “Drunkard” can’t have too many ideals or dreams left. I left the theater smelling of stale cigarette smoke, rancid beer, and old sweat, but I knew I had witnessed something very special, and every time I see Casablanca now, I admire it that much more. As Rick would say, “I remember every detail. The Germans wore gray, you wore blue.”

On the way

It is often difficult to discern the right way even if you have a map. Most know their destination, but there are times when I am lost. I’ve walked in deep dark woods, through concrete canyons, along neon lit subterranean tunnels, beside babbling brooks, on the shores on ancient oceans, across a wind-swept prairie. The landscape of my maps has been varied and strange, but I have never lost sight of my destination, or at least I’ve always thought that the destination was always within reach. Along the way, I’ve met many kind people with lots of stories, some sad, others tragic, at times personal, often trivial. I do know that it is difficult to go back over one’s steps, and even if you can, it’s never the same. Time passes, things change, you run into Godot, get distracted, change direction. The past must stay in the past where it belongs. It may inform the journey, and the map might be a part of the past, but the way always leads to a future of some kind. Those that refuse to journey on, get left on the platform, basking in the past, but useless to those of us who are moving on. I have seen many maps, some of which indicate where the treasure is. I stopped looking for the treasure ages ago because it is an unnecessary distraction that too many people look for fruitlessly. The way is not about things, or philosophies, or places, or people for that matter. Only by going into the dark can any soul eventually find its way to light. I have always chosen the better story, the light, the positive side of the journey. That does not mean that irony is not a part of daily life, or that cynicism is not sometimes a fruitful mode of transportation, but immobility is not a viable means of moving on, so I reject that. I want to ask the difficult question, I have no need of predetermined spectacles with prerecorded laugh tracks, I choose poetry over mediocrity, I choose personal thought over canned meta-narrative, I chose freedom over chains, and the only way to get home is to persist from one day to the next. Maps may help, but they aren’t perfect. Easy slogans, bumper sticker philosophy, and spurious myths about consumerism are all dead ends. There are times in this midway point in life when the path is distant, or even lost, or perhaps blocked by wild animals. Sometimes this savage jungle scares me as I navigate its valleys, hills, byways, but I continue on my way. If you make it there before I do, let everyone know that I am fine, and will be there soon.