Failure in School: to Lie or Not to Lie

Someone reached my site with the search: “Should I Lie about My Failure in School?”  Most likely Google found The Tortoise because of the posts on failure in Ph.D. School.  I assume this is not about high school failure.  Even if it is. lying will catch up to one — especially to one with a conscience which you obviously have.

I am not an ethicist or counselor, so all I can do is speak as an individual whose been through part  it.  First of all, failure in grad school is nothing to be ashamed of unless you spent too much time drinking and partying.  Even in that case, what is done is done.  If you gave your all to the effort, then no apology to anyone is necessary.  There are just too many other factors involved in failure:  level of experience and  self-understanding  at the time, the nature of the experience itself, quality of guidance you had and just the human ability to make bad choices — even self-delusion.

Grow with it. Grad school is an option and a choice.  To wash out of Naval flight school, as another example, doesn’t define a person’s ultimate worth, nor does failure to pass the bar exam.  To have sought what you believed was a star and not to have found it, is no sin and maybe not even a mistake.  You made a choice, took some chances and something happened — end of story.   In the end you were trying to get on, right?  You tried what many others would not even have attempted.

You may be worried about the resume and interview stuff.  Don’t ever use a fraudulent resume.  As for the interview, be honest here too.  You do not have to beat your breast confessing.  Chances are the interviewer won’t understand any field other than her own.  No, come to terms with yourself first and be honest. Explain the experience and what you learned from failure.  That takes guts. Who knows?  Maybe you still want that degree and can go back and try again.  Some employer might see an unfulfilled passion there just waiting on more experience and wisdom.  Maybe that employer will offer you the chance. Sometimes we try stuff before we are ready for full success. We pop the wine before its time.  If you’re seeking an alternative career in which the failed credentialing does not apply, it will not matter.

Finally, you are probably drowning in regrets about  what might have been and kicking yourself.  Don’t give yourself another bludgeon for self-punishment — like guilt over lying.

Steadfast and cautious,

David Milliken

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Troy Davis, A Pause for an Execution

I confess that living in a metro area has made me a little calloused.  When I watch the nightly murder report, I see the weeping victims and the dutiful police.  Beyond my pity and thankfulness for good fortune in my own life,  I feel helpless and if I say a little prayer for all concerned there’s never an indication of prayer’s result.  I’m sorry, it all seems so deja vu.  In the case of Troy Davis in the mix of my pre-occupations and personal interests, I was vaguely aware that there was a controversy going on.  Where this time?  St. Louis, Los Angeles, Newark — where this time?  Someplace in Georgia.

As on every evening, I was seated at the kitchen counter having a beer, playing solitaire and half-listening to Chris Matthews and Lawrence O’Donnell as my wife prepared our dinner.  We were feeling grateful that our elder dog had returned happily from the vet.   All the networks were focused on eleventh-hour countdown.  Would a stay of execution be handed down from the Supreme Court?  I was tempted to watch the re-play of the Royals-Tigers game, but I didn’t.  An inexplicable guilt lay upon me.  Eventually the Media worked its hypnosis and I was drawn into the drama, the vigil outside some prison somewhere in Georgia.

I heard about the case that was twenty-two years old.  The convict had been in jail all those years, half of my working career. We  checked out one of the new sitcom debuts  and pronounced it not worth further consideration.  We had dinner and watched “Two Broke Girls” which made us laugh and seemed promising.  We finished our dinner and I went to another room and clicked on the ball game.

I watched half an inning of the recorded event.  I knew the Royals had lost.  I switched over to MSNBC where the Ed Show was running.  I passed the evening switching back and forth between the Troy Davis vigil and the ball game.  Gradually the time I spent on MSNBC increased.  I was tempted to try FOX to get another view, but, being the fair-minded creature I am, I decided I already knew their slant. Finally, in about the eighth inning I stayed on MSNBC.

Forty-five minutes and counting.  I couldn’t understand why there had to be a long wait for execution after the Court declined to intervene.  It seemed to me that ten minutes max ought to have been sufficient to inject and kill the man — mercifully at least.  As I waited I was pulled into the suspense that only the Media can create. I tried to imagine what it would be  like to be Troy Davis.  Was he in an adjoining room?  Was he in the death chamber strapped already to a gurney?  Had they loosened the straps a little for the interminable wait?  Had he taken last rites?  Had he eaten?  And what if he was truly innocent? What did he think about?  And this was no sitcom or sports event.  This was reality.

There have been certain perpetrators whose guilt could not possibly have been doubted — men who forced their victims into oral sex before the beating and killing.  These guys,  it seemed to me, deserved the injection.  Drawing and quartering doesn’t seem inappropriate either.  But the news commentators in their incessant drone had certainly convinced me of reasonable doubt, but then it was years ago.  Seven witnesses recanted and appeals from all over the world had been made, including from the Holy See.

I know there was nothing Holy about what happened last night. I could not rationalize the process in any way.  I also know that society cannot be blamed forever for the conditions that may or may not cause a man to kill another.  And while I sympathized with the victim’s family, I could not imagine a pure expiation coming from our justice system.  A loved one had been brutally killed and because I have never experienced such an act, I could not judge the family for wanting closure.

Except, except . . . what if the man was innocent?  Or did we once again, feed a monstrous beast last night?

Steadfast and cautious,

D. “Tortoise” Taylor

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Book Review: Harford’s Adapt

Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure, Harford, Tim, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2011.


Can flip flopping possibly be the sign of a sound mind at work in the body politic? As the quadrennial silly season grows more and more inane, Tim Harford in Adapt seems to say yes, absolutely; but I’m sure he would exclude excessive, spineless, wishy-washiness. Assuming the President made a mistake, what would happen if President Obama said, “Okay, I’ve learned something. I should have done jobs before I did health reform. My tack in these past four years was ill-chosen and now I’m going to change, come about and do what I should have done in the first place. I am declaring a national economic emergency. We are going to find short-term work designed to create long-term job growth.”

Was it lily livered of Senator Kerry to say “I voted yes before I voted no.” Or was it the other way around? What if Mitt Romney said, “I lied. I am proud of my Massachusetts health initiative and I take responsibility for it — especially since it is full of Republican ideas. It’s not perfect. It needs tweaking and perhaps even some major repair, but I’m sticking with the plan as a national model. Oh, and by the way, trial and error, tinkering here and tinkering there, is as American as Old Glory. Trial and error lies at the heart of American ingenuity. Oh, and one thing more. While I have been knocking my own brainchild just to appeal to primary voters, I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to do it anymore. You, the American People deserve better of me.”

Americans’ collective partials and dentures would fall from their mouths. Next, another round of nit-picking would ensue — but maybe not. Maybe the public would hail a new reign of candor and realism. The problem, says Harford, isn’t electing the wrong leaders. The problem is our simplistic notions of what a leader can do. Expertise and experts come under heavy scrutiny in Adapt — including research that supports the limits of specialized insight. Honesty about the complexity of modern problems has gone begging in the public debate and policy making. The pathology under study here applies to the private sector and individuals as well.

A recurring illustration throughout the book is the Russian engineer Palchinsky. He was assigned to analyze two massive projects in Stalin’s first five-year plan, the monstrous Lenin Dam and Magnitogorsk. He had the temerity to inform Stalin that his big project would be a disaster. There had been no hydrological studies. He warned that the river would be too slow to generate hydro-electricity and flooding would cause severe damage to farms and farmers. Because of drought the plants would require backup coal fired operations. He was proven dead right after the megalo-maniacal dictator plunged ahead because he wanted an epic scale project. Much smaller scale plants would have served far better. Palchinsky wanted wanted a step-by-step approach. Stalin ordered the relocation of ten thousand farmers.

The steel mills at Magnitogorsk were supposed to outproduce the entire steel output of the UK. Again, Palchinsky recommended more analysis, more caution and a step-by-step approach. Over three thousand died during construction and the iron ore ran out in 1970. Palchinsky was a brilliant thinker who had three principles which Stalin ignored: 1) Seek out new ideas and try new things. 2) When trying new things, do them so that failure is survivable. And finally (3), seek out feedback and learn from your mistakes as you go along. Some three thousand of Russia’s ten thousand engineer were sent to Siberia for similar professional behavior and Palchinsky suffered a secret death.. In short Harford is no hare counting on speed and grandiose imagination. Tortoise-like trial and error still prevails.

Harford works his thesis through Rumsfeld’s disasters and many other examples, finally discussing the adaptive organization and the adaptive individual. Harford concludes that honest mistakes made honestly are far better than chasing losses and denials. Harford seems to be saying that the allure of meteoric success, the brilliant idea flaming overnight into success is only one way. The other requires uncelebrated, painstaking, trial and error, starting, stopping, perhaps turning about, but never quitting. But it also requires a communal tolerance for the late blooming in life like the poetry of Robert Frost. In our slap-dash, everything-on-the-fly culture of celebrity, I think of France which required eleven centuries or so to become a democratic republic. Afghanistan, if we’re lucky, has just begun. No wonder we’ve failed after a mere ten years there. Harford’s vision of adaptive evolutionary success would be revolutionary in America. Such a revolution would do wonders for the self-esteem of millions of Americans slogging it out in the unsung mundane. This is a book to own.

Steadfast and cautious,

D. “Tortoise” Taylor


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“Adapt: Why Success Always Starts With Failure” — Recommended Book

According to David Brooks (New York Time, 8/12/11), author Tim Harford’s basic lesson is that “you have to design your life to make effective use of failures. You have to design systems of trial and error . . . ”  I haven’t read it yet but the book appears to be a Tortoise kind of thing.  Anyway, I’m going to check it out. Brooks full review is at NYT (6/13/11).



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Ghost of My Failure Past: the PhD Octopus

For more than thirty-eight years I have been haunted by a failure . that has tinctured my life. Counseled by some to “just get over it,” I am only now seeing the ghost vanishing slowly behind me  in a mirror, but it recedes ever so slowly, too slowly at the pace of a tortoise. I want this specter to disappear from my life. Perhaps final demise depends upon this offering to cyberspace, an effort to save another PhD wannabe from a similar fate.

My ordeal battling the PhD Octopus occurred from 1970 through 1973 at a Midwestern, land-grant university I will call Stiltmoor State. While passing time and other careers have brought a measure of peace — enough for me to admit that a 20 something put himself into his own predicament — I would have preferred to be a professor today. I’d have been a good one, a teaching professor. At least that was my dream. However, there were causes of my failure to become another Mr. Chips and I want to reveal them. The particular PhD program itself is long since dead; and all emotion aside, deservedly so.

Therefore, I offer my caveat emptor. Because the University progresses no faster than the tortoise, much of what I experienced still goes on. And while schools have created Doctors of Arts programs for the teaching professional or better focused the PhD on teaching, the old, excruciating, academic, medieval dragon waits in his cave for the next knight in armor.

Perspective for my story goes back to 1903 when William James, brother of Henry James, wrote “The PhD Octopus,” for The Harvard Review.  James wrote his paper because he was concerned about the “tyrannical Machine” of graduate education and the growing obsession with examinations, diplomas and “decorative titles.” He feared that the American university could lose its openness to individuality and encourage a machine that would throttle personal independence. Jacques Barzun in his History of the American University(1968) said, “That octopus . . . has not relaxed a single one of its tentacles; rather, it has grown additional ones.” Barzun’s statement occurred in 1968 just five years before I bilged out of PhD School. Corey Olds most recently 1n 2009 has written “My ‘Miserably Naked Name: The Ph.D. Octopus Is Alive and Well.”

I encourage anyone considering a PhD program to read these and other articles on this arduous ordeal. Research on success and failure in graduate study is available from schools of education — and less likely from the academic disciplines themselves. The latter remain above it all. Read and then if you choose to venture into PhD Land, choose your university well. Not only did I make a miserable selection, but I picked a start up program at a mediocre English department. The vet school, however, was excellent and the football fanatical.

James referred to three types of graduate students. At the top are people who complete with ease, the great ordeals in life. These students are “naturally born” for professional success like natural athletes. Examinations do not terrify them. Their spiritual and worldly interests remain unaffected by sacred rituals. They might take a law degree, and then pop over to the medical school and wind up with an MD as well, and on schedule, hippity hoppity. I was decidedly not in this group. Frankly I don’t know why any of this class would ever have gone to low-prestige Stiltmoor State University, unless like me they had no alternative for financial reasons.  Taking out a private loan never occurred to me. In those days I had no awareness of the crucial importance of graduate school prestige in one’s career.

James’ second class of students are not as gifted as those in the first group, but somehow they still rise to the challenge and get a ‘stimulus from the difficulty.’ James says there are some among the cannon fodder “for whom to pass one degree after another seems the limit of earthly aspiration. A professor’s advice does not discourage them. They will fail, and go away to recuperate, and then present themselves for another ordeal, and sometimes prolong the process into middle life. Or else, if they are less heroic morally they will accept the failure as a sentence of doom that they are not fit, and are broken-spirited men thereafter.”

My heroic morality lasted only through the allotted two chances to pass prelims. Intellectual stimulus from literary ideas worked far better for me than the difficulties of an academic program.  My priorities were askew and thus, I fell among the cannon fodder certainly, but I didn’t fit perfectly into any of the classes.

While I was found “not fit” by the Committee, passing one degree after another has never appealed to me. Gauntlets have never inspired me with the competitive spirit. I had my Masters from a student-oriented institution I loved. In contrast my Stilty State professors had no effective advice to offer or they held their tongues. Only at the end one said, “There used to be a place for someone in your position, but unfortunately the market is very tight. Small liberal arts colleges don’t have to settle for a Master’s degree or Ab D (All but Dissertation). Good luck.”

I wasn’t even a certified AbD.   I had only a certified packet of course transcripts and a 3.7 GPA;  oh yes, and the memory of one professor’s recommendation to publish one of my papers on Shelley. I have read since that spending too much time on class work can be fatal in PhD school, but I always enjoyed writing papers and I put much time and effort into them — time that would have been better spent on memorization and data storage.

Thus, I fit James’ third group in my lack of “native force,” but I exclude myself from not having “marked originality.” In evidence I cite notations on papers praising my “imaginative insight.” For example,  I was good at associating ideas and relating, say Matthew Arnold’s “Culture and Anarchy” to America in the late Sixties.  I knew that in strict scholarly terms, association of ideas ranked low as marked originality — despite the fact that association lies at the heart of poetry. To be markedly original one must be William Empson developing the concept of The Seven Ambiguities of Literary Criticism. No one on the Stiltmoor faculty swam in Empsonian waters. (Later on I found some solace in the fact that a disillusioned Matt Arnold, one of my heroes,  slogged through a dull career as inspector of schools without benefit of a doctorate.)  In all my papers I was, if not original (and who really is), at least inventive. I was rather persistent and stubborn, but that’s not what James meant by “native force.” I was  willfully strenuous at best. Third groupers are fond of truth, study and books — here I finally fit. My cohort ranks as cannon fodder of the wars of learning — chair à canon as James puts it.”

My mood was improving when in 1973 I began re-inventing myself as a community college public information officer. There was hope. At least I was in post-secondary education, if not higher education. I hoped for a course or two to teach, but administrators were denied the chance. As an Idaho State friend of mine did, I might have started a doctoral program in communications, but I was utterly exhausted by my ordeal and could not immediately start another. And I was fed up with preparing. Besides, a proper job was in order.

Some Stiltmoor faculty maintained that GRE scores alone should not exclude a potentially fine professor. Stiltmoor, having said this, then utterly ignored the possibility that the English Department, might bear some responsibility for individualized mentoring, i.e. taking an interest in the student’s idiosyncrasies, and at least helping a man stay within the white safety stripes and guard rails. In truth Stiltmoor recruited its annual yearly chattel of teaching assistants, pre-MA’s and pre-PhD’s, and unleashed them on the freshmen. The senior faculty in order to publish and not perish were thus enabled to pursue the academic preferment of their fancy. Unfortunately Stilty State typified the profession-wide boondoggle.

Throughout the entire three years I felt like an outsider and, for a little while an unabashed one. Some said I was a little cavalier in my attitude. If true, perhaps I was reacting to my sense of isolation. I just did not fit. Behind my failure in PhD school lie elements of youthful ignorance, radical behavior and bull-headedness which I admit.  I was not an humble supplicant at the altar of erudition.

Once my faults are taken  into account, there remain questions of why I received positive comments and high marks on graduate papers and then was rejected by the examining committee.  Before I left I posed just this question and heard in response, “Well, we talk a lot about this in our meetings.” Silence.  Certainly a faculty of PhD’s, successful survivors of the ordeal themselves, could have seen behavioral warning signs and spoken up.  I heard not a word of admonition. Periodic performance reviews did not exist. Why didn’t the system filter me out sooner so that I might have got on with another life? They knew that most of their GTA’s were miserable and even established a liaison committee to improve morale and continued to chat in closed meetings — or didn’t. Many of us ultimately concluded that misery was part of silent harassment. A few smarter folks baled out. I tried to transfer but there was no assistant ship available. It did not even occur to me to take out a private loan.

James greatest fears have been realized. University faculties are responsible for creating this new class of ‘social failures.’ I am not among them now nor in their trap which ‘intends to pass no man who has not native intellectual distinction.’ That’s what William James said of Harvard. In some equally twisted form I have no doubt that the attitude prevailed at Stiltmoor State University as well. James also said critically that ‘we at Harvard are proud of the number of candidates whom we reject, and of the inability of men who are not distingué in intellect to pass our tests.’ I do not regard myself as a social failure. Stiltmoor State was a social failure.

Quickly from my point of view I cannot tell anyone whether grad school is for her or not. For me, as far as credentialing or enhancing my income or copping better employment, my three years pursuing the PhD in English literature were wasted. I had every research skill I needed by the end of my Master’s program. Unfortunately I elected to hold the pencil harder.  I’m afraid I was badly spoiled by my previous institutions and faculties where amidst hard work there had been joy of learning — even some laughter. Because I had prevailed before, I assumed I would again. I admit my ignorance of the realities of the institutional, academic life. Mr. Chips world disappeared long ago if it ever existed.

Stiltmoor State, of course, had a library and I did benefit personally from more books and writing. In an otherwise stultifying atmosphere of academic pretension, I recall with greatest pleasure my courses in 19th Century British Literature, my projected area of specialization — especially The Romantic Movement. The Augustans or Neo-classicists of the 18th Century? Well, I found them august; and satire has never much appealed to me, even though at Idaho State I wrote my thesis on the first four novels of John Barth. Given time and application I hoped to appreciate them better. The Metaphysicals like Marvel and Donne? Oh, one day in the quiet of my cellar room I’ll return to them. I might have been wise then to become a journalist — seeing that Addison and Steele produced literature. But that’s useless hindsight. In an otherwise grim society one professor of Old and Medieval English provided warmth and humor. He seemed to have a whole other life. Alas, now I remember only a line from Deor: “Thaes ofeorode, Thisses swa maeg,which means “That passed away, so may this.”

The good friend at Idaho State wound up teaching English in a small liberal arts college in Massachusetts — pretty close to the ideal I had imagined. Hindsight again. In fact, later on when I entered PR, I taught myself a journalistic style. An MFA might have been another avenue or even rhetoric and composition. But no, I decided to slog on and try to finish what I had started. How many times can a man start over? I pondered.

I let myself be trapped. I also think that the faculty at Stilty knew they had sold out to this Mandarin system. And it seems to me there had to be some cynicism in setting up a new doctoral program in an already glutted market. But I was there too, an enabler of sorts, a buyer. They had to have known they were guilty of malpractice — especially related to a certain type of student.

But I learned to beware of the poo pah of the academic effete. The pretentious, high nose of erudition can be very cruel. And Stiltmoor State  University was its home and still is metaphorically speaking. A little research well after my failure revealed that many universities like Northwestern and Columbia take greater care with pedagogy at the graduate level. Some attempt to reveal the real demands of university career building. Many schools design programs with checkpoints of progress. In addition some sensibly break twelve centuries of  literature into manageable pieces. Like law schools they take stock in one’s ability to look something up — far more important than a pedantic memory bank.

Once at Stilty I said to a don, “Then I should assume I need to know everything from Beowulf through Arthur Miller ?” “Yes,” came the reply, “and in depth and breadth and a little Faulkner would be wise.  Memorize the Cambridge history and don’t forget the best of literary criticism.” Had I known at the time, I might have selected one of those universities that permit a measure of specialization between the completion of credit requirements and prelims.  Question is, would any of them have been interested in taking a man from Bench Three?   Probably not.

I came out okay, but I’ve had to repair a broken spirit. A sense of the damage has never left me and never will. You can usually tell when a car has been through a major accident. There are signs that disappear only in final demolition and recycling — tough to do with a human being. In the mean time the damage is permanent. Just like a once-wrecked car, my frame’s a little twisted. I consistently pull a little to the left and I shall never have even tire wear.

At this juncture a natural tendency would be to serve  up  some woe is me and wring my  hands over what might have been.  I will not do that.  First, I have already done so to the extent necessary. Privately and alone I have had my excesses. I will not do it again. The brink of despair isn’t fun. Eventually the cud must be expectorated and rumination ceased.  Some stuff cannot be or should not be digested.  Second, it is not the way of the wise tortoise to pass hours in lamentation. The clock ticks and I must get on with new activity.  Third, that’s the way God made the world and I will not challenge his design. Professor Larry Rice at Idaho State, a Milton scholar, once advised me to submit. “I submit, Larry.”

I can’t blame anyone for not having in Emerson’s term “a perfect intelligence of me” (although Larry Rice came pretty close). I did not have sufficient intelligence of myself — even at thirty-one. And I’ve taught enough to know that no teacher can predict or perfect a student’s performance or savvy. No professor is responsible for developing anyone’s self understanding. I do think they might have made some effort, however, to salvage a 3.7 failure and one whose insight impressed them. Basic humanity can be sorely lacking in the academic Humanities. There was no reality at Stilty State — only my delusions butting against quietus. Something was wrong and it needed fixing.

Steadfast and cautious,

David Milliken

HERE ARE SOME SITES TO VISIT:  This is animated and worth the visit.  Wish I’d seen it years ago. An amusing, satirical view of the whole process.  A budding grad student should not miss this, while there’s still time.  Three requirements of a Ph.D. student.


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You’ve Got to Please Yourself

While life in a ravine provides security, the lack of sunshine in these hollers has its drawbacks; so when a day comes with rich, sunlight beaming through the trees, thirty feet above me on the edge of this declivity, I head upslope.  As I  push forth a tune enters my head .  It’s  Ricky Nelson’s “Garden Party” from back in 1972.  Remember  “You can’t please everyone, so you’ve got to please yourself?”

I say aloud to myself in the woods, “No, you can’t be serious, Big Turtle.  Ricky Nelson, a deep thinker?  Hardly.”

I always figured Nelson must have been singing about some girl friend who jilted him, but not so.  According to Wikipedia, Nelson was lamenting negative criticism about a change in his singing style. That made me think of my own career path which was in crisis around the same year. Thus, I decided — well at least for now anyway — that these lyrics capture the single most important lesson I have ever learned.  A man must learn to please himself and learn it early.

You see, in that same 1972 I was one year away from taking the preliminary examination in PhD school.  I was not optimistic for a positive outcome. Oh, the essay part was fine, but I knew, no matter how much I’d hoped, that my mind simply was not prepared for random questions from the 800-year- old canon of English literature.  I wasn’t a walking encyclopedia. That was for folks who bomb GRE and LSAT tests, the quantitative types. Anyway, I was wondering why I was even at that university, why I hadn’t switched to a school of education, why I hadn’t just become a cub reporter somewhere.  Perhaps I could have found something less esoteric than the historical, finer points of English literature. I was in hell and well behind Ernest Hemingway. Truth is, I liked playing around in aesthetics and literary criticism.

All these years later, lumbering up the steep incline to the meadow, I decided I had not been selfish enough back then, perhaps a better steward of my talents — and that would have included honesty about my real mental skills.   I was not selfish about pleasing myself as the best of the Hippies were doing at the time.  I don’t mean selfish like rejecting the Man or the Establishment.  I was never a druggie  and as a kid I was never one to rule the sandbox or hog the ball.  I mean selfishly manifesting my “rabids” as Dad used to call them.  Acutually I was disgustingly cooperative.

To illustrate, in the Fifties I was enthralled by the anthology, television drama “The Big Story”(1949-1957). Everything from the musical theme from “Ein Heldenleben” to the real life heroism of newspaper reporters kept me attentive to the heroic dramas.  Why didn’t that enthrallment stick with me, set me on fire, convict me of a journalism career?  Well, who can know?  To ask the question now is absurd.  I suspect I didn’t want to start at the bottom.  Anyway, why carry this rumination to the meadow and muck it up with soggy, regurgitated might-have-beens?

“Because . . . because,”  I  said into the woods, “the speculation is worth the effort.  There must be some value in hindsight . . . if not for my life, perhaps for someone else’s?”

You see in the Fifties in the time of “The Big Story” and impressions being made on me, my mother had been dying.  Helen was the mystery parent, the one I  never knew.  She was not there to tell me that her father, my grandfather, had actually started a newspaper.  He had also taught school, been a farmer,  cattle dealer and businessman. I would like to have known him, my maternal grandfather.  The paternal grandfather, the entrepreneurial industrialist, had the stronger sway in family heritage.

I mumbled into the grass at chin level, “I wonder what might have happened in my life if someone had told me I had  a grandfather who was a newspaperman.  But Helen died in 1951, just a  year into the TV drama series,  and I was nine.  And I don’t want to blame anyone for not telling me.  I don’t know, maybe someone did. My dad was busy just dealing with his business and the loss of our Helen. And an electrical engineer wouldn’t have thought of any career coming out of a literary leanings. Hell, I might have been the second James Reston.

A couple years later the big, black Buick four-holer ascended the drive.  The barge bore our new stepmother.  She was in her fifties, lonely, and like my dad bereft of her husband, an eye specialist.  Like Helen, he had died of  cancer.  My father, Helen and Judith had gone to high school together.  Later on Helen and Judith attended the same university.  They were even in the same sorority. Both were liberal arts majors.  “Your mother,” she said once, “was pretty with plump cheeks.  She was kind and gentle, quiet and shy, but slow in many ways. ”  That is the only full sentence I ever heard from anyone, including my father, about my mother.  She has always been a spectre, an enigma in my life. And  yet, I feel her presence now as I recall her picture on my desk.  She was all those things Judith described — a little turtle.  I look at her dimpled picture and all I remember is her once covering me with newspaper on a chilly evening on the porch.  We were moving and the blankets were stuffed in a barrel somewhere.  Oh, and I hear a voice, not a distinctive one, singing “Maresy Doats.”  She has her back to me as I sit at a table.  She is washing dishes and glancing out the window.

So, for certain, I was not born alone like a tortoise buried in the sand on some dark beach. That’s where they come alive, you know,  with not a creature in attendance.  I suppose, when and if they have a long life, its due to hard, lonely survival and luck of health.

After a boy loses a mother without a trace, not to mention a paucity of  anecdotes,  he’s free to invent his own Helen.  This would be a Helen who  had none of the shortcomings, weaknesses and faults of his father and stepmother, himself or any other human contact.  What a nice opportunity afforded the boy! By inference he could create a character  from all the ways his brothers and he himself seem not to match his father and that composite will become his mother, a creature of omissions.  And, of course, whatever pleasing behavior, he doesn;t see in the stepmother will be attributed to Helen.  She will then be a perfect image of someone and an imaginary influence in his life which, if she had survived would have made all things good and happy.

I’ve reached the meadow now.  The sun indeed is out and the day warms. What a blessing to be able to invent your own mother.  A man must please himself and so must a tortoise.

Steadfast and cautious,

The Tortoise




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