Sunday, May 9, 2021

Not Even Not Zen 221.25: Wake for Robert Gallagher, Part 25

Robert Gallagher, Wake

The College Drive

It's always late at night and dark outside the windows.  We lean back in the car, our faces and hands lit by the green glow of the dashboard.  My father is talking about philosophy or maybe sports.  Or I am.  We trade theories on the consequences of technologies, the details of self-actualization, binomial pyramids, recent changes in baseball lineups, or the perfect height for a pitcher.  This is the image that comes to me when I think about how we spent my drives to college.  We sit side by side, looking at the road in front, seeing the distant possibilities.

My father liked to travel at night to avoid as much traffic as possible.  So did I.  Sometimes we traded naps.  Neither of us slept for more than two hours out of the eight.  Sometimes neither of us slept.  We talked.

"Why are they still teaching chemistry using rote memorization?"  On the drives back from college to home, he was full of questions about what I had learned.  "There's no need for that."

"Yeah, I know.  And my professor kept telling me that my questions about atomic mass numbers being wrong were physics questions."

"Not chemistry?"

"Not her type of chemistry.  She's used to students who want to be doctors."

He questioned everything from teaching methods to grading, from lab layouts to linguistic textbooks.  In some areas, he was delighted to hear about the progress being made.  In others, he seemed scandalized to hear that parts of his old college lore had been deemed irrelevant.

"Everybody should read at least one Plato book," he insisted.

"I read parts of The Republic at home," I said as I remembered.  "At school, I read the whole Symposium in gay literature.  The class talked about it a bunch."

"You took a gay lit course?"

"We read Plato, Sappho, Lorde, and Baldwin.  The books weren't all great but the discussions were pretty good."

"That's different from my college.  But I guess it's not totally different."

On the first half-dozen drives, we talked about infinitesimals and what they meant to calculus, debated the progress of the Maryland college basketball team, revisited the geometry of Roman aqueducts and bridges, and practiced tricks in approximations.  We discussed Sugar Ray Leonard's boxing, Jack Dempsey versus Gene Tunney, Joe Louis versus Max Schmeling, and Muhammad Ali versus everybody.  My father insisted that Joe Louis was the greatest of all time because of his comeback victory over Schmeling.  He remembered the radio re-broadcasts and the sense of American vindication over the un-American idea of a master race.

This was a bit unfair to Schmeling, who was not a Nazi and was brave enough to defy the Nazis during their rise to power in his country.  It's true, however, that the Nazis held him up as their ideal warrior and promoted him as proof that they were the masters.  They also held Schmeling's family hostage in Germany while he traveled to fights to keep him from defecting.

On the other side of the fight, the pressure that Joe Louis felt was immense.  He had heard from the Negro community after he lost to Schmeling in their first match.  He knew how disappointed they had been.  He felt burdened by how much his loss had affected civil rights and civic pride.

"He and Jesse Owens were so great," my father insisted.  "They didn't just win.  They won at the most important times and in the best ways."

In retrospect, I wonder if he didn't look forward to trading ideas.  At the time, it didn't occur to me.  The discussions were just something that happened.  We let our minds drift through the night, conversation after conversation.  I think he maybe looked forward to the drives for that reason.  He was disappointed when I took off for a semester, saved up money, and bought a used car.

"I could take out another loan," he said.  "I could pay more."

"I don't want more of your money.  I want to pay.  And I want to drive."

"Why do you need a car in college?"

A car saved as much as an hour on a round-trip to a different campus.  It was going to be handy.  Plus I wanted it as much for taking girls on dates and I'm sure he realized that.  His resistance, maybe, was that he felt our opportunities to talk were slipping away.

They weren't.  The talks in the car set the tone for our next thirty years of discussion.  


Sunday, May 2, 2021

Not Even Not Zen 221.24: Wake for Robert Gallagher, Part 24

Robert Gallagher, Wake

Parenting through College

When I was seventeen, I left home. My father supported the move. When he was that age, he'd left, too.

At that point, I didn't want to go to college. I just wanted out of the current situation. My parents wanted me to continue with school. So in return for their permission to move, legally necessary as they pointed out, I agreed to work my way through the University of Maryland from a basement room I rented near campus.

Thanks to a couple years of lifeguarding, I had enough saved for a semester of classes and books. My plan was to work full time during the semester in order to make enough for the next one. My father thought that wouldn't work out so his plan was to keep offering me money. Since it came with strings attached, I kept turning him down even though he was right. Holding jobs in fast food restaurants and ignoring my classes didn't make for a good college experience.

I spent money foolishly, drank too much, and filed my paperwork incorrectly when dropping and adding classes. I managed to spend my bank account down to five dollars after paying bills, only to have the restaurant fail to distribute paychecks, while my manager dropped most of my shifts that week, a set of circumstances that meant no food for four days.

Although near the deadline I scraped enough together for the second semester, I forgot to budget for textbooks. So after all my insistence that I wouldn't accept money, I had to take fifty dollars from my father so I could go to class.

During my second semester, I dropped theatre, dropped math, took ethics, tried French, and started writing and singing. For the first time, I decided to write a novel. Sometimes I wrote only 500 words per day in it. Sometimes I did my schoolwork instead. But I started building up the right habits to continue.

By summer, my father got me to agree to come back home under a "his rules / no rules" situation where he said I should live by his family rules and I agreed that I would move back and live by no rules whatsoever. We were back to where we were before except I was eighteen. We both agreed that I should leave by the end of the summer, when my job ended.

Maybe because we agreed, it was something we couldn't do.

Every morning in the summer, I got up to coach a swim team and manage pools. I wrote late at night, every night, 1,000 words per session. Most of the words were awful. Sometimes I worked at the kitchen table on a loose-leaf notebook with a series of ball point pens, alternating colors each session so that I didn't cheat myself.

My father would pass by and look over my shoulder. After a few weeks, he said, "You're building up some pages."

A few weeks more and he switched to, "Let me have a look."

"No! Dad, it's terrible." My hand slapped down on it. "It's a first draft."

"But you are actually writing it."

"Well, yeah, it's all I'm doing."

"What about that girl you keep bringing over?"

"Dad."

The end result of the writing was about half of a novel but a lot of motivation. My summer jobs came to an end and I hadn't thought of anything beyond the novel. My parents had pushed me into applying for colleges but I was only partly interested, so I hadn't done much except thumb through the guides with a sense of despair.

"You don't have to get a degree," was my father's argument for continuing to look at schools. "Just being in the classes is good for your writing."

To me, that was an effective line of reasoning. One of the classes I'd liked most in the previous semester was 'Elective Writing.' My father and I came to an agreement that surprised the rest of the family. I would keep on living with them and writing every day and the only price I would have to pay would be applying to at least two colleges with a goal to attend by the spring semester

My mother found a college where I could design my own major. My father seized on it as being exactly what I said I wanted. And despite the fact that they were for it, I was kind of interested.

The school was a little, mostly-unknown place in Massachusetts called Hampshire College.