…one of the most disappointing, frustrating experiences of my young life. I had been invited to join a group of American Studies alumni from UMBC in talking to current students about job opportunities and career paths that are possible with a B.A. in this particular major. I prepared notes about my own time in the wilderness, casting about with what felt like no hope of ever getting paid to do anything remotely related to my skills and interests, and on the ways in which I think my degree helped me to finally carve out the niche I’m in today, such as it is, i.e., not bad. I took the day off, I ironed a shirt the night before, and I allowed myself 50 minutes to make the 25-minute drive to campus and find parking.
But for some reason, though the initial emailed invitation advertised the event for 12:00 p.m., I had at some point formed the impression that the event was scheduled for 1:00 p.m., and so I arrived just as it was ending and the students were heading off to class. Everyone was very gracious, with some of my old professors sharing stories about semesters when they had forgotten to come to the first meeting of a class, but I felt awful, and I kept feeling awful as I tried to make pleasant catching-up conversation with said professors, explaining about the move to Montana and smiling and nodding at campus news when really I wanted to sneak into the bathroom and throw up. I was invited along to the lunch that had been scheduled for us “guests of honor” in the University Center’s exclusive Skylight Room, and I went, although I must say it was very hard to enjoy my Arizona chicken sandwich with my stomach still roiling from shame and embarassment.
“Everyone makes these kinds of mistakes sometimes,” A. tried to console me later on the phone from Flagstaff, where she arrived yesterday after two days on the road. That’s when I realized that the embarassment I felt wasn’t even the half of it: what I was mainly affected by was a profound and aching sense of disappointment, and it’s interesting to me to think about why. Did I have some desire to bring things full circle before leaving for Montana? After all, I moved to Baltimore in the first place specifically to attend UMBC; after separating from the Coast Guard, I was still eligible for the in-state rate because Maryland had been my residence at the time of my enlistment. I had a lot of important intellectual experiences in American Studies classes and did a lot of thinking about my future there, so maybe I wanted to come back and make a small repayment to the department that did so much for me.
There’s also the affirmation inherent in being asked to talk to students about, essentially, what to do with their lives. I still have no idea what to do with mine, plus I’m, well, quitting my current job and moving to Montana, so perhaps I’m feeling a particularly strong need to be perceived as stable and accomplished these days, to make up for the fact that I so often feel aimless and unfocused.
At any rate, I’m pledged to write up the talk I would have given so that it can be posted on the department’s “council of majors” Facebook page, and any students who dream of a career in “policy analysis” (or, as I like to think of it, being paid fairly for your writing skills) can contact me via email.
In addition to thinking about why I was so disappointed, it’s also interesting to me to think about why I jumbled the time in the first place. One possibility is that, back when I was a student at UMBC, the campus “free hour” when no classes were scheduled and meetings such as this one could be held was 1-2:00 p.m., which has apparently been changed to 12-1:00 p.m. now. But that only explains why it was easy for me to keep believing that the event would start at 1:00 p.m., I think; why did my mind make the switch in the first place?
Perhaps it was the result of some sort of electromagnetic field, resulting in neuronic polarity reversal, that may have affected me early yesterday morning when I was leaning over my electrician’s shoulder, watching him probe the wall behind an upstairs outlet while he explained how fortunate I was that the house hadn’t burned down yet. The nice thing about having electrical work done is that the more expensive it is, the luckier you are that you’re still alive to pay for it, so as you’re counting out a tall stack of $20 bills you’re mostly feeling relief rather than regret. That’s about all I’ll say on the subject except that all of the house’s outlets are now grounded and some appallingly dangerous wiring mistakes have been corrected. I think I’m going to have the electrician back to assess the rest of the house, now that I think about it.
In the evening, my father treated my brother and me to dinner at Dionysus, chosen more for proximity to my brother’s yoga class than anything else, although my steak and my father’s swordfish were quite good. My brother’s garbonzo bean burger was only average, he thought. He’d chosen it on the recommendation of our waitress, who had earlier made a large claim for trustworthiness by badmouthing some of the menu items. Her “straight talk” schtick wore thin after a while, and she shared too much information, I think, when she came back to the table to explain why the lasagna my brother had ordered would take a half hour to come out. “Whoever made it didn’t cook it before they froze it,” she said, suggesting that the kitchen was run in a rather haphazard manner, not to mention the fact that — as practical and even normal as the practice may be — you don’t really want to hear that your $16 piece of lasagna is going to be fresh from a microwave defrosting. (New Yorkers, as usual, add about 50 percent to that price to feel the resentment bubble up.)
But we had a grand time, and I was finally able to shake a little of the depression I was still feeling from the alumni-event debacle earlier in the day. Conversation mostly concerned heist movies, and I felt like the three of us, sitting at a table in a sort of alcove in the mostly empty, white-tablecloth dining room, in some way resembled a team brought together to plan one of these operations: a distinguished-looking graybeard in a sportcoat, a shaven-headed fellow in an untucked blue oxford and earrings, and a vigorous young tough in a tight blue t-shirt with a little grease under his fingernails. The mastermind, the driver, and the safecracker, perhaps?