PRINCIPLES FOR A RANDOM WALK
RICHARD T. HULL, PH.D.
B.A. Austin College 1963
It is an honor and a delight to return to Austin College after so many years of absence, and to discover the ways the college has matured as well as the ways it remains unchanged. Of particular pleasure is meeting former professors and fellow students who have remained with the college and in Sherman, despite the vagaries and instabilities of life over the 35 ensuing years.
I have been asked to talk about myself, my life as an AC student, how I came to the school at all, and my life since graduating. I guess the point of this is to let you take away some sense of your own possible futures, and how to realize their possibilities.
The title of my talk today is "Principles for a Random Walk." Let me spend a few moments setting up an understanding of that title before I get on to the personal stuff.
The title is intended to be somewhat paradoxical, to emphasize the inherent skepticism that I want to dispel about the notion that life is a random walk.
To say that life is a random walk is to say that, plan and strive as we might, we are subject to forces in this world that can unexpectedly and without warning disrupt those plans, defeat those strivings, alter the course of our lives decisively, sometimes for good, sometimes for ill. The inability to know one's future has led some, from the great philosophers of skepticism to the philosophically inclined frosh, to a kind of paralysis, an inability to act in the face of such uncertainty. The most pathological forms of this skepticism can lead to pessimism, despair, starvation, even self destruction.
A philosopher I discovered some 8 years ago, William Werkmeister, published an essay in the 1957 volume of The Personalist, titled "History and Human Destiny." In it he sets out to answer a set of interrelated questions about the nature of human history and its sense and meaning. He writes:
"The human is capable of pursuing and achieving ends whose realization he regards as desirable or as worthy of his efforts. He is a being, in other words, who not merely suffers and passively endures the events of his life as they occur, but whose desires, inclinations, and deliberate actions transcend any given moment, and who, in a measure at least, is actively engaged in determining the course of his life and in pursuing goals which he projects into the future." (p. 119)
Then he goes on to note how this picture of humankind is made incomplete by the "brute factualities of human existence":
". . . for the truth is that the harsh realities of this world tend to distort, to disrupt, and pervert our life-plans, and that often, all too often, they prevent us from realizing our goals; they lead to frustration."
And so, the question that Professor Werkmeister puts to us is this: Given the vagaries, the brute factualities of human existence, the unexpected twists and turns of events, how shall we proceed in our natures as goal-oriented, self-directed beings? Are there any principles by which we can steer our own courses despite this life's being a random walk? And I want to try to illustrate this randomness and identify what have come to seem to me to be principles that answer Werkmeister's question through a reexamination of some of the facts of my own life.
* * *
I grew up in Oklahoma City, and attended Northeast High School there. My brother, Jack, twelve years my senior, had gone to Park College in Parkville, Missouri, and he had convinced me and my parents that I should go there too. But, because I was hoping to have a seamless education through undergraduate and graduate schools, I had joined the Army Reserves as a highschool student, obligating myself for 6-months of active duty after highschool. This resulted in my entering Park mid-year.
My three semesters at Park were pretty much a disaster, academically. What I had not realized was that many of the courses I would take were year-long courses. At the time I was strongly interested in a career in medicine, and so I had signed up for biology and chemistry and mathematics courses. Missing that first semester meant that I lacked much of the background that the second semester,4burses presupposed. I squeaked through, but the ensuing fall semester was even worse, and I, who was accustomed to As and Bs was lucky to pull a C- in my science and mathematics classes.
So here is a first illustration of the randomness of life: I picked a school without a testing program to qualify students for admission into the semesters of its classes. For Park, which was a tiny school of 350 students and 30 faculty, there was no point; multiple, staggered sections of courses could not be offered because there was neither the enrollment nor the faculty to sustain them. But, because my family advised me out of more concern for tradition and my needs as they saw them, I ended up having programmed my own failure.
Now perhaps the principle that suggests itself is: Trust professionals, not parents. But that is no sure fire guarantor of good advice, and in fact my school counselor signed off on my plans without a moment's notice. So, it seems to me that one must acknowledge the possibility of frustration of plans no matter how carefully they are formed. The principle that suggests itself to me, and which I followed in this case, is:
Don't be afraid to start over.
During spring break of my freshman year, I visited my former roommate, Ted Dunham, who had transferred to AC along with his chemistry professor, Delta Geier, the previous fall. Ted urged me to come to AC; it was bigger, better, and I needed a fresh start. Moreover, he was casually dating a woman, Jeanette Love, whom I found remarkably interesting, and who whispered in my ear as I was getting ready to return to Park, "Ill save myself for you!" Upon returning to Park, I immediately sent off an application to transfer to AC. It was accepted, I was admitted, and in September I showed up, hormones raging, and ready to explore career options other than medicine.
Of course, Jeanette and Ted had cemented their relationship over the summer: she hadn't "saved herself" for me. Now, one might regard such a happening as a tragedy, and I suppose my life, had I married Jeannette, would have been rather different than it has been. Without getting involved in comparisons that no sane man would ever make, let me say that I have been very happily married to an exceptionally interesting woman for nearly 37 years. And, Jeanette and Ted introduced her to me!
I had had a girlfriend at Park with whom I parted ways when I announced that I wasn't going to become a doctor. She had put me in my place with a St. Valentines day card that read, "'Tis better to have loved and lost--Much better!" So I arrived at AC with a bruised male ego that was, I suppose, as vulnerable to a womans interest as it could be. I THOUGHT I had sworn off of women completely: had done the usual thing of making pacts with friends over the summer that it would be all studies and no social life until out of graduate school. My first date with Elaine was an odd one: Ted and Jeanette, Elaine and Brooks, and me as the fifth wheel. Brooks left for SMU the next day, and I took Elaine for a long walk to the park that was at the end of Grand Avenue. We talked for hours until just before she had to be in the dorm, and we have been talking since. Two weeks later my friend with whom I had made the "no females" pact came through AC on the way back to college at Tulane. He was so alarmed he called my parents to tell them that another woman had gotten her claws into me.
Elaine and I decided that semester to marry, but my alarmed parents persuaded us to wait a few more semesters. Our love was here to stay, and we were married just after the end of the spring semester in 1962.
I think the principle that urges itself throughout these chapters of my life is this:
Motives don't matter much as predictors of your future--at least when it comes to matters of the heart.
That principle, or something like it, also seems to characterize my choice of a major. For a while, starting at Park and continuing through several semesters at AC, I had several "intended majors" serially: pre-medicine, until I discovered that what interested me about medicine wasn't the science but the ethical issues; pre-law, until I took a course in Constitutional Law from Professor Ken Street and discovered that what I found interesting in the cases we were to write briefs of was not what had make those cases famous as interpretations of the Constitution, but the philosophical issues of free-will, blame, and responsibility; then an interest in accounting aimed me at the career of a CPA, until I discovered that what interested me in the field was questions like, What is value? Finally, these and other flighty intentions settled on philosophy as the obvious way to stay interested in everything. I guess the principle that these experiences point to is:
Your first major is not likely to be your final one
--a principle, by the way, which seems still to have an influence on my life. More on that in a moment.
Majoring in Philosophy at AC at that time meant that one took most of ones major courses from Glen Maxwell, although not a few were also taught by Charles Ramsay, and some by a visiting professor, Leo Scott. Both Maxwell and Ramsay had wonderfully dry senses of humor, although quite different from one another. Professor Maxwell would often deliver his witticisms with a quiet drawl and without cracking a smile; he thereby made you responsible for figuring out whether something was funny or not, and for letting yourself laugh at it. Much of his wit was indirect and understated. I recall his lecturing on Leibniz's monads, and remarking that, "Just as God did not play with probabilities, Leibniz did not play with his monads, either." The more senior students in the class guffawed; the rest of us were set to scratching our heads until Ronnie Stevenson whispered, "Think of what rhymes with 'monads'." Professor Ramsay had a wonderful appreciation for the foibles of college life. In one semester I chanced to pull a three hour final on a Tuesday evening, three three-hour finals on Wednesday, and a three-hour final on Thursday morning--his, in Christian Ethics. By this time my brain was numb, and the one question I still remember from his exam was "Define agape." I wrote, "open-mouthed astonishment." He very kindly did not return my final with its grade on the top; instead, he simply told me as we passed on campus a day later: "Well, you did not distinguish yourself."
Of my experiences in student government as Treasurer and the President of Austin College Student Association, I shall say very little, except to recount one story. We got a call from a front-person for the Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra, a big band that was on a cross-country tour. It was customary for such groups to travel by bus in those days, and to set up gigs at various colleges that happened to be at points where they would like to sleep over. We were offered the full orchestra, including their torch singer, for a relatively modest sum. I got the bright idea of having them play a concert of secular music in Wynne Chapel. I approached Bernard Munger, Dean of the Chapel, who confirmed that the Trustees of the College had designated it an all-purpose building, and who indicated that there would be no problem having the orchestra play a concert there. We had tickets printed, announced the event in the campus papers, and set off a firestorm of protest from some of the faculty, who thought it entirely improper to have a secular orchestra play a concert in that sacred hall.
As I recall, a motion was introduced in the faculty senate to have the contract (which I had signed with the blessings of Richard Bjork, dean of students) nullified. When it was pointed out that ACSA was an independent corporation not run by the faculty, a motion was introduced to have me recalled from office. But this, too, was frustrated by the fact that only the student body could recall me since only the student body had elected me. Finally, the dissidents resolved to create a boycott of the concert. But that failed most dramatically; the wife and daughter of Leo Scott, who lead this movement, insisted on going to the concert and further insisted that he buy their tickets from me!
When the orchestra arrived, the campus was in quite a stir of anticipation, and I had begun to sweat. I took the leader aside and, eyeing the torch singer's remarkably plunging neckline, explained the situation, that I was going to stand or fall depending on how well the concert went, and that, if there was anything the least bit off color, I would be in unimaginable trouble. With a twinkle in his eye he reassured me that all would be well. I was more worried by the twinkle than reassured by the words, and my anxiety flared to cosmic proportions when the concert started and the leader came out and started making cracks about how this was the first time they'd ever played in church, and that they had had to rewrite all the song titles and the lyrics to the singer's songs, etc. But all went well. Even the torch singer had fashioned a rose out of a Kleenex tissue and a hairpin, and had placed it strategically in the "shadowed valley."
The disappointed conservative faculty made one last attempt to save face, and introduced a motion in the next faculty senate meeting to have the chapel reconsecrated after the concert as a space for only sacred services and concerts. This, too, was frustrated, as I recall, because the Trustees had chartered the Chapel with the state as an all-purpose building, and in such matters trustee and state policy trumps faculty motions.
The principle that sustained me through this effort was this:
Know the regulations that govern what you propose to do, and you can usually do what you want.
I had become remarkably attracted to a particular philosophical theory of the mind, known at the time as the mind-body identity theory. Its chief defender was one Herbert Feigl, a professor at the University of Minnesota, who had formed the Minnesota Center for the Philosophy of Science. I seized on this as the school for my graduate studies, and applied only there during the fall semester of my senior year. I had to take the Graduate Record Examination and have that score submitted in order to be considered for admission as well as for a graduate fellowship, and I scheduled my examination on the Saturday before Thanksgiving in 1962.
That Saturday dawned cold and drizzly; in fact it was so cold that ice formed on the highways and streets. I had little trouble driving to SMU in Dallas, because of my two winters driving in the snows of Missouri, so I allotted just the right amount of time to get from Sherman to Dallas in the Chevrolet my parents had given us for a wedding present. As I approached the last intersection before the campus building where the examination was to be given, a car right ahead of me skidded through the red light and hit a pedestrian with such force that the poor soul was knocked into the air over the car. I saw it all, saw his crumpled form slump inert onto the street, saw the crazy angle of his limbs, and knew that he was probably dead. Traffic came to a halt; police rushed up; the wail of an approaching ambulance could be heard, and my examination was starting in 3 minutes. I pulled to the curb and dashed for the building, slipping into my seat just as the doors were locked. But I was so upset by what I had seen that for half an hour I couldn't either read questions nor mark-sense the bubble answer sheet.
I did not distinguish myself that day, either. My scores were so low that I resolved to retake the examination in February, when it was next given.
The result of my application being incomplete as well as of it arriving at Minnesota's philosophy department on the day before the files and desks were to be moved to new quarters, was that the application was placed unopened in a file. It remained there for several months, and when my increasingly strident letters of inquiry finally jogged the departmental secretary to find the application, all assistantships had been assigned for the next year. I was informed that I was admitted, that the department had never lost a graduate student to starvation, and that I might consider serving as a dorm monitor. But when I inquired about that, I was told that monitors had to be single.
The principle which I had NOT followed, so certain of my path to my envisioned future I had been, was:
Dont put all your eggs in one basket.
Frustrated, I sent off (very late in the spring) application eggs to several other school baskets. The story seemed the same with each: admission, but no financial aid.
Elaine had been having some trouble with her eyes, and had been advised not to contemplate graduate study with its heavy load of reading. So, we resolved to get jobs for the year and try applying again at an appropriate time the next round. My father helped us both find jobs with the same organization, the Oklahoma Testing Laboratories, a firm that provided objective analyses of building materials to counter tendencies of manufacturers and contractors to cut corners. Our probationary period was two months. At the end, the owner, Art Lashbrook, called us in and offered us continuing jobs with a nice raise. We had been living with my parents, and becoming flush with real income prompted us to rent our own apartment. We moved August 1, and, because we were working 6 days per week, we kept the trailer loaded with our possessions a little longer than simply to move across town. By frugal living, we calculated, we could save enough to cover a years tuition if efforts at getting an assistantship failed again: we were each making about $275 a month, and could save $300 monthly if we lived frugally and had lots of meals with my parents.
Along about the 15th of the third month, I received a call at work. A woman's voice asked, "Richard Hull?" I answered, "Yes," and she said, "Just a moment." The next voice, unidentified, seemed to be that of a stuttering Cockney (I soon learned that I couldnt tell a stuttering Cockney from a stuttering Australian), who said, "I-I-I-I- w-w-was w-w-won-won-wondering if-if-if y-y-you had al-al-a-ready m-m-made p-p-p-plans f-f-for th-th-this f-f-fall...." Irritated that one of my prankster friends would dare call me at work, I interrupted and said, "Just a minute. Who the Hell is this?"
Its an interesting part of the stuttering phenomenon that many stutterers can fall into normal, unresistant speech when they take up what is in effect a bit of rehearsed speech. The response came through startlingly clear: "Oh! Sorry! Alan Donagan, Chairman of the Philosophy Department at Indiana University here."
Bright red with embarrassment at my intemperate language, I stammered my apologies. Donagan went on to say that they had just had a half-assistantship open up, vacated by a graduate student who had contracted mononucleosis over the summer, paying $125 a month, and would I be interested in joining the department under those terms. They wanted us to show up in 10 days. I asked for 24 hours to decide and went to confer with Elaine.
Here was the situation. We would have to live on $125 a month (plus whatever Elaine might be able to make as a secretary or telephone operator or store clerk) for 9 months, including paying tuition of $12.50 per hour (minimum 9 hours) per semester, moving to Indiana, finding a place to live. If we stayed with our plan to take a year off, we would have $550 a month for 12 months, we already had a place to live, we were both employed. The choice was obvious. I called Donagan back after half an hour and accepted!
Here the principle seems to have been the old one, Opportunity knocks but once. But the trouble with that is, "opportunity" has to be defined. We decided then (as I had decided when I abandoned the lucrative professions of medicine and law) that what we wanted to do was far more important than earning money, so the principle became:
The value of an opportunity is not to be measured in income potential, but rather in interest potential.
So, we gave our boss a scant week's notice that we'd decided not to stay, made our excuses to our sweet spinster landladies, loaded the few things back in the still otherwise unpacked trailer, and headed off across country, trailer wagging behind.
We arrived, after driving through the night, on a Friday morning with no place to live. The campus had a housing office, and while Elaine literally parked herself there, saying that we needed an apartment by nightfall to incredulous clerks, I went over to the Philosophy department to learn the details of my assistantship assignment and to register for courses. I was met with good news and bad news. The good news was that the other half of my assistantship had opened up, so I was now to receive $250 per month. The bad news was that each half carried with it responsibility for a class, so I was to teach two sections of introduction to philosophy starting Monday morning. Here were the 7 primary texts to be covered; here was a suggested syllabus of reading assignments and exam dates; and be sure to ask if you need anything! I looked at the sample texts and found that I had read exactly none of them!
I went back to tell Elaine the news and to spell her in the wait for an apartment. Given that we had enough to get by on, she made her way over to the Psychology department to see if she could sign up for just one course and then perhaps work part-time. When she returned a couple of hours later, I had the apartment assignment and she had . . . registered as a full-time student, as they didnt take part-time ones. Further, she was assured that, if her grades were OK at the end of the semester, they would have an assistantship for her in the spring.
Here again you see individuals temporizing as unexpected opportunities and challenges come one after another. Particularly noteworthy is Elaines decision to pursue graduate study full-time despite being told by her ophthalmologist that her eyes weren't up to it. If pressed to articulate a guiding principle at this time, I suppose we would have said something like:
Consult professionals, then follow your dreams.
It was a most difficult year. My first experiences in teaching were characterized by knee-knocking nervousness, punctuated by encounters with students ranging from the ridiculous to the sublime, and burdened with tragedy.
In my first two weeks of lecturing from carefully-written-out notes, after covering Platos Meno, a thick-necked student who never took notes stuck up a beefy index finger one day and, when I called on him, said, "Say, Teach, if dem dere Socrates was so smart, whyd'n't he never write nothin'?" Satisfied that he had the full corner on the course, he folded his massive arms across his barrel chest and nodded knowingly and smugly to his buddies on either side.
Three weeks later, as we were finishing up Platos Republic, a quiet, bookish lad with thick-lensed glasses who took copious notes raised his hand and said, "Professor Hull." (I had never been called that, and it thrilled me--momentarily. He went on:) "Ive been comparing Jowetts translation with the original Greek, and it seems to me that he has systematically mistranslated a number of terms: I was wondering if you could comment on . . ." and he began to rattle off Greek terms in a language that was, well, Greek to me. I mustered sufficient presence to say that perhaps wed best discuss his questions after class at my office hours. We met; I confessed that my knowledge of the Greek alphabet was insufficient to enable me to identify all the fraternities on campus, let alone to read Plato in the original. I learned that he was the son of a career diplomat, and had received a classical preparation in the best prep schools in Europe.
November 22, 1963, was the blackest day of my life to date, and I faced a class of stunned, shocked students, many of them weeping, the next morning. It was a day that I had to grow a lot, from one who was scarcely 4 years older than the youngest in class (and younger than a couple of students) to one who could place the assassination of a president into a context that could bring a measure of meaning to what then seemed a random, senseless act. The following days brought further challenges: Jack Ruby shooting Lee Harvey Oswald on live television; the funeral of the president; the explosion of conspiracy theories. I don't remember all of what I said in those days, but I received a note from Emily Eads, one of my older students, saying that I had stood tall in a trying time. I still cherish that note.
During this semester, Elaine's struggles with her eye problems grew more and more severe. We would spend many evenings and weekends, she with her eyes covered by a moist towel, I reading to her from her texts. She found that her AC preparation in "cook book" statistics under William F. Angermeier was not sufficient to enable her to derive statistical theorems with ease, and she had to climb from the bottom of her class in order to ace the final and thereby pull a B+ in the course. In dog lab, her dogs kept getting pregnant, or distemper, or infected saliva ducts. She went off the pill, missed a period, and thought she was pregnant. She was scolded by a tired doctor in the student health service for her "irresponsibility."
Finally the Christmas break came. We drove in our aging Chevrolet that kept jumping out of gear from Bloomington to Houston to visit her family there. A water pump gave out on Saturday evening in Cairo, Illinois. Three pistons cracked on the drive from Houston to Oklahoma City to visit my parents. While the engine was being rebuilt, I had a physical exam that was required by the Graduate School and had been overlooked, and was charged a months food budget for it. I had four wisdom teeth pulled, and a plantar wart cut out of my foot. We ran out of money, so we borrowed my dads Texaco card and drove straight through from Oklahoma City to Bloomington, arriving at 3 am. Tired and in pain, we crept into our apartment, only to realize that our feet were squishing on the sewage-soaked carpet that resulted from two weeks of a stopped drain, with three apartments above us merrily flushing away. We aroused friends for a few hours' sleep on their couch, and the next day the school put us in the apartment, on the top floor, of an instructor who had just shot himself there on a despairing New Year's Eve. When our apartment was finally cleaned, we moved back in, only to drop the one bit of luxury we had acquired from my father over the holidays: a bottle of Johnny Walker Black Label scotch. I swore for five minutes without repeating myself. Two nuns living across the hall moved out.
This was The Semester that Was. The principle that seems to have guided us through it was Nietzsche's gritty observation:
That which does not kill me makes me stronger.
Surviving that semester, we knew we could survive just about anything. It turned out that we had a lot more to survive than we dreamed of.
* * *
Life in our apartment on campus was pretty close. We had a living room, a "one-fanny" kitchen, a large closet just big enough for a double bed, and a tiny bath. After that year of sewage floods and cramped living, and with Elaines assistantship, we rented a house in town. There was lots of space, but the cost of it pushed us toward out limit, and we dealt with that by renting a spare bedroom to another graduate student. We continued this for three years. One student we rented to got married mid year, and moved out; we rented her room to another student who had just gotten divorced and was returning to graduate school so as to be able to support herself. Those kinds of friendships that one makes in graduate school, friendships that turn on mixing lives in a period of intense intellectual stimulation, can last for decades. We are still in touch with both as they are Texas residents.
Moving into larger quarters and taking on tenants was another venture into what were, for us, previously uncharted waters. There is of course somewhat of a loss of privacy in such a step. But on the whole, it has been an exceptionally valuable experience, and one to which we turned in compensation for a tragedy some years later. Over the years some 16 individuals have lived with us for periods of time ranging from 5 months to 5 years. In some cases when grant money had temporarily run dry, we would move Elaines graduate students that she had been supporting on the grant into the house.
I think the principle I would cite as a guiding one in these endeavors is:
Never say "No!" to an adventure.
For every one of our tenants was an adventure. Most were dealing with a difficult period in their lives. Sharing lives with others in ways that stimulate imagination and help them through travails has been satisfying in the extreme--and always an adventure.
We left graduate school before defending our dissertations. It was a time when jobs were plentiful and candidates scarce. With the status of ABD we each received four job offers, and, because she was farther along in her writing than I, Elaine turned down a wonderful opportunity in Chicago so that I could accept a tenure-track position in Buffalo, reasoning that I was the one at greatest risk and needing the most toleration while I struggled with my thesis. To give you an idea of how extraordinary she was then (and still is now), in her first semester she finished her dissertation, wrote a successful grant application to a federal agency, got her one-year sabbatical replacement position converted into a tenure-track line, and became pregnant. (I had a very small bit to do with that latter achievement.) All this in someone who but four years before had been told not to attempt graduate study. She delivered our wonderful son, Geoff, two weeks before the start of the next fall semester, and was back in class and in her lab without missing a day.
My own struggles at the dissertation continued for four years. There was, of course, the distractions of a new job, a new set of friends, preparing new courses, and a new child. But the problems I was having with the dissertation stemmed mostly from having decided on the conclusion I wanted to defend, and then searching for convincing arguments to defend it. My department was very patient and extended my initial contract as an Instructor three times. But progress seemed very slow, and I was nearing the end of my candidacy period of five years, after which all sorts of dire consequences would ensue (such as having to retake qualifying exams). Three months before the final deadline I figured out what was wrong, and the fundamental principle for all good philosophy finally dawned on me:
Follow the arguments to the conclusion, not the conclusion to the arguments.
I had been engaging in a process of constructing arguments for my preferred conclusion, then confronting them with counter-arguments to test their soundness, and the counter-arguments were always better and always pointed to the contrary of what I was wanting to prove. The stalled chapters took on a new direction; the dissertation flowed quickly; copies went to my committee a few weeks in advance of the deadline, and I commenced my final oral defense of thesis an hour before my candidacy was to expire. That's about as close as one can call it!
Advancement to Assistant Professor and credit of two years toward tenure came with the Ph.D. I set out to extract articles from my dissertation. I managed to squeeze out five, but I had used up a fair amount of time, the tenure decision began to loom, and the minimum standard was seven articles. I needed a new line of research.
One day Paul Kurtz, a colleague who was organizing a conference on ethics and medicine, knocked on my office door. He had had a cancellation at the last minute of one who was to comment on one of the major presentations by Verle Headings, a biologist from Howard University who was to talk on Genetics and the Future of Mankind. Not knowing a thing about either genetics or the future of mankind, I immediately agreed, only to learn that the conference was but three days away. I pulled a couple of all nighters and managed to pull together enough to fill my 15 minute slot. Then, to my delight, I learned that the proceedings were to be published in Kurtz's magazine, The Humanist. Six down, one to go.
The principle here was:
Never let your ignorance of a subject be a reason for not speaking out publicly on it.
Fortunately the Humanist published quickly. Shortly after it came out I received another invitation, this time from an Associate at the Hastings Center, a mostly bioethics think tank in Briarcliff Manor, New York, not far from Sing Sing prison in Ossining. They were planning a conference in Stevens Point, Wisconsin, and noted my remarks in the Humanist. Would I like a chance to expand them to a 45 minute talk? Knowing only one conference-worth more about genetics and the future of mankind than I had six weeks before, I immediately agreed, only to learn that I would be on the podium with Wilma Scott Heidi, President of the National Organization of Women, Paul Ramsey, theologian and bioethicist, and Alexander Capron, Chairman of the President's Committee on Bioethics and Biomedical Science. The other two things I learned was that the audience was to be about 7,000 (gulp!) and the proceedings were NOT to be printed.
Yet another truism that began to dawn on me at this point was that, while
Opportunity knocks but once, that is only the first time. When you answer the door for that first knock, you often find that
Opportunities come in clusters.
The Stevens Point experience was quickly followed by (a) a request from my chairman to develop the first bioethics course at Buffalo, and (b) another invitation from the Hastings Center to do a paper for a conference they were co-sponsoring with the New York Academy of Science, which WOULD be published in Conference Proceedings. Having gotten into the habit of saying "Yes!" to opportunities for which I was ill prepared, I agreed to both. The seventh published article was in press when I went up for my tenure decision, and the case looked thin. The department supported me, but the dean's committee vote was split and the dean sent a negative letter. The Presidents Review Board also had a split vote, and the case went to the President teetering on a pretty unsolid foundation.
I had been in the meantime quite active in the department, especially in working to reform our course of doctoral studies. Several students at this point formed a task force to save my tenure, and they, along with the Chair of the department, Ed Madden, went to the President and regaled him with all sorts of stories about me. Their tactic prevailed, and in 1974 I received the most welcome news that I had been tenured and promoted to Associate Professor. An old saw came to mind:
'Tis always darkest before the dawn.
Actually, I think the adage too simplistic to be a good principle, because it seems to suggest that one will always be rescued from difficulty by benign forces from without, and I think that most successful transits of difficulty occur as the results of more inner qualities and strategies. But it was certainly the case with my tenure that it was the efforts of others that carried that day.
One of the inner devices that I have developed is best described by the following analogy: there is a way that a part of oneself can detach from a situation and observe it, and ones actions and reactions in it, from a disengaged but interested perspective. I call it the shelf analogy, for I liken this mental trick to finding a shelf and crawling on it as a kind of observer. I suppose it is a kind of dissociation, except that one doesn't escape the stress or pain of a situation by closing it out; one rather has an experience of the situation that is distinct from its emotional content. That ability has stood me in good stead over the years in a number of difficult situations, but never more so than with the death of our college freshman son.
Geoff had been very bright and also dyslexic. He had not been a terribly successful student, although sending him to a private school for gifted children had enabled him to learn enough and compile a good enough record to be admitted to Beloit, the University of Chicago, and Oberlin College. While still a high school freshman, his grandparents had given him 100 shares of Kerr-McGee Oil stock, and he had spent the spring break of his 13th year at a brokerage house, learning about the stock market. He came to me after this week and said that he wanted to begin to trade stocks. I told him that, as the oil stocks were his, he could do with them as he would, and I would sign the necessary papers as he was still a minor. He sold the stock for about $2000 and bought 100 shares of a local stock, Detection Systems, a company that made and installed commercial security systems at $19 per share. A scant six weeks later he sold his 100 shares for $42 each. After that, I told him I would sign whatever papers he needed, without question. In two years he had parleyed his $2000 into $10,000.
He then told me he foresaw a downturn in the market and wanted to try investing in real estate. I connected him with a very understanding realtor, and she would pick him up after school a couple days a week to look at investment properties. After a few weeks he had narrowed his choices to two, and invited me to look at them. One was a duplex, recently remodeled and fully rented. He would get a modest return on that investment from rental incomes. The other was a terribly abused but basically sound triple, built before the turn of the century. With a lot of work, it had considerable potential. He selected the latter. When we took his mother to see it, she turned white at the condition: all she could see was the stairway falling off the back, the holes in the walls, the grime. Geoff, however, saw the potential for sweat equity.
Over the next two years he and I spent many hours working on the property. As we would finish one apartment, we would rent it in order to generate the cash flow for the next renovation. He borrowed $5000 from his doctor. He invaded the cash value of family life insurance policies. He let a couple of contracts to a renovation company. At the end of two years, as he was nearing graduation, he sold the property for $42,000. He had paid $5000 down and had given the former owner a $13,000 mortgage; and he had put about $20,000 into the property. His profit was about $7000.
Geoff settled on Oberlin College. Within his first semester he identified two rooming houses in town where he could rent a total of 16 rooms to upperclassmen. He bought these two houses, and began operating them to generate the funds to pay his tuition. But it was a first year away from home, and when he returned at the end of the second semester, he had few completed hours to his credit. We later learned that he had gotten very heavily into experimenting with a variety of drugs that were readily available on campus, and that his social and business life had come ahead of his studies.
He seemed to have pulled himself together by the end of June, and was planning to spend a month in Europe with a friend. One hot, muggy night in July I was up late working on an especially difficult paper, and Geoff came in from a date. He said he was going to watch some TV and then go to bed, because he had a date with a former highschool girl friend he hadn't seen for a year the next day. I continued to work for another couple of hours, then retired. Late the next morning he had a phone call from a friend. When I went to rouse him, I found him dead in his bed. He had the handles of a plastic shopping bag draped over his ears so that his face was down in the bag. Beside his bed were several empty containers of nitrous oxide, commonly known as Whippets, used in containers to produce whipped cream.
The investigations of the police disclosed that Geoff and several of his friends had used nitrous oxide both to get high and to induce sleep. He had first experienced its effects at his dentist's office. The difference, however, between what his dentist gave him and what he inhaled was that the dentist mixed it with oxygen, while whippets contained only nitrous oxide. The gas had made him pass out quickly, but he was in such a position that the bag didn't fall away from his face, and he suffocated.
The loss of our only child actually brought Elaine and me closer together than we had been for many years. Each of us was the only person that could fully understand the other's grief. Of course our friends were wonderfully supportive, but when they would go back to their homes and families and pursuits, it was we who were left with this sense of profound loss.
In the months before Geoff's death, we had both lost our mothers: Elaine's to cancer, mine to Alzheimer's. Those are the sorts of transitions that most of us pass through, the final steps to becoming the adults in the family, the oldest members of the nuclear family. But in this one night Elaine and I had become not only motherless but childless, suspended as though frozen in the normal passages of life.
I dont want to minimize this tragedy. It was one of those terrible events that the unpredictability of life occasionally hands us. The years of seeing him grow and develop his business acumen as well as other interests in anthropology, the three years that I spent salvaging his school as it teetered on the brink of closing, the hopes for his eventual marrying and having our grandchildren, all were frustrated that terrible morning of July 11, 1987. But you will recall my shelf analogy. That part of me experienced this dashing of hopes as one watching a tragedy unfold in anothers life. And the ability to escape from the pain, the guilt, the attempts of friends to offer consolations, was wonderfully healing.
That, and the resolve not to let this loss destroy us and the other good things in our lives, sustained Elaine and me through the process of grieving and healing. I think again and again of Nietzsches maxim:
That which does not destroy me makes me stronger.
* * *
I mentioned earlier that one of the principles of a random walk through life was that your first major was not likely to be your last. Let me draw this account to a close with a brief explanation of what has happened to our lives in the past year. For I have once again changed majors.
About 18 months ago Elaine and I were talking about the general tendency of the University at Buffalo, and the specific tendency of her department, toward a kind of decline. She had not for many years been appropriately appreciated for her achievements. The quality of graduate student being attracted had dropped. The state seemed bent on squeezing public higher education into a kind of slow death. And, we were well into our 50s. If we were to make a move (we were by then approaching our 30th anniversary at that University), we needed to contemplate doing it soon.
I had been surfing the Internet, looking at job openings for executive directors and headmasters of private schools. I had long felt not fully challenged in my classroom, professorial role. Having experienced the role of an administrator during the 1983-1986 years as Headmaster of our son's private school, I had found I enjoyed the pace and complexity of managing a non-profit organization. It seemed to me that 30 years at one job was a respectable tenure. And so we decided that I would look for another position in a major city, and, if I got it, Elaine would then seek a position at the appropriate nearby university.
Finding the Executive Directorship of the Texas Council for the Humanities open was an extraordinary experience. It offered the opportunity to become an administrator of a fine organization with a history of wonderful programming in the humanities. I could read more widely than I had for a long time--and do so legitimately. We could perhaps return to Elaine's home state and my adopted one. And finally, we could escape the long winters in Buffalo, where the ground is not visible for months at a time.
Marshaling my principles for a random walk, I decided to take early retirement from SUNY and to strike out in my new major, the humanities. I had to come here first; it has take a year for Elaine to develop her opportunities at UT-Austin. She has now joined me, spending a sabbatical leave in the Psychology Department there and seeking to interest them in hiring her for good. There are no assurances, but then the assurances we often think life holds are for the most part illusions. Life is a random walk: one can face that fact with dread, or, one can seek to live life with an exuberant appreciation of its possibilities, its twists of fate, its frustrations, as all interesting challenges.
I think most of these principles that have guided my life have, in one way or another, derived from the self-confidence that my years at AC nourished and fostered They enable me to acknowledge that, while life is a random walk, I wouldn't have it any other way!